It was late that night when Madrigal walked into the kitchen. I was surprised to see him. He spent most of his nights at the ranch. Usually it was only Delilah, my sister and I here at the mansion. Our family was rich as hell from old money, but had become even richer when Madrigal bought that ranch. At thirty-two years old, he is fifteen years my senior and our sister, Kirsten, fits almost right in between at age twenty-four. We only had our father in common, but he had been dead since I was two, my mother since I was four. Madrigal raised me and I love him more than life itself. It was pouring rain outside, but that had never bothered my brother. He was used to having to chase down his cattle during a storm. I pulled a towel from under the laundry room sink and handed it to him. He undressed while I grabbed his stash of clean clothes from their shelf in the laundry room. We all kept spare clothes there for when we were soaked through. I tossed his wet clothes into the dryer and went back to my laptop.

"It's late, Bell." Bellamy is my given name, but only my siblings and Delilah know that. To the rest of the world I go by my middle name; Scott. It would be hell to be a seventeen year old boy and have to go by Bellamy. Even my driver's license says Scott because Madrigal got it arranged to be legally recognized as both Bellamy Scott and Scott Bellamy, praise him. He was standing behind me, his breath warm on my neck. It made me remember when I was little how he used drop a kiss on the top of my head before leaving for the ranch each morning. My screen contained a story I edited for a friend who posted on a website. I was what people referred to as a beta and was in charge of catching errors and curbing any new developments that might not go over well with readers. It was my job to be objective and give the writer a look at different viewpoints before they published each story or chapter. My writer wanted to get this chapter posted tonight and we had been going over it for the last hour and a half.

I finished the last of my corrections and the writer published the chapter. We said our goodnights and I shut down the laptop. Madrigal still stood behind me. He had always demanded strict obedience from me, but allowed me to do most things. As long as I did as I was told, things went smoothly. He sneezed twice. "You should have taken a warm shower," I said after blessing him. "Warm clothes are enough. Go to bed." I grabbed my laptop and headed for the stairs. "Bellamy," his voice had a slight warning in it. I gave him the laptop. He knew me too well. I would have checked the story to see what the readers thought. There had been four who had specifically been waiting right then to read and review it. "If I catch you with Kirsten's I'll whip you." Damn, he really did know me. Madrigal came to me and put a hand on my shoulder. "Go to sleep, little brother, it will all still be there tomorrow." I nodded and ascended the stairs.

I brushed my teeth and pulled off my clothes, changing my boxers. Madrigal was right, it was late and everything would still be there in the morning. As much as I wanted to check the website, it wasn't worth a whipping. There was a soft knock on my door and Kirsten came in. She settled on the bed beside me, balancing her laptop. "Your waiting four have all reviewed and they eagerly await another chapter. The last one was happy that there wasn't a spelling error to be found." I laughed. "She's after her teaching degree and misspelled words and incorrect grammar drive her crazy." "I guess it's a good thing English was your best subject," Kirsten laughed. We kissed goodnight and she headed out, passing Madrigal in the doorway. "She knows us both too well," he said. "We're lucky she's on our side," I chuckled, agreeing with him. Kirsten is fiery and brilliant. No one wants her for an enemy and that usually works out because she is easygoing until you get her angry. I've been whipped by her before too. Madrigal looked like he was debating something. "What is it, Mads?" "Nothing, Bell, I'll see you in the morning." He went out, closing the door behind him.

Kirsten was helping Delilah with breakfast when I came downstairs the next morning. Madrigal was pouring what had to be his third cup of coffee. I tossed a new set of spare clothes into his cubby in the laundry room. "Thanks, Bell." I stole his coffee from him. Though I was used to getting up early, having been half-raised on a ranch, I still wasn't really a morning person. Kirsten was laughing at my bold move. Madrigal looked half-angry, half-amused. He shook his head and poured himself a new cup. I had finished high school early, but that wasn't unusual in our small town. Most of us worked on a farm or a ranch so the faster we were done with school the better. I decided to start college when I was twenty. Kirsten and I earned our keep by running the ranch alongside Madrigal. He introduced us as co-owners and I guess it was true enough. The work we did brought in significant income, not to mention our inheritance. We were lucky financially, but our family was pretty rotten outside us three.

Our father had been a skirt-chaser as was evidenced by the fact we have three different mothers and mine was the only one he actually married. Madrigal's mother had been a gold-digger and Kirsten's mother had been a socialite with no time for a child. My mother wasn't a bad person, for all the good it did her. My dad still ran around on her and she still died too young. Most of our cousins are greedy and selfish people and everyone else is dead. We have one distant great-aunt, but she only made sure Madrigal had things under control once my mother died. It is basically just the three of us and Delilah. She has been with our family since Madrigal was one. Delilah isn't too old yet since she was only eighteen when she started. We make a pretty decent family and I'm happy. Kirsten set a full plate down in front of Madrigal and a second one in front of me. She and Delilah joined the table with theirs and Madrigal blessed the food before we dug in. I'm glad it's Saturday, our day off.

