Twenty-four Hours of Holiday Dating
Mindy tweaked Nolan’s bowtie one last time, then tweaked his nose.
“Get off.” He swatted her hands away with a grin.
“You want to look fab.”
“Of course.” He examined his slacks/waistcoat/bowtie ensemble in the full-length mirror. “I do. But this is a lot more…snazzy than I wear to work.”
“As it should be. This is a party.” She picked up the metallic rainbow cuff links. “Gimme an arm.”
He did, and she poked one shiny link through the holes in the cuff.
“And what is the first rule of office holiday parties?”
“Don’t get blotto.”
“Not that it matters. I’m driving, and anyway, I don’t drink, remember?”
“I know. Still a rule.” She motioned for the other arm. “And the second rule?”
“Don’t flirt with my co-workers. Not that I would.”
“You never know.”
“Mindy, they’re all happily married blue-haired ladies.”
“Please. He’s more stuffed shirt than I am, and that’s a lot of uptight. And also my boss, so no. Will not be flirting with him.”
She grinned. “Cute though.”
He couldn’t argue with that, so he didn’t.
“And rule trois?”
He frowned. “There are three?”
“Rule three is never photocopy your butt.”
“Not applicable. The party is at Slapstick, not the office.”
“You’d be surprised. Let me tell you about the time I—”
“All I’m saying is that where there’s a will, there is always a way. There.” She tugged his sleeve and stood back. “La perfection.” She made a chef’s kiss and smiled. “You look awesome.”
“Thanks. And trust me, I have no will to photocopy my ass.”
“Mmm. Straight-laced indeed.”
“You sure you don’t want to be my plus one?”
“I would, baby, but you know I’m going out with the girls tonight. With any luck, I won’t be going home with them.”
“I hate when you go bar crawling. I worry.”
“Don’t. I’ll be fine. We look out for eachother, and anyways, if I do go with some guy, you know it’ll be one of the fab five anyway. It always is.”
“I don’t know what you see in those guys.”
“Good sex, that’s what. And no after-drama.”
He rolled his eyes. “Must be nice. You straights have it good, you know.”
“I though the gays were awash in no-strings sex.”
He made a face. “Don’t I wish. It’s been—”
“La-la-la.” She stuck her fingers in her ears. “Not listening!”
“Nice.” He grabbed his wallet and keys from the dresser by the door and held out a hand.
Rising on her toes, Mindy tipped her face for a peck on the cheek. “Have fun, eh?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Maybe don’t try so hard!” she called after him down the hall outside their apartment.
He waved over his shoulder and took the stairs down to the front door of the building at a trot.
Slapstick oozed sports bar vibes even from the street. Nolan shivered as he pushed on the shortened hocky stick door handle. The Hockey Night in Canada theme song blared as he entered, and a loud cheer went up as the original theme song blasted through the speakers, overpowering the new theme on the televisions over the bar.
“Fantastic.” They were going to share the bar with an especially enthusiastic hockey crowd, it seemed.
Across the room, he spotted his desk mate, Patricia, waving frantically at him, and he waved back, squeezing past a plaid-covered crowd of bearded men to make it to the semi-private room his office had rented for the evening.
“You came.” She beamed at him, clearly having already devastated Rule One.” She sloshed her large bowl-shaped glass at him, and he danced back to avoid the green-tinged drink splashing over the salted rim. “Opps!” She giggled. “Sorry dear.”
“No problem.” He stepped back again, trod on someone, and bumbled against an immovable object. Somehow, he managed to end up with both Patty’s drink and that of the trod-on person’s all over his shoes. “Of course.”
“Careful.” A deep voice from behind him sent a shiver up his spine. A huge hand clamped on his shoulder and Nolan stilled, holding his breath.
Patty melted away into the crowded party room with a raised glass and a wink. Coward.
“I’m so sorry,” Nolan began, but the hand patted and a chuckle bounced Nolan against a broad chest and slightly padded stomach.
“No worries, eh.”
Nolan turned to blink at the man but found himself face to full beard with him, instead. He craned his neck to look up. “It’s, um. Crowded.” Not awkward at all.
The man grinned, straightened Nolan’s tie with beefy fingers, and nodded.
“Can I get you a replacement for that?” Nolan pointed to his mostly empty beer glass.
“Nah. This is my limit.” He patted his gut, a pink tinge colouring the cheeks above his beard. It was kind of adorable, in a lumberjack sort of way. “What about you? Buy you a beer?”
“No, thanks.” Nolan held up his keys and jingled them.
“Right. Good call.” His eyes reflected the twinkle lights strung above the bar, distracting Nolan from the conversation long enough the man asked if he was okay.
“Yeah. Sorry.” Heat flashed up his face and he poked a thumb over his shoulder.
“I best get over—” he said just as the guy said “I should check the score,” and gestured over his own shoulder at the nearest television.
Nolan giggled, immediately slapping a hand over his mouth to stop it.
