“Hi, Taylor,” mutters Ana, as she stalks past me.
She looks as happy to be home as a pig at a barbecue.
“Mrs. Grey,” I reply, doing my best to blend into the scenery.
You get taught that in the Marines. Of course, blending usually requires camouflage, not a $900 suit.
Grey follows, utterly bemused. Guess he didn’t study Women 101 at that Ivy League college of his, a course also known as What to do, when you don’t know what to do: clueless (for beginners).
Gail is working in their kitchen, so that should keep the carnage to a minimum, although Ana has a look in her eye that tells me Grey is about to get his ass handed to him. Could be interesting.
I take the long way around to my office, avoiding the warzone that is more usually called the main room. My office is far enough away so that I can’t overhear them; near enough to get there quickly if weapons are involved.
Three seconds later, Gail follows.
“I thought I’d come hide with you.”
“I’m not hiding – I made a strategic retreat. There’s a difference.”
She raises an eyebrow and shakes her head.
“What on earth is all that about? You could cut the atmosphere with a knife!”
I wince. No weapons, please.
“I think it’s about the fact that her email address is still ‘Miss Steele’ at work.”
“Ah,” says Gail. “That thorny issue.”
“Why is it a thorny issue – you changed your name?”
Is this her way of telling me that she doesn’t want to be Mrs. Taylor?
“Because she’s young; because this is the twenty-first century. And probably because she’s been called Anastasia Steele for 21 years, it’ll feel very strange to her to change it.”
“She already changed it when she married him.”
“It’s not that simple – she wants to make it on her own and not trade on Mr. Grey’s name. Besides, she’s trying to find a way to keep her own identity – Mr. Grey can be… rather domineering, as we know.”
“But I think she already agreed.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, when I drove the boss to Ana’s office this afternoon, he…”
Gail loses some of her glorious rosy color and stares at me, horrified.
“You did what?”
“I drove the boss to Ana’s office.”
“Oh no,” Gail shakes her head, sadly.
“He steamrolled her.”
“Yeah, probably. Well, he was smiling when he came out. And I don’t think it was because they’d had time to fu…”
“Um, time to fulminate on the repercussions of her changing her name.”
“But you will, won’t you?”
It’s my turn to roll my eyes, and I accompany that with pulling my woman into my arms.
“I mean, you’ll be Mrs. Taylor, won’t you?”
She hesitates and suddenly, I’m not so sure, and it’s a real fucking kick in the gut.
She cocks her head to one side.
“Do you want me to?”
“Then I will.”
“I said so, Jason, and I meant it.”
I’m a lucky sonofabitch. But now I have another question.
“How come you never went back to being Gail Lucas? You don’t have to tell me…”
“I don’t mind. When… when Gareth died, his name was the only thing I had to hold onto. If I changed my name back, well, it would be as if he’d never existed. I know that doesn’t make much sense…”
I’m such a fucking dumbass for bringing this up. I hate it when she’s upset.
But the boss’s bellow from the main room lets me off the hook – and lets us know he’s still alive. The beast wants feeding.
I kiss her hair lightly, really wanting to do so much more, and my arms drop away, reluctance in every nerve-ending.
“I’d better go, Jason. Don’t forget – that Matteo woman is coming at eight. And by the way, if she so much as lays a finger on you, I’ll snap it off.”
I can’t help smiling as Gail stomps off. I love it when she gets all possessive – that’s hot.
But she’s right about Gia Matteo – she’s in the Mrs. Lincoln category, possibly without the whips and chains, although I wouldn’t lay bets. But under the skin, she’s the same creature – made of ice and stone.
As we’re eating our supper, the kind of shrimp salad that could make a man sell is soul – if I hadn’t already given it to Gail – I raise another thorny issue.
“So, I was thinking…”
“Did it tire you out, Jason?”
“Careful, Mrs. Jones, or I might have to show you how not tired I am, just to prove a point.”
“And that would be a problem because?”
This woman will be the death of me.
I can’t help laughing. “Nope, no problem. Looking forward to it, in fact.”
“I’m sorry, I interrupted you… you were claiming to have been thinking… a dangerous activity, I might suggest.”