We all take Saturdays off from anything work related. It's good to be together, just the three us. Delilah usually visits her children. Sunday always means church and dinner at our minister's house. We provide salad and dessert, they provide the main course and it all works out nicely, but Saturdays are my favorite. I did the dishes after breakfast so Delilah could leave to visit her family. Madrigal and Kirsten are scuffling in the living room. It always makes me laugh to see them playing like a couple of kids. As always, Madrigal pins her easily. She gives in and he lets her up, stealing a victory kiss. I join them in the living room and she pounces on me. I pin her just as easily and set her pouting. I kiss her forehead and let her up.

My cell sounded with a text message from my writer. Due to popular demand and a stroke of brilliance she had another chapter that needed my attention. She aimed to publish it tomorrow. I promised to look at it after church if not later tonight. Closing the phone, I looked at my older siblings. They were both on the couch, Kirsten half in Madrigal's lap. Her head was back and her eyes were closed. I tiptoed up to sneak-tickle her and got swiped at for my troubles. "Damn," I muttered. She laughed. "Oh come on, Bell, you know you can't sneak up on me anymore than I can sneak up on you." She was right. We could all just sense one another by now. "Come on, darlings, Shelia promised us a sale this weekend," Madrigal drawled. We all climbed into one of the ranch trucks and headed for Shelia's bookstore: Book Barn. It was actually in the town's largest barn. Two hours later my siblings and I walked out with an armful of books each. We somehow got them all in the truck and headed for home. About a mile away from the mansion the storm started again.

Madrigal pulled the truck as close to the door as possible, but it was no use. We had a good deal of mud to cross and Kirsten wasn't wearing boots. We each stuffed one book under our jackets to read once we got inside. I scooped up Kirsten before Madrigal and I sprinted to the door. I set my sister down under the porch and Madrigal dug out his keys. We got inside and built a fire before settling down to read for the rest of the day. Realizing that Delilah had left on foot this morning, I called her cell and asked if she needed to be picked up. She accepted and Madrigal gave me the truck keys, so my Mustang could stay in the garage. I tossed Delilah's boots into the passenger seat and climbed into the truck. It was a good thing I was only going three miles down the road, because the storm was a nasty one. Delilah and I made it home in one piece. "You're a lifesaver, Scott." She told me as she shucked her boots. "You'd have thought of me, Delilah." She smiled and went to get dinner going.

Dinner was great and afterwards my siblings and I went out to play in the rain. Delilah stayed on the porch, but even she was laughing at our antics. I had never been so cold or so happy in all my life. We even managed to get into a mud fight. Finally, we went inside. In the laundry room we stripped to our underwear and toweled off the best we could. I was wrong, now I was the coldest I'd ever been. As we headed upstairs our only thoughts were of warm showers. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks. We only had three full bathrooms and one was Delilah's. She was already in there, soaking in a warm bath. It hit Madrigal about the same time as it hit me. He laughed. "Come on, I'll take you with me." I could have kissed him. Praise God, he wasn't making me wait. Kirsten departed for her shower and we went straight into Madrigal's, boxers and all. I usually showered in Kirsten's because the one attached to my room was a half bath. Mud and dirt came off us in large clumps. We were nearly chest to chest in order to fit under the warm spray. It was the closest we'd been in awhile.

Madrigal stood an astonishing six foot five, but I didn't mind that I was six foot one. I was only seventeen, after all. Madrigal wasn't six five until he was twenty-one. The warm water felt so good. I stepped back so Madrigal would have room to wash. He did the same for me and we checked each other for left over mud. Satisfied that we were clean, we stood back under the spray for a few more minutes of warmth. Even our boxers were no longer dripping mud. "I'm so glad you love me." He laughed. "I assume you mean the fact I took you with me?" I nodded. "You would have caught your death waiting. I don't mind you being with me. You're my baby brother and it's just this once." "Unless we have another mud fight," I grinned. "Yeah right, Kirsten is probably still getting it out of her hair." "She swears one of these days she's just going to chop it short and be done with it," I replied. "That's up to her, but what a shame."

I agreed with Madrigal. Kirsten had really beautiful, long chocolate colored hair. It fell down to about her elbows and was naturally straight. Madrigal shut off the water and we both dried off. I headed back to my room for clean clothes. The three of us met in the kitchen, dressed in pajamas. Kirsten began to heat milk for cocoa. Madrigal added Bailey's to the milk. "That will warm us up," Kirsten grinned. Usually the fact that I'm not twenty-one goes unnoticed. As long as Madrigal is the one who gives me the alcohol, I get to drink. He always makes sure I don't get too much and I've learned to hold my liquor. The cocoa was excellent. By the time I finished I was yawning and so were they. Kirsten kissed us both goodnight and went upstairs. I rinsed our mugs and put them in the dishwasher. I went to Madrigal and he gave me a gentle swat goodnight. I returned the favor and headed upstairs. My laptop was on my desk, but the moment the thought crossed my mind Madrigal appeared. "You leave it be. We've got church in the morning." He left it with me and gave no threat of a whipping, but he would know if I was tired tomorrow. I crawled into bed and was out like a light.

