Danny stared at the case on his computer, doing his best to focus, but his attention kept straying to the picture of Grace beside the computer. He hadn’t seen her in three months—Skype didn’t count—and he was going crazy stuck in New Jersey while she made a new home for herself in Hawaii.
Danny looked over his shoulder. “Hey, Martinez, you heading out?”
Martinez shook his head as he sat down. “Still have a case to file. But the Captain wants to see you.”
“Great, probably not going home then,” Danny said, standing up and straightening his tie. “Not that I have anything to go home to.”
Martinez made a face. “No idea when Honolulu PD might have an opening?”
“Nope. I just keep getting the runaround.” Danny started towards the Captain’s office. “Mall security cop is starting to sound pretty good,” he called over his shoulder to Martinez, as he walked into the Captain’s office.
“Don’t quit your day job just yet,” Captain Ryan said, waving a hand at one of the chairs in front of his desk.
Danny took a seat. “No plans just yet.”
“Good.” Ryan leaned back in his chair. “Because I just got off the phone with someone from the Honolulu Police Department.”
Danny sat up straighter. “They have an opening?”
“They need someone from outside for an undercover assignment. They called me for a reference and explained the situation. You’d be on loan from here, but if it goes well, they said they think they could have an opening for you.”
Which was better than his prospects of seeing Grace a few minutes ago. Assuming he could get to see her if he was undercover. “So what’s the job?”
“Just remember, it means you get to see Grace.”
With an intro like that, he had a feeling he wasn’t going to like it. But he also knew he couldn’t say no.
Danny opened his eyes to see a skinny kid in cargo shorts and a dark t-shirt, his hair pulled back in a messy ponytail. “Yeah,” Danny said, pushing off the gate that had been holding him up. “I’m Danny Williams.”
“I’m Kimo. Come on.”
Kimo turned and walked through the gate. Danny followed him up the drive, glancing over his shoulder to see it close and lock behind them, his car just visible through the thick iron bars in the parking lot outside. “All that for a TV show?” Danny said.
“Not just a TV show,” Kimo said. “Forever in Paradise is a top rated summer show. Bookies take bets. We can’t have people sneaking in and getting inside info.” He shot a look over his shoulder at Danny. “You know how it is.”
“Yeah,” Danny said, because he was supposed to know. Or, rather, Danny Williams, experienced producer, was supposed to know. For while Danny had received 48 hours of almost no sleep, all training, and a shit ton of notes squirreled away on his phone on how to pretend to be a TV producer, his cover identity had spent three years working on some reality show in England that Danny had never heard of until two days ago. “I wouldn’t think that would be as much of a problem, shooting out here in Hawaii, though.”
Kimo laughed as he got to a door in the brick wall that surrounded the place. “You’d think,” he said, as he stopped to open the door. “But some crazy haoles come here just to sneak onto the set.”
“What’s a haole?” Danny asked.
Kimo laughed again. “You are, brah.”
He opened the door and pushed through, Danny close behind, still trying to decide if he should be offended. The question was lost as he looked around to see a pool set with lush flowers and greenery and enough tents and couches to host an orgy. Or several of them. A hot tub big enough for about twenty lay to one side of the pool, and to the other was a large patio leading into a mansion.
All of this was familiar from the promotional pictures Danny had seen during his training. The pictures had just been careful to exclude the equipment everywhere, the food tables—craft services, he reminded himself—and the hordes of crew members wandering around dressed nothing like the show’s actual cast.
If one could call a fame-seeking pretty boy and a bunch of trophy wife wannabes a cast.
“Boss wants to see you,” Kimo said. “He’s in the house, watching the filming.”
Danny frowned. “I thought filming started tonight.”
“The girls arriving, yeah,” Kimo said, leading Danny into the back of the house. “But they’re doing some talking head pickup stuff with the Stud.” Kimo rolled his eyes. “Sorry, ‘The Suitor’—we were told to watch the nicknames in the house. Anyway, it’s a bunch of that ‘I hope to meet the woman of my dreams,’ blah blah blah—same stuff every year, all of it bull.”
Kimo snagged a bottle of water from a table and offered it to Danny, who took it gladly. The heat of Hawaii was something he’d have to put up with to be close to Grace, but he didn’t think he’d ever adjust.
Kimo glanced around a corner, then pulled his head back. “Set’s hot,” he said, turning around to go the other way. “Let’s go watch the screens.”
