Steven, I know this has to be hard for you but I really do want to get to know you better. I want to tell you a little about whats been happening in my life over the past few years so youll understand, Buck said as he started the engine and put the truck in gear.
Heading back to the office, Buck tried to order his thoughts. He had reached the parking garage before he had things together enough to begin. Your mother and I met about 12 years ago. She was the prettiest flower in the garden, fire red hair and creamy complexion, she rocked my world. We moved in together after only a few weeks, it seemed so right. I proposed to her on Valentines Day. I dont know what went wrong between us. Several months later, she left me. I got a letter saying that she was in Paris. I never knew about you, I swear.
A hard look had settled in Stevens dark eyes and he scowled at Buck as if challenging his words. Thats what they all say.
Its the truth. Anyway, I joined the Denver Police. A few years ago, Chris was asked to head up a new team for the ATF and he asked me to join him. Last year, during a raid, he found JD and Vin in an abandoned warehouse. Those boys had nothing except the clothes on their backs. Chris and I decided to try to provide a home for them. I love JD more than I ever thought possible. Id like a chance to come to love you the same way if youll let me.
Yeah, right. You feel obligated. Im not stupid! My momll come back for me. She will!
I hope she does if thats what you want. In the mean time, can we at least try to live together? Well do whatever we can to make things right for you.
Whatever. Listen, are we gonna sit here all afternoon? Im kind of bored, Steven whined. Just then, Bucks cell phone rang.
Buck, are you headed back? Travis just closed the offices and said to take tomorrow off. Were supposed to get more snow overnight, Chris said.
Were in the garage. Do you want to pick up the boys and meet me here?
Already got the boys, they closed the daycare a half hour ago. See you in a couple of minutes.
While Steven was getting in the back seat, the elevator doors opened and JD came flying across the garage. Da! Did you drop him off at Ms. Netties office?
No, Little Bit, I told you that hes staying with us for a while, Buck said, catching the slump in Vins shoulders where there had been hope a moment ago.
Were picking up Ezra on the way out, his place is without water, the pipes froze, the blond informed as he climbed into the truck. Buck suspected that the southerner was coming to run interference while they figured out what to do with the boys.
How about we stop and pick up a couple of buckets of chicken for supper since Mrs. Potter wasnt there to fix supper for us? Buck suggested, momentarily forgetting that Steven wouldnt eat meat.
Well have to stop at the market and pick up something for Steven, too. Why dont you call Gloria and see if she needs anything? Chris suggested.
They picked up Ezra and made quick introductions. Gloria said she could use a few things and gave Buck a list, so they stopped at the supermarket.
Steven, why dont you come with me so you can show me what you like to eat. Ezra, do you mind sitting here with the boys? Buck asked before getting out.
No, I dont mind sitting with them. I did rather miss our regular gathering over the weekend. This will give us a chance to catch up, the southerner said, flashing a bright smile at the boys. After the other two adults and Steven entered the crowded store, JD unfastened his car seat harness and climbed over to the front. Ezra moved against the passenger door to give the child room to maneuver and soon found the child buried in the warmth of his coat, crying.
JD? What is it? Whats wrong? Almost immediately, Vin vaulted over the seat and piled on top of the other boy.
Da wont want me anymore now that hes got his own borned son, JD sobbed before burrowing more tightly into the southerner. Vin said nothing but shuddered as he snuggled up behind his young friend.
Im certain that you are mistaken, JD. Buck loves you and having his own biological son wont change his feelings for you. It will just take some getting used to, Ezra said as he comforted both boys. In his heart, he prayed that his words were true. Everything they had built with the boys was so fragile that every little thing shook them.
Vin debated telling Uncle Ezra what Steven had said to him but he held back. He didnt want Ezra thinking he was tattling or trying to make trouble for the new kid. A thought popped into his head and he blurted out the question that followed it. If we has to give up Ringo and Elvis, can they come and live at your house? You have a back yard and everything. They would like it there with the big Torkus and everything and we could visit them.
I dont wanna give away Ringo and Elvis! JD sobbed.
Shh, calm yourself, JD. Why would you have to give away your pets?
