Danny sat on the couch in Dr. Sadler’s office. He had started seeing her for therapy when he moved to town and tried to get in at least once a week. He and CJ had just returned from Ocala. They had planned to be home well before Halloween; instead it was Thanksgiving week.
Dr. Sadler sat in a recliner across from the couch Danny was sitting on. The room was more like someone’s living room than a doctor’s office. There was no desk or stiff office-type chairs. A large Oriental rug covered most of the hardwood floor. In addition to the recliner and couch already in use there were several other comfortable chairs in a circle around a small coffee table. There was a fire going in the fireplace and a stereo was quietly playing classical music. Strains of Vivaldi could be heard in the background.
Dr. Sadler was in her mid-fifties, a very pleasant woman. She kept her graying hair pulled loosely back in a ponytail. Much as the room did not look like a doctor’s office, no one was likely to peg Dr. Sadler as a doctor. She was, however, a psychiatrist. Danny had chosen her because he was more comfortable talking to a woman about the matters he often had to discuss in session and because he felt it was easier to have a therapist who was a medical doctor and could therefore prescribe his medications. In the past he had had a psychologist for therapy and then seen a psychiatrist for prescriptions; this new setup just made things easier.
“So, Danny,” Dr. Sadler began. “I thought you were only running down to Florida for a day or two.”
Danny laughed nervously. “Well, that was the plan--get in and get out; but things kind of snowballed. We ended up staying down there for almost four weeks.”
“Were there problems?”
“More like a lot of unexpected ‘stuff’ getting thrown at us,” Danny answered. “But, I can safely say that everything has worked out so far.”
“Well, the way things went, if this had been a few months ago, we’d have been having this conversation in a ward and not your office.”
“So you came through it all in one piece?”
“And you and CJ?”
Danny smiled brightly. “Stronger than ever. After the past few weeks, I think any doubts or fears I had about us and what had happened are gone. I love him more than ever and I feel the same from him every day.”
“Why don’t you tell me what happened.”
“Well, we got down there on Monday morning and drove to the farm where we had met and worked in college. The lady who owns it, Abigail, had become like a surrogate mother to us. We were just going to say ‘hi’ and then go to an Inn close to the college so CJ could take care of his business. But Abigail insisted that we stay with her. She has a big old house and the entire second floor is vacant since she can’t make the stairs anymore. She sometimes rents it to students, but wasn’t at the moment and we couldn’t turn down her invitation. She also had a horse she wanted me to try to work with, so I figured that would give me something to do while CJ dealt with Sam. I thought it would be a day or two of work and then we’d be back home. Man, was I wrong...”
After CJ and Danny had finished carrying in their bags, CJ decided he had better head over and see Sam. He had not spoken to her so far and was getting nervous about the conversation they needed to have.
Danny offered to go with him, but CJ thought the first meeting should be just between the two of them.
Danny walked CJ to the car and watched as CJ drove off.
CJ pulled up in front of Sam’s apartment building. He sat in the car steeling himself for seeing Sam. He had always gotten along great with her, but he was about to have a discussion about the results of an encounter that he could not fully remember.
He had begun to have some hazy memories of the night ever since his father had given him the pictures. He couldn’t remember the details of the encounter but he ‘knew’ it had happened. He didn’t know how, but he knew that he had been with her.
He got out of the car and entered the building. He had been to her apartment numerous times, so he knew which door was hers without having to search.
He knocked on the door and waited.
The door opened and Sam stood there. For the first time, CJ was struck by how much she did look like Danny. In a drunken stupor, it would not have been difficult to mistake her for his missing boyfriend.
Given that she was now almost nine months pregnant her chest was much bigger than it usually was. But for a pregnant woman she could still be described as petite.
Sam looked at him in surprise. “CJ?! What are you doing here?”
CJ looked at her and his eyes moved down to her rounded stomach. “I think we need to talk,” he said.
Sam nodded. “Come in,” she said as she opened the door to allow him in.
Sam’s small apartment was very neat and tidy. She led CJ into a small living room and offered him a seat.
“I didn’t think I’d see you again,” she said.
“I know; I’m sorry, but to be honest until about a month ago I didn’t even remember that we...”
Sam laughed. “You were pretty blasted that night. I wasn’t feeling any pain either, but you were blotto.”
“Sam, I’m sorry. If I had known...”
“I know. I didn’t really want to burden you. I know that what happened was a drunken mistake for both of us. I’d had a crush on you for so long. I knew you were still in love with Danny, but that night I didn’t care. I wanted to be selfish and have you to myself even if you didn’t remember it.”
“I wish I had known; I could have at least helped you through it.”
“I didn’t know if you’d believe me.”
“If I’d believe that we were together or that I wouldn’t believe I was the father?”
“Both, I guess. I knew you were pretty wasted and then when you never mentioned anything I figured you had blocked it out. If you’d have remembered, you’d have been embarrassed or not been able to talk to me after. That’s how I knew you didn’t remember; you are too nice a guy to just ignore me after. Anyways, by the time I found out about Junior here, you were starting to adjust to Danny being gone and getting ready for Grad and I didn’t want to cause you more trouble.”
“I guess I understand, but I still wish I had known; it must have been tough for you.”
“Once I got used to the idea it was ok; my parents aren’t exactly thrilled about the pregnancy or my plans, but I’ve made them see it’s my decision.”
“What are your plans?”
“I’m going to give him up,” Sam said quietly.
Sam nodded. “Yeah, I wasn’t going to find out, but I had to have an ultrasound because of some complications and a big-mouth nurse kinda blurted it out.”
“Sam, I need to know something.”
“Are you sure you want to give him up? If it’s about money, I can help you out.”
