“Thirty,” Mason said through his teeth as he forced his chin over the training bar for the last push.
His phone went off right at that moment. He had a mind to let it ring, but he did expect a call since he had been out of work. It could be sooner rather than later, as the bills piling on his desk in orderly fashion were trying to tell him. He wasn’t the type to be picky, but his best friend had been pestering him that he would have something lined up for him, something that was worth the wait.
On his way to the phone, he grabbed a towel and wiped his brow. “Yes?” he said roughly, trying to hide that he was a tiny bit out of breath.
“Training hard, like usual?”
His friend’s voice was cheerful and getting a bit on his nerves.
“Yes, like usual.”
“Keep that sexy bod of yours in tip-top shape, my man, ‘cause yours truly, Boyd Lamartine, just found you the dream job.”
“Shoot.” Mason was in no mood to fool around. He stole a look at himself in the full-size mirror. At thirty-four, his body was starting to get a bit heavier, a bit thicker, but his abdomen was still flat, and he looked ready to take head-on any baddies crazy enough to stand in his way. His casual flings always commended him on his physique, but Mason never thanked them for it. His body was a tool to get something he needed, which, in his line of work, meant that being in shape equaled paying bills and keeping the fridge stocked. If people went to bed with him because they liked his dark, brooding looks – their words, not his -, and hard body, that was their choice, not his. It suited him since he was never interested in more than the occasional release, as pleasant as it could be with the right individual.
“It pays a ton of money,” Boyd blabbered. “And you don’t have to do much. Just walk around, looking like a badass, which I think you have right down to a tee.”
“Sounds fishy to me,” Mason said right away. Boyd was a good friend, but Mason knew the guy to go the extra mile for his finder’s fee. In other words, he didn’t precisely believe Boyd to be eager to read the fine print. Nonetheless, he had to admit that, usually, his friend had excellent gut instinct.
“It’s always the bottom line with you, isn’t it, Mason?” Boyd complained. “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“I knew I should have grabbed the paper when I went shopping for groceries this morning. You know, so I could start looking for a real job.” Mason wasn’t beyond teasing Boyd. It went both ways, and they understood each other well.
“A real job? Like what? Washing dishes? You know you won’t find the kind of work you’re made for in the papers. And hey, did I ever get you in trouble? Last time, you went for a gig I didn’t arrange, and what happened? Do I hear it?”
Mason rolled his eyes and stared at the ceiling for a moment. Then, he admitted defeat with a long sigh. “Not good. You want to hear me say it.”
“Yes. I do. I totally do.”
“Fine, fine, the guy was a screw-up. He deserved that punch and more. What, did you expect me to assist him while he was trying to turn his ex-wife into a punching bag?”
“And, and,” Boyd said excitedly, “who arranged that gig for you? It wasn’t me, was it?”
“It wasn’t. I screwed up. Please, Boyd, accept my sincere apologies. And please let me kiss your ass while at it.”
Boyd laughed wholeheartedly. “I would totally let you do that to me, but I don’t swing that way. You know me. If I ever changed my mind, you’d be the guy I’d flip for, cross my heart.”
“I’ll keep you to that. So, what’s this dream job all about?”
“You will love this,” Boyd said in an exaggerated tone.
Mason grimaced. Boyd was hiding something. “Come on, Boyd, I don’t have all day, as much as I love you.”
“I love you, too, man. Gosh, I wasn’t expecting a confession,” Boyd said. “But I’ll take it.”
“Sure, sure. Now, shoot already.”
“You’ll be in charge of a celebrity.”
“Are you jumping up and down for joy? ‘Cause I don’t hear it. It’s an easy job, Mason. You only need to look the part. Well, you know; look as menacing as you usually do, and that’s all.”
“Celebrities have their fair share of crazy fans, stalkers, and all that jazz,” Mason said flatly. “The jobs that seem the easiest are usually the trickiest. This woman, I suppose, goes to parties, events, and whatnot, and gets exposed all the time.”
“It’s not a woman,” Boyd said, and his voice dropped a note as if he was trying to communicate a secret.
“Okay. A guy pretty much does the same things, and they can have stalkers and crazy fans, just as well. So, out with it. Who is it?”
“Rhys Harmony,” Boyd said in one go.
Mason frowned and began searching through his mind. Was he supposed to know the name? “Who’s Rhys Harmony?”
Boyd seemed strangely relieved and not disappointed. “Okay, he’s not Brad Pitt or P. Diddy, but he is a celebrity in his own right.”
“I’ve never heard of him, but I don’t listen to music much anyway. What kind of music does he play?”
“It’s hard to describe. You have to listen to him. It’s really something.”
“If you say so,” Mason said dryly. “What’s the gig?”
“His producer needs someone to protect Rhys pretty much all the time. That means that you’ll have to pack your bags.”
“Okay. Anything else? What’s the pay?” Mason stopped himself from whistling when Boyd recited him the daily amount he would get. “And for how long?”
“For as long as you’re needed.”
