This story takes place between the first and the second epilogue in Rich, Benson Security 5

“The original five together again.” Michael ‘Harvard’ Carter grinned at his friends as he relaxed back into the burgundy leather sofa in the corner of the Fox and Hounds pub. Unlike the rest of his group, Harvard wore a black suit with matching black shirt. He’d never understood the need to wear casual when a suit fitted any occasion.

 “Five plus Ryan.” Noah Merchant hooked a thumb over his shoulder, where their English teammate Ryan Granger had just walked through the door. “I couldn’t say no to him. If he doesn’t get to play, he goes into sad-puppy mode.”

Out of the five childhood friends, Noah had always been the soft touch. Which had made him one of the most beloved cops in Atlantic City—sometimes for all the wrong reasons. It’d been well known around town that you could talk him out of an arrest by appealing to his good nature.

As Noah slid onto the sofa beside Harvard, Joe Barone and Samuel ‘Grunt’ Dayton grabbed stools on the other side of the dark wooden table.

“Beast’s running late,” Joe said. “Problem getting security cover for Belinda. Well, security cover that meets his standards.”

The men chuckled. Beast was an ex-MMA fighter who’d grown up on the streets and gone on to marry one of Hollywood’s darlings. He was now full-time security for his actress wife, which kept him more than busy. He was also Joe’s brother-in-law, both men having married sisters.

“She’s shooting a movie in London?” Harvard asked.

Joe nodded. “Which means the whole family’s getting together this weekend. Shoot me now. It’s going to be charades, singing and dancing until they all pass out.”

“You love it,” Noah said.

“True. But don’t tell them.” Joe wore one of his many T-shirts bearing a sarcastic slogan. This one said, “Gun for hire.” It would have sent their boss Callum McKay into full-blown rant mode on one of his favorite topics—why the team were security specialists and not mercenaries.

Everyone at Benson Security already knew the difference without Callum’s head turning red while he shouted in a brogue so thick it needed a translator. Security specialists had a conscience. Mercenaries didn’t.

“Nice of you to join us,” Harvard told Ryan as he reached their table.

Ryan flashed a grin. “It’s half-price night on chips with curry.”

“Is there even one artery in your body that’s still working at full capacity?” Harvard said with a shake of his head.

“Don’t blame Ryan,” Joe said. “He’s a growing boy, and he’s hungry. As we know, because it’s a twenty-minute walk to get here and he talked about food for every second of it. Almost made my boy here say something.” He slapped Grunt on the shoulder.

Grunt grunted, which made Joe grin.

The two former Army Rangers had always been closer than the rest of them, maybe because they’d known each other the longest. Or maybe because Joe had no trouble speaking enough for both of them.

Grunt, who was remarkably supple for a man built like an oversized brick house, folded his arms and cocked an eyebrow at Joe.

“Beer?” Joe asked.

Grunt grunted.

“I’ll get the first round.” Ryan was already heading to the bar, which wasn’t that far away in the tiny pub. “Need to order some food, anyway. Am I the only one eating?” When the rest of them just stared at him, he grinned. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

“I don’t know where he puts it,” Noah said as Ryan ordered. “He eats more than Grunt and is half his size.”

“Give him ten years, and he’ll have an Englishman’s paunch.” Joe curved a hand over his belly. “Trust me, he’ll look twenty months pregnant by the time he’s forty.”

“I can hear you from here,” Ryan said cheerfully from where he leaned against the bar. “And I’m sure you just said make mine a lite beer.”

“Dickhead,” Joe muttered good-humoredly.

“So”—Noah settled back into his seat beside Harvard—“you’re getting married.”

“To Rachel.” Joe grinned like it was the best joke of the decade.

“Balls of steel,” Grunt rumbled. It was hard to tell whether there was admiration or bewilderment in his voice.

Ryan plonked five beers on the table in front of them. “What’s she got on you? You can tell us. We’re your buddies. Just say your safe word, and we’ll get you out of this.”

“Ah.” Joe reached for his beer. “Hostage situation. It all makes sense now.” He took a sip of his drink. “Blink once if you’re in danger, twice if you need to get out tonight.”

“Funny,” Harvard said with a straight face. “Can hardly contain my laughter.”

Ryan sat in the chair at the end of the table, fidgeting with his silverware in anticipation of his forthcoming meal. In the meantime, he opened one of the three bags of pork scratchings he’d bought to tide him over. Harvard didn’t even bother mentioning that he was basically devouring a heart attack in a bag.

“Seriously,” Ryan said around a mouthful of deep fried pork rind. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing? Rachel’s just as likely to stab you in your sleep as cuddle up next to you on movie night.”

Joe choked on his beer, and Grunt helpfully thumped his back. “Rachel watches movies?” he croaked once he could speak again.

“I was being sarcastic,” Ryan said. “Rachel Ford-Talbot doesn’t have time to watch movies. She’s too busy ruling her kingdom and making sure the plebs don’t stage an uprising against her. And when she isn’t doing that, she’s sticking pins in dolls and casting hexes on anyone who annoys her, i.e., all of us.”

Harvard just let their teasing wash over him. Rachel was an acquired taste, which didn’t bother him in the slightest. She showed her soft underbelly to him, everyone else saw the monster, and he was okay with that. It meant he got her all to himself.

“Gotta say,” Noah said. “Never thought I’d see you with someone like Rachel. I had you pegged as one of those guys who’d marry a soft, shy, delicate sort of woman.”

“Like Julia.” Ryan pointed at Joe as he mentioned his wife.

“Julia isn’t delicate.” Joe snorted. “She’s got a spine of steel.”

“She also hides behind plants and still struggles to speak to Callum because he scares her,” Ryan added.

Joe shrugged. “She’s perfect.”

