“So, did you two follow me?” Rhys asked, as soon as Billy kicked the engine into gear.
“There was nothing interesting on TV,” Billy joked. “And Mason doesn’t like watching TV anyway.”
“How much did you hear?”
Mason didn’t need to be told what that was about. “Did Levine trash-talked Toby?”
Rhys sighed. “I’m afraid I’ll have to find another producer.”
“Good,” Mason said curtly. “Did he try anything with you?”
There was a small shiver coming from Rhys, but Mason couldn’t say whether it was in fear or disgust. “I’m not that easy to bully, regardless of what you may think when you look at me.”
“I wouldn’t dream of thinking anything like that,” Mason assured him. That was good. As much as he wanted to protect Rhys with everything he had, there could be situations when it wasn’t possible for him to do so.
There was a short silence. Mason still wanted to know. “What did he say to you that you stormed out of the house like that?”
Rhys shifted his position and let his head rest against the backseat. “He ... ugh, how can I put this? He sort of offered to become my boyfriend.”
Billy’s snicker took them both by surprise.
“Hey, this is no laughing matter,” Mason warned. “Rhys got sexually harassed --”
Rhys put one hand on his knee. “No, it wasn’t like that. I wouldn’t allow it, to begin with. And let Billy laugh. After all, it is a bit laughable that Levine suddenly fancies himself interested in me.”
“I’d rather call it disgusting and weird.”
Rhys exhaled. “That, too, maybe. If it were genuine ... But, no, everything seemed so rehearsed that I feel like throwing up even now. He told me that he could be my daddy.”
Billy snickered again. Rhys followed his example. Mason was getting a bit irritated. “You two shouldn’t take things so lightly. And it’s still harassment, the way I see it,” he added in a vexed tone.
“I’m sorry,” Rhys apologize. “I think it’s a nervous reaction. The thing is that my real father was such a bastard that I can’t even think of calling a man ‘daddy’ without feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my skin even if I loved him with all my heart. Mason, I hope you’re not into this fetish.”
“Stop joking. Tell me everything he said and did to you.”
Rhys caressed his knee. “What good would that do? I need to reassess my situation. I’m not good at legalese and I’ll have to see what I can do about the contract I signed with Levine’s company. And, of course, I don’t know what he will do about you two.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mason said through his teeth. “He hired us for you, and I intend to do my job, even if I cannot stand the scumbag.”
“I do have some money, and I can always give up on that house which is way too big for me,” Rhys continued.
“Where does that leave us?” Billy asked the question that was on Mason’s mind, too.
“If you want, you can continue to work for me,” Rhys said. “I’ll have to evaluate the situation of my finances so that I know what I can pay you, but --”
“You don’t have to pay me,” Mason said harshly.
“You don’t want to be my bodyguard anymore?”
“I’ll protect you for free.”
Rhys reached for Mason’s hand. “You need the money. Everybody does. Don’t you agree, Billy?”
“I’m with Arnie on this one. I’ll stand by your side as much as needed, regardless the pay.”
“Guys,” Rhys said gently. “How come I stumbled over the most loyal two people in the world? And you don’t have to worry about a thing. I’ll do my best to pay you so that you don’t have to come to regret your decision. Although, I’ll warn you. It will be boring, and you’re free of contract the moment you want to get out of it. Truth be told, I have no idea why I needed two bodyguards in the first place, but if I can help two friends --”
“You need us,” Mason said with finality.
Rhys touched his chin and made eye contact. “Did you find something about who killed Toby, Mason?”
He shook his head. Outing Ary as the prime suspect was not something that he could blurt out like that. In his heart, he was still unconvinced that Ary was the culprit, damned be all the circumstantial evidence pointing in his direction. Plus, he couldn’t explain how he knew what he knew.
“All right. You two are the best friends someone could have. I’m grateful to have you by my side.” Rhys turned his head to stare out the window. Mason kept from touching him. There had been more to that conversation with Levine, but pressing the matter couldn’t be of help right now.
