Zak pulled up in front of Mattie's house and was about to honk his horn, when he saw Mattie come out the front door.
Mattie scrambled into the passenger seat of Zak's new Ford Escape.
"Good morning," Zak greeted Mattie, cheerfully.
Mattie looked at Zak and grinned. "Is this the most excited you've ever been for the first day of school?"
Zak grinned back. "Oh, you have no idea. Just having the two of you with me, I feel so much more comfortable and not as lost as I usually feel."
"Well, you'll have to help me and Spin, since it will be our first day there."
"We've got each other's backs," Zak answered. "Spin's a freshman, but he's going in with the same kids he was with in junior high. And you should have no problem fitting in. I feel like I'm going in as a brand-new person this year, but we'll see if anyone else feels the same about me."
They chattered away as they headed to Spin's house.
When they pulled up in front of Spin's house, both boys burst out laughing as Mattie's red-headed boyfriend came tearing out of the house. Spin was his usual hyperactive self this morning. He jumped into the backseat of the SUV and leaned over the front seat to give Mattie a kiss.
"Morning, guys," Spin said excitedly. "Ready to rule the school?"
Zak and Mattie both turned to look at him like he was insane.
"Rule it?" Zak asked. "I'll settle for surviving it."
Mattie nodded his head in agreement. He loved his little Energizer Bunny, but sometimes his overconfidence was a bit much.
The drive from Spin's house to the high school was only about ten minutes and they arrived well before they had to be there.
Zak chose a parking space far from the main building so there wouldn't be as many chances of his new car getting scratched or damaged.
Mattie looked at Zak, who had a faraway look in his eyes. "You miss him, don't you?" Mattie asked.
Zak nodded. "I know that it makes more sense for him to finish at the vocational school and he is doing well there, but it would be so great if he were here with us."
"Well, at least you'll still see him after school," Mattie said as he put his arm around Zak's shoulder and side-hugged him.
"I know," Zak sighed. "But it's tough; we've been together practically all day every day all summer."
They both heard the back door open.
"C'mon, guys, let's get going," Spin said excitedly as he hopped out of the car.
Zak and Mattie both rolled their eyes as they followed Spin out of the car.
The three boys walked through the parking lot. They were a good-looking trio who attracted a lot of looks.
Zak was the shortest of the three at 5'5". His dazzling blue eyes and medium-length blond hair contrasted with the deep tan that he had managed to get over a summer of working on the ranch.
Spin had hit his growth spurt during the summer and now stood at 5' 9". His bright red hair was cut short and spiked up and his fiery emerald eyes shined brightly in the September sun.
Mattie walked on the other side of Zak. At 6'0", he was the tallest of the three, only two inches shorter than Zak's boyfriend, Dusty. Most of the staring going on was directed at Mattie. His dark complexion, muscular build and shiny black hair had the girls, and a few guys, following his every move.
The three walked into the school together and Zak gave them each directions to their homerooms.
They each went their separate directions, after making plans to meet up at lunch.
The boys did not see each other again until lunch. As they were each in a different grade, they did not have any classes together, at least in the morning. They had managed to get their last period Phys Ed class together, which would make it easy for them to all be ready to leave together each day.
Zak arrived at the cafeteria first. It had been a much better morning than he had expected. Most of the teachers he had, knew him by reputation as he had spent the last two years jockeying for first place in his class. His competition was Zoe Castellano. Every semester they seemed to exchange ranks. Currently Zak was number one, but Zoe was always nipping at his heels.
What surprised most of his teachers this morning, was Zak's change in attitude; he had a new willingness to speak out in class and a confidence in his answers than many of the teachers had not seen before.
Zak looked around the cafeteria and saw no sign of Spin or Mattie. He found a small table in a corner of the room and went over and took a seat. Within seconds, Spin was there followed shortly by Mattie.
Each of the boys brought their own lunches, not wanting to tempt fate by eating cafeteria food.
"Hey, I got some great news Saturday night," Mattie spoke up.
"What's that?" Zak asked.
"My brother Charlie called. He's coming home."
"For a visit?"
"No, he's coming home for good."
Spin looked up. "I thought he was still in college."