“For you,” Noah said. “Like my Theresa was perfect for me.”

Harvard’s heart clenched at the memory of Noah’s wife, who’d died of cancer years earlier. They’d been high school sweethearts, and all of them had grown up together. It hadn’t just been a loss for Noah and their kids when Theresa passed; it left a void in all of them.

“Do you think you’ll ever remarry?” Ryan, who didn’t share their history, could ask a question none of the rest of them would dare.

Harvard was aware that he wasn’t the only one at the table holding their breath while waiting for Noah’s answer.

“No.” Noah shook his head. “You only get one soulmate, and she was mine.”

As Harvard clasped a hand on Noah’s shoulder, Grunt stirred.

“Claire’s perfect for me,” the big man said. “She’s my soulmate. We fit.” He frowned. “She’s mine.”

Joe burst out laughing. “Did anybody here ever have any doubt about that?”

“You two are a little bit weird with the whole possessiveness thing,” Ryan said, taking his life in his hands. When Grunt growled, he held up those same hands. “Just sayin’ it’s not that normal. You know what I mean?”

The growl deepened.

“Okay,” a voice said from the doorway. “Who pissed off the Hulk?”

“Beast!” they called.

“Ryan did it.” Joe pointed at the younger man.

“Idiot.” Beast smacked Ryan upside his head as he pulled over a chair. Once he’d flipped it around, he straddled it and rested his arms on the back. “What a shitstorm of a day I’ve had. Drama, drama, drama. And I’m not talking about the movie. Everything’s a freaking production with these people.” He sighed, running a hand over his bald head. “I hate actors.”

Yeah, there was no stopping the laughter at that statement.

As someone came around from the back of the bar and set Ryan’s mountain of food in front of him, Beast said, “What did I miss?”

“Harvard’s getting married,” Noah said.

“I know that. Seriously, do not mess with me tonight. My patience ran out round about the time the lead man threw a fit at me because his water was two degrees too warm.” He grimaced. “I don’t give a shit about his water. I mean, do I look like I work for the guy? Or the film company? Hell no. I work for me.” He jabbed a thumb at his chest. “My job’s watching my wife. Nothing else. It sure as hell isn’t fetching some water for an asshole who can’t take lukewarm.”

“What did you do to him?” Noah said with a twinkle in his eye.

“Wait.” Joe held up a hand to stop Beast from answering. “Don’t tell us. You emptied it over him, didn’t you?”

Beast gave him a look that implied Joe’s imagination was pathetic. “I dumped him in the Serpentine. Turns out the river’s a few degrees too cold for his liking.”

“Anyway,” Noah said once they’d stopped laughing. “Because Harvard’s getting married, we were talking about how good a fit our wives are for us. Were for us. Well, some of us…”

Noah smiled to let them know he was okay, but Harvard saw the same darkness cloud every eye at the table. Well, all except Ryan. He was too busy staring at his food.

“Yeah,” Joe said while stealing one of Ryan’s fries, which earned him a glare from Ryan as he pulled his plate closer to himself. “And how if we’d talked about it years ago, we’d never have guessed who would have suited us the way they do. We all saw Harvard pinned for marrying someone cute and sweet.”

“Just like Rachel,” Beast said, his lip twitching.

Harvard flipped him off, earning himself a grin.

“And Joe was going to marry a Playboy Bunny,” Noah said.

“No imagination, dude,” Ryan said between bites.

“Grunt”—Beast grinned at the big guy—“had a thing for Red Sonja if I remember right.”

“I forgot about that!” Joe pointed at Grunt. “It was the metal bikini.”

“It was the sword fights.” Grunt’s tone dared them to contradict.

“Beast had a thing for Julia Roberts,” Harvard said.

“It was the legs,” Beast agreed.

“Dude, you were gone on an actress, and you married an actress! Way to go.” Ryan held up his hand for a high five, which Beast ignored.

“Who brought him?” he asked the group.

“Leave him alone.” Joe ruffled Ryan’s hair. “He’s a hungry boy. He’s going to eat, and then he’s going to go home for a nap. Isn’t that right?”

Ryan nodded. “Straight after I empty my nine-millimeter into your backside.”

“What about Ryan?” Noah eyed the younger man in contemplation. “What’s his wife going to be like?”

“No.” Ryan pointed a knife at Noah. “No. Just no. I’m staying single. No wife for me. Got it?”

Noah grinned at the rest of the men. “That sounds like a challenge to me.”

“It’s got to be somebody who can put up with him eating all the time,” Joe said.

Grunt shifted in his seat. “A chef.”

Ryan perked up. “A chef?”

“Look at his tiny little brain ticking over in his head. It’s so cute,” Noah said.

What Ryan said in reply was unrepeatable.

“He needs somebody more mature for sure.” Beast tried to steal one of Ryan’s fries and almost got speared with a fork. “A mother figure. Someone who can clean up after him and make sure he’s dressed properly before he goes out.”

“You guys are all assholes, you know that, right?” Ryan reached for his second bowl of fries drenched in curry sauce and dug in.

“Somebody who plays computer games,” Harvard mused. “So they’ll talk the same language.”

“Not only computer games,” Noah said. “Any games. Ryan just likes to play.”

“Big rack,” Grunt added.

When they all looked at him, he shrugged. “He looks like that would matter to him.”

“So,” Noah said, “we’re looking for an older woman who’ll mother him. One who’s stacked, who doesn’t mind playing, online or off, and who can cook.”

Joe sat up straight. “I’ve got it! We need a modern-day Mrs. Doubtfire!”

Harvard sat back in his seat as his friends ribbed Ryan. This was the life. His friends, his family, his soon-to-be wife. He had it made.

And, he noted, the conversation had done nothing to douse Ryan’s appetite because he’d just ordered a third bowl of fries.