Warwick started cooking breakfast when he heard the shower running. Ten minutes later, Daphne walked into the room drying her hair. “Did you sleep well?” he asked as he transferred the bacon to a tray and placed it in the oven to keep warm. “How do you like your eggs?”
“No preference. If you insist on me making a choice, poached would be good.” She smiled. “I had a really good night’s sleep with lots of pleasant dreams. I really need to thank you and Geraldine. I didn’t want to get my hopes up about this weekend, but Kevin is so much more than I was expecting.” She moved over and gave Warwick a peck on the cheek. “So, thanks.”
Warwick repressed his momentary jealousy. He was the one responsible for bringing Kevin and Daphne together. He had to live with the consequences. “Things are going well, then.”
“They are.” She let out a happy sigh. “In fact, I was surprised he didn’t ask if he could stay the night.”
“He’s taking it easy. He doesn’t want to hurt you.” Warwick found the next words coming out of his mouth without conscious volition. “Did he tell you what he did at the start of the year?”
“With that stripper in Sydney?” Daphne flinched. “He did. He told me he wanted me to understand what had happened and why he’d never do that to me.” She turned away and wiped a hand across her eyes. “If I didn’t know that he’d treated Geraldine right when he spent a night with her, I might’ve walked away at that point.”
“When did he tell you?”
“Yesterday afternoon while we were walking around Melbourne. He said he knew it might ruin his chances, but he didn’t want to hide his past. I thought he was going to tell me about all the girls he’d slept with. I didn’t expect what he said.”
“It hurt him. Not as much as he hurt her, but he panicked. Once he realised what he’d done, he did his best to make it right.”
“I know. He told me that Geraldine doesn’t know. If she had, she might not have asked me to fly down.” Daphne sighed. “I think he’s a good guy, but I won’t know for sure until we spend a night together. Until then...” She shrugged.
“Any plans on when that will happen?”
Daphne gave a short snort of laughter. “I thought it was going to be last night. Since it didn’t happen, I think he’s planning on dating me in Sydney for awhile first. I’m not sure of exactly what he’s waiting for, but I can’t commit to him until he sleeps with me. He’s great company and I enjoy being with him, but there’s still that fear...” She chuckled, though with a dark edge. “Isn’t it usually the guy who plans on dropping the girl if she’s slow to have sex?”
Warwick grinned. “Kevin’s looking for something long term. He wants to be sure you’re the right one for him, that you’re compatible and have enough in common with him that you won’t be a short-term fling.”
“Me, too, which is why I want this over and done with.” Daphne stared into the distance. “I don’t know if he’s just curious and once that curiosity is satisfied, he’ll be looking for something new. The longer that curiosity remains unsatisfied, the longer before I find out if that’s true.”
“His curiosity was satisfied by Geraldine. At least, that was the impression I had.”
“Then why me? What have I got that’s holding his attention?” She waved a hand at her body. “I’m not that good-looking, and as an AFL player, he could probably have lots of gorgeous girls lining up to date him. What does he want?”
“What all of us want: a life-partner.” Warwick contemplated his guest for a moment before returning his attention to his cooking. “Do you know what I think? I think that most guys are initially attracted to someone based on appearance. After that, though, they have to find common ground with their partner, because a purely physical relationship generally doesn’t last.”
He nodded towards Daphne. “In your case, it’s not your appearance that’s given him that initial attraction; it’s the fact that you’re transgender. Attraction is a very individual thing, and even with appearances, different guys have different desires. He wants to know you, the complete person, not just one small part. Now that you’ve caught his eye, what you both need to do is try to find that common ground that will sustain a relationship beyond that point.”
Warwick tried to tell himself that the same applied with Ross. He liked Ross, and the younger guy brought out a protective instinct in Warwick. There was certainly a level of attraction, but they weren’t at the stage where Warwick felt they could sustain a long-term relationship. There was a fantasy called Kevin standing between him and Ross, and the sooner that he could expel that mirage, the sooner he too could find out if Ross was someone he could spend his life with.
* * *
“Mum, Dad, relax!” Kevin was starting to get irritated. “We’ve got plenty of time.”
“But shouldn’t you at least check in your luggage?” Mrs. Scanlan asked.
Kevin gritted his teeth and decided it was time to tell at least part of the truth. “If you must know, we’re waiting for a couple of friends of mine. One of them is heading back home to Sydney, and we wanted to check in together.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” Kevin’s father smiled. “One of your teammates, I presume?”
“No, actually.” Kevin realised that he was going to get the third degree from his parents whether he wanted it or not. He had put off telling them because he didn’t want to go through it, but he had little choice. “I’m hoping Daphne and I will be able to sit together so we can talk on the plane.”
