Ellie Washington lost her husband in a tragedy five years ago at Christmas. She wouldn’t have made it through her grief if not for her husband’s brother, Nick, who helped her pick up the pieces of her shattered life. And with every year, her feelings for Nick have grown. Now she realizes she might be in love with him, but that’s not fair, because Nick deserves a life that isn’t about his brother’s widow and son.
Sharing his life with Ellie and her son has been the balm that soothed Nick’s soul after losing his brother. Now that friendship has turned into something deeper. Nick doesn’t want to upset the status quo, but someone has to make the first move, and it’s time they figure out if their feelings are real. Nick believes in what they have. He also believes in Christmas miracles, and he thinks they’re both long overdue for one.
“Do you want me to bring the Christmas decorations down from the attic?”
Ellie Washington tensed. She hated this time of year. And even though it would be five years this holiday season, she still missed her husband, John.
She turned to John’s older brother, Nick, and forced a smile. “I guess. Sure.”
Nick leaned against the kitchen counter. In many ways he resembled John. Tall, lean, dark good looks. But John had been her sweet, button-down shirt and khaki pants nerd—a financial planner by trade who’d worn the same look at home.
Nick was a grease monkey, an auto mechanic who owned a shop a few miles from his house. He wore jeans and T-shirts that were often smudged and dirty. His black hair was always a bit too long, and his eyes were a sea blue, whereas John had had green eyes.
She missed John’s eyes, that way they used to crinkle at the corners when he laughed.
Still stuck in the past, Ellie. Five years later, you’re still thinking about John.
Time to move on.
She knew it, and yet she still felt…stuck. As if she couldn’t quite find that joy that used to be hers.
Especially at the holidays, which was always tough.
But this year was going to be different.
“Hey, Ellie. You listening?”
She blinked, lost in the memories. “Sorry. What?”
“I said I thought maybe we’d take Henry and get a tree this weekend.”
Her stomach knotted. John had died at Christmastime five years ago. Henry had been growing in her belly and they’d stood in front of the tree, John rubbing her belly bump and the two of them dreaming about the following year, when there would be a new baby in their house.
And then her husband had died and her life had gone to hell. It had taken her a long time to get over that, to be able to function again as a living, breathing human.
She thought she was doing pretty damn well at the functioning part. The living part? Maybe not so much.
Nick came over and pulled her against him. “You’re thinking about John.”
He always seemed to know her so well, knew her moods and even her reflective moments. That came from spending so much time together over the past five years.
She looked up at him. “Yes.”
He rubbed her back. “We can put off the tree and the decorations if you want.”
She pulled away. “Nope. We can’t. Henry loves Christmas. You love Christmas, probably even more than Henry does. I’ll get into it once all the decorations are up just like I always do.”
He tipped her chin back with his fingers. “Like you always do?”
She let her lips lift, just a little. “Okay, buddy. Maybe I’m not all that jolly this time of year, but I’m working on it.
And if she wasn’t all gung ho about Christmas, okay, so maybe she was still a work in progress there. Her husband had died in a fire on Christmas Eve when she’d been at work. John, exhausted and overworked, had fallen asleep. Faulty wiring had sparked a fire in their old house and he’d died from smoke inhalation.
“So…what do you think this year?” Nick asked. “A noble fir?”
She shook herself out of the bad memories. Bad memories were for the past, and she refused to live in the past anymore. “That sounds great.”
Nick picked up his phone. “We could go today. There’s still plenty of time before it gets dark.”
“Or we could wait until tomorrow.”
Nick cracked a smile. “Yeah, because why do something today we could do tomorrow instead? Especially something you don’t really want to do, right?”
He gave her that look that told her he knew her all too well. And of course he did.
“Maybe we could wait a few days?” She cast him a hopeful look.
He responded with his signature smile. “Sure.”
She wouldn’t let him see the relief that swept through her. Instead, she offered up a smile. “Thanks, Nick.”
“Hey, no big deal.”
“It is a big deal. You have no idea how much everything you’ve done for me, and for Henry, has meant to me.”
“Whoa. Where did that come from? And no thanks is necessary, Ellie. You’re family.”
Family. Yeah, that’s what they were to each other. But they were also so much more. At least now. Back then when John died, they’d been each other’s saviors.
She’d moved into his house five years ago. She’d had nowhere else to go. She didn’t have family. When she’d married John, his family had become her family. And after the fire, it had been Nick who’d taken her in and become her lifeline.
She hadn’t meant to stay at Nick’s house this long. But she’d been five months pregnant with Henry when John had died, and finding a new place to live had been impossible at that time. Then she’d given birth and Henry had been an infant and Nick had told her he had three bedrooms and there was no hurry.
His place was perfect, a one-story brick house near the hospital in St. Louis where she worked as a labor and delivery nurse. She’d settled in with Henry and had felt safe and comfortable.
Then safe and comfortable had become routine for all of them.
Now Henry was four and he loved his uncle Nick. He had his own room and Nick had wired model airplanes to soar on the ceiling. They’d painted the room a bright blue, and he had a four-drawer dresser and oversized wooden box that Nick had made for all of Henry’s toys, plus a nice twin bed next to the window that looked out over the huge backyard.
Her room was nice, too. It was spacious with a queen bed and a beautiful quilt plus a lovely sitting area where she could read. It had a connecting bathroom that she shared with Henry, which was perfect in case Henry wasn’t feeling well or she needed to check on him. It also gave her privacy and a separation from Nick, which Nick thought was important.
In the beginning she hadn’t been thinking much of anything other than basic survival. But after a while she’d seen its merits. Plus the room had a walk-in closet, which worked perfect for her. Not that she had a lot of clothes. She had her scrubs, her jeans, and basic tops. It wasn’t like she went out on dates or anything.
