“No one can know about this,” Michael Jepsen growled into his phone. He hated talking to his lawyer almost as much as he hated root canals. “I’m this close to getting a longer contract. They always announce the contract stuff at the end of the school year. If you tell everyone now, I’m screwed.” He rubbed his forehead with the back of his hand. Some secrets were best kept under lock and key, and he had one doozy of a secret.
“I’ve got people begging for the Blackhearts to play Christmas, New Years, and Halloween. Come on. You can chuck the day job and make a killing,” Dexter Tryor snapped.
“I don’t want to make a killing.” He checked his wristwatch again. Damn. If he didn’t get off the phone soon, he’d be late for the staff meeting. “Look, I’ve got to go. I’m not ready to disclose anything, so keep it under wraps. I don’t care if you’re a goddamned lawyer, I will sue your ass for defamation or disclosing my identity or whatever.”
“I’m not going to disclose or defame. I want you to be happy and follow your dream. The last I knew, the dream wasn’t teaching. It was music,” Dexter said. “The school gig was temporary until the band hit it big. Now we’re five years down the road and you’re not ready to leave, are you?”
No, he wasn’t. He glanced through the window at the people in the hallway. One of his friends, Niall Grayson, stood with one of the second grade teachers. At the beginning of the year, Niall moved from teaching first grade to third grade and ended up in the classroom directly across from Michael. Over the last few months he and Niall had become close friends. Niall didn’t know about Michael’s secrets. Then again, only Dexter knew the truth.
“Well?” Dexter asked. “Are you even still there?”
“I’m here.” He spied Niall walking down the hallway. Niall pointed to his watch and grinned. Michael nodded once and held up one finger. He’d be there in a second. “Okay, I have to go. No other shows besides the ones already scheduled. After August sixteenth, the band is on hiatus again. That’s how it’s going to be. I’m not going to discuss this anymore. Bye, Dex.”
He swiped his thumb across the screen to end the call, tapped the button to silence the phone, and then jammed the device into his back pocket. He was still on the clock at the school.
Michael headed back into the building. Niall waited in the doorway of Michael’s classroom.
“Ready?” Niall fell into step with him. “We’re meeting in the cafeteria for the year-end wrap-up meeting, then going to Havermeier’s room for the transfer meeting. Christ, it’s hot. Who decided June needed to be this freaking humid?”
“I don’t know, but I’m not wild about the humidity either.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I’m glad you were paying attention. I’m horrible with schedules unless there’s a bell involved.” Not a total truth, but he couldn’t be completely honest with Niall. When he went out with the band, Michael knew every schedule better than the people creating the schedules. He had to know what time to be where in order to get into the character of Bandit—his musical alter ego. If anyone found out about what he did with his summers—especially anyone in the school system—he’d lose his position teaching fourth grade. Until now, there hadn’t been a problem. Hell, the band cooperated, and as long as he kept everything about his other life quiet, he kept the balance just fine. No one at the school questioned where he was over the summer, and the band liked having the rest of the year to work with other bands. As long as he kept his mouth shut and didn’t mix his two worlds, he was good. He wanted to tell Niall about his other life, but with the balance working so well, he hadn’t gotten around to having the discussion.
“I’ve got to sit with the other third grade teachers so we can discuss the upcoming school year, but I’ll catch up with you afterward.” Niall half grinned. “We were nominated to retrieve the sandwiches for the meeting. Want to drive, or should I?”
“You can.” He suppressed a sigh. He’d get to spend quiet time with Niall? Score. He parted ways with his friend and headed to the designated fourth grade teachers’ table.
For the next hour, the principal and vice-principal droned on about the switches in teaching positions, introducing the new core standards and the schedule for the next school year.
Michael doodled on the notepad in front of him. Each teacher had been given a pad and pen for note taking. Lines for songs came to him while he half listened to the core standard descriptions. The benchmarks hadn’t changed much.
The lyrics weren’t any good, but at least they looked like poetry. If the other teachers at his table noticed, they’d think he was doing something for a creative writing lesson. He flipped to a new page. Thoughts of the band and his summer schedule filled his head. For the short term, the two needed to be separate. No mentioning the band to the school staff and no mentioning his teaching position to the band. If everyone was left in the dark, then no one would spill his secret.
Michael turned his attention to Niall. Go figure the third grade teachers would be across the room during the end of the year meeting. It would be too easy to have them at the next table over. At least Niall was in a place Michael could ogle him without looking too obvious.
