Finding a Christmas tree in August was next to impossible. Zach hadn’t really considered that fact when he cooked up his plan. There were other things to worry about. Like finding the perfect restaurant to cater the dinner—he must have tried every restaurant in the greater Los Angeles area—and securing the perfect location—just any random hotel wouldn’t do. He had to see to the music, the gifts (of which there would be many), and make sure that the dates he chose wouldn’t be interrupted by shooting, dubbing, editing, PR, or meetings. Then there was the greatest challenge of all. Making sure Chris would be in town on the chosen weekend and making sure he would be available. During the PR blitz for the premiere, they had practically lived in each other’s pockets. But by August, they rarely had any public appearances together. They also rarely had the chance to see each other privately. So it hadn’t even occurred to Zach that the monkey wrench in his plans wouldn’t be scheduling conflicts but instead would be a fucking Christmas tree.
“No, you don’t understand. The tree is the most important part of the plan!” Zach punctuated the last word by slamming the dog dish on the counter. Noah looked at him disapprovingly from his place on the floor before letting his attention drift back to the unopened can of food on the counter.
Zach’s exclamation was met with a long beat of silence and then, “What?”
“You can’t have Christmas without a tree.” The can opener slipped from his hand. He swore under his breath and reached for it, only to have it slip from him again. “If I don’t find a fucking tree, the whole plan is ruined. I mean, just ruined. And I’ve been working on this for a month.”
“Ruined?” To John’s credit, he sounded more concerned than amused. But not by much. And there was definitely amusement in his voice. “Are you hearing yourself?”
Zach rested the phone between his shoulder and ear, trying to open the can without sending his Blackberry crashing to the floor. “Yes. I hear myself just fine. Are you going to help me out here?”
Zach heard a soft sound that could only be John smothering a laugh. “Explain to me how this ruins everything.”
“Fine, let’s start at the beginning.” The top of the can finally gave way and Noah jumped to his feet, his tail wagging with anticipation. “Have you been to Christmas parties before?”
“Good. What have you seen at those parties?”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you see at Christmas parties?” Zach prompted. “How do you know it’s a Christmas party and not like, a birthday party?”
“Um…well, there’s eggnog, carols, mistletoe. Gifts. A drunken Santa feeling everybody up. Zoe dancing in her underwear if we’ve all been very, very good.”
John sighed. “Strands of lights, tinsel, and a Christmas tree.”
“Right! Now, if you went to a Christmas party without a tree, you’d think it’s a pretty messed up Christmas party, right?”
“Most Christmas parties are in December not August. So if I walk into your house and a Christmas party is in full swing, I’m already going to think things are pretty fucked up. In fact, it might not occur to me to question the lack of a Christmas tree right away.”
“But you will question it sooner or later,” Zach rejoined. “Look, everything else is done. I’ve found the perfect hotel with the perfect view. The room’s ready to be decorated, the gifts are wrapped, the food is ordered, and Chris is going to be there at eight. That gives us four hours to find a tree, get it to the hotel, and decorate it.”
“It’s only noon.”
“I want to make sure it’s done on time.”
“Okay, well, have you already started looking?”
“Yes, I’ve been out all morning.”
“Where did you look?”
Zach set the dish on the floor and watched as Noah attacked and hungrily gulped down the food. Like he hadn’t been fed in days. “The normal places a person would look for a Christmas tree. The guy at Target was polite enough not to laugh in my face.”
“Does it have to be real?”
“No, I’m not going to that picky. I can pick up some pine-scented air-freshener.”
“You know today is like my one day off this month, right?”
“Mine, too. I really want this to work, John. Please.”
“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. You put up an ad on Craigslist. I’m going to start calling thrift stores.”
“Don’t thank me yet. I haven’t actually found a tree. Why don’t you own one?”
“I’m never home over Christmas. And if I do want a tree, I get a real one. Do you have one?”
“Nope. Same thing. I’ll be in touch.”
Noah looked up as Zach set the phone down, his head cocked slightly and one ear lifted. “Don’t look at me like that. You’d be doing the same thing in my shoes.”
Noah didn’t seem convinced of that.
Zach sat at his desk and opened the top of his notebook. Ten minutes later he had an anonymous note posted on Craigslist.
URGENT! Wanted: Christmas tree. Previously used is fine but must be in good condition. Will pay $500 in cash. I’ll pay extra for the decorations. Email me (pictures preferred!) if you can sell the tree to me this afternoon. If it’s unreachable in a storage garage in Pomona, I’m not interested.
By noon, Chris knew he needed to get up. If his mother were there, she’d dump a cold pan of water over his head to roust him out of bed. But this was his first day off in what felt like an eternity, and Chris really wasn’t in a hurry to go anywhere or do anything. Plus, it was hot outside. He could tell because it was Los Angeles and August. But another big hint was the fact that he was already covered in sweat, even though he was completely naked and had a fan blowing directly at the bed. The heat made him lethargic. Everything seemed like it would take too much of an effort. Even the thought of catching a movie or getting an iced coffee in a nice, air-conditioned environment wasn’t enough to lure him into getting dressed.
Zach was the only thing that could get him out of bed. And he didn’t need to start getting ready for their date for at least another six hours. Though he didn’t plan to stay in bed for another six hours. Sooner or later, he’d need to get something to eat.
He grabbed his iPhone from the nightstand and winced at the little number above the inbox. He was very quite sincere about this being his day off. Which meant he wasn’t even going to deal with the messages waiting for him in his inbox or his voicemail. Unless Zach texted him. Especially if Zach was texting to let him know his schedule had cleared up and they could meet before eight. Which basically never happened, but Chris didn’t let that inconvenient fact get in the way of his optimism.
He went through his regular routine idly, looking at his apps in a very specific order that he didn’t even remember establishing. He started by scanning through Craigslist. Not because he planned to buy anything, but you never knew what sort of awesome thing you could find for free. And anyway, skimming the classifieds was more fun than staring at the ceiling, and getting out of bed still wasn’t an option.
After verifying there wasn’t anything he wanted to own, he switched over the wanted section. Those posts were always good for a chuckle. His attention immediately went to a listing—in all caps—for a Christmas tree.
URGENT! Wanted: Christmas tree. Previously used is fine but must be in good condition. Will pay $500 in cash. I’ll pay extra for the decorations. Email me (pictures preferred!) if you can sell the tree to me this afternoon. If it’s unreachable in a storage garage in Pomona, I’m not interested.
“Five hundred for a Christmas tree? Shit, I’ve got two this guy can have.” He didn’t particularly need the money, but it would be nice to have some cash on him when he went out with Zach. When Zach made their plans, he knew he was in for an adventure and it was best to have his cash and medic alert bracelet. With that in mind, he wrote out a quick email from one of his throwaway accounts.
Hi, I’ve got a fake six foot tree. When do you need it by?
Zach couldn’t believe his good luck. He sent up a quick prayer of thanks before putting the leash on Noah and calling John. He would swing by and pick John up, then they’d go to the coffee shop where he had agreed to meet the seller, then he and John would be on their way to put up and decorate the tree. John didn’t know the last part, and Zach didn’t have any intention of telling him until they were already at the hotel. Then he’d send John home and have a few hours to kill before he went to pick up Chris.
Everything was working out perfectly. In fact, if he had tried to orchestrate this in advance, it wouldn’t have worked out better.
“Why do I need to go with you?” John asked.
“Because I’m going to need your help.”
“Are you kidding me? Don’t you have any other friends?”
“Yes, but none of them know about this.”
“Yeah, if I were you, I’d want to keep your Christmas party on the QT, too.”
“I just don’t want to explain to them why I’m having a Christmas party in August. They’ll have a million questions and I’ve got things to do here.”
“When will you be here?”
“Probably about six minutes.”
“I’m not even dressed.”
“What? It’s nearly one. I’ve been up since five this morning.”
“I thought you said it was your day off. Why didn’t you sleep in?”
John snorted. “Whatever. I’ll be presentable when you get here.”
“That’s all I ask.”
It actually took Zach ten minutes to get to John’s apartment. He was waiting out on the curb, and he looked far, far better than simply presentable. He always did. “Expect a call from my wife,” he greeted.
“Because she wanted me to go run errands with her, but I told her that I had to help you.”
“It sounds like I’m doing you a favor,” Zach said as he merged back into traffic.
“Oh, yeah, I mean, why would I want to spend time with my wife when I could go pick up a Christmas tree with you?”
“I swear, you stole the words from my mouth.”
“I still think he wouldn’t have even noticed if you didn’t have a Christmas tree.”
“I don’t know. Maybe he wouldn’t have known the difference. But I would have.”
“Yeah, I know how anal you are. So how long did it take to get a reply to your post?”
“Like fifteen minutes. Can you believe it?”
“Not even a little bit.”
