Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Landing Strip


The Landing Strip



The bleak eyes of the boy folded up in the corner of the tiny plane became very much more interested as the plane banked and began to descend in a landscape where there was nothing but green grass spread out below white capped mountains. 

“Here? This is where we’re staying?” 

“I think it’s a sheep ranch, I told you.” The man at the table said absently, still sorting through the heap of notes on the table in front of him. He was fairer haired than the boy, who’s thick shock of hair was somewhere between golden red and a rich brown, bright enough to catch the eye. In contrast, the man’s was a reddish blond and beginning to thin on top, and an angular looking man, he was wearing a business suit still neatly pressed despite the fact they’d been in the air before dawn. His reading glasses had slid down his nose.  The boy gave him a look, a grim one that said he knew there wasn’t much point in arguing, his long legs curled up against the bulkhead. 


“You didn’t, but what the hell.”


The plane descended steeply onto the grass strip runway, and rumbled to a halt on the rough grass. With more interest than he’d felt in some weeks, the boy yanked a battered old rucksack out from under his seat and headed for the door, leaving his father to gather up his notes. The plane steward lowered the steps and the boy jogged down them onto the springy grass, looking around him in silence at the bowl of mountains under a wide, electric blue sky. The space went on forever, rough land formations in every shade of green and brown, dotted in the distance with animals. 

A very tall, well built man with fair hair had been waiting, leaning against a dark red Cherokee jeep, and crossed the grass to meet him. 

“Hey. I’m Jake.”


“Riley.” The boy nodded at him somewhat shyly and watched Jake shake his father’s hand. 

“Mr Hamilton? This way sir. Philip sent me to meet you, it’s a mile or so down to the ranch. Riley, are you ok with dogs? Mind sitting in the back with them?”

Mind? Riley crouched, putting his hands up to the two shaggy collies that came to greet him, silking his hands over long ears and muzzles that pushed into his palm. This apparently was an actual ranch. 

“No, I love animals.”


“That’s probably just as well here.” Jake grinned at him, a friendly grin, and opened the passenger door for Riley’s father. Riley opened the rear door, smiling involuntarily as the dogs leaped in ahead of him, and sat with his hand tangling in the soft fur of the nearest dog as Jake started up the jeep and drove it slowly down the grass plateau. The plane was taking off again in the distance, Riley twisted his head around to watch it disappear into the blue, wondering how many planes came and left from this place. After eight long weeks in Los Angeles the green and the space was amazing. As the jeep turned on to a rough grass track and several paddocks became visible in the distance, Riley swallowed, breath stolen in delight. 

“You have horses?”

His father let loose a short breath of exasperation at his tone. 


“He’s horse mad.” He said dryly to Jake in a ‘you know what kids are’ tone that Riley had grown out of more than three years ago and which made Riley flush. “The first thing he does wherever we go is find the nearest riding stables and make a thorough nuisance of himself there.”


“You like to ride?” Jake asked, glancing up in the rear view mirror to smile at Riley. “We shouldn’t have a problem sorting you out with all the riding you want while you’re here. Flynn’ll be grateful for someone to help him exercise some of the corral horses.”


Still painfully red, Riley managed a quiet “thanks”. The house came into sight a minute or two further on down the track. Riley saw a wide, red earth yard that spread between a wooden wraparound porch on a very large, grey stone ranch house, and an equally large barn, surrounded with smaller buildings and paddocks that stretched away into the distance, each containing well kept, well fed horses grazing on the lush green grass. The trees in the distance were starting to bud up, bright green for spring, and the morning sun was getting warm. Jake parked the jeep in the yard and took his father’s suitcase, giving Riley a nod. 


“Is the rucksack all you’ve got to carry?” 

“The same clothes he stands up in, a couple of books and not much else.” Riley’s father said darkly. “Getting him to change clothes long enough to wash them is hard enough.”


Riley gave him a cold look, swinging the rucksack up onto his shoulder and answering Jake in a clear voice. 

“I left pretty much everything in L.A. No sense carrying it all around when we’ll probably be at the other end of the States tomorrow.” 

“You’d think most teenagers would enjoy the chance to travel, wouldn’t you?” Riley’s father said to Jake, following him up the porch steps with his leather briefs wallet under his arm. “Every major city, even Europe, no one can look bored like a fifteen year old.”


“Yeah, go ahead and talk over my head like I’m six,” Riley snapped after him. 

The porch steps were wide and made of a warm, blond wood that appeared to reflect the sunlight. Fat earthenware pots of well watered, green plants and spring flowers were grouped on the porch itself around a number of chairs and a wooden swing, as if this was somewhere people liked to sit. Through the door lay a big, cool kitchen with stone tiles on the floor, wide counters against the walls and a long, large wood table in the middle, surrounded with chairs. It was immaculately clean. The surfaces shone and the few items laid out on them were ones that obviously belonged there, giving the impression of space without clutter, and the room smelled pleasantly of fresh bread. It was as un office-like or business-like as could be imagined. A man at the counter near the big window over the sink lifted mugs down out of a cupboard and smiled at them. Dark haired and dark eyed, in the same blue jeans and cotton shirt Jake wore, he lifted the kettle off the hob of the massive stove and gestured towards the interior door. 

“Mr Hamilton. I hope you had an easy flight? I’m Paul, I’m Philip’s housekeeper. Philip asked me to give you his apologies, he’s just had to take a call, but I’ll show you into the study and he shouldn’t be long. Can I offer you tea or coffee?”

This ‘Philip’ was obviously the guy his father was working on the contract with. Very used to trailing his father around the business communities of the western world on his consultancy projects, which could range in length from a few days to a few months, Riley looked around him, surprised at the homeyness of it all. He had visited too many offices, hotel suites and skyscrapers to count over the past few years, and was used to leather armchairs in waiting areas, tv screens and secretaries in suits. This was the first tycoon he’d ever seen who operated out of a ranch, or who had a male housekeeper who was anything but suited or formal. 


“Coffee, please.” Hamilton held out a hand to Jake for the suitcase and Jake shook his head, hefting it easily. 

“No worries, I’ll put it upstairs in your room, sir. Paul, this is Riley.”


“Hey.” Riley gave the dark eyed man a brief and rather embarrassed smile, hitching his rucksack up higher on his shoulder.  

“Yes, where are you going to wait?” Hamilton turned back, looking at Riley as though he’d only just remembered he was there. “Somewhere you’re not going to be underfoot. I’m sorry, I did offer to book us both into a hotel rather than have Riley hanging around -”

“Why bother with a hotel when you can stay right here?” Paul said easily, “Riley won’t be in the way at all. Please, come through to the study.” 

He shepherded Riley’s father ahead of him, Jake disappeared with the suitcase in hand, and for a moment Riley stood alone in the kitchen with a hard, painful lump in his throat, hating here as much as he’d hated everything for months now. The wild urge hit him as it had hit several times lately, to just walk. Go. If he was in the way, to remove himself. He’d done it a few times over the past months, always ending in being brought back by the cops who seemed to pick him up without difficulty within 24 hours, which led to yet another frustrated row with his father. The last one had been just three days ago. 

“Ok, he’s settled.” Paul said, coming back into the kitchen. Riley glanced up and was hit by one of the kindest looks he’d seen in a long time. Paul’s dark blue eyes were lively, as soft and as warm as his voice, and whatever Riley would have expected a housekeeper to look like, Paul wasn’t it.  

“Sit down, Riley. I thought you two would probably be hungry considering the time you flew out this morning. Now you won’t drink coffee, so what do you like to drink?”

“Coke?” Riley said automatically. Paul smiled. 

“Not here, I’m sorry. I can do milk, tea, juice, hot chocolate?” 

“I don’t need to be any trouble.” Riley hoisted up the rucksack again and was surprised by Paul gently unhooking it from his shoulder, taking it and pulling a chair out for him. 


“I don’t see how you could be. How about hot chocolate?”

Riley sat down in one of the big wooden chairs at the table, since the man clearly expected it, and watched him put cups and a coffee pot on a silver tray with deft hands, while at the same time he set a pan on the hob and began to mix things into it that smelled strongly of chocolate. He opened the oven with a thick cloth and removed a rack of pastries, dropped several lightly onto a plate and put it in front of Riley, and put several more onto a plate on the tray. 

“There you go, hon. Get stuck into those and I’ll be right back.”
The endearment appeared to slip out without his noticing it, as though it wasn’t odd for a man to say it to a tall, leggy teenaged boy. Paul took the tray and left the room, and Riley cautiously picked up one of the smoking pastries from the plate, breaking it open. There was some kind of pale filling inside, which he tasted gingerly. Some kind of creamy cheese, sweet with sugar and sultanas. It wasn’t something he recognised, but it was good, and after several tastes, Riley began to eat, realising his stomach was growling. Paul reappeared without the tray, split the contents of the now steaming pan on the hob between two mugs and put them down on the table, searching one of the cupboards for a packet. He dropped several marshmallows from it into the mugs and passed one to Riley, taking a seat at the table. 

“Do you travel a lot with your father?” 

“All the time.” Riley tried to say it without the bitterness, putting a hand around the mug. The warmth and the fragrance of chocolate was comforting. 

“So what do you do about school?” Paul said mildly. Riley snorted, and then forced himself to answer politely. 

“...... I don’t go at the moment. I’ve always gone wherever we happened to be.”

He waited for the inevitable comments that always came from adults at this point; must be hard to make friends that way. How do you stay in touch with your friends? Paul just cupped his hands around his mug and didn’t say anything, apparently not needing the details spelled out and waiting until Riley had finished the pastries. 


“How about I show you the house and where your room is, and then you can decide what you’d like to do? I don’t think you’ll see much of your dad before dinner, he and Philip have stacks of files in the study.”

“He’s always got stacks of them everywhere.” Riley said moodily.


“Well they’ve got enough in there to play forts with if they get bored.” Paul nodded at his mug. “Going to finish that?”

Riley bolted the rest of his chocolate and Paul walked with him through a large family room that wound for some way among rough stone wall pillars with alcoves and corners full of book cases and rugs and comfortable chairs, as well as its main space in front of a large hearth with a hearth rug and several long leather couches grouped together. It looked uncluttered and comfortable, and a wide staircase led up from beside another well filled bookcase. 

“Help yourself if there’s any there you want to read,” Paul invited, seeing him looking. “These are for anyone interested, people keep books they mind about in their own rooms so you don’t need to worry.”

He made it sound like there were a lot of ‘people’ here. 

“You’ve got a choice of rooms,” Paul went on, leading him upstairs. “I wasn’t sure which you’d like. I can put your next door to your dad, or in one of the quieter rooms at the front.”


“I don’t need to be next to my dad.” Riley said shortly. Paul didn’t seem fazed by his tone. 

“Ok, come and have a look at this one.”


The house appeared to lead on for miles. Rooms led off the wide landing in all directions. Paul walked down the hallway and turned into a shorter passage to the left, opening a door. It couldn’t have been more different from a hotel suite. The room was tiny, with a low, sloping ceiling and wood beams, and a double bed with a bright quilt that took up most of the carpeted floor space and was level with a large picture window that looked directly out over the corral of well-kept horses grazing. A small bedside table and a lamp, and a chest of drawers took up the rest of the available space. 

“This is small but it’s a good view.” Paul leaned on the doorframe. “And it’s away from the main hall so you won’t get bothered here. What do you think?” 

Riley, aware his mouth was hanging open at the view of the horses from a bedroom, shut it fast. “I think it’s great.” he said sincerely. “This would be great, thank you.” 

“The bathroom’s around the corner on the right, help yourself to anything on the shelves in there. Got much to unpack?” Paul held out his hand for the rucksack, clearly planning to help. 

“....not so much.” Riley said unwillingly. “I kind of didn’t bring much?”
“Well apart from jeans and a t shirt you’re not going to need much.” Paul said practically. “Got a change of clothes with you?” 

