All the Broken Pieces
Sometimes letting your heart set the rules is a good way to lose your mind.
Jeremy Hayden knows what it’s like to be lost in someone else’s pain. After years of trying and failing to save the man he loved, Jeremy’s determined to learn how to put his own needs first. That means staying away from people who are damaged. From now on, the only person Jeremy wants to save is himself.
Harrison Winters is the kind of damaged that cracks all the way to the bone. Forged by a childhood of violence and betrayal, he lives every day on the edge of darkness. Discipline and a strict set of rules keep his mind stable and his life on track. He doesn’t need anyone to save him, no matter how broken he is
When Harrison falls for the sunshine of Jeremy’s smile, he sees his chance for a brighter future – only to discover he is everything Jeremy has vowed to avoid. Revealing the truth about his past would bring an end to their newfound happiness. To stay silent means breaking the rules that keep his mind free from the darkness.
With his heart on the line and his sanity under threat, Harrison knows one wrong move will break him. If that happens, there may not be anything left to save.
Rule number one in security: keep your eyes on the merchandise. Harrison Winters was breaking that rule all over the place.
He didn’t know what it was about the stall owner that had him ignoring his job so thoroughly. Maybe it was the way he moved. Lithe and quick, he seemed to have boundless energy, as if the crowds and noise of the Comic-Con fed into his vitality instead of sapping it. His smile was fast to appear and long to linger, and when he laughed his whole chest shook with the force of it.
Running his gaze along the man’s form, Harrison wondered what he looked like naked. Well-formed muscles were clearly defined by a fitted black t-shirt. A flat stomach led to narrow hips and an arse that begged to be grabbed. Even the simple, black suspenders that held up his pants had Harrison longing for a sharp pair of scissors.
The extended visual journey ended with a return to the man’s face, and the black eyeliner that had been applied with a heavy hand. That’s when green eyes clashed with brown and Harrison froze. He was so busted. The man held his gaze for a moment—a long, drawn out, provocative moment. Harrison watched the rise and fall of the man’s chest increase in deepening breaths and his shoulders pull back. Those full lips pressed together in a thin line and long fingers raked back the brown hair that had fallen into his eyes.
Harrison couldn’t help himself. He winked.
The green eyes widened in surprise, then the man turned on his heel and walked the other way.
With a heavy sigh, Harrison cursed his faltering discipline. He shouldn’t have winked. If the stall owner complained to management about the flirtatious nature of the security guards, his boss would have his hide. The guy probably wasn’t even gay. Eyeliner might be an indicator out on the street, but in the middle of a Comic Convention, where cosplay ruled and make-up was just another prop, it meant nothing.
Drawing once more upon the discipline that formed the foundation of his life, Harrison forced his attention back to the task at hand. He’d lapsed, it was true, but there was no point in dwelling on the fact. The best thing he could do was put it behind him and get on with his job.
That proved harder than expected over the next half hour. Now he’d been noticed, the sexy as sin stall owner’s gaze came back to him on a regular basis. But never for more than a fleeting moment, and never accompanied by his trademark smile. Harrison rode the hard edge between keen arousal and a fierce regret that his presence made the man so uncomfortable. It wasn’t long before the awkwardness of the situation began inching toward torture.
Thankfully, Harrison wouldn’t be out on the main floor much longer. He was only there because one of the other guards had been delayed getting to the venue due to an accident on the freeway. Normally, he spent his time coordinating the security on a higher level, not providing first-level protection for t-shirts and novelty mugs.
Harrison checked his watch. A few more minutes and Sean should be there to relieve him. Then he could get back to work that kept his head busy and his nether regions out of trouble.
“Got somewhere better to be?”
Lowering his wrist back to his side, Harrison saw the object of his fascination standing beside him with crossed arms and an irate frown. His gaze returned once more to the liner framing those crystal, clear eyes. He wanted to watch it run in dark rivers down the man’s face as he cried in frustrated ecstasy. Harrison bit down on the inside of his cheek to keep from somehow betraying the lust that coursed through his body. “No, sir.”
“Good, because this is only my livelihood you’re supposed to be watching. I’d appreciate it if you kept your eyes where they belong.”
Harrison’s jaw clenched and his teeth ground together. So, he got caught checking the man out, that was no reason for him to be a jerk about it. Looking down at the name tag pinned to the man’s t-shirt, he saw that Jeremy was Happy to Help! Sadly, Harrison suspected the offer didn’t extend to helping him out with the partial boner he had in his pants. He cleared his throat, dragging his mind from the gutter it had scrambled into. “Consider it done.”
