Sunday, December 20, 2015

Random Tales of Christmastime Part 9


The Trouble with Elves by Therese Woodson
Summary:
Cal Martin loathes Christmas music, especially the clichรฉd carols pumped through the mall speakers on endless loop. Even worse is the holiday-themed hell of Santa's Village that looms right in front of the sports store he manages. It's yet another hurdle for Cal as he tries to survive the world of retail during the soul-sucking holiday season… until he catches a glimpse of one of Santa's elves and becomes infatuated with the cheery, gorgeous guy dressed in candy-cane tights.

Of course, just walking up to the guy and asking him out isn't easy, and a botched attempt at matchmaking ends up turning a simple courtship into a mess for the gossip page. What can Cal do to overcome his social ineptitude, correct erroneous assumptions, and maybe have a merry little Christmas of his own?

A Wealth of Unsaid Words by R Cooper
Summary:
Alex has always known his bipolar disorder made him too flawed for his boyhood hero, Everett. So when his feelings for Everett became overwhelming, he forced a separation that saddened them both but gave Alex the clarity he needed. Now a year has passed, and he and Everett are together again when Everett’s noisy, imperfect family reunites for Christmas, pulling Alex into their chaotic warmth the way they always have. Can Everett convince Alex that, in spite of his fears, starting a relationship would make for the perfect holiday?

I Heard Him Exclaim by ZA Maxfield
Summary:
Who Likes a Skinny Santa?

Steve Adams's heart hasn't been in the Christmas spirit ever since doctors put a stent in it and ordered him to clean up his act. No longer filling out his Santa suit or allowed to make merry, he's forgoing the holidays this year and heading to Vegas to indulge in the few vices left to him: gambling and anonymous sex.

His road trip takes a detour when he encounters Chandler Tracey, who's just inherited guardianship of his five-year-old niece. Overwhelmed, Chandler's on his way to deliver Poppy to his parents. But fate has other plans and, after car trouble, Chandler and Poppy accept a ride home with Steve. Though the heat between the two men is obvious, they put it on simmer while they band together to make Poppy's Christmas as perfect as possible.

Steve soon comes to believe that while Chandler is the right person to look after Poppy, someone needs to look after Chandler. Fortunately, Steve knows just the man for the job.

Included in His for the Holiday Anthology


This was a charming holiday story that I found romantic, heartwarming, and uplifting.  Maybe the idea that complete strangers, Chandler and Steve, would be so trusting of each other is a little unrealistic but this is fiction, however, we all start out as strangers and I believe we all have that one person out there that we just know in our hearts that we can trust.  That's what Chandler and Steve are to each other, that one person that can make the other see what is real and true.  How they get there is what makes this a fun and enjoyable read that is a great addition to my holiday library.

RATING: 

A Christmas Boyfriend by Trina Solet
Summary:
"Can you get me a man for Christmas?" 

When he said those fateful words, Ben didn't know what he was setting in motion.

Ben is a busy dad to a four year old little girl. He doesn't have much time for a social life, but he wasn't serious when he asked for a man for Christmas. His daughter, Maya, doesn't know that. She is determined to play Santa and get her dad the gift he asked for.

The man she picks for her dad is her preschool teacher, Jason Kenney. Neither Jason nor Maya think he's the right man to be a present for Ben, so why is he standing there on Christmas Eve with a gift bow in his hair?

Smarting from a recent breakup, Jason isn't looking forward to the holidays. Despite his reservations, Jason gets tangled up with Ben. There is something about Ben that he just can't resist. As their feelings intensify, will spending Christmas together turn into something more?


This was a fun, heartwarming, and enjoyable read.  I do think it could have been better had it been longer with more detail but I was still smiling as I read the last page.  Sometimes we just need a short lighthearted romance to brighten our day and that's what A Christmas Boyfriend was for me.

RATING: 

Checking Him Out: For the Holidays by Debbie McGowan
Summary:
Freelance engineer Sol Brooks doesn’t do the festive season. He thinks it’s boring and overly sentimental. With the rest of the household laid up with ‘the flu’, Sol’s planned on using the time to crack on with some work.

His mother, however, has other ideas.

And so does Sol’s husband, Adam.

A stand-alone holiday special featuring Sol and Adam from Checking Him Out


I haven't read any of the Checking Him Out stories and yet I was not lost reading about Adam and Sol's Christmas/Hanukkah household.  I have never read this author but I will definitely be checking out her work in the coming year.  Always glad to read new authors and Adam and Sol was a great place to start and throw in an adorable Matty and what's not to love.

RATING: 



The Trouble with Elves
"ROCKING AROUND the Christmas tree at the Christmas party—"

Cal reached over and viciously stabbed the power button of the car stereo. Flexing his fingers around the steering wheel, he relished in spiteful delight effectively cutting off one of the most annoying Christmas songs ever. It was a small relief, one he didn't have at the mall, forced to endure the countless hours of holiday staples blaring over the speakers while he worked. In his car, though, it was his rules, and that included no Christmas music.

His younger brother, Brock, looked over at him from the passenger's seat with a raised eyebrow. "What did Brenda Lee ever do to you?"

"She sang a song with too many syllables crammed into one line," Cal replied.

Brock rolled his eyes, unimpressed, but he didn't say anything. Instead, he fiddled with the air vents in an attempt to coax more heat into the car. It didn't work.

