TODAY WAS the day. The day Derek walked into the mall and flirted with the hot guy working at Santa’s Workshop. He wore his nice jeans and lucky polo, though neither one was visible under his heavy winter coat. Didn’t matter. He’d take off his coat once he was inside, and then Hot Guy would finally notice him.
Assuming Derek’s aftershave wasn’t overpowering. Then he might get the wrong kind of notice. But no, that was defeatist thinking. Thoughts about failure could wait until he’d actually failed.
Derek slid on a patch of transparent ice. The random patches of snow and poorly cleared-off parking lot were suddenly treacherous. Crossing without an accident required full concentration. Since falling on his ass and walking in with wet or wrecked jeans was not part of Derek’s seduction technique, he pushed aside the fantasies of introducing himself to his crush and focused on the blacktop in front of him.
Not that Derek exactly had a seduction technique. He’d only had one boyfriend, and the relationship hadn’t ended well. But he wasn’t discouraged by his cheating ex. Nope. Because talking to the new hot guy was going to be easy. Walk up, say hello, and ask Hot Guy his name. Bam, Derek would have rapport for talking to him again. Easy.
Derek almost wiped out on another patch of ice and was grateful the parking lot was empty of witnesses to his wild balancing movements. He slid the last couple of feet on purpose, enjoying and fearing the thrill of going out on the ice. He managed to step onto the salted sidewalk in front of the mall’s entrance without falling on his face or ass. First victory of the day.
Heat blasted him as he made his way inside. A few steps farther delivered him from the war waged between man and nature. He unbuttoned his coat, going so far as to double-check for sweat stains. Luckily his deodorant held up, and he hadn’t sweated too much while cleaning the snow off his car. His hat had ruined his effort to style his hair. No matter how many times he combed his fingers through his dark locks, they wouldn’t lie where they’d been. So much for cool hair.
But he was cool in general. Ice cool. So cool he would charm Hot Guy out of his mind, and Hot Guy would ask him out on a date—at least that’s how a majority of the fantasies went. Derek couldn’t quite picture himself asking for a date except in the rarest moments of courage. A few more mental repeats that everything would work out his way might finally convince him he had a chance. Or at least squash the butterflies in his stomach. Derek fumbled with his phone in hope of finding some message or update to distract him from his pent-up nerves as he walked around the corner into the main mall.
Maybe two coffees before work had been a really bad idea.
Winter Wonderland occupied the center space of Pine Forest Mall, leaving a walkway around the perimeter for the store entrances. It was double the size of last year’s, and judging from the business at Derek’s toy store, it drew in double the crowd. The setup had a train that ran around the border and accommodated toddlers all the way up to high schoolers. A small playground occupied the far end. Along with slides into puffy pillows, there were fake snowballs kids could throw at each other or build into pseudoforts.
On the other end, nearer to the store where Derek worked, was Santa’s Workshop. A gingerbread house that looked real enough to eat served as the backdrop for photos with Santa on one side and a memorabilia shop on the other. Lights and fake candies decorated the roof while tiny gingerbread people lined the windows. Large fake cookies formed the pathway for the Santa line.
Parents who came into Derek’s store chatted about Wonderland’s quality and tiny details, but they left out the best part—the hot new guy. Somehow he pulled off looking sexy in his otherwise dorky elf costume and kept a smile through even the longest shift. Seeing him at the gingerbread house helped Derek get through agonizing periods of being stuck behind a register.
Which was why Derek needed to introduce himself sooner rather than later. He didn’t want to be a creepy leering guy.
Derek reprimanded his nervous stomach, shoved his phone in his pocket, and forced a smile. No one was in sight at Santa’s Workshop, but someone could be inside. Pictures with Santa started at eleven, and that was only fifteen minutes away. Maybe Hot Guy was setting up the ornament shop or photo printer. Knocking on the door was probably a step too far.
The door next to Santa’s giant red chair opened. Derek’s heart leapt into his throat. He had a chance after all. He took a deep breath to steady his jitters. This was his moment. His opportunity to make a good impression. He was not going to blow it.
Gregory emerged from the building. Derek’s temporary energy surge crashed against the dreaded emotional cliffs of seeing his ex-boyfriend and failed to overpower them. The worst part of the holiday season was Gregory’s employment at the workshop.
Someone somewhere hated Derek, because of course the morning he finally found courage, his ex would open instead. Derek shoved his hands in his coat pockets and veered toward the store side of the walkway.
“Derek!” Gregory called out.
The mall wasn’t playing its usual cheerful holiday tunes at full blast, and there weren’t even other people milling around, which was a freaking shame because Derek couldn’t pretend he didn’t hear Gregory. He could try, but then Gregory would pout, take a selfie, and garner soothing statements of support from their mutual friends across social media. He’d wrangled most of them in the breakup. It felt like some twisted programming glitch. Gregory had cheated on him, and when Derek broke it off, Gregory was seen as the good guy because apparently one apology on social media was supposed to be enough.
