A LIGHT snow fell outside the window of the warm, crowded bar and restaurant Lane Freeman worked for. He picked up a bin and made his way over to clear off a table its occupants had just vacated. Christmas loomed close, a mere three days away. Colorful lights were strung up on the eaves of the houses, and decorations were scattered on the lawns of the small town he’d lived in for the past six months. The holiday always reminded him of the things he didn’t have: a home, family, or even friends. He didn’t wake up with eagerness on Christmas morning or expect to find loved ones gathered around the tree when he exited whatever bedroom he currently slept in. There were no gaily wrapped presents or affectionate embraces, no cheerful laughter or tender smiles. Not anymore.

After his parents were killed in a car accident when Lane was fifteen, he bounced from foster home to foster home until his eighteenth birthday when he was no longer a ward of the state. After that he’d moved from place to place, worked whatever odd job he could find. Now twenty-three, Lane found himself in a place where the people all knew one another, a town called, ironically, Christmas Valley, Washington. He ended up there accidentally after hitching a ride from a long-haul trucker. The man left him behind, most likely because of the painful silence Lane brought in his wake with his inability hold a conversation outside of one-word answers. Since then he’d found a job busing tables at Tal’s Bar and Restaurant, the only job available that Lane felt qualified for as he wasn’t exactly a chatterbox.

Socially awkward and embarrassingly shy, he found it hard to talk to people, which made it difficult to be a waiter or make friends, harder still to meet a significant other. The only things Lane had were a three-legged cat named Chloe—a stray he’d found in the alley out behind the restaurant—and a tiny apartment over an elderly woman’s garage.

“Lane!” his boss, Talbot Jenkins, shouted over the din. Tal was the epitome of kind and always made sure Lane had something to eat, especially after Lane had almost collapsed one night from hunger after starting work. He’d hired Lane despite his problem with talking to people. Over the six months, Tal had spent time trying to pull him out of his shell, and now Lane could hold a conversation without it being too stilted or full of long, awkward silences.

Lane turned to look at his boss from where he had begun to wipe down the table. Tal waved at him, motioning him over. Swallowing hard, Lane set the rag down in his bin and picked it up, weaving through the tables and patrons to the bar. Tal stood there with a man who looked a lot like him. As Lane approached them, he noticed how attractive the man was. Black hair framed a ruggedly tanned face with eyes gray as a steel pillar; his muscular body was lovingly hugged by a black T-shirt and well-washed blue jeans. He towered over Lane by almost a foot.

“Lane, this is my brother, Trey,” Tal introduced him. “He’s going to be helping out around here for a few days. Just wanted to let you know since you come in early for prep and he may be here.”

Unable to meet Trey’s gaze, Lane nodded and gave an uneasy smile before walking away. He caught a word from Tal as the music hit a lull. “…shy.”

Continuing with his work, Lane forgot about Tal’s brother until the place had emptied out and he started clearing the last of the tables. He was reaching for a glass when someone brought a hand down on top of his. He started in surprise and glanced up to see Trey standing there, bin in hand as well. Dropping his gaze, Lane yanked his hand away and darted off to the next one. His chest felt tight and he had no idea why his cheeks were flushed.

“How long have you worked for my brother?”

Trey interrupted his thoughts, causing him to almost drop a glass. People tended to avoid talking to him once they realized how bad his shyness really was. It left people uncomfortable and they didn’t like to be uncomfortable. Lane chose to remain quiet and shrugged, placing a plate of chicken-wing bones into his bin, then wiping down the table. Tal had already disappeared into his office to go through the day’s receipts, and the waitresses had all gone home for the evening, leaving Lane to do the cleanup. He didn’t mind, really, preferring to do his work in the soft silence of the establishment after the doors were locked.

“You don’t know?” Trey asked.

Lane had to clear his throat in order to answer this time, as it seemed obvious Trey didn’t intend on letting him be. “Six months,” Lane rasped.

“How’d you end up in Christmas Valley?”

