IN THE MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE (MIDDLE OF SOMEWHERE #1)
DANIEL MULLIGAN is tough, snarky, and tattooed, hiding his self-consciousness behind sarcasm. Daniel has never fit in—not at home with his auto mechanic father and brothers, and not at school where his Ivy League classmates look down on him. Now, Daniel’s relieved to have a job at a small college in Northern Michigan, but, a city boy through and through, when Daniel arrives in Holiday, Michigan, it’s clear that this small town is one more place he just won’t fit in.
REX VALE clings to routine to keep loneliness at bay: honing his large, muscular body until it can handle anything, perfecting his recipes, and making custom furniture. Rex has lived in Holiday for years, but his shyness and imposing size have kept him from connecting with people. Though he loves the quiet and solitude of his little cabin in the woods, Rex can’t help but want someone to share it with.
When Daniel arrives in Holiday, they are smitten with each other, but though the sex is intense and explosive, Rex fears that Daniel will be one more in a long line of people to leave him, and Daniel has learned that letting anyone in could be a fatal weakness. Just as they begin to break down the walls that have been keeping them apart, Daniel is called home to Philadelphia where a secret is revealed that changes the way he understands everything.
A FREE Rex + Daniel Christmas Short
This whole … Christmas tree business has turned into a total production. Well, I mean, I guess it started as a whole production what with cutting down a tree and all. We wrestled the damn thing into the house okay but Marilyn immediately started barking at it like it was going to attack her at any moment. I guess it’s the first tree for both of us. Or, I know we had one for a couple of years before my mom died—one of those fake, from-a-box ones—but I don’t really remember it so I’m deciding it doesn’t count.
Rex disappeared into his workshop after we got the tree propped up without telling me what he was doing, so now I’m lounging on the couch, staring at the thing, half considering reading or putting on music but actually just waiting until I drift off. We got up way too damn early this morning.
I wake to a warm hand sliding under my t-shirt and resting on my stomach, and breath on my neck as Rex kisses me softly. I reach out blindly to pull him to me but get an armful of something decidedly not the cozy, flannel-clad chest of my hot boyfriend. Feels more like hugging a garbage bag.
Oh, because it is a garbage bag.
“You always bring me the nicest things,” I grumble, squinting at the bag and deciding the couch is a better option than whatever Rex has brought from the workshop. Doesn’t take highly attuned powers of deduction to see it’s something that will require way more effort than I want to put forth at the moment. But then Rex hits me with this hopeful, excited look that’s basically my kryptonite and I can tell my minutes on the couch are numbered.
“Found some stuff for our tree,” Rex says. He squats down and starts pulling things out of the bag like the world’s hottest lumberjack Santa. There’s silver and gold tinsel and rolls of those little twinkly lights, all still neatly coiled.
“Yeah. Well.” Rex looks at the tree and I slide next to him and reach into the bag. There are more rolls of lights and some simple ornaments in different colors, neatly boxed, seals unbroken. “Um …”
I kiss him so he doesn’t have to say anything. Kiss him so he doesn’t have to explain how much this clearly means to him. Kiss him until I can feel him smile and he squeezes me tight.
“Okay so how do we do this? Is there, like, a procedure?”
Rex raises an eyebrow at me in that half amused way he has that also says Where did you come from?
“Just asking,” I mumble, and start to pick at the tape sealing the lights.
Once we start, Rex is all action: unboxing the ornaments, unrolling the tinsel, turning the tree so its best side is showing (don’t ask me). Then, as suddenly as he began, he stops and ducks his head.
“I thought maybe I’d put on some … music?”
“Some … um, Christmas music?” Rex’s voice actually goes up about an octave at the end of that sentence. And rightly so because who in the ever-loving hell would voluntarily listen to Christmas music. We’re not at the mall. He must be kidding. No? Or, think it’s funny? No …
“Oh my god. You really like Christmas. Like, actually, sincerely, fundamentally are intoChristmas.”
Rex says something that I can only decipher as “Ermp,” and ducks his head again. I start to laugh, but it’s mostly at how sheepish he is about it.
“You love Christmas! You’re a Christmas maniac! You want to live in that town from The Nightmare Before Christmas where it’s Christmas all the time!”
“No,” Rex says weakly, but he’s inching toward my laptop like it’s the gun he’s just knocked from my hand and I’m going to make a move for it any second. With only a few clicks, Christmas carols pour from the computer.
“Did you make a Christmas playlist on my Spotify!?” He grins. “Monster!”
Rex walks toward me with a grin so big it’s frankly alarming, “Oh Holy Night” heralding his arrival. Hands on my shoulders, he draws me close, swaying to the music. And, okay, it’s way better than hugging the garbage bag. He hums along and I just shake my head. He’s ridiculous. But so, so happy.
“All I’m saying is there better not be any of that Mariah Carey-ass shit on this playlist, okay?” Rex just chuckles and pulls me over to the tree. That was not reassuring.