Kevin wasn’t surprised at his mother’s question. “This girl that I’m starting to date, so please be nice when they show up!” Kevin suspected he was wasting his breath, but he had to try. The saving grace was that his parents wouldn’t have much time to interrogate him. Stalling, he glanced at his phone. Warwick and Daphne said they would be at the airport by three o’clock, which meant that hopefully he had to put up with his parents only for another fifteen minutes.
The questions started...
“Where did you meet her?”
“What are her friends like?”
“How old is she?”
“What made you decide to date her?”
“What does she do for a living?”
“Are you using protection?”
“Dad!” Kevin glared as his father. He was serious considering walking away and leaving them, but he had told Daphne that he would wait for her in front of the Virgin Australia check-in counters.
“Kev!” Deon strode up and pulled Kevin into a bear hug. “I’m glad we caught you.”
“Deon? What are you doing here?” Kevin glanced past him to the second Leopard grinning nearby. “Ty?”
Ty gave him a mock-scowl. “What did I tell you about calling me that?”
Kevin laughed, releasing some of the tension his parents had been instilling into him. “Sorry, brat.”
Deon grinned. “Did you really think we’d let you leave without saying goodbye?”
“We want to make sure you were gone.” Ty also grinned. “You’ve been a bad influence on too many people. Now they all want to play in the AFL, too.”
Still chuckling, Kevin waved a hand at his family. “Brat, Deon, these are my parents. Mum, Dad, do you remember Deon from the under-sixteens? He topped the goal-scoring in the VFL this year.”
Mr. Scanlan grinned. “I remember both of them, actually.” He nodded his head towards Deon. “You’ve put on a lot of muscle since I last saw you. Sorry you didn’t get drafted last year, but Kevin’s told me you’ve done well this season.” He smiled at Ty. “And I remember you from last year’s TAC Cup. You played with Kevin in the Vic Metro team. Which club drafted you? I can’t remember.”
Ty winced. “None, actually. Deon and I play for the Lilydale Leopards. At least, for the moment.” He smiled at his teammate. “Kev and I are both hoping Deon gets drafted this year.”
“You weren’t drafted?” Mr. Scanlan’s expression was one of disbelief.
“Dad, enough!” Kevin took one look at Ty and knew an urgent change of subject was called for. Unfortunately, with no chance to think, there was only one topic he knew would distract his parents. “Deon and the brat have both met Daphne. Guys, my parents have been giving me the third degree, so while we wait, why don’t you tell them what you think of her?”
“She was nice,” Deon said. “A little quiet, but once we got to know her she wasn’t shy about expressing her opinions.”
Ty gave Kevin a hard stare. “Just so I don’t put my foot in it, am I allowed to tell your parents about the incident with the trumpet and the banjo player?”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
Ty nodded. “Okay, gotcha. We won’t mention it.” He turned and smiled at Kevin’s parents. “As Deon said, she was nice.”
“Mum, Dad, there was no incident involving trumpets or banjo players. Don’t believe anything the brat tells you.”
Ty frowned. “I just told them Daphne was nice. Are you saying they shouldn’t believe me?”
Deon punched Ty in the arm. “Cut it out.”
Ty grinned as he rubbed where Deon had hit. “Sorry, Mr. and Mrs. Scanlan. Sometimes my sense of humour runs away from me.” He glanced past them, and his grin broadened. “Since she’s just arrived, you can make up your own mind about her, and you won’t have to rely on me.”
Kevin turned to look in that direction and grinned with relief. He had been half-afraid that she wouldn’t show up. Abandoning his luggage with his parents and friends, he raced to where Daphne and Warwick were coming through the sliding doors, pulling up just in front of them. He wanted to grab her and give her a hug, but he wasn’t sure if he would scare her off. “Would you like me to carry that?” he asked, indicating her bag.
She smiled. “No, it’s fine. There’s not that much in it.”
Kevin reached out, ready to pull back if she hinted otherwise, and took her hand. He tilted his head. “Come on. I’ll introduce you to my parents. Just be happy we’ve only got a short while before we fly out. Otherwise, they’d spend all afternoon asking you questions.”
Warwick chuckled. “G’day, Kev.”
Kevin reddened. “Sorry, Warwick.” He let go of Daphne’s hand and pulled Warwick into a hug. “I’m going to miss you.”
Warwick gave him a strong squeeze before letting go. “I’m going to miss you, too.” To Kevin’s surprise, Warwick wiped a hand across his eyes.
Not wanting to draw attention to his friend’s emotional display, Kevin took Daphne’s hand again and led her to Deon, Ty, and his parents. “Mum, Dad, this is Daphne.”
