Title: Little Match Girl
Author: Dianne Hartsock
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: 12/21/2020
Heat Level: 3 – Some Sex
Genre: coffee shop romance, found family, friends to lovers, holiday, tearjerker
Christian can’t help himself. He’s falling in love with the sweet guy who’s been coming into the sandwich shop for the past several months. But Christian’s been avoiding the candle-seller all year, going so far as to cross the street to avoid walking by him. Ashamed, he wonders if Dani can ever forgive him.
Losing his mother to cancer, Dani has spent the last year in a haze of grief and loneliness. His life is selling candles, giving himself to any man who can pay, and saving himself from having to go home to his father’s brutality.
Desperate for a place to belong, Dani sets out, with Christian’s help, to find his mother’s family. Christian wants Dani to be happy, though the cost might be losing Dani forever.
Little Match Girl
Dianne Hartsock © 2020
All Rights Reserved
The door chimed, but Christian finished wiping down the coffee machine. He didn’t want to appear too eager despite his thumping heart. He ran the rag over the counter, scrutinizing the bright reflection of lights on the gleaming surface from the Christmas Giving Tree in the center of the room; the tree empty of its cards the day after Christmas.
“Hey, Christian, isn’t that your fairy?” Jordan mocked in a stage whisper from where he was adding wood to the glowing embers in the fireplace on the far wall. Asshole.
Christian leaned a hip on the counter, his gaze intent on the guy sliding into the corner booth. He came to the sandwich shop nearly every night right before closing time to order a coffee, rain or shine. Or like tonight, when it was beginning to snow. None of the other servers would deal with him. Not that Christian blamed them. Dani never tipped more than fifty cents, if that much.
That didn’t bother him. The man was beautiful—wispy blond hair cut in a pixie style around his sweet face. Big gray eyes full of shadows. Christian gave him a minute to count out his change on the glossy tabletop the way he always did, then approached him around the scattered tables and sofas. The fireplace warmed the cozy seating area, empty now since most of the students from the nearby college had gone home for winter break. Wind howled at the windows, but they were snug enough inside.
“Hi, Dani. How’s it going?” he asked, as usual.
“I’m good,” came Dani’s standard reply in a lilting voice that made Christian’s pulse jump. Dani peered up at him, his expression somehow softer tonight, his spectacular eyes less fierce. He bit a plump lip, betraying his nerves, and Christian stifled a groan. He’d dreamed of those lips wrapping around his dick only the night before.
As if guessing his thoughts, Dani lowered his gaze, pretty color flooding his cheeks. Christ, he was gorgeous, his features neither masculine nor feminine. If Christian didn’t know for a fact he was a man, he would have thought Dani was a girl tonight, despite his rough clothing. There was something decidedly sweet about him, a definite change when he showed his gentler side. Christian wondered what it would be like to have Dani in his bed in this mood. The thought of him, soft and yielding, in direct contrast to a hard cock, had Christian stiffening inconveniently. He took the seat opposite Dani in the booth to hide his interest.
“Hi,” he said again when Dani gave him a tentative glance. “Coffee and sandwich, as usual?”
Hunger flashed over Dani’s face, but he dropped his gaze and moved the coins on the table with a fine-boned finger. “Only coffee, please.” His voice cracked, and he covered his eyes with a shaky hand. “I’m sorry. I barely have enough money for that. Nothing for a tip.”
“I don’t care about that,” Christian said, leaning forward. Only then did he notice how pale Dani appeared, face pinched with cold. Surely his jacket was too thin for December? “Did you eat today?” he asked with concern, and stared when Dani shrugged, noncommittal. Appalled, remembering that Dani hadn’t come in yesterday, Christian unconsciously raised his voice. “Did you eat yesterday?”
Dani made a violent movement as if to stand. “I’ll go—”
“Sit down, please. I’ll get your coffee,” Christian assured him, heart squeezed by Dani’s distress.
He rose to his feet and crossed the room. Rounding the counter, he called into the tiny kitchen where his coworker was washing dishes while he pulled a mug from the cupboard over his head. “Jordan, I’m taking my break. Can you bring me a sandwich and the leftover soup?”
Jordan looked up from the sink and sauntered over to him, drying his hands on a dishtowel. He glanced at their single customer and frowned. “What? You gonna feed the little queer now?”
Anger burned through Christian, and he stepped up to Jordan, raising his chin when Jordan stared at him in surprise. “Just what’s your problem with Dani?”
The redhead blinked, and then a slight sneer curled his lips. “Sorry, man. I know you’re gay and all, but at least you’re a guy. I don’t know what that is.” Jordan flashed Dani a scowl.
Christian balled his hand into a fist. “He’s a fucking human being, asshole. That’s all you need to know. Now, get my dinner.”
He turned back to making the coffee, relieved when Jordan huffed but returned to the kitchen. Jordan was a big guy and could probably snap him in two, but Christian was so over the homophobic crap he dealt with in this small town. He needed to seriously consider moving back to Portland.
