Read I Heard Him Exclaim Online
Authors: Z. A. Maxfield
Tags: #M/M Holiday Contemporary, #Source: Amazon
I Heard Him Exclaim
By Z.A. Maxfield
Who Likes a Skinny Santa?
Steve Adams’s heart hasn’t been in the Christmas spirit ever since doctors put a stent in it and ordered him to clean up his act. No longer filling out his Santa suit or allowed to make merry, he’s forgoing the holidays this year and heading to Vegas to indulge in the few vices left to him: gambling and anonymous sex.
His road trip takes a detour when he encounters Chandler Tracey, who’s just inherited guardianship of his five-year-old niece. Overwhelmed, Chandler’s on his way to deliver Poppy to his parents. But fate has other plans and, after car trouble, Chandler and Poppy accept a ride home with Steve. Though the heat between the two men is obvious, they put it on simmer while they band together to make Poppy’s Christmas as perfect as possible.
Steve soon comes to believe that while Chandler
the right person to look after Poppy, someone needs to look after Chandler. Fortunately, Steve knows just the man for the job.
There’s something magical about the holiday season, whether you celebrate Christmas or Kwanzaa, Hanukkah or Diwali. The energy and excitement surrounding these holidays charges the air and our emotions, providing a perfect platform for romance and love. So I knew we couldn’t let Carina Press’s first holiday season pass without celebrating it with a collection of special novella releases.
This holiday season, celebrate with our first collection of invitation-only novellas. We’ve pulled together eleven talented authors and author duos, all of whom have made their mark in their respective niches, and invited them to transport our readers with holiday delights. In
Naughty and Nice,
join Jaci Burton, Lauren Dane, Megan Hart and Shannon Stacey as they show you both the sensual and sweet sides of the holidays. Visit post-apocalyptic worlds and paranormal beings in an enchanted journey with authors Vivi Andrews, Moira Rogers and Vivian Arend in
And celebrate the beauty of the season in
His for the Holidays
with m/m authors Josh Lanyon, Z.A. Maxfield, Harper Fox and LB Gregg.
Through the talent of their writing and their captivating storytelling, I believe you’ll find something in each of these special novellas to put you in the magic of the holiday moment.
Wishing you the happiest of holiday seasons.
Executive Editor, Carina Press
Many thanks to Lex Valentine and the local Word Warriors—Carol, Jaime, Karenna, Pam and Alyce. You make work fun every day!
Thanks so much to Angela James for the invitation; my editor, Deborah Nemeth; and everyone at Carina for making this story possible.
Rudolph, the red-nosed ’69 Super Bee Six Pack ate up the tarmac after Barstow. If Steve hadn’t been driving like a bat out of hell, he might have enjoyed it more. He missed lazing around when the weather cooled down in the winter, when the sporadic yet drenching California rain made it harder to get jobs. When the wind blew from the north and the light slanted in through his kitchen window at its lowest angle, it was time to drag out the furry suit and play Santa.
Something in the crisp air gave him the holiday urge—a combination of energy, enthusiasm and lack of self-control peculiar to the men of his family. His father and brothers already had the light wars going. Even his sister, who could usually be counted on to keep a level head all the way through Valentine’s Day, had baked so much that delicious smells emanated from her house and surrounded it like scented magic.
It was a lousy time to be feeling sorry for himself but he was, damn it.
It wasn’t as if he ever smoked in his little red honey car, but he missed having the pack in his pocket, missed the sure and certain knowledge that it was there, waiting for him to hit the rest stop before Zzyzx and Baker. He still held his Zippo in his right hand and drove with his left while he flipped the lighter’s lid open and closed, rhythmically, to the music on the car’s scratchy original AM radio. The Mad Greek would be another big hurdle. Usually he chowed down on a gyro or two, fat with greasy mystery meat and dripping with that creamy white sauce he couldn’t pronounce.
Not happening anymore, ’cause he was newly trim, down to a lean 190 pounds on his six-foot-four-inch frame. He was now defined by good habits and clean living and muscles he hadn’t known were there before they put the stent—and the fear of God—into his heart the previous January.
So this year, Monrovia’s best-loved Santa was heading out of town.
’Cause if anything in the world could soothe a man who’d lost his holiday cheer, it was the garish excesses of the one place on Earth that could afford to blow a billion bucks on a seasonal display that sucked the joy right out of the season itself.
Merry. Fucking. Christmas.
Vegas wasn’t the worst place for a dysfunctional man to go for the holidays. He could watch a couple of the shows and wallow in the absurdity of being an out-of-character Santa at Christmastime. And if he was in Vegas he wouldn’t have to think about all the people he was letting down this year.
Especially, he wouldn’t have to think about them.
