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Laura S. Fox

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  1. Laura S. Fox

    I’m Not Okay

    There will be a steamy hot one next time! But as far as Mike is concerned ... I'm afraid you'll hate me for a while!
  2. Renzo will come up with new details, but his role won't be revealed soon ... I know, I keep you all waiting!
  3. And you would do well to stand by that theory
  4. Thank you! Next time, more 'movement'!
  5. Chapter Fourteen – Fresh Coat Of Pain Mason was surprised to find the place next to him empty when he opened his eyes at the same usual time in the morning. A simple check told him that the other side of the bed was still slightly warm, a sign that its occupant had left it minutes ago. There was no shower running, this time. Mason was on his feet in an instant. He checked the bathroom after knocking shortly, but Rhys wasn’t there. He drew one long breath and released it slowly. Rhys could be downstairs making breakfast. It wasn’t like him to sleep so soundly; Mason cursed himself. He should have been able to tell when Rhys had gotten up from the bed. He didn’t waste any time and hurried out of the room. Maybe he was overly sensitive when it came to the man he was hired to protect, but his sudden absence hurt Mason in ways he had a hard time making sense. Billy was right about his gut instinct saving his ass many times before. But Mason could do without another special friend he had, subdued anxiety related to everything and everyone he cared about. Right now, that little fellow was running the show, and Mason didn’t like it. He first checked the first floor, where another bedroom, untouched, was. Was it something intended for guests? Mason threw a cursory look around the room, but nothing was out of place. He continued with what looked like a painting room, and one that served as some sort of home gym. By how things were just stuffed in there, Mason could only assume that the equipment was new, and no one had used it until now. At a steady pace, he went downstairs and checked the kitchen, the isolation room, and was about to knock on Billy’s door when his partner walked out of his bedroom, his hair a bird’s nest. Mason would have appreciated the comical effect, but there was no time for that. “Billy, have you seen Rhys?” Billy rubbed his face. “No. I just woke up.” “He’s not anywhere in the house.” Billy straightened up and walked past Mason. “Where are you going?” “Checking the cameras,” Billy replied. It couldn’t be that efficient, but Mason followed. He stopped for a second to grab his phone from his room and started calling Rhys. There was no answer. “He left about fifteen minutes ago,” Billy announced. “He left? On his own?” Billy threw him a brief look. “He’s not jailed here. He can come and go as he pleases.” Mason wasn’t happy with that. As long as Levine had hidden interests in Rhys that sounded sinister, to say the least, Mason wanted to have his eyes on him all the time. “Let me see.” Rhys walked through one of the hallways surveilled by the cameras. He was casually dressed in a light sweater and cargo pants. He didn’t look like someone who wanted to go for a run, but it couldn’t be some official meeting he needed to attend that early in the morning. Mason pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. “What the hell, Rhys?” he murmured to himself. “You two didn’t fight last night, I hope,” Billy said. “Far from it,” Mason offered. Billy quirked an eyebrow and then smiled. He opened his mouth. Mason frowned. “We don’t have time for your twenty questions.” “I didn’t even ask one!” Billy protested. “What are we going to do now? If only we put one of those apps on Rhys’s phone --” “Yeah, if only,” Billy interrupted him. He showed his phone to Mason, moving it from side to side like he was performing a hypnotizing number. “Give me that.” Mason grabbed it and stared at the screen. “We need to follow him.” “Hmm, I usually agree with you, chief, but are we going to stalk Rhys? He might just want to be alone a little.” “That’s not a luxury he can afford right now,” Mason said through his teeth. Damn. He had made a terrible mistake. It wasn’t wise to let his heart run the show; one wrong step and Rhys could be in grave danger. Mason stared at the screen while he made up his mind. There would be no more mistakes from now on. Billy observed him for a moment. “Is there something you’re not telling me? I doubt Rhys is going to get smashed so early in the morning. I mean, we’re here mostly because we need to keep him from doing something to hurt himself, right?” “You are annoyingly relaxed, Po. Who’s the senior here, huh? If I say we need to follow him, we do.” “All right, chief, your call. But I won’t be the one put in the doghouse,” Billy said with a small shrug. That was a risk he was willing to take. Mason changed into his suit in record time, and, to his relief, Billy was also ready when he went out of his room. He needed to make a few things clear with Rhys, such as no wandering on his own, and that from bodyguard to the person in need of protection. *** It looked like Rhys had taken a ride, probably a cab, and now stopped at his destination. Billy had the phone mounted on the dashboard so that both could see it. “What’s there?” Mason tapped on the phone screen to zoom in. Billy sighed. “It’s a cemetery.” Mason looked out the window at the scenery moving by. They were on the outskirts of the city, which meant that the cemetery was new. Freshly dug graves were hardly a sight he could agree with so early in the day. Rhys had gone to see Toby. After the night they had spent together, guilt must have still chosen its victim. Mason wished it had been him its target, not that he was spared right now. He knew precisely what punishment he deserved. As chilling as the thought was, it brought clarity. They had no business fooling around, not with wounds still so bone-deep. Last night, after all, had been a mistake, and he needed to get it through his thick skull that things were what they were. It had to be a liberating thought, too. With no distractions, Mason could finally focus on what mattered most to protect Rhys from whatever plans Levine had with him. He could do that better if he kept his distance, both physical and emotional. His shoulders dropped under the weight of that decision. “What do you think he’s doing there?” Billy asked, stopping his train of thought. “He must have gone to see the grave,” Mason replied and schooled his face into neutral. “I don’t think he has ever been here,” Billy commented. “How can you know that? He’s been out of rehab for more than a month now, right?” “I don’t think Levine let him.” Mason stared at Billy’s profile. “You asked me if I’m not keeping something from you. I think that should be my line. How on earth did that kind of information land in your lap?” “It was in the papers.” Billy didn’t seem fazed one bit. “Levine declared, loud and clear, that it wouldn’t do Rhys any good to have anything to do with his former lover.” “When was that? And former lover? Were those his words?” “It was relatively recent. Someone must have remembered Rhys or caught whiff that he was barely out of rehab. And that reporter asked Levine a series of questions. Let’s just say that Levine dropped plenty of hints that Rhys is in his care now and there is a growing bond between them.” “So that’s what she meant about the rumors,” Mason said. “She? Who?” Mason pursed his lips. He really needed to keep himself in check. “Some young girl at the party last night. She kept telling some other girl that Rhys and Levine are together.” Billy appeared to process the information for a bit. “Yeah, I guess it’s pretty much gossip fodder right now. But when Levine gave that interview, it was a surprise. I mean, Levine Goldman might have no wife or children, at least not the kind paparazzi have found about so far, but he didn’t use to be known for relationships with men.” “Yeah, pretty weird. That Renzo dude also said something,” Mason said, happy to push the conversation away from his slip of the tongue. Billy nodded. “Yeah. Quite the surprise for everyone. Just like what Levine said about Rhys being better without Toby.” “Shit.” Mason sighed and moved his head to the sides in an effort to make himself more comfortable. It was not possible while hearing about Levine’s web of deceit. “Does Rhys know?” “I don’t think so. But I guess that Levine must have told him not to visit Toby’s resting place.” “So, Rhys is going against his will now.” “It must be. But can you blame him?” “No. It’s not my place anyway. But he shouldn’t be there alone, right now.” “Chief, we know where he is now. Can’t we give him some space? I don’t think he’ll be too happy to see us there.” “We’re hired to take care of him, not to make him happy.” Mason looked ahead. He could already see the cemetery gates. “He’ll hate us for it,” Billy added. “You just stay in the car. I’ll take all the blame. But Rhys Harmony is not allowed to do whatever the hell he pleases while he’s in our care.” Billy remained silent. Mason appreciated it. That was one less problem for him to worry about. *** Billy didn’t say anything when he got out of the car without one look back. Mason walked through the cemetery gates and scanned the surroundings. Few people were there at that hour, so it couldn’t be that hard to spot Rhys in that sea of tombstones. He walked purposefully, aware of what it waited ahead. Rhys was knelt in front of a tombstone, at the end of a long path, his back to the world. Mason stopped a few feet away. Rhys didn’t notice him. He spoke in a low voice, and it was hard to make the words, but one could easily guess them. “You could have told me you wanted to come here today,” he said loudly. Rhys looked at him over one shoulder. His eyes were red-rimmed and tired. “What are you doing here?” Mason put his hands in his pockets. “My job. Nothing else.” If it was an unfeeling bastard he had to play to be taken seriously, so be it. Rhys stood up. “How did you know where I was?” None of them moved. It was better to keep the distance from now on. “It doesn’t matter. It’s part of my job.” “So you followed me.” “If this is how you want to put it, yes.” Rhys frowned and crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t get you, Mason.” “And I don’t get you,” Mason replied. “But it’s fine. You don’t have to like me. I’ll do my job regardless of your attitude toward me.” “Attitude?” Rhys stared at him in surprise. Mason looked around, mimicking boredom. “You’re here now, after you spent last night with me. I guess that says it all.” Rhys blanched as if he had just been slapped. “You’re different from last night.” To pretend he didn’t hurt inside like hell was a feat of strength. “Well, the light of day usually makes things look a little different.” Rhys didn’t say a word. “You’re a scumbag, too? Is this what you’re trying to say? Funny how you don’t look at me while letting your mouth run like that.” Mason turned his eyes and pierced through Rhys’s soul if the way he took one small step back was any indication. It was for a good cause, and good causes trampled everything else. If he was incapable of watching after Rhys, while his dick dealt the cards, then his dick had to be put in place. After all, it wasn’t that big a sacrifice, right? “All right.” Rhys put his arms around himself and looked away. “I’ll remember to put in a special request each time I must get out of the house.” “Don’t play the spoilt