Chapter Nine: Christmas Eve
Cole unwrapped his snow-covered outerwear and draped it over an old rocker that had seen better days. The promised white Christmas was looking like a major snow event, though in his neck of the woods, major was measured in feet, not the eight or so inches on the ground. He had taken the ancient Ford tractor up and down the long driveway a few times, carving out a one-car-width with the blade, though it was still deep in spots where the dirt lane undulated and trapped snow in the gulleys.
He thought, It’s not like I need to be anywhere…
Slipping on a pair of flannel-lined slippers, he padded into the kitchen and put the kettle on to boil. He’d been up early as usual, doing chores, and had yet to have breakfast. Looking up at the clock over the refrigerator he shook his head, wondering how he’d managed to blow four hours of the day already.
The knock on the door startled him into shouting, “Dammit, Tom, the mail could’ve waited on a day like this.” He muttered under his breath as he made his way through the labyrinth of rooms toward the front porch.
Pulling the door open, he barked, “Good thing I plowed the damn…” and stopped dead, his mouth hanging open. When he finally regained his wits, he whispered, “Jake?” Not believing his eyes, he stood, blocking the door, asking stupidly, “How did you…?”
The last person he ever expected to see, the only person he wanted to see, stood shivering and explaining, “The cab driver dropped me off at the driveway. I walked…”
“You walked a quarter mile in this?”
Jake shrugged. “I’m u-used t-t-to w-walking.”
“Oh Christ, you’re shaking like a leaf. Get inside.”
Cole pulled Jake through the doorway and shushed him down the narrow entryway. Almost as an afterthought, he grabbed the duffel bag and set it inside the door before turning to herd his lover toward the parlor and the wood burning stove.
“Go left, I’ll be right with you.” Cole pulled a wool blanket from a chest next to the stairwell and raced after Jake. “Get out of those wet clothes and wrap yourself up in this.” He tossed the blanket on the couch and reached to help Jake’s frozen fingers work the buttons on his long wool coat. Jake muttered, “Got it,” so Cole said, “I’ve got the kettle on for tea. You want sugar and milk or lemon and honey?”
“Whatever, just so long as it’s hot. God, I don’t think I’ve ever felt this cold in my whole damn life.” He shrugged off the coat and bent down to unlace his boots.
Cole waited long enough to make sure Jake was settled, then raced to the kitchen and the welcoming sound of the teakettle whistling a merry tune. A thousand million questions flooded Cole’s mind…
Jake had brought only a small duffel bag. Did that mean he was there for Christmas Eve, just a quick I was in the neighborhood and thought I’d stop by and say hi, and then he’d head back? As unlikely as that scenario was, if it was true and Cole was really lucky, Jake would stay over until the next day. All Cole wanted was this night, just this one, to get right with Jake, to tell him how he felt. Maybe even ask him…
What? Ask him what?
It was Christmas Eve. Sometimes magic happened, sometimes the best gift was the one that arrived on your doorstep shivering, with a face of an angel and a body made for sin—a body made for him.
On the other hand, he could have made the trip with the idea of having it out with Cole, then giving him the middle finger salute and going on his way.
Whichever it was, Cole decided Jake Richardson was either going to say yes right off, or Cole was going to tie him to the bedpost and make love to him until he did. Talk about having a fantasy…
Cole set the mugs on a tray and found a tin of cookies Uncle Ray’s partner had baked for him in case he had a visitor and needed something to offer his guest. Cole often thought Ray’s husband was psychic because he’d used those exact words—a visitor and a guest. One, just the one.
Damn you, Roy…
Jake sat with his feet curled under him. Cole noticed he’d placed the wet clothes and sodden boots in the hallway. Blushing, he said, “Sorry, I made a bit of a mess. I didn’t exactly dress for the weather.”
Setting the tray on the coffee table, Cole offered a mug to Jake, then picked his up and paced uncertainly between the couch and the well-worn recliner next to the wood burner, not sure what to do, how to behave, let alone what to say.
