Castle Roland

Lessons Learned

by Andrew Todd


Chapter 19

Posted: N/A

“When you say ‘Life Happened’, are you being euphemistic?” asked Dr. Sadler.

Danny laughed. “No, I mean it quite literally...”

When Danny, CJ and Jesse got home from dinner, Abigail was pacing in the kitchen waiting for them.

“CJ!!” she called. “I didn’t have your cell phone number. Jo called; you need to get to the hospital.”


“Sam’s in labor. The baby’s coming.”

CJ looked at Danny. “Let’s go,” he said as he ran back out the door.

Danny looked at Jesse. “You ok, here?” he asked.

Jesse smiled and hugged Danny hard. “I’m gonna be great. Go get my baby brother.” Danny squeezed Jesse tightly and kissed his forehead. He knew that Jesse’s and his relationship would be more like brothers than father and son, but he couldn’t help but feel a parental need to protect Jesse and shower him with love.

Danny ran out and was barely in the car before CJ was peeling out of the driveway.

CJ and Danny ran into the hospital. They stopped at the directory and located the maternity ward.

When they got off the elevator, they saw Jo waiting for them. Jo was another instructor that they had recruited for the farm. She was a tiny whisp of a girl with attitude to spare.

“Hey, Jo,” CJ said as he and Danny walked up.

Jo let out a sigh of relief and hugged both CJ and Danny.

“Oh, thank God you guys are here,” she said. “There’s some kind of complication and they just took Sam into an operating room. She has to have a C-Section.”

“Is the baby ok?” CJ asked.

Jo shook her head. “I don’t know. She called me about two this afternoon and said that she was having contractions. I went and picked her up and brought her here; she didn’t want to call you guys until she was sure the baby was coming--she’s had several false alarms. When we got here, her water broke and she went into full labor. We waited and waited. I started trying to call you guys, but Abigail didn’t have a cell number for you and Sam had left it at home. The doctor came out a while ago and said it looked like the baby was under duress and they needed to get him out of there. So they got her prepped and took her to the operating room.”

“How long ago was that?” Danny asked.

Jo looked at her watch. “About 20 minutes ago.”

“Do we know how long this can take?” CJ asked.

Jo just shook her head.

“Ok, then we just wait until someone lets us know what’s going on,” Danny said as he rubbed CJ’s back.

Danny took charge and led CJ and Jo over to a small waiting area and had them sit down. He ran down to the cafeteria and brought back coffee for everyone. They waited another forty-five minutes before a doctor finally came out.

He walked up to the three. “Are you folks here for Samantha?”

CJ jumped up. “Yes, we are. How is she?”

“She’s come through everything fine. She’s just being brought to recovery and then she’ll be in ICU for a day and then she should be moved to a regular room.”

“And the baby?”

“He gave us a bit of a scare. He didn’t want to come out the conventional way. We did the C-section. At first he wasn’t breathing right. We did get him breathing--he’s a little smaller than we thought, about five pounds. We have him in the NICU for observations, but it looks like everything is going to be fine with him.”

CJ turned and hugged Danny who was standing behind him, and then he turned back to the doctor.

“So when can we see our son and Sam?”

“It will be about an hour or so before we get Samantha out of recovery and into a room, but I can have one of the nurses bring you to the NICU so you can see your son.”

“Thank you, doctor,” CJ said as he grabbed Danny’s hand.

The doctor went over to the nurses’ station and CJ turned and grabbed Danny in a hug. He lifted Danny off the floor and swung him around. “Our son!!” he exclaimed. “How does that sound, Daddy?”

Danny laughed. “Put me down,” he ordered. “It sounds great. But I think the boys are going to be in for a shock.”

CJ laughed as well. “I know; they have no idea what’s going on and we’re coming back with Jesse and the baby.”

Just then a nurse walked up. “Mr. Alvarez?” she asked.

“That’s me,” CJ answered.

“If you want to come with me I’ll bring you to the Neo-natal Intensive Care Unit.”

“Ok. He’s coming too,” CJ said, gesturing to Danny.

The nurse hesitated. “Well, the doctor just said to bring the father to see him.”

“That’s right, we are the fathers.”

The nurse smiled. “Well, then, let’s bring you both down to meet your son.”

Danny and CJ followed the nurse still holding hands. The nurse led into a small room and had them scrub up with an antibacterial soap and helped them into hospital gowns and gloves. Then she led them into a small room with a rocker in the corner.

“You guys wait here,” she said to them with a smile. “I’ll be right back.”

About five minutes later, she returned pushing a small plastic crib.

