CJ, Mattie, Dusty, Spin, Zak and Chris sat around a conference table in the bunkhouse. Ace and Sarge stood at the head of the table.
"Alright, guys," Sarge started. "Ace has laid out to me your plans for this Carter kid who we believe is the one who attacked Spin. I've agreed, with CJ's ok, to help you guys. I've made a few tweaks to your plans, mainly for Chris' safety. First, no one outside of this room is to be in on this; well, except for one other person, but I will get to that in a minute. The fewer people that know about this the less chance that it gets out.
"We're gonna wire Chris, but not until he establishes himself with these guys. After he's established trust with them, then we will wire him. We will be giving him a panic button with a GPS tracker in it and we will know where he is at all times.
"Finally, we are sending back-up in with him--a handler, if you will."
"Who? Ace?" asked Mattie.
Ace shook his head. "Naw, everyone knows I'm with you guys so that would be a dead giveaway. ‘Sides, we want them to think ol' Chris is a ladies' man, so we're giving him a girlfriend."
Everyone turned as a young woman walked in the door. She was a petite brunette dressed very stylishly.
"Maddy?!?!" Spin laughed. "What happened to you?"
"Ahem..." Sarge cleared his throat, stifling the chuckles that were coming from several of the boys. "Chris, this is Madison Michaels; the reason some of your cohorts find her appearance humorous is that Maddy is one of our ranch hands and they've never seen her cleaned up."
"Ranch hand?" Chris asked.
"Well, our ranch hands are a little special," CJ interjected. "Most of them are ex-military and all of them double as security for the ranch."
"Right," Sarge continued. "Maddy is a former Marine."
"Marine?" Chris asked incredulously. "She looks like she's my age."
"Which is why I can help you," Maddy replied. "I can pass for a teenager and yet I am licensed to carry so after your initial meet, I'll be with you as much as possible."
"So, what's the plan?" Dusty asked.
"We'll start next Friday night," Sarge explained. "We'll stake out the mall until this kid and his cronies show up. Once we know where they are we'll stage a confrontation between Chris and one of you boys...something loud that gets noticed and something that makes Chris' ‘dislike' of gay kids apparent. Hopefully, this gives him an in with this crowd. From there, Maddy will be with him as his girlfriend. Once we know they accept him, we'll wire him. Maddy will be carrying at all times."
"Why are we waiting until next Friday to start?" Chris asked. "Why not this week?"
"Because you're going to boot camp." Ace grinned.
"Boot camp?" Chris choked out.
"Yessir," Ace nodded. "Maddy and I are going to be giving you a crash course in self-defense and weapons. We obviously can't teach you everything in just a week and a half, but we can give you a solid introduction."
"Chris, you're eighteen, right?" CJ asked.
"Yes, I just turned a few weeks ago."
"Good. Otherwise, I'd have to pull the plug on this or get your parents to sign off, but seeing as you're legal, we can do this."
"What if they want him to do anything illegal?" Zak asked.
"We'll cross that bridge when we get to it," Sarge replied. "For now, you don't do anything without our say-so. Once we get you wired, we'll fit you with an earbud so that Ace or I will be in contact with you."
"Ok, so when do we start?" Chris asked.
Ace grinned. "Right now."
Thursday afternoon, found Dylan and Jesse on a trail ride with Kyle, his girlfriend Bree, his cousin, Scott and Scott's boyfriend, Mark.
After they had their blood tests, the boys had returned to Abigail's ranch with Danny. Danny had left earlier that day and Trevor had arranged for a car to pick up the boys in the morning and take them to his farm in Wellington. Knowing there was no longer any chance of him not returning home had made Jesse enjoy the days in Ocala more than he had expected. He and Dylan had spent all day Wednesday riding as many of Abigail's horses as they could handle.
Wednesday night, Danny had taken the boys and Abigail to a local bistro that he and CJ had frequented when they were in college. The boys were in high spirits, the dark clouds of the last few days having been lifted. They spent several hours regaling Abigail with stories of their friends and family at Second Chances.
Wednesday night, Jesse had called Kyle to see if he and his cousin were available for a trail ride the next day. Kyle readily agreed to meet them early the next morning so they could spend the better part of the day on the trail.
Abigail packed a large picnic lunch for the group in several saddle bags that were packed onto the horses.
They rode for a couple hours before they came to a beautiful lakeside meadow.
"Let's stop here and rest the horses and have lunch," Kyle suggested.
"Can we swim?" Dylan asked.
Everyone laughed in reply.
"What did I say?" Dylan asked, very confused.
