January had a few other high points. Matt was doing excellently with his schoolwork, and the tutor said she wouldn't be surprised if he was ready to take the exams by April. He was eager to have it behind him, so I cut him loose from his Stonegate job to stay home and study those two days each week. Maria loved his company and they became very close, which pleased me.
Even Although Matt seemed at home with Vincent and me, I knew it was good for him to have women in his life to give him that bit of maternal nurturing that living exclusively with men – even men who loved him – simply didn't offer. Between Maria and my mom, he was getting a healthy dose of it. He went over to my folks' house at least once a week for dinner, hanging out till bedtime. He helped my dad with stuff around the place, and always came home with half an apple pie or a big bowl of pudding with Vanilla Wafers and bananas.
Between Christmas and New Year's, Matt had studied the hell out of the rules of the road on a website he found and spent several days driving all over the lanes and pastures of Stonegate until he felt comfortable behind the wheel. He got his license on the first try and proudly drove us to Starbucks for a celebratory mocha. I wondered if he'd be out all the time now that he was mobile, but things didn't change much. He mostly just drove himself to school and came home, stopping occasionally at Corleone's to see Vincent or at Stonegate for a quick visit with Ginger.
A few days after Christmas, we'd gone to the only art store in town and bought more types of pencils, charcoals, paints, brushes, inks, pens, and paper than I would have believed existed if I hadn't seen them with my own eyes. We also got a lovely maple case to haul it all around in, and he spent hours that evening arranging everything neatly in the little compartments. I sat on the couch with Vincent watching him ruffle the soft hair of a sable brush in the crook of his elbow, smiling at him when he looked up and caught me at it.
The nearest art school was too far away to be practical, but we learned of a talented local amateur painter who was plenty good enough to give Matt a solid start. I didn't know much about the guy except that his name was David and that he lived in a log cabin out in the pines with a big dog named Bonnie. Matt and I drove out to meet him one afternoon and spent an interesting hour looking at his work and chatting with him. His large, sunlit studio sat on the banks of a creek that gurgled through his property. The studio was full of his work - a lot of beautiful nature scenes, many with animals of some sort – and an occasional portrait.
We came to a financial agreement, and they spent every Wednesday in David's studio or out in the open air if the weather was good. Matt came home with lovely little pastel studies of water rippling over rocks in a stream, or a delicate charcoal drawing of pine trees along a ridge. I began to tack them up in the kitchen, and soon we had a little gallery of his work that I looked at often. When Wade offered Matt $50 for a small watercolor of a bird sitting in a dead tree to have framed for his office, I began to take a closer look at them. He really was talented, and an idea began to percolate around in the back of my mind.
I finally got seriously to work on the show grounds. I hired a contractor, and every day you could hear the roar of machinery as the bulldozers moved dirt around to create two slightly sunken arenas with slopes up from each side for spectators to sit on. We made a large graded area for rigs to park in, and had plans drawn up for a cinder block building to hold the show offices, a judges’ room, a concession stand in one end, and bathrooms.
While all this was going on, TJ called one day.
"I need a hand. Can you send someone with a two-horse rig? I'm out here in just my truck."
"Sure. Where are you?"
"The old Walton place, out 76 just past the bridge."
"Yeah, I know it. What've you got now?"
He just chuckled. "You'll see."
I almost hollered for Tommy, but then remembered TJ and Gabriel talking in the yard a few weeks ago and tracked down Gabriel, who was working with Ginger. “Go out to the old Walton place with the two-horse and find TJ.” His face lit up and he put Ginger away quickly, hitched up the trailer, and was out of the yard in five minutes. I watched him drive off, wondering if I was aiding and abetting, then deciding they’d figure it out.
An hour later, I heard them coming even before I could see the dust from the truck, but I couldn't tell what the hell I was hearing. I'd been walking across the yard, and stopped to listen. As I realized what it was, I started to smile, and by the time they pulled to a stop in front of me, I was laughing out loud.
TJ and Gabriel met at the back of the rig, and they were both grinning at the squeaks and honks coming from the trailer. TJ opened one door, and a shaggy little creature hopped out onto the dirt, followed by another and then by a third. The noise tripled in volume as the three donkeys looked around their new home and hollered 'hello' at the top of their lungs. Tommy had been leading Donna across the yard, and now he was fighting to keep hold of her lead as she rolled her eyes and reared at the God-awful sound.
I shouted at TJ over the racket. "Donkeys? You brought me donkeys? This is a HORSE farm."
He just grinned wider as the largest donkey took a deep breath and let loose with a hee-haw that hurt my ears. Gabriel took the lead rope of the smallest one and headed for the paddock furthest from the horses. The other two trotted amiably along behind and quieted down as Gabriel tossed them some alfalfa.
