STAY WITH ME
The demons of his past haunt Gregoire Wood and dog his heels on his trip home for Christmas. Over and over, they drive him into the bottom of the bottle of Scotch. But this Christmas, they drive him into a bar called the Haven and the arms of owner and bartender Pierce Lawson.
Pierce usually spends his Christmases alone, but he doesn’t mind it. He also doesn’t mind when Gregoire washes up in his bar. His life, he knows, from that minute forward will never be the same.
The attraction runs deep, hot, and mutual, but Gregoire leaves when the holiday is over. This year and for the next eight years. Pierce is a patient man, though. He’ll follow Gregoire all the way back to New York if he has to in order to help Gregoire find peace and to bring him home once and for all.
There wasn’t any magic when I first met him, though he did damn near take my breath away. He did that with everyone, though. All he had to do was walk by, and heads turned. He had that kind of power, like he was a fucking sorcerer. But at that particular moment, there weren’t any sparks or a sudden epiphany on how I’d be spending the rest of my life with him.
Sometimes I wished I’d never met him, that I’d closed up that night before he ever had a chance to waltz into my life and march over my heart.
Course, the fact of the matter was, I had met him, and from that night onward, my life changed forever.
Gregoire Wood was a force, a fucking tornado and hurricane all in one. He could destroy you so easily, just as he could lift you up and give you a whole new meaning. Honestly I had been waiting for Gregoire my entire life, and no matter how many times I thought about changing the past, I never would.
My grandma used to say that angels walked among us in disguise, and all we had to do was look hard enough to see them. Well, Gregoire was an angel; he was my angel.
He came into Haven Bar with a look on his face that said he wanted to be anywhere but here. I’d learn later on that it wasn’t my bar that made him so miserable, just the town of Hawthorne in general.
Wind drifted in behind him as he closed the door and unwound a red scarf from his neck. His slicked-back chestnut hair was wreathed in a blue halo from the neon sign on the wall. He looked so young, like he had just stepped out of high school.
His gaze swooped accusingly over his surroundings; his eyes were like needles pinning us all down as if we were butterflies on exhibit. When he seemed satisfied no one was going to jump out and stab him, he walked over toward me and took a seat across from me at the bar on a cracked stool.
“What can I get ya?” I asked as I cleaned a glass.
Carefully he set his scarf down on the counter and undid the buttons of his black peacoat. “Scotch on the rocks, please,” he replied without meeting my eyes. His voice was soft and harmonic, holding a rich tone to it. I could spend hours listening to him talk.
“Ya got ID?” I asked as I set my soiled dishrag down.
He pulled out a leather wallet from a coat pocket and extracted his license. I took it from his hand and noted how smooth his skin looked. His fingers were long and thin, and his complexion was flushed from the cold.
I inspected his ID. Really, I just wanted to know his name.
Gregoire Wood, New York, and twenty-one years old as of October 16.
“Yer the pastor’s son,” I said and handed his license back.
Gregoire finally looked up at me; his eyes narrowed just the slightest. They were hazel, but not that boring color that was just a muddled mess of shades. No, they were a soft brown swirled with a creamy gold, flakes of mossy green mixed in. It took me a moment to realize he was saying something. I snapped my eyes away from his and asked, “What’cha say?”
Gregoire pressed his lips into a thin line, which really looked more like a pout than anything. “I said”—he gave emphasis to his words—“I’d like a Scotch on the rocks.”
“Oh… Oh! Yeah, right. Sorry ’bout that.” I chuckled and grabbed a tumbler before selecting one of my finer malts. I dropped two ice cubes in the tumbler with a clink and then poured the amber liquid.
Gregoire gratefully took the glass and wet his lips. I had a feeling that even though he had just turned twenty-one, he was a seasoned drinker. There was a way he savored the Scotch that spoke of years tasting the whiskey.
“So what brings ya to town?” It was a stupid question, and I realized it as soon as the words left my lip.