Jesse grinned at him. "Sorry, Dyl, but we're all natives here. There are probably alligators in there."
"Yup," Scott answered. "Actually, I know there's at least one in this lake. According to one of my friends who lives around here, there's a ten-footer that lives in that lake."
"Are you kidding me? There's a ten-foot alligator in that lake and we're going to have a picnic here?!"
"Don't worry, Dylan," Mark said. "They're usually out in the deeper part of the lake or we would see them sunning on the shore. We just keep an eye out. We're faster than them--we just stay alert."
"Uh-huh," Dylan said looking around wide-eyed and far from convinced.
Everyone laughed as Dylan slid closer to Jesse and farther away from the lake.
Dylan and Jesse had a great day with their new friends. Neither had really thought much about the fact that their main circle of friends revolved around Second Chances and that they really didn't socialize much with people outside of that circle. They both realized that they tended to insulate themselves from people they didn't consider ‘family'. Meeting Kyle and his friends showed them the benefits of opening themselves up to new people.
Friday morning, a Humvee pulled up in front of Abigail's house. A tall, bald man about thirty stepped out and walked towards the house. He was well over six feet tall and while he didn't appear overly muscular he gave off the vibe of someone you didn't want to mess with.
Dylan and Jesse came out of the house carrying their duffel bags.
"Mr. Osterman and Mr. Summers?" the man asked looking the boys over with his piercing blue eyes. He had a faint British accent.
"I'm Jesse Osterman and this is Dylan Summers," Jesse said.
The man nodded. "Very good. I am Liam. Mr. Van Edsel sent me to collect you."
"Ok," Jesse nodded as he and Dylan walked towards the Humvee.
Liam reached for their bags. "I'll take those, gentlemen."
"We're good," Dylan said.
Liam looked at the boys with a slight frown. "I must insist," he said. "Mr. Van Edsel has charged me with taking care of you."
"Taking care of us?" Jesse asked.
Liam nodded. "That is correct. I will be your driver, bodyguard and assistant while you are in Florida. If there is anything that either of you needs, please let me know. Mr. Van Edsel's instructions are to make sure that you two are safe and that you have a most enjoyable time."
Jesse put his duffle down and nodded for Dylan to do the same.
"Ok, Liam," Jesse started. "If you're supposed to make sure we're ‘happy' then there are a few things we need to get straight."
"Certainly, young sir."
"First, my name is Jesse and his is Dylan and that is what we want you to call or us...or Jess and Dyl if you want. Please, don't call us Mister or Sir or anything that formal. Second, we don't mind carrying our own stuff. I know that my father probably told you to do everything for us, but that's not something either of us is comfortable with. If that's a problem for my father then I'll take care of it when I see him. We have guards at home, but they are our friends and that's how we treat them and we would prefer to treat you."
Liam's slight frown and hard expression softened as Jesse spoke. When Jesse finished, Liam nodded and smiled at the boys.
"Very good, Jesse...Dylan," he said. "Just promise me if there is anything that you need, you'll let me know."
"It's a deal," Dylan answered.
The boys followed Liam to the SUV and tossed their duffels in the back. They ran back to the house to say their goodbyes to Abigail and returned to find Liam standing next to the SUV holding the back door open for them.
"I assumed you would be more comfortable seated together," he said.
The boys both grinned and nodded as they climbed into the Humvee. Liam shut the door and walked around to the driver's side. He started up the SUV and they pulled away from the farm.
"There are beverages and some snacks in the cooler behind the seat," Liam said.
Jesse looked behind them and found the large cooler and pulled out cokes for him and Dylan.
"Would you like something, Liam?"
"Thank you, Jesse, but I'm fine."
In spite of the air conditioning, the bright Florida sun quickly warmed the interior of the SUV. Within a half hour of leaving the farm, Jesse and Dylan were both asleep.
The sound of a door slamming jolted both boys awake.
Jesse looked out the window and grinned. He was reaching for the door handle, when it opened.
Liam looked in at the two and grinned. "Did we have a nice nap?"
Dylan was disheveled and still out of it while Jesse smiled excitedly at Liam.
"Where are we?" Dylan asked as he looked out his window. They were in front of a large white building. It looked like something out of an old Victorian movie he had seen once. There were people running around in period clothing.
Jesse laughed. "You don't know?"
Dylan shook his head.
"We're at Disney World!!" Jesse shouted.
"No way," Dylan said looking out the window again.
"Yes, way," Liam said from the open door. "Mr. Van Edsel thought you might enjoy a short stay here. He and the missus and young Master Cole will be joining you tomorrow."
