"CJ?!?" Spin, of course, spoke first. "I thought your name was Charlie?"
CJ grinned. "Well, it's like this. My parents insisted on giving us boys Spanish names and Americanized nicknames… so Pedro became Pete, Mateo became Mattie and I, Carlos, became Charlie. They thought this would make us more accepted in school, but when you are the only Latino kid in a sea of very Caucasian ones, life can be difficult… for me, being Charlie, meant that with my skin tone, I was often referred to as 'Charlie Brown." Not very original, but I didn't exactly go to school with the best and the brightest. I was saddled with that name, amongst others, from kindergarten on, until I was smart enough to start insisting that everyone call me 'CJ', since I am Carlos, Junior. Now, everyone calls me 'CJ', except a certain little brother." He rolled his eyes at Mattie.
"I try, but you are always 'Charlie' to me," Mattie answered. He looked at his older brother with a look of pure devotion that did not go unnoticed by his friends.
CJ reached over and grabbed Mattie in a huge bear hug. Everyone could feel the fierce love the two brothers had for each other.
Mattie pulled back, a few tears glistening in his hazel eyes. "Ok, CJ," he said, grinning at his idol. "This is…"
CJ held a hand up to stop him. "Let me," he said. "Red hair and big mouth… you must be Spin." CJ held his hand out to a sputtering Spin.
He turned to Dusty. "Handsome, Native American cowboy… you must be Dusty." Dusty grinned and shook the offered hand.
CJ turned to the last of Mattie's friends and simply stared.
"CJ, are you all right?" Mattie asked.
"Huh?" CJ shook out of his reverie. "Oh, I'm sorry, you must be Zak. I'm really sorry for staring, you just remind me of someone I used to know and it shook me for a minute. Mattie tells me that you and he are going to give my little girl in the trailer a go."
Zak's eyes lit up. "Can we see her?" He was shaking with so much excitement that Dusty and Mattie thought he looked like a blond Spin.
CJ laughed and looked at Mattie. "He's the one who's only been riding a few months?"
Dusty and Mattie both laughed and nodded.
"He took to it faster than anyone," Dusty said. "He's already light years ahead of some of the people who have been riding here for years. He just has a natural affinity for the horses."
CJ walked towards the trailer that was attached to his Jeep. "Wait right here," he called over his shoulder to Zak. "Have I got a sexy new girlfriend for you."
Dusty, Mattie and Spin were all laughing as Zak stood there almost drooling. They all knew that while Onyx was his first love, Zak had a definite 'thing' for Arabians.
They heard CJ talking to the horse in the trailer and heard the horse start to back out.
"Whoa, girl," they heard CJ call. The horse came flying out of the trailer, a lead rope swinging from her halter. "Oh, shit!!" exclaimed CJ.
The boys scrambled to keep the scared horse penned between them. The black Arabian reared up and pawed at the air.
While the other three boys hung back, Zak stepped forward slowly. Dusty started to move forward to stop him, but Mattie grabbed his arm.
Dusty turned to Mattie with a scowl.
"Look," Mattie instructed him.
Dusty looked on as Zak slowly walked up to the mare, speaking to her in low soft tones.
"Hey, there, beautiful. What are you so scared of? We're not going to hurt you. This is your new home, you're going to love it here."
As the horse stood mesmerized by Zak, he quietly and slowly reached down and grabbed the lead rope that was dangling from the horse's halter.
The mare stepped forward and dropped her head onto Zak's shoulder. Zak reached his arm up so it encircled the mare's neck and he scratched at her ears and neck as he continued talking to her.
Something about this horse felt so right and so familiar to Zak, it was like she knew him.
Without a moment's hesitation, he threw the lead rope over her withers and swung himself up onto the horse's back. Dusty and Mattie held their breath, while Spin silently cheered his friend for having the balls to try such a stunt.
The big horse simply pranced under Zak. He felt her muscles bunching as she awaited his signal. Zak leaned forward and whispered into the horse's ear while stroking her curved neck.
Zak gave the mare the slightest signal and the two took off down the drive.
The four boys could only watch in awe as Zak and the Arabian galloped away. A few minutes later, Zak and the mare returned at the same speed. The horse stopped right in front of the other boys and Zak slipped off her back.
CJ just shook his head. "I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it. She hasn't had that kind of energy since… well, in a long time. She tolerates me, lets me ride her on the trails, but she's trained for hunter/jumper and needs someone who will work with her. I think you just got elected, Zak."
