The way to a man's heart is on a sleigh.
Arthur Anderson doesn’t want anything to do with love and romance, and he certainly doesn’t want to play Santa in his mother’s library fundraising scheme. He knows full well what she really wants is to hook him up with the town’s lanky, prissy librarian.
It’s clear Gabriel Higgins doesn’t want him, either—as a Santa, as a boyfriend, as anyone at all. But when Arthur’s efforts to wiggle out of the fundraiser lead to getting to know the man behind the story-time idol, he can’t help but be charmed. The least he can do is be neighborly and help Gabriel find a few local friends.
As their fiery arguments strike hotter sparks, two men who insist they don’t date wind up doing an awful lot of dating. And it looks like the sleigh they both tried not to board could send them jingling all the way to happily ever after.
Everyone in Arthur Anderson’s life was fixated on happily-ever-after, and it was seriously pissing him off.
He was happy for his friend Marcus, now all but married to Frankie, the cute little hairdresser who had been stranded with them in a blizzard last year. Arthur had known since high school that Marcus’s grumpy exterior hid a soft and gooey center—the burly lumberjack-turned-lawyer longed for nothing more than someone to love. Frankie wanted to cut hair on Main Street while Marcus sat in on Chamber of Commerce meetings and ran a law office on the other side of Frankie’s shop. This was all fine, but their domestic bliss was giving everyone dangerous ideas. Now everyone thought Arthurshould get lovey-dovey too.
The worst offender was Arthur’s mother, who after fifteen years of letting Arthur’s love life be his own business, now routinely asked him when he would be making an honest man of Paul, Arthur’s other best friend. Paul wasn’t Arthur’s boyfriend, never had been. Paul and Arthur lived and slept together, but they weren’t dating, and they saw other guys. Sometimes they saw them at the same time. Every so often Paul decided he had a boyfriend and slept on the couch instead of next to Arthur in the loft, but that never lasted for more than a week. The arrangement suited Arthur fine, and he figured it would continue until he was too old to get it up anymore.
Except now Marcus and Frankie were together, and somehow that meant everything changed. Marcus had only lived with Paul and Arthur a little while before moving out to be with Frankie, but within two months of Marcus’s departure, Paul started dropping hints he and Arthur should be officially a couple too. As the year wore on, those hints became outright statements, and after seven months of watching Marcus and Frankie play house, Paul threw down an ultimatum. Arthur would stop seeing other people and go on the record as officially dating Paul, or Paul would leave.
Arthur dealt with this by ignoring the nonsense completely. Which meant by the first week in August, Paul
started packing his bags.
Arthur got annoyed. “You want a boyfriend? Fine. We can stop fucking. You can go out with guys and still live here. We’ll build you a bedroom. I’ll install a lube dispenser above the headboard.”
“No, I can’t stay here. If I bring them to the cabin, you’ll scare them away or try to have a three-way.”
Arthur failed to see how this was a problem, but whatever. “So we won’t have three-ways. Problem solved.”
Paul wouldn’t budge. “I can’t date anyone else while I live with you. I have to move.”
This argument went on and on, until Paul found a duplex for rent on the south end of town and didn’t just talk about moving out or packing up boxes, he actually did it.
Arthur refused to help him, which meant he paced the edge of his property like a pouting child while Frankie and Marcus loaded up Paul’s things and took him away. Before they left, Marcus glowered at Arthur. “You’re being an idiot, and you’re hurting him.”
Folding his arms across his chest, Arthur stared across the grassy hayfield behind the tree line. “Yeah, well, it’s mutual.” He paused, frowning as he weighed whether or not his words made sense. “I mean, he’s an idiot too.”
“He still wants to be friends with you, but you’re making this all or nothing. Except it isn’t all or nothing. He’d marry you if you asked—”
Arthur made outraged noises through his nose.
“—except he knows he can’t even get an exclusive commitment out of you, let alone a house and kids. So he’s doing the smart thing and backing out before you hate each other.”
“I wouldn’t ever hate Paul.” He glared at Marcus. “And that’s a load of crap about him wanting a house and kids. I don’t buy for one second he asked for kids.”
Marcus looked Arthur dead in the eye. “No. But once upon a time, you did.”
Arthur turned away with a hiss. “Jesus. I was ten. I still pretended I could marry a girl.”
“Yes—because it was the only way you could get babies. You bragged all the time about how you were going to take your son hunting, teach him hockey. How you’d beat down anybody who treated your girl wrong.”
“Yeah, well, people change. I got Thomas and Brianna and baby Sue.”
“You’re deliberately missing the point. I’m telling you I don’t think, I know you want what he’s asking for, and more.”
“I don’t, and stop fucking talking about it.”
