Ana doesn’t speak on the drive back to the Heathman. Grey watches her the entire time. I watch him watching her.
This is something he can’t fix; not being able to control his world scares the hell out of him. But right now he’s focused on Ana. It’s all he can do, but he’s got it right – putting her needs first.
Once I’ve dropped them off and parked in the secure VIP lot, I head for the suite I’ve reserved to use as an office. Sawyer is waiting.
“The Rodriguez’s are home, and Welch has sent a local security team to the hospital for Mr. Steele. They’ll report hourly, usual method. So far no paps have made the connection with GEH. Ros is making it seem as if Grey is still in Seattle with the Taiwanese. It’ll give us 48 hours – more if we’re lucky.”
I nod, but lucky is not something I’m feeling. But still, it’s good having Sawyer on the team – and he’s scratched one thing off my really fucking long to-do list.
“Detective Clark has been in touch again,” he continues. “I told him about Ana’s father – but he was pretty insistent that he come here to interview her anyway.”
I roll my shoulders, trying to ease the aching muscles.
“Ah, shit. Grey is going to hate that and it’s hardly what Ana needs. Put him off for at least 24 hours.”
“Done. And some clothes have arrived for Mr. and Mrs. Grey. I’ve put the bags in their suite.”
He rubs his eyes and stifles a yawn.
We’re all stretched paper thin after the last couple of weeks. If the team doesn’t get some down time soon, more mistakes will happen. Plus, Belinda’s loss has left us short-staffed and Grey has been reluctant to replace her with another female operative. I’ll need to talk to Welch about getting a stand-by team. Grey won’t like that either – he prefers people he knows around him. I’ll broach the subject later – I’d like to keep my head attached to my shoulders for now. Gail says it suits me that way.
“Good, thanks, Luke.”
“And I’ve met with the Heathman team – usual protocols in place. No one gets onto this floor; roving security; elevator codes on a need-to-know basis; room service staff vetted. We’re good.”
It’s at times like this when having a top notch team makes a real difference.
I leave Sawyer on point, in charge of the night shift, and head to my room to call Gail. She answers on the first ring.
“Jason! Thank God! How are you? How’s Ana’s father? Is Mr. Grey coping?”
The compassion flows from every word she speaks, and I wonder again how I got to be such a lucky bastard to have her in my world.
“Surviving. Mr. Steele is still listed as critical, but he’s stable.”
“Oh, thank God.”
She pauses, and I know she’s wiping tears from her eyes. That’s my job, but I’m not there. Again.
“How are you really, Jason? You sound so tired.”
“I’m fine, baby. Don’t worry about me.”
She gives a hollow laugh.
“I worry about you even when you’re sleeping next to me, Jason. It certainly won’t stop under the present circumstances.”
“Have I told you that I love you, Mrs. Taylor-to-be?”
“It has been mentioned. Once or twice.” She sighs. “I love you very much and…”
My phone clicks, letting me know I have another call.
“Gotta go, baby. The boss is calling. I’ll speak to you later.”
“Okay, later. I love you, Jason.”
Her words make me smile. Everything about her makes me smile. Jeez, when did I turn into such a fucking sap? I feel like I should go piss on the wall, just to make sure I still have a dick.
“Ana’s birthday. I want everything relocated here: friends, food, the R8. And I’ve a package waiting at Cartier, the Bellevue store. It needs to be sent up with our guests on Charlie Tango. Reserve the Sacajawea room for 8 PM. A dress and shoes for Ana will be delivered from Juicy Couture in Portland.”
Juicy? Sounds like one of ‘those’ sort of shops. Jeez, I’ve worked for Grey for too damn long.
“Yes, sir. May I ask, any further updates about Mr. Steele’s condition?”
“No, no change.” There’s a pause and I hear his tone change. “Thank you for asking, Taylor.”
I head back to the ops room and update Sawyer. It’s going to be another long day.