CJ and Danny walked over and looked into the crib. Inside was a tiny figure wrapped tightly in a blue blanket so that only his head was out. He had a small blue beanie on his head.

“Oh, my God,” squealed Danny. “He looks just like you,” he said to CJ.

CJ was speechless. He had never thought he would experience this. He had always thought he and Danny would adopt a child or serve as foster parents, but never in his wildest dreams did he think that he would be here looking at his son...his and Danny’s son.

“Would you like to hold him?” the nurse asked.

CJ nodded, afraid to actually say anything.

The nurse reached into the crib and cradled the baby in her arms. She walked around to where CJ and Danny stood. She placed the baby in CJ’s arms and instructed him on how to hold the baby and support his head and neck.

Danny looked up at CJ and saw the tears streaming down his face. Danny grinned at him.

Danny took out his phone and started snapping pictures of CJ and the baby. The nurse then took the phone and took pictures of the three of them. CJ took pictures of Danny and their son, when it was his turn to hold him.

After a few minutes, the nurse returned the baby to the NICU. She told the boys that if he continued doing well, the baby should be moved to the nursery the next day.

Danny and CJ stopped in to see Sam who had been moved into a room. She was still asleep and likely to remain so for the night, so they left the hospital and went home.

Over the next few days, CJ and Danny made frequent trips to the hospital. Sam had healed up pretty quickly and was being released. Danny and CJ had gone to the hospital to give her a ride home. When they got to her room they heard Sam’s agitated voice coming from inside.

CJ opened the door and saw a sour-faced woman in a business suit speaking harshly to Sam.

“What the hell is going on in here?” CJ asked.

The woman turned to him. “I don’t think this is any of your concern, young man,” she said.

CJ saw tears in Sam’s eyes and was enraged.

He grabbed the woman by the elbow and dragged her from the room.

“Young man, I suggest you let go of me,” the woman said.

“Listen, Lady, I don’t know who you are or what you think you are doing, but I’m not going to let you upset my friend who has just had surgery.”

“I’m Geraldine Abernathy and I am the business administrator here at the hospital,” the woman said with a scowl. “Your ‘friend’ has no insurance and I was simply trying to find out how she was planning to pay for her stay and her son’s.”

“So you attack and berate her?”

“I did no such thing. She became hysterical; that is certainly not my fault.”

“Who’s your boss?” CJ was beyond pissed.

“I am in charge of the business office.”

“That’s not what I asked.” CJ was trying to keep it together. “I asked!?!”

“The Hospital Administrator, Mr. Claridge.”

“Let’s go find him.”

“He’s a very busy man and doesn’t have time for this.”

“Well, unless he wants a reporter here to do a story about how you are harassing a new mother, he will see me.”

CJ stormed off down the hall towards the administration offices. Mrs. Abernathy was in hot pursuit.

When he got to the Administrator’s office he walked up to the receptionist.

“Hi, my name is CJ Alvarez,” he said courteously. “I’d like to see the Hospital Administrator.”

“Do you have an appointment, Sir?”

“No. I’m here to pick up a friend who has just had a baby and I need to speak to him about the conduct of this woman,” CJ answered while motioning at Mrs. Abernathy who was turning red behind him.

“One moment, Sir,” the receptionist said as she picked up a phone and spoke quietly into the receiver.

Almost immediately a middle-aged man in a dark blue suit came out of the office door.

“Sir, Is there something I can help you with?” he said offering his hand to CJ. “I’m Gary Claridge, the Administrator.”

“CJ Alvarez, Mr. Claridge,” CJ said as he shook the older man’s hand. “Could we go into your office? This is a rather personal matter.”

“Certainly, right this way.” Mr. Claridge steered CJ into his office and Mrs. Abernathy followed.

Mr. Claridge took a seat behind his desk and motioned for CJ to sit in one of the chairs facing him.

“Mr. Claridge, I came here today to pick up my friend, Samantha, who has been here for a few days. She had a C-section a few days ago and was being released today. When I got here I found Sam being upset by this woman from your business office. Mrs. Abernathy was acting in a wholly unprofessional manner and was abusive to my friend.”

Mr. Claridge looked from CJ to Mrs. Abernathy who was very agitated. “I was simply trying to find out how Ms. Carter intended to pay for her stay. The insurance information she had given at admission has been cancelled and we need to make arrangements.”

“Did you happen to look at her file?” CJ asked, glaring at the woman. “Sam just found out that her parents had cut off her insurance and I spoke to someone in your office yesterday and directed that her bills be sent to me.”

