The crackle in his ear startled Ben Collins even though he’d been expecting the check-in.
“Alpha four in position,” the voice intoned. “Your handover for a break is two minutes out, Ben.”
Ben depressed the button to talk. “Alpha three, copy.”
Not a moment too soon. If he had to stand outside this dressing room listening to God knows what for another minute, he might just barge in the room and split up the two inside. Esmee Golder, pop princess and judge on this god-awful X-Factor rip-off show was “entertaining.” And wouldn’t the gossip columns love that the person she was entertaining was one of the boy band members through to the final.
At only eighteen the blond-haired kid was half her age, and they’d been at it for an hour now. Ben decided when he got back to base he was telling Kyle in no uncertain terms that he was not doing another showbiz stint. I’ve done my bit, he thought as he winced at the dramatic orgasmic cursing emanating from inside the room.
Another point the public might find interesting was the casual drug use behind that door. Esmee had asked for a loan of a hundred this morning. From him, her bodyguard. He’d just used his patented blank stare and pretended he hadn’t heard her. He wasn’t facilitating a drug purchase nor was he actually talking to Esmee any more than he needed to. Why couldn’t he have been paired up with any of the others? A contestant, maybe? That singer with the guitar was kind of cute, and from the way he looked Ben up and down yesterday, he was clearly playing for the same team.
A show runner came up the hall towards him, and he tensed even though he knew who it was and the guy was on the accepted list. The runner ignored Ben and instead rapped on the door Ben was guarding.
“Ten minutes, Miss Golder. Ten minutes.”
“Coming.” The words were strangled and ended on a laugh. The runner glanced at Ben, and they exchanged looks of disbelief.
“Is someone in there with her?” the runner asked in a mild panic. He checked his clipboard. “No one is supposed to be with her. She’s supposed to be meditating? Do you know if she’s been to get the makeup test for tonight?” Ben didn’t answer. His shrug said it all. He wasn’t saying a damn thing. Hell, he wasn’t paid to talk or keep tabs on airhead princesses like Esmee Golder, he was just here to stop people from stabbing her with a letter opener or some other weird thing the show owners thought could happen. Neither Bodyguards Inc., the company he was working for, nor Ben himself were convinced there was any threat here. In fact, he knew he was standing outside this room more as a status symbol than anything else.
The show runner huffed, and a frown knitted his brows. ”Jesus, everything is fucked up today. Daniel Lincoln is AWOL, and we’ve lost Mark from Twelfth fucking Wonder as well. Why can’t anyone just stay where I put them?”
That would be Mark “I’m gonna fuck you all night Esmee”, the same teen who was currently in the room behind him.
If only I could say that Mark was inside helping Esmee meditate.
Instead he focused in on thinking about where Daniel had gone. The young singer-songwriter with the sexy black guyliner was always missing. It seemed to Ben like the singer avoided all human contact, skittish, wary, and if Ben didn’t know better, he’d say Daniel was scared of him as well. After last week’s show, the two of them had ended up in line for coffee. They’d actually talked for a little while. Except, since that time, Daniel now inevitably turned and walked away whenever Ben was near him.
Even today Ben still mulled over what they’d talked about, nothing special—the weather, the show, was Daniel nervous about tonight’s performance—usual stuff really. They hadn’t actually finished talking about anything in particular when Daniel had been called for a sound check and had to leave his lunch on the tray.
All that Ben could recall was that Daniel Lincoln was cute, short—well, shorter than him—had a soft growly voice and eyes the color of the sky, and unfortunately he had a boyfriend. He wasn’t the kind of bodyguard to perv on his clients, not that Daniel was actually a client, but he was on the show that had hired BI for security. Daniel was off limits; still, Ben could look.
Not every bodyguard was like his co-worker, Adam, who’d fallen for the American actor he’d been working close protection for.
There was more movement in the hall, but this time Ben didn’t tense. He recognized the very Adam Freeman from his thoughts. One day he might even talk to his friend about just how he came to terms with dating a client.