“Hello, Daphne.” Mrs. Scanlan smiled. “Kevin was just telling us about how you two met. Is it true that you didn’t know he was an AFL player?”
“Mum!” Kevin gritted his teeth. “Daphne and I had better check in. Why don’t you grab a table at the coffee shop downstairs, and we’ll meet you there once we’ve dropped off our luggage.”
Not waiting for a response, he picked up his suitcase, caught Daphne’s eye, and then headed to the check-in counters. He hoped the service would be slow.
“Do they know...?”
“No, and I’m not planning on telling them. That’s between you and me as far as I’m concerned.” Kevin flicked her a tentative smile. “Unless you want me to say something?”
She shook her head. “It’s easier if I don’t tell people unless I have to.”
“That’s fine with me.” Kevin shifted his suitcase to his right and took her hand. He gave it a quick squeeze. “As far as everyone else is concerned, you’re the girl I’m starting to date. I’m hoping the next step will be that you’re my girlfriend. After that...” he shrugged.
Daphne chuckled. “You’re getting a bit ahead of yourself, Kevin.”
Kevin gave her a serious look. “I don’t think so. I know what I want, and that’s you.” He smiled. “I know I have to do the work and prove to you that I can be a great boyfriend, but unless you’re hiding some sinister secret, like you’re really a politician or something equally revolting, then you’re the one for me.”
Daphne looked uneasy. “Is that what you tell all the girls?”
Kevin grinned. “Nope. I usually just tell them that I’m an AFL player, and we end up in bed together. But that’s not going to work with you, so I have to come up with some new lines. I also don’t want this to be a short-term fling, which means I’m going to have to do things I’ve never done before. Any chance you could help me there?” He raised an eyebrow hopefully.
Daphne stared and then laughed. “Maybe.”
Kevin let go of her hand and slipped his arm around her waist. “Good, because there’s this girl I really want to impress, and I need all the help I can get.” He leant over and gave her a quick kiss. “She’s someone special.”
As the two made their way slowly towards the check-in counters, Kevin sensed that even though there were still some reservations, Daphne was more relaxed. That’s what he wanted, because he knew his parents were going to stress her out. They stressed him out, and he didn’t see why it would be any different for her.
* * *
“You were amazing!” Kevin shook his head in wonder as the two took their seats. “I was ready to storm out of there, but you just took it like...” He screwed up his face as he failed to come up with a suitable simile.
Daphne chuckled. “Your parents aren’t that bad. Wait until you meet mine. Then you’ll not only be questioned to within an inch of your life, but my brother and sister will also come down heavy on you with threats of what they’ll do if you hurt me.” She grinned. “Put it this way, my brother will ensure you never walk again, and my sister will ensure that you’ll never be able to contribute to the gene pool.”
Kevin winced. “Protective.”
“Overly.” Daphne sighed as she turned her head to look out the aeroplane window. “I wish they didn’t need to be, but...”
Kevin took her hand and rubbed it gently. “You won’t have to worry about me.”
Daphne glanced around. Kevin had taken advantage of his status as an AFL player and the fact that Virgin Australia was the AFL’s official airline to allow them to board early. Though there was a stream of passengers wandering down the aisle, there was no one near them yet.
She lowered her voice. “Kevin, I won’t know that until we sleep together. Warwick told me why you didn’t stay last night, but until we have sex, I’m not going to know if I have to worry or not.”
Kevin’s lips twitched up, but he sensed that this was something that Daphne was serious about. “Firstly, we’re not going to have sex. We’re going to make love.” He grinned. “I’m looking forward to it, but I didn’t want to rush you.”
“I know, and that was nice, but I have to know...”
Kevin kissed her cheek. He then sighed. “The problem is that I hadn’t intended to go that fast. The Wembleys—the host family I’m living with—do not want me to have a girl stay the night. They made that clear up front. They don’t have a problem with me spending the night elsewhere, but they don’t want me having sex in their house.”
“My parents may be okay with it, but I don’t want to ask.” Daphne screwed up her face. “Where does that leave us?”
“I was planning on booking a hotel room for the night one weekend in the future. I didn’t want to rush things, but I can do that earlier than I was planning. If it’s that important to you, I’ll do what you want.”
“It is.” Daphne sighed and rested her head on Kevin’s shoulder. “If you hadn’t told me about that girl you hurt, I mightn’t be anxious, but since you did, I won’t be comfortable until you’ve proven to me that it doesn’t matter.”
“It doesn’t, but I can appreciate why you want proof.” Kevin hesitated. “We don’t have to rush, though, do we? Can you wait a couple of weeks?”
Daphne frowned. “Yes,” she said slowly, “but why?”
