The Yule Log


His grin only strengthened at my attitude. "Damn, you're feisty tonight."

"I haven't had my coffee and this makeup took forever. Sue me."

He laughed. "The coffee I can fix; you're on your own with the makeup." He looked at me for a moment and shook his head. "You actually did your chest and dyed your hair?"

My confidence waned a little. I looked down at myself, beginning to feel like an idiot. "Yeah, so I went a little over board."

When I looked up, Jesse was still smiling. "Nah, I think it's cool. Most people wont' go to that much trouble for a costume. I have to admit; I'm not placing the look though. Give me a hint?"

I smiled. "Shakespeare, tragedy."

He smiled. "Othello." I melted. I hadn't expected him to be able to guess. He actually blushed. "I should have figured that one out without the hint."

"Hey, without a reference it'd be tough. I still can't figure out who you are." My confidence was returning. Jesse was damn good at making people feel comfortable.

"Well, I was going for minstrel… but I don't know what the fuck one of those looks like. I went to a Medieval Festival once, and I put this together from memory."

I laughed. "It's close. You look like a bard who made the wrong turn and ended up at Woodstock."

Damn if he didn't blush further. Straight men were so easy to keep off balance. "Yeah, well, you want your usual?"

"Oh, an evasion," I thought, but decided to give him a break. "No, surprise me. I'm not Kevin, I'm 'Othello'… just don't poison my cup."

Jesse laughed as he went to make me something. I couldn't help letting my eyes follow him, memorizing how well the denim hugged his muscular ass. I jerked my eyes away and returned to checking my sax. I was not going to lust after a guy I'd just met. I wasn't going to be staying in Morrisville; this was only temporary.

The last singer finished up his song as Jesse got back with my drink. He'd been a 'country' singer, covered a Garth Brooks song, not sure which one, most of them sounded the same to me. Ok, I don't like country. It was another reason I really had to get back to civilization as soon as possible.

Jesse nodded toward the stage. "Get your painted ass up there, Mr. Hamilton. If you're going to talk the talk, you'd better walk the walk."

Another challenge, the man was really getting on my nerves. Knowing I was being played didn't stop me from taking my sax and heading for the stage. I got up on the stool and switched off the microphone. This was a small space; amplification wasn't necessary. I closed my eyes and played some soft jazz. It was Kenny G'ish, which normally turned my stomach, too "popular" for my tastes, but seemed to please the crowd. This was all for show anyway; normally my playing was something from inside, personal and heart felt. I had no desire to open my heart to a bunch of strangers. Not to mention, at the moment my heart wasn't in the best of places.

Jesse grinned at me as I came back. "Ok, so you still know how to play. I admit defeat."

I bowed graciously. "Thank you." Struck by an appropriate punishment, I smiled fiendishly. "I haven't heard you play that stick of yours yet. I think it's only fair that the victor should be rewarded with a song."

He frowned, but picked up his guitar. "You actually want me to 'sing'?"

"Is the Pope Catholic?"

He sighed. "Ok, fine. But don't expect miracles."

I grinned. "I'll settle for not breaking glass."

Giving me an evil look, Jesse made his way to the stage and turned on the microphone. I sat back with my coffee, prepared for something from Tim McGraw or another country star. My head snapped up when I heard him croon his way into "Oh, Pretty Woman" by Albert King. Jesse was right; he wasn't a singer, but he honestly wasn't bad. His guitar playing, however, had me transfixed. It would never have occurred to me in a million years that Jesse would play the blues. I sat, watching him work his way through the words with his eyes closed, and was hypnotized by how his fingers chorded and strummed the song with practiced, though not perfect, skill. The way his fingers made love to the strings, just like the way he loved the town, fascinated me. My thoughts lingered on what those fingers would feel like. It wasn't till the end of the song that I realized I was hard and pressing obscenely down my tights. Thank God I was sitting at a table.

Jesse came back, smiling at the applause but looking a little embarrassed. I liked him blushing; it made him adorable. "Shit, stop that Kevin. You're not going to go there," chastising myself silently. I smiled back as he took a seat at the table and took some strength from his coffee. "You're really good."

He grinned. "Thanks, but I know I sing like a dying dog. You realize you're not going to get one over on me again, right?"

