XOXO NIGHT TEMPEST
The front window display of Green’s Gourmet lit up the sidewalk, with large twinkling bulbs wrapped around a perfect rectangle of glass. An array of baskets, containing specialty wines, cheeses, and knick knacks, were arranged around a vintage Santa Clause figurine for shoppers to admire. Bing Crosby’s jovial voice created a festive atmosphere to counter the constant sound of the cash register and the loud exchanges between customers.
A popular stop for shoppers looking to entertain, Green’s was always busiest during Christmas. The fact that only three employees ran the shop made things stressful, but they loved their job, and always kept a smile on their face. Riley Green, the owner as of last year, when his father finally retired, manned the cash register. Behind the display case, fetching cheese, meats, and sweets, was Liza. And gift wrapping like a mad man, was Riley’s secret crush, Blake.
Faster than any department store veteran, Blake turned baskets and gifts into works of art. His scissors would curl the final ribbon. The gift tag stuck into place. Then he thrust the gift forward with a cheerful goodbye of happy holidays, and did it all over again. Riley had a hard time focusing. Between the hint of sweat coating Blake’s face, and the bustling group of customers waving lists at him, he could barely keep up.
A woman slapped her list on the counter, out of breath, with a look in her eyes that meant business. Probably overworked, planning the holiday by herself with children at home, Riley smiled and took the ticket. “I like your glasses,” he commented. “They suit you.”
The woman’s eyes softened. Her cheeks flushed a little, probably not used to the attention. “I just got them yesterday. Thank you,” she murmured.
“You’re most welcome.” Riley winked. He caught Blake’s grin and cleared his throat. “Two bottles of Sasarello, a Malbec, a case of Chocolate wine.” He turned back to her, raising a brow.
“For the aftermath,” she explained with a sigh.
Riley smirked. “Two trays of apple tart, a box of house truffles, and a wheel of gouda? Is that it?”
“Yes.” She nodded eagerly.
“Just the Malbec. The rest is for us.” The woman dug in her purse for her credit card.
“Got it!” Liza surfaced from the display case, letting Riley know she’d heard.
He completed the transaction, giving her a small discount for her holiday woes, without a word, and watched her move down the line. “Next!” He called.
When Liza finally turned the open sign off, it was well after 9. “Do you mind, Riley? My family has midnight mass and I’d like to eat with them before.”
He waved a hand at her. “It’s Christmas Eve. Go. Have fun.”
She grabbed her coat and scarf off the counter. “Merry Christmas, guys! See you after the New Year!”
“Liza,” Riley caught her. He pushed a case of red wine over the counter. “For the aftermath.”
She giggled. “Thanks. Bye!” The front door bell jingled and she was gone.
Alone with Blake, Riley turned up the music and started to clean. Distracting himself from the other man was better than stuttering, or thinking about going home to an empty house. This would be the first Christmas he spent alone. Parents on their dream cruise to the Virgin Islands. His little sister studying abroad with a friend, spending the weekend with their host family, left him by himself.
“You gotta try this, Riley.” Blake startled him, holding a piece of cheese to his lips. “Smoked jalapeno and mango cheddar from that farm in Briar. It’s out of this world.”
Riley looked up at Blake. Only a few inches taller, he seemed to tower over him now. Short, coppery hair and light brown eyes made him weak. “I think I already tried it.”
“No you didn’t. They brought it in last night and I only opened the box today. Come on, open up.” Blake grinned, pressing the small bite to Riley’s lips.
Opening his mouth, Riley stared at Blake, willing his impending erection away. Fingers brushed his lips. The cheese smoothed over his tongue. Flavors exploded in his mouth. His nerves right on the cusp of singing. He closed his mouth, catching Blake’s fingers a little.
“Good,” he mumbled, shying away.
“That’s it? You’re a cheese nut and all you say is good?” Blake insisted on coming closer, his body inches from Riley’s back. The owner stacked some receipts in an attempt to look busy.
“Mm hmm, it’s good.”
“Why do you do that?”
Swallowing, Riley looked over his shoulder, frightened by their proximity. “Do what?”
“Act like I’m going to hurt you.” Blake took a step back.
“What? I’m not scared of you. Why would you say such a thing?”
Blake thought about sharing some examples, but saw the nervous cast in Riley’s eyes. He wasn’t ready for this conversation. “Never mind, I got to get home and finish making pies for tomorrow. You want to help me? We can watch those Christmas movies you like, the black and white ones?”
