Ex-Beefcake by Zoe Lee

Chapter 4

Halston

The Rocky Mountains were gorgeous, taller and sharper than the ones I’d seen in California and more rugged than the ones I’d seen in Hawaii. It was the end of August, so there wasn’t any snow capping them, but they were still so gorgeous that I had to consciously pay close attention to the road in front of me and the drivers around me.

It was a good distraction from the fact that I was nervous about the wedding.

I had met Sam’s squad a few times when we were roommates, but it had been close to a decade since I’d seen them, even though I heard about them from Sam all the time. I loved meeting people and wasn’t nervous about being awkward or feeling left out because they all lived in the same city and saw each other a lot more than Sam and I did. The nerves came from the knowledge that while Sam and I still knew each other at our cores, so much had changed in our day to day lives since I’d left Chicago. He didn’t know any of my friends or my ex-girlfriends, or what an average day looked like for me. I didn’t know anything about his personal life—if he was dating anyone or seeing anyone, or the full story behind work even though I knew it had been really stressful for far too long.

And…

Yeah, and I looked different than the last time we’d seen each other.

For my current role, I was playing a black ops squad leader who’d been gravely injured and was now running the show from behind the desk. It was an opportunity to show that I was more than flash and a big body. But it meant that I’d had to completely change my diet and exercise regimen, so that I looked like a man who had been in peak physical condition up until recently, letting some chub settle over the muscles. I wasn’t ashamed of how I looked, but a cornerstone of our friendship had always been him giving me shit for being a gym rat, counting calories and drinking endless protein shakes. He used to stand around eating Cheetos while I did thousands of crunches and burpees, heckling me.

Rationally I knew it was ridiculous to think he’d look at me poorly.

My cell rang and I took it as a sign, answering through the car’s bluetooth. “Hello?”

“Hi, H,” Bianca said so loudly I almost swerved before I turned down the volume.

“Hi, honey,” I said warmly to my ex-girlfriend, who was now one of my closest friends. Sam thought it was really weird that I stayed friends with my exes, but Bianca and I had broken up after five years when she fell for someone else. We’d been content, but there had never been fireworks. How could I possibly have been mad at her for finding that? We still cared about each other, so it would’ve been a shame to walk away from our relationship just because the romantic element ended. “You caught me driving up to Aspen, so try not to make me laugh so hard my eyes close and I drive right off the side of a mountain, okay?”

She gave her signature squeal. “That’s this week! I totally forgot.”

“You, forget a date? That never happens,” I teased her.

“Never mind, I’m just going to hang up now,” she joked, giggling. “No, Tasha and I were going to invite you to come to the zoo with us, and Poppy and Jilly if you remember them from the 4th? But we’re going this Saturday and you won’t be around anyway.”

I loved the woman, but she really was a scatterbrain. “Bianca, I’m shooting in Baton Rouge. I’ve been there for months. Even if I weren’t going to Aspen, I couldn’t go.”

There was a pause and then she muttered, “Fuck, really? You know, now that you mention it… I do remember something about that.” She sighed loudly. “How’s the shoot?”

“It’s going really well. The assistant director is becoming a good friend,” I told her, and when she made supportive noises, I licked my lips and blurted out, “But I haven’t thought about it since I finished yesterday morning. I’m so excited to see Sam again, even though…”

“Are you worried it’s going to be weird?” she asked when I trailed off. “I sometimes forget how friendships outside of Hollywood work,” she commented sympathetically, since she was a makeup artist. “We’re always coming and going, working with different people all of the time and saying nice to meet you and hope I see you again practically every day. But you don’t have to worry about Sam. You’ve always made him sound like a great person.”

My shoulders relaxed at her soothing words. “He’s the best.”

She hummed. “So what’s really bothering you then?”

My directions app cut me off with an instruction to get off the highway in half a mile, and then I told Bianca, “I honestly don’t know. But I feel… different than I did the last time I saw him. And we’ve both been so busy the last couple of years, I feel like he might be too. What if all we have to talk about is what TV shows and movies we love and hate?”

Instead of answering right away, Bianca took a few seconds to think. It was one of the biggest things we had in common, thinking before we spoke, not only to make sure we used the right words, but also as a way to show respect for what people asked us.

“Then… then you’ll have a fun week talking about TV shows and movies. Weddings are only ever disasters in movies, in my vast experience with both weddings and movies with weddings in them. So you’ll also get to dance and help celebrate the happy couple. Eat cake.”

“I haven’t had cake in years,” I murmured, taking the exit ramp. “Well, other than sugar free, flourless, gluten-free cake,” I added, teasing her again by describing her and Tasha’s wedding… muffins, if I were being honest. They’d loved them, but they’d tasted like a cross between matzoh and cornbread, with a touch of vanilla, to me. I shuddered, sliding my tongue around my mouth to try to clear out the phantom terrible taste of them.

A digital-sounding bell chimed in the background on Bianca’s end, and she cried, “Oh! That’s the doorbell. It must be four already. Where did this afternoon go? That’s my dad.”

“Have fun and say hi to him for me,” I told her.

“I want you to have fun too, and I just know you and Sam will be great together.”

“Thanks, Bianca.”

She hung up and I rolled my shoulders, doing yoga breathing exercises to recenter myself as the driving app led me toward the hotel where the wedding party was staying.

It had a weird entrance that confused the app, so I huffed out a laugh as it took me in a few circles before I saw the entrance myself and turned in, finding a parking spot and grabbing my black suitcase out of the passenger seat. I got out of the car and stretched for a second, then tugged down my tee shirt and breathed in the thinner, clean mountain air.

Sam and I had talked after my flight landed, so I knew he’d already checked in for us and would meet me in one of the hotel’s bars, the one with a patio, he’d said. I went in the main entrance, smiling at the whoosh of cold air as the automatic doors glided open like I always did. There were signs for everything in the lobby, as if they knew people tired after a day of travel or a day of hiking or skiing would need directions posted everywhere. But the signs didn’t mention which bar had a patio, so I asked the concierge, then walked through the hotel to the bar on its back west side, enjoying the very chic country lodge decor.

As soon as I stepped on the patio, I saw Sam perched on a stone wall enclosing it, wearing beige linen pants and a loose white button down, looking like he was at a beach resort and not a mountain lodge. He was talking to someone I couldn’t see since they were facing away from me, but Sam must’ve felt my gaze because his eyes suddenly snapped up to me.

My mouth stretched into a happy, wide grin.

But it wobbled when he jerked off the stone wall, gaping at me, mouth hanging open.