"What the fuck?” I asked TJ as we followed them. "It's the William T. Shepard Memorial Foundation for Unwanted HORSES," I enunciated clearly to him. "And they look fine to me. Their goddamn lungs certainly work okay!"
He was laughing too hard to answer me, so I turned to Gabriel, who had rejoined us, and raised an eyebrow at him sharply.
"They were about to load them on the slaughter truck," he said, sobering up quickly. "Have you ever seen one of those places?"
I hadn't, but I wouldn't wish that on any creature. "Why?"
"Just tired of them, I guess. The guy wouldn't say. We, uh, had to pay him for them."
"We BOUGHT them?!?" I exclaimed. This was getting better by the minute.
Gabriel looked to TJ, who had managed to stop laughing by then, and met my eyes with a resigned look. "I'll pay for them. It was only a hundred bucks."
He started to walk over to the paddock where the donkeys were happily gobbling down alfalfa, and Gabriel and I followed along. We went in with them, and they all crowded around us, nibbling at our pockets for treats. The littlest one looked up at me with those huge hairy ears flopped halfway over, and I was hooked. TJ was watching me, and when I looked up with a smile on my face, he grinned.
"All right, so they're cute," I growled at him, pushing the donkey gently away. "Try to stick to horses, will you?"
"Cute?" he yelled after me as I walked off. "They're fucking adorable, and you know it."
I gave him the finger and kept walking. When I got to the rig, I looked back at them. TJ had his hand on Gabriel's shoulder as they laughed about something and I smiled at the two of them surrounded by donkeys. Christ, what next.
My birthday was a Friday, and Matt surprised me at breakfast with a framed charcoal of Calvin and me in a quiet moment at the stable. In it, I'm standing on the bottom rail of the pasture fence, and Cal has his big head nuzzled into my chest as I scratch behind his ears. His eyes are closed and his lower lip is relaxed, drooping from his teeth a little. That's something we do regularly, and Matt must have seen us one day when he was there to visit Ginger. The drawing was so evocative of the moment that it gave me a chill, and I just stood there staring at it, unaware of Matt watching anxiously from across the table.
Finally he couldn't stand the suspense and began, "If you don't like it, I can-"
I looked up quickly. "No, Matty. Jesus, I love it. I simply can't believe that you can capture so much feeling with a stick of charcoal. It just amazes me.” I laid it carefully on the table and went to him, taking his face in my hands. "I love it, and I love you. Thank you.” I kissed him and gave him a long hug as he snuggled into me. He was sweet and affectionate, and I had gone from lusting after him to feeling very protective of him as his gentle, sensitive personality began to emerge. Actually, I still lusted after him, but since he slept with Vincent and me a couple times a week, it was a satisfied lust.
Vincent just kissed me and said he'd see me later, which I thought odd until I realized he must have some surprise in store for me. Matt claimed to be clueless, so I went off to the barn. I looked behind every closed door for a party in the works, but everything seemed to be business as usual. The employees bought me lunch, and Teresa produced a cake with candles that wouldn't blow out; we all got the predictable hoot out of that.
A little after five, Vincent pulled into the yard and tracked me down in Ginger's stall, where Sam was giving her a pregnancy viability exam. Ginger was a long way from being ready to breed, needing a few hundred more pounds and some serious conditioning, but I wanted to know if the possibility existed. Sam had her arm buried inside Ginger clear to the shoulder, and Vincent went pale as he watched her.
"Jesus, I didn't know you could do that."
"Well, a hundred pound baby horse fits through there."
Vincent stuck out his tongue and made a gagging noise. He told me to meet him at the car as soon as I could, and five minutes later we were rolling down the lane. He wouldn't say where we were going, just that I'd like it. It was a pretty evening, chilly and clear, and he handed me a heavy jacket as we parked in front of an old barn out at the western edge of the county.
I was glancing around when I heard an odd hiss and walked around the corner of the barn to see several people laying out a huge expanse of colorful material. One guy was aiming a flaming burner into one end of the thing, and I realized it was a hot air balloon. I turned to Vincent in delight to find him grinning at me.
"Oh, God, I've always wanted to do this! How did you know?"
"I know everything about you, baby." Sometimes I felt that was true. He stepped behind me, wrapping his arms around my waist as he put his chin on my shoulder, and we watched the balloon begin to take shape. As it filled, I saw that it had a horse on the side, an old time trotting horse like you see on weathervanes now and then. Perfect.
