At eight-thirty a.m. the next morning, Drew tapped on Alicia’s door.
“You’re bright and early this morning. There’s nothing much on today, you could have had a bit of a lie in. How did the party go last night?”
Drew paused, not sure where to start even though he’d gone over and over what he wanted to sa in the long hours since he’d left Amara.
“There’s something I need to talk to you about, and it can’t wait.”
“That sounds ominous.” She waved him to a chair, then leaned across the desk where she’d been working. He couldn’t help but notice she was still wearing the same clothes from the day before and there were dark circles under her eyes. The desk in front of her was scattered with papers, some of which had photographs of a grand house.
“Been pulling an all-nighter.”
Alicia sighed. “This bloody party’s going to be the death of me. Mother Bear is flying in all kinds of people from all over the world and the time differences are driving me insane.”
“You should have said. You could have joined Amara and I for cocoa in the kitchen.”
Alicia’s expression hardened, all amusement and weariness falling away.
Drew took a breath then told her everything, from his first suspicions to the discussion with Amara that morning. He didn’t sugar-coat anything. Neither did he seek to excuse his own failings in not acting on his suspicions sooner. To give her credit, Alicia listened intently without interrupting and waited until the end before asking a few clarification questions.
“Amara had bruises? And you’ve seen them?”
“On his arms, yes. There are finger marks where someone’s grabbed him and held tight. I suspect we’d find others.”
“Okay, leave it with me. Go upstairs and relax. I’ll let you know when I have news.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m not sure yet. I need to speak to Mrs Graice first.”
“Do you have to?”
They exchanged a hard look. Alicia broke the gaze first and sighed. “You know I do.”
Drew nodded, anger churning his gut. “I’ll be in my room. I dare not hang around the living room. If I see him I won’t be responsible for my actions.”
“Professionalism, Mr Chance.”
Drew leaned across the table and Alicia drew back, clearly shocked.
“Ben is a martial arts expert and a big bloke. Amara is a tiny, scared, kid. There’s a word for men who abuse kids, Miss Montgomery, and it’s not a pretty one.”
Drew turned on his heel and stalked from the room. He wasn’t quite sure where the anger was coming from. Sure, he was blisteringly mad about what Ben had done, but that had turned cold a while back. No, what he was overwhelmingly angry about right now was the worm of suspicion that wouldn’t leave him alone, digging into his brain and warning him that Ben was going to get away with this.
Instead of going upstairs for a coffee, Drew wandered into the kitchen on the basis he was far less likely to bump into Ben there. Apart from the time Ben had shown him around the house Drew had never once seen Ben in the kitchen and it was blatantly obvious he wasn’t welcome there. He couldn’t have been more surprised to find Amara sitting at the table drinking coffee and eating a bacon sandwich. He was wrapped in a cowl of silence and Emma glared at Drew as soon as he entered, her stern gaze demanding he explain the boy’s dour demeanour, so unlike his usual sense.
Drew shrugged and sat down opposite Amara. Amara was wearing silver-grey ballet leggings and a loose, white tshirt tied under the sternum. Drew was glad he wasn’t standing up.
“Have you been up long?”
Emma banged a mug of coffee down in front of Drew. She glared at him, flicking her head toward Amara with pursed lips. At first, Drew was confused, until he followed her glance. With the short-sleeved tshirt hiding nothing, Drew was able to see the extent of the bruising on Amara’s wrists and upper arm. The anger burned white hot. He shook his head slightly and Emma withdrew.
With a huge sigh, Amara raised his head. He looked exhausted. “I couldn’t sleep. I got up about half an hour after you left and I’ve been dancing ever since. It took my mind off everything.
“Apparently, the pole fought back today,” Emma said, her words clipped.
Amara absently rubbed his arms.
Again, Drew took a moment to catch up. “Oh, the bruises. I’m surprised, Amara. There are a lot more than you showed me last night.”
Amara’s eyes widened. “I… I didn’t… I don’t…”
Drew reached across the table to lay his hand over Amara’s. “It’s alright. It’s being handled.”
Amara swallowed heavily. “What—”
He got no further because the stairs door opened. For a moment, it seemed that everyone held their breath, and let it out again when Aria bounced in.
“Here everyone is,” he said, beaming out his special brand of happy. “I was getting worried when I couldn’t find you. You left the music on in the studio, Mara.”
“Oh, sorry,” Amara said, pushing back his hair and trying to smile at Aria. Aria, however, was having none of it.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, planting himself in the middle of the kitchen with his feet apart and hands on his hips. Despite his tiny stature, he filled the room. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s wrong. Come share my sandwich.”
Amara held out his hand, but Aria ignored it.
“What are you doing down here?”
“But why are you up so early?”
“Why are you?”
