Mia made her way across the road and into the park, walking carefully to avoid spilling the two cups of takeaway coffee she was carrying. After a pause to scan the area, she headed over to the old melaleuca that stood near the small ornamental pond.
She smiled down at the guy in the shade of the tree. Jamie was lying on his stomach, reading a book. He hadn’t noticed her arrival.
“G’day, Jamie. I’ve got a coffee for you.”
“Mia! Sorry, I didn’t notice you there,” Jamie said as he rolled into a sitting position, keeping a finger inside the book to mark the page he’d been reading.
Mia chuckled as she handed him a cup and then sat down next to him. “That’s two days in a row. It must be a pretty engrossing book,” Mia said.
Jamie gave an embarrassed laugh. “Yeah, it is. I’m a big Tom Clancy fan, but I’ve been running a long way behind because of schoolwork, so now I’m catching up. Thanks for the coffee, Mia.”
“You’re welcome. Anyway, I know we left you to wander around by yourself yesterday...”
“I didn’t mind,” Jamie said quickly. “I told you that, when I dropped in to see you at The Treasure Chest. There’s lots of neat places here, and this park’s a pleasant place to read.”
“I know, but we’ve got some things organised for you today, if you’re interested. Warren’s bringing Shane into town and then he’ll take us out to the winery where Rhys is working. We’ll have lunch there, a bit of wine tasting, and come back here sometime late in the afternoon.”
“What about Matt and Vince? Aren’t they coming along?”
“It seems that after working their butts off yesterday, they’re taking a break for a few hours and have disappeared somewhere private. They said they’d be back for dinner. That’s when Shane said he’d like to do some wine tasting, and Warren offered to take him.”
“In that case, I’d love to tag along.”
“Okay, I’ll let them know. They should be here shortly,” Mia said, as she pulled out her phone and started typing a text message.
“You must’ve been pretty sure I’d be going, if they’re already on their way,” Jamie said, a little surprised.
Mia paused and looked up. “They’re coming to pick me up, since Aunt Cynthia’s given me some time off. I just thought you’d like to come with us.”
“Oh, sorry. I misunderstood.” Jamie blushed.
Mia laughed. “Don’t worry about it. You’re one of the gang now, but it’ll take a bit of time before you’re used to how we do things.”
She returned to her typing while Jamie checked what page he was up to and put the book in his backpack. He was sipping his coffee when Mia looked up.
“Okay, that’s done. We just wait here for them to come and get us. I’ve also sent an SMS to Bobby to see if he’ll be free for lunch. He works at the winery, too, but he might be out at one of the far vineyards and may not be able to make it back.”
“What does he do there? He didn’t say a lot about it when he got home last night.”
“Vehicle maintenance and generally anything to do with the machinery, I think. He was driving tractors while they sprayed, at one point, but I know his main job is just keeping things running. That’s why I don’t know whether he’ll make it for lunch with us or not – he could be anywhere.”
Mia’s phone beeped as Warren pulled up next to the park. She glanced at the message as she and Jamie walked over and climbed into the back of the four-wheel-drive.
“Bobby says he should be able to join us for lunch. He’s working in the maintenance shed today,” Mia said.
Shane twisted around in the front seat to grin at her. “That’s good. The more the merrier!”
Mia laughed. She had carefully neglected to tell Jamie that she had organised the time off with Aunt Cynthia immediately after getting the invitation. She was enjoying Shane’s company and was taking the opportunity to get to know him better.
Matt and Vince sat in the shade by the old campsite on the Islington farm. Both guys had their shirts off and were enjoying the skin-on-skin feel as they snuggled up to each other. Earlier, Vince had playfully tried to slip a hand lower, but Matt had caught it, triggering a fun free-for-all wrestle that ended with a passionate kiss.
Vince sighed. “I wish every day could be like this.”
“We’ll have days off, but we have to work to earn them,” Matt said.
“No, I mean not having to worry about things; just relaxing and being a normal gay guy, not hiding it away.”
Matt pulled Vince over and kissed him gently on the cheek. “You’ll be able to do that at uni, at least most of the time. I don’t hide there and neither does Jamie, and we don’t get hassled, not really. There’ll always be some who do, but they’re very much in the minority.”
