The holidays were Cole Todd’s favorite time of year. Everything from the smell of homemade cinnamon rolls cooking to the sound of kids singing off-key carols at the mall for passersby. It was the time of year when he could believe in magic and wonder. When he knew good things could happen, and for once he was going to be the one in charge of making sure the holidays charmed the right person.
This year he’d had something amazing planned, something he’d been looking forward to for over a month now: a trip for him and Steven to a ski resort in Banff. Everything had been prearranged. A quiet dinner for two ready to go in their room upon their arrival. Two tickets to the jazz room and a chance to see Diana Krall perform a holiday tribute. Exclusive use of the private outdoor hot tub with the hope that it would lead to sex in the massive king-sized bed.
Yes, he had worked out everything. Scrutinized each detail, ensuring it was perfect. Ensuring nothing could possibly cause them any problems. He’d accounted for everything . . .
Everything except this.
“I know things haven’t been great between us for a while, but I can’t let you go. I need you. I love you more than anything else in the world.”
Those words would have made his heart sing if they were the climax of a movie or a romance novel. They were spoken with passion and longing that would melt the coldest of hearts. Hell, they would have him dancing in the airport right now if they’d been directed at him.
But they weren’t.
He was listening to another man—a man he’d never met before—say them to Steven, his boyfriend of six months. Oh he’d recognized Adam Seltzer from the various pictures of him on Steven’s computer. Adam had broken Steven’s heart when he’d left Toronto for a job in Vancouver. Cole had been there to pick up the pieces. Sure, he’d had doubts that Steven was ready to move on; he’d feared their relationship was the traditional rebound romance and he was the one who’d get hurt in the end. But everything had simply clicked. They’d gotten on so well, so perfectly, that he couldn’t help but hope that this time, for once, he’d be on the winning end of things.
He watched as Adam dropped to his knees in the busy check-in area of the airport, watched as Steven reached out and cupped his former lover’s face to stare longingly into his eyes.
“Steven, I quit my job. I’ve talked to my old boss and they’re willing to take me back. Everything is set for me to move back here, to be with you. All I need is a yes from you. I’ve hurt you. If you’ve moved on, if you don’t love me any longer, then I’ll understand. I’ll find a way to push you from my thoughts—”
“No baby. I . . .” Steven’s voice cracked and tears filled his eyes. “I still love you. I always have. I probably always will.” Then he leaned in and kissed Adam.
It was the most passionate kiss Cole had ever witnessed. Steven had certainly never kissed him that way. Shit, this wasn’t going to end well. Not for him at any rate.
When they finally pulled apart, the small crowd that had gathered around them applauded. Cole didn’t know what everyone thought they’d witnessed. It wasn’t an engagement or anything—
“I brought this. I’d hoped . . .” Adam reached into his back pocket and pulled out a ring box.
Oh come on!
“Steven Mitchell Cibulskis, would you do me the honor of being my husband?”
Cole wasn’t sure, but he might have groaned. Loudly.
Fuck, he’d lost Steven. Though from the sound of things, he apparently never really had him in the first place.
His stomach churned as Steven pulled Adam to his feet and kissed him passionately one more time before embracing him. It was only then that Adam locked gazes with Cole. The other man at least looked embarrassed, though Cole had no doubt it had more to do with Cole being forgotten than the outcome of the scene. Adam whispered something into Steven’s ear.
“Oh shit.” Steven turned around and looked at Cole. He’d clearly been so caught up in the situation that he’d forgotten about him. “Cole.”
There were many ways he could handle this. He could lose his temper, he could cry and whine, he could hand over the tickets and encourage them to go on the trip. It would be a romantic gesture. That’s what would have happened in the movies.
He held his ticket a little tighter in his hand. “So, I take it our plans have changed.”
“I’m so sorry.” Steven left Adam’s side and came a few steps closer. “There was no way I could know this would happen.”
“I didn’t plan for him to come back into my life. I thought he was gone for good. That he didn’t want me anymore.”
