Angel in a Bookshop
What happens when a broken man has to trust in the impossible?
For Jesse Connor, Christmas is nothing but a series of bad memories. It takes a man imbued with the spirit of Christmas to help him realize that the Christmas spirit lies in everyone. If they only know where to look.
Deefur and the Great Mistletoe Incident
The story of how Deefur, after the great mistletoe incident, ends up with the best bed in the house.
Please note: Angel in a Bookshop and Jesse’s Christmas are previously released titles available separately. Deefur and the Great Mistletoe Incident is available as a free read direct from our site.
- Cover Art by Meredith Russell
- Word Count: 63,000
Buy Links – eBook
Buy Links – Print Book
Love Bytes – 4/5 – “….What I loved most about this story was watching as Jesse slowly come back to himself and how he was rediscovering the spirit of Christmas through the pictures he was taking. Spending time with Gabriel certainly didn’t hurt anything, either. The slow build between the two just fit so well with the story and served as a good reminder to Jesse that he was worth more than just a quick roll around the sheets….”
Love Romance & More – 4.5/5 “…For a relatively short story, Angel in a Book Shop is wonderfully complete. We really get to know the two characters, are given a clear picture of their world, their thoughts and their background. At no point did I find myself wishing I knew a more about one thing or another. The beautiful words and vivid descriptions turned reading this book into an almost sensual experience….”
Excerpt – Angel in a Bookshop
I don’t often recall in detail every time I am part of a family. I remember the big events: the wars, the births, the weddings, and the deaths. That is why I am here, after all, and I write everything down as faithfully as I can. Still, time marches on so quickly and I am happy to let it pass. Until I find the man who will make me decide that time has to slow down so I can stay.
One day I will meet the person who will make me feel. He will be strong and certain and perfect for me, and I will want to ascend to become human just to be with him.
And yes, I know it is a him. I’ve always known.
* * * * *
For the longest time, Joshua Blakeman stood unmoving on the path outside the shop. People walked around him, some tutted, some brushed past like he could be pushed out of the way. Not one person stopped and asked him if he was okay. He never expected them to. He was a strange man wrapped tight in a winter coat with a beanie covering his head and a scarf obscuring his mouth, and he was blocking their way to work.
Behind him the number fifteen bus wheezed its way to a stop, and some of the people who had shoved past him now fought to get places on the bus. Josh heard no cursing or arguing; everyone found a place silently. He knew what that was like. For the past seven years, he had used his messenger bag and puffed up his five ten to intimidate and bully his way to a space in the standing-room-only spot on the Underground trains. He’d become so good at it that with judicious use of his bulky bag, he could get from Baker Street to St Paul’s in under fifteen minutes.
But that was yesterday. That was a whole lot of yesterdays. Way before his breakdown. Way before everything went to shit and he ended up here standing and staring.
This was his life now, this small rat run between the Tube and the bus at St Paul’s. No one even knew it was here, or at least no one ever stopped. There was no Starbucks, no Costa, no newspaper sellers, no history of anyone famous living in the square. There was absolutely no reason at all for a commuter to take a moment to see what was in Horus Gardens. Tourists would sometimes wander into this place, this small silent square, and sometimes, very rarely, they stayed. The green was somewhere to sit in peace before the next stage of the day. They could be going to Buckingham Palace or the Tower of London, they might have tickets for the London Eye or a cruise on the Thames. They all had purpose, and all they left here in the square was litter.
“Fuck’s sake,” someone cursed in Josh’s face as they barrelled into him. They didn’t add anything, just moved away, leaving Josh with the scent of last night’s garlic and this morning’s deodorant and aftershave.
Josh wondered how near to a breakdown that person was. Were they weeks away, hours, or had they only just sold their souls to commerce and were still fresh as a newborn?
“Sorry,” he offered, even though the person had long gone.
He didn’t move, though. He just stared at the sign in front of him, the big letters CLOSED painted in scarlet on a board covering the door, and at the swirls of white that misted the windows.
In there was everything Josh didn’t want, and everything he needed.
“Jesus Christ,” a woman snapped as she swerved to avoid him. “Bloody immigrants.” She left the scent of Chanel and the insult was a new one. Idly, he glanced down at himself. He wore a Marks and Spencer overcoat, Levi’s jeans and leather boots, and the scarf wrapped around his head was cashmere, John Lewis’s finest design. Still, he was standing here like an idiot, and that meant he was instantly labelled as whatever kind of nuisance people could think of to lay on him.
“Sorry,” another man said as he caught Josh’s knee with his briefcase. The man clearly wasn’t sorry. Josh knew that dismissive and irritable tone of voice well. He’d used it enough himself.
Finally he stepped closer, just one small move, the keys a heavy weight in his pocket. Then another step. By some miracle no one else collided with him, before finally he reached the entrance of Chapter One and the recessed door. At least in this sheltered area, the ice didn’t force itself through the wool of his coat. Here there was silence and he wasn’t going to be in everyone’s way.
He pulled the keys from his pocket and worked his way through them to find the one marked FRONT. The neat capitals in his dad’s handwriting sent a chill through his heart that wasn’t entirely due to the late October winds. Fumbling at first, he finally managed to get the key in the lock and opened the door. The jingling tone of a silver bell announced his arrival, and he had to shove hard to push an accumulation of junk mail and letters aside. Some of them looked official, but he’d already sorted the bills due online and over the phone. All of the places who dealt with the book shop had a home contact address for Josh and his mum. He could worry about the mail later.
The rush of smells hit him, the staleness of an interior that hadn’t seen daylight in nearly a year and the scent of books sitting just as the day his dad had left them. The large space was filled with bookshelves but devoid of what had given it purpose and life—his dad, Andrew Blakeman. Grief knifed Josh hard, and he stood still as the weight of it pushed him down. At least this time he wasn’t a path-block as he stood utterly still.
The last time he’d been in there, his dad was behind the counter with his dark-framed glasses and his white gloves, and he’d been working on a new acquisition, repairing a binding so the book could be sold. Josh’s fingers twitched at the thought. He’d apprenticed with his dad for a few years, until the lure of computers dragged him away. He knew leather and panels and plates, and he could finesse his way through a discussion about gilting if he wasn’t pushed too hard with questions.
A box sat in front of the counter, piled with what looked like second-hand books, a copy of Marley & Me poking out the top. His dad always had people dropping boxes of books in, and Josh had never understood why his dad hadn’t just told them to take the boxes to a charity shop.
Because any book is precious and you never know what gem or family heirloom you may find in with the Grishams and the Kings.
Ten months since his dad had died and still the words were carved into his memory like it was yesterday.
His phone sounded in his pocket, and he stripped off his gloves and pulled it out. He’d promised himself he wouldn’t keep checking the damn thing, but even after this amount of time, he still hadn’t lost the conditioning to answer. The single word, Mum, on the screen had him nearly pocketing the damn thing again, but he couldn’t do that. She would want to know.
“Joshua, sweetheart, did you make it there okay?”
Josh didn’t like to remind his mum he’d managed to get into the City safely for seven exhausting years and she hadn’t worried then. That would have earned him one of those patented Mum sighs of patience and a comment on how things had changed now. That was a can of worms he did not want to open again today.
“I’ve just got inside.”
“How does everything look? Is it okay?”
Josh checked around himself. Nothing had moved from the day his dad had died. Only he and his mum had keys, and no one else had been inside. Even the notebooks were open on the desk to orders, and a small pile of local newspapers talked about the wettest December since records began. Ten months, nearly eleven, and the place was still the same.
“It’s okay,” he summarised. “Dusty.”
“Thank you for doing this,” Mum said. “I know I’ve been in to see to the heating, but I couldn’t touch the books, his books, I just…not yet.”
