22 Days Until Christmas
“OH MY God!” I stared, horrified at the cup’s worth of hot apple cider I’d spilled all over the man I’d just purchased it from.
He looked down at his jacket and absently wiped the front.
“I’m sorry!” I said, my voice an octave higher than I’d have preferred. “There was—I mean, someone bumped me from behind….” I spun to point behind myself and instead splashed the last dribbles from the cup onto a lady standing there. “I’m so sorry, ma’am.”
She gave me a dirty look and shoved her way through the crowd.
“It’s all right,” the man said from behind me. His voice sounded like amber. It was glittery and gold and slightly melodic, dancing before my eyes.
I turned back once more to the stranger. “No, no. I got apple cider all over your coat!”
“It’s just a coat,” he insisted with a gentle tone.
“But a very nice coat,” I finished. Damn. He was a tall drink of water if ever I’d found a guy to use that term on. He had this rugged-meets-GQ look, which I totally dug, with a jawline to kill for, and beautiful sandy brown hair and eyes. “Don’t—ah—don’t put it in the dryer. Wool shrinks.”
His mouth quirked as if he were trying to bite back a small smile.
“You probably knew that.”
Him and everyone else who can read a clothing tag!
“I’m Bowen,” I said. I thrust the cup forward, scrambled to move it to my left, then offered the stranger a hand.
He took it. “Felix Hansen.”
“Hansen or Handsome?” I asked, before I was quite certain I resembled something akin to a deer in the headlights. “I said that out loud.”
Felix sort of ducked his head to one side and smiled awkwardly. “Have a last name?”
“Hmm? Oh yes. I mean—Merlin.”
Felix nodded. “Quite the name.”
“Hard one to forget.”
Felix glanced at our still shaking hands.
I abruptly stopped.
The holiday food fair in my new home of Lancaster, New Hampshire, had been a lot of fun until I reached the Snowy Ridge Apple Orchard booth and thoroughly embarrassed myself. I mean, dousing a guy with hot liquid—by accident—was one thing, but then trying to flirt after the fact? My God, what was wrong with me? Sometimes I think I was dropped on my head as a baby.
Felix turned and stepped into the tent.
I closed my eyes and clasped my hands together, crushing the paper cup between them. I needed to walk away. Walk away before I made this whole fiasco any—
“Here you are.”
I opened my eyes. Felix was holding out a new cup, steam rising from the hot cider.
He reached forward and gently pried my battle-worn cup free before replacing it. “Enjoy.”
“Oh, but wait! I need to pay—”
Felix put a gloved hand over the top of the cup and halted my sudden movement to grab my wallet. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Happy holidays,” Felix said, and his voice curled around me like a shimmery, warm blanket of color. He buried his mouth and nose into the thick scarf around his neck and returned to the booth of waiting customers.
I cocked my head and watched him go. Felix glanced back in my direction and our eyes met. He looked away, toward me again, then turned his back to fill a cup with cider.
Huh. Maybe Mr. Handsome liked my lame pickup attempt.
“SOUNDS LIKE you were a bit of a space cadet.”
“Think of the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to you, Scarlet,” I said, talking on my cell with my old roommate back in New York as I opened the door to my recently purchased house. “It was that bad.”
“Okay, well, the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened to me was when I was on one of those log rides at an amusement park, I was wearing a really billowy top and my bra actually broke—you know, the ones that snap in front—so when we went whoosh down the ramp and our picture was taken, there were my tits for the whole gift shop to see.”
“This was kind of like that.” I shut the door.
“Yeah, not even close.”
“His voice was just so flippin’ gorgeous,” I said, sighing a little. “I’ve never heard an amber voice. It was smooth and flowed like blues music.”
Sound-to-color synesthesia. Throughout my entire life, my senses have been cross-wired so I didn’t merely hear music or voices—I saw them too. Like fireworks. Explosions of color. And usually they followed a set pattern, like pop music was lots of pinks and purples, classical was whites and blues, and deep voices were usually vibrant reds and oranges.
Felix’s tone was deep enough to hit those powerful reds, and yet it was gentler. Warmer. A break from the mold in which sound presented itself to me.
“I made an ass out of myself,” I stated.
