'Tis The Season To Be Dolly
Disclaimer: Not ours, though they should be! No infringement intended, no money made and litigation will only get you a truly frightening Visa bill and possession of a woman already possessed by these guys anyway
Author's Notes: A silly, soft, schmaltzy and very soppy little Christmas fic, but then sentimental is my middle name you have been warned! Sorry for the blatant liberties taken with the timeline, my grovelling apologies to Dolly and my thanks to Mags and the real Bonnie!
For: My cyber-twin, fellow Babe and friend, Katy, for Christmas. Sorry pard, this is as close to LB as I could get!
"You comin' for a drink tonight, Ezra?" Vin Tanner's voice was thrown over his right shoulder as he bent down to lock his desk drawers.
It had been a long day, and Team Seven were planning a convivial seasonal drink at the Saloon, intending to finalise the arrangements for their planned team Christmas celebration dinner in three day's time.
"Unfortunately, I shall not be able to join you this evening," Ezra Standish replied carefully, buttoning up his dark wool trench coat, "I have an errand to run."
"Buyin' my Christmas present?" Buck Wilmington's face split into a huge grin as he deposited a haphazard pile of paperwork into his 'In' tray, with a flourish and a self-satisfied sigh, "I c'n let you have a copy of my wish list, if that'll help."
Ezra rolled his eyes in Buck's general direction. "I could probably make a fairly accurate assessment of your 'wish list' without the need for any written evidence of your debauched needs," he said tartly, "and let me assure you that I do not intend to supply you with anything that might encourage them - at Christmas or any other time."
"You ol' sweet-talker," Buck retorted, not the slightest bit abashed, "I reckon you're a fraud, Ezra - you pretend you don't enjoy Christmas, but underneath it all, you've got an urge to be Santa Claus."
A glittering green gaze met Buck's smile. "If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with 'Merry Christmas' on his lips, should be boiled with his own pudding and buried with a stake of holly through his heart!"
"Dickens," Josiah Sanchez said as he wound a long scarf around his neck.
"What?" Buck look bemused.
"Dickens," he said again, "Ezra was quoting Ebenezer Scrooge."
"I can see the resemblance," Nathan Jackson said as he switched off his computer, "the warmth, the generosity of spirit "
"Even got the same initials," JD Dunne added with a quick grin and a wink in Ezra's direction.
"I have always wanted to explore the possibilities of re-incarnation," Josiah was unable to keep the smile out of his voice.
Any further teasing of the undercover agent was thwarted as the door to the Team Leaders office opened and Chris Larabee appeared, fastening his long black leather coat and switching off the light inside his room.
"You all ready?"
A chorus of assent greeted the question as the agents made their way out of the bullpen and along the corridor towards the elevators, until only Chris and Ezra remained in the office.
The Team Leader cast a thoughtful glance in the direction of his mercurial undercover agent. Something was amiss - he could sense it, but Ezra could be difficult to get close to at the best of times, and the guarded expression he now wore radiated 'keep off' warnings like alarm bells in Chris's head.
Shame Chris Larabee had never had much respect for alarm bells - especially where his friends were concerned.
The southerner regarded his boss with a face that registered no emotion whatsoever. "Yes?"
Chris hitched a hip on the corner of Ezra's desk, indicating that he was not going to rush away any time soon. "It's not like you to miss out on an evening at the Saloon."
Ezra shrugged. "I have things to do."
"More important than discussing our Christmas dinner?" It was a rather cheap trick and Chris knew it, but he sensed something was amiss and he wasn't above using a little guilt manipulation if it would get him the answers he sought.
"That is unfair."
Chris looked at him. "Maybe - you tell me what the problem is and, if I'm being unfair, I'll apologise."
Ezra sighed and sank into his office chair in front of Chris. "I'm sorry Chris, but I don't think I will be able to come out to the ranch for Christmas lunch after all." He looked at his boss, expecting a sharp retort, but there was none.
"It's up to you of course Ezra, but I thought you were looking forward to it."
"What changed your mind?" Chris asked the question, although he suspected he already knew the answer.
Chris had suspected as much. Maude Standish had a nasty habit of showing up at the most inopportune and unexpected moments, and always expected her son to simply drop whatever he was doing and bend to her considerable force of will. What always amazed Larabee was that Ezra never rebelled against her. Ever. He simply caved in and acquiesced - usually at some cost to himself. "She's coming to visit, I take it?"