celebrity with me, Rhys.” Mason hope his hard voice was enough to let the other know that they weren’t playing. “Don’t say my name in that commandeering tone. You’re light years away of ordering me around.” Rhys pushed past him, ramming his shoulder hard into Mason on his way out. That should have pissed him off. That should have made him grab Rhys, shake him, and tell him that he was in danger. Mason kept silent. The contact of their bodies, while brief and the result of Rhys’s annoyance with him, had made him happy for one moment. That was another thing he needed to keep in check. Without a word, he followed Rhys. Apparently, there was no need to point out the obvious. With hard steps, Rhys headed straight to the car. Behind the wheel, Billy made himself little in a comical effort to become invisible. Mason hurried. When he had told Rhys not to play the role of a spoilt celebrity, he had meant every word, and that implied that Billy shouldn’t be at the receiving end of his wrath. But Rhys just got inside the car, placed his crossed hands in his lap, and stared ahead, his chin high. Mason climbed next to him and observed him for a while. It wasn’t hard to notice fresh tears hanging from the copper blond eyelashes. Unfortunately, he was the cause, or maybe, he was just flattering himself. “Go ahead, jailers,” Rhys said in a trembling voice. “Take me whatever I need to be.” “Billy has no hand in this. I forced him to drive us here,” Mason said. “Billy, you may take us back,” Rhys said, this time a tad appeased. It was evident that he was ignoring Mason on purpose. “Sure thing, Rhys,” Billy replied. A small exchange in the rearview mirror made Mason cringe. That was one hell of an ‘I told you so’ look. If even someone as good-natured as Po looked at him like that, it had to mean that he was bad. Nonsense. There were more important things at play. “Step on it, Billy,” he ordered and tapped his palm a couple of times on the back of the chair. *** To his relief, Rhys chose to lock himself in the isolation room and make music. There was a camera installed there, unlike the many bedrooms of the house, so after watching him for a few minutes on the monitor, Mason decided that he could see about other pressing matters. Was Toby still following Levine? He didn’t like it when his favorite ghost went into radio silence like that. Was it a good sign? A bad one? Was he on to something? Mason had just had an idea, so he needed to make sure Billy was on it. “I might have to go out for a bit,” he told his partner. “Do you need to blow some steam?” His words were met with a smirk. Sometimes, Mason really thought Billy could be a bit too smart for his own good. “Why would I need that?” He used a gruff tone on purpose. Billy didn’t waver under his pointed look. “I wasn’t there, but Rhys must have given you a piece of his mind.” Mason shrugged. “I just made a few things clear. It’s in his best interest to understand that he cannot just walk out of the house without telling anyone where he’s going.” “Hmm, I don’t quite think that was the main topic the conversation. Don’t back down now, Mason. It might get ugly.” The warning wasn’t missed, but admitting to his transgressions wouldn’t be of any help. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m a bodyguard, and so are you. We’re here to do our job. Nothing more, nothing less.” Billy shook his head and put on the face of a displeased granny upon seeing her grandkids splashing mud on their barely washed clothes. “Wrong move, Arnie, wrong move.” It was hard to keep his head straight between Rhys’s disappointment, Billy’s scolding, and … where the hell was Toby? “Missed me?” Mason suppressed a curse with difficulty when Toby stuck his head through the wall, close to his right shoulder. They needed to have a small conversation about ghost-appearing etiquette. Heads sticking through walls were a no-go. “What are you looking at, Mason?” Billy’s question drew him back to the sane world. “Nothing. I was just thinking. Listen, just keep an eye on Rhys. Don’t let him do anything stupid, all right?” “He would wring your neck if he heard you talking like that,” Billy pointed out. “Let him try,” Mason said and turned on his heels. “I’ll be back in a couple of hours.” “Sure thing. Just don’t get smashed, okay?” Mason threw Billy a curt look. “Do I look like a guy who gets smashed?” Billy shrugged. “You gotta blow steam somehow, Arnie. Even a guy like you has to.” Yeah. He had done that plenty the night before, and that had only gone to prove that he was stupid to let temptations make a mess of him. With his chin, he pointed at Toby to follow him. “What did I miss?” Toby asked as soon as they were out of the surveillance room. “Nothing much,” Mason replied through his teeth. “Rhys went to see your grave.” “I hate that place.” Mason stopped and turned toward Toby. “Do you know where it is?” “Yeah. Only that I can’t get near. It’s like a force field around it or something.” Mason sighed. “Are you taking me for a fool? Come on. Spit out the truth.” Toby made a disgusted face and pretended to shake. “Okay, it’s not a force field. But when I get near, well, it scares the bejesus outta me.” “Unfortunately for you, what I have in mind might scare you even more.” Mason stopped in his room shortly to change his shirt. As he dressed up, he looked at Toby. “Well, what news do you have? You’ve been on Levine’s tail for hours.” “Where are we going?” Toby ignored his question, which caused a new bout of irritation in Mason. “Somewhere your memory should get a well-deserved jog.” “Are you pissed at me?” “No. Why would you say that?” “Because you act like you’re majorly pissed at me.” Mason put on his suit jacket and buttoned it up. “Jeez, I don’t know. Getting haunted and all that can do that to a guy.” Toby narrowed his eyes. “You slept with Rhys, didn’t you?” Fuck. He was supposed to be the pissed one, not some ghost who couldn’t remember the guy who was still hurting over him. He chose to remain silent. “You did,” Toby said matter-of-factly. He followed Mason closely. “So are you pissed? I should be pissed.” “Oh, really? Who told me to go and hold him?” Mason stopped in front of the door. He needed to control his face before everyone else ended up thinking him a complete nutcase. “Aren’t you tired of hearing your own voice?” “That’s what I should ask you,” Mason whispered. “All right, spit it out, buddy. What the hell happened? And tell me where we’re going already. This suspense is literally killing me.” “That wouldn’t be a first for you, right?” Toby gasped and put one hand over his face in a theatrical pose. “Are you ghost-shaming me now?” Mason had to bite hard on the inside of one cheek to keep from laughing. All right, so he was getting a bit worked up, and since no one else understood him, maybe it was high time to get out of his head a little. “We’re going to the place where you were murdered,” he offered in a normal voice. Toby rubbed his arms and made a down face. “Do we have to?” “We have nothing,” Mason explained and walked out of the room. “Except the breakthrough of finding out who you are, we haven’t made any progress.” “There was that writing on the wall,” Toby pointed out. “Which could mean nothing. We don’t know what it is. If it’s a clue, beats me what the hell it’s supposed to mean.” “We also know that Levine has some disgusting plans with Rhys.” “Again. It’s unrelated. Did you get anything from your stalking him?” Toby shook his head with a gloomy look on his face. “Except the fact that he likes to fuck over his business partners, not much.” “Well, I can’t say I’m surprised. Let’s focus on your case, for now. Rhys is safe here, with Billy, and we won’t be away for long.” “Oh, Mason, did you just include me in the team?” “What?” Mason wasn’t sure what Toby meant by that. “You said ‘we won’t be away for long’. So we’re like partners now! I’d fist bump you if I could.” Mason sighed. “Well, it looks like Rhys’s type was childish and immature, after all.” “Ah, ah, do I sense a little bit of envy? Come on, man, you’re the guy sleeping with him. You can’t hold it against him that he, um --” Toby stopped as if he couldn’t remember what he wanted to say. Mason ran one hand through his hair. “He still loves you. I know.” “Right,” Toby admitted. “Not that I want to get between you two or anything.” “It’s only because you can’t. Trust me, if you remembered how it used to be between the two of you, you’d want to kick my ass into tomorrow.” “What’s that supposed to mean?” Mason shook his head. He was talking way too much. It wasn’t hard to see how easy to love Rhys was; he knew that already. *** It hadn’t taken him too much digging to learn the name of the club where Toby had gone partying for the last time in his life. Or maybe it hadn’t been that much partying, after all. “We’re here,” he told Toby as soon as he was out of the cab. The ghost was already in front of the club, and it appeared that he was carefully examining the name hanging on top of the entrance. Most probably, at night, the single word was neon-lit, but right now, it gave that odd impression of night places lying dormant like beasts during the day. It didn’t look like it was open either. The personnel and usual patrons could still be asleep, seeing how it was before lunchtime. Something in the way Toby stared at the entrance made Mason slow down and look around carefully. “What is it, Toby? Do you recognize something?” Just like the club, the street they were on was deserted, and the silence unnerved him. It was just a sensation, something in the air. “I do,” Toby said shortly. Mason rein in the sentiment of triumph. His hunch had been right, as it seemed. “But not from when I died,” Toby added. “From when then?” There was no point in feeling disappointed. Their investigation was frozen in place, anyway. “Levine wants to buy this place.” Mason rubbed his forehead. Why would Levine want that? Was the fact that his protégé’s lover had been killed there not enough of a deterrent to prevent him from including the place on his list of investments? “Did you hear it while you were stalking him?” Toby nodded. “Yeah. He was pissed, too. He said something like,” he appeared to struggle to remember, “wanting to put his hands already on that dump Dreamland …” He was making an effort to remember more. “Ah,” he exclaimed. “He said he wanted to buy it from that freaking piece of work --” “Piece of work?” Mason echoed Toby’s words. “Who’s the owner of this dump, then?” “That would be me,” a voice replied from his back. Mason made a one-eighty in a heartbeat, only to come face to face with one of his most recent acquaintances. “Hello, Mr. Ora.” “Renzo, please.” Renzo Ora was fashionably dressed in a navy blue suit, a bit more conservative than his outfit the night Mason had met him, but no less expensive. “Would you care to step inside my humble dump, Mr. Bodyguard?” “Mason will do.” “All right, Mason. Coming?” Renzo punched in a code and pushed the heavy door open. Mason stared into the darkness inside. Did these people have something against windows? Without hesitation, he stepped inside. Renzo followed him with his dark eyes and smiled broadly as Mason walked by him. “I think I like you very much, Mason Knight.” “Don’t jump to conclusions. You don’t know me.” “Then let’s correct that.” Mason wasn’t entirely sure he was in accord over that, but this time, he needed to go with the flow. He had plenty of questions, and it couldn’t hurt if Renzo had some answers. TBC
  6. Laura S. Fox

