Chapter 1: Part One: Public Enemy #1
Jamie Fraser had a fucking death wish, and neither John Grey’s Buick nor his respect for the law were up to the task of keeping up with him in the pouring rain. But his boss would have his whole ass if he didn’t make a valiant attempt.
Fraser’s taillights went through a yellow and Grey floored it. He got within a foot of his back bumper, and squealed through the intersection a second after the light turned red.
“I quit,” Grey muttered to an imaginary Dougal MacKenzie. “I cannot continue to put my life on the—fuck!” Grey swerved to the left, into an oncoming lane, to avoid plowing into a car with their left signal on. “Oh, you son of a bitch. If I catch you, I’m killing you myself.” All Fraser had to do was show up at the studio and beat the hell out of his drum kit for nine or ten hours—less if there was a press thing.
But there was always booze. Everywhere the Bleeding Roses went, there were bottles of beer, scotch, top-shelf tequila, cheap whiskey. Coffee, cigarettes, and the occasional line of cocaine kept them awake. And then the producer would cut them loose for the night and they’d scatter.
Fraser had insisted that he wasn’t drinking and driving, he was drinking and then driving, and Won’t ye yank that stick out yer arse for five minutes, John? Then he’d hopped into his red Trans Am and tore off like a bat out of hell.
Jamie refused to yield the right-of-way, and Grey barreled after him, his fingers aching around the steering wheel. He wasn’t a fucking stunt car driver, for God’s sake. Fraser blew threw a red light. Grey followed and braced himself hard against the driver’s seat, heart in his throat.
Even the windshield wipers seemed to slow down.
Brake lights absolutely everywhere, the bright light scattering through the rain on the windshield. Squealing tires. Grey yanked the wheel hard to the right. His Buick drifted sideways and hydroplaned on the wet pavement. Nothing but buildings, the ghostly reflection of headlights, and furious red brakes.
Someone plowed into the hood of his car, spinning his sedan back around. It gave him a perfect view of Jamie Fraser’s last moments on Earth.
His red Trans Am hit a box truck head-on. Metal and glass exploded from the car. Then came cross traffic that couldn’t stop or swerve in time. A shiny new Chevy with dealer plates T-boned Jamie, shoved his car away from the truck. The Trans Am lurched, then came to a stop, the engine finally giving out.
Oh. Fucking Christ.
Grey’s neck hurt. It didn’t matter. Something was wrong with his right elbow, but he could wiggle his fingers. It could wait. His chest fought against breathing, the seatbelt to blame. Shit, that was going to be a nasty bruise. He got his seatbelt off and shoved the door open, staggering out into the street. The rain was cold on his skin, pelting his bare arms.
The truck driver got out, both hands on his head, horrified, staring at the mess of twisted steel that held Jamie Fraser’s corpse. Terror took a backseat. Time to work. Grey angled a finger at the truck driver. “Do you have a radio?” He had to shout over the cacophonous storm and traffic.
The truck driver stared at him. “What?”
“Radio! A CB? Call it in!” Adrenaline kicked in and Grey jogged to Jamie’s car. Please, God, let him be alive. There was no movement behind the wheel.
The truck driver was still frozen in place. “Get back in that cab and call for a motherfucking ambulance!” John barked the order with steel in his voice. His tone finally got the shell shocked driver moving, and he scampered back into the truck.
Jamie was a mess. His face was covered in blood, hair and shirt soaked with it. The windshield was gone. The driver-side window was smashed. Glass glittered in the headlights, in the road, the seat, Jamie’s lap. The dashboard had caved in, trapping his long legs, but John didn’t see any sign of bleeding there. Not that blood would seep through black leather trousers. Fraser’s eyes were closed, his mouth open. He wasn’t moving.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Grey muttered. He knew it was pointless, but he reached through the broken window anyway and touched two fingers to Jamie’s throat.
A pulse. He was alive.
Holy shit, he was alive in there.
Gasoline, Grey could smell it, burning his nostrils.
The door was mangled and Grey yanked on the handle with all his strength, but it still wouldn’t open. He shoved his torso through the window, fumbled for the keys, and cut the ignition. “Jamie. Jamie! Can you hear me, you son of a bitch? Fuck, come on.”
Commotion all around them. Someone shouting. A flash of lightning lit Fraser’s face. Jesus, there was no way he’d live through this.
Grey had never been so relieved to hear sirens in his life.
Distantly, far enough away that it didn’t matter, someone asked if that was Jamie Fraser.
If Dougal tried to fire him for this, John would both quit and punch the bastard in the goddamn face. He kept his body between the gathering crowd and Jamie, shielding him from view. Fuck, fuck, fuck.
The sirens drew closer. So slowly—God, how did they expect to save anyone driving that slow?
It might have been the next day that the ruined intersection turned blood red, the firetrucks pulling up, sirens deafening. “If you don’t fucking die, I’ll kill you myself,” Grey hissed at Jamie. He still didn’t move. John couldn’t take his hand away from his throat though, as long as he could feel the gentle, uneven tapping.
A rough hand came down on Grey’s shoulder. “One side, pal.” The man smelled like old smoke and hellfire.
Grey looked up to see a fireman in gear, shoving him out of the way to get to Jamie. “He’s alive,” John said.
“Jesus. Fucking how? Ralph! Got a live one! Door’s stuck, bring the jaws.”
John took a step back, heart hammering in his ears. Was it still raining? He couldn’t tell. It must be. That was the roar, right? Or the generator. Right, they’d unloaded a generator and fired it up.
“I said, what happened?”
Grey hadn’t heard the man speak to him, and when he turned, he came face-to-face with a police officer, which explained the blue lights reflecting off the wet pavement. “Pardon?” His head was starting to hurt. Pain creeping back in, wrapping around his neck, his arms. His goddamn elbow.
“What happened? Do you know him?”
Procedure. They had procedures for this. Lawyers needed to be called. Dougal had to be notified—fuck, Dougal had to be notified. The cop gave Grey’s loaded shoulder holster a pointed look.
“I'm private security,” Grey said. “Gowan. Ned Gowan, that’s the name of the attorney you need to speak to. I... I have his card.” Where was his wallet? Oh, right. Back, right pocket. Grey fumbled his billfold out and extricated his armed security license and Ned Gowan’s business card, showing both to the officer. “I won’t say anything else without him, and neither will that man.” He nodded at Jamie, who still wasn’t moving.
The cop stared at the wreck, sparks flying from the frame as the firemen cut Jamie out of what was left of his Trans Am. “That man?” The officer scoffed and shook his head. “That man ain’t gonna make it.”
Two ambulances showed up. Jamie was still unresponsive and Grey’s stomach soured to watch them drag his body out of the car. Every new set of hands came with a shocked curse and disbelief that he was alive. Fraser was loaded into an ambulance immediately and it drove away, sirens wailing. It didn’t take much convincing to find out where the paramedics were taking him. All Grey had to do was say he knew his next of kin—Dougal, of course—and would make sure they knew where to go.
“Tell ‘em to hurry,” the paramedic said.
Everyone else got on-scene first aid, including Grey, and the woman who’d hit his Buick the second time was transported too, her leg in a splint and neck stabilized, face bleeding and bruised. Thank God, everyone else was under their own power. How the hell no one was leaving in body bags was a mystery.
Grey found a pay phone and a quarter and called Ned Gowan. The lawyer answered on the third ring, sounding half-asleep. Of course he was, it was after midnight. “Ned, it’s John Grey.”
“John,” Ned replied. He was alert immediately, they both knew there was a short list of reasons that Grey would be calling him this time of night. “Oh no, what’s happened?”
“Car accident.” Less was more with the police hovering nearby, trying to figure out who was going to jail and for what, exactly. “Jamie’s en route to Sherman Oaks. He’s not going to make it, Ned.”
“Was he drunk?”
Ned sighed. “Alright. I’ll call Dougal, meet us at the hospital if ye can. Are ye hurt?”
“Nothing too serious, I’ll live, but my car’s totaled,” Grey answered. Ned was good people. He worked for a blood-sucking piece of shit, but he was a decent enough guy.
“Glad you’re okay. Use that right to remain silent, aye?”
Obviously. Grey was paid well to do a lot of things, but not to go to jail for Fraser’s screw up. He hung up the phone, fished in his pocket for another quarter, and called home.
Four rings before he got an answer, his wife’s sleepy voice murmuring, “Hello?”
“Isobel, it’s me.”
“John.” She yawned. “Are you okay? Jesus, do you know what time it is? Where are you?”
“There was an accident. I’m alright, but I don’t know when I’ll be home. I didn’t want you to see it on the news in the morning and be worried that I wasn’t home yet.”
His wife sighed. “Well... thank you for calling.” Shit, was he ever going to get it. Isobel hated his job even more than Grey did. “Please be careful, John.”
A little late for that, perhaps, but he agreed nonetheless. “Go back to sleep darling, sorry to have woken you. I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
The police eventually made Grey stand next to a squad car, out of the way but available for questions he wasn’t going to answer while they sorted out the scene. He scrubbed a hand over his face, watching the police take measurements and mark interesting bits of vehicular carnage. Jesus, if that truck hadn’t crushed the front end of Jamie’s car so much, the T-bone collision might have flipped the Trans Am, and then this would be a very different scene.
Grey’s car was a disaster, probably a total loss. He made a mental note to have Ned add that to his hazard pay. Goddamn it, he liked that Buick.
His aches and pains began to really settle in, his hands trembling as the adrenaline wore off. He’d probably need to be checked out at the hospital, just to be safe. Well, at least the rain was letting up. Grey shivered, soaked to the bone, exhausted. He had half a pack of cigarettes in his pocket, but when he pulled it out, the box was wet. He opened it anyway and peered inside. The smokes were wet too, mangled and sad, and Grey sighed in defeat, shoving the ruined package back into his pocket.
A black town car pulled up and honked its horn once, drawing Grey’s attention. The driver rolled his window down and leaned out. “John Grey?” Grey nodded. “Mr. MacKenzie sent me to pick you up.”
Not that Dougal MacKenzie actually did that sort of thing himself. His personal assistant Geillis—who Dougal was absolutely fucking despite them both being married to other people—would have actually made the call. The wrecker crew was loading his poor Buick onto a tow truck, there was no reason to hang around.
Press vans were starting to show up at Sherman Oaks, the vultures. Apparently, Grey was going to spend the rest of Jamie Fraser’s life corralling reporters until Dougal or Ned gave them an official statement. He pushed his way silently past a hyper woman with a steno pad. Fantastic. Keeping the press out of a place was a more infuriating job than keeping Fraser inside of one.
Hospital security met Grey just inside the door, letting him in with his gun when he showed his ID. Dougal stood in the fluorescent hallway, yelling into a pay phone. He looked up at Grey and waved him over, as if there was any other direction he could have possibly gone.
“I dinnae care about the fucking billable hours, Ned, make it go away.” Dougal slammed the receiver back onto the hook with a silvery protest of the ringer. He rested his hands on his hips, red in the face, his anger turning toward Grey. “And where the hell were you?”
Grey should tender his resignation effective immediately. He should give Dougal the bird, turn around, and storm out into the flurry of press and tell them all exactly what happened to Jamie Fraser. Then he could go home to a stiff drink in the safety of his own home, and let his wife tell him everything would be okay and he’d have a new job within a week. He should do all of this. Instead...
“Tailing him, why do you think I needed a ride? I’m fine, thanks for asking,” Grey retorted, inexplicably. It was inexplicable that he should be entertaining this conversation at all, but the stress and irritation had him spoiling for an argument. “How is he?” Even more inexplicable that he should care. Fraser was still a person, though. Allegedly.
Dougal blew out a breath and calmed down, glancing up another sterile hallway before returning his attention to Grey and lowering his voice. “He’s in surgery. I dinnae ken much. Last I heard, they’re assessing the damage, trying to stop the bleeding.”
“Jesus,” Grey murmured. Dougal was a bastard and Fraser was an ass, but they were still family, and Dougal’s uncharacteristic concern for his nephew took a lot of the heat out of Grey’s fury.
After a pause, Dougal gave Grey the kindest expression he ever had in the three years he’d worked for him. “Ye sure ye’re alright?”
“Sore, but I’ll live.” Of course Grey wasn’t going to quit. He hadn’t yet, and he wouldn’t, even though he really, really should. Isobel wasn’t going to be thrilled, but she’d respect his choice.
Dougal nodded, averting his eyes awkwardly. “Send the bill for yer car to Ned when ye get it from the insurance company. He’ll make sure it’s covered since ye were on the clock.”
Grey had already planned to do just that, it was in his contract, after all. He nodded. “Are you going to speak with the press?”
“No’ until we hear if he’s going to make it,” Dougal answered, pragmatic and sensible. He tilted his chin at Grey. “Go get yerself looked at, then come help me run interference. We cannae have these muckrakers spoiling the brand.”
That wasn’t likely, given the brand in question was marked by sleazy decadence and recklessness. Grey muttered an acknowledgment and headed for the emergency check-in counter, wishing he’d thought to try bumming a cigarette from the driver. He wasn’t exactly a chain smoker, but goddamn, a man could only take so much bullshit without needing to take the edge off.
By some miracle, Jamie Fraser lived.
He was coming out of surgery when Grey was finally discharged from the emergency department. Grey was a little worse for wear, but nothing broken. He’d strained his elbow and shoulder bracing against the steering wheel, and left the ER with his right arm in a sling, a prescription for Vicodin, and orders to take a bunch of ibuprofen for the next few days to help with the swelling.
His partner Harry Quarry sat in a chair shoved up against a wall next to a closed door marked Private, a Styrofoam cup of black coffee in one hand. It was steaming and smelled like shitty vending machine brew. “Jesus,” Quarry said, looking Grey up and down. “You look like you got hit by a truck.”
“Sedan, actually. Two of them.”
Quarry let out a low whistle. “I suppose you heard that lucky bastard survived."
“Maybe that head injury knocked some sense into him,” Grey said. Perhaps it was uncharitable, but he hurt all over because of Fraser’s carelessness, and he couldn’t bring himself to feel guilty for it. That drummer was his own worst safety hazard.
Quarry gave him a skeptical look that said he wasn’t convinced. “I overheard the surgeon talking to Dougal. The main concern seems to be whether or not he’ll be able to walk or play again.”
Grey scoffed. “You mean the doctor’s concern is whether he can walk, and Dougal’s is whether he can keep making him money.”
Quarry shrugged and nodded. “More or less.” He glanced at his wristwatch, then took a cautious slurp of the sludge in his cup, grimacing and shuddering. “Sun’ll be up soon. Why don’t you go get a few hours of shuteye. Dougal wants one of us here until the press and paparazzi get bored. I’ll take the first shift, you look like hell.”
“You say the nicest things. Thanks, mate.” Grey clapped Harry on the shoulder and headed for the exit.
“Grey,” Quarry said, nodding down the hall behind him. “Go out the back.”
Of course. Grey looked through the windows facing the parking lot and the crowd of press vans, shuddering inwardly. “Yeah, good idea.”
The smell of frying bacon met Grey at the door of his flat, and his stomach rumbled as he shut the door and turned the deadbolt. “You’re up early,” he said, finding Isobel in the kitchen. She wore a bathrobe open over one of his old t-shirts that she’d stolen to sleep in, and save for a pair of socks, her fair legs were bare.
Taking one look at his sorry state, his wife put her spatula down on the counter and came to him, wrapping her arms around his waist. “Thank God you’re okay.” Whatever anger she might have been holding onto since he’d called disappeared.
Grey pressed a kiss to the top of her head, breathing in the sweet, honeysuckle scent of her shampoo. He let out a sigh of relief. Everything still hurt, and he was about to pass out from exhaustion, but Isobel’s warm arms around him were heaven.
She pulled away and came up on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. Grey wasn’t exactly tall, and his wife was a petite thing, slender and delicate, with a sharp chin and big, round eyes. “You must be starving. Sit down, I’ll fix you a plate,” Isobel said, giving his hand a squeeze.
The hard, wooden chair might as well have been a water bed: comfortable, but sure to be difficult to get back out of in his current state. Grey groaned in equal parts pain and relief as he eased himself into it. Isobel heaped bacon, buttered toast, and two fried eggs onto a plate and set it down in front of him, coming back with strawberry jelly and a banana. “Coffee?” she asked.
Grey shook his head. “No thank you, my dear, I’m bound for bed.”
Isobel set a glass of orange juice on the table instead. She wrinkled her nose and affected a scandalized air. “You will shower first, Mr. Grey, or I will be forced to inform my father that you’re a scoundrel and I cannot bear the shame of being your wife any longer.” She patted his shoulder and smiled, the expression soft and well suited for her pretty face.
Grey chuckled at her intentionally dramatized accent, his heart fluttering like a hummingbird’s wings. He loved her so goddamn much. It was an empty threat, his father-in-law adored him. When he and Isobel had married before coming to America, it had been the bride that William Dunsany had warned, made her swear to treat John well. All in jest of course. He was an unfailingly kind man who doted on his daughter, indulged her every hobby and interest, the result of which was a brilliant Renaissance woman willing to try anything once. “On my honor, madam,” Grey said with equal drama, and Isobel giggled.
Cutlery clattered on the table as she put down a handful of forks, knives, and spoons, then she joined him with her own, more modest plate and a cup of steaming coffee, two sugars with a splash of cream, her favorite. Grey tore into his bacon, salty and thick-cut, chewy in the middle and crispy around the edges. “What are your plans today?” he asked before polishing off the slice of bacon.
“I have an audition, actually,” Isobel said, perking up and taking a dainty sip of her coffee.
“Oh?” Grey’s eyebrows went up, impressed. “That’s rather exciting.”
Isobel waved him off. “It’s just for a commercial. Margarine or something.”
“Still, it’s experience and exposure, right?” Grey slathered a spoonful of jelly on his toast and crunched into it. There was something so very satisfying about a home-cooked meal when famished. It didn’t really matter what it was. Isobel didn’t possess the most varied repertoire of recipes, but she cooked with love, and that made it all the more satisfying.
“I suppose so, yes.”
“Well, break a leg,” Grey said, the phrase still feeling awkward in his mouth.
Isobel laughed. “Thanks. Drink your orange juice, I don't want you catching cold. I know you were stuck in that rain half the night, weren’t you?”
“Almost the whole night, actually.” Grey obediently took a long gulp, the juice pulpy and sweet.
Isobel picked at her egg for a time. Then, without looking up at him, she asked, “Are you going to tell me what happened?” It wasn’t the first time something bad had happened on the job, but this was the most severe incident. It was no secret that the Bleeding Roses were a handful, especially that damned drummer. But Grey didn’t want to worry Isobel before an audition. On the other hand, what she could conjure up in her imagination was probably even worse than the truth.
“Fraser and Beauchamp got into an argument at the studio again. He went to blow off steam at a bar, got extremely intoxicated, and then insisted on driving himself home.”
“Shit,” Isobel said, shaking her head.
“I was rear-ended when I stopped to avoid rear-ending Jamie, then hit again. I’ll be sending Dougal the bill, by the way, the car is toast.” The word toast drove Grey to finish his actual toast, dipping a corner in the puddle of egg yolk on his plate.
“Shit,” Isobel repeated, the curse foreign on her lips and all the more endearing for it.
Grey nodded. “As far as I know, everyone survived, though God only knows how. Jamie was just out of surgery when I left the hospital.”
Silence fell heavy over the table as they ate. Finally, Isobel spoke, calm and quiet. “Is it time to look for a new job?” There it was. Isobel wasn’t one to nag or make demands, but she’d let her opinion be known, that was for sure.
Grey sighed and shoveled the last of his egg into his mouth, washing it down with a swallow of orange juice. There was a fresh pack of cigarettes on the table, and Isobel’s lighter. His meal finished, Grey pulled one out and lit it, taking a long puff and blowing the smoke away from the table. “Perhaps. Not until after Dougal’s paid for the car though.”
Isobel sighed, dipping her head from side to side, conceding the point. “I suppose that makes sense, though it is quite tempting to tell you I don’t care about the car.”
“It’s not the car I care about.” Grey nudged his plate away a few inches so he could rest his elbow on the edge of the table. He bit down hard on a pained grunt, the muscle strains and bruises angry at him for moving.
“What do you care about, then?” Isobel took a sip of her coffee, her eyes locked on him over the rim of the mug.
And that was the question, wasn’t it? “You,” he answered. “It’s a good job—”
“It’s a terrible job.”
She had a point, and Grey shrugged to show that he agreed with it. “But it pays well. It takes the pressure off of you so you can focus on your work.”
“Margarine commercials and, ‘Thanks, but we’re looking for a femme fatale,’ hardly counts as work, John.”
“You know that isn’t what I meant,” Grey said. As long as he could pay their bills, Isobel could be selective in how she played the game. Her very first audition after they moved to Los Angeles had been a spectacular failure, and Grey had been fully prepared to beat the casting director to a bloody pulp for speaking to her the way he had. Only Isobel’s pleading had kept him from doing exactly that. His job meant that she could walk away when the sexual harassment started. She was growing rather thick skin by now, and Grey hated that she needed it, but he hated more the thought of her throwing away her dreams entirely. At least this way, she could chase them on her own terms. Precious few aspiring actresses were so fortunate.
“I know it isn’t.” Isobel reached across the table and squeezed his arm affectionately. A look of determination crossed her face, resigned and rather sad. “If this one doesn’t pan out, I can look for a regular job. Something to hold us over until you get something else.”
Grey shook his head and took another drag. “That won’t be necessary. I cannot imagine that Jamie comes through this without sobering up.”
Her own breakfast finished, Isobel stood and collected the plates, taking them to the sink. “You are an unfailing optimist, did you know that?” She kissed Grey’s cheek, then plucked the half-gone cigarette from his hand. “Go to bed. I’ll see you when I get back.”
Snatching the front of her sleep shirt, Grey pulled his wife down for a kiss that tasted like sweet coffee. “You’ll tell me all about it, yes?”
“Of course I will.”
It took a lot of leverage and groaning to haul his sore body out of the chair.
“Take something for that pain,” Isobel called after him, turning on the water to wash the dishes. “Keep making all that noise, and I’ll trade you in for a younger model.”
Grey winced. “Fair enough. But I get to take him for a test drive too.” His wife’s laughter echoed down the hallway behind him.
The bedlam of an enraged Scot’s voice flooded the hallway of Sherman Oaks, the corridor a flurry of scrub-clad activity. “Goddamn it,” Grey muttered as he broke into a stiff jog, following the chaos to Fraser’s room.
From what Grey could tell in the few seconds it took him to get there, the disagreement began because Jamie was keen on checking himself out of the hospital, while his competent medical professionals were keen on keeping him alive. Two men, including Harry Quarry, and three women wrestled with Fraser, the enormous man already halfway out of the bed.
“Grey!” Quarry called to him. “Give me a hand here.”
John pushed past one of the nurses to Fraser’s left side. He leaned heavily on Jamie’s shoulder, his strong muscles tense under John’s one good hand. “Cut the shit, Fraser,” he barked.
Jamie glared up at him, face red and furious. A stubbly, uneven patch of shaved scalp surrounded an inflamed wound, pinched together by several black stitches close to one ear. Grey tried not to stare at it.
“What do you think you’re going to do, run out of here with your ass hanging out of your hospital gown for the press to see?” Jamie huffed and growled like an angry bull, but he stopped fighting so hard. “Don’t make me sit on you,” Grey said. He raised his eyebrows, expectant.
With another frustrated growl, Fraser snatched his arms away and flopped backwards onto the hospital bed, pouting. “Aye, fine.”
The room breathed a collective sigh of relief, backing slowly away from the bed, ready to dive back in at any moment. A nurse reached for Jamie’s left hand, an IV taped to the back of it, a purple bruise spread around the needle. That probably hurt like hell, Grey thought. Jamie was left-handed. Fraser snatched his hand away from the nurse, making her flinch.
“S-sir, I need to check the line...” she stammered.
“Fuck off,” Fraser growled, and the nurse backed away.
This was so very far from Grey’s job description. Of course, Dougal would probably argue this fell under other duties as assigned. “Hey,” Grey snapped, drawing Jamie’s glare to him. “I realize you’re irritated and rather stoned on morphine right now, but I frankly don’t give a rat’s ass.” Fraser’s eyebrows crept up his forehead. Grey went on. “But this woman is trying to keep you alive, whether you like it or not. So stop abusing the staff, you ungrateful prick.”
Fraser’s jaw dropped and he sputtered. “Ye cannae talk to me like that! I should sack ye.”
Grey rolled his eyes. “I don’t work for you, ass, Dougal holds my contract. And who the fuck is he going to get to replace me, hm? One week with you is more than enough to send anyone running for the hills.” Grey crossed his arms over his chest and met Jamie’s glare. “No other decent armed guard on this continent would take this job, and Dougal knows it. Now.” He bent over Fraser’s bed, looming over him for a change. “Let. Her. Work. If you can’t say something nice, just shut the hell up.”
Jamie actually growled at John, his blue cat eyes narrowed in irritation, but when the nurse approached him again, he held still and didn’t make a peep about it. “I hate ye, John Grey, did ye ken that?”
Grey scoffed. “Consider the feeling mutual, Mr. Fraser.”
An awkward cough drew Grey’s attention back to Harry. He dug his palm into one eye, then the other, yawning. “Have you got this under control?” Quarry asked.
Stooping again, Grey looked into Jamie’s eyes. They were slow to focus, his pupils pinpoints. “Yeah, he’s not going anywhere. Go get some sleep, Harry, you look like hell.”
Quarry grunted and shuffled from the room.
The nurse finished her work and whispered thank you to Grey, ducking back out into the hallway, leaving him alone with Fraser.
For a while, Jamie laid there, propped up against the smashed pillow, scowling. Now that the berserker rage had subsided, he looked startlingly frail. Thin and pale from blood loss and whatever fresh hell he went through in the operating room. Eventually, he spoke. “Ye dinnae have to talk to me like a spoilt child, ken.”
“True,” Grey said, leaning against the door frame. “But you don’t have to act like a spoilt child either.” He sighed and let some of the heat out of his voice. “Look, I’ll be honest with you. You fucked up, Fraser. You’re damn lucky not to be in jail right now. Or handcuffed to the bed with a paddy wagon waiting to pick you up as soon as you get discharged.”
Fraser looked down at his hands, flexing his fingers and rolling his wrists. One popped and he winced. “Yer’re probably right.”
“There’s no probably about it,” Grey replied. “Have you spoken to Ned yet?”
Jamie shook his head.
“Well, when you do, I suggest you do exactly as he advises. You nearly killed a bunch of people, myself included.”
For a moment, Grey actually expected Fraser to offer some token apology. But he just laid there, barely blinking through the fog of painkillers, staring at the beat-up television mounted on the wall. Grey followed his gaze to the old set, barely in color, the picture coming through with a good deal of static, the local news showing footage of the wreck.
It was surreal seeing it this way. The emergency lights on the screen were surrounded by ghastly halos in the rain, the camera zoomed in now and then on the woman who was taken away on a stretcher. It panned to show the firemen cutting Jamie out of the Trans Am, then Grey talking to the police. It was his own face, he recognized it, but it hardly registered as an event he’d experienced, though his arm aching in the sling begged to differ.
Now that the room was quiet, the low volume was sufficient to hear the reporter’s voice-over. “Fortunately, there were no fatalities, though at last report, one woman is in critical condition. Our sources describe Fraser’s condition as stable.” One more shot of Fraser being loaded into the ambulance, and then the video switched to baseball. “Next up, in sports, the Dodgers upset the Washington Nationals three to nothing.”
Grey reached up and switched off the television. Jamie stared into space, swallowing hard, saying nothing. At least he had the good sense to be disturbed by the sight of the wreck.
“That’ll rot your brain,” Grey said quietly. He was still pissed off, but Fraser was in no shape to be read the riot act. “You should try to get some rest. I’ll be right outside if you need anything.” Grey stepped out of the room and pulled the door shut behind him.
Harry escorted Claire Beauchamp past the few paparazzi that Grey and hospital security hadn’t managed to threaten away from the entrance. They circled the parking lot like vultures, swarming as soon as they saw the vocalist for the Bleeding Roses, dressed to be photographed, like she always was. Leather jacket artfully dropped off one bare shoulder, fishnet tank top over a bright red bra, leather miniskirt, and red knee-high boots with a heel sharp enough to stab a man. Her dark hair was blown out as big as Aquanet could wrangle, her makeup bold and trendy with a liberal application of deep black kohl around her eyes. At least she’d left the stack of noisy bangles at home this time. She was really a beautiful woman under all that cake and attitude, not that she didn’t look like sex on a stick dressed like this.
She barged right into Jamie’s room with no more than a token greeting spared for Grey, leaving Harry in the hallway with him.
Grey nodded toward the closed door. “What’s eating her?”
Quarry shrugged. “The usual. Impatient to finish the record, sick of Jamie’s shit. Tired of people assuming she and Fraser are together. And I think she dumped her girlfriend yesterday.”
“Hmm.” Grey gave a nurse a tight smile when she eyed Fraser’s door warily. She shrugged and went back to work, the heavy door masking the words Claire and Jamie exchanged. Whatever they were talking about sounded heated. John kept half an ear tuned in, listening for his cue to break up a cat fight. Sometimes, their job was guarding the band from each other.
“Dougal says he’s getting discharged soon,” Harry said. “Guess he can walk after all.”
Grey nodded. “Yep. As soon as the morphine wore off, they called in a physical therapist. But Fraser insisted on using the toilet under his own power, and that was the end of that. He made me bring him a pair of sticks yesterday.” Fraser’s defining characteristic as a musician was an insane, and often destructive, physicality with his drums. That destructiveness extended to every aspect of the man’s life, apparently. At least he hadn’t broken any furniture yet.
Harry scoffed. “Didn’t know he was that dedicated.”
“Said it was either something to keep his hands busy or he was going to try to escape again,” Grey replied. “Considering he’s both ambulatory and a legitimate public safety concern, I believed him.”
“Jesus. He’s a piece of work, isn’t he?”
“Mmhmm. But at least the brain injury didn’t cost him his rhythm.” Grey chuckled and flexed his right arm. He’d stopped wearing the sling but it was still stiff and ached before it rained. Hopefully that wouldn’t turn out to be permanent. “So the incessant tapping and banging on the bed rails is somewhat tolerable.”
Claire’s voice rose behind the door, still unintelligible, but sharp as a knife.
“Christ, there they go again,” Harry said, shaking his head.
Grey sighed, turning his eyes up toward heaven, waiting for a lightning bolt to strike the squabblers. All he found up there was a stained ceiling and disappointment. “They’re probably picking back up where they left off at the studio.” He shook his head, his shoulders getting tense, his fingers twitchy. Fishing into his pocket, Grey found his pack of cigarettes and lighter. “Before they get too far into it, I’m going out for a smoke. Think you can keep them from killing each other long enough for me to watch the deathblow?”
“Sure.” Harry took a seat in the chair against the wall. “I’ll give you fair odds if you want to make it interesting.”
“Tempting,” Grey said with a snort.
For the first time in weeks, John Grey made it home in time for dinner with his wife. Isobel had the radio on in the kitchen, Pat Benatar cranked up to that magic volume right before the speakers started to crackle and go fuzzy. She sang along to “Heartbreaker,” and Grey kept quiet as he made his way to the kitchen.
Isobel often muted herself when she sang, self-conscious of her voice—which was lovely—and downplaying her own vocal talent. Sometimes, though, when she didn’t think anyone could hear her, or after a few drinks, she belted it and made beautiful music. Grey grinned, the joy in her unfettered tone contagious, making his heart skip a beat.
He crept around the corner to steal a peek. Isobel wore an unfairly sexy outfit of Daisy Dukes and a white t-shirt that put every last one of her curves on tantalizing display. She stirred a pot that smelled like marinara and oregano, shaking her ass to the rhythm of the guitar, tossing her messy, teased ponytail with the cymbals.
For a few bars, Grey just enjoyed the show, then announced his presence by resting his hands on her hips and letting out the most outrageously falsetto, and perfectly timed, “Heartbreaker,” that he could.
Isobel squealed in fright and jumped, spinning around in his arms so fast that she slung hot spaghetti sauce on Grey’s shirt and dropped the wooden spoon on the floor. She clapped a hand over her mouth, and he laughed, as surprised as she was.
“John!” She swatted him on the shoulder. “You scared the hell out of me, you beast!” Laughter rang through her exclamation and she let Grey pull her into a kiss.
“I’m sorry, my dear, I couldn’t help myself.” He looked down at his stained clothes. “Spaghetti, is it?” Craning his neck and lifting the front of his shirt to his mouth, he licked at a glob of sauce. “Mmm, delicious.”
“Take that off and let me work on the stain before it sets.” Isobel bent to pick up the spoon and put it in the sink, turning down the radio on the way. She dropped a damp washrag onto the floor and used her foot to mop up the splattered sauce, muttering about mopping tomorrow.
Grey unloaded his gun from his holster, setting it out of the way on the counter, then shoved his rig off his shoulders. Unbuttoning just the top two buttons, he yanked his shirt out of his trousers and off, handing it over. Isobel’s hand was cool on his chest. “I’m glad I didn’t burn you. Turn the heat down and stir it for me, would you, please?”
“So what has you in such a great mood?” Grey plucked a fresh spoon from the drawer and did as he was told, watching the deep red sauce swirl and simmer in the pot.
Isobel turned on the tap. “I got a job today. Remember the margarine commercial?”
“Yes! I thought you said they were blowing you off?”
“Well, they did,” Isobel replied, scrubbing dish soap on Grey’s shirt. “But the casting director for that one is also working on a big ad spot for Coca-Cola. He called this morning, asked me to come in today, and I nailed it!"
Grey’s mouth fell open in pleasant surprise. “That’s wonderful!” Balancing the spoon across the pot, he grabbed Isobel’s arm and spun her around, dragging her into his arms and planting an enthusiastic kiss on her soft lips. She squeaked and tried to pull away, waving her wet, soapy hands as the reason for her protest. Grey didn’t let go, and she laughed. “I’m so proud of you! Did you call home yet to tell your mum the news?”
Finally, he released her and she grinned, nodding. “I did. You’d have thought I told her I’d landed top billing in some high budget film.”
Grey chuckled. His mother-in-law wasn’t the most exuberant or demonstrative woman about many things, but her daughter’s triumphs were counted among the few. “I have no doubt. Isobel, you’ve done it, you’re an actress.”
A rather fetching blush colored Isobel’s cheeks and she sank her teeth into her bottom lip with a shrug. “One soda commercial is hardly a career.”
“Alright, true enough,” John agreed. “But it is the start of one.” He kissed first one pink cheek, then the other. “Stop that.”
Isobel’s eyebrows drew together. “Stop what?”
Grey waggled a finger in circles in the direction of her face, indicating her expression, then went back to stirring the spaghetti sauce. “That thing where you act like your successes aren’t praise-worthy. You are talented, beautiful, and winning, and you deserve to celebrate that.”
“I will make a deal with you,” she said, taking the spoon from Grey’s hand and nudging him out of the way with her hip. “I will try to do that, but you have to do two things for me.”
“If you’re so certain this is the humble beginnings of a real acting career, open that bottle of champagne that’s in the fridge.” Isobel nodded toward the refrigerator.
“That’s easy enough,” Grey replied, opening the fridge, the cold air across his bare chest giving him goosebumps. It wasn’t a terribly expensive bottle, but still decent. Good enough to celebrate a Coke commercial anyway. He unwrapped the foil from the bottle and wiggled the cork loose with this thumb. One firm tug and the cork came free with a loud pop, the gas pouring out in a fog. “And the second?”
Isobel rose up on tiptoe to retrieve a pair of champagne flutes from the cupboard. She gave John a sultry look up and down as she set the glasses on the counter in front of him, her teeth biting into her bottom lip. “Don’t put a shirt on.”
Modest champagne wasn’t half as intoxicating as Isobel’s excitement as she regaled Grey with the finer points of her audition performance, and the bubbly tasted better on her lips than out of the glass. She only put up a token fight about leaving the kitchen a mess after dinner, letting John whisk her off to bed with the promise that he’d take care of it later.
God, he loved her. Loved the way she melted under him, the breathy sounds she made when he kissed her neck. He said as much and she smiled up at him, a slow spread of her rosy lips, a flash of pearly teeth. “I love you, too.”
Grey wanted to take his time, spend hours taking Isobel apart piece by piece. But she was wet and eager, rolling her hips against him, leaving a stripe of moisture on his thigh. Growling in her ear made her shiver and gasp and beg him to hurry up. Never one to refuse a lady, he sank into her. It was warm perfection inside his wife, her shapely legs strong around him, spurring him on. “Fuck, you feel good,” he hissed.
“Harder,” Isobel begged, arching her back. “More.”
More meant that she wanted him to use his hand too. John worked a hand between them, teasing her clitoris with a gentle thumb. It didn’t take long for her to start panting and moaning under him, her breasts heaving in the most titillating way. She orgasmed with a cry of his name, pulling him along with her. “Isobel, God!” he gasped, his pleasure spilling out of him. She tightened her legs around him, didn’t let him go as she caught her breath.
At last, she relaxed, her trembling legs sliding off his back. She groaned, then giggled, sated face flushed and happy. Grey kissed her deeply, slow and lazy as his prick went soft and slipped out of her. She covered a yawn with one hand, and he grinned down at her. “Feel better?” he asked.
Isobel nodded, her eyes fluttering closed. “Just what the doctor ordered. Can you get a towel? Pretty please?” She pushed her lower lip out in an exaggerated pout, and John dipped his head to give it a playful nibble. She hummed like a contented cat and kissed him.
“Of course, darling,” he said. Isobel’s body was warm and the room was cool. Grey hated to get up, but he liked to take care of her.
When he came back with a towel, she played possum and pretended to snore. She kept up the ruse when John nudged her legs apart, but lost her composure when he cleaned her up. He teased her with the towel, making her squeak and squirm, blinking up at him from under heavy eyelids. “You’re so good to me.”
Grey bent over the bed and kissed his wife. “Not half as good as you deserve, my love,” he said against her lips. “Why don’t you call it an early night. I’ll do the washing up and join you after a bit.”
Isobel yawned again and nodded, rolling onto her side as John pulled the covers up over her. He planted a single kiss on her bare shoulder, pulled on a pair of sweat pants, and closed the bedroom door softly behind him.
Grey and Quarry weren’t usually needed at the studio while the Bleeding Roses were recording. They’d show up toward the end of the session and help Dougal keep the peace long enough to get the band out the door to go blow off steam. What steam they could have possibly built up, Grey had no idea. But there were four of them, and two bodyguards, so Grey and Quarry had to divide and conquer. Grey would end up tailing Jamie, Quarry would escort Claire wherever she was going. She rarely got into serious mischief, but as the face of the band, got hounded the most by paparazzi. Angus and Rupert, the bassist and guitarist, would sometimes start out with Jamie, but they’d bail out pretty fast if they’d picked up two or three girls already. Unless, of course, the girls they wanted were doing lines of coke, then they’d stick it out and join in.
Today was the band’s first day back in the studio after Jamie’s accident. Grey didn’t want to know how Ned and Dougal managed to keep him out of prison, but they did. Fraser probably didn’t even know what the fine was, just that it was getting paid. But their schedule got around to the paparazzi and the fans, as these things always did, and Grey and Quarry reported to the studio for one in the afternoon.
Beauchamp arrived first, as typical, her dolled-up face serious and businesslike as she let Quarry push past the vultures, one hand on her back. Of all the Roses, she was the most driven. This was her career, that much was obvious. She and Fraser wrote the vast majority of their music together, an incredibly creative, if volatile, partnership. They didn’t always see eye to eye, but they came up with some impressive shit.
Fraser showed up on his Harley, dressed head to toe in leather. No helmet, of course, because why would someone with a fresh head injury need a helmet? The photographers just ate it up when he shook his hair out from the wind, and Grey struggled not to roll his eyes at the theatrics. Fraser had embraced his scar, one side of his head shaved down into the the most dramatic undercut Grey had ever seen. The paparazzi swarmed him, shouted at him, and Fraser’s jaw went tight, back stiff. For a moment, Grey felt sorry for him, getting hounded like that. He and Quarry shoved through the crowd of paparazzi and got him to the studio door. The wreck had left Fraser with a limp that he did his best to hide. Maybe no one noticed it in the commotion. Yeah, right.
Angus and Rupert arrived together—were they ever separated? They always showed up together, left together, picked up chicks together, lived next door to each other... John and Harry joked that they even pissed together. Hell, maybe they did. Maybe there was more to their relationship, maybe not. They shoved their way confidently through the throng of photographers, Quarry and Grey barely had to do anything for them.
“Alright,” Quarry barked at the crowd. “You’ve got your pictures, now get lost.” One or two actually listened, the rest staring at them like idiots.
Grey held the door open long enough for Quarry to slip inside, then locked it securely. He blew out a breath and shook his head. “Jesus, you’d think they’d have something better to do.”
Harry snorted. “Wouldn’t that be nice. But then we wouldn’t have jobs.” He checked the door once more, then nodded down the hallway. “Might as well see how this goes down.”
They found Dougal finishing up a speech to the band and the producer, some pomp and circumstance about how good it was to have Jamie back in one piece. Fraser still looked deeply uncomfortable, his arms folded over his broad chest as he leaned against a wall with his ankles crossed. If he could have sank through the floor and disappeared on the spot, he would have.
Rupert clapped Jamie on the back and Claire gave him an uncharacteristically sweet smile, touching his shoulder.
Then all at once, Fraser snapped out of his funk. He dropped his arms to his sides and looked up, flashed a cocky grin, and said, “Enough talk, aye? Let’s record an album.”
“Warm up first?” Claire asked.
“Yep,” Fraser said, shoving away from the wall and headed for the door, rolling his head from side to side, loosening up his arms as he marched to the studio.
Rupert and Angus grinned like the happy idiots they were, and Claire gave Dougal a skeptical look, bright red lips pursed into a frown.
The control room was crowded between Dougal, the producer Murtagh, Geillis—who showed up just to watch the fireworks, as she phrased it—and Quarry and Grey crammed into the back of the room. All eyes were on Jamie as he settled in behind his kit. He adjusted his cymbals, the stool, gave the kick drum a few experimental whacks. It was all exactly as he’d left it, but he went through the ritual anyway.
“I havenae hit anything with drumsticks save for tables and cushions,” Jamie said. “Gi’ me a minute to jam and get the muscle memory back, aye?”
“Take yer time,” Murtagh said through the intercom. The producer was around Dougal’s age, connected to Jamie’s family somehow, but Grey wasn’t sure exactly. He was an old hippie type, a long ponytail, tie dye, soul patch, the full nine.
The studio fell silent with an air of expectation and curiosity, the pressure palpable.
Jamie took a breath, banged out a beat for himself, and dove in. He started with a simple enough rhythm, snare and kick and cymbals, steady, gradually building up to his characteristic intensity. As soon as he started to relax and have fun with it, everyone in the booth let out a sigh of relief. He was fine. Fraser could still play.
The beat got more interesting, faster, more frenetic. Grey thought he caught a grimace on Fraser’s face through the glass, just a flash of discomfort when he worked the peddles too fast. But he adjusted his posture and carried on.
Rupert slung his guitar strap over his shoulder and gave Jamie an inquisitive look. Fraser shrugged, then nodded, sliding easily into the opening beat for one of their older songs. Rupert nailed the riff, Angus picked up the bass line, Claire sang the opening verse, and they were off to the races.
They actually sounded pretty damn good. Murtagh nodded to the beat, Dougal grinned, and Geillis looked like she’d just won a bet. It was like nothing had changed. They fell right back into sync, everything clicking and coming up aces.
Then Jamie stopped playing in the middle of the chorus. “Wait, hey, what’s the joke?” he shouted. The band came to a screeching halt, and turned confused eyes on their drummer. “Are ye sick, Claire?”
“I beg your pardon?” Beauchamp sneered. “No, I’m not sick, what’s the matter with you?”
“Ye sound like shite, is all.”
The tension ratcheted up to eleven. Claire glared daggers at Jamie, Angus and Rupert’s brows furrowing, desperately lost. That probably wasn’t a good sign.
“Let’s try it again, aye?” Murtagh said over the intercom, desperate to deescalate the situation. “Maybe something a bit faster. Claire, you pick.”
“Alright,” Claire said, struggling to bring herself back to focus. “Let’s do ‘Black Kirk.’” She shot Fraser a dirty look. “We always harmonize well on that one.”
Angus started the song with a short bass riff, the tempo faster. Jamie pounded his kit, Claire sang her heart out, and it sounded as good as the finished album.
But once again, Fraser cut them off in the middle of the first chorus. “I cannae work like this, what’s wrong wi’ ye?” he demanded. “Rupert, did ye break every string on that guitar? And Claire, ye ken I love ye, babe, but ye cannae carry a tune in a bucket today.” He turned toward the glass, appealing to Murtagh and Dougal for backup. “Honestly, who was in the car wreck, me or them? I got better music out of my bedpan.”
Geillis snorted, but clammed up when Dougal shot her a warning glare.
“Jamie, lad...” Murtagh said into the intercom. “It sounds fine.”
“Och, for fuck’s sake, Murtagh, not ye too.” Jamie gripped both drumsticks in one white-knuckled fist. “Claire, come on, I ken ye’ve had a few days off, but—”
“I have not had a few days off, you absolute prick,” Claire bit out through clenched teeth. “I have been rehearsing and I have been writing. I have been working while you convalesced in that fucking hospital because of your own stupid fucking decisions.” Her shoulders shook with her anger. She’d probably climb over Jamie’s drum kit and choke the life out of him if he kept going. Grey braced himself to break it up. Harry had his hand on the door knob, ready to do the same.
