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Christmas in His Heart
Christmastime brings joy to hearts everywhere. Between snow angels, festive clothing, holiday decorations, and of course, all the beautiful lights, it’s hard not to partake in the season.
Unless you no longer have Christmas in your heart.
Dermot Alasdair has never shared the horrific memories that keep him from celebrating the happiest time of the year, nor does he ever plan to. He’s fine being alone and shut off from everyone; he has his restaurant and that’s all he needs. He believes that, too…until the craft store next door from his eatery hires a perpetually smiling annoyance. Really, it isn’t normal for someone to be that happy all the time.
Xander Leahman didn’t know what he was getting into when he accepted an invitation to visit his best friend and help her interview people for the newly created position of manager at Craft Time. When a surly man bumps into him and then walks away with an enticing sway to his hips, Xander decides the position—and Dermot—are perfect for him. Now all he can think of is finding ways to get Dermot out of his clothes. Well that, and how to open this grinch’s heart to the Christmas season and, hopefully, love.
The man’s eyes were a brilliant, twinkling blue, like sparkly sequins in his pale white face. The bell in his hand peeled, and the greeting on his lips grated on Dermot’s nerves. He wanted to walk on by, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, the five dollars in his pocket was all the cash he had on hand, and he really wanted…no needed the peppermint latte it was going to buy for him.
Peppermint latte from the specialty coffee shop. Prudence, the quirky barista/owner, refused to make the delicious concoction except from November fifteenth to January first. She even refused to share her recipe, which Dermot had been unable to duplicate to his satisfaction.
Peppermint salvation was one consideration.
The jolly red Santa suit was another deterrent.
But Dermot knew that behind that richly curling white beard and pillow padded belly lurked the kind-hearted cartoonist who drew comical portraits for the tourists in the summer for twenty-five dollars apiece. His own issues with Christmas aside, he could appreciate Steve had nothing, and yet he stood out here in temperatures barely above freezing, smiling and laughing and ringing his bell, collecting money for charity.
Reluctantly, he handed over the money.
“God bless you, and Merry Christmas to you,” Steve gushed.
Dermot brushed off the thanks. It wasn’t about the season, or the holiday, or even God. It was about the need. If Steve could give of his time, when he had so little, then Dermot could go without his treasured coffee. “It’s nothing.” He shrugged and continued walking down the empty sidewalk to his restaurant. The wind cut through his jacket. He might as well have been stalking the streets of Parkerburg naked for all the protection it afforded him.
Goddamned narrow-minded, short-sighted city council. Hunkering down, Dermot continued on the way to his restaurant door, past the florist and the bakery, the art gallery with its sad yellow sign announcing its closure.
Parking was abysmal, each narrow period building boasted a handful of awkwardly angled parking spaces. At this time of day, they were all empty. Nevertheless, by mutual agreement, none of the shop keepers or their employees parked on the street. It was a matter of respect and community empathy.
The street-side parking, what precious little of it there was, belonged to the customers. All the rest of them, the people who worked here and paid taxes here, they parked blocks away. Even the alleys weren’t adequate. Barely wide enough for UPS and Yellow Transit trucks, a single vehicle parked in the alley behind his restaurant would block deliveries for half the block.
One foot after another, he trudged down the walkway, trying to switch gears from his anger at the community leaders to the tasks that awaited him at Alimentaire.
The sous chef was out this week with the flu.
Dermot would have to take over Chaz’s tasks as well as his own. He regretted Chaz's suffering, and he really didn’t look forward to all the tedious chopping, but the bottom line was that Chaz’s absence would probably save him enough money this month that he’d be in the black. The restaurant’s finances skated perilously close to the red zone lately, and Dermot didn’t like the nervous tension the situation created.
“Hey! Good morning!”
The cheerful greeting broke through his concentration, and Dermot looked up to see the new manager of the Craft Time craft store sweeping the sidewalk in front of the shop. “Hey,” he muttered sourly. Xander Leahman made his head ache. Just one glance and he wanted to snap at the man to comb his hair, put on a heavier jacket, and for Christ sakes why wasn’t he wearing gloves outside in this weather?
Dermot wasn’t going to stop. He had no plans stop and talk to the smiling man. Xander bubbled more than a bottle of shaken soda water. Dermot didn’t have time for his chatter, and he didn’t have time for the strange, compelling not-quite-nausea he seemed prone to in Xander’s company.
