Porker, Fatty, Tons-of-Fun: Crowley Fredericks has heard it all. He’s dropped a lot of weight since his high school days, but he’s still a big guy, and the painful words and bullying follow him. Rejected—again—because of his size, Crowley is starting to think that maybe love just isn’t meant for huskier men.
Averell Lang and his twin are so different they might as well not even be related. So when Rell’s brother brings his roommate home to snowy Susset for the holidays, Rell expects the worst—another uptight, pretentious hipster. What he discovers instead is Crowley. Nerdy, fascinating, attractive, Crowley. Rell never expected to look at a man this way, and what he sees in Crowley Fredericks is something he didn’t even know he was looking for. If both men can overcome their hang-ups, they might unwrap more than presents this holiday season.
2015 Rainbow AwardsThe William Neale Award for Best Gay Contemporary Romance Runner-Up
IT’S THE little things, Crowley Fredericks thought to himself as he pushed back the door to his small apartment. Like leaving for the airport, returning half a day later without having ever made it to your destination, and opening the door to hear aluminum scraping across the hardwood. The little things.
Tense, tired, and heartsick in ways he hadn’t even begun to process, Crowley couldn’t help it—his lips quirked. It had taken his best friend and roommate, Tyler Lang, exactly twelve hours to organize and host a soirée or meet-up or fete. Maybe a bacchanalia? Anything but a “party.” And the aftermath was seventy-five empty Pabst Blue Ribbon cans set up like a minefield on their floor.
A figure stirred on the couch. Their friend Xondee sat upright—her dreads slipping in front of her face—and glared at him through bloodshot eyes. She moaned low, swiped a hand at him to be quiet, and then slumped back into a pile of blankets. So Xondee had hung around. He wondered who else might still be around and why it was so damn chilly in the apartment. Crowley shivered. They’d either turned off the heat, left a window open, or both.
A quick glance at the kitchen as he passed through revealed more of the same mess. Dirty plates, Sharpie-decorated Solo cups, and what looked like their whole silverware drawer formed into a sort of abstract artwork. Someone had started to wash up, because the sink was full of now icy-cold, gray water that had an iridescent sheen across its surface. Their cabinets stood open. Someone’s purse, forgotten, rested on the counter where the toaster should be. He wasn’t even going to look in the fondue pot.
Quietly he knocked on the door to the bedroom he shared with Tyler, hoping his roommate didn’t have a girl with him. Silence greeted him. He pushed the door open.
No girl, but sure enough, the window was ajar. Snow drifted lazily down from the sky, and if the puddled water on the sill was any indication, a lot of it had blown into the room.
“I hope you didn’t die from the cold last night,” Crowley kidded, going to the window and closing and latching it. The chill still hung in the air, so he knelt next to their old radiator and turned it on. It protested like a crotchety old man, rattling and sputtering, but eventually, heat began to ooze from it. “And did you really leave this on?”
On his knees under their tiny desk, Crowley started to unplug the multicolored twinkle lights and the shirtless Santa that Tyler had ironically placed on the side table.
“Don’t turn off Stripper Santa.” Tyler Lang’s voice came out low and gravelly. “And don’t be a drag, sir.”
“Stripper Santa is going to burn the whole apartment down.” More than once, while plugging him in, Stripper Santa’s cord had thrown sparks.
“What are you doing here anyway? I thought you were going to Kansas.”
“Kansas City,” Crowley corrected, flinching as he readied himself for what was to come. You didn’t leave with a “See ya after Christmas!” only to return half a day later and not catch any flack. “Kansas City on the Missouri side.”
“Unless you’re from Missouri.”
“Fine. Missouri. You’re supposed to be in Missouri. But you’re not in Missouri. Why are you here?”
“Flight got… canceled,” Crowley lied haltingly.
Don’t come home. No one will pick you up from the airport.
If Crowley could get a bath and a nap, then maybe he could talk about it without, well, crying. He’d already done that in the airport concourse and had a very persistent old woman pull every detail from him while plying him with butterscotch candies.
Tyler grunted and rolled over so he faced Crowley, not bothering to open his eyes. “Xondee still here?”
“Asleep on the couch. She did the zombie thing again. She was wearing clothes this time, thankfully.” When Tyler didn’t reply, Crowley asked quietly, “You want help cleaning up the apartment?”
“How bad is it?”
“Didn’t see any puke this time. Don’t smell anything, either. Haven’t run into any pigeons, even with the open window.”
“It was hot,” Tyler justified, pulling the covers up over his head.
“Fifteen people shoved into a five hundred square foot apartment would get a little toasty.”
“Didja sleep at the airport?” Tyler’s voice was muffled under the covers.
“A little.” He’d closed his eyes for just a minute and drifted off. Nothing had changed when he opened them, though. Sleeping in airport chairs—even the fancy ones the airline reserved for important customers—wasn’t exactly restful. Especially with such a heavy heart.
