NOVEL: The Panic Pure, by Harper Kingsley [mm suspense] – Chapter Fourteen

Title: The Panic Pure
Author: Harper Kingsley
Genre: mm suspense thriller
Rating: mature

Summary: Daniel Worth, billionaire and CEO of Worth Enterprises is questioned by FBI agent Marshal Newman about the disappearance of one of his employees. They strike up a conversation and soon are regularly meeting and begin dating. However neither realizes just how close danger is lurking.


CHAPTER FOURTEEN

Some part of him had insisted that having Marshal move in would be a disaster. There would be fighting and despair and he would run away to join Arthur in the guesthouse. Everything would degenerate into something from a soap opera and he would get the crazy idea of wanting someone in his life out of his system once and for all. He would settle into the idea of being a lonely hermit and it would be fine.

Danny was happy to be proven wrong. He couldn’t help feeling a touch grateful that he’d met Marshal. He didn’t think there was anyone else that could have fit so perfectly into his world as Marshal had.

It almost made him start believing in predestination. He and Marshal had always been meant to meet and fall for each other. They slotted into each other’s lives so easily that Danny barely even noticed the changes that appeared in his routine. It was strangely natural.

The first week passed with admirable smoothness as everything clicked together. And he was happy.

“What’s with that smile?”

Danny twitched and sat up straight, trying to school his face into blankness. Arthur didn’t seem to buy it from his raised eyebrows in the rearview mirror.

“Seriously, you’ve been acting strange. Should I be concerned?” The car wasn’t moving, but Arthur was keeping his attention on the road ahead. He was a quick, but careful driver; never letting his attention waver.

“Everything’s fine,” Danny said. “I was just thinking how strangely easy it was to fit Marshal into my life.”

Arthur’s lips in the mirror curved at the corners and his eyes scrunched up slightly. “That’s the way it always is. People fit themselves around each other all the time. We’re puzzle pieces all trying to find our other halves. And you’ve found your match. Too bad he’s a cop.”

“Hey, haven’t you ever seen Men In Tights? ‘I always wanted to marry a cop.'”

“So wait, you’re already talking about marrying this guy? Man, you’re quick,” Arthur teased.

“Shut up!” Danny couldn’t help laughing. It felt good to have a relationship to talk about. Always before he had been the one listening to Arthur wax poetic or watching events from a distance.

It was actually rather startling how romantic Arthur could be. He always had women falling over themselves around him, and he was polite to every single one. Danny didn’t think there was anyone that honestly could say anything bad about Arthur, not even those he sharked on as a lawyer.

“So he’s making you happy? I don’t have to beat him up?” Arthur asked.

Danny shook his head. “Not this week. He’s fit into my life surprisingly seamlessly. I think this is going to work.”

The car moved forward a few lengths. “Do you know why having Marshal in your life is going so well? It’s because you’re actually willing to let someone in. You’re open to the idea of letting yourself be happy. I’m really proud of you.”

Danny felt his cheeks going hot and ducked his head. A pleased smile tugged at his lips. “Thank you.”

Arthur turned his head to give him a quick smile. “You don’t know, but you’re seriously my hero.”

“That’s funny,” Danny said, “because you’ve always been the one I look up to.”

“See, I’m going to have to give Marshal a giant thank you. He’s turned your feelings on and revealed that secretly you’re a marshmallow inside.”

Danny snorted. “Thank you, I guess.”

Arthur laughed and changed the subject. Danny let him.

 

There was definitely something going on. Both Arthur and Sophia were acting very out of character. It made him wonder if they’d finally realized the chemistry between them and gotten together.

If they ever paused for a moment, he was sure they would realize how great they would be together. They would be such a perfect couple: powerful, a little scary, and stunning in photographs. The kind of couple that other people couldn’t help admiring.

He watched them covertly and didn’t say anything. They would let him know if whatever they were whispering about in corners was something he needed to be involved in. Until then, he was happy dreaming about Marshal and their improbably happy home together. He had never felt so domestic before, and he really liked it.

Danny paused his happy humming when he flipped open a red folder that had appeared on his stack of paperwork. Columns of numbers looked back at him, four pages worth, then at least a dozen more pages of tiny block script that had been badly Xeroxed.

He pressed the intercom button. “Sophia, what is this?”

The door opened and Sophia stuck her head in. “What is what, sir?” she asked. Her hair was in a no-nonsense up-do today and there was something startlingly militaristic about the cut of her plum colored jacket.

Danny lifted the folder and waved it lazily in the air. “This. What exactly is this and who did it come from?”