“Anyway, he said he’d meet me at a coffee shop. He told me I’d probably recognize him.”
John cocked an eyebrow. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I don’t know. I bet he’ll be the only one there with a Christmas tree. That’s probably all he meant.”
“Okay, but if it’s somebody you’d recognize because he’s famous, then I don’t want any part of this.”
The coffee shop wasn’t far from Silver Lake. In fact, it was just the sort of place Zach would have suggested. It was far enough away from his neighborhood that he could realistically expect to get in and out without being accosted by paparazzi. But at the same time, it was in a high-end area where most of the locals would pretend they didn’t even know him. The shop itself was pretty small and innocuous. The sort of place that didn’t attract any undue notice.
Except when Chris Pine sat out front for all the world to see, his iPhone in one hand, a coffee in the other, and a boxed Christmas tree beside him.
John literally gaped at the tableaux in front of them. “Oh my God. Are you serious? You didn’t notice that Chris was emailing you?”
“He must have been using a throwaway email. Maybe I can get out of here before…” Zach’s Blackberry began to vibrate.
“Is that Chris?” John asked.
“I’m pretty sure it is.”
“You could ignore it.”
“He is looking right at my car. I can’t ignore it.”
“What are you going to do? Buy the tree anyway?”
“No, I’m not going to buy the tree anyway. We need somebody else to buy the tree.”
“I don’t know! Go find somebody.”
The Blackberry was silenced for a moment and then began buzzing again.
“You better answer that.”
“I will. Just…go find somebody and pay him to buy get the Christmas tree.”
“Sure. I can do that. I’m positive I’ll have no problem finding somebody who will take the five hundred and use it to purchase your tree instead of just running away with it.”
Zach drummed his fingers against the steering wheel. “Did you find any trees while you were calling around?”
“Then we don’t really have a choice.”
“Can’t you just tell him…?”
“Fine.” John pushed open the door. “I’ll see if I can find the one honest person in LA so he can buy the only Christmas tree in LA so you can get laid tonight.”
“Great. I appreciate it. And make sure Chris doesn’t see you, right?”
John rolled his eyes before jumping out of the SUV and hurrying the opposite direction. Zach watched him for a moment before bringing the Blackberry up to his ear. “Hey.”
“Hey.” Chris’s familiar voice. “What are you doing here?”
“I was going to meet somebody for lunch.”
“Oh.” The disappointment in that simple syllable immediately made Zach regret his lie.
“But I’m early,” Zach quickly added. “Do you mind if I join you for a cup of coffee?”
“I’d be honored.”
“Then Noah and I will be right over.”
Seeing Chris almost made Zach want to destroy his own plans. Instead of waiting until that night—when everything would be perfect—he would just haul Chris to the hotel room now. Who cared if the date didn’t necessarily go as planned? The important thing was that they’d get to spend some time together. And Zach knew that was the important thing. But Chris’s birthday was the next week—the same day Zach was scheduled to be on a location shoot. And they both knew the chances of spending Christmas together were basically slim to none. He wanted to do something special for Chris. Even if that required a small amount of subterfuge.
“What have you got there?” Zach asked, keeping his voice as casual as possible as he settled in the seat opposite of the tree.
“Some guys wants to buy this old piece of junk for five hundred. Can you believe it?”
“No. What does he want with it?”
“No idea. But I noticed the post on Craigslist and figured I’d email him since I really didn’t have anything better to do.” There wasn’t a hint of accusation in his voice. Zach still felt a twinge of guilt, though.
“When’s he going to be by?”
Chris glanced at his phone and frowned. “He should be here by now.”
“Maybe he got caught up in traffic.”
“Maybe. He did say that he wasn’t far from here.” Chris shrugged and his small frown quickly turned into a wide smile. “I don’t mind waiting, though. Who are you meeting?”
“Oh…just an old friend. He’s always late, though.”
“It’s funny that we both chose the same place.”
“Hilarious,” Zach agreed.
“Were you with anybody?”
“Just now. I thought I saw somebody in the car.”
Zach surreptitiously glanced up and down the block, but he didn’t see John. “Nope, must have been Noah.”
“Must have been.” Chris leaned forward. “So, are you going to give me any hint about tonight?”
“No. I told you. It’s a surprise.”
Chris leaned even closer. Like he intended to kiss Zach right there. “You don’t have to ruin the surprise. Just give me a hint.”
“No hints. You’re so impatient.”
“You’re so secretive. Like you’re James Bond or something.”
Zach smiled. “You should back off before somebody gets a picture like this.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time. What are you doing this afternoon? Do we really have to wait until tonight?”
Zach almost moaned with frustration. He could smell Chris’s cologne and it made his mouth water. He wanted to bury his face in Chris’s neck and take a deep, satisfying breath. “I want to, but after lunch I have a few more meetings and…you know…”
“I know. It’s just that you smell so good and…” Chris was so close now, Zach was sure he intended to kiss him. “It feels like it’s been years since I’ve seen you.”
“It’s been a few weeks.”
“It still feels like years.”
“I know, and I promise, I’ll make it up to you.”
Zach was saved from answering by a softly spoken, “Excuse me?”
Chris immediately sat back. “Yes?”
“Are you the young man selling the tree?”
The woman who asked the question had to be roughly the same age as dirt. She couldn’t have been more than four feet tall, and she wore the biggest pair of dark glasses Zach had ever seen. The lenses covered more than half of her face. She leaned heavily on her cane, and had a huge bag hanging off the other shoulder. Despite the fact that it was nearly one hundred degrees and the sun was high overhead without a cloud in sight, she wore a heavy overcoat and a scarf that only partially obscured her white hair.
“Yes. You’re here for the tree?”
“Yes. I have my money right here…” She lifted the bag off her shoulder and dropped it onto the table hard enough to make coffee jump out of Chris’s cup. “Excuse me.”
“Um…you know, that’s not really necessary. I mean, you don’t have to pay me for this old thing.”
“Nonsense. I told you that I would.” She opened her cavernous bag and partially disappeared inside. “It’s right here.”
“Seriously, it’s fine. No money is necessary. Please. Where did you park? I’ll help you carry it to your car.”
“Oh, I don’t have a car.”
“How were you going to get it home?”
“I’m not taking it home, dear. I’m giving it to that young man over there.”
Zach didn’t need to follow her finger to know that she was pointing at John. He grabbed Chris before Chris could realize the same thing, pulling his attention forward.
“Why don’t you go buy…what’s your name, ma’am?”
“Why don’t you go get Agnes some iced tea. I’ll help her out.”
Chris looked from Zach to the old lady doubtfully. “Yeah, okay. Is iced tea good?”
“Right. No sugar.”
Zach didn’t release the breath he was holding until Chris disappeared into the café. He turned and gestured John over frantically, fishing his keys out of his pocket with the other hand. John’s shamefaced smile told Zach everything he needed to know.
“She was the only one I could trust.” He put his hand up to his mouth and leaned in. “But only because I was reasonably sure I could take her if she tried any funny stuff.”
“Here. Take my keys. Get the tree in the back and take her home. Or wherever she wants to go.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I don’t know. I’ll come by your place later to pick it up. Don’t get into any accidents. And no joyriding.”
“I’m shocked, Zach. Shocked.”
“Yeah, right. Just go before Chris gets out here.”
“Is this all worth it?”
“Yes. Now go before all of my hard work is destroyed.”
“Go where?” Agnes asked.
“Anywhere you like. John will take good care of you.”
Zach took her shoulder and gently pushed her towards John. “Go on.”
“What about my iced tea?” Agnes asked.
“This place has awful iced tea. You wouldn’t like it.”
“He’s right,” John said, lifting the box over one shoulder. “Come on. I know a much better place.”
Agnes didn’t quite look convinced, but she didn’t protest as John guided her across the street with his free hand.
“Come on, come on, come on,” Zach muttered under his breath as John pushed the tree into the back seat, then went around to the passenger side to aid Agnes. From the corner of his eye, he saw Chris approaching, and he acted without thought, ducking inside the building just in time to block Chris from the door.
“Hey, what are you doing?” Chris asked.
“Come with me.”
“Where are we going?”
“The men’s room.”
“The men’s…” Chris’s voice dropped down to a whisper. “The men’s room? What are you talking about?”
“It’s the only place without lurking cameras.”
“I know, but…”
“But Agnes. I have her tea.”
Zach took the paper cup from Chris’s hand and set it on the table. “She’ll be fine. Besides, I just want a kiss. Just one. I’ll follow you in.”
Chris’s brows pulled into a confused frown, but he turned back around and walked down the narrow corridor to the restroom. Zach waited a full minute before following him. Despite the situation, he was very much looking forward to that kiss. He could already taste Chris’s mouth, already hear his little sigh of pleasure that always sent chills down Zach’s spine. Besides, a kiss would help him keep his eyes on the prize. It would remind him of why Chris was worth so much trouble.