“Uh-huh. God forbid you meet a total hottie in a new town and get a little stuttery over him,” Scarlet replied. She had a very pink voice. Deeper than average for a woman, but still sort of like pop music in the animated way she spoke.
“A little?” I snapped. “I actually said, to his face, Hansen or Handsome.”
“In your defense, he might have actually enjoyed it.” Scarlet made a sound of exhalation, and I could imagine her standing outside the front door of the tattoo parlor in the Village she worked at, cold as hell but determined to finish her smoke.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t move here to find myself a nice country man, so we’ll just say Mr. Handsome was the one who got away.”
“Oh please,” Scarlet muttered. “What’re you gonna do, live the life of a spinster?”
“Girl, there aren’t exactly any gay bars around here for me to cruise.”
“Cruise your amber-man.”
“I don’t need to complicate my life right now. I just moved here. I’m starting a new job….”
“You left me and New York, New York, for Bumfuck, New Hampshire,” Scarlet interjected. “Why’d you bother flirting if you’re not going to try to tap that?”
“You’re so vulgar.”
“Just because you moved for a job doesn’t mean you can’t date,” she said. “And yeah, you’re a bit of an artsy spaz, but maybe Mr. Handsome likes cute ginger boys who wear bow ties every day of the week.”
“You’re so sweet,” I said mockingly.
“Is there a dry cleaner’s in that picturesque little blotch on the map?” Scarlet asked.
“Prepay to have his coat cleaned.”
“Then you’ve got an excuse to go talk to him again and ask him out for a drink.”
“Think that’ll work?” I still stood at the front door, boots and coat dripping melted snow onto the hardwood floor.
“Worst that happens is you made an oopsie and he’s not into guys.”
“That’s a very serious potential oopsie, Scarlet.” I unzipped my jacket and awkwardly tugged it off one-handed. “I live in a small town now. And starting tomorrow, I’m going to be the band director for two elementary schools and the high school. See where I’m going with this?”
“So what? You need to find a guy who lets you be you, Bowen. For real. Do you see where I’m going with this?”
“This isn’t like New York, where I can walk one block in any direction and never see him again if I read his signals wrong.”
Scarlet exhaled again. “It’s your call. But if you think there’s a chance he’s into guys, what’s there to lose in asking him out?”
“I guess you’re right.”
“I usually am.”
“Better than sitting home alone on Friday nights.”
“Uh-huh.” Scarlet let out another breath. “Look, I gotta run. I’ve got a cover-up appointment coming.”
“What’re they covering up?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Oh, and, Boy?”
I paused from sliding my scarf free. “Yes, Girl?”
“If you do go, take a goddamn picture. You know how I feel about a man with nice stubble.”
“If you could marry just a beard, you would,” I replied.
“I bet he has a gorgeous, hairy chest,” Scarlet continued.
“I’m hanging up now.”
“Enough hair to get lost in!”
“Goodbye!” I said firmly before ending the call. “God, she’s nuts.”
I finally pulled my scarf off and looked at myself in the mirror beside the door. I didn’t think I wasn’t attractive, but the tall, skinny redhead had never been very successful with picking up guys. When you look a certain way, a lot of men expect you to… behave the part. Society had been pressuring me to act submissive to fit my non-alpha-guy appearance since I was a teenager. Living solo would actually be appealing if it wasn’t for the fact I loved dating nearly as much as sex.
But maybe, somewhere out there, was the man of my dreams. And he couldn’t wait to settle down with a cello-playing, bow-tie-wearing teacher who slathers on SPF50 thoroughly before every outing. Whether he existed in Lancaster was a whole other issue, but he sure as hell hadn’t been in New York.
I finger-combed my hair, parting it to one side—a cut and style that made the right side longer. Scarlet said I looked like “a goddamn model.”
Hell. Maybe she really was right….
What harm was there in asking what Mr. Felix Hansen thought of redheads and Vivaldi? At the least, maybe I could make a new friend.
IT WASN’T even five in the evening yet, but this far north, the sun had already set and the stars were coming out. I parked, shut the car off, and sat in the parking lot that overlooked a quaint country-style building. A sign hung from the porch.
Snowy Ridge Gift Shop & Café.
Who’d have thought an apple orchard would need a gift shop?
