“You know, you surprised me this afternoon,” Matt said to Vince as they lay intertwined on Vince’s bed. Both guys were bare-chested, having discarded their shirts soon after they’d closed the door.
“What do you mean?”
“When you said you’d agree to a commitment ceremony.”
Vince smiled and snuggled into the side of Matt’s neck. “I didn’t agree to that.”
Matt stiffened and then made himself relax. “That’s what I thought you said, and I’m sure everyone else thought the same.”
“I agreed that when we’re ready, we’ll hold an illegal wedding, not a commitment ceremony. Get your facts straight, Mr. Sterling.”
Matt reached over with his free arm and clipped Vince over the head. “Very funny.” He then rolled over to kiss the spot he’d hit. “You still surprised me, though.”
Vince’s smile slipped away as he rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling.
“I know that even though we’ve known each other for just over a month, we’ve only been going out for a week, and this has been hanging over me – us – ever since the whole thing started. I’ve heard what you’ve been saying since you came to get me, and I’ve been thinking long and hard. I want to spend the rest of my life with you, but I can’t do that if I’m hiding in the closet. I’m not ready to tell the town, but if I want to live here – and I do – then sooner or later we have to come out as a couple, and I might as well do it in a way that’s as positive as possible.”
Vince turned his head to find Matt’s dark eyes showing sympathy and love. “We’re not ready for that, and I’ve slowly come to realise that it’s not just you that isn’t ready to commit, but when we get there – and I still think it’s when, not if – then I want to be able to get up in front of the whole town and say that you’re the one I want by my side for the rest of my life.”
“I’ll say that I want you, but I can’t say forever, yet – it’s too soon for that.” Matt kissed Vince lightly on the lips. “But… you’re saying you’re not ready either? I thought you were just waiting for me.”
Vince used his arm that was under Matt’s body to pull his boyfriend closer. “You’ve convinced me that I may be too eager, and Bobby’s comments today tipped me over the edge. A week really isn’t long enough to know if we can spend a lifetime together. I’m sure we can, but I agree we need to wait. I love you, Matt, but that’s just now. We can’t have our illegal wedding until we know it’s going to be forever.”
It was Matt’s turn to nestle into his boyfriend’s body. “I wouldn’t have put it quite that way, but you’re right – that’s why I want to wait. I feel the same way about you, but I’ve got that same reservation. I want to be sure before we take that step.”
“Padma said something to me last night that’s also been playing on my mind. She told me she’s glad the closet door is open, but she asked if that’s so I can step out, or for my friends to step in,” Vince said.
Matt paused to think about it. “I suppose it’s really a bit of both. Your friends are sharing your secret, and that’s sort of pulled them into the closet with you. But it also means that when you’re ready to step out, you’ll be stepping out in company.”
“That’s what I was thinking, too. I’m not ready to come all the way out, but I know I won’t be alone when I do.”
Matt smiled and gave Vince a long kiss. “We’re both hoping you’ll never be alone again.”
“There’s something else, too,” Vince said as he ran a hand teasingly just above the top of Matt’s jeans.
Matt almost purred as he closed his eyes, lay back, and let Vince play. He was confident that the rules they’d agreed to would keep things under control.
“Did you know that Alex and Jamie are already sleeping together?” Vince asked.
Matt’s eyes snapped opened to find Vince staring down at him.
“Alex mentioned something that made it pretty clear to me what they’ve been up to,” Vince added.
Matt knew that even though Vince was trying to keep a playful tone, there was a question he was asking.
“Their situation is different from ours, Vince. The ages are roughly the same – I think Jamie’s only a year older than you – but he’s also a lot more confident in himself and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’d taken the lead there. He also hasn’t been burnt the way I was. Jamie’s a great guy and my initial impression of Alex is that he’s the same, and so I hope everything works out for them, but I don’t know whether they’re looking for a long term relationship or just some fun times – it makes a big difference. I know what I want, and I want to make sure that it’s me that you love, and not just the sex. If you want to point fingers, you can blame me: I’m not ready.”
Vince rested his head on Matt’s chest while continuing to run a hand lightly over his abdomen.
