Saturday, December 9, 2017

Saturday's Series Spotlight: Minnesota Christmas by Heidi Cullinan

Let it Snow #1
The weather outside is frightful, but this Minnesota northwoods cabin is getting pretty hot.

Stylist Frankie Blackburn never meant to get lost in Logan, Minnesota, but his malfunctioning GPS felt otherwise, and a record-breaking snowfall ensures he won’t be heading back to Minneapolis anytime soon. Being rescued by three sexy lumberjacks is fine as a fantasy, but in reality the biggest of the bears is awfully cranky and seems ready to gobble Frankie right up.

Marcus Gardner wasn’t always a lumberjack—once a high-powered Minneapolis lawyer, he’s come home to Logan to lick his wounds, not play with a sassy city twink who might as well have stepped directly out of his past. But as the northwinds blow and guards come down, Frankie and Marcus find they have a lot more in common than they don’t. Could the man who won’t live in the country and the man who won’t go back to the city truly find a home together? Because the longer it snows, the deeper they fall in love, and all they want for Christmas is each other.

Sleigh Ride #2
The way to a man’s heart is on a sleigh.

Arthur Anderson doesn’t want anything to do with love and romance, and he certainly doesn’t want to play Santa in his mother’s library fundraising scheme. He knows full well what she really wants is to hook him up with the town’s lanky, prissy librarian.

It’s clear Gabriel Higgins doesn’t want him, either—as a Santa, as a boyfriend, as anyone at all. But when Arthur’s efforts to wiggle out of the fundraiser lead to getting to know the man behind the story-time idol, he can’t help but be charmed. The least he can do is be neighborly and help Gabriel find a few local friends.

As their fiery arguments strike hotter sparks, two men who insist they don’t date wind up doing an awful lot of dating. And it looks like the sleigh they both tried not to board could send them jingling all the way to happily ever after.

Warning: Contains a feisty librarian, a boorish bear, small town politics, deer sausage, and a boy who wants a doll. 

Winter Wonderland #3
Finding Mr. Right can be a snow lot of fun.

Paul Jansen was the only one of his friends who wanted a relationship. Naturally, he’s the last single man standing. No gay man within a fifty-mile radius wants more than casual sex.
No one, that is, except too-young, too-twinky Kyle Parks, who sends him suggestive texts and leaves X-rated snow sculptures on his front porch.

Kyle is tired of being the town’s resident Peter Pan. He’s twenty-five, not ten, and despite his effeminate appearance, he’s nothing but the boss in bed. He’s loved Paul since forever, and this Christmas, since they’re both working on the Winter Wonderland festival, he might finally get his chance for a holiday romance.

But Paul comes with baggage. His ultra-conservative family wants him paired up with a woman, not a man with Logan’s rainbow connection. When their anti-LGBT crusade spills beyond managing Paul’s love life and threatens the holiday festival, Kyle and Paul must fight for everyone’s happily ever after, including their own.

Warning: Contains erotic snow art, toppy twinks, and super-sweet holiday moments. Best savored with a mug of hot chocolate with a dash of spice.

Santa Baby #4
Trimming the tree is more fun with three.

Twin Cities developer Dale Davidson has come to Logan, Minnesota, to turn it into Christmas Town, not to give in to Arthur Anderson’s offer to join him and his fiancé, Gabriel Higgins, for a Christmas Eve threesome. Dale is polyamorous, but it’s clear Arthur is offering a night of fun and nothing more. Maybe one night with the couple he admires so much won’t hurt…

Together the three of them light a fire hot enough to boil Lake Superior in January, and one night of fun becomes an extended engagement as Dale puts down some tentative roots in his new hometown. Everyone loves Dale, Logan’s own Santa Claus, and somehow no one knows what wild times are happening right underneath their noses. No one knows, either, the complicated ways they’re falling in love with one another.

But a shadow from Dale’s past emerges, an abuser threatening him with violence and shame. Ronny doesn’t want a happy ever after for Dale, only to draw him back into a consuming darkness. It will take the love of not only Gabriel and Arthur but all of Logan to convince their Santa he has nothing to be ashamed of—and that he will always have a home in their hearts.

Let it Snow #1
Original Review December 2014:
I'll admit I never really gave much thought to the "bear" character before.  I like a little scruff but full-on bear never really appealed to me but this was recommended to me by a couple of ladies who's opinion I highly respect.  I'm glad I listened and read because I loved these boys!  It showed me that I had a preconceived idea of the definition of "bear" and I was wrong.  You can't help but love poor lost Frankie and Arthur and Paul are definitely friendly and accepting.  Marcus on the other hand is very gruff and standoffish, which only makes his connection to Frankie that much sweeter.

Born and raised in Wisconsin only minutes from the Minnesota border only added to my love of the story and the setting.  I had a healthy respect for the weather scenario the boys found them in and for me that just gave me a more "personal" connection that drew me in even deeper.

Sleigh Ride #2
Original Review December 2014:
When I finished Let It Snow, I immediately started Sleigh Ride.  Often what happens for me when reading a series that centers on a different pairing with each book, I have a hard time connecting with the new couple because I just am no ready to let go of the first.  No surprise, that happened here as well.  So it took me a few chapters to really get into the book but once I did, I really couldn't stop.  Arthur really came around once he met Gabriel.  Perhaps "came around" isn't really the best description, but I think "grown" isn't really accurate so I'll stick with "came around".  He wasn't looking for a relationship but his mom was determined to find him some happiness that she was sure he was lacking.  I loved her not-so-subtle matchmaking for both Arthur and the librarian, Gabriel.  I guess a case of "mother knows best" is proven right again.  There is some moderate D/s relationship between Arthur and Gabe but it's not at the center of the story.

I've never read this author before but I certainly will be checking out her other works and I can't wait to read Paul's story down the road.

Winter Wonderland #3
Original Review November 2015:
I want to start by saying I loved how on the surface Paul and Kyle are the perfect bear and twink stereotype but underneath the author has tweaked them just enough so that they are anything but society's often preconceived stereotypical bear/twink couple.  Add in the wrapping of local flare and I was in reader heaven.  I have never been to the North Woods of Minnesota but being from Western Wisconsin only minutes from the Minnesota border I enjoyed the local references but even more so I appreciated the respect for the harsh winter weather that is displayed in this series.  There is a fine line between just another snow storm, the need to carry survival gear in the trunk of your car, and enjoying the holiday.  Don't even get me started on Paul's family but the warmness of Kyle's more than makes up for it.  Throw in the carefree friendships, hearts, and love between the three couples, Marcus & Frankie, Arthur & Gabriel, and Paul & Kyle, at the center of this trilogy and you have a beautiful addition to your holiday reading.

Santa Baby #4
Original Review December 2016:
I just love the boys of Logan and they're back in full force with this year's Heidi Cullinan holiday treat, and it's just that: a treat of mega proportions!  But Santa Baby is a little different than the first three in the Minnesota Christmas series.  I've read threesomes, I've even read foursomes before some of which have led to poly relationships but never before has an author explained the nature of a true polyamory family as well as Miss Cullinan and she's done so without it coming across as a school lesson.  Arthur and Gabe, who we first came to know in book 2 Sleigh Ride, are back and very much in love but when Dale enters the scene, things should become complicated and jealous but they don't.  Oh, there are moments of awkwardness, what kind of a story would it be if everything was smooth sailing from page one?

Personally, I don't think I could manage a successful poly relationship, I like sharing my things but I don't think I'd be any good at sharing my love, not like that.  Perhaps that's why I'm so intrigued to read stories that have that kind of dynamic, especially when the tale is as well writen as Santa Baby.

Whether you like polyamory, threesomes, or just a well scripted love story, I highly recommend reading Santa Baby.  Do you need to read the series in order? I recommend doing so but as each story is centered around a different couple, it's not really mandatory but I find it flows better in order but you really do need to read Sleigh Ride before Santa Baby since they both are about Arthur and Gabe.  I haven't re-read these stories yet but I look forward to doing so as the Wisconsin weather gets colder, they'll definitely keep you warm on the long winter nights.


Let it Snow #1
Somehow, despite a brand-new GPS and strict oral directions from his father, Frankie Blackburn had managed to get himself lost. Because there was no way, despite what the GPS insisted, the left turn down yet another winding, tree-lined road would get him back to Minneapolis. The fact that he’d gotten himself lost in the middle of nowhere as a blizzard swelled around him was simply icing on the cake.

Squinting, Frankie fussed with the view screen, but in deference to the now-steady veil of snow coming down he looked away from the road as little as possible. The snow had been his first clue something was wrong. He’d checked the radar before leaving his parents’ house in Duluth. While they were due to get six to twelve inches by morning, half an hour’s drive south should have taken Frankie out of the trouble rather than deeper in. As the ground around him already sported well over three inches and was gaining additional snow cover fast, clearly he’d done something wrong.

Way to go, Frankie. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel and tried to ignore the fear clawing at his stomach. It was moments like this he could see the attraction of smoking, because if nothing else, it would force him to take deep breaths. Josh, one of his roommates, used to smoke. He’d always said the buzz was fantastic, that it made his mind expand and calmed him right down no matter how stressed out he got. Frankie could totally go with some mind expansion and calm right now.

Of course, he didn’t dare take his hands off the wheel, so how he would manage a cigarette without crashing the car or burning himself, he didn’t know.

What Frankie really needed was to stop the car, make some phone calls and ask for directions. The trouble was he couldn’t find anywhere decent to pull over. Awhile back there had been a roadside bar, but it all but screamed, Hey, gay boy, get over here and let us rough you up a bit, so Frankie decided to opt for safer ground. Except this was northern Minnesota, the backwoods of the backwoods, and a safe haven for a guy like Frankie was even more ephemeral than Santa Claus. Nobody had ever looked at Frankie and thought anything but that he was gay. A few times in high school he’d wondered if he were gay by suggestion, but then he’d had his first taste of c**k and knew t*ts and pu**y were never going to be his thing, so he simply appreciated the heads-up.

Since it hadn’t been a very pleasant heads-up, and since he’d done his coming of age in one of Minnesota’s southern small towns, he knew better than to try his luck in this place. Whatever this town was, it was officially Not For Frankie. Proceed with caution.

The problem was civilization of any kind up here was hard to come by. It had been fifteen minutes since the roadside bar, and all Frankie had passed since then had been four unplowed driveways. At this point all he wanted to do was turn around or call his mom and freak out, but, again, he didn’t want anything to distract him from the road because it was starting to get bad. Turning around assumed he knew how to go back the same way he’d come—he could just as easily end up in a different part of the backwoods.

There wasn’t anything for it. He had to stop somewhere. When he finally approached what looked like the fringes of a town, he made his way down Main Street until he saw the faint, faded glow of a sign that read Logan Café.

Frankie didn’t bother to scope it for redneck warning signals. He pulled straight into the parking lot in the back and killed the engine.

Huddled over the GPS view screen a few seconds later, he started to swear. He didn’t understand where the map said it was taking him to, just that his final destination landed him east of International Falls. No wonder it seemed like he was driving into the back end of nowhere. The back end of nowhere was a booming metropolis compared to his current location. He was in the only town for fifteen miles in all directions, hell and gone from any kind of interstate or even a decent highway. Frankie didn’t need radar to tell him he’d driven into the heart of one mother of a blizzard instead of toward the comforting lanes of I-35.

Calling his parents was a given now, but first he thought he should use the bathroom, splash some water on his face and get some honest-to-God human directions from one of the patrons inside.

The Logan Café was narrow, wide and old, clearly not just modeled from the days of diners but a direct descendant. The restaurant itself wasn’t that big, but it had plenty of seating, from the booths around the edges to the tables in the middle and the long counter in front of the beverage station and the window into the kitchen. The decor was mostly industrial white, though faded to a sad cream with age, especially on the linoleum floor. Some color could be found in the green vinyl cushions of the chairs, stools and booth seats, but this too was worn, patched with duct tape in more than one instance. The menu was listed in block plastic lettering on black signboards above the kitchen window, but both the board and the letters were aged as well, the letters yellowed and the black sign ghosted with the faint impressions of menus past.

The way everyone turned to look at Frankie as he jangled the bell above the door made him feel like he was in a spaghetti western. Every single face in the room was white, which when he’d grown up in Saint Peter hadn’t been unusual, but after the cornucopia of ethnicity that was metro Minneapolis, the lack of contrasting skin tone was the first thing Frankie noticed. The age range ran the gamut from old men and women to a few teenagers, but every one of them eyed Frankie as if he had just escaped from the zoo.

