I THOUGHT people only went nuts over Christmas in the movies. It had never occurred to me that in real life, people put giant fake snowmen on their lawns, put life-size Santas and the reindeer—complete with Rudolf—on the roof of their house, and draped lights over every square inch of available space that a staple gun could be maneuvered into. Even the trees and bushes were threaded with lights. It was insane, and I had no idea. And that was just the outside.
Inside, the place looked like Santa’s workshop. I had never seen so much kitsch in my life. All the red and white, it was like shopping at Target. The candles made the whole house smell like pumpkin pie, and the decibel level with the visiting family—uncles, aunts, cousins, kids, and Dylan’s parents and their friends—everyone sitting around talking, visiting, and sharing details about their lives… I had never wanted to go home so badly. It was like being in a blender with the switch stuck on mince: I was just chewed up and spit out.
I was supposed to be cheerful and friendly and invested, but there was just no way. I hadn’t been raised in loud; I had been raised in quiet. My mother stayed home and gave piano lessons to help pay the bills. My father was a college professor who taught biology. They had both been older when I was born, my mother in her midforties, my father fifty. There had only been the three of us after my grandmother passed away, and our celebrations, all of them, were small. After they died in a terrible car accident when I was ten, I was all alone. It had taken me a long time to even interact with my first foster family, and then the second and the ninth…. It had been just me for so long. And then one day when I was sixteen, I had turned a corner down at Fisherman’s Wharf and been compelled to walk forward, lift my hand, and touch a man’s back gently so he would look at me.
Jael Ezran, my sentinel, had turned and seen me, and the weight of his stare felt scary and safe at the same time. It seemed like I was supposed to be there, and when he reached for me, I moved forward so he could slide his hand around the back of my neck and draw me closer. That night I had met the other warders in his clutch of four and become the fifth, and from that day on, I had never felt alone again… until now. I was supposed to be bonding, but that was not happening at all.
It was important to my boyfriend that I interact with his family, so I tried. I had missed going the year before because my best friend had been missing and I could not be expected to run through the motions of being happy when I was sick at heart. But since the rite of passage that is spending the holidays with your partner’s family could not be ditched two years in a row, I was there, smiling, nodding, and quietly slipping into a coma. For days on end, I wondered how much eggnog I could possibly be expected to drink. It wasn’t even spiked.
“Don’t be a dick,” Marcus told me over the phone. My best friend and fellow warder was in Lexington, Kentucky, with his boyfriend and his parents.
He had not gone the year before when he had been fighting for his life, as in trying not to die in a hell dimension. I told him that would have been preferable to where I currently was.
“You don’t think you’re laying this shit on a bit thick?”
“People have history and traditions. You should respect them.”
“There is a big stuffed elf in every room of this house.”
“They string garland out of popcorn.”
“You need to try and not be a self-righteous ass right now.”
“I could die from this.”
He cleared his throat. “Family is what’s important.”
“There is snowman-shaped soap in the bathroom; Santa towels, rugs, decals on the mirror; and a little plaque that says to flush the bad and not the good.”
“Uh-huh.” I drew out the word.
“What’s good that would be in the toilet that wouldn’t flush?”
“This is what I’m saying.”
“Whatever,” he snapped. “Just stop being a dick.”
“Why are you getting on me?”
“Because you’re not even giving it a chance.”
And so I tried then, I really did.
The problem was that I didn’t do small things. If you needed something heavy picked up and moved, I was your man. If there were errands to be run, carpets to lay, walls to be painted, I was so there. But sitting around talking, snacking, watching movies, and just spending quality family time was beyond me. I didn’t do stationary well; I had to move before I started climbing the walls.
My inability to sit still did not go over well with Dylan’s parents, who already thought that a thirty-one-year-old man was far too old for their twenty-year-old son. And they were probably right, but there was nothing I could do about it. I loved the man already, and there was no way I was giving him up. Even meeting his annoying friends couldn’t get me to change my mind.
