Oliver smirked as Ben entered the kitchen for breakfast. “You’re looking better than you did yesterday afternoon.”
Ben winced. “Please…don’t remind me. My dad rang me late last night when they finally arrived back home in Sydney to yell at me again.”
Oliver’s expression softened. “He still wants you to make your sister and her boyfriend break up?” He rose and headed to the stove. “I’m making an omelette. Would you like one?”
“Thanks.” Ben dropped into the nearest chair and rested his head in his hands. “Yeah, he still wants me to ‘be a man, and kick some sense into that sister of yours’.” Ben snorted. “He’s got no idea. I’m just concerned that when I don’t do anything, he’ll send my brother down here to do it, instead.”
“You haven’t said much about your brother. Is it going to be a problem if he shows up?” Oliver headed to the refrigerator for the eggs, milk, and cheese.
“I’d like to think not, but he’s too much like our father.” Ben sighed. “If he thinks he’s rescuing her, I wouldn’t put it past Jonathan to kidnap Eve and drag her back to Sydney.”
“If that’s likely to happen, you know you can call on the team. We’ll stop him.”
“I know. I just don’t like dragging everyone in on my family problems.”
Oliver stopped in the middle of breaking eggs into a bowl and scowled. “What about us? Aren’t we your family, too?”
“Yeah, but…” Ben ran a nervous hand through his hair.
Oliver stared at him for a moment. He then pulled out his phone and slapped it onto the table next to Ben. “Ring your sister. Tell her she and her boyfriend are coming here for dinner tonight. It’s time we met them properly. Your family is our family, Ben. The Leopards are there to help them if they need it, and it sounds like they might.”
“But what if she finds out…” Ben grimaced. “Okay. I need to tell her the truth, anyway. I just couldn’t do it while my dad was around.”
“Good!” Oliver returned to his omelette preparations. “Make it for around eight. That’ll give us enough time to finish training and then get dinner ready without rushing.”
* * *
“I’m glad we’re sharing two subjects,” Mason said as he and Neil left the lecture hall. “And if you choose mechatronics as your speciality, we’ll probably have more classes together in the future.”
Neil grimaced. “Yeah, but the handbook says that if I want to consider mechatronics, I should be doing Engineering Computing, rather than the Introduction to Programming class that I chose.”
Mason smiled. “We’ve just had our first lecture, and that was for calculus. I’m sure you can still swap if you want. Anyway, I did some checking, and the unit you’re doing is an acceptable alternative, so you’re not closing off your options if you don’t change.”
“You did what?” Neil stumbled slightly. He was still fluctuating between choosing software and mechatronics as his engineering speciality, a decision he needed to make before the end of the first semester. While he enjoyed programming, his perusal of Mason’s mechatronics textbook on the weekend had him seriously considering his other choice.
“It’s in the handbook if you look at the mechatronics degree section. I also checked with Vanessa, and she said the university is very flexible when it comes to changing subjects during the first few weeks.” Mason grinned. “Of course, if you swap, that’ll be another lecture we’ll be sharing. But no pressure...”
“But why would you check out my course options?”
Mason looked away. “Because, as you said when we first met, it’ll be good to have someone as a study partner.”
When Mason glanced back at him, Neil could see that his American friend was vulnerable. Neil had spent most of his school years ostracised by his peers, but he knew Mason had left a lot of friends behind when he came to Australia. While Mason had made new friends when he arrived, Neil sensed that he was still scared of being alone.
“I’ll check it out, but I don’t want to close off my options too soon. If I want to do software engineering, I need to do Introduction to Programming.” Neil stopped, reached over, and put a hand on Mason’s shoulder. “But even if we’re not doing the same software subject, we can still study together. Different perspectives from different classes may even be helpful.”
Mason gave him a weak smile before tilting his head in the direction they had been going. “We don’t want to keep the girls waiting.”
“Yeah. We’d never hear the end of it from Clarissa if we stood her up.” Neil chuckled, though he was still disappointed that Liam was heading into his first lecture and they wouldn’t see each other until the middle of the day. Daphne and Clarissa, on the other hand, had a more open Monday morning and had arranged to meet with Mason and Neil for coffee before they headed off to their own classes.
