The boys all piled out of the two SUVs. Most of them stopped and stared at the private jet that sat on the tarmac. Mr. Alvarez had arranged their transportation to Spain, not wanting the boys to have to deal with a commercial airline.
"Come on," CJ hollered to the boys. "These guys will take care of the luggage." He gestured to the luggage handlers swarming the cars. "Let's get on board."
The boys all climbed the stairs into the plane. There was seating for twenty scattered around the main cabin.
Mattie was the first of the boys to enter. He saw a familiar figure standing there waiting.
"Pete!!" Mattie smiled as he ran and hugged his oldest brother. "I didn't know you were coming."
Pete hugged Mattie back. "Father's been after me to come over and I was able to clear some time, so I thought I'd bum a ride over."
"Cool." Mattie grinned.
As the rest of the boys came on board and took their seats, Mattie led Pete around the plane introducing to the boys he had not met.
Mattie stopped to introduce Pete to Jesse.
"So, you're my new nephew." Pete smiled.
"Yes, sir," Jesse answered politely.
Pete laughed, "Call me Pete; ‘Sir' makes me feel so old."
CJ came up behind Pete. "But, you are old," he joked.
Pete turned around and grabbed CJ in a hug. "Good to see you, little brother," he laughed. He always called CJ ‘little brother' which they both found amusing since CJ was about 6 inches taller than Pete.
Pete saw Danny standing behind CJ holding Idgie. "And this must be my other new nephew." He looked from Danny to CJ. "You guys don't waste any time, do you?"
Danny smiled and shook his head. "Nope."
A young man dressed in a white shirt and black slacks came up to CJ. "Mr. Alvarez, I'm Chad. I'm the head steward. If there is anything I can get you, let me know."
CJ nodded. "Thanks, Chad."
"The captain has asked that you all take your seats and get buckled in so we can take off."
The younger boys had taken seats in the chairs around the main cabin. CJ led Danny and Pete to the rear of the plane where there was a smaller salon. He signaled to Josh and Casey to join them.
After they had been in the air about thirty minutes, the captain turned off the seatbelt sign and told the passengers they could move about the cabin.
In the rear salon, Chad finished serving the five men drinks and left for the main cabin.
"So, you haven't said anything to Mattie?" Pete asked.
CJ shook his head. "Father and I agreed to try to shield him as much as possible. He really doesn't need to know that his uncle and his sister were ready to kill him for money."
"Has he asked about Nat?"
"No. After the way she behaved at my party, I think he's fine with not seeing or hearing from her," CJ answered. "Father says she is being watched. He's stripped her of everything. It's only because she's his daughter that she isn't being prosecuted."
"Speaking of which, did you know that Juan's trial starts the day after you guys leave?"
"That's why you're here?" Danny spoke up.
Pete nodded grimly. "Yes, I have to meet with the prosecutors and then I'll be testifying against him."
"Have you heard from him at all?" Josh asked.
"The usual veiled threats coming from his lawyer," Pete answered. "The usual garbage about what happens to ‘snitches'."
"Father has you covered while you're there, right?" CJ asked.
"Yes, he has some of his men meeting us at the airport. He has two assigned to me the whole time I'm there and he'll have a couple on you guys in addition to Casey and Josh."
CJ nodded to Casey and Josh. "I want one of you guys on Mattie at all times. Wherever he goes. Don't let him know that it's for protection. That's one of the reasons I like having you guys around--he thinks of you as friends and he won't question you being with the boys."
Casey and Josh both nodded their agreement.
In the main cabin, the boys had fallen into smaller groups. Some were sleeping or watching movies on their iPads, while others played games or read.
Dusty walked over to the couch in the back of the cabin where Devon sat alone.
"Hey, Dev," Dusty said as he sat down.
Devon nodded. "Hey, Dusty."
"Are you hiding over here?" Dusty asked.
Devon shook his head. "No, just doodling to try and pass the time."
Dusty looked at the sketch pad in Devon's hand. The sheet was covered with a pencil sketch of TJ.
Dusty grinned. "Man, you got it bad."
Devon rolled his eyes. "Like you don't," he laughed.
"Guilty," Dusty nodded. "But, whatever it is you are doing, keep doing it."
"What do you mean?"
Dusty paused a moment. "I'm trying to think of a nice way to say this. Since he got together with you, TJ is like a whole new person. It's not just that he's in a relationship, it's your influence. Something about the two of you together. I'd have never thought it."
"Dev, did he ever tell you about us?"
"Yes, one of the first things he ever told me."
"One of the reasons we didn't last was that he was so afraid of being found out. He was fighting his nature, not wanting to be gay. Now, he's with you, and let's face it, you are as out as someone can be. For him to want to be with you, he's basically challenging everything he ever thought about himself and changing the way he looks at things."
Devon nodded. "That was part of the agreement. When I told you guys, he had to tell his parents. I know how hard it is for him, so I haven't been pushing it. I know he's had some talks with his mom to kinda feel her out, but the idea of telling his dad and brothers terrifies him."