Jesse and Dylan scrambled out of the car. Liam was directing a young man to the back of the SUV. There he took out their luggage and loaded it on a trolley. An older woman carrying an iPad approached them.
"Mr. Osterman?" she asked.
"I'm Jesse Osterman."
The woman smiled warmly. "Welcome to the Grand Floridian. My name is Alice; I'll be taking you to the Concierge Floor and getting you checked into your room." She looked back down at her iPad. "And this is Mr. Summers and Mr. Smythe?"
"Why don't you gentlemen come with me and we'll get you all settled."
Alice walked towards the entrance to the resort with Jesse and Dylan close behind and Liam taking up the rear. The bellman was following them pushing the trolley with the luggage on it.
Dylan stopped when they entered the lobby and his jaw dropped.
Jesse turned and smiled at his boyfriend. "Cool, isn't it?"
Dylan just nodded with his mouth wide open. "Holy shit," he whispered in Jesse's ear. "This place is crazy."
"This is the fanciest hotel in all of Walt Disney World," Jesse explained. "I've never actually stayed here. My mom brought me over one time before Christmas. You should see this place then. They have a huge life-sized gingerbread house over there."
"He's right," Alice interjected. "The Grand Floridian is the crown jewel of the Walt Disney World resorts and many people come here during the holidays just to take in our decorations. There really is nothing else like it."
Dylan kept looking around, until Alice directed the boys to follow her to the elevators.
When they entered the elevator, Alice brushed a card against a pad on the wall.
"Anyone can ride this elevator to the second floor, but only guests staying on the concierge levels can access the other floors," she explained. "When you enter the elevator, you will touch your card key to this pad; there is a radio chip in the card and the elevator will then let you hit the key for your floor. You will be on the fifth floor."
The elevator stopped at the third floor and Alice gestured for the three to exit the elevator. She led them to a desk where another woman sat.
"Jackie, this is Mr. Osterman, Mr. Summers and Mr. Smythe."
The woman behind the desk stood up. "Gentlemen, welcome. My name is Jackie. Why don't you have a seat and I'll get you all checked in." Jesse and Dylan sat at the desk, while Liam stood between them.
Jackie typed a few things into her computer. "Mr. Smythe, could I see a picture ID please?"
Liam handed her his passport and a credit card.
Jackie spent a few more minutes typing and then handed Liam a slip of paper to sign.
She pulled a folder from her desk and opened it in front of the boys.
"You boys are going to be in Suite 5127. It is a two-bedroom suite located on the fifth floor," she explained. "Here on the third floor is the Lounge. We have a continental breakfast every morning, snacks and drinks throughout the day and in the evening hors d'oeuvres and desserts." She laid a small envelope on the opened folder. "In here are your Key-to-the-World Cards. They are your room keys and our access to the elevator. You also have your theme park tickets in here. You have three days of admission with a park hopper, which means you can go to any of the four theme parks each day. There are also brochures and maps for all of the parks in this folder for you." She gestured to Alice. "Alice will show you to your room. The bellmen should have already dropped your luggage off there for you."
After another quick ride in the elevator, Alice led the party to a door marked 5127. She tapped the key against a glass pad and the door opened. She held the door open for the boys to enter.
For the first time that afternoon, Jesse was just as bug-eyed as Dylan.
They stood in a small ornately decorated foyer. Alice led them into a living room area with several chairs and a couch.
"There is a master bedroom over here," she gestured to the right. "And a second one over here," she gestured to a door to the left of the couch. "Is there anything else I can help you young men with?"
Liam shook his head. "No, thank you, I'm sure the boys will be fine."
Alice smiled at Jesse and Dylan. "If you need anything there is someone at the desk on the third floor from seven to ten as well as at the Concierge desk in the lobby."
"Thank you," Jesse said.
Alice nodded and exited the room.
Liam walked towards the second bedroom.
"Liam, aren't you taking the big bedroom?" Jesse asked.
Liam shook his head. "No, Jesse, that is for you and Dylan. Why don't you boys freshen up and then perhaps we can explore some of the parks."
Both boys nodded and went into the master bedroom. The room was larger than Jesse's bedroom at the ranch. The room had a king-sized bed. Jesse opened a door and whistled.
"Dyl, we've got our own bathroom and there's a huge sunken tub in here."
Dylan peered over Jesse's shoulder.
"We might have to check that out tonight," he whispered in Jesse's ear.
Jesse turned and grinned at Dylan. He grabbed Dylan and kissed him tenderly.
