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Bad ideas spread like bad luck around The Asylum. Danny shook his head, even as Wren approached the table with a couple of beers and set one in front of him. He took a long sip, coolness rushing over his tongue as he gulped again and again. The flavor didn’t come until after, a crisp fruitiness mixed with the headiness of the malt.
Pike reached for his, groaning when Wren abruptly took it away. “Not this again. You gonna give me a lecture about the drinking age?” He pointed toward where Ezran had settled in at the bar, distractedly sketching something in a thick sketchbook while sipping his own beer. “You served Ez and didn’t say shit.”
“Ezran isn’t on painkillers. I forgot you are.” Wren worried his bottom lip with his teeth. “I’m sorry.”
Eyes widening slightly, Pike quickly shook his head. “Hey, my bad, man. It’s up to me to remember, I shouldn’t be giving you a hard time about it. Thanks for looking out for me.”
The tension in Wren’s shoulders eased away. He smiled at Pike, then glanced over at Danny. “You’re cute together. He’s a good choice.”
Blinking, Danny tried to catch up with what everyone else was planning for him. His cheeks were getting hot again as Pike’s brow lifted. “I didn’t choose him, we’re just having lunch. And I took your advice about telling him what was going on.”
“Oh…” Wren’s brow furrowed. “I thought my advice was to ask him to… You’re probably right. That would’ve been better advice. Pike’s too submissive, not exactly like you, but he doesn’t like taking control at all. You wouldn’t have as much fun with him as you would with Reed.”
“Hey! That’s not true. I’d fucking blow his mind.” Pike’s gaze followed Wren as he went around the bar, returning with a frosted mug full of Coke. He lowered his voice when Lawson settled behind a nearby table across from Atticus. “He won against Reed. Losing would’ve solved his problem, but he can’t do nothing about that now. We both know he’s not gonna claim any kind of win that’ll meet the challenge. And Rhodey? Dude, that would be impressive. We all wanna impress our Doms, right? Even when they’re fucking with us?”
“Pike, I’m not certain I want to know what you’re discussing, but I saw Quint remind you about the swearing.” Lawson looked over from his table, sipping from a mug of what looked like tea, while Atticus was nursing a tall glass of expensive wine. The other Dom seemed entertained, rather than annoyed by the disruption as Lawson continued. “One more curse leaves your mouth and I’ll not only get the soap, I’ll paddle your ass. If you believe Seth left you here without some assurances that the rest of the core could keep you in hand, you’re sadly mistaken.”
At first Pike looked a bit stunned. For a split second, Danny wondered if the younger man would call Lawson on what he probably saw as a threat.
Except...Lawson didn’t make threats. He was dead serious.
Thoughts racing behind his eyes, Pike inhaled slowly, his hands flexing on the table at either side of his glass. Something seemed to click, like Pike had been racing toward a brick wall and abruptly...slowed down, stopping right before he’d get crushed. He exhaled, his submission written all over his face.
He’d needed Lawson to take that stance. It meant a lot to him.
His smile was a bit shaky as he met the Dom’s eyes. “Yes, sir. I won’t swear anymore.”
“That’s a good boy.” Lawson winked at Pike, clearly knowing Pike had needed the assurance that someone else was in charge. He gave a satisfied nod and resumed his conversation with Atticus as though nothing unusual had happened.
There was a sheen over Pike’s blue-green eyes before he lowered his head, drawing in a rough breath. He trembled, swallowing audibly and staring into his drink.
Danny put his hand over Pike’s. “We’ve got you. Everyone here. I know...I’m scared of everything, so maybe it doesn’t mean much, coming from me, but...I get it. If Shea hadn’t shown up, I’d be freaking out.”
“Quint’s here.” Pike glanced toward one of the windows, as though he could see the clinic beyond the frosted windows. “I try to be good for him.”
“It’s not the same. He isn’t your Dom and you keep him in that in-between space by testing his control every chance you get. It’s your way of letting him know he doesn’t have to always be in charge. But you still respect him when he does need to take that role.” Danny ran his thumb gently, back and forth, over the side of Pike’s hand. “Your relationship isn’t like anyone else’s and it’s...special. To have that. But you have one with the people here too.”