Dusty nodded. "His mom will accept it eventually. TJ is her baby. As pushy and obnoxious as she can be she loves him. His dad and his brothers are assholes. They just push him. They did the same thing when he and I were friends."
"I'm scared for him," Devon said. "I'm ready to tell him to just forget telling them."
Dusty shook his head. "Don't tell him to forget it, just tell him to take his time and make sure he is ready. If things go too wrong, he'll have a place with us."
Devon looked up. "You'd really do that?"
Dusty nodded. "TJ has a lot to atone for, but I was in his place once and Mr. Jones gave me a chance. TJ earned a second chance with us. He's done a one-eighty plus what he did for Dylan."
"He just helped him that night."
"Devon, since that night Dylan is a completely different person. He was always a sweet guy, but he's a kid again. Happy-go-lucky and joking all the time. I know a part of it is being with Jesse, but getting that kid Cody put away was a huge relief for him. And TJ was a major part in that."
"Well, hopefully, it doesn't come to that," Devon said. "Hopefully, his mom accepts him and his dad at least tolerates him."
"I hope so, but I've had a few encounters with Mr. Oliver and ‘tolerant' is not the first word that comes to mind when I describe him."
Devon grimaced and nodded. He knew Dusty was right. TJ had told him all about his father. He decided that when they got home he and TJ would have a long talk and try to come to a decision about how to proceed with Mr. Oliver.
Dylan was walking back from the galley at the rear of the plane when he saw Ace sitting in a corner by himself. He had a blank look on his face like he was contemplating the universe.
Dylan snuck up behind him and wrapped his arms around Ace's neck. He rested his head on Ace's shoulder. "Penny for your thoughts," he whispered with a giggle.
Ace chuckled and reached back and dragged Dylan over the chair so he was sitting in Ace's lap. "You better watch out, you don't want Jesse getting jealous."
Dylan laughed. "Jesse wouldn't be jealous of you."
Ace feigned a hurt expression. "Gee, thanks."
Dylan beamed. "You know what I mean. You're our big brother. Jesse knows I love you and he loves you just as much. So, no, he wouldn't be jealous of you. He knows how much I love and need him."
Ace wrapped his arms around Dylan and hugged the younger boy tight. "You are almost a different person," he whispered.
Dylan tensed for a second and then relaxed. "I don't know about that. I'm just more relaxed not having to look over my shoulder all the time. Not having to worry about Cody is like having a huge weight lifted off me." Dylan slid off Ace's lap and sat next to him on the chair. "Speaking of which, you look like you're carrying the weight of the world today."
Ace thought for a minute and then spoke to Dylan in a low voice, "It's probably nothing, but I keep getting a weird vibe."
"You know that I'm part of the security detail, right?"
Dylan nodded. "You're our ‘bodyguard' at school."
Ace grinned. "Right. Well, when I started I was meeting with Dad and CJ on a weekly basis; they were very specific about keeping an eye on everyone, but Mattie specifically. They never mentioned anyone by name, but it always felt like they were wary of someone. Then in January, things changed. The sense of urgency was gone. When we started planning this trip in December, there were supposed to be way more guards on our team. Dad was gonna come, Casey and Josh, me and at least two other teams. Then after that point in January, everyone seemed ok with just Casey and Josh. It's like whatever danger they were all fearing was no longer there."
"Isn't that a good thing?"
"It would be, but I just get this nagging feeling that something is off," Ace said. Dylan looked at him quizzically. "You know how I told you my mom always called me ‘empathic'...I can read people, but I also sometimes get a funny feeling when something is gonna happen. I had it right before my mom was diagnosed and right before we found out I was moving."
"Is it always bad?"
"Usually. It's probably nothing. Let's just keep it between us."
"Does something bad always happen?"
"Not always and not always bad," Ace answered. "It's just me--I'm probably over thinking."
"We need to get you a girlfriend, so you can focus on you."
Ace laughed and grabbed Dylan around the neck. "Are you trying to get rid of me so you and Jess can have private time?"
"No, you're the only one of us who doesn't have someone. And you're the one who deserves someone and to be happy," Dylan said quietly.
Ace slipped his arm from around Dylan's neck to his back and hugged him hard. "I love you, little brother," he whispered in Dylan's ear.
Dylan hugged Ace fiercely. "Love you, too, big brother."
Zak and Jesse sat on one of the couches in the front of the cabin. Jesse was watching Dylan and Ace.
"Jealous?" Zak grinned at Jesse.
"Of what?" Jesse smiled back. "Dylan loves Ace. He's like a brother to both of us."
Zak laughed, "I know that. I'm just teasing you. I know how important Ace is to both of you."
Jesse nodded. "He's the best."
"So, how are you and Dyl doing?"
"What do mean? We're fine."
