Oh, my God. Jeff Paxton clenched his fists. Nigel Gasp was suicidal, certifiably insane, or both.
“This is awesome.” The hyperactive rock star called from high above Jeff, who watched his indoor climb. When Nigel kept on past the halfway point of the highest, most treacherous wall, Jeff frowned.
“Look at me, Jeff,” Gasp commanded. “Your sister would kill me if she saw this.”
She sure as hell would. She’d kill both of them. It was hard enough keeping up with Nigel’s endless demands. But his restless energy? His desperate need to take everything to the limit? No way. Jeff had come up with the climbing idea hoping physical exertion would help Nigel find his happy place. So far, the idea was without merit.
Far from solving the problem, the trip to the climbing wall had created all kinds of new problems for the staff and the trainers. Nigel pushed higher and higher, and it was bound to go badly unless he’d had a ton of experience. Jeff just didn’t know if he did.
“Have you ever climbed before?” he called out.
“Once or twice.” Nigel’s instantly recognizable voice and the hand gesture that went with it was irritating, but then he’d smile and laugh and Jeff would feel the pull again, like a whisper of fingers over his skin, and he had to tamp down his absurd attraction.
It had been a long time since he was a kid, alone in his room, holding a picture of Nigel Gasp in one hand and his cock in the other. He was a grown fucking man, and Nigel…he was on the cusp of forty. Unfortunately Nigel had lost none of his appeal. If anything, up close and personal, he was hotter than ever. He’d hardly aged, and there was something indefinable, something charismatic and compelling about the mature Nigel Gasp that drew Jeff in like it drew in the entire world. Just watching his muscles flex under tight climbing shorts and a faded Rolling Stones T-shirt made Jeff’s mouth go dry.
The way he moved from handhold to handhold, fingers flexing, toes gripping. His smile and the bark of arrogant laughter that accompanied a tough maneuver made Jeff’s knees weak.
Nigel had a trainer on the wall with him and a belayer on the ground. Jeff knew no one would let him fall, but he wasn’t sure Nigel was experienced enough to take the more advanced wall without getting banged up.
“How many times have you done this, Nigel?” Jesus, Nigel is really up there. Dee hadn’t said anything about him being a climber.
“Never.” Nigel’s laughter was as musical as everything else about him, but Jeff ignored the surge of pleasure the sound produced in his gut. He’d never understood the words love/hate relationship until he’d taken this job. He was gone, gone, gone in lust with a man whose personality made him want to scream.
“Gasp!” barked the trainer. “Focus.” Nigel’s belayer checked his lines and braced himself.
“Right. All focused.” Nigel looked down and waved wildly.
“Focus on the wall, Gasp.”
“Watch what you’re doing.”
Nigel’s light laughter floated over the ambient noise. “You watch what I’m doing. That’s what you’re paid for.”
“Gasp.” The trainer barked again.
“Fuck this.” Nigel kicked away from the wall, hurling his body into midair as if he were an actor in a wire-fu movie.
“Fucking fuck, fuck.” The gym’s owner, who stood on the other end of Nigel’s safety gear, had to scramble to keep from getting yanked all to hell by Nigel’s weight. “Watch yourself, you moron!”
The little monster got what he deserved after that, flipping upside down and smashing headfirst against the climbing wall. If he hadn’t been wearing a helmet, he’d probably have a concussion. As it was, Jeff fought a surge of nausea at the thought of what his sister would do to him if the incorrigible nitwit broke his neck on Jeff’s watch.
Never mind, Dee. I’ll kill myself if Nigel gets hurt on my watch.
“That’s it, Gasp. Get off my fucking wall and out of my gym. Change and leave.” The belayer’s face had turned an alarming shade of red.
Nigel and his trainer hissed at each other as they descended—or rather, Nigel hissed and his trainer heatedly told him that if he came there to climb again, he’d be shot on sight.
Nigel passed Jeff on the way back to the locker room with a smirk on his face but wouldn’t look him in the eye. The trainer, a rough-hewn, rock block of a man, shook his head briefly and said, “I don’t know about you, but I’d keep Mr. Gasp away from heights. That man wants to die.”