Pike looked down at their hands. “I guess I do. It’s...hard to believe, sometimes. But not believing Lawson would be weird. He’s solid. I needed solid. He doesn’t—”
“He’s here. When everyone else needs to leave for some reason or another, this is where he wants to be. Chooses to be. I like that.” Pike’s brow furrowed. “Is that messed up? I get not everyone can stay. That’s...not how life works.”
Closing his eyes, Danny thought of his life with the band. How many of the tutors, or bodyguards he’d gotten close to had been there one day, then gone the next. He’d learned to only count on two people always being there.
Jamie and Trevor.
And...one day, Jamie had disappeared.
Trusting anyone to stick around was hard. Somewhere along the way, Danny had figured out how not to need that. He’d developed his skills and made himself worth something to the people he was working with on Broadway. That they were still in his life was a bonus. He expected nothing.
But Pike didn’t need to hear that. He was rebuilding his life and had to be able to count on some kind of stability. For Danny, predicting the worst was...strangely comforting at times. After seeing what could go wrong so clearly, things going right was a breath of fresh air. Everytime he didn’t have to face being alone, every time he could buy something and his credit card wasn’t cut in half…
It felt good.
Hope was...within reach.
“Some people stay.” Danny squeezed Pike’s hand. “I stay, if that helps.”
“It does.” Pike gave him a thankful smile. “You’re really nice. And if nice people can put up with me? Maybe I’m...doing all right.” He sat up a little straighter. “I know I’m kinda messy with the whole planning thing, I ain’t the best at it, but I know how to get someone interested. Not for long, but...you ain’t going for that.”
“I don’t know what I’m going for. This is...different.” Danny rubbed a hand over his face. “If I didn’t know Shea as well as I do, I’d think this was a test. One that I’d fail no matter what I choose. And the penalty is—”
“Death? Dismemberment? Stoning?” Wren’s brow furrowed as he made his way back to the bar. “Or maybe having to get up on the bar again and dance. Except, in your case, the bar would cave in and you’d be impaled by the splintered remains and bleed out as the music continues to play.” He gave a slight nod, smiling at Danny as though to say he understood him. “Did you put in an order for lunch yet? I can go take care of that. Greek salad with grilled chicken?”
Mouth dry, Danny could only shake his head, trying to get rid of the visuals now stuck in his head. He’d probably have come up with one of those on his own, but--
Pike slapped the table, then pointed at Wren. “That’s it! You’re a genius!”
“I know, but not with chicken or salad.” Wren paused at the door to the galley. “My meals are passable—Keiran’s the one who’s making lunch, though. He’s a genius in the kitchen. Would you like some pasta? Or pizza? Or both? You should probably have some salad with it.”
For the first time, Pike didn’t look ready to devour absolutely everything offered to him. “No Greek salad, I’ll take whatever other greens Keiran wants to put on my plate. But I wasn’t talking about food. Get back here and help me work out the details, you know this place better than either of us.”
Holding up a finger, Wren stepped into the galley, joining them after putting in the orders.
Before Pike could say another word, Noah approached, putting both hands on Wren’s shoulders and leaning down to speak quietly in his ear. “What did you order for yourself, my little bird?”
Wren tipped his head back, gazing up at his Dom. “I… Sir, I don’t think I did. I was distracted.”
“Hmm.” Noah slid Wren’s chair back, with him in it. He held out his hand, taking Wren’s and pulling him to his feet. “No more distractions until you’ve eaten, then. Pike and Danny will have to manage without you, I’d like your company. And to discuss our trip to Florida.”
By Noah’s side on the way back to the kitchen, Wren gave a slow nod. “Your trip. Yes, sir. I can have whatever you need ready for you with very little notice. There are extra water filters if you need them. I also ordered plenty of rations—”
“Our trip, my boy. Including you. And we don’t need rations, we’re driving to Florida.”
“I was sincerely hoping you’d misphrased that, sir.”