"Do you believe all this?" he whispered. "We came down here scared that I might not be going back, and not only don't I have to leave you, but I have a little brother and we're at Disney World."
Dylan smiled and hugged Jesse back. "Not losing you is all I ever wanted," he said breathlessly. "Everything else is gravy."
"You're looking good, Luka, just relax your shoulders a bit," Danny said from the side of the arena as he watched Luka move Onyx through a dressage program that they he had been working on with Jesse.
When he finished, Luka rode over to where Danny was standing.
"That was really good," Danny said. "Especially considering you've only ridden Onyx a couple of times."
Luka smiled and stroked the Friesian's neck. "It's not like I thought it would be."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, I figured that he was going to be a lot tougher than he's been. But, he's been great."
"It's you," Danny said.
"Luka, you are so relaxed right now," Danny explained. "More than I've ever seen you. Usually, you are very tense and intense. You pushed yourself so hard. Now you're calm and relaxed and you're enjoying what you're doing and your riding looks so much better."
"I'm the same rider I've always been," Luka protested as he slipped from Onyx's back.
"You have the same skill-set, but riding is about more than knowing how. Think about it: we can teach anyone the technical aspects of riding--how to get on, stay on, walk, trot and canter--that's the easy part. You can't teach joy; you can't teach love; you can't teach teamwork--those are the things that separate riders," Danny answered. "You've always been a great technical rider and you've shown proficiency--you've won based on that; but there are judges, especially in dressage, who are going to judge you not just on skill but on the intangibles and those are the things that you are excelling at now."
"I don't feel like I'm doing anything different."
"I don't know if I'm explaining this right. Have you seen Jesse do this routine?"
Luka nodded. "Sure, a couple of times."
"And you've seen him ride Val and Dodger and Dancer?"
"Think about how Jesse looks when he rides. Remember last weekend when you were watching him ride Dancer?"
"Yeah, he looked like a robot," Luka replied. "He was doing everything right, but he was just writing it in."
"Exactly. When Jesse rides he has so much joy, he's so relaxed, he's one with the horse," Danny said enthusiastically. "That's something that many riders strive for and few achieve."
"So you're saying I wasn't good before?"
Danny shook his head. "No, not all." Luka looked at him with disbelief. "Luka, if I didn't think you were an excellent rider, I would have said so at your first lesson and I would have referred you to someone else. You are an excellent rider. You have great potential...but where some people need to find maturity, you have been almost too mature, too serious. Today is the first time I've seen you ride with joy--there was laughter in your performance."
Luka still had a look of confusion on his face.
"You said you didn't think you were doing anything different and really you weren't. What I'm talking about isn't what you're doing...it's about how you're doing it. When you are relaxed and enjoying the ride, the horse feels that and they respond accordingly. That's one of the reasons Jesse always looks so good. You have the same skills that he has, but he lets himself relax into it and enjoy it and that's what I saw in you today."
"I guess. I just don't feel like I should be enjoying myself. If I'm riding better now that Winston's gone..."
Danny walked over and put his arm around Luka's shoulder. "Luka, I don't think your riding has improved because you're riding a different horse. I think if Winston was here it would have been the same."
"Diego," Danny answered. "You've got some feelings for him and those feelings are what's setting you free. I could probably put you on any horse right now and you'd do well, because you are happy and you are feeling comfortable and not pushing yourself."
"It's wrong, though."
"Why do you think that?"
"Winston hasn't even been gone a week and I'm falling for Diego and riding other horses."
"Luka, you're getting on with your life," Danny said. "That's what we all have to do when bad things happen. I've watched you and Winston for the past few months. He loved you, I know that. There were times you were so tense that another horse probably would have thrown you. But he knew you and he took care of you."
"Took care of me?" Luka thought a moment. "I guess you're right. My old trainer always wanted me to use a different horse: he said that Winston was too ‘push-button' for me. That pissed me off."
"I wouldn't say he was push-button," Danny replied. "That would make people think that he was an easy ride, which he wasn't, but he would correct things for you. He would relax and move in a way that made you appear less intense then you really were. Now, you're more relaxed and that is showing with Onyx. If you were as tense with him, he would not respond very well and he's moving almost as well for you as he does with Jesse."
"So what happens when Jesse comes back?"
"That's up to you and him. Either of you could compete very well on Onyx and then there is Dancer. He's obviously had some training, but he would need some work. You guys will have to figure it out. I know Zak's ok with either of you riding Onyx. But if one of you wants to use Dancer, you'll need to get with Dusty since he is up for adoption. A horse with his abilities will definitely go quickly, but whoever adopts him will have to work with him, since he still spooks at some things."
