THE jingling of the door chimes startled Royce from his contemplation of the unusual snow falling outside, covering the roads and sidewalks faster than the deicer could melt it. He turned, a ready smile on his face as he tried to hide his surprise that he was getting a customer now—after nearly two hours without any and an hour of wondering if he should close like every other business in Portland—and rested his hands on the wooden counter he’d been leaning against. “Welcome to All Corked Up. Can I help you find something?”
“I am so glad you’re here.” The customer pulled off a pair of black leather gloves and dropped them on the counter next to the computer before he pulled down the red scarf wrapped around his face and grinned. “The other place I tried was closed because the roads are freezing, and everywhere else is completely out of my way. I thought I was going to have to get wine from the grocery store, and that would have been a disaster.”
“Their selection isn’t horrible,” Royce offered diplomatically as he looked up—and up—to meet the man’s eyes. His heart twisted a little as he took in the guy’s chiseled good looks, and he reminded himself that hitting on a first-time customer was a really bad idea, despite the mostly accepting atmosphere of Portland. Royce wasn’t in the closet, per se, but he didn’t walk around advertising he was gay either. Conservatives liked to drink wine too, and unless they came in ranting about things that would offend him, his employees, or his customers, Royce didn’t mind selling it to them. “If you know what you’re looking for, you can usually find something worth buying there.”
“That’s the problem.” The man twisted his lips up into a wry grin, and Royce’s stomach flipped. He had dimples. “I don’t know what I’m looking for.” He leaned forward, resting his hands on the counter, and looked Royce straight in the eyes. “You have to help me. Please.”
“I can try,” Royce assured him. He could easily guess what the man wanted help with, but even if he was wrong, he wasn’t about to turn away a tall, built guy with hazel eyes and a gorgeous smile. “What are you looking for?”
“Um….” The guy rubbed at the back of his neck and ducked his head. “Wine?”
Royce pointedly looked over his store. The counter he was standing behind was mostly devoted to the computers he used as registers, but there were open cases of wine behind it and wine accessories on either side and between the two computers. In the back corner was a wooden bar with a refrigerator underneath and a few bottles of resealed red wine sitting on the counter behind it. Three of the walls were devoted to shelves full of wine organized by region and type, bins in the middle held more bottles, and several cases were arranged in artful displays not too far from the bar. There was a cooler along one wall, holding prechilled whites and rosés, and the other room, where he held tastings, had another bar and several cases of wine stacked along the walls.
“I think I can help with that,” he said dryly when his gaze returned to the man on the other side of the counter. “What kind of wine would you like?”
“Yeah, see, that’s the problem. I don’t—” He shook his head. “I like wine. It’s just, I tend to hang out with people who prefer beer, you know? I usually only have wine with my family or get whatever the server recommends at a restaurant if I want to splurge. But my sister-in-law is hosting Christmas dinner tonight, and she always brings a bottle of something that tastes amazing with whatever my mom cooks for dinner.”
Royce chuckled. “And she told you to bring the wine this time?”
“Well, my mom did, but yeah. Karen is making the ham and the green bean casserole and my mom and my sister are bringing the other sides. I would bring one too—I have this amazing spinach casserole that I love to make and sometimes I even actually mash potatoes—but we’ve been really busy at work and I’ve been pulling extra shifts. I knew I wouldn’t have time to cook, so Mom told me to just bring the wine. Only, I forgot last week and I ended up working this morning. Everywhere is closing early because it’s Christmas Eve and it’s snowing. I can’t just bring a bottle I grab at random off the grocery store shelf to Karen’s.”
His chest was heaving when he finished, and Royce’s brain was scrambled from trying to keep up. “Do you always talk this much?” He didn’t mean to say it aloud, but the words left his mouth before his brain could tell his lips it wasn’t a good idea. “Shit. Sorry. I don’t usually—”
The guy chuckled self-deprecatingly. “It’s fine. I know I can be a little, ah, overwhelming.” He flashed a grin that made Royce's heart thud wildly in his chest. “I guess you don’t usually have customers coming in and spilling their life stories to you?”
