This is the story of Danny, who is the best friend of Cassie, the heroine in my holiday novel Saving the CEO, which is book 1 in the 49th Floor series. You don’t need to have read Saving the CEO, though, to read this story—it works as a standalone.
In Saving the CEO, Danny spends a lot of time trying to convince Cassie to join him for Christmas at his mother’s hobby farm, where his hippie mom is undergoing a back-to-the-land-themed midlife crisis. Cassie, having visited with him the previous Christmas, decides she’s too fond of things like central heating and running water to accompany him. (And, of course, by the time Christmas rolls around, she’s too busy enjoying her happily-ever-after.) So Danny is on his own.
Enjoy! And check out the other free stories in the 12 Days of Christmakwanzaka blog hop! Some of my favourite authors are participating.
If Danny had known that his mother’s back-to-the-land kick had gotten so serious that she’d let the pipes freeze, he never would have agreed to come up to the farm for Christmas.
“Dammit!” he yelped as he tripped over something on his way to the outhouse. It was only nine o’clock, but on Christmas Eve in Cowbit, Ontario, it had already been dark for a good five hours. And since Mom had also decided that electricity was another bourgeois luxury she didn’t need, it was dark.
The flashlight on his iPhone barely punctured the unremitting black as he swung it around, trying to see what he’d tripped on. He stooped to pick up the large, oblong…butter churn? He wasn’t totally sure because even though Mom used the phrase “back to the land,” as if she were returning to some bucolic past, she had actually spent her whole life before moving to Cowbit in a succession of Toronto apartments. The only time Danny had seen a butter churn had been while watching reruns of Little House on the Prairie in one of those “shoeboxes in the sky,” as she now called them, so he wasn’t overly confident in his ability to ID one in the wild.
The thing about shoeboxes in the sky, though, is that they generally had heat, light, and running water. Not to mention TV, cell service, and nearby delis. In fact, he missed his own shoebox—his gorgeous, tricked out shoebox—something fierce right now.
Sighing, he aimed his phone in the general direction of the outhouse. “Merry fucking Christmas.”
“And happy fucking New Year.”
“Jesus Christ!” Danny jumped about a foot.
“Sorry.” The beam of a strong flashlight came closer, as did the sound of feet crunching in the snow. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s okay,” he said, straining his eyes to make out the man behind the low, gravely voice. He was only able to see the guy’s legs, clad in jeans and Sorel boots.
“I’m Jake Arnet. I live over there.”
He could imagine Jake pointing over his shoulder, because other than his mom’s, there was only one other house on this stretch of rural road.
“Daniel Carlson,” he said. “I’m visiting my mom.”
“Ah,” said Jake, and Danny could hear the smile in his voice. “Son of the pioneer woman. Let me guess, you killed a deer for Christmas dinner, and you’re out here tanning its hide.”
“No. I consumed a veggie-soy loaf and a sugar-, dairy-, and gluten-free pumpkin pie for Christmas dinner, followed by a secret bag of potato chips I smuggled onto the premises, and now I am on my way to the outhouse because my mother apparently can’t be bothered to prevent her goddamned pipes from freezing.”
Jake laughed. A throaty, sexy laugh that warmed the frigid air. Danny wondered suddenly how old Jake was. Probably a sixty-something hermit like Danny’s mother. Why would you choose to live out here unless you’d been around the block a few times and/or were slightly mentally unhinged?
“You want to use my bathroom?”
The offer sent a jolt of pleasure through Danny’s frozen system. To take a piss without a coat on. To not have to worry about dropping his phone into the abyss. To wash his hands with hot water. The sound that ripped from his throat sounded vaguely, embarrassingly, orgasmic.
“I take it that’s a yes?”
“A thousand times yes.”
Another chuckle. “I hear you. I’m just out here for some firewood, and it’s cold enough. I don’t know how your mother does it.”
“Can I ask you a question?” Danny said as he let Jake’s beam of light guide him along a shoveled path. “Would you happen to know if my mother has a butter churn?”
“She does indeed.”
Danny shook his head at the impossibly starry night sky, and soon they’d reached Jake’s house, its windows dotted with warm, yellow light.
“Oh, you have electricity. God bless you.”
“And a furnace, and running water. I like to live large.”
Danny tried not to run the last few feet to the door.
“It’s open,” said Jake from behind him. “Just go in. I’m going to leave some of this wood on the porch.”
Danny gratefully did as instructed, pushing open the door and emerging into…the Davy Crockett edition of Architectural Digest.
The house was gorgeous. There was wood everywhere in the open-concept space—floors, a wall of cabinets, an enormous island that divided the kitchen from the living area. Low, warm light made everything glow. This was a log cabin fit for a king.
“Bathroom is just down the hall,” said Jake, coming in behind him and facing away from Danny as he shook the snow off his coat in the entryway.
The voice from the dark, it turned out, inhabited a tall, trim body. The jeans he’d caught a mere impression of outside hugged a spectacular ass. Danny closed his eyes for a moment. Look at him, ogling a straight, elderly mountain man. Had it come to this? This was the last year he spent Christmas in Cowbit.
Jake straightened, turned, and smiled.
Not only was Jake not elderly, he couldn’t have been more than thirty-five.
Too bad Danny couldn’t also have been wrong about the straight part. Because Jake was gorgeous. But these butch mountain men always were. This one had black hair, green eyes, and full, pink naturally-pouty lips.
“After you use the bathroom, I’ll fortify you with real Christmas dinner—I’ve got leftovers.” When Danny didn’t say anything, just stood there gaping, Jake added, “If you want. Or, just use the bathroom.”
The prospect of contraband mashed potatoes jarred Danny into moving. As he passed a roaring fire in the living room, he almost wept as he stopped for a moment to hold his icy hands up to the flames. “I thought when you said you were getting firewood that maybe you heated this place with a wood stove.”