Luka nodded. He wasn't sure he was ready to replace Winston.
Jesse released a long sigh as he lay back against Dylan. The two were in the large Jacuzzi tub in their master bathroom. They had spent the day exploring amusement parks and enjoying each other's company.
After their day in the parks, Liam had taken them to a restaurant on the fifteenth floor of one of the hotels. Dinner was amazing and they spent most of it learning about Liam.
In spite of his imposing appearance, Liam told them he was only twenty-five. He had attended a British military school and had served four years in the British Army before deciding to come to America. He had worked for Trevor for two years as a bodyguard and driver. When Trevor had decided to send someone to accompany Jesse and Dylan he had chosen Liam based on his skills and the fact that he was younger than most of the guards and could relate to the teens.
Jesse and Dylan both enjoyed Liam's company. He reminded them of Casey and Josh in the way he acted more like a friend or a big brother than an overbearing guard.
When they returned to the suite, Liam had wished them goodnight and retired to his room.
Jesse took Dylan by the hand and led him into their bedroom.
After he had shut the bedroom door, Jesse pulled Dylan to him and the two kissed deeply.
"Whoa!!" Dylan panted as they separated. "I guess you're not tired."
Jesse shook his head. He carefully removed Dylan's glasses and placed them on the nightstand.
Jesse started to pull Dylan's t-shirt over his head and then stopped. "Hold on," he instructed as he ran into the bathroom.
Dylan grinned as he heard the water start to flow into the oversized tub.
Jesse came back into the bedroom smiling brightly. He was wearing only his baby blue jockeys.
Jesse wrapped his arms around Dylan's neck and kissed him tenderly. He reached down and pulled Dylan's t-shirt over his head. He ran his finger down the middle of Dylan's chest eliciting a shiver from Dylan.
Jesse reached down and released the snap on Dylan's shorts and pushed them down. Dylan kicked off his sandals and slipped his feet out of his shorts.
Both boys stood facing each other clad only in their briefs. Each reached over to the other and slid the briefs down.
They had been naked together many times, but the excitement of the past few days fueled them.
Jesse took Dylan by the hand and led him into the bathroom. They waited for the tub to finish filling and then Jesse turned off the tap.
Dylan, being the taller of the two, slipped into the water first. It was as hot as they could stand it and felt great.
Jesse stepped into the tub and slid down in-between Dylan's legs. He laughed as he felt Dylan harden against his back.
"I love you," Dylan whispered in Jesse's ear.
"Me, too," Jesse sighed.
The two just lay in the tub not saying a word. There were absent caresses and the occasional kiss, but mostly they just lay there letting all the chaos of the last week flow from their bodies.
When the water was finally too cool to stand, Jesse stepped from the tub and offered Dylan a hand up. He grabbed two large towels and the two began to dry each other off.
They then walked hand in hand to the king-sized bed and drifted off to sleep wrapped in each other's arms.
Ace and Stephanie walked across the mall parking lot. Ace had finally been able to get Stephanie to keep her promise and the two of them were coming out of a movie.
They climbed into Ace's truck and he started it up.
"Hungry?" he asked.
"Sure," she replied. "It's still early."
Ace drove them to a small family-run restaurant a few miles from the mall.
It was quiet inside and they were seated right away.
"So..." Stephanie started after they had ordered.
Ace grinned. "C'mon, now, Miss Stephanie, don't tell me you're gonna get all shy all of a sudden."
Stephanie laughed. "No, but we talk all the time at the ranch, so what do we talk about now?"
"How's Luka doin'?"
"Better than I thought he would. I figured he'd be a basket case and lock himself up in his room, but he's actually been in a good place. I guess Diego is mainly to credit for that."
Ace nodded. ‘I told you Diego was a good ol' boy. I think they are good for each other. Diego's always happy no matter what happens, he's always seeing the good; and Luka, he's a good guy, but sometimes he's..."
"Wound a little tight?" Stephanie grinned.
"I know, usually the only one he'll relax around is me, but everyone has been so great to him and that's made him relax a lot. Dylan and Jesse asked him to work with Dodger and Val and Danny's working with him and Onyx. I guess that's going really well."
"I guess he just needed to find some people who didn't judge him."
Stephanie nodded. "He was bullied so badly at our last school, I was worried he was going to do something drastic. He just built this shell around himself and hid from the world."