“I was thinking about our wedding.”
“Well, we said we’d talk about it once the Greys were back from their honeymoon.”
Gail looks flustered.
“Yes, we did.”
“Okay, you’re freaking me out a bit here, baby.”
She sighs. “Sorry, it’s just… I want to be married to you, Jason, I do. I just don’t want to get married. All the fuss. As long as we do it quietly. Is that alright?”
“Whatever you want, baby. I just want it to be… real. And soon.”
“So you wouldn’t mind if it was small? Just Allison and the family? Who would you invite?”
“Um, well, Sophie would really like to be a bridesmaid. I sorta already said she could.”
Gail smiles. “Of course – that would be wonderful. Who did you have in mind for a Best Man.”
“That’d be me, baby.”
She snorts with laughter. “Modesty becomes you, sir.”
“You know it!”
“Seriously? One of your military friends.”
“Would you mind?”
“No, silly. Just as long as there are no firearms at the reception.”
“Can’t guarantee it.”
“I mean it, Jason Taylor!”
I hem and haw a bit because the only two guys I’d invite love their weapons more than they love, um, their weapons.
“So, who do you have in mind?”
“John Salone, guy I did basic training with. And Cyclops, um, Jim Henbrey, guy from the unit.”
“Is that all?”
“Yup. That’s my guest list.”
“What about Mr. and Mrs. Grey?”
“Fuck, Gail! They’re our employers, not our friends.”
“Still, it would be a nice gesture.”
“I don’t know, Gail. I’d feel like I was still working if Grey was there.”
“Well, what if we invited Luke and Ry, too?”
“Ah, hell. I see those fuckers 24/7 as it is!”
“Well, just think about it. We could have a nice dinner somewhere in town. A private room – there’d only be 14 of us.”
I do the math and realize she’s already decided how it’s going to be. Yeah well, the only job the groom has is to turn up in a spiffy suit. I can do that. I’ll give my woman whatever she wants.
“Where do you want to go for honeymoon, baby?”
I don’t give a fuck where we go, as long as it’s somewhere with a king size bed and room service. I have standards.
“What do you want, Jason?”
“You. Naked. With ice cream. Location is unimportant.” Maybe chocolate. Women like chocolate. Melted chocolate. Plus – it’s dirrrrty.
She laughs. “I see! Well, I think we can do that. But it’ll have to be somewhere warm…”
“Or somewhere cold with very good central heating.”
Gail ignores that.
“What about Hawaii? I’ve always wanted to go there.”
“Yeah, Hawaii would be good. You’d like it.”
Gail looks disappointed. “Have you already been there?”
“I was stationed at Kaneohe Bay for six months, but I promise, you’ll love it.”
“Well, it was just a suggestion. I’ll look into the cost of flights.”
“No need. Grey says we can use the jet.”
Oh, guess I forgot to mention that.
“Yeah, the boss said we could go by Greyforce One.”
Gail gets this wistful, goofy look on her face. “Oh, he’s such a good man. I’m so glad we’re inviting him to our wedding.”
Yeah, I know I have no choice in this. Fuck. Gail is batting 400. And it’s game over.
Back in my office, I watch as Gia Matteo drives her Porsche 911 into the underground garage. It’s cherry red, flashy. A hooker’s car. Suits her.
I program in the penthouse code to the elevator and watch her as she ascends. She undoes a couple more buttons on her shirt and reapplies a thick layer of Harlot Red color to her lips. Then she does that hair fluffing thing. I never really understood that – a woman has just brushed her hair, then she fluffs it? What’s that about? Lucy used to do that. It drove me crazy – and not in a good way. Thank God Gail doesn’t.
And then Matteo pushes up her tits – and looks right at the CCTV as she does it. She smiles, knowing I’m watching her. Bitch likes to put on a show.
The doors slide open with a soft hiss and she stalks out, her heels clicking on the marble floor.
“Good evening, Taylor. Christian is expecting me.”
If I didn’t know that already your scrawny ass wouldn’t have got past the 25th floor.