The moment I woke on Sunday morning, I knew it would be a long day. Church was only interesting on holidays, when spirits were high, and dinner would be routine. At least I would get to see Ben, short for Benadora. We made quite a couple, a girl named Ben and a boy named Bell. It did little good to see her, though, since we barely even got to talk in front of her parents. Maybe they would let us go for a drive, if I could coax Madrigal into giving me his keys. I headed downstairs for some breakfast before washing and dressing for church. My siblings and I met at the door, but I ached to drive my Mustang. Madrigal knew where my thoughts were and collared me. "Behave yourself today," he ordered. Something sparked through me and I challenged him, which was extremely rare. "I'll meet you guys at the church I have something I want to take care of." His voice was calm and dangerous: "I don't think that's a good idea today. You had best stay with us, Bellamy." My eyes never left his as I reached for the keys to my Mustang. He stayed out of my way, but I knew I would pay for this.

I put the top down on my Mustang and drove to the local kennel. There was a pup there I had been debating over for about three weeks. He knew me by now and was happy to see me. He was a standard beagle, maybe eight weeks old. I told the kennel worker I would be back for him later that evening and made half the payment on him. I arrived at church just in time and slid into the pew beside Kirsten. I was already damned, but if I had missed church Madrigal would have skinned me. When the service was over I booked out before either of my siblings could collar me and went to the library. I beta-ed the chapter for my writer, but I was nearly late leaving for dinner. Though he wasn't a priest we called our minister Father Martin. I arrived just behind my siblings. Mrs. Martin was waiting in the doorway for us so Madrigal didn't have time to catch me. We made it through dinner without a hitch and Ben, bless her heart, seemed to read my mind. She convinced her father to let us go for a short drive.

We parked in the lot behind the high school and I put the top up because it was fixing to storm again. After about fifteen minutes of making out we settled to talk for a bit. "Madrigal's angry with you, isn't he?" I nodded. "Are you going to get it later?" "Without a doubt," I answered. "Do you know if your father whipped him?" "I don't believe so, but Madrigal isn't my father." She nodded. Having three older brothers and two younger ones as well as two sisters, she knew that any set of siblings who didn't lay their hands on each other was rare. We kissed some more and then headed back to her place. I dropped her off, grateful that my siblings had already left. I picked up the puppy on my way home and was glad we made into the garage just as the storm broke. Madrigal and Kirsten were at the kitchen table. Kirsten laughed at the pup squirming in my arms. Even Madrigal ruffled the little guy's ears. "What are you going to name him, Bell?" I looked at the pup for the millionth time. "Shiloh," I answered.

Kirsten's eyes filled. The Shiloh trilogy had been my mother's favorite. My mother had been the only one who ever fussed over Kirsten. They had become very close very quickly and losing my mother had put Kirsten off balance. Sometimes it still shook her unexpectedly. "Perfect," my sister whispered before jogging for the stairs. Cowgirls didn't cry, at least not where they could be seen. I set the pup down and gave him some water, closing the sliding door so he couldn't leave the kitchen except to go into the laundry room. "Take him back to the ranch with you tonight, will you?" Madrigal nodded. We both knew the pup would be happiest with room to run on the ranch. "What got into you today?" Madrigal's tone was mild, but that didn't mean a damn thing. "I just had things to do." "You don't usually disobey me." "All you had to do was make it an order. I obeyed the only order you gave me today. My behavior was so decent only Ben noticed you were pissed at me." "This morning was not the time to force you to do anything. You were fighting, admit it."

The mildness had left his voice. "I hate Sundays, always have. Church is rarely interesting and dinner is suffocating at best. I can feel Father Martin's eyes on the pocket my wallet is in. He wants to search every flap of the old leather thing to be sure I'm not packing a condom in hopes of having my way with his youngest daughter." "He let the two of you leave." "Only because he has a soft spot for Ben," I snapped. "Definitely fighting today, Bellamy," he observed. I bristled because he was right. "Look, if you're going to belt me just do it. I'm sick of this day." "I'm not going to whip you. You made it to church and dinner. I wish you had stayed with me and Kirsten, but you're right, it wasn't an order. If you're sick of this day, go to bed." I turned to go upstairs, but stopped. "When will I see you again?" "Probably not for a couple of days," he answered evenly. I went to Madrigal and squeezed his shoulder before bending down to pet Shiloh. I told the pup: "See you soon, little guy" and went up the stairs without a backwards glance.

Kirsten woke me the next day around noon. Whereas Madrigal always just called for me from the doorway, Kirsten actually came in and sat on my bed. "Did he whip you last night?" I shook my head, still half asleep. "Why do you push him, Bell?" I almost laughed. I was painfully submissive to Madrigal and she knew it. Rarely did I ever so much as nudge him, yet alone push. "You mean ever, Kirsten?" She nodded. "He's rough enough with me that sometimes I feel like I have to earn it." "I'm going into town for a little, do you need something?" I shook my head and she left. We live a bit outside a town that's three hours southeast of Phoenix, Arizona. It's called Rattler Landing and has an astounding population of 500 locals and about 250 drifters. Hell, at least we beat Tortilla Flats, if nowhere else. Nearly everyone works on or owns a ranch or farm around here. We're not really a poor town, but my family has done the best. Even some of the city slickers in Phoenix knew the name Thompson meant old money and decent business. We aimed to keep it that way.