The sun had barely risen when Cal and Brock blearily stumbled out of their house that morning, the air frigid and a sheet of ice coating the beat-up two-door. Not even the quick run to the drive-through for coffee had managed to warm either of them, and they huddled in their coats, hats, and scarves until Cal pulled in to the desolate parking lot of the city mall. He parked in the employee lot, his car sputtering as he idled for a moment.

"Excited for your first day at work?" Cal asked as they gathered their things.

Brock shrugged. "Not really. It's just the food court."

"Yeah," Cal agreed, "but it's money and experience."

"Unlike you, big bro, I'm not planning to make a career out of working at the mall. Not that there is anything wrong with that," Brock hastened to add.

It was Cal's turn to shrug. "I like my job."

He did. He worked as a manager for the sporting goods store. It wasn't glorious by any means, but it was good money, and he liked sports. He enjoyed it, except for the Christmas music, and it was the closest he was going to get to working in sports since he had blown out his knee. It wasn't a bad job for a twenty-four-year-old who was still trying to figure life out.

"Just try not to be an asshole to the customers," Cal said as he killed the engine, and they both climbed out of the car.

"I promise nothing."

They picked their way across the icy parking lot until they made it to the employee door. Cal used his key, and they pushed inside to find a handful of mall employees already there, shuffling off to their various jobs. Cal and Brock parted ways at the candy stand, Brock heading for the food court and giving Cal a halfhearted wave over his shoulder.

The hour before mall opening was usually quiet. No music overhead, no hordes of teenagers on holiday break, no harried mothers pushing babies, no frantic boyfriends looking for presents. It was just silence, and Cal liked that, reveled in it, because it was literally the only silence he would experience for the next nine hours. Except today, when Cal rounded the corner toward his end of the mall, he was confronted with the loud sounds of construction and the bane of his existence—Santa's Village.

Cal groaned. For something that he loathed each Christmas, and actively tried to avoid, he had totally forgotten that today was the opening of the village. He should've known; Thanksgiving was around the corner, and Black Friday loomed ahead of the retail season like the soul-sucking beast of consumerism it was. Somehow it had slipped his mind until that very minute as he slowly walked past the candy cane lane, the decorated trees, and the large plastic gingerbread house with the bench outside. Santa would sit there, take requests, and hand out sugar to spoiled hellions who would then run into Cal's store and proceed to touch everything with their candy-sticky saliva-wet fingers.

Cal glared at the monstrosity and inwardly aimed all his holiday-themed dislike at the Rudolph positioned a few feet away and staring directly into his storefront. Just when he thought it couldn't get any worse, he heard a workman shout, and then the village was plugged in. The ornaments on the trees lit up in headache-inducing flashes. The cotton snow twinkled with small lights. The reindeer bent their heads and blinked their vacant eyes, but that was nothing compared to the music—the grating, cheery music that sounded like someone was hammering on a child's xylophone. It was awful, and Cal stared in wide-eyed horror at every single holiday clichรฉ rolled into one giant mechanical Santa hell.

He turned away and hurriedly unlocked the rolling grate at the front of the store. He slid it high enough to duck under and fled to the relative safety of the sports store break room.

A Wealth of Unsaid Words
If there was one thing to be relied upon in this world, aside from the obvious finalities like death and taxes, it was that even a bitter, crazy nonbeliever like himself could be warmed by the bustle and cheer of the Faraday clan at Christmastime.

The whiskey in his coffee didn’t hurt either, but even before Everett’s father had poured a generous amount into his cup, Alex had felt himself relaxing into the cushioned bench of the breakfast nook and smiling a little at the familiar, welcoming chaos of arriving sisters and brothers and cousins.

Family came in through the side door, banging into walls as they tried to squeeze their luggage past the laundry room and through a kitchen already filled with Everett’s mother and sisters as they prepared plain sandwiches for an increasing number of guests.

The number seemed to be getting larger by the minute, but maybe it only seemed that way since Alex hadn’t been here since last Christmas and so had missed new babies and roommates and growing children. He would wonder where they were all going to fit for the next three days, but he knew without asking that room would be found for everyone.

As though to prove his unspoken point, Rachel’s four-year-old adopted daughter climbed onto the bench seat of the nook, and everyone shifted to give her space. Already wedged in the corner between Everett’s father, George, and his sister’s new best friend-slash-roommate, who hadn’t had a place to go for the holidays, Alex slouched back to give himself a sliver more room.

George responded to that by shifting over again to grant him a speck more breathing space and then poured more whiskey into his cup. With all his newfound clarity of thinking, Alex knew that drinking too much wasn’t the best idea, but he couldn’t formulate a very convincing argument against it, not with the whiskey warming up the shivering butterflies in his stomach. The whiskey was honestly too good to be wasted by pouring it into coffee, but he didn’t protest.

“It’s Christmas.” George must have read the uncertainty in his expression and offered a flawless counterargument which earned him a toast from Alex before he took another small sip. Christmas. There was a power and magic in the word that allowed the rules of the everyday to be broken with impunity, and which promised untold treasures for those who respected it.

Alex hadn’t lit the candle, but he was warm with hope. That it was most likely the whiskey warming him didn’t stop him from wishing for one moment to be a child who could make Christmas wishes and expect them to be answered. A child, or a braver man. He cleared his throat.

