Chapter 5: Masquerade
When I was a kid, my neighbour had this dog; it was desperate for attention but used to bark at everyone who went near it. Grey kinda reminds me of that dog.
I’ve definitely seen a different side to him since Ana Steele came on the scene. And it scares the fuck out of him. Despite being a rich bastard, he doesn’t really care that much about the money. Sure, he likes to have nice things, and I have to say he has A1 taste in cars, but that all pales into insignificance next to Ana: he’s finally found something – someone – that is more valuable, that he really cares about losing. And since this business with the Williams bitch, he’s been a hair’s breadth from Defcon 1 continually. I can tell that he’d like to order Ana to stay at Escala and never set foot out of the door; hell, he’d bubblewrap her if he could, and not in a kinky way.
But that’s not going to happen: Ana is determined to live her own life. I really admire her for that. She’s just a kid, but she knows what she wants – and she doesn’t want to live in a 24-carat gold cage.
So tonight, at this damn fundraiser, I’ll do my part to keep her safe.
I’ve sent Ryan and Sawyer over to Bellevue with the new guy, John Reynolds: they’ll do a full sweep and have eyes covering all the entrances. Welch’s team are doing background checks on the guests and staff – so I guess we’re good to go. Well, as good as it gets: nothing is ever 100% secure. I know that from too much fucking experience.
It makes me nervous as hell to think that Williams has a gun. It’s hard to see it: she was a clever, manipulative woman, but I never figured her for this crazy stalking shit. Guess she was a lot more fucked up than I’d realized. Then again, if she’s just lost her reason for living now her boyfriend has died, I can see why that would screw her up royally; so she wants back in on the only other time she felt safe – with the boss. But she’s giving Ana nightmares, and I won’t fucking stand for that.
I can’t stop Grey from going to this fundraiser, much as I’d like to, and I’m really not happy about it. I’d like to tell the team to wear protective clothing, but that’s going to stick out like a sore thumb. Even the most lightweight body armor is impossible to hide under a suit, and stab vests are bulky, too. Plus, I don’t want Ana to feel more threatened than she already does.
Ah hell, I’ve got those fucking fireworks to deal with on top of everything. I really hope the boss leaves before that shit starts. He doesn’t usually stay to the finale, but I have a feeling tonight will be different – in so many ways.
The phone interrupts my dark thoughts.
“You’re on speaker-phone, Welch. What’s the sitrep?”
“Bellevue is secured, as much as it can be. The staff and guest list checks haven’t brought up anything of concern. But…”
He hesitates: I really fucking hate it when he does that because I know it’s not going to be good news.
“Taylor, I’ve got some more intel on the weapon that the Williams woman bought: it’s a Taurus PT140 – a Millennium Pro CF.”
The air whistles through my teeth as I realize the significance of what he’s telling me. The bitch has bought a pistol made out of carbon fiber – it’s not going to get picked up by a metal detector. This is really bad, fucking news for two reasons. Firstly, the fucking obvious one that it removes one important tool in keeping firearms away from Ana and the boss; and secondly, it makes me think she’s got something specific planned. And I really don’t fucking like that.
“Ok, keep me updated, Welch. I’ll let Grey know.”
The boss isn’t going to like this. I need to let him know what Welch has found out.
But when I enter the living room, I can see that I’m interrupting an intimate moment. Over the last four years I’ve had to interrupt quite a few of the boss’s ‘intimate moments’, and I really fucking wish I hadn’t. The worst was this one time when a suicidal member of his staff was threatening to throw himself off the thirtieth floor of Grey House and refused to talk to anyone but Grey himself.
On that occasion, I had to knock on the door of his playroom while he was engaged in something involving a lot of ropes and some poor bitch suspended from the ceiling. I can’t even remember which of his women it was – probably the one with brown hair.
I was damn glad he took the time to put on his pants before he answered the door – not that I’m the sensitive kind, but that definitely isn’t in my job description. And because we were in a hurry to leave, I had to help him get her down. I damn well needed therapy after that and it was quite a while before I could take Sophie to see the trapeze artistes at the circus without getting flashbacks. I still get motion sickness thinking about it.
And all through that, Grey was just irritated that he’d had his coitus interrupted. It was that same expression on his face as when Andrea reminds him that he’s got to talk to a journalist: that’s how much it meant to him.