“I know you were.” Noah chuckled, putting his arm around Wren’s shoulders and tugging him close to his side as they approached the galley door. “We’re going on a road trip. You’re going to enjoy yourself.” He made a hushing sound when Wren started to protest. “That’s an order.”
Glass to his lips as he watched them, Pike sipped his Coke and snickered before meeting Danny’s eyes. “See? You’re not the only one getting orders to enjoy yourself. It’s a running theme in this joint.”
Toying with the label of his beer bottle, Danny slid Pike a small smile. If he was honest with himself, he knew that’s what Shea was doing. The only reason it hadn’t been fun so far was because Danny couldn’t figure out how to make it nice and simple.
Also, today had it out for him, but he’d have to work around that.
“You said you wanted Wren’s help with details? For your…‘plan’”
“Yup.” Pike grinned, polishing off his soda before leaning forward, speaking in a conspiratorial whisper. “But it can wait until after lunch. This won't play out as well if people expect it.”
Every time Danny tried to ask ‘Expect what?’ or ‘What people?’, Pike made a cutting motion with his hand, then changed the subject. Wren brought their food with two glasses and a pitcher of ice water, then was led away by Noah to have his own meal with his Dom.
As they ate, Pike asked about Broadway, admitting he’d never seen a musical, his interest so genuine it chased away some of the dread as Danny told him about the whole process, from auditions to rehearsals to opening night. A few times he stopped, positive he must be boring the other man, but Pike would stop with his fork halfway to his mouth, asking another question, engaged in a way very few people ever seemed with Danny.
There was always someone, or something more interesting to focus on. Or some impending doom that made talking about regular stuff seem...like a waste of time. His Doms enjoyed hearing about every detail of his day, no matter how small, but growing up around bigger personalities, who knew how to keep a room captivated, Danny struggled when too much attention was on him, for too long.
A shining silver tree with delicate ornaments he’d been firmly told not to touch in a room staged for Christmas photos. Not the first time Danny had done something like this, but at almost ten, he didn’t need as many instructions about what he was supposed to be doing. In nice, warm blue flannel PJs, slippers on his feet, a bit of blush on his cheeks and his hair styled in a way to make it seem like it wasn’t styled at all, he sat cross-legged on the floor, holding a soft brown plush puppy in his arms.
He glanced over to where Trevor was meticulously peeling the tape off of one of his gifts. At Trevor’s other side, Jamie’s knee bounced, his expression saying he wanted to yank the present out of Trevor’s hands and rip off the wrapping so he could move on to his next gift.
Cameras flashed, and the voice of the reporter who was doing a piece about their training droned on. Jamie and Trevor took turns answering questions, while Danny did what his tutor had told him.
Smile and make sure the camera gets his ‘good side’.
Did that mean she thought he had a bad side? He tried to behave, but he got things wrong sometimes. Like when he and Jamie had snuck in here yesterday to try some of the cookies from the displays.
Prop cookies, not real ones. They’d been salty and made his stomach hurt.
The door at the far end of the set opened and Danny glanced over. Leapt to his feet when he saw who it was.
Before he could run to his father, the tall man who he hadn’t seen in months held up a hand, pointing to the spot Danny had just left. “Back in your spot.” He looked to the band manager, an edge to his tone, like he was angry about something. “Frank, we need to talk.”
Frank sighed as he pushed out of the folding chair he’d placed out of view of the cameras. “I’ll be right with you. Julia, take over.”
As Frank’s assistant moved to break up the spat that was building up between Trevor and Jamie, the reporter gave Danny a warm smile. She sat forward in the white armchair positioned to one side of the tree.
“It must be hard to be away from your family for so long.” Opening her purse, she pulled out a small candy cane. After he took it, she gave him a thoughtful look. “This is your first Christmas with your bandmates. What were the holidays like for you before this? Did you and your father do anything special?”
Minty sweetness on his tongue, Danny tilted his head to one side. “We were in New York for a commercial last year. That was fun. Daddy had to go to a party, but the producer brought me to see Matilda—she had tickets for herself and her daughter, but her daughter’s flight was canceled. It was amazing and we got to go backstage and meet the cast after…” He glanced over to where Julie was talking to the hairstylists who just finished fixing up Jamie and Trevor’s hair after their little fight.
