Gifts from the Heart
|Starwinder's Slash Fan Fiction Site|
|Fandom:||Houston Knights/Magnificent 7|
|Pairing:||Joe/Levon, Ezra/Vin, Chris/Buck|
|Title:||Gifts From the Heart|
|Standard Disclaimer: Houston Knights belongs to Jay Bernstein and Michael Butler and Columbia Pictures. No copyright infringement is intended. This is fan fiction, written out of love for the shows. I am making no money off this. I have no money so please don't sue me. Any original characters that may appear in these stories are the property of the author.
I don't know who the Magnificent 7 belong to but the ATF AU was created by Mog. Thanks to her for letting us play in it.
|Summary: Another couple gets together. (A Sequel to A Present From the Past and you really need to read it first.)|
Gifts From the Heart
Larabee's four-wheel drive Jeep Cherokee didn't have any problem with the snow covered roads leading back from his ranch into Denver. Still LaFiamma was glad to sit back in the back seat and not have to worry about driving. Lundy had been right. It *had* been a long time since he had driven in these type of conditions.
Joe and Levon shared the back seat with Josiah, while Nathan sat up front with Chris.
As they turned onto the highway from the access road to the ranch Nathan turned to look over the back of the seat at them and asked, "What made ya'll decide to up and tell a bunch of strangers that you were a couple? I mean, *I* wouldn't have guessed. Right up until you asked Vin and Ezra, if this was their first Christmas as a couple, there was nothing that you had said or done to indicate that you were a couple."
Joe and Levon exchanged looks then Joe answered, "When we got to the ATF offices, Standish was sitting at his desk... holding his revolver and looking ready to eat it. He didn't say why he was so distraught. Then, when we got to the ranch, we saw Vin and the interaction between them. It was pretty obvious that they were a couple and that they were having some major problems. It was also pretty obvious that the rest of you were aware of their relationship. While Lundy was telling Vin how we got the box, I was watching the rest of you, gauging your reactions, reading body language and expressions. I was trying to determine how you felt about their relationship. I'm pretty good at reading people that way. What I saw seemed to indicate that you considered them to be your friends and accepted their relationship. I also read that you were concerned about them but uncertain how to help. Lundy and I have been together a long time. We've been through a lot of stuff in that time. I thought we might be able to help so I made the offer and left it up to them to accept or reject it."
Nathan nodded. "Still it was risky."
LaFiamma shrugged, "We figured it was worth the risk."
"But you did not consult your partner before you took the chance..." Josiah remarked.
"Sure he did," Lundy chuckled, "Ya'll just didn't catch it."
Josiah started to say something but Larabee's voice cut him off.
"You were watching Ezra. LaFiamma raised an eyebrow to Lundy and inclined his head towards Ezra. Lundy gave a half nod. The rest of it was silent."
"Thought you warned against expecting your partner to know what you were thinking." Nathan said directing it at LaFiamma.
"I did... but even in the beginning Lundy and I had... something. We could tell what the other meant by a look. After twelve years as partners and ten as a couple, well, it may look to an outsider like mindreading but it's not. What it is, is experience. Lundy knew what I meant, because he *knows* me. He knows how I think. He knows how I feel about things. Therefore, he knew what I intended to do and that half nod told me, 'I'll back your play, partner, whatever it is'. The longer a couple is together, the better they get at reading each other."
He paused and his eyes dropped to Nathan's wedding ring, "How long have you been married?"
""Bout five years."
"Is it a good relationship?"
"Then I'll bet that you and her, have learned how to read each other, at least to a certain extent. For example, you're at a tiresome party that you *had* to attend due to some obligation. She's ready to go. She catches your eye from across the room or moves to where you are and lays a hand on your arm. You know immediately that she's ready to go, so you start the process of disentangling yourself from the boring person who has you cornered and the two of you make your escape... without either one of you actually *saying* to the other 'I want to go, now' or 'Yes, dear. Just let me get loose from this octopus that's wrapped around me'. Every time you do that, you have just enjoyed the benefits of the type of silent communication that long term couples and associates use every day. I bet you communicate silently with the team, too... and don't even think about it when you are doing it."
Chris gave a nod from where he had been silently listening, "You're right. The whole team does it."
"Part of what makes'em a good team. Ain't it?" Lundy asked quietly.
Three heads nodded thoughtfully.
Larabee's familiarity with the roads and road conditions got them back to Denver in just over an hour. He pulled up in front of the Hilton and Joe and Levon climbed out.
Larabee got out too, "I'll walk in with you, if you don't mind," he offered.
"Come ahead on," Lundy invited.
Larabee leaned back in the window and told Nathan. "I'll leave the key in case someone needs ya to move the car." Then he joined them on the sidewalk and they went into the lobby of the hotel.
LaFiamma moved confidently to the reservations desk. He smiled at the pretty woman there, "Hi. I'm Joe LaFiamma. I have a reservation."
She turned to her computer and quickly looked it up, "Oh, yes! The Honeymoon Suite." She turned back and her mouth opened but nothing came out, she leaned a little to the side to peer around him then swallowed hard and closed her mouth. She was expecting a Mrs. LaFiamma what she saw was two other men. A cowboy and a dangerous looking man in black.
LaFiamma stared at her with a small smirk on his face.
Lundy chuckled and decided to help the poor thing out. He stepped close to LaFiamma.
LaFiamma slipped his arm around Lundy's shoulders and pulled him close.
"The Honeymoon suite? You shouldn't have... babe." Lundy looked up at the taller man with an expression of adoration on his face and leaned into the embrace.
Larabee stood back trying not to chuckle at the look on the clerk's face. Apparently LaFiamma wasn't the only one of these jokers that was 'incorrigible'.
As LaFiamma signed the registration form and picked up the key cards, he said, "The Jacuzzi is filled and ready, isn't it?"
"Yes sir." The clerk replied.
"Good, I'm ready for lots and lots of hot... water." LaFiamma smirked, breaking Lundy and Larabee up.
The clerk obviously didn't get what was so funny about 'hot water'.
Larabee went up to the room with them. He saw the two men trade looks and knew that he was going to have to *say* something soon about why he was hanging around. It wasn't something that he looked forwards to. He was an intensely private man but he needed some advice and until today he hadn't known anyone that he could ask about *this*.
As Lundy stepped into the room he let out a low whistle, "How much is this place setting ya back, Joe?" He asked.
"I ain't telling you. If I do you'll just fuss the whole week about what it's costing and not enjoy yourself." He turned and grinned at Lundy, "You're just gonna have to accept it as a Christmas present to us, from me and forget about the cost. That was our deal. We each put half our paycheck into the living-expenses account. I let you handle all the day to day finances. I'm allowed no credit cards and only the debit card for my private checking account. I can spend that money however I want. I wanted to spend it on this. End of discussion." He strolled on through to the bedroom.
Lundy turned and shrugged at Larabee. "Boy ain't never had no money sense. I think he actually likes not having to worry about the daily stuff." He took off his hat and regarded Larabee for a long moment. "You need something?"
[This is it. Time to bite the bullet and ask.] "Uh..." he closed his eyes and then nodded, "yeah... uh..." He opened his eyes and saw Lundy watching him patiently. LaFiamma was still in the other room and Larabee wondered if the man could sense that he would be more comfortable saying whatever he had to say to Lundy.
Chris took a deep breath and tried again. "You and LaFiamma were partners... friends before...." God! He hated stammering like a kid.
"Yeah." Lundy said noncommittally.
"Um... I got this friend... and lately..."
"Ya been wondering what it's be like ta make love with him?"
Larabee nodded, feeling the blush rise to his cheeks.
