Chapter 19: The Long Way Home

It’s pleasant strolling through the late evening Savannah sunshine. The heat of the day has burned itself out and people are taking it easy, chilling out in bars, or sitting on the sidewalk cafés enjoying ice tea. I think I even spotted a mint julep but I’m probably just having a ‘Gone with the Wind’ moment.

I wish Gail were here. She’d love poking around in all these little shops or people-watching from some watering-hole. She has such a zest for life and I fucking love that about her. I wish I could call her but I know she was planning on taking the afternoon off to go clothes shopping and then have dinner with a friend. I hope she’ll buy something sexy.

Ok, I probably shouldn’t dwell on that too much, or I’m going to get hot and uncomfortable pretty damn quick. Especially as I’m wearing a denim jacket to hide my shoulder holster.

I decide to go back to the hotel and take a swim in the pool. I hope it’s not one of those over-heated pools where people who actually want to swim end up sweating.

But I’m stopped in my tracks when I walk through the bar because Miss Steele is sitting there with an attractive older woman. I recognise her from the files – Miss Steele’s much-married mother. And then I spot the boss wandering into the bar. He looks distracted and he’s staring at his phone. He looks up and sees her. His expression shifts to wonder and I have to look away, because despite the crowds in the bar, this is a private moment.

I’m not needed so I leave him to it.

Back in my room I use the wall safe to secure my Korth then head to the outdoor pool. But it’s a huge disappointment: instead of somewhere I can really swim, it’s what they call a ‘relaxation pool’ which means it’s slightly bigger than Sophie’s plastic paddling pool. I swim for half an hour anyway and then lounge on the steps, watching the sky change color, sinking towards night.

A few other guests arrive to cool off. Out of habit I keep an eye on who’s around me, evaluating any potential problems. Two of the women are staring at me; usually I’m with the boss so he gets the lion’s share of the attention, no competition, but travelling all over the world with him, as I do, I’ve had a certain number of, let’s call them, opportunities. You wouldn’t believe the number of bored women, quite a few of them who are married, that come onto me. Some get turned on by the fact that I’m the hired muscle, as they see it; others because I carry a gun, for fucks sake. Some of the other guys I know in this line of work take all they can get, but that’s not me.

I can tell that one of the women is just enjoying the view, but the other has that predatory look that tells me she’s trying to calculate what I’m worth.

I really don’t need the hassle so I stand up to leave. She smiles at her friend and goes to make her move.

“Mr Taylor! Mr Taylor… sorry to bother you, sir, but just to let you know, your Bugatti has arrived.”

Dubois is panting slightly, whether it’s from the heat or the excitement of the Bugatti’s arrival, I can’t tell.

“We have it in our secure garage. I thought you’d like to know, Mr Taylor.”

“Thanks, Mr Dubois. I’ll take the keys.”

He hands them over and the woman’s eyes light up like she’s just won the state lottery.

But I make a quick exit, evading her snare. Even so, I glance over my shoulder; she looks like someone just stole her ice-cream. I can’t help smiling: sometimes it’s great being me.

I head back to my room and check over the arrangements for the morning. It’ll be another early start but nothing to worry about on my present body-clock.

*  *  *  *

It’s still dark when my alarm goes off. For a moment I reach out for Gail, then I remember where I am.

Room service leaves bagels and fresh fruit and a pot of coffee while I’m showering. Not bad: not up to Gail’s standards.

I pull on a pair of jeans and a T-shirt and head out, dropping off the Bugatti keys with reception. I really hope I get a chance to drive it but I’m not holding my breath.

The soaring club were not thrilled at the prospect of such an early start. They pointed out that the thermals are shit at this time of day. But the boss gets what the boss wants and when money is no object, it’s not surprising how many times ‘no’ become ‘yes’. But the tow pilot is a professional: a British speed jock who’s already done the prelims before I get there.

Security shouldn’t be a problem: I can see anyone coming from miles around. I check out the glider for any obvious signs of tampering. I’m not expecting any trouble, but that’s not the point – this is my job. At least I’m the only person who knows who the booking is for.

