“I think we’re gonna enjoy owning the house.” Brett retrieved his driver from the golf bag and waited his turn. “I mean, we don’t even own it yet, and the next door neighbor already invited us over for cocktails!”
“So, Burnett lives next door? I didn’t know that.” Miles addressed the ball and swung his club. He had invited Brett and César to a Sunday morning round, while Alanna supervised their sons’ tennis lessons at Hillcrest Country Club. Their fourth was a young lawyer Miles was mentoring at the firm.
“You said you knew him?” Brett shook his head not believing how far the attorney’s shot traveled. “Babe, we need to play more often. Everyone’s outdriving us this trip.”
“Advantages of living in California, guys. We get to play year round.” Miles raised his arms and tilted his head backwards, allowing the sun to shine on his face. “Brock and I have met a few times. Hard not to in this town when you’re in the entertainment business. I tried to lure him to our firm, but he’s being loyal to the lawyers who stood by him when he had issues about ten years ago.”
“He was in rehab, wasn’t he?” Brett recalled reading something about it years before.
“I don’t know all the details, but that’s the story. He went into a tailspin after his divorce, dried out, came out, and as far as I know married a guy he went to high school with.”
Miles watched everyone else hit their ball before strolling back to the cart—the course required all golfers use them during weekend play. Since they were not walking, Brett promised himself he would spend time on the treadmill at the hotel’s fitness center. “Nice guy. Although he did ask about us having the three young studs at the house. Same as that douche, Eddie.”
“Sorry about that, again. If I’d known he’d try to bulldoze his way through you, I would have never had him on the list.”
“Don’t worry about it. It’s cool. I have a good feeling about Zion. Not pretentious, and he listened to us.”
“So, you officially hired him?” Miles had been given a summary of the previous day’s events during the ride from the hotel.
“We’ll discuss details next time we see him, but we’re asking him to do the pool house’s main floor and the guest quarters above. Not sure about budget right now. I’ll let César figure that shit out.”
“You’re placing a lot of trust in an untested stranger. I’m surprised.”
“Well, Chipper trusts him and Bryce, and we trust Chipper like we trust our own kids. This will be Zion’s first real job. I think he’s going to work hard to impress us.”
“How are you going to deal with money? Considering his age and lack of experience, he may not have credit with showrooms.”
“César will figure that out with him. And how much he’ll get paid too. You or someone at your office may have to get involved. My hubby said he wants to help the kid get a start. He mentioned Zion needs to learn more about contracts and the business side.”
Miles looked at Brett and smiled. “You guys are good peeps. Not many men in your position would take a liking to a youngster and want to help him out like you’re doing. Without trying to get in his pants.”
“Pervert!” Even their quiet fourth chuckled. “We’re used to having guys his age around us. I could see him and Bryce being friends with our sons. The California boys have both struggled to get where they are, and we don’t mind lending a hand to get them to the next level.” Brett recalled the words his grandfather always repeated about wealth and its responsible use by those who had it. It was part of his DNA. If he, and by extension César, could help advance a career or improve a life, they were ready to do it.
“That’s pretty.” Brett tipped his head at the potted orchid Bryce and Zion had brought as a birthday present for Burnett. The actor had invited the young men to his home at the same time he extended the offer to his neighbors.
“I should have thought of that.” Chipper raised the wine bottle he carried: an Argentinian Malbec from one of the wineries his mother worked with. “Hope he likes a robust red.”
Brett threw an arm over Chipper’s shoulders. “Not sure if you know about it, but Brock spent time at Betty Ford’s years ago. He may not drink at all.”
“Don’t worry about it, dude. He did invite us for sunset cocktails, and we brought booze too.” He lifted a bottle of Chivas Regal Royal Salute from the bag he carried.
Bryce and Zion had picked up Chipper and parked behind Brett and César. “When are you guys flying out?” Zion asked as soon as Brett had stepped out of the car.
“Not sure yet. We have a Friday night flight booked, but that may change. Why?”
“I came up with some ideas last night. Before I share them, I’d like to get a few quotes from vendors. Since tomorrow’s a holiday, that may not happen ’til Tuesday at the earliest.”
Brett was thrilled the guy was so keen in getting to work. He had a good feeling about him. “That’s fine, Zion. We’re busy Tuesday anyway. Maybe we can all meet on Wednesday?” He glanced at Chipper. “Wanna have dinner with us that night?”
“I can’t, Cap. I’m actually performing that evening. A small bar these two introduced me to when I was here last year. It’s a dive, but the owner hired me to sing for a couple hours Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. I have the voice, he has the money, and I can use the coin until things really gear up.”