Zak's blue eyes lit up. "I'd love to, but I already have Onyx and Apollo," he protested.
Dusty answered before CJ could, "Zak, most trainers have a number of horses. She'll just be one of your 'string'. You can work with her and Apollo for hunter/jumper and Onyx for dressage and equitation. You can do it."
"Ok," Zak said quietly. He looked at CJ. "What's her name?"
CJ grinned. "Her name's Silent Angel, but mostly we just call her Angel."
Zak turned and hugged the mare. "Angel," he cooed. "Perfect."
Zak turned back to CJ. "Let me show you the stall we have ready for her and then I can show you around the barn."
"Cool," CJ answered as he and Zak walked off.
Mattie and Dusty just stared at each other while Spin laughed. "I think you guys just got dumped," he cackled.
Mattie and Dusty glared at Spin and then Dusty turned to look at Herc.
Spin got a look of panic in his eyes and took off running just as Herc came bounding after him.
Dusty looked at Mattie and grinned. "Well, that will keep him busy for a while. But, he might be right; I think you just lost your brother and I just lost my boyfriend, at least for this afternoon."
Mattie grinned. "I thought that might happen, when Cha... oops... CJ told me about Angel. The way he described her I knew it would be love at first sight for Zak."
"It sure was," responded Dusty. "But, there seems to be something more with this one."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I don't know what it is, but she seemed to 'know' Zak. It wasn't like with Onyx where he took right to Zak, but he was still kinda standoffish; even though he liked Zak from the start, he never would have let Zak just jump right on like that. Everything about her cries out that she sees something in Zak, like she recognizes him or something."
"How can that be?"
"I don't know--maybe he reminds her of her owner or something."
"That could be; CJ hasn't told me a lot about him, but maybe Zak does remind the mare of him. CJ was kinda out of it when he saw Zak, too." Mattie thought for a moment. "I'll have to ask CJ about that later."
"So, now that everyone else is occupied, what are your plans for the afternoon?" Dusty asked.
"I think I'll go see how Zak and CJ are doing and then take Ash out for some work."
"Sounds like a plan. I have some chores to finish up, but I'll find you guys when I finish."
Each went their separate ways.
Zak was showing Angel the stall that had been prepared for her. CJ was still in a bit of a daze when he saw how quickly Angel had attached herself to Zak.
"Hey, Zak, I want to try something with Angel," CJ said.
"Sure, she's your horse after all."
CJ shook his head. "She's never been my horse; I've just been babysitting for a friend. If anything, right now, she's your horse. But, I want to see something."
CJ walked over to the stall where Angel was standing with Zak. He took off Angel's halter and closed the stall door with the mare inside. Angel was not happy being separated from her new boy.
"I want you to go around that corner there and just wait, ok?"
Zak nodded and walked to where CJ had directed him.
CJ spent a few moments talking to Angel and stroking her neck. She was calming down, but still her eyes were furtively searching for Zak.
CJ opened the stall door and stepped away. Angel bolted out of the stall and took off in the direction that Zak had gone.
In a few seconds, CJ heard Zak's voice. "Hey, Angel, you found me," he heard Zak say. Then he saw what he wanted to see--Zak coming around the corner with Angel following him, her head right at his shoulder.
Zak walked into the stall, with Angel following and then he stepped out and shut the stall door.
CJ just stood there with his mouth hanging open. "I can't believe it," he finally said.
"Can't believe what?" Zak asked.
"I've only ever seen her do that with one other person."
"Your boyfriend?" Zak asked quietly.
CJ looked at Zak and nodded. "Yes," he whispered. "She used to follow him around like that all the time. If he ever used a halter or lead it was for show, she never needed it with him. With me, I always need it for her. She likes me, but she loves and trusts you."
"You miss him, don't you?"
"God, yes. He was my everything. I thought we'd be together forever; we had so many plans and dreams. Then he just disappeared from my life, like he was never there. Angel is the only proof I have that he was real."
Zak walked over to CJ, who was on the verge of tears and hugged him hard.
CJ was taken aback by Zak's act of compassion, but something about this boy comforting him felt so right. CJ embraced Zak and cried silently.
"It's all good," Zak whispered to CJ as he rubbed the bigger man's back. "This place heals. If anyplace can make you whole again, you're at it."
