Most people see Chase Manning as the party-boy twink he seems on the surface. Only James, Chase’s BFF, knows the depth of his loyalty and the extent of the wounds Chase carries inside. When Chase meets Rhys Sayer things don’t go well, but he can’t shake his attraction to the huge, sexy man.
Rhys is a man of contradictions and fear—a strange combination for a PI and bodyguard. He’s in a bad place emotionally when he sets eyes on Chase for the first time. When Chase puts the moves on him, Rhys insults him, thwarting any possibility of a relationship. Rhys doesn’t see himself as a complicated man, but he dreads the very kind of connection he desires.
Just as they’re trying to overcome their uncertainties, Chase is put in harm’s way. Luckily Rhys and their friends have all the right talents to help Rhys save the man of his dreams.
PLEASE, GOD, make it stop.
The loud ringing next to his head had Chase debating between smashing the phone and burying his head until the demonic thing went quiet on its own. When the ringing stopped but immediately started up again, he gave up on Option B.
Even mentally whining made his head hurt worse. Chase lay sprawled across his bed on top of the covers. The only part of him not exposed was his head; he’d burrowed under a pillow when the sunshine pushed its way into his bedroom. Sitting up without moving the pillow from over his head, Chase slowly scooped up his cell. “’Lo,” he croaked.
“Um, yeah. Who is—wait, James?” Chase’s thoughts refused to clear as he fought his way past the alcohol struggling to drag him back into unconsciousness. The taste of stale beer and liquor was almost enough to make him puke. He vaguely wondered where his trash can was and whether he could get there if needed.
“You forgot, didn’t you?” The loud chuckle that followed the question did not help with his headache. However, with everything that had happened recently—the stalking and threats against his best friend—he would have gladly suffered in silence to make James happy.
A soft moan escaped his dry lips. He tried to wet them with his tongue, but it felt dry and thick. “Sorry, Jamie. What did I forget?”
“You went out to the club again, didn’t you?”
“Yes,” he whimpered. “Dale and Simon wanted to go out for some fun. But I know you’re not calling to see if I went home with anyone. So again I ask, why am I awake?”
“My art show tonight.”
He was certain he could hear a smirk in James’s voice. “It’s”—Chase paused to check his clock—“not even noon yet, Jamie.” He loved his best friend dearly, but why did he have to be so damned perky first thing in the morning?
Lunch? Eating? He so didn’t want to think about food right then.
“Right. Let me get up and get dressed. I’ll swing by your place soon.”
“Go ahead and meet me at the restaurant, please. We have reservations at Zarletti’s downtown. I’m out and about right now. Okay?”
“Uh, sure, hun.” After a few more pleasantries, he hung up and slowly dragged his groggy self out of bed, stopping to down a couple of Tylenol and a full bottle of water before taking his shower.
Chase took his time getting dressed, and not simply because his head still hurt, the dull ache grating but livable. He never went out without dressing for the occasion, though it was nothing compared to how he would look later that night when he accompanied his best friend to his first gallery show. It would be James’s debut as the featured artist.
God, means I’ll have to deal with Rhys too. He knew Rhys wouldn’t miss the show. He rolled his eyes for thinking about the damn man. Rhys was sex on legs, but his attitude was crap! Still, dressing to kill might not be a bad idea….
Chase finished buttoning the deep green silk shirt over his slight frame as he walked to the fridge in his small but well-appointed kitchen. Grabbing a bottle of Mountain Dew, he took a gulp before he put the cap back on, grabbed his backpack, and headed out the front door. He was usually a cappuccino kind of guy, but sometimes one needed an extra kick of sugar and caffeine, fast.
Yawning, Chase got into his car and started over to James’s before he remembered they were meeting at the restaurant instead. At some point, he knew he would have to change his thinking and acknowledge that the little cottage was James and Seth’s now, especially since they were not only living together but would be married in just over a month.