The thing that finally drew me out of bed was my stomach growling. Delilah was out running errands, but I was fine on my own. Ben showed up as I was finishing my coffee. "Hey, baby girl," I said, kissing her hello. "I just came by to be sure you survived last night." "Wonder of wonders, he let me be." "That's a surprise." "Maybe he's getting softer as he gets older." She snorted. "I wish it worked that way, Scotty." Ben knows my given name, but rarely uses it. "Did your father hassle you?" "No, but I think he's after my mother to give me a lecture on chastity." I laughed. "Better you than me, sweetheart." "Why you so mean to me?" she asked, coming to stand between my thighs. I nuzzled her hand as it brushed through my hair. She worked on her uncle's ranch enough to be a true cowgirl and I was crazy about her. That lecture on chastity may have come too late if Kirsten hadn't returned right then. My jaw dropped at the sight of my sister and so did Ben's.

Kirsten's hair was chopped into a super-sexy short style. Ben found her voice first. "You're so gorgeous I want to gag, Kirsten, but that's nothing new." Kirsten laughed and hugged Ben in thanks. I stood and brushed a hand through my sister's hair. "I can't believe you actually did it." Kirsten's navy blue eyes shone. "What do you think, little brother?" "I think you're the most beautiful woman on the planet next to Ben. Short hair suits you as much as long hair does." She grinned. "I think so too." At that moment, Ben's cell phone rang. When she returned from taking the call it was only to grab her keys. "Apparently my mom wants to put a rush on the lecture." I gave her three long, very French kisses and watched her drive away. "What lecture?" Kirsten asked. "The one on the importance of chastity," I replied. "That lesson was probably the only one Madrigal was gentle with," she mused. I agreed. Madrigal had always been calm about sex. He stressed the importance of being ready, but was careful not to paint sex as a bad thing. Even Kirsten found it easy to talk to him about it.

"Speak of the devil," I said, hearing Madrigal's truck pull up. Madrigal walked in and did a double-take, something I had never seen him do before. His surprise ended there though as he reached out to touch as I had. "I'm going to miss the length, but you have got the prettiest face, Kirsten. Your mother will be horrified when she arrives tomorrow." Kirsten's eyes widened. "How long have you known she was coming?" Madrigal looked away. "I meant to tell you Saturday," he admitted. Kirsten slapped him. "God damn it," she cursed as she flew from the kitchen. I was torn between feeling for Kirsten and laughing at Madrigal. "Sucks, don't it?" I asked him. Kirsten had slapped me enough times that I would know. She didn't often do it to Madrigal, but when she did it was never with restraint. "Our bitch has a mean right-hook," he agreed. "You should have told her Saturday." "So she could drive herself completely insane by tomorrow?" "Now she's frantic and as you learned violent. That's never good, Mads."

We both heard something break upstairs. Simultaneously, we ascended the stairs and went straight into Kirsten's room. She had broken the bottle of Jack Daniels she kept stashed in her closet. The bottle had been thrown at her far wall, perhaps because it had been all but empty. I winced, wondering how I could have neglected to replace what I had stolen. As soon as I was in swinging distance, she slapped me so hard it sent me into the door of her bathroom. "You stay the hell out of my booze," she nearly shrieked. Madrigal caught her by both wrists and brought her down onto the bed. When she struggled he dealt her a sharp slap, something he almost never did. "That's enough. Your mother would be over the moon to know that just the thought of her visiting turns you into a hysterical five year old." Tears had come into Kirsten's eyes, but out of what had to be sheer will power she did not let them fall.

Madrigal released her wrists and pressed his lips to her forehead. "You're stronger than her, Kirsten." "Just go," she told both of us. We left her alone. When we arrived back in the kitchen, Madrigal was already removing his belt. "You're the one who finished her Jack?" I nodded, sealing my fate. He whipped me, a good eleven strokes. It hurt like hell, but I had known it would come if either of them caught me drinking on my own. Madrigal re-buckled his belt and shook his head. "I hate doing that, but I can't even begin to tell you how stupid you are to drink without one of us. I have no doubt you can successfully limit yourself, Bellamy, but I don't want you drinking without my permission." I nodded, sore as hell. "Promise me you won't drink unless Kirsten or I give it to you." "I promise, Madrigal." "That's my boy," he grinned. I smiled and shook my head. "What are we going to do about Kirsten?" "Kirsten will calm herself down. It's Myra we all need to worry about." Myra is the biggest pain-in-the-ass, but she's still Kirsten's mother. This was bound to be interesting, to say the least.

The next morning Myra landed around eleven on the private airstrip in the farthest field of the ranch. All three of us and five dogs, Shiloh included, stood waiting for her. We had a truck parked about two feet away, because horses would have spooked at the noise of the plane. Myra dropped her carry-on bag and put her hand over her heart at the sight of Kirsten. "Kirsten Annabelle Thompson, what have you done to your beautiful hair?" "Hello, Mother, did you have a nice flight?" "How could you let her do this?" Myra accused Madrigal. "She's twenty-four years old, Myra. I can't exactly forbid her to do things and I was just as surprised as you are." I chuckled at the memory of our brother's astonishment. "What?" Kirsten asked me. "That's the only time I've ever seen Madrigal do a double-take."