Sam shook her head. “No, it’s not about the money. I’m just not ready to be a mom. I don’t know if I ever will be. I’ve never been a big fan of kids. I’ve never wanted them. I’m not one of those girls who’s fantasized about what it would like to be pregnant. I don’t know if it makes me a bad person, but I don’t want him. I couldn’t get an abortion; I just don’t think it’s right. I’m all for choice, but I couldn’t do it.”
“Are you going through an agency or something?”
“Yes. I’ve spoken to them. They have some people lined up but nothing for sure yet.”
They sat in silence for a few minutes as CJ tried to choose his words.
Sam looked at him thoughtfully and then nodded.
“You want him,” she said; it wasn’t a question.
CJ nodded. “Yes. Danny’s back--we actually found each other by accident. We worked through everything and we are good. I bought a ranch and we have our brothers and their friends and lots of horses and this may be our only chance to be dads.”
Sam thought for a moment. “I think that would be good.”
“Really?” CJ asked.
“Yes. You and Danny are great guys and were always good to me. Because of you two I got to work my way through school on the farm instead of having to work in the dining hall. It’s right that if you want to raise your son, you get the chance.”
Tears came to CJ’s eyes as the realization hit him that he and Danny were going to be parents.
“Thank you,” he said quietly. “I just want you to know, that if you ever change your mind and want to see him or be a part of his life all you have to do is ask.”
Sam smiled. “I don’t think I will. I graduate in December and then I’m clearing out. But it’s nice to know that he’s in good hands.”
“Do you have any medical bills or anything that you need help with?”
“CJ, I’m not letting you have him for money.”
“I know that. But, you’re about to graduate and you shouldn’t be starting life with a lot of debt, especially when I can help you with it. I’m going to take care of whatever bills your insurance won’t cover. Just have them send me the bills. Ok?”
“When are you due?”
“My due date is not for two more weeks, but my doctor says I could go anytime now. I have an appointment Wednesday morning--do you want to go with me? She’s gonna do another ultrasound, so you can see him.”
CJ’s eyes lit up. “Are you sure?”
“Of course. You might as well meet the little bugger. Bring Danny too.”
“I’ll ask him; he’s doing some work with one of Abigail’s horses while we’re here. We weren’t sure how long we would be here, so we just got one-way tickets down, so we can stay a few extra days. I’ll check with Danny and make sure he knows he can come.”
“Good. I love you guys, and knowing you’re going to look out for my baby is going to make it a lot easier to give him up.” Sam yawned. “Oh, I’m sorry. This takes a lot out of you. I spend more time sleeping than anything these days.”
“Well, I’ll get going so you can get some rest,” CJ said as he stood up. He handed Sam a card. “Here’s my cell and my business number. Call me if you need anything, even after we leave.”
Sam took the card. “Ok.” She placed the card on the coffee table. “Meet me at the Medical Building Wednesday at 10:15.”
CJ leaned down and hugged Sam. “Thank you, Sam. We’ll see you there.”
CJ let himself out and drove back to the farm.
After CJ left, Abigail came out of the house and led Danny over to one of the paddocks.
As they approached, Danny heard a horse whinnying and the sound of hoof beats. He ran over to the fence and stepped up on it and looked into the paddock. Running around the paddock, he saw a beautiful auburn-colored horse with a rich black mane and tail.
Danny was mesmerized watching the horse thunder around the paddock. He felt Abigail tap him on the back and turned to her.
Abigail grinned up at Danny. “Gorgeous, isn’t he?”
“Oh, God, yes,” Danny replied. “Selle Francais?”
Abigail nodded. “Yes. The old owner thought he was too much of a handful. As you can see he has a lot of spirit.”
Danny hopped down from the fence. “Has anyone ridden him?”
“That appears to be the question,” Abigail grimaced. “The fellow I bought him from made it sound like he was broke, just a little difficult, but no one’s been able to stay on him long enough to see what he can do. I’d say he’s green broke at best. But, he’s probably never even had a rider before he got here.”
Danny laughed and shook his head. “Abigail, I’m only going to be here a day or two. I can’t break and train a horse in that time.”
“I know. I guess I was hoping you’d be able to work one of your miracles.”
“Well, if we were going to be here at least a week or more I’d give it a try, but right now he’s so keyed up that I’d have to spend some time with him just calming him down.” Danny thought for a moment. “Tell you what, why don’t you go back up to the house and leave me here with him. I’m not making any promises, but let me see what I can do.”
Abigail hugged Danny and kissed his cheek. “I knew you wouldn’t be able to resist.”
Danny laughed again, “You know me too well. By the way, what’s his name?”
Abigail giggled. “Prince Valiant. But, most of the hands are calling him ‘Val’.”
Danny rolled his eyes. He couldn’t fathom why everyone wanted to name their horse ‘Prince’. ‘Angel’ wasn’t his top choice either, but he had inherited the name with the horse.
Abigail turned and walked back to the house.
Danny spent the next thirty minutes or so standing on the fence watching Val run around the paddock. A few times the horse noticed Danny and would venture closer and closer to the fence where Danny was, but he would not get too close.
Danny decided to see how the horse would react to his presence inside the paddock, so he stepped down from the fence and then slipped between the two lowest slats. He leaned against the fence and watched the horse, not wanting to seem like a threat.
Val continued his circling of the paddock. Each time he came around he would come closer to Danny, but he would also speed up as he neared Danny.
After a few minutes, Danny stepped away from the fence and walked towards the center of the paddock. He just stood quietly watching Val.
Eventually, the horse’s curiosity won out and he stopped running and made his way towards Danny.
Danny stayed stock still, watching the horse’s approach. When Val was within an arm’s reach, he took a single step forward; the horse stopped and watched Danny. Danny lifted his arm towards the horse, but remained standing where he was.
Val took two steps forward and sniffed at Danny’s hand. He took another step forward and Danny reached up and stroked his cheek. Val moved his head to meet Danny’s touch.
“Well,” thought Danny. “He’s at least had some handling.”
