“Merry Christmas, Jeremy!”
Jeremy had just finished shoving the last bottle of wine into his overstuffed canvas shopping bags when the shout caught his attention over the buzz of conversation and frantic beeping of barcode scanners at the checkout. He looked up and searched the throng of panicked grocery shoppers until he spotted Stephanie, his favorite store clerk, waving and smiling at him from her checkout line. She’d dyed her usually pink pixie-cut hair red for the holidays, but it was still easy to pick her out from the crowd.
Jeremy wasn’t exactly sure why, but Stephanie always seemed to go out of her way to give him a kind word or a smile whenever he came in. Byron, Jeremy’s ex, had always insisted that it was because she had a crush on him, but Jeremy seriously doubted it. She was just a nice person. That was all. He was hardly the kind of guy that inspired crushes, particularly ones that lasted years, and Stephanie had been like that since the first time he’d met her.
Jeremy shifted his heavy bags enough to wave and smile back at her. “To you too!” he called out, but he was pretty sure she couldn’t hear him over all the noise.
The Giant Eagle was a madhouse, and from the stream of people coming in, it wasn’t going to get any better. Stephanie gave him one more little wave before grimacing and turning back to the lengthening line of customers behind her, and Jeremy turned around, pushed his way through the crush, and went out the automatic doors.
Once outside and away from some of the mayhem, he breathed a sigh of relief and moved to a quiet corner beneath the overhang so he could set his bags down and pull on his gloves and hat. He hated crowds—feeling like he was in everyone’s way—and he was glad to be free of the melee and only a short walk away from a three-day weekend of peace and quiet. Or at least that was what he kept trying to convince himself since he was faced with spending Christmas alone this year.
Jeremy finished tugging on his gloves and bent to gather his bags. It wasn’t all that cold outside, but he had a couple of blocks to go, the snow was really starting to come down now, and he’d be grateful for the gloves and hat by the time he got home. According to the weather forecast, it was supposed to snow all night and into the morning, with accumulations up to two feet! They hadn’t had a snow like that in Pittsburgh since he was a kid, and people were freaking out. “Snowmageddon” was the buzzword all over the radio and television, especially since it was the Friday before Christmas, and from everything he’d heard, holiday traffic was already a nightmare.
As he stepped cautiously out into the parking lot, he glanced behind him at the sea of red lights that was the parkway and the interstate. They ran right behind the grocery store, and Jeremy couldn’t help but feel sorry for all the poor souls trapped out there, just trying to get out of town for the holidays. The cars didn’t appear to be moving at all, and for the first time in weeks, the fact that he wasn’t going anywhere special didn’t seem like such a bad thing. At least he’d be alone in front of a cozy fire with some good wine and food instead of trapped in his car in the middle of a snowstorm. Things could be worse, right?
The walk home from the store wasn’t bad most days, but Jeremy had gone a little crazy buying food for the long weekend and his arms were aching long before he reached his street. He was really starting to regret the bottles of wine he’d picked up on impulse on his way to the checkout. The ham and small turkey were also probably overkill, since he was just going to be cooking for himself, but he couldn’t help buying them out of nostalgia for Christmases past. Even if he couldn’t bring himself to drag out the decorations and lights this year, at least his mom’s house would smell like Christmas. Although right now, he wasn’t so sure nostalgia was worth the muscle strain.
Finally unable to take it anymore, Jeremy stopped at the head of his street and set the bags down for a second to get some feeling back into his fingers. Jesus, he needed to work out if a few groceries were kicking his ass. As if being a skinny, football-hating graphic designer who lived in his mom’s house and drove his mom’s old Subaru Legacy wasn’t bad enough to get his man-card revoked in Steel City, now he couldn’t even make it a few blocks carrying grocery bags. Maybe he should have joined a gym after he’d quit biking to work for the winter.
Come on, J. Less than a block to go.
Pep talk out of the way, Jeremy picked the bags back up and trudged on. Luckily for him, his boss had sent everyone home as soon as the snow had started to stick, because it was already a few inches thick on the ground and this walk would have been really unpleasant if he’d had to make it in a couple of hours.
