By Andrew Todd
Stephanie and Ace were coming out of the barn when they heard Diego’s shout.
Stephanie started to move towards where the shout came from, but Ace grabbed her arm.
“Ace, let me go,” she ordered as she turned towards him. “I need to see what’s going on.”
Ace shook his head. “No, you need to let Diego help him. He’s been through this sort of thing before, so he can relate to what Luka’s feeling.”
“But he might not be the right person to help Luka.”
“Why? Cuz Luka’s got a thing for him?”
Stephanie nodded. “I don’t want him to get hurt more.”
“You don’t need to worry about that.”
Diego chased Luka through the woods. “Luka, stop!!” he said as he finally caught up with the smaller boy. Diego reached out and grabbed hold of Luka and pulled him to a stop.
“Diego, I’m sorry, let me go,” Luka cried as he struggled to pull loose of Diego’s hold.
“No,” Diego answered. “I will not let you go until you tell me why you are running away from me.”
Luka finally stopped struggling, realizing it was futile. “Look, I’m sorry,” he sighed. “With everything that’s happened today--Winston, you telling me about Rafi--I got caught up in the moment. I’m so sorry. I know you’re not…”
“Gay?” Diego asked quietly.
Luka nodded with tears in his deep blue eyes.
“But, Luka, I am gay,” Diego said as he took Luka’s hand in his. He took his other hand and caressed Luka’s cheek.
Luka swooned and then caught himself. He pushed Diego away. “It’s not funny, Diego!!” he shouted as he turned, prepared to stomp off.
Diego grabbed his arm and spun the smaller boy around. He wrapped his arms around Luka’s waist and looked into Luka’s eyes. Luka felt as though Diego were looking into his soul.
“I am not laughing,” Diego said softly as he pressed his lips to Luka’s.
Luka felt himself being swept away. He couldn’t focus on anything except this gorgeous boy holding him and kissing him so passionately. He felt Diego’s tongue trace his lips until he parted them slightly and the muscle slipped into his mouth and sought out his own.
Luka finally pulled back.
“Wow,” he whispered breathlessly.
Diego looked at him. “You didn’t like it?” he asked.
“Are you kidding?” Luka answered. “I’ve never done anything like that. A few more minutes and I would’ve had a hell of a mess,” he said as he looked down at the sizeable bulge in his pants.
“I would have had the same problem as well,” Diego answered. Luka almost choked when he saw the size of Diego’s bulge.
“This is wrong,” Luka said turning back towards the ranch.
Diego walked along side of him. “Why? Do you not like me?” he asked sadly.
“No…I mean…yes…” Luka stammered. He stopped walking and looked at Diego. The Spaniard had a confused expression on his face. “I like you, Diego. I like you a lot. But Winston…”
Diego grabbed Luka into a hug. “I understand, my friend,” he said as he embraced Luka. “It is too soon for you to be feeling this way as you have not had the time to deal with your grief.”
“But, I shall help you with that,” Diego offered. “Come, Stephanie will be concerned about you.”
Diego took Luka’s hand in his and led him down the trail and out of the woods.
Ace and Stephanie were standing outside the barn when they saw Luka and Diego come out of the woods still holding hands.
“See, I told ya there was nothin’ ta worry about,” Ace said.
“I hope so,” Stephanie replied. “I just don’t want my little brother to get hurt.”
“Steph, Diego is one of the sweetest guys around. He’ll take good care of Luka.”
Steph nodded and then ran to meet with Diego and her brother.
Ace watched the three talk as they approached the barn.
“Hey, Luka,” Ace said when they reached the spot where he was waiting. “How’re ya doin’?
Luka shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“Well, Doc’s waitin’ on ya,” Ace said gently.
Luka took hold of Stephanie’s and Diego’s hands and the three walked into the barn. CJ and Danny were waiting outside Winston’s stall. CJ nodded to Luka as he walked into the stall alone.
“Is he…” he started to ask Dr. Grimes.
The doctor shook his head. “Not yet, son,” he said solemnly. “I gave him something for the pain and to sedate him, but CJ insisted I wait for you, so you could say goodbye. But the pain meds are only doing so much.” He placed his hand on Luka’s shoulder. “I know this is hard, but he is suffering right now.”
Tears filled Luka’s eyes as he nodded to the doctor. “Can I stay with him?”
The doctor nodded.
Luka knelt by Winston’s head and stroked the gelding’s neck.
Dr. Grimes stepped over to where his bag was and he came back with a prepared syringe.