“Sounds good. Why did you have to act all shady, asshole?” Mason said in as an endearing tone as he could muster. “You made me think that I must work for America’s Most Wanted or something.”
Boyd offered a strained laugh in reply. “The guy’s an angel, Mason. You should see him. If I ever flipped, it might be because he jumped my bones out of the blue.”
“Fucking two-timer,” Mason said with a chuckle. “I thought I was the only one for you.”
“Well, normally, yeah. But you should see this guy. An angel, I’m telling you.”
“It doesn’t matter. I don’t fuck where I work.”
“Correct. That’s why I trust you for this job. No one else.”
“Stop buttering me, or I’ll start getting suspicious again.”
Mason was satisfied when he put the phone down. But still, he had a feeling that there was another shoe somewhere, waiting to drop.
A coquette mansion on the hill opened its gates as he was chauffeured in by his friend, along with another man also hired to ensure security. Throughout their ride there, Boyd and the other guy had been driving him nuts with their constant chatter. Mason preferred silence, as much of it as he could get. Maybe that was why he wasn’t a big fan of music.
“Is he at home?” he asked curtly.
“Who?” Boyd asked as he maneuvered the car into the driveway.
“The guy I’m supposed to work for,” Mason said, throwing Boyd a well-aimed glance in the rearview mirror. He had to ride in the back when the other bodyguard had called dibs on shotgun. His name was Billy, and he looked like a fresh-faced rookie. Mason found it a bit odd that he had been paired with such a novice. But maybe he was jumping to conclusions, and Billy could be a black belt or something.
He somehow had his doubts. Billy’s body frame was on the chubby side, at least for that line of work, and he seemed a bit of a simpleton. Boyd had sold him on some crazy story about how he had once got the autograph of a famous football player. Billy had eaten that straight from Boyd’s hand and had expressed his enthusiasm through a plethora of expletives that somehow hadn’t sounded aggressive at all in his mouth.
Still, maybe he had some skills.
“Rhys is not yet at home,” Billy told him dutifully.
Mason stared at Billy, who had turned in his seat to look at him. “All right, Kung Fu Panda. If you’re so well informed.”
Billy’s brown eyes widened in surprise, and then, he burst into wholehearted laughter. “I’m a huge fan of that movie! How did you know that?”
“Just a hunch, I guess,” Mason offered back, fighting hard to keep a straight face. Billy’s laugh was infectious, and a guy who was either too naïve to figure out when someone was pulling a joke on him, or smart enough not to get pissed, was all right in Mason’s book.
“Let’s get you settled, guys,” Boyd said as he cut off the engine. “Rhys is not yet here, but his producer, Levine Goldman, is. He’ll take you through the paces. Is this great or what?”
“Awesome!” Billy exclaimed, as expected.
Mason kept in a sigh. He somewhat suspected that it took little to get Billy excited. He stepped out of the car, and Boyd hurried to straighten his tie. His friend himself was dressed to the nines, and the dark suit looked good on him. Only two years younger than him, Boyd was already starting to show evident signs of balding, but it suited his businessman persona well. When he wasn’t a total joker, Boyd had the gravitas demanded by interacting with high-profile clients, as the current one seemed to be.
“There you go, sugar,” Boyd said as he patted Mason’s chest.
Billy examined them with curious eyes. “Are you two together?”
Now, Mason couldn’t keep it in any longer. He began laughing. “Kind of,” he joked. “I’m his side piece. He’s married,” he said as he pointed at Boyd.
Boyd snorted. “Don’t believe this joker. He’s my one and only true love.”
“I’m telling Sarah you practically called her a beard right now,” Mason teased his best friend.
The reply was a horrified face. “No way. She might make me sleep on the floor.”
“Even that would be too good for you,” Mason said.
“Come on, guys. It’s time for us to get busy. Levine is waiting for us, and trust me when I tell you that the guy is a stickler for the help being on time.”
“The help?” Mason asked and quirked an eyebrow.
“Levine Goldman is a billionaire,” Billy whispered, and his eyes darted around as if expecting someone to eavesdrop on them.
“And the logic is?” Mason asked.
“He can and will treat people like trash,” Boyd said airily.
“And here comes the other shoe,” Mason said with a sigh, mostly to himself.
“What shoe?” Billy asked. Mason offered only a shrug. “He can be a bit of a scumbag, I heard,” Billy added, in the same conspiratorial manner.
Mason pondered for a moment. Something was irking him at little. “So this guy can hire the hottest shot of the all hotshot security companies in the city, and he settles for Kung Fu Panda and me, here?”
Boyd threw him a sidelong glance. “Rhys is a pet project for Levine. He doesn’t make enough money to justify that kind of expense. Also, he’s not in imminent danger or anything. Throwing cash on expensive services is not something Levine does.”
“Oh, a cheapskate,” Mason commented. “And what does a billionaire like him do with some small-time celebrity like this Rhys guy?”
“Rumor has it --” Billy started.
“Billy, shut it,” Boyd said curtly. He straightened up his suit jacket, kicked off some invisible lint off his lapel, and then rang the doorbell.