Chase turned the corner to pull up in front of Zarletti’s. A moment later, a motorcycle passed him. He paused a moment to take in the eye candy: the black and chrome Harley Softail and the tall, wide-shouldered man atop it. When he parked, he realized to whom the bike belonged and groaned, cursing his luck and his reaction.
There Rhys stood, peering at him from beside the motorcycle. Too bad the bike and those looks belong to such an ass hat. Since the man was staring at him so blatantly, Chase decided to return the favor. He took a moment to let his gaze wander from the man’s deep auburn hair and perpetual five o’clock shadow to his delicious athletic build, wide shoulders, and the defined pecs his black T-shirt served to accentuate, not hide, even with the leather coat half covering him. Rhys was huge at close to six and a half feet. He continued his perusal down Rhys to his thick, muscled legs and his chunky black leather boots. Chase allowed himself a soft sigh. He took just as long on the return trip, making a true production of it. When his gaze finally landed on Rhys’s deep green eyes again, he smirked, turned, and made sure to put a little extra swish into his hips as he sauntered up the sidewalk to the front doors.
He reached to open one but paused when he heard the crunching of boots on the path behind him. He groaned to himself quietly and then stepped inside, hoping Rhys was there to meet someone else, not James. Please let it not be us! Chase had managed to avoid Rhys for the last few months, ever since James’s first gallery show. It was a lot harder to stay away from him than he had expected. He hated how Rhys had befriended James, making avoiding him all the more complicated.
“Good afternoon, welcome to Zarletti’s. Table for two?” the bright-eyed hostess asked as Chase approached her stand.
“No. I’m meeting someone. James Bryant? He should be here already.”
“Very good, sir. And you?” the hostess asked, gazing past Chase to Rhys.
“The same, thank you.” Rhys’s deep, rumbling voice sent a jolt through his system, as always.
Chase tensed when he heard Rhys’s reply. His smile fell, but he refused to look at Rhys again.
She promptly led them to a small corner table where James sat, his forearm crutches leaning against the wall behind him.
“Glad you could make it, Rhys,” James called over Chase’s shoulder. “Nice timing, Chase. You look better than you sounded on the phone.”
“I’m okay, Jamie.” Chase pushed away James’s concern with a wave of his hand before he leaned in and kissed James’s cheek. “How did you get reservations so fast?”
“I’ve had the reservations, Chase. Why do you think I called to make sure you were awake?”
Chase noticed the way James’s eyes lit up when he saw him and how huge his smile was, which made him happy he had gotten up. However, what little enthusiasm he’d had for lunch died as soon as he realized Rhys was going to join them. He couldn’t help it. Every time he looked at the man, he reacted, but after the way Rhys had treated him the night they met, and a few times since, he wanted nothing to do with the ego or the jerk. Straight people not understanding him was one thing, but a gay man making snarky comments about him being less, or that being twink-like made him undesirable? Beyond not cool! Sadly, Chase thought as he peeked at Rhys again, I’d still take him home if he’d let me. See who is pinned against the floor screaming then!
“I guess I didn’t remember you telling me where we were eating,” Chase explained as he sat beside James. “Don’t mind me, hun. Now, why has our BFF date been hijacked and why is he here?”
“Come on, Chase, I’m hungry. No pouting.”
He closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths to clear his irritation and worry. “My apologies. How about… what’s on the agenda, my dear?” He folded his hands to make a small stand and rested his chin there, batting his eyelashes at James for full effect.
“Better,” James said with a low chuckle. “I suppose we can tend to business first, though that won’t get you out of here any faster.” The stare accompanying James’s words had him pinned to his seat. He sat up straight, suddenly wondering exactly why James had invited Rhys along.
What business could there be between the three of us?
“Business first is fine, James,” Rhys rumbled. “Though I’m still not sure how you think Mr. Manning can help.”
“What are you two needing help with?” Chase’s eyes flitted between his best friend and the man he simultaneously wanted to throttle and devour. He cursed his dick as it stood up and took notice of Rhys’s closeness.