“But will I? If I come out at uni, the word will get back, because there are others there who live in Mourton, or know people who do. If nothing else, other kids from school will be going there, and one of them is sure to find out. I want to come back here to live, and I can’t do that if the word gets out.”
“You don’t know that, but we can take our time. With your other friends around us we can keep things quiet for a while, but sooner or later we’ll need to come out as a couple. We can’t spend our lives together without it being obvious.”
“I know, and that worries me. I just don’t know how I’ll cope when it happens.”
“Don’t borrow trouble, as my mum would say. For now, let’s leave that stuff for later and just get to know each other.”
Vince gave him a cheeky grin. “That’s what I was trying to do earlier, but you stopped me.”
Matt gave a wry half-smile. “That’s for later, too.”
“If you really love me, I don’t see why we have to wait.”
Matt let go and stood up. He took a step away and gazed out over the stream.
“What’s wrong?” Vince asked.
“That’s the reason we have to wait, but I’ll admit I’m finding it hard,” Matt said, keeping his back to Vince.
“Then why wait? I’m ready, I think.”
Matt turned around to stare down at Vince. “Because the other side of what you said is that if we don’t have sex, then I don’t love you. I want sex to be making love, and that completes a relationship, not underpins it. If we have to have sex to stay together, we’re better off apart.”
Vince dropped his eyes to the ground. “Do you always have to be right?”
“No, but I think I am on this one.”
“Oh, you are, but I don’t have to like it.”
Matt was silent for a few seconds. “If you agree with me, then we can see how far we can go, if you like.”
Vince looked up. “What do you mean?”
Matt grinned. “I think you’re getting a bit hot and sweaty. How about a swim to cool off?”
“But we didn’t bring....”
“You can’t tell me you haven’t been skinny-dipping before. We just need to make sure it doesn’t go too far, okay?”
Minutes later, they were both in the water, trying to push each other under.
Jamie looked around the room. Three groups of people were standing by a long, thick bench that was located a body length from one wall. It appeared to be made from a single slab of redgum. The presence of wine racks and staff members behind the bench made it clear that it was the main tasting area, though a handful of upended barrels with small bowls of cheese were scattered around the room as alternative drinking locations. Jamie wrinkled his nose at the clinging aroma of red wine – it wasn’t unpleasant, but he wasn’t used to it. At the far end of the room, open double doors revealed a collection of rustic wooden tables and bench seats where a number of people were dining.
“Can I help you?” a smartly dressed staff member asked.
“We’re looking for Rhys Dresden. I think he’s working today,” Mia said.
The young man grinned. “Rhys? He’s with the boss, but he should be out shortly. If I see him, I’ll let him know you’re here.”
A couple of minutes later, Rhys appeared from a side door. He was smiling broadly but there was something about his body language that made Jamie suspect his cheerfulness was an act.
“Rhys!” Mia waved a hand to attract his attention.
“Hi, guys! I hope you’re ready for lunch, because I certainly am,” Rhys said once he joined them.
“Are you okay?” Bobby asked.
“Nope!” Rhys said. He was still grinning, but they could all see the gritted teeth. “But I can’t say anything here or I’ll get in trouble. Let’s move to one of the outside tables.”
They left the sales area of the winery and headed outdoors. A large sail provided shade for a number of wooden picnic tables, about half of which were occupied. Rhys selected one that was as far as possible from the winery entrance.
After they sat down, the rest of the group stared at Rhys and waited for him to speak.
“My boss, in his infinite wisdom, has decided that I’m working on New Year’s Eve, so I won’t be able to make it to the party,” Rhys said.
“But you’ll be earning triple time, won’t you?” Warren asked.
“Sure, but that doesn’t compensate for the other thing.”
“What other thing?” Shane asked.
Rhys looked around to make sure he couldn’t be overheard.
“My parents are coming here for New Year’s, and I just know I’m going to end up serving them. I can see Dad ordering drink after drink, just to make me work. It’s going to drive me crazy!”
Mia put a hand up to cover her mouth, but Bobby didn’t bother. He just laughed. Jamie and Shane smiled politely, but they didn’t understand the relationship Rhys had with his father.
“Can’t you say that you’ve already got other plans for that night?” Warren asked.