“Because I want to do this properly. I want this to be special.” Kevin kissed the top of her head. “We’ve only known each other a couple of days, but there’s something about you that...” Kevin screwed up his face, unable to work out how to complete the sentence. “Anyway, I don’t want to jump straight into bed with you. I want to show you that there’s more to me than sex.”
Daphne’s response was interrupted by someone taking the seat in front of them. “We’ll talk about this later. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’ve been burnt before.”
“I’m sorry.” Kevin squeezed the hand he still held. “Hurting you is the last thing I want to do.”
* * *
“Have you and Karen found a place for next week yet?” Deon asked as he drove himself and Ty back to Lilydale.
“We’re going to stay at Aireys Inlet, down on the Great Ocean Road.” Ty grinned. “Not that we’re planning on seeing a lot, but there are supposed to be some nice places in the area.”
“Are you going to go surfing while you’re there?”
“No. I never learnt, and I don’t want to waste our week with lessons.” Ty scowled. “I was only ever allowed to do activities that wouldn’t hurt my football. I asked my old man once if I could go off surfing with some friends who were going to teach me, and he bit my head off.”
Deon winced. “Sorry. If it makes you feel better, I never learnt to surf, either. I know a number of guys who do, but I never got around to it.” He shrugged. “Always something else to do, instead.”
“And that’s going to be true for our week away, too.” Ty forced his face into a smile. “Karen has told me that we can’t spend all our time in our room, but we’re not planning on being out of it very often.”
Deon chuckled. “In that case, I won’t tell you to have fun. It sounds like you’ve got that part under control.”
“Only for now. Starting next weekend, I’m hoping things will go out of control.” Ty grinned. “And on that subject, is Clarissa going to any of the Schoolie-week events? She really should.”
“No. She wants to save her money, and she told me that spending a week away from home with a group of almost-permanently-drunk school graduates isn’t her idea of fun.” Deon gave Ty a sardonic look. “Since that’s the week of the draft, I’m pretty sure that you didn’t go to Schoolies last year. I know I didn’t. Why are you keen for Clarissa to go?”
Ty looked away. He didn’t blame Deon for reviving memories of the previous year. He had been the one to raise the topic. “Because this year, the draft’s being held at the Gold Coast Convention Centre. I thought maybe you could go with her and see if you can get a couple of tickets to the draft.” He pasted another smile on his face and turned back to Deon. “The Gold Coast is the premier Schoolies-week destination, after all. Why not mix pleasure and pleasure?”
Deon sighed. “Sorry, brat, but no. Julie told me the club’s organising an event for that Thursday night, and I’m planning on being there. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I want to be with my teammates when it does. Or doesn’t.”
Ty flinched. Both he and Deon knew what the ‘doesn’t’ part felt like. He was hoping this year Deon would experience the ‘does’.
* * *
“Kevin seems nice,” Roderick Silverton said as he drove out of the Sydney Airport car park. “He certainly paid you enough attention.”
“He is nice...” Daphne sighed. Her brother and sister had been pleasant when they met her coming off the plane, but she knew their protective nature was about to kick in.
“I can hear a ‘but’ at the end of that statement. Do I need to do something?” Roderick hesitated. “To be honest, I think I’d lose in a fight against him unless I took him by surprise. He looks like he was all muscle.”
“He certainly does,” Angelina said from the back seat. “In fact he’s dreamy. It’s a real pity that you saw him first, Daphne.” Her voice hardened. “But I also heard that ‘but’, so spill. What’s wrong with him?”
“Nothing, really, it’s just...” Daphne wasn’t sure she wanted to share her concerns with her siblings.
The silence stretched for several seconds before Angelina let out a low growl. “Daphne, Rod and I have seen you go through so much pain over the last few years. The last thing we want is to see you go through even more. If there is a chance Kevin is going to hurt you, break things off now!”
Daphne twisted in her seat so she could glare at her older sister. “And if I took that attitude with every guy I met, I’d be single for the rest of my life. Kevin’s better than every other guy I’ve ever tried to go out with. He’s sweet, gentle, considerate...a real gentleman.”
“I’m still waiting for the ‘but’. What’s wrong with him?”
Daphne sat back down and stared unseeingly out the car windscreen. “Nothing so far. I’m just scared.”
“Scared?” Roderick jumped on the word. “He can get violent? Daphne, if he tries to hit you, run as fast as you can. He could do some real damage if he ever connected. From the way he’s built you’d think he lives in a gym.”
Daphne flinched. “I know, but I don’t think he’ll do that. That’s not what I’m scared about.”
“Then what?” Angelina’s voice softened. “Daphne, we’re here to help, but we can’t do that unless you let us. Tell us what’s scaring you.”
