“The best way to a man’s heart is through his stomach,” said Lilith over lunch.
Simon’s gazed traced the Christmas garland trimmed with pinecones, fake berries, and white twinkle lights that framed the three large windows overlooking one of the Christmas tree fields belonging directly to the Northern Pennsylvania Christmas Tree Consortium. A gentle snow fell beyond the glass.
“But is it?” Simon asked. His previous experience said otherwise.
Table-top candelabras served as centerpieces for all the tables, the battery-powered candles glowing merrily.
Lilith’s brown eyes sparkled as brightly as her shiny silver hair, cut in a short bob that framed her face. She’d been a bookkeeper for the Consortium for almost ten years and had heartily welcomed Simon into the company when he’d started back in September. Before long, she’d begun treating him like a long-lost grandson. Her care and attention filled a void he hadn’t known he had, and Simon loved being around her.
“Oh, sweetheart, of course it is. The delivery item may be different, but good food or drink will always please a man.”
He hid a scoff behind a sip of his water. Those might please a man, but they didn’t guarantee happiness. Or faithfulness. He’d learned that the hard way. Not if that same good food left you with a permanent freshman fifteen.
Besides, his mom had always encouraged him to play the field, live life a little before he even thought about getting serious. Flitting from guy to guy, putting notches on his metaphorical bedpost had never felt right, although Tall, Dark, and Zane was a tempting exception.
“If someone brought you a Cinnamon Stick Coffee from Bernie’s every day, you’d be pleased, wouldn’t you?”
Simon nodded, fiddling with his bow tie. “I suppose.” And ten pounds heavier.
Large sparkly plastic snowflakes hung from the ceiling.
“You’d give that someone a chance, wouldn’t you?”
Almost a dozen tables filled the room, most of them seating four, a few only large enough for two, but all of them full of Consortium employees enjoying one another’s company. The happy environment continued to boggle his mind.
Lilith leaned forward and patted his hand. “You know Zane, right? Mrs. Merton’s Personal Assistant?”
Simon nodded. “Sure I do. We work down the hall from one another. We talk.” Zane had been nothing but helpful and courteous, albeit distracted, these past four months.
“Well, let me tell you, Zane loves his sweets. Never seen him turn down a holiday baked good in the five years he’s been here. So…”
All her non sequiturs flashed through his mind, and a theory coalesced. “Are you trying to set me up with Zane?”
“What? No.” She flashed him an innocent expression, but he wasn’t buying it. “Why would I do that?”
“I don’t know, but it sounds like you are. What if Zane is seeing someone?”
“How do you know?”
“I just do.”
“Hmm…” Simon shoved a bite of beef pho in his mouth. He wasn’t interested in Zane’s heart, but he wouldn’t mind his body. Not that Zane would want his in return. Simon’s midsection was a little fuller than he’d like. He really needed to make better food choices.
“Speaking of holiday treats,” she murmured, then stood and waved. “Yoo hoo— Here’s a seat, Zane.”
Simon’s heart leapt to his throat, and his gaze darted around the lunchroom. All the other tables were indeed occupied. Crud.
“I’ll see you later, gator.” Lilith winked and scooted off.
Tall, Dark, and Zane headed Simon’s way. The man was a six-foot wall of muscle and beauty, from his caramel-colored mane and smoldering dark blue eyes, to his permanent long stubble, wide shoulders, narrow waist, and long legs.
Simon swallowed the eeek! that tried to escape.
Much as he’d like to get up close and personal with Zane, the only thing they had in common was height, and Simon had the advantage by an inch or two. Faithfully, he showed his face at the gym five days out of seven to use the treadmill to justify his bi-weekly coffee treat from Bernie’s Brewhouse. But his hair was boring brown, his eyes were boring brown, and he sported a permanent layer of pudge he couldn’t seem to shed.
“You don’t actually mind if I sit here, do you?” Zane held a bag from Sadie’s Sundry Shop, an eyebrow raised, top teeth biting into a plump bottom lip.
Simon sighed inwardly. Gorgeous and courteous. He shook his head and took a bite of pho.
Zane sat and pulled his meal from the bag—some sort of sub sandwich.
