Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Here's to 2014!!

Wishing you all the best in the New Year. May 2014 bring you health and happiness -- and the understanding that nothing else matters.

Monday, December 30, 2013

And the winners are...

Sorry for dropping off in the middle of a big giveaway. It was the double-whammy combo of holidays and being sick AGAIN.

But LB and I do have winners, lots of winners in our audio book giveaway.

LB's winners were:

Jane Wilkinson
Susan Haase
Another Susan
Reader Cat
and Carey

And my winners were:

cloudless 9193
Aussie 54
Mari Donne
Jen C
Cynthia H.

So winners, please contact us! You will be given a download code and you can use it on either book. It's up to you.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Christmas Coda 28

Nathan and Matthew from SNOWBALL IN HELL

New Year’s Eve in the City of Angels.
Not so many angels out and about that night, and Matthew and his squad were kept busy with a knifing, two shootings, and an attempted kidnapping. By the time Matt finally got away it was about twenty minutes till the Witching Hour. He made for the Biltmore Hotel, knowing Nathan would be there.
It was standing room only at the Biltmore, dames and gents alike in silly hats and tinsel tiaras, blowing plastic horns and paper fizoos in each other’s faces. Everybody was talking and nobody was listening. The floor was littered with soggy confetti. Champagne glasses were overflowing, and seeing that this was the Biltmore, maybe it really was champagne spilling down the fronts of party frocks and dress uniforms.
Matthew worked his way through the crush of people in the elegant lobby with its parquet floors and rich jewel-toned carpets and carved ceilings. He made it to the bar but couldn’t find Nathan anywhere. He knew what that meant, and his heart sank.
Well, what had he expected? He had thought things were different now, but Nathan had been honest about what he needed, and Matt would somehow have to learn to accept it.
And if he couldn’t accept it… Then he would be equally honest.
But he wasn’t there yet. Not by a long shot. Yes, he was disappointed and, yeah, it hurt like hell that Nathan couldn’t do without for a single night, but Matthew had entered into this knowing he was going to have to take Nathan as he was. So he resisted the urge to search any further. Finding Nathan rolling around in the undergrowth at Pershing Square wasn’t going to do either of them any good.
So Matt left the party as midnight was chiming and drove home through the eerily silent streets. He tried not to think about Nathan or his own disappointment. He thought he was mostly successful, but when he reached his own street and saw Nathan’s Chrysler Highlander parked in front of his house, happiness and relief hit him in a warm rush. And with it a little stab of shame that he had wronged Nathan. It was frightening to care so much about someone you knew so little.
He parked beneath the trellised carport and walked back to the street. Nathan was sleeping in his car, head tipped back, his hat over his face. When Matt tapped on his window, he jumped and then grinned sheepishly, tiredly.
Matthew opened the door and Nathan unfolded wearily.
“Come inside,” Matthew told him.
Nathan threw an instinctive look at the dark windows of Mathew’s neighbors. “No. It’s all right. I just wanted -- needed -- to wish you…Auld Lang Syne. It wouldn’t have seemed right to start the new year off without seeing you.” He offered his hand.
Matthew took his hand, but didn’t release it. “Come inside,” he said again.
He could see Nathan wavering, recognized the longing because he felt just the same. Nathan said reluctantly, “Your neighbors are going to notice if I spend another night here.”
He was right, but Matthew just couldn’t bring himself to care enough to give up the pleasure of being together even for a few hours. He placed his other hand on Nathan’s shoulder, guiding him toward the house. “Then we’ll have to think of some reason for you to visit. Don’t we share a Great Aunt Gertrude? How’s she doing these days anyway? How’s her lumbago?”
Nathan shook his head, but Matthew caught the whisper of his laugh. Then he was unlocking the side door and letting them into the silent and dark house. The door closed behind them. Matthew felt for the chain, slid it into place, and took Nathan into his arms. Nathan hugged him back  fiercely.
“Happy New Year, Nathan,” Matthew said softly, and kissed him.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Christmas Coda 27




Christmas morning.

Finn knew he had to make an effort.

It was difficult though. Everything was difficult now. Ever since the autumn. Ever since Fitch…

He had been okay at first. Shocked and horrified, but he had been dealing with it. He had to deal with it because he knew Con would never put up with anything else.

But then the sand had started to slip out from under his feet. And suddenly he wasn’t okay. He couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Couldn’t stop imagining…

Couldn’t stop remembering…

Con had started watching him, frowning, starting to wonder what was the matter with him, starting to question why they were together.

Con denied it, of course. But it was right there in his eyes.

Finn was denying it too, but of course he was thinking the same thing. The only reason they were together was because of Fitch. And that wasn’t a good enough reason. In fact, it was a really bad reason.

He missed Fitch desperately. Which was bizarre because he hadn’t let himself think of Fitch for three years. Now he couldn’t stop thinking about him.

He couldn’t work. He couldn’t eat. He couldn’t sleep.

His brain wouldn’t turn off. His thoughts were stuck on a loop. A terrible, terrible loop.

“I need some time on my own,” he had finally told Con.

“I don’t understand,” Con had answered. His face had been guarded, giving nothing away.

“I don’t understand myself,” Finn had said. “But I need to be alone.” What he meant was, I need to be away from you.

Maybe Con had read between the lines. “Why don’t you go back to The Birches,” he had said finally. “Maybe you can work there. I’ve got this book due anyway.”

So it was just exactly what Finn had thought. Con was only too glad to be let off the hook.

He went back to The Birches and he did try to work. He tried to pretend everything was normal. But Martha and Uncle Thomas had seen something that Con didn’t or wouldn’t.

