"He is not flapping." Riley re emerged from Flynn's room, looking rumpled but quite cheerful. "Did you explain to him what you were doing?"
"There you go then. It's not polite just to take his mares and not ask him first."
"It's because you won't talk to him." Riley called back. "It's your own fault."
"The mares are fine, he's just moaning." Paul retorted. "Dale, do you want tea?"
"Of course he brought them all down with him. You can't blame him if you didn't tell him." Flynn said calmly, jogging down the steps. Paul rolled his eyes skywards at Dale, and Dale, to his own surprise, let loose a sudden bark of laughter. Paul gave him a quizzical look for a second, and then a very warm smile.
Judging by Riley's tone, 'modern stud', whatever that might be, was in the same league as cheating at cards and eating spinach.
Normal people surely didn't feel that way about horses, even in Wyoming. However there was something magnificent about the stallion's heavy muscles rolling under his coat. Riley hugged his knees as Jasper re emerged from the paddock beyond the stables, long jeaned legs rolling somewhat like Bandit's as he walked.
"So long as he doesn't bring the rest of the girls into the yard we'll be all right." Paul said darkly, coming out with several mugs in hand. Jasper accepted his and sat on the porch rail above Riley.
"You'll pick it straight back up." Riley said confidently. "You never forget, and it's easy riding out here."
"Fine." Dale said confidently. "Much better."
"Hmm." Paul leaned against the rail, not even bothering to look politely believing.
Dale raised an eyebrow, thinking of the coffee pots and take out coffee that made up the day.
"What else did you drink?" Jasper asked.
"Drip feed." Riley gave him an uncritical grin and got up, going to meet Flynn as he came down the drive.
Flynn climbed the fence, clippers in hand, and began to work along the fence line, taking down some of the brush that was hedging the edge of the paddock. The man was big, and his shoulders were bulky under his shirt. Dale ducked his head, concentrating on the steady effort to push the roller in the lines across the rough turf. It didn't take long enough. When the last line was done, Dale straightened up and stretched his shoulders, casting a wary eye at Flynn. He was half tempted to start the lines again – the work was soothing – but Flynn had already seen and gestured with the clippers at the barn.
"I get twitchy if I can't exercise." Dale stacked the bale and leaned down for the next one, intrigued in spite of himself. "Do you get many – clients? – through here?"
"We take them one at a time and most are here for a couple of months. So we see maybe four in a year?" Riley hauled a couple more bales into reach to pass up. "You're the second this year so far. We do get plenty coming back for vacations or for a weekend refresher from time to time, most of them have come back at least once."
Suckers for punishment, obviously.
"Obsess much?" Riley asked cheerfully. Dale snorted.
"I never did sitting." Dale flung another bale out of the way.
"And you're employed? Or attached to one of the others?" Dale said as delicately as possible. He had wondered more than once about these four men in this one, huge house who all appeared to have separate rooms.
"And you've always done this C.E.O rescue work?" Dale couldn't help the acid creeping into his tone and from Riley's glance which held no little sympathy, he'd heard it.
"Flynn said to think of it as rehab." Dale said dryly.
"I don't eat much of the junk." Dale accepted the bread, finding he was actually hungry. Riley poured milk into two mugs and picked one up, knocking back the contents in several long swallows.
"It was." Riley agreed without embarrassment. "Although it makes no odds, we've had 'em married, single, straight, gay, bi, homophobic, it works out. We only take partnered clients if the partner is prepared to work with us. We've had some clients who have wives and kids, and they come and stay out here too for a few weeks towards the end of the programme. Have you always been single?"
Riley gave an ironic salute with his glass, drained it and got up.
"Why not Chance Falls?" Dale asked, confused, and Riley gave him a grin over his shoulder.
Dale looked at him, not sure what he meant. Riley shrugged.
He said nothing else. Just went back down the ladder and crossed the yard to the house with Shane at his heels, the dog still limping slightly.
"What way?" Dale climbed the porch steps with him and followed his example of heeling off his boots outside.