Mrs. Claridge scoffed at CJ. “Young man, the bills for Ms. Carter and her baby currently total over $100,000.00 and her son will still be here for up to another week. How do you propose to pay such a bill?”

CJ ignored her and looked back to Mr. Claridge. “This is the attitude I am talking about, Sir. You really shouldn’t have someone so lacking in compassion and understanding dealing with your patients.” CJ turned back to Mrs. Abernathy. “First of all, that baby is my son and his bills will be taken care of by me and my insurance. That information is also in the file you apparently did not bother to read. As far as Sam’s bills go, you can put them on this.” CJ reached into his wallet, which was full of credit cards. Normally, he didn’t like to show off--as far as he was concerned it was no one else’s business how well off they were--but in this case, he wanted to show this woman who she was dealing with. He pulled a single card from his wallet and handed it to the obnoxious woman.

The color drained from Mrs. Abernathy’s face as she looked down at CJ’s black American Express card.

“I take it that will suffice,” CJ said with a tight grin on his face.

Mrs. Abernathy stood up. “Yes, I’ll just go add this to the file and be right back.” She quickly left the office.

“Mr. Alvarez, please accept my apology. I will certainly speak to Mrs. Abernathy regarding her conduct around patients,” Mr. Claridge said.

“I certainly hope so,” CJ replied. “The fact of the matter is for all she knew, Sam didn’t have a means to pay, but does that mean she should be treated that way? What if I wasn’t here to take care of things? How would she have been treated?”

“I understand your concern, but we are running a business here.”

“I guess that’s the problem; you’re more concerned with the bottom line than with helping the people who need your help. Sam and my son have received great care from the doctors and nurses here and not one of them cares if I was going to hand that woman a black AMEX card or a Medicare card. They went out of their way to help people who needed it. It seems to me the wrong people are in charge around here.”

“I do understand your concern, Mr. Alvarez,” Mr. Claridge answered. “And I will certainly take steps to see that our people in the business offices are using more compassion in these cases.”

Just then Mrs. Abernathy came back and handed CJ back his card.

“I do apologize for any misunderstanding, Mr. Alvarez,” she said.

CJ stood up and walked to the door. “I accept your apology, Mrs. Abernathy, but it would have meant a little more if I had gotten it before you got your hands on my credit card,” he said as he walked out the door and back to Sam’s room.

When CJ got back to the room, Sam was loaded into a wheelchair and Danny and the nurse were waiting with her.

“So, ready to blow this pop stand?” CJ asked as he entered the room.

Sam nodded tiredly. “It will be nice to sleep in my own bed.”

CJ went behind the wheelchair and started to push it out of the room and down the hall. He leaned down and whispered to Sam, “Do you want to take a peek before we go?”

Sam shook her head. “No. It’s easier if I don’t. I haven’t changed my mind about giving him up, but it’s a little more real now, you know. So, it’s better if I don’t see him right now.”

CJ nodded and pushed the chair into the elevator and waited for Danny to get in with them.

They dropped Sam off at her apartment and made sure she was stocked up with groceries and anything she might need for the next week or so while she recuperated.

When they were ready to leave, CJ sent Danny ahead to the car, while he stayed behind.

He handed Sam an ID card.

“What’s this?” Sam asked.

“It’s your insurance card.”

“But my parents cut me off and canceled my insurance.”

“I know. That’s for your new insurance and this is an ATM card and checkbook for your new accounts.”

Sam shook her head. “CJ, I told you I wasn’t giving him up for money.”

“I know that, Sam, but you are graduating in a month and you need to find a job. This will tide you over. Think of it as a ‘Thank You’ gift from Danny & I and the baby.”

“Thanks, CJ,” Sam sighed. “Take care of the little guy.”

“We will.” CJ grinned. “He won’t get released for another couple of days and we probably will be staying at Abigail’s ‘til right before Thanksgiving. If you change your mind about seeing him, just give us a call.”

Sam nodded. “Ok, but I really don’t think I will, not right now.”

“Ok.” CJ bent down and kissed Sam on the cheek. “Thank you so much, Sam. We’re going to take such good care of this kid.”

“I know,” Sam said as CJ left.

A few days later CJ and Danny were able to bring the baby home. Danny had been busy running around Ocala renting baby a crib and purchasing clothes, bottles, diapers and other paraphernalia for the newborn.

After a day of marathon shopping, he came home and collapsed on the bed next to CJ.

“I never realized how much stuff you needed for a baby,” he sighed. “Jesse was easy--take him to a few stores, and buy him some new clothes, stuff for Kaya and riding stuff and he was good. But for the baby, oh my God. And don’t get me started on the old ladies in the stores who think that fathers have no fucking clue about babies. They are so condescending. I know they think they are helping, but you end up wanting to deck them.”