* * *
Four hours later the Greys head back to the hospital. Sawyer follows them in another Heathman car while I stay at our temporary HQ. Only special guests – rich ones like the boss – get the use of the hotel’s town cars.
Luke calls me to say that Ana’s dad is improving. At last – some fucking good news for her. For them.
We weren’t a religious family growing up, unless you count the fact that my asshole father set out to break every Commandment as often as possible. But there have been times in my life when I’ve really wanted to believe, really wanted some certainty that it isn’t just nothingness after death. A world where nothing matters doesn’t make sense to me. With all the stupidity and cruelty of people, there has to be meaning, too.
So, yeah. When I hear the news about Ana’s dad, I send up a quick, ‘Hi, how are you, it’s been a while, thanks about Steele and all’. Kinda what you might call the boss’s boss’s boss.
With arrangements for Ana’s party in hand, her guests organized and on their way, I finally head to my own room to sleep. Gail’s voice is the last thing I hear before I pass out on the too big, empty bed.
It’s dawn when I wake up. The sky is flushed with light and I feel unexpectedly hopeful. Suddenly, my hip buzzes. Either I’m still asleep and proving that Grey’s kinky-fuckery lifestyle has been tattooed into my neurotransmitters, or I’ve fallen asleep on my cell phone. Luckily, it’s the latter. I know this because I have an imprint of it on my butt. And I have a text message. When I see it’s from the boss, I feel the need to make a joke about him kissing my ass, but I haven’t eaten yet and don’t want to spoil breakfast.
There are seven texts and 23 emails since I’ve been asleep, and it’s not even 7AM. I really hope that all the bad stuff I did in my last life was worth it, because this one is kicking the crap out of me.
I groan and stretch, trying to work the kinks out of my spine before I shower. Growing older sucks. I wonder which parts of me will still work when I’m 40. Well, my dick obviously.
When I stroll into the ops room, feeling slightly less cranky, the fan-fucking-tastic smell of bacon, eggs and pancakes makes today officially 100% better than yesterday.
Sawyer is inhaling the food already and waves a fork at me; Ryan has arrived overnight and is just heading off to get some shut-eye. He reports before he leaves the room.
“All good here, T. Mr. Steele is still holding onto life by the nuts; Greyforce One has left Atlanta with Ana’s mom’s – eta 1600; and a very pretty lady is waiting outside for you.”
“Okay, good. Wait, what?”
Guess I didn’t get as much sleep as I thought, because my brain is on a go-slow.
“He’s jerking your johnson, T,” snorts Sawyer, pieces of pancake flying from his mouth. “Don’t be such a fucking pussy. Jeez, does Gail keep your balls in a jar these days? He’s talking about the new R8 that the boss bought for Mrs. G.”
I knew that.
“Yeah, so funny, I think I got a hernia laughing,” I deadpan.
Ryan rolls his eyes.
“Boss wants it front and center as soon as he and Mrs. G. head for the hospital.”
An hour later, the look on Ana’s face as she sees her birthday present is fucking awesome. I nearly smiled. Fuck, that hurt.
“Happy birthday, Mrs. Grey.”
Then she shocks the shit out of me when she wraps her slim arms around my neck and hugs me tightly.
Over her shoulder, the boss is scowling at me.
Yep, I’ve still got it – the ole JTT magic.
“Thank you, Taylor,” she whispers.
Despite her promise, she peels out of the hotel entrance like her ass is on fire. Grey appears to be holding onto the door with both hands. Aw, ain’t that sweet.
Yup, my little girl is all grown up.
Sawyer nods at me as he follows in the Heathman’s SUV.
I’ve got a party to plan.
Wow. Never thought I’d find that in my job description.
The boss keeps Ana out of the hotel as all her guests arrive. They’ve been assigned rooms on the floor below the penthouse. It’s not a secure floor: the elevator is public access which means any joe blow can get onto the floor, unlike the penthouse. That means more security is needed. Welch has sent three two-man teams to cover each 24 hour period, plus a tag team of two female operatives to blend with hotel guests. They’ll accompany the ladies to the public bathrooms, and they won’t even know they’re being protected.
