Jesse walked through the quiet barn enjoying a few minutes of peace before the chaos of the day’s events began. He inhaled deeply, taking in the comforting smells of the barn. After traveling the last few years, the familiar scents of the horses and barns always helped him find his center.
Early morning in the barn was his favorite time. When he was home at his farm, he would make the rounds and greet each of the horses. It always reminded him how fortunate he was to be able to make a life doing what he loved and being with the ones he loved.
He was shaken from his thoughts by a pair of strong and familiar arms wrapping around him.
“I knew I’d find you in here.”
Jesse smiled at the whispered declaration and turned to gaze into his husband’s beautiful green eyes hidden behind his wire-rimmed glasses and shaggy brown hair. He still laughed when kids saw Dylan and thought he had married Harry Potter.
“I was trying to let you sleep in.” Jesse grinned as he tilted his head up to kiss his love. In the ten years since they first met, Dylan had grown to just under 6’2”, while Jesse barely topped out at 5’10”.
Dylan rolled his eyes as he returned the kiss. “Like I got any sleep last night.” He sighed. “Maybe once today is over, we’ll both get some rest.”
“You might tonight, but I won’t get much until we get back home.” Jesse replied.
He stopped in front of a stall and looked in. He shook his head, then turned and grabbed Dylan’s arm.
“Dyl, look.” He whispered.
Dylan looked past the bars on the stall door and smiled at the sight. “Wow, even here?” He laughed.
“I can’t believe he did it here.”
Dylan shrugged. “He probably snuck out after Cole fell asleep.”
“And then he crossed the street from the hotel and snuck in here.” Jesse shook his head. “I can’t believe he’d be so reckless.”
Dylan laughed as he pulled out his phone and took a couple of pics of the scene. Jesse’s six-year-old Andalusian stallion, Shadow, lay on the floor of the stall peacefully, while Jesse’s eight-year old brother, Mason lay fast asleep across Shadow’s back.
“Are you saying you wouldn’t have done it at his age?” Dylan asked wryly.
Jesse rolled his eyes. “I would, and I did.” He replied. “Actually, I walked a lot farther and scared the hell out of my mother more than once.”
“See,” Dylan chuckled “He’s just like you.”
“Well, with four brothers, you’d think at least one of them would like horses.”
“Cole likes horses.” Dylan argued “He’s just not obsessed like you and me and Mace.”
“I want to know how he can sleep like that.” Dylan wondered. Mason was laying on the horse lengthwise, his arms falling on either side of Shadow’s withers, his head resting on Shadow’s neck and mane and his legs and torso stretched out along the stallion’s back.
Jesse shook his head. “I don’t know if he even knows. He’s been doing it forever, most kids have a plushie and a security blanket, my brother has a ‘security horse’.”
He quietly slid the stall door open. Shadow looked up and Jesse grinned. “You are a co-conspirator, you know.” He whispered, wagging his finger. “If you were a ‘normal’, unruly stallion then Mace wouldn’t sneak into your stall all the time.”
“So much for all stallions being dangerous.” Dylan barked. It was an argument they had had with many ‘experts’ over the years. Having lived with several friends who had stallions of different breeds that were more mellow than most people expected, they were of the mind that the horse’s person had a huge effect on their personality and demeanor.
Jesse kneeled and caressed Shadow’s cheek. “Yup, you’re just too damn lovable.” He reached over and gently rubbed the little boy’s back. “Mace.” He whispered. “Time to get up.”
“Nooo,” Mason mumbled as, forgetting where he was, he tried to roll away from Jesse’s touch and instead rolled off Shadow’s back and landed in a pile of shavings. “Oh, shit!” He exclaimed.
“Mason!” Jesse stood up and looked over at his disheveled brother. “You’d better not let your mother hear you.”
The little boy crawled to his knees and gently climbed back onto his friend. He leaned down, and hugged Shadow’s neck, whispering to him and the horse slowly rose to his feet.
Jesse turned back towards the sound of Dylan laughing. “Stop encouraging him!” He ordered.
“You taught him that, not me.” Dylan replied.
Jesse rolled his eyes. “Can you call Julia and Trevor and let them know where the little miscreant is?” He asked as Dylan walked away laughing and nodding.
“Hey!” Mason glared at his brother. He tapped Shadow’s shoulder and the horse kneeled, so Mason could slide off his back. “I’m not a m’scrant.” He pouted.
