Charlie and Dave were approaching home when Dave suddenly commanded, “Sprint!”
The two put on a burst of speed, but it was clearly Charlie who had the edge, finishing up outside their house several paces in front of Dave.
Dave gave him a wry smile as the two started to do their cool down in the brisk, early-morning air. “I don’t think that pushed you enough. We need to make tomorrow’s run either longer or faster.”
Charlie shrugged. “It was still a good warmup.” He grinned. “It’s also great for clearing out the cobwebs from a night of studying.”
“What do you think you need to work on more: speed or endurance?”
Charlie took his time answering. “It depends on what the goal is. I can do with getting better in both.”
“The goal is to get you into the AFL, you bloody idiot!” Dave’s scowl disappeared. “You’re playing with me. You know what the goal is, and you’re procrastinating.”
Charlie smiled sheepishly. “I like to give myself time to think. To be honest, with only a week until I get tested, I don’t think I can improve in either category. The main goal this week has to be to make sure I don’t slide backwards.”
“It sounds like you need a Jim & brat special, then.” Dave smirked as Charlie winced. “I’ll let the brat know, and we’ll try to organise one for tomorrow. I think a two-hour run, with ad-hoc sprints thrown in, should be just what the doctor ordered.”
Charlie reluctantly nodded. He knew he couldn’t afford to take things easy and needed to be pushed, but he’d heard Deon complaining about those runs and knew tomorrow was going to be a challenge.
“For today,” Dave continued, “I’ll ask Jarrod if he can spare some time to help you out. If St. Kilda are going to do the same tests as we did at the combine, having someone to pit yourself against will be useful. You can do some sprints against Jarrod and see if it helps you work harder.”
“I don’t want to be exhausted when I show up at the football club on Saturday!”
Dave grinned. “You won’t be. We all understand the concept of tapering. We’ll ease off on your training starting Wednesday or Thursday. Which reminds me, I need to ask Deon if Kevin would like to join you. He wanted to keep up his level of fitness for when he has to head back for the Sydney Swans pre-season training next month.”
Charlie knew that it would be good for him. He also knew that his reluctance to put in that extra bit of effort required was what was holding him back. That desire to succeed, to not give up, to keep trying, to strive for that little bit more—those were what the top athletes used to achieve their goals.
That killer instinct wasn’t natural for Charlie. He could be competitive, but he was missing the drive that would push him beyond his current boundaries. He recognised that of himself, and he knew his coaches saw the same. Julie had mentioned it privately more than once. Charlie wondered if he could learn to achieve that drive by allowing himself to be pushed by his teammates.
He knew it wouldn’t be easy, but he still dreamt of playing in the AFL. What he needed to find out was if he could develop the drive that was missing.
* * *
“It’s time for me to go.” Kevin leant over and gave Geraldine a quick kiss. “Thanks for the wonderful night. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.”
“Are you fucking kidding me?” Geraldine grinned. “Last night was exactly what I fucking well needed.” She raised an eyebrow hopefully. “Are you sure you can’t come back tonight for a repeat?”
Kevin glanced across to where Warwick was waiting before giving Geraldine an apologetic shrug. “Sorry, I’ve already got other plans. If they change, I’ll let you know. I’m not sure what I’m doing next weekend though, so stay in touch.”
After a few more pleasantries and several kisses, Kevin and Warwick left the apartment and headed to Warwick’s car. “Thanks for the ride,” Kevin said.
“It’s no problem. I know it’s early, but I wanted to get here before Brad and Luke showed up.” Warwick smiled wryly. “I think Luke’s probably as anxious as I am to know how last night went, though for a completely different reason.”
Kevin snorted. “I bet.” He sighed. “Can we wait until we’re back at your place? I need to get a few things straight in my mind first, but I’ve definitely got stuff to discuss with you.”
“Geraldine’s not one to put on a show, so I’m guessing things went well from her point of view. That means it’s how you feel that you want to talk about.”
“Yeah, but not just yet.”
Warwick was mercifully quiet for the rest of the short drive. Kevin used the time to pull down the walls he’d built in his mind during the night and start to examine for the first time what had happened and how it made him feel. While he had been with Geraldine, his attention had been on making her happy. Now that he was away, it was time to focus on his own mental state.
Once they were in Warwick’s flat, Kevin glanced down at the clothes he was wearing. He chuckled. “I’m going to get changed and then, if it’s okay with you, can we talk?”
“Sure. Your bag’s in my room.” Warwick waved a hand in the general direction, though Kevin didn’t need the help. It was a one-bedroom apartment, and the only logical places for the overnight bag that Kevin had brought with him the day before were the living room where they were standing or the bedroom. “Do you want me to make some coffee while you get dressed? You can have a shower, too, if you want. I put clean towels in the bathroom this morning.”
“I’ll have a quick one. I had a shower at Geraldine’s place, but putting on the clothes I wore last night makes me feel a little dirty.”
Ten minutes later, the two were sitting opposite each other at Warwick’s small kitchen table. Kevin’s mug of coffee was in his hands while Warwick’s was sitting untouched in front of him.
“Where should I start?” Kevin smiled sheepishly. “It was quite an experience. Between your advice and Geraldine’s instructions, I didn’t make a balls-up of it, and overall, I think I did okay. She certainly seemed satisfied...both times.”
“What about you? Were you satisfied?” Warwick’s eyes were scanning Kevin’s face, though Kevin wasn’t sure what he was looking for.
“Yes and no. The sex part was actually enjoyable, though I’m not sure I’d ever want to be on the receiving end. I did work out one thing, though I’m not sure what it means. I’m hoping you can help me with that.” When Warwick raised an eyebrow and picked up his coffee for the first time, Kevin knew he had to continue without prompting. “I like girls. I like girls’ bodies. You’re a great friend, Warwick, and I know we were planning on doing things, but I’m just not attracted to you. There’s a certain fascination, but it’s not particularly sexual. Geraldine isn’t my type, and some things about her are a major turnoff, but seeing her naked still got me hard. I just can’t see a guy doing that for me.”
Warwick dropped his eyes. “If that’s what you think...”
“I see naked guys each week in the showers. They don’t excite me. Geraldine normally wouldn’t excite me, either, but seeing her there, with her dick on display...” Kevin screwed up his face as he forced himself to be honest. “Geraldine didn’t let me play with it. She told me that she wished it wasn’t there and can’t wait until she can have it removed. When I fondled it while I was fucking her, she told me to stop, but I found that so sexy...”
