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By Winnie

Rating----PG

Disclaimer-----I don’t own these characters, although sometimes, with just a little imagination I can dream…

Comments----- Well, this is being written for all the ladies who celebrate birthdays in the month of December. It’s a Christastrophe (I know-big surprise) and is also a Christmas fic. Hope you enjoy and that your birthdays and your Christmas and New Year are filled with joy and happiness.

Prologue

Christmas music played softly from the stereo and added to the joy of the two men in the front seat. How many songs had they listened to as they made their way slowly along the highway? The snow was beginning to fall heavily, but it didn’t dampen their spirits as the two friends sang slightly off key. The gift, the perfect gift, sat in the backseat, boxed and wrapped in colorful green metallic paper and circled by a shimmering red bow. The card said it all and the gift giver was hopeful that the receiver would understand the meaning of the words.

The driver watched the road for any other traffic, silently frustrated at the storm’s sudden appearance. The weatherman had called for a few snow flurries, but this went far beyond that as the wipers continued to fight to keep the windshield clear. The white landscape hurt his eyes and he reached for the Ray Ban sunglasses he kept in a case in his pocket. His eyes were extremely sensitive and the vast whiteness often affected his vision. He heard the man beside him cry out and returned his attention to the road as a deer suddenly shot out in front of him. He turned the wheel, feeling the tires trying in vain to grip the icy pavement as it spiraled out of control. He fought for control, but knew there was nothing he could do to prevent the vehicle from making a headlong nosedive into the ravine.

The jeep slid along the icy patch as driver and passenger saw their lives flash before their eyes. It struck the guardrail with a screeching wail and slid along the edge before finally losing the battle to stay on the road. There was nothing left in its wake to stop the vehicle from plowing a trail through the hardened snow and it rolled once before coming to rest against a stand of evergreen trees. The falling snow sizzled when it struck the undercarriage of the jeep as the front tire on the driver’s side continued to spin before it too stopped, signaling the silence of a highway bereft of traffic on Christmas Eve.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris sat back in his office chair and smiled contentedly. It had been a year of discoveries and healing and he knew this year marked a new milestone for his team. There was less than a week until Christmas and they were all healthy and he hoped they would stay that way. The caseload had been a heavy one, but most of it was either solved or the clients were no longer interested in the outcome. He closed the file in front of him and listened to the banter from the outer office. JD was trying out a new routine and Chris grimaced as he delivered the punch line of his newest Christmas joke. It was time to call it a day, or a week…or two if it came right down to it.

Orrin Travis had given him some good news at this morning’s meeting and he could hardly wait to tell the others that the agency would be closing down for the holidays. A two-week paid vacation for each man as a bonus for a year of well earned victories. The former judge would be spending Christmas with his daughter in law and his grandson and wanted to make sure there was no reason for him to come back early. His boss was arranging for a party at Buck’s Bar and Grill, and it was up to Chris to make sure the boys got there on time. He stood framed in the doorway of his office and smiled as Standish took note of his presence.

“Mr. Larabee, one can only presume by the glimmer of elation in your eyes that we have permission to leave early,” the gambler said.

“Ez, yer talkin’ ta Scrooge, he don’t got none of that elation, whatever the hell that is,” Tanner quipped.

“Very funny, Vin, maybe Scrooge is going to surprise you this year,” Larabee said.

“No shit, Chris,” Wilmington said and sat forward. “Tell me you’ve hooked me up with that babe you were talking to yesterday.”

“Sorry, Buck, Mandy said to tell you she prefers to date real men,” the blond answered and smiled when the others began to laugh.

“Real funny, Chris.  A man goes undercover in a bar…”

“Transvestite bar,” Dunne reminded the ladies’ man.

“A bar and ends up scarred for life. You did tell her I was undercover didn’t you?”

“Sure did…only…”

“Only what?”

“She wanted to know whose covers they were,” Larabee laughed.

“Chris, you didn’t!” Wilmington snapped.

“Well, you did seem mighty taken with…”

“God damnit, Larabee…”

“Buck, God’s last name is not damnit,” Dunne supplied and again there was laughter in the room.

“Chris, I’ll get you back for this,” Wilmington said, but the smile on his face said there was no offense taken or given. His relationship with Chris Larabee went back far enough that the two men knew when to draw the line. It would take a lot to push things that far, and neither man had come to that point yet and probably never would.

‘I believe we’ve sort of gotten away from the main topic here,” Sanchez said. “Was there something you wanted to tell us, Boss?”

“Something like we can take the rest of the day off,” Jackson added hopefully.

“Actually, that’s exactly what I was going to say,” Larabee answered and smiled when a series of loud whoops echoed through the office. “But…”

“Ah, here it comes. Bet ol’ Ebenezer wants us in here all the earlier tomorrow,” Tanner said with a grin.

“Vin, keep it up and you’ll lose your Christmas bonus this year.”

“Oh, yeah, what’s he getting, double last year’s?” Dunne teased.

“Double nothin’s still nothin’,” the Texan said, ducking when Larabee threw a pair of gloves at him.

“You’re just a barrel of laughs, Tanner. What I was going to say was the first drink is on me…”

“Buck’s Bar & Grill?” Wilmington asked. Since Jake Taylor had introduced the team to the bar and grill, it had quickly become a favorite hangout for the seven men. Friday nights would find them at a table in the back, talking, laughing, and drinking. Tonight would be no different.

