Best Man

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“Oh, my God!” Trace could barely contain himself, whistling at the leggy blonde strutting off the stage and toward their group. “She’s fucking fine! I’ll see you boys later!” He held out a couple bills, and the obviously enhanced stripper sauntered over to him, grinding her purple thong-clad pelvis against his knee as she took the money he proffered with her ample tits, smiling suggestively before whirling to present her rock hard ass and shapely legs. He got to his feet, following her toward one of the partitioned-off areas for a private couch dance. The matching purple heels were a nice touch, and most of the bachelor party was momentarily distracted by Trace’s exuberance and the stripper’s playfully provocative attitude before they disappeared.

“We picked a perfect night to come.” Jared’s grin was infectious, his eyes on the pair of girls intertwined near the catwalk. An unusually curvy Asian doll clung to a statuesque redhead, their bare breasts pressed against each other as their tongues mingled and hands roamed and caressed with abandon. “Avery? That brunette in the white thong is pretty hot. You’d better act now before that guy in the suit lures her away.” With that, he got to his feet and hurried toward the kissing girls, waving a twenty at them and beckoning to one of the private dance areas. They paused, offering Jared a pair of sultry smiles as they clasped hands, then hurried off the stage to join him.

With a long sigh, Avery lit a cigarette. It was only a perfect night to come because he’d been warned by Trace, Jared’s little brother, that the girls working the Sunday night shift weren’t nearly as aesthetically pleasing. A Monday wedding seemed rather unusual, but Jared and Michelle planned to travel during the less popular days of the week to save a bit of money they could put toward having a stress-free honeymoon.

The trip back to Chicago had been filled with contemplation. Since returning to his hometown and best friend, Avery was dismayed with always seeming just on the edge of conversations with Jared and his crew, never quite able to ease into the rapid-fire, colorful discussion topics they bounced back and forth. They were young and smarmy, like a lot of guys their age in this area, and the differences between him and Jared brought about by simple geography were quite staggering. Ten years of California living had taught Avery a lot of patience, determination, and most of all, acceptance.

Somehow, Jared had made a life and name for himself without losing his impish charm along the way. Working for an IT upstart fresh out of high school and during college insured he was well positioned for a prime job offer once he graduated. The romance with Michelle surprised everyone who knew Jared, if the truth be told. It was clear he was a man well on his way to happiness and success that would undoubtedly support the All American Dream with ease. But the whirlwind courtship and announcement of their engagement only caused more curiosity among his family and friends.

Avery hadn’t met the lady in question yet. He’d only arrived at O’Hare a few hours ago with just enough time to shower and change before catching a cab to Club Silk, one of the best strip clubs in town, according to Trace, and the reunion between the old friends had been as warm and exuberant as they dared with other young men looking on.

Avery had no cause to doubt Jared’s rakish kid brother when it came to selecting a venue, given his age and level of nightlife prowess. Hell, the drop-dead gorgeous young man planned most of the bachelor party arrangements since Avery hadn’t lived here for twelve years. Good and bad parts of town can change drastically, and he wasn’t sure which place would suit their needs.

Trace was nearly physically identical to his older brother, with the same dark brown hair and startlingly pale blue eyes. But while Jared had a bit of poise and polish from a few years living on his own, Trace was wild and untamed. The general consensus was that Trace wouldn’t make it through his freshman year of college because sitting in labs or classes all day was “way fucking boring.”

The DJ switched up the tracks and “Fergilicious” began as the pretty brunette made another trip down the catwalk. She was tanned and toned, and Avery had to admit she was certainly one of the more realistic-looking and attractive girls he’d seen tonight.

“Man, you lost your chance!” Jared flopped onto the suede-upholstered chair beside his friend, leaning an elbow on the glass and iron edged table as the strippers he’d bought a dance from breezed past in a giggling cloud of glittering skin and perfume. “Those guys in the suits just bought her for like an hour.”

“So are you ready for the rehearsal tomorrow?” Avery inquired, sipping his watered down soda. “I can’t believe it. You’re going to be married in thirty-six hours. God, where does the time go?” Avery smiled, a distant light in his eyes.

“She’s so perfect, Avery. I can’t wait for you to meet her. I feel bad you haven’t already, but with our school schedules and all, we don’t have the money güvenilir bahis or time to get out there for a visit, as much as we’d love to.”

Avery nodded, brushing his unruly blond bangs from his eyes. “The real question you’ve got to answer is this: is she hotter than Brooke?”

