“What the hell is the matter with you today? Mel will be coming down the aisle in ten minutes and you’re away with the fairies.”
Sam shook himself. “I’m sorry. I didn’t sleep well last night. Probably the thought of marrying my little brother to his lovely bride.”
“I’m supposed to be the nervous one, not you,” Gus protested. “You’ve been acting funny for weeks now. It’s not the end of the world, splitting up with Emily. If I can find someone, you can. Perhaps you should consider shaving the beard.”
Hearing the concern in his brother’s voice, Sam stroked his face nervously. He glanced toward the back of the kirk again, taking in the whitewashed walls, bereft of decoration as befitted a Protestant church. He shouldn’t have these feelings. Brodie as still mourning his husband. The pain still clear on his face every time he mentioned Harry’s name. In his heart, which ached every time he saw him, Sam wanted to offer comfort, but he had no right to want to touch him, to hold him, to take him in his arms and tell him everything would be fine. Listening, caring, ministering to one of his flock—those were his tasks. And he was straight—except he wasn’t—and the one man who knew that also sat in his church, the best friend of the man who filled his dreams, day and night. Sam wondered what Brodie and Darach were talking about, the pair of them sitting so close to each other on the wooden seats. Darach McNaughton glanced up and caught his gaze. Heat flushed his cheeks, and he shifted his attention to the woman who had set foot in the church as the music started.
“Showtime,” he whispered to Gus. “Mel makes a stunning bride. You’re a lucky man.” He waited as Mel proceeded slowly up the aisle on her father’s arm until his brother, and his bride, stood side by side.
“Dearly beloved, we are gathered here to witness…”
The weather stayed fair for the photographs. Even in June, there was no guarantee of sunshine in Scotland. Sam stood among his family, together, but separate as always. Maybe it was being the lone blond among his redheaded brothers that set him apart. His mother used to call him her special one, being the one who had inherited her coloring. She’d sat in the front row next to his father. On the other side sat his grandmother, Sarah, his remaining grandparent, now in her late eighties but still as strong-minded as she’d ever been.
They made an impressive group in the photographs, he and his four brothers. Alec, the eldest, age thirty-five, named after his father, now married with three children and inheritor of their parents’ butcher shop. Next came Stuart, two years older than himself, also married and father of twin girls, a car mechanic who owned his own garage. Sam stood taller than his elder brothers, and, unlike them in their kilts, he wore his clerical uniform. Next came Hamish, a teacher, the brother who had left the area. Lastly, there was Angus, or Gus as everyone knew him, who sat at the front next to his beautiful bride, a smile as wide as the Moray Firth and as glorious as the sun shining above them. How Sam envied him and his brothers, so certain about themselves and their choices, while he floundered, unable to face who he was, or what he was. He smiled when required and agreed how handsome everyone looked, happy when the photographer had finished and he could stay on the sidelines once more, thankful his moment in the limelight was over and he hadn’t fluffed his lines.
His parents had smiled throughout the wedding service, and his mother had cried. Now, only he and his next youngest brother remained unmarried, and Hamish, now teaching in Stirling, at least had a girlfriend. His mother had been concerned when he’d split with Emily, but he couldn’t go on lying to her, giving her hope their relationship might develop into something more. She deserved better than him telling her he didn’t believe in sex before marriage. Sam hoped his God would understand his frailties. It was his fellow humans he was more uncertain about, even though the church had recently voted to allow ministers to have same-sex partners. The vote in the northeast of Scotland had been close, and Sam didn’t want to rock the boat, so he remained firmly in his self-imposed closet.
* * * *
Finally, with the food and speeches over, and the dancing due to begin, Sam prepared to slip away after Gus and Mel had performed the first dance. He stood at the edge of the room, near the French windows, ready to make his getaway when he sensed someone behind him.
“They’re good together, don’t you think?”
Sam recognized the voice of Darach McNaughton, the man he considered his nemesis. The man who could take down his carefully organized world if he chose. Sam turned.