“I know, and when I’m calm I know you’re right. I’m just finding the wait frustrating, that’s all.”
Matt bit back a flippant response. “We’ll get there – just be patient. First times are special,” he murmured before settling back and enjoying Vince’s playful ministrations.
Rhys closed the gate behind the last of the cattle. “Are they always this stupid?”
Vince raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”
“Those last three seemed to go out of their way to not go where we wanted them. I refuse to believe they’re that smart, so it must be stupidity.”
Matt and Vince laughed at Rhys’s caustic tone.
“They’re not stupid. They were just lowering themselves to the same level as the person they were facing,” Vince said.
Rhys stood for a moment while he worked out what that meant. “Hey, wait a minute! Are you saying that I’m stupid?”
“Nope. We’re just saying that you don’t know how to herd cows,” Matt said. “You did a good job for your first time, but you need to be more aggressive.”
Rhys stared over the fence at the animals grazing in their new paddock. “How often do you have to do this, anyway?”
Vince shrugged. “ We do it whenever they don’t have enough feed left in their old paddock. It depends, but they should be happy here for a week or so. We don’t want them to over-graze, because then it would take the land longer to recover.”
“How are we supposed to know when this needs to be done? I know I’ll be coming back with you, but Bobby’s going to be here by himself and won’t know.”
“Don’t worry. Dad will know when it’s time to rotate the stock, and Bobby’ll be able to help him. Dad just can’t do it by himself, that’s all.”
Rhys watched as Vince and Matt returned to the four-wheel motorbike. “That thing looks like fun. Not the same as a proper bike,” he said, indicating his own motorbike, “but you can do some cool stuff with it.”
Vince paused in the act of climbing up behind Matt. “It’s fun, but we’ve still got a lot of work ahead of us, so we’re not doing anything crazy, Rhys.”
“I take it a race is out of the question, then.”
“Definitely. It’s time check the stock in the far paddock. Follow us,” Vince said.
They worked for another hour, checking the cattle. They were about to head back when Matt stopped the bike near the last herd. He frowned as he stared at the animals.
“What is it?” Vince asked.
“I just saw something I want to check out,” Matt said as he got off and headed towards the cows.
Rhys pulled up next to Vince. “I thought we were going in for lunch? I’ve still got to get ready to go to work this afternoon.”
“We will, as soon as we’ve finished here.”
They heard Matt start to swear while he held the head of a young calf.
“What’s wrong?” Vince asked as he jumped off the bike.
“What’s going on, and what’s pink eye?” Rhys asked.
“An infection of the eye, and it’s contagious. We can treat it, but if there are only a few cows we should separate them out. Which means we need to find out how many have it so we can decide what to do,” Vince said.
Matt was busy moving through the herd, checking the cows but paying particular attention to all the calves. Vince moved around the other side and started doing the same.
“Is there anything I can to do?” Rhys asked.
Vince looked across and frowned. “I don’t think so – you don’t know what to look for. Why don’t you head back and tell Dad. It looks like it mightn’t be too bad, but we’ll need to decide what we’ll do. We’ll be with you as soon as we can.”
“Should we be calling for the vet?” Rhys asked.
Vince shook his head. “They don’t need much treatment, but we need to know if any of them have a bad case, or if it’s hit a calf that we’d like to show. If so, we’ll bring them in and look after them, but otherwise we’ll just get what we need and treat them here and make sure they stay isolated.”
Matt looked up and grinned. “We don’t need a vet for this. It’s looking like there are only early-stage cases, so it’s mainly a matter of keeping an eye on it. Why don’t you go, Rhys, and we’ll catch up soon. I don’t think we’ll be too long.”
Rhys stared for a moment, feeling useless. He began to wonder if the whole plan of helping out was too optimistic, when he didn’t know enough to assist. He trudged back to his bike and kicked it into life. There was nothing else he could do.
“There you are, Mr. Stevenson,” Alex said, handing a bag of electrical parts to the grey-haired man, who thanked him and walked out.
