Clarissa stared at the paper ticket that the Qantas self-serve, check-in machine had printed off and then glared at Mason. “Business class?”
Mason shrugged. “Apparently, there’s no first class for flights between Sydney and Melbourne, so business class was the best I could do.” He gave her a cheeky half-smile. “And before you ask, I don’t think I would’ve gotten away with chartering a private jet for the trip. The ‘rents aren’t that oblivious.”
“Even business class is too much!” She poked him in the chest. “You’re going overboard again, Mason, and I’m not happy.” She frowned in thought. “And if you’ve booked a limo to pick us up in Melbourne, you’re going to get a kick to the balls so hard that you’ll be singing soprano for the entire week.”
Mason wasn’t sure she was joking. “If you’re all checked in, I just need to make a pit stop.” He’d have to pay a limo cancellation fee, but he didn’t want Clarissa to ruin any chances he may have for sex while he was in her home city.
She rolled her eyes. “I’ll be dropping off my suitcase. Join me when you’ve finished.” She took a step away and then looked back over her shoulder. “Did you have any real friends back in America, or did you buy them like you’re trying to do here?”
Mason opened his mouth to retort but stopped. He knew he had friends, real friends, back home, but he also never splashed cash around like he was doing in Australia. He knew he was making a fresh start in Sydney and wasn’t carrying any baggage from past behaviour, but Clarissa’s comment had prompted him to ask himself if he was changing too much. He saw himself as being generous with his parents’ money, not as someone trying to buy friendship. He knew how Clarissa saw his spending habits, but was she the only one, or were his other new friends simply too polite to say something?
After cancelling the limo in Melbourne, Mason trudged his way to the luggage drop-off area. After scanning his boarding pass and putting his bag on the conveyor belt, he turned to Clarissa. “Sorry.”
She sighed “Mason, I keep telling you, you don’t need to purchase our friendship.”
“I know, and I’m not like that back home. It’s just…”
Mason grimaced as he waved a hand to indicate that they should head towards the security check-in to their left. “Things are different here. My old friends, my old real friends, aren’t around. I’m starting from scratch again. I’m also still angry with the ‘rents, which is why I keep spending their money. They shipped me out here, so they can share in the pain by paying my bills.”
Mason took a couple more steps before realising that Clarissa had stopped. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Not here, but we need to talk about what you just said.” She paused. “Actually, I think you should talk to Karen when we get to Melbourne. She understands these things better than me.”
Mason frowned. “Talk to her about what? About missing my friends or being angry with the ‘rents?”
Clarissa shook her head. “Neither. What you said about sharing the pain.” She gave him a look laced heavily with sympathy. “You don’t need to be in pain, Mason. If you are, then there’s something wrong.”
* * *
Mason checked his phone. “We’ve got twenty minutes until Neil’s and Deon’s plane lands. Plenty of time.” After leaving the Qantas terminal at Melbourne Airport, Mason was pleasantly surprised that the Virgin Australia terminal really was only a short walk away. His best friend, Jeremy, had fooled him too many times in the past about the real distance they would be walking.
Clarissa snorted. “Yeah, but I’m not going back through security with my suitcase—I’m not even sure they’ll allow it—so we’re going to have to surprise them at the luggage carousel.” She scowled at her bright-blue case. “We didn’t think this surprise through properly. That’s your fault.”
Mason laughed. He knew Clarissa didn’t really blame him, though he was privately embarrassed for the miscalculation. If he’d had a limo to pick them up, like he had originally planned, they could’ve left their bags with their driver, but Clarissa told him they would catch either a taxi or a bus. She was on the warpath to make sure Mason didn’t spend any more of his parents’ money than necessary.
“Clarissa?” a voice asked from behind them. “And…Mason, isn’t it?”
Clarissa turned around. “Ty!” She peered past him to the person behind and smiled. “And Jim. What brings you here?”
Ty mock-scowled. “It’s Dad and the brat. I don’t know this Ty guy you mentioned.”
Jim rolled his eyes. “We’re picking up Deon and Neil. Didn’t they tell you?” He looked around. “Where are they?”
“Their plane hasn’t landed yet.” Clarissa shrugged. “They’ll be here in about half an hour.”