“Yes, they do. Gus is a lucky man, and they obviously adore each other. Where’s your other half?”
“Over there talking to Davy and Jason.”
Sam glanced to his left, where Brice Drummond sat in his wheelchair, deep in conversation with the other two men. “So any plans to marry, Darach? I see you’re wearing a ring.”
“We’re talking about it. I asked him and he said yes. We’re thinking of having the ceremony at the Lodge, and Tosh has agreed to be my best man. I wasn’t sure whether to ask him, but he said he’d be upset if I asked anyone else.”
“That sounds like Brodie.” He used the name deliberately, knowing he was the only person who hadn’t chosen to use his nickname. Somehow it made Sam feel closer to him. “He’s an understanding man.” Sam spoke thoughtfully, not wanting to give anything away.
“I’ve noticed you’ve been spending a lot of time with him. Tosh says you’ve been his rock since Harry’s death, and he’s joined your congregation. His mother must be pleased he’s attending a church, even if it’s not a Catholic one. Strange, I never had Tosh down as a God-botherer, but I suppose grief gets people in different ways.”
“Everyone who finds their way to God has their own reasons,” Sam replied.
Darach stared at him, and heat spread up Sam’s neck and into his cheeks, fortunately covered by his beard.
“I suppose they do, but I have to admit I was surprised to find out you’d become a minister and returned home. Tosh told me you’d split with your girlfriend recently. I’m sorry to hear that.”
Sam couldn’t miss the tone of Darach’s voice—the doubt he expressed spoken so clearly. “These things happen. The life of a minister’s wife isn’t for everyone.”
“No, I suppose not. Just like being straight isn’t for everyone.”
Sam tensed. He didn’t want to talk about their past, especially here at his brother’s wedding. He glanced to his left to see Brodie heading his way.
“You don’t need to worry. He’s totally in the dark regarding what you and me used to get up to in the PE cupboard. I’ve no idea what’s going on with you, Sam, but if you hurt him, I’ll tear you limb from limb, policeman or not. He’s vulnerable and too caring.”
“We’re friends, Darach, and that’s all we’ll ever be.”
“Even if you want more?”
Sam swallowed hard. “Even if I want more. The reality of my situation is perfectly clear to me. I made a choice and became a minister. You might think it’s mad, but I was called to this role. You have your vocation, and I have mine.”
Tosh appeared in front of them. “I might have guessed I’d find you two skulking in the shadows. Brice said I should ask you to dance, Dar, as he wants to watch you shaking your arse, so I’m here to drag you onto the dance floor.” He turned toward Sam. “And what about you? Fancy a turn?”
“No, you go with Darach. I have two left feet, and I don’t think it would be appropriate for me to shake my arse, do you? I’m sure your mother would have something to say if a minister took to the dance floor and strutted his stuff.”
“Shame,” Darach said. “You always had a great arse.”
Sam managed a slight smile but avoided looking at Brodie’s reaction to Darach’s comment.
Darach grabbed his friend’s hand. “Come on then, Tosh. Let’s show this lot how gay men dance.” Darach pulled him onto the dance floor. As they moved around each other, Darach kept glancing his way. Sam’s heart sank. He dug his hands deep into his pockets and sighed.
“You look as if you need a stiff drink, bro.” Sam looked up at the sound of at his oldest brother’s voice. Alec held his two-year-old daughter in his arms. “Here, you hold Jenny and I’ll get us a couple of pints. Sandie’s determined to get me up dancing. Thankfully, this little one needed the loo, so I volunteered to take her.”
His niece reached out her arms and Sam lifted her from his brother. Alec had three children, two boys and Jenny, the youngest, and if Sam had to admit it, being the only girl, his favorite.
Sam found a seat in a corner away from the dancing. He bounced Jenny on his knee, making her giggle. Opening her palm, he drew circles with his fingers and sang, “Round and round the garden like a teddy bear—one step, two step—and tickle you under there.” He tickled under her arm, and she laughed and squirmed before demanding more. At least, not expecting to ever have children of his own, he could be the doting uncle. Alec appeared and put a pint in front of him.