“It’s too fast.” Daphne sighed. “I’m afraid this is just an infatuation and things aren’t going to last. He knows about me, and I think that’s what’s got him fascinated. But am I just an interesting novelty that will be discarded when something shiny and new comes along? He could have lots of girls—he’s had lots of girls—so what makes me so special that he’ll stay with me?”
“He’s a player?” Roderick asked.
Daphne laughed, feeling some of her tension disappearing in the process. “Yes and no. Yes, he’s a player, but not in the sense you mean. He told me he hasn’t been in a relationship since he was sixteen, but now he’s ready for one. He’s chosen me, but I don’t know if he’s done that for the right reasons.”
“Back up.” Roderick flicked her a frown. “What sort of player is he?”
“An AFL player.”
“What?” Roderick returned his attention to the road in time to slam on the brakes and avoid hitting the car in front that had stopped at a red light. “Shit!”
“Don’t scare me like that!”
“Don’t surprise me like that!” Roderick was visibly shaken at the near-accident but gathered himself together quickly. “He plays in the AFL?”
Daphne nodded, a smile playing on her lips as she glanced into the backseat to see her equally stunned sister. “The Sydney Swans. He starts his second pre-season with them this week. That’s why he flew back today.”
Roderick resumed driving as the lights went green. His hands were clenched firmly on the steering wheel and his eyes fixed directly ahead. “Daphne...” He shook his head as if to clear it.
Angelina started to speak slowly. “You’re dating a professional football player. Someone who clearly is infatuated with you, based on what we saw at the airport, and you’re questioning your good luck?”
“If it’s not going to last, it’s not good luck.” Daphne sighed as her worries resurfaced. “All it’ll be is a guy playing with my emotions.” She dropped her head. “Again.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned around to see Angelina smiling at her. “Give it a go. Take things slowly and see how things turn out. He might be as you fear, but he might not be. Don’t give up too early.”
Daphne sighed and nodded her head once. She wanted it to work out with Kevin, but she was afraid it wouldn’t last. She knew she couldn’t afford to let her hopes get too high.
* * *
“Hey...” Warwick felt a nervous flutter as he spoke that one word into his phone. It was time for him to concentrate on Ross.
“Hi. Did Kevin get off okay?”
Warwick was happy that Ross had started with a safe topic, even if it was about the person he was trying to push aside in his emotions. “Yeah, no problems apart from his parents giving him a hard time. Apparently, he only told them he was starting to date Daphne when they were at the airport.” Warwick chuckled. “Since Kevin and Daphne had to check in, that left me, Deon, and Ty to answer his parents’ questions. That was a long five minutes.”
“You handled Mum and Wu pretty well. I’m sure you did fine.” Ross’s tone was playful.
“Kevin’s parents are nice people, but boy are they nosy. Not only did they want to know everything I knew about Daphne, they also wanted to know how I knew Kevin.”
“You didn’t tell them, did you?”
Warwick smiled. “Relax. I kept all the key details vague. If Kevin wants them to know more, it’s up to him to tell them.” He chuckled again. “Somehow, I think it’ll be a long time, if ever, before he says anything too specific.”
“I don’t really get those two, but then I don’t really get transgender. Not that it’s any of my business,” Ross added quickly. “I just don’t understand it.”
“It’s okay, Ross. In some ways it’s a little like being gay. Some people don’t get that, either, but as long as they don’t interfere, I don’t care. I want to spend my life with a guy. I’m not asking them to do the same.”
“Yeah...” Ross sighed. “I like Daphne, and Kevin’s clearly got it hard for her. I hope it works out for them.”
Warwick pushed aside the small stab of pain. “Yeah, I do, too.”
There was a moment of silence before Ross spoke. “Warwick, what happens next?”
“What do you mean?”
“About us. In less than three weeks I find out if I’m going to get drafted. Is there any chance before then that we could...?”
Warwick closed his eyes. He still wanted Kevin, who he couldn’t have. He liked Ross. He told himself he had to try to make that feeling stronger. Sex might help. “If that’s what you want.”
“Thanks, Warwick.” Ross’s tone of relief was shaded by more than a hint of nervousness. “My last exam is tomorrow, so maybe next weekend...?”
“We don’t have to rush things, Ross. We’ve got time, and I want to do this right.” Warwick grimaced at the evasion. He didn’t want to rush things with Ross while he still had Kevin on his mind. “If it’s okay with your mum, how about I come out to your place for dinner one or two nights this week? I really want to get to know you better before we go any further.”
“I’ll check with her, but I’m sure it’ll be okay.” Ross sounded eager. “If she doesn’t mind, what nights would you like to come?”
“How does Tuesday sound? We can work out what happens after that then.”