Rather embarrassed, Riley dragged a pair of grungy and very crumpled jeans out of the bag. 

“.....yeah. It’s a bit of a mess, I wouldn’t-”

Paul waited when Riley trailed off. Riley gave him a shamefaced shrug, wondering why he was even confiding this, except the man didn’t look at all reproachful. 

“I ....kind of wouldn’t let the laundry maid have them at the hotel? It really annoys my dad.”

“Mhm.” Paul held out a hand, not going into why Riley would want to make a habit of that. “Give me the lot, I’ll run them through the machine. Yeah, the lot, come on. Most people in this household go through at least one set of clothes a day, not many of them come home clean and even fewer of them are tidy so I’m used to it. Underwear? Pyjamas? What do you sleep in?”

“I didn’t really pack properly.” Riley confessed, not wanting to explain about the row he’d had with his father late last night and his refusal to pack. It had been one of their who won that? rows where it ended with no score on either side. Paul didn’t seem surprised. He just took all the clothes from the pack, balling them up without fuss. 

“Come on then.”


Riley took his gameboy handset, his usual number one time killer while his father was on assignment, out of the now empty rucksack and pocketed it, pushing the rucksack into the empty chest of drawers. The house was quiet, no one else appeared to be around. Paul took him into a laundry room off the kitchen and pushed the clothes into a large washing machine, setting it going, then led Riley out onto the porch. It was hot outside now.  The paddocks stretched out behind the well kept barns and buildings. Beyond the gates, open green land rolled as far as the eye could see, under white capped mountains to the south and west, and the newly budding aspen woods to the east. It was breathtaking. 

“The house rules are that you’re welcome to go into any of the family rooms – the bathrooms, kitchen and family room – but the other rooms and buildings are by invitation only.” Paul said simply and quite cheerfully as though this was a normal thing to say to a guest. “Understood?”

Riley glanced at him, surprised and not used to people laying down the law this bluntly. 

“You have house rules?” 


“We do.” Paul led the way down the steps into the yard. “And we all follow them.”


Again, ‘all’. Riley wondered how many people worked for this Philip guy. This was as unlike any business set up as he’d ever seen. 

“......Jake said I might be able to ride?” Riley said tentatively, looking at the horses in the paddocks. Paul looked across at him with another of his warm smiles as though he was genuinely pleased Riley should say it. 

“You like horses?” 

“I love horses.” Riley said fervently. “These are beauties.”


“Philip breeds them. These are our yearlings.” Paul paused beside the fence as Riley leaned over the top bar, looking at the three long legged, smooth coated youngsters grazing. “We’ll definitely be able to find you someone to ride. Flynn will be back by lunchtime, he’s the best one to talk to about which horse, and to help you sort out tack. Do you mind waiting a couple of hours?”

“I’d love just to be out here and watch them.” Riley looked down the line of paddocks, unable to believe he was seriously going to be here for a few days around these animals.  “....One of the hotels we stayed in last year wasn’t too far from a racing stable, I couldn’t ride there – serious horses – but the grooms were nice and they let me hang around. I know to be careful, I won’t touch or go into the paddocks-”


“You’re very welcome to wander around.” Paul nodded at the far paddock. “The Clysdales down there love visitors, and the yearlings are very sociable. We’ll eat around twelve, we eat early as everyone starts work early and they’re starving by noon. Come back to the kitchen around then?” 

And leaving Riley without apparently thinking twice about the kind of warnings and instructions that most adults felt were vital, Paul walked briskly away, back to the house. 


*


To be out here alone like this was wonderful. 

Riley drifted slowly down the line of green paddocks, spellbound, hanging over the fences to watch the horses graze. At the last paddock in the line, he climbed up on the rail to watch the three massive Clysdales and the foal. They were certainly friendly; all four promptly came to see if he had food and enjoyed being petted before they wandered off, and the foal flopped heavily down in the grass to sleep beside its mother, a large, soft eyed mare. It was then that the square shouldered brown cob in the next paddock caught Riley’s eye. He was the only horse to be alone in any of the paddocks and he stomped a hoof, his eyes rolling as Riley moved closer. Picking up on the warning, Riley turned sideways on to him, leaning on the fence and letting his gaze settle on the aspen woods in the distance while the horse got a good look at him, keeping his movements slow and casual. It was a moment before the big head lowered quietly towards the ground and began to graze again, and Riley slowly let his own head come round, watching the tension in the big cob’s body. One scared, suspicious horse. 

“That’s Nape.” a quiet voice in a strong New Zealand accent said behind him.  

Riley glanced up and Nape snorted, wheeling away to run around the far end of his paddock. The man was large, broad shouldered, with sandy dark blond hair and a dusty white shirt over jeans. He had a rather grim face and his hands were dug deep in his pockets as he watched Nape circle. 


“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare him.” Riley said apologetically. “Is he yours?”

“Nape’s one of Philip’s rescued horses. We haven’t had him long and he can be a bit unpredictable.” The man looked down at him, a steady look that wasn’t accusing or unkind. He wasn’t that old. Maybe just past college age? Built like a footballer with broad shoulders and muscled arms, fit and hard, with very dark green eyes under a heavy brow. And alarmingly hot. 

“I’m Flynn. You must be James Hamilton’s son.” 

Riley swallowed slightly, trying to sound even slightly sensible with his eyes still stuck to the planed chest in front of him. “Riley.”


“Paul told me you were a rider.” 

Nape was still running. Flynn put up a hand to guide Riley and Riley stepped away from the fence and walked with him down the line of paddocks towards the house. Behind them, Nape made a sound that reminded Riley of a scream of defiance. 

Flynn didn’t look round. 

“I’m going up to look at the brood mare herd this afternoon if you’d like to come with me? It’s about a four hour trek on horseback.”

Not just to be allowed to ride one of these beautiful creatures but to actually be taken out on a prolonged trek on one? 

“Yes please!” Riley blurted out before he had time to sound more dignified. The man caught his eye and gave him a brief smile, just a flickered one like a fish breaking surface.   

“We’ll get lunch first then.” 

Paul and Jake were in the kitchen and Paul glanced up and smiled at them, nodding at the row of boots by the door. 


“Hi. Take your boots off and wash your hands. Riley, your dad’s eating with Philip while they work but you should see him at dinnertime. I hope you don’t mind eating with us?”

Mind? It was a welcome break. Riley followed Flynn’s example and heeled his trainers off at the door, and followed him into a bathroom off the kitchen where he rinsed his hands. Flynn stopped him before he could dry them, nodding him back at the sink. 

“Hey. Scrub. That involves soap.”


“They’re clean.” Riley protested, and found himself grinning as Flynn’s hand on his shoulder returned him firmly to the sink with a companionable yank.  

“Scrub.”


Rolling his eyes, Riley scrubbed his hands. Flynn did the same and sat down alongside Riley at the long wooden table, passing him one of the still warm rolls from the plate in front of him. Following his and Jake’s example, Riley sliced the roll in half and helped himself to one of the fat home-made burgers on another dish, adding a slice of cheese and a spoonful of one of the sauces before he tasted the burger. Jake and Flynn, clearly hungry, weren’t delicate about it; they piled their burgers high with salad and dug in, and within a few cautious tastes, Riley ate as avidly as they did. Jake and Flynn talked the whole time about fences and herds and stretches of river; Riley listened in fascination and Paul chipped in obviously knowing exactly what they were talking about. Once the plates were clean, Flynn glanced at the trainers lined up by the mat alongside the row of heeled, ankle height riding boots and pushed his chair back. 

“Riley, do you have boots with you? Those sneakers won’t be much good for riding.”

“You’re taking Riley out with you this afternoon?” Jake sounded surprised. 

“Why not?” Flynn said bluntly. “Riley, boots?”


“What size are you?” Paul got up, going to peer down the line of boots. “Roger’s around a size nine or ten, his boots are here.”


“I’m a nine and a half.” Riley said, watching Paul pick a pair out of the line.  

“Try these on. And take a jacket, it gets breezy up on the tops. Jake, stop it.”

Jake, who had been tossing the last couple of pieces of bread up and catching them deftly in his mouth like a sea lion, caught Riley’s eye and winked at him. Flynn, filling two water bottles at the tap, handed Riley one of the multiple jackets hanging on the back of the door and waited for him to pull the boots on. They were a good fit, scuffed and well worn with elastic sides and reinforced toe caps, identical to the ones Flynn put on at the door, although less dusty. Flynn shouldered into his own jacket and pulled two Stetsons off the hooks by the door, handing one to Riley as he led the way down the porch steps. 

“How long have you been riding?” 

“Since I was little.” Riley said, trailing him towards the corral with his heart lifting at the sight of the horses gathering to watch them hopefully. “My mom liked horses, she used to take me with her when she had a riding lesson. And wherever we’ve gone I’ve always found riding stables and kept up with lessons.”

It was one of the few constant things that made life worthwhile, wherever they were currently staying. Flynn climbed the fence into the corral, pushing horses back out of his way and taking a halter off a fence post. 

“This is Gator.” He slipped the head collar over a large, stolid looking tan gelding who nuzzled his shoulder. “Have you done any bare back riding?”

“Some?” Riley said with anticipation, thinking of a stables in Vermont where he’d spent several weeks with a riding instructor who had given some very interesting lessons on what a really good seat meant. Flynn nodded him over. 

“Come on then, I’ll give you a boost up.”


Breathless, Riley went straight to him and Flynn boosted him up on to Gator’s broad back, handing him the halter reins. 

“Take him round the corral, try him out.”


Gator was calm, as stolid as if he was ridden like this every day. Riley patted his neck and squeezed gently with his calves against the broad flanks, walking him into an empty space and then urging him into a trot. Gator wasn’t fast but his pace was even, he transitioned smoothly and Riley took him in a figure of eight, falling into the easy rhythm of the rising trot on his back and delighted by it. 

“Can I canter him?”

“Go ahead.” 

Flynn had stood back, watching, although there was something alert about him that belied the casual lounge of his body. Riley had the sense that if anything went wrong, Flynn would move like greased lightning, but there was nothing going to go wrong with someone as placid as Gator. Riley took him up to a canter, a slow, heavy and very even pace, following another figure of eight before he drew Gator in and rubbed his neck. 

“He’s lovely. Smooth action, he’s like a charger.”


“He doesn’t often get to be ridden by someone with the knowhow to appreciate him.” Flynn took his hands out of his pockets. “Want to give Cricket a try?”


He took the head collar from Gator and gave Riley a hand down to the ground, clicking to a long legged, lightly built gelding with a paint coat. 

“He’ll jump the moon for you, but he needs a firm hand. Be ready.”


Riley rubbed the paint gelding’s neck and nose as it swung around to snuffle at him, then took the halter reins and Flynn boosted him up. Cricket moved like there were springs in his haunches: Riley could feel the power in him and his reaction to the slightest touch. Almost at once Riley had to turn him, gathering him up and taking a firm seat on the powerful back. It took a minute to settle him, he was very fresh and Riley found himself smiling in sheer enjoyment of his eagerness to move, easing him from a walk to a trot and keeping him at a trot with hands light enough for him not to fret. It took several minutes of trotting him before Riley relaxed his hands a little and let him out into a canter, and after some initial attempts to stretch his legs and go, Cricket accepted the limited speed and loped gracefully and lightly as a dancer. It was at times like this it was possible to forget everything. Lost in the deep, focused concentration of working with this beautiful animal, it seemed only seconds before Flynn signalled to him to bring Cricket over and nodded with a definite, quiet approval that went through Riley like a lightning bolt. 

“Yeah, you can handle him. Bring him out, we’ll tack him up.” 