“Dinnae lecture me, ye stuck-up bitch!” Jamie roared. “If ye just sing the song the way we fucking wrote it—”
“I am, you lunatic!” Claire shouted. “I’m singing it the way we wrote it. I’m singing it the way I sing it every goddamn show, and I’m singing it the way it sounds on the fucking album. If you’re not ready to go back to work, why don’t you just say so, you fucking piece of unbelievable stubborn shit!”
“Oy, knock it off!” Dougal snapped through the intercom. “Just pipe down for one goddamn second so we can think. Jesus.” He covered the intercom and addressed Murtagh. “Any ideas?”
Murtagh shook his head, long hair shivering with the movement. “No’ a one. It’s no’ them, they sound good. It’s Jamie. He sounds fine too, but...”
Dougal nodded. “Aye, ye’re right.” He spoke into the intercom again. “Rupert, play some scales. Nice and slow, like yer’re teaching a toddler.”
Rupert nodded and played the most basic scales known to man, slow and steady. He glanced expectantly at Fraser, who just shook his head and shrugged.
“Claire,” Dougal said. “Scales.”
She did it old school. “Do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do.” It was perfect and she glared at Jamie.
Fraser’s jaw dropped and he stared at Dougal through the glass. “I... Dougal, I cannae...”
“Fuck,” Dougal muttered.
Murtagh echoed the sentiment and scrubbed a hand over his forehead. “He’s gone tone deaf,” he whispered. “What now?”
Jamie shot to his feet, the stool crashing into the wall behind him. He hurled his sticks and they careened through the studio, Claire and the others ducking and shielding their heads against the ricochet. Shoving his kit out of his way with a terrible racket, Fraser stormed from the studio, marched directly to the exit, and left.
“Grey, follow him,” Dougal said. “Make sure he doesnae talk to strangers.” It was code for make sure he only buys drugs from his usual dealers.
“Yes, sir,” Grey said, and dashed out of the control room to the sound of a Harley roaring to life in the parking lot.
Halfway to Fraser’s house in Van Nuys, Jamie stopped at a red light, turned in the seat of his Harley, and flipped Grey the bird.
“Nice,” John muttered. “Real nice.” He sighed and continued to follow him. “I need a new fucking job.”
To Grey’s disappointment, but not his surprise, Fraser rode to his favorite dive bar, parked his motorcycle out front, and strolled right in. With a sigh, Grey parked his car—a brand new Chrysler because Dougal’s check had cleared—and followed him inside.
The place was deserted, as expected at half past two on a Wednesday afternoon, just a woman with bloodshot eyes and smeared makeup having chips for breakfast and an old drunk holding down one end of the bar. And now, of course, one conspicuously tall, brooding ginger in a ripped Alice Cooper t-shirt and leather pants. Fraser took a seat at the bar, quietly ordered three fingers of neat scotch, and downed the glass before the bartender could even step away. Jamie gestured for a refill and the bartender obliged him.
Here we go again. Grey took a deep breath, let it out in a sigh and, with the air of a man marching off to war, crossed the empty bar and took the stool next to Fraser.
“Piss off, Grey,” he growled.
“Fine, thanks, and yourself?” Grey asked, prim and proper, just to annoy Jamie.
“I dinnae need a nanny, so consider yerself dismissed.” Jamie swallowed half the second glass of whisky.
“Oh, I really should, shouldn’t I?” Grey unbuttoned his jacket and let it hang comfortably, his weapon concealed. “But you know as well as I do that your uncle will have both my legs broken if something happens to you.”
“Something already has happened to me, ye English bastard.” Jamie finished the second drink and slammed the glass down onto the bar. He nodded at the bartender, who poured him another. “Just leave the bottle, aye? Charge me for the whole thing, I’ll drink it.”
“Do you think that’s wise?” Grey asked. Why the fuck would he say that? It wasn’t his job. He wasn’t Fraser’s damn AA sponsor.
Fraser glared at him and poured scotch until it sloshed over the rim of the glass, never taking his eyes off John. Leaning to one side to get to his wallet, he pulled out two hundred dollar bills and slapped them onto the bar, shoving the wallet back into his pocket. “Are ye going to lecture me, or are ye going to have a drink wi’ me?”
“I’m on duty.”
Jamie took a long drink and raised his eyebrows, unconvinced. “So? I ken it for a fact yer boss bumps in the studio.”
Grey sighed. Fraser was in that docile stage of his binge, the place where he was almost a decent human. “Fine. Beer, please,” he said to the bartender. “Anything dark you have on tap.” One drink would be fine. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out his pack of smokes, perched one between his lips, and offered the open pack to Jamie. He plucked one from the box and bent to light it from Grey’s lighter. The bartender set his beer down, then left a clean, if battered, ashtray on the bar between them.
For a few minutes, they smoked and drank in silence. Then, Jamie murmured, “I couldnae tell one chord from another. I could feel the drums. I could tell what was Angus on the bass or Rupert on the guitar, but I couldnae hear the melody. And Claire...” He blew smoke through his nose and shook his head, eyes staring straight ahead. “Nothin’.”
What in the hell was Grey supposed to say to that? He wasn’t a shrink. So he grunted and nodded and took a drink of his beer.
Fraser propped one elbow on the bar and rested his head on the heel of his hand, cigarette balanced between two fingers. “Christ, my fucking career is over.”
Grey shrugged. “Maybe. Maybe not.”
“What the fuck do you know?” Fraser sneered. He drained his glass and then refilled it, immediately bringing it to his lips again. “What the fuck does anyone know.” He was starting to slur, and Grey wondered if he’d get his lights punched out for trying to steal Jamie’s keys from his pocket.
True to his word, Fraser did finish the bottle, and helped himself to two more smokes when Grey left the pack on the bar with his lighter. He started to tap his right hand against his thigh, shoulders going tense. Shit, he was getting restless. The docile bender was about to come to an explosive round two if John didn’t do something.
“Come on,” Grey said, gently, putting a firm hand under Fraser’s arm. “Let’s get you home. Give me your keys.”
Jamie yanked his arm away. “Dinnae touch me, arsehole,” he slurred, his keys jangling in his hand. “I'm fine.”
“Yeah, I don’t think so, fucker. I’m not letting you try to kill us both again.” Grey pushed Fraser against the bar, took hold of his wrist, and pried the bike keys from his fist. Jamie tried to throw a punch, but Grey had him bent in a way that stole his leverage, and Fraser was blitzed anyway, so it was largely ineffective.
Grey hauled him off the bar and shoved him toward the door, keeping a firm grip on Fraser’s wrist. “Get in the car, shithead.”
“Ye can—cannae talk tae me—”
“—Like that,” Grey interrupted, dragging Fraser to his car. “Yes, so you’ve told me. Frankly, Mr. Fraser, I don’t give a damn.” He unlocked the passenger door and held it open for Jamie. “Do not puke in my car.” He shut the door, careful not to ruin any of the star drummer’s precious fingers, and got into the driver’s seat. Traffic was starting to pick up for rush hour, and Grey pulled out into the street headed for Fraser’s house. He could call Dougal from there to arrange for the motorcycle to get picked up safely.
John’s strategy was to ignore whatever nonsense came out of Fraser’s mouth, drive him home, see that he got settled, and then leave.
Fraser, of course, was a master at pissing people off. He leaned over the bench seat, reached across Grey’s body, and tapped his wedding band on his left hand. “Didnae ken ye were marriedt,” he said.
Grey clenched his teeth and ignored him, shrugging off his intrusive arm and then turning on the radio. Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” sprang to life at the second verse.
“Why d’ye no’ talk about her?” Of course he was going to push. “Are ye henpecked? She ugly?” Fraser cackled like a fool and let his head fall back against the headrest, too short for him and forcing him to bend awkwardly. In that way of drunk people to notice very little about their surroundings, he was oblivious to it. “Old lady’s a dog, aye?”
Hands tight on the steering wheel, eyes focused on traffic, Grey kept silent. He could feel Fraser’s eyes narrowing, zeroing in on him, looking for the weak point.
“Nay, she’s no’ a dog, is she? She’s hot, right?” Fraser grinned like a fox. “Aye, that’s it. She’s a babe and ye’re afraid to let her around the band. Who do ye think she’d go for, me or Claire?”
Grey turned up the radio. Almost there.
“Lemme see a picture of her,” Fraser demanded like the unreasonable prick he was. Grey pulled into Fraser’s driveway. “Ye seem like the type to carry pictures in yer wallet, lemme see.” Jamie made a grab for Grey’s ass, and John put the car in park, slapping his hand away. “Ah, ye do have pictures of her. Naked ones?”
John killed the engine and got out of the car, Fraser still rambling away like a pig, but at least he followed him to the door.
“We can put her in a music video. I promise no’ to break her.” Fraser laughed again as Grey pushed him inside. Christ, he was hammered. Either he’d been sober this whole time since the night of the wreck, or he’d taken something when Grey didn’t have eyes on him. Grey’s money was on the latter.
“...Unless she asks me to, of course,” Fraser went on. “And they always ask me to—”
Jamie’s jaw was hard against Grey’s fist, and he went down like a rag doll. John shook out his sore hand, then stooped over Fraser, sprawled on the marble tile of his own foyer. “If you’re quite finished, might I suggest you drink some water and take your sorry ass to bed.” Fraser blinked up at him, eyes unfocused and confused. “And if you so much as think about my wife loud enough for me to hear it, I will rip your balls off with my bare hands and shove them down your throat. Have I made myself clear?”
Grey stepped over Jamie and stalked toward the door. “I need a new motherfucking job."
“Any luck?” Isobel asked, coming up behind Grey and kissing him on the cheek. He sat at the kitchen table, hunched over the classifieds, red pen in hand. His wife rested her chin on his shoulder, her breasts soft against his back.
Grey shook his head and turned over the newspaper page. “None whatsoever. Well, no, that’s not entirely accurate.” He flipped back a page and jabbed his finger at the help wanted ads he’d circled. “There’s some nice, boring security jobs that pay peanuts. A couple contracted gigs that I’m not entirely certain I’d actually get paid for.” He sighed and dropped the pen on the table. “I could try asking some other band managers, but I’m afraid it’ll get back to Dougal that I’m looking.”
Isobel kissed his cheek again and gave his shoulder a squeeze as she stepped away to the refrigerator. “We have plenty in savings, if you need to quit outright for a while. And I’ve got another role lined up already. We’d be okay.” She opened a can of Diet Coke and took a sip, leaning against the counter.
“No, I’m not there yet. Fraser’s been mostly quiet lately.” Hopefully it wasn’t the calm before the storm. Grey tapped his chin, thinking. “I wonder if KISS needs a new security guy. They’re nice and docile. Mostly.”
The phone on the wall rang, and Isobel picked up the handset. “Grey residence.” A brief pause. “Yes, Miss Duncan, just a moment, please.” She cupped her palm over the receiver. “It’s Geillis,” she whispered, surrendering the phone to John when he stood up.
He put the phone up to his ear. “Good afternoon, Geillis.”
“Hi, John-dear,” Geillis purred in her thick Scottish accent. Grey rolled his eyes; he hated when she called him that. “Listen, we’ve a bit of a situation at the studio. Seems our drummer has decided no’ to come to work today. We cannae reach him on the phone. Could ye be a doll and go check on him? Hold on.” She spoke to someone else in the room with her, the sound muffled. “Aye, I’ll tell him. Sorry, John. Dougal says if he’s in no shape to drive, that ye’re to bring him to the studio. Got all that?”
Grey pinched the bridge of his nose. “Yes. Yeah, I’ve got it. I’m leaving now.” He hung up before Geillis had a chance to say anything else. Sighing, he scrubbed his hand over his stubbly jaw. He didn’t really have time to shave, even though he rather needed it. “Guess I’ve got to go to work early.” John bent and kissed Isobel, the taste of her lips heavenly, making him reluctant to leave. “Don’t wait up.”
“I know,” she said, fastening the second button of his shirt and smoothing her hands over his chest. “Be careful.”
From what Grey could tell when he pulled into Fraser’s driveway, all the lights in the house appeared to be off. The place didn’t look totally desolate though. He tried the bell, waited. No answer. Once, twice more. Nothing. He knocked on the glass door and waited, listening. He could just make out the sound of a television, which got louder as he stood there.
Aha, the bastard was in there, ignoring him. Grey opened the glass door and pounded on the steel one with the side of his fist. It sounded like a pissed off cop and usually worked.
“Fraser, open up,” he shouted. “It’s Grey. I know you’re in there.”
Grey tried the handle, but it was locked. “Motherfucker,” he muttered, going around to the back door. He had to hop over an iron fence and crawl through shrubbery, but he made it to the backyard. The sliding glass door was locked too, but now he could see the top of Fraser’s half-shaved head over the back of the sofa. Grey couldn’t see much more of the room, but at least he knew were the asshole was.
The garage door, though, it was open. Grey announced himself as he stepped inside. “Jamie, it’s Grey. You could have answered the door, you know.” The kitchen was a disaster. Half-eaten, open containers of food covered the counters, dried and crusted or molding and attracting flies. Others had been used as convenient ashtrays and were full of butts. The floor was littered with scattered silverware, the smashed drawer in pieces against the baseboard. The knife block was conspicuously empty, no telling where those were. Grey picked his way carefully through the rubbish and debris. “Jamie, get up, you need to go to work.”
The living room wasn’t in a much better state. Fraser sat on the floor, his back leaning against the sofa, the big glass coffee table in front of him covered in empty liquor bottles, orange prescription containers, plastic baggies, and at least half a dozen crushed and empty cigarette boxes. One .45 caliber pistol, likely loaded, lay half buried in the detritus, within Jamie’s reach, if he made any amount of effort for it.
“Jesus Christ, Fraser.” Grey picked up the pistol, and Fraser turned his bloodshot, dead eyes toward him. John released the magazine and worked the slide, ejecting the chambered bullet onto the expensive carpet. He set the gun back onto the table and pocketed the magazine. “Look at yourself. How do you expect to work in this state, hmm?”
Fraser stared at him in silence for a time, then that empty gaze landed on the television again. John switched it off at the knob and stood in front of the set with his arms crossed. “Your band mates are waiting for you. Go take a cold shower, try to sober up. I’ll drive you. Dougal’s orders.”
“Fuck Dougal,” Jamie groaned. He reached for the nearest vodka bottle and only succeeded in knocking it over. “I cannae play. ‘M tone deaf, ye daft bastard.”
Goddamn it all. Grey dug his fingers into his eye sockets. He could feel a migraine coming on. Or an ulcer. Maybe both. “Look, Jamie,” he said, trying for gentle. “You can still play. You can get through this.” Since when was he Fraser’s personal hype man? “But I have orders to get you to the studio by any means necessary, so let’s go."
“Och, suck my cock.” Fraser picked up another bottle, but it was empty when he brought it to his lips. He glared at it and threw it against the wall to Grey’s left, making him duck out of the way as shattered glass fell like hail.
“You’re a real piece of goddamn work, you know that?” Grey bent over and got a hand under Fraser’s arm. He hauled on him, but the man was too big and stubborn to move. “Come on, you pain in the ass. I’ll even make you some really strong coffee.”
Fraser pulled away hard, losing his balance and tipping over to the floor. Groaning and wincing, he grabbed at his right hip. “Fuck that fuckin’ butcher. Think ‘e left somethin’ in my fuckin’ leg.” He reached blindly from the floor to the coffee table, feeling around.
“Oh, no you don’t,” Grey said, dragging the heavy table away from Fraser. Now he was rearranging his goddamn furniture. What the hell was next? “Get your ass up, you are three hours late.”
“No, I am not.” Fraser rolled onto his stomach, floundering very slowly to get to all fours. “I write the songs, they are three hours early.”
Grey rolled his eyes. “Whatever you say, mate. Do you need a hand?”
Jamie grumbled and grouched and then finally nodded. “Aye. Cannae keep the floor still.” He flopped onto his back, chest heaving with effort.
“Right, that’s the problem.” John offered him a hand, got a hold on Fraser’s wrist, planted his feet, and pulled with all his might. At last, he was up, swaying and unsteady. Grey held onto him with both hands on Jamie’s arms. No sense in him collapsing after all that work. “There we are. Let’s get you some coffee, you can drink it in the car.”
“’M out o’ coffee.” Fraser blinked, eyes unfocused. “But I have...” He pointed toward a hallway. “Bedroom. I got somethin’.”
Jamie Fraser’s bedroom was the absolute last place that John wanted to be, but if it was the way to get them out of this damn house and to the studio, so be it. Bracing for the worst, Grey helped Fraser keep himself upright, doing most of the heavy lifting on that front.
Fraser’s bedroom wasn’t exactly what he’d expected. It was a wreck, clothes on the floor, the bed unmade, mattress off-center, sheets and pillows nowhere to be found. A pile of fluff and down on one side of the room was likely to blame for some of that. Half the dresser drawers were on the floor, one full of broken glass. But there wasn’t a mirror on the ceiling over the bed, not a single sex toy—of the weird or normal variety—no passed-out naked women. Grey mentally tidied up the place and it was actually rather nice. Respectable curtains that coordinated with what bed linens he could identify, a comfortable armchair, stylish lamps. Aside from the mess, it didn’t look like the bedroom of a depraved lunatic. Wonders never cease.
Pulling away from Grey, Jamie stumbled to the dresser, catching himself on the thing, and it rocked against the wall with a thud. Grey winced in sympathy for the furniture. Jamie was big and heavy, a human wrecking ball if ever he saw one. Fraser fumbled open a box on top of the dresser and rummaged around in it. He pulled out a vial and a naked razor blade, sprinkling some of the cocaine—at least, Grey hoped it was cocaine—onto the top of the dresser, cutting it into two neat lines. Rooting around in the box again, Fraser came back up with a rolled dollar bill, stooped over the dresser, and snorted up a line.
Grey had long ago given up being shocked and appalled by drugs; they just came standard in the music industry these days. At least the blow would keep him alert for a little while.
Jamie inhaled the second line sharply, gasping and shaking his head hard, then wiped up the residue from the dresser with his thumb and licked it. More thrashing his head back and forth, then Fraser nodded. “Alright,” he said. “Aye, let’s go.”
“Thank fucking Christ."
Fridays that the Bleeding Roses were in the recording studio were hell, so Grey approached Friday night like he was preparing to run a marathon or get into the boxing ring with someone in a much higher weight class. He slept late to recover from whatever shit the band dragged him through the night before, hydrated, ate a good dinner, rested, hydrated some more, and started drinking coffee at six in the evening. If Isobel was home, he’d help her rehearse lines or listen to her ramble about her latest audition.
So when the phone rang at four o’clock, Grey just stared at it, begging it to be for Isobel.
His wife got up and answered the phone, as pleasant as you please. “Grey residence. Yes, Miss Duncan, hello. Do you need to speak with... I see... Yes... Alright, I’ll tell him... You too, bye-bye.”
Groaning, Grey collapsed into the sofa and covered his face with a throw pillow. “You should have told her I’m dead.”
“You can always call Dougal and tell him to piss off.” Isobel tapped his ankle and he took his feet off the furniture, making room for her to sit down. “Jamie didn’t show up at the studio. You’re to retrieve him again.” She draped her body over his lap, wrapping her arms around his middle, wriggling her hands underneath him. “Or you can quit. You know I have an audition for a television show tomorrow. We will be fine.”
John sighed heavily and moved the pillow from his face, staring into the middle distance between the sofa and the ceiling. “I know we’d be fine.” He looked down at his wife. She smiled sweetly at him, and Grey swept a lock of her chestnut hair out of her eyes, tucking it behind her ear. “But it’s very good money, and it keeps the pressure off of you. You’re so close to your dreams, Isobel. I can feel it.” Her smile was infectious and lifted the clouds from his heart. “Besides, when you’re a big famous movie star, I’ll just be your bodyguard. I’ve got my resume all updated for you.”
Isobel chuckled and left a kiss on his stomach through his shirt. “Have your people call my people, and I’ll look over it.”
“I am your people,” Grey said. “C’mere.” He tapped his mouth with one finger, and Isobel crawled over him, smirking like a vixen. God, her body felt good on top of his, her lips soft and glossy. Perfection.
She deepened the kiss, grinding her hips against him, and Grey groaned. Now he really didn’t want to go to work, which was probably his wife’s goal all along. But he needed to. He’d agreed to do the job, and as long as Fraser wasn’t driving himself, there wasn’t likely to be a repeat of that God-awful wreck.
Reluctantly, John pushed Isobel away, breaking the kiss with a wet smack. “Will you save some of this for me for later?” He made a show of looking around the living room and waggled his eyebrows at her. “I don’t recall that we’ve christened this sofa yet, have we?”
Isobel laughed. “We have. Twice. And don’t act like you forgot, John Grey, we’d only had one bottle of wine between us and you raved about it for days afterward.”
“Oh, that’s right. You wore that lacy thing, didn’t you?”
“No, I didn’t,” Isobel shook her head.
Grey frowned. “Oh. Would you?”
She kissed him, her lips lingering over his. “If you come home to me in one piece, I’ll wear whatever you like after my audition tomorrow.”
“It’s a date.” The incessant clock on the wall ticked away above them, and Grey sighed. “But I do really have to go now.”
It was a repeat of the other day. Grey parked in the driveway of Fraser’s huge house in Van Nuys, rang the bell, and got ignored. He banged on the steel door with his fist, and got no answer. John sighed and hopped the fence again, trudged through the foliage, and tried the back door, which was still locked. He couldn’t see Fraser through the glass though, which was concerning. “God fucking damn this directly to fucking hell,” Grey muttered, headed for the garage again. At least Jamie still wasn’t smart enough to lock the garage door.
“Fraser?” he called into the quiet house. “Fraser, I know you’re in here.”
The kitchen was in worse shape than it had been before. There weren’t many more food containers, and what did appear to be new had less eaten out of them. The flies buzzed and whined through the air. Grey covered his mouth and nose with one hand against the rancid smell.
Jamie wasn’t in the living room. The coffee table was still where Grey had dragged it before, and it looked like several more liquor bottles had joined the shattered remains on the floor. The carpet crunched with broken glass as he walked over it.
He was probably in his bedroom. Grey groaned and rolled his eyes heavenward, begging for salvation. “Christ, please be wearing underpants.”
Jamie Fraser was, in fact, not wearing underpants. Grey found him face-down in his bed, the linens still missing, bare ass curving toward the ceiling. The only stitch of clothing he wore was a pair of black socks on his feet, dangling off the end of the bed. Grey buried his face in his hands. Why? What had he done to deserve this? “Jamie,” he barked, the sound muffled in his palms. “Jamie, wake up.”
Of course nothing.
Grey took a deep breath and let it out in a heavy sigh. He marched to the side of the bed like he was headed for the gallows. “Jamie. Get up, you prick.” Grimacing, John laid his hand on Jamie’s naked shoulder, his skin clammy, and jostled him. “Fraser, wake up.”
Jamie startled, flailing and thrashing, nearly knocking Grey’s teeth out as he rolled away, falling to the floor with a bone-shaking thud. “Goddamn it!” he shouted. “Och, my fucking hip.” Fraser’s head popped up from the other side of the bed, ruddy curls standing on end, eyes unfocused and furious, landing eventually on Grey. He scowled. “You."
“Me,” Grey replied, forcing back a burst of laughter at the stupidity of it all. He was too pissed for this to be funny. “Are you going to make a habit of blowing off the studio? I’d like to know if I’ve been demoted to chauffeur.”
Fraser groaned and disappeared behind the bed again.
“Jesus Christ, Fraser, I don’t have the patience for this. Nor the energy.” John scrubbed at his forehead with one hand. “You’re like some soul-sucking demon, did you know that? Every hour I’m with you, I feel like it takes a week off my life.”
Jamie didn’t reply. Grey thought he’d passed out again, but then he raised one middle finger above the mattress.
Grey scoffed. “Charming. Get dressed, for the love of God. You’re not putting your bare ass and balls on my leather seats.”
“I’m no’ going.”
“Stop being such a child,” Grey snapped. “Yes, you fucking are. Does Ned need to explain your contract to you? Do I need to explain how much I do not give a shit that you’ve got a case of the Mondays on a fucking Friday when you’ve never worked a nine-to-five in your life?”
“Fuck you and fuck Ned.” Fraser groaned and climbed up the bed, whining and complaining the whole time as he made his way to his feet.
Full frontal Fraser was entirely too much for a Friday afternoon—or any day of the week, actually. Grey spun on his heel and made a break for the bedroom door, taking his cigarettes and lighter out of his pocket. “You have until I finish this smoke to get dressed, before I drag you out of here kicking and screaming.”
“Like to see ye try,” Fraser muttered.
Don’t fucking tempt me. Lighting his cigarette, Grey took up a sentry position in the hallway outside the master bedroom, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed over his chest. Listening for the inevitable sound of snoring, he was surprised to hear Fraser actually start moving around. Drawers or doors opening and shutting, a package rustling. Then the sound of Fraser snorting and sniffing. Like Dougal said, the blow wasn’t any of Grey’s business. His job was to get Fraser to the studio by any means necessary. Dougal didn’t care what it took to get Jamie there, didn’t give one iota of a fuck how he stayed upright, so long as he wrote and played and did what he was supposed to do to make money.
Besides. Rock stars will be rock stars, after all.
The phone ringing woke Grey. His neck hurt from sleeping at a terrible angle, and when he opened his eyes, he realized he was on the sofa. Isobel had been asleep on top of him, and she stirred, coming to terms with her surroundings. She sat up, taking the blanket and the warmth of her body with her, and Grey groaned. She was still wearing that black lacy thing, the straps falling off her shoulders, her breasts barely contained by the garment.
“What time is it?” Isobel asked, squinting up at the clock.
“Not even ten in the morning.” Grey hauled himself off the sofa and stumbled naked to the kitchen, head pounding. It was Monday morning. Who the hell would be calling them on a Monday morning? And so insistent, damn. “Yes, yes, I hear you,” Grey muttered to the ringing phone. He made it on the sixth ring and picked up the handset, checking twice to make sure he was holding it right. “Yes?”
“Och, John-dear, did I wake ye?”
“What can I do for you, Geillis?” So what if Grey let his annoyance creep into his voice? Oh boy, was he ever hungover. He wasn’t meant to work today, and Isobel was neither filming nor auditioning, so they’d spent their Sunday evening together at home. Pizza delivery, the stereo turned up, a lot of drinks, and of course, wild, amazing sex all over the flat. Grey grinned as memories from the long night came to him in flashes. Mostly images of Isobel dancing and singing half-naked in the living room.
“Weel, Dougal thought the Roses could make up for some lost time by starting early in the studio today. And of course, our dear drummer boy—”
Dear God in heaven. “Ms. Duncan, I’m a bodyguard. I am neither a driver nor a babysitter,” Grey said, surprising himself with his frankness. He took a glass from the cupboard and filled it with cool water from the tap. “And why would Dougal schedule a studio session this time of day anyway? Has he met his band?”
“Aye, ye ken how it is,” Geillis purred over the line. “Desperate times and all. They’ve got to finish the record, tour dates have already been announced.”
Grey drank the glass of water and refilled it. “And I cannot for the life of me understand how Fraser’s inability to stay sober long enough to get to the studio on time is my problem.”
“Let me put it to ye this way, Grey. If Dougal gets his hands on Jamie somewhere that isnae public, he’ll murder the lad.” She was smiling, the witch. “So, in a way, ye are guarding his body. And if that doesnae convince ye, John-dear, Dougal will sack ye.”
“No one likes a tease, Geillis.” Grey gulped down half the second glass of water. “Fine,” he said at last. “I need an hour, but I’ll go get him. Again. You can tell Dougal he needs to start budgeting for my raise.”
“I kent we could count on ye. Bye, sweetie.” Geillis hung up, and so did Grey.
Isobel had listened to some of the conversation from the kitchen doorway, a bathrobe now draped over her shoulders. She sighed and crossed to the coffee pot. “I’ll make some coffee and fix you breakfast while you shower.”
Grey finished his water and watched his wife move about the kitchen, pulling out eggs and sausage and butter, setting a skillet on the range to heat up. “I’m sorry,” he said, the words sounding pitiful and meaningless to his own ears.
“I know,” Isobel replied, eyes focused on her task. She stopped when Grey put his arms around her, looking up at him with worried disappointment. “I just have a bad feeling about this, is all. I don’t know when or what, but... I just can’t shake this feeling that Fraser is going to be the death of you, and it’s—” Her eyes went watery and she clammed up, sinking her teeth into her bottom lip.
“Don’t worry, my dear,” Grey said, stroking her hair. “You know I’m careful. Fraser might be the death of himself, but he won’t take me down with him. You have my word.”
Every time Grey picked up the phone to hear Gellis say, “Hi, John-dear,” he died a little inside. He started eying the phone nervously, dreading the inevitable ring. It didn’t matter that the phone was for Isobel almost as much as it was for Grey; after a few for auditions and a call-back for the television show, she hired an agent. So it was nearly a coin toss if it was going to be Richard Joffrey with auditions or work for Isobel, or Geillis with terrible news and work for John.
“Why can’t Quarry do it?” Grey demanded. “He knows where Fraser lives too.”
“Oh, did ye no’ hear?” Geillis answered.
Grey’s heart stopped. If Harry quit, John was going to throttle the hell out of him. “Hear what?”
“Dougal sent him to some of the tour stops to meet with the local security managers and get things set up for the first leg of the tour. Make sure it’s all on the up-and-up.”
“Dougal did—” Annoyance sharpened his tone and Grey cut himself off, biting back a rude comment. It would have been completely justified, but it wouldn’t be in good taste to shoot the messenger. Even if said messenger was certainly fucking their boss. “But that’s my job,” he said instead, trying for reasonable. “I have more physical security experience than Quarry does. I ran point for the last tour and I was supposed to do it again for this one. What changed?”
“Weel, ye’ve been doing such a fine job getting our drummer boy to work everyday. Besides...” Geillis lowered her voice to a whisper that was probably meant to suggest she was divulging some juicy gossip, but was really just too close to sex kitten for Grey’s comfort. “Claire asked Dougal to send Quarry. He’s been driving her mad. Ye ken he’s hopelessly smitten wi’ the lass.” A dramatic pause. “And ye ken he’s barking up the wrong tree.”
Grey sighed. “Fine. Fine, I’ll do it. Tell Dougal I asked about my raise. Be there... whenever I can drag Fraser’s wasted ass off the floor.”
Fraser was nowhere to be found. Grey searched the first floor, then the second. Someone had apparently come in to clean since he was last there; most of the filth had been cleared away. There was no way Fraser had done it himself. Finally, Grey tried the closet in the master bedroom, a sense of foreboding leading him in there again.
Grey opened the closet door and Fraser fell out, the weight of his body slamming the door open against the wall, Grey’s legs and shoes all that kept him from cracking his skull on the floor.
“Jesus!” Grey said, backing up so he could squat next to Jamie, still very much passed out. “Fraser, can you hear me?” He was pale and clammy, dressed in a tank top and ripped jeans. At least he was breathing, labored gasps making his chest rise and fall. “Fraser, come on, quit screwing around.” Grey lightly smacked Jamie’s cheek, getting only a little motion out of him, brow furrowing though his eyes didn’t open.
Looking him over for signs of obvious trauma, Grey saw them. Track marks on the inside of Fraser’s right arm. “Fuck.” Don’t look in the closet, don’t look— “Fuck,” Grey said again. On the floor of the closet were a few bent, dirty spoons and empty syringes.
Heroin. The motherfucker was using heroin.
Grey checked his wristwatch, which read half noon. There was absolutely no way on God’s green earth that he was getting Fraser up and to the studio in the next thirty minutes. “You son of a bitch,” he muttered, standing up and stomping to the nearest phone, on the nightstand. It was unplugged, and with a little fumbling, Grey managed to get the cord back in it and called the recording studio.
“Aye, it’s Murtagh.”
“It’s Grey. Let me speak with—”
“Grey, where the fuck are ye wi’ my drummer?” Dougal interrupted, impatient and gruff as always.
“I’m at his house.” Grey cast a glance to Jamie, still unconscious on the floor. “It’s going to take a while, Fraser’s out cold.”
Dougal wasn’t moved. “Weel, wake him up, then. It’s why ye’re there, ken?”
“Dougal, your nephew is unconscious. Totally out cold, do you understand what I’m telling you? His bender—”
“I dinnae care,” Dougal spat over the line, and Grey could have strangled him on principle. “Is he breathing?”
Grey actually double checked, just to be sure. “Yes.”
“Then wake him up.”
“What do you want me to do, shoot him full of coke and hope for the best?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened. This is yer job, Grey. Do whatever works.” The line disconnected.
Grey stared at the phone in his hand, slack-jawed. That prick was serious. Dougal actually expected Grey to give Jamie cocaine to wake him up. “What kind of sick goddamn family have you got, Fraser?”
Sighing, he knelt next to Jamie again, shaking him. “I really need you to snap the hell out of it, because I do not want to do this.” Would it be worse to leave him like this? What if Grey just walked away? What if he just walked right out of this house, got back in his car, and went home to his wife? What if he faxed Dougal his resignation tonight and never looked back?
And what if Jamie died today because John left him?
Grey slapped him once, twice, three times, hard enough to turn Fraser’s cheek pink.
No more than a groan, then silence again.
“Jesus fucking Christ.” Grey climbed back to his feet and paced to the dresser. That wooden box was still on top of it, and when he opened it, he found everything he needed. His stomach twisted into knots as he pulled out a vial of cocaine and a needle that he thought was probably clean. “Fucking shit.” Grey stormed off to the kitchen, his heart pounding out of his chest.
This was wrong. It was wrong and it was stupid and dangerous and shitty and crossing so many lines. But he found a shot glass in the fourth cabinet he opened and put a little water in it from the tap. His hands were shaking by the time he got back to the bedroom, and he had to set the glass down before he spilled it and had to start all over again.
He stood there, trapped between the dresser with the blow and Fraser half-dead on the floor. “Fraser,” Grey shouted. He tried shaking him again. Clapped his hands in his face. All that earned him was a reflexive blink or two.
Desperation rushed through Grey’s body, his blood ice-cold. Anything. Fucking anything but this. Just the thought of actually pulling the trigger on this, to be the person to shove the hard drugs into him... Grey tasted bile.
“Goddamn it.” Grey stood over Jamie, his feet on either side of him. “Listen to me, you motherfucker.” He dropped to his knees, straddling him. Bending low, Grey got into his face. “If you don’t wake up, I’m going to do something we’ll both regret.” He shook both of Fraser’s shoulders hard. “You selfish piece of shit! You nearly kill us both, and this is what you do with your second chance? You piss it away, for what?”
At least Fraser had the decency to stir in earnest. There was noise and movement at the same time, which was an improvement. It was a sorry fucking state of affairs for that to be an improvement, but beggars can’t be choosers.
Fraser fell still again.
“You’re on more than just smack, aren’t you? Fuck.” Grey got back up and went to the dresser before he could think too hard about it. He’d only used cocaine once himself, but he’d seen how much Fraser used, and figured a fraction of that was as much risk as he was willing to take.
It shouldn’t be this simple, he thought. Shouldn’t be this easy to draw the liquefied cocaine into the syringe. Shouldn’t be so easy to find a good vein in Fraser’s left arm—he didn’t want to contend with the collapsed ones in the right. Grey was dizzy as he stuck the needle in Fraser’s skin. It took him a couple tries, but he hit the vein. “Jamie, please,” he begged, one last attempt at reason.
Fuck. Grey pushed the plunger, slowly, his eyes glued to Fraser’s face. Watching for what, he didn’t know. Change. Movement. A seizure or a heart attack.
The syringe was empty. Grey slid the needle back out and dropped it on the floor. A little bead of blood oozed out of the fresh hole in Fraser’s arm.
At first, nothing happened. Then, Jamie flopped onto his side and curled into a ball, groaning. Then his eyes opened and he gasped, the sound both terrible and beautiful.
“Jamie!” Grey said, scared, relieved, disgusted. “Can you hear me?”
All that came out of Fraser’s mouth was a litany of expletives, blended together into something unintelligible.
“Jamie, hey, look at me.”
It took some coaxing, but Fraser turned his wild, frightened eyes up to Grey. “John? What, where—”
“You’re at home. Are you okay?”
“I...” Fraser looked around him, disoriented eyes swimming. “Aye. I dinnae ken.”
“Good enough.” He was probably going to live through the day. Grey let out the breath he’d been holding, hands shaking again. Oh, dear God, he’d really done that, hadn’t he? His gaze fell on the empty syringe on the floor. The one Grey had filled. The one Grey had shoved into Jamie’s arm and then emptied there. His gorge rose and drove him, scrambling, to his feet. The bathroom was near, and he barely made it to the toilet in time to be sick into it.
They didn’t speak on the way to the studio, not a single word. Fraser sat in the passenger seat of Grey’s Chrysler, picking at the frayed edges around the holes in his jeans. He’d put a jacket on over his tank top, hiding his arms and the evidence. It was their dirty little secret. Grey offered him a cigarette, which Jamie silently accepted, and they smoked the awkwardness away. They tried to, at least.
When they arrived at the studio, Jamie got out of the car, trudged inside, and went right to work. He didn’t even take the bait when Claire and Angus gave him shit for being late again. Grey made a beeline for Murtagh’s office. He and Dougal were both in there, talking about who-knew-what.
“Nice of ye to join us,” Dougal said.
“Dougal...” Grey began, holding one hand up to stave off whatever additional bullshit was about to come his way. “I’m not going to deal with your sarcasm today, alright?” Murtagh kept a bottle of good scotch on a shelf next to his desk. Grey grabbed this and a glass without asking, helping himself to a very generous pour. He corked the bottle and replaced it on the shelf, then took a long drink. It was good scotch, warm and peaty, bringing with it the promise of comfortable numbness. Murtagh stared at him but didn’t say a word. “Thanks,” Grey said. “Feel free to bill Dougal for the booze. Unbelievable bastard.”
Chapter 8: Part Two: Ride with the Devil
John Grey hated being on the road with the Bleeding Roses. Loathed it. Claire was a prissy handful and difficult to keep happy, but that was Dougal’s problem, which Quarry was all too glad to help with. Angus and Rupert mostly kept to themselves, content as long as they had a steady stream of booze and strippers, groupies, or porn stars through their hotel rooms.
Jamie Fraser was the problem. It was always Jamie fucking Fraser. Fraser doped himself up on God knew what all day before a show, then shot up with coke or snorted it in the dressing room to pump himself back up to go on stage.
Which was fine. If everyone wanted to act like they didn’t notice that Fraser was spiraling out of control, fine. It wasn’t Grey’s job to care. It wasn’t his job to notice when the legitimate prescription bottles turned into baggies of pills, or when the fistfuls of pills turned into lines and needles.
It was, however, Grey’s job to tail him when he disappeared after a show, fucking off to God knew where. Well, Grey knew, of course, because he had to follow the bastard. He had to follow the bastard into every shady bar, to every nasty alley in whatever city they spent the night in. When it was alleys, Grey lingered, far enough away that he wasn’t actually party to the drug deal, but close enough to listen for it to go sideways.
Tonight, it was a bar. It might have been a halfway decent club back in the sixties, but now it was just like any other run-down dive with a questionable crowd who recognized Fraser immediately. The late-night crowd mobbed him, begging for autographs, fawning over him, touching him.
Grey stuck to Fraser like glue, firmly moving people back when they crossed one too many boundaries. Whether it was young men who clapped him on the back—a few of them making a grab for Jamie’s ass—or women hanging off of him, Grey barely managed to keep up with them. “Step back, please. That’s enough. Ma’am, excuse me, back up now.”
Fraser was still hopped up from the show, the blow and booze warring for control of his system, judging by the appearance of his eyes. “Grey, it’s fine,” he said after several minutes of this. “They’re no’ going to mug me, ken.”
Yeah, sure they weren’t. “Mr. Fraser—”
“John, really, I can handle it.” A trio of women had weaseled their way under Jamie’s arms, stumbling and laughing, obviously intoxicated. They looked like they’d been at the concert, their makeup, which no doubt had been flawless when they’d left home, was flaking and running now. They were young and pretty—exactly Fraser’s type—and probably looked better without the river of mascara and smeared lipstick. One of them got Fraser to bend so she could whisper something in his ear. Whatever lewd thing she said made him grin, and he licked his lips, nodding. “Oh aye, I can handle that.” He looked back to Grey, smirking. “Now, if ye want to handle it too…?”
“No. Thank you,” Grey bit out.
“Och, that’s right, ye’re marriedt,” Fraser said. He turned to one of the girls then, speaking to her but staring into Grey’s eyes with an unsettling intensity. “Ye should see his wife though.” Fraser made a low whistle. “She’s hot. I bet he misses her. Do ye no’? What do ye say, ladies, should we invite him to join us?”
The women looked Grey up and down like he was a piece of meat. One of them ran her hand down the front of his leather jacket, groping his chest in the process. “That jacket’s killer,” she said. “Mind if I try it on? I promise to be naked underneath.”
“And that’s enough of that, thank you,” Grey said, shrugging off her touch before she ran into his holstered gun. He really hated being on tour. This sort of nonsense was far too common an occurrence.
The woman stuck out her bottom lip, pouting. “What’s the matter with your friend, he some kind of prude or something?” she asked Jamie.
Fraser scoffed. “Nay, no’ John. Weel. He cannae stand to see me have fun.”
Far too many months of practice kept Grey’s mouth shut, expression stern but neutral, as he stared up at Fraser. “Will that be all, Mr. Fraser?”
Jamie gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “Aye, bugger off.”
“I’ll be over there if you need me.” Grey backed away, getting through the crowd that was already thinning out, breathing a sigh of relief to get out of the cloud of heavy perfume and inebriated sweat.
He found a place near the bar out of the way where he could see most of the establishment—particularly his redheaded pain in the ass charge who fortunately towered over almost everyone in the joint—and ordered a beer for appearances. He was still going to drink it, of course. It was decent beer, tap-cold with a good head. Grey had adopted his leave-me-alone-I’m-working posture, which was to say, he stood by the bar looking intense and brooding.
Fraser was having a good time at least, laughing, drinking shot after shot, at least one of which Grey was reasonably certain washed down pills of some kind. He grinned as he popped something into one of the women’s mouths, then the other two. And then they were on the move, bound for the back of the bar, ducking into the hallway marked restroom.
Grey sighed, the chorus of “Another One Bites the Dust” suddenly running through his mind. The mens room door opened, Jamie and one of the women disappearing through it, and the door shut again.
Well, at least he knew where Jamie was. Grey glanced at his watch, noting the time. He’d give them ten minutes. That was about how long Fraser’s mens room shags lasted in the last seven cities. Calling it a break, he drank his beer and lit a cigarette, keeping an eye on the door.
Grey’s glass ran dry, Fraser was still in the loo, and he was feeling fine, so he ordered a second beer. Two was his absolute limit when he was working. His intimidating face must have slipped, because he had to decline an advance from a frankly attractive man who was just way too young for him—and also not his wife. He glanced at his watch again. Then again.
It had been twenty-seven minutes and Fraser still hadn’t come out of the mens room. “Shit,” Grey hissed, abandoning his beer at the bar. He scanned the crowd on his way to the hallway. Maybe he’d missed him? Not bloody likely. How do you miss a six-foot-four ginger menace with a half-shaved head?
Grey flung open the door to the mens room. One guy at the urinal startled and glared at him. The restroom was empty. A frosted glass window on the far wall was open to the night, wide enough for Fraser to scramble through like a cockroach. “Oh that motherfucking…”
Grey canvassed the streets of Seattle looking for any sign of Fraser. He found the questionable neighborhoods first, checking the alleys for dealers or any sign of a giant redheaded douche bag. He wandered a few blocks, then realized that of course Jamie wouldn’t be here, not when he had, erm… guests to entertain.
So he headed back to the nicer side of the city, to clubs that he and Quarry had already flagged as places where VIP customers could get booze, coke, and women. These were devoid of Fraser too.
“If that son of a bitch went back to the hotel…”
The band and crew took up most of one floor of the Mayflower Park Hotel. Jamie’s room was smack in the middle of the cluster of rooms, halfway between the stairs and the elevator. The theory was that someone would hear it if he tried to run off.
Grey paused outside Fraser’s room, hand poised to knock on the door, the sound of enthusiastic sex and multiple voices drawing him up short. Well, at least Fraser was where he was supposed to be.
John rolled his eyes and headed for his own room, the stress and exhaustion of the night plowing into him. He looked at his watch, nearly five in the morning. “Fuck,” he groaned. Well, hopefully Harry got back before he did, because there was no way in hell he was driving the first shift tomorrow.
Portland went about as well as Seattle, Jamie ditching John almost immediately. The next leg of the tour started in Texas, which meant a private flight with the band, minus Quarry and Geillis, who flew ahead. They headed to the airport immediately after the show to take a red-eye to San Antonio. Fraser spent the flight egging Rupert and Angus on, trying to goad Beauchamp into an argument. Claire would have none of it, just tequila and maybe the flight attendant’s phone number.
That sparked a competition, Fraser and Beauchamp both flirting with the poor woman. But she ate it up, and before long she and Claire were tangled up and making out on the floor. Her band-mates, of course, wouldn’t stop staring at the women and making lewd comments that Grey pretended to ignore.
Fraser tore his attention from Claire and the stewardess, catching Grey’s eye. They stared at each other, Jamie’s eyes going narrow and intense for a very uncomfortable moment. Then he smirked to himself, and turned away to snort a line of blow.
Grey shook his head, trying to banish the feeling that Fraser had divined something about him that John wasn’t prepared to share. The suspicion left him feeling exposed and naked, and he got up to change seats, putting his back to the rest of the cabin.