Of course, not talking had been what got them both into this pickle, so Cole decided to take point and get it out in the open, but before the words even formed in the back of his throat, Jake asked, “Did you mean it?”
That stumped Cole, and brought him up short. Mean what? What had he said that made Jake question him like that? Confused and feeling desperation claw at his innards, he said, “What, what did I say?”
Jake clutched the mug with both hands, staring down into the fragrant brew for an interminable period of time, weighing his options and finally latching onto, “Um, about coming for a visit?”
Nearly giddy with trepidation, Cole tried reading between the lines, desperate to unravel the subtext and knowing the next move was his, not that he wanted to move or say anything to rock the boat.
Be happy he’s here, O’Neil. Take it slow, remember this is Jake…
Cole mumbled, “Of course I meant it, why wouldn’t I?” and instantly regretted the hint of irritation in his voice. There was so much riding on this moment that it was almost impossible to act natural, as if everything was normal, and not like the fate of their futures might just rest on who said what next.
Jake answered, “Right,” as he set the mug on the end table and swung his bare feet to the floor. Out of the blue, he said, “I love old farmhouses. Did you want to show me the rest of it?”
Taking a deep breath and happy for the respite from the pending awkwardness, Cole nodded and motioned Jake toward the stairs leading to the second floor. On the way, he grabbed the duffel bag and took the steps two at a time out of habit. On the landing he pointed to a room at the rear of the house and said, “That used to be my bedroom.”
Jake took the duffel bag from Cole and walked into the small room. Making the usual comment that it was nice, he took in the single bed and the chifferobe doing double duty as a closet and dresser. Cole hadn’t made any alterations to his old room other than freshening the bedding and tossing a few area rugs around. Decorating had never been his strong suit. If it was reasonably clean and functional, he was good with that.
Jake nodded as though Cole had asked him a question and placed his duffel bag on the bed. With a small smile, he said, “Makes for a nice guest room now. This’ll be fine.”
That answered that question … the one about whether or not Jake planned to stay overnight. But it wasn’t getting them any closer to the real reason why they were here, in Cole’s old bedroom, staring at each other like starving men with a banquet just out of reach.
Stalking to the bed, Cole picked up Jake’s duffel bag and announced, “Our room is down the hall, this way,” and hoped he wouldn’t pass out since all the blood in his head seemed to have headed south, which made walking difficult, let alone breathing.
Although his parents’ bedroom hardly qualified for the term “master” at least it had a view of the pond and overgrown garden, not that you could see any of that under the mounds of snow. When he turned around to see if Jake had followed him, he found a man wearing his heart on his sleeve, his expression frozen into a giddy mix of hope and terror that mirrored Cole’s own roiling feelings.
Cole pointed to the bag. “Where’s the rest of your stuff?”
Blushing furiously, Jake stuttered, “I-I-I, um, left it in a locker at the b-b-bus s-station.” He squeezed his eyes shut tight and asked again, “Did you mean it?”
Did he? It was one thing to say you wanted someone in your life. That could be taken a lot of different ways, but what Cole hoped for was the for-better-or-worse lifetime together that came with loving someone more than life itself.
Was Jake that person? Was he? There were no guarantees, no magic bullets, but that didn’t mean magic didn’t exist. Cole had proof positive of that standing in his bedroom doorway.
Closing the distance between them, Cole cupped Jake’s face with his hands and said, “If you’re asking, do I mean I love you, then yes. Yes, I do. If you’re asking what that means… Hell, I don’t know any more than you, but what I do know is that the only way we’re going to find out is if we do this thing together. You and me.”
The room burnt incandescent with Jake’s smile. He asked, his throat raspy with emotion, “All in?”
Cole leaned down and drew Jake into his arms, crooning, “Yeah, babe, all in,” as he gently ran his lips and tongue over Jake’s mouth, whispering, “Merry Christmas, kid.”
Jake pulled away, grinning like a naughty elf, and said, “You’re the best stocking stuffer I ever had. Merry Christmas, Cole.”
And to all a good night…