He patted Kelly’s shoulder and turned to go. Kelly grabbed Owen’s wrist and stuffed a small box in his hand. “Santa got you something too.”

Excitement flowing through him, Owen opened the box and found a set of dog tags on a chain. He ran his fingers over his brother’s name—Chad—and then donned him. He’d worn dog tags for years—even before his brother had joined the military—to symbolize how he loved his country. These tags meant something even more to him. He clutched the flat pieces of metal in one hand and sent a silent prayer to keep his brother safe in Afghanistan. He hoped Chad was able to have some sort of celebration. Maybe he could talk the guys into visiting the troops and putting on a concert for them someday. Or maybe he could fool Shade into thinking that he’d come up with the idea and he’d insist the band go overseas.

“Thanks,” Owen said, “but don’t you think it’s kind of lame to give your buddy jewelry for Christmas?” He knew damned well he’d given three out of four of his band mates some sort of jewelry, but couldn’t help but mess with Kellen. He was entirely too gloomy this morning.

“That’s from Santa,” Kelly said. “Don’t tell me you stopped believing.”

“Of course I haven’t. It’s Christmas.”

He turned to find Shade talking on his cell phone and grinning like a loon. “Did you open all your presents already?” Shade laughed at whatever his daughter said on the other end of the line. “What did Santa a bring you?” He interjected a “wow!” and a “that’s awesome!” every now and then, but otherwise just listened to her rattle on about her apparently huge pile of gifts. After several minutes, his smile faltered. “No, angel, I can’t come see you today.” He put on a pair of horribly bent sunglass to hide his suddenly watery eyes, but he couldn’t disguise the breathless quality of his voice as he spoke to her. “I’m stuck in the snow.” He chuckled. “Yes, I know it doesn’t snow lots in Texas, but I’m in Idaho. It snows lots in Idaho.” He bit his lip. “You’d make a perfect snow angel.”

Owen pointed at his Santa hat to remind him that they were going to give little Julie a second Christmas this year.

“When daddy gets home…” He paused as she interrupted him again. “Eight more sleeps. I know that’s a long time, honey. When daddy gets home in eight more sleeps, we’ll have another Christmas with just you and me.”

Owen crossed his arms over his chest and cleared his throat pointedly. He totally wanted in on the fun. He loved Christmas just as much as any three-year-old did.

“And Owen is going to get himself stuck in the chimney just for you.” Shade laughed. “Yep, he does have a flying reindeer as a matter of fact.” And then apparently his ex-wife got on the phone because his expression changed from his “melted daddy” look to his “oh my god what does this bitch want now” look. “Maybe he does have a f**king flying reindeer,” Shade shouted.

Really? She was going to yell at him about that? Owen normally didn’t interfere in Shade’s drama with his ex-wife, but he wasn’t letting Tina ruin Shade’s entire day. He was miserable enough about not getting to see his daughter today.

He lifted the phone to his ear, not really paying attention to her caterwauling. “Tina,” Owen said, “he’ll be there to pick Julie up a week from tomorrow. Have a Merry Christmas.”

He hung up and handed the phone back to Shade.

“Thanks,” Shade said, “I can’t seem to control my temper when I have to interact with her.”

“No problem,” Owen said. “I love hanging up on her.”

“How about a nice Christmas breakfast?” Shade said.

“Are you cooking?” Owen asked.

“Yep.”

“Pancakes?”

“What else?”

“I’m in.”

“Me too,” Gabe said, setting his new book aside.

“Me three,” Adam said.

“Kelly?” Owen called. “You want breakfast?”

“Does Gabe have pants on yet?”

“I’m on it,” Gabe promised.

“Then yeah.” Kelly shed his blanket, his new leather cuff on his wrist.

It brought Owen no joy to see Kellen wearing the gift he’d given him. He looked forward to the day that he took it off permanently.

Lindsey and Vanessa slinked out of the bedroom at the back of the bus.

“Can we join you?” Vanessa asked.

“Shade tugged a pair of panties out of his pocket and passed them discretely to Owen.

“Did you ever find your panties, Vanessa?” Shade asked.

“No,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest. “I think some fool stole them.”

Owen tucked her panties into his back pocket.”

“I hope they turn up,” Shade said. “We have a no panties-no breakfast policy on this tour bus.”

“Whatever,” Vanessa said.

“It’s true,” Gabe said. “Why do you think I decided to get dressed?”

“You wear panties?” Vanessa asked.

“Only on special occasions.”

Lindsey grinned. “I found my panties. What’s for breakfast?”

“Shade’s famous melt-in-your-mouth pancakes.”

“Sounds great.” She moved to sit in the booth at the dining table.

When Vanessa tried to follow her, Adam reached out of his bunk with his now fully functional arm and grabbed her leg. “Panty inspection required.”

“I said some fool done stole my panties.”

“Then no breakfast for you.”

Vanessa looked to her friend for assistance. “Girl, you aren’t going to desert me, are you?”

“Sorry, Nessi, but I’m starving.”

“Some friend you are.” Vanessa eventually resorted to wearing a pair of Adam’s boxer shorts so she could join them at breakfast.

It wasn’t exactly the kind of Christmas morning Owen was accustomed to, but everyone was smiling and happy. That’s all that really mattered to him.

Chapter Thirteen

It was a few hours before the snow plow and a tow truck made it up the mountain pass to clear the road and pull Lindsey’s car out of a snow drift. She’d had one hell of a crazy night with the boys in the band, but was surprised by how normal they were as they had breakfast and joked around with each other and played a game of hide Vanessa’s panties. Owen especially like to get Vanessa riled up. Lindsey was pretty sure Vanessa was overstating her exasperation with the five of them, but it was difficult to tell with Vanessa.


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