Luka turned away while the doctor inserted the needle in Winston’s neck and pressed the plunger. The vet withdrew the needle and went back to his bag.
“It will work pretty quickly,” he said. “I’ll let you be alone.” He walked out of the stall.
Luka held Winston’s head on his lap and stroked his cheek. He wept as he felt the breath leave his friend’s body.
Luka bent down and hugged Winston’s neck and sobbed.
Luka felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up to see Diego standing behind him with tears in his eyes. Diego knelt down next to him and wrapped his arm around Luka’s shoulder. Luka buried his head in Diego’s chest and cried.
Diego held Luka tight as he sobbed. He wrapped his arms around the smaller boy and lifted him up. Everyone stepped aside as Diego carried Luka from the barn.
Stephanie turned to CJ and Danny. “What now?” she said.
“We’ve already contacted Mac Brown,” CJ answered. “He owns the construction company that did the work on the ranch.” He saw the confused look on Stephanie’s face. “Someone has to take care of Winston,” he said gently.
“Oh, God…” Steph inhaled deeply. “Where?”
“There’s a field that we’ve set aside for this,” Danny said. “It’s not like we can move them around a lot, so Mac’s crew is going to come with the equipment in a little bit and they’ll take care of it. CJ and I will be here to make sure everything’s ok.” He looked around the barn. “Ace, can you guys get stalls ready in the other sections of the barn? We don’t want to put the horses back in here until afterwards.” There were three other horses that usually boarded in that section of the barn.
“Sure, Danny,” Ace said as he set off to find new stalls.
“Ace, wait up, I’ll help,” Stephanie called as she ran after Ace. “Since Lily’s one of the horses that needs to be moved, I can help you get a stall ready for her.”
Ace nodded as the two walked away.
Diego carried Luka across the compound and into the house.
Bridget was dusting the entryway when he walked in.
“Oh, my goodness,” she said as she saw how pale and drawn Luka looked. “Are you all right?”
Diego explained what happened.
“Luka, I’m so sorry. Diego, why don’t you bring him up to your room and I’ll bring up something to eat.”
“Thank you, Bridget,” Diego said as he almost carried Luka up the stairs.
Diego opened the bedroom door and carried Luka through. He gently sat Luka down on his bed. He reached down and pulled off Luka’s boots and placed them by the door. He came back and moved Luka’s legs onto the bed and put several pillows together and gestured for Luka to lay back.
“You should lay down for a few minutes,” Diego instructed. “I am going to call CJ and let him know you are here with me, so Stephanie does not worry.”
Luka nodded absently and then rolled over so he was facing away from Diego.
Diego was pained as he watched Luka’s body shake from his heavy sobs.
Diego quietly walked out of the room and a few steps down the hallway. He called CJ to let him know where they were and that he would watch over Luka. CJ thanked Diego and told him he would talk to Stephanie.
Diego had just disconnected when Spin and Mattie came up the stairs.
“Hey, Diego,” greeted Mattie. “There you are. We were looking for you at the barn. Thanks for letting us borrow Domingo, we had a great ride.”
Spin nodded. “It was excellent; thanks, buddy.”
Diego nodded and half grinned at the two.
“What’s wrong?” Mattie asked.
“You have not spoken to CJ or Danny?”
Both boys shook their heads.
Diego quickly explained about Winston.
“Oh, shit,” Spin said. “That’s rough. I can’t imagine going through that.”
“Where’s Luka now?” Mattie asked.
“He is resting in my room,” Diego answered. “I was just calling CJ to let him know we were here. After Winston passed, I felt it was necessary to bring Luka somewhere other than the barn.”
“Good idea,“ Mattie said. “We’ll let him rest, but if you guys need anything, we’ll be in my room.”
Diego nodded. “Thank you, my friends.”
Diego ran downstairs to the kitchen.
“I was just about to bring this up to you,” Bridget said holding a tray with drinks and sandwiches on it.
“I can take that,” Diego said. “Thank you very much, Bridget. Luka is resting now. I will try to get him to eat something.”
“Take care of him, Diego,” Bridget said sweetly. “I get the feeling that one doesn’t have a great many friends.”
Diego smiled and nodded and left with the tray.
Stephanie finished laying the new bedding in the stall she was preparing for Lily. She and Ace had split duties and this was the last of the stalls she had to finish. Cleaning the stalls was a good way to keep her mind off what had happened with Winston. She was worried about Luka. His world had revolved around Winston for so long, she had no idea how he would react when the events of the day finally settled in.