A stern-looking woman in an apron opened the door, and, without a word of welcome, retreated so that they could all walk inside.
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” Billy offered like the good kid he was.
The woman’s washed-out eyes didn’t even spare Billy a glance. They were set on Boyd, as he appeared to be the only one important enough to be worthy of her consideration. “Mr. Goldman will see you now,” she announced in a cold voice that brooked no contradiction.
They proceeded to walk single file, following the woman to what looked like an office, discreetly tucked under the stairs leading to the first floor. Mason observed his surroundings with critical eyes. There seemed to be a security system in place already. The artificial eye of a camera blinked at them as they passed by it.
They entered the office in absolute silence. A man at the north of forties was standing behind a huge desk made from solid oak, and he was talking on the phone, his eyes fixed somewhere in front of him. Mason noticed the expensive pin-striped suit right away. His salt and pepper hair was brushed to perfection, and his features were angular, something that made him look like a predatory bird. He wasn’t unattractive, but his demeanor was cold and calculated. Just like there was no hair astray on his head, it appeared that the man didn’t leave anything to chance.
Whatever the conversation was about, he seemed displeased with it. He was balancing on his feet as he talked, which Mason found it a bit strange. It was as if he was trying to appear taller; Levine Goldman was of average height, but probably that didn’t suit his bank account or something. “Results. That is all I’m asking. Is it too much? I hope not.” He cut off the conversation without saying goodbye to the person on the other end. Mason understood what both Boyd had meant by his short, but to the point, description of the prick.
Levine Goldman set his eyes on them. “You’re here. Good. Let’s make this quick since I don’t have all day. Are these two the people you hired for Rhys?” Just like the maid who had gotten the door, Levine completely ignored Mason and Billy.
“Yes, sir,” Boys said promptly. “Mason Knight and Billy Jackson.”
“It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir,” Billy said enthusiastically. He was about to take a step and extend his hand, but Mason caught him.
It seemed that Levine noticed him now. His eyes, of pale, indistinctive color – grey, blue? - , set on him. They appeared to scrutinize him. Mason looked back, schooling his face into neutral. With some satisfaction, he noticed that Levine set his chin high as if he was trying to compensate for the difference in height.
“Rhys will be home soon. Anita will show you to your rooms. She will have to leave in half an hour, which means that you will be on your own, so pay attention to all the rules she will lay down for you.”
“Do I get my own room?” Billy asked excitedly.
“Yes,” Levine replied from the tip of his lips, as it would have required way too much effort to talk with his entire mouth, effort he didn’t want to spare on the likes of Billy. “This isn’t summer camp.”
“Super,” Billy commented, totally unfazed by Levine’s contempt.
Being a little simple had its perks, Mason thought. He wasn’t that lucky. Levine Goldman seemed like a good candidate to meet his fist, but Mason didn’t do personal at work. Without a proper reason, he wouldn’t give Levine a piece of his mind unless the guy started beating up his ex in front of them.
“Rhys has the soul of an artist. That means that he needs his space to listen to his inner music. In other words, you two should be out of his way as much as possible. Make sure that you’re invisible and don’t get in the way of his artistic process.”
“We will be like ninjas, sir,” Billy replied. “Rhys won’t even know we’re here.” Mason had a hard time trying to picture that.
“Aren’t you talkative for a bodyguard?” Levine asked. “And you? Are you mute?” His attention shifted to Mason.
“No,” Mason offered curtly.
Levine examined him. “A man of few words. I like you.”
The feeling’s not mutual, asswipe.
“What you two need to do is to make sure no one disturbs Rhys. He needs his quiet,” Levine insisted.
“Do people usually disturb him?” Mason asked.
Levine stared at him, and his eyelids dropped. “You could say that. And he is easily disturbed. That is something I would dislike to hear. Is that clear?”
“Crystal,” Mason shot back.
A phone rang, and Levine dismissed them with a flick of the wrist. Mason felt none the wiser about the nature of his current job. That meant that he would have to figure everything out on his own.
“Man, can you believe how cool this house is?” Billy looked around in wonder.
“Don’t eye the silverware too closely, Kung Fu Panda. They might suspect you’re planning to steal it.”
Billy snickered and stared at a metal trophy placed neatly on the upper shelf of a bookcase. “Rhys is such a god,” he said reverently. “Have you listened to his last hit? Nothing cuts like love?”
“Can’t say that I have,” Mason replied dryly.
Billy’s eyes grew wide. “You have to be shitting me. You must listen to this.”
Out of nowhere, Billy produced a set of airpods and offered them to Mason.
“I’d rather not. We’re here to figure out what this place needs, not play hooky.”
“No, man. I won’t budge until you listen to this. You must.”
Billy looked like he’d have a hard time taking ‘no’ for an answer. Mason took the airpods with a sigh and fitted them into his ears. He would listen for precisely fifteen seconds, and then he would start kicking Billy’s ass.
