Our family. She didn’t push, but she clearly stated, at every opportunity, that they were family.
“You haven’t said what you and Sierra are doing on Christmas Eve.”
“We haven’t decided. Although I’ll bet Little Miss will try and convince me to open presents on Christmas Eve instead of Christmas morning.”
Vi frowned. “You don’t have a tradition?”
“No. Sierra’s been with her mom the last five Christmases. She spends part of Christmas Eve with me. Then I drop her off at Ellen’s that night.”
“Dad, we’re doing the same thing we always do. Drinking eggnog, cooking a batch of chili and watching Santa Claus is Coming to Town.” Sierra grinned. “Then maybe we’ll open up a present or ten.”
“Don’t you have plans with Rielle and Rory?” Vi asked.
Gavin shook his head.
She paused. “I’m sorry. I find that strange.”
“Speaking of Rielle…let’s get this mess cleaned up so she won’t have a fit that we destroyed her kitchen,” Vi said.
That rubbed Gavin the wrong way. “Maybe it seems like Rielle’s kitchen, but I do own this house. So technically it’s my kitchen.”
“Well, I’m glad you cleared that up,” Rory said walking past him, overloaded with grocery bags.
Shit. “Here, let me help you.”
“I’ve got it. Just let me know when I can come back into your kitchen and put everything away,” she retorted.
“Rory. That’s uncalled for,” Rielle said behind him. Then she too walked past with bags, and she too refused his help. “And Gavin is right. This is his place.” She smiled at Vi and Sierra. “But I do appreciate having a clean spot to work in.”
“We were just finishing up,” Vi said.
“No rush. I’ll put the stuff in the refrigerator. Rory and I planned to have a glass of wine first anyway.”
Then they were gone.
Sierra mumbled, “Merry freakin’ Christmas,” and started to load the dishwasher, humming Christmas tunes.
Gavin leaned against the counter where Vi was dividing all the goodies into Christmas tins. “Like I said, Gavin, I find this situation strange.”
“Yeah, well, it is what it is.”
“You are in a serious relationship with Rielle?”
He nodded. Yes, they were taking things slow. Normally he’d be fine with that; after all, they had their own lives and interests. But Gavin had almost an obsessive need to define what was growing between them.
The hit and miss nights they spent in each other’s beds caused some annoyance, even when he understood she had to be up at the crack of dawn three mornings a week.
Rielle got along well with Sierra. She didn’t comment on his parenting practices and she never inserted herself into the time he spent with his daughter. Most men would consider it an ideal relationship: smoking hot sex whenever he wanted, a woman who made no demands of a commitment, and her complete disinterest in the fact he had money. But he wanted more.
“This is what she wants,” he said softly.
Vi’s eyes took on a defiant gleam. “What about what you want?”
Such a…defensive and motherly thing to say. “It’s complicated. Rielle and I…we’ve both done our own thing. It’s been her and Rory for so long neither of them knows any other way to be. It’s sort of the same for Sierra and me.”
“But you’re adapting. You’ve embraced all the McKay craziness more than I ever thought you would.”
She rubbed his arm in such a loving manner, he nearly hugged her. He missed the easy rapport he’d had with his mother. Her sweetness and generosity. Vi was nothing like her…and yet she was.
“What are you thinking about that’s put such a melancholy look in your eyes?” Vi asked.
Gavin hedged. “How much I’m looking forward to having Christmas dinner with the crazy McKays.”
That answer pleased her. “We’ll eat around two. And open presents afterward.”
His smile froze. “Presents?”
“A little untraditional, I know, but Quinn and Libby want to spend Christmas morning with their children. Chase and Ava are staying in Kane’s trailer, and for the life of me I can’t figure that one out. Ben and Ainsley are feeding cattle so Quinn can be home with his family. So we open our gifts to each other late.”
He was so screwed. He’d bought a gift for Vi and Charlie, but no one else.
After he carried Vi’s boxes out to the car, he returned to the kitchen just as Sierra started the dishwasher.
She looked up at him and smirked. “So, you forgot to buy presents for your brothers, huh?”
“Dammit. I didn’t know there was a mandatory present thing.”
“Dad. It’s Christmas. Presents are always part of that. Which means you also need to buy gifts for their wives. Oh, and their kids.” She flat out laughed at his panicked expression. “Don’t worry. I’m a shopping expert, remember? We’ll get you loaded up in no time.”