Jesse pulled his brother to him and hugged him tight. “Yes, little brother, you are.” He laughed and walked Mason out of the stall. “One of these days you’re going to get us both in trouble. It’s one thing to do this at home, but another to do it in a strange barn. You don’t know the people around here.” He lectured Mason as he closed and bolted the stall door.
“Shadow wouldn’t let anything happen to me.” Mason countered stubbornly.
“Shadow would protect you if he could.” Jesse explained. “But what if you didn’t even make it to the barn? What if someone grabbed you outside?”
“Why are you yelling at me?” Mason asked as his eyes filled with tears.
Jesse took his hand and led him to a bench that stood against the wall. He sat down, pulling his brother up onto his lap.
“Mace.” He sighed. “Listen, I’m not yelling at you. I just get scared when I think of anything happening to you or Cole. It took me sixteen years to get little brothers and I don’t want to lose them.”
“I’m sorry.” Mason sniffled as he buried his face in his brother’s neck. “I won’t do it again.”
Jesse chuckled. “Yes, you will, you’ve been doing it since you were four.” He stated as he hugged Mason tight. “Just not here and never someplace you don’t know. Ok?”
“Ok.” Mason nodded. “But you’re going to your place after this and I won’t get to see him anymore.”
“Of course, you will. Are you saying you’re never going to come to Ocala to visit me and Dylan?”
“No.” Jesse replied sarcastically. “Dylan and I spent time and money having rooms done for you and Cole cuz we never wanted you to come and visit us.”
“Cool!!” Mason jumped off Jesse’s lap, “When can I come?”
Jesse laughed. “That’s up to your mom and dad, but you have all summer when school lets out.”
Mason’s green eyes lit up. “I can stay all summer?!?” he exclaimed.
Jesse laughed hard. “Umm, I meant you had all summer to find some time to visit.”
Mason gave Jesse an exaggerated frown. “You don’t want me to stay all summer?” he pouted.
“You can stay as long as your parents will let you.” Jesse grinned. “But you have to share MY horse with me.”
“But you said when you were done with the shows, I could have him.” Mason objected.
“Ah, no, I said you could work with Shadow AND me.” Jesse clarified. “He can teach you a lot, but you’ll be more rounded if we get you working with a few different horses.”
“But I love Shadow.”
“I know, and he loves you.” Jesse nodded, “But, that can be a problem.”
“Mace, you’re a really good rider and you’re on your way to becoming a great horseman, but at some point, you need horses that will challenge you.” Jesse replied. “Shadow will always look after you and protect you, but he’s young like you.”
“He’s younger than me.” Mason interjected.
Jesse grinned. “Yes, and you’re both learning and growing still. You can ride him, and we’ll work with him, but he’s not going to perform anymore after today.”
“Why?’ Mason asked, not for the first time.
“You know why.” Jesse replied. “I made a promise to him, that after we finished with this tour, he’d get to retire. He’ll have lots of fun at the farm, make babies for us and for Mattie and Diego and you can ride him anytime you’re at the farm, but we’ll find you a new horse if you want to start showing or competing and I’ll find new horses to train.”
“Ones like Shadow?” Mason asked hopefully. “An Anderlushan?”
“Andalusian.” Jesse corrected him gently. “I think what we’ll do is wait and see what type of showing you want to do and then we’ll find you the best horse for that. You may find you don’t even want to show. But, if an Andalusian is the best horse for the job, then we’ll get Mattie right on it for you.” He shook his head, knowing that he would have this same conversation with Mason many more times before all was said and done.
“Let’s go give Shadow his breakfast,” Jesse said rising from the bench and taking Mason’s hand. “Then we need to find Dylan and get some ourselves. We’ve got a long day ahead.”
A little more than a year after Jesse discovered his family, his father, Trevor, step-mother, Julia and five-year-old brother, Cole, he answered his phone to hear an excited Cole shouting “We’re getting a brother!!”
He was excited for Cole, who was still recovering from a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukemia. He was gaining strength every day and was thrilled to be finally getting a baby brother.
Jesse was just as thrilled. He considered Idgie, the son of his foster fathers Danny and CJ, a real brother, and he also thought of all the boys he lived with at Second Chances Ranch and Horse Rescue as brothers as well but was happy to be getting another new brother after years of it being only his mother and him.
When his mother passed away, he thought he would be alone forever, then he met Danny and CJ and moved from Florida to live with them. The day he arrived at Second Chances was the day that he met Dylan and his life changed forever. Finding out his biological father wanted to know him and that he had a little brother completed his family, now the baby would make it even better.