Mattie nodded. "He was, but he's been taking summer classes the whole time he was down there and he was able to graduate at the end of the summer. Technically, he's graduated, and he's just been staying there to close up his apartment and take care of some personal stuff. He should be here in a day or two."
"That's great," said Zak. "This is the brother you're closest to, right?"
"Yes. He's about five years older than me, but we've always been the closest. We used to spend our summers in Spain with my grandfather, even when my other brother and my sister didn't want to go. Charlie is almost as big a horse addict as me. In fact, he wanted to know if I knew anywhere that he could board his horse."
"His horse?" asked Spin. "I thought you adopted Whisper so that he would have a horse to ride when he came home."
Mattie grinned. "We did, or my parents did. But, apparently he's been a busy little boy in Florida."
Mattie laughed while thinking about the conversation he had had the night before with his brother. "Ok, it's a long story. I'm the first person he's told it all to. My parents just know he graduated early. They don't know the truth."
"The truth??" both Zak and Spin asked simultaneously.
Now Mattie was laughing. "Ok, from the beginning. Charlie wanted to study Equine Management, so that he could own his own stable--actually, so that we could. But my father would not hear of it; he insisted that Charlie study business, because in his words, Equine Management is 'frivolous'. So all this time, we've all thought that he was majoring in Business at college, but he has been pursuing his Equine Management degree. My father is one of those who thinks that once he puts his foot down the discussion is over and no one can defy him. Well, Charlie is his most stubborn son and he does what he wants to do."
Mattie continued, "So, as of last week, Charlie is a college graduate with a degree in Equine Management. Now, he's on his way back here. He turns twenty-one next week and then he gets access to his trust fund. That will get him free of my father. He wants to buy a small farm around here. But until he does he needs to have a place to board his horse."
Spin raised his hands. "Hold on. If he's been at the mercy of your dad and he's been sneaky about school, how the hell did he get a horse?"
Mattie grinned wide. He leaned into over the table and whispered conspiratorially, "The horse actually belongs to his boyfriend."
"His BOYFRIEND!?!?" Spin yelled in his usual subtle manner.
Zak reached over and smacked Spin on the back of the head. "Would you keep it down?" Turning to Mattie, he said, "Ok, let's have the real story."
"Well, I guess I'm not the only one in my family who plays for our side. We knew that Charlie had a roommate, but we always assumed he was just that. But apparently they've been boyfriends since the end of their freshman year. When I thought about it after, it made so much sense; he would only come home for a week or two at the beginning of the summer and one week at Christmas. He would always use the excuse that he was working an internship. Which apparently he kinda was. They were both teaching lessons at a local ranch. According to Charlie, his boyfriend is a great rider and won lots of ribbons and events when he was in high school. When he went to college, he sort of retired from showing and competition. The lady that owns the farm sort of conned them into teaching a couple of classes, until they were the main draw she had there."
"So his boyfriend is coming with him?" Zak asked.
A sad look crossed Mattie's face. "No, Charlie doesn't know where he is."
"What? How can he not know where he is?" asked Spin.
"Well, I guess in January, Charlie's boyfriend got a call that his mother had been killed in a car accident. He was raised by his mom; he never really talked about his dad, so Charlie wasn't clear what had happened to him, only that he wasn't in the picture. So, of course, it was a shock to him. Since they were between semesters, Charlie's boyfriend went home to take care of things. He asked Charlie to take care of his horse until he came back. But, he never came back. Charlie never heard from him again. Charlie knows he came back just once, because he came back from classes to find all his roommate's things were gone and he had left Charlie a voicemail apologizing for leaving, but said he didn't have any choice. He asked Charlie to take care of his horse and Charlie has not heard from him since."
"Wow, that sucks," said the ever subtle Spin.
"So, he's going to come up here for good, but how is his boyfriend going to know where he is?" asked Zak.
"Well, I don't think he thinks he'll ever see his boyfriend again," answered Mattie. "But, the lady that runs the farm will know where Charlie is if the boyfriend shows up there or contacts her. Whatever happened, Charlie figures it must be bad, because as much as he said his boyfriend loved him, he loved that horse even more. Apparently, she was a gift for him from the farm he rode at in high school and she would follow him around like a puppy. Charlie seems to be the only other one who can ride her right now. Charlie says he can see how much she misses her boy. He's hoping a change of scenery will bring her back to her old self."
