The last person Christian wants to run into on a visit home to spend time with his mom over the holidays is his former best friend-turned-lover-turned-ex. But there Riley is, in all his tall, chiseled, blondness. The same guy who walked out on him six years ago, breaking his heart in the process. Who knew he’s still in love with the jerk? (Oh yeah, he did. What? Who says denial isn't healthy?)
Two years ago, Riley was injured out of the NHL, but he's got his own bakery now and a quiet life selling quiches and cupcakes to his customers. Then Christian unexpectedly walks back into his life, forcing Riley to question his choices. Especially that one choice he made six years ago that walked him out of Christian’s life. Now if only he had the courage to tell a boy how he really feels about him…
- 2 To Be Read lists
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Publisher: MLR Press
Heat Level: 4
Romantic Content: 5
Ending: Click here to reveal
Character Identities: Gay
Protagonist 1 Age: 26-35
Protagonist 2 Age: 26-35
Tropes: Bad Breakup, Coming Home, Friends to Lovers, Reunited and it Feels So Good, Second Chances, True Love
Word Count: 40000
Setting: Oakville, Ontario, Canada
Languages Available: English
Now serving alcohol!
Now serving alcohol?
Christian Dufresne read the sign again and then a third time. But no. The words didn’t magically reconfigure themselves into something more likely, like Now serving apple turnovers! Or Now serving paninis! Or Now serving the best crepes in town…with REAL maple syrup!
Not that Christian had ever had their crepes — this place hadn’t existed the last time he came to town — but they looked awesome in the picture on the display board he could see through the glass window. He’d reserve judgement on their worthiness after he found out whether or not they offered real maple syrup, or just the gross, generic, gloopy kind found in grocery stores everywhere except Quebec and Vermont.
If it wasn’t real, it wasn’t worth it.
And look at that. He’d just made up a new slogan for real maple syrup! He should be in marketing. Oh wait. He was!READ MORE
But seriously. What the hell was the point of a small bakery that didn’t even serve dinner — they closed at five, for the love of God — offering alcohol? Did nine-to-fivers working in downtown Oakville order a glass of wine or beer to enjoy with their muffin or mini quiche or cookie or lemon tart? Were they that bored with life in suburbia?
Or maybe just that desperate.
The door handle turned easily in his hand and he stepped inside, out of the blowing snow and into the heated bakery. He took his gloves off and felt his fingers start to thaw. Goddamn the fucking snow. Actually, no. Scratch that. Goddamn the cold. A wind-chill of minus 20 degrees Celsius just made him want to lie in the street and die. Game over. The only good thing about winter? Hockey. And snowboarding. But mostly hockey.
It was empty inside the bakery, a surprise given the amount of people out on the street. Probably doing some last minute Christmas shopping. Why they didn’t head to an indoor mall — they were heated! — was beyond him. Instead they went in and out of stores on Lakeshore Road like it wasn’t cold enough to freeze your boogers.
Idiots. All of them.
Although he could probably be lumped into that category as well, couldn’t he? He’d been walking outside too as if living in Vancouver hadn’t desensitized him to this kind of bone-deep cold. All because his mother wanted a fresh baguette from the new bakery, Warm Glow, to go with dinner. He’d barely stepped foot in the house before she was already sending him on an errand. Seriously, he hadn’t even brought his duffle bag to his old room yet.
Outside, the wind blew so strong it rattled the door and dislodged a clump of snow from the bakery’s awning. It fell to the sidewalk with a crunchy-sounding splat, narrowly missing a woman laden with shopping bags. This. This was why he lived in Vancouver. Mild winters and little snow.
Goddamn Ontario winters.
All that effort and it looked like his mother wasn’t going to get her bread after all. Inside the bakery a store employee wearing a green apron was upending chairs and setting them on the tables upside down.
Crap. He looked behind him, and sure enough a sign on the front door’s glass window read Open. Which meant the Closed side faced the street he’d just come from. Whoops. Well, the door had been unlocked.
Christian went to inform the employee that he was a careless moron, but something…something in the way the guy moved…how he didn’t favor his right knee so much as paid attention to how and where he stepped. How his spiked dark blond hair reflected the light from the ceiling lamps. How the muscles in those broad shoulders moved under his T-shirt. How tight that butt looked in those dark jeans.
