Castle Roland

Lessons Learned

by Andrew Todd


Chapter 21

Posted: N/A

CJ slammed down the phone as Sarge walked into the office.

“Problem?” Sarge asked.

“I’ve been trying to get a nanny/housekeeper hired for the last week. Every time I find one I like and I have Doug run the background check he finds something,” CJ sighed. “You’d think I could find one person I liked to watch Idgie that didn’t appear on ‘America’s Most Wanted’.”

“I might be able to help you with that,” Sarge said.

“That would be great, what do you have in mind?”

“Well, there’s a lady I served with--she put in her twenty and just retired. She’d be perfect. Never had kids of her own or married, was career military. But she’s got lots of nieces and nephews so she knows kids. She’s got the security background so she can take care of Idgie and the boys. And she can cook.”

“She sounds perfect,” CJ agreed.

“Let me give her a call,” Sarge offered. “I can probably have her out here by the end of the week. If you think you can last that long.”

CJ laughed, “We survived this weekend; I think we can survive anything.”

It was the Monday after Thanksgiving. The holiday itself had been slow and calm. Danny and CJ had taken Sarge, Ace, and Jesse; Zak, Dusty and their moms, out to eat for Thanksgiving. Dylan and Spin had to spend the day with their families.

But, from Friday through Sunday, everyone at the ranch had been right out straight. Trail rides had been booked up since the fall festival, people scheduled extra lessons and Dusty and CJ had purchased two sleighs and had used their Belgians to give sleigh rides. Those had proven so popular that they were booked every weekend through Christmas.

“Did you need something when you first came in, Sarge?”

Sarge chuckled. “I was just wondering if you knew where your son was.”

“Which one?”


“I thought he was with...oh, shit.” CJ had left Idgie with Mattie and Zak when they arrived at the ranch. Danny had some errands to run and CJ wanted to catch up on paperwork. Mattie and Zak loved the baby and were quite capable of watching after him.

Sarge let loose a belly laugh. “Yup. The last I saw Mattie was riding around the ring, with Idgie strapped to him in that carrier contraption.”

CJ put his head in his hands. “Just tell me he’s not on Ash.”

“Oh, no.” Sarge shook his head. “I don’t think even Mattie would do that. They’re using Lightning.”

Lightning was a twenty-year-old quarter horse that was used for lessons with the smaller kids. He wasn’t very fast anymore and was extremely patient and gentle.

“Well, at least they’re thinking.” CJ smiled. “I can’t say I’m surprised. I figured they’d have had him on a horse before now.” He stood up and walked to the office door. “Well, might as well check this out.”

When CJ got to the arena, Zak was riding Lightning around with Idgie strapped to him. Mattie, Jesse and Dylan were standing by the fence watching.

“What are you guys doing to my son?” CJ asked as he walked up.

Mattie turned around and grinned. “We are giving my nephew riding lessons.”

CJ laughed and shook his head. “Mattie, he’s five weeks old and can’t even hold his head up yet.”

“It’s never too early to start.”

CJ rolled his eyes. “You guys are going to have him riding so much, the kid won’t walk till he’s ten.”

Zak rode up to the crowd. He brought Lightning to a stop. He reached around and unbuckled the baby carrier. Mattie walked up and Zak gently lowered the baby and baby carrier down to Mattie.

“Who's next?” Zak grinned as he hopped down.

CJ stepped forward and took the carrier from Mattie. “I think he’s done enough riding for today,” he laughed. “I’m gonna take him to the house and change him and lay him down for a nap.” He walked out of the arena.

Sarge came into the arena. “Zak, where’s Dusty?”

“I think he’s in Barn 3 working on stalls or something. I think Ace is with him, why?”

“I just got a call from one of the guys--there’s a truck here with a delivery for him. Do you know anything about that?”

“Nope.” Zak shook his head. “I’ll run over and see if he’s there and bring him back.” He handed Lightning’s reins to Mattie. “You mind?”

Mattie shook his head. “No problem; I’ll get him groomed and put up.”

“Thanks,” Zak said as he walked out of the arena.

Mattie led Lightning out. Sarge went to meet the truck and Dylan and Jesse followed.

When Zak, Dusty and Ace came into the yard, they saw a large truck and trailer sitting there. Sarge was standing there talking to the driver. Dylan and Jesse were waiting for them off to the side.

“Hey, Sarge,” Dusty called as he walked up. “What’s up?”