"I think you're more than fine," Zak laughed. "Dylan's like a new person the last few weeks. The changes in him are remarkable. He's so full of life now and you're a big part of that."
Jesse's cheeks went pink. "No, he did that."
"No, Jess." Zak got serious. "You know I was with Dylan when he found Dodger and when he told me and Danny about Cody. I've watched him heal over the past months, but since he found you his improvement has been amazing. He really loves you. I can see it every time he looks at you. And I know you really love him too."
Jesse nodded. "I do. I can't describe how he makes me feel. After Seb, I figured I'd be alone forever. A part of me thought that I'd be betraying Seb if I loved someone else. Then after meeting Dylan, I realized that Seb loved life and me so much that he would feel more betrayed if I mourned him forever and never let love in. Seb would have loved Dylan."
Zak slid closer to Jesse and wrapped his arm around him. "I'm glad you're letting yourself be happy," he whispered. "You deserve it and you're right, Seb would not be happy if you didn't share your love and light with everyone else. You and Dylan are so perfect together," Zak said wistfully.
"We're no different than you and Dusty or Mattie and Spin," Jesse protested.
"Yeah, Jess, you are," Zak said quietly. "Not that you love each other more than any of us, but you guys need each other more. You've both been through the wringer and you've helped each other heal. The rest of us might have some ‘bumps' along the road, but nothing that we ‘need' each other to get past. You and Dylan are almost symbiotic."
"What do you mean?"
"You feed off each other. On your own, you're great guys, full of love and fun, but together you shine that much brighter. You have a connection that I envy."
"You're losing me."
"I love Dusty with all my heart. But we can go off and do things separately and then come back together. We are together cuz we love each other, but we don't ‘need' each other, not like you and Dylan. You guys could do things separately, but you're happiest when you are together. You don't get sick of each other or need alone time."
"You get sick of Dusty?"
Zak shook his head. "I'm not saying this right. I don't get sick of Dusty, but sometimes we go off and do our own thing, like him and Erik working with Rain. If it was Dylan or you training Rain, you would have done it together and never thought of working alone or with someone else. Most of us, no matter how much we love and need our partner, we look for some space, some way to be ourselves. You guys don't, you function as a single entity so much of the time. When Dylan needs to work Dodger, you're right there; when you are working Val, he's right there. I'm amazed you guys can get through a school day, since you don't have many classes together."
Jesse looked at Zak thoughtfully. "I guess I get what you are saying. I don't like being apart from Dyl. We talk all the time about what we're gonna do when school is done and we can finally be together all the time."
"That's it. Dusty wants to work on a ranch and train and teach. I'll probably always ride and enjoy it, but I wanna be a teacher or something like that. But you and Dyl, I can see you working and living together forever and always being happy."
Jesse looked at Zak his eyes brimming with tears. "I hope so," he whispered.
"I know so," Zak said as he leaned forward and hugged Jesse. "Hey, can I ask you something?"
"It's kind of private, so if you don't want to answer you don't have to," Zak said gently. "Have you guys..."
Jesse looked at Zak. ‘Had sex?" he asked.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked."
Jesse shook his head. "No, it's ok, Zak. I know you've been Dylan's confidant since he came to the ranch and I know you are only looking out for him and me," Jesse said. "The truth is, we've come close a couple times, but I just don't think we are ready. Dylan still has some lingering ‘issues' from the rape and I don't want to compound things jumping into sex."
"Is he still hung up on the virgin thing?" Zak asked.
"Yes. No matter how many times I tell him that as far as I am concerned he is a virgin, he still goes back to what Cody did and thinks that he's somehow damaged. It's gotten better since Cody's been locked up, but I want us to take our time. I love him and I'm going to be with him forever, so I'm in no rush."
Zak grinned at Jesse. "I don't think Dylan could have been any luckier than finding you, Jess. You are exactly what he needed and what he still needs."
The boys passed the long flight moving around the cabin and getting together in small groups. CJ, Danny, Pete, Casey and Josh eventually joined the rest of the group in the main cabin. Idgie was passed from lap to lap through the flight enjoying the attention he received from his ‘uncles'.
About two hours out of their destination, Zak and Dusty were sitting quietly on one of the couches when they saw Spin and Mattie sneak out of the cabin and head to the rear of the plane.
Zak looked at Dusty and grinned. "Mile High club," he mouthed silently.
Dusty shook his head and smiled at Zak. "Don't get any ideas," he said.
Zak blushed and Dusty wrapped his arm around the smaller boy and pulled Zak to him.
"You were thinking about that, weren't you?" Dusty whispered.
"Not until you mentioned it," Zak whispered back. "But, I don't need everyone knowing what we are doing, so we won't be doing that today."
Dusty kissed Zak's forehead. "We don't need to have sex ten feet away from our friends and family to prove how much we love each other," he said. "And those two are way more adventurous than us." Zak laughed and nodded.
