Chris Larabee had never felt so helpless in his life, but why had he been so stupid in the first place? Why had he let people into his life when he knew they would be taken from him? Sooner or later he ruined everything that was good in his world and this was no exception.
Chris drove along the road as snow continued to fall, blanketing the world in a pristine blanket that should have eased his heart. It didn't matter what anyone said it simply felt cold and stained in a crimson tide that spoke of the spilled blood he'd witnessed earlier in the day. Too many people had died or been injured because of his stupid mistake.
The soft strains of Oh Holy Night barely registered as he blinked back the tears that spilled from his eyes. Darrin, Mikala, and Judith Morton were dead because he'd divulged their location to the wrong person. He didn't remember doing it, but the perpetrators had told Miller and Travis that he'd done so in a bar after drinking himself into a stupor.
How could he have been so stupid? How many times had he drunk too much and could not remember what he'd done? The truth was the answer was too many times, but he hadn't done that since coming to grips with the loss of his wife and son. Why couldn't he remember the night in question? Why couldn't he...? Why couldn't he just die and let the world be a better place?
Chris swallowed convulsively as the music changed and another carol began. The road hadn't been plowed since early evening and the bitter cold temperature had caused flash freezing beneath the snow. His truck was equipped with the best snow tires, yet even they failed when he tried to regain control of the skid. He'd taken safety training for this kind of driving, but it did nothing as everything turned white and the truck hit the guardrail and skidded another hundred feet before lurching sideways and rolling once. It righted itself and by some miracle he regained control, but not long enough to stop the impact with the tree. His head struck the windshield and snapped back as the seatbelt held him in place and the airbag deployed.
Darkness reached for Chris Larabee as a hint of a smile formed on his face with the thought that he was finally getting his wish.
Vin Tanner had never been so angry in his life and he knew the rest of the team felt the same way. There was no way in hell that Chris had given up the Mortons and one way or another they were going to prove it. The problem was the DA wasn't going to allow them to speak with Tyler Garrison or Michael Welsh.
"I just don't get it," Dunne said.
"Don't get what, Son?" Sanchez asked.
"Why would Chris-?"
"Don't say it, JD! Not if you value your life!" Wilmington snarled.
"What?" Dunne asked.
"Don't ask why Chris would get drunk and give up the Mortons because..."
"He wouldn't. Jesus, Buck, I know that and it's not what I was going to say!"
"What were you going to say, JD?" Jackson asked.
"I was going to say why would Chris take off without giving us a chance to hear his side of the story. We know he didn't do it, but we need to know what happened so we can go after the sonofabitch that did this!"
"That's the million dollar question, JD," Tanner said. "We all know Chris and we know how hard this time of the year is on him."
"Can you blame him?" Wilmington spat.
"None of us do, but the last two years seemed to be better," Sanchez offered. "I don't think he got anywhere near drunk last year. I'm not saying he was a prude about drinking, but it didn't seem to have that hold over him anymore."
"It doesn't," Wilmington vowed. "So how do we go about proving he had nothing to do with what happened to the Mortons?"
"We need to talk to Garrison and Welsh," Standish told them.
"No shit!" Wilmington snapped. "Any idea how we're supposed to do that when the DA won't let anyone near them?"
"Buck, no point in getting angry with Ezra, he was just speaking the truth," Sanchez advised.
"Shit, sorry, Ezra," Wilmington said and glanced at the closed door of Larabee's office. God, why did he feel so damn helpless when it came to his long-time friend? Why couldn't he get through to Larabee?
"It's snowing pretty heavy out there," Dunne offered as Orin Travis entered the office. He knew the cold in the office had more to do with the older man's presence than the frigid temperature outside.
"Boys, we need to talk," Travis said softly.
"Think ya said it all to Chris," Tanner snarled, his voice deceptively soft.
"You need to know the whole story," Travis said and moved into the office. "Is that fresh coffee?"
"Tell me this wasn't a set-up!" Jackson snapped as he poured Travis a cup of coffee and handed it to him.
"Yes, it was, but Chris was supposed to know about it. I got caught up in a meeting and didn't get a chance to speak to him before he left. Janet told me he drove out of here like a demon was on his heels."
"I'd say that's how he felt," Wilmington said.
"I expect so," Travis said and ran his fingers through his hair as he sank heavily onto the chair.
"Tell us what happened, Orin," Sanchez said. "Are the Mortons dead?"
"No, they are safe, but Chris doesn't know that and I am not supposed to tell anyone."
"Ya trust us, Orin?" Tanner asked.
"I wouldn't be here if I didn't," Travis said. "The Mortons are safe and have been given new identities, but there is still a contract out on Makala Morton because of her testimony against Anton Baryshnikov. He won't be seeing the light of day for a long time and that's something to be grateful for."
"Okay, so why was Chris used as a patsy?" Jackson asked.
"He wasn't supposed to be, but at the time the FBI used him because it was convenient," Travis said.
"Because Chris knew the Mortons?" Wilmington asked.
"That and the fact that he had a drinking problem. He was seen in the bar the same night Garrison and Welsh were there and the FBI made up a story that would implicate him in the Mortons death. I didn't want to go along with it, but it was too late because they'd already pulled Chris in for questioning. Although questioning isn't the word I'd use."
"They threw him under the bus and you let them!" Wilmington spat.
"By the time I found out what was going on it was too late. If we interfere right now the Mortons could be killed because they are not completely set up yet. Once it's done the FBI will make a statement and clear Chris of all wrong doing."
"And yer okay with that, Orin?" Tanner asked.
"Of course not, Vin, but even Chris will tell you what's done is done. What harm could it do to leave it like this for a few more days? The FBI needs a week to implement everything that will ensure the Mortons safety. Is that too much to ask for?"
"Why don't we ask Chris that question?' Sanchez said as Tanner tried Larabee's number.
"It's goin' ta voice mail," Tanner told them.
"He's probably driving and won't answer the phone," Jackson told them, but he knew Larabee had hands free technology just like the rest of the team.
"When did he leave?" Travis asked.
"When he got back from the meeting with you and the feds," Wilmington said.
"The roads haven't been plowed yet, so maybe he's just taking his time," Dunne said.
"The timing of this couldn't have been worse, Orin," Sanchez said.
"I know, and if I could turn back the clock and stop those bastards I would. That's why I'm here so that you men would know the truth," Travis told them.
"Don't matter what we know. What matters is Chris. This time of year's hard 'nough on 'im without this shit comin' down," Tanner observed.
"Last year was the first Christmas that didn't see Chris drowning himself in a bottle," Wilmington said, a hint of sorrow in his voice as he thought of the times he'd thought they would lose their friend to a bottle of Jack Daniels.
"We won't let him go back to that, Buck," Dunne vowed.
"We need to find 'im," Tanner said softly.
"He's probably home by now," Sanchez said, but something about the Texan's words sent a shiver of dread down his spine.