Ezra nodded. "She is arriving on Christmas Eve."
"Just bring her along! There's plenty of room and goodness knows Rain and Casey could do with another female to even up the sides a little." Chris smiled as he said it, but he already knew what the response would be.
Ezra smiled back. "My dear Mr Larabee, whilst I appreciate the gesture, this is supposed to be the season of goodwill how on Earth would I ever be able to say that again with a straight face if I inflicted my Mother on you for Christmas lunch? Besides, I understand she has made reservations for us to dine at The Colonial."
Standish's tone was light, but his eyes betrayed him. Chris felt a twinge of anger. Typical Maude. No contact with her son for months, then just breeze in the day before Christmas and expect Ezra to simply fall in line with whatever whimsy had grabbed her, irrespective of his own plans. Selfish didn't even come close, he thought.
He shrugged. There was no point in making Ezra feel worse than he already did, and once Standish had made his mind up, there was no changing it. "The invitation remains open. Youre welcome any time - with or without your Mother just come on over."
"Thank you. I appreciate it."
Chris stood up. "There's no need for you to miss out on tonight, whether you're coming to the ranch or not - why don't you join us?"
Ezra shook his head as he rose from the chair. "Regretfully, I must decline - I have to go and purchase ", he paused, an expression of bewilderment clearly etched on his face, " the ingredients for a Standish family Christmas - whatever that may be."
Chris clapped a hand on his agent's shoulder. "Good luck."
Chris walked out of the office, leaving Ezra staring after him, and made his way to the elevators.
Chris nearly jumped out of his skin. "Jesus, Buck! I thought you'd gone!"
Buck was leaning on one shoulder against the wall opposite the elevator cars, waiting for his oldest friend. Despite his jovial exterior, Wilmington was an astute judge of character and had immediately sensed that Ezra was on the defensive. "Sorry Stud - I keep forgettin' how the years are gainin' on ya." He grinned wickedly at Larabee's glaring response.
"Ez gotta problem?" Buck asked again as the elevator doors swished open and the two friends stepped inside.
Chris shrugged. "No more than usual "
"Yep. Blowin' in on Christmas Eve to " Chris's eyes glittered like green ice, " celebrate a Standish family Christmas with 'her darlin' boy." Larabee couldn't keep the acid edge out of his voice. He and Maude Standish had crossed swords on many occasions, and it was no secret that there was no love lost between them. He thought her rude, overbearing, deceitful and cold, but much worse than all of that, he thought she was the sorriest excuse for a mother he had ever come across, and that made him angry and sad in equal measure.
Buck snorted. "A Standish family Christmas? What the hell's that?"
Chris locked eyes with his friend. "I have no idea. But what's worse, Ezra has no idea either - all he knows is, he's got to go out and try and buy it tonight," his voice dropped a little, "and I get the feeling he's going to need more than a credit card."
Buck looked thoughtful for a moment, then, as the elevator doors opened and he and Chris made their way out onto the parking level, a small smile lifted his mouth and began to burn behind his eyes.
Ezra ran a distracted hand through his already wildly disarranged hair and cursed softly under his breath, gazing around the battle zone that had once been his neat, tidy, always-spotless living room. Cardboard boxes sat on the floor, the hearth and the sofa, disgorging their contents in trailing streams of silver and gold tinsel, green fake fir garlands, white velvet and a tangled mass of electrical cabling.
This had all seemed so much easier in the department store.
Why on earth didn't they sell the damn trees already decorated?
He looked at the too-perfectly shaped fake Norwegian Blue Spruce now residing in the corner of the room, and sighed again.
It did not look like the display model in the store. That one had been carefully festooned with a symmetrical array of white lights, silver and glass baubles and white velvet bows, the whole arrangement finished off with precisely looped chains of silver beads.
'The Ice Princess', the display label had read. Ezra sighed more loudly.
His effort looked more like 'The Chilly Hooker' in comparison.