“Sounds great!” Ross continued in a softer tone. “I really appreciate everything you’re doing, Warwick. It makes me feel a lot more comfortable knowing you’re not putting any pressure on me.”
Warwick cringed. He hoped Ross would never learn the real reason for that lack of pressure.
* * *
“Now, Kevin, you know we’re not going to interfere, but your parents rang earlier and told us about Daphne.” Mrs. Wembley glanced across the dining room table at her husband.
“We understand that you’re young and enthusiastic, and we’ve tried to keep out of your personal life, but we want to make sure you understand the rules.” Mr. Wembley raised an eyebrow.
Kevin smiled at his host parents as he sliced off a piece of his steak. After a year of living with them, he knew and trusted them even though it turned out that they had maintained a closer contact with his real parents than he had expected. “I do. I’ll have her around here for dinner at some stage so you can get to know her, but she won’t be staying the night.”
“Be careful, Kevin. Some girls like to get their claws stuck into anyone with the slightest bit of fame associated with them.” Mrs. Wembley smiled. “And even if you weren’t an AFL player, getting your picture in the paper as the conquering hero would count.”
Kevin blinked. “What are you talking about?”
“That incident at the VFL grand final and the article in the newspapers the next day.” Mr. Wembley grinned. “It didn’t make the printed papers up here, but we read the online stories. We were both proud of you.”
“It was nothing. Liam and Doug did more than I did.” Kevin knew his face was red. In a futile attempt to avoid attention, he tried to change the topic. “This is a great meal. Thank you!”
“You’re welcome.” Mrs. Wembley grinned in a way that Kevin knew that she knew what he was trying to do. “Getting back to that incident, you stood up to bullies. That’s something to be proud of.” Mrs. Wembley’s smile faded. “We were both worried, though. We hope you didn’t get into trouble with the club for being involved in a brawl.”
“Alastair sorted it out.” Kevin made a mental note to speak to his agent again about representing Deon. He also wanted to ask his advice about what to do if the word ever got out that his girlfriend was transgender. It wasn’t something he wanted to discuss, but he knew he couldn’t afford for Alastair to find out from someone else. He knew he could trust Alastair, and the earlier his agent knew, the better prepared both of them would be.
“I’m glad.” Mrs. Wembley glanced at her husband before smiling back at Kevin. “Why don’t you tell us about Daphne? We didn’t really get to know her at the airport, but she seemed pleasant.”
That was a change of topic that Kevin was happy to accept. Unlike his parents, he knew he wouldn’t be put on the rack and tortured for information. “She’s great. It’s only been a couple of days, but I already feel like I know her. There’s lots I don’t know, of course, but she’s sweet, gentle, and has a kind heart.”
Mr. Wembley cocked his head. “You seem smitten.” He grinned. “You weren’t this way with any of those other girls you went out with during the year.”
Kevin gave the comment serious consideration as he chewed on a piece of steak. “Daphne’s different. There’s a connection there that I haven’t felt with anyone else. I know it’s early days, but I don’t want to mess this one up. I want this one to last.” He smiled at his host parents. “I know she’s not that much of a looker, but I’ve had enough experiences this year to know that looks aren’t everything. Personality is more important, and Daphne’s personality is what I’ve been looking for even if I didn’t know it earlier. She does something to me. For me.” Kevin screwed up his face as he struggled to find the right words. “I don’t want to see her hurt, which means I have to do this right. She’s not someone to use and discard.”
Mr. Wembley’s brow was wrinkled. “You want to protect her, to be by her side and make sure everything goes right.”
Kevin’s host parents exchanged smiles. “We know what that’s like,” Mrs. Wembley said. “Good luck, Kevin. We hope it all works out.”
* * *
Monday afternoon, Ross grinned and let out a large sigh of relief as he dropped into the coffee-shop seat opposite his friends. “Finished!”
Wu scowled at him. “I don’t want to know about it. My last exam isn’t until next week.”
“Ignore him, Roscoe.” Lauren linked her arm with Wu’s. “What are you going to do with yourself, now that you’re free?”
Ross chuckled. “Would you believe, I don’t know?” He sighed again, though this time more from melancholy. “I’d prefer to be in Wu’s shoes and have something else I have to prepare for. As it is, I now have to wait two and a half more weeks before I find out if I’m going to be playing football next year.”
“If you don’t get drafted, you’re going to give up?” Wu reached up and put a hand on Ross’s arm. “I thought you had other options.”
“I do, but the draft’s the big one. If I miss out on that, everything becomes that much more difficult.” Ross frowned into the distance. “But just in case, I think I’ll talk to the Leopards. They’re the one team I know will accept me.”