"Vin, what is it?" Wilmington asked. He'd finally come to terms with the strange connection that seemed to span the barriers of time and space where Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were concerned. It had saved both men countless times and as long as it was there he knew Larabee was alive.
"Bad?" Jackson asked.
"Ain't good," Tanner said and wavered on his feet as pain shot through his skull.
"Can you find him?" Dunne asked.
"Don't work like that. Just a feelin'," the Texan said as Buck reached out to steady him. "Josiah, did ya hook up the plow?"
"It's ready. Any idea where we start?" Sanchez answered.
"We head out to Chris' place," Tanner said and turned to Travis. "I'm glad the Mortons are safe, but ain't happy 'bout the way it was done."
"Neither am I. Call me as soon as you know anything," Travis said, relieved when the others nodded. He quickly called his wife and updated her on what was happening.
Chris had no idea how long he was out, but snow seemed to be filling the cab of the truck and he shivered uncontrollably. God, help him, but he'd been dreaming of his past and the people he'd lost. Over and over he'd relived the horrors of his life and felt as if a demon rested on his shoulder and plagued his mind.
"Your friends and family would be better off without you, Chris Larabee. Sarah and Adam. Carl. Hilda. Joey. How many more are dead because of you?"
"No. I didn't...I didn't..."
"You killed them all and yet you are still alive...even your parents are dead...yet you are still alive...you still waste the air you breathe, Chris Larabee. Welcome death now so that those who you are destined to kill will survive. Everyone would be better off if you were dead...especially the Morton family...they are your latest fatalities."
Even though he could not remember being at the bar, or drinking himself into oblivion, Chris knew the voice was right. It was time he faced the fact that everyone he cared about would die because of him. They'd all be better off if he just gave up and died. God help him, he wanted to be with his family even though he didn't deserve it.
She knew the man in the truck and sighed as she opened the door and slid into the passenger's seat. She could tell he was injured, but it wasn't the physical injuries that worried her. Tonight, the Eve of the day when Christ was born should be a time of celebration, but for Chris Larabee it was a time when he was ready to give up.
She knew it was not his fault, because even at this glorious time, evil abounded and preyed on people who needed the light to guide them. She had been sent here to help this man see that life was worth fighting for even when you lost the most precious things a person could have. She had never been in love, but if she had it would have been to a man like...
"Don't go there," she whispered and bit her bottom lip as a soft moan escaped from the man in the driver's seat. "Sh, Chris, you're safe."
"S...Sarah," Larabee managed and forced his eyes open, but could not keep them that way as the darkness reached for him again.
The snow continued to fall as Josiah pulled the van out of the underground parking and onto the main street that would lead to the side roads and take them out of the city. Christmas lights shone through the snow-covered branches, but evoked none of the joy it normally would at this time of year.
"Vin, are you...?"
"I feel him, Buck, but it's weak," Tanner answered and closed his eyes. There'd been several times when he'd felt as if the gossamer strands were about to snap, but this was different. This time it felt like Larabee was giving in to the darkness that had once clouded his heart and mind.
"As long as you feel him I know he's alive," Wilmington said. 'Hold on, Ol' Son',' he thought.
She could see his breath and knew it was cold, but she was not here for his comfort, she was here for his soul. She was here as an Angel sent to save this man from giving up the greatest gift God gave...his life. She could feel the darkness surrounding his heart and knew she had to work quickly.
"It is time to wake up and hear me, Chris Larabee." There was no response from the man and she reached out to touch his cheek as the snow continued to fill the cab. It was above his ankles now, but there was nothing she could do about that. Tonight was not his time to die, but the darkness would not give up easily.
"It is not your time, Chris Larabee. You must not die tonight!" She felt him move and knew this was just the beginning as his eyes opened and he turned his head slightly. The moan that passed his lips told her he was in pain and she fought the urge to help him.
"You had an accident, Chris Larabee."
"Chris...just Chris," the injured blond said and looked down to see the blood covering the front of his shirt. "Am I...am I dead..."
"No, Chris, you're not dead. This is not your time."
"Funny...sure feels like it...who...do I...do I know you?"
"You did, but that is not important. Right now you need to fight and stay alive until your friends arrive."
"Bet...better off without me."
"Don't say things like that, Chris. They need you."
"Why? All I do is get them hurt or-."
"No, you help them."
"Don't need my kin...kind of help...just get th...them killed. Better off if I was dead."
"No, they wouldn't be."
"I'm glad to hear you say that."
"They'd be bet...better off if I was never born!"
"How can you say that? Your life means so much to so many. You give them-."
"Nothing except pain and death," Larabee whispered and focused on the woman beside him. "Who are you?"
"I was sent by someone who cares about you, Chris Larabee. He gives His love unconditionally."
"Are the police on the way?"
"Did you call them?"
"I don't have a phone."
"Use mine...how did you get here?"
"I was sent to help you."
"You have no phone and you're just sit...sitting here...are you cold? Am I dead?"
"No, Chris, I'm not cold and you're not dead. God granted a wish to several people tonight."
"Will he grant mine?"
"What is your wish?"
"I wish I'd never been born," Larabee told her.
"Don't say that, Chris Larabee!"
"Why not...it's not like it's going to happen. The damage is already done and I can't bring them back," Chris sobbed and turned away as pain shot through his gut.
"Chris," she whispered his name as she realized he would be granted his wish and given the chance to see what the world would be like if he had never been born. God was on his side, but sometimes His lessons could be cruel, even if they did show people the things that could have been.
"Go away and let me die in peace."
"You cannot die in peace, Chris, because you were never born."
"What are you talking about?" Larabee asked and sat up. The pain that had lanced through his gut moments before was gone and he was shocked to see there was nothing on his shirt. "What the hell!"
"Hell has nothing to do with this, Chris. You have been given a gift. Some men see it as a curse, but it truly is a gift."
"What gift? What did you do?"
"I assure you I did nothing. He did. He granted your wish."
"What wish?" Larabee asked, frowning as he realized he was no longer shivering from the cold.
"You wished you were never born and He did that for you. The world has never heard of Chris Larabee."
"Lady, I have no idea how you did this, but I'm going home!"
"You have no home, Chris. This truck will be gone as soon as we step outside and you will own nothing. You will have no family, no friends, and no enemies."
"You wanted this. Come, I will show you what a cold world this is without your single light. It shone brightly for everyone who knew you, but now it is dark."
"Good...then they are better off."
"Are they? How would your life have been if you had never met Buck Wilmington or Vin Tanner?"
"I did meet them. I remember them."
"I know you do, but they don't know you." She could see the frown and the sorrow that spoke volumes, and yet she knew he didn't truly believe he'd been given such a gift.
"So what do we do now?"
"We take a journey through time and show you the things that happened because of your choice not to have been born," she told him.
"This is nuts," Larabee said and looked down at his stomach.