But this is different. I feel like a fucking creepy voyeur, disturbing him while he and Ana are having a moment – and all they’re doing is holding each other and kissing sweetly.
I cough politely.
His hands slip from Ana’s waist.
“Taylor.” His tone of voice hits the Kelvin scale.
I don’t want to say anything in front of Ana, but the boss knows me, and he’s astute enough to recognise that what I have to say is for his ears only.
“My study,” he snaps, and I march the hell out of there.
His voice softens as he tells Ana that he’ll take a rain check.
“What is it?” I like that the boss always gets straight to the point.
“Welch found out that Miss Williams obtained a weapon made of carbon fiber.”
And I really like that I don’t have to explain the blindingly obvious implications of that either.
He goes pale and I know it’s not fear for himself that’s making him look scared for the only second time since I’ve known him: the first was when Ana left.
He sits at his desk and holds his head in his hands for a moment. Then he straightens and takes command again.
“No-one, but no-one is to get close to Miss Steele tonight,” he snarls. “I want her watched every fucking second. If for any reason I can’t be with her, I don’t want her left alone. Understand?”
“How the fuck did Leila get a concealed weapon permit? The fucking gun laws in this country are crazy.”
He throws me a challenging look. It’s an old argument between us, but not one I’m going to get into now.
“I don’t want any fuck-ups tonight, Taylor. This is… important.”
For a moment I’m annoyed. Just because the boss wants to play Prince Fucking Charming and take Cinderella to the ball, he’s putting his life at risk – and Ana’s. If I could just persuade him to stay home until the Williams bitch is behind bars. But at the same time, I get his point of view, too. The poor sap is in love and he wants to have a slice of ordinary life tonight. That’s the thing about extreme wealth – it can bring extreme fucking problems, too. Every time the boss meets someone, he has to think about what they want from him, how they’re planning to use him. That’s another reason why Ana means so much to him: she damn well dislikes that he’s so wealthy. For some reasons she loves him for himself; now if the poor bastard could get his head around that, he might actually have that slice of happiness he’s reaching for.
Jeez, I wish Gail were here. She’s so much better at this touchy-feely crap. Right now the only thing I can do to help the boss is my own damn job – and do it well. Like he said: no fuck-ups. Although, as it’s the boss we’re talking about, I wouldn’t be surprised if fucking wasn’t definitely on his list of priorities tonight.
“And I don’t want Miss Steele going anywhere unaccompanied at any time. Clear?”
“Of course, sir.”
Does he seriously think I’m going to let anything happen to Ana? I’m not a fucking moron.
“Ok, we’re done here,” he says, and gets up to rejoin Ana in the main room.
I go back to my office and see from the CCTV that the guys are on their way back up.
“Sir!” I call out after him.
“Sawyer, Ryan, and the new guy Welch sent over, are on their way up.”
“I’ll brief them in ten,” he says, sounding very fucking tense.
“We’ll be ready.”
Too fucking right.
Luke introduces me to John Reynolds. I know Welch won’t have sent me an amateur and Reynolds seems like a solid guy. Doesn’t have much of a sense of humor though; he reminds me of me.
“Luke, anything to report at Bellevue?”
He sighs. “Apart from the fact it’s fucking wide open? There’s access from the water; the perimeter isn’t viable – a ten year old could get over their exterior wall if he had a mind to. Welch says the guest list checks out but I don’t like it. Any chance Grey will cancel?”
“Why the fuck didn’t I think of that? Oh wait, I did. And then I nearly got my ass fired for suggesting it. Anything useful you want to tell me, Luke?”
He has the sense to look pretty fucking embarrassed; I can see Ryan trying to hide a smile.
Ok, so maybe I’m being a might tetchy, but I think I’ve got every fucking reason. And it’s a masked ball, so telling the asses from a hole in the ground isn’t going to be easy.
“Got any good news?” I mutter, trying to calm down.
“Welch has arranged for a team to watch the perimeter: best I can say, boss.”
Yeah, now he’s trying to brown-nose me by calling me ‘boss’. The only person I want calling me ‘boss’ is Gail – and that ain’t never gonna happen. On the other hand, she called me ‘God’ the other night; I guess that’s kind of a promotion.
Reynolds looks over his shoulder.