“Hell, Bucklin, haven’t you learned that Inez has no interest in your sorry ass?” Tanner asked, causing the others to snicker loudly.

“I assure you, Vin, that that’s not the part of my anatomy I want her interested in,” Wilmington leered, wagging his eyes suggestively.

“Oh, I take it you want her looking at the small stuff,” Dunne replied, again causing laughter from the men

The scoundrel swatted the youngest member of the team across the shoulders as he answered. “If it was small stuff then I’d just point her in your direction, Small Stuff!”

“Ha, ha, ha, Buck, how the hell would you know?” the young easterner asked as they headed out the main door.

“I know more than you think, Kid. Hell, the way you dress anyone can see you’ve got nothing between your...”

“Shut up, Buck!” Dunne hissed sharply.

“Truth hurts, Kid,” Wilmington laughed as he held the door for the others to go through.

Chris could see JD was getting tired of the teasing and turned to the ladies man. “Buck, give it up. We all know you’re jealous of JD’s attributes.”

“Attributes?” The scoundrel laughed. “Next thing you know you’ll be saying I’m jealous of your assets.”

“Truth hurts, Bucklin,” Tanner smirked at the older man.

“Oh, hell, Tanner, I don’t need to be jealous. Just ask any lady around and she’ll tell you ol’ Buck is...”

“Full of shit,” the sharpshooter finished, again the light hearted laughter rose in the hallway.

“Probably,” the scoundrel laughed, knowing it was impossible to argue with the men he called friends. The seven headed for their respective vehicles and would meet at Buck’s Bar and Grill.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Damn!” Vin cursed as JD read the sign on the outside of Buck’s Bar and Grill.

“Closed for private party, sorry for the inconvenience,” Dunne repeated as the remaining five men joined them. “Hey, Chris, we can’t get in.”

“Why?” Larabee asked and reached for the door handle.

“It’s closed for a private party,” Tanner told them.

“Damn, guess it’s gotta be Ezra’s favorite hangup…”

“That’s hangout, Mr. Wilmington,” the conman supplied.

“Hangup, hangout…works either way,” the ladies’ man teased.

“All right, boys, let me check this out,” Larabee said and pushed open the door.

“Chris, are you gonna crash a private party?” Dunne asked incredulously.

“Never stopped him before, Son,” the rogue said and slapped his long time friend on the back. “God, I remember those days.”

“Yes, and I’d like to forget them,” Larabee said and moved inside. “I’ll be right back.”

“Jesus, its colder’n…”

“Please, do not favor us with one of your delightful analogies, Mr. Tanner,” Standish pleaded.

“Anawhatgies?” the Texan asked jokingly.

“Analogies, Vin, he means comparing things that are different…”

“Hell, I wasn’t gonna do that, Josiah,” Tanner said slapping his hands on his arms in an effort to keep warm.

“Boys,” Larabee called from the open door.

“Bout fuckin’ time ya got back. I’m freezin’ like the monkey’s brass balls out here,” Tanner said.

“Do we stay, Chris?” Sanchez asked.

“Well, I would be a little ticked if you didn’t,” Travis explained and opened the door.

“Orrin, I didn’t know you knew about this place,” Wilmington observed.

“Me not know where my agents hang out on Friday nights? I’ve known since the beginning…since Jake Taylor told Chris about it,” Travis explained. “This party can’t get started without the guests of honor, so Chris, if you would kindly escort your team to their table.”

“My pleasure, Orrin,” Larabee said and stepped past the older man. He led his friends to the table near the back of the restaurant and smiled in greeting to the people they passed.

“Casey, what are you doing here?” Dunne asked, pulling the young woman into a warm embrace.

“When Mister Travis called to ask Nettie and I to come to a party for you guys how could we say no?” Casey Wells asked.

“Miss Nettie, I ain’t never seen a prettier lady…”

“Oh, hell, Vin, don’t start that blarney now,” the elderly woman said, accepting the hug from the Texan before reaching for her nephew in law.  “Chris,  thank you for getting them all here.”

“It was easy, Nettie, I told them the drinks were on me…Sonofa…gun!” Larabee cried as cold water ran down his back.

“Gotcha!” Wilmington said of the ongoing joke between them. All it took was those four little innocent words and all bets were off. Whatever the other person was drinking became a weapon and Larabee stood laughing with the others in spite of the cold liquid seeping into his clothing.

“I owe you, Buck, and payback’s a real bit…” Larabee trailed off when he remembered the woman standing beside him. “Sorry,  Nettie.”

“Chris, apologies for language are not required tonight, but I am glad you remembered I’m here,” Nettie said, sitting once more and handing the wet blond her napkin.

“Thanks, Nettie,” Larabee said, kissing her cheek before joining the others at their table. He took his normal seat, flanked on one side by Vin Tanner, JD Dunne, and Ezra Standish and on the other by Buck Wilmington, Nathan Jackson and Josiah Sanchez. The opposite end of the table was empty, and the seven men looked around the tables.

