Daniel Hoffman stared out of the backseat passenger window of his friends’ black SUV into the foreign, snow-covered terrain. He still wasn’t sure why he’d agreed to spend the holidays with his best friends, Chance Devlin and Jared Lont. The pair made a terrific couple, but they really didn’t need a third wheel tagging along to spend Christmas and the New Year in a cabin on the frozen shores of Lake Huron. He doubted it was the romantic getaway that Chance had pictured when he first proposed the idea to Jared. Daniel shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He had no idea what his friends had been thinking.
He would have been better off staying in the city where there were plenty of things to keep him occupied…and keep his mind off Collin and how wonderful Christmas was supposed to be. He would have been perfectly happy spending the time in the archives helping new genealogists discover their family history, or a more advanced family historian untangle the stubborn threads of a complex line to reveal long held secrets.
For the hundredth time during his waking hours, he cursed himself for getting talked into the vacation. He should be at the archives. Not that his boss would be welcoming or particularly accommodating. Ashley Marks was a great boss, but she had kicked him out the door with orders not to show his face until the seventh of January. He hadn’t taken a vacation, called in sick or missed a day of work in over eighteen months. He had even begun taking private clients and researching their family trees for them.
Daniel sighed. He knew the exact date things had changed—the eleventh of June. The day the state police had come to his work and told him that his partner of three and a half years was dead—killed by mini-van driver who hadn’t been paying attention and who hadn’t really seemed to care that she’d killed someone. She’d repeated plenty of times that she was a Christian and hadn’t meant it, but never once had she said she was sorry. Not even as the judge had convicted her of vehicular manslaughter.
Tears welled as he thought of the last moments with Collin before he had left that morning.
“God, you’re a lousy liar. I hate you, Daniel. You need to figure out if you really want me in your life anymore or not,” Collin had shouted before stomping out of the house. “You have until I get home from work—”
“Danny, hey, you with us back there? We’re going to stop at Meijer’s. There are a few things we need to pick up,” Jared said, his dark eyes looking at him in the rear-view mirror. “My sister, Janice, called earlier to say that the cabin hadn’t been re-stocked after the hunting trip.”
Daniel nodded and turned back to the window. At least that was something he didn’t have to worry about. There were no memories of him and Collin at the cabin. Collin was a city boy through and through. He’d said on more than one occasion that college was as rural as he ever wanted to get. He’d grown up in San Francisco and hated the smaller city surrounding the college he’d attended. Daniel, on the other hand, had grown up a few hours from their destination in Grand Rapids and didn’t mind the country occasionally, even while he loved his home and friends in Philadelphia.
The truck came to a stop and Daniel focused on the scenery, slightly bewildered. At some point they had entered a town and pulled into the parking lot of a large grocery store. He remembered the store from childhood. It was similar to Wal-Mart, but as far he knew Meijer’s was older and local. Blowing out a breath, Daniel shrugged into his coat, grabbed his gloves and stepped out into the swirling snow. He followed his friends into the store and scowled. Christmas music rang out overhead. Decorations and gift ideas were everywhere. Shoppers pushed their way through the aisles to get at one thing or another. After veering towards the food section, the trio quickly filled a cart with food, beer and other assorted essential goods.
“Let me get this,” Chance said, resting a hand on Daniel’s arm as he reached for his wallet.
“I’m not broke. I can pay for my own groceries,” Daniel protested.
“I know. I’m not saying that you can’t, but…” Chance replied, his hazel eyes pleading.
Daniel finally nodded. “If it’s that bloody important to you…”
“Thank you,” Chance said softly then added, “You’re here because we want you here. You know that, right? You’re our friend.”
“You’ve been so quiet most of the way here. I wanted to make sure you knew that we want you here with us.”
Daniel nodded and moved to the end of the checkout line while the cashier rang up their purchases, bagging them in enough plastic bags to give an eco-warrior a heart attack. He liked simple. He liked the local grocery store he could visit every couple of days with his own shopping bags—where he was known, but nobody asked how he was or tried to flirt with him.
“When did you pick that up?” Chance asked.
Daniel looked up in time to see the cashier move a cardboard carton containing six brown bottles of beer into a bag. The packaging was blue with a scene painted on it to reflect a lit log cabin in the woods inside an oval decorated with holly berries and ivy. The label said it was new—Smugglers’ Cove Winter Stout.
“While you were chasing down the wine. It looks good. It’s a microbrew—Michigan-based, according to the sign,” Jared said, smiling. “Maybe we can even coax Danny into having one with us.”
Daniel shook his head. “Not likely.” His alcohol consumption was limited to a glass of Bailey’s on the rocks on New Year’s Eve. He had no desire to change that.