As soon as Zach opened the door, a hand grabbed him by the t-shirt and pulled him inside. The door slammed shut behind him, and he was trapped there, his shoulders against the wall, his chest pressed to Chris’s. He didn’t have time to say a word before Chris’s mouth was on his, and they were both moaning.
Nobody kissed like Chris. Nobody. Zach had kissed a lot of people in his life, but none of them were even at the same level as Chris. He didn’t do anything by halves. Zach had learned that about Chris almost immediately. If he was going to take the time to do it, then he was going to do it right. He cupped Zach’s face, holding him in place while his tongue plunged past Zach’s parted lips. Zach’s cock immediately hardened, and it was almost possible to forget where they were. His hands went to Chris’s hips to pull him closer as returned the caress, and he wasn’t surprised to feel the hard bulge in Chris’s pants.
“Come home with me,” Chris said against his mouth.
“I want to…”
“Then do it.”
“I can’t. I’m sorry.”
Chris sighed and took a step back. “I see.”
“Chris, look…how about I come over at six?”
“How about you don’t bother?”
“Chris, don’t say that.”
He took another step back. “You’re clearly busy. You should do what you have to do.”
“I’m not. I mean, I won’t be tonight.”
Chris yanked open the door. “Maybe I will be.”
“Chris…” But it was too late. Chris was gone and Zach was left alone in the bathroom. “Goddamnit. Goddamnit! Fuck. Okay…okay…I’m going to fix this. I have plenty of time to fix this. I’ll just…fuck.”
He had approximately seven hours to create Christmas in Los Angeles in August and make Chris forgive him. He could do it. Somehow.
Thirty seconds after Chris stormed out of the bathroom, he wanted to turn back around. Normally, his temper wouldn’t have gotten the better of him, but these weren’t normal circumstances. His shirt was wet enough to stick to his back, he felt gross all over, he hadn’t been planning to deal with a crazy old lady, and he was being cock-blocked by Zach himself. So what if Zach was busy? It happened. It wasn’t the end of the world. There was a good chance he was actually busy with work and not just with another guy…
But there was also a pretty good chance that he had a lunch date. Jealousy skewered his chest. He hated it. Neither one of them had ever promised to be exclusive, and what Zach did or didn’t do when they weren’t together wasn’t any of his business. But the thought of Zach meeting some random guy on the same day they were supposed to have a date twisted him up inside. And the fact that Zach apparently preferred this guy—whoever he was—over Chris just made it a thousand times worse. If he stormed out of the shop, he could be putting their, well, whatever they had, at risk. But he didn’t want to hang around until Zach’s oh-so-important lunch date showed up, either.
“Excuse me? Excuse me?” A woman hovered by his table outside the café. Noah was sitting up, his leach still secure to the chair, his ears perked forward as he watched the stranger.
Chris pasted a smile on his face and prepared himself for the standard response. The last thing he wanted to do at that moment was deal with a fan, but there was no graceful way to extricate himself from the situation. “Yes?”
“Have you seen my mother?”
“Yes, she’s about this tall.” The woman put her hand up to her chest. “She was wearing a scarf and a coat. I was just across the way there, shopping, and when I turned around she was gone.”
The woman’s frown immediately deepened. “How do you know her name?”
“She was just here. Buying a Christmas tree from me.”
“What? Are you on drugs?”
Chris held up his hands. “No, no, nothing like that. I was supposed to meet somebody today to sell them a Christmas tree. She showed up and said it was for her.”
“So where is this Christmas tree?”
“I…she must have took it.”
“You’re telling me that my eighty-eight year old mother picked up a Christmas tree and carried it off?”
“Well, when you put it like that…”
“I’m going to call the police.”
“Who is going to call the police?” Zach asked, stepping out of the café.
Both Chris and the woman turned around at the same time, and they both had the same reaction—a wide-eyed stare. Zach looked good. Really, really fucking good. Chris supposed he should have been used to it by now, but he wasn’t. His lips still tingled from their kiss, and he wanted another one. His body didn’t care if he was currently angry. All it cared about was tasting, touching, and experiencing Zach’s again.
“Oh my God. Aren’t you…you’re on Heroes, right?”
“Guilty as charged. What’s going on here?”
“Oh…” The woman’s face began to crumple and Chris stepped forward.
“She’s looking for her mother. Agnes. Was she out here when you went into the café?”
Zach’s eyes widened slightly, and then narrowed with concern. “Yes, she was sitting out here petting Noah.”
The woman’s mouth twisted. “Petting Noah? The dog? My mother would never do that. She’s allergic. Oh, what if something happened to her?”
“I’m sure she’s fine,” Zach said quickly. “And she can’t have gone far. Why don’t we split up and look for her?”
“You’re sure she was still out here when you went inside?” Chris pressed.
“Yes. Right here at the table.”
“With my tree?”
Chris frowned. “She did say that she was getting the tree for some guy, didn’t she? What if he…”
“I’m sure he didn’t do anything.” Zach took Chris’s shoulder and guided him to the left. “You go this direction. I’ll go right. Ma’am…?”
“Trudy, why don’t you stay here in case she comes back? I’m sure there’s no reason to involve the cops yet.”
“Look, Zach, some weirdo wanted to buy a Christmas tree in August and now an old lady is missing. I smell a rat here.”
“I doubt the two things are related.”
“Of course they’re related. They even both went missing at the same time…where’s your car? Zach?” Chris spun around, but Zach was already hurrying in the opposite direction. Trudy stood exactly where they left her, holding several bags with one hand and absently petting Noah with the other. “Something really strange is going on here.”
But what was the connection between Zach’s car, a strange man, a five-hundred-dollar-Christmas-tree, and an old woman? Was the strange man the same person he had seen in Zach’s passenger seat? Or was he assigning meaning to a series of random—if rather strange—events? It wouldn’t be the first time he had done something like that. For example, he had the awful tendency of assigning meaning to everything Zach did. Maybe if he had restrained himself from doing that, he wouldn’t be a ball of jealous anxiety at the moment.
Chris shook his head. He’d worry about Zach later. He had an old lady to find. What if she had wandered away because she was looking for her iced tea? And just as she did, somebody walking by noticed an unguarded Christmas tree sitting right there, just waiting to be grabbed? His desire for Zach could have got an old woman in trouble and cost him five c-notes.
But if Chris were being honest with himself, he could admit that kissing Zach was probably worth the five hundred. He wouldn’t go as far as saying it was worth the old lady’s safety, though.
“Where are you?” Zach whispered into the phone as soon as he rounded the corner.
“What? I can’t hear you?”
“Where the fuck are you and why didn’t you answer your phone?”
“I don’t talk on the phone when I’m driving, Zach. And what do you mean, where am I? I’m trying to get this old lady home.”
“You can’t take her home. You got to bring her here.”
“Zach…what the fuck is going on?”
“The old woman’s daughter showed up. Now she’s talking about calling the police and she’s fucking frantic. What the fuck were you doing choosing Agnes in the first place? Didn’t you see she was with somebody?”
“No. She was standing outside a store all by herself. I thought she was homeless or something.”
“So you thought a homeless woman would be a perfect decoy?”
“I told you! I thought I could take her if things got weird.”
Zach rubbed his eyes and wished his real life was more like science-fiction. He could go back in time and stop all of this from ever happening. He’d start looking for the goddamned tree in June. Or he’d go back even further, to the previous December. Then he’d buy a stupid tree and put it in storage and set all of this right again.
“Well things are weird now. Bring her back here. How far away are you?”
“I don’t know. Ten or fifteen minutes.”
“Can’t you get here sooner?”
“Not unless your car has a warp drive that I’m not aware of.”
“Don’t park outside the café. Meet me around the corner on Vine. The last thing I need is for anybody to think you used my car to kidnap an old lady.”
“But that’s exactly what happened.”
“Shut up. Just hurry.”
“God, you are so bossy. How does Chris put up with it?”
Zach hung up, mention of Chris distracting him completely from John. Zach’s heart had fallen to his stomach when Chris mentioned his car, and it still lingered there, making him sick. Now it would be so much easier to just come clean, but he didn’t want to. He was just being stubborn. He knew. This wasn’t the first time mule-headed stubbornness got him in trouble, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. But he had gone to so much effort that now admitting the truth would seem too much like admitting defeat. He didn’t need to do that. Not quite yet.
Zach paced while he waited for the minutes to crawl by, working up a good sweat in the process. He hated feeling all sweaty and sticky. He needed a nice, cold shower. Preferably with Chris. The image of Chris’s muscled body, slick with soap and water, pressed against Zach’s was enough to distract him from his watch and make his cock half-hard again. If Chris refused to forgive him, he’d have a very long, very painful night ahead of him. It was bad enough to be alone on Christmas. It would be torture to be alone while surrounded by the standard Christmas trappings. Even if he was drinking.
