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About the book:
The previous winter, Leon followed his twin sister Sara to a new town where she could be with her partner, Amber. There, Leon’s boyfriend Nick, friends Jeff and Daniel, and their nine-year-old daughter Abby, swiftly swept him up into their lives, a newfound family.
After a year of growing their relationship, Leon is ready to take it to the next level. Nick, however, has been stalling. When Ben, Abby’s best friend, is suddenly abandoned, Leon is excited to finally care for the children he’s always wanted. Haunted by the mistakes of his past, Nick attempts to reconcile his feelings of inadequacy as a parent with Leon’s wishes.
Against the backdrop of winter holidays filled with traditions from around the world, it is up to Leon to decide if he’s willing to stand by Nick, or if he should find his happiness elsewhere.
The community center was quiet for a Thursday. With vacation and beckoning winter celebrations a day away, Nick expected the ebb of youthful visitors to slow down. Besides, early afternoon was always the calmest, no matter the day. Perhaps that was why he’d chosen this particular time for the support group. Sure, it served those who worked nights, unlike most of the other meetings usually held in the evenings, but Dr. Mahler had had a few requests to organize one during the day, and that was where Nick came in.
He’d been back in his hometown for two years, and soon after settling in, he’d started attending one of the grief support groups. Not that his loss was still fresh, not after years, but as a check-in with himself. As an example for others that, yes, survival was possible. He’d made friends with the local therapist; she was supportive, and he’d booked a session or two when he needed an objective ear. He was doing well.
With a smile to himself, Nick checked on the coffee thermos on the side table, then made sure the heaters underneath the windows of the meeting room were turned on. Outside, snow fell in sparse flakes. Not enough to settle and disrupt activity, but enough to give the air that chilling bite of winter.
Beyond the hills on which the town stretched, the mountains rose toward the gray sky, covered in thick pine forests. He’d missed the view. Missed the people, the smells, the buildings.
He was back to stay. No matter what happened, he wouldn’t leave again. He’d made sure to have some safety nets this time around, just in case. Volunteering for the center, for one, running this group for another, and Dr. Mahler, whom Nick had grown to trust after two years.
Nothing, however, was more important than the people in his life.
Footsteps and voices from the corridor pulled Nick from his musings. He turned to greet the two people walking in, and then another, and another, until six strangers sat in the circle of folding chairs, staring at him. Nick cleared his throat.
“I guess we should start,” he said. “Hello, everyone. My name is Nick, and I’ll be your group leader here. I’d like to remind you that this is not a therapy session, but only a space to talk. If you feel like you need more, Dr. Mahler is here.”
He gestured then, to the side, where a small office was nestled behind glass windows, door closed. The doc waved at them from her desk, legs kicked up casually onto it, crossed at the ankles, an open book in her hand. She grinned and gave them all a thumbs-up.
Around Nick, a couple of people nodded, someone waved back, and the youth with their nose in the collar of their hoodie snorted. Nick made a mental note to check later on their age.
“Doc will be here until tonight, so if you wanna sneak back after we’re finished…”
That, at least, earned him some chuckles. Nick tried not to read too much into it. He’d been to meetings full of strangers before. This would be no different. Determination reinforced, he took a deep breath.
“We’re here to talk, but don’t feel like you have to. You can just listen, if that works. But I’d like to remind everyone to be mindful and respect the privacy of these meetings.”
All nodded, and Nick copied the gesture with a thank-you.
“Has anyone been to one of these meetings before?”
Headshakes and muttered noes.
“Well.” Nick shifted. “We talk about those we’ve lost. We talk about us. The weather. Sports. Music. That movie last week with all the sword fighting.”
“And blatant disregard for proper archery,” a woman said.
“Does it help?”
Heads swiveled to the person in the hoodie.
“It can,” Nick said. “Sometimes it helps to just be around people who’ve been through similar things. Not everyone processes in the same way, though, so it might not be as useful.”
“Have you— Did—” Hoodie shook themself into silence, and Nick nodded anyway.
