Karrie Roman © 2018
All Rights Reserved
“What now for you, Ryan?”
“Um…the short answer is I really don’t know. I’m going to take some time with Lucas while the show is on hiatus and think about what’s next for me. I hope people will understand why I’ve chosen to step away from the spotlight and will be gracious enough to give me the space I need to work out where to go from here. But for right this minute, Lucas and I are getting on a plane to locations unknown and we’re going to relax and enjoy being us.”
The press conference was a compromise between the very intrusive media and Lucas and Ryan. They wanted some peace, some space to recover from the events of the last couple of months, and now that their show, Witches’ Hammer, had wrapped up for a break, and Lucas had been given a clean bill of health, they were taking some time for themselves. Nobody deserved it more after what they’d been through.
Ethan watched, ever vigilant, as they stepped down from the podium and walked hand in hand toward the waiting car. His gaze rested on their joined hands for a second or two too long, but it was hard to look away from something that he desired for himself so very much. Not that he wanted either Lucas or Ryan. They were both great men and smoking fucking hot, but they weren’t for him. What he wanted was what they had—intimacy and love.
After years of self-imposed isolation from anything resembling a close relationship, Ethan wanted more.
Once his two charges were settled in the car, Ethan climbed into the passenger seat and gave the nod to Max. The big car roared to life and Max deftly drove them toward the airport and their waiting plane.
His former bosses, Patricia and Roger Krispin, had let Ethan go from their security agency when he called to resign, as he’d breached their no-skeletons-in-the-closet rule, but Lucas and Ryan had hired him as their personal bodyguard and had kept the Krispin’s professional teams as backup whenever needed. Ethan would be traveling to Australia with them, and Harry and Christina would meet them there for extra security, if needed.
“Looking forward to the Aussie girls in their bikinis, Ethan?” Ryan asked from the back seat.
“I’m more of a man in…what do you Aussies call them…boardies type of guy.”
“Oh, shit…sorry. Well, there’s plenty of them too. Maybe we can find a hot lifeguard for you while we’re there.” He didn’t need to turn to know Lucas and Ryan would be giggling to themselves, no doubt planning some kind of setup for him. He loved working for these two men and often wondered at his good fortune, especially after the shit had hit the fan following the revelation of who he was.
For almost four weeks, Ryan and Lucas had dominated the front pages and headlined the news. When the media had discovered that Ethan Lockard had come out of the woodwork and was somehow embroiled in the Lovers saga, the scrutiny had begun to border on the ridiculous. Ethan had offered to resign and had given serious thought to running again. It would be harder to pick a new identity and hide this time, but he’d manage. He was so tired of running and so fucking tired of being lonely.
Eight years ago, he’d lost his entire family, and though he hadn’t allowed any of them to get too close, the men and women he’d worked with over the last few years had become a family of sorts. He wasn’t going to let his brother take another family away from him this time.
“Okay, jet’s fueled and ready. Wheels up as soon as you arrive.” Paulina’s voice sounded in his ear.
“Copy. We’re about ten minutes out. All clear,” he replied. Despite the press coverage and the revelations that had been made about him, nobody from Krispins had seemed to care. They’d all accepted his apology for lying to them and admitted they’d have probably done the same if they were in his shoes.
The only person he hadn’t seen or spoken to since his true identity had been discovered was Ben. He hadn’t been back to see Ben since that day at the hospital when he’d been exposed. Ben’s brother, Cameron, had called to let him know the doctors had successfully woken him and called a few more times with updates, but Ethan had refused when Cameron had told him Ben had been asking for him to visit. He was such a fucking coward, but he knew he couldn’t bear to see disappointment in Ben’s eyes. What if Ben hated him for lying and keeping his past quiet? Ethan could stand anybody else’s hatred—but not Ben’s.