Alex looked around the hardware store. It was busy, which was typical for the day after a public holiday. There were also the ones who had made New Year’s resolutions and were gathering parts for whatever project they had resolved to undertake.
Alex left the counter to see if anyone needed his help. He was walking through the garden supply section when the two Neilson boys accosted him. Grinning, Alex lowered himself to one knee to match their eye level. The two boys, aged five and seven, were regular visitors.
“We’re getting Daddy a birthday present,” Paul Neilson said.
“Yeah, he’s going to get a gun,” Ian Neilson added gleefully, pointing to a trigger-spray attachment for a garden hose.
Alex smiled. “I’m sure he’s going to love it.”
“Paul! Ian! Come back here at once. You stay away from him!”
Alex straightened up. “It’s okay, Mrs Neilson. They weren’t bothering me.”
The glare she threw back at Alex as she ushered her grandsons away puzzled him for a moment. He shrugged and started replacing the stock the kids had moved.
He was just finishing up when he heard someone approaching. He looked up to see Mrs. Neilson scowling at him.
“You keep your perverted self away from my grandchildren, or I’ll have the police after you.” Her voice was low but there was no mistaking the animosity.
Alex gaped. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She poked a finger at him. “I know all about your sort, and I won’t have you doing that to my boys. You keep your distance, or better still, get out of town. We don’t want perverts here.”
She marched off, leaving Alex gobsmacked. He realised, too late, that he should have said something, but he had been caught by surprise. He went looking for his father.
“Dad, can I have a quiet word?”
“Sure, Alex. Just let me finish putting these things away,” Scott Landeau said, without looking up.
Alex scanned the store while he waited. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining things or not, but there were a couple of the locals who appeared to turn away quickly when he looked in their direction.
“Okay, that’s done. What is it?” Scott looked up and saw that his son was pale. “What’s wrong?”
“I’ve just had Mrs. Neilson tell me to keep away from her grandkids, and that she thinks perverts like me should leave town,” Alex said in a low voice.
“You’re not a pervert!”
“Shush, Dad! Keep your voice down! I know I’m not, but it was a shock to be accused. I don’t know what she’s heard, but it’s obvious she’s heard something.”
Scott Landeau reached over and pulled his son in for a reassuring hug. “You said the word might get out after New Year’s Eve. Just remember you’ve got your mum’s and my love. We were both surprised to learn that you’re seeing someone, but we’re also proud of what you did. We couldn’t wish for a better son.”
“Would you like to work out the back in the stock room for a bit?”
Alex thought for a moment and then squared his shoulders. “No. I heard that Mia insisted on walking home that night because she refused to be scared out of town. I’m not going to be run out, either. I’ll man the checkout counter, if you don’t mind, and we’ll see what happens when Mrs. Neilson comes to pay.”
“Are you sure? You don’t have to do this now, if you don’t want to.”
“I’m sure,” Alex said firmly. He gave his dad a wry smile. “But if you could be nearby, it’ll be appreciated.”
“Of course!” Mr. Landeau said, giving his son another quick hug. “Now, let’s get back to work.”
Alex spent the next five minutes at the cash register. It was run-of-the-mill work for him and he was able to do it while watching what was going on around him. He caught a few curious glances from some of the townsfolk, but nothing untoward until Mrs. Neilson approached with her grandsons. When she realised who was there, she stopped and looked around. Spotting Alex’s dad stacking tins of paint, she marched over and said something to him. Alex couldn’t hear, but the expression on Mrs. Neilson’s face made it quite clear she wasn’t happy.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Neilson, but I can’t at the moment. Alex is looking after the checkout and I’m sure he’ll be able to help you out,” Scott Landeau said in a strong, calm voice.
She said something else.
Mr. Landeau straightened up and frowned. “I beg your pardon? I don’t believe I heard what you just said.”
“I said, I will not be served by that pervert and I don’t want him anywhere near my grandchildren!”
There was a moment of silence as heads turned in her direction.
Alex steeled himself to not react, and pushed a receipt forward. “Here you are, Mr. Enderfield. I’m sure the kids will love the swing when you’re finished.”