“Well, this gentleman says he has a delivery for you.”

“Are you Dustin Crandall?” the driver asked.

“Yes, sir, I am.”

“This is for you.” The driver handed him an envelope.

Dusty’s curiosity was getting the better of him, so he ripped the envelope open and quickly scanned the letter he pulled out. As he read the letter his smile got bigger and bigger.

Zak tried to read over his shoulder, which was made difficult by the fact that Dusty was five inches taller than Zak.

“What does it say?” Zak pestered. “Who’s it from?”

Dusty laughed and handed Zak the letter. “Here, read it,” he said as he ran around to the back of the trailer.

Zak started to read the letter out loud:


I told you on Zak’s birthday that my plan all year had been to give you Phoenix for your birthday. Well, best laid plans and all that. I figured you got yours early. But, I found something for you I think you will really enjoy. In my travels, I was able to locate Phoenix’s first baby. A filly, she’s coming three at the beginning of the year. Pure mustang, looks just like her grandmother. The man who bred her couldn’t keep her and was looking to sell. I couldn’t let some stranger have her, so I bought her for you. He calls her Rain. She is halter broke, but the rest of her training will be up to you. I look forward to seeing what you can do with her the next time I visit.


Martin Jones

Everyone turned to watch Dusty walk in the back of the trailer. He emerged a few moments later leading a dun filly out of the trailer.

Dusty had tears in his eyes as he stood there looking at the filly.

Zak walked over to where Dusty stood.

“She looks just like her grandmother,” Dusty whispered to Zak. “Isn’t she beautiful?”

Zak nodded and took the lead from Dusty so Dusty could walk around the filly and get her used to him. The horse nuzzled right up to Dusty and he patted and talked to her. Dusty wrapped his arms gently around the filly’s neck and hugged her.

Zak looked over at their assembled friends and quietly signaled them to disperse. Mattie took the hint and led the exodus.

Zak walked up behind Dusty and laid his hand on his lover’s shoulder. Dusty released the filly and turned around. Zak saw the tears in Dusty’s eyes; he knew Dusty was remembering the mare that was his first horse.

Zak put his arm around Dusty’s waist and hugged Dusty to him. They stood there not speaking for the longest time. They just watched the filly.

Ace walked into his father’s office at the bunkhouse. Sarge was sitting behind his desk finishing some paperwork.

“You wanted to see me, Dad?” Ace said as he sat in a chair facing the desk.

“Hey, Ace. Yes, I have a question for you,” Sarge responded. “When was the last time you spoke to Devon?”

“Probably a week or more,” Ace answered. "It's strange. It’s probably the longest I’ve gone without talking to him in years. Even after we moved, I talked to him at least every other day, if not daily. Usually we e-mail or text at least once a day. And we Skype every Sunday night. But this past week I haven’t heard a thing from him and he didn’t get on Skype the other night either. Why?”

“I just got a call from his dad.” Sarge exhaled. “He’s being transferred.”

“Devon should be happy about that he’s miserable in Texas. Where are they going? California?”

Sarge shook his head. “No, Germany.”

Ace scrunched his face. “Oh, shit!!”

Sarge chuckled. “Exactly. Bob said Devon hasn’t spoken to him since they told him they were moving and it’s a minimum two-year assignment.”

“Dad, I know the army life, but that really sucks for Devon. He’s only got a year and half of high school left. He’s not going to do well over there. I can only imagine that Devon’s giving his parents a ration of shit over this. He’s been so angry lately.”

“It goes beyond that, Ace.”


“I guess since we left, Devon’s kinda gone off the rails.”

“He seems ok when I’ve spoken to him.”

“Son, think about it. You’re his best friend, really his only friend. You know he’s not someone to come out and ask for help. I guess from what Bob says it’s been a real mess. He’s been suspended from school three times in the last two years.”

Ace was shocked. “For what?”

“Well...” Sarge hesitated.

‘C’mon, Dad.”

“He was caught in the boy’s bathroom...Uhh...”


Sarge shook his head.

“Oh, god, not drugs?”

“No, but Bob thinks he may be using.” Sarge shook his head again. “Ace, he was caught with other boys,” Sarge said finally.

“Other boys?” Ace was more confused. “What? Were they dealing?”

“Ace, he was caught with other boys...”