    I’m Not Okay

    A steamy hot one will come next, for sure! Thank you for your appreciation!
  7. Laura S. Fox

    I’m Not Okay

    I think you read that right As always, you are very observant! Have trust in Adrian, he's the kind of guy who never gives up! As for Jared ... he will get more than he expects, and I should shut up before I feel tempted to give spoilers! Lol for that last line! Thank you for reading and commenting!
  8. Laura S. Fox

    I’m Not Okay

    Well, let's see what happens! Jared might not be able to resist ... just saying!
  9. Chapter Fourteen – I’m Not Okay Adrian stole a look at his phone, made a move to grab it, and then decided against it. There were only minutes until Edward would call, but he still felt impatient. What was wrong with him? He had had that one in the bag, so to speak, only to be kicked out the door after the deed. Did he want a relationship with Edward, after all? With such an unconventional man? He used to think of himself as free and unconventional, too, but this impatience, right now, told a different story. Throughout the day, Adrian had dreamed of Edward, with his eyes wide open. Now he was supposed to focus on work and not on what Edward would say or how his voice would sound like when he eventually called. There had been no phone call on Sunday, and that because Edward had told him that obligations slumped him. But now it was Monday, and the clock was crawling slowly toward seven pm. The waiting was killing him, and Adrian had partly decided to spend more time at work only so that he could keep his mind busy. Edward was pretty addictive. Adrian shifted in his chair and then decided to stand and walk around for a bit and stretch his legs. He didn’t have to close his eyes to picture Edward waiting obediently to be fed a healthy dose of cum. Adrian felt even a fit of small anger growing. What kind of relationships had Edward been in before him? The pervert that he was, he must have experimented with all sorts of things. Adrian wanted to believe that he was unique, and Edward had even said something to that extent. Still, he didn’t want to fall into the trap of a false sense of security. Edward could call everything off with the snap of his elegant fingers, and Adrian didn’t want to think of what it would mean. For years, after Alexander, he had guarded himself so well. And now, he cared again, and the thought was unsettling. As long as he believed himself to be in control, it was all right. With Edward, two nights ago, it had felt like that. Adrian had felt like a winner, a conqueror entering a surrendered city. But the keys to the kingdom weren’t in his pocket. Edward had eluded him with practiced ease, despite their hot lovemaking. Only thinking of that made Adrian want to slap his cock, and not in the fun way. Was it okay to let himself care? Edward wanted a partner to play with, not a boyfriend, not even a lover in the traditional sense. What was he getting himself into? The phone rang, and Adrian almost jumped on it, but then he reconsidered. He took two seconds, and then, as if he was slightly surprised by the call, he picked up. “Is it seven already?” he asked in a voice he hoped was both relaxed and charming. “So says my watch. Are you still at work?” “You know, some of us still have to work for a living.” “Your situation leaves nothing to be desired, or so I understand.” “I can’t complain. I love my work. What about you?” “I love my work, too,” Edward replied in a playful voice. “I know you do. But you don’t have to slave your life away; it’s a matter of choice with you.” “Do I sense a hint of jealousy? Trust me; you shouldn’t care so much about all that.” “It’s easy to say when you have a frigging grand staircase leading to the first floor.” “Ah, I see. You can’t help but tease me. Why are you pissed, as you would say, Adrian?” “I’m not pissed.” “I can sense you are.” Adrian moved the phone from one ear to another. “You kind of left my dick hanging in the wind.” “I recall letting you leave only after being completely satisfied.” “You’re not a sex expert,” Adrian retorted. “You can’t know that.” “Or is it that the source of your dissatisfaction comes from a different place?” Edward talked as if he mused to himself. “Stop psychoanalyzing me. You’re not a shrink, either.” “But I’m in charge of your wellbeing, and, right now, I know for a fact that you are discomforted.” “Discomforted? Pissed sounded better.” “I thought so. Come on, Adrian, say it. What’s eating you?” “You sent me home like I was a booty call.” “You’re a bit above that,” Edward teased him. Adrian was beginning to feel more irritated. “Oh, so I am that.” Edward laughed at the other end. “I see that you’re getting all hot and bothered over how I treated you. But it could not be helped, Adrian. My obligations --” “What obligations? Stop being so secretive. After seeing The Awakening, I don’t think anything else could shock me.” “I’m afraid my obligations are the opposite of that. They involve dull, tedious affairs. On Sunday, I visit my family, and I entertain some of their guests. I am always required unless I have some emergency to take care of.” Adrian felt himself cool down a bit. He hadn’t seen his parents in a while, so he needed to commend Edward on being such a dutiful son. Maybe he could call his mom and dad later; they were on a cruise, somewhere, having fun, as they deserved. “All right. I get that. So when do I see you?” “This weekend.” “Fine.” He didn’t know what else to say. If he insisted for them to see each other sooner than that, he would just sound childish, and he might just annoy Edward. “Dream of me, Adrian. I’ll surely dream of you,” Edward promised with a low, sexy chuckle. That made Adrian smile. All right, so maybe Edward wasn’t that difficult to turn into a real boyfriend if need be. He just had to play the game and get better at it so that he could beat his opponent. *** Something was not right, Mike could tell, as he looked at the data coming in. His diagnosis tools were trying to calm him down, but he knew the signs of a cyberattack when he saw one. He could try to reroute the traffic, but he wasn’t particularly sure that it would work. The company needed information to function, and now the useful information was lost in a sea of spam. He grabbed the phone and called the ISP provider. Like on cue, the landline phone on his desk began to ring. People must have started to notice, as well. Mike held his phone between his cheek and his shoulder and reached for the other. “Yes, I know, it’s a DDOS attack,” he explained shortly. “No, miss, I’m sorry, I’m not exactly in charge of the Internet. Just don’t do anything.” Mike put back the phone and prayed for someone at the ISP provider to pick up. While he tried to communicate with the tech service, the landline phone lit up. Between explaining the problem to the tech service guy and trying to appease the people who needed to do their work, his patience was wearing thin. As he suspected, the tech support guy offered to reroute the traffic, and that pretty much meant that all of it, good or bad, would go into a little black hole. His fingers danced on his keyboard, as he chose to ignore the angry landline phone, while he reconfigured the firewall. Unfortunately, the tech support guy wasn’t much of help, which was precisely what he was afraid of. The alternative was simple and complicated at the same time. He was just the server guy, after all. He could just let the ISP provider handle things and sit with his arms crossed. Or he could try to use his little software that could reroute the traffic to the cloud, and then he could contain it there and analyze it until the storm weathered off. That was a bold move. If he did it without talking to anyone in the company, he might just put himself in a vulnerable position. But if he didn’t act fast, who knew how many other things could go from bad to worse? He needed to call the IT department. By now, they had to know that something fishy was going on. With a not so heartfelt thank you, he ended his conversation with the tech support and grabbed the landline. “Please, don’t call here for a while, as I need to get in touch with the IT department,” he said quickly to the angry person on the other end. “This is the IT department. What the hell is going on?” “We’re under attack,” Mike said. “Thanks, Captain Obvious.” Mike didn’t know which of the guys in IT was talking to him, but there were some snotty bastards there. “Tech support at the ISP provider tells me they could reroute to a black hole.” “Oh, great. Just fantastic. Did you tell them to stuff their black hole up their holes?” The snotty bastard laughed at his own bad pun on the other end. “I need to have confirmation from above for this.” “We can’t do that. There’s a whole bunch of emails and other communication that would go down the drain, too.” Talking about who was Captain Obvious now, Mike thought and rolled his eyes. Now there was no time for useless chatting. “Can you guys give the green light for this?” The snotty bastard fell silent. “No, we can’t do that.” “All right, so what am I supposed to do?” “I don’t know. Aren’t you the server guy? This is a server problem. Just deal with it.” The line went dead. Mike shook his head. So like some people to wash their hands and pretend they had no responsibility. He called the first upper management number he found on the list. The person on the other end declined responsibility, as well. Mike was starting to sweat. He was lost in a sea of communication problems because he didn’t have who to ask what to do. One after another, the people he kept calling declined to assume it, telling him that it was his problem to solve, or they just keep sending him up the hierarchy. But Mike couldn’t go for one solution or another without having some higher-up tell him they agreed to it. In the end, there was only one office in the building – of those that mattered – that he hadn’t called. Ryan’s assistant spoke to him in an affable voice, and then he put him through. “Yes? Micah?” Ryan’s voice sent instant shivers down his spine. And he also called him by his given name, which, for some reason, in his mouth, sounded different. “Mr. Armstrong,” Mike said and then gulped, quite audibly. “Why are you calling here?” Ryan sounded puzzled. “Is this because of Saturday --” “No,” Mike said quickly. The words began pouring from his mouth. The last thing he needed was for Ryan to recall the events on Saturday. Anything but that. Ryan listened in complete silence. “So, what are our alternatives?” “Rerouting to a black hole. Only one alternative, so it’s not an alternative --” Mike began to babble. “Is there an alternative?” Ryan asked, his voice not one ounce angrier or upset. Mike hesitated. “There might be one.” “All right. What is it?” “It’s something I made,” Mike asked. “I’ve tested it, so it should work even with large amounts of data.” “How does it work?” “I reroute everything