It took forever to get to San Antonio from Portland. At least, it felt that way. After what sounded like a female orgasm or two—followed by male cheering and general debauchery—the flight attendant resumed her rounds, lipstick smeared and hair a mess. She refilled drinks, drugs, and brought John a cup of black coffee.
Most normal people went right to their hotel to crash after a long day and a late-night flight. Oh, but not the Bleeding Roses. No, they still had a few hours until daylight, which meant a long night still of working for Grey and Quarry.
God, he missed Isobel.
Grey knew better than to take his eyes off Fraser for even a moment in a place like this. He’d only turned away to politely and firmly brush off some unwanted attention from a woman who’d noticed Grey come in with him. Shouting and the meaty thud of a fist connecting with flesh drew his attention back to his charge, just in time to see Jamie deck a man with a mean left hook.
“Shit.” Grey shoved through the crowd back to Fraser’s side. People pressed closer, two more big guys—well, no bigger than Jamie himself at least—coming at Fraser. The lights landed just right, and Grey caught the glint of a blade in one of their hands.
“That’s enough!” John shouted. Where the fuck were the bouncers? “I said—Jamie, goddamn it!” Fraser threw another punch, hit the man without the weapon, leaving his own right side exposed.
Grey forced his way through the press, shoved Jamie aside, and put himself between him and the knife. The blade grazed John’s sleeve, and he seized the assailant’s wrist in a firm grip. “I said, that is enough!”
The man clocked Grey in the jaw, dull pain and dizziness exploding in through his face. He bit his tongue and tasted blood. At least he didn’t lose control of the damn knife. He wrenched the weapon away from the guy and shoved him as hard as he could into the crowd.
Fraser swore behind him, his voice thick and pained. Grey turned around, ready to dive back into the shit. It was chaos. He couldn’t tell whose blood was whose, who had started it—almost definitely Jamie—or what the hell was going on. Jamie stumbled back, crashed into the bar, tripped over a stool, and sprawled onto the deck.
The guy who last hit Fraser jumped on him, clenching one fist in Fraser’s shirt and drawing the other back. Grey trapped his arms in a hold and dragged him off Fraser. The guy kicked and fought, and Jamie scrambled to his feet, narrowly avoiding being kicked in the teeth.
Grey felt it the instant it happened. Someone pressed too close to his side. The hand under his jacket. The gun sliding from his shoulder holster.
He dropped the man to the floor and turned, coming face to face with the barrel of his own .45. Grey froze.
A third man’s fist flew through the air, crashing into the gunman’s face. Grey snatched the wrist holding the gun and angled it up and to the side as the man squeezed the trigger. The weapon barked. Liquor bottles exploded. People screamed.
Grey wrestled back control of the gun and Fraser dragged the guy to the ground. “Stay there,” John yelled at the man on the floor, angling his gun safely toward the floor to his right. The shouting calmed down, people staring in shock, but at least giving Grey and Fraser a wide berth now.
When Grey looked up to find the bartender, he was on the phone. “Police?” Grey asked. The barman nodded. “Good. I need that when you’re done.” He didn’t think he’d had any bones broken, but his cheek and eye socket throbbed like hell.
Fraser dabbed at his nose with his thumb and pulled away blood. He sniffed, chest heaving, and looked around him at the demolished bar. Then he flashed Grey a grin that was just pure evil, and John’s own self control was all that prevented a murder. “That was fun.”
“You’re a contemptible prick, Mr. Fraser,” Grey said. “Just sit on that stool and don’t say a damned word to anyone.” The barkeeper stretched the phone cord over to John, and he dialed Ned Gowan’s number.
The old man answered the phone on the fourth ring. “Weel, I suppose I’m a prophet now,” he said, yawning. “I was dreaming about Jamie Fraser in a police car. Is this Mr. Grey, perhaps?”
At least Fraser understood what the right to remain silent meant. The rising sun had begun creeping through the barred window of the Dallas County jail when Fraser was released into Dougal’s custody.
“What about me?” Grey asked Dougal.
“I tried to post yer bail, Grey,” MacKenzie replied. “They’re checking on your armed guard license just to be sure you weren’t prohibited from carrying yer weapon into the bar. Ned’s on the first flight this morning to see it sorted. Dinnae fash.”
This would be an excellent time to tell Dougal to get bent. “I ought to tell you to take this job and shove it, you know that?” Grey spat.
“Aye,” Dougal agreed as the guard locked the cell door behind Jamie. He smirked, looking precisely like the cat that ate the canary and felt no remorse. “But if ye’re no’ in my employ, how can I help wi’ yer legal trouble?”
Grey knew that would be the answer. It was why he hadn’t quit after the crash. Why he didn’t quit after Dougal made him give Jamie drugs. And why he wouldn’t quit now. Fraser probably would have died or killed someone if he’d been alone last night. Fuck, there really was no winning this one. “Just… call my wife, please. Let her know I’m alright and I’ll call her as soon as I can. Tell her it might be collect.”
“I’ll see to it,” Dougal said, and Grey believed him. “Once Ned springs ye, catch us up, ken. He’ll see to the flight.”
“Yeah, fine,” Grey mumbled, sinking onto the horrible bench against the wall and holding his face in his hands. The outer doors opened, shut, and locked with a series of clicks.
He really needed a new job.
Gowan made it to the police station just before noon, brought all sorts of documents and greased all kinds of skids. Favors were called in, promises were made, bail was posted, and Grey was released before sunset.
“Thank you, Ned,” Grey said when they were out of the jail and walking to the lawyer’s rental car, his firearm returned to him, unloaded and locked. Understandably, Dallas cops really didn’t like anyone but other cops carrying weapons on their property.
“Och, all in a day’s work, lad,” Ned replied, waving off the gratitude. “I’ve a bit of experience with Fraser-flavored trouble, after all. Ye’re fortunate yer breathalyzer came back clean.” They got into the car, a modest but new Chevrolet, and Ned cranked up the engine and turned on the air conditioning. “So, what really happened last night?”
Grey sank into the bench seat and leaned his head back against the headrest, letting out a long sigh. “I literally have no idea. I turned my back for less than a minute, and when I looked again, Jamie was throwing punches and there was a man with a knife… How that other guy got my gun without me stopping him is beyond me.” He shook his head, eyes drifting closed. He was so very, very tired. “Jamie’s the only reason I didn’t get my brains blown out.”
Ned made a hum deep in his throat that all the Scots he knew seemed to use as a conversational space filler. It said so much and yet so very little all at once. “Jamie’s not such a bad lad,” he said. Grey opened his eyes and sat up again, arching a skeptical eyebrow at him. Ned held up his hands in a placating gesture. “Aye, I know how that sounds. I’ve known his family since he was a skinny wee thing. He’s actually rather brilliant and kind-hearted, deep down.”
Grey snorted. “Very deep.”
Ned straightened his shoulders and gave Grey a level look. “Ye know how he came to be so close to his uncle Dougal?”
John shook his head.
“Ye cannae tell him I told ye this, but…” Ned took a deep breath, gathered himself, and pressed on. “He was orphaned when he was, oh, fourteen or so. There was a fire. Jamie and his older sister escaped, barely. His mother had been ill and bedridden for a few years. His father tried to carry her out of the house, but they didnae make it. Dougal adopted Jamie and Jenny, his sister. Dougal shipped them off to boarding school, but Jamie kept getting expelled and sent home. Brilliant mind, lacks discipline and respect for authority is what they always said. Ye’re familiar with that Todd Rundgren song, came out a few years ago? ‘I just want to bang on my drum all day?’”
Grey nodded. It was a catchy tune, for a flop.
“Weel, that’s Jamie. Dougal bought him a drum set, put it out in the shed for him.” Ned shook his head. “The first winter after his parents died, he nearly froze to death in that shed, just banging away wi’out so much as a jumper on.” He took a deep breath, letting that settle between them before continuing. “Jamie doesnae handle being idle, and he cannae abide grief. There’s not five stages for him, just anger. And he’s too stubborn to let it go in ways that don’t involve his own self-destruction.”
The old lawyer’s words rattled around in Grey’s tired brain, going around in circles until more of the picture started to come into focus.
“So,” Ned went on, “when his parents died, Jamie turned to music. But now he cannae hear the music anymore…”
Grey nodded. “So he’s imploding.” When he thought about it that way, it rather made sense. Fraser’s one coping mechanism, the single thing that had been there for him through everything, up in smoke.
“Mmhmm. And Dougal willnae make him get off the drink and drugs because it’s just what rock stars do.” Ned winced, seeing the flaw in that logic. “And probably because wi’out it, what does Jamie have left?”
“His life?” Grey ventured. “A few brain cells? His sister?”
Ned shook his head. “Jenny hasnae spoken to him in years. All he has is Dougal, the band, and us.” His uncle, who would apparently rather see Jamie die than stop working. The band, who enabled his madness and fought like cats and dogs. The kind lawyer, who bailed him out of everything… and his beat-up bodyguard.
Grey sighed. He really didn’t have the energy for the gravity of that statement, so he let the silence between them stretch on.
“So,” Ned said. “To the hotel to pick up your things and then the airport?”
“Absolutely not. I need a shower, a proper meal, to talk to my wife, and more than three hours of sleep,” Grey said. “I’ll leave town in the morning.” He pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to visualize the band’s itinerary. “Tonight they’re in… Oklahoma City? And tomorrow is Memphis, right?”
Ned reached behind his seat to retrieve his briefcase, pulling out a couple printed pages stapled together. He skimmed this and nodded, tapping tomorrow’s date with his index finger. “Aye, good memory.”
“Then I’ll meet them in Memphis tomorrow.” Grey’s stomach rumbled. He’d been fed in jail, of course, but it was hardly a decent meal. “I’ll be ordering a very pricey steak dinner and bottle of wine from room service and charging it to the expense account, just so that you know.”
Ned chuckled and reversed out of the parking space. “I was going to suggest that if ye hadnae said it yerself, lad.”
“You were shot at?” Isobel exclaimed over the phone.
“No,” Grey said, calmly. “I said almost. I’m perfectly fine.” He cut a bite of steak and popped it into his mouth, chewing with his eyes closed, head cocked to the side to hold the phone to his ear with a shoulder.
“But then you were arrested.”
“Standard procedure, my dear, this is Texas, after all. Ned sorted it all out. I don’t even have to come back for court.” The steak was fantastic. “I’m taking tonight off and then meeting up with the others tomorrow.”
Isobel sighed. God, how he wished he could hold her and kiss her right now, to reassure them both that he was alright. He could put on the bravado for his wife, but staring down the business end of a semiautomatic pistol was the most terrifying experience of his life.
“You need a new job, John.”
There it was. He expected this conversation. Some women nagged about jobs with odd hours, but not Isobel. She’d put up with a lot regarding his job with the Bleeding Roses over the years, and she’d taken it all on the chin. She didn’t want him to quit for selfish reasons, unless genuine, serious concern for his welfare counted as selfish.
“I know,” Grey agreed, taking a bracing sip of wine. “But it’s really not that simple.”
“It is, actually.” Isobel sighed, and Grey could hear the tension leaving her. “I know you’re careful, I do. And I know you want to keep the pressure to earn a good income off of me, but… I signed a contract today. I’ve got a recurring role on Knots Landing. I signed on for ten episodes over the next season.”
Grey hastily swallowed his bite of baked potato. “That’s wonderful! Well done, Isobel!”
He could hear the smile in her voice. “Thank you. Mum and Dad are over the moon.”
“I would say so. I am too. I’m so proud of you, darling.”
“I’m rather proud of myself.” There was a pause, then Isobel asked, “You have a break coming up soon, don’t you?” The sound of pages turning came over the receiver, Isobel flipping through her copy of the itinerary. She always had it with her, bless her, with the names and numbers of all the hotels they’d booked in each city.
“Yes, in a couple weeks, before we head to the east coast.” John polished off the steak, medium rare and juicy, then dabbed at his mouth with the napkin and held the phone with his left hand.
“Oh yes, here it is. After Chicago. Geeze, you guys aren’t flying a lot this time, are you?”
“Not this leg, no. At least Harry and I can take turns driving behind the tour bus, gives me a chance to sleep.” Grey cut up his potato with the side of his fork, mixing in the sour cream and chives. Texas sure knew how to serve a potato.
“That’s good. I don’t suppose Dougal will send him to babysit Fraser once in a while?”
“I wish,” Grey muttered. “No, Dougal is convinced that, of the two of us, I’m the only one who can keep up with him. Also Harry has the biggest crush on Claire, you know that.”
Isobel laughed, the sound light and wonderful, making Grey’s heart skip a beat. “Poor thing. Harry, I mean, not Claire. I think she’d chew him up and spit him out.”
“And has. He’s been trying to get her to let him write a song, did I tell you that?”
“No! You’re kidding. I didn’t know he wrote. Is it any good?”
Grey laughed. “It’s horrible, actually. Beyond lewd, downright explicit. But it rhymes, at least, I’ll give him that much.” He shrugged, remembering that it wasn’t always in the same language. “For the most part, anyway.”
Isobel’s laughter was contagious. “I had no idea he was so creative.”
“I wouldn’t go that far. Maybe with practice.”
“Maybe,” Isobel agreed. They fell quiet again, just enjoying the sound of each other’s breathing. “I miss you, John.”
“I miss you too, my love. I’ll see you in a couple weeks.”
“You had better come home safe to me, John Grey. I worry about you, glued to that lunatic all the time.”
Grey took another sip of his wine, earthy and bold. “I know you do. But…” He sighed. “I can’t explain it really, but I don’t think he’s actually a lunatic. There’s more to him than I realized, I think.”
“Why, John,” Isobel said, her tone a gentle tease. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were developing a soft spot for Fraser.”
“Heavens no,” Grey answered, a little too fast. “No. But he did save my life yesterday.”
“Well, it was the least he could do after endangering it in the first place.”
She had him there. “Touché.”
“I trust that you know what you’re doing.” Another pause, the discussion ending. “Aren’t you going to ask me what I’m wearing?”
Grey’s prick twitched and his eyes went wide. “Well, now that you mention it… What are you wearing in that lonely apartment all by yourself right before bed?”
Isobel giggled. Grey could picture her face, hair wild from being styled all day, flowing around her like a russet aura. Her upper teeth sunk into her lower lip, perfectly adorned with hot pink lipstick. “I celebrated my contract with a little shopping today. Should I send you a Polaroid? It’s actually quite modest… mostly.”
“Yes, please,” Grey answered immediately. “What color is it?”
“You know that blue vase on the dresser? That, more or less. It’s satin and lace, and you should really see my arse in this thing.”
Grey groaned and adjusted himself in his trousers. “I think I should. I also think I’m going to need a cold shower now.”
“Or not… I’ll think of you if you’ll think of me.”
“Deal. I love you.”
“I love you too, John. Good night.”
A good night’s sleep did a man wonders. As did a little peace and quiet. And by the time John Grey boarded his commercial flight in Dallas, he was actually in good spirits. A nagging voice in the back of his head challenged that, wondered how long it would take for Jamie Fraser to wreck his happy. That voice was quite the cynic.
The Bleeding Roses had played in Memphis, Tennessee before, a year or two ago, and Grey traveled with them then. It had been a hard turn, the ninth city in nine days, and the band and road crew had been dead tired. He still wasn’t sure how they made it to Nashville after no more than ten hours in Memphis. They had a full day and a half this time, and Geillis had made arrangements for a car to pick Grey up at the airport and take him to rejoin the others.
Grey had always been a music lover, and this time he was actually excited to see the city, however briefly. It was rather like making a pilgrimage. As the plane began its descent into the birthplace of rock and roll, he stared out the window, watched the Mississippi River come into view under the glittering morning sun, huge, impressive, and brownish-red with mud. One interstate bridge connected the east to the west here, a single hand reaching for the boggy banks of Arkansas.
He caught a brief glimpse of construction downtown, huge tracts of exposed red clay and heavy machinery, half-erected buildings, old ones covered in scaffolding. Then they banked around to approach the airport. It was a small airport, easy to navigate even if his driver wasn’t waiting in the gate area holding a handwritten sign with his name on it.
The driver took him east, chatting with him now and then in a thick Southern drawl. He talked about the weather, and that it was a good thing he was here in the summer. “It’s hotter ‘an the blazes of hellfire and damnation, but at least the rains stopped.” The driver—Abraham, as he introduced himself—went on about the construction downtown, the historic district. “You’re in for a real treat, sir. That Miss Geillis—” he pronounced her name with a hard emphasis on the last syllable, gae-luss. “She said as you’re getting a VIP tour of Graceland. That’s where I’m takin’ ya. They say it’s haunted. Do ya believe in ghosts, Mr. Grey?”
John couldn’t help smiling at his driver’s enthusiasm, pressing his lips together to keep from laughing. “Not particularly, but you never know. Who’s meant to haunt it?”
“Well the King himself, of course,”Abraham said as if it should have been completely obvious. “Yes, sir, I had the honor of driving for him once, years ago. Nicest fella I ever drove. I bet he would have liked you, you’re nice too.”
Grey did laugh at that. “Well, if I see him, I’ll give him your regards.”
The driver pulled into the lot across the street from Graceland, the Bleeding Roses’ tour bus already parked alongside a fence. The band stood in front of it, signing autographs, posing for photos, and generally making a spectacle. “You can pull over there, please.”
“Bless me, you’re with them?” Abraham asked, astonished. “Those long-haired fellas? Goodness. That big one’s gonna fall out in this heat with that leather coat on. Bless his heart.”
Grey figured he was probably correct, if Jamie Fraser could actually feel the heat through whatever he was on. “Good point. I’ll suggest he change,” he said, smiling as the driver opened the door for him, handing him his single duffel bag from the trunk. “Thank you.”
Abraham tipped his hat and nodded. “My pleasure, Mr. Grey.”
Harry Quarry grinned as Grey approached. “There he is.” He looked John up and down with appraisal. “I’ll say, you do look rested. I can’t remember the last time I saw you without bags under your eyes. Prison agrees with you.”
“Technically, it was just jail.” Grey clapped Quarry on the shoulder and tilted his chin toward the band, surrounded by a rather orderly crowd, as far as mobs went. “Did I miss anything?”
Quarry shook his head. “Not really. Some church group or another staged a protest in Oklahoma City.” He laughed. “Only about twelve people showed up, it was rather funny. Show was good though, sold out. Fraser disappeared for a couple hours last night, but he stumbled his way back to the hotel in time to go to the airport.”
“Christ,” Grey muttered. “You’d think nearly being killed in a brawl and then spending a night behind bars would be a wake-up call.”
“Hmm. They don’t come any thicker-headed than Fraser, do they?” Harry fished in his pocket, coming out with the key to a rental car. He pointed at a boat of an Oldsmobile. “Go stash your bag in the car, they’re wrapping up out here.”
Graceland’s Jungle Room was quite possibly the most lavish room in any building that Grey had ever seen. Decadent didn’t begin to cover it. The glamorous stained glass peacocks off the foyer paled in comparison to the heavy furs, shag carpet, overwhelming foliage, and rich wood paneling everywhere. Not to mention the waterfall.
Claire in particular listened intently to the tour guide’s anecdotes and explanations, a sense of reverent awe poised over the entire group. Grey wasn’t immune to it either, taking in everything he could.
“Grey,” Fraser hissed, suddenly at his side. “Can I talk to ye a minute?”
“Of course, Mr. Fraser,” Grey replied, letting Fraser pull him back from the group.
Jamie blinked down at him. “Why do ye do that?”
“Act all prim and proper like ye think someone’s going to judge ye.”
Grey suppressed the urge to massage his temples. “Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Fraser?”
Jamie blew out an annoyed breath through his nose like a bull, but let the etiquette pass without further remark. “I just… I wanted to thank ye, is all. For no’ letting me get gutted in Dallas.”
Was he…? No, Jamie wasn’t thanking him. Jamie didn’t thank anyone, least of all Grey. And yet…
Grey offered him a tight smile—extra prim and proper, just to be a shit. “Just doing my job, Mr. Fraser.” He took a step toward the group, already following the guide out of the jungle room, but Fraser stopped him with a hand on his bicep.
“I wouldna blamed ye, if ye hadn’t, ken.” Fraser swallowed hard and looked away, eyes fixed to a fur-covered sofa. “And I’m sorry.”
That squeezed the air out of his lungs, and Grey stared up at Fraser, brow furrowed in confusion. Jamie Fraser especially didn’t apologize. “That’s quite al—”
“No,” Fraser interrupted. “It isnae. Ye could have been killed because of me, and ye dinnae deserve that. Yer wife doesnae deserve that.”
“You don’t even know my wife,” Grey countered. “You’ve never met.”
“I ken that.” Fraser shoved his hands into his pockets, only the fingers of his large hands fitting into the narrow openings of his leather trousers. “And I’m… I’m sorry I talked about her. Ye told me not to. I remember that. And I’m sorry.”
That’s right, Grey had told him that, months ago, after driving him home from that bar in LA. Shocked didn’t begin to cover it. How was it possible that Fraser remembered that? He’d looked to be seconds away from a blackout at the time. “Don’t mention it.” Grey offered Jamie his right hand, a peace offering. Maybe there was something to what Gowan had told him after all.
Fraser shook his hand, his skin clammy. But his grip was strong, the muscles flexing under his skin. He let out a nervous breath and a cautious smile. He’d almost be adorable if he weren’t such a consummate prick.
“Hi, honey, I’m home,” Grey called, dropping his bag on the floor, grinning like a fool.
“John!” came Isobel’s excited shout from the bedroom. She ran down the hall to the foyer and leaped into his arms, wrapping her arms and legs around him when he caught her. Sweet Jesus, it felt good to hold her again. She kissed him furiously, stealing his breath and erasing all the stress and exhaustion from the road. She let him up for air eventually, both of them gasping and laughing like teenagers. “I missed you.”
“I missed you too.” He kissed her again, then she slid her legs back down and he set her on her own feet. “It’s so good to be home. Oh!” Grey fished into an outer pocket of his bag and pulled out a copy of TV Guide, battered from reading it over and over. “I had the most wonderful surprise in O’Hare this morning.” Grey held up the magazine so Isobel could see the cover—some of the cast of Knots Landing, his wife included, lovely in her costume and makeup, flashing a sassy smirk.
Isobel shrieked and covered her face, skin turning a beautiful shade of cherry, almost as bright as her flouncy skirt. “No!”
“Introducing Isobel Grey: Hollywood’s Next Walk-on Darling?” he read.
“Oh my God! You saw it.” She peaked at him through her spread fingers.
“And read it,” Grey said, flipping the magazine open and thumbing to the dog-eared article. “You’re on page forty-seven.”
“I was going to tell you over dinner tonight.” Isobel tapped one manicured fingernail against the front of her teeth. “Is it terrible? Weird? It’s weird.”
“Absolutely not!” Grey replied, drawing a slow smile from his wife. “I have a serious question though.”
“Has anyone asked you for an autograph yet?”
Isobel threw her head back and laughed. “No one knows who I am yet, what are you talking about? Mummy and Daddy said something about how all their friends will want them, but they were just being dramatic.”
“Perfect.” Grey dug into the pocket of his trousers and pulled out the magic marker he’d bought at the same airport news stand as the TV Guide. “Mrs. Grey, I am your biggest fan. May I please trouble you for an autograph?”
At first, she just stared at him, waiting for him to laugh and reveal that he was joking. But he didn’t. John was dead serious. He’d already decided to frame the magazine before he left town again.
Isobel gave him a watery smile, took the marker and the magazine, and signed it, scribbling out a note and everything. Then she pressed a kiss to the cover, leaving a lipstick print on it, and handed it and the marker back to Grey.
To my biggest fan and the only man I will ever love.
John read it over and over till the words went blurry, his heart fit to burst. As much hell as he went through on the road, this made it all worth it, to come home and fall in love with his wife over and over again. “Isobel… I’m so very, very proud of you. You’re doing it. You’re really doing it.”
“Oh… John—” Isobel threw her arms around his neck and kissed him, her tongue warm and insistent. She smelled like that rosy perfume she’d worn on their wedding day, and John pulled her hard against him, sinking his fingers into her loose hair.
Then Grey’s stomach rumbled and they both laughed. “I’ll start dinner,” Isobel said, pulling away.
John snatched her back and held her tight. “Order a pizza. I’ll open a bottle of wine. And then you can tell me about the interview.”
Isobel had the sweetest smile. “Alright. Sausage and mushroom?”
Grey kissed her lips again, just a peck. “Perfect.”
The best thing about pizza for dinner was that the box could sit on the coffee table while John and Isobel sprawled on the couch or the floor, like they had when they’d first moved in and didn’t have a kitchen table yet. Isobel regaled him with the story of the interview, how the reporter had been so charmed by her smile that she’d approached her after the photo shoot and asked for a few minutes. They’d hit it off like old friends, and the interview had been everything they’d told her in drama school it would not be.
“We actually had lunch yesterday,” Isobel explained. “Sandwiches at that New York-style deli down south. We should have her and her fiancé over for dinner one night, after the tour.”
Grey sat on the floor at Isobel’s feet, elbow propped on the table, head on his hand, taking in her every word. “That’s a great idea. Give me a week to recover from babysitting Fraser. But let’s do it. We don’t have a lot of friends in town.”
“No, we don’t,” Isobel replied. “But I feel like Mary is one. Or could be, at least. You’d like her. She doesn’t pull any punches, but she’s kind. I get the feeling she doesn’t really like the cutthroat journalism, and that’s why she does fluff pieces like that one.” She nodded at the TV Guide on the coffee table.
John laid a hand on Isobel’s knee. “I’m so happy.”
Isobel drained her glass of wine and gave Grey’s hand a pointed look, arching one eyebrow at him. “Did you get enough to eat?”
Grey cast a glance down at the wreckage of the pizza, more than half-gone, then the empty wine bottle. He smirked up at his wife. “I should hope so.”
“Good,” she said, casually hooking her legs over his shoulders. John shivered and laid his hands on her thighs, fingers skimming under her skirt to the elastic of her panties stretched over her hips. “Take me to bed?”
Grey’s heart did a little flip in his chest and he licked his lips, turning his head to press a kiss to the inside of her thigh. “That would be my absolute pleasure.”
Isobel grinned down at him, her smile morphing into wide-eyed delight when Grey flipped up her skirt and wiggled her panties down, just enough for her to pull one leg out and then the other.
“Do you really want to spend all that time getting ready for bed, though?” John dropped her lacy underthings on the couch, spread her open with two fingers, and licked her. A long stripe at first, then flicking his tongue, just the way she liked. Isobel moaned and John grinned, diving back in for another taste. Her fingernails were deliciously sharp, scratching his scalp and tugging his hair.
“John,” she gasped. “Oh, God. That’s exactly—ah—what I wanted.” Isobel took a shuddering breath as Grey sucked her clitoris. He sank a finger into her and she groaned again, scooting to the very edge of the couch and thrusting against him. “It won’t take long. I don’t care. More.”
Grey gave her another finger, did every little thing with his mouth that drove her mad. She came with a whine and a shout, his name like heaven on her lips, her legs shaking on his shoulders.
“Now I’ll take you to bed,” he said, kissing her mouth hard so she could taste herself. Isobel kissed him greedily, groaning, and Grey’s cock twitched with interest.
They rose and stumbled toward the bedroom, a cascade of clothing in their wake. They barely made it past the kitchen before John got impatient and pushed Isobel against a wall, kissing her. They were already naked, he could lift her legs and take her right here and now, wanted to, needed to. Hands everywhere, always touching, greedy, grasping, hot skin on skin.
Isobel took his prick in her hand, stroking him until he shuddered again. “I want to take care of you,” she said against his lips.
And she meant it.
A wicked grin spread over Isobel’s face, and she pushed him into the bedroom. She must have been working out while he was gone. Not that she could overpower him, but Grey usually had to submit more to let her manhandle him like this.
Isobel shoved him onto the bed, then climbed on after him. Her warm mouth on his prick was pure bliss, her hands on his body ecstasy. She slid one spit-slick finger into his ass, oh, so gently.
“Isobel,” he panted, unable to focus his eyes on anything but his wife. “Dear God,” Grey gasped. The urgent torrent of pleasure crushed him, left him tingling and groaning.
She turned those fiery bedroom eyes on him, pink lips stretched around his cock. Like hell, she wasn’t a femme fatale. Too much, not enough, perfect. He tried not to, but Grey bucked up into Isobel’s mouth, her free hand coming down firm on his hips to hold him still.
“I love you,” he breathed, all he could say, all he could think. “Heaven. You’re heaven on earth.”
Isobel pulled away, leaving him cold and empty. Flashing a smirk, she crawled up his body and kissed him on the mouth. “Do you think so?” She lined him up with a confident hand and sank onto him, both of them shuddering, eyes falling closed with pleasure.
She started slow, a maddeningly decadent roll of her hips, her head falling back as she moaned. Isobel didn’t mean for it to be a sexy pose, she was just enjoying herself, which made it even better. But a pose it was, and Grey let his hands wander over her soft skin, tracing her curves. “My God, you’re beautiful.”
Isobel grinned down at him, that heartbreakingly earnest gleam in her eye like she was both surprised and delighted that he thought so.
Grey settled his hands on her hips, digging his fingers into her flesh. “Faster,” he gasped.
Bracing her hands on his chest, she found a faster rhythm, riding him hard. “John. Oh, John. I’m close again.”
So was he. “Do it,” he gasped, bucking up into her. His heart pounded under Isobel’s palm. “Please, now. Do it again.”
His wife gasped, then cried out, her pretty face twisting into a desperate grimace as her orgasm hit her. “John! I’m—”
“Yes, Isobel, Christ!” Ecstasy exploded behind his eyes, Isobel shuddering and twitching around him, collapsing against his chest. Grey wrapped his arms around her. “That’s my girl.”
Isobel let out a breathy giggle, grinding against him and making them both moan. “Hmm, I like when you say that.”
It took him a minute to catch up. “What, that you’re my girl?”
She nodded, resting her head on his shoulder, still straddling him even though he’d slipped out of her. “It’s the way you say it. Like I’m something precious you want to keep all to yourself.”
Grey tilted Isobel’s chin to meet his gaze, her breasts sweaty against him, still rising and falling with exertion. “But you are,” he said. “You’re the most precious thing in the world, and if I could keep you locked away in my heart forever….” Grey blinked. “No, that’s not exactly true.” He scooped a stray lock of chestnut hair behind Isobel’s ear. “Even if I could keep you locked away and only for me, I wouldn’t do it.”
Isobel frowned down at him, so John elaborated. “You’re too talented for me to keep all to myself. You have a real gift, Isobel. I can’t wait to see what the world makes of it.”
She let the words settle in behind the wine and the orgasm fog. But then she smiled, and it could have powered all the movie studios in Hollywood until the end of time. “I love you too, John.”
The road was a terrible place to be with a band like the Bleeding Roses. Grey should perhaps have been ashamed to admit that he’d expected having a woman singer would help matters, but it didn’t. Claire Beauchamp had her own priorities, of course, but she was almost as bad as Rupert and Angus. Whenever the cameras were off, she drank like a fish, popped amphetamines, chased skirts. She worked hard, sang her heart out, wrote fantastic melodies with Fraser. But she got antsy on the road too, ditching her band mates to find her own conquests, leaving Harry Quarry to follow like the dutiful attack dog he was. She was the face of the band, after all. She had the most fans, the most to lose.
Which left Grey chasing Fraser and the Terror Twins every goddamn night after the house lights went out. Sure, they’d hang around as long as they were contractually obligated for backstage events and press things. Then they scattered to the four fucking winds, leaving Grey to do Dougal MacKenzie’s damage control. At least the hot-tempered band manager helped keep them from getting stabbed or shot trying to find drugs on their own. Of course, his strategy was to personally ensure they were well-stocked before they even rolled into the next city. Rock stars will be rock stars, after all.
It was the second leg of the tour, the dates both too close together and yet too spaced out, leaving the guys with a few hours each night to blow before they had to be in the hotel lobby to be ferried to the next major city.
Grey knew better. He fucking knew better than to think they were actually in their room early for the night. Claire was. She’d picked up a girl at the show, a hot redhead who probably thought she was about to be Beauchamp’s next Great Love.
But then the shouting started.
Four in the morning. “Fuck,” Grey muttered, climbing off his bed. Hopefully Harry was doing the same thing, maybe they could squeeze their idiots between the stairs and the elevator.
More shouting. Whooping and hollering. Rupert and Angus, by the sounds of it. Drunk, of course. Probably on coke or speed, still fucking wired from the show.
“Do it!” someone shouted. Then a loud whistle, a pop, and a distant crash.
Where the hell did those idiots get bottle rockets? Grey charged into the hallway as the shouting grew louder.
“Run! Angus, come on! Rupert, ye fuck, move yer arse!”
Oh dear Lord. Fraser. He was riling them up, egging them on.
Fucking shit, anything but that.
The sound of someone screaming echoed down the hall, an older woman, some mere mortal who had the misfortune of being on the same floor as the band. By the sounds of it, they’d officially reached the part of the tour where they needed to rent out the entire wing just to keep the lawsuits and indecent exposure charges to a minimum.
Then the fire alarm went off.
“Motherfucker!” Grey ran toward the sound of shouting, down the hall to his right.
“You fucking arseholes!” Oh no, they’d invoked Claire’s wrath. She came out of her room with a bed sheet clutched over her breasts, the fire alarm still hollering. “I will murder you both, you fucking children!”
“Claire,” Grey barked. “Down the stairs, we’ll meet you outside.”
Beauchamp wrapped the sheet around her toga-style, swearing up a storm.
“Quarry!” Grey shouted, sprinting past his room and banging on the door without stopping. Smoke began to fill the hallway.
“Jesus!” Harry shouted, following Grey.
Klaxons rang overhead, shrieking and squealing and signaling mayhem.
Idiotic laughter followed, all of it Scottish.
Grey found Rupert first. He seized him by the arm and dragged him against a wall. “What the fuck is going on?”
Rupert laughed, eyes wild and hysterical. “Jamie!” was all he could say.
“Go down the stairs, for the love of God.” Grey left Rupert, sliding down the wall to the floor, collapsing in a heap of drunken mirth. Idiot. Honestly, if he burned alive, it’d be his own stupid fault.
Grey found Angus next, snatching him around the waist as he escaped Dougal’s room.
“Let me guess,” Grey began.
“Jamie!” Angus wheezed. He slumped forward but Grey held tight to him.
“Where is the fire, you moron?”
Angus laughed and pointed further down the hall, past the bend and the bank of elevators. “Down there.” He coughed, which just made him laugh harder.
Grey shoved him toward the stairs. “Get the fuck out of here.” Angus stumbled and laughed but went for the stairs.
“Where’s Fraser?” Quarry asked. He yanked open the glass door covering a fire extinguisher, coughing into his sleeve, eyes red and watering.
“Towards the stupid, I expect.”
More shrieking. More Scottish shouting and laughter. Then Jamie fucking Fraser came sprinting around the corner, wearing a manic grin, his combat boots from the show, a leopard print thong, and nothing else. He was red-faced with laughter and ran headlong into John.
Grey caught him around the middle. “What the fuck did you do?”
“Och, ’s no’ but a bottle rocket,” Fraser wheezed. “Shoulda locked their door. ’S weirdos out.” He dissolved into more unhinged laughter.
Grey looked up at Harry, who said, “I’ll find it,” and took off at a jog with the fire extinguisher.
“You, Fraser, are a goddamn menace to society.” Grey wrapped one hand around his arm, thinner than it used to be, and started hustling him toward the stairs. “You’re going to actually get someone killed one of these days, do you realize that?”
“Och, dinnae get yer knickers in a twist, John.” Fraser lurched to the side and Grey hauled him upright again. He was absolutely wasted. “It’s the Fourth of July, we were just celebrating.”
“It’s August, this is Canada, and you’re a contemptible prick.”
“Why would Geillis schedule them something so early?” Isobel asked over the phone. “Has she never actually met them?”
“Oh, no, she has,” Grey said, sinking down in the arm chair in his hotel room. “She explained the reason for it, something to do with the label.” He covered a yawn with one hand. “I don’t remember what she said though, I was probably sleeping through my third cup of coffee at the time.”
“Goodness. I worry about you, John. Have you gotten any sleep since you were last home?”
“Oh, sure. Four or so hours every morning.” Grey yawned again, but laughed. Reaching across the nightstand, he snagged his pack of cigarettes and perched one in his mouth to light. “Maybe I should do a line with them before they get going too hard, just to keep up.”
“Don’t even joke about that,” Isobel said sternly. “You see what it’s doing to them. To Jamie especially. Didn’t you say he looked sick?”
“He does,” Grey agreed. “You’re right, it was a bad joke. I’m sorry.”
“No, that’s alright.” Isobel let out a sigh. “I’m sorry, I know that isn’t you. I just… I had another nightmare last night.”
“What, about me?” Grey had tried to explain the first few nightmares as stress when she told him, but they both knew that didn’t ring true. It was worry for him, all the terrible shit his job was putting him through, stacked sky-high against him.
“Mmhmm,” she agreed. “It was weird, not very clear. You and Jamie and something terrible, but I couldn’t see what.”
“Well, I promise to be careful, my dear.” Grey’s wallet was on the table next to him. He flipped it open to the picture of his wife he kept there, smiling down at her pretty face. He’d taken the photograph on their first morning in their apartment in LA. She wore one of his t-shirts and a pair of short shorts, grinning at him over their first home cooked meal of toasted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. They’d eaten over napkins because their dishes were still packed up and stacked in the living room somewhere.
“I know you will,” she answered. “You always are.”
“Tell me something happy,” Grey said. “Something to start your day off on the right foot and for me to dream about at the end of mine.” This was the hard part. When Isobel’s day was just beginning, Grey’s was coming to a roaring close, and vice versa. There wasn’t much overlap with productive members of society when you had to keep hours with nocturnal animals.
“Well, I wrap on my last scenes today. And tomorrow I have an audition for the lead in a pilot.”
“That’s wonderful!” Grey said, his heart fluttering with pride. “Absolutely wonderful. You really are America’s next walk-on-darling.”
Isobel laughed. “I don’t know about all of that, but doors do seem to be opening more easily.”
“That’s a good thing.” Grey flicked the ash off his cigarette and into the ashtray next to him. “That’s a very good thing. Don’t let them treat you badly, you don’t have to put up with their harassment to be successful.”
“I know, and I don’t. I’m starting to get a reputation as the actress who will walk out, and I think it’s working for me.”
“Damn right, as it should.” Not much longer now. Maybe just through this tour, and the European circuit next spring, and Grey could jump off the rock and roll train without having to worry about Isobel needing to compromise for jobs. “Have I told you today that I’m proud of you?”
“Technically I think it was yesterday,” Isobel answered, good humor in her voice.
“Well, I am. And I love—” The sound of shouting in the hotel corridor interrupted him.
“John? What is it?”
More shouting. Fraser in a frenzy. Then a terrible crash. Rupert yelling at Jamie. Another crash and maniacal laughter.
Grey sighed. “I’ve got to go. It would appear that I am working late this morning.”
“Alright,” Isobel said, though she didn’t sound anything close to alright. “Be safe. I love you.”
“I love you too. Have a good day, my dear.” He hung up the phone and opened his door to the sound of another crash and more shouting. Grey wasn’t a praying man. But if he thought it would give him the slightest chance for a break from the madness, he would be willing to try it.
Fraser bolted down the corridor, his big hands wrapped around the neck of Rupert’s guitar—one of his guitars, at least—swinging it like a baseball bat into the electric sconces that lined the hallway. The bulbs and fixtures shattered in a hail of glass. Rupert, understandably, chased after him in a fit, shouting at him that that was his favorite guitar.
What in the name of fucking God…
Well. At least they were both fully clothed this time. Jamie reeled back and, much to Rupert’s horror, hurled the guitar down the hallway, smashing it. Lacquered wood went everywhere, strings groaning.
“You areshole!” Rupert roared, likely waking up everyone in the entire hotel who had the good—or bad—fortune to be asleep. “Ye cannae quit, can ye?” He grabbed Fraser around the middle and wrestled him to the floor.
And this was the point that Grey was actually required to intervene. “Alright,” he said, clamping one hand on Rupert’s shoulder before he could start punching Jamie. “Enough, MacKenzie, I’ll take it from here.”
“Enough!” Grey barked, yanking Rupert back and off Fraser. “Back to your room before Dougal catches you.”
“Ye’re paying for that,” Rupert yelled at Fraser, recovering his footing but keeping his distance.
Jamie climbed to his unsteady feet and rolled his eyes. “Och, quit ye’re bitchin’, Rupert,” he slurred. His eyes and nose were both bright red, eyes unfocused and wild. God knew what he was on this time. Definitely more than one thing. “Ye ken the record company will replace it. ‘S insured.”
“Mr. MacKenzie, I do suggest you call it a day,” Grey said, trying for reason.
“Stay the fuck away from me until the show, alright?” Rupert spat. “Fucking cocksucker.” He shot Jamie the bird over his shoulder as he walked away.
“Lame,” Fraser muttered, swaying on his feet.
“Come on,” Grey said, dragging him by the elbow toward his room. “You’re done. It has been a very long night and I’d like to get a few hours of shut-eye before I have to chase your wasted ass all over Albany tomorrow.”
“Aw, c’mon, Ma, five more minutes,” Fraser whined. “I’m no’ tired.”
They stopped in front of Jamie’s room and Grey tried the knob. It was locked. “Key.”
“Where is your key?” Grey asked, enunciating very carefully.
Fraser grinned and gave an exaggerated shrug. “Dinnae ken. Had it earlier.”
Grey pinched the bridge of his nose.
“Here.” Fraser faced the wall next to the door, braced his hands against the hideous geometric wallpaper, and spread his legs. “Ye can frisk me for it.” Leering, he arched his ruddy brows, waggling them awkwardly.
“I’ll just go to the front desk.” Grey turned away.
“I’ll be gone by the time ye get back,” Fraser said. “And ye dinnae want me making a scene in the lobby, do ye? Uncle Dougal willnae be pleased.”
“Shit,” Grey groaned. He was right. “Goddamn you, Fraser.”
Fraser grinned like the Cheshire cat and wiggled his ass. “Go on then, John. A-hunting we will go.”
“I hate you.” With all the distant professionalism he could muster, Grey started under Fraser’s arms, running his hands down his sides, fingers tripping over Jamie’s ribs. He hooked two fingers under Fraser’s waistband and traced the inside of it. Encountering resistance, he paused. “What the fuck—” Jamie laughed as Grey pulled a pair of drumsticks out of his pants. “Why? Just why?” He scoffed and shoved the sticks in Jamie’s back pocket, feeling around there for the key while he was at it.
Fraser wriggled again. “Oh aye, I kent ye like it rough.”
Ugh. “You do realize that I am actually under no contractual obligation to help you into this room?”
“That’s as may be, but ye will anyway ‘cause ye’re a nice guy.” Fraser pushed his hips backward. “Try the other pockets. Think ye’re onto somethin’.”
“You don’t have anything sharp in here, do you?” Grey fished into one pocket, working his fingers into the tight opening. “Relaxed fit trousers wouldn’t kill you, you know.”
“Nay, but this is more fun—ooh, to the left a little.”
Grey found the key at last, seized it, and yanked it out of Fraser’s pocket. “You are a pig.” Unlocking the door, he shoved Fraser inside, dropping the key on the first table he came to. “Good night, Mr. Fraser.”
Jamie grabbed his arm, dragging him back into the room, and shoved Grey’s back against the wall with a thud. Fraser pinned him there, his big hands roaming over Grey’s waist, down to his ass and squeezing. Jamie’s mouth was hot on Grey’s neck. “Stay,” he groaned.
“Stop,” Grey ordered.
“Ye dinnae mean that,” Jamie said, sucking on Grey’s neck. Under other circumstances, John actually liked that, but now the feeling of violation turned his stomach. “I’ll make it good for ye.”
Grey shoved at Fraser’s shoulders with all his might, then nailed him with a right jab to the jaw. Jamie reeled back, clutching his face. “Touch me like that again and I will kill you.” He was shaking with rage, fury dropping his voice to a growl. “Do you fucking understand me?”
Fraser nodded, brow furrowed with confused regret as he massaged his chin. “Aye—”
“Now, I don’t give a goddamn what you do with yourself for the rest of the day, but I don’t want to see your face again until after my wake-up call.” Grey turned on his heel and stormed out the door, slamming it shut behind him.
“Whoa, Grey, what are those for?” Quarry asked, pointing at the shiny new pair of handcuffs on the top of John’s bag. He grinned and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Kinky.”
Grey scoffed. “Hardly.” He tucked the cuffs into his bag and zipped it closed. “Call it insurance.”
Quarry didn’t look convinced. “For what?”
“Fraser.” He shut the trunk of their rental car, the valet hopping into the driver’s seat after a nod and a palmed wad of bills from Harry. “I’m bloody sick of chasing his sorry ass through the wee hours of the morning.”
Just before they walked into the hotel lobby, a terrible crash and a woman’s startled shriek drew their attention past the valet awning. “Jesus, what now?” Grey groaned.
“Sorry!” Angus shouted.
“Slippery bugger,” Fraser added.
Grey and Quarry followed the voices up the side of the building to see Mhor and Fraser leaning out of an open third-floor window. They wore matching expressions that they probably thought looked innocent but actually just made them look like idiots. There was a pulverized television set in the street below them.
Quarry shook his head. “I’m going to pretend that I don’t know them.”
Grey followed him inside. “Solid plan.”