“Are you sure?” There was a devil in Alex that never let him stay silent when he should. But when he gestured at the garlands of pine and twinkling lights on the walls and the rainbow of hanging, blinking bulbs visible through a window, George chuckled. His cheeks were red, but it was more his nature in general than the whiskey that allowed him to be so forgiving of Alex’s sarcasm. It was no wonder Everett was Everett with such a figure for a father.

Most people, even those lucky enough to have relatively stable childhoods, did not have parents like George and Ally. Most people dreamed of a Christmas that looked like this one.

“I’ve never seen anything like it outside of a movie.” The roommate, the earnest type with the styled hair and clothes of someone determined to prove he was cool, was staring around the kitchen with wide blue eyes, as he had been since he’d arrived with Everett’s younger sister an hour ago.

Alex smiled into his cup with sharp sympathy. His own disbelief hadn’t faded in nearly twenty years.

“This is all family?” The boy paused when he looked over and caught Alex’s smile.

“Mostly,” he murmured, only to be overruled by Everett’s younger sister and George. Molly hip-checked her father and scooted her way onto the bench next to him. Alex rolled his eyes at her as he was crushed once again. If he’d been standing when she’d shown up, she would have hugged him. Hiding behind the table of the nook was just trading one brand of Faraday family closeness for another.

Molly had the same height as her brothers, but where Everett and his other sister Rachel had taken after their mother with strong, supple limbs and a sort of tireless grace, Molly, like Robert, had George’s chubby, rosy cheeks and dimpled arms and a tendency to be caught either frowning or laughing. She did have Everett’s dark, coarse hair, but she’d cut it short and dyed it a flaming red sometime since he’d last seen her.

“Yes,” she and her father said in unison, but only Molly continued after that. “Yes, Ty, it’s all family. Not the great-aunts or anything, but the close family members. Even Alex here.” She slid the whiskey bottle over to look at the label, but didn’t open it. It had probably come from her brother Robert, who worked in liquor distribution and often gave pricey bottles as gifts. “He’s like a brother and Everett’s soul mate.”

“That’s enough out of you, miss.” Ally swooped in from nowhere, dropping off a tray of sandwiches and silencing her daughter. There was more gray in her hair, or so it seemed, but the year between visits could have been playing with his mind. Maybe nothing had changed here. Or perhaps everything had.

Alex’s butterflies were growing decidedly more anxious, but he winked at Ally and smiled wider when she winked back. Then he took a sandwich before she could force him to eat one. The alcohol was a bad idea, never the depressant with him it was supposed to be, and the caffeine was slowly adding to the tremors in his hands. Food would help.

He stopped after a few bites and ran through his thoughts for the last few minutes, checking to make sure none had been too grandiose or intrusive. It was easy to fall back into bad habits, not eating, not monitoring his thoughts or his lithium levels, thinking too much and too darkly. But he knew his own mind, knew which pitfalls to look out for, and he saw none of them now, only an understandable anxiety at reaching his self-imposed deadline.

One year, it had been one year since the last Christmas, since the last time he’d visited with everyone and sat in this kitchen and listened to Everett’s parents scold Everett for putting his life on hold and not dating enough, and watched Everett get irritable and defensive and look in all directions but his.

One year since realizing exactly how tired he was of not getting the same lectures from them, only sidelong glances and carefully phrased questions about his work, and for the first time in his life, thinking that he could do something about it. He wasn’t perfect, but he was better, and that just might be enough.

It had been no easy thing. It was hard enough to admit his therapist might have had a point all along in telling him his fears weren’t as insurmountable as he was thinking. He had sat, almost in this very spot, and become aware, suddenly, shockingly, that he could possibly get what he’d always wanted if only he was willing to risk losing it.

Alex put a hand to his stomach and then resolutely shook his head and kept on eating. He picked at the bread, eating that first and thinking of tomorrow when the bread would be fresh and Everett would smell like warm dough and butter, and Alex would fall over himself to help him however he could.

Ty’s eyes were intent on Alex when he looked up. It wasn’t the bright interest or heated stares he usually received, or even the admiration of his writing students, though it had some of that about it too. Ty had a slight frown on his face, and it gave Alex the feeling that he’d been recognized or was about to be. He had no idea what Molly had told her roommate about him before they’d arrived here, but he was guessing she’d been unusually discreet.

“So you aren’t a blood relative?” It was a lot like the way the people in town usually asked about Alex, in roundabouts and vague inquiries. Those nice, oh-so-decent folk no doubt wondering just what the hell a good family like the Faradays was doing with a crazy McAllister. Sometimes they’d add something about how kind it had been of them to take him in, he assumed in an attempt to guilt him into being more grateful—something truly impossible. His heart swelled with love for this family, and his gratitude for what they’d done for him was immeasurable.

There were a few who tried to soften their prying, or their guilt, by asking how his father was doing. In a town this small, they had undoubtedly known about his father’s condition, so Alex usually answered with the truth; his father was dead from what had been ruled an overdose that had in all likelihood been a suicide. But he did always thank them politely for asking, because he’d learned manners with Ally Faraday’s fingers pinching his ear, and he wasn’t about to forget them.