Cautioning himself not to court drama, Frankie ignored the stares and focused on shaking the snow from his body and his shoes as best he could before heading to the restroom. It was as grim and aged as everything else, the urinal and sink drains both sporting rusted stains in the porcelain, something that had creeped Frankie out ever since he’d been a kid. After hurrying through washing his hands, he returned to the main restaurant area and made himself smile at the matronly woman behind the counter. Patty, her name tag declared. Sitting in front of her, Frankie attempted to look less freaked out than he actually was.

“How can I help you?” she asked, her tone seeming to imply he sure needed a lot of it.

“Hi.” Frankie did his best to keep his smile in place and free from strain. “I’m a bit lost. I’m trying to get to I-35.”

Patty’s eyebrows reached up into her tightly permed hair, which was teased into a careful nest of flat, box-dyed auburn in front of her diner cap. “Honey, you’re hell and gone from Duluth.”

Don’t panic. Frankie pressed his hands against the countertop to keep them from shaking. “I know. My GPS malfunctioned, or I entered my destination wrong, and now I’m way, way off course. Do you have a map or something I could look at?” Remembering his manners, he added, “And if you have a mug of hot tea and a quick chicken or turkey sandwich, mustard, no mayo, that’d be great.”

Frankie felt her size him up, her gaze raking him, taking in his carefully styled hair, his fussy, modish clothing, his bright red Columbia ski coat that would never see a lift chair but sure looked fashionable—he watched her make a judgment about him, and he had to say, it likely wasn’t far off. He waited for her disdain and hoped she’d still give him a map along with it.

Disdain didn’t come, though she did shake her head and put an empty cup in front of him. “Map’s in the back. I’ll get it for you while you wait for your order. Better make it to go, though. This storm isn’t going to mess around. Cherie’s knee is acting up something fierce, and she says we’re in for days and days of snow, by her reckoning.”

“Thank you,” Frankie replied, and tried not to panic.

The waitress put a Lipton tea bag in his cup and poured hot water from a pot over the top of it as she spoke. “You from the Cities then?”

“Yes, though my parents live in Duluth. They just moved there from Saint Peter.”

The woman’s face brightened. “Say. That’s just south of the Cities, right? Has a college? I think Lacey Peterson went there a few years back.”

“Gustavus Adolphus. My dad was a professor there, though he just took a position at the University of Minnesota at Duluth.”

“Pretty place, Duluth.” The woman wiped the counter in front of Frankie. “I was all set to get some of my Christmas shopping done there this weekend, but Cherie called in sick with the knee, and here I am.”

“Miller Hill was really busy.” Frankie remembered his trek to the mall escorting his mother the day before all too well. “You might be glad you waited.”

The woman smiled at Frankie. “Maybe so.” She nodded back to the kitchen. “I’ll see to your map and put your order in.”

Well, that hadn’t gone so badly. Frankie sipped his tea, focusing on the fact that he wasn’t driving in the wrong direction anymore and would soon have a map. He also pretended this wasn’t the worst cup of tea he’d ever had in his life, tasting like stale coffee and soap.

There weren’t many other customers in the café, but they all seemed to keep an eye on Frankie. The elderly couple at a nearby table didn’t bother him half as much as the trio of bulky, bearded men in deerstalkers in the booth near the bathrooms. They looked like they might have literally just come off a lumberjack gig, wearing industrial overalls, heavy plaid shirts and clunky steel-toed boots. The three bears, Frankie thought, trying to make light of the situation. It worked better than it had a right to, mostly because, yeah, were these guys gay, they’d be bears all right. They were even three variations on the theme: one was sandy-haired and slight, curling hair sticking out from beneath his cap, his beard subtler, suitable to a baby bear. The one who sat next to him had carrot-red hair and a guffaw of a laugh that went with his stocky body. Across from them, though, was definitely Papa Bear, a man who was big, dark and cranky.

Outside of a few suspicious glances, the three bears didn’t pay Frankie any particular kind of mind. Even so, he didn’t see any profit in hanging around and giving them a reason to get bored and decide to poke at the skinny guy from the city.

Patty reappeared with his map and his sandwich, and what little appetite Frankie might have been able to muster died when Patty illustrated via Rand McNally just how far Logan, Minnesota was from where Frankie was supposed to be. He felt stupid for not figuring it out sooner, but he’d thought that was the whole point of following a GPS, trusting the directions it gave. His dad had explained it to him, and Frankie had tried to program it correctly.

“They’re talking about closing roads just north of here.” Patty frowned, but the expression seemed more about concern than dismissal. “You’d best be careful.”

“If I can just get back to Duluth, I’ll stay at my parents’ place until it blows over. They ought to get the interstate open pretty quickly, I’d think.”

Patty nodded. “They’re supposed to get the least of it too, down in Duluth, and everything south of there should be fine. Of course, now there’s some storm pushing across western Iowa. If that swings north and the two meet up, things could get nasty fast.”

Frankie’s stomach hurt thinking about that. “I should call my boss and tell him I won’t be in tomorrow, and my mom to tell her to expect me.”

“Call your mom quick and save the boss for Duluth.” Patty nodded at the window. “It’s really coming down now.”

It certainly was. Frankie left a ten on the counter and gathered his sandwich, but Patty pushed the map toward him.

“Take it. And here.” She scrawled a number on the top of the legend. “That’s the café’s phone number. You get lost or stuck, you give a holler. I’ll be here all night. Heading for Highway 53 is your best bet—though if you get nervous, swing over to Eveleth. They have a Super 8.”

Riding out a days-long blizzard in a small-town hotel seemed worse than facing the drive back to Duluth, but Frankie nodded. “Thank you. I really appreciate it.”

“I just hope you have a blanket in that tiny little car of yours.” Patty frowned at the parking lot where Frankie’s green Festiva quietly drowned in flakes.

“I do, and a gallon of water, warm clothes, a scraper and even a shovel,” Frankie assured her. “I may come from southern Minnesota, but it’s still Minnesota.”

Patty nodded in approval and waved him on. “You get going then. Call me when you get wherever you land just so as I don’t dream about your dead body in a ditch somewhere.”

Her concern for him was touching, and this time Frankie’s smile was all genuine. “I will,” he promised and took up the map. “Thanks.”

“Get on then,” Patty said, her shooing motions getting urgent.

Sparing just a quick glance at the three bears to catch Papa Bear glaring at him, Frankie headed out into the storm. It took him five minutes to unbury the car, and while the engine heated, he picked at his sandwich as he studied the GPS. The food was a lot better than the tea, though eating was mostly just something to do while he girded his loins for his adventure. According to the map, he had to go back the way he came, take the first right at a major intersection ten miles south, and use the county road to go back over to the highway. That would take him straight back to Duluth and the warm comfort of his parents’ spare bedroom. Yes, his boss would be upset at his missing work, but better to have Robbie upset than to die in a ditch.

Giving up on his sandwich, he dug his phone out of his pocket and dialed his parents.

“Are you home already?” his mother asked. “How fast did you drive?”

“Actually, I’m not even close to home. I took a wrong turn, and I’m in Logan.”

“What? Why? Where’s Logan?”

“About an hour north of Duluth. I screwed up the GPS, and before I realized how badly I was lost, here I was.”

“Oh, honey.”

The weariness in her voice made Frankie’s gut twist. “Sorry, Mom.”

The phone muffled as Melinda put her hand over the receiver. “It’s Frankie. He’s lost an hour north of Duluth.” A pause, then, “What? What?” She unmuffled the phone, and when she spoke to Frankie next, her tone made her panic clear. “Sweetheart, your dad says there’s a terrible storm up there. Terrible.”

“Yeah, I kind of figured that one out.” Frankie glanced out the window at the snow, which seemed to be coming faster and faster. “Mom, I better go if I’m going to have any chance of making it back to your place tonight.”

“Sweetheart, no. Find a hotel and ride this out. I want you safe.”

“I don’t want to be stuck up here in Podunk, Minnesota. Oh my God, you should have seen these three crazy lumberjacks in the café where I stopped for directions. Anyway, there isn’t a hotel close to here as far as I can tell, unless I go west.”

“Franklin Nelson Blackburn, you get lost trying to find the bathroom in the middle of the night. I won’t have you driving in the snow.”

“Look, Mom, I gotta get going. I’ll call you once I get on the highway, okay?”

“Oh my God. Let me put your father on.”

“No. I’m hanging up. Please call the guys for me and let them know I’ll be staying with you.”

“Frankie,” she demanded, but he didn’t hear the rest because he’d hung up. For good measure, he turned the phone all the way off.

No way was he getting stranded here. No. Way.

The roads around Logan, Frankie discovered as he pulled out of the café parking lot, had worsened considerably while he’d been inside. Tall, narrow trees surrounded him on either side, a few evergreens but most of them northern hardwoods without leaves, making it seem like Frankie drove through a tree graveyard drowning in a blizzard. He could still see the pavement, but just barely, and several times he found he’d wandered into the left-hand lane because the snow had drifted the right side of the road shut.

Just get to the highway, he coaxed himself, and put on the Gregorian Christmas album his mother had given him. Get to the highway, get to your parents and never use GPS again.

As the monks sang serenely about Ave Maria, Frankie white-knuckled the steering wheel and tried not to get hypnotized by the falling snow. It felt very surreal, the music drifting around him as snow and darkness threatened to engulf him should he lose control of his car. The woods were pretty, even if they were in the middle of nowhere and full of backwater yokels and prejudiced “Christians” who voted against marriage equality and thought Twin City residents were yuppie snobs, so out of touch they hadn’t heard of hipsters.

The monks shifted to “Silent Night”, and Frankie thought of the three bears, especially surly Papa Bear. They were exactly the kind of guys that had given Frankie so much hell growing up. Funny, he’d been in Minneapolis for almost ten years, but ten minutes in that café had taken him right back to being fourteen and queasy while he got ready for gym. Saint Peter was slightly refined because of its proximity to the Cities and to Mankato, and also because of the college, but it had its share of rednecks too. Sometimes they seemed angrier and nastier because they had to live alongside what they considered uppity people, like Frankie and his family.

Frankie had taken piano and violin lessons, and until he’d been able to beg his mother to let him drop out, dance. It didn’t matter that Frankie had enjoyed those activities and that they’d been soothing and peaceful to him—Frankie never played baseball or dreamed of buying a killer car or went hunting with cousins, and that made him somehow a threat in the eyes of Saint Peter’s differently cultured. It didn’t matter that Frankie had a whole circle of friends, some of them even other boys, in his family’s social set. When it was Frankie versus the redneck boys, Frankie always lost.

Those three lumberjacks, no question, were more of the same. He bet none of them had sported Vote No car decals during the marriage amendment fight in 2012 or urged their representatives to help pass marriage equality. He’d put money too on them being the guys who had threatened to hold the heads of guys like Frankie over stunk-up toilets. They probably wrote FAG in black marker on the lockers of Frankie’s Logan, Minnesota spiritual brothers. They had every mark of small-town bully written on them, and Frankie was oh so glad to be leaving them behind.

Still, there wasn’t any denying that even in the snow the landscape was beautiful up here. When Frankie had been little, he’d dreamed of running away to a cabin up north, where everything would be quiet and quaint like Mayberry and everyone would like him for a change. Of course, then he’d grown up and realized the farther north he went the less it would be like Mayberry and the more it would turn into Deliverance. Still, that fantasy had never quite died, and especially with the lilting voices of the monks drifting around him, the scene made Frankie nostalgic, wishing a life like that truly could happen to a guy like him.

He stopped daydreaming and made himself focus on the road. Just a few more miles to the turnoff, he reminded himself, not sure if it was actually a few more miles or not. Soon, he amended. Soon you’ll be on the highway and scot-free.

That was when he saw the moose.

The animal came out of the brush just as the music swelled to a dramatic, hopeful climax. Frankie couldn’t make it out at first, but as soon as he did, the only thought he had time for was that he was screwed. The moose was bigger than a cow, dark and hairy and so full of antlers it was hard not to be hypnotized by them. Frankie shouted and braked, but he might as well have pushed on the accelerator. Turning its head to look at Frankie’s car, the moose didn’t so much as blink, let alone move.

Shouting again, Frankie swerved around the moose, caught the edge of a snowdrift and spun out.

Snow on snow, the monks sang as the Festiva sailed into the ditch and down into a shallow ravine, where the engine sputtered and died but the music played on, eerily upbeat as the snow came down faster and faster, the monks oblivious to Frankie’s doom.