He was young, so of course he had a whole gang of guys who had graduated with him and gone off to college the same time as he had and came home for Christmas every year, making the pilgrimage from different schools all across the country. They descended on the Shaw house that Lily, Dylan’s mother, had made into a mini North Pole, complete with a motion-activated four-foot Santa who yelled “Ho-ho-ho, Merry Christmas” at you constantly. She had greeted them warmly, kissing and hugging them all as she had not me. It wouldn’t have mattered what Dylan’s mother did, if Dylan had given me a second thought.
It wasn’t Dylan’s fault he forgot about me; this was his family. These were his friends from high school he was catching up with. I had not been there the year before to cramp his style, and suddenly I was thrown into the mix. But I was the constant, that part of his life he could take for granted because I was unchanging. And because I was smart enough to understand that, it stung just a little, but not a lot. Not enough to matter. It was an oversight—I was an oversight—and he would never do anything to hurt me intentionally.
I had faith.
Mrs. Shaw was laughing at how much growing boys could eat. Dylan’s buddies—Lance, Jason, and Cole—had stories to tell, news to fill each other in on, and conquests to compare. I hovered in the background, forgotten even to the point of not being introduced.
I went out on the back porch where it was cold.
It would have been selfish to interfere, to make him acknowledge me, so I didn’t. I was surprised when he left without a word to go have drinks at house parties. His sister Tina, short for Christina, said he was visiting old haunts, hitting a coffeehouse where he was sure to know everyone.
“You can’t expect him to just hang around here with you and my folks and their friends on a Friday night,” she said, smirking at me.
The accusation that I was old was there, thick, in her voice. I heard her loud and clear. I was even older than she was, thirty-one to her twenty-four, and since she was Dylan’s older sister, of course, to her, I was a fossil. She thought of me being more like her parents and less like her, Dylan, and all their various friends.
If I had looked like an Abercrombie & Fitch model, I could have gone to the party and had everyone falling at my feet and showed my boyfriend that if he ignored me, I could get a replacement damn quick. The difference was that I was a warder and Dylan was my hearth, so he was not replaceable—he was the man I was building my life around. I had to wait patiently for him to return when he was ready. If I had been home, it wouldn’t have mattered. If I had been home, I would have had other things to occupy my time. A warder could always patrol.
Every city had a sentinel who protected the populace from demons, ghouls, and all other creatures from the pit, and every sentinel had five warders he commanded. I lived in San Francisco and was one of the five who served Jael Ezran. I was hoping that he would call me home because of some emergency, but when none materialized, I was going to call to see if they needed me at work before I remembered that everyone was already off. Running a gentleman’s club—a strip club—was normally hectic, but during the holidays, we were never all that busy. It seemed sort of strange to have hot women stripping out of elf costumes, so I had closed the place down as I did every year. With absolutely no one needing me at all, I decided to do what I always did when faced with too much time on my hands: I volunteered for chores.
“Are you sure, Malic?” Mrs. Shaw asked me when I told her I would clean the rain gutters on Monday.
Her smile almost reached her eyes.
“You don’t have to,” Mr. Shaw said when I offered to clean out the garage for him on Tuesday.
“I’d like to.”
He had nodded, worried about my sanity, I was sure.
“But Malic, it’s a huge job.” Dylan’s snarky sister squinted at me as I started raking up debris in the backyard on Wednesday.
“It’s fine,” I assured her. She just gave me a flippant shrug and walked away.
At night, Dylan always came and gave me a kiss before he invited me out with him.
“No, you go.” I smiled at him. “Have a good time.”
“Just come on,” he said as his friends lingered in the background.
I shook my head, and he left with them, off to another party, coffee house, the mall, movies, someone’s house, just hanging out, getting reacquainted. He came home early in the morning, passing out beside me in bed reeking of cigarette smoke, alcohol, and stale air. Other scents clung to him as well, like men’s cologne and sweat. And while I knew he wasn’t kissing anyone but me, never mind screwing around, it was still hard to know he was dancing with others, letting them put their hands all over him.