“Go to bed.”
Bath could wait. His twin-size bed in the corner tempted him, especially with the temperature rising in the room. Just a little nap.
THE SOUND of indie Christmas music filled the small room, and Crowley smacked in the moist heat of trapped breath. A little headache twinged behind his eye and his stomach grumbled. Groaning, he rolled over and pulled the covers off his head. Bright afternoon light blinded him. The snow was falling harder now, and some of it gathered on the window, obscuring the view. Stripper Santa gyrated on the side table once again.
Tyler hummed along to the music and knitted on the floor. A long swath of knitted fabric rolled out between Tyler’s legs. All he knew how to make was scarves and blankets, mostly for babies. But he also said babies were parasites, so all the blankets stayed with them.
Crowley asked Tyler once how he could call something so adorable a parasite and Tyler had replied, “When one creature survives by feeding off the life force of another one, that’s called a parasite. I don’t care how cute they are.”
Tyler’s biggest fear in life was that he was going to get some girl pregnant.
“What time is it?” Crowley asked.
“Time for you to get a watch?” Tyler muttered, and then laughed dryly. He loved old jokes. Knock knock. Who’s there? Mercy book. Mercy book, who? You’re welcome, mon ami. “I dunno. iPhone is over there. Maybe about one?”
“Dang, I slept late.”
“Dang, you did,” Tyler agreed.
“Xondee still here?”
A shrug. “Think she’s gone. Maybe.”
“This a new band you found?” Crowley asked, pulling himself up and pointing at the record player in the corner. The sound was too fresh, too experimental. It emulated eighties New Wave, but the core of it was contemporary. In spite of the pop and hiss of the vinyl pressing, he could tell it was one of Tyler’s new underground bands.
“Cupcakes and Heartbreaks. Won it in the Dirty Santa game last night. Got wild. I thought there was going to be fisticuffs. Oh, someone drank all your absinthe, by the way.”
“I had absinthe?” Crowley asked. When he drank, which wasn’t often, it was usually a rum and coke.
“I got it for your last birthday. It was in the bottom cabinet. Maybe I didn’t tell you.”
“Yeah, my friends are dicks sometimes.”
“Why do you keep inviting them over?” Crowley kicked off the covers and stretched. He smelled a little ripe, definitely needed that bath.
Tyler looked up, the multicolored lights he’d strung all over the room reflected off his glasses. “’Cause I like ’em?”
Sleigh bells but what the hell? I fucking hate this holiday…. The lead singer’s voice melted into incomprehensible gibberish after that. Tyler listened to the weirdest music.
“So. No more flights out, I take it?”
Tyler was no dummy. Crowley was going to have to admit that he’d lied about his flight to Kansas City being canceled. He hated that. Hated lying. Sometimes, when he was distressed, though, things slipped out. Not-quite-truths.
“She doesn’t want me to come home this year.”
Or ever. The clack of the thick knitting needles stopped as Tyler looked up slowly.
“So, I’m just going to see if Dr. Fisher has some work for me and I’ll—”
“Do I hear you right, sir? Are you honestly telling me that you’re going to spend Christmas here? Alone?”
The urge to make something up came on so strongly that Crowley felt sick to his stomach. Or maybe he was just hungry. How long had it been since he’d eaten last? He knuckled the knot forming between his eyebrows.
“I didn’t say I’d be alone.”
“You’ve got a date?”
Follow-up questions. Dammit.
“Well… I could find one. Maybe.”
“You could,” Tyler agreed skeptically. “If you ever talked to anyone ever.”
“I talk to people.”
“Dateables, Crowley. Date-ables.”
“I talk to… dateables.”
“Who? And don’t say Jason Unger.”
Crowley’s heart thudded. “I wasn’t going to.”
“’Cause that guy’s a jock. You shouldn’t have asked him out in the first place.”
“You’re right,” Crowley agreed uncomfortably. He should have known he wasn’t Jason’s “type,” being—what did his female friends call it?—real-sized. He hadn’t expected Jason’s barking laughter as Crowley asked him out for coffee, though. Or the way the good-looking athlete shouted, “‘Fat’ chance, Fredericks! Get it?” He got it. “Fine, maybe I don’t talk to ‘dateables.’ But I have friends. Some of them are probably going to—”
Tyler, fuming about Jason, butted in. “He’s everything that’s wrong with the world. He’s a self-absorbed Abercrombie broseph without two brain cells to rub together.”
“Remember that time you wanted me to tell you if you started using clichés in casual conversation?”
“I purposely chose the cliché. The man is a cliché. All of his friends are clichés.”
That’s when Crowley realized they were no longer talking about Jason Unger. Tyler was now talking about Jason’s friend, David Griffith, instead. Crowley smiled patiently. “It still freaks you out that David—”
“Don’t say his name.”
