Mitch heard the rumors around the Baywatch HQ before he saw the headlines. The news hit the local media quickly -- cases with kids usually did -- but his lifeguards were always a step ahead. That said, the rumors made it sound like a story of abject betrayal and personal insult. Brody had literally ran off his beach to show Ronnie up and steal his rescue.
The story, however, was a feel good fluff piece about how a reformed Olympian was still making a difference in the world, one person at a time.
The worst of it was that both stories were true. Asshole Brody and Hero Brody.
One was the cause of the other, naturally.
It was just that people were building a narrative that had them in reverse. They thought that Brody was an asshole in order to be a hero. They couldn’t know that Brody was being a hero by being an asshole.
And Mitch couldn’t tell them.
All he could do was look grave when he called Brody into his office over lunch.
The look at least was genuine.
Even if everyone would make the wrong assumption about why.
To punctuate the matter, Mitch closed the door behind Brody and waited for him to sit down. When he sat down across from Brody, the displeasure was real enough.
“You left your post this morning,” he started, studying Brody carefully. “And you certainly made yourself available to the press.”
Brody didn’t slump in his seat, but he clearly wanted to. “It was a shitty thing to do, I know,” he said. “I mean, Ronnie had it. Okay? He had it.”
“The press loved it,” Mitch said. “Your teammates not so much.”
Brody say forward, a little eagerly now. “That’s the point, right? I know Anikka reads the headlines.”
“She’s a little less formal than her sister,” Brody said.
“First names already?” Mitch asked, a skeptical frown on his face. Mitch didn’t like to be one that held a grudge, and Leeds was good and dead, but just hearing Brody referring to her sister on a first name basis made his skin crawl. And his neck itch. Part of him wanted to carry around a Roman candle just for protection.
Brody groaned, sitting back with a small flounce. “That’s the point, isn’t it? The press is good. Better than good. And if she is smart at all, she’ll start listening for the rumors around the beach, too. The fact that I played it not cool today? Got to be good, right?”
It was exactly what Mitch had told him to do. Almost down to the letter. So there was no reason, then, that it should have caught him remotely by surprised.
Yet, Mitch sat there, behind his desk, staring at Brody’s earnest face, feeling completely surprised.
He knew -- he really did -- that Brody knew what he was doing. He knew that Brody was teachable, he could learn, and he could be mentored. And when he put his mind to something, there was nothing stopping him.
But how had they come to put his mind to this?
Brody had learned the most important lesson.
And now Mitch had to deal with the implication of that lesson.
He swallowed, reminding himself of the endgame. “Yeah,” he said. “I’m just surprised by how fast you’re going about it.”
“Me, too,” Brody said, his voice gaining energy from Mitch’s agreement. He always did best when working with someone else. “I mean, I guess all those years of being an asshole have finally paid off. Now instead of fighting my instincts to be a dick, I just have to embrace them.”
This was unsettling in its insight. That Brody had such strong impulses to be a jerk was probably understandable, given what he’d learned about Brody a few nights prior. This was a foster kid, one who had bounced around the system and spent his whole life longing for family. Brody was so emotionally needy that he’d believed some random woman claiming to be his birth mother at the slightest hint of being a family. And he’d wanted it badly enough that the inevitable rejection had nearly destroyed him.
That much, Mitch could have figured out.
But thinking about the fact that Brody’s self defense mechanism were so well ingrained that the notion of being an asshole were second nature to him? Moreso, that Brody had actively made the choice not to indulge those self defense mechanisms? Was it possible that Brody had these notions every day of his life? And every day, he made the conscious choice to be a better person because he valued Baywatch that much?
For Mitch, being a good person wasn’t always easy, but it was also his first instinct.
For Brody, being good was some lofty goal.
A goal he’d been achieving for months now.
A goal he was sabotaging. The good of the team over his own self preservation. There would be some who would classify Brody taking the plea deal as selfish, but Mitch knew better.
That was about he only thing he knew right about then.
“I’m just a little worried, is all,” Mitch ventured finally.
Brody took this seriously, brow furrowing. “You don’t think Anikka will buy it?”
“Anikka will,” he said, finding too much emphasis for the name. “But so will your friends. You do this much longer, and they’re not going to be your friends anymore.”
The warning was dire, but not unnecessarily so. Brody had worked hard to build a place for himself here. It hurt -- it physically hurt -- to watch him burn it to the ground.
“But it’s just two weeks,” Brody said, as if somehow that still meant something.
“Two weeks can be a lifetime, man,” Mitch reminded him. “Our investigation into Leeds took that long, and look how that changed things for you. For us.”
They’d gone from hating each other to being inseparable partners. It had been a hard, roundabout journey with plenty of bumps along the way, but it had worked.
These two weeks could be just as telling.
And not nearly as positive.
Brody sat back, appropriately subdued. “But if we don’t do it,” he said. “It puts the team at risk. I’d do anything for the team, you know that.”