It had taken him over an hour to thread the lights onto the thing, most of which had been spent untangling the nightmarish knots and snarls the tiny bulbs seemed to twist themselves into the moment he put them down, or passed them from one hand to the other. The things seem to develop a life force of their own once released from the confines of their packaging, as if suddenly overtaken with a primeval urge to mate and coil themselves inextricably with a fellow tiny bulb further down the unbelievably long line.
He had rearranged the velvet bows countless times in an attempt to get them horizontally aligned, but somehow at least three or four of them drooped, folded or simply refused to get with the programme.
The silver bead strings were almost as recalcitrant as the lights had been - slipping off the branches, their weight pulling the next carefully positioned loop completely out of position or worse, off the tree completely, as the damn things conspired to look as dishevelled and disordered as possible, rather than the neat, level loops the 'Ice Princess' model had promised.
This was purgatory.
He was in Hell.
A fairy-lit, white velvet beribboned, silver bead chain ensconced, Hell.
Did millions of people actually volunteer themselves for this every year? Could it be possible that some poor deluded souls actually enjoyed this torture?
He hadn't even unpacked the contents for the 'Traditional Fireplace Fir Swag' yet, and the prospect of putting together the necessary accoutrements for that, never mind actually attaching the thing to the fireplace itself, drew another shudder from him.
His earlier vision of welcoming his demanding mother into a reasonable facsimile of the room set he had seen in the department store, of her smile of approval as he handed her a glass of red wine as she sat before the roaring fire, her appreciative eyes and affectionate words of endorsement at his Herculean efforts; had all dissipated like a snowflake in a bonfire when he realised the enormity of the task he had undertaken.
This was impossible.
He sank down on the one remaining seat of the leather sofa and replenished his glass of Glenmorangie single malt in an effort to fortify himself.
Face it Ezra, he thought morosely, you cannot do this. You can't con your way through this one and no amount of fast talking or deflection is going to pull this particular rabbit out of this particular hat. You do not have the first inkling of what you are doing. You are doomed.
Then the doorbell rang.
Wilmington grinned at Ezra from the doorstep. "In the flesh," he said.
Ezra bit back a groan. Perfect. The perfect end to a perfect evening. Buck would find enough material in this situation to keep all the members of Team Seven laughing until Easter, with Ezra as the patsy. Just perfect.
"You gonna invite me in?" Buck said at last, then produced a carrier bag from behind his back, "I come bearing gifts!"
Ezra stepped back into the hallway, and opened the door fully. "I'm sorry," he said, "I wasn't anticipating visitors. Please, come in."
Buck stepped into the warm hallway, watching Ezra's retreating back as the southerner returned to the living room. Ez looked tense, he thought. Hair all spiky, shirt sleeves rolled up, shoeless - all signs of a distracted Standish. Buck smiled to himself. His friend needed a little Christmas spirit.
"Hell Ezra - looks like you had one helluva party in here!" Buck's eyes scanned the detritus littering the normally immaculate Standish living room.
"I was " Ezra paused for a moment, wondering exactly how he was going to explain what he been attempting, and settled for the simplest phrase he could think of " decorating my Christmas tree."
Buck looked at the display in the corner. It resembled a store-window tree that had been attempted by a window dresser with no training or a bad attitude. "It's fine Ezra - it looks fine."
Ezra handed Buck a glass of single malt. "Please don't try and be diplomatic Mr Wilmington - you are nowhere near as good at deception as you may imagine."
"You saying I'm a liar?" There was no hard edge to Buck's words, indeed he was smiling under the dark moustache.
Ezra sighed. "No, not exactly " He sank down onto one end of the cluttered sofa. "Your motives are most laudable, but I am more than aware of my shortcomings in the area of festive preparations." Green eyes surveyed the slightly dishevelled-looking tree. To Ezra, it seemed to squat malevolently in the corner, challenging him. "Loathsome object," he said quietly.
Buck removed a box and sat down beside his friend. "What's the problem Ez? It's a Christmas tree - you just . decorate it."
"Easier said than done. I was attempting to create something Mother would find tasteful, welcoming and relaxing," he took a sip of the whisky, "something she might even approve of," he said ruefully. "It appears however, that such a huge undertaking is beyond my abilities."
Buck looked at him. "It's a Christmas tree," he said again, his mind clearly visualising Maude Standish's beautiful, though often disapproving, face, "I think y'all are expectin' a bit much from it Ez "
"It just doesn't look like the one in the store."