CJ was laughing so hard at Danny’s rant that tears were streaming down his face.

When he finally caught his breath, CJ said, “Hey, baby, we only have eighteen more years to worry about.”

Danny grabbed a pillow and swung it at CJ’s head.

Since the suite Abigail had Danny and CJ in was so large, they were able to get the crib and other items situated. They wanted to wait a few more days before heading home to give them a chance to get used to the baby’s routine.

One afternoon when the baby was asleep, CJ had gone to run errands and Jesse was out with Val, Danny approached Abigail in the kitchen.

Danny walked up behind the older woman and hugged her tight.

She turned and hugged him back and then looked at him. “Now what was that for?”

“For being so great to us.” Danny grinned. “We stop by one afternoon to visit and you end up putting us up for almost a month, and then we bring in Jesse and the baby.”

Abigail smiled. “Danny, this has been a wonderful month. I get so lonely living by myself. Even with the people who come here to ride, I still rattle around this old house by myself most of the time. Having you boys here has been a delight. I’ll be sorry when you go.”

“Thanks, you’ve been so great,” Danny said. “But, I really need to ask for one more favor.”

Abigail laughed. “What?”

“Well, I don’t know what your plans for Val were or are, but...”

“You want me to sell Val to you?”


Abigail shook her head. “No, I’m sorry, I can’t.”

Danny was shocked; he knew Abigail knew how much work Jesse had done with Val and that no one else was going to get the same performance out of the horse.

“What? But...” Danny stuttered.

Abigail grinned. “I can’t sell Val to you Danny. I’ve already decided to give him to Jesse.”

Relief washed over Danny. “No, Abigail, you bought him, we need to buy him from you.”

“Danny, Jesse has been here for almost a month. In that time he has been working out there alongside my hands at least twelve hours a day, seven days a week. He never complains and he works harder than anyone. I’ve never paid him a dime. Val is his payment, he’s earned that horse.”

“Thanks, Abigail.” Danny grinned. “Do you know, as good a rider as he is, he’s never had his own horse?”

“Yes, he told me,” Abigail answered. “But as far as I’m concerned, Val had been his since the day you found Jesse.”

Danny nodded. “Have you told him?”

“No. When are you boys leaving?”

“Well, we were hoping to get on the road day after tomorrow. It’s at least a three-day drive if we take things slow with the baby and now towing a horse trailer,” Danny said. “We want to be home before Thanksgiving.”

“Let’s plan to have a nice dinner tomorrow night as a going-away celebration and we’ll tell Jesse then. I’ve noticed the closer you get to leaving the more ambivalent he gets.”

“I think part of that is believing he’s leaving Val behind, but also he’s still not sure about the other boys. No matter how many times I tell him it will be fine, he just gets nervous. I suppose I can’t blame him. He’s only ever had one real friend and he’s gone, so I’m sure he’s expecting the worst.”

“Everything will be fine, Danny.”

“I know that and you know’s convincing Jesse that’s proving difficult.”

“Once he settles in, he’ll be fine,” Abigail said. “Remember, he’s been through a lot in just a few short months. He still hasn’t said much about how he got from Wellington to Ocala.”

“No, he hasn’t. I’ve tried to let him talk about things on his own and not push him. I did take him to that doctor and he said that he was physically in good health. He was starting to get a little under-nourished, but we’ve corrected that. The doctor did say that the bruises he had when I found him could not have come from the beating he took from his stepfather back in August, so he got beaten by someone else along the way. They also ran blood tests to make sure he had no STDs and those were clean.”

“Were you surprised?”

“No, I know he was never active with Seb and no matter how bad things got I don’t think he would willingly hustle or anything like that; but rape is always a possibility, especially when you’re living on the streets.”

“I shudder to think what might have happened to him if you hadn’t found him.”

“Me, too. But I did find him and now he’s going to be safe and loved and have the life he deserves. I can’t wait for him to meet the boys. They are going to blow his mind.”

They heard Jesse come in the front door.

“Hey, Jesse,” Danny called.

“Yup,” Jesse said as he came into the kitchen.

“Abigail wants to have a going-away dinner tomorrow night for us.”

“That’s great,” Jesse said, less than enthusiastically.

“Oh, Jesse, are you gonna miss me?” Abigail laughed as she winked at Danny.

“Huh? Oh, yes, of course I am,” Jesse stuttered.

Danny was about to say something when a high-pitched cry emanated from the monitor he had in his hand.