“It’s fine, Mum. I’ll check the pipes, sort the post, and work my way through the list.”
“And Josh, don’t forget Phil asked for a second key. If Chapter One is sold he’ll need to let in agents and prospective purchasers.”
Josh swallowed his instinctive reply. No way in hell was he talking to Phil or giving him a key to this place. Uncle Phil, his dad’s brother, had shown an inordinate interest in this small property recently under the guise of supporting his sister-in-law. He said he only wanted to help, but Josh got a bad feeling about how much Phil was hanging around. Josh’s dad had left this place to his wife, and it would be Josh selling the shop and the inventory and making a new life for his mum. Not Uncle Moneygrubbing Phil. But the minute his mum said she wanted to sell, Phil had demanded she get in proper help.
Josh will do this for me. It will be good for us all.
Now was not the time to argue with his mum. “Okay,” he said instead.
“I hope this isn’t too much for you,” she said. The words were soft, and Josh wondered if she’d even meant to say them out loud.
“Mum, I’m fine. I’ll call you, okay?” He ended the call quickly and laid his phone on the counter. The shop was dark because of the wood nailed to the window frames, and keeping the door open for light was not going to work in this cold. He flicked a switch and the overhead lights came on. The bills were still being paid on the minimal electricity, the business rates, and water. The list was endless, especially for a business that sat idle and didn’t have a balancing income.
Cold from outside rushed in on a gust of October wind, and he pushed the door shut. Finally, when he’d turned up the heating, he was able to remove his coat and hat, then go in search of a kettle. The heating had been kept on low for the entire year, with his mum popping in every so often to check all was okay. Even now he wondered why she wasn’t there organising the stock. But she seemed to think it should be him, said he could use the time to consider what he was doing next.
And what the hell was it that he was doing next anyway? He’d never work for a financial institution again, and the thought of being one of those self-employed IT guys filled him with dread.
He had no milk but black coffee was a possibility if there was any here. His dad had kept a small kitchen and offered browsers in the shop a choice of coffee—albeit instant—or tea. The small fridge was empty, thankfully. Josh had nightmares at the thought of what all this time would have done to any food or drink left in there.
There were sachets of coffee, and he allowed the old pipes to disgorge spluttering water at the sink until the stream was settled before he filled the kettle. With a black coffee warming him from the inside, he was more able to coherently catalogue his surroundings.
The place wasn’t damp, which was good. There was stock in there that could be rescued and sold. They wouldn’t get much for it, and a lot of the books would need to go to charity, but they could maybe recoup enough to cover the heating that would be needed to see this place through another winter.
The sign from outside the second-hand book shop lay forlorn on the floor, propped up between his dad’s small displays of periodicals and Chick Lit, and Josh crouched to inspect it. ‘Chapter One’ it read in antiquey cursive writing. It was a cool name for a book shop, even Josh had to admit that. The sign was rusting and was more than likely only fit for the garbage. He traced the metal C and moved the sign a little so that it wouldn’t press too hard into any stock that could be salvageable.
Maybe they could get something for the sign. A reclamation place or something? He’d seen stranger things happen on the TV. Someone might want it for their converted barn or some other arty farty shit he wasn’t aware of. The sign was as old as the business, and that was over a hundred years of old.
The wooden floors were dull, but a run-over with stain or something and they’d look good again. Josh added that to the list of things to do when all the bookshelves were removed. Talking of which… He examined the base of the nearest shelving system, wondering if the flooring had been put in before or after the shelves were built. The whole thing nearly reached the ceiling, but it appeared to be sitting on top of the wooden flooring, thank goodness. In fact, there was a small space under each bookshelf and a strong memory hit him.
Of him as a small boy and a Top Trumps car game and losing one of the Fiat cards under one of the behemoth units. And of his dad’s comforting voice telling him that there were plenty more game cards and that Josh should take fifty pence and go buy another set more from the newsagents next door. That singular grief hit him again. His dad had been so young to die. Only sixty-four, and with so much to look forward to.
“Everything will be okay…”
Josh looked up from the floor, startled at the words, then shook his head. There was no one there, and yet again his head was fucking with him. Voices. Now he was hearing voices. Something moved in the corner of his vision, and he stood up quickly, grabbing at shelving to steady himself. Darkness brushed over him, and he closed his eyes against the start of another headache. He was used to them now, and he waited for the pain, but there was none, only heat that made his cheeks flush and his hands tremble where they gripped the shelf for support.
This is new.
He waited until he was sure he could stand without support, then continued his investigation of the structure of the place. For the longest time, he leaned against the large oak door that led to next shop. When he was little, probably around the same time as the Top Trumps incident, he used to imagine the door led to Narnia, or somewhere else with just as many exciting adventures. As an adult he knew it was permanently locked but led to the shop on the other side. Whoever owned next door had likely bricked over it all by now, and Josh wasn’t sure why his dad and granddad had left the door this side in place. He traced some gouges in the wood. Old and worn and smooth, they formed initials and patterns that could be four hundred years old, dating back to when this row of houses and shops was first constructed in the higgledy-piggledy roads of an older London.
So much history in those marks.
Josh crossed to the cash desk and the seat behind it. Always best to find somewhere to sit so he didn’t end up on his back looking up at swirling lights, which was basically how he’d staged his dramatic exit from Swanage Brothers Investment Bank in the summer. Then again on the Tube. And again in the supermarket. Until finally they’d shoved him in a ward with wires and monitors and treated him to a lot of wagging fingers about his brain and work, with several added did he want to die like his dad?
Sitting there had him face to face with his dad’s last day. The notebook was more a diary, and one Josh was familiar with. In there was a small list, orders to dispatch, a phone number and the words “Jane Austen” next to them. Chapter One didn’t sell just books being published now, it had also had a healthy backlist of rare books that his dad delighted in finding and matching with new owners. One of the last conversations Josh had ever had with his dad was about a near perfect set of Jane Austen books that he’d found.
Josh made a mental note to check into that. Maybe Chapter One owed money somewhere, or books to someone. The notebook was as good a place to start. Taking the pen from next to the notebook, he turned the page and wrote a big TO DO at the top.
I look up at the noise and try to make some sense of it. The door is half-hidden behind a cabinet displaying hand-carved knights and queens and open chessboards inlaid with gold leaf. The scratching…no, more a sighing…is a familiar sound once I settle into hearing it properly.
I straighten from my position hunched over a small watercolour I’m attempting to restore. I recall when this image was painted. One of my charges was a talented young lady whose skill for capturing beauty was lost when she gave everything up to become a wife.
Things have moved on, changed to where I don’t recognise the London of today. Still, I know what the sigh means.
* * * * *
Josh reread the list and mentally checked off each thing in his head with an accompanying tap of his pencil. “Inventory” was first on the list. Beneath that single word he wrote “Expert?” Who knew how much all this stuff was worth? There were books in there that he was sure would be happy in a bargain bin at a supermarket, others that looked valuable. He’d need to get someone in who knew antique books just in case there was enough money in the place to give Mum a settled retirement. No point in learning about them himself if he wasn’t going to be here long.
The door opened and he glanced up, blinking into the light spilling in from outside.
“We’re not open,” he said, attempting to focus on whoever had moved into the space. Some tourist seeing lights and thinking that the Closed sign actually meant “come on in and browse”.
“Hi,” a decidedly posh voice said. The owner of said voice stepped forward into the gloom of the interior and pulled the door shut behind him. He then tripped over the still heaped-up post, before righting himself with a wry look at the pile.
Josh noticed two things as he blurted an apology for the mess on the floor. The man was big, tall and broad, and he had a takeaway coffee in each hand which he hadn’t dropped on the floor when he stumbled. Josh had the random thought that he hoped one of those was for him.
Then he caught himself wishing for things that weren’t going to happen and stopped with a shake of his head.