Hell, he might be able to find some company for an evening or two. A like-minded holiday escapee maybe. A man who didn’t mind a slightly scrawny bear. Or possibly he’d even score himself a fuzzy little bear cub with a glint in his eye for the weekend. Someone who hadn’t had his twinkle surgically removed by a cardiologist.
That could rev up Rudolph’s specially rebuilt six-pack engine.
Steve needed to hit the head. The drive from Monrovia to Vegas, short as it was, always seemed far longer after a few cups of coffee. Or what passed for coffee when he was at his sister Kelly’s place. She’d poured him several cups of limp decaf and baked him a tray of something she called “health yummies” while trying to persuade him to stay in town. He planned to leave the coffee in the next rest stop he saw, and the baked goods… Well. If he had a flat tire or parked on a hill, they’d be great for blocking the wheels.
Once he was out of Rudolph and stretching his legs under the beginnings of a pretty desert sunset, he felt better. The wind bit his cheeks a little. It was barely cold enough to even work up a goose bump, but it was still colder than it had been when he’d started out. He stared up at the sky, still indigo and fathomless, filled with the first spatters of stars and the barest sliver of a crescent moon. Somewhere he could hear Christmas music playing and it felt like a splash of cold water.
Everything he was—everything he’d ever wanted to be—would fly across that sky in a million imaginations on the night of December 24. Only two days away. And he was only half the man he’d been the previous year, when he’d been round and jolly and full of life. Even in the cartoon shows Mrs. Claus knew best.
Who likes a skinny Santa?
It seemed a terrible irony that in order to save his life, he’d had to give up the very thing that gave it meaning.
He’d talked it over with a counselor, who tried to tell him that this was the natural response to a health crisis and a major change in lifestyle—that he could and would find another healthy outlet if he simply looked for one. The doctor said that eventually Steve’s image of himself would shrink to his new slimmed-down size and that his mirror image would cease to be strange and alien. That he would begin to visualize the possibilities inherent in his brave new world.
As if his physical size was the problem.
No. He hadn’t even begun to explain the problem to the shrink before he realized he couldn’t.
Doctor, I’m not feeling the Claus anymore.
Way to harsh my December mellow.
Yeah. Maybe he’d gotten in a little too deep. He’d undergone an enforced lifestyle change and didn’t know how to deal. And of course, like always, his first instinct had been to run.
It would all be waiting for him when he got back.
As usual, Poppy had Chandler pinned with her enigmatic liquid-blue gaze. Par for the course, he thought as he pulled his keys from the ignition. He was bone tired and stiff from driving. They’d started south of Poway but the holiday traffic made a normally bad drive perfectly impossible, plus there’d been a terrible accident. Poppy hadn’t spoken a word since they’d passed it. Well. That was probably normal, right? Given Poppy’s history, he was lucky she hadn’t started screaming.
“You okay?” he asked.
“You need the bathroom?”
She nodded again.
He got out of the car and walked around to the passenger side and opened the back door. He leaned in and braced his knee on the seat so he could unlatch the restraint system of the child safety seat and then he held his hands out. She wrapped her thin arms around his neck and let him pull her from the car and once again he was taken aback by how slight she was for her age. Had he been that small at five? He didn’t think so. His other nieces and nephews were sturdy, almost chunky little leaguers and girls who played tiny tot soccer. Compared to them, Poppy, the youngest of his siblings’ offspring and the only one who was an only child, was like a snowflake.
Poppy felt like nothing in his arms, like a ghost child. The only thing about her that seemed to take up any space at all were her rich blue eyes, which seemed huge in a face made all the more dramatic by a sharp, sophisticated haircut that he always thought looked a little too grownup for her. The dark silky strands conformed to her head like a cap, cut straight across her brows and blunt along her jawline. With those striking blue eyes it gave her the look of an eerie French doll.
“Remember what we talked about?” he asked, unable to accompany her into the women’s room and too embarrassed to take her into the men’s without a plan in place.
“I’ll go in first and make sure no one is in there,” he reiterated, because as plans went, it was a lousy one. “Then I’ll keep watch while you go.”
“All right.” Her small mouth pursed as they approached the cinderblock building.
“Jeez. This isn’t going to be easy.” It was late enough that there were few people there, but that only made it seem deserted and ominous.
How did people do this with kids? How could a guy traveling with a daughter ever take her to the bathroom without looking like an overprotective maniac, a total perv, or both?
“You stay right here.” He left a hand on her shoulder while he poked his head around and looked into the public bathroom. “I admit to being a little paranoid about this… Hello?”
No sound came from the bathroom. He could feel Poppy squirming a little bit under his fingers. Maybe he was gripping her harder than necessary, but
He was responsible and he didn’t want to mess this up.
“Is anyone in the men’s room?”