“Great! I know where we’ll be Wednesday night.”
The five men walked next door together, and Chipper pressed the doorbell. The reception they received was unexpected.
“Ohhh, emmm, gee! YOU’RE CHIPPER! I follow you on Insta. You were my favorite last season. I was so upset you didn’t win…” The pretty, Asian girl seemed to realize Chipper was not alone. Her eyes widened when she noticed Bryce and Zion smiling at her. “NOOO! Bryce and Zion? I follow you guys too! I never dreamed I would meet all three of you! At the same time! What are you doing here? We’re gonna have to—”
“My party. My guests.” Brock Burnett interrupted the fangirling and grinned at the visitors. “Get in here, guys. Thanks for coming. Please forgive Amy. You’d think my son’s girlfriend would be immune to celebrities. I’m surprised at how excited she is right now.”
“Thanks for inviting us, Mr. Burnett.” Bryce held out the white, ceramic pot with the orchid. “Happy birthday.”
“Thank you, boys.”
When he turned to place the plant on a side console, Brett noticed the artwork above it. “Dude! Awesome painting.” Done in the same realistic style as the Warhol soups they had discussed the previous weekend, a large can of Bush’s Best Original Baked Beans occupied most of the short wall.
“Thanks.” Brock’s eyes clouded over for a moment. “A present from my late husband. He said this was the house baked beans built.”
“Sounds like there’s a story behind it.”
Burnett’s crooked smile dissipated the fleeting sadness. “Oh, there is. I’ll be happy to share it later. For now, let’s get you all a cocktail. We’ll sit and chat in a bit.”
“Here, this is for you.” César handed their host the bag with the expensive bottle of liquor in it. “Hope you like whiskey.”
“Thanks. In case you didn’t know, I had some substance abuse issues years ago. I avoid hard liquor, but my friends will appreciate this.”
“How about wine? Do you avoid it too?” Chipper held out the bottle he brought.
“Actually, wine I drink. A glass or two with dinner, so this I’ll keep for myself.” The doorbell interrupted the conversation. “Amy, be a dear and help our guests get a cocktail. I’ll be with you guys in a bit.” Brock stashed the wine bottle next to the orchid and Scotch before opening the door once again.
Chipper walked beside Amy with Bryce and Zion following them; Brett and César tailed the younger set. Past the foyer, she turned right into a large living room. Brett was used to the open floor plan of their Washington townhouse, and his parents’ house next door echoed the approach with its large, multi-use central area. Here, walls separated each space by function. “So, Amy, you actually recognize these three from Instagram?”
“Bryce and Zion I do. The pictures they shared from Coachella and Burning Man last year were sick!” She stopped in front of an Art Deco, freestanding bar made of burlwood. The center section’s hinged lid was raised, displaying a glass bucket full of ice, napkins, and mixers. Open doors on each side revealed an assortment of top liquor brands, and shelves above held glasses. “Please help yourselves. I don’t know anything about booze.”
César nodded at a couple of people standing nearby and bent over to look at the available spirits. “He has a bottle of Johnnie Walker Blue, Jarhead. Neat or rocks?” Brett was a whiskey drinker and the only decision was how to enjoy it.
“Make it a highball. I want to start slow. Okay, Amy, those two you recognize from their pictures. What about Chipper? TV or social media?”
“From TV first.” The girl’s complexion darkened slightly, as she stared at the floor. “I started crushing on him when he sang Denim Jacket for his audition. He looked sooo sexy.”
Brett’s laughter attracted everyone’s attention. “No need to blush, Amy. Our nephew’s a good looking guy. Hell, we all fangirled a little when we watched the competition.” He and César, along with most of their close friends, had religiously tuned in each week to watch The Voice. Recording the show for later viewing was not an option once audience voting to determine who would advance began.
The teenager’s gaze shifted between Brett and Chipper, apparently trying to find a resemblance between uncle and nephew that did not exist. Although tan, Brett’s skin tone was lighter, as were his hair and eyes. Chipper’s Latin heritage, in contrast, had gifted him darker shades.
“You’re his unc— ohhh, emmm, geee. You’re in the pic he posted this morning from a Lakers game. You’re CJ’s dads!” Her eyes widened in recognition and her body seemed to shake. “Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Don’t move! Don’t move! I gotta get my boyfriend. He’s in the backyard. Ryker’s not gonna believe this. We both started following CJ when we found him in one of Chipper’s posts. Oh, my god! You have the cutest granddaughter!” She shouted the last sentence over her shoulder as she headed off somewhere.
