Heartwarming Christmas story that held up well for a twenty-year-old book. Ben is on a leave of absence from his job with the highway patrol, recovering from injuries received while on duty. He's pretty much hiding out, avoiding people whenever he can, because of the scars on his face and body. Ben is also haunted by the circumstances of the accident, and blames himself for what happened. He doesn't know that another victim of that accident holds him responsible and wants revenge.
Ellie has lived in North Star all her life. She recently divorced her good-for-nothing husband and is pregnant with her third child. She was barely making ends meet with her woodcarving business when her home and inventory were destroyed by a fire. She might have lost her dog, too, if Ben hadn't come to their rescue.
The first meeting between Ben and Ellie was intense. He'd been out hunting when he came across their burning house. The protective instincts that he couldn't deny compelled him to help Ellie, and sent him into the burning building to rescue the family dog. I ached for him as the flames brought back memories of the accident that injured him, and how he pushed those memories aside to rush into the house to save the dog. Not wanting any attention or thanks, he disappeared again as soon as he could. Fate wasn't done with them yet, and crossed their paths again shortly thereafter. Ellie was trying to escape her troubled thoughts, her need to accept the charity of others conflicting with her independence. All she wants is a way to support herself and her kids until she can get back on her feet. Ben also walks to escape his thoughts. I liked this encounter as they talked a little, with Ben checking on how she is doing. There are sparks of attraction flickering between them, but both try to ignore them. Ellie stayed on Ben's mind, leading him to suggest her when his cousin needed help in his diner.
The more that Ben and Ellie encounter each other, the more they are drawn to each other. They have a mutual admiration thing going on while at the same time resisting the idea that there can be anything between them. I loved seeing Ben's protectiveness toward Ellie, and how he wanted to look after her. There are some pretty sweet scenes as the softer side of Ben emerged around Ellie and her kids. Ellie is just as drawn to Ben, but is afraid of becoming dependent on him. I liked how she saw past his scars and gruff exterior to the good man he is. I loved seeing them grow closer as they got to know each other. There were a couple of life-changing events that showed that they were meant for each other, if only they could get past their fears.
Their relationship got a little complicated when Ellie's ex-husband showed up, and tried to wiggle his way back into Ellie's life. I understood her reluctance to push him away too hard because he was the father of her children, but there were times I thought she was a bit of a doormat. I did like the way she stood up to him about the baby. I ached for Ben, who believed that he was losing Ellie to Lonny, and for Ellie, who could feel him pulling away. It was a lecture from a surprising source that made Ben realize he needed to fight for what he wanted. Ellie also needed to feel that he wanted her for the right reasons. I loved how they came together at the end, conquering their fears with the love they had for each other. The epilogue was fantastic, showing what a difference a year of love can make.
A big part of the story dealt with the event that had caused Ben's injuries. The teenager who was bent on revenge made his move early in the book. I loved Ben's understanding of the pain that Matt experienced, and how that understanding created a connection between them. Seeing Ben take Matt under his wing was amazing. I ached for Matt, who wasn't sure he could trust Ben. There were some terrific scenes with Matt and Ellie's kids. I loved the effect that her trust had on him. There were some issues toward the end caused by a lack of communication. There was a very moving scene as Matt had the courage to tell Ben what he wanted.