'Cause that Steven is allergic! He said that theyll have to take t-t-take them t-t-to the pound and put them t-t-to sleep! Vin announced before burying his face in Ezras shoulder and sobbing.
There was very little the southerner could do except declare that he would take the dogs in a moment and keep them safe. He wouldnt allow any harm to come to them. Both boys sagged a little in relief and the volume of their anguish eased. By the time Buck and Chris had returned to the vehicle, all three were asleep, albeit the southerner was only dozing lightly and awoke at the first step that came near the big black Dodge. The groceries were stowed in the back and secured with the net strung across the truck bed for that purpose. Both boys were back in their seats and Ezra was seated between them when Buck opened the door to put Steven in.
You planning to ride back there, Ezra? Buck asked.
I am perfectly at home back here and I thought it would give you more room up front.
The ride to the ranch was quiet. Chris adjusted the rear view mirror so he could see Vin. He could tell that the child had been crying. The sky blue eyes refused to hold his gaze and the blond felt the tension in the set of the square little jaw. Buck draped his arm over the back of the seat and gripped JDs ankle and shook it gently. When the hazel eyes came up, he smiled and JD smiled back, barely. Almost immediately after he smiled, the dark head turned and rested on Ezras shoulder. The southerner leaned over and cupped the back of the childs head.
After dropping off the groceries at Glorias, they stopped at the chicken place at the next exit ramp. Chris got out and pulled Vin from his seat after telling the others to stay. Once inside, he called out his order to the owner in answer to his greeting and slid into a chair with Vin on his lap.
Whats bothering you, son?
Nuthin much, Vin answered evasively.
You want to tell me why you have tear streaks on your cheeks?
Would you try?
Its okay, Uncle Ezra said hed take the puppies so they dont have to go to the pound.
Who ever said they were going to the pound? Steven?
Hes lergic to em. And theys too little to stay out all the time. Uncle Ezra said they could sleep in his laundry room where its warm, Vin managed before tears took his breath.
Oh, Vin. I promise, well get through this, somehow. Im glad that Ezra agreed to take the dogs if it came to that but I dont think it will. Its just going to take some getting used to. For all of us, he assured both of them.
The rest of the short drive home was quiet, each adult lost in their own thoughts and the boys struggling with the new configuration of their family. When they turned into the ranch driveway, Stevens mouth dropped open. Except for the two ruts where the truck had pulled out that morning, nothing had touched the snow. The trees were covered in cottony looking blobs and the roof of both the house and the barn were covered as well. Chris parked the truck and everyone got out. Bags of groceries were distributed to each child before the adults took the remaining bags. Ezra hefted his overnight bag and immediately reached for both Vin and JDs bags.
Why dont you go and spend some time with the dogs? he suggested. After looking to their fathers for permission, both boys hurried around the corner of the house. Chris mouthed a thank you toward the southerner and got a tip of his head in response. Entering the house, they carried the bags to the kitchen and put them on the counter. Steven slipped back into the corner of the room and watched as the three men put away the food and set up the table for dinner. The items left on the counter were whipped into a salad and placed on the table between the two buckets of chicken.
Chris watched out the window as the boys and the dogs made a mess of the pristine snow in the back yard. Elvis ran up behind JD and jumped up on his back, knocking him to the ground and then the dog licked the childs face for several moments before leaping off to join Ringo in his chasing Vin.
You better call them in. Theyll be half frozen by now, Buck said as he moved to stand behind the blond to look out the window.
Vin tossed the snowball and doubled over with laughter as Ringo and Elvis raced to the place where it disappeared into the snowdrift. Both dogs buried their heads in the snow and made snuffling noises as they searched for the ball that the boy had thrown. JD waded into an untouched place and fell back on the snow, waving his arms and legs to make a snow angel. Very carefully, he rolled to his knees and checked to make sure that the angel was right. Tipping his face toward the gray sky, he smiled as he pictured his momma looking down on him.
Boys, come on in and get out of those wet clothes so we can eat! Chris called from the deck. Both of the puppies raced across the yard and up to the deck, pressing their noses to the glass sliding door. Im sorry guys, you cant come in tonight, he said to them as he knelt down to brush the snow from their fur. He held the dogs back while the boys squeezed by. Gathering a double handful of snow, he packed a snowball and showed it to the dogs before throwing it toward the barn. They took off like a shot, tearing across the yard and the blond slipped inside.