“Nope, forced air.” Jake grinned. “Just having a fire for the sake of it. If you can’t have a roaring fire on Christmas Eve, when can you?”
After standing with his hands under the hot tap for several minutes, Danny came back out to the main room to find a plate full of food on the coffee table in front of the fire.
“Oh my God,” he moaned. He knew he should probably wait until Jake reappeared, but the sight of gravy-drenched turkey and the mashed potatoes of his dreams threw all sense of decorum out the window, and he just sat right down and picked up a fork.
“You want a drink?” Jake asked from the kitchen. “I’m just back from dinner at a friend’s, and I could use one—it’s too dark and icy out here to mess with even one drink when you’re driving. Wine? Beer? I’ve got whiskey, too.”
“You choose,” said Danny, unable to form a more articulate sentence on account of the goat cheese and bacon-flecked mashed potatoes he had just placed on his tongue.
He swallowed as Jake approached with two glasses of red wine. “These potatoes are the best thing I have ever eaten in my entire life.”
“Aww. You’re just saying that because you’ve only had soy loaf today.”
“Did you make them? They’re unnaturally good.”
“I did. Took them to a potluck—all the local strays banded together for Christmas dinner—and I came back with some leftovers of everything.”
“Which I am demolishing,” Danny put his fork down. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be.” Jake motioned for him to continue. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but I imagine staying with your mother is…challenging. Providing some protein and booze is the least I can do.”
“Do you know her well?”
“I’ve only been here ten months, so not really. We’re friendly enough. I tried to give her some advice about her corn last summer.
“Let me guess?” Danny said. “You told her to—I don’t know—water it, maybe?” Danny’s mom was under the impression that nature would provide everything. That all people needed to do was adjust their consumerist ways and then bask in the bounty of nature.
“Guilty as charged. I may have also suggested fertilizer.”
“Oooh. I bet she has a voodoo doll of you somewhere in her house.”
“She has been a little…distant lately.” Jake laughed. “It’s good of you to come visit, though.”
“I almost didn’t. My best friend usually comes with me, but she didn’t this year.” He thought of Cassie, who was no doubt cozied up with her billionaire boyfriend. They had only just admitted their feelings for one another, and it had been a happily-ever-after worthy of a romance novel. He’d be lucky if he ever found that kind love. He was happy for her, but in truth, he was a little jealous. And not just because she had heat and running water this Christmas.
He was getting maudlin. Time to change the subject. “So what about you? You farm?” Danny mother’s use of the word farm was impressionistic. Her place was a hobby farm at best. He hadn’t really noticed any crops in the immediate vicinity, but then, it was the dead of winter, and what did he know?
“Nope. I’m a carpenter.”
“That’s why this place is so gorgeous.” He eyed Jake, who, with the warm glow of the fire dancing on the sharp planes of his face, was just as gorgeous as his house. What a freaking shame. “How does a carpenter such as yourself end up in Cowbit?” He gestured at the wall of cabinets. “You could make a fortune selling those in Toronto.”
“I grew up in Peterborough,” Jake said, naming the small city that lay a couple hours to the south. “I’ve moved around a bit recently.” He smiled sheepishly. “Well, I went through a big break up recently, to be honest. One of those that makes you reassess your whole life, you know?
Danny didn’t know. He’d had a few doses of minor heartbreak, like anyone, but the idea of a love that changed everything was totally foreign to him. If he hadn’t watched Cassie and Jack tumble headlong into it, he would have said it was the stuff of fairy tales.
“I’d always wanted to start my own cabinet-making business, and after I picked myself up and dusted myself off, I thought, why the hell not? I don’t have any more to lose.”
“But why here?”
Jake shrugged. “If I’m being honest, I think part of the answer is that I was running away. My life was so intertwined with my ex. Same friends, all that. I needed something radically different. And this place was cheap, and it has a huge heated outbuilding I use as a workshop.”
Danny wanted to whistle his admiration. Jake seemed to be saying that he was a mess, but Danny saw quite the opposite: a man who’d taken control and changed his life, making it into something worthwhile and admirable.
It was strange to be sitting by the fire with a stranger, listening to him talk so openly. He was struck with the overwhelming desire to reciprocate, and, before he could think better of it, he blurted, “My best friend just got together with the guy of her dreams, and I’m afraid things will never be the same between us.
Where the hell had that come from?
“And also that I’ll be alone my whole life.”
But instead of getting up and running away screaming, Jake just nodded. “I know the feeling. But if you’ll excuse me going all Walden Pond on you for a moment, I think it’s important to accept that you might be alone forever. Any of us might be.”
“Well, aren’t you a bundle of Christmas joy?” Danny had been trying to lighten the mood, but the joke had almost caught in his thickening throat.
“I’m serious. That’s my big takeaway from the break up. You have to be okay with being alone. I know I sound like a self-help book, but it’s true. It’s impossible to have a meaningful relationship, romantic or platonic, if part of the reason you’re in it—even a tiny part of the reason—is that you’re afraid to be alone.”
Jake shook his head. “Dude. Sorry. I got carried away there.” He poured some more wine into Danny’s glass. “You came over to use the bathroom, and now I’m laying all this philosophy shit on you.”
Danny smiled. “It’s okay.” He refrained from saying that Jake’s comments had hit a little too close to home. He took a big gulp of wine, then cleared his throat. “Well, whoever your ex is, she sounds like a great big idiot to me. If she can walk away from a guy who makes mashed potatoes like this, she’s not right in the head.”
Jake, who had been staring at the fire, swung his gaze to Danny. Stared at him for a long moment.
“My ex. The great big idiot who’s not right in the head is a he.”