A faint frown tugged at her lips. “That’s strange. I went over everything addressed to you, and I don’t remember seeing that.”

“Hm.” Danny looked at the folder, half-tempted to see what it was about. Yet some quiet inner voice was squealing a warning and he had so much else to get through before he could go home. There was no point borrowing a headache.

He held out the file. “Find out what this is and handle it.”

“Yes, sir.” He noticed she was wearing dark green nail polish tipped with plum when she took the folder. “I don’t know how this could have gotten on your desk,” she sounded puzzled and a little indignant. Someone had breached the security of her office to reach the inner sanctum.

Danny smiled. “Don’t worry about it so much.”

“It won’t happen again,” she promised. Her heels made no sound on the carpet, but in his mind he imagined an authoritative click-clack following her across the room.

Danny shook his head and went back to his paperwork. The sooner he was done, the better.

* * *

= THE SPACES IN-BETWEEN =

Worry churned in her belly, but Sophia didn’t let anything show on her face. She maintained her cool facade until after she’d delivered Mr. Worth’s lunch and had been released for her break.

Arthur looked momentarily surprised to see her waiting in his office when he came back from an errand, but he rarely let anything throw him.

“What’s up?” he asked.

Wordlessly she held out the file folder.

He quirked a brow, but flipped through it. His mouth pulled tight. “What the hell is this? Where did it come from?”

She shrugged one shoulder. “It was on his desk this morning. It definitely didn’t pass through my office.”

“Are you thinking some kind of mole?”

“I have no idea, though this could be real trouble,” she said.

“Real trouble. This is more than real trouble. It could be a disaster. Get the security tape and find out everyone that’s been in and out of his office,” he said. “I’ll do the questioning.”

There was something vicious in his tone. Sophia gave him a sharp glance. “Please don’t do anything too extreme until you’re certain you have the right person. I don’t think Mr. Worth will be too enthused about visiting you in prison.”

Arthur barked a laugh. “Could you just imagine?”

“He would come visit you,” Sophia said. There was history between Arthur and Mr. Worth, years and years of it. More than she would ever consider getting in the way of.

“I’ll speak to security,” she said, rising from the improbably comfortable visitor chair. He used it to lull people into a false sense of safety before springing the trap closed.

Arthur Conway had a reputation for ruthlessness. To the world at large he was Daniel Worth’s pet attack dog.

More than one would-be corporate raider had found himself skewered by Arthur. There had been no pity or remorse as Arthur had done the dirty work and completely ruined Mr. Worth’s enemies.

Sophia had even helped on occasion.

“We’ll handle this,” she said.

Arthur smiled. “Of course we will. This and any other attack anyone wants to make on Danny or Worth Enterprises. We’ll handle it all. That’s what we’re here for.”

* * *

They were eating their breakfast before heading off to their respective jobs. It was like something out of a storybook, or a memory of something he’d lost a long time ago with his parents.

“So, tomorrow’s Saturday and the weather’s supposed to be great,” Marshal said. “What do you think about barbecuing?”

“There’s a grill. Arthur likes to break it out during the summer.”

Marshal smiled. “Cool. I’ll pick up some steaks on the way home from work today. I’ll make my special marinade. It will make you weep from the deliciousness.”

Danny raised his eyebrows. “The deliciousness?”

“Deliciousness,” Marshal emphasized, waggling his eyebrows. “Your mind will be completely blown by the awesome of my marinade.”

“Can you pick up enough for Arthur too?” Danny asked.

“Of course.” Marshal speared a chunk of honeydew melon and popped it in his mouth, chewing quickly. “Do you mind if I invite my buddy Hamilton? You can say no if the idea makes you uncomfortable.”

It was obvious that Marshal was worried about doing something to make Danny freak out. On one hand it was sweet that he cared that much, but on the other it made Danny wish that he could do better. It wasn’t fair that Marshal had to put up with all of his mental hangups and was afraid of making a mistake that would send Danny over the edge.

“You don’t have to be worried about bringing your friend around,” Danny said. “It will be nice to meet him.” Terrifying. “We can share stories about you.”

“Uh oh, maybe I should be worried?” Marshal teased. He cocked his head and the curve of his lips made Danny feel as though he’d done the right thing.

“Did you do anything that you have to worry about?”

Marshal shrugged. “I spent a lot of my college years partying. How am I supposed to know what I might have blacked out about?”

“So what you’re saying is that there are tons of interesting stories about you out there waiting to be dug up on the Internet?”

“Maybe.” Marshal filled his mouth with melon.