“You have no one to blame but yourself,” Marcus told me over the phone. “When you get invited out with your man, you go, idiot.”
But I didn’t want to. I was a little worried about what it said that Dylan had not slowed down since we had arrived five days ago for our two-week visit with his family in Marietta, Georgia. Maybe he wanted to spend more time away from me at home, too, but I was keeping him from his joy. The nagging concern of our age difference got bigger and bigger with each passing day.
“It was a mistake to give in to my selfish desire for him,” I told the only person whom I didn’t feel like a tool confessing my insecurities to.
“You’re so stupid,” my friend and office manager Claudia Duran told me. “I wish I was there to knock some sense into you.”
“He’s happier with his friends,” I insisted.
“He invites you and you don’t go,” she volleyed back.
“If I went, I’d cramp his style.”
“Or he’d be all over you.”
But again, I wasn’t hot, wasn’t pretty like he was; I was big and scary and mean. I was not someone the other boys would love. I was a man, and I did not dance and hang out and wear jeans that were too big and shirts that were too small.
On Friday—it had taken two days to do the yard—I was cutting back the hedge that was overgrown beside the fence in the driveway when I looked up to find a man holding a large bottle of water out for me.
I smiled at him. “Thank you.”
He lifted his right arm, which was in a cast supported by a sling, and asked me if I could do him a huge favor.
“I’ve seen you out here working like a dog, man,” he said with a chuckle, and the sound soothed me. “And since you seem to be kind of into it and I’m suddenly laid up, I was wondering if I paid you, if you could help me do some stuff around my house.”
He was a handsome man, older than me—maybe midthirties, early forties—with a nice face: straight nose, full lips, laugh lines in the corners of warm blue eyes, and a daring grin I liked most of all. He was just slightly shorter than my own six four, maybe six two, and leaner than I was but heavily muscled with broad shoulders and long legs.
“I promise I’m harmless.” He smiled steadily. “I’m just hurt.”
“What’d you do?”
“I work construction, and you know how it goes. There’s always that one fuckin’ idiot that’s gonna get hurt if you don’t step in and save him.”
I chuckled. “I know that guy.”
He nodded. “I figured you did.”
“I’d shake your hand”—I tipped my head at the cast—“but doesn’t look like you can.”
“Malic,” I said.
He stared at me a long minute. “So I’ve got a TV to set up, a garbage disposal to replace, and a tree to pick out and bring home before my family descends on me in three days.”
It sounded great. I would be very busy. “I’m your man. Count me in.”
His smile was wide. “What’s it gonna cost me?”
“Are you shittin’ me?”
“Oh hell yeah, you’re on.” His eyes gushed warmth.
“Lemme finish this and I’ll be right there.”
“Thank you,” he said sincerely.
“Oh no, thank you.”
He snorted out a laugh. “Climbing the walls in there?”
“How’d ya know?”
“I can see the signs of a wolf caught in a trap.”
“I look like a wolf, do I?”
“Ready to bite off his own foot, yeah.”
I laughed then, and the look I got, like he appreciated the sound, was really nice. No one had been looking at me like I was anything but a nuisance for almost a week, so it was a welcome change.
I replaced the shears in the tool shed and almost ran into Dylan’s father when I was coming out. “Sorry,” I apologized automatically, stepping around him.
“You know,” he began, which stopped me. “You don’t have to work around the house to impress me, Malic. The things you’re doing won’t influence me. The way you treat Dylan is all that matters.”
“He seems happy to be around friends his own age, and I wonder if he has any out there in San Francisco.”
“Yes, sir, he has many.”
He grunted. “I don’t mean to be judgmental, Malic, and you seem like a nice man, but you and Dylan are at different places in your life.”
He looked surprised.
“C’mon.” I shrugged, tired of ignoring the elephant in the room. “The fact of the matter is that this will probably be the last you see of me, sir, so I wouldn’t get all racked up about it.”
“Excuse me,” I said, brushing by him on my way toward the back fence. I vaulted over it easily and found myself liking the layout of Brad’s yard. The golden lab that came to greet me, tail wagging even as the barking began, was welcome.