Silence fell, but Jeremy didn’t move and eventually Harrison turned to look at him once more, careful to keep his expression blank. “Was there something else?”
The other man continued to frown, but curiosity had softened his glare. “You’re English?”
“Once upon a time. Now, I’m Australian.” He’d left England behind when he was thirteen and had no intention of ever going back. He’d held onto the last traces of his accent though, mainly because it sent Aussie boys weak at the knees. Jeremy didn’t seem susceptible.
He did give a sigh though, as his gaze dropped away. “Look, I didn’t mean to—”
“Sorry, man.” Sean appeared at Harrison’s side, red-faced and out of breath. “The traffic is a nightmare out there. I expected to be here over an hour ago.”
“No problem,” Harrison said, glad for the interruption to what surely would have been an awkward conversation. Clapping Sean on the back, he moved out of the way to allow the other man to take his position. “This here is Sean,” he told Jeremy, who had taken a step back, arms still crossed in front of him. “He will take excellent care of your… livelihood.”
That ready smile tugged at the corners of Jeremy’s mouth. “Right,” he said with a nod. “I’m sure he will.”
Sean looked back and forth between them, as if trying to figure out what he’d missed.
“Have a nice day, sir.” Not waiting for a response, Harrison turned and made his way across the floor, heading for the control room where his boss could fill him in on any issues that had arisen while he was otherwise occupied. He’d make sure he stayed away from Jeremy’s section of the main floor whenever possible for the remainder of the convention. The man may have set his blood to burning, but the feeling obviously wasn’t mutual and there was no point in taunting himself with someone he couldn’t have.
More than anything, he was disappointed in his own behaviour. One look at Jeremy and he’d started breaking the rules that kept his life on track without a second thought. Rules like living with integrity and exercising discipline in his actions. There wasn’t a lot of either to be found in hitting on someone while on the job. He’d have to take more care in the future to keep his emotions in check. Letting his heart set the rules was a good way to lose his mind.
Jeremy was beat, and it was only two in the afternoon. Another four hours stretched in front of him and he’d never get through them without a caffeine jolt. His part-timer, Kat, was still manning the Fandom stall, along with a friend she’d roped into helping out. He’d have to give them both a bonus after all the hard work they’d put in this weekend. Together, the three of them had made a small fortune in sales over the two-day event and he never could have managed that kind of success without the two women’s help.
He’d lined up at the makeshift cafe when he saw the security guard from that morning sitting at a nearby table. The man sat back in his chair with one leg up, the ankle hooked over the opposing knee, and he had what looked like a large chalkboard propped on his lap. He was drawing something on it, his brow furrowed in concentration. Jeremy lingered, using the opportunity to inspect him unobserved. From the top of his lightly curled, dark-blond hair, down over the built body, then back up to his large masculine hands. They looked like strong, sure hands, and yet there was a lightness to them as they moved across the board with an artist’s flair. He was the epitome of hotness with a touch of whimsy thrown in. The combination was enough to make Jeremy’s mouth water.
The sound of a throat being cleared caught his attention and he dragged his eyes away from the security guard before stepping up to the now empty counter. The young woman who was serving gave him a knowing smile. “What can I get you?”
“A large flat white, to go please.”
“Just the one?” she asked, her eyes flickering almost imperceptibly toward the guard before returning to him.
Jeremy grinned. He had been an arsehole to the man. It was only right he apologise. “Make it two.”
The woman gave a little high-pitched squeal and bounced lightly on her heels. “My pleasure,” she said, before adding in a stage whisper, “I happen to know he’s one of the good ones.”
Smiling at her enthusiasm, Jeremy said, “Thanks for the tip.” After paying, he stood back to let the next customer through as he waited for the coffees to be made. His heart rate picked up as he watched the guard out of the corner of his eye, wondering what the other man’s reaction would be when he approached the table. Hopefully, he’d behave better than Jeremy himself had that morning.
The convention had been packed to the point moving was difficult at the time. He’d been run off his feet serving customers, his focus on getting through as many sales as possible while the going was good. He hadn’t even noticed the security guard until he looked up and locked onto those brown eyes. In that one moment the whole fucking world had stopped revolving. His heart skipped multiple beats, his feet froze to the spot. Hell, he’d done everything but drool. The reaction hadn’t been welcome. After spending the last couple of months actively convincing himself he was perfectly content to be alone, one look from this guy had made him ache all the way down to his toes.
