THEIR FIRST CHRISTMAS
a short story by Alexis Morgan
"Come on, babe. They're going to love you."
Marisol wished she shared Chase's confidence, but she didn't. She might have met a few of the people waiting inside his sister's house before tonight, but she suspected they might still harbor some serious misgivings about her being a permanent part of his life.
Not that she blamed them.
He'd gone missing for months, kidnapped and held captive by a nameless enemy. For her part, she'd naively accepted a research position at a remote facility, the same one where Chase had been held prisoner. The two of them had escaped together, but nothing changed the fact that she'd worked for the enemy. She'd been there every step of the way as his captors had tortured and killed him over and over again.
No amount of saying she was sorry would ever make up for that. Chase might have forgiven her, but she wasn't sure she'd ever forgive herself.
To stall for more time, she asked, "Who all will be here?"
"Besides my family, just a few friends. You've already met Jarvis and Gwen. Jake, too. They'll be glad to see you again."
She still made no move to leave the sanctuary of the car they'd rented at the airport in St. Louis. Finally, Chase cupped her chin with his hand and gently turned her face toward him. Then he waited patiently for her to lift her eyes to meet his gaze before speaking. "What's really wrong, Marisol?"
Sighing, she decided nothing less than the truth would do. "I'm just not a holiday kind of person. I don't know how to handle them, so I always volunteered to work as many of them as possible. That way I could pretend they were just like any other day."
His thumb slowly stroked her cheek. He knew enough about her background to understand why she would have hated sitting at home alone on holidays. Working also helped avoid being invited to join someone else's family celebration. No matter how welcoming they were, she'd still felt as if she was standing outside and watching all the fun through the window.
Chase leaned in close enough to kiss her. "For years it was just me and Gwen. Even adding Jarvis and Jake to the mix was a huge change for us."
After another brush of his lips, he leaned back. "This isn't about what either of us has missed out on in the past. This is about us building new memories together."
This wasn't the first time this amazing man had helped her shed a little more of the burden of her past. Even if she'd prefer to turn tail and run, Chase deserved to spend Christmas with his sister and her husband. After drawing a slow, deep breath, she opened her car door. "Okay, big guy. I'm game if you are."
Chase popped the trunk and unloaded the bags of gifts that he and Marisol had brought to the celebration. Their luggage could wait until later after the other guests were gone for the night. It would seem strange to sleep in his old room again. He'd moved out while he was in college and only rarely stayed in the old farmhouse that he and Gwen had shared since then.
What would Marisol think of the place? The grand tour, such as it was, would have to wait until tomorrow when he pitched in to help with the chores. He suspected she'd actually get a kick out of taking care of his sister's small herd of alpacas. She would also enjoy learning more about Gwen's yarn and design business.
He handed off two of the bags to Marisol and picked up the rest himself. They'd probably gone overboard a bit with gifts, but they'd had a lot of fun shopping together. They'd made day trips to several different towns in western Washington that were known for their arts and crafts. And they'd also bought some more generic gifts like smoked salmon in case someone showed up that they weren't expecting.
The door swung open the second they stepped up on the porch. First out were two dogs, who squeezed out through the door to swarm around Chase's legs. He handed off the bags to his brother-in-law while he knelt down to greet the coonhounds properly. He still missed Dozer and Larry, but he loved their replacements almost as much.
He laughed as they insisted on licking his face. "Marisol, come meet Madam and Joey."
Jarvis had passed the first batch of bags off to someone inside the house and reached out to take the rest from Marisol. "Don't worry. The dogs normally have better manners than Chase does."
She rather gingerly held out a hand to each of the dogs to sniff. When their tails went into hyperdrive, she finally smiled and knelt down beside Chase to let his furry friends greet her properly. He was glad she wasn't afraid of a little slobbery dog love.
After they got in a half a dozen good licks, he stood and offered her his hand to stand back up. "That's enough, you two."