Over supper, the adults talked about the coming weather, the prospects for any kind of a hockey season and the quarterback for some football team. The boys ate silently. Vin and JD were both off their feed, barely picking at what would normally have had them devouring everything in sight. Steven picked at his salad and sighed dramatically.
Do you two mind sharing a bed tonight until we can set up the bunk beds again? Chris asked before excusing them from the table.
I have to give up my bed? What about my Scooby Doo sheets and pillow case? JD asked.
Well put fresh sheets on the bed. I just wanted you and Vin to sleep together tonight and well set up the bunks tomorrow so each of you will have his own bed, the blond clarified.
Okay, JD said softly.
Vin and I are going down to the barn to take care of the horses. Why dont you go strip off your bed and toss your sheets in the laundry room? Ill find the mattress cover and bring clean sheets in after Buck gives the mattress and rug a good vacuuming. Steven, could you and Ezra see to clearing the table and putting the leftovers away?
Why do I have to do it? the older boy protested angrily.
Because we all help with the chores around here, young man, and you will not raise your voice to an adult again. Do you understand? Buck asked as he stepped closer to Steven. The boy stepped back, cringing slightly.
Yes, sir, he said as he stared at the floor.
The kitchen grew silent before everyone moved out to do their chores. JD rushed to the bedroom and began tossing his stuffed animals across the room. His beloved Scooby dog was gently carried across the room and placed next to Vins cat. Buck came in with the carpet sweeper and began picking up toys and tossing them into the toy box. When the carpet was clear, he plugged in the vacuum and began vacuuming. JD bounced on the bed as he pulled the sheet from the corners of the mattress. When he finished, Buck picked him up, sheet and pillow and all, and dropped him on the other bed. He flipped the mattress and ran the handheld vacuum attachment over the mattress.
What are you doing, Da?
Making sure there isnt any dust or dog dander on the mattress for Steven.
But Mrs. Potter picks up dust with a rag, not the vacuum. And how do you know our dogs got danders? Can you see it?
No, I cant see it but most dogs do have dander. We just dont want Steven to have a problem with his allergy. Can you take your sheets to the laundry room for me?
JD bounced off of the bed and dragged his sheet into a ball. He carefully stepped in Bucks footprints on the carpet as he made his way out of the room. In the laundry room, he was upset to see both of the dogs blankets already in front of the washer. It certainly looked like the dogs were going to have to live outside forever. A wave of sadness washed over him and he curled up on top of the blankets and tented his sheet over him to hide.
Working side by side in the barn, Chris was calmed by the repetitive exercise. As he raked the soiled hay out of each stall, Vin broke off sections of a fresh bale and spread it on the floor. Chris brought the horses out and Vin put them back when he was finished. After all the stalls were cleaned, they put out fresh feed and water for the horses.
Dad, how long is Steven staying with us?
I dont know son. If his mother doesnt come back for him, maybe forever.
Oh, he said softly.
Its going to be all right, Cowboy. If youre having any trouble with Steven, youll let me know, right? Chris watched as Vins eyes darted right and left, avoiding the topic. Vin? You can tell me anything.
I wont let anything happen to you or JD. You know that.
Yeah, but when the doptions are done, JD will belong to Buck, Vin protested.
Its a little scary for both of you, isnt it?
The little Texan nodded before stepping closer. Chris sat on a hay bale and drew the boy into his arms. Vin curled up, wrapping his arm around Chriss shoulder. They sat like that for several minutes before they finished their chores. Heading for the house, they were accosted by the excited puppies as they raced through the snow. With a heavy heart, Chris called them to him and shut them into the pen under the deck. Vin leaned heavily on the fence as Elvis and Ringo whined and sniffed his coat through the fence. A voice from the deck caused Chris to take several steps back and look up.
Is JD out there with you? Buck called.
No, he was supposed to be helping you in the bedroom. Isnt he there? Chris called back.
He was, but he went to put the sheets in the laundry room and just disappeared.