Lundy regarded him, "Real good friend?"
"The best. I don't want to lose him... but..."
"Difficult situation. He give you any idea that he might be interested?"
Larabee snorted, "No... Hell, he's dated half the women in Denver!"
Lundy sat down on one arm of the couch turning his hat over in his hands as he thought, for a long moment before saying, "In the two years that Joe was in Houston, before me'n him got together... he dated more women than any man I'd ever met. Different one ever week or so... sometimes two or three women a week. I got it on good authority that he did the same in Chicago before he came ta Houston. Always got along good with them... mostly stayed friends with them afterwards."
He looked up at Chris, "After we finally got together, he told me that he used them as a smoke screen. Oh, he liked them okay, even had sex with the ones that he really liked and who wanted it but underneath he knew that he would never marry a woman. That what he wanted was a man. Could be that your friend's doing the same."
"I was married... my wife was killed."
"I'm a widower myself. My Caroline was killed by a car bomb meant for me. Had a real hard time putting that behind me."
"I don't know if B-- my friend would believe that I... I'm serious about wanting a relationship with him... He knew how much I loved Sarah."
"I loved Caroline something awful. We'd been childhood sweethearts. Only woman I ever wanted. After she was killed, I thought I'd never love anybody again. I tried dating women but my memories of Caroline and my guilt over how she died kept getting in the way. Then Joe came along and I found a different kind of love. What we have is every bit as deep and strong as what I had with Caroline... but its different enough that her ghost don't come between us. If you've tried to find love with a woman and Sarah's ghost keeps getting in your way, could be that you need a different kind of love, too."
"I just don't have any idea how to... to let him know that I'm interested... without destroying what we have." Chris' eyes were fixed on the floor.
"Are you saying that you want us to feel him out for you?"
Larabee raised his eyes to Lundy's, "Would you?" It was barely more than a whisper.
"You'd have to tell us who it is..."
Chris nodded. "You could come to Christmas dinner at the ranch... maybe talk to him there..."
"Sounds like a plan. Can't make no promises though. Only that we'll try and catch him alone and speak to him."
"You won't tell him that it's me... will you?" Larabee's voice held anxiety.
"Not if you don't want me to."
"Okay. I'll pick you up here in the morning around nine?"
"Yeah. I'll drag Joe outta bed in time to be ready." Lundy grinned.
"In time to be ready for what?" LaFiamma called from the door to the bedroom suite.
Larabee couldn't help but think that the man had impeccable timing.
"Chris has invited us to Christmas dinner. He's gonna pick us up at nine."
LaFiamma nodded. "Okay."
"Well, I'd better be going before Nathan takes out a search warrant for me."
The two Houston cops gave him a nod and said, "Goodnight," in chorus.
When he was gone Joe turned to Levon, "So?"
"He's got the hots for Wilmington. Wanted some advice."
"Long time friend. Could be a mess, if Wilmington ain't interested."
"Could be. You up for a little shopping?"
"Better get it done 'fore the stores close. We been invited to a Christmas ta-do, I ain't inclined to go empty handed. Ain't never knowed you to be either."
Joe nodded, "Right. Do I need my jacket?"
"Noticed a whole buncha shops offa the lobby down stairs. Looks like this place has it's own mall. We oughta be able to find something for ever'body down there."
"Okay, let's go."
"Ya got the key card?"
"Both of them." He pulled them out of his pocket and handed one to Lundy.
They spent the better part of two hours shopping. Prowling the shops side by side, discussing what they thought each of the men on Team 7 might want. Joe's research into the team had turned up the fact that JD had a steady girlfriend and she lived with an elderly aunt. He insisted that they get them something, suspecting that they would also be at the ranch during the festivities.
They had just returned to the room and were getting ready to wrap the gifts when the door chime rung.
Buck Wilmington strolled up to the front desk and flashed the clerk his most charming smile, "Hey there, little lady. Could ya tell me what room Mister LaFiamma and his partner are in?"
She looked him up and down noting that he was quite handsome but then both of the men he was asking for were quite handsome, too. As was the one that went up with them. [Just my luck. Four good-looking men through here in a couple of hours and they're all gay!]
She sighed and said, "They have the Honeymoon Suite, fortieth floor, Suite Twelve." She turned back to her computer without giving him another look.
Buck frowned. The Wilmington charm just didn't seem to work as well as it used to. Then again he was getting tired of the game. Maybe it was just as well.
A few minutes later he emerged from the elevator and locating Suite Twelve, rang the chimes.
"Get that will you, Lundy." Joe called as he piled his shopping bags on the couch.
Lundy had already dropped his on the floor near the door and was just hanging up his hat on the hat rack nearby.
"Okay." Lundy replied and opened the door. Surprise crossed his face as he saw Buck Wilmington standing there.
"Hey, Lundy... LaFiamma," Wilmington looked embarrassed. "Could I talk to you guys about... about something...?"
"Sure. Come on in." Lundy swung the door wide and gave LaFiamma a look that said, 'Well, what'd ya know?'
LaFiamma smiled back at him. They'd thought they'd have to chase Wilmington down to talk to him and here he was coming to see them.
Buck stepped into the room, "Woweee! This is some place ya'll picked out."
"Yeah. He'd've checked us into the EconoLodge... at the airport." Joe informed him.
Buck gestured to the packages, "Been doing some shopping?"
"Larabee invited us out to the ranch for the day tomorrow." Joe supplied, "We thought we ought to get something for you guys."
"Ya'll didn't have ta do that. That box you brought for Vin is more'n enough. Then helping those two boys out like you did... well that was above and beyond the call of duty, so to speak."
"So, what brings you up here?" Joe asked pointedly.
"Um... I was just wondering... if maybe... uh... maybe you could give me some advice?" His voice was hesitant.
"'Bout what?" Lundy asked.
"Well you see I got this friend..." he started then looked from one to the other as they traded looks that clearly said, 'not the old I've got this friend' ruse. "Okay... okay... it's me. I'm the one that needs the advice. I... oh, man. He's gonna kill me. I don't know why I'm even thinking this...." He looked around as if hunting someplace to hide then went on, pacing back and forth in front of them like a caged animal. "But dammit... I can't quit thinking about him. I... oh hell! It'll never work! He was married for christssake!"
"And you've dated half the women in Denver trying to pretend that he's not what you want." LaFiamma said flatly.
"Been there. Done that.... It don't work."
"What am I gonna do?"
LaFiamma turned and gave Lundy a look.
The cowboy got up and said, "I think I'll just check out the bedroom and let you fellas talk."
LaFiamma waited until he was gone before turning back to Buck, "So tell me exactly what it is you want."
"I want you to tell me what to do."
LaFiamma shook his head, "No. What do you want from him? Sex? Love? What?"
"Love... I want the rest of my life with him. I want what you and Lundy have."
"Who is it?"
Wilmington lowered his eyes and stared at his boot tips.
"We can't help if we don't know who it is..."
Wilmington swallowed hard and nodded. "Will you see if... if he might be... interested? You can talk to him tomorrow at the ranch...."
"We'll see what we can do... but I can't promise you that we'll get the chance to talk to him."
"Okay. Uh... thanks." Buck turned to go.
"Buck, wait a minute. Tell me something... how long have you been in love with Larabee?"
"I guess from the start. We were in the SEALs together. I think I loved him even then... but in the military... no way was I coming on to another SEAL. Then he met Sarah and they were so happy together. I couldn't say anything. When she was killed it almost destroyed Chris. He shut everybody out... especially me. Twelve years... I've been in love with him for twelve years. But I just can't handle it any longer... being with him and not being with him. It's killing me."