“I’m sorry, but we’re closed,” he repeated.
The man moved closer and held out a coffee. “I know. I’m Michael. I have the shop next door, saw you go in, thought you’d like coffee.”
As he drew closer, Josh had a proper look at the man who proclaimed himself a neighbour. Tall—well, Josh had that much from the way he’d filled the doorway. Michael’s hair was near ebony black and would have looked stupid on someone as pale as Josh. On this man, with his warmer skin tones and dark eyes, it looked just this side of dangerous to Josh’s libido. Josh stood immediately, took the cup with his left hand, and extended his right.
“Josh Blakeman,” he introduced himself.
Michael shook Josh’s hand warmly. “I was so sorry to hear about your loss,” he said. The familiar words meant nothing. Josh had heard them a million times, repeated by everyone from his work colleagues to the barman at the King’s Head. Everyone felt it was what needed to be said. Josh had yet to work out, even after ten months, exactly what to say in return. Instead he sat back down on the stool and took off the lid of the coffee cup.
“You knew my dad?” Josh asked. He expected the usual pleasantries, but there were none from this man who filled the empty shop with his quiet presence. Josh coughed to cover the odd silence, suddenly worried as to why this man was still standing there with his face carefully blank of emotion. What did he want? He had cheekbones to die for, and…wait…hello dimples.
A spur of want poked insistently at Josh’s subconscious. It had been a long time since he had felt anything for another man. He’d found out his ex had been screwing him over way before Josh had ended up in the hospital, and that had been a few months back now.
Michael didn’t seem to be uncomfortable with the silence. He pulled out a selection of sugar packets and a stirrer from a pocket. “Just in case,” he said as he placed everything on the already muddled desk. “I gave you coffee, but this one is tea if you’d prefer that.”
“No, coffee is fine.” Coffee was way past fine. The first sip was heaven even as it scalded the roof of his mouth. He savoured the taste of the second sip as he rolled the liquid on his tongue to cool it. “Thank you.”
Michael went silent again and seemed intent on checking the shop space out as thoroughly as Josh had done just then. He didn’t touch anything, nor did he move, but his gaze fell on the floor and the tall bookshelves and the door separating this shop from what Josh presumed was his. He looked serious, thoughtful, and there was sadness there too.
“So you knew my dad?” Josh asked again.
This time Michael shook his head, his attention pulled back to Josh at the question. “Not really, though I took the shop next door a little while ago,” he admitted. “But who knows anyone in London, with everyone always so busy rushing this way and that?” The dusty light bulb cast a luminous shimmer about the stranger, and the way he stared at Josh was a little disconcerting. Not just the staring but the intensity of the gaze which was focused on Josh.
Josh didn’t have time to think on the odd use of the words or the way they were spoken in such a formal manner. He was just about to comment that he didn’t remember his dad rushing anywhere when Michael turned on his heel and left the shop with a wave and a goodbye. The silence after he’d gone made Josh struggle to believe that anyone had actually been in the shop with him. Only the rising scent of his caffeine fix told him that he hadn’t dreamed the whole thing.
Sipping thoughtfully, he added something to his list. Item six. “Find nearest coffee shop”. After all, it had to be close for Michael to be able to deliver the drink still hot to Josh. Then he sat back in the chair. What did Michael do? The last Josh recalled of the shop next door, it had still been a newsagent. Aram Singh had owned it with his family, and they had a paperboy whose name was Jamie or something. Odd, the memories you recall when you’re not thinking about them.
Michael didn’t look like a Singh, and he didn’t look like a newsagent either. In fact, he looked like the sort of man that Josh would sit to next to at work, when he’d worked—a dark suit, shirt and tie. No coat, though, or gloves or scarf or anything. It was only a few steps from this door to his, Josh guessed. He tried to picture the shop front next door, but all he recalled from that morning was the press of humanity and the desolation of loss as he stared at Chapter One.
Finishing the coffee, he resolved to pay back the kind gesture and maybe check out what kind of store sat next to this place. Maybe it was successful to the point the owner might want to buy this place and knock through.
Item seven. “Get our own estate agent not connected to Phil”. Then he added the word “eventually” and underlined it twice.
Where to start? Oh yes, inventory. He glanced around the shop, from the paperbacks in the racks at the front to the older books at the back. At least he’d heard of Dan Brown, so that informed his decision to start there.
Item eight. “Bring boxes for storage. Who wants the books?”
He counted twelve copies of Dan Brown’s newest title and a further six of Harry Potter and pushed them along to the shelf before marking the books by title and author with a count next to them on a new page in the notebook. Then he stopped. This was stupid. What am I doing? There was no methodology in what he was doing. He needed his laptop and an idea of what the hell he was trying to achieve here.
“Are you sure you want to do this? You’ve been ill,” Mum had said, her gaze fearful and her blue eyes filling with tears. She’d looked so frail, and Josh’s first instinct to give in and make her happy wasn’t easy to battle. But he wanted to do this. He had time, he didn’t have a job, he was burned out, tired, grieving, and he needed to do this. Then there was Uncle Phil. He had no right to the money, but Josh had a bad feeling he scented his and Mum’s weakness and intended to take advantage of it.
“I’m not a kid, I know my own limits.” Josh had defended himself quickly, but he couldn’t fail to notice Phil’s smirk at the words. Bastard.
Mum looked from Phil to him, pleading with her watery eyes and her shaking hands. “And you’ll call Phil if you need help?”
Mum had been looking for that strong male support and obviously she hadn’t seen it in Josh. That had hurt then, and it still hurt. His dad was gone, and Josh should be the man of the house now.
So he’d promised there and then that he would simply look and that he would call Phil, and they would work together on cataloguing and selling Andrew Blakeman’s life work. He’d lied then, and he was using all his best delaying tactics now. Take this morning’s call. That had been a reminder from Mum. Give Phil a key if you have to. Let him look if you need help. Don’t take it all on yourself if you can’t handle it.
“Phil just wants to help you,” Mum kept saying over and over, “and I don’t want you worrying.”
Item nine. Change locks.
When he glanced at his phone, he saw it was one o’clock, past lunchtime, and he’d been so lost in trying to get his head around what he was supposed to be doing that he’d actually done very little. His stomach rumbled, and his decision was made. He needed to find that coffee shop and get a sandwich. Tomorrow he could bring something in from home, but today he would treat himself. He considered the Italian sandwich shop around the corner from where he used to work, but he couldn’t bring himself to go. There could be people from his old job there, buying prawn and avocado on brown with more coffee just to get through the day.
Instead he stopped for a moment outside Chapter One and looked outward into Horus Square. Typical of older London, this was a close-built square of houses set around a green that offered two benches, large oak trees and blackened fake-iron railings. Most of the tall town houses had small gardens onto the green, but they were all sideways on and it was only Chapter One that faced outwards. That and the premises next door of course.
Josh turned to look at the name of it, what it was. He could just maybe go and say thank you to the man inside.
Arts Desire, the sign said. Not a hanging sign, but an actual painting on the glass of the shop window. Josh didn’t hesitate. He went in and the tinkle of a bell over the door had a head popping up from behind a long polished wooden counter.
“Hello,” Josh said. He didn’t add anything else, which was kind of lame as conversation starters went.
“Hi,” Michael said as he levered himself upright using the counter. He brushed at imaginary dust on his pristine shirt, and Josh realised the man had removed his suit jacket. There again, he could; this shop was nice and warm. Toasty warm and scented with vanilla, as if there were candles somewhere in there.
Memories assailed him of the smell of tobacco and the lure of penny sweets in plastic boxes. “This used to be the Singhs’ shop,” Josh said, “last I was here.”