Danny stood still for a few moments and just stroked the horse. After a few seconds of this, Val threw his head back and took off around the paddock again.
Danny decided he wanted to see if he could get a halter on the horse. He walked out the paddock gate and ran over to the barn to get a halter and a lead. While he was in the barn, he ran into a couple of his old students and ended up spending about fifteen minutes talking to them.
He took the lead and halter and walked back out to the paddock.
When he got there, Val was nowhere to be seen. He hopped the fence and walked towards the far end of the paddock where there were some shady trees; he figured that Val was probably cooling off under them.
As he got closer to the trees he saw Val standing near the fence off in the distance, but he also heard a voice.
He walked over behind a tree to try to hear the voice clearer. It was obviously a male voice, but he couldn’t make out what was being said.
He peeked around the tree and saw a boy of about fifteen or sixteen standing next to Val, stroking and talking to the horse. The horse was closer to the boy than he had gotten to Danny.
Danny was about to say something, but he decided to see what happened.
Danny looked closely at the boy as he spoke gently to Val. He was about 5’8” or so, his hair was sun-bleached with tinges of red in it, and it was shaggy and unkempt, like it hadn’t been washed in a while. The boy wore denim shorts and a torn t-shirt. He had very worn sneakers on his feet. His clothes were very dirty. The boy was very tan as if he had spent a lot of time in the bright Florida sun.
Danny watched as the boy maneuvered Val closer to the fence, quietly leading the horse where he wanted him. The boy scaled the fence and perched on the top rail. He kept petting Val and talking to him in soothing tones. He ran his hand down Val’s neck and over his mane. He placed his hand on Val’s back and leaned into the horse, obviously testing the horse’s reaction.
Danny held his breath; he knew what was coming next. He readied himself to step in and help the boy if anything went wrong. He knew he should probably step in and stop this, but he could tell the boy knew what he was doing and he was curious to see Val’s reaction.
The boy placed his hand gently on Val’s back and stood on the fence rail. He never stopped talking to horse, letting Val know that he was there. He lifted his right leg and slipped it over the horse’s back. He lowered himself very softy onto the horse’s back and moved his left leg from the fence rail so he was fully seated.
Val never moved the entire time. The boy leaned forward and wrapped his arms around the horse’s neck and kept talking to him.
He sat back up straight and gave the horse a slight nudge with his heels and Val walked on.
Danny was impressed. Abigail said no one had been able to get a saddle on Val, never mind stay on him and here this boy was riding the horse bareback and with no tack. The horse was placid and gentle.
Danny watched the boy and horse for a few minutes and then stepped out from behind the trees.
“Hey,” he called to the boy. “You’re pretty good.”
The boy turned in surprise. As soon as he saw Danny, he slipped from Val’s back and scrambled under the fence and ran into the woods.
Danny thought about giving chase, but figured he was a neighbor kid afraid of being caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
He walked over to Val. The horse was back to being his more nervous self and it took Danny several minutes to get close enough to slip the halter on him.
Danny led Val across the paddock and out the gate; he walked him over to the barn and clipped his halter on the crossties. He ran to the tack room and grabbed a grooming kit.
He spent the next half hour, just grooming and talking to the horse.
Abigail came back out when he was just finishing up.
“Well, I see you at least caught him,” Abigail said with a smile.
Danny grinned. “Someone mellowed him out for me.”
“Must have been a neighbor’s son--boy about fifteen or sixteen. I found him actually riding Val bareback and with no tack at the far end of the paddock.”
“Danny, none of my neighbors have a teen-aged son.”
“Then who was riding Val?”
“I don’t know, but if you see him again, let me know. He might be a town kid looking for a thrill or something, but I don’t want to be sued if a kid gets hurt fooling around with the horses.”
“Well, whoever he was, he knew what he was doing,” Danny said as he walked Val into the barn and put him up in his stall.
Danny thought about taking a ride in the woods and seeing if he could find the boy, but just then CJ drove up.
Danny ran over to the car. CJ got out and grabbed Danny in and hug and spun him around.
Danny laughed. “Put me down,” he ordered. “I take it things went good.”
CJ nodded. “Things went great...Daddy.”
“Daddy?” Danny raised his eyebrow. “So, it’s yours?”
“No doubt. Sam was so surprised to see me, but the second I saw her face I knew it was mine. She doesn’t want him--she’s not sure she ever wants kids; but she has agreed that we can take him when he is born.”
CJ grinned and nodded. “Yup, it’s a boy. Usually, if someone was giving the baby up, they wouldn’t know the sex, but she had to have an ultrasound and the nurse had loose lips and told her it was a boy.”
Danny smiled and grabbed CJ in another hug. “So, we’re going to be daddies?!”
“Yes!” CJ answered as he leaned in and kissed Danny. “The guys are going to be shocked.”
“I’ll say,” Danny agreed. “When is she due?”
“Not for another two weeks, but her doctor thinks it could be sooner. She has an appointment day after tomorrow and she wants us to go.”
“Yeah, she’s having an ultrasound and she wanted us to be able to see the baby.”
“Are you sure?” Danny wasn’t sure he wanted to be there. “Maybe that’s something you should do with Sam; it might be awkward with me there.”
“She’s the one who asked for you to be there. But it’s up to you, if you don’t want to go...”
“Let me think about it. Abigail wants me to work with this horse and then...” Danny thought for a minute and then told CJ about the mysterious boy and how Abigail insisted that it couldn’t be a neighbor’s kid.
“Maybe someone has relatives staying with them,” CJ suggested.
“Could be, but the more I think about the way he looked...”
“It was like he had been living in those clothes.”
“You mean like he was homeless or something?”
“Maybe...or maybe he’s a runaway.” Danny thought for a moment. “I just hope he’s not in any trouble. You should have seen him; he definitely knew what he was doing with Val.”
Danny laughed. “The horse that Abigail wants me to work with; his name is ‘Prince Valiant’, but they just call him ‘Val’.