“Even give up your place on it?” Mitch asked pointedly.
Brody, damn it, didn’t even blink. Didn’t even flinch. “If I have to, yes.”
Why was Brody so okay with that?
How was Brody so calm about it?
When Mitch was not okay and when Mitch was not calm at all.
While he should have been glad that Brody was showing signs of growth and maturity, Mitch was finding it hard to be glad about anything right about now. If he ever met Brody’s birth mother, she would have a lot to account for. Mitch had handled Brody’s inability to form connections with relative aplomb. But her desire to cash in on her son’s success had set them on this path. She’d only wanted cash, but Brody had ended up sacrificing a lot more than that to the cause.
Drawing a breath, Mitch let it out again. Terse, he pressed his lips together and pulled out the recorder from his pocket, discreetly handed it across the desk with a stack of papers. “The paperwork is for your save this morning,” he said. “You left your post; you have to account for it.”
Brody didn’t even whine about it. Normally Brody hated paperwork.
That was good, probably. But it made Mitch want to whine instead.
“You know what to do with the other,” he said. “Ellerbee was pleased with your progress this morning.”
Brody collected both, pocketing the recorder while pretending to be invested in the paperwork. “I’m not saying I like any of this, okay?” Brody said, and he looked at Mitch seriously. “I don’t like the guy I have to be right now. I really don’t. But if that guy can save the people I care about, the place I care about -- then it’s got to be worth it.”
“I know you think that,” Mitch said.
“That’s the choice, though,” Brody told him, a little more intent now. “You told me to make a choice.”
“You’re taking me awfully literally for once,” Mitch replied, trying not to sulk. But he was totally sulky.
“Just learning from the best,” Brody said. He shrugged, allowing himself the smallest of grins. “You can’t fight the tide or a shark only swims fast when it’s closing in on a kill.”
“Shit,” Mitch said, making a face. “You really do listen to me, don’t you?”
Brody grabbed the papers and got to his feet. “All the time, man,” he said. “All the time.”
This was supposed to be reassuring. But as Brody left, closing the door behind him and stalking off with purpose through HQ, Mitch didn’t exactly feel better about things. For the first time, he was starting to question whether or not he was part of the problem. Brody had thought he was full of shit when he first arrived, but then he’d come around. Hearing his own words, his own mindset, so thoroughly parroted back to him, Mitch had to wonder if Brody had been right about some of it.
He sighed, getting back to his own paperwork before his afternoon shift at tower one.
He wasn’t sure he wanted to find out the answer to that question the hard way.
There was no time for questions, at least. No time for answers. It was a busy day on the beach, and Mitch kept himself preoccupied at tower one, doing his best not to keep watching tower two instead of his own beach.
By the late afternoon, the beach was still packed, and he was surprised to see CJ wander up his tower ramp.
She smiled at him, but she didn’t look pleased.
That was saying something.
CJ was almost perpetually pleased. She was sweet, good natured, even keeled, generous, giving.
And fiercely loyal.
“We need to talk,” she said, coming up to stand next to Mitch, joining him as he scanned the beach, without invitation.
“Okay,” Mitch said. His job as lieutenant was varied, and it included a lot of technicalities. This part of the job was the one he’d taken more seriously than the rest: he was there for his people, no matter what. “What’s up?”
CJ took a breath and let it out with a huff. She was frowning. “This morning, the save past tower three.”
“I know about it,” Mitch said. “Pulled a kid from the water. It was a success.”
She nodded, but she didn’t look particularly pleased. “Brody took the save,” she said.
“We’re a team here,” Mitch replied, seeing where this was giong. “We don’t quibble over who gets the win. We save someone, and everyone wins.”
“And you know I believe that,” she said. “You know I live by that.”
“So?” Mitch prompted. “Why are you here?”
“This team is also about trust,” she said. “Brody wasn’t the lifeguard on duty; someone was already in pursuit.”
Mitch shook his head. “It was a save, Summer,” he said. “I’ve already talked to Brody about keeping to his post--”
“But did you talk to him about being kind?” she asked, and now she was looking at Mitch. “Did you hear what he said to Ronnie?”
Mitch had heard a lot of rumors, but he hadn’t actually taken the time to get a full account from Brody about the details of what happened. He hadn’t deemed it relevant, especially when he knew there were more pressing matters at hand. Like keeping Brody alive and safe.
The rest of the team clearly didn’t have that perspective.
CJ was trying her best not to seethe. “He was mean, Mitch,” he said. “And Ronnie won’t complain because Ronnie’s too nice to complain, but that’s exactly why Ronnie doesn’t deserve that, especially not from Brody.”
“We don’t tolerate any of that shit to anyone at Baywatch,” Mitch said.
“Then what are you going to do about it?” CJ demanded.