"You're not hurt, Chris, The accident didn't happen. There is no tree...no blood...no injuries. You don't suffer from migraines or anything of the sort. You were never born."
Chris reached for the door handle and shook his head when he realized he didn't feel cold as the snow wafted down around him. No sound greeted his ears as he stepped out and stood up. He glanced toward the road and was shocked when the woman stood beside him and turned to find the truck was no longer there.
"I told you the truck was never here because you never bought it. Come, our first stop is the house belonging to the Larabees."
"You had no parents. You were-."
"Never born...okay, so how do we get to Indiana?"
"Hold my hand and close your eyes," she said.
"If I tap my shoes do we end up in Oz?" Larabee asked.
"No," she answered and knew he did not believe any of this was real yet as she reached for his hand. "Close your eyes."
Chris did as she told him and closed his eyes. A strange, almost weightless sensation washed over him and he opened his eyes when she released his hand. It shocked him to see the house he'd grown up in, and he turned to the woman standing beside him. "How?"
"I am an Angel of God, Chris, and He sent me here to help you."
"Then take me to Sarah and Adam," Larabee told her.
"I can't do that, Chris."
"Why not? If you're an Angel then you can do anything."
"No, it is not for me to take you to Sarah and Adam. For now I need to show you what this world is like."
"It can't be worse than the other one."
"We shall see, Chris. Come, we don't have long," she said and walked toward the house. She knew what she was about to show him and wished she could make him take back his hastily spoken words, but the damage was done and this journey was of his own making. She watched as he reached for the door handle and blinked her eyes as the tears threatened to fall.
"Dad! Mom!" Larabee called, but the house was silent. "Where are they?"
"They are not here."
"Then why did you bring me here?"
"To show you what happened to your parents because you were not here."
"What happened to them?"
"Carl? Is he here?"
"No," she answered.
"Where are they?" Larabee asked softly.
"Carl began using drugs at an early age and you were not here. Your parents came home to find him shooting up and tried to call for help, but he attacked them. He killed them before he overdosed on drugs."
"No," Larabee said and looked at the pictures on the wall. He moved closer and quickly noted his own absence as if someone had cut him from the life he'd known. "Carl died alone. We buried him..."
"You were not here, Chris, and he had no one to stop him," she said and watched the sadness seep into his eyes. She knew this was hard for him, but he'd made his choice and she would show him what his wish had cost people.
Vin breathed through tightly clenched teeth as he tried to control the turmoil raging through his mind. He knew Buck was watching him, but he could not speak. The strands seemed to be pulled taut and God help him, he wasn't sure he could hold onto Chris. Wherever he was, it felt like he was being pulled away.
The snow continued to fall, but Josiah drove along the road that led out of the city. They'd passed several cars that had gotten stuck in the snow, and stopped long enough to help a young couple with two small children. He knew they didn't have a choice but to help, yet it meant taking time away from the search for Chris Larabee.
Buck knew Vin was their only tie to Chris right now, and silently prayed he would lead them to the missing man. He'd tried calling Larabee's cell and home phone, but there was no answer. Larabee could be ignoring the calls, but one look at Tanner told him that was not the case.
Chris closed his eyes and fought the emotions whirling through his mind. He knew it couldn't be real, yet here he was in the house he grew up in with no sign that he'd ever been here. He glanced at the pictures and noted something else, his mother and father looked like they had lived through hell.
"We have more places to visit, Chris."
"How did you do this?" Larabee asked.
"I didn't do this, Chris. It is His gift to you. Take my hand so that we can continue the journey," she said and took his hand as he closed his eyes. She was used to this and smiled when he opened his eyes and looked around.
"Where are we?"
"Look around you, Chris."
"I know this place. I've been here before, but there's something different." Larabee moved toward the building and recognized the place where he'd first met Buck Wilmington. The rogue had been caught with his pants down, and at 17 he was in trouble with a drug dealer whose sister he'd been sleeping with.
"Do you recognize this place, Chris?"
"I do...met Buck here...saved his sorry ass," Larabee said and frowned at a commotion inside the glass doors. He was shocked when he saw a very young Buck Wilmington stumble out and fall down the broken stairs. "Buck!"
"He can't hear you, Chris."
"How can this be happening?"
"I told you this was a journey that would reveal the world you wished for."
"No!" Larabee said as the drug dealer stepped out and started down the steps. He could hear the man speaking and tried to go to Wilmington, but a hand took his as gunfire erupted. There was no mistaking the impact of a bullet hitting a man's body and he watched helplessly as the life went out of Wilmington's eyes.
"Come, Chris, there is nothing we can do here."
"No, it didn't happen like this. I was here."
"No, you weren't. Buck died because you were not here to save him."
"Yes, I was," Larabee whispered, yet he knew he'd brought this on himself. He closed his eyes and felt the sensation of weightlessness again before opening them and finding himself at a new location. "Where are we?"
"We are in Billings. This is the funeral home used by Gary and Shirley Browner."
"Peter and Elizabeth's parents. Are they all right?"
"The parents are, but the children..."
"What about them?" Larabee asked, not sure if he wanted to hear what she was about to say.
"You were not there to save them, Chris," she answered and watched as he moved to the window and looked inside. The open caskets were placed beside each other and she knew he could see the children who had died because he was not there to save them.
"No, God no...please don't let this happen."
"It already has, Chris. Do you see how many lives were touched by your absence?"
"I...where are Sarah and Adam? Are they alive?"
"I can't answer your questions until your journey is complete. Take my hand and we will continue."
Chris swallowed convulsively as he tore his eyes away from the children who lay dead because of him, yet he could not help feeling that his choice was the right one. There were so many people who had died because of him, and it didn't really surprise him that he was responsible for deaths even though he hadn't been there.
"You were not responsible for their deaths, Chris. They died because of people who wanted something that didn't belong to them."
"If I'd been there..."
"But you weren't. There is more to see," she said and reached for his hand and waited for him to close his eyes.
The snow continued to swirl around in the headlights as Josiah used the plow to cut through a drift that had accumulated at the bend in Old Pear Tree Road. There'd been several cars stuck in the road, but it hadn't taken long to clear them and send the people on their merry way. The weatherman had been right in his prediction that this could be one of the worst Christmas Eve storms on record.
"Chris could be anywhere out here. How do we find him?" Dunne observed.
"Don't give up on him, Kid," Wilmington snapped.
"I'm not, Buck," Dunne assured him and glanced at Tanner. "Besides we have our own Chris radar with us. Do you still feel him, Vin?"
"Yeah...he's still with us...but we need ta find him fast," the Texan vowed.
"Maybe he's already home," Jackson offered, yet he knew by the look on Tanner's face that was not the case. Whatever strange sensations seemed to connect Larabee and Tanner the whole team had learned to believe in them. 'Dear, God, if you're listening then please help us find Chris before it's too late,' he thought.