Clinical depression. That was the official diagnosis, and the recommendation was a brief hospital stay “just to get stabilized.” Finn had panicked. Rescue had come from an unexpected quarter. Con.

When Uncle Thomas had phoned to let Con know the situation, Con had shown up within the hour with an alternate plan. He would move into The Birches and lend a hand around the place until Finn was feeling more like his old self. It was a casual, low key offer, more neighborly than loverly, it seemed to Finn. But it had stopped him panicking. He even agreed that maybe he did need a little help.

Con and Martha and Uncle Thomas — and the little pink tablets — had seen him through the worst of it. And now Finn was…trying.


He was better. A lot better. They could all see that. Though it was still difficult.

And today, this morning, was Christmas and he needed to make an effort. Needed to show everyone that he appreciated everything that had been done for him. That they did not have to keep putting him first, did not have to put their own lives on hold.

Finn had finally shaken off his preoccupation last night to ask Con about his new book, and Con had said the book was on hold. Said it absently, indifferently.

That was when Finn had finally, belatedly realized just how much trouble everyone was going to in order to keep him glued together. He had been so dismayed, so ashamed he had nearly gone into another tailspin. But this morning, he’d woken to the determination to stop monopolizing everyone’s time and energy.

This morning, when Con had kissed him as he did every morning and said, “Merry Christmas, Huckleberry,” Finn had really looked at him. Con’s was not a kind or friendly face. In fact, he looked like one of those impious Renaissance priests. He had high, elegant cheekbones and a mocking mouth. His eyes were pirate eyes, dark and enigmatic. He wore his pale hair longer these days, and he did not bother with anything but jeans and baggy wool sweaters. He had always looked so tailored and fashionable, even working at home. Something had changed inside Con too. That morning his smile had been reassuring and the expression in his eyes was attentive, grave and…

“Why are you doing this?” Finn had asked dully several times over the past weeks. “Why are you bothering?”

And each time Con had said simply, “I love you.”

This morning Finn had realized that it was perfectly true. The expression in Con’s eyes was love. That wasn’t complicated at all. That really didn’t have anything to do with Fitch. Or with anyone other than themselves.

Finn had smiled back at Con.

Con’s expression had changed. He had lifted his hand and brushed Finn’s stubbly jaw. And they had simply laid there for a few moments looking at each other. Not speaking. Finn’s brain had felt quiet, almost peaceful, as he considered the cool blue shadows in the corners of the white room. The patterned adumbration through white lace. The shaded dips in the snowy duvet and the bisque flannel sheets.

“What are you thinking about?” Con had asked softly.

Shadows and light. But he wasn’t going to talk about shadows anymore. He’d thrown enough gloom on his loved ones. Finn said, “Light. White.”

And Con had smiled, a very white smile, as though this was exactly the right answer.

He would be back in a minute or two with Finn’s breakfast which they would eat in the privacy of this room, as they had eaten breakfast for the last month. And then they would go downstairs and Finn would make a serious effort to be normal.

It was a good day to start because Christmas was always the same at The Birches. Lots of little traditions and routines to carry him through. Last night they had opened presents in front of the giant, flocked spruce tree in the front room. This morning there would be an endless stream of neighbors and visitors in for coffee and pastries, and this evening they would have Christmas dinner. It was a good day in its own right. The memories were happy. Almost entirely happy.

Finn’s stomach growled. Where was Con? It was taking him a long time to get breakfast together.

The door opened and Con was back with the breakfast tray. He was smiling as he set it down on the bed.

“You look like the cat that got the cream,” Finn said. The fact that he was noticing Con’s expression was probably another good sign.

Con did look satisfied with himself. He nodded at the tray and Finn looked down. White china. Oatmeal, milk, sugar. A white rose in a little glass of snow, a piece of driftwood, three smooth white and speckled stones, a glittery piece of white quartz, a white feather, and a wide, creamy silk ribbon. It was as though Con had been on a scavenger hunt.

Finn picked up one of the egg-shaped stones. It felt cool and grainy to the touch.

“Not quite fifty shades, but…white,” Con said.

Finn made a little face, put down the stone and picked up one of the tiny white berries rolling around the tray like waxy pearls.

“You can’t eat those,” Con told him quickly.

Finn rolled the bead-sized berry between his fingers. “No. What are they?”


Finn looked up. Con was smiling with uncharacteristic tentativeness. Finn began to smile too. He reached out his hand.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Christmas Coda 26

Glen and Nash from IN PLAIN SIGHT



Nash did not have any holiday traditions. He had holiday habits. Christmas dinner with his parents every couple of years. New Year’s parties with work colleagues. Gifts of booze to male colleagues and gifts of coffee to female colleagues. He probably hadn’t bought a Christmas tree since he’d had college roommates to help decorate it.

So that had been the first question. “Should we get a Christmas tree?”

Well, not the first question. The first questions had taken place while Glen was still in the hospital recovering. Those had been the big questions: where are we going to live and who’s giving up his job? A two-part question really. And he’d known the answer before he asked.

He would transfer to the Salt Lake Division and work out of Pocatello. He told himself Glen required every penny of his health insurance right now, so that meant Glen needed his job more, but the fact was, Nash was embarking on a new life and that meant from now on his job was just that, a job. He’d sell his house in Fredericksburg and move in with Glen.

“Are you sure?” Glen had asked more than once. As happy as he was, he was afraid Nash was making a mistake. And if Nash was honest, he occasionally wondered too. But then he would think of that terrible, terrible time when he had not known whether Glen was alive or dead, and everything seemed clear again.