"I remember how quiet he was that first time y'all came to the ranch," Ace said. "He didn't say a word until he got around the horses."
"That's why I was so worried, Winston was his world. We've talked some. He was feeling guilty about not being sadder, but I tried to get him to understand that Winston would want him to be happy and he's entitled."
"It'll get easier for him as time passes."
"I'm just glad he's still riding."
"Has he said anything about a new horse?"
"He's mentioned it, but I think it's too soon. I know he likes Dancer, but I don't think he's going to jump into anything. He knows he can get a ride here for shows, so he's not in a hurry. I think he's just letting himself deal with riding for now. Making another commitment and replacing Winston is going to be another hurdle for him."
"If he wants Dancer, he needs to move quickly," Ace replied. "There's already been a couple a people askin' about adoptin' him."
"If Dancer's not there, he'll be fine. I think this time he's going to let the horse pick him."
They enjoyed a quiet dinner and continued making small talk.
After dinner Ace drove Stephanie home. He walked her to the door and gave her a chaste kiss before saying goodnight.
"Is that the best you can do, cowboy?" Stephanie smirked.
Ace bent down and kissed her deeply. Stephanie rose up on her toes to meet the tall Texan and melted into his arms.
"That better, ma'am?" Ace asked when he pulled back.
Stephanie had a rosy flush on her pale skin. "Oh, yeah..." she panted as he opened the front door. "We'll have to do that again sometime." She grinned as she entered the house.
Ace turned to walk back to his truck a huge smile lighting up his face.
Jesse and Dylan were lounging around their suite when there was a knock at the door.
They had risen early and gone down to the lobby for breakfast. Liam informed them that Trevor and his family should be there mid-morning and they decided to wait before heading to a park.
Jesse went and opened the door. Trevor was there, Jesse waved him inside.
"Good morning, guys," Trevor said.
"Good morning," the boys replied.
"Where's everyone else?" Jesse asked.
"Julia and Cole are in our suite," Trevor responded. "I just wanted to talk to you guys first."
Trevor sat down in a chair opposite from the couch Dylan sat on. Jesse sank down next to Dylan. Trevor smiled at how comfortable the two boys were together.
"Julia and especially Cole are very excited to meet you guys. Cole is beside himself at the idea of having a big brother."
Jesse grinned. "Then bring him on." Dylan nodded in agreement.
Trevor laughed. "I will, but I wanted to warn you. Cole is a very smart little boy, but the cancer and the treatments have weakened him a great deal. He doesn't have the energy he once had and he looks very sick."
"Then we'll do things that he can do so he doesn't feel left out," Dylan said.
"I kind of figured that's what you guys would say," Trevor replied. "But some people are put off by a sick child and he's very perceptive and can pick up on that."
"Don't worry about us," Jesse answered. "He's my brother and we won't make him feel anything but a part of the crowd."
"Thanks," Trevor said. He rose from the chair. "Why don't you guys come over to our suite and meet him then?"
Jesse and Dylan stood up. They grabbed their room keys. Dylan knocked on Liam's door to tell him where they were going and they followed Trevor down the hall to another suite.
Trevor led them into the suite.
An attractive woman of about thirty-five was sitting on the couch. She had long light-brown hair and was dressed in a polo shirt and shorts. She stood up and walked over to Trevor.
"Julia, this is my son, Jesse, and his boyfriend, Dylan," Trevor said as he introduced them. "Boys, this is my wife, Julia Kingston."
Julia offered her hand first to Jesse and then to Dylan. "It's very nice to meet you boys."
‘Thank you," Jesse replied his eyes searching the room.
Julia smiled warmly at Jesse. "He's in his room," she said. "He's anxious to meet you, but he's also a bit apprehensive."
"Can we go in?" Jesse asked.
Julia glanced at Trevor who nodded to her.
"Sure," she said. "He's through there." She pointed to a door off the living room area.
Jesse and Dylan walked over to the door. Jesse peeked in and saw a young boy sitting on the bed watching TV. The boy was very thin; he had wispy blond hair and was dressed in a t-shirt and shorts.
The boy turned towards the door. He had dark circles under his green eyes, but his eyes shone with curiosity.
Jesse walked into the room followed by Dylan.
"Hey," he said as he approached the bed. "You must be Cole. I'm Jesse, your brother."
"Hi," Cole said shyly. He looked behind Jesse at Dylan. "Who's that?"
"That's my boyfriend, Dylan."
Jesse nodded. "Yes. Dylan is my boyfriend."
"Like a mommy's and daddy's kinda friend?" Cole asked curiously.