She was cautiously optimistic about his budding relationship with Diego. She knew from their many late night conversations that Luka had developed a crush on Diego from the first day they met, but he had been sure that Diego was straight. Now that they knew the truth she hoped that Diego was what her brother would need to deal with his loss.
“Hey, Steph, you about done in here?” Ace was standing in the doorway to the stall grinning at her. She had been lost in her thoughts and standing glassy-eyed in the middle of the stall.
“What?” she said as she shook herself back to the here and now.
Ace smiled brightly. “I asked if you were about done in here.”
Stephanie nodded. “Yes, we’re good.”
“Alrighty, then, let’s go get the horses.”
They quickly retrieved the horses and put them all in their new stalls.
“Let’s go over to the office,” Ace said when they had finished. “I want to leave a note on the message board for the boarders whose horses got moved, so they know where to find them.”
They walked over to the main barn and entered from the rear. They walked through on their way to the office.
Ace stopped in front of an empty stall. He looked at Stephanie shyly.
“Umm, I don’t suppose you’d want to go to a movie with me?” he asked quietly.
Stephanie burst out laughing.
“What are you laughing at?’ Ace asked as he turned red.
“You, you big macho redneck; you ask me out and you turn into this shy little kid.” Stephanie smirked. “It’s cute. Of course, I’ll go to a movie with you, tough guy.”
Ace grinned and leaned in and kissed Stephanie gently on the cheek.
It was Stephanie’s turn to blush. “It’ll cost you more than that,” she said slyly.
“Promises, promises,” Ace said as he walked off towards the office.
Stephanie giggled as she ran to catch up with Ace.
There was a soft knock on the door. It opened slightly.
“Diego…are you in here?”
“Yes, Brandon, come in,” Diego whispered.
Brandon peeked into the room and saw Diego sitting up in bed. Luka was laying next to Diego, his eyes closed.
“Shhh,” Diego said. “He is sleeping.”
“Danny told me what happened, is he ok?”
“He will be,” Diego said. “But right now, he is lost in his grief.”
Diego slowly extricated the arm that Luka had been lying on and quietly got off of the bed. He walked across the room and motioned for Brandon to follow him out into the hallway. He quietly closed the door behind them.
Brandon looked at Diego quizzically. “Are you guys boyfriends?” he asked.
“I am not sure,” Diego answered honestly.
“But you want to be?”
“I like him very much and I think he likes me.”
Brandon smiled. “Then I hope you guys get together,” he said.
“Sure, why wouldn’t I?”
“I was afraid that…”
“That I had a crush on you?” Brandon asked.
“I probably did for the first day or two, but you’re like a big brother to me,” Brandon assured Diego. “I love you, but I don’t think I’d ever be in love with you.”
“And I love you, my friend,” Diego said as he hugged Brandon. “You were my first new friend in America and you will always be a little brother to me.”
Brandon hugged Diego tight and then stepped back.
“Well, I just came to tell you that Chance was all taken care of and I double-checked on Domingo too.”
Diego grinned at Brandon. “Did you not trust Mattie and Spin to take care of him?”
Brandon blushed. “Well, I know that they know more than me, but since I help you with him so much, I feel responsible for him. Was I wrong?”
“No, my friend,” Diego answered. “Even though I trust both of them to take care of Domingo, it pleases me that you would go out of your way to check on him. It means that you are learning what is important about being a true horseman.”
Brandon beamed at the compliment. “Cool. Well, Zak said he’d give me a ride home, so I better go find him.” He gave Diego a quick hug. “I’ll see you tomorrow. Take care of Luka. Tell him I’m gonna say a prayer for him and Winston.”
“I will, Brandon, thank you,” Diego said as he watched the younger boy run down the stairs.
He went back into his room to find Luka still asleep on the bed. He returned to his place and Luka rolled towards him and wrapped an arm around Diego’s waist.
Diego hoped that he wasn’t risking his heart with Luka. Behind the wall that Luka had built around himself, Diego saw a fragile soul. Some of the other boys would complain about Luka’s demanding nature, but Diego recognized a kindred spirit in Luka. He knew what it was like to sequester yourself away, to build a wall around your heart to keep from being hurt. Diego had invested himself wholly in his horses to stave off the loneliness he felt at the rancho, just as Luka had invested everything in Winston and competing to escape the bullying that he experienced at his old school.
Even if there was no future for him and Luka, he wanted to help his friend deal with this loss. He knew that he had to let Luka grieve and cope with Winston’s passing at his own pace. All he could do was be there for him.