“Because I couldn’t sleep. Ben’s stomping around in a vile temper, looking for you.”
The sandwich fell from Amara’s fingers, as colour drained from his face. His eyes flicked to Drew. “W-why is he mad?”
Aria shrugged, although his eyes were narrowed and expression shrewd. “He was muttering on something about a misunderstanding he needed to clear up before things got out of hand.”
Amara shrank into himself. It was then Drew noticed the absolute silence. Emma, Mason and one of the upstairs maids had all stopped their work and were staring at Amara who looked like a doe in headlights.
“What’s going on?” Aria demanded again. “Tell me.” He stamped his foot for emphasis which made Drew briefly fight a smile.
“Nothing’s going on,” Drew intersected on Amara’s behalf. “Except Amara has decided he um…wants a change in the security department.”
“A what? Ben? Woo hoo, are you finally getting rid of Ben? Is he really not going to be around anymore?”
Amara nodded slowly, still looking shell-shocked.
Aria sank onto the seat next to Amara and put his arms around him. “About bloody time. I can’t stand that man. I know I stopped nagging you but that was only because you asked me to. He’s horrible, Mara, and….” Aria paused and tried to pull back, but Amara was clinging to him. His whole body was shaking, and he began to sob quietly on his brother’s shoulder.
Aria stopped pulling away, and instead pulled Amara even closer, stroking his back and hair. “What is it? What’s wrong? What happened?” he kept repeating.
Drew didn’t feel it was his place to explain any further, as he had no idea how much Amara wanted to say in front of an audience.
The silence was broken by a buzzing sound that made them all jump.
“Excuse me,” Mason said, glancing at a panel near the door. “Miss Montgomery is summoning me.”
Mason’s exit seemed to loosen something in Amara and he was able to let go of Aria. He sniffed and raised his hand to wipe his nose and eyes. Aria pounced on him, grabbing his wrist. Amara winced.
“How did you hurt yourself?” Aria demanded, his voice tight.
“The pole,” Amara mumbled.
“Bollocks. You don’t get bruises like that on the pole. What happened? Who did this?”
When Amara remained silent, Aria paused, then his eyes flew wide. “Oh please, no. Mara please tell me it wasn’t him. You promised. You swore to me he wasn’t hurting you.”
Amara bowed his head, his shoulders slumping in utter defeat. Emma turned on her heel and stalked to the back of the kitchen.
“I didn’t want him to hurt you too,” Amara whispered.
“For God’s sake,” Aria snapped. “Will you please get it into your head that you don’t have to protect me from everything. You should have sacked him. If you’d sacked him, he couldn’t have hurt you anymore. You would have had someone like Drew to protect you.”
Amara glanced at Drew and smiled, with a slight shake of his head. “There isn’t anyone else like Drew.”
“True,” Aria said seriously, “but there are plenty better than Ben.”
Amara nodded, equally seriously. “Also true.”
“You’re definitely going to sack him now, right?”
Amara nodded. “Drew’s sorting it out.”
“Alicia’s doing it right now,” Drew said. “That’s probably why she called Mason – to get Ben.”
Amara threw an absolutely terrified glance at the door, as if Ben was about to burst through. “I’m safe here, right?” he whispered.
“Of course you’re safe,” Aria snapped. “I’m here, and Drew, and Emma and Charlotte. Well, not that Emma and Charlotte can do much, although Emma could probably hit him with a frying pan.”
“Hey you,” Emma said, cuffing him gently on the back of the head. “I’ll have you know I’m very handy with that frying pan.”
“And I happen to be pretty good at boxing,” Charlotte cut in with a big smile.
Emma huffed. “Pretty good? She’s only the British featherweight amateur boxing champion, and she’s going to the Olympics.”
“I’m working towards it,” Charlotte broke in. “It’s not a sure thing.”
“Hm.” Emma smiled proudly before putting two glasses of a golden liquid on the table in front of the twins. “Brandy,” she said. “Good for shocks.”
“Well…there’s no evidence….” Aria began.
“There’s enough evidence for me, and it won’t do you any harm. Drink up.”
Amara and Aria exchanged a glance, then nodded and knocked back the Brandy. Neither one of them batted an eyelid.
“I thought you didn’t drink.”
“We don’t usually,” Amara said. “Only on special occasions.”
“And when we’re really mad, usually with each other,” Aria added.
“And champagne sometimes.”
“Usually when we’re nervous.”
“Or really mad, usually with each other.”
The twins grinned at each other and some of the anger around Drew’s heart melted a little.
“More bacon sandwiches, I think,” Emma said and hurried off to make them.
Peace descended on the kitchen. Charlotte left to start work, Emma busied herself cooking and the twins talked softly in their own weird language that Drew had learned consisted of half sentences and single words that seemed to be all they needed to convey whatever information they needed to impart. If he listened very carefully he could usually make out most of what they said, but he wasn’t focussed enough right then. Half an ear was trained on the door, alert for any commotion outside, or worse. He was the first to hear the shouting.