I was disappointed he felt that way; though I wouldn't have run out to buy his records, the idea of listening to him sing again was not unappealing. "Yeah, I guess. We're both full of surprises I suppose."

We talked while other people played, sang and read poetry till late. Jesse was in no rush to lock the place up and leave. He'd gotten me up again, daring me into a blues instrumental duet, bastard; honestly, we sounded damn good. His employees locked up and I found myself sitting with him in the shop, after eleven, with no desire at all to leave. I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt so comfortable. I'd been lulled too deep to catch what was coming next.

Jesse looked at me, his eyes sincere and honest, and he smiled. "Kevin, play something for real."

I looked at him, confused. "What do you mean?"

"I remember how you played in school, bud. You've been fucking off tonight. Don't get me wrong, it was great, but you weren't really doing it for you."

Have I mentioned that it was fucking annoying how well he could read me? Yeah, I probably have. The guy had some nerve. He didn't know the first thing about me, and there he was telling me how I'd been 'faking' all night. I wanted to be pissed, but honestly, I was scared. Who was this guy who could just look at me and know me without having spent any time with me? I didn't need that; the worst thing in the world would be to fall in love on the rebound. "I don't open up to strangers, Jesse." I looked away, uncomfortable as hell.

He sounded really disappointed; like he thought I'd meant him specifically. "Sorry." He got up and took our empty cups. "I should probably close the place up anyway."

Fuck. Why did that tug at me? He started doing the final things like shutting off the amp and checking on the register and the supplies for the next day. He was checking over the totals, not looking at me, when I started playing. I could feel his eyes lock on me, but I couldn't see them. Mine were closed, and I pulled something up for me. I settled on "You don't know what love is" by John Coltrane. Maybe I played it for me, maybe I was trying to say something to Steven, who would never hear me anyway, or maybe I wanted to give Jesse a look at my soul; but whatever the reason, I played.

He just stared, transfixed on me, as he leaned on the counter. When I finally looked at him, he wasn't smiling. The look was, for lack of a better word, wistful. "That was beautiful."

I really didn't know how to respond to that.


I didn't go back to Starbucks for almost a week. I told myself I was too busy to spend time sitting around a coffee shop. I needed a job. By Wednesday, the combination of suffering through Mom's coffee and my desperate need to socialize had me back downtown. I forced myself to believe that I just wanted some good coffee and to see a friendly face. Yeah, right. What I wanted was to feel connected. After Halloween I'd thought a lot about my previous relationships and how fake they had been. Either I hadn't really been a participant, or my partners hadn't. Steven had just been the most convincing. I realized I hadn't really been in love with him; I'd been in love with the idea of him. He'd been an asshole in many ways, but he was handsome, charming and was more than happy to make me feel special. At least he had been as long as the money was there; he'd just been a really good whore, and I'd been his favorite John. That was probably an unrealistically harsh analogy, but I was bitter. We had filled more needs in each other than money and sex, but in the end it came down to a simple exchange of services.

That was what my career had been too. I gave my skill and talent for pay. The longer I was away from it, the more I began to realize I didn't even like my job. Oh, I loved my field; I loved the investment markets, banking and commerce, and the interaction of money with people's ambitions and dreams. What I didn't like was the constant cutthroat nature of the business; the bottom dollar; the take. Who cared if a major investment group was happy or unhappy with performance? It was like making deals with inhuman titans; the personal rewards were nonexistent.

Jesse smiled as I walked to the counter. He seemed genuinely pleased to see me. "Hey, Kevin; I'd begun to wonder if you'd fallen off the face of the earth."

I grinned and put on a fake tone of boredom in my voice. "Nah, I'm just getting settled into the 'country life' again. You know: raking leaves, hauling fire wood, listening to the sounds of -nothing-."

He nodded, making a drink as we talked. "Yeah, I know. I must have raked up two truck loads of leaves this weekend."

"That's right, you're family owns the orchard outside of town." I remembered the fall harvest celebrations that happened there when I was young. They'd have big barrels of apples, filled with water, and cider and hot dogs. They'd stopped doing it by the time I'd gotten to high school. Like any other farming family, the Carlson's struggled as the produce market turned more and more to South America and other countries for goods.