Marcus threw up his hands. “Frankie and I are going to go help move your best friend and try to cheer him up, because some asshole keeps breaking his heart and fucking up his head. You do whatever you need to do.”
Arthur winced but said nothing, didn’t move until he heard Marcus’s SUV and Paul’s car pull out of the drive. He went back to the house, which was lonely and still with Paul and all his things removed.
It really sucked. And as the days wore on into weeks, it didn’t suck any less.
With nothing else to do at the end of a workday, Arthur got in the habit of hanging out in his work shed and sorting junk, tackling his fix-it pile and the projects his mom had been after him to finish. He repaired a toaster and refinished the old dresser she’d used when she was a little girl. He repaired the dining room chairs too, even the one broken into six pieces, and on the first Sunday of September he dropped everything off at his parents’ house.
“Oh, Arthur, thank you.” Corrina Anderson kissed her son on the cheek and waved him inside with the first load of furniture. “Dinner’s almost ready.”
Big Tom glanced up with a nod over his glasses from his post by the window, where he sat reading the paper and sipping out of a mug with his grandchildren’s pictures on it. “Good to see you, son.”
Arthur set the chairs down. Laughter echoed in from the living room, where Arthur’s niece and nephew played. Thomas ran toy trucks up and down the carpet while his younger sister ran, giggling, in clumsy circles.
Becky sat in the rocker with the baby on her knee. “Hey,” she said wearily when Arthur entered the room.
Arthur leaned against the doorway. “How’s everything with you?”
“Same. No job, deadbeat ex not paying child support, out of unemployment and living with my parents.”
Arthur frowned. “The restaurant in Eveleth didn’t pan out?”
“They kept sticking me with evenings. I never got to see Thomas except to put him on the bus in the morning, and I never got to put him or Brianna to bed.”
Six-year-old Thomas looked up at Arthur with a bright smile. “Hi, Uncle Arthur.”
Arthur grinned and crouched beside him on the carpet. “Hey, sport. You gonna help me fix Grandma’s water heater?”
Thomas beamed at him and hurried to his feet. “I’ll get my toolbox.”
While Thomas pounded up the stairs and rooted through his closet, Arthur spun Brianna around until Becky yelled at him, at which point he went to the kitchen to get a cup of coffee and waited for Thomas.
His mom glanced at him from the stove as she stirred gravy. “Did I hear you say you were going to fix the water heater?”
Arthur nodded over the rim of his cup. “I think you need a new anode. Picked one up yesterday when I was in town.”
“Thank you, honey. You’re so helpful.” Her stirring took on a deliberation and focus, warning Arthur something unpleasant was coming. “I saw Paul at the market yesterday. You never told me he moved out. Did you two have a fight?”
Arthur pursed his lips and picked up his mug. “When Thomas comes down, tell him I’m in the basement.”
Corrina followed him down the stairs, still carrying her whisk. “You did have a fight. Oh, honey.”
Arthur stalked to the water heater and pulled the screwdriver from his back pocket so he could unfasten the access panel. “Mom, leave it alone.”
“Can you talk to him? You never communicate with him enough, you know. You’re always so distant.”
“Mom.” Arthur let out a heavy breath and clenched his fists at his sides. “I don’t want to talk about Paul.” God, if shestarted in about how he should have kids, he’d stick his head in a snowbank.
She didn’t talk about kids, but she sighed heavily, and he could all but hear her gears turning as she tried to figure out how to talk about Paul without talking about Paul. “I should check on my gravy, I suppose. Though that reminds me—can you look at my burner before you go? It’s fritzing again.”
She didn’t bring up Paul the rest of the day, Arthur and Thomas replaced the anode no problem, and they enjoyed a pleasant meal. He heard all about his mother’s prospects for a new job for Becky at a dentist’s office in Eveleth and Thomas’s upcoming school pageant. While Becky and Corrina did the dishes, Arthur fixed the burner, with more help from Thomas.
It felt good to be at the house, and Arthur started dropping by more frequently. It was nice to have a meal made for him, but there was also plenty that needed doing, and with his bum leg and arthritis, Big Tom couldn’t manage much. Becky needed someone not-Corrina to talk to, and Thomas needed a good male role model.
Never mind that Arthur hanging out with Frankie and Marcus had become politically tricky because of Paul.
One night after he and Thomas snaked the sewer line, Arthur got dinner and dessert, the pudding-and-ice-cream pie his mom knew was his favorite. He’d thought it was his reward for an afternoon of hard work, but no. The sweet treat was a lure, and as Arthur carried his empty dish to the kitchen, she sprang her trap.
“You know,” she said in a tone of voice that should have tipped him off right away, “I think the night nurse at the care center is single.”
Arthur froze with his dish halfway into the sink. “Mom, I’m not dating Kyle. I’m not dating anybody, because I don’t date.”