Her eyes flick up and down my body, looking at me the way she always does, measuring, assessing. There aren’t many times in a man’s life when he thanks God he’s not filthy rich – this is one of them. Matteo likes her men loaded – and not just in the pants department.
I escort her through to the main room. The boss and Ana are dancing. It’s a moment I don’t want to disturb but the bitch is already jostling to get past me.
“Miss Matteo is here,” I announce, with zero inflection in my voice.
I know that the boss’s brother has fucked her. I can see that she’s attractive and polished, but there’s no warmth. And from the way she’s behaving tonight, she’s got her sights set on climbing Seattle’s social ladder another rung. No wonder she and her older sister, Donya, are known as the Ivy sisters. It looks like she intends on climbing over Ana to get what she wants.
That pisses me off.
But this isn’t the kind of protection that the boss pays me for, so Ana is on her own. But Miss Steele – Mrs. Grey – is not the pushover she appears. The trouble is, I know she’s off her game tonight, having fought with the boss already, so she’s feeling vulnerable right now and… Yeah, not my business.
I head back to my office and read through the background checks on five potential new employees at Grey House to distract me. I reject one – a woman with gambling debts. She can do the job, no doubt, but her history shows that she’s a weak link the company doesn’t need – she could be bribed. Even as I reject her, I know I’m crushing someone’s hope for the future.
My cell rings and Welch’s ID is on screen.
“Taylor, I have an update on Hyde.”
My old CO gets straight to the point.
“Nothing good; he hasn’t been in his apartment for weeks. That suggests two things: that he’s been planning something – and that he has help.”
Fuck, just what we don’t need.
“I’ll get Grey – he’ll want to know this.”
I put Welch on hold and find the boss.
Ana is standing between him and the Matteo woman, and the sight makes me smile. Ana is Grey’s buffer, his pint-size bodyguard, his human shield. While he’d have no problems handling her, Ana is already on the job – and she looks pissed. I feel the warm glow of paternal pride as she flexes her fierce little claws. Go, Ana!
Yeah, I didn’t say that out loud because I’m not a pom-poms kind of guy. Unless Gail… Mind on the job, Taylor!
“I need to confer with you on an urgent matter, Mr. Grey.”
He looks up and nods minutely. Then he smiles at Ana.
“Mrs. Grey is in charge of this project,” he says clearly, for Matteo’s benefit – and maybe Ana’s, too. “She has absolute carte blanche. Whatever she wants, it’s hers. I completely trust her instincts. She’s very shrewd.”
He’s laying it out for Matteo. Well, she’s a smart woman – maybe she’ll take the hint.
Back in the office, I put the phone on speaker and Welch explains the situation.
“Up until this point, we’d assumed Hyde was working alone, a simple grudge because he was fired. That no longer seems to be the case. We’re going to have to go back through his file and see if he has any known associates, anyone he’d trust. That could be a big job. No one has previously cropped up on our radar. We need to dig deeper. He has resources – and he’s smart.”
“Fuck.” Grey swears softly. “What is this bastard planning?”
There’s silence, because none of us has an answer.
“Surveillance on my family?”
“As previously agreed, Mr. Grey. But it would be easier if they’d be prepared to restrict their movements further. Your parents have given us their daily itinerary, as has your brother. Your grandparents have extended their vacation in Boston, and I have a team watching them 24/7.”
He clears his throat.
“But Miss Grey is… less cooperative.”
“Fucking, Mia! What’s she doing?”
“She refuses to appreciate the risk, Mr. Grey. Perhaps if we explained the level of threat…”
“No! I don’t want my family to have to worry. This is my shit.”
“Mr. Grey, it makes it much harder to guarantee your sister’s safety when eluding her security staff has become such a fascinating game to her.”
Grey shakes his head. “I’ll get my father to speak to her. Again. Thank you, Welch.”
He stalks out of the room.
Mia fucking Grey.
“Will Grey Senior be able to talk sense to her?” Welch asks me.
“Doubtful. Just make it harder for her. New faces, keep swapping the teams. Change the shift patterns – nothing regular.”
“Okay, Taylor. Status update report will be emailed within the hour.”
I click the phone off and am surprised to find that Grey has returned to my office.