Buck snorted. "They ain't proper trees! All this nonsense 'bout 'colour theming' and havin' all the decorations 'designed'! Proper trees don't have everything the same colour, or all the baubles the same size. That ain't a Christmas tree." He laughed. "That's like sayin' that woman wearing a pretty dress is gonna look like the mannequin wearing it in the store window did! The mannequin might be exactly the right size and have perfect features, but she ain't real. The woman may not be perfect, but she's real, warm and breathin', an' a helluva lot more fun!"
"That comparison is exactly what I might have anticipated from you," Ezra said sharply, but then smiled. "And, however accurate it might be, it does not help me with the problem of creating a Standish family Christmas "
Buck wondered how Ezra was supposed to go about creating something that he had never experienced. He doubted that few, if any, of Ezra's Christmasses had been spent in a family atmosphere with Maude. Ezra's childhood had been spent being passed around whichever adult contacts of Maude's would tolerate him, and Buck suspected that many of his friends' Christmasses were ones he would be only too happy to forget. Time to spread a little Christmas cheer, Buck thought, and held out the carrier bag. "This might help," he said simply.
Ezra frowned as he took the bag from Buck's outstretched hand. He peered inside, then withdrew an ancient shoe-box. The box had obviously seen better days - quite a few 'better days' judging from its battered exterior. It was covered with an assortment of scraps of Christmas wrapping paper, shiny stick-on stars and many layers of sellotape, some of which were almost brittle with age, were attempting to reinforce the corners of the lid. Written on the lid, and again on each side of the box, in somewhat shaky and faded black lettering was 'B Wilmington Privat'.
Confused, Ezra removed the lid. Nestling inside the box, in between layers of bright red tissue paper, was a small doll. A cheap, plastic doll, with a mass of curly off-white nylon hair, a painted face complete with garish red lips, and vital statistics that, had she been real, would have surely prevented her from standing upright without pitching forwards. She was dressed in what appeared to be a rather faded blue and red sequinned bathing suit, with layers of short, stiff red net petticoats around her waist, and a rather incongruous pair of blue sequinned wings spread out behind her. Her plastic legs were far too long for her body, and finished in a pair of ridiculously high stiletto-heeled red shoes.
"Ez, meet Dolly. Dolly, this is Ezra," Buck said very quietly, a wide smile cracking across his face.
For several moments, Ezra was speechless. He gazed down at the tawdry little doll, his mind working overtime.
"She was given to me when I was about eight or nine years old. I called her Dolly 'cos she reminded me of Dolly Parton," Buck said softly.
Ezra's eyes were drawn again to the wildly disproportionate bust line of the doll, clearly imagining a young Buck Wilmington choosing that particular name for her. "Of course," he said.
"She's an angel for your Christmas tree," Buck explained to the very perplexed looking Ezra, "you put her on the top "
Ezra looked at the doll, then back at Buck, who held out his now empty glass. "Fill this up for me Ezra, and I'll tell you how Dolly and I met."
Bittercreek Ridge Trailer Park
Las Vegas, Nevada - December 1968
Bucklin Wilmington lay on his stomach on the bed, sticking silver stars onto the home made Christmas card he was trying to finish. Wavy dark hair flopped forward into his eyes, and a small pink tongue protruded from between tightly pursed lips as he concentrated on positioning the tiny stars exactly where he wanted them on the front of the card. He had done all the writing earlier on in the day, and the words 'Happy Christmas Bonnie' inked in bright red felt tip pen, were now in the process of being almost obliterated by the stick-on stars.
From the kitchenette of the trailer he could hear a clear, soft voice singing 'O Little Town of Bethlehem' in perfect pitch. Buck had never met an angel, but he knew that when he did, they would sound exactly like Bonnie.
There was a pause in the second verse. "Bucky! Get washed up! Dinner's ready!"
Buck scrambled off the bed to wash his hands before the meal. Bonnie looked after him on the nights when his Ma was working, and she was always very strict about clean hands before food. He scrubbed ineffectually at the streaks of red ink on his fingers that simply refused to budge, even with lots of soap, and hastily dried his hands, hoping that she wouldn't mind when she saw the Christmas card he had made for her.
