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After two hours of nonstop sledding, laughter, and just sharing time with one another, Ollie was able to finally talk Sloan into heading back to the house. He had to admit, he wasn’t ready to end their fun either, but the day’s end was fast approaching, and without any sunlight to keep them remotely warm, the cold won.

Of all the muscle aches, bumps and bruises he likely had from a day of sledding down the hills of his family’s old farm, Ollie’s face ached the most. He couldn’t remember the last time he had smiled and laughed so hard. Sloan’s playfulness in the snow was intoxicating. His sides even hurt from laughing so hard, especially from when he watched Sloan go down the hill for the first time by herself. He cursed himself for not having his phone to capture the moment, but knew he would have lost it in the snow from having to catch her at the bottom. She made it easy to ignore the other two that were out there with them, but he’d be lying if he said he was able to ignore Mikah and Shelby completely. Today was more improvement than he had felt in a long time though—today he wasn’t wishing Shelby was laughing with him—he was instead wishing that she wasn’t there at all so that he could focus on someone else.

“I’m freezing!” Sloan’s body shivered, felt via his palm on her back as they entered the house. “So worth it though!”

Ollie’s lips curled upwards as Sloan rambled on about how much fun she had and how by the end of it she loved going off large bumps and almost crashing. He knew that was half the fun, reliving his childhood days on the farm, but it also saddened him to think that Sloan never had a childhood like his.

“How was it?” his mom greeted them in the mud room. “I could hear you all laughing from the kitchen!”

“Amazing!” Sloan answered excitedly. “Who knew snow could be so fun?”

Literally everyone, Ollie thought to himself.

Sloan pulled the knit cap off, making her brown hair to turn into staticky chaos atop her head, causing Ollie to chuckle as he kicked off his snow boots. The wet slush at his feet instantly absorbed itself into his socks, making them even more wet and cold than they were a moment ago.

“I’m so glad you had fun!” his mother cooed as she retrieved two paper bags with handles from the floor. “And I hope you don’t mind, but I got you a little something for tonight,” her hand danced as she spoke, something he knew his mother did when nervous. “It’s a tradition around here, and Ollie hasn’t been home for it in a while. I couldn’t resist myself.”

Ollie knew immediately what was going to be in the bags. Acting like a child, he began groaning, about to throw a tantrum because his mother was embarrassing. It had been years since he had done this. “Ma, please don’t make us wear those.”

“Wear what?” Sloan immediately peeked into the bag with enthusiasm. Somehow, he knew already that Sloan was going to love this. She would likely love any holiday festivity that his mother threw at her, because she was so kind and thankful.

“Well,” his mother’s hands began to flamboyantly wave again. “We do this thing where we all wear matching pajamas, drink hot chocolate and watch holiday movies on Christmas Eve.” His mother caught his eyes and smiled with reddened cheeks. “It’s silly...”

Sloan’s glossed over eyes told Ollie exactly what he knew...she loved this idea.

“That is a beautiful tradition,” she smiled at the red and green plaid in her hands, blinking back her tears.

Ollie took the matching bag from his mom and stopped his tantrum. For Sloan, he would wear the damn matching pajamas that he always hated.

“I will let you two get changed then,” his mother beamed that her son had given in. “I’m going to go talk Shelby and Mikah into wearing theirs. Mikah is just as hardheaded.”

As his mother disappeared from the mudroom door, Ollie watched Sloan hug the pajamas she was just given and swipe her eyes once with a sniffle. He knew another gift meant just as much to her as the knives the day before. Again, he was saddened for her that she was never given a gift until now. Something so cheap and simple meant so much more to her than it would to him or his siblings, and he knew he had taken this type of thing for granted too many times, especially now that his dad wasn’t here to enjoy it with them.

“I’m not wearing that shit!” Mikah’s voice rang throughout the house. “I’m not ten! I am a grown-ass man!”

Sloan giggled at the same time that Ollie began to chuckle, sending him the cutest little side glance as she did. There were many years of these arguments, and he knew his sister would likely be giving his mother a hard time if she was here too.

Ollie’s hand positioned itself on the small of Sloan’s back, and he bent towards her to press his lips to her chilled ear. “You’re one of us now,” he whispered with an honest smile, gave her back a little rub, and then left the room to change into plaid.

