If you missed the excerpt of Chapter One that I posted earlier this week, you can find that here. You might want to read that first before you continue on, because below is an excerpt from Chapter Two, which follows directly after what happens in Chapter One (as these things tend to lol).
21 days until the parade
Holland walked underneath the awning of Tiny’s Panini, leaving light footprints in last night’s dusting of snow, and got a string of Christmas lights in the face for his troubles. Cursing from above had him glancing up to where Zach Greenfeld perched precariously near the top of a rickety ladder, staple gun in one hand, string of lights in the other. One good gust of wind off the Atlantic Ocean and the ladder would topple over like it was made of feathers.
Sure enough, a cold burst of wind swept down Christmas Lane, setting the American flag on top of the souvenir shop across the street flapping furiously. The wooden sign hanging outside the pub swung on its hinges. A stray newspaper went cartwheeling down the sidewalk. The A-frame specials board outside Tiny’s Panini fell over. A couple of customers struggled to open the door of Dev’s Bakery next door. Wind chimes tinkled from where they hung outside the flower shop two doors down.
And Zach’s ladder almost met the ground, taking Zach with it.
“Whoa!” Holland jumped to the rescue and steadied the ladder before it could fall, bringing him eye level with Zach’s feet. He followed the line of Zach’s long legs up to his tight butt, framed in skinny jeans that hugged him just right. On anybody else, Holland would’ve taken a second look at that behind, but on someone Zach’s age, it was kind of pervy. And maybe a little bit desperate. Ripping his eyes away, he focused on Zach’s purple Converse instead.
“Thanks, kind stranger,” Zach called from above, voice thin in the wind, his upper torso hidden by the awning.
Holland snorted a laugh. In a town the size of Lighthouse Bay, very rarely was anybody a stranger.
“Tell me you’re not using staples on a fabric awning,” Holland said, finally putting two and two together and coming up with one giant mistake.
“What else am I supposed to use?” Zach’s voice was tight, as if he’d been at this for a while and was frustrated by the whole process. “I tried clothes pins, but the wind ripped them away.”
“What about binder clips? Or better yet, leave the lights off the awning and put them around the windows and door instead. Anything you use on an awning risks getting blown away, especially in winds like this.”
Zach’s feet shifted. “But the Business Improvement Association’s Downtown Business Etiquette Handbook says we have to have lights outside our business to ensure a successful Christmas Lane.”
It sounded like he was quoting direct from the handbook. Which he probably was. Holland tightened his grip on the ladder as wind continued to pummel the street. “Yeah, it says they have to be set up, but it doesn’t specify where outside.”
“It…” A pause as Zach seemed to ponder that. “Holy crap, you’re right! Screw this, then.” He climbed down, staple gun and lights clutched to his chest, and the other hand steadying himself against the ladder. A trim waist was revealed, then a lithe chest, skinny shoulders, and a flawless visage: satiny, light gold skin, and a rectangular face with a broad forehead; rosebud lips; a strong nose; straight, dark blond eyebrows; honey-colored, hooded eyes; and messy dark blond hair. He was very cute in an eager puppy kind of way.
“Damn Mrs. Shoemacker and her ‘the lights need to go on the awning, Zach,’” Zach muttered, doing a fine imitation of Mrs. Shoemacker, who was the head of the BIA and a dozen or so other town committees. Zach’s feet hit cement and he looked up at Holland. “Thanks for—Oh! Um, hi. Holland.”
“Hi,” Holland said.
Zach’s cheeks pinked.
“Uh-huh. Yup!” Zach nodded manically. “I’m great!”
Holland smiled. Eager puppy, indeed.
Zach’s cheeks pinked further.
“Can I help you string the lights?”
“Oh no, I’m okay. I’ll just—” Zach cut himself off, blinking at Holland. “Actually, yes! Yes, I could use your help.” His smile revealed the small dimple in his left cheek.
Holland couldn’t help but smile back at him. There was something about Zach, something about the constant smile on his face when they spoke and the way he focused so completely on Holland that always made Holland’s stomach flip, like no one else existed for Zach except him. It was a ridiculous notion. Zach probably looked at Holland and saw nothing but an old, nearly completely white-haired guy who used to be his third-grade teacher—and not a very good one at that.
There’d been a time when Holland looked at Zach and saw the amiable yet serious kid he’d once taught. But ever since Zach had come home from college in May—tall, strong, confident, and, most interestingly, gay and out—Holland got a little flutter in his belly every time Zach smiled at him. He was no longer a too-quiet nine-year-old kid, but a thoughtful and motivated twenty-four-year-old hottie ready to take on the world.
“Got anything other than a staple gun to hang these up with?” Holland asked.
