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.
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?
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.
And I declare season open for new speculations! What do you think Renzo want from Mason? Can you suspect his role in the story? As always, I'm happy to hear any theories, although you might want to wait for the next chapter for Renzo to have his performance, and Mason to observe him ... I won't say anything else!
Until next time,
All the best,
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