Just ten more cities. Less than two weeks and this stupid tour would be over and Grey could go home, kiss his wife, and sleep for a month. He watched his clock tick over to six AM. Any minute now, Fraser would come tearing down the hotel corridor. At least Dougal was still arranging the drugs for the band ahead of time so Grey didn’t have to follow Fraser through the underbelly of whatever city they were in. Wasn’t the greatest choice ever, but at least it was marginally safer.
“Good mornin’ to ye, New York—Raleigh?—Washington—Oy! The fuck are we?”
Grey sighed and stood up, collecting his handcuffs from on top of his dresser, and strolling calmly to the door.
A metallic crash made Grey wince as he opened the door, a room service cart tumbling end over end down the hallway. Fraser’s doing, of course.
“Jamie,” Grey barked. “Do you need assistance finding your room?”
“Gotta catch me first!” Fraser took off at a sprint. A stumbling, wasted, slow sprint.
With a resigned sigh, Grey followed him at a brisk walk. Skipping a couple steps, he caught Fraser by the back of his shirt and yanked him backward to his room.
“Hey! Lemme go.” Fraser complained. He was so out of it that the hardest part for Grey was keeping him on his feet.
John had asked Geillis to get Grey a key to Fraser’s room after the frisking incident. He didn’t tell her why he needed it, just insisted on it. Without a word, he unlocked the door with one hand, the other fisted in Jamie’s shirt like he was trying to keep a rambunctious toddler under control. He wouldn’t have put it past Fraser to try wriggling out of his clothes, if he were lucid enough to think of it.
Fraser stumbled along into his room when John opened the door. “Och, ye’re quick. Gimme that box on the… drawer thing.” Fraser gestured wildly at the dresser toward a little black box that most certainly held that horrible concoction of crushed Halcion and cocaine he’d been favoring lately.
“Not on your pathetic life.” Switching to a two-handed hold, Grey shoved Fraser onto the bed. The big idiot put up a fight, but he was on the edge of passing out anyway. The handcuffs jangled as Grey pulled them out of his pocket, clapping one side around Fraser’s left wrist. He tightened it down, just this side of too much. Firm, but wouldn’t actually injure his precious hands unless Jamie did something stupid.
Fraser tugged at his arm, trying to yank the cuffs out of Grey’s hand. “Grey, ye bastard, lemme go!”
“Shut up.” Grey closed the other side of the cuffs around the headboard. Thank God it was the right shape. One quick check to make sure they were secure, and Grey straightened, taking a step back to dodge Jamie’s grasping hand. “Good morning, Mr. Fraser.”
The phone ringing woke Grey, like it always did. He fumbled for the handset, trying to open his eyes, sleep dragging him back in. The phone kept ringing. Christ, what time was it? It didn’t feel like five PM.
Grey managed to get an eye open and looked at the clock. Eleven PM. Right, this was his night off. Then why was the phone ringing? Dread knotted his stomach as he reached for the phone again, finally getting a hand around the receiver.
“Hello?” It was probably Isobel.
“Is this John Grey?” It was a man’s voice Grey didn’t recognize, all business. It didn’t sound like someone from the front desk, they usually introduced themselves first.
“Who is this?” Grey asked, rubbing sleep out of his eyes and sitting up in the bed.
“This is Officer Munro with the Los Angeles Police Department. I need to know if this is John Grey, please.”
The bottom dropped out of Grey’s stomach and sleep suddenly felt like a distant concern. “Yes, this is John Grey.” Oh God.
“Mr. Grey, I’m very sorry to tell you this, but there’s been an accident. Your wife’s in the hospital.”
“What?” Grey threw back the covers and jumped from the bed, nearly yanking the phone cord out of the wall. “Where? When? Is she alright?”
“All I can tell you is that she was transported via ambulance from the scene in critical condition. She’s been taken to Hollywood Presbyterian.”
“What happened, damn it!” Grey shouted, shoving his legs into yesterday’s trousers. “I’m on the next flight out, but—”
“It was a drunk driver, blew through a red light and t-boned her on the driver side.”
Horrible memories crashed into Grey. The rain. Blinding headlights. Jamie’s Trans Am crushed like a beer can. His own Buick hit twice. The terror and pain. His heart pounded, thunder in his ears. “No.”
“Get here as soon as you can. I’ll leave information for you at the hospital.”
“I’m so sorry, Mr. Grey.”
Geillis had arranged a driver to meet Grey at the airport, and he made the poor bastard run through the terminal to the parking lot. After five hours in the air, he couldn’t take moving slower than that. The sun was almost up.
John’s heart hadn’t left his throat since he’d hung up the phone with the policeman. He wasn’t a preying man, but he’d taken it up immediately. Over and over, begging Whoever Would Listen that he would see his wife again, that she would be okay. Please, God, let her be okay.
If he could just get there fast enough, he could stop the bad things with his bare hands if he had to.
The car was still rolling when Grey jumped out of it. Pain went through his ankle but he ignored it, charging through the big glass doors of the emergency entrance. He ran to the first counter he saw, the nurse looking up at him with wide, startled eyes. “Sir?”
“Grey,” he gasped. “Isobel Grey. I’m her husband, what room is she in?” He tapped an impatient hand against the counter.
“Just a moment,” she said, skimming through her logbook. “Grey, Grey…”
“Please,” John begged. “She came in an ambulance last night.”
“Here she is,” the nurse said. “If you’ll have a seat in that waiting room, I’ll page her doctor.”
“What?” Grey asked. “No, just tell me what room she’s in, I’ll find it.” Please, God, let her be okay. I’m here, I can help. He bit hard on the inside of his cheek until he tasted copper, fighting to maintain his grip on his composure. Judging by the look on the nurse’s face, he wasn’t doing a good job.
“You need to go wait, sir. The doctor will come speak with you in a minute.”
“I don’t know if my wife has a minute!” Grey shouted. The nurse flinched and guilt twisted in his guts. A uniformed security guard approached him and Grey stepped back from the counter, hands going up in surrender. “Alright, just… please hurry.” He couldn’t go one more minute without information, he’d explode.
Grey watched every second tick by on the big, heartless clock on the wall, counted three minutes, each one feeling like a lifetime as he paced a hole in the floor.
The door opened and shut, admitting a dark-skinned man with a kind face and green scrubs. His badge said he was a surgeon. “Mr. Grey?” he asked.
“Where’s Isobel? Is she—” He choked and closed his mouth to swallow around the lump of terror in his throat.
“I’m Dr. Abernathy.” His shoulders slumped, the weight of the world crushing him. John clenched his fists and stopped breathing. “Mr. Grey, I’m so sorry. Your wife died, about an hour ago.”
The room went blurry, the air sucked right from his lungs. “But I’m here,” Grey whispered, his voice broken, quivering. Had he been in the air? Taxiing probably. Or the stupid interstate—
“I know. We did everything we could. I operated on her for six hours—”
No. Grey shook his head, clamped his eyes shut, tears rushing over his cheeks. He gasped for breath but got nothing. No. His lungs were on fire.
“The other car, it crushed her…” Dr. Abernathy paused. “I don’t have to tell you all this if you don’t want me to.”
“But she can’t be,” Grey said. He tried to say it, but he didn’t think anything actually came out. A mistake. It had to be a mistake. Her dreams were right there, she was going to be an actress. She’d made it, and Grey was here. He was here and he wouldn’t let anything happen to her. “No.”
“I’m so sorry,” Abernathy whispered. “Your wife fought so hard. You should know that. We all did. But it… it just wasn’t enough.”
Wake up, Grey. Wake the fuck up, this is a nightmare. Just a horrible nightmare. “Can I see her?” If he could just touch her, maybe then…
Dr. Abernathy shook his head. “Son, you don’t want to do that. Not yet. Believe me, you don’t want to remember her like this.” Grey blinked and his vision cleared enough to see the doctor’s earnest, haunted eyes.
“But if…” Grey trailed off. If I don’t see her, how will I ever live with myself?
“Please,” Dr. Abernathy begged. “Please let me spare you both this one thing.”
The earth shook and Grey pitched forward, landing hard on his knees. The tile under his slacks was cold. Everything was cold and sterile. What a wretched place to die, all alone. “Isobel.” He wrapped his arms around himself, to keep the world out or to keep himself in, he didn’t know.
Dr. Abernathy squatted in front of him and laid a hand on Grey’s shoulder. He had a strong hand, the smell of antibacterial soap sharp in John’s nose. “Can I call someone for you, son? Family or a friend? The chaplain maybe?”
Who? His only friend was Harry, on the other side of the country. All their family was overseas. Alone. He had to do this alone.
Grey shook his head. “There’s no one in town.”
The doctor let out a long breath, his hand tightening on Grey’s shoulder. The last person to touch his wife. “Okay. Take your time, alright? I’ll have someone check on you in a little bit. There will be some paperwork when you’re up for it. I’m so sorry for your loss, Mr. Grey.” Dr. Abernathy straightened and walked to the door, sneakers silent across the tile.
Pausing, Dr. Abernathy said, “If you need anything… Have a nurse page me.”
And then he was gone.
And John Grey was a widower before the age of thirty.
Grey met the Dunsanys at LAX. His mother- and sister-in-law had red eyes and swollen noses. Isobel’s father carried two garment bags draped over one arm, his other hand on the small of his wife’s back as they came up the corridor. Louisa broke away from him, jogged out of the customs checkpoint, and threw her arms around Grey.
“John, oh, my poor boy,” his mother-in-law said. She held tight to him, smelling of her musky perfume and a fifteen-hour flight.
Grey returned the embrace, let her hold him. She was as petite as Isobel was—had been, Oh God—and he rested his nose on her shoulder. She hugged exactly the way a good mother should hug, and for a foolish moment Grey felt safe and taken care of.
“I’m so sorry,” Grey said. What else could he say? It wasn’t good to see them like this. It was horrible. It was the worst thing imaginable. Louisa pulled away, tears staining her cheeks when she looked up at him. “I’m glad you’re here, just…”
William patted his shoulder. “Just not like this,” he finished.
Geneva stepped forward and claimed a hug. “Hi, John.” She hadn’t inherited her mother’s art of the embrace.
Isobel had though.
“Come on,” Grey said. If they kept standing around like this, he was going to start bawling in the middle of the airport, and he still had rush hour traffic to contend with. “Let’s get you settled. I’m sure you’re exhausted.” He took the larger of their suitcases from his father-in-law, and slung Louisa’s carry-on over his shoulder.
“Oh, John, Benedicta sent something for you,” Louisa said. “It’s in my bag, please don’t let me forget it.”
Grey’s mother had been ready to hop on the next flight out of London when he’d called her with the news three days ago. He’d refused, and she’d put up a hell of a fight about it, only surrendering when John had agreed that he would let her visit after the funeral. He didn’t have the strength for more visitors, even his own mother. He’d kept himself busy making funeral arrangements, that paperwork Dr. Abernathy had mentioned, the insurance companies. Employers had to be notified, fortunately with the help of Isobel’s agent.
And then the phone had started ringing. Nosy gossip columnists mostly, save for that TV Guide reporter Mary Hawkins, who had been very kind and cried on the phone.
It had hardly stopped ringing. As soon as his in-laws were safely home in England, he was going to unplug that stupid thing for a week.
Grey and Isobel lived in a small, one-bedroom apartment in a decent neighborhood. It was tiny and inexpensive, allowing them to squirrel away a substantial portion of Grey’s paycheck to go toward purchasing their own home. A chunk of it came out to pay for Isobel’s funeral. For a moment, Grey regretted that they’d not bought life insurance like they’d talked about. But it didn’t matter, really. The savings were for a house and the house was for Isobel.
But because the flat was so small, the Dunsanys booked a room at the Marriott. Grey drove them there from the airport, helped them carry their luggage inside. Louisa dug into her bag and extracted a parcel which she handed to Grey. His first name was written on it in his mother’s elegant handwriting. Louisa kissed him on both cheeks, and he left. He’d give them a few hours to rest, and come back to take them to dinner later.
He had nowhere else to go, but home was the last place Grey wanted to be just now. He drove in the general direction of his apartment building, pulling into a liquor store parking lot on a whim. He parked and left the engine running, staring at the parcel in the passenger seat. His mother hadn’t mentioned that she was sending something with the Dunsanys, but he probably shouldn’t have been surprised.
Grey picked up the bundle and untied the twine, the brown butcher paper crinkling as he unwrapped it. It held a small, black box, and a stack of short envelopes, his mother’s stationary. Setting the wrapping paper aside, he lifted the lid of the box to reveal an antique silver pocket watch. Slow recognition slunk through his mind. This had been his father’s. He’d kept it on the mantle in his little study when John was a boy. There was a story behind it, but everything was sludgy and numb and Grey couldn’t conjure it. Even so, holding it in his hand was a relief, and Grey managed a sad smile down at the timepiece. If he closed his eyes, he could smell dusty books and cup after cup of black tea, hear the click-clack-clack of his father’s typewriter.
The first envelope in the stack was labeled, Read this first. Grey broke the seal and pulled out the letter, unfolding it. His mother’s tidy cursive script covered the narrow page.
My Dearest Son,
I shouldn’t have let you talk me out of visiting, but you always have had your own mind about things. As much as I can’t stand the thought of you so far away and grieving all by yourself, I have to trust that you’ll call me when you’re ready. Until then, hopefully I can offer you some comfort from here.
There are eight other letters here, please read them when the time is right. Some of them are things I should have told you before. A few I hope offer some sage advice. And some I hope bring you a bit of peace.
Here’s the first:
It took longer than I thought it would after your father died before I got used to the idea of sleeping alone again. Do you remember being afraid of the dark in those first weeks and coming into my room at night? Your brother thought I was coddling you, but in truth, I was coddling myself.
Now, I’m not suggesting you bring just anyone into your bed, of course. That’s not who you are, and that’s not going to help. But what I am suggesting is, if there is something that brings you comfort, no matter how small or silly, do it. You have my permission to coddle yourself.
You know how to reach me. Anytime, John. Day or night.
I love you.
The page was blurred with tears by the time Grey got to the bottom, and he swiped at his eyes with the back of one hand. He remembered that, from his childhood, feeling like he was getting away with something when his mother let him curl up in the bed next to her. Maybe he’d been a little too old for it, but as she had told him when he apologized for waking her, “A boy is never too old to be held by his mother.”
Christ, he was tired. It hit him all at once, the last few days catching up to him. All he wanted was to crawl into his bed and bury his face into Isobel’s pillow because it still smelled like her conditioner.
A sharp rap on the window startled him. Grey jumped and looked up to see a man wearing a name tag frowning at him. “Hey, buddy, you can’t park here,” the man said through the glass. “Got a truck.” He gestured behind Grey’s car to the delivery truck waiting with its hazard lights flashing.
“Sorry,” Grey said, putting the car in reverse when the man stepped back. He could unplug the phone for a couple hours. He’d hardly slept in three days, a nap would do him some good.
Two days before Isobel’s funeral, Harry Quarry showed up at Grey’s apartment with his luggage. John had left Cincinnati with little more than the clothes on his back.
Before he even set foot inside the flat, Quarry looked him up and down, tactfully swallowing whatever comment sprang to mind. “Jesus, Grey, I’m so sorry.”
“Thank you,” Grey said automatically, taking his suitcase from Quarry and stepping aside to let him in. “Come in. Want a beer? I have a little time before I need to pick up my in-laws.” He shut the door behind Harry and set the suitcase on the floor out of the way.
“Just a quick one. I haven’t been home yet.”
“Oh. Thanks for bringing that right over, then. It could have waited.” Grey went to the kitchen, only clean because Geneva and Louisa had been here yesterday to go through some of Isobel’s things. John would take care of most of it, of course, but she’d had a few family heirloom pieces of jewelry that he didn’t feel right about keeping without Louisa having a say in it.
“The tour closed out alright, I take it?” Grey pulled two bottles of beer out of the refrigerator, popping them open with the bottle opener lying on the counter. He passed one to Quarry, who muttered his thanks. “I haven’t turned on the TV since I’ve been home, so if anyone got arrested again, I haven’t heard about it.”
Harry nodded. “Fine, fine. I think they were pretty well exhausted by the time we left Cincinnati ourselves.”
Grey found a pack of cigarettes lying on the counter and shook it to find it not quite empty. He took one for himself and offered the open box to Quarry, who shook his head.
“Fraser disappeared every night as usual, but always came thundering back to the hotel, wasted but unscathed. Rupert didn’t actually murder him, though Claire and Angus got into a fight over a stripper.”
Grey laughed and shook his head, blowing smoke to the side and taking a swallow of beer. “Christ. I’m almost sorry I missed that.” It felt good to talk shop with his friend. Everything had been so serious and dark since he’d flown home.
Then guilt plowed into him doing eighty miles per hour. How could he possibly laugh two days before his wife’s funeral?
Grey fell silent, letting Quarry ramble on about the last few days of the tour. He clung to every word, tried to focus on the stories and shenanigans—more smashed TVs and zombie dust rages, firecrackers again. He just listened and drank and nodded, taking the occasional drag from his cigarette.
Quarry stopped talking, his beer only half gone. For a long moment they stood in the quiet kitchen, Harry’s eyes burning a hole in the top of Grey’s head while he concentrated on peeling the label off his bottle of Ice House. “How are you holding up?”
The question startled Grey and he put his empty bottle on the counter behind him. “Fine.”
His friend arched a skeptical eyebrow at him. “Care to elaborate on that?”
Grey was shaking his head before Harry finished the question. “No. I don’t… exactly know how I’m supposed to be holding up just now, but I’m fine.”
Harry hummed. “You sleeping okay?”
“Jet lag.” It was an absolute lie, they both knew it was a lie, but Harry let it pass.
The silence stretched, Quarry filling it by taking a skeptical swig of his beer.
“I’m fine,” Grey repeated. “I’m heartbroken and I’m grieving, but I’m fine.” He ground his teeth. They were getting dangerously close to uncorking the bottle of madness that had been simmering below the surface since he’d left the hospital. He’d packed it all away after he fell to pieces in the waiting room, and for now it needed to stay that way. Once that bottle was opened up… No.
Quarry finished his beer and set the empty next to John’s. “You will call me if you need anything? Anything at all. To talk, to run errands, bring you greasy cheeseburgers and beer, keep you company… Anything.”
Grey met Quarry’s eyes, filled to the brim with earnest compassion and worry. He meant it. Lots of people said, Call me if you need anything, when someone died, but most didn’t mean it.
“Thanks, Harry,” Grey said, swallowing hard to keep that cork in place. He just had to get through a few more days and he could fall apart then. “I appreciate that.”
“Course.” Quarry clapped him on the shoulder and retreated. “Thanks for the beer. I’ll talk to you later, alright?”
Grey arranged for a brief, informal viewing with the funeral director, just himself and William. John just couldn’t live with himself without seeing her one more time, even like this. She’d died in fear and in agony, and what kind of husband would he be if he didn’t take that burden from her?
The funeral director met Grey and his father-in-law at the entrance, and John was startled again by how young the man was. Grey had had this grim expectation in his head that he’d be wizened and gaunt, one foot in his own grave. But compassion doesn’t have a minimum age, and those kind eyes disarmed Grey immediately, just as they had when he’d come in before to choose a casket and make arrangements.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Grey,” the funeral director said, shaking his hand.
“Afternoon.” Grey shook his hand automatically, fighting through the fog of a sleepless week. “This is my father-in-law, William Dunsany.”
“Alex Randall,” he said, shaking William’s hand as well, laying his other palm over the top like a compassionate minister. “I’m so very sorry for your loss, Mr. Dunsany.”
William nodded stiffly. He’d hardly spoken since they’d left the hotel.
“There is absolutely no rush,” Mr. Randall assured them. “When you’re ready, I’ll walk you back to the viewing room.”
If Grey put this off any longer he’d lose his nerve or his cool or both. He touched William’s shoulder. “Are you alright? I can do this alone, if you’d prefer.”
His father-in-law shook his head, sniffing even though his eyes weren’t tearing yet. “No, John, I’m alright. It’s better if we see her together.”
Because if they were together, neither of them would break down over the casket. As long as they were both being strong for the other one, they’d make it through this.
Mr. Randall gestured for them to follow him down a hallway. The funeral home was calm and welcoming, decorated in muted colors with flowers and oil paintings of angels overlooking idyllic landscapes. Every little thing in here was meant to convey peace and comfort, and all Grey could feel was the pressure building behind that cork he’d shoved over his grief. Just a few more days. He just had to get through a few more days.
The viewing room had no windows, of course, and it was warmly lit with a couple table lamps and wall sconces. Simple chairs with blue velvet cushions lined two walls. More flowers. And in the center of the far wall, the cherry wood casket that Grey had chosen because the color reminded him of Isobel’s antique jewelry box.
“Please take all the time you need,” Mr. Randall said, voice gentle and yet startling John. “I’ll be in the lobby if you need anything.” Then he backed out of the door and closed it behind them, leaving Grey and William alone with the casket.
Grey’s feet were rooted to the floor. He couldn’t move, couldn’t take a step. Neither could William. Maybe the casket would be empty. It wasn’t, Grey could see that it wasn’t, but maybe it would change.
One last deep breath, and John took a step, William at his side. He could do this. He had to do this. Just a few more days, he could fall apart in a few more days.
Dr. Abernathy was probably right not to let Grey see Isobel in the hospital. It didn’t look like her at first. John stared down into the casket, at the dead woman nestled amongst the cushions. She had brown hair, like Isobel, and a dainty chin, like Isobel.
But this wasn’t Isobel. This was a porcelain doll, a delicate thing that had been dropped and cracked and glued back together, the pieces not really fitting right. Lines marred her face, cuts and gashes that had been glued so that visible stitches wouldn’t make her frightening. The longer Grey looked at her, the more he could see his wife. At least, the body that had held his wife. Her hands were folded over her chest, her left hand on top, her simple gold wedding band shining around her ring finger.
Oh, my poor girl. He couldn’t say it out loud. Grey had to keep his jaw clenched to keep the cork in the bottle.
“My poor girl,” William said in a broken whisper. By unspoken agreement, they refused to look at each other. If they did, it’d be all over. His father-in-law took a deep breath and let it out, slow and shaky.
The shape of Isobel’s face wasn’t quite right, likely because of the cracks in the porcelain. She was just a doll.
“Is that her locket?” William asked.
Grey nodded. “I hope that’s okay. I didn’t—” He bit down hard on the inside of his cheek, pressed his lips together, and tried again. “I didn’t want her to be alone in there.” The locket, a wedding gift from William, had a hinged page on the inside, holding four teeny photographs, all thumbnail prints from their wedding album. The first two were John and Isobel. Turning the little page revealed William and Louisa. She always said that wearing it made her feel brave, her own personal little cavalry.
“It was a good choice.” William’s voice cracked and he cleared his throat.
Her skin was faintly green in places, heavy bruising showing through the makeup. Her hair had been brushed over her shoulders and arranged over her ears and neck, hiding most of her skin. Grey’s hand twitched, started reaching for her to sweep her hair back the way she liked it, but stopped short. No, it was there for a reason, and like a coward, Grey couldn’t bear to see what it was hiding.
Stabbing pain blossomed in Grey’s chest, a literal ache in his heart, and he clenched his jaw tight to hold back tears. Just a few more days. Once the funeral was over and the Dunsanys were on their way home, then he could fall apart. Not before.
Isobel Grey was buried on a beautiful early autumn day. The sun shone through a crystal blue sky, the grass and palm trees just as green as they had been in the spring, birds singing as if nothing in the world was wrong.
She would have loved this weather. Grey could envision her, sighing happily with her fair face turned to the sun. After a lifetime growing up in the Lake District back home, the southern California weather hadn’t lost its novelty for her. Even the summer heat suited her, the sun coaxing freckles out of her ivory complexion that had never been there before.
Grey sat next to his mother-in-law for the graveside service, his father-in-law on the other side of Louisa, Geneva on the other side of him.
John had taken Isobel’s favorite white dress to the funeral home, the one that made her look like an angel. It matched the white roses draped over the casket.
There’d been white roses at their wedding. Isobel’s bouquet was full of them, and delicate baby’s breath, little buds of them in her chestnut hair, nestled in amongst her curls.
She’d looked like an angel that day too. She always looked like an angel.
Their wedding had been the social event of the season in her little town, thanks to Louisa’s enthusiasm. Her funeral was more intimate, thank God.
And where was God in all this? Lying down on the job.
Grey chewed on the inside of his cheek to keep from scoffing. The priest was saying something that was probably meant to be comforting, but John hadn’t heard a word.
Somewhere behind him, a baby let out a brief wail, shushed and soothed into silence again immediately. One of Isobel’s friends from work, probably.
Isobel would have made a damn fine mother.
They’d talked about that. They’d try in a year or two, they’d decided. When they were settled better. When Isobel had steady work. When John wasn’t chasing Jamie Fraser around creation. If they had a boy, they’d name him William, after her father, or Gordon, after her late brother. Bennie, if it’d been a girl, for John’s mother. Maybe they’d have Isobel’s dark eyes and John’s nose. Maybe they’d grow up to be a singer or a writer or the CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
Suddenly it wasn’t just his wife in that casket, but the entire family he could never have now.
Grey pinched the bridge of his nose, dug his fingertips into his eye sockets until it hurt. Louisa’s hand was soft and cool over his other hand. He turned his wrist and held tight to her fingers. Not yet. Not fucking yet, Grey, keep it together.
Once that cork came out… It was over.
Grey had been white-knuckling it for so long, his hands hurt from clenching his fists. His jaw ached. Everything hurt. He was probably in no emotional shape to drive, but he drove his in-laws to the airport anyway. They walked together through the security checkpoint, and John hugged them goodbye before he watched them go through customs.
He felt like a robot walking back to his car in short-term parking. It took him two tries to get the correct change at the gate. He drove to the first liquor store on the way home, bought a cheap bottle of Jack Daniels, and drove the rest of the way home without turning on the radio. At least, he figured he drove all that way. He couldn’t recall a single mile of it even as he walked through his own front door.
He didn’t put the whiskey in a glass. He sank onto the sofa, cracked open the cap, which he dropped onto the coffee table, and took a long pull from the bottle. His eyes landed on the framed TV Guide hanging on the wall.
To my biggest fan and the only man I will ever love.
The only autograph she ever signed.
He should have asked her for one years ago.
The whiskey tasted sweet and burned his throat, spilling warm into his empty stomach. “Oh God, Isobel.”
Agony. His chest ached. His stomach rebelled, making him regret everything he’d ever eaten or drank in his life.
He took a long pull from the bottle, then another. Grey had kept a death grip on his wits for so long. He’d clung to it, pushed through from one task to another. One appearance to the next. The cork came out of the bottle and he couldn’t cry. Why the hell couldn’t he cry? What was wrong with him? He’d waited this long, pushed this far, got through the funeral and the family and the condolences.
He should call his mother.
Checked the clock, added eight hours. Middle of the night. No, it could wait.
Never again would he come home and find Isobel singing in the kitchen. Never again would she kiss him goodbye before she sneaked out of the apartment for work when he’d only been in bed a couple hours. At some point, the episodes of Knots Landing that she’d filmed would air. Someday, he’d see her Coca Cola ad. But that was it. That was the only place Isobel would ever be again.
“Fuck.” Grey’s face screwed up into a grimace, the grief rearing up, getting ready. Another swig of whiskey, just to grease the skids. “Isobel. My poor, sweet girl.”
A trickle, just a warm trickle down his cheeks.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered to absolutely no one and yet the entire universe. “I should have been here. It should have been me.”
His vision went blurry in a rush, a broken, pitiful sob coming out of him like a cough, finally breaking through the dam. Grey collapsed sideways on the sofa, curling up into a fetal position. He set the Jack down on the floor. It might have spilled, it didn’t matter. The weight of it all, the grief, the sadness, the heartbreak, every last little bit of misery he’d been ignoring, it crushed him. He covered his ears with his palms and squeezed his eyes shut, gritting his teeth against it. A horrible noise came out of his mouth, a wail, pathetic and impotent and childish. But he’d started and now he couldn’t stop again. He’d probably die on this sofa, just shrivel up and die under the press of a world that didn’t have Isobel in it. Who the fuck would know? Who would see him like this?
Not a goddamn soul. Not a living soul. This was between Grey and God.
Ha. If he’d ever believed in a higher power, which he really hadn’t, he didn’t now. Couldn’t. Wouldn’t.
Because what sort of sadistic bastard, deity or no, would give someone like Isobel everything she ever wanted, just to take it all away when it was starting to get really good?
A knock on Grey’s door startled him. He forced his eyes open, blinking against the harsh light of the quiet television, some middle-of-the-night infomercial all that illuminated his living room.
The knock repeated itself. “Who the devil?” Grey muttered. He switched on the lamp next to the couch, wincing against the incandescent assault.
More knocking, insistent but not waking the whole building at least.
“Yes, I’m coming, whoever the hell you are.”
Grey fumbled with the deadbolt, his fingers clumsy with not-quite-sleep and booze, still drunk. What time was it? At last, he got the door unlocked and flung it open.
Jamie Fraser stood in the hallway. He wore ripped jeans and a plain black t-shirt, a baseball cap over his distinct hair, pulled low over his eyes. He looked even worse than when Grey had last seen him, dark circles under his eyes enhancing the haunted frown.
“Mr. Fraser,” Grey said, stifling a yawn with his palm. “Something I can do for you at… whatever time it is?”
“About three,” Fraser said. “I just… came to check on ye.”
Well, if it was three in the morning, then Grey was probably only a few minutes away from being wide awake anyway. He stepped aside, gesturing for Jamie to enter. “Let’s not wake my neighbors, come in. Pardon the mess,” he added on reflex. He and Fraser both knew that, no matter how wrecked Grey’s apartment was—and it was wrecked—it wasn’t half as bad as Grey had seen at Fraser’s own house. “How’d you get my address?”
“Geillis,” Fraser said simply, not really looking around.
“Ms. Duncan should mind her business.” Grey picked up last night’s whiskey bottle from the floor by the sofa and shook it. There was only a swallow left, so he finished it off and took it to the kitchen, rudely leaving Jamie to follow or fend for himself. “She gave you my address at three in the morning?”
“Actually, she gave it to me two days ago.” Grey fixed Fraser with a narrow glare. “I’m sorry, I should have assume ye were sleeping like a normal person,” Fraser said, getting all twitchy. There were fresh track marks on his arms, Grey noticed, his eyes bloodshot.
“Probably,” John answered coolly. “I wasn’t, really, but that’s not the point. Since you didn’t answer my question before, I’ll ask again. Is there something I can do for you, Mr. Fraser?”
“I just—” Fraser faltered, paused, then recovered. “We’re back in the studio soon, I was wondering if ye were going to be working?”
Grey’s temper flared and he ground his teeth. “Mr. Fraser, I buried my wife four days ago.”
Fraser blinked down at him, brow furrowing in concern. “It’s been almost three weeks, John.”
“That’s not the point,” Grey spat, rubbing his eyes. Wasn’t that what he said? Had he lost all those days? His stomach rumbled. When had he last eaten? Inconsequential.
“Alright, I really wanted to see if ye were okay. I tried calling and the line was dead.”
“The phone’s unplugged. Too many people wanting to see if I’m okay.” Grey’s hand shook as he reached for another bottle of whiskey. Sleeping pills alone had been giving him nightmares, maybe if he washed it down with booze, he’d just sleep. Sure he’d be hungover in the morning, but that was better than that weird, exhausted, disoriented brain fog all day. He should ask Harry to bring him some pot. He probably would, Quarry was a pal.
“Did ye need anything?” Jamie asked. He looked about as sincere as Grey had ever seen him, but John wasn’t buying it.
“No. Thank you. I’ll be back at work in a few more days.” Or weeks. Whatever. Where was that prescription bottle? Aha, there. After some more clumsy fumbling, Grey twisted off the lid and popped a Halcion in his mouth. Or was it two? Whatever.
“John… Do ye want to talk?” Fraser whispered. “I can listen.”
Grey’s patience snapped in half and he slammed the whiskey bottle back on the counter, the amber liquid sloshing into the neck. “Mr. Fraser, we are not friends, do you understand? I am your bodyguard, and you are the spoilt addict that your uncle pays me to babysit day after day.”
Fraser flinched and had the nerve to appear hurt, but he stood there while Grey seethed at him.
“Furthermore, my wife was killed by a drunk driver. So forgive me if I don’t want to pour my heart out to someone who’s probably about to drive under the influence right now, and has already nearly killed me more times than I could possibly count in the last year alone. It could have been you that killed her, you selfish bastard,” Grey shouted. Jamie flinched again but John didn’t care. “And it might have been you, if not for some stupid cosmic joke that made you famous and got me stuck on the road with you where you could have killed me the exact same way, a dozen fucking times!”
Grey swayed on his feet, drink and exhaustion and the pills making him dizzy. He grabbed the edge of the counter to keep from pitching forward. “I should have been here. I should have quit months ago.” He covered his face with both hands. How did he still have tears to spare for this? How had he not just shriveled up already? “I should have been here, taking care of her better. If I hadn’t been on the fucking road with you, I would have been driving her that night. Then I’d be the one rotting in the ground, not Isobel.” He sank to the floor, the cheap wooden cabinets cold through the back of his sweaty t-shirt, a handle digging into his shoulder blade. Leaning back harder, he let the metal edges start to bruise him. It hurt less than thinking about his wife.
For a long time the only sound in the whole apartment was Grey weeping pitiably into his hands and the television murmuring softly in the living room. Then Fraser took a long, loud breath. “I’m sorry to have disturbed ye, Mr. Grey. I’ll leave ye be.” The front door opened, then closed again, and John was alone.
Christ, was he ever fucking alone.
Another wave of dizziness plowed over him like a tsunami, knocked him over. The linoleum was cold and grainy under his cheek. He should get up, try to get to bed. But it was too far, too much, too hard. Grey drew his knees up to his chest and gave up.
I should call my mother. The thought came to Grey without warning. It was one of those rare days that he woke up in his bed—on it, at least—the sun high and intolerably cheerful through the window. He’d not spoken to a soul in… Two days? Time was the enemy and he’d taken the batteries out of all the clocks and thrown away the calendar in the kitchen, so he had no idea.
Harry had come to check on him some time ago, brought him lunch and some pot, tried to invite him out. But Grey had said no. Where would they have gone? To see a movie that Isobel would never have a chance to star in? To a loud restaurant or stores filled with people and reeking of harsh perfume and hairspray? A bar? There was booze here. Harry had stayed for a while and smoked a joint with him, then left. Whatever day that had been, that was the last time Grey had talked to anyone.
The urgent need to piss drove him out of bed. He coughed and groaned, getting dizzy when he stood up too fast, catching himself on the bathroom door frame. “Shit.” It came out in a rough croak, and Grey cleared his throat, tasting metal. “Jesus fucking Christ.” His throat hurt and he winced.
Probably best not to call his mother sounding like this. She’d be on the next flight out of London and there was absolutely no chance Grey would get his shit together before she landed. One of her letters, maybe.
Grey flushed the toilet and washed his hands. Probably an ironic habit for someone who’d not showered since…
Well, it didn’t matter.
He opened the top drawer of his dresser, staring into it for a moment, mind blank. Why the hell had he opened it? He should probably do laundry at some point soon, he was out of pants again. Not that it mattered. Grey’s knee popped and complained about God-knew what, making him hiss in pain.
Oh, right. That. He rummaged around the drawer of unfolded socks and pill bottles until he found the Vicodin. It was worryingly low when he shook it. Twisting the top off with his palm, he counted three left. Shit. Grey didn’t think his doctor would write him another refill, he’d looked shifty about this one. He’d have to be careful until he could get something else to help with the weird aches and pains all over his body that wouldn’t seem to go away.
For now, Grey just popped one tablet onto his tongue, working up a mouthful of spit to swallow it. He screwed the cap back on the orange bottle and dropped it into the drawer. It landed on the stack of envelopes from his mother, and the box holding his father’s pocket watch.
Yes, the letters. Well, it was like calling his mother, wasn’t it? Grey lifted out the stack and flipped through them, looking for an appropriate label.
When you worry you ’ve forgotten her face.
When you don't know what to do with yourself.
When you want to laugh again.
When you ’re ready to give up.
Grey plucked that one from the stack, considering it.
Yeah. Yeah, that fit.
He slid his thumb under the seal, breaking it, and unfolded the letter.
My Dearest Son,
There were times after your father died that I wished I could trade places with him. He was so much stronger than me, I thought, he could manage without me better than I could without him. I never told you this, of course, because you were so young when we lost your father. A child should never have to shoulder a burden like that.
I won’t tell you that it’s normal or typical to wish you were dead when you’ve experienced a great loss as you have, but I imagine it does happen more than you might think. Grief is ugly and untidy, and everyone has to learn to muddle through it in their own way.
If you’re reading this, maybe you feel like you can’t go on.
Yes, you can. You absolutely can. Because you’re stronger than you feel. Because you deserve to smile again, and to live your life. Because your life still has value just by virtue of being yours.
And because you must.
If this hurt you to read, or if it made you angry, please call me. I do not care what time it is. Wake me up. You’re not too old to call your mother when you’re in pain.
All my love,
Grey stared at the page until he couldn’t see it through his tears. Then he crumbled it up and dropped it back in the drawer. She’d understand, of course. She wouldn’t judge him for how he was handling things, or rather, not handling them. His mother wasn’t the type to scold him for struggling, and that’s all this was, right? But she’d be worried. She’d worry herself sick, and that would be worse than if she yelled and disowned him, washed her hands of him completely.
He was already washing his hands of himself.
For the first time since Grey had been sent to collect Fraser from his home, the man actually answered the front door when Grey rang the bell.
“John?” Fraser frowned. “We’re no’ in the studio today, why are ye here?”
Grey hadn’t thought this through. He hadn’t thought anything through in days, beyond making the pain stop. The Vicodin didn’t work anymore, even if he mixed it with a bunch of liquor. “I’m not on business, actually.”
“Come on in.” Jamie stepped aside, holding the lovely glass door open for him.
The house was in better shape than Grey’s apartment right now, even though Fraser himself didn’t look much better. He wore flannel pants and a tank top that Grey was reasonably certain used to be tight across his muscular chest, but now hung loose. He’d lost a lot of weight since the accident.
Fraser closed first the glass door and then the big steel door, leaving them unlocked. “If it’s no’ business, what brings ye here?”
“I… don’t actually know. I can’t take being alone with my thoughts anymore. But I can’t stand the thought of anyone seeing me like this.”
“So ye came here? Should I take offense to that?”
Probably. “I just meant…” Grey sighed and jabbed his thumb against his forehead. The hangover was coming on. “It was something that Ned said to me in Dallas, it’s been rattling around in my head. It…” He shook his head, wincing and regretting it. “It doesn’t matter what Ned said. I just thought maybe you were the one person I know who could look past the mess that I’ve become.”
“Ye’re afraid to be alone but ye’re more afraid of someone judging ye.”
Grey nodded. It was so spot-on, he felt it, a pinprick into his lungs. “Everything hurts.” His voice quaked, and Grey swallowed down tears he wasn’t ready to show Fraser again. “I can’t make it stop. I can’t take another person saying they’re so sorry for my loss. I can’t stand pacing the same nine hundred square feet of my flat until I pass out and start having nightmares.” He winced and pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets to keep his brain from oozing out that way. “Christ, my fucking head.”
“That’s a lot of words all at once.”
“Fuck. Tell me about it.”
Fraser touched Grey’s shoulder and steered him, more or less blind with pain, toward the living room. “Come sit ye down.” He pushed him to sit on the sofa, the leather cushions supple and comfortable. “Here.”
Grey opened his eyes a crack, identified the thing Fraser was handing him as half a bottle of vodka, and accepted it. It tasted like nothing, the warmth in his throat comforting, promising relief. “Thank you, Jamie.”
“Don’t thank me yet. Wait here.” He retreated toward the master bedroom, leaving Grey to drink from the vodka bottle. If nothing else, at least Fraser understood the concept of the hair of the dog. Even if it took a lot of hair to recover from the bite these days.
Fraser came back with the box Grey remembered from his dresser, where Jamie kept his coke. With a pained grimace, he knelt on the floor between the couch and the glass coffee table and pulled out a little vial of powder, a razor blade, and a tightly rolled dollar bill. “I dinnae suppose you’ve done much blow.”
Grey shook his head and took another swig of vodka, then slid off the couch to the floor next to Jamie. “I don’t know that I want to, it’s not exactly the high I was looking for.”
“Aye, ye do.” Jamie swept his hand over the coffee table between them, dusting it off, then he emptied the vial onto the table and started dividing it with the blade. “Weel. No’ a lot anyway.”
When he had tidy little lines, one for Grey and two for himself, he reached into the pocket of his trousers and came up with two capped syringes and a tourniquet. Squinting at the syringes, already loaded with amber liquid, he set the smaller one on the table in front of Grey, keeping the fuller one for himself.
“Wait… ah, there ye are, ye bugger.” Fraser crawled on his knees to the other side of an easy chair and came back with a small wastebasket, which he handed to Grey. “Ye’ll want that too.”
Grey stared at his little line of powder and his needle, at the shit he’d watched wreck Fraser’s life and steal his sanity. Or maybe it had been the other way around? Whatever the case for Fraser… that little line, that syringe of sludge, were all that was left of Grey’s future.
Jamie picked up the rolled bill and snorted both of his lines of coke without hesitation, then passed it to Grey.
No turning back now. He took it and bent over the line, inhaling sharply.
John gasped. It burnt like a son of a bitch, his eyes watering. “Fuck!”
“Alright?” Fraser patted his back. Grey nodded, still trying to catch his breath, and Jamie chuckled. “It gets easier, ken.” He picked up the tourniquet and tied it around his left arm with his right hand, surprisingly deft for a southpaw. Clearly he’d had practice. Bending close to peer at his own arm, Fraser found a vein that wasn’t collapsed yet, and slid the needle right in, pushing the plunger without so much as a blink. Then he released the tourniquet and groaned with pleasure, leaning back against the sofa.
“Yer turn.” Jamie dropped the tourniquet into Grey’s lap and scooted the vodka bottle closer to John. “Liquid courage, aye? Ye’re no’ going to like this one.”
This was a sick nightmare. Grey drank, his whole body feeling like it was on fire, the pain fading into the background, becoming as irrelevant as the fatigue he’d felt for weeks. “Okay.” Just don’t think about it. Do it, don’t think. Nothing else had worked.
So simple to tie the tourniquet around his upper arm. Easy to clench his fist until he could see his veins, blue and clear and unmolested under his skin.
The needle hurt, but not as bad as his heart whenever he thought about Isobel, which was all the goddamn time. It wasn’t that hard to pierce the vein.
Easy to push the plunger.
Even easier to untie the tourniquet. Such a tiny amount, multiplying, filling every spare inch of his body.
With poison, Oh, God.
Grey lurched for the bin next to him and hurled. Everything came up, all of it, clawing its way out of his system. Knives dragged through his guts. Then convulsions wracked his body.
The pain was back, and it brought friends.
Jamie’s large hand was the only solid thing, resting on Grey’s back. “Ye’re alright. It willnae kill ye, just ride it out.”
Fuck. Holy fuck.
Chapter 16: Part Three: Face Down in the Dirt
“That’s the stupidest drug ever,” Grey groaned. They were stretched out in Fraser’s bed, both fully clothed. He didn’t remember walking into the bedroom, but he must have at some point.
Jamie turned to face him and opened his eyes, blinking until they focused and settled on John. “Oh aye?”
“Only the dumbest of the dumb would ever do that again.”
“Aye, that’s fair.” Fraser scrubbed a hand over his bloodshot eyes. “’S only like that the first time.”
“It did feel amazing for about five minutes.” Nothing had ever come as close to that feeling of euphoria, short-lived though it was. Not booze, or pills, not even sex. Well, maybe sex. Like a distilled orgasm, but through his whole body.
“Hmm. And the more ye do it, the better it feels.” Fraser shrugged, the movement awkward from his prone position. “For a while, anyway.”
That was promising, if promises were dark, abysmal things.
Grey’s stomach growled, and Fraser laughed at him. “No’ accustomed to skipping meals, are ye?”
“I don’t even know anymore.” They rolled out of bed, and Grey caught sight of the clock. “Aren’t you supposed to be in the studio today?”
Fraser glowered at the clock. “Dougal will live. So will Beauchamp. She kens I cannae even hear the melody in my own hied anymore.”
Grey followed Jamie to the kitchen. It wasn’t nearly as disgusting as it had been, but when Fraser opened the fridge, there wasn’t much there. But there was jelly and bread that didn’t have mold on it, and a jar of peanut butter, and Fraser made sandwiches from this, popping them in the toaster oven.
Jamie found a mostly-full bottle of bourbon under the counter, poured a bunch into a glass that was probably clean, and took a swig. He poured a second glass and offered it to Grey. “Hair of the dog?”
John stared at the glass. If they were going to the studio, one of them should stay sober enough to drive…
“I’ll call a car if it makes ye feel better,” Fraser said, apparently plucking the thought right from his brain.
Shrugging, Grey accepted the glass and took a long pull from it. Sure, he could face other people if he couldn’t feel anything. Like training wheels on a child’s bicycle. He could do this.
The toaster oven dinged, and Fraser let out a mighty swear as he burned his fingers on the rack trying to pull the sandwiches out. “Motherfucker!” He handed one hot sandwich to Grey and kept one for himself.
The toast was warm in his hands, crispy when he bit into it, gooey peanut butter and sweet grape jelly exploding in his mouth. It took Grey back, way back to that first day in their apartment in LA. He and Isobel had moved to California with hearts full of hope and heads full of dreams. She was going to be a star, and together they would do the hard work to make it through until she was. And Isobel had made sandwiches just like this.