Sleigh Ride #2
Chapter One
Everyone in Arthur Anderson’s life was fixated on happily-ever-after, and it was seriously pissing him off.

He was happy for his friend Marcus, now all but married to Frankie, the cute little hairdresser who had been stranded with them in a blizzard last year. Arthur had known since high school that Marcus’s grumpy exterior hid a soft and gooey center—the burly lumberjack-turned-lawyer longed for nothing more than someone to love. Frankie wanted to cut hair on Main Street while Marcus sat in on Chamber of Commerce meetings and ran a law office on the other side of Frankie’s shop. This was all fine, but their domestic bliss was giving everyone dangerous ideas. Now everyone thought Arthur should get lovey-dovey too.

The worst offender was Arthur’s mother, who after fifteen years of letting Arthur’s love life be his own business, now routinely asked him when he would be making an honest man of Paul, Arthur’s other best friend. Paul wasn’t Arthur’s boyfriend, never had been. Paul and Arthur lived and slept together, but they weren’t dating, and they saw other guys. Sometimes they saw them at the same time. Every so often Paul decided he had a boyfriend and slept on the couch instead of next to Arthur in the loft, but that never lasted for more than a week. The arrangement suited Arthur fine, and he figured it would continue until he was too old to get it up anymore.

Except now Marcus and Frankie were together, and somehow that meant everything changed. Marcus had only lived with Paul and Arthur a little while before moving out to be with Frankie, but within two months of Marcus’s departure, Paul started dropping hints he and Arthur should be officially a couple too. As the year wore on, those hints became outright statements, and after seven months of watching Marcus and Frankie play house, Paul threw down an ultimatum. Arthur would stop seeing other people and go on the record as officially dating Paul, or Paul would leave.

Arthur dealt with this by ignoring the nonsense completely. Which meant by the first week in August, Paul started packing his bags.

Arthur got annoyed. “You want a boyfriend? Fine. We can stop f**king. You can go out with guys and still live here. We’ll build you a bedroom. I’ll install a lube dispenser above the headboard.”

“No, I can’t stay here. If I bring them to the cabin, you’ll scare them away or try to have a three-way.”

Arthur failed to see how this was a problem, but whatever. “So we won’t have three-ways. Problem solved.”

Paul wouldn’t budge. “I can’t date anyone else while I live with you. I have to move.”

This argument went on and on, until Paul found a duplex for rent on the south end of town and didn’t just talk about moving out or packing up boxes, he actually did it.

Arthur refused to help him, which meant he paced the edge of his property like a pouting child while Frankie and Marcus loaded up Paul’s things and took him away. Before they left, Marcus glowered at Arthur. “You’re being an idiot, and you’re hurting him.”

Folding his arms across his chest, Arthur stared across the grassy hayfield behind the tree line. “Yeah, well, it’s mutual.” He paused, frowning as he weighed whether or not his words made sense. “I mean, he’s an idiot too.”

“He still wants to be friends with you, but you’re making this all or nothing. Except it isn’t all or nothing. He’d marry you if you asked—”

Arthur made outraged noises through his nose.

“—except he knows he can’t even get an exclusive commitment out of you, let alone a house and kids. So he’s doing the smart thing and backing out before you hate each other.”

“I wouldn’t ever hate Paul.” He glared at Marcus. “And that’s a load of crap about him wanting a house and kids. I don’t buy for one second he asked for kids.”

Marcus looked Arthur dead in the eye. “No. But once upon a time, you did.”

Arthur turned away with a hiss. “Jesus. I was ten. I still pretended I could marry a girl.”

“Yes—because it was the only way you could get babies. You bragged all the time about how you were going to take your son hunting, teach him hockey. How you’d beat down anybody who treated your girl wrong.”

“Yeah, well, people change. I got Thomas and Brianna and baby Sue.”

“You’re deliberately missing the point. I’m telling you I don’t think, I know you want what he’s asking for, and more.”

“I don’t, and stop f**king talking about it.”

Marcus threw up his hands. “Frankie and I are going to go help move your best friend and try to cheer him up, because some asshole keeps breaking his heart and f**king up his head. You do whatever you need to do.”

Arthur winced but said nothing, didn’t move until he heard Marcus’s SUV and Paul’s car pull out of the drive. He went back to the house, which was lonely and still with Paul and all his things removed.

It really sucked. And as the days wore on into weeks, it didn’t suck any less.

With nothing else to do at the end of a workday, Arthur got in the habit of hanging out in his work shed and sorting junk, tackling his fix-it pile and the projects his mom had been after him to finish. He repaired a toaster and refinished the old dresser she’d used when she was a little girl. He repaired the dining room chairs too, even the one broken into six pieces, and on the first Sunday of September he dropped everything off at his parents’ house.

“Oh, Arthur, thank you.” Corrina Anderson kissed her son on the cheek and waved him inside with the first load of furniture. “Dinner’s almost ready.”

Big Tom glanced up with a nod over his glasses from his post by the window, where he sat reading the paper and sipping out of a mug with his grandchildren’s pictures on it. “Good to see you, son.”

Arthur set the chairs down. Laughter echoed in from the living room, where Arthur’s niece and nephew played. Thomas ran toy trucks up and down the carpet while his younger sister ran, giggling, in clumsy circles.

Becky sat in the rocker with the baby on her knee. “Hey,” she said wearily when Arthur entered the room.

Arthur leaned against the doorway. “How’s everything with you?”

“Same. No job, deadbeat ex not paying child support, out of unemployment and living with my parents.”

Arthur frowned. “The restaurant in Eveleth didn’t pan out?”

“They kept sticking me with evenings. I never got to see Thomas except to put him on the bus in the morning, and I never got to put him or Brianna to bed.”

Six-year-old Thomas looked up at Arthur with a bright smile. “Hi, Uncle Arthur.”

Arthur grinned and crouched beside him on the carpet. “Hey, sport. You gonna help me fix Grandma’s water heater?”

Thomas beamed at him and hurried to his feet. “I’ll get my toolbox.”

While Thomas pounded up the stairs and rooted through his closet, Arthur spun Brianna around until Becky yelled at him, at which point he went to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee and waited for Thomas.

His mom glanced at him from the stove as she stirred gravy. “Did I hear you say you were going to fix the water heater?”

Arthur nodded over the rim of his cup. “I think you need a new anode. Picked one up yesterday when I was in town.”

“Thank you, honey. You’re so helpful.” Her stirring took on a deliberation and focus, warning Arthur something unpleasant was coming. “I saw Paul at the market yesterday. You never told me he moved out. Did you two have a fight?”

Arthur pursed his lips and picked up his mug. “When Thomas comes down, tell him I’m in the basement.”

Corrina followed him down the stairs, still carrying her whisk. “You did have a fight. Oh, honey.”

Arthur stalked to the water heater and pulled the screwdriver from his back pocket so he could unfasten the access panel. “Mom, leave it alone.”

“Can you talk to him? You never communicate with him enough, you know. You’re always so distant.”

“Mom.” Arthur let out a heavy breath and clenched his fists at his sides. “I don’t want to talk about Paul.” God, if she started in about how he should have kids, he’d stick his head in a snowbank.

She didn’t talk about kids, but she sighed heavily, and he could all but hear her gears turning as she tried to figure out how to talk about Paul without talking about Paul. “I should check on my gravy, I suppose. Though that reminds me—can you look at my burner before you go? It’s fritzing again.”

She didn’t bring up Paul the rest of the day, Arthur and Thomas replaced the anode no problem, and they enjoyed a pleasant meal. He heard all about his mother’s prospects for a new job for Becky at a dentist’s office in Eveleth and Thomas’s upcoming school pageant. While Becky and Corrina did the dishes, Arthur fixed the burner, with more help from Thomas.

It felt good to be at the house, and Arthur started dropping by more frequently. It was nice to have a meal made for him, but there was also plenty that needed doing, and with his bum leg and arthritis, Big Tom couldn’t manage much. Becky needed someone not-Corrina to talk to, and Thomas needed a good male role model.

Never mind that Arthur hanging out with Frankie and Marcus had become politically tricky because of Paul.

One night after he and Thomas snaked the sewer line, Arthur got dinner and dessert, the pudding-and-ice-cream one his mom knew was his favorite. He’d thought it was his reward for an afternoon of hard work, but no. The pie was a lure, and as Arthur carried his empty dish to the kitchen, she sprang her trap.

“You know,” she said in a tone of voice that should have tipped him off right away, “I think the night nurse at the care center is single.”

Arthur froze with his dish halfway into the sink. “Mom, I’m not dating Kyle. I’m not dating anybody, because I don’t date.”

“What’s wrong with Kyle? He’s a sweet boy.”

“Boy, Mom. He’s what, nineteen?”

“I suppose that is a bit young for a forty-year-old.”

Arthur glowered. “I’m only thirty-nine.”

Corrina waved this away. “You’re forty in April.” She tapped the side of her cheek, clearly indexing the gay men she knew in a fifty-mile radius.

Arthur decided to cut this serpent off at the head. “Mom, don’t fix me up. I’m fine.”

“You’re certainly not fine. I saw Paul with two different men this week. He’s not coming back—and you’re not getting any younger.”


“What about that nice man who runs the bed-and-breakfast in Cloquet Valley? He’s gay, isn’t he?”

It went on and on like this the whole month of September, until when Arthur saw his mother coming up his drive, he braced himself for another onslaught of potential dates. There had been one horrible moment when he’d caught Corrina trying to log in to Grindr—heaven help Arthur if she’d actually found his profile. Though after the adolescence he’d put her through, he doubted anything could surprise her.

His mother playing yente was problematic, not only because Arthur didn’t want to date, but because he if he did date, he’d never go in for nice boys, which was always how Corrina introduced her prospective sons-in-law. There wasn’t any way to explain Arthur wanted a man, big and rough and raw. Some cuddling was nice, but only after some serious pounding and a lot of raunchy talk. Nice boys weren’t ever going to private message RedBear69 with a dirty pic. And until they did, Arthur had no time for them.

Corrina was undaunted by Arthur’s refusals. She started stopping by the cabin a lot, usually with Tupperware containers full of freezer meals, always with news of another prospective mate. The Monday before Halloween she was at Arthur’s place when he arrived home from work. She was putting a roast together on the counter, and she beamed at him as he came in. “Arthur, sweetheart, you’re home early.”

Arthur sank into his easy chair with a grunt. Today was a day he wanted to see his mother. “They’ve closed the mill until after the first of the year. We just found out.”

“What?” Corrina put down the carrot she was peeling. “The mill is shutting down?”

“Temporarily.” Though rumor was if it started up again, they’d be reducing the work crews by half.

“But what will you do for a job? What will everyone do for a job?” Corrina clucked her tongue in disapproval. “To do such a thing so close to Christmas. It’s a crime.”

“We’re collecting unemployment, so I guess it’s something. Figure I’ll get some good hunting in if nothing else.” Hunting which, he realized, he’d do without Paul for the first time in forever.

His mother busied herself with her roast for a moment. Then she said, far too casually, “There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about.”

Arthur shut his eyes and tipped his head back. “Mom, I’m not dating anyone, so save your breath.”

She went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “It works out you’re laid off, I suppose, because I worried you wouldn’t have time otherwise. There’s a project I’ve been setting up with the library.”

Library? Arthur sat up, frowning. His mom was on the library board, he knew, but how in the world he could help the library was something he had to hear. “What is it?”

“The board wants to have a fundraiser for Christmas. We’re almost out of our grant, you see, and though Gabriel is looking for a new one come spring, we thought we’d give him a leg up. We’ll do a little to stir up some funds, help patch up any gaps and buy us a few more months if the worst happens.” She beamed. “We’re going to have sleigh rides.”

Arthur laughed. “What—are you going to pull Grandpa Anderson’s old beast out of storage?”

“I thought so, yes.” She leaned against the counter. “I wanted to make it a big deal. Get Frankie’s friends up from the city, maybe people from Duluth. It could bring money to the downtown as well as the library. Everybody would win. Except…the sleigh needs a little work. Do you think you could take a peek at it?”

God, Arthur hadn’t thought about that sleigh in years. “I’m not sure how much I can do, but I’ll give it my best shot.”

“Excellent. Next time you’re over, we’ll pull it out and give it a look.” She pushed off the counter and nodded at the oven, where she’d tucked the roasting pan. “Give this until six, sweetheart, and you’ll have yourself a nice dinner. I’ll ask around too, see if anyone has jobs for you. It won’t be good for you to sit idle, not with the mill shut down and Paul moving on.”