“Oh, oh. His Highness has awakened,” Danny laughed.

“I’ll get him,” Jesse called over his shoulder as he ran up the stairs.

“Well, at least we know he loves that baby,” Abigail said.

Danny nodded and smiled.

The next evening Abigail fixed a feast for the three boys and herself.

After dinner, Abigail handed Jesse an envelope. “Jesse I wanted you to have a small token of my appreciation for all the work you’ve done around here. Not just with Val, but all over. The hands are all going to miss you.”

“Thank you, Abigail,” Jesse said as he took the envelope.

CJ, Abigail and, especially, Danny were on pins and needles waiting for Jesse to open the card.

Jesse slowly opened the envelope and pulled the card out. As he read the inscription, his eyes got wider and wider, until he jumped up from the table.

He looked at Abigail. She nodded at him. He looked to CJ and then finally at Danny. Danny had a few tears in his eyes and was smiling and nodding at Jesse.

Jesse flew around the room hugging each of them. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he kept repeating as he embraced each of them.

He stopped at Abigail. “Thank you so much, Abigail. I don’t know what else to say. I’m excited to be going with CJ and Danny, but the thought of leaving Val was really hurting.”

Abigail nodded. “I told Danny yesterday that horse has been yours from the second Danny found you. It’s only right that he go with you.” Jesse leaned down and hugged her again. Abigail patted Jesse’s back. “Now, I expect regular updates about how you are doing and videos of your shows.”

Jesse nodded. “You’ll get ‘em.”

Jesse barely slept that night. They were leaving the next morning and even though he wasn’t going to leave Val behind he was very nervous about meeting the boys that Danny and CJ had been telling him about for the last month.

Danny seemed to think that everyone would accept him and he loved and believed Danny, but life had told him that things rarely worked out the way you planned. He wanted to keep an open mind, but he was still scared. And the fact that they were driving would give him three more days to stew and worry about it.

The next morning, after breakfast, they left Ocala in the new black Ford Escape that CJ had bought. He had tried to find a place that would rent him an SUV for the trip, but it was easier to just go ahead and buy one. CJ was driving the first leg and Danny was beside him in the front seat. Jesse was in the backseat next to the baby who was asleep in the car seat. Kaya was ensconced in the very rear of the SUV--Jesse had gotten her some rawhide bones to keep her occupied.

They were towing a new horse trailer that CJ had also gone ahead and purchased, figuring with the number of horses they had an extra trailer would be a good investment.

Val was all loaded in the trailer and they were on their way home.

They took a leisurely three-and-a-half days to drive home. They made frequent stops so the baby could be fed and Kaya and Val could stretch. Danny had found several places to stop along the way that had facilities for Val to be boarded, either there or nearby.

They finally pulled into the ranch driveway on Friday afternoon. When they reached the ranch house, Sarge was there to greet them.

Danny and CJ got out of the SUV and exchanged greetings with Sarge.

“Well, you boys are a sight for sore eyes,” Sarge laughed.

“No offense, Sarge, but where’s the rest of our welcoming committee?” CJ asked.

Sarge laughed. “Well, Dusty and Zak took Dylan to the Tack Shop to get some supplies, Spin is in detention.” He rolled his eyes as Danny and CJ laughed--Spin was in detention so often they all joked that he had an engraved seat. “Mattie went for a ride and Ace should be around here somewhere. Probably finishing up some work.”

Jesse got out of the car and walked up.

Danny put his hand on Jesse’s shoulder. “Sarge, this is Jesse Osterman, he’s our foster son. Jesse, this is Sergeant Major Ernest Evans, he’s the Ranch Manager and he oversees security here.”

“Nice to meet you, Jesse,” Sarge said shaking Jesse’s hand.

“Nice to meet you too, Sir.”

“Just call me Sarge, Jesse, that’s what everyone does.”

A sharp cry came from the backseat of the SUV. Jesse went back and pulled out the baby carrier.

When he turned back, Sarge raised his eyebrows and looked between CJ and Danny. “Well, you boys have certainly been busy in Florida,” he said as he looked at the infant.

CJ and Danny laughed.

“Yup. This is our other new addition,” CJ said. “In fact, there should have been some stuff delivered to the house.”

Sarge scratched his head. “I was trying to figure out those boxes you got. I put them in your room.”

Kaya jumped out of the SUV just then and Val also picked that moment to kick the trailer door to remind Jesse that he was still there.

Danny laughed harder at the look on Sarge’s face. “Sarge, this is Kaya; she came with Jesse and in the trailer is Jesse’s horse, Prince Valiant, though we just call him Val.”