Flynn himself took a second halter to a tall chestnut gelding and opened the gate, letting Riley and Cricket out ahead of him. He showed Riley a large, immaculate tack room off the currently empty stables, and Riley gladly saddled up Cricket himself, aware of the quality of the tack and that it was immaculately clean, very different to a riding school. And then Flynn swung up into the chestnut’s saddle and led the way through the open gate and out onto the open pastures. 

Flynn rode so well that Riley, who had never before seen a seriously good male rider, never mind a young male rider, found it hard to keep his eyes off him. The chestnut was high tempered, young and fast, and Flynn handled him gently and with enviable skill, hands effortless on the reins, making him take his time over the first half mile of pasture until the grass was smoother. Then he glanced at Riley, nothing more as if just catching his eye was all he thought was needed, and Riley saw Flynn drop his hands, and followed his example, and they let both the geldings race out over the turf at a speed Riley had never felt before on riding school ponies, on open land. Cricket flew.

Flynn didn’t say much but he led Riley up hills and over wide pastures, and for almost two hours together they cantered and walked the geldings over endless green softly rolling hills and plateaus, searching until at last they found the herd of mares grazing wild on miles of open pasture. And on a slope overlooking the land around his mares, stood a stud stallion, square and magnificent. 

It was one of the best afternoons of Riley’s life. 


*


He spent a further happy hour getting drenched to the skin hosing down Cricket, who adored being groomed and happily stood still, leaning into the brush while Riley worked on him, losing himself in being with and handling the beautiful creature. By the time he regretfully ran out of things to do and turned Cricket loose into the corral, the gelding’s coat gleamed. 


“Anything else I can do?” he asked Flynn, who was finishing off the chestnut with a lot of skill and a blunt matter of factness that Riley admired as much as the biceps bulging Flynn’s t shirt. Flynn gave him a nod towards the stable. 

“You’ll find a broom in there, you can sweep off the water.”


Glad for any reason to go on being a part of the work taking place out here, and to be around this guy, Riley searched the stable for a broom and swept while Flynn turned his horse out and locked up. And put out a hand to take the broom, giving Riley one of his brief smiles. 

“Ok, ok you won’t get that any neater. You did good. Come on in and change, and we’ll eat.”

Paul nodded him at the bathroom as he left his boots by the door, apparently unmoved by soaked jeans and dust. “Straight in there, go shower. I put your clean clothes in there ready for you, put what you have on in the laundry basket and I’ll run it through tonight with everyone else’s.”

Jake, already showered, grinned at Riley as he disappeared into the bathroom, and hooked a box of orange juice out of the fridge, knocking it back in long gulps direct from the carton. Paul pointedly took a glass out of the cupboard and put it down on the counter in front of him. 

“Forget something?”

“Since when did Flynn start talking to strangers?” Jake said under his breath, taking no notice of the glass. “I was here a month before he started making eye contact with me.”


“Rubbish.” Paul said firmly. “He’s always polite to visitors.”


“Ish.” Jake said genially. “He doesn’t usually take them out riding with him.”

“Riley looks to me like a nice kid. Glass.” Paul firmly took the carton away from him, poured the rest of the juice into the glass and handed it to Jake. Who leaned, unabashed, against the counter to drink the rest, crossing his long legs at the ankles. 

“I didn’t know Flynn tolerated kids either.”




The bathroom and shower were large and as immaculately clean as everything else was around here, and the water jets were strong and hot. Riley stripped to the skin and stepped under it, tipping his head back to soak his hair. His muscles were warm and aching slightly from several hours hard work, he’d be sore tonight, but it was a soreness he knew and welcomed and his hands still felt the ghost sensations of managing Cricket’s speed and strength. 

When he dried off, Riley discovered his clean clothes folded on top of the linen chest in the bathroom. They were not just clean and dry, they were crisply ironed too. It was totally different to how clothes felt coming back from a laundry in plastic packets, although Riley wasn’t sure how. They smelled freshly of some kind of fabric conditioner and Riley dressed, aware he looked more kempt in the mirror than he’d looked for some time. In the kitchen Paul was setting the table and paused to run a hand over Riley’s hair, a friendly touch that made Riley involuntarily smile at him. 

“Go run a brush through that and make yourself look respectable.”


“He’s allergic to tidy.” His father said acidly from the doorway to the porch. Riley hadn’t seen him until he spoke; he and a man with neatly cut steel grey hair were sitting together on the chairs outside, and the older man got up. 

“Now this must be Riley.”


“Come and shake hands.” His father said shortly. Riley came grimly to the door and the man held out a hand, very steady eyes looking directly at his as if he was reading him. 

“Call me Philip. Welcome to the ranch. Flynn tells me you’re a good rider.” 

He had a soft, cultured voice, and he was taller than Riley’s father but – trim, was the word that came to Riley’s mind. His shirt was open at the neck, as crisp and neat as his immaculate stables were, and while Riley was sure his father wouldn’t realise it, far from wearing a business suit, the man wore stone coloured, linen riding breeches. Very well cut, but definitely riding clothes that went with the old fashioned and polished, dark brown leather riding boots on his feet. His grey eyes were dark and very level, and the bones of his face were strong, aquiline, with a quiet kind of smile. He looked fit and tanned, and not old at all. 

“He is.” Flynn, sitting on the porch rail, damp haired and in clean clothes from his own shower, said it shortly and brusquely. 

“And you enjoyed Cricket?” the man said gently, smiling at Riley. The mention of the horse, when Riley’s whole body still felt the motion of a fast horse of a quality and temperament Riley had never before ridden, sent a bolt arrowing through him. 

“He’s really beautiful, sir.”


“I do hope he hasn’t been a nuisance to you.” Hamilton said to Flynn, as if it was inevitable and impossible that Riley could be anything else. Flynn drained the glass of juice he was drinking and abruptly got up from the rail. 

“As well as he rides, Riley’s welcome to come out with me any time.” 

Riley swallowed, stunned by the praise and by someone stepping in and contradicting his father so bluntly. Flynn paused in the doorway, giving Riley a direct look. “I’m out on a full day trek tomorrow, leaving at eight if you’d like to come.”

A full day and if he’d like to......?

“That’s very kind of you, Mr-” Hamilton broke off, disconcerted as Flynn disappeared inside without a backward glance. The older man named Philip met Riley’s eye with a distinct twinkle, and sat down again saying serenely, 

“O’Sullivan. That was Mr O’Sullivan.”




Riley picked at the dinner Paul served, at the long table in the kitchen which seemed quite crowded when everyone was sat down together. There were two additional people that Riley hadn’t met, who had ridden in together about half an hour before dinner. One a very dark haired man, introduced as Jasper, who sat next to Flynn and said very little, the other a man with sloe eyes who looked Puerto Rican and introduced himself as Darcy, and he chattered with Paul, Jake and Philip who seemed thoroughly interested in what had happened out on the ranch through the day. The meal was fairly noisy, lively and cheerful, and Riley, who didn’t remember the last time he’d seen his father sit down for a meal that wasn’t with a client or worked through, thought he looked bewildered. 

“Not a vegetable fan?” Paul said softly to Riley, watching him push broccoli about his plate. Riley saw his father’s glare and laid his fork down. 


“I’m ....not too hungry. Sorry.”


“We don’t eat anything not found in McDonalds.” Hamilton said dryly. “Whatever hotel we stay in, he finds the nearest Mickey D’s and lives out of it. I’m hoping he’s planning on growing out of this stage soon.”


“It’s better than the stuff from room service.” Riley said half under his breath. 

“You mostly stay in hotels when you’re travelling?” Paul said to Hamilton, who nodded, taking another mouthful of pie. 

“In the line of work I do, there’s never been any sense in doing otherwise. Riley’s been travelling with me since he was six.”

“It’s easier to unload childcare at a hotel.” Riley said sourly. Hamilton put his fork down. 

“Riley, does this look like the right place to have this conversation?”

“You started it.” Riley pushed his plate away and got up. “Why don’t you tell them how many schools I’ve been thrown out of? You’ve told them just about everything else.”

Flynn was looking up, dark eyes unreadable. The sloe eyed guy looked frankly horrified. 

“Why don’t you calm down and have some dessert,” Paul said pacifically, putting out a hand to him. Riley stepped away, raising his hands out of Paul’s reach and heading to grab his trainers from the line of shoes. 

“Four. The total’s four. Now you can get the sympathy you’re looking for on how rotten a son you’ve got.”

“I’m sorry,” he heard his father start to say wearily behind him as he ran down the steps, and Philip’s quiet voice saying, 

“Let him go James, and finish your meal.”

It was getting dark outside, and it was chilly. Riley headed down the yard and across the long stretch of grass to the shadowy forms of the horses in the corral, and climbed the fence, disappearing among them to bury himself in the soft, velvet hide of Gator’s neck. The big gelding stood placidly, snuffling at his hair while Riley silently clung to him, holding his breath to make sure nothing slipped out that shouldn’t. 

He sat there in the corral with them for hours as it got darker and darker, his back against the fence post, mindlessly breathing in their movement, their sounds, the large bodies grazing around him. He was cold right through when he heard the New Zealand accent from the corral gate, low and quiet. 

“Riley?”


In this much darkness, if he didn’t speak or move he wouldn’t be seen. And yet there was something about Flynn that wasn’t ignorable. Particularly if you liked him, and if he’d stepped in and defended you as if he thought you were worth defending. 

Riley hesitated a second, running a sleeve over his face to make sure any incriminating evidence was obliterated, and got up. 

“....yeah.”
“Come on in now. It’s cold out here.”


“I’m ok.” 

Flynn’s answer was blunt. “Now.”

Riley came unwillingly to the fence and Flynn stood back for him to climb over. Angry, bitterly embarrassed, Riley kept his head down and walked ahead of him towards the porch. The light was off in the kitchen and Flynn put a hand on his shoulder as they took their boots off, steering him towards the living room. 

There was no tv in the room. The Puerto Rican looking guy, Paul and Jake were on the floor around the table by the hearth, playing what looked like ludo. Riley’s father was sitting in an armchair opposite Philip who appeared to be watching the game, both of them cradling crystal glasses of some amber fluid. Riley’s father glanced up, gave Riley a grim look and pointedly turned his attention back to the conversation. 

Wishing he was anywhere but here, Riley grabbed a book from the nearest bookcase and curled up in the far window seat, discovering that if you leaned back you could mostly disappear behind the curtain. And against the cold of the glass, he went on thinking the same bitter things he’d thought about in the corral. 

When the clock struck ten, Philip raised his eyebrows at Darcy, who got up and said goodnight, heading upstairs to bed. Paul began to clear the cups and glasses, carrying them into the kitchen. Flynn glanced at his watch and got up too, looking to Philip. 

“I’m going to turn in, sir. Is there anything else you need?”


“No thank you, Flynn. We start the day pretty early here, so we keep early hours.” Philip added mildly to Hamilton, who nodded. 

“It’s fine, I’ll work in my room and get the rest of those figures.”

Flynn, passing the window seat, edged slightly to look around the curtain and past the long jeaned legs, and saw Riley’s eyes closed, his head against the glass. 

“That kid’s what, fifteen?” he said under his breath to Paul in the kitchen. Paul looked towards the family room, grimacing.

“Why?”


“He’s asleep in there. That child was on a plane at 5am, he’s spent the day with total strangers. Hamilton hasn’t bothered to see where he is all day, what he’s been doing or if he’s all right, never mind that he didn’t eat worth a damn tonight and he’s exhausted.”

“Where did you find him?” Paul asked softly. Flynn grunted. 

“Where I expected. Sitting out in the corral. It was too damn cold to leave the kid out there, and Hamilton clearly wasn’t going to look for him.”

“Philip suggested he let him go.”


“Yes, for ten minutes to calm down. Not for two hours in a strange place.” Flynn said shortly. 

Hamilton’s voice in the family room was low and brusque, they heard it through the open door. 