He turned from the beach, just long to look her in the eye. “I’ve already done it,” he said. “I’ve talked to him.”
CJ shrugged, expectantly. “And?”
“And,” Mitch said, not sure what came next. A false promise would be easy to make, but he wasn’t sure it’d do any good. Not when he knew Brody was going to make this worse. This was going to get worse -- a lot worse -- before it ever had the chance to get better. “And Brody’s still a work in progress. I think we all need to recognize it.”
CJ looked a little like Mitch had hit her. “I know you’re especially committed to Brody, but you can’t favor, Mitch,” she said. “Not when the rest of your team is already performing at the level you expect. He needs to be held accountable.”
“He is,” Mitch said, and that much at least was true. This whole shitty situation was about Brody being accountable. It was just not in a way that anyone else could possibly understand at the moment. “Trust me. He’s being held accountable.”
“But how?” CJ asked, and she was being more forward than she normally would be. She had her blind spots, too. She had her favorites, more than ever.
Mitch could call her on that, but he saw now need. “CJ,” he said. “I respect your concerns. I understand them. But you’re going to have to trust that this is my call. You don’t need to know the details of what I do with another lifeguard. That’s not your place.”
Her face darkened, and her jaw clenched. That said, she nodded her assent. “I know. Because I know what the team is,” she said. “I just hope that Brody’s hasn’t forgotten.”
As she made her way back down the ramp, Mitch waited to sigh until she was well out of earshot.
Brody hadn’t forgotten, and that was going to be the rub in the coming two weeks.
Brody knew exactly what the team was about.
Which was why he was going to be able to destroy it so perfectly and so completely.
Not for his own gain.
But for theirs.
Shit, Mitch thought, getting back to watching the beach. He hated this case a lot. Just shit.
Brody had been late, flippant, and generally evasive all day. His hope had been mostly to piss everyone off. He had also hoped that by showing up late after his shift that HQ would be relatively empty and that Summer would assume he had blown her off. He’d been ignoring her texts and calls in that hope. With everyone else, he’d been able to play the jerk. He didn’t know if he could do it to Summer. At least not face to face.
Part of him had hoped, naively, that he might get through the next two weeks by simply not seeing her.
But there she was. Waiting for him.
She looked pissed.
It was worse when she genuinely tried to smile.
“Something wrong with your phone?” She asked. “I’ve been trying to get in contact with you all day.”
He wanted to apologize. She deserved an apology.
Mustering up a smile made him want to hurl a little. “Yeah, sorry,” he said. “Just st got busy.”
It was a really poor excuse. In fact, you could hardly call it that, it did so little to address her valid concerns. Shit, he hated this. He hated that look in her face, that doubt in his eyes.
Gritting his teeth, Brody steeled himself. Two weeks. Two weeks of be8ng the worst possible version of himself in order to be the best.
“So,” he said, ignoring the fact that Summer was clearly dressed for their date. “Something up? You have plans tonight?”
He thought idly how awesome it would be if she said yes.
Her expression went dark. “Yeah,” she said, barely keeping her anger subdued. “You said we were going out.”
He feigned stupidity. All things considered, it should have been as hard as it was. “Oh,” he said. “Right.”
She looked ready to walk. Or to punch him in the face. He deserved both. “Brody, what the hell,” she said. “You already blew me off once.”
Brody rolled his eyes, acting like she was the one being unreasonable. “You don’t have to go all bitchy on me,” he said. “I can take you to dinner, geez.”
It was the worst invitation on a date ever. And Brody had made shitty propositions before.
It nearly broke him when she drew in her anger, regarded him darkly and finally modded. “Fine,” she said. “Did you have some place in mind?”
“Yeah,” Brody said, giving her a cocky smile as he slid an arm around her waist to lead her to the door. “I had something different in mind.”
He nearly talked himself out of their final destination a half dozen times before arriving at the Huntley. Brody passed several other bars and restaurants, all of which he knew a Summer would like. He even thought that he might be able to pull off a quiet dinner alone with Summer before calling it an early night with her before heading over for duty at the Huntley.
That might salvage his relationship with Summer.
And sink his chances to end this case quickly.
Still, taking Summer to the Huntley.
It was either the worst decision or the best decision. Time would tell. Two weeks would give him the final answer.
Tonight, however, Summer’s expression made it clear which one she thought it was.
“You want to go here?” she asked, stopping dead in her tracks just outside. “Here?”
No doubt she remembered their last visit. When Brody had been honest and vulnerable before blowing off his duties, getting drunk, and vomiting in the pool. None of these were happy memories.
So he acted overly flippant to compensate. “Yeah, sure,” he said, like it was totally normal to go back to the bar owned by the maniac who had tried to kill him. Twice. “It’s got new management.”
Summer looked incredulous. “Brody,” she said, looking him over critically. Maybe to see if he were joking. Or if he’d had some kind of psychotic break. “Really?”
