Mother always said, 'Darling, it's just as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is with a poor man.'
She certainly proved that adage - six times. Except for her first marriage ending with my father's death when I was 4, none of her marriages lasted very long. But she prided herself on them ending amicably - on her part anyway. 'It's easy to put a smile on their face, darling, without ever losing yours. Just think about the prenuptial and the lovely investments.'
Sighing silently, I watched her train her sights on lucky husband number seven. As far as I was concerned, she was right out of her mind with this one. I didn't care if he was as rich as Croesus. He was also a foul mouthed, vicious Texas bully. If there was one thing I knew, it was bullies. From the time I was 8, I'd been sent away to boarding schools. They changed with the husband but they all had one thing in common with real life.
My last few school years had been spent trapped in a military academy where I learned to keep my mouth closed; four different ways to reach any classroom in the place safely; and how to go limp at the first blow.
If they thought I had a glass jaw and no skills, they eventually got tired of beating up on me. Most of those survival skills came from husband number four. He was an extremely intelligent computer geek without the marketing skills of Bill Gates but an awful lot of great patents. I learned programming from him and how to survive others with fewer brains than myself. He's the only one I actually missed when Mother moved on.
Occasionally, I thought of escaping to him but he'd probably forgotten all about me. I was eminently forgettable. I must be since my mother forgot about me so frequently. At 18, I was a little afraid of why she had me with her instead of packed off to a college for the next four years. I already had a full scholarship to the University of Colorado at Denver but I hadn't told her yet.
She was holding out for Harvard or Oxford University in the UK. At least I think she was. Mother hadn't informed me yet of what she wanted me to do. I had a sinking feeling the blonde bimbo on her Dad's arm was in my immediate future. How was I to take a woman named Barbie seriously, I thought with dismay? Blond hair, unintelligible speech, a vapid look in big blue eyes and her habit of saying 'well, duh' all spoke to me of someone with whom I couldn't spend quality time.
"Barbie Sue, you wait here with Miss Maude while I go take a gander at the no-accounts racing against El Diablo." The Texas wonder detached the clinging vine and beckoned to me while tipping his hat to my mother. "Boy, you come with me. I'll teach you to know a good horse when you see one. Excuse us, ladies."
So I dutifully followed him through the gate between civilization and chaos, writing off my leather loafers without a second thought, not even neat's-foot-oil was going to clean the muck and mud completely off them. Oh well, I thought, maybe it will get me out of the rodeo events tomorrow. The only other pairs I had with me were some runners for my morning jog and black Oxfords for formal wear.
I stayed silent while tuning out the dross Mr. Taylor was spouting. The stable aisle was wide and spacious although dirty. Bits of hay and mud from the practice tracks were littered everywhere and the scent was a combination of manure, sweat and sweet hay. I'd smelled something like that once before. I must have been almost four when my real father took me with him to his stables. I smiled before getting control of my face muscles again to school them to polite interest.
My companion stopped and yelled at two blonds mucking out a stall. "Hah, who let the trash in!"
"Well, Leland, it appears your last bad purchase didn't teach you anything." The older one with hazel eyes straightened and leaned on his pitchfork with a sneer on his face. He had a long, lean body poured into a pair of tight jeans that made my mouth go dry.
While Maude's future husband sputtered, I had a hard time not smiling. The other man was closer to my own age and had long hair tied back with a leather thong. He was wearing a buckskin shirt that looked soft and supple stretched across his broad chest. I'd discovered the year before that all the tits in the world weren't going to turn me on. The boys I'd gone to school with had turned out to be right. I was a fag - at the moment a virgin fag but one of these days I'd finally fix that.
The day I left my mother and her money behind, became my own man and found someone of my own to love. Well, the first two might actually happen, I thought sadly. I was seriously thinking of dying my hair blond and taking tips from Barbie of the pointed boobs. There was always a man hanging around her and if she was still a virgin then I was a bronco-buster.
Having already seen one of those bone-jarring contests, I had a new level of pain to add to my roster. The horses were magnificent and their riders the biggest idiots on the planet. Anyone could tell their mounts were insane and ready to explode but they still got on them and tried to stay on for 30 seconds anyway. And for what - a measly $1,000? Husband five had taught me how to win that with one hand of poker and I made sure I practiced that skill.
"They should have screened their entrants better." Mr. Taylor sneered right back. But it lost a little something in the translation and the man he was trying to intimidate had a much better sneer and a good six inches on him.
Drifting down the aisle away from the confrontation, I stopped in front of a magnificent roan stallion. High necked with a good chest and excellent legs, I watched him watch me as if I was the beautiful one. One step, then another and his breath ruffled my collar. Tentatively I brought up my hand for him to sniff and the velvety soft nose immediately sneezed on it before licking it clean.
Now that was just gross, I thought in dismay and wondered if all semi-wild creatures were so earthy. But he was intent on sniffing my hair next and my dirty hand began to pet the strong jaw line the way I'd seen a rider do earlier. He liked that and I allowed myself a smile at him, confident it wouldn't be seen by the two men yelling at each other down the way.
"Here, give him this." A quiet voice startled me into shrinking back against the half-door. "Woah there, steady, boy."
I found the blue-eyed blond with the buckskin shirt gazing gently at me and I straightened to smile tentatively at him. He handed me half an apple and the roan immediately plucked it from my palm with practiced ease. I swear a look of bliss crossed his long horse face as his strong teeth crunched it into juice.
"Thank you," I said quietly and kept stroking his jaw. "Do all horses like apples?"
"Yep, pretty much all of 'em do." He affectionately tweaked the horse's right ear. "Course, Big Red here, he'd eat 'em morning, noon and night if he had his way. Get fat as a hog and have to be put out to pasture for sure, ol' greedy guts."
"Does he race or . . . um, do something else?" I asked, curious about this new world in which I found myself.
"Yeah, he's a racer. All Chris has to do is promise him an apple at the finish line and this boy flat out streaks for the win." The cowboy scratched lightly between Big Red's eyes and the horse almost crossed them when he went slit-eyed with pleasure. "My name's Vin. What's yours?"