'I have never been a man of Faith, but I have always believed in edging my bets. Gambling was once the only career I wanted, but that changed the day I met Chris Larabee. Please let us find him,' Standish thought as Josiah maneuvered around an abandoned vehicle.
Chris opened his eyes and looked around, but couldn't quite make out where he was. It took several agonizing seconds for him to grasp what he was seeing. "JD," he whispered as the young man pulled his coat around his body and raced across the street as wind whipped the rain around him.
"Do you know what happens this day, Chris?"
"No, but I think that's JD."
"Yes, it is. This is the day he first met you and the others."
"The kid was smart and he let us know it. Damn fool saved our lives and we-."
"No, he didn't, Chris, because you were not there. JD was supposed to meet you and Buck that day, but you were not born and Buck died a long time ago."
"What happened to him?" Larabee asked.
"JD went to work for Anthony Morgan."
"The mob boss?"
"Yes, and he was na´ve. He thought Morgan was a good man, but JD quickly found out the man was a murderer and involved in child pornography," she said, disgust evident in her voice as she watched the young man hurry toward the waiting limousine.
"JD's smart. He wouldn't fall for the things that bastard tells him."
"Yes, he was smart, but he was also very young and did not have anyone to help him figure out where he was supposed to go. Because you and Buck were not there that day JD chose a different path. He never had an easy life and was taken in by the promises of money and family...the wrong family."
"Where is he going?"
"To his death. He will die in a hotel room after making a snuff film," she whispered sadly.
"JD would never..."
"The JD you knew would never, but this JD never had six men to guide him and fell into Morgan's trap. It is the way of life sometimes. Do you see what your life meant to him, Chris?"
"My life is not worth anything. JD made his choice."
"Did he?" she asked and knew this man did not mean what he had just said, but until he came to terms with his role in other lives she must continue with this journey. The worst was yet to come and she knew it would break him eventually. That was what he needed, to be broken so that he would realize he was the only man who could fix his life.
"Where do we go now?" Larabee asked softly.
"There is a small home outside Billings."
"Nettie's place," the blond whispered longingly.
"Yes," she answered and smiled as he took her hand and closed his eyes.
Vin knew there was nothing they could do about the weather and yet it seemed like it was growing worse with each passing minute. They'd been lucky enough to have the plow in place on the front of the vehicle, but the snow was getting deeper and forcing them to slow down to a crawl.
"We will find him, Vin," Standish vowed and took a deep breath as he realized how much of his soul he'd bared in that single sentence. Chris Larabee had believed in him when nobody else had and that was something he wasn't about to lose. Chris was out here somewhere and it was up to them to find him.
"Thanks, Ez," Tanner said and rubbed at his temples.
"Vin, do you want something for that headache?"
"No, thanks, Nate, but I need to keep muh head clear. We're close," the Texan answered and sat forward as they rounded the bend and the lights flashed off the guardrail.
"Careful, Josiah, this part of the road is treacherous on a good day," Wilmington advised.
"I know," Sanchez answered. 'Lord, if you're listening, give us a sign!'
"Josiah, pull over!" Tanner snapped as pain shot through his skull.
"What's going on, Vin?" Jackson asked.
"He's here. We need to get to him!" the Texan said and fumbled with the door handle as the vehicle pulled to a stop. He shoved it open and stepped out into the swirling maelstrom as nausea churned through his gut.
"Where is he, Vin?" Wilmington shouted above the howling wind. He latched onto the other man's arm as if adding his own strength to the connection he trusted.
"Down...down there!" Tanner said.
"Hell!" the worried rogue spat and knew it was an understatement as the others joined them.
"You sure, Vin?" Jackson asked.
That was all they needed to start the search for their friend.
Chris knew they were at the next destination, but fear made him keep his eyes closed. He knew where they were, but there was something ominously familiar about the smell surrounding him.
"You need to open your eyes, Chris."
"Yes, once the journey was started it must be completed. You cannot stop what you put in motion and must face the consequences of your actions."
"Seems I've been doing that my whole damn life," Larabee snapped as his eyes shot open. He looked at the house and immediately understood why the smell had been so familiar. The house was still smoldering and surrounded by police tape as an investigator carefully looked through the remnants of the Wells home.
"The fire started in the kitchen, but it was not an accident."
"Tell me how it happened."
"We sent that sonofabitch to prison!"
"No, Chris, you didn't. You were not there to form the agency. Guy Royal made good on his threat and burned the Wells home to the ground."
"Where are they?"
"Nettie was trapped inside and Casey went in to get her. They died in the back room and were identified using DNA and dental records. They were buried together, but the grave has grown over because there are no family members to take care of it."
"What about Sarah? She would never let anything happen to Nettie and Casey's grave!" Larabee snapped and saw the sorrow in her dark eyes. "Why won't you tell me about Sarah and Adam?"
"The time is not right yet. Come, we have to continue the journey."
"What if I refuse to go any further? What will your God do then?"
"He is not my God. He is everyone's God-."
"He is cruel..."
"Is He? Tell me something, Chris. Why do people always blame Him for the bad things in their lives, yet they seldom give thanks for the good things He gives them? He loves all His children equally and His love will heal you if you let it," she said.
"You sound like Josiah," Larabee said and closed his eyes as she took his hand. Somehow he knew he was about to see what happened to Josiah Sanchez in this reality. He opened his eyes and found himself before a small church that had fallen on bad times. "Josiah's penance," he whispered and stepped forward.
"You recognize God's home?"
"What happened?" Larabee asked with a slight nod toward the structure. He'd heard Josiah speak here on several occasions and wondered why the baritone voice had been silenced in such a way.
"Josiah Sanchez lost his faith and never completed his journey. He died in a car accident while driving home from a bar. The police said he was drunk and died on impact, but the family in the other car was not as lucky. The newlyweds died in the fire that engulfed their car. She was five weeks pregnant at the time."
"God," Larabee said and swallowed the bile that rose up in his throat.
"Yes, they are resting with Him now, but Josiah is a lost soul who has yet to find his way home," she said.
Vin struggled against the blinding snow and felt the others working with him. He knew Larabee was down here, but the swirling snow hampered their search for the missing man. They'd stopped shouting to each other because they couldn't have heard anything in the storm. He pushed through a heavy drift, moving slightly ahead of the others as he reached the end of the guardrail.
'Please, God, let me find him,' Tanner thought and turned to see the others close behind him. The headlights were on, but did little to help them see in the violent blizzard.
"We can't see a damn thing in this!" Sanchez snapped.
"He's here!" Tanner told them.
"Then we find him and get him home!" Standish vowed and moved to stand beside Tanner.
"We could get turned around out here so no one gets separated. We stay in sight of the headlights and each other! If you can't see anyone then find the headlights and shout!" Wilmington ordered as the six men moved together. They stood shoulder-to-shoulder and forged toward the edge of the road, a united team that vowed to find their friend.
