For the last week of November, it surprised Noah at how busy the Christmas tree lot was. He had figured people wouldn’t be getting their trees for at least another week if they didn’t want them to dry out. But instead, people were getting into the seasonal spirit early.
“Hey boss,” Charlie said, sitting down next to him behind the cash register during a rare slow period. “How are you holding up?”
His wrist ached and the sound of tinny Christmas carols cut his soul more than he had anticipated. But it beat trying to resist drinking at Keegan’s. “Not too bad,” Noah said.
“My dad said to tell you thanks for coming on for this season,” Charlie continued. “I had to cut my hours, and he’s getting up there in age so he’s not really up for long hours in the cold.”
Despite the mini heater beside the table, it really was cold. Noah was wearing his jacket awkwardly around his shoulders like a blanket. Even without a sling, which he still wore a lot of the time, he couldn’t really fit the cast through the sleeve. So he’d had to resort to a heavy sweater and a badly stretched glove on that hand.
“I appreciate the last minute job,” Noah said.
Charlie laughed. “I have no doubt you could toss some asshole out of Keegan’s one handed, but I don’t blame you for wanting out.”
Noah wasn’t sure if Charlie knew his other reason for leaving Keegan’s again, but he wasn’t about to bring it up. The fact that the other man was acting so normally around him was a godsend in this small town where everyone knew his business. It made Noah feel almost normal.
Noah and Charlie looked up to see a short man with long red hair standing in front of the cash register. He was holding a massive Christmas wreath. “How much for this?” he asked.
“Fifteen,” Noah replied.
“Fifteen?” the man repeated incredulously. “That seems…cheap.”
He raised a thin eyebrow as Noah consulted the prices. “Nope,” he confirmed. “Fifteen.”
The skepticism melted away into a smile that made Noah feel a little warmer in the chilly afternoon air. “Well, in that case, I’ll be back tomorrow for two more,” he said as he handed Noah a ten and a five.
Noah slipped them into the cash box and smiled back. The man gave him an unsubtle once over. “Will you be here tomorrow?” he asked.
Noah winked at him, back on stable ground for the first time in a while. “I’ll be around,” he said.
“It’s a date then.”
The man took his wreath and walked away, clearly aware of Noah’s eyes on him as he walked. He wore tight jeans and a stylish jacket, along with a white beanie that fell across his hair in a way that Noah knew he’d never achieve with his own worn general store beanie.
“Want to put your eyes back in your head, chief?” Charlie asked with a laugh from beside him.
The man came back the next day like he said he would. This time, Noah was alone at the register as Charlie helped with a tree delivery down the road. It was slower today, but there were still a few people milling around the lot as the man walked up to the folding table where Noah sat.
“Jude,” the man said, holding out a gloved hand.
He shook awkwardly with his good hand. The man’s grip was firm, almost too tight, and it immediately sparked feelings Noah had been pretty sure were long dead, but were apparently coming back to life.
“So, Noah, I know this is pretty forward,” Jude said, setting another wreath down on the table. “But can I buy you dinner sometime?”
Based on the look in his eye, he really wasn’t concerned about dinner. Noah had been told it was a terrible idea to make any decisions or start a new relationship within the first year of recovery and he had no intentions of doing anything like that. But no one had said anything about casual hookups, and Jude didn’t seem like he was looking for marriage and kids right now. And hopefully Noah was reading him right.
“Dinner?” he repeated.
Jude grinned. “Well, maybe a little more than dinner.”
“How’s seven? Tonight.”
Noah texted Olivia as he left the house a few hours later, showered and more neatly dressed than he had been in months. Normally, he’d drop in and talk to her, but he didn’t feel like announcing to everyone that he was going on what really boiled down to a booty call. Not that he thought there’d be judgment, but he wanted to keep one thing to himself for now. One thing to make him feel more like an adult and less like a child in need of constant supervision. But a text would keep Olivia from worrying about him relapsing.
Date tonight. Might be late.
He wasn’t even in the truck yet when his phone chimed.
He laughed out loud, then climbed into the truck and drove away without responding.
Jude lived in a condo a few towns over. As Noah started walking up to the front door, it swung open before he even got to it. Jude was standing there with a wide smile on his face. “Welcome,” he said, moving aside to let Noah in.
It was a beautiful house, very modern and light. The living room opened into the kitchen and he could see that Jude actually did have things out on the counter to prepare for dinner. He noticed a couple of steaks and the makings of a salad, plus a scattering of utensils. “I’m glad you came,” Jude said as he made his way over to the fridge. “Do you want an ice tea?”
“Please,” Noah said, admiring the condo as he followed.
There were butterflies in his stomach. Was he actually nervous? It had been a while since his last date, but nothing about this was new to Noah. Sure, this was his first sober date. But what was there to be nervous about? Unless alcohol was the only thing that made him charming or fun. Maybe he’d changed too much in general. Maybe he was going to be rusty in bed. Having only one good hand wasn’t going to help matters either.
The butterflies intensified as Jude came close and slipped the ice tea into his hand. Noah took a sip and tried not to cringe at how sweet it was. “Thanks,” he said.
Jude smiled and took a sip of his own drink. Then he set it down. Noah followed his lead as Jude slipped his arms around Noah’s neck and leaned up to lock him in a long kiss. As Noah ran his good hand down the other man’s body, the butterflies dissipated. Jude broke off the kiss and looked up at him.
“I think dinner can wait a little bit. What do you think?”
Noah laughed out loud. And as Jude took his hand and led him toward the bedroom, he felt confident that he was making the right decision.
“Good night last night?”
Olivia’s question sounded innocent as Noah took a bite of his third pancake. He stopped, held up a finger, and then swallowed. Olivia watched him from across the table, eyes glittering with mischief.
“Fantastic night,” he replied, then began eating again.
“I figured as much when I heard the front door open at two o’clock this morning. I appreciate you texting me that you’d be out. Are you going to see him again?”
Noah shook his head. “No idea,” he said, stabbing at another piece of pancake. “It was fun, but we didn’t make any plans.”
“Ah, your type.”
He shrugged. “Look, if someone wants a fun night together and I don’t need to worry about commitment afterward, that’s fine with me.”
“No, I’m happy for you,” Olivia said, some of the teasing tone disappearing from her voice. “I know you’re still figuring things out, but it’s nice to see you getting out and doing things.”
He smirked as she stopped and sighed. “I mean-”
She didn’t even bother to finish it. Instead, she just started eating her own pancakes.
“Besides, it’s not like I’m the only one getting some right now,” Noah said as she took her first bite.
“We’re not-” she began through a mouthful of food.
Then she swallowed and tried again. “We’re not going that far.”
“There but for the obstacles of the Keegan’s storage room,” Noah lamented. “So what’s going on there?”
“I’m not sure,” Olivia admitted. “I like him and he likes me. But I don’t know what he wants.”
She rolled her eyes. “No, fuck off. I mean, I don’t know if he wants, like, a relationship relationship. Or more like a casual thing.”
“Are you going to ask him?”
Olivia shook her head. “Not right now,” she said. “I mean, I don’t even know what I want.”
They’re quiet for a moment as they eat. Then Noah heard the sound of Mia padding through the living room.
“I’ll get her some pancakes,” Noah said, and headed toward the stove.