Rhys rolled his eyes. “It was made very clear to me that I’m expected to work it. If I don’t, then I shouldn’t bother coming back. So, I either work the night or I’m out of a job. And I was really looking forward to the party this year.”
“What party?” Jamie asked.
“Yeah, what party?” Shane echoed. “Did someone organise something and forget to invite us?”
Mia, Bobby and Rhys looked surprised.
“Haven’t we said anything about it? I’m sorry, Jamie, Shane. You’re both invited, of course. My dad organises a party for the young people each year at the restaurant, after dinner is finished,” Mia said.
Shane grinned. “New Year’s Eve, here we come!”
“Sounds like it’ll be a great time, but I won’t be able to make it – I’ve got a date for that night,” Jamie said.
“A date? You’re a smooth worker,” Rhys said, grinning. He then straightened and frowned. “Wait a minute, you’re gay! Is this a date with a guy or a girl?”
“A guy, of course,” Jamie said.
“You’ve been in town for three days and you’ve already found a guy to go out on a date with? You’ve got to be joking!” Rhys said, eyes wide in disbelief.
Jamie shrugged and gave a shy grin. “What can I say? The guys around here have good taste.”
“It must be with a tourist,” Mia said.
“Nope, he’s a local,” Jamie said.
“Who is it?” Rhys asked.
“Sorry, I can’t say because he’s not out.”
“Of course he’s not out! If he was, Vince wouldn’t have had to go through the pain he went through, because he would’ve had someone to talk to,” Rhys said. “Can you give us a hint?”
“Nope. I probably shouldn’t have mentioned it, but he asked me out for New Year’s Eve and that’s why I can’t go to your party.”
“Leave him alone, Rhys. He knows what he’s doing,” Shane said.
“Can you at least give us a hint on how you managed to find someone in less than three days? Vince has been here for years and I don’t think he’s had any inkling about anyone,” Rhys said.
Jamie considered the question. “I think the difference is that I’m not hiding I’m gay. I’m not telling everyone, but there’s probably a dozen people in town who know, and may’ve told someone else. One of those who’s been told happens to be gay, single, and ready to take a chance. It’s not something that Vince could’ve done, because he wasn’t out.”
Mia stared at Bobby. “You’re being awfully quiet. What do you know about what’s going on?”
“No comment,” Bobby said, a placid expression painted on his face.
“No comment? What sort of statement is that?” Rhys asked, exasperated.
“No comment,” Bobby said, unable to stop himself from grinning. “Now, let’s get something to eat. I’ve only got twenty minutes of my lunch break left.”
“It’s going to be fine,” Matt said to Vince. The two guys were sitting on Vince’s bed.
“But if Katie’s been spreading rumours, it’ll all come out tonight; I’m sure of it!”
“And if she has, it doesn’t matter if you’re there or not – it’s been done. You can’t just hide away forever. It’s New Year’s Eve – time to relax and have fun. If there’s any problems, we’ll head home and look at moving to Dubbo as soon as we can. If there aren’t, you can just enjoy another night with your friends.”
“Minus Rhys. I wish he was going to be there, but it’s only one night,” Vince said, as they heard a knock on the door.
“Hurry up, you guys! Dinner is at seven and we’re going to be late! Even Shane’s ready to go before you, which he said is a first,” Warren called out.
“We’ll be there soon,” Vince yelled back.
Matt stood up and smiled down at his boyfriend. “Let’s go and enjoy ourselves. Warren’s the designated driver again, so we can relax and party.”
“He’s been the driver a lot this week. I don’t think it’s really fair,” Vince said as he rose to his feet and gave himself a quick check in the mirror.
“He told me that you deserve a chance to relax, and he’s doing what he can to help. He knows it’s only going to be for another week and he’ll be gone, so enjoy it while you can.”
Vince paused with his hand on the doorknob. “He said that?”
Matt nodded. “Yep, and he also asked me to promise not to tell you.”
“You’re breaking your promise?” Vince asked, nervous about whether that fact indicated anything about Matt.
“Nope. I told him I wouldn’t keep important things from you. I did promise I wouldn’t say anything unless it came up in conversation, but I told him bluntly that the only secrets I’m planning on keeping from you are what you’re getting as surprise presents. Keeping secrets from you would kill the relationship I want, and I don’t want that to happen.”