His words echoed in the seemingly empty space. He caught Poppy’s hand and took her in, settling her into the stall after peeking to make sure it was marginally clean and there was paper.
“Close the door there, honey, and I’ll be going right here. Knock before you come out, okay?” Chandler prayed harder than he’d ever prayed that he could pee faster than she could. He heard her fiddling with paper, and he glanced back at the stall while he shot his stream only to see the backs of her shoes. Apparently she was facing the toilet.
Okay, that’s odd.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m making a paper seat, Uncle Chandler,” she told him. “Mama showed me for when they don’t have those things that come from the wall.”
Chandler shook off and zipped back up, then washed his hands as fast as humanly possible. “I’m going to go stand by the door and keep people out, so hurry up, please.”
“Maybe we’ll get lucky and no one will need the men’s room for a couple more minutes.” He stationed himself at the door, arms folded, with the most pleasant look on his face that he could manage. He tried to make it a face that said,
Hi, I’m just a guy with a kid, have mercy on me because I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.
He waited for a few minutes, then called back inside. “You okay?”
“Mmm-hmm, Uncle Chandler, I gotta go number two.”
He managed sentry duty for a few more minutes without asking Poppy if she was all right—more than once or twice anyway. Her voice pretty much said these things take time and he should have more patience than he did. He was going to ask again when a vintage red Dodge rumbled up and parked. It was a perfectly beautiful little muscle car that looked to be from the sixties, all shiny red paint and chrome, sporting white racing strips down the nose and around the back end like war paint. It had one of those hoods with bumps like nostrils and a wreath tied between its headlights with a big red bow. Christmasy. A man stepped out, and Chandler watched him turn and lock the door with a key.
You hardly ever saw that anymore, he thought. Most cars had remote locks, and if they were higher end they had those keyless entry systems, like a Mercedes, which locked automatically. He heard a flush and turned to say, “Wash your hands,” to Poppy, who liked to think a passing acquaintance with a drip or two of water should be all that was required to satisfy the letter of the law, as if his rules about sanitation were just
Poppy made some comment, and he turned to find the man who’d driven up in the red car standing right in front of him. He prepared his best explanation for why he’d seemed to be talking out loud to no one in case he was asked. The man just stood there, waiting patiently. It got awkward after a minute, and Chandler gave up.
He smiled. “Have you noticed how often you see people who appear to be talking to themselves these days? I’ve stopped wondering if they’re crazy. I don’t even look for the Bluetooth earpiece anymore.”
The man smiled back, a very wide, white smile. Some people looked like their pets, but this man resembled his car. He was smooth and solid and the way he wore his hair was a little old-fashioned. He was strong and upright, he seemed
in the good way, and he put Chandler at ease almost immediately.
“I know what you mean. People standing around having half a conversation used to be a bad thing.”
“My niece is in there.” Chandler jerked a thumb toward the door behind him and shrugged apologetically. “I didn’t want her to go in the women’s by herself. I’m just waiting for her to be done.”
“I see. I can wait.”
“Awkward traveling with a little girl.”
“Yes,” Chandler sighed. “Especially—”
“Uh-oh.” Poppy’s little girl voice echoed off the tiles.
“Poppy? You okay?”
“I got my pants wet on the floor.”
“How bad?” Chandler called. “Do you need to change them?”
“Is the floor
” Poppy’s voice rose in alarm. “I don’t want pee water on my pants, Uncle Chandler.”
Two more men walked up, maybe college age. One was hopping a little from foot to foot. They stood behind the white-haired man with the nice smile but didn’t look as patient.
“Okay, just…dress and come out,” Chandler begged. “If you need to change, you can change in the car, okay? I have your duffel bag in the trunk.”
“I’m sure it’s not pee water, honey.” Chandler was starting to sweat. “Sometimes they uh…hose the place down and it takes a while for it to dry.”
Poppy called out. “Do I still have to wash my hands?”
Chandler looked toward the sky. “Not this time, Poptart. We have hand sanitizer in the car and you can use that.”
“Okay.” It wasn’t a minute before she was coming out the door trailing a bit of toilet paper on her shoe. She tried to use one foot to get it off the other and succeeded after a couple of tries. “It was all wet.”
“I know, Poppy.” He put a protective arm around her as he walked her back past the line of men waiting to use the bathroom, which was now up to four. “Let’s go, shall we?”
“I need new pants, please.”
Sometimes he wished she’d say something absurd or just a little bit rude. Something that wasn’t necessary. When he was a kid he barraged his parents with endless chatter. He’d had to identify every single animal, orange tree and oil well. He’d been compelled to read every sign out loud, pointed out every McDonald’s, and he’d begged to be set free at every play place along the highway. His parents would have been praying for him to shut up or administering motion sickness pills—although he’d never gotten carsick—because it made him sleep.