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PART ONE Ethan
PART TWO Jake
PART THREE Ethan
PART FOUR Ethan
PART FIVE Jake
PART SIX Ethan
PART SEVEN Jake
PART EIGHT Ethan
PART NINE Jake
There's something about half-broke horses and half-broke boys that draws me like a moth to a flame - the barely tamed wildness, the gleam in their eye. The way they're always testing their limits and yours, pushing to see how much they can get away with, waiting for you to rein them in.
Maybe that's why I always got the roughest of the new kids on the Bar H Ranch. High school kids from the suburbs with dreams of the Wild West. Farmer's kids looking to show their parents they don't need help. Strong, wild boys who think rules are for people too stupid to break them.
Not old enough to be their fathers, too old to be a peer, I acted as a mentor to these kids. Showing them how to be the best they could be; competent, strong, dependable. I listened to them rail against their fathers, cry over women and, less frequently, men. I helped them make that final leap from boys to men, then sent them on their ways.
Of course that was all before Danny Sasaki.
Danny came in from California on the wings of a March snowstorm. His beat-up four-by-four roared onto the ranch and skidded into a ditch on the side of the north fence. He jumped out with a whoop, asking for the boss.
Trouble oozed from his every pore. That swaggering walk, the slow, crooked grin. Dark hair and dark eyes. Twenty-one years old to my thirty-five and he wrapped me around his finger day one.
I pushed my way through the knee-high wet snow and dragged him over to the main house. I watched him charm Mrs. Harrington, watched the twins grow starry-eyed, sensing a new playmate in the making. He watched me watching him.
I led him to the bunkhouse. He was the only one there that night. He kicked the snow off his boots against the doorframe, shook the wet flakes off his hat, and turned around to me. The look in his eye was unmistakable.
"Well, I think this job is gonna work out even better than I thought," he said, sauntering over to me. His hand pressed against my chest, fisting up the material of my shirt as he walked me backwards against the wall.
Any protest burned up in the heat from his body and the force of his kiss.
I'm not that kind of guy, I thought even as I reached for him. Apparently I was. I never broke Danny. He brought out a side of me I'd never seen before, made me feel like the hot-blooded adolescent I had never been.
Anyone on the outside looking in would have known it wasn't going to end well, that it was all going to go down in flames.
And when it did, when real flames cost Danny his life and left me half-crippled, I only had myself to blame.
I was lucky, they said. Luckier than poor Danny, that's for sure.
My body healed, more or less. But I knew I'd never be the man I was before. Then Jake Kearny and those damn bees showed me how to be a better one.
Late summer in the Colorado foothills isn't everybody's cup of tea but it's my favorite time of the year. Months of hot sun suck the moisture from the ground and the air. The green of spring is long gone and in the hills the rivers run slow and shallow. You can feel the first hints of fall in the cool breeze coming off the mountain. The sun sinks earlier and the twilights linger.
First time I drove into Denver, I thought it looked like Kabul. Or what Kabul would have looked like if people hadn't torn down and burned every tree around for miles for fuel and shelter. The way the mountains curved around the city, the blue sky, and desert air that sucked the moisture right from your skin. A lot fewer IEDs and explosive Toyota Corollas, though.
When I pull through the gate to the Bar H ranch, it's the softest part of the day. Pink clouds hang over the mountains to the West and in the East the blue sky shifts to black. My headlights pick their way carefully through the dusk. Last time I was up here was for the interview, and that was in broad daylight.
Two border collies run alongside the truck, barking an alarm and greeting at the same time. A tall, dark-haired man sitting on the top rail of the post and rail fence lining the driveway watches me pull up. A kid, arm in an elaborate cast that connects to his hip, sits next to him. A fat-tired pony cart, miniature horse standing patiently between the bars, holds another kid. They're a carbon copy of the first but with a leg in a cast from hip to hoof. They look like brother and sister, maybe twins, but they're at the age where it's hard to tell.
Not sure where to park, I pull my beat-up F150 to a stop in front what I assume is my new boss. I lean across the bench seat and roll down the passenger side window. "Hey, I'm Jake Kearny. I'm looking for Ethan Jennings."
"You the new guy?" the kid in the cart asks. Definitely a girl. She looks about twelve, her wild red hair in a rough ponytail, flannel shirt tied around her waist and jeans cut off at the one knee to make room for the cast. A pair of crutches is wedged against her side.
"Yeah. New intern. I'm here to help with the bees."
She scowls. "Those are mine and Poll's bees."
The man next to her gives her a level look. "You and tweedle-dumber up to building a fence right now?"
"No," she huffs.
"You want a bear to destroy the hives?"
She exhales a soul-deep sigh. "No."
"Okay then." He eases himself off the top rail, stretching his back when he hits the ground. As he walks to the truck, I notice a slight limp. "I'm Ethan."
"Nice to meet you. Where should I park my truck?"
He points towards a patch of bare ground in front of free-standing garage that looks big enough for a fleet of cars. "There's good."
After I park, I assure the dogs I am no threat and tell them all how good they are. They are good dogs, I'm sure, but I'm really just buying time to check out the new boss. Tall, broad-shouldered, dark haired, with a short beard showing some salt and pepper, he is the best looking guy I've seen in a while. I like the fit of his jeans and the worn down leather of his boots.
When he shakes my hand, I have to look up to make eye contact. I like that. I like the gray in his beard and the laugh lines around his eyes. Oh, boy. I lick my dry lips, a habit my mother has been trying to break me of my whole life, and I'm sure I see his eyes flick down to my mouth. After eighteen months on a NATO military base that was eighty-five percent male, I know that look in any language. Whether he knows it or not, he's interested. I'm not sure what if anything to do about it. I'm not sure about a lot of things right now.
He gives me smile as he pulls his hand away.
The girl shakes my hand over the pony's head. "I'm Cassie. Cassie Harrington," she adds. Ranch owner's daughter, good to know. "That's my brother, Pollux. But you can call him Poll. Everyone does."
"And who's this fine looking guy?" I scratch the mini horse behind his ears.
"Teeny. He's twelve. Like me and Poll."