Chapter 1

Saturday, 5th January 2013

I watched the two of them circling each other, each coated with a thin layer of perspiration which gleamed underneath the afternoon sun. Their expressions were ones of deep concentration as they watched each other, unblinking. I grimaced as Jason ducked to avoid a blow that barely missed him. I can’t watch this. I covered my eyes with my hands but it was even worse being able to hear their anguished grunts and the sound of fists meeting flesh without being able to see that they were okay.

Craig tackled Jason to the ground and they grappled on the lawn.  My heartbeat quickened and I sent up a silent prayer that neither of them would get seriously hurt. I wanted to kick the two of them for putting me through this, but of course I wouldn’t. I winced every time one of them took a blow and breathed a sigh of relief each time they missed.

I felt two, long, gangly arms wrapping around me from behind and was momentarily distracted from watching the two of them beating on each other to turn around and greet the owner of the lean limbs. I didn’t have to check who it was first. I’d know his cologne anywhere.

“Alex!” I grinned, pulling my best friend of seven years into a rib-cracking embrace.

“Jellybaby!” He giggled, spinning me round and pulling me back into him before planting a loud, lip-smacking peck on my lips.

I’d known Alex was back home but I just assumed he’d be too busy unpacking and recovering from jet lag to come and see me.

A loud thwack drew our attention back to the two muscly men who were still lying in the grass breathing heavily. Craig had landed a pretty harsh blow to Jason’s jaw and I jumped up to make sure he was okay.

“What the fuck, Jamie?” Jason looked furious as he shoved Craig off of him and made his way towards us.

“Easy, Reed,” Craig warned, grabbing Jason’s arm and pulling him away from Alex.

I appreciated it seeing as my boyfriend was aiming murderous looks at my best friend.

“Did he just kiss you?” Jason asked me, pushing Craig off and sounding very angry, and very confused.

I could hear the hurt in his voice and it upset me but I still had to fight to stop myself from giggling. “Yes,” I nodded, glancing over at Alex. He seemed amused and admittedly a little cautious as his eyes scanned Jason from my side.

Jason’s normally dirty blond hair was darkened with sweat and clung to his forehead. His exquisitely sculpted body was strained from the physical exertion of fighting which made all his abs pop beautifully and had the muscles deep inside me tensing in the way they always seemed to when Jason was around.

I was distracted from ogling my beautiful specimen of a man as he made another lunge for Alex and Craig had to tackle him to the ground again. I shot Alex an apologetic glance. He looked entirely perplexed as he hid behind me.

“Jason, please,” I pleaded, frowning as I recognised how quickly things were going south.

“This no longer looks like sparring,” Ian announced, jogging over from the patio to pull Craig away from Jason.

“What’d Jason do this time?” Danny asked when he and Rick joined us, eyeing Craig and Jason with apparent amusement.

“Alex kissed Jelly,” Craig grinned impishly, looking back and forth between Alex and me.

“I warned you to cut that shit out, Alex,” Ian frowned and Alex noticeably shrank away from him, understandably disinclined to receive another Carter-family warning about our relationship.

Jason was staring at us all as though we were insane as he knelt in the grass where Craig had tackled him. His facial expression was still angry but a look of utter bewilderment was threatening to take over. No doubt he was wondering why my brothers weren’t kicking Alex’ ass for kissing me.

Kneeling down next to him, I put my hand on his. “Jason, this is my best friend Alex,” I said softly, gesturing up towards him.

“Just because he’s your best friend, doesn’t mean it’s okay to kiss him, Jamie,” he said through clenched teeth, his eyes dark with anger and hurt.

I went to protest but Alex got there first.

“I’d be more than happy to kiss you as well if that’ll even things up,” Alex said sweetly, fluttering his eyelashes.

I was not oblivious to the round of chuckles this elicited from my brothers.

“Hands off, Alex. He’s mine,” I warned him playfully.

“Fine,” Alex sighed with an exaggerated pout. He ran his fingers nervously through his carefully styled, light brown hair, adjusting the strands that refused to stay in his well-practiced coiffure of choice.

