A Hundred Promises of Love

an excerpt

November 25th

On the Christmas card, two fluffy Persian cats sporting felt antlers stared at Ethan in disgust. Behind them a miniature sleigh sat empty. A thought balloon rose above one cat with the words, "Pull your own sleigh, fat man." Ha. Ethan tried to smother the chuckle, but it escaped.

"Are you laughing at your Cousin Emmylou's lumbago?" His mom's disapproving question snapped Ethan back to the conversation on his phone. He shoved the card back in the rack and lined them up from where the last customer picked through them.

"What? No. What is lumbago, anyway?" His Cousin Emmylou always had some ailment discussed ad nauseam by the family. A pang of regret thrummed in his chest as Ethan realized he wouldn't see Cousin Emmylou or any of the extended family this Christmas.

At least his mom would be here to celebrate.

"It's a three-dollar word for back pain." Ethan's mom sighed. "Last month it was impetigo. I swear that woman is a walking health hazard."

"Well, you'll get a week off from Cousin Emmylou. I'm looking forward to your visit, Mom." And he was. His mom traveled little, and he wanted to pamper her this Christmas. He'd spent his cash, extra savings, and maxed out his puny credit card to buy spa day gift certificates, theatre tickets, and a special weekend stay at the Opryland hotel. He'd even sprung for passes to see his mom's favorite performer in concert. He'd need to watch his budget through January to make sure he didn't overdraw his checking account, but she deserved it. Christmas was always hard, now that Dad had passed. And with her move out of the family home this year... He wanted her new memories to be just as special.

"I can't wait to spend quality time with my baby boy again."

"Well, it will be a whole new experience to see Nashville at Christmas. Don't forget to bring a warm coat."

His mom's laughter sparkled through the phone's speaker. "No shorts for Christmas?"

"I'm hoping for snow." Ethan chuckled at his mom's exaggerated "brrr" noise in response.

"There's something else I--" She began but movement beyond the coffee shop's plate glass window caught his eye.

Ethan recognized the tall, delicious figure in purple lens sunglasses striding toward him. He interrupted her mid-sentence. "Oops. Gotta go, Mom. Love you."

"Love you too, baby boy."

Ethan rammed the phone back in his pocket and ducked behind the counter a minute before the bell over the door jingled.


Nico shoved his filtered safety glasses on top of his head and then grabbed the door on its arc to swing closed behind a young woman leaving with her kindergartener. The shaded interior of the Café au Lait coffee shop soothed his eyes after the piercing winter sunshine and chilly breeze of the street. The warm old-world wood paneling invited patrons to linger over a cup, but he didn't dawdle. He'd been a regular customer every day since it opened last June, or rather, Paula, Glen, and he had. One of them made the morning coffee run before they started on the day's projects. But Nico had volunteered more often since the coffee shop had hired Ethan four months ago. Ever since he noticed the tasteful little rainbow pin that Ethan wore on the strap of his barista apron.

Ethan of the golden beard stubble and the plush mouth Nico yearned to kiss. Glen kept pestering Nico to ask the guy out, but instead, Nico always said--

"One small skinny vanilla decaf latte. One medium macchiato, one pump hazelnut syrup. One double shot Americano."

Ethan's smile never wavered. "Coming right up."

The girl behind the counter pulled the beverages while Ethan rang him up. Their fingers brushed when Nico handed over his debit card. Ethan slid Nico's receipt across the counter and went to help make the drinks. Nico couldn't take his eyes off Ethan. He watched him pour the milk, so that it left a perfect heart-shaped leaf in the latte. He followed Ethan's milk-stained finger to his plush lips before he washed his hands again. And he counted the fine strawberry blond hairs along Ethan's arms as he popped open the carry container and placed the finished drinks inside.

He handed Nico the laden box and again his fingers brushed against the burn-scarred skin of Nico's wrist, making a tingle of awareness skitter down Nico's spine.

"I hope you have a happy holiday, Mr. Kazan." Ethan's pleasant voice matched the happy smile on his face.

Nico stood frozen. He should do it now. He should ask. Nico'd been working up the courage for the last two months.

Ethan regarded him, eyebrows raised.

Nico tried to force the words out. His heart hammered, and he was sure it throbbed in the vein in his neck. The cardboard of the carrier sagged with the cold sweat exuding from his palm. Nico closed his mouth and swallowed. Who was he kidding? The guy would laugh in his face. He probably got a dozen phone numbers from customers and then threw them in the trash after every shift. And those were from guys that didn't have ugly scars bisecting their face.

Nico spun around and slammed open the jingling shop door as he left.