Wiping away the film of condensation with a gloved hand, Johnny peered inside. His lips twitched and the merest hint of a smile appeared at what he saw awaiting him beyond the French doors. The Great Room looked like the picture Teresa had shown him in one of those magazines she was so fond of; a tree standing in the corner all gussied up with strings of popcorn and berries and what looked to be a hundred tiny candles, pine boughs and ribbons bedecking the mantelpiece and decorations of one kind or another festooning every available square inch of space. His smile widened as he caught a whiff of cinnamon and nutmeg and his eyes slid toward the table in anticipation of what he would find.
‘Yep, just like that picture’, he thought, ‘down to and including the happy family gathered around the fireplace.’
The smile faltered and all but disappeared in a rush of unexpected nerves. Problem was this wasn’t some made-up family. This was *his* family and while things were better, they were still feeling their way. They were making memories instead of already having them and he was afraid there would be unspoken expectations and Teresa had spent weeks planning and working to make their first Christmas as a family something special.
Johnny turned away, giving in to the old familiar need to put distance between himself and the source of his discomfort. He made it as far as the edge of the porch before hesitating and looking back over his shoulder.
What would it take for him to believe, really and truly believe, that he deserved a future here, in this place with these people? A future far different from the one he had always imagined for himself, the one that had him lying in some street, his lifeless eyes staring deep into hell.
Willing away the painful churning in his gut, Johnny turned his gaze upward. A thousand stars were splashed across the heavens, reminding him of other nights when, aside from his horse, they had been his only companions on the trail.
He tensed when a faint sound alerted him to the fact that he was no longer alone. Turning his head slightly, he saw Scott silhouetted in the darkened doorway.
“There you are, brother.” Rubbing his hands briskly against the chill, Scott crossed the porch to join him.
Johnny ducked his head, seeking to regain his composure as he scuffed one booted foot across the tiles.
“They certainly are beautiful tonight.” Scott leaned slightly forward to get a better look as Johnny resumed his interrupted perusal of the night sky.
“That they are, brother.” He agreed amiably.
A comfortable silence fell between them for several minutes.
“We’ve been waiting for you.” Scott hazarded a glance toward his brother and was rewarded by the appearance of Johnny’s lop-sided grin.
“You been waitin’, huh?”
“If you didn’t show up soon I thought we were going to have to send out the cavalry. It’s not a family Christmas when one member of the family is absent.”
The grin deepened. The idea that he could be missed, that he was wanted, was something Johnny still savored in secret.
“Let’s go inside, little brother.”
The soft chime of spurs accompanied his footsteps as he followed Scott. The warmth that greeted Johnny as he entered the hacienda had little to do with the fire blazing in the hearth and everything to do with the smiles on the faces of those waiting within. He was stunned by the swift realization that his family had already given him a gift that was worth more than any fancy-wrapped box sitting under the tree. Their love and acceptance had gone a long way toward filling the empty places in his heart and the safe haven they provided was giving his damaged soul the chance to heal. The lost boy who had pressed his nose against many a window wishing that he belonged had finally found his way home.