to the cloud, and then I analyze it there so that I can identify the malicious data.” “Will that save the real traffic that comes to us?” “It should,” Mike replied. “Do it. You have my permission.” “Thank you, sir.” Mike didn’t wait for a reply from Ryan and got to work fast. There was no time to waste. Was Ryan still thinking of Saturday? Mike shook his head. Now was really not the time to think of all that stuff. He had a lot of work to do. *** He was still deep in work when he heard someone coming in. “I know, I know, I’m still working on it. The attack might last for twenty-four hours or so --” “Have you eaten anything?” Mike turned so fast that the headphones on his head tried to pull him back, their cable entangled, most probably, around his chair. Why was Ryan there? And he looked his usual gorgeous self, so Mike felt his throat getting dry like the Sahara Desert. “It’s almost nine, and you’re still here,” Ryan explained as if he was some child. “Have you eaten anything?” “Um, I had something --” Mike stopped, trying to recall when it had been the last time he ate and what it was. It was Monday, so he probably had the turkey sandwich. He liked to keep things well organized, and that included his daily and weekly diet. Funny though, he couldn’t recall eating the sandwich or how it tasted like. His stomach rumbled, suddenly aware of the absence of food. “I’m going to order something. What’s your pleasure?” Mike continued to stare at Ryan, who was getting busy with his phone. “Why are you here?” he asked in a meek voice. “This will take some time, and I don’t know how long it will be. But the program is already starting to learn so --” Ryan threw him a look that made him weak to the knees. Such a good thing that he was sitting. “You’ve been working for seven hours straight, Micah.” Again with the name, Mike moaned internally. Why did Ryan enjoy so much to torture him? “It’s my job, sir.” Ryan quirked an eyebrow. “It’s only us here. You can call me by my name.” “I don’t think I should,” Mike said stubbornly. “Ah.” Ryan seemed to have forgotten about his phone now and the call he wanted to make. “Then it’s like I’m your boss, and you must do everything I say, right?” As he said the words, Ryan made a small gesture with one hand to illustrate that whatever it was, it had to remain between the two of them. Mike couldn’t imagine telling anyone about what he and Ryan had. Not that they had much. And he would actually tell Jared and Adrian if anything happened. No, nothing would happen! “Your lips move in a funny way. I’m your boss, and I’m ordering you to call me by my name and to eat. How is that?” “Thank you, but --” “No ‘buts’. It looks like you’re saving the company from quite the pickle. Can you identify where the attack has come from?” “That would be difficult. Right now, saving the real data is more important. And I hope that my program will learn some interesting things so it can recognize the patterns next time it happens.” “Your program, you say.” “Yes.” Mike looked down. “It seems to work and since you didn’t want to go with what the IPS provider wanted to do --” “It wasn’t an accusation. Actually, I’m very impressed. And glad that you’re here, working for this company.” Mike just nodded. “I’m going to order something healthy and filling. You continue to do your thing. And I will be quiet. You won’t even know I’m here.” Mike turned toward the screen of his computer without a word. He knew Ryan was there; he could smell his sexy cologne, and even sense the air displacement where he stood. Focusing on the task at hand would be so difficult, now. *** Ryan seemed genuinely interested in what Mike explained as they ate. It was easier than he thought to keep the communication between them at a professional level. Of course, it served that he didn’t look at Ryan at all. “I’m sorry if I let you down,” Ryan said out of the blue. “It’s okay. I understand everything,” Mike replied while keeping his eyes down. “Are you always this accommodating with your lovers?” Mike snickered. “What lovers?” “Don’t tell me you’re a virgin.” “No, of course not.” He could feel Ryan’s steady gaze on the crown of his head. “So, are you going to reply or what?” “Um, I don’t know what to say. Wait, what do you want me to say?” The program was working his magic, so he could allow himself this little break. “I want you to say exactly what’s on your mind. Leave nothing out.” Ryan’s voice was still a tad playful, but not as much now. “Getting through this attack is on my mind,” he replied, hoping for an easy way out. “You know what I mean. Have you thought of me since Saturday? Because, stupid me, I’ve only thought of you.” Mike shifted in his place, but he still didn’t look up at Ryan. “That’s not fair. You decided to break things off. Not that we had … things,” he hurried to add. “We had nothing.” “We had that magical evening when you took me to that romantic cocktail bar.” “And the dance on the roof,” Mike added, without thinking. Ryan moved and placed one hand over Mike’s wrist. It was warm, and Mike could feel his pulse quickening. “I can’t seem to take you out of mind. I was trying hard to push any thought of you away, and then you called to tell me about this situation.” “I had been trying anyone else for minutes until I got to you,” Mike replied. “I didn’t bother you on purpose.” “I’m glad that you did. But, for a second, I thought that you were doing something foolish and brave by calling me. I thought you called me to tell me what a coward I was.” “That’s not what I think of you.” “You should. What is it about you, Micah?” “Could you please, not call me that? It sounds kind of intimate.” Mike hoped his voice didn’t quiver. He had little to no control over the beating of his heart. “It’s maybe because that’s what I want to be intimate with you.” Mike shook his head. “Your reputation is at stake. I don’t want to be the one responsible for ruining it.” Ryan sighed audibly. “Then my reputation is, indeed, in good hands. I’m the only one at fault for pining over you when you obviously are okay with the situation as it is. It’s all right. I guess it will come to pass. I’m sorry. I have no idea why I’m saying all these things.” Ryan curled his fingers around Mike’s wrist and used his thumb to brush over the place where the pulse could be felt. Mike pulled his hand free. “I’m not okay,” he said quietly. Ryan didn’t say anything, and Mike thought he might not have heard him. So he looked up and stared at Ryan. “I’m not okay.” Who moved first? Mike wasn’t sure. But he was soon in Ryan’s arms, and their lips connected, drawn by a supernatural force. Now he was okay. Ryan squeezed him tightly, and Mike followed his lead, angling his head to make sure that their kiss was as deep as they could handle. Ryan broke the kiss and looked at him. “I don’t know what I’m doing,” he whispered and let their foreheads touch. “I do,” Mike whispered. Maybe he was possessed when it came to Ryan. Maybe he was a bit insane, and he was putting both of them at risk, trying to pull such a thing at work. If anyone walked in on them, they would both be in trouble. But he couldn’t think of all that. Right now, the only thing that mattered was to grab Ryan and kiss him forcefully. He was overly aware of how clumsy he had to be, but he couldn’t be bothered with that, either. There was a small shaking in his hands as he tried to open the buttons on Ryan’s shirt. Underneath that fabric, he would find everything he needed, the man he had been dreaming of for the last weeks. Ryan steadied his frenzied attack by grabbing his wrists. Of course, this was wrong. No, he was wrong to assume anything. Then Ryan kissed him again, and his worries melted like snow in spring. This kiss wasn’t the hungry one from earlier. It was sweeter and subdued, and it made his mind spin. When it ended, they stared into each other’s eyes. “I can’t ask anything of you,” Ryan said softly. “You can ask everything of me,” Mike replied, feeling stubborn. He didn’t move his eyes away. “It would be wrong.” “It wouldn’t be.” “I thought I was your boss, and you were supposed to kiss my ass,” Ryan said, his eyes warming up. “I would kiss your ass for hours,” Mike let out, and then he blushed. The stupid things he found himself saying. Ryan’s kisses were like a shot to the brain. He couldn’t think clearly and, apparently, anything could leave his mouth without censure. “I would do the same with you,” Ryan said back. The ping from the computer, letting him know that the program needed him broke the magic. Mike shook his head and hurried back to his battle station. He couldn’t look at Ryan now, so he pretended to be more interested in what happened on the screen than it was necessary. Ryan placed his hands on Mike’s shoulders, massaging them slowly. “You are a great person, Micah. I’m glad I met you.” “But we can’t do this,” Mike added. “I know.” “I need to work on this,” he said. He squeezed his eyes shut for a moment and then blinked fast. He needed to chase away the annoying moisture in them. “I’m glad you’re my employee, too. It’s great for the company,” Ryan said. “Never leave us, okay? Will you promise?” He couldn’t promise that. His being employed there was what made things so complicated. But, against his better judgment, he nodded. Ryan ruffled his hair and then placed a small kiss on the crown of his head. For a moment, Mike felt his resolve weakening. One moment in life, he could be foolish, screw the consequences. But, as he debated with himself, Ryan moved away. The door opened and closed very slowly as if Ryan didn’t want to bother him at all. *** “This is not exactly the kind of place we usually hang out,” Jared pointed out, as soon as they were inside and took place at a table. “I’m trying to get out of my comfort zone,” Mike replied. “Ah, is it because of Ryan? What happened?” The rhythmic song blaring over the speakers and the dancers on the ring singing along and not exactly in tune made for quite a noisy atmosphere. But it was a Wednesday, Mike wanted out of the house, and as much as his choice had surprised Jared, he had to admit that the place had its charm. They grabbed two pints of beer and took place at a tall table. Watching the dancers was comfortable from that vantage point, and it was as if the people there put on a free show for the bystanders. Jared found himself tapping his foot to the rhythm of the music. Mike drank from his pint and grimaced. Jared laughed. “Hey, it was your choice. Is it really bitter?” “Clearly more bitter than whatever I’ve ever put in my mouth.” “Come on, don’t avoid it. What happened with Ryan?” Mike sighed. “We kissed again. He told me he had been thinking about me, and, you know.” “I don’t know if you’re not telling me. Have you told him that you consider finding another place to work?” “I don’t consider it,” Mike said right away. “Yes, I do. But I need to take small steps, like coming here. And he wants me to stay and work for the