Vince stared for a moment as he worked through what he’d been told. He reached out and pulled Matt in for a deep, passionate kiss, just as there was a loud banging on the door.
“Get a move on, you two, or we’re coming in and dragging you into town no matter what you’re wearing or not wearing,” Warren yelled.
The two guys broke apart and grinned at each other.
“I think he means it,” Matt said.
“I think so, too. Okay, let’s go face the music,” Vince said. His grin had a tense edge to it.
When Vince put his hand back on the doorknob, Matt put his hand on top. Vince looked at him in surprise.
“We’ll face things together, okay? You’re not alone anymore,” Matt said.
Vince nodded and took a deep breath. “Let’s go.”
When the two guys joined the others, Warren looked at his watch. “About bloody time! We’re going to be late.”
“Sorry,” Vince said sheepishly. “Matt and I had things to talk about.”
Warren threw him a smile. “I know, but there’s a time and place for everything. Just before a party is not the time to discuss the meaning of life. Oh, and Shane said it was a very, very quiet discussion – he couldn’t hear a thing.”
“SHANE!” Matt glared at his friend, who was unabashed.
“My shoelace came undone just outside the door. You didn’t want me to take a chance on tripping over it and hurting myself, did you?”
Vince chuckled. “Well, we’re here now, so let’s get going. Where’s dinner going to be, anyway?”
Warren tried to look nonchalant. “Oh, nowhere special.”
Vince put his fists on his hips. “Where?”
“You’ll find out in about fifteen minutes, so how about waiting?”
Despite the efforts of Matt and Vince during the drive into Mourton, Shane and Warren wouldn’t say where they were going. When they pulled up outside The Nacho Nirvana, Vince threw his hands up in the air.
“What was the big deal about not telling us? All you had to say was ‘the usual place’ and it would’ve all been over.”
“Ah, but you see, this is not where we’re going for dinner,” Warren said as he undid his seatbelt. “We have to go inside, though.”
Still mystified, Vince and Matt followed Shane and Warren into the restaurant.
“Ah, there you are! I was beginning to wonder if something had happened,” Ken Lo Chou said as the guys walked in.
“Mr. Chou! What are you doing out here? Shouldn’t you be in the kitchen?” Vince asked.
“I will be later, Vincent, but I thought I’d let my apprentices have a turn without me for a bit. For now, I have a special event to look after. If you’ll just come with me....”
Ken headed to the back of the restaurant and opened the doors to the private function room. Not sure what was going on, Vince followed him. That room was traditionally reserved for the over-eighteens on New Year’s Eve, with a bar at the back and a couple of parents stationed at the entrance to stop alcohol from leaving the room. The simple rule was that if the barman didn’t know you, you didn’t get served. Rhys’s dad had been involved in the process in previous years and it had all worked smoothly.
Vince had expected the room to be largely empty, with a few tables and chairs scattered around the walls, but he hadn’t expected the small table in the middle, set with a white tablecloth, two sets of glasses and a pair of slender candles. A bottle of champagne stood in an ice bucket next to the table.
Ken closed the door once they were all inside.
“Vincent, I know you won’t get many chances, so I will be your waiter tonight while you and Matt have a romantic candlelit dinner for two. The only constraint is that you have to be finished by nine, so we can get things ready for the party at ten. Otherwise, I’ll be as discreet as I can.”
Vince’s jaw dropped open. He turned to look at his brother. “You said we weren’t eating here!”
“No, I said we aren’t eating here. Shane and I are going elsewhere. Now, if you’ll excuse us?” Warren raised an eyebrow while his lips were twisted in a half-smile.
“Have fun, guys!” Shane was grinning broadly as he stepped back toward the door.
“Go, boys,” Ken said, ushering Warren and Shane out. “I’ll look after things.”
Ken turned back to Matt and Vince. “Sit down, boys. I’ve decided to make it easier for you, so there’s no menu. I’ll just open the bottle and then I’ll be back in about fifteen minutes with your starters. I’m the only one allowed in here, so feel free to relax and enjoy yourselves.”
“Mr. Chou, I don’t know what to say,” Vince said as he took a seat.
“Then don’t say anything, at least to me. You can thank Mia later, if you think you have to, as she organised it, but for now just enjoy.”
Ken filled the two champagne flutes and then made a quiet exit.
