Chapter 1

 

 

MAYBE MUM is right. Maybe it will be third time lucky.

John Wainwright stared into his cup of coffee and tried to ignore the rolling in the pit of his stomach. The interview had gone well—at least, he thought it had. John didn’t exactly trust his own judgment anymore. He’d thought the previous two interviews had gone well too. The fact that there were four other candidates didn’t fill him with confidence, especially since two of them had been on the last interview.

All of us chasing the same jobs, he thought morosely as he stirred his coffee. He glanced at his watch. They wouldn’t be calling for another hour or so, and John didn’t want to catch the train back to Chester just yet.

His phone vibrated in his jacket pocket. John took it out and smiled when he saw the caller.

“You checking up on me?” he asked his brother as soon as the call connected.

Evan chuckled into his ear. “Where are we up to?”

We aren’t up to anywhere,” John corrected him. “I am sitting in Debenhams in their café, having a cup of coffee while I wait to hear.” He took a sip before continuing. “The interview went fine. I really like the school, and the class they gave me to teach was a nice group of kids.”

“Did the lesson go well? I know you were nervous about it.”

John gave a wry chuckle. “That would be an understatement, but yeah, it went well.” Teaching a lesson was always the most nerve-racking part of the interview process, as far as John was concerned. It was only thirty minutes, providing the two observers with only a brief glimpse of his presence in the classroom, but John fervently hoped it had been enough. He loved the school. It had a good feel about it.

“Did you say you’re in Debenhams? Want to meet up? I can be with you in twenty minutes.”

John considered the proposal. His interview had finished at two thirty, and the remaining four candidates had still to be interviewed. It would be at least five thirty before anyone rang him to let him know how he’d done. That’s the best thing about teaching jobs, he mused. They let you know on the day. It was only four o’clock, and he’d already wandered up and down Market Street twice, looking in all the shop windows. And you haven’t seen Evan since the wedding, he told himself.

“Yeah, that sounds great. Will Daniel be coming with you?”

“Only if you promise not to kiss him again.” John could hear the amusement in Evan’s voice.

John felt his cheeks heating up. Evan was never going to let him live that down. “Ev, you promised,” he whined. It was his own fault. The first time he’d met his new brother-in-law, he’d thoroughly embarrassed himself.

Evan laughed. “Sorry, bro, I couldn’t resist.” John heard him speaking quietly to Daniel. “Daniel says if it’s okay with you, he’ll come along.”

“Tell him it’s fine,” John stressed. It would be good to see them both. “Shall I stay put?”

“I’ve got a better idea. How about meeting us at Via Fossa on Canal Street?”

John groaned internally. Evan would want to meet in a gay bar, wouldn’t he? “At least you didn’t suggest meeting at G-A-Y,” he said. He heard Evan snicker. “Okay, Via Fossa it is. See you there.” He hung up and pocketed his phone. A leisurely stroll down to Canal Street would mean he’d arrive shortly before his brother, which was fine. John didn’t want to spend too much time there on his own. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Manchester’s gay village—he’d hardly ever visited the district. But just being around gay guys made him nervous.

He wasn’t about to share that information with Evan. John knew exactly how his brother would react. He could hear the words in his head, plain as day.

Does it make you nervous because you don’t like the idea of a gay guy coming on to you? Or because you might be tempted to come on to one of them?

John shivered. Nope. Not going to go there.

 

 

JOHN SAT on the wall that ran alongside the canal and watched for Evan and Daniel’s arrival. July had been glorious so far, the summer everyone had been waiting for since the previous year’s washout. The temperatures had climbed up into the late twenties, which was pretty damn good for the UK, and had even nudged past thirty a couple of days. Canal Street was buzzing. Crowds of people sat at tables out in the cobbled street or perched on the walls that channeled the canal as it ran through the center of the city. There was a party atmosphere in the air. It was the weekend of Sparkle, the village’s transvestite event, and Sackville Gardens were full to bursting as everyone crowded in there to watch the judging for Miss Sparkle.