“If there is anything I can do to—”
Cole held up his hands, his eyes squeezing shut. He’d been hurt far too many times to be overly gracious. “Stop. Please.”
“You had plans.” Adam’s voice made him open his eyes once more. “You were taking him on a trip? Steve, your parents didn’t mention—”
“Yes.” He swallowed down his anger. “To Banff.”
“Can you get your money back?” Steven reached back and took Adam’s hand. “Or can we take the tickets and I’ll pay—”
“I’ll get a refund. Don’t worry about it.” At least he hoped he could. He wanted to say something else but his throat tightened, blocking the way. With each second ticking past, his emotions threatened to tear him apart from the inside out.
He had to run. Get the hell out of here before everything exploded. “Just . . . Sorry, I need to get out of here.”
He yanked his suitcase behind him, ignoring Adam’s, “Let him go. I’m going to take you away. He’ll be fine.”
Would he? He’d been dumped before and survived. Well, not at an airport on his way to a romantic vacation a few weeks before Christmas. This was actually the third time he’d been left for another man. Did he pick guys who were on the rebound on purpose, or was it simply bad luck? Maybe a bit of both. His family wouldn’t tease him, but from the beginning none of them had been big fans of Steven. He hoped his mother and sister would at least wait a week before they started saying, I told you so.
The December air was sharp and bit into his skin as he made his way to the Park-and-Go. He wasn’t a big fan of the cold, despite living in Toronto, but for once it felt good to be out in it. The wind blew away his anger and numbed his emotions so he could catch his breath. His feet crunched against a thin layer of the snow that had been falling steadily since they’d arrived. He’d been concerned that the snow would delay their flight and they’d spend a long time in the lounge. That they’d lose out on a day of their vacation.
Oh, if only things had been that simple.
The car door creaked as he pulled it open. He should have put his suitcase in the trunk, but that was more effort than he was able to make. Instead he threw it into the passenger’s spot, the place where Steven had sat not thirty minutes earlier, excited to head out for their trip and chatting nonstop about wanting to try snowboarding. He was alone, cold, and wanting a drink.
This was like being trapped on the wrong side of a romantic comedy. Holy shit, he was the dude no one remembered at the end of the movie. He was the leftover. The drip no one rooted for at any point in the book. The putz. The loser.
He fell into the seat, slammed the door shut, and turned the car on. The windshield had already frosted, lines of crystals covering the inside glass in long thatched marks. The frost meant another delay while the car heated up. Gripping the steering wheel, he fixed his gaze on the frost, watching as it ran away from the heat that blasted from the vents.
“Fuck!” He slammed his hands against the wheel, the force of the impact elevated by the cold material against his bare hands.
Why did this shit keep happening to him? He should have known things weren’t exactly right between them, that what they had wasn’t long-term–relationship material. Steven had always willingly followed him and his choices, but never seemed all that committed—like he was simply passing time.
There was something about Cole that kept others away. He was smart, good at his job, generous with his time and money. What more could someone want?
“Maybe I’m broken.” His breath rolled from his lips, chasing the words into the dark night.
The cold dampened his anger, bringing it down to little more than a wisp. By the time the window was clear enough for him to drive, he had relaxed. There wasn’t anything he could do about the situation. Steven loved Adam, which was obvious to anyone with eyes in their head. Cole couldn’t very well get upset, chase after Steven, or even demand compensation for the lost vacation. He might be many things, but he refused to become a villain. Not even at the cost of his happiness.
The highway wasn’t overly busy, and it didn’t take long for him to make the drive back into the city. Even the traffic in Toronto itself seemed to take pity on him, easing his journey home. He pulled into his parking spot for the condo building, turned the car off, but didn’t get out immediately. The thought of going in to his place—totally devoid of holiday decorations because he hadn’t been planning on being here for the holidays—made him ill.
What he wanted was a drink.
Maybe more than one.
Leaving his stuff in the car, he got out and made his way down the street to his favorite bar. It was after eleven, which meant McGregor’s would be packed. He’d be able to find a spot at the bar, have a beer, and lose himself in the surrounding noises. It would be enough to shake away the pain. At least for a while.