“What’s wrong with Kyle? He’s a sweet boy.”
“Boy, Mom. He’s what, nineteen?”
“I suppose that is a bit young for a forty-year-old.”
Arthur glowered. “I’m only thirty-nine.”
Corrina waved this away. “You’re forty in April.” She tapped the side of her cheek, clearly indexing the gay men she knew in a fifty-mile radius.
Arthur decided to cut this serpent off at the head. “Mom, don’t fix me up. I’m fine.”
“You’re certainly not fine. I saw Paul with two different men this week. He’s not coming back—and you’re not getting any younger.”
“What about that nice man who runs the bed-and-breakfast in Cloquet Valley? He’s gay, isn’t he?”
It went on and on like this the whole month of September, until when Arthur saw his mother coming up his drive, he braced himself for another onslaught of potential dates. There had been one horrible moment when he’d caught Corrina trying to log in to Grindr—heaven help Arthur if she’d actually found his profile. Though after the adolescence he’d put her through, he doubted anything could surprise her.
His mother playing yente was problematic, not only because Arthur didn’t want to date, but because he if he did date, he’d never go in for nice boys, which was always how Corrina introduced her prospective sons-in-law. There wasn’t any way to explain Arthur wanted a man, big and rough and raw. Some cuddling was nice, but only after some serious pounding and a lot of raunchy talk. Nice boys weren’t ever going to private message RedBear69 with a dirty pic. And until they did, Arthur had no time for them.
Corrina was undaunted by Arthur’s refusals. She started stopping by the cabin a lot, usually with Tupperware containers full of freezer meals, always with news of another prospective mate. The Monday before Halloween she was at Arthur’s place when he arrived home from work. She was putting a roast together on the counter, and she beamed at him as he came in. “Arthur, sweetheart, you’re home early.”
Arthur sank into his easy chair with a grunt. Today was a day he wanted to see his mother. “They’ve closed the mill until after the first of the year. We just found out.”
“What?” Corrina put down the carrot she was peeling. “The mill is shutting down?”
“Temporarily.” Though rumor was if it started up again, they’d be reducing the work crews by half.
“But what will you do for a job? What will everyone do for a job?” Corrina clucked her tongue in disapproval. “To do such a thing so close to Christmas. It’s a crime.”
“We’re collecting unemployment, so I guess it’s something. Figure I’ll get some good hunting in if nothing else.” Hunting which, he realized, he’d do without Paul for the first time in forever.
His mother busied herself with her roast for a moment. Then she said, far too casually, “There’s something else I wanted to talk to you about.”
Arthur shut his eyes and tipped his head back. “Mom, I’m not dating anyone, so save your breath.”
She went on as if he hadn’t spoken. “It works out you’re laid off, I suppose, because I worried you wouldn’t have time otherwise. There’s a project I’ve been setting up with the library.”
Library? Arthur sat up, frowning. His mom was on the library board, he knew, but how in the world he could help the library was something he had to hear. “What is it?”
“The board wants to have a fundraiser for Christmas. We’re almost out of our grant, you see, and though Gabriel is looking for a new one come spring, we thought we’d give him a leg up. We’ll do a little to stir up some funds, help patch up any gaps and buy us a few more months if the worst happens.” She beamed. “We’re going to have sleigh rides.”
Arthur laughed. “What—are you going to pull Grandpa Anderson’s old beast out of storage?”
“I thought so, yes.” She leaned against the counter. “I wanted to make it a big deal. Get Frankie’s friends up from the city, maybe people from Duluth. It could bring money to the downtown as well as the library. Everybody would win. Except…the sleigh needs a little work. Do you think you could take a peek at it?”
God, Arthur hadn’t thought about that sleigh in years. “I’m not sure how much I can do, but I’ll give it my best shot.”
“Excellent. Next time you’re over, we’ll pull it out and give it a look.” She pushed off the counter and nodded at the oven, where she’d tucked the roasting pan. “Give this until six, sweetheart, and you’ll have yourself a nice dinner. I’ll ask around too, see if anyone has jobs for you. It won’t be good for you to sit idle, not with the mill shut down and Paul moving on.”
The comment about Paul made Arthur worry this was a setup, that somehow agreeing to repair the sleigh was giving her a matchmaking opening, but no matter how he turned it around in his head, he couldn’t see how even Corrina Anderson could spin carpentry into happily-ever-after. So he settled into researching sleigh restoration with Thomas, holding baby Sue while Brianna got her bath, and in general picking up his ex-brother-in-law’s slack.
See? He got to be a dad, sort of, sometimes, and if he ever logged onto Grindr again himself, he could get his kink on. He told himself it was the best of both worlds.
Except every time he went home to his empty cabin, he had a hard time believing he had it all.