He appeared to be intending to stand and watch. Puzzled, Dale got up, eyeing him as he dug clean clothes out of the dresser. Jasper stood back to let him past but followed him to the bathroom, turning the shower on and putting a hand under it until it hit a good temperature.
Jasper passed the tea pot across the table, turning the handle towards Dale.
"Caught early, it's no worse than flu." Emmett said with his mouth full. "It's when some idiot misses it, or misdiagnoses it and it gets to the second stage that things get nasty."
Dale flushed and poured tea, disappearing behind his cup. Paul put a plate down in front of him, filled with grilled bacon, eggs and tomatoes.
"Blood tests." Clara said cheerfully. "It's the only way, and they're all vaccinated so this is a few specific animals. We'll need to identify who."
"Which means bringing the entire damn lot down," Flynn said across the table from behind his glass of orange juice. Dale kept his eyes down, drinking tea to put off the moment of having to try to eat. He felt as if there was a serious possibility of being sick.
"The nursery pastures are miles away and no other stock goes there but the horses." Jasper said matter of factly. "This illustrates very well why, too."
"That was fantastic, Paul, thank you." Emmett got up, picking up his jacket from the back of his chair. "I'll drop back in this evening and see how Riley's doing, and I'll bring the rest of the antibiotics with me then. I need blood from everyone who lives here before I go. I want to screen the lot of you before I have another emergency to deal with."
"I don't think it's going to turn out to be a major outbreak." Clara commented, watching Emmett start on Paul, who was nearest. "It'll be a few animals, and since you haven't bought stock into the herd for the last few months, it's most likely an infection coming from roaming wild animals. Deer possibly."
"At least we don't have to worry about infecting neighbours," Flynn got up to put his dishes in the sink. "There's nothing above the cattle pastures but Three Traders, and no one's set foot on that land in years."
"He had a rough night." Flynn said, putting his boots on. "And a rough day before that. Dale, come down to the corral as soon as you're done eating, we're going to need you this morning."
Flynn handed over his gloves and swung over the fence in a neat, powerful vault, heading towards the house. They had been too busy to talk at all during the morning, but he hadn't even looked towards Dale as he left. Dale took the glass Paul handed him, his stomach tightening horribly.
Riley was awake, sitting up against pillows with a book in his hand, although he didn't appear to be reading. He turned at once at the sound of his door moving, and while he looked pale and tired, Flynn saw his face light up.
"We've been going through the herd for Lepto testing." Flynn let Riley go, cupping his face for a moment. "Are you ok? How are you feeling? You scared the hell out of us."
"I didn't swim anywhere stupid." Riley said passionately. "Really I didn't –"
"I know you didn't." Flynn said at once, "It's ok Ri, no one's blaming you, this wasn't your fault in any way. Emmett thinks it was most likely when you cleared the brush up by the wagon pass, where the water had gotten blocked and muddy. You weren't to know it was contaminated, we none of us knew we had infected animals. You only would have needed to touch your face with wet hands or have a graze somewhere to pick it up."
"I'm not mad about anything." Flynn interrupted. "I wasn't angry with you when Dale and I left, and you know I wasn't."
"I bet you did." Flynn said gently. "It's ok half-pint. If you don't want to talk about it now that's fine."
"I want to know why you came back." Riley held on to Flynn, bracing himself to sit further up in the bed. "Was it Dale?"
"It's that surprising?" Flynn demanded. Riley snorted.
"Not even Paul can talk you around. I wouldn't know where to start! The only one who ever could was Philip." Riley saw the change in his face and dropped back against his pillows, groaning. "Oh don't look like that! I can't stand it when you look like that. I loved him too you know? I coped as badly as you did when he died, but you still hang on to some weird idea that that's ok for me but it isn't for you! You won't just talk to me about it."
Flynn looked down at his hands. "Dale said something similar."
Riley blinked, startled.
"He could help, couldn't he?" he said after a minute, watching Flynn. "He can get you to talk. Really talk. He doesn't drive you nuts the way I do."
"You don't –" Flynn began quickly and firmly. Riley shook his head.
"Flynn, I'm not stupid, and I'm not threatened either. We're none of us 'all to myself' kind of people. I don't mean you like him better than me, I mean what I say. Dale doesn't drive you nuts, especially when you're wound up. You'd do anything for him. We all would. We all see how much he does for us around here. I love having him here, I always have done. I have a hard time trying to imagine him not being here."
"Half-pint," Flynn began, gently, "How do you feel about Dale? Honestly."
"Love him to bits." Riley said frankly. "How couldn't I? I've never had a friendship like this, it's totally different to Gerry and the others, even when they've been living here full time. Dale gets you three like no one else does, he loves all three of you and he gets how we work – who else have I ever had to share that with? He's a sweet, sweet guy and I always thought he was."
Yes. Riley, who had taken to Dale like a duck to water from the first, who had vigorously advocated for him and invariably seen through to his needs and to the best way to approach him. Riley wasn't much for talking details, but he was quick to understand at gut level. He had talked freely to Dale in the days when Riley was the only person Dale spoke to, the only person who could make Dale laugh, the one who had shared his understanding and perspective with Dale and gently encouraged him in building his relationships with the others. They were largely at this stage now because of Riley, who had from the start gone out of his way for Dale of his own accord. Something Jasper had mentioned last night stuck in Flynn's mind – that Riley, who was as friendly as a puppy to everyone he met, still had reserves he'd only ever really entrusted to the three of them, and he had himself chosen to open those reserves to Dale. As usual, in sheer instinct, Riley was streets ahead of him and Flynn was almost ashamed that he hadn't let himself acknowledge it: that he could love Riley and the other two as he did and not see in them what he'd been working so hard to suppress in himself.
"You know you three are a hell of a lot more patient than I deserve?" he said wryly.
"You love him, don't you?" Riley said bluntly. "And you know how I mean."
"I do." Flynn said quietly. "That doesn't mean-"
"Oh I know that, I've lived with you fifteen years." Riley said with cheerful impatience. "What are we going to do about it?"
"I spoke to the others last night." Flynn said slowly, "I wanted to speak to you too –"
"Yes. Of course yes, for goodness sake get on with it." Riley said without hesitation. Flynn looked at him, startled.
"Ri, this would be a big decision. This isn’t something we’ve ever planned for, or something we even thought might be a possibility! I don't want us to rush into anything. I’d need to be very sure first that you'd cope, that you could be happy-"
"You think I haven't fantasised about it plenty of times?" Riley demanded. Flynn's eyebrows rose in shock.
Riley laughed. "Oh yes. For months. Haven't you?"
"………in some ways." Flynn said with discomfort. This was ground he had crossed last night with Jasper and Paul, and it was still difficult. "I - knew something serious was going on at the back of my mind and getting bigger, I just couldn't see it or get hold of it until Dale asked me what it was I wanted to talk to Philip about."
"Thick as two short planks." Riley said with affection. Flynn batted him gently across the back of the head.
"Agreed, but don't spread it about. Ri, you don't have to answer now, I don't want you to answer now. I want you to think and be sure. Talk to the others, take your time, I won't allow anything that makes you unhappy or that you're not a hundred percent certain of. You're too precious to me and to all of us to risk that."
Riley's eyes were very soft, but he sounded more amused than serious.
"What did the others say? Flynn, what did they say? And I bet they didn't have to think long either."
Actually no, the answers had been prompt and unequivocal; in fact Jasper appeared to have been fully expecting this for a while. Paul, who took anyone in need straight into his very capacious heart, had surprised Flynn even further with the strength of his answer. Like Riley, Paul appeared to have gone well beyond his usual open heartedness with Dale.
"It has to be a group decision and they both wanted to know how you felt." Flynn said carefully. "We would have liked to have talked about it together-"
"But I wasn't awake at the time." Riley finished for him. "What did they say, Flynn? Yes or no?"
"Yes." Flynn admitted. "Both of them."
Riley grinned, and Flynn saw with relief the delight in Riley's always expressive face, no sign of doubt or alarm.
"Great. Have you talked to Dale yet? Does he know?"
"No, I haven't. I had to talk to you and the others."
Riley looked at him. "Flynn. Does he have any idea what you're thinking?"
"I doubt it-" Flynn began and Riley interrupted, exasperated.
"After the conversations you must have had the night you camped out? Have you said anything to him about how you feel? Flynn, for pete's sake!"
"I don't know it would even have occurred to him, and I had to wait for you to be lucid –" Flynn began, and Riley pushed him off the bed.
"Go get him, now. And this needs to come from all of us."
"We're half way through testing a herd of cows." Flynn said firmly, "And you need to rest."
