This book is dedicated to Nick, Mike, Jacob, Alex and all of my little gay brothers who are reading these stories. I hope you all know you are loved and that we are all entitled to our second chances.
New Year's Day was a quiet affair around the ranch. CJ had decided they would be closed and the guys could do what they wanted to do. Of course, most of them opted for riding either in the ring or on the trail.
Zak and Dusty were just coming out of the house when a blue Mustang drove up the driveway.
"Who's that?" Dusty asked.
"I have no idea," Zak answered.
The car parked by the other cars and two boys exited.
Zak immediately recognized the boy who got out of the passenger seat.
"Nick!!" he yelled as he ran to greet his friend.
Zak tackled Nick and hugged him tight. "What are you doing here?"
Nick laughed and hugged Zak back. "I thought we'd come and see how you guys were before everyone had to head back to school."
Dusty came up to the two and hugged Nick.
A boy came around the other side of the car and stood next to Nick. He was about Nick's height with very light brown hair and big brown eyes.
"Hey." Zak smiled at the boy. "I'm..."
"...Zak," the boy answered holding out his hand. "Nick's told me all about you. I'm Mike."
"Dusty," the taller boy introduced himself as he shook Mike's hand.
Dusty and Zak both stood back and looked curiously at Nick. Nick looked at Mike and there was an almost imperceptible nod from Mike.
"Guys, Mike's my boyfriend," Nick finally said.
"What about Noah?" Zak asked.
"Well, after we spent all summer together, we realized that the long distance thing was just not gonna work. At our ages we want a boyfriend we can spend time with and be with all the time. We tried to make it work, but we are both so busy, Noah with school and me with the ranch, that we were going days without speaking and then weeks without seeing each other."
"So you broke up?" Dusty asked.
Nick sighed. "Sorta. I was holding on tighter than he was. He's more out where he lives and his friends know about him, so they were encouraging him to get out more. He would go out with crowds, but I was just sitting around at home." He saw the look on Zak's face and shook his head. "I know what you're thinking. He never cheated on me. He probably could have, but we talked and decided that neither of us were getting what we wanted out of the relationship. So I was actually the one who let him go. In the meantime, Mike had moved to town over the summer, and we became friends when school started. We spent a lot of time together; since he had a car, we could go to the movies and out to eat. We both were getting ‘vibes' from the other, but it took us forever to come out to each other.
"Finally, one night, around Thanksgiving, we sat down and came out to each other. It took a few more weeks until we became boyfriends...but here we are."
"Well, as long as you're happy, that's what matters most," Zak said.
Nick smiled brightly. "I'm so happy," he said as he took Mike's hand in his.
"So, Mike, are you a rider too?" Dusty asked.
Mike laughed nervously and shook his head. "I had actually never even been near a horse till I went to Nick's. He's trying to teach me but it's slow going."
Nick wrapped his arm around Mike's waist. "He's exaggerating, he's getting better. It's only been a few weeks since I started teaching him."
Dusty knew that Nick and Zak probably wanted to talk privately. "Hey, Mike. Why don't I give you a tour of the barn?"
Mike knew that Nick and Zak were close, so he nodded at Dusty. "Sure," he said as the two walked towards the barn.
Zak grinned at Nick. "So, what's the story?" he asked.
Nick smiled. "Just like I said. Noah and I both found out what it was like to have someone we could be with all the time and when he went back home, it was too hard to go back to being ‘cyber' boyfriends. We kept trying to sync up and get together, but he still hasn't got a license and I don't have a car yet. My brother will let me borrow his, but not for a trip that long."
"Well, as long as neither of you got hurt."
"We didn't. I won't lie, it hurt to make the final break, but I was starting to warm up to Mike and Noah found a guy he likes at his school, so that helped us both."
"Mike seems like a nice guy."
"He's awesome and so sweet." Nick grinned with a faraway look in his eyes. "It was different, being friends first. After we came out to each other, we still wanted to go slow and stay friends. We would go to the movies or out to eat. Sometimes just us and sometimes with his little brother or my cousin. One night after a movie we stopped at a Wendy's to grab something to eat. He pulled around to the back so we could eat and talk. Out of nowhere, it started pouring. It felt kinda romantic to be sitting there together in the rain, but then there was a huge bolt of lightning and the loudest clap of thunder. I hate thunder more than almost anything and I jumped. Mike wrapped his arm around me to make sure I was ok. I turned my head to thank him and he kissed me. Not hard or anything, just a gentle sweet kiss. My stomach flipped. He pulled back and looked at me like he thought I'd be mad. He asked me what I thought. I leaned forward and kissed him back. That night we decided to be boyfriends."
Zak hugged Nick tight. "I'm so happy for you."
Nick and Mike ended up staying at the ranch for a few days until it was time for them to return home and get back to school.
Zak pulled up to Dylan's house and waited for him.
It was the first day back at school after Christmas break. Ace was driving Mattie, Jesse and Devon, since they would all come from the ranch. Zak would pick up Dylan and Spin.
Dylan came out of his front door. Zak could tell he was in bad shape. He was pale and drawn and looked like he was in pain.
Dylan crawled into the front seat of Zak's SUV.
"Hey, Dyl. Are you ok?" Zak asked. "You don't look so hot."
"I feel like shit," Dylan answered. "I started with a headache the other night and it's just getting worse and worse."
"Why don't you stay home?"
"It's Jesse's first day. I want to be there for him."
"Ok. But promise me, if it gets any worse, you need to see the nurse and have her call your mom. There are so many bugs going around this time of year."
"I should be able to make it through the day. It's the first day of the semester, so there shouldn't be too much to do. I'll probably have my mom come and get me after school and go home."
"I can run you home after school, if you want. Unless you think you want to go to the doctor's."
"Let me see how I'm doing. I'll let you know at lunch."
"Ok," Zak replied as he pulled into Spin's driveway.
The rest of the drive to school was taken up by Spin's rants about his parents who had placed him under ‘house arrest' twice during the two-week break.