Seeing his cuff link, the man’s smile widened, and he touched the shimmering metal with one finger. “Fancy.”
“It’s a party.” Nolan tucked his hands deep into his pockets.
“You should go celebrate, then.”
A loud cheer went up behind the big man.
“Sounds like it.”
“Hope the Jays win,” Nolan said.
That got him a burst of laughter, which he didn’t really understand, then a double take. He must have let the confusion show on his face.
“What did I say?” Probably some faux-sports-pas.
“Blue Jays, baseball. Leafs, hockey.”
“Well.” Nolan huffed. “I knew that.”
Another huge grin complete with sparkling eyes and what was probably a dimple under the thick blond beard. “Of course you did.”
“I was testing you.”
The guy leaned in close to speak into Nolan’s ear. “Do I pass?”
Nolan breathed in a lungful of body heat and soap. “Flying colours,” he whispered.
“Excellent.” Straightening, the man patted his shoulder again. “Enjoy your party.”
“Thank you. And enjoy the game.”
Nolan turned to meet his friends, but before he entered the room, he stopped and looked back.
The guy stood where he’d left him, watching.
“I’m Nolan,” Nolan called over the din.
Nolan smiled and pointed up at the banner over the doorway that read “Happy Holidays to all the Books and Bindings Printers team.”
Quintan nodded and pointed to the bar’s logo lit up in blue and white neon over the bar.
Good to know.
Under most circumstances, Nolan would have been among the first to leave the party. Of course, he emphatically told himself he wasn’t staying longer so he could watch the blond bear at the bar. He didn’t do that sort of thing. Especially not in a sports bar.
And his inner self absolutly listened to those protests. For about five minutes, and then the bear—Quintan—glanced up and caught Nolan’s eye, and it didn’t matter what he told himself, or how forcefully he said it, his inner self preened and waited for the next glance.
The little game made the party bearable. Nolan wasn’t much for crowds, and the only other person following Rule One was their boss, Oslo. He probably didn’t count, since he was looking over the proceedings with the same sour countenance he wore at work most days.
Despite his forbidding expression, everyone took a moment to thank him for the party, and about halfway through, he took his leave. That’s when things really exploded. Nolan had no idea middle aged ladies had so much party left in them. They almost closed the bar down, But eventually he did see the last of them, including Patty, into Patty’s son’s car for rides home, and went back to fetch his overcoat.
Nolan didn’t jump at the shadow that fell over him when he had his back to the door. Well. He did, but it was a sports bar, and he wasn’t exactly incognito.
“Okay?” Quinan asked. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“Not exactly my scene here. I can imagine most of the clientele are more hockey than figure skating, you know?”
“I know. Game night is a bit iffy, I guess, but most of the influx are gone. This is the regular crowd. You won’t get trouble from them.”
“If you say so.”
Quintan grinned wide and unbuttoned a few of the buttons on his red flannel to reveal a T-shirt that quipped Pride, Eh? in rainbow glitter.
“Bet you thought your cuff links were a statement.”
Nolan gestured to his entire body. “Baby I am the statement. Look at me. Bow tie?” He flicked it with a forefinger. “I’m definitely more of a Vegan Value or Brew House of Games kind of guy.
“Oh!” Quintan straightened up. “Brew House.” He glanced at a watch with a scratched face and worn leather band. “They’re open for a few hours yet. You play chess?”
Nolan raised both eyebrows. “Do you?”
“Not at all well. But I’m game if you are.”
“Are you…asking me on a date?”
“I think you are. Although it might be a bit late for chess.”
“They probably have snakes and ladders, if that’s more your speed.”
“I feel called out.”
Quintan laughed and led the way through the bar to the front door, which he held open. “Walk or ride?”
“Walk. It’s only a block. Wait, are you not wearing a coat?”
“Canadian with Fin blood, eh. I’m good. Here. Let me.” He took Nolan’s coat from him and held it up so Nolan could push his arms into it. “Better?”
“Not Fin,” Nolan assured him. “Much better.”
Strands of multicoloured lights and glittering bows and balls festooned every shop along the street. Nolan loved this part of town during the holidays.
“They really go all out, don’t they?” Quintan tapped a particularly large blue ball. It tinkled, and a pile of snow plopped to the sidewalk.
“I love it.”
“It’s a lot.”
“Said the guy with the sequin shirt.”
“Glitter, not sequins, and my god-daughter made it for me.”
“Well, that makes it all right then.”
“When kids make you things, you use them. It’s a Rule.”
“I don’t actually know any kids.”
Quinan chuckled. “Everyone knows kids.”
“No, really. Only child, so no nieces or nephews. Bestie had her kid parts rendered inhospitable because, in her words, ‘kids are the devil’s minions’, and I work with a bunch of over fifties, so their kids are all grown, and I’ve only met a few of those, anyways.”
“That is really sad.”
“Do you skate?” Quintan asked after a thoughtful pause.
“Skate. Do you skate?”
