It was that delicious smell that woke him from his slumber. Cracking an eye, Ethan looked around the unfamiliar living room for a moment before remembering where he was – sleeping on Travis Murphy’s sofa. Bacon, eggs, and the alluring scent of freshly brewed coffee wafted to his nose, eventually enticing him off the couch and into the kitchen.
Travis stood at the stove in nothing but a pair of grey pajama bottoms, frying bacon in a skillet. Lean muscles worked in his back and arms as he prepared their morning meal. “Oh, you’re up finally,” he said happily. “Have a seat and I’ll dish you up some grub.”
“Thank god, I’m starving,” he responded, taking the nearest barstool for his own. “Smells wonderful, too.”
“Mama made sure I could cook,” he stated, pulling two plates from the cupboard. “She was afraid I’d starve otherwise. And now you get to reap the benefits.” Travis piled bacon, scrambled eggs, and buttered toast on a plate and handed it over to Ethan.
“Holy cow, do you think I have a hollow leg or something? Where am I going to put all of this?” As if to argue with him, his stomach growled loudly.
“Your stomach seems to disagree,” he quipped, bringing his plate around the counter and sitting beside his houseguest. “But you skinny guys are sneaky. You can pack away the food like nobody’s business and stay thin as a rail. Me, on the other hand, I have to work hard at keeping all this looking this good.” He patted himself on the gut and shoveled a forkful of food into his mouth.
“You seem to be doing a good job of – shit, I didn’t mean to…” He made a face, forcing his mouth to stop moving without permission.
“Say that out loud,” Travis teased. Reaching over and squeezing his guest’s knee playfully, he continued, “It’s all good. Probably the nicest thing anyone outside of my mother has said to me all year.”
Focusing on his plate, he continued to eat, refusing to make eye contact. He was terrified his mortification would show on his face. “You’re welcome and really, I’m sorry. We hardly know each other.”
“True,” he agreed. Nibbling on a triangle of toast, he let the silence stretch a minute. “But, seeing as you’re appreciative of all that is me, I have a question for you.”
“Should I be afraid?” He was still staring at his breakfast, unable to look at his host.
“Maybe, considering the huge favor I’m about to ask.” He popped a piece of bacon into his mouth and chewed slowly. “Like you said, we hardly know each other, so feel free to tell me to go to hell. But Christmas is in a couple days and…”
“Christmas Eve is tomorrow you goof,” Ethan replied, feeling a little bit more at ease now that Travis had changed the subject. Sort of.
“Point to the detective. But seriously, my parents are wonderful people, and well, they worry about me. A lot. And often.” He paused long enough to take a draw from his coffee mug. “I had promised them last Christmas that I would stop spending so much time here, glued to my computer, and get out and find someone.”
Ethan looked up finally, not quite meeting Travis’ questioning gaze, but his chiseled chin was close enough for now. “Let me guess, you didn’t quite make that promise happen, did you?”
He shook his head, loose dark curls falling around his face. “Not even close. I’m supposed to be meeting my parents for dinner on Christmas Day and they expect me to have a date.”
“And you don’t have one?” Ethan swallowed his embarrassment and met Travis’ gaze, surprised by the depth of the emotion he saw there. It was apparent that disappointing his parents didn’t set well with him.
“Not even a prospect willing to lie and say they were my date.” Fiddling with his fork, Travis looked out the kitchen window. “Snow’s stopped finally.”
Ethan took it all in, cautiously considering his words before he responded. The unspoken request, the striking man making it, his complete and total loneliness. “And they won’t have an issue with you bringing another man home for the holidays?”
Travis turned his blue eyes back on the handsome detective. “Naw, I came out to them when I was eighteen. It wasn’t easy, but they love me for me and just don’t want me to spend the rest of my life alone.”
“Do you really think lying to them is the way to go about this?” Lifting his fork to his mouth, he forced himself to eat a couple bites. He really was starving, but this whole discussion had his stomach in a knot.
