For several years after the deaths of Sarah and Adam, Chris had seen Christmas as a time of emptiness, recalling the laughter of a small boy and his mama, both now lost to him. However, this Christmas his ranch echoed with laughter.
As he took a small swallow of his beer he wondered how such a disparate group of men had come together: a notorious Lothario, a kid, a loner sniper, a con man, a paramedic, and a profiler who had once been a priest, and then there was him.
The one thing they all shared was a lack of family to be with at Christmas beyond the one they had created over these past years. It didn't matter that Ezra had his mother as she made little effort to share any sense of family occasion with her son unless it would benefit her financially, or that Josiah had a sister. Josiah had spent yesterday visiting her but Hannah's mental illness had worsened, leaving her unable to recognize her only brother.
For the rest of them there was only this team of men who had become family, though this year their number had swollen to include Nathan's new wife, Rain, and JD's girlfriend, Casey. Casey's Aunt Nettie would have been here too but she had made a promise to spend Christmas Day with an old friend. For this reason they delayed the Christmas present unwrapping until after midday to allow JD, Casey and Vin to spend the morning with Nettie. That thought made Chris smile. Vin had really taken to Nettie, and she to him, treating him like a son even though she had known him for such a short time.
It all might have been far different, Chris thought as he recalled the crossroads he had stood on only a few months earlier. So many roads had laid ahead of him at the time. First there was Mary, beautiful and smart, but Chris realized he couldn't help but compare her to Sarah and find something wanting. He couldn't quite put his finger on it but realized they were better as friends. She had met a good man who had been a friend of her late husband, and she was happy. He couldn't wish more for her than that.
The second road was dark and twisted though he hadn't realized that until he took a step upon it as he rekindled an old love affair with Ella Gaines. That dark path was gone now, with Ella locked up in an asylum for the criminally insane once the full extent of her insanity and obsession with him had been revealed, and these men had helped to put her in there. He just hoped they never let her back out because he didn't believe that kind of deep obsession could ever be cured. As long as she lived he would fear for the lives of those he considered friends and family.
The third road had seemed too smooth when it ought to have been rocky and full of pitfalls. He had shied away from it over the years, afraid it was a deception, too easy, but then realized it didn't have to be difficult. Vin made it easy with every word and gesture. Looking across the room his eyes met Vin's, seeing a slight crinkle of worry around the edges that faded when Chris relaxed and gave him a half-hidden smile. They never seemed to talk much and yet managed to convey a thousand words and feelings with a single look. It was easy, and now Chris had started down that road with Vin he never wanted to turn back. He wasn't stupid. He knew there would be rocky moments and the occasional bridge to cross but Chris never doubted for a moment they'd make it together, not since the first time he took his courage in his hands and kissed Vin.
He recalled that moment now, standing on the porch steps just a few hours after the judge ordered Ella to be committed indefinitely for the murder of Sarah and Adam, and for six other murder and attempted murder charges in her obsessive pursuit of Chris. He recalled the softness of Vin's lips, the bright smile in his eyes that told him this was the right road to take. When he awoke the next morning with Vin plastered against his side, both of them naked beneath the warm covers, he could still see a smooth road ahead of them, stretching into the horizon.
Later, once all the food was eaten and the gifts unwrapped, he and Vin would make an announcement, letting their friends know of the road they had decided to take together. Chris knew they would find nothing but love and acceptance from the people around them, and he looked forward to the rest of that journey with all these friends by their side.