Ty frowned. “But you’re already here…”
Mason grinned. “We’re going to surprise Deon. He doesn’t know Clarissa is going to meet him.” He held up his phone. “I promised Clarissa I’d take photos when he sees her.”
Ty maintained his frown as he stared at Mason. “Do you know why he’s flying down to Melbourne?”
Clarissa answered for both of them. “No, he wouldn’t tell me.” She scowled. “Which is pissing me off, but Neil said there’s a good reason, so I’m letting him get away with it…for now.”
Ty and Jim exchanged looks. Jim grimaced and then shrugged. Ty nodded and turned his attention back to Clarissa. “If you don’t have plans, why don’t you join us for dinner tonight, and we’ll explain.” He glanced around. “This is not the place for that discussion; otherwise, I’d tell you now.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Why can you tell me, but Deon can’t?”
Jim gave her a sympathetic smile. “It’s not so much that Deon can’t, as he’s being very conservative with who he’s telling. Under the circumstances, that’s understandable, so please don’t fault him for not saying anything.” He cocked his head. “I’m assuming you’re staying with your parents.”
“Actually, no,” Mason said. “I’ve booked a couple of hotel rooms near the Carlton training complex. We’ll be staying there until Sunday.”
“Oh?” When Mason provided the name of the hotel, Ty grinned. “That’s perfect. You’re only about a ten-minute walk from Paddy’s house. I’ll give you the instructions on how to get there. Dinner will be at seven.” He chuckled. “Paddy’s pretty strict about meal times.”
Mason blinked. “I’m invited? I thought it was only Clarissa.”
Jim frowned. “Brat, I’m not sure we should be telling him.”
Ty shrugged. “Clarissa, the things that Deon’s not telling you are private and confidential. I understand Deon’s going to be moving in with Mason soon, which tells me Deon trusts him. If you agree, that makes Mason part of the team, so he’s invited, too.”
“So, Mason can be told, but I’m not good enough for Deon to tell?”
Mason could see that Clarissa was about to explode. “If I don’t need to know, that’s okay.” He smirked. “The ‘rents are both lawyers, and my mom is also a politician. I get it that there are some things I shouldn’t be told and other things I have to keep my mouth shut about. If it’s easier, I’ll just find the nearest gay bar and see who I can pick up.”
Ty shook his head. “Clarissa, Dad, we all know that Deon’s not one to rush into things. Outside of the football field, if he’s not sure, he doesn’t act—or at least not quickly. But Dad, you taught me to trust my instincts. My instincts are telling me Clarissa needs to know and that it’s okay to tell Mason, too. Deon didn’t want to say anything, but I’m not Deon.” He raised an eyebrow. “Well?”
Jim grimaced and then nodded. “Okay, brat, but not here.”
Ty rolled his eyes. “Of course, not here.” He turned to Clarissa. “My gut tells me Mason can be trusted. What do you think? Are you both coming for dinner tonight to hear what’s going on?”
A calmer Clarissa contemplated Mason for a few seconds before turning back to Ty. “I trust him. We’ll be there by seven.” She grinned at Mason. “You can do your gay-pub crawl one night when Deon and I go out for dinner.”
“Thanks.” Ty smiled. “And we may be able to find you someone who knows the bars, too.” He waved a hand towards security. “Should we go through and wait for the flight to arrive?”
Clarissa shook her head. “I’d love to, but I’m not going to lug my suitcase around. Mason and I will wait here for Deon.”
Ty frowned at Clarissa’s and Mason’s luggage and then turned to Jim. “Dad…”
Jim rolled his eyes. “Okay, brat. I’ll keep an eye on their stuff while you three go through security and surprise the guys.” He smiled. “Just make sure I get copies of the pictures.”
Ty grinned, turned to Mason and Clarissa, and tilted his head towards the security check in. “Shall we go?”
* * *
After checking in at Melbourne’s Virgin Australia terminal and dropping off her luggage, Eve gave her brother another hug. “Thanks again for coming with us, Ben. It means a lot to me that you’re here.”
Ben gave her a gentle squeeze—conscious that she was pregnant even if it wasn’t showing—before letting go. “It’s no problem.” He smiled past her at her boyfriend. “And it’s given me more time to get to know Andrew.”