“No,” he replied, allowing his fork to drop noisily to his plate. “I hate lying to my parents. Hate it. But I don’t see any alternative. It’s been four years since I’ve brought anyone to Christmas dinner.”
Ethan wished his parents even cared enough to worry if he was alone or not. “That’s a long time,” he commiserated. “Nearly as long as it’s been since I’ve had a date on Christmas.”
Travis gave him a sad sort of smile. “We’re a couple of bums, aren’t we?”
“Maybe. In my case, I can blame it on the job. Long hours and lots of stress don’t usually foster a very healthy relationship.”
“Good point.” Travis stood and took his plate to the sink. “Look, if I saw you in a bar, I’d bet you were straight and would cringe at the idea of dating a man, even for pretend but…”
“But you’d be wrong.” He’d said it quietly, but with enough force behind his words to cause Travis to take notice.
“I would be?” He gave the detective a long, lingering once over, possibly trying to see whatever indicator he might have missed the first time. “I’d have never guessed it.”
“Unlike your parents, mine didn’t take my revelation all that well,” he admitted. “They’ve not been supportive and actually even told me once that if I ‘insisted on dating men’ that I could just come by myself.”
“Please tell me you just stopped coming around,” he said, disgust at such hatred lacing his voice. “You done with this?”
Ethan nodded and let him take the plate. “Yeah, it got to be more uncomfortable coming to family events knowing I’d be the only one without someone. So, I started using work as an excuse and they pretended to believe it.”
“You know, that really sucks.” Travis took the seat beside Ethan again. Reaching for his hand, Travis wrapped his fingers around Ethan’s, warm skin against warm skin. “You’re way too nice a guy to be all alone.”
“And you are way too charming to be single,” he volleyed back.
“You make a valid argument,” he laughed, giving his fingers a squeeze. “So you’ll do this for me?”
“Yeah, absolutely. What do I have to lose?” He turned his hand over so that his and Travis’ were palm to palm. Ethan allowed his fingers to curl around Travis’, getting the same in return.
“Just your sanity,” Travis deadpanned. “My father is Irish after all.”
Ethan couldn’t contain the long repressed laughter that bubbled up in his chest. “I think I have you beat on that note. Mine’s Scottish, remember?”
“Eh, just makes yours more stubborn, not more insane.” Travis leaned into Ethan’s side, resting his shoulder against his guest’s.
“So, so true.” He relaxed into Travis’ body, feeling comfortable for the first time in a long time.
“Dude,” Travis said suddenly. “So, you mean you’re gay and fine as hell and you let me put you on the couch last night? What the hell?” He shook his head with pseudo disgrace.
“What? And let you share a bed with me?” Ethan felt warmth creep into his belly at the idea of waking up with this hunk of a man beside him. “Are you sure you could control yourself?”
“Hey, that’s my line!”
“Right, because you’re the egotistical one, I forgot that part.” Travis made it too easy, he’d realized, always leaving himself open for harassment. To lessen the sting of the barb, he asked, “So, dinner. When, where, what time, and do I need a tie?”
The smile that stole onto his face brightened the entire room. “Christmas Day, like I said, around five. But you can meet me here and we’ll drive over together, if that’s okay. And yeah, no. No tie. Just something nice, nothing fancy. Can’t have you showing me up with your suits, can we?”
“No, definitely not.” He smiled back at the man that was quickly becoming something more than a kind stranger that let him crash on his couch for a night. A friend maybe? It was possible. “Hey, I appreciate the loan of your couch and I appreciate breakfast even more, but I need to see if I can get home, change and get back to work.”
“So you’re going to eat and run, huh?” Travis sniffed. “Be that way then.”
Ethan grinned. “Okay, I will.”
“I guess that means I should call the tow truck so you can get while the getting’s good.” Travis waved his cell phone in the air, emphasizing his point.
“I made it home, Mother, are you happy?” Ethan’s voice sounded like heaven coming through the phone line.