Walking through the doors of McGregor’s, he realized fate was working completely against him. He was greeted with a blast of hot air and “White Christmas” playing on the jukebox. Yes, of course, it would have to be Steven’s favorite holiday song crackling through the speakers. His shoulders slumped forward a tiny bit more as he stepped into the bar and let the door swing closed behind him.
Instead of the normal crowds that filled the place this time of night, the bar was barely half-full. The booths and tables were littered with small groups, folks who were celebrating the season. The only people sitting at the bar were a young couple: a man and woman who were so into one another the bar could have been burning around them and they wouldn’t have noticed.
“White Christmas” faded away and was promptly replaced with “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”
This wasn’t going to work. He should turn around and go back to his condo. Nothing good could come from him sitting in a bar and inevitably watching a happy couple make out. He’d half turned when Owen McGregor came out from the back and stepped behind the bar. The bartender looked over and saw him, lifting a hand in greeting. Owen had gotten a haircut since the last time Cole had been there. His black hair was cropped close against the sides of his head, but still long enough on top to tempt a man to run his fingers through.
Maybe someday Cole might get up the nerve to touch it, see if the hairs would tickle his palm as he scratched Owen’s scalp.
Oh, that was a helpful line of thought. Idiot.
Owen winked at him. “Hey, man. I’ll be right with you.”
Shit, there went his escape. He waved back and walked over to the opposite end of the bar from the couple. “Thanks.”
The only thing more cliché in Cole’s mind than wanting to bone a cop who’d pulled you over was the impulse to fuck your bartender against the bar. Owen had starred in several of Cole’s masturbation fantasies over the years. Which wasn’t surprising given how good the man looked. He didn’t have a clue if the bartender was gay or not, but it didn’t particularly matter on those nights. Owen was built, had a wicked smile and big hands.
Cole had to adjust himself as he slipped onto the stool. He wasn’t wearing the right outfit to hide a massive boner.
Owen had a smile that could make hearts pound, but a kindness about him that made everyone feel special. He was the reason Cole had started coming to McGregor’s on a regular basis. Not to flirt with Owen, but simply to be around and enjoy the warmth of his personality. If anyone could help get Cole into a better mood, it was him.
“Surprised to see you here.” Owen slid two bottles of beer to a waiting patron, then flipped his hand towel over his shoulder. “I thought you were going out of town for Christmas.”
“An unexpected change of plans.” The bar seat was hard beneath his ass, offering support as much as discomfort. “Draft, please. Whatever’s on tap is good.”
Owen grabbed a pint glass and started the pull. “That sucks, dude. Though it’s nice to have a friendly face in here tonight.”
“I was going to ask. It’s pretty damn quiet.”
“There’s a live band down the street. Some big holiday reunion tour thing. I couldn’t even tell you the name of the group, but they’re apparently popular. People started leaving here in droves about thirty minutes ago.” Owen shrugged. “I don’t mind. It’s nice to hear myself think for a change.”
When Owen placed the glass in front of him, the draft had just the right amount of head on it. “Thanks.”
There was something refreshing about swallowing down a cold beer when you were having a bad day. His body instantly relaxed in a way that he didn’t want to examine too closely. Steven always had thought he enjoyed his alcohol a bit too much. Which was ironic, since Steven often drank more than he did, with all the careless assurance of a young man who seemed blissfully immune to hangovers. Still, with his tension slowly bleeding away, he was able to calm his mind.
Owen chuckled. “That kind of night, eh?” and topped off Cole’s drink. “I’ll make sure you don’t run dry.”
“Thanks.” Cole reclaimed the glass, staring at the way the bubbles rose to the surface and popped into the warm air. “My boyfriend, Steven, left me. For his old partner.”
Owen wasn’t the kind of bartender who normally encouraged a man to pour out his heart. It wasn’t that he was unfriendly, quite the opposite, but he was busy running his business. Shit, Cole didn’t even know if the other man knew he was gay. He looked up to see a slightly bewildered expression on Owen’s face. “Sorry. I don’t know why I said that. You don’t need to know about my crap.”