I climbed out of the car, promptly coughing as I took in a lungful of freezing New England air. Christ. I was going to have to dig my inhaler out from whatever box or suitcase it’d ended up in if breathing during the winter here physically hurt this much. I pulled my scarf up to my mouth and used the thick cloth as a barrier. Walking across the snow-packed lot, I passed a few other cars and families before stopping to stare at a sign post beside the porch steps of the shop. A half-dozen arrows pointed toward different walkways, reading: pumpkin patch, apple orchard, Christmas trees, rental cabins…. Business must have been good.
A wind blew through the towering pines and I shivered. I’d have to take a look around the property another time. Not like there’d be much to see in December anyway, with everything hidden under several feet of snow. I hiked up the steps and opened the door.
The bell over the door chimed as I entered. Inside was a large rustic-themed shop in front, and toward the back I could see several small tables and a bar that must make up the café. The interior decorating fancied reds and whites, and mixed into the down-home vibe was garland, twinkling Christmas lights, and carols playing softly on the shop speakers.
Oh, also, the entire place smelled like baked apples and it was absolutely to die for.
“Evening, sir,” a woman, no younger than a hundred and five, said as she rounded a display of what appeared to be apple body butters, soaps, and even ChapSticks. “We’re closing soon, but was there something I could help you with?”
“Hi, is Mr. Hansen here? He was working your booth at the food fair today. I was hoping he also worked here, or came back here….” I looked around the room again.
“That’s the guy.”
“He’s the owner. He got back about an hour ago, but I think he may be out at the Christmas tree farm. Did you want to leave a message?”
I couldn’t give this lady the prepaid card from the cleaners I’d picked up on the way. I mean, for one, I’d written my number on it. Two, she closely resembled my great-aunt Dolly, and that was creeping me out a bit. But three, and most importantly, how was I to really know, beyond my own intuition, if Mr. Hansen was into guys? It wasn’t my place to out the man, especially if Dolly here put two and two together regarding the phone number. But on the off chance he wasn’t gay and I was about to make a fool of myself, I also didn’t want to accidentally have a rumor started about him by putting her in the middle of it.
Speaking of, that bell over the front door chimed again and I moved to the right to get out of the way, when—
“Speak his name and there he is!” Dolly said.
I turned around and was immediately looking at Felix, his shoulders practically taking up the entire doorway. “H-hi,” I said, feeling myself smile.
“Mr. Bowen Merlin,” he said, sounding a bit surprised as the door fell shut behind him.
“You remembered,” I stated.
“Hard name to forget.”
“And for once I can thank my parents for that.”
Felix smiled and peered over my shoulder. When I turned to see what he was looking at, Auntie Dolly was shuffling away. Her head of poofy white hair was all that could be made out among the displays.
“What can I help you with?”
I looked back at Felix and offered him the card from the cleaners. He took it with a gloved hand, eyeing me curiously.
“For your coat,” I stated, motioning at it. “It’s already been paid for. Drop it off when it’s convenient.”
“You didn’t have to do that.”
“Please,” I insisted. “It was going to make me crazy otherwise.”
Felix nodded and slipped the card into his pocket. “I appreciate it.”
He didn’t comment on my phone number. Should I mention it? Maybe Dolly was lurking nearby.
I did a quick scan of the shop, but I didn’t see her. I turned back to him. “There’s—I wrote my number on it too.”
Felix’s eyes widened and he took the card back out.
“If you want to get a drink sometime,” I continued. “With me.”
“This is very kind of you,” Felix said, his voice getting soft and hesitant. The soothing, flowing amber dripped away, and he worked the card between his fingers with a sort of nervous tension. “But… I have to decline.”
“Oh. Oh.” The rejection reeked of heterosexuality. “I’m sorry.” I felt like I’d just landed both shoes into a steaming pile of crap.
Felix offered me the card.
I pushed it back to him. “No, please get your coat cleaned.” I gave Felix a smile, even though I knew it wasn’t all that believable. “I wouldn’t want you smelling like cider. Not that—it smells great!”
Felix smiled lightly.
I stopped talking, took a deep breath, then said, “Have a good night.”
“You too.” He stepped to the side.
I nodded and walked out the door, the sting of cold air nowhere near as bad as making an ass out of myself for a second time that day in front of the same guy.