Thinking of Daphne reminded Neil of the situation with Rick Stratton, her transphobic former friend from high school. His bully-detection senses were rusty after almost a year of non-use, but it was time to reactivate them. Scanning the area, he saw no sign of Daphne’s nemesis, but he resolved to keep his eyes out for any signs of trouble. He wouldn’t put it past Rick to have recruited some other intolerant bigots to harass his friend.
* * *
Jim Henderson poked his head through the office door on the upper floor of the Carlton Football Club’s administration building. “You wanted to see me, Paddy?”
“Yes. Come in, close the door, and sit down.” While Jim did as he was instructed, Patrick O’Malley continued. “I wasn’t sure if what I’m planning is a bad idea for the brat or not, so I wanted your advice.”
Jim blinked. “What’s this about?”
“I have a favour to ask. In theory, I should be asking you, but I think it’s more appropriate for the brat to do it.” Patrick smiled. “No offense intended, but he is the better player.”
Jim chuckled. “You’re not telling me anything I don’t already know. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that someday I’ll be good enough to play in the senior team, but I know time’s running out for me.”
“Well…I don’t think I’m violating any confidences in saying that you’re doing very well. If you play during the year the way you’re doing in practise, I think there’s a good chance you’ll be promoted from the rookie list at the end of the season.”
Jim turned his head away. “Yeah, but it’s not all about my playing ability, is it?”
“Sadly, no. The club is behind you, Jim, but not everyone is keen to see a homosexual playing at the top level.” Paddy had heard a few club employees say negative things, but they were definitely in the minority. It was the claim that some people were considering cancelling their membership because of Jim that had him concerned. The club was nothing without its members.
“I know.” Jim turned back to face Patrick. He painted a smile on his face. “But you wanted to talk about the brat.”
“I did.” Patrick paused to gather his thoughts. “You and he are heading up to Sydney on Friday night so you can march in the Mardi Gras parade on Saturday. There’s a favour regarding the parade that I would like to ask, and that’s why I wanted to get your advice.”
“What is it?”
Patrick pulled a small jewellery box out of his pocket and then ran a skeletal hand through what was left of his grey hair. “While he’s marching, I’d like the brat to wear this.” He pushed the box across the desk towards Jim. “Some may say it’ll be better for you to wear it, but I’d prefer the brat to do so. I’m worried, however, that he’ll get a negative reaction, and the last thing I want to do is to harm his career.”
Jim peered at the box for a moment before opening it. He frowned at the small gold medallion inside before looking up at Patrick. “Can I take it out?”
Jim lifted it out and examined the design. The circular medal was heavy, indicating it was probably solid gold, rather than gold plated. The middle image showed two figures, one holding a football, in front of a set of AFL goalposts, with a third in the distance. Jim turned it over and his eyes widened as he read the inscription. “Is this for real?”
“Yes. It’s a medal from Carlton’s 1914 premiership win. I’ve had it for a very long time.”
“This must be worth a fortune!”
“A small one, if I ever sold it, but that’s not going to happen. It’s in my will to be donated to the club’s museum.”
Jim’s gaze flicked from the medallion to Patrick. “It’s yours? How did you get it?”
Patrick gave him a sad smile. “That’s a story for another day. Let’s just say I received it from an Australian soldier during World War 2, and it was his most prized possession. I tried to find his family to give it back, but I’ve been unsuccessful. That’s all I want to say about it for now.”
Jim returned his attention to the premiership medal in his hand. “And you want the brat to wear it during the parade. Do you think that’s a good idea? What if it got lost?”
Patrick waved a hand to dismiss the idea. “I’m more concerned if people think that wearing a premiership medal means he’s conceited.”
“You could be right.” Jim frowned. “Exactly why do you want him to wear it?”
“Personal reasons.” Patrick sighed. “I don’t suppose that’s a good enough answer, is it, Jim?”
Jim smiled. “Sorry, but no. To be honest, if you asked him to wear it, he’d do so. He has a lot of respect for you, Paddy. You wouldn’t have to explain why to him.”
“Which is why I wanted to talk to you, first.” Paddy sighed again. “I owe a debt to the man from whom I received that medal. Having that medal in the parade would help clear my conscience. He would’ve liked the idea.”
“He was gay?”
Jim’s jaw dropped. “A gay guy played in the 1914 grand final?”