Zak pulled into the parking lot just as the others were pouring out of Ace's truck.
Jesse walked over to Dylan's door.
"Hey." Jesse smiled as Dylan got out of the SUV. When he saw the look on Dylan's face, he frowned. "You look awful."
Dylan gave Jesse a weak smile. "Feel that way, too."
"Why didn't you stay home?"
"Cuz it's your first day of school and I wanted to be here for you."
Jesse smiled. "I appreciate that, but you need to take care of yourself."
"I already told him that, Jess," Zak said as he came around the front of the car. "If he's not any better, or gets worse, he needs to go see the nurse."
Dylan nodded. "I'll be ok, guys, really. If I move around some, my headache will probably go away."
Jesse and Zak both looked at Dylan not entirely convinced.
The boys all walked towards the school.
Dylan and Jesse and Ace and Devon all headed to the office to get Devon and Jesse situated. Since Zak's mother, Kate, was the president of the school board, the boys already knew their classes were taken care of and they had their schedules. They had to meet in the office for a new student orientation which would take place during first period.
After they dropped their friends off, Ace and Dylan headed to class. Ace would see Devon in most of his classes, but Dylan and Jesse didn't have a class together until their last-period PE class. Jesse and Mattie were both sophomores, so they had several classes together.
Zak had managed to schedule a study hall for his first-period class. Juniors and seniors were allowed to take their study hall in the cafeteria. After grabbing a bagel and a cup of coffee, Zak went and found an empty table. Since it was the first day of classes, he didn't have any homework, so he pulled his phone from his backpack and checked his e-mail.
Zak looked up to see Erik Chen standing at his table. Zak knew Erik from the Gay-Straight Alliance. Erik was a junior. Zak didn't know him too well, but he had always seemed like a nice kid. He was about 5'5", with short black hair and black eyes.
"Do you mind if I sit with you?" Erik asked shyly.
"Sure." Zak smiled at him. "Have a seat."
"Thanks." Erik sat down. "So, how was your Break?" he asked.
"Great," Zak answered. "We weren't open at the ranch every day, but the days we were it was busy. It was hectic but lots of fun. My brother started training us for some competitions this spring."
"You have your own horse, right?"
"Actually, I have one horse that's mine, one that is technically mine and my boyfriend, Dusty's--though Dusty never rides him--and I also ride my brother's horse. Well, right now we've sorta switched horses. My horse, Onyx, is really a dressage horse and I'm not really good at that so Danny is working with him. And then I'm using Danny's horse, Angel, for jumping and show classes. My friend, Dylan, is using my other horse, Apollo, for jumping and shows until his horse is well enough to do it." Zak took a breath and grinned. "Sorry, when you get me talking about the horses I tend to drone on."
Erik laughed. "No, that's cool. I know you and some of the other guys in the GSA ride out there and I've always been curious about it."
"Have you ever ridden?"
"No, not even a pony ride."
"You'll have to come out some day," Zak suggested. "We're there every day after school. Sometimes, Mattie or Spin have a lesson to give, but most days we just practice or go on a trail ride or just hang out. If you ever want to go out, just let me know. Do you have a car?"
Erik shook his head.
"That's ok, either Ace or I can give you a ride out."
"Ace Evans...his dad is the ranch manager. He's a junior, but he just started in October. You may have seen him at the GSA meetings. Really tall, cowboy..." Erik nodded. "Sure. I know who you're talking about. I guess I just didn't know his name."
"He's a good guy. If you want to come out, he or I can give you a ride."
"Thanks, that might be fun."
"So, how was your Break?"
"Not so great. Kinda had a run-in with my parents," Erik answered somberly.
"I'm sorry. Anything I can help with?"
"I don't know. It's a mess right now at home," Erik said, exhaling. "I had a date with a guy I had met at the mall. He goes to Central over in Derry. He asked me to go out for coffee a couple of days after Christmas. We went to a coffee house in Derry. Since I wasn't out, I didn't want to run into anyone I knew." He looked at Zak. "Of course, best laid plans..."
Zak shook his head. "Someone saw you?"
Erik nodded. "Yep. One of my mom's friends. We were leaving the coffee house and he just gave me a quick kiss. She must have driven by at just the right time and seen us. The funny thing is she was happy for me when she mentioned it to my mom. I've known her for years and she must have suspected about me and was happy that I had a date, but she didn't realize my parents didn't know."
"Oh, no..." Zak grimaced.
"Oh, yes," Erik nodded. "She happened to mention to my mom that she had seen me on my date and wanted to know if I had a good time. My mom of course had no idea what she was talking about."
"And it didn't go well?"
"No. I was out with some friends and she told my dad and when I got home...all hell broke loose. I didn't think they were homophobic or anything; I think to them it's ok to be gay, but it's not ok for me to be gay."
"Ouch. That sucks," Zak said. "I didn't know you were gay, Erik. Besides your parents, are you out to anyone else?"
"Not really. Some friends I have online, but not at school. I joined the GSA to kinda see if there was anyone like me and maybe make some friends. But, I'm still sorta feeling my way."
"That's cool. I was the same way. I wasn't out until I started at the ranch and met my boyfriend. Now, I still don't think of any of us as ‘out'--well, maybe my brother, Danny, and Mattie's brother, CJ, cuz they are practically married and have a baby. But the rest of us just don't hide. We're not out and we're not in, we just are."
Erik smiled. "I like that. If I could just get my parents to realize I'm still me."
"I bet they will," Zak replied. "Give them time. If they didn't have any idea they may have just been surprised. Give them a chance to adjust. As long as you know they don't have a problem with homosexuality, then they should be good with you."
"I hope so. It's only been a few days since the blow-up and I've pretty much avoided them. I'll talk to them later and see how things are."
"Good." Zak smiled. "And like I said, if you want to come out to the ranch one day, let me know."
"That does sound like fun."
"So, how did things work out with your date?"