"Did he say what kind of horse she was?" Zak asked.
Mattie beamed at Zak. "She's right up your alley, Zak. She's an Arabian. Charlie says she is the smartest most beautiful one he's ever seen. Of course, he's probably a little biased, just like all of us about our horses. Charlie says she is a very talented horse. I told him about you and Apollo and he said he wants to see you and me try her. I think he's a great rider, but he thinks she needs someone who likes hunter/jumper better than he does."
Spin got his usual mischievous look in his emerald eyes. "So, who's the better rider, you or Charlie?"
Mattie rolled his eyes at his boyfriend. "Well, we'd probably each say the other was better. But I'm probably better than him at hunter/jumper and dressage and he can run circles around me when it comes to the Spanish and western riding. He's a lot like you; he has that reckless streak that makes him take a lot of chances, so he's more suited to less disciplined styles."
Zak thought about meeting Mattie's brother. In his opinion, other than Dusty, Mattie was the best rider at the ranch. If he thought that Charlie was better than him in some disciplines then he was curious to see him in action.
"So, what's his boyfriend's name?" Spin asked. "You keep calling him 'his boyfriend' or 'Charlie's boyfriend'."
Mattie shook his head. "I don't know. Charlie never actually mentioned his name. I think a part of him is still hiding that side of himself. I'm sure he'll tell me when he gets here and we can have a chance to really talk."
"So when does he get here?" Zak asked.
"Hopefully, Wednesday or Thursday," Mattie answered. "Since he has to drive up, it may take longer than that, depending on how well the mare travels."
"Well, it will be cool to have another rider," Zak said. "But, what's he gonna tell your parents?"
"I'm supposed to be looking for an apartment for him. He's been looking online and he sent me some leads, but he wants me to help him find something so that he can move in pretty quickly. He says he is coming out to my parents as soon as he signs the trust documents. That's just like him. He wants me to find a place that's big enough for both of us."
"Both of you?" Spin asked.
Mattie looked at Spin. "I told him about me and about you and Zak and Dusty and Nick and Noah. He's afraid that we can only keep things from my parents for so long and he wants to be able to take me in if it comes to that."
Zak looked between Mattie and Spin. "Do you really think your parents would kick you out?"
Mattie nodded solemnly. "My mom would be ok with it. I'm her baby and if you ask any of my siblings I'm her favorite. She would accept it, but my dad would not. He is very traditional and religious and would not tolerate a homosexual child; when he finds out he has two, the shit's gonna hit the fan. It's funny, all the money we have is from my mom's side of the family--my father's side is poor as church mice; but since they both have that old-school mentality, my dad controls the purse strings and my mom will not defy my father no matter what."
"Well, if it comes to that and you can't live with Charlie, you can live with me and my mom," Zak said.
Spin nodded. "Or with me," he added.
"Or with Dusty and his mom, " Zak volunteered. "We would never desert you."
"I know," Mattie answered, getting a little emotional. "That's why I love you guys so much. You have made things so great for me since I came here."
The boys spent the remainder of their lunch period comparing notes about classes and discussing their plans for Charlie's arrival.
Spin looked over at Zak. "Do we need to get Max today?"
Zak shook his head. "Nope, tomorrow."
Spin laughed, "I'm glad you guys came to your senses about taking him every day."
"Me, too. When Joe first asked us about watching him, Dusty and I, especially me, were so excited we just volunteered to do it every day. As soon as it sunk in what we had committed to we both had second thoughts, but we didn't want to go back on our word. I guess when Joe told Megan what we had agreed to, she tore him a new one. She called me and told me that while she appreciated the offer, she thought it was insane of Joe to think that we would take Max every day. So, we agreed to alternate days and weeks. So this week we have him Tuesday and Thursday and then next week Monday, Wednesday and Friday. After the first month, we'll see how it goes."
"So, how are things going on the pony front?" Mattie asked.
Zak's eyes lit up. "I got an e-mail from Nick last night. They don't have any ponies or even smallish horses, but there is another rescue about a half hour from them that has two." He took out his iPhone and tapped the screen a couple of times. He handed the phone to Mattie so that he and Spin could see the screen.