"Oh, forgive me, where are my manners?" Mother would be so vexed with me. "I'm Ezra Standish the Third. My mother and I are here at the rodeo with Mr. Taylor."
"BOY!" The roar made me flinch then straighten, giving Big Red one last pat.
"Sir!" I assumed military posture and strode to his side. I barely kept from going to parade rest.
"We're leaving and I want you to stay away from this part of the stables." His mean blue eyes raked me like a physical blow. "There's nothing but rabble here."
"And winners, Le-land," the hazel-eyed blond drawled out his name. "We've got the race winner right here." His cold sneer was miles more intimidating than Taylor's.
I wondered if he was the 'Chris' of whom Vin had spoken and if Big Red was the horse running against Mr. Taylor's El Diablo. I knew who I would be rooting for tomorrow even if it was silently. And could this sharp-honed man be gentle with his horse or was that Vin's job? Turning, I followed mother's next victim with a polite nod to the other man.
********* Vin *********
Joining Chris, I wondered about the green-eyed enigma I'd just met. "So, that's Taylor, huh?"
"Blowhard," Chris snapped out. "Who's the boy?"
"Ezra Standish the Third," I told him and watched his brain ferret out who that was.
His smile was nasty, to say the least. "Must mean Maude's back on the circuit again. How that woman keeps moving through them is a mystery to me."
"Pretty?" I asked him while grabbing my pitchfork and going back to work on the dirty hay. Nothing I hated worse than a dirty stall for one of our horses.
"Well, as your mama says, 'pretty is as pretty does'." Chris joined me and I had to smile at his imitation.
Mama surely did have a way with words. "He seems to be all right - kind of scared of strangers. Don't think he'd ever met a horse up close and personal like before."
"Huh," Chris huffed. "Would have expected her to have him riding before he was four." We worked in silence for a while. "Now that I remember, the boy's father was killed playing polo. Maybe that frightened her off horses and him, too."
"That's sad, Chris. Poor kid acted like he expected me to hit him for touching Big Red." I sighed. "Has a real pretty smile when he thinks you're not looking."
"No, we are not rescuing him and taking him home." Chris glared at me and I managed to look hurt. "He is not a stray that we can just up and make off with. No matter what Josiah says, we are *not* in charge of saving the world. Not another word."
I shook my head and sighed again. Chris always talked gruff but he was a sucker for green eyes and I had a suspicion we'd be seeing that pretty young man again. Going out to bring in some fresh straw, I let Chris get it spread around the way he wanted and went to get Big Red out of the spare stall and walk him over to this one. The other half of the apple was eagerly eaten and I quietly told him there'd be more tomorrow after the race.
We finished off our chores and stamped our boots hard outside the fixed up bus we called home while we were on the circuit. Nettie met us at the door and made us take off our mucky boots before letting us inside. But she had hot cookies and cold milk waiting for us so we shucked 'em right quick before sliding behind the table on the banquette bench. Buck was already there, munching away while his eyes twinkled at Chris.
"Met me a real nice little filly, Old Man. We going to the masked ball tonight?" He preened his mustache.
"I guess." Chris said glumly, nibbling the edges of the ginger cookie in his hand. "We haven't seen hide nor hair of that shady arms dealer we're looking for. We need to know what that jerk Hassan has up his sleeve beside an Arabian stallion as camouflage. It's somebody here in Texas who's providing his merchandise. But Hassan will be at the ball all dolled up like a peacock."
"Good, good," Buck beamed at us, his eyes already glazed over in anticipation of hot, sweaty crowds of well-dressed women. "Marly Jo is pretty as a picture and got boobs out to here." He pantomimed breasts at least a foot from his chest and I winced at the thought of something so bizarre.
"Buck, why can't you ever go for the smart ones instead of the breast-enhanced ones?" I asked him plaintively. "If'n they're that big, they got to be fake."
"Fake or real, I just love to play with them." He said with a wink. "Just cause you like 'em lean and mean, son, don't mean the rest of us have to."
"Hey, nothing wrong with lean and muscular," I said, flipping the finger at him and thinking longingly of my man who'd stayed at home this trip.
Chris chuckled. "Listen, you two, play nice or I won't let either one of you go to the dance tonight."
"It's a *ball*, Chris." Nettie scolded him gently but put down another plate of cookies.
"Excuse me," Chris smiled at her and grabbed two lemon bars. "The ball, the masked ball, is by invitation only but it seems someone likes Buck here and gave me enough tickets for all of us."
"Cool," I ate another chocolate chip cookie and thought about my costume. I was kind of looking forward to dressing up as a pirate. Idly, I wondered what the kid would be wearing. No matter what he wore, I'd recognize those pretty green eyes. I thought maybe Chris would, too.
********* Chris *********
I called Josiah and asked him about Maude Standish. He promised to do a little research and find out if she was really on the trail of Leland Taylor. Vin was waiting impatiently for his turn when I finished and I handed the cell phone to him so he could sweet talk his lover on my dime. Tousling his hair, I slid out the other side of the banquette and headed to my room at the end of the trailer.
It had been worth every penny to purchase and retrofit the bus to my specifications. I called it a million well spent. Three bedrooms, a full bath and kitchen and kind of a small living room were all fit judiciously into the space. We had another one for the horses and tack. I didn't like traveling without their feed. You never know when somebody is going to try to hobble one of the horses with doctored oats.
Buck just says I'm a paranoid son-of-a-bitch. He should know since he was there when my wife was killed by the hit-an-run driver. Smiling affectionately at the picture of my beautiful Sarah, I started undressing so I could get the shower first. She was only 21 when she died and I was 28 before Buck got me back into the world outside the ranch. I'd put all my energy into building the ranch and my businesses.
He's the one who got me involved in helping the government out 'unofficially'. He was definitely the one who made me realize that mindless dating and mating wasn't for me. About the time I met blue-eyed Vin and hired his lover to manage my twenty or so properties, I realized there was another side to the fence. And right there and then I decided I would never be serious about a woman again.