* * *

Ollie and Sloan had already drank two hot chocolates each before Mikah had decided to spike the Dutch oven with Baileys Irish Cream. Leave it to the bartender to want everyone boozy this holiday. In all honesty, it was probably for the best. This was the longest the two brothers had gone without fighting in years. Ollie’s plans of hiding himself and Sloan away tonight were futile. His mother wasn’t having it. Penelope had lined the counters, as she always did, with all the fixings for the best hot chocolate drinks you could dream of concocting. Marshmallows, caramel, whipped cream, chocolate shavings, and peppermint sticks seemed to suffice for everyone but the chef himself. Ollie scanned the cabinets, knocking over multiple jars of spices, until he finally found what he was looking for. Sloan’s eyes lit up, and she held out her mug for the same when he pulled them free from their hiding place. Ollie happily dropped a cinnamon stick into her warmed cocoa and watched as Sloan held the mug with two hands beneath her nose and took in the heavenly scent of chocolate mixed with spice.

After many laughs through the movie Elf, Mikah’s choice after being forced to wear plaid pajamas, Ollie’s mother had decided on How the Grinch Stole Christmas—the animated version—to wrap up their Christmas Eve night. Ollie couldn’t even deny the small bout of disappointment that hit him when Sloan chose to sit with his mother during the first movie, but he understood her reasons for doing so. The two of them held a bond that no one else in this room could touch—holidays as widows. Thankfully, it had been Sloan who brought it up first. His mother made sure not to pry but did offer Sloan a hug that his mom may have needed more than the girl in her arms.

The second movie proved different, with Sloan taking her place on the couch beside Ollie. At first she distanced herself, as if they were at a middle school dance, keeping at least a foot apart. But slowly, she moved herself closer until Ollie could finally cover them both with the knit blanket that had been draped across the back of the couch. This way he could sneak his arm around her without anyone noticing. That didn’t matter though, because soon Sloan had sunken into him comfortably with her head on his chest, attention fully divested into the movie they were watching. As hard as she tried, and he could tell she tried her hardest, her eyelids drooped until they became so heavy, she gave into sleep. She didn’t even get to see the Grinch actually save Christmas.

To be honest, Ollie didn’t see the ending either, he was much too busy watching Sloan’s sleeping body rise and fall with each breath he took. He liked her here, in his arms, and that was a fucking scary thought. This morning perhaps he was still in denial that he had such strong feelings for her, but now he was confirming it as he dropped his lips to her hair and kissed her head as she slept. All of the rules Ollie had set for himself were vanishing like smoke when he was around her, and for that he found her terrifying in a really good way. Their situation, while complicated in their normal setting, felt completely different here. He was in complete awe the more he learned of her past and the more he got to know her as a person, not just as a student or some girl he took home one night. It was stupid, but he felt like the Grinch, with a heart that was suddenly swelling in his chest—all because this girl saw the good in him when he couldn’t see it in himself.

As Ollie withdrew his lips and hugged Sloan closer to his body, he looked up from her for the first time in a while, knowing the feeling of being watched. He was correct in his assumptions, meeting the blue eyes of Shelby. They seemed to refuse to blink as they stared at him, her eyebrows pushed together as if questioning what he was doing. Was it hurt that he was seeing in those blues? This was new. That’s what he wanted to see in them for so long. He wanted her to realize that she made a mistake and come back, that he could have a career and love her at the same time. He never thought a day like this would actually happen, but even as his brother held his ex while focused on the TV, Ollie held no jealousy of Mikah. He was the first to break the stare with Shelby to look back to the sleeping girl in his own arms. He may have fucked up at times with Shelby, but she fucked up too. She ruined them with her lack of patience, and now she was finally seeing that he could do both, have a career and family time. Shelby was his past, and it was a pill he could finally swallow. Now if he could only work on that sleep that he was lacking, unlike the girl he was currently holding.

“Let’s get you to bed,” Ollie whispered in Sloan’s ear.

Sloan sleepily nodded against his chest as he scooped her into both arms and stood from the couch. Ollie wished his tired mother a goodnight and a merry Christmas—as the time was nearing midnight—and carried Sloan off to the spare bedroom. He hated to set her into the bed, enjoying the way she was nestled into his cradling arms. He had to admit, she looked damn cute in the plaid pajama pants that matched his own.