"The cows can wait," Riley said, getting extremely carefully to his feet, "And this can't. Flynn, I know how I'd feel in Dale's situation-"
"Jas has been with him all day," Flynn interrupted, "I didn't dare myself, I'd have said something I shouldn't yet-"
"You're all so damn cautious!" Riley grabbed a sweater from his chair and pulled it over his head,
hanging on to Flynn for balance. "Go get him and the others, or I will. You can't leave this any longer, it isn't fair."
"Riley stop a minute." Flynn ordered, taking Riley's shoulders. "Listen to me. Are you really serious? Because this isn't something we can go back on."
"No kidding." Riley said dryly. "The only reason we never planned for this was because we hadn’t met Dale yet. Yes, I'm serious, go do it!"
Flynn stooped and kissed him hard on the mouth, and Riley put his arms around Flynn's neck, for a moment holding him tight. Then Flynn picked him up off his feet and carried him, ignoring his protests, down the stairs to the larger of the couches, putting him down and taking one of the blanket throws from the back to cover him.
"You stay there. I mean it Riley, I don't want so much as a toe on the floor."They were on to the last of the cattle when Flynn reached the paddock. Riley was right: Dale moved at the speed of light. In the same battered jeans, dusty boots and shirt rolled to the elbows, in the same Stetson the others wore, what picked him out was the deftness of a machine. He was handling hurdles with Jasper, a job which needed full weight from both of them to control the irritated steer Clara was working on, and which took a great deal of care to prevent the animal being hurt or alarmed. Slim, dark, quiet in movement as much as voice, he had the set look of hyperfocus to his face, something Flynn was used to watching him for. Grimly buried in what he was doing, which meant he was anxious and upset and anaesthetising himself against it. Riley was right; you had to move fast with Dale because he usually out-thought you and he was miles away by the time you'd realised what was on his mind. Flynn climbed the fence as Dale and Jasper stepped back, letting Paul guide the steer into the other paddock. They dropped the hurdles and Jasper stretched. Dale simply shook out his gloved hands, not looking up, and Flynn went to him, quietly putting an arm around his waist. Dale hadn't seen him coming and startled like a horse at the touch. Flynn, who had been prepared, held on to him, looking across to Clara who was fastening the last of the several hundred vials in the case on the ground.
"That's the lot." Clara shut the case and got up, pushing her hat back on her head. "I'll let you know as soon as the lab sends back the results."
"Thanks." Flynn picked up her other bag, still keeping hold of Dale, and they walked together towards Clara's pick up, helping her load up and watching her drive away, dust blowing up from her wheels as she headed out on the track that led several miles out towards the main road.
The cattle were grazing in the paddock, calm now they were being left alone, and with a glance to check the gate was secure, Flynn nodded to the others.
"Leave them for a while. We need to talk."
He felt Dale stiffen. Jasper and Paul both ambled past, not looking, heading up the steps towards the kitchen, and Flynn heard the casual conversation start as they reached the door. He hadn't let go of Dale. Left alone in the yard, Flynn drew him around and put a hand gently against Dale's face, running his thumb along the line of Dale's cheekbone. It had become so familiar, so easy to touch and to hold him like this, to know exactly what Dale's waist felt like under his arm, and Flynn read the wariness in Dale's eyes with sympathy and a lot of understanding. Reserve, in both of them, was the armour they used to cover a multitude of sins.
"It's all right." he said quietly. "Nothing you need to worry about. Come on in."
The armour didn't chink, the grey eyes let nothing slip. Dale walked slowly with him, pulling off his hat as they reached the door, heeling off his boots as they did every day, but he never had got the hang of hiding the tension in his shoulders or his hands. Flynn put both hands on him, guiding Dale ahead of him into the family room. Paul had taken a seat beside Riley on the couch. Jasper had taken the other couch and Dale slipped Flynn's hands and seated himself on the hearth stones. Almost immediately, Riley went to join him, settling shoulder to shoulder with him, and Flynn saw Dale's face lighten with flooding relief, putting a very tentative hand up to touch and then awkwardly brush Riley's back as though he couldn't help himself.
"I'm fine." Riley said cheerfully. It wasn’t true. He looked white and tired and unusually frail, but he gave Dale his usual and irrepressible grin, which said that nothing terrible was about to happen, and Dale looked up in confusion, from one face to another around the room.
Flynn dug his hands into his pockets, keeping his feet and resisting the urge to pace.
"I want to first apologise to all of you for how unsettled the house has been lately." He said determinedly. "I've had a lot on my mind, and finding what we did in Philip's desk made me miss him all the more."
Riley, seated on the hearth stone, raised his eyebrows and gave him a friendly 'what on earth are you doing?' look. Dale, hands linked between his knees, had dropped his eyes to the floor. Flynn gentled his voice, watching him.
"Dale, there's been something going on for a while now, and it all came to a head when you and I camped out on the plateau."
He saw Dale's colour change, saw the tension build in his shoulders, and said quickly and still more gently,
"You did nothing wrong. There is nothing wrong here, I promise."
"It was entirely my fault." Dale said crisply. It was the CEO tone at its worst. Fresh from a board meeting, crisp and detached. "I understand it was inappropriate, there obviously have to be boundaries between clients and therapists-"
Totally, totally spooked. The clipped, precise speech, the expressionless face - Flynn glanced briefly to Jasper, then to Paul, both of whom had seen the hallmarks along with him.
"How many more times do I have to tell you you're not a client?" Paul invited from the couch. Dale got up, unable to stand the compassion in his tone, nor how gently they were trying to do this. They were so damn kind; it made it so much harder.
"It's long past time I should have left, and I intend to put that right now. I can organise a flight out of here within a few hours-"
"Dale, sit down." Jasper said firmly.
It was the tone that somehow had always made Dale's knees work independently of his mind. He sat abruptly, startled, and Flynn took over, picking up the same tone Jasper had used. Not harsh, not unkind, but the type of tone you neither interrupted nor disbelieved.
"No one is asking you to leave, there is nothing you could do that would make us ask you to leave, and Paul is quite right. You haven't been a client for some time."
"You're making a four act drama out of this." Riley said impatiently to Flynn.
Dale looked at him, and then back to Flynn, now completely out of his depth. Flynn took a seat on the coffee table, leaning his elbows on his knees which put their heads at similar height, and keeping eye contact with him.
"Dale, we've told you before and we meant it; you've got a home here as and when you want it, just as do the other members of this lifestyle who have lived in this house. That's got nothing to do with Jasper or me or any of us, that was how Philip and David set it up and it's how I hope it always will be. We want to ask you something different, something that is just related to the four of us. We don't need an answer right now, we want you to take your time. All the time you need."
"You know the four of us have an unusual relationship," Paul said gently. "And that it's different between ourselves to the relationship we have with people like Gerry and Ash?"
Yes, I know I can't have him. I've known all along and I couldn't hurt Riley, or any of you, any more than Flynn could. I won't make trouble, Paul, you don’t have to worry. I'll leave first.
"The most usual term is 'polyamory'." Paul went on as though this was a normal and casual conversation.
"It isn't a term that defines a sexual relationship." Flynn said quietly. "It's a word for a negotiated group relationship, a family by choice – a lot more based on commitment and attachment than just sleeping partners. Sometimes it's defined as a group marriage, although every group is as individual as the people in it. The four of us have a closed relationship – we don't look for or accept invitations outside of ourselves – but we're open to invitations among ourselves. We don't have one rule to fit all about how those invitations work, either. The relationships we have with each other aren't the same and we wouldn't want them to be, mine with Riley or Jasper's with Paul, and so on."
"Is there going to be an interval?" Riley demanded.
The tension and Riley's tone was too much. Dale cracked and smiled in spite of himself, and Flynn dropped his hands, face relaxing slightly as he looked at Riley.
"Riley." Jasper said mildly.
"Well get to the point then!" Riley said cheerfully.
"Dale needs to understand what we're asking." Flynn pointed out. Riley shrugged.
"Even I don't understand what you're asking."
"We're asking," Flynn said to Dale, "Some more politely than others, if you'd consider joining us. Making your home here permanently, being part of our relationship. A group marriage if you want to think of it in those terms."
It was like a hammer blow between the eyes. Dale stared at him, not at all sure of what he was hearing.
"There are two things to be aware of," Jasper said gently from the other couch. "One is that, as Flynn said, the relationships between each of us are unique, and all of us are very happy with it that way. The relationship you and Flynn have isn't now and wouldn't be the same as the one you and I have for example, and that's all right. That's exactly how it should be. The other is we're open to invitations among ourselves. You'd need to think how you feel about that."
Dale felt his face go hot and his ears start to burn as he thought of the conversation on the swing last night, and looked at Flynn, then back to Jasper.
You said way too much last night, Aden –
"Okay." Riley said, getting up off the hearth. "We're done. Top type people, go and do Top type things. Dale, come on."