Ace suddenly knew what his father was trying to tell him. “Oh, shit!! In the boy’s bathroom?! At school?!?”

Sarge nodded. “Apparently, Devon has taken it upon himself to ahem ‘service’ a sizable portion of the male student body.”

“Oh, man...I can’t believe he did that...”

“Bob’s beside himself. He doesn’t know what to do with Devon. He’s accepted that Devon is gay. Let’s face it; I think we’ve all known that since the kid was in fourth grade.”

Ace laughed, “Try first.” Ace nodded at his father’s shocked look. “I knew Devon was gay before I even understood what ‘gay’ was.”

“Well, Bob’s fine with that, he’s just shocked by his behavior.” Sarge shook his head again. “Just the idea that your only son lost his virginity in the boy’s bathroom.”

Ace paled. “Uh, Dad...” He paused and thought about what he was about to tell his father. “Devon didn’t lose his virginity in the boys’ bathroom...”

Sarge looked at Ace. “And how do you...oh, shit, Ace...I thought you weren’t...”

Ace blushed. “I’m not, I’m straight, but it was Devon. That last campout we went on. Devon was having a really rough time with me leaving. You know, we always slept with our sleeping bags zipped together. We’d been doing it since we were little kids. Well, I woke up in the middle of the night and there was a hand wrapped around my...uhh, you know...” Sarge half-grinned and nodded. “And it wasn’t my hand. I rolled over and looked at Devon--he pretended to be asleep. I hugged him tight and told him it was ok. I knew he was gay and I knew he loved me. I told him that I had tried and tried and wished forever to be like him so I could love him back, but I didn’t. I told him I loved him like a brother, probably more than I would have loved a brother. He had a few tears in his eyes. I don’t know why I did it, but I pulled him close and kissed him...”

“You kissed him!?”

“Dad, he was my best friend--he was more than that to me! I didn’t know when I would see him again and I wanted to leave him with one happy memory.” Ace sighed. “I know it was stupid, but we spent the night...”

Sarge held up his hand. “I get it.” He smiled at Ace. “It wasn’t stupid, Ace. You’ve always had so much empathy for those around you. You’ve always wanted to heal everyone. I can see why you did that with Devon, but did you think that giving him that ‘one moment’ might leave him wanting more?”

“Dad it was two and half years ago, we were only fourteen. I was only thinking of getting him through that night and past the hurt of me leaving.”

“Son, I don’t need details; whatever happened between you and Devon is just that--between the two of you. But, Devon has definitely gained a lot more...experience since you left. In addition to being suspended from school, the MPs have caught him several times on the base.”

“On the base!?” Ace exclaimed. “But if he’s actually on the base, then...”

Sarge nodded. “Right, he’s messing around with soldiers, probably the younger guys; but he’s never named names no matter how much Bob or the Colonel have threatened him. He’s been banned from the base since he’s underage and its statutory rape if he gets caught with someone on the base.”

Ace just shook his head. He was frustrated, pissed and worried for his friend all at the same time. Devon relied on him more than he would even admit to himself. Ace was mad that Devon had not told him how bad things were; he knew that Ace would help him in any way he could. He looked at his father. “So what’s gonna happen now, since they are being transferred?”

“Well, that’s up to you?”


“Devon is adamant about not going to Germany and Bob thinks it would be a disaster as well. He called to see if Devon could come and stay with us. But in the interest of full-disclosure he wanted to make sure we knew that this is not the same Devon we knew a few years ago.”

“Dad, it is the same Devon. Coming here will probably be the best thing for him.” Ace smiled. “He’s been so lost; here he’ll have me and the other guys. He can bring Jazz and we can get in some riding. It will be like old times.”

“Ace, he sold Jazz over a year ago.”

Ace was stunned into silence. Jazz was Devon’s quarter horse mare. He and Devon had gotten Jazz and Bandit from the same ranch at the same time. He couldn’t fathom ever giving up Bandit. “He sold Jazz?!? How could he do that?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, son; Devon is a very different person. Coming here may bring your friend back, but he may be too far gone for you to save.”

Ace shook his head. “I can’t believe that. He’s my best friend. Yes. I want him to come and stay with us. When can he come?”

“Well, Bob ships out on the twenty-seventh. So he’ll put Devon on a plane the day after Christmas. That will give him about a week and a half to get acclimated around here before school starts. And by that point the guys will be moved into the new house and we will be installed in the ranch house. But, listen to me good. He and I are going to a have a come-to-Jesus moment and I’m setting down the ground rules. He needs to follow them to the letter or he’s going to Germany...or military school.”