Chris took the steps two and three at a time as he raced into the house. Steven was seated in the recliner watching TV while Ezra opened every closed and cabinet door looking for JD. Chris shucked off his coat and cupped his hands around his mouth.
JD! Where are you? he called. Did you check the laundry room?
Twice, Buck answered. Chris strode to the laundry room and flipped on the light. He could see the stack of blankets and sheets on top of the washer. Bending over, he looked under the table Gloria used to fold the clothes. On impulse, he pulled the dryer door open. JD was curled up in a ball, asleep in the dryer.
JD! JD wake up! Chris called as he reached in and nudged the child. The dark head popped up and he looked puzzled.
Is it my turn to be it? he asked innocently.
Your turn? Chris asked as he tugged the small body out of the dryer.
Yeah, Steven told me to hide in here and Vin would find me.
Buck spun on his heel and barked the older boys name. STEVEN!
A hand shot out and grabbed the enraged man before he could take two steps. Ezra blocked the laundry room doorway. Stay calm, Buck. Youll accomplish nothing if you start screaming at him.
Get out of my way, Ezra! Im going to have a word with my son! Buck growled as he tried to physically intimidate the smaller man.
Hes trying to make you reject him.
Hes doing a damned good job of it!
Hes scared of you, Ezra said softly.
Im going to give him a reason to be afraid, Buck said as he pushed past the southerner and stormed into the living room. The object of his rage was standing next to the recliner, his face impassive as he watched the furious man approach. Buck grabbed Steven by his upper arms. What in the hell did you think you were doing? He could have been hurt! Whats wrong with you?
Dont hit him, Buck! Vin yelled as he ran across the room and latched on to the suddenly upraised hand. Please dont hit him!
It was as if a bucket of cold water had been tossed on him. The rage drained out of Buck and he looked at the completely emotionless face of the older child. He jerked his hand away as if contact with Steven had burned him and stepped back. Turning from the boy, he reached out and plucked JD from Chriss arms and went back into the kitchen.
Did you tell JD to hide in the dryer? Chris asked.
And you knew Buck was looking for him?
Why didnt you tell him where JD was?
I forgot, Steven announced, daring anyone to challenge him.
That chair is for time out and I think you need to have a seat in it while I finish getting your bed ready, Chris said as he pointed at the chair. He waited until Steven lit gingerly on the edge of the chair before he turned his back.
JD, didnt you hear me calling for you? Buck asked as he sat down.
No, I was hiding and I falled asleep, JD answered with a grin. It was a great hiding place.
It isnt a place to play, JD. You might have been hurt. What if someone had turned on the dryer?
I didnt think about that. Steven said Vin would never think to look for me in there.
Please dont hide in the dryer again, okay? Promise me?
I wont, Da. Im sorry I scarded you.
Chris made up the bed with the mattress protector and clean sheets. He seriously considered moving Vin and JD into his room for the night but he knew that would really start them off on the wrong foot. Ezras words came back to him. That Steven was afraid and trying to make them reject him. After all they had been through with Vin and JD, they were starting all over with another child. But he belongs to Buck, not like the boys. His mind prompted. And when the adoptions go through, JD will belong to Buck and Vin will belong to me. Damn.
Ezra studied the boy on the time out chair for several minutes. He knew what it was like to be thrust into a situation you had no control over and where you didnt know the rules. His heart ached for the boy who was trying so hard to be brave.
You knew that was the wrong thing to do, didnt you? he asked when Steven looked up.
They wouldnt have brought you home if they didnt want or care about you.
Hes already got a kid!
He has enough love for more than one.
Yeah, right, Steven said with a derisive snort.
After a while, they were all in the living room again. Vin and JD were laying on a sleeping bag on the floor. Chris was in the recliner and Ezra was on the far end of the couch. Buck came in and placed a bowl of popcorn on the floor for the boys before moving to kneel in front of the chair where Steven sat.
Im sorry if I hurt or frightened you earlier. There isnt any excuse for my behavior. Please ask one of us before you do something and well let you know if its all right. Can you do that for me?
Yeah, I guess, Steven said.
Good. Since I havent had a chance to vacuum the carpet in here, youll have to sit on the couch to watch TV. Theres a bowl of popcorn on the kitchen counter if you want it. Buck patted Steven on his knee before getting up and stretching with a jaw-popping yawn.
