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Damaged Like Us: Chapter 10

FARROW KEENE

SWEAT DRIPPING DOWN MY TEMPLES, I jab a red punching bag and finish my combination with a right hook and hard left kick. 4:23 a.m.

Not even five hours after I radioed security about the raffle, Akara called a mandatory and “emergency” Omega meeting at the Studio gym.

See, I recognize the danger of the raffle, but if I can’t even convince Maximoff to let me drive his Audi, then I highly doubt anyone can convince him to alter a charity event that he’s poured months and months of work and thought into.

And I warned Maximoff that the entire security team would overreact about his Camp-Away changes. He just said, “I’ll speak to the Tri-Force and comply wherever necessary, but the raffle is staying.”

Not many people ever volunteer to speak to all three lead bodyguards at once. Price Kepler of Alpha, Akara Kitsuwon of Omega, and the bane of my career, Thatcher Moretti of Epsilon, are all at the peak of the security hierarchy.

The Tri-Force.

My gaze travels to the closed door; the silver plaque reads: office.

Maximoff has been in there with the Tri-Force for fifteen minutes already. The three leads think they can “further illuminate” the risks to him, but Moffy contemplates too much. Whatever they have to tell him, he’s definitely already considered.

In short, they’re wasting their time.

I peel off my black boxing gloves, my chest rising and falling heavily. Three rows of red boxing bags line the right side of the gym, where I stand. The left houses the boxing ring, racks of weights, and other gym equipment.

There are only five bodyguards in Omega. We’re all young compared to the other Forces, and that’s by design. The Hales, Meadows, and Cobalts hired us on to last a couple decades in this career, not just a couple years. Being closer in age to our clients, it’s more likely we’ll stick around for the long-haul.

While we wait for Akara to leave the office, the four of us squeeze in a workout, but we all slow around the twenty-minute mark.

Oscar tugs off his blue gloves, his damp, curly brown hair hanging over a bandana. “You guys hear that Luna pierced an ‘unmentionable’ place?”

I’m used to news traveling fast within the security team. Bodyguards gossip like family, but we never leak info to the public. Not even accidentally. Everyone’s too careful.

Quinn pauses his sit-ups on his punching bag. “What…like her…?” He gestures to his crotch.

I roll my eyes and unravel my black hand-wraps.

Donnelly tosses his towel over his shoulder. “Her clit? It’s not a big bad word.”

Oscar butts in, “Everyone lay off Quinn—alright, my little bro is young, impressionable, and still has his innocence and virtue; whereas the rest of us have lost our ever-loving minds.”

Quinn chucks his green boxing glove at his older brother, ten years apart in age. “Bro, I can say clit every day easily. Clit, clit, clit, clit

“We get it,” I say, dropping my hand-wraps on the mats.

Quinn scratches his unshaven jaw, sweat built on his golden-brown skin, and a tiny scar sits beneath his eye. Likewise, his nose is a little crooked from a short stint and bad blow in a pro-boxing circuit. Oscar has similar lasting marks. Security jokes that no matter how many punches Oscar and Quinn have taken as pro-boxers in the past, they’ll always be handsome motherfuckers.

“I purposefully censored myself,” Quinn clarifies. “I wasn’t about to mention a teenage girl’s…you know.”

“Clit,” Donnelly says.

“Jelly bean,” Oscar adds.

“Magic button.” Donnelly smirks.

Quinn shakes his head like we’re all the fucked-up ones.

My brows spike. “You’re the one who assumed ‘clitoris piercing’ at the word ‘unmentionable’.” I tilt my head at him. “And weren’t you like a teenager like one year ago?”

Oscar and Donnelly laugh loudly, and Quinn gives me a faint death-glare. He needs to work on his “intimidation” a bit—he’s very green: brand new to security detail, and at twenty, he’s the youngest bodyguard in the whole team. If he screws up, that falls onto Omega’s shoulders, but really, it’ll weigh on mine.