The comment about Paul made Arthur worry this was a setup, that somehow agreeing to repair the sleigh was giving her a matchmaking opening, but no matter how he turned it around in his head, he couldn’t see how even Corrina Anderson could spin carpentry into happily-ever-after. So he settled into researching sleigh restoration with Thomas, holding baby Sue while Brianna got her bath, and in general picking up his ex-brother-in-law’s slack.

See? He got to be a dad, sort of, sometimes, and if he ever logged onto Grindr again himself, he could get his kink on. He told himself it was the best of both worlds.

Except every time he went home to his empty cabin, he had a hard time believing he had it all.

There were many things about small-town libraries Gabriel Higgins had acclimated to—micro-budgets, monthly battles over content, a library board full of retirees living out high school vendettas and grudges. But Corrina Anderson? He was fairly sure nothing in the known universe could have prepared him for the president of the library board.

When he’d accepted the position as director for Logan, Minnesota’s tiny, failing library, he’d done so knowing at some point it would come out he was gay, and his orientation would likely cause some friction. While that friction had technically come to pass as he predicted—some of his patrons definitely gave him side eyes, making it clear they fretted for the state of his soul—he also found PFLAG flyers displayed in the brochure area before he arrived, and of course there was Corrina. When she asked after his girlfriend and he explained he was gay, she became excited—and began suggesting potential partners. She never missed a chance to point out so-and-so was gay and unattached, and she always happened to have the phone numbers of the men in question. The fact that Gabriel had yet to do anything more than shred the phone numbers didn’t slow down the stream.

He couldn’t simply throw them away—she pulled the papers from the wastebasket, smoothed them out and left them on his desk.

For eighteen months he endured her efforts, willing to pretend he’d act on her suggestions for potential suitors in order to keep the peace. But in October she began hinting he consider her son, and Gabriel felt the time had come to be not only firm but unequivocal.

He stood in front of her, for once glad for his six-foot-three inches, because God knew he needed every advantage he could get over his personal termagant. “Corrina, I’m sure your son is a wonderful man, but I’m not interested.”

She crossed her arms, unbowed as ever. “You’re never interested, young man, not even in friends. I know for a fact Frankie Blackburn has invited you to movies and dinner dates and meals at his house with Marcus, and you always turn him down. I can’t so much as get you over for Sunday dinner. I know you aren’t refusing because you think you’re better than we are.”

That barb caught. “No, I don’t.” He sighed. “I’m not very social. It’s nothing personal to you or anyone else.”

“No one can be this antisocial.” She smiled and patted his arm. “Come for dinner. My house. You have to eat.”

Gabriel knew there was no way a dinner at her house would feature anything less than Arthur Anderson. “Perhaps another time.”

He was surprised how easily she gave in to his refusal, and he stood on guard all the rest of the week, waiting for another strike. It did eventually come, but it was so out of left field he wasn’t sure what to do with it. “You want to have…a sleigh-ride fundraiser?”

Corrina beamed. “Yes, I do. Everyone’s so excited about it. Oh, it’ll be a grand time. Old-fashioned sleigh rides up and down Main Street. It was my dad’s sleigh. He bought it from an estate sale when he came home from World War II, repaired it, and every Christmas he’d get it out, give us rides like the good old days. It’ll need some refreshing before we use it, but I thought some old-fashioned feeling might be just what we need around here, with the mill closed and winter coming so early. We could make it more than rides. Maybe we could have a party afterward.”

“That sounds…fine.” Gabriel kept trying to find the catch. With Corrina, there would be one. “Are you asking me to plan the party?”

“Heavens no. I’ll take care of everything. But I wanted you to know we were making plans. Hopefully we’ll make enough money to cover your salary if we can’t get the grant renewed.”

This was a recurrent conversation with the whole library board, and now the strange fundraiser made sense. “Corrina, as I’ve told you, I’m not concerned with the grant. If it runs out, I’m certain you’ll still find a way to pay me.”

She frowned, gesturing to his desk. “I’ve seen the job offers you get. I don’t want someone taking you away from us because we’re too cheap.”

“It’s kind of you to think of me, but I assure you money won’t be why anyone takes me from Logan.”

Corrina regarded him warily. “But why on earth would you stay, if you’re not attached to anyone here?”

Oh, that was why she was so fixated on partnering him up. Gabriel relaxed. “Remember, I’m from a small town too. I don’t really want to live in a city anymore, and small libraries are where my passion is. I like Logan, and I like your library. I don’t need a boyfriend to be happy here. I don’t need a boyfriend, period. I’m married to my job.”

He’d said the lie so many times now he almost believed it.

“But you’d be happier here with a boyfriend. Or at least a friend.”

Gabriel threw up his emotional walls before Corrina could barrel any more down. “The fundraiser sounds lovely. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some books to shelve.”

She didn’t bother him any further about it that day, and blessedly her matchmaking cooled down as well. She continued to update him on the fundraiser—he got an earful at the next board meeting, and she came to the library every other day with additional ideas. She showed him the Santa-suit pattern her friend was sewing, which briefly had him nervous, but thankfully the suit wasn’t nearly big enough for Gabriel’s long, lanky legs.

Just before Halloween she began to tell him about the sleigh, which apparently her son was restoring, and her dinner invitations now included encouragements to come see how grand the progress was. She showed him pictures on her phone—it was still mostly a mess from the look of things, but Gabriel could imagine it swishing through the snow.

Corrina smiled when he told her that. “I can’t wait to see it all finished.”

“Who’s driving?” Gabriel asked, starting to become enchanted by the scheme despite himself.

“Arthur’s going to take lessons from Mr. Peterson as soon as he gets it finished. Gary has draft horses who know how to drive. We need to teach Arthur, and we’re set.” She patted Gabriel’s arm. “I was going to ask you to learn, but it wouldn’t really look right, would it, to have the elf driving Santa?”

Gabriel’s heart thudded a terrible beat. “Elf?”

“Didn’t I say? You’ll be playing Santa’s helper. Your costume is almost done—it’s so adorable. The children will love it. They love you, and they’ll be so charmed by the idea that you’re friends with Santa.”

Gabriel realized how well he’d been played, how this had been a matchmaking setup after all. “I assume Arthur is playing Saint Nick?”

“Of course. His hair will be a trick to hide, with all that red, but we’ll make it work somehow. Frankie will help.”

Gabriel didn’t know where to start objecting, only that he had to extract himself from this now. “Mrs. Anderson, I’m flattered but—”

“It truly is going to be the most charming event we’ve had in Logan in years. My grandson is already so excited I can barely get him to bed at night. You’ll be perfect as you always are. Everyone loves you, you know this, and such a feather in our caps this will be. A big event like something they’d do in the Cities. Don’t you worry about a thing, either. Arthur’s a good boy—he’ll take care of everything. All you need to do is show up on the day of the fundraiser and be your charming self. I want the children’s home in Pine Valley to come, perhaps have a special gift delivery by Santa.”

Dear God, this was the train wreck to end all train wrecks. She’d waited this long to set her trap too, laying so much bait there was no way Gabriel could tell her no, he didn’t want to pass out presents with her son because he found Arthur Anderson to be a boorish, untutored oaf. And yet he could not do this. “Mrs. Anderson, I honestly can’t—”

She glanced at her watch. “Oh, dear me. Nine thirty already? Becky just took a new job, and Big Tom, bless his heart, isn’t much help with morning routine. I’ll stop by with them for afternoon story time, and I’ll chat with you then.”

Gabriel watched her go, torn between chasing after her and pleading for mercy, and shutting himself in his office to stick his head between his legs. This was worse than matchmaking. This was putting on a happy holiday face for the entire town, getting roped into a gala where he would stand along the wall as usual and watch other families and couples play and be happy while he remained alone. He had to find a way out of this.

Perhaps you won’t have to, he consoled himself. Perhaps Arthur will do the objecting for you. Which, honestly, was the most likely outcome. Because the only thing more incredulous than Gabriel dating Arthur Anderson was that foul-mouthed man-whore playing Santa Claus.

Winter Wonderland #3
Chapter One
A ten-foot-tall snow penis towered over Paul Jansen’s front steps. Again.

He perched on the edge of his sofa, sipping his coffee as he kept the curtain pulled back with his foot so he could assess today’s phallic offering. It was pretty good. It had a bulging vein down the front, but it wasn’t as defined as usual. Big balls, but they’d clearly been joined to the shaft in a hurry. The glans had a nice contour—the snow artist usually took the most time there.

He’d give it a B+. Putting his mug aside, Paul tightened his robe before stepping into his boots. Opening the front door, he squinted into the sleet and wind. Saluted the penis. Snapped a photo for posterity.

Then he took aim with his right foot, braced himself against the doorframe and kicked the sculpture into pieces before reaching inside for his shovel so he could deal with the balls.

This was the third snow penis he’d dismantled of the season—the very early snow season, as the first squall had come through in late September. After the October tenth storm, they’d had snow cover ever since. The snow penises had started shortly after the blizzard. The first time had him laughing, and he’d left it up for a few hours. But it upset his neighbor on the other side of the duplex. It also made it tricky to get out the front door. So after taking a picture, he’d kicked it down and told his friend Arthur once he got to work, “Very funny, but stop upsetting Mrs. Michealson.”

Arthur had only blinked at him. “What’s funny?” So Paul showed him the picture on his phone, and Arthur laughed. “That’s pretty good! But how’d you do it? The snow is way too fine to pack.”

“I didn’t. You think I’d put a penis on my own front steps?”

Arthur shrugged as if to say, Why not? He squinted at the photo. “Seriously, this is a work of art. It’s almost a sculpture.”

“Well, it’s gone now.” Paul frowned. “I thought for sure you’d put it there.”

“Nope, sorry.” Arthur passed Paul his phone. “Let’s get to work on this bookshelf.”

Paul had put the snow penis out of his head and focused on his job. Logan Design and Repair had only been open for eight months, and while they weren’t about to go bankrupt, they worked like dogs to break even. Paul had gotten his electrician’s license over the summer, and Arthur was working on plumbing. They didn’t do anything big, but they could fuss with a water heater, a fritzing stove, a garbage disposal. Right now they were assembling custom bookshelves for the new pastor’s study at the Lutheran church.

Paul did the books, which often kept him at the shop late. When that happened, dinner usually appeared, delivered by Frankie, Paul’s other best friend’s fiancé. Sometimes it was stew or something homemade, sometimes it was a hot beef sandwich from the café. Sometimes he got hauled off to Arthur’s house to have dinner with the whole gang: Frankie and Marcus, Gabriel and Arthur. Hauled off was the only way they got him there, because Paul hated being the fifth wheel.

Though he was equally tired of being alone.

The day the first snow penis showed up they’d tried to get Paul to come to dinner once they were done ribbing him about his secret admirer, but Paul refused to go, opting to eat his dinner from home at the shop as he caught up on some paperwork.

Shortly after he settled in, his mother called.

“Paul. I’m glad I caught you.” The clipped, irritated tone made it clear glad was a figure of speech and nothing more. “I heard about the incident on your porch. I hope you told Arthur it was in poor taste and I won’t have to hear about this happening again.”

Arthur’s name dripped with disdain as it came out of her mouth. “Actually, I have no idea who did it.”

His mother clucked her tongue. “What a scandal. Have you told the police?”

About a snow penis? Paul entertained himself for a minute with the idea of trying to file that report. “It’s only a prank, I’m sure. Probably won’t happen again.”

“I certainly hope not.” She paused, her tone promising she was about to segue into the real reason she’d called. “I wanted to know if you were coming to church this Sunday.”

Oh, hell. Whenever Mary Jansen told her son she wanted to know if he was going to church, it was code for I have someone I want you to meet. And this someone would not, under any circumstances, be male.

Paul fumbled for a lie. “I’m due to go hunting with the guys this weekend.”

“You’ve hardly been to service lately. What will Pastor think?”

“I went a few weeks ago, but I promise I’ll go again soon.”

“Let me know when, and I’ll have your favorites for dinner after.”

His favorites and an eligible young lady. “I will,” Paul said. This was also a lie.

She’d ended their call shortly after that, but the exchange put Paul off finishing his supper and distracted him enough he mostly stared, frowning at the totals on the computer screen until it was just past midnight. Giving up, he headed home.

A new penis blocked his front door.

The second one had been something else. Not quite as tall, but it curved carefully to the right, and it had all the veins detailed like it was going to be used for an anatomy lesson. This one was uncircumcised, and the balls had hair—dried grass fused into the snow.

