|Cover Art by Meredith Russell|
For Jesse Connor, Christmas is nothing but a series of bad memories. It takes a man imbued with the spirit of Christmas to help him realize that the Christmas spirit lies in everyone. If they only know where to look.
"....Wow. This is what I have to say about this story. I have read several other RJ Scott Christmas stories and this one is by far the best and my favorite so far. Ms. Scott did a fantastic job with emotions and visualizations in this one...."
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Mrs Condit & Friends read books - 5/5 - "....The question becomes, will Jesse be able to give up his sophisticated, if very insular, life in NYC for the coddled life as the partner of a small town teacher? Or will the small town teacher be able to leave his comfortable position as the beloved teacher and organizer of almost every facet of the month long celebration of Christmas in his hometown? We watch, knowing what their choices should be, hoping that they will be, and knowing that love just has to win in the end. Doesn’t it? An excellent story, set during the Christmas season, but meaningful at any time of the year...."
Prism Book Alliance - 5/5 - "....Wow. This is what I have to say about this story. I have read several other RJ Scott Christmas stories and this one is by far the best and my favorite so far. Ms. Scott did a fantastic job with emotions and visualizations in this one. From the start I could easily feel Jesse’s bitterness towards life and love and it sucked me in. He just had to find a away out of this horrible place he was stuck in. Then entered Gabriel and Jesse’s emotions slowly changed. Through his photography, the author subtly showed the audience Jesse’s healing and his emergence from that dark place. She didn’t need to tell the reader what was happening, it was so obvious from the story and the pictures themselves...."
Reviews for the original story, released 2011
Rainbow Book Reviews - "....This is a wonderful story which made me smile and re-appreciate the meaning of Christmas. I loved reading about Jesse, who is totally disillusioned. Christmas is ruined for him, and while it isn’t clear, at first, exactly what happened, the gradual revealing of his reasons added a nice extra layer to the story. Equally, the gradual thawing of his heart as he meets and gets to know Gabriel is the perfect setup for a heartwarming story. It is an interesting variation on the Christmas grinch storyline...."
Blackravens Reviews - 3/5 - "....It’s impossible not to smile while reading this tale of lost and found love, as Jesse and Gabriel struggle (all too briefly) to develop a relationship in a situation that could ultimately be temporary. After all, Jesse is on an assignment for Christmas...."
Eden Vale, Vermont
Winner of Best Christmas Small Town**
(**For towns with populations under 1200)
* * * * *
~Two Years Ago~
Everything Jesse felt about the season was wrapped up in this particular Christmas, the day he was going to ask Jonah to marry him. He had the tree and the decorations and all the perfectly chosen and appropriate presents organized. He even had the damn platinum ring burning a hole in his pocket.
And now everything had gone to hell.
“Sir, you’ll need to come with us.” Jesse spun on his heel. There was a cop standing inside his apartment, feet straddling the threshold between bedroom and main living room. This was a joke. Any minute now the cop would strip off and give him a lap dance and everything would be revealed to be one huge joke.
“I think I’ve been burgled,” Jesse murmured. He felt icy cold; the window wide open to the outside air was letting in gusts of snow every so often. The snow landed on the widescreen TV, which lay on its side with half of its guts hanging out, and melted immediately.
“Sir, we have some questions. Please come with us.”
“Where?” was all Jesse could ask. “Outside?” He was in a daze. Where was Jonah? Why was the TV destroyed? Where had his photos gone? Why was all of Jonah’s stuff not in the closet?
“The FBI are waiting in the hall, sir.”
“What? Sorry, what?”
“Sir, you’ll need to come with us,” another cop said. Where had he come from? Jesse blinked at them both.
“What are you doing here? Where’s Jonah?”
“We’re hoping you will tell us that, sir.” This time it was a different voice belonging to a man in a cheap suit with frown lines bracketing his eyes who stepped in past the cops.
“I don’t know.” Jesse pulled out his cell again, but checking it for the hundredth time wasn’t going to change the fact that there was no new message from Jonah. “Maybe he’s delayed at the bank?” Jesse offered.