“Riley. Riley. Take your book upstairs, they want to go to bed now.”


Paul put a hand on Flynn to stop the silent growl and went into the family room, giving a friendly smile to Hamilton and trying not to wince at a barely awake Riley. 

“Mr Hamilton, can I bring you a drink upstairs? Tea?”

“Coffee would be great please.” Hamilton put a hand behind Riley’s head, propelling him not unkindly towards the stairs. “We’ll get out of your way.”

“I’ll take Riley a snack up.” Paul said quietly to Flynn, going back into the kitchen, “Stop glaring at Hamilton. You’re the psychologist here, you get this better than we do. Are you and Jas going prowling?” 

Why he bothered to ask, he didn’t know. It was a crisp night. Clear. And Flynn was annoyed. It was the kind of night they roamed for miles once everyone else was in bed and they had the land to themselves. Alone in the kitchen with him, aware of his tension, Paul snatched a fast, quiet kiss, running a hand down his face. 

“Be careful. I’ll see you later.”


*


Riley wasn’t sure of the time when he woke. He’d been aware of heeling off jeans and dropping down on the bed in the dark, but not much more. Now he was cold, and his stomach was growling, and he sat up realising he hadn’t even climbed under the covers or cleaned his teeth. He fumbled for the bedside light and winced on the light as he snapped it on and found his watch. It was a little after 3am. A plate and mug stood on top of the chest of drawers and Riley crawled off the bed and got up to look. Milk and a wrapped parcel that when Riley unwrapped it, turned out to be cookies, large and thick and very good. Surprised at the consideration and grateful for it, Riley sat down on the bed to eat, eyes on the corral through the open window. The horses were dozing, stood still in the darkness. It was amazing to see horses out there in the dark. 

The bedroom door creaked softly and Riley looked up, shaken. It was Paul, in t shirt and shorts, hair rumpled, with those amazingly kind eyes. 

“Hey.” he said very softly. “I saw the light on. Are you ok?” 

“Hungry.” Riley lifted the cookie to show him. “These are good, did you leave them?”


“I thought you might get hungry. You didn’t undress, did you?” Paul came into the room, gently pulling him up off the bed and turning the covers down. “No wonder you woke up, it gets cold up here at night at this time of year. Go look in the linen cupboard on the landing, there’s some t shirts in there you can sleep in. And brush your teeth.”

Riley had a few times heard one of his friends’ mothers say this kind of stuff to them in this kind of ordinary voice, but it was very different when it was said directly to you, not by someone’s mom but from a man. He found himself giving Paul a rather twisted smile and going out onto the landing, still finishing the cookie. There were a few very large t shirts on a shelf in the linen cupboard, ironed and neatly folded, and large enough to cover Riley to mid thigh. He changed into one and brushed his teeth in the bathroom, rinsing away the last of the taste of the sugar. His stomach was no longer growling. Paul was waiting in his room and lifted back the bedcovers as if he was much younger than fifteen. 

“Settle down and get back to sleep. I’ll call you around seven for breakfast if you’re going out with Flynn.”

Riley did as Paul clearly expected him to and climbed under the covers, aware of the firmness of the hands that tucked him in and the one that brushed over his hair, pushing it back from his forehead. There was nothing feminine about it. It was strong and very kind, and it warmed Riley more than the sugar of the cookies. 
“Goodnight.” Paul said softly and snapped the bedside light out. He pulled the door softly to as he left, and Riley  heard his footfall move down the landing, back to his own room. 

He was in the habit of falling asleep in front of the tv, at one time with school work open around him, although he’d given up on that months ago. It was a very different feeling to be changed ready for bed, to be under covers in a quiet room, in a quiet house, with the knowledge too that just a few doors away was Paul. And Flynn. That was a surprisingly secure feeling. Riley turned over so he could see out of the window over the dark corral and the outlines of the horses. Philip was insane. Who would ever bother with corporates or finance with fields of beautiful horses just outside?



He was woken by the smell of bacon and bread, and a cacophony of snorts and whinnies outside. Riley turned over, for a moment not sure where he was, then his heart lifted with a bound and he grabbed for the end of the bed to look out of the window. The older man with the steel grey hair was walking down the yard, shaking something briskly in a bucket and the horses in the corral were crowding together at the fence and calling to him. It was a bright morning already, the sky was blue overhead and the sun was casting long shadows down towards the house and over the horses. 

Grabbing for his jeans, Riley dressed fast and ran downstairs. The shower was running as he passed the bathroom, and downstairs the table was set for breakfast. Paul was frying something in a large skillet and looked up to smile at him. 

“Good morning. You’re up early.”


“I heard the horses.” Riley stuffed his feet into his sneakers and Paul looked through the window, apparently unsurprised at the grey haired man disappearing into a crowd of horses. 

“Go and see. This is what Philip calls his good manners session.”

Stood in the middle of the corral, Philip had disappeared almost entirely from view. Surrounded, there were some barging and snorting and a few nips going on between the horses who were pressing close around him, and as he reached the fence Riley could hear Philip’s deep, quiet voice, conversational and quite firm. 

“...now wait. Blaze, please refrain from biting Gator, we take turns here. Cricket, keep your feet to yourself. Better.”

He was feeding a palmful of oats to each horse in turn from the bucket hung over his arm, and somehow the horses were not simply sticking their noses into the bucket to help themselves, but were waiting for the most part patiently, like a bunch of eager kindergarteners. He glanced up and smiled at Riley as Riley climbed up on the fence to see better,  letting Gator lick up the last oats and rubbing his ears. 

“Good morning. Blaze, thank you for waiting.”

Blaze eagerly stuck his nose in the palmful of oats he was offered, and Philip reprovingly tapped Cricket’s nose as it edged towards the bucket. 

“Excuse me, we’ll have some decorum here.”


“If I had horses like this,” Riley said frankly, saying the thought he’d fallen asleep on, “I’d never do anything else but be out here with them.”


“Wouldn’t you?” Philip appeared to think that was a perfectly sensible comment. He fed the last of the handful to Blaze and took out another handful, turning to Cricket. 
“What do you think of my babies? The yearlings there. I breed eventers and polo horses. Speed, skill and stamina.”


“They’re beautiful.” 

One of the geldings suddenly reared up, pawing at a companion who had pushed in ahead of him, and there was a sudden mass of huge, wheeling bodies that raised high up over Philip’s head. Riley saw Philip put the bucket behind his back and his hand landed on the haunch of first one of the massive geldings and then the other in a brisk smack that a horse that size could barely have felt, but the fight broke up instantly. The horses backed off and settled down, gathering closely around him, and Philip shook his head, sounding grave. 

“Disgraceful. How utterly disgraceful. What a shocking exhibition, and in front of visitors too.”

The horses stood quietly, Riley knew he was imagining it but heads almost appeared to be being hung, and several of the horses were whiffling at Philip’s trousers and back.  Riley grinned, near to laughing, and the man glanced up at him, eyes twinkling. 

“If you are quite ready?” he told the horses and opened his hand once again to Cricket, giving him the rest of the oats. He was dressed in riding breeches again, old fashioned and immaculate. 

“You rode Cricket yesterday?” he said to Riley as Cricket lipped the last of the oats up. “Flynn said you were very good with him.”


“I tried Gator too. I liked his gait, he transitions beautifully.”

“He reminds me of an old English war horse.” Philip glanced up and smiled at Riley, offering the next palmful to the heavy shouldered Nero. “I’m very fond of Gator, but then I have a great soft spot for heavy horses. My partner bought me my first Shire horse from England, years ago, and we interbred her with the Clysdales. I’ve always had four or five of the heavy horses, they’re by far my favourite to ride. They look heavy and clunky to you? They’re actually light and responsive, and excellent jumpers.”


“Slow.” Flynn said bluntly from the fence. Philip shook his head. 

“Flynn is the speed demon of the family. Don’t let him deceive you Riley, he does know a good horse as well as merely a fast one.”


Flynn gave Philip a brief grin, but said, “Paul says it’s breakfast time, sir, and Mr Hamilton is asking for you.”  

“Thank you Flynn.”

Philip scattered the rest of the oats across the ground of the corral and climbed the fence with more ease than Riley would have expected from a man his age. He dropped a hand on Flynn’s shoulder as he walked, and Riley reflected on the accents and how an American man had a son with a broad New Zealand accent. Perhaps his grandson? Or grandsons? Flynn and Jake might be cousins, and possibly even cousins of the Puerto Rican boy. They all had the same good manners, they all spoke to Philip with the same respect and they were clearly a close family. Riley felt a brief swell of envy in his stomach for that casual intimacy of Philip’s hand on Flynn’s shoulder as if Flynn belonged to him, and for the wonderful masculinity and calmness of this household.  

A cooked breakfast was set out on the table in the kitchen, and Riley’s father glanced up as they came in, eating from a full plate. 

“Good grief. You’re not usually dressed before lunchtime.”

“Not usually a reason to be.” Riley said shortly, sitting down. Paul passed him a dish of sausages and over easy eggs. 

“Tuck in, you’re going to get hungry if you’re working with Flynn.”

Jake raised his eyebrows at Paul, who found his long legs under the table and kicked him firmly. Jake grinned but kept his mouth shut. 


“Hard work isn’t something we know much about.” Hamilton said sardonically. “Is it Riley? Playing around on a horse isn’t exactly the same thing.”


“Around here it’s considered the main way to earn a living.” Flynn said brusquely, spearing a bagel from the basket with his fork. 

Philip, seated at the head of the table, quietly took a bagel from the basket without comment and picked up his butter knife, slicing it neatly in half. Flynn, who had torn his own bagel in half as roughly as he sounded, glanced towards him and after a minute, laid it down on his plate and picked up his knife to cut and butter it. 

“Have you ever ridden, James?” Philip asked Hamilton, who winced. 

“No. I’m not comfortable around animals, never have been. If you wouldn’t mind, perhaps you’ll excuse me to make some calls before we start work? I’ll check the figures we were waiting for last night.”


“By all means, do use the study.” Philip invited. Hamilton got up without a word, already pulling his filofax out of his pocket. Angry beyond bearing, Riley murmured an ‘excuse me’ in the direction of Philip and Paul, got up and stalked after his father. He caught up with him in the family room. Hamilton, thumbing through the filofax, didn’t look up. 

“Riley, I’m going to be busy.”


“You’re always busy.” Riley said sharply in an undertone. “You’ve got no manners either, this is someone’s home, not a damn hotel. You don’t even know how to behave at a mealtime unless it’s in a restaurant with a client!”


“And you do?” Hamilton demanded. Riley snorted. 

“No, you’ve never taught me how, but at least I know what’s plain rude.”  

“Is that all you wanted to talk about?” Hamilton said wearily, “Because if you’re determined not to be in school, then you have to accept that I need to work and you can’t look to me to entertain you.”


“You’d have still brought me out here whether I was at school or not, and found someone to dump me on. You always have done.” Riley said sharply. “And you had no idea what school was like.”


“I’ve spent hours in your various schools listening to people telling me about what it’s like trying to teach you, Riley, we’ve spent hours fighting about it and it gets us nowhere. I need to work this morning. It’s called earning a living and being responsible, and it’s something you’re going to at some point have to learn how to do.”


“From  you?” 

“Since I’m paying for your lifestyle, yes.” Hamilton said shortly. “Do you think you’re ever going to get into a college now with the permanent record you’ve got? What do you think you’re going to do with yourself? Who’s going to pay for you to hang around riding stables all day with no qualifications, too damn lazy to get out of bed in the mornings or to change your clothes? How much flunking can one person do? If you’re going to tell me you’re ashamed of my manners Riley, you need to realise that I’m ashamed of you.”

He knew the look he was getting; he’d seen it less often recently but even now that Riley was nearer his height and the bones in his face were stronger, his eyes less wide than they’d once been, it still reminded him of his wife and it still hurt. Sighing, he laid down his pen, rubbed his eyes, aware their voices had risen. 


