Blair sat on the bench, his back wedged into the corner, head bowed. He held his riding crop loosely in his hand, was dressed and ready, having already gone through the weigh-in process and all other formalities. Now he and twelve other jockeys prepared to race; each in his own way. Some paced, some read, some listened to music, some prayed. Blair retreated. He moved deep within himself, visualizing the race, the course, his horse. He planned every move, worked his strategy for each of the approximate four-plus minutes he'd spend out on the track. He thought about his competition, both man and beast, balancing their strengths and weaknesses against his own even though he knew there was only one real threat; a horse named 'The General's Legion' - Alex Barnes' horse.
The light over the door flicked on, signifying that it was time. The jockeys, Blair included, rose to their feet and were escorted outside. Lined up, they were led to their horses and their own crews. Each jockey was hiked up onto the saddle and quickly settled in.
Last minute words were exchanged between trainers and riders and a few owners who preferred to watch the race from the outside rack. Will, taking GM's place, gave Blair a thumbs up and, in short order, Blair and Little Stogie were led out for the Parade of Champions.
The Ice Man reached down into his bag as the parade began. He pulled out three items and began to assemble them into a high-powered rifle with an equally high-powered scope.
Jim cocked his head as he heard an oddly familiar clicking sound, one heard often in every action thriller he'd made - a sound no one else would have heard. But he did, in spite of the sounds of the approaching race, the cheering crowd, and the announcer as he identified each horse, jockey and stable. Years of playing detectives and soldiers told him to concentrated his sense of smell, to weed out the scent of GM's rifle - until he found a similar scent from high above him.
As an edgy and excited Little Stogie was led into the starting gate, the Ice Man fitted the scope to his gun and took position.
He was ready.
Jim moved away from the railing, his face a study in concentration. As he hurriedly headed for the elevator, GM followed.
This was it.
Simon, sensing something, feeling the sudden unease, got up, patted Joel reassuringly, and headed out with one intention: to get to Jim.
Minutes after Simon left, Joel found his own uneasiness growing. He patted friends on the back, encouraged them to keep enjoying the food, but quickly made his exit. In the corridor, he turned left and headed for Alex Barnes' box.
Man and horse were ready. The sun was bright and unencumbered by clouds, the track fast, the jockeys practiced. Horses pawed the ground, eager for their release.
Time seemed momentarily suspended as the crowd held their collective breaths and, just when they thought the moment couldn't last, the beep sounded, gates clanged open, and thirteen horses charged the track.
The General's Legion took the early lead, followed closely by Nation's Pride and Silver Fox. As they came around the far turn, Little Stogie was on the rail, comfortable in eighth position. Blair was in total control, knees firm, head low, crop unused, his mind running the race ahead….
Jim heard the scope being fitted onto the weapon and picked up his speed, taking the steps three at a time, GM doing the same.
The Ice Man focused the scope and zeroed in on the rider in blue and white silks. Finger steady, he waited. He had orders not to fire until the jockey hit the straightaway and closed in on the finish line.
He was to shoot to kill just when the win was within reach for Number Seven.
He was a very patient man.
By the time the horses reached the Clubhouse turn, five of the thirteen were no longer in contention. The General's Legion was still in first with Silver Fox having moved into second and The Gum Drop Kid in third. Little Stogie moved away from the rail, dropping back a bit, but quickly making up for lost ground.
Jim was now one level below his quarry. Halfway up the final set of stairs, he stopped to focus on a single heartbeat that would tell him the man's precise position.
He found it and raced up the steps.
Blair made his move coming out of the Clubhouse turn. He inched his butt up and began talking to Little Stogie in earnest, urging him forward, urging him to full speed.
Little Stogie took off like a bat out of hell and the crowd reacted by jumping to their feet and cheering wildly. The amount of ground that Little Stogie had to cover to take the lead seemed insurmountable to those watching….
As the five lead animals hit the straightaway, Little Stogie's stride widened, his head went down and still Blair left the crop unused.
Little Stogie was fifth, then fourth...moving fast on the outside now…and then he was third…and second….
As Little Stogie closed in on his client's horse, the Ice Man tightened his finger on the trigger.
To the manic cheering of the crowds, Little Stogie caught…and charged ahead of…The General's Legion.
Jim reached the top level, turned to his right and spotted the assassin immediately. His vision narrowed down to the finger that was slowly starting to squeeze….