They watched an episode of Crocodile Hunter and several episodes of Cosby before Buck noticed that all three boys were sound asleep. He eased out of his recliner and picked up the mostly empty bowls of popcorn to take into the kitchen. After checking the bedroom, he went to gather JD up and take him to bed. A southern accented voice interrupted him.
If I could, may I put JD to bed while you attend to Steven?
Sure, Ezra, thanks, Buck said before turning to gather up the older child. He was heavier than Buck expected and he had to lay Steven over his shoulder instead of carrying him in arms like he did JD. He cradled the back of the boys head as he lowered him to the pillow. Steven rolled toward the wall and covered his eyes with his arm. Buck drew the blanket up and tucked it around him before passing his hand lightly over the dark curls.
Ezra waited for Buck to acknowledge him and indicate which end of the bed to put the boy on. After moving Scooby Doo, Buck motioned for the southerner to put the child at the head of the bed near the wall. JD immediately opened his eyes and tried to sit up.
Shh, lay back down, son. Heres your dog. Buck pressed the stuffed animal in JDs arms and the boy curled up immediately and settled down. Chris came in next with Vin in his arms. He gently lowered the sleeping child into the bed next to JD and tucked the cat into his arms in one smooth motion. He settled the blanket over both boys and stroked the back of Vins head.
Gnight, Cowboy, Chris whispered.
After the door drew almost closed, Steven turned his face into his pillow and cried silently.
Some time during the night, Chris got up to go to the bathroom. On impulse, he slipped down the hall to the boys room and peeked inside. Steven lay sprawled out in the middle of the twin bed with his blankets hanging mostly on the floor. The blond mans heart nearly stopped when he looked to the other bed. Both boys were gone!
The first place he checked was the bathroom. If JD woke up and was upset or sick or scared, Vin would have gone with him. Finding the bathroom empty and dark, Chris began to panic. He raced across the living room and looked out at the deck to see if the boys footprints were there or not. The snow was falling heavily and any prints might have been obliterated. Heading for the mudroom to get his coat and boots, he heard a soft canine yawn. He grabbed a flashlight from the kitchen drawer and looked into the laundry room.
One corner of the dogs blanket was still stuck in the dryer door while the rest was spread out on the floor. Several clean towels lay in a pile where the boys had tried to dry the puppies fur. Vins boots and coat were thrown on top of the washer. The boys were curled up around their dogs and covered in JDs Scooby Doo bed sheets. Chris backed slowly out of the doorway and went for the digital camera. After snapping several shots of the tender scene, he went to wake Buck so they could put the boys and dogs back to bed.
Buck leapt from the bed as soon as the door opened. What? Are the boys all right? Steven?
The boys are fine. Grab your robe and follow me, Chris whispered. The two men tiptoed back to the laundry room so Buck could see that they were all right.
What are we going to do with them?
We cant put the dogs back outside in this, theyll be sick. Ill just close the door and leave them in there until daylight. You want to grab JD while I keep the dogs here?
Buck moved closer and squatted down to gather the brunet into his arms. JD clutched at the dog and murmured incoherently before snuggling into the warmth of his fathers body. Buck stood slowly and stepped over the dog to get out of the laundry room. Both puppies lifted their heads and thumped their tails on the floor. Chris caught hold of both of their collars to keep them from racing through the house to the bedroom.
As he was putting JD back to bed, Steven woke up. Is something wrong? Is my mom here?
No, Steven, shes not here. The boys snuck out of bed and fell asleep in the laundry room and Im just bringing JD back in to bed. Can I get you something while Im up?
No, thank you. Good night Buck!
Vin lay absolutely still, praying that Chris would believe he was still asleep. He had awakened when the dogs started squirming to get past Chris. It was for sure that he was going to get in trouble for bringing the dogs into the house after they were told not to.
You shouldnt have gone out in a snow storm like that, son, Chris said softly.
Sighing at getting caught, Vin opened his eyes and pushed up to one elbow. Sorry.
I know you were only worried about them but you could have gotten hurt or lost. Its easy to get turned around in a storm like this.
