THE heat hit Michael like a ton of bricks as he opened the door of his borrowed ute, the stifling air heavy with the smell of dirt and animal. A yellow Labrador standing in the shade of the main house’s wraparound veranda barked at him, its tail waving. Where the house’s yard stopped and the farm began, a pair of black and tan working dogs slumped against the stable wall, snapping at flies and ignoring him completely. A scorching wind blew across the open ground, making little whirlwinds out of the dry topsoil and the branches of the big eucalyptus trees flanking the house creak and groan. It snatched at the brim of Michael’s brand new Akubra hat, threatening to send it tumbling into the dirt.
Michael’s stomach churned as he turned and walked toward the stables, adjusting his hat with an unsteady hand. He’d been in Burreela two weeks. Every day of those two weeks, his new boss, Bill, had been shadowing him, looking over his shoulder during his consults and his surgeries, taking him to farms out in the middle of nowhere, making Michael do all the dirty work while he leaned against the fence and chatted to farmers who pretended that Michael wasn’t even there. But apparently two weeks was some magic number, because this morning, when he’d been looking at the appointment book and finishing off his morning coffee, Bill had come into the back room and thrown the ute’s keys at Michael’s head, Michael just managing to catch them before they’d smacked him in the forehead.
“Leave that,” Bill had said. “Take the ute, and go up to the Mitchell farm. They’ve got a horse that needs seeing to.”
Michael had stared at him, his fingers wrapped tightly around the keys. “But I’ve never been to the Mitchell farm before.”
Bill had smiled. “Well, it’s about time you went then, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, but, Bill….”
“‘Yeah, but Bill’ nothing, Michael.” Bill had stepped into the room and taken the appointment book out of Michael’s hands. “Get your ass up to the Mitchell farm, and fix their horse.” He’d turned and walked out of the room with the appointment book tucked firmly under his arm, leaving Michael no choice but to finish his coffee in two huge gulps that burned his mouth and throat, grab his kit, and get in the ute.
When he’d first arrived in Burreela, Bill had given him a map of town and the surrounding countryside. He’d used the map to get to the Mitchell farm, feeling like a bloody tourist and wishing desperately for a GPS unit as he drove with the map spread out half in his lap and half on the steering wheel. Even with the map, he’d still managed to almost miss the farm’s entrance, but now he was here, with his guts turning to water and his legs like jelly, to cure a horse of only God knew what because he’d forgotten to ask.
As Michael got closer to the wide-open stable door, he could see a dark-colored horse in a stall a couple down from the entrance, and two men standing near the door of the stall: a young man, who looked a few years older than Michael’s own twenty-six, facing the stable doorway, and an older man standing facing the horse. They were both tall and broad, but lean, the older man, who looked about sixty judging from the gray in his hair, only just starting to get the belly to go with his age. The younger one nodded toward Michael as he approached the stable door, saying something to his companion, who turned to look at Michael with the exact expression of someone who’d just bitten down on a lemon.
“You’re not Bill.”
Michael tried for a smile, the expression feeling fixed and fake even to him. “No, I’m not,” he said, as cheerfully as he could. “I’m Michael, the new vet. Michael Stone.” He stuck out his right hand; the old man stared at it like it was a snake readying itself to strike. For several long, excruciating moments there was silence while Michael stood there with his hand stuck out like an idiot, but then the younger man stepped forward and shook it firmly.
“I’m Andrew Mitchell,” he said with an apologetic smile. “This is my dad, Greg. This is his farm.”
“Oh yeah, of course,” Michael said, smiling back without bothering to hide his relief. “Nice to meet you.”
Andrew nodded. “Nice to meet you too.”
Silence descended again, but Michael broke it this time, nodding toward the horse in the stall, which he could now see was a bay with a white stripe down the middle of its face. “Is this the horse that you’ve got a problem with?”
Andrew looked toward the stall. “Yeah, that’s her. Charlie. She got herself tangled up in some barbed wire in a back paddock overnight. She must have panicked and tried to pull away from it but just got tangled up more, and some of it dug in pretty deep. We’d take care of it ourselves, but she’s a valuable horse and we can’t afford to have it getting infected. Plus, she’s my brother’s horse, and he was all for getting the vet out.” He smiled again. “So here you are.”
“Here I am.” Michael looked toward the stall again. He’d done his equine placements just like everyone else in his year, but he hadn’t done much horse work since then, so what he knew about them was mostly from books. He steeled himself against his nerves; he could do this. “I’ll take a look at her.”
He gathered himself and headed for the stall door, but Andrew beat him to it, stepping around him and unlatching the door. “I’ll go in with you. She’s a good horse, but she has spent the night tangled in barbed wire. That’s enough to make anyone grumpy.”