The sorrow came without warning, like it always did, crashing into him over stupid, mundane things. Grey dropped his sandwich onto the kitchen counter and covered his face with his hands, the left one sticky with a glob of jelly that he didn’t give two shits about. Hot, uncontrollable tears poured through his fingers. He couldn’t do this.
“John?” Fraser was at his side suddenly, an arm around Grey’s shoulders. “What’s amiss?”
“Nothing.” Grey shook his head. “I’m sorry.” He didn’t stop crying though.
“Isobel?” There was no judgment in Jamie’s voice, just an honest question.
Grey nodded. Jamie pressed the glass of bourbon into his hand, and John took several long swallows. He hated this, hated how easy it was for something as innocuous as a peanut butter sandwich to derail him, sending him tumbling into this horrible spiral.
“Say no more.” Fraser disappeared. He was gone forever. Grey ate the sandwich because his stomach ached, tears rolling down his cheeks the entire time. When the sandwich was gone, he went to work on the bourbon. The bottle was within reach, and he refilled his glass. Christ, when would it stop hurting? He’d go insane like this.
Fraser came back eventually. “Here.” Grey held out his hand and Jamie dropped a syringe of heroin and a tourniquet into his waiting palm.
“Jamie…” Grey hesitated, staring down at the needle full of oblivion. “I can’t go to work like this.”
“Then don’t.” Fraser shrugged. “Stay here, rest, watch TV. I’ll tell Dougal ye’re no’ ready. Ye ken he technically works for me, right?”
“But it’s been weeks. I need to get back to my life.” Grey set the syringe and tourniquet down on the counter with a shaking hand, patting his pockets for his pack of cigarettes.
Jamie slid an open pack across the counter to him, a lighter on top of the box. “Do ye want to get back to yer life?”
Grey fumbled open the pack and drew out a cigarette with a trembling hand. “Not particularly.” The ritual of lighting it, taking that first drag, it felt good. Familiar, safe. “But isn’t that what everyone says to do?”
“Miserable people, maybe.” Jamie tied the tourniquet around his own arm. “Or people who never had one bad thing happen to them ever. Lucky bastards, what do they know?” He frowned at the inside of his elbow, moving down to his hand, hunting for a vein.
“A lot, I suppose. Or nothing at all, I have no idea.”
Watching Fraser shoot up was surreal. Grey glanced at the syringe Jamie had brought for him, then back to Jamie. Watched the way his eyes closed when he pressed the plunger, the relief that washed over him. John hadn’t even realized how tense and on-edge Fraser had been before. A thick groan and a sigh tumbled from Jamie’s mouth. Then he stood a little straighter, looked a lot calmer, draining his glass of bourbon in one big swallow.
“So,” Fraser said, fixing Grey with a steady eye. “What’re ye gonna do? Take that and come wi’ me to the studio? Take that and hang out here? Leave it on the counter and call yerself a cab? What?”
Grey looked down at the syringe, just a few cc’s, same as last night, but Jamie hadn’t brought a bin for him this time. At least here there was sunlight, not like his mostly windowless flat. That was supposed to be good for you, wasn’t it? When you were sad and pathetic all the time, didn’t the “experts” say to go outside and get sunlight? His apartment was dark, a depressing rabbit hole, full of things that had belonged to his wife, that reminded him of his wife, that looked like his wife. Everything here in Fraser’s house was different, foreign, lighter. Isobel had never been here, never would be here, didn’t belong here.
“If you’re sure you don’t mind,” Grey began. “Maybe I could stay here today? The change of scenery might do me some good.” So would the smack, went unsaid.
“Nay, I dinnae mind. Make yerself at home.” Someone rang the doorbell, the cheery, posh tone echoing through the huge house. That’s right, Jamie was going to call a car to take him to the studio. “So? Ye taking that or no?” He nodded at the needle.
John reached out a finger and stroked the syringe, the heroin catching the sunlight through the big window over the kitchen sink, and throwing it back into his eyes, glittering like a jewel. “Yeah. Yeah, in a minute.”
Fraser nodded. “See ye later then.”
And then he was gone, and Grey was alone in Jamie Fraser’s house. Like they were friends, except they weren’t friends, because how could junkies have friends?
Well. Not exactly.
Grey carried the bourbon, needle, and tourniquet to the sofa in the living room. The bin he’d puked in yesterday was still there. He should clean that up later. For now, he set it aside—but not too far, just in case—and sank onto the luxurious sofa. His eyes were puffy and sore from crying again. Christ, he was tired of that feeling, that pathetic sensation of everything in his face being swollen and full of snot. Day in and day out, since his in-laws had left. It was stupid, and embarrassing—no, mortifying—to start crying into a bottle of bourbon over a motherfucking sandwich. Anything, absolutely anything in this world, would be better than that.
Death would be better than that.
Irritation flashed through Grey, hot and impatient. No. No. He’d carry on because he must, isn’t that what his mother’s letter had said? He must and he can, so he would.
But that didn’t mean he had to be alert for it.
Grey tied the tourniquet around his arm, let his anger clench his fist for him, and plunged the needle into his arm. He missed, pulled it out, took a steadying drink of booze, and tried again.
This time, without the prophylactic bump, the smack hit him, running him over, tossing him into the air. His brain disconnected from his body, left all the aches and pain and discomfort behind. He floated, the leather sofa cushion suddenly cool under his cheek. Nice, it was nice. His elbow, which had never really felt right since the car accident last year, even stopped its annoying twinge. The sorrow that had been drilling holes in his chest since Isobel died evaporated.
Whether he was actually high, or if he was just finally not in pain for the first time in weeks, Grey couldn’t tell, and he didn’t care. It didn’t matter.
Nothing mattered, not anymore.
Grey had managed to stay sober enough to drive himself home, a little box of syringes and heroin stashed in the glove compartment. He carried it inside under his coat, as if anyone gave half a shit what he was doing even if they did see him. Jamie had said he would call him later, so Grey plugged the phone back into the wall.
It rang within the hour.
“John?” His mother.
Oh, Christ, his mother.
“Mama,” Grey said, fumbling for normalcy. He took a steadying sip of Jack, pouring a splash of Coca Cola into the glass, hoping it would calm his nerves. “How are you?”
“Fine, dear, just thinking about you. I wanted to see how you were doing. I thought you would have called sooner. I’ve had my travel agent on standby for weeks.”
“Oh, um.” John’s heart pounded in his chest. She could not get on a plane and fly to LA. “I’m alright, actually. I’m sorry I haven’t called, I’ve been busy. The band is back in the studio, I’ve been working.” He lied. He lied through his teeth to his own mother.
“I had heard that. You know, I’ve started watching the music news.”
“On MTV, your cousin Olivia showed me how to find it on the telly. They’ve broadcast live footage from their last tour, did you know that?”
“I had no idea.” That was true, at least. Grey had left the television on more or less nonstop since the Dunsanys had left, but he’d hardly paid attention to it.
“They really put on a show, don’t they? They’re just something else. And that singer? My word, Olivia says she’s one of the greatest female vocalists in the industry.” Benedicta chuckled. “Whatever that means these days.”
There was a long pause, then, “How are you, John? Really.”
“Quite alright,” Grey lied again. “I learned to cook for myself, and I remembered how to do the laundry.” He could do those things, he was capable of it, but hadn’t been. His mother didn’t need to know that, though.
“You’re taking care of yourself, then?”
“Of course, mother.” He took a sip of his Jack and Coke, holding the phone to the side so his mother wouldn’t hear it. “I miss her terribly, of course—” He swallowed hard to keep the quiver from his voice. If his mother heard just how bad off he was, she’d fly out for sure. “But I’m taking your advice. And keeping busy helps.” Not nearly as much as this heroin would.
“So what should I tell Mr. Byrd? He’s been waiting for me to tell him when I need to book my flight to California. I can be there next week, you know. Sooner, if you need it.”
“Oh, no, there’s no need,” John said, trying not to panic. “Everything is settled. I’ve a few drawers of her things to go through still, but…” In truth, under the layer of dust and grime and empty liquor bottles, everything was exactly as Isobel had left it. He’d left all her clothes in the closet and the dresser, all her cosmetics in the bathroom, her shoes by the door… She could walk inside the apartment tonight and pick up right where she left off.
A knife of sorrow plunged through Grey’s breastbone and he drank more. He needed to get off this phone, needed out of this conversation.
“But it’s coming along,” Grey finished. It was an uphill battle to keep his voice steady. “Besides, I have your wonderful letters to help me. That was very thoughtful of you, thank you.”
“Of course, dear.” She sighed, resigned. “I suppose I will tell Mr. Byrd to wait a bit longer. If you’re certain you’re alright?”
“Yes, I am, but thank you.” The lies were just piling up.
“Well. You can call me any time, you know. I love you, John.”
“Love you too, Mama. Thank you for calling.”
“Mmhmm. Take care of yourself, dear.”
“I promise.” Another lie. Grey hung up the phone and scrubbed both hands over his face. “Jesus Christ.” He almost unplugged the phone again, remembered that Fraser had said he’d call, and begrudgingly left the cord in the wall. He wouldn’t hear it either way if he was passed out.
Fraser showed up at Grey’s apartment building in a big black town car with his usual driver, an incredibly discreet fellow. It had become their routine. Jamie would come by in a hired car after a day at the studio, pick Grey up, and they’d go to Fraser’s house in Van Nuys. Sometimes there was a detour to meet Jamie’s dealer, a shifty guy known to Grey only as Doc. Sometimes Doc would meet them at Jamie’s house, occasionally bringing his girlfriend with him. Grey didn’t like her. She was crass and rude and threw herself at Fraser when she thought Doc wasn’t looking. Pathetic, really. Jamie didn’t seem to be into it, but he was into having fun and indulging himself. This apparently included getting the occasional blow job from his dealer’s girlfriend while said dealer was in the bathroom.
Perhaps in another life, Grey should have been uncomfortable to sit on the couch next to Jamie while some surly woman sucked his prick. But in this life, such that it was, all he was concerned with was the drugs and the booze and not feeling anything. So, he sat there, inches away from Jamie gasping and moaning, while Grey drank from a bottle of whatever happened to be out, letting his brain get foggy until his hands stopped shaking. Neither turned on nor off, concerned only with getting his hit.
Fraser zipped up his trousers as Doc came out of the bathroom, his girlfriend wiping her mouth with the back of one hand. What was her name? She had one, surely. Doc glared down at Jamie, who didn’t care, and deposited a pile of Persian, rigs, blow, and various bags of pills on Fraser’s coffee table, leaving with his wad of cash and his girlfriend.
“Do you like women like that?” Grey asked, the thought flying out of his mouth before it had finished making the circuit through what was left of his brain.
“Like Louise?” Jamie scoffed and shook his head, laughing. “No. She’s terrible.”
“Then why do you let her do that?”
Fraser blinked at Grey, arching one ruddy brow, lips in a tight line like he was trying not to laugh again. “Have ye never had a blow job then?”
“No—well, yes, I meant…”
Jamie shrugged. “If ye hadnae noticed, I’m no’ that picky.”
“Should I be offended by that?”
“That depends.” Fraser popped a pill in his mouth—Grey had no idea what it was—and washed it down with vodka and orange juice. He fixed John with a level stare. “Are ye wanting to fuck?”
“I’m married.” It was an automatic response, and Grey choked on the last syllable. His vision went out of focus and he took a long drink. It was vodka, he thought. Just plain vodka, no taste, no smell, just warm oblivion.
“John…” Fraser reached for him and Grey snatched his arm away, retreating to the far end of the sofa, drawing his knees up to his chest. “Sorry,” Jamie muttered.
“’S fine.” Grey drank again. His lips were going numb, his fingers clumsy around the bottle, but his mind still raced, around and around like a tornado. If he got wasted enough, he wouldn’t have to pay attention to it anymore.
“Wanna talk about it?”
Grey shook his head. “Just don’t want to hurt anymore.”
“What d’ye want to feel instead?”
The sound of a cigarette lighter flicking to life made John open his eyes. Fraser lit a candle on the coffee table, then set to his ritual of dividing up the junk.
“Nothing.” Grey clutched the vodka bottle to his chest. “Not a goddamn thing.”
“That can be arranged.” Jamie mixed up some Persian in a spoon. This was the only thing he could sit still for anymore, Grey realized. Well, maybe playing, but he’d not been with him to the studio yet, and Jamie never sat at his kit when Grey was at his house. This was all they did together. “I ken ye dinnae really like me, and that’s alright.”
“I never said…”
“Aye, ye have.” Fraser gave him a tight smile, then shrugged. “Ye’re no’ the only one. I ken ye were marriedt for a long time—”
“Seven years is hardly a long time.” It should have been forever.
“True. Ye managed til death us do part though, so there’s that.”
Grey gaped at Jamie, the bluntness of his statement too shocking to hurt. “You’re shit at this whole feelings thing, aren’t you?”
Fraser looked up from his spoon long enough to shoot Grey an expression that just said, No shit, Sherlock. “If ye expected more from a junkie, John, ye need to lower yer standards. A lot.”
“Fair point.” Grey sighed and straightened up.
“I’m no’ asking ye to go steady wi’ me, so relax. I dinnae think either of us is capable of maintaining a relationship, do you?” It was a damn lot of coherent words all at once. Jamie was in that lucid moment, they both were. It came in waves for them now. A brief dance with clarity and reason. Then the restlessness, anger, desperate need for something—anything—to make it all stop. Then they’d use and it would be bliss and nirvana for a time. Then smoke and mirrors when they came around again. Maybe another turn with lucidity. If they were strategic, they could skip the fits of rage and leap right into the abyss.
“Not with another person,” Grey agreed. Watching Jamie draw the heroin into the syringe was captivating.
Jamie hummed in agreement. “Sex can just be sex, ken. No strings, no feelings, just another way to feel good. Unless I’m wrong and a presumptive arsehole and ye aren’t attracted to men at all?”
“I am.” Grey’s hand started shaking again as he stared at the rig Fraser laid in front of him. All he wanted right now was in that needle. “I’ll think about it.”
Fraser shrugged. “Offer stands.” Both syringes loaded, he propped an ankle on his knee, hunching over and turning his foot to look for a vein.
Grey snatched up his own syringe, frowning at the inside of his left arm. It was a mass of old bruises, track marks, and collapsed veins. Shit.
Well, he had two arms for a reason.
Grey woke up to the sound of a ringing phone. He rolled out of bed to answer it, bumping into a sleeping Jamie. John blinked and looked around until the room stopped spinning. Jamie’s bedroom. Jamie’s house. Jamie’s phone, check.
“Fraser, hey.” Grey swatted Jamie’s shoulder, and the big guy grunted. “Phone, might be important.”
“Or it might not,” Fraser slurred, flopping onto his back and draping an arm over his sweaty, pale face.
The answering machine picked it up, Jamie’s spartan outgoing message. “I’m no’ home, leave a message,” followed by a long beep.
Then Dougal MacKenzie’s voice, sounding all sorts of put-out. “Jamie, I dinnae ken what a record deal means in yer mind, but in mine and the label’s, it means ye have to produce a record. That means recording. Which means coming to work. And writing music. Ye signed a contract, and ye’re running out of time. If ye dinna have new material by the end of the week, lad, they’re going to drop ye. Get yer arse to work.” Another beep and a click when the call disconnected.
“Told ye it wasnae important,” Jamie said. “Claire can write just fine wi’out me. I’m just slowing her down anyway. She’s too good for us and she kens it.”
Grey raised up onto an elbow and looked down at Fraser. For weeks—or was it months—they’d been doing this, drinking, shooting up, the odd line of blow, shooting up again, passing out in their underwear. Going from one bender to another. Sometimes Grey went home, cleaned out his mailbox, erased his answering machine, found the occasional sober half hour to call his mother. But in all of this, they didn’t really talk about anything that mattered. Ned Gowan popped into Grey’s mind then, the old lawyer's statement that Jamie doesn’t tolerate grief well.
Christ, did Grey ever understand what that meant now.
“If she’s too good for you, why doesn’t she go out on her own?” John asked. “Start a new band?”
Fraser shrugged. “She doesnae want to go through the early days again. Starting a new band is damned hard. We could record ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ on a tuba and it wouldnae make number one, but it’d sell. And folk would call us edgy and bold.” He scoffed and shook his head. “The music industry is a fickle, stupid thing, if ye hadnae noticed.”
“I think that’s Hollywood in general,” Grey said, thinking of Isobel’s first auditions.
“Good point.” Fraser sighed, staring up at the ceiling. “Writing used to come so easy for me, before the accident. Sometimes entire songs would just… appear in my brain. They sucked like that, of course, but we’d get in the studio and work on it and come up with gold.” He met John’s gaze, eyes mournful and dark. “Do ye ken what it’s like to try to create something and ye have no idea what the end product will actually be? And to do it understanding that ye will never experience it when ye do manage to put it together?”
Grey shook his head.
“It’s like… trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle. But most of the pieces are missing, and ye cannae see the picture on the box, and the pieces ye do have are upside down. Except the puzzle is yerself and ye cannae even fucking remember what ye used to look like.”
What the hell was there to say to that? Grey understood it, maybe not about music, but that feeling of utter loss. He’d not let himself put a word to it, hadn’t named the emotion because it was a terrifying pain. John laid a hand on Jamie’s chest, and Fraser sucked in a sharp breath, like the start of a sob he wasn’t going to give into.
Just another way to feel good.
Jamie’s lips tasted like old Jameson. It wasn’t sweet or tender, nothing more than an empty, hollow touch.
“Offer’s still open,” Fraser said when Grey pulled away. “Think we could both benefit from getting off, don’t you?”
Grey threw his leg over Jamie and straddled him, his half-hard prick rapidly getting with the program. He rutted against Jamie and they both groaned. At least they weren’t too doped up for this. For now. “Yes.”
Jamie’s hands settled onto Grey’s hips, fingertips digging into his flesh and manhandling him, putting John in the position he wanted. “I want ye to fuck me, John.” He shoved at Grey’s shorts and they went down over his ass easily. Jesus, how much weight had he lost?
It didn’t take much for Grey to wriggle out of his shorts, nor to get Jamie’s tightie whities down far enough for him to get a leg free. Their t-shirts were ripped and dirty, and they left them on, because this wasn’t that kind of fuck.
“Lube?” Grey asked. Either he was immensely out of practice and this would be lightning-fast, or they’d both get whiskey dick and give up, unsatisfied.
“Aye.” Jamie twisted and reached for the nightstand, opening the drawer and rooting around blindly.
“I see it.” Grey leaned over Fraser and reached into the drawer, snatching up the little tube of Astroglide, settling back between Jamie’s thighs, his pale skin marred with bruises and track marks.
Everything with Jamie had been frighteningly easy. The drugs were easy. The booze was easy. The long stretches of silence were easy, and the raging was easy to forget. Popping the top on the tube of Astroglide was easy. Smearing it over his hard prick was easy. Getting Jamie to spread his legs and lift his hips was easy. Sinking into him, pushing into that tight heat, that was easy too.
Remembering not to hurt his friend, that was more difficult.
“Hard,” Jamie gasped. “Do it hard, make it hurt. No feelings, remember? Use me, John.”
That made it easier.
Grey thrust hard into him, the large room filling up with the sound of their panting breaths, their bodies slapping against each other, the occasional protest from the mattress. It took a couple minutes for him to find his rhythm—he was out of practice—but they muddled through.
Jamie whimpered and John slowed down, but Fraser bucked up under him. “I meant it. I want the pain.”
“Fuck,” Grey growled, giving in. He used him, moving Jamie’s legs to a position that was better for John, ignoring Jamie’s leaking prick altogether. He could manage his own orgasm if he wanted one.
This wasn’t that kind of fuck.
Just another way to feel good. And just like another drug, John used him. But it worked for Jamie, fisting his own prick and coming all over himself with a shout.
“Yes, fuck,” Grey moaned, thrusting hard into Jamie one last time, his orgasm rushing over him and out of him in a wave. He shoved Jamie’s legs back farther, getting a better angle for himself, his fingers leaving bruises under Jamie’s knees.
Spent and sated, Grey pulled out, collapsing on the bed next to Jamie, both of them gasping for breath.
They didn’t talk, and that was easy too. No strings, no feelings, just pleasure and release. They laid there, not even really touching.
Eventually, Fraser said, “Guess I should go to work. Will ye be here when I get back?”
“I should probably go home for a bit.” Wasn’t the rent due? And he’d not talked to his mother in… some length of time, he had no idea. But if he didn’t give her regular proof of life, she was liable to show up, and that sounded like a one-way ticket to rehab and an international guilt trip, two things he was desperate to avoid.
Jamie rolled out of bed, his face screwing up into a grimace of pain as he stood. “Fucking hip. Shite. Nothing’s been right with it since the accident.” Pills and booze were never far away in Jamie’s house, and Grey watched him limp to the dresser, drop something in his mouth, and wash it down with the open bottle of Jameson.
Sometimes Jamie picked Grey up and they went to a hotel. Sometimes there were other people there. Not many, and always rock stars, leaving Grey the odd man out, save for the occasional lover du jour or groupie. No one cared though, it wasn’t really about socializing. Sometimes Fraser craved a group, wanted that change of scenery, the same reason that John had first gone to Jamie’s house. Fuck, when had that been? Felt like a lifetime ago.
When Jamie picked John up one night, it was a veritable who’s who of LA’s addict elite, all piled into the back of a limo. Grey almost refused—five or six extra people was an awful lot for him nowadays—but Jamie gave him a bump and promised him plenty more. Jamie himself was already wasted, eyes wide and wild, focusing on absolutely nothing.
So Grey climbed into the limo too, the coke blasting through him like lightning, setting everything into a beautiful, golden blaze. Someone handed him a joint, and Jamie bit a Quaalude in half, giving a piece to Grey before swallowing the other one himself with a smirk.
Party it was, then.
They checked into a hotel off the strip, yelling and making a scene through the lobby and up the elevator. It was weird to be on this side of the chaos, participating in it, but he was too high to give a damn. In the elevator, Jamie jumped hard to try to make it stop. Then someone else joined in and the emergency breaks stopped the car between floors. Even Grey laughed, his heart in his throat.
“I always wanted to try this,” Jamie announced. He dug his fingertips between the elevator doors and pried them apart, then the outer doors. They had to clamber up about four feet, but they made it out alive and to their room.
It went on for hours, the destruction. Booze, blow, pills, searing their brains and rotting their minds. Grey stuck close to Jamie, and he felt it when their euphoria started to take a nosedive, the wicked cocktail of shit they’d taken turning sour. Jamie got someone to time how fast he could chug a bottle of Jack. Apparently no one in the room could remember how to read a clock.
The laughing and bedlam chiseled into Grey’s brain, tore at his nerves, fraying them until he couldn’t sit still. “Hey, can we go?” He tapped Jamie on the arm to get his attention, but he either didn’t hear, didn’t understand, or didn’t care. “Jamie, did you hear me?” The shaking started, anxious convulsions that rattled his bones, heart pounding. He needed out. Out of this room, out of this crowd that seemed to multiply by the second, even though no one came or went. “I want to go, I need a shot.”
Fraser still didn’t hear him. “John, help me wi’ this?” He could barely hold his head up, much less the little black bag in his hand.
“Hmm?” Grey took the bag from Jamie and unzipped it. “Jamie, mate, you’re about to pass out already. Let’s just go, you don’t—”
Jamie shook his head, adamant. “No. Cannae… I need a hit. Seeing things again.” Unlike Grey, Jamie didn’t much care what he did and where. If he did as Fraser asked, then they could leave and John could shoot himself up in the safety of Jamie’s bedroom.
“Fuck.” Grey pulled out the little plastic bag of smack, the bent spoon, lighter, dropping stuff on the floor where they sat. Jamie got like this, when he did too much coke and mixed it with too much other shit. He started to hallucinate. It had happened to Grey a few times too, the psychosis. They both knew it wasn’t real, but it felt real in the moment, and it was terrifying. After two nights of hallucinations and nearly shooting each other in Jamie’s living room, Grey had cut back on the blow. He much preferred the gentle euphoria of heroin to the raging insanity.
But Jamie hadn’t cut back. In fact, Grey was fairly certain he was using more, then dumping more booze and sedatives and heroin on top of it. So much so, apparently, he couldn’t fumble the needle into his own body.
This was what drug buddies did, right? Followed each other on to hell? As he mixed the smack in the spoon, a tiny voice nagged in the back of Grey’s mind that this was really stupid. Remember how much you hated shooting him up with coke that one time?
At least Fraser had asked him to do it this time. Fuck off, Grey told the voice. He’d do the same for me. Just this one time, and then we can leave, and I can take care of myself. Jiminy Cricket fucked off.
Jamie mumbled about something unintelligible as Grey handed him the rubber tourniquet. “Can you hold onto that at least?”
He could barely sit up, but Fraser nodded and took the ends of the band in his right hand, pulling it tight.
It took Grey a few seconds to find a vein in Jamie’s butchered arm. Then he did, and the needle slipped right in, and Grey pushed the plunger.
Fraser released the tourniquet and groaned. His eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed backward onto the floor, crumbling like a rag doll.
“Jamie?” Grey knelt over him, patting his cheek. “Jamie, are you alright?” Panic shot through him, sobered him up, the word overdose dancing through his brain.
Jamie’s chest stopped moving, and Grey’s heart ratcheted up double time.
“No, no, no,” Grey begged, shaking his friend.
“Fuck!” John shouted. One or two of the other people in the room turned and stared, dumb and wasted and confused. “Fucking shit, he’s turning blue. Call an ambulance. Oh my God, Jamie, please.” Fuck, I can’t lose him too.
The trashed hotel room dissolved around him as Grey watched Jamie die. A voice behind him, giving the name of the hotel they were in, the room number. “He’s not breathing.” Someone had called 911. “CPR? I dunno, does anyone know CPR?”
CPR. I know CPR. He’d gotten certified while he was waiting for his armed guard license. If he can take a life, he should damn well know how to save one.
“Goddamn it, Fraser.” Grey laid Jamie out flat on his back and knelt beside him, hands together, push hard. Chest compressions were hard fucking work.
“Help’s coming. Clean up the room, cops won’t be far behind ‘em. No, all of it, flush it, get rid of it, dumbass!”
John Grey still wasn’t a praying man. Jamie had been, once upon a time, when he was a boy. If there was a God, maybe He remembered that about him.
Please don ’t leave me. Just one more chance, please. Just give him one more chance.
Sweat poured from Grey’s brow, down his back. His arms were giving out. People were watching, he could feel their eyes, but no one knelt to help.
One more chance. Please.
The world flew off its axis, exhaustion, junk, every fucking thing Grey had put into his body in the last week fighting him, sabotaging him. Inky black demons dragging them both to hell. He couldn’t even see straight anymore, could barely breathe himself.
Not like this.
No one was listening, just like no one in the room was helping. And Jamie thought these people were his friends.
There was no God, of course. No heaven, no hell, save for this. Nothing beyond this wretched pebble, just emptiness and agony for a while, and then absolutely fucking nothing.
But for now, chest compressions. Rescue breaths that tasted like smoke and booze.
Chaos in the hallway.
Commotion in the room
Firm, gloved hands came down on Grey’s shoulders, burning his worn out flesh off the bone. “Good job. Good job, we got it from here.”
“Huh?” Grey took in big gulps of air, falling back onto his heels as the paramedic nudged him away.
“Yeah, he’s got no time. Ready? Three. Two. One. Lift.” The paramedics heaved Jamie onto a stretcher, strapping him in.
“Jesus, do you see his arms?”
“Shit, not another one. Anyone know what he took?”
No one answered. Every muscle in Grey’s exhausted, ruined body trembled. He managed a nod.
“What was it? Heroin?” The paramedics lifted the stretcher up and wheeled it toward the door.
“Yes,” Grey croaked.
“I don’t—I don’t even know.” He should know, shouldn’t he? But Jamie had been fucked up when he’d come to Grey’s flat to bring him here.
And for the second time, Grey watched paramedics take Jamie away on a stretcher. This time, no one bothered to say, He ain’t gonna make it.
He wasn’t going to make it.
Whoever the hell those other people were to Jamie, they at least knew how to purge a room in a hurry. Cops came. They yelled and threatened and swore at them. “Where’d you get the fucking drugs, you goddamn junkies? Who’s your dealer? What the fuck is wrong with you people?”
Finally, Grey spoke up. “Are any of us under arrest at the moment?”
The cop turned beet red and glared at him. “I fucking should take you all in—”
“Because if you are making an arrest, I’d suggest you start reading rights, because I for one am ready to call my attorney.”
Apparently realizing they couldn’t be bullied, the police issued them one last expletive-laden threat, and left.
After ten minutes, a man with long, jet-black hair watching the parking lot from the window announced, “They’re gone.”
Grey bolted, picking up Fraser’s leather coat and putting it on as he went to the door. The driver was probably still waiting outside. A couple press vans lingered, but John was a nobody, and he turned up the collar of Jamie’s coat and ducked his head, sneaking right past them.
Jamie’s leather coat was way too big for him, the inside smelling like sweat, cigarette smoke, and spilled booze. Maybe it would be okay. Fraser had nearly gotten him killed a dozen times. He’d be fine this time too.
“Can you take me home, please?” Grey asked the driver.
The driver peered at him in the rear view mirror. “Sure thing. Just you?”
Grey nodded. “Yeah, just me.” There was a flask in the seat next to him, and it sloshed with promise when he shook it. Unscrewing the cap, he took a cautious sniff. Probably just whiskey. A sip confirmed it.
The driver had the radio on the local rock station. “Shout at the Devil” faded out, and the DJ started talking before the last down-beat. “Some breaking news for you. We’ve just received reports that Bleeding Roses drummer Jamie Fraser has died of an apparent drug overdose—”
Oh, Jesus, no. “Fuck.” Grey covered his face with his hands and doubled over. “No, no, fuck!”
“Mr. Grey?” the driver asked. “You don’t have to tell me what happened, but…”
“Take me to Jamie’s house instead.” He didn’t mean for it to come out like a barked order, but his mind was racing too fast to do anything about it. Around and around, that miserable tornado again.
The driver turned around at an intersection. “Anything I can do for you?”
“No.” Two swallows and the flask was empty. “Thanks.” Grey’s chest ached, his stomach flipped. He was too fucking sober to deal with this. The pockets of Jamie’s coat were empty; they’d done a good job clearing the room. Fumbling around the backseat, he found more booze, a pack of smokes, and a lighter. There was more stuff at Jamie’s house. If this was where he was headed, then so be it. He wouldn’t have a job in the morning anyway, because what the fuck did a dead rock star need with a bodyguard, even one who hadn’t actually worked in months?
Grey didn’t have a key to Jamie’s house, and the doors were locked—except for the garage, like always. The big home was empty. Silent and lonely, trash and bugs and little piles of clothes all over the place. Some of the clothes were John’s, discarded when the drugs made him sweat, or he couldn’t find a vein under some exposed skin, or on the rare occasions they were horny and wanted another way to feel good.
He made his way to Fraser’s bedroom in a daze, stumbling now and then, less from the alcohol, and more from the exhaustion. From the bone-weariness of giving someone CPR for God-knew how long. From keeping an iron grip on his wits for the cops. From not smashing the windows of the limo. He could feel it, the rage, coming to a boil, and what the fuck was he mad at? Fraser, for making stupid choices? The paramedics and the doctors for not saving him? Maybe he’d had it coming. Himself, for sticking that last goddamn needle in Jamie’s arm?
I did that. The only person in this miserable fucking world I can stand to be around, and I fucking killed him.
Grey screamed, a wild, guttural cry of anguish and fury. He did it again, yelling and shouting until his throat hurt and he tasted copper. “I fucking killed him!” He screamed it over and over. Furious tears streamed down his cheeks.
He’d explode. He would explode, his heart leaping out of his chest, all the little blackened bits of him flying apart in a billion wretched pieces.
Drawing his fist back, Grey slammed it through the nearest wall. The drywall broke, maybe a knuckle did too, pain bursting up his hand.
It felt good, the pain. There was absolution in pain.
He punched the wall again, as hard as he could. And again. And again. Once more and he hit a stud, and that did break something. Little bones in his hand fractured and split, white-hot agony shooting up his arm, radiating to his shoulder.
Grey screamed like a madman all the way to the bedroom and collapsed on the bed. He screamed into Jamie’s pillow until no sound came out.
Jamie’s gun was on the nightstand from the last time he’d gotten paranoid and started to see things. It would be so easy to—
No. No. Not yet anyway. He deserved this, deserved this pain. He deserved to live with it a little longer.
I killed Jamie Fraser, and now I have to live with it.
Oh, Isobel. You didn’t see this one coming, did you? That I’d lose you, then watch him die, and then I’d be left here. A widower and a murderer and a worthless fucking addict.
He was still jonesing, starting to get sick, but he didn’t trust himself with a needle just now.
Pills. Fraser kept them under his bed.
Grey scrambled out of the bed and crawled under it, feeling around for the shoe box. He found it and it rattled. Perfect. There was all kinds of shit in there, none of it labeled correctly, of course. But he knew what Halcion and Vicodin looked like. He popped a few of each in his mouth and chewed them up, grimacing at the bitter taste. Then he laid down on the hard floor and curled into a ball, covering his head with his arms, the silence in the house oppressive and terrifying, broken only by the creak of Jamie’s leather coat. His tears were spent, his hand throbbing and covered in drywall dust. All he could do was lie there and whimper like a fucking coward, scared of himself, of the grief that would be too much for him this time. It was all too much, too big, too nasty.
He must have fallen asleep. Shattering glass woke him. Grey’s first thought was, Jamie. But it couldn’t be, because he’d murdered Jamie. So it was someone breaking in.
Grey hauled himself up to a sitting position, scrambling backward toward the nightstand and Jamie’s gun. His vision wobbled, the drugs still pulling at him. The gun was loaded, like it always was, and he sat there with the pistol at the ready, his back pressed to the front of the nightstand. Banging and thumping echoed through the house, unsteady footsteps coming toward him. His right index finger rested above the trigger, his hand unsteady. He probably couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn in this condition.
Jamie Fraser’s ghost walked into the room and stopped, staring at John and the wobbling gun in his hands.
“Jamie?” Shit, was he hallucinating? He blinked, forced his eyes all the way open, shook his head. Wake up, Grey.
“John.” It was Fraser. The one word woke Grey up. He looked awful. Skin gray and waxy, eyes sunken into his head, hair thinning. His shirt was ripped open clear down the middle, his leather pants hanging loose on his skeletal hips. It was Jamie, he was alive, but he sure looked like a convincing corpse.
“Oh, God.” Grey dropped the gun on the floor and climbed to his feet, going to him. “Fuck, Jamie, I’m so sorry. I should have told you no, I should have…” Fraser’s chest was covered in wicked bruises, the darkest and ugliest surrounding two angry red dots just left of center. Needles, big ones. Grey touched it, gently, carefully. “What…?”
“Adrenaline,” Jamie said. He just stood there, swaying on his feet. “Twice.”
“Nope. He wasn’t there. Just cold and empty, and then a lot of pain.” Jamie’s gaunt face revealed nothing but disillusionment and a fathomless emptiness that was all too familiar.
“I’m so sorry, Jamie. I am so fucking sorry.” There had to be something better to say, but what could it possibly be? “What do you need?”
Fraser blew out a long breath and shook his head.
Grey sank his fingers into Jamie’s hair, drawing him down and pressing their lips together. It was a like kissing a lukewarm ghost for how little Fraser responded. Maybe he really was dead. “Jamie… You’re alive.”
“No’ for lack of trying.” He shrugged. “Better luck next time, aye?”
“Stop it,” John snapped, guilty anger bursting through the mass of confused relief and upended grief. “You don’t get to do that to me, you prick. You don’t get to be pissed that you’re alive when I’ve been lying on your bedroom floor watching you die in my head, over and over and over for however fucking long you were out.” The rage was back, and Grey let it loose. “You nearly made a murderer out of me, or at least an accomplice in your stupid suicide attempt. Or have you forgotten how much time and energy I used to spend keeping you alive?”
Fraser’s last nerve broke too. “Aye, and a fine job ye’ve done of that!” he shouted. “Either kill me outright or don’t, I dinnae care. Hate me or don’t, it doesnae matter. At the end of the day, ye’re using me too.”
“Fuck you, Fraser!” Grey clenched his hand into a fist, pain rocketing through it again, and he welcomed it. “It’s moments like these that I don’t know why the hell I hang around you. Sometimes I think your whole reason for existing is to infuriate me and take whatever you want without regard for anyone else. That’s how you were on tour, it’s how you were before the tour, before the heroin. You’ve always been that fucking selfish, and I hate it!” He shoved at Fraser’s chest, that swollen, purple finger shooting more pain up his arm. “But then sometimes you say shit that makes me think there’s actually a shred of humanity buried deep down somewhere. And despite all your bullshit, I can’t make myself walk away from you and I don’t fucking know why.”
Jamie scoffed and turned away, but John blocked his path with his body.
Oh, hell no, Jamie wasn’t getting out of this so easily. “And you know what?” Grey went on. “Yes. Yes, I’m using you. Is that what you want to hear? The only time I can stand to be in my own head is when I’m with you, because we get wasted or we fuck and then my own head doesn’t matter anymore. But you’re using me too for the same thing, so don’t even try to take the moral high ground on this one.”
“Get the fuck out of my house,” Fraser hissed, his lip turning up into an enraged sneer.
Jamie grabbed a fistful of Grey’s hair and started shoving him toward the door. “I said—”
“Fuck what you said.” Jamie’s harsh grip in John’s hair hurt his scalp, made his eyes water. It was delicious pain, like his broken hand. “We’re going to have this out here and now. You wanna punish me? Go ahead. Use me back, fair is fair.”
Fraser yanked Grey’s head back against his shoulder, his breath hot on his ear. Between that and the leather coat, Grey would suffocate in the man. “What do ye want, for me to hit ye?”
Yes. “If you want.” He deserved that for pulling that trigger. Again.
“For me to fuck ye till ye beg me to stop?”
“Fine.” Grey pushed back, felt Jamie’s hard prick jabbing into his ass. “Whatever you want, I don’t care.”
Fraser growled into John’s ear, no words, just a noise like an animal. He swatted him hard on the backside with the flat of his hand, the blow stinging. “Gimme that arse, Grey.” He snatched the coat off Grey’s shoulders and tossed it away.
John fumbled with the fly of his jeans, finally getting them open and shoved down. Behind him, Jamie pulled the drawer out of the nightstand and dumped it out onto the bed, rooting around in the pile of sex toys and paraphernalia.
“Don’t care about lube,” Grey said. “Make it hurt.”
“Suit yerself.” Fraser bent Grey over with a firm shove between his shoulder blades, pressing his face into the mattress. Then Jamie spit into his hand, held onto both of Grey’s hips, and plunged inside of him.
“Motherfucker!” Sharp agony shot through Grey, stealing his breath and dragging tears from his eyes. This was going to hurt for a week. The dryness made Jamie’s prick feel like a serrated knife and it burnt like the fires of hell. Moaning, he took a desperate gasp for air. “More,” he croaked, worked his tongue, and tried again. “Fuck. More.”
Jamie pounded into him, over and over and over, pulling hard on his hair. There was absolution in pain, release in being used and abused.
Maybe it was fucked up to be getting off on this so much, but Grey didn’t care. He rutted against the mattress, the sheet dry and unsatisfying, like everything else, but it was hot friction and he moaned even louder than Jamie did. “More, Jamie, fuck!”
Close, he was so close. Pain and pleasure thoroughly confused and interchangeable, twisting into an ugly knot in his brain. Grey’s orgasm came hard and fast, making an abrubt mess of the bed.
Jamie yanked on John’s hair, forcing him to arch his back, the angle of his throat drawing his breath out in a desperate rasp. With one more of those animal growls, louder this time, Fraser came. Then he let go of John’s hair and shoved him down hard onto the bed, leaving him cold and empty and whimpering with pain.
Grey trembled, tears that weren’t really about emotions drizzling silently down his face, the pain leaking out of his body. He pushed himself upright with a hiss, the movement hurting even more and making him groan, his abused cock twitching.
Calmer now, not meeting John’s eyes, Fraser paused in the doorway of the big walk-in closet where he kept his smack and rigs. “Ye coming?”
Grey did eventually leave Jamie’s house. Before the end of the week, Geillis called him at home. “Dougal wants ye at the studio with the band today.”
“Alright. Do I need to pick anything up?” He meant Jamie of course.
“No, he’s accounted for. See ye soon.” And then she hung up.
That was interesting. Grey usually had a better idea of where Jamie was lately than anyone else, and he’d not seen or spoken to him since their last binge. They hadn’t touched each other since that last furious shag either. He’d been wrapped up in his own habit, and not really thought about whether Jamie was going to work in the meantime.
Fortunately, Grey was sober enough to drive to the recording studio, his broken first and second fingers sticking out over the steering wheel awkwardly in their splint. By the look of the parking lot, he was the last to arrive. He found the band, Dougal, Murtagh, and Quarry crowded into one of the rehearsal spaces.
Fraser, sitting in a love seat next to Claire, gave John a tight smile, eyes bloodshot, and cleared his throat. “I, um,” Jamie began. “Weel, I wanted to talk to ye all at once because I dinnae think I can say it twice.” He licked his lips, stalling, then plowed on, his gaze fixed on the floor by his feet. “I have a problem and I need help. I’ve made yer lives a living hell, and I’m sorry.” He looked at his band mates then, all staring at him calm and patient, if stunned.
Part of Grey expected Jamie to start laughing and admit it was a prank. Instead, Jamie looked him in the eye and said, “Until I get clean, I’m no’ going to change. And I need to.”
Beauchamp laid a hand on his knee. “What do you need, Jamie?”
Fraser’s shoulders relaxed a little and he gave Claire the most sincere smile that John had ever seen pass between them. “Time. I’m going to check into rehab today. I need about a month off.”
Claire nodded. “Of course. Whatever you need. I’m proud of you, Jamie.”
Fraser patted Claire’s hand on his knee, giving her knuckles a squeeze. They really had been through a lot together. Grey and Jamie had too, but not like this. He shoved his hands in his pockets, fiddling with the corner of his pack of cigarettes.
Angus and Rupert said similar nice things, then Murtagh clapped Jamie on the shoulder, muttering something about working out a new recording schedule with Dougal. His uncle agreed, and followed the old beatnik music producer out of the room.
I should be happy for him. Say something, you idiot.
But he couldn’t. So Grey kept his silence, hovering on the sidelines while the Bleeding Roses had their moment.
Grey followed Jamie into the mens room. He half-expected to find him shooting up, but he wasn’t, just taking a perfectly normal piss in the urinal. “Hey. You okay?”
Fraser shook his head. “Not really.” He zipped up and flushed, turning to the sink to wash his hands.
He should be proud of him too. Why couldn’t he be proud of him too? “Do you want to talk about it?”
“I died, John. My heart stopped and I died, and then the same day I shot up with more of the shit that killed me. None of that is okay, and there’s no’ much to talk about.” Fraser turned off the tap and shook water from his hands.
“I suppose…” Some unaccountable hurt clenched Grey’s heart like a fist. “I suppose you won’t want me around anymore, when you get out.”
“Ye make it sound like I’m going to prison.” Fraser dried his hands on the worn towel, something like amusement in his eye as he peered at John’s reflection in the grimy mirror. “Why don’t ye get clean wi’ me?”
Grey chewed on his lower lip, tapping his thumb against his splinted broken finger. “I don’t…”
“Ye dinnae want to end up like me, do ye?”
He figured he was more or less there anyway, give or take a few months. “I don’t know that I can.” This was Hollywood. How many stars were in and out of rehab like it would fix everything, only to fall right back off the wagon and go to hell again? It wasn’t a panacea.
Fraser took a deep breath, nodding. Then he shrugged. “It’s yer choice. I think ye can do it, for what it’s worth.” He gave John’s shoulder a squeeze as he walked by and out of the mens room.
“Grey,” Dougal called from down the hall of the studio. “A word wi’ ye, please.” He disappeared into an office.
Dread knotted in John’s guts. That wasn’t a good tone. “Yes?” he said, following Dougal into the room.
“Shut the door.” They were alone in Murtagh’s office, Dougal leaning back against the desk with his arms and ankles crossed, beady eyes grim.
Grey shut the door and stood there, waiting.
“I ken ye were wi’ Jamie the night of his overdose,” Dougal said.
Shit. John’s heart pounded in his chest, loud enough that Dougal probably heard it. He didn’t say a thing, didn’t even nod.
“Now, I ken ye’ve been struggling since ye lost yer wife, and I am sorry for yer loss, John. I am.”
Grey swallowed hard. Everyone was still so fucking sorry all the time. In truth, he’d not really thought of Isobel in… not since the night Jamie overdosed, maybe for a few days before. The dread slipped away, devoured by wretched guilt that turned his stomach sour.
Placing a cigarette between his lips and lighting it, Dougal went on, exhaling the smoke through his nose. “I thought if I just gave ye time, that ye’d come back to work—really come back. I only kept ye on the payroll this long because Jamie asked me to. But ye’re supposed to be his bodyguard, no’ his enabler.” He stared at Grey expectantly, a stern look like a boarding school headmaster, demanding a reply.
“Jamie’s going to rehab.” Grey despised how small his voice sounded, how insignificant he felt. Who the fuck am I anymore? His splinted fingers throbbed.
“Aye.” Dougal nodded, jabbing the two fingers holding his cigarette in the air at John. “After you let him OD.”
I didn’t let him OD, I fucking delivered the deathblow myself. But MacKenzie didn’t know that. “It won’t happen again—”
“Damn straight, it won’t. Ye’re fired. Ye’ll stay away from my band, and ye’ll stay away from my nephew, or I’ll have Ned get a restraining order.”