“Riley....”

Riley backed away from him, spun on his heel and Hamilton heard him run upstairs. 

In the kitchen, the five younger men around the table were very still. Philip got up unhurriedly, folding his newspaper and putting a hand on Flynn’s shoulder as he passed him.  

“Paul, perhaps you’d see if there’s anything that Riley needs? Gentlemen, finish your breakfast please.”



Riley was sitting rigidly on the edge of his unmade bed, very pale but quiet. Paul shut the door softly behind him, too familiar with that kind of tension and expression not to recognise it, even in so young a face. He sat down on the edge of the bed and put his arm around Riley’s shoulders, and Riley shivered all over. Paul pulled gently, feeling the boy crack and Riley collapsed against him. He was at the leggy stage, all elbows and knees, awkward like Philip’s colts outside in the pasture, and once he broke, he clung around Paul’s waist like a kid. Paul stroked the shock of bright hair, combing his fingers through it soothingly, and hugged the rather raw and bony shoulders that were in the process of filling out.  Not the oldest fifteen year old Paul had ever met, although Riley wasn’t by any means immature – it was more a frankness about him that was young for his age and very disarming. When he was interested in something or he smiled, his whole face lit up. When he was knocked back, the hurt was so apparent it wasn’t easy not to step in and do something about it, and they’d seen him knocked back a few times since he arrived, publicly. Paul, aware that in Flynn lay fierce protective instincts, thought this young man had hit a few of Flynn’s buttons good and hard in the last twenty four hours, and he understood why. 

“Do you get this gorgeous hair from your mother?” he asked after a long time when Riley was no longer gulping so hard. Riley shrugged a little, awkwardly. 

“I guess so. She died when I was six.”

“I was about your age when I lost my mom.” Paul smoothed his hair back from his eyes. “I don’t think there’s any age it isn’t terrible.”


“I don’t remember her that much.” Riley took a deep, shuddering breath, not ready to let go, and grateful that Paul wasn’t giving any indication that it was time to. 

“I’m sorry about the yelling, me and my dad kind of fight a lot.”

“Mhm.” Paul said quietly and uncritically. Riley took another breath. He didn’t remember the last time someone had held him like this and it felt good. Really good. 

“He’s not a bad person,” he said unsteadily. “He’s really not. And a lot of what he says about me is true, I make him a lot of work.”


“I think that goes with the territory of being fifteen.” Paul said gently. 

The kid gave him a kind of half smile, tearstained, which on a boy his age, half man, half child, went to Paul’s heart. He felt for a handkerchief and gave it to the boy, watching him sit up and scrub his face. This kid was resilient; even knocked down, he picked himself up fast, and without bitterness, and it spoke of a strength of character that was eye catching in a boy this age.  

“Why don’t we,” he said gently, “Make your bed, and get you some breakfast, and you go catch up with Flynn? He’s waiting for you and I think you’d really like to spend today riding.”

He got an awkward nod, and the kid got up, roughly but willingly pulling at the covers on the bed. No idea how to make one; that fit with what Paul thought. Laundry maids, hotel suites, not much actual domestic life for a kid this age. He stripped the blankets back, demonstrating how to pull the sheets straight and the boy took the covers on the other side, imitating him clumsily, and they made the bed together. 


*


The dark haired man was with Flynn, waiting alongside three tacked up horses in the yard, and Flynn turned as Riley came to join them as if breakfast time and shouting had never happened.  

“Hey. All set? You need a hat.”


“I don’t usually ride with a hat, it’s fine.” Riley started to say, and laughed, fending Flynn off as he pulled off his own Stetson and swiped him with it. 

“Hat. Go on.”

Resignedly Riley ran back up the porch steps and grabbed one of the Stetsons, pulling it on before he came back to Flynn, flicking the brim. 

“Hat.”


Flynn gave him one of his brief grins and handed the reins over. 

“Your street cred matters less than sunstroke, trust me. Jasper’s coming with us.”


“A lot of fences to look at.” Jasper gave Riley a warm smile, swinging up in to Nero’s saddle. He was about Flynn’s age, young enough that it didn’t feel like having a grown up coming with them, and his smile was as attractive as the friendship he obviously had with Flynn. Riley mounted Gator, with some effort as the horse was big, but the gelding’s solidity was calming and Riley automatically found his balance, lightening his touch on the reins as Gator needed very little prompting. He found his eyes lingering on Flynn mounting Blaze. He did it so easily, sat so effortlessly, his hands were skilled on the reins and he moved like part of the horse. 

Jasper was chattier than Flynn. From him, Riley heard a lot about the work on a ranch as they rode through herds of cattle and sheep that stretched out over miles of pasture. Across a wide, fast flowing river that Gator placidly waded through, and along miles of wire fence. Jasper and Flynn cut and twisted wire easily, mending and replacing, rocking or digging fence posts back into position together, and they taught Riley how to do it along with them. How to separate the wires back to the barb, how a fence post properly seated shouldn’t move with a man’s full weight against it.  The knack of it was easy to catch, and he was too young to see Flynn watching him, or Jasper watching Flynn. 

“I was raised to believe a child needs four things.” Jasper said much later, when it was dark, when they were alone together by the river. Flynn skipped another stone across the water, listening.  Jasper crouched down on the grass beside him, thinking of the old man who had taught him fifteen years ago in the woods of Virginia. 

“The most crucial one being belonging. Connecting and being part of, being close to, shared loyalty. I suppose that’s what many boys are seeking in friendships, even in gangs and cults if there isn’t enough of it at home.”

“And the others?” Flynn asked him. Jasper linked his hands between his knees. 

“Accomplishment of real, meaningful skills, real achievements without competitiveness. Then responsibility, a person that can value for themselves the right thing to do whether or not you are there– and reciprocation. The ability to recognise the needs of others and to fulfil them.” 

“I probably managed one out of those four at Riley’s age.” Flynn said shortly. Jasper looked at him, knowing a very few, very sparse facts of the sheep station in New Zealand where Flynn had grown up. It was something Flynn avoided speaking of, even to him and Paul. Flynn sent another stone across the surface of the water. 

“I think that’s close to Philip’s philosophy though.”


“From a science point of view,” Jasper said softly. “What do you see in Riley?” 

He glanced up at the figure crossing the pasture towards them, a torch low in his hand. Flynn didn’t look round but he moved over, making space for Paul between them and Paul leaned on his shoulder to sit down on the damp rocks overlooking the river. It was cold out here tonight. Their breath steamed in front of them over the water. 

“It’s more to the point what I see in Hamilton.” Flynn threw the last stone, skimming it sharply. “How many times have you heard the word ‘nuisance’ since he’s been here? It gets into conversations about Riley, to Riley. That word has a lot of inferences. Trouble. A worry. An interruption.”

Jasper nodded slowly. Flynn brushed off his hands. 

“I’m lousy at family therapy, I’m biased against authoritarian parent figures before I start. Not a good person to ask.”

“You’d call Hamilton authoritarian?” Paul said darkly. “I don’t think he’s shown any authority at all. Bullying maybe. He starts in on Riley the minute he lays eyes on him, they’re having the same fight. They just pick up wherever they left off the last time.”

 Flynn grunted. “He tells Riley his expectations, constantly. Don’t forget that you’re lazy. You’re in the way. You’re a failure. Makes me wonder what he’s afraid Riley’s going to say or do if he lets him get away from the script.” 

He had the power sometimes to flip a situation so entirely with a few words that you saw it from a whole new angle. Paul, burrowed deep into the raised collar of his jacket since neither Jasper nor Flynn would notice or care that it was freezing out here, pulled his gloved hands inside his sleeves and considered. 

“I wonder what Philip brought Hamilton out here for?”


Not purely for business if Paul knew Philip. There would be something about Hamilton that had caught Philip’s eye, a reason he wanted to bring the man out here, and it would be something that lay in Hamilton that Philip thought was worthwhile. They weren’t involved in the business consultancy work that Philip carried out, and these kind of businessmen came and left without their ever knowing much about what went on in the study, but there was a look to Philip that Paul knew when he’d met an exec he thought he could do something for, and Philip was good at getting those men to stay a few days at the ranch with them. Sometimes for a rest, sometimes for the chance to talk with them, sometimes to quietly steer them back towards a safer course, and often no one in the house but Philip would ever know what was said or what took place. In his own way, he was as elusive as David had been, with his treasures stuffed in even more inaccessible places.  

Aware that neither Jasper nor Flynn cared for Hamilton and hadn’t answered, Paul changed the subject, looking across at Flynn. 

“I heard you put Riley up on Cricket. Bareback.”


Cricket being a horse that Paul wouldn’t have been comfortable to ride himself fully tacked, frankly honest that he didn’t have the skill or the knowledge, and knowing that Flynn took no risks with either people or horses, that said a lot. 

“Yes. He’s good.” Flynn dug in the grass for more stones. “Real, raw talent, although I doubt Hamilton knows it. You could teach Riley to be an exceptional horseman. Keen to learn too.”

“How bad was he when you went up to him this morning?” Jasper said softly. Paul winced. 

“He was crying. No sulks and he pulled himself round amazingly fast, I admired how fast. Just – sad. Almost a tired kind of sad.”


“I think with Riley what you see is what you get.” Flynn said shortly. “It’s all up front. If he’s interested, if he’s excited he doesn’t act, he shows it straight out. If he’s mad, he tells you. Maybe it’s the honesty that Hamilton finds threatening.”


“He defended his father to me.” Paul told him. “Told me he was hard work, and Hamilton isn’t a bad man. I get the impression at one time they got along well, although it’s involved Riley getting very good at being by himself while Hamilton works. I suppose it must have been quite an exciting life for a young child, travelling all over the place, hotels and planes, and Hamilton’s obviously always wanted Riley with him. It would have been easy enough for a rich man to set up a household somewhere with staff, and pay them to do the raising.”

That was compassionate of Paul, who understood people’s motives at a very instinctive level, and Flynn gave him a short nod, understanding and setting aside his own bias. 

“True.”

“Which works fine until the kid gets old enough to want a life of his own, and some control over it.” Jasper commented. He’d lifted his head. Flynn followed his gaze, searching the darkness in the direction of the paddocks. 


“What?”

“Someone over by the Clysdales.” Jasper said quietly. “Not Darce or Jake.”

They knew who. Paul started to move, but Flynn dropped the last few  stones and got up. “I’ll go.”



The big gelding called Nape was cropping grass, and rolled a suspicious eye at Riley, the whites flashing in the dark. Riley leaned quietly on the top fence rail, watching him. The gelding’s near forefoot was tilted up as he stood to graze, the angle of it made Riley look twice, and then as Nape took a few steps forward, it was unmistakable. He limped on the forefoot, touching it to the grass as little as possible. 

Riley climbed the fence, watching closely, then lowered himself into the paddock and went slowly to the horse, hand outstretched, murmuring to him quietly. The horse gave him a wary look, but apart from a few nervous side steps, when Riley stooped and tugged, patting his hock, he submitted his foot up into Riley’s hands and stood quietly. The stone was immediately obvious. Small, sharp and lodged against his hoof, it was going to work itself deeper if it was left there. Without a knife to hand, Riley dug in his pocket for a coin and levered the edge under the stone, jerking it loose and pocketing it rather than risk it being picked up again. There was no bruising and the cob didn’t flinch as he checked the hoof gently, still murmuring to the big animal.  He was surprised by the quiet voice in a strong New Zealand accent that came from nearby.  

“Riley, let him go carefully and watch for him kicking out.”


Flynn had climbed the fence and had one hand out towards the cob’s nose in restraint, stiff in a way that Riley recognised. Moving slowly, he let the cob’s foot go and edged back, abashed. 