That’s what I do: make the bad stuff invisible. When Sophie was six, she asked me what my job was. I jokingly told her that I was the Invisible Man. Now she thinks her daddy is a comic book hero, but with a better suit. Her mom just thinks I’m a bad joke. I’m amused that The Bitch still bothers to have an opinion of me.
I watch from a distance as Ana’s face glows with happiness at the sight of her guests. Mission accomplished.
Grey is smiling, too.
I’ll never get used to that.
Somehow it works. Go figure.
* * *
The next day is more of the insanely busy. Charlie Tango takes one batch of self-loading cargo back to Seattle, and the boss drives Ana’s mom and other step-dad to the airport. I get to drive the R8. I love those sort of perks of the job. Guess it’s because I’m a perky kind of guy.
But there’s a lot of waiting around in this line of work. You gotta know how to entertain yourself, and I’m not talking about jerking off in bathrooms. Some guys do crosswords, a couple of sick suckers do killer sudoku, one guy used to knit – I shit you not.
My vice is reading. Which is pretty ironic considering I barely cracked a book when I was at school. But once I signed up in the military, I found that having the latest Tom Clancy was better than a carton of 200 cigarettes. So Kindles were invented for guys like me. Guess Steve Jobs missed a trick there.
But when I hear the news that Ray Steele is awake and talking, all the waiting around is worthwhile.
I can’t wait (no pun intended) to tell Gail the good news.
“Oh, that’s wonderful, Jason! I’m so happpy! Please pass on my very best wishes to Mrs. Grey.”
“Will do, baby.”
“And how are you? Are you sleeping? Are you alright?”
“Hey, don’t worry. You can’t kill weeds. I’m good. Missing you, but I’m okay.”
“Come home to me soon, Jason.”
“I always do, baby.”
Two days later, I make my words true. I’m relieved to be home.
The boss has been in a tetchy mood since Ana was interviewed by Detective Clark. I don’t blame him this time. Ana was shocked and angry when she heard the allegations Hyde has leveled at her – that she came onto him, led him on, that she sexually harrassed him! Fuck a duck!
Don’t get me wrong: I’m damn happy that I live in a country with a democratic government, but sometimes I hate that the justice system won’t let me beat the shit out a pathetic waste of life like Jack Hyde. That sick bastard doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as decent people.
And I’m in a bad mood because Sawyer got to drive Ana’s R8 back to Seattle. Of all the dumb luck. And then I get a text from the Queen of Bitch telling me that I missed Sophie’s dance recital. I really hate it when she rubs in shit like that. I know I’m not going to win Father of the Year any time soon, but I’m trying here – give me a fucking break already.
It’s been the first day back at the office for all of us. Grey has been irritatble, unsurprisingly, and Sawyer reported that Ana seemed unwell.
This is confirmed by the tension in the car as I drive us back to Escala. I try to give them privacy, but I can’t help glancing in the rear-view mirror, only to see Ana staring out of the window, her expression numb. Even when the boss tells her he has to go to Taiwan for a couple of days to join Ros, it doesn’t seem to go away.
I try to tell myself it’s not my business – they’re my employers, not my family. I’m a lousy goddamn liar.
An hour later and back home, I’m almost running from my office when I hear the sounds of yelling from the main room.
Gail stops me, tugging me back inside.
“Don’t,” she says, softly.
“What the hell’s going on? It sounded like World War Three in there!”
Gail’s eyes are serious and she clings to my arm.
“Ana just told him she’s pregnant.”
I look at her in amazement. “Wow. Nice one, boss!” Nope, that was the wrong response. “Um, I take it the boss isn’t happy.”
Gail shakes her head sadly. “He’s scared. Shocked and scared.”
I remember that feeling well. When Lucy told me that I was going to be a father, I wondered how the hell I was going to protect this new life from a seriously fucked up world. And what kind of a father would I make? Hell, my gene pool should have been made extinct, if my own father was anything to go by. I’m not surprised Grey is freaking out.