“Are you going to call them or go visit them?” Wu asked. “It might create a better impression if you asked to see their coach rather than talk on the phone.”
Ross gnawed at his lower lip. “I was going to call them, but I think you’re right. I can catch the train and be there within the hour.”
“You’re going to do that straightaway?” Lauren asked.
Ross grinned. “I’ve got time for a cup of coffee with a couple of friends.” He cocked his head. “I know I should’ve asked well before now, but what are your plans for after the exams?”
“We’re going to head down to Lorne for Schoolies-week. We know that’s the week of the draft, but you’re welcome to join us. Other than that,” Lauren shrugged, “we’ll be waiting for our exam results and then finding out if we made it into the university courses we want.”
“I’ll give Lorne a miss. I’ll be too tense to enjoy it.” Ross made a face. “Though maybe a break would help me relax.”
Wu glanced around before leaning forward and lowering his voice. “Alternatively, spending more time with that boyfriend of yours may be just what you need.”
Ross gave him a tentative smile. “Already working on that.”
Wu laughed and Lauren grinned. “If you want to go on a double date, let us know. Lauren still hasn’t met him.”
Ross hesitated. “He’s coming to my place for dinner tomorrow night. I’ll need to check with Mum, but would you like to join us?”
“As long as we’re not imposing, that sounds great.” Lauren smiled. “Thanks, Roscoe.”
The three friends chatted for another twenty minutes before Ross excused himself and headed to the railway station. On the way, he rang the Leopards and made an appointment to see Julie Crowman for later that afternoon.
Ross knew he should be looking for some short-term work to help his mother pay the bills, but a lot of other school-leavers would be doing the same, as they all waited for the exam results and university offers. There would be more opportunities in December as stores hired temporary staff for the Christmas rush, but for now, Ross would need to find something to fill his time.
What he wanted to do was to head to Richmond and drop in to see Warwick at work, but he knew that wasn’t an option. Kevin had done that, and rumours started to flow as a consequence. Ross couldn’t afford for that to happen.
* * *
Julie smiled as she shook Ross’s hand. “It’s good to see you again, Roscoe. This is Henry. He started with us last week. Since you decided to drop in, I thought I’d introduce you.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Ross said to Henry. “I’ve heard some good things about you.”
“You have?” Henry glanced at Julie, but she just smiled. “How?”
“Deon and the other guys told me. I’ve been catching up with them at least once a week for a workout.”
“Roscoe’s been part of the impromptu training sessions that have been running for over a month,” Julie explained to Henry as they all sat down around the small table in her office. “They started when Roscoe, Deon, and Dave were getting ready for the state combine, and they’ve continued ever since.” She turned back to Roscoe. “Given that you made an appointment to see me, I’m assuming this isn’t going to be a social chat.”
“No.” Ross looked nervously at the two coaches. “While I was invited to the state combine, I haven’t had many teams show an interest in me. I need to plan for the possibility that I don’t get drafted. If that happens, I’d like to play VFL football—and with the Leopards in particular.”
Julie wasn’t surprised. She had suspected the reason for Ross’s request as soon as Glenda from the front desk had told her that Ross was on the phone. That was why she had given Glenda a time for Ross’s appointment rather than asking what it was about.
Julie crossed her arms and leant back in her chair. “If you’re not sure you’re good enough for the AFL, what makes you think you’ll be good enough for the VFL?”
Ross blinked. “At least two AFL teams were interested in me enough to get me an invite to the state combine. That says I must be close to the standard they want. I’ll probably have a lot to learn, but I’ll work as hard as I need to.”
Julie’s stare was cold. “I saw one of your matches earlier in the year. I wasn’t impressed.”
“You did?” Ross visibly swallowed. “Which game?”
“Eastern Ranges versus Geelong Falcons.” She leant forward. “You showed flashes of excellence, but too many times it looked like you weren’t trying. If you’re going to play in either the AFL or VFL, you’ll need to work a lot harder than you did in that match.”
Ross flinched. “That wasn’t one of my best games.” He straightened in his chair and stared into Julie’s eyes. “I can do better.”
“I should certainly hope so.” She smiled. “And I believe you can. The part that’s uncertain is whether you will.” She turned to Henry. “Any questions?”
“I haven’t seen Roscoe play, so there’s not much I can ask.”
Julie raised an eyebrow at Ross. “Are you going to be here on Saturday morning for another training session?”
“I was planning on it.” He smiled. “I’ve finished my exams, so I’ve got plenty of time on my hands if you’d like to run me through some specific tests.”
Julie grinned. “No need for that. We’ve got a copy of your report from the combine, and I think that’s enough testing for now. I asked the question more to give Henry and Will a chance to look at you working with the other players. Will has the primary responsibility for the forwards, so he’ll be the one you’ll need to impress. If he were here now, I would’ve asked him to sit with us, but he left early today.”