I went down to one knee, and the dog was all over me.
“Oh, she likes you.” Brad laughed. “But she’s always had good taste.”
“What’s her name?” I asked as the dog licked my eye and made circles beside me, wiggling close, wanting as much attention as she could get.
I stood up, and when I did, I saw the rainbow license plate frame on his Lexus SUV. My eyes flicked to his, and I saw him take a breath.
“You don’t need one of those in San Francisco,” I teased. “It’s redundant.”
His smile, which had been great before, became dazzling when his eyes joined in. “Jesus, Malic, where ya been all my life?”
I tipped my head toward his house. “Show me the sink.”
Brad Darby was a construction manager, and his crew was good except for the new guy who was trying to kill him.
“Little fucker just doesn’t listen,” he told me as he sat on the floor beside me, talking to me while I installed the new garbage disposal.
I was chuckling as he told story after story. When I was done, he made lunch and told me that now I had to go with him to get the TV.
“I thought you had it here,” I laughed as we walked out to his car.
He squinted at me. “How was I getting it in the house?”
I liked him a lot. He was so easy to talk to; it was like we had been friends for years.
“You want me to drive?” I asked, smiling. “Since you’ve got a broken wing and all?”
“I manage,” he assured me with a shrug. “It’s just a little bit of a pain.”
I held out my hand. “Lemme drive. Please.”
He handed over the keys. “It’s a mistake. You’re gonna get me used to you.”
But that was okay. I liked him.
When we were out, we ran into one of his buddies at Best Buy, and when Jason invited both of us to his private club later to play some poker, I told him it was up to Brad.
“He might be sick of taking pity on the homeless.”
“If you’re homeless, you can come stay with me.” Jason gave me a grin.
“I’ve got first dibs,” Brad said, turning me around and shoving me forward. “We’ll be there around what? Seven?”
As we walked toward the electronics area of the store, I smiled at my new friend.
But he knew how he’d acted.
“I just don’t want you to get molested is all.”
“Thanks,” I said.
“Don’t mention it.”
“Seems like you’ve got friends who would’ve helped you,” I said softly. “You didn’t actually need me.”
“Most of my friends are busy during the week and have their own crap to get done on the weekends. Believe me,” he said, chuckling, “I need you.”
At least somebody did.
Brad picked out a TV he wanted and made arrangements for delivery. In the parking lot, he asked what I wanted for dinner.
“Shit, I get dinner too?” I teased.
“You can have whatever you want.”
But I didn’t take that to heart. I was not the guy everyone wanted. I was the fallback choice.
I had to run back to the Shaw house to shower and change for dinner. When I got there, Mrs. Shaw informed me that they—all of them, including her—were going out to dinner. She said we, which named everyone except me, so I understood, since I wasn’t stupid, where exactly it was that I stood. They had all worked hard to let me know that I was not welcome, that I was an outsider. I received the message loud and clear. But she didn’t have to worry about it; I completely understood that Dylan’s family did not approve of me. And as I had explained to her husband that morning, I was never coming back. Dylan could visit his family alone; this was the first and only Christmas I would be tagging along. I had people who actually liked me who would be happy to share some eggnog with me for the holidays.
“I’m going out, ma’am. It’s fine.”
“Oh,” she said, seeming startled.
I smiled at her and hurried up to my room. A half an hour later, I came downstairs in black jeans, boots, a heavy gray sweater, and my leather jacket on over that. I was fiddling with my watch strap when I stepped into the living room.
Looking up, I saw Dylan’s bitchy sister staring at me with wide eyes.
“You, uhm….” She cleared her throat. “Look nice, Malic.”
“Thank you,” I said, walking around the couch she was sitting on toward the sliding glass door. It opened out onto the back deck overlooking the newly cleaned yard.
I slid the door open to look at Dylan, his friends, and his parents.
“Sorry to interrupt,” I apologized, looking at my hearth. “I’m leaving, so I’ll see ya later. Have a good dinner and enjoy whatever else,” I said, ducking my head back into the house.