Nettie, Casey, Rain, Inez, and several women from Travis’ office sat at one table. Another seemed to be filled with several people the men were familiar with. Tom Parker, Stacey Midland, Brandon Silverman and their respective dates, lifted their glasses in a toast to the seven men. Alonzo and Sophia Delvecchio shared a table with Orrin and Evie Travis while several nurses from Saint Vincents sat to their immediate left. Frank Thompson, Robert Miller and several other officers from the Billings Police Department sat together near the front of the restaurant. Raphael Cordova de Martinez, Jake Taylor and their dates, were seated close to the bar. There were several other tables filled with friends and clients and the seven members of The Firm acknowledge them all before Orrin Travis stood in front of the microphone placed before him.

“Testing…testing…”

“You failed, Orrin,” Sanchez said with a toothy grin and sipped the champagne the waitress poured for him.

“In that case, Josiah, why don’t you come up here and make the announcements?” Travis offered.

“No, that’s all right, Judge, I’ll leave the public speaking to you tonight,” the ex-preacher said and held his glass out for more.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I would like to take this opportunity to thank you all for coming this evening and hope you enjoy yourselves. As you know the guests of honor have finally arrived, late, as usual,” Travis said and looked toward the gambler. “Ezra, did they set their watches by you?”

“Actually, Judge, it was Mr. Larabee who timed our arrival and I really must say he is a very tough taskmaster and kept us shackled…”

“Ezra, better watch it…Chris got that gleam in his eyes,” Dunne warned.

“I am only speaking the…”

“Ezra, I could come up with several dossiers that need your complete and utter undivided attention,” Larabee stated.

“Mr. Larabee, that would constitute cruel and unjust punishment,” Standish said.

“Gentlemen, are you finished?” Travis asked.

“I think Ezra gets the point,” Larabee said with a grin and smiled at the gambler.

“I want to thank Maude Standish for granting us the use of her establishment…”

“Your mother owns this place?” Wilmington asked incredulously.

“Mothah won it in a poker game,” Standish answered.

“Isn’t that illegal?” Dunne asked,

“Not if it’s done properly,” the conman answered.

“You mean she cheated?” the rogue asked.

“Mothah does not cheat…”

“Be that as it may, Ezra, why don’t we let the judge continue?” Jackson asked.

“Thank you, Nathan. Maude Standish also asked that I tell her son that she wishes she could be with him, but there is a poker game in Monte Carlo and a chair with her name on it.”

“That sounds like Mothah,” Standish said. He’d long ago given up on spending holidays with the woman, yet he knew she loved him and that’s what counted.

“She sends you all the best,” Travis said and took a sip of champagne before continuing. “I’d also like to thank Alonzo and Sophia for providing the food for tonight.”

“It was no trouble,” Alonzo and Sophia assured them.

“Well, I’m sure it will be delicious as always,” Evie Travis said.

“The music for tonight will be provided by Raphael Cordova de Martinez. I would like you all to know that he volunteered his services for this and he’s brought a wide variety of music for your dancing pleasure. Thank you, Raphael.”

“My pleasure, Judge,” the man said and nodded to Larabee’s table. 

“Well, I could keep talking…”

“Ah, hell,” Wilmington said with a grin.

“Damn, thought he talked enough,” Tanner said.

“The gift of gab,” Dunne said and suddenly realized he’d spoken aloud.

“Gentlemen, you’re in rare form tonight,” Travis said enjoying the good-natured ribbing from the members of his agency.

“Orrin, I believe they know you as well as I do,” Evie said and smiled at her husband.

“Good Lord, not you too,” Travis said and turned his attention back to the seven guests of honor. “Josiah, would you do us the honor of saying grace?”

“My pleasure,” Sanchez said, folding his hands and bowing his head. “Lord, we thank you for the food we are about to receive, and for gifting us with the company of family and friends. Amen.”

“Amen,” the others said and the waitresses began serving the meals.

“Chris, how long did you know about this?” Jackson asked.

“Actually, I didn’t know anything until the meeting with Travis,” Larabee answered.

“Would you like more wine?” a pretty redhead asked.

“Yes, please, the red,” Larabee answered and held his glass out for her to refill. “So, Ezra, when were you going to tell us about your mother taking over this place?”

“I bet he was afraid we’d start expectin’ free drinks,” Tanner teased.

“Mr. Tanner, I have no say in the management of this establishment. Mothah has always believed in a hands-off organization when it comes to her assets. I believe Inez Recillos is the manager so if you desire complimentary drinks you will have to speak with her,” Standish explained.

“I bet I could get her to give me a free drink,” Wilmington said.

“Only if you promised not to hit on her,” Dunne said.

“I believe her last answer to one of Buck’s attempts at a date was ‘nunca’,” Larabee supplied.

“Have you figured out the translation on that one yet, Buck?” the Bostonian asked with a grin.

“Ha, ha, Kid,” Wilmington said and reached for a dinner roll.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

The dishes were cleared from the tables and drinks were being served when Raphael Cordova de Martinez checked the speakers and made sure his equipment was set up properly. Maria Delgado, a beautiful raven-haired woman dressed in a shimmering red form fitting dress helped him. The lights were soon turned down low, leaving only a soft light shining over the dance floor.