The private jet was waiting on the tarmac as promised, and Max drove them virtually to the open door. Ethan scanned the area as the car pulled up. He expected no trouble, and thankfully, he found none. Once satisfied, he stepped out and moved around the front of the car so he could open the back door nearest to the plane. Lucas stepped out, closely followed by Ryan, their hands immediately re-entwined as soon as they were both clear of the car. Ethan felt that pang of envy bite into him again at the intimacy the two men shared. God, he wanted it.
It wasn’t the first private jet he’d been on, but it was one of the nicest. Lucas and Ryan were already seated on the sofa that ran along one side of the cabin by the time he boarded. Ethan took the single seat across from them. He’d seen the bedroom toward the back of the plane as he’d entered the jet and wondered, with a sly grin on his face, how long it’d take before Lucas and Ryan made use of that.
“How are you with flying, Ethan?” Lucas asked as he continued to settle himself in and clip his seat belt.
“No problem with it. I can’t say I’ve done a huge amount, but I don’t mind it. Once the captain turns the seat belt sign off, I’ll pop this chair back, shut my eyes, and keep them closed until we touch down.” Ethan didn’t miss the look the two men opposite him shared, no doubt delighted they would, more or less, have the jet to themselves.
The engines had been idling since they’d boarded, and Ethan both felt and heard them roar to life now.
“All passengers, please ensure your seat belts are engaged and prepare for takeoff,” came a disembodied voice over the PA. The jet eased forward, slowly rolling toward the runway. It turned easily—nothing like the clunky turns of much larger passenger planes—before coming to a brief stop.
As the engines rumbled louder and louder and he was pushed back into his seat as the jet surged forward, increasing its speed to get it off the ground, Ethan had a sudden, inexplicable urge to run to the door and jump from the moving craft. He knew deep in his gut he was leaving something—or someone—behind.
He was sure he had everything he needed, and anything he’d forgotten he’d be able to buy in Australia, but he couldn’t escape that feeling of loss. Then, as he looked over the lights of the city below, he thought about pale-blue eyes that were usually dancing with laughter or mischief but had instead been filled with pain and determination the last time he’d seen them open, and he knew in his heart what he’d left behind—or rather who.
“Have you heard anything more, Ethan?”
They were at thirty-seven thousand feet so Ethan should be fast asleep by now. He suspected he wouldn’t be getting much in the coming days, but no matter how many times he closed his eyes and tried to drift off, he remained steadfastly awake.
“No. I’ve tried the number she gave me, but it keeps going to voicemail.” Ethan turned to Ryan, who was standing at the door to the little bedroom on the private jet taking them back to the US much sooner than planned. It seemed like only yesterday they’d sat in these same seats heading toward a well-deserved break in Australia. “I’m sorry, again. You and Lucas could have stayed. Harry and Christina were there.”
“We know, but we owe you so much, if you need to get back to help your sister, then we’re coming with. Whatever we can do to help, we’re there.” They’d been holidaying in Australia for a few weeks when his sister’s call had come the day before. Ethan had offered to leave alone, but both Ryan and Lucas had packed up their picnic lunch on the pristinely white beach in the Great Barrier Reef and then moved heaven and earth to get them back to the mainland and out of the country.
“Thank you, Ryan. I wish she’d have told me more. It’s the not knowing that’s so fucking hard.”
“How long since you’ve heard from her?”
“Eight years.” Ethan hadn’t seen or heard from his sister since his brother’s trial. She’d idolized Ethan—before everything went to shit.
Ethan had been thirty-two when he’d sent his younger brother to prison and lost his family all at the same time. The last memory he had of Maggie was her being dragged from the courtroom by his parents, with tears streaming down her face, once the guilty verdict had been read. He hadn’t shown up for sentencing—his parents had made it abundantly clear that he was no longer part of their family and wouldn’t be welcome.
Ryan shifted uncomfortably and Ethan could tell he wanted to ask more, but Ryan was never one to pry.