The odd thing was that none of them argued. Dale let Riley pull him up off the hearth, hearing nothing behind them but Paul, amicably warning.
"Riley, it took all day yesterday to stop you shivering. If you get cold, I'm just going to strangle you to save time."
Riley opened the small, odd shaped door off the kitchen and Dale let Riley push him towards the stairs as Riley snapped on the electric light and shut the door behind them. The stairs led up to the long attic room Riley had shown him once before, months ago. People had been up here – there was no dust to be seen, one of the chairs under the window had been moved more directly into the light and a book lay on the cushion, and someone had been repairing one of the carved wooden boats from David's massive floor map. The knife and boat still lay on the floor. Riley sat down beside the map, touching another switch so that the lights on the boats and the tiny harbours lit up. Dale slowly knelt down on the floor nearby, looking down at the green painted hills and the blue sea. Not the world, but David's world. Halifax, Portsmouth and Dover. The sea. The ranch. Knowing the ranch as he did now, Dale could recognise the outlines of familiar land, the tops where the horses wintered, the nursery plains, the rocky ruins near the plateau. A tiny wooden barrier marking the quartz mine.
"They could make Romeo and Juliet sound like a bank statement." Riley commented, rearranging Halifax harbour to make room for the re carved fishing vessel. "Did you follow any of that?"
Dale didn't answer, still too stunned. Riley crossed his legs on the floor, long and bare beneath the shorts he usually slept in, his hair in his eyes, baggy sweater hanging off his shoulders. He was disarmingly rumpled and his voice was gentle.
"They're nervous and they make things a whole lot more complicated than they actually are. You know none of us can believe you got Flynn down off that plateau?"
"I'm not sure I can." Dale muttered. Riley grinned.
"I think that was the point we decided there was no letting you get away. No one's ever got to Flynn like that since Philip. You know what he's like. He can solve anyone's problem except his own, he gets everyone on the planet except himself. That's why we work. I told you ages ago, I love Flynn to bits, I couldn't be without him, but if it was just the two of us alone we'd murder each other inside a week. With the balance of us in a group it works great for everyone."
"Jasper said," Dale began slowly, trailing off and not sure how to put it.
"Buy one, get four." Riley said with gentle tactlessness. "That's the bottom line. You know we've had guys here with crushes on Flynn or Jas? We've dealt with it plenty of times, so don't think we don't know this is different. Dale, if someone came here and set out to take one of them away from me, I'd dump their body down the mine. That's never been what you've wanted. You fit here and you've always known you do."
Dale looked up at him, touched to the heart. And embarrassed at how true it was and his own presumption. And hit again by the profound sense of understanding he had always felt from Riley, who had recognised him from the beginning and pointed it out with kindness and with forthrightness.
Hey you're one of ours…
The taste of belonging – truly belonging - was overwhelming.
"What we’re basically doing is asking you to marry us." Riley said simply. "Most of what you need to figure out is if you can cope with three Tops, but I've tried it and it has some serious up sides."
Dale smiled, unable to help it. Riley smiled back, watching Dale curl into his usual position, hugging one knee. It was what he had come to think of as Dale's natural body language.
"You make it sound so easy." Dale said eventually.
"It is easy." Riley said calmly. "Pretty much life like it is now. The others already treat you differently to the way they treat the other brats in the squad and they always have done- Gerry knew it and so did Ash.
The only real difference is in the way you feel about Flynn. I know how he feels about you, he told me this morning."
Dale started to flush again, slowly from the neck up. Riley watched him, then grinned and put the last boat back in the harbour.
"That should work out fine then. If you want to."
If he wanted to? Dale swallowed. He'd been in love with this place – and the people in it – for months. And Riley was right, he'd never thought of Flynn in isolation. Flynn belonged here, he was a part of this land and the other three. Loving Flynn meant loving the other three, they were inextricable. There had never been any thought – not for a second – of wanting Flynn to leave this place or separate himself from this land, it was unthinkable. Equally, Dale had never dreamed that this family might simply open themselves up and invite him in.
"You wouldn't – mind- about that?" he asked eventually, aware it was a bad choice of word. Riley stretched out on the floor beside the map, as candid as he had been the first time they had talked, stacking hay in the barn, or picking apart sandwiches on a hot afternoon in the shade.
"When you and Jas want quiet, you two go off fishing together. Paul and I get bored to death doing that, and Flynn can't sit still long enough. Do we look like we've minded? You sit with Paul and talk with him about the history of this place and the plots of his books and the kind of stuff he likes to talk about and the rest of us can't cope with in large doses. You and I go off together when we want to talk, and no one gets jealous. It doesn't work like that. When Jas gets wild and needs to go off at night, I'm glad he doesn't just have me because I couldn't do that with him, and there's other people for me while he does it."
Dale hesitated, not sure what he meant, and Riley gave him a gentle dig in the hip.
"Possessive people don't get into this kind of a relationship to start with. It isn't about separate competing relationships – you with Flynn and me with Flynn or anyone else. It's about how good the group is as a whole, how happy the whole relationship is, that's what matters. What's wrong with wanting the people you love to have everything they need and that makes them happy? "
There was a quiet tap on the doorframe and Flynn came to the top of the stairs. He looked apologetic and Dale saw straight through to the anxiety underneath it. It turned his heart over.
"Sorry," Flynn said to Riley, "But Paul's starting to make threats. He wants you in bed or on the couch. Are you two ok?"
"Fine." Riley said easily. Flynn looked from him to Dale, who nodded slightly. Flynn held out his arms to Riley, jerking his head towards the stairs.
He ended up carrying Riley when Riley's knees started to shake. Dale watched how he gathered Riley up, gentle and with the ease of long practice, and how Riley instinctively wrapped an arm around his neck and moulded to him while Flynn navigated the stairs, and was reminded of the night he saw Riley slide into bed with Flynn in the small hours. Before he had time to search himself, the sight warmed him, the affection in the gesture warmed him – it wasn't jealousy or resentment, and rather surprised, Dale realised that if he was capable of seeing it in that way that possibly Riley was too. He followed, turning out the lights behind him, watching Flynn take Riley into the family room where the big couch had blankets and a pillow waiting, and a tray of tea on the coffee table. Jasper was leaning against the kitchen counter and gave Dale one of his slow, warm smiles, cup cradled in one hand.
"Are you all right?"
He said it very softly, privately, and Dale nodded, shell shocked. Jasper ambled across to him, put an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close, hugging him tightly. It was comfort – just as he'd been solid comfort all morning, and the flood of emotion welled up without warning. Dale let himself shut his eyes and willingly accept it, leaning hard against Jasper for a moment and letting himself wrap his arms around Jasper's waist. Of course it wasn't just Flynn. It never had been just Flynn, because Flynn as he was, existed in the context of Jasper, Paul and Riley, and Dale had always known it.
The relationships between each of us are unique. The relationship you and Flynn have isn't the same as the one you and I have.
That was it exactly. How he felt about Flynn was – dominating to put it mildly, but it was impossible not to love Jasper, it was impossible not to love Paul and Riley, and it was different with every single one of them.
Based on commitment and attachment.
"Don't try and think now." Jasper said in his ear.
He meant 'don't over-think': Dale knew without asking. Don't panic, don't analyse, don't rationalise until you've had time to take this in. They knew him so well.
Flynn came back from the family room and held out a hand to Dale, opening the kitchen door onto the porch.
"Come and talk to me."
Panic – and confusion – and sheer bewilderment – made any kind of answer very difficult. Flynn took his hand when they walked down the porch steps and they walked for some way, up the line of horse paddocks that led towards the aspen woods in the distance. The bright grass was soft and silent under foot, the sleek and well fed horses lifted their heads from cropping as they passed, looking up over the dark fence rails, and in the distance the three heavy shires stood sleepily grazing under the afternoon sun.
Dale leaned against the fence of the shires as they reached it, looking across at the three massive horses, then climbed up onto the rail and sat astride it. Flynn leaned beside him, arms folded on the top rail.
"Did Riley help?"
It was the first thing he had said since they left the house. Dale looked down at him, the dark sandy hair, wide shoulders, both painfully familiar, and showing a tension that touched Dale through his own extremely muddled emotions. It was hard to resist putting a hand out to touch, and yet it was not at all the moment to take risks.
"Some." he said aloud, carefully. "I- it's a bit-"
Of a staggering proposition. He still couldn’t believe they were actually making it.
"We'd need to talk about what you wanted to do in the way of work." Flynn said, watching one of the shires go heavily down to its knees, and then flop over sideways to stretch in the grass, heavy legs thrown out.
"There's no reason for you to make any decisions now, I don’t want you to decide anything before you're ready, but obviously living here would make a difference to your choices."