Patrick shook his head. “His uncle was the one who played in that game. I don’t know how he ended up with the medal; I just know it was very precious to him.” He gave Jim a weak smile. “Trying to find his family so I could return it was what led me here,” he said, waving a hand around the room. “So, it’s precious to me, too.”
Jim sat in thought for a couple of minutes. He then looked at Patrick. “Are you happy for the history to be explained? If the brat wears it, people will ask questions. If he doesn’t have answers, he will, as you said, appear conceited.”
It was Patrick’s turn for an extended silence. “I’m happy for him to say that I gave it to him for him to wear. I’m not really prepared to say more than that.”
“Okay.” Jim gave Patrick a wry smile. “Maybe people won’t notice. After all, I suspect most of the focus will be on me, not him. As I said before, he’ll do it simply because you asked. I understand why you want him to do it, too. And one day, I hope he’ll have his own AFL premiership medal to wear.”
“And I hope I’m still around when he does.” Patrick smiled back. “And don’t downplay your own chances at a premiership medal, young man. It’ll take a team effort to get one, and you’re a strong team player. You’ve got a chance.”
Jim chuckled. “Me and eight hundred other AFL football players.” He put the medallion back in its case. “When do you plan on giving this to him?”
“Just before you fly out, I think.” Patrick looked into the distance, remembering events from a long time ago. “He’ll want to know the details, but I’m not up to answering them. Not yet.”
* * *
Neil found himself wrapped in Liam’s arms while his boyfriend sighed softly in his ear. It had been three hours since they’d separated for their different classes, and they were now ensconced in the International Student Lounge in the Wentworth Building. The takeaway food they had bought in the food court downstairs was on the low table in front of their couch.
“Anyone would think they missed each other,” Clarissa said before taking a bite from the roll she was having for lunch.
“Be nice.” Daphne gave Clarissa a mock scowl. “I think it’s sweet.”
“Yeah, but you don’t have to live with them.”
“Neil doesn’t live with you. He lives with Deon’s dad.”
“Only on paper. He spends more time at our place than he does there.”
Neil smiled at the two girls as he and Liam partly untangled themselves. “I’ve got to study somewhere, and there’s more room at Liam’s place.”
“Yeah, yeah. Likely story.” Clarissa then smirked. “But when do you plan on studying something other than anatomy?”
Neil blushed, but Liam just grinned as he responded. “Once we start getting some work to do. We’re only halfway through Day One, after all.”
“Don’t forget you’ll be studying with me, too, Neil.” Mason frowned at Liam. “Don’t worry, we’ll be studying math, not anatomy. I’m going to have to wait until Ben arrives on Friday before I can do my homework on that subject.” Liam grinned back at him.
“Enough!” Clarissa glared at the three guys before starting to laugh. “Daphne, I think we need to start bringing water pistols filled with ice water to keep these three in check.”
Daphne smiled. “And what happens when Deon comes to visit you after training?”
“That’s completely irrelevant to the current discussion.” Clarissa tried—and failed—to look innocent.
“How’s everyone’s morning been?” Neil asked, partly because he was interested and partly because he didn’t want to continue the current conversation. While he was comfortable sharing affection with Liam, there were some things that he preferred to keep private.
Everyone responded to Neil’s question with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Their first lectures—or tutorial in Daphne’s case—had all been positive. They were still discussing the matter when Kevin dropped onto the couch in the space next to Daphne.
“What’s up?” Kevin asked as he slipped an arm around Daphne’s shoulders.
“Just discussing our morning classes.” Daphne smiled. “And now that you’re here, we can start lunch. I bought you a salad and water, like you asked.”
“Thanks, I’m starving!” He glanced at the others who were already partway through their meals. “I can see you were the only one who decided to wait for me.” He gave her a quick kiss on the cheek.
“You’re not the only one who’s starving.” Clarissa shrugged. “And we’ve only just started. Anyway, why are you late?”
Kevin chuckled. “Our first match of the preseason is on Friday, and we had a tough session this morning. The rest of the week should be easier since they won’t want to burn us out beforehand. Just enough work to keep us in top condition.”
“Where are you playing and when?” Mason cocked his head. “Do we need to arrange cars to get us to wherever you’re going to be?”