“Mr Singh…” Michael tilted his head in thought. “Oh, yes, I recall his name on the lease. He was the last owner and newsagent with a small café, then there was the Abbots before that, who used the space for health food, but now it’s me.” Michael indicated the shop with an expansive wave of his hand. Josh followed the move and saw so much he couldn’t take it all in. Paintings on the wall ranged from lifelike to random splotches of colour: frames, cards, glass cabinets with figurines, and chessboards all set out with pieces on display. Stairs curved in a metal spiral to another level and light flooded in from an upstairs window reflecting on the mirrors that hung everywhere and catching every small crystal hanging in the space.
“It’s very…” He trailed off, and Michael smiled at him.
“Busy, artistic, bright?”
“All of the above,” Josh admitted. But that didn’t make it a bad thing. There was light in this place, and colour and eccentricity that warmed his cold soul. “I just thought I’d come in and say thank you for the coffee.”
Michael leaned his elbows on the counter and rested his head on his hands. The pose seemed so at odds with the shirt and tie. There was a playfulness in the way he relaxed in his kingdom. “You’re so welcome,” he said with a smile. “I have a huge espresso machine in the back. You want me to show you?”
“You made the coffee?”
“Come see.” Michael straightened, and Josh didn’t argue. He followed Michael through a curtain of glittery butterflies hanging on delicate threads in a waterfall of colour. The room behind the shop space reminded Josh of the kitchen in Chapter One, small and cramped. But there was a big difference here. In the book shop, the kitchen was a hovel, with a small fridge, a kettle, coffee sachets and a flickering bulb. Michael’s had evidently been upgraded when part of it was a café. The coffee machine was all highly polished chrome with a multitude of knobs and dials, and teetering in a neat pile, all still wrapped in plastic, were the kind of cardboard drinks containers you would see any coffee drinker clutching as they dashed from Tube to work.
“Wow” was all he managed to say.
“I know, it’s cool. It was left by the Singhs and all I needed to do was get in a maintenance guy to make sure it all worked. I use mugs generally.” He indicated the small sink that was set into a work surface on the other wall. “But I didn’t want to burden you with the washing up.”
That made sense, but also led to an unwelcome conclusion. “So there’s no coffee shop near here?” He couldn’t help the disappointed tone. Coffee meant cakes or pastries or paninis, and his stomach rumbled again as if to underscore its displeasure.
Michael frowned. “Yeah, if you go back to the main road and head down to St Paul’s, there’s the usual.”
“I’m not desperate enough to fight the crowds,” Josh said. He’d been hoping for a small café somewhere quiet.
“Are you hungry? Here.” Josh looked down at what he was being handed. Freshly wrapped sandwiches. Ham and mustard. “You can have these.”
“I can’t take your lunch.”
Michael jiggled another pack in front of Josh. “I have others,” he said. “I buy enough for two days normally.”
Josh’s polite gene kicked in and warred with his empty stomach, which had seen little more than coffee since six pm yesterday.
Finally his stomach won and he nodded his thanks. “If you let me bring you some tomorrow.” He really felt like he could stand to have some kind of connection outside of the book shop in this small area, and Michael seemed like an okay kind of guy.
“Deal. Do you want a cuppa with that?” Michael was already at the kettle, filling it with water. “I can do coffee if you want?” He indicated the machine, but Josh shook his head. He’d had enough coffee for a while.
“That would be lovely.” Again with the lame, Josh. There was an amount of silence that edged on awkward, and Josh cursed inwardly. He hated awkward silences. Then, inspired, he asked a question that was guaranteed to encourage a conversation to last at least as long as the kettle boiled. “So how long has this shop been here?” he asked. “I don’t remember Dad mentioning you.”
“March time,” Michael said, distracted by the kettle switching off. “How do you like your tea?”
“Milk, no sugar, thank you.”
Michael turned his back and busied himself with the tea, finally presenting Josh with a bright white mug filled to the brim with tea and emblazoned with a rainbow and the words Pride 2013. Then he indicated two chairs that Josh hadn’t even noticed were there, and the men sat. The kitchen wasn’t a big area for a man as tall and solidly built as Michael, let alone when you added Josh’s five ten frame, skinny though he was. Still, somehow they managed to place mugs and sandwiches on a surface yet have space to sit comfortably.
Josh felt pain tug at his temples, and he removed his glasses, placing them next to the mug.
Immediately Michael leaned forward. “Headache? I have pills.”
“No, I’m fine.” Please, no more pills. “Just, it’s dark next door, and I think I strained my eyes.” He was lying, but Michael couldn’t know that. Josh had become a very good liar in the last few months.
The silence that followed was uncomfortable for as long as it lasted until Michael pulled over a small radio and pressed a button for a local station. The noise was welcome. Josh could stop concentrating so hard on his breathing and actually relax.
He guessed it would be useful to talk to Michael about footfall and the kind of people that shopped around there. It was good information to support the sale of Chapter One as and when Josh was ready.
“Do you get many customers?”
Michael shook his head. “Most of my business is done online.” He reached over to a box on the side of the units and pulled out a card, which he passed to Josh.
Josh read the words. “Arts Desire”, followed by a simple web address and an email. Josh was impressed that the little shop had a website. He’d fought hard to get his dad to move into the twentieth century let alone the twenty-first, but all his dad had done was laugh and say he’d get around to it one day.
Only he didn’t.
“Are you okay?” Michael asked gently.
“No,” Josh responded without thought. “Sorry, yes, I’m fine. So, the website?”
“Sometimes a tourist will walk in, but they don’t buy really. I generally use this place to meet clients who are looking for a particular piece of art.”
“So it works well.”
“My, uhm…family…they own the building, so other than the usual expenses, it’s not too difficult to cover the bills, and I’m happy here in my own world.”
“My dad said that. One day. To me. He said that.” Josh was aware he was snapping out small pieces of a sentence, and he consciously stopped himself. “He said he loved what he did, surrounded by the books, and he didn’t mind if he didn’t see a single person.”
“But he must have, to stay in business so long?”
Josh considered the question. How did Michael know how long his dad had been there? Probably by the state of things. What was next door was no fly-by-night shop, it was old and smelled ancient and had books in there that people would never think to read now. It was clearly an old man’s place with whole generations of history on its bookshelves.
Josh finished his sandwich, which was probably one of the best ham and mustard sandwiches he’d ever tasted. I must have been hungry. “The shop was my granddad’s. He inherited the space from a cousin who died in the Second World War. He had my dad late in life so I never met him.”
“War is sad,” Michael offered gently.
Josh blinked at the other man. That was kind of an odd thing to say really, in the context. “Anyway,” he continued. “There was a book once, part of an estate sale. Dickens. Dad sourced and sold it, and that meant my family had enough money so the shop continued and it gave Dad a financial cushion.”
“That’s a nice position to be in. So you’re selling the shop?”
Josh pushed away the guilt that threatened to derail this entire conversation and nodded. “I just need to inventory and get some of the books into sales.”
“Is that something you can do?” Michael sounded like he was surprised Josh could do something like that.
Josh would be surprised if he managed it but he had spent time in the shop as a kid, and he at least halfway knew what he was doing. Massaging his temples briefly, he put on his glasses again and marvelled, not for the first time, how the world came so sharply into focus.
Dark brown eyes. That was what Michael had. Gorgeous liquid chocolate brown eyes, and up close he could see that his dark hair really was as near to black as Josh had ever seen.
“Hmm… Sorry?” he asked, having completely lost track of the question.
“Do you have experience with books? Is that what you do for a career?”
“Me? No. Well, I used to help my dad when I was younger, but I work in the City. Worked, actually. Up until this summer just gone.”
“That’s admirable, taking time off to look after your family.”
Josh didn’t correct him. He wasn’t going to tell a complete stranger what he’d done. Even if the stranger did have the most beautiful eyes and soft pink lips and had mugs with gay pride slogans on them.