As Jeremy finally neared his house, he noticed an unfamiliar car double-parked not far from his front door. His first thought was that maybe one of his neighbors had relatives unloading out front before driving around to their off-street parking, but the furious swearing that came from the back bumper soon disabused him of that notion. When he peered curiously around the side of the car, he saw a dark-haired man crouched down, struggling with a tire iron and a flat tire, and he grimaced in sympathy. Changing a tire in a snowstorm really had to suck, especially since the guy didn’t have a coat or gloves on. For about one second, Jeremy considered offering his help, but another explosive oath kept him quiet. The guy didn’t sound like he wanted to be disturbed, and he might even be offended that a skinny geek like Jeremy thought he could break stubborn lugs nuts free when a big guy like him couldn’t. To ease his conscience a little, Jeremy decided that if the poor man was still out there when he finished putting his groceries away then maybe he’d come back out and make the offer.
Despite not wanting to intrude, Jeremy couldn’t help but take the opportunity to check the guy out as he passed. Jeremy was only human, after all, and the man was pretty hot. He had short dark hair that curled a little on top, straight, thick eyebrows—currently drawn down in frustration—a square jaw darkened with almost a full day’s growth of whiskers, and a full and utterly kissable set of lips. His tan cable-knit sweater and loose jeans were a little too bulky to give much away, but Jeremy was blessed with a good imagination and the sleeves of the sweater were pushed up far enough to reveal tanned, muscled forearms covered in more of that silky dark hair. Jeremy had always had a thing for nice arms, and this guy definitely had nice arms.
He squinted through the melted snow on his glasses to get a better look and was reconsidering offering his aid when the tire iron suddenly flipped out of the guy’s hands, accompanied by a yelp of pain.
“Son of a…!” the man swore as the iron dropped with a quiet clank into the layer of dirty slush and snow at his feet, and he gripped one hand in the other, letting out a hiss of pain. Jeremy stopped walking and opened his mouth to ask if the guy was okay, but movement out of the corner of his eye distracted him. He glanced up the street and saw a white H2 coming toward them, moving entirely too fast for the amount of snow on the ground. As he watched it approach in growing anxiety, it only took about two seconds before “Oh, I’m sure they see him” turned into “Holy shit! They’re going to hit him!” in Jeremy’s mind, and even less than that for him to start moving.
Later, Jeremy never actually remembered making a decision to move. One minute he was standing on the sidewalk holding his grocery bags; the next he was sprawled on his back in a puddle of slush between two cars with a very heavy man sprawled on top of him as the Hummer clipped the back bumper of the car, drove over the spare tire on the pavement, and skidded to a halt a little way down the street.
Jeremy’s glasses were knocked askew in the fall, so he could only make out the Hummer’s taillights in the distance, but when he turned back to look at the man on top of him, he had no trouble seeing those wide, gorgeous dark-brown eyes staring back at him in shock. “Hot guy” had really nice eyes too. Jeremy wasn’t sure that was the most appropriate thought for him to have at that moment, but it was the only thing that popped into his head.
They stared at one another for several breaths before the guy blinked twice and turned to look at his car with his mouth hanging open. “Oh my God! Did they…? They almost ran me over,” he said as if he couldn’t quite believe what had just happened. Jeremy was right there with him. Now that the initial rush had passed, his heart was racing in his chest and he couldn’t quite breathe right—although that might have had more to do with the fact that he was crushed beneath another man’s weight… and not in a good way. His shoulders were propped painfully against the edge of the curb and his leg was twisted awkwardly beneath his butt. Discomfort, pain, and the feeling of cold wetness seeping into his pants soon jarred Jeremy out of his stupor. He was just starting to disentangle himself from the other man so he could stand up when the H2’s brake lights went out and the truck started to drive off.
“Hey!” Jeremy shouted as he attempted to scramble to his feet, but he was too late. The truck turned the corner before he could right his glasses and clear the wet lenses enough to read the license plate. “Bastard!” he shouted uselessly before turning back to check on the guy he’d rescued. “Are you okay?”
“I think so,” he said as he climbed to his feet and shook slush and muck from his clothes. “I’m a little damp but still in one piece—thanks to you.” The guy gave him a shaky smile and held out his hand. “Paul McClellan. ‘Thank you’ hardly seems like enough to say. I… I think you just saved my life.”
Jeremy felt a blush creep up his cheeks, and he was definitely going to blame it on adrenaline. Yep, that’s right, adrenaline. He was most certainly not blushing like a schoolgirl because the man’s deep voice was washing over him like warm caramel and those fabulous thick-lashed dark eyes were looking at him like he was Superman or something.
