Jay Barlowe is in a bind. If it isn’t bad enough that his ex dumped him and started hooking up with someone else the next day, now Jay has to go to all his Christmas obligations alone. Socially awkward and anxious, Jay’s on edge and already tired from thinking about small talk with his relatively new co-workers and higher ups and interacting with his loving but sometimes insensitive family. However, when Leo Whitlock strolls into The Tabletop Tavern, Jay can’t think of anything except the gorgeous guy he shared a scorching encounter with years ago.
Deciding to finally follow his dreams, Leo quit his high finance job in Chicago and sunk his life savings into a partnership at a bakery/sandwich shop in San Francisco. Leo is feeling professionally satisfied, but personally unmoored. He’s surprised to find that he’s lonely and craving an intimate connection with someone, feelings made more acute by people celebrating the holidays with their families. He can’t believe his luck when he encounters Jay and realizes their attraction is as intense as ever. However, with Jay’s recent break-up, he can only offer friendship, which Leo gladly accepts.
Although their time together was short, the ease and calm Jay experienced with Leo hasn’t changed, and they fall back into their playful banter and dynamic as if no time had passed. When Jay realizes Leo has nowhere to go for Christmas, he impulsively asks him to be his plus-one for all his shindigs. Leo proposes faking dating, and Jay quickly sees the appeal—he can share his holiday festivities with Leo and have someone who understands him by his side. Plus, fake dating would allow him to test the romantic waters without committing so soon. However, Jay’s heart didn’t get the memo, and now he has to decide whether to follow it or guard it.
Merry Critmas is a lovely holiday capper to the Dungeons and Dating series. It stands alone well, as the characters from the full-length novels are only tangentially involved. I really liked Jay and Leo and the pair has sizzling chemistry. Leo is a somewhat cocky, charismatic extrovert who has no trouble drawing people in—for sex. When he worked 80 hour weeks, he chalked up the hollow feeling inside to discontent. With a less grueling schedule, Leo realizes his life was defined by the demands of his job, and now he has to build a new one from scratch. He wasn’t expecting the need for a relationship and human connection and the only one he’s made is with his business partner. Meeting Jay again seems like kismet and offers the potential for friendship and much more.
Jay can’t explain why he’s as comfortable with Leo as he is with friends he’s known for years, but he enjoys how natural it feels, despite it making it harder to ignore his desire. While their chemistry is electric and every touch shoots sparks through him, Jay believes he’s too raw to start anything with Leo. The vulnerability and uncertainty commonly felt after a breakup exacerbates his gender dysphoria, leaving him feeling exposed and filled with self-doubt. After all, if Jay couldn’t keep someone as basic as his ex, how could he possibly hold on to larger than life Leo?
There’s little external angst, and the major conflict is Jay vacillating between self-preservation and a romantic relationship. Leo is all in; though hoping fake-dating with lead to real dating, he follows Jay’s lead and respects his trepidation and limits. The story follows the pair as they attend Jay’s get-togethers where Leo charms everyone he meets and keeps Jay out of his head and in the moment. For me, the story is a good blend of sweet, funny, and hot, and this is a warm book to curl up with during the holiday season.