By the time they landed, everyone was ready to get off the plane. Even though they had the plane to themselves and could move around, teenaged boys did not operate well in confined spaces.
They landed at a small private airport. Before they could disembark, the plane was towed into a large hanger; once they were securely inside the hanger the passengers were allowed to leave the plane.
CJ and Danny were the first off the plane and they were greeted by a tall muscular man wearing a rather expensive black suit.
"Mr. Alvarez?" the man asked.
"I'm CJ Alvarez."
"Very good." The man nodded offering his hand to CJ. "I am Diego Reyes, your father's Head of Security in Spain. He sent me to make sure your arrival and processing through customs went smoothly and then to transport you all to his villa."
"Great," CJ replied. He then introduced all the men and boys to Mr. Reyes.
Mr. Reyes led them into a small room where they waited for their luggage to be unloaded. True to Mr. Reyes' word, they breezed through a cursory customs inspection and were then loaded into two vans. CJ, Danny, Idgie, Zak, Dusty, Pete and Casey took one, while Mattie, Spin, Dylan, Jesse, Ace, Devon and Josh loaded into the other. Each van was driven by a member of Mr. Alvarez's security team and a second guard rode in the front passenger seat.
It was an hour's drive from the airport to the villa that Mr. and Mrs. Alvarez had recently purchased.
When they arrived at the ‘villa' several of the boys were awed by the size and opulence of the place. Mattie and CJ were used to their parents' extravagance and Zak, Dusty, Spin, Danny and Dylan had seen the house where Mattie had lived in the States, but Jesse, Ace, Devon, Josh and Casey were floored by the immense house.
The boys piled out of the two vans and were led into the house by Mr. Reyes.
Before they were even at the door to the house, servants had already begun unloading the luggage from the vans.
They walked through the front door and found themselves in a cavernous atrium. In front of them stood Mr. and Mrs. Alvarez.
Mr. Alvarez had lost some weight due to his treatments, but he and Mrs. Alvarez had assured their sons that his doctors were optimistic about the success of the treatments and felt the visit from family and friends would be good for him. Mattie ran to greet his parents. "Mother! Father!" he called as he hugged them both.
"Ah, Mateo, it is wonderful to see you and your friends," said Mr. Alvarez. He surveyed the group. "I see we have some new faces."
CJ stepped up and greeted his mother with a kiss and a hug and his father with a hug as Pete did the same.
"Yes, Father," CJ began. "We've picked up a few more friends and family since we last saw you." He motioned to Danny, who walked over carrying Idgie. "First, I need to introduce you to your grandson, Aaron James Alvarez, but we just call him Idgie."
Mrs. Alvarez took the baby from Danny and cradled him in her arms. "Idgie?" she asked.
CJ and Danny smirked. "It's a nickname that he got from his brother."
Mrs. Alvarez looked at Mattie. "Mateo, you named my grandson ‘Idgie'?"
Mattie laughed, "No, Mother. CJ said Idgie's brother did it, not CJ's brother."
Mr. and Mrs. Alvarez both had confused looks on their faces.
CJ nodded to Jesse who stepped forward. CJ placed his hands on Jesse's shoulders and he faced his new ‘grandparents'. "Mother, Father, I probably should have told you before this, but we wanted it to be a surprise. This is Jesse; he's Danny and my foster son."
Mr. Alvarez stepped forward and offered his hand to Jesse. "Welcome to our family, Jesse," he said.
Mrs. Alvarez motioned for Jesse to come to her. Still holding Idgie, she leaned forward and kissed Jesse's cheek. "It is very nice to meet you, Jesse, but you must tell me how you came to give my grandson, your baby brother, this name."
Jesse grinned and gave Mr. and Mrs. Alvarez the short version of how CJ and Danny overheard him calling the baby ‘Smidgen' and how ‘Smidgen' became ‘Idgie'.
Mrs. Alvarez smiled warmly at Jesse. "Well, seeing as how this name came from a place of love, I cannot fault it."
Mattie spent the next several minutes introducing the friends that his parents had not yet met and re-introducing the ones they knew.
After all the introductions had been made two young women came into the atrium.
"Gentlemen, this is Consuela and Nadia--they will show you to your rooms," Mrs. Alvarez announced as she handed Idgie back to Danny. "The whole house is at your disposal while you are here. Please make yourselves at home; if there is anything you need simply ask one of these young ladies and they'll do everything they can to help you. I'm sure you're all very tired after your flight. We've planned a welcome dinner for you, but you have several hours to rest until then." The boys followed the two young ladies up a grand staircase. And down the hallway.
Nadia turned to address the boys. "Mrs. Alvarez was uncertain how the arrangements should be made so there are ten rooms on this floor and they have all been made up and prepared for use. You may choose any room on this floor, except this one." She gestured to a door to her right. "We were instructed that this room was for Master Carlos and Master Daniel."
Danny blushed at being addressed so formally.
CJ chuckled. "Ladies, I know my parents insist on a bit of formality here, but please, I'm CJ and this is Danny."