Kevin grimaced. “Unless someone gets injured between now and then, I won’t be playing. The game’s on Friday night at Coffs Harbour, about 500 kilometres north of here. I’ve been told I’ll probably get one or two games during the pre-season, but they didn’t pick me for this one.”
Mason winced. “Sorry.”
“Hey, nothing to be sorry about.” Kevin grinned as he gave Daphne a gentle squeeze. “Until I can prove that I can play consistently at the required standard, I’m not guaranteed a spot. Until then, I have to work hard to try to show that I’m worth considering.” He looked at Clarissa. “Has Deon heard anything about his game on Saturday?”
She sighed. “Not yet. He’s hoping to hear today. He thinks he’s in with a chance to play, but he’s nervous. He knows he hasn’t been with the club very long, and there’s a lot of competition from the other forwards.”
“He shouldn’t worry about how long he’s been with the Giants. The preseason is for the club to try things out. That includes trying out the new players to see how they fit; it’s better to do that in matches that don’t count for much than to wait until the main season has started.”
Mason frowned at the pair. “And where’s Deon playing if he’s picked?”
“Blacktown.” Clarissa and Kevin said at the same time. When they looked at each other, Clarissa waved a hand at Kevin to continue.
“It’s at just after four in the afternoon,” he said. “If he’s playing, it’ll be a mad rush for him to make it to the Mardi Gras parade, but it’s doable. Deon told me it’ll take a bit over an hour to get from the stadium to where the parade kicks off.”
“What about traffic?” Neil asked. “I’d expect trying to get a car anywhere near the parade will be almost impossible.”
“That’s why Deon is planning on taking the train.” Clarissa narrowed her eyes at the thoughtful look on Mason’s face. “And, no, a limo isn’t going to get there any quicker!”
Mason chuckled. “I was trying to work out how to get my parents to pay for a helicopter. That would be faster.”
“No!” Clarissa shuddered. “Never, ever, suggest that to him.”
Neil wasn’t surprised when he felt Liam tense. The memory of the last helicopter they saw at a stadium was still fresh in their minds.
Mason looked puzzled. “What’s wrong?”
Neil stared at his lunch. He’d just lost most of his appetite. “You couldn’t have known, but we’ve had a bad experience that involved a helicopter.”
Clarissa’s eyes were moist as she spoke. “Late last year, we were all at a cricket match here in Sydney. One of the players was struck on the head by a cricket ball. They stopped the game, and we all left. As we were leaving, a helicopter landed inside the stadium to take the player to the hospital. He…” She dropped her head, unable to continue.
Mason glanced at the others. Liam screwed up his face before continuing the story. “Phil Hughes, the player, died three days later. He never regained consciousness. It shook everyone across the country, across all different sports. I can’t see a helicopter without remembering that day.”
Clarissa nodded. “It affected Deon really badly. He actually considered giving up his dream of becoming a professional footballer because of what happened. He may be okay with the idea, but I don’t want to take any risk of him having a bad reaction. No helicopters.”
“Sorry. I didn’t know.” Mason dropped his head.
“Don’t worry about it.” Kevin smiled. “Your thoughts were in the right place, but everything is under control. If he’s playing, the plan is that we catch a taxi to one of the nearby train stations, and then the train into the city. The trains run roughly every fifteen minutes at that time of night, so we should be in the city just in time to join the parade.”
“We?” Clarissa asked.
Kevin chuckled. “You didn’t think Daphne and I would miss Deon’s first AFL game if we could make it, did you?” He glanced at the others. “And I don’t think it’ll just be the two of us.”
When everyone chorused their agreement, Clarissa gave them a half-smile. “Thank you. I know he’ll be chuffed to have you all there. Now we just have to hope he’s selected to play.”
* * *
Neil frowned as he, Liam, and Mason waited for Daphne and Clarissa to finish their last classes of the day. While he hadn’t spotted Rick Stratton all day, there was one person who was beginning to make him suspicious. A swarthy young man in a black T-shirt, sunglasses, and blue baseball cap, who appeared in his early twenties, had been in their vicinity several times that day. Neil remembered him being outside the International Student Lounge at lunchtime, and, thinking back, Neil believed he was also there when Mason and he had left their calculus lecture at the start of day. There had been a couple of other times in the afternoon when Neil had noticed him, and now he was in the vicinity while they waited for the girls to show up before heading home.
“I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” Mason said. “I won’t be long.”