"Smells great!" he beamed as he emerged into the crowded kitchenette of the trailer, "what is it?"
Bonnie turned around, her waist length dark hair swinging around as she did so, holding a plate up to her nose and sniffing dramatically. "Why Sir, " she said in a very good British accent, "as a special treat for the young master tonight, we have his favourite..."
"Meatballs and spaghetti?" Buck's eyes widened.
Bonnie laughed. "The very best from the kitchens of Chef Boyardee!"
Buck couldn't get to his seat at the dinner table quickly enough. The canned meatballs and spaghetti were his favourite dinner and his stomach grumbled in anticipation. Bonnie put the plate down in front of him. "Hands?" she said sternly, and Buck stretched out his arms for her inspection, the Christmas card clutched in his right hand.
"S'fer you," he said with that smile that she always found herself utterly powerless against, and she took the only-slightly creased folded paper from his fingers.
Her eyes lit up with pleasure. "Why, thank you Bucky! How lovely!" She sat down opposite him. "Now, you eat and I'm gonna look at my beautiful card."
Buck watched her in between forkfuls of spaghetti and meatballs. Bonnie lived with her parents and her two sisters and one brother in the trailer opposite Buck's. She was in high school and desperately wanted to be an actress and a singer. Buck thought she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen, apart from his Ma. She was tall, willow thin, with a mass of dark hair that hung to her waist, large blue eyes and a smile that always made him want to smile back. The best thing about Bonnie though, was that she loved to sing and dance. She was always teaching him new songs, singing him to sleep or singing to herself when she cooked, or did the dishes, or tidied the trailer. She sang hymns, nursery rhymes and show tunes, and her favourite Country and Western songs. For the past week or so she had also been singing carols. Buck loved carols - he knew most of them and could join in, always with the chorus if he wasn't sure of the verses. Sometimes, she would hold his hand and they would dance - usually outside where there was more room, after an unfortunate incident with one of his Ma's best glasses.
Buck adored Bonnie. He intended to marry her when he grew up, then he could listen to her sing all the time. She had been looking after him for a few months now, almost since he and his Ma had arrived in Las Vegas. His Ma had to work most evenings and weekends so he and Bonnie had become firm friends. In some of the places he'd lived, he'd hated it when his Ma went out to work, but he liked Las Vegas. He only missed his Ma a little bit when Bonnie was around, she almost made him forget that his Ma wasn't there.
He never wanted to leave Las Vegas.
"Thank you for my lovely surprise Christmas card Bucky," she said as she stood up and walked around to him, bending to kiss him on the top of his head, "I've got a surprise for you when you've finished your dinner."
Buck stopped chewing a particularly tasty meatball. "What?" he mumbled around a mouthful of food.
"Wait and see, and don't talk with your mouth full," she grinned.
Buck shovelled the remaining few forkfuls of dinner into his mouth as fast as he could. "Finished! Can I have the surprise now?"
Bonnie put her head on one side. "So you don't want any ice cream for dessert, then?" She teased the fidgeting little boy opposite her for only a few moments before she relented. "S'okay sweetheart - you can have your ice-cream after your surprise."
Smiling, Bonnie disappeared outside the door of the trailer, reappearing after a few moments with a small Christmas tree planted firmly in a red plastic bucket. Buck's eyes almost popped out of his head.
" 'S a tree! A real one! Wow!!!!" Buck knew that it was only a few days until Christmas, his Advent calendar pinned on the wall over his bed had almost all the doors open. He was desperate to see what was hidden behind the only double door on the calendar, numbered 24, but he couldn't make out the picture inside, even when he held the cardboard up to the light in an attempt to see through it. There had been a picture of a Christmas tree behind one of the first doors, a green tree with an angel on the top, but he had never imagined having a real green tree of his own.
Bonnie grinned at him. "Your Ma said we can decorate it - tonight!"
Buck careered into his Ma's tiny bedroom at the back of the trailer. He knew she had a flat, shiny box containing Christmas decorations in one of the drawers, and he grabbed it with both hands before pelting back to where Bonnie was positioning the little tree in the least cluttered corner of the living area. "We got things ta put on it Bonnie - look!" He put the box down on the floor and lifted the lid, eager to show off the treasures inside.