Mattie and Spin looked at a picture of a small Paint horse.
"This one is really a small horse, not a pony. He's about 14 hands and supposed to be very gentle. He's about 13 years old and according to what the folks at the ranch told Nick, he's been a solid lesson horse for years," Zak explained.
He took back his phone and slid his finger across the screen and handed it back to Mattie. Now, they were looking at an obviously smaller, very chubby pony. Both Mattie and Spin laughed when they saw the pony.
"Aww," said Mattie. "He's cute."
Zak grinned. "Yeah, this one is a Shetland. He's kinda on the small side and the owners say he's a bit of a handful."
Both Mattie and Zak turned to look at Spin.
"What?!" Spin asked.
"Where was this pony when you were learning to ride?" Mattie giggled.
"Very fucking funny," Spin answered.
Mattie looked back at Zak. "You want the Paint, don't you?"
Zak grinned and nodded. "Oh, you know me so well. I think he's the perfect size for Maxie; he can learn on him and grow with him."
Spin interrupted. "Why don't you just take Marty?" he offered.
"We thought about that, but both Dusty and I agreed that you went through too much to be able to keep Marty; we didn't want to take him away from you. If we had thought of it before, then it would have been a solution, but since you got Revanche and also got to keep Marty, it worked out well. Besides, there are too many kids who would be pissed if they couldn't take lessons on Marty."
Spin nodded. "Oh, that's true. The Elliot twins almost get into a fistfight every lesson over who gets him."
Mattie and Zak laughed at the thought of the eight-year-old twins who took lessons with Spin. They were a handful and were always getting into some type of mischief.
"So when do we go get him?" Mattie asked.
"I was thinking we could drive over Friday night, stay with Nick's family, and then go and check the Paint out on Saturday. We could be back Saturday night, so you could be at Mass Sunday morning."
Mattie groaned. His parents were on him all the time about attending Mass regularly. They would occasionally let him miss it, but they all tried to work around it so that Mattie didn't have to deal with his parents, actually his father's, disapproval.
"Sounds like a plan," Spin said. "Is Dusty going?"
Zak looked at him like he was nuts. Zak looked over at Mattie and nodded towards Spin. Mattie reached over and smacked Spin on the back of the head.
"Oh, course he's going, you dope," Mattie said as he and Zak laughed.
Spin rubbed the back of his head. He had been hit in the same spot twice in the last half hour. "You guys need to watch it, you're gonna give me a concussion one of these days."
Zak rolled his eyes. "A concussion is a form of brain damage," he said. "You're safe… since there is not much there to damage."
Spin pouted at his best friend and his boyfriend.
Zak laughed, "So, are you both heading out to the ranch with me this afternoon?"
"Of course," Mattie answered. "Where else would we be going? What are your plans?"
"Well, since Spin has it in his head that we should start showing, I guess I'll be working with Apollo on my jumping and horsemanship," Zak answered. "Mattie, are you going to show with us?"
Mattie shook his head. "No, I'm not much for the competition. I'll be there to root you guys on though. You know what we should do?"
"We should come up with some type of show or performance to show off for the ranch."
Spin looked at him. "What do you mean?"
"Well, we could create our own drill team, with the three of us and Dusty. We could also come up with different demonstrations with the horses and then put on a show--maybe for Halloween weekend. That way we could get people out to the ranch and they could see what we have to offer. That would be more fun to me than competing in shows. Especially since so many of the competitors are those annoying girls."
"That sounds like fun," Zak said. "We should check with Mr. Jones to see if he likes that idea and then we could start planning. Maybe we could get Charlie to participate, too, and some of the other riders at the ranch. It could be a lot of fun."
Just then a couple of girls who rode at the Triple J came up to the table; a cute new boy was walking with them, his head down.
"Hey, guys," one of the girls greeted the boys.
"Hey, Carmen. Hey, Denise," Zak answered. Mattie and Spin also greeted the girls.
Denise gestured to the boy standing with them. "Zak, Spin, Mattie, this is my cousin, Dylan. He just moved here over the summer."
Each boy stood up and offered Dylan his hand.