It hadn’t been a difficult decision to accompany Eve and her boyfriend to the airport. After lunch on Saturday, Ben had only seen his sister on Sunday afternoon when the two went window shopping at the Eastland shopping centre. It was then that Eve told Ben that she was definitely moving to Melbourne but asked that he not mentioned anything to their parents or brother.
Andrew Rider grinned at the two of them. “We’ve got about forty minutes before your flight starts to board, Eve, so how about we grab a coffee and something to eat? That way you won’t need to buy anything on the plane.”
Ben found Andrew something of an enigma. He knew from Eve’s comments on Saturday that Andrew worked for a religious organisation, but Ben saw few signs of the zealotry he expected. If he didn’t know better, he would’ve thought Andrew was just another typical Australian bloke.
The three took the escalator down from the check-in counters to where a small collection of shops formed the hub to the departure gates. They were approaching the coffee shop when Andrew almost stumbled. “That’s Jim Henderson!”
Ben tensed as he followed Andrew’s gaze to where Jim was signing something for two young boys while their parents watched and smiled. He hadn’t expected to meet anyone he knew at the airport and hoped that Jim wouldn’t approach him.
“Who?” Eve asked, surprising Ben. Jim had been a subject of derision at several family dinners the previous year. He then recalled that Eve hadn’t been at the last one, after Jim had made the news as the AFL’s first openly gay player. Since the AFL didn’t make the news as often in Sydney as it did in Melbourne, he privately conceded it may have been over six months since she’d heard Jim’s name mentioned.
“Jim Henderson. You know, the gay footballer who was drafted by Carlton last year.” Andrew pulled out his phone. “I’m going to see if he’ll let me take a selfie with him. The guys at work won’t believe me otherwise.”
“Wait a minute.” Eve frowned at Andrew. “Why would the guys at work care? In fact, wouldn’t they object to his lifestyle?”
“I work with two Carlton fans and another who’s a celebrity nut, and all three of them are going to be insanely jealous.” Andrew shrugged. “While there are some people at work who don’t like gays, there are plenty who think they’re just people like the rest of us; some are good, some are bad, and…” he winked, “…some play football. Ben will tell you; there are people here in Melbourne for whom the AFL is almost a religion, and football players are demi-gods.”
“Isn’t that blasphemy?” Eve smirked. “Doesn’t that make you a hypocrite?”
“Only if you take it seriously.” Andrew smiled at her before glancing over to where the young family was moving away from Jim. “Come on, let’s see if I can get a picture with him.” Not waiting for a response, he quickly moved up to the table where Jim was sitting. “Hi, Jim. I don’t want to take up much of your time, but is there any chance of getting a picture with you?”
Ben hung behind his sister as they approached, hoping that Jim wouldn’t recognise him.
“Sure.” Jim looked past Andrew and smiled. “G’day, Ben. This is a pleasant surprise. Let me get this photo taken, and I’ll be with you in a moment.”
“Wait, you know Ben?” Andrew stared for a moment and then smiled. “Of course! He plays for the Leopards, and one of your former teammates would’ve introduced you.”
Ben stepped forward reluctantly. “Jim, this is my sister, Eve, and her boyfriend, Andrew. Eve’s heading back to Sydney. Andrew and I are here to see her off.”
Jim rose and smiled at Eve. “Pleased to meet you. I hope you have a pleasant trip home.” He waved a hand at the chairs around the table. “Why don’t you join me? I’m just waiting for a few people while minding some bags,” he said, his gaze flicking towards the suitcase and duffel bag next to him.
Andrew immediately sat, but Eve seemed confused. “You’re friends with him, Ben?”
“Not really. We’ve been introduced and that’s all.” Ben hoped she wouldn’t explode from merely knowing Jim. He had received hints in the past that she wasn’t as homophobic as the rest of the family, but that had been in private, and he knew it might’ve been wishful thinking. “We met at Todd’s New Year’s Eve party. Todd’s one of my new teammates.”
Jim nodded. “We’ve only met the once. The brat and I wanted to say hello to all the new Leopards, and Todd’s party was a good opportunity.” He smiled. “It doubled as a farewell party for some people heading to Sydney for school, so it was pretty busy. I didn’t get much time with Ben.”