“She used to call me Thor. Maggie was into mythology even before these Marvel movies came along. She used to tell the kids at school that her biggest brother was Thor, and if they messed with her, I’d mess with them. I’m sixteen years older than her, but we were close. I’m not much of a hero to her anymore.”
“Oh, I don’t know. Who did she call when she got into trouble? Seems she still thinks of you as her hero.”
Ethan nodded, trying to believe Ryan’s words but falling short. He was nobody’s hero.
“Try to sleep, Ethan. We’ve still got another eight hours before we get to LA to refuel and then another couple of hours to get to Casper.”
“Thanks, Ryan. Thanks again for organizing the plane and everything else. I appreciate it.”
Ryan nodded and turned back toward the bedroom. He stopped short of entering and then looked over his shoulder at Ethan. “I know what it’s like to have no family. To have no one but yourself to rely on. But you’re not alone now, Ethan. Whatever we can do…okay?”
Ethan swallowed past the knot in his throat and only nodded his head, not trusting his voice to come out steady. Ryan walked into the bedroom, and Ethan went back to the frustrating agony of trying to fall asleep when it just wouldn’t come.
It was a little over thirty-four hours since he’d gotten the desperate call for help from his sister, and Ethan felt dead on his feet. They’d landed in Casper forty minutes ago, and now he, Lucas, and Ryan were left standing with their luggage outside a large gray shed waiting for their helicopter to arrive. His ex-employers, the Krispins, had organized their travel plans and had promised a chopper waiting for them to take them on to Cody, where Maggie was living. Some kind of FAA issue had forbidden them from landing the jet directly at Cody airport, but the two to three hour drive time should have been considerably reduced, if the chopper had been here on time.
“Hey, I spoke to that head guy again and he said it’s five minutes out. We should hear the sound any minute. Flight time should be under an hour, depending on wind. Not much longer now,” Lucas advised him before he turned from Ethan and once again grabbed his boyfriend’s hand, the two speaking quietly to each other as they waited.
Within moments, Ethan heard the chop chop of the arriving helicopter’s rotors. He looked toward the noise and could make out a dark-colored helicopter approaching from the north. As it came in to land on the helipad, Ethan could see a large gold star, almost like a sheriff’s badge, on the underside and red-and-white stripes on the rotors. The craft itself was dark-blue with “rescue” emblazoned in large, white letters on the side. It was a rescue chopper?
One of the ground crew who’d come out to wave the pilot in called them forward once the chopper was safely down, opening the door to the cabin for them. The three each picked up their bags and ran forward, head down on instinct, toward the waiting helicopter.
There was a single seat behind the cockpit and two seats directly behind that. The stretcher lining the other side confirmed that it was indeed a rescue helicopter. Ethan jumped into the single seat and gave a wave to the watching pilot before clipping his seat belt. In seconds, they were airborne.
Liftoff was completely unlike taking off in a plane. The helicopter rose vertically, tilted its nose down, and suddenly they were racing back the way the chopper had come. The ground crew had given them each a helmet, and through it, Ethan could hear the pilot talking, he assumed, to the tower. It was a whole lot of jargon that made no sense to Ethan, but all he cared about was that he was getting closer and closer to his sister.
He wanted to ask the pilot how long until they arrived in Cody, once he’d stopped speaking to the tower, but he had no idea how to make himself heard through the helmet. He hadn’t glanced toward Ryan and Lucas but suspected they would have been enjoying the flight. Given different circumstances, he would have too.
The view below was magnificent once they’d passed the urban areas, nothing but green trees and lakes. They were just coming into winter, so though it would still be cold, there was no snow around. He wondered how his sister had ended up in this part of the country. It was a far cry from where she’d grown up in New Orleans.
“Jesus Christ, I wish I’d have known it was you.” The pilot’s voice uttered in his ear, and Ethan wondered if he was a Samdom fan. He knew the Krispins would have booked them under aliases, but he also knew Ryan and Lucas were the most famous celebrity couple in the world at the moment, and a couple of fake names wouldn’t keep them from being recognized by anyone who took even a passing glance at the news.