We climbed into the basket, and as we soared up into the evening sky, my stomach did one of those squiggle things, like when you go over a little hill in the road too fast. I threw my head back and laughed as he smiled at me. "Happy birthday, Sean. I love you."
The pilot told us that the first manned hot air balloon ride had been made by the Montgolfiere brothers on an early morning in 1783, more than two hundred years ago. We floated east with the breeze, passing over Stonegate just as the setting sun was lighting the sky with pinks and golds. The old stone buildings looked solid and lovely; the miles of white fences gleamed in the dusk, their shadows snaking along beside them. We drank champagne with a light supper Vincent had brought along. Champagne at 1000 feet is an experience in itself, and by the time we landed two hours later, I knew it was an evening I would remember forever.
When Vincent took a turn away from the house instead of toward it, I glanced at him. He just tightened his hand on my leg, so I settled back to enjoy whatever he had planned. He drove down a winding lane that ended in front of a small bed and breakfast. The building was Victorian, painted in pastels, with turrets and gables, and more chimneys than I could count. Vincent checked us in as I wandered around the common room admiring the period furniture.
At the door to our room, Vincent stood aside and nudged me in ahead of him. I glanced around and sighed with pleasure; a fire was crackling in the grate, a steaming hot tub bubbled in one corner, and the downy comforter on the huge four-poster bed was turned down invitingly. I turned to him and pulled him close.
We hugged for a long time, and then he undressed me and handed me into the swirling water. I sank down with a sigh, and he joined me. We lounged there, watching the fire, until we were warmed up from the chilly balloon ride. As the logs crackled and snapped, he made love to me so tenderly that it felt like a dream. No one had ever gone to so much effort for me as Vincent did that night, and I fell asleep to the sound of him murmuring my name. It was a great way to start my 31st year.
Morning was equally lovely. Breakfast was delivered to our door, and we stayed in bed as long as we could, but eventually we had to check out and go back to real life. I studied Vincent's profile as he drove us home, and finally he turned to look at me questioningly.
"You're an amazing man," I told him. "God knows what I did to deserve you, but I'm never letting you go."
"Sean, you couldn't get rid of me if you wanted to. You and I are forever. You know that, right?"
I nodded at him; if I knew anything at all, I knew that.
When we got home, Adam's Tahoe was in the drive, and I looked at Vincent, who replied, "I asked him to come stay with Matt last night."
They were just making lunch when we came into the kitchen. Matt turned to me with a smile and Adam glanced at me a little hesitantly. After we ate, Adam followed me into the hall when I went to take our bags upstairs.
"I slept with him," he offered, his chin up and his eyes wary. "He initiated it, and I didn't turn him down."
I nodded, knowing it had to happen eventually, but feeling a small pang of loss just the same. "Does this have anything to do with the fact that you and Dylan are history?"
"No. I was interested in Matt before that happened. You know that. And you know I wouldn't do that to him -- or to you, for that matter."
I nodded at him; I did know that. "Just be careful with him, please. He's had a truly awful life up to now. I know I can't protect him from everything, but . . ." I looked up to see Adam watching me with compassion.
"I will, Sean, I promise. I care about him, too."
"He's so young."
"He's old enough." His eyes met mine steadily for a long moment.
I reached for him, and he came into my arms with a sigh. We hugged, and then I went up to our room and lay on the bed for a bit, thinking about how life works out. Vincent came up a while later and lay down behind me with a hand on my hip.
"You upset about them being together?"
I shook my head. "No, it was going to happen sooner or later. Better Adam than someone we don't know. Matt's just so young. He's just now getting the chance to find out who he is."
"Maybe being with Adam is part of that."
"Maybe," I agreed, then rolled over to hug Vincent. "Yesterday was incredible. Thank you."
"You're welcome, sweetheart. I loved it, too."
In mid-afternoon, I trotted down to the stable to ride Zena. I was just about to pony Chex along on a lead rope when Matt showed up. "Can I come?"
I helped him saddle Chex, gave him a few basic instructions, and then we took a leisurely ride along the trails through the neighborhood. He remembered his short ride on Ginger and caught on quickly, moving easily with Chex when he took a few quick sideways steps to avoid a darting quail. Matt was quiet, and I figured he was working up to talking to me about Adam. I was right.
"Are you angry at me?" he finally asked.
I looked at him in surprise. "No, Matty. Why would you think I was?"
"Cause I was with Adam.” His voice was small and it hurt me to think he was upset about something that should have been fun and enjoyable.