There was something to be said about traveling through time and space and witnessing events he knew didn't happen. He landed on his own two feet many times over the years, but this time he wasn't so sure that was going to happen. He knew what he was seeing could not have been true, yet the woman accompanying him would not leave him alone. She kept making him visit this strange world and now he stood inside a hotel room where a game of cards was taking place.
"Do you recognize anyone?" she asked.
"Ezra?" Larabee whispered as the younger man placed his cards on the table. There were five others taking part in the game, men he didn't recognize, yet he knew they were high priced gamblers. These men had bodyguards who were also present and seemed to be watching the game closely. "Why did you bring me here?"
"Watch," she told him as Ezra raked in the large pot.
Chris could tell the others were angry and hoped Ezra was smart enough to leave, but he reached for the cards and shuffled them quickly before dealing two cards to each man. He wanted to stop the game, but he knew Ezra could not hear him as he won several more hands until two of the five went all in. They lost to Ezra's full house, but Chris understood who the real loser was as the two men stood up and pointed their weapons at Ezra P. Standish.
Hilda watched as Chris Larabee tried to make sense of what he was seeing. The man's face was clouded with emotions as Ezra was dragged from the room.
"Where are they taking him?" Larabee asked.
"You do not want to know."
"Yes, I do. Take me to him!" Chris knew his wish had been granted when he found himself in an empty alley of some unknown city. He could smell the stench of the gutters and heard the rats eating in a nearby garbage can as he stepped past the Angel and found what he was looking for.
Lying on his back in the middle of the alley was Ezra Standish. Chris rushed forward and knelt beside him, as he pulled off his shirt and tried to stem the flow of blood from both arms. Ezra would never play cards again because the bastards had cut off his hands and left him to die in this alley.
"Call an ambulance!" he shouted and pulled the gambler into his arms as the smell of blood reached his nostrils.
"We cannot help him, Chris. It is his time and God has called him home."
"No, please, don't do this, Ezra! Don't you die on me!"
"A friend. I'm a friend..."
"Never had a friend...a lie..."
"No, God, no," Chris whispered as the light went out of Ezra's eyes. Tears slipped down his cheeks, but he didn't feel them as an emptiness surrounded his heart. How could he have been so selfish?
Chris lost count of the people and places he was shown and felt as if he'd been kicked in the gut when they stopped at a familiar place. It was a dark alley, one that had changed his life forever...a chance meeting with a man who was so much more than a brother.
"Do you recognize this place, Chris?"
"Think so," Larabee whispered, yet he knew instinctively where he was as gunfire and angry voices reached his ears. He watched in horror as Nathan Jackson raced into the alley, his eyes wide with fear as four men surrounded him. He tried to move, but it was as if his feet were nailed in place Eli Joe and his friends trapped the team's medic. "Nathan! Run!"
"He cannot hear you, Chris!"
Larabee watched in horror as another man entered the fray. "I need to help them!"
"You cannot help them, Chris!"
Larabee watched helplessly as two more of Eli Joe's gang joined the others with chains and knives in their hands. He could hear them cursing, could hear Eli Joe threaten to gut Tanner, could see the sweat on Nathan's brow, but he could not move his own body as the fight broke out. His memory of how this happened was ingrained on his mind, but this new reality bore no resemblance to the events of that fateful night.
"Let me help them!"
"I can't do that, Chris. You must see what your absence meant to your friends," she told him as tears slipped down her cheeks.
Nathan and Vin fought valiantly, but bare hands were no help against chains and knives. Nathan went down hard as a knife was shoved into his abdomen, blood quickly staining his shirt. Vin tried to get between them, but a chain was wrapped around his throat and several blows landed on his upper body.
Chris watched helplessly as the two men went down and stayed down. When the duo released their hold on the Texan he crumbled and laid still. Eli Joe moved forward and stood over Tanner's body, laughing as he spat on the man's face.
"Come, Chris, there is nothing more we can do here."
"This isn't how it happened! Vin and I saved Nathan from Eli Joe's gang!"
"Eli Joe killed them because you were not there to stop him," she whispered and took his hand once more.
"God, I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," Larabee said and closed his eyes as the strange weightless sensation came over him again and he found himself standing outside Judge Orin Travis' home. "Why are we here?"
"Do you remember the first time you met Mary Travis and her son?"
"I do...he's a good kid. Are they here for Christmas?"
"No, Orin Travis is alone," she said and moved them into the house.
Chris had no idea how she worked such magic, but he was soon in the Travis living room and realized something was terribly wrong here. There was no tree standing in the corner, no bright decorations, and no music playing on the stereo. Orin Travis sat by himself in front of the fireplace where the cold hearth was as bleak as the look on the older man's face.
"Evie died last year...not long after their grandson was killed..."
"Oh, yeah...because of my wish he's dead too!"
"Yes, he is. He died in the street with his mother holding him. Mary Travis committed suicide a week after he was buried, and Orin never forgave himself for not protecting his family. He never started the agency because he never met..."
"Me," Larabee whispered.
"Yes, and this year he decided not to put up a tree or celebrate Christmas. He no longer believes in God and wants nothing to do with prayers," she told him sadly.
"Mary would never-."
"Wouldn't she, Chris? When Sarah and Adam died didn't you contemplate suicide on several occasions?"
"I...yes," Larabee answered, eyes down as he thought about his life. "Where are they?"
"Chris, perhaps it's time to go back now!"
"No, I need to know where they are! What happened to Sarah and Adam? Please, I have to know," Larabee tried.
"Sometimes you are better off not knowing, Chris."
"Please, I have a right to know what happened to my family."
"You don't have a family."
"Yes, I do...or I did. Please," Larabee whispered and stared into her eyes. There was something hauntingly familiar in the dark orbs, but he could not think clearly as he thought about Sarah and Adam.
"Let's just..." she closed her eyes as tears rolled down her cheeks. This man had been through so much and now he had been given a gift few others had. He now knew what life would have been like for the people he cared about if he had never been born. It was a devastating truth that few men could handle.
"Please, I have to know," Larabee's voice was laced with the sorrow and pain that spoke of the worst possible loss a person could suffer.
She knew he needed to see this through, but she didn't want to be the cause of any more pain. She felt the tears slipping down her cheeks as he lifted his head and looked at her. "I don't want to do this to you, Chris, but He says you need to see this through...we both do. Close your eyes and I will take you there.
Chris did as she said and waited for the weightless sensation to end. He opened his eyes and looked at the house without recognizing it, yet his eyes were drawn to the rose bush that held a single yellow rose. "Sarah," he whispered with a smile as he raced toward the house.
"Sarah, I'm here, Sarah!"
"Chris, no, don't go in there!"