Brody shrugged, as diffident as possible. “I don’t know,” he said. “A good party is a good party.”
“But I thought you wanted to talk,” she said.
He rolled his eyes. “We will, Summer,” he said, unnecessarily exasperated. “But we can have a little fun, too.”
Before she could argue, he took her by the hand, dragging her forward.
“Come on,” he said. “You’ll see.”
Within thirty minutes, Summer did see.
She saw the she was dating a total asshole.
Now, Brody had thought that possibly, maybe he might be able to steal a quiet dinner first, spending some time talking to Summer privately before he had to get to work, so to speak. When he entered the club, however, Anikka was already there.
And not just casually there.
She was there there.
Her two bodyguards flanked her, but surrounding them was an whole entourage of people. There were already drinks being handed around, and Anikka commanded the attention of them all while she talked. By the looks of things, she’d been at this for awhile, clearly savoring being the life of the party.
The instant Brody crossed the threshold, her eyes locked on him, and not by chance, either. He knew, from the intensity of her dark eyes and the seductive slant of her smile, that she’d been waiting for him.
“Whoa,” Summer whispered next to them. “Is that -- she looks like--”
“Yeah,” Brody said, and he could feel Summer’s hand close around his arm, instinctively pulling him back out of the club.
He resisted her, though. He kept his feet planted, inclining his head knowingly toward Anikka.
“Come on,” he said, tugging Summer a step forward instead. “Let’s go get a table.”
Anikka watched him as he entered, and her eyes swept coldly over Summer by his side. When she looked at Brody again, her smile had turned sinister somehow.
Brody swallowed back his fear, and he knew that he’d just made a terrible mistake in bringing Summer here. There was no room for quiet romantic conversations. All he’d done was present Anikka with a new challenge.
And by the look on her face as she ordered a round for the gaggle around her, Brody knew that he one move left to keep Summer safe.
Much to Summer’s dismay, it did not involve leaving now. “That’s just creepy,” she muttered, looking over the menu without much effort. “I’d heard there was new ownership, but she’s like her sister.”
Brody made no comment, checking over the prices and knowing he couldn’t afford any of it. “Look, maybe we just get an appetizer to split,” he said. Normally they went dutch, or Brody picked a cheaper place. He’d learned how to make an impact on a small budget, and Summer had never minded his limited finances when he was open about it. “Something basic.”
She looked at him funny. This wasn’t him being open about anything. This was dick move for dating 101. “Um. Okay.”
Brody distracted tossed the menu aside and made a point to look at his phone to check the time. Summer saw him. Across the bar, so did Anikka.
He put the phone down, drumming anxiously on the table. It looked like he was bored. And it conveniently hid the fact that he was terrified.
“So,” Summer said, doing her best not to be bothered by Brody’s behavior. “You, uh, wanted to talk about something?”
“What?” he asked distractedly.
“You wanted to talk,” she said again, a bit more to the point. “You said we’d talk.”
“Oh, yeah,” he said, shrugging one shoulder indifferently. Then, he made stupider than before. “About what?”
She stared at him, like he had to be kidding. Awkwardly, she laughed. “Well, I don’t know,” she said. “Maybe about what’s been going on the last few weeks.”
He made a face. “Are you going to get on me about the whole public intoxication thing?”
She sat back, obviously hurt. “No,” she said. “But if there’s something going on you want to talk about--”
He scoffed. “I was just blowing off some steam,” he said. “The last few weeks have been, I don’t know. Hard.”
“Well, and I can help you,” she said, suddenly earnest again. “What’s been going on?”
He wanted to tell her. That look on her face, he wanted to tell her. He wanted to tell her about his birth mother and how much he’d wanted it to be true and how pathetic he felt and how sorry he was. He wanted to tell her that he understood that family was a choice now, and that he chose Baywatch.
More than that, he chose her.
Which was why he had to make her hate him now. “None of your business, really,” he said. “I just wanted to come out tonight, kick back, blow off steam.”
She laughed, tapering off awkwardly. “But...isn’t that what got you in trouble in the first place?”
He rolled his eyes. “This is stupid,” he said. “I need a drink.”
He got up, and she called after him. “But what about dinner?”
He turned back, face screwed up with indifference. “Just order something,” he said. “Keep it cheap, though.”
“But aren’t we going to talk?” she pressed.
“I just need a drink,” he said, a little more forcefully. “I said I’ll be back.”
With that, he stalked off.
At the bar, he made a point not to look back. He didn’t look back until he’d down a drink (the only one he could permit himself, he reminded himself), and started moving to the beat. He didn’t look back until one of the girls in Anikka’s party had sidled up next to him and he didn’t shoo her away.
After the song had ended, he spared Summer a glance.
Shit, she was still there.
How many chances had earned?
While it was nice to think he’d built up this much credibility, it also made it that much harder to rip it all down.