"Right. Dylan and I are together like a mommy and a daddy only we're not married."
"Yet..." Dylan whispered under his breath.
"What are you watching?" Dylan asked.
Cole turned back to the television. "I don't know...it's ‘bout Disney World."
"Do you want to go to the parks with us?" Jesse asked.
Cole lit up. "Can we?" he asked excitedly.
"Sure," Jesse replied. "Why don't we take the monorail to the Magic Kingdom and see what kinda trouble we can get into?"
Cole nodded rapidly and slipped off of the bed. He ran into the living room, where the boys heard him excitedly tell his parents that he was going to the ‘Kingdom' with ‘my brothers'.
Jesse looked at Dylan and grinned. "Looks like he's got two brothers."
Dylan smiled and nodded.
Trevor and Julia agreed to let Dylan and Jesse take Cole to the park as long as Liam accompanied them. They made Cole agree that if he became too tired, he would let the boys bring him back to the hotel. Dylan took Julia aside while Cole was showing Jesse his room.
"Is there anything special we need to watch out for?" he asked.
"Just that he doesn't get overtired," Julia answered. "His will is stronger than his body right now, so he tends to want to keep going."
"Don't worry," Dylan reassured her. "We'll keep a close eye on him. Is there anything he can't eat or drink?"
Julia shook her head; she was impressed at Dylan's maturity. "No, he'll let you know if there is something he doesn't care for, but he doesn't have any dietary restrictions."
Julia gripped Dylan's hand in hers. "Thank you."
Dylan was confused. "For what?"
"You don't know how much Cole has wanted a big brother. He knows about Trevor's other children and their ignoring him hurts him terribly. It's so great that you and Jesse are here for him."
"Jesse's family is my family," Dylan declared. "So Cole was my brother the second Trevor told us about him."
"Well, Jesse is certainly lucky to have you," Julia said.
"I think we're both pretty lucky," Dylan replied.
"Oof..." Chris exhaled as he landed on his back yet again. He was in a room in the bunkhouse.
He slowly got to his feet and glared at Ace and Maddy. "I thought I was supposed to be learning how to defend myself," he said.
Ace laughed. "You are. Part of learning to defend yourself is learning how to react to an attack." He looked at Maddy, who nodded. "Here, watch," he instructed.
Ace approached Maddy like he was going to attack her. She grabbed his wrist and flipped him over onto his back. Ace immediately rolled and sprang to his feet and grabbed Maddy. After a few seconds, he released her.
"See?" Ace said. "It's not just about how to attack, but how to deal with one. Every time we take you out, you just lie there. If your life depended on it, you'd have to move quickly and react."
Chris just shook his head. "This isn't as easy as you make it look."
"No, it's not," Maddy agreed. "But, Ace has been doing this since he was a kid and I was in the marines. We're just trying to give you some basics so you can get out of trouble if you need to. Don't forget, most of the time I'll be with you."
Chris nodded. Maddy left to attend to some other duties and Chris spent another hour getting his head handed to him by Ace.
"Ok," Ace said to Chris as he gave him a hand up. "Time to try something new."
Ace led him down a flight a stairs and into another room.
"Oh, shit," Chris muttered when he realized he was staring at a firing range.
Ace turned and grinned at him. He punched a code into a panel in the wall and a door slid open. Behind the door was an array of firearms unlike anything Chris had ever seen.
"You don't expect me to learn to use all this, do you?" Chris asked.
Ace laughed. "Hell, no. I don't know how to use all of these." He reached over and grabbed a small pistol. "This here's the one you're gonna use. It's small enough that it can be concealed on you, but got enough kick to show anyone on the other side of it that you mean business."
Ace put on some protective glasses and handed a pair to Chris along with some earplugs.
When they had finished donning their safety gear, Ace picked up the gun and checked the clip. He released the safety and aimed at the paper target in front of him.
He squeezed off five shots and then flipped a switch so that the target slid down to where they waited.
Chris almost swallowed his tongue when he saw the tight pattern of holes right where the target's heart would have been.
"Your turn," Ace said turning to Chris and nodding towards another paper target. Before handing Chris the gun he gave him detailed instructions on its operation.
"Just squeeze off five shots," Ace instructed.
When they examined his first target, Ace was pleased that all five bullets had at least hit it.
"Ok, Chris, let's try this again. Do you play video games?"
"Ok, treat it like that," Ace said. "Aim the way you would in one of those games. I know it's hard cuz you can't help but think of the target as a real person, but if it's life or death, you need to get over that and shoot straight."
