NEXT TO the mall, Jungle Jim’s was Brandon’s least favorite place to go this time of year. Just finding a spot in the behemoth grocery store’s parking lot was a harrowing adventure. Especially a week before Christmas with freezing rain predicted for the weekend.

“Are we there yet?” Brandi asked as Brandon pulled up the parking brake. Her hand was still covering her eyes as he shut off the engine. She was a nervous passenger, but it was preferable to her particular brand of neurotic holiday driver, so Brandon didn’t comment.

“Come on,” Brandon said. “The sooner we get this over with, the better. This place is a zoo.” He grabbed the reusable grocery bags and his mother’s extensive shopping list. The neighborhood Christmas party was in a few days, and his parents were hosting this year. Thus, instead of going with appetizers that could be made with ingredients from the corner Kroger, she’d planned a significantly more exotic menu knowing she could send her only son to Cincinnati’s premier international market, and Brandon’s inner Scrooge had taken over with a vengeance. He had to do the grocery shopping anyway.

“Do you have the wine bag?” Brandi asked. “We are definitely getting you some wine.” She’d been his best friend since freshman year of high school due to a random homeroom seating chart and the matchy-matchness of their first names, and moments like these only cemented the bond. She wouldn’t be able to make the neighborhood party, so she’d thrown her support into the shopping trip from hell.

“The wine bag was the first thing I grabbed,” Brandon told her, “but I’ll choose not to take that as an insult.”

“I’m only looking out for you.” Brandi hooked her arm around his elbow as they made their way across the parking lot, which was still slick in spots from their last snowstorm. Despite the nature of their errand, she was, as usual, dressed to the nines, including impractical yet gorgeous leather wedge boots. Brandon was her human support rail; they had a very symbiotic relationship.

“Oh my God, I don’t think I told you,” Brandon said as they made their way through the produce toward the meat counter. “On top of the Christmas party BS, my mom wants me to call this jerk-off I used to play with as a kid.”

“What jerk-off?”

“You know Maxine?”

“The little old lady who has lived across the street from your parents the entire time I’ve known you? I vaguely recall.”

“Sometimes all you have to say is yes,” Brandon told her. “It’s short, simple, to the point.”

“Speaking of the point?”

“Right. So he’s her grandson, and he and his parents used to come visit her over Christmas when Walter was still alive. Since I was the only kid on the block, we were forced to play together. I think he’s, like, two or three years older than me? Anyway, he just moved to Cincinnati for work or something, and my mom thinks I should show him around.” Brandon had managed to avoid the task so far, but he wasn’t sure he could hold his mom off forever. “The dude was such a dick. He would always show me the cool presents he got, but he wouldn’t let me touch them, and he would hog the Nintendo.”

“Thank God you’re over it.”

“He called me BJ.”

Brandi snorted. “He was hardly the only one to ever come up with that.”

It was true. Had J been his middle initial, Brandon might’ve been able to keep it a secret and avoid the obnoxious moniker, but his last name was Jacobs, and kids weren’t all that clever. Not that he’d known what it meant at the time, but he knew by the dickish laughter that followed that it wasn’t good.

“Still,” Brandon said, because it was irrelevant. “So, his name is AJ, so I called him Asshole Jerk.” He laughed at the memory, then frowned when he caught Brandi’s unimpressed look. “I was like ten, give me a break. It was very clever at the time.”

“Whatever.” Brandi leaned in closer and whispered, “The beefcake at the counter is totally checking you out.”

At first, Brandon thought she was talking about the butcher, who was at least fifty and a little bit frightening. Then he spotted the customer who was none too subtly watching them as he waited for his order. No, he was definitely watching Brandon. The corner of his mouth quirked up when he met Brandon’s eye.

Brandon, in turn, bumped into a display.

“It’s like he stepped out of a J.Crew catalog. Jesus.” Brandi made a show of fanning herself, obviously not caring that the guy could see her. “I would climb him like a jungle gym.” She elbowed him and laughed. “Jungle gym.”

But she didn’t think Asshole Jerk was funny. “Yeah, I got it,” Brandon said, annoyed, but he couldn’t disagree with her assessment. While his preferences tended to be more along the lines of pretty emo boys with long hair and eyeliner, there was something undeniably appealing about the square-jawed yuppie Paul Bunyan standing in front of them.

He was wearing a navy V-neck sweater over a red plaid shirt, the tails hanging artfully out the bottom over his dark-wash jeans. He had just enough of a beard to look charmingly scruffy, and Brandon wouldn’t be surprised if there was a dimple hidden in there somewhere. The guy seemed the type for it.

“Do you suppose he’ll fit in the cart?” Brandon asked quietly.

“He kind of looks like he wants to.”

Brandon’s palms started to sweat as they approached the counter, and he tried to think up something casual and flirty to say to the guy. A cold approach in the grocery store was far outside his comfort zone. It couldn’t be anything meat related.

For the love of God, do not mention meat or packages or packages of meat, Brandon thought as he watched the butcher hand the guy’s order over.

He was still trying to think of something when the guy started to move away. “I like your hat,” he said to Brandon as he passed, and Brandon realized he was still wearing the multicolored stocking cap that had the fluffy green ball at the end. Of course he was.

“You could have told me,” he said, pointing an accusatory finger at Brandi.

“Don’t even. I have begged you not to wear that hat forever. This is not my fault.” She patted his shoulder and added, “If it makes you feel any better, he sounded like he meant it.”

It didn’t. Brandon pulled the hat off and stuffed as much of it as he could into his coat pocket.

“Your hair’s all fucked up,” Brandi pointed out helpfully.

“Thanks.”

“Anytime.”