“I’m sorry.” Jeff watched Nigel stomp away and slam the door like a child.
“He’s the one that should be sorry. He was messing around up there as if he couldn’t care less what happens to him. If he keeps that shit up, he’ll take someone out with him.”
“I don’t want it to be you, brother. Do you copy? Find him a safer hobby.”
Jeff let Nigel clean himself up and change in peace. There was no talking to him when he was like that, half-penitent, half-delighted to have caused chaos.
Jeff waited for him to come out and then followed him to the car. He didn’t expect an apology, but it might have been nice to hear one. Nigel said nothing as he got into the backseat. Jeff got in the front passenger seat as Nigel’s driver, Amil, put down the magazine he was reading and started the Range Rover’s engine. They drove back to Bluebird Mountain Resort in the same tense silence that had become their norm.
* * * *
It wasn’t fair.
Jeff couldn’t complain to Deidre without sounding like an idiot, but it simply wasn’t fair. He’d reached rock bottom in Afghanistan on his third deployment. He’d been lonely, isolated, and depressed. He’d gotten into some trouble. Then he’d found out his mother’d had a mild heart attack and surgery to have a stent put in without bothering to let him know, and he’d decided enough was enough. He’d come home as soon as his TOS was up, longing for family, eagerly awaiting the birth of his nephew. He missed the army. He missed knowing he had an important job to do. Leaving was the hardest thing he’d ever done, but another tour of Afghanistan and he would have killed himself from sheer goddamn loneliness.
But he’d changed, and he no longer fit in at home, either. Now he was all by himself and stuck with this.
“It’s only for a few weeks,” Deidre told him.
Jeff leaned against a magnificently fragrant pine tree in the pristine early stillness of a Bluebird Mountain morning and whined—seriously, whined—at his sister like he was five. “Dee—”
“I just had a baby, for God’s sake. I can’t be everywhere at once.”
“He doesn’t need someone like me. He needs a team of hairy nuns to give him the fish eye and keep him in line. He’s out of control.”
“You think I don’t know that? Nigel is a thirty-nine-year-old man with the mentality of a hyperactive adolescent. We factor that in and move on.”
“I get that now, but it doesn’t help. The only way I can keep him out of trouble is if I have some kind of leverage. He just looks at me, smirks like I’m not even there, and does what-the-fuck-ever he wants.”
“I know he can be a pain in the ass, but that’s what you’re there for—to keep him from getting hurt or doing something crazy. He’s already in trouble for that sexcapade recording. I’ve done my best to isolate him there in the mountains. What can he do in the mountains?”
“Plenty. He can and has done plenty. It’s not as isolated up here as you think. Los Angeles is only ninety minutes away, and a lot of his friends have private aircraft.” Jeff decided it wasn’t a good time to tell her a posse of Nigel’s friends had been at the resort all night, trashing his room. “Yesterday we went rock climbing, and he was a mess.”
God. He couldn’t tell Deidre what had happened. Nigel was practically her life. They were best friends. Why couldn’t she see how far Nigel was out on the ledge? She’d always been so intuitive. Maybe she didn’t want to see her idol had been falling apart. Christ. If he told her, she’d be there in a second, long before it was advisable for her and the baby to travel.
“Can’t you keep Nigel out of trouble for a few more weeks? I need to nurse. I need to fucking bond.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just that—”
“I’ve made enough milk to open a dairy. I just ordered a holiday sweater and perfume from the television. Do you know how desperate you have to be to want perfume you can’t even smell before you buy it? Meanwhile all you have to do is—”
“Can you hear yourself? Just take a second, all right?” Jeff took a deep breath. If he had to cuff Gasp to the wall, he’d make sure he was still in perfect working order when she took the reins again. “Look, it’s okay. I’m sorry I bothered you. I know it’s hard. I’ll take care of your big prince if you take care of the little one. I promise you it will be okay.”
“At least tell me what you named the baby.”
“All will be revealed in time.”
“Dee. Come on. I think as his uncle I have a right to know what the baby’s name is.”
“We haven’t told anyone yet.”
“You could tell me. Did you tell Mom?”
“We’ll let you know when we’re ready.”
