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Damaged Like Us: Chapter 20

FARROW KEENE

“WORK WITH ME HERE, FARROW,” Akara says over my phone that I placed in the cup holder of the Audi. Set to speaker while Maximoff speeds about twenty-five over to a gentleman & lady’s charity golf tournament. “All of your daily logs are empty after 7:00 p.m.”

Maximoff shoots me a narrowed look.

I mouth, it’s okay. I’d touch him, his hand or his shoulder, but I keep a close eye on two silver SUVs that ride our bumper. I’m not sure if they have far-range camera lenses, but if one even briefly catches us in a slight embrace, we’re done.

I like him too much to risk everything now just to hold hands, especially when I can grip his cock later tonight.

“I just don’t see the issue,” I tell Akara. “When I was on Lily’s security detail, I always left gaps in the daily logs. If Alpha’s not used to that by now, then that’s their fucking problem. Not yours.”

My “maverick” tendencies make sneaking around with Maximoff easier. Where did your client go from 7:00 p.m. to midnight? Blank.

No one’s business but ours.

“Forget Alpha,” Akara growls, switching between “boss” and “friend” too well. “This is me talking to you right now, and I’m telling you that I have two bodyguards on my Force not filling out their logs. Did I not specifically remind you that Quinn would pick up your habits?”

An annoyed noise sticks to my throat. I didn’t notice he was copying me. I don’t actively check everyone else’s logs. It’s a waste of time. “Man, it could be a good thing,” I say, fixing my earpiece as muffled sound filters through. “He’s learning from one of the best.”

One of you is enough,” Akara says definitively. “We can’t have two on the team.”

“Let me talk to Quinn.”

“No,” Akara says. “Start filling out your logs. I don’t care if you write one or two sentences, just show Quinn that it’s a requirement. And hey, if you’re still relenting, look down. Read your ankle.”

I roll my eyes. I got a small script tattoo when I was twenty-one. Akara was with me. The ink on my ankle says: live by your actions. “Aye, aye captain.”

He hangs up first.

Maximoff switches lanes and checks over his shoulder. “Now what’s the plan? Fake a log entry? Flee the coast, fly to outerspace?” He barely looks my way; the two paparazzi SUVs have multiplied into four. “Maybe we can build a colony on Mars,” he says, sarcastic. “Eat nothing but potatoes for the rest of our lives.”

“You’re referencing a movie I’ve never seen. Aren’t you?”

The corner of his mouth rises. But not for long. Real concerns lie beneath his dry wit, and I’m not letting them fester.

“I’ll be vague in my log,” I explain, chatter growing louder in my right ear. I pull the earpiece out and increase the radio’s volume. “It’s very far from a grim, dark reality, so stop packing your survival kits and just trust me.”

He’s used to tapping into “damage control” mode. But he needs to breathe and not jump the gun here. We’re just at the start of a marathon of secrecy.

Maximoff tries to turn his head to me, but he has to fixate on the paparazzi’s vehicles that swarm him. “You know that I trust you more than I’d trust anyone else. We’ve been on the same page about all of this: the no texting, no emails, even being careful with street cameras…and that’s meant—it’s meant a lot to me.”

My chest inflates as my mouth pulls in a wide smile. “I’m glad you feel safe with me.”

He makes a face. “Is that what said?”

“In so many words, yeah.”

He can’t restrain his own smile, but then his lips downturn fast. His hands tighten on the steering wheel, and we go quiet as a blue sedan whips into the nearby lane. I spot the camera before the window even rolls down.

Maximoff accelerates.

I rotate and observe the SUV on our ass. From their front windshield, they point cameras at the Audi’s rear window. I silently count four…five, six and now seven vehicles on the road. For the sole purpose of obtaining money-shots of Maximoff Hale.

“Get off 95.”

“Not yet.” Maximoff cuts off the blue sedan and weaves skillfully in and out of the scattered freeway traffic. Frenzied excitement blares through my earpiece’s speaker, filling our concentrated silence.

Cobalt Empire all together,” Oscar says.

Dream team,” Donnelly sing-songs.

The band is about to start,” Heidi, Eliot Cobalt’s bodyguard whispers into the mic. She’s on Epsilon, but Heidi is the only female bodyguard in the whole team. In her early fifties, she’s been with the Cobalts since Jane was born.

Maximoff switches lanes again, and he must feel somewhat comfortable because he asks, “Wish you were there?”

My brows spike. “Do you mean with the ‘Cobalt Empire’ or watching Tom Cobalt and his band perform live publicly for the first time?”

Either.”

I keep surveillance of the speeding paparazzi SUVs. And I remember when Maximoff’s seventeen-year-old cousin put together a three-person punk band when he was fourteen. Tom is the lead singer.