“We both know that is unlikely,” the Fed said with a scowl. “He’s not going to return to the scene of a crime.”
Cops in his apartment. And now Jonah was being accused of something. And Jonah had gone. The music in the apartment next door started up, signaling the fact that Henrietta who worked in marketing at the same company as Jonah had arrived home. The strains of Christmas music wound their way through the walls and into Jesse’s hearing.
“He’s supposed to be here. We were due to go to the ballet. I had tickets.” Jesse looked at the decorated tree that lay on its side, then back at the empty frames, and finally he faced the cops in his and Jonah’s apartment.
“I’ll need your cell phone, sir.” The Fed held out his hand.
“Will it help you find Jonah?” Jesse asked uncertainly.
“I surely hope so,” the Fed answered brusquely.
“What did he do? What’s happened? I don’t…”
The Fed was talking to the cops, telling them not to let anyone in, instructing them that Jonah may well be desperate and try anything at this moment in time.
Jesse followed the Fed numbly out into the hallway. The door to Henrietta’s apartment was open, and she stood in the doorway with a stunned expression on her face. Her eyes were bright and she was crying.
“Oh my God, Jesse,” she said as Jesse came to a stop in front of her.
“Henrietta? Are you okay? What’s happened?”
“It’s Jonah. He’s taken down the whole bank.” She put a hand to her mouth. “He’s wiped millions in trading. It’s all over the news, he’s destroyed us.”
“I don’t understand?”
“Did you know?” she shouted. Jesse stumbled back against the wall as she advanced on him with horror in her eyes.
The Fed moved between them. “Sir, you need to come with me.” Jesse saw one of the cops nod, and in a few seconds he was bundled out of the building and into a cop car.
When he got home, twenty-four hours had passed and Jesse’s world had been destroyed. He tore the tree to small pieces and threw the gifts in the garbage.
And he promised himself one thing. Never again would he fall so far in love that he was blinded by it.
“Your apathy is getting serious, and you have deadlines, Jesse.”
The words repeated on an audio loop in his head. Emma meant well. As his agent she had a responsibility to keep him in line. God knows he hadn’t been the best client over the last year.
“I get why you’re angry,” he hedged in the vain hope he would placate her.
“You agreed to this contract, Jesse. The photos for their website are important to them and are central to their whole Christmas marketing campaign.”
“I know, Emma—”
“They’re paying good money for Jesse Connor’s work, and let’s face it, your accounts are running on empty now. Eden Vale may be the only thing that gets you inspired.”
He argued so hard. He used to love Christmas. The expectation and the uplifting joy that people carried around with them was so intrinsic to the memories he had of the season before two years ago. Now though? Well now, in his opinion, Christmas was something he wanted to forget, winter was cold, and in fact every damn thing connected to the season sucked. Emma had been so patient listening to everything he said and then passed him the leaflet that signed his death warrant. That is what it was. A damned document to screw him over in life’s shitty path. So sue him if he was being melodramatic, but his response was a well-thought-out curse word that made Emma narrow her eyes in a flash of temper.
“Is there a problem, Jesse? You know you are only getting away with this artistic bullshit because the clients are desperate for the work of the Jesse Connor.”
Her words had created a curious mix of gratitude and fear in him. Something as simple as a client still wanting him actually seemed more like a noose around his neck.
“Yes, there’s a goddamn problem with all of it. This is simple. I can’t do it, Emma. I don’t have the passion I need for creating art, let alone have anything to do with Christmas. That isn’t some random statement. I really can’t give them what they want.”
“No, Em, I know you are trying to help, but I don’t feel Christmas. Not in a single cell of my body.” He pushed every raw emotion he had into the simple words. She ignored him and instead changed the subject back to the visit to Christmas-ville.
“The first event in Eden Vale is three days away, Jesse. I booked you a room from tomorrow, right through December, up until the third of January.”
“What the hell? I thought you were joking.” Jesse sat forward. “I said no, and I meant it. You have to get me out of this contract, tell them I was drunk when I signed it. Because I sure as hell am not going to freaking Vermont.”
Emma crossed her arms over her chest. “You are going. The newspaper has hired you and wants to bring Christmas to their website viewers, and they want it to be a Jesse Connor Christmas.”