Billy fiddled with his phone for a bit, and Mason used the reprieve to examine the room some more. A rich jazzy sound filled his ears, and he stopped. Then, the weirdest thing happened; the singer began singing to him, and him only.
Nothing cuts like love,
You won’t feel when it cuts you,
You won’t feel when it strikes you,
You won’t feel when it hurts you,
Nothing hurts like love,
You won’t know when it hits you,
You won’t know when it bleeds you,
You won’t know when it leaves you,
Nothing cuts like love,
It won’t be here when you need it,
It won’t hear when you shout it,
It won’t care when you’re … gone.
Mason stood there, dumbfounded. The room, the things around him, Billy, nothing, and no one was there anymore. There was only him, him, and the music filling his ears, the voice of the singer, so throaty, velvety, and intimate, as if his lips were right against Mason’s skin, making him feel each vibration, each note, deep inside the marrow of his bones.
The song ended, and Mason blinked a few times. He cleared his throat and barely stopped a shiver; under his suit, his skin was all goosebumps.
“Well?” Billy asked, his eyes as big as saucers. “What did I tell you? Is he a god or what?”
Mason took the airpods out of his ears and placed them in Billy’s hand. “We have work to do.”
“What?” Billy moaned. “Is this all that’s on your mind? Mason, you don’t have a heart, man, if you don’t like this.”
“I’m not into this whiny kind of music. I dislike people who make a display of their emotions while they’ve never been through anything real in their lives.” Mason stopped his tirade when he noticed how Billy’s face fell. “He’s decent, I guess,” he changed tack, “but I’m no critic. What I’m good at is my job. And yours. So let’s do it.”
Billy followed him without a word, behaving like a kicked puppy trailing after his cruel master. Mason told himself that he wouldn’t feel bad about that. He had enough trouble trying to get that throaty sexy voice out of his head. He hoped he hadn’t caught an ear wick.
Billy decided that he would be better out of Mason’s way and went to investigate his room, which most probably included how fluffy the sheets on the bed were. It was annoying to be careful with other people’s feelings, and Mason liked his line of work because he didn’t have to deal with that kind of thing too much.
Levine had left a set of instructions for them to investigate all the rooms for security flaws, which meant that nothing was off-limits. Mason wasn’t particularly comfortable about inspecting Rhys’s bedroom, but that was his job, and his interest was only professional. Also, he was happy that he no longer had Billy with him, as he half-feared the guy doing something outrageous like sniffing Rhys’s pillow or trying out his sleepers. Billy was a die-hard fan, as it seemed, so maybe Boyd should have reconsidered hiring him. It appeared that the chances were high for Billy to disturb Rhys’s artistic process, after all.
Mason shook his head. Rhys did have a very distinct voice, but maybe it was all the result of some sophisticated audio processing software that made him sound like that. His room could be considered eclectic, compared to the rest of the house. There were mismatched pieces of furniture, and the bed had a vibrant violet coverlet on it. The carpet was thick enough to make Mason feel his feet sinking in, even with his shoes on, and the walls were covered floor to ceiling with what looked like a complicated potpourri of aesthetic quotes.
“Beauty is how you feel inside,” Mason murmured as he leaned in and chose to read one at random.
The whole room was arranged to trigger and channel inspiration, Mason realized. Without overthinking things, he pulled open the top drawer of the nightstand by the bed. His eyebrows shot up at the sight of what looked like a realistic silicone toy placed neatly in a transparent case. Lube, condoms, and a pack of batteries were there, too. Well, all people needed hobbies. Who said Rhys Harmony didn’t need one, besides his music?
On the other hand, it wasn’t his business. He pushed back the drawer carefully. Well, he would need to check the perimeter outside, as well. Depending on what Rhys could agree to, they could install an additional camera on the balcony adjacent to the bedroom. It appeared so easy for someone to access the room from outside if they wanted. He would think of other ways to secure it, as well.
The sound of the door opening made him turn quickly on his heels. A man in his mid-twenties walked inside, and Mason couldn’t help gawking. He was tall and willowy, and the way he moved was graceful and provocative. He consciously rolled his hips, and there was a come-hither look in his deep blue eyes. Mason barely had time to take in the wavy golden hair, the tall forehead, the perfect eyebrows, and the full lips when the man began talking.
“I’m glad to see you’re already here.” Mason had heard that throaty voice before. “You don’t look like in the pictures, but I’m pleased with what I’m seeing.”
Was he Rhys Harmony? Mason was rightfully dumbstruck. He stood there, baffled, something that was totally uncharacteristic for him. Rhys walked over to him and grabbed him by the back of his neck, placing his lips directly on his.
And if that wasn’t enough to startle him, a hand went straight to his crotch to feel his cock. Mason grabbed Rhys fast by the upper arms and pulled him away from the kiss. Unconsciously, he licked his lips and tasted something sweet.
The blue eyes stared at him in surprise. “I don’t think I ordered ‘hard to get’.”
“Mr. Harmony,” Mason began, trying hard to rein in his fascination with the beautiful man in front of his eyes, “I think you just took me for someone else.”