His house was still on the market — it was not a good time to try and sell — and it had taken six months for his transfer to go into effect, so he and Glen had been living together for less than two months by the time the holidays rolled around.

They were still getting to know each other so they were a little careful with each other. Well, a lot careful.

Glen had admitted once, revealingly, “It’s like we’re doing this backwards.”

“Do you mind?”

“Compared to the alternative?”

That was exactly right. They were starting from the standpoint of knowing they loved each other and wanted to be together. But could you really love someone you didn’t know?

It seemed the answer was yes, because Nash did believe he loved Glen. More than he had ever loved anyone in his life. Every morning that he woke up beside Glen was a good morning. It just felt right. It felt like he was finally home. It didn’t matter who technically owned the real estate. He felt Glen’s smiles in his chest. He felt at peace listening to Glen’s quiet breathing in the night. And his not quiet breathing made him smile. He liked talking to Glen over breakfast and not talking to him over breakfast. They didn’t have enough dinners together, but he enjoyed those too.

He was regularly adding to the small store of everything he knew about Glen. He now knew that Glen liked basketball and photography and fishing and camping. He was an Independent, a non-church-going Protestant, and he did not want children. He did not care about marriage, but he cared very much about commitment. He was close to his family and generally spent the holidays he didn’t work with them.

Which brought them full circle.

“A Christmas tree? Sure,” Glen had said. And then, “I don’t have any decorations or anything. But if you want a tree…”

“I just thought maybe you would,” Nash said hastily. Now he felt silly. He never bothered with this kind of holiday stuff.

Glen had looked undecided, and then he’d said, “Well…”

Nash joked, “Are we the kind of guys who get a Christmas tree?”

Glen stared at him and then he’d seemed to relax. “I think we are. I think we should…” Then he’d stopped looking self-conscious.

“Should get a tree?” Nash said.

Glen had said, “Should start building our own traditions.” He’d looked so serious and hopeful that it had been all Nash could do not to grab him then and there.

That was it exactly. They needed to build traditions together. Their own traditions.

And just the process of picking their first tree was instructive.

“Real or fake?” Nash had asked.

“Real.” Glen had been definite.

“Do we chop our own or —?”

“What do you think?”

“I’m not a lumberjack.”

Glen had laughed. “That’s okay. I’ve had my fill of lumberjacks.”

Nash had spluttered, but moved on. “Flocked or unflocked?”

“It kills the scent.”

Nash had volunteered, “But it is pretty.”

“Flocked it is,” Glen had said easily.

“So. The important question. How big?”

Glen had met Nash’s eyes and started to laugh. Nash had grabbed him then.

Glen’s mother had supplied a handful of family ornaments that probably qualified as heirlooms. They had bought the rest themselves at the drug store. Pretty, frosted gold balls, ropes of shiny red beads, and a few silly things — glass balls with bewildered-looking moose and nervous reindeer.

Not every decision would be made as quickly, and not all the compromises would be as easy, but as Nash sat on the sofa in front of the fire that night, arm around Glen’s shoulders as they admired their handiwork, he felt truly at peace.

“God rest ye merry gentleman,” sang Josh Groban from the media cabinet. “Let nothing you dismay.”

Until that moment Nash had always imagined joy as something big and bright and noisy. But in fact joy was also as small as the gleam of firelight on two pairs of slippers, obscure as the reasons for love, and quiet as two people who did not need words.


Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas!

Christmas Coda 25


It rained Christmas day.
Rick originally had the day off. So had Keir, but the resigning and then unresigning had cost him his place on the holiday roster, so Rick gave up his spot too. At least that way they could share the misery.
And it was miserable.
It started out mildly miserable, dragging their weary asses out of bed and into the station. The final day of four twelve-hour shifts. But things cheered up a little there. Some of the guys and gals had brought in cookies and cakes and fudge. There was decent coffee for once. And Santa gag gifts. Rick got a mug that said Good Cop. Keir winked at Rick and whispered, “Does that mean I can be Bad Cop tonight?”
Keir got a T-shirt that read Undercover Cop. Rick had murmured, “Under covers duty, huh?”
It was all talk anyway. They knew they were both going to be too tired to do more than fall into bed and kiss each other goodnight.
So much for the good times. The day turned seriously miserable with a domestic dispute that deteriorated into a homicide. Deke Johnson, 45, violated his restraining order and shot his ex-wife Harriet, 40, before their three kids and the family dog — right in front of the Christmas tree, no less.
The sad truth was, in addition to a rise in traffic accidents, family disputes and child custody battles, violent crime spiked around the holidays. Not just robberies and home invasions, but good old-fashioned homicide. Add a little melancholy and a lot of booze to the seasonal punch, and you had a recipe for one hellish witch’s brew. And the City of Angels had a bad habit of getting drunk off her ass every Christmas.
Johnson didn’t deny murdering his wife, and he didn’t seem to care about being arrested. He did try twice to break free so he could explain to his hysterical kids why he’d had to shoot Mommy. The second time, Rick, who was royally pissed off at the idea of some self-centered asshole killing his ex in front of his own kids, knocked him down, and Keir leaped to intervene. The uniforms pretended not to see anything, and Keir hustled Rick outside.
The night was cold and smelled of smog and rain and eucalyptus. They walked past the crowd of neighbors and sightseers and crime scene technicians, around the side of the house, stepping over the dog bowls and tricycles.
Rick leaned back against the dripping siding and drew a couple of deep breaths.
Keir kept one eye on Rick and one eye on the wet, shining walkway, to make sure they were not disturbed. He didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. Rick knew exactly what he was thinking, and he knew exactly how Rick felt.
“Sorry,” Rick said finally.
Keir shrugged. “It’s a fucked up night. Even if it is Christmas.”
“Sometimes it feels like we’re just garbage men. We’re just here to clean up the mess.”
It was startling to hear that from Rick. Keir was usually the one the job got to. He said firmly, “No way. We’re the guardians at the gate. We’re keeping the wild things out tonight.” Not all the wild things, but they were only human. They did what they could. He hooked his arm around Rick’s neck and brought their heads close together. Their warm breath mingled. Keir said softly, “And tomorrow we start three days off.”
Rick nodded.
The rest of their shift was mostly uneventful. It was ten o’clock by the time they stopped off to eat on their way home. A Chinese Restaurant in Van Nuys. The place was dimly lit — emergency and Christmas lights only — and nearly deserted. Christmas music was playing. They got a booth way in the back. They ordered their dinner and then quietly, circumspectly, held hands across the table until the waitress started down the aisle with their meals. When she left, they went back to holding hands.
Every time Keir looked across the table, Rick’s gaze met his, and they smiled tiredly at each other. Not the best Christmas ever. But they were together and somehow that went a long way toward keeping it from being the worst Christmas ever.
Rick broke open his fortune cookie, read the little piece of paper, and laughed. He nudged Keir’s foot under the table.
Not the best Christmas ever. But looking good for the best day after Christmas ever.