Julie motioned for him to hurry and wrap up whatever he’d been going to say.
Any of this could go in the article. Danny wanted the reporter to know how amazing the cast had been. The other kids, all laughing and running around, excited to get back home for whatever their families were doing to celebrate after the show. The stage manager who’d given him one of the extra gift bags that his wife had made for them all, which had all kinds of treats and small toys inside. The technician who’d let him see how the lighting worked after the audience cleared out.
“No one cares, Danny.” Trevor let out an irritated sound as the silence stretched. “Don’t hurt yourself trying to make it interesting. And you shouldn’t be eating that, you’re gonna ruin your teeth and we’ll end up with that whiny little snot Mikey replacing you.”
Right then, Danny’s father came back in with Frank. He looked pleased until he heard what Trevor said. Then he was glaring at Danny. His expression brought back the rare conversations they’d had after Danny had been chosen to become part of Glam Grenade.
‘Remember your place. Don’t you dare fuck this up for me.’
Danny took the candy cane out of his mouth. The makeup lady came over, taking it from him before dabbing at his lips with a wet wipe, then some lightly tinted balm.
The awkward moment was broken when Jamie spotted one of the bigger presents with his name on it. He let out a loud Whoop! as he read the tag on it. Frank grinned, nodding for him to go ahead. Jamie tore off the wrapping. The gift was the custom-made guitar he’d been waiting for, connected to a huge brand deal Frank had set up for him.
With one last unreadable look at Danny, the reporter shifted her focus to Jamie.
Sneaking a peek at his father, Danny relaxed when the man gave him a satisfied smile before turning and walking out. Blowing out a quiet breath, Danny hugged the plush dog. This was good. His dad wasn’t mad at him anymore.
It just...sucked that he couldn’t stay.
“You can’t just leave me hanging, man.” Pike poked Danny’s shoulder, drawing him from his memories, back to the present. “What happened next? Did the loud guy at the audition get a part? Was he any good?”
Shaking his head, Danny put down his fork. Then picked it right back up when Lawson arched a brow at him. It looked like Pike wasn’t the only one the Dom was keeping an eye on. Danny was allowed to have small portions for meals, so long as he ate everything. It was harder when he was stressed, but talking to Pike was easy, so long as they weren’t plotting anything.
He finished up his last few bites, then took a sip of water. “He was good, but Tez refused to work with him because of how rude he was to...well, everyone. Tez has a lot of pull in the industry. He’s the last person you want to piss off.”
“Damn, he sounds pretty awesome. I really want to meet him some day.” Pike wiped his mouth with a napkin. Standing, he grabbed both his and Danny’s plates. “All right, so we need to figure out costumes. You and Jamie have a bunch of stuff you got for all your videos, right? Let’s go check that out. Think sexy.”
Brow creased, Danny followed Pike toward the galley, keeping his voice low. “Pike...this is a bad idea. Rhodey… He’s scary. And his subs are too and they’d be pissed if they even heard us talking about any of this.”
“No, we wouldn’t.”
Danny’s lips parted as he lifted his gaze to where Keiran had somehow appeared behind the bar, leaning against the backbar with his arms folded over his chest. He had a slanted smile on his lips and a look in his eyes that made Danny more than a little nervous.
The taller sub brushed a few strands of black hair from his forehead as he straightened. He took the plates from Pike, disappearing into the galley. When he came back out he put his arm around Danny’s shoulders, motioning for Pike to keep up as he headed for the gym.
He didn’t speak again until the doors closed behind them. “You keep alluding towards a plan, Pike. Let’s hear it.”
Pike frowned at Keiran. “How did you know—”
“It’s part of my job to know.” Keiran pushed open the door to the dance club. “And you’re lucky Rhodey delegates now, or he’d be the one listening in on everything.”
“Oh...shit.” Pike rubbed his hands over his face. “That woulda sucked.” He lowered his hands, giving Keiran a thoughtful look. “But this kinda works out. You could help set things up as good as Wren. Maybe better.”