Adam was one of the four Bodyguards Inc. guys on this job, and he and Ben exchanged nods. The runner left, scurrying back the way he’d come, muttering about boy bands and princesses. It would have been funny if Ben hadn’t been trying for a serious look on the job.
Adam looked up and down the deserted hallway. “She got someone in there?” he asked under his breath.
“The blond twink with the floppy hair,” Ben replied.
Adam inhaled sharply. Back at the office they had a pool on just how many boy-band members Esmee would fuck before the show’s final. Ben had opted for one out of the five. After all, Esmee was renowned as the girl next door, with her polite and gentle approach to life. Yeah, right, girl next door wasn’t how he would describe Esmee now that he knew what she was really like.
And Ben had lost the whole pot of money by episode three when she had first seduced the one with the sticking-up hair, then in quick succession, the skinny one who couldn’t dance so well on the first night of the live shows.
He didn’t say any of this out loud. Bodyguards did not discuss clients where anyone could hear them. He stood aside as the door opened and a grinning blond boy-band member exited the room casually like he’d just been in there talking about the weather. Unfortunately the fact he stunk of Esmee’s perfume was a giveaway. Ben watched the kid walk to his own shared dressing room and wondered how long it would be before the boy-band members, average age nineteen, would all realize they’d been used and discarded, and whether that would cause a fight or whether they were in a competition among themselves.
Esmee appeared. Her hair was tousled, but that was okay, as recently she was going for the ‘just out of bed’ look. Seemed like she was busy reinventing her girl-next-door image. Ben could admit that if he liked women, she would probably be on his list for looks alone, full lips, a permanent sex-kitten pout, blonde hair to her waist, and a body so small he could probably pick her up in one hand. She just had the morals of an alley cat and a vagina, both of which kind of pushed her out of his selection pool. Make it a man, though, and he kind of liked using his height and strength and picking up his lovers.
Like that Daniel guy, the one with the guitar. He was not more than five ten and slight. I could probably pick him up and hold him while I kissed him.
Ben deliberately pushed the thoughts to one side. “Five minutes, Miss Golder,” he said instead, and then with a nod to Adam, he left without a backward glance.
“He’s so rude,” he heard Esmee say to Adam, but Ben heard the huff Adam gave instead of a coherent reply.
Making his way to the break room, he had to sidestep dancers dressed in nothing but feathers, the entire boy band running past him and barreling through the backstage doors into the room behind stage, and a very obvious brush with Lee from lighting who called all the bodyguards here his big brave men and wasn’t beyond fluttering his mascaraed lashes.
“We must talk, sweetie,” Lee said in an exaggeratedly camp voice, his bright orange nails contrasting with his lime-green jacket.
“On duty,” Ben lied and sidestepped the final hurdle between him and the coffee machine. A low announcement on the PA system informed everyone that dress rehearsals were in thirty minutes as Ben let himself into the room the bodyguards had chosen as their own. Just off the beaten track, it was half storage room, and alongside the stacks of boxes there was a table and chairs. This was their place for all four of the Bodyguards Inc. guys here this weekend and would double as hideaway and conference room in the event it was needed.
Michael was there already, and he finished whatever was left in his coffee cup and stood with a grin on his face.
“Heard you lost the bet,” he said.
“That’s her third one. I tell you she’s gonna do all five of those boys,” Ben pointed out. “And she gets louder every time.”
Michael made a duck face in a fake kiss. “They are all very cute. Can’t believe your gay side is staying hidden with the enormous buffet of yum.”
“Ha fucking ha,” Ben said with no heat. He poured his coffee, but it was little more than thick sludge, and he cursed the parentage of whoever supplied the hired muscle with such a shit machine.
Michael stood and rinsed his Superman mug, the same mug that went on every one of his jobs. “I’m out of here. I’m on break.”
Three acts remained in this competition, labeled the BoyBand, the Diva, and the Rocker. Well, everyone else called Daniel by the code name Rocker, but Ben thought it should be more like Cutie. Because he was cute, and sexy, with his flicky dark hair and the eyeliner he used to emphasize his brilliant blue eyes.