Kirsten actually smiled. It was the first soft gesture she'd offered me since she discovered her Jack was gone. "It was comical. Almost like something in a movie," she teased Madrigal. "I wish I had known you were going through with it, I'd have done it for you." "That's right; your mother was a stylist. She taught you a long time ago." Madrigal nodded. "I didn't know that," I admitted. Kirsten smiled. "All mothers are good for something, right, Mom?" "I can't believe you would have helped her do this," Myra shrieked. "Of course I would have. Honestly, Myra, it's a big change. I'm sure Kirsten was a little apprehensive. It's my job as her big brother to ease any pain that I'm not the cause of." Kirsten kissed his cheek. "That's ironic," I muttered. "What are you murmuring about, boy? Your father never mumbled. It must be something you got from your mother. She died when you were young, but I guess not young enough. I don't know what your father ever saw in that stupid whore. All she did was drive him into an early grave and she still managed to contaminate you," Myra declared.

I saw a flash of red and the next thing I knew Madrigal had me pinned against the door of the truck. I realized I must have leapt for Myra. To my surprise, the words Madrigal spoke into my ear were soothing. He wasn't angry with me, only needed me to calm down. I checked my temper and he released me. I said some things to Myra that I wouldn't normally say to a woman. Kirsten blushed, and she's a cowgirl. Myra did the opposite and blanched. She turned to Madrigal, obviously expecting him to hit me. "I think we had better ride back to the house," was all he said. Giving the keys to Kirsten, Madrigal followed me and the dogs into the bed of the truck. Myra climbed into the passenger seat and slammed the door dramatically. "You shouldn't let her get to you, Bell." Madrigal had waited until we started moving to speak. "I know she's just being Myra, but nobody gets away with talking about my mother like that!"

Madrigal smiled. "You always were protective of your own. Try not to let Myra get under your skin. She's not worth it, Bells. If you had connected with her you know I would have had to give it to you good." "Honestly, Madrigal, I didn't even know what had happened until you were pinning me to the truck." Kirsten parked and we hopped down to follow the women into the ranch house. "So many god damn dogs," Myra cursed as she half tripped over Shiloh. I picked up the beagle and laid him on one shoulder. He fell asleep almost instantly. "Oh for heaven's sake, he's not a child!" "Are you capable of keeping your mouth shut for longer than three minutes?" I snarled before I could stop myself. "Scott," Madrigal warned. Myra is unaware of my given name. I looked away. "He can't be more than eight weeks old, Myra. All young things need a little extra love." Myra seemed to accept this. "Kirsten, how could you do that to your beautiful hair?" "I wanted to try something new, Mom. Besides with all the storming it does out here, my hair was a hassle to handle. It's not as if its permanent, Mom." "Maybe not, but it's definitely long term," Myra sighed.

My temper was still boiling, enough so that Madrigal reached out and gave me a shove in the shoulder. "Get out of here, now. Go on, get, and you come back here tonight. I don't want you back at the house so long as Myra's in town." I didn't argue with him. "Scotty, be careful," Kirsten called after me. I calmed myself down enough to drive safely, for Kirsten's sake. I spent the day in the library and it was dinner time before I showed up back at the ranch. Madrigal was cooking a pasta dish I favored. "Sometimes I forget you're only seventeen," he tells me softly. "Madrigal, you have raised me since I was four years old. I love you and I respect you and you're my favorite person in the whole damn world, but I have every right to be seventeen." He put down the knife he had been chopping vegetables with and grabbed me by the collar, landing me in a chair. "Bellamy, I want you to be seventeen for the rest of your life. You are my baby brother and you will always be my baby brother."

I looked at him for a long time. The rougher he gets with me, the more affection he's expressing. That's just his way with me, has been for quite awhile. Still, it didn't change the fact that I had flat out told him I love him, something I don't often admit to. He knew full well that I was waiting for him to admit as much to me. "Don't look at me that way. It's a given, Bell." "Good, because if she ever says something about my mother again, there won't be a damn thing you can do to stop me." "What makes you think I would get in your way?" "There are lessons people never learn." "That includes you, kid." Shiloh leapt into my lap and curled up, tail to nose. I melted a little as I scratched his ears. "The last thing we needed around here was another dog, but he was meant for you the moment he entered this world." I laughed at my older brother. He loved animals and would never limit the number as long as there was room on the ranch. A knock sounded at the kitchen door and there stood Skylar Cunningham. Sky had raised his seven siblings after their parents died, simultaneously running a ranch that was second only to ours. He is Madrigal's closest friend.

He strolled easily into the kitchen. The eldest of Sky's younger brothers took over the running of the ranch last year. Sky had been doing it by himself since he was eighteen and the way his brother saw it, Sky had earned his freedom. There were many a small-town rumor about Skylar and Madrigal. They have been friends since they were born. On many occasions, Kirsten or I are asked if Skylar and Madrigal are a couple, but all I know is their relationship doesn't fit under a label. Do they love each other? Well, I'll just say it's a given. I suppose they are like an old married couple… It's hard not to be when you know someone as well as they know each other. Skylar hasn't said a word, but neither of them was ever a man of many words. Madrigal serves the pasta dish, skipping Skylar, who he knows would refuse anyway. "Hostility," Sky remarks and I realize it's radiating off of me. "Myra's in town," I mutter dismissively. He looks at me, used to my respecting him enough not to mumble. I meet his eyes, but don't hold them. We get along fine, but I know the boundaries. "You do something stupid, Bellamy?" "I tried to, least the way you two see it." "That's an accusation, Bells."