Dusty was at his desk in the corner of his loft when Zak came back from dropping off Brandon.
“Dinner!!” Zak shouted as he walked into the kitchen. The loft was a huge open space. Furniture had been used to mark off a bedroom, office and kitchen areas. The bathroom was off the bedroom area and was the only closed-off space in the apartment.
Dusty got up from the desk and went into the kitchen. He watched as Zak unloaded from several large bags.
“Jesus, Zak, did you get enough?” he laughed.
Zak grinned at him. “I think so, but…” as he was about to continue, they both turned at the sound of footsteps coming up the stairs, “…we’re having company,” he finished, as CJ, Danny, Mattie and Spin came into the loft.
“Hey, guys,” Dusty greeted his guests. “Where’s the rest of the crew?”
“Diego wanted to stay with Luka. We talked to his parents and they thought it would be good for him to spend the night with Diego,” CJ answered. “And Jesse and Dylan went out with Ace and Devon and TJ went on a date.”
“Is everything ok with them?” Zak asked. “They were really out of it today.”
“Why don’t we all get something to eat and sit down and we can get you guys caught up,” Danny suggested.
Everyone spent the next few minutes digging through the various containers of food and filling their plates. They carried their plates into the living room and took seats on the couches and chairs Dusty had scattered around.
“Ok, spill,” Zak instructed his brother.
Danny sighed. “Listen, I know Jesse won’t mind me telling you guys this. In fact, he asked me if I would, because it’s too hard for him to.”
“Danny, now you’re scaring us,” Spin said as the other boys nodded.
“Sorry,” Danny replied. “About a month or so ago, right before the grand opening, CJ and I received some legal documents. We’ve had the lawyers going over them since then, but there’s nothing we can do at this point.”
“Do about what?” Mattie asked. “What the hell is going on?”
“Jesse’s biological father is suing us for custody of Jesse,” CJ said.
Zak shook his head. “Hell, no!! He can’t have him!”
Danny grinned at his brother. “That’s exactly what we said and how Jesse feels. Look guys, right now, all we know for sure is that on Monday Jesse, Dylan and I are flying to Florida for a few days. Jesse has to have a DNA test to prove whether or not this guy is his father. Once we know that then we can move from there. But, we already told Jesse we are not letting him go without a fight.”
“He’s family,” Mattie said forcefully. “We aren’t gonna lose him to some guy that decided sixteen years later that he wants to be a father.”
“Pretty much the same response we had,” CJ laughed. “But, you can understand Jesse and Dylan are a bit scared about all this. They know we’re gonna fight for Jesse, but they’ve both been through too much to not look at the dark side of things.”
“What can we do?” Dusty asked.
“Just be there for them,” Danny said. “They know they have our love and support; just be understanding if they seem a little off while this is going on.”
“Well, hopefully after the DNA test it will be all over,” Spin offered.
“Well, the DNA test is pretty much a given,” Danny said. “While his father was never named on his birth certificate, there is paperwork signed by this man terminating his parental rights. In the eyes of the law, that’s just as good as if Jesse’s mom had named him on the birth certificate.”
“If he terminated his rights, why does he want custody of Jesse?” Mattie asked.
“That’s the million-dollar question,” CJ answered. “He says he’s been looking for Jesse since he found out about his mother. Since Jesse ran away there wasn’t a lot of documentation, but he was able to track Jesse down through the registration for that first show you guys were in.”
“Is this guy trying to shake you down?” Spin asked. “Did he find out Jesse was staying with people with money?”
Danny shook his head. “I don’t think so. While his wealth probably doesn’t match CJ’s, he’s not exactly poor.”
“You know this guy?” Zak asked.
Danny nodded. “You and Dylan met him at the competition. Trevor van Edsel.”
“That Olympic guy?!?” Zak exclaimed.
“Yes. It seems that he had a long-term relationship with Jesse’s mom, but he was married at the time, so she had him give up his parental rights and now he says he wants to be part of Jesse’s life,” CJ answered.
“He can be a part of his life, if that’s what Jesse wants,” Mattie declared. “He just can’t take him away from us.”
“Guys, all we can do is take this one day at a time,” Danny said. “Just treat Jesse like we always have; don’t make a fuss right now, you know he’ll hate that.”
They all agreed and then Dusty changed the subject to some issues he was having with new volunteers.
Ace didn’t know what was bugging Jesse and Dylan, but he knew they hadn’t been themselves today. Seeing his ‘little brothers’ this out of it had spurred him into action.