Ben repressed the urge to give a sigh of relief. Besides the party he had mentioned, Ben had also met Jim one other time, when Ben joined a group going to a gay nightclub. From the way Jim was lying about their past encounters, Ben was assuming that Tony had told Jim about how homophobic Ben’s family could be.
Eve’s expression was largely neutral. “Andrew, give me your phone and I’ll take a picture of you and Jim.” She raised an eyebrow at Ben. “Do you want to join in, too?”
“I’ll pass.” Ben did his best to hide a shudder. A photo with Jim—especially one taken by his sister and with Eve’s boyfriend also in the picture—was too likely to end up being seen by his parents.
Eve gave him a quizzical look and then shrugged. She smiled at Andrew and Jim. “Say cheese!”
Shortly afterwards, the four of them were seated at the small table, each with a cup of coffee.
Ben stayed largely quiet as Jim and Andrew chatted. He noticed Eve didn’t say a lot, either, and she kept glancing at him when she didn’t think he was looking. Ben hoped that was simply because she was surprised he wasn’t exploding with homophobia rather than her suspecting the truth. Regardless, her own missing explosion gave him hope that she’d support him when he was eventually outed.
* * *
Mason grinned as he kept his phone steady. He and Ty had agreed that there was no need for both of them to take photos, so Ty was busy taking pictures while Mason recorded a video of Deon’s reaction to seeing Clarissa waiting for him.
The reaction was perfect, right down to the sudden stop and the dropped jaw. “Clarissa?”
Clarissa crossed her arms. “You’re late. Your plane arrived five minutes ago. What took you so long to get off?”
It was obvious that Deon didn’t know whether or not she was serious. A smile kept appearing and disappearing as he stared at his girlfriend. The smile won, and he stepped forward to give her a hug. “This is a wonderful surprise.”
Clarissa grinned and put a hand behind Deon’s neck so she could pull his head down for a kiss. Mason waited a moment longer and then stopped the video. He doubted the rest of reunion would be worth recording.
“I presume you’re responsible for this.” Neil smiled as Mason’s head snapped around. Neil had managed to approach while Mason’s attention had been on Clarissa and Deon.
“You presume correctly.” Mason winked. “Clarissa wasn’t happy that Deon was disappearing for a few days, and I didn’t have anything keeping me in Sydney, so I invited her to show me around Melbourne.”
“I don’t know if this is good or bad. Deon didn’t tell her why we were flying down—for a good reason.”
Mason nodded. “Ty invited us both to dinner tonight and said he’d explain then. He also said this wasn’t the time or place to say anything.”
Neil frowned as he spotted Ty approaching Deon and Clarissa. “The brat’s going to tell you? He was adamant we needed to keep this quiet for as long as possible. And you’re not involved, so why bring you into it?”
“Honestly, I don’t know. I offered to go to a bar instead of joining you guys, but he insisted. He said something about me being part of the team, apparently because I’m going to be living with Deon.”
Neil chuckled. “If he thinks you’re part of the team, then you are. Even though he no longer plays for the Leopards, he’s still a Leopard at heart.” He grinned at Mason. “Welcome to the Leopards, the best club in the VFL.”
Mason decided not to ask what VFL stood for; the term sounded familiar, so he knew he’d heard it before, but he’d look it up later, if necessary. He glanced over to see a grinning Deon with an arm around Clarissa. “I think it’s time to move. Jim Henderson is watching our luggage, and we shouldn’t keep him waiting.”
Neil nodded, then frowned. “Where are you staying while you’re in Melbourne?”
Mason explained while the group wandered back through security to the main portion of the airport concourse. Once there, he saw that Jim was sitting with three other people, none of whom he recognised. The girl and one of the guys were clearly a couple. It was the other person who attracted Mason’s attention; a muscular guy around his own age who definitely qualified as eye candy.
Ty’s gaze flicked between Deon and the strangers. He then grinned. “Deon, I don’t believe you’ve met your swap-mate. Deon, this is Ben,” he said, indicating the guy Mason was eyeing. “Ben, this is Deon.”
Deon smiled and shook hands with Ben before frowning at Ty. “What’s a swap-mate?”
Ty’s grin broadened. “The Leopards sent you to Sydney and got Ben in return. Personally, I think they got the better deal in the swap.”