Friday, December 20, 2013


We interrupt the codas (we'll resume on Monday) to bring you a holiday giveaway. LB Gregg and I thought we would get together and gift a few of copies of Simple Gifts and The Dickens With Love audio books. There's nothing nicer than listening to an audio book as you labor long over those holiday chores. :-)

We're each giving away 5 copies, and all you have to do to be eligible for the giveaway is read the excerpts and comment on both blogs.

Pretty simple, right?

So without further adieu, an excerpt from one of my very favorite LB Gregg stories, Simple Gifts.

A former ward of the state, Jason Ferris is fiercely protective of his carefully guarded private life. When he's felled by a rogue lawn ornament at a Christmas party, Jason finds himself in the care of his first and most devastating love-- dark, dangerous, and equally damaged Lt. Robb Sharpe.


Newly returned from years away in the military, Robb's homecoming isn't exactly the stuff of fairytales. Now thrust together after a ten year hiatus, Jason and Robb discover that perhaps some things are worth waiting for.



“Jason? Everything okay?”

“Yeah. Fine. Quick question. Do you like astronomy?”

“What?” Robb closed the distance between us and I caught a whiff of spice, pine, and wool. He smelled like a lumberjack, not a soldier. He’d left his parka down in the bar, and his sweater sleeves were pushed to his elbows, his shirt collar lay open, and the sight of his pale Adam’s apple had me biting my lip.

His finger brushed the back of my hand and I fumbled the key. Sick or nervous or not, the fleeting contact snapped across my skin like an electrical shock. His touch thrilled me.


I stared at his fingertips, familiar yet strange, and the air between us shrank until I couldn’t breathe to speak. Honestly, with a single stroke, he robbed me of thought.

I pulled away, but he said, “Hey. It’s okay,” in a disturbingly husky voice that I recalled too well. He took the key from my palm and I almost fell down the goddamn steps. I wanted to bolt — living up to his expectations — but he grabbed my borrowed shirt in his fist and my heart fluttered against his knuckles. His breath warmed my cheek. “Steady.”

Mother. Fucker.

A smile hid inside the rough tones of his broken voice and the sound eased my troubled mind while stimulating other less troubled areas. I knew that voice. I’d heard it before — in the dark of night, in the back seat, under the stars, in the boathouse, in his bedroom, behind the bleachers. And I’d hear him say steady again in the dark tonight, as I lay alone in my cold bed.

And, bang, I knew why he wanted to see me. He still wants me. He hasn’t let go, either. He came to see me.

I would have stumbled a second time, but Robb had me. Jesus, he had me good. “You need to lay down.”

I really, really did, but I could not for the life of me move to unlock my own front door.

“You good?”

“Yup. Fine.” I squeaked and he let me go. Robb fit the key into the lock and I stifled a groan.

What the hell kind of drugs had they given me at that hospital? I swear I’m tripping.

The sound of my apartment door swinging free sobered me. “No, wait! My cat—”

In a flash, Norm vanished into the stairwell, but that was the least of my worries.

“What the hell...?” Robb blocked the doorway. “Holy crow. Are those stars?”

I froze at the threshold of my home, not that Robb noticed. He wandered in, face tipped heavenward to better see the strange beauty of my apartment’s contrived night sky. Above his head paper starlight shimmered down from a black-lit galaxy. Orion, Sagittarius, Ursa Major, Canis Minor, Scorpius, Gemini — the constellations hung in painstaking precision, glowing on purple pinpricks, lighting the darkness.

Accurate and overly detailed, I’d crafted every star, made each scrap of paper and creased every fold. The project had taken years but, Voilà, origami universe.

Robb wandered, and the stars led him through the apartment, straight toward my bedroom as if they guided a wayward captain home after years at sea.

I shook that idiocy from my head and on leaden feet I trailed after my overnight guest. Hot blood colored my cheeks. “I know my apartment is a little odd.”

“No.” He turned to look at me and I banged into his chest. “Did you make all of these?”

“Well, yeah. Who else?”