“Military school!?!?” Ace exclaimed. “His dad wouldn’t do that to him, would he?”

“He’s been ready to send him for the last six months; Devon’s mom has been the only thing saving his ass.”

“Dad, military school would kill someone like Devon.”

“Well, I think that’s a bit of an overstatement, but it would be rough for him. So you need to be his keeper and make sure he stays on the straight and narrow, because I’m not putting up with any BS. You and I have a good thing here--these guys are great; the ranch is everything I thought it would be for both of us and I won’t let anyone screw it up.”

Ace nodded. “I’ll get him on Skype tomorrow and lay down the law,” he said as he got up and went around his father’s desk. Ace leaned over and hugged his father. “Thank you for doing this. We have to at least try to save him.”

Sarge stood up and hugged his son back. “If you and the boys can rub off on him, then we just might get the old Devon back.”

Just then CJ came into Sarge’s office. “Hey, Sarge,” he said as he walked in. Seeing Ace and Sarge, he stopped. “Oops, I’m sorry, I can come back.”

Sarge shook his head and let go of Ace. “No, CJ, we’re finished here--right, son?”

Ace nodded. “Yup, we’re good here. I need to go help the guys with feedings,” he said as he walked out the door.

CJ closed the door after Ace left. “Sarge, I don’t know if I’ve had the chance to tell you, but that is one great kid you have there. He’s so much help around here and the guys all love him.”

“Thanks, CJ; I’m afraid his mom gets most of the credit since I wasn’t around much, but I was just telling him how being here and taking this job has been everything I’d hoped it would be and more. But, I’m thinking I might need all you guys for the next miracle.”

“What ‘miracle’ is that?”

Sarge had CJ sit down and told him all about Devon and his problems and how he would be coming to stay with Sarge and Ace.

“Well, if being here doesn’t bring him around, I don’t know what else will,” CJ said.

“That’s kinda what Ace thinks too,” Sarge said.


Sarge grimaced. “I kinda sugar-coated how things have really been for Ace. Devon is like a brother to him and he’s been like a son to me. He’s been a total train wreck since we moved.”

“And you’re just scared that Ace’s leaving was just an excuse for his behavior.”

“I feel bad thinking that, but some of the stuff his dad told me is beyond reckless. It’s amazing he or someone else didn’t get killed.”

“Sarge, I want to help this boy and I think this is a good place for him, but I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize the safety of anyone on the ranch. And we also have Jesse to think of.”


“Yes, he’s our foster son and no matter how well he does here, you know there are people in state government and bureaucracies who would love to have any excuse to remove him from a home with a gay couple. If Devon was to run afoul of the law or do anything to bring scrutiny to the ranch, we could lose Jesse. And Danny and I promised him we would not let him be taken from us.”

Sarge nodded. “I understand completely; CJ and I promise it won’t come to that. Devon is going to be on a ‘one strike and you’re out’ rule.”

CJ shook his head. “I don’t want him to think we are waiting for him to screw up, but we just need to keep everyone on their toes.”

“Agreed,” Sarge answered. “Now, you didn’t come in here to talk about my new houseguest, so what can I do for you?”

“Passports,” CJ said. “Mattie and I have them and I am assuming you and Ace have them.”

“Yes, we do.”

“Then we need to get them for Danny, Zak, Dusty, Dylan, Jesse and Spin.”


“Well, my father’s treatment is not going very well. He and my mother will not be able to come home for Christmas, so they want us to bring everyone over for Spring break. I’ve talked to all the parents and they are agreeing to let us take the boys for an extra week. They’ll get their school work ahead of time. So that gives us about three months to get the passports settled.”

“I’m on it. You’ll need one for Idgie too.”


“Are you going to take guards?”

“Well, we want to take Ace, of course, and now, Devon is certainly welcome to come. Let’s keep an eye on the teams for the next few months. We’ll take two teams with us, but let’s see who works best with the guys first,” CJ said as he rose from his chair.

Sarge nodded. “Sounds like a plan. I’ve got some ideas, but I’ll keep them to myself until I hear your ideas.”

CJ nodded as he left the room.

Dylan and Jesse were in the indoor arena. Dylan was riding Dodger while Jesse stood in the middle of the arena giving him tips and advice. Val was tied to a post outside the gate, patiently waiting for Jesse to finish.