To distract the dogs, he picked up a pair of tennis balls that had definitely seen better days and sent them flying out toward the pasture. When the hounds took off running, the two of them and Jarvis slipped inside. Gwen was waiting for them in the kitchen, right where he'd expected her to be. After all, the room had always been the center of their life here on the farm. She hugged each of them and then Jarvis did the same.
Gwen motioned for them to have a seat at the table while she poured them a cup of coffee and set out some cheese and crackers. "We'll be eating in about an hour, but I wanted to steal a few minutes alone with you in here before we join the mob in the living room. How was your flight? And the drive down from St. Louis?"
Marisol stirred some cream into her coffee. "We were able to catch a nonstop, so no layovers on the way. Traffic in St. Louis isn't nearly as bad as it is in Seattle. From what Chase told me, we made really good time."
Then she shot him a sly look. "Although that might have had more to do with him ignoring the posted speed limits a good part of the time."
Gwen rolled her eyes. "Sorry about that, Marisol. I tried to raise him right, but I could only do so much with what I had to work with."
Chase was insulted. "Hey! I got us here, didn't I?"
Jarvis laughed. "Don't take it personally, Chase. She doesn't like my driving any better."
His sister leaned back in her chair, an odd smile on her face. "Well, you're both going to have to get used to driving more carefully,"—she paused to lay her hand on her stomach—"because Junior here isn't going to be riding with anyone who can't read a speed limit sign."
As the meaning of what she'd just said sank in, Chase's heart did a stutter step, and Jarvis's face went totally white, enough so that Marisol suddenly went into doctor mode. "Jarvis, put your head down between your knees."
When he didn't immediately follow her orders, she got up and shoved his head down herself. It took the poor man a couple of long minutes to regain control. When he did, he lurched to his feet long enough to reach Gwen's side. He covered her hand with his much larger one, the gesture intimate enough that it felt as if Chase and Marisol were intruding on an intensely personal moment.
Although Jarvis looked slightly more in control, his next questions proved he was still pretty shaken up by his wife's announcement. "But how? When?"
Gwen just shook her head as Chase cracked up. "Seriously, Jarvis? Do we really need to have 'The Talk'?"
The big man's face turned beet red. "Shut up, Chase. You won't handle it any better the day Marisol springs something like this on you."
Meanwhile, Gwen answered at least one of her husband's questions. "I'm about two months along, so we're due in July."
Chase glanced at Marisol, imagining her round and ripe with their child. Yeah, he would like that. Judging from the way she was looking back at him, she might be down with the idea someday soon. Maybe they could even get started on it tonight. For now, though, the spotlight belonged on his sister and Jarvis.
Chase waited until Jarvis got done kissing his wife to hug her himself and then offered his brother-in-law a rough man hug. "I'm happy for you both. I've always wanted to be an uncle."
"Who's going to be an uncle?"
Chase turned to face Jake, who had just wandered in from the living room. He was the other man who had helped teach Chase what it meant to be a Paladin. "Me! My sister just gave us the best Christmas news ever!"
That set off another round of hugs and kisses.
Jake picked Gwen up and spun her around. When he set her down, he said, "Let's go tell the others!"
Jake was off and running before anyone could point out that Jarvis and Gwen should be the ones to make the big announcement. Neither of them complained, though. Jake was family, too, even if by choice rather than blood.
Meanwhile, Jarvis put his arm around Gwen's shoulders. "Guess it's time to join the party."
And leave it to the senior Paladin to remember the newcomer in the room. He turned back to face her. "Brace yourself, Marisol. Everyone has been looking forward to meeting you."
Then his expression turned a bit more serious. "I mean that, by the way. They all know how hard you worked to bring our boy here back to us in one piece. That trumps everything else."
Chase held out his hand to her, figuring she'd need that connection until she had a chance to get her bearings. As they followed the other couple down the hall to the living room, he leaned down to whisper, "How are you doing?"