“I swear, the sky looks exactly like this in the desert. Clear and wide and the stars go on forever. Only not as colorful, or so close.” He tapped a tiny pointed star and it spun on a delicate silver thread. “This one was done in pieces, right? How the hell did you make them so small?”

“Practice.” I left him marveling over my freakish masterpiece and flipped the bedroom light switch. There were a couple pair of jeans on the floor, and the simple maple bed lay unmade, but otherwise, a portion of the Milky Way flowed from my window, over the bed, and disappeared in the closet. Pretty much business as usual.

Robb followed me, nosing into my private life with ease. “Where did you learn to do this?”

“I thought you remembered everything?” I wouldn’t bore him with a retelling, but the only real memory I had, before I became a ward of this fine state of Connecticut, was making my first paper crane when I was maybe four or five. We were in a bus station, my mother and I. We’d gone inside to keep warm and to pass the time, and she showed me how to crease those tricky paper folds. I could still see her blonde hair falling across my cold fingers as she worked. Make a wish, Jason baby.


Comment below and then pop over to LB's and comment there!

Christmas Coda 23

Griff and Hamar from OTHER PEOPLE'S WEDDINGS


It was like a bad dream.

Or a bad movie.

One of those straight-to-DVD horror flicks where the normally intelligent protagonist has a brain cloud and forgets to bring his phone charger — coincidentally on the very same exact night his car breaks down in the middle of nowhere.

Were Griff sitting in the front row of a theater — or his own living room couch — he’d have been scoffing and making jokes. But instead he was sitting in his car on the loneliest stretch of highway in all of North Dakota. Or so it felt sitting there in the dark as the wind shook the car. Nothing to joke about, that was for sure.

There was not a house, not a light, not a sign of life for as far as he could see. In the far distance he could just make out the silver framework of a couple of power towers. A tumble weed rolled past his stationary car.

This was his own fault. He should never have attended the Armstrong-Conrad wedding this evening. Who the hell got married on Christmas Eve? He had tried to no avail to get Christie (short for Christmas) to rethink her plans. She already shared a birthday with Baby Jesus, did she really want her wedding tied up with the holiday as well? But yes, it appeared she did. Was adamant on the subject. Originally she’d tried for Christmas day itself.

Griff should have stipulated he couldn’t attend the wedding if she insisted on that date. He should have settled with looking in, making sure everything was running smoothly, and ducking out again. But no. Control freak that he was, he’d stayed all the way until the reception was underway. And now here he was stuck by the side of the road on Christmas Eve.

Which would have been bad enough. Getting stuck on any night would have been bad enough. But Christmas Eve? Especially this Christmas Eve which would have been the first he and Hamar Sorenson had spent together since junior high. He could have cried with frustration and disappointment.

Worst of all, he couldn’t even explain to Hamar where he was, why he wasn’t answering the door when Hamar finally managed to get off work and come over to Griff’s, which would be… Griff flicked on the cab light and checked his watch. Hamar should be getting off work right about now.

What would he think when Griff didn’t answer the door? Would he think Griff forgot they were getting together? Or that Griff lost track of the time? Would he think Griff was playing some weird, mean trick? Or maybe Hamar would be delayed. He often was on their date nights. The pitfall of being Sheriff in a small town like Binbell.

Griff groaned. The sound was startling in the vast surrounding silence.

Okay. Get a grip. It wasn’t the end of the world. Yes, it was horribly disappointing. He’d gone to such pains to make sure everything would be perfect tonight, the first of what he hoped might be a lifetime of Christmases together. He’d bought new sheets, warm, super soft, flannel sheets, and he’d prepared — okay, bought — a very special Christmas Eve supper for them, starting off with smoked oysters. A bottle of Dom Perignon was chilling in the fridge.

Everything was as special, as perfect, as Griff could make it because…because he had realized a couple of weeks ago that he loved Hamar. Not the love for someone he’d grown up with, known like a brother, even had a crush on for a brief time, but real love, grown-up love, the kind of love that made the good times so much better and the bad times bearable. The kind of love that could see you all the way through your old age.

And he hoped that Hamar felt the same. They had been seeing each other since the previous February. Hamar seemed happy to spend most of his — admittedly rare — free time with Griff. He was an enthusiastic and attentive lover. But there had been no words of love spoken between them, no indication that Hamar wished their arrangement to become permanent. Anyway, gay marriage was so far still banned in North Dakota, so it was sort of moot.

Damn Christie Armstrong. Well, now Christie Conrad. Would she eventually try to schedule the birth of her first child for this date as well? Probably. That at least would not be Griff’s problem.

He sighed, leaning forward to stare out the windshield at the black sky blazing with stars. At least there was no snow in the immediate forecast — although there was still plenty of it along the side of the road. It was okay. He wasn’t going to freeze to death. He had a wool blanket in the back seat and, Christmas or not, someone would be along this road early tomorrow morning. He’d be fine. He’d explain everything to Hamar when he saw him at Christmas dinner. Griff had been invited to Hamar’s mother’s house tomorrow, so that was something to look forward to.

The house would be full of candles and red tulips and there would be dark beer and glögg — mulled spiced wine — with the Scandinavian cheeses, crackers and liverwurst enjoyed before the fireplace. At dinner there would be pickled herring and tart beet salad and the most delicious mustard-crusted ham. Lots to eat and drink and very good company to share it with.

Griff had bought Hamar a hand carved chess set. They had played chess and checkers a lot as boys and they had recently gotten back to playing board games in the evenings. Was that a good sign or was it a sign they didn’t have enough to talk about?