"Well, I think we were both just looking for a friend, someone to talk to and confide in, since neither of us was officially out. He's really nice, but there wasn't any real spark there. Plus, he's really good-looking so I don't think he'd really be interested in me."
"Erik, have you looked in a mirror lately?" Zak asked. "You are a really good-looking guy. You look like you have a pretty good body; you have really nice eyes, of course--and I'm partial since my boyfriend has black eyes too. Don't sell yourself short. I know that it's hard sometimes to see ourselves like others see us. Dusty is always telling me that I'm beautiful and I don't see it, but he loves me, so I just let him think what he wants."
"Well, I think you are very good-looking, Zak." Erik blushed.
"Thanks. Have you ever seen Dusty, my boyfriend?"
Erik shook his head. "No, I don't think so, does he go to school here?"
"No, he's at the Vocational Center." Zak started playing with his phone and found a picture he had taken a few days ago of Dusty. He handed the phone to Erik. "There he is, the love of my life."
Erik looked at the picture. "Wow. He is really handsome. You guys make a cute couple." He handed Zak back his phone.
"Thanks," Zak said. "You know, if you're not going to pursue something with your coffee date, there is someone I could introduce you to."
"Ace's friend, Devon. He just moved here from Texas. His dad's in the army and got transferred to Germany and Dev didn't want to go, so he came to stay with Ace and his dad at the ranch. He's a little different, but he's a really nice guy."
Erik smirked. "Define ‘different'."
Zak laughed, "Well...he's kinda the ‘gay poster child'."
"What?!" Erik laughed. "Wait...is he the guy with the red and black hair that came in with you guys this morning?"
Zak nodded. "That's him. He's a really nice guy. He just got here last week, so I haven't spent a lot of time with him, but he's an artist--you should see some of his drawings and paintings. He's funny. He had a rough time in Texas, because he's very out and he got picked on some. He dances to his own drummer, as my mom would say. He hangs out with us in the afternoons--if you want I can introduce you at lunch. You can sit with us if you don't have other plans."
"Usually, I just hang out in the library."
Zak shook his head. "Nope, not anymore, you come and hang out with us. Even if you and Devon don't hit it off, at least you'll be with friends."
"Thanks, I'll do that."
The bell rang signaling the end of first period. Both boys jumped up and grabbed their stuff. "I'll see you at lunch then," Zak said as he took off for his second period class.
Zak ran into Erik as they were entering the cafeteria at lunch. He led Erik to the table his friends had commandeered.
Mattie, Spin, Ace, Dylan, Jesse, Carmen and Denise were already there.
"Hey, guys," Zak greeted his friends. "You guys know Erik?"
Everyone nodded and greeted Erik.
"Where's Devon?" Zak asked as he sat down.
"He had a meeting with Miss Crenshaw," Ace answered. "She wanted to meet with him and talk to him about some projects."
"Is he going to be doing work outside of class?" Zak asked.
"I think so. He spends so much time on it anyways. But, it will be good for him to have someone who knows that stuff encouraging and working with him."
Zak looked at Dylan who was very pale and obviously in pain. "Not any better, Dyl?"
Dylan gave a half-hearted smile. "'M ok," he mumbled.
Jesse looked over at Zak and shook his head. It was obvious to all of them that Dylan was in a lot more pain then he let on.
"Dylan, I'm taking you home after school. You're not going to be any good at the ranch this afternoon," Zak told him.
"Ok," Dylan agreed weakly. He felt too rotten to protest.
The rest of the guys spent their lunch period making plans for after school. By the time it was over, they had all convinced Erik to come out to the ranch with them the next day after school.
Devon sat in the art studio waiting for class to begin. So far it had been a pretty good day. Ace had been in most of his classes, and Zak had been in the ones that Ace wasn't in, so he hadn't felt completely lost or at the mercy of the teachers and students as the ‘new kid'. This class was actually the only one that he was in without his friends, but it was also the class he was looking forward to the most.
He had spent his lunch period with Miss Crenshaw, the art teacher. He had shown her some digital pictures of his paintings and drawings and she was very impressed with his work. She had given him some ideas about projects he could work on in class and on his own.
She told him that this class was basically an independent-study course and there were only ten students in it.
It was an advanced class and the students all worked in different mediums. She knew Devon specialized in painting and drawing, but he had also delved into photography some. She allowed her students to work on whatever projects struck their fancy. For this class she felt her role was only to offer guidance and critiques of the student's work. All of the students in this class would be participating in an art show for the school at the end of the semester.
Devon was excited about the possibility to show some of his work and the feedback Miss Crenshaw had given him so far let him know that she really knew her stuff.
A couple kids came in and nodded and waved to Devon. A few of them he recognized from other classes. He didn't know their names, but he nodded and smiled. If he was going to make some friends away from the ranch, this was going to be the place.
Most of the kids that came in seemed to already know each other and they all sat together at other tables.
Devon was checking his phone when he heard someone sit at the table he was at; he looked up and stared for a moment. Sitting across from him was one of the best-looking guys he had ever seen.
The boy looked like he was about 6', probably an inch or two shorter than Ace, but he looked like he carried about twenty-five to thirty more pounds of muscle on him. He had short brown hair and brown eyes. He was dressed rather conservatively in khaki slacks and a white button-down shirt. Something about this boy had Devon feeling things he hadn't felt for anyone other than Ace.
"Hey," the boy across from him said.
"Hi," Devon answered shyly. He mentally smacked himself for swooning like a schoolgirl.
"Are you new here?" the boy asked him.
"Yeah, I just moved here from Texas over the break. My dad's in the army and he got transferred to Germany. I didn't feel like spending my last two years of high school over there, so a friend of mine invited me to stay with him."
"Cool," the boy replied. "And you managed to get into Miss Crenshaw's ‘special class'?"
"Well, my friend knew I was into art and his friend's mom is on the school board so I guess they pulled some strings for me. I don't know what they actually did, but I'm really glad to be here. Especially since the alternative was PE class."