Even if something in Michael’s eyes compelled him to confide it all.
Abruptly he moved, placing the mug in the sink and the sandwich container in the bin. “Thank you, it was nice to meet you.”
“And you,” Michael said. “It was nice to have company.”
Josh fled before he spilt everything in his head. He was back in Chapter One before he said a single word, but the curse he let out in the book shop was loud.
So loud Michael could probably hear it through the walls.
Excerpt – Jeese’s Christmas
The end when it came was utterly brutal and sudden. One minute Jesse Connor was planning the most romantic way to propose to his boyfriend of three years, the next said boyfriend was gone. And not just gone in a ‘popped out for a coffee’ way. But gone in an ‘emptying closets and trashing the place’ kind of way. Even the original Jesse Connor prints on their bedroom wall were gone, removed from the frame with the frames themselves stacked haphazardly against the wall.
Everything Jesse felt about the season was wrapped up in this particular Christmas, the day he was going to ask Jonah to marry him. He had the tree and the decorations and all the perfectly chosen and appropriate presents organized. He even had the damn platinum ring burning a hole in his pocket.
And now everything had gone to hell.
“Sir, you’ll need to come with us.” Jesse spun on his heel. There was a cop standing inside his apartment, feet straddling the threshold between bedroom and main living room. This was a joke. Any minute now the cop would strip off and give him a lap dance and everything would be revealed to be one huge joke.
“I think I’ve been burgled,” Jesse murmured. He felt icy cold; the window wide open to the outside air was letting in gusts of snow every so often. The snow landed on the widescreen TV, which lay on its side with half of its guts hanging out, and melted immediately.
“Sir, we have some questions. Please come with us.”
“Where?” was all Jesse could ask. “Outside?” He was in a daze. Where was Jonah? Why was the TV destroyed? Where had his photos gone? Why was all of Jonah’s stuff not in the closet?
“The FBI are waiting in the hall, sir.”
“What? Sorry, what?”
“Sir, you’ll need to come with us,” another cop said. Where had he come from? Jesse blinked at them both.
“What are you doing here? Where’s Jonah?”
“We’re hoping you will tell us that, sir.” This time it was a different voice belonging to a man in a cheap suit with frown lines bracketing his eyes who stepped in past the cops.
“I don’t know.” Jesse pulled out his cell again, but checking it for the hundredth time wasn’t going to change the fact that there was no new message from Jonah. “Maybe he’s delayed at the bank?” Jesse offered.
“We both know that is unlikely,” the Fed said with a scowl. “He’s not going to return to the scene of a crime.”
Cops in his apartment. And now Jonah was being accused of something. And Jonah had gone. The music in the apartment next door started up, signaling the fact that Henrietta who worked in marketing at the same company as Jonah had arrived home. The strains of Christmas music wound their way through the walls and into Jesse’s hearing.
“He’s supposed to be here. We were due to go to the ballet. I had tickets.” Jesse looked at the decorated tree that lay on its side, then back at the empty frames, and finally he faced the cops in his and Jonah’s apartment.
“I’ll need your cell phone, sir.” The Fed held out his hand.
“Will it help you find Jonah?” Jesse asked uncertainly.
“I surely hope so,” the Fed answered brusquely.
“What did he do? What’s happened? I don’t…”
The Fed was talking to the cops, telling them not to let anyone in, instructing them that Jonah may well be desperate and try anything at this moment in time.
Jesse followed the Fed numbly out into the hallway. The door to Henrietta’s apartment was open, and she stood in the doorway with a stunned expression on her face. Her eyes were bright and she was crying.
“Oh my God, Jesse,” she said as Jesse came to a stop in front of her.
“Henrietta? Are you okay? What’s happened?”
“It’s Jonah. He’s taken down the whole bank.” She put a hand to her mouth. “He’s wiped millions in trading. It’s all over the news, he’s destroyed us.”
“I don’t understand?”
“Did you know?” she shouted. Jesse stumbled back against the wall as she advanced on him with horror in her eyes.
The Fed moved between them. “Sir, you need to come with me.” Jesse saw one of the cops nod, and in a few seconds he was bundled out of the building and into a cop car.
When he got home, twenty-four hours had passed and Jesse’s world had been destroyed. He tore the tree to small pieces and threw the gifts in the garbage.
And he promised himself one thing. Never again would he fall so far in love that he was blinded by it.
“Your apathy is getting serious, and you have deadlines, Jesse.”
The words repeated on an audio loop in his head. Emma meant well. As his agent she had a responsibility to keep him in line. God knows he hadn’t been the best client over the last year.
“I get why you’re angry,” he hedged in the vain hope he would placate her.
“You agreed to this contract, Jesse. The photos for their website are important to them and are central to their whole Christmas marketing campaign.”
“I know, Emma—”
“They’re paying good money for Jesse Connor’s work, and let’s face it, your accounts are running on empty now. Eden Vale may be the only thing that gets you inspired.”
He argued so hard. He used to love Christmas. The expectation and the uplifting joy that people carried around with them was so intrinsic to the memories he had of the season before two years ago. Now though? Well now, in his opinion, Christmas was something he wanted to forget, winter was cold, and in fact every damn thing connected to the season sucked. Emma had been so patient listening to everything he said and then passed him the leaflet that signed his death warrant. That is what it was. A damned document to screw him over in life’s shitty path. So sue him if he was being melodramatic, but his response was a well-thought-out curse word that made Emma narrow her eyes in a flash of temper.
“Is there a problem, Jesse? You know you are only getting away with this artistic bullshit because the clients are desperate for the work of the Jesse Connor.”
Her words had created a curious mix of gratitude and fear in him. Something as simple as a client still wanting him actually seemed more like a noose around his neck.
“Yes, there’s a goddamn problem with all of it. This is simple. I can’t do it, Emma. I don’t have the passion I need for creating art, let alone have anything to do with Christmas. That isn’t some random statement. I really can’t give them what they want.”
“No, Em, I know you are trying to help, but I don’t feel Christmas. Not in a single cell of my body.” He pushed every raw emotion he had into the simple words. She ignored him and instead changed the subject back to the visit to Christmas-ville.
“The first event in Eden Vale is three days away, Jesse. I booked you a room from tomorrow, right through December, up until the third of January.”
“What the hell? I thought you were joking.” Jesse sat forward. “I said no, and I meant it. You have to get me out of this contract, tell them I was drunk when I signed it. Because I sure as hell am not going to freaking Vermont.”
Emma crossed her arms over her chest. “You are going. The newspaper has hired you and wants to bring Christmas to their website viewers, and they want it to be a Jesse Connor Christmas.”
“The deal is done, and it’s your only option. You knew what you were doing when you signed the contract—”
“I needed the advance—”
“Which you now can’t pay back, right?”
She was right. That ten thousand dollars was enough to pay the rent on his place and keep him in food for a few months. He needed a job of some sort to keep him going after that.
“I hear McDonald’s is hiring,” he snapped.
“Yeah, I can see the headlines now. Jesse Connor, former award-winning photographer and ex of the imprisoned Jonah Miles et cetera, millions lost and so on, has hit rock bottom tossing burgers.” She wasn’t trying to be cruel, but every word hit home. Only Emma could get away with some of the brutal honesty she could dish out.
“Consider this an intervention, Jesse. Pack a bag and get the hell away from the City. Leave your memories here and take my car.”
She had dangled the keys to her cherry red, and eminently sensible, Prius. He hated that damn car, too small, too stifling, and too much like hard work. In fact, he hated driving. There was a reason he had always loved the city where you get from A to B without wedging yourself in a tin can.