As tempting as it sounded, as much as he needed to be with someone for the holiday, Riley shook his head. “Thanks, but I should really get some things done around here before we close. Who knows how busy we’ll be after New Year?”
“Riley, just come with me. I don’t like knowing you’re going to be all alone.”
“Well, when you put it like that…” Riley pushed past him, not angry, but slightly bitter that his family hadn’t thought about him for Christmas. “No thanks, Blake.”
Blake followed him to the back room. Long arms wrapped around his back in a hug, making him drop his paperwork. “It’s not pity, Riley. You’re my friend and I care about you. I’ve spent a holiday alone and I know how much it sucks, even if you don’t want to admit it.” He leaned in and kissed Riley’s jaw. “I’ll be up for most of the night. You have my number. I hope you call.”
Riley stood completely still as Blake’s arms disappeared. “Merry Christmas, Riley Green.”
Riley continued to stand there. Even after the chime of door let him know Blake was gone. He spent the next hour cleaning up before dragging himself home for a Christmas movie marathon and a glass of merlot.
Blake touched the pie crusts, checking that they were cooled enough to fill. The fruit pies already done on the counter, he set about whipping up a chocolate filling. He glanced at the clock on the wall again then looked at his phone. Riley was stubborn to the core. Shy, reserved, but very much a man, Blake was completely in love with him. He also knew without a doubt, that Riley felt the same.
Working five days a week, open to close with each other for the past two and half years was tense. There would be a moment when he thought Riley was actually going to give in, but to his dismay, he wouldn’t. He’d throw up that wall and walk away. That didn’t mean they didn’t know everything about each other. He knew Riley got up four days a week to swim laps at the rec center. He knew Riley hated cinnamon, but loved his cinnamon coffee cake.
Blake laughed to himself. He knew Riley had always wanted a dog, but thought he was too busy to care for one. He knew Riley liked his hair cut shorter, mentioning on occasion when it had grown too long. He’d touched his hair once, seconds later pulling his hand away when he realized what he’d done. Riley Green was such a simple man, which was why he was scared of love. It was outside his box and that was a scary place to be.
After putting the filling in the pies, he loaded up the fridge and shut the door. When the fridge started to hum, Blake had an idea. If Riley wasn’t going to make a move, he had to. It was the only way to put an end to their need, and start something new, hopefully. Blake went to his room, throwing on a dark green sweater and some clean jeans. A little nervous himself, he checked his outfit over in the mirror, and decided he was being ridiculous. He didn’t need to look good. He just needed the right words.
Cutting off all the lights, Blake locked up, and went to his car. He had a present to give Riley, his heart.
Riley sat cross legged on the couch, sifting through the Christmas cards and packages he’d waited to open until tonight. A few cards from vendors he used at the shop, a cedar soy candle from his cousin in California, and a handmade scarf from his Aunt Lottie in Santa Fe. He looked up at the television, watching the family gather around the dinner table for a Christmas meal. He glanced at his own dinner table and saw the leftovers he’s scrounged up from the fridge. Not the same, he thought, not at all.
Another sip of wine and he called it quits. He didn’t like getting drunk. Not to mention, with the way he felt right now, it’d be unwise. He got up from the couch and was just about to turn off the Christmas trees lights when someone knocked at the door. Curious, he padded down the hall in his flannel pajama bottoms, and peeked out the window. Taking a deep breath, he opened the door.
Blake stood there, all bundled up, holding a pie in his gloved hands with a carry out bag around his wrist. “Good. You didn’t go to bed yet.” He grinned. “Can I come in? It’s freezing out here.”
“Sure,” Riley muttered, stepping aside. “What are you doing here, Blake? It’s almost midnight.”
“The Lampoons come on at 12. I figured we’d watch it together.” Blake shrugged, making his way to the kitchen to unload the food.
“Blake, I told you I don’t need you to …”
“You’re being stubborn, Riley.” Blake put a deli container on the counter before shedding his coat and scarf. “It’s just a movie and I couldn’t sleep.”
“Just a movie?” Riley plopped down on the couch. “You have a TV at home.”
“But I wanted to watch it with you.” Blake looked up, satisfied with Riley’s shocked profile. “And I brought chicken and potatoes. It was all they had left before closing. I hope that’s okay.” Nodding, Riley threw a blanket over himself and cuddled into the side of the couch. “Good. I’m sure you have some wine around here.”