“Not us, Chase. Rhys needs the services of a tech god. One that is good, discreet, and,” James paused and shared a look with Rhys, “creative? But he doesn’t believe you would agree to work for him, even temporarily.”
“Tech god? Really?” Chase giggled before the rest of what James said sank in. “Wait, you want me to help Rhys with some computer problem? Why not just call the Geek Squad and have them fix it?”
“I told you he wouldn’t agree, James. I need a hacker or cracker or what-the-hell-ever they want to be called, not some wannabe desk jockey who thinks he’s too good for anyone,” Rhys grumbled. The look of disgust irritated Chase more than the words, though they didn’t go unnoticed either.
“If anyone thinks he’s too good, it’s you, you pom—”
“Fine,” he snapped. He waved one long, slender hand toward Rhys as he continued. “What possible help could I be to him?” He couldn’t bring himself to willingly address Rhys directly—snapping at Rhys didn’t count. “Desk jockey?” “Wannabe?” The insufferable man might be nearly a foot taller than him, but he itched to teach him some manners.
“Chill for a minute, please. Rhys, as you know, is a PI and a bodyguard.” When Chase nodded, James continued. “He’s doing some work, though I don’t know the details, and needs someone with serious computer skills but can’t use his usual person. I was hoping you would help him.”
James, the traitor, motioned Rhys to speak.
“Mr. Manning, James said you left Skye Designs and do consulting and freelance work now. He and Seth claim you’re the best, so I am here to hire you. If you agree, you will be paid for any and all work. I’m not asking a favor, I’m offering you a business proposition.”
Chase listened as Rhys spoke and watched as emotions played across his face. Irritation, curiosity, worry…. Chase pursed his lips, glancing between James and Rhys. Work with Rhys? Is James nuts? He dropped his gaze to his wine glass and shook his head as he thought about working with Rhys Sayer—egomaniac, ass hat, sex god. If it was for Mark Gentry, Rhys’s business partner, he would say yes right way, but could he deal with Rhys that much?
Rhys crossed his powerful arms. “I should go, Jay. I don’t want to mess with your buddy-date thing or stress you before your show tonight. I retract my request, Mr. Manning.” He raised one huge hand, motioning their server over. “Can you box mine, please?”
James sighed and frowned, a look Chase hated to see.
“Wait,” Chase countered. “Do you really need IT help with your company? And why can’t your normal guy work it? Surely you have one on staff.”
James’s lips twitched, and Chase knew he’d been had, but then, he never said no to James anyway, so why start now?
“Pouting won’t help, Chase. Be good.”
Chase rolled his eyes but couldn’t help smiling. “Brat.”
“My normal guy would be pissed at being called a guy,” Rhys explained and smirked. “Kailee just got married and moved, with her new husband, across the country. She could still do part of what I need, but I would rather have someone local, especially for this sort of work. She agrees with James about your tech skills, so I’m willing to try you.” Rhys flushed red, his eyes going round and wide. “I mean…. Oh, never mind. Will you help or not?” he grumbled.
DANNI BURNS, James’s seven-year-old stepdaughter, and Rhys sat on a blanket in a glade dotted with small flowers near a gently winding brook, having tea, Rhys in his biker leather and Danni in one of her lavender princess dresses. Mrs. Rainbow—her beloved pastel, tie-dyed bunny in a tiny white-and-green Irish dancing dress with miniature black Mary Janes—rested between the two.
“So what do you think?” James asked, startling Chase out of his musing as he stood before what was secretly one of his favorite paintings of the collection. The gallery show had opened about an hour earlier, but the two men hadn’t had much time together to discuss what images would be shown. Honestly, the fact there was such a family feel to part of the images, as opposed to James’s usual erotic content, surprised Chase.
“I think you caught the mischief and sweetness of Danni beautifully.” In truth, he was in awe of how James managed to capture both of their inner selves so perfectly. In his opinion, it was one of James’s best paintings. The gentle giant and his precious little sprite. “But why did you pair her with Rhys of all people? He’s so….” Chase trailed off, caught again by the striking masculinity before him.