With a comic groan and hand to his crotch, Jared fell back in his chair, laughing as he recalled his almost obsessive high school crush on Brook Nash, the cutest girl in their class.

“Oh, my God! Brooke is in a class all her own. Michelle’s pretty in that old-fashioned porcelain doll kind of way. Brooke was a fucking goddess!”

A couple more girls paraded down the steps to circulate through the crowd. One of them, a delicate little thing with sandy blonde hair and big brown eyes, approached their table. Her breasts were small but perky, tipped with pale pink nipples that made Jared’s mouth water.

“Hi,” she chirped in a little voice that struggled to be heard over the music. “You guys want a couch dance?”

Avery pulled out his wallet and gave her a twenty, gesturing to Jared. “It’s on me. Give him a great time, sweetie. On Monday, he’ll be a married man.”

Jared’s eyes widened, then he grinned and got to his feet.

“… Oh, all the comrades e’er I had, they’re sorry for my going away, and all the sweethearts e’er I had, they’d wish me one more day to stay, but since it falls unto my lot, that I should rise and you should not, I gently rise and softly call,good night and joy be with you all.” The men at Timothy’s finished in a boisterous chorus, then cheered, many coming over to clap Jared on his back or put another shot of whiskey before him. Timothy, tending bar tonight, smiled and handed Jared one last shot then announced it was time to clear out.

“Your parents must be so proud, Jared.” Mr. O’Donnell smiled, coming over to shake Jared’s hand with a vigor that belied his years. “Congratulations, lad, and we’ll see you on Monday then.” The old Irishman gave a nod to Tim behind the bar, then turned on a heel and sauntered out of the small pub.

“Church is off tomorrow, right?” Trace slurred the question as he slumped against Keith, one of his friends. “‘Cause I’m going to have a wicked hangover in the morning.”

“I think we’ll be fine as long as we’re there on time for the rehearsal.” With a sigh, Avery finished his beer then slid off his stool to settle up before leaving. “You ready to go, Jared?” All but falling off the stool, Jared reached out to steady himself on the bar, struggling to retrieve his wallet from his pants.

“Forget it, Jared.” Tim grinned, gathering up empty glasses. “On the house. But you boys best be on your way. Eve will have a right temper if you’re late for rehearsal tomorrow.”

“Thanks…” Jared’s gratitude came out a bit slurred as Avery helped him toward the door, not too tipsy to realize the extreme danger of a pissed off mother-in-law to be.

Trace and company had been stealing sips here and there, but mutually agreed that they weren’t tired and would go looking for some scary goth girls at a nearby twenty-four-hour coffee house.

A couple of Jared’s friends made a point of emphasizing the lateness of the hour. In the end, Avery and Jared stood at a street corner, waiting for the cab Avery had called to show up.

“I don’t know why Michelle wants to be all traditional about not sleeping together the last couple nights before we get married,” Jared mumbled as warm summer wind swept his hair into dark tendrils. “I mean, my bed’s more comfortable than any hotel.”

“Well, it’s her big day, too.” Avery sighed, watching the cars whiz past with a pang of nostalgia. If things weren’t going so well as in Cali, he’d be tempted to consider moving back here in a heartbeat. “And you know how big a deal this is to women. Just think about the honeymoon. It’s going to be awesome.”

He and Jared used to walk the neighborhood streets at night, sneaking cigarettes or the odd beer disguised in a fast food soda cup as they complained about school, pined for certain girls, and speculated where they’d be ten years from now.

Never in his wildest imaginings had Avery ever considered that Jared would settle down and get married. Even as they stayed in close touch over the years and shared victories and losses, there had been a youthful thread binding them that would soon be tangled in knots by the silk ribbons of love and matrimony.

“I got a really nice room,” Avery reassured as their cab approached. “We can go get your things tomorrow. Will Michelle be around?”

“She’s got a few last minute things to finish. I’m sure she’ll be able to bring my stuff if I call and ask her…” he trailed off, lids heavy.

They offered a curt wave to the cab driver, and then slid into the back seat, giving him the name of Avery’s hotel. The car lurched forward with a jolt, and Avery wished he could have driven instead.

The warm summer night was filled with college kids and club goers trying to walk off a bit of the last call overindulgence, homeless people looking for a spare bit güvenilir bahis siteleri of change, and some of the darker and more mysterious element, all of whom didn’t seem to mind the lateness of the hour.