Really cute in an introverted, vulnerable way, Daniel only came alive when he was on stage with his guitar and his voice. He played guitar, sang on his own, and he was all wrapped up in a package of gorgeous-sexy. Slim, with dark hair and those serious eyes brimming with emotion, he had this way of grabbing at the audience and not letting go. He’d made it through all the heats and the semis, but general consensus was that he was out first tonight on the live finals. The boy band, Twelfth Wonder, had the girly vote, the Diva had the older vote, and then there was Daniel Lincoln with his guitar and his voice and his quirky looks. Definitely third-place material. At least according to Adam, who liked to think he had his finger on the pulse of showbiz ever since he’d hooked up with the actor Logan Brady.
“I’m getting better coffee,” Ben said to no one as he realized Michael had gone. Damn the man and his scary ninja skills. Ben rolled his shoulders to ease the ache in them, the result of standing in the same position for the last two hours, and he felt the muscles loosen. Then he exited their room and turned left out of the door.
He knew that somewhere around here the team of makeup artists had their own sparkly coffee machine that made half-decent cappuccino. Left, left, right, left and straight on. He had a good sense of direction normally, but here at the Arena, they’d begun maintenance work, and it seemed like every turn he took was blocked by tarpaulin. Finally he found what he was looking for, and after a couple minutes flirting with three makeup girls who giggled and flirted back, he had in his hands a cup of coffee and two cranberry muffins that he’d been forced to take.
At six five of lean gym-fit muscle, he could afford a few muffins every so often, and he polished the first one off in a couple of mouthfuls. He spotted Lee with the clipboard and the lime jacket and God help him, he couldn’t do any more fending off of the man’s advances. He thought quickly and ducked through a door and into a darkened room, closing the door behind him. What was it with Lee and his insistence on attempting to get it on with any one of the bodyguards? Lee didn’t have any particular preference either, he’d cornered Michael yesterday and Michael had looked beyond annoyed and onto contemplating lethal force. Lee apparently had no self-preservation and had decided Michael was the one for him. Apart from the fact he was attempting to corner Ben as well.
In here Ben was safe. Lee hadn’t spotted him, he had a good half hour until he was back on duty, and he had a bloody good coffee warming his hands. Leaning back against the door, he enjoyed the silence and sipped on his blessedly hot caffeine. At least until he heard movement and the sharp inhalation of a curse.
Daniel Lincoln was fucked. He’d deliberately chosen this place to get his head clear, and someone had walked in. Not only that, but he or she had shut the door and they were in here with him, and Daniel was having enough trouble breathing, let alone concentrating on staying quiet.
Something was broken inside him, and he didn’t just mean his spirit, which was lying near death in his chest. The pain in his chest was too much and scraped when he breathed too hard. How the hell he was going to manage the dress rehearsal, let alone the live final tonight, he didn’t know.
The boxes he was hidden behind, on a seat of discarded outfits acting as a nest of comfort to his bruised and aching body, were enough so that even with the light on, he wouldn’t be seen. He wanted to cough, though, and that may well be the end of his ability to breathe at all. What if a rib had cracked and punctured a lung? Cam had never gone this far before. He’d always stopped at just enough to teach, but never enough to warrant a visit to hospital. This time, hell, what had he done, told Cam that he’d been offered a recording contract? That was all. Why the fuck had he said a word about what he might have been getting in the way of money? His eyes damped with more tears, but he couldn’t let them fall, because that would be letting the pain out for everyone to see.
No one wants to see my pain. Who would understand?
A cough spasmed inside him, and he couldn’t help the groan of pain.
“Who’s there?” a deep voice called from the door. The owner of the voice flicked the switch, and a dull energy-saving bulb lightened the room. Daniel shrank back into the shadows of the boxes and prayed to a god that never listened that the owner of the voice would just walk away. Now.
“I said, who’s there? I’m counting to three.”