Together, he and Bonnie placed a few strings of tatty silver tinsel, some clear plastic icicles and some brightly coloured baubles on the branches of the tree. It didn't take long - there wasn't much in the box - Buck and his Ma were almost always on the move and had to travel light most of the time, so a lot of things got left along the way.
Bonnie stood back and admired their efforts. "I think it looks great!" she said with a huge smile, "but we need a few more decorations for it. Shall we make some?"
They made some popcorn and Bonnie showed Buck how to thread it on a long string. They threaded some bright red cranberries on a shorter piece of string, and made some silver stars from kitchen foil. Bonnie raided the bathroom for some white cotton wool, and they pulled it apart into thin, wispy strands to make 'snow' for the branches.
By the time they had finished, the branches were barely visible. Buck thought it was the best Christmas tree he had ever seen. Except
"We don't got an angel," he said, thinking of the picture on his Advent calendar. He was yawning, it was well past his normal bed time and the excitement of the tree had tired him out.
Bonnie ruffled the dark hair affectionately. "You don't have to have an angel - we can make a big star tomorrow."
Dark blue eyes looked up at her. "Won't be a proper tree without an angel. I gotta picture of a proper tree an' thas got an angel on top."
Bonnie crouched down in front of him and took his hands in hers. "Bucky - there's no such thing as a 'proper tree'. A Christmas tree should be about the person who decorates it - about things they remember, things they enjoy. I bet your Ma has had some of those decorations of hers for years - I bet she remembers where she bought them, or the first Christmas she put them on a tree. They're special because they mean something, not because they're 'proper'." She paused, seeing bewilderment in the tired little face in front of her. "Don't worry 'bout it sweetheart, I promise you that ours is a 'proper tree', with or without an angel."
Buck was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow, Bonnie didn't even get through singing the first verse of 'The Holly and The Ivy'. She tucked him in securely, gently brushing the unruly strands of dark hair off his face, and wondering where on earth she was going to find the angel he so wanted out in the Nevada desert on December 23rd.
Cindy Wilmington arrived home late, tired to her very bone marrow. Being a showgirl in this town was murder on the feet and back, but it paid well, especially at this time of year. Vegas was a party town, and the party-goers were flooding in for Christmas, bringing their good cheer and their generous tips with them. For the first time in several years, she had made enough to buy Buck more than the two or three small presents she could usually manage, and a real Christmas dinner, rather than their usual foil-wrapped Swanson's 'heat and eat' fare.
She found Bonnie with her nose buried in a school book, and smiled at the young girl who had been such a God-send since they came here. Good baby-sitters were rarer than hen's teeth in most of the places Cindy could afford to live, so this bright, happy girl with her wonderful voice and her kind heart had been a gift that Cindy was only too grateful for. She paid Bonnie a little more than most baby-setters got, but then she did more for it than most teenage girls did. She didn't just plonk Buck in front of the tv or worse, plonk herself in front of the tv and leave Buck to get up to mischief - and God alone knew, that boy could get up to the Devil's work if you didn't watch him like a hawk!
"He bin okay?"
Bonnie smiled. "Sweet as sugar - like always. He loved the tree."
Cindy grinned. It was the first Christmas she had been able to afford a real tree for more years than she cared to think about, and although she didn't get to help her son decorate it, she was pleased to have provided a special treat for him.
"You should have seen his face when he saw it. He's such a sweetheart Miz Wilmington.."
"Oh, he can be a li'l devil, but there's an angel in there somewheres as well," Cindy laughed, pulling off her too-tight shoes and wincing.
"Talking of angels," Bonnie said with a frown, "do you know anywhere I could get hold of an angel for the tree? He's got a picture of one and wants one to make it a 'proper' tree " she looked a little doubtful, "there's no way I can get all the way into town tomorrow and I would really like him to have one "
Cindy Wilmington thought for a moment. "Leave it to me honey - I'm sure I can come up with something."
"Why'm I 'llowed ta stay up for Ma tonight, Bonnie?"
"Because it's Christmas Eve and your Ma said you could."
"But Ma don't get home 'til late - what happens if Santa comes 'n I'm still awake?"
Bonnie hid her smile behind her coffee mug. "Don't worry Bucky, Santa won't be here until after your Ma gets home, I promise."
