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Hot messes have a hard time with happily ever after.
Baz Acker and Elijah Prince have it all. They’re engaged, and their wedding is guaranteed to be a spectacle no event will ever top. So why are they hunkered down in a quiet corner of the Acker mansion, restless and edgy while they wait out the holidays?
When Baz suggests a road trip with Walter and Kelly to Las Vegas, it sounds like an ideal escape, but it turns out Vegas only amplifies their unease. Elijah can’t slough off the self-hating his parents programmed into him, and he worries how that will affect his marriage. Baz, crippled en route because of too much time spent in the car without rest, must face the truth that his wealth and influence can’t always counteract the limits his disability will put on his—and Elijah’s—life.
With help from their friends, a wily poker player, a take-no-prisoners drag queen, and a smooth-talking casino owner, they face the truth that happiness is a state of mind, not a destination where they book a stay. What happens in Vegas won’t stay in Vegas—it will follow them all the way down the aisle.
This novella was written for and by the request of Heidi’s Patreon readers. It is a continuation of a story begun in the novel Lonely Hearts in the Love Lessons series, also incorporating characters from the Special Deliveryseries. It is suggested but not required that you read at least Lonely Hearts before reading this book.
After Happily Ever After
Readers always say they want stories after the happy ever after, but those can be tricky to write, since the main tension of getting together has already been exhausted. Essential to these stories, then, is creating new conflicts while preserving (but also exploring) the HEA they’ve already achieved.
After-HEA projects are fun because they’re unabashedly for the readers. It’s fun to stuff them with treats you know readers will love, to unstrap and wallow in things that perhaps critics would call too silly or sappy but loyal readers embrace with both hands. Except I’ve found in doing these projects I let go so much I can actually produce cleaner, bolder work, because I’m not worried about rules or how things are “supposed to be.”
It wasn’t in my plan, but I have three of these after-HEA stories this year, Short Stay and two more in the WIP queue. I hope readers love diving back into these worlds as much as I do before we go full steam ahead into new characters and new universes.
Walter and Kelly had left, as had Randy, but Mitch and Sam were still there, sitting in what Elijah had begun to think of as “Randy’s booth.” They welcomed him over when they saw him.
“Where’s your other half?” Mitch asked in his Texas drawl.
“Sleeping. I didn’t want to wake him, but I needed to get out of the dark for a bit.” Elijah had barely slid into his seat before the same waitress from the day before placed a Dirty Whiskey in front of him. He thanked her with a nod and took a sip. “What are you guys up to?”
“We’re waiting for my brother. He’s had a long day of rehearsal, and Steve’s deep into a project, so we thought we’d take Chenco out to pamper him at his favorite vegan restaurant.” Sam glanced at Mitch, who nodded. “You’re welcome to come along, with or without Baz.”
Elijah hesitated. “It sounds good, but I don’t know how long he’ll sleep, and I don’t want to be gone if he’s up and wants to do something.” He remembered the day before, their argument, and couldn’t help a wry smile. “Though if he were awake, he’d tell me to go.”
Sam leaned into Mitch. “I love how devoted the two of you are to each other. When are you getting married again?” When the question made Elijah shutter, Sam sat up, concerned. “I’m sorry, was that an uncomfortable question?”
How the hell should he answer? “We don’t have a date set, and whenever it is, I’m not going to look forward to it. Baz’s mother means well, but she’s a Momzilla on the best of days, and since she heard we were getting married, she’s been off the charts. There is no incarnation of our ceremony that doesn’t result in her taking over and turning it into some major social event for rich white people from Chicago. I can’t blame her, because this is her only son getting married. But it overwhelms me. I wish I could skip the ceremony and jump simply to being married to Baz.”
Mitch raised his eyebrows. “You can do that today, in Vegas. It’s called eloping.”
Elijah laughed bitterly. “Yeah, she’d be thrilled to find out we’d done an end run on her. But…even if I could know us running off to city hall wouldn’t mean she was gunning for my head on a platter, I kind of want some pomp and circumstance at our wedding.” He blushed, feeling ridiculous and exposed admitting it, but it wasn’t as if these people knew him or ever would. “I never thought I’d get married. I never thought anybody would feel that way about me. I still don’t always understand how I ended up with someone like Baz. You don’t get more opposite than the two of us, for family background.” His blush deepened, and he regretted not stopping his mouth on his first inclination. Damn Dirty Whiskeys.