He took a picture of this one too, sending it to Marcus, Gabriel and Arthur as a group text. Fess up. Which one of you is the artist?

He had his money on Frankie, since he was the stylist, but either they were all practiced liars, or it wasn’t any of them. They all replied laughing, insisting it wasn’t them, dying to know who it actually was.

Paul had no idea.

He wracked his brain, crawling through his most recent hookups, but none of them fit the penis-sculpture bill. None of them lived in Logan, either, and while he did live on the edge of town, whoever was giving his front steps dick was putting in serious effort at weird hours in questionable weather. This had to be somebody local.

Everybody in town ribbed him about his snow sculptures. Some people, usually older women, clucked their tongues and seemed to blame him for disgracing the town, but most people thought it was funny. Someone had snagged a picture of the second one, and it wasn’t uncommon for Paul to stand up from selecting a can from the bottom shelf at the grocery store to find someone grinning and showing him a Facebook photo of his front steps with a penis on it. Not knowing how exactly he was supposed to respond, Paul would chuckle or roll his eyes, basically aw-shucks his way out of the awkward.

His mother, of course, kept urging him to report the “indecency” to the authorities. His elderly neighbor hounded him with fears this meant they were about to see a home invasion. His sister, Sandy, sent him several Facebook messages explaining to him in self-righteous disdain how embarrassing the situation was to the family and how it was Paul’s responsibility to keep it from escalating.

Paul wasn’t sure what there was for him to do. He’d figured the first two for kids distracting themselves from the fact that they were getting full-on blizzards this early in the year. This third one, though, tipped him into annoyance.

The night following the third penis, after the little old lady behind the library checkout desk flashed him a snow-penis photo before she scanned his card, Paul complained to Gabriel, Logan’s librarian and Arthur’s fiancé. “Why just me?” he complained as Gabriel stood with him in the vestibule while Paul put on his coat. “It can’t even be a gay thing. You and Arthur aren’t getting it, and neither is Marcus or Frankie.”

“We’re too far out in the middle of nowhere. If anyone showed up on our lawn, Arthur would meet them with a shotgun.” Gabriel rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “But yes, you’re right, Marcus and Frankie should be fair game in their new house, if it’s a gay thing. Though maybe they’re afraid to target a lawyer who looks like a grizzly bear.”

Paul sighed as he wrapped a scarf around his neck. “I thought about rigging up a video camera to catch them, but I don’t have one. Plus it’s so cold and snowy, it would probably fog over or plain not work.”

Gabriel grimaced at the parking lot, which was a wasteland of snow and drifts. “It’s ridiculous how early the snow came this year. Frankly I’m terrified of January at this rate. Everyone’s worried, talking not about if we’ll lose power, but when and how often. Your snow-penis adventures are almost comic relief.”

“My neighbor doesn’t find them funny.”

Gabriel waved this idea away. “Edna Michealson loves to complain. Every time I run the Bookmobile, I have to mark out a half hour for her stop. Not to discuss books, but to listen to her itemization of the things she’s angry about that day.”

Paul didn’t enjoy listening to his eighty-nine-year-old former fourth-grade teacher lecture him about inappropriate snow organs. “They were cute at first, but enough is enough.”

Gabriel’s lips twisted in a sly grin as he leaned into the wall beside the coat rack. “I’m having fun watching Arthur attempt to replicate them. He’s finally figured out he needs to add water, but he doesn’t have the ratio correct and either ends up with soup or crumbs. Yesterday he managed an obelisk, but it cracked in half when he tried to add a testicle.”

Paul tugged his stocking cap into place, arranging it so the hole from the nail he’d caught it on wasn’t over his ear. “My family is convinced it’s Arthur.”

“I know we’ve been teasing you about it, but maybe it’s true. Maybe it’s a secret admirer.”

Paul snorted. If the snow-penis artist truly was an admirer…well, honestly, Paul wasn’t sure what he thought of that. Why not message him on Grindr and ask to meet for coffee? Anybody whose idea of courtship was c**k-blocking his front door…

Okay. It was a little cool. And even when the balls were glued on and he had to chisel them off the stoop, he laughed.

Paul waved goodbye to Gabriel and went home, stopping at the café to grab dinner. Unwrapping his hot beef sandwich, he sat in front of his television with the movies he’d checked out from the library.

It was admittedly too early, but Paul was already on his second round of Christmas movies. Gabriel had built up quite a collection, and there were enough new ones Paul had a lot of ground to cover before the actual holiday.

He loved the Hallmark and Lifetime movies. The first movie, Christmas with Holly, reminded Paul of the year he, Arthur and Marcus had lived together at Arthur’s cabin—that was the Christmas where Marcus and Frankie met, when Frankie got stranded in Logan. That holiday the four of them had become a family.

The second one, Christmas Lodge, wasn’t as good. It was sweet and cute and had that squishy quality Paul favored, where all the problems evaporated and Christmas was amazing. But it had a heavy Christian bent, and Paul couldn’t sink into it the way he wanted. While nobody in the movie was overtly homophobic, Paul knew the movie producers would tell him he didn’t deserve a gooey Christmas miracle because he was gay. He loved, though, the way the heroine found the perfect guy in the perfect place in the mountains. He knew real life wasn’t like that, but he adored sinking into the soft feeling where things did work out, especially at Christmas.

He could use a good Christmas. He could use a perfect guy showing up on his front door with a wreath and a wry smile, ready to move into his life. It hadn’t happened exactly that way for either Marcus or Arthur, but…well, it hadn’t escaped Paul’s notice that the last two years were like they’d taken turns getting Mr. Right for Christmas.

Three years, and three of them. The three bears, Frankie teased them. That made Paul baby bear, he supposed, which was fine. But he’d been trying to find his Goldilocks all year long, and he’d pretty much dated or bedded every gay man in the county and then some. Unless someone else got stranded during a blizzard, he couldn’t see how he’d be getting a happily-every-after for Christmas.

He checked his Grindr in case he could hunt down a different kind of happy ending, but there was only the usual nudge from PrinceCharming1990. Paul had no idea who the guy was, or even where he was—he had his location turned off. Wherever Prince Charming lived, he had some kinky ideas of what he wanted to do with Paul, and he was damn persistent about them.

Tonight PrinceCharming1990 played it coy. Let’s play in the snow.

Paul ignored the request to play in the snow the same as he had all the other not-really-veiled innuendos.

1990. That was probably the guy’s birth year. Paul would turn thirty-eight in February. When Prince Charming had been born, Paul was entering high school. That was just…no. The thought alone made him feel like a child molester. Even if this particular child could curl his toes with some of his sexual suggestions.

Prince Charming wasn’t on a sex app and wasn’t crafting snow organs on his doorstep. Paul put ice penises and Grindr out of his mind and one of the disks from the ten-pack of holiday romancesinto the player.

He’d been looking forward to this DVD set ever since Gabriel had ordered it for him, and he’d saved it for last in his current checkout binge only because the other two were due the next day. He had every intention of watching at least two of the ten movies, but he’d gotten up too early, and he fell asleep five minutes into the first one. One minute the first movie was starting, and then he opened his eyes and found himself staring at the silent home-menu screen.

Listening to the scritch, scritch, scritch of something on his front porch.

Paul sat up slowly, blinking at the door. It sounded like a raccoon. Or a bear.

Swish, swish, swish. Scritch, scritch, scritch.

Scrape. Shuffle. Scrape.

That wasn’t a bear. That was somebody on his front porch.

That was somebody assembling a snow penis on his front porch.

He scooted to the edge of the couch, checking the urge to rush to the door. If he made too much noise, whoever it was might run off. If he tiptoed to the door, he could pull it open and catch them by surprise. Halfway to the door, though, it occurred to him he should maybe have a weapon. Nothing lethal, but…well, if it wasn’t a couple of kids, he should be ready.

He didn’t have a baseball bat, though. He had his hunting rifles in the closet, but those were hardly appropriate. He also didn’t have a lot of time. A peek through the curtain revealed the penis was nearly assembled.

One guy. Not a kid, and not a bruiser. All Paul could make out was a dark-colored parka and a knit hat with earflaps. The pants were different. Kind of like the things they wore in hospitals. What did you call them? Scrubs. Something about them rang a bell, but he couldn’t figure out why.

In the end, he went without a weapon. Whoever this was, Paul could take him, though he doubted it would come to that. Drawing a deep breath, he steeled himself for God only knew what and put his hand on the doorknob.

He managed to flip the light switch after he yanked, which meant as the dim bulb illuminated the porch steps, he got a good look not only at a seriously articulated frenulum but the face of a bright, blue-eyed young man, cheeks pink from cold.

Paul stared. “Kyle? Kyle Parks?”

Kyle’s lips closed, pressing into a thin line. Then, bold as you please, he lifted an eyebrow, and his sly smile made Paul shiver in a way that had nothing to do with cold.

Blowing Paul a kiss, Kyle stepped off the porch and into the night, leaving Paul to stare at the snow penis, which he saw now came with a piece of printed card stock hanging by yarn cemented into the sculpture.

The card read, Let’s play in the snow.

Paul lifted his gaze to the intricately crafted penis, seven feet tall, flared glans gleaming like an icy jewel in the porch light. He thought about Kyle Parks, the nice night nurse standing out here on his porch, carving the penis, shaping all those veins.

Sending him all those PrinceCharming1990 Grindr texts.

Kyle. Little Kyle. Offering to lick his…

Paul shut his eyes, but he still saw the wicked smile from Kyle mixed in with PrinceCharming1990’s naughty suggestions.

Letting his breath out in a ragged huff, he opened his eyes and yanked the card off the penis. He kicked the sculpture over, not taking a photo, not lingering to watch it crumble in his haste to get inside and flip off the light.

But he lay in bed for hours, staring up at the ceiling, so far from sleep he wasn’t sure he’d ever get there again.

That couldn’t have happened. Of all the people who might have mounted a snow penis on his porch…

Let’s play in the snow.

To his shame, Paul got a little hard.

He buried his face in his pillow, groaning into the stuffing. He couldn’t act on this. He needed to block PrinceCharming1990 right now.

He didn’t, though. He lay in bed until the wee hours of the morning, the cheesy Christmas movies mingling with Kyle Parks’s wicked smile, until they tangled together and he dreamed of sweet Kyle standing outside a picturesque log cabin, smiling and welcoming Paul home.

Flanked by an army of well-endowed snow penises.

Everyone in Logan thought they knew who Kyle Parks was. Everyone in Logan was wrong.

The problem of growing up in a town of less than one thousand was people couldn’t seem to let go of your youth. They remembered Kyle selling Boy Scout popcorn or sitting in their Sunday school class or wetting his pants in their backyard when he wasn’t quite potty-trained, and somehow all those memories meant they couldn’t accept he wasn’t that kid anymore. In their heads, he was still the leggy little boy with a bad haircut. And everybody, everybody still talked about how he’d had such a habit of tottering around in his mother’s makeup and heels. Shouldn’t that have been our first clue? Except even there he wasn’t a gay man. He was a gay kid.

It didn’t help, Kyle knew, that he looked like a kid. Not only did he get carded everywhere he went, but more often than not people argued with him. You can’t be twenty-five. Out of town they talked about his baby face, but in Logan the people who’d known him since he was little insisted he still was little. The general consensus was he might, possibly, be almost twenty, but that was as far as they’d go. The State of Minnesota’s decree on his license that he’d been born in 1990 had to be a mistake. Someday Kyle supposed he’d be grateful for his youthful looks, but right now, he’d give anything for a few gray hairs. Or the ability to grow more than peach fuzz for a beard. Or a hometown where people were willing to believe he wasn’t Peter Pan.

As he drove away from Paul Jansen’s duplex, heart beating too fast, memory of Paul’s shocked, slightly horrified face burned into his brain, Kyle hated his youthful appearance more than he ever had.

In his head, making the snow sculptures combined with Grindr taunts had been the perfect flirtation. It was true, he couldn’t get Paul to give him so much as a second glance in person, but he’d assumed that was the whole you’re too young thing again. Possibly the I only date big, hairy bears thing, though he’d seen Paul with a few svelte men. Kyle had already tried to alter his own type—for a week he ate nothing but fatty food and drank whole milk, but he ended up losing weight because he got sick from all the junk. In the end, he’d reasoned all he had to do was get Paul to see him as a fun, sexual object. And available. And willing. Ergo, Grindr. Except Paul had at best nibbled on his lures.