CJ shook his head and laughed. He was about to say something, when Abigail poked her head out the front door and told them that dinner was ready.
Abigail wanted to know how Sam was doing and about the baby. She was very excited for CJ and Danny.
CJ and Abigail chattered away through dinner and long into the night. Danny was relatively quiet. His thoughts were on the boy he had seen; he was concerned that this kid might be in trouble and he thought about trying to find him and seeing if he could help.
As excited as he was about the baby, he felt that this time was CJ’s and he needed the distraction here at the ranch to keep from focusing on the thoughts of CJ and Sam that kept creeping into his mind. He knew that it was a one-time thing and that he was out of picture, but there was a part of him that was hurt by CJ’s turning to someone else. It was something he needed to work through and maybe focusing on Val and the boy would help him.
Danny was up at first light. He left CJ in bed; since CJ had no plans for the day, he could sleep in.
Danny quickly dressed and went downstairs and out of the house.
He walked over to the barn. Several of the hands were already working, cleaning stalls and doing morning feedings.
He went straight to the stall he was looking for. In the stall, like he was waiting for Danny, was a little gray Paso Fino.
“Hey, Macho,” Danny greeted the horse as he reached over and ran his hand up the horse’s neck and under his thick mane. “How are you doing, boy? Ready for some exercise?”
The horse shook his head up and down and Danny laughed. Macho was one of his and CJ’s favorite horses. He missed riding him, so he figured he’d kill two birds with one stone. Getting in a ride on Macho and looking for the boy.
In less than fifteen minutes, Danny was riding down the trail. He followed the back fence of the paddock where Val had been the day before. He kept a look out for any signs of where the boy might have run to.
He stopped Macho at the part of the fence that the boy had slipped under. There was a trail that ran to the lake about five hundred yards away. Danny knew it well--it was the first trail he had taken at the farm when he first arrived there with Angel. It was the trail he was on the first time he saw CJ.
Danny still blushed at the memory of seeing CJ pleasuring himself in the woods that first day.
He turned Macho towards the trail and started into the woods.
If he was correct and the boy was a runaway or homeless then it would make sense that he would camp near the lake. But if he was hiding then he would also want a place that someone was less likely to stumble upon. Danny thought he knew just the spot.
There was a small orange grove near a strip of the lake that very few people went near. It was heavily wooded and hard to get the horses through. He was familiar with it, because he and CJ had ‘used’ the area on more than one occasion when they had gotten amorous during a trail ride. It was very secluded.
Danny rode Macho towards the lake. He stopped him a short distance from the area in question. He dismounted and led Macho over to a stand of trees and tied his reins to a low branch so that the horse could graze. Macho was used to this from when he and CJ had ridden out here and Danny knew the horse would not wander off.
Danny walked along the tree line trying to keep a watch out. He didn’t want to spook the boy into running, he wanted to be able to help him.
He walked into the grove as quietly as he could. About 400 yards from the lake shore he saw what looked like a camp. It looked like someone had built a very primitive lean-to. It blended in well with the surrounding area; if he had not been looking for it, he would have probably missed it.
He crept closer to the small camp, staying close to the trees. When he was across from the lean-to he could see a small figure lying under it. He walked quietly towards the camp.
When he was about ten feet from the lean-to, he could see the boy’s head poking out of some blankets. Danny recognized the messy blond hair and knew he had found the boy.
He crossed over to the lean-to and leaned down over the boy. Up close, it was easy to see that he had been through a lot. He had a fading bruise around his eye and his face was dirty. He was a good-looking boy though, Danny thought.
He reached down to try to gently wake the boy. As his hand was about to touch the boy, Danny heard a low growl behind him.
Startled, he turned and saw a big Rottweiler standing about five feet away. The dog looked at him and bared its teeth.
Danny stayed very still. He looked back at the boy, whose eyes were now opened. The boy looked nervously at Danny.
Danny grinned at the boy. “Hey, I’m Danny and I’m not going to hurt you. Is that your dog?”
The boy nodded. He sat up and looked over at the dog. “Kaya, come here,” he said as the dog trotted over to the boy.
The boy looked at Danny. “Don’t worry about Kaya, she’s just a little overprotective of me.” Kaya sat next to the boy, who wrapped his arm around her. She never took her eyes off Danny.
“What’s your name?” Danny asked gently.
“Jesse,” the boy answered. “I’m sorry about yesterday. I was just staying here for a few days before I moved on and when I was walking I saw your horse and I miss...” He stopped talking and looked at Danny in a panic.
“Jesse, it’s ok,” Danny said. “First, he’s not my horse--he belongs to the lady who owns the farm; and she asked me to work with him while I’m visiting, but he seemed to like you more than me.” Jesse smiled shyly when Danny said that. “What are you doing out here alone?”
“I’m just camping.”
Danny looked around. He knew that this was not true, but he did not want to scare Jesse off.
“Look, Jesse, I want to help you here, but I need to know what’s going on. I’m sorry, but you are a mess. It’s obvious you are out here all alone and it looks like you’ve had a rough time of it. Why don’t you come back to the farm with me. We can get you cleaned up, get you some food and figure out how we can help you.”
Jesse looked at Danny. Danny recognized the look. He knew that Jesse’s mind was torn between trusting Danny and taking his offer of help, and self-preservation.
“Jesse, I just want to help you. That’s all. The only people at the house right now are Abigail, the lady who owns the farm, and CJ, my boyfriend. I’m sure there are some workers there, but they won’t say anything if you are hiding from someone. If you’re in trouble, I’m sure we can help you.” Danny thought he was getting through to Jesse, and he made one last push to win the boy over. “And I could sure use your help with Val.”
“The horse, Prince Valiant.”
“Can I bring Kaya?”
Danny nodded. “Sure.”
Jesse looked around his camp. “Ok,” he said.