“Ah... yeah,” Mr. Enderfield said. He took a few slow steps, but was clearly waiting to find out what was going on between Alex’s dad and Mrs. Neilson.
“My son is not a pervert, and I’d like you to apologise to him… now. Otherwise, I’m afraid you will no longer be welcome in my store,” Scott Landeau said.
Mrs. Neilson was outraged. “Apologise? I’ve heard about his sort and how they molest children. He should be locked up before he can hurt anyone!”
Scott leant forward and glared at the elderly woman. “My son is not a child molester. I couldn’t ask for a better son, and I am very proud of the young man he’s turned into.”
Alex opened his mouth to say something, but the words got stuck in his throat. He knew he should defend himself, but he couldn’t make himself say to everyone, “I’m gay, not a paedophile”.
“Well, if that’s the way you feel, you can say goodbye to my business. I will not associate with people like him. Come on, boys, let’s get out of here.”
“But grandma, we haven’t paid for Daddy’s presents yet!” Paul Neilson said, his eyes wide as he looked at the angry adults.
“Put them down, Paul. We’re going to have to pick something else for him.”
“But I want to give him the gun!” Ian wailed.
“That’s enough, boys. Put them down. I’m in two minds as to whether or not to complain to the police,” Mrs. Neilson said as she grabbed both boys.
“No need, Felicity. I’m here already, and I’ve been listening for the last couple of minutes,” Ernest Dresden said as he stepped out of the corner from where he’d been watching. He was carrying his policeman’s hat in his left hand.
“Ernest! I’m so glad to see you. Have you heard about that... that... person over there?” Mrs. Neilson asked, letting go of Paul so she could wave in Alex’s direction.
“Indeed I have, and that’s why I’m here,” Senior Sergeant Dresden said as he placed the hat on his head.
“Good. Arrest the pervert and make this town safe again!”
“Arrest him? After he saved a young woman from an assault? You have to be joking! I’ve already started the paperwork for nominating him for an award, and I’ve come down to speak to him personally about the matter. He’s a credit to the town!”
The policeman’s calm statement caused Mrs. Neilson to almost explode with speechless rage.
“I think it’s time you left, Mrs. Neilson,” Scott said firmly. He looked down at the two boys who were clearly frightened by the argument. Scott smiled “Take your presents, boys, and I hope your dad likes them. There’s no need to pay for them. Now, I think you need to get your grandma out into the fresh air. She’s not well.”
Scott Landeau turned and surveyed the crowd that had gathered. Ernest Dresdan stepped up and joined him. He had a steely expression as he addressed the onlookers.
“In case you haven’t heard, Alex and a friend of his rescued a young woman on New Year’s Eve from a potential sexual assault. There are several rumours going around, but that’s the basic fact. He’s a hero, and I am personally surprised and displeased that anyone is trying to say otherwise. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to talk to him again.”
The crowd dispersed under the watchful eye of the policeman. When most had returned to their own business, Ernest relaxed and smiled over at Alex.
“Can we go somewhere private, Alex? There are a number of things I need to talk to you about.”
“Sure. We can go into the office,” Alex said, feeling very confused. He turned to go.
Ernest started to follow but was stopped by a hand on his arm. He glanced around to see a smiling Scott Landeau.
“Thanks, Ernest. I really appreciate it.”
“No need for that. I’m sorry it happened in the first place, and that’s one of the reasons I’m here, but I think I should tell Alex first.”
“Okay, but thanks anyway.”
Ernest smiled and then headed over to where Alex was standing in the office doorway. Moments later, Ernest closed the door and waved for Alex to take a seat.
“Thank you, sir, for your support out there,” Alex said as he sat down.
Ernest scowled, making Alex nervous. When the policeman noticed, he shook his head. “I’m angry, but not at you. I owe you an apology, and if there was some way I could undo things, I would, but it’s too late.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I’ve got two junior officers on report for passing on confidential information. The statements you and your friend made – Jamie, isn’t it? – should never have been mentioned outside of the station, but a couple of the guys told their friends, and then the news went through the town. I took yesterday off work, which is why I didn’t find out about it until today. I’m sorry, Alex, I really am.”