John glanced around at the many men, young and old, who sat drinking in the early evening sunshine. The crowd wasn’t made up exclusively of males. He’d been surprised to see a group of giggling young women, obviously out on a hen night, judging by the young woman who was wearing a tiara and wedding veil. They’d clearly had a lot to drink already, John decided as he watched them stumble along the street, their high heels skittering over the cobbles.

“That’s becoming a regular sight around here.”

John jerked his head up in surprise. Evan was standing beside him, looking over the top of his sunglasses at the party of girls. John got to his feet and hugged him. Daniel stood at Evan’s side, his long black hair tied back and sunglasses perched on top of his head. Both men were smiling.

“I didn’t hear you,” John said as he took Daniel’s hand. Daniel ignored it and gave him a brief but warm hug.

Evan’s smile widened. “That’s because you were too busy watching the show,” he said, indicating the departing group. “Some of the guys who drink here regularly say there are more and more hen nights down on Canal Street.” He shook his head. “Why do some women like hanging out with gay guys?”

“Maybe they feel safer,” suggested Daniel. “They’re not likely to get hit on, are they? And it’s not often you see fights breaking out. The girls can concentrate on having a good time.”

“Let me get you two something to drink, seeing as you’re still impoverished students.” John winked.

Evan chuckled. “You haven’t got that job yet, bro.”

John’s smile faded. “Don’t remind me.” He hadn’t thought it would be this difficult to get a teaching job, especially when other students from his teacher training course had literally walked straight into jobs as early as March or April.

Evan put his arm around John’s shoulders and squeezed. “It’ll be fine. Maybe this is the one. You and Daniel find a seat, and I’ll get us all a drink. Lager okay?” John nodded, and Evan disappeared into Via Fossa. John took a look around and spotted a group of three men who were just getting up to leave.

“There,” he prompted Daniel, and the two men pushed quickly through the crowd to grab the table before anyone else reached it. They sat back on the chairs and sighed simultaneously. Both men burst into laughter.

“So how is married life treating you?” John asked him. “It’s been, what, nearly seven months?” He grinned. “Evan hasn’t driven you up the wall yet?”

Daniel’s face creased into a lazy grin. “I have no problem handling your brother, believe me.” There was a gleam in his eye. “He knows how to stay on my good side.”

John wasn’t sure what to make of that statement until he remembered something he’d seen on their wedding day—a very distinctive piece of jewelry Evan had worn around his neck, a black choker made from chain links, joined at the front in a little gold spring clasp. What had made it so distinctive was the tiny charm in the shape of a pair of handcuffs that hung from the clasp. John had only glimpsed the choker toward the end of the reception when Evan had undone his shirt at the neck.

And he’s wearing it today.

John had read enough to have a fair idea of the significance of the choker. Not to mention the way Evan and Daniel acted around each other. There wasn’t anything overt in their behavior, but it was obvious who wore the pants—and maybe wielded the whip, for all John knew—in their relationship. He wasn’t about to mention it. That would open up the door to a conversation John was definitely not prepared to participate in. It was bad enough that both Evan and Daniel knew he wasn’t 100 percent certain he was straight.

Evan exited the bar and look around for them. John raised his hand in signal, and Evan’s face lit up. He edged his way precariously through the tables with the three pint glasses and joined them. Evan sat down at the table and then raised his glass.

“To you, John. Here’s hoping you find what you’re looking for.”

John gave him a sharp look, but Evan’s expression was guileless. John raised his glass in acknowledgment and took a drink. The lager was cold and refreshing.

“So, tell us about the school,” Daniel said after taking a long drink.

John put down his glass. “It’s in a deprived part of the city—in fact, it’s only a ten minute walk from the center. The area is rundown, and the school is set in the middle of a council estate.”

“Wow. That’s a little different from the first two jobs you went for,” Evan commented. John had to agree. His first interview had been in a Church of England primary school where the governing body had clearly provided a lot of money to furnish the children with the best facilities available. The second had been very similar. “What made you go for this one, John?”

“I liked the ethos of the school,” John admitted. “They’re committed to helping every child who walks through their doors, regardless of their background or level of ability.” The school had looked good on paper, and John’s first impression as he’d walked around and glimpsed into the classrooms had only reinforced his belief that this was where he was meant to be.