"Philip worked from here." Dale said out loud. Flynn nodded slowly.
"Yes. But he wasn't you. You need to do what's right for you."
Something else they had talked about for months occurred to Dale and he looked again at Flynn.
"We always said any Top who took me on would have strong ideas on work."
"They would." Flynn admitted.
"That would make it the three of you."
It sounded still more unreal said out loud.
"It would." Flynn agreed. "Although you might find that worked to your advantage. Paul tends to be more sympathetic in some things than Jas and me. And don't forget Riley would get a say as well."
That almost made Dale smile: Riley had firmer ideas in some ways than any of the Tops. But all four of them would have clear boundaries on what was ok and not ok; Dale knew them far too well to doubt it. It was actually not the alarming or restricting thought as he always had suspected it might be in reality; it was a thought of remarkable reassurance, one that took away a good deal of the stress that had been surrounding the decisions ahead for the past few weeks.
You're nuts, Aden. You've spent your adult life making decisions involving millions in dollars and sterling, some of the biggest companies in the world, and what really chills you out? Someone else making decisions for you.
Except that wasn't it at all. That wasn't what they did, and Dale had always understood it, at gut level if not consciously. You told them what you wanted and they then defended you from yourself. It wasn’t abnegation of responsibility; it was a conscious act of trust, of collaboration, of a well defined team being stronger than just the sum of its components. A safe context in which you were wanted, openly and honestly, to be yourself.
"It's something we would talk about, when you had some ideas about what you wanted." Flynn said calmly. "But it's something to be aware of."
"It isn't just choosing you four either." Dale said aloud, realising another part of it. "It's choosing this lifestyle – properly, permanently."
"Yes." Flynn said gently. "Another thing to think about."
"I told you a long time ago I knew it was right and it was what I wanted," Dale said slowly. "It's just-"
"Different when you're looking at walking into it." Flynn agreed. "And you’ve led a very independent life for a long time. Yes. I told you we didn't want an answer now. There's something else I think you need to do, if you decide you'd like to take this invitation seriously- and you don't have to. This isn't conditional. If you don't want to consider it, nothing changes. You can stay here as and when you like and you know we'd always welcome you here."
"How could I not seriously consider it?" Dale demanded. "You know how I feel about the others, and I made a damn fool of myself up on the plateau with you-"
"Whoa." Flynn took his arm and pulled until Dale was forced to turn on the rail to face him. "Made a fool of yourself?"
There were times when you realised you’d suddenly gained the full and sharp attention of Flynn, and immediately found yourself wishing you hadn’t. The shock was enough to reach down into Dale despite the muddle, and pull him together quickly.
Self destruct and he'll call it a tantrum, and we know exactly how that ends. Would he interrupt a day like this to deal with it? Yes, without a second thought!
The only way not to slide into the luxury of self recrimination – something that was all too easy and tempting to do – was to do something a good deal more difficult. To look at it, to think below it, and to admit what was underneath.
"I thought I'd overstepped the line." Dale said eventually and awkwardly. "I couldn't stand to see you that unhappy- I thought I said things I had no business to say-"
Flynn didn't answer immediately, thinking, although his arms were still braced either side of Dale on the fence, corralling him.
"Why did you?" he said eventually and gently. Dale looked down at the grass between his arms.
"I was thinking about Ash and Gerry, and how I kept worrying about 'not doing it properly', and the ideas I had about what that involved. All the things I try to do right. And that made me think about the storm, and that I spent all this time listening to you, after everything you've done for me, and yet when the crunch came I wouldn't even trust you enough to let you help. I was still second guessing, I was still controlling everything to happen my way."
"So you let go and said what you were thinking." Flynn said softly. "Think that went badly?"
Dale looked at him, gripping the top rail of the fence. Once the shields came down, he gave you everything without stipulation, Flynn thought, not for the first time, watching Dale's grey eyes. There was an extraordinary honesty and trust underneath all of Dale's reserve, something very rare that hit Flynn's protective instincts so strongly it was painful.
"I didn’t want to hurt anyone else here," Dale said frankly. "I couldn't do that. And I know it's probably what you hear from every whacked out businessman that sets foot in the place, transference or whatever it's called, but for God's sake Flynn, I don't know what would have happened to me if I hadn't met you. How do you even start to repay someone for doing what you've done for me? I can't stand to see you hurt. I know that's pathetic compared to how Riley feels about it, and you and he have been together so long-"
"Don't tell me about Riley, tell me about you." Flynn said quietly. Dale took a breath by force of habit, clutching the fence for dear life because his hands were shaking.
"I just wanted to help. You've helped me so many times. I didn't know how to be like this with people until I met you – any of you."
It was impossible to explain. The simple fact of a goodnight that came automatically with the gestures of affection that were second nature in this household – to kiss someone goodnight was still very new and still amazing. Another of the many things Dale had seen happen to other people, but never thought would be for him. He stopped, struggling for the words to try and express the concepts.
"Don't chew, Dale." Flynn said gently as he had a hundred times. "Just blurt it out. You're talking to me, it doesn't need to be perfect."
Dale shut his eyes. "I've loved you for months. Not just for what you've done for me, how safe and how right you make me feel, but – the way you love Riley, the way you love the others, the way you handle horses. The way you came here from such crap and made so much of yourself, because oh God do I get how hard that was. For how you understand people and how you save idiots like me."
"Idiots like you?" Flynn echoed, sounding surprised. "Idiots? What exactly does that make me then? Because we haven't even started on how amazing you are. Or how much courage you've had to take every single thing we've shown you or told you, use it and build on it. Have you got any idea how much we admire that? You did that Dale, not us. Don't you think you're the only person who stands to get anything out of this. Try thinking about how listened to you make Paul feel – I see that every day. What do you think it's like for him to have someone who is actually as good a listener as he is? Think about how much Riley smiles around you, and how much he confides in you. Or why Jas comes looking for you to work with or fish with. Or how much I need you. Or how safe you make me feel."
Dale stared at him, shocked. Flynn said it almost roughly, but then you always looked at Flynn's eyes to see what he was feeling. Gruff, taciturn, he was often at his most outwardly forbidding when he was most kind, and it was all a lie. This man was capable of more tenderness than any man Dale had ever known. Flynn met his eyes for some moments, then abruptly straightened up, put both hands up to grip Dale's hips where he sat on the fence, and Dale stooped without thinking to meet Flynn's mouth.
The man kissed as powerfully and as adeptly as he did everything else.
It felt like a long time later that the world stabilised and the pastures around them came back into view. Dale was still sitting on the fence, although that was largely due to Flynn's arms around him, and both of them were more than slightly out of breath. Flynn gave him a very slight smile, patted his thigh and moved away a little, taking a slow breath.
"…….That was a little unfair on my part, I'm sorry."
Yes. An old fashioned man with old fashioned values, who wouldn't do anything he thought might be emotional blackmail. Dale touched the roughness of his jaw, and let him go.
"Wh- what were you saying about making a decision?"
"Yes." Flynn leaned on the fence, folding his arms once more as if he needed to contain himself. He still sounded slightly out of breath. "If you want to consider our invitation seriously, there's something we all feel you need to do to be fair to yourself."
"Go back to work." Dale said, seeing the thread of thought. Flynn gave him a nod.
"Yes. Not necessarily to work, but there'll be things you'll need to do eventually if you go through with the resignation from A.N.Z. What we want is for you to take another, proper look at your options. You've been here a long time, you've been through a lot of emotional ups and downs out here, I think you need to see the other side of it, think about what you want with a clear perspective, and without any pressure from us. Even unintentional pressure."
They would need to know for their own peace of mind that this was a free choice, not the need and dependency of a man six months out of a nervous breakdown. They were giving him the power to make the choice himself, deliberately, and to think about it from an entirely different perspective. And it was a good idea.
Finally, Dale looked and saw exactly what to do with A.N.Z. and it was easy. So easy it was laughable.
The conference call died for the third time around seven pm. Dale leaned both hands on the table, watching Caroline struggle to get it back, helped by another panic stricken young man in a lurid pink shirt that did him no favours. The room stank of coffee and the cigarette smoke from the corridor where several members of the meeting kept escaping for a swift smoke, and the table was scattered deep with reports and print outs, stained cups and the crumbs of pastries, and the sandwiches drying out on the trays.
Dale straightened up, put a hand up to yank his tie further away from his collar and looked out through the window. They were sixteen floors up here, and the windows did not open for safety reasons. The struggling air conditioner was whining with its attempt to produce oxygen, and suddenly, the whole thing was so utterly ludicrous that Dale found himself starting to laugh, looking at the twenty tired, sweat stained and crumpled people sitting around the table before him.