The scent of yeasty bread wafted Simon’s way, and his mouth watered. Carbs were his kryptonite. Any kind, any flavor. Hence the layer of not-muscle around his midsection.
They ate in silence for a few minutes. It wasn’t exactly awkward silence, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable either. If the furrows in his forehead were anything to go by, Zane had something on his mind.
“Apparently, you’re my second in command,” he finally said.
Simon’s eyebrows rose. “I’m sorry?”
“The Christmas party.” Zane chomped into his sandwich and chewed aggressively. “Mrs. Merton said you were really looking forward to the party, and when she asked you to help me, you agreed.”
Simon’s stomach flipped. Was that a bad thing? “Well, I am and I did.”
He’d never spoken to Mrs. Merton directly about how excited he was about the party. He’d gushed to Lilith, sure. She must have taken it upon herself to put a word in Mrs. Merton’s ear.
“I’m really sorry. I didn’t mean to step on your toes or anything. I was in the elevator with Mrs. Merton the other day, and out of the blue she asked if I was willing to help you out. What was I supposed to say?” Simon shrugged. “Just task me with whatever you don’t want to do. It’s fine.”
The man’s shoulders slumped, and he shook his head. “No, I… I’m sorry for being an ass. I have a lot on my plate right now, and some help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks.”
“Sure. You’re welcome.” Simon nodded. Why would he not agree? The big boss lady asked. He didn’t have much going on. After his last relationship ended the way it had—in the middle of a grocery store being berated for his food choices—he’d sworn off them for a while. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to accept an opportunity to get to know and enjoy the wonder that was Zane Rutledge.
“Let’s finish eating.” Zane held up his sandwich. “Then we can discuss the party.”
Simon pushed his bowl away and cast about for a topic of conversation.
Oh— The community theater was performing The Gift of the Magi for the annual Christmas production. Apparently, the yearly Christmas play was a big thing here in Linzer. When you lived in a place whose biggest employer dealt in Christmas trees, the holiday itself was a big deal.
“Are you planning to see the play?” he asked.
Zane nodded, swallowing. “Sorta. I’m in the play. I’m the lead, Jim.”
“Oooh, color me impressed.”
Zane blushed a bit, ducked his head, his lips tipping up at the corner.
Simon had been on the stage crew in high school as part of his fine arts credit. “I love the theater. I can’t act to save my life, but I’m in awe of those who can.”
“I guess I’m good enough—I got the role.” Zane shrugged, took a bite. When he finished, he said, “I’ve been acting since middle school, and I love it. We did Peter/Wendy one year in high school and Back to the 80s when I was in college.”
“Wow.” Simon wasn’t familiar with either play, but the way the guy’s eyes lit up as he talked made him smile.
“Yeah, I usually go to New York once or twice a year for a long weekend and catch a production or two.”
“Oh, hey, me too. Well, my mom and I go to New York for New Year’s Eve, and we try to catch a performance of something while we’re there.”
“Do you have a favorite? Play, I mean.”
Simon shook his head, self-consciousness heating his cheeks. “From a purely critical standpoint, I’m not that discerning. I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything.” Simon traced a circle on the tabletop. “As far as performers go, though, Benedict Cumberbatch as The Monster was phenomenal. He’s just…” Simon sighed. “…amazing.”
“Ooo sar dat?” Zane asked around a mouthful of sandwich, eyes as large and bright as a Christmas bulb. He swallowed with an audible gulp. “Live?”
Simon smacked a hand to his chest and shook his head. “God, I wish, but no. Although I’d love to see B.C. perform live. No, Frankenstein occasionally gets encored at theaters, and I’ve gone to see it every time. The late night is so worth it.”
“He’s a brilliant performer.”
Simon fanned his face. “Oh my God, the man makes my teeth sweat.”
Zane snorted. “Mine too actually.” With a smile, he gazed off into the distance for a moment. “Have you seen his Hamlet?”
Simon sighed again. “Those forearms.”
“Oh, God, I know, right?”
Simon swallowed another sigh. A man who loved Benedict Cumberbatch as much as he did. How often did that happen?
Zane wiped his mouth. “I actually saw that live. My oma took me to London to see it. It was every bit as spectacular in person as you could image.”
“Oh, damn. You lucky dog you.”