“He’s more than that.” Ally was back with a jar of mayonnaise and some mustard. Alex glanced up at her, then back at his turkey on wheat. Her fierce stare said she wasn’t having any nonsense. There was some Everett in her as well, or some Ally in Everett to be more accurate. Her hazel eyes were hidden behind oversized glasses right now, but when he’d first looked into them, they had seemed the kindest eyes he had ever seen. Over the years, he’d seen her furious and frightened, had seen her cry while holding her youngest son, but that initial impression of unearthly kindness had never left him.

“Oh right, he’s mister big-time poet now, isn’t he… a mystery but mine / in unrepentant thoughts / in held breath and wounded cries / never the slippery lines of you….” Molly was happy to play along. Alex tried to slouch back again, but there were too many bodies in his way. They pressed in, too hot, too close, and he looked toward the side door. He should have removed his sweater. It was out of place inside the warm kitchen, and black, as he always wore, lacked the proper Christmas spirit. He pulled up his sleeves, but stopped at the sight of the thick silver bracelets. He was the only man in the room wearing jewelry, if he didn’t count Ty’s earring, and with the longest hair, though it didn’t reach his shoulders. Black clothes or jewelry wouldn’t matter to these people, but they were the only people who mattered, so he pushed his hair behind his ears and sat up.

Ty straightened with a jerky nod and pointed, as if he had finally tagged Alex’s name to his reputation. Alex didn’t look at him, trying to minimize the damage by appealing to Ally when he saw her excited flutter.

“Ally, I beg of you, not the clippings.”

“I’ve saved all of them.” Ally was a juggernaut of smiles and scrapbooks, but with her hands full of condiments and sandwiches, at least she couldn’t sweep into the other room to collect her albums. “Don’t be silly, Alex. The book just keeps getting bigger. There’s so much more these days, reviews, essays. I’ve run through so much ink printing them out, even the negative ones. And you still haven’t signed the copies you sent me. I’m keeping a copy from every edition of everything, you know.”

The crowd was starting to spill into the living room now that they’d been offered food, but the noise didn’t diminish. Alex made himself take a moment to process every laugh, every smile and tiny, grubby hand closing over a sandwich, until it sank in that these external sounds were of happiness. Then he realized there were eyes on him. He met them, but it was not without effort.

One of the most painful things about finally being in his own mind was realizing just how much these people loved him and how much he had doubted that even into adulthood. He must have hurt them in ways he didn’t want to imagine, not that that had ever stopped his mind from trying to imagine it anyway. Nothing had ever stopped his mind but pills.

“I thought you looked familiar! I have your first book, and your picture was on the jacket. You looked different then.” Ty couldn’t contain himself. Alex had met fans before, but never in the Faraday kitchen. He glanced away and licked breadcrumbs from his lips.

“Yes, I was about your age then.” Ty was probably in his mid or late twenties; Alex didn’t really feel like asking which. “And I wore my hair shorter.” He would rather talk about his hair all day than anymore of his writing while in this kitchen under these sharp eyes, but Molly and her roommate weren’t having it.

“Now you’re such an old man?” Molly made a rude sound. “I guess there’s nothing for it but for you to quit the wild poet thing and settle down.” Her eyebrows went up. Alex had known her since she’d had braces, but he wasn’t above the urge to strangle her. There were hints in her eyes of things she was too young, even at almost twenty-seven, to know about.

“I’m not actually a poet.” Alex looked away. Molly could snort all she wanted, but it was true. Alex didn’t consider himself a poet at all. Most of his writing had been prose, often frantic or dense based on his state of mind at the time, it was true, but prose. The poems had been a distraction, a challenge to himself to release a wealth of unsaid words, and their popularity in a world that seemed to never read anymore remained a surprise to him.

“I loved that book.” Ty’s gaze grew hotter, his voice lower. “Then after the second one came out…. What did they call you in that really snarky interview at that one blog again, after you’d stopped answering all their questions about your sex life?”

“Nosy jerks.” From across the kitchen, Rachel stood firmly on his side, but her voice seemed distant. Alex dropped his gaze to the table. Without any more details, he knew exactly which interview Ty was referring to. It had been just after he’d been photographed a few times at events in the city, and they had posted the pictures alongside the interview; Alex with his jacket gone, his black hair once again in his face, wearing a loose shirt with the top buttons always undone, bracelets and rings visible because his sleeves were rolled up. They’d find him when he was holding a drink and had his reading glasses on, he assumed to make him look the part of a hedonistic writer.

On the blog, they’d paired those pictures with candid stills from his younger years that had made their way online. Without context, the pictures of him driving a borrowed sports car while naked, or fall-down drunk, or kissing men and women in fuzzy, out-of-focus moonlit streets made him seem devil-may-care, madcap, perhaps even romantic. The kissing pictures had been especially popular. The pictures of actual sex that had appeared later, even more so. He was finally healthier now, had a decent body and some strength to him, but then, living off little sleep and in constant motion, he’d been some people’s ideal, strong and thin and young, if shorter than he’d always wanted to be. Dark of hair and eye, prone to heavy jewelry and tight clothes when he’d worn them at all, they’d described him as having a wicked glint in his eyes and a burning energy only supplanted by a seductive intensity.

As Alex could barely remember driving that car and absolutely couldn’t recall the names of most of the people he’d been kissing or fucking, he had a hard time looking at those pictures without flinching. Even now he felt sick to think of them. As for the seductive glint in his eyes, he thought he seemed lost, his gaze always off-center, always peering into the distance. There was nothing wicked about it, at least not to him. But he took another drink against all doctors’ advice and smiled anyway as he answered the way he answered all questions about his past or his love life.