“Of course,” Michael said, hoping his tone was implying that he was just about to suggest that himself. He stepped into the stall after Andrew, who’d clipped a lead rope to Charlie’s halter and was holding it with enough slack to give the horse freedom of movement, but not enough that she could turn and bite Michael while he was examining her, for which Michael was profoundly glad. To his relief, the horse didn’t bat an eyelash when he reached a hand up to pat her neck, murmuring some comforting words of nonsense to her as he did so. As he ran his hand slowly down her neck, he was acutely conscious of the attention of the two Mitchell men, whose complete silence told him they were watching him carefully. He could see the problem from where he stood, a length of nasty looking barbed wire wrapped tightly around the mare’s right foreleg, just above the fetlock. The Mitchells had obviously done some work, cutting away most of the wire protruding from her leg and leaving only what was deeply imbedded in her flesh. He squatted down to get a closer look, and when he reached out to touch the leg just above the wound, the mare flinched, shifting away from him so suddenly that he had to slam a hand against the side of the stall to stop himself from overbalancing and ending up on his ass. His Akubra tipped off his head and onto the straw covering the stable floor. He looked up, and Andrew Mitchell was looking down at him.
Andrew smiled. “Sorry.”
Michael attempted a smile and tried to ignore the flush he could feel creeping up his neck. “No worries.” He reached for his hat, brushing it off before standing up. “I’ll just go and get my gear, won’t be long.”
He let himself out of the stall and stepped around Greg Mitchell, slapping his hat back onto his head just before he headed back out into the yard, squinting against the too-bright sun. He hated the hat: it was hot and annoying, and he was sure he looked ridiculous in it, but he had to wear it. He’d inherited his father’s brown hair, but that was where any hints of swarthiness ended, because he’d also gotten his mother’s gray eyes and English complexion, the type of complexion that on her had been described as “porcelain” but on him was described as “glow-in-the-dark white.” He knew from the painful experience of his first two days in Burreela that if he didn’t wear the hat in the scorching summer sun his face and neck would go from snow white to fire-engine red in about five seconds, and he’d be using aloe vera on his blistered and peeling skin for the next week.
He went around to the covered bed of the ute and flipped up the hard top, reaching in for his bag and rummaging through it to make sure he had what he needed before heading back. He could barely see a thing as he entered the stables, struck blind by the bright sun, but as his eyes became more accustomed to the dimmer light, he realized that Andrew and his father had been joined by another man, one who looked so much like Andrew that it had to be his brother. The man looked at Michael as he approached and smiled. “Hi. I’m Ryan.”
Michael’s stomach dropped at the sight of that smile, and he could do nothing but stare at the man, stare into hazel eyes that looked almost gold against the man’s sun-browned skin. His gaze took in the high cheekbones and the square jaw dusted with a couple of days worth of reddish-brown stubble, the brown hair that curled around his ears and at the nape of his neck where it showed under his hat. The edges of the man’s—Ryan’s—hair looked damp, wet from the sweat that glistened on the nape of his neck. Michael’s mouth went suddenly dry.
Ryan raised an eyebrow, and Michael realized that he was waiting for Michael to speak. “Oh. Sorry. I’m Michael. I’m the new vet. In town.”
Ryan smiled. “Yeah, I thought so, what with you carrying a fancy bag and all.” He nodded toward the stall. “You going to go back in there, Doc, or were you going to use voodoo to fix her up?”
Michael’s face heated. “Right. Yes. I’m going back in.” He stepped toward the stall again, but this time it was Ryan who went in before him. He did his best to ignore Ryan’s presence as he crouched in the corner to fish out some syringes and vials from his bag, then stood and patted Charlie’s neck again before reaching out for her leg once more. She shifted again when he touched her, but this time Ryan kept her from shying away; Michael could hear him crooning to her under his breath, and that made Michael’s skin prickle with an almost painful awareness of the other man. He did his best to ignore it, concentrating hard on the horse instead. He gave her some local anesthetic around the wound, and a couple of shots of antibiotics and a tetanus shot while he was waiting for it to numb. Glancing up at Ryan as he placed the needles carefully out of the way next to his bag, he saw that Ryan was watching him. He cleared his throat and made an attempt at intelligent conversation. “Do you know how long she was wrapped up in the wire for?”
That got a reaction, but not one that Michael really wanted, as Ryan frowned, his expression dark and thunderous. “Too long.” He turned his head slightly and raised his voice, directing his next words over his shoulder at his brother and father. “Those back paddocks were supposed to be cleaned up ages ago. I never would have let her in there if I’d known they were still full of crap.”
“Hey, don’t look at me,” Andrew said from behind him. “I thought they’d been done. Otherwise I wouldn’t have let you put her in there.”
“Yeah, well,” Ryan said, his tone still harsh. “I better not find out who didn’t clean it up properly, or they’ll feel my boot up their ass.” He looked back at Michael, who turned away from him quickly, frowning down at the wound as he gently assessed it for numbness, trying not to show how the gruffness of Ryan’s tone had sent a shiver down his spine.
“Right, she’s ready,” he said, more to distract himself from Ryan than give a blow-by-blow account of what he was doing. He took the end of the remaining wire and gently pulled it out of the wound, then set about cleaning the damaged flesh. “Okay.” He glanced up at Ryan when he turned to get bandages out of his bag, feeling a bit more stable now that he had instructions to give. “It looks pretty clean, and even though there’s a bit of swelling there, it doesn’t look as if there’s any tendon damage, which is good. The cut’s deep but not wide, so I’m not going to stitch it up. I’ll dress it, and it can heal on its own. Happy with that?”
