Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chapter 2



2



At some point in the early hours of the morning there was an almighty thud from outside. It sounded like someone hurling a sledgehammer at a wall. Dale found himself bolt upright in bed, heart thundering with shock. It was getting light outside and his watch, when he grabbed it from the dresser, stood at a quarter to five in the morning.

The sledgehammer thudded again, still louder. Dale got out of bed and peered through his window. His door stood half open onto the landing and he heard Riley's voice first, sleepy but perfectly calm.

"Flynn?"


Dale went out onto the landing and found Riley in shorts and nothing else, bare foot and hair tousled. Riley gave him a cheerful smile and whacked a fist on Flynn's open door.

"It's all right, it's only bandits. FLYNN."

Throwing the door open, Riley disappeared inside the room and Dale heard a mattress bounce in a way that suggested someone Riley sized had just dropped on it. There was an answering growl from the bed. The sledge hammer came again from outside. Dale ran a hand through his hair, bewildered and seriously alarmed that he was having another… slight disorientation issue. Bandits? That was surely taking the whole cowboy thing too far, there could not possibly be Mexican brigands galloping around Wyoming.

"What is the matter with him?" Paul demanded, emerging from his room and looking still sleepier in his t shirt and long pants. "I'm going to go out there and –"

"Bandits?" Dale said aloud, completely thrown now. Paul gave him a sympathetic look and rubbed a hand over his shoulder, an oddly personal and very kind gesture.

"No, no, it's fine. It's the stud stallion having a panic attack, that's all. Bandit. I separated out two of his mares yesterday evening and he's flapping because he can't get to them."

"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?"


"No Riley," Paul said with exasperation, following him towards the stairs, "I did NOT stand and discuss my plans with the damn horse, because he's a horse. And because he knew damn well what I was doing too."

"There you go then. It's not polite just to take his mares and not ask him first."


Riley reached the foot of the stairs and in sheer bewilderment Dale followed them through the family room to the kitchen where Riley opened the kitchen door on a cool and heavily dewed morning. A large, bay stallion with massive shoulders and hind quarters and a heavy blond mane swung its head around and gave them a look from where it stood beside the barn, unbridled, apparently entirely loose. Then it lifted a foreleg and thwacked a hoof into the wooden side of the barn with an impact like a jackhammer.  

"Shoes." Paul said, grabbing Riley who was heading barefoot down the steps. Riley rolled his eyes but grabbed a jacket from the kitchen peg and pushed his feet into tennis shoes in the set beside the door before he jogged down the steps, voice soothing.

"Hey boy. Hey fella, you know where they are, you can see them."

The stallion allowed Riley to duck under his neck and stood still to be petted, but it kicked the barn again, just as hard.

"He wants Flynn." Paul said to Dale in exasperation. "He won't stop until Flynn comes down, he always does this-"

"It's because you won't talk to him." Riley called back. "It's your own fault."


"Is that Bandit?" Jasper asked, appearing fully dressed and heading outside. "I'll go check on the mares."

"The mares are fine, he's just moaning." Paul retorted. "Dale, do you want tea?"


"I'll have tea please." Flynn, in jeans, shirt and boots, came into the kitchen and pulled a jacket off the rack.

"We might as well have breakfast too if we're up." Paul said irritably. "If he's brought the entire herd down with him and they're churning up the drive again-"

"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.


"He's as nutty as Riley is. Put a jacket on if you're going outside."


Dale hesitated for a minute, not sure where he was wanted or allowed to be, then cautiously slipped a new jacket off a peg at the end of the rack and pulled it on, going out onto the porch. The stallion had looked up at the sight of Flynn and Flynn whistled to him, a bucket over his arm and walking steadily down the grass track beside the fence that led out into the open land. Bandit swung his head for a moment, then started to walk after him, towering above Flynn's head. In the distance, Dale could see the heads of fifteen or so mares grazing quietly and lifting their heads at intervals to look towards the stallion. Riley came back to the porch and sat down on the bottom step, giving Dale a companionable smile.

"Two of his mares are in the paddock and about to foal, and he doesn't like them being away from the herd, although he's too smart to try and steal them back. He's the only stud we've got – they're free roaming, we don't do modern stud in any way, shape or form."

Judging by Riley's tone, 'modern stud', whatever that might be, was in the same league as cheating at cards and eating spinach.