“So, Rhys is giving the asshole the boot?” Toby sat in the corner of the room, his legs crossed.
“No other reasonable choice. He seems to be on top of the situation.”
“Isn’t it weird that Levine suddenly upped the ante?”
Mason nodded. “Weird as fuck. And we both know that dude’s not gay.”
“Whatever he hoped to get out of this, he miscalculated. Rhys pushed him away, so, I guess the logical thing is some retaliation from his part, right?”
“I’m thinking the same thing.” Rhys hadn’t teased him or invited him to join him in the bedroom, and there was no point in feeling disappointed. After all, he had been the one to deny their relationship, as incipient as it was. He should have been happy.
“He can squeeze Rhys with money, I’m sure.”
“I expect that. But Rhys should be protected. After all, he has his own money, I suppose.”
“Yet, Levine hired you and paid you from his pocket, right?”
“As far as I know.”
“That dude is so creepy. I was back at his palace tonight, but he didn’t come at all. I had no idea he tried to lure Rhys to another house to seduce him.”
“According to Rhys, there wasn’t much seducing involved. His stay was short.”
“What exactly happened?”
“Rhys won’t talk about details. Just that Levine offered to be his daddy. I don’t know if he meant it as a sugar daddy or something else. Rhys just turned him down. Also, Levine must have said something pretty nasty about you because Rhys was upset. Because of that only, he’ll call off any business engagements he has with Levine.”
“I can’t remember him, and yet I feel that I love him,” Toby said softly.
There wasn’t anything that could be added. Mason understood it well.
“What? What do you mean?” Rhys was talking on the phone and pacing the kitchen. “All of it? He can’t do that now, can he?”
Mason was surprised to see Rhys there. By the straight line of his lips, he could tell that wasn’t a pleasant conversation.
Rhys finished and threw the phone on the table, as his lips pursed into a frustrated grimace. “It appears that, somehow, Levine has access to my accounts. I must have signed some stupid clause while I was in that hospice. I can’t remember doing it, but it looks like I’m less than a child when it comes to my business and finances. Daddy just fucked me over.”
He sounded rightfully disgusted.
“That your lawyer?” Mason asked.
Rhys nodded. “I think he’s on Levine’s payroll, too.”
“You weren’t quite yourself when you were institutionalized. How could he take advantage of you like that?”
“He could. That’s all that matters. And he thought about it. Just a good ol’ scheme of catch 22. On the grounds that he needed to take care of me, he turned me into his puppet so that he could make sure I would never disobey him. I couldn’t think for myself --”
“But then your signature on whatever you signed can’t be valid, right?”
“Probably I was right on the brink of losing my mind,” Rhys said sarcastically. “Levine swooped in and managed to save me from myself. Too bad it wasn’t me I should have been aware of, right?”
“What does this mean?”
Rhys ran his hands through his hair. “It means that I’m a little puppet who needs to sing - oh, the irony - as he’s told. Damn.” He looked down, his shoulders slumped in defeat. “It looks like I have to talk to him again. I can bet he’s suddenly busy, but let’s see.” He grabbed his phone again. After letting it ring for quite a while, he tsked in displeasure. “Just as I thought. He has me trapped.”
Mason observed Rhys with keen eyes. It wasn’t the first time he had the occasion to take in his physical beauty. For a second, he let himself daydream of touching the high cheekbones and painting the arched bow of his upper lip with daring fingers. But a sense of duty brought him back to his senses immediately.
“Don’t stay here. Come with me to my place.”
The sudden proposal took Rhys by surprise. “Are you expecting me to freeload on you? But I’m your employer.”
“You have no money. That scumbag tied you up like the fucker he is.”
“Wow. I didn’t know you felt so strongly about Levine.” A small ghost of a smile lit up Rhys’s face. “I can’t come with you, Mason. The situation is complicated enough as it is. And you have no reason to get involved in this mess I’m in.”