Ernest reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. He wrote on the back and then handed it to Alex.
“Here. This is the number for my mobile phone. If you get hassled or worried, give me a call. The phone is on twenty-four hours a day, and I’ll be on it as soon as I can. That number’s not listed anywhere, but you can share it with Jamie if you need to. If you can think of anything else I can do to help, just let me know, because I don’t think that’s enough.”
He snorted and smiled. It wasn’t pretty. “I was thinking of assigning those two guys as protection for you, but that’s probably over the top. However, if you need it, I’ll do it.”
“Thanks, sir, but I don’t think that’s necessary. I’ve got a few friends who know and will look out for me.”
“Okay, but don’t hesitate. I’d prefer to be woken in the middle of the night for something that’s minor than to wake up in the morning to find you in hospital.”
Alex stood up. “I really appreciate it.”
Ernest smiled. “You’re welcome. However, there’s another matter, too.”
Alex hesitated and then sat down again.
“The guys you stopped have complained that you assaulted them. From the accounts I’ve read it’s a clear case of you using necessary force to protect Mia Chou, so we won’t be laying any charges, but until we get a magistrate to rule on their civil suit I’m going to have to ask you and Jamie to stay in town. Is that going to be a problem?”
Alex’s forehead wrinkled. “He needs to get back to uni by the end of the month.”
“Don’t worry about that. We’ll have this sorted out well before then.”
Alex smiled. “In that case, I don’t see a problem. Would you like me to tell him?”
“Good! Yes, please. In that case, I should get back to work. Oh, and I was serious when I said I was nominating you for an award. There are too many people who won’t help when someone calls, so I like to make sure the ones that do get the recognition they deserve. Thanks, Alex.”
Ernest shook Alex’s hand and then left. Alex was still trying to absorb everything when he heard a knock. He looked up to see his dad peering in.
“Yeah, I think so. I’m not sure what’s going on, but it sounds like I’m well and truly out of the closet now.”
Scott stepped in and closed the door. “Just let me know if you need anything.”
“Sure, Dad. I’m fine for now, and I should get back to work.”
“No, I think you can take the day off. Go find Jamie and head off somewhere quiet. You don’t need everyone staring at you.”
“Thanks, Dad.” Alex smiled as he thought about how lucky he was with his parents.
Scott Landeau opened the door, but paused before stepping out. He looked back at Alex and grinned.
“And your mum said to say that we’ll expect both of you for dinner at seven. Don’t you think it’s about time we met this boy?”
Jamie and Mia were sitting down when Alex went into the coffee shop. Jamie grinned and stood up, as did Mia.
“G’day! Your message was a welcome surprise. How come you’ve got the day off?” Jamie asked.
Alex smiled at Jamie and hugged Mia. They all sat down.
“Dad told me to collect you and disappear somewhere quiet. It appears the news is out, and I had someone accuse me of wanting to molest her grandkids. Dad and Senior Constable Dresdan stood up for me in front of everyone, but I’m glad Dad told me to take some time off.”
Mia’s hands covered her mouth. “Oh, no! I’m so sorry, Alex.”
Jamie reached over and put his hand on top of Alex’s. Alex started to pull away but stopped. Jamie sensed his mood and let go after a squeeze of support.
“I’m sorry, too, and I’m here for you,” Jamie said.
Alex gave a quick summary of the morning’s events, as he stared at the tabletop. “It was a shock to have someone do that to me out of the blue, but getting the police to stand up for me was something. Oh, and they’ve asked if you can stay in town, Jamie. They said that the guys we stopped are making accusations and they want us both in town until they can get them dismissed.” Alex looked up at Jamie and made a face. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realise how much I was going to mess things up for you.”
“You mean I have to stay in town for a bit longer? How long are we talking about?” Jamie asked, keeping a straight face.
“They said it should be resolved by the end of the month, so you’ll make it back to uni, but I know you were heading back next weekend. I’m really sorry.”
Jamie looked thoughtful. “I’ll have to ring my mum and tell her – she’s expecting me home soon.”
