Tome for the Holidays
M/M, Contemporary Christmas Romance
[43 Pages / 10,500 Words]
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Between grad school and the barista gig that helps pay his tuition, Cole Moreau's hands are full. He shouldn't have time or energy to maintain a hopeless crush on Isaac Hamlin, a coffee shop regular who happens to own the bookshop next door. But Isaac is sweet and gorgeous—and being friends with him only exacerbates the problem.
When a Christmas Eve blizzard strands Cole on Isaac's doorstep, the challenges pile up just as deep as the snow shutting down the city. A power outage, a mischievous cat, and only one sleeping bag... None of this leaves room for pining over impossible things.
Isaac is off-limits, but tell that to Cole's stubborn heart.
Isaac Hamlin lasts until four o'clock before finally conceding that the storm has scared off even his most desperate customers.
Much as he hates losing the rush of last-minute holiday shoppers, he isn't disappointed about calling it an early night. The relentless weather has left him tired down to his bones. And even though his commute home is just the stairs at the back of the store, Isaac feels profound relief at locking the front door and flipping the hanging sign over to CLOSED. It feels a bit like blocking out the blizzard, despite the enormous windows running the entire front of his cozy little shop.
Jones pesters him as he muddles his distracted way through closing tasks. She's meowing so loudly he hears her coming long before she appears through the cat-sized hole he cut into the ceiling last year. She darts along the tops of the tall bookcases that line the perimeter of the sales floor, then hops deftly down to join him, following him around as he tidies up misplaced titles and empties the till.
"There's no way you're out of food," Isaac retorts to an especially shrill yowl. "You won't starve just because you can see the bottom of the dish."
The determined bundle of black fur retaliates by threading between his legs, nearly tripping him with the open money drawer in his arms.
"Fucking menace," he huffs, changing course just in time to avoid stepping on the sweep of an irate tail.
He reaches the backroom without further incident, bumping the door open wider with his hip and setting the cash drawer down on an open corner of his cluttered desk.
Before he can sit, the power cuts out, bathing the windowless room in sudden startling darkness. Jones makes a plaintive noise and disappears, her departure marked by a barely audible swish of fur and the sudden silence of her absence. By the time Isaac fumbles his phone out of his pocket and activates the flashlight, there's no sign of her.
Isaac uses his phone to collect an actual flashlight from a drawer of his desk. Luckily it has fresh batteries—his phone's running on a low charge this late in the day, and apparently he won't be plugging it in tonight.
Peering back out across the sales floor confirms there's no point heading into the basement for the circuit breaker. Through the icy windows he can see that the entire block has gone dark. No streetlights, no stoplights, no shop fronts.
Well. Fuck. At least he's not driving anywhere tonight. He may need to adjust his expectations for tomorrow.
It's downright eerie to see the store this dark. Usually even after he turns everything off for the night, so much light pollution pours in that he can very nearly read the book spines closest to the front windows. Tonight's deepening shadows are something wholly different, and Isaac finds himself doing a sweep of the entire shop by flashlight, thoroughly unsettled.
Of course he finds nothing wrong. Why would he? A power outage can't hurt shelves full of books.
His second adrenaline rush of the night comes just as he's turning his steps back toward the office. A frantic pounding batters the shop's front door, jolting him in place. Isaac hurries toward the sound, unlocking the door when he realizes he can't actually see anything through the distortion of ice coating the glass. He struggles against the door, cracking through the ice and forcing it open with a shove of his shoulder, then blinks in surprise when he finds Cole Moreau standing forlornly on the sidewalk in front of his store.
Cole is not wearing warm enough clothes for the ugly weather, and he looks bedraggled and soaked through. A heavy backpack weighs down one shoulder. He holds his phone like a flashlight in one hand, and his eyes are wide and pleading above a snow-crusted scarf. Isaac spares a fragment of a moment to be exasperated with himself, at how easily he recognizes Cole when all he can see are the man's eyes and silhouette.
"I'm sorry," Cole blurts before Isaac can drag him inside. "I tried to call the store line, but I couldn't get through, and then I saw your flashlight. There's no one else on the whole street, and I didn't know what to do."
"Come in, for fuck's sake." Isaac steps aside, mentally filing away the information that the landline must've been knocked out by whatever took down the power. When Cole keeps standing there looking helpless, Isaac grabs him by the arm and tugs him over the threshold. "You don't need to apologize. Are you okay?"
"Yeah." Cole watches Isaac drag the door shut against heavy wind. "Just... a little wet. And cold. And stranded. Do you think the power will come back soon?" He asks this in a voice of such tenuous hope that Isaac's heart twinges at disappointing him.
"Not likely." He locks the door, both because it needs doing, and because it gives him a pretext to avoid Cole's crestfallen expression. "Whoever's department that is, you can bet your ass they're short-staffed for the holiday."
"Same as you and me," Cole grumbles, and Isaac huffs a laugh.
"Come on." Isaac finishes fussing with the deadbolt and gestures with his flashlight. "I have to finish locking up, but then we can go upstairs. I'll make tea."
"Tea?" Cole falls obediently into step behind him. "How are you going to make tea with no power?"
"Gas range." Isaac tosses a grin over his shoulder, even though he can't be sure Cole will see it in the dark. "You think this old building has modern appliances?"
He's gratified when his comment earns an answering laugh—then just about has a heart attack when Cole gives a startled cry and crashes to the floor. Isaac reroutes immediately, pivoting on his heel and searching for Cole with the beam of the flashlight.
Cole squints up into the bright glow, but at a glance he doesn't look injured. He's landed on his back, sprawled between the shorter shelving units that make up the center of the shop. His lanky legs stretch along blue carpet worn gray beneath years of foot traffic, and he raises his head just far enough to peer at Isaac's cat.
"God damn it, Jones," Isaac huffs. His cat, apparently unsatisfied with her murder attempt, has hopped directly onto Cole's chest and is kneading his wet jacket as though she has every intention of staying there all night. She's purring up a storm, but her claws can't possibly feel good.
Cole's scarf has fallen far enough to reveal his face, which means Isaac can see him wince. But Cole also makes no move to dislodge Jones from his chest.
"You okay?" Isaac squats beside Cole and does a more thorough sweep of the flashlight. Relief pours through him as he reassures himself that Cole isn't bleeding or bent askew in any of the wrong places. Fucking hell, he should've warned Cole to mind his feet.
Never mind that Jones was probably upstairs a moment ago. There's no way she ever would've stayed away after hearing Cole's voice, power outage be damned. Jones has always played favorites among Isaac's patrons. She makes no secret of the fact that she loves Cole more than all the rest combined—probably because he's the only one willing to curl up in a corner and let her melt into a puddle on his lap.
"I'm not hurt," Cole says.
"Sorry. Believe it or not, attempted murder is one of her main methods of expressing affection." Isaac cringes. "I do have liability insurance, for the record. If she gave you a concussion."
"I didn't hit my head." Cole blinks helplessly when Jones stretches forward to bump his chin with her face.
"Good." Isaac stands back up and holds out his hand. When Cole doesn't accept the offer of help, he asks, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," Cole answers instantly. "I just... Should we... It feels cruel to move her."
Stillness holds them for a single heartbeat. Then Isaac laughs, the sound bursting from his chest so big and booming that it sends Jones scrambling into the shadows. Cole's grunt of pain suggests there may have been claws involved in the cat's launch, but Isaac only manages to feel a little bad about it. Honestly, there's being sweet, and then there's whatever the hell this is.
Isaac forces himself to quiet, but he's still shaking with silent laughter when Cole finally takes his hand and lets himself be pulled to his feet.
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Cover design by Yolande Kleinn