He’s come a long way since he met Ana. I don’t say it very often – okay, never – but for a fucked up kinky bastard, he’s a good man. Pity he doesn’t know it. He copes best when he’s in control. Unlike now. Yeah, well, dream on because you’re married now buddy. Throw a kid into the equation, and he’ll be freaking out. My finger hovers over Flynn’s number on speed dial.
I can imagine how Grey is feeling. Really, I can. But he’d better not touch one hair of Ana’s head.
Gail and I both hear the door slam at the same time.
“Keep him safe,” she whispers.
I nod, wondering how the hell you protect someone from themselves when they’ve already pressed the self-destruct button.
He doesn’t even take the elevator, but runs down the emergency exit. I can hear his feet pounding on the concrete stairs until he explodes onto the street.
I trail twenty feet behind, not letting him out of my sight. I text Sawyer to let him know I’m with Grey.
At first, his direction is erratic and I realize he hasn’t got a clue where he’s going. He probably isn’t even aware what he’s doing. Evening pedestrians scatter out of his path, as fury and despair radiate from him.
He stops, staring at himself in front of a shop window. He rests the palms of his hands on the plate glass and I hear a soft thud as his head makes contact. His lips are moving but I can’t hear the words. It looks like he’s praying.
Suddenly, he stands upright and heads off in a new direction; this time, walking with purpose. It takes me a couple of minutes before I figure out that he’s heading for Flynn’s and I breathe a sigh of relief.
Which is short lived.
The office is shut, with no sign of life. Grey pulls out his phone and dials, his free hand tugging on his hair, his fingers scraping down the skin of his cheek, leaving vivid red wheals. When his call isn’t answered, I think he’s going to smash the phone against the wall, but he shoves it back in his pocket and starts walking again, crossing the road, weaving between lines of rush hour traffic, pushing through the evening crowds on the other side of the street.
There doesn’t seem to be any purpose to his movements and I keep expecting to see him start to run, trying to leave behind the demons that stalk him. Instead, they sit on his shoulder, whispering in his ear that he’ll be a bad father, a danger to his child, that he’s damaged, broken, unfit, unsafe.
I know, because I felt the same. I still do. Sometimes.
I consider whether or not I should approach him – persuade him to go back to the penthouse – but I’m one damn minute too late.
Because we’re outside Escala, and the demon bitch hooks a claw into him.
“Christian! This is a pleasant surprise.”
“Christian, are you alright? You look terrible.”
“Just… bad day.”
“What are you doing here? Did you come to see me?”
I really fucking hope the answer is no.
“I was in the area, Elena. That’s all.” His voice is distracted, distant. “Jesus, I need a drink.”
It seems to be like he’s talking to himself, but it’s taken as an invitation. Of course it is.
“I know just the place,” she says, with a cool smile, then slides a skinny arm through his.
He pulls back slightly.
“Oh, for goodness sake, Christian! We’re just two old friends going for a drink. Surely you’re allowed to do that.”
She tugs his arm and I see him look down, as if surprised to find her hand still on his. But he doesn’t shake it off, and they stroll into the slanting shadows.
I can’t hear what Grey says, but they walk down the street and head into the nearest bar.
I send a quick text to Gail, saying that he’s safe. I don’t think she needs to know the poison that he’ll be drinking in, given his present company.
I don’t bother to text Sawyer – he’ll know our whereabouts from the GPS in our cell phones. He knows I’ll call him if I need him. If Grey needs him.
Waiting until they’re situated and gotten the first drinks under their belts, I walk inside and find a seat where I can watch without being easily seen.
And I wait.
My glass of soda becomes warm as Grey continues to drink and drink, while her wine remains unouched; and he talks and talks to that woman. I can’t hear him, but I see the words pouring out him. Her expression is demure but I can see the triumph in her expression – she’s happy that he’s coming apart. It’s as if she expected it, wanted it. Maybe she really believes that she’s the only one who can give him what he needs. Only a guy as fractured as Grey could think she’s right. I know Gail believes that love heals everything. I don’t – but I’d like to.