“I wasn’t one of the bodyguards who saw Tom learn to play guitar. I didn’t see him choose a band name or give my input.” I roll my eyes because Oscar of all security members suggested the name The Carraways, a play off his middle name Tom Carraway Cobalt.

Tom chose The Carraways.

“And I didn’t watch his rehearsals or listen to him rework songs.” I crane my neck over my shoulder. I hate that SUV on our ass. “Seeing him live at a small venue doesn’t mean that much to me.”

Three, two,” Donnelly whispers, “…one.”

Tom’s deep, passionate voice and the fury of guitar, drums, and bass seep through the mic-line. I bet all nine Cobalt bodyguards are pressing their mic buttons so the rest of the security team can listen.

Maximoff smiles throughout the emo-punk song. “Tom.” He shakes his head and then finds a moment to glance at me. “He was only ten when I finally told everyone that I liked girls and guys, and I didn’t think it’d matter to him. But I stood in front of my family at Christmas, presents half-unwrapped, with goddamn Jack Frost playing in the background—and when everyone started hugging me and smiling, I looked over and Tom was crying.”

His eyes reddened, Adam’s apple bobbing.

My chest is taut with emotion. “He was happy.”

“So goddamn happy.” Maximoff blinks back water that wells. “Tom knew he was gay…for as long as can remember, and I’m five years older than him. And when I knelt in front of him and hugged him—I felt guilty.” He cringes. “For not telling him sooner. I pretty much knew I was attracted to guys by thirteen. That’s two years where I could’ve told him.”

I extend my arm over the back of his seat, acting like I’m using the seat to check behind us. I just want to be closer to Maximoff. “It’s admirable how much you care,” I say, “but he’s lucky he has you at all.” Warmly, I add, “Your compassion is showing.”

He tries to hold my gaze, but he can’t. Not with the paparazzi threatening to run him off the road. “Do you like compassionate guys?”

“I like you,” I say without beat.

He licks his lips, neck reddening. He liked that. I lean back, keeping my arm on the seat.

Maximoff glances at me. “When did you come out to your dad?”

“I was eleven,” I tell him easily, “and my father asked me if there were any girls I liked at school. I said there were boys.” I almost laugh at the memory. “I can still see the shock on his face, especially as I confidently said I’m gay, but after the initial surprise died down, he just started asking me about my crush. I came out at school around the same time.”

He listens carefully. “I remember you said something about how you weren’t that confused about it.”

That was a brief conversation we had years ago when he was sixteen. Both of us at a Fourth of July party his family hosted. I’m surprised he remembered.

“Yeah,” I say. “I could tell for sure when I was nine. I was at a mall, and I was attracted to the male underwear models in the poster ads. Eighteen years later, and I still have great taste.” I raise my brows at him.

Maximoff smiles. “Did you just call me hot?”

“I was definitely complimenting myself there.”

He’s about to flip me off, but the traffic steals his attention. And then The Carraways’ first song ends and chatter returns.

I’ve been reborn,” Donnelly says.

Hold me,” another bodyguard chimes in.

Pass the tissues.”

He fucking did it.”

Damn, look how good he was,” Quinn adds.

Our kid is all grown up,” Oscar says, choked up. “Shit.

Maximoff has widened eyes, a bit stunned at all of their reactions.

“You didn’t realize,” I say, “your achievements are basically ours.” Our lives are dedicated to these families, and when they succeed, there will always be a part of us that feels like we succeeded too.

He accelerates again. “Since you’re not on a Cobalt’s detail, what’s your equivalent of this moment?”

I think for a short second. “The time when Luna learned to drive car.”

Maximoff nods in realization. “My mom taught my sister, so that means…”

“I was in the car, too.” I notice the blue sedan the same time as Maximoff. He tenses, and we’re silent. I turn off the radio so he can concentrate.

The sedan flanks our left side, and two white SUVs are on our right, one on the bumper. Maximoff is a rigid board. Constantly eyeing his rearview mirror.

“Did you know,” he says, “that my dad banned me from teaching Luna how to drive?”

“Yeah, and I agreed. Case in point.” I stretch towards him and read the speedometer. “One-hundred-and-ten.” I hang onto his seat and lay on his horn.

The sedan eases back, but the SUVs only squeeze closer.

“You should get off 95 now.”

He tries to veer towards an exit, but paparazzi purposefully trap him. “Sit back, Farrow.”

Not even a second later, all of the SUVs and sedans and every paparazzi vehicle disperses in a mad dash. Abruptly freeing us.

Fuck,” he growls, knowing the cause.

Blue and red lights flicker in our rear. We’re being pulled over by police.


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