“You must think I’m the worst Canadian ever. Don’t watch hockey, can’t handle the cold, don’t skate.”
“Do you own anything plaid?”
“Does the bowtie count?”
Quintan snorted. “I’m taking you skating tomorrow. With my god-daughter and her brothers and cousins.”
“A second date, and we haven’t even started the first one yet.”
Quintan turned to face him. “Too fast? Shit. Too fast, right? I always—”
Nolan stopped him with a quick peck on the lips. “I will come and watch you and your minions skate tomorrow.”
“Technically, they’re my brothers’ minions, but close enough.” He grinned. Breath puffed out between them, and his cheeks had that adorable pink glow again, which Nolan realized he could only see in the dim light because he was very, very close.
A few snowflakes drifted down around them.
Somewhere a bar door opened and ABBA’s Feliz Navidad drifted down the street.
“Too soon to kiss you?” Quintan asked.
“I don’t often get kissed on the first date.”
“I don’t often get a date with the first kiss, so I guess we’re even.”
Nolan wasn’t going to think about that too hard. After all, it wasn’t like he planned to take the guy home. Right?
Quintan’s hand cupping the side of Nolan’s face banished the last of the winter shivers racing up under his coat. For the next few minutes, the fuzz of beard and heat of their lips drove all thought from his brain, as well.
When he pulled away, Nolan had to remind himself to take a breath.
“Snakes and Ladders?” Quintan asked.
“Is that what we were going to do?”
Quintan took his hand, lead him to the next doorway and opened the café door for him. “After you.”
They might have played Snakes and Ladders. Or Exploding Kittens or…he didn’t really remember what, but it didn’t matter. By the time he made it back to his car, he was already looking forward to their second date.
“Hey! Hello! Ingrate!” Mindy kicked the couch, which shuddered under Nolan’s groggy head.
“The door buzzer’s been going like mad. Are you expecting someone?”
“Thought you were sleeping out…door buzzer?” He groped for his phone. “What time—”
“Eight-of-stupid-o’clock,” she grumbled, and went to the door to push the button and gripe at the person on the other end.
“Oh, shit!” Nolan rolled off the couch, hitting the floor on one knee and cursing again. “Where’s my phone? Why didn’t my alarm go? Did I set it?”
“No idea,” she said to him and turned back to the intercom. “Sorry dude. Don’t know a Quintan.”
“I do!” Nolan squeaked, rushing for her, one blanket wrapped half over a bare shoulder and slung loosely under the other arm. “Hey!” he called towards the speaker. “Hi, Quintan! Come up!”
“Dude!” Mindy wrapped her own blanket more securely around herself and her pink onsie.
Nolan pushed the door buzzer over her shoulder, and it echoed down the stairs outside. He shouldered her aside to get at the speaker. “Come up,” he said, offering her a conciliatory grin to which she replied by sticking a wet finger in his ear. “Sorry.” He squirmed away from her. “Overslept. Up the stairs, door right at the top, straight ahead.”
A chuckle sounded through the speaker, then he heard the distinctive rattle of their front security door skreeing across the entrance way tiles before booted steps clomped up the stairs.
“Hi!” Nolan flung open the door, greeting Quintan with a huge grin.
“Well hello.” Quintan stopped outside the door. He looked exactly as lumberjack perfect as he had the night before, wearing blue jeans and an unbuttoned army jacket over plaid—yellow this time—and a T-shirt with a faceless beard and mustache on the front. He had a tray of three coffees in hand and a paper bag in the other. His gaze drifted down Nolan’s body, he grinned wider, his cheeks turning pink, then he stepped inside.
Behind Nolan, Mindy squeaked, pattered away, and her bedroom door slammed.
“That was Mindy,” Nolan said, gaze stuck on the width of Quintan’s chest and the way the T-shirt stretched across it. “Roommate.”
“I brough her coffee too.”
Nolan blinked, forced his eyes from Quintan’s chest, but it caught again at his mouth, and the soft pink of his lips peeking from under the wiry hair of beard and moustache. “You didn’t have to.”
Quintan rattled the bag.
“Oh.” Nolan shook himself “Sorry. Yikes. Come in. I’ll be ready to go in one sec. Sorry. My alarm didn’t go off. No idea why.” He knelt in front of the dishevelled couch to look under it for the errant device. “I don’t know where it is.”
Frowning when he didn’t find it, he climbed back to his feet, scratching at his hair. “Well shit. I don’t know—”
Quintan cleared his throat, and Nolan turned to face him. “This phone?” Quintan asked.
“Oh.” Nolan tilted his head. “Yeah. Um. How did you–?”
“It was on the seat of the booth after you left the café last night. Must have fallen out of your pocket.”
“I didn’t set an alarm last night. I swear I remember…” But he had been tired by the time he’d come home. Maybe he dreamed that part. He’d been half in a dream anyway, hadn’t he, from the whole whirlwind meet a guy, go on a date, make another date all in one night thing.