Turning back to the bar, he ordered one more drink, and walked back to the table. He put it down in front of him, offering her none.
She looked more than a little perturbed. “This isn’t you,” she said, not waiting for him to speak. “What the hell is going on, Brody?”
“Nothing,” he said, dredging up his indignation. “You knew who I was from day one. This shouldn’t be a surprise, Summer.”
“So the thoughtful boyfriend? The responsible coworker? The good friend?” she asked. “How has that all disappeared in three weeks time?”
“I’m the same guy I’ve always been,” Brody said. He shrugged, diffident. “Maybe the past three weeks have been life as normal.”
“And the months before that were the weird thing?” she asked in disbelief.
“You said it,” he said. “Not me. Did you order something?”
“Yeah,” she said, but she sounded disdainful now. “Nachos. Because I know you like them.”
“Awesome,” he said. He winked at her salaciously. “I always knew you were more than a good lay.”
She was so shocked that he’d said it, more shocked that he wasn’t joking. She actually gaped.
“Oh, hey,” he said. “Do you hear this song? It’s got a great beat. You want to dance?”
She couldn’t find the words to respond.
He shrugged again, getting out of his seat. “Join me if you change your mind!”
She didn’t change her mind during the song, not even when a hot blonde slipped in next to Brody. She didn’t change her mind during the song after that, not even when a pair of brunettes found their way next to him alongside the blonde.
When he came back to the table, the nachos were there, uneaten. Summer was pissed. “This is bullshit,” she said.
“What?” he asked, helping himself a large bite of the food. “What do you mean?”
“You said we were going to talk,” she said.
“And we talked,” he replied. “We’re cool.”
“We’re not cool!” she hissed, voice lowering dangerously as she leaned closer to him. “I don’t even know who you are tonight, what we’re doing. I mean, here? Of all places?”
“What’s wrong with it here?” Brody asked. “It’s the nicest club on the bay.”
She wasn’t buying it, not for a second. “The last time we were here, you crashed and burned, Brody. Completely. You humiliated yourself and nearly blew all your chances at Baywatch.”
That was blunter than he’d hoped. But not as blunt as he probably deserved. Still, the hurt on his face was genuine this time around. “Gee, thanks for that reminder,” he said sullenly.
She wasn’t about to let him be the victim here. “You’re the one who came here.”
“Sure, to get wasted and forget,” he said.
“You said we came here to talk!”
“Whatever, this is more work than it’s worth,” he said. “If you’re not here to party, then you may as well just leave.”
It was mean. It was really mean.
But Brody stuck to it.
He committed, getting to his feet and marching back to the dance floor once again. He started to dance, but this time, the floor somehow cleared. The other dancers gave way, and suddenly he was face to face with Anikka.
She smiled at him, their bodies inching closer and closer together, pulsing in tandem as the beat picked up. It was unsettling how well she read him, how seamlessly she knew his moves, and he hated how easy it was to fall into step next to her. The air around them was electric.
Brody’s instincts screamed at him to get the hell out of there before it was too late.
But he had a mission. He had a case. He knew what he had to do.
He reached his hand in his pocket, turning on the recorder.
Then, he pressed himself on, dancing harder and faster, and when the song ended, he was breathless, his face mere inches from Anikka’s. Breathing heavily, he stared at her with his heart breaking.
She stared up, the smile spreading over her face with confidence. “You move better than I thought you would,” she observed.
“Thanks,” he said. “Olympic training.”
“No,” she said, grinning now. “I’m pretty sure that’s not it.”
Brody blinked, not sure what to say.
Anikka’s eyes flickered from his face toward the side of the room. “Oh,” she said, not bothering to feign surprise or regret. “Your friend is gone.”
Brody followed her gaze. The table was there, Brody’s drink and nachos untouched. Summer’s chair was empty; she’d left some cash on the table. “Girlfriend,” he said without thinking.
This answer seemed to please Anikka.
“Ah,” she said, sounding not sorry in the least. “Is this something you need to deal with?”
She was watching him, studying. His answer mattered here.
He forced himself not to look at the empty table again.
He knew she was gone.
He knew she had every reason to be gone.
And no matter how much he wanted to chase her down and explain everything, staying here, in this moment, was the only way to advance this. He had to push ahead; he had to finish this mission.
That was the only way to explain this to Summer
The only way to get back the life he wanted.
For two weeks, he had to put that aside and pick the life he’d left behind instead.
He shrugged, eyes on Anikka. “I’m sure it’s fine.”
Her smile was almost predatory again as she lifted a hand, letting it fiddle with the long tips of his bleached blonde hair. “I’m sure it’s more than fine, baby,” she said, and without his consent, she was leading him off the dance floor as the next song started up without them.
Instead of going back to the bar, she led him away from the action, flicking her fingers to the two bodyguards, who closed in around them. Brody glanced at them, feeling strangely cornered.