Akara texts me every day:

if Quinn needs anything, help him

check in with Quinn

keep Quinn in the loop

When I left Alpha and joined Omega, Akara told me straight up, “Don’t go rogue on me. I need you to help the new guy.” Because I’m around Quinn as much as Maximoff hangs around Jane.

Which is literally every hour.

Inadvertently, it’s made me Quinn’s unofficial mentor, and I’d never call myself a teacher. I like to do shit on my own.

Oscar should fill this role, but the Oliveira brothers requested to be separated to avoid “family in-fighting”. Probably because they almost stopped talking a few years ago when Oscar trained Quinn as a boxer.

No one ever talks about the old rift. I can barely tell it existed.

Quinn grabs his nearby water bottle. “What’d Luna really pierce then?”

“I think belly button,” Oscar says.

Donnelly hangs onto his punching bag, a colorful tattoo sleeve covering his fair skin. He’s a chestnut haired, blue-eyed shameless twenty-six-year-old from South Philly. “Real or rumor, Farrow?”

“Why would you know?” Quinn asks me like I’ve withheld information from him. Technically, did.

“Because I’m closer to the Hales than all of you combined.” They’re each a 24/7 bodyguard to a Cobalt, and at the end of the day, we’re all partisan to the families we protect. The Hales, Cobalts, and Meadows love one another to the very death, and they’d prefer that we love all three equally too.

But spending day-in, day-out with one specific family, we grow attached.

Oscar reties his bandana. “You’ll see, little bro. Soon you’ll be taking European vacations with Jane and the rest of the Cobalt Empire—while Farrow, here, will be stuck at comic book conventions with the geek squad.”

I smile. “You mean you’ll be trapped on a private jet with seven Cobalts, their mom and dad, and fast-paced banter that’ll give you a permanent migraine thirty-thousand feet in the air.”

Donnelly points his water bottle at me. “Pokin’ at our lion’s den, Farrow, you’re gonna get bit.”

My lips stretch wider, my allegiances always clear. The Hales are known for being welcoming to oddballs and black sheep, very fandom-loving, and all-around laidback and cool. The first day I guarded Lily, she asked me, “What house are you in?”

She meant a Harry Potter house. When I told her I’d never read the books, she bought all seven for me and post-noted her favorite parts.

The Hales are a bunch of dorks. For me, they’re instantly lovable.

But I respect the other two families, too. The Cobalt Empire is the largest, known for their regal poise, intellectual prowess, and fierce commitment to one another. Each Cobalt is prideful and passionately unique, but when push comes to shove, they’ll band together like an army of one.

Quinn asks us, “Where do the Meadows go for family trips?”

“Costa Rica,” we all say together.

Quinn chucks his other glove down the aisle of bags. “Akara is one lucky bastard.”

Bodyguards vie to protect the two Meadows girls. The family of four is wild, adventurous, and they spend more than half the year outdoors. Since Akara protects Sullivan Meadows, the oldest daughter, he’s backpacked around South America, swam with sharks in the Keys, and last summer, he was backstage when she won four Olympic golds for swimming.

Donnelly nods to me. “Real or rumor? You thought I forgot you didn’t answer?”

“Rumor,” I tell him easily, having nothing to hide. The truth is better than letting security make far-fetched assumptions. So I add, “She pierced her tongue herself.”

Oscar rests an elbow on his bag, not at all caught off guard. His features say, I’ve seen everything; I’m unshakable. “Epsilon shouldn’t nark on the kids,” he says. “If she trusted her bodyguard, he could’ve taken her to a piercing shop without her parents knowing.”

“That’s allowed?” Quinn asks, but no one answers that loaded question. Is it allowed? Not really, but the best bodyguards go to the grave for their clients.

will.

I turn to Oscar. “Luna’s eighteenth birthday is in three months. If she wanted, she could’ve waited until November to get a professional to pierce her tongue.”

Oscar cocks his head. “So piercing herself has nothing to do with secrecy?” He raises his arms. “Then why?”

“Because she wanted to.” I notice the office’s doorknob slightly rotating.