"There's only about forty head on the ranch, we don't breed in a big way but he sires lovely riding horses. He's gorgeous, Bandit. Sex on legs."

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.


"They're fine, no sign of the foals coming. He must have been there a few hours; judging by the marks he's been up to the fence and talking to them."

"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.


"Well he did wait for a civilised hour before he called. Are you used to horses Dale?"

"Not for years," Dale said softly as all three men looked at him. "I rode when I was a kid, but not that much or that well."

"You'll pick it straight back up." Riley said confidently. "You never forget, and it's easy riding out here."


They were going to expect him to ride? Dale resisted the urge to raise an eyebrow. Cowboy games to fix the broken exec. Yee haw.

"How is your head?" Paul asked, handing a cup of tea over. "You still look heavy eyed."

"Fine." Dale said confidently. "Much better."

"Hmm." Paul leaned against the rail, not even bothering to look politely believing.


"Every client we ever get has a caffeine hang over." Riley commented, drinking tea. "They must drip feed coffee in the cities."

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.


"…coffee." Dale admitted. "Maybe water if I went to the gym, but mostly coffee."

"Drip feed." Riley gave him an uncritical grin and got up, going to meet Flynn as he came down the drive.






Apparently cowboying required a heavy iron roller being pushed over the green expanses of a paddock, flattening the kicked up clods and the marks of rabbits to make it safe for the horses. Dale, who had last seen the rollers used on cricket pitches in England, resisted the urge to roll his eyes and took the roller out to the paddock, leaving Flynn to do whatever else cowboying involved. The thing was heavy and took effort to move, but not to the point of being more than strong physical work, and Dale gladly lost himself in the task, quickly finding the numbing repetition and exertion of yesterday. It quieted much of what was playing on his mind: yesterday's repetition of the… incident. The first one had scared him badly at the office, it had been an awful event in itself quite apart from the awful, humiliating consequences. He had convinced himself successfully that it had been a one-off, a freak occurrence from too many nights spent working. To have a second was not pleasant. It was terrifying. What was it like to go mad? The cold sweat mixed with the heat of the sun on his back under the Stetson that appeared to be law to wear out here. If he thought too hard, all he wanted to do was get to a phone, call Charles and make any promises necessary – to get out of here, to go back to work, to get himself back into the familiar world and do what he was good at doing, and this would all go away.

"Need a hand?"

It was Flynn's voice. Dale looked over, unhappy at the intrusion. The best part of the work was the escape; he didn't want the socialising.

"No thanks, I've got it covered."

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.


"Take the roller back. Riley's in the barn, you can go and give him a hand."

This wasn't actually therapy at all: these people had just hit on a great source of free labour. Dale hauled the roller towards the barn and found Riley slinging hay bales up a ladder towards a loft; something taking hard effort but which he didn't seem to be struggling at. He paused at the sight of Dale.

"Hi. Done with the roller?"

"Where do I put it?" Dale paused, looking for a space among the various pieces of machinery.

"Over there." Riley gestured and went on slinging bales. Dale parked the roller and came back to him, brushing off his hands.

"I'm supposed to help you. What do you want doing?"

Riley paused again, giving him a slightly odd look. Then nodded at the ladder to the loft.

"You can go up there if you want, I'll pass the bales up to you. Be a heck of a lot quicker than hauling them one by one. Unless you mind heights?"

"No." Dale climbed the ladder and hooked a leg around the top, bracing himself so that he could lean down, and Riley swung the bale up to his hands.

"Just stack them where you can. You're fit. Most suits are huffing and puffing in five minutes."

"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.


"What got you into trouble?" Riley asked without delicacy, pushing up another bale. Dale grabbed it mechanically.

"Trouble?"

Riley gave him a look. "Breakdown? What do you want to call it? Flynn must have given you the 'don't bother with bullshit' speech?"

The frankness was actually refreshing rather than insulting. And Riley had an attractive warmth to him that made it hard to take offence.

"Overwork I suppose." Dale said unwillingly. "Obsessing."

"Obsess much?" Riley asked cheerfully. Dale snorted.


"What do you lot say? I plead the fifth?"

"I don't obsess at all." Riley said calmly. "I just panic, which would make me a truly lousy exec. Don't worry about stacking, I'll come up and help with that when we've got them all up there. And I couldn't be indoors all day, or do the desk sitting."

"I never did sitting." Dale flung another bale out of the way.


"No?"