“Heads up: officer on deck,” he mutters.
Grey paces into the room.
“Sir, you know Sawyer and Ryan; you haven’t met John Reynolds.”
They shake hands.
“They’ve been out to your parents’ to do a sweep, and Welch has eyes on the perimeter. It’s as good as it’s going to get.”
I shrug, sending him a loud and fucking clear message.
He frowns, but doesn’t say anything.
“Sawyer will be up front with me in the Audi,” I continue; “Ryan and Reynolds will be in the escort car.”
The boss looks irritated and I know it’s not with me, but this fucked-up situation.
“What time do you want to leave, sir?”
“Eight,” he says, tiredly, rubbing his forehead. “And tomorrow afternoon I want to take Miss Steele out on the Grace. Usual checks.”
He turns to go, and then something occurs to him.
“A word, Taylor.”
I follow him out of my office.
“Do you have a red lipstick?”
Excuse me? I don’t fucking think so!
He almost smiles as he reads my tense reaction.
“I was hoping Mrs Jones might have something?”
Oh. Whatever he’s got in mind, I really, really don’t want to know what it is.
“I’ll look for you, sir, but Mrs Jones will have my ass… won’t be very happy.”
“No, I don’t imagine she will,” he murmurs, without cracking so much as a faint smile. Bastard.
I check out Gail’s dressing table. Everything is put away neatly, but I know where she keeps all her shit. She doesn’t need all that warpaint crap; she’s a real natural beauty. To me, she looks most beautiful when she wakes up in my arms, and opens those beautiful blue eyes for the first time in the morning. That, and the way she looks when she’s ridden me over a few jumps. Damn, she looks fine with that wicked glint in her eye.
I pull out a lipstick. I have no idea if it’s one of Gail’s favorites or not: Dior, in a bright red shade called ‘Fireworks’. I really hope the boss isn’t going to wear it, because a) I so don’t need that image in my head, and b) it’ll really clash with his hair.
I hand it over without comment.
“Thank you,” he says, his voice carefully neutral. “Have Caroline Acton replace it and anything else you think Mrs Jones would like.”
And he wanders off in the direction of Ana’s bedroom.
I breathe a sigh of relief because I know I’ll have a couple of hours’ peace.
Sawyer, Ryan and Reynolds are kicking back in my lounge – that is, the staff lounge.
“Everything cool with Grey?” asks Luke.
“Yeah, well, as cool as it gets for him. He doesn’t want any fuck-ups tonight; I told him there wouldn’t be any – don’t you assholes make me into a liar.”
“Where’s the glorious Gail?” says Ryan, with a leer. “She’s a really great… cook.”
“If you want to keep your teeth in your mouth when you smile, you’ll fucking close it now,” I say, coolly.
He laughs out loud. Bastard.
“You’ve got a really sweet deal here, T,” says Sawyer. “Nice apartment, nice company, cushy number with Grey.”
I really didn’t think I’d ever hear the words ‘cushy’ and ‘Grey’ in the same sentence. I might have to rethink Sawyer’s level of intelligence. Yeah, pond life just got personality.
“Just yanking your chain, buddy,” he says, quickly, reading my level of irritation that just went up to 11. “But seriously, do you ever miss being a bootneck?”
“You mean sharing living space with 20 guys and eating MREs three times a day in 120-degree heat? Not so much.”
“Huh, you say so? What’s it like working for this Grey guy?” asks Reynolds. “You like this close protection work?”
I know he’s only recently punched out from the Navy Seals so I give him some leeway.
“It’s a different level of intensity. Like, you’re totally in some stranger’s life, but you’re not part of it either. It can get a bit crazy keeping everything separate. But Grey isn’t a publicity hound like some of the assholes I’ve worked for. He works, he sees his family and his girl. That’s it.”
Ok, so I might have been economical with the truth, but it’s no-one’s fucking business. I mean, the boss’s fucking is no-one’s business.
“So how much of a problem is this ex-girlfriend of his?” says Ryan. “I mean, what did he do to her that she’s coming after him with a gun?”
“We don’t know that she is after him: she was seen outside Miss Steele’s workplace,” I remind him. “Welch says her weapon is a Taurus PT140 – carbon fiber.”
I don’t need to explain to them what that means – and I have no intention of explaining the whole Domme-submissive game. I decide to change the subject.