CJ took a deep breath. "Thank you, Zak." He released Zak from the hug and stepped back. "I got a feeling from all the times Mattie mentioned you that you were a special guy and I was right."
Zak blushed. "I'm not any more special than the other guys."
"I don't know about that. I know that Mattie loves Spin and that he and Dusty are best friends, but he speaks about you with such reverence. You have helped him so much."
"I don't understand how you think I've helped Mattie. He is twice the rider I'll ever be; he knows martial arts; he's strong and brave; he's everything I'm not and that's why he and Dusty get along so well--they are so much alike."
CJ shook his head as he looked at Zak. "Zak, you didn't know the Mattie I grew up with. My parents had me and Pete pretty quickly; my dad wanted a girl, so they made one last try and got Natty. As far as my dad was concerned, that was it for kids. Mom had other ideas, so along came Mattie. Pete and Natty could not have cared less about another baby; they are both far too concerned with themselves. I was five when Mattie came along and I always felt it was my job to protect him. He was so shy as a kid, quiet all the time. Most days, I was the only one he spoke to. Part of the reason he learned martial arts, was an attempt by my dad to 'toughen him up'. He never understood Mattie; he always thought Mattie's quiet and shyness was weakness. It wasn't… Mattie's one of the strongest people I know. When I left for school I was so scared that he would crawl back in his shell. I think for a while he did, then when he started coming here, his e-mails and phone calls were so different. The light was back on, he was so happy. You did that; Spin and Dusty helped, but I know from what Mattie's told me, that you did a lot of it. So, thank you."
Zak took a deep breath. He was trying to keep his emotions in check. "I wonder if Mattie knows how lucky he is."
"What do you mean?" CJ asked.
"To have a big brother who looks out for him and who loves him so much," Zak answered wistfully. "I've wanted that all my life."
CJ smiled warmly at him. "And now you have it. I'm planning to stick around, so I'll be here for Mattie and for you and Spin and Dusty, too if they want me."
"That will be great," Zak said as he again hugged CJ.
"OK, enough of the sappy stuff," CJ laughed. "Let's leave Her Majesty here to get used to her new home and you can take me on that tour."
"Sounds good, c'mon."
Zak's first stop was, of course, Onyx. CJ had heard about the big Friesian from Mattie, but he was still not prepared for the huge horse.
"Beautiful, isn't he?" Zak asked, his blue eyes sparkling, as he stroked the horse's neck.
"He's amazing," CJ agreed. "Just amazing."
CJ and Zak continued touring the barns with Zak introducing him to each horse, but of course paying special attention to those that were special to the boys.
About halfway through the tour, Spin and Mattie caught up with them. Spin took over and introduced CJ to Marty and Revanche and then Mattie showed off Whisper, who was supposed to be CJ's horse, and finally Ash.
"Magnificent," CJ whispered as he stroked Ash's neck. "Mattie, have you done any research on his bloodline?"
Mattie shook his head. "No, I haven't thought much about it. He only became mine a couple of weeks ago. Why?"
"Well, look at him," CJ answered. "I wouldn't be surprised if he had some connection to the Andalusians grandfather bred in Spain. It would be fascinating to find out his lineage."
Mattie lit up. "That would be great if he was. But, I'm just happy to have him. Hopefully, we'll be able to use him to start a new line of horses on your new ranch."
CJ laughed. "I think you are getting a little ahead of yourself, but that's a plan I like. And, you're wrong, it's not 'my' ranch… it will be 'our' ranch." CJ thought for a second. "I am curious about one thing. You guys all ride together, right?"
All three boys nodded.
"Why?" asked Mattie.
"Well, most people would be fascinated by the fact that three of you are riding stallions and they are all behaving around each other. In most cases, there is only one stallion to lead a herd. You'd never see them getting along."
Mattie laughed. "You're not the first person to raise that question. And honestly, we don't have an answer. They all get along when we are with them. When they are alone here, we keep them in separate barns. Everyone has their own theories. I like to think it's because they all adapt to our personalities and since we all get along so great so do they. We just are all happy that Revanche is a gelding, cuz he has already adopted Spin's personality and if he was a stallion, we'd all be in trouble."
Spin looked at Mattie and pouted. "You know, you're gonna give me a complex, if you guys keep picking on me."
Mattie hugged his boyfriend. "Spin, you know we love you, but you do have more energy than ten people some days and it can get on our nerves."