Ryan nodded. “Yeah. Do I need to do anything to it?”
Michael shrugged. “Just keep her somewhere where she’ll keep it clean.” He got out some antibiotic powder and puffed it liberally over the wound before starting to bandage it up. “I gave her an antibiotic shot, and now she’s got antibiotic powder on it, too, so it shouldn’t get infected. I’ve given her a tetanus shot as well. I’ll leave you some powder and fresh dressings so that if she does get it dirty, you can change it. In a few days, change it anyway. If it looks weepy or inflamed, give me—” He felt himself blushing again. “Give us a call, and we’ll come out to look at it, but it should be fine. The dressings can come off altogether in about ten days or so.” He tied the bandages off, pulled a packet of wet wipes from his bag, cleaned his hands, then packed up, gathering his bag and the used syringes as he stood. “Okay?”
“Okay,” Ryan said, smiling again and sticking out his hand. “Thanks Doc. Michael.”
Michael had to switch his bag to his other hand before he could shake Ryan’s hand, but as he gripped it, his heart skipped a beat, and he hoped desperately that he wasn’t blushing again. Ryan’s hand was warm, the skin slightly rough, and his grip strong. Michael suppressed a shiver and smiled, hoping he didn’t look as hysterical as he felt. “That’s no problem. Just doing my job, right?”
“Right.” Ryan held on to Michael’s hand for just a moment too long before letting it drop. He stepped to the side to let Michael out of the stall. “But thanks anyway.”
Michael left the stall, nodding to Andrew and Mr. Mitchell as he left. He walked all the way to his ute without looking back, but as he finished disposing of his syringes and stowing his bag in the back and went to climb into the cab, he couldn’t resist. Glancing back as casually as he could, he saw Ryan standing in the entrance of the stables, leaning against the door and watching him. Their gazes locked as Michael closed the ute’s door, and they stared at each other until Ryan moved suddenly, looking back over his shoulder as his brother and father came up behind him. He straightened, saying something to them as they walked past him, Andrew slapping him on the shoulder. All three men headed to the main house, Ryan lingering behind as Michael started the ute, touching the brim of his hat and flashing Michael a grin as he turned the car around and headed down the driveway. Michael watched the house in his rearview mirror until a bend in the driveway put it out of his sight, and he drove the whole way back into town with his stomach in knots.
MICHAEL’S heart sank when he looked in the front window of the surgery and saw Natalie, the practice’s vet nurse, standing at the cash register. He liked her enormously already. She was funny and bubbly and great at her job, but she also loved to talk, and he really did not want to talk about what had just happened. Even if most of the monumental stuff had happened in his head.
“Hey,” Natalie said as he walked in the door and came around the desk to hang the ute’s keys back up on a hook on the wall behind the cash register. “Where’ve you been?”
Michael tried to keep his voice light. “Seeing a horse out at the Mitchell farm.”
“Ah, the Mitchell farm….” Natalie’s tone took on a dreamy quality. “I love going to the Mitchell farm. The Mitchell boys are hot.”
Michael felt his face heat, and he only barely stopped himself from spluttering and stammering out something inane, which would completely give him away. “Ah… right. The horse—Charlie, they said her name was—got tangled up in some barbed wire.”
“Charlie? God, Ryan wouldn’t have been happy with that, she’s his pride and joy. He uses her in all his events.”
Michael frowned. “Events? Like… show-jumping events? Or cross-country?”
Natalie laughed. “No, not show jumping. Campdrafting mainly. Stock-horse events.” She raised her eyebrows at him, but at his blank look, she laughed again, shaking her head at him. “God, you really are a city boy, aren’t you? Don’t worry, you’ll learn. It’ll be impossible not to in this town.” She patted him on the shoulder and turned away to head back toward the operating rooms, leaving him to his thoughts. Thoughts that definitely did not include how hot Ryan Mitchell was. Not at all.
AFTER Michael’s visit to the Mitchell farm, it was like a dam had burst, with Bill sending him out to the rural properties in the area every day that week. It almost became a routine: farms in the morning, surgery in the middle of the day, and pet consults in the afternoon. The end of the week came faster than it had since he’d arrived in town.
“So, how do you like Burreela so far?”
The pub closest to the surgery was busy on a Friday night, with every table in the restaurant area filled. Michael could hear punters in the bar area, too, cheering and shouting at regular intervals at the big-screen TVs playing the latest sports. The waiter placing their meals in front of them gave him a moment to think of a diplomatic answer. “It’s a bit different to Sydney, that’s for sure.”
Bill snorted. “You can say that again. A bit too different, some would say. Most go from here to Sydney, not the other way around.”
Michael shrugged. “I wanted something different. Somewhere quieter. I didn’t want the same-old, same-old.”
“Oh, you’re too young for same-old, same-old,” Bill scoffed. “Wait ’til you get to my age. Then everything’s the same.”
Michael wasn’t about to argue the finer points of boredom with his new boss. “The farm work’s interesting.” If interesting was another word for terrifying. “Not everyone wants us on their properties, do they?”