Matt was the first to lift his glass. “To good friends.”
Vince tapped his glass against Matt’s. “To good friends.”
“And to us,” Matt added.
Vince smiled. “And to us.”
Mia was walking arm-in-arm with Shane. They’d had a small banquet for two at The Royal Orchid. Mia had spent half the dinner trying to teach Shane to use chopsticks properly, even though she suspected he had been deliberately making mistakes. A smile played over her lips as she recalled the amount of giggling they’d done throughout the meal.
“I hope Warren’s been having as good a time as we’ve had,” Mia said.
Shane patted her arm. “He’s catching up with old school friends. I don’t think it’d be as much fun, but I’m sure he’s having a great time.”
“Well, we now have to put in a bit of work before we can party again,” Mia said, resting her head momentarily on Shane’s shoulder. “The back entrance to the restaurant is just down this alley.”
They left the well-lit street and entered a cooling darkness. Their eyes adjusted quickly, but Mia was happy to use the excuse to slow down.
“Are these genuine cobblestones?” Shane asked. “I can’t believe I haven’t noticed them before.”
Mia smiled. “This section of the town was one of the first parts built. It has the old-style laneway that runs down the middle of the block behind all the buildings. There’s even a couple of the buildings that’ve kept their coal chutes. It’s too narrow for the big trucks, but small delivery vans manage it without a problem, and that’s most of what we have brought in. If we had more homes around here, you’d see kids out here until all hours of the night, but it’s now mainly used by the smokers in the various businesses, and as a place to put the rubbish out of sight of the general public.”
They passed a couple of small dumpsters before Mia stepped over to a door through which a quiet hum of activity could be heard. She paused before opening the door and looked at Shane. On impulse, because she sensed he wasn’t going to make the first move, she put a hand behind his head and pulled him in for a kiss. It didn’t last long, but Mia was pleased. Shane looked flustered, but he had a smile on his face.
“Your turn at midnight,” she said, and opened the door. Before Shane could react, she stepped into the kitchen of her dad’s restaurant.
“Mia! You’re just in time,” her dad said, looking up from the collection of appetisers he was preparing. “I’ll need you to start getting the function room ready soon.”
“Hi, Dad,” she said, going up to give him a kiss on the cheek. “How did things go here?”
Ken chuckled. “Very well.” He looked across to where Shane was standing in the doorway. “Come in, come in! You’re Shane, aren’t you?”
“How incredibly formal. Well, if you’re in the mood to try to create a good impression, you can help Mia clean up. If you prefer to be a lazy slob, you can watch while she works – that’s what I normally do.”
“Dad!” Mia punched her father lightly on his arm.
“What if I watch her while helping her clean up?” Shane asked.
“Then that makes you a hen-pecked boyfriend and earns you a gold star.”
Ken shook his head sadly. “She’s got no sense of humour, this one. I really think I should trade her in for a new model. In the meantime, she had better show you the way before I corrupt you.”
Shane chuckled as he followed Mia through a door at the side of the kitchen that opened up into a small corridor, at the far end of which was the main restaurant. Mia knocked on the door immediately in front of them.
“Come in,” Mia and Shane heard faintly.
Mia pushed the door open and stepped through. The table she’d set earlier in the evening had been moved to one side, leaving a large open space in the middle of the room. Matt and Vince were standing at the far end, next to a small CD player. The sound of slow dance music cut off as Vince hit a switch.
“Mia, Shane. How are you?” Matt said, grinning broadly as he headed towards them.
Mia smiled up at Shane before turning back to Matt. “We’re good. You never told me Shane turns a delightful pink sometimes.”
“What do you mean? It’s just my delicate complexion!” Shane said, going red.
“Hmm... what have you two been up to?” Matt asked, raising an eyebrow at Shane.
“Probably nothing you two haven’t been doing,” Shane said, starting to gaze around the room in a blatant attempt to avoid catching anyone’s eyes.
Mia giggled. “I kissed him and he turned this wonderful shade of pink.”
“Yes!” Matt said, pumping his fist. He grinned at Mia. “Does this mean what I think it means?”
Mia shook her head. “It’s too early, but it might. Let’s see how he goes tonight before jumping to conclusions.”
“What are you talking about?” Vince asked.