After the events of the afternoon, he decided that he would take the two out for a night on the town.
Both had tried to decline, but Ace had insisted they all needed a change of scenery. He had spoken to Danny and he thought some time out would be good for the two.
Ace had considered a movie, but since that wasn’t much of a participatory activity, he decided on something more physical instead. Bowling.
When they pulled up in front of the bowling alley, Jesse rolled his eyes. “Are you kidding?” he whined. “Bowling??”
Ace laughed. “Yes, bowling. I’m gonna mop the floor with you two.”
“Ace, let me explain something to you,” Dylan chuckled. “You are ‘Mr. Muscles’; me and Jesse, not so much. You’re gonna kill us in any physical activity.”
“I don’t know about that,” Ace answered. “First of all, you guys might be smaller, but given the amount of time you spend in the saddle, y’all got some muscles. You’re both wiry and quick. Don’t think just cuz someone’s gotcha beat in size that you can’t take ‘em.”
“Sure…” Jesse replied, a sour look on his face.
“A’ight, guys, what the hell is up with you?!” Ace exclaimed looking at both boys. “You ain’t been yourselves all day and I want to know what’s going on!!”
Jesse, who sat between Ace and Dylan, looked at Ace with tears in his eyes. Ace could tell he was on the verge of falling apart.
He wrapped his arm around Jesse. “Jess, tell me what’s bothering you. You know I’ll help if I can.”
“I don’t think anyone can,” Jesse said softly as the tears came faster.
Ace looked helplessly at Dylan, whose eyes were red-rimmed as well.
Dylan whispered in Jesse’s ear. Jesse nodded.
“Jesse’s scared that he’s going to be taken away from CJ and Danny,” Dylan blurted out.
Dylan took a deep breath and told Ace the whole story about Jesse’s father and his suing CJ and Danny for custody of Jesse.
“Buddy, you listen to me, ain’t nobody gonna take you away from us,” Ace said forcefully. “Even if this guy is your bio-dad, that don’t mean he’s your ‘real’ dad. The only people who’ve been daddies to you are Danny and CJ and they ain’t gonna give up on you, ever.”
Jesse hugged Ace tight. “Thanks,” he said breathlessly.
“Alright now, no more tears tonight,” Ace instructed. “We gonna have a good time and we ain’t gonna think about anything other than me beatin’ your scrawny asses.”
Jesse and Dylan both laughed at Ace’s silliness and the three friends went into the bowling alley.
Luka’s eyes blinked open. He lay there trying to remember where he was. The room was dark. He could hear someone breathing next to him.
“Diego?” he whispered.
“Si, Amigo, I am here,” Diego replied. “Are you alright?”
“I think so. I just couldn’t figure out where I was for a minute.”
Diego reached up and turned on a bedside light. Luka’s blue eyes blinked at the sudden illumination of the room.
“You are in my room,” Diego explained. “I brought you here from the barn and you fell asleep.”
“What time is it?”
Diego looked at the clock on his nightstand. “It is nine thirty.”
“Oh, shit!!” Luka exclaimed. “My dad’s gonna kill me!!”
Diego grabbed his arm as he tried to leap from the bed. “Calm down, Luka,” he said quietly. “Your father knows where you are. CJ spoke to him and he thought it best to let you stay and rest. Sleep was the best thing to help you deal with everything that has happened.”
“You’re kidding. My dad doesn’t usually let me stay out.”
“Exactly how many times have you asked him if you could?”
“Well, n-n-never actually…”
“You are just used to telling people your father will not let you stay over,” Diego said. “That protects you from being hurt by others.”
“H-h-how did you know?”
“Luka, I have watched you since I arrived here,” Diego explained. “You are a complicated person. I could see you yearning to be part of the ‘group’, but something always seemed to hold you back. You have a wall built around you. I could see the real you in your eyes, but the self you projected, I am sure, turned many people off.”
“You mean nobody likes me,” Luka said emphatically.
“No, I do not mean that,” Diego argued. “Though I think that is what you have wanted. I think you felt safer if no one could hurt you. If you projected an ‘attitude’ of aloofness and a cold arrogance then no one would want to get to know you and if no one got to know you then no one could hurt you.”
Luka nodded sadly. “I got bullied and picked on so much that I just closed myself off,” he explained. “Steph was the only person who I felt close to. She spent so much time defending me that I finally decided to make things easier for her. If no one thought I cared, then they would leave me alone or so I thought. It didn’t work so much at my old school, but when we moved here, I figured if I kept my distance then I would be safe.”