When he finally saw the familiar shape of his car driving towards him, he immediately began waving his arms. John slowed and pulled into the first empty spot, and Zach was opening the passenger door before the engine was off.
“Just stay here. Keep it running. I’ll be right back,” Zach instructed.
“What am I? Your getaway car?”
“You owe me. You owe me so big. I’m talking, providing the entertainment at my niece’s birthday party big. You picking up what I’m putting down?”
“Yes, yes, I owe you.”
“My back hurts,” Agnes said, her voice sounding as dry and fragile as old paper.
“I know. But we’re going to get you to your daughter and…”
“My daughter? I don’t have a daughter.”
“Yes you do. That nice young lady with long brown hair. She’s really worried about you.”
“She’s not my daughter,” Agnes insisted as Zach helped her out of the car. “She’s a whore.”
“She’s a little harlot. She keeps me locked in a room and feeds me dog food.”
Zach looked up at John, who smiled grimly. “Oh, did I forget to mention? This woman is insane, Zach. I mean, she’s really off her rocker.”
“Could be. She’s definitely not all there.”
“Great. That’s great. We kidnapped a senile old lady. No wonder her daughter was so worried.”
“If she did call the police, don’t you dare get me involved.”
“Your name won’t be mentioned,” Zach promised. “Just wait here.”
He herded Agnes back to the coffee shop as fast as he could—which wasn’t very fast at all. She didn’t walk so much as shuffle her feet. And everything distracted her. Once something caught her eye, she had to stop to study it and comment on it. Zach felt awful pushing an old lady around, but each passing second weighed heavily on his shoulders. He needed to return her to Trudy, collect Noah, and beat a hasty retreat before Chris realized that the return of Agnes coincided with the return of Zach’s car.
Trudy noticed them while they were still half of a block away and half ran, half walked to catch up with them. As soon as she reached Agnes, she wrapped her arms around the old woman with obvious relief. “Oh, Mama, don’t scare me like that again.”
“Who are you?”
Trudy looked up with apologetic eyes. “She gets so confused now. Thank you so much for finding her. I can’t even…I can’t thank you enough.”
“I was just happy to help. Is she okay?”
“She looks like it. Mama, where were you?”
“Harold took me for a drive around Los Angeles.”
Zach immediately offered his best, most charming smile. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to run. It was nice meeting you both.”
“Oh, of course, you must be very busy. I…really is there anything I can do to thank you?”
“It’s not necessary. I promise.” He took her arm and squeezed it lightly. “Good luck with…everything.”
He didn’t wait for her response before jogging down the block to untie Noah. He studied the area, searching for any sign of Chris, but he wasn’t there. Feeling more than a small twinge of guilt, he gathered up Noah’s leash and practically sprinted back to where John was waiting for him.
“Well, he’s played one of television’s creepiest villains, as well as Hollywood’s most famous alien. But today Zachary Quinto became a real life superhero when he helped search for a lost woman. The eighty-eight year old grandmother who suffers from Alzheimer’s was out shopping with her daughter when she just…disappeared. Our own Christina Rodriquez is reporting live from the scene.”
“Thanks, Robert. For Trudy Viejo and her mother, the day started out like any other.”
A familiar face popped onto the television. “We were just going to do a bit of shopping and go out to lunch like we do every Friday. It’s good for my mother to get out of the house and she’s never wandered away before.”
“But today things took a surprising and potentially tragic turn when Agnes Reynolds disappeared for nearly thirty minutes.”
Trudy’s face again. “I didn’t know what to do. I asked around but nobody saw her. Then Zachary Quinto was there and he offered to search for her. I couldn’t believe my eyes or my ears!”
“Quinto found the missing woman and delivered her safely to her daughter. Proving himself to be a real life hero.”
Chris grimaced and turned off the television. Of course there was no mention of the fact that he had spent a full hour searching for Agnes. Or the fact that when he finally returned to the café, it was only to discover that he was out a Christmas tree, out five hundred dollars, and everybody had left. In fact, there was no sign that he had even crossed paths with Zach, and a quick glance of his phone confirmed that the other man hadn’t even bothered to text him. A simple we found her, going home now would have been enough. And Chris was at a loss to explain why he hadn’t. Zach wasn’t exactly an inconsiderate person. What would prompt such uncharacteristic rudeness? Being in a big hurry to get back to his mystery man?
That morning when he woke up, he had been so optimistic. So certain that he was going to have an excellent day. There was no way he could have predicted the series of circumstances that would lead to him being completely alone, tied up in knots, consumed by jealousy for a person he didn’t even know for sure existed, and to add insult to injury, Trudy Viejo didn’t even mention that he had been there to help. Sure, he didn’t have the sort of constant media exposure Zach did, but he was still the lead in the summer’s biggest movie and Captain James T. Kirk. He didn’t think it was so out of line to expect people to recognize him, especially when he was helping them find their mother.
His phone chimed and he snatched it up, hoping the text was from Zach. It wasn’t. Normally, he wouldn’t be disappointed to receive a text from Zoe, but this wasn’t a normal day.
Hey want to go dancing tonight? Heard about a new club.
Chris tried to imagine having fun in a club full of people when none of those people were Zach. He couldn’t. Sorry busy tonite. Don’t really have happy feet anyway.
She replied almost instantly. We don’t have to dance. We can just get dinner and go see a movie.
R u bored?
My plans were canceled. And I miss hanging out with u.
Miss u too. But not really in the mood tonight.
Yeah. Should rest up anyway. Have a meeting with casting tomorrow.
As he tossed his phone aside, he could practically hear a million fanboys cry out in distress over Chris’s inexplicable decision. No man, gay or straight, would pass on an opportunity to take Zoe Saldana out. But Chris supposed it was fitting enough, since he had no idea if he were straight, gay, or something in the middle. At that moment, the only person he wanted, man or woman, was Zach. And maybe that was the problem. They were supposed to be keeping things casual. Maybe Zach had sensed that Chris really wasn’t on the casual side anymore?
Everything was getting too complicated. He didn’t want to think about it anymore. He just wanted to go back to bed. He would sleep the whole stupid day away and when he woke up the next morning, it would all seem like a bad, bizarre dream, and everything would be back to normal. He’d nail his audition, and then he’d celebrate by going out with…well, he didn’t know who yet. But he had a whole address book full of people. He had no doubt that he could find somebody who would go out with him—somebody who didn’t remind him of Zach.
“I’m sorry, Zach, but he’s not interested.”
Zach growled with frustration. “Then make him interested. There was a time you could crook your finger and he’d follow you like a puppy.”
“Sure, and then he met you.”
“Zoe…I’ve really fucked this whole thing up. If I call him now, he probably won’t even answer. Forget about agreeing to meet me.”
“Maybe you should try. Maybe if you explain everything…”
“Just get him to the hotel by eight, and I’ll explain everything to him there.”
“What am I supposed to do? Knock him out and drag him there?”
“If that’s what it takes.”
“John sent me a text telling me not to answer the phone if you call. I should have listened to him and not gotten myself involved.”
“Well, you didn’t listen to him and you are involved. Just help me out here.”
“Did you get the infamous Christmas tree done?”
Zach stepped back and surveyed his work. The tree had so many lights on it that it actually glowed. They were able to dig up enough ornaments that it didn’t look naked, and while it wasn’t the most gorgeous tree he had ever seen, it would definitely get the job done. Over a dozen presents were stacked carefully beneath the lowest branches, and an old train set that Zach had had since he was twelve made a lazy circle around the whole thing.
“Yes, and it’s fabulous.”
“So you’re just missing Chris?”
“Fine, I’ll get him there.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”
“You owe me big time, though.”
“And if I get him there, don’t piss him off again, okay?”
“I have no intention of pissing him off again. Ever again. I can promise you that. Just get him to lobby of the Beverly Hills Tower by eight. The concierge will make sure he gets up to the room. That way, we won’t have to worry about tabloids reporting that the two of you, or the three of us, are checking in to a luxury hotel for a romantic weekend.”
“He’ll be there. And Zach?”
“I think this is really sweet of you. I’m sure when Chris realizes what it’s all been about, he’ll agree.”
“I hope so. I really do.”
Chris opened his door and his jaw hit the floor. His eyes might have bugged out of his head, and he was pretty sure steam was curling up from his ears. Zoe had that affect on people. She turned every man within one hundred yards into an over-sexed cartoon character. Zoe, to her credit, always pretended not to notice. Which was nice of her, since it cut down on awkward embarrassment. She was looking particularly stunning in a slinky red dress that managed to expose just enough skin to drive a man crazy. She left her hair hanging loose around her shoulders, and her shoes added at least another two inches to her shapely legs. She was smiling at him like he hadn’t told her not to even bother coming over.