“Take this,” Quintan suggested, holding out the phone, which Nolan took only to toss it onto the couch. “And this.” He also held out one of the coffees. It had two Ds scrawled on top.
“You remember how I like my coffee.”
“We were in a coffee shop for three hours in the middle of the night. If I don’t know how you take your coffee after that, I don’t deserve a second date.” He pulled a second coffee from the tray. “And for your room mate. Though I don’t know how she takes hers, so I got the cream and sugar on the side.”
Nolan set his cup down and took Mindy’s as well as the bag of cream and sugar, which he tossed on a table. “All black, all the time,” he said. “Because her tyrant boss never leaves her with a moment long enough to put anything in it. Or so she claims. Thank you for this. She was not thrilled at being woken up after her night out. I’ll go give this to her. A peace offering for not setting my alarm so I was ready for the buzzer.” Clutching his blanket against the chill of the room, he headed for her bedroom door and gave it a firm kick. “Min?”
There was a pause, then a groan. “Enter, peasant.”
Laughing, Nolan let the blanket go so he could open the door and go inside.
Mindy was hurriedly pulling a hoodie over her head. It exactly matched her pink joggers. “Why did you let a stranger in here when I was in my paja—” She stared at him, mouth agape.
“What?” He held the coffee in front of himslef like a shield.
Nolan glanced down at himself. He wore only his tight black boxer briefs. No sleep shorts. He had been tired last night. Heat flushed up his neck to his hairline until he was sure his hair must be standing on end. He glanced over his shoulder at the half-closed door.
“You didn’t notice?”
“I’ll say you were. Who is that?”
“Where did you find him?”
“You’re kidding me.” She tiptoed to the door and peeked out. “Is he a literal lumberjack?”
“Bartender. Although he wasn’t working last night.”
She turned around, her expression stunned. “You picked up a bartender at the straightest bar in the city? Little you?”
“I didn’t pick him up.”
“You were out until almost four in the morning.”
“It wasn’t a pick-up. We had one kiss.” He sighed. It had been a very nice kiss on the sidewalk under the glitter of the fairy lights.
“So where were you until four in the morning, then?”
“Brew House of Games. We played Snakes and Ladders. And Skip-Bo. And some cat game? I didn’t quite get the rules for that one, though. I think it might be better with more than two players.”
“It is.” She studied him. “And he’s here at stupid in the morning because why?” She shoved a beanie—also pink, over her messy hair.
“He’s taking me skating.”
“He’s taking you where, now?” She blinked at him, then took her coffee and sipped. “Ooh. That’s good. He got the good stuff.”
“Skating. At Howe Park Pond, I think. I have to get back.” He turned to escape before she could grill him any further.
“Dude.” Something hit him in the back. “Pants.”
“Shit. Right. Thanks.” He picked up the sweats she’d chucked at him—these ones neon green—to slip them on. She was taller than he was, so the cuffs swallowed his bare feet. But they were better than the boxer briefs he’d slept in. He smiled his thanks, and she nodded.
“I’m going to want the full debrief when you get back. Where is my other slipper?”
He kicked bunny headed footwear over to her. “This?”
“How is that outfit more presentable than the onsie? They’re practically identical.”
“These are two pieces.” She did a model pose. “Stylish.”
“If you say so.”
“I do. Now go. Your man is waiting.”
“Right. See you!”
“Keep your phone on, yeah?”
“He’s not an ax murderer.”
“You don’t know that.”
“Okay, so last night, in that straight bar you mentioned, he was wearing a T-shirt with pink glitter words on it.”
A smile almost broke through her mother hen face. “You’ll be careful, though?”
“Always.” He rooted through the dresser in the corner of her room where he kept the weekend clothes he hardly ever wore. He found jeans and a sweater vest of yellow and brown argyle. “I need a shirt. Come say hello to him. Keep him company while I get dressed.”
“Are you flaunting your lumberjack in front of me?”
“No. Just I have to get ready, and I don’t want him to feel awkward.” He chose a plain white T-shirt to wear under everything. “Where is…”
“You greeted him at the door in your underpants and some serious bed-head.” She combed her fingers though his hair as she spoke. “The awkward ship has sailed. In fact, it’s an armada and it’s so far out to sea—”
“Why do I let you stay here?” he asked her.
“Maybe because my name’s on the lease?”
“Oh that. Right.”
“Minor detail. What are you looking for?”
“The buttercup paisley shirt.”
“A button-down? For skating?”
“It’s stretchy. Ah-ha!” He pulled it off a hanger in her closet. “Go distract him so I can get to the bathroom.”
She rolled her eyes, but she did take her coffee and slip out of the room ahead of him.
Nolan was glad of the many layers he wore once he stood beside the pond at Howe Park Pond with Quintan. Packed snow around the benches along the perimeter of the pond left the seats sticking a mere six inches above the banks. The other spectators who sat cross-legged on them all wore snow pants.