Consuela shook her head. "Oh, no, Master Carlos, that would be improper," she stammered in Spanish.
CJ walked towards the young woman and spoke to her in Spanish in a low voice, "Consuela, my parents know how my brother and I feel about these formalities. They will be fine with you addressing us as we wish to be addressed. These are my family and friends and my parents want them to feel comfortable in their home. If you insist on being so formal with them they will be uncomfortable and ill at ease and I assure you that would disappoint my mother more than you addressing us in more familiar ways."
Both young women nodded at CJ.
"We will try, Mas—CJ," said Nadia.
Consuela showed Danny and CJ to the master suite that had been set aside for them and Idgie, while Nadia opened the other bedroom doors so the boys could check out the accommodations.
All the rooms were large with private bathrooms. All had queen-sized beds. Dylan and Jesse chose the room next to Danny and CJ, while the others scattered along the hallway. Devon and Ace opted to share a room since they were used to sharing the same bed. Mattie told them they could each have their own room, but both boys assured him they would prefer it this way.
Once the boys had chosen their rooms, Nadia showed them where their luggage had been stored. As each boy claimed his luggage, Nadia handed it to several men who were waiting to deliver it to the proper room.
In no time, the entire luggage had been sorted and delivered and the boys all retired to their rooms to deal with the jetlag. Consuela assured them that she would make sure they were all awakened in time to get ready for dinner.
Sarge was enjoying the peace and tranquility of the ranch. CJ had closed it for the next two weeks, so the finishing touches could be put on all the new buildings. Boarders were allowed to come and use the trails, but there were no lessons or trail rides for the duration.
Sarge made a rotating schedule for the guards/hands so they could take advantage of the quiet period. Since all of the boys were in Spain, there was not much guarding to do and he really only needed a couple of hands at a time.
He had been planning to take a few days off, but the old Army buddy he was supposed to visit had just become a grandfather and was flying to Washington State to see his new grandson.
The only thing he had on the agenda for today was the arrival of the Andros twins' horses. Ace had introduced them to him the day before yesterday. Sarge got a kick out of how different the two were. The girl, Stephanie, was very laid-back. All she cared about was that her horse have a stall and a daily turn out. The boy, Luka, however, was as high-strung as they come. He had given Sarge a four-page list of instructions regarding the feeding and care of his horse. The only thing that had stopped Luka from talking was when Ace had introduced him to Danny. Luka had been so starstruck he was dead silent.
The horses were due to arrive this afternoon and the twins wouldn't be moving in till next week, so Sarge assured them the horses would be well taken care of.
He had just finished letting the horses out of the private barn when he saw a young boy on a bicycle riding towards him.
He walked towards the boy and met him halfway.
The boy was probably thirteen or fourteen. He had curly brown hair with blond highlights and hazel eyes. He was about 5'7' and slender.
"Excuse me, Sir," the boy said as he came to a stop. "Are you the man in charge here?"
"Well, son, that depends on what you're looking for," Sarge answered. "I'm the ranch manager, but not the owner--he's away. Are you looking for lessons or a trail ride?"
"Well, actually, I was wondering if you were looking for any help."
"Well, we've got quite a few hands. I know when the rescue opens in a couple of weeks they are going to be taking volunteers--or are you looking for a paying job?"
"Kinda," the boy said, fidgeting. "I wanted to see if I could work cleaning stalls or something in exchange for lessons."
Sarge looked at the boy. "What's your name, son?"
"Brandon...Brandon Abbott," the boy said, extending his hand to Sarge.
Sarge took Brandon's hand and shook it. "Nice to meet you, Brandon. I'm Sergeant Major Evans, but everyone just calls me Sarge. How old are you?"
"I'm fourteen, Sir."
"So where do you live? I don't recall seeing you around here before."
"I live over on County Road 81, Sir."
"Son, that's about 2 miles from here," Sarge said, the surprise apparent in his voice.
"Closer to three, Sir."
"You rode your bike three miles here on the off chance that you might be able to work off some riding lessons?"
"Yes, Sir. You see, I want a horse in the worst way, but my dad..."
"Doesn't think you are responsible enough?"
"Oh, no, Sir. He knows I'm responsible. I have a dog, a cat, a turtle, a macaw, two large aquariums and a guinea pig. I take care of all of them myself. My dad thinks I'm involved in too much and won't have time for a horse. So he said I couldn't get one. And if there is one thing I don't like, it's when someone tells me I can't do something."
Sarge chuckled. "So does your dad know you are here?"
"Yes, Sir." Brandon nodded. "I told him that I was going to see about riding lessons. He said he wouldn't pay for them, so I said I would try to work them off."
Sarge was impressed with the boy's tenacity. "Well, Brandon. Right now the ranch is closed. The owners and their family are on vacation for two weeks and when they come back we are going to have the grand re-opening of the ranch here and the grand opening of the rescue next door."