“I’m not just your agent, okay? I’m your friend, Jesse.” She crossed to where he sat and wrapped her arms around him from behind. “The Prius will get you to Eden Vale, and I paid for a room in a small hotel there as an early Christmas present. The paper wants a photo a day from the first of December to the twenty-fifth for their website with short copy for each. Now go.”
Jesse was left with no arguments to counter the near-military precision with which his agent forced him to leave New York. Dammit but she was good at her job. It was go to freaking Christmas-ville or fight with Emma to get a reference from her so he could apply to McDonald’s or to stock shelves at Walmart.
And now he was sitting in the damned Prius in the mountains at God knows what point on his journey, and his resentment was near bubbling over. He pulled over to let a van pass on the narrow road, and the moment’s respite was filled with the hurt that flooded him that Emma, his friend, had him by the balls. His best friend—his only friend—yet she consigned him to the middle of freaking nowhere in her damn tin can of a car. His life really couldn’t get any worse. He’d had his heart broken by a thieving scheming fucker of a boyfriend, lost all his money, mislaid his muse on a permanent basis, and now it seemed like he was going deep into the Green Mountains of Vermont to a small town in the Mount Snow Valley, population proudly displayed as 1,007, called Eden Vale. Where, allegedly, he was going to find Christmas.
The town was at the end of a winding valley road that seemed too narrow at some points for two vehicles to pass at the same time. The rural mountainous countryside would have appeared pretty, even stunning, to anyone other than Jesse. He desperately needed coffee, but he doubted the inhabitants of this place had ever visited a Starbucks, let alone had one on the small Main Street. The town itself, as he passed through it, was nothing more than a cliché—a couple of chain grocery stores, a gas station, and a beauty parlor advertising discount for the under-twelves. For a moment, Jesse pitied any kids being stuck here so far from civilization.
“…predicted at least five inches…skiing center that has opened a new…”
The radio was intermittently spitting out sections of news interspersed with lame attempts at Christmas music, a mix of carols and pop songs from the seventies. Emma hadn’t told him her CD player was on the blink, and despite searching, he hadn’t found a jack for his iPod. The farther into the mountain he climbed, the worse the reception became, but turning off the radio was impossible as the damn thing was broken. Taking his eyes off the road, let alone hoping to stop somewhere, was inadvisable. If he stopped, he would be blocking the damn road. His satellite navigation, courtesy of his cell, had also decided to fritz out on him, and he hoped the damn hotel was easy to find.
“…stay safe folks and here is ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ by the wonderful Mariah Carey…”
Great. Just great. Torture me with that!
The Eden Vale Hotel was almost exactly what Jesse was expecting. Like something out of a Hallmark Christmas film, the small building looked old and was nestled firmly against the hillside above the valley and probably had awesome views of the diminutive nowhere town. Jesse sighed. Emma had said it was small… Clearly she hadn’t been lying about that. He stopped the Prius outside the main door in the parking space, and with the engine off, the radio thankfully cut Mariah’s vocals short.
Inhaling and glancing to his left, he took in a vista of the town sprawling before him. Most trees were bare of leaves, but some held tight to gold and were stubbornly clinging to autumn. The road here was steep, cut up into the sides of the valley, and it really wasn’t surprising that the population was as low as a thousand souls given how remote it seemed, though intellectually he knew Wilmington, with its bars and entertainment, wasn’t that far. Maybe he should consider visiting and even taking up skiing? He shuddered. That meant willingly exposing himself to snow, and that was never going to make it on to his to-do list. There weren’t many buildings on this side of the valley, and what he could see were sparse and spread out—dwellings clinging tenaciously to this ass-end valley exit from Mount Snow. Each place was separated geographically by challenging terrain, and it was easy to admit that, if a person wanted quieter rural appeal, then Eden Vale would be perfect.
He stepped out of the car and pulled out his two bags and the suitcase on wheels. The cold of an early winter wind gusted around him, and he shrugged lower into his jacket. Coffee. He needed coffee, possibly reinforced with whiskey.
The lobby was empty, although to call it a lobby was a slight exaggeration. The desk was small and off to one side and was full to bursting with leaflets and notices; he skimmed the closest of them as he dinged the small bell for attention. Apparently the local moms’ group was meeting in the school auditorium, Jenny Absolom was calling for volunteers for a church fundraiser, and the carol concert was at seven pm on Christmas Eve. The list of events, from candle-making to—jeez—midnight carols, was just a little bit too much “joining in” for his liking.
“Hello, Mr Connor. You found us, then.” The chirpy bright voice matched the chirpy bright woman walking around him to stand behind the desk.
“Yes.” Jesse wasn’t entirely sure what else to add to that. He completed the formalities, the whole time checking out the person who was explaining in rapid fire about amenities and rooms. Looking like—and he hated thinking this—a storybook grandma, she was taking his details, talking, and laughing all at the same time. Short and slim with dark blonde hair, she seemed to radiate happiness along with an obvious desire to please.
Okay, so it was a little full-on, and Jesse, to be fair, was tired, but he couldn’t help but exchange a smile when she said she was showing him to his room. She was simply infectious and the welcome was…welcoming.
“You’ll be in number twelve, our scarlet room,” Mrs McClurey—call me Diana—informed him. “Be careful with the door. It sticks sometimes. Always remember to turn the tap off fully, and if you want anything, please dial zero on your room phone.”
“Thank you” was all he could manage as his day began to catch up with him.
Diana chatted away as she showed him to his room. Opening the door with a flourish, she stood to one side to usher him in. He entered the room and put his bags on the floor. “We have a snow warning out tonight. We may have a beautiful carpet of white when you wake up tomorrow.”
Great, Jesse thought. The Prius would need clearing, and he was bound to fall on his ass. Snow and Jesse meant an inevitable accident. He hid his irritation behind a smile and said nothing.
It was darkening outside as evening pulled in, and he was a long way past tired into tripping-over-exhausted after hours of driving. He glanced around the room, seeing that the size of it was a step down from his apartment.
“Would you like a sandwich in your room? Or you can join us for dinner in the dining room at seven.” Mrs McClurey, sorry, Diana, was hovering with a smile on her face. Taking four hours to just get out of New York had not formed a particularly good start to this whole chasing Christmas thing, but he’d had snacks in the car, and he was way more tired than hungry.
“No, thank you. I’m really not hungry, and it’s been a long journey. I plan on catching up on sleep.” Unintentionally, he punctuated the words with a wide yawn behind his hand, but thankfully, she didn’t question why he was yawning and ready for bed so early in the evening. Clearly she had guests who arrived exhausted and just needed sleep.
Diana could certainly talk. She continued talking, and Jesse found himself mesmerized by the air of energy around her and her piercing blue eyes.
“Once we had twenty inches of snow in one night; it broke county records for Eden Vale. For tomorrow they’re forecasting about five. My son will be here to clear the pathways in the morning, so you don’t need to worry about slipping right outside the hotel.” Jesse didn’t like to ask if this son was going to clear a whole passage from here to town. She sighed. “It’s a real shame the snow has to be cleared, but if you wake up early, it’s beautiful nature untouched by human hand.”
Jesse made an appropriate noise of agreement, the spark of an idea for the first photo in his head. Nature untouched by human hand. Tried and true it might be, but taking a shot of virgin snow would get him a few days ahead of himself. He had three days before the first shot needed to be posted to the blog with copy. No pressure, then. Finally, after some more sighing over the wonderful possibilities of beautiful snow, Diana left and pulled the door shut. He glanced around the room as soon as he was on his own.
It really was nothing fancy to look at, no high-tech appliances like TVs or stereos, not even a coffee maker. The room held old, mismatched furniture that looked to be made of various different woods, but his artist’s eye admitted it held a certain charm. The drapes he pulled across the windows were a vivid striped scarlet and gold. He guessed they were the reason for the name of the room, and thanked the heavens he wasn’t in a bedroom called the orange paisley room.