“You’re not even dressed yet.”
“I thought I told you…”
“You were serious?”
“Why wouldn’t you think I was serious?”
She lifted one finely shaped shoulder in a half shrug. “I thought you were just playing hard to get. Come on, Chris. I want to go dancing and I want to be escorted by the best looking guy in town.”
“Go and get dressed. I don’t mind waiting.”
“Have you always been such a bully?”
“How come I’ve never noticed before?”
She put both hands against his chest and pushed gently. “Because you’ve never been so stubborn before. Don’t worry, Cinderella, I won’t keep you out too late.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about.” But he didn’t bother to clarify his actual protest. She obviously wasn’t interested in that. Plus, he really wasn’t in the mood to talk about Zach. Maybe going out with Zoe wasn’t a bad idea. Maybe if they danced enough and drank enough, the night would end with a drunken fuck. The fact that the thought cheered him up just clarified what a pathetic state he was in.
When he emerged from his room a little over thirty minutes later, he found Zoe on his couch, idly flipping through a glossy magazine. He couldn’t tell which one. It might have been the People he bought specifically because Zach was on the cover. No wonder Zach was trying to put a bit of distance between them.
“You clean up nice,” Zoe said.
“I figured if I’m going to be seen with you, I better look my best. Otherwise, everybody will wonder who the bum is.”
“Right, like you don’t get recognized everywhere you go.”
“You’d be surprised. So dancing?”
“I’m actually a bit hungry. Do you want to get a quick dinner first?”
Chris wasn’t. But he also hadn’t bothered to eat a thing all day. He had just been too distracted to think about food when he got back home. He supposed making himself sick by refusing to eat wouldn’t actually improve his situation, so he nodded. “Lady’s choice.”
“You’re such a gentleman.”
“I do my best, ma’am.”
“I think you’re probably the last gentleman left in LA.”
Chris opened the door from her and bowed at the waist as she walked by. “Why do you say that?”
“Because sometimes I really do feel like I’m surrounded by bums. At least I can trust you to keep your hands to yourself.”
“Of course you can,” Chris said, immediately chagrined by his earlier thoughts of a drunken fuck. “Has some guy been pawing at you?”
“Oh, you know…I think it’s just this town. Or maybe it’s just me. Every time I go out with a guy, I wonder if he’s going out with me or…”
“Something like that,” Zoe said as the turned to the parking lot. Chris offered his arm, and they walked in silence for several seconds before she asked, “Don’t you ever worry about people dating you just because they want to go out with Captain Kirk?”
“No. The only person I’ve been seeing recently doesn’t seem too impressed by that, to be honest.”
Chris snorted. “Yeah, right.”
“It’s not going well?”
The car’s lights flashed as he unlocked the passenger door and held it open for her. “Zoe, honestly, I have no idea how it’s going. Right now, I’d say no, it’s not really going well at all.”
“Is that why you didn’t want to go out tonight?”
“Partially. Do you want to get some drinks before dinner?”
“Sure, that sounds good.”
Chris nodded and pushed the door shut. It really did sound good.
It was perfect. Everything was perfect. Exactly as Zach had imagined it when he first cooked up the plan. Everything from the tree to the feast laid out on the table was just right. Every time he looked around the room, he felt a fresh surge of satisfaction. The air was redolent with all the smells one associated with Christmas, from the plum-glazed goose with all the trimmings to fresh pine. The latter was courtesy of the air freshener he had sent John out to find—with careful instructions to not return with a standard review mirror air freshener. John had returned triumphant with that and with several candles that smelled of pumpkin, sugar cookies, and peppermint. He had carols playing softly in the background, and homemade eggnog on the wet bar. He couldn’t have planned a better Christmas on Christmas.
There was just one small problem. It was already after nine, and the guest of honor wasn’t there.
A dozen frantic texts to Zoe were ignored, and Chris wasn’t answering his phone at all. Had Zoe forgotten her promise? Or had she let slip to Chris where they were going and he refused? Were they stuck somewhere? Had there been an accident? His mind raced, coming up with increasingly tragic and over-the-top scenarios. None of them were even remotely realistic, but that didn’t stop Zach from dwelling on each other, turning them over and over in his head until it felt like they would make him crazy.
Maybe John had been right. Maybe he was being stupid and the whole plan had been stupid. He should have driven directly to Chris’s house that morning after he woke up with coffee and donuts. He could have served Chris breakfast in bed, and then they could have spent the next three or four hours working off all that sugar. Then he would have fed Chris lunch in bed and started the whole cycle over again. What would have been wrong with that? Nothing at all. It would have been completely appropriate. Especially since Chris had never once indicated that he needed or wanted huge romantic gestures.
By ten Zach was convinced that he had completely screwed the pooch. The food was cold and the tree seemed to have lost some of its sparkle. He considered drowning his sorrows in the eggnog, but if something had happened to them, then he would want to be sober. He also considered texting John, but decided he had bugged the other man enough for one day. What he couldn’t decide was whether or not he wanted to stay there all night. He had gone to so much work, it felt like he should try to enjoy it. But how could he possibly enjoy a Christmas party of one? Or the lonely expanses of a California king mattress? And forget about the breathtaking view. From the balcony, it looked like all of the stars had fallen from the sky to live in Los Angeles but all Zach could think about was how much Chris would have enjoyed it.
At ten-thirty, a knock on the door pulled him out of his self-indulgent depression. As soon as he opened the door, Chris practically fell into his arms. Zoe stood behind him with a look that was half-apologetic, half-annoyed.
“What the hell is going on?” Zach asked. “I thought I told you to leave him in the lobby.”
“He’s drunk. I’m not leaving him anywhere in his condition.”
“Drunk?” Zach stepped backwards to allow Zoe to enter, dragging Chris with him. “Why did you get him drunk?”
“I didn’t get him drunk. He did that to himself.”
Chris lifted his head and blinked. “Wait…is it Christmas?”
“God, I must really be out of it.” His eyes focused on Zach’s face. “What are you doing here? I’m really wasted.”
“I can tell,” Zach said, struggling to keep his voice neutral.
“No, man, you don’t understand. I am really fucking wasted. I mean, I can’t feel my face. It’s numb.” He grabbed Zach’s hand and brought it up to his cheek. “See? Numb.”
“It feels fine to me.”
“That’s because you weren’t drinking shots of Jaeger.”
Zach’s eyes widened and he looked over to Zoe. “You let him drink Jaeger? What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“Oh, don’t you dare start with me, Zachary Quinto. This…” She gestured at Chris. “Is not my fault. This is your fault.”
“I’m not the one who took him out drinking.”
“And I’m not the reason he felt like he had to go drinking.”
“Guys? I have no idea what you’re talking about but the room is spinning. And I have to piss.” He pushed away from Zach, like he intended to walk to the bathroom. Except he stumbled after one step, and would have landed on his face if Zach hadn’t caught him. “God, you’re really fast. Or I’m reaaaaalllllyyyyy slow. Whoa, did you hear that?”
“Come on, I’ll help you to the bathroom.”
He didn’t so much help as he dragged Chris to the bathroom. Chris never stopped talking, though the words were pretty much meaningless. Zach only caught bits and pieces of what might have been full sentences. He seemed most concerned with making sure that Zach understood he was very, very drunk. Zach got the message loud and clear and his disappointment was so thick it nearly made it impossible to move.
Once Chris was safely ensconced in the bathroom, Zach turned back to Zoe. “Just tell me what happened.”
“There isn’t much to tell. He wanted to get a drink. The more he drank, the more he talked about you. The more he wanted to talk about you, the more he drank. And every time I tried to drag him out of the club, he’d start shouting and making a scene. It was easier to just sit there with him until he was too drunk to fight with me.”
“Well…what did he say?”
Zoe sighed. “I don’t know. A lot of it didn’t make sense. Especially after his fourth shot. But what I could make out is that he’s pretty damned sure that you’re breaking up with him. And every time he’d say that, he’d swear and order another shot. Though he did try to explain that you couldn’t really break up with him because you weren’t really going out.” Zoe looked around the carefully decorated room. “I don’t really know what’s going on here, but I’m guessing you don’t usually throw a Christmas party when you’re breaking up with somebody?”
Zach shook his head. “I just wanted to do something…nice. I didn’t realize…I mean, none of this was supposed to happen. I told you. I just wanted to buy a fucking used Christmas tree. Is that so fucking unreasonable?”
“Now all of this is just a big fucking waste of time and money.”
“It’s not a waste.”
“I’m going to pour a bottle of water down his throat and give him some ibuprofen. Then I’m going to put him to bed. By the time he wakes up tomorrow, all of his will be taken down and he’ll have to leave anyway because he’s meeting a casting director.”