Then came the wink, and Jeremy fucking lost it. Panic streaked through him and he bolted like a big, fat, feathery chicken.
After that, his concentration had gone to shit and his good mood quickly followed. He couldn’t keep his eyes off the guard and every time their gazes touched he became more flustered, not to mention horny as all freaking hell. It reminded him of everything he’d been missing out on since he’d made the decision to stay single. Like sex. God damn, he missed sex.
Before he knew what he was doing, he’d stormed up to the man and all but told him to back the hell off. It worked a little too well. The guard had disappeared within a minute of the words leaving his mouth and Jeremy hadn’t seen him since—until now.
The barista called his name and Jeremy collected the two cups of coffee before making his way over to the table where the guard was busy examining his chalkboard with pride enough to put any kindergartner to shame. Finding out what he was up to would be worth the price of the coffee alone.
“Mind if I join you?” he asked as he stepped up to the table. The guard lifted his head and his lips parted on a slight intake of breath. The moment dragged out and Jeremy wondered if perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all. “It’s no big deal if you’re busy with… whatever that is,” he said, gesturing to the chalkboard. “I wanted to apologise for being a grumpy bastard earlier. So, this is for you.” He placed one of the takeaway cups down on the table. “I overreacted, I guess. It’s been a while since someone looked at me the way you were looking.”
The man’s eyes skimmed his body before narrowing sceptically. “I’m not sure I believe that.”
Jeremy shrugged. “Okay then, maybe it’s been a while since I cared to notice.” And there was no denying he’d well and truly noticed this man.
Full lips twisted in a chagrined expression. “I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”
Snorting a laugh, Jeremy shook his head. “You made me something all right, but I don’t think uncomfortable is the right word.” There was another beat of heavy staring before he decided to cut his losses. “Anyway, I should let you get back to it.”
“No need. I’m done.” The man straightened in his chair before offering his hand. “I’m Harrison Winters.”
“Jeremy Hayden.” Harrison’s hand was warm, and kind of dusty, as they shook. When he pulled away, Jeremy saw his own palm was now coated in a fine layer of blue chalk.
“Sorry about that,” Harrison murmured. “Occupational hazard.” He gestured to the seat on his right. “Pull up a chair.”
“Occupational,” Jeremy repeated as he sat down. “I take it there’s more to you than your security guard persona.”
There was a nod in response. “Security is my main job, but I do hand lettering on the side.” He started packing the various pieces of coloured chalk that were scattered across the table into a plastic container. “Signs for cafes, restaurants, wedding receptions, that kind of thing.”
“What were you doing there?” Jeremy asked, curious to see the result of the work Harrison had been so intent on.
“I was here on my break when a caped crusader stumbled against the counter and smudged the board. I offered to fix it.” Harrison turned the board so Jeremy could see it. “It had a basic cup of coffee before but, I decided this theme is more fitting for the current location.”
A detailed picture of a Dalek covered most of the chalkboard. The familiar metal robot had a takeaway coffee cup attached to its suction cup, and instead of the usual Exterminate! it was known for in Doctor Who, the word Caffeinate! curved above the domed top.
Jeremy had to hold a hand over his mouth to prevent coffee from spraying onto the board as he laughed. “I love it,” he said once he’d managed to swallow. “The Doctor would be proud.”
Harrison seemed pleased with the compliment. “Thank you.” Reaching out, he picked up the coffee Jeremy had given him and took a sip before putting it back on the table. “And thanks for the coffee. I’ll be back in a second.”
Jeremy nodded, and Harrison took the board and container of chalk back to the counter. He watched as the matchmaker who had encouraged him to add the second coffee to his order accepted them with a grateful smile. The effusive praise she gave after checking out the board brought a nod of appreciation from Harrison, but only the vaguest hint of a smile in return. He soon returned to the table with a handful of sugar packets and a plastic spoon. Popping the lid off the coffee, he started ripping open the little packets and dumping the contents into the cup.
Jeremy raised his eyebrows. “Sweet tooth?”
Stirring, Harrison nodded. “Sugar is my kryptonite. But when I’m running on three hours sleep, it keeps me going.”
“Big night?” Jeremy asked, wondering what kind of mischief Harrison liked to get up to when he was supposed to be sleeping.