“There’s something else I wanted to ask you, Taylor.”
“When Mrs. Grey and I move to the new house, I was very much hoping that you and… Mrs. Taylor-to-be… will make the move with us. You would have your own separate quarters, as well as keeping your suite here.”
Of course, I’d considered what his marriage to Ana would mean for our working arrangement, and I was wondering how he’d want to play this.
“You would have… space… to bring your daughter, if you wanted to. I’m aware,” he pauses again, a slight smile on his face, “I’m aware that you have had reservations when it comes to Sophie staying here. But, that wouldn’t apply at the new house.”
We both know he’s referring to his frequent and overt displays of kinky-fuckery that I’ve walked in on more times than I care to remember over the years. I’ve even considered Rohypnol.
“I hope you’ll think it over.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll discuss it with G… with Mrs. Jones.”
He nods and leaves the room.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet the new improved, recently upgraded Master of the Universe (Solar System Branch), Mark II.
A few minutes later, I hear Ana speaking loudly. “Taylor will see you out,” she says, crisply.
The Matteo woman has her tail firmly between her legs and Grey is holding in a suppressed grin. I don’t know what Ana has said to her, but Gia looks like she’s about to piss herself.
I’m so proud. My little girl – all grown up. Now if she could just find Hyde, cut off his balls and feed them to him, we could all go home happy.
Gia leaves, her face flushed, her lips tight, and she doesn’t eye-fuck me on the way out. Result. The Greys disappear to their bedroom, and I finish up in my office.
I pull open my desk drawer and stare for the thousandth time at what it contains.
I look up to see Gail smiling at me.
“Time for you to turn off that darn computer, come to bed, and make me a happy woman, Jason.”
I stand up slowly, my face serious, and take her hands in mine.
“Gail, I love you for so many reasons. Your smile, your kindness, the goodness that shines through you. You give me hope in a fucked up world and I want to spend the rest of my life bugging the hell out of you just to see the challenge flashing in your eyes. I want you to be my wife, and wear my ring, because it’s either that or a giant sign following you around telling every other bastard to fuck off.”
And I open the small box and hold it out to her in the palm of my hand.
She takes a long, shuddering breath, and opens the ring box.
“Oh, Jason. It’s beautiful. And that was possibly the worst proposal speech I’ve ever heard, and I’ve read a lot of romances. But it was perfect, too, because it was unique – just like you. And I love you. Yes, I’ll wear your ring. Yes, I’ll marry you.”
The ring is platinum, set with nine diamonds in a channel setting, and it looks fucking perfect as I slip it onto the fourth finger of her left hand.
She pulls on my arms to bring me nearer, and she smiles up at me. Her skin is warm under my fingers and I just want to kiss her.
“Did you practice that speech?”
“I practiced a speech, but not that one. I’m more of an in-the-moment kind of guy.”
And she kisses me – sweetly, warmly, sensually. It’s so much – but not enough. I press her into my body and feel her heat against me.
“Bedroom,” she breathes into my skin. “One minute.”
Thirty seconds later, I follow. And run slap bang into Ana.
“Mrs. Grey, excuse me.”
Holy shit! Is the woman trying to kill me? All she’s wearing is stockings, a garter belt and the boss’s shirt. Nope, she’s not trying to kill me – she’s going to end up with the boss killing me. He definitely won’t want me seeing her like that.
“Um, Taylor, hi… um. I’m cutting Christian’s hair.”
Yeah, and I’m Vidal Sassoon.
“After you, ma’am,” I say, stepping to one side quickly, hoping she’ll take the hint and leave.
“Thank you,” she gasps over her shoulder as she scampers away.
I want to say, Don’t run with scissors but it collides with I need a new fucking job, and I end up saying nothing.
The boss wasn’t happy going to New York without Ana. I’m not saying he’s going to win the Mr. Sunshine award any time soon, but that morning he was verging on being a whiny emo bitch. The plane was too hot, the plane was too cold, the seat was the wrong shape for his goddam ass.
Julianne, the blonde air steward, remained her usual serene self, which meant she put up with his bad temper and didn’t roll her eyes once – not that I saw.