Griff shivered. He turned around and felt for the wool blanket in the back seat. It was below zero tonight, that was for sure. He hoped he could wait till morning to pee. The idea of getting out in that freezing, wind-scoured, pitch-black night was not a happy one.

He bundled himself in his coat, wrapped the blanket around himself, and put back the car seat. He determinedly shut his eyes.



He dreamed he was flying through the bitterly cold night on Santa’s sleigh. Griff grabbed the toys and parcels from Santa’s packs and handed them over to an elf who dropped them down into the chimneys below them. Sometimes the elf’s aim was good, but sometimes he missed, and Griff could hear the toys and packages hitting the rooftops. He handed over a chess set, and the elf simply threw it out of the sleigh, and Griff could hear all the pieces knocking on the rooftops as they sailed over.

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Griff pried opened his eyes.

KNOCK. KNOCK. “Griff?” Hamar called from outside the car. He tried the door handle. “Griffin, can you hear me?”

Griff sat up and fumbled for the door. The blast of frigid air that blew in made him gasp. But the next moment, Hamar’s warm arms were around him.

“What happened?” Hamar’s voice sounded muffled, he was holding Griff so tight it was hard to breathe. “I’ve been searching for you for hours.”

“I think the alternator went out.”

“Why the hell didn’t you call?”

Griffin grimaced, though Hamar couldn’t see it as Griff’s face was still pressed into the rough front of his sheepskin-lined coat. “The battery is dead on my cell phone.”

“For God’s sake,” Hamar exclaimed. “I was afraid you were in an accident!” He continued to clarify his feelings for the length of time it took to hustle Griffin over to his SUV which was blessedly warm thanks to the blast of a very efficient heater.

“Th-thank you for coming to get me,” Griffin managed between chattering teeth.

Hamar directed all the heater vents his way. “Why aren’t you on the main highway?”

“I was in a hurry to get home, so I, er, took a shortcut.”

Hamar’s face in the wan overhead light said it all. He looked strained and weary, which was sort of gratifying, though mostly Griff just felt guilty. Guilty and grateful. Hamar must have searched every back road from Binbell to Minot.

“Next time you decide to take a shortcut, call me first.”

“Okay.” Griff smiled. Next time sounded very good, even though Griff planned to make sure there were no repeats of this adventure.

Hamar left him defrosting and went to lock up his car. He returned with Griff’s day planner and cell phone.

They stopped at a gas station and convenience store. Griff used the restroom and then joined Hamar in the little café. He drank the two cups of terrible but boiling hot coffee Hamar bought him, and ate a hot pretzel. He felt much better, even if he looked like he’d spent the night on the prairie, which, granted, he had.

“I had such nice plans for last night,” he told Hamar sadly.

Hamar just shook his head. He too looked better after a couple of cups of coffee. More like his usual imperturbable self.

They walked back out to Hamar’s vehicle and climbed inside. Hamar adjusted the rearview mirror, which did not need adjusting, cleared his throat, and said, “I was going to ask you last night, but that didn’t work, so I don’t think I’ll wait for the next perfect moment. I’m just going to ask you.”

“Okay,” Griff said. Hamar sounded brisk and businesslike.

“My annual vacation is next April.”

“Right.” Last year Hamar had gone backpacking with college friends. Griff figured it would be something like that again this year. At least it was only two weeks.

“I think we should go to California and get married.”

Griff’s jaw dropped.

Hamar smiled self-consciously. “You’re a wedding planner. Didn’t you ever want to get married yourself?”

“Well, yes. Of course. I just didn’t think it would be — I didn’t think you would want that.”

Hamar shrugged. “I never thought about it until you. But yes. I want that. With you. Will you marry me?”

Being a wedding planner Griff had imagined every possible romantic variation on this theme. Moonlight, roses, and Prince Charming in a matching tux. But Hamar had not been part of those fantasies. Never. Griff’s feelings for Hamar ran too deep. Dreaming of what could never be with Hamar would simply be too painful.

Nor had a proposal in front of a gas station after a freezing night in his car been part of the fantasy.

But here he was with Hamar, who looked as confident and assured as ever — except for that little trace of uncertainty in his blue eyes — and it looked very much like none of his fantasies were coming true.
Reality was so much better.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Christmas Coda 22

Tim and Luke from THE PARTING GLASS

“Mirror, mirror on the wall,” Luke said, enunciating around his toothbrush. He wore a large yellow bath towel slung fetchingly around his lean hips, and a dab of shaving cream under his right ear.
I drew back from the long mirror over the bathroom counter and the double sinks. “I was trying to think if I should shave or not.”
“Why would you want to shave?”
“I don’t know.” I frowned at my reflection. “I look okay, right?”
“You’re asking for an objective opinion? I’m kind of partial to your looks.”
“Okay. Good.”
He grinned at me and toothpaste spilled out of his mouth. I laughed. Luke laughed too, rinsed, spat, patted his face with a plushy yellow towel. He straightened, still smiling but serious when he said, “You know, we don’t have to go to this thing tonight.”
“Yeah, we do. It’s New Year’s. Karen will be disappointed if we don’t show up.”
“She’s going to have a houseful of people. She won’t notice if we’re not there.”
“Hey. I’d like to think that’s not true.”
“You know what I mean.”
I did, yeah. And I appreciated that he was, as usual, looking out for me. We’d been together since May. Well, not immediately together together because it had taken Luke a month to leave his job and put his place on the market, but even when we were apart I felt like we were together. It was a first to feel so secure. To know that whatever came at us, we’d be facing it together. I still found that sort of amazing.
“You know what?”
His reflection slanted hazel eyes my way in inquiry.
“I’m looking forward to tonight.”
“Are you?” He looked surprised, and no wonder. For the first two years of my sobriety I’d been afraid to go anywhere, do anything that might put me in proximity with alcohol. Hell, coffee with friends had seemed perilous. Not that I’d had so many friends back then.
“I am. I’m not even sure why exactly. I’m looking forward to the new year. And I like the idea of celebrating with friends. I know for sure I’m not going to drink. Plus I’ll have someone to talk to all night. The best looking guy there.”
“That’s funny,” Luke said. “I was thinking the same thing.”
“That you’re going to be the best looking guy there tonight?” I teased, squeezing past him on my way to the bedroom.
He reached back and caught my arm, pulling me back against him. He was smiling as he pressed a Crest-flavored kiss against my mouth. I smiled a kiss back, reached down and unfastened the towel at his waist.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Christmas Coda 21