"So?" I face Madrigal. "It wasn't stupid. I just couldn't let you do it." "Like I said, if she does it again, you can't stop me." I eye him warily, not believing he wouldn't try. "You and I both know that's not true," he says quietly. I drop my fork, stand up, and walk out, not caring that he'll deal with me later. It isn't easy living with adults all of the time, so I head for Ben's house. She grabs her jacket and comes out for a walk with me. Her parents left for a conference this morning and her eldest brother is in charge for the week. As far as he was concerned, Ben was seventeen and therefore old enough to take care of herself. We walk in silence and she hands me a cigarette. I only smoke when I'm stressed and Madrigal would kill me if he knew. It's a pain in the ass to hide, so I seldom do it, but tonight I lit up. Ben slipped her hand into my back pocket and we walked on. As we came to an open field it hit me like a bolt of lightning.

Ben didn't let out so much as a squeak of protest as I pulled her down on top of me in the middle of the field. She said nothing as I kissed her, harder than I ever had before. Not a sound escaped her when I pulled her t-shirt over her head and unhooked her bra. I finally got a cry of pleasure when I got her left breast in my mouth. I sat up and removed my own t-shirt before going for her right breast. We had been here many a time and I wondered if she was wise to my intentions. Only one way to find out… I reached for the button on her jeans. She had never let me get them off before, but she let me now. When I went for her soft, cotton bikini underwear she stopped me. Ben reached into my back pocket and produced my wallet. She went through the flaps and came up with a condom. She put my wallet back and pressed the condom into my hand before removing my jeans. "Okay," she said softly. Together we slipped each other's underwear off and I put on my raincoat. I kissed my way down her body and started with my tongue. That got an honest squeal of pleasure from her. I decided to press my advantage and entered her for real.

When it was over we both lay on our backs, panting. "That was… indescribable." I agreed with her. "Are you all right, Benny?" She laughed softly at my pet name for her and rolled over to kiss me. "I'm absolutely perfect, Bellamy." It was my turn to laugh. "Chastity," I told her. She shook her head. "It was you, Bell, it was always you." "Back at you, baby girl, they should know that." She laid her head on my chest and we drifted off to sleep. I woke up feeling better than I had in a long time… that is until I looked at my watch. "Benny, it is three o'clock in the morning!" "Fuck," was her uncharacteristic response. We both found our jeans and pulled out our cell phones. I dialed Madrigal as I dressed. He answered on the first ring. "Where the hell are you?" "Ben and I fell asleep. I'm on my way home now, but I have to drop her off first." "You scared me, Bellamy. I've lost too many people for you to be doing this." "I know and I'm sorry. I promise I'll be home soon." We clicked off and I heard Ben promise her big brother the same thing. "I'm so grounded," she said. "Me too, babe," I replied. We kissed and ran home, she broke off at her gate and I ran clear back to the ranch.

Madrigal, Kirsten, Skylar, and Myra were waiting at the kitchen table. Kirsten hugged me the moment I was in reach. "You idiot, I'm so happy you're safe I could kill you!" I hugged her back. "I'm sorry. I was stupid and let us both fall asleep." "Scott, you're t-shirt is on inside out. Why do I get the feeling that falling asleep wasn't the most irresponsible thing you did tonight?" I blushed under my brother's gaze. "Give me your wallet," he ordered. I handed it to him. He went through it and nodded. "Ladies, why don't you two find rooms for the night? It's late to be traveling home." Kirsten grabbed Myra's hand and bolted for the stairs, smart woman that she is. When Madrigal was certain they were out of earshot he spoke.

"Bellamy Scott Thompson, I ought to skin you. My heart absolutely squeezes when you don't answer your cell phone. You have got to do that much for me, if nothing else." I nodded, knowing better than to speak. He tossed my wallet onto the table. "I suggest you go change, you've got chores to do." I obeyed instantly. Usually, the ranch chores started around four-thirty, but four was close enough. Madrigal, Kirsten, and I joined the ranch hands at least once a week, but I had a feeling I would be up every day for a long time. It was one o'clock in the afternoon before I finally finished with my work for the day. I allowed myself a shower before I went to see Madrigal in his study. He was filing paperwork when I knocked. "I figured you'd want to see me." "Part of me wants to turn you black and blue for what you put me through last night, but I'm not going to. Chores this week is all the punishment I'm giving you." "Not to sound ungrateful, but why, when I deserve ten times that?" "Honestly, Bell, you almost never give me trouble. You're obedient to a fault and you seldom try my patience. I'm not going to beat you for screwing up. I know you didn't intentionally fall asleep and I know you won't let it happen again. Consider it a warning. What I really want to know is if you're all right." "I feel good, Mads, happy."

He gave me a long, appraising look. "I'm glad to hear it. Ben's all right too?" "Yes, it went well, all things considered." "You'd better replace that condom. I don't particularly like you two sleeping together, but I will turn you black and blue if you do it unprotected." I nodded. He gave me a crooked smile. "Virgin or not, you're still my baby brother." "Hell, you weren't a virgin when I was a baby." "Yeah, because I was stupid and irresponsible and all the things you're usually not. Keep it that way, kiddo. I have no genuine desire to break your neck." "Can I ask you something, Madrigal?" "Go ahead," he nodded. "Do you love Skylar?" "Almost as much as I love you," he answered. Kirsten sighed from the doorway. "They say cowboys are too tough to admit loving someone, but to me only a real man is capable of articulating how he feels. It doesn't subtract from your masculinity." Madrigal grinned. "I learned that from Bell." I was startled. "Me?" I asked. "Bell, you're six foot one and a hundred and eighty pounds. You're hands are almost as big as mine and I'm fifteen years your senior. You could define the word masculine and when you said you love me, that didn't change." "I wasn't asking if you loved Sky platonically." "Platonically is the only answer you'll get."