To be fair, with all the shit that had been going down, I understood the way he was feeling. The most precious thing he owned was not his $2.3 million jet, the Seattle penthouse, billion dollar-generating Grey House – but Ana, a five foot four brunette who was getting further and further away from him with every second we were in the air. And Hyde was out there somewhere, with who knows what craziness going on in his pony-tailed, point head. So I couldn’t really blame Grey for acting like he had a broom up his ass. Didn’t mean to say I liked it either. About Grey, I mean. I’ve never had a broom up my ass, although the boss…
Sawyer and Ryan were on duty in Seattle along with Prescott, a new female operative that Welch had sent over.
Grey hadn’t been too happy about that, but Welch had persuaded him that Mrs. Grey might feel less watched if her close operative was a woman. Ana seems a little cool towards her but that doesn’t worry me. They don’t have to swap knitting recipes.
At least Ana understands that we have a job to do. Unlike Mia I-wish-her-brain-was-as-fast-as-her-mouth Grey. She’s still trying to give her team the slip – her game-playing is giving Welch more gray hairs than a badger at a fur convention.
Ana’s father is ex-army, so she’s grown up understanding which rules need to be followed. I was intrigued to hear her views on guns – which were the complete opposite of Grey’s. The right to bear arms is in the Constitution and I can’t see that changing anytime soon. If the powers that be could make sure that only the good guys had guns, I’d be all for gun control. There is nothing more fucking scary than an untrained person with a weapon.
We’re staying the night at Grey’s New York apartment. It might seem excessive to have another penthouse in Manhattan that gets used maybe six or seven times a year by Grey or his family, but I’ve stayed in a lot of top class hotels with clients over the years. It gets old fast. There is nothing glamorous about staying in one generic five star hotel after another, no matter how good the service is, or how high class the hookers.
I remember one time in Nigeria when I was with a colleague, Ronny Farcelli, who was a bit of a dickhead. I was off duty, reading in my room when I heard a knock at the door. I checked the peephole and saw a gorgeous woman standing at the door.
“The hotel manager thought you might like a massage, sir,” she said, and I had to say I was tempted. But without passing judgment, having sex with a strange woman in a country that has the world’s third highest number of HIV sufferers, isn’t smart in anyone’s language.
Now Ronny had made the mistake of irritating the shit out of me with his crappy attitude. I decided it was payback time.
“No, I’m good thanks. But my colleague in room 302 would like some company. Ronny’s a little shy, so you might need to talk to him for a while.”
I slipped her 3,000 Naira, about twenty bucks, and she nodded, smiled professionally and left.
Truthfully, Ronny wasn’t shy, but he wasn’t into women either.
He told me at breakfast the next day that it had taken him 20 minutes to get rid of her.
I felt a bit guilty about wasting her time, but I hoped that I’d given her enough cash to make up for it. Seeing Ronny’s face – that had been priceless.
Grey had had offers, of course. You’d be surprised that even really top class places have a thriving black market in hos, bros, weed, speed, and anything else that your heart or libido desires. And with his looks and money, Grey was often a target.
My job is close protection, in all the varied forms it takes. It made it easier that all Grey’s kink was legal – and took place in Seattle.
This evening, we’re at another of his fucking tedious dinners. I don’t know how the guy can stand them. He looks on them as work, and he certainly works the room well. He knows what to say, who to say it to, and when. It’s like watching an actor at the top of his profession take to the stage, enthralling the audience. Or maybe a conductor, moving the orchestra to his own whim.
I’m the only who knows him well enough to tell that he’s more on edge than usual – the reason being obvious. Apart from the fear factor of having left Ana in a city where Hyde is out for blood, it’s the first night the boss and Ana have spent apart in months.
The first sign of trouble is when I get a text from Sawyer who’s guarding Ana tonight, along with Prescott.
* Mrs. Grey is en route to Zig Zag club *
My reply is professional and to the point.
* WTF?! *
Sawyer’s reply is totally pussy-whipped.