“You could have given him a heads-up, Jelly,” Craig laughed, pulling my bewildered boyfriend up from the grass.

I shrugged. I hadn’t really seen the need; I didn’t introduce my friends by name, gender, and sexuality. Besides, it wasn’t like Alex went out of his way to hide who he was, he was pretty comfortable with himself. He wasn’t always, but he got there eventually.

“Oh,” Jason said as realisation dawned, earning an amused chuckle from my brothers.

“Jelly never mentioned quite how… well let’s just say she undersold you,” Alex winked at Jason and held out his hand.

Jason shook Alex’ hand, looking no less bewildered.

“If you don’t stop hitting on him, it’ll be me you’ll be running away from instead of them for a change,” I pointed to my brothers and gave Alex a teasing grin.

“Ooh! Feisty, I like it!” He grinned, looking decidedly shocked. “What happened to you while I’ve been away?”

I blushed awkwardly at the reminder that I’d changed, and the reasons why. I knew he was joking but the fact that he could tell I was different hit home hard. Alex had taken a gap year and had been travelling around the states for the past few months. We’d e-mailed a little but some things were just too personal to put down in e-mails and I didn’t want to burden him whilst he was away having the time of his life.

“I’ll fill you in later,” I smiled, deciding already that he really didn’t need to know all the gory details. I noticed my brothers looking particularly uncomfortable and took pity on them by changing subject. “I’m so glad you’re back, Alex!”

“Me too, I missed you!” He grabbed my hand in his and pulled me over to the chairs so that we could talk.

Craig and Jason broke off their sparring to sit with us on the patio, drinking copious amounts of water and towelling off.

“I didn’t realise you fought as well, Jason,” Alex addressed him, turning his head to me and mouthing “that’s hot!” with a wicked grin on his face.

“I don’t really, not like Craig does at least,” Jason shrugged.

“May that bruise on your jaw serve to remind you of that little fact,” Craig smirked, shoving Jason playfully.

“I was distracted!” Jason scowled, nodding his head in my direction.

I smiled as the two of them bickered. They’d become a little better friends over Christmas. They were the same age and had a lot in common but I was surprised that Craig had been able to get over the fact that Jason was my boyfriend, especially considering how protective he and the others were over me. Craig still got aggressive whenever our PDA was too much for him but he managed to rein it in most of the time.

“Sorry, Jason,” I pouted, knowing it usually caused him to forgive me. I saw the smile that graced his lips before he returned to his disagreement with Craig.

“Can we go inside, please? I’m freezing.” I crossed my arms across my chest and shivered slightly for emphasis. I was wearing several layers, including Jason’s hoody, but it was January in England, after all.

I followed Craig into the lounge but hesitated when I noticed Matt was in there surrounded by paperwork. I was about to suggest we go sit in the den but Craig and Jason had already thrown themselves into the sofa. Jason pulled me onto his knee and I watched Craig’s face turn tense momentarily but he recovered, choosing not to comment. Alex sat down on the futon in front of us and crossed his legs under him.

I took a second to appreciate the subtle changes in Alex since he’d been away. His normally pale skin now had a lovely caramel twinge thanks to his months in the sun. It complemented his looks perfectly and made his pale blue eyes appear impossibly clearer. Alex was fairly skinny, especially when he stood next to my brothers, but he pulled it off and he knew it.

“I don’t understand why not, you’re good,” Craig urged, drawing my attention back to them.

This wasn’t the first discussion they’d had about this. Craig thought Jason should return to MMA.

“I’m not interested, Carter,” Jason replied with a sigh, I could tell he was growing uncomfortable.

“Don’t you miss it?” Craig asked.

“A little,” Jason admitted.

“Then what’s the problem?”

“I’ve moved on.”

I could feel Jason growing tense and understood his discomfort. Jason had given up fighting because of his brother. Even though he missed MMA, he wasn’t willing to mess up his relationship with Ben for it.

“Your current competition not enough for you?” I teased Craig in an effort to rescue Jason.