“The deal is done, and it’s your only option. You knew what you were doing when you signed the contract—”
“I needed the advance—”
“Which you now can’t pay back, right?”
She was right. That ten thousand dollars was enough to pay the rent on his place and keep him in food for a few months. He needed a job of some sort to keep him going after that.
“I hear McDonald’s is hiring,” he snapped.
“Yeah, I can see the headlines now. Jesse Connor, former award-winning photographer and ex of the imprisoned Jonah Miles et cetera, millions lost and so on, has hit rock bottom tossing burgers.” She wasn’t trying to be cruel, but every word hit home. Only Emma could get away with some of the brutal honesty she could dish out.
“Consider this an intervention, Jesse. Pack a bag and get the hell away from the City. Leave your memories here and take my car.”
She had dangled the keys to her cherry red, and eminently sensible, Prius. He hated that damn car, too small, too stifling, and too much like hard work. In fact, he hated driving. There was a reason he had always loved the city where you get from A to B without wedging yourself in a tin can.
“I’m not just your agent, okay? I’m your friend, Jesse.” She crossed to where he sat and wrapped her arms around him from behind. “The Prius will get you to Eden Vale, and I paid for a room in a small hotel there as an early Christmas present. The paper wants a photo a day from the first of December to the twenty-fifth for their website with short copy for each. Now go.”
Jesse was left with no arguments to counter the near-military precision with which his agent forced him to leave New York. Dammit but she was good at her job. It was go to freaking Christmas-ville or fight with Emma to get a reference from her so he could apply to McDonald’s or to stock shelves at Walmart.
And now he was sitting in the damned Prius in the mountains at God knows what point on his journey, and his resentment was near bubbling over. He pulled over to let a van pass on the narrow road, and the moment’s respite was filled with the hurt that flooded him that Emma, his friend, had him by the balls. His best friend—his only friend—yet she consigned him to the middle of freaking nowhere in her damn tin can of a car. His life really couldn’t get any worse. He’d had his heart broken by a thieving scheming fucker of a boyfriend, lost all his money, mislaid his muse on a permanent basis, and now it seemed like he was going deep into the Green Mountains of Vermont to a small town in the Mount Snow Valley, population proudly displayed as 1,007, called Eden Vale. Where, allegedly, he was going to find Christmas.
The town was at the end of a winding valley road that seemed too narrow at some points for two vehicles to pass at the same time. The rural mountainous countryside would have appeared pretty, even stunning, to anyone other than Jesse. He desperately needed coffee, but he doubted the inhabitants of this place had ever visited a Starbucks, let alone had one on the small Main Street. The town itself, as he passed through it, was nothing more than a cliché—a couple of chain grocery stores, a gas station, and a beauty parlor advertising discount for the under-twelves. For a moment, Jesse pitied any kids being stuck here so far from civilization.
“…predicted at least five inches…skiing center that has opened a new…”
The radio was intermittently spitting out sections of news interspersed with lame attempts at Christmas music, a mix of carols and pop songs from the seventies. Emma hadn’t told him her CD player was on the blink, and despite searching, he hadn’t found a jack for his iPod. The farther into the mountain he climbed, the worse the reception became, but turning off the radio was impossible as the damn thing was broken. Taking his eyes off the road, let alone hoping to stop somewhere, was inadvisable. If he stopped, he would be blocking the damn road. His satellite navigation, courtesy of his cell, had also decided to fritz out on him, and he hoped the damn hotel was easy to find.
“…stay safe folks and here is ‘All I Want for Christmas is You’ by the wonderful Mariah Carey…”
Great. Just great. Torture me with that!
The Eden Vale Hotel was almost exactly what Jesse was expecting. Like something out of a Hallmark Christmas film, the small building looked old and was nestled firmly against the hillside above the valley and probably had awesome views of the diminutive nowhere town. Jesse sighed. Emma had said it was small… Clearly she hadn’t been lying about that. He stopped the Prius outside the main door in the parking space, and with the engine off, the radio thankfully cut Mariah’s vocals short.