"I know what you mean. My dad has me playing football and baseball, so luckily I don't have to take the PE classes."
Devon barked out a sharp laugh.
The boy looked at him and grinned. "What's so funny?" he asked.
"Sorry. You just look like a guy who would prefer to be in a gym than in the art room."
The boy nodded. "Most people think the same thing. My parents, especially my dad, push me to be big in sports like my older brothers were. I could leave it anytime. But it keeps the peace at home. I like being in here better. It's quiet and I like the work I do."
"So, you play on all the sports teams even though you don't want to?"
The boy smirked. "Well, it keeps the parents happy and off my back. They're not happy about the art thing, but what they don't know..."
Devon grinned. "My dad's like that; being in the military he would like it a lot more if I was more athletic and less artistic, but he accepts me."
"Well, that's good for you then," the boy nodded. "My parents don't give a lot when it comes to letting me do what I want. The only battle I won was getting them to let me ride."
"Ride?" Devon's eyes lit up. "Horses?"
"Yeah, do you ride?"
"Sure do. My friend that I moved here to stay with, he got me started in Texas. I love it. I don't compete or anything I just like to ride for fun."
"Well, I'd rather ride for fun, but with my parents everything is about competition. So I couldn't just learn to ride a horse, I had to learn to jump and ride dressage and eventing."
"Wow. Do you still do all that?"
"No. My mom went to Europe and bought me a real expensive horse for eventing and he and I didn't get along. He was a great horse, but I really didn't want to compete. I just wanted to ride. So she sold him and then still had me taking lessons and pushed me to compete. Finally, over the summer I told her I just wasn't interested in riding anymore."
"But you are, you just want to do it for fun?"
"Right. But, I can't tell my mother that, that's admitting failure."
"You're kidding." Devon shook his head. "That sucks. Especially if you are doing things you don't like just to make them happy, you'd think they could do something to make you happy."
The boy grimaced. "Yeah, that's not the way it works in my family."
The two sat in silence for a few minutes.
Miss Crenshaw entered the room and gave the students a brief overview of her expectations for the semester. She informed the students that since they had the last period, she would make the art room available for an extra two hours after school each day so they could work on their projects.
After she finished her introduction, Miss Crenshaw allowed the class to spend the rest of the class starting projects or just visiting if they didn't feel they had the time.
"So, what type of work do you do?" the boy asked Devon.
"Mainly painting, but I do some charcoals and sketching and I've just started with some photography. What about you?"
"I'm a photographer. I've played with clay and sculpting a little, but I love photography."
"Can I ask you something?" Devon asked cautiously.
"I guess so."
"Would you model for me sometime?"
Devon laughed nervously. "It's just you are very handsome and from the looks of things are in very good shape. I love doing life studies. Most of the ones I've done have been of my friends. I'm not looking to do nudes or anything like that--maybe shirtless, but mostly just the way you are now. It wouldn't take much time. I have an almost photographic memory. I spend a bit sketching and then between my sketches and my memory I can usually just finish things off."
"You really want to sketch me?"
"No, I want to paint you. Maybe even photograph and then draw you. I could do a whole series for my exhibit."
"Sure. Like I said, you are a really good-looking guy. You'd make a great model." The boy had an unsure look on his face. "I'll tell you what. My car is supposed to be dropped off today. We had it shipped from Texas. So tomorrow I can drive myself to school; we could stay after and I could do some quick sketches just to give you an idea of what I want, then you could decide if you want to proceed."
The boy grinned and nodded. "Ok, why not, might be fun."
"Cool." Devon grinned as the bell rang. He gathered up his stuff. "Well, I gotta go meet my friends, so I can get a ride home." He turned and offered his hand to the boy. "I'm sorry, I didn't even introduce myself. I'm Devon. And you are..."
The boy stood up and shook Devon's hand. "TJ," he replied.
CJ, Danny, Sarge, Casey and Josh sat in the conference room at the bunkhouse.
They had just finished a conference call with Doug Marshall, Mr. Alvarez's head of security.
CJ sat back and kicked his feet up on the conference table.
"Well, that finally takes care of that." He grinned.
"I can't believe it's all over," Danny said. "I thought there would be more problems with this."
"No. Once Pete realized that Uncle Juan was serious about hurting Mattie to get to his trust, he went straight to Dad," CJ said. "Dad had been suspicious of Uncle Juan for a while. Juan had made a few overtures to Dad about contesting my grandfather's will, but Dad wouldn't do it. Dad thought he might approach Pete and Nattie about it, so he filled Pete in ahead of time and Pete played along to find out what he was up to. Uncle Juan was a bit full of himself, and apparently he doesn't give Pete much credit for how smart he is, so he started bragging about what he had done with the funds he had misappropriated. Pete relayed the info to Dad and Doug and they were able to track down Juan's dummy companies and trace the money. They turned all the evidence over to the authorities in Spain and they arrested Juan this afternoon. Mom and Dad have a hearing scheduled for tomorrow so they can have him removed as trustee. Mom should be named trustee since she is Grandfather's only remaining child."
"What about Nattie?" Danny asked.
CJ nodded to Sarge.
"Well, Doug and Mr. Alvarez are going to take care of her," Sarge said. "She wasn't part of the plan, but Pete didn't want to tip his hand to Juan. Apparently, she was heard on the wire that Pete wore agreeing with Juan's plans for Mattie."
CJ snapped, "I knew she was a cold-hearted bitch, but actually agreeing to help hurt Mattie?! I better never see the bitch again!!"
"Well, from what Doug says, your mom and dad are calling her to Spain and she's getting exiled."
"Exiled?" Danny asked.
Sarge laughed, "Mr. Alvarez has some friends that own a small clothing company in Peru. She's being sent there to work."
The three men who had met CJ's stuck-up ‘fashionista' sister laughed heartily at the thought of her being forced to labor in Third World conditions.