Ugh. Dates. Just the thought of it, of going out with anyone who wasn’t Nick…
Not that she was going to go out on a date with Nick. Because he’d never asked her. Not that she hadn’t thought about it once or twice or a hundred times in the past year or two.
The change had been subtle. First, he’d been her brother-in-law and nothing more. And then, there were these chemical signals, like running into him in the hall while he wasn’t wearing a shirt, and she found her gaze lingering. At the time, she’d thought she should probably look away. Only she hadn’t looked away.
It was at that point she’d realized she needed to start living again. She’d noticed Nick as a man. A hot, living, breathing man. It was time.
“Let’s go out tonight.”
She blinked, feeling like she’d been caught fantasizing about Nick. Had she been staring at him? She wasn’t sure. She looked over at him. “What?”
“Henry mentioned pizza before I dropped him off at Oscar’s for his playdate. What do you think?”
Nick cocked his head to the side and smirked. “Pizza, Ellie.”
Shake it off, Ellie.
She cocked her head to the side and gave Nick the once-over. Despite the hotness factor, of which he had an ample amount, the dude was looking a little shaggy.
“You need a haircut.”
He dragged his fingers through the unruly thickness of his dark hair. “No, I don’t.”
“Yes, you do. If it gets any longer, I’ll be able to put it up with one of my ponytail holders.”
“Bullshit. It’s not that long.”
“It is, too. At least a trim.”
“We have to go pick up Henry.”
She lifted her phone out of her pocket to check the time. “Not for another half hour, which gives me plenty of time to trim your hair.”
“I hate haircuts.”
“I know. But you can let me trim it, then we’ll go get pizza. Now sit.”
He sighed. “Is this a torture/reward kind of thing?”
She shrugged. “If you want to look at it like that, fine. But you’re getting a haircut, and then we’ll get pizza.”
“Fine. But not too short.”
She smiled as she went to one of the drawers in the kitchen to pull out her hair-cutting scissors. “Of course not. I wouldn’t want to ruin your rock star good looks.”
He’d taken a seat at the kitchen table, so he tilted his head back until she could see the twinkle in his eyes. “So…you think I look like a rock star, huh?”
She grabbed a kitchen towel and draped it over his shoulders. “Yes. Shaggy and unkempt.”
She dragged her fingers through the thick softness of his hair, and for a moment she wanted to linger. The thought of it gave her pause.
She’d cut Nick’s hair countless times and not once had she ever thought about how it felt in her hands. The softness of it, or how her fingers tingled as she sifted the strands through them.
She paused. What was that all about?
“Don’t cut too much. Seriously. I hate short haircuts.”
Her lips curved. “You know, for a guy who never complains about anything, you sure are picky about your hair.”
“My hair is magic, Ellie.”
She rolled her eyes. “Right. And I have unicorn eyelashes.”
He tilted his head back and looked at her face. “I knew there was something special about those long lashes of yours. Bet your hair is made from pixie dust, too, isn’t it?”
He picked up a strand of her hair and sifted it through his fingers, and maybe he lingered just a little longer than was usual when he teased her.
She felt that zing of attraction.
This flirting was killing her. Or was she reading something into it that wasn’t there?
Yeah, she definitely had to shake it off.
“And here I thought maybe it was your hair that was made of pixie dust, the way you fuss over it.”
He laughed and the deep, gravelly sound of it shot right through all the feminine parts of her that had lain dormant for the past five years.
“No way. My hair is made from ancient Thor and Hulk follicles.”
She paused and stepped around to stare at him. “Yeah? And where do you find those?”
She snorted out a laugh, then went back to focusing on the task at hand.
“I like you better with your hair a little longer,” she said.
He tilted his head back and gave her that signature smile of his, the one where one side of his mouth lifted. “Aha. See? You do think I look like a rock star.”
Now it was her turn to laugh. “I didn’t say that.”
“You didn’t have to.”
She shook her head and finished the trim, then grabbed the comb, though it wouldn’t do any good. Nick’s hair just fell naturally into place whichever way it wanted to. And typically whatever way it wanted to fall was still pretty darned hot.
He got up and shook his head. “Thanks. And you’re right. It does feel better having a little of that length cut away.”
“Plus you look much better.” She swept some of the hair away from his face, her body once again tingling in response to touching him.
What. The. Hell. Is. Going. On. With. You. Ellie?
She had no idea, but she quickly snatched her hand away. “Yup. Looks fine.”
“Good. I’m gonna go shower and wash away the motor oil smell from work today. Then we’ll head out.”
She wouldn’t tell him she liked that motor oil smell on him. He’d think it was weird. Or kinky. Or something.
Oh, my God what is wrong with you? Now you’re turned on by his motor oil scent?
She was most definitely not turned on. His scent was just familiar to her, which made Nick comfortable to her.
Not hot or sexy or anything.
Stop thinking about Nick like that.
When he left, she exhaled, exhausted by her body’s responses and her utterly bizarre thoughts. She grabbed the broom to sweep up the hair on the floor. After she finished, she went into her bathroom to check herself in the mirror.
Her face was flushed, and since it was early December, it wasn’t because of the heat. She washed her face, then brushed her hair. On impulse, she applied makeup and lip gloss, realizing as soon as she’d done it that it was ridiculous because she never thought about those things when she was hanging out with her son and with Nick.
So why are you doing it now?
She had no answer for that, but since she’d already done it, there was no undoing it.
It was just pizza night with Nick and Henry and nothing more. As for her reactions to Nick, well, she had no answers for what had happened.
Maybe it was time to start thinking about herself as a woman again. And maybe her body was pushing her in that direction.
But not with Nick. Nick was John’s brother. And her friend. Her lifesaver.
And something—anything—with Nick could never happen.