A Very Braden Christmas

Chapter One

THE STAR IS CROOKED.

Hal Braden smiled as the voice of his beloved wife, Adriana, whispered through his mind, as real as the bitter winter chill stinging his cheeks. He gazed up at the star on the peak of the barn roof, glittering against the backdrop of the Colorado mountains, and sure enough, the star was crooked. He shook his head, laughing softly, and swore he could hear Adriana’s playful giggle as he remembered how they used to duck into the barn office, or one of the horse stalls, for a little afternoon delight when their six children were playing outside. After one such secret steamy moment, Adriana had noticed the star was crooked and she’d told Hal it was because their love was too big to be confined and they’d rocked the entire world.

“Oh, darlin’,” he said in the soft, gravelly voice that seemed to come only when he spoke to her, “if only that were the case today.”

He heard Adriana’s voice often, only sometimes his beloved wife didn’t whisper from the grave; she outright hammered him for messing up one thing or another. After all these years, that was okay with Hal. Not a day went by that he didn’t wish he could pull her into his arms and tell her one last time how much he adored her, that his every breath carried as much hurt as love and that he looked forward to the day he’d be with her again.

He pulled his Stetson down low against the cold evening air as he headed toward the barn, leading Hope, the old chestnut mare he’d bought for Adriana when they’d first found out she was ill so many years ago. Hope had far outlived Hal’s wife, whom they’d lost to cancer when their youngest, Hugh, was just a toddler. Hope had slowed down over the years, but Hal swore Adriana’s spirit lived on in the horse, who refused to give in to the inevitable.

Hope stopped walking and bobbed her head in the direction of Hal’s stone and cedar house, just up the hill from the barn. His son Josh’s Land Rover was pulling into the driveway. Josh and his wife, Riley, were world-renowned fashion designers. They had a little girl named Abigail, who was just shy of two years old, and they split their time between Manhattan and Weston, Colorado.

Hal gazed at Hope and petted her jaw as he said, “They’re all moving home, darlin’, just like we always wanted.”

About the same time that Josh and Riley had decided to move back to Weston part time, Hugh and his wife, Brianna, had moved back full time. They’d purchased a home with a guesthouse for Brianna’s mother just a few miles away from Hal. Treat, Hal’s eldest, who owned resorts all over the world, and Rex, who ran the family ranch, both lived within walking distance with their families. Savannah, Hal’s only daughter, had a cabin in the mountains not far from Hal’s. Only Dane had yet to move back. As the founder of the Brave Foundation, Dane dedicated his life to saving sharks, and he lived on a boat with his wife, Lacy, and their little boy, Finn.

“Let’s get you inside, Hope, so we don’t miss the festivities.”

Every Christmas Eve since his children were born, Hal and his family attended the community barn dance, after which they had a slumber party in Hal’s living room. It had been Adriana’s idea to start the tradition. Just a little something special so they always remember how important family is. Getting the kids into the living room for a slumber party with their old man when they were teenagers had been dicey, with plenty of huffs and rolled eyes. But in the end it had taken only one of the children reminding the others that they were carrying on the tradition for their mother for them all to comply. And now that all of Hal’s children had families of their own, Christmas Eve was even more chaotic—and more meaningful. Rex and Treat had taken the children out to cut down the tree, and everyone had helped decorate it. It had been a loud, exciting day, and the evening promised to be even more so.

Hal pulled open the heavy wooden door to the barn and led Hope inside. As scents of leather, livestock, and family greeted him, years of memories rushed in. He’d been around horses his whole life and was proud to carry on his family’s legacy breeding Dutch Warmblood show jumpers. Ranch life was grueling work, toiling in the hot sun and the frigid snow from predawn until well after dark, but he wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Hope whinnied, bobbing her big head and pawing at the ground.

“What is it, girl?” Hal cocked his head, listening to the familiar sounds of the barn, and then he heard what Hope must have already taken note of. Shuffling. The sound came from the office in the back of the barn. The door was ajar, and Hal wondered what critter had found its way in. He heard a crash as he opened Hope’s stall, and she neighed and shook her head, stepping back.

“You stubborn old girl. I don’t have time for this today.”

Hope pushed her muzzle into his sternum. At six foot six, Hal was still broad and thick-chested, despite his gray hair and beard. Working on the ranch kept him in prime shape, but he was no match for the softness in Hope’s eyes.

He kissed her muzzle and said, “What is it, darlin’? I can handle any vermin. You know that.”

Hope blew out a breath, a sound Hal knew well. It was Hope’s way of saying, No shit. Just leave it alone anyway. But Hal had a gathering to attend, and he wasn’t about to let an animal tear up his office. Another crash sounded, propelling Hal into action.

“Let’s go.” He hauled Hope into her stall and strode determinedly toward the office, readying himself for an angry critter.

He snagged a pitchfork that was leaning against the wall by the office and rolled his shoulders back as another heavy thud sounded. He ground out a curse as he threw the door open, pitchfork raised—and froze at the sight of his son Rex holding his wife, Jade, against the far wall, her legs wrapped around his waist. The murderous look in Rex’s eyes as he glowered over his shoulder was enough to scare off an army of men.

But not Hal Braden.

Hal’s deep laughter filled the room as he set down the pitchfork and said, “No wonder the star was crooked.”

“Christ,” Rex growled, the muscles in his jaw jumping beneath his pitch-black scruff.

Rex was the most aggressive and ornery of Hal’s children. He reminded Hal of himself in his younger years. With bulbous biceps and tree-trunk legs, born from years of hard manual labor, Rex would not shy away from any battle—including one with his father. He’d gone against Hal’s wishes when he’d fallen for Jade Johnson, the daughter of Hal’s arch nemesis. But it was Rex’s love for Jade that had mended a forty-plus-year feud between the two families, reuniting Hal and his one-time best friend.