“As I said, I’ve got lots of free time if you need me to do anything.”
Henry frowned. “I do have one question.” He caught Ross’s eye. “Why the Leopards?”
“Because I’ve been training with the guys for weeks now. They’re the sort of people I’d like to have as teammates. I know I can trust them and that they’ll trust me.”
Julie suspected the real reason but decided to push. “I watched you when you first started training here, Roscoe. You had a lot of trouble with not only Jim, but also Tony, Neil, and Liam when they dropped in. Are you prepared to be Jim’s teammate?”
Ross held his head high. “Yes.”
Julie waited to see if he would say anything else. After a few seconds of silence, Ross dropped his gaze. “I know I had some problems at the start, but I’m over them.” He looked up. “I respect Jim, and now that I’ve gotten to know him better, I’m more than happy to be on the same team as him.”
Julie smiled and nodded. “Henry, if you haven’t seen my notes on Roscoe yet, look them up. They’ll be under the name Ross Munroe. Try to drop in Saturday morning if you’re free so you can see Roscoe with the other players. Now, if you could excuse us...?”
“Sure, Julie.” Henry nodded toward Ross. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you. Good luck with the draft.”
Julie caught Ross’s flinch, but she waited until Henry had left and the door was closed before speaking. “I take it you’re getting sick of people wishing you good luck.”
Ross gave her a sheepish grin. “Yeah. It’s out of my control, and the constant reminders are not helping.”
She chuckled. “Now that we’re private, I’d like to talk about some personal matters.” She gave him a sympathetic smile. “I’ll say up front that no one has said anything to me, but I know my players. When the brat goes from hating you because you’ve disrespected Jim to being your best friend, something’s going on. I’m guessing that the answer is that you’re not, and probably never were, homophobic.”
Ross pulled a face before nodding.
“You don’t have to say anything, Roscoe, but I want to make it clear that if you end up a Leopard, you’ll have everyone’s support. You’ll have nothing to fear from your teammates.”
“Most of them already know.” Ross didn’t meet her eyes. “No one is saying anything, but that’s why if I can’t play in the AFL, I want to play for the Leopards.”
“Look at me, Roscoe.” Julie waited for him to return her gaze. “I won’t promise you a spot with the Leopards because I’m not satisfied that you will put in the effort required. But I will promise you that if you do make the team, we’ll stand with you through any struggles you may have.”
“What do I have to do to convince you to sign me?”
Julie smiled as she stood up, signalling Ross to do the same. “Keep doing what you’re doing. Keep training with the guys and show me that you’re willing to go that extra mile.”
She smirked after he left the room. After that instruction, she anticipated an even harder workout from the young man on Saturday.
* * *
Ross paused outside the administration building as he contemplated what Julie had said. If the AFL teams had the same opinion, he was unlikely to be drafted. He didn’t remember the details of the game that Julie mentioned, but he understood the point she had raised. His coach at Eastern Ranges had often told him that he needed to be more aggressive, that he couldn’t wait for the football to come to him. There were times when he had been praised for his on-field work, but there were just as many times when he had been admonished for lack of effort.
After a heavy sigh, he trudged towards the railway station. He kept hold of the point he’d mentioned to Julie and Henry, that there were at least two AFL clubs that had been interested in him enough for him to be invited to the state combine. The flipside, of course, was that there wasn’t enough interest for him to have received an invitation to the national combine.
He was walking up the ramp to the railway platform when his phone rang. He frowned when it came up as an unknown user ID. “Ross Munroe.”
“G’day, Ross. I’m Trevor Boss from the Brisbane Lions. You may remember me from last weekend when I showed up in Lilydale while you were training.” Trevor chuckled. “Sorry I didn’t speak to you then, but under the AFL rules I had to wait until after you’ve finished your exams, which, according to our records, was today. Am I right?”
“You are.” Ross was off balance at the unexpected call, especially so soon after the chat with Julie. “How can I help you?”
“I’m wondering if you’re free sometime over the next few days. I’d like to sit down with you and ask you a few questions.”
“Sure! I’ve got nothing planned, so when would suit you?”
“How about tomorrow?”
The two quickly agreed to meet up the next morning. After a few more pleasantries, Ross was left waiting for his train with his mind in turmoil.
The news that an AFL club was still interested in him was encouraging. The bad news was that it was one of the interstate clubs. If he was drafted by the Brisbane Lions, he would find himself in Queensland with no support if he came out of the closet.
That was what kept him from being too excited. As he had told his friends, it was a potential nightmare scenario.