"So far, so good." She squeezed his hand. "I never expected to be an aunt. I can't wait to spoil our niece or nephew rotten."
He tapped his brother-in-law on the shoulder. When Jarvis looked back, Chase asked, "One question--is it too soon to buy the kid a pony?"
Cozy. That was the word Marisol would choose to describe everything about the old farmhouse where Chase had grown up. The furniture was all picked for comfort rather than fancy. She loved how the big table in the kitchen showed the wear and tear from use by generations. Earlier, Chase had pointed out his favorite ornaments on the huge Christmas tree in the living room. They were the ones that represented his favorite memories.
Finally, spending the night curled up in Chase's arms made the whole experience perfect.
She had her head on his chest, his arms wrapped around her. Tipping her face back to look up at his. "And I suppose you think you should get credit for that."
His smile turned a bit sly. "Well, I don't mean to brag, but…"
"Yes, you do, but that's not why I'm smiling." Then she relented. "Well, it's not the only reason. I love your family home. It's warm and welcoming in a way not many places are."
"It's funny. There was a time this place felt too small, like I was trapped. But when I was inside that cell, all I could dream about was getting back here." He kissed the top of her head. "Well, I also had a few interesting dreams about a certain doctor I could name. I can't believe how sexy a lab coat can be."
Before the discussion could continue, Chase lifted his head to listen. "Prepare yourself. Jarvis is on the move. I swear that man is worse that a five-year-old when it comes to rousting everyone out at the crack of dawn on Christmas morning."
Sure enough, a few seconds later a big fist pounded on their door. "Get moving, everybody. Santa came!"
A few seconds later, Gwen stopped to say, "Sorry, guys. I tried to tell him it was too early."
Her husband yelled back up the steps, "Hey, it's never too early to open presents."
Chase laughed and threw back the covers. "Come on, babe. If we don't get down there, the big jerk will open all of our presents, too. He's done it before."
They threw on some clothes and charged down the steps. Jarvis was sitting at the kitchen table looking none too happy. When Marisol gave him a puzzled look, he glared at his wife who was busy making coffee. "She said we have to wait for Jake to show up. I tried to call him, but it went to voice mail, and he hasn't answered my text. So I don't know if he's on his way or if he's sleeping in. What kind of idiot sleeps in on Christmas morning?"
He sounded so aggrieved that Marisol had to laugh. He shot her a dark look. "It's not funny. If he doesn't get here soon, Gwen's going to insist we do chores before we open presents."
Before Marisol could figure out how to respond, the dogs started raising a ruckus outside. Jarvis's mood brightened instantly. "It's about damn time."
A few minutes later, Jake walked through the door. "I need coffee and lots of it. And then pancakes, eggs, and bacon."
Jarvis started to protest, but once again his wife settled him down. "We eat. We open. Then comes the chores. That was the deal."
Chase headed over to the counter and started pulling dishes out of the cabinet. He handed Marisol a stack of plates. "Maybe we can help the process along."
An hour later, the living room looked as if a wrapping paper bomb had gone off. Gwen had asked Marisol to head up the cleanup crew, but she wanted to savor the moment a little longer before she started restoring order to the room.
She couldn't remember ever laughing so much and over the silliest things. But this—this—was what celebrating holidays was all about. She finally understood why people counted down the days and travelled for thousands of miles to have the chance to spend time with the people they love.
Chase slipped his arms around her and tugged her back against his chest. "What was your favorite present?"
There'd been so many. Gwen had knitted her a sweater. Jake gave her a signed book by one of her favorite authors while Jarvis gave her earrings to match the sweater.
And Chase had given her an engagement ring right after he'd gotten down on one knee and proposed in front of everyone. They'd already planned on getting married, but he said he'd wanted to make it official.
All of those things were wonderful, but none of them were the one gift she would single out as the most special.
She turned in his arms, needing to see his handsome face while she laid her heart on the line. "It's something you gave me, Chase."
"And what's that."
"You gave me family."