LaFiamma rose and lay a hand on Wilmington's shoulder as he guided him to the door. "We'll see what we can do. Okay? We'll see you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow," Buck answered, then he was gone.
Lundy strolled back into the room, "Who?" He asked quietly.
"Larabee." LaFiamma turned and flashed Lundy a devilish grin, "You know, I'm tempted to go back down stairs and get a giant tube of lube and a giant economy size box of condoms. Give the lube to Buck and the condoms to Chris with a note inside that says, 'Guess who came to see us, wanting advice on how to tell you he wants you, body and soul.'"
"You do like to live dangerously. Don't ya?" Lundy laughed, "Still, it's a thought." He gave Joe an evaluating look, "But I thought we was gonna get into another kinda 'hot water'." The grin turned into a smirk.
Joe grinned back at him. "Well, now that you mention it, I did have a Jacuzzi on my mind. One with a wet, hot cowboy in it." He took a step towards his cowboy stripping off his sweater as he did so.
"Hummmm..." Lundy murmured, "always love that."
"What?" Joe asked as tossed the sweater in the general direction of the couch and stalked towards Lundy.
"That moment... when ya peel your sweater or shirt off and I get to see that gorgeous chest of yours... those muscles all flexing and gliding under the skin as you move." Lundy's voice was husky with arousal as he backed slowly away from Joe and into the master bedroom suite with its huge heart shaped waterbed and the Jacuzzi.
Joe followed after him moving with the deadly grace of a tiger stalking its prey. His blue eyes held a predatory gleam.
He caught up with Levon as the cowboy came to a stop at the steps leading to the raised platform on which the Jacuzzi sat. He gathered the other man into his arms and bent his head to nip at Lundy's throat.
Levon groaned loudly. "Lord, boy, do ya know what that does to me?"
Joe chuckled and pressed his leg in against Levon's erection. "Uh-huh... I do know."
Levon twisted and captured the hungry lips with his own. After a long moment of deep, breathless kissing he drew back, his hands roaming across the broad, well-muscled chest, gliding up to caress the round swell of the muscles of the shoulders then down the equally well muscled arms. "I meant, what having you stalk me like some wild jungle cat after a tasty morsel, does to me."
"Oh, I know what that does to you, too." Joe grinned as he began to unsnap the snaps of Levon's western shirt.
"You think you know everything about me by now, don't ya?" Levon teased.
"Nope. Wouldn't be fun anymore, if I did. You still surprise me now and then... and I like to be surprised... now and then."
Levon let Joe peel the shirt off him then draped his arms around Joe's neck and leaned in for a small kiss, gentle and undemanding, this time.
"Yeah, you still surprise me from time to time too. Never liked surprises much... but I like yours."
Joe smiled the same sweet, gentle smile that Levon had fallen in love with all those years ago.
Levon let his arms slip from Joe's neck so that one rested on his shoulder. He gently traced those perfect lips with a finger, "Some things don't never change though... and I'm right glad about that too."
Joe flicked out his tongue to lick the finger, then sucked it into his mouth in an old, familiar movement.
Levon slowly drew the finger back, watching Joe's eyes darken with desire. He smiled and let the finger trail down Joe's chin, then traced the long line of Joe's throat down to the little dip at the base. He let his arms slip down and moved in close hugging Joe to him, bare chest to bare chest, tucking his head under Joe's chin.
He felt Joe's arms come up, fingers combing through his hair in a very familiar and comforting touch.
After a moment Joe's voice breathed in his ear, "You know, Cowboy, this is our anniversary. Ten years. Ten years ago tonight. Just before midnight, Christmas Eve nineteen-eighty-nine, we were sitting on the couch in my living room, just watching the lights on my Christmas tree and outta the blue you turned and looked at me..."
"...and you looked at me. I saw something in your eyes I never dreamed I see... and you slipped your arm up around my shoulders and..."
"... and the next thing I knew I had a lap full of cowboy and I wasn't about to let go. God! I was so damn desperate! You'd been driving me nuts for weeks."
"Weeks!" Lundy drew back and gave him a mock-shocked look, "Boy, you'd had me half outta my mind for months! I'd got to where all I could think about was tossing you over something and taking you... then you were tearing my clothes off and moaning for me to take you... ain't never been gladder to be asked to do something in my life!"
Joe chuckled, "We were a bit wild that night. I seem to recall a broken coffee table..."
"Hell! I'd been telling ya for better'n a year that ya needed better quality furniture."
Joe laughed again as he quickly shucked Levon's jeans off him and swept him up in his arms lifting him over the side of the Jacuzzi and dropping him in.
Lundy laughed as he floated in the hot bubbling water, "Ya planning to join me?"
"You bet I am, Cowboy. You bet I am." Joe stepped out of his pants and into the water.
Ezra awoke warm... and happier than he had ever been before. He snuggled closer to Vin and felt the sharpshooter's arms tighten around him in a possessive embrace.
They had talked and made slow gentle love for hours before drifting off to sleep. Now he opened his eyes and glanced over at the clock beside the bed. It said twelve-fifteen... just passed midnight.
He sighed contentedly. It was Christmas Day now and if the way he was feeling at the moment was any indication, then this would be the best Christmas he had ever had. It was certainly starting out the best.
He felt Vin nuzzle the back of his neck and then place a light kiss on the spot.
"Can't sleep?" Vin murmured.
"Not used to going to bed so early..."
Vin's laughter was a pleasure to hear. "I reckon we did turn in a mite early."
"Indeed Mister Tanner, six o'clock in the afternoon can definitely be defined as a 'mite early'."
"Well we didn't go to sleep right off." The happiness in Vin's voice was clear.
Ezra chuckled, as Vin again nuzzled his neck then licked it, "Am I to assume this to mean that you are ready to play some more," He turned over into Vin's arms, "Mister Tanner?" He finished looking up into Vin's eyes.
Vin bent down to kiss him then drew back slightly, "Why do you do that?"
"Call me 'Mister Tanner' in bed?"
"Because I love the sound of it!" Ezra said with delight in his voice. Then his eyes grew more serious, "because I know how proud you are to be a 'Tanner'." He smiled up at Vin, love shining in his eyes, "And because when I forget to call you 'Mister Tanner' and scream 'Vin!' you then know that your incredible lovemaking has rendered me incapable of maintaining any facade."
Vin leaned over him, his blue eyes locked on Ezra's green ones and a feral smile gracing his lips, "Guess I'm just gonna have'ta make you scream, then." He swooped down to nip at Ezra's neck as one hand glided down Ezra's side, stroked across his stomach and latched onto Ezra's already hardening cock.
"Oooohhhhhhhh! Mister Tanner!" Ezra gasped. Moments later his cry of, "Viiiinnnnnnnnnnn," mingled with Vin's chuckle.
Christmas morning dawned clear and beautiful in Denver. The ground was covered with a light powering of fresh snow but the storm had passed in the night and the snowplows were out clearing the roads.
Chris Larabee was up and fixing his breakfast at daybreak. He hadn't slept well.
After he had left Lundy and LaFiamma at the hotel the afternoon before, Nathan had asked Chris to drop him off at the University, because he wanted to surprise Raine. Then Josiah had asked to be dropped off too, without any real explanation.
When he got back to the ranch JD was the only one left there. He told Chris that Buck had run back into town, claiming he had forgotten something. Then JD had left to drop by and check on his girlfriend Casey Wells and her aunt.
The entire group was due back for Christmas dinner at the ranch but Chris had been looking forward to having at least one of the others there when he woke up on Christmas morning. Even though it had been five years now since he had lost his wife and son he still missed them, especially at this time of year.