“Powerful? Handsome? Gentle?” James raised an eyebrow at Chase and smiled. “I honestly wish you would tell me why all the animosity between you two,” he added, voice soft.
“It doesn’t matter, Jamie.” He wrapped one arm around James’s shoulders. “Come on, show me around some. I hear the artist is supposed to be pretty good, after all,” Chase teased.
“Oh, you think he might be better than me?”
Chase would do anything to keep the huge grin gracing his best friend’s face right then. “Maybe,” he singsonged. Considering him for a moment, Chase took James’s hand. “Seriously, you’ve outdone yourself. I’m so proud of you.”
James blinked and looked up, smiling, his cheeks pink. “Thank you, Chase.”
“James, it’s time.” Seth’s voice broke their moment, startling both men. “Gather up your Chase and hurry, please.”
Chase looked over to Seth, confused about what he was referring to. The show isn’t over, so where is he taking Jamie, and what does that have to do with me?
“Oh! Oh, good. Come on, dear.” James pushed him toward Seth and then maneuvered on his forearm crutches to follow behind.
Chase followed obediently, confused but moving with the flow of bodies around him. “What’s going on, guys?” he asked once they were at the front of the gallery. He looked around and noticed there was a large covered frame that hadn’t been there earlier.
Rhys’s brother, Dal, sidled up beside Chase, bending to whisper into his ear, “He’s got one last painting to reveal, but it’s a special one. I heard not even Britt”—the owner of the gallery—“has seen this one.”
“Really?” He peered up at Dal, again noticing how much he looked like Rhys, only a couple of inches shorter and a few pounds lighter.
“Shh… he’s getting ready to speak.”
Chase realized James now stood in front of the painting, smiling again.
“First, let me thank everyone for your warm reception and the wonderful turnout. As some of you know, I don’t really do speeches, but this last painting is special. I debated showing Inner Light, but in the end decided others needed to see the subject as I do.” James moved to the side, releasing his grip on one forearm crutch. He touched the sheet but didn’t move it yet. “You see, sometimes when people reveal who they truly are inside, we find a vile, rotting corpse, but other times, what we find….” He trailed off and touched a recessed panel.
The sheet, which Chase realized was actually a curtain, slid aside to reveal a painting of… him! Well, it was him, but not him at the same time. The artistry was magnificent, but over half his face a lion was superimposed. The lion part even had his ear cuff clipped to the furry ear. Chase gaped, barely noting the gasps and clapping that burst all around him.
Chase moved to the side, trying not to attract attention as questions and praise swarmed James. He couldn’t stop staring at the painting, trying to see how it could possibly be a representation of himself, but couldn’t. He wasn’t powerful or strong like a lion. And while he knew he was decent looking, the man in the painting had an ethereal beauty that dumbfounded him. It was both humbling and uncomfortable to look upon and hear Jamie’s voice in his head saying that was how he saw him.
Chase was startled out of his thoughts when two of his friends, Simon Tyler and Dale Miller, nudged him. “Chase! Did you know about the painting? It’s amazing,” Simon gushed.
Chase shook his head. “I didn’t. He can’t really see me that way, can he?”
“With as much as you’ve done over the years to help and protect him, yeah, I think that’s exactly how he sees you,” Dale replied. “Of course, he’s obviously blind. But then, if he showed you as you really are, no one would buy his artwork.” Dale and Simon cackled, and Chase glowered at the both of them.
“Maybe he’s trying to make up for conning you into working with Rhys,” Simon suggested.
“Harrumph! I still can’t believe I said yes, but you really think all this was planned? Seriously?”
“Eh, ignore Simon.”
“We’re going out tomorrow night to forget about the sexy ox, so don’t sweat it,” Simon said and winked. “Now, go congratulate James and smile. You look totally wrong with the scowl on your pretty face,” he instructed, turning Chase and pushing him toward the now advancing James.
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