“Nope,” Craig grinned. “It gets a bit boring,” he added with mock complacency.

“I’d be happy to remedy that if you lot don’t keep it the fuck down,” Matt grumbled from the other end of the L-shaped sofa.

Now it was my turn to tense up. Craig and I both knew that Matt wouldn’t stand a chance against Craig, but we also knew that Karl would kick his ass if he had a go at Matt.

“Sorry, Matt, what you working on?” Jason intervened smoothly.

“Lesson plans,” Matt grunted.

“I didn’t realise P.E. lessons needed planning,” Alex chimed in, thinking out loud. I doubted he realised he’d just insulted Matt’s chosen career.

Matt scowled at Alex and put down the papers he’d been reading. “What the fuck do you mean by that?”

“I… eh… nothing. Sorry, sir.” Alex squirmed nervously in his seat.

“He didn’t mean anything by it, Matt. He just didn’t th-”

“I wasn’t talking to you, Jelly,” he cut me off with a heated glare, gathering up all his paperwork and standing up.

“I’m sorry, sir,” Alex said quietly, standing up and taking a few steps back, away from Matt.

Matt closed the distance between them with a few long strides. “If you’d actually taken part in any of the lessons instead of pretending to be asthmatic then maybe you’d know a little more about the subject,” Matt growled, his face very close to Alex who cowered under his icy glare.

I watched nervously, praying for Alex’ sake that he wasn’t planning on a smart aleck comeback. He lowered his gaze and mumbled another apology. Matt seemed satisfied and stormed out of the room.

Breathing a sigh of relief, Alex came back to sit on the futon.

“Sorry, Alex,” I frowned. “I’ve told you a million times though, you don’t have to call him sir when we’re at home, especially not now we’re not at school anymore.” I’d hoped that would lighten his mood but it seemed to have somewhat the opposite effect.

“I wasn’t faking the asthma,” he grumbled sulkily.

“I know,” I smiled sympathetically and leaned over to give his knee a gentle squeeze.

“Must have been weird living with your teacher,” Jason said, wrapping his arms round my waist once more as I leant back into him.

“Matt’s pretty good at keeping the two things separate,” I shrugged. “At school I was just another student, at home I was just his best friend’s annoying little sister,” I sighed.

It was true, Jason didn’t need to know that Matt had gone out of his way to make P.E. lessons impossibly difficult for me. They had trouble getting on as it was.

“He was way harder on you than he was on the rest of us,” Alex chimed in, destroying my plan to keep those details to myself.

I shrugged it off, feigning indifference. I didn’t want to get into it right now. Matt had only ever been hard on me because he wanted me to push myself, even if I didn’t appreciate it at the time.

Ian popped his head in to tell Alex that he could stay for dinner, which made me squeal with excitement and earned me a disapproving look from Ian. It was worth it though; I hadn’t seen Alex for so long and he had so much to tell me about his adventures across the pond.

Ian cooked, which was good news because he was the biggest culinary talent in the family. He made falafel – from scratch – for Alex and me, and some chicken and beef, flavoured with about a million different herbs and spices, for everyone else. This was served with whole-wheat wraps, salad and a homemade yoghurt and cucumber dressing.

“This is so good!” Alex made appreciative moans as he devoured his wrap. “I want the recipe!”

“There is no recipe,” Ian shrugged, in surprisingly good humour. Maybe a small part of him has actually missed having Alex hanging around all the time. I laughed inwardly at that thought. I doubted he’d even missed me whilst I was at uni.

“How can there not be a recipe?” Alex said in his usual overdramatic tone, which made me grin but normally had Ian grinding his teeth.

Ian just shrugged and I stepped in to rescue him from the barrage of questions I knew was bound to come from Alex’ inquisitive mind.

“Ian just mixes stuff together until it smells good, then he’s done,” I grinned.

“How did you learn to cook like that?” Jason asked.

“Cooking for them,” Ian nodded his head to my brothers and me.