“I know.” Zane rolled up his sandwich trash and stood. “Okay, let’s go back to my desk, so I can get you caught up on party planning.”
Zane tidied his desk as he waited for Simon. As the personal assistants to the CEO and CFO of the company, they knew one another, of course. Simon had only been employed for a few months, so Zane didn’t know him well, although he’d shown him the ropes the first month he was here. Mr. Merton’s former P.A. had retired and moved to Florida with her husband. He’d been glad to see the back of her.
Simon, however, had been a surprising choice for Mr. Merton, not because he was homophobic—the man’s nephew was gay, and, as far as Zane knew, they had a close relationship—but because he was somewhat of a traditionalist. Something or someone had convinced him to hire Simon, and Zane definitely appreciated the change in scenery to something more to his taste.
At six feet, Zane was taller than most, but Simon had an inch or two on him. He styled his chestnut-colored hair in a low fade, the front always stylishly messy, and his eyes were deep and dark, like rich coffee. He was the complete opposite of Ingram’s icy Nordic appearance, and Zane was thankful for small favors.
Simon hurried into the executive corridor and plopped into the chair in front of Zane’s desk.
The guy could pull off a bow tie like nobody’s business. He didn’t wear them all the time, but when he did, he looked sharp. Cute. Edible.
Nor was he stick thin like Ingram. Zane had sometimes worried that he’d break Ingram when their sex got a little too enthusiastic. He liked that Simon was made of sturdier stuff. But that was neither here nor there.
Simon’s fashion sense and his looks had caught Zane’s attention from the get-go, but he had no desire to venture into the dating scene. It’d only been five months since Ingram had walked out. Zane wasn’t ready go out with someone new, much less fall in love and live happily ever after.
“What? Do I have pho on my shirt?” Simon peered down at his shirt, trying to find the non-existent stain.
Zane realized he’d been staring and shook his head. “Sorry. No. Just zoned out for a moment. Let’s get started.”
Zane’s gaze was drawn to the movement of Simon’s hands as he opened the run-of-the-mill spiral notebook and folded the cover back on itself. Then Zane caught sight of the familiar layout as well as the symbols on the page although he couldn’t read the tiny scrawl. “You use the bullet journal method too?”
Simon glanced down at the page, nodding. “Too?”
Zane held up the composition book that served as his own bullet journal. “I probably have forty of these in a closet.”
Simon chuckled, smoothed a hand over the page. “Yeah. I only keep the last two or three. I had maybe a dozen when I figured out that I never referred back to the earliest ones any longer. Usually only to research when something happened or when I bought something. Now I keep a separate log just for major events and purchases. Space is at a premium at my place, so I had to get ruthless.”
“Smart idea. Mind if I borrow it?”
Simon waved a hand and proffered a bright smile. “Borrow away.”
Zane appreciated well-manicured hands on a man. He looked down at his own. They weren’t in bad shape, but they could use a little TLC. Making time for any sort of regimen, however, just wasn’t a priority. Certainly not with everything else going on. Maybe after the new year.
“Okay.” Zane took his own seat and opened the binder that held the office party information, flipped a couple of pages. “So the party’s scheduled for the Friday before Christmas.”
“Which means I’m already behind the eight ball?”
“Nope, it’s fine. You’ll just run point on a few things since I’ll be busy with the play is all. Next year we can divvy things up a bit more, but I’d definitely welcome help with wrapping the gifts the company gives to each employee.”
The words had escaped Zane’s mouth before the thought had fully formed. He almost took it back, but Simon beamed at him.
“Sure, I’d be happy to.”
Simon’s sunny smile warmed him more than it ought to.
What was he thinking?
Zane could’ve paid Jenna to do it. He could’ve just foisted the whole endeavor off on Simon. But something about those luscious brown eyes had compelled him. He didn’t know what or why, but too late now.
“I have the gifts and gift bags at my place. There’s a final rehearsal Tuesday. Opening night is Thursday. Are you busy Sunday and/or Wednesday?”
Simon shook his head. “Either is fine.”
“Sooner is better, just in case, so let’s plan on Sunday, say four o’clock? You mind coming to my place since everything is already there? We can order pizza.”
“Pizza at your place sounds perfect. I’ll bring dessert.”