A hot rush of familiarity swept through him and wings grew in his stomach. And then he brilliantly said, “You!”
The employee turned quickly, knocking an elbow into one of the chairs on the table next to him. It crashed into another, and the resulting clatter when they hit the floor acted like a goal horn going off in Christian’s head. Jolting into action, he rushed forward and tried to save a third chair. But the other guy already had it and Christian’s hold on it only served to unbalance them both. They played an accidental tug-of-war as they desperately tried to right themselves, but either one of them slipped, or the floor decided to move, or unseen hands pushed them. Whatever the reason, the two humans in the room joined the chairs on the floor.
Goddamn fucking fresh bread. Goddamn his mother’s innocent, “The new bakery on Lakeshore has the best Italian baguette. Could you go grab one for me? We need it for dinner.” And goddamn the idiot underneath him who was laughing his fool head off.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Christian grumbled, trying to take stock of what, if anything, hurt. It only made the tool on the floor laugh harder.
And goddamn tall, jacked, blue-eyed, blond ex-boyfriends too while he was at it.
But that laugh. It hit him right in the solar plexus, right where he kept their memories tightly buried so they didn’t incapacitate him when he wasn’t looking.
That laugh was instant friendship. It was two new French Canadian seven-year olds making fast friends in school when they realized they could have a conversation in a language no one else could understand. It was summer days spent riding their bikes to the corner store. It was winters snowboarding and playing hockey. It was Christmases sneaking into each other’s windows. It was starting high school thinking they’d be best friends forever. It was that first kiss in tenth grade, and the second one only seconds after, and the very last one years later, at a time when they had needed each other more than ever.
It was home.
Blinking against the onslaught of never-forgotten memories, Christian groaned and sat up, taking care to touch Riley as little as possible as he did so. Even though what he really wanted was to spread himself out all over him.
Don’t think about the guy underneath you. On his back. Looking hotter than ever. Nope. Don’t go there. No dirty thoughts here.
“Fucking ghosts,” he said instead.
Riley was crying tears of laughter.
“What the fuck is so fucking funny?” Christian asked.
“You,” Riley said when he could breathe again. “You’re still Crotchety Christian.”
“Fuck you,” Christian said, and hauled himself off the floor.
Once upon a time a “Fuck you” from one of them would have resulted in a “Sure. How do you want me?” from the other. Which, more often than not, led to much more pleasurable activities. But it’d been six years since the last…
…Since the last.
“You’re still blaming ghosts for everything.” Riley interrupted his thoughts.
“Fucking Ouija board,” Christian muttered.
“Dude, it was fifteen years ago,” Riley pointed out unhelpfully. He sat up, then used the table to haul himself to standing. Shit. Had their fall fucked up Riley’s knee even more? But no. Once upright, Riley stretched out his knee, tested his weight on it, then bent with ease to pick up the fallen chairs. Christian watched his biceps flex under the short sleeves of his T and didn’t bother fighting the memory of how they’d once felt under his hands, his mouth. He felt the flush overtake his cheeks and reach his ears. Hopefully Riley would think it was a result of their recent…exertions.
“Well, in fifteen years I haven’t figured out how to out-Ouija them and send them back to where they came from,” Christian said. “Have you?”
“Nope.” Riley laughed a little and grinned at Christian like he was having the best day ever. Fuck, but Christian’d missed Riley’s constant optimism and good humor.
“Well, there you go,” Christian said. Like that was that.
Riley snorted. “That makes no sense at all.”
Finished with placing the chairs back on the tables — with no help from Christian. No, he was too busy ogling Riley’s ass as he bent and stood, bent and stood. Jesus, could he be more obvious? — Riley turned those ocean eyes on him and his goofy, happy grin shifted from hi-old-friend-I-haven’t-seen-in-a-while to hi-ex-lover-I-never-got-over.
Or maybe Christian was projecting.
And before Christian could say “Can we go back to the way things were?” or “God, I missed you,” or “Please take me home and never let me go again,” or “RILEY, I STILL LOVE YOU!”, Riley reached out and yanked Christian hard against him. Not to kiss him. Or to throw him down on the nearest available surface and have his glorious way with him. No, clearly it was only Christian who was having an X-rated party in his head.