“All right, ladies and gentlemen, are we ready to do a little dancing?” Raphael asked and smiled when a loud cheer went up in the bar. “Sounds like the animals are restless. If you have any requests don’t hesitate to ask and if I have it…well, you’ll get it. If I don’t, hmm…I’ll play the next best thing. So, without further ado let’s start off with something soft and mellow and let the ladies choose their fellow. Shania Twain’s Forever and Always.”

JD stood and hurried over to the table where Casey sat talking with her aunt. Nettie saw him first, smiled and nodded to her niece.

“Casey, would you like to dance?”

“Sure do, JD. I’ll be right back, Aunt Nettie.”

“Off with you, Child,” the elderly woman said with a grin. She watched the young couple join others on the dance floor and was carried back in time to a similar celebration when her husband’s arms encircled her and filled her with joy.

“Mrs. Wells, it’s good to see you again,” Stacey Midland said. She knew the woman from her volunteer work at the hospital and held a great deal of respect for her and others like her.

“Hello, Dr. Midland. Where is James this evening?”

“He wasn’t feeling very well and I told him to stay in bed,” Midland explained.

“I do hope it’s nothing serious,” Nettie said.

“Just a cold, but James tends to forget to look after himself.”

“I know several men like that,” the elderly woman explained with a grin as she looked at the dance floor. Buck had his arms wrapped around Inez and was whispering something in her ear. JD and Casey were gazing into each other’s eyes, their bodies seemingly joined at the waist. Josiah, Chris, and Ezra were each dancing with a nurse from Saint Vincents. Nathan and Rain clung to each other as they swayed with the soft strains of music. Orrin and Evie Travis were also moving beneath the soft glow of white light.

“Miss Nettie, would ya like ta dance?”

“Now, Vin, I dear say there are plenty of young ladies…”

“Yes’m, there are, but ain’t one of ‘em can hold a candle ta ya,” the Texan said and smiled at Stacey Midland.

“Well, Mrs. Wells, how can you turn down a compliment like that?” Midland said and returned to her own table.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Wow, this place is rocking tonight!” Wilmington said breathlessly and sank into his chair.

“Are you getting old, Mr. Wilmington?” Standish asked.

“Bite your tongue, Ez, ‘cause I’m only just getting started. What the hell’s JD up to?”

“I believe he is requesting a special song for his lady love,” the gambler said. He had spoken with Dunne earlier and found out that tonight would indeed be a special one for him and Casey Wells.

“Why do I get the feeling that you know more than the rest of us, Ezra?” Sanchez asked.

“I happened upon Mr. Dunne at Emerson’s Jewelry…”

“Oh, hell, the kid’s getting ready to propose,” Wilmington said with a teasing gleam in his eyes. He pushed up, but was stopped as Larabee and Sanchez pulled him back into his chair.

“Leave JD alone, Buck,” Larabee warned and pushed a drink toward his long time friend.

“Shit, Chris, I was just…”

“Gonna sit and watch and maybe learn a thing or two,” Tanner chided softly and pointed to Raphael as the man reached for the mike.

“Ladies and gentlemen, and with some of you I use those terms loosely,” Raphael teased and smiled when several muted curses reached his ears. “This next song goes out to a special lady from her special man.”

The lights were turned low once more as JD made his way across the small dance floor and reached for Casey’s hand once more as the first strains of John Michael Montgomery’s song came from the speakers.

Casey smiled as JD led her back onto the dance floor and several other couples soon surrounded them, but it was her date’s voice she heard and she felt her heart beating faster in her chest.

“I can love you like…I would make you my world…Move Heaven and Earth if you were my girl…I will give you my heart…Be all that you need…Show you you’re everything that's precious to me…If you give me a chance…I can love you like that.”

JD smiled as the lights were turned up slightly and he went down on one knee. He’d rehearsed this moment over and over in his mind, but nothing had prepared him for this. He reached into his pocket as Casey stared into his eyes and the room was suddenly quiet as the spotlight shone on the two young lovers surrounded by their family and friends.

“J…JD,” Casey stammered around the lump in her throat.

“Casey, I know we talked about our future and the plans we have, but I want this so much and would never need anything else in my life if you would marry me,” Dunne said and held the ring in front of her. Two perfect hearts joined by twin diamonds sparkled beneath the light as JD stared at her.

“Oh, JD, yes, God yes,” she cried as he placed the ring on her finger and lifted her into his arms. Amidst celebratory slaps on the back and catcalls the young couple only had eyes for each other. The music began to play once more and they finished the dance before turning to see the circle of people surrounding them.

“Way to go, Kid,” Wilmington was the first to shake Dunne’s hand and pulled Casey into a tight embrace.

“It’s about time, JD,” Sanchez said with a grin.

“Didn’t think ya had it in ya,” Tanner commented.

“Congratulations, Mr. Dunne,” Standish said and took his turn hugging the pretty young woman as Vin released her.

“JD, you done good,” Jackson assured the younger man.

“JD, you’re a lucky man,” Larabee said and saw the sparkle in the Bostonian’s eyes as he watched everyone making a fuss over his fiancé.

“Now, Son, you do realize you’d best do right by my niece or you’ll have me to deal with,” Nettie said and hugged the younger man.

“I’ll do everything in my power to make her happy,” Dunne promised.

“Casey, congratulations,” Nettie said and hugged her niece before looking at the ring.

“Isn’t it beautiful?” Casey asked.

“Not so beautiful as the woman wearing it,” Nettie said as tears formed in her eyes.