Ethan turned his gaze to gauge the reaction from the two stars, but they were both peering out the window, Lucas pointing out something he’d spotted to Ryan, and they both seemed blissfully unaware of the pilot’s comments.
“They can’t hear me, Ethan. I’m talking to you. What the fuck are you doing here?”
Even if he knew how to answer through the helmet, he couldn’t have because he had no fucking idea who this guy was or what his problem was. He knew he’d garnered plenty of attention in the press lately, too, thanks to the attack on Lucas and his role in the events.
The possibility that this man may have known or been related to one of his brother’s victims slammed into him, and despite being the one who’d put a stop to his brother’s murder spree, he knew it would be difficult for a victim’s friend or loved one to be confronted with the brother of their killer.
“Just talk. Your mic will pick you up, and I’ll be able to hear you. Tell me what the fuck you’re doing here.”
“I…ah…my sister lives in Cody and she called me for help. I’m not sure what’s wrong, but I’m only here to help her, not cause trouble.” He had no way of knowing if he’d been heard, and as the silence stretched on he began to doubt that he had.
Finally, the pilot responded, “I thought you had nothing to do with your family?”
“I haven’t, not for eight years, but Maggie called me and I had to come.”
“Maggie Godfrey? Is that your sister?”
The fact that he didn’t know if that was her name hit him like a sledgehammer. He had no fucking idea if his sister was now Maggie Godfrey. If so, she’d either changed her name to hide her family history, as well, or she’d married.
“I don’t know. I’m not sure what name she goes by now.” Who the fuck was this guy?
“And those two. Why did they come?”
“They’re friends and they came to help if they can.” There was no way Ethan was telling this guy who they were. Chances were he already knew, but he hadn’t indicated that, so Ethan was keeping quiet. The pilot fell silent once again and Ethan let it lay. He really didn’t want to get into an argument with him, but once they landed he’d talk to him. If Maggie was hiding her identity, he didn’t want to ruin it for her. Maybe he could talk this guy into keeping who he was under wraps. Though it was a strong bet he wasn’t the only one in town who watched the news.
Another half hour passed in silence before Ethan heard the pilot’s voice again. The jargon was back so he must have been speaking to the tower wherever they were landing. He could see dwellings below, dotted randomly throughout the landscape. It was so green and rural compared to what he was used to.
“We’re coming in to Cody. There’s a rental car waiting for you guys. Should be another ten minutes and you’ll be on your way.”
Twenty minutes, maybe half an hour at most, and he’d be standing in front of his sister again. He remembered her as a kid, a teenager. She was an adult now and he’d missed it all; he had no idea what kind of woman she’d turned out to be. She’d always been sweet, kind-hearted. Had she lost that to the bitterness of being a Lockard? Surely, her childhood—her innocence—had been pounded out of her with the fall of the judge’s gavel. One brother in jail for murder, the other a pariah because he’d put him there.
The vertical drop of the helicopter was as off-putting as the takeoff. After flying solely in planes, it felt wrong—not scary—just wrong. Another person opened the door for them once they were on the ground while the chopper was powering down. He turned to look back at the pilot once he was out of the craft and saw he was removing his helmet, so hopefully, he’d be out soon. As eager as he was to get to Maggie, before they left he had to speak to this guy to ask for his discretion, for Maggie’s sake, if not his.
Ryan and Lucas had their bags and wandered toward the only building in sight, but Ethan stayed where he was at the side of the helicopter, waiting. The door to the cockpit finally opened, and Ethan watched as the pilot ducked to step out.
When the pilot moved away from the door, he stopped in front of Ethan and stood at his full height—he was a big man. Ethan was shocked when he got his first proper view of the man who seemed to dislike him so much.
“Cameron? Fucking hell.”