“Do you want to go back and spend the night with her again?”
Kevin took in the almost dead tone and knew that Warwick didn’t want him to go. “Not really. That’s for her as well as me. I don’t want her to get the impression that I’m attracted to her. I’m not. That’s more because of her personality than anything else. I like you a lot more than I like her. She’s a nice girl,” Kevin added quickly when Warwick’s head snapped up, “but she’s not my type. I feel more comfortable spending time with you than her.”
“So...” Warwick let the word drag out while he returned to searching Kevin’s face.
“So...I’d like to spend the night here.” Kevin smiled and reached over to put his hand on top of Warwick’s. “I sort of promised you that you’d be my second. I’m also hoping you’ll let me try some things that Geraldine didn’t want me to do. I’m not sure what’s going on, because normally dicks, other than my own, don’t interest me, but for some reason...” Kevin shrugged. “She didn’t let me explore that part of her, but I owe you, and if you’re willing, I’m willing to give it a go.” He grinned. “I might even surprise myself. Maybe I’ll find some guys attractive.”
Warwick pulled his hand away and used both hands to bring his mug to his mouth. While he sipped his coffee, Kevin felt a nervous flutter in his stomach. He was committing himself, and the consequences were scaring him. He waited for Warwick’s response.
“Kevin, I like you. I like you a lot. I’m no longer sure that what we’re talking about is a good idea. I’d really prefer to keep you as a friend rather than be shown more and then have it taken away from me. I’m not sure I can sleep with you without it doing my head in.”
It was Kevin’s turn to drop his gaze. “Can we play it by ear? I don’t want to lose you as a friend, but I know I’m using you. If you don’t want to do anything, I understand.” He looked up. “I think last night has helped me sort myself out, but I’m not sure. I was hoping you can help me finish the job, but if you can’t, I understand. I know I’ve been taking advantage of the situation, and I haven’t been thinking enough about what you want.”
Warwick closed his eyes. His expression looked pained. “I can’t have what I want. I know that.”
Kevin stared across the table at Warwick. He hadn’t realised until that moment how far Warwick might have fallen for him. He knew Warwick found him attractive, and he had played up to that when he had his hair bleached. He hadn’t known it went deeper. Kevin was suddenly aware that he had stuffed up again, even if it wasn’t as obvious as the episode with the stripper.
It was time to try to fix his mistake. He screwed up his courage and took a deep breath, hoping he wasn’t about to make things worse. “Three weeks, maybe four.”
“What do you mean?”
“You can have what you want until I go back to Sydney. That will be three or four weeks, depending on if I have to go back early for any reason.” Kevin’s hands tightened on his coffee mug as he waited.
“Kevin...you don’t know what you’re saying.”
“Probably not, but the offer’s on the table.” Kevin smiled as he shrugged. “I like you, too, though maybe not in the same way that you like me. But I owe you, and just like I did last night with Geraldine, I want you to be happy. I’m willing to go out of my comfort zone if that’s what it takes.” Kevin didn’t feel as confident as he was trying to project and was already regretting his impulse, but he wasn’t going to retreat. He steeled himself to leave it up to Warwick.
“Kevin...I...” Warwick looked away and then turned back. He grimaced. “I think I’m making a big mistake, but...no.”
“You can’t give me what I want. I want a boyfriend, a partner. Those don’t come with a built-in expiry date. You’re offering yourself as a short-term fuck buddy...”
Kevin winced at the all too accurate description.
“...and that’s not what I’m after. I’d love for you to be my boyfriend, but we both know that’s not going to happen. I have my life here in Melbourne and you have your life in Sydney. You’re not gay, you’re just curious. Once your curiosity is satisfied...” Warwick screwed up his face.
“Then what can I do for you?” Kevin wasn’t sure why he was pushing the point, but he wanted to do something for Warwick. He felt he owed him that much.
“Be my friend.” Warwick gave him a crooked smile. “One without an expiry date.”
“I can do that.” Kevin hesitated before continuing. “And sex?”
Warwick shook his head. “Friends first. Maybe later...maybe never.” His expression showed his anguish. “I’ve got feelings for you, Kevin, and until I can get them under control, sex is going to fuck with my head. I need a line drawn or I’m going to find myself falling for someone I can’t have.”
Kevin nodded slowly. “I don’t want to do that to you. I owe you too much.”
* * *
Henry Aurian scowled at the laptop in front of him. He had to make a decision, and it wasn’t an easy one.
“What’s wrong, dear?” Deidre Aurian glanced over his shoulder as she put a cup of steaming tea next to him.
“It’s an application form for a job at the Western Bulldogs. Someone sent me a copy and suggested I apply.”
“I thought you had your heart set on the head-coach position in Lilydale?”
“I did...do...but the Western Bulldogs have just lost their senior coach. I’m wondering if I have a chance of getting it.”
Deidre sat down next to him. “Do you want to talk it through?”
Henry nodded. His wife had proven to be a reliable sounding board in the past, and there was no reason she couldn’t help him again.
“I know I’m on the shortlist at the Lilydale Leopards, and I’ve been working on the presentation I have to make to the board next Tuesday, but now this opportunity at the Bulldogs has cropped up, and I’m wondering if I should aim for that, instead.”
“You can’t apply for both?”
Henry pulled a face. “I could, but it doesn’t feel right. The Leopards are going to make their decision in the next week and a half. The Bulldogs will probably take at least a month, though they wouldn’t want the process to take too much longer than that or they’ll lose the chance for the coach to play a role in their draft selections.”
“And accepting one job, but turning around a few weeks later to accept another one bothers you, even if it’s for a more senior position.” Deidre made it a statement, not a question.
“Exactly. I’ve always prided myself on being professional. Leaving a job two or three weeks after I start because I got a better offer elsewhere isn’t being professional.”
“Then you’re going to turn down the opportunity?”
Henry shook his head. “What if I don’t get the job in Lilydale? If I miss out on that because they prefer the person they already know—the other person on their shortlist—to someone they don’t, and I don’t apply for this one, then I’ll have nothing, and we’ll either be back in Fremantle or I’ll be out of a job completely.”
Deidre kissed him on the cheek. “I know you’re looking for a job here because of me, but it’s not the end of the world if we have to stay in Fremantle. Mum’s going to need ongoing care after her hip-replacement surgery, but if we're not here, we can pay for her to stay in a rehab hospital.”