“Thank you, Aunt Nettie.”

“This next song goes out to JD and Casey from all your family and friends,” Raphael announced and the speakers came to life with Randy Travis singing FOREVER AND EVER, AMEN.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The night wore on with everyone dancing and talking and celebrating the engagement of JD Dunne and Casey Wells. Orrin Travis had arranged for a limo to drive his team home and they would be able to leave their vehicles in the parking lot until the next day. Anyone who needed a ride home had been told to see the bartender and he would be glad to call a taxi and Travis would put it on his tab. The music had been a mixture of new country and soft rock and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves.

“Chris, I’m telling you she’s been ogling you all night,” Wilmington said with a grin as drinks were handed out once more.

“Well, if she was it’s too late now,” Jackson said and pointed to the pretty brunette who was making her way toward Raphael and his date.

“Damn, Stud, hard luck there…she would have…”

“Buck, can you get your head out of your pants?” Larabee asked, smiling good-naturedly at his friend.

“I think Raphael is about to make another announcement,” Sanchez explained as the mike came to life once more.

“I am rather surprised Senor Cordova is such an impressive Master of Ceremonies,” Standish said.

“Damn good DJ,” Jackson stated and sat back to listen to the announcement.

“This seems to be a night for special requests and this one goes out to a man we all know from a lady who would love to get to know him and ‘his tight fittin’ jeans’ a little better,” Raphael said as a spotlight shone on Larabee’s table.

“I told you!” Wilmington said with a grin and slapped Larabee on the back.

“Chris, Pamela would like to know if you’d dance with her,” Raphael said as the brunette sauntered up to the blond and reached for his hands.

“I’d love to,” Larabee said as she led him to the dance floor. He silently cursed when the music began to play and raucous laughter escaped from the men at his table.

Oh Lord it's hard to be humble

When you're perfect in every way

I can't wait to look in the mirror

Cuz I get better lookin each day

“Pamela, you do know I’ll never be able to go back to my table?”

“That’s okay, you can join ours and I’m sure most of us have seen most of you,” the ICU nurse teased.

“Ah, hell,” the blond said, laughing as he began to move to the music.

To know me is to love me

I must be a hell of a man

Oh Lord it's hard to be humble

But I'm doin' the best that I can

“Jesus, Chris, you’re a lucky man!” Tanner shouted as Pamela rubbed up against the blond.

“Don’t I know it!” Larabee shouted back as the rest of the nurses joined him on the dance floor.

I used to have a girlfriend

But I guess she just couldn't compete

With all these love starved women

Who keep clamoring at my feet

“Sweet Jesus, that man’s got the luck of the Irish,” Sanchez said.

“And then some,” Jackson agreed as their friend and leader moved his body and had the women fawning all over him.

Well I probably could find me another

But I guess they're all in awe of me

Who cares I never get lonesome

Cuz I treasure my own company

“Somebody shoot me now,” Wilmington said, awed at how easily Larabee had let down his defenses and was enjoying himself in the midst of the gyrating women.

“Jealous, Buck?” Dunne asked.

“Damn right I am and don’t tell me you boys aren’t ‘cause I’d call you a bunch of liars,” the rogue said and continued to stare at his friend.

Oh Lord it's hard to be humble

When you're perfect in every way

I can't wait to look in the mirror

Cuz I get better lookin each day

Chris could hear the laughter as he moved with the group of dancers. Of the six nurses, Pamela was the prettiest and had the body of a model and the face of an angel. He heard her singing along with the lyrics and couldn’t help joining in as he looked toward his table. He nodded toward Wilmington and smiled when the other man raised his hand in a victory salute.

To know me is to love me

I must be a hell of a man

Oh Lord it's hard to be humble

But I'm doin the best that I can

“He’s gonna throw something out if he keeps moving like that,” Jackson observed as Larabee continued to show his prowess on the dance floor.

“If’n he does I hope he throws ‘em my way,” Tanner said lifting his beer in a toast.

I guess you could say I am a loner

A cowboy all locked up and proud

Well I could have lots of friends if I wanted

But then I wouldn't stand out in a crowd

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Chris quite so loose,” Rain said, smiling at Nathan appreciatively.

“Just remember who you’re here with,” Jackson scolded lightly.

“Would you dance like that for me? Go Chris!” the pediatrician shouted and heard the other women join in her cheers.

Some folks say that I'm egotistical

Hell I don't even know what that means

The music paused as Raphael reached for the mike and spoke in a teasingly sensual voice. “All right, ladies, let’s hear you.”

“I GUESS IT HAS SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE WAY THAT HE FILLS OUT THOSE SKIN TIGHT BLACK JEANS”

Chris felt the heat rise to his face as the nurses from Saint Vincents surrounded him and either pinched or squeezed his cheeks. He couldn’t believe how easy it had been to give in to the teasing fun and amidst the catcalls from his friends he hugged each woman before heading back to his table.

“Jesus, Chris, I don’t think I ever saw you move like that,” Wilmington said.

“Hell, I didn’t think he’d be able ta in them tight pants…what’d ya do, Cowboy, paint ‘em on?” Tanner teased.

“Jealous, Vin?” Larabee asked and reached for his beer.

