“Do we have anything else scheduled for today? Anywhere we need to be?” Mason linked his hands in front of him and watched his partner.
Billy hid a lollipop behind his back, not fast enough. “Why don’t you ask Rhys? He’s in charge of that.”
“I’m asking you because you seem to be well informed all the time when it comes to our precious charge. I bet you even know what brand of toothpaste he uses.”
Billy offered a crooked smile. “Guilty as charged.”
“Throw away that diabetes-inducing thing.” Mason was firm and intended to remain so.
With a sigh, Billy dropped the candy in the trash can. “Are you not talking to Rhys for a reason? You two got into a fight or something?”
“He needs to rest a lot. I was just thinking of his wellbeing.”
“Right. You know, Arnie, you’re not that good a liar. You’re avoiding Rhys for a reason.”
Mason scoffed. “That’s not true.”
“Yes, it is. It’s okay, you can tell me.” Billy rested his cheek in his palm, his elbow on the desk.
“Aren’t you a gossiper? We have work to do, and our work involves escorting Rhys anywhere he goes.”
“All right, all right. Since you’re all work and no play.” Billy consulted a document on his screen. “According to this little schedule we just got from Levine, Rhys should show up at the recording studio where he normally works on new albums.”
“Just show up?”
“Yeah. Levine’s secretary was like a rock when I tried to ask for further explanations over the phone.”
“The people at the studio must know Rhys well. I think it would help him see some friendly faces after the episode from this morning.”
Billy shrugged. “I feel like Levine is pressing Rhys more than it’s necessary.”
He wasn’t the only one.
“Maybe. But it’s not good for him to mope around the house all the time. We don’t know him, and we’re not his friends. He needs to be among people who care about him.”
Billy made a face. “That’s not true. If Rhys wants to spend time with us, I’m all game.”
“Speak for yourself.”
“What do you have against him?”
“I don’t have anything against him.”
Billy stopped for a moment and then laughed. “Of course. You like him, but you need to keep your distance. And you’re failing hard because Rhys is so pretty and --”
“Are you sure you didn’t miss your calling? You could have worked as a matchmaker. A bad matchmaker, but still.”
“Laugh at me all you want, Mason. The truth is, this morning, when we left the station, you held Rhys in your arms like he was the most precious person in the world to you. And now, you act all cold and distant because you realize you like him too much.”
“Are you done psychoanalyzing me?”
“For the moment. Just so you know, Arnie, I got your back. No one will know if you and Rhys ever --”
“Nothing like that will happen. And aren’t you tired switching from nickname to nickname to my real name?”
“No way, chief. It’s awesome fun.”
“Thought so. Po.”
Billy’s grin stretched ear to ear. “I know your type. You’re all cool and a badass, and you pretend that you don’t give a damn, but inside, you have a heart of gold.”
Mason crossed his arms. “Oh yeah? If I sniff out your junk food stash and throw it all away, will you still think that?”
“You wouldn’t do that.”
“Try me. Now, please talk to Rhys about this visit to the recording studio. When is it?”
“In around two hours, but we don’t have to be dead on schedule. Artists, you know.”
“All right. Tell him we’re ready when he is. I suppose he knows about it already. This is just so that he knows that we know.”
“You are bent on preventing Rhys from feeling like shit,” Billy said. He leaned against the back of his chair and observed Mason.
“It’s my job. And yours. As a true fan, I suppose you don’t like to see him feel bad all the time, either.”
“That’s true. But, unlike you, I can’t do much to make him feel less miserable.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” The last thing Mason wanted right now was to play games.
“Rhys likes you back. It’s visible from the moon.”
“You imagine things.” Mason rubbed the back of his neck. It just felt ticklish all of a sudden.
“Nah. I’m okay with standing on the sideline and measuring the sexual tension between the two of you. It’s going to be fun.”
“I didn’t peg you for the sadistic type, Po.”
“I’m not. Okay, I won’t be just standing. I will root for the two of you.”
“You’re a riot; you know that?”
Billy smiled. “More than you think.”