He took his coffee and went to sit in the bright breakfast nook off the kitchen, looking out over the snow covered yard beyond. He could see a light on in the barn and knew that Vin was up checking on the horses. Maybe he would come up to the house, if only to get a cup of coffee. Then again, maybe he would prefer to go back to bed with Ezra.
Chris smiled. He was happy for the two men. He stared down at the cup in his hands and sighed. If only he had the courage to tell Buck how he felt about him, but they had been friends for so long, even before Sarah that he was too afraid of losing what they had to just blurt it out. At the same time it was becoming torment to have everything he wanted at the tips of his fingers but be unable to touch it.
He leaned back into the comfortable bench style seat and closed his eyes. He wondered how it would feel to be here with Buck, with no more barriers between them. He imagined Buck sitting beside him, the larger man's arm draped around his shoulders, his head resting on the broad strong shoulder.
He imagined turning his head and Buck leaning in to kiss him. He could almost feel the warm lips on his.
He heard the back door open and close again and jerked himself back to reality with an effort.
Vin strolled past the nook and into the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of coffee then joined Chris in the nook, sitting across from him. Leaning back in the corner of the seat and stretching his long legs across it as he cupped the coffee mug in his hands. He grinned at Larabee, "Morning, Chris."
"Morning, Vin." Larabee grinned back, "Ezra sleeping in?"
Vin's grin widened, "Uh-huh." He paused, then looked straight at Chris. "He didn't get much sleep last night."
Chris laughed, "I bet he didn't!" He let the laughter fade away, "You finish going through the box?"
"Nope." At Chris' raised eyebrow he added, "Figured I'd wait for Ezra to wake up."
Chris nodded, "You're a couple now. Natural for you to want him there."
Vin gave him a grateful smile for the understanding.
For a while they sat in companionable silence, just enjoying the quiet of the morning. After a while they heard the snowplow working it's way up the access road that ran along the edge of Larabee's property.
Chris sighed and stood up. "I better get the drive and parking area cleared off before I leave to pick up Joe and Levon."
It was Vin's turn to raise an eyebrow.
"They aren't going back to Houston till the second. I invited them to Christmas dinner."
Vin nodded, "Thanks. I was hoping to see them again. Nice couple."
"Can probably give us all a few pointers on relationships."
"May be," Vin paused a long moment, "I never would'a pegged them."
"Wonder how they do that." Vin said then at Chris' raised brow specified, "Make it look like they're not... I mean ten years... You'd think it'd show."
Larabee frowned, thinking about it. "Ten years ago... a gay cop would be taking his life in his hands to come out. Two cops, together in a same sex relationship... they would have had to keep it quiet... real quiet... just to survive. I suppose they learned to keep their personal life at home back then and it just became a habit. It's some better now but you and Ezra need to know that you can't flaunt your relationship at work. If I catch you two in any type of impropriety on the job, I won't have a choice but to can you both."
"I understand that Chris. I think Ezra does, too."
"Better make sure he does."
Vin nodded as Chris shrugged into his heavy coat and went out to plow the drive and the parking area.
Vin fixed his breakfast and ate while Chris was working. He was on his way back to the barn and the apartment there when Chris waved goodbye as he left to get the two Houston cops.
As Vin entered the apartment he saw Ezra sitting on the couch, a small pout gracing his face.
"Hi, babe." He smiled at his lover.
Ezra looked up and the pout deepened, "I woke up... alone."
"Sorry. I went to get some coffee. Had a talk with Chris."
"Indeed?" Ezra sat back on the couch and smiled up at Vin, his dimples showing, "And just what did our illustrious leader have to say on this glorious Christmas morning?"
Vin dropped down beside Ezra with a chuckle and pulled him into a kiss before he answered. When he broke the kiss he said, "Have I told you lately that I love the sound of your voice, even if half the time I don't really know what you mean?"
Ezra grinned up at him, "No. I don't believe you have *ever* made mention of the fact that you are enamored of my speech patterns... or that you have difficulty with my vocabulary... do you wish me to be less verbose?"
"No. I like your words, Ezra. I like listening to you talk. I like figuring out the meaning... and when it matters you can speak as short and clear as anybody."
"Indeed, Mister Tanner. Now, you still haven't told me what Mister Larabee had to say."
Vin chuckled and leaned in to kiss him again. "See what I mean. That was short and clear and easily understood."
"*Mister* Tanner..." Ezra's voice took on an edge, "Answer the question."
Vin grinned at him then when Ezra sighed, he answered the question, "Said he invited Lundy and LaFiamma to Christmas dinner."
"He... uh... wanted to be sure that we... uh... understood that *this*..." he gestured to the two of them, "is not to be brought to the office."
"Do you? Chris ain't being... dicta... dicta..."
"Yeah... He ain't being dictatorial..." he stumbled over the word but Ezra knew that once he had it he would never forget it. "It's for our safety. If just everybody knew about it, there are lots of people out there that would go outta their way to make trouble for us."
"It would interfere with the job."
"Could cost us our jobs... or our lives," Vin added softly.
Ezra closed his eyes briefly then opened them and nodded, "I understand. Mister Larabee is looking out for the team... and we must do the same. I can not say that I think it will be easy but... we will be professionals."
"I knew you'd understand, Ez."
Ezra laughed, "God! I love you," he paused just a beat then said, "Mister Tanner."
Vin laughed with him and pulled him into a tight hug.
When Vin let him breathe again, Ezra straightened slightly, but remained in the circle of Vin's arms, "Well, now," he began, "Now that I am up and more or less awake at this ungodly hour... what shall we occupy our time with?"
"I was thinking 'bout going through the rest of the box." Vin gestured towards the small trunk that still sat on the coffee table where he had put the night before. He glanced up through the window towards the house. "Chris won't be back for a couple of hours. Wanna go up to the house? You can get some coffee..."
"Did you make it?"
Vin chuckled, "No, Chris did."
Ezra smiled at him, "In that case, I'll get dressed." He rose and trotted into the bedroom.
Vin watched him go and almost followed him, then decided that he'd better not if they wanted to have some time alone to go through the box before everyone started arriving.
Ezra had showered when he got up so all he had to do was put the clothes he'd worn the day before back on since he didn't have any others with him. He didn't care for wearing the same clothes two days in a row but they weren't actually dirty and he had hung them up to air the night before.
He combed his hair and sighed. He supposed he would do. This was a casual affair after all. Almost all gatherings at Larabee's place were casual. The man deplored dressing up.
He trotted back out into the living room area and smiled at the appreciative look Vin gave him, before sweeping his hand towards the door and saying, "Shall we?"
Vin grinned at him and picked up the small trunk.
Ezra held the door for him and they walked side by side up to the house. Ezra stepped ahead to open the kitchen door and stood back holding it for Vin.
Vin sat the box down on the breakfast nook table and waited, while Ezra got himself a large cup of the coffee that Chris had made earlier.
Ezra noted that the pot was almost empty and quickly emptied the coffee maker and started a new pot. A few moments later he dropped into the seat next to Vin. His eyes were bright with curiosity as he said, "Are you ready for this, Mister Tanner?"
Vin smiled, "Yeah. I am." He lifted the lid of the trunk, smiling at the birth certificate under the straps that held it. He reached out and touched it reverently, running his finger across the name of his father. "Ya know," he said softly, "My father's name isn't on my official birth certificate. I got a certified copy and the space is blank."
Ezra's eyebrow lifted, "It doesn't say 'unknown'?"
Vin shook his head and Ezra frowned.