“Do you think she’ll be upset?” Alex asked.
Jamie laughed. “No, she’s fine. She said to take my time and stay as long as I want.”
Alex was confused. “What are you talking about?”
“I rang her last night and said I’m having the time of my life and I want to stay here for as long as possible. She said as long as I’m back for the start of term, she doesn’t mind.”
Jamie smiled at Alex. “I told her I’ve met someone that I want to get to know better and I don’t want to leave him until I have to.”
The two guys’ grins were cut short when they heard Mia giggling. “I’m sorry, but you two look so sweet making eyes at each other across the table.”
Jamie blushed and Alex dropped his eyes.
“Anyway, if you weren’t doing anything, Jamie, I thought we could go somewhere,” Alex muttered.
“Somewhere private, just the two of us?” Jamie asked cheekily.
Alex looked up. His face was red and he had a wry smile on his face.
“I’d like that, but what I really want is to be with people I can relax with and who don’t consider me to be a pervert. I was thinking of heading out to the Aster farm. Do you mind?”
Jamie cringed as he realised he’d misread the situation and put his foot in it. It was obvious to him in hindsight that Alex needed good company a lot more than he needed sex. “Sorry, I wasn’t thinking. Of course not! We can go whenever you like. Do you want me to ring to find out what Matt and Vince are up to?”
“If you could, I’d appreciate it. I think I’ll have to get their numbers.”
“I can give you both, if you like,” Mia said. “They won’t mind.”
“Are you sure?” Alex asked.
Mia smiled. “I’m sure. If they have a problem, I’ll straighten them out. I won’t have my two favourite heroes getting into trouble.”
Ten minutes later, Mia was back at work and the two guys were on the road to Vince’s place. Alex was driving, so Jamie was free to watch him. It had been a long time since he’d felt a connection with someone like he was feeling with Alex. Jamie had thought it was just going to be a holiday fling, but after the incident on New Year’s Eve he’d realised that there was more he wanted from the relationship than just the physical side. The news that Alex was in the process of being outed reinforced Jamie’s feelings. Even though he was the younger of the two, he was more confident with his sexuality and wanted to protect Alex as he went through his coming out.
Alex glanced to the side. “What is it?”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re staring at me.”
Jamie tossed up on a number of answers before deciding on his usual response: the truth.
“I was just thinking how much the last couple of days have changed things, and that it’s not all bad. Being outed is a pain, but, as I said before, I’m going to be here to help. I don’t know if you feel you’re ready or not, but if you’d like a boyfriend by your side over the next few weeks, I’d like to volunteer for the job. I wouldn’t mind it being a long-term thing, either, not just until uni starts. The other guys are planning on coming back here every couple of weeks to help out Vince’s family, and I think I can come back, too, if you still want to see me.”
Alex flicked Jamie a startled look before returning his attention to the road. Jamie watched as Alex opened his mouth a couple of times but didn’t say anything.
Finally, Alex glanced across at Jamie again. “Thanks. I’d like that.” There was wonder in his tone.
“Is that a ‘Yes, thanks, I’d love to have you as a boyfriend,’ or a ‘Yes, thanks, I’d like you to come back to see me’?”
Alex smiled. “How about ‘Yes’ to both?”
Jamie pumped his fist. “Yes!”
“That reminds me of something I forgot to say,” Alex said.
“Mum and Dad are expecting us both for dinner tonight. They want to meet you.”
Jamie gulped as he started to work out how to create a good impression. His best set of clothes hadn’t been washed and he didn’t think he had anything else that could be classified above teen casual.
“How about giving a guy a bit of notice, next time? I don’t know what to wear!”
Alex laughed. “I’d like to say you don’t have to wear anything, but my parents may not approve. Don’t worry about it – they already know you mean a lot to me, and that’s the important thing.”
Rhys scowled. “That bitch! That f...” He caught sight of Mrs. Aster’s expression.
“Rhys! While you’re here, will you at least try to be civil?” Vince’s mum glared across from where she was preparing lunch.
“Sorry, Mrs. Aster, but she had no right to say that to Alex.”