Julian and David from The Dark Farewell

A child was crying disconsolately from down the dark hall.
A woman began to sob, her voice blending in melancholy harmony with that of the child. David, rooted in place at the other end of the hall, shook off his inertia and forced himself forward. But when he reached the closed door of Mrs. Sweet’s parlor in the Greenwich Village brownstone where he and Julian roomed, he stopped.
The woman was still sobbing. But now he could hear Julian’s voice, husky with weariness and emotion, speaking to her, comforting her. David could not make out the words.
He took off his homburg, turning it uneasily in his gloved hands.
Behind the heavy door, another woman’s voice joined in. She sounded shaken. As well she might.
The first woman’s voice raised in supplication. Julian spoke reassuringly.
Why? Why did Julian persist in this? Knowing how David felt?
David became aware that he was standing in a puddle of water. Snow melted from his boots and the shoulders of his ulster, dripping to the parquet floor in soft plops.
From the other side of the door came a sudden change in voices, the scrape of chairs, and he moved away from the door, walking a few steps down the hall, going to the window that overlooked the snowy terrace of the brownstone next door.
The snow formed tall, white pyramids on the round finials of the stone balustrade. No sign of their neighbor. Maybe today was too cold even for young Mr. Flipkey and his violin. That was not his real name, of course. His real name was Feldleit. David called him Flipkey, which meant nothing, but sounded suitably dismissive. Dismissive because David did not like Mr. Flipkey. Or, more exactly, did not like the fact that Julian did. Liked Mr. Flipkey’s fiddle playing, anyway. Didn’t mind that Flipkey fiddled at all hours of the day and night. No, Julian would walk out onto their own terrace and listen, enrapt, for as long as Flipkey chose to play. As though Flipkey were exercising some enchantment over him.
David smiled sourly. At least he didn’t kid himself he was anything but what he was. Jealous.
Part of the problem was the way he and Julian had met…
The door down the hall opened. David glanced around as two women exited the parlor. They were both young, both fashionably dressed, though the taller was dressed in mourning. The smaller woman supported her sister down the hall and out the door. There was a flash of gray day, a gust of winter’s breath. The evergreen and holly garland knocked against the wainscoting like a ghostly hand.
Julian did not appear.
David waited, trying to decide.
Three days ago he would have gone in at once, intending to soothe and solace, but in truth he would have snapped and scolded. He couldn’t seem to help it. They had been so happy together. For a year — a little more than a year, in fact. David had been happier than he could ever remember. He had nursed Julian through his long illness following the terrible shock of the events of last summer, and they had grown even closer during that quiet, closeted time. Julian had regained his health and, mercifully, the troubling visions seemed to leave him entirely. His fits grew less frequent, less violent. There was no sign the troubling predictions of idiocy, feeble-mindedness, or madness that medical books and physicians alike warned of would materialize.
Julian settled into David’s world with every appearance of contentment. He was happy, healthy. He charmed David’s friends with his boyish enthusiasm and exotic beauty. David had fallen ever more deeply, helplessly in love. He had begun to believe that despite the many obstacles, they might really manage some kind of future together.
But then, two months ago, the visions had returned. And worse, much worse, Julian had begun to hold séances. He didn’t call them séances. Mrs. Sweet would never have stood for that, but that’s what they amounted to, these private meetings with the grief-stricken.
And, as David feared, Julian’s health had begun to suffer. He started having seizures again. Didn’t this prove David’s point? Didn’t Julian understand what he was risking?
So David had done what any loving husband would do. He had forbidden Julian to hold any more séances.
And Julian — sweet, affectionate, always amenable Julian — had amiably, even a little amusedly, pointed out that David was neither his husband nor his father. And he had gone right ahead and continued to do as he wished.
Flabbergasted, furious, three days ago David had finally given Julian an ultimatum. Stop or their connection was at an end.
That very evening Julian moved to an empty room on Mrs. Sweet’s top floor.
David couldn’t believe it.
Of course, Julian had not really moved out. All his belongings were still right where he’d left them, carelessly scattered around their shared rooms. They both knew that was simply a beat, the light strike of one fencing blade against another. No blood drawn, no harm done. Not a real fight. Not then.
David had drawn first blood. He had only intended to force a quick and painless surrender for both their sakes. Even one night without Julian in his bed was unbearable. So he had informed Julian he would be spending the holidays in Maine with his family. He wished Julian a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.
Julian had gone white. He had looked shocked and hurt and then angry. Very angry. He had retired to his room — his new room — and had not spoken to David since.
David had caught his train, of course. He could not afford to back down. He must not set that precedent. That was what he had told himself as the train drew slowly out of the crowded station and picked up speed. If I back down now…
But with every white and snowy mile he grew colder and colder, as though he was setting out for uncharted arctic wastelands and not his family’s estate for a pleasant holiday visit. He had left the train at the very first stop, abandoning his luggage and parcels, fleeing home to find exactly what drove him away in the first place.
Now he was truly terrified. He had played his trump card and he had lost.