His popularity probably had more to do with the parties he threw and his ability to talk to people. He was fun, and Derek just wasn’t.
If he wanted to have any kind of social life, Derek would have to get along with him. After the holidays, with a new semester, he’d have a better chance at making new friends and getting some distance between them.
But for the moment, he had to be nice. Derek waved, hoping it would be enough, but Gregory headed for the fence as if he had more to say. Oh hell no, he was not getting caught in a lengthy conversation when Gregory had ripped his heart out and left it to wither and die. He was desperate for friends, but he deserved a small measure of self-respect. Derek picked up his pace.
Gregory, as always, didn’t take the hint and kept walking anyway. Conversation was an impending consequence.
Derek hurried. “I’m running late for work!”
Gregory stopped in his tracks, which gave Derek enough time to slip into the toy store. The distance was as good as putting a wall between them, even though the store had a wide opening for its doorway.
Natalie, the assistant manager, finished stacking a pile of board games beside the counter. Her long hair fell out of a messy bun, and she pulled it down to fix it. “Hey there, Derek. You’re early.”
“Apparently too early,” he muttered. He took off his coat on his way to the stockroom and dumped it on an unoccupied chair.
During holiday season, overstock filled nearly every inch of space. It was a comforting level of disaster for Derek, though he hated seeing unopened boxes of shipment. All kinds of treasures lurked inside, waiting to be revealed and make their way out into the world. It was as close to exploring the unknown as he would ever get. He grabbed his name tag out of the basket and pinned it to his shirt as he went back into the store.
“What’s his name?” Natalie asked.
Derek logged on to a register and scowled at the machine. “He wasn’t there. Gregory was.”
“That explains your mood.”
“I don’t have a mood.”
“That’s why you’re getting red and glaring at me.”
Derek huffed and pivoted away from her. There had to be something he could do, but Natalie completed most of the opening tasks before he ever got there. “I’m fine.”
“Whatever,” she said. “I’m going to process the new shipment. Technically we’re open, but you know how it is.”
He did. Either they’d get swarmed in the next few minutes—which didn’t seem likely since the parking lot had been pretty empty—or a long while would pass before anyone stepped into the store. With Gregory working instead of Hot Guy, Derek wouldn’t have his usual daydream distraction source. His shift was going to last past the collapse of the universe and survive the entire life of the next.
“Shout if you need help.” Natalie headed for the back door.
“You’ll be the first one to know if zombies are coming for me.”
“If it’s zombies, I’m going out the fire exit.”
Derek sighed dramatically. “Go ahead, abandon me to my fate.”
Natalie opened the door to the stockroom. “I think setting off the fire alarm would cause a big distraction. All the lights and sounds should give you a chance to escape with me.”
“Does this mean I get to join your zombie apocalypse team?”
“Can you build a fire?”
“Hm, lowers your chances,” Natalie said. “Okay, don’t die by zombie or overeager shopper until after I get back. I don’t want to miss out on prime YouTube material.” She went through the door.
The mall’s sound system kicked on, and holiday music echoed into the quiet store. With nothing to clean and no customers to help, Derek didn’t have any tasks. Messing around on his phone went against store policy, and his manager watched security footage for that kind of employee mistake.
Time for a toy demo. Derek grabbed the small Jeep and its remote control. One perk of his job was the occasional random toy to play with. While the store carried more wooden toys and puzzles, the owner had brought in a few “plastic monstrosities” as a way to bolster sales. Over the course of the last year, a few had turned into the bulk of the store. Apparently profit mattered over integrity.
At least it provided something fun to show off. Derek had mastered the fine art of zooming the tiny vehicle in figure eights and larger circles. He liked to picture it going across giant grassy plains on its way to discovery or adventure. Things to see, people to learn about, animals to record. Anything that wasn’t Pine Forest Mall, farm fields, or endless woods.
Hot Guy came around the corner from the same mall entrance Derek used. His lightweight coat was wide open, showing off a tight-fitted unicorn T-shirt. The slightest bit of his skin showed between his jeans and shirt, displaying hints of his intense ab muscles. The rest of his lengthy figure was just as well-defined. His features were sharp but not to the point of off-putting. Every gesture seemed filled with purpose, each stride and movement made with clear intent. He was always on his way somewhere. Driven. Interesting. Gorgeous.
He flashed a smile at Derek before striding toward Wonderland, and he effortlessly jumped over the fence as if it were a simple hop. He headed for the door to Santa’s Workshop, and Derek got to see how wonderfully tight his jeans fit across his ass.