Rex’s brows slanted. “Ya mind, Pop?”

“The woman just had a baby a few weeks ago. Give her a break.” He snickered and backed toward the door.

Rex scoffed, a smile tugging at his lips. “She attacked me.”

Jade’s cheeks burned red despite her being fully dressed. She buried her face in Rex’s neck, mumbling an apology.

“Now, get outta here so I can make out with my wife in private,” Rex said with a smile. “Lord knows we never get a moment alone anymore.” Hal’s oldest son, Treat, and the others were watching Rex and Jade’s toddler, Little Hal, and their new baby girl, Josslyn Adriana.

“A’right. Josh’s family is here, so I imagine we’re heading out soon.” He turned to leave and said, “You’re fixin’ the damn star.”

Rex growled his agreement, and Hal walked out with a smile on his face.

AFTER TAKING CARE of Hope and the other horses, Hal headed up to the house. His sons Dane and Hugh met him on the patio. All of Hal’s boys shared his tall, broad stature, dark hair, and dark eyes, but Hugh’s eyes were a shade lighter than the others, and at the moment they sparked with mischief.

“The kids are getting antsy,” Dane said. “Savannah and Jack arrived while you were in the barn. I think we ought to get going before the boys find their way into too much trouble.”

“If we can find Rex and Jade. And yes, we checked the bedrooms,” Hugh said with a coy smile. Adriana had known the minute their youngest was born that Hugh would be a rascally one, and she’d been right. Hugh was a race-car driver, and until he’d met Brianna, he’d enjoyed all the fruits of his success and celebrity. Now the father of two, with another due in February, Hugh was an excellent father and a loving husband. He made Hal proud, as all his children did.

Hal grinned. “They’re down in the barn. Give ’em a few minutes.”

Dane nudged Hugh and raised his brows.

“Aw, hell no. That’s not happening. Let’s go, bro,” Hugh said. “If I can’t drag my wife up to a bedroom, he’s not touching his.”

As they jogged toward the barn Hal shook his head, chuckling at his boys’ antics. He hoped they’d carry on that playful, brotherly banter forever.

“Hi, Daddy!” Savannah ran out the back door, looking so much like a young Adriana, Hal’s heart thudded a little harder as she threw her arms around him. Savannah was an entertainment attorney, working three days a week in Manhattan now that she and her husband, Jack Remington, had a son, Adam, who was three. Savannah was as feisty and stubborn as her mother had been, which was a good thing, considering she was a middle child who had grown up surrounded by boisterous, overprotective brothers.

“Hello, sweetheart. How’s my girl? Did you have a nice visit with Jack’s family?”

“Yes. They’re all doing well. His parents are overjoyed with all their grandbabies. Dex and Ellie’s new baby boy, Lucas, reminds me of Treat and Jack,” she said as they went inside. “You know, serious, watchful. He’s only a baby, but I can see it.”

Hal chuckled, enjoying the bustle and noise of his grandchildren and daughters-in-law. Lacy and Brianna were in the kitchen decorating cookies, while Hugh’s boy, Christian, and Treat’s son, Dylan, darted in and out, trying to sneak a few off the counter.

“Christian Braden!” Brianna said with a smile as her little boy snagged a cookie and tore from the room in a fit of giggles. She ran a hand over her seven-month baby bump and shook her head.

At five and six, Christian and Dylan were a handful, racing around with superhero capes, climbing on the couch as Treat’s wife, Max, who was cradling baby Josslyn in a rocking chair, reminded them not to stand on Grandpa’s furniture. Little Hal and Adam were racing toy cars in the hallway, cheering loudly, and amid all the chaos, Hugh’s daughter, Layla, who was thoughtful and beautiful at twelve, and Treat’s daughter, Adriana, who was the spitting image of her late grandmother at nine, sat huddled together, talking in whispers in Hal’s favorite recliner. Treat sat in an armchair, reading to his youngest boy, one-year-old Bryce, while keeping a watchful eye on everyone.

“Grandpa Hal! Play with us!” Dylan hollered as he ran by, chasing Finn, who was carrying a Christmas gift he’d taken from under the tree.

Finn darted behind Hal, all blond curls like Lacy and big dark eyes like Dane, and cried, “Papa Hal! Help!”

Hal picked up a squealing Dylan, holding him above his head as Finn laughed hysterically, clinging to the present.

Finn jumped up and down, trying to reach his cousin. “Let him down, Papa Hal! I want to play chase!”

“What do you say I wrap you up and put you under the tree?” Hal said to Dylan, trying to temper his smile.

“Yes! Do it!” Dylan said, causing Hal and Treat to laugh heartily.

“Do it! Do it!” Christian chanted, and as if it were a call of the wild beckoning a herd, the other two younger boys barreled into the room.

Adam, Finn, and Little Hal all jumped up and down around Grandpa Hal’s feet as he held Dylan hostage. The little boys chanted, “Do it! Do it! Do it!”

Rex, Jade, Dane, and Hugh came in from outdoors. Rex took one look at the mayhem, picked up Little Hal, and turned him upside down, holding him by his ankles as his boy giggled and wiggled. “Caught myself a rabbit!”

Dane followed suit with Finn and exclaimed, “Got mine!”

As Hugh reached for Christian, his boy took off in a fit of giggles across the living room. Hugh took chase, and as he snagged his boy around the waist, earning a squeal of glee, Hal’s gaze fell to the picture of Adriana smiling down on him from the mantel, and his heart felt fuller than it ever had.