“Hey, it’s fine.” Owen glanced around the bar, checking on everything before reaching into the fridge below the bar and grabbing a beer, cracking it open, and taking a drink. “It sounds like you need to talk.”
Unlike a few moments ago, Owen wasn’t quite meeting his gaze any longer. Great. Now that he knew Cole was gay, this was going to be an issue. “Naw, I’m fine. Just wanted a beer before heading home.” Swallowing down as much of the draft as he could stomach, Cole left a good inch in the bottom of the glass before slipping off the stool.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” switched over to “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus.”
“You don’t have to go.” Owen put his beer down and took Cole’s hand. His skin was cool, damp from holding the bottle. He gave Cole a gentle squeeze. “There isn’t a problem if that’s what you think. I’m more than happy to listen.”
Cole’s heart ached a bit more at the look of pity coming his way. No, fuck, that was one thing he couldn’t handle. “I shouldn’t have come. I’m not fit company for anyone tonight.”
He was going for his wallet when Owen held up his hand. “On the house. It’s the least I can do.”
“Thanks.” Normally he would argue, or at least toss down a generous tip to compensate, but tonight he tucked his wallet back into his pocket. “See you.”
The tension took root in his shoulders once again as he slipped on his coat and trudged toward the door. Still, it didn’t quite explain the feeling that he was being watched as he left. When he looked back at the bar before the door closed behind him, Owen had moved off to the side, wiping the bar down as he moved.
Typical. Another example of Cole misreading the situation. Owen hadn’t done anything to deserve him being an asshole. Just another reason for him to hide away from people. Pulling up the collar of his coat, he walked through the cold to his empty home.
One thing Owen truly appreciated about owning a bar was the opportunity to meet all sorts of interesting people. It was one of the perks that helped ease the stress of having taken over running McGregor’s after his dad’s stroke. Night after night he’d come in, meet with the staff, chat with customers, get local musicians to come play, and generally be able to forget about the rest of the shit in his life. Sure, there were those people who’d had bad days and needed to vent. Hell, he could relate. That didn’t mean he would let anyone wallow if he could help it. So he talked to his customers, learned all he could about them so when they needed it he could perfectly distract them.
Bad day at the office? Dude, the Leafs are actually winning a game!
Fight with a spouse? Wow, I need the name of your personal trainer. You look amazing.
Money issues? Hey, this one’s on the house. Frequent buyer bonus.
Rarely did he take on the problems of his patrons. He simply didn’t have the emotional reserves left for that, and wanted to offer everyone at least one place they could come and forget their troubles.
So when Cole had walked out of the bar two nights earlier, looking as though his heart had been ripped from his chest, it was more than a little surprising that Owen wanted to do something to make the other man happy. It wasn’t normally his thing to be the soothing type. But he was a fixer. Give him a problem and he’d tackle it head-on. Cole was a regular, a nice guy who was normally always looking out for the people around him. Owen had seen him pick up other customers’ tabs, slip cab money into pockets, and always generously tip the staff. Not that he was seeking anyone’s attention. If anything, he went to great lengths to avoid anyone knowing it was him.
He’d been a bit surprised when he discovered Cole was gay. Not that it mattered to him. Hell, Owen had slept with guys as often as women. It was more that Cole had always been so buttoned-up, so reserved about all aspects of his life, let alone his sexuality. His out-of-the-blue announcement had thrown Owen for a loop.
And what kind of asshole left someone at Christmas?
The mere idea was a jab to his protective self. If he had anything to say about matters, he’d make sure Cole was in a better place by the time the twenty-fifth rolled around. The only problem was that he didn’t know much about Cole, where he lived or worked. The other man didn’t come into the bar on any sort of schedule, which would make it hard to nail him down.
Still, he wasn’t about to give up.