“Grey told me he’s taking his boat out tomorrow afternoon, so I want that checked out tonight, and again in the morning.”
A couple of hours later, we all change into our fade-into-the-background good suits, and do a comms check while we’re waiting in the foyer.
“Luke, you’re with me in the Audi; John, Alex – you’re on escort. Everyone know what the fuck they’re doing?”
They all nod, and Grey strides over, looking tense.
“We’re good to go, sir.”
And I realize I’ve only got part of their attention, when Reynolds does his goldfish impersonation and Ryan looks he’s about to drool.
So fucking uncool.
I turn around and see Ana walking towards us. She looks un-fucking-believable. Just stunning. I mean, I always thought she was a cute kid, but right now she looks so damn beautiful. I feel kind of proud of her. Maybe it’ll feel like this when I see Sophie go to her first prom. Not that I’ll allow any creepy kid getting their paws on her. I read that teenage boys think about sex every 15 seconds – or maybe that was Grey, I can’t remember. Either way, I’ll be escorting Sophie to her first prom. And I’ll be armed.
But Ana looks amazing; I really wish Gail was here to see it.
“Anastasia, you look breathtaking.”
I feel like fucking cheering: the boss has managed to compliment his girl without making an ass of himself. It’s a Kodak moment, in a non-visual, auditory sort of way.
I send the goon patrol down to the garage to make sure there are no problems down there, while Grey and Ana enjoy a glass of champagne.
Finally we head out and I hear Ana ask the boss where he got the lipstick.
She starts to laugh, and then, out of respect for my feelings, smothers it immediately. God, she’s a great girl. But I really fucking wish she hadn’t asked, because Luke is going to own my ass after this.
I think I know how I can get him back – I’ll let him deal with Miss Mia-Exocet-mouth Grey. Yeah, payback. Well, it would be if he’d done anything, which he will. What can I say: I’m a planner.
We arrive at Bellevue and there’s a long line of cars snaking their way up the drive. I spot a black SUV sitting by the perimeter; it’s good to know Welch’s team is on the case.
Once we reach the green carpet, a valet opens the boss’s door, and Sawyer jumps out to open Miss Steele’s.
He escorts them discreetly while I park the car.
Ryan and Reynolds are checking out the pergola and entertainment areas; Sawyer is with the boss and Ana. I’ve just about finished doing a sweep of the house when the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I whip around and try to frame words, but nothing comes out. It’s like the nightmarish scene in ‘Ghostbusters’ where they conjure up the source of their own destruction just by thinking about it. But it’s not a 100 Puft Marshmallow Man who’s stalking me… it’s much, much worse.
“Hello, Taylor,” she says. “I was hoping I’d see you… by yourself.”
I break out into a cold sweat and my pulse rate goes through the roof.
Where the fuck is back-up?
“My date has been such a disappointment. But now you’re here! It must be my lucky night.”
I try to speak but my mouth has inconveniently frozen into the shape of a scream.
“Mom always says you shouldn’t send a boy to do a man’s work. I so agree, don’t you… Jason?”
I wonder if I can make it to the door before…
“Will you dance with me, Jason? I’m sure my brother wouldn’t mind. Just one little dance?”
Over my dead body – which looks like it could well be the case.
She takes a step closer and I measure the distance to the window. If I don’t stop to open it, I should just be able to make it through into the garden – I can call a glazier later.
But then there’s a figure in the doorway, and relief floods through me.
“All clear on the second story, T. Oh, sorry… should I come back later?”
Luke Sawyer is staring at me, a puzzled expression on his face.
“ ‘T’? Oh, wow, is that like code? That’s so cute! Who’s your friend, Jason? Hi, my name’s Mia. It’s really nice to meet one of Jason’s special friends at last.”
“Er… good evening. The name’s Sawyer, ma’am.”
“Oh, it’s so great to meet you Sawyer. Is your first name, like, Tom? Because that would be way cool. Or, you could use it as a nickname for Jason. That would be so funny!”
I really want to run.
“Oh, my! You’ve got those earpieces like real secret service men! Who are you talking to, Jason? Are there more of you? More of your friends, I mean? Can I have a go?”
She reaches up to touch my earpiece and I make a tactical retreat.
“We’re working, Miss Grey,” I say, severely.