Jeff smacked the tree with his open hand. “That’s bullshit, you know? It’s total bullshit. I’m here doing everything you asked me to do and now you’re playing—”
“And I had a C-section. I haven’t slept since I don’t know when”—Deidre started sobbing—“and I’m leaking from every o-o-orifice of my b-b-body.”
Jeff hissed a curse. “Look, I’m sorry. I’ll handle it. Don’t cry. Please don’t cry.”
“What can I do? Katje and I just want to keep some things to ourselves for a little bit. You’d think—”
Hormones. “God. Chill out. It’s going to be okay. Let Katje take care of you and my nephew. That little sprout is going to be the love of our lives. I just hope he appreciates the sacrifice.”
Jeff hung up the phone. He wished he were with Deidre. He wanted to hold his goddamned nephew. He wanted to be a part of something pure for a change, and instead…instead he was stuck here, doing Deidre’s job.
He had to stop and rest again before he headed back to the hotel and the next skirmish in the Nigel Gasp wars. The altitude, along with the amount of caffeine he’d consumed, left him light-headed. Damn Nigel and damn Deidre. Family responsibility could be a heavy burden, and Deidre could play that card like no one else.
Getting his grip, he lurched along the path back to the hotel. On top of everything else, he was coming down with something. If babysitting Nigel at 100 percent was hard, he hated to think what it might be like if he was sick.
When Jeff opened the door to Nigel’s suite, he recoiled.
The aging rocker’s latest friends littered his hotel room. The place stank of sex, booze, and stale perfume.
Among them, Jeff found the heir to a pricey leather goods fortune getting sick on what looked like a hand-loomed Oriental carpet, and there was an underage girl passed out on the couch. Nigel was singing to the world at large while standing on the railing of a balcony five floors up. He took a step and wobbled, windmilling his arms. Jeff’s heart thundered, and not because he’d just attempted to jog at an elevation of five thousand feet.
Jeff slipped on the entry rug when he broke into an all-out run but righted himself and pounded across the hardwood floor and out the slider to pull Nigel down by the waistband of his leather pants. When he had a grip on Nigel—when it would have been perfectly acceptable to at least imagine killing him—Jeff pulled him into his arms and held him tight against his body.
Why couldn’t he make up his damned mind?
“What the fuck?” Nigel asked.
“Are you trying to kill yourself?” Jeff’s blood roared in his ears. “The least you could do is wait until my sister’s back before you—”
Nigel pushed back, his voice soft and deadly. “Take your hands off me, you bastard.”
Jeff put him down but kept hold of his arm. “Not if you’re going to dance around on the balcony railing like an idiot.”
Nigel’s famous blue eyes narrowed. “I’ll dance wherever I like.”
“We’re five stories up and you’re a drunken mess. If you were to slip—”
“I don’t slip. I am grace itself. Ask anyone.” The words would have been more powerful if he hadn’t turned to his friends for backup and lurched drunkenly into the wall. “Anyway, what the fuck do you care if I die? What’s one more old—”
“Okay, that’s it. We’re done here.” Jeff took Nigel’s arm and ducked to pull him into a fireman’s carry. Just like that, with Nigel’s pert ass in the air and his long hair draping along the backs of Jeff’s bare knees, Jeff felt fully in control of things again.
“All right,” Jeff shouted at those who were still capable of hearing him, “everyone out.”
Jeff balanced Nigel as he frog-marched two Nigel Gasp-look-alike boys out the door first, shoving them through as politely as he could. He barked orders at the rest, those who wandered aimlessly in varying states of dishabille. He left Sleepy Girl in the suite but used her cell phone to find and call her family.
That underage thing could come back and bite Nigel in the ass, but it was Nigel’s ass and Jeff could only protect it so far.
But damn. Nigel still had a pretty great ass for an old guy. It was right there on Jeff’s shoulder, and it was easy to see the ass in question had lost none of its allure since the early days, when it could be found clad in skintight black jeans, shaking and grinding in those old-school music videos.