"No, he won't."
"If he does, an' I'm still awake, I won't get no presents."
"You will be asleep before Santa comes, and, if you've been a good boy all year, you might get some presents, okay?"
Small hands fidgeted with the belt of his robe. "D'ya think Santa'll notice we ain't got an angel?"
Bonnie flinched inwardly. They had made a big silver star, as she had promised, but she knew that Buck desperately wanted an angel. She had no idea where Cindy Wilmington was going to find an angel in her short breaks between shifts at work, but she was keeping her fingers crossed.
"Sweetheart, Santa doesn't care if you've got an angel, or a tree, or anything else! Some children don't have much of anything, but Santa doesn't mind about that. You got me, and your Ma, and you've been good so you don't need to worry, okay?"
At that moment the trailer door opened and Cindy appeared around it.
"Ma!" Buck shrieked, flinging himself into her arms and hugging her around her neck. She kissed him on the cheek and disentangled herself from the wriggling bundle of energy, smiling into her son's eager face. "We made a great big star," Buck said, pointing to the large foil star atop the tiny tree, "Bonnie says it don't matter if we don't got an angel."
Cindy produced a small parcel from the depths of her work bag and handed it to Buck. "Bonnie is absolutely right darlin', but I thought you might like this anyway."
Buck grabbed the package and ripped off the plain paper, missing his Mother's huge wink in Bonnie's direction.
" 'S an angel!!! Look Bonnie!! A real angel! Ma found an angel!" Buck clutched the gaudy little doll in his hands, running over to the tree.
Bonnie looked at Cindy, who shrugged lightly, and whispered to her, "they've got some showgirl dolls for sale in the gift shop at work. It was as close as I could get "
Bonnie smiled at her. "Close enough," she said.
Denver, Colorado - December 24th 2002
"Ezra darlin'!" Maude Standish stood on the doorstep, a petite vision swathed in a Paris couture wool coat and an enormous mink hat.
"Well, are you going to leave your mother standing on the doorstep in the cold? My feet are like ice, I shall be frozen to the spot in a moment!"
If only Ezra thought, then smiled, stepping backwards, opening the door wider, allowing his mother to walk in, leaving the unfortunate cab driver standing outside laden with her luggage. The poor man looked like an overloaded pack horse, his breath puffing white clouds in the freezing air and his face bright red, either with exertion or as a result of spending half an hour with Maude in his cab. Ezra stepped outside to help the man with his burden.
"Your Ma?" the cab driver said. Ezra nodded. "Merry Christmas Sir," he said sorrowfully, shaking his head.
Ezra paid the cabbie, deposited Maude's bags in the hallway and followed his mother into the living room.
All his life, it seemed, he had been a bit player in his mother's life - reined in to appear as the dutiful son when Maude deemed it necessary, ignored when that role was no longer required for her to get what she wanted. Produced, the way a conjurer produces a rabbit from a hat, when Maude needed to demonstrate what a charming son she had raised, the fact that she had contributed almost nothing to that raising completely disregarded. He often wondered why he still allowed himself to become involved with her at all.
An almost-smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. A psychologist would have a field day with that one! Somewhere inside himself, Ezra knew that, even as an adult, he was still seeking her approval. It was unconscious and unrequited. He tried to convince himself that he couldnt care less what his mother thought about him, but his actions spoke otherwise. Despite his best efforts to prevent it, psychologically he was still the bewildered child, watching his mother walk away and wondering what on earth he had done that was so wrong she had rejected him for it. Still trying to prove that he was somehow worthy of her attention, her awareness of his existence, even, though this target was probably far too high to aim at, her affection. And what of her love? Love was a word that had never existed in Maudes vocabulary.
So why did he do it? Why did he still keep trying? Because, he mused, his stubborn, recalcitrant heart simply refused to believe that she did not, could not love him. Every time, every single time, he had hoped this time would be different. This time she would show that she cared about him. That she loved him. That she was proud of him. Still the baffled child, awaiting an explanation. And still he was destined to be disappointed.
He watched her scanning the room, until her gaze fell on the tree in the corner.
Ezra almost wanted to smile when he noticed her expression take on a look of distaste.
"Good Lord child! What on earth is that?"