After stripping, he pulled on jersey shorts, then brushed his teeth in the small bathroom, admiring the huge claw-foot tub set to one side. No shower, but he could get into long lazy soaks. He tumbled onto the queen-sized bed, sprawling diagonally, and the bed groaned and creaked under his movement. He wasn’t a huge guy, but this was clearly an old bed that probably wasn’t going to take his weight, let alone the weight of two people. He and a boyfriend, for example.
Oh yeah, he’d forgotten. I don’t have one of those, do I?
Not for the first time in the last two years, a familiar anger rose in him, and it was a welcome emotion. Anger grounded him. He should never forget what Jonah had done to him, let alone the thousands of people involved in the fall of the investment company he worked for.
He closed his eyes and tried for sleep, although it didn’t seem to want to come to him quickly. Instead, his head was full of what-ifs and maybes, of the threat of snow and ice and a wind chill to freeze his balls.
The proposal to photograph and write on the theme of the biggest damn holiday of the year was so open to interpretation he could write anything and capture any image. But he couldn’t imagine what might possibly inspire him this Christmas.
Jonah was supposed to have been his Valentine, his Thanksgiving, and his Christmas rolled into one. The idea of making new December memories with the man he’d loved had seemed so bright. But what Jonah had done to him had killed any thoughts of making memories that mattered stone dead.
Doing what he did best, he pushed past the memories and made a list in his head and then concentrated on Post One for the website blog post, which he labeled “Expectation” in his head. What did a picture-postcard Christmas-themed town need first? Diana was right. Snow. Maybe he should get some photos of the first snow before the son arrived to clear it in the morning. That would make a suitable first page. He could always cobble words together, try and recall what Christmas before Jonah’s betrayal had been like. Maybe he could copy/paste something from somewhere. Mentioning virginal white and the promise of Christmas were words he could copy from any old Christmas website. He set his cell alarm for a little before seven, ten minutes before sunrise, and then checked his messages. There was a text from Emma asking if the Grinch had arrived in Christmas-ville yet, and he sent back a brief here in response.
No sense in sending anything else. She wouldn’t expect a lengthy response from him. She was his agent, and he was Jesse Connor. He was an artist; he wasn’t going to waste his precious time or hers on unnecessary words. He winced at his internal monologue. Who the hell do I think I am?
Sighing, he closed his eyes. Emma was his only connection to anything remotely resembling a friend now. He’d pushed everyone else away with his misery and his remoteness, oh and the fact the world and his freaking wife wanted a piece of him because of Jonah. Opening his eyes, he grumbled as he reached for the cell and sent her another message.
Hotel nice. I’m fine. He even added a smiley face after he recalled the keys he needed to press to make one. It took him a while to find the close bracket symbol. Not a good start.
Satisfied he had done enough to stop her worrying, he put his cell down and lay back to stare at the high ceiling. Then he began to count back from hundred and waited for sleep to chase him down.
Gabriel McClurey stamped the snow from his boots on the porch before pushing his way into the warm kitchen. His mom didn’t immediately turn to face him, busy as she was with coffee. Given it was still dark outside, coffee would be welcome and might go some way toward waking him up. He yawned behind his hand and caught sympathy in his mom’s eyes when she faced him.
She handed him the coffee and kissed him on the cheek. “How deep is it?”
“Enough so I left the Jeep at the bottom of the drive.”
“They said five inches.”
Gabriel huffed. “More like twenty in the drifts and the end of the drive is completely blocked.”
“I appreciate you coming to help,” Diana said with a smile.
He knew she’d probably been up as long as him, busying herself around the small hotel, and he didn’t begrudge coming up early to clear the worst of the snow from the front of the place. This place was family owned and he had as much of a stake in it as she did, but she’d never once said anything when he announced he was going to become a teacher. Just like when he’d told her and his dad that he was gay at the tender age of thirteen. His mom lived by the motto that life was all about being committed to something that made you happy.
Being a teacher made Gabriel happy.
Living here in this small town in the mountains of Vermont made Gabriel happy. Add in a warm kitchen, his mom’s dark, hot coffee, and snow and he was pretty satisfied with life.
“Did you get through to Kane?”
Gabriel sighed. The only thing he and his mom disagreed on was the subject of his ex-boyfriend. Five years together and now three years apart and still Diana insisted Gabriel invite Kane up for Christmas.
“Like I said, Mom, he’s got a new boyfriend now, and he’s spending Christmas in London with him.”
Diane pursed her lips in thought. “Maybe he’ll come visit in the New Year,” she said.
“You do know he’s my ex, right?” Gabriel teased.
Diana smiled. “Of course I do, but he’s still your friend and I liked him a lot. I’ve been thinking about that anyway.”
“About what?” Gabriel hated it when his mom was all thinking about things. It never boded well for Gabriel when he was the focus of her thoughts.
“About a boyfriend,” she began. Gabriel opened his mouth to interrupt, but she waved a finger under his nose. Hell, it was way too early for this. “You’re not going to meet anyone in Eden Vale. You need to spend much more time in the city.”
Gabriel started to say something again, but his mom quickly continued.
“I don’t mean there, I mean New York or San Francisco or LA or something.”
“Mom, I am not touring the country looking for a boyfriend.” He smiled in disbelief.
“Your dad wouldn’t want you alone,” she added with bright eyes.
Jeez, now she was pulling the dad card on him.
“Dad wouldn’t want me trawling bars looking for a man,” Gabriel offered gently. “Anyway, how am I supposed to get out of town now?” He gestured at the door. “My Jeep would be unlikely to make it off the mountain, let alone into a city. Speaking of which…” He stood and shrugged on his thick coat before pulling on heavy-duty gloves, a beanie, and winding a scarf around his face. “Snow isn’t gonna clear itself,” he mumbled into the wool.
He escaped before he had to listen to any more boyfriend advice. He and his mom were close, but this time of the year she grew melancholy with memories of his dad who had passed six years before, and wanted everyone to be happy.
Contemplating where to start with the snow clearing, he was pleased to see the soft lightening of the sky as dawn broke over the mountain. That would make it easier to clear the snow in the right places. For a second he simply stood and looked out over the snow that lay pristine and untouched apart from his footprints on the driveway.
Seemed a shame to destroy such beauty, but he knew his mom had guests at the moment, and he was a good son.
As he began to shovel he hummed to himself, something the kids had been working on at school, and he soon got into a rhythm of movement that had the snow piling softly to the side of the walkway.
His mom was wrong. Gabriel was happy. Lonely maybe, but always happy.
* * * * *
Jesse woke at the seven am alarm he had set on his cell and washed up at the sink, eyeing the bath longingly. Later, he promised himself and then dressed in jeans and layers from T’s to sweaters. With the drapes open, he realized Diana and the US Weather Service had been right. The snow had certainly fallen overnight, and the start of light over the valley had a beautiful quality. The early morning dawn appeared feeble against the sea of white and highlighted the absolute and utter stillness. Pulling on boots and then grabbing his Nikon, he left his room in a hurry and made it downstairs in record time. Throwing open the front door, he was ready to jump into his work, already in artist-makes-brilliant-art mode, and he had exactly what he wanted. Undisturbed snow lying just as it should—deep and crisp and even.
“Morning.” The single word came from a man shoveling snow, Jesse’s pristine untouched snow. There went the whole first freaking post. Obviously the guy had started clearing in the dark. What kind of an idiot did that? Shit.
“Stop,” Jesse said loudly—probably not what Mr Dressed-as-a-snowman expected, even though he did, in fact, stop shoveling.
“I’m sorry?” he queried. He pulled at the scarf across his face and frowned at Jesse, then down at the cleared snow.