I legged Zena over next to him and reached out to turn his face to me. "Matt, we don't own you. It's your decision who you sleep with. Not mine, not Vincent's.” I paused, wanting to explain it so that he would understand what I was feeling. "It makes us feel really good to be able to give you a shot at a better life, and I love having you live with us, but you’re not obligated to stay forever. You'll find someone of your own - maybe Adam, maybe not.” I let go of him and looked away. "It hurt a little to know that you were with him, I won't deny that, but not because it was Adam. He's a great guy.” I turned back to him. "Just be careful with yourself because you're very important to us."
Matt nodded solemnly, and we continued our ride. He disappeared when we got home and I hoped I hadn't upset him too much. That first day he'd come over with Jesse, a sacred, skinny kid with a crumpled paper sack, I’d never expected to feel all this emotion for him. Lust, protectiveness, pride, love. He'd been with us only two months, but he felt like close family, and I wondered where life would lead him. I just hoped it wouldn't be too far away.
Neither Vincent nor I felt like cooking, so we ordered Chinese. I hollered up to Matt to see if he wanted to go with me to pick it up, and he trotted down the stairs with a quick glance at me and hopped in the car. I didn't think we were done with the subject of Adam yet, and Matt launched back into it before we were out of the driveway.
"I kissed Adam the first time when we went Christmas shopping that day. We talk a lot when he takes me to lunch and when he was here Friday night, about how he wants to stop traveling so much and buy a house and stuff. And how Dylan doesn't want that."
"What about you, Matty? What do you want?"
He gazed out the window, playing with a button on his shirt until I reached over to lay my fingers over his. He gripped my hand and held it against his chest. "I like Adam. A lot. I like that he's older than me. I don't wanna hook up with another kid. I'd feel safer with someone who can look out for me a little, like Vincent does for you. I need that."
His quiet acknowledgement of the scars his prior life had left behind tugged at my heart, and his insight into my relationship with Vincent surprised me a little.
"You're awful young for that kind of decision. There are a lot of nice guys out there and you've got all the time in the world to meet them."
He turned to look squarely at me, his pale, slender face deadly serious. "I know all about how many guys are out there, Sean, and you're wrong that I'm too young. If I'd lived a normal life, I know I'd just now be starting to figure all that out, but I'm not a normal kid and I've had enough fucking around to last me a lifetime. I want what you and Vincent have. I want the love and security of a relationship - my own relationship."
He fell silent, still holding my hand, and I thought about what he'd said. I couldn't imagine wanting to tie myself to one man at 18, but Matt was right; I hadn't lived the life he had and that made a huge difference. When he spoke again, his voice was quiet, and I had to strain to hear him. "But I think he still likes Dylan."
I didn’t know what to say to that. I wasn't sure what Adam was feeling any more than Matt was. I just hoped to hell that Matt wasn't a temporary fix to get Adam past Dylan. Adam had said he wouldn't do that and I believed him, but I was afraid to encourage Matt too much, just in case.
"Adam likes you, too, Matt, but he needs some time to get over Dylan. They’ve been close friends for several years.” Matt nodded, but didn't say anything else.
When we picked up the food, I introduced Matt to Su-Lin Hong, the rail-thin Chinese lady who owned the little take-out place we frequented. She dug through the box of fortune cookies and made a big show of giving Matt a particular one, pressing it into his palm with a mysterious smile. As she held his hands, he stared at her like he'd been hypnotized, and I had to pull him away by his shirtsleeve.
In the car, he held the cookie like it was a snake, looking at it now and then with wary eyes. I forgot about it when we got home, but he picked it up from the table when he was finished eating, turning it over and over in his hands.
Vincent, who hadn't seen the odd way Su-Lin gave it to him, watched for a minute, then said, "You gonna eat that thing or not?"
Matt jumped at his voice, crushed the cookie in his hand, and tore open one end of the wrapper, dumping the contents onto his plate. The little curved slip of paper sat on the pile of pieces and crumbs, and it was all I could do not to snatch it up to see what it said. Matt stared at it, and then slowly lifted it with his thumb and forefinger, bringing it up to where he could read it. I watched his eyes slide back and forth, and then he began to smile.
"'Don't wade in the kiddie pool when you can swim in the ocean.'"
Vincent frowned. "What the fuck does that mean?" he asked, looking at me for clarification.
I smiled at Matt. "It means 'go for it'."
Matt wandered away from the table after dinner and I found him later in his dark room, curled up in the big chair gazing out over the pasture where Chex and Zena were grazing in the dusk. I almost didn't see him when I glanced in, but he looked toward me and I caught the movement. He didn't invite me in and after a moment, I walked back downstairs to Vincent, who was half asleep on the couch, and hugged him awake so that he’d hug me back.