Doors and walls were thick there, but not thick enough to entirely cut out the yells from the hall. The twins stopped as if someone had turned off their power supply. They held enough other tightly.
The kitchen door burst open and Ben stood there like a raging bull. His face was red and his eyes bulged.
“You little bastard. You’re not going to get away with this,” he snarled.
Before he’d got to the end of the sentence, Drew was out of his chair and facing off. “I think you’d better leave.”
Ben’s lip curled and much of the anger drained from him as he curled his lip. “Leave? What makes you think I’m leaving?”
Drew narrowed his eyes, a sinking feeling making him nauseous. “What do you mean?”
“Ben,” Alicia’s voice snapped from behind him. “I told you to go home and cool down.”
Ben moved to the side to allow Alicia pass. He lounged against the door post. “Oh, I’m going, and I’ll cool down, and I’ll be back tomorrow. Can’t leave Amara unprotected now, can we?”
“What?” Drew glared at Alicia who shrugged helplessly. “You’ve had a warning Ben. If you much as raise your voice to Amara again you’re out. I thought I’d made that perfectly clear.”
“No,” Amara chocked out. “No, I don’t want him. I don’t…”
“I think you’d better go, and not come back.” Drew said, taking a step forward.
“Are you threatening me?” Ben asked straightening from his lounge, and taking a step forward, so he was practically nose-to-nose. “Because if you are”—he grinned and stepped back—“I’m going to report you to the police for harassment.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“After what you’ve done? I wonder what the police would say about that.”
“Threatening behaviour, assault, physical abuse of a minor, and that’s just the start.”
Drew thought he saw a flicker of fear pass through Ben’s eyes, but it was soon replaced by his usual cocky grin. “Never happened, mate.”
“Are you seriously trying to tell me you’re denying it?”
“Have you seen me lay one finger on the boy?”
“No, but I’ve seen the bruises, and I believe Amara when he tells me it was you.”
Ben grinned and flicked his eyes over Drew’s shoulder. “And who exactly do you think is going to believe him, especially with Mrs Graice’s fancy lawyers tying them up in knots.”
“Mother?” Amara croaked.
“I had to call her, Amara,” Alicia said, a hard edge in her voice that Drew suspected came from too much rather than too little emotion. “She spoke to Ben and—”
“She doesn’t want me to leave.”
Amara heaved a sob, Drew dared not take his eyes off Ben to glance back and he was shocked to his core when a lightening bolt shot past him. Aria took Ben so much by surprise he actually took a few steps backwards when Aria pushed him.
“Get out of my house. Get out. I don’t care what Mother says. No one hurts my brother. Do you understand? No one. This is my house, not my mother’s, so get out. Get out.”
Ben started to laugh, while Aria stood there, his arms crossed over is chest and his eyes sparking fire. A sense of pride rose in Drew’s chest, not quite overtaking the fear.
“Aria, go back to Amara.”
“I will not.” Aria glared at Drew, then back at Ben. “I can’t believe this is happening. No one wants you here. Don’t you understand. Mother doesn’t own this house, and she doesn’t pay your wages, we do. If Amara says he doesn’t want you to be his guard anymore, you can’t be, no matter what Mother says.”
“Think again, little boy.” Ben smirked.
“Until you’re eighteen, you’re not old enough to sign contracts of employment,” Alicia said quietly. “Technically, Ben is employed by your mother and she….is reluctant to let him go this close to the party because no one else would be able to get up to speed with the security arrangements in time. After that….”
“No. Mara pays for Ben out of his own money, like I pay for Drew.”
Alicia shook her head. “It was different back then. Don’t forget, you were fourteen when Ben came. You didn’t have the freedom you do now.”
“No,” Amara screamed. “No, I won’t. I won’t anymore. You can’t hold Aria over me anymore and I’m not scared of you. I’m not. I don’t want you to be my guard anymore. I won’t have you. I don’t care what Mother says, you’re fired. Get out. Get out.”
“Sure, I’ll go.” Ben turned and strode away. Then paused and glanced over is shoulder. “But I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Drew had his gaze fixed on Ben but he heard the scrape of the chair and caught Amara around the waist as he flew past. Amara screamed and fought, not even Aria’s fearful attempts to placate him getting through.
“I hate you. I hate you. You blackmailed me. You said you were going to hurt my brother and you hurt me. You said you were going to tell everyone about Aria. You made me get drugs and you made me take them and you know I hate them. You made people laugh at me. I was scared, and you laughed at me. You laughed when other people hurt me. I hated it. I hated you.”