“I know, but you really want to be here for her. Your dad won’t be able to manage your mum by himself, and I’m not comfortable with strangers looking after her.”
”It’ll be okay, Henry. We’ll work things out.”
“So, do I apply to be the Western Bulldogs senior coach, or do I let it slide?”
“What are your chances of getting it?”
“Not great. They’ll be taking an assistant coach—like I am in Fremantle—and promoting them, but there are a lot of assistant coaches who will want a shot at the top position in an AFL club. Also, whoever gets it will have a lot of rebuilding to do, because from the media reports it sounds like the club has major problems. They sound dysfunctional, with little or no effective communication between the players and the coaches. If they had been talking, things would never have gotten to the point where their captain wants to walk away.”
“Apply for the job,” Deidre said in a firm tone. “We both know it’s what you want. But if you get the job in Lilydale, withdraw your Bulldogs application. That will leave your integrity intact.”
Henry smiled as a weight was lifted from his mind. He put an arm around his wife and pulled her in for a kiss. “Thanks, Dee. You’ve been a great help.”
* * *
Sam was about to start ironing his business shirts—a chore he hated—when his phone rang. Taking the opportunity to put off the ironing for a bit longer, he grabbed his phone and answered without checking who was calling. “Sam Bradshaw.”
“Dad! I hope I haven’t called at a bad time,” Deon said.
Sam chuckled. “No. In fact, it’s perfect timing. I could do with an excuse not to do my chores.”
There was a moment of silence and then Deon laughed. “Sorry, but I’ve never thought of you doing chores. I suppose it’s sexist, but you being an adult and a guy, it never crossed my mind you had to do things around the apartment.”
“You do chores, don’t you?”
“Of course. Dad and Ryan came down heavy on the brat and me at the start of the year, making it very clear that they weren’t going to pick up after us. I do most of the stuff without procrastinating now, though I still hate cleaning the toilet and bathroom. I’ve got to do that once a month.”
“For me, it’s ironing. However, I’m sure you didn’t ring just to discuss chores. What’s up?”
“Er...it’s about Friday. Would you mind if I didn’t pick you and Marcus up?”
“Of course, I don’t mind. Is something wrong?”
“No, it’s just that Clarissa’s been invited to a party to celebrate the end of classes, and she wants me to come. She was invited a couple of days ago, but she’s only just decided to go. A few of the other guys from the club are going, too, but I can’t pick you up and still make it to the party at a reasonable time.”
“Go and have fun. I’ll ring Matt and Gary and ask them to send someone out to pick us up. They’ve already offered, so it shouldn’t be an imposition.” Sam smiled. “Clarissa means a lot to you. I can tell by your voice.”
“Yeah...” Deon sighed. “It’s killing me not knowing what’s going to happen at the draft. I really want to keep going out with her, but she doesn’t want me to get too close in case it turns out I end up interstate.”
“She’s smart, even if that’s not necessarily what you want.” Sam hesitated. “How do you think you’ll cope if you end up somewhere with no friends or family?”
“Fucked if I know,” Deon said in a depressed tone. “Kev managed to do okay when he ended up in Sydney, so it’s not that bad, but it’ll be hard being away from everyone.”
“How did you cope moving out of home and in with the Leopards?”
There was a silence for several seconds. “Thanks, Dad. Yeah, I suppose that was similar. After the first couple of weeks, I was only ringing home occasionally. I didn’t see anyone that I knew before until around Christmas time, when I went home for a few days. It’ll be different if I go interstate because I can’t go and see Mum and Jordan whenever I want, but I didn’t see them that often after I moved out of home, anyway.”
“Moving away from friends and family can be tough, Deon, but you learn to cope. It still hurts that you can’t see them whenever you want, but you’ll be meeting new people, making new friends.”
There was another pause before Deon responded. “Sorry, Dad. Is that how it was for you when you moved to Sydney?”
“It was, though I had Marcus here for me, so I wasn’t completely alone. It didn’t make it any less painful, though.”
“I’m just going to have to wait and see, aren’t I?” Deon chuckled, though with an edge that Sam thought indicated Deon was still tense.
“That’s all any of us can do, Deon. We’ve all got things that are out of our control.”
* * *
“This is it,” Ross said as he took a half-step away from Stuart. Despite making it clear that he had invited Stuart to the party purely as a friend, Stuart had been pushing that boundary since Ross had picked him up.
“Then let’s go in.” Stuart smiled and waved a hand to indicate Ross should lead. “I hope the party goes late, because 7:30 is way too early, in my opinion.”
“As I told you, some of the people attending have kids and don’t want a late night. The rest will probably party until midnight at least.”
The two walked through the open front door of the Bronson Avenue house. They could hear the sounds of people talking as well as some mild background music. Ross was looking for someone he knew when a small bundle of energy attacked him.
“Sean!” Ross’s voice had a nervous edge to it, but having a six-year-old hugging his legs helped relieve his tension. “It’s good to see you again, mate. Where’s Todd?”
“I’ll go get him.” Sean immediately disappeared through the small crowd.
“Who was that?” Stuart’s amusement was obvious. He tried to put an arm across Ross’s shoulders, but Ross moved away just enough to prevent him.
“That was Sean. Todd’s moving in with his mum, which is why the Leopards are holding this going-away party. This is one of the houses that the Leopards lease for their players.”
“Cool! I didn’t realise that being a footballer has perks like free accommodation.”
“It’s not free.” Todd smiled as he approached. “It’s subsidised, but we still have to contribute. G’day, Roscoe. A little bird told me you’d just arrived.”
“Hi, Todd. Yeah, Sean accosted me almost as soon as I stepped inside.” Ross wiped his sweaty palms on his pants. “Todd, this is Stuart.”
Todd’s smile was replaced with a dispassionate stare as he turned to Stuart. “So you’re Stuart. Ross is a good friend of mine, and a friend of his will always be welcome. Treat him right and I’ll be happy.” He smiled, though it didn’t reach his eyes, and stuck out a hand. “Pleased to meet you.”
Ross was too tense to take any sort of enjoyment from Stuart’s wince as he and Todd tested their strength. Ty had told him that a few of the Leopards were going to play the heavies, though Ross thought it was starting off low key. He knew that there would be others to push the point, even if Ty had said they were only going to tell one other person.