Vin had opened my eyes to another whole kind of lifestyle and I was content with my life now. I went alone to the functions I had to show up at or took an old friend of the family who was widowed and in her 70's. To scratch the occasional itch, I'd have a one-night stand while on the circuit without any messy aftermaths. Tying the white silk robe around my frame, I crossed to the bathroom and turned on the water. Turning this way and that, I started soaping my body while the hot water pounded on my skin.
I missed the intimacy of a live-in lover sometimes and watching Vin and Josiah made my heart twinge a bit but all in all I was happy with my life. Out of nowhere, I had a sudden vision of jade green eyes in a too young face. And just like that, Little Chris came to embarrassing life. The kid was jail-bait if I ever saw it and I had no business stroking to the memory of a shy smile and solemn poker face.
But hell, he'd never know it and it had been a week since I'd jerked off. Short and slender with a boyish grace that made me want to strip him down and see what the preppie clothes hit - by the time I was done, the hot water was too. Vin was going to have to wait a half-hour for his shower. I moseyed over to my room and the costume hanging up on the closet hook. Nettie had chosen all of them and tailored each one to fit us. We were all going as pirates except for my housekeeper who was going to be an Edwardian lady.
I like black and I usually wear it all the time but for some reason, she'd chosen a green sash for me this time instead of blue. And there were those eyes again, looking up into Big Red's while a slim hand stroked his wide jaw and my stallion devoured an apple. Shaking my head, I finally admitted I was looking forward finding out why he was with Taylor. Wondering what he would be wearing, I pulled on the little-bitty thong that Buck had insisted wouldn't spoil the 'line' on our pants.
If the damn things weren't practically painted on, I wouldn't need the irritating underwear. Although, it did feel like I wasn't wearing anything at all when I pulled on the pants. Black socks went on next then the butter-soft black leather boots. These I'd picked out myself and took every chance I could to wear them. The silk shirt billowed from shoulder to wrist but the front exposed my chest curls, barely covering my nipples.
Looking at myself in the mirror, I chuckled. I definitely looked like I was on the prowl. Maybe someone at the ball would catch my eye and need to be plundered. Grinning, I added a black patch to my left eye and adjusted it so I could see through the special fabric that JD had invented. With a nudge of a finger, the wiring and parts within became a magnifying glass and another nudge turned it into a camera that had enough memory for twenty pictures.
Gadgets were one of the perks of my part-time job and I'd even let the government have a couple of them. But only when our resident genius of CL Technology had developed something better, I thought smugly. Got to keep ahead of the bad guys. Taking a last look, I headed to the living room and hopefully one of Nettie's delicious meals. Munchies at these events left a lot to be desired.
********* Ezra *********
I had a bad feeling about this - a very, very bad feeling.
Why would Mother choose such a revealing costume for me? I moved my hips an inch and listened to the dainty chimes that looped around my low slung waist. The waistband was set much too low for my peace of mind, barely clinging to my narrow hips. You could see my navel and that left me feeling almost naked. The top didn't help much since it barely covered my ribcage and didn't meet in the front at all.
The sleeves were heavy silk as were the flowing legs and at least you couldn't see through them. The shoes were soft with curled toes and I had a vague memory of seeing a movie poster with Robin Williams on it as a cartoon genie. Maybe that was what I was supposed to be? I liked the green silk and the gold trim was very rich looking but I still felt half-naked and was most uncomfortable with this costume.
Joining the others in the living room, I saw with a sinking heart that I matched Barbie. Mother smiled approvingly at me and I bowed to her and Mr. Taylor before going to stand next-to my 'date'. I guess we were both going as genies tonight. I stayed silent while listening to Barbie prattle on about the ball and the cool bands scheduled to play. Dancing - I could hardly wait.
We had two limos so Mr. Taylor could show off his wealth even more ostentatiously than he already had. Barbie's eyes sharpened the moment we were alone. "Ez-zra, does your Mama know ya'all are gay as a goose?"
"I hope not." I shocked myself by saying. "I mean . . . um, is it that noticeable?"
"Well, ye-eah!" She rolled her eyes and puffed out her chest, her impossible breasts almost escaping the heavy silk. "Ya never once even tried to cop a feel and that's just not natural. I expect Dad knows, too. So you might want to watch who he tries to set you up with. He really likes your Mama but he's not going to want you around much."
Now why doesn't that surprise me, I thought with a sigh. "I know the feeling but I was kind of hoping to head out to college and keep out of their way."
"Wow, college, huh?" She nodded sagely. "I can see you there, being brainy and all. But I think Dad has something else in mind. He's been negotiating with this cool Sheik-guy from the Mid-East. The guy gives me the creeps but he was a perfect gentleman with me when Dad had him to dinner. He races horses too so they've got something in common and all."
"Any chance he has three wives and ten children?" I asked without much hope.
"Nah, I think he's got a harem but something in the way he watched Enrico serve dinner tells me they're men rather than women." Barbie smiled and winked at me. "Course I could be wrong and all but I'd watch myself if'n I was you."
"Thanks, Barbie; I appreciate the head's up." I fiddled with one of the bells on my pants. "What's the story with the owner of Big Red?"
"Mr. Larabee and his guys are so cool." Barbie perked up all over, practically licking her lips. "Dad hates the Larabee Stables with . . . like a passion. Big Red beat El Diablo the last time they raced so Dad was like way-y-y pissed when he found out they were here. Buck Wilmington works for him and he's just such a stud. Big, strong, blue eyes to die for and muscles all over," her eyes glazed over and I had to smile.
I was finding Barbie to be nicer than I'd first thought. She was pretty down to earth under all that paint and skimpy clothes. Maybe we could compare notes after the ball on the men we found hot.
"Sorry about that," she giggled and hit my arm with her elbow. "Buck is always a perfect gentleman but he promised me a kiss after I made it to 18 and I'm lookin' forward to him keeping his word. He's a breast guy so I already know he's going to notice me tonight. I'll be sure and point him out. I don't think he's into guys though."