Ben and I spent the next few days trading phone calls. Both of us were dreading Sunday. Her parents were scheduled to return Saturday evening and had requested things proceed with our usual Sunday dinner. I had told Ben that Madrigal knew the moment he looked at me. She admitted the same of her older brother, who would still be present Sunday. Our brothers didn't worry us, but Myra did. She had not been present when I admitted my sins to Madrigal, but she had seen enough. My opinion of Myra was low at best, but she wasn't stupid. We were torn. If Ben told her parents when they arrived home, all hell would break loose. If Myra told her parents during dinner, Hell would be the least of our problems… I was drawing a blank as to how to get Myra to skip the dinner. She was good friends with the Reverend and Mrs. Martin. I answered my ringing cell. "I'm not ready to swallow this, Bell." She sometimes used Bell or Bellamy affectionately, but usually it was only when she was ultra stressed, like now.

"Part of being ready to do it was being ready for people to find out," I replied gently. "I understand that, but don't I get time to process it before I have to explain to anyone else?" "We lose that luxury with Myra's attendance." "What if she doesn't tell them?" "Will you risk it, Ben?" "I don't know." "Do you regret it?" I nearly choked on the question, but I had to know. "No… I love you, Bellamy Scott and I wouldn't have done it if I didn't." "I guess that's it then. I will be at your house at 7 p.m. on Saturday. Together, we tell them we're in love and what we did when we realized that." "I'll see you then. I love you, Scott." "I love you, too, Ben." I looked up to find Madrigal standing in the doorway. "You're going to tell her parents?" There was no apology for eavesdropping, but I didn't expect one. Technically, it was impossible for him to eavesdrop since there was nothing I didn't want him to overhear. Concealing things from Madrigal was pointless, always had been. I nodded. He reached out to half push, half pet my spiky hair. "I'll make sure you get a decent last supper before you go." I rolled my eyes. "God forbid I face my death on an empty stomach."

"No matter what anyone else says, I want you to believe you did nothing wrong. You took something that has always been yours to give and gave it to someone you love very much. Whether or not you and Ben are together forever, you will always have the time you loved her enough to be with her completely and without regret." This was the Madrigal that strangers never saw. The one who not only valued those he loved beyond understanding, but showed it. "You make it sound so simple, Mads." "It's a paradox, Bell. How can something be heart-breakingly simple and more complicated than can ever be explained at the same time? It's called love and the many feelings akin to it." "I'm too young to be smote by God at the request of one of his reverends." "You're too young to be having sex with the preacher's daughter in the Cunningham fields. Where's our bitch?" "She went into town to run errands." "It's getting kind of late. How long has she been gone?" "Three hours or so," I shrugged. Madrigal dialed Kirsten's cell phone. It rang until her voicemail picked up. "That's unusual. I really hate it when the two of you don't answer your phones." "I'm sure she's on her way, Mads." "So why do I have the urge to go looking for her?" "I don't know, but that's not good."

Kirsten was having problems with the truck she had chosen. She didn't hear her cell phone vibrate over the sputtering engine. "Damn it," she muttered. Kirsten got out and popped the hood. She stuck her head under and growled softly as she realized her transmission was shot. Suddenly, she was grabbed from behind in a headlock. "Honey, we've got something for you." Kirsten started to struggle and tried to scream. A handkerchief was stuffed into her mouth so forcefully she gagged. Two hands came over her breasts and pressed down. She had to keep herself from crying out against the gag. "Your brother's a faggot and we're going to show him women are for sex." This was a second voice. Kirsten was having a hard time not panicking. She recognized their voices. They were brothers, home from college to visit their parents. Kirsten fought and swore. She clawed and did everything in her power to get away, but it was no use. They dragged her behind an old tool shed and beat her until she went limp. Then they raped her, both of them, twice each. They knocked her unconscious and left. The next thing Kirsten knew, Skylar Cunningham was lifting her up, murmuring soothing words.

Skylar drove Kirsten back to the ranch. Madrigal and I, along with Mason Cunningham, were waiting. "I can stand, Sky." Kirsten managed to stay on her feet. Her clothes were torn and she was bleeding from several cuts. "Carlson, David and Michael Carlson," she snarled. Madrigal crossed the room and opened a safe behind a picture. He drew out a double-barreled shotgun. "Madrigal—," I began. He cut me off with a slap across the face. It was the hardest he'd ever hit me and it was all I could do to stay standing. He was gone before I re-gained my equilibrium. Mason is Sky's youngest brother at fifteen years old. He graduated high school with me and has been one of my best friends for as long as I can remember. "Mason, stay with Bell while I help Kirsten. We'll worry about Madrigal later. If we're lucky the cops will be at the Carlson house already." "How would they know, Sky?" "Mason saw them knock you unconscious and ran for me. I called the cops after he told me who they were." "They'll deny everything and fabricate an alibi. Mason will be discredited as a witness and I never saw their faces." "It doesn't matter, Kirsty, Madrigal will shoot them both." "Don't say that, Bellamy. If he goes to jail, they win." Mason looked up at a movement of headlights. "Not if they're trespassing on his private ranch."