Shrugging again, Lane fidgeted and rushed to clean up another table. Why didn’t Trey seem to understand he didn’t want to talk? When he didn’t answer, it seemed to only prod Trey into continuing to talk.

“My brother and I were raised here, actually. Our father worked for the factory off Route 9 and our mother ran a dress shop for years before the Internet made everything easier to get hold of at a cheaper price.”

Lane shivered as the rough tenor trickled over him, bringing awareness in a way he hadn’t felt in a long time. If things weren’t already a challenge for him, being gay made it worse. The only experience he ever had with another guy was a foster brother in one of the many homes he resided in over his three years in the system, a teenager named Gregory. They bonded rather quickly and Lane practically hero-worshipped the boy, who was a year older. Gregory took the time to get to know Lane and drew him out of his shell, making him feel special. Lane had no idea now if Gregory had done it just to get into his pants or if Gregory had really cared for him. Once the foster parents found out what they were doing, they immediately removed Lane from the home and he didn’t see Gregory again until after they were released from the foster care system, a memory he didn’t care to think of right then.

“I never wanted to stay here and got out as fast as I could, but Tal loved it. Moved back home after college and opened the restaurant.” Trey hefted his full container and set it on the bar. “Are you planning on sticking around for good?”

Lane had the sense Trey wasn’t asking for himself, but rather because he didn’t trust Lane. “I don’t know,” he murmured and lifted his bin to head into the kitchen.

Trey followed. “Really? No long-term plans, then?”

Discomfort rattled Lane and he set his tray down near the sink harder than he intended. His hands shook as he picked up the dishes and began rinsing them off to put in the dishwashers. When Trey suddenly crowded closer, Lane let out an embarrassing squeak. Heat suffused his face and Lane bent almost in half over the sink trying to get away from Trey.

Trey brought both hands down onto the edge of the counter, effectively trapping Lane in place. “If you’re here to hurt my brother or steal from him, you better think twice, you got me? He’s had enough of your type coming in here and robbing him blind or leaving him with a mess to clean up.”

Lane bit his lower lip, his breath shallow and thin. “I-I’m not.”

“Not what?” Trey demanded.

“Not going to steal,” Lane managed. He flinched when Trey raised one hand, believing the man intended to hit him, only to jerk when Trey gripped his chin in an uncompromising hold and forced him to look up at him. Trey glared down at him with steely gray eyes, silent and dangerous. Lane swallowed hard and tried to pull away. He could feel his chest getting tighter and hoped he wasn’t about to have a panic attack.

Trey searched his face for several long seconds and then released Lane, stepping back. “You better not or you’ll be answering to me. You don’t fool me for an instant with this shyness bit.”

He had no idea what he’d done to piss him off, but Lane didn’t wait around for Trey to attack him again, instead darting around Trey and out into the front, racing for the bathroom. He barely made it to the toilet, throwing up the little bit he’d eaten earlier. His insides heaved with each retch and Lane found himself shaking once he finished, sinking to his knees and wrapping his arms around his waist.

Foster homes weren’t always nice. There were a few where Lane had wondered if he’d make it out alive or not sometimes. The parents were drunks or violent by nature, hiding it well whenever the social workers came around, threatening to beat the hell out of any of the children who might rat them out, and wanting nothing more than to claim the check from the government for the ones they housed and rarely fed. Trey reminded him of those times.

By the time he exited the bathroom, the remainder of the cleanup was done and Trey was nowhere to be seen. Lane felt bad at not having finished his job on his own and hoped Tal wouldn’t get mad. He clocked out, retrieved his jacket from the employee area, and silently exited the back of the restaurant to begin his short walk home. The streets rolled up rather early in the small town, most businesses closing by six in the evening, and there were only a handful of cars that drove by in the walk to his apartment.

Trudging up the stairs on the side of the garage, Lane wondered if maybe his time here was over. Maybe he should move on after what happened with Trey. He didn’t want to cause any trouble for Tal, and he didn’t know if he could be around Trey for however long he planned to stay. He frightened Lane.