I know. But they were so cold and the snow was sticking on their fur! We didnt go near the bedroom with them. We dried them off and brought them straight in here.
But is was still wrong, Vin. Well talk about it in the morning.
Youre gonna put them back in the pen?
Not until daylight. They can stay here until then. Ill close the door so they dont come to your room. Lets get you back to bed, Chris said as he reached for the little Texan.
Can I sleep with you?
What about JD? Do you think hell be scared if he wakes up and youre not there?
But I really want to stay with you, Vin protested softly as he wrapped his arms around Chriss neck and snuggled.
Its okay, Chris. Take him with you. Little Bit didnt even twitch as I put him down. Hes out for the count. Im going to put a couple of chairs in front of this door so they dont let the dogs out in the morning, Buck said as he came back into the kitchen.
JD awoke disoriented. What was he doing in Vins bed? He looked across the room and remembered. Slipping silently out of bed, he went in search of his friend. The chairs in front of the laundry room door told him that Vin wasnt in there any more so he headed for Chriss room. Nudging the door open, he peeked inside. Chris was stretched out on his back with Vin tucked up to his side. Pulling the door closed, he went to Bucks door. As he reached for the knob, he realized that Buck had put him back in Vins bed. That meant that they were probably in trouble for bringing the dogs into the house. Not wanting to risk waking Buck and get into trouble any sooner than necessary, he stuck out his lower lip and returned to his room and Vins bed.
When Chris woke up, he was alone in his bed. The soft sounds from the living room told him that at least one of the boys was watching cartoons. Figuring that he may as well take advantage of the opportunity to sleep in, he rolled over and closed his eyes again. Buck got up when he awoke so he could see if the boys were getting along together. Relief washed over him when he saw all three of the boys in various positions on the couch and floor watching TV. Empty cereal bowls and juice boxes littered the coffee table.
Morning boys. Sleep well?
Mornin Buck, Vin called.
Good morning. Yes, sir, Steven said.
JD said nothing as he slumped down in the corner of the couch. He knew he was going to get in trouble and he didnt want to see the disappointment in Bucks eyes. Lacing his fingers tightly together, he focused on the cartoon and tried to pretend that he hadnt noticed the greeting.
Little Bit? Are you feeling all right? Buck asked as he moved around to the couch so he could press his palm against the little round face.
Im fine, Da. Are we in trouble?
Well talk about that later, after Chris gets up. Gather up your dishes and bring them in to the sink, please, Buck called to all of them. All three boys trouped into the kitchen with bowls and juice boxes. Vin and JD hurried back into the living room, Steven hung around, scuffing his toes against the tile floor.
When do I have to go to the doctor?
Ill have to call and see if we can get you in today. Probably not until after lunch, Buck explained as he rinsed the bowls and tucked them into the dishwasher.
How do they test for allergies? Steven asked as he chewed on his lower lip.
Well, I think they take this thing with these little needles on it that have the different kinds of allergens and they touch your arm or your leg with it and then wait to see if you have any reaction. Buck could see that the child wasnt too thrilled with the prospect. Ill be right there in the room with you if you want.
Thats okay. I just remembered, I think Im over my allergy to dogs. Maybe it was cats Im allergic to, he said hopefully.
Well, we should be sure. I dont want you going into anaphylactic shock from too much dog dander or anything like that.
But Im really sure! It was cats, not dogs!
Buck pulled out a chair and motioned Steven closer. The boy approached to just outside of arms reach and stopped. They studied each other for a couple of minutes.
I know this has got to be hard for you, son. Your mom just drops you on a complete stranger in a strange city where you dont know anyone and youre a little scared. I appreciate that youre trying to get some control over the situation. I just want you to know that nothing you do or say is going to make me send you away. Youre my son and I want to get to know you, Buck said.
Im sorry I hid JD in the dryer.
And I forgive you for that. Its going to take a while for us to get to know each other but youre worth it. So youre sure that you arent allergic to dogs?
Im sure, Steven said with a twinkle in his eyes. Can we let the puppies in and play with them now?
Theyre already in. The boys snuck out last night and put them in the laundry room. Lets let them out.
