Chapter One

 

JOEL ASHCROFT cringed when the boy played yet another wrong note. He used his pencil to point at the key signature of the music propped up on the piano. “What key is that, Caleb?”

“G major, Mr. Ashcroft.”

“And that means?” Joel prompted when Caleb didn’t elaborate further.

“Umm….” Caleb turned to Joel. “I don’t remember.” He thought for a moment. “It means all the notes are sharp, doesn’t it? I’m sorry. I forgot! That’s why it doesn’t sound right.”

Joel bit down on his lower lip and slowly counted to five before replying. “You’re almost right, but not quite. Would you like to try again?”

How had this kid passed his grade one theory exam with honors? It was as though the moment the exam finished, he’d forgotten everything he’d supposedly learned.

“Oh right!” Caleb exclaimed. “It means all the Fs are sharp, doesn’t it?”

Joel gripped his pencil tightly, half expecting it to snap in two. Why did he get these pupils last thing on a Friday afternoon? It was the universe shitting on him; he was sure of it. One day he’d rearrange his schedule so he didn’t come home at the end of a week’s work at the high school to spend another couple of hours teaching. A couple of weeks into the new school year and he was already feeling the strain. “That’s right. Well done.”

Caleb beamed at him and then began to play again, totally ignoring the conversation they’d just had.

Luckily a knock at the door provided a brief escape. “Good evening, Mrs. Barker,” Joel said politely as he let her in. An attempt to block out the dissonant notes still coming from the other room failed miserably. “Please come in. We’re nearly finished.”

“Oh,” said Mrs. Barker, glancing at her watch. “I was just about to apologize for being early. Haven’t you got another ten minutes to go?”

“We’re finishing a little earlier tonight,” Joel said firmly. “We had a longer lesson last week to make up the time.”

“Oh, yes, so you did.” Mrs. Barker smiled at him, conveniently forgetting that the previous week’s lesson had been longer than usual because she’d been so late in picking up her son. “I’m so proud of him, you know.” She lowered her voice, although it was doubtful Caleb was aware of anything but the music he was focused on.

Joel wished he could focus on something else.

Usually he had a lot more patience with Caleb, and he reminded himself that the kid did try really hard. It wasn’t Caleb’s fault that his mother had pushed him into learning an instrument he wasn’t interested in.

“Yes, I know,” he said. He’d tried once before to explain to this doting parent that her son was not cut out for a career in music, but she stubbornly refused to listen. “I heard the local theater group is auditioning for a new play. They’re looking for students who—”

“My Caleb isn’t going to be an actor.” Mrs. Barker gave Joel a glare. “He’s a musician.”

Joel sighed. Caleb had confided in him that he’d like to give acting a go. “Perhaps just think about it, hmm?”

As if on cue, Caleb started to play the G major scale in the middle of the piece. Joel couldn’t help but wince as the scale went through a couple of keys the composer hadn’t intended.

“There’s nothing to think about.” Mrs. Barker pushed past him into the music room, a huge smile lighting up her face when she saw her son seated at the piano.

“Your mum’s here,” Joel said. “I’ll see you next week, Caleb.”

The boy began to pack up his music, and Joel scribbled a few notes about the day’s lesson in his notebook. His friend Darin had once told him it was a good thing no one else could read his writing, given some of the comments he made.

“Thanks for the lesson, Mr. Ashcroft,” Caleb said politely. “See you next week.”

“See you next week, Joel,” Mrs. Barker said as though their brief conversation had never taken place. “If you’d like to meet anytime to discuss his progress, you know I’m more than happy to, right?” She winked at him.

Joel bit his lip before replying. “Have a good week, Mrs. Barker,” he said.

“Adelaide, please,” Mrs. Barker insisted. “After all, we’ve known each other a while now.”

“Umm, yes, we have, but—”

“Just about done for today, Joel?” Darin Prior poked his head around the door. “Hi, Adelaide, how’s it going?”

“I was just leaving.” Adelaide Barker gave Darin an annoyed look. “I’ll see you later,” she told Joel and then hurried her son out the front door.

“I didn’t hear you come in,” Joel mumbled, slamming the cover shut on his notebook.

“I’m honing my ninja skills.” Darin grinned.

“And you have a front door key,” Joel added. After he’d had a bad case of flu the year before and struggled to get out of bed to answer the door, Darin and his wife, Ella, had decided someone needed to be able to get into the house in case of an emergency.

“Well, yeah, that too.” Darin shook his head. “One of these days you’ll have to tell her, you know. That woman’s been flirting with you ever since you started working at the high school.”

“Yeah, and if I tell her I’m gay, I might as well take out an ad in the paper and proclaim it to the whole region.” Joel wasn’t exactly in the closet, but he didn’t make a point of discussing his sexuality. Not when he didn’t have a reason to. He’d discovered the hard way that some stuff was better kept private.

“Not everyone is going to react like your dad did,” Darin said quietly.

“I know that, but if I’m going to tell people, I’ll be the one to tell them, not some woman who’s trying to flirt with me.” Joel made a point of bending to pick up his cat when she rubbed up against him. “You’re hungry, aren’t you, girl? Don’t worry, it’s safe to come in again. The horrible noise is gone for another week.”