Danny smiled to himself. The idea of a stranger being in his house was still disturbing, but he was willing to put up with it as long as it made Marshal happy.

He stuck a spoonful of yogurt in his mouth and made a mental note to ask Arthur to make sure the grill was ready to be used. They were going to be barbecuing.

* * *

It was ridiculous to be so grateful about such a little thing, but he knew that it had been a hard decision for Danny. To allow a guest–a stranger–into his house he’d had to go far outside of his comfort zone, yet he’d done it.

Marshal took it as proof that Danny loved him and ended up wearing a smile all day. He didn’t even have it in him to care when Joanna brought out the mockery. Instead he tried to appear as smug as possible to rub her nose in his newfound domestic bliss.

From the pink eraser she bounced off his forehead, he figured he’d won. And his smile just got bigger and more ridiculous until by the time he barged into Hamilton’s office his cheeks felt stretched.

“Well hello, Mr. Joker. If you’re looking for the Batman he’s currently in a comic book.” Hamilton only took a single look at him before going back to his computer screen. “What can I do for you this time?”

“Come to our barbecue tomorrow,” Marshal said.

“At the billionaire’s house?”

“Don’t make him sound like he’s going to get marooned on an island, but yes.” Marshal smiled as winsomely as possible. “It will be at Danny’s house and I’m totally proud of him for saying you could come over. So you have to come or I’ll end up looking like a complete tool.”

Hamilton propped his chin on his clasped hands. “Well, we can’t have you look like a tool. I’ll be there.”

“Awesome.”

Marshal went back to his day with an even bigger grin. He really wanted to show Danny off to Hamilton, and then to everyone else in the world because Danny was awesome.

“Awesome to the max!” he crowed to a startled Joanna before he left for the night.

* * *

It was oddly beautiful to be able to fall so deeply, instantly in love. From the time he was little it was his most cherished skill and one he was never going to relinquish.

Because it let him find his perfect match over and over and over again. That burning star he wanted to swallow whole and digest into himself, like fireflies dancing against the drum pressed skin of a frog’s belly, sputtering and gasping for air. And it was always new and special to him. Every. Single. Time.

He’d kept track of the updates about his obsession, but for all he knew it could be weeks or even months before he had his new precious in his possession. So until that happened, he had to settle for other loves, other tastes, other joys. The little pleasures he gave only to himself.

Like his beautiful dancing girl, who screamed so pretty and let a never-ending trickle of tears escape her china blue eyes.

He saved them in a jar. Just to look at for a little while. He wasn’t stupid; he knew there were some trophies it wouldn’t be smart to keep.

It was just that the eyes reminded him of Daniel. Shiny and improbably blue, all promises of things to come.

* * *

The sun was shining and it was warm enough for short sleeves. There were platters of meat waiting to be added to the grill and Olivia had gone all out with different salads. It was a great day for a barbecue.

“There no way we can eat all this.” Marshal was standing with his hands on his hips like a confused superhero.

“It’s okay,” Danny said. “You’re just cooking it. I thought the staff might enjoy eating too.”

Marshal looked around their private patio. “Well, where are they then?”

“They’re having their own party in the carriage house.” Which was really just an old fashioned name for the building the staff used to hang out and relax in between taking care of him. He’d had it added just so they had a place to escape on their breaks. “I think they’re watching some kind of sports thing on pay-per-view. Venezuelan MMA or something.”

Marshal raised his eyebrows. “Wow, I wouldn’t think a bunch of women would be into that.”

“What, a bunch of sweaty shirtless men pounding each other into the mat? Why wouldn’t they watch it?” Arthur was ridiculously cheery and was wearing a floppy blue driving hat on his head. He looked like he should be in a British romantic comedy, driving up some winding driveway.

“Ah, Wooster, there you are.” Danny grinned.

“I would think I’d be Jeeves at least.”

“Not in that hat.” Danny ducked away from the look Arthur leveled at him and couldn’t stop grinning.

The sun was shining and he was happy. It was like a miracle.

Then the French doors opened and Beatrice led out a man Danny didn’t know. He could feel himself trying to shut up tight, but he fought it. This was Marshal’s friend and more than anything Danny wanted to make a good impression.

“Hamilton!” Marshal slapped the man on the back. “Danny, this is Hamilton Assanti. Hammy, this is Daniel Worth. My boyfriend.”

Danny couldn’t help the way his breath caught. He’d never been described as someone’s boyfriend before. He didn’t even care that it made them sound juvenile.