“I can’t recall.”

They hadn’t liked that, anymore than they’d liked his attitude when the questions had turned to the subject of his poems. Ty didn’t like to hear it now.

“Sexy Lexy,” Molly burst out, sharing that stupid nickname with the kitchen at large. “Subtitled: Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know. It was incredible!”

“Incredible,” Alex repeated dryly, and George uncomfortably resettled at his side, the frown he shared with his son very much in evidence.

“It was bullshit is what it was,” Everett called out from too far away, and Alex closed his eyes at the sweeping wildfires under his skin and the cold hollow in his gut.

“Little ears!” Rachel shouted. Alex opened his eyes in time to see her sweeping her brother into a hug despite her protests about his language. Alex adored Rachel, her steady gaze, her self-assurance, but his stare bypassed her and went straight to Everett as though Rachel momentarily did not exist.

As his gaze flew to Everett, every atom of his only-too-mortal body wanted to do the same. He was alight and could only vaguely wonder that others could not see the glow. It seemed reflected at a distance, as though Everett burned from within as he turned, and for a second, their eyes met.

Alex couldn’t even fault himself for staring. Everett commanded attention, not that he seemed to expect it. He ducked his head at eyes on him and showed no sign that he was aware of his attractiveness. Perhaps he wasn’t. He was tall and built like an athlete, but the charm in his face came from something inside of him rather than his individual features.

Alex had been called handsome, even beautiful, but it was Everett he’d never been able to stop watching, with his short hair and slightly big ears, his curving mouth, and those wide hazel eyes that always had faint shadows under them, as though his nights were not easy. He had on a winter coat and a scarf over a dark purple knitted sweater that looked like a present from last year that he was wearing to let someone know how much he’d loved it. His ears were red from the cold, and he was shivering a little, but he dropped everything he was holding to squeeze his sister and say something to her that made her laugh.

Everett, who had never lacked boyfriends since college, though they had never lasted long. Everett, who had kept mysteries from him.

His mother ran over to Everett for her share of his embrace, demanding to know why he hadn’t driven down with Alex and getting an answer about work that was probably at least a partial truth, though it did not satisfy Ally. But she was quickly followed by some of the children and had no chance to press the question.

The last time Alex had seen Everett in person had been months ago at his birthday dinner in the city, safely surrounded by others so he could stick to the promise he’d made to himself, but Everett looked the same as he had then, as he usually did, tired from his work but happy. He hadn’t smiled as he’d blown out the candles on his cake, so many more than there used to be, but he had locked gazes with Alex as though he had caught him counting.

Or perhaps, Alex’s traitorous, hungry mind had whispered, Everett had been counting too.

Just as he had then, Everett raised his head with no warning, finally looking over to Alex while swinging around a delighted toddler, and when he grinned, Alex pushed away the whiskey so he could stand up.

He was as young as those children for a moment, impatient and irritable, and then George forced his daughter to move, and he was free. Everett left his bags on the floor to come over to meet him, and the raw panic that took over Alex’s body was something no amount of salts or liquors could ever deaden, though for a moment he nearly wished they could. He exhaled shakily into the collar of Everett’s thick coat and could barely remember to keep the touch light, his mind was so full of thoughts of Everett, the burning chill of the skin of his face, the scent of aftershave by his mouth, the held breath that Everett only released as Alex came closer. His arms locked tight around Alex, holding him up when his knees almost failed him.

Alex’s lips moved, but no sound emerged. He tried to pat Everett on the back, aware that others could be watching, but Everett didn’t bother with any pretense that he wasn’t happy to see him again. He wrapped his arms around Alex and crushed their bodies together, then sent Alex’s pulse racing with one gentle, chiding whisper into his ear before he let go.

“Hey, stranger, how’ve you been?” The question echoed among Alex’s swirling, delirious thoughts while Everett turned away to kiss his sister’s cheek and embrace his father and meet Ty. Alex had the suspicion that he’d been set up by the very public question; Everett only played a saint on weekdays, and he was annoyingly mischievous when he chose to be. When Everett turned back to him, Alex had recovered enough to control his expression, though not enough to stop his gaze from sweeping over Everett’s face. “We live in the same city, but I never see you.”

Everett, the clever angel, spoke just loud enough for his mother to hear.

“What do you mean?” Ally was frowning now, concerned, and Everett turned back to him. He had one eyebrow up, but on him the expression was more concerned than arch. Alex looked him over again, noticing how carefully he was being studied in return and trying not to react externally, though his heart he could do nothing about. Everett was probably searching for signs of trouble, and Alex was very proud of the fact that he wouldn’t find any. He couldn’t expect Everett to take care of him forever. Everett deserved a life of his own.

But Ally didn’t know about his deal with himself, the strangled proposition he’d put to Everett last Christmas, standing in dirty city snow outside Everett’s apartment and trying to be a man and let Everett go.

“It’s okay. He can’t help being successful and busy.” After a moment, Everett’s lips curved sideways, the smile uncertain but forgiving. There was still tightness at the corners of his eyes that spoke of hurt, and Alex leaned in again automatically to keep the knitted pattern of Everett’s sweater on his palms. He held on to it fiercely, feeling Everett’s heartbeat and the heat radiating from him without actually touching him.