company.” “Ah, so you told him of your intentions.” “No. I just helped with a problem, and Ryan was glad, and, well, he told me never to leave the company.” “And the part where you two kissed, when did it happen?” “Just a bit earlier in that conversation.” Jared shook his head. “Even if he told you to stay, that doesn’t mean that he won’t be glad if you make this move so that you can be with him.” “I don’t know how to tell him this. I’m afraid that it would be too bold of me to go to work somewhere else. And what if I make a mistake? What if Ryan is not, you know, the one?” “Frankly, Mike, I think being more open to change would do you good. Okay, don’t do it for Ryan’s sake; do it for yours. You have potential. I know you’re a good coder.” “You don’t know the first thing about that.” Mike snickered. Jared rolled his eyes. “Yes, I know, I’m the artistic type in our little group. But you’re the guy who knows how to code, even if I don’t know exactly what you’re good at. Maybe you should try freelancing as I do.” “It would be too scary for me,” Mike said. “Well, then it’s good that we’re here, drinking the most bitter beer I’ve ever tried, and watching people dance. It’s new, and it’s good for you.” Jared let his eyes travel over the dancers. A tall guy, in a cowboy outfit, seemed to be the star on the dance ring. His partner, a young woman who appeared to be completely smitten with him, was trying hard to keep up while he showed her some moves. Jared watched the dancer and took another sip from his beer. Damn, the guy was really too on the nose with that outfit. He even wore boots, and the shiny buckle in front drew Jared’s attention on more than one occasion. All right, maybe it was also because those jeans were really tight, and Jared could tell that the guy was packing some real heat; it was that why he was staring so insistently. The song stopped, and the dancers took a breather. Jared continued to stare at the cowboy, who was now engaged in quiet conversation with his partner. He wore his checkered flannel with his sleeves rolled up, and Jared couldn’t help but notice the sinewy forearms. Clearly, he seemed to be a fan of physical work. Without having a thing for that Brokeback Mountain look, Jared had to admit that the outfit looked good on the guy. When he slightly turned, Jared bit his lips unconsciously. That was quite a scrumptious behind, what he was looking at right that moment. He shook his head. He wasn’t there to ogle straight men in cowboy dress. Maybe just a small extra peek because he was curious about the guy’s face, too. Since he had worn his hat low while dancing, the cowboy’s face had been obscured. Jared looked up when the man turned again as he shook hands with people. Coincidence or not, the cowboy was looking straight at him, and their eyes met. Only for a second, because Jared quickly looked away. He had a feeling staring at a man in such a place would not score him points. The one thing he needed to do right now was to swear off men for a while. The last fiasco was still too fresh in his heart and mind. Not that he even considered having anything to do with the sexy cowboy. In the short seconds their eyes had met, Jared had registered a few things, such as a strong jaw and thick eyebrows shadowing a pair of dark eyes. From that distance, he couldn’t tell much else, but the cowboy looked like someone who spent a lot of time in the sun. He had that rugged look about him, something of a Marlboro Man in him. Mike was nursing his beer, and he seemed lost in thought. Jared felt instantly guilty. He placed one hand on Mike’s shoulder. “You know, Mike, it’s best if you do everything in your own time. Don’t allow anything or anyone to pressure you. I’m glad you took me here tonight. Even though this beer is undrinkable if you’re asking me.” “Thank you, J. You must still be hurting after Chris, and you’re still the one to comfort me because I can’t make up my mind about what I really want.” “I think you know what you want. And it’s good that you’re thinking of getting out of your comfort zone.” Mike seemed to ponder over something. “Would you think badly on me if I met with Ryan, you know, in secret?” Jared grimaced, but he tried to smile. “You wouldn’t be happy this way, Mike.” “I know,” Mike moaned. “But, I want him so much.” Jared was about to start comforting Mike again, when someone bumped into him from behind, making the table shake. The beer pints lost their balance, and their content splashed everywhere, including on his favorite t-shirt. Annoyed, Jared turned, decided to give the clumsy patron a piece of his mind. He froze for a second as he stared into a pair of dark eyes he had seen just earlier. The cowboy smirked at him. “So damn sorry about that. Can I buy you, boys, another round?” Jared had no idea what irked him all of a sudden. The guy looked as if he could hold himself on two feet just fine. After all, he had been dancing until earlier. So that couldn’t have been an accident. Maybe the cowboy had heard them talk, and just thought it would be a good idea to make fun of them, two gay guys in a place like that. “No, it’s all right,” he replied in a clipped voice. “We were just leaving, anyway. Mike, let’s go.” Mike didn’t protest at all. Maybe it was for the better that they didn’t have to force themselves to drink that foul beer, Jared thought. “Hey, don’t leave on my account,” the cowboy drawled. Jared stared at him, now completely annoyed. The dark eyes were glinting with mischief. Jared felt like he wanted to punch the guy in the nose; it looked like others might have felt the same, because it was clear the anatomic part in question had been broken before. Not that it made the cowboy less charming. He had that appeal of a man who usually got away with anything, in particular in his relationships with women. There was both grace and strength in how he held himself. “We’re not leaving on your account,” Jared said, making sure to pour as much acid as he could in his voice. “We’re just leaving, period.” “Ah, that’s too bad. And I ruined your t-shirt, too. Can I get your number? I should pay for the dry cleaning.” “It’s a frigging t-shirt!” Jared didn’t know he could have a short fuse, but it looked like that uncouth cowboy was meddling with his electric system. “It doesn’t need dry cleaning!” Mike pulled at his elbow. “Mike, let’s go.” He marched out, with Mike hanging from his arm. “Come by again,” the cowboy called after him. Jared didn’t turn to shout his reply. “Not in this life!” He had no idea he had it in him to be this not-nice person. It was completely new, and it felt a bit liberating. Mike was still pulling at his elbow once they were out in the street. “Sorry about that, Mike. The guy just got seriously on my nerves. And now I’ll have to take the smell of that nasty beer out of my t-shirt. Can you believe people like that?” “Jared,” Mike said, his eyes wide. “Hey, don’t look so scared. I wouldn’t have gone into a fight or anything.” Mike just shook his head. “I’m not scared. But I think that cowboy really wanted your phone number.” “What? No way! He was just trying to get on my nerves. He must have heard us talking, and probably thought himself clever with that prank.” Mike snickered. “J, it’s so not like you to be this dense. That’s usually my area of expertise. That guy was looking at you as if he wanted to eat you. You know, in a good way.” Jared stopped. “Nah, you must be imagining things.” “I’m not,” Mike said stubbornly. “All right, so maybe he wanted to make fun of the gay guy who landed by accident in his bar or something. That must have been it. He danced all the time with some girl.” “Ah, so you noticed him! He must have noticed you back.” Jared had to admit that the cowboy hadn’t seemed aggressive at all. The look in his dark eyes had been playful, sort of come-hither. No, he shook his head; now, he was the one imagining things. The guy was attractive, but that didn’t mean anything. “We should just head back home and catch some sleep.” “He really liked you,” Mike said with conviction. “Oh, look, he’s coming.” Jared turned only to see the cowboy jogging toward them. The man tipped his hat. “Sorry about earlier. My friends told me it would be the perfect pick up line. They’re a bunch of assholes when they want to be. So, here’s how I usually do it.” He offered his hand. “I’m Shane.” Jared stood there without saying a word. Mike nudged him. He shook his head and offered his hand, too. “Jared.” “Nice to meet you, Jared.” Shane held his hand for a while. He then offered his hand to Mike, too, but he only shook his curtly. “Here is my number,” Shane added and gave Jared a napkin on which a number had been written down in thick, blocky lines. “Just in case you change your mind about that dry cleaning.” And then he winked at Jared like that was supposed to be reparation enough for that t-shirt. “Sorry about ruining your night. I hope you guys will come again. Have a good evening.” With that, he jogged back to the bar, leaving a much flabbergasted Jared behind. It was indeed a sight to watch him go. “Didn’t I tell you?” Mike began to talk excitedly. “He really digs you!” “Whatever,” Jared said. “I’m not in the mood for a new complication right now. Cowboy wannabes named Shane sound like quite the complication to me.” Mike picked the napkin from his hand, folded it carefully, and then stuffed it into Jared’s right pocket. “There. Just in case you change your mind about complications.” No, he wouldn’t change his mind about complications. It wasn’t like him to move on so fast, not that he had any experience with relationships, except for whatever had happened with Chris. He sighed, and Mike squeezed his shoulder. “You know, that guy was a total asshole. At least, there’s a bright side. You’re not the one married to him.” Jared burst into laughter. That was, indeed, a relief. All he had to cry over was some two-week relationship or so. It did count as a long one, compared to the fleeting flings he had had in his life. “You know, Mike, maybe I’m not meant to have a relationship right now. Maybe I should, you know, just have fun for a while, no strings attached.” “Will that fun include calling a certain handsome cowboy?” Mike nudged him playfully in the ribs. Jared snorted. “I don’t think he’s my type.” Mike snickered. “You two were eye-fucking each other just earlier. I could sense the electricity.” “There was no electricity,” Jared protested, but he had to admit to himself that he felt flattered at the thought that a handsome man like that could be interested in him. But he was beyond that. Just as flattered, he had felt when Chris had hooked up with him the first time, and where had that taken him? No, this time, he would be a lot more careful. He wouldn’t be the kid with stars in his eyes dreaming of a relationship. “I’d say it was.” “I won’t ever come back here, so there’s no chance to see him again.” “You have his number,” Mike pointed out. “Maybe the best