“Brat…” Jim rolled his eyes before smiling at Deon. “Ben’s one of the new Leopards. He used to be with the Swans’ Academy in Sydney. And this is his sister, Eve, and Eve’s boyfriend, Andrew.”
The group broke up soon afterwards as Eve, Ben, and Andrew headed to Eve’s departure gate, and the others took the escalator down to the luggage carousels. Mason would’ve liked to have had more time to memorise Ben’s appearance, but he was happy. He had enough for some late-night fantasies.
While they waited for Deon, Ty had made the offer to show Mason around the Carlton football club, and if Ty and Jim were representative, Mason would have lots of fantasy material to keep him occupied when he was alone. Mason also silently planned on making a trip to see the Leopards train. He was unlikely to be allowed into their locker room, but spending time watching sexy guys run around would still be worthwhile.
* * *
Ben was happy that the first twenty minutes of the drive from the airport back to Lilydale were quiet. Ben’s mind was in a state of flux, alternating between pleasure at having seen his sister again, panic that she may suspect him, fear that his parents are going to get involved in his life again, and the distracting idea that the tall, black American with the sexy smile appeared to have paid more attention to Ben than seem warranted.
The silence was finally broken when Andrew cleared his throat. “Ben?”
“Thanks for coming to the airport with us. I know it meant a lot to Eve. She’s been worried about you.”
Ben’s turmoil was displaced as the new conversation took his focus. “Why has she been worried?”
“She didn’t think you’d approve of me—because of my background and who I work for.” Andrew’s gaze left the road for a moment as he glanced at Ben. “She thought you’d reject the idea of her dating someone who goes to church.”
Ben shrugged. “What you do is your own business. As long as you don’t force my sister to do something she doesn’t want to do, I don’t care.”
There was silence for a few seconds before Andrew spoke again. “I asked Eve to marry me. She said she’d think about it.”
Ben’s mouth opened, but no words came out. He shook his head in an attempt to put his brain back into gear and tried again. “She said what?” When Ben had first spoken with Eve, he had been given the impression she and Andrew were planning a wedding, though, in hindsight, maybe it had been more that they would be living together.
“She told me just because she’s carrying my…our baby, that’s no reason to get married.” Andrew screwed up his face. “She’s right about that, but that wasn’t the only reason I proposed.” He glanced across at Ben again. “I know it’s only been a few months, but she means a lot to me. She…” he paused, as if searching for the right word “…challenges me. She makes me face things I probably don’t want to face, but she’s never malicious or cruel when she does it. We fight a lot, but it’s only on the surface. None of our fights have gone deeper. I want her to continue to challenge me, and I hope I equally challenge her. That’s why I proposed. The baby was just the prompt to make me act on how I was feeling. It wasn’t the reason.” He scrunched up his face as if he was trying to control his emotions. “But she didn’t seem keen.”
Ben could see how much Eve meant to Andrew. “Do you think she meant never or just not now?”
“I don’t know.” If Andrew wasn’t driving, Ben thought he would’ve dropped his head. Instead, Andrew was trying—and failing—to be stoic.
Ben recalled what Eve had said when they talked on Saturday. “Is she still moving in with you?”
“Yeah…which is why I don’t understand why she doesn’t seem to want to marry me. She’s going to live with me, we’re going to raise a child together, but she didn’t say yes…”
Ben didn’t know what his sister was thinking, but he had his suspicions. “It sounds like you’ll be a de facto couple, with all the associated rights and responsibilities. Do you really need to get married? And if you did, would you want to get married in a church?”
“Of course…” Andrew’s voice faltered. “That’s the stumbling block, isn’t it? She’d never go for a church wedding.”
“She might, for you, but maybe not now. It’s probably too early for that. If you’re in a de facto relationship, you’ll be effectively married for almost all legal purposes, so she’s probably thinking it’s because you want a church wedding. She may eventually change her mind if you tell her you’ll be happy with a civil ceremony. But you’ll have to find some arguments about why a de facto relationship isn’t good enough.” Ben raised a hand in warning. “And those arguments can’t be religious ones.”
Andrew nodded to himself a few times. “Okay, I think I see what you’re saying.” He made a face. “She’s challenging me, again. Do I really need to be married to her to have her in my life?”