Derek had gotten a smile. He grinned in return, though his crush couldn’t possibly see his delayed reaction, and warmth rushed all the way down to his toes. A smile. For him. From a hot guy.
The feeling would have lasted if Gregory didn’t get Hot Guy’s attention before he made it to the workshop. Conversations between them were necessary since they worked together, but Derek knew Gregory’s body language. He preened when he flirted, like he did any time he spoke to Hot Guy.
Hot Guy had a smile for him too.
So much for any special fuzzy feelings. Derek made the Jeep zoom again, but the fun disappeared faster than snow in rain. He scooped up the toy and went to the counter.
Natalie returned to the main store and brought a few new board games with her. She added them to the stack. “How is it possible your mood is worse than when I left?”
Gossip never solved his problems, and complaining would make him feel like a wuss. He didn’t need Natalie’s attempts to make him feel better either. He shrugged.
“Well, I was going to ask if you wanted to cover a shift since Ronnie texted to say he wasn’t going to make it, but if you’re going to be all sad faced, I could call Matt.”
More hours meant more cash, and Derek could always use more of that. “I’ll cheer up.”
Natalie shot him a skeptical look.
“Really. I will.”
Natalie waved at his face. “Is this all about Gregory still? Didn’t you break up forever ago?”
“Only a month.” Derek fiddled with the stapler they kept under the registers, opening it to check the number of staples left. “And he gets to hang out with him all day.”
“Find some courage, Derek! I’m sure you have a shot with him.”
“Yeah, sure,” Derek said glumly.
“Trust me, plenty of people see through Gregory’s flirty act and find him annoying.” When Derek didn’t say anything, she said, “I’m serious. I’m more surprised you ever went out with him. He’s so, ugh. You have a lot more common sense.”
More like no one thought Derek was Gregory’s type, which they’d been right about since Gregory cheated on him. Derek accidentally snapped his fingers in the stapler and shoved it where it belonged. “That’s what my mom tries to tell me.”
“Gasp, I agree with a parental figure?”
“Guess you’re getting old.”
Natalie scrunched her face. “Take that back. I’m only twenty-seven.”
Derek was only nineteen. “Right, so you’re way old.”
Natalie rolled her eyes. “Fine. Be all teenager about it. But you’re nice, Derek. Someone’s going to see that.”
Nobody else had. That was part of his problem.
Customers entered the store, saving Derek from a continuation of Natalie’s well-intentioned “you’re an amazing boy” routine. She recycled her material every time he expressed doubt about himself. While he wanted to appreciate it, he was never worthy of the praise. He would end up with a mental feedback loop when he was alone, and her words never sounded so kind when he played them over. She didn’t know him that well or have any idea what she was talking about.
And she didn’t see the way Hot Guy and Gregory kept talking through the day. Gregory had charm and turned his flirting up to his maximum. When he hid his self-centered nature, Gregory was bewitching. All smiles and compliments, until Derek suggested they split the check. Then he whined and wheedled his way out of paying. Another reason to stay away from him.
Thankfully the store became busy, and Derek had too many customers to care about what happened outside his tiny realm of registers and inventory. He handed off a paper sack full of Monster High dolls to an exhausted father. The words “happy holidays” rolled out of Derek’s mouth from routine more than well-wishing.
The next parental unit was Derek’s mother, and her random appearance made him stop and blink. She hadn’t warned him about coming. His parents lived forty minutes away, but Pine Forest was as close as any of the other malls. Northern Wisconsin didn’t have a lot of large cities. She still usually called ahead of showing up.
They had the same upturned nose—which worked better for her than him—and black hair. He got his height and his brown eyes from his father and his pudgy stomach from both.
“Hey, Mom.” Derek tried to snap out of his daze, but he was due for a break, and the shift in mental gears wore him out more.
“I wanted to surprise you,” Mom said. “Looks like a busy day.”
“Uh. Yeah. Did you text me?”
Mom faked her smile. “I thought I’d follow your example and not bother.”
Derek rubbed his forehead. He hadn’t called his parents in, whoops, two weeks. Mostly out of forgetting, partly out of avoiding whatever Mom needed him to do next. “Sorry. Everything’s chaos.”
Mom waved a hand dismissively. “It’s all right. I wanted to give you more crap, but I know you haven’t gotten a decent break in the last hour because that’s how long I’ve been lurking.”
As if the universe needed to prove her point, the line behind her continued to swell with more customers. Derek needed to hurry their conversation, though he felt like a jerk for doing so. “Anything you need help with?”
“Natalie already helped me with your sister’s newest overpriced demand.” Mom held up a shopping bag from his store, and then she raised her other arm to show him a gift bag with a giant glittery snowflake. “I’m halfway through my batches. I brought you some.”
Derek took the gift bag. Inside were six different types of cookies, each in a plastic baggie. Some were favorites, some weren’t. He put the bag next to his feet. “Thanks.”