Amara’s voice rose to hysteria and Drew tightened his grip around the distraught boy, pulling him into a tight embrace. “I wanted to die,” Amara sobbed, throwing his arms around Drew and clinging like a limpet. “I wanted to die to make it end. I just wanted it to end but I was scared you’d hurt Aria.”
Drew was glad he was holding Amara, and that Amara was clinging so tightly to him. If he’d been free, Ben wouldn’t have walked out of there that day.
Drew had no hands free to stop Aria when he breezed past. Drew was certain he was going to throw himself on Ben, but his movements were precise and controlled. When Alicia stepped forward to intercept him, he waved her away. Drew wished he could see Aria’s face, have some idea what he was thinking, what he was planning. It was his job to defend Aria, and he would if he had to, but he couldn’t just throw Amara aside, not when he was breaking apart.
“I think you should go, Ben,” Aria said, his voice shaking only a little. He held his head high and from where Drew was standing it looked very much as if he was staring the man down.
Predictably, Ben sneered. “Told you, I’m off for the day, but I’ll be back tomorrow.”
“I don’t think so,” Aria said, the shaking a little more pronounced. “I don’t think you’ll be coming back ever again.”
Ben barked out a short laugh. “You’re kidding right? Your mother said—”
“I don’t care what my mother said,” Aria yelled although still surprisingly controlled. “Maybe she won’t let us fire you, but she can’t stop us calling the police and telling them what you did. You hurt my brother and that’s illegal. God knows what you did but whatever it was it was illegal. The police will put you behind bars and we’ll never have to see you again.”
Ben paled. “You’re not going to tell them anything,” he snarled and took a step forward.
Mason put a hand on Ben’s arm, and Alicia inserted herself in front of Aria. “Aria’s right. I think you’d better go now, and I’m warning you, if I see your face anywhere near here again, I’ll call the police myself.”
Ben glared at Alicia, then Aria, then he raised his eyes to Drew and narrowed his gaze. “You’ll be sorry about this. I promise you. You’ll all be sorry.”
“Are you making threats, Ben? I think the police might be interested in those too, especially with so many witnesses.”
With a snarl, Ben shook off Mason’s hand and stormed out of the house.
There was a moment’s pause when everything seemed to be suspended and the only sound was Amara’s harsh sobbing. Then sound and movement broke again. Aria ran back to Amara and threw his arms around his twin.
“It’s alright, Mara, he’s gone now. He’s gone and he’s not coming back. It’s okay. No one’s going to hurt you again. No one will hurt you ever again, because I’m going to toughen up and stop being so blind and stupid. I’ll take care of you, and you won’t have to take care of me anymore. I’m such a selfish idiot.”
“No,” Amara’s anguished sob as he let go of Drew with one arm to pull Aria into the embrace, tugged at everyone’s hearts. “Don’t you see? This is why I did it. I don’t want you to toughen up. I like that you’re sweet and innocent and a bit naïve and totally not tough. I don’t want you to change. I want you to always be like you are.”
Aria snorted. “That’s not going to happen, is it? Everyone grows up, Mara, and you can’t protect me from everything. I don’t want you to. It’s not fair. Look what happens when you try to do that. It ain’t pretty.” He smiled at Amara who gave him a watery one in return. “I promise I’ll try not to grow up too fast, and I’ll try to stay empty headed and silly for as long as I can, but I am growing up and I don’t want to be protected forever. I’m not made of glass and I won’t break. I want to be strong for you too.”
Amara let go of Drew and hugged his brother hard.
“Aw, Mara, I know I said I won’t break but if you keep squeezing me like that, my ribs will.”
“Come on, love.” Emma gently prized Amara off his brother and guided him to the table.
He kept tight hold of Aria’s hand the whole time and when they sat Aria was practically on his lap. He leaned his head against Aria’s shoulder and closed his eyes.
“You just hold on there for a minute and I’ll get you both a nice cup of tea, the vanilla one you like. Is there any of that brandy left?”
Alicia caught Drew’s attention and motioned for him to step outside, which he did, closing the door behind him.
“Drew, don’t go.”
Drew had no idea which boy had said what, but it made him feel somehow warm inside – a different kind of warmth to the blazing hot anger that still fuelled him. He stuck his head around the door.
“I just have to speak to Alicia for a minute. I won’t be far away, okay?”
The twins exchanged their “twin glance” and looked as if they were going to complain, but Emma stepped in with two glasses of brandy.
“Come on now, my little sweethearts, let Drew do his job. He won’t be far away, and he’ll be back real soon. In the meantime, you’ve got me and Mason. Did Mason ever tell you about the time when he was in the army and had to fight off a whole regiment of pigmies single handed, while carrying half a village on his back. I think it was the Boer war or something.”
“Emma, not even Mason is that old.”
Drew closed the door quietly with a smile.