Daniel closed his eyes tightly. He’d recognize that voice anywhere—Ben, the biggest, widest, tallest of the bodyguards hovering around. In the seconds it took for the man to count to two, Daniel wiped away every small part of himself that was broken and in pain and became the Daniel he could act out so well. He levered himself to stand and at the same time forced a smile in place and refused to clutch himself across the chest. When he rounded the boxes, he blinked at the full force of the light bulb and couldn’t believe just how right he’d been about who the hell was stood in front of him.
Ben. He knew his name, heard the others call him that. Ben, the observant one, the quiet one, the one who stared at him like he would look at a bug under a microscope. Although Daniel guessed all bodyguards—or close protection officers—were observant, it just seemed as if this one stared at him more than the others. Not to mention they’d spoken last week. Daniel didn’t really do talking, well, not small talk anyway. When Ben asked him if he was nervous about the vote, it was all Daniel could do to smile and offer a quick no before he was rescued by being called for a sound check. Something about Ben, the size of him, his deep voice, served to unnerve Daniel way past the point where he was comfortable.
And if Cam found out he’d been talking to another man? Even casually? Yeah, that really wasn’t going to go down well with Daniel’s possessive boyfriend at all.
“Hey,” Daniel said as carefully as he could and on a natural inhale so he could subconsciously control his breathing. The meds were starting to kick in, the codeine flooding his system and the morphine effect deadening some of the pain. At least some of it was better now that he was standing.
Oh well. Who needed to sit down anyway?
“Daniel?” Ben asked with question in his voice. “They’re looking for you.”
Daniel pulled himself up, and if anything he forced more effort into standing tall and straight.
“Yeah, just needed a quiet space,” he explained. In his head he was gesturing around him with a free hand, but in reality he couldn’t much move his right arm, which was going to fuck with his ability to play guitar. He thought maybe his shoulder was separated somehow. He’d seen Mel Gibson knock his own arm back into place in Lethal Weapon once, but that wasn’t happening here. He sure as hell wasn’t a hero who could push through pain.
“Jesus, you look like shit,” Ben observed.
Daniel floundered for something to say, and the line he came out with was pretty pathetic. “I’m not sure you’re supposed to say that to me.”
“What the hell happened to you?”
Ben placed his coffee on the nearest box and walked over to Daniel, and Daniel couldn’t help the instinct that made him stumble back and end up against the wall.
Why did you choose a room with no way out? What are you? Stupid?
“Don’t come near me,” Daniel said in his loudest, most strident voice, even though it was nothing more than a forced whisper to his own ears.
“Fuck, Daniel, seriously? What the hell?”
Why would Ben ask that? What did he mean? Daniel panicked. Did he have bruises on his face? How could he go out in front of millions of people and perform with bruises on his face? He must have said some part of that out loud because the man looming over him shook his head.
“I don’t see any bruises on your face,” Ben said simply, carefully. “You’re holding yourself like you have a chest injury? Or your shoulder? What did you do to yourself? We need to get you to Casualty. I’ll call the medics.” He turned to leave, to find the one group of people that Daniel didn’t want anywhere near him. Cam would fucking end him if he involved the authorities.
“No!” Daniel said loudly. The pain of the words radiated from his chest to his shoulder, and if it wasn’t for the wall, he’d be on his knees or unconscious. “I just need more codeine.”
Ben moved closer, but this time there was nowhere for Daniel to go; he’d run out of room. He closed his eyes tightly and waited for the first blow or the spitting accusations of how the fuck he had let himself get in this state. Instead all he got was a gentle touch to his left hand, the one without pain radiating down to it.
“Daniel, you need to listen to me. You know me. I’m Benjamin Collins, with the bodyguards. You can call me Ben.”
“I know your name,” Daniel said defiantly. Maybe if he said how little he knew, then Ben would just leave without hurting him.
Ben wore a scarlet T-shirt with the embroidered words “Bodyguards Inc.” on the breast, and whoever supplied it must not have had his size as it had to be too small and really hugged every muscle. Jeez, the man was muscle on bone, and he must spend a lot of time in the gym. Not to mention the way his black jeans stretched obscenely over muscled thighs and across his taut ass.
Fuck. Daniel shook his head a little to dislodge the desire that curled inside him. Cam would kill him if he did anything stupid like look at another man. Anyway, he didn’t need another man. He had Cam. He loved Cam.