He raised a brow at me but had the grace not to point out my blunder. Gently he swirled the spirit in his glass and said softly, “Holiday.”
I picked up my discarded rag and started to wipe away some invisible dust. Beneath the light, almost nonexistent bar chatter droned soft Christmas music from the jukebox. I put up a Christmas tree this year in the corner and decorated it with tinsel, plastic ornaments, and colorful strings of lights I’d found tucked in the back of the storage room. A cheap, garish gold star sat on the top.
There hadn’t been a tree up since my granddad ran the bar. I told myself I was trying to bring back tradition, but the truth was I just wanted a tree up so that my Christmas didn’t seem so damn pathetic.
“Can I get another beer?” a woman called from the other side of the bar. She leaned over the counter, and cleavage spilled from her top. I snatched up a beer and walked over, making a note to cut her off. She was working on her sixth one.
“Thanks, doll,” she said and slipped me some cash.
I pocketed it in my apron and parked myself back in front of Gregoire. He didn’t seem to have missed me. He drank conservatively from his tumbler, just barely wetting his lips. I raked my mind for something to talk about, anything to hear his voice again, but I couldn’t find a solid excuse to start a conversation. So I just stood there and cleaned the same spot over and over again for well over an hour.
Gregoire finally finished his drink and set the empty tumbler down. I stopped polishing the bar counter.
“Want another one?”
“Yes, please,” he said and brushed aside a stray strand of hair that had escaped his coiffure.
“So, what brings ya to a bar the night before Christmas Eve? Shouldn’t ya be home?”
“Is it any of your business?”
Gregoire said it with a tone of indifference, but I could sense the hostility beneath the surface. He was like a sleeping tiger, cute but still deadly. “Jus’ makin’ conversation,” I said coaxingly and poured him another. “So what do ya do?”
Gregoire looked up at me. He was silent for a while, appraising whether I deserved an answer, I supposed. He took the fresh Scotch I handed him and mumbled, “I work at an art gallery.”
The bar chatter and Christmas carols blaring from the jukebox almost swallowed up his voice. I leaned against the bar to hear him better and appeared like I knew something about art galleries and art.
When he didn’t elaborate, I pulled away and bit back a sigh. He was focused on his drink, as if the inside of his tumbler held the answers to the world, and if he just drank a little more, he might actually swallow them.
The bottom of a glass never held any answers, but I didn’t tell him that. Something told me it wasn’t what he wanted to hear.
He seemed so tragic. There was a story to him, but what it was, I didn’t know. I wanted to ask him, to see if I could get him to talk, but I couldn’t seem to gather my courage. For once in my life, I felt powerless.
Gregoire had that effect on people, I’d soon learn.
We just stayed there, me standing with my dishcloth and him nursing his Scotch. Occasionally I’d serve someone else, but I never ventured far from his side for long. I was a planet caught in his orbit, circling him like he was my sun. After two drinks—three hours after he arrived—Gregoire pushed away from the bar. His fingers twitched, like he wanted more to drink, and he stroked his empty tumbler as if it were an old lover. He never asked, though. Instead he called in his tab and paid with a shiny credit card.
I watched him vanish into the snow and wondered if I’d ever see him again. God, I hoped so. I wanted to unravel his mystery and see the tender soul beneath the stone. I never harbored any doubt that it would be beautiful.
* * * *
He stood in the snow on Christmas Eve, once again looking like he wasn’t sure if he wanted to stay or go. Everyone had left hours ago, and I had decided to close the place early, and yet he stood there with a grimace and hopeful eyes.
“Ya’ll catch a cold standin’ there,” I said and stuffed my hands deep into my jean pockets. I had been scanning the lot to make sure it was empty before I locked up when I spotted him. A frigid wind cut through me and nearly brought me to my knees. The sky was heavy with overcast, the world an oppressive black.