Maybe he was allergic to the man’s cologne, or deodorant, or shampoo. Dermot leaned forward and sniffed surreptitiously, but he couldn't smell anything other than cinnamon and vanilla. An overwhelming urge to bake overcame him, and he jerked himself upright.
He was an executive chef, not a pastry chef. He didn’t bake, and especially not something as…plebeian as oatmeal raisin cookies, which was what Xander smelled like.
“Excuse me.” He deliberately stepped around Xander, who put out a hand and caught his arm.
“I saw you coming down the street.” Xander set the broom aside and picked up a steaming mug from the windowsill. “It’s not as good as Prudence’s coffee, but I made it fresh this morning.”
Blinking in astonishment, Dermot stared from the mug to the hand on his arm. He could really… “Thanks.” He accepted the mug and inhaled the rich aroma of good coffee, scented with cinnamon and…yeah, vanilla. And he’d thought it was Xander who smelled so good? He didn't know whether to be relieved or embarrassed. “I needed this. That walk feels longer every day that the temperature drops.” The first sip exploded on his tongue with soothing heat and delicious flavor and he bit back a moan of appreciation.
“I can’t figure how Steve can stand to hang out on the corner all morning.” Xander released his grip on Dermot’s arm with a charming “oops” smile. He picked up the broom and swept the tiny pile of debris into a dust pan.
With the coffee’s warmth spreading through him, Dermot found himself willing to talk a little, to linger in Xander's unsettling presence. “He takes breaks, but I guess he believes in the cause.”
“Well, of course he does! The organization does such good work.”
Grimacing, Dermot shook his head. “They might do good, but they aren’t all good people. At least…” He gathered his thoughts as Xander seemed perplexed. “They discriminate.”
“But I saw you put money in the kettle.”
“Oh, they’ll take my money. But they aren’t a friend to the LGBT community, not if I interpret their stances correctly.”
“Then why did you…”
“Because I don’t need coffee, but that soup kitchen they support feeds families, and when helping hands are needed, when natural disaster strikes, they’re the first ones on the scene.” He shook his head again. “Look, I’m sorry. Complicated moral issues of my impulsive donation aside, I’ve got a lot of work to do today, and Chaz is still out sick.”
“Oh…yeah, sorry. I didn’t mean to question you, just… I’ll see you later, okay? Maybe come in for lunch?”
Waving off the comment as a polite nothing, Dermot nodded and hurried over to his door. He had hours yet before lunch service began at eleven, but the coffee’s ability to ward of cold wasn’t unlimited.
Xander watched the prickly Dermot Alasdair walk away, taking some pleasure in knowing those large, talented hands were wrapped securely around the mug of coffee Xander had given him.
Oh brother, did he suddenly feel like an obsessed teenager again—he’s touching my mug. He couldn’t help it though, ever since he came to Parkerburg the tall, dark, and gorgeous restaurant owner had caught his eye. What Xander wouldn’t do to be the reason behind a full-blown thousand watt smile on that man’s face.
Xander was fairly certain if the man did smile more enthusiastically than the poor facsimile he always bequeathed people, this cold front would end immediately.
He finished sweeping the stoop in front of Craft Time and quickly cleaned up his mess, putting the broom and dustpan away and bringing his own not-so-hot anymore coffee inside with him.
“You ready to unlock the doors?” Xander glanced at his watch and saw they still had five minutes before opening.
His best friend of close to a dozen years popped her head out of the office situated halfway to the back of the store on the right. “Sure, if you’re all set up, let’s do this.”
He chuckled as he turned back to the front door and flipped the closed sign to open, not having to unlock the doors since he hadn’t locked them after sweeping the stoop. Who’d have thought that four years of college and one well-worked-for bachelor’s degree and here he was managing his friend’s business? A craft store, of all things, with workshops on the second floor and kids running around touching everything on the weekends.
“Oh I can see the morning rush is upon us.” Shawna grinned as the bell over the front door chimed.
He turned and smiled at Mrs. Mincer, one of Shawna’s best customers, as she scurried through the door, rubbing her leather-gloved hands up and down her cashmere jacket sleeves. Secretly he worried if her teeth chattered any more violently, they might just pop out of her mouth.