Those arms he’d been admiring earlier wrapped around him in a hug and Christian reacted on instinct, wrapping his own around Riley and hanging on tight. Riley had always meant home and belonging and safety. That feeling hadn’t changed and it left Christian wondering why the hell they’d ever broken up in the first place.
Ignoring the old hurt Riley’s presence dredged up, Christian buried his nose in Riley’s neck, an easy feat since they were evenly matched in height. He inhaled deeply and smelled pastry and sweat and Riley’s familiar spiciness.
“Hi,” Riley whispered in his ear.
Christian had to swallow past the growing knot in his throat. Stupid emotions. “Hi.”
“Want a drink?”
“Oh, fuck yes.”
They released each other before things got awkward. And avoided eye contact because okay, maybe things were already a little awkward.
Riley headed for the counter with nary a limp to be seen. A hockey injury two years ago had fucked up his knee and ended his pro career. What had been devastating for Christian was probably a hundred times more so for Riley. But looking at Riley now as he moved around behind the counter, a slight smile on his face, knee fully recuperated, he looked as healthy and happy as ever.
For Christian, Riley’s injury had been a huge WTF moment. A nodus tollens, if you will. Which was basically a fancy word for “how the fuck is this my life right now?”
A hockey scholarship had taken Riley to the University of Denver right after high school graduation. Christian headed west to the University of British Columbia — or UBC as the locals called it. They’d gone from seeing each other everyday for ten years, to seeing each other once every few weeks. Result? The eventual end of their relationship. And when Riley had been injured it had seemed like all of the loneliness, all of the pain, all of the heartbreak of being apart and then being apart had been for nothing.
Christian stared hard at one of the ceiling lamps, letting the light burn the wetness out of his eyes. Fuck, if he didn’t stop thinking about what could’ve been he was going to curl up in a corner of Warm Glow and sob his sad heart out.
Distracting himself, he studied the bakery. It was rustic, like something found in the middle of Cottage Country. Low-hanging ceiling lamps, distressed wood tables and chairs, wood-panelled floors. A long display case was currently free of food and held only empty baskets. The digital display board above the counter listed menu items presumably not found in the display case, including those mouth-watering crepes. Next to the front door, a long, high table was tucked against the window with tall stools underneath. The place was decked out for Christmas: a wreath on the door, garlands on the walls, lights in the window, festive candles on all the tables.
Christian locked the front door. When he turned back, it was to find Riley standing behind the counter, operating a machine and making…hot chocolate? Well damn. Not that he didn’t love a good hot chocolate but when Riley had suggested a drink he thought he’d be getting something that would dull his senses.
Riley raised an eyebrow and nodded at the front door.
“Your closed sign is up, but your door wasn’t locked,” Christian explained.
Riley grunted and poured the drink into a couple of mugs. “I’m always doing that. Your mother’s constantly on my case about it.”
His mother. Who had sent him on this errand. Did she event want fresh bread? Unlikely. Was she at home making dinner? Definitely not. She was probably at her BFF’s down the street, cackling at how she’d so easily fooled her clueless son. Sending him on this “errand”, knowing exactly who he’d run into at the end. They were going to have words later, that was for damn sure.
“I thought you were giving me booze,” Christian said.
Riley merely turned and grabbed a bottle off a shelf behind him. Tall and thin like an ice wine bottle, the liquid inside was a light pink. Riley yanked out the stopper and poured a generous amount into both mugs.
Christian perked up. Booze and hot chocolate. Was there anything better?
Sex with Riley.
Quit it, brain!
“What is that?” Christian asked in an effort to distract himself from Riley’s closeness. Riley turned the bottle toward him. “Shimmer?” That was all it said on the label. Shimmer. It violated so many labelling requirements, Christian didn’t even know where to start. No brand name or logo, no ingredient list, no nutritional facts, no alcohol content, no sizing indicators.
He grabbed the bottle and gave the liquid a sniff. “Strawberry?” Not surprising given the liquid’s color, but in hot chocolate? He eyed his mug dubiously.