"That's okay, I thought his boss was pretty sexy."
"Mr. Larabee?" She giggled and leaned into me again. "He is drop dead sexy but he's always got a scowl on his face. I heard he was married a long time ago and his wife got killed or something. Sorry."
I blushed. "I wasn't planning on doing anything but look anyway. I'm not sure I'll be able to even look at anybody else while I'm wearing this . . . this costume."
"You look real cute, Ez-zra." She patted my knee. "Ya'll going to be one of the belles of the ball. I'll introduce you to all my friends. Some of them have real cute brothers." And she winked at me.
Maybe it wouldn't be so bad, I thought hopefully. Getting out at the country club, I nervously followed my hosts into the crowded rooms. Mother and Mr. Taylor disappeared one way while Barbie and I went another. I met a lot of people but in the back of my mind, I kept my eye out for the Larabee men. I still hadn't seen them when the evening went all wrong.
I kept having the odd feeling that someone was watching me. I looked around while I was dancing with one of Barbie's many friends. The modern dance meant I got to turn around and really scan the dance floor but I couldn't see anybody watching me specifically. About two hours into the dancing, I caught a glimpse of a pirate that just had to be Mr. Larabee. He was dancing with one of the matrons but he moved just like a villain or how I imagined such a person would move.
What I wouldn't give to be able to dance just once with him? I sighed silently and smiled at the twenty-fifth girl I'd danced with. When we came off the floor, Mr. Taylor was waiting and I felt a chill run up my spine. He was all geniality while he cut me out of my fellow teens and steered me towards one of the balconies off the ballroom floor.
"Got someone I want you to meet, Ezra." He exuded charm which made me feel nauseous. I wished really hard for someone to intercept us but no one I knew was in sight. "You be nice to him now, Boy. He and me, well, we've got a bit of business to do and you're going to be a real help." Three men turned to meet me when Mr. Taylor practically pushed me out the double glass doors.
"Sheik Hassan, I'd like you to meet Ezra Standish the Third. He's real excited about meeting a real Arab sheik. Say hi, Ezra." He moved me much too close to the man in the flowing robes of the desert.
"It is a pleasure, young man. You dance very well." The tall man leaned over me and I could smell some kind of oil he must have rubbed into his dark hair. His hand came up and stroked my cheek while a nasty smile crossed his face. "Yes, you move very well indeed, passionately in fact. Do you move that gracefully in the bedroom, little boy? Shall we find out?"
I gulped hard and shook my head. "Excuse me, Sir, but I think I hear my mother calling me. It was nice to meet you."
But Mr. Taylor didn't move from behind me and one of the big men behind the sheik grabbed my arm and plunged a needle into it. I didn't even have time to struggle before falling into velvet darkness.
********* Chris *********
Something wasn't right. I gazed about the crowded room trying not to admit to myself that I was looking for a short graceful figure in a revealing harem outfit. Buck had already danced once with Barbie Sue and given her the birthday kiss he'd promised her two years ago. That was my Buck; they were waiting around the block for him to give him their turn.
"Chris," Vin appeared beside me and the little frown told me he too thought something was wrong. "I just saw Taylor and Hassan shake hands but one of his bodyguards is missing - and Ezra is nowhere in sight. I think that scumbag bought weapons and a boy toy, too."
"Damn," I felt the vein in my forehead start to throb. "Where is Hassan's jet parked?"
"Lubbock Airport," Vin had scoped that out first thing. "But I just checked with Jimmie and he said they've got the left engine in pieces on the hanger floor. He's not taking him out that way. Maybe they're hittin' the road with their horses to Dallas?"
"Mrs. Baker, here's Chris." A familiar voice came from behind my shoulder and I turned irritably to find Rick Seitz, the man who'd sold me the retrofitted bus three years before. "Chris Larabee, please meet Mrs. Eugene Baker. She's looking to hit the road in one of our buses."
And something clicked inside my brain. "Rick, it's a pleasure to see you. Mrs. Baker, my housekeeper would be glad to show you our unit tomorrow morning." Casting a quick glance over the crowd, I spotted Nettie headed my way. She caught my eye and I waved impatiently for her to join us so I could palm the Baker woman off on her. After the quickest introductions I'd ever made, I dragged Rick aside for a little chat.
"Rick, did you sell a bus to Sheik Hassan?" I dropped my voice and kept a sharp eye out for eavesdroppers.
"Well . . . yeah, I did. We delivered it this morning." His gaze was curious but he's not a salesman for nothing. "He's got it parked about a mile from the rodeo at that roadhouse called 'Billy's'. Is there something wrong with him or his money?"
"I'd make sure the check has cleared." I gave him a head's up and watched him stand up straighter. "Have you got the registration information handy?"
He got out his PDA and I gave him the address of the ranch computer so he could send it straight there. My cell phone was tucked into the sash around my waist and I gestured to Rick to follow me out of the crowded ballroom. In an alcove near the front door, I called Josiah and told him what to look for. He promised to get right on it and I let Rick go back to his prospective buyer after wringing him dry of information on Hassan.
I was antsy and I couldn't help but think of the youngster in the hands of the slimy gun runner. Vin thought he was an innocent and I was afraid he was right. Someone beautiful and virginal would be right up Hassan's alley. Was he awake and fearful or had they drugged him so he wouldn't put up a fight?
"Ready to go, boss." Vin's voice came from my side. "Buck is checking with Barbie Sue about what she might know. You know, she's a pretty nice girl under all that makeup."
I couldn't help but laugh at his judicious tone. He was only 21 himself, barely legal but he sounded as old as his 35 year old lover. "Well, her mother was a pretty practical woman who died too young of bone cancer. Still, Barbie was close to her and hopefully the bimbo stage is just that, something she'll grow out of."
"Amen, to that, brother - as Josiah would say." Vin said with a twinkle in his eye.