“Good luck on your finals, sweetie.”
“I’ll call or drop by soon. Promise.” He meant it, but he wasn’t sure how doable it was. He’d likely forget between the tests, papers, and work shifts.
“I hope so,” Mom said. “Your father and sister want your rocky road fudge. According to them, I don’t make it right.”
“I handle nuts better.”
Natalie snorted, Mom sighed, and Derek grinned. Why couldn’t he be confident with Hot Guy?
Derek thanked his mom, said goodbye, and put the cookie bag with his coat. He promptly forgot about it as he worked through the double shift. The extra hours were nice, and working with Michael to close the store was old routine. By the time Derek could leave, he was exhausted.
Worse yet, Winter Wonderland had been dark for an hour. So much for introducing himself. Derek put on his hat and coat, grabbed his cookie bag, and headed for the main exit.
Hot Guy left the gingerbread house the same moment Derek stepped out of his store. He wore his street clothes again, and after locking up, he strode toward the same set of doors Derek was walking to.
There he was. Man of his recent dreams. Derek froze in place. He’d written off the possibility of running into him, but he had the perfect opportunity. He needed to do something—anything—instead of imitating an ice sculpture. One little word; maybe a few more would follow on their own. Screw Gregory and his perfect flirting techniques and the massive weight of insecurities he’d thrown onto Derek during their breakup. One simple little word. He could manage that.
He cleared his throat. “Hey.”
Hot Guy smiled, which thawed Derek into some kind of motion, and climbed over the fence in a movement of sheer grace. Cats didn’t have anything on him. “Hello.”
Oh, right. More words. “Hi.”
Wait, he’d said that. Derek’s cheeks were on fire, but he forced his mouth to keep going. “I mean, hey. And I keep saying that. Sorry. I’m Derek. I work at the toy store.”
Hot Guy grinned some more, but he wasn’t laughing, so Derek was pretty sure that was a good sign. “I know. I’ve seen you. I’m Flynn.”
Derek must be so tired he was delusional. “You noticed me?”
“Yes. Even if I hadn’t, Gregory complains about you every day you both work.”
And probably compiled every one of Derek’s faults for Flynn. In detail. There would be no fresh chance with him. “Oh.”
Flynn continued walking. Derek tagged along a half step behind. They weren’t exactly walking together or apart, which was either annoying or creepy because Derek couldn’t make words come out of his mouth. Gregory talked about him. Flynn probably thought he was a loser and never tried to get out of his shell. All the confidence in the world couldn’t overcome that.
As they reached the exit, Flynn half turned as he leaned against the door to open it. “I generally don’t pay attention to what people say about others.”
“Awesome!” Derek blushed harder, especially since Flynn laughed. It wasn’t a mean laugh, but it made Derek self-conscious. “I mean, Gregory can be a jerk. So I’m glad you don’t take him too seriously.”
“Gathering my own information is important. People have a habit of lying.”
They stepped outside. The brisk cold made Derek shiver, but Flynn straightened his shoulders. Derek closed his coat tighter. “Gregory’s the worst about that.”
“That’s an exaggeration, though, isn’t it? Since you don’t know every human on the planet.”
“Or off of it,” Derek said.
Derek pointed at the night sky. “I think the International Space Station has a couple of people on it.”
“Space station?” Flynn asked. Judging from the look on Flynn’s face, he’d never heard of it.
Weird. Derek thought everyone knew. He shivered. “You know, big metal thing that circles the Earth doing research?”
“But—space, isn’t it a void? How do they survive?”
Okay, Flynn’s face was completely serious. There was plenty Derek didn’t know about the universe, but he wondered how Flynn didn’t know the bare minimum of space exploration. Maybe some schools were doing that poorly in teaching their kids. Or maybe it wasn’t that important to other people like it was to him once upon a time.
“It’s all enclosed. It’s got oxygen and food and everything,” Derek said.
Flynn stared up at the night sky. “How do people get to it?”
“It’s not easy. Training and rocket fuel.” Derek glanced around. “Where’s your car?”
It had to be below freezing out. “I could give you a ride home.”
“That’s all right. I enjoy walking.”
Snow, ice, and cold severe enough to chase Derek’s balls up wasn’t really his idea of a good time, but Flynn seemed content with his plan. The only problem was Derek hadn’t built any kind of standing to flirt with Flynn, and they were about to go their separate ways. There had to be something he could do to make this more meaningful for Flynn.
The cookie bag. His mom’s cookies were the best, and while he’d miss having the sugar pick-me-up as he studied, he could stop by his parents’ house sometime soon and get more.
He thrust the bag toward Flynn. “Uh, here! Welcome to the holiday retail season.”
Jesus, he was such a loser.