Anikka noticed, but offered him a disarming smile. “That’s Terence,” she said, nodding to the taller one. He had dark skin and a smooth head. Terence inclined his head at Brody. “And the smaller one is Caleb.”
Caleb smiled at him, which seemed strangely out of place for the context.
“Caleb often feels the need to overcompensate for the fact that he’s small and that Terence can kick his ass,” she said. She gave Brody a look that made him feel diminutive. “It’s not an attractive trait in smaller men.”
Brody understood her meaning. Caleb, who was notably shorter than Terence, still had an inch or two on him.
Anikka gave him an appraising look. “I don’t mind smaller packages,” she quipped, sounding bemused with herself. “But honestly, I can hardly stand the inferior complex.”
Many people had assumed Brody was a jerk because he was small. The joke was on them. Brody was a jerk because he was a screwed up orphan who’d spent his whole childhood seeking security he never got.
None of which would endear him to Anikka now. She didn’t want sob stories. She didn’t care about redemption. Anikka was about results, plain and simple. She wanted to know what benefitted her, right here and now.
Brody being on Baywatch, that was a point in his favor. It made him a potential source of information.
Brody being the black sheep of the team, definitely worked in his favor. It made him easier to manipulate to her advantage.
Brody being an attractive, over confident dick? Also a good thing. She wanted him to be forward, playful, dirty and very, very available.
“Then why do you bother with him?” Brody asked, giving Caleb an appraising look of his own. “I imagine you could find someone else to look pretty and keep people away.”
Caleb glared at him, but Anikka laughed. “Did you have someone in mind?” she asked cloyingly, running a hand down his arm. They were still at the side of the bar, but the rest of the guests had now given them wide berth. It was privacy without needing a private room. She tweaked his ass.
He didn’t jump. “I’m just a lifeguard,” he told her steadily, holding eye contact almost as a way of daring her for more.
“Yes, you are,” she said. “A Baywatch lifeguard, too. The best of the best.”
He smiled as her hand wander toward his front. “You have no idea.”
“No,” she said, pulling her hands away. “But I think I’d like to.”
Shit, this woman was way out of his league. She was also probably going to end up trying to kill him at some point. And there was a higher than fifty-fifty chance that she’d succeed.
And he had to pretend like it was the best idea ever. “Maybe,” he said. “But you know, this isn’t the only club in town.”
She bit her lip, plainly amused with him. “Maybe,” she said, in negotiation form now. “But this is the only bar where you have VIP privileges now.”
“You don’t know that,” Brody told her.
“Oh, baby,” she said, hand on his cheek. “I know a lot about you. I know that you live with your boss and that no one is happy that you’ve become a media whore. I know that you made that save this afternoon when it wasn’t in your purview. I know that you’ve been dating Summer Quinn for two months, which is the longest you’ve dated any girl. Ever. I know you can’t even afford that pathetic plate of nachos over there, much less anything to drink.”
So, she was scoping him out.
In every possible way.
“That’s a little creepy,” he said.
She withdrew her hand. “Call it interest,” she said. “And the good news is that you’ve sustained that interest. I’d like you to come back. VIP privileges mean fast track entrance, access to private rooms. Free drinks, within reason.”
“Damn,” Brody said. “Can’t pass that up.”
She smiled as if he were a plaything. “Oh, but one caveat,” she said. “No guests. If you catch my meaning.”
That meant no more girlfriends, estranged or otherwise.
“I assume that won’t be a problem?” she prompted.
He leaned closer, close enough to smell her, close enough for her to smell him. “Of course not,” he said. “I catch your meaning entirely.”
“Excellent,” she said. She snapped her fingers at Terence and Caleb. “If I’m not around, just look for one of these guys. They’ll take care of you until I’m able to entertain you properly.”
“I don’t need watching,” he said, puffing out his chest.
She clucked her tongue, actually patting him on the head. “I think I’ll decide that,” she said. “Besides, I trust Caleb and Terence with everything. All my secrets. Even you.”
“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”
“I don’t get to dictate how you feel,” she said. “But it is a fact for you to reckon with when you come back.”
He snorted. “That’s a hell of an assumption.”
“No,” she said, brushing past him, fingers almost touching his crotch. She looked back with a wink. “I really don’t think it is.”
And damn it all if Brody couldn’t argue.
She had him, and she knew it.
He just had to hope that he had her.
And that that much she didn’t know.
For the second night of the undercover operation, Mitch was determined that it would be better than the first. Better was probably the wrong term. Better would imply that Brody was making fast inroads, getting an association with Leeds and ultimately moving toward getting her to confess her part in the drug operation throughout the bay.
Mitch had no way of doing anything about that. In short, he had no way to make the case better.
But he could make his experience better.
Not by actually helping or anything.
No, Mitch knew that all he could do was keep himself thoroughly preoccupied so he didn’t worry over Brody’s prolonged and necessary absences like an anxious father.