“I’m really sorry. He was limping and I just looked without thinking, I didn’t mean to interfere with-”

The gelding abruptly wheeled, rear hooves lashing out at Flynn. Flynn didn’t move an inch and Riley saw as Nape spun that both Flynn and Nape knew he was too far away – it was a gesture, a threat rather than an attack, and head high, Nape cantered towards the bottom of the paddock, squealing. Flynn still stood quietly where he was, not moving.  It was a show of strength for the horse that demonstrated a courage and confidence – and a empathy for Nape – that Riley deeply admired. This guy knew and cared about his horses. 

“It wasn’t Nape I was worried about.” Flynn said to Riley as if he’d just done nothing special. “We call him Napalm for a reason. He’s kicked Philip once, and we’ve both had several near misses.” 

And it took even Philip effort and time to get close enough to handle Napalm. Flynn swallowed again on the image of this skinny kid holding Napalm’s forefoot, right under his nose, fearless, and Napalm, who shivered if anyone entered his paddock, standing like a rock. The first time Flynn had laid eyes on Riley he had been standing at Napalm’s fence, moving with deliberate slowness, averting his eyes with an instinctive skill that would have been intriguing in an adult, never mind a kid. 

“Philip found him in a yard.” he went on, still not moving to let Napalm get a good look at him and learn a bit more that some men could be predictable and trustworthy. “A lot of machinery, tractors, all sorts of things making loud noise and moving around all hours of the day and night. Nape was up to his hocks in mud and by himself, pretty much left wild.”


If Flynn had to guess, several of the machinery operators had enjoyed a game of making the gelding rear and run, and the gelding was used to being frightened all the time. He could see Riley understanding what he was saying, his eyes assessing on the horse, his body language quiet, understated. He’d walked right under Napalm’s shields, maybe helped by Nape not seeing in him the adult men he’d learned to be afraid of. Moving slowly, Flynn walked towards the fence and climbed it, and Riley followed him. Flynn waited for him on the other side, glancing at his watch. 

“It’s past midnight. What are you doing out here?” 

Riley gave him a faint shrug. “I just wanted to watch the horses.” 

It was obvious that the kid didn’t want him; he’d come out here to be alone. Flynn walked as far as the Clysdales and leaned on the fence, tipping his Stetson back to watch the big horses quietly cropping grass in the darkness. Riley leaned against the fence beside him for a while, then sat down on the lowest rail. Elbows on his knees, head down, shoulders hunched as if he was cold. And he said nothing. Flynn waited, leaving him the space and the quiet to talk, and finally sat down on the wet grass which put his head lower than the kid’s and made Riley look down at him. 

“Are you going to tell me?”

“What?” Riley muttered. 

Flynn made himself comfortable on the grass. “Why someone your age, who needs a lot of sleep, would rather spend the night out here by himself?”

“I like horses.”


Flynn didn’t answer, waiting. Riley folded his arms and put his head down on them. 

“Riley.” Flynn said eventually. “Try me.”


“With what?”


Flynn didn’t answer. Riley finally let go a tight, ragged breath without lifting his head. 

“I don’t want to talk to you.”


“Yes you do.” Flynn said bluntly. “You’re desperate to talk to someone. I’m here and I’m listening, and I’m in no hurry.”


Silence. Riley’s shoulders were high, hunched up around his ears. 

“How do the horses help?” Flynn asked after another period of silence. Riley shrugged slightly. 

“I don’t know. I don’t have to think around them.”


“When do you have to think?” 

Silence. The kid’s shoulders were getting so stiff they were in danger of dislocating. 
Ok, they needed to go about this more indirectly. 

Flynn kept his eyes on Riley, his tone casual. “When was the last time you were in school?” 

“’Bout six months ago.” Riley said stiffly through his arms. 

“Do you miss it?”

No.” Riley twisted his head slightly to look at him. “You heard me say I’d been thrown out of four.”


“How did that happen?”

“Mostly I got in a lot of fights.” Riley gave him a slightly challenging look, taking another ragged breath. “What? You don’t think I look the type?”

Flynn shook his head. “No. I was thinking that about three years ago I got suspended from college, my first year, for a fight where I hurt the other guy a lot more than I meant to.” 

Riley lifted his head, properly, and Flynn saw the sincere shock and the compassion in the kid’s face.  

“What was it about?” Riley said tentatively after a moment. Flynn shrugged. 

“Not what I thought it was about at the time. Mostly I was angry, about a lot of stuff I’d been angry about for a long time, and the other guy got in my way. I still regret it. A lot.”

“I didn’t start any of the ones I got into.” Riley said softly. “Or not as in threw the first punch. I hate school. The last few I was kind of braced and ready from the day I went in. The principal in the last one said I walked around looking for fights. I didn’t mean to.”


Flynn nodded slowly. “Hard to wander into a class of strangers for a few months and know you’re going to be walking out again soon.” 

Especially at this age, with the hormones running high, and competitiveness at its worst among the boys especially. 

“Yeah.” Riley said quietly. “... it wasn’t just that.”

On instinct Flynn put a hand out and brushed the kid’s face. His jaw was still smooth, the bones starting to square out. 

“What’s this bad, Riley?”

The touch brought tears to the kid’s eyes. He saw it before Riley pulled away. 

“I saw you and Jasper.” Riley said raggedly. “By the river today. I saw.”


It wasn’t an accusation. 

He and Jasper had been apart from the kid maybe two minutes at the most, but in a split second Flynn knew exactly when he meant. The kid had disappeared into the wood to answer a call of nature while the horses drank in the shallows of the river. For two minutes Flynn held the reins of Riley’s horse as well as his own, and all Riley could have seen was the same casual conversation he’d been a part of all day, and Jasper who put his arm around Flynn’s neck and kissed him fleetingly as he led Nero up the bank towards the pasture, thinking they were alone. Seconds. Just seconds, but plenty to sear onto a sensitive mind. 

Flynn’s eyes softened and he knew what was coming, even before the kid said it. Softly, hopefully. 

“Are you gay? Is he?” 

“Yeah.” Flynn said gently. 

That was it. He saw the tears start, and slowly shifted over on the grass to sit beside Riley, putting an arm over his shoulders. Riley buried his face in his arms for long time, and Flynn sat with him, rubbing the shoulder under his hand. It took him a long time to cry himself out, and there was more relief in it than grief. 

“....I am.” Riley said eventually, very quietly. “I never met anyone else who was before.”


“You haven’t talked to your dad about it?” Flynn asked, knowing the answer. Of course not. That was quite possibly a part of what Hamilton was trying so hard not to hear from Riley. 

“No.” Riley said heavily, but the words were coming more easily now. “I think people guessed at school. Or maybe I just got worried that they did, I don’t know.”

“And that’s what stopped you going to school?” 

“Some.” Riley sniffed and wiped his face on his sleeve, and Flynn knew there was more there than Riley was ready to talk about yet. “I was failing everything anyway.”


“Moving from school to school all the time and going to bed when you feel like it, I’m not surprised.” Flynn told him. “I don’t know anyone could succeed that way.”

“I guess I’m not so academic.” Riley said offhandedly in a way that told Flynn he’d been convinced of it for some time. He shook his head, wondering how any kid, transferring rapidly between states and curriculums, managed to make any kind of progress or avoid becoming totally discouraged. Or which teachers put effort into a kid passing through and soon to move on. 

“I can tell you’re a bright kid. I don’t know how many kids your age can ride like you can, or know how to handle horses.”


“My Dad doesn’t see career prospects in horses.” Riley wiped his face again, more thoroughly, but his surprise and his pleasure in the praise was obvious.  “I think I was supposed to be good at finance, like him, and I really suck at math. Does – I don’t mean to be personal, but does Philip know about you and Jasper? Have you ever told him?”

“He knows.” Flynn said very gently. “He built up this ranch with his partner. I never met David, he died before I came here, but he and Philip lived together the best part of thirty years.”

The kid’s eyes looked near to falling out, his mouth was open. “Philip’s.....?”

Flynn nodded, aware Riley’s mental ground had to be shifting fast. He’d had a similar experience himself not so many years ago when he first came here. When you were confronted with the reality of competent, normal men, actually desirable role models, it threw into reverse a good many of the worst fears you held about yourself. 

“Yes. So he’s always made the ranch a bit of a sanctuary. He’s good at making this a safe place for guys with nowhere else to go.”


“But you belong to him.” Riley blurted out eventually. “I thought you must be his grandson or something?” 


“Yeah, I’d say I belong to him.” Flynn said quietly. “But we’re not related. None of us are.”

There was a long silence while Riley digested that. 

“So what about you?” Flynn asked him. “Was there any boy you liked at any of your schools?”

Did that have any place in what’s blown your confidence apart?

Riley shook his head. 

“Liked – yeah, I guess. But Dad’s contracts change all the time, he’s a consultant so we’re always moving on. And it’s not like any guy would see anything in me, I’m not exactly normal by school standards.”

“Why?” Flynn gave the kid a curious glance. “I’d think you’ve been places most other kids won’t see in their lifetimes.”

“Yeah, that bit was fun when I was a kid.” Riley said lightly. 

“Two things.” Flynn said to him, quite firmly, as it was something he thought Riley needed to hear. “One, you are a kid. That’s a fact. Two, you’re going to need some sleep tonight.” 

“I’m going to be here maybe another day, maybe two?” Riley gave him a very frank look that was asking, not pleading. “Why would I want to be in bed when I can sit down here, in the middle of this, for maybe just one night more? If you were me, would you want to sleep?”

Flynn put a hand on his thick hair, ruffling it before he put a hand behind the kid’s head and pulled him to his feet. 

“Come out with me tomorrow and we’ll make the most of your time. Bed.”

Riley walked with him, reluctantly but in the direction of the house. 

“Flynn? What made you come out here from New Zealand?” 

“To study.” 

“But you stayed here? Do you plan on going back?” 

“No.”

Riley gave him a sideways, assessing look. 

“But your family is out there?” 

“We didn’t get along well.” Flynn said briefly. “Never did.”


“How old were you when you came out here?” 

“Nineteen. I got my US citizenship a while back.”


“Was any of why you left because you knew you were gay?” Riley said apologetically but with an urgency that wasn’t ignorable. “Did your family know?” 

“No, they didn’t.” Flynn told him quietly. “And yes, that was some of why.”

“And you just – got on a plane, and went to another country? Just like that?” Riley was walking sideways to see his face. Flynn dug his hands deeper into the pockets of his jacket. 

“I worked for and got a scholarship to a US college. I met Philip not long after that, and he helped a lot.”

“That must have been a really hard thing to do.” 

From the kid’s tone, he empathised a lot more deeply than Flynn had expected, and he was suspicious even before the kid admitted. 

“I’ve – tried walking out a few times. Nowhere special. Just clearing off, going.”


“To do what?” 

Riley shrugged, and Flynn thought of what Paul had described – a tired sadness. 

“I don’t know. Anything. I’m under age so I always get picked up and brought back. I’m not sure how hard I’ve really tried to do it well enough not to be caught.”

“At your age, good.” Flynn said bluntly. 

Riley gave him an uncomfortably straight forward look that was as insightful and unchildish as the way he handled a horse.  

“I’m not always going to be this age.”


*



The early morning frost left footprints on the grass and the horses' breath hung in the air, white steam against the still grey, early morning sky. Smoke rose from the chimneys of the house where Paul was cooking breakfast, and Philip strolled slowly down alongside the fence of the paddock, hands dug in his pockets, hat shading his eyes. He said nothing at all while Flynn finished saddling the horse, but he leaned against the gate which effectively prevented it being opened, and watched. There was no point whatever in asking him to move. Flynn unwillingly led the horse to the gate and stood there, forced to face him. Philip gave him a calm look from under the brim of his hat, pushing it back a little.
"Not hungry this morning?"


"No sir."