Neil gave a distracted wave of acknowledgment while he kept his focus discreetly on the stranger. When the guy started to wander in the direction that Mason had gone, which was also the direction from which they expected the girls to appear, Neil decided to act.
“Liam, come with me.” Neil didn’t wait for a response. He wanted to reach the guy before the girls showed up. “Hey, you!”
The figure looked around and then blanched. He glanced to the left and right before standing his ground with one hand in his jeans pocket.
Neil scowled at him, gaining confidence from Liam’s presence at his side. “Leave our friends alone. I’ve seen you hanging around all day, but we’re not going to let you get away with anything. Why don’t you just go and leave us alone?”
Without a word, the guy scowled and marched away.
“What was that about?” Liam asked.
“I’m not sure, but I’ve seen him a few times today. He looks too old to be in the same classes as us, and I haven’t seen him head off to any lectures or anything. I could be wrong, but I think Rick Stratton has asked him to keep an eye on us and Daphne.” Neil shrugged. “Or maybe just us, since you and Mason were the ones who confronted Rick at the Quidditch match.”
“Should we try to report him?”
“For what? Hanging around? He hasn’t said anything, and to be honest, he hasn’t really done anything. But the fact that he didn’t say anything when I accused him makes me think I’m right. He’s up to no good, and I think Rick is the one behind it.”
“Should we say anything to the others?”
Neil nodded slowly. “We have to warn them just in case he finds them when there’s no one else around.”
“Okay, we can tell them when we’re on the train.” Liam scowled, then sighed. “We need to make sure Daphne’s not left alone, if we can. We can’t let her get hurt.”
* * *
José scowled as he watched from a distance. This was the day he had planned on following Mason home. He had realised on the weekend that killing Mason in his sleep would be a low-risk solution to his problem, but that meant finding out where Mason lived. However, he had seen the two guys who had accosted him talking to Mason and the two girls; he figured that tailing Mason would be too much of a risk. Indeed, he probably shouldn’t hang around the university anymore, either. He was lucky that Mason wasn’t with the two guys when they approached him. If that had happened and Mason had recognised him… José shuddered at the probable consequences of that scenario.
That left only one real option, and José would need to make sure it worked. He turned and walked away as he started to finalise plans that had initially been only tentative. The big party he had overheard them talking about was going to be his best chance to complete his mission. It had to go right.
* * *
Julie ran her gaze over the assembled Leopard players. “One last thing before I let you go. Since so many of us are heading to Sydney to march with Jim, Friday night’s training is cancelled.” She waited with a faint smile on her face until the cheers started to die down. “And because our first practise match is the following weekend, Wednesday’s and next Monday night’s training sessions will run longer to make up for missing Friday.” She grinned. “That’s all. I’ll see you on Wednesday.” With that, she turned and walked out of the room.
“I knew it was too good to be believed.” Oliver rose from his seat and stretched. “She couldn’t just leave us with good news; she had to throw in some bad as well.”
“Be glad she’s giving us Friday off,” Charlie said. “Most of us are flying to Sydney on Saturday, so she didn’t need to do that.”
Ben nodded but didn’t say anything. Julie had already given him permission to miss training on Friday so he could fly up in the afternoon, but she hadn’t told him she was considering cancelling the training session.
Ross frowned. “I should check with Warwick to see if we can change our flights. There’s no point taking a late flight if we can get one earlier.”
“You can try, Roscoe, but don’t expect to succeed.” Charlie gave Ross an apologetic smile. “Late Friday afternoon and early evening is the peak time for the business travellers going home, so the flights are often full, and they also tend to cost more.”
Ross shrugged. “There’s no harm trying.”
The four made their way to Charlie’s car for the trip home. The other three continued to chat, but Ben was quiet. His mind was already off of training and onto the upcoming dinner. He knew it was time for him to come out to his sister, but the thought still terrified him.
* * *
Mason popped the cork from the champagne bottle he’d bought on their way home after Clarissa had received a call from Deon about his match on Saturday.
“Just one glass, Mason,” Deon said as he lounged in the chair with Clarissa on his lap.
“Hey, live a little.” Kevin was on the couch with Daphne at his side. “Neither one of us has training tomorrow, so a late night followed by a sleep-in isn’t going to hurt. And I think we’d all like to celebrate your selection for your first game with the Giants.”
