I’m one of those people who doesn’t start feeling Christmassy until a couple of weeks beforehand. I hate the fact that the cards and decorations start appearing in the shops at the end of August; I won’t listen to a Christmas song until well into December if I can avoid it, and it’s not time for It’s a Wonderful Life, Scrooge or The Muppet Christmas Carol until at least the second week of the month. The same holds true for Christmas-themed books; I don’t tend to pick them up until well into December, but I made an exception for Annabeth Albert’s Better Not Pout because the premise sounded so damn cute – a hard-boiled military police officer playing Santa for charity gets stranded in a snowstorm with a too enthusiastic (and too attractive) elf and realises that perhaps his life needn’t be so regimented after all.
Sergeant Major Nicholas Nowicki has spent twenty-eight years as a military police officer, and now, aged forty-six, is a month short of his retirement. Truth be told, he doesn’t want to retire – but he isn’t being given the choice. The military has been his family and his life for the entirety of his adulthood and it suits him. He likes the structure, he likes the work, the thought that he’s serving his fellow personnel and his country – and the prospect of no longer having all that is a daunting one. After he leaves the military, he plans to join a friend and former colleague in Florida who now runs a small business chartering boat trips for tourists; it’s pretty clear from the outset that this is unlikely to be a particularly good fit for Nick, but he figures he has to something with the rest of his life – and it might as well be this, right? He’s made a firm commitment to his friend, and Nick never reneges on his promises; as the clock ticks down to his last weeks and days in the service, he tries to find some enthusiasm for the future… but his heart just isn’t in it.
He’s in something of a state of limbo as regards his job, too. It’s his last month on the base at Fort End in upstate New York, but in many ways it seems everyone around him has already moved past his leaving and he feels as though he’s somewhat superfluous to requirements. So he’s not in the best frame of mind when his commanding officer asks a favour of him. The local small town of Mineral Springs has a thriving charity centre called the Helping Hand, and her husband usually dons a Santa suit around this time of year to support the drive to generate funds and gifts for families in need. But he’s unwell and is unable to participate this year – and Nick is asked to take his place. Nick is far from enthusiastic but doesn’t feel he can say no, so he heads off to the Helping Hand Resource Center – where he is greeted by an extremely chatty and almost sickeningly upbeat young man dressed as an elf, who turns out to be the director of the charity and the centre.
Born and bred in Mineral Springs, Teddy MacNally absolutely loves his job and is dedicated to helping those in need, and runs the centre with efficiency and good humour. He takes one look at his grumpy Santa and is determined to at the very least make sure he has a good day, maybe even get him to raise a smile. But Nick is guarded and stonewalls Teddy’s good-natured attempts at flirtation; clearly getting the guy to let down his guard is going to require a bit of effort on his part. But that’s just fine by Teddy; after all, the things most worth having in life always take a little work.
In spite of Teddy’s warnings about the worsening weather, Nick opts to return to base at the end of the day. Teddy is altogether too attractive, too tempting – and, at twenty-eight, too young for him, but the weather – and the fates - are conspiring against Nick when he ends up getting lost and runs his truck into a snow-covered ditch. Nick tramps back to the road, relieved to see a car making its way slowly towards him… and is not so relieved when he recognises the car as belonging to Teddy.
There’s nothing for it but to head back to Teddy’s place for the night, and they end up spending a surprisingly good evening together, chatting, playing board-games and generally hanging out. Teddy makes clear his interest in taking things further, but he leaves it up to Nick to make a move – and Nick can’t resist any longer. Even though he thinks he’s too old for Teddy, and that Teddy deserves some hot young thing who can keep up with him, Nick decides to indulge himself – both of them – for the night. After all, he’s leaving in a month and this isn’t the time to start anything – but it quickly becomes apparent to both men that one night isn’t enough, and they agree to a casual fling until Nick leaves for Florida.
The chemistry between the pair simply crackles, and the attraction that burns between them is palpable. Teddy is completely adorable; funny, kind, and just brimming with life and vitality, and I loved the way he wormed his way under Nick’s skin and into his heart by simply being him. They know their time together is finite and to that end are determined to make the most of it while also – somehow – avoiding becoming too deeply involved. (Heh – good luck with that, guys!) Nick spends Thanksgiving with Teddy’s large, boisterous and loving family, who accept him (and almost adopt him!) and Teddy is Nick’s date to his retirement ceremony. The bumps along the way to true love are fairly minimal, it’s true, consisting mostly of Nick’s unwillingness to break a promise to a friend and his inability to believe that he’s right for Teddy, simply because his last relationship was with someone younger than he was who eventually left him. But Teddy’s risk-averse nature has a part to play, too. Unwilling to put pressure on Nick and ruin their short time together, Teddy fails to see that perhaps he needs to stop playing it safe and be more proactive instead of just sitting back and letting the best thing that’s ever happened to him just walk away.
Better Not Pout is a lovely, feel-good story about two people who are perfect for each other but need just a bit of Christmas magic to help them to see it. Maybe grumpy-older-guy meets perky-younger-one is a bit of a cliché, but they’re such well-drawn characters, and I had such a great time with the story that I honestly didn’t care. The relationship between Nick and Teddy is really well developed and the sex scenes are guaranteed to turn up the heat on the coldest winter evening ;). I teared up a bit near the end, and then closed the book with a happy sigh and a smile on my face, which is never a bad thing.
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