Chloe met him at the door, purring and rubbing against his leg. Lane gave a tired smile and bent down to pick her up, hugging her briefly while allowing the door to close behind him. Tears stung his eyes and he fought them back. “Hi, Chloe,” he greeted gently. “How’s my girl? Are you hungry?”

Chloe meowed and butted her head against his nose, causing him to laugh. He carried her to the teeny kitchenette and set her on the counter. He grabbed a container of wet food and popped it open, then dumped the contents into her bowl. “Here ya go, baby.” She dove in and Lane smiled, petting her back while she ate. “I hope your day was better than mine,” he murmured.

Once she finished, Chloe sat down and began grooming herself, still purring. She was a beautiful black color with a white chest and two white feet. Her pink, heart-shaped nose twitched as she cleaned her face and paws.

Lane removed his jacket and hung it up on the hook behind the front door before he toed off his boots. He shed his clothing and tossed them haphazardly at the laundry basket. He could just make out the sound of the old lady’s television set as he got dressed in a pair of pajama bottoms and a ragged T-shirt and wondered how she could possibly fall asleep with it so loud. Then again, he supposed she was rather hard of hearing.

He looked around the small apartment, at the yellow walls with white trim. A floral loveseat rested against one wall with an old cedar storage chest next to it, while directly across from both was a queen-sized bed. The only other piece of furniture was an entertainment unit nestled against the wall between the bed and sofa that held a twenty-seven-inch old-style television and some books. Lane didn’t have many pleasures in life, but he did love to read.

The first thing he’d done after finding a place to live and a job to support him while he was in Christmas Valley was check out the local library. Borrowing books was the highlight of his week, sad to say, but he did rather get along with the librarian, a young woman named Vicky. She always had a new recommendation for him when he came in and seemed really kind. He would miss her and their weekly chats when he left.

Lane sighed and slid under the comforter. He reached up to snap off the lamp and lay in the darkness, ignoring the muffled sound of the TV nearby and staring at the ceiling. He tried to think of how he could have possibly angered Trey but could come up with nothing. Tomorrow he’d hand in his resignation and start packing up his things. Hopefully, Tal would let him finish out the week so he’d have enough money to begin fresh somewhere else. This time he would need to figure out how to travel with Chloe, never having had to worry about that before, but he couldn’t leave her behind. He’d grown too attached to her now. Thankfully, he’d picked up a pet carrier three months back at a yard sale for five dollars, thinking it would come in handy to take her to the veterinarian for her shots and if she ever got sick.

He couldn’t be sure how long it took for him to fall asleep, but when he did, his sleep was restless. He tossed and turned, facing off against Trey in his dreams only to find himself in Trey’s arms. By the time his alarm went off, Lane had been through the wringer and he felt more tired than rested. If he wasn’t convinced before, he was now. He couldn’t stay. Not after this.

Chloe jumped up on the bed and meowed, cuddling up against him. Lane smiled sadly. “I think it’s time we moved on, baby. We aren’t welcome here any longer.”

She gave a meow in response, tilting her head to the side. Lane scratched her under the chin and got out of bed, stretching with a light moan. He rummaged through the itty-bitty closet to pick out a pair of his jeans and a light green T-shirt for the day and then went to take a hot shower, ignoring the cold wood floor beneath his feet. The bathroom mirrored the rest of the apartment, small with yellow walls and white trim. Lane sometimes wondered who’d decorated the place before he moved in. He let the water heat up while removing his pajamas.

He didn’t linger in the shower. Things were going to be hard enough when he spoke to Tal; drawing out how long it took to get to work wouldn’t make it any easier. With a hand towel generously provided by his landlord, Lane wiped away the steam fogging the mirror and stared at himself. Slender, almost feminine features gazed back. His blond hair clung to his scalp, soaking wet, and his dull green eyes were ringed with dark circles, evidence of his poor night’s sleep. He had no muscle to speak of, really, and his ribs were clearly visible. Someone who looked like Trey would never be interested in someone like him, even if Trey didn’t hate him.