The ice queen touches Grey’s hand briefly. It’s meant to seem like a friendly, flirty gesture, but when he doesn’t stop her, a small smirk lifts the corner of her raptor mouth. I half expect to see her incisors descend and start sucking his blood.
And then she leans into him and whispers in his ear.
I feel the hard, smooth texture of glass beneath my fingers and realize I’m in extreme fucking danger of gripping it so hard it shatters. I breathe out, trying to calm down. She’s still leaning into him, whispering, tempting him. She rests her hand on his thigh, stroking upwards.
Suddenly, his eyes go wide as awareness rushes in. He pushes her hand away and shakes his head vehemently.
A look of fury passes over her face, rapidly replaced by sadness, regret and defeat.
She stands, leans down to brush a kiss over his hair, and she walks away. Gone. For good, I hope. He finally told her no.
I loosen my tie a fraction, feeling like I can breathe more easily now the witch queen has left the building, like Elvis.
Grey signals the waitress who is practically drolling over him, thrusting her barely-covered tits into his face. He doesn’t even look up when she returns with a bottle of bourbon. I hope I’m not going to be peeling her plastic ass off of him later. I don’t think so. That’s never been his style. But then again, he’s never knocked up the love of his life before – addles a man’s brain.
By the time he stops drinking, he’s so shit-faced he can’t even walk straight.
I consider calling Sawyer to come and pick us up, but I hesitate with my finger over the dial button.
No, this is private. Grey wouldn’t want anyone to see him like this. Except me. Because I’m the invisible man.
And because I understand.
Love breaks you apart, makes you vulnerable. Then it puts you back together in a slightly different way, if you’re lucky. I was like that. Grey is a work in progress.
I walk over to the table and he looks up at me blearily.
“Time to go home now, sir.”
“Home!” he scoffs. “I haven’t got a fucking home. Nowhere. Don’t belong anywhere.” He laughs harshly, then glares at me. “How d’you do it?”
“Do what, sir?”
“Be a father? I don’t know how. I don’t want… why now? So fucking unfair. ‘They fuck you up, your mum and dad’.” *
It sounds like he’s quoting something but I’m not sure.
“I just do the best I can, sir. It’s not good enough, it never will be. But that’s the point – you keep trying – to be a better man, a better father.”
He stares at me, and I don’t know if my words are penetrating through the haze of alcohol.
“I can’t,” he slurs. “Can’t do it. So fucked up.”
He stands unsteadily and we head out, moving slowly as he lurches from step to step. People edge out of our path when they see us coming. I think that’s happened his whole life, one way or another.
When we reach the same shop window he stopped at earlier, he comes to a halt.
He stares at himself, a pale reflection blinking back at him.
“You stupid fucker,” he mumbles. “Fuckin’ useless waste of space. Everything. Everything you touch gets fucked up. God. Ana. Never. She’ll never… Broken.”
And he spits at his reflection, watching with fascination as the gob slides down the glass, leaving a faint trail.
He doesn’t speak again.
When we reach Escala, I steer him around to the garage entrance. No need for Frank the Doorman to see him. Self-loathing, grief like this – it’s private.
We ride the elevator in silence and when the doors slide open with a soft hiss, he stumbles off toward their bedroom. I wait for a moment, but don’t hear raised voices.
Gail is waiting for me in the staff quarters.
“How is he?”
“Home. Wasted. How’s Ana?”
“She cried herself to sleep.”
I shake my head tiredly, and Gail pulls me into her arms.
“They’ll work it out,” she says, soothingly.
I can’t help thinking she’s wrong.
“They love each other,” she says, confidently.
I want to believe she’s right, but love isn’t the problem.
+ + + + + + + +
Y’all know what’s coming. Hold onto your hats. Coming soon: Chapter 8 – The Perfect Storm.