"What about Mattie?" Danny asked CJ. "Are you going to tell him?"
CJ shook his head. "No, Father and I agreed that it would serve no purpose to tell Mattie, especially of Natalia's involvement. He loves her in spite of what a bitch she is. Better he still think well of her. And he doesn't have any reason to think of Uncle Juan."
"Enough with this," CJ finally said. "It's over and done with." He looked at Josh and Casey. "You guys all good with your passports?"
"We are," Casey said, nodding.
"Good. I want you to keep an eye on the other teams and then get with Sarge and let me know who you think we should bring to Spain with us. I don't want to overwhelm everyone, so probably you guys and one other team will be enough--my father has security guys over there as well."
"Ok," Josh spoke up. "We've discussed it and we have a few ideas, but we'll keep an eye out and get together with Sarge."
"Great." CJ smiled. "Now that all this is settled I can stop worrying and things, hopefully, will go smoothly for a while."
All five men at the table laughed heartily at the thought of things at the ranch ever going ‘smoothly'.
Zak pulled into Dylan's driveway. He got out of the driver's seat and opened the back door for Dylan. Jesse came around from the other side of the car and the two helped Dylan out.
Jesse wrapped his arm around Dylan and Dylan leaned into him as they walked to the front door. Zak ran ahead and opened the door for them.
Dylan's mom was just coming to the door. She stopped when she saw Dylan.
"Oh, Dylan," she moaned. "I knew you should have stayed home today. Why didn't you call me to come and get you?"
Jesse walked Dylan to the living room and deposited him on the couch.
Zak turned to Mrs. Summers. "We tried to get him to go home at lunch, but he wanted to be there for Jesse's first day. I'm sorry we couldn't get him to go home earlier."
Mrs. Summer's shook her head. "Thank you, Zak, but it's not your fault. He's stubborn. I should have made him stay home this morning, but like you said, he was so determined to be there for Jesse, and that other boy, uhh, Devon?"
Zak nodded. "Yeah, Devon. He's Ace's friend that just moved here from Texas; he's staying with Ace and Sarge."
Jesse was helping Dylan to get his jacket off. Dylan grimaced with every move his body made.
Jesse sat next to Dylan and wrapped his arm around him. He bowed his head so that it touched Dylan's. "Dyl, you're burning up," he said.
"No, I'm cold," Dylan answered as he shivered.
Jesse shook his head. "That's the fever." He looked over at Mrs. Summers. "Do you have a thermometer? I think he's got a fever."
Mrs. Summers nodded and went off to find the thermometer.
She came back with a strange-looking device that she swiped across Dylan's forehead.
Her eyes bugged out when she saw the reading. "Dylan!! You have a 102.6 fever." She turned to Zak. "Can you and Jesse just stay here with him for a minute? I'm going to go call his doctor and see if they can get us in today."
Zak nodded and Mrs. Summers ran upstairs to find the doctor's phone number.
Zak sat on the couch on the other side of Dylan. Dylan was resting his head on Jesse's shoulder. He looked like he was about to fall asleep.
Mrs. Summers came in about five minutes later. "They're going to squeeze us in." She looked at Dylan asleep on Jesse's shoulder and smiled. "Can you guys help him out to the car?"
Zak jumped up as Jesse gently shook Dylan awake. Zak and Jesse helped Dylan get his jacket on and led him out to his mom's car.
Zak and Jesse stood there watching as Mrs. Summers and Dylan drove off. She had promised to call them once they knew something.
Zak put his arm around Jesse. "C'mon, let's get you home."
Devon tried to jump out of the truck before Ace had come to a stop in front of the house.
Ace reached over and grabbed his friend. "What the fuck are you doing?!"
Devon gestured to the driveway. "It's here!!" he cried.
The second Ace stopped the truck, Devon was out and running over to the covered car that sat in the driveway. He pulled the cover back revealing a red Mustang.
Mattie, Spin and Ace all disembarked and went over to see what Devon was so excited about.
"My baby is here!!" Devon cheered.
Ace laughed at Devon's silliness, but Mattie and Spin were transfixed by the beautiful sports car in front of them.
"This is your car!?!" Spin asked.
Devon looked at the hyper redhead and nodded. "This is my baby." He grinned.
"Holy shit, Dev," Ace said as he ran his hand over the hood of the Mustang. "Your dad got you this?"
"Hell, no!!" Devon shook his head. "I bought this car myself. Between the money I got for Jazz and some paintings I did, I was able to buy it. My dad was not pleased that I wanted a sports car, but he couldn't say too much since I paid for it all myself. Kinda helped my status at that backwoods school when I came rolling up in this."
Ace smirked at Devon. "So, I take it you're driving yourself to school."
"Most days," Devon answered. "I can stay after to work on my art projects and not make you guys wait or come back for me. Plus, it is kinda cramped in your truck," Devon teased. "This way we can split the load."
"That should work ok," Ace agreed. "Plus, Mattie and Jesse both turn sixteen in a couple months, so they'll be driving too I would imagine. We'll just rotate driving so we don't have to take four cars to school."
Dusty came out from the main barn. He whistled when he saw Devon's car.
"Nice wheels, Devon," he said with a grin. "I saw it when they delivered it, but I had them cover it up cuz I wasn't sure if it was going to snow or not."
"So where is Zak?" Dusty asked.
"He and Jesse went to drop Dylan off," Mattie answered. "He's been sick all day. He should have stayed home, but he wanted to be there for Jesse's first day. Zak and Jesse tried to get him to go home at lunch, but he kept putting them off."
"What's the matter, does he have the flu?"
"I don't know. He said he's had a really bad headache for the last few days and he was really pale and very tired. Hopefully, his mom will make him go to the doctor."
Just then Dusty's phone rang. He looked at the caller ID. "It's Zak," he announced as he answered the phone. "Hey, Babe. How's Dyl? Really? Well hopefully the doctor can do something for him. Yeah, Devon's car's here, you should see it. Mustang. Ok, seeya in a few." He disconnected. "Dyl's mom is taking him to the doctor and Zak and Jesse should be here in about fifteen minutes or so," he told everyone.