Danny helped Jesse gather up the few belongings he had and stuff them into his backpack.
Jesse had Danny hold out his hand to Kaya so she could smell him and so she would know he was not a threat.
Danny led Jesse out of the woods to where he had left Macho. Kaya followed the two closely.
Jesse grinned when he saw Macho. “Awesome, Paso Fino. I’ve always wanted to ride one.”
“Well, now’s your chance,” Danny said as he untied Macho’s reins and led the horse out to the clearing. “This is Macho; he belongs to Abigail and the farm, but my boyfriend and I love to ride him when we have a chance.”
Jesse walked over to Macho. He stroked the horse’s neck and talked to him quietly.
“You know horses,” Danny said. “I knew when I saw you with Val yesterday, but I can see it now even more.”
Jesse looked at Danny his eyes watering. Danny reached over and wrapped Jesse in a hug.
“It’s ok, Jesse,” he said as he hugged the boy. “We’re going to fix this, whatever it is, we are going to fix it.”
When Danny first took Jesse in his arms, the boy stiffened. Then he melted into Danny and hugged the older boy tight. As Jesse’s defenses lowered, the floodgates opened on his emotions and he began to sob in Danny’s arms.
Danny just held Jesse tight and rocked him until the boy could get his emotions in check.
Jesse let go of Danny and stepped back. “I’m sorry,” he said as he wiped his arm across his eyes leaving streaks of dirt across his face.
“For what?’ Danny asked. “For losing control for a minute, for getting emotional? Don’t be. We all need to do that sometimes.” He turned to Macho and put his left foot in the stirrup and pulled himself up. He then reached down for Jesse and the boy swung up behind him.
Danny decided to take the long way around the lake, to give Jesse a chance to relax. He knew if Jesse was the horseman that he thought he was, a long ride would definitely do him a world of good.
Danny put Macho through his paces as they rode back to the farm. Danny had him trotting, cantering and at one point galloping along the trail. When he had Macho going full tilt down the trail, he heard the sound of Jesse’s laughter. He had a feeling it had been a while since Jesse had laughed.
They rode up to the barn. Jesse slipped down and then Danny dismounted. One of the stable hands came out and took Macho from Danny. Danny had forgotten what it was like here, that there were hands to take care of the horses. That was one of the things he actually enjoyed, doing his own grooming and tacking. But, since he wanted to get Jesse taken care of he was willing to hand off the job this time.
Danny watched Jess’s eyes wander around the farm. More and more he was positive that this was something that was familiar to Jesse and the horses would be the key to gaining his trust.
“C’mon,” Danny said looking at Jesse. “Let’s go up to the house and get you cleaned up.”
Danny led Jesse to the house, Kaya still at Jesse’s heels.
Danny noticed the Mustang that he and CJ had rented was gone. “CJ must have run out for something,” he said. “That’s ok, you can meet him later.”
Danny led Jesse into the house and upstairs. He guided him to the smaller bedroom suite that was across from the one he and CJ occupied.
“You can use this room for now,” Danny said. “There’s a bathroom through that door. Leave your clothes here and I’ll get them washed.” Jesse looked at him questioningly. “No, you won’t have to sit around naked,” he laughed. “You’re about my size, I’ll go and grab some clothes and leave them here for you. When you are done, come down to the kitchen, I’ll make us some breakfast.”
Jesse nodded. He pulled off his t-shirt and Danny had to catch himself from reacting when he saw the fading bruises that covered Jesse’s torso. This kid had been through hell, Danny thought.
Jesse dropped the t-shirt on top of his backpack and walked into the bathroom. Kaya followed him in.
Jesse poked his head out.
“If you want to give Kaya a bath in there too, I’ll bring you some extra towels.”
Jesse smiled at Danny and nodded. “Thanks.”
Jesse went back into the bathroom and shut the door. As soon as Danny heard the water start running, he walked across the hall to his room. He opened his suitcase and pulled out a pair of jockeys, a t-shirt and some shorts. He had a pair of old flip-flops that he had brought with him, so he grabbed those too. He stopped at the linen closet and grabbed three big plush bath sheets.
He brought everything across the hall and left them on the bed. He picked up Jesse’s backpack and the clothes that he had left outside the bathroom door. He pulled clothes from the backpack, thinking that most of the things were a lost cause.
He searched the pockets of Jesse’s pants out of habit and pulled out a thin leather wallet. He was tempted to look for some identification, but he wanted Jesse to trust him. He put the wallet on the nightstand and went back to make sure there was nothing else in the pockets. From the front pocket he pulled out two pictures. The first was of Jesse and a woman who might have been his mother--there was definitely a familial similarity in the two. The second picture was of Jesse and a Hispanic boy who was probably the same age, but bigger. He made Danny think of Mattie.
He placed the pictures with the wallet and carried the clothes down to the laundry room.
He loaded the washer and started it up.
He went into the kitchen to rummage for food. Figuring that Jesse was probably quite hungry, he started frying bacon and scrambling eggs, something simple that he could quickly make more of.
Danny had everything cooked and staying warm in the oven, when Jesse came into the kitchen with Kaya.
Danny smiled. With all the dirt and grime gone, Jesse was a very handsome young man.
“Hey, lookin’ good,” Danny said.
Jesse smiled shyly. “Thanks. I never thought a shower would feel so great,” he said as he ran his fingers through his hair. Now that it was clean and brushed out it hung down past his shoulders.
“Not used to it being that long?” Danny asked.
Jesse nodded. “I usually keep it much shorter, but haven’t had a chance to get it cut recently.”
“Maybe we can take care of that later,” Danny said. He gestured to the table that had been set for two. “Have a seat. I have breakfast ready.”
Jesse sat down. Kaya lay at his feet.
Danny went over to the oven and pulled out the eggs, sausage and bacon that he had cooked. He brought it over to the table. “If that’s not enough, I can make more. I cooked some extra sausages for Kaya, since Abigail doesn’t have any dog food.”