Todd turned away after one last crippling squeeze of Stuart’s hand. “Paul, over here! There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Ross swallowed as another large football player approached. Slightly taller than Todd, Paul had a more wiry build. Though he hadn’t met him, Paul was the Leopard who he’d agreed could be informed as to what was going on.
“Paul, this is Roscoe and Stuart. Guys, this is Paul, one of my teammates.” Todd gave Paul a half-nod of the head before moving away.
Paul smiled. “Roscoe, I’ve heard a lot of good things about you. Good luck for the draft next month. I hope you get picked. It’ll be great knowing someone in the AFL.” He turned to Stuart, and just like with Todd, his expression changed. Todd’s had become neutral; Paul’s was cold. “I’ve heard about you, too. It’s nice to put a face to the name. Very useful, even if I hope I never have to do anything about it.” Paul leant forward—looming over the more-averaged-sized Stuart—and lowered his voice. “We know that you’re pressuring Roscoe and have threatened to out him. The only real question if you try is whether we go straight to the police and accuse you of blackmail, or if we pay you a visit first. We know where you live.”
“I’m not doing anything!”
Paul straightened and smiled, though with little warmth. “And as long as that continues, everyone’s happy.” He winked at Ross. “Enjoy yourself. There’s a tub of beer and mixed drinks in the kitchen. It’s just through there,” he said, pointing across the room.
As Paul walked away, Stuart tried to pull Ross back towards the front door. “Let’s get out of here. These guys are crazy.”
Ross took an involuntary step in that direction before he dug in his heels. “Stuart, I’m staying.”
Stuart looked around. He moved closer to Ross—close enough that Ross felt uncomfortable and tried to edge away—before speaking in a low tone. “I don’t know what you’ve been telling them, but I’m not going to out you! Please believe me.”
“You’ve already threatened to do so. You sent me a text on Thursday, remember?”
“That’s because you were ignoring me!”
“I don’t want to discuss it. I just want to have a good time. If you want to go, you can—I’ll even pay for a taxi—but I’m staying.”
Stuart scowled for a second and then pasted a happier—if more plastic—expression on his face. “I’ll stay. You’ve got nothing to fear from me, Roscoe, and I’m going to prove it to you.”
* * *
Neil scowled as he watched Ross and Stuart talking with Oliver, Helena, Jim and Tony. “I still don’t know why that bastard is here or who that is who’s with him.”
“Todd told me the guy’s name’s Stuart, but he didn’t say why they were invited.” Liam put an arm around his boyfriend. “Why don’t we wander over to find out? We can just listen for a bit and then move on. You won’t even have to say hello if you don’t want to.”
“Whose side are you on? Why would I want to have anything to do with him?”
“Both Todd and the brat have told us that Ross is welcome here. That tells me that there’s more to him than we saw the other week. Hey, at least he hasn’t spent five years bullying you. That’s something in his favour.” Liam smiled and squeezed to emphasise his point.
Neil’s expression wavered. “Who knows? Maybe he’s been bullying kids at his own school.” He smiled for a moment. “Okay, if you think it’s worthwhile...”
“It can’t hurt, and since Todd told us that Ross is probably staying the night, it might be a good idea to find out what’s going on.”
Neil gave Liam a kiss on the cheek. “Why do you have to be so reasonable?”
“Because I know about how easy it is to fuck things up and how important second chances can be. I think he’s a prick, too, but I’m not going to ignore the fact that both Todd and the brat are going out of their way to be nice to him. I don’t believe either one is trying to suck up to someone who might be playing in the AFL next year, so there’s something about Ross that they know and we don’t that’s making them help him.”
The two made their way across the room until they were in a position to eavesdrop on the conversation.
“...you’re working as an apprentice.” Jim said to Stuart.
“That’s right. An opportunity came up a couple of months ago, so rather than finish Year 12, I quit and started work as a plumber.” Stuart chuckled. “I don’t get out of doing schoolwork completely, but at least the parts I’ve got to do are focused on what I need for the job rather than things I’ll never use again.”
“Who do you work for?” Tony asked.
“All Jobs Plumbing.” Stuart grinned. “Mr. Preston is a cool boss. I’m really glad I took the job when it became available. The other guys told me that there was some sort of problem with the guy I replaced, but his loss is my gain.”
Jim glanced at Tony who grimaced and shook his head. Neil stiffened. “All Jobs Plumbing? When was this?”
Everyone turned to Neil. It was obvious they hadn’t expected him to jump into the conversation.
“I got the job at the end of July. Why?”
Neil grimaced. “That’s where my dad used to work. He lost his job recently.” He clenched his fists, though his anger didn’t have a precise focus. “It sounds like you got his spot.”
Stuart held up both hands. “Hey, I had nothing to do with your old man! I only came on board after he was gone. I’m sorry that he lost his job, but it gave me and another guy the chance to get an apprenticeship. That’s not my fault.”
“We know,” Liam said. “Sorry, but Neil’s still sensitive on the subject. His dad kept the news a secret until very recently.” He stuck out a hand. “I’m Liam.”
“Stuart.” He hesitated before shaking hands and then smiled. “If it’s not a rude question, I noticed you and Neil seem like really good friends...”
Liam smiled back. “Neil’s my boyfriend.”
Neil was waiting for a homophobic reaction and was surprised when Stuart grinned. “Congratulations. I’m hoping to find myself a boyfriend soon, too.” He glanced at Ross for a moment before returning his attention to Liam. “My last boyfriend was cheating on me. I dumped his sorry arse as soon as I found out.”
“You’re gay?” Neil blurted out, his eyes flicking from Ross back to Stuart. He noticed that Ross had edged away from Stuart after Stuart’s comment.
Stuart’s grin didn’t change. “I am, and I’m proud of it, too.” His gaze shifted between Neil and Liam. “How long have you two been going out?”
“Only a few months.” Liam shrugged sheepishly. “It took me a long time to get Neil to trust me. He had reason to be suspicious, so I can’t blame him for being cautious.”
Helena chuckled. “More than one reason. You’re lucky that underneath all that macho bluster you’re basically a nice guy or you would’ve been in big trouble.”
Liam chuckled before explaining to the obviously perplexed Stuart and Ross. “Helena is the one who accidentally outed Neil to me and my friends. She—”
“How was I supposed to know that you and the other two were the bullies who had been making Neil’s life a misery?”
Liam grinned at Helena. “You couldn’t’ve, and I’m more than pleased that you didn’t know. That day changed my life,” he took Neil’s hand, “in more ways than one. Even if you did threaten me if we said anything.”