It worked out that Julia was due during Jesse and Dylan’s spring break of their senior year at The Lancaster Academy, the private school they attended in New Hampshire. They spent the week off at Trevor’s farm in Wellington, Florida. Since Julia had to have a cesarean, they were able to schedule Mason’s debut for a time when the whole family could be there.
Jesse felt an immediate connection to his baby brother the first time Julia placed the tightly wrapped bundle in his arms. Mason was only a few hours old and Jesse felt an aura of love wash over him. Other than the love he felt for Dylan, he had never felt so strongly for another person, not even Sebastian, his childhood best friend and first love.
He didn’t know if it was the blood connection or something deeper, but as much as he loved Idgie from the first time he held him, his bond with Mason was unlike anything he had ever felt. It was like there was a string between his and the baby’s hearts and no matter how far apart they were it was always there.
It always amazed Jesse that even before Mace could talk, he always seemed to know what the boy wanted. Whether it was food, changing or simply to be held.
Sometimes he felt guilty that he was the only person who could always get Mace to stop crying when he was a baby. It was as if he felt the connection as strongly as Jesse did.
When he mentioned his concerns to Dylan that summer at Trevor’s, Dylan just laughed.
“That’s just like you,” He said smiling, “To feel guilty about something so special.”
“But I feel like I’m hurting Julia when he stops crying for me and not her.” Jesse protested.
Dylan wrapped his arms around his love and looked him in the eyes. “Babe, I guarantee you, Julia does not feel anything but love for you. You don’t see her, when you and the baby are lost in your own little world. She sees how much you love him, and it makes her and your dad so happy.”
“It’s not like it’s any different than with Cole.” Jesse said, not even believing it himself.
Dylan chuckled. “I know you love Cole, but you are always going to be closer to Mason, just like I’m always going to be close to Cole, because of what we share.”
“He makes me laugh when he calls you his ‘blood brother.’ Jesse said as he kissed Dylan.
“We are though,” Dylan replied. “You and he and Mason are brothers by blood, but Cole and I actually share blood after the marrow transplant. I kinda get what you feel with Mace. I always wanted a little brother and now I have one, two actually.”
“You wanna recount there?” Jesse chuckled. “Cole, Mason, Idgie, Max, Tyler, Benny. We’ve got a few little brothers.”
“I know, but Max and Tyler are Zak’s little men and probably Benny, too. Hell, we’ve only seen him a couple times.” Dylan stated. “Idgie is definitely your brother and mine, but he’s got Zak, Dusty, Mattie, Spin and the rest of them around all the time. Cole and Mason only have us. That’s special.”
“Did you think just a couple years ago that we’d be this lucky?” Jesse asked.
“I got lucky the day I met you.” Dylan said with a slight catch in his throat. “Everything since then has been a bonus.” He hugged Jesse tight.
“I love you.” Jesse whispered in Dylan’s ear.
“Where is he?” Cole huffed as he ran up to the barn entrance.
“Cole, stop.” Dylan ordered stepping in front of the blond 14-year-old before he could get into the barn. “He’s with Jesse, it’s all cool.”
“Cool?!?” Cole shouted. “Dylan, he snuck out of bed in the middle of the night and came over here alone, that’s NOT cool.”
Dylan put his hand on Cole’s shoulder. “Bud, stop. He’s fine, you know he’s used to doing this and he hasn’t seen Jesse or Shadow in a couple of months, so he probably didn’t think anything of it. Jesse’s talked to him and he understands what he did was wrong and that he’s lucky nothing bad happened to him.”
Cole spun around and kicked at the dirt. “Someone needs to warn you when you’re younger and wishing for a little brother, that years after, you’re gonna want to sell him.”
Dylan laughed. “You know you’d miss him if he wasn’t around.”
Cole rolled his eyes “Maybe some days, but today I’d take that chance.”
“If you didn’t love him, you wouldn’t be so upset.” Dylan countered. “I just talked to your parents and they’re fine, so I know they weren’t giving you any grief.”
“If something happened to him it would be my fault.” Cole said quietly.
Dylan pulled Cole into a hug and whispered in his ear. “Wrong. We all know Mace’s habit of sneaking into Shadow’s stall and we should have talked to him, but none of us thought he’d sneak out here. When he does it at your place or our farm, he’s insulated on the property, he just didn’t realize that he could be in danger. He does now.”
Jesse and Mason walked out of the barn chatting and holding hands. When he looked up and saw his brother’s bright red face and flashing blue eyes, Mason moved to hide behind Jesse.