He launched himself at the killer, body slamming into the man. He heard the rifle discharge as they fell to the concrete floor, rolled, and then the killer put a knee in Jim's gut. It was enough that Jim was forced to loosen his hold. The man scuttled back just as Jim, wincing, rolled over and pulled himself up into a crouching position, ready to tackle the guy again. Unfortunately, the killer pulled a handgun from his waistband, leveled it, took aim and....
… GM fired.
The killer, icy blue eyes wide with shock, toppled over, a bullet hole between his eyes, just as Simon charged up the stairs.
Seeing the danger had been efficiently neutralized by GM, a panicked Jim turned to the railing as fear gripped his heart. He knew the rifle had been fired, the only question was - had the bullet found its intended victim.
With the same fear in their hearts, GM and Simon stepped over the body and joined him, both hoping against hope that Jim had been in time.
"There!" Jim said excitedly just as Blair and Little Stogie raced across the finish line in first place.
Numb, Alex Barnes watched Blair finish, the Gum Drop Kid in second and Silver Fox third. His own horse had lost steam and speed, finally crossing fourth place.
Barnes got up, walked over to his jacket hanging on the coat tree near the door to his private box, pulled out his .38 and, his back to the track, ignoring the cheering crowds, he stuck the barrel of the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
Joel heard the shot and lunged into Barnes' box only to skid to a stop in horror. Eyes wide with shock, he moved carefully over to the phone and dialed security.
Grinning like fools, all three men watched as Blair and Little Stogie took their victory lap as demanded by the wild crowd. Eventually though, reason prevailed and GM drawled, "Simon, you and Mr. Ellison better get Joel and head down to the Winner's Circle. I'll take care of everything up here."
No one had to tell the two men twice.
The traditional horseshoe of roses graced Little Stogie's neck as he and Blair were led to the Winner's Circle. Blair's goggles were down around his neck, his racing cap in his hand. As they approached the Circle, he searched the crowd for his fathers and Jim, eyes bloodshot, the skin around them surrounded by grime.
Hearing his name, he turned, a beautiful grin splitting his handsome face. At the same moment, several photographers began shooting, all capturing that one moment of supreme happiness; a moment that would be immortalized on the covers of Life, Time, People and Newsweek - not that Blair cared. At that moment, all he cared about were the three men walking toward him
Epilogue: One week later -
The celebrations were over and so was the funeral.
Alex Barnes had been buried with few mourners, none of whom, his beloved daughter, her exact location unknown, even by the family lawyers.
The stock for Barnes & Company plummeted with the announcement of Barnes' suicide and took yet another dump when the report of the attempted murder on Blair hit the news. Simon set the ball in motion to purchase controlling interest in the sagging business; the merger that had been attempted four years ago finally coming to fruition.
As the full story of Barnes' duplicity circulated, Simon wasn't surprised by the fact that three heroes emerged from the mess. Smiling, he sat in his study, newspapers strewn around him and, on every single one of them, the same faces stared back.
His son, now declared the "Athlete of the Year" was earning his heroic badge for not only giving the greatest ride of his life, let alone in the history of the Sweepstakes, but as the man who'd known of a possible attempt on his life and rode in spite of it.
The second face that stared up at him was Jim's. After all, the only thing better than a courageous and winning jockey, was the celebrity who'd saved his life. It was one thing for a famous action star to stop a killer, but then the world discovered that the dead man had been wanted by the FBI, CIA, Interpol, MI-5 and a few other agencies around the world. And finally, one face, mostly hidden by the Stetson that always seemed to get in the way anytime a photographer tried to take a photo of the man who'd actually killed the assassin: GM.
Simon shook his head in disbelief. Outside the gates, cars and vans were still parked up and down the road, all eager to snap the million dollar photo of Blair, Jim or GM. The world was eating this up and making their lives miserable. Simon's only consolation was that by next week, it would undoubtedly be forgotten thanks to some new crisis.
He folded the paper he'd just finished and sat back thoughtfully. The last week had seen Jim's movie finish up and peace returning to their world. The crew left, but Jim was still with them. Simon hadn't thought it possible, but in the last few days, Jim and Blair had fallen even deeper in love. Here on the ranch, they could be - and were - protected. They were free as long as they avoided the long camera lenses.
Simon frowned then, because of course, all good things had to end, and tomorrow, Jim would leave - would return to California and his life of fame. Which meant that Blair was about to suffer another broken heart because long distance relationships never worked.
He sighed heavily and got to his feet. It was late and Joel was waiting for him upstairs in their room.