He took a small plate and put several pieces of sausage on it and handed it to Jesse, who put it on the floor in front of Kaya. The dog sniffed at the food suspiciously, but her hunger eventually won out.
Jesse ate like he hadn’t had food in a long while. Danny went back to make more eggs and bacon for him and cooked more sausage for Kaya.
As Jesse was eating his third helping, Danny watched him.
“CJ should be back soon,” Danny said. “When he brings the car back, why don’t we head into town? I have your clothes in the wash, but most of them are a lost cause. We can get you some new ones and some food for Kaya.”
Jesse hesitated. “That’s ok. You don’t need to spend money on me.”
“Jesse, it’s not about me needing to do anything, it’s about me wanting to help you. I have the money to be able to do that and you look like you got dealt a bad hand.” Danny paused. “I’d like to know what happened to you, but I’m not going to push, you can tell me what you want when you want. But just know this--we won’t judge you. Whatever happened is your past, this is your present; I just want to help you get on your feet. Ok?”
Jesse smiled at Danny. “Ok.”
Just then, CJ came in the front door. “Danny?” he called.
“In the kitchen,” Danny called back.
CJ walked into the kitchen. “There you are. You left so early this morning. I had to run some errands for Abigail; she had to go to see a sick friend and won’t be back till...” He stopped when he saw Jesse. “Hey.”
“Hi,” Jesse said.
“CJ, this is Jesse. He’s the boy I saw riding Val yesterday,” Danny said. “Jesse, this is my boyfriend, CJ.”
“Hey, Jesse, nice to meet you.” CJ offered his hand to Jesse, who shook it. “Are you from around here?”
“Umm...” Jesse wasn’t sure what to say. He was saved by Kaya’s emergence from under the table.
“Whoa,” CJ said as he stepped back. “And who is this?”
Danny laughed, “This is Jesse’s dog, Kaya.” He looked at Jesse. “Sorry, CJ’s not big on large dogs.”
“That’s not true,” CJ protested. “Just some of them...”
Danny laughed harder. “His little brother has a huge mastiff that Mattie thinks is a harmless puppy, but he scares the hell out of CJ,” he explained to Jesse.
Jesse laughed, “Well, Kaya can be a bit testy, but she’s usually ok if I’m around. She’s just very protective of me.”
CJ rolled his eyes. “Sounds very familiar.”
This remark had Danny and Jesse both laughing.
Danny stood up and went over and kissed CJ. “Don’t worry, Babe, we’ll protect you.” CJ playfully slapped Danny’s shoulder.
“Hey, I’m gonna take Jesse into town to run some errands. Are you going to need the car?”
“No, I thought I’d take a ride. Do you want me to go with you?”
“No, we’re good. Why don’t you take a ride. When we get back Jesse’s gonna help me with Val, right, Jess?”
Jesse’s eyes lit up as he nodded at Danny.
“Jesse, I’ll meet you out at the car, I just need to go upstairs and grab my wallet.”
“Ok,” Jesse said as he went out to the front yard.
CJ followed Danny up the stairs.
“Danny, what are you doing?”
“Shhh,” Danny hissed as he grabbed CJ’s hand and dragged him into the bedroom. He shut the door behind them.
“CJ, I found him sleeping in that little orange grove by the lake.”
“You mean the one we used to...”
“Yes, that one. I think he’s a runaway; he hasn’t told me yet, but I want to help him. I’m going to take him into town and get him some clothes and get some stuff for the dog. Maybe I can get him to open up to me.”
“What are you planning to do with him?”
Danny looked at CJ with pleading eyes. “Can we keep him?”
“Danny, he’s not a puppy, he’s a teenager, who probably has a family.”
“I know, but he’s on the run for some reason. Did you see him? He’s not some street thug or gangbanger running from the law. He has faded bruises on his chest and back. I don’t know if they are what caused him to run or if he’s been in trouble on the run, but he needs our help. You should see him with the horses. He’s not some kid who just decided to play with them, he knows them. He definitely has a background with them.”
“Ok,” CJ sighed. “You take him into town. I think there is a runaway database online, I’ll see if I can find anything about him on there. Once we know something, then we can make a decision.”
Danny hugged CJ. “Thanks. I knew there was a reason I loved you.”
Danny and Jesse spent the rest of the morning running through several of Danny’s favorite stores. Danny had the credit cards that CJ had given him when he got his inheritance; this was the first time he had given them a serious workout.
At first Jesse was hesitant to let Danny spend money on him, but Danny kept insisting that Jesse needed the clothing and he and CJ could afford them.
Eventually, Jesse relented and let Danny outfit him.
When Danny pulled into the local tack shop, Jesse’s whole attitude changed. He was the proverbial kid in a candy store.
Danny grabbed a cart as they entered the store and Jesse ran up and down the aisles filling it up. He made sure he got a new food dish and water dish for Kaya as well as some food, leash, brush and some treats for her.
Danny then led Jesse to the section of the store that held the riding apparel. He got Jesse outfitted with breeches, boots, half chaps, a helmet and gloves.
Jesse’s familiarity with the clothing, confirmed to Danny that he was indeed an experienced rider.
After they left the tack shop, Danny drove them to a small café that he and CJ used to frequent.
Once they were seated and had ordered drinks, Danny spoke. “Jesse, I know I said I’d give you time to tell me your story and I will, but I just need to know that you are not in any legal trouble. If you are, I need to know how badly and if it’s something we can get you out of.”
Jesse looked defeated.
“Hey,” Danny said. “I told you I was going to help you, I’m not looking to dump you or send you away. I just want to know what we are dealing with. I can’t have your parents coming in and thinking CJ and I kidnapped you or something. I can tell you are a good kid, so I don’t think you are running from a murder charge or anything.”