“Too late, Squirt.” Cole frowned. “Already saw you.” He reached around Jesse and picked up his little brother holding him up, so they were eye to eye. “What were you thinking?”
“I missed Shadow and I wanted to spend the night with him.” Mason explained, looking down at the ground.
“And now you know you can’t do that anywhere but at your farm or Dylan and mine, right?” Jesse added.
Mason nodded his head furiously. “Uh huh. Honest, Cole, I’ll never do it again.”
Cole tossed the little boy up into the air and caught him and hugged him tight. “You’d better not,” he said, “I don’t have the energy to break in a new baby brother.”
“I’m not a baby.” Mason argued as he hugged his brother back.
Dylan took Mason from Cole and threw the younger boy over his shoulder. “You’re our baby brother, shrimp.” He laughed as he carried the squealing boy towards his car.
Jesse put his arm around Cole’s shoulders, noting that in the few months since he had last seen his brother Cole had grown another couple of inches and would soon be taller than him. “You good?”
Cole nodded slightly. “He just scared me.” He answered quietly. “Mom and Dad knocked on the room door and when I got up and realized Mace wasn’t there for a second, I was scared that something had happened to him. He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s my pain in the ass.”
“Our pain in the ass.” Jesse laughed, as they slowly followed Dylan and Mason to the car. Dylan had seated Mason on the hood of his car and was tickling him mercilessly.
“He misses you; you know.” Cole said solemnly. “We both do.”
“I miss both of you.” Jesse replied. “But after today, Dylan and I will be done traveling and we’ll be able to settle in Ocala.”
“Is that really what you want?”
Jesse stopped and turned to face his brother. “Yes. The last couple years have been fun and very successful but traveling gets boring. We’ve seen some amazing places and met great people and learned so much, but it’s time to put all that experience to use at the farm. Dylan and I just need some lazy time to be married and enjoy it.”
“Maybe have a baby?” Cole teased.
Jesse smiled warmly. “We’d both love that someday.” He answered. “Whether we have a surrogate or adopt or become foster parents, we haven’t decided yet. But, whatever we do, you and Mace are always welcome, and we’ll always be there for you.”
“You always have been.” Cole said, a few tears brimming in his eyes. “Since the day I met you at that hotel at Disney, you and Dylan have been there. Sometimes I’m jealous of that thing you and Mace have, but most of the time I’m just happy that he’s had you in his life since day one.”
Jesse pulls Cole to him and the brothers hug tight a few tears falling from both.
After breakfast, the quartet returned to the barn and were greeted by Trevor and Julia.
"Ace is waiting for you at Shadow’s stall.” Trevor said.
Jesse rolled his eyes. “The best part of today being over and done with is my best friend will stop acting like an employee.”
“Well, you did hire him to be on the tour with us.” Dylan reminded him.
“We both did”, Jesse retorted, “It’s been great having him along, but I wish he’d relax some.”
“I’ll relax when this circus is finally folded up.”
Jesse turned and looked up Ace’s grinning face.
“You needed someone to keep you in line and things running smoothly and that’s what I’m here for.” Ace laughed as he wrapped his muscled arm around Jesse’s neck.
Jesse leaned into the big blonde’s hug and then slipped from his grasp.
“We asked you to come along to enjoy the traveling and the tour.” Jesse shrugged.
“And I have enjoyed it.” Ace replied, ‘But you and Dyl are busy with the bookings and such and it makes me feel useful to take care of Shadow and the other horses.”
“What are you doing after the tour ends?” Cole asked.
“Well, after Jess & I get done driving the trailer back to Ocala, I’ll probably stick around for a bit to help these two get things settled at the farm.”
“A bit…” Dylan snorted. “If you were only going to hang around ‘a bit’, why did I pay that contractor to convert the barn loft into an apartment for you?”
Ace laughed, “Well, then, I guess I’ll just have to stick around a bit longer.”
The three friends laughed as they walked through the barn.
Ace had been like a big brother to both the younger men since they had met years earlier at the Second Chances Ranch, where Ace’s father, Sarge, was still the Ranch Manager and Head of Security. Ace had spent a few years after college working at a boys’ ranch out west that dealt with homeless and abused boys. As loving and outgoing as he was, Jesse and Dylan could both see the toll the work was taking on their friend and they asked him to accompany them on this tour as barn manager looking after the horses and making sure things ran smoothly.