“Ex forces?”

“Excuse me?”

“You’re ex Forces, aren’t you? I can always tell. Name’s Benson, Mark Benson.”

Not Bond, James Bond?

“Jason Taylor.”

“So, who’s the big-shot I’ll be towing.”

“My boss.”

“You going to give me a name?”

“Sure, when you meet him.”

He laughs. “Fair enough. Well, he won’t be up there long: twenty minute tops. You want a coffee, Taylor?”

“Sure, that would be good.”

But just as I agree to another caffeine fix, I hear the throaty roar of the Bugatti. Benson’s eyes bug out so far I think they’re about to dribble down his face.

I’ve never seen the boss look so… what’s the word… happy. He walks round to open the door for Miss Steele and he looks so proud of her. It’s like watching one of those cheesy chick flicks that Gail’s sister likes. Fine if you’re the one who’s floating on air, but faintly nauseating for anyone who has to watch. But I’ve got to admit, they look good together.

Miss Steele is beaming at me and I can’t help smiling back.

“Mr Grey, this is your tow-pilot, Mr Mark Benson.”

They shake hands and talk about the pre-flight checks. I feel Miss Steele’s eyes on me.

“Hello, Taylor,” she murmurs shyly.

“Miss Steele.”

She frowns at me and it takes me all of 0.25 seconds to figure out why.

“Ana.”

She grins at me.

“He’s been hell on wheels the last few days.” What the fuck made me say that? It’s all that fucking happiness that’s going around! “Glad we’re here,” I add lamely.

The boss calls her and she gives that glorious, mischievous smile and I know my unprofessional words are safe with her.

“See you later,” she says softly and I throw her a mock salute that makes her giggle.

I head back to the parking lot. I just want to stroke the Bugatti. Yeah, yeah, I know, but I’m a guy!

The boss has told me to meet him back at the hotel at 10am. Reluctantly I say goodbye to the Bugatti, silently acknowledging that she’s almost as beautiful as Gail, and probably nearly as much fun to ride: the throbbing engine, the long, sleek lines, the… oh, for fucks sake!

I drive back to the hotel feeling slightly despondent. It’s way too early to call Gail. Instead I go back to my room, change into the suit and head to the breakfast lounge to have my second coffee of the day and start to read a local newspaper.

The boss is still smiling when he arrives an hour later. I can’t get used to see him this damn happy. It’s unnerving. I find myself hoping, really hoping, that he doesn’t screw this up. I could get used to having little Miss Steele’s shy smile in my day.

But first we’re off to a meeting with some big-wigs from the town council. They’re so desperate for Grey’s business that they’re climbing over themselves to polish his shoes and climb up his ass. He starts to look irritated as he listens to their sales pitch but then he’s distracted by an email message. From the look on his face I’d say it’s not about work. Jeez: the boss and Miss Steele are acting like a couple of teenagers!

It makes me think about Sophie. Her mom says that she’s already talking about boys – she’s seven, for fucks sake! If I have anything to do with it, she’ll have no dates till she’s graduated college. It pisses me off to acknowledge the fact I won’t have anything to do with it. I’m a part-time dad; I don’t see enough of my daughter.

The boss starts to wind up the meeting when I get a call on my cell. It’s Gail. That’s odd: she normally just texts when I’m away working so she doesn’t interrupt anything. I usually call her.

The boss looks up when he hears the ringtone and frowns. I point with my chin to show him I’m going to take the call outside and he gives a small nod of acknowledgement.

“Gail, honey, you ok?”

“Oh, Jason!”

Her voice is choked and I can tell she’s trying not to cry.

“Gail! What’s happened? Are you ok? Gail!”

But she can’t get the words out and for seconds that seem to last a lifetime, I’m holding my breath.

“Jason… I’m… I’m at the hospital.”

All the blood rushes from my face and I lean against the wall.

“Tell me you’re ok. Gail, please!”