Niall met Michael’s gaze and smiled. Michael’s skin warmed all over. How had he not noticed the twinkle in Niall’s eyes or the way his cheeks always seemed to feature five o’clock shadow? He wanted to run his fingers through Niall’s blond hair and rub his cheek against Niall’s. He suppressed a shiver.
Unlike most of the guys Michael’s general age, Niall was sweet and chatty. He didn’t seem to expect anything but managed to see the good in people. He wasn’t one of the burned-out teachers but seemed to come to school every morning with a renewed zeal for teaching. He was everything Michael wanted to be—except he wasn’t a heavy metal music star.
Michael doodled again in the notebook, but this time he drew Niall. He probably should keep the drawing covered, but whatever. If someone saw, then they saw. He was friends with Niall and liked looking at the hot man.
He should ask him out.
Michael snorted. Should, but come on. He’d be leaving on tour in three days and wouldn’t be back to Cedarwood for the next two months. How was he supposed to date a guy he couldn’t really see and then explain to the guy why they had to have a long-distance relationship? Easy. He couldn’t. Until now, he hadn’t had to worry about dating anyone or having said long-distance relationship.
He should beg off from going with Niall to get the food. He had the feeling once they spent time alone together outside of the school, he’d rethink his tour plans.
As the meeting wound down, fear swept over Michael. In three days he’d be out on tour. He’d done some rehearsing, but the new material was still rough. The band hadn’t had time in the studio because he’d been busy wrapping up the school year with his fourth graders. He worried about his music and his contract. Would the school renew his one-year contract or would they offer him a two-year deal? The chance was there, but it was only a chance. He closed his notepad.
The principal grabbed Michael’s attention. “This year, the Cedarwood schools will be extending plenty of contracts to the newer teaching staff.”
Michael dropped his hands into his lap to hide the shaking. Niall had already attained a two-year contract and would be eligible for tenure at the end of the school year. Michael tallied the number of years Niall had been at the school. He’d started when he was twenty-two and was now twenty-eight. He’d done his time with four one-year contracts and would be at the end of his two-year contract.
Michael focused on the principal and superintendent. The superintendent nodded. “This year, we’re extending two year contracts to Mr. Claron, Ms. Bledel, and Mr. Jepsen.”
The room erupted in applause, and Mr. Barton, another of the fourth grade teachers, slapped Michael on the back. Michael couldn’t believe what he’d heard. He’d earned the contract he’d wanted so much. He met Niall’s gaze. The warmth and happiness in Niall’s eyes resonated to Michael’s core. He shouldn’t be so happy Niall was proud, but screw it. He liked having Niall’s approval. At the same time he inwardly cringed. Shit. He should’ve seen this coming—he’d have to decide which life he wanted to lead. Did he want to keep being a teacher or continue with his music career? He hadn’t thought he’d get a longer-term contract. Well, fuck. Why hadn’t he considered the possibility that he’d be extended the contract?
More names were read in conjunction with contracts being offered, but none of it mattered until the principal mentioned the tenure contracts. “We’re only extending one tenure contract this year. Either we’ve got teachers with less than five years service or they’ve already reached tenure.” He laughed. “Mr. Grayson, we’re extending the offer of tenure to you. Congratulations.”
Niall’s eyes widened, and the color drained from his face. His lips parted, and he stared at Michael. I did it,
Michael applauded his friend. Later, when they were in the car together, he’d show his approval. Would Niall be attracted to him too? He wasn’t sure, but he wanted to find out.
Ten minutes later, the meeting ended. Michael followed his fellow fourth grade teachers to their hallway with the third grade teachers. Niall caught up to him and bumped shoulders with him.
“About ready to go?” Niall asked. “I have to grab my wallet and phone from my room.”
“I’m ready.” He patted his pockets. He already had his phone, and he refused to leave his room without his wallet or keys. He strolled out to the staff parking lot behind the school building and watched the kids playing basketball on the nearby courts. Behind him, the door clicked, and he heard footsteps. When Michael turned, Niall bounded up to him.
“We’re going to Maynards. They called the order in before the staff meeting.” Niall unlocked his two-door car. “Feel free to change the station. I had the metal station on this morning. I needed the pick-me-up.”
“You? You’re always up.” Michael bit back a laugh. He wanted to know if he could get Niall up, but that was beside the point. “Metal makes you happy?”