“Even though you knew that many of the boys here were just like you?”
“Just because they’re gay, doesn’t mean they’re like me.”
Diego shook his head. “I don’t agree. You may all have different personalities and likes and dislikes, but why not focus on what you share. A love of horses, an attraction to people of the same sex, competition. These are some of the most accepting boys I have ever met. They took me in. In spite of the fact that my father was responsible for kidnapping Mattie and Dylan and tried to kill them.”
“But that wasn’t you, that was your father,” Luka protested.
“Many people would have turned their backs on me. There was no reason for CJ and Danny to bring me here. I was essentially an orphan; they could have left me there. I didn’t have any claim on the rancho and nothing that I thought my father had given me was his to give. But, CJ and Danny and the rest of the boys they all treated me like family. They have done everything they can to make me feel at home, to help get over what my father has done and what has become of him. They will do the same for you if you let them.”
“It’s too late.”
“No, Luka, it is not too late, it is never too late. If you really want to be a part of the ranch, then be a part of it.”
“It’ll be too hard now, now that Winston’s…” Luka’s eyes filled with tears.
Diego pulled Luka to him and hugged the smaller boy tight. He rocked Luka in his arms. “Nothing worth doing is ever easy, my friend. But, if ever there was a time to open yourself to friends, this would be it. Who else but the boys here would understand what Winston meant to you? Do you not understand that there is not one boy here who does not know exactly what you are feeling and that they all live with the fear of going through the pain that you and I have experienced? I know that Dusty has been through it, but I do not believe any of the others have. Why not open yourself to their embrace and let them help you through this?”
Luka was quiet for a few moments. He rubbed his eyes with his fists and brushed the loose hanging hair from his eyes. He looked up into Diego’s steely blue eyes. He had dreamt of finding someone like this, someone who would love him and not judge him. He was torn over the grief he felt over losing Winston and the way his heart leapt when Diego held him.
“I’ll try,” he finally whispered.
Diego kissed his forehead. “That is all I will ever ask of you.”
Devon and TJ both disconnected their calls at the same time and set their phones on the kitchen table. They had just come back from dinner and a movie when both their phones rang at the same time.
“Was that Ace?” TJ asked.
Devon nodded. “Yup, he’s spending the night with Jesse and Dylan. He didn’t want to get into it, but something’s up with them and I think they need their ‘big brother’ tonight.”
“One of them at least,” TJ grinned.
“No, Ace is the big brother,” Devon stated. “I love them, but there’s that bond between them and Ace. I saw that the day he brought them to pick me up at the airport. Here I was already to hate all this; I was still pissed at Ace for deserting me even though it wasn’t his fault. I was dressed as ‘gay’ as I could be and those two never said a word. All they knew was I was Ace’s best friend, so they didn’t care how I looked or acted.”
“Sometimes I think Ace wants to be everyone’s big brother.”
Devon laughed. “There is something to that, but with these two it’s deeper; they’ve been through so much and still they are so loving and trusting. Whenever I think my life sucks, I just think of what they’ve survived and whatever I’ve had to deal with pales in comparison.”
“I know what you mean. When I found out about Dylan’s rape and the abuse that Jesse had suffered it took me some time to forgive myself for what I had done to them. I struck out at them to try to minimize my hurt and the pain they had already endured was way more than I was feeling.”
Devon came around the table and hugged TJ. “Well, that’s all behind you and us,” he said as he kissed TJ quickly on the lips. “So who was yours from?”
“You don’t seem to excited to hear from her. When was the last time you talked to her?”
“I haven’t since she left.”
“Wait a second, you haven’t heard from your mother in over a month?” Devon was incredulous, as busy as his father was he heard from him weekly by phone and more frequently by e-mail.
TJ shrugged and nodded. “Actually, hearing from her tonight was a surprise. I didn’t think I’d hear from her for a while longer.”
“She got what she wanted; she got away from my father and got rid of me and in a way that left her smelling like a rose.”
“I thought she was pissed at your dad for what he was doing to you and what he did to CJ and Danny.”
TJ shook his head. “She doesn’t give a damn about that. She’s been trying to figure a way out with my dad for years. If she hadn’t gotten an out before I graduated high school, she’d have probably skipped town during my graduation.” TJ slumped into a chair. “That night when we came here, that was all an act. I didn’t question it, cuz in the end I was getting what I wanted too. I was getting away from both of them and then there was the plus of staying here with you.”
“So she’s not coming back and you’re not going to California?”