Matt looked to Mia to answer the question. She considered teasing Shane and Vince for a bit longer, but decided it would be cruel.
“Matt was asking me if I fancy Shane or not, and I’m saying maybe.”
Vince shrugged. “I’m getting to like Shane, too, though he can be a bit over-the-top at times. So what?”
“I’m still here, people! You don’t have to talk about me as if I’m invisible,” Shane called out from where he’d started clearing the small table Matt and Vince had used for dinner.
“But you’ve got a boyfriend. I don’t,” Mia said, rolling her eyes at how thick Vince was being.
“What’s that got to do with Shane? He’s gay,” Vince said.
“No, he’s not,” Matt said.
“I can still hear you!” Shane sang out.
“He’s not?” Vince asked Matt. “But... but...”
Mia giggled. “Excuse me. I’m going to help Shane clear up before he starts throwing stuff at us.”
She left Matt to explain things to Vince. Joining Shane, she tactfully abandoned the previous conversation and helped him clear things away.
“Mark, can I have a quiet word?”
“Sure, Kevin. What is it?”
The raven-haired guy checked that there was no one close before he turned back to Mark.
“I’ve heard a rumour that that new friend of yours, Matt, is gay. Do you know if it’s true?”
Mark paused before he answered. The party was in full swing, although Mia’s dad always made sure it wasn’t too crowded. There was an open area at one end where a DJ was entertaining a small group of dancers, including Shane and Mia. Mark had just left the rest of his friends to get a drink from the function room when his old classmate accosted him. They were acquaintances, from sharing several classes over the previous years.
“Does it matter?” Mark asked.
Kevin shrugged. “Normally, I couldn’t care less what he does, but I thought he was the guy that The Heart was supposed to marry, and if he’s gay, it can’t be him. It looks like he’s got a boyfriend, too, so there’s no way he can be the one.”
“Boyfriend?” Mark asked, worried for Vince.
“Surely you’ve noticed. He’s such a girl he stands out like a sore thumb! That’s him dancing with Mia.”
“Oh, you mean Shane,” Mark said.
Kevin snorted. “If that’s his name, then yeah. They’re supposed to be such close friends that when I heard the rumour I thought they had to be a couple. Well, is he or isn’t he?”
“Shane’s as gay as... well, you’ve seen him.”
“No, not him. The other one!”
“Matt?” Mark said, stalling for time while he tried to work out what to say. “He could be – I’ve never asked him.”
“Well, could you? If we have to start looking elsewhere to save The Tree, I’d like to know now. I thought you guys were leading the search, but you seem to have gone cold on the idea.”
Mark blinked as a solution to some of their problems snapped into his mind.
“Okay, Kevin, I’ll do that now. I’ll let you know as soon as I get an answer.”
Mark headed back to join his friends. He was smiling about what he thought would be a way to take the pressure off Matt and Vince. Shane was off dancing with Mia, but Mark thought they could be filled in later.
“Hey, guys, I’ve just been chatting with Kevin Inkermann, and I’ve got an idea,” Mark said. “Gather around.”
“What is it?” Vince asked.
“He was asking if Matt’s gay. I said I’d find out for him.”
“You did what? Are you trying to make things worse for me?” Vince asked.
“Hear me out. He said he didn’t care except that Matt’s supposed to be the one to marry The Heart, and he said that Matt can’t do that if he’s gay. He also thinks that if Matt’s gay, then Shane must be his boyfriend. So, if I confirm it, it’ll take pressure off Matt and Vince. Should I go back and tell him?”
“We should ask Shane before we say he’s my boyfriend, but the idea has merit,” Matt said. He looked at Vince. “What do you think?”
“I don’t have to comment on Shane – Kev thought it was obvious and didn’t ask about that. He’s just asking me to confirm if you’re gay or not, Matt” Mark said.
“Will they work it out about me because I’ll be hanging around you?” Vince asked Matt.
“I don’t see why they should,” Bobby said. “I also intend to be hanging around when you’re in public, so it won’t be just the two of you, and they won’t know anything about what happens on the farm.”
“Don’t be too sure of that, Bobby. I heard someone saying they think you’re gay, too,” Karen said, sounding bitter.
Bobby looked startled. “Oh, yeah. That.”
“What do you mean?” Vince asked.