“What are the teachers like? Did you get to meet many of them?” asked Daniel. John could tell his brother-in-law was genuinely interested.

“Well, I got to have a chat with them in the staff room during the lunch hour—those who weren’t out supervising the kids, anyway. I have to say, they seemed very young.”

“Says you at the lofty age of twenty-four,” Evan said with a snicker.

John shook his head. “I only meant to say that there didn’t seem to be any older members of staff, you know, really experienced teachers. The ones I saw could only have been teaching for a few years at the most.”

“Is it a new school?” Daniel asked.

John huffed. “Hardly. There’s been a school on that site since 1906, according to the plaque near the entrance. Okay, so the original school was knocked down and rebuilt a couple of years ago, but they wouldn’t have gotten rid of all the staff, would they?”

Daniel shrugged. “You wouldn’t think so.” His gaze was affectionate. “You really want this job, don’t you?”

John nodded slowly. He had a really good feeling about it.

“You said on the phone the interview went fine. No tricky questions, then?” Evan asked before downing half his pint.

John smiled. “None that I wasn’t prepared for, at any rate.” The interview had been conducted by the head teacher, Brett Sanderson, along with two governors. Both Brett and Mary Lacey, the teacher-governor, had observed John’s lesson. John sighed. “The worst thing was being interviewed first.”

“What about the competition? Any really strong candidates—apart from you, of course.” Daniel winked.

John had to smile at that. “Two of them I’d already met before at the last two interviews. There was one really pushy guy, though. Kept asking lots of questions as we did our tour of the school. It was difficult to get a word in edgeways.” John had disliked him immediately. “And he’s probably got the job,” he added gloomily.

His phone vibrated in his pocket. He chuckled as he withdrew it. “This will be Mum, wanting to know if there’s any news.” He glanced at the screen and froze. Definitely not Mum. His fingers trembled as he connected the call. “John Wainwright.”

“Mr. Wainwright, this is Brett Sanderson from Ardwick Primary school. Are you able to talk right now?”

“Yes, certainly, Mr. Sanderson.” John watched both Evan and Daniel straighten, their eyes fixed on him. “And please, call me John.”

“John, I’d like to offer you the position.” John’s mouth dropped open, and he stared at Evan in astonishment. Evan gave him a questioning look and put his thumbs up. John nodded eagerly, and Evan’s expression of joy was a delight to see. “John—are you still there?” John was convinced there was the tiniest hint of amusement in that cool voice.

“Yes—yes, I’m still here. Thank you very much, Mr. Sanderson.” John did his best not to sound flustered.

There was a dry chuckle. “We’re a pretty informal bunch here, John. I’m Brett, all right?”

“Yes, Brett.” John could hardly believe it. I got the job! “What’s the procedure now?” He was trying hard to keep his cool, but he felt like dancing, his heart was so light.

“School closes next week for the summer, so it might be an idea if you came here on Monday morning and got some details about the class you’ll be taking. I warn you, they’ll be a challenge.” Brett paused. “I hope you’re up to it.”

“Yes, sir—I mean, Brett.” John couldn’t have cared right now if the class was comprised entirely of kids who liked juggling chainsaws and throwing knives around the classroom. I’ve got a job….

“Shall we say first thing Monday, then? You can spend the whole day with us. We should be able to sort out everything then.”

“That sounds great,” John said. He couldn’t stop grinning. “Thank you again, Brett, for this opportunity.”

“You don’t need to thank me. I happen to think the best candidate got the job. And, John? Welcome aboard.” Brett’s voice was deep and firm.

“Thank you. I’ll see you Monday.” John hung up and stared at the phone in his hand. Wow….

“Congratulations!” Evan was up out of his chair and hugging John tightly, Daniel not far behind him. John’s mind was already reeling. There was so much to think about. He’d need to move out of his parents’ house, for a start, and find somewhere to live before the new term started in September. At least he’d be closer to Evan. And clothes—he’d need to make sure he looked the part. So many things to consider….

“John? You need to stop and enjoy the moment.”