The first snow penis had been a lark, but he’d gotten more mileage out of that than a pile of dirty direct messages, so he figured what the hell—lather, rinse, repeat. If he’d thought Paul would catch him in the act, he would have dressed for the occasion, or worn something he could have undressed in more quickly. Though from the look on Paul’s face, it wouldn’t have mattered. Dammit.

The drive between Paul’s house and his own home was brief, but no one else was awake at this ungodly hour, so Kyle was able to continue scowling to himself as he put away his coat and pulled material out of the refrigerator to make a sandwich. In deference to his shitty mood, he added an Angry Orchard cider. Putting the whole business on a tray, he shuffled around the corner to his room.

As he ate, he wondered, not for the first time, if it would help if he got his own place. It was possible Paul would reject him at any age and in any locale—which hurt—but…well, Kyle was willing to try anything.

He finished off his sandwich quickly but nursed his cider as he poked around the Internet, turning the volume down as he indulged in some shameless porn-clip surfing. Since he was cranky, he didn’t go for his favorites but instead fed his bad mood by searching for his kink in free two-to-six-minute teasers.

Because even in his porn he was “too young”. He’d bet his ass none of the guys in the bear-twink sections were twenty-five, and Christ, if he was dumb enough to go to the daddy-kink section, he got alarmingly young boys and men who reminded him of his grandfather. Which, he wasn’t casting any stones. But could a guy get a thin, handsome young man with a cute, cuddly bear who was either his own age or only a little bit older?

He knew better than to hope he’d stumble on the twink doing the bear. Oh, those videos existed, and you can bet your ass he had them bookmarked. But when he was in a mood like this…well, he didn’t know why all he wanted to do was drive home how impossible he was, but it’s what he reached for. In case he had some idea his problem was because he lived in a teeny-tiny town in the middle of nowhere. No way. He was a freak in every direction. Long, narrow feet. Skinny body and long legs. Baby face. Feminine mannerisms. Nellie bottom tattooed on his forehead against his will.

He had a nice haircut, and an excellent dye job, since Frankie Blackburn had moved to town and opened up a hair salon. Other than that, everything was miserable, and he might as well have a second cider.

He didn’t, because at this point it was six in the morning, and his mother was almost up. It didn’t matter how many times he told her it was different to drink in the morning when you’d been up all damn night, she still clucked and fussed. Which he supposed was another argument to move into his own place.

I’ll scan the ads tomorrow, he told himself as he climbed under his covers and drifted off to sleep.

His dreams were a fu**ed-up mash of porn, Paul and work. Which got weird when his brief foray into medical porn clips inspired dreams of Kyle giving a naked Paul a prostate exam in a nursing home bed. Had he been awake, he’d have shut his imagination down, but as it was, he woke hard and came in the shower with the very pretty image of naked Paul Jansen on all fours, begging for Kyle’s c**k.

His mother was in the kitchen as he came out, cooking pork chops for lunch, and she smiled and murmured, “Good morning,” to Kyle as he emerged. A country station played in the background, and Daryl Parks sat at the table, reading the paper. Kyle’s brothers sat across from each other, scanning through mobile phones. At the smaller table by the sliding door, three of Kyle’s nieces and nephews fought over who had more chicken nuggets and tried to spill each other’s milk.

Kyle peeked around the corner to the dining room and the TV room beyond before frowning at his mother. “Where’s Linda Kay?”

“I don’t know.” Jane Parks’s tone was heavy singsong, her eyes wide as she nodded toward the cupboard.

Kyle made a big show of scratching his chin and frowning. “Oh, no. Do you think she moved out?”

“It’s difficult to say.” Jane’s voice played along, but she returned her focus to lunch preparations.

“That would be a shame. It snowed again last night, and I was going to make a new fort. A big one.” He sighed dramatically. “I suppose I’ll just make a small one for the kids.”

The door to the pantry opened as two hundred pounds of beaming, gleeful woman emerged. Linda Kay enveloped Kyle first in a wide smile with her tongue protruding past her lips before wrapping arms around him and squeezing him. “I got you, little brother.”

Kyle hugged her back as best he could, and his smile, if not as beautiful and pure as hers, was heartfelt. “You got me all right. Does this mean you’ll make a snow fort with me?”

Linda Kay squinted her eyes shut tight and shook her head hard enough to flap her brown hair into his face. “No. I want to make a dragon. Breathing fire.”

“A fire-breathing dragon?” Kyle repeated, his brain already running ahead of him with the possibilities.

“That fire will be made out of snow, not the propane tank,” Jane remarked dryly from the stove.

Damn. Kyle grimaced at Linda Kay. “Our mother is no fun.”

Linda Kay got a wicked look in her eye as she leaned in and whispered loudly in Kyle’s ear, “I’ll sneak it out of the garage.”

“You will not, Linda Kay.”

When Linda Kay pouted, Kyle kissed her cheek. “We’ll find a way to make it cool. Let me get something to eat and a cup of coffee, and it’s on.”

Linda Kay followed Kyle around the kitchen as he made himself a pod of decaf in the Keurig, and when he leaned on his mother’s left shoulder to peer at his breakfast/lunch, his sister took up a similar position on the right side.

Jane sighed. “You two. Can’t you wait ten more minutes?”

“We’re hungry.” Linda tried to pinch off a corner of a pork chop only to laugh as Jane swatted her away.

This was because after twenty-five years as Kyle’s twin, she knew the drill. While she made her feint, Kyle stole a piece of bacon from the plate by the stove. He took a bite before surreptitiously passing Linda Kay the rest behind Jane’s back. As his sister scuttled off with a wicked chuckle, Kyle leaned on the counter and sipped his coffee while he chatted with his mother.

“Do you work tonight?” she asked him. “I know the schedule has been a mess lately, and I’ve lost track of your rotation.”

He nodded. “The late-late shift. Eleven-to-seven. But tomorrow I have off, because I’m day shifts over the weekend.”

Jane clucked in disapproval. “It’s not healthy for you to work such irregular hours. It’s bad enough with all those overnights.”

“Somebody has to work them. Though, there’s good news.” He grinned as he set his coffee aside. “I hear Dolorianne is thinking of retiring.”

Jane nearly dropped her spatula in joy. “Oh—does that mean you could take her shift? The regular days-only one?”

Kyle rolled his eyes. “God, I wish. No, this would mean I could have the three-to-eleven one if I wanted it.”

She frowned. “But, Kyle, you can’t possibly go back to school with those hours.”

Not this again. “Mom, I don’t want to be a registered nurse. I’m fine with being an LPN.”

“But you’d have so many more career opportunities as an RN, and you’d make more money.”

Kyle didn’t want to have this argument for the eightieth time, so he changed the subject. “How was your circle meeting yesterday?”

She brightened. “Oh—it was wonderful. The Ruth Circle and the Hope Circle met at the church, and the library board came over too, even Mr. Higgins. The fundraiser is on for sure.”

“So more sleigh rides with Santa and dancing after?”

“No, this year there will be more. A craft fair, an ice-skating rink, and all the local businesses will have open houses. And.” She elbowed him and waggled her eyebrows. “I told them you’d make snow sculptures.”


“Don’t complain. You love doing it, and Linda Kay will get such a kick out of helping.”

“They’re something special I do with her.” And until I got caught, on Paul’s front steps. Kyle glowered into his coffee. “Am I going to get paid, at least?”

She swatted him hard enough to make him yelp. “Kyle David Parks! Of course you won’t get paid. All the funds go to the library.” She aimed a wooden spoon at his nose. “And when you stop by to talk to Gabriel Higgins about what kind of sculptures, don’t you dare bring up money.”

Kyle held up his hands in self-defense. “I swear I won’t.”

Mollified, she added some cheese to the eggs she fixed for Kyle because she insisted people needed eggs for breakfast, whenever it happened. “It’s going to be something special. There will be charter buses from the Cities and Duluth, a Santa village and reindeer. They even have a theme this time. Winter Wonderland.”

That wasn’t a theme so much as a cute, generic title, but Kyle wasn’t going to argue. “Sounds great. I’ll stop by the library tomorrow, see if Linda Kay wants to go along.”

“If it snows the way it’s supposed to, that will work out nicely. She has designs on going to Eveleth to see Kenny, and she’ll be upset if the weather cancels her plans.”

“Okay.” Kyle pushed off the counter to get plates and glasses for the table, but his mother caught the edge of his T-shirt and held him in place.

“I also heard at the meeting there was another sculpture on Paul Jansen’s front porch this morning.”

Kyle grimaced, his black mood returning with a vengeance. “Yeah, well, it’ll be the last one.”

“I should hope so. He’s too old for you.”

“He’s thirty-seven, not seventy. Besides, our age difference is only three years more than the one between you and Dad.”

Jane pursed her lips and became focused on over-seasoning Kyle’s eggs. “I don’t understand why you can’t date someone your age, is all I’m saying.”

“Because the men my age are idiots. Also, there are five of them on my team in the whole county.” He pushed his toe into the loose section of a floor tile. “It doesn’t matter. He’s not interested. Nobody’s interested.”

She hesitated. “I bet there are more gay men your age in Duluth.” When Kyle gave her a hurt look, she kissed his cheek. “Don’t pout. I’m not telling you to move out. I’m trying to help you be happy.”

“I want to be happy here. If I move out, it will be to an apartment downtown.”

Linda Kay stuck her head around the corner where she’d been eavesdropping, her face a picture of betrayal. “You can’t move out!”

“I’m not moving out.” Kyle pulled out a stack of plates and passed them to her. “I’m setting the table, and you’re helping.”

She grumbled, but she helped all the same. When they sat down to eat, she leaned in close and whispered, “How did the snow penis go?”

He shook his head. “Busted. And he didn’t like it.”

Linda Kay flipped her wrist in a dramatic throwaway gesture. “Please. No taste.”

Grinning, Kyle leaned over and kissed her hair. “I love you, Linda Kay.”

“That’s because I’m awesome.” She stole a piece of his bacon and winked in her delightfully clumsy way. “We’ll give our snow dragon a big penis.”

“Mom would have a fit.”

She gave him a please, don’t be stupid look. “So we hide it, obviously.”

She held up her hand for a high-five. Kyle gave her one, then ate his eggs, his black mood getting buried under plans for an elaborate, ice-breathing dragon with a hidden dong.

Santa Baby #4
December 19, 2015
Logan, Minnesota, belonged on the front of a Christmas card.

A set of cards, actually, and as the thought expanded in Dale Davidson’s mind, he stepped away from the Winter Wonderland festivities to make a voice note on his phone. He took a few photos as well, examples to put in his ever-growing portfolio of ideas for how to turn sleepy Logan into a tourist destination.

He’d come to the small northern Minnesota town both as a favor to his longtime friend Marcus Gardner and as a straight-up business opportunity. Tiny hamlets like this, dressed up and spun the right way, could mean big tourist traffic for local businesses and investment money for the developers that helped the municipalities get those coveted visitor dollars. He saw a lot of potential profit in Logan.

Of course, because it was a small town, there’d already been trouble, chiefly at the informal city council meeting the other night, when a group calling themselves the Concerned Citizens for Logan had burst in and accused Dale of pushing a “homosexual agenda.” As irony would have it, this was in fact a bit of why he was here. If Logan was LGBT friendly, it’d be more attractive to Twin City tourists. Marcus and his friends had managed to make this sleepy village unusually gay-friendly—or so Dale had thought until the Concerned Citizens had appeared. The city leaders had worked overtime ever since then to convince Dale the naysayers were nothing but an aberration, that Logan was ready for this project and the vast majority of its citizens were fully onboard.

No one had worked harder, though, than Gabriel Higgins, Logan’s librarian. He had pulled Dale aside the day after the meeting and launched into a long speech about his own experience moving to Logan from Minneapolis. He’d explained the difference between Logan and his hometown of Roseau, Minnesota, making it clear Dale wasn’t to paint all small towns with the same brush. All this was impressive enough. But then he’d pulled out a binder of research and grants on LGBTQIA youth and adults in rural areas, statistics on how little development was being done in those places, and projections on how much good attention and effort was believed to do for that population. This was presented in a fat three-ring binder, which he’d given Dale a forty-five minute tour of before sending him home with the same. Gabriel had made it clear he could fill three more volumes with as many bits of data Dale required to be convinced of Logan’s worthiness.