Donnelly lowers to the mats and sits against his bag. “I must’ve been about her age when I pierced my cartilage myself.” He wags his fingers. “Four safety pins.”

Oscar swigs his water. “Using yourself as an example, Donnelly, goes on the cons side automatically.”

Donnelly blows him a middle-finger kiss.

Finally, the office door opens, and four men emerge. My gaze instantly hooks onto Maximoff. He stands stoically, assuredly, not shrinking among the Tri-Force’s authoritative presence.

Damn.

The corners of my mouth begin to lift, but they lower at one irritating thought: I’m not leaving with Maximoff. Thatcher and Price said they’d escort Moffy to his townhouse. That way I could be a part of Omega’s meeting.

I’d rather be the one to lead him out.

Maximoff says goodbye to Akara. As Price and Thatcher walk ahead of Moffy towards the gym’s exit, he abnormally hangs back for a second. His forest-greens search the gym.

And then they land on me. He was looking for me.

My smile stretches, and my brows rise knowingly.

He licks his lips and eyes my damp hair and black shirt that suctions to my muscles. He calls out, “Already beat after a five minute workout?”

“Twenty minutes,” I correct, “and never forget, I last longer than you.”

Maximoff touches his heart mockingly and then shoots me a middle finger on his exit. The door thuds closed behind him.

Oscar rests his bodyweight on his bag, still staring at the exit. “Photos don’t even do that guy justice.”

I rub my bottom lip, my piercing cold beneath my thumb. I’ve known Oscar is bi since I met him at Yale. He was a science major, too, only his focus was on kinesiology. So we shared a couple of the same courses, and on Friday nights we went to gay bars together because 1.) Oscar is fun 2.) watching him hit on guys is amusing as shit; no one has simultaneously the best and worst pickup lines.

I read into his words. “You think Moffy’s hot?”

“Everyone thinks Moffy’s hot.” Oscar rotates to me. “It’d be near impossible to find someone who says less than that. You see him. On a scale of one to ten, he’s

“Out of your league,” I say matter-of-factly. Trying not to appear territorial. My muscles contract, almost flexed, but Oscar can’t tell.

“More like, he’s way, way off-limits.”

Maybe.

Akara approaches all four of us, standing well over six feet. “Hey, everyone take seat.”

Oscar and I lower to the mats where Donnelly and Quinn already sit. As soon as we’re on the ground, Oscar sticks his hand into a Doritos bag.

Shit, with Oliveira, he could’ve packed the whole snack aisle in his gym bag. The guy is always hungry.

“First things first, if you plan to recommend your gym buddies as security detail, ask where they’re from. It’s not that hard. Like this, hey, Donnelly.

Hey, boss.”

“Where were you born and raised?”

“South Philly.” He pats his chest. South sounds like sow-philly out of his mouth.

Akara gestures to the Oliveira brothers. “Oscar and Quinn, where were you born and raised?”

“Northeast Philly,” they say with deep pride.

Akara nods to me.

“Northwest Philly, two streets over from you.” We grew up in an affluent neighborhood and attended the same high school. Really, we were acquaintances. We became friends when Akara opened this gym, and I was one of the first to walk through the door.

“See, easy,” Akara says right at Oscar, calling him out. Tri-Force only hires new bodyguards who were born in Philly. They want people on the team who can navigate the city blindfolded.

Oscar raises a hand. “I thought Reynolds was from here. He had that annoying South Philly lilt, sounded like Donnelly trying to order breakfast at Lucky’s Diner—kept saying beggles and wooder.

We all laugh.

Most everyone has a mild to no dialect, but the South Philly guys carry a much thicker Philly accent.

“Again,” Akara smiles, “just ask where they’re from. Saves me time.” He finally takes a seat on the mats and closes the circle. Looking around to each of us, his lips fall in a serious line. “You’re going to hate what I have to say about the charity event, but you get a grand total of five fucking minutes to complain. Then you’re done. I don’t want to hear anyone whining over the coms for the next three months. Don’t be that guy.”