Jeremy cleared his throat, clasped Paul’s hand reflexively, and then laughed as they both grimaced at the cold clamminess of their palms. Jeremy could actually feel the water squish out of his glove.
“Jeremy Porter, and you’re welcome,” he managed to get out without sounding like too much of a dork.
He felt Paul’s hand tremble a little as he released it, and that was when he realized that the guy was shivering all over. He wasn’t wearing a coat, he was dripping from the slushy puddle they’d fallen into, and he’d just had a near-death experience; maybe Jeremy should do something more constructive than just standing there and staring at him like an idiot. He shook himself out of whatever fog his brain had wandered into and said, “Hey, um, I live right over there. Why don’t you come in for a minute and get dried off?”
Paul looked where Jeremy pointed and then back at him. At first, he didn’t respond, and Jeremy thought his eyes looked a little glassy, but he seemed to collect himself after a moment, and he said, “I…. Yeah. That would be great. Thank you. Again.”
Paul’s voice seemed to be getting shakier and his teeth had started chattering, so Jeremy didn’t waste any more time. He just led the way to his house, only stopping long enough to pick up the groceries he’d dropped in the snow. One of the bags was dripping red wine so at least one of the bottles had broken when he’d dropped them, but he just set that bag on the stoop as he fished out his keys and unlocked the front door of his mother’s ancient brick townhouse. He hurried in, leaving a dripping trail of his own as he dropped the rest of the bags in the kitchen, pulled off his sopping wet gloves, and rushed up the stairs to find some towels. Paul was still standing in the entryway when he got back, dripping and shivering, so Jeremy hurried up to him and handed him a towel before ushering him into the living room.
“Come in. Come in. Don’t worry about the floor. You can’t do anything more to it than has already been done over the last thirty years or so,” Jeremy said with a little self-conscious laugh.
The house was a total disaster. It was a kind of monument to his mother’s penchant for unfinished home-improvement projects, so Jeremy was always a little embarrassed when people saw it. Since Paul was understandably distracted and didn’t seem to notice, Jeremy didn’t bother with any more reassurances. He just pushed Paul toward the lumpy couch and urged him to sit down.
Paul started to sit but hopped back up a second later and turned toward the door. “My car…,” he said anxiously, but Jeremy held up a hand to stop him.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take care of it. You just sit down for a minute and get warmed up.” Paul was looking paler by the second, and Jeremy was pretty sure shock was setting in. He hurried toward the front door but stopped when he realized something kind of important. “Keys?”
Paul fished in the front pocket of his loose-fitting jeans and handed them over distractedly. He didn’t even look up. He just sort of stared off in the corner of the living room and chewed on his lip.
“I’ll be right back,” Jeremy said, but he was pretty sure Paul didn’t hear a word.
He rushed outside, back into the snow, and jogged over to Paul’s car. The rear panel was dented, the taillight was busted, and the bumper was cracked, but it still looked drivable, at least. He studied the flat and the spare for a minute before deciding he’d worry about it later. If Paul was having a hard time with the lug nuts, chances were Jeremy wouldn’t fare much better. The guy hadn’t even gotten them loose enough to put the car on the jack yet, and Jeremy didn’t want to leave him alone for however long it might take him to get the tire changed—if he could even do it. He wouldn’t be able to drive the car all the way around the block and into his off-street parking without damaging the rim, but he could at least get it into an empty space on the street without too much harm done.
He picked up the spare and the iron and threw them back in the trunk before starting the engine and pulling into an open space half a block down from his house. As he climbed out of the car, he noticed a briefcase, a coat, and a duffel bag on the backseat, and he grabbed them, just in case. Paul might have a change of clothes in the bag, and the briefcase looked like it had a laptop in it, so it wasn’t a good idea to leave it out in the open. Jeremy’s neighborhood wasn’t exactly ghetto or anything, but leaving stuff out in your car, where anyone could see it, was just asking to get your window smashed and your stuff stolen.
When he got back inside, Paul was still sitting where he’d left him. Jeremy pulled off his wet coat and boots and left them in the entryway before making his way into the living room. His socks were pretty damp and his toes felt like icicles, but he’d worry about that after he’d made sure Paul was really okay.
“How’re you feeling?”
Paul looked up and gave him a rueful smile. “Still a little damp but better, thanks. Sorry I wigged out a little there. I’ve never been almost run over before.”