“Just as well you didn’t.” Helena smiled back. “Besides pissing off an entire football team, you would’ve also found out what it’s like to encounter the wrath of an angry Greek girl with a very large extended family.”
Oliver rolled his eyes. “And believe me, you don’t want to do that. Two of her big brothers—and I’m not just talking older—have already had words with me.”
Helena scowled. “When was this, and what did they say? If they’re interfering in my life again...”
Oliver chuckled as he pulled her in for a quick kiss. “It’s okay. They just want to make sure I treat you right. Since that’s what I want, too, everyone’s happy.”
Helena giggled as she snuggled up to her boyfriend. “As long as they don’t mess things up, I won’t need to kick them in the balls. Again.”
“It sounds like there’s quite a story between you two,” Stuart said to Neil and Liam.
Neil shrugged. “There is, but so far it’s worked out well.” He smiled at Liam. “We’re hopeful that will continue while we’re at uni.”
“Do either of you play sports?” Stuart asked. “I can tell you both go to the gym.”
“Liam’s a football player,” Jim said.
“Was.” Liam grimaced. “I got rubbed out partway through the season, and I doubt I’ll be playing for the next few years.”
Stuart winced. “Ouch. What happened?”
Liam shrugged. “I did something stupid and got a massive suspension. I’m not sure if the club wants me back next year, either, but since Neil and I intend to move to Sydney, that’s academic.”
“Liam put a guy in hospital at one of his matches.” Jim smiled at Liam and Neil. Both were shocked at Jim’s disclosure. The event was known to several of the Leopards, but it was something that wasn’t usually mentioned. “That’s why he was suspended for the rest of the season.”
“I shouldn’t have done it. Just because he was a prick, I shouldn’t have attacked him like I did. I’m never going to lose my temper like that again.”
“But if Neil—or one of your friends—is ever threatened, you’d do the same again,” Jim stated, more than asked, his expression serious.
Liam stared for a moment, his eyes flicking to Ross for a moment, and then nodded. “Yeah, I would.” He grinned. “Though, if it wasn’t Neil being threatened, I might have to get in line. Doug’s pretty protective, too.”
“Doug?” Stuart asked.
“My best friend. He’ll do anything for me, though he doesn’t really like Neil.”
“He’s getting better,” Neil said. His eyes drifted to Jim as he made a guess as to what was going on. Testing his hunch, he continued. “Doug’s still pretty good about beating people up, though, especially if they say anything about Liam.”
Neil took note of the small upward curve that appeared on Jim’s lips and the way his eyes flicked to Stuart and Ross.
“Hey, he’s not that bad!” Liam said quickly. “He’s calmed down a lot since the days he used to beat you up.” He gave Stuart a wry smile. “As I said, Neil and Doug don’t really get along. Because of me, though, they put up with each other.”
“Did the fight that got you suspended have anything to do with you being gay?” Stuart grimaced. “I stopped playing footy after I came out. The other guys...didn’t want me around.”
“Sorry to hear that.” Liam pulled a face. “The other guy was homophobic, and that’s why I went off at him. Most of my teammates were fine with me being gay.” He grinned. “Doug threatened to thump anyone who said anything, so that may’ve been a factor in how well things have gone.”
Neil felt a tap on his arm. He looked across to see Tony had slipped up next to him unnoticed.
“When you get a chance, can I have a word with you?” Tony asked quietly. “In private?”
“How about now?”
The two started to head off when Liam left Jim, Stuart, and Ross and joined them. “Hey, don’t leave me! You know I can’t stand being by myself.” Liam grinned to show he wasn’t serious.
“Tony wanted a quiet word.” Neil turned to Jim’s boyfriend. “Can Liam join us?”
Tony shrugged. “That’s fine with me.”
A minute later, they were in Neil’s bedroom with the door closed.
“Okay, Tony, who was that show for?” Neil asked. “Ross or Stuart?”
Tony raised an eyebrow. “Do you want to explain what you mean?”
“Jim went out of his way to imply that Liam can be violent, and that he’ll do it again to defend his friends. He smiled when I mentioned Doug beating up people. I’m guessing Jim wanted it to be a warning for someone, but I’m not sure which one. I initially thought it was Ross, since he was such a homophobic prick the other week, but I’m not sure any more. After the way he treated us the other week, he shows up here with a gay guy but acts like he doesn’t want to know him. I’ve been trying to work out why. I thought that he was trying to prove that he’s not homophobic by bringing a gay guy, but that doesn’t add up.” Neil narrowed his eyes. “Ross is in the closet, isn’t he? When Stuart mentioned wanting a boyfriend, he glanced at Ross.”
Tony rocked back in surprise. He smiled at Liam. “You’ve got a perceptive boyfriend. It’s not my place to comment on Ross’s sexuality, but Stuart’s the one who needs to be warned. He’s trying to blackmail Ross, which is why they’re both here tonight.”
Neil scowled. “How is he blackmailing Ross?”
Liam answered for Tony. “If Ross is gay and he’s in line to be drafted next month, then he’ll be doing his best to stay in the closet. The media attention Jim got when he came out will be nothing compared to that of an AFL player, or even an AFL draft prospect, coming out. It might also stuff up his chances of being drafted. I’m guessing Stuart is threatening to out Ross if he doesn’t get whatever it is he wants.”
The two looked at Tony who held up both hands. “I can’t say anything.” He smiled. “But if you take what Liam said as a working assumption, can I rely on both of you to keep your mouths shut?”
“Of course!” Liam said as Neil nodded his agreement.
“Good. Now, Neil, I’d like to know what happened with your father and his job. I was hoping that Stuart worked for one of our sponsors, but All Jobs isn’t one of the plumbing firms on our sponsor list. It was a nice bit of luck that your dad worked there. Maybe we can get some leverage on Stuart from that angle if your father didn’t leave on a bad note.”
“He left on good terms,” Liam said. “He told me that his boss didn’t want to let him go, but he didn’t have a choice because of the negative publicity from the TV show back in May. He kept Neil’s dad on for as long as he could.”
“How do you know that?” Neil asked, shocked that Liam knew more about his father’s employment situation than he did.
Liam’s face went red as he smiled apologetically. “Your dad told me about it one day when I went around to see him. You weren’t there at the time. Doug and Clarissa were with me.”
Neil opened his mouth to ask for more details, but Tony got in first.