Jesse blanched when Danny said that. “I don’t have any parents,” he said. “I never had a dad and my mom died this summer.”
“I’m sorry. I lost my mom this year, too.”
“My mom died of cancer. She just found out in June that she had it and by the time they diagnosed it it was too far gone. She died in late August. She had just gotten married before she was diagnosed. The guy was a dick. He started in on me the day they got back from the honeymoon. My mom never knew, cuz she was so sick and I didn’t want to make things worse.”
“Did he hit you?”
Jesse nodded as tears came to his eyes. “At first he was just yelling at me all the time and then he started slapping me every so often, though he’d always apologize. Then he would just beat on me. Never anyplace it would show. All summer I waited for my best friend to come home--he was away working at a summer camp; he was going to help me. But he was killed the day before he was supposed to come home. When I came home from his funeral, Ralph was waiting to tell me my mother was in a coma and was going to die. He told me he was going to be my only parent and I flipped and ran to my room and started grabbing clothes. He busted my door in and started hitting and kicking me. I was on the floor and there was a trophy under the bed. I grabbed it. I kicked him as hard as I could and jumped up and clocked him with the trophy. I don’t know if I killed him or not. I just grabbed my stuff and ran. I’ve been running ever since.”
Danny had tears in his eyes as he listened to Jesse. “Jesse, I’m so sorry. No one should ever be treated like that.”
Danny got up and slid into Jesse’s side of the booth and wrapped his arm around the teen’s shoulders. Jesse turned and buried his head in Danny’s chest and cried.
Danny just held Jesse and gently rubbed his back as he cried.
When Jesse had calmed down, he told Danny more about his mother, growing up in Wellington, his best friend Sebastian and how he had run away and taken Sebastian’s dog, Kaya with him.
Jesse would stop occasionally to compose himself when he got too emotional.
Danny just stayed silent and let Jesse get it all out.
When Jesse had finished, Danny sighed. “Ok, the first thing we need to do is make sure that your stepfather is ok. Not that it would be a bad thing if the bastard hadn’t made it, but it will be easier for you. Then we need to make sure he doesn’t have any custodial hold over you.”
“He doesn’t want me.”
“Maybe not, but if your mom had life insurance and you were the beneficiary, he may have a financial incentive to retain custody of you.”
Jesse’s face fell.
“Don’t worry, I said he might have a financial incentive, but we have a stronger incentive to keep you safe and away from him,” Danny said as he hugged Jesse.
Danny sighed as Jesse melted into him. He knew he was going to do anything he had to do to keep Jesse safe.
“Ok, what say we head back to the farm and do some work with Val?” Danny asked.
Jesse broke out into a huge smile that made his green eyes sparkle. “That would be awesome.”
When they got back to the farm, Danny helped Jesse carry all his purchases upstairs.
CJ was waiting for them at the top of the stairs. “I think someone is not happy with you,” he said.
Jesse cringed and Danny shot CJ a look.
CJ laughed. “Kaya started scratching at the bedroom door as soon as you left and then she started crying, so I let her out.”
“Where is she?” Jesse asked.
CJ pointed at the bedroom he and Danny were using. Jesse and CJ peeked in and saw Kaya lying on the bed. When she saw Jesse, she barked and jumped off the bed and ran over to him.
Jesse bent down and hugged his dog. “Thanks for taking care of her,” he said to CJ. “And thanks for taking care of me,” he whispered to Danny.
Danny smiled. “Why don’t you go get changed and I’ll do the same and we can go and see Val?”
“Ok,” Jesse said as he and Kaya went into his room.
CJ followed Danny into their room.
While he changed his clothes, Danny told CJ what he had learned from Jesse. He gave Danny Jesse’s full name and where he was from. CJ would start his father’s security team on tracking down whatever information they needed to make sure Jesse was safe.
Danny and Jesse spent the next few hours working with Val. Jesse was so eager to ride that he was almost shaking with excitement.
Danny shook his head as he watched Jesse effortlessly mount the horse and run a jumping course that was set up in the ring. The boy and the horse were made for each other, he thought.
Danny took a few turns around the ring, but Val did not perform for him the way he did for Jesse.
After watching Jesse take a final run through the course, Danny called him over. Jesse slid down from Val and walked him over to where Danny was waiting.
Danny looked at Jesse and grinned. “’Fess up, how long have you been doing this?”
Jesse smiled. “Since before I could walk.” Jesse told Danny about his mother’s work as a trainer and how he spent so much time at the farms. “I was riding in shows against kids twice my age and winning,” he declared. “For some reason, I’ve always been able to get the best out of the horses everyone else wants to give up on.”
“Man, have I got some kids for you to meet,” Danny said as they started walking towards the barn.
As Jesse unsaddled and groomed Val, Danny told him all about the Triple J and the boys that worked and rode there.
Jesse took in every word. He didn’t want to get his hopes up, but the life and the place Danny was describing would be a dream come true for him.
When they returned to the house, Abigail was back and fixing dinner. CJ had told her about Jesse and she warmly welcomed the teen. Abigail had no children of her own, but CJ and Danny knew that she ‘adopted’ every kid that set foot on the farm.
After dinner, Abigail took Jesse back out to the barn, so that she could show him some of the other horses she had there. She also had Jesse take Val and canter him around the ring several times bareback, just so she could see the way he made the Bay perform.
Alone in their room, Danny asked CJ. “Have you heard anything?”
CJ nodded. “So far, all they’ve been able to find out is that the stepfather is still alive. Apparently, Jesse didn’t do too much damage cuz he was never even admitted to the hospital. Doug has a guy in Wellington now trying to get whatever information we can on him and to find out what Jesse’s status is. I told Doug to do whatever he had to do to make sure Jesse was free of that bastard and to fix it so we could be his foster parents if that’s what he wants.”