"Usually when the father isn't named the blank is filled with the word 'unknown'. It's customary. Your mother must have deliberately left it blank instead of putting in either your father's name or the word. I wonder how she got it filed that way."
Vin shrugged it was unlikely that they would find out at this late date. He lifted out the photos.
He and Ezra took quite some time looking through them. To Vin's delight each one had been carefully identified with the date that the picture was taken and the names of the people in the pictures clearly written on the back. To Vin's amazement he learned that his mother had had two brothers and a sister. Both of the brothers were dead. One had been killed in Vietnam, the other had died in a car wreck. The information was on the back of the pictures of them. There was nothing to indicate that the sister was dead but she had probably married and might be hard to find.
There were pictures of his grandparents, some of them alone and some with their children. But the pictures that Vin lingered over the longest were those of Michael James Marsden, the man listed on his birth certificate as his father.
"You certainly bear a striking resemblance to him." Ezra said softly, looking at the picture of a young MJ Marsden and Vin's mother standing side by side, their arms around each other, smiling into the camera.
Vin smiled at him, tracing a finger over the picture. It could have been a picture of him as he was now and his mother as she had been back then. The likeness to his father was so close.
He had gotten out the letters from Marsden to his mother and now began to look through them. They were handwritten and the handwriting was not the best in the world. After a long moment he handed the packet over to Ezra, "Ez could you...."
"Of course, love." Ezra said simply. "Do you want me to read straight through them aloud?"
"No. I don't think we have time for that now... I want to know... did he know about me... and... and... did he... want me?"
Ezra nodded. He quickly scanned through the letters, looking for the pertinent information. When he found it he smiled. "Perhaps you would like to read this yourself." He pointed to several lines in the letter that he held. "It does appear that he was quite happy about the prospect of having a child."
He handed that letter to Vin and began to scan through another.
When Vin completed the one he was reading he had tears in his eyes. 'He does seem happy. So why didn't they get married?"
"He wrote that from Vietnam." Ezra pointed out. Then he handed the next letter to Vin, "However it appears that they intended to be married as soon as he could get R&R. She was to meet him in Tokyo..." he looked sadly into his lover's eyes, "on the twenty-fourth of February. He was killed in action on the tenth... of February."
Vin blinked back tears and Ezra turned to take him in his arms. Vin let his lover hold him for a long moment then slowly he straightened and wiped at his face. Swallowing hard he said. "They loved each other. They wanted me. That's what matters."
Ezra smiled at him, also blinking back tears. He reached up a hand to stoke the soft brown, shoulder length hair of his lover, "Their love is abundantly clear, Mister Tanner... and I am sure that had your father survived he would have adored you as your mother did." He leaned in to place a chaste kiss on Vin's cheek.
Vin smiled at him through his tears. "Thanks, Ez."
"You are most thoroughly welcome, Mister Tanner." He turned his head and let Vin find his lips and claim them in a gentle kiss.
They were still sitting there, gently kissing when the sound of a car turning off the highway made them break apart.
A few minutes later, Larabee and the two Houston cops walked in. LaFiamma and Lundy were carrying several shopping bags filled with gifts. Larabee had a small suitcase with him.
As Lundy and LaFiamma went on through to put their gifts under the tree, Ezra watched them with a frown, "Oh, dear! I didn't get anyone anything!" He turned stricken eyes on Vin, "Not even you..." He started to rise. His intention, to bolt, clear in his eyes.
Vin caught him and pulled him back as Larabee blocked his retreat, "Ez! Ez! Calm down! It's all right. Everything is all right. You gave me the best Christmas present anybody could ever get. Your love. I'd rather have that than diamonds and gold!"
"He's right Ezra." Larabee said from behind him, "The fact that you're here with us is our present this year." He held out the small suitcase, "I brought you some clothes from your place... and a shaving kit."
"Oh, good lord! I hope you didn't pick them out!"
LaFiamma strolled back in and sat in the seat opposite the two men, "I picked the clothes out, Ezra." He smiled at the younger man.
Ezra started to say something then noted that although the older man was dressed casually he was very well put together. He had removed his heavy outer coat and was now wearing a thick soft sweater in sapphire blue that matched his eyes perfectly. He had on dark blue trousers and a fine pair of winter weight loafers with wool socks. His only jewelry was his watch and a man's diamond solitaire ring on his left ring finger.
He looked casual and elegant at the same time. His eyes twinkled as he leaned forwards and said, "Just be glad I didn't let Lundy pick the clothes. The man lives in blue jeans."
Vin raised a brow, "What's wrong with that?"
Joe laughed, "Not a thing... as long as he doesn't try to get me in them!"
Lundy dropped into the seat beside LaFiamma, "Tried it once." He shook his head, "Boy said, 'okay ya want me ta wear jeans, I'll wear jeans'. Turned up the next day in a pair of two hundred dollar designer jeans to help me fix a fence!"
"You didn't tell me we were gonna fix a fence!"
"Would it have made a difference?"
Even Ezra laughed, knowing full well he would have done the same thing... then insisted on supervising rather than working.
He looked at the two men, sitting relaxed and obviously happy across from them. They didn't look like a match. LaFiamma was taller by a good two inches even though he was wearing flats and Lundy had on high-heeled cowboy boots. Joe had the dark good looks so often associated with the Italian American community that his name said he came from. His blue eyes were unusual for that bloodline but not unheard of. He was broad shouldered and well built, looking as if he worked out. When he pushed up his sleeves as he had a habit of doing, Ezra could see the prominent veining and the cleanly defined muscles in his forearms, that were characteristic of bodybuilders, but he wasn't over developed. He dressed in what was best described as understated elegance.
Lundy on the other hand, had the slim, wiry physique of a man who had done hard work all his life. He wore a deep cinnamon-colored, western-styled shirt that accentuated his brown eyes. The eyes were striking with his naturally blonde hair. The hair was also naturally curly. He had on skintight deep brown jeans. The look was completed with the boots and a deep brown hat that now lay brim up on the table.
Ezra had noted Vin's smile when Lundy had set the hat down brim up, but he hadn't a clue what that was about.
LaFiamma had casually moved the hat to the far end of the table near his elbow, out of the way but had made certain that it remained brim up.
Ezra stood and picked up the suitcase that Larabee had sat down as he heard Buck's old truck come bouncing into the yard. As Larabee went to greet his oldest friend, Ezra headed for the barn apartment to change clothes.
Vin remained behind. He knew that if he went with Ezra, they would never get back to the house in time for dinner.
LaFiamma cocked his head at Vin, and waved a hand at the trunk, "Did you get down to your father's stuff in the bottom?"
Vin shook his head, "There's stuff that belonged to my dad in there?"
Lundy smiled at him, "Uh-huh. Reckon he musta listed your ma as his next of kin. She got the telegram and his personal effects... his medal and flag, too."
"Medal?" Vin whispered.
Lundy smiled. "You'll get to it when you're ready. Don't let the boy pressure you none."
Vin looked at Joe and smiled, "Boy?"
"He's the only one that gets away with that." The smile was still on his face but there was a warning in it now.
Vin nodded, "Yes sir." He fell silent a minute, then said, "I had a question."
Joe nodded, making a go on movement with his hand.
"How do ya'll keep your relationship from affecting your work?"
The two men exchanged looks. Then Lundy spoke first. "When we got together, you couldn't let it be known that you were in a same sex relationship, not if you were a cop and wanted to stay one. Being ostracized was the least of our worries."
LaFiamma took over, "At that point in time, a gay cop could not only expect harassment and abuse. He could expect to be beaten by his fellow officers and find himself without back up on the street. To be a gay cop back then and let it be found out was to sign your own death warrant." He looked down at his hands. "It's some better now. You and Ezra are lucky that you work with a closely-knit group of men that respect you and understand that your sexual preferences have nothing to do with your abilities as police officers. Still, I would recommend that you not advertise your relationship."