Jesse frowned. "Owned." He set my cinnamon-vanilla down. "We sold most of the land for development."

That must have hurt. Jesse had such pride and love for the small town and things of our childhood. I couldn't imagine how that must have felt. "Oh man, I'm sorry."

He smiled. "Don't be. It let me afford the franchise," he lifted his hands to his shop, "and I was always better with people than I was with trees."

I set my money on the counter and took up my drink. "You wouldn't want to catch a bite after the lunch rush, would you?" I wasn't making a pass, really; I just wanted to spend time with someone who was turning into a friend.

"Sure; how about Claire's? Nothing better than a diner cooked burger and fries to eat around while you get reacquainted with someone." I liked the sound of that.

Over the next couple weeks, I learned that Jesse had never made it out of Morrisville. His mother had died shortly after graduation, and his father didn't take it well. He'd stayed home, tried to manage the orchard to help his father. He'd taken correspondence courses, and attended the old community college while it was at the other campus in Haydon. He'd managed to get an associates degree, and had taken a couple small business courses in finance and accounting. Unfortunately, the orchard had been a lost cause.

Five years before, when they were breaking ground for the new campus, Jesse realized there wasn't a chance for the family business. They got the land rezoned and broke it into parcels. The Carlson’s had owned a hell of a lot of property. They sold to a couple of developers who planned nice communities for the land. Since the family home and land had been free and clear for years, they had enough to invest and live comfortably, though not extravagantly. Jesse's dad didn't believe in market investments; he believed in investing in people, not companies. So he invested in Jesse; he helped him buy the building and open the franchise. It was a good investment; Jesse was a natural.

Jesse's dad died the previous year. Jesse didn't tear up or sound regretful, but I could tell he missed him. Jesse had been an only child, so he was living in the family house, and wasn't dating anyone. I suppose that was why he kept such long hours at the shop. It was better to spend time with a few customers than to spend it at home, alone. He seemed to look forward to our growing friendship as eagerly as I did. At least we had someone to bond to; someone who understood. It didn't matter that he was straight and I wasn't; we didn't discuss dating or relationships, we just worked on the friendship. It really helped.

It was the Friday before Thanksgiving when I had my next lesson in how small towns work. I'd been back to every Jam Night. During my time with Steven I'd forgotten how much I loved my music. Jesse and I had even practiced together a few times, learning a few songs to play as duets. I had just gotten a couple lattes from Carlie, when I bumped into a couple that I'd seen at a couple of the Friday sessions. They never played, but they would spend the evening quietly enjoying the music and readings. Fortunately, I didn't splash him as I dribbled over the cup. "I'm sorry."

The man smiled. "No problem; we were too close." He looked at me for a moment. "You're Kevin Hamilton, right?"

I blinked. I had no idea who he was, but his smile seemed genuine. "Yep." I grinned. "Should I be nervous about what reputation precedes me?"

He laughed. "I hope not, everything I've heard has been good."

I smirked. "Then I know they were lies."

His wife patted him on the shoulder, moving him aside so that she could get refills while we talked. He kissed her on the cheek as she went by. "Thanks, love." He followed me back to the table and offered his hand once I'd set the cups down. "Jeremy Bates, I'm the President of Franklin Community College."

I shook his hand. "Pleasure to meet you." I sat down and offered him a seat but he waved it off. "I've seen you two at other Jam Nights."

He smiled. "We love the community gatherings. Most people only come through, sit long enough to have a coffee and maybe a desert, but we get to see a lot of our neighbors this way."

Nodding, I sipped my coffee and smiled. "Yeah, I hate to admit it, but it grows on you."

He chuckled. "Missing city life?"

I shrugged. "Sometimes, but not as much as I'd expected."

His face shifted slightly; a bit more serious expression settled into his look. "I understand you decided to leave big business."

I shrugged again. "It was, inevitable, I suppose. I've come to realize I wasn't enjoying it, and I'm not sure I want to go back."

"Ever think of changing vocations?"

I blinked up at him. "Umm, well, not really."

He saw his wife returning with their coffees. "Would you be willing to meet with me at the school, Monday around ten?"