I love Cam. Cam loves me.
“Look, don’t you think this is pushing things too far?” Ben had a soft voice now, not strident, nothing evil or shouting or accusing.
“What do you mean?” Daniel asked when Ben didn’t continue.
“You’re clearly in pain. You can’t believe you’ll make it out to rehearsals.”
“I need to put it back,” Daniel groaned on a painful spasm. “My shoulder, I hurt my shoulder.”
“I’m a bodyguard, not a freaking doctor. You need to get to Casualty.” Ben reached out and gripped Daniel’s unhurt shoulder, but he reacted viscerally and ripped out of the hold. White-hot heat took him to his knees, and he couldn’t help the tears in his eyes. There wasn’t any point in arguing with Ben, he was bigger and stronger than Daniel, he might as well just kneel at the guy’s feet and let him do whatever. Daniel had already fucked up the chance at the show’s final; he might as well give up.
Ben moved to a crouch in front of him. “Please, we need to get you some help.”
Ben’s tone was gentle and encouraging. He’d said please. He’d actually considered softening his tone just for Daniel. Something snapped inside Daniel in that second. He had to get help. This was worse than last time, and he needed to rest.
“Please.” He used Ben’s word back at him. “You have to know what to do.” He inhaled sharply. “I’ve dislocated my shoulder. Push it back for me.” Not like the pain could get any worse, right?
“What the hell? Daniel, if you’ve dislocated your shoulder, it’s not as simple as pushing it back.”
“Okay, then I’ll do it.” Daniel inhaled sharply and pressed the shoulder against the wall, letting out a thin wail of pain as he did so.
“Fuck, Daniel. No!” Ben shouted.
Why was Ben shouting, and who was crying? Am I crying?
“Let me see, you stupid idiot.”
Yep that’s me, fucking stupid. An idiot who can’t even stop another man’s pushing him to the ground and treating me like shit… I am shit… fuck.
“It’s not dislocated, I just think you’ve—” Ben gasped. “What the fuck?”
Daniel realized the man was pulling at his stage shirt, and he’d be able to see some of the marks on Daniel. The marks that Cam took so much time to lay in the places people wouldn’t look. The marks not even wardrobe would see because Daniel demanded that he be allowed to dress in private. The marks he tried not to look at himself.
“I fell down the stairs at the hotel,” Daniel lied. He didn’t know what the light in this place would show.
Ben said nothing. He was feeling all over Daniel’s shoulder so gently, but it still hurt.
“Okay, we need to get you somewhere. Medical. Can I at least take you to Medical?”
Daniel grabbed at Ben’s hand. If Cam found out someone else was involved—hell, if Cam discovered Daniel had told anyone, then Daniel would pay for it and Ben would as well in some twisted way. Cam would know some way to hurt Ben, and there was no way Daniel was letting someone else be hurt on his account.
“No,” Daniel pleaded. “I took codeine. It’ll be enough to let me get out there.” He attempted to clamber to his feet and dizziness assailed him. He really was fucked.
“You can’t think that you’ll be okay to go out on stage… Dress rehearsal is now.”
“No… I can’t,” Daniel admitted. “I know what to do. I just need to get to my dressing room. I have stuff there to take…” Inspiration hit him. “You could stand outside my door, tell them I was missing dress rehearsal, that I was in there and that I was resting my throat for finals. They’ll listen to you.” He couldn’t believe he was doing this, asking for help from someone so intimidating and angry. It was just opening himself up to more hurt. He should have tried to get to his dressing room earlier instead of hiding in that room, but there’d been so many people there in the way.
“Please help me.” Because, hell, asking for Ben’s help was the only thing he could do now. He’d only meant to sit in the dark for a short while, but codeine always made him sleepy, and he’d found a position where he could sit and let the morphine haze slide over him. Stupid move.
“Are you helping me?” Daniel pressed a hand to Ben’s chest, tilted his chin, and looked up into Ben’s eyes with a pleading look. “I’ll pay you anything.”