Lundy spoke again, "Me'n Joe'd been living together for a year before anybody tumbled to the fact that we were more'n roommates."
"A year! How'd ya manage that?"
Lundy grinned, "We didn't get along when we first met. Different as night an' day. Argued alla the time. Hell, we had our first fistfight the night Joe got to Houston! Took us two years to admit what the heat behind the fighting was and get together. By that time we had an established relationship in the bullpen. Ever body saw us as friendly adversaries... and sometimes not so friendly adversaries. We still argue over cases. Funny thing is we hardly ever argue at home."
He paused and smiled at Joe. "Joe'd been having financial problems ever since he moved down to Houston. IA was getting on to him about his indebtedness so we used that to as an excuse to move him in with me. I had a three bedroom, two bath house, so there was plenty of room. IA bought it... hell every body bought. I ragged him something awful 'bout 'having to stay at my place' for a bit. He paid off his bills and IA lost interest... he just never moved out."
Joe was nodding. "I got a post office box for my mail to go to, so that we didn't have the same address. I had a separate phone line put in, in my name. The bill for the phone goes to my post office box. If you want to live together, think about the little things. Details will keep people off the trail."
Just then Buck and JD came in, loud and boisterous as usual and the conversation got lost in the hubbub. Joe noted that Vin still looked like he wanted to ask some more questions but he let Buck and JD pull him into their noisy rough housing. That left Joe and Levon sitting quietly in the nook while the others all poured into the den to put their gifts under the tree and hunt for gifts with their names on them.
Levon favored Joe with a smile and asked, "Enjoying playing 'Dear Abby', ain'tcha?"
Joe grinned and kinda shrugged. "Its not often I get to."
"For what it's worth, I think you're doing a good job."
Ezra returned shortly after that. He'd changed into a sweater similar to Joe's but in a light jade green and deep forest green slacks. The colors brought out his green eyes. A flick of those eyes asked where Vin had gotten to.
Joe answered the unasked question, "Den. Buck and JD kidnapped him."
"He doesn't need much persuading by those two." Ezra smiled as he began to carefully put the items from the small trunk, which were still scattered about the table, back into it. He closed the lid then slid it down to the end of the table near Levon's hat and left it.
As the morning wore on more and more people began to fill the house. To JD's joy his girlfriend Casey Wells and her aunt were the next to arrive.
Chris had already put the huge turkey he had bought into the bottom oven and the ham in the top one but when the two women arrived he was summarily tossed out of his own kitchen while they took over.
Levon joined the other men in the den while Joe offered his help in the kitchen.
Nettie Wells favored him with a scowl, "I don't need no clumsy man underfoot!"
Levon laughed as he patted Joe on the shoulder and headed for the den, "Mrs. Wells, ain't nothing clumsy about this boy in the kitchen!"
Nettie frowned at him.
Joe chuckled and said, walking over to take the chef's knife she held away from her, "How about you let me dice those onions, before you pass judgment?"
She stepped aside and watched as he quickly peeled an onion, cut it crosswise from top to just short of the base in a series of cuts set about a quarter inch apart, turned it and did the same at a ninety degree angle. Then he laid it on its side and sliced through it at quarter inch intervals. In just a couple of minutes the onion was cut into neat, even pieces.
"Where'd a fancy pants like you learn to do that?" She demanded.
"I'm Italian! I grew up in the kitchen. Then after high school I took a year's training at the Chicago School of Culinary Arts before I went into the Marines."
She chuckled then and slapped him on the back as she moved on to other work and Joe continued with the rest of the onions. It wasn't long before the three of them were dancing around the kitchen, easily coordinating their efforts and chatting away.
In the den, Lundy dropped into a chair beside Larabee. He gestured to the barn, which was visible through the large picture window, "You got horses?"
Larabee grinned and replied in the affirmative.
He and Lundy were soon engaged in a discussion of horse breeding. Everyone gathered around to hear when Lundy began a story about how Joe, who knew nothing about horses and had been determined not to learn, had found himself home alone when Lundy's favorite mare, Fooler had gone into labor. Ezra wandered in and sat down near Vin in time to hear the punchline of the story. Apparently Joe had done real well following the vet's instructions over the phone.
"By the time that I got home," Lundy was saying, "the vet was there but Joe'd gone into the house. She said he was upset about something but she couldn't figure out what since both Fooler and the foal was just fine. So I went up to see 'bout him. He's sitting there at the kitchen table looking real forlorn. I don't understand it. I'm proud as punch of the boy. He done real good. I'm telling him this and he looks up at me and says, 'But I musta done *something* wrong... he's...p-p-pink!'"
Lundy paused to wipe tears away as Larabee and the others laughed uproariously.
Only Ezra looked confused. Vin reached over and took his hand, "It was a red roan, Ez. They're supposed to look pink!"
Lundy nodded. "Took me a while to convince Joe of that... but finally he got it through that thick Italian skull that he did just fine. I made him name the colt. Joe ended up calling him, Sunset Surprise on account of he was born at sunset and having to deliver him was one hell of a surprise to Joe!"
"Are you embarrassing me in there, Lundy?" Joe called from the kitchen, where Nettie, who had been eavesdropping, was laughing helplessly.
"Uh-huh!" Lundy replied, without a trace of shame.
Vin pulled Ezra closer and slipped an arm around his shoulders. As they sat there, listening to the others swap tales, Ezra couldn't remember a happier Christmas or one where he'd felt more at home or more at peace than the one that he was enjoying now.
Nathan and Raine had arrived in time to catch the tail end of the red roan story and Joe followed Nathan into the den, joining Levon and Chris on one of the overstuffed couches, leaving Raine to help Nettie and Casey in the kitchen.
Shortly thereafter Assistant Director Travis and his daughter-in-law Mary arrived with her son Billy. The house was rapidly filling up but it didn't seem crowded somehow. Introductions were made and the group fell into and easy, cheerful camaraderie.
The only one still missing was Josiah and no one seemed to know where he was. A quick call to his place by Larabee had gotten his machine and there had been no response on his cell phone. Larabee had gotten the out of service message from it, so either he had it turned off or was somewhere that it couldn't be reached.
They had just about given up on him and were getting ready to sit down to eat when they heard his ancient vehicle come chugging into the yard. Larabee stepped out on the deck to tell him to hurry up and get inside when he noticed that Josiah was helping someone out of the passenger side of the vehicle. With a groan, he recognized the woman. [Just what we need! Maude Standish.]
She fussed with getting her dress just so before she started up to the house.
Larabee frowned at the sight. She had on a red dress, but it was a simple elegant cut, not anything fancy. He would have expected her to arrive dripping diamonds and sequins if he'd known she was coming. Instead she seemed to be dressed almost casually. Granted the coat she was wearing over the dress was almost certainly real mink but she still seemed to have deliberately dressed down.
He held the door for her and took her coat and hat, shooting Josiah a 'what the hell are you thinking' look as he did so.
Josiah shrugged and said, "Thought it'd be nice for Ez to have his mom here for Christmas."
Chris shook his head. This could be a disaster... depending on how Maude reacted to Ezra and Vin's relationship. She was bound to notice it. He looked back at the woman.
Her golden hair was put up in a simple French twist. Her lips and nails matched her dress and set off her pale complexion perfectly. The top of the red dress was shiny, silk or satin, the top three buttons undone. The skirt was velvet. Plain gold buttons marched from the open neck to the hem. A simple gold chain graced her throat and plain gold ball studs graced her ears. She wore not a single ring, in and of itself an oddity. She looked lovely and elegant but not ostentatious.