“None for me. I’ve had enough already.” Riley pointed to the open bottle on the coffee table.
Blake frowned, studying Riley, who refused to look at him. “I see. No worries, I can make some coffee.”
“Yes, food snob, with chicken.” Blake heated up the food and made some coffee, spreading their plates out on the coffee table.
“Smells good.” Riley put his plate in his lap, still not looking at Blake.
His fork trembling in his hand, Riley let it drop, turning to Blake. “Why are you here?”
“I thought we’d already come to the conlusion I’m here for the movie.”
“No you’re not. You have family that you could be staying with. You had pies to bake. You had plans, Blake. Why are you with me on Christmas Eve, eating deli chicken, and avoiding the question?”
“I wanted to give you a present,” Blake whispered, putting his plate down. “But I’m not sure if you’ll take it.”
“If this is about pie, it’s fine. I like pie. Thanks,” Riley grumbled.
Blake took Riley’s plate and put it on the table. “It’s not about pie.”
“What are you doing?”
“Giving you you’re present.” Blake leaned over and kissed him. Closed mouthed, like a gentleman, he waited until Riley sighed before pulling back. Just a touch of sweet mixed with force to get his point across.
“You kissed me,” Riley said like an idiot. “Why did you do that?” He put his fingers over his lips.
“Because I’m tired, Riley. I’m tired of being apart when all we want is to be together. I’ve tried to let you make up your mind, and come to me, but I realized that isn’t your style. That’s okay because I get it now. I have to make the first move, not because you can’t, but because you’re terrified I’d say no.” Blake searched out Riley’s hands, lifting them from under the blanket. “This is me telling you yes. That I want you back, and that it’s okay to want me, not for a night, and not out of pity, but because I love you, Riley Green.”
“I. Love. You.” Blake exhaled, scared Riley was going to get up and run.
“This isn’t about pie,” Riley whispered.
A gorgeous smile crept over Blake’s lips. “No.”
“What happens if I tell you I love you too? What then?”
“I tell you Merry Christmas and we watch our movie.”
“Did you want something else?”
“Maybe.” Riley leaned over, this time having the courage to kiss Blake back. Another simple peck made him stomach dance. “I love you too.”
“Was that so hard?” Blake pulled the other man to him, leaning back, and kicking off his boots.
Blake laughed, opening his legs for Riley to lie on top of him. “But was it worth it?”
Blake looked into Riley’s green eyes with a smile. The movie started, midnight starting a whole new day. “Merry Christmas, Riley Green.”
“Merry Christmas, Blake.” Riley leaned down and kissed the man he loved, no longer worried about what may come. He was now on the outside of the box. It was the best present he’d ever received.
A truck across the street, with a Briar Farms logo, came to a complete stop. A curly haired blond sat behind the wheel. His mate squeezed his knee with a smile. “I told you, Chris. Going bigger was the right decision. See what branching out gets you? Love, a whole lot of love.” Sy whispered in his ear.
“Excuse me for knowing anything about cheese.” The cook smirked. “Baked goods were one thing, but cheese? A whole new ballpark.”
“A good ballpark, though.” Sy ran his fingers through Chris’s hair.
“People do love their cheese.” Chris, aka cupid, turned and kissed his mate. “But I’m still a sweets kind of guy.”
Sy rolled his eyes. “It’s a good thing calories mean nothing to this body. Otherwise we’d have a hard time rolling you out the door.”
They cracked up laughing, sharing another small kiss, before settling back on the newly in love couple across the street. “We better get out of here before Santa thinks we’re stealing his job,” Cupid murmured.
“Yeah, and going home to bed doesn’t have anything to do with it?” Sy waggled his brows.
Cupid growled a little, nipping Sy’s bottom lip. “Maybe a little,” he husked.
“Come on, let’s go home.” Sy licked his lips. “I have a present you can unwrap.”
“Tease!” Chris slapped his mate’s shoulder.
Sy laughed, buzzing down the window. “Merry Christmas!” He shouted to the quiet neighborhood.
“Cut it out!”
“You love it.” Sy chuckled in his seat, buckling up as their truck rolled down the street. “Merry Christmas, baby.”
“Same to you, my love.” Their hands found each other and the truck vanished into thin air.