Dale leaned against the heavy marbled sink, folding his arms while he waited, barefoot on the tiles. Flynn pushed the door open from the kitchen and gave him a nod, moving past him to the sink. He had cleaned up and changed, and the new crisp shirt made his forearms look still more darkly tanned under the rolled up sleeves. Embarrassed at being caught in his shorts, Dale moved aside and watched Flynn scrub his hands under the tap, working at fingernails with earth beneath them.
"Lazybones." Paul dealt Riley a mild spank across the seat of his jeans with his palm as he passed on the way to the oven. "Those need to be smaller pieces please. Do you cook, Dale?"
"Black Jack?" Riley grabbed a cushion from the sofa and sprawled full length on the floor. "You deal."
"Dale?" someone said very faintly. Dale got to his feet, going to the foot of the stairs where the smoke was strongest. He felt Riley's hand on his arm and saw his face, anxious, his voice very soft.
"Fire alarm? It isn't sounding." Riley followed his gaze upstairs. "What's the matter?"
"Don't get anyone." Dale took a breath and ran his hands over his face. "It's fine, I'm ok."
Caroline turned the page of the file she was working on and reached over to answer her phone. He could actually hear the phone. And the smoke was getting steadily thicker, although Dale realised it was odourless. He could see it: he wasn't breathing it although it was curling around him. Riley was gone, and a moment later it was Flynn who crossed the office at a steady stride, putting an arm around Dale's shoulders that was too heavy and too assertive to ease away from.
It wouldn't have been possible to resist. Pulled close and held tightly, Dale found himself being walked rapidly through the furniture and desks, out of the front door and onto a curiously distant porch. The cool air hit him immediately, there was a low but persistent breeze which brushed against his face and sharpened his senses. Flynn sat down on one of the benches, pulling Dale with him and keeping hold of him, and from somewhere a glass with water and ice was put into his hand. The water was cold enough to be a shock and the sense of distance abruptly decreased. It was like a fog clearing. Dale looked up and found Riley standing near them, looking concerned.
There was a moment's hesitation as though Riley didn't want to go anywhere, then he walked back into the house and the screen door closed. Dale took another hard mouthful of the ice water, grateful for the sense of orientation. Flynn's arm was still heavy over his shoulders, gripping strongly, and Dale had no idea how to react to that. The proximity alone made him distinctly uncomfortable, the big man had no idea about personal space.
"On your own?" Flynn demanded. There was nothing rough in his tone, but it had gone deeper and grimmer and Dale was aware of the clench it produced in his stomach.
"When you got up from the sofa. Yes, I understand now. You had no business to keep that a secret."
"I'm not under contract." Dale said bitterly.
"If it’s a fire alarm, I'd say you knew you were in danger and weren't listening."
"Or alternatively that I have the office fire system overhaul at the back of my mind." Dale heard the tone kick in and for the first time felt a tinge of wariness about being so openly snide. Flynn looked at him calmly for a moment, then got up.
"You spanked him, didn't you?" Riley demanded from the window seat.
"He worked with you most of the day, didn't he?" Flynn watched Riley, trying to read his face. The only time it was ever impossible was when Riley was upset. "What's more, he actually talked to you. Every time I came near him or asked him anything I got two words back at most."
"Same here." Jasper said from the floor. "Paul and I couldn't get anything out of him but basic civilities, and not that much eye contact either. He did exactly what he was asked, stayed close to Riley and more than did his share."
"He's a natural team player which not many of them are." Paul agreed. "And he doesn't seem interested in working out the pecking order."
"He isn't." Riley said unwillingly. "The ones that want to figure out the power structure usually decide Flynn's the one to ally themselves with and either start sucking up to him or pushing him; and they won't give me the time of day if they see Flynn telling me what to do in front of them. Flynn and I tried that act on Dale this morning and he didn't bite. If we were alone together he talked, and properly talked, not the couple of words at a time that he does around the house."
"What about?" Paul asked gently. Riley shrugged.
"He's got a sense of humour?" Jasper demanded. "Where?"
Riley abruptly slipped off the sofa and Paul held out his arms as Riley went to him, burying himself on the floor beside Paul's chair with both arms around his waist and his face turned into Paul's stomach. Paul hugged him, looking over his head at Flynn.
"I'm not denying his business skills are good." Flynn caught the cards Jasper tossed him and placed them on the shelf. "We've seen the energy, we've seen the work skills, you saw today?"