TJ shook his head. “Never was and never were,” he said. “She had to be all sweet when she was here and play the concerned parent so she didn’t look like what she was which was someone trying to dump her kid. She only calls me so that she can truthfully say that she is keeping tabs on me and looking out for my best interests. She’s got my dad sending money to Sarge every month so it looks like they are supporting me.”
“Your parents are paying Sarge to let you stay here?”
“No,” Sarge said as he entered the kitchen. “Sorry, guys, I came in a few minutes ago and I caught the tail end of your conversation.” He walked over and sat in the chair next to TJ. “TJ, let’s get a few things straight. I knew from the moment your mother opened her mouth I was getting played. I never said anything, because I didn’t know how much you knew and I didn’t want to be responsible for you having any bad thoughts about your mom. She didn’t ‘con’ me into letting you stay here. You’re here because you needed a safe place to stay and you are Devon’s friend. Devon is like a son to me, and his friends will always have a place under my roof. As far as your parents ‘paying’ me to let you live here, I do get a check every few weeks from some accountant. It’s a ridiculous amount of money, but that money goes into an account and I haven’t touched it. It’s there for you when you turn eighteen or when you go to college. I don’t know what your parents will do to support you when you are eighteen, but I wanted to make sure you were taken care of.”
TJ looked at Sarge with tears in his eyes.
“Are you upset about your parents?” Devon asked.
TJ shook his head. “No, I got over them years ago. That pain is scabbed over.”
“Then why are you crying?”
“Because a man who I’ve only known for a few months and whose son and friends I was awful to has treated me more like a son than the man who raised me for the last seventeen years,” TJ choked out as the tears began to flow.
Sarge reached over and hugged TJ tight as the boy sobbed.
Zak lay in bed his head resting on Dusty’s chest. He was drawing circles on Dusty’s smooth chest and stomach.
Both heard a clicking on the hardwood floors.
“Loki, lay down and go to bed,” Zak said without moving to look around. Herc was lying at the foot of the bed, but Loki would often wander around the loft.
They heard the clicking get closer and then stop as Loki plopped down next to Herc.
“Stop!” Dusty said as he grabbed Zak’s hand. “I know you think that’s romantic, but it tickles.”
“You’re no fun,” Zak giggled.
Dusty let go of Zak’s hand and ran his fingers up and down Zak’s sides. Zak wriggled as he laughed.
“See, you don’t like it either,” Dusty laughed. He pulled Zak up onto his chest and wrapped his arms around him. “Did I tell you I talked to Gram today?”
“No,” Zak replied as he laid his head in the crook of Dusty’s shoulder. “How is she?”
“She sounds tired,” Dusty sighed. “She tries to hide it, but I think her age is starting to catch up with her. She’s not happy that her doctor won’t let her come here this summer, but she was really happy when I told her we wanted to come out and see her.”
“Did you look into the flights?”
“After I talked to Gram, I did. The best thing would be to go out the second week in August, fly out on Sunday and fly back the second Tuesday. I was only planning on a week or so, but she wants to plan something for that weekend before we go back.”
“I don’t have the slightest. But knowing her, it will be something interesting.”
“You mean like spiritual?”
“Probably,” Dusty replied. “She’s been after me to do a Vision Quest or something for a few years and since you and I are ‘two-spirits’ and that’s a respected thing in Native American culture, I’m sure she’s cooking something up.”
“Did you tell CJ?”
“I talked to him and Ace about being gone that long. CJ was fine with us taking a vacation and Ace is good to be in charge while we’re gone, though by that point, Diego may be in more of a position to handle most stuff.”
“He’s doing good?”
“He’s great. He’s really good with the volunteers no matter if they are kids or seniors and he really teaches them about the horses and how to work with them.”
“What do you think about him and Luka?”
“I don’t know what to think at this point. They seem so different, but you never know. They might end up being really good for each other.”
“I hope so.”
Ace slipped from the bed and quietly crept to the bedroom door picking up his clothes as he went. He turned and looked at Dylan and Jesse as they slept. The two were wrapped around each other and Ace smiled at the sight.
It had been a rough night, but he and Dylan had finally gotten through to Jesse that he wasn’t going anywhere right now and he had to hold onto that.
It had been almost 2am when they finally fell asleep. Ace never needed much sleep so he was already up and ready, but he wanted his little brothers to get a chance to rest.
He quietly opened the door and slipped out into the hallway wearing just his underwear and carrying his clothes.
“Hey, Ace, looking good,” Spin laughed as Ace shut the door.
“Shhh,” Ace hushed Spin. “You better not wake those guys up, big mouth.”