As Dylan stopped and slid off Dodger two of the security guards/ranch hands came into the arena.

“Hey, Casey. Are you guys looking for us?” Jesse asked.

Casey was one of the first hires that Sarge made and quickly became a favorite of the boys. He was twenty-three years old. He had been in the Army for four years and had used that experience to land his job at the Triple J. Casey was about 6 feet tall with medium-length blond hair and light-gray eyes.

Casey’s partner was Josh. Josh was also popular with the boys. He was twenty-four years old and had dark brown hair and hazel eyes. He also stood about six feet tall.

Both guards were popular with the guys, because in addition to being very nice to the boys, they were both excellent riders and could accompany the guys on trail rides and often gave the boys pointers.

“We just thought we’d see how you guys were doing with Dodger and Val,” Casey answered.

Dylan grinned. “Dodger’s doing great. I think at the pace he’s picking things back up, we might actually be ready for some competitions in the spring.”

“That’s great,” Josh said. “You’ve done a great job getting him better, Dylan.”

“Thanks,” Dylan answered. “But, everyone’s been great at helping.”

Jesse punched Dylan in the arm. “Stop that!” he ordered. “You are always deflecting it when people give you a compliment. You’ve done all the ‘heavy lifting’ with Dodger and you need to take the credit for that.”

“Oww!!” Dylan exclaimed, rubbing his arm. “Ok, don’t have to beat me up,” he pouted at Jesse. Then he laughed and turned back to Josh. “But, thanks, Josh.”

Casey and Josh laughed at the boys’ antics. They both loved this job since they got to be outdoors, work with the horses and spend time with the boys who were all great kids. The boys had started to suspect that Casey and Josh were more than ‘partners’, but Dusty had told them all that it was none of their business and they were not to ask them about it.

“Hey, Casey, do you want to give Dodger a try?” Dylan offered.

“Are you sure?” Casey asked.

Dylan nodded. “Yeah, he’s doing really good. So far, just Jesse and I have ridden him. If you try him then we can both see from the ground how he’s doing.”

“Sure,” Casey said, nodding, as he walked over to where Dylan and Jesse stood with Dodger.

Dylan handed Casey the reins and offered some tips to him. “Don’t go too tight on the reins. He does better if he knows you’re there, but you give him his head. He’s very intuitive. If you keep your hands light, he’ll do great.”

Casey hopped up in the saddle. Dylan and Jesse helped him to adjust the stirrups and then had him walk Dodger around the arena.

Dylan and Jesse fell back to the rail where Josh was watching his partner.

Jesse unconsciously took Dylan’s hand in his and the two leaned into each other. Josh looked over at the two boys and smiled.

Dylan saw Josh looking at their hands and blushed. He dropped Jesse’s hand like it was on fire.

Josh chuckled. “It’s ok, Dylan. You don’t have to hide from us,” he said. “From any of us. When Sarge interviewed all of us, he made sure that no one he hired had any prejudices, especially about anyone being gay.”

“He did?” Jesse asked.

Josh nodded. “Of course. He didn’t spell things out--that’s no one’s business but the two people involved. But he made it clear that here at the ranch we would be dealing with all sorts of people and anyone working here had to be accepting of everyone. No matter race, sex, or sexual preference. That’s actually one of the things that made me want this job.”

“Can I ask you something?” Dylan asked quietly.

Josh grinned at him and nodded. Just then Casey rode up and swung off of Dodger.

Josh turned to Casey and grabbed his hand. He held their joined hands up for Dylan and Jesse to see. “Does that answer your question?”

Dylan nodded and smiled. “So how long?”

Casey looked at the boys. “Since we were your age.”

Jesse’s eyes widened. “Really?”

Casey nodded. “Yep. We met in junior high, we became friends almost instantly. Then we fell in love our sophomore year of high school. We’ve been together ever since. We both wanted to join the army and we did that together. We served in different areas and different units, but we got together as often as we could. It was hard. We knew if we stayed in the military that we would have a hard time being together and we had to decide what we wanted.”

Josh continued, “So, when we were both up for re-enlistment, we took a trip together and talked over everything. We decided as much as we loved being in the military, we loved each other more and made the decision to get out and see what we could do together. One of my sergeants had heard that Sarge was looking for guys to run security here. We both had experience with horses and have always dreamed of having our own ranch, so it was a no-brainer to talk to him and see if this was for us.”