“I need photos,” Jesse explained as he turned away from a quick glimpse of blue eyes and raised eyebrows. Already he was looking desperately for an untouched angle that included the hotel. Damn it to hell, the son had cleared a great big scar on the blanket of icy stuff.
“Virgin snow. Can you please stop shoveling?” Panic filtered through him at the thought of not getting this photo now, and it wiped out any attempt he might make at social niceties. Yes, he was coming across as rude, but in his head, he justified the rudeness as he always did. Artists were temperamental, and people made exceptions for his behavior all the time.
“I can give you five,” Shovel Guy said slowly and leaned on the tool he wielded with such deadly photo-destroying accuracy.
Jesse vaguely nodded his thanks, his mind already gauging light and angles, concentrating on what he needed to do. The white carpet covered everything, giving him maybe three inches or so of perfect utter stillness. Even the parked Prius had a beauty about it when hidden in pure white. He inhaled the cold air and centered himself. He could do this. The snow might well be the first official photo he had taken in a while, but it wasn’t as if he’d forgotten how to take photos or how to frame a shot. Snow crystals sparkled in the winter trees, and the clouds looked heavy with the promise of more of the cold stuff to come. Despite the sun’s weak wash, the lighting was perfect, and focusing on what he wanted, he caught the crystal, the blue tinge from the early light, the sky, and the taller grass that bent with the weight of snow. Backing away from the parking area, he captured one of the stubborn trees he had seen yesterday and the frozen leaves attached to thin twigs, all perfectly acceptable images for the website.
“You the photographer, then?” the shoveling guy asked. Jesse groaned to himself. Talk about stating the obvious. What a thing to say. Not only that, but the guy probably expected an answer. Shovel Guy, the hotel owner’s son presumably, had a low and husky voice, but Jesse didn’t want or need interruptions if he only had five minutes to capture a whole post. The more photos he took, the more likely it was that he would take a photo that mattered. Perhaps if he ignored the other man, he would shut up. “Do you want to see something?” Shovel Guy asked. “A ways up the garden is an old shed. It’s where we store the wood for the winter—”
“No, that’s fine,” Jesse interrupted with an abrupt wave of his hand. Maybe the man clearing the path was a sandwich short of a picnic. Why the hell did he think Jesse wanted to see a shed? Jesse bent low at the waist to examine the petals of some winter flower burned at the edges by the sun and filled with small deposits of snow. The tall tree it was near must have protected it from the really deep stuff.
“It’s a good photo.”
God, the guy was persistent. “Jeez, man, will you leave me alone to concentrate?”
Jesse spun on his heel to face the guy as he spoke, the same guy who had now pushed the hood of his huge parka away from his face. Jesse wasn’t sure who was more shocked—the guy who looked utterly gobsmacked at what Jesse had just said or Jesse at seeing more face. Jesse couldn’t stop himself, photos or no, post or not. He stared. And he probably had his mouth open. It certainly felt like it as the cold air hit his throat. Shovel Guy was gorgeous, beautiful, with a strong stubble-darkened jaw and the same brilliant blue eyes as Diana.
“Sorry, I was…” Jesse began weakly, but he really had no explanation. Hell. Those were really intensely cerulean eyes. Blue Eyes shrugged at the apology and then smiled. He took off a glove and held out his bare hand, a warm, wide, and very strong hand that gripped Jesse’s firmly.
“Gabriel McClurey,” he said, introducing himself on the shake.
“Jesse Connor,” Jesse responded quickly. “I get involved,” he explained weakly with a wave of his now-freed hand at the snow around them. “In a world of my own.” Then he stopped talking because he didn’t want to come across as an idiot.
“I need to get shoveling,” Gabriel said finally to break the uncomfortable silence. Jesse realized he’d been standing there staring with his mouth open. “Shed’s up that way if you want to go yourself.”
Gabriel dismissed him. He was sending him off to find the shed himself. Damn. Eye candy like Gabriel McClurey was something he didn’t want to lose sight of.
“Could you show me—”
“Sorry, man, I need to shovel,” Gabriel said quickly. He pulled the scarf back over his mouth. Clearly the conversation was over.
“Okay,” Jesse said reluctantly. “Thanks.”
Gabriel resumed the long sweeping motions that cleared the pathway, and Jesse hovered for a while out of sight. He took a few shots of the tall, broad, blue-eyed Gabriel bent over and flexing to clear snow. Gabriel was too wrapped up for Jesse to see what he wanted to see, but a few photos of “man in action” would be okay. Wouldn’t it? Who was to know? He wasn’t taking them for the blog, just for himself. Ass up in the air, Gabriel moved to attack a new path of white. God. Now that was an easy part of body to see; jeans molded Gabriel to like a second skin, stretched across a firm, tight butt. Feeling suddenly guilty, Jesse slunk away in the direction indicated. For the first time in nearly two years he was appreciating the male form, and it felt odd and more than slightly like a betrayal of his wish to wallow in angst.
Still, he hadn’t seen a man that gorgeous since… Well, he wasn’t sure he had ever seen someone with a face so model perfect. Said man had a wonderful white smile, long thick lashes, and cheekbones to die for. Jesse wondered idly if maybe he could get this Gabriel to pose for him before he left Eden Vale. Maybe naked in the snow? Jesse had done some model photography before. In Gabriel’s case it didn’t matter what the body was like under the clothes because that face could sell just about anything. Idly he wondered what exactly the rest of Gabriel looked like under that bulky parka. Gabriel was tall, maybe a shade over Jesse’s five ten, but he could be any size width-ways under the navy blue down. Jesse laughed to himself. Gabriel could be a six-stone weakling under the coat, although somehow he doubted it.
The shed north of the old hotel looked to have been built the same time as the house. It was sturdy in the way wooden structures were when supported by the presence of the solid hillside rocks above them. Jesse could see moss on the corners of the roof peeking through the mantle of snow. He checked out the shed from different angles and took some halfway decent shots of snow on the old wood. Still, the shots were simply decent, and he wasn’t going to rock the world of photography at this rate.
Cautiously, Jesse pushed open the door. A light dusting of snow fell onto his hands, and he made a mental note to dig out the thin insulated gloves that allowed him to have full control of the delicate cameras he used.
Once inside, his imagination was captured instantly and tingles traversed his spine. From this vantage point, he saw the snow outside framed by the door and frosted windows. No snow had made its way inside, and the respite from the cold proved welcome. He did a complete three-sixty and finally realized that if he stood behind the wood inside and crouched down, he had the perfect picture—the logs piled ready for burning with the glow of white snowfall behind them. It was artistic and exactly what customers expected from him. He already had words to accompany the picture he could see in his mind…the supply ready and waiting to keep the inhabitants of the hotel warm and cozy, the scent of sap and freshly chopped wood redolent of winter. Readers would eat it up.
He explored a bit more of the gardens and shot a few of the hotel with the rest of the town laid out before it. The valley was steeper than he remembered from his drive up. If there were to be much more snow, driving out of the valley in the Prius would be impossible. Well, he’d known that. The hotel literature clearly pointed out that snow closed off Eden Vale at least once a year. The town sprawled across the vista, filled with houses all painted in different colors. He focused on one in particular, a small house in a row of similar places painted the same blue as the beautiful, dazzling, sexy McClurey eyes. Well, Gabriel McClurey’s anyway. He lifted the camera and zoomed in to focus close on the single house, framing the shot with branches heavy with snow. Sweet.
An hour after he’d begun, he finally wondered if Gabriel would still be in front of the hotel. His reasons for wanting to see the other man were twofold. He needed to thank him for the inspiration for post one and maybe at the same time have another look at that beautiful face. He wasn’t in luck. Gabriel had gone. In his place sat a cleared pathway from hotel to street and snow piled neatly to either side in regimented rows. Damn.