Sarge shook his head. “What? No dog and horse for the baby?” he laughed.

Danny and CJ almost doubled over laughing. When they finally regained their composure, Danny said, “No, we didn’t have time, but I have a feeling the boys will take care of that.”

CJ took the baby carrier from Jesse. “Let me take him in, he probably needs a change.” He nodded towards the trailer. “Jesse, why don’t you get Val out of the trailer and Sarge or Ace can show you where to put him.”

“Where do you want him, CJ?” Sarge asked.

“Well, the stalls near Dodger are empty, why don’t we put him in there. Once the new barn and house are done, we’ll be moving everyone around anyways,” CJ answered as he carried the baby carrier into the house.

“Ok,” Sarge agreed. “ACE!!” he yelled towards the barn.

Ace came running out of the barn. “Hey, Dad, what’s up?” he asked. He looked up and saw Danny and Jesse standing there. “Hey, Danny,” he said as he hugged Danny. “Good to have you back, we’ve missed you guys.”

“Thanks, Ace,” Danny answered as he hugged Ace back. “Ace, this is Jesse, he’s CJ’s and my foster son. Jesse, this is Sarge’s son, Ace.”

“Hey, Jesse, nice to meet you,” Ace said .

“You, too,” Jesse answered.

“Ace, can you help Jesse get his horse settled into one of the stalls near Dodger?’ Sarge asked. “I’m gonna go in and talk with Danny and CJ.”

“Sure, Dad,” Ace said, nodding. “No problem.”

Danny and Sarge went into the house, while Ace and Jesse went to let Val out of the trailer. Ace noticed Kaya following them. He got down on one knee and offered his hand to the dog to sniff.

“Hey, girl,” he said to the dog. “You come to visit too?”

Jesse watched nervously. “That’s Kaya. She was my friend’s dog; you might want to watch out, she sometimes has a hard time warming up to people.”

Kaya walked towards Ace and let him rub her ears.

“She seems ok,” Ace said as he played with the dog. “Maybe she just likes it here.”

Jesse nodded. “Could be. She used to be in the city, she might like it better out here in the wide open.”

Ace stood up and nodded. “I know I do. You said she belonged to your friend. How did you end up with her?”

Jesse looked down and kicked at the ground. “My friend Sebastian was killed in Miami and then I was having a rough time at home so I ran away. When I did, I took Kaya with me. She’s been my guardian and she’s the only part of Seb I have left.”

Ace looked at Jesse. “I’m sorry about your friend, Jesse. I know its rough losing someone you love. My mom passed away last year and it’s still hard.”

“She did?” Jesse asked. “My mom died of cancer the day of Seb’s funeral. That’s why I ran; I was either going to end up in a home or with my asshole stepfather.”

“Wow,” said Ace. “Cancer took my mom, too. But at least I had my dad. He wasn’t there a lot when I was little cuz of the military, but he’s been there for me since my mom passed.”

Jesse just nodded. He looked a little lost.

Ace went over and put his arm around Jesse’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Jess, you’ve come to the best place. The guys here are great. I’ve only been here a little more than a month and they treat me like I’ve been here all my life. They are a great bunch of guys. I assume you know, since you came with CJ and Danny, that most of the guys are gay. I’m not, but I would go to the mat for any one of them.”

Jesse nodded. “I am too,” he said. “Do you really mean what you said?”

Ace nodded. “Hell, yes. I don’t give a shit who you love as long as you’re a good guy. I’ll always have your back and so will the others. They don’t treat me any different cuz I’m straight,” Ace laughed. “Zak just keeps trying to find me a girlfriend instead of trying to find me a boyfriend, which he’s always doing for Dylan and will probably do for you.”

“I’m not sure I’m ready for that,” Jesse said seriously.

“Don’t worry, he just thinks he’s helping,” Ace said, grinning.

Before Ace could continue, Val again made his presence known by kicking the trailer door.

“Well, I think someone wants out,” Ace said.

Jesse went over and dropped the gate on the trailer and walked in. He slowly backed Val out of the trailer.

Ace whistled low when he saw the horse.

“Wow!” he said. “I take it you are not a cowboy.”

“Huh?” Jesse grunted.

Ace laughed. “It’s kinda the ongoing battle around here. Dusty, Mattie, CJ and I are the cowboys and Zak, Dylan, Spin and Danny are the English riders. And every time someone new comes in there is a little tussle to see what side they end up on. I’m guessing, looking at this guy, that you are very much a Hunter/Jumper.”