“You’re going to have to come out on the ice with me. Keep moving, and you’ll be warm enough.” Quintan said.
“Too bad I don’t have skates.” Nolan sipped his coffee, then tilted his head, and fluttered his lashes at Quintan. “I’m happy to watch, though.”
Quintan grinned. “I got you.”
“Come on.” Taking Nolan’s free hand, Quintan tugged him around the bank towards a gathering of children with two huge men trying to herd them. As they neared, Quintan raised an arm and bellowed. “Anders! Lukas.”
“You’re late!” One of the men straightened from tucking the ends of a little bundle’s scarf into the loops around their neck.
“I’m so sorry,” Nolan whispered, slowing his steps. “Are they mad?”
Quintan laughed. “Don’t mind them, Bunny. My brothers have all bark and no bight.”
“Bunny?” Nolan glanced up at him.
“I did it again. Too fas—”
Nolan shouldered him, but instead of jostling him, he bounced off Quintan’s solid frame and stumbled.
“Careful!” Quintan caught him, both arms around him. He placed Nolan on his feet. “Sorry if I embarrassed you.”
“You didn’t.” He couldn’t help the frill of pleasure that ruffled up the hairs on the back of his neck and sent a shiver through him. He snuggled in closer. “I’m hardly a snow bunny, though. More like a frosted flower.”
“Well let’s warm you up before your petals fall.” He pecked the tip of Nolan’s nose. “Let’s go.”
It turned out Quintan’s oldest nephew, a competitive figure skater, had brought an old pair of his skates for Nolan.
“I’m going to chose not to be embarrassed that a twelve-year-old’s skates fit me,” Nolan said, while Quintan knelt at his feet and tied them. As if Nolan was one of the many kids who required this service.
“Don’t be,” the brother Nolan thought was called Nikolas said in passing. “Adam has freakishly large feet.”
“Thanks Dad!” Adam shouted as he took a few jogging steps and launched himself across the ice. With two long, strong pushes, he was whizzing in a circle, spinning, and jumping with a twist in the air he made look easy.
“Holy shit.” Nolan gasped. “That’s so much more impressive in person.”
“The kid has moves,” Quintan agreed. “There you go. Not too tight?” He took a moment to pull the cuffs of Nolan’s jeans over the skate laces.
“I don’t think so. What do I do now?”
“No thank you.” He wrinkled his nose at Quintan, now towering over him on his own skates.
Quintan laughed as he held out a hand. “Come on, Bunny. I won’t let you fall.”
“Here.” One of Quintan’s brothers sailed past, but he left a yellow plastic chair on the ice in his wake.
“Oh, goodie.” Nolan clapped his hands, then shifted, on his feet just long enough to get his butt from the bench to the chair. “I’m ready.” He grinned up at Quintan. “Onward!”
“Nice try.” Quintan took both his hands. “Up you get. The chair is for you to keep your balance while you get your skate legs under you.” He waved at a small child pushing a smaller chair across the ice ahead of them while their feet pinwheeled under them.
“That kid is doing better than I will, just so you know.” The last word rose in pitch and volume as one of Nolan’s feet slipped out from under him.
“I got you!” Quintan caught him again, both arms around his waist.
“Can’t we just do this?” Nolan asked, wrapping his arms around Quintan’s thick waist and feeling the solidity of him. “I promise this will keep me warm.”
“Mmm.” Quintan rubbed their noses together, then bent for a proper kiss. “Tempting.”
Across the ice, the age-old song went up almost instantly “Quintan and—hey! Guy, what’s your name?”
“His name’s Nolan, Angie,” Quintan called back.
“Quintan and Nolan up in a tree. K-i-s-s-i-n-g”
“They are eight.”
“I’d hate to make liars of them, then.”
Quintan grinned and kissed him again.
When they broke apart, Nolan had to gulp in a breath. “So this is good? I don’t have to skate?”
“You want hot chocolate and chillie after, you do.”
“There’s hot chocolate?”
“And two kinds of chillie.”
“In case you’re vegan. I forgot to ask. So Soph—that’s Lukas’s wife—made some of each.”
“You had special chillie made for me?”
“Was that an assumption?”
“You are very confident this is going to go your way.”
“TBH I always move way too fast. Most guys don’t get me at all.”
“Well, TBH, I like it. I know where I stand. No guessing games.”
Quintan studied him for a long moment, face inscrutable behind his beard. “You wanna learn to skate?” he asked finally, like he’d found what he’d been looking for and slotted it into his plan.
“Fuck no.” Nolan grinned. “But if a bunch of lumberjacks and a five-year-old can do it, I have no excuse, do I?”
“Honestly, I won’t be upset if you want to go.”
“Oh no. I’m here now. And this chair matches my outfit. It’s like it was meant to be.”
“And here here’s me thinking inviting you back for family chillie was too much too fast.”
It should have been. Objectively, Nolan knew that. But Quintan’s family folded him into their day as if he’d always been there, and who was Nolan to argue?