I knew he wasn’t being entirely honest. Ian’s cooking had gotten considerably better after he’d joined the military. He often came back from one of his mysterious disappearances with a tan and a sudden talent for mixing exotic flavours, but I understood that he didn’t want to talk about it.

“A man that can cook, your brother just got a little hotter!” Alex teased me, just loud enough for my brothers to hear.

Jason choked on his food; I think he was preparing for a show down. Ian just grinned at Alex and shot him a wink. I scowled at Alex, he knew that I didn’t like him hitting on my brothers – it was creepy. He gave me his adorable pout and I found myself forgiving him almost immediately.

No matter how much hassle my brothers gave Alex about the two of us being close friends, they never gave him any jip for being gay. I loved that about them and knew how much it meant to Alex. Even Jake, who hated Alex with a passion, had once smashed a guy’s face in at school when he overheard him calling Alex a faggot. Our Dad had impressed the importance of treating everyone as equals onto my eldest brothers and they made damn sure the same values were hammered into the rest of us.

“Aren’t there a few of you missing?” Alex asked Rick as we did the dishes together.

“Karl and Elise are on holiday,” Rick explained.

“To celebrate their anniversary,” I added.

“And Jake’s not been back home much,” Rick continued.

I winced with guilt. I knew Jake had gone home early because I was here. He was still avoiding me at all costs. It hurt really badly to have somebody I loved hate me so strongly. Jason kept telling me that it wasn’t my fault but that didn’t stop me from feeling guilty. Jake and I may not have had the best relationship, but I still missed him. The others avoided the issue, so I tried not to bring it up around them.

“How long are you home for, Jellybaby?” Alex asked as he followed me down the stairs to the den.

“We’re heading back tomorrow, I have exams starting Monday.”

“Aww, okay,” he pouted. “I was hoping to have some company. I’m going to be bored out of my skull hanging out with my mum until September.”

“Sorry,” I frowned. “But you’re welcome to come and visit me in Leeds whenever you want, you know that right?”

“You can crash with us,” Jason offered from behind us.

I blinked up at him and he smirked back with that hint of mischief in his eyes. He’d been pushing for me to move in with him. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to live with Jason, I spent most of my time at his anyway, but it felt too soon. I loved the man whole-heartedly but he featured heavily in all aspects of my life and I felt like I still had a little bit of growing left to do.

“Jason, I still haven’t decided,” I frowned at him.

“I know, baby,” he said softly. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to pressure you.” He pressed a gentle kiss to the top of my head as we reached the bottom of the stairs and I leaned back into him and took a second to enjoy the feel of him against me. He wrapped his arms around my waist and I wiggled against him contentedly. I may have accidentally rubbed my backside against his crotch, which earned me a growl that was sexy as hell and a warning squeeze on my hip.

“You’ll pay for that later,” he whispered in my ear.

I turned around and kissed him on the lips as I murmured a half-hearted apology. Jason’s version of “paying for it” usually involved mind-blowing orgasms, and lots of them. My simple kiss turned into something a little more meaningful as Jason pulled me into him.

Danny quickly dragged me away from Jason with a warning glare. I rolled my eyes in response and squealed as he pinched the back of my arm.

I gritted my teeth, trying to make sure I didn’t retaliate. The arm pinches were really starting to grate on me. When I glanced to my left, I caught Jason glaring at Danny. I knew he was only holding back because I begged him not to get into fights with my brothers. He hated it when they did things like that.

“So… Jason,” Alex grinned at me wickedly as we sat whispering in the far corner of the sofa.

The others, Jason included, were all watching some car racing film which didn’t seem to capture Alex’ interest at all. Not that that surprised me.

“Jason,” I nodded, feeling the grin break out on my face.

“He’s hunky,” Alex whispered with a giggle. “You seem so happy with him, like you’ve come out of your shell a bit. I’m really happy for you, Jellybaby.” He gave me a genuine smile and pulled me into a hug, which I returned gratefully. Alex knew better than anyone how shy and reserved I could be. I was trying not to let myself get swept aside as much though, trying to stand up for myself more often, with Jason’s encouragement. That was my New Year’s resolution.

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