Philip didn't respond. He very often didn't, just looking at you with steady, grey eyes and waiting. And he'd wait hours, or even days if necessary. Flynn reeled in the leading rein with several abrupt yanks – or as abrupt as he could manage without spooking the horse – and kept his eyes on the frosty pastures beyond. After a while, Philip unlatched the gate and opened it a little. Enough for a man, not a horse. The inclination of his head said it all. Stifling a huff of exasperation, Flynn tied up the horse's reins and came through the gate, letting Philip latch it behind him. And without looking, Philip began to walk slowly up the line of paddocks, along the fence, towards the distant paddock where the big shires grazed. There was nothing to do except walk with him. Philip said nothing at all, hands deep in his pockets, eyes on the paddocks around them, the trees in the distance. It was impossible to be out here and not to feel the silence, interrupted only by the occasional baa of a sheep in the far distance, or the snort of a horse, or not to see the white smoke of their breath and the white mist that hung just above the frosted green grass, stirred by their boots, that meant that in a few hours, this cold would give way to a warm day. The grass crunched slightly as they walked, and they left clear footprints behind.


"I told Paul it was better I got out of the way before breakfast this morning." Flynn said eventually, and shortly. He was immediately aware his accent had thickened, as it did under stress, and he was irritably aware too that Philip would have noticed. Philip nodded slightly, not looking at him as they continued to walk.


"And this is about Hamilton."


Not a question. Flynn took a breath, trying not to explode.


"Did Paul tell you where I was last night?"


Philip glanced at him, one brow mildly raised. Flynn stopped on the grass, gripping his hands into fists in his coat pockets.


"That kid was out here half the night to be near the horses. It took long enough to get him to talk to me and longer still to get him back to the house in anything like a fit state to sleep – I won't be around Hamilton. I can't, not without telling him what I think of him."


"You like the boy." It wasn't a question, and mildly said. Flynn growled.


"He's a nice kid. He's damned good with animals, and they like him – the worst tempered ones we have stand still and let him do whatever he wants, he picked out Napalm's feet before I saw to warn him and Nape stood and let him like he was a child's pony. He's a bloody good rider. And he works hard; this crap from Hamilton about him being spoiled or good for nothing is pure bullshit, there's nothing lazy or unwilling about him. He's followed me around for two days and he's pitched in with everything I've done, he's glad to be doing and he's desperate for company and any shred of kindness – look how he responds to Paul for pete's sake! Looks to me like a classic school refusal."


"School refusal?"


They had reached the Clysdales’ paddock and Philip leaned on the fence, clicking softly to the big horses who looked up and eagerly came across the grass towards them.


"Something goes wrong at school which makes the whole place untenable to the kid." Flynn said shortly. "He's bright – maybe not academic, I don't know, but given something real to do with actual self esteem attached to it, he's a good worker and he's keen. I'd think something's gone wrong socially. Bullying, some kind of emotionally based problem, probably not helped by the fact Hamilton hawks him around from state to state every few months."


"What would you do?" Philip asked, taking several broken carrots from his pockets and feeding them to the two shires who lipped them from his hands, crunching noisily and snorting white breath over the fence rail.


"Get him doing something real. Physical, real responsibility, which tells him at the end of every day exactly what he's done and done well, that's solid self esteem. What he needs most is listening to and basic routine and care – Hamilton doesn’t even bloody tell him to go to bed. He's fifteen years old! What kind of damn security is there in that?" One of the Clysdales nudged hard at Flynn's shoulder, demanding the attention it was used to receiving, and Flynn took a step back to balance himself, then absently rubbed the massive nose. "He's a whole mess of emotion he doesn't know what to do with, it's spilling out all over the place and Hamilton calls that being 'difficult' or just plain 'teenaged'. Our stock gets more consideration than he gives that kid."


"And he's a kid worth the consideration." Philip said mildly. There was another long silence. Then Philip looked over at Flynn.


"What do you want to do?"


"Break Hamilton's face." Flynn said flatly.


Philip gave him a faint smile and Flynn eventually, unwillingly, returned it, leaning against the rail.


"All right, all right, I won't.  I promise. I want you to talk to Hamilton, sir. If he doesn't do something about that kid now, Riley will turn himself into the kind of mess Hamilton keeps telling him he is. Or he'll run away."


"You think that's a real possibility?" Philip said quietly. Flynn grunted.


"He told me he’s walked away several times, without a plan and the police have brought him back. Those are classic trial runs. I’d say yes he’s working up to a plan to do it for real. And he's gay. He told me last night. I'd guess I'm the first person he's said it out loud to. Hamilton doesn't know."


Which made a good looking, desperate teenaged boy twice as vulnerable. Philip pulled himself up off the rail, briefly grasping the nape of Flynn's neck as he did so. It was a familiar gesture of affection, one that Flynn had always been able to tolerate as relatively non invasive, and he knew what Philip meant by it.


"Come back to the house and eat breakfast." Philip said firmly, and started to walk with the calm expectation that Flynn would come with him. 


*


“What does that do?” 

Riley glanced up, about to get down off the porch rail as Philip leaned on it beside him. Flynn and Jasper were finishing breakfast, after which Riley hoped very much they would stick with Flynn’s offer last night of letting him ride out with them. His father’s work was always unpredictable but Riley figured at most it would be another day. Maybe two. He lifted the gameboy for Philip to see. 

“Just an electronic thing. I wasn’t really playing it.”


“May I?” Philip took it, raising his eyebrows at the screen and leaning on the rail to put his thumbs over the buttons. “What do I do?”

“That’s Tetris.” Riley activated it for him. “You turn the tetrads like this and drop them where you want them to make a solid line – if you do it disappears. You have to clear ten lines to get to the next level.”


“Very mathematical.” Philip leaned on the rail and watched the shapes move in response to the jabs of his fingers. “How does it end?”

“You win if you get to level 15. I’ve never gotten past 10.”


From the sound of it, that was more due to lack of interest than of skill. 

“I called Hiroshi, he’ll phone the figures through in an hour.” Riley’s father said, coming out onto the porch with a cup of coffee in his hand. “Which gives us time to look at the statistics for the other plant.”

He glanced at Riley, taking a swallow of the coffee. 

“Riley, don’t go far today. We might be done this afternoon, or it might be tomorrow, I don’t know, but it might be that I call the plane for late this afternoon.”


“I’m not going.” Riley slid down off the rail with a rather audible thump but he said it very definitely. His father frowned, pausing where he stood. 

“You’re not going where?”


“I’m staying here. When you go, I’m staying here.”

Riley was aware of a silence that went across the porch and all the way into the kitchen where the clink of china had stopped. In the kitchen, Paul, startled by the pragmatism in the kid’s voice, looked at Flynn. Flynn got up and went to the door, and Jasper moved with him, saying nothing but staying close to Flynn’s back. Hamilton and Riley were stood face to face on the porch, and Hamilton sounded explosive. 

“Rubbish.” 

Riley lifted his chin and looked him straight in the eye. He looked slightly shadowed around the eyes, as if he hadn’t slept much, but he’d obviously reached a decision during the night. 

“I’m sixteen tomorrow.”


That was something none of them had known. 

“That’s not a legal majority.” Hamilton said shortly, “And we’re not discussing this now.” 

Riley shook his head, unshaken. “It’s not a legal majority. But it’s old enough to work. And it’s getting old enough that the cops won’t make me go with you if I don’t want to.”


There was a lot of embarrassment on Hamilton’s face, he was getting very red and the suppressed anger in his voice was starting to escape. 

“Riley, this is ridiculous even for you! You can’t just decide you’re going to stay anywhere! You can’t just inform Philip you’re planting yourself on him!” 

“James,” Philip said conversationally, “Why don’t we go inside and discuss it?”


“I’ll work.” Riley told Philip. “I’ll do any work you want.”

“You’ve never done a day’s work in your life!” Hamilton snapped.


“He’s done two days work with me and he’s worked hard.” Flynn said grimly from the doorway. “Someone who can handle horses is valuable out here.”


“Please, sir.” Riley said to Philip, with his whole heart. “I’ll work hard, I swear I won’t be any trouble. If you won’t have me then I’ll look for work on another ranch around here, somewhere with horses, but Dad, I won’t go with you anymore.”

There was a sudden movement as if Hamilton made a motion to cuff Riley, which Philip blocked by quietly putting up a hand to clasp Hamilton’s arm. In the doorway, Jasper swiftly gripped both of Flynn’s arms, and didn’t let go. Philip was holding Flynn’s eyes, and he lowered Hamilton’s raised arm gently, sounding very calm. 

“James, it’s quite all right. If you and Riley choose to consider this then Riley wouldn’t be the first ward I’ve been responsible for, and he’s quite right that there is always plenty of work on a ranch. Shall we go inside and discuss it?” 

“You’d actually think about it?” Hamilton demanded. 

Eyes on the humiliated, shocked businessman and the wild hope on the face of the boy beside him, Flynn moved aside at the discreet signal Philip gave him, and Jasper kept hold of his arms, his hands low and out of anyone else’s sight as Philip gently ushered Hamilton into the kitchen. 

“Of course I would, I own a horse ranch. Your son is a good horseman at a trainable age. He’s no stranger to me by virtue of being your son, and most boys of his age in this locality are working as well as studying. Most ranch families I know would be concerned about how you kept a boy of sixteen out of trouble without making sure he had plenty of work to occupy him. Riley, why don’t you come with us?”

Paul saw the look that Riley gave Flynn as he followed Philip, and Flynn’s jaw unclenched a little. He didn’t say anything but he freed a hand from Jasper’s restraint and Paul saw him run it down the kid’s back in the same way he soothed a horse. It seemed to help. Riley followed Philip, standing a little straighter, and if Paul was any judge of the kid’s jaw line which was not unlike Flynn’s, he had the same will that Flynn had once he’d made up his mind. 

The room that Philip led them to was the same one he and Riley’s father had been working in. Used to offices, and his father piling faxes and files all over whatever hotel room he turned into his work space, Riley was surprised that this room just looked like someone’s home. It was large and spacious. All four of the walls were shelved floor to ceiling with books, many of them leather bound, and a long, dark leather couch stood under the window. Two large, heavy and polished desks stood together with Admirals’ chairs behind them, and a dark red and gold rug lay on the wood floor. Files, neatly stacked in boxes, were against the wall, but there was no other evidence of work going on. 

Philip guided Riley towards the couch and took one of the Admirals’ chairs, letting Riley’s father take the other one. He’d shut the door behind them, and the room seemed very quiet. Orderly. Philip sat back in his chair sideways on to them, and leaned one elbow on the desk, giving Riley a steady and reassuring smile that made Riley unknot slightly, aware there was something this man was communicating over and above what he said aloud, and it wasn’t unlike the way he’d looked at Flynn outside. Be quiet now. Let me handle this. 

“Riley, we would be glad to have you here. But you need to know my terms of your staying.”

Hamilton, still apparently stunned, said nothing. Riley looked straight at Philip, on the very edge of the couch.   

“The first,” Philip said evenly, “Is that any young man I am responsible for will finish and graduate from school.  There are children in this area that live too far away to commute to school, particularly through the winter, but the high school in Jackson is used to working with students by supporting home study.”


“I’d have to do school work?” Riley asked, shocked. 


“Yes, you would do school work for a couple of hours every working day until you achieved a high school diploma.” Philip affirmed. “That is non-negotiable. The second condition is that I would expect you to work hard to further your education in all possible ways with regard to your riding, wrangling and horse management. Flynn and I would both be able to teach you, and it is a talent you can build on that will ensure career skills that will stand you in good stead for employment for the rest of your life.”


“Seriously?” Hamilton demanded as Riley’s mouth dropped open at the thought. Philip gave him a calm nod. 