Bill shrugged. “Times are hard in farming these days, and often there’s not a lot of money to spare for things that they can do themselves—used to do themselves. But most of them know that if they have a vet out, it saves them money in the long run.” He smiled. “They give you a hard time this week?”
“Oh, well. No, not really.” Michael picked up a prawn and started dissecting it. “A fair few of them wished I was you, though. Not that many of them said it, mind you, but there’s only a few ways ‘You’re not Bill!’ can be taken.”
Bill guffawed, causing several of their fellow diners to turn and look at him. “I would have loved to see that.” He cut into his steak, still chuckling and shaking his head. “But that’s the way things go around here, son. People don’t like change. Once they get used to you, they’ll be fine. You might not ever be accepted as a native,” he said, “but do a good job and they’ll like you well enough.”
“I’m trying. I think I did okay this week.” Michael ate his prawn and picked up another, raising his eyebrow at the silence from the other side of the table. “Did I do okay this week?” He went cold and then hot as a horrifying thought occurred to him. “You haven’t gotten any complaints about me, have you?”
Bill almost choked on his steak. “Bloody hell, boy, why would you think that? Of course I haven’t. Don’t you think I’d tell you if I had? Because I would. I’d take you off farm visits so fast your head’d spin.”
“Oh.” Michael’s face slowly returned to its normal temperature. “Good. Okay. Just checking.”
Bill picked up his beer and drank half of it in one go, staring at Michael while he did it. He put his glass down with a satisfied sigh and picked his knife up again, stabbing his fork in the direction of Michael’s face before attacking his steak again. “You need to stop that bullshit, and right now. I’ve been watching you, and you’re a good vet. Do you think I’d have hired an idiot?”
Michael had no idea. He’d only known Bill for three weeks. “Um. I don’t think so?”
Bill frowned. “No, I wouldn’t have. You’ve just got to get used to it, that’s all, and you’ll be fine.”
“Okay.” Michael picked up his beer and finished it, then signaled the waiter for another one. The talk moved on to safer topics as they finished their food. The waiter brought them their bill, and they were done for the night. It was one of the more exciting evenings that Michael had had since moving to Burreela.
Heading out of the restaurant to the main door of the pub, they stopped to allow a knot of people past them and into the main bar.
“Bill? Long time no see, mate.”
Michael turned his head to see Ryan Mitchell walk up and shake Bill’s hand, clapping him on the shoulder with his free hand. He was grinning, and Michael’s stomach twisted at the sight of him.
Bill grinned back at Ryan. “Hey there, Ryan. I haven’t been out and about much.” He tipped his head to the side, toward Michael. “Got to let my up-and-comer learn the lay of the land, right?”
Ryan turned the brilliant wattage of his smile on Michael. “Right.” He stuck out his hand. “How’s the up-and-comer finding the place, then? How long have you been here for?”
Briefly dazzled, it was a moment before Michael managed to take Ryan’s hand. It was warm, and as soon as Michael wrapped his fingers around it, Ryan gripped his hand firmly before pulling away slowly. Michael had to suppress a shiver at the way Ryan’s fingers trailed over his palm. “I’ve been here, um… three weeks. So not that long.” He paused. “It’s pretty different from Sydney, anyway. But that’s what I wanted.”
Ryan nodded. “That’s why most people move to the country, I suppose.” He looked at both of them. “So, I take it you were leaving? You don’t want to come into the bar and have a drink?” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the bar and smiled again. “The night’s still young and all that.”
Michael opened his mouth to decline, but Bill got there before him. “The night might be young, but I’m not, and I’m working this weekend. I’ll be off.” Bill reached up to clap Michael on the shoulder. “I’m sure young Michael’s up for another beer or two, all in the name of being friendly, right Michael?”
That told him. Michael nodded and tried for a smile. “Right. I could do with another beer.”
“Of course you could,” Ryan said briskly. “My shout.” He nodded at Bill as he took Michael’s elbow and pulled him forward. “Night, Bill.”
Michael looked back at Bill as Ryan continued to pull him toward the bar, but there was no sympathy there; Bill was actually laughing at him. “Night, young fella. Have a good one, and remember: as long as you turn up for work on Monday halfway sober, we’re sweet.” He touched his forehead, still chuckling, turned, and left the pub.
Michael turned to look at Ryan, who’d stopped to watch him, a funny half-smile on his face. His fingers were warm on Michael’s elbow where they gripped him through his shirt.
“What?” Michael asked, trying not to sound freaked out. Or to notice the fall of Ryan’s hair across his forehead, the fullness of his lips or the tantalizing glimpse of a tanned chest that peeked out from the open neck of his shirt.
Ryan smiled at him for a moment more, then shook his head, finally looking away. “Nothing. Come on. When I said it was my shout, I meant it.”
The bar was crowded, but Ryan pushed his way through, pulling Michael into the tiny space next to him. “What do you want?”
Michael could hardly think through the feeling of being pressed up against Ryan’s side. “Ah. I don’t know.” He clutched at the first thing that came to mind. “Beer. Tooheys. Tooheys New.”