"This is ridiculous." he said out loud, picking up the key reports in front of his chair "We're not going around this again. We'll foreclose Piaster and the assets will be split by merit between the sister companies. That's the end of it. I'll deal with the directorship in the morning. Everyone get out of here. Go home, you've all got lives."
The look of open relief in several faces was as pointed as the look of bewilderment in others. Dale put a hand on his P.A.'s arm, reached past her and turned off the telecom unit.
"Caroline, leave it. Send an email to say we'll notify them of the decision in the morning, thank them for their time and go home, you've been here twelve hours. Thank you, I don't know how anything would happen around here without you."
"Dale, if I can argue for Piaster one more time-" Sam Powell began, and several people, rising and picking up jackets, froze.
"No." Dale said cheerfully. "You can't. Thanks Sam, but we're done. Go home."
Caroline, gathering up her belongings, saw Sam's mixture of chagrin and confusion as the under secretaries began to clear the table with a speed that said they were giving no one else a chance to start to talk. Dale unfastened the top button of his shirt, which he did a lot at the moment as though his collars were too tight, ignored the coffee pot and filled a cup at the water cooler, once more looking out of the window. Something else she saw him do a lot too, as there was something up over the buildings and roof tops and up towards the sky and the distant harbour that he wanted to keep an eye on. He smiled at her when he caught her eye.
He'd always made those clear judgments before he went out on sick leave- the first leave Caroline had ever really known him take. He'd take full responsibility, make the hard decisions without hesitation, he wasn't one of the C.E.Os who would dither or discuss or negotiate around in circles – but the hardness of the decision had always shown in him. He would have been deep within the work again by now: as the others left he would have remained, working on alone, or his last instruction would have been to call back Piaster and to leave him to discuss foreclosure with them immediately, despite the hour. He had never expected others to keep the hours he worked – he was one of the most considerate of the ANZ senior people to all staff – but equally he had been oblivious of the pressure he put on others around him just by his own unlimited commitment and stamina. The aura of frenetic energy that had always been around him had eased, and it didn't raise tension in her or in other people in the way it had done.
She thought his leave had done him a world of good – and not just in the tan, or the length of his hair, or the new found definition of his shoulders, all of which was a subject of deep and appreciative discussion in some of the breaks rooms, and apparently no little jealousy in some of the locker rooms.
"Is there anything else I can do for you, Dale?" she asked as she picked up her handbag. Dale picked up his portfolio with the collected documents, and his jacket, and followed her out.
"Not a thing, thanks."
"Your lunch with Mr Akuwo is scheduled at the hotel for tomorrow at one, and Mr Banks asked if you would meet him for breakfast tomorrow at seven."
"I will." Dale herded her towards the lift, waiting for her to enter ahead of him with the old world courtesy she had always thought came from being British. He had asked her, when he first came back three weeks ago, to keep his evenings free of dinner appointments and meetings, and she had defended them fiercely ever since. It wasn't easy, and she wasn't sure how long he could continue doing it, but he looked much better on it. As the lift doors closed on them, Dale turned directly to her.
"Caroline, I need to talk with you about my plans for the next few months. Could you clear a couple of hours in the schedule tomorrow and we'll meet at the hotel suite?"
"Certainly?" Caroline said, surprised. They had often worked at the hotel together to escape interruptions, but this kind of conversation usually meant that Dale was about to go out on a project abroad, and she couldn't think which project it might be. Offers were flying in thick and fast now that he was back, but he didn't appear to be getting greatly involved in any of them. In fact he was delegating work, discreetly, but thoroughly to a degree that only she, and probably Jeremy Banks, realised he was doing, and delegation had never been a gift of his.
On sheer impulse, Caroline put out a hand and turned off the lift. It juddered to a halt and went silent.
Across the lift, Dale gave her an amused look. There was a quality to it that was equally new. She remembered his look of surprise at the unexpected, at the inevitable social things he encountered in offices and project teams: jokes, birthdays and the like. Sweet, unfailingly polite, he'd never been repressive or tried to stop such things occurring, but he'd rarely laughed, he'd almost always evaded, and this look of wry teasing was a surprise.
"I promise not to assault you." she said lightly. "You're working out your notice, aren't you?"
"Yes." Dale said mildly.
Caroline nodded, a little shocked, but things starting to make sense now. "And you and Mr Banks are trying not to panic anybody. That's why all the delegation, that's why all the key meetings. What are your plans going to be? May I ask?"
"You won't be out of a job." Dale reached past her to turn the lift on again. "Jerry assured me on that. Either they'll give you the pick of the directors wanting a more experienced PA- and apparently there will be fights over you - or I'll pay you through the quarter to find a job you really want. I've been negotiating with Jerry for a while with different possibilities in mind."
"You're remaining with A.N.Z?" Caroline asked, still shaken. Dale nodded.
"I didn't intend to, to start with, but when I thought about it, all my personal loyalty is here and I wouldn't want to do anything to compete or take trade away."
And he would. A lot of clients came to A.N.Z. purely for Dale. His resignation would shake multi national corporations on several continents.
"What will you do?" Caroline asked, fascinated. Dale smiled.
"Mostly the fun stuff, I think. I've been talking to Jerry and several other project managers. If I pick up free lance consultancy work – some project trouble shooting, some package analysis and advice – that will still be bringing clients in, but it isn't something I need to be on site to do, or to work with a team on. I'm intending to be working from home part time. Really quite part time. Jerry's suggesting using me as a final court of appeal, an independent advisor on his behalf."
Caroline looked at him, surprised, and Dale shook his head.
"I don't intend to have another breakdown. One was quite enough. There's a limit to how far you can rot your soul with pieces of paper and tower blocks."
They reached the ground floor and Dale stepped back, gesturing Caroline ahead of him. Caroline caught his left hand as he stepped out of the lift and turned it over to check his fourth finger.
"What's her name?"
He had a lovely laugh. And people all over the foyer looked around in surprise when he did it.
The hotel suite was devoid of paper and computers. That was something they had insisted on and something Dale had finally accepted after realising that if they had to go on insisting for weeks, Flynn and Jasper and Paul did not intend to give way on the matter. And Riley was emphatically and unsympathetically on their side.
"You're going back to work out a resignation, not to take up your full role again." Flynn pointed out when Dale tried to explain the impracticalities of it, feeling distinctly out numbered. "And even if you had gone back to full time work we'd have done it slowly, with limits."
They'd been extremely clear on the limits. They'd shared them with Jerry Banks too, who asked after them in a good natured way and who had fended off no few demands that Dale knew would otherwise have landed on him. Banks' own P.A.s had been protecting him from clients who had been screaming for contact with him the second they knew he was back in New York. And there had been Ash, who had called within twenty minutes of his reaching the hotel, gentle, practical and very kind.
“If you want me to come to New York I can be there in a few hours.” had been one of the first things he said, and Gerry had explained equally firmly to Dale that if he wanted it, Ash would stay in NY with him for as long as Dale needed him, whether as a friend or as an impartial Top. The generosity of the gesture had been overwhelming. They had neither bothered nor been intrusive, then or since, but their calls and emails were friendly and frequent enough for Dale to know they were making sure he remembered they were there if he needed them, and Ash quietly encouraged Dale to talk to him about the meetings and plans day to day. It wasn’t casual interest and Dale had no doubt at all that Ash did it on the request of Flynn and Jasper, who wouldn’t understand enough of his work to know if things were going well or not. The entire family, including Ash and Gerry, were ensuring that he still had a Top to turn to, while making sure that it didn't have to be Flynn, Jasper or Paul unless Dale chose it to be, giving him all the distance he wanted while he considered their offer.
“Ash is ridiculously smug,” Gerry had written in one email. “He predicted this months back, that they’d invite you to join them. He said the dead give away was that every time he said anything that even approached telling you off, one of them was watching and jumped straight in to defend you. NOT that I'm pressuring you to make any kind of decision! I'm not supposed to be mentioning the matter to you at all, just like it wasn't on your mind 24/7. Hang in there sweetie, we're here if you need us."
"Are you sure about this corporate business?" Ash had asked more gently in the addendum to Gerry's mail. "You seemed so set against working for A.N.Z. or any other corp when we talked about it."
It was a prompt to reflect, to check, and Dale appreciated it, and had waited twenty four hours before responding to the mail.
"I'm not being dragooned and it isn't impulse." he'd written back after careful thought. "Although thanks. I thought I didn't want to work for a corporate because I knew I couldn't control it, but as Riley and Gerry both tried to tell me, I don't need to. Flynn and the others won't allow it to get out of hand. It's 'we' rather than 'I'. I never understood how it worked until I wasn't thinking of some theoretical future with some theoretical Top. When I was thinking about them, it was easy."