“I don’t dispute that, but that doesn’t excuse being abusive in return.”
Alex shrugged. “I didn’t like it at the time, but the more I think about it the less it’s bothering me. Your dad, Rhys, standing up for me was a big buzz.”
“Dad may be a major pain in the arse at times, indeed most times, but he’s honest. I would’ve been surprised if he’d done anything else.”
“Any ideas on how long Matt and Vince will be?” Jamie asked.
“Warren and his dad went out to help them check the herds, so they shouldn’t be much longer,” Mrs. Aster said.
“I would’ve offered to help, too, but I know from experience that cows and I don’t mix,” Shane said.
“I’m not sure they’re too fond of me, either. There is at least one that I think has it in for this pretend farmer,” Rhys said.
“Has anyone made plans for the afternoon?” Shane asked. “Now that Jamie and Alex are here, we should do something.”
“I’m not sure about today, ‘cause I have to go to work in a couple of hours, but I was thinking that we should organise something for Friday night,” Rhys said.
“Any particular reason?” Alex asked.
Rhys nodded. “Yeah. Warren’s heading back to Sydney and he’ll be taking Karen with him so she can go to that interview of hers.”
“And that’s a reason to celebrate, Rhysie-rider?” Shane asked, raising an eyebrow.
“Rhysie-rider? Where did that one come from?”
“You ride a bike, so I thought it appropriate, but if you don’t like it I can try something else, Rhysie-redneck.”
“Actually, I like Rhysie-rider – you can keep using that one. Back to your question, though, no, it’s not a reason to celebrate. However much Karen can be a pain at times, she’s a good friend and we’ll all miss her. This will be a farewell – she’ll be back, but for her sake I hope she’ll only be back short-term. She’s going to go places, and she can’t do that here.”
Rhys cocked his head as he glanced at Alex. “There’s also safety in numbers. Would you like to join us, Alex?”
Alex looked at Jamie, who grinned and nodded.
“Okay, Rhys. We’ll be there,” Alex said.
“Rhysie-rider – he’s not just Rhys anymore,” Shane said. “With a bit of work, I think we can get the whole town calling him that.”
“Hey, wait a minute! I said you could call me that – I didn’t say anything about anyone else!”
Vince glanced around the pub. It was crowded, but as at least half the people were holidaymakers, it was generally a happy crowd. More importantly for Vince, he didn’t see anyone scowling in his group’s direction. Alex and Jamie had caused a small ripple when they walked in, but since then there had been nothing.
“To Karen! Good luck with the interview,” Rhys said as he held his glass high.
Vince and the others lifted their drinks and repeated the toast. Matt had insisted on driving so that Vince could enjoy the night properly.
Karen blushed. “Thanks, everyone.”
Padma leant over, gave Karen a hug, and whispered something to her. Karen appeared startled and then smiled.
Vince reached under the table to take Matt’s hand. They’d gotten to The Cricketer’s Arms early so they could get a corner table and Vince wasn’t shy about taking advantage of the semi-privacy. He put his head by Matt’s ear.
“It’s going well,” he muttered.
Matt nodded. “Most of the time, it does. It’s the exceptions you need to keep an eye out for.”
Vince watched as Alex and Jamie laughed at a story that Rhys was telling. Vince sensed that Alex was tense, but the way he kept his arm across Jamie’s shoulders made a statement to all the locals who’d heard the stories, while being casual enough that everyone else would just take them as a couple of mates. A few people were staring, but they all looked away whenever Vince glanced in their direction.
Mia was sitting between Shane and Mark, and neither guy appeared pleased. That section of the table was noticeably quieter than the rest. Mark was alternating between a fawning smile whenever Mia was looking in his direction and an angry glare at Shane when she wasn’t. Shane was nervous, and it showed in the way he giggled even more than usual. Vince hoped that Mia would sort things out quickly, because the tension was beginning to cause problems in their group.
“She needs to do something.” Bobby kept his voice low, so that only Vince could hear him.
Vince raised an eyebrow as a question, and Bobby nodded in Mia’s direction.