Ace stepped back and let Chris ready himself.
Chris took a deep breath and slowly let it out. He gripped the pistol in his right hand, his finger on the trigger. He cupped his left hand under the grip to steady his aim. He took another breath and held it. As he slowly exhaled he pulled the trigger six times.
Ace's eyes bugged out as he watched all six bullets tear through the target in a tight cluster right where an assailant's heart would have been.
When Chris had stopped shooting and put the gun down on the counter, Ace slapped him on the back.
"Man, we got some serious talent here."
Trevor opened the door to the suite and caught his breath at the sight of Jesse carrying Cole piggyback. Cole's small head rested on Jesse's shoulder and it was obvious the little boy was sound asleep.
Trevor stepped aside to let Jesse and Dylan enter. The boys walked through the living room to Cole's room and Dylan carefully detached Cole from Jesse and the two laid him on the bed. Trevor and Julia watched from the doorway as each other older boys bent over and kissed Cole on the cheek.
The boys then turned and left the room closing the door behind them.
Trevor and Julia invited Jesse and Dylan to have a seat in the living room.
"So I take it you had a good time?" Julia asked.
Jesse grinned and nodded. "We had a great time."
"We thought you'd be back sooner."
"Well, Dylan had the great idea to get a stroller for Cole," Jesse explained. "At first Cole wasn't having any of that, but Dylan explained to him that the less energy he spent getting to the rides the more time we could spend on the rides."
"I had also remembered reading that you could get a special card at Guest Relations that let him stay in the stroller like it was a wheelchair instead of getting out at the entrance of every ride, so he didn't have to stand in those lines," Dylan said.
Jesse nodded. "He actually dozed a little in the last few lines," he laughed. "But that seemed to take enough of the edge off that we just kept going."
"Well, thank you both for spending the afternoon with him," Trevor said. "I'm sure it made his day."
"It made ours too," Dylan said. "He's a great kid, really smart. We kept wishing we could take him home to introduce to Maxie."
"Maxie is a little boy who just turned four," Jesse explained. "His dad used to work at the ranch and he's always around. He's really cool and I bet he and Cole would be fast friends."
The four continued to make small talk and Julia and Trevor took the time to learn more about Jesse and Dylan.
"I have a question for you boys," Trevor started. "Actually, it's more like an offer."
"What?" Jesse asked.
"Have you boys ever considered attending a private school?"
Jesse and Dylan looked at each other and then turned back to Trevor and both shook their heads.
"Not really," Jesse replied. "Why?"
"Well, like I said, I was very proud of the interview you boys gave, but being out at your ages can be a bit dangerous. I also did some checking and you are both near the top of your classes." Trevor saw questioning looks on the boys faces. "I'm sure CJ and Danny have told you with wealth comes ‘resources'; when I was trying to find out more about Jesse, I used mine and found out about your academic achievements. It was especially impressive considering Jesse missed an entire semester."
"I still don't get why we would think about a private school," Dylan said.
"Well, here's the deal. I have a very good friend from college; he's the headmaster at the Lexington Academy in New Hampshire. He's spoken to me about wanting to start a riding program there and asked if I knew any qualified boys who might be interested. I think it would be an ideal opportunity for you boys. It's an all-boys boarding school and ninety-five percent of the graduates go on to Ivy League schools."
"Boarding school?" Jesse asked. "We'd have to leave the ranch."
"It would still be your home, Jesse," Trevor explained. "Look, this is just an offer. It's an excellent school and you'd be able to take your horses and room together and get a great education. I don't expect you to make any decisions today; I just wanted you to know about the offer."
Jesse and Dylan nodded.
Jesse was about to speak when a phone rang.
Trevor pulled out his cell phone and looked at the screen. "I have to take this," he said as he stood up and went into the master bedroom.
"Boys, I don't want you to think that Trevor's pushing for this school thing," Julia explained. "If it's not something you want, he'll understand. His friend, Craig, has been after him for the past year to help him start a riding program there and I know he sees so much potential in both of you."
"We appreciate the offer," Jesse started. "But, it's a big decision to make on our own."
"Like Trevor said, he's not expecting an answer right away; he just wants you to know the offer is there."
Trevor came out of the bedroom.
"That was Cole's oncologist," he said. "They found a match for the bone marrow transplant."
Jesse and Dylan jumped up with big smiles on their faces, while Julia rushed over to hug Trevor.
"So how soon can I get this done to help Cole?" Jesse asked.
Trevor looked at the two boys. "You weren't a match, Jesse," he said. "Dylan was."