"Ah bless!" Gerry's answer had started, stifled by Ash's firmer,
"Good, I'm reassured. Don't think it'll be too easy, but you're right, you won't be left to keep A.N.Z. in its box by yourself and they won't let you fail."
If either of them noticed the context of his comments and what they meant, they had had the tact not to comment on it.
Dale stripped off shirt and tie, found a more comfortable sweater in the closet and opened the doors of the suite out on to the balcony. The fresh air helped a little. It was a warm evening. The sun was starting to turn pink out over the harbour, and there was very little breeze. It was a perfect evening for riding out to the lake, where the water would be cool and a fire would make very little smoke while they cooked, and where they'd lay with the horses and the dogs and talk until the light went. At this time in the evening, they were cleaning up after dinner. The kitchen would still smell warmly of food, Jasper or Flynn would wander outside to lock up the barns and check the paddocks and corral, the others would gather in the family room with cards or books or just to talk, or to sit out on the porch.
These suites were incredibly enclosed. And the dim wall paper and the hum of the aircon had the irritation factor of a swarm of gnats. Dale picked up the menu some member of the hotel staff had helpfully left on the dining table, and surveyed it. Left to his own devices, he would have grabbed a sandwich, but Paul would ask. Dale read it a few times, not really seeing anything he actually wanted to eat, randomly picked one that looked the least unappetising and picked up the phone to order it. After which, he went out onto the balcony and dialled a very familiar number.
God alone knows where they kept the phone: in six months at the ranch he had never found it; but they always answered at this time of the evening within a few rings. Paul's voice answered, and Dale took a seat on the chair out on the balcony, feeling the familiar wash of calm spread over him.
"Paul, it's me."
"Hi love." Paul could put a world of welcome into those two words. "How bad was the meeting this afternoon?"
"It threatened to go on forever." Dale said dryly. "We got out of there before seven thirty. It won't be too ugly, the only remaining part will be tomorrow morning, breaking it to the directors, but then the worrying is over for them as well as us. Is the foal better?"
"Yes, Jasper cut out the night feed last night and the mare seems to be making milk herself again." Paul said calmly. There was the creak Dale knew so well that he could see Paul sitting back on the swing on the porch. "Have you eaten?"
Dale smiled. "Some chicken and rice thing, I promise."
Which wouldn't taste like anything tasted that came out of Paul's kitchen. They talked for a while before Jasper took over the phone and the conversation moved to the foal and the mare currently in the stables, Clara and her visit, the daily matters that usually would have taken place over dinner had he been at the ranch. It was only when the phone passed to Riley that Dale changed tone as soon as he heard Riley's voice.
"Ri? It'll be Friday morning. About seven am."
"Yes!" Riley exclaimed, and immediately Dale heard him cover the phone, laughing. "What? I'm glad his meeting went well. A bunch of suits together and no one died. Paul." he explained to Dale, coming back on.
"I spoke to Banks," Dale told him, "I'm seeing him tomorrow to sign it over and to look at contracts, they've all been through Legal this week. Flynn knows that part, he and Paul went through the contracts too. And Caroline asked this evening and I told her. By the way, who the hell is 'Luath' and why is he emailing me?"
"Luath did?" Riley demanded, laughing. "When?"
"This morning. And someone who signs in brackets after him as Darcy."
"They're more of the clan. Luath must have heard of you on the grapevine and found out you were a Falls Chance brat on the loose. You have no idea what you've got yourself into. Tops all over the Western World. What did he say?"
"That he understood I was in New York alone, and if I needed help I was to call him. Which is a kind thought, but terrifying."
"I told you, you'll be beating them off with sticks." Riley said with amusement. "How sane are you after the meeting? I know it was a sticky one."
"Relatively." Dale said honestly. "It went ok, I'm just tired. Sleeping out here isn't easy, there's a lot of noise and it's hot right now, but not long to go."
He could hear Riley smiling. "Hold that thought. Look, Flynn's about to mug me for the phone if I don't hand it over."
“Not a word.” Dale warned him.
Flynn’s voice was deep and quiet and as it did every night, sank into Dale’s guts and bones, taking over as if the phone line was only inches instead of hundreds of miles.
“How did you survive the meeting?”
“Fine.” Dale sank back into his chair, crossing his ankles on the rail of the balcony in front of him, and closing his eyes. The fresh air out here was deceptive, you could be anywhere if you concentrated on Flynn’s voice. “I was glad to get it done. I’ve got the clear up work to do in the morning.”
“And your diary for tomorrow?”
Dale automatically shook his head, stifling the smile.
“In email, first thing when I reach the office. Promise.”
“What are you doing this evening?”
“Nothing, just what I’m supposed to.” Dale opened his eyes for a moment, then got up to stand, restlessly looking out of the city. “Shower, I’ll read, and yes something fictional.”
His hand was tapping on the porch rail, knocking out a soft and hurried rhythm.
“That sounds good.” Flynn said calmly. “Is your stomach still calm? No more antacids since last night?”
“No, all fine. I think it was that God-awful pizza at the restaurant that did it.” Abruptly Dale turned back into the room of the hotel suite, folding his free arm across his chest. “Ah, room service is appearing with dinner, I need to go sort it out. Sleep well, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
“Sleep well.” Flynn said gently, and Dale broke the connection, feeling his heart thudding slightly and his stomach tight. A faint wash of acid rose in his throat, stinging, and leaving the familiar burning taste far back in his mouth. With no sign of room service, he put the phone down on the night stand and flopped full length back on the bed.
Why lie, Aden? You just hung up on him like a panicky teenager. What’s the point, why would you do that?
He had no idea. Dale stared at the painted ceiling, with no idea why he was suddenly wrestling with a wash of tension and anxiety and a stomach that said dinner was likely to go back to room service uneaten.
Because he can’t see. Because he can’t know. Because here it is fine if I say it’s fine. I want it to be fine. I could be 'fine' all evening, he's never going to know.
It’s ridiculous, I’ve been ok all day and then I make a call –
And with him you take the lid off, Dale’s inner critic pointed out. You won’t openly lie to him but that means you can’t let yourself talk to him, doesn’t it? Remember the word ‘with-holding’ at all, Aden?
“Damn.” Dale said out loud to the ceiling. And then rolled over to swipe up the phone, heading back out to the balcony.
This is exactly why you’d never last five minutes with a mentor, just like Riley's always said. You’d lie and fool them, and fool yourself, and then take a jump off the balcony when you reached the end of your tether, without anyone ever knowing why, including you. And that would be so much better, wouldn’t it? You idiot. You get this, you should be ashamed.
The phone was answered within a few rings and Paul’s voice said comfortably from the far end,
“Go get two of the antacids now, before you try eating anything.”
“I need to speak to Flynn.” Dale said awkwardly, mechanically going to the bathroom with the phone to find the pills.
“I know you do.” Paul agreed. “He’s gone to lock up, he said to tell you he’ll be back in a minute. Did you change?”
“From the waist up.” Dale admitted, knocking back two of the pills and wincing on the taste. “Two taken.”
“Then make the room comfortable.” Paul said firmly. “That doesn’t mean hermetically tidy either, I know you.”
Dale looked somewhat guiltily at the room. It did admittedly look as though no one was actually residing there. The doors to the balcony stood open. With stomach still churning, Dale turned on the lights against the evening approaching outside, opened the other window and turned the bed down, which at least made the room look lived in. He heard the sound of boots on the porch – Paul had clearly taken the phone outside- and a moment later Flynn’s voice, still quiet.
“Let me guess. China called and said they were still growing the rice for dinner?”
“Ok, that was wall to wall bullshit.” Dale sat down on the end of the bed, tired and more stressed now than he had been all day. “I don’t know why I’m lying through my teeth, I don’t know why I’m in a state, I was fine all day-”
“Because you push it all down during the day and don’t notice,” Flynn said without criticism, “Go get a robe.”
There was no point in asking why: Flynn wouldn’t answer. Dale got up and grabbed the immaculately white towelling hotel robe from the bathroom.
“Leave it on the bed. Take your pants off – trousers in your terms-” Flynn continued calmly, “Put the phone on speaker, and you can pick a corner, put your hands on your head and face the wall until room service does arrive.”
“And you’re going to sit there and listen to this?” Dale demanded.
“I am.” Flynn confirmed. “Move.”
Insane. Totally insane. Dale found himself shaking his head at the phone, but he switched the phone onto speaker and put it down on the bed, unlaced his shoes and pulled them off, followed by the trousers of his suit, which left him in a far more battered sweater and shorts and socks, and feeling both cooler, and decidedly more vulnerable. Then he looked around at the walls of the suite.
I am actually trying to work out a decent corner to stand in. This is not in the good hotel guide. They do not award stars for disciplinary compatibility.
