EXCERPT – Secret Santa

BLURB: Seb and Jamie argue over most things, even in the season of presumed good will. When a totally unsuitable “Secret Santa” present for each of them causes even more tension, the hostility threatens to ruin the pleasant Christmas meal they had planned with friends. But there are strange forces at work tonight and both of them seem to be acting out of character. They find they’re working together in the kitchen, sharing confidences, and admitting to feelings they never dared before – and cooking up something rather more exciting than food!

Jamie sighed. It was common knowledge Seb had never enjoyed the Christmas season, apart from the excuse to party even more and even harder, but Jamie would have thought most people had heard the term. “It’s a kind of game,” he said. “A rather daft tradition, where you give a surprise present to an unsuspecting friend, and mark it from an anonymous source. Sounds like a recipe for a disaster if ever I saw one.”  He caught Seb’s eye, and for a second, there was a flicker of shared amusement between them.

“No pun intended, right?” Seb grinned.

Jamie frowned. “Obviously.” Seb’s irritation had apparently melted away as quickly as it arrived. It was something Jamie admired, at the same time as it drove him mad. Jamie was still angry, the strong emotion shaking him inside. He usually coped perfectly well with the familiar repartee between him and Seb, but for some unknown reason, tonight was different.  He needed to calm the disturbance; regain control of himself. “Harry says it’s all the fashion at work, and he thought it’d be fun for us tonight.”

“Fun.” Seb put enough horror into the word to imply he’d rather be tortured with thumbscrews.

Jamie couldn’t help wanting to smile. “It’s okay, I happen to agree with you on that topic. I don’t really have the time myself to play games.” He glanced at his watch. He’d been looking forward to meeting up with everyone, but he had work to finish tonight, papers waiting for him at home at the end of the evening. It may well be the start of the Christmas holidays, but he couldn’t afford to let things slide. The new promotion relied on his commitment, one hundred percent, and then more. He didn’t really welcome distraction, but that’s what Christmas always was. And so was this evening. And… he glanced over the counter again.

So is Seb.

“You don’t really believe Harry, do you?” Seb was still waving the cookbook in the air.

“He says he has no idea who left them. They just appeared under the tree, overnight.”

“Yeah, right.”

Jamie watched the rueful grin spread over Seb’s face, brightening his eyes, crinkling the skin at the edges of his eyes. At least Seb seemed to have given up accusing Jamie, and not before time. But that was Seb’s way, wasn’t it? He leapt into every argument, every controversy without a moment’s hesitation, with all gears engaged. Seb was always volatile, always… passionate. Even when he was patently wrong.

It annoyed the hell out of Jamie, but he also found it fascinating. Their behavior was so different, but they never doubted they were friends. It just seemed that Seb was a human recipe for disaster, all on his own, and there was always a crisis or romantic fiasco going on.  He just reacted, then had to back off or apologize accordingly for his bad behavior. Or not, as the case may be.

Jamie allowed himself a rueful, hidden smile of his own. He rarely leaped in anywhere, let alone big feet first. He thought things through, debated the wisdom of a move, then stepped carefully. Dammit. It sounded like someone twice his twenty three years. And yet he’d protest that he enjoyed his life, was pleased with what he’d achieved, with the calm routine he’d built up, with everything in its place…

Funny how Seb had such an effect on him. How he made Jamie question what he did, how he felt, what he really wanted in life. Funny how that time Seb’s car broke down in the fast lane of the motorway, or the Sunday when his washing machine collapsed in a flood of soapy water all over the kitchen floor, or that very dark night when one of the unsavoury men Seb sometimes picked up at the club turned hateful and aggressive, and Seb had needed to get out of the man’s flat fast…Jamie was the first person he called.

And Jamie always went to help out. Sure, they argued about it afterwards, and Jamie moaned about the inconvenience, and Seb snapped how he wouldn’t bother calling him up next time there was a crisis…

But he did.

Jamie couldn’t shake off the disturbed feelings tonight, even if his anger was easing. What was wrong with him? It wasn’t drink; he’d only sipped at the wine Harry opened for an early seasonal toast. They’d all had to wait for Seb to arrive to decide on where to eat, which was the usual scenario, because Seb always had something else going on and forgot the time. Tonight he’d burst into the flat an hour late, with a too-loud laugh and ludicrous excuses, and Jamie had almost immediately started complaining. He didn’t know why he’d been even swifter than usual to anger; maybe the loud, crass sound of Seb in the same room, the sweaty, musky smell of his clothes when he passed by, the clumsy, over-familiar grip of his hands when he grasped Jamie by the shoulders and swung him around just to get his attention.

Now Seb was staring at him and Jamie felt himself blush. Whatever I’ve been feeling recently, it’s inappropriate. He looked back at Seb, keeping his gaze steady. And impossible. “There’s no point going on about it, Seb. It’s just a joke, that’s all.”

Seb grimaced and stabbed the book forward under Jamie’s nose. “You can say that again! Veritable Vegetarianism. What kind of humour is that?”

“I might say the same about mine. Mouthwatering Meats?”

It was ironic, really. Jamie had been a committed vegetarian since he was old enough to express a choice, but Seb was a shamelessly enthusiastic carnivore. They’d tolerated each other’s tastes for all these years with a mixture of amusement and scorn and separate menus whenever they ate out.

Secret Santa couldn’t have presented them with a more inappropriate gift if he’d searched for the last three hundred and sixty four days.

“A mistake in the wrapping, do you think?” Seb mused. “Wrong book, wrong guy?”

Jamie shook his head. “No, they’ve been personally marked.”

“So what shall we do with them? Matt and Amy said we should just swap, and have done with it.”

Jamie was startled by the ripple of shock through his body. “But the message is very personal.” He opened the cover and read the fly sheet. “Mine says ‘For Jamie, his Christmas surprise. Find the—” He coughed and flipped it shut again. “Well, just that.”

“Mine says ‘For Seb, his Christmas surprise’, too. But so what?”

Jamie flushed. “I couldn’t give that to anyone else. Not even someone who’d get some proper use out of it.”

“Even when you don’t know who it’s from?” Seb frowned. “Though they obviously know…”

“Know what? What else did your message say?”

“Nothing.” Seb’s face was set in a mulish expression.

Jamie glanced at his own book, recalling the elegant script inside the cover and the more detailed, personal message that he hadn’t shown anyone else. Had Seb received a similar thing? “It’s still a gift,” he said grudgingly. “So what shall we do with them?”

They stood silently for a moment, both equally reluctant to seek compromise.