The guys all went to take care of their own duties for the afternoon. Mattie, Spin and Dusty had lessons. Ace was heading to the tack shop for his father and Devon was going to work in his studio.
When Zak and Jesse got to the ranch they got Angel and Val and met with Danny in the arena to practice for their first show which would be in March.
They had been running jumps for a while when Jesse's phone went off. He stopped Val and pulled his phone out.
"It's Dylan," he called over to Zak. He answered, "Hey, Dyl...oh, sorry...how is he?...uh huh...uh huh...ok, I'll let Zak know...what?" Jesse blushed deeply. "Thanks, tell him ‘me, too'." He hung up.
Zak and Danny were grinning at him.
"Hey, don't pick on me," Jesse protested.
"We're not," Zak answered. "He said he loved you, didn't he?"
"Well, that was his mom...but he told her to tell me..." Jesse grinned.
"So, how is he?" Danny asked.
"Well, the doctor thinks he has an infection of some kind cuz of the fever. So they put him on some anti-biotics; hopefully they will work and he'll be back to school in a day or two."
"Do you want me to take you over to see him?" Zak asked.
Jesse shook his head. "His mom said the stuff they gave him for the headaches has knocked him out. She said we could stop after school tomorrow if we wanted to."
"Ok, I'll bring you over then. If any of the guys want to come they can."
"Wait a second, Zak," Danny interjected. "You have the farrier coming tomorrow afternoon for Onyx."
"Oh, shit." While Onyx had gotten better about being around people other than Zak, the farrier insisted that Zak be there when he did Onyx's feet as Zak was the only one who could keep him calm. "Ace can bring you over after school, then. Mattie and Spin can come with me or him, depending on where they need to or want to be."
The next morning, Ace drove himself to school, because Mattie and Jesse both wanted to ride in Devon's Mustang. If Devon hadn't already made plans to stay after school, they all would have ridden with him.
The day went by pretty routinely. The boys, especially Jesse, missed Dylan. Even though he was the quietest of the boys, they all felt his presence when he was there.
After school, Ace took Jesse to see Dylan and Zak took Mattie and Spin as well as Erik to the ranch. They all wanted to see Dylan, but figured that two at a time would be best for him.
After the final bell had run, Devon and TJ stayed in the art room. Since it was still early in the semester they were the only two who were staying after. Miss Crenshaw told them that she was going to a teacher's meeting and she would be back in about an hour or so.
TJ looked at Devon hesitantly. "So you still want me to model for you?" he asked.
Devon smiled and nodded. "Of course. Why, you don't want to anymore?"
"No, I'm good. It's just that no one has ever asked me to do this and I'm kinda nervous."
"Don't worry. It won't be anything you can't show your mom," Devon laughed.
TJ rolled his eyes. "That wasn't what I was worried about."
"Why don't we start with something relaxing and easy," Devon said as he took TJ's arm and led him to a small platform that was set in the center of the room for models. He grabbed a stool. "Here, sit on the stool." TJ sat down and Devon put his hands on his shoulders and moved him into a pose he thought would look good. "Ok, just stay like that," he said as he ran back to the desk and grabbed his sketch pad.
Devon began furiously sketching. He would outline what he wanted and snap a few pictures and then move TJ into a new pose. The hour flew by. By the time Miss Crenshaw came back, TJ had modeled five different poses for Devon.
"Wow, you guys are still at it?" Miss Crenshaw asked.
TJ nodded. "He's doing all the work. I'm just sitting here."
Devon was lost in his sketches and oblivious to the others in the room.
"Devon," Miss Crenshaw called. "Devon!!"
"Are you all set for today?"
"Oh, yeah. I guess so. I've got enough to get started. But the more TJ models for me the more ideas I get."
"Like what?" TJ asked.
"A whole series of you."
"Yeah. I'd like to do a few drawings, maybe a few paintings, one really big formal portrait and then some photographs as well."
"All of me?"
Devon nodded. "It'll be great. I'll get some of you in your sports uniform and then some of you casual. We'll do the portrait in some kind of formal wear and maybe take you out to the ranch and do some with one of the horses. You can pose with my friend's horse."
"Sounds like a big project, Devon," Miss Crenshaw said. "But for now, I have to lock up."
"Ok," Devon said as he started to pack up his stuff. He hadn't noticed the stricken look on TJ's face.
The two boys left the art room together and walked through the building out the exit and towards the parking lot.
"When you said go to the ranch, what ranch were you talking about?"
"Oh, the Triple J, that's where my friend's dad is the ranch manager and where I live."
"Shit. I was afraid of that." TJ stopped walking.
Devon walked a few steps and then turned to look at TJ. "TJ, what's the matter?"
"Who's your friend?"
"Ok, will you tell me what the problem is?"
"Are you heading right home?"
"I was going to, but it's only 3:45 so I don't have to. Why?"
"Wanna go grab a bite someplace?"
"Ok, do you know where Donovan's is?"
"TJ, I've been in town less than two weeks and most of that time has been spent at the ranch."
"OK, why don't you follow me over."
"Sure. My car's over there." Devon pointed to his Mustang.
"Nice wheels," TJ laughed.
"What's so funny?" Devon asked.
TJ pointed to a black Mustang two rows over. "That's mine."
Devon laughed, "Well, at least I know you have good taste in cars."
The two split up to get their cars and Devon followed TJ until he pulled into a small café a few miles outside the town line.
Devon got out of his car and walked over to TJ. "Kinda an out-of-the-way place, isn't it?"
TJ looked a little nervous. "Yeah, but it's usually pretty quiet, so we can talk. Not a lot of kids from school come here."
TJ held the door open for Devon and the two walked over to a small booth in the far corner of the café.
An older woman came to the table.
"Hey, TJ. I haven't seen you in here in a while, how are you doing?"