So instead, he did something productive.
He tackled the mess of his things in the spare room.
Mentally, he corrected himself. It was no longer his spare room. No, he had forfeited that right when he invited Brody to stay indefinitely, when he had bought bedroom furniture and made Brody part of the family.
He had two weeks before the furniture arrived.
Two weeks was all Brody was going to need to take down Leeds, her revenge plot on Baywatch and ultimately disarm a massive drug operation.
In that time, surely Mitch could clear out his shit.
As it turned out, however, he had a lot of shit.
He’d lived in this house for close to 15 years, and this spare room had always been his. Mitch had never been a hoarder by any stretch of the imagination -- he preferred to keep things simple, and he wasn’t excessively likely to attach emotional significance to physical items -- but the amount of things he’d neatly accumulated was surprising to him
For starters, he had lots of camping equipment. Lots of it. He had a tent, three sleeping bags, two lanterns and various other supplies. His stash of fishing gear was equally impressive. These items would have to be moved to the garage, though he wasn’t sure where they would fit. He conceded that he would get rid of one of the lanterns, one sleeping bag and a broken cooler that he’d intended to fix. He also got rid of all his fishing line that was more than 10 years old, instead just keeping the fresh things he’d purchased in the last few years.
Then, he made a note to himself to go camping and fishing or all of this was pointless.
After moving the camping gear, he was turning his attention to the stash of Christmas decorations he had. He was saving the childhood memorabilia for last because he was already emotionally compromised. The last thing he needed was to torment himself about how he needed to visit his mother soon.
This week was hard enough as it was.
He didn’t have to go out of his way to make it harder.
On the other hand, his mother always was a good distraction.
He was just about to open a box when someone rang his doorbell.
Mitch got up, trying to remain calm. It wasn’t Brody ringing the doorbell. It also probably wasn’t Ellerbee. It probably had nothing at all to do with the case.
He opened the door and saw Summer.
He was right and wrong all at the same time.
This had nothing to do with the case.
But it also had everything to do with the case.
She’d been agitated last night. Tonight, however, she’d been crying.
“What happened to Brody?” she demanded.
Mitch’s mind scrambled, not sure what answer she wanted, not sure what answer he was at liberty to give. “What do you mean?”
“The last three weeks,” she demanded again. “The night he got arrested. What the hell happened?”
“Summer,” he said, sighing sympathetically. “I told you--”
“You told me shit, Mitch,” she snapped. “You told me to give him time and space and all that, and I have. And every inch I give him, he takes a mile and throws it back in my face.”
“What do you--”
“He took me to the Huntley,” she told him, wiping her eyes before more tears fell. “He took me there and then proceeded to ignore me the entire time, dancing with some other girl while I paid the bill.”
Mitch had to wince at that. Even if he knew why that had happened -- and even if he could guess the girl who had preoccupied Brody’s attention -- it still sounded like a dick move.
“You know he has issues,” Mitch started.
To her credit, she had no more interest in his excuses. From her perspective, it made sense. In fact, Mitch almost hated that he was defending this version of Brody at all.
At the same time, however, it broke his heart not to defend Brody, not to defend a relationship that had been so mutually beneficial until three weeks ago.
She shook her head, adamant. “I am not going to be his doormat,” she said. “He doesn’t get to blame his shitty behavior on his childhood trauma. He still knows how to be a good person. I know this because up until three weeks ago, that was what he was.”
Mitch sighed, feeling more and more hopeless. “Summer--”
She wasn’t listening to him now. “Three weeks ago, he was talking about being exclusive. Officially a couple couple,” she said. “He wanted to meet my parents and my brothers.”
Of course he did. Of course he’d been hoping for a family.
Before his birth family entered the picture and screwed him up.
“So is this just him getting cold feet? Is he trying to break up with me without having the balls to say it outloud?”
“He loves you, Summer,” Mitch said. “Breaking up with you is the last thing he wants.”
She gave him a look of disbelief. “Are you sure you know Brody as well as you think you do?”
“I do,” he said. “And I’m not saying he deserves it, and maybe you pull back for a bit. Give it a break. But just -- don’t close the door on him altogether, okay? He could surprise you.”
“Oh, he’s surprised plenty,” she said, and her voice wasn’t quite bitter enough to hide the hurt. She shook her head. “I don’t even know why I’m here, crying to you.”
“Because I’m your friend, and I’m his friend,” Mitch assured her.
“But somehow you don’t see it,” she said. “Something’s happened, Mitch. Brody’s changed.”
“I think he’s just figuring things out,” he said. “I’m willing to wait for him to do that.”
She nodded, but she wasn’t convinced. “You can do that, as his best friend,” she said. “As his girlfriend? I’m just not sure I can.”
Mitch said nothing. There was nothing to say.
Brody had made the choice.
Mitch had to respect it, even as Summer walked away.
Especially as Summer walked away.