Damn. In his wildest dreams he’d never expected Deidre’s job would be anything like this. Weeks of cleaning up after insensitive rich kids and deluded, aging baby boomers. Weeks of Yes, sir, Mr. Gasp, sir. I’d be happy to forego my unimportant four hours of sleep to get you toffee peanuts.
Nigel was gorgeous. He was talented. He was brilliantly funny. And he was the most spoiled, immature, self-centered…the most self-destructive human being Jeff had ever had the privilege of meeting.
What a goddamn waste.
“Out you go, Your Highness.” Time to test a theory. “The door is this way.”
“The Doors?” Nigel lifted his floppy head and looked around. “Where? Jim Morrison is dead, mate.”
“I know that, Nigel. Lo these many years. It happened before I was born. It happened before you were born, probably.”
Jeff’s usual problem was once he made up his mind to do something, it was hard for him to stop himself. He had impulse control issues too, and—just like Nigel—he had problems with authority. It was a miracle he hadn’t been rejected in the first three weeks of boot camp because of it. He hadn’t washed out because, to everyone’s surprise, he’d discovered he liked being bound by a rigid code of conduct. Let loose within that system, he’d been the most perfect Jeff Paxton he could possibly be.
Without the army, he floundered. Like now, when he needed someone to tell him how to deal with a spoiled rich man without losing his shit. Like now, when the devil on his shoulder was driving and the angel was watching scenery.
Carrying his squirming burden, Jeff exited the hotel suite and headed for the back stairs. It wouldn’t do for His Highness’s adoring fans to see him being dragged bodily outside for a little lesson in what happens if you fuck with Jeff Paxton. Sure. The paparazzi were probably using long-range telephoto lenses from every angle outside the hotel room, and what he was about to do…well, that would probably cost him his job.
Maybe he couldn’t say boo to big sister Deidre, but that didn’t mean he had to do what she wanted, exactly how she wanted him to do it.
And if she didn’t like how he did it?
She’d have to catch him to kill him, and in her condition, he had a distinct advantage.
“Did you get my toffee peanuts?” Nigel suddenly asked from where he was hanging, upside down with his head bouncing off Jeff’s ass.
“I got your damned peanuts.” Toffee peanuts. Nigel’d had Jeff call the owner of the local confectionery at three in the morning for toffee peanuts. He’d slogged out in the dead of night, and when he’d returned with the damned things, Nigel was nowhere to be found. Jeff assumed Nigel took one of his guests behind locked doors for privacy. “I thanked Rachel with an extra hundred bucks.”
“I really wanted those toffee peanuts. But now I’m feeling sick, mate. Does the world seem upside down to you?”
“Nope. My world is right on target.” Jeff slapped Nigel’s leather-clad ass hard.
Nigel gave an indignant, “Ouch. Hey!”
“Today we’re examining the words ‘selfish’ and ‘immature.’” Jeff carried his charge through the resort kitchen. This caused the staff to stop what they were doing and stare at him in shocked silence. “And the number zero. Why zero? Because zero is the exact number of times I’m going to take your crap ever again. We have now entered the zero-tolerance zone, Nigel. That is the zone between your nonsense and my gut, ’cause I can’t take your roller-coaster shit.”
Jeff shoved out through the heavy back door, which someone kept propped open with a chair, presumably to allow the cold, crisp air to circulate in the warm work area.
Nigel shrieked with outrage as soon as the chill hit his skin. “I’m going to call Deidre and have your ass so fired you will have to live under a bridge like a fucking troll.”
Jeff continued toward the lake and out onto the long boat dock, liking the way his feet made a hollow thudding sound as they stomped onto the wood—like a drum. It had a martial sound to it that appealed to him. He wished he was wearing combat boots.
“I’ve been here a week, and in that time I’ve suffered more degradation than I ever experienced in boot camp or at the hands of enemy combatants. I’ve watched you drink until you pass out and dance on railings and fly off cliffs like you don’t give a shit about yourself. It stops here.”
“Put me down, you idiot.” Nigel used his fists to beat against the backs of Jeff’s knees, but Jeff barely felt it.
“You want to die? Do you? Let me help you with that. You won’t be my first.”
Jeff reached the end of the boat dock and threw Nigel into the ice-cold water of the lake.
Just threw. Him. In.