His skating was, to be fair, an unmitigated disaster. Even the five-year-old ditched her chair eventually, while Nolan never quite got the hang of staying on his skates without something to hold onto to keep his balance.
Lucky for him, Quintan had no objection to being his balancing tool.
“Are you kidding?” he asked at one point. “I’m all for the non-awkward opportunity to hold your hand all day.”
“You know, for a lumberjack, you are very shmoopy.”
“I don’t know what that word means, exactly, but I feel like it’s something I shouldn’t apologize for, so I won’t.”
They were sitting on one of the benches that surrounded a fire pit later when Quintan turned to face him. “Question.”
“Answer? Maybe. Depending.”
“Why do you keep referring to me as a lumberjack? You know I’m a bar owner, right? Thought we established that last night.”
“I thought you worked there. You straight up own a sports bar?”
“Well, I do work there. But I also own it. We all three own it.” He made a circling motion that took in his brothers, both of whom were still on the ice with their kids. “Though Lukas is also a bookkeeper, so he does that for a living, mostly. Anders is a house husband. His wife is an architect. She travels a lot to see the building sites in person. He takes Adam to his skating lessons and such, and tries to prevent the twins taking over the world.”
“You run the bar.”
“I am the hands-on owner. My manager runs it, and Lukas keeps the books.” He winked and leaned in close. “As it happens, we also own a fair tract of land to the west of the city, and I manage the lumber.”
Nolan snorted. “You do not.”
“True story.” He sat back, looking smug.
“So you are a lumberjack?”
For a minute, Nolan stared at him. Finally, he shook his head. “I don’t know what that means. How do you dabble at being a lumberjack?”
“We keep a cabin on the land. I go out there a couple weeks a month and walk the forest. Manage the trees.”
“Yeah, because I can totally see them slacking off on the growing taller thing if no one is there to supervise them.”
Quintan laughed. “I take counts, which helps us decide where to plant new trees, what kinds to plant, and which to cut down to sell, which to let grow, which to leave, because you have to have some natural die-back, to keep the soil healthy and preserve the wildlife.”
“So you own a bar, and a forest. And you run them both.”
“Sort of, yeah.”
“And one of your brothers raises his kids, the other one is an accountant.”
“Bookkeeper. According to him, accountants are assholes.”
“No idea. Bean counting snobbery? But he is the one responsible for keeping both places in the black. I’m the muscle, Lukas is the brains, and Anders is the heart. He’s in charge of most of our advertising and marketing, because he does have an art diploma and a marketing degree, and he can do a lot of that stuff from home.”
“So he has a full time job on top of raising his kids.”
“He looks after Lukas’s little one, too, when Lukas and Jenny are both at work.”
“Wow.” Nolan sank against the back of his bench. “I live on my bestie’s couch, much to her boss’s horror. Sort of underachieving at life by comparison.”
“Do you have two brothers whose skills and life ambitions dovetail perfectly with yours?”
“No. I have no siblings at all.”
“See, there’s one major difference right there. None of us do what we do in a vacuum, and they both have partners who are fully as invested in what we do as they are.”
“So what does Lukas’s wife do?”
“She’s our bar manager. She’s basically the life blood of the place.” He shrugged and dropped an arm around Nolan’s shoulders. “I won’t lie. We move at full throttle most of the time. But we all are doing what we want to be doing, so it never quite feels like work. Or most of the time, it doesn’t feel like work.”
“Charmed life if you can get it.”
“We work. And we had a good foundation. Our great grandfather bought the land a hundred years ago and didn’t clear cut it. We kept it in the family and use it within its means. The bar started out as our great grandmother’s boarding house for the guys who work for her husband. A lot of people put a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and a lot of love and laughter into what we have, even before we got it.”
“So maybe it’s charmed, and maybe you all make your own charm.”
“Probably a bit of both. After all,” he squeezed Nolan’s shoulders, “I didn’t do anything to make meeting you happen, yet here you are.”
“No, that was your charm. You did that.” He grinned and leaned heavily against Quintan’s body, feeling the strength under the layers of winter wear.
They sat quietly, watching the others skate and enjoying the crackle of the fire, until the youngest of the kids, Katie, got cranky for lack of food.
It took less time than Nolan would have thought to get all the kids de-skated and into vehicles, then they were waving and shouting see-you-in five over revving motors, while another family took over their fire pit.
Quintan led Nolan to a truck that didn’t look new, but sported a seasonally appropriate set of antlers on each side mirror.
“Very festive,” Nolan observed.
“Tis the season.” Quintan held the door open for him and he climbed up.
“You really like all the sparkle, don’t you?” Nolan asked as he settled into the seat and tweaked a set of bells hanging from the rear-view. A string of glittery pom-pom garland lined the dash.
“Oh, no, I do. Very much. Mindy is all about her minimalist décor, so we don’t decorate, but I miss it.”
“And you can’t convince her to even put up a tree?”