"I kind of had a reputation in the office. If anything needed doing, people got it done quick or I tended to get impatient and do it myself."

Riley laughed, a very good natured sound that touched a chord. Dale found himself returning the smile almost unwillingly.

"There was a whole stack of boxes dumped in the office a few months back and I put the whole lot away mid morning, shifted them myself, because the secretaries didn't get round to it. Embarrassed the hell out of them." 

"Flynn's like that." Riley flung up the last bale and climbed the ladder, joining Dale in the loft. "Take your eyes off him for two minutes and he's reorganised the world. Put them as far against the back wall as you can, there's a lot more to come yet."

They worked in silence for a minute and Dale gave Riley a covert glance as they worked. They were about the same age, and while Riley was slightly smaller and more lightly built, he was strong and he was fit: he wasn't noticeably out of breath and he hauled the bales without much effort, shoving them into place with the competence of long practice.

"Have you worked here for long?"

"Years." Riley said without hesitation. "I was sixteen when I first came here."

"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.


Riley grinned at him. "Not employed or attached. We all kind of belong to the ranch. It's a long story."

"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.


"Yes. Always. We all work for the ranch, but that's been a key part of the ranch, for at least the past thirty years."

That was odd. Riley was around thirty – Flynn maybe was in his late thirties, as was Jasper, and Paul could not be more than mid forties at the oldest. None of them could have been harassing executives thirty years ago.

"It's a long story." Riley said cheerfully, shoving the last bale into place. "That's it, we're done. Come get something to eat? I'm starved."

He descended the ladder simply by leaning down, grabbing a handhold and jumping the rest of the way, and Dale followed him, heading with him across the yard towards the kitchen. It was empty and Riley opened the fridge, digging out milk and bread.

"If I give you anything with sugar in, Paul will kill me. You're supposed to be detoxing, you know that?"

"Flynn said to think of it as rehab." Dale said dryly.


"He would." Riley passed butter and a knife to Dale and hacked off several slices of bread from the loaf. "Pretty much every client comes with all kinds of dietary mess ups; caffeine, blood sugar, all the stuff that builds stress and all the rest of it. They'll keep you on a strict diet for a few weeks, not that we see much sugar or junk out here anyway."

"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.


"Don't like it?"

"Saw what it did to too many other people."


And there had been an ulcer a couple of years ago, which had not been pretty while it ran its course. Riley led the way, taking his bread and mug with him, and sat down on the top step of the porch. Dale sat beside him, closing his eyes for a moment under the brightness of the overhead sun.

"So how did the ranch start working with broken execs? There can't have been that many of them thirty years ago?"

"You like the history stories?" Riley propped his back against one of the porch posts.

"The ranch originally belonged to Philip and David. Philip was the one who brought me out here. I never knew David; Paul was the only one of us who did: David died some time in the 'eighties. Philip carried on working the ranch after David died, and he was the one with the corporate knowhow. He was some kind of silent CEO in a lot of major deals and corporations, there used to be choppers coming and going on the landing strips and all kinds of people would be in and out of the house, although Philip almost never left the ranch to do it. It was all discreet, letters and private friends and meetings. Philip got to know all kinds of top businessmen who were having trouble, and he and David used to bring them here and straighten them out where it didn't affect their reputation. There's no publicity out here, we don't have a public name, it's all word of mouth and very private. After David died, Philip went on doing it and he kind of trained up the rest of us, and when Philip died, we were stuck in the habit."

"Was Philip a relative of yours?" Dale asked with curiosity. Riley shook his head, smiling.

"A very good friend. He and David kind of gathered up strays all their lives. They were a couple, although David was a lot older than Philip. There isn't one of us here straight, if you haven't figured that out." he added placidly.

"Me either." Dale swallowed milk with vague curiosity as this was not something he remembered drinking since about the age of ten. "That was no doubt part of your sponsor information."

"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?"


Dale thought briefly of the few affairs – mostly brief intervals of friendly casual sex – with colleagues in several offices on several continents. None of them counted, all of them were men who'd smile if they saw him, most would cheerfully accept another invitation to dinner and bed, and it would be good naturedly informal to the extent of neither of them troubling to stay in contact afterwards.

"More or less. Not the time when you're never in an office more than a few weeks."

"Same with me, although without the office." Riley said comfortably. "Philip had an awful habit of matchmaking and marrying people off, especially people he got protective over, but he never found anyone that I liked enough to bother with. It drove him mad trying."