"Oh," Brandon said dejectedly. "So I have to wait until they come back?"
"Well, all hiring is up to me," Sarge said with a smile. "So if you really want to help out around here, you can come after school and help with feeding and mucking stalls. Then next week when you're on vacation, you come out during the day and I'm sure I can find some things to keep you busy."
"Well, probably no riding till the boys get back. But I'll keep track of all the work you do here and when CJ, the owner, gets back I'll make sure that you get some lessons."
"Thanks, Sarge." Brandon smiled wide. "I'll be here right after school tomorrow," he called over his shoulder as he rode away.
Dinner the first night in Spain was an elegant affair. Knowing what their parents would plan, Mattie and CJ warned their friends and everyone was dressed in dress shirts and slacks. Mrs. Alvarez was beside herself seeing her sons and their friends dressed so nicely for her welcome meal.
After they were seated at the large table she addressed them, "Boys, thank you so much for all of the love and friendship you have shown my sons and thank you for accompanying them to visit us. While I certainly appreciate the attention to dress that everyone has shown tonight, let me be clear that after tonight, casual dress will be the rule around this house."
All the boys silently cheered that this would be the end of the ‘church clothes' as Mattie called them.
As they ate the wonderful meal that had been prepared by the Alvarez's chef everyone made small talk until CJ addressed his parents.
"So, Mother, Father is there anything special on the agenda for us?"
"Well, we have arranged a visit for Mateo to your grandfather's rancho," Mr. Alvarez said. "I know he is anxious to see the land and you mentioned he might be looking for a mare."
Mattie nodded furiously. "Yes, Father, we found out that Ash is part of grandfather's original line and I want to see if we can get a mare, or maybe more than one, to restart the line."
CJ laughed, "Let's see if we can find one mare to start with, Mattie."
Mattie nodded. "Ok." He looked to his parents. "So when do we go?"
"Well, since it's a long drive from here, I thought you could go on ahead and then the rest of the boys could join you in a few days," Mr. Alvarez said. "Senor Montoya, the new owner, is most anxious to meet you and he asked that you stay for a few days so he could show you what he has done to the property and show you the breeding operation."
"That's awesome, Father," Mattie said excitedly. "But, am I just going myself?"
"Well, we assumed Anthony would accompany you, but we weren't sure which of the boys would want to spend several days there or if they would prefer sightseeing around the city."
At this point a discussion broke out amongst the boys over who wanted to do what. Finally, it was settled that Jesse, Dylan and Ace would accompany Mattie and the other boys would stay behind and meet up with them in a few days. Jesse and Ace were very curious about Spanish riding and seeing the estancia and Dylan was not about to let Jesse go without him. Spin told Mattie he would go if Mattie wanted him to, but he would just as soon sightsee with the other boys and hang out by the pool. Mattie agreed.
Casey asked Mattie if he could accompany them, since he was also curious about the estancia. Mattie agreed right away as he enjoyed Casey's company and he knew him to be an excellent horseman.
The rest of the evening was spent discussing plans for the next few days. Mrs. Alvarez insisted that she and Mr. Alvarez would care for the baby, so that CJ and Danny could partake in sightseeing and exploring.
Devon wanted to visit some of the countryside so that he could take pictures and do some sketches. Josh agreed to take him out the next day along with one of Mr. Alvarez's regular drivers. The other boys decided that they would stay close to the villa for the next few days and take advantage of the Alvarez's hospitality.
The next morning Mattie, Jesse, Dylan, Ace and Casey loaded into a black SUV driven by one of Mr. Alvarez's security detail.
The driver would drop them off at the estancia and return since Senor Montoya had his own security people and Casey would be with the boys at all times.
It was a four-and a-half-hour drive to the estancia. The boys had brought iPads and iPods with them and were all busy watching movies and listening to music during the ride.
When they reached the gates, Mattie excitedly starting shaking his friends. "Look!!" he cried excitedly pointing out the window. A large iron gate was in front of the SUV topped with an ornate sign that read ‘Rancho Del Cielo.'
"Rancho Del Cielo, what does that mean?" asked Dylan.
"Ranch of the skies," Mattie answered. "Since the rancho was in the mountains, Grandfather liked to think that he was in the heavens--just him, the horses, dogs and his family."
The driver buzzed the call box and after a brief exchange the gate opened for the SUV.
They drove for another ten minutes before Jesse asked, "Mattie, I thought we were on the ranch?"
Mattie laughed, "We are. There are miles of land that belong to the rancho. From the gate to the main house is about a twenty-minute drive."
The SUV began to climb a rather steep driveway and when it reached the top all the boys looked out the window to see a large ranch house.
"Gee, somehow, given the size of the property, I was expectin' a mansion," Ace joked.
"Grandfather wasn't one for all the flash of wealth," Mattie explained. "He would rather invest in expanding the rancho and increasing the value of the land and the rancho than spending the money on himself.