Madrigal and the two Carlson boys stood off in front of the house. The cops pulled up five minutes later and found both boys on their knees, hands on their heads. Madrigal cocked the shotgun. "I got one barrel for each of you bastards." "Madrigal, you put the gun down." "They raped my Kirsten." "We know and I swear they're going to jail, but so will you if you shoot either one." "They're trespassing on my property." "Yes, but they've been neutralized and are no threat to you. Madrigal, don't do this. If you pull that trigger they will take Scott. He can't stay with you once there's been a shooting like this." Madrigal lowered the shotgun and the cops stepped up to arrest the brothers. Madrigal came back into the house. Mason and I had seen and heard the whole thing, but neither of us spoke. As the cops were driving away it began to rain. We sat in the kitchen for what seemed like hours. Finally, Skylar came downstairs and told us Kirsten was asleep. She had asked him to tell us she would fill us in on the whole story in the morning. We nodded and Skylar locked eyes with Madrigal. "Did you find out why they did it?" "You and I both know why they did it, Skylar." "How could anyone be so stupid?" "I don't know, Skylar. I hope they rot in jail." "Come on, Mason. I think that's enough for one night. Let's go home." The Cunningham brothers left.

I watched Madrigal. He was sitting at a barstool, rubbing his forehead. I knew he had a migraine. I opened the cabinet above the stove and pulled down a bottle of whiskey. Unscrewing the cap, I poured the amber liquid into a glass and set it in front of my brother. Without taking my eyes off of him, I swallowed a huge gulp from the bottle before returning it to the cabinet. I don't remember the last time I felt this bad. It was late and I was tired, so I headed for the stairs. "Bellamy," Madrigal called for me. I stopped and turned to face him. "I shouldn't have touched you. I have no right to hit you that way. You're absolutely right in what you were about to say. I don't want to lose you, Bells." I was numb to any tenderness in his voice. "It's not enough that Kirsten is hurting; you've got to hurt me too." "It was a mistake, Bell. I didn't mean it and I'll try not to do it ever again." Kirsten cried out from upstairs.

"Whatever issues I have with you can wait until morning. We need to take care of our sister," I snapped. I followed him up the stairs and one of us lay down on either side of Kirsten. Neither of us touched her, but our presence seemed to calm her down a little. "Try to sleep, baby. You need to rest the best you can." Kirsten nodded. She grabbed Madrigal's right hand and my left. Her grip didn't relax until she fell back to sleep. "Bellamy…" "Shut up, Madrigal. I can't deal with you right now. Just wait until morning and we'll worry about it then." I rolled onto my side and fell asleep, still holding Kirsten's hand. I woke several times throughout the night and each time Madrigal was awake. I don't think he slept at all. Morning came, but nothing looked better. In the sunlight that came through the window, Kirsten's bruises were all the more visible. And so was the one my cheek… After breakfast in bed, Kirsten told us the whole story. From the look on Madrigal's face I knew it was exactly what he thought it would be. He also looked like he wanted to put his fist through the nearest wall. Kirsten asked us to leave her to shower and sort things out. We went downstairs and I started to do the dishes. Madrigal began to dry them, but we didn't speak. Once every dish had been washed, dried, and put away, I made my escape attempt.

"I'm sorry, Bellamy." I froze in my tracks. Madrigal didn't apologize. He believes apologizing is a sign of weakness and I can count on one had the number of times I've heard him do it. "You said it yourself, Madrigal. I'm a good kid. I rarely give you trouble and I'm obedient to a fault. So why do you do this to me? Why do you still treat me like I haven't proved a thousand times over that I deserve your respect?" He knew I was talking about every day, not just the previous night. "I've always been strict with you, Bell, and that isn't going to change. Last night I made a mistake. I was wrong and I admit it. Please, don't hold it against me. I'm as human as you are, brother." I looked at him for a long moment. "Are the rumors true?" "What?" "The rumors about you and Skylar that got our sister raped. Show me some respect and be honest with me; are they true?" "No, Bellamy, they're not true. My love for Skylar is platonic. We're friends, no benefits." I nodded. "What is it you want from me, Madrigal?" "I want you to forgive me, Bellamy." "Do you think you deserve to be forgiven?" "Yes, I was wrong and I see that. I wish I could take it back, but I can't." I looked out at the rain pounding on the window. The storm outside was as vicious as ever, but the one inside was calming. I crossed the room to Madrigal and he embraced me. When we separated, he did something I still can't believe. He kissed me and my brother's kiss is perfect.

All of this was last summer, when I was still seventeen. Ben and I told her parents that Saturday and they sent her away to an out of state all-girls Catholic school. We never got back together. The Carlson boys went to jail for what they did to Kirsten. Skylar and Madrigal decided to combine ranches. The eight Cunningham's moved into our ranch house and we turned the other one into a bed and breakfast that the girls run. Kirsten married the second eldest Cunningham boy, Teddy. They live in the mansion and she's five months pregnant with a little girl now. Myra abandoned Kirsten all together when she heard about the rape and hasn't been seen since. I start college in the fall and I'll be sad to leave this place. I know that this will always be my home.