“It’s not me, Jason,” she says, struggling to control her voice. “Leila came to the apartment…”

“Leila!”

“Yes. It was really early this morning. I’d only just got up. I heard someone in the apartment…”

I think my heart is going to stop out of sheer terror. And I wasn’t there. I wasn’t there.

“I was confused… I wondered if you’d come home early… but then I heard her shouting. She was screaming for Mr Grey. Just screaming and screaming and crying. She was… Jason, I’ve never seen anyone like that.”

“What did she do?”

The words are so tight in my throat I can hardly spit them out.

“She… she had a razor. I… I don’t think she would have hurt me, Jason, I really don’t… but she was so out of control… when she saw me she started screaming for him again. She wouldn’t believe me when I said he wasn’t there. She ran through the apartment. When she saw his bed hadn’t been slept in she collapsed on the floor. I thought that it was over because she was crying so hard. I… I tried to help her but she started shouting at me, saying she couldn’t take it anymore… and then…”

Her words fade away.

“Gail! What did she do?!”

I hear her take a gasping breath.

“She slit her wrist.”

Silence.

“Oh, god! Are you ok? She didn’t hurt you, did she?”

“No, I’m fine, Jason. Just… just a little shaken… I got some gauze out of the First Aid kit…”

“Fuck, Gail! You didn’t go near her again, did you?!”

“Of course I did. I was afraid she’d bleed to death. Anyway, the fight seemed to have gone out of her. She just sat on the floor. She wasn’t even crying anymore. I dialled 911 and the paramedics came. I’m here at the hospital with her now. She keeps asking for him.”

“I’m on my way, Gail. Just… just be careful. Don’t go near her again.”

“Jason, I’m fine. It’s been… worrying, but she’s the one who needs help – not me.”

And that does it. Anger surges through me: anger at Gail for being in danger; anger at myself for not being there; and anger for the fucked up bastard, my boss, who has let this happen.

But I don’t need anger: I need to take care of this. I need to be stone.

“Gail. I don’t want you at that hospital. I don’t want you anywhere near there. Go home now.”

“But Jason…”

“Now, Gail! This isn’t a fucking request! I want you home and I want you safe. I’m going to call Welch: one of his people will take you home and stay with you.”

“Jason, that’s not necessary…”

“Just fucking do it, Gail!”

So much for being like stone – I know I’m starting to lose it.

Her voice is quiet and hurt. “Ok.”

“Don’t move until Welch’s man gets there.”

“Ok.”

“Promise me!”

“I promise.”

“I’ll get home as soon as I can, baby.”

I want to say something that tells her how sorry I am: sorry that this has happened; sorry that I wasn’t there; sorry that I shouted at her, but I can’t find the words.”

“Bye, Jason.”

“Bye…” but she’s already gone. I feel like such an enormous shit.

But the next job is to call Welch. He’s as shocked as I am but immediately agrees to send Sawyer to protect Gail. I’m relieved. Luke’s a good guy; I’ve worked with him before and I trust him.

Next I call Stephan and tell him to have the jet on stand-by for immediate e-vac. He’s surprised, but doesn’t ask questions, thank fuck.

The fat fuckers of Savannah are doing their best to schmooze the boss. I don’t know if they’re just genetically stupid or too desperate to see that they’re irritating him even more. But I can’t wait for them to finish their ass-licking. We need to be moving.

“Sir, we have a situation.”

He sees the expression on my face and shakes off the burghers.

“What is it, Taylor?”

I take a deep breath.

“Miss Williams – Leila – she got into the apartment early this morning. Apparently she was looking for you. Gail found her… when she said that you weren’t there, Miss Williams attempted to slit her wrist. Gail got her to the hospital. She’s with her now. Welch is sending someone to take Gail home – I don’t want her to be alone.”

The boss is as white as bone.

“Fuck! Is Gail… is Mrs Jones ok?”

“She’s pretty shaken up, but physically she’s fine.”

“Leila got into the apartment?”

“Yes, sir.”

“But I changed all the security numbers.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Then how?”