“You spoil her,” he said.
“Well, she’s special. The first female Carmichael born in three generations.” Sandie appeared out of the crowd. “Here, I’ll take her.” She lifted Jenny out of his arms. “I’m going to take the three of them home now. Linda volunteered to babysit.” She turned to her husband. “So I’ll be back to get you on the dance floor later. Don’t drink too much. You’ve work in the morning, and I don’t want you chopping off anything vital.” She kissed Alec and, carrying Jenny, left them together.
“I saw you talking to Darach and Tosh earlier. What is it with you and Sergeant McNaughton? You’re always tense when he’s around. I remember how you reacted when I told you he’d returned home. You turned white as a sheet.”
Sam struggled to control the rising panic in his chest and swallowed several large mouthfuls of beer in an effort to calm himself. “It’s nothing. We fell out at school and, with him coming back like the prodigal son, and what happened to Brodie’s husband, something about him rubs me up the wrong way.”
Alec didn’t look convinced. “That’s another thing. What’s with you calling Tosh, Brodie? No one else does. Even his parents call him Tosh. And you’ve spent a lot of time with him since Harry died.”
His patience snapped. “You mean since that gang murdered him.”
“I realize the circumstances weren’t normal, but you two weren’t especially friendly before, and he didn’t even attend church.”
Sam willed himself not to blush. “He does now and it’s my job to help the bereaved. Brodie is a good man. No one should have to go through what happened to him, getting caught up in someone else’s problems like he did.” Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Darach gazing at him. Alec followed his view.
“This ‘thing’ that happened between you in school?” Sam glanced at the table.
“Leave it, Alec. There’s nothing to talk about. I made a mistake, that’s all. The way he dumped Brodie when he trooped off to university spoke volumes. He needed to have a little more humility. Perhaps now that he’s with Brice, he won’t be such an arrogant bastard. I’ve no idea why Brodie has remained friends with him after everything that’s happened. He’s even agreed to be Darach’s best man.”
His brother glanced over to where Darach was shaking his arse while Tosh laughed. Bloody Darach McNaughton. How did he make Tosh laugh so much? Sam cursed himself for slipping back to that nickname. It wasn’t fair, the easy way they had with each other, or how Darach touched him. He growled under his breath.
Alec thumped the table then grabbed Sam’s arm. Sam tried to jerk it away. “Shit! That’s it. How could I have been so blind? You and Darach McNaughton. Did he try it on with you in school? Is that it?”
Sam gripped the table, unable to face his brother. “Don’t be so stupid.”
“Look at me, Sam.”
He ignored his brother’s demand and continued to stare at the floor, willing Alec to shut up, desperate for his sister-in-law to return and take his brother away.
“You can’t, can you? What are you hiding? What am I missing here?” He hesitated. “If he didn’t try it on and you sent him packing then… Fuck me. You and him. You had something going on in school, didn’t you? He knows you bat for both sides. Has he warned you to stay away from Tosh? Does he think you have an ulterior motive for befriending him?”
Alec sounded so pleased with himself, just like Hercule Poirot when he’d told everyone who had committed the crime then sat back and basked in the glory of his own deductions. Sam wanted the ground to open up and swallow him. His hand shaking, he put the glass on the table, afraid it might crack within his tight grip, and struggled to breathe as his brain tried to find an answer for his brother—one he might believe. No words came out of his mouth, but he found the strength to look up at last. Alec’s smile died immediately.
“It’s all right, Sam. You’ve nothing to fear from me, but I’m right, aren’t I? I can see it in your face. How long have you known you’re bisexual? And why the hell didn’t you tell me?”
Instinct took over. Sam rose and glanced around, searching for the nearest exit. Needing air, he rushed for the door, ripping his dog collar from his neck and opening his shirt. Once outside, he leaned over, placing a hand on each knee, trying to get his breath until he felt a hand on his back and he slumped down on a bench.