Larabee was deaf to her words as he grabbed for the door handle and shoved it open. Once inside he could easily see Sarah's hand in the furnishings and pictures adorning the walls. There was an old rug hanging next to the fireplace, one he knew had been hooked by Sarah's great-grandmother.
"Sarah, where are you, Love?" Chris moved across the spotless floor and frowned when a familiar sensation ran through him. There was something about the pictures on the mantle and he moved forward as if his legs were lead weights. He swallowed several times when he recognized the beautiful woman standing next to an overbearing monster of a man. He turned to see the angel standing in the doorway and reached for her. "What is this? Where is, Sarah?"
"Sarah's father forced her to marry Robert Spikes. She lived under his rules and..."
"He beat her, Chris."
"How bad? Is she at the hospital?"
"Then where is she?" Larabee asked and saw the slight shift of her eyes toward the closed door. "She's in there...isn't she?"
"Yes, Chris, but you don't have to do this. You've seen what your wish cost the ones you love so let that be enough!" she said, but there was no stopping him as he raced for the closed bedroom door and turned the handle. She closed her eyes and knew this would be the final leg of a journey that would save his soul, yet it was a cruel lesson that had to be learned.
"Sarah," Oh, God, Sarah, I'm so sorry," Larabee said and stumbled to the bed. Sarah was on top of the bed, her right arm dangling over the side as blood dripped from her fingertips. He knew she was dead, and understood it hadn't been an easy one. Whatever Spikes had done to her had been violent and left her body bloody and broken.
"You can't help her now, Chris," the angel said and reached for him.
"Why...why did he do this to her?"
"Robert Spikes did not love, Sarah, but he coveted her and would not allow another man to look in her direction. He kept her prisoner here and allowed only her father to visit. He came home to find her watching television and thought she paid too much attention to the man who played the lead role."
"What about, Adam? Where is he?"
"He was never born, Chris. Sarah died a barren woman because of Robert Spikes. She suffered several miscarriages because of his cruelty and could only escape in death."
"Sarah died without knowing a child...no, please, don't let it happen."
"It has already happened, Chris."
"No, no it hasn't! Please...tell me how to fix it! I'll do anything!"
"You know in your heart what you have to do, Chris, because only you can make things right."
"You have to remember that you were given the greatest gift that can be bestowed on us. You were put on this earth for a reason and you were meant to touch so many lives. There are times when a person may feel like there is nothing left for them, and, like you, they wish to give up the life that was granted to them."
"Maybe it's because we have lost so much?"
"Perhaps, but you must remember God will never give you more than you can handle. Just because you choose to live doesn't mean you love them any less. Sarah and Adam know that you will be with them when it is your time and they wait with..."
"Rose?" Larabee asked of the unborn daughter Sarah had been carrying when she died.
"Yes, she has your eyes," the angel said.
"How come you know so much?"
"I am a Christmas angel and was sent to help you see that no man is an island who has friends."
"They are more than friends," Larabee said and a hint of a smile formed as he thought of his team.
"Yes, and they feel the same way about you. I saw how close you were to Buck."
"You know Buck...I know you," the blond whispered and stared at the angelic form bathed in soft white light.
"Yes, you do, but our time grows short, Chris Larabee. You have to choose which world is the better one."
"I choose," Larabee swallowed and took her hand, feeling the warmth spread through him. "I choose to live."
"Very well, Chris..."
"Does this mean you get your wings?"
"Perhaps. Listen for the bell..."
"...the bell..." Larabee said and closed his eyes.
"Tell Buck love comes in many shapes and he should not feel guilty for not seeing who I was. I know he was ashamed of how he treated me, but he taught me that real beauty comes from within. Tell him to go with his heart because it will never steer him wrong."
"He loved you."
"I love him. Live your life as a gift, Chris...your friends will be with you soon."
Larabee opened his eyes, stunned to find he was back in the cab of his truck. The snow was piling up around him and he knew he needed help. He struggled to move his legs, but the cold was mind numbing as the wind whipped the snow in a swirling maelstrom outside the truck.
Six men moved as if guided by unseen hands, pushing through the heavier drifts until they reached the edge of the road. Vin and Buck stood shoulder-to-shoulder as they started down into the gorge, but something stopped them and made them continue along the edge of the road. The snow was blinding now, yet there seemed to be something beckoning to them.
"Chris!" Wilmington called, but the only sound was the wind howling around them.
"He's close, Buck!" Tanner shouted and thought he saw something ahead of them. "LARABEE, where are you?"
Chris leaned back against the seat, but sat forward when he thought he heard something about the wind. He couldn't see anything outside the cab and reached for the seatbelt. His fingers were numb with the cold and he found it impossible to press the release.
"H...here..." Chris knew his voice was weak and leaned on the horn, surprised when it actually worked. He hit it several times, hoping and praying his team would hear it.
"Did you hear that?" Standish asked and rushed forward as Buck and Vin pushed through the drift of snow at the edge of the road. He didn't see anything at first, but the sound of a horn was repeated and he silently thanked God as Buck's voice told them they'd found the truck. Josiah had gone back to the vehicle and was slowly edging his way toward them.
Wilmington knew there was no way they should be able to see or hear anything in Mother Nature's tempest, but it seemed as if someone was truly watching over them. The winds that had cut through their clothing and sent pinpricks across any exposed skin seemed to have died down and a full-bodied moon hung low in the sky. It shone so bright it threatened to blind him, yet he could clearly see the truck at the center of the circle of light.
Tanner knew it wasn't his gut instincts that had drawn him here. It was something more, something you had to feel in your heart and he silently thanked God for giving them the gift of brotherhood like none other. He made it to the truck and looked at the pale man seated behind the wheel.
"I'm back," Larabee whispered, his breath easily visible in the frigid air.
"Did ya go somewhere?" Tanner asked.
"You c...could say that. Help me out of here," Larabee said.
"Hello to you too, Sunshine," Wilmington said from the opposite side. "Are you stuck?"
"Give the man a pr...prize," Larabee said as Dunne and Standish joined them.
"Chris," Dunne said and reached into his pocket, surprised to find the special knife Wilmington had given him for his birthday. It had been lost weeks later on a camping trip, yet here it was with no explanation. "I can cut the seatbelt."
"Thought you lost that," Wilmington said.
"I did," Dunne said, but handed the knife to Tanner before moving back to allow Jackson access to the injured man. He saw Josiah coming toward them carrying two shovels and took one. Between them they would clear a path from the truck to the agency's vehicle and get Larabee to the hospital.
"Where are you hurt, Chris?" the medic asked.
"Not sure...just numb right now....cold," Larabee said, but remembered the agonizing pain in his gut as Tanner opened the door and began cutting through the seatbelt.
Buck had finally managed to get the door open enough to slip inside and was using his hands to pull the snow away from his friend's lower body. "Hell, Stud, couldn't you think of a warmer place to ride out the storm...like maybe a woman's bed?"