Hugging himself, Danny glanced from one man to the other. He wet his lips with his tongue, not sure he liked where this was going. He loved Keiran, but...the man had been a pornstar. If Pike was thinking anything along those lines?
Nope. Not happening.
Chuckling, Keiran ruffled Danny’s hair. “I’m sure whatever Pike’s thinking of won’t be that painful. From what I gathered, this is supposed to be exciting and sexy and fun.”
“But I’m...not any of those things.” Danny shook his head when both Keiran and Pike frowned. “It’s not a bad thing.”
“It’s not a true thing.” Keiran pulled Danny’s hood up, then gave him a one-armed hug as he jutted his chin at Pike. “What have you got for him? You’ve mentioned costumes and dancing.”
Rolling his shoulders, Pike turned, looking out over the dance floor. “He’s going to need backup dancers. Guys who won’t upstage him, so you’re out. The outfit needs to get him in the headspace he has when he’s on stage. The way he talks about it...he’s not scared there.”
Keiran smiled and inclined his head. “I like where this is going. Reed could do it. He’s got a presence, but for what you’re planning—and for who--it won’t matter. Tay would get a kick out of this and he doesn’t live far. I’ll give him a call.”
Whatever the plan, it was starting to sound complicated. Danny closed his eyes, inhaling slowly. “Wait. Slow down. What exactly do you expect me to do?”
“What you’re good at, man.” Pike winked at Danny when he opened his eyes. “You’re gonna put on a show that no one’s gonna want to miss.”
“How is that going to help me with the challenge? Everyone here’s seen me dance.” Danny let his hands fall to his sides, shaking his head again as Pike pulled out his phone and put on a video that had Keiran nodding, song suggestions going back and forth between them.
Gaze still on the phone, Keiran reached out to take Danny’s hand, squeezing his fingers lightly. “They’ve seen you in the background. You’re supposed to be asking for something, Dulzura. Getting in the ring with Reed didn’t work because by winning, you have to ask in a way that’s uncomfortable for you. Pike’s giving you a way to ask without saying a word.”
“By dancing? But…” Danny remembered Keiran’s other profession and his mouth went dry. “Oh. Umm...I don’t think I can—”
“You can, but one step at a time. This isn’t going to be hard.” Keiran tapped Pike on the shoulder as another song began to play on his phone. “That one’s perfect. Go up through the security room, Connor can point you in the direction of where the costumes are stored, there’s a whole space set up for them. See what you can find that matches the outfits in the video.”
After giving Keiran a quick nod, Pike headed off.
Danny stared up at Keiran. “So many things could go wrong. And what if it comes off as Toppy or pushy or...or sneaky. Sneaky would be the worst. If anyone starts thinking I’ve been compromised and I’m working for the bad guys, I’m toast.”
“Danny, you have got to stop watching those crappy action movies with Shea.” Keiran’s tone was kind, but held a hint of laughter. “No one’s going to think any of that. They’re going to see what you have to offer. And that’s the point.”
Or...they’ll see I don’t have anything to offer. At all.
The men of the core, people like Keiran and Wren, were sweet and supportive. They seemed to believe he could take more of the spotlight. That he could play a leading role.
But after today, if he followed through with this whole performance?
They’re going to see why I never have.
It was one thing to have people believe in him and to know, deep inside, that they’d be disappointed if he ever tried to do half the things they thought he could.
Now? He was about to destroy all their illusions about him.
And they’d never see him the same way again.
As always, comments welcome! Since I've been enjoying them so much, I'm going to start doing something for those who leave them. At the end of each month when a serial like this is running, I'll choose one commenter to send merch from The Asylum to. This month, it'll be a T-shirt!
Winner will be chosen at random and announced before the first segment of each month, so October's winner will be chosen and announced on Wednesday. All comments made before then will be entered.
If you want to discuss spoilers or what you think might happen next, make sure to join the spoiler group HERE.
See you tomorrow!
Bianca Sommerland is the USA Today Bestselling author of The Dartmouth Cobras series. Tibby Armstrong is the author of the acclaimed Hollywood series. Together they've created the breathtaking and brutal world of The Asylum Fight Club. A place where men live and love by their fists, and ropes are for more than just the ring.