Inhaling and glancing to his left, he took in a vista of the town sprawling before him. Most trees were bare of leaves, but some held tight to gold and were stubbornly clinging to autumn. The road here was steep, cut up into the sides of the valley, and it really wasn’t surprising that the population was as low as a thousand souls given how remote it seemed, though intellectually he knew Wilmington, with its bars and entertainment, wasn’t that far. Maybe he should consider visiting and even taking up skiing? He shuddered. That meant willingly exposing himself to snow, and that was never going to make it on to his to-do list. There weren’t many buildings on this side of the valley, and what he could see were sparse and spread out—dwellings clinging tenaciously to this ass-end valley exit from Mount Snow. Each place was separated geographically by challenging terrain, and it was easy to admit that, if a person wanted quieter rural appeal, then Eden Vale would be perfect.
He stepped out of the car and pulled out his two bags and the suitcase on wheels. The cold of an early winter wind gusted around him, and he shrugged lower into his jacket. Coffee. He needed coffee, possibly reinforced with whiskey.
The lobby was empty, although to call it a lobby was a slight exaggeration. The desk was small and off to one side and was full to bursting with leaflets and notices; he skimmed the closest of them as he dinged the small bell for attention. Apparently the local moms’ group was meeting in the school auditorium, Jenny Absolom was calling for volunteers for a church fundraiser, and the carol concert was at seven pm on Christmas Eve. The list of events, from candle-making to—jeez—midnight carols, was just a little bit too much “joining in” for his liking.
“Hello, Mr Connor. You found us, then.” The chirpy bright voice matched the chirpy bright woman walking around him to stand behind the desk.
“Yes.” Jesse wasn’t entirely sure what else to add to that. He completed the formalities, the whole time checking out the person who was explaining in rapid fire about amenities and rooms. Looking like—and he hated thinking this—a storybook grandma, she was taking his details, talking, and laughing all at the same time. Short and slim with dark blonde hair, she seemed to radiate happiness along with an obvious desire to please.
Okay, so it was a little full-on, and Jesse, to be fair, was tired, but he couldn’t help but exchange a smile when she said she was showing him to his room. She was simply infectious and the welcome was…welcoming.
“You’ll be in number twelve, our scarlet room,” Mrs McClurey—call me Diana—informed him. “Be careful with the door. It sticks sometimes. Always remember to turn the tap off fully, and if you want anything, please dial zero on your room phone.”
“Thank you” was all he could manage as his day began to catch up with him.
Diana chatted away as she showed him to his room. Opening the door with a flourish, she stood to one side to usher him in. He entered the room and put his bags on the floor. “We have a snow warning out tonight. We may have a beautiful carpet of white when you wake up tomorrow.”
Great, Jesse thought. The Prius would need clearing, and he was bound to fall on his ass. Snow and Jesse meant an inevitable accident. He hid his irritation behind a smile and said nothing.
It was darkening outside as evening pulled in, and he was a long way past tired into tripping-over-exhausted after hours of driving. He glanced around the room, seeing that the size of it was a step down from his apartment.
“Would you like a sandwich in your room? Or you can join us for dinner in the dining room at seven.” Mrs McClurey, sorry, Diana, was hovering with a smile on her face. Taking four hours to just get out of New York had not formed a particularly good start to this whole chasing Christmas thing, but he’d had snacks in the car, and he was way more tired than hungry.
“No, thank you. I’m really not hungry, and it’s been a long journey. I plan on catching up on sleep.” Unintentionally, he punctuated the words with a wide yawn behind his hand, but thankfully, she didn’t question why he was yawning and ready for bed so early in the evening. Clearly she had guests who arrived exhausted and just needed sleep.
Diana could certainly talk. She continued talking, and Jesse found himself mesmerized by the air of energy around her and her piercing blue eyes.
“Once we had twenty inches of snow in one night; it broke county records for Eden Vale. For tomorrow they’re forecasting about five. My son will be here to clear the pathways in the morning, so you don’t need to worry about slipping right outside the hotel.” Jesse didn’t like to ask if this son was going to clear a whole passage from here to town. She sighed. “It’s a real shame the snow has to be cleared, but if you wake up early, it’s beautiful nature untouched by human hand.”