“Most seriously. My final condition, and perhaps the most important one, is that I will accept you only as a ward under my guardianship, Riley. Not as an employer, but in loco parentis, guardianship assumed with your father’s permission. That means that I will expect to have the final say over where you go, what you do, your education and your responsibilities here, and for you to be accountable to me in the same way that you are to your father. You’d live and study here exactly as a member of my family would, and those are the only terms on which I would be prepared to accept responsibility for you as a minor.”

He said it as if he thought that could scare Riley off – which was laughable - but Riley, mouth still open in shock, saw his father look at Philip and then visibly calm down. 

“If you’d like,” Philip went on, “Riley, I’m very happy to invite you to stay here for a fortnight, simply as a vacation to see if you feel you could be happy here and to give you both some time to think. However any longer than two weeks and you will need to enrol-”

“I don’t need to think about it.” Riley interrupted. “I won’t want to leave in a fortnight. I accept the terms.”


“...What about the cost to you of keeping him-” Hamilton began, and Philip shook his head. 

“Riley would earn his keep like any other boy his age does in a family, through chores and ranch work. Cost neutral. I don’t know what arrangements you currently make with Riley in terms of an allowance but he won’t be needing one out here and I wouldn’t advise it. There’s very little to spend money on and we’re some way from the nearest town.”

That was the independence Riley was seeking in a nutshell.  A clean break and total freedom. And Philip looked straight at Hamilton, watching him realise how much more difficult it was for a young teenager to get into trouble if they were short of cash. Hamilton nodded slowly, much calmer, and Philip thought active relief was starting to show on the man’s face. 

“Those are generous terms.”


“Then you’d better go and catch up with Flynn before he leaves without you.” Philip said to Riley, who bounded up from the sofa with his eyes alight.  

“I’m staying?”

“On those terms, yes, you’re staying if you would like to.” Philip returned the smile and Riley let loose a yell of sheer delight, bolting for the door.  

The room seemed very quiet when he had gone. Philip turned his chair back to Hamilton, his voice gentle, understanding both the shock and the several other expressions in the man’s face.  

“This may actually solve more than one of your problems, James.” 


*


It was chilly out on the porch after dark, when Riley was in bed and Hamilton had taken his work upstairs. Philip, sitting on the swing and surrounded by the five younger men, Flynn, Jasper, Paul, Jake and Darcy, cradled his mug of tea and gave his words time to sink in. 

“Well it’s no hardship of any kind to look after a kid his age.” Paul said after a minute. “Certainly not to me. And he’s not going to see or hear anything that’s questionable; you wouldn’t allow it in the house. A six year old would be perfectly safe running around here, never mind a sixteen year old.”

“It’s only a couple of years younger than many of us were?” Darcy pointed out from beside Philip where he was curled up on the swing. “Paul, you were what, nineteen? So was Flynn, it’s not that big a deal.”

“There’s a big difference between fifteen and nineteen in maturity and needs, it’s not just a matter of a calendar year or two.” Paul told him. “And I agree it is something we all need to be aware of. If anything Riley’s already had to grow up too fast. But I don’t see it as being a problem.”

“I would expect that any adult conversations are kept entirely to adult times.” Philip said mildly. “But yes, I agree.”

“Does Hamilton realise about the whole gay thing?” Darcy asked. 

Mr Hamilton.” Philip prompted gently. “No. I think that’s Riley’s matter to take up with his family as and when he chooses, not for us. It makes no practical difference, and if anything he is far safer with us in that respect than in many other places he could be.”


“I just don’t know I’d leave a kid of mine with people I only met a couple of days ago.” Darcy said wryly. 

“James Hamilton has known me for years.” Philip said levelly. “And no person is just a parent. My interest in him is a good deal wider than in just his capacity as a father.”


So Philip did have an interest in James Hamilton. Paul gave him a shrewd look, aware they’d probably never know what, but that the people Philip chose to defend were usually worth defending. 

“Flynn,” Philip went on, “I’d like you to take Riley to Jackson on Monday and enrol him at the high school, please.”

Flynn, leaning on the rail with his arms folded across his chest, gave him a brief nod. 

“Yes sir.”

Philip sat back and serenely drank tea with his arm around Darcy, saying nothing further or enlarging on any practical details. Paul, who knew him well, knew that he wouldn’t expect to. He would simply expect them to organise themselves, and sort out anything that they felt needed sorting out. The phone rang and Darcy uncurled and got to his feet. 

“I’ll get it; it’ll be Roger.”


“Who knows how much of the gossip already?” Jake asked him, grinning. Darcy laughed, disappearing inside. 

“He likes to know! So does Gerry.” 

“How many of them do you bet we’ll have down here inside a month to check Riley out?” Jake drained his tea and slid down off the rail where he was perching.  “I’m going to walk down to the gate before I turn in, see if we got any late mail.”


No one pointed out that it was dark, and the dogs bounded across the yard to follow as Jake walked out into the shadows. Genial, easy going and both friendly and reserved, he often went off alone and he walked, or ran, or climbed in the same casual, tireless way he did the multiple press ups or chin lifts Paul caught him doing on any available surface if he had nothing better to do, even after a full day’s work. Jake wasn’t exactly restless, but he had energy to burn.    

Jasper, stood with his shoulder blocked against Flynn’s like a pair of bookends, as they often stood, caught Paul’s eye, voice quiet. 

“If Riley’s going to be staying, that front room is too small and too easily disturbed by any comings and goings, or by anything that spooks the horses in the corral. Gerry only coped in there by being a heavy sleeper.”


“I don’t want him on his own up in one of the attic rooms.” Paul said firmly. “He’s looking like another night time wanderer, and if he wanders I want to have half a chance of hearing him. And on the main hall he’s going to hear us going up and down getting ready for bed and to and from the bathrooms every night when he needs to be asleep.”


“So he’d do better in my room.” Jasper said simply. “It’s the quietest and the furthest away, it’s next to you, and I can move into Luath’s old room. Tonight if possible, and Riley can move rooms tomorrow. It will be easier for Riley if he starts out as he’ll go on.”


Moving was a slightly over blown term; Jasper’s material possessions weren’t numerous and Paul wasn’t sure what occupied that room other than Jasper himself, a few clothes and whatever book he was currently reading, but it was an act of generosity that you had to know Jasper to understand.  The quiet and distance of that room had been what finally persuaded him to tolerate sleeping in the house with them, not that many years ago. 

“Want a hand?” Flynn asked quietly, and he got up from the rail with Jasper. “Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?” 

“No thank you.” Philip looked up and smiled at him, the same very warm eyed smile Paul often saw him direct at Flynn. “I’ll keep an ear out for Darcy. Goodnight both of you.”

Paul finished his tea and held out a hand for Philip’s empty cup. 

“I’ll go change the linens over on the bed and see what else Riley might need in that room. Is there anything else I can get you?” 

Philip put his hands up to cover Paul’s as Paul stooped over his shoulders to give him a hug, aware he was pleased in a quiet and very satisfied way, and that he never minded being left alone at these times of night when not so long ago Paul would have left him with David in the next chair. 

“No, I’m quite all right, thank you Paul. Sleep well.” 

Upstairs, Paul softly opened Riley’s bedroom door far enough to see him, sound asleep, in probably the first sound night’s sleep in a while. He pulled the door all the way shut before he went into Jasper’s room, taking clothes out of the dresser. Jasper was deftly stripping the bed, and Flynn, collecting together the very few odds and ends around the room, paused beside Paul to take an armful of sweaters. Paul added a few folded pairs of jeans on top, giving Flynn a pointed look and speaking in an undertone.  


“Are you prepared to be this kid’s hero? Because you do realise you’re going to be?” 

Jasper glanced over at them and grinned. Flynn gave him an unusually casual shrug, taking the clothes down the hall to Luath’s old room. 

“There’s worse things to be.”


*


Paul produced a birthday cake at dinnertime the following evening.  

It stunned Riley, who had last seen a store bought birthday cake at around the age of ten, which was the last time it had been acceptably cool, and it had been shared with his father and a group of office staff somewhere in Tacoma. This one was large and about half a foot high, iced in chocolate and was very home made, and had sixteen candles on the top. Cool didn’t appear to come into it from the reaction of the men around the table, or the expectation that candles would get blown out; there was no cynicism, no teasing, just boisterous enthusiasm and Riley found himself thoroughly enjoying it. When the cake was cut, the slices were huge, four layered and multi coloured, and it tasted better than anything Riley had ever eaten out of a store. They ate it with ice cream in the family room, after which Flynn drove Riley, his father and Philip up onto the landing strip where the plane was waiting. 

There was a point where after Flynn had stiffly and briefly shaken hands with his dad, and Philip had shaken hands a good deal more warmly and said a good deal more, that Philip and Flynn tactfully walked back towards the jeep and Riley and his father were left face to face while the steward loaded his case into the hold of the little plane with the engines idling. In ten years, this was the first plane they hadn’t got on together. It hadn’t always been good, there was no regret anywhere in Riley, but it was strange and it was hard, facing this parting. 

“If you change your mind,” Hamilton said eventually, “You can call me. Any time, Riley. You know how to get hold of me.”

“I know.” Riley managed something like a half smile. “It’s going to be ok. This is probably going to be the best thing for both of us for a while? I won’t tick you off as much.”

“If this is what you want.” 

It was half a question, half a last chance, and Riley shook his head, regretful, but sure. 

“It is. I’m going to be ok here.”

“All right.”  Hamilton hesitated for a moment, then pulled a packet out of his pocket. “I got this before we flew out from Cheyenne. Happy birthday.”

It was a new cartridge for the gameboy. Lemmings. A game he hadn’t got, which showed a touching amount of research on his father’s part. Riley looked at it with real warmth, then reached up to give his father a hug. 

“Thanks. Thanks Dad.” 

Hamilton said nothing, but gave him a brief, and very hard hug.  And then headed up the steps of the plane without looking back. 

Riley was forced to move back as the plane engines started up in earnest, blasting the grass with the jet wash, and somewhere behind him he backed into Flynn whose hands closed over his shoulders and grasped, large, and strong. The plane rumbled over the grass, turned slowly, and Riley’s throat caught painfully as it gathered speed, reaching the point of no return and lifting up off the plateau, leaving him behind. 

He stood where he was for several minutes more, until the plane was far away in the twilight sky. And then when he stopped watching, he twisted around and Flynn’s arms closed around him, his head was against Flynn’s chest, the cotton of his shirt front and his jacket, and Flynn held him tight, arms wrapped around him from shoulders to waist. His voice was gruff and very soft, but Riley heard it against his ear, deeply comforting. 

“You’re going to be all right. You’ve got nothing to worry about, we’re going to look after you.”

When he had more control over himself, Riley walked with Flynn back to the jeep where Philip was waiting, and Philip gave him a quiet smile, putting out a hand to rest lightly on his shoulder as he walked with Riley around to the passenger seat, and Flynn drove the jeep, rumbling slowly over the grass and onto the track that led home.  


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2010

7 comments:

Sally said...

wonderful! i still cant decide on my favorite Falls Chance character, but a young Riley is definitely in the running :)

torc87 said...

More, please! I love young Riley. It's fascinating - all the joining the family ones are.

Jacob said...

Would love for this story to continue with Riley settling into life on the ranch with everyone!

Ranger said...

One day, Jacob. It's on our to do list!

sirsbunny said...

Absolutely fantastic! I loved reading how Riley came to live at the ranch.I can not wait to learn more about him and his time with the other guys. Thank you sooooo much for this one. :)

respectfully,
bunny

Blitz said...

This is amazing! Love seeing young!Riley and seeing the whole gang in the past. *squish Riley* He's definitely my favorite :D! Hope to see more and if there's a chance we can see how Riley, Jasper, Flynn and Paul got together. That would be awesome!

Ranger said...

Thank you Bunny and Blitz! It's great you enjoyed it :)