Crowley sighed. “He likes you, Tyler.”
“That’s fine. He can like me all he wants. Good on you bro, keep on liking me. That’s not the problem. It’s the freaking Target gift card.”
“Right? It’s almost criminal.”
“Don’t you dare laugh at me, Fredericks. The guy supposedly like-likes me and he bought me a Target gift card. To Target. A gift card that is good at Target.”
Crowley was glad conversation had fallen away from Jason Unger, even if it meant Tyler was being a jerk about the puppy-dog lacrosse player, David.
“So, I’ve decided you’re coming with me to Susset.”
“What?” Crowley asked, thrown by the abrupt change in conversation.
“Well, I’m not leaving you here alone. Pack your bags. I’m taking you home with me for Winter Break.”
“Seriously? Alone on Christmas or with your best friend in the whole world? Put your crap in a bag and toss me my phone, Fredericks. I’m going to check ticket prices.”
Crowley paused for only a moment, ingrained Midwestern politeness itching to protest. But the truth was he didn’t want to be in their apartment alone.
“Are you sure I won’t be intruding?”
Tyler rolled his eyes.
It wasn’t really necessary for Crowley to “put his crap in a bag” since he hadn’t actually unpacked from his ill-fated not-quite-trip to Kansas City. But all the same, he got the bag out and rifled through it, trading out some of his warm clothes that would have worked in KC for really warm clothes, good for Susset, New York and its ski slopes.
“I’m going to get a shower while you look for tickets,” Crowley said.
In the cramped bathroom, Crowley slowly peeled off his clothes and dropped them in a pile next to the sink. The trashcan was overflowing with all kinds of mess—including what looked like more Solo cups and a couple of their steak knives. Someone had used lipstick to draw a candy cane on the mirror after X-ing out a second candy cane that looked a bit like a striped penis.
He tried to scrub the lipstick off with a tissue, but it smeared everywhere. He didn’t really want to look at himself in the mirror anyway. No need for a mirror to confirm what he already knew.
Crowley tried not to think what might have happened in the tub during last night’s… Get-together? Shindig? Meet-n-greet? as he turned on the faucet and then the showerhead.
The spray of the hot water felt good as he stepped inside and Crowley—finally able to let his guard down—let out a long, defeated sigh.
“Merry Christmas, Mom,” he murmured.
SHOWERED AND changed, he found Tyler moving around the living room with a large black trash bag, tossing the empty cans in, leaving the ones that were still full. Xondee was gone, having abandoned her couch for wherever she went when she wasn’t at their apartment. He wasn’t being funny calling it hers, either. She’d moved the pink and green monstrosity into their apartment and told the guys they could borrow it, if, and only if, she could sleep on it “any time she got too drunk or too bored.” They’d needed a couch.
“Seems like it was a good… event? What did you call it this time?”
“Ugly Christmas Sweater Extravaganza.”
Extravaganza! That explained the fondue pot in the kitchen. Tyler always went for the fondue when something big was going on.
“No one ‘won,’” Tyler replied with a shrug, setting another can back onto the floor. “It wasn’t a contest. Shit.” Tyler’s foot had caught one of the Pabst Blue Ribbon cans—not an empty one—and the contents sloshed out on their scuffed hardwood floors. Crowley walked the five feet into the kitchen, grabbed a towel, and chucked it overhand at Tyler, who caught it.
“So, are you ready to go?” Tyler asked.
“I’m packed,” Crowley said. “Are you sure it’s all ri—”
“I mean, like really, really, really ready? ’Cause you’ve got to get your keister to the station in like an hour.”
“Checked the schedule. My train was already full. You’ll have to take the earlier one.”
“Go to New York without you, you mean?”
“It’s just a different train. A few hours alone with my family won’t kill you,” Tyler said, eyeing the PBR-soaked towel with a sigh. “I bought your ticket—it’s in your e-mail.”
Tyler looked up, blinking behind his thick-rimmed glasses. “But seriously, if you’re going to make it, you need to haul ass. I’ll be right behind you.”
“Yeah, right behind me as in won’t get in until tomorrow morning, right?”
“I’ll be mostly right behind you. Don’t worry about it. I’ll call Mom and someone will pick you up.”
He’d thought they were going to discuss ticket prices, maybe plan a little more in depth. Had he even said he’d go? And now, hesitantly, Crowley walked back to the bedroom and picked up his bag. How all the pieces had come together?
“I sent you the address and the house number, just in case,” Tyler called. “You got your wallet? They are going to want to see ID.”
Crowley patted his pockets. Wallet, keys, phone. He shrugged the bag up higher on his shoulder.
“All right… I guess I’m on my way?”
This was a sweet fun read. I liked the way Rell and Crowely's relationship developed, and watching both of them grow into themselves was fun, and the sex was sweet and hot.
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