Maude waved a precisely manicured hand in the direction of Dolly. "That that thing on your tree?" She took a few steps closer and peered at the little doll. "It's disgusting Ezra! What a vulgar and tawdry thing! It.. it looks like a cheap child's doll!"
"Maybe that's because that is exactly what it is," he said quietly, picking up his coat from the back on the sofa and beginning to put it on.
Maude looked at him. "Is this some kind of puerile joke Ezra? And why are you putting your coat on? We aren't due at the Colonial for hours yet."
Ezra pushed his other arm into his coat sleeve. "No, it is not a joke. The doll was a gift from a true friend, who understands the meaning of Christmas in a way I never have, until now. The doll is on my Christmas tree to represent what Christmas should really be about, and heaven alone knows it's the only thing in this room that does! And I am putting my coat on because we are going out to dinner and we have some way to travel. We are not going to the Colonial - at least, I am not dining at the Colonial. Should you wish to dine there alone, you are quite free to do so, but I, and for some reason that escapes me, you, have both been invited to dinner at Mr Larabee's ranch. I shall be dining there - you may dine wherever you choose."
Maude's face was frozen in shock. "I don't understand," she said at last.
Ezra shook his head. "No Mother, you don't, and that is perhaps the saddest thing of all," he said bitterly.
"I cannot believe that you would choose to spend Christmas away from your family," she retorted with an accusing glare.
"I am simply refusing to spend another Christmas in some hotel restaurant, seated across the table from the only blood family I have, desperately missing the only real family I have ever known."
"What are you talking about?"
Blazing green eyes met hers head-on. "I am talking about sharing Christmas with people who understand me. People who do not care if I am proper, people who accept me for what I am, with all my faults and failings. People I can relax and laugh with because they are not judging me, not holding me up in comparison to some ludicrous and arbitrary sense of propriety and finding me wanting. People whose approval I do not need because I have already earned it. People whose trust in me is demonstrated by the fact that we place our lives in each other's hands every day. My people. My friends. My real family. My team."
Ezra took in the scene before him with a warm swell of contentment rising in his chest.
Buck was sprawled out, long legs and pungent feet hanging over one arm of the vast leather couch, throwing peanuts at JD, who was laying on his stomach in front of the wide screen tv, frantically punching the control buttons on his X-box.
Josiah was dozing in one of the recliners, gentle snores rolling from that huge chest, an open book laying in his lap.
Nathan was in the kitchen, fretting about how much alcohol / fat / cholesterol / additives they were all consuming, and whipping up a huge pitcher of his foul but effective hangover remedy.
Vin, his slim frame cross-legged on the floor, was swathed in more layers of mis-matched clothing than an Eskimo, bright blue eyes alight with laughter, saving the universe with the other controller of JD's newest gadget.
Chris, seated in his chair (the result of a very close-run race with Vin) watched over them all like the head wolf watches over his pack. The wise, sharp-eyed leader of this particular pack was enjoying himself, but making sure not too much of that enjoyment showed, in case the odd glare or snarl might be required to bring the disorganised rabble that was Team 7 back into line. His green eyes were alight with enjoyment, that strange half-smile on his face that could transform so rapidly into a good-humoured laugh that could warm your heart or a feral grin that could freeze your blood.
Rain, Casey and to his complete astonishment, his mother, were seated at a small card table, involved in a fast, laughter-punctuated game of gin and, although he had watched them for over ten minutes, he had yet to catch Maude cheating.
"You okay Ezra?" Buck's voice intruded on his reverie.
He grinned at the lanky Texan. "I'm fine Buck."
Vin leaned closer to Ezra. "How come your Ma changed her mind?" he whispered, casting a watchful eye over his shoulder to make sure Maude couldn't hear him.
"Mr Wilmington intervened," Ezra explained with a laugh.
"Buck?" Vin said.
"Not exactly," Buck said with a huge wink in Ezra's direction, "I just happen ta know this little gal who was more than happy ta help out."
"Oh, a woman, I might've guessed," JD grunted knowingly, showering the carpet with popcorn crumbs. "Who was it this time Buck? Which poor unsuspecting member of your female entourage got lumbered with helping Ezra?"
Ezra laughed. "A remarkable lady named Dolly," he said, and winked back at his friend.
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