“It’s only a preseason match. It’s not that big a deal.” Deon’s broad grin showed the lie in his modesty.
“It’s your first chance to break into the senior team.” Liam accepted a couple of glasses of champagne from Mason and then handed them to Deon and Clarissa.
Kevin nodded. “Exactly right. And while it’s not unusual for a new draftee to play in the preseason, it’s not exactly common to be playing in the first match. It shows that your club sees potential and wants to find out how quickly that potential will turn into reality.”
Daphne frowned. “Kevin, don’t you think you’re putting too much pressure on Deon? It’s only his first match, after all. He’ll have other chances to play.”
Deon chuckled. “It’s okay. He’s not saying anything I don’t already know.” He smiled at everyone in the room. “But thanks for being here. I’m going to be a nervous wreck by Saturday afternoon, so maybe a drink or two tonight to relax will be a good idea.”
Kevin leant forward to catch Deon’s eye. “Talk to your club’s psychologist, who’ll give you some suggestions on how to stay calm. The last thing you want is to be so hyped up that you make mistakes.”
Liam grinned. “Hey, let’s put this in perspective. Deon, last year you played in a VFL grand final that had a lot more riding on it than a preseason match, so this should be a walk in the park. Yes, it’s a big game, but it’s not bigger than a grand final, and you managed that one pretty well.”
Deon settled back in his chair while staring at Liam. He then smiled. “You’re right. It’s an important game, but it’s only one of many. Thanks, Liam.” He grinned broadly. “But I’m still going to be excited.”
“Is this going to make things difficult for Saturday night?” Neil asked. “Getting changed after the match and then rushing to the train station to get to the parade in time… If anything goes wrong, we’ll miss the start.”
Deon pulled out his phone. “Thanks for the reminder. I need to let the brat know about what’s going on. As for the timing, the coach told me that if the first three quarters go well, he’ll take me off for the last one and give me permission to leave early.” He hesitated, a look of uncertainty on his face. “I really want to be there for the end-of-game celebration, but I want to march with Jim and my dad, too. I’m not sure which is more important.”
Clarissa gave him a kiss on his cheek. “You have your coach’s permission, and the Mardi Gras is only once a year. You’ll have a lot more games to play than this one. Don’t overthink it.”
Liam laughed. When everyone turned to him in surprise, he pointed at a blushing Neil. “It must be a Leopard thing. I’ve been telling this guy for months not to overthink issues. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow and not worry about it.”
“Speaking of overthinking things, there’s one matter where it may be a good idea to not go with the flow.” Mason didn’t want to ruin the celebratory mood, but he felt it was important. “Kevin, I’m worried about you and Daphne.”
Kevin tensed and tightened the arm that was around Daphne. “Why?”
“Because someone’s been following us.” Mason explained about the guy that Neil had seen earlier that day; it was clear that Daphne hadn’t said anything. “We already know that one person has recognised you and knows about your relationship with Daphne. We can do our best to make sure Daphne’s not left by herself where she could be harassed, but I’m worried about your career if someone with a grudge works out who you are.”
Kevin scowled. “I’m not giving up Daphne. That’s not negotiable.” The scowl dropped away and he gave a heavy sigh. “The word will get out eventually, and I’m ready…I hope. There are few top people at the club who know, and a draft press release has already been prepared and locked away for when it’s needed.
“It’s no one else’s business as to what goes on between Daphne and myself, but I know it’s going to upset some people. I think I’ll be fine, but if I’m not…” Kevin shrugged. “I’ve got Daphne, and that’s enough. If I lose my job over her, then so be it. I’ll find something else to do, instead.” He smiled and gave Daphne a quick kiss. “I might even consider becoming a university student!”
Mason nodded slowly. Kevin had declared his priority order, and Mason couldn’t fault him. He just prayed that the worst-case scenario didn’t eventuate.
* * *
Ben was still tense as everyone finished the main course. Football had been a dominant part of the discussions between the guys at the table—in between compliments to Oliver for the wonderful meal—but Helena and Eve were also often having their own private conversations. One subject that hadn’t cropped up, though, was Ben telling his sister that he’s gay. He had tried to find the courage a few times, but he hadn’t found a way to mention it.