“Tooheys New it is.” Ryan turned to order their drinks from the barman. “Two bottles of New, please, mate.” He turned back toward Michael and smiled slowly, raising an eyebrow. “I’ve got something on my face, have I?”
“What? No, no, I….” Michael hadn’t realized he’d been staring. He tore his gaze away from Ryan, his face heating. “Sorry, I’m just… tired.”
“I’m sure you are.” Ryan’s shoulder nudged his gently. “It’s a big thing, moving from the city to the country. But a drink or two’ll be just the thing.”
Ryan paid the barman and handed Michael’s drink to him, and Michael took special care that their fingers didn’t touch. Ryan led him to a table where Ryan’s brother sat. Andrew Mitchell nodded at Michael with a smile and lifted an eyebrow at his brother, tilting his head toward the beer in Ryan’s hand.
“Nice of you to get me a brew, too, little bro.”
Ryan looked sheepish. “Yeah, well, I was distracted, wasn’t I? I can get you one now if you want.”
Andrew rolled his eyes, shook his head, and stood. “Don’t bother. Johnno came by before, and I was just going to shoot a round or two of pool with him anyway. Want to join us?”
Ryan glanced at Michael. “In a minute, maybe.”
“Suit yourself. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.” Andrew nodded and made his way over to the pool tables.
Ryan nudged Michael into a seat at the table and took the seat next to him. They were silent a moment, just looking at each other, Michael frantically scrabbling around for something to say that wasn’t, “So, do you come here often?” “Have you lived in Burreela all your life?”
Ryan shook his head. “Nah, not always. I was born here, on the farm, but I was away for a few years, in Sydney.”
“In Sydney? What were you doing there?” Michael picked up his beer again, watching Ryan over the length of the bottle as he took a sip.
“I was a policeman for a while, actually. I was in the mounted police,” Ryan answered, his tone light as if he expected some reaction to that.
He got one; Michael breathed in a mouthful of beer and choked, almost coughing up a lung before he could manage to breathe again. “A policeman?”
“Mounted police, yeah.” Ryan smiled and looked down at his beer bottle, fingers teasing at the label. “Is there something wrong with that?”
“No! No, of course not, I just… it was just a surprise, that’s all. I didn’t expect—I mean, you don’t look much like a cop, do you?” Michael could feel his face going red as Ryan shrugged and looked up at him, his hair falling across his forehead in a way that made Michael want to tangle his fingers in it.
“I don’t know. What does a cop look like?”
“Well, I don’t know. Not like you,” Michael said lamely. God, he was making an idiot of himself. He took a long swallow of his beer, conscious all the time of Ryan’s eyes on him, and moved on to a safer topic. “What made you quit? If you don’t mind me asking.”
Ryan smiled slightly. “I don’t mind. It’s nothing bad. Or not bad for me, anyway.” He shrugged. “Dad had an accident about a year ago. He broke his leg and was pretty much stuck in the house. Andrew needed someone to help him run the farm, so I volunteered.”
Michael frowned. “Couldn’t he have just hired someone to help him?”
“I suppose he could have, but I couldn’t have lived with that.” Ryan took a swig of his beer, and glanced over his shoulder, toward where Andrew stood at the nearest pool table, bent over to play his first shot. “Money’s tight, you know. Farming’s not the money earner it used to be, and family farms like ours aren’t all that common anymore. I wasn’t having my own father pay someone to do the job I could do with one hand tied behind my back.” He shrugged again, looking Michael straight in the eye. “It’s family, isn’t it? You do what you can for family.”
Some people did. Other people’s families, not his own. The less said about his family, the better. “Oh yeah, of course.” He took another pull of his beer, surprised to find it almost empty. Draining it, he put it down on the table in front of him. “That went down easy.”
“They always go down easy on a Friday night.” Ryan smiled and took a mouthful of his own beer. “So what about your family, Michael? Are you close to them?”
Michael stood. “I think I need another beer first. Want one?” Even in the relative darkness of the bar, Michael saw Ryan’s gaze sharpen. He wasn’t fooled for a second by Michael’s diversionary tactics.
“Sure. Same as before ’s fine.”
“Okay, no problem.” Michael turned and went to the bar, feeling Ryan’s gaze on him all the way there. He refused to look, not wanting to confirm if Ryan was staring at him, or that he wasn’t and Michael just had an overactive imagination. By the time he started heading back, Ryan’s attention was fixed on the television above his head, but he turned quickly enough when Michael approached.
“Thanks.” Ryan put his new beer on a coaster, pushing the empties to the middle of the table. “So. Family?”
Michael sat back down on his stool, his stomach sinking. “Yes, family.” He paused. “Not much to tell, really. We’re not that close. Well, I… I’m not that close to my parents. Parent. Dad. There’s only my dad left now. Mum died about two years ago. Cancer.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” And he did look sorry, and sound it, despite the fact that he didn’t seem to have a mother himself. Not that Michael had bothered to ask him.
“Yeah, well.” Michael started picking at the label on his beer. “Thanks. I’m sorry too.” He was quiet a moment, then sighed and attempted a smile. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to be a downer.”
Ryan waved a hand dismissively. “God, don’t worry about that. Besides, you’re not a downer.” He paused. “Do you have any brothers or sisters?”