“Not before they’ve sampled a few at the tasting bar.”
The guy’s chuckle turned into a full-fledged laugh. He threw his head back, clutched at his stomach, and almost smacked his forehead on the counter when he bent over. His whole body shook, and it was a good minute before he managed to look up and meet Royce’s eyes again. “I’ll try to keep that in mind. No life stories sober. Got it.”
Royce actually wanted to hear this guy’s life story, but saying so might come across as a little creepy. “I don’t mind,” he said instead, flashing what he hoped was an indulgent grin. “It’s more entertaining than watching the snow fall.”
“I don’t know.” The guy peered around Royce to look out the window behind him. “It’s coming down hard. Might be a good show.”
“From the safety of my living room, sure. Not when I have to think about going out in it later.” If things went to plan, he wouldn’t have to step outside at all until the snow stopped, but at the very least he’d have to go out and clear the sidewalk later. It was a liability to leave it icy.
“How much later?”
The sign on the door said eight, but with the way the snow was falling, Royce knew he wouldn’t stay open another four hours. “I was thinking about closing when you came in, actually.”
“You should. Well, I hope you’ll help me first, because I really can’t go to Karen’s with something I grab at random from the grocery store, but after I leave. When I leave. Whatever.”
He looked so earnest Royce had to laugh. “I might.”
“Great!” The guy rubbed at the back of his neck. “So, uh, what should I take to dinner tonight? Please tell me you have some ideas.”
Royce did. He needed more information before he gave any suggestions. He would really like it if this particular customer became a regular—for the eye candy if nothing else—but he definitely had a few bottles in mind. “You mentioned ham and green beans. What else are you having?”
“Mom’s making sweet potatoes, and Megan—that’s my sister—is making my spinach casserole. I think she’s bringing cranberry sauce too, but just the kind from a can. Oh, and my dad bought dessert. Chocolate cream pie and blueberry cobbler, I think.” He held his hand out over the counter. “I’m Shawn, by the way. I figured since I’m telling you half my family’s names you should know mine too.”
Royce took it and shook firmly, marveling at the way Shawn’s hand wrapped completely around his. “Royce Wilkinson. Owner of this place.”
“No shit? Really? And you’re working on Christmas Eve?”
“It’s not exactly fair to expect my employees to work today if I’m not willing to.” Royce headed around the counter so he could show Shawn through the store. “Besides, they all have family in town. Mine isn’t supposed to get here until about eight thirty tonight. If they’re not delayed,” he added wryly, glancing over his shoulder at the snow blanketing the ground. “It might be later, the way this is falling.”
“Are they flying or driving?” Shawn fell into step as Royce led the way to the back of the store.
“Driving, thankfully. If they were flying, I don’t know that they’d get in at all. At least if they have to stop, they can find a motel and not be stuck in an airport.” Royce stopped in front of the section of French wines. “Do you have a preference for white or red?”
Shawn looked flummoxed. “Um. No? I mean, I usually drink red, but I like white too. What do you think we should have?”
“Personally, I would suggest red. But I can find a white that would go well with your meal too, if you’d prefer.” Royce crouched down in front of the shelf, then twisted to look up at Shawn. He looked like a giant from this angle. “There are several of either that would work well with ham.”
“I think everyone coming drinks red, so let’s go with that.” Shawn crouched down next to Royce, knocking their knees together and almost sending Royce tumbling to the ground. He grabbed Royce, steadying him, and Royce had to work hard to focus on the wine in front of him instead of the warm hand curled around his shoulder.
“Okay, well, I would recommend either a Rasteau, the Meiomi Pinot Noir, or the Atteca Grenache,” Royce said, pointing to three bottles on the lower shelves. “The Rasteau is the lightest, best if you have people who prefer whites or rosés, and the Meiomi Pinot is our most popular of these, but for what you’re having, I’d pick the Grenache.”
Shawn looked at all three bottles, pulled them off the shelf one at a time, rolled them over, and read the descriptions on the back. “This one?” he asked, holding up the last one.
“It’s what I’m serving tomorrow.”
“Will it go with dessert too, or should I get a different bottle for that?”