“Well, I guess I win the bet,” Jesse said.

“What bet?” Josh asked.

Dylan grinned. “Well, we’ve had several discussions--all of us--about you guys. We all really like you and think you’re great, but a few of us, especially this one,” he gestured to Jesse, “have really strong ‘gaydar’ and were convinced from the beginning that you guys were on the team.”

“So you had a bet on whether or not we were gay?” laughed Josh.

Dylan shook his head. “No, we were all pretty sure of that. We had a bet on whether or not you were a couple,” he laughed.

Casey and Josh looked at each other and laughed. The two men stepped forward and tried to grab the two boys. Dylan and Jesse took off running around the arena and Josh and Casey gave chase.

Sitting at his desk, Sarge watched the antics in the arena over the closed-circuit monitors. He grinned to himself. He had had a good feeling about Casey and Josh and watched the way they had taken to all the boys over the last couple of months.

A few days later, Casey and Josh were summoned to Sarge’s office. When they got there, they were surprised to see Sarge, CJ and Danny waiting for them.

“Hey, guys,” Sarge greeted them. “C’mon in and have a seat.”

Josh and Casey took seats around the small conference table where the others already sat.

“Lighten up, guys,” CJ laughed. “You’re not in any trouble. Just the opposite actually.”

Sarge spoke, “As you guys know, the new house is going to be finished next week and the guys hope to be all moved in by Christmas.”

Josh and Casey nodded.

“What I want to do, and CJ and Danny agree with me, is move you guys into the house as the first line of security for the boys and their family,” Sarge said. “As far as the outside world goes, you are just a couple of friends of CJ and Danny and you’re staying with them and working at the ranch.”

“Why us?” Josh asked.

Danny spoke up, “Easy. You’re a couple.” He saw the surprise register on their faces. “C’mon, did you think Dylan and Jesse were going to keep that quiet?” Danny laughed. “You guys have been great with the boys and the customers at the ranch. You guys know your stuff on the security side of things and you are great with the ranch work and the horses, but honestly, so is everyone Sarge has hired. But you guys have been there and done that as far as growing up gay; you know what these guys are going through and you’ll be discreet, but still help them. You guys are closer to their ages and they trust and like you. You’re like CJ and I--their big brothers.”

“Wow,” Casey said. “We’re honored that you would put that kind of trust in us.”

Josh nodded his agreement.

“Of course, the compensation will be increased as well, since you will essentially be on call twenty-four hours a day,” Sarge told them.

“That’s nice, but honestly. I think we’d both stay here for nothing.” Casey grinned. “You guys have been great to us. We love the guys, the ranch, and the horses and to ask us to be your personal guards is just the icing for us.”

“Ok, well that’s settled,” CJ said. “You’ll just have to go to this address sometime in the next day or two.” He handed Josh a business card.

“For what?” Josh asked.

“That’s the lady who is doing all the interior designs for the house. You guys will need to talk to her about colors and furniture.”

“You’re serious?” Casey asked.

Danny laughed, “It was my idea. I let all the guys handle their decorating for their rooms. Colors, furniture, etc. So it’s only fair that you guys get to do the same--after all it’s your space.”

“You’ll also need these,” CJ said as he handed Josh and Casey each an envelope. “There are two credit cards in each for you. There’s a business one for ranch stuff and a personal one. I expect you to use them for whatever you need for yourselves or the boys.”

Josh and Casey just stared slack-jawed at their bosses.

“This is too much,” Casey finally said as Josh nodded.

CJ shook his head. “You guys have earned this opportunity and I’m sure you’ll keep earning it.”

Zak pulled into the parking space and turned the SUV off.

“Uh, Zak?” Danny asked from the passenger seat. “What are we doing at the mall, two weeks before Christmas with a baby and a three-year-old?” He looked into the back seat where Max and Idgie were in their car seats.

“Well, I need your help with some last-minute things for Dusty’s birthday. And I wanted to get pictures of Idgie and Maxie with S.A.N.T.A.”

Danny groaned. “Really?” he asked. “It’s gonna be a zoo in there.”

Zak rolled his eyes. “Danny, it’s three on a Tuesday; it will be a little busier than usual, but not as bad as the weekend.”

Danny was about to protest when Idgie made his presence known.