Jesse grinned and nodded. “Oh, yeah. I was riding before I could walk and I grew up in Wellington, Florida, which is a huge spot for showjumping.”

“Well, that will make Zak happy. He and Spin are trying to put together a team for competitions, so I’m sure you just got recruited.” Ace grinned. “C’mon, I’ll show you where we’re gonna put him.”

Jesse followed Ace while leading Val. Kaya ran between Jesse and Ace, enjoying the freedom of the ranch.

Once they had Val settled into a stall, Ace gave Jesse a quick tour of the ranch. He was just showing off his horse, Bandit, when his cell phone rang.

“Hey, Dad...yep, I can take it in the office...ok.” He put his phone back in his pocket and turned to Jesse. “I just gotta get a call in the office. Someone wants to book a trail ride and the calendar is in there. Why don’t you wait here for me, I won’t be a minute.”

Jesse nodded and Ace ran off for the office.

Jesse stayed with Bandit, petting and talking to the gelding.

He heard someone come into the barn and thought it was Ace.

“Hey, girl,” he heard a voice say. “Who are you? Aren’t you pretty.”

Curious about who was here, Jesse walked in the direction of the voice.

When he turned the corner he stopped in shock. Kneeling down and playing with Kaya was a Hispanic boy who looked so much like Seb. Jesse just stood and watched. Tears came to his eyes as he flashed back to all the times he had watched Seb play with Kaya.

The boy looked up and saw Jesse.

“Hey,” the boy said. “Is this your dog? She’s great.” The boy stood up and walked towards Jesse. “I’m sorry, I’m Mattie and you are...”

Jesse just stood there tongue-tied.

“Jesse...” Danny came around the corner. He saw Jesse and Mattie standing there and saw Jesse’s reaction. “Oh, shit.” Danny ran up to Jesse and Mattie. “Jesse, are you ok?”

Jesse started to nod and then looked at Mattie again and turned and grabbed Danny in a hug. He started crying. Danny wrapped his arms around Jesse and rubbed his back. “Jesse, it’s ok. You’re safe. I didn’t think about warning you.”

Mattie just watched his brother’s boyfriend and this boy. He was so lost. He started to think that he had done something wrong.

“Danny, I’m sorry, did I do something?” Mattie asked.

Jesse regained his composure and stepped back from Danny.

“No, Mattie, not at all, it’s my bad. I should have thought this through better,” Danny answered. “Mattie, this is Jesse, he’s our foster son.”

“Foster son?” Mattie exclaimed. “I thought you guys were just going to Florida to take care of some stuff for CJ.”

Danny grinned. “We did and along the way, we found Jesse. Jesse, this is Mattie, CJ’s little brother. I should have warned you.” Danny had noticed the resemblance between Seb and Mattie when he first saw a picture of Jesse’s friend.

“Hey, Jesse,” Mattie said. “I hope I didn’t scare you.”

“No, not at all,” Jesse replied. “You just reminded me of a friend I lost over the summer. Kaya was his dog and when I came around and saw you with her, I just got this rush of memories.”

“I’m sorry about your friend,” Mattie said. “I hope that I don’t make it more difficult for you.”

Jesse looked at Mattie. “No, actually, you’ll probably make it easier. You look like him, but Kaya likes you and I can tell that you are like him in other ways as well.”

“Well, when we have a chance, I’d love it if you told me about him,” Mattie offered.

Jesse smiled. “I’d really like that.”

“Where is he?!!?” they all heard a voice call.

“Oh, oh, another nation heard from,” Danny said as he rolled his eyes and grinned.

Just then, Zak came rushing around the corner followed by Dusty and Dylan.

“There you are,” Zak called to Danny as he rushed his brother and grabbed him in a hug. “Big dummy. Three days, tops, you said...not a fucking month. I missed you.”

Danny laughed at Zak’s foolishness and hugged his little brother.

“Missed you too,” Danny said as he kissed Zak’s forehead. He knew Zak craved the affection and he was more than happy to share it. “Hey, guys, this is Jesse, our foster son. Jesse, this is my little brother, Zak, Zak’s boyfriend, Dusty, and their friend, Dylan.”

Everyone shook hands with Jesse. The small sparks between Dylan and Jesse when they touched did not go unnoticed by Zak and Mattie.

“Foster son?” Zak asked. “When I told you to bring me something from Florida, I was thinking more like a Mickey Mouse t-shirt,” he laughed.

“Nope. Just Jesse, and his dog, Kaya, and a new horse.”

“You brought me a new horse?”

Danny laughed, “No, Jesse brought his horse, Prince Valiant; he’s a Selle Francais, Jesse’s been showjumping forever and he’s good.”