He should argue, say something in his own defense. He should have quit over a year ago. But Grey said nothing, because Dougal was not only right to do it, but John didn’t even give a damn that he was being sacked.
Dougal took another drag and spread his hands in front of him, silvery eyebrows high. “Any questions?”
“There’s the door. Have a nice life, Grey.”
John turned and opened the door, the world coming to a screeching halt.
“What’s left of it, anyway,” Dougal added.
And Grey was too numb to give a single fuck.
The phone picked up on the third ring. “Hello?”
“Mother, it’s John.” It had taken half a bottle of Jack Daniels and three cigarettes sucked down back to back just to get up the courage to dial her entire number, and he still almost hung up without saying anything.
“John. What time is it?” There was a pause and Grey could picture his mother checking the delicate gold watch on her left wrist. “It’s three in the morning there, are you alright?”
“I need to tell you something, and I need you to listen and not get angry until I’m done.” Tears burnt his eyes. He’d not cried much in the last few months before Jamie overdosed… and not again since. His whole body alternated between pain and numbness, except for those stupid broken fingers that only stopped throbbing when he was wasted.
Clothes rustled and Benedicta let out a slow breath. She’d sat down. “I’m listening.”
Fuck, now what?
The truth, dummy. “Mama, I haven’t been well since Isobel’s funeral, and I’ve… I’ve gotten myself mixed up with some rather terrible stuff.” Grey’s voice trembled and he hated it. With a deep breath, he went on. “After William and Louisa left, I just fell apart.” He wrapped the phone cord around his index finger, letting the way his skin dipped under it distract him for a moment.
“First it was just drinking to try and sleep. I’d close my eyes, and see her. Sometimes she was in her casket at the funeral home. Sometimes it was how she must have looked in surgery before she died. But mostly it was her smiling and alive and beautiful. Like she’ll never be again.” Grey choked, the tears breaking loose and rolling down his cheeks. His instinct was to reach for something, a bottle, a needle, anything to make it stop. Instead, he sank to the filthy kitchen floor and drew his knees up like a frightened child and finally spilled his guts to his mother.
“So then I tried sleeping pills, and those gave me nightmares. So I mixed the two, figuring I’d get some sleep or die trying.”
“Oh, John,” his mother whispered, tragic and nonjudgmental.
Grey covered his eyes with his hand, his eyelashes wet as they fluttered against his palm, the splint cold against his face. “And that didn’t work. And I hated everything—I hate everything. I couldn’t stand being here without her. I can’t stand being in the home we built and she’s not here. And I didn’t call you, because I didn’t want to let you down.
“So I tried more things, worse things, and I got hooked.” His jaw creaked from clenching his teeth against the guilt and the anguish and the tears. Not to mention it had been more than ten hours since he’d last shot up, and withdrawal was starting to creep in. He let go of the dam, and it broke with a hiccup and a sob.
“Mama, I need help.” Grey sucked in a desperate breath before he suffocated. “I’m so sorry, please don’t be ashamed of me. I don’t know what to do.”
“My poor boy.” His mother was crying too, he could hear her tears. “My dear boy, I am not ashamed of you. I’m proud of you.”
That gave Grey pause, made him look up into his trashed kitchen. A roach skittered from behind the fridge, dashing to the darkness under the far counter. “What? Why?”
“Because you called me. Because you’re admitting you’re in trouble and you’re asking for help. And that is never, ever easy.”
“I don’t think you’re understanding me, mother.” There was that anger again, the irritability and the rage. “I’m a junkie, I’m addicted to heroin. I’m going to shoot up as soon as we get off the phone.” Grey didn’t mean to use that harsh tone with his mother, but he couldn’t help it.
Benedicta was having none of his bullshit. “Then we’re not getting off the phone.” She sighed, getting herself under control. John envied her ability to do that. Once upon a time, he’d been able to do that. “Now. You called me for help, and that’s what you’re going to get. So, this is what we’re going to do: you’re going to get rid of your stash. Whatever you have that you can put into your body that is not food or water goes down the drain, right now. Down to the last pathetic excuse for American beer. And you’re not going to hang up the phone until it’s done, and I’m going to sit right here and wait for you to come back and tell me that it’s done.”
The mere thought of getting rid of his drugs clenched his heart in an iron fist of terror. Like the junk had laid demon eggs in his brain and they were all hatching at once, digging their claws in, fighting for control of his body. “Mum—”
“John William, do not argue with me. No more lies.” There was steel in his mother’s voice that Grey hadn’t heard in a lot of years. “You called me, you did the right thing. You asked for help. Part of you, at least, wants to live, and that’s the part I’m talking to. Do you understand me?”
“Good. You have your orders, soldier. Forward march. I’ll hold the line.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Grey set the phone on the kitchen counter, counted to three like a boy getting up the nerve to jump off a cliff into a lake, and hauled himself to his feet.
The booze was easiest, least frightening, so he started there. He poured the half-empty bottle of Jack down the kitchen sink and left the drained bottle on the counter. Then the vodka, gone. His unopened collection of cheap scotch, the caps cracking as he unscrewed them, hesitating for a second. One last swig—no. No. Down the drain it went.
The Motrin bottle that hadn’t held ibuprofen in four months, the one in the bathroom that was full of Halcion and Quaalude. He snatched it up, struggled to push the cap while he turned it with trembling hands, finally got it open, and poured it out into the toilet.
Fuck. That just left the smack.
Grey blew out a breath, drew in another, choking on it, on the verge of hyperventilating. He couldn’t do it. Not this. Christ, the withdrawal alone… He’d tried to kick it once and hadn’t made it two whole days before he caved.
Mother is waiting.
Fuck! The black box of it he’d brought home from Jamie’s house was on the kitchen table. Could he make it through the night without it? What if he kept just a little, just a few cc’s to get him to whatever phase two of his mother’s help was. Just enough to keep it at bay…
No. All of it. She said all of it.
“Fuck—fuck—fuck—fuck.” The box was still on the table. A little plastic bag of pale yellow powder, the Persian Jamie had given him. Grey’s hand shook as he plucked the bag from the box and headed to the bathroom.
Maybe just a little on his finger. That wouldn’t hurt, right? Just a little of the powder straight from the bag onto his tongue. It wouldn’t be as good as shooting it, but maybe it would keep him from getting so sick.
No, he couldn’t lie to his mother again. She’d ask, and he’d have to lie, and he couldn’t lie again. I cannot.
It took way too long to untie the bag. He was weeping again as he dumped it—at least a week’s worth of heroin—into the toilet with the pills.
Fuckfuckfuckfuckfuck—Fuck! Grey fell to his knees on the bathroom floor, one cupped hand about to plunge into the water.
But the other hand came down hard on the handle, flushing it, the metal splint tapping sharply against the porcelain.
Motherfucking Christ, it really was tearing him in half.
“I can’t do this.” Grey collapsed back on his heels, his head hitting the wall with a hard thump. “I can’t fucking do this. I can’t.”
The emergency stash, Grey.
Under the mattress.
“Goddamn it!” Panic rushed through him, his heart racing, stomach flipping, whole body shaking. The whole goddamn world was collapsing on him and there was nothing he could do to stop it, save shoot it. “I can’t fucking do this!” he screamed. He scratched at his arms, wishing he could claw his way out of his skin. It was too tight, his own body was going to suffocate him—Fuck!
Get up, asshole.
Standing was too much. Everything was too much, but especially standing.
Grey crawled out of the bathroom, the cold, dirty tile biting his kneecaps through his worn jeans. He crawled into the bedroom, across the narrow stretch of flat carpet to his bed. His side of the bed, the one closest to the door. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
He plunged his hands between the mattress and the box spring and pulled out a little red nylon bag. Inside was enough China white for two or three shots, one bent spoon, a cheap lighter, and a couple plastic syringes.
This was it. This was all of it.
Grey unzipped the bag and peered into it. He checked it almost daily when he was home, just to make sure it was still there. He knew it was still there, but still… can’t be too careful.
He took the plastic bag of heroin out of the first aid kit—that’s what it had been in a past life—and stared at it. “Fuck, I can’t do this.” He reached for the spoon. “I can’t goddamn—”
Yes, you fucking can. You must.
Goddamn Jiminy Cricket was back. Bastard.
Grey knee-walked back to the bathroom before he had a chance to think about it. Ripped open the bag over the toilet, and just dropped the whole thing in, plastic and all.
It was gone.
Grey climbed to his feet, wiping his nose on the back of his wrist, mopping his cheeks with the loose bottom half of his shirt. If he kept a hand on the wall, he could get back to the kitchen. The phone was still there on the counter where he’d left it. As if someone was going to come hang it up for him.
“Done,” Grey said into the handset.
“All of it?”
“All the alcohol?”
“All the pills?”
“The heroin? What else do you have that can tempt you?”
“That was it, that’s all I had in the flat.” He couldn’t catch his breath, and Grey sank into a chair at the kitchen table. There was half a pack of smokes on the table, and he took one out and lit it. “Well. I still have cigarettes, but…”
“I’ll take it.” Benedicta let out a sigh of relief. “John, my dear boy, I am so proud of you.”
“Yeah, well.” He blew out a puff of smoke and rested his forehead on the heel of his hand, elbow propped on the table. “Don’t get too excited, I’m a weak man, Mum.”
“No. No, you are not, John. You are the strongest, bravest man I know.”
Grey scoffed. “Well, that’s a load of shit, but thank you.”
He could hear the icy glare through the phone. “John William Grey, you listen to me with both of your ears. The fact that we’re even having this conversation is testament to your strength. Now stop arguing with me, or so help me God, I will figure out how to teleport into your kitchen just to box your ears.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Grey took a drag and blew the smoke out in a sigh. “What now?”
“Mama, I can’t—”
“I’d prefer it if you slept. But failing that, you are going to do anything other than drugs or drink for the next four hours. It’s only four hours, John. At seven o’clock your time, I am going to call you back, hopefully to wake you up. And then you are going to shower and put on clean clothes, and go check yourself into rehab.”
“Mother, that’s not—”
“—Negotiable? Not negotiable, that’s what you were going to say, yes?”
That actually made Grey chuckle. He took another puff, shaking his head. “I’ll go with, Yes, ma’am.”
“Good lad.” She meant it. “If you can’t sleep, what will you do with yourself?”
Grey looked around his kitchen. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken out the rubbish or cleaned out the refrigerator. He’d been wearing dirty clothes for weeks because he’d forgotten to do laundry. “I suppose I’ll clean up. If I’m going to be gone for a few weeks, this would be an abysmal place to come home too.”
“Perfect.” There was a long pause, the muffled sound of his mother blowing her nose, then a rattle as she picked up the phone again. “If at any point you don’t think you can last till seven, you call me again. Do you understand?”
“Yes, Mama.” For the first time since Isobel had died, he meant that. For the first time since this goddamn nightmare had begun, he intended to call his mother for help. It had hurt, it had sucked, but he’d lived. There was absolution in pain.
“Thank you, Mama.” Grey swallowed around another lump in his throat, suddenly worried about appearances again. He inhaled from his cigarette to force it back down.
“You will live through this. I know you can. And you will. I’m so very proud of you.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too, Johnny. Bye-bye.”
“Talk to you in a few hours.”
The first three days of rehab were the absolute worst three days of John Grey’s life, and that included the days between Isobel’s death and her funeral. Because for him, the first step was living through withdrawal.
He puked his guts out for thirty-six hours. When he stopped shaking, his limbs twitched and jerked uncontrollably. Knife-shaped agony in his stomach woke him up on the second day, and then he started crying and couldn’t stop. It was every awful thing he’d felt—or avoided feeling—in the last year, boiled down to its base elements, and then pumped through his veins until he thought for sure they’d all burst. He shivered even though he was burning up, and he poured sweat even though he was freezing to death.
Every fucking thing hurt.
And no one could tell him when it would stop. No one could say, “Just one more day, a few more hours and it’ll be okay.” Doctors and shrinks came to talk to him, tried to get him to share his feelings, wanted him to get up and walk around. But he couldn’t, because his insides were on fire and his head was full of tangled snakes, and yelling and swearing was all he could manage between the pitiful sobbing.
On the fourth day, he quieted down, going mute because he couldn’t stand to make another sound. For lunch, he ate Saltines and half a can of Sprite, ignoring everyone who tried to make small talk. He tried chicken noodle soup for dinner and kept it down, and the weeping limited itself to nighttime hours unless he was provoked. It was like living through a goddamn exorcism, which, Grey’s therapist suggested, wasn’t too far from the truth.
By the seventh day, Grey started to recognize his reflection in the mirror again. The swelling was going down in his face, the dark circles like bruises under his eyes slowly retreating. When his mother had called him “soldier” on the phone that night, she’d been using it as a term of endearment, but it felt closer to the literal truth. His therapist figured that out about him too, and latched onto the imagery.
On the tenth day, Jamie Fraser called him. They weren’t at the same rehab place; Grey didn’t even know where Fraser was, just that he wasn’t here. He’d not asked before they’d parted ways at the studio. Maybe Quarry had told Jamie where Grey had gone.
“I’m not supposed to talk to you,” Grey said, feeling like shit for it.
“Oh, aye? Says who?” Jamie asked.
“Dougal. He sacked me, did you know?”
“I’d heard that, aye. I’m sorry, John.”
“Don’t be,” Grey replied. “He was right to do it. He doesn’t know how right, but he was.”
“John, I…” Fraser blew out a sigh. “I called to apologize. For bringing ye down wi’ me.”
“I asked you to—”
“But I can hear ye’re no’ ready for that. Are ye still blaming yerself for my overdose?”
Grey nodded even though Jamie couldn’t see him. “Of course I am. I had one job and I literally did the opposite.”
Jamie sighed again, his breath rushing over the phone, making it crackle. “In that case… I forgive ye. Can ye forgive yerself?”
“Ye dinnae have to answer now. But it was important to me that ye ken I forgive ye. For whatever ye think ye’re responsible for. For whatever ye did or said when ye couldnae mean it.”
John ran his fingers over the phone cord, his splint making a sound against the plastic like a slow zipper. “Jamie, I… I’m not ready for that yet.”
“That’s alright, ye dinnae have to be. Ye deserve the forgiveness, whenever ye’re ready to accept it.”
“Thanks.” A silence stretched between them, just listening to each other breathe and be alive. “How are you?”
“I’m good,” Jamie answered, and it sounded like the truth. “Once I got through the withdrawal. I dinnae want to do that again ever, that’s for sure.”
Grey hummed in agreement. Christ, he could use a smoke, but they made him go outside for that, so he’d have to wait.
“I started working wi’ a new therapist this week. She’s helping me find other ways to be creative that have nothing to do with music. But there’s a group that sits in a circle and jams wi’ bongos and shit.” Fraser laughed. “It’s all very hippie and kinda tragic, and no’ really fair to the others that I joined it. But it kills half an hour every other day.”
“Are you the only professional drummer in the group?” Grey leaned his shoulder against the wall next to the phone.
“Aye, for now. I’m no’ the first though, and I doubt I’ll be the last.”
Another pause, long enough for John to squeeze the coils of the phone cord together to make a solid column for a few inches, letting it spring apart again.
“What about you, John? How are ye holding up?”
Grey blew out a long breath. “I’m alive. And for the moment I’m generally okay with that state of things. I can’t see farther than one day ahead yet.”
“Weel, I suppose that’ll come in due course. Listen, I’ve got to go. It was good to talk to ye, John. Take care of yourself, aye?”
“Yeah, you too. Bye.”
On the twelfth day, Grey actually opened up to his therapist, unloaded on her for almost two hours, rambling like a maniac, weeping bitter tears for what he’d lost, what he’d thrown away. But for the first time since he’d lost Isobel, the tears actually felt like they were cleansing him. Like they would stop again someday and he’d live through it. Eventually.
On the nineteenth day, a doctor told Grey he could take the splint off his broken fingers. The bruising had faded and the swelling was gone, but his middle finger would probably never sit straight again.
On the twenty-first day, they started talking about discharging him. It was more frightening than he’d expected, and Grey spent a week going over and over all the new rules for his life, rules he must never, ever break. The rules would keep him sober.
“Not a drop of alcohol. Don’t even let it in your home.”
“If you get hurt or sick, tell your doctor you need to avoid opiates.”
“Stay away from the places you got high, from people who use.”
“Don’t isolate. Find a routine that involves other people who will support your sobriety.”
“Whenever you’re in a social situation and there’s alcohol or drugs present, all you have to say is, ‘No thanks, I’m sober.’ Let’s practice that one now—don’t roll your eyes please, John, trust me. The more you say it when you don’t need it, the easier it will be when you do. Like muscle memory.”
On the twenty-eighth day, John Grey checked out of rehab, sober and eight pounds heavier, the clothes he’d checked in with fitting him better than they had for months.
“How’s the new job?” Harry Quarry asked. Once a week, he came over to Grey’s flat, and John cooked dinner. Simple meals, usually, but it was something to do with his hands, something in an environment where he could control what he was exposed to. Besides, it was a life skill Grey needed to practice. Tonight it was steak cooked in a skillet, roasted red potatoes, and a pile of steamed mixed vegetables from the freezer section.
Grey shrugged and speared a chunk of potato with his fork. “Boring. I scared off some kids who were trying to get a five finger discount at the record store yesterday. Otherwise it’s mostly walking up and down the mall, from Sears to Dillard's and back again.” He popped the bite into his mouth. The potatoes needed garlic, but they weren’t bad. “Watching every single person around me is a lot different than looking out for one or two specific people. I hadn’t realized how used to that I’d become.”
Quarry hummed, swallowing his own bite of steak before replying. “It’s something else. Things sure have been quiet since the band went back to the studio again.”
“Oh yeah? Angus and Rupert sober up too?”
Harry winced. “Not so much. But they’re good about keeping it away from Fraser. Claire too. They’ve all calmed down a bit.”
“Well that makes your job a little easier.” Grey’s steak was cooked a perfect medium rare, plenty of pink. It probably would have tasted better cooked over a fire, but that wasn’t really an option in his little apartment. It’d taste even better than that with a beer.
Nope. Sober. “How’s the album coming?”
“Slow,” Harry answered. “Dougal and Murtagh are sweating bullets about it. They shaved off some dates from the European tour next summer.”
That was probably for the best. Jamie didn’t have a history of doing well on the road, and there was no way Rupert and Angus would manage to completely avoid having fun. And that would just be a recipe for Fraser falling right off the wagon.
They finished their meal and Harry offered to help with the washing up. “No, that’s quite alright,” Grey answered, setting their dishes in the sink. “It’ll give me something to do later.” Every hour of every day was just moving from one thing to keep him busy to the next. The minutia of living playing out in agonizing detail in his head on a constant loop.
Picking up a pack of cigarettes on the way back, Grey sat down at the table again, offering the open box to Harry. His friend plucked one from the box and lit it. “Think you’ll give these up too?”
“Christ, no,” Grey said, shaking his head with a sardonic chuckle, lighting his own. “I tried going cold turkey in rehab. Made it two days before I seriously contemplated killing one of the therapists.” He blew out a puff of smoke. “I didn’t smoke much when I was shooting up.”
The thought of the needle made Grey’s skin twitch. He scratched at his arm, sudden anxiety making his heart flutter in an unpleasant staccato. “Can we talk about something else?”
“Of course.” Quarry leaned to the side and worked a hand into the pocket of his trousers. “That reminds me, I actually have something for you.” He set a plastic cassette case on the table and tapped it with his middle finger. There was no market label, just the words “Top Secret” written in magic marker on the case. “I talked Murtagh into getting you a copy of this. It’s a little rough still, but it’s new and it’s good.” Quarry angled a warning finger at Grey. “Do not lose that and do not leak it. Murtagh made me promise to break both your legs and toss you off a bridge if you let anyone else hear that.”
Grey drew an X over his chest. “Cross my heart.”
“Good man,” Quarry said with a nod, taking another drag. “So what’s next for you? Thought about venturing out of your comfort zone a little?”
“What do you mean?”
Harry shrugged. “I don’t know. Dating.” He held up a hand at John’s dropped jaw. “I know, I know, I meant no offense. Only if you think you’re ready. And if you aren’t, that’s alright.”
“I’m not ready.” Grey snuffed out his cigarette in the ashtray on the table. “Besides, where the hell would I meet someone? I’m not going to go out trawling bars.”
Another shrug. “I could introduce you to some people.”
Grey gave his friend a skeptical look, one eyebrow arching high. “Do you know anyone—woman or man—who is both single and not a groupie?”
“Well, sure!” Harry’s tone was rather defensive. “Let’s see, there’s…” He trailed off with a frown.
“Right. That’s what I thought. Thanks though.” John leaned back in his chair, hooking an elbow over the backrest. “Besides, even if I were ready, and I’m not, what the hell do I bring to the table? Over-packed emotional baggage, a volatile and recent personal history with hard drugs, and a seven-dollar-an-hour job as a mall cop?” He shook his head. “Yeah, I’m a real catch.”
“Okay, okay.” Quarry raised his hands in surrender, putting his own cigarette out. “What about the house? You still thinking of buying?”
What was the point? There was no point. The house was for Isobel, and Isobel was gone. So were most of his savings at this point, used up on drugs and then rehab. A wave of hopelessness crashed over him, extinguishing what had been a passably good mood. He shrugged one shoulder, not wanting to go into any of that with Harry. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Fair enough.” Harry looked at his watch, then laid both palms flat on the table, preparing to stand. “Well, I should go.” They both pushed back from the table and rose. “Can I do anything for you? Anything you need?” There it was again, that sincerity. Quarry was good people.
“No, but thank you. I’m fine, really.” Grey shook Harry’s hand, managing a smile.
“Alright, well, you know how to reach me.”
Grey saw him to the door, locking it behind him. He blew out a breath and drew in another, slowly, trying not to let the sadness carry him away.
Back to the minutia of living.
Scrub the counters.
Sweep the floor because it’s Thursday.
Laundry because he needed clean uniforms for this weekend.
Brush his teeth.
Stare at the wall while he went slowly mad until it was eleven. Then to bed to stare at the ceiling until he gave up.
His gaze landed on the cassette tape on the table. At least he had something different to listen to while he stared at the wall.
Quarry was right, the song was good. It needed some polishing, mostly in the way Angus’s bass complimented Jamie’s drums. Claire sounded phenomenal, as always, and Rupert shredded his guitar just right. There was nothing technically wrong with the bass and drums that Grey could hear, not that he was an expert by any means. But he could feel the lack of polish there. Like their chemistry was just a few degrees off.
If he closed his eyes though, he could see them. Claire singing with her whole body. Rupert and Angus having a grand time, egging each other on. And Jamie, beating the absolute shit out of his kit, drawing a sound out of his drums quite unlike anyone else in the industry. He was the kind of drummer who could produce a genuinely great single consisting only of a three-minute drum solo.
Grey rewound the tape and started it over again, focusing on the beat. It was close, he realized with a smile. They were really close to a hit.
Grey spoke with his mother on the phone every Sunday morning before he left for work. They kept it as a standing appointment, alternating who called whom every other week because the international rates were outrageous. As was Benedicta’s custom, she started with her list of well-intended, motherly questions.
“Are you getting enough to eat?”
“Yes. I actually bought a new cookbook. I made chicken cordon bleu last night.” Grey flipped through the book, looking for something that sounded good for his next day off that he could take his time preparing. It wasn’t a fancy book or overly complicated, just a Better Homes and Gardens volume of staples.
“Oh! How did it come out?”
John laughed. “Mediocre at best. The flavor was good and the chicken was done, but the breading just wasn’t quite right. I’ll try again sometime.”
“Good. Did you get enough sleep?”
“Mostly.” He didn’t want to go into details, and his mother wouldn’t press him, but he had promised to be honest with her. “The nightmares are finally settling down. I only woke up in a cold sweat once this week.”
“That’s an improvement over screaming yourself awake. Do you remember what it was about this time?” Benedicta wasn’t prying. Her tone was calm and even, the question genuine.
“No. It might not even be regular nightmares, I don’t know. I just know I felt like something was trying to kill me.” Grey stopped turning pages and drummed a finger on a recipe for baked potato soup with bacon. That was a viable option.
“And you’re staying sober? Is that getting easier?”
John dog-eared the page and closed the book. This was the big question. “Yes, I’m staying sober. As for easier… I suppose so, a little.” He glanced down at the inside of his arms. They’d been a perpetual mess of holes and bruises for so long, and now that they were mostly healed and back to normal, the memory of his track marks and blown veins seemed like the nightmare he couldn’t remember.
“I’ll take it.” He could hear the smile in her voice through the phone, carried across the ocean, over an entire continent, and right to his heart. His mother’s tone shifted, the grim, earnest questions out of the way. Time to dive into the gossip. “Have you spoken to your brother this week?”
“Not this week, no. Why, is everything alright?” John and Hal weren’t terribly close anymore. It was easy to blame the distance, but Grey was reasonably certain Hal was avoiding him out of shame. Not that John blamed him.
“Oh, yes, quite alright. Minnie is pregnant again. Isn’t it wonderful? They’re hoping for a girl this time.”
That sucked the wind from Grey’s sails in the most confusing way. It was good news, wonderful news. Hal and Minnie were phenomenal parents, and John adored his nephews even though he’d not seen them in a couple years. But he couldn’t help but think about Isobel and how she’d never gotten the chance to be a mother.
“Yes,” Grey said, collecting himself and swallowing hard. “Yes, that is wonderful. Please give Minnie my well wishes next time you speak with her.”
“I will, of course, dear. You know, you should take a holiday and come visit this year. Hal’s boys miss you, and I would love to see you. It’s been far too long.”
“Work makes that a little complicated, Mama, but I’ll think about it.” Speaking of work. He checked his watch. He still had an hour before he had to leave to make it to the mall on time.
“Have you considered moving back here?” Again, it was a genuine question, without expectation of agenda. “You could stay with me until you got settled. I’m sure you’d find a job quickly, but there’d be no rush, of course.”
Grey sank into a chair at the kitchen table, the wood creaking under him. “I appreciate that, mother, but no, I don’t think so.” London might very well be the best place for his sobriety; a new, yet familiar environment, where the bulk of his support system was. His family, old friends and acquaintances, even the Dunsanys weren’t too far away.
But how could he go back to his old life? Back where people knew who he had been, Benedicta’s son, chasing dreams with his young wife, with a glamorous job in the music industry. If he went back to those people, he wouldn’t be Benedicta’s son who’d gotten married and moved to California. He’d be John, who lost his wife far too young and fell into a Hollywood gutter, such a shame.
And they’d all be so goddamn sorry.
“No, I’m doing alright here, I think. I have a routine and a new job. And a hobby, I suppose, if you count the cooking.” The worst part of the cooking was so many recipes suggested wine or cocktail pairings to accompany the entrée. It never failed, he’d be doing so well staying sober, go days without thinking of drinking or drugs. And then he’d try a recipe for baked salmon that would pair well with a chilled pinot grigio, which is precisely what he and Isobel would have had with that meal. What would be the harm in one little glass of wine with dinner?
But there were rules that were supposed to keep him sober, keep him alive. Not a drop of alcohol, don’t even let it into your home. Because it wouldn’t be just one little glass of wine. It’d be the entire bottle. And next time, maybe two. Maybe hard liquor. Maybe pills again, just to sleep off the hangover, or all the little aches and pains that still plagued him more often than not. The trick elbow from the car wreck. Sore shoulders from wrestling a zombie-dusted Jamie Fraser to the floor. That particularly miserable knife in his heart when he looked at the framed TV Guide with Isobel’s autograph. God, he missed floating away.
“Did you hear what I said, John?”
“Hmm? No I didn’t, Mother, I apologize. What did you say?”
“Olivia was watching the music news. She said the Bleeding Roses broke up.” The careful precision with which she pronounced the band’s name made Grey smile, but then it registered what she’d said about them. “I wonder what happened, do you have any idea?”
Grey’s jaw fell open and it took two tries to form words. “I’m… I’m sure I don’t know. Did she say when it was announced?”
Benedicta’s voice muffled as she turned the receiver away from her mouth, speaking to his cousin Olivia. “Did you hear when? I see.” The handset clacked against his mother’s rings. “She says the report would have aired in America yesterday. Did you not see it?”
“No, I didn’t turn on the television yesterday at all.” Grey had listened to the top secret demo over and over instead, imagining what it would sound like when it was polished. Apparently he would never find out. Something must have happened. By the sounds of things, it had been going well for them. “What about the European tour, did they say anything about that?”
“Canceled. Olivia’s quite upset about it, she’d bought tickets to the London concert.”
“That’s a shame,” Grey said. “Tell her if she can’t get a refund to let me know, I imagine those tickets were very expensive. I can probably arrange something with their lawyer directly, I think he’d still take my calls.”
“I’ll let her know, dear. Apparently they were very good seats. Oh, not seats? The what? Pit?”
Grey threw his head back and barked out a laugh. “It’s a blessing in disguise that she’s going to miss that show, Mama. The moshpit is how the band got their name.”
What the hell could have happened? I hope Jamie’s alright.
Grey’s Sunday shift was long and stupid. He’d caught three separate punks shoplifting, one of which had reeked of booze. Just the smell of it made John twitch, brought up memories of Fraser’s house, of the trashed hotel room where he’d nearly died. In the end, his partner had to finish the report so Grey could go for a smoke until he calmed down.
Dinner was a hodgepodge of leftovers heated up in the toaster oven, washed down with a can of Coca Cola. At the start of the day, the Bleeding Roses had been on his mind, half a dozen questions swirling around his head. There wasn’t much on the radio about it on the drive to work. And as soon as he got distracted with the shoplifters, he’d forgotten all about the band. A hot shower to wash away the day, and Grey fell asleep before he’d read a single page of Skeleton Crew.
The phone rang, startling Grey awake. His alarm clock said four in the morning. Who in the hell could be calling him this time of night?
Groaning, Grey climbed out of bed and rushed unsteadily to the kitchen wearing only the boxer shorts he’d fallen asleep in. It might have been the third ring or the fifth when he made it to the phone and picked it up. “Hello?” Nothing at first, save for the faint, raspy sound of someone breathing. “Hello? Who’s there?”
“John. Sorry, I…”
“Jamie? Christ, do you know what time it is? Are you alright?” Grey had no idea what sort of hours Fraser kept these days. Before rehab, four o’clock was like the middle of the day. The man wasn’t merely a night owl, he was completely nocturnal.
“I just… I just needed to talk to ye one more time.” He was slurring his words. Shit, Fraser was drunk.
“Well, you got me. What’s wrong?”
“Everythin’, but that’s… ’S no’ why I called.”
Everything? The hairs on the back of Grey’s neck stood on end, instinctive alarm chasing the drowsiness away.
“Needed ye to ken that I’m s-sorry.” Fraser let out a broken sob. “I ruinedt yer life. Ye had everythin’ to live for and I took it all away from ye.”
“’S what I do, isn’t it? Take and take, leave a pile o’ broken people in my wake. Use people up till there’s naught left. Throw ‘em away when I’m done wi’ ‘em.”
“Jamie, where are you? Are you at home right now?” Grey’s heart pounded in his chest. It would take him twenty-five minutes to get there, less if he sped a lot. But a speeding ticket would slow him down even more. If he could get the police to do a welfare check? No, when Jamie got paranoid, he shot at things. Fuck.
“’M sorry, John. For all of it. Ye’ll no’ hear from me again. Callin’ was selfish, I ken that, and I…” Fraser sighed, the saddest sound Grey had ever heard from him. “Take care of yersel’, John.”
The line went dead.
Grey stared at the handset for no more than a couple heartbeats. “Shit.” Slamming the phone back on the hook, he raced back to his bedroom to throw on some clothes.
Banking on Fraser having still not remembered to lock the garage door, Grey skipped his front-door-back-door-garage-door ritual and ran straight into the garage. Old reliable was unlocked, and Grey thanked Fraser’s forgetfulness.
“Jamie?” Grey called from the kitchen. “Jamie, where are you? It’s John.”
The living room was empty.
The master bedroom was trashed, the mattress tossed off the bed frame, the dresser toppled over, broken glass glittering on the carpet. Bullet holes that John didn’t remember peppered the walls.
Holding his breath, Grey opened the closet door with a shaking hand.
Fraser was sprawled on the floor inside the closet, wearing nothing but a tank top and briefs. A pile of empty liquor bottles spilled out from underneath Jamie’s collection of stage clothes. A handful of dirty bent spoons and used needles littered the floor.
Jamie was bleeding, a broken needle sticking out of his thigh, his pistol held loosely in his left hand, finger way too close to the trigger.
“Fuck, Jamie, can you hear me?” Of course he couldn’t. Grey dropped to his knees next to Fraser, pressing two fingers to his throat, feeling for a pulse. He found one, thank God, and he let out the breath he’d been holding. “Jesus Christ, Fraser, what were you thinking?”
Gun first. John took the gun from Jamie’s hand, pressed the magazine release, and worked the slide, ejecting the chambered round into the depths of the closet. He shoved the magazine into the pocket of his pajama bottoms, because that’s all he’d taken the time to put on.
Next, he carefully plucked the broken needle from Jamie’s leg, setting it aside where he’d find it again. Snatching the nearest shirt from a hanger, he pressed it to the wound. Fraser wouldn’t bleed to death from this, but a little pressure wouldn’t hurt.
“Goddamn it, Fraser, how much did you take?”
Jamie was sweating, his skin cool and clammy under Grey’s hand. Grey looked him over, casting glances at his lips in case they started to turn blue. Jamie’s arms were a disaster, bruises and track marks and collapsed veins. How the hell long had he been off the wagon? Shit.
Climbing back to his feet, Grey left Jamie in the closet, and heaved the mattress back onto the bed frame. The sheets didn’t look all that clean, but it would have to do for now.
How the fuck was he going to get Fraser onto the bed? “Goddamn it.” Grey picked up Jamie’s bare ankles and dragged him out of the closet, just far enough so that he could get his hands under Jamie’s arms and drag him the rest of the way. “Feel free to help me any fucking time, Fraser,” he muttered.
Miraculously, impossibly, Fraser stirred. “Yes, that’s it, Jamie, follow the sound of my voice and get in the goddamn bed.” Grey hauled him up by the shoulders. It might have been humorous under other circumstances, a man Grey’s size trying to manhandle a guy as big as Jamie Fraser into a bed. But John had practice hauling him around from the tour, and he managed to get Fraser onto his bed with a great deal of effort. Jamie helped by flopping over onto his back, which rolled him away from the edge of the mattress.
For a moment, Grey stood there panting, staring down at Jamie, watching his chest rise and fall with his slow breaths. He was probably going to live.
The sight of the closet broke John’s heart. By the looks of things, Fraser had been using again for a while.
Well. Only one thing to do: clean it up.
After a bit of rummaging, Grey found a box of black bin bags in the kitchen and just brought the whole thing into the bedroom with him. Snapping one open, he started with the closet. The empty liquor bottles were simple enough, dropping them into the bag one by one with a clatter. Then the spoons. The used rigs he collected and dropped into an open bottle to avoid piercing the bag. The rubber tubing Fraser used as a tourniquet went next.
Then John checked all the hiding places in Fraser’s closet. There was a bag of blow shoved into a boot. Pills were stashed in one of the boxes where Jamie’s belts were stored. John set the drugs aside. Just dropping them in the bag wasn’t going to be gone enough.
The gun case on the top shelf of the closet was where Jamie stashed his spare rigs and a few days’ worth of junk. Grey hesitated, staring at it. How many times had he been in here with Fraser, watched him take the plastic case down and turn into some kind of demonic priest with his ritual of mixing up heroin and cooking it in a spoon? How many times had Jamie handed him the first syringe?
I can do this. I must.
Grey rose up on tiptoe and plucked the gun case from the shelf, opening it. It was full, more needles and smack than he remembered seeing in here last time he was in this closet. Don’t think, just do it.
The syringes went into an open bottle. The junk he set aside.
Next, Grey crawled under the bed to retrieve Jamie’s box of pills. This stash was depleted, but he emptied it out anyway, throwing away the box for good measure.
Heaving the dresser back into place, he rummaged around until he found Jamie’s cocaine. He added the blow to the growing pile of drugs on the closet floor and trashed the rest of the paraphernalia.
Bed posts. The posts of Jamie’s bed unscrewed at the top, and he usually kept a bag or two of heroin in one of those. Grey checked all four, finding two more bags of the shit.
The bin bag was full, so John tied it off and left it by the door. He gathered up the pile of drugs, desperately repeating, No thanks, I’m sober, in his head over and over all the way to the bathroom. Sitting in front of the toilet, he fell into a rhythm.
Tear open a bag. “No thanks, I’m sober.” Dump it in the toilet. Throw the baggy away. Tear open a bag. “No thanks, I’m sober.” Dump it in the toilet. Throw the bag away.
Tear open a bag…
“—No thanks, I’m sober.”
In the toilet.
Empty bag in the bin.
Grey paused to flush halfway through. What was this going to do to the plumbing? Whatever, it didn’t matter.
…Tear open a bag. I’m sober…
With a final flush, the drugs were gone, and Grey sat there shaking. Don’t think about it, just do it. This isn’t me, and this isn’t him. We can get through it.
John hauled the loaded bin bag out of the bedroom, depositing it in the garage for the time being. He still had booze to find. Luckily, Jamie didn’t hide that, so it was easy enough. So simple to crack the bottles open and dump them into the sink. Then simple to drop the empty bottles into another bin bag. One last circuit of the house, checking Jamie’s hiding places. There was one more cache of blow in Jamie’s studio, taped underneath the stool behind his drum kit. Grey flushed that too, in the little powder room toilet off the hall.
When he was reasonably satisfied that he’d found everything, Grey took the full bags outside to the big bins and dropped them inside, then dragged the cans to the curb. The sun began to crest the horizon, orange light trickling through the trees.
Fraser was still alive, still breathing, when Grey came back to check on him. God, he looked terrible. His eyes were sunken, and whatever muscle mass he’d built back up was making a valiant retreat.
Grey sighed, standing there watching him sleep like a creep. “You can do so much better than this, Jamie,” he whispered.
He found the quilt on the floor, shaking it carefully to make sure there was no broken glass in it, and climbed onto the bed with it, kicking his shoes off before he laid down. Spreading the quilt over Jamie’s body first, then his own, John scooted close and pulled Jamie into his arms. At least he’d know he wasn’t alone when he woke up.
The adrenaline of the past couple hours receded all at once, and John yawned. He buried his face in Jamie’s hair, which smelled like dope-sick sweat and stale Aquanet, and fell asleep.
The body in Grey’s arms stirred, and John opened his eyes. Jamie was waking up.
Fraser groaned, then froze, eying Grey’s arms around him suspiciously. “What?”
“Jamie?” Grey let out a sigh of relief, letting his forehead fall against Fraser’s shoulder. “You scared the shit out of me.”
“John?” Fraser turned in Grey’s arms and frowned at him, ruddy brows drawing together in confusion. “What are ye doing?” There was no way he remembered last night.
“You called me, I got worried.”
“Oh.” Neither of them made a move to separate. “I thought Dougal told ye to stay away from me.”
“I figured Dougal’s word didn’t really matter now. Besides, you sounded like you were in trouble.” Grey shrugged. “You really ought to remember to lock your garage door, you know. I’m glad you didn’t because I didn’t have to break any windows, but still.”
Jamie blinked at him from the pillow. “I never lock the garage door.”
“I know, that’s my point. You need to start.”
Fraser shook his head. “Ever since that first day ye came to drag my sorry arse to the studio and ye came in that way, I’ve left it open. On purpose, just in case.”
It was Grey’s turn to frown at Jamie. “In case what?”
“In case ye needed to get in the house again.” Jamie shrugged. “I guess I was right to do that.”
“I guess you were.” Grey gave Fraser a serious look. “How long have you been using?”
Fraser shrugged, awkward in Grey’s arms. “Dinnae ken. Weeks.”
“Can you tell me what happened?”
Jamie blew out a long breath through his nose, like a bull. “I fell hard off the wagon. Trying to write was too hard, even sober. I couldnae take the pain of no’ hearing the music, ken. It took forever to get a song out, and when we did, the label hated it. It was a ballad and they said we’re no’ a ballad band.”
“That’s rubbish.” Grey thought Jamie might be talking about the top secret single but he wasn’t sure, and didn’t want to say anything to interrupt.
“Aye, weel, that’s what they said. So it was like Dougal said, we didnae produce anything the label thought was worthy. So they dropped us.”
“Was that the reason you broke up?” Grey asked.
“Aye. And no,” Fraser answered. “When the label dropped us, it would have been easy to sue for the rights to our music. But we didnae. Claire and I had a fight. A real knock-out too. I’d been using for a time and she blamed me for everything going to pot.” Jamie drew in a deep breath and let it out again. “And she was right to, I suppose. I can sort of write lyrics, but I cannae write melody since the accident.” Jamie lifted a hand to gesture at the scar on the side of his head, mostly hidden by a mass of unruly curls now. “Anyway, we fell out of sync and we couldnae find it again. So we argued. Rupert took my side, Angus took Claire’s. And then Rupert and Angus took each other’s side, and left me and Claire to work it out. Which, of course we didnae. So between the creative impasse, and the label dropping us, we quit. Went our separate ways. The break up actually happened a week ago, but Dougal stalled the press release, hoping to get a single out before the next Billboard, but missed it.”
“Jesus,” Grey said, knowing it was an understatement.
Fraser let out a wordless hum, nodding.
“So, what are you going to do next?” Grey asked.
Jamie shrugged. “I dinnae ken. My plan was no’ to live through the week.”
“Well, find a new plan.”
“What do ye mean?”
Grey gave Jamie a long, hard look. “You’re getting clean again. I cleaned out your stash.”
White panic flashed over Jamie’s face. “Ye what?”
“I cleaned you out.” For the first time, Grey moved away, giving Jamie space. “Come on. You need a shower.”
Fraser wasn’t convinced. “For what?”
“Because you’re going to get dressed. And I’m taking you to a methadone clinic. You’re getting back on the wagon.”
“John… I cannae.” Poor Fraser looked so lost and hopeless.
“Yes. Yes, you can,” Grey insisted. “And you will. Because you must. And I’m going to help you. So, up you go.”
Jamie shook his head, face twisted into a tragic grimace. “I cannae. There’s no point.”
“Yes, there is.” Grey got out of the bed, snatching the quilt away from Jamie as he did. “You’ve gotten sober before, you can do it again.”
“I’ll just fuck it up again. I’m no’ worth the trouble, John.”
“Hey.” Grey slipped his hand into Jamie’s, giving his fingers a squeeze. “You haven’t thrown your whole life away. You’re still alive and worth staying that way. I’ll help you. Now.” Grey let go of Fraser’s hand and stepped into his shoes. “Go take a shower and get dressed. I’ll vacuum up the broken glass.”
Jamie frowned at Grey and sat up, swinging his long legs out of the bed. “Ye’ve an awful lot of faith in me.”
Grey shrugged. “Well, you’re a damned hard man to kill, so you’ve got that going for you.”
Chapter 23: Part Four: Kickstart My Heart
Fortunately, John wasn’t scheduled to work for another day. Fraser showered and dressed in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt, with big sunglasses that made him harder to recognize and concealed his bloodshot, red-rimmed eyes. He was as inconspicuous as he was going to get.
“I just need to make a detour home to put on some real trousers,” Grey said, his car keys jangling in his hand.
“Ye can borrow a pair of mine, if ye want.” Jamie’s mouth quirked into half a grin. It was a sincere enough offer, but absolutely ridiculous.
“Let’s just forget for a moment that you’re almost a foot taller than me.” John arched a skeptical eyebrow. “Do you have anything that isn’t leather?”
“Oh, aye.” Jamie retreated into his closet, rummaged around the hangers while Grey kept an eye on him from the doorway. “These aren’t leather.”
Grey burst out laughing. “Have you ever seen me in zebra print lycra before?”
“I don’t know what ye get up to in yer free time. Ye might be California’s most famous drag queen for all I ken.”
“Burlesque, actually. But it was one time in university, and it was a dare.” Grey handed the trousers—if one could call them that—back to Jamie.
Fraser gave him a wide-eyed stare. “Oh aye?” Those cat-like eyes narrowed then, sizing him up. “I cannae tell if ye’re serious or joking.”
John smirked. “It’s one or the other.”
“Ye’ve a lot of layers, anyone ever tell ye that?” Jamie hung the lycra crime against fashion back in the closet, shrugging. “Aye, weel, I tried. Detour it is then, because it’s just downhill from here.”
Grey stood in line outside the clinic with Jamie. It was both easier and harder than he thought it would be, to be surrounded by people who were just like him. Desperate, dying, drowning, holding on for dear life, trying really hard to keep going from one day to the next. The man behind them smelled like spilled liquor and stale sweat, and for a moment, it dragged Grey back to that hotel room off the strip, where Jamie had, technically, died.
But Jamie was alive now and he needed the support, so Grey clenched his fists in the pockets of his jacket until his nails bit into his palms and the fingers he’d broken in Jamie’s hallway ached. If he pretended it was work, kept himself busy being vigilant, it helped. At least then the memories were from before his own addiction.
The inside of the clinic was better. Once they got inside, it was like any other medical facility. A sterile waiting room full of hard, uncomfortable chairs, staff in scrubs behind windows armed with clipboards and ballpoint pens. A single unisex toilet with a heavy door wide enough for a wheelchair. Inspirational posters and stern notices covering the plain ecru paint.
Grey kept close to Jamie’s side as he gave his name at the first window, his voice low, his accent slipping through no matter how much he tried to mask it. No one noticed. Not one soul in here gave a shit who they were, who Jamie was, because it didn’t matter. They were all equals here, after all, just trying to live through the next worst day, just trying to do better.