It pained him to know he cared so much about what a stranger thought. He was Tal’s brother, though, and Tal mattered to Lane a lot. Lane looked forward to the time he spent with Tal during the morning prep work and even sometimes after the restaurant closed. Despite his reluctance early on, Lane now enjoyed his chats with Tal. Somehow Tal had even gotten him to open up about some of his past and the foster homes he’d lived in, including the ones he hadn’t felt safe in. Tal didn’t push or demand for more than Lane wanted to part with, but made Lane feel comfortable sharing the details with him. So knowing Trey thought he would take advantage or try to hurt Tal caused a deep ache in Lane’s chest.

Sighing, he briskly towel-dried his hair and the rest of his body before getting dressed. He padded barefoot into the main room to put on his socks and boots. He fed Chloe and then pulled on his jacket.

“I’ll be back later, baby girl,” he said while opening the door.

Lane locked it and took the stairs carefully. He burrowed deep into his coat to try to ward off the bite of the wind. It was still a little early to report to work, so he stopped in at the Greasy Spoon, a diner everyone in town frequented for breakfast. Malia, one of the waitresses, smiled and waved at him. He waved back while scanning for a free place to sit. A stool was open at the counter and he made his way to it.

Malia bustled over with coffee. “Good morning, Lane,” she greeted him enthusiastically as she poured him a cup.

“Good morning,” he murmured.

“The usual?” she asked.

Lane nodded as he added sugar and creamer to his coffee. He picked up his mug and took a small sip, giving a sigh of pleasure. It warmed his frozen insides.

“Scrambled eggs, wheat toast, and bacon coming right up,” Malia said.

Lane had been too busy enjoying his coffee to notice the stool next to him was vacant. It wasn’t until he heard “I’ll have the same” in that rough tenor that he realized who’d taken the seat beside him.

Tightening his fingers on the mug, Lane ignored Trey and took another drink.

“Not going to say good morning?” Trey mocked.

Lane didn’t respond. The heat of the coffee no longer warmed his insides. He felt colder than he had outside in the freezing wind. He kept his gaze locked on his coffee and huddled further into his jacket.

Trey made a scoffing noise. “Still playing the part, huh?”

Unable to stomach Trey’s dislike of him, Lane stood and tossed down enough money to cover the coffee and food. He hurried out of the diner, ignoring Malia calling for him. There were knots the size of Alaska in his belly and he doubted he could eat even a bite of the eggs anyway. Had he come off as rude to Trey? Was that why he thought Lane wanted to take advantage of or hurt Tal? Maybe he should apologize. If he did, maybe he could stay in Christmas Valley. It was the only place he’d truly considered making a home for himself. Instead of quitting, maybe he could try talking to Trey first.

Lane made it to the restaurant and took out his key to unlock the back door. None of the waitresses had arrived yet and Lane breathed a sigh of relief at the silence, needing some time to gather himself. He started unloading the two dishwashers and getting the plates ready for the day, setting them within easy reach of the cooks. The saltshakers and the napkin holders needed to be refilled. Lane set out new sets of silverware on the tables along with paper placemats. He bustled from one end of the restaurant to the other, finding satisfaction in the mindless tasks.

Tal came in as Lane finished. “Hey, Lane. You’re in a bit early, aren’t you?”

Shrugging, Lane replaced the remainder of the placemats and cutlery back into their containers behind one of the service stations. “I didn’t have any other plans.”

“Did you at least eat?” Tal frowned.

He shook his head.

Tal gave him an exasperated look. “Let’s go.”

Lane followed Tal into the kitchen, knowing he wouldn’t let him be until he’d eaten something. “Why didn’t you eat?” Tal demanded as he took out a fresh piece of chicken and started up the grill.

“Wasn’t hungry,” Lane offered.

“We’ve had this conversation before, Lane,” Tal huffed. “You aren’t on the road anymore and you aren’t in one of those damn foster homes. If you can’t afford it, come to me. I’ll help you out. You know that. I don’t need you passing out on me again in the middle of work.”

“I don’t want you to use food from your restaurant on me. You never let me pay you back,” Lane protested.