“Before you two discuss things further, can I get your father’s number, Neil? I’m hoping I won’t have to use it, but if I’d like to ask him if he’d ring Stuart’s boss if we needed him to. The threat alone may be enough to make Stuart back off.”
“Sure, but I’m happy to ring him if that’s what you need.”
Neil gave Tony his father’s phone number while watching a visibly nervous Liam. After Tony had left, Neil smiled and pulled Liam in for a kiss. “We’ll talk about this later. For now, let’s go back and enjoy the party.”
* * *
“His mum’s car’s not there, so he’s home alone.” Wu grinned as he pulled into the Munroe’s driveway. “We’d better knock, just in case he’s taking a break from studying to watch some porn.”
Lauren rolled her eyes. “Do you really think he’ll be doing that?”
“He’s a guy. I’m sure he jerks off as much as the rest of us.”
Wu turned off the ignition and leant over to give Lauren a kiss. He wasn’t upset when she turned her head away; he kissed her neck instead. “Come on. Let’s give the poor boy some company for an hour or so before we head to the party. If we’re lucky, we’ll even convince him to tag along. You did say there would be a number of single girls there. Maybe tonight’s his night to find someone special.”
Lauren frowned, though a faint smile was playing at the edge of her lips. “I’m beginning to wonder about you, Wu. You seem awfully keen to get Roscoe hooked up. Is it that you want him to prove that he doesn’t have a crush on you?”
“He’s not gay!” Wu gritted his teeth while forcing himself to calm down. “Look, I saw how he was when that group from the gay radio station showed up before the AFL grand final. He wasn’t interested in them at all. The exact opposite, if anything. He might be fussy, but I don’t really blame him. He needs to find someone who likes him for who he is, not who he might be. I’ve heard some of the girls at school go on about how it’ll be wonderful to have an AFL footballer as a boyfriend. Roscoe doesn’t need that. He needs someone who cares for him whether he plays footy or not.
“Yes, I’d like to see him hook up. I’d even be happy if he had a short fling, because I think he’s too uptight at the moment and needs to relax. But I don’t want him hurt. He’s my best friend, and I want him to be as happy as I am with you. You can appreciate that, can’t you?”
“I can.” Lauren smiled and reached over to give him a light kiss. “I’m sorry I teased you. I know you guys don’t like saying it, but in your own way, you love him. Guys just aren’t good at admitting that to themselves, let alone showing it.”
Wu sat there for a moment and then shrugged. “Enough of the mushy stuff. Let’s see if we can convince Roscoe to go out with us tonight.”
The two exited the car and walked hand in hand to the front door. After ringing the doorbell, they waited quietly for someone to answer. Wu gave Lauren’s hand a gentle squeeze as the door started to open.
“Wu, Lauren, this is a pleasant surprise, but if you’re looking for Ross, he’s not home.” Ivy Munroe smiled as she stepped back. “Would you like to come in?”
Wu blinked and exchanged a surprised glance with his girlfriend before moving into the house. “He’s not? He told us he was studying.”
“He did some earlier, but he was invited to a party, and he headed off around an hour ago.” She smiled. “He’s planning on spending the night. I told him he has to be home by ten tomorrow. That’s when I’ll need the car back.”
Lauren turned to Wu. “Maybe it’s the same party we’re going to?”
Wu looked at Ross’s mother. “Did he say where the party was?”
“It’s in Lilydale. The footballers he was training with last week invited him on Thursday.” She cocked her head. “He didn’t tell you?”
Wu felt a slow burn building inside him. “No, he didn’t.”
Lauren grabbed Wu’s arm. “Thanks, Mrs. Munroe. Sorry to have bothered you, but since Ross isn’t here, we’ll get going. Have a good night.”
Wu allowed his girlfriend to drag him back to the car. Once they were seated, he slammed a hand onto the steering wheel. “Fuck!”
“Wu, not here. Drive us to the park, and we can talk there.”
“What’s there to talk about? The bastard’s keeping secrets. We used to tell each other everything, and now he’s changed. Is he too scared to tell me I’m no longer his best friend?”
“Wu, not in Roscoe’s driveway!” Lauren poked him. “Now drive. We’ll talk once we’re at the park and in private.”
“Fine,” Wu said through gritted teeth as he started the engine. “Though I’m not sure what there is to talk about.”
“We don’t know his side of the story. He might have a good reason for not telling us that he was going out.”
Wu backed the car onto the suburban street. “He not only didn’t tell us he was going out, he lied about what he was doing!” The tyres squealed as he took off with more force than usual. “I thought I was his best friend!”
* * *
Oliver did a double-take. “Dave! I didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Sorry I’m late, but I only wanted to drop in for a short time. Is Todd around?”
“He’s just putting Sean to bed and should be back soon.” Oliver grinned. “I was wondering when the kid would wear out his batteries. He lasted longer than I thought.”
“Todd’s staying the night, then?”
“No. He and Lorraine will be heading back to her place later. I told them Sean and Becky are welcome to stay here and we’ll take them around tomorrow morning, but he said they’ll all leave together later. Until then, they’re going to let Sean sleep.” Oliver glanced around. “I think Becky’s with Roger and Steph, but I’m not sure. She’s got more stamina than her little brother, but then she’s not running around like a lunatic, either.” Oliver glanced at Dave as soon as he realised what he’d said. He, like most of the Leopards, was still cautious when it came to Dave and his mental-health issues.
Dave seemed indifferent. “Okay.”
Oliver gave his teammate a quick searching look. Dave’s appearance at the party was unexpected given how antisocial he had been for most of the year, and Oliver was wondering why he was there. “Do you want a beer?”
Dave shook his head. “I’ve got training tomorrow morning. I need to make sure Charlie is ready for his day at St. Kilda next weekend.”
“I hope he does well.” Oliver hesitated for a moment before trying to satisfy his curiosity. “What made you decide to come to the party?”
Dave’s cold stare had Oliver ready to retreat, but Dave answered before Oliver could withdraw the question. “Both the brat and Todd asked me to be here. They said they had a job for me to do.”
Dave’s only answer was a scowl.
Oliver held up both hands in surrender. “I’m heading back to join Helena. Feel free to join us, or just mingle. I’ll see you around.”
Dave nodded before turning towards the corridor leading to the bedrooms and to where Todd was putting Sean to sleep. Oliver stared after him for a moment and then shrugged. If something was going on that he needed to know about, he was sure that someone would tell him.