Jesse made an appropriate noise of agreement, the spark of an idea for the first photo in his head. Nature untouched by human hand. Tried and true it might be, but taking a shot of virgin snow would get him a few days ahead of himself. He had three days before the first shot needed to be posted to the blog with copy. No pressure, then. Finally, after some more sighing over the wonderful possibilities of beautiful snow, Diana left and pulled the door shut. He glanced around the room as soon as he was on his own.
It really was nothing fancy to look at, no high-tech appliances like TVs or stereos, not even a coffee maker. The room held old, mismatched furniture that looked to be made of various different woods, but his artist’s eye admitted it held a certain charm. The drapes he pulled across the windows were a vivid striped scarlet and gold. He guessed they were the reason for the name of the room, and thanked the heavens he wasn’t in a bedroom called the orange paisley room.
After stripping, he pulled on jersey shorts, then brushed his teeth in the small bathroom, admiring the huge claw-foot tub set to one side. No shower, but he could get into long lazy soaks. He tumbled onto the queen-sized bed, sprawling diagonally, and the bed groaned and creaked under his movement. He wasn’t a huge guy, but this was clearly an old bed that probably wasn’t going to take his weight, let alone the weight of two people. He and a boyfriend, for example.
Oh yeah, he’d forgotten. I don’t have one of those, do I?
Not for the first time in the last two years, a familiar anger rose in him, and it was a welcome emotion. Anger grounded him. He should never forget what Jonah had done to him, let alone the thousands of people involved in the fall of the investment company he worked for.
He closed his eyes and tried for sleep, although it didn’t seem to want to come to him quickly. Instead, his head was full of what-ifs and maybes, of the threat of snow and ice and a wind chill to freeze his balls.
The proposal to photograph and write on the theme of the biggest damn holiday of the year was so open to interpretation he could write anything and capture any image. But he couldn’t imagine what might possibly inspire him this Christmas.
Jonah was supposed to have been his Valentine, his Thanksgiving, and his Christmas rolled into one. The idea of making new December memories with the man he’d loved had seemed so bright. But what Jonah had done to him had killed any thoughts of making memories that mattered stone dead.
Doing what he did best, he pushed past the memories and made a list in his head and then concentrated on Post One for the website blog post, which he labeled “Expectation” in his head. What did a picture-postcard Christmas-themed town need first? Diana was right. Snow. Maybe he should get some photos of the first snow before the son arrived to clear it in the morning. That would make a suitable first page. He could always cobble words together, try and recall what Christmas before Jonah’s betrayal had been like. Maybe he could copy/paste something from somewhere. Mentioning virginal white and the promise of Christmas were words he could copy from any old Christmas website. He set his cell alarm for a little before seven, ten minutes before sunrise, and then checked his messages. There was a text from Emma asking if the Grinch had arrived in Christmas-ville yet, and he sent back a brief here in response.
No sense in sending anything else. She wouldn’t expect a lengthy response from him. She was his agent, and he was Jesse Connor. He was an artist; he wasn’t going to waste his precious time or hers on unnecessary words. He winced at his internal monologue. Who the hell do I think I am?
Sighing, he closed his eyes. Emma was his only connection to anything remotely resembling a friend now. He’d pushed everyone else away with his misery and his remoteness, oh and the fact the world and his freaking wife wanted a piece of him because of Jonah. Opening his eyes, he grumbled as he reached for the cell and sent her another message.
Hotel nice. I’m fine. He even added a smiley face after he recalled the keys he needed to press to make one. It took him a while to find the close bracket symbol. Not a good start.
Satisfied he had done enough to stop her worrying, he put his cell down and lay back to stare at the high ceiling. Then he began to count back from hundred and waited for sleep to chase him down.
Gabriel McClurey stamped the snow from his boots on the porch before pushing his way into the warm kitchen. His mom didn’t immediately turn to face him, busy as she was with coffee. Given it was still dark outside, coffee would be welcome and might go some way toward waking him up. He yawned behind his hand and caught sympathy in his mom’s eyes when she faced him.
She handed him the coffee and kissed him on the cheek. “How deep is it?”