“Hell yeah, I think we all were,” the Texan answered and moved to dance with one of the nurses.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Can I have your attention one more time?” Travis asked as the evening drew to a close. He knew the people in the bar had enjoyed themselves and hated to see it end, but the hour was late and the bar was about to close.

“We got a chish, Orrin,” Wilmington said, his words slightly slurred by the liquor he’d consumed.

“Actually, no, Buck, not if you want your Christmas bonus,” the former judge announced.

“Double nuttin…still nuttin’” Tanner stated with a grin and reached for the bottle of Corona in front of him.

“You boys are in the wrong business,” Travis said when the laughter died down. “In all seriousness, tonight is meant as a thank you for the hard work you’ve put in over the last year.”

“That’s what you pay us for,” Larabee said.

“No, Chris, I don’t think I pay you enough to go out there and put your lives on the line day in and day out. If I had a nickel for every minute one of you boys spent in the hospital I’d be a rich man…”

“By many standards you are a rich man,” Standish said seriously.

“That may very well be, but I’m no where near as rich as the seven of you. I believe someone once said the greatest gift of all is the love of one’s family and friends and looking at the seven of you I’m a poor man by far. I’d like to make sure that gift is around for a long, long time, but I guess that’s up to the Good Lord. What I can do is show my appreciation by giving you all the next two weeks off with pay…”

“Woohoo!” Tanner whooped and lifted his bottle in a celebratory gesture.

“I second that!” Dunne said.

“Orrin, thanks for the holiday.”

“I don’t think he was including us in his vacation offering, Stacey,” Parker said.

“Oh, I don’t know. Think about it, Tom…if they are on holiday they won’t be at the hospital.”

“Hell, I never thought of that. Thanks, Orrin,” Parker said with a grin and tipped his glass toward Larabee and his team.

“You’re welcome,” Travis said and turned the microphone over to Raphael once more.

“All right, Ladies, this is the final song of the night and I believe it should be ladies choice…so find your favorite guy and move to the soft tones of Garth Brooks’ THE DANCE.”

“Buck, would you like to dance?” Inez asked and was pleased when the gentle rogue smiled and let her lead him to the dance floor where, JD and Casey were already locked in each other’s arms. It wasn’t long before Nathan and Rain joined them along with Orrin and Evie Travis. Next came Tom Parker and his wife, followed by Josiah Sanchez and a nurse from Saint Vincents.

“Chris would you like to dance?” Stacey Midland asked and smiled at the look on the blond’s face.

“Sure, Doc,” Larabee said and accompanied her to the dance floor.

Nettie Wells smiled as the dance floor quickly filled and was delighted with the way the evening had gone. JD had finally asked Casey to marry him and she’d accepted the ring and more importantly the love he offered. She’d danced so much that her legs were tired and she’d decided to sit this one out. She could tell a lot by watching people and tonight there was none of the pain she’d so often seen on the faces of the two men she cared so much about. She cared about them all, but Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were special to her. The two men had been through so much and had finally realized they’d been meant to be brothers and shared that special bond like no other. It had seen them through some rough times and she knew that gift was what kept them from going off on their own on more than one occasion. As the night drew to a close, Nettie smiled and thought of her niece.

“Well, it’s been my pleasure to play the music and hopefully you enjoyed it, but as we know all good things must come to an end. Orrin, you picked a man to start the team now known as The Firm, and I’ve grown to know and respect not only, Chris Larabee, but each and every man he chose to join him in the never ending battle against crime. I’ll make one final toast before the lights go up. To the men of The Firm, may you never find a bullet with your name on it! Good night folks and thank you for making this a night to remember.”

“Thanks, Raphael,” Larabee said reaching out and shaking the other man’s hand.

It took nearly half an hour for everyone to collect their coats and make sure those who needed a ride home had one. Snow had begun to fall, but it was only a light covering and did not hamper the drive home, but Nettie Wells shivered as she looked around her and wondered why it felt as if someone had walked over her grave.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris sat in the truck; his hands on the steering wheel and knew there was no way to stop the tears spilling from his eyes. The cemetery gates were open and the snow had been cleared from the roadway leading inside. Five years had passed since he’d lost his heart and soul, but the searing pain of that loss was not as telling as it once was. He still grieved for his lost family, but he had another one in the six men of The Firm and for that he was grateful. Orrin’s words from three nights ago came back to him *’the greatest gift of all is the love of ones family and friends.’*

He took a deep breath and knew in his heart that he would never forget the love he shared with Sarah and Adam, but at least now he could look at life and live it to the fullest again. He could go on and be thankful for the gift he’d been given. Turning his head he sighed and reached for the small tree he’d chosen from his ranch. It was covered with the white garland that represented purity and the red roses that represented his love for the two people who’d shared his life for such a short time. Holding the small symbol close to his chest, Chris pushed the door open and stepped out of the truck, before shutting it once more and walking toward the snow covered graves. He couldn’t see the marker, but the path was imprinted on his mind and he soon stood beside the graves. He cleared as much snow as possible from the headstone and read the words as tears slipped past his lids.

“Oh, Sarah, I miss you both so much,” the grieving man whispered, running his fingers along the names of his beloved. “I wish…I wish you and Adam could see the ranch. I know you chose it and God knows it would have been a perfect place to raise Adam and the b…baby. The boys are coming over tomorrow and we’re going to get a Christmas tree…a big one…the type you loved. Remember our first Christmas tree? It looked so scrawny, but the ornaments you and Nettie made were special…they still are.”