Mason curled his hands into fists. “Do you have any friends you could stay with until this clears?”
“I suppose I could ask Ary --”
The sudden reaction made Rhys quirk an eyebrow. “Don’t play with me, Mason,” he teased. “If you want me so badly, just say so.”
“It’s for your protection,” Mason said stubbornly. “Ary can’t offer you that.”
“I suppose. But I can’t pay you, and this can’t be anything else but a complication --”
“You’re coming with me,” Mason said abruptly. “You can’t allow that scumbag to control you. You’ll pay me when you have the money.”
Rhys appeared a tad disconcerted by Mason’s determination. “If you’re so adamant. In a couple of days, tops, you’ll discover it was a mistake. When that happens, just tell me, and I’ll be out of your hair in a second.”
Mason knew all too well that couldn’t happen; he didn’t have it in him to let it happen. He would let Rhys go only after he was safe. “We’ll see. One more thing. Those weird drugs Levine keeps giving you. Flush them down the toilet.”
The answer was a small smile from Rhys. “I already did. If I’m fucked up, at least I want to be my real fucked up self.”
“Good.” Mason relaxed an inch. “Grab your things and let’s go.”
“No moment like the present.” Mason couldn’t stand the thought of spending another moment under that roof, with Levine’s shadow looming over them.
He gestured with his chin for Rhys to follow his example. He still needed to rope Billy in the entire change of plans. It was too bad that Po couldn’t be part of their plans, but maybe it was all for the better. After all, Mason was used to working alone.
Billy didn’t appear surprised. “I’ll pack my things in a jiffy.”
“Boyd can find you work, I’m sure,” Mason offered.
A short nod was the answer. “Hey, do you want to learn about those unmarked pills? I got the results.”
Mason waited. “Well? Spit it out.”
Billy scratched his head. “It’s weird shit. Ketamine.”
“That’s a drug, right?”
“Known for causing hallucinations, among other things.”
Mason pondered for a couple of seconds. “Did Levine put his maid up to drug Rhys? But if that was so, why didn’t she place them in his room? She could switch any medicine with those, and no one could have known.”
“I should have.” Rhys’s intervention took them both by surprise. They were talking in the hallway, so they didn’t notice they had company. “I might have gotten drunk plenty of times while fighting with Toby, but I’ve never done drugs.”
“Too bad that you threw away those pills Levine gave you. Those weird things you’ve been experiencing lately could be because of some shit like that.”
Rhys’s face darkened. “What the hell did I get myself in?” The question was directed to himself, but Mason had a few ideas about what was going on. Whatever Levine wanted to obtain from Rhys, by any means necessary, had to be pretty important, if drugs, forced confinement, and betrayal of such magnitude were part of the game. Mason wanted only a chance to be alone in the same room with the scumbag; he had the means to make him talk.
“Is this all you’re taking with you?” Mason pointed at the carryall in Rhys’s hand.
“I don’t want to impose and take up a lot of room. I won’t sit with my arms crossed. I will start working on solving my situation right away.”
“You’re leaving that keyboard behind.” Mason pointed vaguely in the direction of the isolation room. “How are you going to make music?”
“Music is in my head,” Rhys said and tapped his index finger against his temple. “I had so little when I came here with Toby. And still, we made it happen. I guess whatever I did once to succeed, I can do again.” There was a short silence. Mason didn’t have to be told who was missing from that picture.
He needed to let Toby know of their new plans, but he had been away for a while now. “Just wait for me to pack my stuff, too.”
When he walked into his bedroom, he found Toby standing by the window.
“It’s been a major change of plans,” he explained shortly as he began to pack. “Levine is squeezing Rhys for all he has, as you suspected. The scumbag cut Rhys’s access to his accounts. I take him to live with me, for now.” There was no reaction from Toby. Mason frowned. “Where have you been?”
Toby turned, and Mason felt a pang in his chest. There was an immense sadness in his eyes that sucked in even the light in the room. “Ary used to love me,” he said. “Rhys, too.”