"Amen, brothers," Buck appeared like the cat he sometimes channeled. Barbie Sue was by his side with a determined look on her face. "We have a helper, gentlemen."
"I told Ezra to be careful." Her big blue eyes were more serious than I'd ever seen them. "Dad cut him out of my crowd about a half an hour ago and he just disappeared. The sheik-guy is real scary but he doesn't like women much and Ezra looked mighty tasty."
Yes, he did, I said silently. "Buck, this could be dangerous. Barbie Sue doesn't need to be in harm's way."
"I can help, I really can." She said with a firming of her lips. "The sheik doesn't think much of women but those two bodyguards of his, well they like us plenty. You're going to need a decoy to get them out of the way and I can do that."
I wanted to argue but she was right and the way Buck was hovering over her, she'd be well protected. "All right, but you follow orders and don't take any risks." I waited for her nod then led the way outside, thinking furiously. We had two vehicles, one car that Nettie drove and the pickup we used on our trips.
The plan was simple. Converge on the newly delivered RV, take out the bodyguards, rescue the boy and try to discover where the illegal guns were being held. Once we found them, I could call in the local ATF and we could go back to the rodeo. Big Red had a race to win.
Actually, it went pretty well. Barbie decoyed one of them out by screaming at her 'mean ol' boyfriend'. The other one watched from the doorway and I took him out with a sleeping dart while Buck showed the other one what an all round American cowboy could do in defense of a woman's honor. While Buck and Vin took care of tying them up, I slipped inside the bus and went looking for Ezra.
And I found him in the end bedroom, naked as the day he was born, blindfolded, gagged and shackled to the four posts of the opulent bed. The whole room looked like a low-grade porno film set and Ezra shone in the middle of it like a diamond in the gutter, his creamy skin glowing against the blue silk coverlet. He was shaking so hard I could feel it from where I was standing.
"Ezra, it's Chris Larabee." I told him everything I was doing before I did it. "I'm going to take off your blindfold first then the gag." Slowly I eased the silk off his face and looked down into drugged eyes. Very little green was left, the pupils were so big and the long eyelashes fluttered closed against the strong light. "Hold on, Ezra, I'll dim them for you." Once I'd done so from the switch on the bedside table, he looked a little more relaxed.
It took a minute to untie the cruelly tight scarf that gagged him and he kept swallowing convulsively while I worked. "It's going to be okay, Ezra. We're going to get you out of here and back home safe and sound." It finally came loose and I threw it on the floor while looking at the steel cuffs binding him to the posts. "Damn, these are the real thing. I think we've got a pair of bolt cutters in the car."
He coughed to clear his throat but once started he couldn't stop. I dashed to the open door of the bathroom and brought back a glass of water. Holding up his head, I got him to take a few sips. "M-m-mr. Larab-b-bee, th-thank you. Oh my, I'm n-n-naked."
"I'll find you something to wear as soon as we get you out of these shackles, Ezra." I set the glass down and headed for the door. "I'll be right back."
Vin was on the other side of the door and he must have read my mind because he had the bolt cutters in one hand and a set of keys in the other. "Thought you might be needing these, boss. The kid okay?"
********* Ezra *********
I heard Vin's voice too but my senses were jumping all over the map. Sounds were soft then loud, my skin crawled with a hundred ants, my throat felt drier than the desert and my eyesight was unreliable. Something soft floated down onto my naked body and I would have jumped but I was still chained to the bed.
"Sorry, Ezra, it's just a robe to cover you up." Mr. Larabee's voice was like satin to my ears and I smiled my thanks to him. "Hold on there and we'll get these cuffs off." A sharp crack and the first one let go. He handed them over me to Vin who got the second cuff.
My arms felt like lead weights were still attached and warm hands briskly rubbed some circulation back into the right one. It felt like sharp daggers prickling my skin and I bit my lip to keep from crying out. I realized it had to be done and I tried to help by sliding my left arm down to my side but it felt totally unresponsive, like a dead tree limb just cut off the tree.
"There ya go, Ezra." Vin's satisfied tones came from the foot of the bed where he'd just finished cutting off the chains that had held my legs so open. I blushed again at what they must think of my wanton pose. They were easier to close than my arms were and I felt a little better at being covered and able to see again.
"Thank you, gentlemen. I very much appreciate your aid." I tried to sit up but Mr. Larabee had to help me. His hands were so warm and strong I wanted to melt into them and beg him to never stop but that would never do. "Were you gentlemen also looking for a shipment of guns?"
"Whoo-whee," Vin's whoop startled me into shrinking into Mr. Larabee's arms. "Sorry, Ezra but you're just a treasure mine of information."
"Vin, go see if Buck and Barbie Sue are ready to go. I think it's time we call in the ATF and let those boys handle it from here." His commanding tones made Vin nod and leave us alone in what looked like the inside of a Bedouin tent. "Ezra, let's get you dressed so we can get out of here. What did you hear?"
He made sure I was upright before moving to open doors. Holding up the shreds of my costume, he shrugged and let them fall to the floor, continuing his search. I cleared my throat and gave him the bits and pieces I'd heard through the haze of the drugs.
"One of the bodyguards told the other that they'd have to flip a coin to choose who would stay with me until the 'Master' arrived and who would go to the air field to take delivery of the weapons. They argued a little but I zoned out for a bit." I used my right hand to rub my left arm, preferring the pins and needles to the numbness. "But I heard the words 'hangar 13' at least twice."
His smile was bright and he held out a long white caftan he'd pulled off a hanger. "It will be a little long on you but I don't think you're in for much walking just yet. I wonder why they were speaking English?"
"They weren't. Husband number three was from the Middle East and he taught me Arabic." I would have protested the need for his help but he matter-of-factly stripped off the sheet and slid the caftan over my head while easing my leaden arms into the sleeves. For a moment, I felt about five years old again and thought of my nanny dressing me each morning. She'd been a stern no-nonsense care giver but I'd always felt safe when she was there. How sad was it that I felt safe with this man I'd only met today?