Zak walked over to Jesse. “Well, then, welcome to the Triple J, you might just be the ringer we’ve been looking for.”

“What did I tell you, Jesse?” Ace said as he came upon the scene. He looked at Zak. “When I saw Val, I told Jesse that you and Spin would be on him about joining your team.”

“Of course, he’s gonna be on our team.” He winked at Ace. “You are on our team, right , Jesse?”

Jesse shook his head and laughed. “Why do I get the feeling that question has two meanings?”

Dusty and Mattie laughed. “That’s cuz Zak is a born matchmaker and he needs to know what he’s looking for,” Dusty said.

“Ok, ok,” Danny said raising his hands. “Before this conversation denigrates any more, I have another surprise for you guys.”

“You did get me a horse,” Zak said.

Danny rolled his eyes. “Zak, you already have Onyx and Apollo, plus Angel and Phoenix, what would you do with another one?”

“Then what’s the surprise?”

“It’s up at the house,” Danny said as he took Mattie’s and Zak’s hands and led them out of the barn. “You guys need to come, too,” he said to Ace, Dusty and Dylan. Jesse was well aware what the surprise was, but he was having fun with the guys, so he and Kaya followed them to the house.

Danny led everyone into the kitchen where CJ and Sarge stood at the counter. CJ had his back to the crowd.

“CJ!!” Mattie called as he ran across the room to hug his brother. CJ turned around and Mattie stopped short when he saw the small baby that his brother was holding. “Whoa!! What’s that?” he asked.

CJ laughed, “It’s a baby, you noodge.”

“I know it’s a baby, but whose baby?”

“Ours--mine and Danny’s.”

There was silence as the news sunk in.

“So, wait,” Zak spoke first. “You guys go to Florida for a few days, end up staying almost a month and come back with a teenage foster son, a dog, a horse and a baby!?!? What the hell is in the water down there?”

Everyone laughed and then spoke at once.

“Shhh,” Danny shushed everyone. “Guys, we can give you all the details later, but this is our baby and he is staying.”

“Then I only have one more question,” Zak said.

Danny rolled his eyes. “What?”

Zak grinned. “Can I hold my nephew?”

CJ laughed and nodded as Zak walked up to him. CJ gently passed the baby to Zak. “Just watch his head and neck.”

“Hey, buddy,” Zak cooed to the baby. He looked at CJ. “Hey, what’s his name?”

Danny looked at CJ, who nodded to him.

“Aaron James Alvarez,” Danny said.

Zak was silent for a moment. “You named him after Dad?”

Danny nodded.

“That’s cool. Baby Aaron.”

“Not really,” CJ said. Everyone looked at him. “Well, we didn’t want to call him Junior, but like I’m a junior and no one, but my parents ever calls me Carlos. We wanted to call the baby something else, but couldn’t think of anything. ‘AJ’ was too obvious and ‘CJ’ & ‘AJ’ might drive us all nuts. Then Jesse gave him his name.”

Everyone turned to Jesse who blushed. “It wasn’t on purpose; CJ heard me say something to him and then it got mangled into a nickname.”

CJ laughed when everyone started clamoring for an answer. “Jesse was holding the baby one night. He thought he was alone so he was talking to him and calling him ‘Smidgen’. I thought it was funny and we kinda kept playing with that and so now, you all have a nephew...’Idgie’. We thought it was perfect, cuz he was so small when he was born and he still is.”

Zak cooed to the baby as he walked him around the room to show everyone. “Don’t worry, Idgie, first thing we are gonna do is fix that name,” he said to lots of laughter.

“So, Danny,” Dr. Sandler said. “It seems like everything has worked out for you and CJ.”

“So far, so good,” Danny answered. “Jesse has settled in nicely. Since the new house wasn’t ready yet, we had to double up the boys. We were going to have Ace move in with Mattie, but Mattie and Jesse seem to have bonded and they’ve been sharing Mattie’s room.”

“Are you worried about the possibility of a romantic problem?”

Danny barked out a laugh. “Sorry, no we’re not worried. Mattie and Spin are solid and Jesse and Dylan seem to a have a strange sort of mating dance starting.”

“And everyone is good with the baby?”

“Oh, god yes. Mattie and Zak are over the moon at being uncles. Jesse was already in love with Idgie. Zak insisted that we bring him over to his house to meet Kate, Zak’s mother. She cried when she found out we named him after my father. She insists that she is ‘Grammy Kate’ and she’s already sending ‘care’ packages.”

“So everything seems to going well for you.”

“Everything is heaven right now, doctor.”

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