He led Danny to a living room with a couple of monitors, several people standing around, watching or taking notes. Danny glanced at the screens and got his first real glimpse of the show’s star prize, Steve McGarrett, their Suitor looking for love.
They’d certainly chosen well—if Danny had a few less brain cells and a lot less dignity, he’d go on TV for a chance at this guy. Not that that particular brand of reality would ever make it to mainstream TV—the hearts of the heartland could only stand so much ‘real’ in their ‘reality’ TV.
The one small picture Danny had seen hadn’t done him justice. Off screen, the producer asked him what he was looking for in the contestants. “Brains,” McGarrett said. “I don’t want just a pretty face. Of course,” he said, ducking his head and looking up at the camera with a sly smile, “the pretty face combined with the brains would be nice.”
The camera paused on him for a few seconds before the producer said, “Cut. Let’s take five.”
The rest of what he said was lost as Kimo tugged on Danny’s arm. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go meet the Boss.”
Danny followed Kimo around to the living room, where McGarrett was talking with the show’s executive producer, Frank Gil. Danny knew a lot more about Gil than he could let on, so he put on a blank smile as Kimo introduced him with a relaxed, “Boss, new guy,” before walking away.
“Danny Williams,” Danny said, shaking Gil’s hand.
“Great to have you here, Danny,” Gil said, giving Danny a firm handshake. “We heard good things about your work on Enchanted over in the UK. Appreciate you stepping in last minute.” Gil turned to McGarrett. “Steve, this is Danny Williams.”
Danny shook Steve’s proffered hand, hiding any reaction to the little shock that went through him at the first touch of Steve’s palm to his. This was not the time or the place for distractions like that, even if the warmth in Steve’s eyes was doing nothing to stop the feeling.
“Great to meet you,” Steve said.
Danny let go of Steve’s hand with a little effort and took a step back. “You, too.”
“Danny will be your go to guy,” Gil told Steve. “He’ll make sure you stay on schedule, and if you need anything, you just ask him.”
At the words, Steve seemed to go a little still, that warmth quickly dampened like a cloud covering the sun. “Got it,” he said, the words cold and terse. He nodded curtly at Danny, then looked at Gil. “Be back in a couple of minutes,” he said, before stalking off.
Danny watched him go, trying to figure out what had happened. They’d aimed Danny’s fake background and all of the information the studio contact helping them had given the show at getting him paired up with Steve. With Steve, Danny would have a little more freedom and accessibility to all the remote shots. He could move around the crew and talk with more people than if he was assigned to a specific spot or with the Contestants.
If Steve didn’t want to work with him, they would have a problem.
Danny glanced at Gil, who was frowning after Steve. “You up to the task of wrangling him?” Gil asked, meeting Danny’s eyes. “He’s been a little touchy with everyone at times. For all that he’s trying his best, I don’t think he’s the most comfortable in this role of the guys we’ve had.”
He’d seemed like a natural when Danny had been watching the filming, but that was his only exposure to it so far, and Gil’s job was to read the Suitor and Contestants, so what did Danny know? “Yeah, don’t worry, I’ll get him in line. Just give me a few minutes.”
Danny started quickly down the same path Steve had taken, determined to gain Steve’s trust. No hopped up rich guy was going to keep Danny from getting the job that kept him with his daughter.
He found Steve sitting on a stone bench in one of the hidden gardens designed to provide little private moments on the show. Of course, ‘hidden’ meant there were at least five cameras in the bushes, but they weren’t turned on yet, not without the contestants there. No point in wasting film. Or hard drive space. Whatever.
Steve looked up as Danny approached. “Come to wrangle me already?” Steve asked. He looked awfully tired for the start of this whole debacle.
Danny sat down next to him. “You know that word, huh?”
“Hard not to pick up on the lingo,” Steve said with a shrug. “Especially when they all seem to think I have bad hearing to go with my bad judgment.”
“What bad judgment?”
“The decisions that landed me here.” Steve shook his head. “Never mind. Doesn’t matter.”
Danny shifted around until he was half facing Steve, his knee on its side on the bench. “You know,” he said carefully, “this wasn’t what I’d planned to be doing with my life, either.”
“You mean you didn’t intentionally set out to be one step above a pimp?”
Steve’s smile seemed genuine. “Sorry, really. I don’t think you’re a pimp.” His brow furrowed, and Danny told his brain it was absolutely not cute. “Unless, of course, you actually call me ‘Stud.’”