Ben stayed quiet. This was something Andrew and Eve needed to work out between them. He had already interfered enough.
“Thanks, Ben.” Andrew flicked him a quick smile. “I’ve come up with another argument I can use on Eve for getting married, but I’ll wait before I use it.”
Ben raised an eyebrow. “Why wait?”
“Because she wouldn’t believe just yet that I’d love to have you as a brother-in-law. I’ll need to get to know you a bit better before that happens.” Andrew grinned. “I presume I’ll find you at the Leopards clubhouse fairly often. When’s the best time to drop in?”
Ben tried to hide his fear, but he couldn’t stop himself from stiffening. “You don’t have to do that.”
If Andrew started showing up at the club, it wouldn’t be long before he found out that Ben’s housemate Ross is gay. That would cause problems when that snippet of information made its inevitable way back to Ben’s family. Given that Ben had been coming out to his teammates, it also wouldn’t be long before his own sexual orientation became known. That’s when the fireworks would really start. Ben had to avoid—or at least delay—that at all costs.
Andrew shrugged. “Hey, you’re a football player. I happen to like football even if I can’t play it to save my life, so coming to see you play or train is fine with me.” Andrew chuckled. “If you’re too shy or modest to tell me, I’ll look it up on the club’s website. I’m sure they’ll list something, even if it’s just the dates and times of your upcoming matches.”
“We don’t have any matches until March.” Ben spoke quickly, trying to find reasons to not have Andrew come to the club. “That’s when the pre-season practise matches start. The main season doesn’t start until the middle of April.”
“So?” Andrew’s brow wrinkled. “Don’t you want me to come to the club?”
Ben knew he was sinking fast. “I’m not really that talkative after a training session. Julie, our head coach, usually makes sure we’re too tired to do much before she lets us finish.” He was quite proud of that statement as it wasn’t that far from the truth, though the team generally recovered quickly enough for a drink or two in the clubroom afterwards. “How about we catch up on the nights I don’t train?”
As soon as he said it, Ben realised he was about to give away the nights he would be at the club if Andrew decided to drop in. All he could hope was that if Andrew wanted to get to know him better; one-on-one time away from the club would suffice.
“Sounds good to me. How about we go out for dinner? Somewhere not too expensive.” Andrew grinned. “I don’t think either one of us is flush with cash.”
Ben grinned back. “Agreed. How does Thursday nights sound to you? Are you okay going to one of the local pubs?”
Andrew chuckled. “No problems there with me. One of my workmates doesn’t drink, but the rest of us, myself included, like a beer or two.” He paused. “Well, a couple prefer wine, and one only drinks spirits, but I think you get the picture.”
Ben smiled, while mentally shaking with fear. At least he’d kept Andrew away from the football club and everyone who knew he’s gay.
* * *
Ty glanced at Jim before sweeping his gaze across the others gathered around the dining-room table. He grimaced and then stared at one person. “Clarissa, you wanted to know why Deon flew down here today. It’s time to tell you, but you have to promise not to say anything to anyone. And I mean anyone.” He turned to Mason and Patrick. “That goes for you guys, too. I’m sorry, but this is important.”
“I don’t have to know if you think it’s inappropriate.” Patrick put his bony hands on the armrests of his chair and started to lever himself up.
“Paddy, stay.” Ty’s gaze flicked to Jim once more before returning to the old Irishman. “We’ll probably be discussing this all week, so it’s easier for everyone if you know. There are a few others at the club who know what’s going on, so don’t think you’ll be the only ones.”
“But I don’t need to know.” Mason rose and smiled down at everyone. “Thanks for the wonderful dinner, Paddy. It was a real pleasure.”
“Sit back down, Mason.” Jim made a face. “While this doesn’t involve you, you’re also completely unconnected to everything, and you may have insights we miss because we’re too close.” He snorted and a flicker of a smile appeared on his lips. “That’s the argument the brat used to convince me, as well the fact that Deon, Clarissa, and Neil all trust you. Please sit back down.”
Mason hesitated before returning to his seat. He frowned at first to Jim, then Ty. “If you’re sure…”
Jim nodded to Ty. “It’s your show, brat.”