Coffee made, he added steamed milk and chocolate. Dani usually had his coffee black, but he definitely needed the calories. Christian peered across the room and smiled. Dani was undeniably lovely in the glow from the fireplace and the twinkling fairy lights encircling the ceiling. What was his story? Christian couldn’t remember seeing him around town, though he’d lived there close to two years, attending the local college.
He joined Dani at the table, delighted when his eyes widened as Christian pushed the mug in front of him, mounded high with whip cream.
“Just drink it,” he warned when Dani opened his mouth as if to protest. The color deepened in Dani’s face, but he obediently picked up a spoon. Christian watched, mesmerized, as he brought a dollop of cream to his mouth, the spoon passing those exquisite lips. Dani’s eyelids instantly fluttered, bliss suffusing his face, starting an ache in the pit of Christian’s gut. He imagined Dani would look like that, lost in orgasm. Something he keenly wanted to see.
Jordan approached the table, and Christian tore his gaze from Dani, frowning when Jordan put the plate he carried down with a thump.
“Hurry and eat,” he groused. “I want to start closing the kitchen.”
“Whatever.” Christian waved him off. Jordan had no grounds to complain, having eaten his dinner an hour ago. The turkey and cheese sandwich was grilled to a golden brown, the tomato and roasted red pepper soup hot and savory. Jordan could be a dick sometimes, but he was a fantastic cook.
Dani stared at the plate of food then glanced away with effort. Damn, the guy must be starving. Christian picked up half the sandwich and pushed the plate toward Dani. “Here. Eat up.”
Dani appeared distressed. “I don’t have the money…”
Christian waved that off. “Don’t worry about it. You can pay me back later.”
Dani seemed startled and then a sad, lost expression crossed his face, but he nodded. “Okay,” he said hoarsely and started on the sandwich. He ate slowly, as if to make it last. The soup followed, and Christian tortured himself watching the slim neck work as Dani swallowed each mouthful. He bet that creamy white skin would taste like sugar under his tongue.
Finished, Dani shyly pulled his coffee mug to him, chewing his lips in a nervous habit Christian had noticed. Christian wanted to lean across the table and kiss those sweet confections. A pot banged in the kitchen, reminding him of the time.
“We’ll be closing soon,” he told Dani kindly. “Why don’t you take your coffee and sit by the fire while we put things to rights?”
Dani nodded, and Christian studied him as he crossed the room to the dwindling fire. His clothes seemed worn and hung loosely off his thin frame. Poor as a church mouse, Christian guessed. Where did he get the money for coffee every night? One of the many questions he meant to get an answer to.
Christian joined Jordan in the kitchen, and they closed down the shop, working with practiced efficiency. When the kitchen was in order, Christian went out to wipe down the tables and was disappointed to find that Dani had left; his coffee mug was sitting empty on the low table beside the hearth. Damn. He’d wanted to talk with him some more.
Once they’d swept the floor and counted the register for the morning deposit at the bank, they left the shop, Jordan locking the door behind them. A gust of icy wind laced with snow struck them, and Christian turned up the collar on his jacket.
“See you tomorrow,” Jordan said with a wave and started down the well-lit sidewalk toward his car. Christian turned in the opposite direction to his own beat-up sedan and jumped, pulse racing, as a figure detached from the wall.
He nodded, coming up to him. Dani clenched his hands at his sides and raised his chin in defiance. “I’m ready. The alley is dark, or we can go inside where it’s warmer…”
Christian looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean?”
“Payment. You said I could pay you back later. I’m ready.” His face was deathly white, but there was a determined, desperate gleam in his eyes that made Christian’s chest hurt.
“This wasn’t what I meant at all,” he said, needing to be perfectly clear. What kind of life did Dani have that he thought… Yes, he wanted Dani in his bed, but not like this. He moved closer, cupping Dani’s face with care. He leaned in and rested their foreheads together, gazing into the wide, shadow-filled eyes.
“When we have sex, Dani, it will be because you want me to. No other reason,” he promised. Desire flared in Dani’s gray eyes, and Christian touched Dani’s full lips with his thumb, groaning as they parted for him. “Go home, sweetheart, before you catch your death of cold. We’ll talk tomorrow, okay?”
Dani nodded, eyes glimmering with a few tears. He hesitated as if to say something but shoved his hands in his coat pockets and hastened down the dark street. Christian watched him go, pressing his lips together.
“I’ll find out your story, Dani,” he promised to Dani’s retreating back. After fishing his keys from a pocket, he got in his car and drove carefully on the icy road to the apartment he shared with his college buddies. He hoped Dani didn’t have far to walk on this cold night.
Meet the Author
Dianne is the author of paranormal/suspense, fantasy adventure, m/m romance, the occasional thriller, and anything else that comes to mind. She lives in the beautiful Willamette Valley of Oregon with her incredibly patient husband, who puts up with the endless hours she spends hunched over the keyboard letting her characters play. She says Oregon’s raindrops are the perfect setting in which to write. There’s something about being cooped up in the house with a fire crackling on the hearth and a cup of hot coffee warming her hands, which kindles her imagination.
Currently, Dianne works as a floral designer in a locally-owned gift shop. Which is the perfect job for her. When not writing, she can express herself through the rich colors and textures of flowers and foliage.