Spin grinned as he eyed the bulge in Ace’s jockeys. “Speaking of big.”
Ace rolled his eyes and turned his back on Spin and pulled his jeans on. He turned back around. “Boy, where’s your keeper?”
Spin shrugged. “I think he’s downstairs. He was up and showered before I got out of bed.”
“He’s probably looking for some peace and quiet.”
Spin pouted. “Hey…”
Ace walked over and grabbed Spin around the neck. “Let’s go find him--you obviously can’t be trusted on your own,” he said as he dragged Spin down the hall and down the stairs.
Mattie was sitting at the dining room table with Idgie. He looked up and laughed at the sight of Ace pulling Spin through the doorway. Ace shoved Spin into the chair next to Mattie.
“I’ll trade,” Ace said as he took Idgie from Mattie. “This one is less grief than yours.”
“What did you do now?” Mattie asked.
“Nothing,” Spin answered. “Just admiring the scenery.”
Mattie turned and looked at Ace playing with Idgie. The muscular blond was shirtless and his jeans were unbuttoned leaving little to the imagination.
Mattie turned back and cuffed Spin on the back of the head. “You are so bad.”
Ace handed Idgie back to Mattie. “Well, they’re both all yours now. Just make sure that neither one of them wakes up Dyl or Jess, ok?” he said as he pulled his t-shirt over his head.
“Not a problem,” Mattie answered. “How are they doing?”
“You know?” Ace asked.
Both Mattie and Spin nodded.
“Well, they’re both stressed out. Dylan and I finally got Jesse calmed down enough to sleep some, but it was late so I want them to get as much rest as possible. Jesse’s gonna worry until this thing is done with.”
“Well, CJ and Danny are going to do everything they can to make sure he stays with us,” Mattie said.
“I know,” Ace replied. “But, with everything he’s been through, Jesse can’t help but think things are gonna go south. I keep hoping this guy isn’t even his father.”
Mattie shook his head. “From what CJ said last night, they are pretty convinced that he is. That doesn’t mean he should get to take Jesse after ignoring him for sixteen years.”
“I’d like to pound the shit out of the guy,” Spin spit.
“I know how you feel, buddy,” Ace agreed. “If he was willing to give up his rights all those years ago, he shouldn’t be able to mess up Jesse’s life now.”
“Well, we just need to be positive and help them as much as we can,” Mattie said. “What are your plans for today?”
“I told them we’d go on a trail ride,” Ace answered. “I figured a long ride and a stop at the lake would distract them. I’m gonna see if TJ and Devon want to go, what about you guys?”
“I think we’re just gonna hang around here or maybe go into town to see a movie,” Mattie answered.
“You’re not up for a ride?”
Spin shook his head. “I think I overdid it yesterday,” he said. “I’m too sore to ride today.”
Mattie laughed. “I warned him, but at least it was fun.”
“Good morning,” Diego said as he came into the room.
“’Mornin’,” Ace replied. “How’s Luka this morning?”
“He is still sleeping. He awoke several times during the night, so I thought it best to let him sleep. I was going to see if Bridget could make me a tray to bring up.”
“Sure thing, honey,” Bridget said as she came in from the kitchen. “I was just checking to see what we needed from the store. Give me a few minutes and I’ll whip something up for you and Luka.”
“Thank you,” Diego said.
“Hey, Diego, I’m fixin’ to take Dylan and Jesse on a trail ride today, do you want to come?” Ace asked.
Diego shook his head. “That would be fun, but I don’t think Luka will be up for it and I want to stay close to make sure he is ok. Perhaps when Brandon gets here, he would like to go. He has been doing well with Chance and I think it would be good for him to go with others.”
“Sure. If you see him before I do, let him know he’s more than welcome to come along. We probably won’t get to early a start, since Jesse and Dylan are still sleeping.”
“Very good, I am sure he will enjoy it. Thank you, Ace.”
“My pleasure, buddy.”
“So, Diego, what’s the deal with you and Luka?” Spin asked with his usual tact.
Mattie and Ace both glared at the redhead.
Diego smiled. “It is ok,” he said to Ace and Mattie. “The truth is, I like Luka and I think he likes me as well, but at this point I am just trying to help a friend through a difficult time.”
Bridget came out from the kitchen carrying a tray laden with pastries and a pitcher of juice and one of milk.
“Here you go, sweetie,” she said as she handed the tray to Diego.
“Gracias,” Diego said as he took the tray. “I will go and see if Luka is awake.”