When State Trooper Travis Kinslow is injured right before Thanksgiving, the only positive is that for once he won't be working during the holidays. Since he has no family, Travis was absorbed into his best friend Joe's, and he considers them as good as his own. Everyone except Joe's brother Noah. Travis has been in love with the younger man for much of his life, but he's always kept his distance.
As an ER nurse, Noah is a caretaker by nature. When his brother's best friend is hurt, he's happy to help Travis while he heals. He's only ever allowed himself to think of Travis as the next best thing to an older brother, but by the light of the Christmas tree, Noah finally sees Travis's true feelings. And in that moment, everything changes.
When faced with opposition and a Christmas nothing like they imagined, will their hopes for the future be enough to carry them through?
Hauling the tree indoors was easier than I thought, and since I lived on the first floor and the second apartment in, I didn't even have to help Noah carry the thing. I did unlock the door for him and then grab the tree stand from the tote. After crossing the room, I placed it exactly where I wanted, and worked extra hard not to show the pain that raced up and down my side when I bent at the waist.
Noah gave me a critical eye, but wisely chose not to say anything. He lifted the tree and set it in the base, then made sure I had a hand on it and was holding it straight before he dropped to the floor and started turning the screws into the trunk. He was precise, and it took him a long while to accomplish it, but eventually the tree was sturdily standing on its own.
He stood and brushed pine needles out of his hair. "How did you manage that when you were on your own?"
I grinned and waggled my eyebrows. "I laid the tree on the coffee table, screwed in the stand, and then lifted the whole thing up and set it in front of the window. Messy, but effective."
Noah blinked. And then he gave a short bark of amused laughter. "That's brilliant."
Noah was still chuckling as he directed me to sit. "You have to chill and relax now, Travis. I'll do all the work. You tell me where things go and I'll take care of it. All right?"
I was going to protest. I was, in all honesty, perfectly capable of helping. But there was no denying I was tired. And there was a certain appeal about giving him orders and watching him follow them. We worked that way for a good twenty minutes as I pointed to all the places where I liked the hanging decorations to go. He set the elves on the shelves, end tables, and coffee table. He hung the garland over the door and the string of colored lights around the window. Then he took a break to make us sandwiches for lunch.
I did my best not to watch him eat, because when Noah was hungry, he ate like what he was putting in his mouth was the best thing he ever tasted. There had been times, when we were younger, that just watching him eat had given me wood. So I focused on my own sandwich, steadfastly ignored his moans, and before long we were done. I insisted he leave the plates in the sink, that I would wash them later. I could tell he wanted to protest, but I wasn't a complete invalid, so I simply said, "Please."
Noah left the plates without another word and set to work on the tree.
He plugged his iPhone into the dock on my stereo, and seconds later classic carols were playing. Noah let me get up to help with wrapping the tree with lights, but then he insisted I sit back down so I didn't wear myself out. He put the tote on the coffee table and then pushed it closer to me so I didn't have to bend or reach too much.
"You hand me the ornaments and I'll put them on the tree. How's that?"
I couldn't speak, so I nodded, reached in, and pulled out a classic red ball ornament, and handed it over. The smile he gave me, so full of gratitude and so pleased, was a reward in and of itself. We didn't say anything as we worked. I handed him an ornament, and he walked the two feet to the tree, humming along with the music. He'd study it for a moment before finding the perfect spot and carefully hanging the ornament.
This was what I wanted with him. Every year. I'd been wanting it for nearly two decades, and I wanted it for all the Christmases to come. I loved him, and I wanted nothing more than to spend quiet days with him, eating together and enjoying each other. To spend Christmas together, and all the other holidays. To do things as partners, both of us being a part of it.
Noah turned, hand outstretched for another ornament, but he froze, his eyes widening and his breath catching. His gaze was glued to my face and he was barely even breathing.
"Noah?" I asked, concerned.
His voice was low. "How long?"
I blinked. "What?"
"How long have you been in love with me?"