“It’s her decision,” Vince said.
“Yeah, but I can’t work out if she’s honestly undecided or if she’s playing with them.”
“I don’t think she’s playing – it’s not in her nature.”
“No, but what’s she’s doing is cruel. Mark’s getting ready to explode and Shane’s about to have a meltdown.”
Vince considered Bobby’s words. He nodded slowly. “Yeah, you’re right, but I don’t know what we can do about it.”
A few minutes later, Mia stood up. Her two suitors started to stand, too, but a single glare had them dropping back into their seats.
Vince decided to take advantage of the situation. “Excuse me,” he said as he squeezed past the others so that he could get out of the corner. He quickly caught up with Mia, who was heading towards the ladies’ toilets. “Can I have a quick word, Mia?”
She stopped and turned. An angry look faded into a smile as she saw who it was. “Sure, Vince.”
“It’s your life, and you get to make the decisions, but can you put them out of their misery, please?”
Mia scowled. “Who do you think you are to tell me what to do?”
“You’re my best friend, and I’m not telling you which guy to pick, but if you’re not sure, at least tell them you’re not making any decisions. Tell them they’re both friends and that’s it, if you like, but stringing them on is going to drive them crazy.”
Mia paused and then gave Vince a hug. “Thanks, Vince. My problem is that they’re both more than friends and I really don’t know what to do. They’re just so different.”
A large guy bumped them as he headed to the bar. “Sorry,” he muttered as he passed.
Vince and Mia moved to the side. “Different, how?” Vince asked.
“Shane’s interesting and funny and I really enjoy his company. But Mark’s solid and comfortable – I know where I stand with him and I can be really relaxed. There’s just no comparing them.”
Vince started to say something but noticed Karen approaching. She nodded to them as she headed on to the toilets. Once she was out of earshot, Vince turned his attention back to Mia.
“Why don’t you ask them to back off until uni, then? Give things a chance to settle down and then spend more time with them.”
Mia smiled. “I’m not sure if I want to wait until then, but thanks, Vince. I’ll try to make it plain to both of them that I’m not ready to make any decisions. Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s somewhere I need to go.”
Vince laughed. “I should go, too, since I’m up.”
The men’s toilets were empty when Vince entered. He headed to one end of the urinal. Seconds later, the door opened and someone else entered. Vince was startled when the other guy spoke.
“I’d like to apologise to you and your friends, Vince.”
Vince glanced to the side to see Kevin Inkermann staring at him from the other end of the urinal. His surprise must have been evident because Kevin went pink and turned his head back to the wall in front of him.
“What do you mean?”
“You’ve been leading the search for the new Heart, but you don’t seem to have been doing anything for the last few weeks. I told Mark last weekend that I wasn’t impressed. I’ve been cursing you, thinking you were all a lot of slackers, but I worked out the truth tonight.”
Vince stiffened. Kevin wasn’t acting aggressively, but Vince was prepared to run or fight if he had to. He quickly finished up what he was doing.
“You’ve found The Heart and you’re running interference while things progress. Your friends have been doing a great job, too. It’s taken me this long to figure it out.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Vince said, then grimaced as he heard how uncertain he sounded. He headed over to the sinks. He wanted to leave immediately, but he thought that disappearing would just confirm Kevin’s suspicions.
Kevin zipped up and looked at Vince. “It was only when I eliminated everyone except Matt Sterling as The Heart’s partner that I twigged. I’ve been watching him tonight and I realised he’s in love. Once I realised that, it wasn’t hard to work out who he’s in love with”
Vince’s hands started to shake as he washed them. He kept an eye on Kevin in the mirror though he kept his head bowed to try to hide what he was doing.
“I’m not going to tell anyone, but I wanted to say that I’m on your side. I’ll be there to support you if or when you need it. In the meantime, I’ll try to keep anyone else from finding out.”
Vince spun around and met Kevin’s gaze. Kevin smiled and nodded his head.
“Good luck, Vince. I don’t think you’ll need it, but I wish you all the best.”
Kevin walked out, leaving behind a stunned Vince.
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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.