I wanted to hug him.

“Hey Granddad,” Nick said, speaking like he’d normally talk to anyone. “I brought someone to meet you.”

My heart was pounding a bit. His grandfather was awake, but his rheumy gaze drifted over us as if we weren’t even there.

“This is Stephanie,” Nick said, taking a seat.

I sat down beside him, my hand still in his. “Hi.”

His grandfather didn’t respond as his gaze slowly moved back to Nick. “She is the girl I’ve been telling you about. . . .” Nick paused, shooting me a small grin. “I’ve been telling him good stuff.”

“I hope so.” My stomach toppled over itself.

“Mostly,” he added, and I grinned. Nick drew in a breath. “She’s the girl who’s going to make you a great-grandfather.”

I looked over at him, surprised. Telling his grandfather about me was a surprise, and it was a downright shock that he’d spoken about the pregnancy. I don’t even know why it was such a bombshell. I’d told my mother and she’d most definitely told every living person in the family by now.

“She works in the city and she eats tater tots,” Nick added.

My look of disbelief turned to one of wry humor, and then I turned back to his grandfather. “I’m sure you have nothing against tater tots.” Taking Nick’s lead, I spoke to his grandfather like I would anyone else. “I graduated from Shepherd University last spring, and I’m now working at the Lima Academy in the city. . . .”

Advertisement..

We stayed in there for a little while, talking to his grandfather. It didn’t feel like we were having a one-sided conversation even though Job couldn’t respond. The truth was, he might’ve had trouble understanding what we were saying, but he seemed . . . calm. He watched us with milky, unfocused eyes, but sometimes—sometimes those eyes seemed to sharpen, dart back and forth between Nick and me. I wasn’t sure if those were moments of him comprehending us or if they were moments of him not knowing who we were at all.

I didn’t know, and it had to be so hard for Nick to constantly be confronted with that. I ached for him. I ached for his grandfather, but I did not regret being here, sitting with Nick, meeting the man who held it all together for Nick when their world came crumbling down.

It wasn’t fair—fair that a man who did so much would be knocked down by such a disease.

We didn’t visit very long, as his grandfather dozed off no more than an hour into us being up there. We quietly slipped out of the room and went downstairs. The moment we entered the living room, I said, “That went well. And I think he agrees that tater tots are awesome, so—”

Nick caught my arm and spun me around, startling me. He pulled me against his chest and wrapped his arms around me, holding me against him as tightly as I had wanted to hug him upstairs. He dipped his head, pressing his cheek against mine. “Thank you,” he said, his voice gruff.

I squeezed my eyes shut as I held him back. I didn’t have to ask. I knew what he was thanking me for. “There’s nothing to thank me for.”

“Yes. Yes, there is.”

We didn’t say anything after that for several moments. Instead, we stood there in each other’s embraces, and I think that was better than any words we could’ve shared.

Much, much later, when we sat on the couch side by side, our stomachs full, there was no resisting the broad, goofy smile on my face. There was no turkey or stuffing, no green bean casserole or mashed potatoes and gravy. But there were hamburgers and cheeseburgers and delicious, awesome tater tots, and it was one of the best Thanksgivings I could remember in a long time.

Chapter 25

Bundled up in a fuzzy hat and heavy coat, Nick and I braved the icy winds and the leftover shopping crowds on Sunday. Yesterday I’d helped put the Christmas tree up at his house, and while doing that, he discovered that I didn’t have a tree. So now we were on a mission to find me a suitable artificial Christmas tree.

“No matter what was going on, we always had a good Christmas,” Nick had said while rummaging through a box of meticulously packed bulbs.

For some reason it had been hard for me to picture him dragging out the Christmas directions every year and putting them up by himself. Or that he’d been the one to lovingly place all the antique bulbs back into their boxes. It was at such odds with his sultry, masculine appearance or the fact he spent three nights a week slinging beer, but then again, there was a lot about Nick that was surprising.

Now, the wind lifted the ends of my hair, tossing it around the hat as we crossed the crowded parking lot. Once inside, Nick veered off to the right and grabbed a cart as I watched a small child teeter on unsteady feet next to a woman who was trying to fit an even smaller girl into the seat of the cart, but the little thing wasn’t having it. She was kicking her legs in every direction known to man.

“That woman has her hands full,” Nick commented.

I glanced over at him and then turned back to the woman, who was now trying to buckle the child in with one of those wraith-thin seat belts. I wanted to ask him how many kids he wanted to have but figured that it wasn’t a Target appropriate question, and probably wasn’t even an appropriate question in general considering the lack of our relationship status.

“I cannot even imagine,” I finally said, watching as she picked up the toddler and started pushing the cart with one hand.

Nick grinned. “Let’s do this.”

The Christmas shop was in the back of the store, near the electronics section. Of course, we got distracted by the new array of tablets, then by movies and then by the books. When we finally made it to the Christmas shop, I was starting to sweat under my heavy jacket. Reaching up, I pulled the hat off and then smoothed the static out of my hair.

My lips pursed as we walked up to the trees. “There are so many and they look so real.”

He slid me a long look. “That’s the point.”

“Shush it.” I touched one of the prickly needles. “My mom always gets a live Christmas tree, so I never bought one.”

Nick nudged me with his hip as he stepped around the cart. “Well, let my expertise guide you into making the right choice.”

I grinned.

The wide and tall trees, the ones with frosted tips, which looked extraordinarily real, were the ones that lured me in. “I don’t think that’s going to fit,” Nick kept commenting as I moseyed from one gigantic tree to another. “How about this one?”

My brows rose. He was gesturing at a hot pink tree. “Um. No.”

He chuckled as we moved down the aisle and then stopped. “Actually this one would be perfect.”

This time he was talking about a slender five-and-a-half-foot Virginia pine. I ran my fingers along the frosted tips designed to look like it was dusted with snow. “I like it. This is the one. It has cherries.”

Nick glanced over at me, grinning. “I think they’re holly berries.”

“Aren’t they the same?”

He shook his head. “No, Stephanie. They aren’t.”

“Ha. What—” A sharp pain in my stomach cut my words off. Pressing my hand against my waist, I stood completely still as the burning sensation eased off.

Nick stepped toward me, his eyes widening, concern etched into his features. “You okay?”