They crouched to sort through a box underneath the window. Lights, lights, more lights. Almost as though the Greenfelds were afraid the town would run out of stock. A second staple gun. Tinsel. Garlands. Plastic ornaments. Yet more lights. And there at the bottom: suction cups.
Holland took them out. “Let’s use these. See here? We can stick the sucker to the window and thread the wire through this opening.” He showed Zach the thin slit on the front they could thread the lights’ wire into. “Zach?” He glanced up to find Zach staring at his hands. He bumped their shoulders together. “Zach?”
“Huh? What? Yup, I’m listening.”
“Are you sure you’re okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” Zach stood. “I’ll do this side, you do that side?”
Zach dropped his share of the suction cups no less than four times, swearing under his breath each time and sneaking peeks at Holland as if hoping Holland hadn’t noticed. The man hadn’t been this spacey as a kid when he’d been in Holland’s classroom, but then people changed as they grew up.
Teaching had been a mistake of epic proportions. Hovering parents, demanding children, a school administration living in the dark ages. It might be different now, but fifteen years ago, it had spelled his doom.
Okay, he was being dramatic. It hadn’t spelled his doom so much as the realization that he wasn’t fit to teach. Or, rather, that he didn’t want to teach. And he didn’t want to manage a bar either, which was what he’d done for almost ten years after his three years of teaching. And bookkeeping? Also not for him. But it was while doing the books for Bud, and watching Bud build beautiful birdhouses from scraps of metal and wood, that he’d realized he wanted to build things too. Somehow, that had turned into being the town handyman, but he didn’t mind. He liked fixing things. But building items from scratch was where his passion was.
Which was why he needed to win the annual Lighthouse Bay Christmas Parade Float Competition. He wasn’t after the money that was part of the grand prize. What he wanted was the article that’d appear in every newspaper between here and Portland—including Portland. He couldn’t ask for better advertising for his two-year-old business if he tried.
He finished sticking the suction cups to the right side of the window and started on the top, meeting Zach in the middle. Zach’s fingers brushed his, and the man jumped, sputtering nonsensical apologies. He blushed and retreated to his corner of the window.
Seriously, what was wrong with him?
A couple came out of Tiny’s Panini, bringing warm air and the sound of Christmas carols before the door closed behind them.
“How are your parents?” Holland asked as he started stringing the lights through the suction cups. “They like living in the Keys?”
Zach’s parents had moved to Key West a few years ago, after Zach had moved to Portland to attend the University of Southern Maine. He’d started two years late, opting instead to stay home for a couple of years right after high school graduation to help take care of Tiny’s Panini when his mom—the Tiny for which the café was named—was diagnosed with breast cancer. She’d beaten it, but it had taken its toll, and she and her husband had retired to Florida, leaving the café in Alana’s hands.
“Yeah.” Zach grinned. “They keep wondering why they waited so long to move there. Beautiful weather year-round, the beach just steps away, no snow.”
“They traded snow for the threat of hurricanes, though. You couldn’t ask me to do that.” Not that Maine didn’t see its share of hurricanes, but the state wasn’t as prone to them as Florida.
“Me neither.” Zach threaded the lights on his side of the window. “I like snow. Snow means snowboarding. Not that I’ll get to do much of it since I’m always here.”
“Alana hasn’t found a new part-timer yet?”
“Nope.” Zach reached up to hang the lights along the top of the window. “The last teenager she interviewed came in smelling like pot.”
The wind sent their box skittering down the sidewalk.
“Shit!” Zach chased after it, catching it before it got wedged into a snowbank. He trudged back, hair flapping in the wind, box tucked under one arm. “I could do without this wind, though.”
“I vaguely remember you refusing to go out for recess if it was too windy when you were in my class.”
“I hate wind. Clothes get wrinkled, things go flying, you have to yell to be heard, hair gets messed up.”
“God forbid your hairdo gets ruined.”
“Hey.” Grinning, Zach waved a string of lights at him. “When you have hair as awesome as mine, you don’t want anything to mess it up.”
Zach’s dark blond hair was shorn close to his head on the sides but was longer on top. Usually styled so that it swept up his forehead, today the wind teased it, throwing it into charming disarray.
“It is pretty great hair,” Holland acknowledged.
Zach seemed to choke on nothing.
Holland turned at the greeting and smiled at his best friend and once-upon-a-time lover, Clark. “Hey, man.”
The same height as Holland, Clark’s dark, Italian good looks had charmed the underwear off men and women alike—Holland included, although they hadn’t worked out as a couple for reasons that had to do with both of them being tops. Even though he was the same age as Holland, unlike Holland, the lucky son of a bitch didn’t have a single gray hair in his shoulder-length, inky black hair, or in the scruff on his face.
“I was just at the hardware store,” Clark said. “Marcella says your order came in.”