“Enough so I left the Jeep at the bottom of the drive.”
“They said five inches.”
Gabriel huffed. “More like twenty in the drifts and the end of the drive is completely blocked.”
“I appreciate you coming to help,” Diana said with a smile.
He knew she’d probably been up as long as him, busying herself around the small hotel, and he didn’t begrudge coming up early to clear the worst of the snow from the front of the place. This place was family owned and he had as much of a stake in it as she did, but she’d never once said anything when he announced he was going to become a teacher. Just like when he’d told her and his dad that he was gay at the tender age of thirteen. His mom lived by the motto that life was all about being committed to something that made you happy.
Being a teacher made Gabriel happy.
Living here in this small town in the mountains of Vermont made Gabriel happy. Add in a warm kitchen, his mom’s dark, hot coffee, and snow and he was pretty satisfied with life.
“Did you get through to Kane?”
Gabriel sighed. The only thing he and his mom disagreed on was the subject of his ex-boyfriend. Five years together and now three years apart and still Diana insisted Gabriel invite Kane up for Christmas.
“Like I said, Mom, he’s got a new boyfriend now, and he’s spending Christmas in London with him.”
Diane pursed her lips in thought. “Maybe he’ll come visit in the New Year,” she said.
“You do know he’s my ex, right?” Gabriel teased.
Diana smiled. “Of course I do, but he’s still your friend and I liked him a lot. I’ve been thinking about that anyway.”
“About what?” Gabriel hated it when his mom was all thinking about things. It never boded well for Gabriel when he was the focus of her thoughts.
“About a boyfriend,” she began. Gabriel opened his mouth to interrupt, but she waved a finger under his nose. Hell, it was way too early for this. “You’re not going to meet anyone in Eden Vale. You need to spend much more time in the city.”
Gabriel started to say something again, but his mom quickly continued.
“I don’t mean there, I mean New York or San Francisco or LA or something.”
“Mom, I am not touring the country looking for a boyfriend.” He smiled in disbelief.
“Your dad wouldn’t want you alone,” she added with bright eyes.
Jeez, now she was pulling the dad card on him.
“Dad wouldn’t want me trawling bars looking for a man,” Gabriel offered gently. “Anyway, how am I supposed to get out of town now?” He gestured at the door. “My Jeep would be unlikely to make it off the mountain, let alone into a city. Speaking of which…” He stood and shrugged on his thick coat before pulling on heavy-duty gloves, a beanie, and winding a scarf around his face. “Snow isn’t gonna clear itself,” he mumbled into the wool.
He escaped before he had to listen to any more boyfriend advice. He and his mom were close, but this time of the year she grew melancholy with memories of his dad who had passed six years before, and wanted everyone to be happy.
Contemplating where to start with the snow clearing, he was pleased to see the soft lightening of the sky as dawn broke over the mountain. That would make it easier to clear the snow in the right places. For a second he simply stood and looked out over the snow that lay pristine and untouched apart from his footprints on the driveway.
Seemed a shame to destroy such beauty, but he knew his mom had guests at the moment, and he was a good son.
As he began to shovel he hummed to himself, something the kids had been working on at school, and he soon got into a rhythm of movement that had the snow piling softly to the side of the walkway.
His mom was wrong. Gabriel was happy. Lonely maybe, but always happy.
* * * * *
Jesse woke at the seven am alarm he had set on his cell and washed up at the sink, eyeing the bath longingly. Later, he promised himself and then dressed in jeans and layers from T’s to sweaters. With the drapes open, he realized Diana and the US Weather Service had been right. The snow had certainly fallen overnight, and the start of light over the valley had a beautiful quality. The early morning dawn appeared feeble against the sea of white and highlighted the absolute and utter stillness. Pulling on boots and then grabbing his Nikon, he left his room in a hurry and made it downstairs in record time. Throwing open the front door, he was ready to jump into his work, already in artist-makes-brilliant-art mode, and he had exactly what he wanted. Undisturbed snow lying just as it should—deep and crisp and even.