The boys filed out of the SUV and all took a moment to stretch out the kinks that develop during a long car ride.
A man dressed in jeans, boots and button-down shirt came up to them. He was about forty and was flanked by two younger males--a muscular man of about twenty-five and a younger boy who looked to be around sixteen.
"Mateo?" the older man asked.
Mattie stepped forward. "I'm Mateo Alvarez, sir, but everyone usually calls me Mattie."
The man embraced Mattie in a tight hug. "How wonderful to see you after all these years, Mattie."
"Uhh..." Mattie stammered in the man's grasp.
The man stepped back. "I'm sorry, you don't remember me. You were only a little boy the last time I saw you. I am Stefan Montoya. My first job as a teenager was working for your grandfather here at the rancho. I worked for him for ten years, before he helped me to start my own. When he passed away and I heard your uncle was planning to sell the rancho, I knew I could not let someone purchase it that would defile the great work your grandfather had done, so I found some investors and we purchased the rancho with the promise that we would continue the great traditions started by your grandfather."
"Wow. Thank you, Senor Montoya. It makes me feel much better about the rancho being out of the family, knowing how you feel about it."
"I am glad," Senor Montoya said, smiling. He gestured to the younger man standing beside him. "Allow me to introduce my son, Diego, and my ranch foreman, Ernesto." He gestured to the older man.
Mattie turned to his friends. "These are my friends Jesse, Dylan, Ace and Casey."
"Welcome, my friends. Diego and Ernesto will be your guides for the next few days. Diego doesn't get a chance to spend much time with boys his own age and Ernesto is one of the few employees on the rancho who speaks good English. If you need anything, please do not hesitate to ask. Mateo, your father tells me that you have a decendent of your grandfather's original line."
"Yes, Sir," Mattie nodded. "We're not sure how he came to the USA, but we verified his lineage at the end of last year."
Senor Montoya grinned. "Very good, so you will be able to start a new line."
"That's what I'm hoping."
"Ernesto will be showing you a few mares that we have here, but there are also some that we sold to a nearby rancho that are now up for sale. I'll probably buy them back to keep them from going to inferior breeders, but you may want to take a look as they are desperate for cash right now."
Mattie nodded. "Sounds good to me."
"Very good. Ernesto will make arrangements to visit them in the next day or two. In the meantime, Diego will show you to your rooms and then he'll give you a tour of the rancho. I will see you all at dinner." "Thank you, Senor Montoya," Mattie said as the older man took his leave from the group.
Diego stepped forward; he was a handsome young man with tanned skin, shoulder-length black hair and vibrant blue eyes. "Welcome," he said to the boys. "Please let me show you to your rooms and give you a chance to rest before we begin our tour of the rancho." He looked at the older man. "Ernesto, if you'd like we can meet you at the barn."
"Of course," Ernesto answered as he nodded to Diego and took his leave.
"Come," Diego instructed with a smile.
The boys and Casey followed as the young Spaniard led them down a small walkway that wound around the main house.
When they were in sight of a smaller house, Mattie became excited and ran towards the building.
"The bunkhouse!!" he shouted and he turned back to Diego. "You kept it?"
Diego grinned and nodded. "Oh, yes. When my father purchased the rancho it was in a very poor state, but I fell in love with it and insisted that my father refurbish it so that I could live here."
"You live in the bunkhouse?" Dylan asked. "How old are you?"
Diego laughed, "I am sixteen, but since this is a large property, my father felt it was alright for me to have my own, how to you say it, space? Yes, space. We call it the bunkhouse as Mateo and his brothers did, but it is rather nice inside."
He opened the front door and gestured for everyone to enter.
They entered a large open room with a high cathedral ceiling and a floor-to-ceiling window on the far wall. There were small carpets laid on the hardwood floors and comfortable recliners and couches on the carpets. Bookcases filled to capacity covered two walls of the room. It was a very airy and welcoming room.
Diego led them into the room. "This is my great room," he said. "There's a television and dvd player behind the door." He pointed to a spot in the far corner of the room. "But mainly I just like to sit here and watch the sunrise out the windows and relax and read. This room is very peaceful to me."
The boys wandered around the room, admiring the comfort and design of the space.
Diego showed them to the kitchen, which was another huge open space. He assured them that they were welcome to anything they found in the cupboards, pantry or refrigerator. He also noted that if there was anything they were looking for that was not there to simply ask and he would have the cook at the main house bring it over or send someone to buy it.
Diego then led everyone upstairs. He showed them his master suite which was at the far end of the hall. He then led them to the guest rooms. He had four rooms prepared for his guests, but Dylan and Jesse assured him that would share a room. Diego raised an eyebrow at this, but said nothing that might upset his guests.
Each of the rooms had a private bathroom. The boys' overnight bags had been delivered to their rooms. Diego told them they should take some time to rest and freshen up from their journey and he would meet them down in the great room in an hour.