Keeping my sigh to myself, I stood shakily with his help. The heavy linen pooled around my bare feet and he chuckled a little at my expense but I couldn't resent it. I did look pretty comical. "Ezra, I'm afraid you're going to have to go barefoot. There aren't any shoes in here at all. How do you feel?"
I immediately stood up straighter, reeling a little as the world spun around me. "I-I'm fine, Sir."
"I can see that," he said dryly before scooping me up in his arms. "Good lord, Ezra, you need to eat more. You don't hardly weigh anything at all."
Blushing, I clung a little tighter to the broad shoulders above me. "I know I'm pretty scrawny, Sir. I'm sorry to be such a burden."
"Call me Chris and don't be silly." He snorted and angled me out of the front door of this odd shaped house. "You're not scrawny, you're slender - a mite too slender. My Nettie will soon put some meat on your bones."
Damn, he was married again. I decided to just soak up the impressions of being held so I could use them later in a fantasy or two. Too bad I had to play the damsel-in-distress instead of the dashing hero. I couldn't even ride a horse to come to his aid, just had to sit still and be rescued. He carried me out to a pickup where Vin was waiting for us and I had to stifle a laugh.
So much for fairy tales, Chris Larabee was my shining knight in a bright red Ford. I was just as silly as he'd called me.
"Ez-zra," Barbie called my name and I smiled at her exuberance. "You okay, boy?"
"I'm fine but very glad to be out of there." I told her honestly while my gaze sized up the big man beside her. This had to be the Buck she'd been so dreamy over. He really did have pretty blue eyes and muscles everywhere.
"Buck, you and Barbie Sue bring the bodyguard with you. We'll let the ATF decide what to do with him. Vin, you can drive Escamillo." His orders were said quietly but everybody snapped to it. Buck opened the passenger door of the truck for his boss and Chris slid me onto the bench seat before climbing in right after me.
I was squished in between Vin behind the wheel and Chris on my other side. It felt really good and I soaked up more impressions for later when the adventure was over. Splitting a look between the two of them, I asked, "Escamillo?"
"It's the truck's nickname." Vin snickered a bit. "We'd already got a Big Red down in the stables when this little beauty came along."
Chris chuckled. "Could have been worse, Josiah wanted to name it El Rojo."
"Hey, I liked that name," Vin mock frowned at the man beside me. "You feelin' better, Ezra?"
"Oh yes, I'm fine." I reassured him although I was feeling a trifle nauseous. "Um, is there any more water available?"
"Hold on," Chris twisted around and fished for something behind the seat. "Here you go. Drink it slowly. We don't know what he drugged you with."
Water had never tasted so good. I sipped it gingerly and stopped long before I wanted to. "He injected me with something and it worked really fast. It felt like I was falling into the dark almost at once. I only had time to be a little scared."
Chris growled beside me. "Bastard, I'm looking forward to watching him go down."
I nodded silently. I too was looking forward to seeing the sheik in handcuffs. But what about Mr. Taylor and my mother? "Gentlemen, what will happen to the . . . others in the plot?"
"You worried about your mama?" Vin smiled at me. "I doubt she knew what was happening."
"Taylor however is a different story. He delivered you to Hassan, didn't he?" Chris' growl was quite effective and I nodded a bit shakily. "He'll have to do some fancy explaining to get out of this one. Not only did he sell you to Hassan, he also sold him some stolen guns the military has been looking for."
"I see," and I did. I was lucky that while they were looking for the guns, they'd found me or I might have taken a nasty trip into slavery. "Thank you very much."
"You're welcome, Ezra." Chris tousled my hair and I blushed again.
********* Vin *********
Something told me that Ezra didn't quite have it right but I would get to the bottom of that a little later. We were pulling into the fairgrounds and showing our IDs to the gate guards. I wanted to be home at the trailer in the worst way. Better yet, I wanted Josiah to be waiting there for me. Not this trip unfortunately, I thought glumly but then perked up. Homecoming would be even sweeter.
Parking as close as I could, I watched Chris matter-of-factly pick Ezra up in his arms and walk him into the bus. Nettie was fussing over the boy the minute she saw him and I smiled at the motherly affection he was going to be smothered with. I kind of had the idea he really needed some with the mother he had. I was just lucky my mama loved me and loved my lover, too.
Buck and Barbie Sue joined us in the living room for a pow-wow. Nettie was finding clothes for Ezra while Chris got out the cookies and milk. We looked like a pretty scary bunch with our pirate costumes and Barbie looked like a genie that had had a hard night out. She was leaning into Buck's side and trying to stifle a yawn while he had his arm around her.
Unlike his usual playacting with his dates, he looked more like a guy with his best girl. Odd, but I kind of approved. Barbie grew on you when she was being an everyday person instead of a bimbo-in-training. Maybe both of them had grown up a little tonight. Now if we could just get Chris to see the young man he'd rescued as more than just a boy in trouble, I thought with a gleam in my eye.
He was already feeling protective of him, his eyes continually going back to the hall that led to his room where Nettie had taken him. He hadn't wanted to put him down either until our housekeeper scolded and made him. That was a good start and the fact that Ezra was feeling something for the big blond helped, too. This could all work out just fine, I thought while finishing another cookie.
Chris mostly spent that time on the phone with the Dallas bureau of the ATF. Judge Travis from the Denver office had smoothed our way with the promise of help if we came across anything. Being 'unofficial' was great some ways and not so great others. It meant we could do things under the table but it also meant some of the agencies were kind of standoffish when we got results. I think they were just jealous of our cool toys.
I'd never be able to do it fulltime, too constricting but I did enjoy our little adventures when they popped up from time to time. And this one looked like it might be just what the doctor ordered. Looking up, I saw an Ezra transformed. He was wearing a green plaid flannel shirt tucked into a pair of my jeans with my second best boots on his feet. He looked good enough to eat. Chris had his mouth hanging open and Buck chuckled before pinching his leg hard.
"Ow," Chris glared at his oldest friend then put a smile on his face. "Ezra, join us. We're just talking about what's going to happen next."