“I’ve been there. Actually, this week marks a sort of anniversary for me, so I wanted to start by telling you my story if you’d like to hear it.”
That got him their attention. Curiosity and wariness, too, but it was to be expected. First time could be scary, especially under the strain of mourning. Nick remembered with clarity his first visit to an informal support group. His first group session, though, was hazy around the edges. He leaned forward, elbows on knees, and clasped his hands together.
“I was born here. With the exception of college, I’ve lived here for twenty-six years. I had a wife and a best friend and a baby on the way.”
He’d had Lauren and Jeff, twins he’d known since childhood. Through shenanigans and quiet moments and major decisions, they’d always been there. Nick and Lauren had gotten married right after college, and four years later—
“My wife died during childbirth. I watched it happen, and it’s not an image I can ever unsee. It broke me enough that my immediate thoughts were harmful toward myself and the baby. A girl. Innocent and frail, and not at fault at all. I left before I even held her once, and then spent the next seven years healing. Wasn’t pretty. Hurt a lot.”
Nick swallowed and shifted, pausing to collect his thoughts.
“What happened to her?” Hoodie asked.
“My wife’s twin brother adopted her. He was also my best friend.”
Not anymore. Jeff had a new bestie. When Nick first met Amber, he hadn’t paid much attention. It had been a brief interaction as it was, two years back, when she’d provided a ride to Jeff’s place. Amber was tall and sometimes moved like she wanted to make herself smaller. Less visible. Quiet too. Later, Nick learned she kept most people at a distance. Not in any way that might’ve been rude or hostile, but more along the lines of hiding behind a hard, thick shell. Kinda like Nick used to be, way back.
A deep breath.
“I hurt both him and the kid,” Nick continued, “because I stayed away for a long time. No contact whatsoever.”
“You suck,” Hoodie commented, but Nick fully agreed.
“Yes. Grief can make us hurt others, even when we don’t want to. It’s not excusable, though it can be explainable. Still, being mindful of those I loved was a hard-learned lesson for me.”
“But now you’re back.”
Nick nodded. “We’re working on me making up for it.”
“How?” The question came from the side, a woman with a drawn face, hugging her middle with both arms. Nick recognized that look. Guilt.
“I returned two years ago,” Nick said. “Found my friend and the kid happy. There was even a second parent involved—my friend’s life partner. Instead of being reasonable, I blew it by being an ass to them. Said mean things, made threats. Friend’s partner made me see logic. I’m grateful for him being there. They got married this summer.”
He offered a quick grin, blinking back the sting behind his eyes. Daniel was someone Nick respected through and through. He was good for Jeff and Abby.
“I don’t understand why they forgave me for being such an ass, but they did. As for my long absence… That’s the part with more serious repercussions and has been a lot harder to work through. Friend is letting me though. He’s willing, but I had to take the first step. Say that first apology—” He looked at the woman who’d asked directly. “—and not expect it to be accepted.”
“Yes, but we make mistakes, and we must bear the consequences. The best we can do after hurting others is to allow them the space they need, and understand if they can’t forgive.” With a long exhale, Nick straightened. “It’s not that grim. Sure, in the wake of what you—we’ve all been through, it might seem that what comes ahead is insurmountable. Sometimes it is, in which case you either dig through or go around, or choose a whole different path. It might also be a long, drawn-out, tiresome battle. Grief is not easy. But it’s survivable.”
And that was the whole point. That was why Nick was there, opening himself up over and over again.
“My journey is in a good place right now. I’m an uncle for the kid, her parents are my friends, and hey, I even have a boyfriend. Accidental acquisition, it was very rom-com.”
Faces perked up with undisguised interest, and Nick offered them a small smile. He got it. After Lauren, when the pain had still been so fresh he could taste it, he’d latched on to happy tales as distractions on the good days. On the bad ones, not so much. Looking around the room, it seemed his current audience wanted to hear this part of his story.