“Do you have all of your shopping done?”
How? He hardly ever let her drive anywhere—even after she’d passed her driver’s test two weeks ago. “I’ll get my coat. And if we can really get this done in one night, I’ll even let you drive.”
Gavin and Sierra spent Christmas Eve stuffing themselves with chili, snacks and cookies. He even listened to the music on her iPod as they played her favorite board games. Including Candyland, which amused him, because she used the same strategy as she had at age six, which allowed him to win.
She’d been so excited to open gifts that he’d let her open them all. The number of presents under the tree from her surprised him. Fun, thoughtful, sweet items that proved she at least listened to him some of the time. His favorite was the hat she’d knitted for him in ASU colors. He’d had no clue that Rielle had taught her how to knit. It must’ve taken her hours. He immediately put it on and refused to take it off. Even when his head was sweating. Even after she called him a dork.
Her favorite gift was the set of Jeep keys he’d wrapped up with his promise that she could drive whenever she wanted—weather permitting—as soon as they returned from Arizona.
Afterward, she snuggled up to him on the couch and they watched Christmas movies. In a few years, this too would change between them. College. Boyfriends. Eventually a home and family of her own. It made him a little sad even as it reinforced his determination that he’d never let her get so far adrift from him again. As he looked at his bright, beautiful daughter he felt the bond between them had strengthened over the past few months, and he’d made the right decision moving them here.
Around eleven he kissed her forehead. “Better get in bed, girlie, or Santa won’t come tonight.”
“Dad. Santa? Really?”
“Yep. And he told me he was partial to those frosted cookies you made yesterday, so feel free to leave those out with a glass of milk.”
She snickered. “Okay. But I might skip the carrots for the reindeer this year.” She hugged him. “Night, Dad. Merry Christmas. I love you.”
“Merry Christmas. Love you too, sweetheart.”
“Outstanding meal, Mom. I think you’ll have to roll me to the Christmas tree,” Chase said, suppressing a burp.
“We should all go for a walk.”
Everyone groaned at the suggestion.
“I’m on dish detail,” Ainsley announced.
“Me too,” Ava chimed in.
“Me three.” Libby looked at Quinn. “You wanna put the kids down for a short n-a-p?”
“Sure.” He lifted Amelia from her high chair. “Come on, baby girl. Let’s get you tucked in.”
Thumb in her mouth, she nestled her head in the crook of her dad’s neck.
Gavin remembered those sleepy toddler days with more fondness than they probably deserved. Sierra hadn’t ever been an easy child.
Thump. Adam raced behind the dining room chairs and jumped in front of Quinn. “Daddy, where you goin’?”
“To a quiet, special place.”
“Can I come?”
“Well, I don’t know, sport. I’m thinkin’ you forgot how to be quiet.”
“I can be quiet,” Adam insisted.
“Okay. But you have to tiptoe like this.” Quinn demonstrated. Then he dropped his voice. “Can you whisper like this?”
Adam nodded again and tiptoed down the hallway after him.
Libby smiled. “That man can always get Adam to take a nap no matter how cranky or wild the kid is.”
“Must be a McKay family thing. My dad had to trick me into taking naps too,” Sierra said. “The one I remember best was the magical trip to la-la land. He made it sound like unicorns would prance around me and I could chase butterflies to my heart’s content and the entire place was made of candy. I could hardly wait to fall asleep.”
“It worked every time too.”
Sierra dropped her arms over the back of his chair and leaned down to hug him. “I’d be happy to revisit la-la land now if it’ll get me out of doing the dishes.”
“Not a chance.”
The women headed to the kitchen while the men adjourned to the living room. Charlie passed out cups of eggnog.
Gavin listened while Charlie, Ben and Quinn talked about ranching stuff that he had no clue about.
Then Chase butted in. “No offense, guys, but that’s enough talk about the damn cattle.”
“What do you wanna talk about, Chase? Bull riding?” Ben asked.
“Nope. I wanna hear about Gavin’s trip to Arizona in a few days. Anything interesting going on with your business?”
“I guarantee none of you want to hear me drone on about the real estate market. But yeah, I’m tying up some year-end loose ends.”