“Morning.” The single word came from a man shoveling snow, Jesse’s pristine untouched snow. There went the whole first freaking post. Obviously the guy had started clearing in the dark. What kind of an idiot did that? Shit.
“Stop,” Jesse said loudly—probably not what Mr Dressed-as-a-snowman expected, even though he did, in fact, stop shoveling.
“I’m sorry?” he queried. He pulled at the scarf across his face and frowned at Jesse, then down at the cleared snow.
“I need photos,” Jesse explained as he turned away from a quick glimpse of blue eyes and raised eyebrows. Already he was looking desperately for an untouched angle that included the hotel. Damn it to hell, the son had cleared a great big scar on the blanket of icy stuff.
“Virgin snow. Can you please stop shoveling?” Panic filtered through him at the thought of not getting this photo now, and it wiped out any attempt he might make at social niceties. Yes, he was coming across as rude, but in his head, he justified the rudeness as he always did. Artists were temperamental, and people made exceptions for his behavior all the time.
“I can give you five,” Shovel Guy said slowly and leaned on the tool he wielded with such deadly photo-destroying accuracy.
Jesse vaguely nodded his thanks, his mind already gauging light and angles, concentrating on what he needed to do. The white carpet covered everything, giving him maybe three inches or so of perfect utter stillness. Even the parked Prius had a beauty about it when hidden in pure white. He inhaled the cold air and centered himself. He could do this. The snow might well be the first official photo he had taken in a while, but it wasn’t as if he’d forgotten how to take photos or how to frame a shot. Snow crystals sparkled in the winter trees, and the clouds looked heavy with the promise of more of the cold stuff to come. Despite the sun’s weak wash, the lighting was perfect, and focusing on what he wanted, he caught the crystal, the blue tinge from the early light, the sky, and the taller grass that bent with the weight of snow. Backing away from the parking area, he captured one of the stubborn trees he had seen yesterday and the frozen leaves attached to thin twigs, all perfectly acceptable images for the website.
“You the photographer, then?” the shoveling guy asked. Jesse groaned to himself. Talk about stating the obvious. What a thing to say. Not only that, but the guy probably expected an answer. Shovel Guy, the hotel owner’s son presumably, had a low and husky voice, but Jesse didn’t want or need interruptions if he only had five minutes to capture a whole post. The more photos he took, the more likely it was that he would take a photo that mattered. Perhaps if he ignored the other man, he would shut up. “Do you want to see something?” Shovel Guy asked. “A ways up the garden is an old shed. It’s where we store the wood for the winter—”
“No, that’s fine,” Jesse interrupted with an abrupt wave of his hand. Maybe the man clearing the path was a sandwich short of a picnic. Why the hell did he think Jesse wanted to see a shed? Jesse bent low at the waist to examine the petals of some winter flower burned at the edges by the sun and filled with small deposits of snow. The tall tree it was near must have protected it from the really deep stuff.
“It’s a good photo.”
God, the guy was persistent. “Jeez, man, will you leave me alone to concentrate?”
Jesse spun on his heel to face the guy as he spoke, the same guy who had now pushed the hood of his huge parka away from his face. Jesse wasn’t sure who was more shocked—the guy who looked utterly gobsmacked at what Jesse had just said or Jesse at seeing more face. Jesse couldn’t stop himself, photos or no, post or not. He stared. And he probably had his mouth open. It certainly felt like it as the cold air hit his throat. Shovel Guy was gorgeous, beautiful, with a strong stubble-darkened jaw and the same brilliant blue eyes as Diana.
“Sorry, I was…” Jesse began weakly, but he really had no explanation. Hell. Those were really intensely cerulean eyes. Blue Eyes shrugged at the apology and then smiled. He took off a glove and held out his bare hand, a warm, wide, and very strong hand that gripped Jesse’s firmly.
“Gabriel McClurey,” he said, introducing himself on the shake.
“Jesse Connor,” Jesse responded quickly. “I get involved,” he explained weakly with a wave of his now-freed hand at the snow around them. “In a world of my own.” Then he stopped talking because he didn’t want to come across as an idiot.
“I need to get shoveling,” Gabriel said finally to break the uncomfortable silence. Jesse realized he’d been standing there staring with his mouth open. “Shed’s up that way if you want to go yourself.”