Nettie pushed him gently over to the bench where Chris slid down just enough so he could sit next to him. "Have a cookie, Ez'. I baked them fresh this afternoon. Well, yesterday afternoon since it's 2 am. And drink your milk."
"Thank you, Ma'am." He paused and blushed when she shook her finger at him. "I mean, Miss Nettie."
We had our little confab while demolishing the entire jar of cookies. Luckily, Nettie had kept back a container of lemon bars 'cause when the Feds came, they sure did need some sweetening. Somehow, Ezra being kidnapped just got swept under the table, the guns taking center stage. Barbie Sue and her friend Ezra, just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Her costume really helped, several of the agents had yet to raise their eyes to her face. She did a real good job of jiggling whenever something tricky came up. Like how we knew where the guns were. That's when it came out that Ezra knew six languages fluently including Arabic. One of the agents muttered something about Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys under his breath but Chris quelled him with a single glare.
He was damn good at that. He did a little more glaring while the doctor looked Ezra over and I thought that was a real good sign he was feeling something more than just protective about him.
McClinty, the lead agent, got them back on track and when they finally left at 4 am, we all needed a couple of hours sleep. Nettie and Barbie took Chris' bed while we made up the banquette for Ezra's bed. Chris took Nettie's bed and Buck and I laid our heads down on our own pillows. Big Red's race was in the afternoon and we had a lot of prep work to do before then.
********* Ezra *********
I never had such a wonderful time in my life. Even with too little sleep and the remnants of the drug still in my system, I felt great. Chris let me help groom Big Red while Barbie helped Buck with all the tack. I may never be able to smell leather polish again without getting instantly hard. Working alongside of the tall blond was both a dream and a nightmare. I've never been so clumsy. I dropped the brush twice and one of the ribbons for Big Red's mane got irredeemably ruined when a big hoof stepped right on it.
Luckily, Miss Nettie had brought spares. The relief I'd felt when I realized Chris wasn't married and she was only his housekeeper had almost overwhelmed me. And she was a good cook, too. I hadn't eaten cookies and milk since I was a child. Mother still hadn't shown up to drag me away and I childishly hoped I'd get to at least see the race before she came and claimed me.
Part of me still wondered if she'd known while part of me knew she hadn't. It wouldn't be a good enough return on her investment to simply hand me over to be despoiled by a Middle Eastern potentate. She was sure to be holding out for marriage and the only place two men could marry was in Canada. I paused and smiled into the mane I was braiding. Wouldn't it be satisfying to elope to Canada with Chris?
Then my smile faltered and I went back to work. He didn't want me. He just felt sorry for me. This was as close to him as I would get and I should be grateful for every moment I could store up. Even when Mother took me off, maybe I could still take the scholarship to the University in Denver. Then maybe I could volunteer at his ranch. Free labor was sure to be welcome if I promised to learn fast and do everything he told me.
Ranches were expensive and maybe I could help out in other ways. Vin said they boarded horses so maybe I could buy one and board it there. Then I'd have an 'in' so I could spend time out there. Part of me knew that wouldn't come true but it would be a nice daydream for when I was off doing what Mother wanted.
The race was exciting and Barbie Sue and I cheered as loud as we could for Big Red. Vin was the jockey and he looked beautiful crouched over the stallion's long neck. He didn't even carry a whip, the way the other jockeys did. He said Big Red didn't need one because he ran for apples. Chris looked really good when he met them in the winner's circle.
Barbie Sue and I got to go too and we both had extra apples for him that he ate right off of our hands before nudging our pockets to see if we had anymore. I don't think I ever laughed that hard in my life while Barbie scolded him gently for being unmannerly. Even better, Chris' arm was around my shoulder and I was beginning to hope that maybe he was feeling something more than just kindness towards me. I'd never had so much fun but all it took was one sentence to bring me back to reality.
"Ezra P. Standish, what in the world are you wearing?" Mother's dulcet tones carried over the crowd around Big Red.
********* Chris *********
I stiffened and turned to meet Maude Standish. "Vin, why don't you take Big Red for a couple more cool-down laps? Buck and Barb, we'll meet you back at the bus. Mrs. Standish, we need to have a little talk."
"Mr. Larabee," she acknowledged me with a cool look. "I doubt you have anything to say to me that I would care to hear. Although, it does appear you went to some slight trouble on my behalf when you found my son."
The implication that I'd stumbled across him while on my daily constitutional was no doubt what she would prefer the racing officials to think. 'Slight trouble', I gritted my teeth and smiled at her. "This is not the place for this conversation. Why don't we walk over to the stables?"
One perfectly shaped eyebrow raised slowly. "The stables? My dear man, I do not frequent stables nor does my son."
Ezra straightened his shoulder even tighter. "I have quite enjoyed my time in these stables, Mother. Perhaps I will even learn to ride one of these days."
She shivered and it seemed like an honest reaction. "Over my dead body, Ezra, will you get on one of those great beasts."
"Better a horse than the one who had him in his hands last night," I stepped so close; only she could hear me. "The bus then will be a much more private place for our chat. Come along, Mrs. Standish."
Ezra fell in on her other side and we walked briskly under the stands where the audience was waiting for the start of the second race of the afternoon. Not another word was said while we walked and I wondered what Ezra was thinking. He'd been so joyful while we were getting Big Red ready for the race except when he stopped to think. Then he got all quiet and closed off like he was now.
What was going on inside that beautiful head? Would he like my solution to his future? I couldn't be imagining the sparks that flew between us. The way he trembled when I touched him or the way he gazed up at me with such joy dancing in his eyes. I was no gambler but for Ezra, I would give it my best shot.
Nettie welcomed us in and served tea to our guest while breaking out a fresh batch of cookies and milk for the rest of us. Maude took in the interior of our home-away-from-home silently, much like her son had done the night before. It was a little worn around the edges but that was because it was our home away from home. No palace but a comfortable place to be.