After seven years of conventional working hours, Avery wasn’t able to handle the old nocturnal schedule he used to keep, and apparently Jared wasn’t either. He was slumped against the door.

With the soft squeak of breaks, the cabbie pulled up in front of the luxury hotel, checking the navigation system to total up their fare. Avery handed him his card, then got out to catch Jared before he collapsed onto the elegant flagstone drive.

“Have a good night,” the cabbie said in heavily accented English, gliding back out into traffic. Avery frowned, slipping an arm around Jared’s waist. Jared was very solid, and though he was in perfect shape, there was still a lot of bulk to manage as he tried to help his friend stagger toward the revolving lobby doors.

“A few more steps, Jare. Come on. The elevator’s right over here…”

“Man…” Jared choked back a bark of laughter. “People are going to get the wrong impression about us, Avery. Just so we’re cool, I don’t let anyone shove anything up my ass.”

“Shut up!” Avery bristled, surrounded by polished brass, marble, and Vivaldi at a gentle volume as he tried to haul a softly sniggering Jared toward the brass doors. He winced as a pair of businessmen click-clacked up behind them in their obviously expensive suits and shoes, lifting their brows at Jared’s babbling. “Bachelor party,” Avery tried to assure. They weren’t buying it and took a few steps back as the car’s doors slid open. Avery hauled his friend inside just before they shut.

More Vivaldi, mirrored walls, and a padded bench awaited them, and Avery let Jared collapse backward onto the bench, catching his breath from the effort as he studied Jared’s slumped form.

As far back as Avery could recall, he and Jared had always been friends. From playing in sand boxes or arguing over who got to go down the slide first, they had been thick as thieves. Their parents got along well, and only lived half a block apart. In fact, they’d met when the boys were still babies. Mrs. Marcus was out taking Avery for a walk in his designer stroller while Jared’s mother planted flowers in their front flower bed. Jared was in a baby swing close by.

The Marcuses and McCalls had grown very close over the years. Jared’s father owned a chain of successful mensware shops while Avery’s father held a high-ranking position in a local bank.

Avery never wanted for anything, and while Jared wasn’t quite as indulged, they still managed to be the best of friends.

If only Jared knew how hard this had become for Avery … Frightened he’d end their friendship, Avery never confessed his confusing feelings of a love deeper than that of average friends, even when those feelings intensified during their last couple remaining years living moments away from each other. But it was a constant whenever they were together—a stabbing pain of both lust and shame he could never ignore.

When his father was offered a promotion in the form of bank president in Santa Barbara, the Marcus family packed their things, said farewell to their beloved Chicago, and Avery’s life got a whole lot better, and a whole lot worse, all at once.

“All right.” Avery heaved Jared to his feet, practically carrying his friend down the posh and silent corridor until they arrived at his room. Carefully, he propped Jared against the entryway, retrieved his key card from his wallet and unlocked the door.

“Okay, Jared. We’re here. Can you get yourself to the bathroom and whatever else alone?” A mumbled slur was his only acknowledgement. Please don’t make me do this for you, Avery thought as he closed the door behind them and turned on the lamp beside his bed.

Jared’s T-shirt was rumpled, and his jeans hung low on his narrow hips. Avery let him fall back onto a bed. He fervently hoped a cool cloth would bring him around enough so he could get to the toilet and back to bed on his own.

Seeing Jared in person for the first time in two years had been hard. But seeing him sprawled out in all his nearly unconscious beauty was worse. Though Avery had taken a handful of lovers over the years, standing up at Jared’s wedding would be one of the hardest and most heartbreaking things he’d ever have to do.

Returning from the bathroom with a cloth soaked in cold water, Avery hovered over Jared just for a moment to watch the soft lighting play upon his friend’s face. His eyes were closed, long lashes making shadows on his cheeks. Lips slightly parted, he looked as if he were waiting for a kiss, not incapacitated by alcohol.

Every plane and angle of Jared’s face was forever etched into his mind, but as Avery knelt beside the bed, one hand poised with the cloth, he studied the handsome man Jared had become.

“She’s so lucky,” he whispered, hesitating only a second before running the folded cloth across Jared’s brow, watching intently as his friend’s iddaa siteleri lashes fluttered. Even as he longed to lie beside him and just talk as they had once done, Avery got to his feet as Jared stirred. “I thought you’d be better off hitting the john before you totally passed out. You only rent beer, after all, and I wouldn’t want you wetting the bed again.”

Jared managed a weak smile, hoisting himself up to sit on the edge of the bed. “I’ll never live that one down, will I?”