“What do you mean? Of course he loved you both. You were his friend, just like Rhys.”
“No, not like that. Or, better said, not only like that.”
“You better not tell me there was some weird threesome happening between the three of you.” Mason recalled Rhys’s words pretty clearly. A lie was enough to make the entire edifice of his feelings come crashing down.
“I don’t think so. Ary keeps a diary, and he left it open at an earlier entry. I read about how he met us ... and fell in love with us.”
Mason sighed. “With both of you? That sounds complicated like hell.”
Toby let out a small scoff. “You’re telling me? It looks like I somewhat encouraged him, too. He wrote in his diary that he was truly happy that I was interested in him. As far as I could read, nothing happened, though. But he tortured himself over wanting me and Rhys both. I don’t know how he could feel so strongly for two people at the same time.”
“Still. Didn’t he feel guilty over wanting you, his friend’s boyfriend?”
“He must have felt that, too. Mostly, what I read was regret over falling in love with two people, a couple even. It sounds so strange, right?”
Mason shrugged. “I don’t pass judgements. If he killed you by accident, it explains the crying.”
“I don’t think he did it. I refuse.” Toby began pacing the room.
“Things are what they are. We need to get our hands on that diary. There could be clues in there about what happened that night.”
“He’s not the killer.” Toby stopped in the middle of the room. “You don’t believe it either.”
“It’s not about what I believe, but about the truth. That’s what we need to find out. We need to break into Ary’s home and grab that diary.”
Toby remained silent. Mason needed to make sure they were on the same page. “Toby?”
There was a soft knock on the door, and Rhys entered. “Were you talking to someone, Mason?” His eyes were curious. “I could have sworn --”
“Just to myself.” Mason could have said he was on the phone, but the item in question was on a table at the opposite corner of the room.
Rhys studied him for a moment. “Billy is ready, too. Sorry to bother you. I might be a bit too impatient to leave this house.”
Mason grabbed his luggage. He didn’t have many things, but he wasn’t leaving anything behind like Rhys was. “Let’s go.”
He followed Rhys out of the room, aware that Toby was following them, too.
Rhys’s phone rang as they were in the car. Mason leaned in to listen to the conversation. He wasn’t surprised when he heard the caller’s voice.
“Yes.” Rhys had a proper, even cold tone as he spoke.
“What do you think you’re doing?” It looked like Levine was royally pissed.
“I was informed by my lawyer that I am the rightful owner of ... that’s right, nothing. So seeing that nothing is in my name, I decided to move out and identify some means to support myself.”
“You have plenty in your name,” was Levine’s terse reply. “All you need to do is to stop behaving so erratically. Maybe you need to be institutionalized again.”
“I must contradict you here.” Mason could tell Rhys was struggling to keep a civil tone. “I am fine. Especially since I threw away the sleeping pills you gave me.”
“Are you so intent on destroying everything I’ve given you?” Levine boomed.
“What is this everything you believe you’ve offered me? We signed a contract. Do you treat all the artists who sign with your company like you’re treating me now? You obtained a signature from me while I wasn’t aware of anything happening around me.”
“I kept your fairy ass out of jail,” Levine hissed into the phone. “You wouldn’t have lasted one week in there. A pretty boy like you --”
“I wasn’t guilty,” Rhys said stubbornly.
Mason grabbed his shoulders to show his support.
“And? Since when such things matter?” Levine’s voice was like a slithering snake in the grass. “The police are happy when they have someone to nail. If it weren’t for my influence --”
“I intend to pay my debt back to you. Oh, wait. You have the exclusive rights to my accounts, while I don’t. There, here you go. Take everything. Will that be enough? If not, feel free to tell me the price.”
“Damn it! It’s not about money!”
Rhys exchanged a brief look with Mason. “It’s not? Then what is about? You certainly behaved like my jailer if you thought of preventing me from using my money. Of course, it was for my own good, right? But I’ve been out for more than a month, and you haven’t thought for a moment to revert the situation to how it was before.”