"Hey, Dylan," Spin greeted him with a slap on the back, which almost knocked over the skinny boy. "How are you doing?"
"'m fine," Dylan mumbled, still staring at the floor.
"I'm fine," Dylan mumbled, still staring at the floor.
"Aren't you in my Algebra II class?" Mattie asked.
Dylan looked up at Mattie and had a look of recognition in his eyes. "Yes, I think so. First period, right?"
Mattie nodded. "Right."
"So you're a sophomore, Dylan?" Zak asked.
Dylan shook his head. "No, I'm a freshman; they just put me in the sophomore Algebra II class cuz I was in advanced math at my old school."
"Cool. Then you and Spin may end up in some classes together, cuz he's a freshman too."
Dylan just nodded.
"So, are you guys headed out to the ranch after school?" Carmen asked.
Zak nodded. "Yeah, we still work there. So we'll help Dusty with cleaning out stalls and feedings, but most of the afternoon we spend riding or training. Mattie and I still lead trail rides and Spin and Dusty still give lessons."
"Mattie, why don't you teach lessons?" Denise asked.
"I don't know," Mattie answered. "Dusty and Spin were doing it when I got here and they were doing good and it works the way things are set up now."
"So, Zak, do you miss Dusty?" Carmen asked, grinning at Zak.
Zak blushed bright red under his still dark summer tan. "What do you mean?"
"Oh, come on, we all know you guys are boyfriends," Denise said. "It's ok with us. At first there were a lot of jealous girls out there, cuz most of them had their eyes on Dusty, but once you showed those stuck-up bitches what you were made of that afternoon with Jade, they changed their tune."
Denise and Carmen laughed with the boys. They were two of the girls that the guys actually liked because they were fun and rode for fun.
"Dylan do you ride?" Mattie asked.
"No." Dylan answered.
Denise looked at him. "You used to ride all the time."
Dylan blushed. "I know, but I gave it up."
"Cuz, there were no guys where I was riding and some of the kids at school used to give me a hard time."
Zak said, "Well, that won't happen here. The three of us and my…uh, boyfriend, Dusty all work at the Triple J. You should come out someday and ride with us. Spin and I are getting ready to compete in some local shows, but Mattie and Dusty mainly ride for fun. In fact, Mattie just had a great idea you guys may be interested in."
Zak explained to everyone about Mattie's idea for doing a show on Halloween weekend and everyone, even Dylan, agreed that it sounded like a fun idea.
"Dylan, why don't you come out to the ranch with us tomorrow afternoon?" Zak asked. "We can show you around and maybe go on a trail ride."
"Wait. Don't we have Maxie tomorrow?" Spin asked.
"Oh, yeah, but he loves to go with us, so that will be cool."
"Joe's Max?" Carmen asked.
"Yes, we are babysitting him a few days a week to help Joe and Megan out," Zak answered.
"Oh, I want to come, he's such a cutie."
"Well, why don't we plan on meeting up tomorrow afternoon. I'll let Dusty know so that he can get his work done early and go with us."
Everyone agreed it was a good plan. Dylan started to contribute to the conversation, thinking to himself that this group of boys might actually become friends.
The bell rang announcing the end of the lunch period and everyone got up from the table and went their separate ways.
Dusty spent most of his day running errands around town. He stopped at the feed store to place an order and the tack shops to look at boots as his were starting to fall apart.
When he finally had finished his errands and was ready to head out to the ranch he drove to his house to pick up Herc and then stopped over at Zak's.
Zak and his mom had given Dusty a key, so that he could pick up Loki and bring him out to the ranch. Herc was good at babysitting his little brother and the puppy was a little too destructive when left to his own devices.
Dusty pulled up in front of Zak's house. He got out of his truck and told Herc to stay put in the bed of the truck. He walked around back where he and Zak had built Loki's doghouse. Loki was running around the backyard and made a beeline for Dusty as soon as he saw him.
"C'mon, Loki," Dusty called to the Great Dane puppy. "Let's go."
The oversized puppy followed Dusty through the gate and ran towards the truck.
Dusty watched Loki tear across the lawn and laughed to himself.
He saw a movement out of the corner of his eye.