Avery went to his suitcases in the corner to find a T-shirt.

“Probably not. Night.”

“Night,” Jared mumbled, closing the bathroom door as Avery turned out the light.

Do you know how to tie a fucking Windsor knot?” Jared stood at the bureau, scrutinizing himself in the bright Sunday sunshine pouring through their room’s window. “I hate ties. You’d think having a father who sold these damned things would make me get it by now. Seriously, ties fucking suck.”

Handsomely tousled, Jared cut a stark contrast to Avery’s pressed as a pin visage. While Jared’s dark bangs fought to obscure his eyes, Avery’s hair had been successfully tamed with comb and gel into a very professional arrangement, not one golden hair out of place. His own navy suit and tie were flawlessly arranged, and his shoes shone from being freshly polished.

“Here.” He smirked, putting down the bagel he’d been nibbling. “Stand still and pay attention, dumbass. God, if your dad knew you couldn’t tie a Windsor.”

“Shut up. I’m under a lot of stress,” Jared complained, looking a bit sleepy around the eyes despite the Bloody Mary he’d chugged for breakfast, hoping the hair of the dog would make him feel better. “Tracey can’t tie these fucking things, either.”

Avery took another bite of his bagel, sitting at the table and flipping through the paper. Jared sucked the last bit of tomato juice and vodka clinging to the ice, pickle, and celery stalk, swaying to the alt-rock song tuned in on the clock radio as he jingled the ice in his glass. “I can’t believe I’m doing this.” He put the glass down on the table and started to pace. “Am I batshit insane, Avery? I mean I totally love Michelle and can’t imagine life without her, but getting married? Damn—”

The brisk tonal warble of the room’s phone interrupted his tangent and he reached for it. A mumbled “okay” and he dropped the receiver back into the cradle, his eyes lowered. “The car’s here. Ready to go?”

Don’t worry about me being ready to go, Avery thought as he got to his feet, pitching the remains of his breakfast into the nearby trash. Worry about you being ready to go.

“Let’s go.”

St. Matthew’s Cathedral was unusually quiet as Jared and Avery stepped inside. Jared was pretty much a Christmas and Easter Catholic, while Avery’s faith lapsed more with each passing year. Father Patrick offered them a welcoming wave from the dais.

“Jared.” He nodded, stepping down and toward the hall leading back to the family room. “Avery Marcus! Great to see you again, son.”

“Father,” Avery returned, standing in a kaleidoscope of colored sunlight pouring in from a nearby stained-glass window.

“I’ve got coffee going if you two would like to help yourselves. Give me a few minutes and I’ll meet you back here to run through the rehearsal.” The priest offered a warm smile then disappeared from sight.

“Coffee. Hell yes,” Jared sighed, hurrying toward the back of the church. “Maybe that will help my head.”

Moving through the space that would be filled with friends and family tomorrow, both men grew lost in their own thoughts. Surrounded by the quiet, Avery wondered why last night’s sleep had been so unsatisfactory and poor, afraid of the answer hidden deep within his heart.

The room they entered would serve as the dressing room for Michelle and her bridesmaids tomorrow. But for now, it was cozy and calm, filled with the rich aroma of coffee and vanilla creamer. Avery paused in the doorway as Jared hurried in, preparing a cup of coffee for himself and pacing anxiously back and forth across the room.

“You okay?” The question escaped his lips before Avery could stop himself. Jared sipped his coffee, eyes not leaving the floor.

“Yeah. Just a little overwhelmed, I guess. It’s a huge step, man. No more one-night flings, no more flirting with waitresses, and no more porn. At least no porn kept in obvious places. Michelle doesn’t like it much.”

Avery let go of the doorframe, his steps muffled as he entered the room decorated in creams and accented with earth tones. The effect was very soothing, and he suspected this had been the intent from the start.

Tentatively, he put a hand on Jared’s shoulder, his heart pounding in his chest so fiercely he could feel it in his ears.

“Are you all right, Jare? Did something happen between you and Michelle? A fight?”

Jared shook his head, putting his coffee down and heaving a sigh as he turned to face his best friend. Jared closely studied Avery’s eyes. Avery knew he still possessed his angelic good looks, and his eyes were still a warm and reassuring hazel, he’d been told so by more than one lover. But what did Jared see? He wasn’t keen on Jared’s scrutiny. Desperate for a distraction, he reached out to offer his friend a macho hug, careful not to get too close.

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