TJ smiled at the woman. "Hey, Flo, I'm doing pretty good." He gestured to Devon. "Flo, this is my friend, Devon. He's new in town. Devon, this is Flo Donovan. She owns the café."
"Nice to meet you, Flo."
"You too, Sweetie." Flo smiled at the boys. "What can I get you fellas?"
"We'll have two bacon double cheeseburgers with the works and cokes."
"Ok, coming right up." She walked away.
Devon looked seriously at TJ. "OK, we're here. Now can you tell me what got you so shook up?"
TJ looked around the room nervously. "Ok, Devon. Look, I like you. You seem like a nice guy and you're the first guy in a long time that I've wanted to be myself around."
"Be yourself? As opposed to what?"
"As opposed to the asshole I usually am."
"TJ, you need to start making sense here."
"I'm sorry, Dev, this is hard. I haven't cared about someone in a while and I like you."
"I like you, too, TJ."
"No, Devon, I mean...I like you."
Devon grinned. "I know what you mean, TJ."
"H-H-how?" TJ stuttered.
"I have great gaydar...and I like you too." Devon smiled brightly at TJ. "But I still need to know why you are so freaked out and what you meant by you being an asshole."
"It's a long story," TJ sighed. "I told you about my parents and how they wanted us to all be athletes and ‘winners'."
"Me and my three older brothers."
TJ grimaced. "Yeah. They're all a lot older than me. Bobby is the next youngest and he's seven years older than me. But they were all on championship football teams in high school and all excelled at whatever they did. I was...a mistake--well, not so much a mistake, I wasn't planned. When my mom got pregnant she convinced my dad that I was going to be the girl they always wanted. Well, they were half right."
Devon shook his head. "No, you're all boy. Otherwise, I wouldn't be interested in you. I might be a bit ‘obvious' but I like my guys to be all man."
"Well, they started in on me as soon as I could hold a football or a baseball. My brothers and my parents were on me all the time pushing me to be the big man on campus. I hate playing football and I hate playing baseball, but I never had a choice. When I mentioned to my mom that I would like to take riding lessons, all I wanted was a chance to learn to ride, spend some time outside, just relax, no pressure. Instead she signed me up for hunter/jumper lessons, English, dressage, etc. Then she bought me that horse. Then when that didn't work I thought she'd let it go, but after a month she found me a new instructor and had me back at it again. I finally told her I wasn't interested any longer so that it would stop."
"You told me about that yesterday, but I'm still missing something."
"Well, part of me being the big man on campus was having an ‘image'."
"No one could know you were..." Devon raised his eyebrows.
TJ nodded. "Right, but the more I tried to hide it the more it hurt and the more I took that hurt out on others."
"Ouch. So you've been a bully?"
TJ nodded. "Big time."
"Haven't you ever had a ‘friend'? Or been in love?"
"I've only ever had one boyfriend. We weren't even really boyfriends. He was a guy who worked at the first place I rode. He was so beautiful. We were both just coming to terms with what we were. He was more ok with it than I was, but I guess I was the aggressor in the relationship. We didn't really do much. Kissed...a lot, and oral once. Then we had the blow-up over the horse and I left."
"Where is he now?"
"At the ranch you live at."
"What?!?" Devon was shocked. "Who?"
Devon sat in stunned silence for a moment. "Dusty and you?"
"Ok, then you guys are friends."
TJ shook his head. "No, those guys hate me. With good reason."
"Wait, you know all the guys?"
"Pretty much. That kid that Dusty dates now..."
"Yeah, Zak. I was pretty bad to him, still am a lot of the time. I've had run-ins with your friend Ace and some of the others. I don't know what gets into me; I see them getting to be happy and getting what they want and I just see red."
"That doesn't make too much sense, TJ," Devon said. "Those guys have been great to me since I got here. Ace is my best friend. For a long time he was my only friend. They could have helped you so much."
"I know, but I didn't think I needed help. I thought I could change."
"Change what? Being gay?"
"You can't change that, it's who you are. It's not a choice, you know that." Devon was getting angry. "Shit! Shit! Shit! Damn it!!"
"TJ, I like you, I really do and I want to see where this might go. But, I've been bullied and I've watched other people be bullied simply for what they look like or who or what they are. It's wrong. I can't tolerate it and I won't. You're telling me that not only have you been doing it, but you've been doing it to my friends...some of the nicest people I have ever met. Do you understand that Dusty or Zak or Ace or any of the other guys would bend over backwards to help a friend? When I got here I was bound and determined to be miserable. As much as I love Ace and his dad I felt like my dad was dumping me and I had a rough time in Texas the last couple of years after Ace left and moved to Cali. Those guys ignored my shit and just accepted me. They knew I was Ace's friend and that's all they needed to know to treat me like family. Those are the people you have been bullying and dumping on. How can you do that?!?"
TJ looked down; he couldn't meet Devon's gaze. He was ashamed of his behavior and the way he had treated others. This was not the first time he had felt this way, but it was the first time anyone had called him out on his behavior. "Devon, man, I'm sorry. I'd like to say that I can change tomorrow and it will never happen again, but I can't even promise that...my friends..."
"NO!!" Devon shouted. He quickly glanced around; the café was empty, but he still lowered his voice. "Don't you dare tell me that your ‘friends' are the ones who are going to dictate how you behave. If those jocks and thugs are encouraging you to treat people that way then you need new friends."
Devon was about to continue when Flo brought their food. They thanked her and proceeded to eat in relative silence.
After he had consumed about half his burger, Devon took a huge swig of coke and looked at TJ.
"TJ, I'd love to be able to bring you to the ranch and ‘introduce' you to my friends. I'd like to see where this would go and have you be the model for my project, but I can't take that chance right now. This thing between us, whatever it is, it's too new. From what you're telling me, my friends, including the person I think of as a brother, probably hate you or at least strongly dislike you and you've given them ample reason to feel that way."