There was however one blank stretch of wall, and Dale somewhat self consciously walked across to stand facing it, automatically raising his hands to interlace his fingers on the top of his head. It was harder to do without someone there to watch – but the position came from long practice and within seconds Dale found himself moving closer to the wall, taking up the stance without having to think about it, just as if Flynn was indeed right behind him instead of states away in Wyoming with a telephone. It felt overwhelmingly, staggeringly safe. For the first time that day, Dale felt his chest open and breath go right down to the bottom of his lungs, and muscles he hadn’t been aware of, aching so slightly and persistently he’d ceased to notice, relaxed and let go.
He didn’t know how long he stood there, but he had never hated this suspension of all time and activity the way that Riley did. This was peace, orienting, and time ceased to matter. Flynn said nothing on the speakerphone, and the room was quiet, cool from the breeze from the open balcony doors, and slowly, the noise and static and muddle of voices in Dale’s mind quieted down, accepted being ignored, and went away.
It was almost a surprise when the door chimed, and Flynn’s voice said quietly,
“Put the robe on and answer that.”
It took no thought or effort to simply obey, and Dale belted the robe around himself and let in a room service waiter who set the table, accepted the tip Dale gave him, and left, closing the door softly behind him.
“That really is dinner.” Dale said rather shamefacedly to the speaker phone. “Shall I call you back?”
“No, you can eat and talk.” There was creak Dale recognised. One of the porch chairs. “Take a seat.”
The chicken and rice affair under the silver dome came with bread and a jug of iced water, which Dale took several long glasses of, feeling his stomach come slowly back under control. With food in front of him, he was actually hungry and it was no effort to pick up a fork and start.
“We threw the Piaster to the lions.” He said with his mouth full to the phone. “Or rather I did. I’ll deal with the directorship tomorrow.”
“You did?” Flynn repeated. Dale gave the phone a rather wry smile.
“I couldn’t stand the wrangling anymore, so I called it. We were getting nowhere. Room full of people, everyone tired, room afloat in coffee, and it was the best answer.”
“And you’re happy with that?”
“Yes.” Dale admitted. “No evidence brought to show definitely otherwise, just a lot of arguing over and over the same points.”
“Then eat and let it go.” Flynn said firmly.
He said nothing while Dale ate, but he was there. His presence was as strongly there, as if he sat at the other side of the table, and it was some time before Dale put the fork down and pushed the plate back.
“How much was that?” Flynn asked without needing to be told. Dale knew what he meant and winced slightly.
“Maybe two thirds? And a slice of bread. Couple of glasses of water.”
“That’ll do.” Flynn approved. “Get rid of the tray.”
It would mean not being disturbed again this evening. Dale put the tray on the table outside the door of the suite and shut it behind him, taking a seat on the bed.
“What are you reading?” Flynn asked. Dale glanced towards the couple of books on the night stand.
“A couple of things. One detective thing.”
Actually the other book was one of Paul’s, something Dale had asked Caroline to buy for him when he first reached New York, and the comfort of listening to Paul’s voice through the text was powerful in the evenings, although something Dale felt slightly embarrassed about admitting.
“It’s now nine thirty.” Flynn said quietly. “Go get ready for bed, you’ve got until ten thirty to read. In bed or on the balcony, it’s up to you, but if you choose the balcony, I want you in bed by ten. Clear?”
It was that easy. Blunt, simple expectations and structure that were deeply calming, which reduced the whole mess and chaos of the day down to the comprehensible, reminding Dale of something he'd thought months ago in meeting Flynn. Put that down, it's my problem now.
“Good.” Flynn paused, and in the distance Dale heard the faint baa of sheep, the sound of Riley’s voice raised and laughing. With two hours' time difference, they were not long past dinner and some time from bed. “If you want to call back, you call. No second guessing about whether or not you need to, or what time it is, or who might be asleep. You call.”
“Yes sir.” Dale paused, half way to the bathroom, then sat down on the end of the bed again. "Flynn, I'm sorry."
"For what?" Flynn said gently. Dale pushed both hands through his hair.
"Lying. Screwing up. Getting this stressed."
Flynn interrupted the stream. "Stop. That was a stressful meeting, a hard decision. It's ok to be stressed about it."
"Just not to screw up and hide it, I know."
"You don't have to do this on your own, Dale." Flynn told him firmly. "We're right here, we'll manage, it's going to be fine. Go get ready for bed. You need downtime and a good night's sleep."
Dale got up, and paused, looking at the phone. "I don't want to try and hide this from you. I don't feel wrong or bad telling you about this kind of thing once I manage to get it out, and that's what makes it so stupid. You make me feel safe - and sane - and calm. I feel more in control and more myself than I ever did before. I just miss you like all hell, you and the others."
"Don't close them at all." Flynn said mildly. "Put more blankets on the bed if you need to, but leave them open. Go get ready for bed, kid.”
“I love you.” Dale said impulsively. He heard Flynn's brief silence, and then the give away gruffness in his voice when he answered.
It was easier to lie in bed and relax than to settle in a chair, and as soon as he lay down, Dale realised what Flynn had intended. The night air was cool and strong over the bed, it was like lying under the window in his bed at the ranch, and outside there were the distant sounds of the hotel – the people, the cars, faint music – and further beyond, the sounds of the city and the harbour. It was Flynn who had taught him to calm and focus himself by listening, and once he lay down, Dale looked directly up at a darkening sky with a few stars appearing. The same stars that would shortly be in the skies over Wyoming.
Dale slid under the covers and pulled pillows into a pile, his hand hesitating over the book that lay on the nightstand beside a palm-sized, perfectly carved, wooden ant. Something Jasper had slipped into his pocket on the morning he left, which made Dale smile whenever he saw it, but which he often held in his hand, running a finger over the smoothness of the carving. He picked it up now, fingers tracing over it's familiarity, but he kept his eyes on the sky beyond the open balcony doors. Neither Flynn nor any of the others ever mentioned the decision that was pending: there was not a word said that might have been pressure or hurrying him to declare his intentions. But it was there all the time, unspoken and unsaid, and away from work, once his mind was free, Dale thought about little else.
The one, serious concern that had kept on nagging him, was about Riley. Naturally generous, easy going, Riley was by nature an accepting man who had been happily sharing in a group relationship for all of his adult life, and he had a great deal of emotional competence – several times the amount gifted naturally to certain C.E.O.s. It was almost insulting to worry that he'd have problems. But Dale knew too how much Riley depended on Flynn, the closeness between him and Flynn, and the relationship Dale knew he and Flynn were considering was very different to the one Flynn and Riley shared. Riley had never before needed to compete with another brat for the time or attention of any of the three Tops, and the fear of hurting Riley, making Riley feel he'd lost anything, was a nasty one.
They'd talked it over several times when they were alone. Riley pointed out he had already been sharing the others with Dale for six months, rejected the whole word and concept of competition, and reminded him of something Jasper said: about invitations between themselves. Invitations could be accepted or refused as you wanted. That was another matter in itself. Jasper had been gently putting into Dale's mind how he might feel about the others accepting those invitations. In particular Flynn.
In actual fact, that wasn't an issue. When Dale thought about it – and he thought a lot– he found that it didn't worry him in the slightest. He had never been possessive, had no experience of being possessive, and he found it only too easy to understand what Flynn needed from Riley or from Jasper or from Paul. Riley, with his customary directness, grinned when Dale broached the subject with him.
"It just means there's usually someone in the mood if you are, although Paul would generally rather have a cup of tea and a good book. And it means too there’s usually someone left to talk to if you're not in the mood. We're always discreet around clients, but you've been here six months. Ever seen anyone looking lonely or jealous? It's one of the best things about it, not the worst."
Paul said something similar in the days before he left the ranch, having quietly kidnapped Dale one afternoon and walked with him out into the home pastures.
"I can see you're chewing on something." he said once they were out of sight of the house. "Are you going to tell me what it is?"
They sat down on the grass and Dale found himself explaining, in detail, a number of thoughts that were oddly easier to explain to Paul than to anyone else. He thought a few times as he talked, of Flynn, aged nineteen and out of his depth, who had turned to Paul for the same kind of advice. The spirals went round and around in this family.
"The fact you care," Paul said when he ran out of steam, "is partly why I think you don't need to worry. It's Riley you're really bothered about, isn't it?"
"It's different for the three of you." Dale said slowly, pulling at the grass in front of him. Paul nodded.
"Yes. You see Jasper and Flynn and I as being in more powerful positions, you're happier we'd be able to defend what we wanted. Do you know how Riley joined the three of us? Has he ever told you?"
"No," Dale said, surprised. Paul smiled.