Spin grinned and nodded and he melted into his muscular boyfriend. He knew that he could get on everyone's nerves, but he was always afraid that someone would take Mattie away from him and the last thing he wanted to do was drive him away.
CJ spoke up, "Hey, guys, why don't you saddle up so I can see what Revanche and Ash can do?"
Zak looked hurt. "What about Onyx?"
CJ laughed, "Well, I want to see what he can do, but I thought you'd want to give Angel a go as well."
Zak was torn now; Onyx was his 'baby', but the thrill of seeing what Angel could really do was getting to him as well.
"Let's try Angel, first," Zak suggested. "And then while these two are showing off, I can get Onyx."
"Sounds like a plan," CJ agreed.
Zak and Spin ran off to change into their riding gear. While CJ and Mattie took Ash and Revanche to the crossties and began grooming them. Spin showed up a few minutes later and took over from CJ.
Spin and Mattie looked up in surprise as they watched Zak walk up to the grooming station with Angel walking calmly beside him; the mare wore no halter or lead.
Zak stopped at the grooming station and Angel walked in and stood stock still, while Zak began to groom her.
"I don't fucking believe this!" Spin shouted.
"What?" Zak grinned.
"You always luck into it, don't you?" Spin smiled at his friend.
"I didn't teach her that," Zak said.
"No," CJ interjected. "But, I've only ever seen her do it for one other person. She won't even do it for me and I've been around her for the last three years."
The boys hurriedly got the horses groomed and tacked and then led them and CJ to the outside arena.
They all decided that Zak would have first go, so he could then get Onyx ready.
Zak led the mare into the arena, while everyone perched themselves on the fence. The mare continued to fascinate Zak. She had taken the bit from him like she wanted it with no fuss or problems. Now when he was tightening the girth she made no attempts to puff up or expand her stomach to keep the girth loose. He pulled down the stirrups.
He loved the new saddle that Mattie and Spin had given him for his birthday. Since he was the only one who used it, he didn't have to play with his stirrup lengths like he always used to.
Once everything was set, Zak put on his helmet and gloves. He bounced a time or two and then hopped up catching his foot in the stirrup and pulling himself up.
Zak held his breath for a second. He felt a connection with Angel that he didn't even feel with Onyx. He could not explain it. It was an emotional connection he had never felt before.
Zak could feel Angel waiting patiently for a cue from him. Gathering his reins and steadying himself, Zak moved her out at a walk to get her warmed up.
For the next half hour, Zak and Angel put on an impressive show for their audience. The horse and rider performed as a seasoned team. Zak had Angel going over a number of jumps and the big mare was thrilled with her new boy.
When Zak stopped Angel in front of the area where everyone, including Dusty who had been there almost since Zak started, was waiting, he noticed a faraway look in CJ's eyes.
"CJ, is everything ok?" Zak asked.
CJ nodded, tears glistening in his hazel eyes. "Yes, Zak, everything is great. I haven't seen Angel move so well in months. I promised Danny I would take care of her, but she misses him so much, we both do. I'm so glad she has you now."
Zak nodded. "Thanks, CJ. You'll have to tell me about Danny some day. If he had the connection to Angel that I am feeling, he must be something."
CJ smiled. "He is. Some day when it doesn't hurt so much, I'd love to tell you all about him."
The boys spent the rest of the afternoon showing off their horses and what they could do for CJ. At their insistence CJ took a turn, showing them what he could do with Ash.
The boys were impressed. CJ made Ash perform in ways they had never seen. He was definitely ahead of Mattie when it came to the Spanish riding that Ash was bred for.
Finally, it was time to take care of the horses and the evening feedings. With five of them doing the work, they were done rather quickly.
As they were all leaving the barn and heading towards their cars, CJ asked, "Is it ok if I leave the trailer here? I just don't want to haul it all over town and I need to find a motel to stay at. I'm sure they would prefer if I didn't park the trailer in their lot."
Mattie looked at CJ. "What do you mean a motel? Aren't you coming home?"
CJ shook his head. "Mattie, you know they still think I'm in school. If I show up now, it will bring too many questions and I can't give Father any motive to screw things up for me."
"I thought the trust was irrevocable?" asked Zak.
"It is, but since the lawyer works for Father, he could misfile some paperwork or find another reason to put off me getting my inheritance. I need everything to go smoothly so I can get away from Father and so that I have a place for Mattie if things go south."