Brett and César lost it. Peals of hearty laughter echoed through the room. Chipper looked smug, blowing on his nails, and buffing them on his shirt. “It’s like I told CJ, he waits a couple of years to run for office, and our combined followers will make a great voting block. Hopefully, all of them will buy my music too.”
“You’re a dick. All you want is to make money off impressionable teen girls.” Brett was amused. What were the odds some high school girl in Los Angeles would recognize him? And for being someone’s father.
“And what’s wrong with that? I think of it as proper marketing.” Chipper always seemed to enjoy bantering with his best friend’s fathers.
“It’s called prostitution, Chipper.”
The young musician shook his head. “Nope. No sex involved. The closest to naked I’ll ever post are pro shots from Versace’s underwear campaign.” He winked at Bryce and Zion. “At least not most of the time. And never with anyone underage.”
“You’re a model too? You’re still going to do music, right?” The concerned voice belonged to a handsome young man holding Amy’s hand. “Hi, I’m Ryker. Brock’s my dad.”
“What up, dude?” Chipper offered up a fist. “Based on what Amy said, I guess you know who I am. Don’t worry. Modeling could become a side gig, but I’m a musician first.”
“Oh, hell, yeah. I know who all of you are. Bryce. Zion.” He bumped fists with each one as he said their names. Then he offered César a handshake, repeating it with Brett. “I’m honored to meet you, sirs. Your son, CJ’s a hero of mine.”
César retained a pleasant smile, but Brett chuckled. “Nice to meet you too, Ryker. We may have to keep CJ away from you. We don’t need our son getting a bigger head than he already has.”
“Jarhead!” The hard slap to Brett’s back barely moved him. “Ignore my husband, Ryker. I’m glad you find CJ inspirational. Tells me he’s done something right, and I’m willing to take the credit for raising him properly.”
“Thanks, Mr. A.” The teenager suddenly appeared terrified. “Oh, crap. Can I call you that? I’ve seen most of CJ’s friends do it.”
“That works, buddy. Listen, maybe a little later, you and I can sneak off and call CJ? You can talk to him for now, but I’m sure you’ll meet him whenever he comes out here.”
“Really? That’d be sooo cool. Now I’m definitely psyched.”
“So, what’s it you find so interesting about our son?”
“Well, I came across him on Chipper’s Insta feed first. When I looked at his page, I discovered his involvement in politics, with veterans, and with gay rights. I love the fact he’s gay but the people around him are of different orientation, races, nationalities, and gender. Yeah, his closest friends are all men, but there’s women around him all the time. I want to be like that when I’m older.” The teen barely breathed; he seemed in a rush to get it all out. “Just a straight version.”
“That’s a great goal, buddy.” César gave Ryker a fatherly shoulder shake. “But make sure you’re yourself at all times. It’s something Brett and I instilled in both our boys. Do not allow someone else’s views, opinions, and actions push you into doing or saying things you don’t believe.”
“Thanks. I won’t. Dad always says I should do what I think’s right and let the chips fall where they may.”
“Smart man, your father.”
The gathering was not a large one, maybe two dozen individuals. Brett and his companions were the only newcomers in a group of people who obviously knew each other well. Cocktails in hand, the two Washington men talked to everyone at the party and eventually wound up with their host at a bistro table in the backyard.
“I’m feeling old, and it’s your fault. And we just met!” A grin accompanied Brock’s complaint.
“Don’t look at me,” Brett replied. “You’re César’s age. I’m way younger. If the two of you want me to get you walkers…”
César shook his head. “Please ignore Brett. I love him to death, but he tends to be an idiot at times. Why is it we’re making you feel old?”
“Not exactly you, but your companions. The three of them, Ryker, and Amy are all huddled inside talking about taking pictures, posting schedules, and all things Instagram.”
“Yeah? How do you think we feel?” Brett sipped from his drink and waved a finger between himself and César. “We share an Instagram account just so we can follow our family and friends. We’ve never even posted anything! And yet, your kid recognized us from posts on our son’s page.”
Brock smirked at his guests. “Yeah, that’s another thing. When I stopped by yesterday to introduce myself and invite you over, I didn’t recognize Chipper. Even though I watched a couple of episodes when he was on The Voice. And I sure as hell didn’t realize you two were CJ’s fathers.”
“You know about CJ?” Brett was surprised.