Saturday night rolled around, and the bar was back to its normal bustle. Owen flew behind the bar, filling orders and shamelessly flirting with anyone who looked him in the eyes. It was a terrible habit to have, but it helped with the tips and set up an atmosphere of fun. People knew that for whatever time they were there, they’d be welcomed and looked after. Not that he had a chance for any action with the patrons. Between making sure that everything was moving smoothly behind the scenes in the day, and keeping the bar tended at night, Owen barely had time to sleep let alone date.
Hell, he hadn’t even had sex in . . . shit, eight months.
Ouch, that was painful to even think about.
“Behind you.” Jane brushed against him on her way to the bar fridge. “We’re getting low on draft.”
“I’ll drag another keg out in the next lull.”
“Oh, that’s wishful thinking. And I think we might have a puker in the gents’.” She had the gall to grin as she returned to her side of the bar.
“Where’s Moe? It’s his turn to clean up.” His newest employee had a talent for being anywhere but where Owen wanted him.
“Not sure.” Jane twisted off three bottle caps in rapid succession before sliding the bottles across the bar to the man ogling her chest. “I’m sure he’ll turn up once everything’s back to normal.”
Fuck, what was the point of being the owner if you couldn’t shove the shit jobs off to the new guys? “I’ll get it. Hold the fort.”
“Will do.” He was so going to read Moe the riot act when he found the little bastard.
Grabbing the bucket and mop from the back room, he made his way down the hallway toward the restrooms. The ladies’ had a decent line as usual, but there was no one standing outside the men’s. Great, any chance that Jane was wrong went out the window. It explained the recent rush of guys going outside and coming right back in. The alley would smell like piss tomorrow. Owen braced himself for a second before pushing the door open to the one part of his job he hated.
The sound of vomit.
“How are we doing in here?” His normal routine of checking on the drunk was shattered when he looked up to see Cole standing beside a young man who’d had way too much to drink.
“Hi.” Cole quickly looked between Owen and the guy. “He’s not with me. I came in and found him on the floor. I didn’t want to leave him here and figured help would come eventually.”
“Yeah, I’d heard we had a puker.” Owen stepped farther into the room, shoving the bucket and mop to the side. “But this isn’t your job.”
“Merry Christmas.” Cole gave him a small smile. “I don’t mind. I couldn’t leave him on the floor.”
That tiny twitch of lips did something strange to his stomach. It churned in a way that had nothing to do with the awful smell, and everything to do with the way Cole’s eyes lit up.
Damn. He really didn’t have time for a crush. Especially with a man who was nursing a broken heart.
“Umm, let’s get this kid up before he causes us more problems.” He came around to the drunk’s other side and draped the guy’s arm around his neck. “Mind helping me get him up and out to a cab? I’ll give you a free drink for your trouble.”
“Sure, though the drink isn’t necessary.” Cole mirrored his action, resulting in their arms brushing against one another along the kid’s back. “Think he has anyone here with him?”
“Probably. Though he might have been orphaned by them. I think he’s part of a hockey team who came in earlier, and they all left about thirty minutes ago. Probably assumed he’d wandered home.”
They struggled to get the moaning kid up and out of the bathroom. This wasn’t exactly how Owen had wanted his next meeting with Cole to go. Nothing cheery, sexy, or fun about dealing with a drunk. Especially one who weighed as much as this one did. The kid started to moan and struggle against them, forcing Owen to tighten his grip. “Settle down.”
Ignoring several shouts and taunts from the slightly less drunk patrons, they managed to get the kid outside where Owen could flag a cab. “Want to check his pocket for a wallet? We need to find his address.”
Cole patted the kid down. “Yup. Here.”
The next thing that happened was something Owen should have expected. As he stepped away to check for a driver’s license, leaving Cole to hold the kid upright, the taxi pulled up. Owen gave the guy the address and his corporate number to charge the cab to, while Cole tried to get the kid into the backseat. It was at that exact moment the kid woke up long enough to realize a stranger was manhandling him and decided to defend himself. He roared and took a swing at Cole. The sound of fist meeting face was followed by Cole landing in a heap on the ground, moaning.