* She insisted *
I debate on whether to tell Grey. Sighing, I wonder if this will be his Vesuvius moment. I couldn’t blame the guy. I mean, he’s 3,000 miles away from home, there’s a guy with vendetta against him and his family, and his new wife has gone off the reservation, and completely dismantled the security protocol that was in place to keep her safe.
Yep, I need to tell Grey. I wish I was wearing body armor.
I interrupt him as he’s talking to Thomas Crowley, the CEO of Crowley Maritime from Jacksonville, Florida: 300 vessels, 5,300 employees – and in the boss’s sites.
His eyes snap up to mine.
“A situation has arisen.”
He apologizes abruptly and is out of his seat quickly.
“Is it Ana?”
“She’s safe, sir, but Sawyer has just informed me that she’s gone for drinks with Miss Kavanagh.”
His eyes narrow and he forces himself to take a deep breath.
“What the fuck is she playing at?! Why didn’t Sawyer stop her?”
“He doesn’t have that authority, sir.”
He tugs at his hair in frustration.
“She’s safe, sir.”
“Call the hangar staff. I want to be in the air within one hour.”
The plane is prepped and ready to go in 54 minutes. Not too shabby… but at the same time…
Fifty-four long minutes with the poster child for I-need-a-fucking-valium-to-chill-the-fuck-out-now-before-I-drive-my-long-suffering-staff-even-more-crazy.
Another text comes in from Sawyer.
* Blondie has told Mrs. G about increased security for the Greys. Mrs. G not happy *
Fucking great. That Kavanagh woman sure knows how to stir the pot.
“News?” asks Grey.
He’s trying to sound calm, but his panic is splintering through.
“It appears Miss Kavanagh has informed Mrs. Grey about the increased security provided for your family.”
He swears colorfully. I’m more a black-and-white guy myself. You know, stick to the classics.
He tries to call her again. Either her phone is off or she’s deliberately not answering.
“Give me Prescott’s number,” he snarls.
I ring the number and pass him my phone.
“Grey, here. Where the fuck are you? How much has she had to drink? No, don’t tell her I called.”
He ends the call and tosses the phone to me, too worried and upset to meet my eyes.
Grey knows he fucked up. I strongly recommended that he tell Ana the truth about the level of threat. He refused. He was wrong. And now he’s paying the price. He’ll have a heart attack before he’s 30 if he doesn’t learn to chill the fuck out.
Not that I blame him. If it were Gail, and a psycho was on the loose… well, I do know how it feels. I remember when Gail confronted Leila – the panic, the furious impotence of not being there. Yeah, I know how that feels, and despite everything, I’m pretty fucking pissed at Ana. She knows what Grey is like about her security.
The plane’s engines roar into life and within minutes we’re taxiing down the runway. It’s going to be a long flight.
After half an hour, I’m wishing I had one of those dart guns that vets use on wild animals. Grey is twitching and thrashing around in his seat, running his hands over his face as if he wants to tear it off, yanking on his hair.
I can’t look at him anymore, so I turn on my iPod and close my eyes. But I can feel him there, a dark presence in the cabin. It’s enough to give me claustrophobia. Another 150 minutes of this and I’ll be making a jump for it, fuck the parachute.
Three hours into the flight, Sawyer calls me on the jet’s phone. Julianne hands it to me as Grey watches me intently.
“T, we’ve had a situation here.”
That sounds bad.
“Hyde got into the apartment. Ryan took him down and he’s in police custody. Mrs. Grey is unharmed. Gail’s fine – she went straight to the saferoom as soon as Ryan realized there was an intruder.”
“How the fuck did Hyde get in?”
“Posed as a delivery guy.”
“Was he armed?”
I have a very bad feeling in my gut as I wait for him to finish.
“His intent was to kidnap Mrs. Grey. He had tape, chloroform, and a mattress in the back of his van.”
Holy fucking shit. I don’t need to be no Dr. Flynn to work out that Hyde is one psychotic batshit bastard.
And now I have to volunteer this information to Grey. I’ve always thought that a volunteer is a man who didn’t understand the question. This isn’t going to go well.
Grey’s complexion matches his name, as all color drains from his face. It’s his second worst fear come true – that someone would try to take Ana from him.
His worst fear is that they would succeed.