Bobby shrank down as he lowered his head sheepishly. “My parents think Jamie’s my boyfriend, and they must’ve told someone.”
“Why haven’t you told them the truth, then?” Karen glared at Bobby with her hands on her hips.
Bobby’s face went dead. “None of your business, Karen. It’s personal.”
“Drop it, Karen. I’m not going to discuss it.”
“Hey, I don’t know what you two are going on about, but can someone give me an answer to tell Kevin?” Mark asked, staring at Karen and Bobby.
“You’re happy being out?” Vince asked Matt.
“Very happy, but only if it doesn’t hurt you.”
Vince turned to Mark. “Then tell him Matt’s gay. The rumour’s going around anyway, so I can’t see it’ll cause any harm, and as you said, it might do some good.”
“Cool. I’ll do that now. With a bit of luck, everyone will go looking elsewhere for The Heart and ‘her’ guy,” Mark said.
“It was a great party,” Shane said to Mia as they strolled along the street towards the park. Mia was hugging Shane’s right arm to the side of her body. There were a fair number of people around, but that wasn’t unusual for shortly after midnight on New Year’s Day. Mia felt Shane shiver occasionally, though she considered it a pleasantly warm night.
“It always is. There’s just enough supervision to keep the parents happy, and not enough to stop everyone from having a good time.”
A couple of bare-chested drunken guys, shirts tucked into the back of their shorts, staggered towards them.
“How long does it normally go for?” Shane asked.
“Not too much longer. It starts to wind down soon after midnight, but slipping out before it’s really over, like we did, is pretty common,” Mia said.
“How about a Happy New Year’s kiss, sweetie?” one of the drunken guys asked as they passed.
“Sorry,” Mia said, smiling. “Maybe next year.”
“Ha! That’s another dollar you owe me,” the other guy said.
“I’m still five ahead of you.”
Mia chuckled as they moved on. “It’s the same every year.”
“What do you mean?”
“We have such a lot of tourists in town at this time of year who are looking for a good time, and New Year’s brings out the amorous side in lots of guys – especially the drunk ones. It’s all in good fun, but the police will be busy.”
“Isn’t Rhys’s dad a cop? I had the impression he wasn’t working tonight.”
“He is, but he wasn’t starting until eleven. He also wasn’t going to be drinking, but Rhys’s mum would’ve been, so he’d still have an excuse to boss Rhys around at the winery. I was wondering if Rhys would be able to get away before midnight, but obviously not.”
They reached the edge of the park and paused to observe the crowds.
“I don’t think we’ll be able to make it to The Tree tonight, but I was hoping,” Mia said. She was disappointed, but she knew she’d have other chances to snuggle up with Shane under The Tree.
“What do you suggest instead, Mia-mine?” Shane asked.
Mia wondered why Shane wasn’t making any moves, and then realised he probably hadn’t had much experience with being on a date. Taking charge, she snuggled up to him and tilted her head back to stare up at him. He took the hint and kissed her lightly. Mia felt a shiver run through his body and sensed he was extremely nervous.
“I know a few private places we could go to be alone for a while, if you’d like,” she whispered.
“I...I... I’d like that.”
She smiled up at him. “Then what are we waiting for?”
Mia led Shane away from the park and past a number of stores. When they reached a cobblestone alley, she turned in. “This is a shortcut,” she murmured.
They’d taken a couple of steps into the darkened laneway when they heard a sound up ahead.
“You finished yet, Ian?” a male voice called out in a drunken slur.
“Give me a break. I’ve been drinking for hours and it takes time for it to all come out!”
“Well, I’m going. When you’ve finished pissing, I’ll be down by the park.”
Mia held tightly onto Shane’s arm. Their uncertainty as to what to do lasted too long, as a burly guy loomed out of the darkness.
“What do we have here? A cute little girl! Come on, give me a kiss,” he said, grabbing Mia by the arm and yanking her away from Shane.
“Let me go!” Mia said, starting to panic.
Shane stepped forward. “Leave her alone.”
“You can have your turn after me,” the drunk said as he put a hand behind Mia’s head and pulled it towards his face.
“Don’t! Let me go!” Mia said, her voice rising.
Shane put a hand out and pushed the guy’s shoulder. It didn’t budge. “She said no. Just leave us alone, okay?”