“Zach, I’m really sorry.”
He shook his head. “It’s my own fault. I should have just thrown him a birthday party like a regular person. Or told him the truth today when I saw him.”
“Why didn’t you throw him a birthday party like a normal person?”
“Because…” Zach rubbed the back of his neck and looked away from Zoe’s questioning gaze. “The first time we ever…was on Christmas two years ago. We got to see each other last Christmas, but this year it looks like we’ll both be too busy. So I thought that it’d be nice. I don’t know. Like I said, it’s stupid.”
“Oh, Zach…” She put a comforting hand on his arm. “That doesn’t sound stupid to me. It’s really sweet.”
“I knew I was taking a chance, but I really didn’t think that the tree would spell catastrophe.”
“It’s not a catastrophe yet. Leave everything up, at least. Tomorrow when he wakes up and he’s sober, he’ll see what you tried to do. I think that he really needs to see it.”
“Yeah. Trust me on this one, Zach. It definitely won’t hurt.”
“Hey, guys! How do I get out of here? Did you lock the door?” The question devolved into a wave of giggles. “Okay, okay, that’s pretty funny. But you can let me out now.”
“I better take care of that.”
Zoe nodded. “Do you want me to stay and help?”
“No, I’ve monopolized enough of your night.”
“I don’t mind helping.”
“No, I’ve got it. Did he make you pay for his drinks?”
“Yes, but it’s not a big deal.”
Zach reached for his wallet. “How much was it?”
“You really don’t have to.”
“Please, Zoe, I feel bad enough about the situation already. Let me at least compensate you for this.”
“Fifty should cover it.”
“Here.” He pressed a crisp hundred dollar bill in her hand.
“What’s this for? My silence?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
She kissed his cheek. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. It was just a misunderstanding.”
“Guys? Seriously, you’re kind of freaking me out here. Also, this isn’t my bathroom!”
“Go help him. I’ll show myself up.”
Zach obediently turned back to the bathroom door. He tried to turn the handle, but it refused to budge. “Chris? Did you lock the door?”
“No! You did!”
“No, Chris, the door only locks on the inside.”
“You’re not on the inside?”
“You are. Look down. Do you see the doorknob?”
A long pause and then, “Yeah, I see it!”
“Is it locked?”
“I don’t know. There are like…three of them. Fuck, Zach. I’m really fucked up. I think I should just sleep in here. It’s nice.”
“No! No, you don’t want to sleep in there. Just unlock the door.”
The doorknob rattled and he heard the tumblers give way as Chris unlocked the door, only to immediately click back into place. “Oops!”
“Try again, Chris.”
He actually had to try twice more before successfully conquering the doorknob. When he finally got the door open, he was wearing such a sheepish, boyish smile that Zach forgot he was annoyed.
“That was really embarrassing,” Chris announced.
“It’s okay, I won’t tell anybody.”
“Everything is so blurry. My head is spinning.”
“You’ll feel better when you lay down.”
“How did I get here? I don’t remember getting here.”
“Zoe drove you here.”
“Zoe? She was here? Oh fuck, she wanted me to take her dancing.” Chris looked up with sorrowful eyes. “I don’t think I can dance right now.”
“That’s okay. Come on.”
He smiled. “I didn’t think I’d see you tonight.”
“I know. I’m sorry. Here, sit down on the bed.”
Chris immediately fell to the mattress. “This is huge. Oh my god. I need a bed like this.”
“It’s a nice one,” Zach agreed while he unlaced Chris’s shoes. He removed each one, as well as the socks, before focusing on his pants. It wasn’t exactly easy to undress Chris, especially since he didn’t seem at all interested in helping. He just lay there like a sack of potatoes while Zach pulled his pants down his hips. He tried to pull Chris into a seated position so he could remove the shirt, but after the third attempt, he had to admit defeat.
“Oh, don’t make me move anymore. I feel like I’m going to puke.”
“Just a little bit more,” Zach muttered as he positioned Chris in the middle of the wide bed. “There. Now you get some sleep.”
“Where are you going?”
“Please don’t leave, Zach. Not yet. I just wanted to see you today.”
Zach tried to swallow around the lump of guilt now firmly wedged in his throat. “I won’t leave. I was just going to take my shoes off.”
Chris didn’t speak again, but when Zach crawled into bed beside him, he did smile.
Every blood vessel in Chris’s head was throbbing. Every single one. Behind his eyes, in his ears, through his lips, and along the sides of his nose. He couldn’t quite be certain, but he thought his hair was throbbing. His teeth hurt and his tongue might have been covered with hair. How had this happened? Tequila? Tequila seemed the most likely culprit, but for the life of him, he couldn’t remember drinking tequila. He couldn’t remember drinking anything, for that matter. For all he knew, the headache was a result of being hit by a truck. Or trampled by elephants. The possibilities were endless, and given the black void that was his short-term memory, that wasn’t any sort of hyperbole.
Something moved beside him. Somebody. He was in bed with somebody. Please don’t let it be some stranger. Please don’t let it be some stranger.
It wasn’t a stranger. It was the last person in the world Chris expected to wake up next to.
Deciding he needed to get to the bottom of this, Chris braced himself and kicked the sheet away from his legs. If he got some water and some painkillers, he’d feel better. Coffee wouldn’t hurt, either. And then make Zach could kick his ass for being so fucking stupid. This sort of thing was fine when he was twenty-one, but he really was getting too old for this sort of behavior.
He didn’t recognize the room, but since that was so far down on his list of problems, he barely gave it a second thought. His pants and shoes were on the floor, but his shirt still hung off him. Chris couldn’t decipher that particular clue, though, and he had no idea whether or not that meant they had sex. That was one conversation Chris wasn’t looking forward to. One among many.
As Chris stepped into the living area of the hotel suite, he forgot all about his headache. He rubbed his eyes, but when he moved his hands, the vision in front of him hadn’t changed at all. It was like stepping forward four months in time. Or maybe stepping back twenty years. Yes, that was right. He was eight years old again and emerging from his dark bedroom with his breath caught in his throat and his heart pounding in anticipation. He was eight years old and it was Christmas morning.
And that was his goddamned Christmas tree in the middle of the room. Chris would bet any amount of money on that.
He moved to kneel beside the tree, but he didn’t need to double-check the tags on the gifts to know that each one was for him.
“Oh my God. I am such an asshole.”
There were fifteen gifts in all and each one said the same thing. To Chris, From Zach. He recognized the train now halted in its tracks, too. It was the one he got when he was twelve. He still remembered showing Zach the picture of himself with that toy train in the background. How had he remembered that detail? Was he some sort of super genius?
“Of course he fucking is,” Chris muttered. “Like I’m some sort of super asshole.”
Further investigation revealed the amazing dinner Zach had set out for him. As well as the chocolate mousse for dessert and the dark rum to drink with the clearly homemade eggnog. Each subsequent discovery made Chris confident he would win the Asshole of the Year Award hands down. Hands down. How could he possibly make this up to Zach? There was no way to redeem himself. Especially since he still didn’t quite know why Zach had gone to the trouble. The gifts could be explained by his upcoming birthday, but the Christmas theme? Unless…
As understanding set it, Chris felt lower than whale shit. There wasn’t a way to make up for this. But he could at least apologize. Whether or not Zach would accept said apology, he couldn’t even guess. He didn’t think Zach should forgive him, but that wasn’t up to him. First he would do something about his headache, then he’d order breakfast up, shower, shave, and hopefully be fully functional by the time Zach woke up.
All of a sudden, Zoe’s behavior the night before made a lot more sense. She had been doing everything in her power to stop this very scenario from occurring. And he had ignored her. Worse, he had made her buy the drinks! If he somehow made it through this without losing two very good friends, he’d be grateful. So grateful, in fact, that he’d vow before God and everybody not to be such a self-indulgent asshole again.
Chris tiptoed back into the bedroom to verify that he hadn’t disturbed Zach when he got out of bed. The other man still appeared to be asleep. He hadn’t undressed the night before, and now Chris had the vaguest memory of asking Zach to stay with him. Apparently, he had complied immediately. His jaw was already dark with stubble, and his hair stuck out in every direction. His bottom lip stuck out just a little. Just enough for Chris to wish he could crawl up the bed and catch it between his teeth and suck on it.
Later. Maybe. In the meantime, he had to focus on the larger problem of being the biggest asshole in all of North America.
“Why didn’t you just tell me?” Chris murmured. “I would have given you the Christmas tree. No questions asked. Damnit.”
Zach didn’t stir. Chris watched for several long moments, then turned to the bathroom. The one he sort of remember being trapped in the night before.
