BLURB: One week, two men, three Christmas trees. And hopefully a fairytale romance.
We both turned to stare at the tree behind him. The lower half, including the thick trunk, had come easily over the doorstep, but at some stage the netting that kept it in place had torn, and the branches had sprung free. They stretched either side of the doorway, at their full extent, and inside the café. One side reached half way up the open door, now pressed flat against the wall, and the other side had upended two chairs at a front table. Behind them, still on the pavement outside, the branches from further up the tree had mushroomed out like the upper half of an egg timer—with the café doorway as the squeezed middle. It was a magnificent tree: its needles shone a bright, clean green. The trunk was sturdy, copper-toned wood. The whole thing reeked of health and beauty and Christmas spirit.
And it was crushed up in my café’s doorframe until I was afraid the old wood would split asunder. I may even have heard it creak in protest.
The man-bear shook his head and shoved the delivery note back into his pocket. “Looks like they directed me to the wrong shop.”
“Well, obviously, because I never ordered it—”
“In fact,” Molly broke in. “Gil hasn’t ordered a tree at all this year.”
“No tree at all?” The giant man looked momentarily disconcerted—or was that disapproving? “You don’t like Christmas?”
“I like it well enough,” I muttered. “But as you can see, there’s little enough space here.” I could only afford this small unit on the outskirts of a small Essex shopping mall. It was last Christmas’ gift to myself, the best I could do when Paulie, my partner—in business and romance—had scarpered with most of my savings to set up a bar in Ibiza. Without me, in either capacity. But life has to go on, right? I just downsized my dreams from our swish supper club venue to my small local café. After installing the counter and display cases, and covering two of the other walls with bookshelves for the romance novels I loved to read and share with customers, there wasn’t much room left for tables and chairs, let alone ambitious decorations.
Over the giant’s left shoulder, I could see old Mr. Brooke hopping from one foot to another as he peered into the shop past the branches. He was a creature of habit, and he always had his caramel latte at this time of the afternoon. If he could get into the café, that was. Behind me, a half-dozen members of the Women’s Institute Book Club stirred restlessly, and two pre-school boys had wriggled out of their mothers’ clutches and were gleefully stabbing a pile of paper napkins with a stray pine stalk.
“So. Anyway. You have to do something about this!” My voice seemed to be higher than usual.
He shrugged, his grin now rueful. “Not a lot I can do, at the moment. It’s well and truly stuck.” He tugged on the trunk as if to convince me further and, yes, I definitely heard the doorframe creak. “Should have realised the measurements didn’t add up. All I can do is apologise and arrange to have someone come and cut it out as soon as possible.” He rummaged in the pocket of his jeans and pulled out his phone. His fingers darted over the keys as fast as any teenager, sending a quick message. My gaze was still fixed on the backs of his hands—strong, with more than a smattering of dark hair over the lower digits—when I realised what he’d said.
“But it can’t stay there! My customers can’t get out—”
“I can open the back door,” Molly offered helpfully, or not, as the case may be.
“—and no one can get in, either. This is Christmas week, with all the passing trade from shoppers. I have a full schedule of seasonal events, and those new snowflake cupcakes on offer!”
The man’s pupils dilated. “There are cupcakes?”
For God’s sake. Again. Was no one taking this crisis seriously?
“We could cut the branches off right now,” said a voice at my ear. Mrs. Potter from the Book Club had crept up beside me without me realising: no taller than five foot, no heavier than eight stone, and seventy-two last birthday. But the gleam in her eyes was worthy of a Steven King character at his most manic. “Do you have a chainsaw in the café, Gil?”
“No, I bloody don’t!”
The giant was grinning at me, though he’d taken a cautious step away from Mrs. P. “Please don’t worry, ma’am. Leave it to a professional. A guy from the garden centre is on his way with the right tools.”
“The right tools are always useful.” Mrs. Potter gave a snort. When I snapped my gaze to her, she waggled her eyebrows and winked at me. Winked! What on earth was that all about? She knew, of course, I was gay and, yes, I had occasionally dated a customer, though it wasn’t like I shared my social diary—sparse as it was—with all and sundry. But this guy was just doing his job, wasn’t he? This poor guy… this poor, buff, guy… this poor, buff, strong, hairy, handsome bear of a guy…
A passing jab in the ribs from Mrs. P on her way back to the Book Club table, and I started to wonder if I’d been wise to add more gay romance titles in with the historical bodice rippers………….