He chastised himself for such a thought and nodded in her direction. “Good morning, Mrs. Mincer, you’re out early today.”
She yanked on the middle finger of her glove, removing it from her hand. “Have you felt the crisp refreshing air outside?”
“Indeed I have.” He laughed as she handed him the gloves then laid the soft pink jacket over his outstretched arms.
“It makes me feel alive, I tell you. Makes me want to be imaginative and create things. So I told my Charlie, that’s what I call Mr. Mincer”—she winked at Xander—“I told him I had no choice but to come here. I need supplies to do right by this weather.” The wrinkles around her eyes and mouth came to life as she smiled first at Xander, then Shawna.
“Excellent.” He’d only taken the manager position Shawna offered him a few months ago, but already he knew all about Mrs. Mincer and her Charlie. Though he’d never actually seen Charlie, so he had to take Shawna’s word that he really existed.
“Shawna.” Mrs. Mincer bellowed to the woman standing no more than a dozen feet from her. “I need to build a squirrel feeder. With this cold air, I fear they won’t be out and about as much and I want them to have plenty of rations for their time in. Now, nothing too intricate, I’m not looking for fancy just sturdy.”
Xander watched in awe as the two women discussed her options while walking to the back corner of the store. Mrs. Mincer was easily older than his own grandmother, who just celebrated her eighty-second birthday, but the woman moved like she was half that age. She once lectured Xander on the horrors of Botox, exclaiming that she earned each and every one of her laugh lines thanks to her three children and seven grandkids and refused to be shamed into covering them like some of Parkerburg’s hoity-toity society.
He wondered if that hoity-toity society included the same people Dermot had mentioned earlier.
Xander couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face as he straightened the impulse-buy bins. Who knew googly eyes and mismatched buttons qualified as impulse buys?
“And why are you so happy this morning?” Shawna hip bumped him before circling around the counter and rummaging underneath on the shelves.
“I’m always happy.”
“Yes, well, that is true, but today you are shiny happy. Ah ha! Found it.” She popped back up, waving a little spiral notebook in her hand.
“Well, I’m glad you found that, because we don’t have nearly enough note paper around here.” Xander nodded sharply, not even trying to hide his humor.
“Don’t be difficult, I’ll call your mother.” Shawna started flipping through the haphazardly chicken-scratched pages. “I put the ordering codes for those pre-made kits in here somewhere. Mrs. Mincer’s new project reminded me I wanted to order some for the endcap on the back aisle. I think the kids would love them as Christmas gifts.”
Xander leaned on the counter and tried to read the pages upside down, which wasn’t hard considering some of them were evidently written upside down. “As long as you don’t plan to try and pawn one off on Mrs. Mincer, imagine her outrage at a pre-made feeder,” he whispered.
Shawna gasped. “Do I possess such nerve?”
“Yeah, you do.” He straightened and wiped his hand over the counter, brushing off nonexistent dust. “So, I’m thinking of grabbing some lunch at Alimentaire today, you want me to bring you anything?”
The speed with which Shawna jerked her head up would’ve given a weaker person whiplash. “Xander…”
“What?” He grabbed his coffee mug and downed the now cold liquid in two gulps. “Oh, look at that, I’m empty. Would you like a cup?” He turned before she took him up on his offer and fast-walked toward the office where the little kitchenette was located. It wasn’t much really, a counter with a stainless steel sink, tiny microwave, and coffee maker. Underneath, a mini-fridge nestled between two storage cabinets.
“Don’t think you can dodge me that easily.” She rounded the corner and burst into the room like a woman on a mission. “You’re going over there to see him. Don’t deny it.”
“I deny nothing, and admit to the exact same thing. What’s the big deal? He’s a nice guy.”
A snort was her elegant response. He raised his eyebrow to her while reaching for the coffee pot.
“He’s mean, Xan. You don’t do mean, you do happy.”
“He’s sexy. I do do sexy,” Xander countered.
She rolled her eyes and laughed. “Oh, so you’re using that head to eat lunch with.”
“Maybe I just want to see if I can make him smile.” Xander sighed.
She shook her head at him. “Just don’t tell him any of your jokes.” Carefully snatching the now full and doctored coffee mug in his hands, she winked. “You want him to laugh with you, not at you.”
“Oh, ha ha,” he grumbled, suppressing the urge to give her back the middle finger salute.
Christmas in His Heart