* * *
Ross had a bottle of water in his hand as he stood at the edge of the crowd that filled the lounge room. He knew there were even more people in the kitchen and a few hardier souls outside in the backyard. He had the impression that all of the Leopard players and most of the support staff were there, many with partners. Todd had introduced a number of the larger Leopards, including Roger, the team captain and former AFL player. Roger had made a point of saying how much all the Leopards appreciated that Ross had trained with Deon and Dave to get them ready for the combine, commenting that if he ever needed any help, he could call on the Leopards.
“G’day, Roscoe. I’m glad you could make it.”
Ross looked around at the not particularly welcome tone and his eyes widened. “Dave! Sorry, I didn’t see you there.”
“Obviously. Who’s this?” Dave asked as he stared past Ross.
“This is Stuart. Stuart, this is Dave, one of the guys who was at the combine with me.”
“G’day!” Stuart smiled broadly and stepped forward. His grin slipped when Dave stared at his proffered hand with an almost sneer before accepting. Ross would have liked to smirk as yet another Leopard tested Stuart’s hand strength, but he was too nervous. He could sense that things were beginning to hit a crisis point with Stuart, and he was afraid as to what damage an explosion would cause. Most of the people at the party had been friendly to both of them, but enough had made their dislike of Stuart clear that Stuart was on edge.
Stuart was also on his fourth beer, and there were signs that Stuart was becoming aggressive and loose-lipped, both of which were bad news for Ross. Ross had to be constantly on alert to avoid Stuart’s attempts to push the boundaries Ross had set at the start for signs of affection. He was glad he had decided before the night started that he would stick to water. Stuart had assumed that he was doing that as the designated driver rather than as a self-protection measure.
Dave turned back to Ross. “Have you heard anything from any of the clubs since last weekend?”
“No, but Kevin told me that I probably wouldn’t. The AFL wants us to finish our school year without any further distractions.”
Dave snorted. “They obviously don’t have the same view when it comes to university students. Charlie’s been invited to St. Kilda for a day of testing next weekend.”
“Who’s Charlie?” Stuart asked.
Dave didn’t look in his direction as he answered. “You probably don’t know him, but Charlie’s one of my housemates.”
Ross nodded. “He’s the one that took that mark at the end of your grand final and kicked what turned out to be the match-winning goal.” Ross blinked when he was rewarded with a momentary smile from Dave. It was the first time he’d seen anything better than a neutral expression on the Leopard midfielder. A scowl was the more normal expression on Dave’s face.
“That’s him. Anyway, we’ve got a two-hour run scheduled for tomorrow morning to help make sure he’s ready. It’ll be along the lines of the run we did on the Tuesday before the combine, and then we’ll be doing more training during the week. Did you want to join in?”
“I’d love to, but I have to get Mum’s car back to her by ten tomorrow morning. I don’t think I’ll be able to make it back here in time. And I have school during the week—it’s our last week before the break for exams—so I think I’m out for training during the week, too. Sorry.”
Ross kept a wary watch on Stuart out of the corner of his eye. He could see that Stuart wasn’t happy that he was being ignored again. Several other Leopards had also acted as if he wasn’t there, something that hadn’t impressed Stuart.
Dave’s forehead wrinkled. “We’ll see if we can work out a way to make it happen. Deon thought training with you helped him a lot. I’d like Charlie to have a similar advantage.”
“I’ll be happy to help out if there’s a way, but with school and exams coming up...”
“Roscoe! I’m glad you could make it. Do you remember Karen?” Ty asked as he and his girlfriend joined the group.
Ross had spotted Ty earlier, but a shake of the head had warned him to keep away until the right moment. It appeared that Ty had decided it was time. That indicated to Ross that things were about to come to a head.
“Of course, I do.” Ross gave Karen a quick peck on the cheek.
She smiled back. “How have you been?”
“I’ve been good. One more week to the end of school. After that there are only the exams and I can return to stressing out about the draft.”
“Consider yourself lucky. Charlie, Stacey, and I have two more weeks of uni before we get a week off followed by our end-of-year exams.” She linked her arm with Ty’s. “But once they’re done, I’ve talked Ty into having a week away, just the two of us.”
“Sounds very romantic.” Ross smiled. “Going anywhere in particular?”
“Yeah, real romantic,” Stuart interjected in a snide tone. “Going someplace where you can go on a date without anyone interfering. That would be really nice.”
Ty ignored him. “I suggested Bali, but neither of us could afford the flights, and Karen doesn’t have a passport. Instead, we’re going for a drive down the Great Ocean Road and find somewhere on the coast for the week. We’re still looking for a place at a reasonable price, but we’ve got a month, so there’s time.”
Stuart moved next to Ross and glared at Ty. “Why don’t you leave us alone? You’ve already caused enough problems between me and Roscoe.”
Ross sidestepped to avoid the arm Stuart tried to put around his waist. He swallowed when he saw the momentary glare that Stuart threw him. Ross could tell that Stuart was close to lashing out. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Dave taking a half-step away, as if to give them some privacy.
Ty raised an eyebrow at Stuart. “Do I know you? You remind me of some arsehole I met last weekend, but I know Roscoe well enough to know he wouldn’t hang around with a loser like that. I’m going to assume you’re not him, so...hi, I’m Ty, but everyone calls me the brat.” He stuck out a hand.
Stuart scowled for a moment before transferring his beer to his left hand and accepting the handshake. The immediate bulge in his bicep told Ross he was trying to intimidate Ty with a show of strength. Ty didn’t appear concerned. If anything, his smile widened.
“Ty...” Karen’s warning ended the battle after only a few seconds. Ross took note of Stuart discreetly giving his hand a shake as he took a step away.
“Why don’t you all just leave us the hell alone?” Stuart’s scowl indicated his opinion of Ty.
“If you don’t want to hang around, that’s fine, but I’m talking to Roscoe.” Ty smiled at Dave before returning his attention to Ross. “I presume you’ve been told about the training run tomorrow morning.”
“Yeah, Dave just told me. I’m sorry but—”
Ross’s attention had been distracted enough for Stuart to grab his hand. “Come on, Roscoe. Let’s get the fuck out of here. We can go back to my place for a bit.”
“I want to stay. I’m having a good time.” Ross wasn’t quite telling the truth, though he knew he was having a better time than he would if he was alone with Stuart.
Stuart pulled on his hand. “We’ll have a better time away from this place. These guys are creeps.”