Perfect eyebrows shot up. “Really?”
“I’m Mason Knight, and I’m in charge of your security,” Mason said quickly.
Rhys’s features metamorphosed into amusement. “Ah, I see. Well, I don’t mind,” he said and leaned in closer, “if you don’t.”
Mason kept him at arm’s length. He briefly wondered if Rhys was high on something. “I do mind.”
Rhys sighed and pushed back on his heels. “Sure. So, where is my date?”
“Your date?” Mason asked, puzzled.
Rhys took out his phone and looked at the screen with a focused look on his face. That allowed Mason some time to examine him some more. Rhys wore white clothes, made from some light material, and the shirt was opened in front down below his solar plexus, allowing Mason to see a silver pendant encasing a stone as blue as Rhys’s eyes. When Rhys moved his arms, Mason caught sight of a pink nipple.
This job was starting to prove harder than he had initially thought.
“Ah, damn, it was canceled,” Rhys complained. He placed the phone to his ear right away. “Levine, what the hell?” he said, as soon as someone answered at the other end. “What? Now I’m not even allowed to play anymore? As usual, you’re no fun.”
If Billy thought Rhys was a god, he had to be a really flighty one. Still, the magic was there; Mason couldn’t tear his eyes off him. When Rhys turned, he checked his behind. For a guy as skinny as him, that looked pretty yummy. It wasn’t big or anything, but it was perky and just how Mason liked them best.
No, he needed to pull his mind out of the gutter. Now wasn’t the right time to get sidetracked, and, when he was on the job, he was entirely blind to men’s charms.
It looked like there was a first time for everything.
Rhys turned and caught him staring. A small all-knowing smirk lit up his face. His lips parted, and when he licked them, Mason swallowed hard.
“Yes, I do see him. I like what I see very much. What? He’s not allowed to play with me, either? I might just die of complete boredom. And don’t behave like you’re my dad or something. I don’t like my real dad, and I don’t want a replacement. What? There are two? Why would you think I need two bodyguards?” Rhys was starting to get agitated.
Mason read his body language with increased curiosity. He noticed how the corners of Rhys’s mouth fell, and then he saw something he had failed to see at first glance. There was a sort of bitterness marking that lovely mouth. A glimpse of sadness in his eyes convinced Mason that maybe Rhys Harmony wasn’t as flighty as he wanted to appear to the outside world.
“All right. If that’s what you think. But you have to give me a bit of space. Living with two strangers is not something I agreed with. No, I don’t need someone to keep an eye on me. The mere idea gives me the creeps. I can handle the press. It’s nothing I haven’t heard before. What else could they do to me? Fine, have it your way. Just for the record, I’m not happy at all. Have a nice evening.”
Mason stood straight when Rhys finished his conversation. Rhys tapped his phone against his lips as he took in Mason, now with different eyes. “Are you all right working for me?” he asked, out of the blue.
“Yes. Why shouldn’t I be?” Mason asked, puzzled.
Rhys shrugged. “You look like a straitlaced kind of guy. And, apparently, I’m the controversial type.”
“The pay is good,” Mason offered in reply. He hadn’t missed the sarcastic ‘apparently’ inserted in Rhys’s words.
“All right.” Rhys seemed suddenly tired. “Are you going to live in this room?”
“No,” Mason replied.
“Then, I’m sorry, but I’ll have to ask you to leave.”
“It would be a good time to talk about the security you need for this place,” Mason said with determination.
Rhys quirked an eyebrow. “Really? What do you want to know?”
“You were expecting someone.”
“Yes.” Rhys covered his mouth as if he was yawning.
Usually, Mason would have gotten pissed over that. But he couldn’t bring himself to dislike Rhys. He was too pretty, and that felt like a dangerous thing right now.
“Someone you never saw in your life.”
“And he was supposed to be inside when you came? How?”
“I sent him the code to the front door, obviously,” Rhys said with a shrug.
“We will change it. Never do that again.”
Rhys stared at him for a brief second, and then he exploded. “You have to be kidding me! Do I have to ask you for your permission to have people over?”
“Yes. That’s how security works. Giving your alarm code to strangers is forbidden. Also, the balcony should have a camera --”
Rhys moaned and rolled his eyes, interrupting him. “Did Levine put you up to this?”
“He told me to make sure you’re undisturbed. This is me doing my job.”
“This is you being a complete asshole. Let me guess. You’re straight as an arrow, and you despise me.”
Mason frowned. “I don’t despise you, Mr. Harmony.”
“Mr. Harmony.” Rhys laughed, a throaty, pleasant laugh that made Mason feel goosebumps everywhere. “That sounds so silly. Just call me Rhys, like anyone else. And Harmony, if you haven’t guessed by now, is a stage name.”
“Then, let me know your real name, and I will call you that.”
“Rhys will do just fine.”
“I’m not on the first-name basis with my employers, ever.”
“Just what I thought. Straitlaced and straight in bed.”