"Mister Larabee," she greeted him with a smile. "I do hope I'm not intruding. Josiah insisted that I attend this gathering."
"No problem." Chris assured her, hoping that it wouldn't be.
As she swept passed him and into the den, Ezra turned and saw her. For just an instant consternation crossed his face, then he schooled his expression into a pleasant smile and came to greet her. "Mother, what a surprise. I thought you were spending Christmas in New York."
"Actually, I was supposed to be in Paris," she smiled back at him and leaned in for the obligatory kiss on the cheek, "but when the opportunity arose to spend it here with you, how could I resist?"
The disbelieving lift of one of Ezra's eyebrows was the only indication of what he thought of her statement.
Dinner was a surprisingly congenial affair. Maude behaved herself better than they had ever seen her do, not sniping at or making cutting remarks to Ezra. The confusion that this caused was clear in his eyes, but eventually he apparently decided not to look a gift horse in the mouth and just accept that his mother was spending Christmas with him and seemed to be enjoying doing so.
The gift exchanging went off without a hitch as well. Larabee presided over handing out the gifts. He began with Billy's as the youngest member of the gathering. The boy was ten now but still, like all children, impatient to get to the 'good stuff', namely the gifts.
The gift opening was a leisurely thing, the adults waiting patiently while Billy opened each of his presents and thanked each person for them.
JD had been chafing at the bit all morning for Chris to let him give his gift to Casey after Billy opened his so Larabee gave him the nod next. JD quickly pulled the small foil wrapped box out of his pocket and rose to go and kneel before Casey where she sat in one of the overstuffed chairs.
From the general shifting forward and the smiles most everyone knew what the gift was. He was beaming as Casey carefully undid the paper and opened the ring box.
"Oh, JD!" she gasped as she saw the lovely sapphire and diamond ring within.
"Ya know that I love you, Casey. Have since I met you." He swallowed hard then asked in a voice so low and strained it was barely audible, "Will you marry me?"
Casey blinked back tears then reached out to pull him into a hug and kiss as she said, "Of course, JD. Of course."
The answer was greeted with whooping and cheering. The two young lovebirds looked up and grinned.
Buck grabbed JD up and hugged him swinging him around before setting him back on his feet. "Yer gonna let ole Buck be your best man aren't ya? Ya know I'll give ya the best bachelor party!"
There was a general consensus that Buck would indeed give the best bachelor party.
JD grinned at his best friend and roommate, "Course you're gonna be my best man, Buck." He grinned then sobered, "I guess though this means the end of the CDC," he said, referring to the team's name for his and Buck's apartment. They called the two men's bachelor pad the Center for Disease Control because it was such a mess and because no one dared to go digging in the refrigerator for fear that something might be growing in there and take a bite out of them.
Buck grinned back at him, "Well, all good things come to an end kid." [...And if I'm lucky, I'll be moving on too.] He flashed a smile at Chris without even realizing that he was doing it.
Chris blinked at the sudden joyous grin that Buck had flashed him. Had Lundy and LaFiamma spoken to him already? He hadn't noticed either of them pulling Buck aside. He smiled back at Buck and saw his old friend's cheeks flare a little pink. [Buck blushing? Because *I* looked at him?]
Chris stole a glance at Lundy and the cowboy gave him a slight nod and a smile.
LaFiamma had moved over close to Buck and laid a hand on his arm. Chris watched them and saw Buck grin then look at him before dropping his eyes and turning slightly pink again. [Good lord! Buck's acting like a blushing schoolgirl!] The thought gave him a thrill as he realized that LaFiamma was apparently pleading his case with his old friend.
He watched as LaFiamma moved away from Buck and went to sit on the unoccupied loveseat. He turned away and forced himself to get back to the gift giving, deciding that since the two youngest had already gotten their gifts that it was appropriate to give the eldest their gifts next. He began to look through the piles of gifts for Miss Nettie's gifts.
She was delighted with the matching gloves and scarves that JD and Casey gave her. The hand made keepsake box from Vin was ohhed and ahhed over by them all. Tanner's skill at such things was considerable. Vin was one of Nettie's favorite people and she insisted that he come get a hug for it.
As he leaned close he whispered to her, "Ezra was a mite upset lately and didn't feel up to shopping. So, that's from the two of us."
She leaned back a moment, regarding him with puzzlement then suddenly seemed to realize what he meant. She stroked his cheek, and glanced past him to Ezra, "He make you happy?" She asked curtly but quietly.
"Very... and I think that maybe I got a chance at seein' ta it that he has some happiness, too."
She shook her head smiled at him, "You are a good boy, Vin Tanner!" She turned and held out a hand to Ezra, "You come here too, fancy man. Give me a hug."
Ezra rose and joined Vin at Nettie's side, giving her a quick hug, "You know, Ms. Wells that I didn't have a thing to do with this lovely gift."
"You're making my Vin happy. That's gift enough for me."
Maude couldn't hear the low voiced words that passed between the three but she saw the smiles and being the shrewd woman she was she had already begun to add two and two to get four. Josiah had told her that Ezra had 'found someone' but had refused to say who. Now she was fairly certain that that someone was Vin Tanner. She excused herself from Josiah and claimed the seat that Vin had vacated on the couch. She needed to think. She had brought along a special gift for Ezra thinking, that should she approve of the woman that he was involved with, she would give it to him. Now, she had to wonder if it was appropriate. She had long been aware that Ezra preferred men, but had hoped that he would someday settle on securing his future by marrying a wealthy woman. Seeing him with Vin now told her that was extremely unlikely.
Lundy moved from his place beside the fireplace to sit beside her as LaFiamma rose and moved to lean against the door-facing going into the kitchen.
"Ya all right?" The cowboy asked her quietly.
"Why ever would I not be?" she asked coolly.
"Reckon maybe it could be a shock... realizing that your only son is with another man."
"I've known about Ezra's preferences for some time."
"Then what's the problem?"
"Josiah told me that he was in a serious relationship. He failed to mention who it was with."
"Ya don't think Vin's good enough for him?"
"He could do better."
Lundy gave her a serious look, "Ma'am, there ain't nothing better than somebody that loves ya, warts and all." He gave her a nod and rose to go stand beside LaFiamma.
Vin looked around and saw that the seats he and Ezra had been in were now taken and steered Ezra to the loveseat that LaFiamma had just abandoned.
Nettie was opening her last present. Chris had looked askance at Lundy and LaFiamma when he picked it up and saw the names on it.
She glanced up at them, "I don't even know you. Why'd you get me a gift?"
"Because we wanted to." Joe said, "Just open it. If it helps, just think of it as Santa dropping by." His grin was captivating.
She gave him another scathing look, which he ignored entirely, but she opened the gift. She looked down at it for a long moment. It was a beautiful silver picture frame with a box for more pictures beneath it. Then she looked up at him, "Very nice." The voice was non-committal.
He smiled again this time the little half-smile that only lifted one corner of his mouth. His eyes went to JD and Casey where they sat wrapped up in each other. "Nice place to put a wedding picture don't you think?"
She regarded him suspiciously for a moment longer. She had learned while they'd been working in the kitchen together that he was a Houston cop and what he and his partner had come here for... still he seemed to know more than he ought to about what was going on. After a moment she decided to let it go... for now. "Yes, It'd be a very nice place to put a wedding picture." She shook her head then said, "Thank you."