“Not as happy as if you were back here already. I never realized how lonesome it is being alone all the time.” Travis paced his living room, phone pressed to his ear. “But yeah, I am. I know I’m a pain, but these roads are a mess when it snows and I worry.”
“If you’re lonely, get a cat,” Ethan suggested, chuckling. “I know I’d worry, too, so it’s appreciated. Really have to go now though, or I’m going to be late.”
“Okay, be safe,” Travis cautioned.
“Always am, mom,” Ethan teased, hanging up.
Travis smiled at his phone. He wasn’t sure if he was going to make it until Christmas Day or not. Ethan had filled a void in his home that he hadn’t even noticed was vacant. This whole ‘contact with the outside world’ thing was overrated if losing that contact made him feel so lost.
“Back to the grind, Murph,” he mumbled to himself, wandering into his office. “You have a novel to finish.”
Booting up his computer, he sat in his rolling chair and sipped his coffee. Waiting for the screen to fill with life, he thought about the night before. The conversations, the laughter, even the semi-argument or two they’d shared. He really hoped that dinner didn’t screw up his chances of maintaining some kind of relationship with the intriguing man. There was something burning just below the surface with that one. Something that screamed, ‘pay attention to me’.
Feeling a sudden pang of loneliness, Travis abandoned his computer and made his way into the living room. Spying the blanket Ethan had discarded in his rush to find breakfast, Travis’ mouth quirked up in the corners. Snapping the flannel up off the floor, he wrapped it around his shoulders and ensconced himself at his desk, finally ready to get down to business. A hint of Ethan’s presence surrounding and comforting him.
The onslaught of snow had rendered his job virtually pointless. White Pine was a quiet town on its worst day, the residents content to work things out amongst themselves with little to no resistance. Crime on a larger scale was unheard of, even minor offenses were few and far between. Then you get a day like this, when it was bitterly cold and with the threat of even more snow looming, no one was out long enough to even consider causing trouble. Which was a good thing, but it also made for a very, very boring day manning the station single-handed.
For the eighteenth time that morning, Ethan found himself reaching for the phone to call Travis. Why, he wasn’t sure. He had nothing new to report and he certainly hadn’t changed his mind about dinner. Still he had the urge to hear the writer’s gravelly voice.
Christmas dinner was also weighing on his mind. He couldn’t deny that he was worried. Despite Travis’ reassurances, he was nervous about saying or doing the wrong thing and ruining everything for his new friend. The affection he held for his family endeared Travis to him even more than his wit and entrancing blue eyes already had. Bracing himself for what might turn out to be the most awkward night of his life, he silently promised Travis to do his best.
The call that his car was ready came around noon. Nothing more than a bad battery, he’d been told. Feeling stupid for not having thought of that himself, he walked the quarter mile from the police station to Paco’s Towing and Auto Shop to pick up his wilting baby.
“Really, I should have thought of that,” Ethan confessed, handing over his credit card. Paco had been kind enough not to charge him for the tow, citing the number of tows he’d already done the previous day. Call it a police appreciation discount, he’d said. Either way, Ethan wasn’t going to argue.
Paco waved a hand wildly in front of his face. “Don’t worry about it. Not everyone is a car person and sometimes, even when you are, the little things get by you. You always worry it’s something big.”
“True,” he agreed, taking his card back and stashing it in his wallet. “Thanks again for rescuing me and not charging for the tow.”
“Rescuing you? Murphy is an odd duck, but he’s not all that bad.” Paco retrieved a set of keys from the particle board holder behind the counter and grinned. “As for the tow, cops get paid crap, it’s the least I could do. Merry Christmas.”
“It’s appreciated all the same.” He turned to leave and stopped, looking back at the mechanic. “You’re right though, he’s not bad at all.”
Climbing into his car, he started the engine, smiling as it roared to life. He still had the rest of the boring afternoon ahead of him, but now he didn’t have to worry about walking home in the snow. Some days, it was the little things that mattered the most.