“Yeah, fucking hell,” Cameron replied and moved to walk away from him. Ethan considered grabbing his arm to stop him, but given the anger he’d felt dripping from the big man, he wasn’t at all sure he wouldn’t end up with a fist to his face for his trouble.
Nevertheless, he followed Cameron toward the building where Lucas and Ryan were waiting because he was determined to get him to promise to keep Maggie’s secret if that’s what she wanted. “Cameron, wait. Please.”
Cameron stopped and Ethan watched his back as he drew in deep breaths, his fists clenching before he turned to face him. “Please? Funny that. I seem to remember my brother asking me over and over again to please get you to come to see him in the hospital. I also remember me asking you over and over to please visit him. So, you know what, Ethan? I’m going to show you the same consideration you showed us and walk the fuck away from you—now, before I fucking do something I might one day regret.”
Jesus, Cameron was fucking pissed, and Ethan couldn’t blame him. He could only imagine how furious Ben must be. He should never have run like he did; he was a fucking coward and he deserved their anger. He watched as Cameron continued walking toward the building.
Back when his actions had sent his brother to jail and broken up his family, Ethan had never been ashamed of himself because he’d always known he’d done the right thing. This time, though, he was ashamed. He should have gone to see Ben in the hospital—even if it had only been to say goodbye and even if that would have hurt like fucking hell.
Ethan was aware he was standing on the helipad, alone, probably looking like a fish out of water as he tried to parse the situation. He bent to pick up his bag and follow Cameron toward the building, but when he saw Cameron stop and quickly flick a look back to him over his shoulder, Ethan didn’t miss the distress on his face. Cameron began hurriedly walking forward now, and Ethan tried to see what had bothered him. He knew Ryan and Lucas were in front of him, but they were blocked by Cameron’s big body and Ethan hoped he wasn’t going to have words with them. They’d both gone to see Ben since he’d woken from his coma. They’d said their goodbyes, and as far as Ethan knew, they’d left on very friendly terms.
It was quiet now that the helicopter had completely powered down, and even from this distance, Ethan could hear quiet chatting coming from Ryan and Lucas. He also had no trouble hearing when Cameron suddenly called out in their direction. “No, fuck, what are you doing here? Let’s go. Now.”
Was he talking to Ryan and Lucas? Surely, he’d known it was them, and why was he so upset to see them?
“Is he really here?” A new voice floated to him, and Ethan’s heart fluttered as his stomach dropped. As if to confirm what Ethan already knew, Ben appeared from behind his brother’s body, his gaze already locked onto Ethan. Fuck, he looked good. And yet, at the same time, he looked wrong.
At the sound of Ben’s voice, Ethan stopped walking and was left standing stationary while his world flipped on its end again. Ben marched past Cameron, avoiding the arm that flung out to try to stop him. He stalked toward Ethan until they were standing inches apart.
This close, Ethan could see the usual lightness in Ben’s eyes had dimmed and the smile he always wore had morphed into a frown. It was wrong. His light caramel hair was longer and far curlier than usual. His body looked even tighter than it had—more buff—if that was possible, because Ben had always been damn fit. In spite of the fog of sadness that hung around him, Ben was the hottest fucking thing Ethan had ever seen.
There was at least four inches difference in height between them, so for Ben to reach up and grab the collar of his shirt, he had to go up on tiptoes. And, when he smacked his lips onto Ethan’s, he had to drag him down into the kiss.
It wasn’t a passionate kiss—it was an angry kiss. It was a “Fuck, I missed you, but I’m so fucking angry with you” kiss. It was their first kiss.
Before Ethan could even think about moving his lips against Ben’s to soften the onslaught, Ben pulled back. He released Ethan’s collar and Ethan couldn’t help wondering what came next. He had his answer when Ben cocked his arm back and unleashed the most brutal right hook Ethan had ever been the unhappy recipient of—and he couldn’t say it was undeserved.