“Yeah, I was on my way there but got sidetracked.”
Behind him, Zach gurgled.
Clark leaned around Holland to wave at Zach. “Hey, Zach.”
Zach’s face had fallen, and the glare he leveled at Clark was so at odds with his normally affable attitude, it had Holland doing a double take. What had Clark done to piss him off?
“Hi,” Zach muttered. He shot Holland a pained glance Holland didn’t understand and went back to putting up the lights.
Clark raised an eyebrow at Holland.
Holland raised one back. How the hell was he supposed to know?
“Oh god.” Zach stiffened. “Tell me she’s not headed over here.”
From a dozen feet down the sidewalk, Mrs. Shoemacker waved a wrinkled hand in their direction. “Yoo-hoo!”
“Sorry,” Holland said to Zach.
“Goddamn it, I’m putting the damn lights up, just like I told her I would this morning. And yesterday. What more does she want?”
“What crawled up your butt and died?” Clark asked him.
It was a valid question.
Zach just scowled at him.
“Yes, Mrs. Shoemacker.” Zach turned to face her, a game smile on his face. “As you can see, I’m putting up the lights, as I said I would—”
“I can see that, darling, but that’s not why I’m here.” She thrust an overflowing binder at Zach. “We need someone to organize the annual Christmas parade.”
“Uh, what?” Zach staggered slightly under the weight of the binder.
“What happened to Mr. Barry?” Holland asked.
Mr. Barry had organized the Christmas parade for the past ten years, and he usually started months ahead of time. In February, if Holland wasn’t mistaken.
“His poor mother had a fall, the dear,” Mrs. Shoemacker said. “Broke her hip. Mr. Barry’s currently on his way to Detroit and he won’t be back for several weeks. So.” She turned to Zach. “We need someone to take over where Mr. Barry left off. You’ve got a degree or a minor or something in event management, do you not?”
“Actually, it’s in hospitality and tourism, and I took all the event management courses available, but—”
“Fantastic! Then it’s settled.”
Zach’s eyes practically bugged out of his head. “You want me to organize a parade that’s scheduled for three weeks from now?” Holland read the look on his face clearly: Lady, are you freakin’ crazy? But Zach opted for diplomacy as he said, “Mrs. Shoemacker, I’d love to help, but I just don’t see how that’s possible.”
Mrs. Shoemacker waved an imperial hand. “You’ll do fine. Most of the work is already done. You just need to see it through to its conclusion.” She patted the binder in Zach’s hands. “Everything you need is in here.”
“And you’ll help, won’t you?”
Holland swung his attention off Zach’s stupefied face and onto Mrs. Shoemacker, who was staring at him with beady eyes. The calculation on her face didn’t bode well. “I’m sorry, what?”
“You’ve been involved since the beginning, haven’t you?”
“Not really. I’ve just been building my own float.”
“In headquarters, yes?”
By headquarters, she meant the huge empty warehouse that was used as a staging area for the parade every year.
“Then you’ll help Zach out. Introduce him to who’s doing what. Show him the ropes.”
Zach was frowning. “I don’t need help.”
Mrs. Shoemacker pounced on that. “So you’ll do it?”
“That’s not what I—”
“Lovely.” She patted his arm. “I look forward to your status report in three days’ time.” She took off down the sidewalk, boot heels clicking with each step, giant purse hanging off the crook of her elbow.
“But I didn’t say yes,” Zach shouted after her. He turned to Holland. “What the hell just happened?”
Clark—who Holland had forgotten stood right next to him—smirked at them. “Seems like you guys got roped into organizing the rest of the parade.”
Zach’s glare was back, and it landed on the arm Clark draped around Holland’s shoulders. The smile he shot Holland was tight-lipped. “Thanks for your help with the lights.” He dropped the binder into the box, then picked the box up. “I’m going to help Al with the afternoon coffee rush and finish up later.”
“You sure?” Holland narrowed his eyes on Zach. Why was he being weird? “Want me to come back later and help?”
Zach’s eyes went to Clark for a second. Back to Holland. “Thanks, but I got it.”
“Bye, Zach,” Clark said.
Zach turned and went into the café.
Clark smiled at Holland, all teeth and mischievousness. “He has a crush on you.”
Holland shrugged out from beneath Clark’s arm and headed toward Marcella’s Tools & More. “You’re delusional.”
“And you’re blind,” Clark called back.
Ignoring him, Holland waved over his shoulder and kept walking.
Zach? A crush on him? Beautiful, flawless-skinned, shiny-teethed, likable, perfect Zach had a crush on a guy pushing forty who’d only recently discovered what he wanted to be when he grew up?
Holland snorted as he walked into Marcella’s, the bells on the door ringing.