"If you two are done," Flynn called from the paddock, "There's the next load of hay on the trailer, Riley take Dale with you."

Riley gave an ironic salute with his glass, drained it and got up.


"Done? No rest for the wicked. Come on."



*



It took the rest of the day to bring the early hay up from the pasture where Jasper and Paul were baling it, and to put it away in the barn. It was hot, heavy work and the brief pauses while they drove the tractor and trailer down to the pasture were welcome respite. The views away from the house were spectacular. Rolling and rocky green grassland, broken only in the distance by the flash of blue from a creek far away.

"Chance River." Riley pointed out as they passed it. "The falls are about a mile further on towards the woods. Falls Chance Ranch."

"Why not Chance Falls?" Dale asked, confused, and Riley gave him a grin over his shoulder.


"It was David's idea of a joke. The ranch was only a small farmhouse when he took it over, he built the house as it is now before he met Philip, and you can see David's sense of humour all over it."

Dale looked at him, not sure what he meant. Riley shrugged.


"You'll see when you know it better. If Philip, or Flynn, or Paul had designed it, it would have been all about practicality and sense. David had other priorities."

David sounded as mad as the rest of them. Although Riley was a very likeable man. Dale found himself increasingly drawn as they worked through the rest of the afternoon, by his good humour and by his bluntness; Riley appeared to say what he was thinking and what he meant without reserve or apparent ill will to anyone or anything. Being used to the endless carping and sniping of office politics and ambitious co workers, it was oddly lifting.

They finished the last load while Paul brought the combine into the yard, stripped his shirt and went into the kitchen, and Flynn came into the barn and climbed the ladder to the loft, leaning to look at the stack of bales.

"That'll do, good job. Finish off, you two, and go in and change."

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.


"Must be odd taking orders instead of giving them." Riley said as they hauled up the last two bales and shoved them into place.    

"Do many of your 'clients' find that?" Dale asked guardedly. Riley shrugged.

"Some love having no responsibility. Some hate it when they first come. Used to being in control of everything."

"I'll do whatever I need to do." Dale said shortly, sliding down the ladder to the ground. Riley followed him, landing lightly and heading across the yard.

"Kind of doesn't work that way?"

"What way?" Dale climbed the porch steps with him and followed his example of heeling off his boots outside.


"Going through the motions?" Riley picked up his boots, giving him a quick and understanding smile. "And hoping no one notices? Trust me. Never ends well."

Ouch.

Stung and a little concerned, Dale followed him into the kitchen and added his boots to the line in the cupboard off the kitchen, and the hat to the row on the pegs. Paul was cooking, showered and changed and working serenely at the counter by the large iron range.

"Shower down here," he ordered when he saw them. "And strip before you go any further, you're both covered in dust. Are you stiff, Dale?"

"He's fitter than I am." Riley said calmly, shouldering out of his shirt and rolling it, leaving it on the tiled floor. Dale somewhat uncertainly followed his example, stripping his jeans and shirt off and following Riley into the bathroom off the kitchen, which was large and contained a shower. Riley stripped off his underwear without hesitation and disappeared into the shower cubicle.

"Won't be a minute."

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.


"How's the headache?" Flynn asked without looking up.

"Fine." Dale said automatically, and realised that was the first time he'd thought of it today. It was still there, but it was mild, so mild it was barely noticeable.

"You did well today." Flynn commented, rinsing his hands.

"Used to hard work." Dale watched the shower, willing Riley to get on with it and spare him having to stand and talk to this large, intimidating man. Flynn turned off the taps and picked up a towel. He was a good half head taller than Dale when he stood straight, and a good deal broader.

"So I see."

He said nothing else which made Dale still more uncomfortable. Riley emerged from the shower, grabbing a towel. There was not an ounce of fat anywhere on him, and his tan was delineated sharply at his waist and then from upper thigh down to ankle. Dale stifled an immediate jolt of response and averted his eyes since Riley appeared completely unconcerned by the spectators. He kept his back to the others as much as possible while he stripped off his shorts and to his great relief he heard them both leave while he was in the shower.




Everyone appeared to be roped in to help with dinner. Showered, Dale went upstairs to change and when he came down a few minutes later he was handed a row of vegetables and a chopping board. Riley was dicing potatoes and gave him a grimace over the top of them.