As soon as he removed the chairs, the puppies began to scratch at the door and whine. Buck turned the knob and pushed on the door. Ringo stuck his nose around the door and wiggled through the opening, jumping and licking Steven in his happiness. After greeting the new child, he ran into the living room and pounced on Vins back as he lay on the floor.
Ringo! Youre not posed to be out here! Stevenll get lergic! Vin cried in dismay.
Its all right, Vin. Steven said he remembered that it was cats, not dogs that hes allergic to, Buck explained as Elvis bounded in and began to tussle with JD on the couch. Steven stayed in the doorway, watching the boys play, not joining in.
Steven, come here and let me show you Elviss tickle spot! JD called as he began to rub a spot on the puppys ribs. Elviss hind leg gyrated furiously as the brunet dissolved into peals of laughter.
Both Chris and Ezra were awakened by the thunder of childrens feet and puppy barks. They didnt roll out of bed though, until they heard the crash of broken glass. Chris tossed off his blanket and stumbled across the bedroom to snatch the door open just as Ezra opened the door to the home office where he had slept on the rollaway bed. Both men rushed to the living room where Buck was carrying JD and Vin in his arms while Steven rode on his back to the safety of the couch. The puppies were whining from behind an overturned kitchen chair. On the open space near the front door, the hall tree had apparently toppled into the mirror on the wall.
Is everyone all right? Chris called as he started across the floor.
Just stay over there until I get this cleaned up! I dont need to be taking one of you to the hospital for glass in your feet, Buck yelled as he looked critically at the bottom of each of the boys feet to check for injury. You three sit right there until I finish cleaning up the mess.
While Buck picked up the glass, Chris studied the boys. Steven looked downright terrified as his eyes met the hazel eyes of the blond. JD and Vin quickly picked up on the situation and chimed in that it wasnt Stevens fault. Ringo had gotten overexcited and knocked over the hall tree.
Might I make the observation that you appear to be over your allergy to dogs? Ezra asked.
He wasnt allergic to dogs, it was cats, Vin answered quickly. The southerner gave the older boy a smile and a wink before turning and heading back to the other room to change clothes.
They spent a pleasant day at the ranch. After a hearty breakfast, all six of them bundled up and headed outside. While the boys and dogs played in the new-fallen snow, the adults tended to the horses. Afterwards, they made paths in the snow as they rolled snowballs into snowmen. Chris bent over to heave a second ball on top of his first when a snowball hit him squarely in the back of the head. Hearing the boys giggling from behind a wall of snow, he called.
Of course you know, this means war!
A triple volley of snowballs flew out, smashing harmlessly against the snowman that Chris was hiding behind. Buck turned at the second round of giggles and was his in the stomach by a rather large snowball. A dark curly head popped out from behind the wall, eyes wide at seeing that hed hit his target. Scooping up a handful of snow, Buck bellowed loudly as he launched his attack on the boys. Ezra contented himself with staying out of the war as he patted and packed snow around the joints of his snowman. A well-thrown shot got him in the back of the head, sending bits of snow into his collar and down his back.
Why you little he began before turning to see that it was Chris who had thrown the snowball and was standing ready with another. Now Chris! See here! Any further argument was cut off as the southerner took off running around the house, trying to find a place to hide.
Hot chocolate and soup made for a light, warming lunch after the men and boys had worn themselves out playing. They collapsed on the couch and watched Animal Planet for a couple of hours. Buck dropped on the middle of the couch and propped his feet up on the coffee table. A few minutes later, JD crept up from the floor to lay his head on Bucks leg. The child was asleep in seconds. Steven looked longingly at the empty cushion and sighed softly. Ezra caught Bucks eye and looked pointedly at the older child laying stiffly on the floor at his feet.
Steven, why dont you grab that afghan and hop up here. Theres plenty of room. As quick as a flash, the child was up and on the couch.
Chris had fallen asleep in the recliner and Vin was hesitant to bother him. Ezra caught his eye and patted his lap. With an impish grin, Vin climbed up and snuggled to his uncle. When all three pairs of little eyes were closed, Buck took up the remote and found something more adult for them to watch.