The clerk handed Jamie a clipboard, pointed out the highlighted sections and a cup of pens, and waved him out of the way of the next person. Grey followed him, took the seat next to him. “You alright?”
Fraser nodded, but his shoulders were stiff, hunched up by his ears. “I hate forms like this. No one can read my handwriting and it takes forever.”
Grey knew for a fact that Jamie was quite literate but hadn’t given any thought before to how a musician’s handwriting looks. Maybe it was like doctors and their scribbled shorthand. Fraser was starting to get the shakes too, that couldn’t make it easier. “Do you want help?”
“Fuck,” Jamie hissed. “I can’t do anything right, can I?”
“I didn’t say that, I’m sorry if it sounded that way,” Grey whispered. “I’m sure it’ll be just fine.”
Fraser held the pen in his right hand, swore and switched to his left, swore again and slapped the pen down on the clipboard, thrusting it to Grey. “Goddamn it.” He clenched his hands into fists over and over, then shoved them hard into the pocket of his sweatshirt, slumping back against the chair in defeat.
Helping Jamie gave him something to focus on that had nothing to do with memories of rehab and being sick as a dog while he suffered through withdrawal. Fraser dictated, John wrote, simple as that. The short stack of forms included an information sheet about methadone maintenance that Jamie shoved into his pocket without reading. He’d already made up his mind that he didn’t want this to be a longterm ritual for him. He intended to get through this with a little bit of help, but mostly with his abundant stubbornness.
The paperwork finished and turned in, it was just waiting. “Thank you, John,” Jamie murmured. Whether he meant the paperwork, or driving him, or walking through this experience with him, or something more than that, he didn’t say.
It didn’t matter what Jamie meant, Grey realized. To an extent, they got each other into this. It made sense that they’d get each other out of it. “You’re welcome.”
“I’m no’ looking forward to this withdrawal again,” Jamie confessed as they pulled into his driveway.
“I can’t say I blame you.” Grey parked the car and switched off the engine. “Come on, let’s get you set up before the worst of it hits.”
The first order of business was changing the bed linens so Jamie could at least have a clean place to be miserable for a few days. Grey packed Jamie’s gun away in the gun case, now that it was empty of drugs and needles and had room for it.
“Wait,” Jamie said, stopping Grey before he closed it up. “Lift the… squishy bit, what’s it—foam. Did ye look under the foam? I had some junk hidden under the padding there.”
Unpacking the pistol again, Grey lifted the padding out of the case. Sure enough, a little packet of heroin and a needle. “Christ.” He set the gun on top of the fresh bedspread and carried the drugs to the bathroom, flushing it before either of them had a chance to think too hard about it. “Where else do you have junk squirreled away? I probably dumped six thousand dollars worth of drugs this morning, but I didn’t know about this spot.” The gun and magazine stowed back in the case, John closed it up. “This is coming with me for now. You can have it back when it’s safe.”
Fraser nodded. “Probably wise. Ye got the pills under the bed and the blow in the dresser?”
Grey nodded. “Mmhmm. And the bed posts, and under the stool in the studio.”
“What about the sofa?” Jamie chewed on the skin around his thumbnail, starting to look shifty. He was in for a hell of a night.
“Didn’t know about that one either, I’ll get it.” Grey focused on those stupid breathing exercises they’d made him do in rehab. He had a lot of memories of getting high on that sofa. Lifting the cushions, he started feeling around for drugs like he was looking for spare change. “There’s no needles or razors in here, is there?” he called.
“No, shouldnae be anything sharp.” Jamie had only come into the room a couple steps, the tension and stress rolling off him in heavy waves. It was going to get much worse before it got better, the fragile feeling of turning into spun glass, one wrong move and you’d shatter completely. “Unzip that middle cushion.”
Holy shit, that was a lot of smack. But Grey didn’t say anything, just swallowed hard and scooped the bags out. Jamie had ripped out part of the foam and stuffed a handful of bags into it, and he didn’t need Grey’s commentary. Given the funds and the desperation, Grey would have done the same thing, and he was never far from ending up here again.
“Is that all of it?” Grey triple checked the inside of the cushion and looked up at Jamie, who nodded, still chewing on his thumb.
“Did ye get the whiskey from the telly cabinet?”
Grey nodded. “Yes, I remembered that.”
Jamie drew in a deep breath and let it out again, then he nodded. “Then that’s all of it.”
Grey had never seen Fraser so unsteady as he watched John scoop up the plastic bags of drugs and go to the sink, turning on the tap and dumping them, one by one, down the drain. When the empty bags were in the bin, he tied off the bag to take outside, scrubbed the sink basin with a soapy sponge, and washed his hands. Some of the tension eased out of Grey’s shoulders and he blew out a sigh of relief. “There. All clean.”
“Thank ye, John,” Jamie said, blue eyes watery. “I couldnae done it wi’out ye.”
“Yes, you could have, but that’s not the point.” He looked at the clock over the stove. It was getting late, and he had work in the morning. “You should have a light dinner while you can still eat. Oh, and I brought you something.” Grey opened up a cooler he’d brought from his house, a hasty grab when he ran inside to get dressed before they went to the methadone clinic. “I figured you might not have this stuff in the house. Saltines. Sprite. And chicken soup. Throw this out if you don’t eat it by Wednesday, it’s homemade.”
That line between Fraser’s brows deepened as he blinked down at Grey. “Ye brought me soup?”
Grey shrugged. “It’s just leftovers. I’ve got to work this week and I didn’t want you to need it and not have it. Speaking of which, I need to head out. Do you need anything?”
Fraser shook his head, humming in the negative.
“I’ll call you later, alright?” Grey gathered up the full bin bag, his empty cooler, and the gun case. “Take care of yourself, okay? You can do this.”
Grey called Jamie on his lunch break the next day to check on him, heart thumping hard in his chest until Fraser answered the phone. The call only lasted for a couple minutes before Jamie had to hang up and be sick. But he was alive, and he was pushing through. He’d gotten his dose of methadone though, and was still sober. One whole day back on the wagon.
Wednesday, John called Fraser after work. “Did you eat anything?”
“Half a cup of soup before I lost it again,” Jamie answered. “I’m sure it was good, but nothing tastes right. I hate this part. I’d do anything to make it stop.”
“You’ll make it.” Grey scooped up a spoonful of spaghetti onto his plate. This was Isobel’s recipe, boxed noodles and canned sauce, and he’d made a salad with homemade vinaigrette.
“Can I confess something to ye, John?”
“Of course.” Grey mixed up his salad and took a bite, holding the phone away from his mouth lest it upset Jamie’s stomach to hear him eating.
“I went checking my hiding places today, hoping ye’d missed some of my stash.”
Grey paused with his fork halfway to his mouth, mind racing to review everything he knew about where Jamie kept his drugs, checking it against the places he’d cleaned out. “And did I?”
“No. And I hated ye for it.”
Exhaling the breath he’d held onto, Grey answered, as evenly as he could, “That’s alright, you can hate me for that if you need to.” Only then did he take his bite of salad.
“They probably told ye this in rehab too, but… They say it’s best not to be around people ye used with.”
“Yes, they did say that.”
“I dinnae ken if that includes ye or not.”
Grey paused again, Jamie’s statement a kick in the stomach. “Well… I suppose you have to decide that based on your best judgment.” It was probably the withdrawal talking, he figured. It did bring out some nasty things.
Except Grey had been hurt when Jamie said he was going to rehab. If his inhibitions had been just a little lower, the cravings just a little stronger, he might have even begged Jamie not to get clean. Fuck, Jamie was right, this… whatever the hell it was between them, it was a ticking time bomb.
Jamie sighed, his breath crackling over the receiver and tickling John’s ear. “I dinnae ken. Maybe… Maybe don’t call me tomorrow, alright?”
“Yeah, Jamie, sure.” Grey clenched his jaw, suddenly fighting tears he couldn’t explain. “Whatever you need.”
“Bye, Jamie,” Grey said, but he’d already hung up.
Grey stood to hang up his own phone, sadness and hurt ripping at him. But why? Why did that hurt? They weren’t friends, not really. They were addicts who had used together and used each other. And before that, they hadn’t been friends either. Grey had been Jamie’s employee—well, Dougal’s, and by proxy, Jamie’s. John had hated Fraser before, had even told him as much.
No, this made sense. It was right of Jamie to choose this. Grey would have chosen the same thing, if their positions were reversed.
Grey sat back down at the kitchen table. Isobel usually served this spaghetti with a bottle of merlot or cabernet sauvignon. Now, there was no Isobel, and no wine, and Grey couldn’t add enough pepper and garlic to his pasta to make it taste right.
Grey finally had a weekend off. They were rare, but the security manager tried to rotate the schedules so they’d each get one every six weeks or so. He’d not spoken to Fraser since spaghetti night, and he went through his days on autopilot. Saturday morning, he woke up from a dream he couldn’t grasp, slipping through his fingers when he tried to catch it. Was Jamie okay? Had he made it through the withdrawal and stayed sober?
Whenever he had a weekend off, Grey cooked himself a full English breakfast. It wasn’t quite right of course, because American baked beans were just… incorrect. Honestly, who puts brown sugar on beans? This entire continent is insane. The phone ringing startled him, making him sputter into his coffee. Probably Harry, he figured. They usually tried to get together once a week.
“Grey residence,” he answered.
Grey’s stomach did a little flip. “Jamie. Is everything alright?”
“Oh aye, fine.” Fraser paused, and Grey could practically hear the gears grinding in his head. “I was… I just…” He blew out a breath like an irritated bull. “I wanted to see that new Tom Cruise film this weekend. Something sober to do, ken? Anyway, I wanted to ask if ye’d like to come along.”
John recognized an olive branch when he saw one. “The one with the planes?”
“Aye, that one.”
“Sure, what time? And where?” Grey took a sip of his coffee before it got cold.
“Oh, ah.” The sound of rustling newspapers crashed through the line. “Nine this evening at Grauman’s?”
“Sure, I’m free.”
“Great,” Jamie said, and Grey could hear the relieved smile in his voice.
“How have you been? Staying sober?”
“Oh, aye, I made it. Um. Thank ye, John. For yer help. And the soup. I ate it on Thursday, I probably shouldna.”
Grey smiled. “Did it make you sick?”
“Pretty sure the only thing that actually made me sick was the withdrawal. Tasted good though. And the Sprite was a life saver, I appreciate it.”
“Of course. So, I’ll meet you at the cinema tonight then?”
“Sounds good. Bye, John.”
“See you later, Jamie.”
“Well, I’ll be crying about Goose later,” Grey said once he and Jamie were a respectful distance away from people waiting to see Top Gun.
Fraser laughed. “Ye cried in the theater, what are you talking about?”
“Tell no one.” God, it felt good to laugh with Jamie, to do something together that wasn’t a death wish. He’d seen the occasional film with Quarry, and they had fun, but there was something about this one. Maybe it was the sound track. He needed to find the record or cassette somewhere, it had everything.
“Wait just a damn second,” Grey said, shooting Fraser a hard stare. “You cried too.”
Jamie’s ears turned pink under the street lights. “Aye,” he admitted finally. “Tell no one.”
Grey chuckled. “Your secret’s safe with me.”
They walked in companionable silence for a while, the bustle of the city, wide awake and partying hard all around them.
Finally, Jamie said, “That volleyball scene was something else, aye?”
“Oh, God,” Grey groaned. “So hot.”
“Before today, I’d no’ thought to myself, I really need to see Val Kilmer slathered wi’ baby oil. But now I cannae figure why not.”
“Sweet fucking Jesus,” Grey agreed. He stopped in front of a twenty-four-hour diner. “How do you feel about pancakes?”
Jamie smiled and shrugged. “Sounds almost as good as Val Kilmer covered in baby oil.”
Grey threw his head back and laughed, opening the door to the diner. “Do you suppose Iceman and Maverick—”
“Och, they’re fucking,” Jamie agreed. “No doubt about that.”
“Oh, good, I thought I was crazy,” Grey replied. Then to the hostess, he said, “Two, please.”
The hostess sat them at a narrow booth, and Fraser pulled a small, leather bound journal from God-knew-where and set it to the side. Grey squinted at it, but the waitress approached the table before he could say anything about it. They ordered decaf and pancakes topped with fruit, and eggs and bacon, the waitress giving Jamie a significant eye. Fraser smiled at her but didn’t say anything about who he was. She recognized him though, that much was clear, and had the good grace to keep her mouth shut about it.
Grey had never been on this side of that, had never been with him as a friend when people randomly knew who he was. He’d seen it on tour, of course, but he was working then, and it just wasn’t quite the same thing.
It was comfortable, eating pancakes at eleven PM with Jamie. Grey could count on one hand the number of really happy memories he’d had since Isobel had died, and… Actually, this might have been the only one. Certainly the only sober one. Just talking about movies and music—the latter all revolving around things more than a couple years old, before the accident. It was so goddamn normal that Grey barely realized that this was the man he used to get wasted with, who had been his drug buddy and his enabler for months and months. Like this, under the harsh fluorescent lights of the diner and the smell of bacon grease and old coffee, Jamie was just his friend.
Maybe he shouldn’t trust it. Good things had a rotten habit of going down the drain without much warning.
“We should do this again,” Fraser said, the meal winding down.
“Yes, we should.” People always said that, when they thought they wanted to do something again but no time soon.
“When’s yer next day off?”
The question caught Grey off guard. “Oh, um. Tomorrow. But not again till next Thursday.” He usually had dinner with Harry on Thursdays, but they hadn’t scheduled anything yet.
“I’ll call ye, set something else up. That alright?”
“Yeah. Yes, that’s alright,” Grey answered, his hands going tense and then restless. Isobel had been on his mind more and more lately as the anniversary of her death approached, guilt for forgetting the first one clawing at his guts. The distraction would do him a world of good, so he didn’t say anything about the restlessness.
Could he do this? Was this sustainable, this sober friendship with Jamie, or was it just a matter of time before they slipped back into their old habits?
Seven hundred and thirty days.
That’s how long it had been since Isobel had died. Seven hundred and thirty days since Dr. Abernathy had been so sorry. Seven hundred and thirty days since he’d called his father-in-law to say, “William, I don’t know how to tell you this, but…”
Seven hundred and thirty days since his life ended.
Two entire goddamn years of telling people over and over that his wife was gone. Of answering the phone and repeating the same story over and over.
And they were all so goddamn sorry.
Two whole fucking years since the framed TV Guide on the living room wall became the only Isobel Grey autograph that would ever exist. Two complete, useless, terrible trips round the sun since everything that had been John’s world had disappeared, washing away on a sea of despair and desperation.
It had also been a hundred and fifty-three days of sobriety.
One hundred and fifty-three days, and it was gone in a sip.
Just a sip. A little whiskey, just to get through the night.
But that little sip had turned into two.
And then a glass.
And then another glass, filled mostly to the brim, because nothing fucking mattered.
And now half the bottle of Jack Daniels was gone and Grey sat on the floor in the living room, his legs folded under the coffee table in front of him. A little pile of pills and just enough smack for a couple syringes in the middle of the table. Grey stared at it, his chin on the back of his hand, his palm flat on the table.
Grey’s vision swam. He didn’t have the tolerance built up that he used to. He’d already thrown it all away, so that choice was made.
He took another drink of whiskey, held the liquor in his mouth, let it burn.
Vicodin was simple enough. Swallowing the mouthful of whiskey, Grey picked up one of the tablets between his thumb and first finger, dropped it into his mouth, and washed it down with another swig of Jack.
It should have been you.
How could you go on without her? Just right back to your life like that?
Grey winced, thumping the heel of his hand against his temple, begging the voice to shut up. It wasn’t a literal voice, not a hallucination, which was perhaps worse in a way, because it was him. A thought he couldn’t turn off.
He switched on the television, and MTV winked to life. Black Sabbath, probably, Grey didn’t look, just cranked up the volume, trying to drown out his own brain, the bass vibrating his breastbone, rattling the floor.
Would the junk make him sick again? Or would his body remember it, embrace it, like an old friend?
He bent a spoon over the edge of the table, squinted at the bends to get them just right. Easy.
Easy to mix a little heroin up in the spoon. It wasn’t the good stuff that Jamie used to get, Christ only knew what else was in this shit. But high was high, and Ozzy wasn’t drowning out Grey’s mind on his own.
A big hand snatched the lighter out of John’s unsteady grip, then wrenched the spoon away, spilling the junk onto the table.
“The fuck’re you doing?” Grey demanded. Ozzy covered his actual voice, and either the intruder didn’t hear him or didn’t care to answer.
Jamie Fraser stomped back into the living room from the kitchen with a washrag in his hand and mopped up the spilled heroin.
“Hey! Talking to you.” Grey tried to haul himself to his feet but missed the couch with his hand and didn’t make it very far.
Fraser turned off the television at the set, leaving John’s ears buzzing in the sudden silence. “So ye are.”
“What are you doing here?” Of all people, Fraser should know better than to interrupt a perfectly good bender, and he said as much. Grey picked up his whiskey glass, bringing it to his lips, but Jamie snatched that away too, the booze sloshing over the rim and getting his fingers wet.
“Ye called me.” Fraser examined the pile of pills on the coffee table, then stooped and swept them into the glass with a little hail of splashes. Confiscating what was left of the heroin and the dwindling bottle of Jack, he carried it to the kitchen without a word on the matter.
“No, I didn’t.” Jesus, that buzzing. Oh. “The phone’s off the hook.” Grey did manage to get to his feet then, unsteady and nauseated, and staggered to the kitchen.
Jamie turned on the sink and dumped the booze and drugs down the drain, rinsing the rag with smack on it over and over under the hot water as the garbage disposal ate up the pills. “Aye, so it is. But ye thought about calling me, and that’s good enough.”
Grey hung up the phone just to make it stop. Then he unplugged it from the wall. That probably would have made more sense in the first place.
Fraser washed his hands and dried them on a clean cloth. Once the tap was off, he turned and faced Grey, giving him a long look up and down, nodding like he’d made up his mind about something. “Come on, let’s talk.”
“Don’t wanna talk.” John’s hand smelled like whiskey and he licked his own knuckles in case there was anything actually there.
A damp towel landed around his hands, Jamie scrubbing them gently. Actually, it might have been terribly rough, but he was drunk and the Vicodin was kicking in and he couldn’t feel much. Didn’t matter.
“Fine, dinnae talk then. Come sit on the sofa wi’ me. And ye can brood or cry on my shoulder, or scream and yell. Whatever ye have to do to make it through the night.” Jamie left him in the kitchen, shutting and locking the front door, leaving Grey to follow.
So, Grey followed, hesitating for only a moment before sinking into the sofa next to Jamie. Silence stretched between them, uncomfortable and heavy. Jamie opened up that little leather book of his, balancing it on his leg and scribbling in it with a ballpoint pen. He was using his right hand, holding it awkwardly.
But Jamie was left-handed. That explained his struggle at the methadone clinic.
A wave of dizziness plowed into Grey, and he slumped against the armrest of the sofa with a groan.
“Christ,” Jamie said, and the couch shuddered when he stood.
Grey covered his face with one hand, the other clinging to the cushion under him, trying not to fall off, desperate to make the world stop lurching.
“Drink this.” Fraser pushed a glass into Grey’s hand.
Eyes closed so he wouldn’t have to watch the living room spin into orbit, he took a sip and frowned. “That’s water.”
Fraser snorted. “Aye, very astute, Sherlock. Drink it.”
“You never said why you were here.” Grey took another sip of water and grimaced. It splashed down in his roiling stomach, which didn’t help the nausea at all.
“Weel.” Jamie blew out a long sigh through his nose. “I ken how hard that first anniversary of someone’s death can be. I’ve been calling ye all day but ye didnae answer.”
“It’s the second,” Grey snapped. “I don’t know why the first one didn’t hurt like this.”
“Ye weren’t awake for the first one.” Fraser sat back down. “You probably don’t remember. Ye got real bad for about a week. I wasn’t sure ye were going to live through it, actually.” He gave one of his awkward, twitchy shrugs. “Anyway, thought ye could use a friend, is all. If ye can call me that.”
“Oh. Thanks.” He was right, Grey had no recollection of that at all. Just a terrible blur, stretching from blackout to blackout. His brain probably looked like swiss cheese.
“Welcome.” Fraser went back to his journal, not looking at John. “Was that all ye had in the flat?”
“Yes. Remind me to thank you for that later, when I’m not a little pissed at you for it.” Grey’s words echoed weirdly into his glass.
Jamie made one of his expressive hums. “Ye can be pissed at me for that, I dinnae mind. Ye’ve been cross wi’ me for worse.”
Grey finished the water and, stretching to reach, set the glass down on the coffee table.
“So. What was yer plan?”
“I thought I could just white-knuckle it through the day, but it hurt too bad.” Grey brought his knees up to his chest and hugged his legs. “After the fifth call from well-meaning people to tell me they were thinking about me, I… lost it.”
Jamie slid his pen into the loop of the journal and closed the book. “I’m sure they thought they were doing the right thing.”
“Of course. And they’re all still so fucking sorry. God.” Grey scoffed and shook his head. “It was like that before, too, right after she died. Everyone so sorry. I thought if I heard that from one more person, I’d kill someone. I don’t want their fucking sympathy.” His eyes burned, but he swallowed it down.
“Nay, it doesnae help, does it?” Jamie turned and sat sideways on the couch, one long leg bent between them. “Not when all ye want is yer wife back.”
Fraser’s words punched Grey in the gut and the dam broke, hot tears sliding down his cheeks. “I just want my life back. I don’t know who I am anymore.” With a sob, he covered his face with both hands, curling into the tightest ball he could. It must have looked fucking pathetic. “Whoever the man in the mirror is now, I hate him. I don’t know who I am, or who I’m supposed to be. I just want my goddamn life back.”
“Hmm.” Jamie took a deep breath and let it out again. “Weel, it’s no’ at the bottom of a bottle and it’s sure as hell not in a goddamn needle.”
“I know, I know. But it doesn’t hurt there.” The weight of the world crashing down on him knocked Grey over, and he laid down on the sofa, his head resting on top of Fraser’s thigh without really meaning to do it. He wept like a damn child. He sobbed for Isobel. For the million and one possibilities that would never be. For the guilt that there were days he felt alright, for every second since she’d died that he’d not mourned her. For feeling like he could start to move on.
For himself, for the shit that he’d wrecked. For the part he’d played in Jamie’s addiction, for not doing more for him sooner. For the fucking Cuban missile crisis that had happened before he’d even started grammar school but was probably somehow his fault too.
Jamie’s hand was warm in Grey’s hair, his strong fingers gentle and steady, a lighthouse in the squall. Fraser let John weep without a word of sympathy or meaningless platitudes. No sage advice or words of wisdom that wouldn’t have stayed in Grey’s pickled brain anyway. Just calm, unassuming comfort. No judgment or expectations.
For perhaps the third time in two years, Grey let himself actually feel the pain, let it wreck him without putting up a fight.
It fucking sucked.
Grey woke up as a little spoon, his head splitting open, hungover from the booze and crying himself to sleep. The arms around his middle were covered in coppery hair, strong hands relaxed against his chest. Of course, Jamie. A sliver of sunlight came through the narrow window in Grey’s bedroom, and he groaned, screwing his eyes shut again. “Fuck,” he breathed.
Jamie stirred against his back, and John risked a peek to assess the situation. They wore T-shirts and shorts, but they were in the bedroom, and Grey was fairly certain he’d passed out in the living room.
“How’s yer head?” Fraser whispered. He whispered and it still sounded like shouting directly into his ear. Grey just groaned in response. “Sounds about right.”
“I’ll live,” Grey managed, wincing. “Not sure yet that I want to. Jesus, my fucking head. How’d you get me off the sofa?”
“I carried ye. Didnae look like it would be a comfortable place to sleep all night.” Fraser let go of John, letting him roll over and face him.
It took a few tries for Grey to get his eyes to open up and stay that way, but even then, he couldn’t focus them. “You’re right, it’s not very comfortable.” He yawned, covering his mouth with the back of his hand. “Wait, how did you get in here last night? I thought I locked the door.”
Grey pried his eyelids apart again and squinted at Jamie’s blue cat-eyes, suddenly gone shifty and suspicious.
“I, ah.” Fraser let out a nervous chuckle, cheeks turning pink. “I picked the lock.”
“You know how to pick locks?”
Fraser shrugged, looking even more sheepish. “We all have our hobbies, ken. You learned to cook, I learned to pick locks.”
For a moment John could only blink at him. Then he laughed. It hurt his head, and he had to cover his face with both hands to keep his brains from leaking out of his eye sockets. “Christ, do you know how to do anything that isn’t deviant?”
Jamie laughed too, a low rumble that shook the mattress. “Not really, no.”
“Well, thanks.” Grey rolled over and moaned pitiably, his skull cracking open. “Fuck, I swear the day after didn’t use to hurt so much.”
“It did, ye were just too doped up to feel it.” Fraser rolled out of bed, wincing as some joint popped loudly, limping toward the bathroom. “There’s clean water on the nightstand for ye. Drink it all, aye?”
Grey whined. “Tasteless nonsense.” He took a sip anyway and frowned. He wasn’t ready for this yet. That cruel voice in the back of his mind told him that he deserved the headache, that he deserved worse.
For just a moment the sound of the toilet flushing brought Grey back to the night he cleaned out his stash with his mother on the phone. And what a fantastic idea that had been. He left most of the water on the nightstand and burrowed under his pillow.
Jamie’s palm was warm and gentle on Grey’s back. “I’ll make some breakfast, if ye need a few more minutes.” The pillow over John’s head muffled his voice, made him sound far away.
Grey didn’t answer. Not that he didn’t want to acknowledge Jamie, just that he couldn’t stand to hear his own voice inside his head, much less out loud.
Then the hand was gone and the bedroom felt empty.
So very, very empty.
Fraser stayed all day, doing little things that Grey should be perfectly capable of doing on his own, but for some reason wasn’t. Like washing dishes, or making the bed. He only brushed his teeth and showered because Jamie reminded him, letting the hot water wash his tears down the shower drain.
He shouldn’t have started crying yesterday, because now he couldn’t stop. Fraser nagged him about drinking water all day and his hangover let up by lunch—which Grey only picked at because it was bland—but everything still hurt.
Grey tried to cook dinner, but the rice boiled over and Jamie took over without a word, leaving John to fall apart at the kitchen table. The meal tasted like nothing, even though Fraser complimented the seasoning on the chicken.
“Oh, thanks. It’s… um…” John frowned down at his plate. What the fuck had he put on the chicken? Basil? Pepper? Salt, probably. Had he forgotten the salt?
“It’s alright,” Fraser said gently, reaching across the table to touch his hand. “It doesnae matter.”
But it wasn’t alright and it did matter and it was too much. Grey nodded and pushed away from the table, standing. “I’m sorry, I need to lie down.”
Jamie nodded. “Whatever ye need, John. It’s okay.”
Grey muttered his thanks and walked to the bedroom in a fog, like he wasn’t actually in his body, but being dragged behind it. He barely made it to the bed, collapsing onto it and pulling a pillow tight against him, burying his face in the soft pillowcase. He didn’t fight the tears this time. He was too tired and it was inevitable. Why couldn’t he just have a good cry and feel better, like everyone else? Why was he the only sorry bastard who didn’t get to do that?
And what the hell was a good cry anyway? What was good about it, if it just led to more, if it just compounded the misery?
He laid there long enough, just silently weeping as the room grew darker and darker, that he started to float. Maybe he’d fallen asleep and died? Except his joints all ached for no goddamn reason.
You know what would help that.
“Shut up,” Grey whispered to no one. “Just shut the fuck up.”
This is going to kill you, you know. This is what she meant.
Quiet footsteps came into the room, and the bedside lamp switched on with a metallic click, bathing the room in gentle light that stung Grey’s eyes. The bed dipped, Fraser sitting down behind him. “Do ye want to talk?”
Grey shook his head. His pillow case was wet and his face felt all puffy and swollen, like someone had beat the hell out of him. Sniffing, scrubbing the wetness from his eyes and cheeks with a little more force than was necessary, he rolled over and faced Fraser. “Jamie, are you still not picky?”
“Who you sleep with.”
After a brief detour to some long-ago conversation, understanding flashed over Jamie’s face, then he frowned. “John… Is that really what ye want?”
Grey shrugged. “I know where this is going, where I’m headed like this. I’m stuck in a tailspin and I can’t get out of it. This is exactly how it started two years ago, except this time it’s faster because I know what’ll make the pain stop. I just…”
“John… this is no’ a tailspin. It’s a couple bad days.”
“No.” Grey shook his head. “It’s a worse couple of days. And I admit I’ve had a few good ones, but I haven’t really been right since I got out of rehab.”
He took a breath because his lungs were burning, and rested one hand on Jamie’s thigh. “I wouldn’t blame you, if you say no, or hold it against you. I’d turn me down. But if you’re still not picky, then…” Grey sighed, the tears threatening to start up again, but he pushed them back. “I just need to feel something good. Or else nothing at all.”
The crease between Fraser’s brows deepened as he thought about it, weighed the request. At last, he said, “Alright, John. I can make ye feel good.” He bent and pressed his lips to Grey’s, just a brief touch, sweet and comforting. “Sit up.” Tugging at the hem of his shirt, Jamie pulled it over Grey’s head and tossed it away. Then his pajama bottoms, and John laid there naked.
“Top drawer of the dresser,” John said, nodding at it.
Jamie stood and opened the drawer, taking out the bottle of lube, stripping out of his own clothes on his way back to the bed. The mattress bounced when he knelt between Grey’s legs. “How did ye want it?”
“I don’t care,” Grey said, spreading his legs and canting his hips against Jamie with a gasp. “Just make it hurt.”
“No,” Fraser said, shaking his head. “I’ll no’ hurt ye, John. Not when ye’re like this.”
Grey frowned. “You used to.”
“Weel, I was a heinous bastard.” Fraser’s hand kneaded the muscle of Grey’s thigh, working up to his hip. “Ye can be on top, if ye want.”
Christ, that sounded like a lot of work. “Jamie… I don’t have the energy.”
Fraser’s hand, slick with a glob of lube, was warm on Grey’s prick, firm and confident. “Then ye lie there like a pillow princess and I’ll take care of ye, that’s fine.”
Jamie could have just stroked him like that, firm and rhythmic, and Grey would be finished in minutes. But then Fraser straddled him and sank onto his prick, and John threw his head back, gasping, fingers digging into Jamie’s strong thighs.
“Oh, God. Jamie.” They’d never done this sober before, not really. Whenever they’d had sex before, it was more use and abuse, one of them hurting the other.
This wasn’t that kind of fuck.
Jamie moved slowly at first, getting used to it, testing the waters. By the look in his eyes, this was a new feeling to him too, surprising.
But wonderful, Jesus.
Grey found the discarded bottle of lube on the bed and drizzled some in his hand, rubbing his fingers over his palm to warm it up. Then he closed his hand around Jamie’s prick, and Fraser closed his eyes, shuddering. Fuck, he was lovely like that.
Leaning forward, Jamie picked up a deeper tempo, lifting himself almost all the way off Grey then right back down, confident. “John,” he gasped.
For just a moment, a fleeting moment, Grey had the urge to kiss Jamie like this, to draw him down and stick his tongue in his mouth while Fraser rode him hard.
But this wasn’t that kind of fuck either.
“Close, Jamie.” Grey pumped his hand over Jamie’s prick, a little faster and out of balance with Jamie’s movement.
Fraser didn’t seem to care. He threw his head back, sweat glistening over his skin, making his hair wet. He kept his promise, he made it good for John.
It started as warmth, building slowly into something brighter, hotter, his skin flushing with it, tingling. The rest of it snuck up on him, swept him over the edge with a moan that sounded like Jamie’s name. Like falling and missing the ground, blind pleasure, and for just a moment, sweet oblivion. For just a moment, he felt good and normal, like he could be alright after all. Relief.
Fraser came with a low growl, spilling hot on Grey’s stomach. His fingers dug into John’s chest, then relaxing into a caress as he shuddered and gasped on top of him.
Again the urge to pull Jamie down and kiss him, to hold him until they both fell asleep, sticky, cold, and safe. Without meaning to, John reached up with his clean hand and swept Jamie’s sweaty curls out of his face. His hair was as incorrigible as the man himself, and fell right back out of place immediately. Grey chuckled at that, and Jamie smiled down at him.
“Nothing, just… never mind.”
Jamie shrugged and climbed off of him, collapsing onto his back next to Grey, catching his breath. “I think it’s better sober.”
“Hmm. And we’ll remember it tomorrow,” Grey agreed.
“Did ye get what ye needed, John?” He turned his head to face John, that incorrigible hair falling in his face again. “It made ye feel good?”
Grey nodded. “Thank you for that.” What a weird thing to say. “Restored a little hope at least.”
“Och, weel, I do have a magic arse.” Fraser grinned, giving Grey a playful swat on the hip and rolling off the bed. “Do ye want first shower?”
“No, go ahead. I’m going to lie here and enjoy being a puddle for a few more minutes.”
Jamie smeared a finger through the jizz on Grey’s stomach. “Puddle is the word for it.” He left the bathroom door open as he turned on the shower.
Grey took a deep breath that smelled like sex and sweat, and blew it back out again. He did it again, using his belly like they’d taught him in rehab, felt the air fill his entire lungs, visualized his heart rushing all that clean oxygen everywhere it needed to go. So, maybe there could be days he didn’t feel like a zombie. Maybe there could be days he would enjoy the feeling of being alive.
Are you okay with that? What about her?
“Fuck off,” Grey mumbled. “Let me have my moment.” Isobel wouldn’t have wanted him to torture himself into an early grave.
It was probably his imagination, but in that drowsy, weightless space between wakefulness and slipping into a post-coital coma, Grey could have sworn he felt a cool hand on his forehead, lips on his cheek. The way Isobel used to kiss him goodbye when she had to leave in the morning and he had only been in bed for a couple hours.
“What are you writing over there?” Grey asked, the curiosity burning a hole in his brain. “I mean… you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to. Just that journal has hardly been out of your hands for the last two days.”
Jamie shrugged. “Just a wee bit of poetry. A little journaling here and there. Ye know, the ramblings of a madman.”
“Oh. Does it help?” John reached into the basket of clean laundry he’d neglected for the better part of a week, topped off with newly clean clothes. He had to go back to work tonight, but at least it was the overnight shift.
“I think so. Since I cannae hear melody anymore, it’s a little easier to just get the words and the rhythm down without the pressure of a record label breathing down my neck.” Jamie’s pen scratched against the paper, crossing something out, rewriting it. “Probably nothing will come of it, but it’s something to do that’s creative.”
Grey plucked a pair of socks from the top of the heap and folded them together. “So, I learned to cook, and you took up poetry and lock picking.”
“And after Top Gun, I’m tempted to try beach volleyball too.”
John threw his head back and laughed. “I’m not sure the amateur beach volleyball scene is the way it is in the movies.”
Fraser’s eyes went wide, shaking his head in disappointment. “And that’s a damned shame.”
Jesus, it felt good to laugh, to just be normal. Even folding the laundry like this wasn’t so bad. John Grey still wasn’t a praying man, but gratitude fluttered warm through his chest all the same.
Fraser tapped his pen against the page of his notebook, the rhythm euphonious and complex. He was reading to the beat, Grey realized, pausing periodically to scratch through things and scribble more. It was mesmerizing to watch.
John reached blindly into the laundry basket and found it empty, the chore completed. Not wanting to disturb Fraser, he quietly lit a cigarette from the pack on the coffee table and watched him write and drum and write some more, the smoke curling silently around them.
Ticking from the wall clock drew Grey’s attention. He was loathe to break the spell, but there were only a few hours before he needed to get ready for work. “I need to try to get a little sleep before work tonight.” He put his cigarette out in the ash tray on the coffee table and stood. “You’re welcome to stay here if you want.”
Fraser looked at the clock and stood too, shutting his journal. “Actually, I should go, if ye’ll be alright. I asked Murtagh to feed the cat while I was gone, but he gets into mischief when I’m no’ there. Scratched up an expensive pair of leather trousers last time.” A grin spread his lips. “The cat, I mean. No’ Murtagh.”
“When did you get a cat?” Grey chuckled. The surprises were just piling up with Jamie. Not to mention the thought of that grumbling hippie music producer playing with a cat was almost too much.
“Few weeks ago, after I stopped getting methadone shots. I was left alone wi’ my thoughts for too long and was going fucking insane. Again,” he added with a roll of his eyes. “Ye should come over and meet him some time. He’s a cute wee thing, named him Adso.”
“I’ll do that.” They fell into a heavy silence, that awkward limbo of saying goodbye when you didn’t really want to. “Thank you, Jamie. For what you did. For everything. I don’t know what I would have done without you.” Died. He would have died.
Fraser nodded, his grin softening into something warm. “Ye’re welcome, John.”
“Oh, John, my dear boy, I am so proud of you,” his mother said. Grey called her like usual and told her everything, about drinking, the Vicodin, the heroin, and Jamie stopping him before he could shoot up.
“You keep telling me that, Mother, and I’m not entirely sure your pride is well-placed.” Grey pulled sliced ham, cheese, and sweet mustard out of the refrigerator, setting it on the counter next to the bread. It was a weird, late Sunday shift for him, and there’d be nothing open in the food court when his lunch break rolled around.
“Nonsense. Yes, you slipped. And yes, you needed help. But you not only accepted the help, but you’ve also put in the work since then to stay sober. Haven’t you?”
“Well. Yes.” Bracing his phone between his shoulder and his cheek, he opened the jar of mustard and spread it over a slice of bread. He’d sprung for marble rye from the bakery down the street.
“Maybe you just need to take my word on this, but perfection isn’t the only thing worth being proud of. Effort is worthy too. And courage under fire, you should be proud of that too.”
Grey scoffed before he could stop himself. “I folded like a house of cards, Mama.”
“And? A person can only endure so much for so long before they crumple. It takes courage to get back up, and you did. Are you going to slip again? I hope not, but maybe. It was just one day. You didn’t throw everything away over one mistake.”
“I suppose.” John screwed the lid back on the mustard jar and stacked a slice of cheese and several pieces of ham on his sandwich. “And it’s not like I came home after Jamie left and hit the bottle again.”
“There, you see? That would have been the easy thing. But you did the right thing. Ergo, I am proud of you.”
Grey wrapped his sandwich in a sheet of tinfoil. “Alright, you win. Thank you.”
The ugly business of John’s sobriety addressed, Benedicta switched gears. “Did you ask if you can take off work around Christmas?”
“I did. And no, I can’t, I’m afraid.” He dropped a frozen bottle of water into his cooler, then a plastic bag full of fresh vegetables. “But I did get leave for two weeks in late January, so I’ll be able to visit then instead.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful! You’ve just made my day. Olivia will be so happy to see you. And it’s far enough after the holiday that a dinner party wouldn’t be taboo—”
“No, please, no parties. I can’t. It’s just too much, I’m sorry.” Grey packed a Thermos of leftover soup and his sandwich into the cooler, adjusting everything so as not to squish the bread. “I just want to spend time with you, and Olivia, Hal, Minnie, and the boys. I’ll drive up to visit William and Louisa for a couple days, but that’s all I think I can manage.” He hadn’t been back to the UK since the Bleeding Roses’ last European tour, maybe three years ago. He and Isobel had planned to go for Christmas last year, but…
“Well, I can certainly understand that. It’ll be fantastic to have you here regardless. We’ll keep it small. Just the family, you have my word.”
Grey breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Mama. I need to run, but I’ll talk to you next week.”
“Of course, dear. I love you.”
“Love you too, Mother.”
The worst part of working a late shift, Grey decided, was driving home in the dark, seeing the underbelly of the LA nightlife that he’d drowned in not too long ago. Sometimes, he could find simple, repetitive things at home to get lost in before he went to bed. Folding laundry and watching MTV or listening to the radio usually worked wonders to settle his mind, but that only worked once per week after he’d been to the laundromat.
When the laundry was all done and Grey couldn’t stop twitching and pacing like a lunatic, he switched on the television, left the late night infomercials behind, and let MTV do its thing. He flipped open a deck of playing cards, dropping them out into his hand to shuffle, dealing out a game of solitaire on the coffee table. A few hands of draw-three ought to be all it took to get sleepy.
The kettle whistled on the stove, and Grey rose to make his tea. He tried not to think about it too much, but so much of his life now was replacing drugs with other things. He’d traded in alcohol and Halcion for chamomile and cards. Forgetting to eat for two or three days at a time had become spending an hour or two trying new recipes. Shooting up with Jamie was the movies or dinner with Quarry.
Stirring a little honey into his cup of tea, he made a mental note to call Quarry tomorrow. They’d not talked in over a week and Grey was starting to get worried about him. Jamie too, they’d not spoken since he’d left Grey’s apartment.
Grey took a cautious slurp of his tea and set it aside on the coffee table to cool off. The telly showed a commercial for Pepsi, then Budweiser, both of which he largely ignored in favor of his game.
A familiar bass riff tumbled from the set, followed by a drum set getting beat all to hell with amazing precision. “Black Kirk.”
Leaving the cards on the table, Grey sat back on the sofa and watched the music video. It was one of the first ones the Bleeding Roses had filmed, before Grey had started working for them. God, they looked so young, and it was only a handful of years ago. Claire hadn’t changed much, to be fair, but Jamie had. And while he looked better now than he had in a long time, the difference was startling.
The camera zoomed in on Fraser, who hammed it up while the smoke effects and pyrotechnics went nuts all around him. He looked directly into the camera, his wild eyes exceptionally blue in the studio lights, and something flipped over in Grey’s stomach. Then all he could think about was Jamie straddling him the other day, sinking onto his prick. Grey palmed himself over his trousers, adjusting, trying to get more room. The shot settled on Claire and Rupert for a few seconds, then back to Jamie.
Christ, the way Fraser had looked, losing himself, yet so focused on John.
Giving up and unzipping his trousers, Grey shoved them down and off. His cock grew hard in his hand, and maybe he should feel guilty about touching himself while he watched this music video full of people he knew. But it was only the sex he was thinking about it. It was quick and exciting, Grey stroking himself on the sofa, mind on the bedroom.
He finished about the same time the song did, spilling over his hand and spurting on the floor. Grey moaned and leaned against the backrest, tugging lazily on his spent prick. For a quick wank, it had left him feeling boneless and warm, and Grey yawned.
Yeah, he could probably sleep now. With another groan, he bent to retrieve his discarded trousers, using them to wipe himself and the floor clean. Switching off the television, he collected his tea and made his way to the bedroom, leaving the card game on the table.
His tea was too cool, but he drank it anyway.
Grey met Quarry for lunch at a greasy spoon that felt out of place in its neighborhood. It had excellent burgers that were probably responsible for the place staying in business, despite the fancy coffee shops and health food stores popping up all around it.
“I’m glad you called when you did,” Harry said after the waitress left to put in their drink orders. “I wanted to give you space last week, but I was starting to get worried about you. Are you… alright?”
The hesitation was rather significant, Grey thought. “I am now.” The waitress set down their drinks, lemonade for Grey and Coke for Harry, and scribbled down their orders for cheeseburgers with bacon.
“Now?” Quarry asked. “You weren’t though?”
Grey took a sip of his lemonade, sweet and tart, but refreshing. He shrugged. “Slipped a little. Jamie showed up before I slipped a lot, stayed for a few days.”
“Well, God bless Fraser. You could have called me, you know.” Harry didn’t sound jealous or hurt that Grey hadn’t called him, it was only a statement of fact.
“I know I could have, and I appreciate that.” Grey blew out a long sigh, shaking his head. “I wasn’t in the mindset to call anyone. I took the phone off the hook so I could stop talking to people.”
Harry hummed, nodding.
“How’s the job hunt going?”
“Good. I have an offer on the table, actually. Aerosmith wanted someone to do security on the road.” Harry fiddled with a packet of ketchup, smiling. “So, you’re looking at their new security manager.”
“That’s excellent! Congratulations, Harry.” Grey accepted a cigarette when Quarry offered it. “I thought they weren’t touring anymore.”
Harry blew out a puff of smoke. “They’re planning a comeback tour next year. A big one, it sounds like.”
“Good for them.” Hopefully Aerosmith could get through the bounce back after rehab without the same problems the Bleeding Roses had. “How’d you find that? Surely that wasn’t something they advertised for.”
Quarry shook his head, bringing the ashtray to the center of the table between them and flicking ash into it. “Ran into Dougal having drinks with their manager, actually. He introduced me, told him what I did for the Roses, and next thing I know, he’s getting my phone number to have his assistant set up an interview.”
Grey let out a low whistle. “It really is who you know in this town, isn’t it?”
“Without a doubt. And most of the business deals are hashed out in bars and clubs. If you’re not going out and being seen, you’re forgotten.” Harry’s eyes went wide, like a spooked rabbit. “Ah… Shit, Grey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“I know. You’re not wrong though.” Grey took a sip of his lemonade and shrugged. “It’s probably for the best anyway. I can’t imagine I’d be a good fit for anyone other than the, what? Six or seven sober musicians in town? And who’s to say they’d stay that way. I mean, look at Fraser. He got out of rehab a couple days before I did and we’ve already cleaned up each other’s benders once a piece.”
“I haven’t talked to him in a while. Is he looking into starting a new band?”
“Not that I know of.” John gestured to the side of his head, wiggling his fingers. “That tone deafness is really debilitating for him. Did I hear Beauchamp is working on a solo album?”
Quarry nodded, taking a drag. “Heard she hired and fired two studio bands already and she’s on the third.”
Grey winced. “Jamie once told me how hard starting something new can be.”
“Mmhmm.” Harry propped his elbows on the table, hands clasped in front of him. “Say, I knew he was using again right before the band broke up. I didn’t know you were involved in it, though. I thought Dougal told you to stay away from him.”