Mason made a move for the exit. Did Rhys like him? He was a flirt, that was for sure, but that couldn’t mean a thing. On the other hand, Mason never fucked where he worked. Playing with Po’s scenarios served for nothing.
“So, will you be going to talk to Rhys, after all? I still have some things to do concerning the surveillance software.”
Mason had left Billy in charge of that, as he had quickly proven to be the more technical inclined of the two of them. “It would take you two minutes, tops.”
“Yeah, but you’re closer to the door. Think of all the precious time we save.”
“A total riot.” Mason sighed and walked out. As much as he wanted to avoid Rhys, that was no long-term plan. He had to live with everything, from the fact that he could see the guy’s boyfriend’s ghost to the fact that he liked him too damned much.
There was no answer from behind the bedroom’s door this time around, so Mason decided to look for Rhys around the house, while secretly hoping that he wasn’t the one avoided right now.
What seemed to be the keys of a piano being struck could be heard through a door on the ground floor. Mason moved toward the source of the sound, one step at a time. The door was ajar, but he stopped in front of it.
All the little things you did to me,
They come back to haunt me,
All the little things you told me,
They don’t want to leave me.
They will stay with me forever,
And I want them here,
Because they are, like a much-welcome guest,
The only thing I have near,
After you left.
Rhys could run his mouth all he wanted that love was nothing and that he hated his late boyfriend. Just like he had told those assholes on the radio earlier that day, he poured it all into his music.
He had a unique voice. Maybe Levine didn’t just want to get a pretty man in bed with him; it could be that he saw true potential there. Rhys’s voice was a bit too strange to become mainstream, but Mason could see how a cult could rise around him; Billy was enough proof of that, and Mason supposed he wasn’t the only one. Regardless of who Rhys’s fans were, they had to be hardcore.
The music died, and only then, Mason decided to knock.
“It’s open,” Rhys said. “Ah, it’s you.”
“I didn’t mean to bother you while you work.” There was no piano in sight, but a sizeable keyboard. Rhys’s long fingers rested on the keys, and the look in his eyes was vacant. Although he talked to Mason, he wasn’t looking at him. “That thing really sounds like a piano.”
“It’s convenient,” Rhys explained. “Of course, it sounds nothing like the real thing, but it’s good enough.”
“I couldn’t tell the difference,” Mason said. “But I have no ear for music.”
Rhys looked at him. “That can’t be true. Come here.”
Mason had a mind to deliver Rhys the message about the later visit to the recording studio and make himself scarce. But there was a new light in Rhys’s eyes as he invited him to join him on the bench behind the keyboard.
He obeyed but pretended to ignore how close Rhys stood. There was something about him that could make Mason come undone in a heartbeat. The truth was, Rhys was a stranger to him, and he could be anything, even a guy who had killed his boyfriend.
Lies kept together by a thin thread. Mason shook his head. He could give up on telling them to himself, but then he would be in a world of pain. There was no way he could give in to the attraction he felt toward Rhys. Levine Goldman would probably have his heart on a stick, served for breakfast.
And there were lines he never crossed. “Well.” His voice was unusually harsh. “What do you want to show me?”
Rhys took his right hand and placed it over the keys, and then the other. In a soft voice, he began explaining, but Mason’s mind was blank. Rhys was too close. His fingers hit the keys too hard, and the harmony set as background tore. “I’m obviously no musician material.” He made a move to get up, but Rhys kept one hand over his.
“Do you always play hard to get, Mason?”
“Not always.” He gave up on getting up, his eyes on their hands together. Rhys’s fingers were long and white. They covered Mason’s rough hand like a touch of satin.
“So it must be because you don’t like me enough that you’re doing this?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I’m not doing anything.”
Rhys laughed. Mason looked away. “How many hearts have you broken with this cold attitude?”
“I’m not some heartbreaker. You’re wrong about that.”
“Then, what do you do? You just fuck and forget?”
In a nutshell. Not because of some impulse to hurt others, but because he had nothing to give. That was too much to explain to someone he had barely met.
Rhys caressed his hand slowly. “I could use a cold hard fuck.”