I leaned back out, looking at Dylan’s father.
“Thank you for cleaning up the backyard. It looks like it never does this time of year.”
“You’re welcome.” I moved to leave.
“Malic,” Dylan’s mother said.
“Yes, ma’am?” My eyes flicked to her.
“You should—” She cleared her throat. “—actually join us for dinner. It would be nice.”
Since when? “Oh, no thank you, but I appreciate the offer.”
She nodded fast, looking like she was going to say something else, but she didn’t.
I went to close the door again.
I was getting annoyed. “Yes?” I asked Dylan, my voice holding an unintentional edge as he got up and walked over to me.
He looked me up and down before his big, beautiful chocolate-brown eyes locked on my face. “Where are you going?”
“I made a friend, and we’re gonna hang out.”
“Oh, okay.” He nodded. “Who?”
“Who’s your new friend?”
“Oh, your neighbor Brad.”
There was coughing. “Brad Darby?” Dylan asked.
I was guessing there was only one neighbor named Brad, but that was okay. “Yeah.”
He shook his head, but nothing came out.
“I’ll probably be late. You have a good time, okay?” I smiled at him before I slid the glass door closed and headed back across the living room.
Dylan’s call stopped me at the front door.
I turned and waited for him.
He ran. “Uhm.” He swallowed hard, taking hold of my leather jacket. “What’s going on?”
“How do you mean?”
“Yeah?” I squinted at him.
“He’s, uhm.” He squeezed my jacket tight. “Kinda hot, huh?”
“Yeah, but I’m sure all the boys you’ve been hangin’ out with have been plenty hot too,” I said playfully.
His breath was shaky. “Yeah, but that’s the difference, right? They’re all boys. I mean, I’m just having fun, being here visiting, but I know I get to go home and get back to my real life, the life I love with you, as soon as it’s time.”
“I know that.” I put my hand around the back of his neck, pulling him close to me, pressing my forehead gently to his, closing my eyes, breathing him in. “I won’t lie and say that this hasn’t been educational, and we should probably talk about that.”
“Talk about what?” He shivered.
“Your father had some really valid points earlier today about what you need, and I just wanna make sure that you’re not missing out on anything because you’re not dating someone your own age.”
“No, Malic,” he told me, his voice cracking. “I’m not missing out on anything, and I’m not dating you. I live with you.”
“No, I know,” I soothed, leaning back, staring down into the melting brown eyes I adored. They were huge, fringed with long, thick curling lashes. “I just don’t want you to have any regrets about—”
“Oh God no,” he whined, now fisting his hand in my sweater. “Malic, are you kidding? Not again.”
“Just don’t worry about it right now,” I said, raking my fingers through my thick blond hair. “We can talk once we get home. I want you to enjoy your holidays with your family, okay?”
“Your father seemed very relieved earlier when I told him that he wouldn’t ever have to see me again after this.”
Dylan looked like he was going to throw up. “What are you”—his face went white—“talking about?”
“I’m gonna skip this scene next year, baby. You can come alone.”
“Have a good time tonight. I’ll see ya tomorrow,” I said, easing out of his grip and going out the front door.
Brad was already on the street in his SUV. “What the hell? I’m fuckin’ starving. I have reservations at this great steak place that’s also a microbrewery. You’re gonna love it.”
I whined in the back of my throat.
“Oh yeah, see?” He laughed. “You’re dying for some good food and better beer. Get in the car, son.”
I went around to the driver’s side and opened his door so I could trade places with him.
“I can drive you know,” he assured me even as he got out.
“It’ll be easier this way. Just lemme help you.”
“Whatever you want,” he sighed, getting out, patting my shoulder as he walked around to the passenger side. I got in and waited for him. Once he was buckled up, I pulled away from the curb.
As I was driving away, I thought I saw Tina waving from the front porch, but since she hated me, it probably wasn’t her. Not that it mattered. Only having a nice night did. I was really looking forward to it.