"I know. I'm really sorry," TJ answered. "So, I guess we're not going to be friends or anything else."
Devon shook his head. "That's not what I said. Look, you've been honest with me. I can see that you want to change and that you're serious about trying. I've looked enough haters and bullies in the eye to know when someone is trying to bullshit me. I want to see where this is going to go. I want a boyfriend, I want to fall in love. But, I've been out too long to go back to hiding and I've spent too much time learning to accept myself to commit to someone who can't accept me or themselves."
"So, you want to try?"
"Yes, I want to try, but until we know exactly where we are going, we are going to take it slow and we are going to be on the ‘q.t.' for a bit until I get a better handle on things. I can't spring you on my friends just like that." Devon snapped his fingers. "We'll keep working after school, hang out some and see where things are going. In the meantime, I'll start working on Ace so that he is prepared for you. I mean he's been here the shortest period of time, so you can't have run into him too much. Right?"
TJ grimaced. "Well..."
Devon buried his face in his hands. "You can't be serious," he cried.
TJ nodded. "I had a run-in with him at the movie theatre. He was with those two new kids, the young ones."
"Jesse and Dylan?"
"I guess so. I started some shit with them and one of them started having some kind of anxiety attack or stress attack."
"Dylan; he has panic attacks. I don't know what he went through, but he's had a tough time."
"The other one got in my face to try to help the one that was panicking. I laughed him off. Then your friend, Ace, came up behind me. We tangled, I took a swing at him."
Devon cringed and then grinned. "Not a good idea, Slick."
TJ chuckled. "Nope; still don't know how, but me and my two friends ended up in a pile on the floor."
Devon nodded. "Yeah, did I mention that Ace is an ‘army brat', too? And he knows a few different kinds of martial arts." "Really? He doesn't look like a fighter."
"He's not, he's the most easygoing person you'll ever meet. But, if you threaten his friends or his family, he will defend them and he will win. Those two guys you started with, Jesse and Dylan, he's become very close with them, thinks of them as little brothers. They are really good kids and they've both been through a lot. Like I said, I don't know the whole story on Dylan, but Jesse ran away from home after his mom died and his best friend was killed. His stepdad used him as a punching bag. But he got out and he found Danny and CJ and they took him in. He's a really cool kid." Devon shook his head. "I want this to work, but there is so much bad blood here."
"So you don't wanna try?"
"No, I want to try. I'm just scared. I feel like I'm gonna be in the middle of a war."
"'Sorry. I don't want to cause trouble for you."
"Then don't." Devon looked TJ straight in the eyes. "Behave yourself. Be the nice guy that I met yesterday. Show me and let me show my friends that you are not the asshole bully that they think you are. Dusty must have seen something there if you and he...maybe he can remember that and forget the other stuff or at least get beyond it. We'll take it slow, we'll keep meeting after school and doing our work and I'll just slowly introduce the idea of you to my friends."
"Whatever you want to do...I just want a chance." TJ smiled at Devon.
Devon looked at his watch. "Shit!! It's almost five. I gotta get going."
Both boys got up from the table. TJ left some money for the meal.
"Bye, Flo," TJ said as they walked past her. "Thanks."
"My pleasure, Sweetie. Don't you boys be strangers."
"We won't," TJ answered as they walked out into the parking lot.
TJ walked Devon to his car. Devon unlocked and opened the door and stood there looking up at TJ for a moment. TJ was about four or five inches taller than Devon. Devon wished he had worn his boots since the heels would have almost made up the height difference. Devon rose up on his toes and leaned forward. TJ leaned down and their lips brushed briefly.
Devon stepped back and beamed at TJ. "I'll see you tomorrow," he said as he slipped into his car.
"Seeya," TJ answered as he shut the door for Devon and walked to his own car.
Mattie and Spin were giving Erik a tour of the ranch, while Zak was finishing with Onyx and the farrier. Zak thought it would be better if Erik didn't watch his big black horse doing battle with the shoer. If he saw that, they might never get him on a horse.
After the farrier had left and he had put Onyx up, Zak went to look for the others. He found them in the new arena. Mattie had Ash out and was showing Erik what the Andalusian could do as Erik and Spin watched.
"Hey, guys," Zak greeted his friends. "Erik ready to try it?"
Erik looked a little nervous as he watched Mattie and Ash. "Uhh, I'm not sure. They're kinda big."
"Don't worry," Spin replied. "You and Zak are about the same size and you should see him on Onyx. It's all about your confidence. We'll put you on one of the more quiet ones and you'll be good."
Erik looked between Spin and Zak and then watched Mattie some more. "Ok," he said quietly. "I'll try it."
"Cool," Zak said. "Come on, I'll get you set up. It's kinda messy outside, so we'll just come and you can try things out in here. If you like it, then next time we can try a trail ride. Spin, can we put him on Marty?"
Spin grinned. "Sure. He's small enough and Marty will take care of him."
Erik followed Zak out of the arena and over to the barn.
Zak showed him where they kept the tack and the grooming supplies. He showed Erik where Marty was and helped him lead the little horse to the crossties. Zak spent the next half hour showing Erik how to groom and saddle the horse. When they were ready he had Erik lead Marty back to the ring.
Mattie was still working Ash in the arena. Zak led Erik over to a mounting block and gave him some instructions on mounting. When Erik was on Marty, Zak adjusted his stirrups and gave him some tips on holding the reins. He then led Marty around the arena at a walk so that Erik could get used to the horse's cadence.
"How're you doin'?" Zak asked Erik.
Erik grinned. "Pretty good. Not as scary as I thought."
Zak laughed, "Just like me my first time."
Just then Zak's phone rang.
"Hey, Spin!!" Zak called. "Can you just stay with Erik a minute?"
Spin ran over to the two other boys. "Sure."
Zak walked away and answered the phone, "Hello."
"Hey, Zak." It was Ace.
"Hey, Ace. What's up? How's Dylan?"
"Not good. He's in the hospital."