Ace had jumped at the chance to spend some time with his brothers. A month before the end of the tour, Jesse and Dylan had offered Ace a place at their farm in Ocala, Florida, not as an employee they both stated emphatically, but as a partner. Ace accepted the invitation of a place to live and work but insisted that the farm was Jesse and Dylan’s. It had been willed to them by Abigail, who had been like a grandmother to Jesse, when she passed away a few years ago.
He would be the Barn Manager if they liked but would not be a ‘co-owner’. Jesse and Dylan acquiesced to Ace’s terms as they loved and trusted him and knew that being around the horses and people would be the best thing for him.
"Maybe you can convince Dev to come and visit for a bit.” Dylan suggested.
Ace nodded. “That’d be great, but he’s so caught up in his work right now, I don’t know if he’d take a break.”
Devon had been Ace’s best friend since first grade and was another ‘big brother’ to Jesse and Dylan. His partner, TJ, had been killed during their senior year of college and Devon had spent the years since burying himself in his artwork. Jesse, Dylan and especially Ace had reached out to him many times, but Devon had become almost a recluse since losing TJ.
“We’ll just make sure he knows he has a standing invitation to come and stay.” Jesse said. “Abigail would have wanted us to open the farm to our family and friends and Devon wouldn’t have as many memories there as he does at Second Chances.”
“I’ll try.” Ace sighed. “But, we might all have to face that Devon’s just gonna be Devon. Except for me, he didn’t have many friends when we were kids and when I moved from Texas to California, he stayed pretty much to himself, since losing TJ, he’s been alone, not for lack of any of us trying, but he wants to be alone. It might not be healthy, but we can’t force him out of it.”
“But we can let him know we’re all here for him.” Jesse replied.
“He knows.” Ace said quietly. “I remind him as much as I can. I think the hurt is still too raw for him. I know it’s been almost five years, but…”
“We understand.” Dylan said. “I know if anything happened to Jesse, I don’t know if I’d ever get over it.”
“Same.” Jesse said quietly.
“Enough.” Ace said forcefully. “Dev knows we’re here for him, but right now we have a show to get ready for.”
With that the three friends, with Cole and Mason tagging along, went about prepping the horses and getting ready for the show.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, thank you for joining us here at the Kentucky Horse Park.” Dylan’s voice came over the loudspeaker as he stood in the middle of the arena. “Let’s hear one more round of applause for my husband, Jesse Osterman and his Andalusian stallion Sebastian’s Shadow.”
As the crowd cheered from the stands, Jesse and Shadow made several trips around the arena. Jesse waved with both hands as Shadow cantered.
“Jesse and I would like to thank everyone for coming out today to help us celebrate our final show of the tour.” Dylan continued.
Jesse rode up beside Dylan and signaled Shadow. The dark gray horse reared up onto his hind legs and Jesse waved to the crowd.
As Shadow came down, Jesse slipped from his back and wrapped his arm around Dylan’s waist.
“Dylan and I and the horses, will be here in the arena for a bit if you’d like pictures.” Jesse announced into the microphone Dylan was holding. “We ask that everyone stay outside of the arena to be safe.”
As Jesse finished his remarks, Ace opened the gate at the end of the arena and three more horses came thundering through the gate and stopped right at Dylan and Jesse’s sides.
“Thank you again.” Dylan said as the sold-out crowd rose to its feet and cheered.
Jesse yawned and stretched as he woke.
"Nice of you to join us.” Ace laughed from the driver’s seat. “Almost time for you to take over.”
“Where are we?” Jesse asked as he rubbed his eyes.
“Just crossed the Florida border, we should be in Ocala by the end of the day.”
"Great. Can’t wait to see the place.”
"You mean you can’t wait to see Dyl.” Ace laughed
Jesse grinned. “You’ve been picking on us for almost ten years, Ace.”
“Never.” Ace said seriously. “We’ve all been jealous of you two since the day you met. Never been two people who were more suited to each other than you and Dyl.”
“I don’t know about that, but I miss him when we’re apart.”
“It’s only been two days.” Ace laughed. “Made more sense for him to finish things in Kentucky and fly back with the family while we drove the horses.”
“I know, he should be in Ocala, by the time we get there.”
Ace was about to reply when he was interrupted by Jesse’s phone. Jesse pulled the phone from his pocket and looked at the number.
"No idea who this is.” He said shaking his head. “Hello.”
“Jesse Osterman, please?”
“This is Jesse.”
“Mr. Osterman, this is Lieutenant Diaz of the Florida Highway Patrol.”
Jesse sat up straight in his seat, “What’s this about?” he asked nervously.