Ty took a deep breath. “There’s a court case starting tomorrow. Fredrick Rollingford is a former junior-football coach who’s been charged with multiple counts of child abuse. Someone we know is one of the victims and will be testifying at the trial. As that person is an AFL player, it’s going to hit the news in a big way. We’re here to make sure that person gets the support he needs to stand up and tell the court what was done to him.”
Mason cringed. While he didn’t truly understand where the AFL fitted into the nation’s psyche, he knew the players were sporting celebrities. “The media rats will be swarming when they find out.”
“Actually, they already know.” Ty grimaced. “At least the major ones do, and I’ve been told they’ll keep names out of the story, apart from that Rollingford bastard. But it’s still not going to be easy.”
Patrick frowned down at the dining room table. “Well, that explains a few things.” He looked up. “If he needs a place to hide for a few days, he’s welcome here, but I’m sure you Leopards have everything in hand.”
Clarissa’s face went through a number of expressions before a look of horror appeared. She slowly turned to Deon. “You…”
Deon seemed puzzled. “What’s wrong?”
“What did he…?” She grimaced and looked away. “Don’t answer that!”
Deon rocked back in his seat, his eyes opening wide. “It’s not me!”
She was frowning as she turned back to face him. “If you’re not the one testifying, then why did you fly down for the trial?”
Patrick chuckled. “Because he’s a Leopard, lassie. They stick together even if some of them are now playing for other teams.” He smiled and nodded towards Deon. “It’ll mean a lot to him that you’ve flown in to show your support.”
Deon reddened. “That’s how the brat got me here. That, plus his club made a special request directly to my team’s senior management.”
Mason glanced around the table. “I don’t know who you’re talking about, but it looks to me that Clarissa is the only other person who doesn’t know. I can step out of the room while you tell her, if you like.”
“Stay.” Ty screwed up his face. “Paddy, you’ve obviously worked it out, which means it’ll be easy for others to do so, too.”
“Sorry, brat, but it is rather obvious in hindsight.” Patrick tilted his head towards Clarissa. “Now how about putting the poor lassie out of her misery?”
Ty grimaced and then sighed. “Clarissa, last year at Easter, one of our teammates had a breakdown. Dave was subsequently diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which is a result of being raped by his football coach when he was only eleven.” He glanced across at Jim. “We don’t really know anything more than that about what happened, but we know he suppressed the memories for years. They all emerged after his breakdown, and remembering almost broke him.”
Jim continued in a soft voice. “Dave is one of the strongest and toughest players I know. But the way he reacts when he recalls…” Jim bowed his head.
“All the clubs know about his diagnosis,” Patrick said. “When he was invited to last year’s combine, he sent the AFL a letter informing them of the situation, though he withheld the details of how it came about, releasing that information only to the clubs’ medical personnel. Despite that, he was drafted by Hawthorn.” He frowned at Ty. “What are the Hawks doing for him, brat?”
Deon answered. “They paid for my flights. They also offered to pay for accommodation, but the brat decided I was better off staying here. They’re going to do what they can to give Dave the support he needs.”
Ty nodded. “They’re coordinating things and doing their best to keep the media off Dave’s back.” He grimaced. “How well they succeed remains to be seen.”
Deon gave Clarissa an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry, but I couldn’t say anything. I needed to protect Dave.”
Mason could see that Clarissa was still in shock. While personally disturbed, he didn’t know the people involved, and that gave him some sense of detachment. Leaving Clarissa to Deon, he turned his attention to Ty and Jim. “How tight is the case against the coach? If it’s just Dave’s word against his, and Dave suppressed the memories for a long time, it’s going to be hard to get a conviction.”
Jim made a face. “Dave wasn’t his only victim. The police have found other kids who were molested; I can’t remember how many.”
“At least four others,” Neil said. When the others stared at him, he shrugged. “It was in the news report at the time of the arrest. The police asked for any other victims to come forward at that time, but I didn’t see any news articles to know if any more did.”
“You remember that?” Clarissa asked.
Neil dropped his head. “I’ve got a good memory, and some things I can’t forget even if I wanted to. I’ll never forget that Easter.”
Mason knew how Neil felt as his own mind went back to when Robbie was shot. That was an incident he didn’t think would ever fade from his memory.
* * *
Late that night, Ben was about to retire to his room when Ross tapped him on the shoulder. “Got a minute?”