After placing her down, Ollie swiped the loose hairs that had fallen from Sloan’s ponytail—the ones that always came loose as she cooked—and tucked them behind her ear. Their amazing day together was ending, bringing their holiday break one day closer to an end. He wasn’t sure what to make of it.

As Ollie turned away to retreat to his childhood bedroom, Sloan’s hand gently wrapped around his wrist and gave it the smallest of tugs.

“Ollie,” her tired voice pleaded.

His chest tightened as he turned back to her. The room was dark, but he could still see sleepy eyes on him. For the first time all day, he had Sloan to himself, and he knew to take advantage of precious time when given the opportunity. Tomorrow would be busy too.

“Scoot over,” he whispered, using his head to motion for Sloan to move to the opposite side of the bed.

Sloan did as she was told, sliding herself closer to the bed’s edge and tossing the covers open so that Ollie could slip beneath them and beside her. He took off the plain white tee he was wearing and gave it a toss to the chair in the corner of the room before joining her in the bed.

As if second nature, his arm extended to the empty space above her pillow and Sloan moved herself into his arms, peering up to him with the same look she gave him today in the kitchen. Neither of them were quite willing to speak of what was on both of their minds, but Ollie was enjoying just watching each other too. This girl was crazy beautiful, even in the dark with nothing more than a little light coming in from the window which from years of living here he knew was the light from the barn he wished to avoid.

As her eyes searched his, he watched her go to speak, but she stopped herself with a bite of her lip. Even that small movement had the muscles of his stomach contracting with anticipation. They waited all day to clear the air about a that he wanted to repeat in the worst way.

“You broke your rule today,” she finally whispered. “Ollie...”

“Our rule,” he cut her off with a whisper. He knew he was ready to break it, but he wanted to make sure that she was okay with him kissing her too. He couldn’t hide the smile that was growing on his face and hers was mirroring it. “Sloan, today was amazing and I like you,” he admitted, moving his free arm so that he could use his hand to cradle her face. “I more than like you.”

“I more than like you too,” she whispered back, keeping her eyes with his.

Ollie took this as the permission he needed. With his hand on her cheek, he brought her face closer to his and finally massaged her warm lips with his own, sending the nerves of his stomach into a tizzy. Sloan kissed him back, slowly at first, with tiny nibbles at his lips. He allowed her to control how fast they went, but her whimpers against his mouth, body movements, and the parting of her lips for further exploration, told him that they were on the same level of need. She was a new favorite flavor on his palate, and he knew nothing would ever compare.

Ollie’s tongue met Sloan’s with a slow caress, locking them into a kiss as his hands began to wander their way down to her tight frame. As soon as his hand snuck beneath her tee—brushing the skin of his palm to the skin of her abdomen—her back arched with another needful whimper against his mouth.

His hand continued its journey up her shirt until he was palming her breast, feeling the peak of her hardened nipple. His boxers were becoming constricting with his growth within them, and he knew Sloan was aware of the erection pressed against her outer thigh. The thought of her breast within the confines of his lips made him even harder. He gave her nipple a little tug, causing her mouth to drop open and allow the escape of a closed-eyed-moan.

With the loss of their kiss, Ollie allowed his mouth to wander Sloan’s neck and jawline, peppering kisses on her while withdrawing his hand from her shirt and moving his body so that he could gain better control over hers. He rolled to straddle her legs with his, taking her wrists and gently pinning them above her head. Another passionate kiss was taken from her with his erection pressing against her stomach. Her mouth fell open at the feel of him hard for her. Again, she released a moan that had him wondering just how fast he can get her undressed, allowing the freedom of her wrists from his grasp to begin trying.

They became a mess of hands—Ollie’s fingers at the hem of her shirt as hers were finding the lining of his pajama pants. Sloan let go of them to sit up and hold her arms above her head. He removed her shirt hastily and tossed it somewhere into the heap of covers behind him. The connection of his mouth to her breast was better than he imagined...the taste of her skin, the cries of pleasure that she tried to hold back and failed, the way she pressed her entire body closer to his with need for more of him. This was so different than before, and he didn’t know what he had been missing. It took everything in him to release her breast from his hold and work his way down to the elastic band of her pants. Slowly, with only the tips of his fingers, he shimmied the pants with the lace beneath them down her smooth legs and discarded them along with their shirts.