Mason moved his hand away. “Sorry, but I’m not going to be the stick you’re beating yourself with.”
He stood up and put a bit of distance between them.
Rhys measured him with different eyes. “You don’t know me. How could getting pleasure from sex be a way of punishing myself?”
Mason shrugged. “You continue to pour your soul into those songs. That’s the only thing that’ll heal you. Not fucking a stranger.”
Rhys linked his hands in front of him and stretched with a yawn. “And here comes another gem of wisdom from Mason Knight’s ‘how not to live your life’ handbook.”
“We’re due to visit your recording studio today.”
“Ah, that. Yes. Was that why you came here?”
Mason offered a nod in reply.
“All right. I suppose parading the ‘barely out of rehab’ small-time celebrity has begun.”
A sudden thought crossed Mason’s mind. “Your boss put up those assholes to harass you this morning.”
Rhys stopped and looked at him. He pressed his index finger against his lips. If he knew about that already, he wasn’t keen on touting it everywhere. “And how do you know that, Mason?”
“You said it as if it was the truth and nothing but.”
“It’s how I present my hunches.”
Rhys chuckled. “How long has it been since you raised the bridge, Mason? You should know that separating yourself like this from the world can’t work forever.”
Mason had never been big on metaphors and all that. But he got what Rhys was saying. “It’s worked so far. Just let Billy and me know when you’re ready to go.”
“Sure thing. I wouldn’t keep my two favorite bodyguards waiting on me.”
“Do you know many bodyguards?” The air was too heavy; they needed to make it light.
“Shoo now, Mason. If you know what’s good for you.”
He knew, and too well.
“When you made me listen to that song,” Mason started without any introduction as he walked back into the surveillance room, “you said it was Rhys’s latest piece.”
Billy looked up from the screen. “Yeah.”
“Did he record it in a studio? Because it feels like he’ll be seeing these guys today for the first time in a long time.”
Billy’s face lit up. There seemed to be nothing more exciting for him than to be put through some Rhys Harmony trivia contest. “That’s what makes it so special. He recorded it here, as far as I know. There’s a small insulation booth on the ground floor, so that must be where he got it done. Of course, there was very little post-processing, so maybe it sounds a little rough.”
“I didn’t think it sounded rough at all.”
“There is a bit of bleeding from the instrument arrangement from time to time, but that makes it more powerful. You know, authentic.”
Bleeding. Interesting choice of words for a song called Nothing Cuts Like Love. “I’m no expert, but I think it sounded fine.”
“So, you liked it.” Billy offered him another face-splitting grin.
“I’m just commenting on the sound quality, as I see it. Do you have any idea why he didn’t use the services of the recording studio, like usual?”
Billy’s face turned pensive. “That wasn’t in the papers, but I suppose it was because Rhys wasn’t exactly in the mood to go out much.”
“So, he lived like a shut-in for the last month or so? When we got here, he was out.”
“And probably for the first time in his month of freedom. Nobody got to him, as Levine made sure no one was to make contact with him. Most of the time, the papers did nothing but speculate.”
“So that was why you didn’t believe me when I told you he hired an escort?”
Billy sighed. “Everybody knows how much he loved Toby.”
“So, he did love me!”
Mason jumped slightly. Toby had the weirdest timing to appear and disappear. “Would you stop that?”
“Ah, sorry,” Billy replied, “I know you like him, and it’s not easy for you to hear how he used to love his boyfriend.”
“Wait a minute, do you like Rhys?” Toby walked close to him and got in his face, like a rooster looking for a fight.
Mason threw him an annoyed look. “I don’t like him.”
Billy chuckled. “Tell that to yourself as many times as you want, Mason. That won’t make it less real.”
Toby raised one finger and pointed it at him. “You better not try anything with him.”
“Because?” Mason knew firsthand how bad an idea was to talk to the ghost with other people present, but his blood, usually cool, was starting to boil.
“Because I’m going to haunt you forever,” came the prompt reply.
“What do you mean? It’s because it’s the truth,” Billy said.