Blair ran his hand through Jim's short hair before resting his cheek against the soft spikes. Tomorrow - no, scratch that, it was tomorrow, so - today - Jim would leave for Malibu and his life in Hollywood. So far, they'd been in firm denial of this fact, hadn't discussed his leaving. There'd been no talk of their future, just sex and laughter and long talks about themselves in an effort to get to truly know each other. It was easy to avoid discussions of the future - because deep down inside, Blair knew they didn't really have one.
Jim was a star, Blair a jockey, which meant their worlds would rarely meet. And yes, Blair had to admit that it was safer that way. The world, no matter how much they loved Jim, simply wasn't ready to hear that he was gay and living with a man, even if that man was an award winning jockey.
Knowing all of that, Blair had been preparing all week for this particular ending, working on behaving in a way that wouldn't make it more difficult for Jim, preparing to say all the right things, practicing the right words, the right way to say…goodbye.
"Sure, Jim, of course we'll see each other. We'll write, email, phone, and get together as often as our schedules allow."
Yep, sounded good. And of course, there was, "Need anything, any help with your senses, hey, I'm there man, no worries."
Rehearsed. Practiced. He was ready. And, when the time came, he'd be able to say them, mean them - right up to the moment Jim actually left. Then…then he'd fall apart.
It didn't seem fair somehow. To find the anchor he'd craved only to lose him because the world refused to accept two men in love. How crazy was that, anyway?
"Penny for your thoughts."
Blair smiled at his now-awake and soon to be ex-lover. "No way, my thoughts are worth a fortune. Cough it up or lose out."
Jim lifted his hand and traced along Blair's strong jaw with one finger. He was pretty certain he knew exactly what Blair had been thinking, so said, "By the way, have I mentioned my deal with the studio?"
"No, I don't think so."
"I have this agreement that if I did one last action flick for them, I could then direct a pet project of mine."
"Direct? You're actually going to direct?"
Jim traced a line up the side of Blair's face, ending at one arched eyebrow. He smoothed out the small crease between both brows before saying, "Yep. In fact, I'll be not only directing, but starring - and it will be my last film in front of the camera." He rolled onto his side and resituated Blair before adding, "It's based on a book - a favorite of mine, one that's very special to me. So special, I bought the rights five years ago. Ever hear of 'The Front Runner'?"
"Are you kidding? It's a great book, one of the first to bring a gay relationship into the mainstream. I can't believe you're going to be allowed to make it. I assume you're playing Harlan?"
"That's my plan."
"Well, I've got my eye on a relative unknown - unknown as an actor anyway, but I think he'll be perfect. He has a natural talent, very photogenic, and the camera loves him. I'm just worried he might not be available."
Jim changed positions again, this time turning over on his back and pulling Blair onto him. Smiling, he asked, "So…would you be available, Mr. Sandburg?"
"You heard me. Would you?"
Mouth hanging open - a condition very prevalent since Jim had come into his life - Blair simply stared.
Chuckling, Jim tapped Blair's chin until he closed his mouth, then said, "I've arranged everything in the hopes that you'd consider this, so if you say yes, we have to be in Los Angeles by the fifteenth."
"You and me? In a movie?" At Jim's happy nod, Blair said, "And just when did you stop taking your medications again?"
Laughing outright, Jim said, "Come on, Blair, this is it. Our chance. We can be together, work together. No one gives a rat's ass if a director is gay. No one."
Blair rolled away from Jim and sat up, his back to him. This was not in the script. He had no rehearsed speech for this one. He scratched his head and finally said, "Jim, I've got to think about this. This is a major life change, you know? I mean, my riding, school, the small detail of not being able to act… I can't just…."
He let his voice trail off, counted to ten, then flopped back on the bed, his head at Jim's hip. Smiling, he said, "Okay, I've thought about it. Yes."
"Yep. But there's still the acting issue."
"Trust me. You'll be a natural."
GM stood on the side of the big Georgian house and gazed up at Blair's room. He knew Ellison was up there now and knew that the man had made reservations for two when he'd changed his flight.
Which meant Blair would be leaving. For good, unless he missed his guess. He couldn't deny that it was the right thing, that Jim was right for Blair. They were special together, hell, even he could see that. It was as if their meeting had been ordained.
GM also knew that Jim Ellison would keep Blair safe. And yes, Blair would do the same for Ellison.
He took off his hat and scratched the back of his head. Would they, perhaps, need 'man Friday'? He didn't think he could bear to be apart from Blair.
GM stuck his hat back on his head, glanced back up at Blair's room and whispered, "Good night, son."
The End - Sequel can be found HERE