Danny hugged CJ hard. “Thank you. I know that’s what he wants, but let’s give him a few days to get used to us. I told him about the guys at the ranch and I could see the want in his eyes. He misses it so much. There’s something more though.”
“Well, he told me about his friend that was killed, but I get the feeling he’s holding something back about that. Maybe he was more than a friend. He told me that Kaya was the friend’s dog and he took her with him.”
CJ nodded. “Yes, you told me that. Doug was able to track down the family, once we had Jesse’s name. The boy’s name was Sebastian Olivera.”
“When I was checking his pockets before I washed his clothes I found a picture of him with a kid that made me think of Mattie--that must have been Sebastian.”
Danny and CJ turned to see Jesse standing in the doorway.
“Seb was my best friend,” Jesse said as he walked into the room and sat on the bed. CJ and Danny sat on either side of him. “We met in the fourth grade. Up until I met him, I didn’t really have any friends. Kids picked on me cuz I didn’t have a dad, cuz we were poor, or for whatever other reason they could think of. But, Seb, he was my protector; when he got there no one hurt me anymore. He knew I loved riding and even though he was scared of the horses, he let me teach him. He came to love it as much as I did. The night before he left for camp, the last night I ever spent with him, we were wrestling on the bed. When we stopped I was lying on him and something hit me--I kissed him. And he kissed me back. When I realized what I had done I tried to lock myself in the bathroom, but Seb chased after me. He told me he loved me and that he wanted to be with me. We just held each other and kissed a few times; we never did anything more--we thought we had forever. After that morning, I never saw him again. When I ran away, I took Kaya with me cuz I needed something that reminded me of Seb, but his parents probably think I stole her.”
“Jesse, that’s what I was starting to tell Danny. One of the security guys that works for my dad tracked down Sebastian’s family and talked to his brother,” CJ said.
“Right, Isaac. Well, he said his family was only concerned that you were alright. They were very worried about you after you disappeared. In fact, he told my guy that what gave them the most hope for your safety was knowing that you had Kaya looking after you. When my guy told him you were safe and sound he was very happy. He said if you ever wanted to you could contact him any time.”
“Thank you,” Jesse said, as he began to cry. “I don’t think I could talk to Isaac now, he reminds me too much of Seb.”
Danny and CJ both held Jesse as he cried over the memories of his lost love. They each knew what it was like to lose the one you love. They also knew that Jesse would not get the chance to be reunited with Seb as they had been reunited.
Jesse cried himself to sleep in Danny and CJ’s arms. CJ carried him across the hall and slipped him into the bed. Kaya jumped up on the bed and snuggled up against Jesse.
Over the next few days, Jesse kept working with Val and helping out around the farm. CJ and Danny spent as much time with him as they could.
CJ and Danny went to meet Sam for her doctor’s appointment. They both teared up as they watched the image of their son appear on the ultrasound screen.
CJ and Danny were in constant contact with the boys at the Triple J. They had thought they were going to be gone only a day or two and already a week had passed. Danny was constantly getting e-mails from the builders who were working double overtime on the new house. At the rate they were going it might be inhabitable for Christmas.
Danny and CJ hadn’t mentioned Jesse or the baby to anyone at home. They wanted both to be a surprise to them. They hadn’t yet spoken to Jesse about any definite plans as CJ wanted everything settled legally before they made any promises to Jesse.
When he finally received word from Doug Marshall, the head of his father’s security team, and his lawyer that everything had been settled, he and Danny decided to take Jesse out to dinner. They told him they were celebrating the fact that he had been with them for a week.
CJ took them to the best steakhouse in Ocala.
Once they were seated and had ordered, Danny looked at Jesse and grinned.
“What?” Jesse asked. “Do I have something in my teeth?”
“No, silly, we just have some news for you.”
“Oh,” Jesse said quietly. He was waiting for this, foster care or worse.
“I finally heard from my lawyer and my father’s security guy,” CJ started. “Your stepdad has been dealt with.”
“What do you mean?”
“Doug’s guys had a little talk with him. It looks like he filed a missing persons report for you and was playing the grieving stepdad with the cops and local media. Doug found out that your mom had a pretty significant life insurance policy and you are the beneficiary. Your stepdad got to control the money as long as he took care of you, so he felt it was in his interest to find you. Doug’s guys convinced him that unless he wanted to see the inside of a jail cell or worse, he would drop his efforts to locate you and he would turn over the insurance money. The money was deposited into a trust for you that you will receive when you turn twenty-one.”
“Thanks, CJ,” Jesse said. “But what happens to me now?”
“Well, CJ and I have been talking about that,” Danny started. “We’d like you to come and live with us and be our foster son. If you think you’d like that.”
“Really? You’d do that for me?” Jesse started to tear up.
“Of course, we’d do that for you,” Danny started with the waterworks too. “I’ve wanted to get you in with our guys since day one, but we wanted to make sure it was possible before we made any promises. You’ve had enough disappointment and we didn’t want to add to it.”
Jesse jumped out of his chair and ran around to where CJ and Danny sat. He hugged one and then the other so hard they thought ribs would break. By the time the waitress brought their steaks all three were bawling.
CJ had to explain to the waitress that they were ok, just very happy.
After they had all calmed down and finished their dinners, Jesse asked, “So, when are we leaving?”
“Well, we’re not sure. Probably in the next day or two unless something else comes up,” CJ answered.
“What else could come up?” Jesse asked.
Danny grinned at him. “How do you feel about being a big brother?”
Danny and CJ laughed as they explained to Jesse about the impending arrival of their son.
Jesse digested the information and then grinned. “Dads and brothers all in the same day. Cool.”
CJ said that he would call the airline when they got back to the farm and get them a reservation to go home.
“So you were all ready to come back at the end of October?” Dr. Sadler asked.
“Oh, yeah, we were all ready to come back with Jesse and then CJ would fly back down when the baby was born.”
“So what happened to keep you down there?”