“Not really.” Harrison stirred the coffee and took another sip. “Perfect,” he said with a satisfied sigh. “How’s the convention treating you?”
“Fantastic,” Jeremy replied with a grin. “But I’ll be glad to get back to the more relaxed pace of my store.”
Harrison leaned forward, propping his elbows on the table between them. “Tell me about it.”
“About Fandom? It’s my own little piece of geek heaven.” Jeremy spent the next few minutes giving Harrison a brief rundown of his pop culture store. He’d opened the doors more than four years ago and its success was a huge source of pride for him. He may have started to ramble after a while, but he loved talking about his business and Harrison seemed happy to listen.
“It sounds like my kind of place,” Harrison said when he was done. “Maybe I’ll drop by sometime and check it out.”
“You should,” Jeremy agreed. “Although I have to say,” he allowed a mischievous grin to curve his lips, “Dalek drawings notwithstanding, you don’t look like you have a geeky bone in your body.”
Harrison’s gaze dropped to the cup he held loosely between his hands. “Sometimes the alignment between what you see and what you get isn’t exactly straight.”
Jeremy chuckled. “Yeah well, neither am I, so that’s not a problem.” He finished the last of his coffee before adding, “I should get back.”
“Me, too.” There was a brief hesitation before Harrison reached into his back pocket and pulled out a business card. “This has my mobile number,” he said, holding it out across the table. “In case you ever feel like giving me a call.”
Jeremy stared at the card. He wanted to take it. He really wanted to, but he held back. “I’m not actually on the market right now.”
Harrison’s brow furrowed. “You have a boyfriend? Or a girlfriend?”
“Neither,” he admitted, shaking his head. “But I did have a boyfriend, until a few months ago, and I’ve decided some alone time would be good for me—at least for now.” It had actually been more than six months since he walked away from the toxic life he’d been living with Aaron and he’d put that part of his life behind him—or so he liked to think. It was what he’d done next that had him reluctant to get involved with anyone new.
After breaking up with Aaron, he’d barely paused long enough to catch his breath before tumbling headfirst into a relationship with two people he’d only just met. They’d been like three lost souls, drawn to each other in a time of need. He didn’t have any regrets. The relationship had been exactly what he needed at the time and had helped him in ways he couldn’t hope to describe. But in the end there was no denying that, while his new lovers cared about him, they had ultimately fallen in love with each other.
It hadn’t taken him long to realise he was clinging to them, using them to fill the void breaking up with Aaron had created in his life. He’d decided then that going from one relationship to another wasn’t going to help him heal the parts of himself Aaron had broken, and he’d vowed to take a step back from sex and dating. He needed time to prove he could be fine on his own before he could trust himself to be with someone else.
“Maybe you should keep it anyway, just in case,” Harrison suggested, dropping the card on the table in front of him. “You never know when you’ll want some lettering done for your store.”
Jeremy bit down on his bottom lip as he picked up the card. Maybe he was over-thinking this. He may have made the decision to be single, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t have some fun when the opportunity presented itself. “I do have a largish space above the sales counter,” he said as he stood. “It’s got posters on it right now, but they’re looking a bit ragged.”
“Sounds perfect.” Harrison rose, and they walked together in the direction of Jeremy’s stall, tossing the takeaway cups into a bin on the way. “Let me know if you want me to take a look at your space. Then we can discuss how you want me to fill it.”
Blood rushed in Jeremy’s ears and the noise of the bustling crowd receded to a dull hum. Harrison continued to walk at a steady pace beside him, as if he had no idea his words were ripe with innuendo. Jeremy sneaked a glance at the other man’s face and saw his smug expression. Oh yeah, he knew all right.
Jeremy grinned as they came to a standstill beside his stall and turned to face each other. “I’ll, um…” His voice came out as a rasp and he cleared his throat, licking his lips before he tried again. “I’ll think about it.”
“So will I.” The heat in Harrison’s gaze was enough to have Jeremy breaking out into a sweat. “It was good to meet you, Jeremy.” He walked away then, leaving Jeremy to stare after him like some lust-addled teenager.
“Who was that tall piece of gorgeous?” Kat stopped beside him, a bundle of folded t-shirts in her arms.
Jeremy’s eyes dropped to the card in his hand. “Potential business contact.”
Kat put a hand on his arm, looking up at him excitedly. “Can I be the one to make contact? Pretty please?”
“Not a chance,” he told her as he slid the card into his back pocket. “This one’s all mine.”