“I don’t know, sir, but I’m going to fucking find out.”

“Tell Stephan to have the jet on stand-by. We’re flying back now.”

“Already done, sir.”

“Good.”

“Sir?”

“Yes?”

“Sir, I have to ask: have you… have you been in touch with Miss Williams lately?”

“Fuck, no! I haven’t heard from her in… two, nearly three years.”

I can see that a thought has occurred to him.

“But I think she stayed in touch with Susannah. I don’t know: maybe she gave her the new codes?”

“No, sir. All the codes were changed again.”

He shakes his head. “We’ll worry about that later. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

“Yes, sir.”

In the car on the way to Hilton Head, he calls Miss Steele.

“I have to return to Seattle. Something’s come up. I am on my way to Hilton Head now. Please apologize to your mother – I can’t make dinner… I have a – situation – which I have to deal with. I’ll see you Friday. I’ll send Taylor to collect you from the airport if I can’t come myself… You, too, baby.”

He hangs up and leans back in his seat, his eyes closed.

I really fucking hate him. If it weren’t for his fucked up lifestyle, Gail would never have been in this danger.

I put my foot down and do 110mph all the way to the airfield. Grey doesn’t say a word.

The flight back is unbearable: I don’t know who is the most tense, me or Grey.

I still can’t work out how Leila got into the apartment. I’m not the fucking head of security for nothing, for fucks sake. I’ve been over everything in my head a thousand fucking times. How did she get in? How long had she been there? What if she’d attacked Gail in her sleep? I wasn’t there! I WASN’T FUCKING THERE! The thought swirls around in my head. I keep trying to tell myself that Gail is ok and that no harm came to her, but I also realise it was close. It could have gone either way.

Grey leaves me alone, which is just as well, because the way I’m feeling, I could rip his fucking head off.

Stephan has called ahead so the SUV is waiting in the private hangar at Sea-Tac. I throw our luggage into the trunk and barely wait for Grey to close his door before I’m driving like a bat out of hell.

I screech into the garage at Escala. Fuck the luggage, I’ll get that later. We get in the elevator and he punches in the access code for the penthouse.

As the doors open, I see the heavy, reassuring presence of Luke Sawyer. We shake hands and I mumble Grey’s name to him.

I run through the main room until I get to the staff quarters.

“Gail!”

She’s sitting hunched over a coffee at the kitchen table. Her eyes are red and it’s clear she’s been crying again.

“Oh, baby!”

I wrap her in my arms and she lets go, weeping into my shoulder. I’ve never seen her like this before. Not my strong, beautiful woman. My rock. My everything.

“There was so much blood… so much…”

“Ssh, baby. You don’t have to talk.”

I hold her, stroking her hair. When I look up the boss is standing at the door. My expression makes it plain he’s not welcome.

“I just need to see that Mrs Jones is ok.”

“No, she’s NOT fucking ok!” I snarl at him.

He looks taken aback but not angry.

“Jason…” Gail lays a calming hand on my arm. “I’ll be ok. Thank you, Mr Grey.”

“I have to ask you …about Miss Williams. Did she say why she wanted to see me? What drove her to this?”

“No, sir. The only coherent thing she said, apart from your name, was ‘he’s gone’. I thought at the time she meant you, but I wondered later if she meant someone else.” She pauses. “She told me, before she left two years ago, she told me she was going to get married. Is that right?”

Grey nods slowly. “Yes. I haven’t seen her since then. I don’t know what could have precipitated this. I’m …sorry… that you’ve been sucked into this, Mrs Jones. Security will be tightened up – we’ll find out how she got in.”

Yeah, yeah, pile the fucking guilt on my plate, Grey. I fucking KNOW security is my job. I fucked up. I know it. I fucked up.

But I can’t bring myself to look at him and eventually he leaves.

I know I’m taking out my anger on him, but the truth is it’s just as much my fault as his. Security is my responsibility. And because I screwed up, the woman I love could have been badly hurt. I just want to hold her and hold her and never let her go.

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