“For chocolate cream pie and blueberry cobbler? I’d recommend either a Pinot Noir or a Syrah.” Royce pointed to a bottle of Pinot Noir just above his head. “This is one of my favorite Pinots. Very good, but less expensive than the Meiomi, by about ten bucks a bottle, so for the money….”
“I’ll take it.” Shawn grabbed the bottle of HobNob Pinot Noir off the shelf, along with two bottles of Atteca Grenache. “Karen is the only one who really knows a lot about wine. My mom wouldn’t notice if I brought wine in a box.”
Royce shuddered, glad Shawn at least knew enough not to get that, even if he was otherwise clueless. “Wow.”
“Yeah. I didn’t even like that back in college. I’m not bringing it to Christmas dinner.” Shawn flashed a grin as he climbed to his feet and held up the bottles. “Is this going to be enough? There are six of us drinking. Maybe seven if Meg brings her boyfriend.”
“Depends on how much you want to drink.” Royce said as he eyed the bottles thoughtfully. “That’ll give you about two glasses each with dinner and one with dessert.”
“Grab me another one of each.” Shawn nudged Royce’s shoulder as he tucked the bottles back into his arms. “I’d rather have too much than not enough. It’ll keep, right?”
Royce grabbed the bottles off the shelf and started back toward the register. His shoulder was tingling where Shawn had bumped him, and he couldn’t stop smiling despite the knowledge that he might never see this particular customer again. “If you don’t open them. Or you can seal them with a vacuum sealer and they’ll keep for about a week.”
“Do you sell those?”
Royce set the bottles on the counter. “Yeah, but your sister-in-law probably already has one if she likes wine.”
“Not with my luck.” Shawn set the bottles he was carrying down and turned to look at Royce with a teasing smile on his lips. “Besides, aren’t you supposed to want to sell me things?”
“I think you’re buying enough.” Royce chuckled as he crossed to the shelf and grabbed one of the vacuum sealers with a spare plug. “But if you really want to spend more, far be it from me to stop you.”
Shawn took the package, read the back, and tossed it on the counter. “Hey, if I buy this, I’ll have to come back and buy more wine some time so I know I’m getting my money’s worth out of it.”
“Oh well, in that case, I think I need to insist that you buy it.” Royce couldn’t stop grinning as he moved around the counter and pulled up the computer. “Did you want to create an account here? I send out newsletters with specials and details on our upcoming wine tastings.”
“Is it from you personally?”
Shawn’s smile made Royce’s knees go week. He leaned heavily on the counter and reminded himself that just because the guy was friendly, gorgeous, and hadn’t mentioned bringing any sort of significant other to Christmas dinner, it didn’t mean he was available or interested. He was a customer, not someone Royce was chatting up in the bar. “No,” he managed, “it’s from the store.”
“Shame.” Shawn gave his e-mail address anyway, revealed that his last name was Neale, and paid with a credit card. While Royce packed up the wine in a carry box, Shawn pulled his gloves back on. “Thanks.” He curled his fingers around the handle of the box. Royce swore that he felt a little tingle even through Shawn’s gloves. “Really. You saved me from utter embarrassment.”
“Just doing my civic duty.”
“Right. It’s so helpful to society for you to stay open on a snowy day just so I can bring the right wine to my Christmas dinner.”
“Well, if you were embarrassed, who knows what you might do? It could be bad.”
“Oh, absolutely.” Royce managed to keep a straight face longer than Shawn, but he lost it the minute Shawn started laughing, and ended up doubled over the counter despite the fact that it wasn’t that funny. Shawn’s laughter was impossible to resist.
It was a few minutes before he was able to straighten. “Enjoy your Christmas dinner,” Royce said.
“Thanks.” Shawn took the wine and grinned. “You too. I’ll, uh, see you around.” He pushed the scarf back up over his face and disappeared out the door.
Royce watched him go with a fond smile on his face. It wasn’t likely that he meant what Royce hoped he meant, but even repeat business would be good. And repeat business from Shawn? Even the idea of it made staying open through the snow worth every bit of the hassle it was going to take to get home.