“Involved isn’t really the word for it. He called me one night, absolutely wasted.” Grey shrugged. “So I went over to check on him.”
“And then when you fell off the wagon, he returned the favor?”
Grey chuckled and shook his head while he took a puff from his cigarette. “Not exactly.” In simple, non-graphic terms, he brought Harry up to speed. He glossed over the part about all the crying and the madness, skipping the sex completely.
Harry listened to all this carefully, opened his mouth to say something, and was saved by the appearance of their meals. Talk about addiction and the nasty work of getting and staying sober was an appetite suppressor, so the conversation slid to gentler, more benign topics.
“I was thinking of seeing that new Tom Cruise flick before it left the cinema,” Quarry said. “About the Navy pilots? You interested?”
Grey finished chewing and swallowing his rather ambitious bite of cheeseburger before he answered. “Jamie and I saw it a while ago. It was good though, I’d be willing to see it again.”
Harry stared at Grey, frowning. “Have you noticed that at nearly every point of our conversation today, you’ve brought Fraser into it?”
John swallowed a smaller bite. “Have I? I’m sorry, if that makes you uncomfortable—”
“No, no, that’s not it at all. You did the same thing on the phone yesterday. I’m not uncomfortable with it, I just wondered if you knew you were doing it.”
Grey replayed the day’s conversation in his head, then their phone call. Christ, he was doing it. He tried for a nonchalant shrug that came out twitchy. “We’re friends is all. We’ve struggled with a lot of the same things, and we’re helping each other. Is that a crime?”
Quarry arched an eyebrow at him. “Friends. Sure.”
“We are!” Defensiveness made Grey raise his voice, but he caught himself and brought it back down. “We are. Just friends.”
“Yeah, okay.” Quarry shrugged, clearly not buying it. “Friends race across LA in the middle of the night to clean up a binge and put their friend to bed. Friends call each other basically everyday to make sure they’re okay.”
“It’s not every day.” Grey took a sip of his lemonade, hoping it would cool down the inexplicable heat in his cheeks.
“Friends go on dates—”
“We are on a date by your definition!” Grey spread his hands wide, feeling strange eyes on him and trying to ignore them.
Quarry held up an index finger and swirled it in the air between them. “No, we are at lunch. We did not go see a film featuring a romance and gratuitous nudity, and then have pancakes in the middle of the night. That, John, is a date, and a damned good one, I’m taking notes by the way.”
“We had to do something to kill the time, and we were hungry.”
“Sure, alright.” Harry lowered his voice to a harsh whisper and leaned over his plate toward Grey. “And it’s perfectly normal for friends to break into each others apartments and snatch a hot spoon out of their hand, hold him all night while he sleeps, and write poetry right in front of him. Which, incidentally, is possibly the most intimate part of that whole story.”
Grey rolled his eyes heavenward, hoping for an escape to present itself. “Jamie’s an artist, Harry. He needs a creative outlet.”
Quarry scrubbed a hand over his frustrated face. “Fucking Christ, Grey. Do you hear yourself? Honestly, do your ears not work at the same time your mouth does?”
“What are you getting at? Hmm?” Grey asked, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. “Do you want me to tell you we’re more than friends? Because we’re not.”
Harry snorted. “Seems to be a technicality at this point.”
“Are you trying to get me to admit that I love—” Everything stopped then, time froze completely, the diner falling still and silent, that sentence stuck in his throat, short-circuiting his brain. For a time, Grey could only sit there and blink. Then slowly, so very fucking slowly, he started to reboot.
“Oh,” Grey breathed, shoulders slumping under the weight of the realization. “Oh. Shit.” He shoved his plate to the side and let his forehead fall to the table with a thunk. “Shit. Harry, I—goddamn it.” He finally put all the pieces together, took a hard look at his own feelings, named it, and promptly lost all ability to form complete sentences.
“There you go, I knew you’d get there eventually.” Quarry said. “You’re a smart man, Grey, but sometimes…”
“I’m an idiot.”
“You’re an idiot,” Harry agreed.
The waitress came to the table, Grey could smell her heavy perfume, but he didn’t sit up. “Is he alright?” she asked.
“Oh, sure, he’s fine,” Harry answered. “Just working through some stuff. He’s going to need a slice of pie though.”
“No I don’t,” Grey chimed in, his voice echoing weirdly off the table.
“Chocolate, if you have it.”
“Cherry,” Grey interjected.
“Make that cherry.”
“Sure thing, hun.” The waitress retreated.
“I thought you were allergic to cherries,” Harry said. “This isn’t some roundabout suicide attempt is it?”
“That’s raspberries,” Grey said, sitting up with a sigh. “And no.”
The waitress came right back and set a generous slice of pie topped with a heap of whipped cream in front of Grey, giving him a motherly pat on the back as she walked away.
John rested his elbow on the table, his forehead cradled in one palm. “Fuck. How could this happen? What was I thinking?”
“Was it, ‘He’s the most beautiful man I’ve ever seen and I want to have his babies?’” Harry picked up his fork and cut off a big bite of pie, popping it into his mouth. The skin around his eyes crinkled like he was trying not to laugh.
Grey gaped at him. “Don’t make it gross, Harry, that’s not helpful.”
Quarry did laugh then, shoulders shaking with it. “Sorry.” He wasn’t sorry, the prick.
“I’m such an ass.” John stabbed the pie with his own fork. It was sticky and sweet, the cherries little bursts of tartness on his tongue. “It’s unprofessional.”
“Why? Fraser is neither your employer nor your client.” Harry took another bite of pie. “Besides, I imagine you did more unprofessional things when you were technically working for him.”
Grey’s cheeks burned. He was probably as red as the pie filling.
Quarry noticed, his eyes going wide. Tactfully, he kept further observations to himself. He cleared his throat and took another bite of pie. “So. Are you going to talk to him?”
“No, absolutely not.” Grey shook his head. “I doubt he feels the same about me. Surely he would have said something if he did.”
“Has it ever occurred to you that Fraser might also be an idiot, same as you?”
What the hell was the correct answer to that? “He’s not very good at feelings.”
Quarry hummed in agreement. “I repeat: Are you going to talk to him?” He nudged the pie plate closer to John. “You finish that, you need it more than I do.”
Grey rang the doorbell of Jamie’s house, then knocked on the door. Out of habit, he squinted through the frosted window, trying to make out any sign of life inside. He took a step back, meaning to try the garage, but the front door opened before he made it off the porch.
“John? Are ye alright?” Fraser was dressed in a Rolling Stones t-shirt and black leather trousers, bare feet and wild hair. How in the hell had Grey not recognized it before, the way his heart tripped to look at him?
Oh, shit, Jamie was frowning down at him, worried and waiting for an explanation. “Yes. Um. Maybe no. Can I come in?” Keep it together, Grey.
Jamie stepped aside to let Grey pass. “Of course. Can I get ye something? Water or tea?”
“No, thank you. I had lunch with Quarry today and he said something and… I have to tell you something, and I don’t exactly know how to go about it.”
“Alright.” Jamie’s frown deepened and he let out a nervous chuckle. “I dinnae mean to rush ye, but ye’re freaking me out a bit.”
Grey scratched at the back of his head. He’d had this worked out on the drive over, but now he could barely form sentences. “Jamie, we’re friends, yes?”
Fraser nodded. “Aye…”
“What if… I wanted to be more than that?” Fuck, there it went, right out into the open air.
Grey wanted to kiss the broody confusion right off Jamie’s face. “Jamie… You’re the last person I think about before I fall asleep. I hope Jamie’s okay. And you’re the first person I think of when I wake up. I hope Jamie made it through the night too. And honestly, I’m sick of praying to a god I don’t believe in, and I’m tired of being scared you won’t answer the phone when I call you. Not because I think you wouldn’t want to talk to me, but what if something happened and I wasn’t there? You’re the one person who knows all my dirty little secrets and every wretched thing I’ve ever done, and you have never judged me for it. I just… Jamie, I can’t stand being alone anymore when you’re right here.”
If Fraser frowned any harder, his face would turn inside out. “But… I’m a contemptible prick, ye said it yerself.”
“No, you were a contemptible prick. But you’ve changed. You’re not the spoilt, selfish addict anymore. You’re fighting for your goddamn life every fucking day, even when a lesser man would have given up.” Grey’s eyes burnt, and he forced back his tears. He hated that he still felt so fragile, but the more he talked, the more he realized just how safe he felt with Jamie. “And yet, you still found it in you to fight for mine too.”
“Ye’d have done the same for me.”
“Yes! Exactly!” Grey didn’t really mean to shout, but he let it ride. “Because I love you, you idiot. Now, if you don’t feel the same way, I’ll respect it, work through my own shit, and never say another thing about it. And we’ll stay friends, if we can.” He took a risk and grabbed Jamie’s hand, gripping him tight. “But you’re the only reason I’m still on this miserable planet, and goddamn it all, I just want to be with you.”
Jamie stared down at their joined hands, blinking. “John… I’m no’ an easy man to love. It’s a dirty, rotten job.”
Grey stepped closer, touched Jamie’s face with his other hand, his palm rasping over coppery stubble. “Yeah, well, someone ought to do it.”
A grin spread across Jamie’s face, then he laughed. “That was the cheesiest fucking thing ye could have said just now.”
John laughed too. “So what? I don’t care if I sound like a complete fool. You’re easier to love than you think. I actually kinda tried not to, and look where that got me.”
Fraser yanked Grey in close against him and kissed the hell out of him, and it was pure adrenaline. Light and fire, something worthwhile to cling to when everything went to shit again. Kissing Jamie like this, hungry and passionate, it was a lifeline. Even if it never happened again, Grey could get by on this. Sure, maybe it wasn’t a miracle cure for all the crap that could go wrong, that had gone wrong…
But it was hope.
Because if Grey could enjoy this, could let this good thing happen to him, maybe other good things could happen too.
They broke off at last, breathless and clinging to each other. “Damn,” Jamie gasped. “This is love, isn’t it? I dinnae think I’ve ever loved anyone like this before.”
Grey clenched a fist in the back of Jamie’s hair and dragged him down for another kiss. “Can sex be more than just another way to feel good for you?”
“Let’s find out, aye?” Fraser bent and scooped Grey up under his ass, lifting him off the floor.
Startled, John kicked off his shoes, wrapped his arms and legs around Jamie, locked his ankles and laughed. “I don’t think it ever occurred to me until just this moment how ridiculous it was that I was supposed to protect you.”
“Angus always did say ye looked like a corgi guarding an Irish wolfhound.” Fraser laid him down on the bed, not exactly gently, but not for lack of trying, and climbed on top of him. His lips were warm and tender, sweet and everything Grey could have wanted from him.
Jamie sat up and started to pull off his shirt, but John stopped him. “Can I? Let’s not rush.”
Nodding, Fraser dropped the hem of his shirt, watching him.
Grey’s heart tripped and stumbled in the best possible way. There was no hurry. For once, no demons to drive away nor syringe to race to. John skimmed his fingertips from Jamie’s knees, up his thighs to his hips, under his t-shirt, up his sides. Fraser raised his arms so Grey could get the shirt up, bowing so he could tug it off.
Groaning, John collapsed back on the pillow. “Sweet Jesus, I am an idiot. How many times have I seen you without a shirt, and never once did it occur to me how attractive I find you?”
Fraser shrugged. “Weel, it’s been a complicated couple of years.”
“True enough.” Grey dragged Jamie down for another kiss. While he was distracted, John planted a foot on the mattress and rolled Jamie onto his back, pinning him.
Fraser’s eyes went wide with delighted surprise. “See, that’s why ye were my body guard. Fair is fair,” he said, yanking Grey’s shirt over his head. Like a magnet, they came together again, all that skin against skin driving them both mad with want, kissing like there was no other source of oxygen but each other.
Grey pulled away, leaving Jamie lying there gasping, lips pink and swollen. Leather trousers were not practical. They looked damn good, especially on someone with an ass like Jamie’s, but getting them off while sweating in a horizontal position was an undertaking. He managed though, tossing them to the floor in triumph. When he looked back at Jamie, he almost swallowed his tongue. “Is that… Royal Stewart?”
Jamie glanced down at himself. He wore a thong, which—aside from creating a truly remarkable view of the outline of his hard cock—was a familiar red and green tartan. He grinned, looking all kinds of pleased with himself. “Aye.” He affected the most incongruously innocent expression he could have possibly mustered. “God save the Queen?”
“Never, ever say that in bed again. Ever. Wait.” Grey scooted off Jamie, freeing his legs. “Roll over, let me see.” Fraser did as he was told, and John couldn’t resist touching, giving his ass a hard squeeze. “You were right, that is magic.” Jamie wiggled his butt awkwardly, laughing. “Alright, show off,” Grey muttered, taking a firm grip on the thong and tugging it off.
Rolling over onto his back again, stiff prick leading the way, Fraser tucked his hands behind his head on the pillow. “Are ye going to give me a show?”
"I’ve never been great at a striptease,” Grey admitted, his cheeks heating.
“I really dinnae care, John. I just want to watch ye get naked and touch yourself.”
They locked eyes, and honestly, there wasn’t much Grey wouldn’t do for this man. He clambered off the bed, only taking his eyes off Jamie’s face to yank off his socks, because that was arguably the least sexy garment. His belt jangled as he worked it open, the leather slithering through his belt loops. He tried to snap it, but Indiana Jones he was not, and it clattered to the floor. Jamie wasn’t fazed though, so Grey kept going, trailing his hands down his bare torso to the button of his jeans, flicking it loose.
Grey lowered his zipper, slowly, deliberately, metal groaning over metal. Jamie watched him with a naked kind of hunger burning in his eyes, and John pushed his jeans down inch by inch. He dragged his shorts along at the same time since they weren’t nearly as entertaining as a tartan thong.
“Christ, John,” Jamie said in a reverent whisper. He gaped at Grey, then shook his head. “I’m a bigger eejit than I thought. Come here.”
Grey went, stopping halfway to take Jamie’s prick into his mouth. Fraser swore and bucked, then settled, melting into the mattress with a groan.
Oh, but he tasted good. Silky and firm between his lips, heavy on his tongue, and the noises Jamie made were music. Fraser’s hand found John’s hair, resting there, his strong fingers flexing against his scalp.
“John. Fuck, John, that’s perfect.” Grey would have been content to lie here between Jamie’s legs until he needed to swallow, but Jamie had other ideas. Coaxing John off his prick and executing a sloppy, distracted version of Grey’s earlier wrestling maneuver, Jamie got Grey onto his back again. “Is this alright?” he asked, sliding his prick against Grey’s ass.
“Yes,” John moaned. “Just go slow.”
Fraser reached into the nightstand, rummaging around until he came up with lube. “I’ve got ye.”
And he did. Jamie took care of everything, lifting John’s hips to a position that was most comfortable for both of them. Everything he did was slow. He eased inside Grey, gentle, tender.
That last time in John’s flat had been sweet enough, but not like this. This wasn’t that kind of fuck. This wasn’t a fuck at all. This wasn’t just a way to feel good.
Jamie bent low and kissed John’s mouth, filling him in two places. Three, if he counted his heart.
This… This was making love.
They hadn’t been capable of maintaining a relationship before, when they were consumed by their addictions, drowning in it. They could call themselves idiots all they wanted—and idiots they were—but they hadn’t been ready for this before, not really. What a shame it would have been to attempt this in the drug fog, only for it to burn to the ground immediately.
But there was no shame here, no mindless craving for oblivion. Just Jamie filling John, body and soul, making him feel good, making him feel loved. The world might still suck, and shit might still be hard to deal with, but they had each other.
They had each other.
Jamie wrapped his hand around Grey’s prick, though he could probably have managed just fine without it. Their panting breaths filled the large bedroom and the rest of the universe was inconsequential. The last two years could have never happened, but if they hadn’t, how would they have arrived here?
“Jamie,” Grey gasped. “Oh, God, I—” He dug his fingers into the strong muscles of Jamie’s shoulders
“Let go, John,” Fraser whispered into his ear. “I won’t let ye fall.”
But he had fallen, and fallen hard. And Jamie had caught him. They’d caught each other.
They were alive.
They were alive and fuck, it felt really good for a change.
Grey’s orgasm came on slowly, growing and building, smoldering until it burst into flames, leaving him clinging to Jamie’s back, dragging his teeth over his bare shoulder.
Fraser finished just after him, clutching Grey tight against him, blunt fingernails dragging down Grey’s back.
For a moment, all they could manage was to hold each other close, gasping for breath. Grey’s heart pounded in his ears. “Wow,” he said.
Jamie nodded, breathless. “Aye. Wow.”
Grey laid one hand on Jamie’s cheek, drawing him down for a kiss, lazy and deep. He could kiss this man forever and never tire of it. Thank you, he thought, to no one in particular. Thank you for Jamie Fraser.
The mundane need for actual oxygen broke off the kiss. “I love you.” They said it at the same time and laughed, Jamie bending so that his forehead rested on Grey’s.
“Can we promise something, John?” Fraser whispered.
“I think this will work if we can promise never to want to give up on the same day. Can we do that?”
“Yes,” Grey breathed, stroking his fingers through Jamie’s sweaty hair. “I promise never to give up on you if you’ll promise never to give up on me.”
Jamie smiled, then nodded. “Aye. Aye, I think that will do fine.”
Without warning, the mattress shuddered under some small weight, accompanied by a chuff. Grey startled, but Jamie didn’t, so John narrowly avoided doing anything embarrassing.
A gray cat padded across the rumpled bedspread and rammed its head into Jamie’s shoulder, purring. The cat blinked his round, gray eyes at John, pawing his arm curiously.
Fraser’s smile didn’t falter. “Feasgar math, Adso. John, meet Adso.”
Grey’s cheeks hurt from smiling so much, but he wouldn’t trade that little discomfort in for anything in the world. “You speak Gaelic to your cat?”
“Oh aye.” Jamie scratched Adso behind his ear, the cat purring loudly and leaning into his touch. “He’s just going to ignore me anyway, what’s the difference?” The cat hopped up onto Jamie’s back and settled in there, still purring like a diesel engine. “I think someone wants his supper.”
“Can I help?” Grey asked.
“There’s no’ much involved in opening a tin, but ye can keep me company.” Fraser lifted his ruddy brows in a clumsy leer. “Dinnae get dressed though?”
John laughed. “Deal.”
After rehab, Grey had resumed reading the letters from his mother. Words of hope and encouragement, support, love, all penned in his mother’s familiar hand… There were days, when Grey kept to himself, spent too much time alone with this thoughts, her letters were the only kind words to go through his mind. True enough, some of them were so kind that he couldn’t stomach it. One letter, he was ashamed to admit to himself, had been so syrupy that he’d thrown it away in a rage without finishing it.
But there was one left. When you feel like you might love again.
That one Grey had almost burned on principle, dozens of times. This time though, it made him smile, and he slid his finger under the flap of the envelope to break the glue.
My Dearest Son,
If you're reading this one, it’s probably been a long time since you said goodbye to Isobel. Maybe just a few months. Maybe years. Maybe I’m long gone from this world and your hair is turning white. It doesn’t really matter. There’s no time line for this, no benchmark date where your heart will decide that it’s healed enough to open up again. It’s never the same for anyone, living through this sort of grief.
You were both so young, my God. That only makes it harder, I think, to lose your partner so early. To stand on the shore of yesterday and see nothing but a lingering sea from here to the horizon.
But if you're reading this, I hope you see land again.
I'm going to tell you something that I wish someone had told me when your father died.
You are allowed to love again.
You are not betraying your wife—because that is still what she is—to open your heart to someone else. You've not broken any vows, you haven’t betrayed any trust. Quite the opposite, actually. If you can accept love again, then you are fulfilling your promise to her and to yourself to live. To really live.
Isobel would want you to be happy again. She would want you to find someone to love you, and, more importantly, she’d want you to fall in love again. She always was a romantic, after all.
Loving someone else does not erase the love you had for Isobel. You can still love her and love someone else. The heart makes room.
I hope your heart is making room, and you're courageous enough to let someone else in.
I am so very proud of you, John. Always remember that.
All my love,
Jamie poked his head into Grey’s bedroom, red hair a mad halo around his face. “Ready?” Frowning, he was at Grey’s side in three long strides. “Are ye alright?”
Grey nodded, sniffing and wiping his eyes with the back of one hand. “Yes, I’m alright.” He brandished the stationary in his hand. “Mother’s last letter.”
“Oh.” He sat on the bed next to John and put an arm around him. “Do ye want to talk about it?”
“No,” Grey said, a slow smile tipping up one side of his lips. “No, I’m alright. Just…” He took a deep breath and let it out again, enjoying the feeling of air filling his lungs, Jamie’s arm around him steadfast and calm. “Just bittersweet, this one.” He showed Fraser the envelope.
“Ah.” Jamie nodded.
“Does it bother you that I still love Isobel?”
Fraser shook his head. “No, John. It doesn’t bother me at all. I think it’d bother me more if ye didnae.”
“Good. Thank you.” Grey kissed him, soft and sweet. “I love you.”
That made Jamie flash a goofy grin, blue eyes bright with joy. “I love you too.”
Grey held Fraser’s hand while he called his former band mates and spilled his guts. He apologized for the shit he’d dragged them through, for the nasty things he’d said when he was high or drunk or both. Rupert and Angus agreed to meet him almost immediately. It was Claire who took some convincing.
“Jamie, I can’t carry the whole band. I’ve never had your talent for writing complete songs, you know that.” Grey held his breath so he could hear her.
“I ken that,” Fraser said. “Just meet us at the studio. I booked us the day, I promise to make it worth yer while.”
In the end, she’d agreed, if only out of morbid curiosity.
Jamie hung up the phone and blew out a long breath. “Weel. That’s that. Wi’ any luck, I’ll have the band back together in a few days.”
Grey tangled their fingers together, smiling up at him. “I’m proud of you. I can’t imagine that was easy.”
“Aye.” Fraser nodded. “But they’re my friends, my brothers and sister. I want that to mean something again.”
“It will.” Grey kissed him on the side of the mouth.
Studio day came on them fast, and Grey followed Jamie inside, twenty minutes early.
After a little dithering, Rupert and Angus embraced Jamie, happy smiles all around. Then Claire waltzed in, dressed for work but not cameras in a simple dress of electric emerald green. She didn’t hug Fraser, but she nodded at him and then at Grey.
“I appreciate ye coming out here,” Fraser said. “I’ve had a lot of time to think, and I may have come up wi’ a solution to our problem.” He held that leather journal in one hand, which had never been far from his reach since before he and John had gotten pancakes after Top Gun. He tapped it against his thigh. “Because of my own foolishness, I cannae hear melody anymore, not even in my head.” He lifted the journal, drawing everyone’s attention to it. “But lyrics I think I can still manage. Could ye three maybe… help me make it pretty?”
“But we don’t have a record deal anymore,” Claire said. She wasn’t blaming Fraser for it, at least not that Grey could see.
“No labels,” Jamie said. “At least, not one of the big ones.”
“Are ye mad?” Rupert asked.
“I’ve already talked to Ned. We can do it ourselves,” Jamie replied. “Maybe even help a smaller label get off the ground in the process.”
That seemed to satisfy them, though Claire still frowned. “What about Dougal? Why isn’t he here for this?”
This was the question Grey had been waiting for. He and Jamie had talked about it before he’d called Ned Gowan. When Jamie had phoned his uncle as a courtesy to tell him what he was doing, that he wouldn’t be involved, MacKenzie flipped his lid. Swearing, threats, nasty things shouted so loudly that Grey could hear it from his place next to Jamie on the sofa, holding his hand through the abuse.
“Fuck Dougal.” Jamie managed to keep his tone even, even though Grey felt him stiffen next to him. “He kept us in a gilt cage for years. Any man whose idea of helping us is making sure we had all the drugs we could ever want, let us sign contracts pissed, isnae the kind of person I want to be around anymore. Now, I’m ready to really work. I’m no’ saying I need ye three to be totally clean if ye’re not ready for it. If ye can manage on moderation, that’s fine with me. But I cannae, and need to ken ye respect that. Dougal could not.”
Claire, Angus, and Rupert exchanged a series of significant looks that ended in a three-way nod. “Aye,” Angus answered. “Aye, we can live wi’ that.”
The tension fell out of the room, everyone breathing a little easier, especially Jamie.
“What about material?” Claire asked. “We don’t have anything worth using from the last album, if we could even get away with it.”
“Sure we do.” Jamie held up his leather journal, worn and warped from so many weeks of constant use. “I’ve been writing. There’s lyrics, rhythms.”
Excitement lit Claire’s pretty eyes, lined with a generous wing of black kohl. “Can I see?”
Jamie handed her the journal. “The paper clips are what ye want.”
Flipping through the book, the grouped pages thumped in her hand. “Jamie, there’s at least a dozen.” She landed on a page and read it silently, tapping her fingers against her leg to the beat. “This… This is good. This is really good.” She gaped at Fraser. “This is the best love song you’ve ever written.”
Fraser waved off the compliment, shrugging. “Nay, it’s no’ a love song. It’s just about getting by.”
Beauchamp’s sharp eyes went from Jamie, to the page, to Grey, and she smirked. “Whatever you say.”
“I thought we could try writing it in layers, ken,” Jamie explained. “Build the bass and melody on top of the rhythm. I dinnae ken if it’ll work, but it’s worth a try.”
Claire nodded, passing the journal off to Rupert and Angus. “I think it might. If the others have bones as good as that one, we might be onto something.”
Jamie clasped his hands in front of his mouth, concealing a grin. Watching the four of them get to work—really work—was magic. It was like seeing a whole new band, fresh and excited and bursting with creativity. Rupert picked up an unplugged guitar and began toying with chords and riffs. Grey watched Jamie’s face, looking for trouble. He was still smiling. Jamie hadn’t smiled in the studio like that in over a year. It was contagious, and John settled back into the corner of the love seat, basking in the sunshine.
Murtagh burst through the door, a navy blue beret perched over his long hair, braided down his back. “Alright, alright, who the fuck gave ye leave to have a good time in my studio?” he demanded.
The room froze, all eyes on him.
A grin spread across the old beatnik’s face, and he laughed, white teeth nestled above a dark soul patch. “It’s damn good to see it, too.” Like flipping a light switch, he affected a dour expression again and propped his hands on the waistband of his bell bottoms. “Weel, are ye going to hang around in here talkin’ about music, or are ye going to record some?”
The Bleeding Roses shot into motion, gathering their notes and equipment. Jamie bent to kiss Grey on the lips on his way out of the office.
Claire saw, ducking her head to hide a warm smile. After Jamie left the room, she patted Grey’s shoulder fondly. “He is head over heels in love with you. I’m glad he figured it out.” With a smirk and a wink of her dark lashes, she followed her band mates to the studio.
This was going to be so damn good.
“You’re doing alright? Staying sober?”
“Yes, Mama, I am. On both accounts.” Adso jumped into Grey’s lap without so much as a chuff of warning. John let him take his time settling in and waited till he was purring happily to risk petting him.
“Is it getting any easier?” She always asked this, her tone encouraging, hopeful, but not demanding anything but honesty. Benedicta was always satisfied with honesty.
“Right now, yes, actually.” He shrugged. “Most days at least.” Adso lifted his face for Grey to scratch under his chin.
“I’m so glad to hear that. You have really impressed me these past few months. And you still have people there supporting you?”
“Yes. I actually wanted to tell you about that, but you give me your news first.”
“Well. I had the most confusing conversation with Tom Byrd yesterday,” his mother began.
“Oh?” Grey grinned, quite pleased with himself. He knew precisely what Tom had told her, specifically curated to drive his mother mad with curiosity.
“He said you changed your flight? And you’re not coming alone? I pressed him as hard as I could. John, I was this close to threatening his favorite tie, you know how he is about his wardrobe.”
Grey covered his mouth to stifle his laughter. Poor Tom. He owed him big time for this.
“But he wouldn’t tell me a thing! He kept muttering something about agent-client confidentiality. That is not a thing, John!”
He couldn’t hold it back anymore, he threw his head back and laughed so hard the cat grumbled at him and bolted. “Sorry, Adso,” Grey muttered.
“What are you plotting, John William Grey?”
“Alright, alright, Mother, I’ll tell you.” It took a deep breath to compose himself. “I moved my flight up so we can be there for Christmas. We’ll be with you for two weeks, and then we’re going up to Scotland for two weeks.”
“Who is ‘we?’” she exclaimed. “And I thought you couldn’t get off work for Christmas.”
“I quit,” Grey repeated. “I went back to the music industry. I had to forfeit my armed guard license, but that wasn’t much issue.”
“Alright… Now who the hell is ‘we?’” Benedicta demanded.
“Jamie Fraser. He’s going to visit his sister and her family the second two weeks, they live outside Inverness.”
There was a long pause on the line. “John—”
“I’ll tell you what, is Olivia there?”
“Yes, she’s here.” His mother smelled a rat.
“Can you have her pick up another phone, please? You should both hear this together.”
“One second.” The line crackled as Benedicta covered the receiver with her palm, muffling the sound of her calling for his cousin Olivia.
Another rattle on the line as another phone was picked up. “John?” Olivia said. “Is everything alright? Aunt Bennie is about to go into orbit.”
“Hello, Olivia. Yes, everything is fine. Are you sitting down?”
“Mostly. Oh God, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” Grey insisted. “But I’m going to tell you something, and you must swear not to tell another soul. Can you promise?”
“Yes…” Olivia’s nervousness drew out the word into something long and wary.
“Good. Pretty soon, you’re going to see announcements for a Bleeding Roses European tour. Do not, under any circumstances, purchase tickets to that concert.”
“What? I thought they broke up,” Olivia said. “Is it a scam or something?”
Adso jumped up onto the back of the chair and pawed at Grey’s shoulder until he scratched behind his ear, making him purr again. “No, they’re back together, but it isn’t public yet.”
“Oh my God,” Olivia gasped. “And why can’t I get tickets then?”
“Because.” Grinning, Grey took a deep breath. He’d never explicitly come out to his family before, but he suspected it wasn’t going to be a surprise. “My boyfriend is going to give you backstage passes.”
The excited screech that blared through the phone probably hit frequencies only audible to dogs and certain species of fish. Grey had to yank the handset away from his ear to keep from losing his eardrum.
“Get out!” Olivia shouted. “I have to know, who is he?”
“Get out! Holy shit, John, are you serious?”
“Fraser?” Benedicta said, rather less enthused than his cousin. “Is that wise, dear? Given your, um… history?”
Grey laughed. “I don’t know. I hope so. We’ve been good for each other so far.”
“No, Aunt Bennie, you don’t understand. This is Jamie.” Olivia must have grabbed one of her records and showed his mother Jamie’s picture on the cover. “Isn’t he gorgeous?”
“Oh. Oh, my word,” Benedicta said, stunned and impressed, and Grey laughed. “I don’t think I realized that’s who he was. Good heavens, he is tall, isn’t he?”
Grey’s face hurt from smiling and laughing. It felt good. Really, really good. “You don’t mind if he comes along for Christmas, do you?”
“Jesus Christ,” Olivia gasped. “My cousin is dating Jamie Fraser. Jesus fucking Christ.”
“Language, Olivia,” his mother said. “Of course I don’t mind, dear. I cannot wait to meet him. You know we have plenty of room. I’ll make sure Hal is on his best behavior.”
Grey blew out a breath, relief leaving him giddy. Hal might be less nonchalant, but his mother and Olivia weren’t at all fazed to learn he was dating a man. “Thanks. Oh, that reminds me, I need to give you my new phone number and address.” Maybe Jamie would be willing to stage a chance opportunity for Hal to see them making out.
“Good gracious, you moved too?” Benedicta asked. “To where?”
“Van Nuys. I canceled my lease and moved in with Jamie. I’ve still some things to go through and pack up, but I’m here full-time now.” He recited the address and phone number, making sure she noted the change in area code.
“Well.” His mother sighed, a steadying breath, not reproach or disappointment. “There’s no such thing as a schedule for these things, is there? Everyone has to move at their own pace.”
“I suppose you’re right. I’m sure you’re ready for your supper, I’ll let you go. I love you, Mama, Olivia.”
“I love you too, my dear boy,” his mother said.
“Love you too, John. Jamie Fraser, I cannot believe.”
Chapter 30: Epilogue
Adso had apparently decided that directly atop Grey’s journal was the best seat in the house. “Are you absolutely serious?” Grey muttered. He poked the gray cat’s soft belly, but he just purred more, refusing to budge. He ran his fingers through Adso’s silky fur. “I was working on that, jerkface.”
“Did ye just call the cat ‘jerkface?’” Jamie asked from the kitchen.
“Not sure what else you’d call him under the circumstances. Could you open a tin or something? This is almost finished.”
Jamie chuckled, then made a clicking noise with his tongue. “Here, Adso, chitty chitty.” He dropped a little bacon on the counter, tapping his fingers against the granite. “What are ye working on? Ye don’t have to tell me if ye don’t want to. You’ve been journaling a lot lately.”
Looking most inconvenienced, Adso heaved himself up and sauntered to the offering of bacon, sniffing it like a sommelier. “I suppose you could call it that. It’s a letter of sorts, to our younger selves.” Grey shrugged. “I thought it might be a good idea to have something in my own words that I could go back to when things got hard again. Stuff I wish someone would have told me before.”
Fraser nodded. “That sounds like a good idea.”
“You can read it, if you want.” It made Grey’s heart flutter and pound a little to make that offer, but only for a moment. Jamie wouldn’t judge him for any of it.
He’d get it.
“Read it to me? My hands are covered in breakfast.”
Sometimes, life fucking sucks.
You can have absolutely everything you thought you could ever want, and for reasons outside of your control, you lose all of it. Sometimes you lose yourself too, and that’s terrifying. Like being shipwrecked in the middle of the ocean, no raft, no life jacket, not even flotsam to hang onto. So you just tread water until your arms start to give out and you can’t keep your head up. Oh, and there’s sharks all around you, and you’re on the menu.
If you’re lucky, the Coast Guard comes along and scoops you out of the water, gives you dry clothes and hot soup and a ride back to shore. A lot of the time though, you have to be your own rescue team. And if no one thought to teach you to do that before you needed it, you have to figure it out on your own, all while trying not to drown or be eaten by sharks. At least if there’s someone else in the water with you, even if they’re just treading water too, you can help each other, encourage each other. If you’re fortunate, you won’t both want to give up on the same day.
So here’s what I’ve learned:
Whatever stupid reason you can come up with to keep paddling, take it.
Never mistake needing, asking for, or accepting help as a sign of weakness. It’s not. It’s the strongest and hardest thing you can do.
Getting better, healing, recovery, whatever the fuck you want to call it… It’s not a destination. It’s a journey. And the road is rarely straight, narrow, or easy. But it’s worth it.
I have lived through every worst day of my life that I have ever faced. But not once have those shitty days lived through me. Why should the next one be any different?
I’m not perfect, my life isn’t perfect, but it’s mine and I deserve to make it into something I can be proud of and enjoy. It’s not a competition. There’s no prize at the end for keeping up better appearances than everyone else. Just live your life. All of it. As much as you can.
I’m going to fuck up again some day. And again and again. I am going to make terrible mistakes and hurt people and myself, even though I don’t want to. But that doesn’t make me a failure. It makes me human.
It makes me alive. And that’s not such a terrible thing to be.
There’s pain and grief and horror and ugliness in being alive. But there’s beauty too. Love, poetry, music, happiness. Random compliments from strangers, or seeing someone you fancy laugh at a dumb joke you told. Even that feeling of reaching into a coat pocket you haven’t worn since last winter and finding an expired cough drop and a crumpled fiver.
And those things you lost? People, places, jobs… They helped make you who you are. You’re still here, and so they are too.
I’ll leave you with this last thought, something a kind man once told me: whatever you gotta do to get through the night, do it.
I love you.
Chapter 31: Resources, Warnings, Notes, & Bibliography
Support Resources for Disturbing Content
This story contains graphic depictions of drug use throughout, including a drug overdose, that may be distressing to some readers. SAMHSA offers resources online and treatment referrals with a Helpline for those in the US.
There are several graphic depictions of complicated grief, depression, and suicidal ideation which may be distressing to some readers. There are excellent resources available at the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, including a web-based chat and Lifeline for those in the US.
This story includes a brief description of an attempted/aborted sexual assault (unwanted contact without penetration). RAINN offers excellent online resources and a Hotline for those in the US.
SPOILERS for Selected Trigger Warnings
Major Character Death - Isobel dies in Chapter 12
Suicidal Ideation - John and Jamie both struggle with depression, which includes several mentions of suicidal ideation or wishing to die.
Non-Consensual Drug Use - John injects Jamie with cocaine under Dougal’s orders in Chapter 7 when Jamie is not able to consent.
Drug Overdose - In chapter 18, Jamie overdoses on heroin after asking John to help him shoot up. Jamie's heart stops and he has to be resuscitated. This scene (based on real-life events as described in the bibliography below) is rather graphic and potentially disturbing.
Graphic Depictions of Drug Use - This is present throughout the story and includes cocaine and heroin, self-administered via syringe.
Drunk Driving - Chapter 1 includes a graphic description of a car wreck that Jamie causes while driving under the influence. Isobel is killed later by a different drunk driver.
Attempted Sexual Assault - In Chapter 11, Jamie sexually harasses John, ending with Jamie pinning John to a wall and touching him over his clothes without consent. In most states even today, this would likely not meet the legal definition of an attempted sexual assault and would instead fall under the sexual harassment category. I have tagged it as attempted sexual assault due to the way the incident makes John feel.
Rough Sex - Chapter 18 includes a consensually violent sex scene involving painful anal penetration with no lube.
Notes Regarding Characterization
John Grey - John’s marriage to Isobel is not convenience or duty; they are passionately in love. He also smokes cigarettes, which is honestly not that far-fetched in my opinion, for the current setting or his character.
Isobel Dunsany (Grey) - She’s not the meek, mousy type from canon. The twentieth century suits her, let’s put it that way.
Murtagh - Murtagh and Jamie’s relationship is not as significant as canon. Here, he is not Jamie’s godfather.
Notes and Bibliography by Chapter
The jaws of life, that big machine first responders use to cut open cars to rescue people, were invented in 1961, in case you were curious.
I admit that John shooting Jamie up with cocaine here is so stupid as to be unrealistic. Based purely on a brief literature review and my own unscientific guestimate, there’s about a 97% chance that Jamie would have had an immediate stroke or heart attack and died. Also it wouldn’t work precisely as depicted. That isn’t the point though. The point is that 3%, and doing awful things you don’t want to do.
“Bang on my Drum” came out in 1983 and didn’t make it past 39 on the US mainstream rock billboard.
Absolutely every detail about Memphis in this chapter is just shameless self-indulgence. Plus, I’d be remiss if I did not include the birthplace of rock n roll in a fic like this. That city has a distinct personality and a long memory.
At the time Grey visits Memphis, the downtown area was undergoing a truly massive rejuvenation project to build up the entertainment district. It resulted in the creation of new parks, improved roads (which I can tell you from extensive personal experience, did not stand the test of time), and gave Beale Street (think of it as Memphis’ version of Bourbon Street) a face lift. I’ve lost the citation on this one, you’ll have to take my word for it. Sorry.
Grey’s driver Abraham is an OC. He’s named for Abraham Joseph Schwab, who established the A. Schwab Dry Goods store on Beale Street in 1876. It’s the only original business on Beale Street today. I’ve got a lot of fond memories of that place. Self-indulgent detail? You betcha. But a dizzying array of ten-cent candy makes an impact on a 90s kid without an allowance.
Graceland opened to the public in 1982, mostly to cover the insane taxes on the property after Elvis’s death. Every music lover should see it at least one time, it’s incredible.
This is the jungle room:
And these are the stained glass peacocks:
The Mid-South Coliseum was the first racially integrated establishment in Memphis (this is a really big deal in this town). Opened in 1963 and closed in 2006, it was THE local concert venue in the 1980s, hosting bands like KISS, AC/DC, Motley Crue, Elvis Presley, Celine Dion, and Bruce Springsteen.
Rupert and Angus as the “Terror Twins” is one of many nods to Motley Crue. Nikki Sixx (bass) and Tommy Lee (drums) were notorious for getting absolutely fucked up on “zombie dust”—a mixture of cocaine and crushed Halcion (a fast-acting, short-lived sedative)—and wreaking havoc on whatever city they were in. This earned them the nickname “Terror Twins.” Source: The Dirt, first published in 2001.
Computers first began to enter health care in the late 1970s, but they were primarily used for billing and other administrative functions. File space was very limited, so a large hospital would have used paper for most records.
MTV wasn’t really available in Europe at the time this story takes place. Benedicta gets her TV from a few years in the future.
Astroglide was accidentally invented by a NASA scientist looking for a cooling gel to help the space shuttle reenter the atmosphere. This isn’t how physics works, but can you imagine a lubed-up shuttle hitting the atmosphere and slipping off? “Is it in yet?”
Daniel Wray (that NASA scientist) licensed the formula to a north Hollywood company for manufacture and sale in 1982. One last fun fact: Astroglide has a blog. The things I google for authenticity.
The circumstances of Jamie's overdose are heavily inspired (i.e., basically ripped off from - but with love and respect) by real events. In December 1987, Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue died of a heroin overdose. Thanks to an incredibly stubborn paramedic, he got better. He lived to (eventually, and with great difficulty) sober up, and has talked and written extensively about his experiences over the years, with the hope of helping and inspiring other people. The Dirt and The Heroin Diaries are excellent places to read more about him (reader discretion advised there too).
This article from the American Heart Association about the history of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is interesting. Yes, that was a research hole I tripped and fell into.
The term “moshpit” originated in the late 1970s/early 80s in the heavy metal scenes in California and Washington, DC. My vision of the Bleeding Roses’ stage presence and sound (as well as a lot of elements in this story) was inspired by the real-life band Motley Crue; just a little more metal, a little less glam. I’ve personally been on the outskirts of a moshpit before, and that was close enough to broken bones for me. Olivia really did luck out when the London show got canceled.
Methadone clinics had a rough start getting funding and authority to operate, but they’ve been on the front lines helping people with opiate addiction for decades. Here’s an interesting LA Times article from 1986 about them, to give you an idea of the early days of the programs.
Grauman’s Chinese Theater, today known as TCL Chinese Theater, is an historic cinema along the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I included it as a nod to my first fandom (Star Wars), which primiered there in 1977, and I assume Top Gun played there at some point.
Traditionally, the Royal Stewart tartan is only worn with the express permission of the Queen. This isn’t really the practice now, so don’t worry, you don’t have to stop wearing your favorite scarf.
John mentions forfeiting his armed guard license. I had a difficult time finding information about licensing requirements in the 1980s in California, so I admit this is an educated guess. If he didn’t lose his license because he went to rehab, he wouldn’t have been able to renew it after more than a year of not taking the required continuing education courses.
In 1984, the area codes for Los Angeles split into two. John’s apartment would have been in the old area code 213, and Jamie’s house would have fallen in the newly created 818 area code. Is this relevant or meaningful? No. But if I have to know this, so do you. I repeat: the things I google for authenticity.
One More Thing
There are a lot of shenanigans in Part Two in particular that I admit to more or less ripping off from The Dirt, and the Bleeding Roses’ antics and style of music are heavily inspired by Motley Crue. If you’ve not read or seen (Netflix) The Dirt, I highly recommend it (though you may want to take a spin through Does the Dog Die before you do… it’s gnarly. A lot of the portrayal of heroin addiction in this story was also heavily inspired by The Heroin Diaries, an excellent, visceral read. I adopted these elements in the spirit of love and appreciation, and because truth is stranger than fiction. In short, anything I could have come up with would have paled in comparison to these real life rock stars.
Besides, at the end of the day, this story isn’t really about addiction, complicated grief, depression, or how fucked up and toxic the music industry can be. It’s not even really about recovery or falling off the wagon. Those are just metaphors, a recognizable vehicle for the awful shit that sometimes happens for a good reason or none at all. It’s about flexibility and resilience, about coming to grips with your own fragile mortality. It’s not about staying alive because other people would hurt if something happened to you, because guilt is a terrible reason to keep on living in the long run. It’s about soldiering on because you must, because you deserve to. It’s about living through the worst day of your life, even when everyday feels like the worst day of your life. Be it through strength, will, a lot of help, or stubbornness.
Sometimes, hard things—addiction, depression—happen so slowly you don’t even noticed they’ve sucked you up until it’s too late, like slowly boiling a frog. And sometimes it feels like some cosmic bastard swings a sledgehammer right on top of you and smashes you to smithereens all at once. However it happens, the only thing there is to do, is find any stupid little thing to get you through the night and cling to it. And then the next night, and the next, and the one after that. You take it one day at a time until you can manage two, then three.
This is a story about the winding, arduous, shitty road of survival. That bitch doubles back on itself sometimes. John’s going to fall off the wagon again someday. Jamie’s going to have one too many hard days in a row and think one beer won’t hurt. Or one more. Or one more. John and Isobel’s wedding anniversary is going to roll around one year and he’s going to eat a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and get stuck in bed for two weeks. One day, John’s going to start crying for absolutely no reason at all and he won’t be able to stop.
But they’ll do the hard work and get back on the wagon again. Jamie will make John a PB&J and get him to talk about how it took Isobel a whole year of living in LA to remember she wasn’t getting fries when she ordered chips, or how she never had freckles on her nose before they left England. John will get Jamie to teach him to play the drums, even though he’ll suck at it, just to get Jamie’s mind off the parts of the music he lost.
Above all, this is not a love song. It’s just about getting by
That’s it, we made it. Thank you for letting me take you on this ride, you beautiful human you. You can find me on Tumblr if you want.