Ross caught Ben’s eye and raised an eyebrow. Ben’s housemates knew that Ben intended to come out to Eve and Andrew that night, but they knew it was up to him as to the timing. Ben replied to Ross’s unspoken query with a grimace of indecision. Ross smiled and acknowledged Ben’s struggles with a small nod.
When Oliver’s phone beeped, indicating he’d received a message, he ignored it. However, when, Charlie’s, Ross’s and Ben’s phones beeped in sequence, all four guys grabbed their phones.
“Is something wrong?” Helena asked Oliver.
Oliver frowned as he checked his message and then grinned. “Nope, nothing’s wrong. It’s good, no, great news. The brat’s broadcasting it to everyone…” his phone beeped again. “…and Neil’s just confirmed it. Deon’s been picked to play in GWS’s opening game of the preseason! It looks like we’ll need to change our plans for Saturday afternoon.”
Ross grinned. “I think we all will. Deon’s going to have his own little Leopard cheer squad.”
“Who’s Deon?” Eve asked.
“Deon Bradshaw, I’m guessing.” Andrew turned to Ben’s sister. “Deon’s a former Leopard. He was drafted last year by GWS.” He looked back to Oliver. “When and where’s the game? I wouldn’t mind going.” He grinned. “It’s been months since I’ve been to a football match.”
There was a momentary silence as the other guys glanced at Ben and then at Andrew and Eve.
Oliver was the one who reluctantly replied. “Er…it’s on Saturday afternoon in Sydney.”
“Sydney?” Andrew frowned. “You’re all going to go up to Sydney just to see him play?”
Ben took a deep breath. This was his opportunity to tell his sister the truth. “No. We’re also going to Sydney to support Jim Henderson when he marches in the Mardi Gras parade. Most of the Leopards are going to march with him.”
Eve blinked. “You’re going to be in the Mardi Gras parade?”
Ben couldn’t read anything except shock. “I’m not, but the rest of the guys will be. I’m going to be there, though.”
“Why aren’t you marching, too?” Andrew asked.
Ben grimaced as his gaze momentarily flicked to his sister. “Jim’s going to be on TV. You know my dad. If he’s mad about Eve dating someone religious, he’ll blow his top if he finds out…” Ben couldn’t get the final words out.
Eve nodded, a faint smile on her face. For a moment, Ben thought she understood, but she quickly corrected that misconception. “Dad hates homosexuals even more than he hates religion. Simply being seen with a homosexual would get Ben into trouble. Knowing one would be like taunting a bull. Ben’s taking a big risk just being there, but as long as he keeps his distance, he should be okay.”
Ross narrowed his eyes. “What about you? Does it bother you that Ben knows some gay guys?”
“I…” Eve seemed flustered but calmed quickly when Andrew took her hand. She smiled at him and then back to Ross. “It’ll take me a little while to get used to the idea, but Ben’s a grown man. He can make his own decisions. I’d worry about him, but I doubt there are any homosexuals who could take him.”
“Take him?” Oliver frowned. “What do you mean?”
“You know…” When no one responded positively, Eve continued in a slightly flustered manner. “When they hit on him, he can brush them off. They’re not going to be able to force themselves on him. He’s too strong for a wimp to do anything.”
Andrew jumped in before anyone else could react. “Eve, darling, you don’t know what you’re talking about. We met Jim Henderson at the airport, remember? You know he’s not a wimp.”
“Yeah, but he’s an exception. Most homosexuals aren’t like him.”
“And most homosexuals aren’t wimps, either.” He cocked his head. “Roughly how many gay guys do you know? I know several, and your stereotyping fits only a couple of them.”
“I don’t know any personally, but we all know what they’re like.” Eve scowled at Andrew. “And why are you defending them?”
“I’m not defending them, because there’s nothing to defend. You don’t know any gay guys, so you don’t know what they’re really like. I do, and they’re human beings—just like the rest of us. Some of them are great people, some of them you want to avoid, and most are just the same as you and me.”
Ben was impressed by Andrew’s calm tone that contrasted so strongly against Eve’s strident emotions. He had known that Andrew was a strong supporter of gays from their various chats over the preceding weeks, but he hadn’t seen him stand up to Eve before.
Ross nodded. “Eve, Andrew’s right. We’re just like the rest of you. We’re not really that different.”