He watched the door to Mrs. Sweet’s parlor but still Julian did not appear.
What would Julian say when he did appear? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps he was still not speaking to David. Perhaps he would just give him that long, dark, unfathomable look and turn away again. Which was ridiculous because he was completely dependent on David. His grandfather’s estate was still tied up in probate, and probably would be for the foreseeable future.
Was that the trouble? Had David inadvertently made Julian feel beholden? Was that why Julian felt he had to defy David, to flout David’s wishes, to risk his own health and sanity? Because the fact of the matter was Julian brought so much more to David than David could ever begin to return…
From outside came the sweet spiral of notes as Mr. Flipkey wandered out onto his terrace, violin tucked under his chin. You might think the cold and damp would throw the instrument instantly out of tune, but then again, Mr. Flipkey’s melodies were so foreign and mysterious, who would know if he was playing out of key or not?
Sweet though. Sweet and sad, those delicate brushes of bow to strings. Like the beating wings of small birds.
A lump formed in David’s throat.
What if all Julian really felt for him was gratitude? And now gratitude had turned to resentment?
He considered this while Mr. Flipkey continued to play his mournful melody, indifferent to the snowflakes languidly floating down, as though they were white rose petals.
What was Julian doing in there? David listened.
Having a fit was not a silent business, so he knew Julian was all right.
He could go to his own rooms and then arrange to casually run into Julian at the Christmas Eve gathering Mrs. Sweet would hold tonight. That way he would not look desperate.
But he was desperate. He couldn’t help thinking that every minute he let pass was taking Julian further and further from him.
The chair scraped in the parlor. David drew his shoulders back, waiting. But Julian still did not appear.
Finally David couldn’t stand it another moment, he walked down the hall and waited in the open doorway. It took him a moment to find Julian in the gloom of the room. Julian stood at the window, gazing down at Mr. Flipkey who was still playing his sorrowful music.
David felt an instant stab of jealousy.
But as he stood there he saw that Julian’s eyes were closed. He was not aware of David, that was clear. The line of his body was weary, his face unguarded and sad.
David couldn’t bear the sadness, even though he had wanted Julian to regret his actions. This was grief, not regret, and it made his heart twist in his chest. He dropped his gloves and hat on the parlor table, and approached Julian.
The floorboard squeaked. Julian’s eyes flew open. In a matter of seconds his expression changed from disbelief to joy to wary suspicion.
For hours David had tried to think of what to say, how he could negotiate a truce that would allow him to save face but still win back Julian. But all his carefully prepared speeches fled.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “Please forgive me.”
Tears filled Julian’s dark eyes. “Why did you say it? Why did you end it between us?”
“I didn’t mean to. It’s the last thing I want. I’m afraid for you. I’m afraid for us both.”
Julian shook his head. “I don’t understand you, David. I’ve tried to do exactly as you wished. Always. Except this one thing. And I can’t help this. It’s who I am.”
“But what about all the things we talked about? When you were getting well, we talked about traveling and you maybe one day opening a café or —”
Julian put his hands over his eyes. “David.” He lowered his hands, his expression older than David had ever seen it. All at once Julian seemed older than him. “One day. Maybe. It’s just a dream now. We have no way to make that happen. And in the meantime…”
“In the meantime you’re having these visions again.” David tried to say it without bitterness, but he was not successful.
“Yes.” Julian’s eyes looked black and Harlequin-like. “I don’t want them, but I can’t stop them.”
David took Julian’s hands in his, and although David was the one who had walked through the snow, Julian’s skin felt ice cold. “All right. I suppose I have to accept that. But what about the séances? You don’t have to meet these people, you don’t have to listen to their stories, and you sure as hell don’t have to contact their dead relatives. That’s your choice.”
Julian shuddered and his hands gripped David’s tighter. “I don’t want to, but how can I refuse? Especially this time of year when so many are remembering and longing for those who have gone before? I can help them. How can I refuse?”
“You refuse. That’s all. You simply do it.
Julian shook his head.
“Yes,” David insisted. “It’s making you ill. It’ll destroy you. You have to refuse.”
Julian pulled his hands free. “I can’t. You’re just making it more difficult for me.”
“I’m trying to help you!” David spared a quick look over his shoulder, but Mrs. Sweet would be out in the kitchen preparing the evening meal.
Julian said quietly, “If you want to help, don’t ask this of me. Help me. Help me do what I must. Be my strength and my comfort.”
In the silence that followed Julian’s words, David realized that Mr. Flipkey had disappeared inside his brownstone once more. The only sound between them was the almost soundless brush of snow against the window.
“I don’t know if I can,” David said finally. It was painful to say the words, but it was true.
Julian turned from him.
Neither spoke as they watched the wall of white grow higher and higher on the window sill.
Either way he was going to lose what mattered most to him in the world. At least Julian’s way would make Julian happy, and somehow that seemed the most important thing as David stared into his own bleak vision of the future. He could not bear to picture himself standing here years from now remembering the slump of Julian’s shoulders, the hurt, closed look on Julian’s face before he had turned away.
Better to give than receive. Wasn’t that the motto of the season?
“But I can try,” David said. “I will try for you.”