“How could I not? Ry’s talked about him often enough. Hell, he wants to apply to Georgetown.”
“If he does and decides to go there, he’ll at least know us in advance. We live a block away from campus.”
“That’s good to hear. I promised we’d go visit whatever schools he’s interested in this summer. Maybe we’ll stop by to say hello when we hit D.C.”
“No maybes about it. If you’re in Washington, we’ll hook up. We’ll have you guys over for dinner at a minimum.” César’s invitation was confirmed by vigorous nodding from Brett. “No filming this summer?”
“Nope. Current project’s all done. Next one won’t start until late fall.”
“What’s up?” Brock raised a hand towards Brett and César and spoke to Ryker. He and the other young people had approached the older men holding their phones out.
“We need you to take some pictures, Dad. And I want one with Mr. A. and the Captain. Please?” Ryker’s pitiful pleading elicited chuckles.
“Mr. A? Captain?” Brock sounded confused.
“It’s what all our friends call them, Mr. Burnett.” Chipper placed a hand on Ryker’s shoulder. “Ry’s cool, and he already asked permission to call them that.”
“He did, Brock. Don’t worry about it. Brett and I are used to it. So what’s the new project you’re filming in the fall?”
There were no other guests nearby when Brock glanced at their surroundings. He leaned forward and spoke in a hushed tone. “Since Disney reacquired the rights to Marvel’s X-Men, they’re moving ahead with Gambit. The project’s been kicked around for a while, but was finally greenlighted. They haven’t even announced I’m in it, so keep it to yourselves for now.”
Brock glanced at Chipper, Bryce, and Zion. “That goes for the three of you too. No posting anything about it. If you behave, I can probably get the three of you small parts in it. Interested?”
“Oh, heck, yeah! We definitely are! That would be cool to be in a superhero movie. Even if it’s as extras without lines.” Bryce spoke for himself and Zion.
“It all depends on timing with me, Mr. Burnett. I’m in L.A. for a couple of months, but I go on tour mid-May. I’ll be back here working on a second album in the fall.”
“I’m sure Ry has your number already. I’ll get in touch later. Now, let’s see about those pictures.”
Sometime later, Brett and Brock were alone, staring at the horizon as the sun raced towards it. Brock’s green eyes sparkled when they reflected the setting orb. The younger set strolled on the beach, satisfied with the pictures. César had gone inside to fetch drinks. Brett leaned back in his chair and studied his host.
Brock sipped from a bottle of Perrier and closed his eyes. “I love this time of day. There’s a certain peace that accompanies the sunset light and colors.”
“I used to love the final surf each day. Trying to catch the last wave before it got dark. You surf?”
“A little. I rarely have time when I’m filming. Even if it’s in town. Early calls mean I’m on set before sunrise and I often return home after dark.”
“Dude, how the hell are you in such good shape then? You’re ripped!”
Brock smiled at his guest. “Thanks, I’m probably in the best shape of my life. When Disney signed me to play the villain in Gambit, they hired me a personal trainer. Those damn spandex costumes show every muscle, so they wanted me to bulk up.”
“What did I miss?” César handed Brett a fresh scotch and soda.
“I was telling Brock he’s in great shape. He’s working with a personal trainer, getting ready to kick ass in his next movie.”
“Everything I’ve read about superhero movies says the stars all do a lot of training beforehand. So, Brock, you said there was a story behind the baked beans can painting?”
Brock’s expression became somber and he straightened up. “My life’s been like a magic carpet ride. Unfortunately, there were a few scary dips while in flight. About ten years ago, I was living in an apartment above a three-car garage and couldn’t get work. Me, the sex symbol who drew crowds to all his movies, wasn’t right for any part. While riding high, I’d been the toast of the town. I partied at the hottest clubs with the likes of Britney and Lindsay and never had to wait in line or pay for drinks.”
The corners of Brock’s mouth ticked upwards into a sad smile. “Even after drying out and a trip to Betty Ford’s, my antics—splashed on tabloids and TV entertainment shows—had made me persona non grata in Hollywood.”
“Were you divorced by then?”
“Yeah. I’d spent two years married and had a kid, but my wife had remarried and her new husband was raising my son. After losing a part in an HBO miniseries, I fell off the wagon. Of course, a night of drinking didn’t solve anything. I found myself in my car the next morning not quite remembering what I’d done.”
“Brett and I have a couple of friends who’ve gone through rehab. We know how hard it is to stay sober.”
