Title: Irises in the Snow
Author: Isabelle Adler
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: November 4, 2019
Heat Level: 2 - Fade to Black Sex
Genre: Contemporary, Anxiety, artist, childhood friends, Christmas, contemporary, family drama, holiday, second chances, small town
SynopsisIt’s Christmas, and Justin’s life is fraying at the edges. The family business he took over instead of going to art school is bleeding money, and his boyfriend of seven months cheated on him. Under these circumstances, family gatherings can be rough, but Justin believes he has everything under control. That is, until Elliot, his former best friend (and the first guy to ever break his heart) unexpectedly shows up at the holiday dinner party.
With both of them still nursing the wounds of the past, it might take a real Christmas miracle for Justin and Elliot to learn to appreciate the art of second chances.
Irises in the Snow
Isabelle Adler © 2019
All Rights Reserved
The Rowel family home greeted Justin with familiar smells of cinnamon cake and fresh pine. In his mind, these scents had always been associated with the holiday season and long evenings spent around the dinner table or playing Scrabble in front of the fire. They were enough to ease some of the ache in Justin’s chest, softening his mood a tiny fraction.
“Justin!” His father clapped him on the shoulder and pulled him into a hug, which Justin carefully returned. “I’m glad you could finally make it.”
Despite the long remission, his father still appeared frail—or so it seemed to Justin, who, like most children, had grown up with the illusion his father was invincible until the universe proved him wrong.
“Of course,” Justin said. “You know me; I can’t say no to mom’s cooking.”
His father raised his eyebrow skeptically, undoubtedly recalling the string of last-minute cancellations and half-hearted excuses for not coming over in the last few weeks.
A familiar wave of guilt washed over Justin. With everything that had been going on, he knew he’d be hard-pressed to withstand his parents’ well-meaning inquiries into his personal life and into the state of the family business, which had become Justin’s sole responsibility. He couldn’t bring himself to tell them just how badly both those things were going.
He cranked up his smile to a new level of dissimulation, but thankfully, his mother emerged from the kitchen before his dad could challenge his statement.
His mother wiped her hands on her apron and reached up to plant kisses on Justin’s cheeks.
“Everybody is already here,” she told Justin as she led him by the arm into the living room as if he’d forgotten the way. “I love it when the house is full.” Her tone was a touch wistful as she gave his arm a gentle squeeze before returning to the kitchen.
Justin supposed having them all together was a rare occurrence these days. He lived in a one-room apartment above their hardware store, and his sister Trish had recently moved in with her fiancé. Nowadays, only the holidays presented an opportunity for Kelly Rowel to gather all of her loved ones, and, despite having to close the shop early on Monday to attend the day-before-Christmas-Eve family gathering, Justin was glad he could do something to make his mom happy. But as soon as he entered the brightly lit living room, he came to a screeching halt.
A fire already crackled merrily behind the grate. Huge red and white socks adorned with hand-embroidered names hung off the mantelpiece, decorated with a fake holly arrangement making its yearly appearance in the Rowel household. The TV showed a romantic comedy set in the Swiss Alps, as far as Justin could tell at a cursory glance. His sister Trish, her fiancé Dave, and Aunt Marnie sat glued to the movie while Uncle Tony fiddled with his iPhone.
None of them, however, had the dubious honor of grabbing Justin’s attention. That belonged to the young man wearing trendy gold-rimmed glasses and the blandest Christmas sweater in existence, sitting ramrod-straight in Dad’s old armchair and seemingly engrossed in Anne Hathaway’s foreign love affair.
No way. What was he doing here?
Justin didn’t know how long he stood in the doorway, transfixed, until his father, coming up behind him, gave him a slight nudge.
“Look who I have here!” he announced, and everybody, including the young man and Uncle Tony, raised their heads and turned his way.
“Hey, Justin!” Trish got up to meet him and give him a vigorous hug.
They sure were an affectionate lot, he thought absently as he hugged her back. Once, all that warmth was what kept him going. Now, it seemed almost…superfluous.
“Hi, Trish,” Justin said when she let up, and nodded to the rest. “Aunt Marnie, Uncle Tony, Dave. Elliot.”
“Oh, right.” Trish finally seemed to recall there was someone else present. “Mom invited Elliot to spend the holiday with us. You remember Elliot?”
Justin nodded curtly, unable to tear his eyes away from their guest. He definitely remembered Elliot Turner.
The man in question stood up, vacating his seat for Justin’s dad, and extended his hand in greeting.