"CJ, instead of staying in a hotel, why don't you come and stay at my house?" Zak offered. "We have a spare room and I like the idea of 'borrowing' Mattie's big brother for a few days."
CJ grinned. "Are you sure it's ok with your parents?"
"Well, it's just me and my mom, but she won't mind. Let me go give her a quick call." Zak grabbed his phone and walked off to make the call.
Zak came back a few minutes later. "It's fine. She loves Mattie's ass, so she'd do anything for him."
Mattie blushed. "Well, if you can't come home, at least you'll be more comfortable at Zak's house than in a motel."
It was decided that Dusty would take Mattie and Spin home, and CJ would go with Zak. They were going to leave CJ's Jeep at the ranch for now so he wouldn't have to park on the street by Zak's house.
Dusty would come by in the morning to pick up Loki and CJ, and CJ would spend the day at the ranch with Dusty.
Zak and CJ waved as Dusty's truck drove down the driveway with Herc pacing in the truck bed.
Zak loaded Loki into the back seat of his SUV and CJ got into the passenger seat.
When they got to Zak's house, Zak gave CJ a quick tour of the house and showed him to the guest room.
While CJ unpacked and put the few belongings he had away, Zak sat on the bed.
"Why don't you have more stuff?" Zak asked.
"Well, I don't have a lot to begin with," CJ answered. "My apartment was rented furnished, so most of what I had was clothes. There are a few boxes in the back of my Jeep and in the trailer. But most of my stuff is in the house here, so Mattie will have to help me sneak it out before the big day."
"Do you really think your dad will disown you?"
CJ nodded solemnly. "Yes, I do. He's too old school. To him homosexuality is an abomination and he will never accept it in any of his children. You know as well as I do, that it's not something that you can turn off and I'm not about to marry some girl just to make him happy."
"Do you hate your father?"
CJ thought for a minute. "No, I don't hate him. I love him--I think no matter how bad your parents are, it's very hard to hate them--but I don't like him and I hate what he stands for."
"It's not fair," Zak said tearing up. "Dusty and I don't have dads and yours is an asshole."
CJ barked out a laugh. "Sorry, but your description of father is succinct and accurate. I'm sorry about you and Dusty, but from what Mattie tells me, your moms are incredible."
"They are. They've both done everything they could to support us both growing up and since we got together." Zak contemplated for a moment. CJ, do you believe in God?"
"Yes, I do," CJ answered. "I believe in an ultimate power, but I don't believe in organized religion. I think that too much evil is done in this world in the name of God."
"Why does God hate us?" Zak cried.
CJ sat on the bed next to Zak and wrapped his arm around the smaller boy. At this contact with Zak, a small electric charge went through CJ. "Why do you think God hates us?"
"He took away my dad and Dusty's dad and he made yours an asshole and he made us all gay so that everyone would hate us."
"I like to think that God chose to make things more challenging for us, because he knew we were strong enough to handle it," CJ said. "God didn't make people hate us. God gave us free will; he set us on a path but most people veer from that path. When they spew hate and ignorance, they are not doing as God wants, they are doing as they want."
"But, why do people hate us so much?"
"Most people hate what they fear. They are scared of anything different. But the way I see it is if being gay was 'unnatural' then God wouldn't have made any of us gay in the first place."
The two boys just sat there for a minute. CJ continued to hug Zak. Something about his brother's friend was really getting to him. It was so easy for him to talk to Zak. He was a good kid and he was beautiful, almost as beautiful as Danny.
CJ pushed the thoughts of Danny out of his mind. Danny was in his past. Danny had left him with no explanation. It didn't make any sense for him to waste the rest of his life waiting for Danny to come back to him.
After a few minutes, Zak stood up.
"Thanks for talking to me," he said to CJ, smiling. "I can see why Mattie worships you so."
CJ playing bopped Zak in the head with a pillow. "Don't say things like that--you'll give me a swelled head."
Zak laughed. "Well, I'll let you finish and see if I can rustle something up for dinner," Zak said as he left the room.
When he returned about a half hour later to see if CJ was ready for dinner, he found his friend's brother fast asleep on the bed.
Zak figured it had been a long drive and a long day for CJ. He walked over to the bed and pulled the comforter up over CJ.
In his sleep, CJ reached out and grabbed Zak's arm. "Danny, come back," CJ mumbled. "I love you so much."