That was odd. He seemed a little nervous. I had to admit, I was intrigued. "I don't have anything on my calendar, and it would give me an excuse to get some coffee other than for the company."

He chuckled. "Any excuse for good coffee."

He took his cup from his wife and he introduced us. "Anne, this is Kevin Hamilton. Kevin, this is my wife Anne. She's a sucker for a mournful sax ballad."

She frowned at him. "Jeremy, don't give away all my secrets at the first meeting." She extended her hand with a smile. "I think you play wonderfully."

"Thank you." I took her hand and gave it a friendly squeeze. "I think your husband is trying to butter me up."

She laughed. "Don't mind him, he's harmless." Grinning, she leaned down and whispered into my ear. "And you're right, he is."

I grinned, and Jeremy looked flustered. "Gee, now I'm wondering if I should wear my good clothes for Monday."

He grunted, but I could tell he wasn't upset. "Business casual. No classes next week so we're just having administrative days before the holiday."

"I look forward to it." They wandered back to their table, Anne teasing Jeremy about something, and I wondered what that had been about.

Jesse came back and snagged his cup. "Nice to see you making new friends."

I grinned. "Worried you couldn't handle me on your own?"

He almost choked on his coffee; it dripped from his chin as I reached for some napkins. "Asshole."

I couldn't stop grinning for the rest of the night.

I met with Jeremy on Monday, and he gave me a short tour of the school. The campus was definitely in a growth mode. He explained that more people were moving into the county and the school's reputation and connections with larger universities was making it a stepping-stone for further education. They were also developing quite a reputation for specialty two-year degrees and adult education. I enjoyed the tour, but it didn't answer why he'd wanted to meet me. That was answered when we got back to his office.

"We're opening a full business school next year." He beamed with pride at the statement.

"Really, that's impressive." Honestly, I was impressed.

"Unfortunately, I'm losing my head instructor for business and finance."


He nodded. "Yes. Up to this point, the position has been only a part time affair. George Madison, the investment officer for the bank, has been teaching our economics and finance classes, but he's retiring next month and plans to move to a warmer climate while he's still young enough to enjoy it."

I smiled. "What does this have to do with me?"

Jeremy folded his hands together and leaned forward on his desk. "I wanted to know if you'd be interested in heading up the new department."

I was stunned. "I don't have an educational degree."

Shrugging, he sat back. "You have a Masters in Economics from Harvard, you're young, talented and respected in the field." He smiled. "I did a little research before I approached you; you come highly recommended."

"You want me to teach?" I was still struggling to get my mind around the concept.

"Yes, and head up the department as it grows. I believe we will have a growth in our business program in the next few years; with the changes in the economic environment, a lot of people are trying to get a better education or need the skills to run their own businesses."

I thought about it. One of the things I'd missed, as my career advanced, was the interaction with individual investors. I still loved the field, but I needed a change. I shot him an ironic grin. "I would guess the catch is it doesn't pay."

He chuckled. "Not as well as you could make back in the corporate world, that's for sure. But for the area, it isn't pauper's pay."

We went over the numbers and I was tempted. He had given me a lot to think about. I put out my hand as we stood. "When do you need an answer?"

He shrugged. "George will be here for the spring semester if we need him, but I'd really like this resolved before the fall term ends. That way we can either put out feelers."

That would be about three weeks. I nodded. "Ok, I can give you an answer by the fifteenth?"

"He nodded. That would be fine." His smile was warm and he seemed to know what I was thinking. "It's a huge move, Kevin. I made it myself twenty years ago. I honestly don't regret it."

I got to Starbucks with my head still spinning. The money was less than a third of what I'd been making in New York, but my expenses, even with buying a house, would be less than half. It'd be a change in life style, but Jeremy had been right, I wouldn't have to live in a trailer. I sat at the window, looking out at the town. Did I really want to stay? Could I be happy away from the beat and pulse of the city?

I was pulled out of my introspection by the voice that was beginning to haunt my dreams. "Penny for them?"

I smiled at Jesse as he sat down across the table from me and set down another cup by mine. "Not sure they're worth that much, but thanks." I picked up the new cup and took a sip. I shuddered for a moment. It wasn't my usual. I gave the cup a dubious look and Jesse grinned.

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