It irked Mason that Rhys was pointing at his sexuality so boldly; also, it was a wrong assumption. Yet, somehow, Mason didn’t want Rhys to know he actually liked guys, too. It was a private detail about his life, and he had every intention to keep his personal stuff separated from his work.
“Well, how should I call you?”
“Rhys, and don’t you dare to put ‘Mr.’ in front of that,” Rhys warned him, pointing a long elegant finger at him.
“Okay,” Mason admitted with a sigh. He gave Rhys a short once-over.
Rhys scoffed. “I don’t have two heads. Stop staring at me like that.”
He couldn’t be further from the truth, Mason thought, but he was glad Rhys believed that. It meant that there would be fewer complications in the long run.
“Do we agree on not giving the alarm code to strangers?” Mason asked.
Rhys shrugged. “Okay. What else do you want me to do? Wake up at six? Take cold baths?”
“Just let me do my job, and you won’t regret it.”
“I already regret it,” Rhys said. “But not entirely. You’re pleasant to look at. Can I see you naked?”
Rhys was trying to provoke him. Mason didn’t bite. “No.”
“Too bad,” Rhys said, shaking his head. “I bet you have a fantastic body. I heard that there are two of you. Is your partner just as zero-fun as you? If he’s half as handsome, I can live with it.”
Mason kept in a smile as he thought of Billy and his effervescent personality. “I don’t know,” he offered.
An energetic knock on the door interrupted their conversation.
“Come in,” Rhys said.
Billy put in his head and stared at them. “Rhys, you’re home!” he exclaimed.
Rhys’s eyes lit up upon seeing Billy. It looked like there was a mutual agreement. Those two liked each other at first sight, Mason could tell.
“Yes, I just got in.”
“So cool! Can I come in?”
Rhys opened his mouth to say something, but Mason stopped him. “Wait, do you always talk to strangers like this?”
“He’s your partner and my other bodyguard, right?” Rhys said. “Who else could be in the house?”
“Your date,” Mason said, seasoning his words with plenty of vinegar.
Rhys gave him a withering look. “Come on in, honey,” he said and gestured for Billy to enter.
Billy almost stumbled toward Rhys and stopped inches from him. “I can’t believe I see you in flesh and blood!”
Rhys pushed one strand of golden hair behind his ear in a coquettish gesture. “Yes, this is me. What’s your name?”
“Billy, Billy Jackson. Boy, I’m so glad to meet you.” Billy hesitated to extend his hand, although he made a move for it, and then reconsidered while stealing a nervous glance at Mason.
Rhys didn’t let him debate for long; he opened his arms and walked over to him. Billy squealed in delight as Rhys hugged him and placed a small peck on his cheek.
“Is your producer okay with your fraternizing like this with the help?” Mason asked.
Rhys threw him a stubborn look. “Are you Levine’s lapdog or something?”
Mason grimaced. That was the last thing on earth he ever wanted to be.
“He’s not. Arnie’s a badass,” Billy said.
“Arnie? I thought his name was Mason,” Rhys replied and looked, a bit quizzically at Mason.
“I call him that,” Billy said proudly. “We’re partners, so we gave each other nicknames.”
That was news to Mason.
Billy continued. “He calls me Kung Fu Panda.”
Rhys stared at Mason crossly now, thinning his eyes. “Now that’s just plain --”
“Awesome!” Billy interrupted him. “That movie is everything to me! I mean, all three of them!”
Rhys smiled and bit back any scolding he might have had in store for Mason. But his eyes remained on him, and Mason felt a bit weird under their stare. The beautiful blues were obviously capable of many things, and one was to see through clothes and even more. It was a heated look, and Mason felt a small tremble of anticipation. Rhys made it seem like they were along in the room, ready to tear their clothes off each other. Suddenly, Mason had a feeling that this job would be harder than usual. Rhys Harmony, an angel? Make it a sexy demon, and you would be closer to the truth.
“Well, my dear bodyguards, I will still have to ask you to allow me to rest. We’re going out tonight, so make sure you get some rest, too. Have you eaten anything?”
Billy opened his mouth, and Rhys turned toward him, but Mason made a cutting gesture with one hand, and the other bodyguard remained silent.
“I believe we were told everything we needed to know by the maid in charge. If we’re hungry, we can fix ourselves some sandwiches,” Mason said in a cool voice.
Rhys let out a small, throaty laugh. He also threw his head back as he did that, and Mason had a sudden flash of fantasy, of his fingers touching that elegant throat and wrapping around it. Damn, what a fucking hard job. Maybe that was why Boyd had been so secretive about it; he must have imagined what effect a man like that could have on Mason.
“What? Did you guys think I would fix you dinner? Maybe in an apron?” Rhys asked teasingly.
“Far from it,” Mason said with a grimace he made no effort to hide. “But you look like you could use someone cooking for you.”
“I’m fine, thank you,” Rhys replied, his lips pursed. “Hey, Billy, would you like some pizza before we go out tonight? There a small wooden pot downstairs. I keep some money in there, so feel free to order whatever you want.”