"The secret is to come in late enough that there's nothing left to do."

"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?"


Hotel room service, restaurants, at worst a phonecall to a takeaway…..

"Not much."

Riley caught his eye with a faint glint that suggested he understood what Dale meant, but he didn't comment. Jasper came in and took the last shower, tall and angular and quiet, and they ate together at the big, scrubbed kitchen table. Paul was a surprisingly good cook. The pot roast and vegetables were plain but well cooked and substantial, and Dale found himself clearing his plate without difficulty. After dinner Flynn and Jasper took over the dishes, Paul settled himself in an armchair with a book and Riley led the way into the family room, pulling a pack of cards from a shelf and tossing them across to Dale.

"Want to play?"

"I haven't since I left school." Dale admitted. "We used to kill time in the sixth form playing cards."

"Black Jack?" Riley grabbed a cushion from the sofa and sprawled full length on the floor. "You deal."


Well there was damn all else to do. Dale sat on the hearth rug near the fire place and dealt the hands, and they played while the dishes clanked slowly in the kitchen. He was dealing with a fairly promising hand when he became aware that the fire alarm was sounding faintly in the distance. Riley hadn't noticed it. He was lying peacefully, surveying his cards and choosing the one to lay down. On the desk across from him, Caroline was sorting her mail and apparently hadn't heard it either. There was smoke wafting slowly from the direction of the stairs. Dale sat up sharply, straining his ears. The alarm was far away, somewhere deep within the house.

"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.


"Dale? What are you looking for?"

"Where's the alarm?" Dale asked him with all the professional calm he could muster. "Do you have a main board?"

"Fire alarm? It isn't sounding." Riley followed his gaze upstairs. "What's the matter?"


Caroline was peacefully working at her desk amongst several moving secretaries, their arms full of files, none of them responding to the sound.

"You're having another episode, aren't you?" Riley said softly. "It's all right Dale. You're here, we've got you. Stand still, I'm going to get –"

"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.


"Dale, come this way."

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.


"Sit still for a minute." Flynn said firmly. "Riley, go inside. He'll be fine now."

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.


"It's better." Dale said eventually, more humiliated than he wanted to think about and trying to discreetly edge away. Flynn didn't move and his arm didn't loosen.

"Is that the first since the one you had in the office?"

Dale hesitated, very unwilling to admit to anything, save there was no point now. He'd been seen, the secret was out, things couldn't get any worse.

"No. I had one yesterday afternoon."

"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.


"Only a short one-"

"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.


"This has nothing to do with contract." Flynn said very grimly and very quietly, although strangely considering his tone, his arm was still tight around Dale's shoulders. "You are here in our care and I explained to you, I do not tolerate bullshit. While you stay with us you are responsible to us, you're accountable to us, and you do as you’re told, I'm not interested in what you do anywhere else. Are you feeling better?"

Dale nodded slowly, taking another swallow of water. "Yes. It's over."


"Then you can come with me." Flynn said darkly, getting to his feet and taking the water glass from him.

There had been a housemaster at school who had possessed that same trick of freezing the blood with a quiet, meaningful tone. Dale found his knees a little shaky in spite of himself. Flynn led him across the yard to the barn and closed the door behind them, and Dale watched with some alarm as Flynn took a leather riding crop down from one of the hooks of assorted riding kit on the wall. It was brown and slender, made of simple leather and about a foot and a half long, tapering at one end, which was scarier than Dale expected.

"We use corporal punishment occasionally when we feel it's warranted," he remembered Flynn saying calmly on the afternoon of his arrival.

He is not serious…

"Ever been spanked before?"

Bloody hell… 

"Er… slippered." Dale said with difficulty through a dry mouth, casting his mind about twenty five years back. "A couple of times in school when I was a kid…."

The man wasn't truly going to do this? It was insane. The thought was terrifying. And still more alarmingly, Dale knew, if Flynn looked at him in that way and told him in that quiet voice to bend over, he would do it. He had absolutely no idea why.

Flynn indicated the wooden rail in front of them, apparently not intending to discuss this any further. "Put both your hands on the rail, stand still and don't put your hands back. I don't want to swat the wrong thing. I'm going to give you three, and I'll tell you when to get up. Go ahead."

There was nothing to do except swallow and do as Flynn said with all the dignity possible. Determined not to show for a moment that his heart was thumping or that swallowing was getting hard, Dale put his hands on the rail, which necessitated leaning slightly forward and resting his weight on his palms. The sense of bending, even just slightly, was painfully acute.