The guy used one hand to give Shane a shove that sent him slamming into a wall, with an audible thud. “I said, wait your turn!”
Shane staggered for a moment, holding a hand to the back of his head. Mia screamed.
“What have you got, mate?” another voice asked.
“She’s going to give us a New Year’s kiss,” the first guy said. He pushed his open mouth towards Mia’s, but her struggles made it difficult for him. The smell of stale beer on his breath was combining with her fear to make her stomach roll.
“Let her go, or I’ll...” Shane said.
“You’ll do what?” the second guy said, menacingly. “You sound too much like a sissy. Leave her to a couple of real men, why don’t ya?”
Shane swung a fist at the guy, who laughed while blocking it. The return punch to Shane’s face caused him to fly back into the wall and then collapse to the ground.
“Shane!” Mia screamed.
“Shut up, bitch, and you’ll find out what it’s like to be really kissed,” said the first guy. “If you’re good, we might even give you something more.”
“HELP!” Mia yelled while continuing to struggle. Her heart went cold when she realised her dress was starting to tear. She tried to bite the guy and was rewarded with a knee in the stomach. She started to bend over in pain, but the guy held her up.
“Now shut up and enjoy yourself.”
Her attacker forced his mouth onto hers and was pushing with his tongue. Mia had her eyes closed and was about to try biting again when he was pulled off her.
“What the f...?” he said.
Mia opened her eyes to see a shadowy figure drop the drunk with a solid punch to the guts. That was followed by a kick to the groin, leaving the drunk doubled over and groaning in pain. She looked around to see a second person standing over the prone figure of the other guy.
“You okay, Mia?” her saviour asked.
The voice sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it. “Y...y...yes.”
“Need any help, Jamie?” the guy asked the other rescuer.
“I’m fine, but Shane looks like he’s out cold. Maybe we should call for an ambulance, too.”
“Okay, I’ll do that now. The cops should be here soon. We just need to keep these bastards on ice until then – I don’t want them wandering the streets after what they did.” The unknown guy pulled out his phone and started dialing.
“Jamie?” Mia asked. She started to shake.
“I’m sorry, Mia. We got here as soon as we could,” Jamie said. He paused and kicked the guy at his feet. “Ouch! New Year’s resolution – don’t kick someone when I’m in bare feet.”
Mia slumped down to the ground. Her legs had turned to jelly. She heard her rescuer talking quietly on the phone, but she was too distraught to listen. He hung up. “They’re on their way.”
“Oops,” Jamie said. “I’ve just realised – is this going to cause you problems, Alex? Would you like me to disappear?”
Alex reached down and put his arm around Mia. When he touched her she realised he wasn’t wearing a shirt.
“You’re safe now. Just relax until the police show up,” Alex told her. He then looked over at Jamie. “Probably, but we can’t let these guys go, and if you disappear, it may mess things up with the cops.”
“How about we just say we were passing by when we heard Mia, and came to investigate?” Jamie asked.
“Don’t lie, Jamie – you’re no good at it. You don’t need to tell them where we were when we heard her, but don’t make something up. If you have to say something, stick to the truth. It’s about time I did something, anyway.”
“Wh... What’s going on?” Mia asked. She leaned into Alex as the reaction to the attack made her shake.
Alex and Jamie looked at each other. Alex sighed.
“Jamie and I were... uh... enjoying each other’s company when we heard you. That’s what Jamie’s afraid will get out.”
“You’re Jamie’s date?”
“Yeah...” he said, running a nervous hand through his hair.
“We were upstairs at the store, and it took us a bit of time to get down here. Alex rang the cops on the way down,” Jamie said.
The name and voice finally clicked with Mia. It was Alex Landeau, the son of the hardware store owner.
The author copyrights this story and retains all rights. This work may not be duplicated in any form – physical, electronic, audio, or otherwise – without the author’s expressed permission. All applicable copyright laws apply.
Disclaimer: All individuals depicted are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons is purely coincidental.
A special thank you to Ray and Kel, and also to everyone at The Mail Crew. The help they have given me with this story has been fantastic. Special kudos go to Aaron of The Mail Crew for doing a brilliant job of editing. I can thoroughly recommend their website to all teenagers who are gay, lesbian, bi or not sure.