"Mrs. Standish, do you understand just how much danger Ezra was in last night when Taylor gave him to Sheik Hassan?" I decided to start as I meant to go on. Ezra blushed beside me and I rubbed his arm under the table.
Maude stiffened all over and her eyes narrowed. "What in the world are you talking about? Ezra was with Barbie last night."
"No, Mother, I was taken by Mr. Taylor to meet a man he called Sheik Hassan, stuck with a needle, injected with a drug and conveyed to a silken prison." Ezra took a deep breath and clasped my hand hard. "I awoke stark naked, chained to a bed, gagged and blindfolded. I was terrified beyond anything I've ever know before and I lay there for some time before Mr. Larabee found me."
Maude sat there frozen for a long moment while I could feel Ezra's heart breaking beside me. Then she arose and moved towards him, sliding her arms around his shoulders. "Ezra."
It was just a whisper but we both heard her. Ezra let go of my hand and tentatively reached to hold her, too. I actually saw tears in Maude Standish's eyes and part of me cheered while part of me wondered if it was real.
"Dear God." Her broken whisper hinted at true emotion. "Are you sure you're all right? Did a doctor see you? What was the drug?"
"We had one of the ATF doctors check him out." I told her and watched while she brushed a lock of dark hair off his forehead. "He's young and he should be completely free of it inside of a day. It was just a sedative."
"And I thought I could protect you from the evil in the world." Maude patted a thin cheek. "You look so much like your father, Ezra. I thought if I kept you away from dangerous pursuits like horses and fast cars, you'd be safe. Instead I led you straight into danger."
"Chris saved me." Ezra said simply. "You also need to know that I'm gay, Mother."
For a moment she looked every bit of her age of 37. Then the blue eyes cleared and a small smile crossed her beautifully painted lips. "Now, that I did know, son. And is there a reason why it's more important right now that I know it?"
A side glance from sparkling green eyes told me he was starting to feel his oats. "There might be, Mother. I also have a full scholarship to the University of Colorado at Denver that I'd really like to take up."
Damned if I didn't feel like I was back in college. Maude's eyebrow did that arch thing again and I almost squirmed in my seat. Bite the bullet, Old Man, I told myself. Start as you mean to go on. "University, huh? I think that sounds like a fine idea. Between classes we can teach you about a ranch is run. We're always looking for a good man to help out with the horses."
And the loving, I said silently, lessons in bareback riding could definitely be arranged.
********* Maude *********
Well, this wasn't exactly the way I'd thought this visit would end. I really must hire a better grade of investigator for my next search. How he missed the gun smuggling and cruel blood sports in which Mr. Taylor was involved I can't imagine. I still found myself reaching out for Ezra when a flash of anxiety would wash through me. I lost the best part of myself when his father died and I vowed I'd never let anyone that close again.
I began pushing my son away at that moment and the older he got the more I had to work at it. He was so much like the man I loved in looks and temperament. When I realized he was gay, I began working extra hard to find someone who might steer him towards the heterosexual side. But fate brought him into circles I'd always steered clear of. Even though Mr. Taylor's daughter had seemed a goodhearted wench, the fact that we were to all meet at a rodeo, of all places, should have sounded every warning bell I had.
But it didn't and Ezra fell head over heels for an entirely unsuitable man. He was only the richest man in Colorado for heaven's sake. However, I would have to make allowances for the fact that he seemed as head over heels about my son. Ezra would be safe with him, even if he did learn how to ride those great beasts. Our travels to the Larabee ranch had shown me that it wasn't quite the back of beyond I'd feared.
Barbara had come with us and I could have told Mr. Wilmington that trying to escape was a lost cause. Now that she was an orphan, she had complete control of her father's fortune, sadly emasculated by the hefty fines the government had levied against his estate. Who knew he'd be such a fool as to try to shoot his way out of the standoff at his spread?
Anyway, Barbara had confided in me that she'd been mostly afraid of her father for the last couple of years and acted the bimbo so he wouldn't take her seriously. She also admitted she'd been in love with Buck since she was 15 and everything she'd learned had been about catching him.
I gave her a few more sure-fire tips and sat back to watch her reel him in. He didn't fight very hard actually so it was only three months later that I planned their wedding and saw to all the little details. I suggested she hold out for a Hawaiian honeymoon but instead they decided to go camping in the Rockies. Well, she was young and if she was lucky, she'd never have to make another such decision.
I had a little bet with Nettie that she'd be pregnant within three months since I knew she was a virgin when they wed. Nettie thought it would be six months. I should be back from Europe by then. I needed a vacation from all this rustic living. Ezra was in school and happy. I'd gotten to plan and oversee a wedding. It was definitely time to go take the waters at Wiesbaden.
********* Ezra *********
We said goodbye to Mother and watched her private jet take off for Europe. It had been a really hectic six months but I wouldn't trade a single day of it - not even the scary parts. I was taking classes in subjects I really liked and loving the campus living. But on weekends, I headed for the ranch and a different kind of freedom. I'd found a man who loved me and who I could love in return. I was doing work I liked with people and horses who were friends instead of acquaintances.
And best of all, Chris had taught me all about making love. Both giving and receiving, he'd shown me how to make my body sing and make him sing as well. He took a long time to show me everything but that was all right because he showed me how much he loved me with every stroke and lick.
Mother and I had a long talk about love and marriage and what makes a relationship successful. She told me to trust Chris and I did. I knew he'd never hurt me and although parts of making love were kind of painful at first, he always took the greatest good care of me that he could. Which was exactly right, she told me with a hug and a kiss to my forehead.
One of these days I think Mother will be planning our commitment ceremony. I guess she was right about everything. I'd already told him I loved him when I found out how rich he was. He'd had to pout before I could calm down after he told me. He really does have a heart-rending sad look and it was in full force before I gradually took in the fact that he trusted me.
He trusted me enough to love him with or without money. I'm so lucky I found him that day at the rodeo. Mother was right. It really is as easy to fall in love with a rich man as it is a poor one. But it's the love that makes all the difference.
The end of Mother Always Said