The visitors went into their rooms. Ace and Casey said they were going to relax for a bit and Jesse and Dylan wanted to take showers and change.
Mattie checked out his room and then headed down the great room where he found Diego waiting.
"Hello, Mateo." Diego greeted Mattie with a smile. "I did not expect anyone for a while longer."
"Well, the others are resting and cleaning up, but I can't wait to tour the rancho, so I was going a bit stir-crazy in my room. And, please, call me Mattie."
"Very well, Mattie. Please come sit and we can talk."
Mattie sat on the couch with Diego. Diego was a very handsome boy and were he not involved with Spin he thought he might be someone he would consider pursuing.
Diego and Mattie spent several minutes talking about the rancho, horses and their lives. As they talked both became more animated and they kept moving closer together. Without warning Diego leaned forward and kissed Mattie on the lips.
Mattie jumped back like he'd been shocked.
"What are you doing?!" he asked.
Diego pulled back. "I'm sorry. I thought that you were, I mean, Jesse and Dylan and you and..." He looked down at the floor. "I am sorry."
Mattie slid next to Diego. "Diego, it's alright. I am gay, but I have a boyfriend."
"Oh, no. Now I'm even more sorry. If I had known that..."
"How could you know?" Mattie said. "If Jesse and Dylan hadn't been so adamant about sharing a room, you probably wouldn't have suspected about any of us."
Diego shook his head. "No, I would not. Are you all...?"
"Gay?" Mattie asked.
Diego nodded shyly.
"Jesse, Dylan, Casey and I are. Ace's straight as they come. But Ace is also the only single guy."
"Why is your friend not here?"
"My boyfriend, Spin, stayed back at my parents' villa. He and some other friends who came with us wanted to relax a little more. They are all riders and they will be here in a few days."
"Then I look forward to meeting them, and again, I am sorry."
"Don't worry about it." Mattie smiled. "I know what it's like to not have anyone around and be dealing with all the hormones and emotions. If you want to talk, just let me or any of the guys know."
"Thank you, Mattie."
Just then the rest of the group came into the great room and Diego and Mattie got up to meet them and led them to the main barn where Ernesto and several ranch hands were waiting with six Andalusians saddled and ready to go.
Diego spent the afternoon giving his guests a riding tour of the rancho. Everyone was impressed by the large property and Mattie was very pleased to see how well it had been kept up.
Over the next two days, Mattie, Ace and Diego spent much of their time riding different horses and exploring the property. Mattie also looked at several of the mares that were available for sale.
Casey, who had a basic knowledge of Spanish, stayed with Jesse and Dylan who had accepted Senor Montoya's invitation to take some Spanish riding lessons with one of his trainers.
On the day that the rest of their party was to arrive, Ernesto had made arrangements for Mattie to visit the neighboring ranch and see the mares they had available for sale.
Casey was going to accompany Mattie to the neighboring rancho while Jesse, Dylan and Ace stayed behind to await their friends with Diego.
Mattie was waiting for Ernesto and Casey at the black SUV they would be taking. He saw Dylan walking by.
"Hey, Dyl, can you check in the barn for Ernesto or Casey?" he said. "We were supposed to leave fifteen minutes ago."
Dylan nodded. "Ok."
Dylan ran to the barn and started looking around for Ernesto, figuring that he had gotten caught in some type of emergency.
He opened one of the feed room doors and quickly looked around. He was about to leave and shut the door when something caught his eye. He walked over and looked behind a tall rack of shelves. He gasped when he saw Casey lying unconscious on the floor.
He turned to yell for help and someone grabbed him from behind. He struggled in the strong grip while a strong-smelling cloth was placed over his mouth. He tried to hold his breath, but the fumes were too strong. His head began to spin and he blacked out.
Ernesto looked around the barnyard and seeing no one, he carried Dylan's unconscious body to where the SUV waited. He nodded to the man behind the wheel and opened the back door and laid Dylan next to an unconscious Mattie.
"We were only supposed to take the Alvarez boy," the driver said in Spanish.
Ernesto nodded. "Yes, but the other one found the bodyguard. I didn't want him to yell for help. If he is too much trouble we will dispose of him," he said.
The driver nodded as headed the SUV down the road.
"Uhh," Mattie groaned as he woke up. His head was throbbing and shoulders were sore. He opened his eyes, but everything was black. He felt cloth against his cheek. There was something covering his head.
He tried to raise his hands to pull it off and realized his hands were bound behind his back. He felt sharp ties cut into the tender skin of his wrists.
"Where am I?" he thought. His head was so foggy, he couldn't remember what had happened.
He heard a groan. Someone else was in the room.
"Who's there?" he whispered.
"Awake so soon?" he heard a voice say.
Mattie thought he recognized the voice, but with the haze in his head, it took him a moment to place it.
He started to say something, when he felt a hand grab his arm. "No!" he cried as he felt a needle pierce his skin. Within seconds his head was heavy and he felt himself falling into the abyss.