"Believe me...was...wasn't my first ch...choice," Larabee vowed.
"He's free, Nathan," Tanner said and moved aside to give the man access to Larabee.
"All right, Chris, let me take a look at you so we can get you out of here and warmed up," Jackson said, frowning when he saw the blood on the blond's shirt. He briefly wondered why there was no jacket, but knew this man had left in a hurry and probably hadn't felt the cold at the time.
"Thought you might need this, Nathan," Standish said and passed the first aid kit to Wilmington.
"Thanks, Ezra," Jackson said, amazed at that these men acted on instincts.
"I've nearly got the snow away from his legs, Nathan," the lady's man said.
"Chris, I need to see how bad this is," Jackson said.
"Go a...head," Larabee ordered as the medic opened his shirt. He wasn't sure how bad the damage was, but right now he didn't feel much of anything.
"Nathan, there's a four car pileup between us and Saint Vincents," Sanchez said.
"Kojay's clinic is closer," Tanner offered.
Kojay operated a small clinic that offered free healthcare to many people who could not afford it. There were several doctors and nurses who volunteered their time to help the underprivileged and it was a licensed facility that had received donations from many corporations. They'd used it several times over the years, including using it to hide Larabee when a contract had been put out on him.
"My thoughts exactly so I already called him and he's expecting us," Sanchez told him.
"Good," Jackson said, worried about moving the blond, but there really wasn't much choice. The wound was to the right of his navel and for the life of him he couldn't see what had caused it. "Chris can you move your legs?"
"Think so," Larabee answered and move them slightly.
"How's your back?"
"Feels okay," the blond said as Jackson felt his neck. "Okay, we need to get you out of the truck. Not going to lie, Chris, this will hurt."
"Worth it...to...get warm," Larabee said as Josiah and Vin helped him turn his legs. Everything seemed to pass in a blur as Jackson moved out of the way. He closed his eyes and fought the nausea churning through his gut as he stood on his feet in the snow. They lifted his arms over their shoulders and half carried him to the waiting vehicle.
"Vin, get in there and let him lean against you," Jackson ordered, worried about the damage he couldn't see and silently praying it wasn't as bad as it looked. "No seatbelt...just hold him."
Chris held his breath as Josiah held him while Vin got into the agency's vehicle. He didn't get a chance to say anything as Sanchez easily lifted him onto the seat and hurried around to the driver's side. Buck got into the passenger seat while JD, Ezra, and Nathan took the back seat. He leaned against the Texan and wasn't sure if the heat was a curse or a blessing as the feeling returned to his extremities. He felt a blanket placed over him and sighed contentedly as darkness reached for him and he gave in to the welcome void.
Kojay stood at the window as snow continued to fall and hoped the men would arrive safely. He had no idea how bad Chris Larabee's injuries were, but he was lucky he had help already in place. Rain Goines and Nettie Wells were on hand because they'd volunteered to help out on Christmas Eve.
They'd treated a couple of minor injured early in the night, but as the clock ticked slowly toward midnight they'd realized it was too dangerous to attempt the drive home. He heard footsteps behind him and turned to find Nettie Wells holding a cup of hot cocoa for him.
"Thank you," Kojay said.
"You're welcome. It's not a night fit for man or beast," Nettie offered.
"No, it's not, but Josiah is driving and they have the plow attached," Kojay said as Rain joined them.
"Everything is ready for him," Rain said.
"I've got coffee and soup ready," Nettie told them and stared outside. She listened to Kojay and Rain talking about what they would need to do when the others arrived, but tuned them out as she watched for any sign of the vehicle. An hour had passed since Josiah's call and she worried that the storm would stop them from bringing Chris to them.
"Nettie, you look tired," Rain said and hugged the elderly woman. "Why don't you try to get some rest? I'll wake you when they get here."
"I am, Rain, but right now I'd rather be here," Nettie said and thought she saw the flicker of headlights cutting through the snow. She didn't say anything until the flicker appeared again and seemed to grow brighter. She hurried to the door and opened the inside one as the vehicle pulled to a stop near the main entrance. "They're here."
Josiah pulled the vehicle as close to the entrance as possible and knew they would have to carry Larabee inside. Once they had him under Kojay's care they would come out and shovel the snow away from the entrance and along the path the elderly used during the day. He exited the car and hurried around to the passenger side as Jackson opened the door.
"Nathan, how bad?" Rain asked upon joining them. She knew Kojay was inside making sure everything was set for the injured man.
"He's got a penetrating wound on the right side and lost some blood. Think maybe we got lucky because of the cold," Jackson said as Buck and Josiah carried Larabee into Kojay's clinic.
"Anything else?" Rain asked as they followed the others inside.
"Looks like he hit his head and probably has bruises where the seatbelt locked," Jackson told her.
"All right. Why don't all of you go into the kitchen and get something hot to drink. Nathan, that includes you. Kojay or I will come get you if we need the extra help," Rain explained and left before Jackson could say anything. She hurried into the room where Josiah and Buck were settling the blond on the examination table. "Nathan and the others are in the kitchen with Nettie."
"Thanks, Rain," Wilmington said.
"Tell Vin to eat and drink plenty in case we need him," Kojay ordered and looked at Larabee who appeared to be dazed. "Hello, Chris, relax and we'll take care of you."
"Rain, would you get an IV started," Kojay said and checked Larabee's eyes, smiling when the injured man grumbled about the light being too bright. "Chris, we're going to get you out of these clothes and get a better look at what we're dealing with."
"Damn, there goes another pair of jeans," Larabee cursed, grateful when the light was taken away. He closed his eyes and listened to Kojay and Rain talk about what needed to be done.
"Chris, I'm going to give you something for pain now," Rain said and saw the blond head dip slightly as she injected the medication into the newly established IV line.
Kojay used the sharp scissors to cut through the heavy jeans and could see bruises on his thighs and lower legs. He hoped the damage was just the bruises, but he preferred to be thorough. He handed the scissors to Rain who carefully cut away the blood stained shirt. There were normal bruise patterns caused by the seatbelt, but Kojay turned his attention to the penetrating wound to the right of Larabee's navel.
"Rain, we will need X-rays, but they will have to wait until Chanu gets here in the morning," Kojay said of the technician who worked for him. Chanu and his new wife were expecting a baby in spite of the fury of his father-in-law.
"There is also the danger of pneumonia," Rain said as she listened to Larabee's chest. They would need to treat Larabee's wounds and keep him warm while monitoring him for complications.
Vin smiled as Nettie came and sat between him and Buck. Kojay's clinic had a full kitchen and the elderly woman had taken full advantage of the equipment. There was coffee, hot chocolate, and soup and she refused to take no for an answer.
"He's lucky you boys found him in this storm," Nettie said.
"Not luck...think someone was lookin' out fer 'im," Tanner said and warmed his hands on the mug of soup.