“Everett.” He recovered his voice, if not the sarcastic tone that amused his students and irritated interviewers. His face felt hot, his movements clumsy. He realized he was still holding on to Everett and pulled his hands back, then wasn’t certain what to do with them. Racing thoughts had never allowed this much doubt, and he had admitted years ago while in therapy that that might have been one of the reasons he had welcomed them so strongly at first. If it wasn’t for the agony that came later, he might still have called them friend.

“I’ve been….” He struggled to explain and then gave up when Everett’s smile didn’t change. “Fuck,” he swore quietly, but Rachel yelled again.

“Working hard, I know.” Everett pulled his scarf off and stuffed it into his coat pocket. He offered another grin to his mother to calm her down as though he wasn’t the one who had riled her up. “It’s the only reason I know not to worry. He’s been sending me bits of his new work.” Bits and pieces sent without comment, because Alex had had a vow to keep, but wouldn’t worry Everett for the world. Everett turned back to Alex. “Your writing has always been your salvation.”

“That’s not completely true.” Alex’s tongue came unglued from the roof of his mouth at last and let him drawl the words. “I also have a strict regimen of medications.” And a family kind to him despite the trouble he’d brought them, and Everett himself, there to beat down doors when he had to and hold his hand when that wasn’t necessary.

The startled revelation on Ty’s face wasn’t something Alex wanted to deal with at the moment, so he ignored it. Everett chuckled.

“Anyway I thought you had too much going on to miss me. Coaxing donations for the center from the rich and well-meaning,” Alex explained to those others watching.

Everett helped run a non-profit center for homeless and troubled teenage boys in the city that had become something of a destination for troubled gay teens especially. He was, as he had always been, determined and capable and smart and trusted by children who hadn’t known how to trust until they met him. He was all those things and more, but charming rich adults out of their money was not his forte.

He had tricks up his knitted purple sleeves, but with matters close to his heart Everett was far too direct for politicking and ass-kissing. Alex could go mysterious and choose to ignore certain questions. Everett would mouth off, stupidly defiant even when outnumbered by homophobic jocks or ignorant fundraisers, and with no one around to defend him tended to end up either bloody and beaten or broke.

Everett immediately looked rueful and scratched the back of his neck. His skin was still flushed, his cheeks and ears red from the cold outside.

“They keep cutting our funding, and the money has to come from somewhere,” he muttered miserably.

“Maybe you need a celebrity to do it for you?” George suggested, and Everett shot his father a fierce look before glancing at Alex, who stopped in mid-protest at the word “celebrity” when Everett wet his lower lip with just the tip of his tongue.

“Everett, you know you just need to ask me.” Alex didn’t think anyone noticed that he wasn’t moving away. Everett certainly didn’t seem to, and Everett had been watching him closely for years. “I don’t know how much of a help I’d be, but old-money society loves a charming rogue, doesn’t it?” It was a surprise that Everett hadn’t already asked. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for the center. Everett rubbed at his neck again.

“I know you’ve been… focused on something else. I wouldn’t want to bother you,” he announced slowly, as though measuring his words, and even realizing that Everett didn’t want Alex to play that role anymore if he didn’t want to, it still stung.

“What kind of thing is that for you to say to me?” Alex demanded softly, his chin coming up. “Of course I’d help you. What wouldn’t I do for you, Everett?”

He hadn’t realized Everett had been uncertain about that until Everett’s shoulders dropped. There was silence, too much of it, and then Everett’s hazel eyes met his again. Alex let himself momentarily forget everything else.

“Then I’ll hold you to that,” Everett agreed, nodding firmly, and immediately, foolishly, Alex took a step back as old doubts reared up. He was, he reminded himself, too old for childish fears, but knowing that did not make them any less real.

He wasn’t backing out, but Everett might change his mind. As Ty had needlessly reminded him, Alex had a considerable reputation problem, and more than that, Everett had little reason to want him. “That is, if you really want me around your center again.”

“You know the boys loved your last visit.” Everett’s expression was as warm as the hand still on his arm.

Alex shrugged, and whatever was in his face made Everett’s smile grow so wide it nearly split his face. Alex gave up the struggle he hadn’t wanted to win and smiled back at him. There were shadows under Everett’s eyes, shadows that Alex had not put there, but if he dared, he might banish them.

“I thought you’d be angry about that.” He’d gone there at Everett’s request, but on a day when Everett would be gone, and done a reading from his first book, and then one poem. He’d answered questions afterward. Everett had told him to be honest, so he had been. The supervisor there at the time had been none too pleased, but Alex had found their questions far more original than the stuff of gossipy websites and literary journals.

“Are you kidding?” Everett gave a snort that was positively gleeful, though he must have gotten an earful from that offended supervisor too. “They loved you. You didn’t try to bullshit them the way most people do.”

“I’m serious, Everett.” Rachel’s voice cut between them and made Everett look away though his obvious good humor stayed in place even through his apology. His gaze came back to Alex almost immediately.

“It was exactly what I expected from you. You told them that life will be difficult and even with hard work nothing is promised, so you have to find what works for you and at least be happy with that.”

“Did I?” Alex asked blankly, though he’d been focused for a few years now, and he remembered very well what he’d said. Everett made a “tut” sound.