John turned to Daniel, who was studying him with an amused grin. John gave him a sheepish look. “Yeah, I suppose you’re right. Though as soon as Mum and Dad hear about it, Mum will have a load of questions to throw at me.” His main concern was his accommodation. Much as he loved living at home, he was excited at the prospect of being on his own again. University had been a lot of fun, and John was anxious to have his freedom back.

“Never mind enjoying the moment,” Evan said with a smirk. “If he knows what’s good for him, he’d better ring Mum.”

John pulled out his phone with a sigh. No use putting off the inevitable.

His mother’s shriek of joy was deafening. “That’s fantastic news! Oh, I had a good feeling about this one.” John didn’t want to remind her about her previous good feelings. “So I guess we can tell you what your present is!”

“Present?”

She laughed down the phone. “Of course. We wanted to give you something practical, so Dad and I are giving you the deposit and first month’s rent on your new place, wherever you end up living. Providing you don’t want to live somewhere really pricey, that is. Think what you’ll be able to afford on your salary.”

John smiled. It was the perfect gift. “Mum, that’s great. Thank you, and please thank Dad for me.” Not that he wouldn’t give his thanks personally when he got home.

“Can I have the phone for a sec?” Evan asked. John handed it over. “Mum, don’t expect John home tonight. Daniel and I would like to take him out to celebrate, and then he can stay at the house with us. Sean and Michael aren’t home yet from Spain, so their room is empty—he can sleep in there.” Evan looked at him questioningly. John nodded with a grin. A night out with Evan and Daniel sounded like a great idea. Evan listened for a minute. “Yes, Mum, I’ll be sure to take care of him. Not that he isn’t capable of taking care of himself.” He handed the phone back to John with a grin.

“Now have a lovely evening,” his mum urged. “And don’t drink too much.” John could hear his father in the background, saying something about “For God’s sake, Christine, let the boy enjoy himself, why don’t you.” John chuckled. He said good-bye and then pocketed the phone.

Evan was almost bouncing on his seat. “Oh, we’re going to have fun tonight.” His gleeful expression made John a little wary.

“Just what are you planning?” He stared pointedly at Evan, who arched his eyebrows in an expression clearly meant to convey innocence. Yeah, right….

“You’re going to come home with us and we’ll feed you,” Evan said with enthusiasm. “Josh and Chris won’t be there. They’ve taken Mark, Josh’s Dad, away for a holiday. Josh had to insist. That man works far too hard.” John had met Josh and Chris at the wedding, along with Mark. Mark Saunders had been in a wheelchair, as he’d been recovering from a gunshot wound.

“They all needed a break after everything that’s happened,” added Daniel, his face serious.

John racked his brains for a moment before recalling that Josh had been kidnapped by his sadistic ex-boyfriend. Mark was the detective inspector who’d found him.

“How is he?” John had liked Josh. He’d seemed a pleasant guy who clearly adored his now-fiancé, Chris. “And have they made any plans yet for the wedding?”

Daniel shook his head. “They’re in no hurry, they say. Josh will be starting the second year of medical school in September, and Chris has one more year of his degree left. And as for how Josh is, ask Evan. Josh seems to confide more in him than in me.” His brow creased into a slight frown.

Evan reached across and took his husband’s hand. “Don’t be like that, babe. Who was it Chris turned to when he needed advice, hmmm?” He fixed Daniel with an earnest stare.

Daniel sighed. “You’re right, of course. I’ve just had the impression that Josh has been a little… cool with me recently.” He stroked Evan’s hand, his gaze lowered.

John tipped his head to one side. “I thought you all got on famously in that house of yours. Trouble in paradise?”

Evan shrugged. “I think Josh has been through a horrific experience. It’s bound to have left its mark, yeah? And maybe some time away on the Isle of Wight will help him—help all of them.” He shivered. “Anyway, enough of that—you just need to concentrate on having a good time tonight.” His eyes glittered. “And we are going to give you a really good time.”

“It’s your idea of a good time that worries me,” John muttered under his breath. Evan chuckled, and Daniel patted John’s shoulder. They picked up their pints and sat back, relaxing in the early evening sunshine. John sipped his pint and tried to ignore the butterflies in his stomach. How bad could it be, he thought. Then he remembered. If Evan was in charge, heaven only knew what the night had in store for him.

Oh, brother….