Tal glared at Lane. “It’s my damn restaurant, Lane. I can do whatever I want. Now shut up and let me make you something to eat. Correction: tell me why you didn’t eat while I cook.”

“I really wasn’t hungry.”

“Bullshit, kid. Are you out of food again? Why didn’t you stop by the diner on your way in? Do you need money?”

“No!” Lane felt cornered. He couldn’t tell Tal about Trey or the real reason he didn’t eat that morning, but he didn’t want to lie to Tal. “I really wasn’t hungry,” Lane tried again.

Tal sighed as he set the piece of chicken on the grill and turned to look at him. “I wish you’d talk to me, Lane. You aren’t as alone as you think. I care what happens to you, buddy.”

Discomfort set in and Lane fidgeted, playing with the belt loops on his jeans. “I know,” he muttered, staring at the floor.

“Then stop giving me gray hairs!” Tal grunted. “Tomorrow morning I’m taking you to the grocery store.”

Lane jerked his head up. “No! I-I don’t want you to do that.” Oh God, if Trey heard that, he’d think he was taking advantage of his brother even more. “I’ll go myself.”

Tal flipped the piece of chicken and gave Lane a skeptical look.

“I will, I promise!” Lane swore, almost begging.

“You better,” Tal snapped. “Now do you want cheese on your sandwich?”

Lane relaxed, sighing quietly. “Okay.”

The smell of the chicken cooking made Lane’s mouth water and his stomach growl. The sound caused Tal to give Lane another agitated look, but thankfully he didn’t say anything else as he finished preparing the chicken sandwich. Tal placed it on a plate and handed it to Lane. “Eat.”

He accepted the dish and perched on a nearby stool before taking a big bite of the sandwich. He hadn’t realized how hungry he was until he’d consumed the entire thing in minutes.

Tal cleaned up the grill while Lane ate and took the plate once Lane had finished. “Don’t ever skip another meal, Lane. I mean it. You’ve put on weight since you’ve been here but you’re still too skinny.”

Flushing, Lane nodded and hopped off the stool. “I need to check on the bathrooms.”

“No, you sit, let the food digest. I’ll go check ’em.”

“But it’s my job,” Lane protested.

Tal raised a brow. “And whose restaurant is this?”

“It’s still my job,” Lane replied stubbornly. “I should do it.”

“And I’m your boss who is telling you to remain on that stool until the restaurant is ready to open, you hear me?”

Lane wanted to keep arguing, but when Trey stepped into the kitchen, he practically swallowed his tongue. He dropped his gaze to the floor and skirted around Trey, rushing out of the room.

Tal’s voice reached him as he disappeared into the bathrooms. “What the hell did you do, Trey?”

As if Trey didn’t have enough ammunition to hate Lane, now Tal thought Trey had done something to him. He didn’t hear any more once the door closed behind him. He leaned against the counter, trying to breathe to calm his nerves, and struggled to keep the food down. A frown settled between his brows. How could he apologize to Trey if he couldn’t be in the same room without wanting to throw up? That was going to be a real problem. Lane managed to get a tentative hold on himself and pushed away from the sinks to look in each stall. They were pretty clean. One of them needed a new roll of toilet paper, which Lane got from under the sink. After he replaced the empty roll, he cleaned off the sink with a couple of disinfectant wipes.

When he exited the men’s room, he breathed a sigh of relief when he didn’t hear Tal still yelling at his brother. He went into the ladies’ room and did the same perusal. He swept up the loose paper on the floor and threw out some paper towels left on the counter. Everything else looked pretty good. Lane gave a nod of satisfaction and returned to the front of the restaurant. He ensured each table had been set and nothing was out of place.

“Lane?” Trey’s voice came from behind him and Lane tensed, hands shaking.

He couldn’t turn around to face Trey. Instead he chose to fidget with some menus, getting them lined up perfectly with one another. He almost jumped out of his skin and couldn’t stop the small sound he made when Trey’s hands came down on top of his, stilling his movements. Lane didn’t know what to do. He flinched when Trey started talking.

“I’m sorry.”