solution, as they say, is to get back in the saddle. Oh, the saddle. I just made a pun. Because he’s a cowboy and all that.” “He dresses like a cowboy. That doesn’t mean that he’s one,” Jared said. “Well, he looks the part quite well.” “There are no farms around here, so he can’t be a cowboy.” “Maybe he’s just visiting. And that’s your chance for a fling,” Mike continued. “I think that’s what they prescribe on those relationship advice sites.” “Mike, I think this is another case of you getting things a little bit wrong. What advice would that be?” Mike shrugged. “What if Shane is here only for a few days? There’s nothing for you to lose. You can meet him, hop back in the saddle, and then kiss him goodbye. Like literally.” “How come you’re so shy in your relationships, but you’re pestering me to have a one-night-stand with a sexy cowboy?” “Ah, so you like him! And it’s easier to give advice than follow it. It’s just that he seemed to like you, for real. It seemed all genuine.” “Well, I’m not going to fall twice for the same trick. I thought Chris liked me for real, as well. And look where that got me.” “It’s not fair to judge all the guys by taking Chris as the measuring dick. Oops, I meant stick. Measuring stick. Did I make another pun? It must be that awful beer. I had half of it, I think.” Jared patted Mike’s back. “Then you’re a true hero. I couldn’t manage more than one sip or so.” He couldn’t consider jumping back in the saddle so quickly. It wasn’t like him, despite his bravado about having fun and all that. Maybe he would just throw away Shane’s number when he was back home, and Mike couldn’t see him do it. *** Jared was busy gathering his pictures from the wall. He had just been part of an event gathering young photographers, and, in his book, it had been a bit of a success. As a freelancer, he needed to network, at least once in a while, and there were occasions he could use, like this one, to create new connections. Also, it felt nice to have his name out there, even if along with others. Chris was wrong. He could make a name for himself without any help, especially not from a man who considered him a side piece and nothing more. “Jared Boyle?” He turned at the sound of that voice. For a few moments, he stared at the stranger, a handsome man in an expensive suit. There was something familiar about him, but Jared didn’t know where he had seen him before or whether there was just some uncanny resemblance to someone he knew. “Yes,” he replied. The mystery was cleared right away. The stranger offered his hand. “Andrew Reeves.” Now Jared knew precisely where he had seen the man before. He pursed his lips and ignored the extended hand. Maybe he was petty, but if what Chris had said to him about having an open relationship was true, Jared wanted nothing to do with Andrew Reeves. It hurt that he was so handsome, too. His curly hair was just a tad too long to be considered business-like, but not completely rebellious. Just as the night he had seen him the first time, Jared thought he had something of a classic beauty in him. Why would Chris go out and try to have fun on the side when he had such a man at home? His manner seemed polite and charming, too. The hand withdrew. “I must apologize for my husband.” Jared turned and continued to take the pictures down, reining in with difficulty the need just to rip them from the wall, stuff them in his bag, and storm out. “You know, you made quite an impression on him,” Andrew continued. “It’s not often that this happens with Christian. He’s quite pretentious.” Christian. Pretentious. Of course, Andre must have known his husband a lot better than Jared had managed over the short time they had seen each other. No, not seen; they had just fucked. He continued to remain stubbornly silent in the hope that Andrew would take the hint and then a hike. “I just want you to know that he didn’t mean any harm.” Jared felt his jaw hurting. This time, he turned, and said through his teeth, “Oh, I think he meant everything he did and every word he said.” And he did harm me. Jared left those words unspoken. Andrew put his hands up in a gesture of appeasement. “He should have told you about me.” “Right. Preferably before he took me to bed.” Jared had a mind to use more harsh words, but it wasn’t the right place for that, and it wasn’t like him to throw nasty words around, anyway. “I can see why he likes you,” Andrew said, and he appeared amused. “Of course. I look like an easy lay,” Jared said in a low voice. Andrew quirked an eyebrow. “You don’t know the first thing about being married, Jared. Routine can become annoying. It can kill passion.” Jared threw the gathered pictures on the table in front of him and then crossed his arms over his chest. “And yet, some people manage to remain married all their lives without cheating on each other. I wonder how they do it.” Andrew chuckled and shifted his weight from one foot to another. Maybe that conversation was not easy for him, either. Jared wondered what Andrew really wanted. “He told you the truth when you two last spoke on the phone.” “Too late,” Jared replied. “The moment he tricked me into sleeping with him --” “Tricked you? What are you? Twelve?” Jared swallowed thickly. He had a feeling that Andrew and Chris deserved each other. “No, I’m not twelve. But let’s just say that married men shouldn’t go around, pretending to be single, just so that they can score with someone other than their spouses.” Andrew seemed a bit taken aback by the tone of his voice. “He told me you were pretty desperate to get in bed with him. Maybe you just ignored the signs.” Jared turned to the remaining pictures once more. His head was hurting already. “I assumed I was dealing with an honest human being. Rest assured that I won’t make the same mistake again.” Andrew released an exaggerated sigh. “You’re young, and you’re overreacting.” “Why are you here?” Jared asked, ignoring the other’s arrogant attitude. “I wanted to know you.” “Tough luck, then. I’m not interested in knowing you.” “Hmm. Chris does like the most the ones with an attitude. Why were you alone the night Chris met you?” “Well, that’s none of your business.” “Let’s say that it’s my educated guess that you couldn’t score, as you say. So the moment someone paid you any attention, you jumped right into it, without thinking of the consequences for a moment.” Jared made a conscious effort to breathe. The nerve on that guy was fantastic. He tried to ignore how those words pulled at his insecurities, threatening to unravel them all. “All right, whatever.” “And you’re flippant, too.” “It must be part of my charm.” Jared had finished taking all the pictures down, but he didn’t want to turn and face Andrew. He had a feeling he would jump to strangle him. “Too bad. Let me give you a little piece of advice. If you want to have fun in this life, drop the attitude.” Jared shook his head. All his time with Chris, he had tried to be nothing but understanding and accommodating. And now Chris’s husband was there, hurling insults at him, and accusing him of being the opposite of that. But it was all right; he could take a deep breath and ignore everything. “Are we done here?” He took his pictures and stuffed them in his bag, without sparing Andrew another look. “It looks like it. You’re a pretty boy, Jared, but pretty looks alone won’t get you far in life. It’s how you use them that counts.” Suddenly, it struck Jared, what had pushed Andrew to come to meet him like that and then insult him. There was an undertone of jealousy under all that arrogance. “Are you talking from experience?” Jared looked directly at Andrew. From up close, he noticed a few things this time. Andrew seemed to be in his forties, like Chris, but his face was a bit too puffy if he looked carefully. Could it be that he was doing Botox shots already? What kind of person in their right mind did that at such a young age? And his lips were curled into an ugly smile that took from the handsomeness of his face. Suddenly, he felt pity. He sighed and hiked the bag on his shoulder. “I would wish you and Chris all the best, but I don’t think that would be appropriate.” Andrew seemed pretty pissed now. Maybe he didn’t like to have some things said back to him. “Oh, to be young and naïve,” he hissed. “Do you think you can land another man like that? In your lifetime?” “It’s okay,” Jared said promptly. “I can live with the thought. And I’m pretty glad you landed Chris, and not me.” He pushed past Andrew, ignoring the annoyed huff that followed. That had been one hell of a conversation, and now he needed to breathe in some fresh air. To think that he had been so gullible! Jared focused on his breathing as he marched out of the building. As much as it felt like he had done pretty well, especially at hiding what he truly felt, and how Andrew’s words hit a little bit too close to home, he was drained now. But, seriously, what was all that nonsense that he couldn’t land a partner to sleep with? That was bullshit. At the same time, Jared thought as he slowed down his pace, there was a part of the blame he shared, although he wouldn’t admit it to an arrogant bastard like Andrew or Chris. He had gotten too fixed on the idea of having a boyfriend. At his age, who did that? All right, so Adrian was – sort of – in a relationship, and Mike was pining over his boss, but where was he, Jared? Apparently, he was nowhere he felt good to be. And maybe Mike was right, and he needed to get back in the saddle, if for no other reason than that he needed to prove himself that he wasn’t undesirable. He knew that Andrew had said those words to hurt him. If he were smart, he would just let it slide. But all of a sudden, he needed the confirmation that he could be with someone because he wanted to be and because there were people interested in him. There was no moment like the present. Without overthinking things, he pulled the folded napkin from where he placed it in his bag for safekeeping. “Hi there,” Shane drawled. Jared froze. What was he doing? Was he going to say? Why hadn’t he thought this through? What was he supposed to say? Hey, are you ready for a romp in the hay? Now there was no turning back. If he cut the conversation, he couldn’t ever call Shane again without having explanations readily at hand. “Hi,” he eventually said. “Who is this?” ‘Nobody’ didn’t sound like a good answer. “It’s Jared. You ruined my t-shirt,” he explained in a clipped voice, which he hated right away. He sounded like such an asshole. “Ah, Jared.” At the other end, Shane perked up right away. “Are you in the mood to get together?” Straight to the point. Jared felt a bit like taken for a ride by an ocean wave. He could just decline, but then, why had he called in the first place? “Sure. Right now?” “Yeah.” Jared couldn’t believe himself as he listened to Shane. It looked like the guy already had a place in mind. At least, it wasn’t the one with the awful beer. TBC
  10. Laura S. Fox