“Maybe it’s about time you started dating again,” Darin suggested. He stroked Nannerl’s fur, and the cat purred. “It’s been five years since you broke up with Reed. He’s moved on. You should too.”

“Maybe I haven’t met the right guy yet.” Joel handed the cat to Darin and closed the piano lid. If he didn’t close it now, he’d forget later, and Nannerl loved walking across the keys, preferably in the middle of the night. Not only that, but she was shedding like crazy, and he didn’t want to find large piles of ginger fur on the keyboard in the morning. Some of it always managed to slide between the keys and it was a bitch to get out.

“You said that the last time we had this conversation.” Darin carried Nannerl out to the kitchen, and Joel heard the fridge open.

“You’ll need to open a new tin,” he called out. He and Darin had flatted together since university days—or rather while Joel was at uni and Darin did his apprenticeship. Once their studies were complete, they’d each settled down with the person they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with.

The only difference was that while Darin and Ella were still together, Joel and Reed had gone their separate ways. It had been an amiable breakup, and they were still friends, but when Reed got a job offer in Australia, Joel decided he didn’t want to go with him. Wellington was his home, and he’d had too much upheaval in his life to leave behind his friends and those who still considered him family.

“Got it, thanks.”

By the time Joel reached the kitchen, Nannerl was eating and Darin had helped himself to a cup of coffee, as he always did while he waited for Joel to tidy up after he’d finished teaching. Joel always made extra on Fridays for that reason. He and Darin went to the pub for an hour and then ended up at Darin’s for dinner with his family. Most of the traditions they’d had when flatting hadn’t survived, but that one had, and Joel looked forward to it each week. Ella was a good cook, and they’d always got on well. He thought she probably appreciated that he’d been the one to put forward the idea of moving out after she’d moved in.

It had been a no-brainer. Ella and Darin were madly in love, and Joel had no intention of playing gooseberry. Besides, he’d had some money saved, and he liked the idea of buying a place of his own. Luckily he’d found his two-bedroom town house before prices had gone through the roof, so his repayments were cheaper than renting. He and Reed had discussed buying it together, but Reed hadn’t been so sure. Maybe he’d had an inkling even then that their relationship wouldn’t last. Joel preferred not to think about it too much.

Joel missed sharing his house. He had friends—Darin mostly—but it wasn’t the same. Some nights it would be nice to curl up with someone who didn’t shed fur all over him like Nannerl, and while Ella didn’t begrudge the time Joel and Darin spent together, Darin’s focus needed to be on his family. Joel might be honorary uncle to Darin’s daughter, Isabel, but he wasn’t family.

“Ella heard from Marcus earlier in the week.” Darin gave Joel a look. “You’re listening to me, right? You’ve got that miles-away look you do so well.” He rolled his eyes. “Musicians.”

Joel snorted. “Mechanics,” he countered. “I’ve seen that look on your face too, and nine times out of ten you’re thinking about Ella.”

“So? I figure nine times out of ten, you’re thinking about some hot guy. No difference.”

“Whatever.”

“Whatever.” Darin leaned over and poked Joel in the shoulder. “So, as I was saying. Marcus. You remember Marcus, right?”

“Yeah, I remember Marcus.” Joel focused on finding a clean plastic lid for the new tin of cat food. “Ella’s brother, right?”

They’d first met at Ella and Darin’s wedding fifteen years before. Joel had been best man and Ella had persuaded Marcus—who preferred to stay out of the limelight—to take on the role of usher. It had been Joel’s one and only trip to Hokitika. Reed had stayed behind, as they’d been going through a rough patch at the time, but nevertheless, Joel had enjoyed his visit to the west coast of the south island. Despite that, he’d never had the urge to travel.

“Right.” Darin grew quiet, something that didn’t happen often, so Joel stopped what he was doing and gave him a suspicious look.

“And?” Joel swore he could see tiny clockworks going around in Darin’s brain. Subtlety had never been one of his friend’s strong points.

Yeah, he remembered Marcus. The guy was tall, ripped, and had amazing gray eyes. Joel had taken one look at him, and the witty comment he’d been about to say had disappeared, leaving him tongue-tied and mumbling. Then, to add insult to injury, Marcus had shaken Joel’s hand and introduced him to the man standing next him—his boyfriend.

Joel had been mortified by his reaction, as he and Marcus were both spoken for. He’d turned instinctively to apologize to Reed and to introduce him, only to remember he wasn’t there.

He’d felt like an idiot all round that day. Meeting again at the Prior’s Friday night dinners during Marcus’s infrequent visits to Wellington hadn’t been much better, and Joel had quickly found himself swinging between awkward silence and talking nonstop. The guy was seriously hot, but Joel wasn’t about to pursue a guy who was already in a relationship.

“And?” Darin seemed amused. “Oh, yeah. Marcus is moving up here from Hokitika permanently and will be living with us till he finds a place of his own. So you’ll meet him again next Friday, if not before.”

Joel slammed the fridge shut. “That will be nice,” he mumbled. A couple of years had passed since their last meeting, so hopefully this time Joel’s hormones would be better behaved. “Is his boyfriend moving up here with him?”

“Oh, didn’t I mention that?” Darin opened the back door to let the cat out. “He’s single, has been for about six months.”