“It’s nice to see you again,” he said.
Elliot’s voice was deeper, more mature than the last time Justin had spoken to him. Somehow, he seemed taller too. His gray eyes behind the shiny glasses regarded him seriously.
“Sure,” Justin said politely, shaking his hand. “It’s been a while.”
“Five years,” Elliot said.
“I was sorry to hear about your parents,” Justin said.
An awkward silence, accentuated by the chatter from the TV, settled around the living room at the mention of the tragedy. Trish and Aunt Marnie exchanged a nervous look. Really, did they expect Justin to just ignore what had happened?
When he’d heard of the terrible car accident last year, he tried calling Elliot in Los Angeles, but Elliot never picked up the phone or responded to Justin’s email in which he offered his condolences. That, above anything else, made it perfectly clear Justin was no longer welcome in his life.
So what was he doing back, standing in Justin’s parents’ living room?
“Thank you,” Elliot said gravely.
Suddenly, Justin was aware he was still holding Elliot’s hand and let it go, taking an involuntary step back. He wasn’t prepared for all the half-repressed memories dragged to the surface by Elliot’s touch—and he certainly wasn’t prepared to deal with them in front of his notoriously meddlesome, if well-meaning, extended family.
Elliot stepped away as well, dropping his eyes. The sudden loss of contact felt like…well, a loss.
“Is Mark coming?” Trish asked, peering behind Justin’s shoulder as if expecting to find his boyfriend loitering in the corridor.
“No,” he said curtly.
“Oh, that’s too bad. Maybe he’ll join us tomorrow, then?”
“I don’t think so. How are your studies going?” he asked Trish, desperately trying to divert her focus elsewhere.
“I’m doing great. Passed all my midterms.”
“With flying colors,” Dave said.
He rose from his seat to shake Justin’s hand as Elliot stepped aside to make room for him and plopped back down, taking over half the couch in a casual sprawl. Dave was a big guy, tall and built like a quarterback. Trish was taller than Justin by an inch, and nearly as broad in the shoulders, but Dave made her seem petite in comparison.
“That’s terrific,” Justin said, his voice warming.
His plan of going to art school had gone up in flames and then slowly fizzled over the years as other considerations took precedence over the illusions of youth, but at least it hadn’t all been for nothing. With her athletics scholarship, Trish had been accepted to UIndy, and as long as she got to achieve that dream, he was happy to do anything he could to support her.
“I can’t believe you got even paler, though,” Trish said, casting a critical eye over him. “And thinner. Are you auditioning for the role of the Ghost of Christmas Past?”
“You’re the one to talk, Trish,” Aunt Marnie observed primly. “That’s the trouble with young people today. You can’t be bothered to take care of yourselves. Eating sandwiches in front of the TV instead of sitting down for a proper meal, chugging all those soft drinks, always on your phones instead of having a nice long conversation over the dinner table.”
She glanced disapprovingly at Uncle Tony as she said it. Justin couldn’t tell whether her dissatisfaction stemmed from his being effectively absent from the proceedings, or that his preoccupation with his own mobile device undermined her point of it being the affliction of solely the younger generation.
Justin rolled his eyes and caught a glimpse of Elliot doing the same. He pretended not to notice.
“Oh, shush, Marnie.” Justin’s dad, John, tsked in annoyance at his sister-in-law as he settled comfortably in his shabby armchair. “Leave the girl alone. The last thing she needs is your dieting advice.”
“Just so you know, I eat healthier than all of you,” Trish said, sitting back down on the sofa beside her fiancé. Thankfully, she wasn’t ruffled by her aunt’s comment. Unlike Justin, she had always boasted a sunny disposition and staunchly refused to let bullies of any variety upset her. “And I drink nothing but fresh juice and water. Carbonated for special occasions.”
Dave snickered and petted her arm lovingly.
“Yes. Well. You must be tired, dear,” Aunt Marnie said, changing the subject and addressing Justin. “Why don’t you sit, put your feet up for a bit? Now, are you sure your young man isn’t coming? I had such a nice chat with him when you brought him over for Thanksgiving. Did you know—”
“I’m sure,” Justin interrupted her. Elliot’s gaze was like a laser beam trained on him, but he refused to meet it head on. “Actually, I think I’ll go see if Mom needs any help in the kitchen.”
Justin beat a hasty retreat before they could all start bickering again—and before he had to explain his current heartache in front of the man who was the first to ever break it.