"He propositioned us. All three of us. And when we pointed out that he was nineteen and too young and that all kinds of better options were out there, he told us we were talking a lot of rubbish and he wasn't going to shut up or quit until we agreed. So don't worry about Riley not being strong minded enough to stand up for what he wants."
Dale shook his head. "It's less that than – he needs Flynn in ways you and Jasper don't, and I understand that the same way he understands it in me."
"Yes, I know what you mean." Paul sat back in the grass, looking up at the aspen woods, yellow in the distance. "You’re feeling that you might take more of Flynn than the three of us might want to share. Honey, you know for yourself the hole Philip left in Flynn. We couldn't have got him down off that plateau. He'd have come back all right in a couple of days, he would have been quiet, and gradually he'd have come back to himself, but he would have had to do it by himself. Not a nice experience for him and I promise you, the three of us would have hated it too. If you make Flynn happier- if you help him in ways that mean we get more of him and he’s able to have a better relationship with us – what can you possibly feel you’re taking away from us? Don’t you see what you add?"
No, not at the time, although Dale had thought of the conversation many times since.
With his customary thoroughness, he made lists and went through them, trying to ensure he missed no major issue he should consider. He realised while he did it, just how little he trusted himself to do this right; and beneath that was a marked disbelief that the others would or even should seriously make this offer. Financially, he would be well able to be self supporting – and A.N.Z. consultancy would be part time enough to ensure that he was more than able to pull his weight with the others on the ranch daily. In Dale’s mind took full precedence over A.N.Z., which felt more of a casual hobby than the simplicity and physicality of the running of the ranch: real work that ran the land and the stock and directly earned the family’s living. There was both sanity and real pleasure in it and Dale would have preferred to never turn on a computer again than to give it up. And an extra pair of hands full time on the ranch would enable projects and expansions that took five men instead of four. Wooden fences, which Flynn hankered after. Increasing Bandit’s harem, increasing the yearly crop of foals and trained two year olds; work that Dale knew he could help with even while Flynn, Paul and Jasper took other clients.
That had been another area of thought and discussion, both with Riley and the others. Being a part of that team. Seeing another man go through some of what Dale had himself gone through.
“How can you worry what use you'd be when you know what kind of insight you'd give us?” Jasper asked him once. “You’ve got knowledge none of us have. I’m not suggesting you take a client – although in time you might choose to. But it’s a team effort. You’d do that with us just as you’d do everything else, and you’ve got as much to give there as anywhere else.”
Riley’s advice had been far more succinct.
“You can over-think this until the cows come home.” he said one night when he’d stretched out full length along the end of Dale’s bed in direct contravention of Jasper’s instructions to get ready for bed himself. “All it comes down to is, is this what you want? If it is, then forget worrying about any potential problems because we’ll fix them as we come to them. We’ll just work it out. Whatever the others say, this isn’t a decision you should even try making with your head.”
Riley was perfectly right. Logic wasn't qualified to determine this. And Dale only had to think of Jasper, sitting on the riverbank a few feet away with a fishing rod in his hands – or Paul's voice in the book he read and re read to hear him – or Riley, red eyed, struggling to say goodbye on the day he left to fly back to New York – or Flynn, Flynn's eyes, Flynn's voice, Flynn's hands on him- and conscious thought had nothing to do it.
Dale found the clock standing at 10.42 with a jolt of guilt, and switched the light off. It wasn’t yet fully dark outside and a few more stars were gathering in the midnight blue sky directly above his head.
Not long now.
The plane began its descent over an expanse of green, with mountains in the distance and nothing else in sight for miles. The air steward would have warned her client – a rather good looking, dark haired man who had met her with a smile on the tarmac at JFK- but he was already watching out of the window with a fixed gaze, belongings packed away and ready. He had brought with him only a single case, which he had put in the hold without a second thought. Most of the A.N.Z. clients brought enough office equipment on board to sink a ship.
He had come aboard still in the darkness of very early morning with nothing more than a small rucksack as hand luggage, and as soon as the plane reached height and she came to ask him what he'd like to drink, she was surprised to find him shouldering out of an extremely expensive shirt and tie.
"Sorry, it's just good to get rid of the strait jacket." he said, pausing and flushing a little when he saw her. "I'll have an orange juice please- actually, no. I'll have a coffee. It'll probably be the last one I get for a few years, I probably ought to make the most of it."
When she came back with his coffee, he had changed into jeans, boots and a short sleeved, open necked aertex shirt, which made him look very different and which had changed his body language entirely. From the upright, neat movements of the executive, he was now crouched with a good deal more fluidity and ease, and was rapidly dropping electronic equipment into the bag on top of his suit. Cell phone, pager, both of which he turned off and threw into the bag. The blackberry he paused over, then shook his head, grinned and dumped that too before he pushed the bag under the seat.
"You're travelling light," the steward said lightly, not wanting to be rude. He took the coffee, smiling at her.
"Not much to take. Actually I was staggered at how little there really was and how much I got rid of. Have you been to Wyoming before?"
"Only to fly over."
The man pulled a battered paperback out of his bag and propped one knee up, resting an arm on it as he settled down to read. "It's one of the most beautiful places in the world, I recommend it."
When they landed on the green airstrip in the middle of nowhere, some hours later, a battered four by four was waiting and a man with bright chestnut hair was standing beside it, next to a dog lashing its tail and barking at the plane. The bemused steward watched her passenger vault the last few steps of the ladder, heard the yell of delight from the chestnut haired man, and the two grabbed each other as if they were brothers.
"I've got about ten minutes before they realise I've vanished." Riley said when the plane was out of sight. Dale dropped the single case in the back of the four by four and got into the passenger seat, clicking his fingers to Shane who leapt up onto the seat beside him.
"How did you get out un noticed?"
"They were all showering. I had to set the alarm pretty early to be awake when Paul called me." Riley slammed the four by four into gear and drove slowly down the grass track that ran the miles down to the house. “I can’t wait to see their faces when you stroll in. Although you do realise they’re then going to kill you?”
“Yeah well that’ll be fun too.” Dale said, grinning.
He felt a physical jolt at the first sight of the house. The kitchen door open, the red roof and the wood porch, the windows glinting in the early sun, the pots of green plants on the porch. Its familiarity was so good it almost hurt. Riley parked quietly some way off instead of going into the garage, and they got out, closing the doors softly.
"Want your case?" Riley asked. Dale shook his head.
"How much of it do you think Flynn'll let me keep? Leave it."
"And where are the electricals?" Riley demanded, looking at the rucksack. Dale laughed, zipping the rucksack shut.
They walked together the last distance down the track, around the edge of the house and were interrupted almost at once by a snort from the direction of the corral, followed by the squeal of an excited horse. Hammer. Dale saw the big, dark horse trot along side the fence, ears pricked, dancing a little, and making the kind of noise that would attract attention very quickly. Dale jogged across the grass with Riley after him, and caught Hammer’s head as Hammer nudged him hard in the chest, snorting with pleasure.
“You’re going to have to wait at least an hour.” Dale told him, pulling his ears and rubbing his nose with as much pleasure as Hammer. The welcome was warming, his hands knew their familiar way over Hammer’s head to pet him and all of it said loud and clearly, home, home, home.......
“Breakfast,” Riley said patting Hammer’s shoulder and giving a jealous Snickers a push sideways. “Paul’ll be shouting in a minute.”
The tops were green in the distance beyond the corral, the aspens yellow to the east where the paddocks of horses spread out beyond the stables and barn. The air still held the cool and crispness of early morning, promising a hot day to come once the sun was fully up. Dale breathed it, the scent of morning and horses and grass, and walked slowly with Riley over the turf back towards the yard.
He had no idea how he realised. Only that he felt it, clearly, and knew – you never looked for Bandit in front of you. He stopped where he was, making Riley stop too in confusion, and turned to look behind them.
Flynn was following them quietly from the direction of the gate he'd been unlocking, Stetson low over his brow, brown forearms bare beneath the rolled up sleeves of his shirt. Dale dropped the rucksack and his body took over without permission. He found himself breaking into a sprint across the grass and bulleting into Flynn whose arms were open wide.
Riley, trying unsuccessfully to wipe the grin off his face, climbed up to sit on the porch rail, watching Flynn pick Dale up off his feet and for a moment there were two heads under the Stetson, Dale’s arms were around Flynn’s neck and the kisses were rough and biting with the sheer desperation of several weeks apart.
“I wondered what got you out of bed at dawn.” Jasper said placidly, leaning on the porch rail beside him and sliding an arm around Riley’s waist. “Paul? Come out here and look at this.”
“Look at what?” Paul demanded, coming out on to the porch, and Riley laughed at his shout of delight. Flynn put Dale down, let him go to run to Paul's waiting arms and walked slowly after him, across the yard and towards the house in the early morning sun.