Before either could react, they heard Max unsnap himself from his booster seat and slip into the space between his seat and Idgie’s.

“Zaky, Itchie’s crying!!” Max declared.

Max got on his knees next to the car seat and laid his hand on Idgie’s head. “Don’t cry, Itchie, I here.”

Zak and Danny laughed as Idgie stopped crying, while Max kept talking to him.

Zak whispered to Danny, “I knew that name was gonna bite you guys in the ass. In one afternoon he’s gone from ‘Idgie’ to ‘Itchie’.”

Danny laughed, “That’s just Max, ‘Zaky’.”

Danny and Zak got out of the car. Danny opened the backdoor to get the little ones, while Zak got the stroller out of the far back of the car.

Once the baby and the toddler were situated in the stroller, Zak pushed them into the mall.

Zak took Danny to a few stores to help him make up his mind on presents for Dusty. Once they had finished the shopping, Danny suggested they take a break in the food court before tackling the growing line at Santa’s house.

Danny waited with the kids, while Zak went and got an ice cream for Max and hot chocolate for him and Danny.

“Danny, did you get a chance to call the Bed and Breakfast for me?” Zak asked once he got back to the table.

“Sure did.” Danny grinned. “I spoke to Gerri, the lady who owns it. You guys are all set for this weekend. She’s giving you the same room we had--king bed, Jacuzzi tub, the works. You’ll love it.”

Zak smiled. “Thanks. Dusty gave strict instructions that there are to be no parties. Which sucks after what he did for my birthday.”

“Does he know about this weekend?”

Zak shook his head. “Lu is going to pack some stuff for him and I’m going to pick it up Thursday night. I’m picking him up Friday after school; he thinks we are going to do some Christmas shopping over in Hollis. Once we pass there and he figures something is up, it will be too late for him to do anything about it. CJ and Mattie rescheduled all his lessons and stuff for the weekend.”

“I also made a reservation for you guys for Saturday night at a little restaurant about twenty minutes away from the B&B; it’s fantastic,” Danny said.

“Thanks.” Zak grinned. “What did I ever do without a big brother?”

Danny laughed. It was always so busy and hectic at the ranch that he enjoyed any time he could spend some time alone with Zak.

“So, do you have your Christmas shopping done?” Zak asked.

Danny nodded. “Oh, yeah, been done for a while. It’s going to be so busy getting moved into the new house, that I didn’t want to have to worry about shopping.”

“I know what you mean. December is always busy, but this year it just seems insane. Taking Dusty this weekend, moving you guys in next weekend and Christmas just a few days later. At least, we have a few days of rest after Christmas.”

CJ had declared the ranch ‘closed’ Christmas week. He wanted as many of the hands as possible to be able to spend time with their loved ones and he wanted the family to have a chance to get settled into the new house and barn.

“Yup,” Danny agreed. “Oh, hey, I talked to CJ and we’re going to have a small New Year’s Eve party at the house. Kinda like a housewarming. Just a little one, nothing out of control.”

Zak laughed, “So “little” means you, CJ, me, Dusty, Mattie, Spin, Dylan, Jesse, Ace, and Sarge?”

“Well, I’m not sure if Sarge will be there. But don’t forget Ace’s friend, Devon. He’ll be arriving on the twenty-sixth. If there’s anyone else you want to invite just let us know.”

“We should probably see if Denise and Carmen want to come. Otherwise, Ace will be dancing with us all night,” Zak laughed.

“I don’t think Ace would mind that at all.”

“Me, neither.” Zak grinned. “Denise has a hard time figuring him out.”


“Cuz he’s so southern, such a cowboy and yet there is not a bigoted, prejudiced or hateful bone in his body.”

“Doesn’t she get that not every Southerner is a bigot, just like not every Northerner is a bleeding-heart liberal?”

“I think she just has the stereotype in her head and he blows that stereotype away.”

“He’s just a good kid. He’d go to the mat for you guys.”

Zak nodded. “I know. He’s a good guy. Just need to find a girl for him.”

“Good luck with that,” Danny laughed.

“I was hoping he’d hook up with Denise or Carmen, but there don’t seem to be any sparks there.”

“Well, I’m sure when he’s ready, he’ll find the one,” Danny said as he got up to throw his cup away.

Zak nodded as he wiped chocolate ice cream off of Max’s face.

They loaded Max back in the stroller and ventured off to see Santa Claus.

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