Larabee placed the small tree between the graves and let the tears fall as he softly sang the tune he’d heard Sarah sing every Christmas Eve while they were married.

“I'll be home for Christmas…You can count on me…Please have snow and mistletoe and presents on the tree.” The tears flowed faster as the words escaped trembling lips and Chris felt the air around him changing as if another voice had joined his off key singing. He smiled inwardly, knowing who that presence was and felt some of the aching loneliness leave him.

“Christmas Eve will find me…Where the love light gleams…I'll be home for Christmas…If only in my dreams…My dreams,” he repeated the last two words once more and took a deep breath of the frosty winter air. He smiled and pressed his hands against the headstones before standing once more. There were several other people scattered around the cemetery and Chris couldn’t help smiling when he spotted a familiar figure striding purposefully toward him.

“Figured I’d find you here,” Wilmington said his voice soft and filled with emotion as he held out a small package to his long time friend.

“What’s this?”

“Something I have made for Sarah and Adam. I was kind of hoping you wouldn’t mind,” the gentle rogue said and watched Larabee remove the wrapping. He saw the sea green eyes light up, and the smile that dawned on the handsome face drove away the chill he’d felt. 

“Where did you find these?” Larabee asked, holding the turtledove sun catchers tightly in his hands.

“Found them last year, but wasn’t sure whether you wanted them or not. I figured they belonged on the tree…I’m sorry if I’m wrong, Chris.”

“God, Buck, you’re not wrong. They do belong here…and so do you. Maybe next year we could come here together,” Larabee suggested and saw the tears shining in Wilmington’s emotive blue eyes.

“I’d be honored, Chris,” the gentle rogue managed and hugged the blond for several seconds before releasing him and watching Larabee kneel by the little tree.

“Buck, would you…would you put them on?”

“Are you sure?” Wilmington asked and swallowed the painful lump in his throat before taking the turtledoves and placing them near the top of the tree.

“Thanks, Buck,” Larabee said, taking a deep breath before turning away from the graves. He knew the other man would need a minute alone and did not feel any jealousy over the fact that Buck Wilmington had loved Sarah and Adam almost as much as he did.

“Thanks, Chris.”

“There’s nothing to thank me for…you were always there for me…for us and for that I am forever in your debt. Got any plans for today?”

“No…just gonna relax.”

“Well, how about coming out to the ranch and giving me a hand to get the place presentable?” Larabee asked, striding purposefully toward his truck.

“Any beer?”

“Sure, plenty of root beer…”

“Shit, Chris…”

“Sorry, couldn’t resist. I think I could rustle up a beer or two…maybe throw a couple steaks on the grill.”

“Now that sounds like a plan,” Wilmington said. “I’ll pick up some chips and dip and meet you at your place in about an hour.”

“Sounds good, Buck,” the blond said, opening the door and climbing into the truck. “Make sure it’s French Onion.”

“Is there any other kind?” Wilmington joked before hurrying toward his own car. The top was up on the green Ford Mustang and Buck patted the car he referred to as his ‘baby’. He watched his long time friend drive away and was struck by how much the blond had changed since losing his family. There had been a time when he thought they would lose Larabee, but Chris had proven he was stronger than they gave him credit for. Buck also understood Vin Tanner had played a major role in the healing process, but that knowledge no longer hurt him as it once had. He had Larabee back and that was something he thanked God for every day of his life.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Chris watched the car pull into his driveway and smiled when Wilmington exited the car with two full bags in his hands. He shook his head, holding the door open as the gentle rogue hurried into the house.

“Buck, are you expecting an army?”

“No, but I figured I’d get a few supplies while I was there,” Wilmington said and hurried toward the kitchen as the phone rang.

“Larabee,” the blond answered on the second ring.

“Mr. Larabee, this is James Bellingham from Bellingham western gear. I’m afraid I have some bad news for you.”

“What’s wrong?”

“The saddle you ordered will not be ready. There was a death in the family and I’m afraid we’ve had to cancel orders.”

“I’m sorry for your loss, Mr. Bellingham.”

“Thank you, Mr. Larabee, and please come into the store in the New Year and I’ll find some way to pay up for not being able to complete our business. Again, I am so sorry for the inconvenience this causes you.”

“I understand about the loss of someone you care about, Mr. Bellingham. You just take care of yourself and your family.”

“I will…and M…Merry Christmas.”

Chris hung up the phone and sank down on the chair nearest him. He rubbed at tired eyes and tried to think, but all he could see was Vin’s face when he’d seen the saddle in the catalogue. The blue eyes had shone with open admiration at the workmanship.

“Chris, you okay?”

“I’m fine, Buck,” Larabee lied.

“Sure you are. What happened?” Wilmington asked, handing his friend an open bottle of beer.

“That was James Bellingham.”

“Vin’s saddle?” the rogue asked.

“Yeah, he can’t finish the order…”

“Why the hell not?”

“Easy, Buck, it’s not that he booked too many orders. There was a death in his family…”

“Ah, hell, Chris, is there anyone else who can fill the order?”

“Not on such short notice,” Larabee answered.