“Here, you do the lights,” Rex says, picking up where he left off with the tinsel. He’s delicate with it, twining the metallic strands around the boughs of the tree as if he can picture exactly how he wants it to look. See, I knew there was some kind of procedure here.
I unspool the lights, thinking I’ll just follow the pattern of the tinsel. Yeah, good plan. It is really pretty, though. The tinsel. It shines against the deep green of the pine needles. And the tree smells really good, sharp and woodsy—a little like Rex so I can’t help but sniff it.
One year, I asked my dad if we could have a tree for Christmas. It was a few years after Mom died, maybe, and I had heard some of the kids from school talking about all the things their families did for the holidays. Baked cookies, made specific meals, watched certain movies, decorated the tree together. It seemed nice. Like maybe it was one of those things that make you a family: your own set of traditions.
I brought it up tentatively to my dad, but my older brother Colin overheard and he lit into me, saying that baking cookies was for girls and Christmas trees were for rich Rittenhouse Square assholes. I’d seen the trees in Rittenhouse Square, though, and thought they were pretty nice. Plush velvet bows and a latticework of lights draping their branches. Needless to say, I didn’t mention it again.
I smell the tree’s branches again, enjoying the clean spiciness, and shake my head to banish the ghosts of shitty Christmasses past.
While I was distracted I strung the lights so they won’t reach the outlet to plug them in, so I start to adjust them, vaguely aware that Rex is watching me. But he’s the one who wouldn’t tell me the plan, so I guess he can just live with however I do it. I try and shift the lights, but since they’re encircling the tree I can’t do it without pulling it over. So I wrap the lights around my arms to keep them from getting tangled and try to walk around the tree to see where I should start them.
The strand snags on a branch and I reach up and lift it down so it doesn’t ruin Rex’s tinsel placement. But then I have to kind of spin around to get between the tree and the wall. Then I drop a loop of lights and have to scoop it up so they won’t get all messed up. And then … um … yeah, then I’m completely tangled in Christmas lights like a ridiculous child or some America’s Funniest Home Videos reel of the family cat. Jesus.
I look up slowly, hoping that maybe Rex has gone to mess with his cheesy Christmas carols playlist or, better yet, gone to the kitchen to make sandwiches or something. But, no. He’s definitely standing right there, looking at me. This is the you-are-ridiculous look, but fortunately it’s leavened with a hearty serving of you-are-adorable so I don’t have to kick Rex’s ass. Which would, um, be difficult because I—yeah, I actually can’t move or I will pull this whole tree down on us.
Rex comes toward me slowly, like he’s savoring the moment. Thank god neither of us have smart phones because if he took a picture of me right now they would never find the body.
“Um,” I say.
Rex grins and plucks at the lights with one finger. “Kinky.”
I roll my eyes, but smile at him. Rex bends over to kneel at my feet and I prepare to make some version of a “now who’s kinky” comment as he untangles me. Except he doesn’t untangle me. He—
“Rex, god damn it!”
Because suddenly the tree and I are both twinkling with white lights. Rex snorts with laughter. Huh, I guess they would’ve reached the outlet after all.
Rex stands up and tugs on the lights that encircle me, the glow illuminating my t-shirt and his sweater. I look up at him expectantly, but he just wraps an arm around my waist and chuckles. I sigh and drop my head onto his chest. The lights do look kind of pretty against the wool of Rex’s sweater, like candle flames burning in the snow. Okay, I guess this is nice—this whole … tree … Christmas … thing.
Then, from my computer comes a familiar horrible sound. “I don’t want a lot for Christmas,” Mariah Carey croons.
“Rex, no! God damn it!”
Rex starts cracking up. I struggle away from him, trying to get the lights off of me so I can go mute the hellacious sound. But Rex grabs my arms so I can’t move. I push him away, but now the tempo change has happened and it’s a done deal—the damn song will be stuck in my head for the next thousand hours. I groan.
“Come on,” Rex says, still laughing. He hugs me tight and kind of rocks us back and forth until I give up and slump into him, rolling my eyes and sighing to make damn sure that Rex knows exactly how painful it is that he’s pouring poison into my ears.
After a minute, the feel of Rex’s body next to mine works its usual magic and I slide my arms around his waist, the strand of lights slithering down to coil around my feet. Okay, he smells way better than the tree.
“You know,” Rex says, “the tree is great.” I nod absently, paying more attention to Rex’s soft stubble against my cheek and wondering if I can distract him from this whole decorating thing. He leans back a little and looks at me. “But all I want for Christmas really is you.”
“Oh my god,” I groan. “Cheeseball!” But he’s looking at me with the warmth of a hundred Christmas trees lit up bright. He shrugs and nods sheepishly, but as the music changes to the celestial sound of a boys choir, he kisses me. I can’t move to either side or I’ll crush these damn lights underfoot. I can’t move backward because there’s a huge tree there. So all I can really do is hold onto Rex—feel his arms around me and his mouth on mine.
I guess there are worse ways to spend a day.