That at least was safe ground. “Yeah, a sister. She’s a couple of years older than me. She’s married, lives in Sydney with her husband and kids.”
“You don’t see her much?”
Michael shrugged. “I see her as often as I can. She’s… she’s the only family member I talk to nowadays.” Ryan looked sorry he’d asked, and Michael could completely understand that. “Sorry,” he said again. “I shouldn’t bore you with my family shit. It’s not interesting at all.”
“Michael, it’s fine, honestly.”
“It’s not really,” Michael said, deciding to change the subject again. “How’s Charlie?”
“Hmm?” Ryan frowned, but then his face cleared. “Oh, Charlie. She’s good. Healing really well, by the looks of things. She won’t have much of a scar, I don’t think.” He paused. “You can come out and see her if you want to.”
“Oh, well, if there’s no need to… I wouldn’t want to come out for no reason. You don’t need any unnecessary bills, I’m sure.”
Ryan shrugged. “So make it a social call.” He smiled at Michael’s expression. “What?”
“Nothing, I just… I’m surprised, that’s all.”
Michael shrugged. “I don’t know. Because I haven’t been here that long.”
Ryan took a swig of his beer. “What difference does that make?”
“I don’t know,” Michael said again. “I suppose it doesn’t make a difference.”
Ryan was watching him intently. “No, it doesn’t. So you can come over whenever you like.” He paused. “To see Charlie.”
Michael nodded. “Right. Of course. To see Charlie. See how she’s doing.”
“Right,” Ryan said, looking at him over his beer bottle as he took another sip.
Michael picked up his beer and drained it. “Want another?”
Ryan laughed. “You might want to think about going easy there, tiger,” he said. “You might regret it a bit later on.”
Michael dismissed that with a wave of his hand. It wasn't that he didn’t think it was true, but right then he didn’t really care. It was either drink lots or die of embarrassment. Or go trawling for a drug dealer so he could get high. Not that he thought that the mean streets of Burreela held many drug dealers, which, after all, was the reason he’d come here in the first place. “I’ll be fine. You don’t want one, I take it?”
Ryan shook his head. “No, I’m right, thanks.”
Michael nodded and went to the bar.
AFTER a while, he lost count of how many drinks he’d had, but socializing got a lot easier, which was a relief. Ryan was a funny guy, and for some reason he seemed to like talking to Michael, which was puzzling, but it must have been because drunk Michael was a whole lot more fun than not-drunk Michael. Michael chose not to analyze it any further than that. They continued shouting each other rounds, and at some stage later on in the night Michael realized—dimly—that he’d switched to spirits, and that was probably a bad sign, especially when it meant he had trouble keeping his eyes off Ryan’s ass when he bent over to play his shot in pool. He stayed with Ryan and Andrew until closing time, and when he got up from his seat, he realized that he was a lot less steady on his feet than he thought he’d be, which was also bad. Concentrating as hard as he could got him moving out of the bar, and he made it to the pub door with, if not grace, then his dignity intact.
The night sky was clear, the lack of clouds leeching the heat of the day out of the air, and Michael closed his eyes in relief as he stepped outside and the slight breeze cooled his sweaty brow. As he stood, swaying slightly, someone took hold of his elbow.
“You all right to get home, mate?”
Michael opened his eyes to see Ryan standing next to him. “What?” It was Ryan’s hand on his arm. Michael suppressed a shiver and said, “Oh, yeah. Of course. I’m fine, totally fine.”
Ryan smiled, but his gaze was assessing. “You sure about that?”
Michael frowned. “Of course I’m sure. I’m an adult. Perfectly capable of getting myself home, thank you.”
“Okay. Just checking.” Ryan removed his hand, Michael immediately mourning the lack of contact. “I guess I’ll see you ’round, then.”
“I guess,” Michael said vaguely. Andrew was standing a little way off with a couple of his and Ryan’s friends, talking among themselves. “Your friends are waiting for you. I better go.” He waved in the general direction of the others and turned on his heel, starting to walk slowly up the street.
It wasn’t long before he realized that he should have gotten a taxi, if such a thing even existed in Burreela, which he didn’t think it did, what with everything being mostly within walking distance of everywhere else. The desire to sit down—lie down, even—was almost overwhelming, but he forced himself to keep shuffling along. The surgery was two or three blocks away, not that far if he just kept walking. He just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. There weren’t that many people around, just the ones who had been in the pub making their way home, and Michael ignored them, just concentrating on keeping moving. He felt like he’d walked for miles, but when he turned to look back at how far he’d come, he was barely five hundred meters up the road from the pub. He could have cried, might have cried, even, if when he looked back he hadn’t seen Ryan jogging up the footpath toward him.
“Hey,” Ryan said when he caught up to Michael.
Michael stopped. “Hey. What are you doing?”
Ryan shrugged. “Thought you might want some company.”
Michael frowned. “I said I was all right to get home.”
“I know. I just wanted to make sure.”