Cole shook his head as he sat in a pile of slush and snow.
“Fuck!” Owen lunged for the kid and managed to push him into the taxi before he could take another punch at Cole. “Get this asshole home. And put a twenty-dollar tip on there for yourself.”
The driver looked less than impressed. “There’ll be a cleanup charge if he pukes back there.”
“Fine. You have my corporate number.” He couldn’t worry about that now.
Cole was still splayed out on the ground looking more than a little shocked by the turn of events. If Owen had been thinking straight, he would have warned him that drunks are rarely happy to be moved.
Holding out his hand to Cole, he gave him a smile. “I think you’ve earned yourself free drinks for life.”
“Wow, that hurt.” Cole adjusted his jaw with his hand before reaching up for Owen’s. “I’m going to hold you to that.”
“Good.” If that was all it took to make the other man happy, then Owen was getting off easy. “Let’s get you inside and get some ice on that.”
Jane and Moe were running the bar when they came back in. Moe cringed when he looked at Cole. He’d been on the receiving end of a drunk punch on his first night, so he knew what Cole was feeling. Owen would have to have a long chat with his young bartender about disappearing during a shift.
“I’m getting some ice,” he called to Jane as they walked past. “You two good?”
“All set. I’ll make Moe restock.” She gave him a shove. “Draft keg. Go.”
Cole was surprisingly quiet as they moved through the bar and stepped into the back room. Owen wasn’t normally one for silence. His natural gift of the gab served him well in his adopted profession. People didn’t come to his bar to be alone. It was a place for music, lively conversation, and cheer. Especially during the holidays.
“I have an ice pack in the freezer. Let me grab it, and you take a seat.”
The scrape of the chair being pulled away from the table was the only acknowledgment Cole gave him.
“I’m sorry about the punch. It’s a pretty common thing. I used to be a bouncer here when I was working my way through university. You learn to bob and weave pretty quickly.”
He turned around to see Cole rubbing his hand along his cheek. A red mark was already rising on his skin, making him look as though he were blushing. It would only be a matter of minutes before the red deepened into purple, marring his handsome face.
Whoa, where had that come from?
Owen cleared his throat. “Anyway. I’m sorry about that. You’re wet. You must be freezing.”
“It’s all good. I’ll have to head home and change my jeans.” Cole shook his head slightly before wincing. “It’s been a while since I’ve taken a hit like that.”
When he handed the ice pack over, Owen made sure to keep from brushing against Cole’s hand. “Don’t take this wrong, but you don’t seem like much of a fighter.”
“I’m into kickboxing. Been doing it for years.” He pressed the ice pack to his cheek and sighed. “Lot of good it did me tonight. I wasn’t expecting him to move like that.”
The image of Cole topless and sweaty flashed through Owen’s mind. He swallowed hard. “I’m glad your instincts didn’t kick in. I try not to pummel the drunks, even if they deserve it. The cops tend to frown upon assault.”
Cole held his gaze for a moment, and Owen saw the spark of light flicker, before it was snuffed out. God, what happened to make this man hurt that badly? It had to be more than a bad breakup, though given the time of year that was horrible enough. He didn’t know what it was, but he was determined to discover the truth.
“I want to take you to breakfast.” The words were out there before he realized he’d spoken. Not that it mattered. It was the perfect idea. “As a way to thank you for your help tonight.”
“That’s not necessary.” Cole was on his feet, the quick movement sending the chair skittering back. “I should probably head home and take some pain pills. I hope this doesn’t bruise too badly.”
Owen stepped into the other man’s personal space, ignoring the way Cole’s eyes flashed and his body stiffened. “I insist. I don’t make it a habit of letting my patrons get assaulted. And you look like you could use the company. Tomorrow morning. Meet me here at about ten and we’ll get something to eat. Or better yet I’ll bring something in. I’m a pretty decent cook.” When it looked as though Cole would refuse again, Owen lowered his chin and swayed in a bit closer. “Please?”