Mason rolled his eyes. “I would so love to kick your ass,” he said through his teeth.
Toby offered a victorious smile. “Just try it.”
“Arnie, you want to be a bad guy? First, you threatened my stash; now, you want to kick my ass,” Billy complained. “But you can’t fool me.”
For the moment, he just needed to give up. “Fine, whatever.” That was directed to both other people in the room, regardless of their state of being dead or alive. “I’ll make another round of the house, and then we’ll get ready to leave.”
“Did Rhys say anything about when he wants us ready?”
“No, but we better be. That’s our job.”
Mason shook his head and walked out. He still needed to check the entire perimeter for any trace of alcohol.
“What are you doing now?” Toby asked, following him right away.
“I need to see if your lovely boyfriend has any booze stashed somewhere.”
“He’s not an alcoholic,” Toby said with conviction.
“And how do you know that? Has your memory come back? If yes, tell me who bashed your head in.”
“Now is the moment when you start behaving like an unfeeling bastard or what? I just don’t see him as an alcoholic.”
“Maybe he got the urge to drink his sanity away only when he was with you.”
Toby stopped for a moment, but then he materialized in front of Mason. Mason walked right through him. “What’s gotten into you?”
“Nothing. I’m trying to do my job. I won’t let your boyfriend touch another drop of alcohol again. At least, as long as I’m paid.”
“You’re annoyed because your partner’s teasing got to you.” That was a matter of fact statement for a very much matter of fact issue.
Mason didn’t reply. He continued his tour of the house without saying a word. As an expert in security, he could observe any issues while at it, since that was his job, and nothing else. Definitely, most definitely, his job wasn’t to feel attracted to an impossibly beautiful man with a boatload of problems.
“I understand that you like him. How could you not?” Toby’s voice was bitter now.
“I told you, and I’m going to repeat that until it’s clear to you. I don’t like him.”
“That sounds a lot like denial. The thing is, I can’t stop you from liking him. But don’t you dare make a move while I’m still here.”
“What kind of move will that be?”
“Jump his bones and that. If he was willing to hire an escort, I guess he would do you, too.”
“You have no business being so jealous. Maybe that was an issue when you were alive.”
Toby had nothing to worry about. Mason didn’t plan on acting on his attraction toward Rhys. It was a life principle he never broke. Plus, who needed all that emotional baggage?
“Are you cold?” Mason tried to school his voice into a neutral tone.
Rhys was leaning against him, his thigh pressed against Mason’s. He turned his head and let his eyelids drop. “I’ve been thinking, Mason.”
“All right. I hope you’ve been thinking about getting warmer clothes.”
They were on the backseat of the car, with Billy as the driver, as usual.
Rhys chuckled. Mason could feel his skin turning to goosebumps. “You called yourself the stick. But I want to think of you more like the carrot.”
“Yes, I know, it’s not the most suitable comparison, as I’m sure a guy like you must be packing something more substantial than a carrot. Either way, if I’m properly motivated, I’d be willing to eat my veggies.”
Mason looked straight ahead. Rhys was whispering into his ear, probably trying to avoid getting Billy’s attention. He kept his hands on his knees and decided to keep his mouth shut.
“So, here’s the deal. I’ll start doing whatever you think I must do so that I get better or whatever. Eat breakfast, swear off booze, all that jazz. But I want to be rewarded for my good behavior.”
“I can see that you agree with me, and that makes me happy. Right now, I’m doing what’s right, going to visit the studio and all that. And here is what I want as my reward.”
Mason remained silent.
“Hold me until we get there.”
There was no teasing in Rhys’s voice. If that was but an act, he was one hell of an actor. To Mason’s ear, that had sounded like a cry for help, not well-crafted seduction. He adjusted his position and put one arm around Rhys, still without looking at him.
Rhys sighed in contentment and put his head on Mason’s chest. Mason didn’t have to be told everything; he placed one short kiss on the crown of Rhys’s head. If Rhys had been a cat, he would have started purring right away.
“If it isn’t the prodigal son.” A man in his forties, with a potbelly that poured over his belt like an unstoppable force, welcomed them at the reception.