Marshal had publicly claimed him.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Danny got out, and was actually a little impressed with himself. He was starting to think that he could do this. Everything was going to be all right.

He caught Marshal’s smile and it made him feel as if he could do no wrong.

The world was a beautiful place at the moment.

* * *

= THE SPACES IN-BETWEEN =

It was strange and a little awkward to watch Danny meet someone new, but Arthur was pleased by how well it was going. To see Danny actually trying to socialize, it was a good sign.

Marshal was good for Danny, good for them all. It gave Arthur hope that someday the shadows would leave Danny’s eyes and he would be able to live a life worth living.

Marshal was running the grill and drinking a canned soda. He was wearing jeans and a tee shirt with a black apron over the top that had ties that trailed long behind his back. As Arthur watched, Danny tugged Marshal to the side and retied the apron after looping the strings around Marshal’s waist once to cut down the length. There was a smile on Danny’s face, secret and small but painfully real.

“You really care about him.”

Arthur jerked in surprise and turned to find Hamilton standing next to him. “He’s my best friend. It’s my job to make sure he’s happy and no one’s using him for nefarious purposes.”

There was an amused quirk to Hamilton’s lips. “That’s how I feel about Marshal. He’s been my friend for a long time. I’ve never seen him fall for anyone so fast.”

“Danny has that effect,” Arthur said, and it was true. There was something in Danny that evoked strong feelings in people, both positive and negative. He wasn’t someone to be ignored.

“So, you’re a chauffeur?”

Arthur decided to take pity on Hamilton’s search for a topic of conversation. “Yes I am. I’m also a lawyer or anything else Danny needs. My job is to run his life.”

“So basically you’re the Alfred to his Batman.” One side of Hamilton’s mouth quirked up as he joked.

“Exactly.” Arthur could appreciate a good comic book reference, especially coming from someone in a sweater vest and tie.

He straightened his back and put on his most correct manners. The accent when he spoke tried to be British, but sounded more Scottish. “I’ve been taking care of Master Worth since he was a boy.”

“Well, it looks like you’ve done a good job with him. At least, that’s what Marshal seems to think,” Hamilton said.

Arthur grunted agreement, his thoughts drifting. It was only after he’d said it that he’d realized he really had been taking care of Danny since they were boys. Because Danny’s parents had been brutally murdered and there was no one else to take care of him. Certainly not Lauren.

“I didn’t mean to ruin your mood.” Hamilton was regretful.

Arthur shook his head. “It’s not your fault. I did it to myself just thinking.”

“Thinking what?”

For a second Arthur considered being irritated at Hamilton for being nosy, but he couldn’t blame him when he’d started the train of thought. There must have been some part of Arthur that was desperate to speak to someone, especially with the reappearance of Lauren Green.

“Have you ever met someone completely evil?” Arthur asked.

Hamilton looked surprised at the question, then he turned thoughtful. “I do believe that some people are evil. They’re the ones we can’t leave walking around because they’re a danger to themselves and especially to others.”

Arthur checked to make sure Danny was far out of hearing range. “There was this horrible woman that was supposed to leave the state forever, but it looks like she decided to return on her own.”

Hamilton looked intrigued. “Let’s talk over here,” he said.

Wondering if he was betraying Danny’s trust, Arthur followed the man.

He’d done all he could. It was time to bring in law enforcement.

* * *

When Danny had thought about a stranger in his house, his mind had created all these negative images. Terrible things were going to happen and it would be a nightmare experience and he would have a panic attack and it would be awful.

Instead it had been very nice. Arthur was there and Marshal was a calming presence at his side. Danny hadn’t been left alone with a stranger and he hadn’t humiliated himself and it had been fine. It actually made him wonder if he would be able to do other social things as long as Marshal was there.

By the time everyone was gone and he had changed into his pajamas, he couldn’t resist a pleased smile. “That was actually fun.”

Marshal had already climbed into bed. He’d folded the blanket back and waved Danny over. “I’m glad you enjoyed yourself. The food was amazing. Remind me to get Olivia a nice gift. She’s spoiled me with her cooking.”

Danny slipped under the covers and somewhat shyly slid close against Marshal’s side. He wasn’t anywhere ready for anything more intimate, but he was beginning to think that someday he would be.

There was something about Marshal that made him feel brave. He no longer walked through life with shoulders slumped; he looked at vast possibilities.

“And that’s all thanks to you,” he murmured.

“What?” Marshal asked.

“Nothing,” Danny said. “I’m tired. Today was a good day.”

There was the press of lips against the top of his head. “It really was.”

/CHAPTER