Gabriel dismissed him. He was sending him off to find the shed himself. Damn. Eye candy like Gabriel McClurey was something he didn’t want to lose sight of.
“Could you show me—”
“Sorry, man, I need to shovel,” Gabriel said quickly. He pulled the scarf back over his mouth. Clearly the conversation was over.
“Okay,” Jesse said reluctantly. “Thanks.”
Gabriel resumed the long sweeping motions that cleared the pathway, and Jesse hovered for a while out of sight. He took a few shots of the tall, broad, blue-eyed Gabriel bent over and flexing to clear snow. Gabriel was too wrapped up for Jesse to see what he wanted to see, but a few photos of “man in action” would be okay. Wouldn’t it? Who was to know? He wasn’t taking them for the blog, just for himself. Ass up in the air, Gabriel moved to attack a new path of white. God. Now that was an easy part of body to see; jeans molded Gabriel to like a second skin, stretched across a firm, tight butt. Feeling suddenly guilty, Jesse slunk away in the direction indicated. For the first time in nearly two years he was appreciating the male form, and it felt odd and more than slightly like a betrayal of his wish to wallow in angst.
Still, he hadn’t seen a man that gorgeous since… Well, he wasn’t sure he had ever seen someone with a face so model perfect. Said man had a wonderful white smile, long thick lashes, and cheekbones to die for. Jesse wondered idly if maybe he could get this Gabriel to pose for him before he left Eden Vale. Maybe naked in the snow? Jesse had done some model photography before. In Gabriel’s case it didn’t matter what the body was like under the clothes because that face could sell just about anything. Idly he wondered what exactly the rest of Gabriel looked like under that bulky parka. Gabriel was tall, maybe a shade over Jesse’s five ten, but he could be any size width-ways under the navy blue down. Jesse laughed to himself. Gabriel could be a six-stone weakling under the coat, although somehow he doubted it.
The shed north of the old hotel looked to have been built the same time as the house. It was sturdy in the way wooden structures were when supported by the presence of the solid hillside rocks above them. Jesse could see moss on the corners of the roof peeking through the mantle of snow. He checked out the shed from different angles and took some halfway decent shots of snow on the old wood. Still, the shots were simply decent, and he wasn’t going to rock the world of photography at this rate.
Cautiously, Jesse pushed open the door. A light dusting of snow fell onto his hands, and he made a mental note to dig out the thin insulated gloves that allowed him to have full control of the delicate cameras he used.
Once inside, his imagination was captured instantly and tingles traversed his spine. From this vantage point, he saw the snow outside framed by the door and frosted windows. No snow had made its way inside, and the respite from the cold proved welcome. He did a complete three-sixty and finally realized that if he stood behind the wood inside and crouched down, he had the perfect picture—the logs piled ready for burning with the glow of white snowfall behind them. It was artistic and exactly what customers expected from him. He already had words to accompany the picture he could see in his mind…the supply ready and waiting to keep the inhabitants of the hotel warm and cozy, the scent of sap and freshly chopped wood redolent of winter. Readers would eat it up.
He explored a bit more of the gardens and shot a few of the hotel with the rest of the town laid out before it. The valley was steeper than he remembered from his drive up. If there were to be much more snow, driving out of the valley in the Prius would be impossible. Well, he’d known that. The hotel literature clearly pointed out that snow closed off Eden Vale at least once a year. The town sprawled across the vista, filled with houses all painted in different colors. He focused on one in particular, a small house in a row of similar places painted the same blue as the beautiful, dazzling, sexy McClurey eyes. Well, Gabriel McClurey’s anyway. He lifted the camera and zoomed in to focus close on the single house, framing the shot with branches heavy with snow. Sweet.
An hour after he’d begun, he finally wondered if Gabriel would still be in front of the hotel. His reasons for wanting to see the other man were twofold. He needed to thank him for the inspiration for post one and maybe at the same time have another look at that beautiful face. He wasn’t in luck. Gabriel had gone. In his place sat a cleared pathway from hotel to street and snow piled neatly to either side in regimented rows. Damn.