Danny laughed. “I solemnly promise never to call you ‘Stud’ with any seriousness whatsoever,” he said. “And as for intentionally setting out to do this, no. I didn’t.” Danny stared at the pink flowers just over Steve’s shoulder. “My wife was English,” Danny said. “And a degree from film school didn’t do me a lot of good as a Yank in King Arthur’s Court, so to speak. So I took the job I could get to be with her and my daughter.”
Steve bought into the carefully crafted cover story without question. “So what happened?”
“I was drunk and stupid and my wife caught me kissing someone else.”
“Ouch,” Steve said with a wince. “I see now why they put you with me instead of one of the girls,” Steve said with a crooked grin. “Worried they couldn’t trust you?”
“Yeah, uh….” Danny looked away, rubbing at the sudden itch at the back of his neck, “they don’t know about that. And if that was the case, they’d have put me with the girls.”
He glanced back at Steve, watched as he worked through that statement and understanding dawned. “Oh,” he said. “I can see why that might’ve been more of a marriage-breaker.”
And it was, even if the real story hadn’t involved actual cheating. Danny had just realized he couldn’t stay married to Rachel, not when it was more and more difficult to sleep with her without imagining her having completely different body parts.
“I’d say.” Danny looked back at the flowers. “Especially since she moved my kid a million miles away to punish me. The joke was on her, though. The moment this job came up, I took it.”
“Hey,” Steve said suddenly, touching Danny’s knee. “I thought your job was to get me to open up to you, not the other way around.”
Danny laughed. “Yeah, well, I thought you might want to know what you were getting into.” And honesty had a way of inviting honesty, not that he was admitting to that motivation out loud. “Since apparently you didn’t know what you were getting into when you signed on, judging by your extreme aversion to everything from the nickname to being wrangled. Did they tell you it was going to be weeks of lying by a pool with the girls followed by an engagement or something?”
Steve took a deep breath, letting it out slowly before he answered. “I knew what I was signing on for,” he said. “I just…I didn’t have a lot of other options, so I signed.”
“So, what, six months ago you’re a Navy SEAL off being a badass in some country I can’t pronounce, three months ago you’re taking care of your ailing father’s shipping company, and suddenly your only option is this month’s Stud?” At Steve’s glare—which held no anger whatsoever—Danny grinned. “I said I wouldn’t call you that seriously. I didn’t say I wasn’t going to mock you with it.”
Steve’s delighted laughter was a surprise, and something that hit Danny in the gut, the want coiled up there like it had been there a while, even though he’d only met the guy five minutes ago.
“Things happen,” Steve said. “The business…when Dad had his heart attack, he couldn’t run it anymore. And I realized I was missing out on having him in my life. Then I saw the decisions his officers were making in his absence, and I couldn’t help it. By then they’d done some things that were…less than ideal business, we’ll call it. And this opportunity came up, with a chance to change things, so…I did what I had to do.”
There was more to the story, Danny could see it in the way Steve’s eyes became guarded as he talked, even as the words had a ring of truth. “So basically, we’re both here because we can’t be anywhere else, no matter how much we want to be?”
Steve huffed out a laugh. “Sounds like it, yeah.”
“Okay, I’ll make you a deal,” Danny said. “Let me do my job, so I can stay with my daughter, and I promise to be the least annoying wrangler I can possibly be, and not to be a manipulative asshole.”
Steve blinked, clearly not expecting the honesty. “Okay,” he said slowly. “On one condition. Be straight with me.”
Danny raised both his eyebrows. “Sorry,” he said, deadpan, “that didn’t even work for my wife.”
Steve laughed, his head thrown back, and Danny couldn’t help but stare at his throat. “You know what I mean,” Steve said, meeting Danny’s gaze again.
“Yeah, I do,” Danny said. “And I will be as honest with you as I possibly can.”
“As you can?”
He sounded cautious, and Danny figured out how to answer honestly without lying. Because he’d promised. And he didn’t want to lie to this guy anyway. “Well…I’m not giving you the details about the guy I met at the bar last week, for example. Unless,” Danny said, leaning in and lowering his voice, “you ask really nicely.”
This time the laughter was tinged with something else, and it took Danny a moment to decipher it, his heart racing and sinking at the same time. Because that sound, the way Steve leaned in, and how his eyes got darker couldn’t be any clearer. There was no way to deny that Steve was just as interested in Danny as Danny was in him.
And this was going to end in disaster if they both didn’t tread very, very carefully.