    That's well put! Mason has his own demons to work out, and this is his chance!
  11. Laura S. Fox


    I don't think he was ever as objective as he believes or hopes himself to be
  12. Laura S. Fox


    Thank you! The story is about to get more tangled up, and hopefully it will keep you all as interested as you are right now!
  13. Laura S. Fox


    Coming next time, Wes!
  14. Laura S. Fox


    Hmm ... that's anyone's guess, I think
  15. Laura S. Fox


    Chapter Thirteen - Darkness There was a weight burdening each of the occupants of the car on their way back. Billy exchanged worried looks with Mason in the rearview mirror at every stop. The street lights moved like translucent streaks as they rode toward their destination. “Should we take Rhys to a hospital?” Billy asked quietly. “I’m out of my depth here, chief.” “No hospital,” Rhys replied. The golden head rested against Mason’s shoulder, and long delicate fingers wrapped around a rough hand. They didn’t belong together and, yet, there they were. Mason’s throat was sandpaper dry. All he had thought, in that rush, had been to save Rhys, regardless of the danger, invisible or not. Now, his confidence was shaken. Levine hadn’t appeared concerned by Rhys’s condition, so he must have seen that happening before. But if Rhys was the person Levine had talked about on the phone with his mysterious acquaintance - more like partner in crime - there was a possibility that he didn’t care much about what happened to Rhys, anyway. Unless, of course, that interfered with his plans. Mason pursed his lips. “Are you sure, Rhys?” he asked. “You scared us in there.” “Freaked us out completely,” Billy let out, much louder than earlier. “I’m sorry, guys,” Rhys mumbled. He didn’t seem quite himself. “Has this happened to you before?” Mason asked. He moved his thumb, caressing Rhys’s hand. “I guess.” Another whispered breath. “You guess?” Mason frowned. “You don’t know for sure?” “They told me it would happen. It’s something about the side effects of the meds I’m weaning myself off after they pumped me with everything they could.” Another look at Billy told him he wasn’t the only one doubting that theory. It looked more like something that could be induced by medication, not by letting go of it. He continued to caress the hand he held. “That song you performed, was it a new piece?” “No. I’ve never sung it in front of an audience, but it’s not new. It’s been in my head for some time.” “For how long?” Mason insisted. “It came to me while I was away.” Rhys didn’t name the place where he had been locked up. “They give you something for everything there. Something to put you to sleep, something to make you wake up, something to calm you down, something to help you eat. Nothing’s beyond them. You become a little puppet while they take care of you. But nothing worked against the darkness.” Mason recalled what Levine had said about Rhys’s dad. “Did they force you to sleep with the lights off?” Rhys didn’t offer a reply, but one wasn’t needed. “I kept telling them, but, honest to God, I think that made them happy. It just gave them the opportunity to try their fancy drug cocktails on little old me.” That rehab facility hadn’t been a happy place. Mason realized, that moment, how strong Rhys must have been to return to the real world, with his mind almost in one piece. Except for the episode from earlier, he had been functional, despite the natural sadness that came with the territory. “What happens when it’s dark?” he asked. He trusted Billy not to let a word of this out. Rhys sighed and ran one hand over his face. “I know it’s just my mind playing tricks on me.” He sounded defensive. To reassure him, Mason squeezed his hand. “Feel free to tell it like it is. Billy and I, here, we’re no doctors.” “Nightmares,” Rhys said and stopped. “Hands trying to grab me, cold, something happening right outside my field of vision, noises --” He paused again. Mason had more questions, but he could tell Rhys was exhausted. Some things he wanted to ask in private. Maybe Rhys wasn’t completely comfortable to talk about all that in front of Billy. “I’ll sleep in your room tonight if that’s fine by you.” “Of course, you’ll sleep with me,” Rhys said matter-of-factly. “It’s what we agreed, right?” Mason rested his head against Rhys’s. “Yes.” “Good. I was afraid you would want to run away.” That had been before understanding the danger that loomed on the horizon. Not that Mason had it all figured out; Toby would come in handy for finding out more about Levine and his intentions toward Rhys. “Billy, this is serious,” he said in a grave tone. “It should remain between us.” “You can trust me with your life, Mason. No need to ask,” Billy replied, no longer boisterous and playful like always. “I’m taking my job seriously. And I believe in you.” Those last few words were accompanied by a short, intense look Billy exchanged with him in the rearview mirror. Mason pondered over them for a moment; it had to be because Boyd must have told Billy to pay attention and learn from him. Nothing more to see there. Rhys shifted and groaned as he adjusted his position. Mason scooted toward the door and pulled Rhys with his head in his lap. He let his fingers move slowly through the golden hair. “We’re on watch. You can sleep a little if you want.” “Okay,” Rhys mumbled in reply. Soon, his steady breathing let Mason know that his advice had been taken to heart. He continued to caress Rhys’s hair as his mind began moving its gears. What did Levine want from Rhys? He had so many questions he needed to ask Rhys, but all in due time. First, they needed to trust each other, regardless of secret motivations and whatnot. This was already beyond Mason not wanting to be haunted forever by Rhys’s dead lover. *** Mason took a quick shower downstairs, in his room, while Rhys went upstairs to get ready for bed. Before following him there, Mason wanted to have a word with Billy. As expected, his partner was watching the cameras, rewinding the recordings for the time they had been away. For a moment, he wondered at Billy’s capacity to work so tirelessly. Maybe eating candy all day had its perks, after all. Not for one second had Billy looked like he needed rest. He was more than what met the eye, that was certain. “We are in a delicate position here,” Mason started as soon as he was inside the surveillance room. Billy wasn’t surprised to see him there. “I guess you can say that again, chief.” He scratched his head in thought. “But I can see where your loyalties stand, and that’s the same place mine are.” Mason didn’t need Billy to elaborate on that. It was crystal clear. “Our pay comes from Levine’s pocket.” Billy shrugged. “And? Tonight, he showed that he doesn’t give a damn about Rhys. Which is weird, no matter which way you look at it, right? I mean, he went the extra mile to keep Rhys out of jail, when the odds were stacked against him. Then, he put Rhys in rehab to get over the alcohol addiction and who knows what else. And now, he hired us to keep an eye on him and protect him. So how come he was so dead fish cold tonight?” Mason nodded shortly. While Billy couldn’t know about the secret conversations Levine had on the phone with that mysterious partner, his logic was infallible. “Aren’t we getting ahead of ourselves? I mean, you’re a diehard fan, and I --” He stopped, unsure of the proper words to use to complete that sentence. “You like him,” Billy supplied it right away. “Let me ask you something, Mason. How many times has your gut instinct saved you so far?” Mason threw Billy a surprised look. But his question made perfect sense. “Countless times.” “So, what does it say now? Whose side should we be on? Levine’s or Rhys’s?” “You already know the answer.” Billy offered a curt nod. “Then there you have it, chief.” The playful tone was back. “We’re the good guys here.” “That’s a bit boastful of you, Po,” Mason teased in turn. “The question is: if we are the good guys, who are the baddies?” A crooked smile appeared and faded quickly on Billy’s face. “That’s our job to find out. It wouldn’t be a cool story if we didn’t fight and win against some bad guys, right?” Mason shook his head in mirth. “So it’s a story, huh? Like a childhood fairytale?” Billy snickered. “Not really. I’m sure some parts of it are pretty X-rated. Or, at least, that’s Rhys hopes for, waiting for you upstairs.” Mason coughed and looked away. Billy had seen plenty already, but that was no reason for him to let it all show. “I’m holding the fort. You go and help him dream some nice dreams. He deserves it,” Billy said in a soothing voice. Mason bid Billy goodnight and left the surveillance room. Despite his determination from earlier, his steps became a tad hesitant as he walked up the stairs. “Man, that was weird, right?” Toby said from his left. “I mean, poor Rhys ... Wait, are you going to his room?” “He needs me.” Mason was aware of how defensive he sounded. “He does,” Toby said. “I wish I could be the one to hold him right now.” He disappeared from Mason’s side to appear on top of the stairs, his head turned toward Rhys’s bedroom. The hesitation in Mason’s steps grew heavier. “Have you remembered anything? From the times you two were together?” Toby shook his head slowly. “No, nothing. And I’d feel sad about it if I still knew how that feels.” “I think you still know how that feels,” Mason insisted. He spoke quietly, hoping that no one else in the house could hear him talking to himself like a lunatic. No matter how much Billy liked him and Rhys depended on him, that kind of thing would make them change their mind about him. Toby’s eyes were sad when Mason walked past him. “You should come and stay with him tonight,” Mason said. Toby didn’t reply for a moment. “I need to keep an eye on Levine, see what he’s up to.” “Toby, I think that even an evil bastard like him sleeps at night. Give it a rest. And we should focus, somehow, on finding out who killed you. I know you must care a lot about Rhys even if you don’t remember --” “Just shut up, man,” Toby murmured. His face was away from Mason, so it wasn’t possible to read what he was really thinking. “You’re flesh and blood, okay? So go in there and hold him like I cannot.” “Toby.” Mason moved without thinking, but his hand, as usual, met nothing but air where he wanted to offer a comforting touch. Toby disappeared without another word. In front of the bedroom door, Mason exhaled. What was he getting himself into? No matter how often he asked himself that, he couldn’t say that a satisfactory answer was to be found. He had walked on steady ground for years, and now everything was shaking. He cared again, and there was no way out. No matter what Rhys needed, he would offer everything, put his life on the line if need be. The thought alone should have scared him out of his wits, but his hand was steady when he knocked. There was no reply. Mason knocked again, new alertness making his pulse soar. He pushed the door open, without hesitation. The bedroom was empty, but the shower was running. Mason let out a breath. He needed to chill a little, or he was bound to dull his senses over dangers that weren’t there. As long as Levine needed something from Rhys, Mason could assume that the scumbag wouldn’t harm his so-called protégé. He sat on the bed, attuned to the sounds made by Rhys washing behind the bathroom door. For nightwear, he had opted for a t-shirt and shorts, and now he felt strangely underdressed. Dark dangers lurked, but that wasn’t bothering him right now. There were also sweet dangers that threatened the inner core of Mason’s well-crafted self-protection. The shower stopped, and Mason tensed. A blow dryer started, giving him a small reprieve, but it lasted little. The door opened, and Rhys walked into the room, completely naked. The ceiling lights in the bedroom were on, so Mason stared, incapable of looking any other way, at the chest carved in marble that had drawn his attention before. There was a statuesque beauty to admire in Rhys’s body that could only be the outcome of amazing genes. It didn’t appear that Rhys cared a lot about eating, so it was a wonder he hadn’t become too skinny for his height. One aspect Mason noted briefly was how well-groomed Rhys kept himself. “You might think I’m vain,” Rhys said softly, taking him by surprise. He let his hands traveled down his chest and abdomen, in a gesture that Mason could only interpret as erotic. “But Toby liked my body like this, so