"Yes, He was," Nettie said and made the sign of the cross. "It's Christmas Eve and He tends to give more miracles in honor of his son's birth."
"He shouldn't have needed a miracle tonight!" Wilmington snapped as Josiah spoke to Travis. "He should have been told about the setup."
"Ain't gonna get no arguments from me," Tanner vowed.
"What set up?" Nettie asked and shook her head when the men told her why Chris Larabee had left in such a hurry. "Are the Mortons safe?"
"As far as we know," Wilmington said.
"Chris would not have done this had he known the Morton's were in danger," Nettie told them.
"Yes, he would have, but no one filled us or him in on the FBI's plan. They caught Chris off guard and made him think he was responsible for the family's death. I don't think he knows they are alive," Wilmington observed.
"Then we need to make sure he knows about the set up as soon as Kojay and Rain are finished treating his wounds," Nettie said as Jackson joined them.
"I'm going to go see if I can help them," the medic said. It had been 40 minutes since they arrived at the clinic and he had eaten the soup and drank a cup of coffee.
"Chris will appreciate that," Wilmington said and settled down for a long night.
Kojay checked the monitors, relieved to see that everything was in the norm before smiling at the couple standing at the window. Rain and Nathan had been a great help and he knew they were as exhausted as he was. It was nearly seven in the morning and the snow continued to fall, but at least the winds had died down. He knew Josiah and the others had shovelled the main walkways and plowed the small parking lot behind the clinic.
"Rain, you should get some rest."
"I will, Kojay," the pretty woman said and knew there were a couple of rooms at the back that were relegated for visiting doctors and family members.
"You look like you're ready to fall over, Kojay, I can stay with Chris-."
"No, you take Rain and get some sleep. As soon as Consuela gets here I will get some sleep," Kojay said as Wilmington and Tanner stood outside the door. "It seems no one has had any sleep tonight."
"How is he?" Wilmington asked. Kojay had come out to update them on Larabee's condition. The injuries were mostly deep bruises, but the wound to his side was deep and had taken more than a dozen stitches. He still wanted X-rays, but Chanu had not arrived yet.
"He is sleeping. I am pretty sure my feeble mind does not deceive me as I told you both to get some sleep," Kojay said.
"Feeble mind...really, Kojay?" Wilmington said with a hint of a smile.
"Ain't any part of ya that's feeble," Tanner said.
"Look, Kojay, me and Vin caught some shuteye, but you are the one who needs it now. We'll stay with Chris and come get you if he needs anything," Wilmington offered.
"No point in arguing with them, Kojay. Chris picked the most stubborn men he could find for his team...and yes, Nathan, you are one of the worst. Come with me and we'll discuss just how stubborn you can be," Rain said and led him from the room.
"I will be in the next room," Kojay said, checking the monitors before leaving the two men with their friend. He rubbed the kinks from his back as he walked into the next room and lay down on the bed. The late nights reminded him how much his profession took out of him, but the rewards far outweighed the aches and pains he felt at the end of the day. Sleep beckoned to him and he surrendered to the rest he needed, knowing Consuela and Chanu could arrive at any time.
Chris could hear voices, but he wasn't ready to give up his dream yet. Sarah and Adam were there and in her arms was the most beautiful baby girl he'd ever seen. He knew it was Rose and had even kissed her forehead while the warmth of his family surrounded him. He knew it was only a dream, and yet, he wanted to hold onto it as long as he could.
Larabee had spent two days at Kojay's clinic, but had been released as long as someone stayed at the ranch with him. He now knew that the Morton family was safe and in witness protection and was thankful they were no longer in danger. Buck and Vin were still angry, but he'd surprised them all by saying he wasn't angry with the FBI or Travis.
Chris smiled inwardly as he thought about the Angel who'd come to him and the gift she'd given him. She'd said it was God that had granted him the wish that he'd never been born, but she'd been the one to walk him through it. Her message was one he would not forget and he would tell Buck how much he'd meant to Hilda.
Chris opened his eyes just as a bell rang and watched as George Bailey realized he'd also been granted a gift. He sat forward and eased himself into a sitting position, not surprised to find his team was there with him. Josiah and Nathan had been the first to arrive and they'd brought the fixings for a turkey dinner. Ezra and JD had followed about half an hour later with coffee and dessert from Delvecchios.
"Look who has finally returned to the land of the living," Wilmington said as Jackson checked Larabee for a fever and handed him three pills. He knew two were for pain and the other was a strong antibiotic.
"Thanks, Nathan, any coffee left?" Larabee asked and swallowed the pills with water.
"Ezra's just made a fresh pot," Sanchez said and continued to set the table.
"It will be ready in a minute," Standish said.
"Dinner is served," Dunne said and looked at Larabee. "Chris, want me to bring yours to you?"
"No, thanks, JD, think I can manage-."
"Like an old man," Tanner said.
"Watch it, Vin, or I'll-."
"Get yer gun?" the Texan asked. "Ain't gonna happen, Cowboy."
"Did you just call me a cowboy...again?"
"It suits ya," Tanner said as Larabee managed to stand and move toward the dining room. He smiled as Buck stood on the opposite side and they made it without mishap.
Chris took his seat at the end of the table as the others took their usual seats. The turkey and vegetables smelled great and his stomach rumbled in anticipation of the feast to come. "Smells great. Josiah, I know you usually say Grace, but I'd like to do the honors today if that's okay with you."
"Of course," Sanchez said.
"Thanks, Josiah," Larabee said and bowed his head as he folded his hands. "Lord, thank you for the gift of brothers who stand by me through everything. Thank you for showing me what life would have been like had I not been born, and thank you for the Angel you sent to me. Amen"
"Amen," the others said and Chris realized they were all staring at him.
"That's some dream. Next time we turn off the television," Wilmington said.
"It wasn't a dream, Buck, and she got her wings," Larabee said.
"Who? Sarah?" the rogue asked.
"Hilda. She said He sent her to me to show me my life was worth something," Larabee said as the men began to serve the food. "I wished for something and she told me He granted me that wish and no matter how bad life gets it can be a whole lot worse. Every one of us was put here for a reason and we touch so many lives...even if it's just someone we pass on the street. We should never take life for granted...and Buck..."
"Hilda gave me a message for you. She said to thank you for seeing her for who she was and to go with your heart because it will never steer him wrong," Larabee said and saw the sadness in the blue eyes. "She knows you loved her, Buck, and she loves you and wants you to be happy."
"I did love her, Chris, and I wish I had time to tell her that," Wilmington said.
"She knows, My Friend," Larabee said and from nowhere he heard the sound of a bell ringing.
"What was that?" Dunne asked.
"Hilda just got her wings," Larabee answered simply and leaned back in his chair as the others dug into their meals. This was his life, his family, and no matter what the future brought he would never again wish his life away. 'Merry Christmas, Hilda,' he thought and sighed contentedly as the warmth of family washed over him.