Sam, unsurprisingly, turned soft and empathetic, a bottle-blond Kelly. “I never thought I’d leave Iowa, until I met Mitch. At best I hoped to get away to Des Moines. We aren’t so opposite as you and Baz, but we have other ways we’re different, I suppose.”
Mitch gave him an incredulous look. “Yeah, starting with our twelve-year age difference.”
Sam hushed him. “The point is, different can be good. You bring things out in each other, I think. Challenge each other. I didn’t want to move out to Las Vegas, but I wanted to be nearer to Randy and Ethan, and Mitch wanted to develop a relationship with his half-brother. Mitch likes to run cross-country jobs, but he’s driving local runs now almost all the time because we’re getting tired of not having a home base. Or rather, we want to be at the home base more.” He bit his lip, glanced at Mitch shyly, and added, “And because maybe someday soon we’ll make our own family.”
Yeah, this guy really was a Kelly. Elijah pulled the napkin from beneath his drink and shredded the edge absently. “I don’t know if I want a family beyond Baz.”
“It’s okay if you don’t,” Mitch said. “And it’s okay if you don’t now and do later.”
Chenco appeared, well-scrubbed and exhausted. Sam scooted out of the booth to break the news about the restaurant, which Chenco seemed pleased by, and once again invited Elijah to come along. Before Elijah could decline, however, Mitch leaned over to tap him on the arm and give him a heavy look.
“You come on out with us. We’ll tell Randy to take a break from party planning and bring Baz on over if he wakes up before we get back. Or Randy can keep him company, whichever Baz prefers.”
Mitch said this in such a rumbly, bossy way Elijah didn’t feel no was an option. And so he ended up piling into a sedan with the three of them, driving through the city into a residential area north of the city.
The restaurant was nice—fancy, but not formal, and the food wasn’t bad. Elijah ordered a fried tofu buddha bowl, which smelled delicious as it was placed before him. It tasted good too.
“My friends and I are eating more plant-based,” he said around bites. “We haven’t been doing it long at the White House, but we’re trying. We need to make stuff like this, though. It’s so good.”
Chenco raised an eyebrow. “The White House?”
Elijah always forgot how weird it sounded. “It’s this big house we all rent off Campustown. It’s white, and it’s a house, so…White House. Someone made the joke a million years ago, and I guess it stuck.”
“It’s so cool you get to live there with all your friends.” Sam looked jealous. “I lived with my aunt and uncle for most of college. My aunt and uncle who hated me.”
“My first year I lived in the dorms. My parents were…” Elijah stopped, the urge to share abruptly washed over with the urge to self-protect.
Mitch’s drawl was gentle, reassuring. “Randy told us your story. Glad you got out okay.”
Elijah poked at his bowl, appetite gone. “Some days I’m less okay than others.”
Sam put a hand near Elijah’s plate. “My mom died when I was seventeen after being sick all her life, and I had to live with the horrid aunt and uncle afterward. Mitch’s mom left when he was eight, meaning he was raised by his father who, from the sounds of it, would get along fine with yours. When Chenco was kicked out by his mother, he had to go live with their father—who then left the only home he had to the KKK when he died. We get it, Elijah. Trust me. We get it. And it’s okay. You’re okay. Even when you don’t feel it.”
Elijah moved his gaze around the table, taking in the serious but understanding and accepting faces of the three men. He felt exposed…but also seen, and in a way making something deep inside him unwind. The same place inside him Randy had touched. Randy, who had been kicked out in high school and done tricks to survive, same as Elijah.
“Family is essential. Find it, make it, seize it however you can. If it walks up to you and welcomes you home and you don’t have reason to doubt it’s real, don’t argue. Just go through the door.” Chenco winked and nudged Elijah’s bowl. “Eat your dinner. Anyone with that many hickeys on his neck had enough sex to require calorie replacement.”
Elijah ate. He also, on the drive to the hotel, got out his phone and opened Facebook again. Pulled down the still-unanswered friend request from Penny.
He didn’t know how to tell if the request was real or not, but he clicked accept anyway.
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