Ross smiled. “I’ve had a text from Jim. He, Tony, and a few others are going to a couple of bars on Thursday night before heading on to MANdatory for some late-night dancing. He was inviting us along. I know you won’t want to go to the bars in case you’re seen, but why don’t you meet us at the nightclub?”
“Thursday?” Ben grimaced. “I’m meeting my sister’s boyfriend that night for dinner. He wants to get to know me.” Ben snorted before giving Ross a soft smile. “He’s treating me as the prospective brother-in-law.”
“Sounds serious.” Ross narrowed his eyes. “But dinner probably won’t go late, and we probably won’t get to the nightclub until after ten, so you can still join us if you’re interested.”
Ben didn’t want to say that he really enjoyed his nights at MANdatory. He was already beginning to worry that he was going there too often. “I’m not sure if Mitchell will be free. He usually has a late night on Friday night, and he probably wouldn’t want to have two late nights in a row.”
“You can go there without Mitchell.” Ross cocked his head. “Or are you two already in a relationship?”
“Er…” Ben really didn’t know. He wasn’t experienced in any sort of relationship, let alone a gay one. Did the fact that he’d spent both Friday and Saturday nights with Mitchell make them a couple? At the start, Mitchell had made it clear where the boundaries lay, but he had also indicated that those boundaries could change. Since then, nothing had been said on either side, but Ben didn’t know if there were unspoken rules he would be breaking. “What’s this about, anyway? Why Thursday night and not the more usual Friday night?”
Ross shrugged. “Jim said there’s an American down from Sydney who wants to visit some gay bars and nightclubs. They’re showing him around Thursday.”
“Mason?” Ben doubted there would be another American around, though it was a possibility.
“You know him?”
“We met at the airport when Andrew and I dropped off my sister for her flight back home.” Ben recalled how Mason had smiled at him longer than would normally be considered polite. He hadn’t known at the time that the dark-skinned stranger was gay.
“So, should I tell Jim you’ll meet us at the nightclub?”
“Yeah, I’ll be there.” Ben hadn’t made a conscious decision but found the words coming out of his mouth, anyway. “If I can get away from Andrew at a reasonable time.” Ben needed to give himself an out.
“Okay, I’ll let him know.” Ross smiled and opened his mouth as if he was going to say something else but then closed it and simply grinned and walked away.
Ben strolled to his room, his mind at war with itself again. Mason had shown an interest in him at the airport even though they only spoke for a few minutes. Ben knew the interest went the other way, too, but he also knew that if anything happened, it would only be for a night or two. Mason lived in Sydney and wouldn’t be able to stay in Melbourne, which meant he was relatively safe as far as Ben was concerned.
Was a one-night fling with someone other than Mitchell a good idea? Ben didn’t know. If he was in a relationship, he knew it would be wrong, but Mitchell and he hadn’t discussed the situation between them. For all he knew, Mitchell could be sleeping with other guys, too.
Ben made a face. He didn’t believe that of Mitchell, and he knew he was looking for excuses. Mason had the allure of the exotic, coupled with the certainty that it wouldn’t last and hence wouldn’t be discovered by his family. If he went for Mason—assuming he wasn’t misinterpreting what had happened at the airport—he would be betraying Mitchell.
Ben sighed as he threw himself onto his bed and stared up at the ceiling. He liked his times with Mitchell, but he was scared that if they became a couple, his family would find out. He was safer if he was single, and that would give him the chance for a night with Mason. He had been thinking that matters with Mitchell were approaching danger level all weekend, but Ben had been too weak to do anything about it. Common sense told Ben that he wasn’t ready for a relationship, even a casual one, but sex had trumped common sense. With the allure of Mason giving him the potential of sex without a relationship, maybe common sense could reassert itself.
Ben pulled out his phone, brought up Mitchell’s name, and stared at it. He told himself to break things off before they went too far. All it would take would be a phone call. If he was a complete coward, he could do it with a text.
In the end, the phone found itself on Ben’s bedside table, unused. Ben would sleep on the issue and decide in the morning. Maybe things would be clearer then. He slowly firmed his resolve. He would break things off with Mitchell in the morning. That would be better than late at night, anyway.
At least that’s what he told himself.