Everyone on the city council and chamber of commerce had come up to Dale all day during the Winter Wonderland festival to make sure he hadn’t been too put off by the Concerned Citizens’ theatrics. They seemed sure Kyle Parks’s clever snow sculptures or Gabriel’s carefully delivered opening speech, or possibly Mrs. Jessup’s delicious, state-fair-winning Lussekatter had been what convinced Dale to continue the Christmas Town project and not back away slowly from the potential headache the Concerned Citizens had shown him. The truth was none of these things had swayed him. Thirty percent had been the mayor’s promise he’d pass local legislation if he had to in order to keep the riffraff at bay, which had kept Dale’s hand in. Seventy percent, however, had been Gabriel Higgins. His binder full of data. His passion.

And the fact that Dale found him incredibly attractive.

All of Marcus’s gay friends were a buffet of handsome and cleverness, but Gabriel in particular drew Dale. His wittiness, his devotion to causes he believed in, even his occasional awkwardness was endearing to Dale. Unfortunately Dale had missed his chance with the man by a year and some change, because Gabriel was also engaged, as were all the gay men in Logan, apparently. Normally when Dale felt an attraction this strong, he would push a bit, hoping perhaps the object of his affection was also polyamorous or at least open to hearing a pitch about joining his ranks. However, he wasn’t in Logan to complicate his friend’s life with his unconventional concept of relationships. He was here to develop the town’s tourist interests. End scene.

This didn’t mean he stopped pining for Gabriel, especially as he took his photos during the festival and discovered Arthur and Gabriel in one of his frames. They were thirty feet away from him: a tall male figure with glasses and a mop of curly hair smiling and holding a bag of something as he bent to kiss a shorter man with red hair and a full beard beneath a tall, wide-limbed tree draped with snow. Dale quickly snapped a photo, smiling to himself. He lowered the phone and pulled up the image, cropping it and editing the brightness and sharpness and adding a filter to make it the sort of image the two of them could use in their engagement announcements, if they wanted.

He had it pretty much perfect and was about to save it when a text-notification bubble drifted over the screen, and he hit it instead of the DONE button. The text, Dale noted with a riot of emotions, mostly negative, a few slightly anticipatory, was from Ronny.

Ronny Morgan: When are you done with Mayberry?

Dale rubbed his thumb along the side of his phone case, arguing with himself about how to respond and whether or not he should at all.

He’d gone six months without this relationship, except for the aberration at the company Christmas party last weekend. He couldn’t even call Ronny his ex. They had…hooked up. Kinky, intense, power-play hooking up, which initially had been fun. But it had gotten weird, uncomfortable, borderline seriously not okay, especially after last Christmas, so he’d ended it. Or rather, he’d tried to end it, an effort which had become so much easier once he’d broken away from Kivino Enterprises to form Davidson Incorporated. He was still a subsidiary, still worked for the same CEO, but he and Ronny were in different office complexes now, on different sides of the metro area. All he had to do was ignore any of the man’s texts that weren’t about work. Which he had done without issue.

Until he’d had too many glasses of champagne and let Ronny put his hands on him in the hallway while he waited for an elevator at the Christmas party. Until he’d sent a mixed signal instead of a firm not interested. And now here he was, unable to know if Ronny was texting him about work or trying to start something up again.

And how like him to not let me know which direction in the opening text.

The only way to find out was to engage, so Dale tapped a reply. Not sure. Why?

His heart thudded as he waited for the answer, and it sank, twisted and confused, when it came.

Need to make sure I give you your Christmas present.

Dale put his phone in his pocket without replying and did his best to erase thoughts of Ronny from his mind. He’d made a mistake to engage. The odds of Ronny having anything work related to say to him were low, and nothing would have been to do with the Logan project. It was Dale’s sole focus at the moment. It needed to remain that way.

Think about Logan, he reminded himself. Logan is why you’re here.

He mentally indexed the notes he’d made last night, the ones he’d put right on top of Gabriel’s. But his mind was jumbled, thrown by Ronny’s interjection into this safe, idyllic space. His phone buzzed against his thigh, jolts of sensation flicking him repeatedly to make Dale do what Ronny wanted. Pulling him into the shadows, laughing as he pushed him—

Dale shook his head roughly, dispersing the image. He settled his gaze on Gabriel and Arthur once more, letting himself appreciate how prettily slender and tall Gabriel was as he frowned at the bag, how handsome and strong Arthur seemed as he waved his arms and spoke animatedly to his fiancé. Dale didn’t consciously decide to start walking toward them, but he didn’t stop himself once he realized what he’d done. They didn’t appear to be doing something they’d mind him interrupting, and he desperately needed a distraction right now.

When they saw Dale, they smiled at him, waved, and then Gabriel sighed and gestured helplessly at what Dale saw now was a brown bag of steaming chestnuts.

“Do you have any idea how to eat these?” Gabriel held them toward him. “I bought them from a local vendor because I was trying to be polite, and now I have this bag of too-hot nuts I don’t know what to do with.”

Dale tugged his gloves from his fingers and tucked them in his pocket before withdrawing a nut from the top of the sack. “My grandparents had a chestnut tree on their farm in Wisconsin when I was growing up. They’re rare in the United States, though this wasn’t always the case. A blight in the early twentieth century wiped almost all of them out. They’re doing what they can to repopulate them with a strain strengthened by an Asian variety, but it’s going to take a long time to get back what we lost.” He peeled one edge of the tough husk with a skill honed by years. The chestnuts hadn’t been sliced through quite enough before they were roasted, and he had to get his pen knife out of his pocket to help them along the rest of the way. “Chestnuts are universal. Armies have survived sieges on them. They’re part of special celebrations the world over and have been for centuries. Millennia, even.”

He could feel Gabriel soaking in the story as only a librarian could. “I’ve always thought it was odd how we had a holiday song about them but we didn’t know what they were. Now I understand why. I should have thought to look them up sooner.”

Arthur leaned on a tree, watching idly as Dale peeled. “My great-grandpa talked about eating chestnuts at Christmas. I wonder where these came from, if they’re so rare.

“They’re starting to make a comeback, but demand far outstrips supply.” Dale discarded one side of the husk and worked off the other side as well. “Different cultures have different legends about chestnuts.” He sliced it in half to give them each a taste, passing the first half to Arthur, holding it out to drop it into his gloved hand. “In Japan they’re used to celebrate the New Year, symbolizing both hard times and success.” He extended the second half to Gabriel, but he was caught up listening, clutching the bag with both hands. Possessed by devilry, Dale didn’t give the librarian time to extricate himself and popped the meat into Gabriel’s mouth instead. “The early Christians believed they symbolized chastity.”

Oh, but Dale liked the way the remark made Gabriel blush. He knew he needed to diffuse the flirt, though, to let Arthur know he wasn’t actually making a play for his man.

Except Arthur only snorted and gave Dale a heavy wink, chestnut meat poking between his teeth as he reached into the bag for another nut. He swept the half Dale had peeled for him into his mouth with a wicked swipe of his tongue and bit into it smartly, giving it a few chews before replying. “Put us down for Japan, sweetheart.”

Arthur peeled the chestnut, mimicking Dale’s technique, holding his hand out for the pocketknife when the nut failed to comply as it had for Dale. Dale handed the tool over without a word, though he did note the way Arthur needlessly caressed his fingers as he collected the implement. Dale stroked his beard, trying to check his flicker of interest and stick to his earlier conviction Logan wasn’t the place for such things. Especially with practically married men in Logan. Especially with practically married men whose fiancés were standing right fucking next to him.

Hoping for a reminder of why he should behave, he glanced at Gabriel—only to find Gabriel studying him with the same wary, careful gaze.

Wary, careful, tentatively interested gaze.

The world shifted beneath Dale’s feet.

Arthur sliced the chestnut, carving it into thirds and splitting it between the three of them. He popped his part into his mouth, fed Gabriel the same way Dale had, and he did the same for Dale, though he took care to be extra sensual with his delivery of Dale’s portion. “A shame we don’t get chestnuts here too often, then. There’s no reason they should be so rare, except they’re not planted. Sounds like all they need to thrive is a bit of science, some common sense, and some care.”

It was all simple enough, what he was saying, and yet Dale had never felt as if tree talk could strip him naked. He was working out how to call Arthur out and ask if he was getting propositioned with a bag of nuts and for what, exactly, when Gabriel whispered in a warning tone, “Arthur.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. “I was being cool, until you had to go and point it out.”

Gabriel blushed as if someone had been roasting him on an open fire. He tucked the bag of chestnuts to his chest and pressed a mitten to his face. “Stop, you’re making it worse.”

Ignoring him, Arthur turned to Dale, the seduction veil lowered, though not entirely dropped. “Look. Let’s be real. You’ve been giving both of us eyes one way or another.”

“Oh my God.” Gabriel tried to make himself shorter.

Arthur patted him on the back and kept going. “And you’re a tall drink of water, I’ll grant you. So let’s cut to the chase. You just flirting, or you interested?”

Stick to the plan. Tell him no. Except Dale’s gaze kept tugging to poor Gabriel, who was mortified at Arthur’s blunt approach. “Very interested. But I don’t know if it’s such a good idea, starting something in a small town.”

His reply leached some of the tension from Gabriel. Arthur, however, seemed annoyed. “Oh, hell, that doesn’t matter. It’s not as if we’re gonna fuck on the city square or anything.”

Gabriel rounded on Arthur, looking ready to do murder. But when he raised his hand as if to strike, Arthur caught his wrist in a lightning-fast strike, grinning as he held him captive with a wink.

Dale’s dick got a little hard, especially when Arthur raised an eyebrow at him. “You want to come play with us sometime before you leave for the Cities?”

Dale glanced around. They were in full view of the town, but they were slightly separated, off on a snowy knoll behind the farthest ring of shops. It was risky and surreal. He reminded himself of all the reasons he should say no.

But Jesus, Gabriel and Arthur were one hell of a distraction from those reasons. Gabriel’s pretty curls and the memory of what Arthur’s tongue did to a piece of meat. Dale’s thigh buzzed again, but Ronny’s texts were no more annoying than a gnat at this point, because he had other, better prospects now. Ronny could fuck himself with his present.

Dale cleared his throat. “What type of play are we talking?”

Arthur’s dark chuckle made Dale’s knees waver, and when Arthur stepped close enough to run a subtle hand up his arm, Dale’s legs buckled, however briefly. “I don’t know, son. Why don’t you tell me what you like?”

Dale’s blood rushed to his groin, but enough of it lingered in his brain to remind him of Gabriel’s nerves. They had to quit doing this out in the open. But part of him feared if they went anywhere private right now, Arthur would start something immediately. Dale paused, struggling to remember why exactly that was a bad thing.

He cleared his throat. “I’m pretty open-minded. Discretion is my bottom line, though. I’m not interested in being the subject of local gossip.”

“Then it sounds as if we’re all of the same mind.” Arthur’s thumb massaged at Dale’s elbow. “When do you leave town?”

With this prospect on the table, Dale was willing to stay through the New Year. “I’m flexible. I largely work remotely at this point, so I can stay in Logan as long as I’m needed here, or check in from the Cities. I have engagements tonight, tomorrow, and Monday night, but beyond then I’m free.”

“We’re booked Tuesday, but Wednesday we’re open. How about you come over to our place? Show us your chestnuts.”

It was Gabriel’s curls, Dale decided. They’d hypnotized him. He stared at them, cock throbbing a happy hum in his pants as Arthur stroked his arm, and he threw his common sense out the window. “What time?”

“Six-ish? We’ll feed you first.” Arthur chuckled and swatted Dale’s butt. “Wisconsin boy like you must eat venison, right?”

Dale kept his attention on Gabriel, who was long and lean and graceful as a gazelle. “Oh yeah. Anytime I can get it.”

“Great. See you then.”

Arthur linked arms with Gabriel and his bag of chestnuts and led him away.

Gabriel glanced over his shoulder, mortified, flustered…and eager.

Dale adjusted himself as discreetly as he could, relieved the phone in his pocket had finally gone quiet. God in heaven, but he wished it were Wednesday.


As the Winter Wonderland festival wound to its successful close, Arthur stood at the back of the old elementary gym with his fiancé, family, and friends, and soaked it in.

An older, former school on the other side of town had been turned into low-rent apartments, but this place had been where Arthur went to school until Logan’s enrollment had dipped low enough they’d had to consolidate with Pine Valley. Now this structure was the city council building and general catch-all meeting place for any and every event Logan couldn’t fit in the American Legion or a church. Tonight Marcus’s friends Laurie and Ed led Logan’s finest in the waltz, rumba, and, at the moment, were giving the room a tango demonstration.