“Yeah. I like the post-hair metal stuff and the classic stuff. I’m really into this band Bandit and the Blackhearts. Like crazy into them.” Niall climbed behind the wheel of the car. “Metal music is loud, unhinged, and uninhibited. It makes me happy because it’s like I can lose control in a safe way.”
Michael nodded. He liked knowing Niall’s thoughts on his preferred genre of music. He wanted to share his love of metal music, but he feared he’d give away too much information.
“What about you? What’s your favorite kind of music?” Niall backed out of the spot and zipped across the small parking lot.
“I like metal for the same reasons you do. I like the loud volume and the frenetic styling.” Given the chance, he loved to improvise during the guitar solos and see how fast and intricately he could play. “Why didn’t you mention you liked Bandit? We’ve been friends for the whole school year.”
But they hadn’t discussed music before.
Niall shrugged. “I don’t know. You never asked me what kind of music I like, and I keep my metal music listening to the car. In the classroom, I play orchestral stuff. It helps me concentrate.”
“I bet Bandit would be fantastic at writing music for movies. He’s so emotional in the stuff he writes.” Niall gripped the steering wheel. “I’ve got most of his music memorized. I listen to it too much.” He blushed. “Sorry. I’m a fan, but I’m not like…a crazy fan. I wish they’d play more than just summer gigs.”
“Why?” He’d always wanted to ask a fan if their concert schedule was inconvenient. The guys in the band played with other bands during the rest of the year unless they were in the studio. For the most part, the schedule worked.
“I wish they’d come around more, I guess.” Niall pulled into the restaurant parking lot and stopped in one of the spots. “I don’t mind. I’m off in the summer and can see more than one show, but for other fans it seems like a pain. I suppose that’s how it goes, though. Most of the best concerts are in the summer, so maybe they’re smarter than the rest of us.” He shrugged. “I’ll be right back.”
Niall left Michael alone in the car. When he returned five minutes later, he knocked on the window. Michael rolled down the glass and accepted the three bags of food. He placed the bags between his feet, then took the beverage carrier from Niall.
“Where were we?” Niall slid behind the wheel again. “Oh, the Blackhearts. I do try to be the first in line for tickets. They’re about the only band I’ll go see because the tickets aren’t outrageous.”
“I bet they love knowing they’ve got loyal fans.” Michael was damn happy he had at least one loyal fan in Niall. Part of him wished he could leave the band and focus on teaching. That way he’d be able to focus on turning the friendship with Niall into something more. But the rest of him enjoyed the rush of the audience and the thrill of playing live. He craved the music.
Niall shrugged and then backed out of the parking spot. “I bet they’re happy to get the money. Well, that and to have the fans. They seem really cool.”
“Even with the makeup?”
“Yeah. It works for the music. They’ve got to keep up the appearance that they’re tough. Without the makeup and pyro, they risk being boring.”
Michael gripped the beverage carrier. Niall had given him something to think about. He’d been so worried about hiding behind the makeup and the image that maybe he’d sacrificed the integrity of the music. As they turned into the school lot, Michael sat up straighter. He’d wasted the ride! Fuck.
Niall pulled to a stop in his normal parking spot. “If you’ll carry the drinks, I’ll get the bags.”
“Wait,” Michael said. “Want to get drinks sometime?” He was being impulsive, but he didn’t care. He wanted to see Niall again.
“Me?” Niall froze with his hands on the steering wheel.
“Who else?” Michael smiled. He wanted to touch Niall, but with the drinks on his lap, he feared he’d spill them if he let go of the carrier.
“You don’t want to go with someone else?” Niall asked.
“No.” Michael paused. Maybe he’d made a mistake. But he’d never know if Niall returned his affections if he didn’t ask. “I thought you might like to go out. I’d like to go out with you.” If he was nothing else, he was forward.
“You’re gay?” Niall’s voice cracked.
“You’re surprised?” Michael forced himself to smile. “I don’t wear it on my sleeve, but I prefer cock to pussy.”
“I’m shocked.” Niall settled in his seat and let go of the wheel. “All the girls love you, and the moms all line up to see you during conferences. Every time I look over there when you’re with parents, you seem to enjoy the female adulation.” He turned the car off and lowered his gaze. “Sorry. That’s rude. I assumed you were straight, and now I’m bashing you.”
“You’re not the first to assume and not the first to say what’s on your mind.” He debated what to say next. He needed to move with caution. “I’m gay and I’m attracted to you.”