“They’re my friends.” Ross wasn’t sure about Dave, but he knew Ty was doing his best to help him.
“I thought I was your friend.”
Stuart’s emphasis on the last word scared Ross. “You are, but so are these guys.” Ross tried to ease his hand out of Stuart’s grip but realised he couldn’t do so without making it obvious to everyone there. Even so, he considered doing it because holding hands with Stuart in the crowded room wasn’t something he wanted to do, either.
Stuart downed what remained of his beer and scowled. “Not like me.” He narrowed his eyes at Ross. “If we’re staying, I think I need another beer. Then we’re going to talk about what being a friend means.”
“Stuart, I think you’ve had enough to drink. Would you like a water instead?”
Stuart flung his empty beer bottle away, narrowly missing the head of a girl nearby. “I’m fine!”
Ross was able to slip his hand out of Stuart’s at that point, but Stuart’s violent reaction had him frightened. It had also brought everyone’s attention on the small group. Ross had not considered the possibility that Stuart would be an aggressive drunk.
Ty glared as he took a step forward. “Look, arsehole, I think you’ve outstayed your welcome. How about you get the fuck out of here?”
“That’s fine with me!” Stuart glared back. “Come on, Roscoe, we’re leaving.”
Ross was very much aware all other conversations in the room had stopped. “I’m staying, Stuart, but I’ll call for a taxi to take you home.”
“You’re coming with me, Roscoe.” Stuart’s expression was one of deadly seriousness. “Let’s get the fuck out of here.”
“He doesn’t want to go,” Todd said as he stepped forward. “A cab will be here shortly,” he added after glancing past Stuart to where Oliver had a phone to his ear. “I suggest you wait outside until it arrives.”
Ross tossed up on whether to try to soothe Stuart or keep quiet. After a moment of internal debate, he decided to keep quiet. He didn’t want to risk sending any signals to Stuart that might be misinterpreted. Instead, he took a half-step backwards while keeping an eye on Stuart.
“Fuck you! Fuck the lot of you!” Stuart glared angrily and indiscriminately around the room before taking a few steps towards the door. The people in the room parted as he approached, leaving him an open path to the exit. He stopped and scowled over his shoulder. “If you know what’s good for you, Roscoe, you’ll come with me...or else.”
Ross swallowed as Todd, Ty, and Jim, all started to converge on Stuart. They were, however, beaten by one of their teammates.
Dave leapt forward, grabbed Stuart by the arm, and twisted it up behind his back. “I hate cockroaches. Shut your mouth or I’ll shut it for you.”
The coldness in Dave’s tone stopped everyone in their tracks. Even Stuart had seemed to sober up at the frozen anger in Dave’s eyes.
They all heard Dave as he frogmarched Stuart out of the house. “No one threatens a Leopard and gets away with it. If you want to live, do what you’re told.”
Todd and Ty exchanged glances. “I’d better go out and keep an eye on them,” Ty said.
“I’ll do it, brat.”
Ty shook his head. “It’s your party. You stay and enjoy it.” He glanced past Todd. “I think Lorraine could do with some comforting.”
Ross, along with most of the crowd, looked over to where Lorraine looked like she was about to have a breakdown. Todd had gathered her in his arms before Ross realised he had moved.
“Roscoe, I think you should come with me,” Ty said.
Ross nodded, and the two headed towards the front door. “Who was Dave talking about? Stuart didn’t threaten anyone as far as I know.”
“He threatened you.”
“But I’m not a Leopard!”
Ty paused in the doorway to smile at Ross. “One of the lessons that Dad taught me this year is that it’s not just the players who make up the Leopards. It’s everyone: players, support staff, admin staff, supporters—anyone and everyone. You became a Leopard when you trained with us to help Deon and Dave get ready for the combine.” His smile widened to a grin at Ross’s confusion. “We Leopards do things differently to a lot of clubs. Family is important to us, and you became family when you joined in.”
Ross dropped his head. “You didn’t think so last week. I overheard you several times.”
“Yeah, I stuffed that one up. The only thing in my defence is that Dad stuffed up, too. You had us all fooled until last Saturday night.” Ty nudged Ross. “Let’s go. I believe the plan will be that Dave takes the arsehole home—I didn’t ask if he’s going to take him straight home or there will be a small detour along the way; some things I’m better off not knowing. I’ll follow you back to your place so you can drop the car back for your mum and get your training gear for tomorrow. Then we head back here and party. You haven’t lived until you’ve done a two-hour run with a hangover.”
Ross’s head snapped up. “What?”
Ty laughed. “That got you going. I’m serious about the training—Dave explicitly requested your help with Charlie—but I’ll leave it to you to decide if you want to make it more difficult by getting drunk tonight. It could be fun, but then again, maybe not.”
Ross wasn’t sure if Ty was being serious, but he followed the Leopards’ vice-captain out into the front yard. There they found Dave holding Stuart up against a car while talking in a low, menacing voice. Ross decided he didn’t want to know what Dave was saying. He found the Leopard midfielder scary even though he knew Dave was on his side.
“Roscoe, please!” Stuart’s desperate plea made Ross pause.
“I told you to shut up!”
Dave’s warning growl made Stuart’s jaw snap close, but even in the uneven light from the house and nearby streetlight, Ross could see that Stuart was scared. He knew he couldn’t walk away without saying something.
“Stuart, I’m sorry, but you pushed me too hard. I told you I’m only willing to be your friend, but you kept trying to force me to be more. That’s not what I want. Bye, Stuart. Please don’t try to contact me again.”
“You heard him,” Dave said as he pushed his face almost nose to nose with Stuart. “You’re going home, you will delete Ross’s number from your phone, and you won’t try to contact him again. If he wants to talk to you, he’ll ring you. You don’t ring him. Got it?”
Stuart’s head jerked up and down in a frightened nod.
Ross cringed as he walked away. While he knew Stuart was at fault, he also blamed himself for reconnecting with Stuart in the first place. He’d had the chance to walk away before anything happened, but he hadn’t. He’d had dreams as to what could have happened...only to find out that the reality had been more of a nightmare.
If Stuart was sufficiently intimidated, then this crisis was over, though at a price.
Ross knew he was out to a lot of people now. Besides the ones that had been told or had seen him with Stuart the previous weekend, he suspected others had guessed from Stuart’s behaviour at the party. Ross was quietly praying that the cure didn’t turn out to be worse than the disease.