“I care about you, Rhys.” It sounded like it pained Levine to lie at this point.
“No. Please, don’t insult me. All you care is your company, your name up there in shiny letters. I don’t hold it against you. Have everything you think you gave me, the money, the house, which I had only because I signed with you. It should cover the damage.”
“That’s no more than peanuts for me,” Levine hissed again.
Once the snake was out, there was no way of shoving it back in the bag.
“I’m sorry that I didn’t make more money,” Rhys said. “Just name your price for helping me, and we’re done.”
“No. We’re not. Can I know where you’re going?”
Rhys exchanged a small look with Mason and received a shake of the head. “No. You cannot.”
“I will find out.”
“I can’t stop you. But I hope what I hear is not a threat.”
There was a small pause. “No, it’s not. But know this, Rhys. You’re mine. You belong to me.”
Yeah, totally not a threat.
Rhys didn’t say goodbye and interrupted the conversation. Mason took the phone from his hands. “Do you have the phone numbers saved in the cloud?” he inquired.
Rhys nodded. With calm moves, Mason put down the window and threw Rhys’s phone.
“Hey,” Rhys protested for a moment and then stopped. “Ah, so that he doesn’t track me, right?”
“It’s a little thing we can do and he can find out where you are, anyway, but let’s not make it too easy for him, okay?”
Rhys nodded in agreement. Mason took his hand and caressed it. It was absolute madness, what he was willing to do for the man sitting next to him. He would go to war with someone like Levine Goldman, and yet, the thought caused no anxiety to rise in the pit of his stomach. His hand was still, and he was completely calm; maybe that was what sailors felt before an impending storm.
“I know it’s not much,” Mason said once they were inside his small apartment.
A thin layer of dust had decorated all the furniture in his absence. Mason wasn’t the kind to hire someone to deal with such stuff, even when working. His footprint was minimal, in his home, as well as in the world. Until now, that hadn’t struck him as odd.
Rhys took in his surroundings and then turned and smiled. “It’s great.”
“You don’t have to lie now,” Mason retorted, but he felt like smiling, too.
His rented apartment was suddenly on par with far more luxurious accommodations with Rhys in it. It had to be that golden hair that could light up a room. Mason’s mind flew momentarily to a speck of fantasy, Rhys singing, filling the place with music.
“I’m wanted here. Things like this are in short supply in the world,” Rhys replied simply.
“Do you ever miss your home?” Mason couldn’t say what it had suddenly seemed important to ask such an intimate question.
Rhys’s eyes glided over him and rested on a corner of a room. “Home is a complicated term, isn’t it?” There was no humor in his voice. “If we’re talking about the place I grew up in, that wasn’t a real home.”
“And did you have one here? With Toby?”
Rhys cocked his head and threw him a sidelong glance. “For a while. Can I ask you something, Mason? And will you promise to offer me a truthful answer?”
Mason shrugged, even as he tensed on the inside.
“Is Toby’s shadow too big between us?”
If he only knew. Mason sighed. “How about we get you settled?”
“No answer, then.”
None that Mason could have explained or be proud of. Sometimes, it was easy to pretend nothing could touch him. He moved at the same time with Rhys, and they ended up bumping into each other. The place was way too cramped.
“Sorry.” Rhys moved out of the way. “I guess I should allow the host to show me around.”
“Yes, presenting you the entire apartment might take a while,” Mason joked.
To his relief, Rhys smiled. They would bump into each other a lot, but Mason had a hunch that getting out of such situations with a lame joke couldn’t work every time.
And this time I leave you on a more settled note, without cliffies and nasty things like that. The big question is how will Mason settle into his life with Rhys? And how will he manage having Toby around, as well? Or, more importantly, will he even have time to do that?
As you can see, I managed to leave you with plenty of questions. Feel free to answer anything that might cross your mind Your feedback is much appreciated.
Until next time,
All the best,
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