“In person,” Rhys replied. “This is Dirk, the one and only producer we have here,” he explained to Billy and Mason.
“I’ve heard about your having bodyguards with you all the time, but it’s a different thing to see you with them tagging along. What’s the danger, exactly?”
Rhys shrugged. “Ask Levine. He’s the one coming with all these ideas. By the way, these are Billy and Mason.”
Dirk only spared them a short glance. “What do you have for me today? Ready to make some music?”
“And I thought you guys would just be happy to see me. I should have known. There are no party hats in sight.”
“Save that for people who don’t know how important time is.” Dirk walked in front of them and gestured to be followed. “Let’s get you in the live room. Now hit me.”
Rhys placed a small memory stick in Dirk’s open palm. The producer didn’t even stop to look at him.
A door opened in front of them, and a young man who looked no older than nineteen rushed through it. He was short and thin, and something about him made Mason think right away of a cute fluffy animal. It had to be because of his mop of strawberry blond hair, sticking out everywhere. His eyes, a dark brown, were shining, and his mouth was stretched into a big smile. He wore baggy clothes that looked like they belonged to an older brother and a thin leather choker around his neck that made him appear vulnerable, and Mason couldn’t deny it, sexy.
“Rhys, you’re back!”
“Hey, Ary,” Rhys replied and opened his arms.
It looked like nothing else was needed for Ary to run and jump into Rhys’s embrace. Mason observed the scene. So, after all, Rhys had lied when he had said that he had no friends. It looked like Ary was a close acquaintance, at least. And Dirk, as much a dick he was about work and nothing, but work seemed okay.
“Every day, I kept asking Dirk when you plan on coming back. Isn’t it so, Dirk?”
“Yes. You kept pestering me. Don’t you have some coffee to make? These guys might use some.”
“We’re okay,” Mason intervened.
“Ary, go make coffee, now,” Dirk said. “He’s our little runner. That’s the only thing he’s actually good at,” he added and, this time turned toward them.
“I make awesome coffee,” Ary confirmed, seemingly not in the slightest upset over Dirk’s comment.
If Billy had an unknown twin in the world, it had to be little Ary.
“But who are your friends?” Ary asked, still holding Rhys by the arms. His intelligent eyes traveled to Mason and Billy.
“They are my bodyguards.”
“Bodyguards? Has anyone threatened you?” Mason could read a real concern on Ary’s face.
“Levine thinks I need help. And I’m grateful for it,” Rhys added, suspiciously courteous. “They are Billy and Mason.”
Billy waved and grinned. Mason just nodded slightly. Ary examined them for a few moments. His eyes remained set on Mason, longer than expected. Then, suddenly he blushed and bit his bottom lip. “I think I should make that coffee,” he said and scurried away, propelled like a bullet from a gun.
“He doesn’t have to bother on our account,” Mason said.
Dirk waved. “That’s his job.”
“Yeah, but hurrying off like that --”
Dirk chuckled. “I’m afraid you’re our runner’s perfect type. If you plan on hanging out around here, expect a little gay boy’s crush with all that entails.”
Rhys wrapped his arm around his. “Mason is mine, and I’ll make it clear if that’s needed.” Mason couldn’t tell if he was joking or not. There could hardly be a competition between Rhys and Ary, but who knew what he was thinking?
“Just keep your catfights out of my studio, and you two can do whatever you want,” Dirk said. “Now, get to work. We don’t have all day.”
Mason turned toward Rhys. “Have you ever fought Ary over a dude or something?” He spoke quietly so that no one could hear them.
Rhys smiled. “Not really.”
Hmm. Mason didn’t quite know what to make of that answer.
And I'll leave you on this note! Mason is bent on continuing his investigation now, but there will be more information thrown at him. Sifting through it and choosing what's important is truly up to him. I swear, I have no hand in it; these characters love writing their own story
As always, I will be glad to hear from you, especially guesses and speculations! While I do know the end of the story, how Mason will find the truth about it all is still floating in my brain and it's subject to change here and there.
Thank you for reading,
All the best,
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