“They told me all about it, and I was incredibly proud of you. They were impressed to know I was close friends with a published writer. So was I, but when haven’t we all been in awe of you, just a little bit?”

Someone let out a startled noise. It was louder than Everett’s quiet sincerity, and Alex twitched and looked around, surprised to notice that conversations were again flowing around them. No one else seemed to be paying any attention to them and their whispered, intense words except Ty, who was watching with unabashed curiosity.

Alex narrowed his eyes, but couldn’t summon the kind of anger that had used to mean bruised knuckles and black eyes. Even if he’d felt it, that rage had no place in this house, especially not now. It was Christmas, and Everett Faraday was sharing a smile with him.

His throat tightened. Those people invested in his reputation for dark wit could go fuck themselves. With one compliment Everett had him speechless.

Everett squeezed his shoulder and then leaned in again, for a hug or so Alex thought, until there was the faintest brush of lips against his cheek and then his ear. It could have been an accident, Everett misjudging the amount of space between them because he was speaking. Accident or not, Alex could no longer focus on anything else but the place where Everett’s lips had been and Everett’s voice, rumbling through him.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Everett murmured, squeezing him again to give the words a new weight, as though anything short of commitment papers could have kept Alex from this house. It was Christmas at the Faradays, and Alex had waited a year for this. More, but he couldn’t count those now with his skin wet and Everett’s hopes so near. He could not even open his mouth to give his answer. He only shivered and did not move. After another pause, Everett released him and slowly stepped back to go get his things. Alex raised a hand.

“Everett.” Alex had held the words back so long they refused to come out as they should. It was Everett’s mother who turned.

“Forget those, Everett. I am going to need some things from the store. You and Alex can go together.” A juggernaut of surprises and her son’s sneaky tricks. “Take our car.” Alex was twisting to face her before he could think better of it.

“Ally, it’s freezing outside.” He hated the cold. He’d hated it his whole life, and he was only more sensitive to it now.

“Mom, I just got here,” Everett complained at the same time. Ally did not seem impressed with either excuse. Minutes later they were both bundled up again and out the door with a list in hand. Everett gave him a chagrined look that said it all.

Christmas. It meant many things, the least of which was being under the Faraday roof and Ally’s unquestioned jurisdiction. The other things, tradition, closeness, an impatient longing for presents, though they each already knew or could guess what was waiting for them under the tree, were bigger.

Three days, Alex’s mind reminded him, as though his body was not poised to leap, and his heart was not in his mouth as he considered this Christmas, and the wanting and not having that was love, and desire, and despair.

But Everett’s smile was excited as they headed out, and the fresh air put a youthful shine in his cheeks. Alex had a feeling there was a similar expression on his face, even with the cold.

I Heard Him Exclaim
Rudolph, the red-nosed '69 Super Bee Six Pack ate up the tarmac after Barstow. If Steve hadn't been driving like a bat out of hell, he might have enjoyed it more. He missed lazing around when the weather cooled down in the winter, when the sporadic yet drenching California rain made it harder to get jobs. When the wind blew from the north and the light slanted in through his kitchen window at its lowest angle, it was time to drag out the furry suit and play Santa.

Something in the crisp air gave him the holiday urge—a combination of energy, enthusiasm and lack of self-control peculiar to the men of his family. His father and brothers already had the light wars going. Even his sister, who could usually be counted on to keep a level head all the way through Valentine's Day, had baked so much that delicious smells emanated from her house and surrounded it like scented magic.

It was a lousy time to be feeling sorry for himself but he was, damn it.

He missed smoking.

It wasn't as if he ever smoked in his little red honey car, but he missed having the pack in his pocket, missed the sure and certain knowledge that it was there, waiting for him to hit the rest stop before Zzyzx and Baker. He still held his Zippo in his right hand and drove with his left while he flipped the lighter's lid open and closed, rhythmically, to the music on the car's scratchy original AM radio. The Mad Greek would be another big hurdle. Usually he chowed down on a gyro or two, fat with greasy mystery meat and dripping with that creamy white sauce he couldn't pronounce.

Not happening anymore, 'cause he was newly trim, down to a lean 190 pounds on his six-foot-four-inch frame. He was now defined by good habits and clean living and muscles he hadn't known were there before they put the stent—and the fear of God—into his heart the previous January.

So this year, Monrovia's best-loved Santa was heading out of town.

Vegas, baby.

'Cause if anything in the world could soothe a man who'd lost his holiday cheer, it was the garish excesses of the one place on Earth that could afford to blow a billion bucks on a seasonal display that sucked the joy right out of the season itself.

Merry. Fucking. Christmas.

Cha-ching.

Vegas wasn't the worst place for a dysfunctional man to go for the holidays. He could watch a couple of the shows and wallow in the absurdity of being an out-of-character Santa at Christmastime. And if he was in Vegas he wouldn't have to think about all the people he was letting down this year.

Especially, he wouldn't have to think about them.

Hell, he might be able to find some company for an evening or two. A like-minded holiday escapee maybe. A man who didn't mind a slightly scrawny bear. Or possibly he'd even score himself a fuzzy little bear cub with a glint in his eye for the weekend. Someone who hadn't had his twinkle surgically removed by a cardiologist.

That could rev up Rudolph's specially rebuilt six-pack engine.