Billy looked at Mason, his eyes bright. Mason rolled his eyes. “You should really watch that gut, Billy.”
Billy made such a disappointed face that Mason had instant regrets. “Don’t call me Billy. Call me the name you gave me.”
“What? Kung Fu Panda? It’s a bit long, don’t you think?”
Billy shrugged. “Then, just call me Po.”
The guy really liked his cartoon characters.
“All right,” Mason said with a sigh. “But what’s with the Arnie thing? Where does it come from?”
“It’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s nickname,” Billy explained with enthusiasm. “You’re built like him.”
“Let’s not exaggerate.” Mason knew he was all right, but nothing like the bodybuilder turned actor turned politician.
Rhys had taken his time to examine them during their exchange. Mason hadn’t looked in his direction, but he knew those fascinating eyes were on him. “Po, Arnie, how about you, guys, let me get my beauty sleep?”
“It’s five in the afternoon. What beauty sleep?” Mason asked.
Rhys made a show of yawning, covering his mouth with an elegant hand, adorned with a single ring on his middle finger, decorated with a blue stone to match the one on the pendant around his neck. “I’ll see you, guys, down, at eight. I can only assume that Levine wants me to take you everywhere with me.”
Mason nodded. He had to push Billy out of the room, as his partner seemed to be rightfully mesmerized by Rhys.
“He’s even more beautiful in flesh and blood,” Billy said dreamily, as soon as they were out of earshot.
“You’re not acting very professional, Po,” Mason said directly. “Don’t let Levine see your gushing over Rhys like that. He might get the wrong idea. By the way, when we were coming here, you wanted to say something about Rhys and Levine, but Boyd didn’t let you talk. What was it?”
Never in his life had Mason been interested in celebrity gossip, but nothing was like the rest of his life today. So, he could allow himself a pass.
“Ah,” Billy said with self-importance. Apparently, he took great pleasure in educating Mason on the topic of Rhys Harmony. “There are some rumors that Levine has certain feelings toward Rhys, hence the close attention he pays to him.”
“It doesn’t look like those feelings are reciprocated,” Mason said with internal satisfaction. “Rhys was expecting an escort upon returning home.”
“An escort?” Billy’s eyes grew wide. “It’s impossible. Rhys is not that kind of guy.”
“Right,” Mason said, letting the sarcasm in that single word seep through. “Or maybe your idol is not the angel you think. A guy needs to get laid. And since he has the means and the money, why not?”
“Rhys is not like that,” Billy said with conviction.
Mason rubbed his forehead. “Po, I feel the need to ask you. Do you still believe in Santa Claus?”
Billy stopped for a second and then burst into laughter. The bout ended in hiccups, and Mason had to pat Billy on the back a few times to make him get his normal breathing back. “No, but I believe in Rhys,” he finally said, while wiping tears from his eyes.
Flighty fans for a flighty idol. Mason just shook his head. “I’ll inspect the house some more. If you need your beauty sleep, too, or want to order that pizza, feel free to do it.”
Billy caught his arm. “Rhys is more than meets the eye, Mason,” he said, and this time he was serious, which was definitely a sudden change from his earlier shenanigans.
“If you say so,” Mason replied and stared, a bit surprised, at Billy. There was an intense expression in his eyes.
“You’ll see it yourself,” Billy said. “I’m sure you will.”
Mason stood with his back straight and scanned the room. Rhys was in a conversation in a private booth at that club with his producer, and he and Billy were guarding the door. He had his earpiece on, and a rubber bullet gun was pushing against his back. He was all about non-lethal weapons, but he didn’t like the idea of letting any perps think he was some fangless guard dog. His gun looked pretty much like the real thing, and enough to impress stupid assholes. And, if need be, Mason was handy with it so that he could deliver a painful blow and stall any wrongdoing.
Billy patted his arm. “I need to visit the little boys’ room. Can you hold the fort, Arnie?”
“Sure thing,” Mason said. “It doesn’t look like there’s anything to worry about around here. Levine might just overpay us. And I thought him to be a cheapskate.”
Billy snickered. “But that’s all the better for us, right?”
“Right.” Mason kept it the smile that threatened to curl his lips.
Billy went away, and Mason remained in the same vigilant state. Someone moved in his field of view, and Mason set his entire attention on the target, his senses tingling in high alert at the blink of an eye.
The stranger walking slowly toward him wore a leather jacket and what looked like expensive jeans. That was what Mason could glean in the soft lights of the club. There were few patrons inside, as it wasn’t yet the time for the crowds to assault the front door.
He snuck a hand at his back and frowned. The stranger seemed a bit drunk since he was moving hesitantly as if he didn’t know which way to go. Mason relaxed a fraction. The guy was average in height and lean, so Mason doubted that he could be a match for him.
The stranger was holding a hand to his left temple and walking about without any evident purpose. The other people around ignored him, and Mason stared a little more. He could see a mane of chestnut-colored hair but not much of his face.