I am actually bending over, meekly, in a barn, so a large New Zealander nutcase can smack my butt with a riding whip….. Charles was right. I've flipped.

Feeling about fourteen, horribly aware of his jeans pulled tight over his seat, Dale shifted his weight, trying not to give in to the urge to glance back and see what Flynn was doing. A second later there was a brisk crack, a firm impact that rocked him forward onto his hands, and a resounding sting right across the centre of his buttocks. The intensity of it was shocking. Stifling a yelp, clenching tightly, Dale nearly stood up and spun around, save that a second and still firmer stroke landed before he'd caught his breath from the first one. He yelped and clapped his hands back over the seat of his jeans, swinging round with his eyes watering.

"OW-"

Flynn stepped back, crop in his hand, face calm as though they were doing something perfectly normal.

"Don't put your hands back, Dale, believe me you do not want this across your fingers. One more."

Backside blazing with two, searing lines, eyes filled with tears from the pure sting, Dale stared at him in outrage. Flynn gently put a hand on his shoulder and turned him back to face the rail, pushing to lean him over.

"Move your hands."

Without knowing quite why, something to do with that quiet tone and the weight of the hand on his shoulder, Dale found himself moving his hands and fumbling for the rail in front of him, and almost instantly another shockingly hard thwack from that flexible and evilly stinging crop landed across the seat of his jeans, eliciting a muted yell.

"OW!"

"We're done." Flynn said quietly, patting his shoulder and letting him go. Dale straightened again, for a moment severely tempted to clutch his hands over his rear, and then clenching his hands at his sides in an effort not to betray himself. Flynn put the crop back on the wall, hanging it neatly before he came back to Dale.

"The next time you are unsafe or unwell or something is wrong, and you do not tell one of us immediately, I'll give you six. Understand?"

Dale nodded, barely able to talk coherently, or to imagine what six of those strokes could possibly be like. The searing sting of his backside dominated every thought and every movement: it hurt. Intensely.

"Good." Flynn put a gentle and heavy hand on the back of his neck. "Go upstairs and get ready for bed."

Dale moved without a moment's hesitation, not willing to do anything at all to invite another of those awful swats. Flynn walked with him, saying nothing and keeping pace, and by the time they reached the porch across the yard the scorching sting had subsided and was now a smarting, throbbing heat. No one downstairs commented. Paul was reading still in his chair. Jasper was now playing cards with Riley who shot Dale a sympathetic look. Dale flushed slightly and avoided his eye, heading upstairs as fast as possible and changing rapidly in his room with a speed he didn't remember mustering since a particularly fierce matron at his prep school. Oddly enough, he realised as he changed into sleep shorts and paused, in spite of himself, to check the damage, which was pink, very warm but disappointingly unspectacular, he felt a good deal better. His stomach had unknotted as if the warmth of his backside had dispelled the tension and distress everywhere else, the choking sense of panic which had underlaid everything all day was gone. He felt sore, but calm; and the relief of that tension being eased was overwhelming.

Flynn tapped at the open door of his room and Dale straightened, hastily pulling the sleep t shirt down into place, presenting himself ready for bed as instructed. Flynn gave him a nod and moved aside.

"Teeth. Be quick."

It might have been an instruction suitable for a first former, but Dale felt no inclination to argue. Flynn was sitting on the edge of the bed when he came back, and he followed Flynn's nod towards the turned down covers, sliding obediently under them.

"The hallucinations are exactly what your doctor told you they were." He said without preamble once Dale was still. "Induced by stress and lack of sleep. What do you see when they're happening?"

It was nearly impossible to talk about. There was too much shame involved, too much stress and fear. He had barely been able to answer the doctor's brief questions. Dale took a breath, and then he caught Flynn's eye and the sore, tingling heat under his shorts made itself very clearly known. He had no idea why but it loosened his tongue almost instantly.

"I keep hearing a fire alarm going off. And then I see the office and the smoke, but no one's hearing the alarm but me, and no one's responding…" he trailed off, upset at the dramaticism of it, it sounded pathetic in his own ears and he had no doubt how stupid it would sound to Flynn. But Flynn was nodding, unmoved and apparently undisgusted.

"The symbolism in that is fairly obvious, isn't it?"