A Christmas Boyfriend
Jason frowned. "So you're not looking for anything lasting?"

"I'm looking. I just don't want to set myself up for disappointment." Ben eyed him accusingly. "I mean, look at you. You wanted nothing to do with me."

"What? When?" Jason asked, dismayed.

"When I asked you if you were volunteering to be my love life, you scoffed and sneered at the idea," Ben reminded him. He didn't hide that he was still holding a grudge about that.

"I didn't scoff and sneer. You were a parent of one of my students. I couldn't get involved with you, plus I heard your list," Jason said the last part with a hint of bitterness. "I got the impression that you wouldn't want to date a lowly preschool teacher."

Ben was going to deny that, but their food arrived. Once their dinner was in front of them, he told Jason, "Maybe don't take a four-year-old's word about what I want in a guy."

"Maya was quoting you," Jason said as he took a forkful of his crispy beef.

"Was she?" Ben was skeptical of that.

"Kind of," Jason said, pretty much admitting that her quote wasn't very accurate. "But I figured there had to be some truth in it."

Ben gave Jason a wry look. "Is that why you were teasing me so mercilessly?"

"I thought you didn't want me. I had to let you have it a little."

Ben took a drink of his water. "I did have my fingers crossed that Maya would get me a jet setting billionaire. I wouldn't have turned down a multimillionaire. But a preschool teacher was a close third." Actually, right now Ben couldn't imagine anyone he would rather have sitting across from him.

Jason's dark brown eyes were teasing but kind. With Ben staring at him so intently, Jason looked away. Now Ben could admire his sharp jaw line and the enticing shape of his mouth. Looking back at him, Jason squirmed a little and cleared his throat. As he reached for his water, Ben measured the easy pressure of his long fingers wrapped around the glass. When Jason brought the glass to his mouth, Ben held his breath. He watched his lips part and his throat work as he swallowed.

"Next you'll be groping me under the table," Jason mumbled as he set his glass down.

"Keep looking so shy and sexy and I just might."

"Who's shy?" Jason said defensively and gave him a challenging glare.

"Damn, those eyes of yours are gorgeous," Ben told him.

"Only one of us has irresistible blue eyes and it's not me."

Ben wasn't going to let him turn this around on him. "I could stare at you all night," he told Jason as he leaned in across the table. "If we were anywhere else, I would show you what you've done to me. Here, I can only look at you and tell you."

"You're something else," Jason told him with a shake of his head. "My ego took some bruising recently. Take it easy on me."

"For a bruised ego, I think this is just what you need."

Jason didn't deny that. "I might need it and want it, but I don't know if I can handle it," he said. "I don't think anyone has ever burned me up with their eyes the way you're doing."

Author Bios:
Therese Woodson
Therese Woodson is a wife, mother of two, and writer of stories, who lives in the mountains of North Carolina. She is an avid reader of all literature. She holds two degrees—one in Psychology and one in English Literature and hopes to pursue an MFA in Creative Writing in the near future. She is a fan of watching bad television shows, superhero movies, and anything sci-fi. She loves creating interesting characters, universes, and plots with happy endings.

R Cooper
I write strange but shiny things, like steampunk spies and detectives, and pirates, and cowboys, and dragons, and fairies, firebirds, and, well honestly, even my stories set in the here and now are a little broken and weird too. Because I am a messed up weirdo and that's who I like to write about.

I fall in love with my characters when I'm writing them, so I have a lot of self-written fanfiction about them that uh...I really have no excuse for, but oh my god how cute are they?

You can find all that and a lot more at my livejournal. (Which is, incidentally, where I am originally writing the blog posts that repost over here at Goodreads.)

Feel free to friend me on Facebook, or Tumblr (which is where I spend most of my time.)

ZA Maxfield
Z.A. Maxfield is a fifth-generation native of Los Angeles, although she now lives in the O.C. She started writing in 2007 on a dare from her children and never looked back. Pathologically disorganized and perennially optimistic, she writes as much as she can, reads as much as she dares, and enjoys her time with family and friends. If anyone asks her how a wife and mother of four manages to find time for a writing career, she’ll answer, “It’s amazing what you can do if you completely give up housework.”

Debbie McGowan
Debbie McGowan is an author and publisher based in a semi-rural corner of Lancashire, England. She writes character-driven fiction, covering life, love, relationships - the whole shazam. A working class girl, she ‘ran away’ to London at 17, was homeless, unemployed and then homeless again, interspersed with animal rights activism (all legal, honest ;)) and volunteer work as a mental health advocate. At 25, she went back to college to study social science - tough with two toddlers, but they had a ‘stay at home’ dad, so it worked itself out. These days, the toddlers are young women (much to their chagrin), and Debbie teaches undergraduate students, writes novels and runs an independent publishing company, occasionally grabbing an hour of sleep where she can!



Therese Woodson
TWITTER  /  BLOG  /  KOBO
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EMAIL: writer.reese@gmail.com

R Cooper
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EMAIL: riscoops@gmail.com

ZA Maxfield
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KOBO  /  iTUNES  /  CARINA PRESS
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Trina Solet
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Debbie McGowan
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The Trouble with Elves
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A Wealth of Unsaid Words
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I Heard Him Exclaim
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A Christmas Boyfriend
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Checking Him Out: For the Holidays
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