“Don’t apologize. I’d be in shock too. That was a close one, and the bastard didn’t even stay around to see if you were okay.”
“Probably texting someone or something,” Paul mumbled before shaking his head. “Could my day get any worse?”
Jeremy laughed. “Do you really want an answer to that?”
Paul chuckled and shook his head again. “No. God, no. I should probably keep my mouth shut and just thank my lucky stars you were there.”
Jeremy squirmed a little uncomfortably under Paul’s obvious gratitude and decided to change the subject. “I grabbed these from your backseat, figuring there might be clothes in one of them if you wanted to get into something a little drier.”
“Thank you.” Paul took the bags and coat from Jeremy and set them near his feet. “I haven’t been home to do laundry yet, but I guess dirty is better than cold and wet.”
“I could grab you some sweats instead,” Jeremy offered.
Paul shook his head. “Thanks, but I should probably get back to my car and out of your hair. You’ve done enough for one day, and I have another hour of driving ahead of me.” He paused and grimaced. “Probably more like several hours the way traffic’s moving right now.”
He looked so tired all of a sudden that Jeremy was a little worried about sending him back out into the storm. “Are you sure? Do you really need to get home? I mean, is someone waiting for you?” Jeremy asked. He wasn’t fishing. Really he wasn’t. He was just being a concerned citizen, that was all. If it wasn’t absolutely necessary for Paul to get home, then it would be stupid of him to risk going back out into that mess when Jeremy didn’t mind having him stay.
And maybe Jeremy was dreading being alone on Christmas weekend a little more than he wanted to admit to himself, because when Paul shook his head, Jeremy jumped at the opportunity to push a little more. “It looks pretty bad out there and it’s only going to get worse. I don’t mind if you want to stay for a little while and warm up. Really. Traffic might ease up in a couple of hours… give the snowplows a chance to catch up.”
Jeremy felt a little pathetic but he actually held his breath while Paul chewed on his bottom lip, obviously torn. “I was trying to get home tonight. It’s been weeks since I’ve slept in my own bed. But the thought of getting back in the car is just….” He sighed, raked a hand through his damp hair, and looked back up at Jeremy. His big brown eyes had gone all puppy-like, and Jeremy felt himself melting a little. “I don’t want to put you out.”
Jeremy smiled in relief. “You’re not. Really. I didn’t have anything planned for tonight, anyway, and I’d feel terrible sending you back into that if you didn’t have to go. Come on. I’ll show you the bathroom so you can wash up a little, and I’ll get you some dry clothes.”
When Paul stood, Jeremy led the way around his pile of tools in the hall, past his roughly spackled walls and partially framed-in closet to the stairs. There were only two bathrooms in the house and the one upstairs had the only shower at the moment, but at least the upstairs bathroom was finished, so he didn’t have to feel embarrassed about Paul using it. He was actually pretty proud of the job he’d done in there, despite having almost no home-repair experience under his belt before he’d started.
“You can take a shower to get warmed up if you want to. There’re more towels in there, and I’ll leave the sweats by the door and go make us some coffee.”
Paul’s smile lit up his face, and Jeremy felt another blush coming on. The guy really was adorable… and hot. Had he mentioned hot?
“You’re a saint, man, really,” Paul said, shaking Jeremy out of his preoccupation with the man’s hotness. He really shouldn’t dwell on that particular subject. They weren’t on a date. Paul was only there because he was stuck there, and Jeremy needed to remember that before he made an ass of himself mooning over a stranger who was probably straight as the day was long.
Days are a lot shorter in the wintertime, though, his brain supplied unhelpfully.
Jeremy cleared his throat. “I’ll, uh, be downstairs if you need anything else, and there’s a guest room right next door if you feel like lying down.”
When Paul gave him another grateful smile and closed the door to the bathroom, Jeremy rushed to get the sweats and then to tidy up the guest room. He wasn’t a slob and the room was relatively clean, but he used that room as a dump zone for the boxes of his mother’s stuff that he didn’t know what to do with, so it was a little disorganized and cluttered.
By the time he’d finished, he heard the shower come on and images of what Paul might look like naked under the spray were starting to creep into his head. Jeremy decided he really needed to go downstairs and make some coffee before his brain supplied any other unhelpful thoughts, like when was the last time he’d actually gotten laid?