“Doesn’t matter all that much. It’s her place and she’s putting up with my stuff all over her living space, so.”
“You don’t want to push it. That’s fair.”
“More than. She’s been great, considering I was supposed to have my own place months ago. She gets a lot of grief from her folks for letting me stay. They never liked me. Being gay and all. And from her boss. He’s a bit of a controlling freak. No idea why she keeps working for the guy, except he pays her a fortune. Probably for putting up with him.”
“Well then, good on her for keeping you out of the cold.” Quintan smiled, and if he had questions, he didn’t ask them, for which Nolan was grateful. It wasn’t a cheerful Christmas story, and he hadn’t even known the guy twenty-four hours yet.
“So, why decorate your truck?” he asked, to change the subject.
“I’ve had this baby since high school. Changed out the motor and switched the auto transmission for standard.” He turned on the heat and a horrific squealing emanated from the glovebox. He cringed. “Sorry. That’s the air fan.” A quick twist of a knob and the noise stopped. “Have to change that out every so often. One of the very few issues I’ve had with her.” He stroked the steering wheel affectionately. “I decorate her because I spend a lot of time driving between the forest and the bar, and it cheers me up when I’m on the road by myself, heading to an empty cabin or tiny apartment over a noisy bar.”
“Makes sense then.” He waited while Quintan surveyed the parking lot for pedestrians. “You must really enjoy these family days, then.”
“I do.” His hands tightened on the wheel.
“And you invited someone you barely know to share it with you.”
“I did.” He wasn’t looking at Nolan.
It felt like a leap, but Nolan didn’t want to ruin anything by pointing that out.
“Listen,” Quintan shifted into gear before finally glancing in Nolan’s general direction. “I know I said we have chillie at Anders’s place, but you don’t have to come if you don’t want. I may have jumped the gun. Again.”
“Hey now.” Nolan tinkled the bells again. “You can’t offer me vegan chillie and then take it back.” He frowned, trying to resist the sneaking spread of doubt. “Unless you’re tired of me.”
Quintan reached across the bench seat to take his hand. “I am not. At all. But I have to warn you, it’s been a long time since I brought anyone to chillie day.”
“So chillie day is a big deal?”
“It’s how we kick off the family festivities, really. You met my brothers, but you haven’t met my sisters.”
“How many of them?”
“Two. Heather and Katrina.”
“And where do you fall in all of that?”
“Youngest brother, middle child.”
“So you have two little sisters.” Nolan settled in comfortably. “That can’t be so bad.” Women tended to like him. He wasn’t worried.
“And my parents.”
“Mothers adore me.”
“So, people are going to ask how long we’ve been together.”
“Is eighteen hours the wrong answer?”
“It’s the right one, because it’s true.”
“But they’ll judge.”
Quintan took a deep breath, let it out, and twisted his hands on the wheel. “I don’t want to ask you to lie for me.”
“Good, because I won’t.”
“Good to know.”
There was a long pause while Nolan waited for Quintan to get to his point.
“I was engaged to the last guy I brought to chillie day.”
“Tell me you knew him longer than eighteen hours.”
“More like eighteen months. I really did think he was the one.”
“My parents thought engagement after such a short time was sketchy. They basically ran him off, called him a gold digger. It was pretty aweful.”
“Well, good we aren’t engaged, then. We don’t have to lie. You tell them I’m your date, we met last night, and we don’t mention I’m homeless and can’t afford my own place, so they don’t think I’m after your money. In fact,” He twisted in his seat. “I’ll make it clear I’m after your body, if that would make it easier.”
Quintan chuckled. “I don’t care what they know about you. On one hand, if they managed to chase Michel off with a few barbed words, he probably wasn’t the guy I should marry anyways. On the other, it was mean, and I don’t want you to think my family is mean.”
“Maybe they just saw something in Michel you were too close to see. Maybe give them a chance and see what happens? Your brothers and nieces and nephews were fine all day, so I’m not worried.” He kissed Quintan’s cheek. “You shouldn’t be either.”
Nolan hadn’t anticipated a visit to someone’s house for a family get together would trigger his crowd anxiety, but then he hadn’t anticipated twenty plus people and four largish dogs crammed into a two-thousand square foot house, either.
“Wow.” He let Quintan take his coat from him. “This is a lot.”
“Maybe I should have given better warning. There are a lot of us.”
“Oh. It’s fine. If I disappear to the bathroom, it’s just to remind myself to breathe.”
“If you need to slip away, go to the door at the end of the hallway upstairs, and take the ship ladder up. That’s my old room in the attic. No one ever goes up there. The kids all hang in the basement, and the adults congregate in the kitchen. Mom and Dad and the grandparents will sit in the living room and watch Christmas musicals.”
“Ooh. Living room sounds about my speed.”
Quintan grinned, handed their coats off to a teenager speeding past, then wrapped Nolan into his arms and kissed his forehead. “If you feel like you’ve had enough, at any point, tell me. We’ll go.”