Ollie sat on the backs of his heels, drinking in the sight of Sloan’s naked body that was begging for every inch of it to be traced by his lips. He watched her breasts rise and fall with heavy breaths until he finally caught her stare. Sloan’s eyes danced with his own as she moved her legs so that he was between them. She brought him down to her with a tug of his pants, until they were chest to chest and buried into a kiss. With her fingers locked into his short hair and her body moving in motion with his, he knew he had to feel her...really feel her.

Whilst leaning one arm into the mattress and maintaining his lip lock with Sloan, he reached into his plaid pants, gripping himself firmly, and freeing his erection from its cotton boundaries. As soon as his tip touched her dampened slit, he heard her suck in a breath, moving her hips so that she could feel more of him, and in turn, he could feel more of her. Sloan ground herself into him as he kissed his way slowly back up her stomach, to her chest, up her throat, until he took her mouth again. She was wet, and he could feel her needful heat against his cock. With a deepened kiss, Ollie gripped one of Sloan’s thighs firmly with his hand, wrapped it around him, and plunged himself into Sloan’s warm core. And through a night of wordless passion, they allowed their bodies and moans to tell each other everything they couldn’t bring themselves to quite yet say.

* * *

With an incredibly parched mouth, Ollie carefully withdrew his arm from beneath Sloan’s naked frame, kissing her jaw and whispering a promise to the sleeping girl that he would return promptly. It took a few minutes to locate his pants—finding them on the floor besides Sloan’s—and then a few more minutes to figure out which ones were actually his. He tugged them up, opened the door, and tightened their drawstring as he proceeded down the hall to the kitchen. He was expecting the room to be empty, but found himself in the company of one other.

Shelby sat at the large farm-style table with a blonde ponytail still perfectly intact as it was when he left her, Mikah and his mother in the living room. This told him she hadn’t slept yet. The woman was quietly staring down at her hands. He glanced back at the clock on the microwave, seeing it was nearly three in the morning.

“Why are you up?” he asked with little enthusiasm.

Ollie made his way to the cabinet and pulled down a glass to fill with water from the tap. He didn’t actually want to know, but thought he should ask to be civil. It always took forever to get the water to turn as cold as he wanted, but he patiently held his glass below the stream, allowing it to fill halfway with lukewarm water.

“You weren’t in your room...” Shelby whispered without looking up.

Ollie turned to face her with puzzled brows, unwilling to even reply to that statement. No explanations were owed to her as to why he wasn’t in his own room. In fact, he owed her nothing in any way. He didn’t care why she was even looking for him. Instead, he pressed his lips to the edge of the glass and took a long, drawn-out sip of his water while staring intently at her.

“Mikah proposed tonight,” her lip trembled, still maintaining a stare at her hands.

Oh, his eyebrows lifted.

Perhaps he should have felt a blow, or at the very least the sting of his brother finally willing to legally claim the woman that Ollie had loved since he was fifteen. He actually waited a few moments for it to hit him, but it never came. His body and mind where still in tune with Sloan’s, and he was already wanting to be back in the bed with her.

“Congrats,” Ollie offered, setting his empty glass in the sink. “Where’s the ring?”

A few more moments passed before tear-filled, blue eyes lifted to him. “You weren’t in your room...”

He nodded, now understanding what she meant and why she had gone looking for him. “And I won’t be there in the morning either.”

He felt a little pathetic that had this occurred a month ago, he would have jumped at the chance to take her back, doing the same thing to his brother that Mikah had done to him. For the first time ever, he felt sorry for his brother who was likely in his own childhood room, stirring about a proposal that didn’t go as planned. Did Mikah know why Shelby had hesitated to accept?

“Mikah is a person, not a placeholder.” Ollie shook his head at her before moving across the kitchen. “Tell him yes, or let him go. You’re too late, Shelby.”

Ollie returned back down the hallway to the spare bedroom, slowly shutting the door behind him. He smiled instantly when he saw Sloan curled up and sleeping peacefully, and slowly placed himself back beside her in the bed. While exhaling a breath he felt like he’d been holding for almost two years, he wrapped his arms around Sloan, placing a kiss to her bare shoulder, and then fell back into a deep sleep.

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