Simple After All
M/M, Contemporary, Holiday Romance
[53 Pages / 17,000 Words]
Noah Fiore, contracts attorney and dedicated curmudgeon, spends every Christmas with his family on the shore of Lake Superior. It's practically tradition for his sister to invite some lonely acquaintance along for the festivities.
But this year's guest is no pity case. Riley Coto is a friend, whose warmth and charm instantly win over the collective hearts of the Fiore family—all except Noah, who remains as dour and unapproachable as ever.
Riley finds himself inexplicably drawn to Noah. Something tells him there's more to the man than stubborn work ethic and bad attitude. With Christmas fast approaching, Riley is falling for Noah, and there's nothing simple about that.
"What are you baking?" a gruff voice asked from the doorway behind him, and Riley turned with a smile.
Because of course there was one other person not hurling himself enthusiastically into battle.
"Cookies. Can't you tell what kind?" Riley teased, surprised at how easy it was to poke fun despite the serious set of Noah's mouth. Noah joined Riley by the window, peering through ice-frosted glass at his ridiculous family. His expression didn't change in any tangible way, but Riley thought he caught a hint of affection just the same. Five days ago he would have assumed he was imagining it. Today he was almost entirely sure the sentiment was real.
"Gingerbread," Noah announced without taking his eyes off the wild vista. Then added, to Riley's genuine surprise, "Smells good."
Riley grinned at Noah's profile. Silence fell, pleasant and comfortable, and he didn't mind the hint of heat sneaking into his cheeks at having Noah so near. So what if he was a little infatuated? It was nothing to be ashamed of.
"The first batch is finished cooling." Riley's voice was light. "Want to help frost them?"
He was certain Noah would refuse, right up until the moment Noah nodded and said, "Sure."
Riley had already filled a couple of piping bags with frosting, and as he handed one to Noah he said, "Like this," demonstrating how to hold it. Noah took the bag in steady hands, and Riley couldn't help glancing down. He liked Noah's hands. He'd had five days now to appreciate them, along with the distracting rest of Noah Fiore. Even scowling, which seemed to be his natural state, Noah was strikingly handsome in a way Riley couldn't help but notice.
He reached for the closest rack of cool cookies and took up his own frosting, turning his attention deliberately to the task before him. He ignored the warmth in his cheeks and focused on applying the white frosting evenly, smoothly, professionally. Long practice had given him perfect precision, and he decorated as though this batch of gingerbread men were for a picky client. Buttons and cuffs, sweaters and borders, smiling faces. Each cookie unique, each one perfectly symmetrical. He enjoyed decorating even more than baking, and there was something thrilling in the activity now.
It wasn't the activity itself knocking his pulse faster than normal. It was the knowledge of Noah beside him, as both of them worked wordlessly.
When he finished, Riley reached for the next cooling rack and continued. When those cookies were finished, he had nothing more to reach for—the next batch was too hot, the next after that still in the oven—so he glanced out the window instead. The snowball fight seemed to have devolved from organized warfare into something more chaotic, snow-suited figures tumbling into drifts, laughing as they dumped snow over each other's heads. Riley smiled, happy to bear witness from somewhere warm, and turned to seek out Noah's serious profile.
He started when he found Noah already watching him. He couldn't read the expression or the unfamiliar glint in dark eyes. Renewed warmth threatened to raise a blush to Riley's cheeks. The moment stretched several seconds too long before he managed to glance downward with the pretense of checking Noah's cookies.
A laugh burst from him as he saw what Noah had done with the white frosting. The tray was complete, but there was nothing of symmetry or smoothness to these gingerbread men. Instead they looked like something out of a gruesome cartoon. It was impressive, the things Noah had done with the icing despite having no real technique. The tray was covered with cyclopses, pirates, zombies—with beheadings and severed limbs and comical screams—an absolute mayhem of gingerbread.
When Riley raised his eyes again, his comment vanished from his tongue, because Noah was watching him with a small smile. An actual smile. Riley hadn't seen that expression on Noah's face before. It caught him hard in the chest, and for a startled instant, he couldn't breathe through the unexpected rush of feeling.
God damn it. Five days wasn't enough time for Riley to have fallen this hard.
Somehow he managed a smile of his own, the expression genuine despite the sudden racket of his heart.
"We probably shouldn't serve these to the children," Riley observed, his voice mostly steady.
"Bullshit. These are perfect for kids." Noah's smile was already gone, but the easiness of his expression held as he watched Riley fuss with trays and check the oven.
Outside, the shrieks and laughter continued. In the warm manor, Riley continued with his work and pretended not to notice Noah's gaze following him about the kitchen.
Cover design by Yolande Kleinn