“I’m not going to run off on you. Promise.”
Quintan hugged him a bit tighter, resting his cheek against the side of Nolan’s head. His beard tickled Nolan’s neck, and the strength of his arms offset some of the anxiety.
“You realize,” Nolan whispered, “I’m not going to remember who anyone is.”
Quintan chuckled. “You want I should delay the test at the end?”
“Funny.” He eased away enough to look up at him. “Hold my hand?”
“Try and stop me.”
The introductions were endless, and as Nolan predicted, he remembered barely a quarter of the names, and most of those were the people he’d been skating with. Though he mixed the brothers up more than once, and had stopped trying to guess which twin sister was which, everyone seemed genuinely pleased to meet him.
Only when Quintan’s Uncle Lars showed up, arms full of expensive wine and gift bags for every kid, did things momentarily turn sideways. He took one look at Nolan and scowled.
Nolan recognized him instantly, but before he could say anything, Lars pointed a thick finger at him. “You’re the deadbeat living on my PA’s couch,” he accused.
Everyone within earshot turned to stare at him.
“I—I am.” He swallowed. “I’m not a deadbeat. I have a job. I work. Mindy’s been great letting me stay.”
“Overstay, you mean. You take advantage.”
“I pay her what I can.”
Quintan’s father peered at him. “What is it you said you do for a living, son?”
Heat flushed up Nolan’s neck. “I work at a print shop. But also, I design furniture. Sustainable, um…” He glanced at Quintan. “It’s a competitive field.”
“Thank you all, for putting my guy on the spot,” Quintan growled, stepping up beside him and wrapping a protective arm around his shoulders. “Uncle Lars, come in, buy your year’s worth of affection, and make your excuses before you have to stay for chillie.”
“Quintan!” His mother made a good show of indignation on her brother’s behalf, but she also played with the locket hanging around her neck and didn’t meet Lars’s gaze.
Anders—at least Nolan was pretty sure it was Anders, dropped a hand onto Nolan’s shoulder, casual, as if he’d done it a thousand times. “Don’t pretend he doesn’t do it every year, Ma. Lars, the kids are downstairs. Go bribe them.” Gently, he shuffled Nolan and Quintan to one side to allow room for Lars to squeeze past.
“I’ll take these.” Anders snatched the two bottles of wine from Lars as he passed.
When he was gone, down the stairs to the basement to a rousing cheer of ‘Uncle Lars!’, Anders guided Nolan into the kitchen. “Come on. You deserve a drink after that.”
“He’s not wrong,” Nolan whispered to Quintan as he watched Anders open the wine and pop the cork. “About me living on Mindy’s couch, I mean.”
Anders’s wife, a tiny sprite of blond energy, who’s name Nolan thought was Sophie, sidled up beside him. “I remember when Anders brought me to my first chillie day. I thought I was going to faint when I realized how big this mob is, and that was before most of the kids came along.” She patted his arm, then wrapped her hands around it and snuggled. “And I remember how tough it was, working a job to pay the rent while going to school, and then hustling to get enough work to get noticed and find a firm willing to take me on.”
“I’m a good designer. But I have principles, and I won’t add more disposable crap to the world or create a design that will cost the environment more to make than it’s worth.” He sighed. “Getting someone to notice my designs, and appreciate the ethic is all uphill. In the snow.”
“Both ways.” She nodded sagely. “I admire that you don’t compromise. Don’t fret over Lars. He’s a bit of a dick.”
“Quintan told me about Michel,” Nolan admitted.
She grinned at him. “Weirdly, Lars liked Michel.” Her grin turned a bit feral. “He was the only one. I know Quintan’s been gun shy about bringing anyone around since then but trust me, if Lars thinks there’s something wrong with you, it’s a sign.”
Nolan stared at her in alarm.
She laughed. “A good one for you. He has terrible taste in everything but wine and gifts for our kids. And probably PA’s if it’s true his PA is your friend and she’s letting you stay with her despite her boss’s opinion on the matter?”
Nolan nodded. “It’s true. I only met him once, when I first moved in and Mindy needed a plus one to some swanky thing or other. I’m surprised he even remembers me.”
“Here.” She passed him a glass of the wine Anders had opened.
Quintan took his hand, kissed the back of his knuckles, then raised his own wine glass. “To the first twenty-four hours,” he declared, grinning down at Nolan so he missed the raised eyebrows and indulgent smiles of his family arrayed around the circle.
Nolan glanced at the huge clock on the kitchen wall and realized it was, almost to the minute, twenty-four hours since he’d first glimpsed his lumberjack at the bar. “Twenty-four hours,” he whispered. Had it really only been that long?
Everyone clinked glasses together over the kitchen island.
Anders winked at his wife, then looked at Quintan and grinned. “When you know, you know, little brother.”
Quintan’s chest puffed out a bit and he held Nolan’s hand tighter. The warmth that spread through Nolan then lasted well past the spicy chillie and extra wine.