I had taken Matt’s drawing of Calvin and me to my office at Stonegate and put it on my desk. Owners were in and out of there all the time and it wasn't long before Amanda caught sight of it. She snatched it up off the desk and took it to the window for a good look.
"This is beautiful. Who's the artist? When did you have it done?"
I explained that it was the same Matt she'd met in Florida, and told her a little more about how he'd come to live with us and about his artistic abilities.
“Well, I'm a patron of the fucking arts. I want a picture of me with Calvin, too. And you," she added. "The three of us, and one of me with the dogs. And maybe one of Donna; she's such a pretty horse."
Amanda didn't go anywhere without her pair of Jack Russells, who were currently snoozing on my feet. I told her to let me talk to Matt, and if he was interested, I'd have him call her. When I got home that night, I brought it up over dinner, recounting most of the conversation.
"So do you think you'd like to try that, Matt? Doing work on commission is different than just drawing whatever you're in the mood for."
He had stopped eating when I got to the part about Amanda wanting to hire him, and was staring at me in horrified delight.
"Oh, my God, really? Do you think I'm good enough for what she wants? I mean, I know Wade bought that little one for his office, and you guys like your Christmas present, but . . ."
"Of course you're good enough, honey. Your work is beautiful and Amanda will be thrilled to 'discover' you. God knows where this could lead."
I gave him her number and he wandered off in a daze. He joined us in the den later, squaring his shoulders and putting on a determined expression.
"I'm going to meet her at the barn tomorrow to do some preliminary sketches, maybe take some pictures.” His voice was faint and I smiled at him, holding out my hand until he came to me. I tugged him down onto my lap and chewed on his neck until he giggled and squirmed closer.
The next morning, armed with his camera and a sketch pad, he snapped a number of pictures of Amanda, Calvin, Donna, me, and the dogs. Matt was excited as he concentrated on composing every frame. When he finished, he smiled at Amanda. “I’m going to enjoy doing this, ma’am.”
"MA’AM!” Amanda exclaimed with a laugh. “I sure as hell hope that’s your way of saying 'Amanda,' cause 'ma’am' makes me think of somebody's fat Aunt Mabel, which I most certainly am not!”
When I got home a few nights later, Vincent was alone in the kitchen and I asked where Matt was, since one rarely cooked without the other. "He's got a date."
I turned and stared at Vincent, who was smiling slightly as he chopped potatoes. "A date?" I sounded just like every mother on every sitcom when her daughter goes out with some horny teenage boy for the first time. "With who?"
"You told me last week that Eddie had a girlfriend."
"Yeah, well, I also told you that he was undecided. This week it's boys."
I poured a glass of wine and drank half of it quickly, choking a little when Matt came in into the kitchen, dressed for his goddamn date. He was wearing black jeans, my nicely broken-in black ostrich Tony Lama cowboy boots, and the sweater my mom had given him for Christmas – the one that matched his eyes – and he looked gorgeous. Seeing him every day had dulled me to how his looks had changed as he'd gained some weight and become secure enough to be happy.
He'd gotten his hair cut short the last time, and it really suited him. Tonight it was gelled and kind of spiky on top, darker looking than usual. His eyes were sparkling with excitement, and as he came toward me, I wasn't sure I'd be able to let him walk out the door. I totally abused the excellent wine Vincent had opened, taking another big slug of it, which made him wince.
"Where you guys goin'?” I asked, trying to speak calmly.
Matt glanced at Vincent, and then looked at me. "Your generic date. Into town for dinner, then probably a movie. Nothing special."
"Who's driving?" I'd be damned if I'd let Matt get into a car driven by a drunken, undecided Eddie.
"Well, Eddie's gonna pick me up here, so I guess he'll drive."
I put down my wine and went to him, stepping close and looking into his eyes. In the boots, he was a couple inches taller than me, and it was disconcerting to look up. "You have to promise us that you will not get in the car with him if he drinks. You get the keys from him and you drive. Okay?"
Matt nodded, a bit subdued by my forcefulness. "Okay. I'm not dumb, Sean."
"I know you're not, but it's easy to think that it was just one little drink, how much difference can it make? Just use your head."
When Eddie arrived, I made Matt go bring him into the house for a minute. He was dressed in tight jeans and a black sweater, and he looked like a handsome thug, which did little to alleviate my protective instincts. Vincent greeted him cheerfully and said something to him in shotgun Italian. Eddie eyed me for a second before nodding vigorously.
After they left, I turned to Vincent. "What did you say to him?"
"I told him if any harm came to Matt that you'd hack his balls off with a rusty knife and choke him with them, and I'd hold him down while you did it."
That made me feel a little better, but I expected I wouldn't sleep until I knew Matt was safely home again.