At the next house over he saw a short blond man get into a large Ford F-150. He didn't recognize the man, but he was sure he had seen the truck in the neighborhood several times over the past couple of weeks. Something about it made him nervous. Zak's neighborhood was relatively quiet and in the few months they had been together he had met just about all his neighbors and this was not one of them.
He hadn't gotten a good enough look at the driver's face. He quietly walked towards the truck to see if he could get a better look.
The driver must have noticed him, because the truck started up and drove off quickly.
Dusty was not prepared to get the license plate of the truck, so he had nothing to report. He decided that he would just keep an eye out for it and talk to Kate, Zak's mom, about it.
He went back to his truck, loaded Loki into the passenger seat and headed to the ranch.
Dusty was just coming out of the barn flanked by Loki and Herc, when he saw Zak's Escape come into view.
Dusty jogged over to where Zak parked the SUV. He ripped open the driver's door and yanked Zak out of the car. He and Zak locked lips like they hadn't seen each other in days.
Spin and Mattie watched the two making out and laughed.
Finally, Dusty set Zak down.
"God, I needed that," Zak sighed. He hugged Dusty tight. "I missed you so much today."
Dusty returned the hug. "Missed you too, Babe. How was the first day of school?"
"Actually, it was great. I think some of my teachers were shocked that I wasn't the quiet little wallflower anymore."
"Good, show them what you can do," Dusty said. He looked into the truck at Mattie and Spin. "So how was the first day for you guys?"
"Pretty good," Mattie answered.
"So you guys coming out?" Zak asked.
Spin looked nervously around. "Not until you guarantee my safety."
The three other boys laughed. Herc and Loki made a habit of going after Spin, their human 'chew toy', every time he showed up.
"Don't worry, Spin. We'll protect you," Zak laughed at his best friend.
Spin rolled his eyes. He'd heard that before. He cautiously got out of the back seat of the SUV and watched Herc and Loki as they locked eyes on him.
"Herc," Dusty warned.
The two dogs looked at Dusty and Zak, not at all happy that they were being denied one of their favorite activities.
Mattie got out of the passenger seat and came around the side of the car to meet everyone. Herc and Loki walked up to Mattie and he knelt down and greeted them.
"Why do they act so calmly with you and come gunning for me?" Spin whined.
"Maybe they feed off the personalities of the people around them," Mattie answered.
Spin rolled his eyes and stomped off towards the barn.
"So, what are you guys doing this afternoon?" Dusty asked.
Mattie and Zak quickly explained their idea of doing an equestrian show at the ranch to try and drum up interest and business. Dusty liked the idea and was pretty sure that Mr. Jones would as well.
Dusty told them that Mr. Jones was gone for the afternoon, but he could talk to him in the morning to get his ok.
Just then, Mattie's cell phone rang.
When he answered it, he got a huge grin on his face. He turned away for a few minutes to talk. When he came back, Dusty and Zak thought his face would split from the size of his smile.
"Who was that?" Zak asked.
"Charlie," Mattie answered. "He's on his way."
Mattie nodded. "Yeah, he left early and was able to drive straight through. He has to get the horse settled before he can go home, since my parents don't know about her, so he needed directions. He should be here in about a half an hour or so."
Dusty was confused. "Charlie? Your brother Charlie?"
Mattie gave Dusty the condensed version of the story he had told Spin and Zak at lunch. He explained about Charlie and his boyfriend and his boyfriend's horse.
"Well, if we have a new boarder, we better go get a stall ready for her," Dusty said. "Why don't you wait here for your brother and Zak and I can scare up Spin and get the stall ready. There are a couple empty ones near Whisper and Apollo; she should be ok there for now."
Dusty and Zak went into the barn to find Spin, while Mattie waited for his brother.
About a half hour later, the three boys heard a truck pull up and went out to meet Mattie's brother.
When they got there, they saw Mattie in an embrace with a very handsome young man. Mattie's brother was about 6' 2" with shoulder-length black hair and almond-shaped hazel eyes just like Mattie's.
Mattie turned to his friends with a huge grin on his face. He dragged his brother by the hand over to his three best friends.
"Guys, this is my brother, Cha--." He stopped when he felt his brother squeeze his hand. "Oh, I keep forgetting," he said sheepishly. "This is my brother, CJ."