Zach woke up alone. Which wasn’t anything other than what he had expected, but it still sucked pretty bad. He rolled over to Chris’s side of the bed and inhaled, trying to catch a bit of his lingering scent. But the pillowcase was cool to the touch, and it just smelled of the detergent the hotel used. The disappointment that had choked him the night before flooded back, and Zach had the feeling he would be living with it for a very long time. Especially since he had been so very close. Perfection had been in his grasp. It didn’t help that he could trace it back to the second he had completely lost control yet stubbornly insisted on pressing forward as planned.
He needed to learn when to quit.
A quick glance at the clock confirmed he had slept away most of the morning. Chris had probably beat a hasty retreat. Especially if he wanted to be ready for his meeting. But Zach really had no desire to venture out of the bedroom and be mocked by the Christmas decorations, which were now only visible reminders of his failure. He was still lying in bed, wondering what to do, when the unmistakable smell of coffee penetrated the fog around his brain. Had Chris ordered breakfast before he left? Or had he just requested a pot and downed as much as possible before heading out?
Either way, coffee sounded pretty spectacular. Afterwards, he’d call a few friends and they could come over and help him clean up. Or he could just leave it for the maids to deal with—along with a very hefty and grateful tip.
“Are you up?” Chris popped his head into the room and smiled. “You are. Great. Don’t move.”
“Don’t move. I want you to stay in bed. Good timing, by the way. All the food is still hot.”
“I’ll be right there.”
The bitter taste of disappointment instantly disappeared, replaced by something that felt very much like hope. He sat up, watching the door raptly until Chris appeared, this time pushing a big trolley of food.
“Okay, I have a really shitty memory, unlike you. So I ordered what I thought you wanted, but if it’s not, I’m sorry in advance, and you should just pretend so you don’t hurt my feelings.”
Zach smiled. “I’m not that picky when it comes to breakfast.”
“I know. I just…I’m trying to say I’m sorry. So I want this to be perfect.” He lifted the toppers from each of the platters, revealing more food than the two of them could possibly eat. He had waffles, French toast, bacon, ham, two different types of eggs, two types of potatoes, steak, oatmeal, orange juice, and the coffee Zach had smelled earlier. Not to mention the stack of what looked like sourdough toast.
“Yeah, I just decided to cover all my bases. Since I didn’t know if I’d get a second shot at this.”
“At apologizing. I ruined everything. I can’t even believe how much I ruined everything. And I’m really sorry.”
“Don’t say I didn’t ruin everything, because I did. You had this amazing date set up and I should have just trusted you. Or been patient. Or something. I should have done the opposite of what I did do, and I’m sorry.”
Chris blinked. “Really? Just like that?”
“I’m not mad at you. I didn’t even think you’d still be here. I knew you had a meeting.”
Chris grimaced. “Yeah, but I’m in no condition for that. My agent was able to work everything out, somehow. I’ve got the whole day off. I’d like to spend it with you.”
Zach’s smile started in his chest and erupted from him. “I’d like that, too. Will you be annoyed if I tell you I’m not that hungry right now?”
“Depends on why you were telling me.”
He reached out and wrapped his fingers around Chris’s. “Come here, that’s why.”
Chris didn’t need to be asked twice. He knelt on the mattress and bent low until his mouth touched Zach’s. Heat spread through him at the first moment of contact, the fire racing to the tips of his fingers and toes. Their hands remained clasped together as Chris deepened the kiss, dipping his tongue into Zach’s willing mouth. It had been less than twenty-four hours since the last time they kissed, but when he factored in all the work and anxiety and fear, it felt like much, much longer than that. Days or even months.
They sank to the welcoming mattress without breaking the kiss, and the softness of the pillows were a sharp contrast to Chris’s solid chest and warm skin and soft moans. The vibrations echoed through Zack until the sounds blended with his own soft moans. His free hand traveled up and down Chris’s back, gently tracing the knobs of his spine through his thin T-shirt. They both had far too many clothes on, but Zach was powerless to do anything about it. In order to get Chris undressed he would have to break away from the long, slow kisses. And he had no intention of doing that.
In fact, the more they kissed, the more Zach wanted. Every inch of him was hungry for Chris. In his need, he pushed his hips forward, grinding his erection against Chris’s groin. Chris whimpered into Zach’s mouth and pushed back. As they thrust against each other, Chris’s mouth grew harder, more demanding. Zach knew his lips would be bruised by the time they were finished, but he didn’t care. He wanted the bruises. He wanted ten perfect ovals on his arms where Chris held him. He wanted the purple marks on his neck and throat and chest. He wanted to be able to touch the sensitive skin after Chris left him and relive every second of their coupling. His balls ached with that desire, his cock straining against his tight, uncomfortable pants.
“We’ve gotta get out of these clothes,” Chris gasped, as though he was reading Zach’s mind.
Unable to reach Chris’s mouth again, Zach settled on attacking his exposed throat with his tongue and lips. “I know but I don’t want you to stop.”
“Oh…fuck. I know. But…it’ll be better. Much better.”
Zach couldn’t disagree with that. He also couldn’t bring himself to stop. As Chris sat up, Zach followed, his mouth still attached to Chris’s neck. They both struggled with their clothes, clawing at the shirts that were already half hanging off of them. Zach heard the unmistakable sound of material ripping, but he didn’t know who it belonged to. He didn’t much care, either. Chris’s shirt finally disappeared, giving him the opportunity to taste even more of his taut skin. His hands went to Chris’s back, all ten fingers pressing into the flesh to hold him in place as he found Chris’s nipple with his teeth.
Zach lifted his head to ask if that meant Chris liked it but before he even uttered a word, their mouths were sealed together again. Chris seemed intent on devouring him, putting his entire body into the kiss. He buried his hands in Zach’s hair, his fingers twining around the strands until his scalp tingled, and shivers rolled down his spine. Chris shifted his weight forward, slamming their groins together and reminding Zach that he was still trapped in his jeans. He slid his hands up to grip Chris’s shoulders, and with their mouths sealed together, flipped Chris over to the mattress.
“What you do that for?” Chris gasped.
“This,” Zach said, immediately taking advantage of his position to unzip his pants.
Then he was lost in the force of Chris’s kisses again. He struggled against his pants until he managed to work them down his hips. From there, Chris did the rest, gripping the denim and giving it a good pull. His cock caught on his boxers for a moment, but Chris tugged the material free. Zach kicked the material to his feet, then shifted to straddle Chris properly. Their bare cocks slid against each other, smooth skin against smooth skin. The heat of Chris’s flesh was unbelievable, and his head was already slick with his pre-come. Zach reached between their bodies and gripped both shafts with one hand, closing his long fingers around them.
The first squeeze drew a low whimper from Chris’s throat. “Fuck, I can’t believe what you do to me.”
“You like that?”
“What else you like?”
Chris dropped his head back and gasped for air, exposing the column of his throat. Without thinking twice, Zach closed his lips around Chris’s Adam’s apple and sucked gently. Chris jerked, like he had just been touched with a live wire, and fresh pre-come dripped from his slit to cover Zach’s hand.
“Well?” Zach prompted.
“You expect me to talk?”
“That’s why I asked.”
“God…I can’t even think.”
Zach smiled against Chris’s warm skin. “You want to fuck me?”
“You want me to ride your cock until you…pop?”
“Oh, God, Zack, I want to fuck you. I want to fuck you so bad I can taste it.”
Zach left a series of hard kisses along Chris’s jaw before finding his lips. Zach tried to hold himself back a little, tried to keep the caresses slow, tried to introduce an element of restraint. But Chris wasn’t having any of it. He attacked Zach with new fervor, as though something inside of Chris had been torn loose. Chris’s cock throbbed in his hand, and Zach’s stomach clenched in response. He wanted to feel that thick shaft buried as far in his body as possible. He wanted to feel each beat of Chris’s pulse echoing through his own body. He wanted to move against Chris until they both forgot that there had ever been any doubt between them.
They were close enough to the nightstand that Zach could reach it without moving. He fumbled around blindly until he found the condoms he had left there the day before. He also found the bottle of lubricant he needed. He broke away from the kiss and sat up, flipping the lube open with his thumb. Chris watched him with half-closed eyes, and Zach had to pause for a moment just to appreciate the view. Chris’s body was as perfect as always, but it looked even better when it was completely exposed, vulnerable to attack from Zach’s hands or mouth.
“Give me that,” Chris said.
He handed it over without comment, and was transfixed by the sight of Chris pouring a healthy amount on two fingers. He dropped the bottle, gripped Zach by the back of the head, and pulled him down into another thorough kiss. While Zach was distracted by Chris’s mouth, he didn’t notice what Chris was doing with his other hand. Not until the two slick fingers pushed between his cheeks and began tracing his hole. Chris spread the lube until Zach’s entrance was slick and his entire body was trembling.