Dale gave him what his colleagues would have called the James Bond Stare. It brought down most arguing associates. Flynn's eyes didn't waver and his voice was entirely matter of fact.

"The only person you're fooling or making things hard for is yourself, Dale. I won't let you avoid this indefinitely."

It was the same tone in which he'd said 'come with me' on his way to the barn. Dale swallowed and once more found his mouth opening involuntarily.

"All right, I see it. You could say it shows I know something is wrong and I know I'm not listening."

"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.


"All right. When you're ready to talk, come and find me. But as I warned you Dale, I won't let you dodge this indefinitely. If you feel unwell or unsafe I expect you to call me, I expect you to ask for help, but once you've caught up on sleep and you're in better health these episodes are going to stop and they're just unpleasant, they're not harmful. Sleep well."

He didn't wait for a response before he left. Dale tried to summon up a confident and comfortably dismissive emotion of 'they're all nuts', but it wouldn't come. Instead he felt remarkably subdued. And alone. And a little ashamed.






"Is he all right?" Paul asked softly as Flynn came downstairs. He was still reading in his chair in the family room, but he lowered his book. Flynn nodded, coming to take the seat on the couch nearest the hearth. Jasper was still sprawled on the carpet, idly playing patience with the full pack of cards, which left Riley- Flynn found him in the window seat which was never a good sign, knees under his chin, face shuttered.

"Having a full-on strop, but he's fine. Will of iron, this one. We might not have seen the outward ranting and raving but he's being an obstinate little bugger and what's more I'm starting to be convinced he knows it."

"You spanked him, didn't you?" Riley demanded from the window seat.


"Yes." Flynn said calmly. "He deserved it and he knew he did. If he chooses to stay here he's committed to working with us, not against us."

And usually Riley was the first to agree when one of their clients was misbehaving. No one was more sensitive to or critical of creatively obstreperous behaviour than a brat. Jasper was watching Riley, his eyes shrewd. Flynn held out a hand in the direction of the window seat.

"Come here."

"No." Riley said shortly, hugging his knees more tightly. Flynn got up and went around the couch, capturing Riley by one wrist and towing him back to the couch. Riley dragged his feet and flopped angrily down on the couch beside Flynn, folding his arms.

"What's the matter?" Flynn propped his elbows on his knees, aware of Jasper and Paul's full attention. Riley was too; he was working hard on not meeting anyone's eyes.

"Nothing."

"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.


"The history of the house. And interest, not digging. He doesn't want to know all the background facts, he doesn't see information as power. I told him a bit about Philip and David, he told me a bit about his office – not pulling rank, just basic funny stories-"

"He's got a sense of humour?" Jasper demanded. "Where?" 


"He has." Riley said defensively. 

"He has." Paul agreed. "He lost the mask and laughed this morning when Bandit was hammering on the barn."

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.


"What's bothering you, honey?"

"You didn't get him into trouble, Riley." Flynn said quietly, watching. "He did that for himself, and he needs to take responsibility for his own actions. These episodes aren't dangerous, they're pretty much a kind of sleep walking from stress and exhaustion. So long as we're working him hard enough through the day that he'll sleep properly and soundly at night, he'll settle down in a few days. Now I know he's still having them we'll kick him up to bed after dinner and we'll make sure he isn't left alone. That's all it'll take."

"You always have the answer to everything." Riley said angrily and indistinctly. Paul rubbed his shoulders.

"Come and help me make some tea. Yes, come on. Jas, put those cards away and get out something we can all do."

Riley unwillingly went with Paul and Jasper gathered up the cards, waiting until Riley was out of earshot before he looked at Flynn.

"Do you think something happened between them?"

Flynn considered, but shook his head. "No. I'm starting to wonder if Dale's aloof act is actually about equal parts fear and shyness."
  
"We don't get many shrinking violets," Jasper said without scepticism. "You've read the reports on the man; he's brilliantly clever, he's reputed to have pretty much endless energy and nerve, he's run teams containing a heck of a lot of people,"

"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?"


"I saw." Jasper agreed wryly. "Hyper, compulsive, perfectionist. But he can play with a team and he's not controlling, he followed Riley's lead even after he knew the routine."

"And we're not a corporate setting, so he's shown he can work out of context too." Flynn ran a finger along the shelf, looking for one of the several board games they owned that Riley liked. "I'm getting interested in this young man, he's not going to be one of our cut and dried cases." 



Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009

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