“Pain in the ass, is what it is. Anyway, it was just past dawn when I stopped at a 7-Eleven on Wilshire Boulevard. I needed coffee. Inside, I ran into my old high school buddy, Aaron. He’d been my backup at Santa Monica High, and we’d messed around until we both got married.”
Brett chuckled. “This sounds interesting.”
“Trust me, it gets better. So, we’re inside 7-Eleven, and some asshole decides to rob the place. You have two former quarterbacks standing next to a stack of baked beans cans, and the solution seemed obvious. If you can throw a football, you can throw a can. We beaned the fucker.” Brock laughed alongside his guests. “The cops made a big deal out of it, I got lots of positive publicity, and next thing you know, HBO changed its mind. Movies followed, and I think I’m back to not having to wait in line at restaurants.”
“Ah, yes, the little things in life.” Brett decided he liked Burnett and hoped they would get to spend time together whenever César and he came to California.
“Don’t knock it. When you’ve had those little perks and lose them, you definitely miss them. Enough about me. I obviously know a little about you thanks to Ry’s fascination with CJ. Fill in the blanks for me.”
“I grew up next door.” Brett grinned at Brock’s surprise. “My parents had it built and I moved there as a kid. The ’rents died while I was in high school. My grandfather moved up from San Diego to live with me so I could finish at Malibu High. I went to college, Marines ROTC, was deployed, and ended up at Quantico and then the Pentagon.”
“Did you come back to the house now and then?”
Brett found it amusing how much he had been recounting his life lately. First Miles and Alanna, then Yves and François, now Brock. “Nope. Grandpa rented it out when I went to Cal, and it stayed that way until a few years ago. While living in the D.C. area, César and I met, dated, and eventually moved in together. When CJ came to live with us, we realized our lives were in Washington. We started shedding California properties and sold the house to Greg Nalbo.”
“I think I’m going to like having you guys next door instead of Greg. What are your plans for the house?”
“A vacation home,” César replied. “Brett and I plan to travel more in the near future, and we’ll be here monthly until the place’s set. Sooner or later, you’ll get to meet our kids, They were all excited about having a house in L.A. And you’ll likely see their friends or ours at some point. We have a place in Vail we let family and friends use, and this will be the same.”
“You guys ski a lot?”
“Not really. We were supposed to be there this weekend with our youngest, but we changed plans. We’ll meet up with him next month and then fly out here to see how Zion’s doing with the decorating.”
“You hired the kid to do it?” Brock sounded surprised.
“He got the pool house as a test. Has less than a month to do it, since we’d like to stay there when we return. Depending on how he does, we’ll talk about setting him loose on the rest of the house. But don’t tell him that. As far as he knows, once he finishes the pool house, he’s done with us.”
“I guess the place’s gonna be empty most of the time.”
“Brett and I talked about that. We might want a live-in caretaker. We have someone in mind but haven’t approached him yet.”
“Well, I hope I get to see you guys whenever you’re in town. And if you need me for something while you’re away, ask.”
“Thanks, Brock. I have a question for you.” Brett’s curiosity had nagged him since he heard the story about the baked beans. “Whatever happened to Aaron?”
Brock’s facial expression was a hard-to-decipher mixture of joy and sadness. “We started dating after the 7-Eleven episode. Once I had money flowing freely again, we bought this place.” Brock waved a finger over his head to indicate the property. “He commissioned the baked beans painting, claiming those cans made this house possible.”
“You previously mentioned a late husband. Aaron?”
“Yeah… we got married and had a few good years together. He died of cancer in early 2020.”
“Crap. Sorry, man.”
“Thanks. It’s good though. I miss him, but he’ll always be alive in this house. We made some pretty good memories. And after all, isn’t that what we all hope happens when we die? We live even after our last breath. In the thoughts of those who loved us.”
“Well, shit. There goes golfing tomorrow.” They were in bed, watching the weather report on the late, local news. Thunderstorms were forecast for much of Monday.
“Actually, that may not be so bad.” César reached for his phone and brought up the list of open house items. “We can call all the utility and service people and arrange any necessary visits to the house. The locksmith and security company definitely have to come out.”
Brett fluffed another pillow and added it to the one under his head. “We can play tourist in the afternoon if the weather clears.”
“We can also go car shopping. I don’t think I want to rent every time we come out here.”
“Let’s hold off on the car until next month. We can rent one more time. But I really want to hit the hotel’s gym. Too much drinking and eating this trip. I need to burn some calories.”
“Why don’t you turn off the TV and get under the covers? I’m pretty sure I can come up with a way to get you some exercise right now.”