The previous year, they’d spent part of the holidays on a training retreat with Abby’s elementary school chess club, along with other third graders from all around. Daniel and Amber had chaperoned, with Nick and Jeff trailing along.
“Last winter vacation we went to this resort in the Alps. It involved a lot of children, chess, and snow—more like yelling on the slopes, actually—but it was fun. First time I met him, he threw line after line of quips while I stood there, all coherence gone. In retrospect, I should’ve realized it, but you know”—he gestured—“I was unaccustomed to someone catching my interest so suddenly.”
Nick had replayed that particular moment in his head over and over again. Leon smirking, stupid green hat over curls poking out in tiny swirls at his temples.
“And then we found out we had to share a room. You’ll never guess—”
“There was only one bed,” said Hoodie with a groan.
“Yep! We had a connection during that short vacation, but we parted ways, and I thought that would be that. Only, after I’d gotten home, I figured I didn’t want it to end. I had no idea he was coming here for New Year’s, so on December 31st, he found me in the park, brooding over lost chances.”
A few half smiles twitched around the room. Hoodie gave a thumbs-up.
“So your anniversary is coming up,” an old man to the left commented.
“Indeed. Speaking of, friend and partner’s anniversary is on the thirtieth. Seems to be a trend with us.”
Not to mention Sara and Amber had gotten together around Christmas, too, as far as Nick could tell, but those two had several anniversaries they celebrated during the year, and Nick was unclear on which was what.
The old man nodded pensively. “Martha and I, we had it on Halloween. We celebrated the day before and the day after. She said we couldn’t let candy steal all our fun, though she loved giving it out.”
With that, the others started pitching in, and Nick gave himself an inner pat on the back.
Leon is a trans-man who fell hard for Nick about a year ago. Nick has more baggage than he can carry on most days, but he’s been working toward it. He was married to a woman who died in childbirth and he didn’t cope well. He essentially abandoned his daughter to his best friend, Jeff, his wife’s twin brother and grieving uncle to young Abby. In previous novels in this series Nick returned to his old town, to check in on Jeff and Abby, and made a bit of a hash of it. Jeff is married to Daniel, a child psychologist and math teacher. They have a loving home with Abby, and they have embraced Nick and Leon. Leon’s twin sister Sara is Jeff’s current bestie–and her wife, Amber, is trying to conceive so they can have a child.
Leon has asked Nick to move in, and Nick has refused to answer. Nick still struggles with his self-worth, though medication and therapy have helped. He has a need for silent time, even though he and Leon are almost always sleeping together. Leon, who also teachers, gets a call to help out with a domestic issue. Ben, who is ten, is best pals with Abby–and well-known to the extended crew of Jeff and Daniel’s friends. Ben was in the foster care of his deceased mother’s sibling, who is married. This couple never intended to adopt him, and now that one of them has a new job opportunity, they’ve decided to leave him and Child Protective Services with a suitcase while they move across the country days before Christmas. Ben is heartbroken, as much as he will let on. He’s glued to Nick, as he’s a man whom he recognizes from all the time they’ve both spent with Abby at Jeff’s home.
Leon is a prime candidate for fostering Ben, so he claims him immediately to keep Ben in familiar surroundings. Leon would adopt him in a heartbeat, if he knew Nick was on board. But, Nick…well, he’s already failed at fatherhood once. And’ he’s not keen on trying again. It’s the holidays and Leon fells like Nick is slipping from his grasp. It’s a bittersweet moment of perhaps having his heart’s desire, in a new home, stable relationship and raising a child with a loving partner, knowing these dreams might not include Nick.
There’s a lot going on with all the different characters and their story lines. Thing is, I was able to tumble into this complicated and loving cadre of folks who really are the sweetest and most tender and loving of people. There is a happy ending, but not with the sparkling tinsel bow one might expect of a Christmas-themed romance. That said, Ben was taken in by loving folks, Abby displayed keen insight into her bio dad’s issues and Leon and Nick came out stronger and better than ever.