“Damn,” Wilmington softly cursed. He’d known what Larabee had ordered for the Texan and wished there was something he could do, but the blond was right and there were only four days until Christmas.

“Tell me about it,” the blond said and leaned back in his chair.

“Could you maybe give him a card explaining that his gift was coming, but was slightly delayed?”

“Maybe,” Larabee said, taking a long pull on the beer. “Well, there’s not much we can do about it today.”

“Wish I could help.”

“Not much anyone can do right now,” Larabee said.

“Wait a minute…maybe there’s nothing I can do, but…”

“But what?” Larabee asked when Wilmington reached for the phone.

“Ezra…”

“What about him?” the blond asked, but grew quiet when the ladies’ man held up his hand to stop him from talking.

“Hey, Ez, it’s Buck.”

“Buck who?”

“Ha, ha,” Wilmington said and spoke quickly before the conman could interrupt again. “Listen, that uncle of yours…the one that makes things with his hands...”

“Uncle Hiram?”

“Yeah, think he has any saddles?”

“Saddles, Western or English are his specialty.”

“Excellent, think he has one at his place?”

“I’m certain he has several on hand. Why?”

“Can you come out to Chris’ place and bring that catalog you showed me?”

“Certainly, but you haven’t answered my question.”

“You’ll get your answer and a beer when you get here,” Wilmington supplied and hung up the phone.

“Care to tell me what that was all about?” Larabee asked.

“Nope, you’ll find out when Ezra gets here. Better take out another steak.” Wilmington said with a grin as he sat back and enjoyed the look on Larabee’s face.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

“Ezra, thanks for coming out.”

“My pleasure, Mr. Larabee, but I must say I am curious as to the reason for the visit and the haste it seemed to require.”

“Ez, did ya bring it?”

“It would be prudent of me to bring the catalog since that seemed to be the requirement for my visit. Do I detect the delectable aroma of steak and onions?”

“Yeah…yeah, you do and there’s one on for you, but where’s the damn catalog?” Wilmington asked impatiently.

“Right here,” Standish said and handed the well-worn catalog to the ladies’ man.

“Thanks, Ez. Chris, come take a look at these,” the ladies’ man ordered and led them into the kitchen.

“What is it, Buck?” Larabee asked, sitting beside his long time friend. “Ezra, there’s beer in the fridge or the harder stuff in the bar.”

“I think I’ll have a shot of your Brandy, Mr. Larabee.”

“You know where it is,” Larabee answered; amazed at the catalog Wilmington was showing him.

“Look at these, Chris, and tell me Vin wouldn’t love anything from this catalog,” the ladies’ man said and turned page after page, revealing each treasure to the smiling blond.

“Are you telling me Ezra’s uncle…hell I didn’t even know he had an uncle…makes these?”

“Uncle Hiram is the black sheep in my family, Mr. Larabee. Mothah refuses to acknowledge his existence as does most of our relatives, but I believe Uncle Hiram is my favorite of mothah’s brothers.”

“It says here that his name is Hiram Standish. I thought Standish was your mother’s maiden name,” Larabee said.

“No, Standish is mothah’s maiden name. She’s changed it back after each debacle of a marriage she’s had. She changed mine to Standish when I was only two and never changed it. Hiram has always been a man I could look up to and admire for his departure from convention. He never gave into the family’s attempts at getting him into the hmm, shall we say family business.”

“Ezra, do you think your uncle has any of these on hand?”

“I’m afraid not, Mr. Larabee. This catalog only shows the workmanship Uncle Hiram is capable of.”

“Damn,” the blond swore disappointedly.

“Hell, Ezra, I figured he’d have something ready,” Wilmington commented.

“I’m sure Uncle Hiram has plenty on hand…”

“But you just said he wouldn’t have any of these?”

“He won’t, because Uncle Hiram only does one of each style so when you purchase it you can be sure it’s an original. He modifies the catalog every year in an effort to show people the ones he’s sold.”

“That means he has saddles at his place?” the ladies’ man asked hopefully.

“Certainly,” Standish answered.

“Can you call him, Ezra?” Larabee asked.

“Of course. When would you like to drive up to his home and see the merchandise?”

“Anytime he’s available,” Larabee answered.

“I’ll call him immediately.”

“Thanks, Ezra,” the blond said and hurried to check the steaks sizzling on the grill. He could hear the gambler speaking.

“Well, Christmas is looking up,” Wilmington said.

“It certainly is,” Larabee answered. “I owe you, Buck.”

“No, you don’t…well maybe another beer?”

“Bring me one too,” the blond said, flipping the steaks and checking the mushrooms, peppers, and onions that sizzled in the frying pan. Baked potatoes and salad would also be part of the meal and he looked up to see Ezra standing in the doorway.

“Chris, Uncle Hiram has several saddles and wondered if we could be at his place early on Christmas Eve. He’s going into the woods with several friends and won’t return until then.”

“Christmas Eve is fine, Ezra.”

“Would you like me to accompany you?”

“That’d be great, Ezra,” Larabee answered.

“I shall inform Uncle Hiram of our intentions,” Standish explained.

“Sounds great,” the blond said, shaking the conman’s hand before removing the steaks from the grill. Things were looking up and it seemed as if the gift he’d planned for the Texan was only a couple of hundred miles away.