When he felt the head of Chris’s cock at his opening, he froze, a protest rising to his lips. What about the condom? But Chris didn’t push for entrance. He just let the slick crown slide between Zack’s cheeks. Pleasure shot up his spin, and he reacted thoughtlessly, shifting backwards and moving his hips to increase the friction. His own cock was trapped against Chris’s stomach, and each time he rolled his hips, the sensitive tip dragged over Chris’s ridged flesh. The combined force of the friction was too much to withstand, and Zach fell into a steady rhythm. One that Chris seemed all too happy to encourage.
“How did you learn to move like this?” Chris muttered.
“Just comes natural, I guess.”
“One of your many talents?”
“Fuck, you’re going to make me explode.”
“That’s the idea…eventually.”
“Eventually,” Chris agreed weakly.
Zach didn’t know if he should admit as much out loud, but it wasn’t like this with anybody else. Ever. He was fascinated with Chris’s body in a way that was completely unusual. He wanted to learn every single taste and texture, from his freshly shaven jaw to the thin skin at the top of his feet. He wanted to have a complete appreciation of Chris’s cock and experience it in as many different ways as possible. He wanted to keep Chris pinned beneath him, and it was the pure force of that desire that was so unusual. He had been attracted to dozens—probably hundreds—of other people in his lifetime, but he had never felt that attraction all the way down to his bones. His need for Chris seemed completely elemental, like his need for food or water. He couldn’t imagine actually telling Chris that, but maybe he didn’t need to. Surely Chris sensed that hunger driving every caress and kiss. Surely he sensed it behind every second of contact.
He felt the pressure of Chris’s fingers against his slick opening again. Zach moaned as they slid into his channel and pushed back. Chris wasn’t content with just two fingers for long, and he soon added his ring finger. Zach rocked back and forth, fucking himself on Chris’s hands, half-shouting each time the tips of his fingers hit Zach’s prostate. The pressure was intense, but not unbearable. Not quite. It was just enough to make Zach long for the overwhelming force of Chris’s cock plunging into his body, and the suffocating, mind-numbing pleasure that went along with it.
Chris tore his mouth away and attacked the skin right at the crook of Zach’s neck, alternating between soft bites and hard kisses. Zach felt like he was melting as Chris found the sensitive spot under his ear with his teeth. His stomach was fluttery and his throat tightened and everything inside him felt hot and cold at the same time.
“Ready?” Chris asked against his skin.
Zach ran his hand over the bed, searching for the discarded and temporarily forgotten condom. He just hoped he had the dexterity necessary to open the foil and successfully put it on Chris. He was already trembling and his fingers felt fat and clumsy. As soon as he snagged the condom, he sat up and tore it open with his teeth. Chris pulled his hand free, leaving him feeling strangely empty. Empty and aching for more.
“Take it slow,” Chris said once the condom was in place.
Zach gripped the base of Chris’s cock and angled it toward his hole. The crown pressed against his clenched opening, and he knew Chris was muttering words of encouragement, but he could barely hear them over the sound of his own racing heart. There was a heavy buzz in his ears, like waves were crashing over his head. He pushed back, but his body resisted. He applied more pressure until the fat head finally breached the ring of muscle. From there it was a simple matter of sinking back.
It took an amazing amount of willpower to remain still while Zach took him in, inch by slow, careful, maddening inch. Chris wanted to lift his hips and drive the rest of the way into Zach’s body, but he knew it would be better for them if he let Zach control the pace—for now. Zach’s eyes were closed, his head tilted back, his face set in a strange combination of concentration and bliss. Watching the unmistakable pleasure pass over Zach’s features did nothing to help his desire to simply slam home, but he couldn’t look away. He wanted that moment to be permanently fused to his memory. He wanted to have perfect recall of that expression even if he lived to be a hundred.
When his balls finally brushed against Zach’s ass, Chris realized that he had a new problem. Before it took all of his willpower not to simply take what he wanted. Now it took everything he had not to explode as soon as he felt Zach’s walls clench around his length. The base of his spine tingled with a well-known warning, and he felt his skin flush and fresh beads of sweat dotting his brow. Each time Zach’s muscles constricted, fireworks went off behind Chris’s eyes. His breath was caught and trapped in his throat, and he wanted to moan, but he couldn’t even make a sound. I’m drowning. This is what it feels like to drown.
That feeling only lasted until Zach started to move. And then everything shifted and he didn’t feel like he was drowning anymore. He felt like he was burning, from the inside out. Zach put both hands flat on Chris’s chest to support himself, the nails just barely pushing into his flesh. Chris responded by gripping his hips, holding him as tight as he could as he began to rock his hips. The motion was shallow—shallow enough that Chris stayed buried balls deep as Zach moved.
Zach dipped his head, letting his lips skim across Chris’s jaw. It was such a fleeting touch. Barely anything at all. Certainly nothing compared to the amazing heat squeezing around him. And yet, he felt it everywhere. Zach might as well have been kissing his eyelids and his toes and the inside of his elbow.
“Say that again,” Zach rasped.
“Zachary…fuck…I think you’re killing me.”
“You are. You don’t…even know it but you are.”
“What can I do?”
There was only one realistic answer to that question. “Move.”
“Like this?” Zach lifted himself, letting Chris’s cock slip from his body. When there was only an inch left inside of him, he slammed back down.
“Fuck! Oh…fuck…oh you gotta do that again.”
Zach did. Again and again and again. Until Chris couldn’t take it anymore. Then he tightened his grip on Zach’s hips until his fingers actually ached and slammed his hips upward to meet Zach’s body on a downward stroke.
That was it. That was all. Chris’s brain shut down. He had absolutely no higher thoughts. No motives except pure pleasure. He didn’t need anything else in the world except Zach above him, moving to meet each hard thrust. There were sounds but Chris could barely process them—moans and shouts and flesh slapping against flesh. Occasionally, he considered slowing down, but Zach wouldn’t let him. They pushed each other, tormented each other, teased each other, challenged each other until their bodies were moving like one, and neither one of them missed a beat.
Chris managed, somehow, to keep an iron grip on his self control, but it was slipping. All he wanted to do was plunge as deep as he could into Zach’s body and feel the muscles twitch and flutter around him as he finally shot his wad. He didn’t know what would finally make him snap. Not until the second it happened. He felt Zach’s body stiffen, felt his whole frame jerk, and then hot strands of thick come painted his stomach. As soon as he felt that, he completely lost it. His balls pulled tight into his body and a stunning heat spread through his lower stomach while jolts of pleasure shot up his spine. The world around him disappeared and in the space of a second, everything broke apart and came together again.
When he came back to his senses, he heard himself muttering Zach’s name over and over. Like some sort of supplication. But he didn’t open his eyes until he felt long fingers running over his stomach, trailing through the come. He watched as Zach brought his fingers up to his mouth and thoroughly licked them.
“Do you want me to clean you up?” Zach asked.
Chris couldn’t do much more than nod.
He let Chris’s cock slip from him and then slid back on Chris’s thighs. He bent at the hips, watching Chris’s face through his lashes as he slowly lapped up his spunk. Chris watched, feeling very much like Zach was hypnotizing him. And Zach didn’t stop until he had cleaned up every single drop. As soon as he sat up, Chris grabbed him by the back of the head and smashed their mouths together. He pushed his tongue past Zach’s lips, chasing that salty taste until he was sated and his lungs burned.
When they finally broke apart, Zach collapsed beside him, his skin flushed, his eyes glazed. “I should have just forgotten the Christmas tree and jumped right to this part.”
Chris knew Zach didn’t mean it that way, but the words reawakened the guilt. “Oh, man, Zach. I just want to say that…”
“Don’t say you’re sorry.”
“But I am.”
“Don’t. We don’t need to go over that ever again.”
“Can I ask a question?”
“Yes. As long as it’s not a question about whether or not I forgive you.”
“No, it’s not that. But…do you usually go to so much effort for your fuckbuddies?”
The silence seemed to last forever. It was probably only a few seconds, but it felt so much longer than that. Finally, “No.”
“Does that mean that maybe…we’re not?”
“We’re not fuckbuddies?”
“I don’t know. Is that what you want it to mean?”
“I want it to mean that maybe we’re not just, you know, casual.”
Zach took a deep breath. “That’s what I want it to mean, too.”
“Well…good. I’m glad we got that worked out.”
Chris pinched the top of the condom and pulled it off then tossed it in the nearby garbage bin. “Do you want to eat before all of this goes cold? Or do you want to shower?”
“I hope that’s an invitation.”
Chris looked at him with a cocked eyebrow. “What are you saying? You’re ready for round two?”
“I haven’t had you to myself in months. I’m ready for rounds two, three, and four.”
“When you put it that way, I can’t argue. Oh, one more thing.”
Chris closed the space between them and pressed a small kiss to the corner of Zach’s mouth. “Merry Christmas.”