She giggles. Christ she’s annoying.
“You’re so cute when you get all serious, Jason. What would you do if I attacked you now? Would you handcuff me?”
I start to sweat, and even Sawyer is looking nervous.
I wonder if I should draw my gun, but the way my luck’s going she’d probably catch the bullet in her teeth.
“Would you restrain me, Jason? Is that what you do with your friends?”
Sawyer’s eyes look like they’re on swivels, as his gaze toggles between us.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” I say, tightly, “I really have to go now.”
“You’re no fun at parties, T,” and she stalks off, looking for fresh prey.
I run my hand across my forehead, wiping off the sweat.
Across the other side of the room, Sawyer is tugging at his tie. “Getting mighty warm in here, T,” he says, nervously.
Too fucking right.
I head out to get some fresh air and see the boss dragging Ana across the lawn. From the look on his face, I’m left in no doubt what’s on his mind. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he threw her over his shoulder and made a run for it, he looks so fucking desperate.
“I’ll wait here,” I say to Sawyer.
He glances towards Grey and Ana. “Roger that,” he says and wanders off to get some food.
Whatever goes on inside the house, they’re not long. Yeah, whatever goes on. They come out, looking flushed and relaxed. I really wish Gail wasn’t away this weekend.
I see the boss twirling his girl around in his arms on the dance floor, and I really wish I was here with Gail; better still, I want to dance with her at our wedding.
Why won’t she see that the job I do is different from the person that I am? So, I carry a gun to work. Hell, this is America; it’s in the fucking constitution – the ‘right to bear arms’. But if it’s going to fucking come between us, I might have to rethink my career path. After all, who lies on their death bed wishing they’d spent more time at the office?
But then I see Ana getting up to go to the restroom. I’m really surprised that Grey doesn’t go with her: that’s what fucking on the job does to you – strips you of judgement. I follow cautiously, not wanting to be caught stalking a lady on the way to, well, her business.
And Ana is prey immediately: that fucking Lincoln bitch is on the prowl. I can tell she’s been waiting for her moment.
The boss really won’t like that. I really don’t like that.
I pull out my cell.
“What is it, Taylor?” says the boss, sounding cranky.
“Sir, Miss Steele has just been intercepted in the dining room marquee by Mrs Lincoln. I thought you’d want to know.”
He swears horribly, which is pretty fucking shocking, and ends the call.
I keep an eye on the bitch: I’ll drag her out of here by her fucking hair if she so much as lays a finger on Ana.
They start talking: or rather the bitch starts lecturing, and Ana looks tense. I want to intervene and end this shit, but it’s not my place. But, to my surprise and delight, Ana starts giggling and the bitch looks really pissed.
I don’t hear what Ana says to her, but whatever it is, the bitch’s jaw is on the floor. I feel like fucking cheering: little Miss Steele is no pushover.
The boss arrives looking stressed, glancing at me as I stare back impassively. Nevertheless, my expression says, Over to you, boss.
Ana marches straight past him, her back stiff and straight. He glances back briefly at the bitch who beckons him over, but he makes the smart choice and follows Ana.
I can’t help turning to watch the bitch’s expression – it’s really fucking scary, and a shiver runs through me. That is one cold-hearted daughter of Satan.
The rest of the evening passes without incident – until it’s time for the fireworks.
Did I mention how much I fucking hate fireworks?
Dogs are smart critters: they fucking hate fireworks, too. They recognise that the noise and cloud of sparks are unnatural and really fucking dangerous. A dog will cower and hide; hell, they’d put their paws over their damn ears if they could. It takes me back to my time with the Marines. Even now, when I hear that noise and see that bright flash in the sky, I want to yell ‘incoming’ and hit the fucking deck. Which kinda puts a damper on things when people are enjoying the fireworks.
On top of that, all the damn guests are surging around the boss and Ana. At least the fuckers have removed their masks so I’ll be able to tell if the Williams woman is within ten clicks.
I can see Grey glancing at me with something like sympathy in his expression. He knows this isn’t easy for me, the whole firework fiasco. Some men would throw it in my fucking face, but the boss never has.
When it’s all over, I start to breathe again.
I signal to Grey to wait until the crowd has dispersed, and then we can safely exit to the cars.
Thank fuck this evening is over at last.