Gregoire’s gaze snapped to mine, and he gave a stiff nod but didn’t make a move toward me. I chuckled faintly, not denying myself the hope that wormed its way into my heart. Here he was, after I’d been thinking about him all day. I wasn’t sure what it was about the kid. He was five years my junior—I’d caught that when I checked his ID—and a damn mess from the looks of it. But there was just something about him.
Fuckin’ magic is what it is.
“Well, come on, get yer ass in ’ere,” I said. I opened the door wider for him.
I didn’t wait to see if he followed. It didn’t take a genius to figure out he needed a drink. I shuffled over to the bar and started fixing him a Scotch.
I heard Gregoire walk in, stomp his feet at the door, and turned in time to see him unwind his neck scarf in an almost perfect replica of the night before. He moved over to a cracked bar stool, took a seat, and dropped his scarf on the counter again.
“So what brings ya back ’ere, kid?” I asked as I passed him his drink.
He took a long sip, his Adam’s apple bobbing as he swallowed.
“I just…needed a drink,” he whispered and glared at the glass. I studied him as he passed the tumbler back and forth between his hands. His fingers trembled slightly.
“I can understand that,” I said and wondered if I should grab something myself. I took a beer from the large cooler embedded into the side of the bar and popped the top. “But no one should drink alone, so cheers and Merry Christmas and whatever else ya want to say.”
A smile twitched at the corners of his lips, but before it could flourish, it disappeared. I tipped my bottle in his direction then took a long swig.
“Were you closing?” he asked and looked around. The jukebox had clicked off, leaving us in silence.
“No,” I lied. “Jus’ not many people drink on Christmas Eve. At least not at a bar.”
He eyed me closely but didn’t press me. He took another measured sip and set the glass down.
“So what’s eatin’ at ya?” I asked.
Gregoire looked up, and I wondered if we’d have a repeat of last night. He just shook his head and took another long sip. I wasn’t about to give up tonight, though. I walked around the bar and slid onto the stool beside him. “Come on. That’s why ya come to a bar, to unload yer problems on the bartender.”
Another half smile twitched at Gregoire’s lips. “What’s your name?” he asked as he traced a slim finger along the rim of his glass.
“Pierce Lawson, at yer services,” I said and gave an awkward bow, which didn’t quite work with me sitting.
The half smile grew slightly more but still didn’t reach his eyes. I swore that I’d see him smile somehow.
“Do you go to my father’s church?” Gregoire asked as he raised his glass for another sip. He paused, thought twice about it, and set the glass back down.
I shook my head. “Not really. Holidays sometimes, though I didn’t this year.”
“How’d you know he was my father, then?” He gave me a skeptical look.
I flashed him a grin and waggled my brows. “I’m jus’ that amazin’.” Gregoire slanted his eyes at me in a flat stare, and I chuckled. “Or because everyone knows yer father, and it doesn’t take much to figure it out. Besides, he mentioned ya before at church when I did go, so I kinda jus’ put yer names together.”
Gregoire glanced away, and for a second, I wondered if I’d said the wrong thing.
“He did?” he asked, his voice low.
“Um, yeah…” I rubbed the back of my head, tousling my long blond strands, and took a swig of beer. “Something about New York. I think it was more fire and brimstone, but ya know…he mentioned ya.”
I knew then that I’d said something wrong and mentally kicked myself. Gregoire gave his drink a hard glare and finished it off. I slipped from my seat and moved around to pour him another, trying to make up for my mistake. “Never said anything bad about ya. Jus’ about New York…err, I mean… Hey, so ya excited about Christmas?”
He took the new drink I handed him and just blinked at me. I silently berated myself. Smooth, Pierce, real smooth.
Gregoire may have come back for a second night, but he sure as hell wouldn’t come back for a third.
He untangled my jumbled mess of words and said, “Not really. I just came back because I ran out of excuses not to come.”
Copyright © Evelyn Shepherd