After their naps, the boys played quietly while the men watched some football on the sports channel. When they tired of that, they dragged out board games and played them until supper. Steven played aggressively and won easily. He seemed surprised that his winning didnt upset the younger boys. Chris excused himself from the games and made supper for all of them. After checking with Steven, he made a pot of spaghetti. He cooked the meatballs separately and left them soaking in a small pot of sauce so they could be distributed to whoever wanted them. Tossing together another salad, he called all of them to the table.
Baths were quick and they found themselves piled up in the living room again, watching one of the boys videos. All three boys were stretched out on the floor with the puppies in between. By the end of the first video, they were soundly asleep.
A little later, the boys were carried to bed and the adults followed close behind. The next morning, the boys got up and dressed without waking the men. When Chris came out of his room, he smiled warmly at the sight that greeted him. All three of the boys were sprawled out on the living room furniture with the dogs stretched out on the floor. He made his way into the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. Vin shuffled out a few minutes later and leaned comfortably against the blond.
Sleep good, kiddo?
Yeah. Whats for breakfast?
Pancakes sound okay?
Go back in the living room and sit down. This floor is cold on your bare feet, Chris said as he glanced down at the toes that wiggled guiltily.
After breakfast, Ezra called the unit manager to see if the water problem at his condo had been repaired. When the man assured him that everything was fixed, he asked Chris if he would mind driving him home.
As much as I enjoy spending time in your humble abode, I do miss the comforts of my feather bed and Jacuzzi tub, he said as he rubbed at his lower back. That rollaway bed is akin to a medieval torture rack.
Chris agreed to drive the southerner home and both of the younger boys begged to go along. Thinking it might be an opportunity for Buck and Steven to spend some time alone together, he told them they could.
While they were alone, Steven was very timid. Buck showed him around the ranch and introduced him to the horses. The boy shrank in fear from the animals and they quickly retreated to the house. Buck tried to share some of his life history with the boy but Steven kept glancing around the room and finally asked if he could play on the computer he had noticed in the office. After setting the computer up for him, Buck left him alone in the room.
The boys returned a few hours later, with new toys. Steven glared when he noticed. Vin quickly retrieved the bag with the toy they had chosen for him.
Its the newest one they had! See, we each got one different so we can all play together, the little Texan said with a smile.
Those are lame, Steven said as he turned away from the offered toy. I had lots cooler toys at my moms house.
You could at least say thank you, Steven, Buck prompted. They did bring you something.
Thank you, he said.
JD and Vin looked confused. They had been so eager to have something that they could all play with together and Steven looked at it like it was an empty box they had offered him. JD shrugged his shoulders and sighed.
Come on, Vin. Lets go play in our room.
For the rest of the day, the boys played apart from Steven. Buck felt compelled to entertain the boy and he tried. Steven found excuse after excuse to do something else until his father gave up in frustration. That evening, when it was time to get ready for bed, Buck sought to gather Stevens clothing to wash it since the boy had only the two outfits.
Heres a tee shirt. Put it on and Ill wash your clothes while you sleep.
Steven gave him such a look of horror that Buck finally gave up trying to persuade him to give up his clothes. He told the boy to take a bath. While he was in the tub, Chris burned his finger tending the fire in the fireplace and asked Buck to get the burn ointment from the bathroom. Buck was surprised to find the door locked.
Steven, did you lock the door?
Yeah, Im almost done.
Well, unlock the door. I need to get something out of the medicine cabinet for Chris. A few minutes later, the door opened and Steven stepped out, partly wet but fully dressed. You could have just opened the door. It isnt like Ive never seen a boy in the bathtub. Steven opened the door a minute later, having pulled his clothes on over his obviously still wet body.
The boys argued again about whether or not to have the nightlight on in the room before Chris finally set down the law and declared that the light would stay on.
Hopefully, theyll have school tomorrow, Chris offered as he patted Buck on the shoulder as he passed him on the way to the kitchen for a cup of coffee.
During the night, Steven slipped from his bed. Padding silently into the kitchen, he opened the cabinets. After stashing the items he had taken in his duffle bag, he slipped back into bed and glared at the other bed where the two boys slept. Vin was curled protectively around JD. Snaking his hand under the pillow, he checked to be sure that his pocketknife was still there before closing his eyes.
#3: School Daze