“Well, I’m fine, so you can go back to your friends.” Michael turned to keep moving, stumbling a little as his movement made his head swim. Ryan reached out to grab his arm again, and for the briefest moment, Michael considered just leaving it there. But in the end, pride won out. He steadied himself, closed his eyes, then said, “I’m fine, Ryan, really. You don’t have to hold my arm like that.”
“Okay.” Ryan’s hand stayed where it was for a moment, then dropped away. “But let me walk with you. Please.”
“You don’t have to.”
“I know. But maybe I want to.”
Michael opened his eyes and looked over at Ryan, his heart starting to beat faster in his chest, which just made him feel even more lightheaded. “Why would you want to do that?”
Ryan smiled. “Because I want to. So just let me, all right?”
Michael looked at Ryan for a moment or two longer in silence, but Ryan just kept smiling at him. He had a really great smile. Michael frowned again. “All right. But you don’t have to steady me. I can walk.”
“Right. No steadying,” Ryan said, and they started their slow way up the street again.
In actual fact, there was some steadying, when Michael tripped over some uneven piece of footpath, or when he weaved a little too unsteadily and accidentally bumped into Ryan. But Ryan kept the contact brief, letting go when Michael regained his equilibrium, so Michael didn’t say anything else. They reached the surgery after what felt like forever to Michael, and he resisted the temptation to crumple into the doorway right there and then, mainly because the door to his flat was around the side of the surgery and up a flight of stairs.
“Okay, we’re here now,” he said to Ryan when they were at the surgery door. “Thanks for seeing me home.”
Ryan shrugged. “That’s okay. But you’ve still got a little way to go before you’re home.” He smiled a little. “I offer a door-to-door service.”
Michael looked at Ryan, a mixture of sudden lust and dread settling like a rock in his belly. “You can’t come in.”
Ryan laughed, but just for a moment, Michael thought he saw a look in Ryan’s eyes that didn’t go with the lighthearted attitude. “Okay, that’s fine. I didn’t say I was going to.”
“Yeah, right. I know that.” Michael flushed and turned away, walking around the corner of the building, bumping into it as he negotiated the turn. This time Ryan didn’t try to steady him. He pulled himself up the stairs through force of will and a firm grip on the railing, Ryan just behind him. At the top of the stairs he paused. “Okay. You can go now.”
Ryan stepped onto the landing and leaned back against the railing. “You know, if I didn’t know better, I’d think you wanted to get rid of me, Michael.”
Quite the opposite. But that was the problem. Michael was really in no condition to be able to do anything, but even knowing that, he still couldn’t trust himself not to end up on his knees within five minutes of letting Ryan into his flat, and tomorrow morning he’d wake up with the taste of come in his mouth and only the fuzziest recollection of the event itself, and he’d promised himself he wouldn’t be that person anymore. He stepped up to his door and leaned his forehead against it, sighing softly. “It’s not that, I’m just… tired, that’s all. Tired and pissed as a newt, and I need to go to bed.” He paused. “Sorry.”
Ryan was silent for so long that Michael was torn between the urge to turn around and see what was up and the urge to run away. Running away won out. He jammed his hand in his pocket to get his keys and started fumbling to get his door unlocked. He couldn’t seem to find the bloody lock in the dark, and he cursed himself for not leaving a light on as panic started to clutch at his throat. “Sorry, I’ve got to go—”
“It’s all right.” Suddenly Ryan’s voice was right behind him. Michael started to turn, but then Ryan was right there, the warmth of him right up against Michael’s back. Michael froze, but Ryan just reached out and took the keys from him, trying a couple in the lock before hitting on the right one, unlocking the door, and pushing it open gently, the movement pressing his chest to Michael’s back. He didn’t seem to notice Michael’s sharp intake of breath at the contact. After he opened the door, he grabbed Michael’s hand and tucked the keys back into his palm, their fingers brushing as Michael’s closed over the keys. “There you go,” he said softly, stepping back again.
The air at Michael’s back felt suddenly cold, and he shivered, staring down at the keys in his hand. “Oh. Thanks.” He stood still for a moment, then shook himself out of his stupor and stepped over his threshold. When he turned back, Ryan was leaning back against the railing again, his arms folded across his chest, watching him. “Thanks, Ryan.”
Ryan smiled weakly and inclined his head. “No worries,” he said, and pushed himself up off the railing. “Night, Michael.”
“Night.” Michael waited until Ryan was stepping onto the top step before saying, “You’ll be all right to get back to your friends?”
Ryan turned to look at him, and this time the smile was a little more genuine. “Yeah, I’ll be all right. Don’t worry about me.”
Michael nodded. “Right. No. I won’t.” He stood in the doorway until Ryan turned the corner of the building, then closed the door and went to bed, trying not to think about what an idiot he was or how much he’d regret this in the morning.
HE WAS sitting in his living room clutching a glass of fizzy vitamin B with a couple of aspirin thrown in for good measure and contemplating whether he was going to be able to keep it all down, when the phone rang. He jumped, swearing loudly when his glass almost ended up dumped in his lap. Quickly setting it down on his coffee table and wiping his hands on his pajama pants, he reached for the phone, closing his eyes and swallowing hard when the sudden movement made his head spin and his stomach lurch. “Hello?” His voice came out a weak, wavering croak.