Obviously trying not to laugh, Riley set one of the mugs closer to Christian, picked up his own, clinked it against Christian’s and said, “Cheers.” Then he took a healthy swallow, ocean eyes never leaving Christian’s.
Yeah, Christian knew a dare when he saw one. Determined not be outdone, he raised his mug in a silent toast and took a large gulp.
“So?” Riley said.
“Yeah. Thought you’d like that. Unless you’ve lost the taste for peppermint hot chocolate over the past six years.”
The reminder of how long it’d been since they’d seen each other brought a halt to their conversation. Christian looked away from Riley and fiddled with the label on the bottle. The weird mix of apprehensiveness, hopefulness, and happiness combined with the alcohol in his belly was making him feel…surprisingly mellow.
Wait. He took another sip of his hot chocolate.
“Why does this taste like peppermint, but that —” he waved a hand at the bottle “— smell like strawberry?” he asked Riley, taking another sniff of the bottle. Just to make sure he wasn’t going crazy. “What did you actually put in here?”
Riley nodded at the bottle. “You saw me pour that in.”
“That’s impossible. Give me a glass, I want to try this on its own.”
Eyes going wide, Riley snatched the bottle away. “You don’t want to do that. Trust me.”
“Sure, I do.”
“No. You don’t.” The bottle went back on the shelf, out of Christian’s reach.
Whatever. He couldn’t bring himself to care anymore. The Mysterious Case of the Magic Booze would have to wait another day. His peppermint hot chocolate was awesome and that was all that mattered.
And Riley. Riley definitely mattered. Christian was feeling so relaxed all he wanted to do was crawl into bed and cuddle with his boyfriend forever.
Ex-boyfriend. Who he smiled at like a dope with his first crush.
Jesus, this was potent liquor. What the fuck was the alcohol content on this Shimmer stuff? Two sips and he was already at that stage of buzzed that made him sleepy. The one that came right before being drunk off his ass and unable to walk.
Although, in his defense, Riley was grinning stupidly at him, too. The wings in his stomach turned dragon-sized. The only times he’d ever felt this strange feeling of anxious excitement also had to do with Riley. Their first kiss. Graduating from hand jobs to blowjobs. The first time they had sex.
The last time. The last time that Christian had thought meant so much. Only to wake up the next morning to find Riley gone.
“How long are you in town for?” Riley asked, and he sounded as drugged as Christian felt.
“Just until…” Boxing Day, he almost said. But that was only five days away. Not enough time to get his Riley-fix. What if they could get the friendship back that they’d once had? The fact that Christian was still in love with Riley after all these years probably meant he was pretty pathetic.
But the truth was that he missed his best friend just as much as he missed his boyfriend.
He cleared his throat. “Until after the new year.”
And now he had to make some phone calls. First to his boss about taking the extra time off. Second to the airline, which would probably charge him as much as his plane ticket to reschedule his flight.
Given the soft smile on Riley’s face, it’d be completely worth it.
“You don’t need your cane anymore?” Christian asked.
The look on Riley’s face could only be described as surprised pleasure. Because Christian couldn’t keep his mouth shut and had given himself away.
He cleared his throat. “I, uh…followed your career. You know? Obviously.” He was sure his shrug made him look like he was having a seizure. Forcing his shaking hands not to betray him, he brought his mug up to his mouth for another sip. “I’m sorry that happened to you, Riley.”
Riley only grunted. “I knew the risks. Besides, I was told I was lucky. The way I fell the injury should’ve been a lot worse. As in a knee brace and a cane for the rest of my life, but…” He held both hands up like, cane-free, bitches!
“I thought you would’ve —” called me. Um, no. No, no. Things not to say to your ex who doesn’t seem to be nearly as affected by your reappearance in his life as you are by his. “Gone into coaching,” Christian finally went with.
“I thought about it,” Riley admitted. “But after I got hurt, I just…needed a bit of distance from hockey.”
“So you decided to work in a bakery?”
“No,” Riley said. “I decided to start my own.” His voice held a tinge of disbelief, like he couldn’t quite believe he’d gone ahead and started a bakery. Who does that anyway?