I think I go through the motions still, just to ... keep him happy.” The last words were a whisper. Mason said nothing. He couldn’t help it. As Rhys moved around, he took in the slender hips, the long legs, the shapely buttocks as he turned and dimmed the lights. On purpose, he tried to look away from Rhys’s sex, but it was all in vain. Rhys stopped in front of him, so he couldn’t miss it. That was the only part where Rhys appeared to let his body hair grow. It was only a tad darker than the one on his head. From that distance, Mason could sense the smell of clean skin and the same thing that had tormented him since he had met Rhys Harmony. There was a subtle sweet scent that drew him in, playing with his sanity. He moved his head away, cursing himself for acting so irrationally around this man. “Am I a burden?” Rhys asked suddenly. “You can’t bear to look at me.” “You’re mistaken about the reason,” Mason replied. “It’s all right. You’re my bodyguard, and you’ve already outdone yourself. Maybe it’s for the better if I don’t impose --” Mason stood up abruptly. Since Rhys was a bit taller, it was challenging to dominate him with his eyes, but Mason had other methods to make that beautiful, sad mouth stop spouting all those self-deprecating things. He buried both hands in Rhys’s hair and pulled him close. There was no resistance, only a small gasp before Mason covered Rhys’s lips with his. It didn’t matter that it was pure insanity. It didn’t matter because it was the only right thing to do. Mason took the reins. It could be a small reprieve from the darkness. As he deepened the kiss, Rhys embraced him. Mason shaped the shoulder blades, and then the spine, with both hands, letting them go lower until they found purchase in firm buttocks that molded against his palms as if they were made to be touched like that. He took Rhys to the bed, climbing on top of him, kissing him all the time, to stop him from saying anything, from thinking about nightmares and strangers wanting to hurt him. Rhys had told him that he was safe in his arms. Now, Mason wanted nothing but to prove it. He didn’t bother to undress, but pressed his body against Rhys, connecting everywhere. Long legs and arms wrapped around him, creating a cocoon to keep them both away from the world. It was maybe not ideal, but just moving in unison like that while their mouths never let go was enough for an assurance. “Take me, Mason,” Rhys begged in a strangled voice. “Make me yours tonight.” Words like that were enough to destroy the last shred of sanity he had left. If that were the last night on earth for him as he knew it, it would be fine. “Forgive me,” Mason whispered, and he moved just enough to free himself from his shorts. Rhys wet two fingers, sucking them into his mouth, all the time holding eye contact with Mason. He writhed as he used his own saliva to prepare himself. Mason pushed himself up, hovering above Rhys, not wanting to break the gaze that held them together. “Come, please,” Rhys said in a breathless whisper and put one hand on Mason’s hip to guide him. It couldn’t be enough. Mason wanted to deny himself, the soaring desire, but Rhys grabbed his cock for a short moment, and his worries disappeared. “Please,” Rhys whispered. Mason pushed himself back, kneeling in front of an image that took his breath away. Rhys lay in front of him, his legs parted, ready for taking. He had thrown one arm over his forehead, a simple gesture that made his lean chest muscles stretch. His abdomen was rising and falling with each breath. He held his other hand over his sex, cupping the balls and pulling them up in a gesture of surrender. Mason cursed under his breath. He couldn’t continue like this. Rhys looked at him, his eyes at half-mast, moist and begging, his lips parted and allowing a rosy tongue to flick over them now and then. He grabbed Rhys’s legs and pushed them up. He kissed the long fingers hiding the beautiful sex underneath and moved his lips lower. That was a thing to savor. Rhys adjusted his position to offer him easy access. Mason used everything he knew. He bit the inside of Rhys’s thighs gently, so smooth and inviting, and then he delved into the main course. His tongue pressed and teased, helping the tiny hole open slightly. Come hell or high water, Rhys was his tonight, and none of the Levines of the world would come between them in these moments of brief happiness. Mason knew teasing could only do this much, so he used his hands, rough and hard, to help Rhys open up. Rhys murmured soft words, but no matter how they appeared to lack any sense, Mason knew what they meant, to the letter. “Come here,” Rhys whispered. Mason stopped, not understanding. “I want you in my mouth, just a little.” Mason moved and straddled Rhys’s chest. The sight of his cock being quickly grabbed by soft lips made him groan. If Rhys wanted it to end fast, he only had to keep it up like that. Rhys’s beautiful blues were innocent enough when their owner looked up, but Mason wasn’t easy to fool. He ran one hand through Rhys’s hair. “I won’t mind it,” he cooed. “But what about your other little hungry hole?” Rhys let Mason’s cock slide from his mouth in an instant. Mason grinned and caressed the beautiful lips that looked so good wrapped around his cock. “Thank you.” Mason needed to control himself a little. Back in position, he was trapped again by Rhys’s arms and legs. This time, he went for the prize. Any delay, and they would both start losing it for real. The lost look in Rhys’s eyes spoke of a desire as maddening as his. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he chanted softly as he used his entire body to push forward and invade the other’s body. “Don’t be,” Rhys said back. “I want you. All of you.” Mason didn’t have to be told twice. They shared the tremble that went like a short-circuit through both their bodies when Mason sheathed himself into Rhys’s body. From there on out, it would be their story. Rhys dug his fingers into Mason’s back, as they began moving in the rhythm that must have been familiar to both, from other times, and other lovers. Tonight, they were one, and the only one for the other, and nothing could destroy that. “You’re so beautiful,” Mason whispered into Rhys’s ear while showering with kisses every little patch of skin his lips found. “You’re everything I need,” Rhys said kindly. Mason squeezed his eyes shut. How many times had he fucked only because there was a need demanding it? Tonight, it was about need, but it wasn’t all. Or it was a different type of need, one that went deeper, stronger, all-conquering, like an unstoppable force. He could go ahead and say it was nothing but a physical attraction like no other, but as his mind, his soul, and his heart let themselves dragged into the torrent of sensations washing over him, he knew he was a liar of the worst kind. “Come inside me, Mason,” Rhys demanded in the same sweet, breathless voice like before. “Make me feel whole.” It wasn’t only about giving. That was a simple truth Mason knew well. Guilt could come later, guilt about taking what wasn’t his to take. He obeyed the whispered command, as he pushed his tongue into Rhys’s mouth, to deepen the connection that came with the fleeting penetration, in a useless effort to prove through a physical gesture what should have been conveyed in other ways. They stood embraced. Too lost in what he felt, Mason realized, too late, that he had been an inconsiderate lover. He moved to touch Rhys’s cock, eliciting a small shiver from the other. His fingers met wetness. “I don’t think I could do it once more so fast,” Rhys said. Mason brought his fingers to Rhys’s mouth and moved them slowly over the arched lips. “You’re a bit of a perv, Mason,” Rhys scolded him playfully. “What’s perverted about this?” Mason didn’t let the comment bother him. He dipped his fingers again in the mess on Rhys’s abdomen and continued his work of art. “I don’t know,” Rhys replied. He didn’t move his head away. “Maybe it’s the way you do it.” “Hmm,” Mason offered instead of a reply. He leaned in to steal a quick kiss and then licked Rhys’s lips. “Double sweet. Just as I thought.” Rhys licked his lips, too. “I don’t think it’s sweet. It must be your imagination.” Mason rubbed his nose against Rhys’s cheek. “No, it’s not.” He rolled over to lie on his back. Was the guilt late for a showoff? Why didn’t he feel anything like that? Rhys moved to place his head on Mason’s chest. He used one hand to caress Mason’s pecs, brushing over the nipples in an affectionate gesture, not one calculated to incite arousal. “Do you regret it?” “I’m still in your bed, right?” Mason said. “I’m sorry. I’m a bother, always asking for confirmations.” Mason wrapped one arm around Rhys and held him. “If it helps, it was fantastic.” After sex, the words no longer came easy to him. As his blood chilled, he remembered that he wasn’t there to get his rocks off. Rhys laughed. “It was.” “Can I ask you something, Rhys?” “Sure.” Rhys yawned and threw one leg over Mason’s body, caging him. “What’s with you and the dark? I mean, did anything happen to, you know, dislike it so much?” Mason didn’t miss the tension in Rhys’s shoulders, so he embraced him tightly. “It’s all in the past,” Rhys replied. “Did Toby chase away the nightmares?” Mason felt selfish for asking. It served no purpose but his own reassurance to ask that. “Yes.” Rhys didn’t elaborate. Mason hated himself for pressing forward, but he needed to do it if he was ever to find Toby’s killer. “He was your other half, right?” Rhys sighed. “Yes, he was.” “So why were you guys fighting so much?” “People who love each other fight from time to time.” Rhys was slipping from his hands, and Mason hated that he had the diplomatic abilities of a brick. “Not like that.” “How would you know?” Rhys became defensive. Mason was well aware that he was one second away from being thrown out the door, with a figurative boot in his ass. “I suppose I could tell you,” Rhys added. “It doesn’t matter anyway.” Mason waited, his ears perked up. “He wanted me to give up on music and break all ties with everyone I knew. To move away.” Mason could feel his eyebrows shooting up in surprise. That was completely different from what the tabloids had said. “Why?” he asked the only logical question that came to his mind. “He refused to say, no matter how many times I asked. I suppose I got what I wanted,” Rhys said, a new kind of bitterness creeping in his voice. “I have my music, but I don’t have Toby anymore. If I had only listened to him, he would still be alive and mine. So, you see, Mason, no punishment is too little. If the darkness wants me, I should just give in already.” “No,” Mason said with determination and pulled Rhys to him in a protective gesture. “You shouldn’t. What happened to Toby, it wasn’t your fault.” “What do you know, Mason?” Rhys started to struggle a little against his hold. “Just this. That I won’t let you punish yourself anymore.” “Really?” Rhys sounded incredulous. “Because you’re my bodyguard?” It wasn’t lost on Mason what those words meant. He wasn’t anything else, just as he should have known. He set his jaw. “Yeah, because of that,” he said in a hard voice. The warmth from before still lingered, but their bodies were strangers now, just as they were. Mason released his hold, and Rhys moved away. He could tell by the rustling noises that Rhys was wrapping himself in a blanket. He looked only to be met by a turned back. What business did he truly have to get in this emotional mess? There was no simple answer to that. Mason moved without overthinking and draped his body over Rhys. A small sigh followed. “I’m sorry, Mason. You didn’t deserve that. You would be better if you didn’t get involved with me. I’m nothing but a cluster fuck.” “And? If you think that this is enough to make me stay away, you’re wrong.” To his surprise, Rhys laughed softly. “Because I’m a good lay?” Mason smiled. “Well, that’s a pretty strong reason, don’t you think?” Rhys relaxed in his arms. “Then I can live with it. Just let me get the lights.” “I don’t mind sleeping with them on,” Mason said. “I told you, Mason. When you’re around, I’m safe.” Mason allowed Rhys to get out of the bed and turn off the lights. They found each other in the dark, and Rhys carefully wrapped the blanket around both of them. Mason smiled against the small kiss pressed against his lips. He still didn’t feel guilty. TBC
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