The stranger suddenly looked at him. Mason stared back without flinching. And then, he noticed what the stranger was doing with his hand at his temple. There was blood on the left part of his face. With a small, annoyed tsk, Mason moved an inch from his place. “Hey, buddy,” he called.
The stranger stared at him, taken by surprise.
“Do you need a doctor or something?” Mason asked.
The stranger stared at his left hand and looked like it was for the first time that he noticed he was bleeding.
Mason sighed. That wasn’t the night for him to play the Good Samaritan. But it looked like other people couldn’t care less about the wounded stranger.
“Hey, I’m talking to you,” he said, a bit louder.
One of the patrons sitting at the bar turned to look at him. Mason refocused his attention on the stranger in the leather jacket.
“Man, you’re bleeding. Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
The stranger now looked at him again. “Can you see me?”
Mason’s frown deepened. Was the guy high, too, besides having been hit in the head? “What the fuck do you mean? Of course, I see you. Can you believe this guy?” he asked the guy at the bar looking at the entire scene with growing interest.
“What guy?” the patron asked and stared at Mason with a bit of wariness in his body language.
“This guy.” Mason pointed directly at the stranger.
“Oh my God, you see me!” The stranger walked closer to him.
“I don’t see any guy,” the patron replied.
Was that some stupid prank? Had Billy thought it would be funny to set him up? But when could he had been able to put the stranger and the patron up to it? They had been together the whole time.
Mason moved to touch the stranger’s shoulder to make a point, but then the weirdest thing in his life happened. His hand fell through the air, reaching nothing. He took a step back, disoriented now.
“Are you okay, man?” the patron asked and half-stood from his stool.
Mason searched with his eyes for any beams creating the thing in front of him – what? A hologram? He saw nothing.
“I think I’m a ghost or something, man,” the stranger said. “And you’re the first guy to see me.”
“Are you high?” It was the patron again who was grinning and probably found Mason’s behavior a bit funny.
Mason moved his eyes from the stranger who wasn’t really there to the patron. “Just go back to your cheap beer, asshole,” he said through his teeth.
The patron stood back on his stool and waved at him like he couldn’t be bothered.
Mason stared at the bleeding stranger again. Tentatively, he put one hand up and pushed against the stranger’s chest, but he met nothing but air. The patron at the bar turned to sneak a peek, but one single glance from Mason made him set his eyes on the drink in front of him in an instant.
Right. There had to be an explanation.
“You see me,” the stranger exclaimed again. “Oh, fuck, I’m so relieved. Someone finally sees me!”
Mason was speechless. He put one hand over his mouth. What the fuck was that? Was he suddenly losing his mind? He stared around some more, but there was no sign that the stranger in front of him was a simulation of sorts.
“Hey, Arnie, thanks for holding the fort. Ugh, my bladder was about to explode,” Billy started blabbering from his right.
Mason looked at him.
Billy must have seen something in his eyes because his right hand went to his belt. Unlike him, Billy had a real weapon. Mason hadn’t commented on it, but now, he felt a bit good that he had some backup. There was some weird shit going on.
“Billy,” Mason said slowly, “do you see anything strange around here?”
Billy’s eyes scanned the room, and, without mistake, they went through the bleeding stranger. “What is it, Mason?” he asked in a whisper. “I don’t see anything.”
Mason walked back to his place by the door to the private booth. “I just got a weird feeling for a moment.”
Billy relaxed a fraction, but his eyes rested on the patron at the bar. Mason was pretty sure his first assessment of Billy had been, at least to some degree, wrong. The guy knew his job. Billy looked back at him and made a small gesture with his chin at the patron who was sitting with his back at them.
Mason just shook his head. Billy nodded and went back to his place, too. “Don’t scare me like that, Arnie. You looked really serious, for a moment, there.”
The stranger moved close to Mason and stared at him. “You still see me, right?”
Mason could feel a tick in his jaw growing stronger.
The stranger began bouncing up and down. “I can’t fucking believe it! You see me!”
Mason let out a sigh.
“Does your back hurt or something?”
“What? Yeah, a bit,” Mason replied.
“My mom has one of these things. A posture brace. It worked wonders for her. I could call her and ask her what brand it is. I’m sure they make some for guys, too.”
Mason grimaced. From the corner of one eye, he could still see the stranger doing some weird victory dance. No way in hell was happening to him. He had zero inclinations to believe in supernatural things, and he didn’t believe in ghosts.
Hi, guys, here I am with another story that I hope you'll get onboard with and enjoy like the others I've published here so far. This story will be more serious compared to other things I've written, and that's just me giving you a little warning. While I hope some of the interactions between the characters will stir a chuckle or two, this story won't be a comedy like Box Shaped Heart and Be The Father Of This Child! However, that doesn't mean that it won't have a happy ending (since this is how I roll ).
I'm not one for big introductions - which, usually, are amiss from my chapters, but I don't want to bore people with long chapter end notes, either. Please let me know what you think of this first chapters in the comments below. Your reactions are, as always, much appreciated.