“You started a bakery,” Christian repeated slowly, trying and failing to keep the incredulousness out of his tone, “in downtown Oakville. Where the rent prices are notoriously insane?” Businesses opened and folded so fast, Christian couldn’t keep up. The only ones that stayed open were the ones that had been established for years.
“Yeah.” Riley looked away as if this was a subject he didn’t want to talk about.
Christian ignored it and ploughed forward anyway. “Are you having trouble?”
Riley waved his hand, physically brushing the topic aside. “I’m fine,” he said with a smile that was so patently forced.
And that hurt, that Riley wouldn’t confide in him. They used to tell each other everything. But what did he expect after six years of radio silence?
Finishing off his hot chocolate, Christian set his mug down and forced a smile of his own. “I should get going. I’m sure you have stuff to do. Thanks for the hot chocolate.” He eyed the Shimmer bottle on the shelf behind the counter. “And the magic booze.”
Riley chuckled. “You’re welcome. Hey, don’t be a stranger, okay? I’m here almost everyday. Come by for lunch when you have a free afternoon?”
Christian would be here for lunch every afternoon if that wouldn’t make him look like a psycho stalker on crack.
“I will,” he promised. The questions he wanted to ask burned a hole in his gut, but he left them unasked. Instead he took a good look at Riley. Because though he was almost certain this wasn’t the last time they’d see each other, he’d thought the same six years ago. And look how that had turned out. So he looked his fill, not caring that his feelings were probably on full display. Because who cared about looking like a vulnerable sap when you’d spent the past six years missing your best friend? Some things were more important than pride.
Rapping his knuckles twice on the countertop in a silent goodbye, Christian turned to leave. Wishing he had the guts to tell Riley everything he wanted from him. Wishing —
Breath left him in a whoosh at the nickname. The one only Riley ever called him, starting when they were about fourteen. For some inexplicable reason Riley had never ever divulged. None of Christian’s names started with a T, so where Riley had gotten it from Christian might never know. Its utterance now made him think maybe Riley wasn’t as unaffected by their sudden reunion as he’d thought.
Christian turned to Riley, who had come around the counter and now stood only a couple feet away. Unfamiliar shadows danced in his eyes.
“What are you doing on Sunday?” Riley asked.
“It’s Christmas Eve.”
Riley smiled at his non-answer. “That doesn’t answer my question.”
Christian shrugged. “Having dinner with my mom.” Same as every Christmas Eve.
“We close at two that day,” Riley said. “Want to hit the ice after?”
Shit yeah, did he ever! He was sure his answering smile held a faint hint of relief as they worked out the details of when and where.
“Bring your gear!” Riley called to him after he’d unlocked the front door to let himself out.
“For a friendly game?”
“Dude, you forget. I’ve seen your slapshot. No way am I getting in net without padding.”
Damn, did he even have any gear at his mom’s anymore? Whatever. He’d find something.
Waving a hand over his shoulder to acknowledge he’d heard, Christian let himself out, said “Don’t forget to lock this before you leave!” waited for the “Yeah, yeah” from inside, and shut the door behind him.COLLAPSE
I loved Christian and Riley’s story. Of course, they play hockey, they are friends to lovers, they are hot in the sack, and they are already out and proud. So many of my favorite tropes that I was destined to read and love this book. Even though the story starts with them being estranged, I was thrilled that it didn’t dominate the storytelling. It was enough that they eventually talked it out, but I am so glad they didn’t dwell on it for the whole book. This was another case of Susan loving on a sweet sports book. I must be on a roll considering fluff is not my go-to sports romance, normally.
But, although this is sweet and romantic, it is also fun, and you know there are underlying issues that the guys need to work out before they can move on, together. There was no meeting and falling in love, they’ve already been best friends since they were seven and in love since they were fifteen. The issues occurred when they were in college and life and hockey got in the way. They never fell out of love, they just never communicated. That is realistic to me, and I believe it truly happens to the best of us. Sometimes we think it’s better to not say anything if you are afraid of the answer.
In this case, our boys are so freaking cute, and also steaming hot together. Love and sex was never their problem, but it takes a very cool, meddling mother for the two of them to realize that the past belongs in the past, and in order to find that elusive happy ending and finally be together then they need to learn to talk it out and be honest. They do.
Overall Impression: I really liked it!