"Thank you for accepting." He smiled a moment then sadness touched his eyes. "My grandmothers are both gone now. Grandma'ma LaFiamma for a long while but Grandma'ma Bellarosa only passed a few months ago. It's the sort of thing I would have gotten her..."
Nettie saw the tears welling in his eyes and reached up for him, "Come here you." She said gruffly, as she pulled him down into a hug as fierce as the ones she'd given Vin and Ezra.
She patted his shoulder as she heard him whisper against her neck, "She was a hundred and three years old. I shouldn't begrudge her the rest but I miss her... I miss her so."
A hot tear stung her skin then he straightened and stepped back, a smile crossing his lips despite the tear bright eyes.
As he moved away she saw Lundy step close and put his hand on the taller man's back, rubbing in small circles. They seemed to belong together somehow and from the conversation earlier she assumed they were a couple.
Shortly after the rest of the gifts were opened the party began to break up. JD and Casey left to take Nettie home and then go out to eat, celebrating their engagement. Nathan and Rain had to go as Rain was on duty at the hospital that evening and had to get ready for work. Judge Travis gathered up Mary and Billy, reminding them that Evie, who had been entertaining some lady friends while the Judge visited with his 'boys', was expecting them at their house to exchange their gifts.
Soon only Chris, Buck, Vin, Ezra, Joe, Levon, Josiah and Maude were left.
Joe and Levon steered Chris and Buck together, saying simply. "We think you two need to have a little talk."
Maude stood for a long moment staring out the picture window in the den then turned to Ezra, who was standing near the fireplace with Vin at his side. Walking over she reached up and smoothed back the wayward curls from his forehead the way she had done when he was just a little boy.
An awkward silence fell, then finally she spoke. "When Josiah told me that you had found someone special I didn't expect this."
She saw Ezra stiffen at the words and with a sad smile asked softly, "Are you happy?"
Ezra turned to look at Vin, reaching out to take his hand, "Yes, Mother. I am very happy."
She swallowed hard. "That is all I have ever wanted for you." She hesitated, "I do love you, Ezra. It's just... you are so like your father... a constant reminder of what I lost." She blinked back tears. "He was the only one of my husbands that I truly loved." She took a deep breath, regaining her composure.
"I brought you this." She reached into the pocket of her dress skirt and brought out a ring box. "These are the rings your father and I were married with. I always planned to give them to you for your wedding...." She trailed off. Then as she opened the box and held them out to him she said, "You have very slender fingers, perhaps mine will fit you and Patrick's will fit... Mister Tanner."
Ezra stared down at the rings in disbelief, "Mother, I don't know what to say...."
"Say you'll take them, darling."
He turned to look at Vin.
"We'd be honored, Ma'am." Vin said quietly looking down at the rings in awe. He'd never in his wildest dreams expected to have Maude approve of his relationship with Ezra.
"You just make sure you take care of my baby, Mister Tanner... because if you don't, if you ever hurt him, you will answer to me."
Ezra gaped at her, unable to quite believe that his mother was playing the protective mother lion.
"Yes, Ma'am." Vin smiled at her.
"Good. Now, try them on." She ordered.
Ezra turned a bemused look on Vin as the sharpshooter slipped the smaller ring out of the box and reached for Ezra's left hand to slide it on his ring finger. It fit perfectly. Ezra stared down at it. It was a lovely ring, tri-colored gold. It had simple white gold edges with a yellow gold center stripe decorated with pink gold roses.
"Patrick picked them out. He loved roses." Maude's voice was soft with memory of her first love. Tears welled in his eyes. "May you be as happy as we were."
Ezra blinked back tears as well. "Thank you, Mother." He took the larger ring and slipped it on Vin's finger, not really surprised that it fit as if made for him.
Vin looked down at the matching engagement ring that remained in the box, turning to Maude he said, "Why don't you wear this, Ma'am, sort of a symbol of being part of our family."
For an instant Maude looked flustered then she smiled. "I believe that would be acceptable. However, if you don't mind, I'll wear it on the right hand. I shall soon be a free woman again and who knows but what someone might wish to gift me with something to wear on the left." She shot a look at Josiah that seemed to say that she thought he might make such an offer and that just maybe this time she would accept.
Josiah found himself grinning like a fool. Things were working out better than he could have possibly hoped. He raised his eyes upward and whispered, "Thank you, Lord."
For just a moment, Maude and the two men stood in an awkward silence then she reached out and pulled Ezra into a brief but fierce hug. Stepping back she reached up to wipe at her eyes self consciously then smiled, "Well, I imagine you two have things you'd rather be doing than standing around with me and I really must be going. I have a flight out tonight... to Italy." She smiled brightly, turning to Josiah. "Mister Sanchez has offered to take me to the airport."
Levon walked over to where Josiah was standing and asked, "Since ya'll are headed back to town, would you mind dropping us off at the hotel? That way Mister Larabee won't haveta drive all the way into town and back out here."
Josiah nodded, "I don't mind at all."
Moments later the goodbyes were said and the foursome trooped out to Josiah's old clunker and got in. Chris, Buck, Vin and Ezra, stood out on the back deck, watching until the ancient vehicle was cranked and Josiah had given them the high sign that it seemed to be going to run.
Then Vin and Ezra headed off to the apartment in the barn and Chris and Buck returned inside.
An unusually awkward silence fell as the two old friends returned to the den, taking up places on either side of the fireplace, chaffing their hands and holding them out to the fire to warm them.
After a long moment Buck ventured, "That LaFiamma, he's something ain't he?"
"Yep." Chris looked up at him and grinned.
Buck flushed under the gaze. "Uh, he kinda said... well... he told me that... uh... you...." He trailed off helplessly. If it had been a woman he was talking to he'd have known what to say but this was Chris, his oldest friend, his best friend, his boss and it just meant too much. There was so much to lose if he was wrong, if what LaFiamma had told him wasn't real.
Buck looked up hope and fear warring in his deep blue eyes. "Wha- what?"
"Yes, I love you, too." Chris stepped closer, reaching up to caress Buck's face. "I'm in love with you," he clarified.
The grin that split Buck's face said it all. Joy and love shone from his eyes as he grabbed Chris in a bear hug. "Damn! Old dog, I've wanted ta hear you say that for so long!" He loosened his hold and moved back enough to look into Chris' pale green eyes. "I've loved you for so long. Never thought you'd ever love me back."
Chris moved in laying his head on Buck's chest, letting the larger man cradle him in his arms. It felt so good, to finally be held there. He sighed softly. He could hear the strong steady beat of Buck's heart and it soothed him as nothing else could. After a long moment he asked softly, "How long, Buck?"
"How long what?"
"How long have you been in love with me?"
Buck hesitated for a minute then said softly, "From the beginning I reckon. Tried to deny it to start with. Then you found Sarah and ya'll was so happy that I couldn't begrudge you that. She was so good for you... and Adam... God! I loved that boy."
Chris leaned back to look up into Buck's face, "Buck Wilmington, you have the biggest heart of anyone I've ever known. I don't think that I could have done that, Stood by and watched the person that I loved, fall in love with someone else and not only been happy for them but opened up my heart to the person they loved and loved them too. You are something very special and I love you and want to spend the rest of my life with you. Will you move out here with me?"
Buck grinned, "Damn straight, I will, but we got plenty of time to get me moved out here. Right now I wanna take you up to that big bed of yours and show you just how much I love you." He grinned as he suddenly swept Chris up in his arms and headed for the stairs.
Chris' shocked, "Buck! Put me down!" was met with laughter as Buck carried him up the stairs and into the master bedroom, tossing him on the bed and diving in on top of him, tickling him.
Chris' howls and shrieks of laughter rang through the house filling it with the sound of happiness.