Quinn nods repeatedly. Akara should’ve been his mentor.

I hang my arm casually on my knee. “Too bad Oscar’s already that guy.”

“Get back to me when you’ve been assigned to Charlie Cobalt. You’d start bitching if your client chose to experiment with hallucinogenics at a metal concert, and not even a day later, he takes an eighteen-hour flight to volunteer for the Red Cross on another continent. I’ve never even seen him tired or even yawn.”

“I’m sure he’s grown tired of you, Oliveira,” say.

Everyone laughs again.

Quinn nods to his older brother. “You shouldn’t bitch about your client to Jo. All yesterday, she said I can protect Charlie better than Oscar.”

Oscar sighs in annoyance. Their younger sister Joana isn’t a part of security, and I’ve only met her once or twice around the gym. She just started boxing professionally this year, and the Oliveira brothers don’t want her to quit.

For as much as Oscar complains, there’s no one that could do his job.

Many have tried. He’s tactically strategic, and the perfect fit for Charlie Cobalt. It’s why he’s been on his detail for three years and counting.

Akara snaps his fingers to his palm. “You all ready for the news?”

Donnelly nods. “Lay it on us.”

Akara starts, “Moffy was really clear that he’s not allowing any of his siblings or cousins under eighteen to attend.”

“Epsilon is out,” Oscar says since SFE protects the young kids.

Akara shakes his head and pushes back his black hair. “Most of them will be at the event for extra security.”

I stretch out my legs and bare feet, my muscles cramped. We’ve never needed extra security for the Camp-Away, and that fact hoists dead silence in the air.

“We asked Moffy for more than seven days to background check the attendees. Which means that he’d have to close the raffle more than a week before the event,” Akara mentions the largest point of contention for security. “Moffy agreed to give us more time, but he printed out twelve pages of stats that Jane had calculated.”

I shake my head, my smiling forming. Wolf scout. I know what he did before Akara explains the rest.

“He predicted the profit loss for every extra week that we’d hypothetically close the raffle early. If we were to take fourteen days to background check the attendees, the event would lose about ten million.”

That’s not a little sum of money.

“Their lives are priceless,” Donnelly says. “Did you tell them that?”

“I did,” Akara says to all of us, “but you know Moffy.”

“He’s stubborn,” Oscar says.

“Selfless,” I add. “H.M.C. Philanthropies helps people.”

Quinn’s brows knit together. “Don’t the families just contribute their wealth to the foundation? Raising more money is chump change in comparison. He could even cancel the event and it’d be fine

“No,” the rest of us say in unison.

Akara leans towards Quinn. “All of the H.M.C. money is allocated to four areas: education, environment, LGBTQ issues, and mental health. Within those categories, Moffy built specific programs and initiatives, and not every one is given the same sum. Some programs rely completely on these events.”

“Like the Camp-Away,” I chime in. “All of the earnings go to One More Day.” Everyone knows the program Maximoff created. One More Day provides aid to low-income individuals in need of addiction rehab.

Oscar swishes his water. “Do we really want to deny people-in-need ten million? Just to have an extra week to weed out the hecklers, glitter-and-flour-bombers—possible murderers and rapists?”

Donnelly wants the extra week to ensure everyone’s safety, but I’m ready to tackle “murderers” and “rapists” every day, every hour.

“Tri-Force already made a decision,” Akara says, “and we agreed to Moffy’s terms. Seven days for a background check.”

Donnelly groans.

Oscar curses.

Quinn falls into deep contemplation.

I’m smiling.

Akara leans back on his hands. “It’s not the end of the fucking world. Any threats that get into the event, we’ll detect and isolate there. The Hales, Cobalts, and Meadows trust us for a reason. We make few mistakes, and we never fail.”

Before they talked to Maximoff, the Tri-Force was adamant about changing the raffle. Now they’re gleefully content with his plans.

The guy has a way with people. I’m so impressed, my cock actually pulses.


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