There was a sudden silence as Eve and Andrew both stared wide-eyed at Ross.
“You’re gay?” Andrew asked in a tone that showed he wasn’t sure he’d heard Ross correctly.
Ross smiled and nodded again. “Yep. It’s not a secret; all the guys on the team know. On Saturday, my boyfriend and I will be marching right alongside of Jim and his boyfriend.”
Eve turned to Ben. “You knew? And you’re living here with him?”
“Roscoe told me as soon as I moved in. I don’t have a problem with it.”
Ben was finally calm. “I didn’t know when I applied to join the Leopards, but I knew that there were gay guys around the club. Jim’s boyfriend works for the club, and several of the guys have gay-owned or gay-friendly workplaces sponsoring them. That’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here to play rather than play with Sydney’s seconds team. I knew this was a gay-friendly place, and that was important to me.”
Ben could tell Andrew had worked it out, but his sister was still floundering. He smiled at her, knowing it was finally time. “Roscoe’s not the only gay guy living here. I’m gay, too.”
* * *
Mason lay on his bed wearing a headset so he could talk without worrying about keeping his phone at his ear. “Do you think she’s going to be okay?”
Ben sighed. “I hope so. She certainly didn’t start ranting and raving like my dad or brother would’ve done. Andrew was very supportive; he’s going to be good for her.”
“I should certainly hope so if they expect their marriage to last. But what about you? How are you feeling?”
“I’m… I’m okay.” Ben then gave a short bark of laughter. “I’m not sure if it helped or hindered, but Eve thought Roscoe and I were a couple since we came out at the same time, and Roscoe had mentioned he had a boyfriend. Sorting that out took a little time, and I think she was calmer by the end. Maybe the confusion gave her time to absorb the information.”
Mason frowned. “What does she know?”
“She knows I have a boyfriend that lives in Sydney. She started listing guys from last year’s team, trying to work out who it was, but I told her it wasn’t any of them. I was going to tell her about you, but Helena suggested that she gets used to the idea I’m gay before worrying about other things. Of course, Helena then put her foot in it by assuring Eve that I have a healthy sex life and she approved of all the guys I’ve been with. I had to tell her that was only a couple of guys, and that I wasn’t sleeping around.”
Mason could visualise Ben’s rolling of the eyes. Helena and Oliver had made their fair share of comments while Mason had been staying with Ben, and Helena discussing Ben’s sex life wasn’t anything new. It did raise one question in Mason’s mind, though he wasn’t sure how to ask it. “She thought you’d sleep with any gay guy who crossed your path?” He knew Ben had been with someone before him, but it had been a casual affair.
“Yeah. She’s got a stereotype in her mind, and it’s taking time to get it out.” Ben chuckled. “Andrew’s going to help with that, but I expect she’ll still have a lot of misconceptions to be addressed.”
“And one of them is that of the bed-hopping male nymphomaniac.” Mason knew he wasn’t like that, though he knew some people would think that of him, given his history of bed partners. “You’re not sleeping around, are you?” He regretted the question as soon as it left his lips.
Happily for Mason, Ben laughed instead of getting upset. “Don’t worry. There’s been no one since you left.”
“Same here.” Mason sighed. “I can’t wait until Friday.”
Mason’s lips quirked up into a smirk. He glanced at his bedroom door to make sure it was shut. “Do you know what I’m going to do to you when I get you back to my room on Friday night?”
“Just a sec.” Mason frowned and sat up as he heard noises over the phone, but before he could ask what was going on, Ben was back on the phone. “Sorry, I just needed to make sure the door was closed.” Ben’s voice then took on an intimate tone. “Now…tell me what you’ve got planned, and then I’ll tell you how I’ll respond.”
Mason snuggled happily back into his bed. “Well, first I’m going to…”
* * *
José lay on the lumpy mattress in the cheap hotel where he was living and despondently stared up at the ceiling. He didn’t like being down to only one option, but he didn’t see any other choices. He would have to make his move at the party on Saturday night while praying that Mason didn’t have a last-minute change of plans.
With everything down to one last chance, José needed to maximise his odds for success. The rest of the week would involve scouting the area of the party and finding out as much as he could as to what was going to happen on Saturday night. He still had a moderate amount of money with him, and now was the time to use it. He sensed that he would only have the one shot at killing Mason.