Back inside, Mitch no longer had the motivation to go through his shit. In fact, he didn’t have the motivation for anything. He cracked a beer, sat down on the couch and stared at the wall, waiting for Brody to come home.
He finished his beer.
He thought about getting another beer.
And the front door finally opened.
Mitch was on his feet in an instant. Screw self control. What did he have to worry about with ego now? “Hey,” he said anxiously.
Brody dropped his keys, turning toward him in surprise. “Have you really been waiting there all night for me?”
“No,” Mitch said.
Brody raised his brows.
“Just for an hour or so,” Mitch said.
Tiredly, Brody crossed closer to him, sinking down heavily in one of the chairs opposite the coach. Mitch sat down on the couch again, watching him expectantly.
Brody flopped back. “So what?”
“How’d it go?” Mitch prompted.
In truth, Mitch wasn’t sure what he expected for an answer. That Leeds had made another pass at him? That she’d asked Brody to turn on his Baywatch team? Possibly that she’d confessed to drug trafficking and conveniently showed him the location of her warehouses and identified her sellers and distributors.”
“Eh,” Brody said, a little noncommittal. “She made me a VIP.”
That was something.
Mitch just wasn’t sure what it was. “That’s it?”
“She likes me,” Brody said. “I think she likes me a lot.”
Mitch wanted to remain optimistic for Brody’s sake, but what the hell. He was at his own wit’s end, not to mention Summer’s. “We need more than that.”
Brody looked perturbed, taking the recorder out of his pocket and tossing it on the coffee table. “This is day two,” he said. “Of two weeks. I have, like, ten days left.”
Technically, he had 12 days left, but Mitch saw no need to point that out now. Not when there were clearly bigger issues to deal with. “Okay, but in two days, all you know is that she likes you and that Summer is about to dump your ass.”
Brody frowned; he clearly had not expected that. “You talked to Summer?”
“She came over here, all upset,” he said. “Said you took her to the Huntley and then treated her like shit, dancing with other women and stiffing her with the bill.”
“She paid the bill without telling me,” Brody clarified, though it didn’t exactly make him seem any better. “And Anikka was there. I couldn’t very well date my girlfriend while flirting with her.”
“You’re not supposed to flirt,” Mitch said.
“Um, if you saw this chick, you would know that’s exactly what she wants me to do,” Brody said. “She’s not like her sister.”
“So why the hell did you take Summer there in the first place?” Mitch demanded.
“I don’t know, I couldn’t get out of it,” Brody said. He shrugged weakly. “I think Anikka liked it. She liked when Summer left.”
Mitch groaned. “Are you sure you’re doing this right?” he asked. “You’re supposed to get her to confess to you, not date her.”
“Pleasure first with her, then business,” Brody said. “That’s literally what she told me.”
“And what about Summer?” Mitch asked.
Brody was somewhat at a loss. “I don’t know,” he said. “You told me that I had to put the case first. That making the team mad was the only way to do it.”
Mitch had to grit his teeth to keep his composure. “But this is your family, Brody.”
“I know,” he said, sitting forward now. “And that’s why I’m doing this. To protect them.”
Mitch had to stop doing this. He had to stop circling the same conversation that Brody had already made peace with. He was the one struggling here; not Brody.
Slumping back a little, Mitch shook his head. “What you’re doing is not fair to Summer.”
Brody chewed his lip in serious contemplation. “I know,” he said. “But I think I have an idea for that.”
Mitch waited for him to elaborate. “And that is?”
“You’ll see,” Brody said, and he got to his feet. “Is there anything left to eat, I’m starving.”
Mitch watched him go, wary. “Some leftover hamburger if you poke around.”
“Great,” Brody said, voice muffled as he opened the fridge. “I can’t tell you how hard this is.” There was a clatter as he put a few items on the counter. “I don’t know how I’d do this without you.”
Mitch felt a bitter laugh slip from his throat. “I’m not exactly doing much.”
Brody popped his head back out. “You’re doing everything, man,” he said. “There’s no way I could pull this off on my own.”
“You are, though,” he said. “You’re the one in there with...Anikka.”
“Because I know you’re here, waiting for me,” Brody said. “I’m serious, Mitch. This case is just as much about you as it is me.”
The praise was not something he’d been looking for. It may have fortified his motives, but it made his heart ache. If Brody knew how much he hated this. If Brody had any idea how much he doubted it.
He forced himself to smile. Brody had become a better man because he believed that was what Mitch expected of him.
It was time to repay that favor.
“I’m here for you, buddy,” he said. “Anything you need.”
Brody grinned, like he’d known that all along. “Great,” he said, ducking back into the kitchen. “Then tomorrow night can you make chicken? With those grilled potatoes of yours? Those sound so good right now.”
Mitch closed his eyes.
Well, he thought to himself as he listened to Brody start eating, at least that would give him something to do.