There was sudden laughter in his ear. “I take it you were out last night?”
He sighed and kept his eyes closed, putting a hand up to rub at his forehead. “It’s really not funny, Jen.”
“Oh, yes, it is.” His sister laughed again. “What were you drinking?”
“Beer. And then maybe… bourbon. Yeah, bourbon.” Michael’s stomach lurched again, and he opened his eyes and reached for the hangover cure, cradling it against his chest.
“Well then, you deserve whatever you get, little brother. You know you can’t hold your spirits.”
He pressed the glass against his forehead. “Yeah, I know.” He did too; when he’d been in Sydney, he had hardly drunk at all, preferring his nights out to be enhanced by more chemical means, believing in better living through narcotics. Not that Jen knew that. “But it was an accident. Well. Not an accident, exactly. I was… making friends.” Sort of.
“Oh, yeah?” She sounded pleased. “That’s good, Mikey. That’s worth a hangover or two.”
“Anyway, I—hey! Hang on, I’ve got to—” There was a sudden squealing in the background, and Jen put the phone down with a clunk and went to break up the fight between her children. Michael could hear her scolding them, and Jack, his oldest nephew, whining about it. He closed his eyes and took a tentative sip of the fizzy orange stuff and waited for his stomach to revolt. Nothing happened, so he took another sip while he waited for Jen to come back on the phone. He could hear her talking to someone else now, and recognized the voice of his brother-in-law. He could hear Jen telling him to take the kids outside as she picked up the phone again.
“Sorry,” she said, sounding harried now. “Jack needs to learn to share.”
“Right.” He took another sip of his fizzy stuff. “Did you call for a reason?” He didn’t want to be rude, but God he wanted to lie down again.
Jen didn’t take offense. “Yeah, I did, actually. Ethan’s going away to a conference in a few weeks, and I was thinking that I’d bring the kids up to visit you for a few days.”
“Really?” Michael couldn’t help but smile at the thought of it; he didn’t miss much about Sydney, but he did miss Jen. “I’d like that. I’d like it a lot.”
They talked for a little while longer, talking dates and transport, places to stay and things to do, and when they hung up Michael was feeling a whole lot better. His head still pounded, but he finished his drink and went into the kitchen to attempt to make himself some food he could actually stomach. He was in the middle of frying bacon to a crisp, just the way he liked it, when the phone rang again. It’d be Jen again, with some other thing she’d forgotten to tell him. She was always doing that. He jogged out to answer it, pressing it against the side of his face with his shoulder as he headed back into the kitchen. “Forgot something, did you?”
There was silence on the other end of the phone, and then a much more masculine voice said, with a hint of a laugh in his tone, “Ah… I don’t think so. I’d say out of the two of us, you were the one who was going to forget something. Last night, anyway.”
Now Michael was the one who was silent as his sluggish brain slowly processed what had been said to him. “Ryan?”
The other man chuckled, a throaty noise that went straight to Michael’s groin. “So you haven’t forgotten me, then.”
“Forgotten you? No, no, there’s no way I’d forget someone like—oh. I mean, I—”
Ryan laughed again. “I know what you mean, Michael.”
That struck Michael dumb again, as he stood in the middle of his kitchen, spatula held limply in his hand while his bacon spat and sizzled in the pan. It was Ryan who broke the silence again.
“I just called to see how you were feeling. You were pretty shitfaced last night.”
Michael closed his eyes, his face heating. “Yeah, I—I was. Sorry about that.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Ryan said, and Michael thought he sounded sincere. Hoped that he was. “You were fine. All in good fun, right?”
“Right.” The smell of smoke alerted Michael to the fact that his bacon was burning. As he leaned over to lift it off the stove, something occurred to him. “How did you get my number?”
“I rang the vet’s and the answering machine gave it to me. You’re the one on call outside of hours, right?” There was no trace of embarrassment or nervousness in Ryan’s answer at all.
“Oh. Yeah, right. I am. Sometimes. Not right now. We take turns working on the weekends. Me and Bill.” Michael winced; he could not be sounding more like an idiot if he tried. “Sorry. I’m not really with it just yet.”
“No worries,” Ryan said, then paused. “I suppose I better let you go and let you get back to it,” he said eventually.
Michael found himself reluctant to let Ryan go. “I wasn’t really doing anything important. Aside from feeling sorry for myself, of course. And trying not to throw up. I suppose that’s pretty important, although maybe some people wouldn’t say so.” He was babbling again. He stopped, took a deep breath. “Anyway. My point is, you didn’t interrupt anything.”
“I’m glad. Even so, I should let you go.” Ryan paused again. “Maybe I’ll see you around sometime?”
Michael’s heart leapt for a moment, until he ruthlessly crushed all hopeful thoughts. “See you around sometime” was what people said to each other all the time. It didn’t mean anything, not that they were going to see you and not that they even wanted to. “Sure, yeah. That’d be good.”
“I think so,” Ryan said, and there was a smile in his voice. “Take care, Michael.”
With that, he hung up. Michael listened to the dial tone for a few dazed seconds before returning the phone to its cradle. It was hours before he managed to think of anything other than Ryan Mitchell.