Arthur watched this from the side of the room, and beside him stood two new friends, Spenser and Tomás, whom Laurie and Ed had spoken of last year and had managed to coax up for the festival this time. They’d brought their son, Duon, and Tomás’s parents and his nieces and nephews. They’d had reservations, apparently, about coming up to such a small town, worried about prejudice and discrimination, as Spenser was the single white person in their entire crew, but by all accounts they’d had nothing but a wonderful time all day. Renata, Tomás’s mother, had fallen in love with the craft fair and engaged in a lengthy discussion of knitting techniques with one of the sellers who, by some miracle, knew Spanish. Tomás’s father, José, and Arthur’s best friend and business partner, Paul, had been huddled together for the last half hour, Paul struggling to resurrect his high school Spanish and José dredging up his best English so they could have a serious discussion about the Minnesota Wild’s chances for the playoffs this hockey season. And the kids had a fantastic time because it was a festival and there were a million kid things to do and a Santa to visit in “his real house,” Arthur had heard them whisper to each other.

It felt good to be having a festival in his hometown. He missed these kinds of community events. When he was a kid, it happened all the time. The Memorial Day bonfire. The Fourth of July parade and celebration in the park, with the fireworks at dusk. The parade had stopped happening when he was really young, but he had a dim memory of standing on a curb beside his mom, stamping his feet and dancing in time to the beat of the bass drum. The bass line had fascinated him. His mom had told him when he was older he could be in band if he wanted, and he could be the one to carry the drum, and he couldn’t wait. Except by the time he got to school not only was the parade gone, so was the marching band. They barely had a music program at all now.

The tango demonstration ended, and the room erupted in applause. After Laurie and Ed took their bows, Laurie grabbed the mic from the stage behind him.

“Thank you so much for coming to the Winter Wonderland festival. Logan is such a wonderful town, and I know I speak for Ed and so many of us when I say we love any excuse we can get to come here and support your library, the Pine Valley Children’s Home, and so many other great causes. In a moment we’re going to announce the total raised, but first, let me thank—”

He cut off as Arthur’s mother, Corrina, leaned over and whispered in his ear. He nodded, then resumed speaking. “I want to thank everyone who has donated their time and resources today, particularly Kyle Parks for his stunning ice sculptures in the city center. I understand he stayed up all night finishing some of the pieces. So don’t miss your chance to thank him for his hard work, and remember, the best thanks you can give him is to make a donation to the Logan Library or to the Winter Wonderland Foundation. You can find links and addresses for those at the website, at the library itself, or in the back of the room on flyers near the cake, which I must warn you is almost gone. And we will announce the amount donated today, but before we do, we have to wait for the mayor. So until then, what do you say to a little more dancing?”

The room erupted in cheers and applause, though Arthur couldn’t help noticing Tomás, who was standing beside him and juggling a weary six-year-old, frowned. “Ed can’t keep dancing,” he said to Spenser. “He was pushing it to tango as it was.”

Arthur wondered why Ed couldn’t dance, then remembered the former semipro football player was former because he’d had a serious neck injury.

Spenser bit the corner of his lip. “You could dance with him, yes? Or Duon?”

Duon held up his hands. “No way. I ain’t dancing in front of all these white people.”

Tomás shifted the sleepy boy in his arms. “Where’s my mom? If I can pass off Ashton, I can get over there.”

“Here, give him to me.” Spenser held out his arms.

“He’s heavy.” Tomás jostled the boy gently. “Buddy, you’re big enough to stand. Let Uncle Spenser take you to Abuela, okay?”

But before they could get any further in their plans, Laurie continued speaking. “I’d like to do something different this time. You’re familiar, I’m sure, with the dollar dance at weddings, where the guests pay a dollar to dance with the happy couple? We’ll do a variation of it now. Ed will collect the money, and the dancers will be me…” he made brief eye contact with Tomás, who nodded, “…Tomás Jimenez, from my studio in St. Paul, and of course your librarian, Gabriel Higgins.”

Gabriel stiffened, choked on his sip of hot cider, and turned to Arthur with a wide, terrified gaze.

Arthur patted Gabriel on the back and took the cup from his hands. “You can do it, baby. You’re a great dancer. Anyway, all you gotta do is stand there and smile.”

Gabriel still looked rattled. “They could have asked me.”

“I imagine this was Laurie punting on the fly, trying to make it seem planned. Dollars to donuts he apologizes after for putting you on the spot.” He pulled his fiancé closer to plant a kiss on his cheek. “Hon, it’s gonna be ninety percent little kids coming up to you anyway.” He winked and shifted his hand to grip Gabriel’s butt. “And me.”

“You’re right.” Gabriel sighed. “I suppose I should get out there and do my civic duty or whatever this is.” He leaned into Arthur’s touch, bending slightly to speak into his ear. “But if I’m beset by Concerned Citizens for Logan or anything else unpleasant, I fully expect you to come rescue me.”

“Always, honey. Always.”

Arthur clapped with the rest of the town as Gabriel joined the other celebrity dancers, but nobody beamed with pride the way he did over the town librarian. Everyone queued up to dance with the gentlemen, but the line to Gabriel was longest and mostly filled with children clutching dollar bills and bouncing on their heels, smiling and staring wide-eyed at Arthur’s fiancé as if he had personally hung every star in the sky. Linda Kay, Kyle’s twin sister who had Down’s syndrome, hesitated at Gabriel’s line, but opted in the end for Tomás, waggling her eyebrows at Kyle when he came forward and quietly admonished her to behave herself during her dance. “I’ll be good,” she promised. “But he’s sure a sexypants.”

Arthur joined Gabriel’s line out of loyalty, though he did agree with Linda Kay.

Kyle stayed with his sister, apparently not trusting her to keep her promise, but Kyle and Arthur’s lines processed in parallel, so they chatted as they went.

“Too bad Laurie didn’t call up your mom or someone,” Kyle observed. “It’s all women in these lines, except for us. Women and kids.”

Arthur studied the sea of people waiting and saw Kyle was correct. “I guess this is the downside to him only knowing a bunch of gay men in a small town? I don’t know. Something tells me he’s killing time. I don’t think he had the luxury of forethought here.”

Kyle grinned. “I wished he’d have asked me. I would have suggested Penny Mattherson.”

Arthur scratched his chin, trying to think of why she sounded familiar. “Penny Mattherson. She’s Bob Mattherson’s sister, right? Went out with Ottie Johnson back in the day?”

“Yep. Right up until she acknowledged she was a lesbian instead.”

Arthur laughed. “So you wanted to have a full rainbow coalition on the dance floor?”

“Well, sure, but three gay men and one lesbian would hardly be a full representation.” Kyle sighed wistfully. “I keep thinking of what Dale said at the city council meeting, about how we could be a draw because we’re queer. I know it’s not that simple, but I’d love to make even a little of it happen.”

“It’s not as if we don’t already have a rainbow up here. We just have to gather it in…whatever you gather rainbows in. We should have a monthly LGBT supper club or something.”

“That’s a good idea.” Dale Davidson’s bright voice boomed over them, and Arthur and Kyle turned to find him standing in line with them.

“Oh, hi, Dale.” Kyle shrugged. “I’d love to have a group, but I don’t have time to organize it, and my schedule sucks. Maybe once I get to take my new shift, though it won’t be a whole lot better. Besides, where would we have it?”

“They meet all over.” Dale gestured to the gym around them. “Here would be a good place, though it might be big. Council room might be a bit stale, but it would work.”

“Or the library.” Arthur wanted it to be the library, actually, mostly because of family pride. “Maybe it could rotate. Because when the weather’s nice, we could have it out at our place.” He could see it in his mind’s eye. Picnic tables set up on the ridge, him and Marcus working the grill, Gabriel chatting with the guests. God, he wanted to have them all over now. When they had the remodel done, they’d have room for that kind of thing inside the house too. Of course, once they started fostering, they’d also be full of kids. Which was good. He wanted kids. Watching Spenser and Tomás wrestle their brood, however, had made him quietly glad they’d agreed on older kids only.

Hopefully kids less moody than Tomás’s eldest niece, who was off in the corner weeping over something with her abuela. For what had to be the eighth time.

This hour.

Kyle frowned at Dale, glancing at him and then at the two queues forming on either side of him. “Are you in line, or…?”

Dale looked sheepish. “You caught me. I came up to talk to you guys in hopes I could slip in. I tried to get over here earlier, but those kids are fast. And they’ve cut off Gabriel’s line.”

Arthur bit back a grin as he gestured to the space in front of him. “Be my guest.”

Dale inclined his head. “Thank you.”

They were nearly to Gabriel now, and Arthur made eye contact with his fiancé, getting a smile and a wave in return. Dale got a smile and a blush, and when Dale and Kyle got to chatting about the ins and outs of how to start up a local LGBT support group, Arthur noticed Gabriel’s gaze kept sliding over to Dale, mapping the muscles of Davidson’s chest through his sweater.

Arthur grinned. This was so much more fun to think about than whether or not he was biting off more than he could chew by signing on to be a parent.

Last night in bed they’d had the best sex they’d had in a long time while Arthur demanded Gabriel admit how much he was attracted to Dale. His fiancé had been stealing glances at the man ever since he’d shown up Wednesday night, and once Gabriel admitted he thought the guy was handsome, Arthur couldn’t resist taking the fantasy to the extreme, teasing Gabriel until, in the throes of passion, he acknowledged he wanted to be fucked by Dale. Because they were playing, Arthur had pretended to threaten to call the man up and tell him, then settled for giving Gabriel a sound spanking instead.

Dale Davidson was fucking hot, and he turned both Gabriel and Arthur’s cranks. He was almost as tall as Gabriel, but he was as wide as Arthur. He was blond, but a dull, dark blond, not the shiny light blond of Marcus’s fiancé, Frankie. He had a granite jaw covered in a neatly trimmed full beard and mustache. His eyes were a soft blue, reminding Arthur of the Minnesota sky in summer. Paul had said Dale was like a combo between Chris Evans’s Captain America and the Brawny paper towel man, and all this was truth. He looked as if he could bench-press a mountain, but he’d hold a door for you while he did it.

The man was a certified flirt with everyone from little old ladies to the stodgiest of councilmen, but whenever he flirted with Gabriel, he made a point to acknowledge Arthur as well so he knew Dale didn’t have any dishonorable intentions on his man. He did this now as he danced with Gabriel, not settling for simply dancing in place with him as the children had but instead showing off his moves as he spun Gabriel around the floor, eliciting catcalls and laughter from the audience. Gabriel blushed and did his best to keep up, but he appeared to be having the time of his life.

Dale gazed at Gabriel as if he wanted the next spin to take them into a bedroom, but then he’d wink at Arthur, the gesture telegraphing, Don’t worry, man, I won’t.

Too bad the guy didn’t know Arthur wouldn’t mind one bit, so long as Gabriel came home again once they were finished.

Dale Davidson was handsome and polished, with all the city ways that gave Logan residents a thrill, but he was honest folks too. At least six different people had said as much to Arthur while Dale visited in the final preparation for the Winter Wonderland festival. Dale was a charmer, but he was a pleaser above all. Odds were good he’d carry that attitude into bed as well.

Oh, hell yes, Arthur wanted this experience for Gabriel. And he was going to make sure his baby got it. Arthur thought about how good they looked together dancing now, how good they’d look fucking on Wednesday night. He thought, too, about what a pretty picture Dale would make on his knees. Captain America/Brawny Man could fit into one hell of a submission fantasy.

When Dale’s turn ended, he brought Gabriel back to his station to a round of applause, and passed him, breathless and flushed, into Arthur’s arms. Arthur accepted his fiancé’s embrace with a grin.

“Nice moves there, buddy.” He winked and drew Gabriel close, leading him in a slow, simple sway. “Bring them Wednesday.”

With a grin, Dale saluted and disappeared into the crowd. But Arthur watched him go, and Gabriel had his eyes on him too.

Oh yeah. Wednesday was going to be all kinds of interesting.

Author Bio:
Heidi Cullinan has always loved a good love story, provided it has a happy ending. She enjoys writing across many genres but loves above all to write happy, romantic endings for LGBT characters because there just aren't enough of those stories out there. When Heidi isn't writing, she enjoys cooking, reading, knitting, listening to music, and watching television with her family. Heidi also volunteers frequently for her state's LGBT rights group, One Iowa, and is proud to be from the first midwestern state to legalize same-sex marriage.


Let it Snow #1

Sleigh Ride #2

Winter Wonderland #3

Santa Baby #4