Chapter 1: Sucker For A Good Thriller
Writer’s block when you’re on a deadline is one of the suckiest things to ever suck. I had until the end of tomorrow to get at least a draft for the end of the book and here I was staring at a page while my brain made a hollow buzzing sound normally associated with the rotation of a microwave oven. An empty microwave oven.
Right on cue, my phone rang and I barely resisted the urge to hurl it out of the window when the caller ID confirmed it was Rod. A better agent a gal couldn’t ask for but he wasn’t going to be impressed when I admitted that I was – once again – nowhere near wrapping it up.
‘Hey, Rod, now’s not really-‘
‘Oh my god Tess, are you STILL staring at that page? I swear to god woman-‘
‘I know, I know! And for the record, calling me at ten past midnight to bitch me out some more isn’t exactly helping my creative process.’
‘You’ve got less than a day left to finish and you haven’t written another word yet?’
‘I’ve got, like…half a new sentence.’
A weary sigh was the understandable response to that.
‘Did you lose your muse, or something? Because birthing this book seems to be a hell of a-‘
I didn’t actually hear whatever he was ranting about for the next few minutes because it was like something went click in my head and finally stopped that damned microwave. Muse. Yes.
‘Rod, get me another week.’
‘I know what I need to do. One more week. I’ll finish it.’
‘What am I supposed to say to the god damned publisher?’
‘One week!’ Then I hung up on him. He’d get it done somehow. Now to hope against hope that said muse, the woman whose unusual and exceptional lifestyle had inspired the whole character of Rebecca Silver in the first place, would answer at least one of the phone numbers I had for her.
I was on number four of five when, thank god, it picked up and a familiar – and, I knew, fake – Yankee southern belle accent murmured a greeting.
‘Tess, what in the world has you calling me at such an ungodly hour?’
‘Are you on?’ I asked, just in case she was running a job. No knowing where in the world she was or what time of the day or night it might be there.
‘Not a bit.’ The accent dropped and I could almost hear the grin. ‘You sound terribly serious. Something wrong?’
‘I’m about to get set on fire by my agent and my publisher because I was supposed to have another book finished six months ago and I – ah – I’m still working on it.’
‘I need you, Sophie. A cuppa, a coffee, a snifter – whatever’s going, wherever you are right now – just some kind of story, something you’ve been up to, something-‘
‘Something to get the ol’ juices flowing again?’ she finished impishly. ‘A cuppa should be doable. I’m in Boston, but where are you?’
‘London, and catching the first flight to Boston I can get my arse on.’ I jammed my phone between my ear and my shoulder so I could work my laptop faster. ‘Where can I find you?’
In between laughing she gave me an address and told me to text her when I landed. I got a ticket booked, in between squeaks of thanks, and once she hung up I went through the flat in a whirlwind to throw essentials into a carry-on.
Rod rang me back two hours later when I arrived at Gatwick, advising that he’d been able to wrangle until the end of the following week, but only under the promise of dismemberment from Doug at the publisher. I praised him effusively for being the world’s best and most accommodating agent as I parked myself in the lounge, cracking open my laptop to find a hotel as close to spitting distance as possible to the address Sophie had given me.
I didn’t even bother trying to write on the seven hour flight, partially from exhaustion and partially because now I’d decided on an approach to break down this block I didn’t want to risk digging myself into a deeper hole than I was already in. As a result I arrived in Boston – after getting recognised by name at passport control, which was rather gratifying – more chipper and less reliant on caffeine than I’d expected given that it was nearly seven in the evening, local time.
Grabbing a cab to drop my bag at the Samuel Sewall Inn, which was apparently just around the corner, I texted Sophie that I was in theory in walking distance provided I didn’t get lost within six hundred yards, which just got a return text of table at the back ;) so with a shrug I grabbed my satchel bag and threw a notepad into it before heading out.
The sign for John McRory’s Place was a little ye olde Oirish twee, and not really the sort of place I would have expected to find someone like Sophie. This, naturally, meant I was in the right location, so I ducked in and was rather pleased to find a reasonably modern Boston bar-cum-pub that had not, contrary to the sign above the door, gone overboard attempting to replicate something from the depths of County Cork. It was bustling but not excessively so, and the TV in the corner was on a non-obnoxious volume so the ambient noise of conversation and clinking glasses never rose much above a background hum.
I elbowed my way gently to the barfront to secure a bottle of decent wine white and a pair of glasses, and was trying to be at least a little discreet with my glancing around when a long arm waved a clutch at me, and there she was tucked into a booth next to a man I didn’t even remotely recognise. Weird, I’d never seen her with a bloke unless she was running something on him.
‘You weren’t kidding when you said the first plane you could find,’ she said with a laugh, getting up for a quick hug of greeting once I’d unloaded the wine. ‘Don’t even look that jet-lagged…did you just teleport over here in sheer literary frustration?’
‘I wish,’ I shot back with a grin, then indicated her companion. ‘Shall I grab a third glass?’
‘No, no-‘ he stood and actually attempted an exit before Sophie grabbed his arm ‘-I was just going-‘
‘Not on your life.’ She slapped at his shoulder and he sat down again with the weary sigh of someone who was rather used to Sophie’s high-handedness. ‘Tess, this is Nate. Nate, Tess Fisher.’
‘Oh, well, nice to meet-‘ then he actually paused mid-handshake and narrowed one eye ‘-Tess Fisher of the New York Times Best Seller list? The Rebecca Silver books?’
‘Guilty,’ I admitted with a grin, trying to project blasé to hide the surge of curiosity. The guy didn’t have any of the signs of being one of Sophie’s marks – he wasn’t giving her moon-eyes constantly, for one thing – but I couldn’t shake the feeling that a lot was going on under that vaguely genial everyone’s-favourite-uncle expression.
‘Well then, it’s very nice to meet you.’ He mimicked the grin, all friendliness and affability. ‘I’ve always been a sucker for a good thriller.’
‘Always nice to meet a fan,’ I allowed graciously, and sat down opposite them in the booth. Sophie opened the wine and poured for us both while Nate resumed nursing what appeared to be a rather cold black coffee.
‘So, I’d say it’s lovely to see you,’ she said airily, ‘And it is, really, but I rather get the impression you’re in a smidge of a crisis?’
‘It’s the latest book.’ I took a swig – not bad, for a random bar in Boston – and sighed. ‘I’ve hit a wall I just can’t shift, and-‘ then I stopped, discretion sense pinging, and looked at Nate.
‘Don’t worry love. Nate is in a…similar line of work.’
‘Oh. Oh!’ I blinked. ‘Crikey. Didn’t know you were working with a – uh – a partner, these days.’
‘Oh it’s not really-‘ she began, just as Nate began to similarly protest, and I had to bite my lip to prevent myself making a rather wiseass and inappropriate remark.
‘Colleague, then. Okay. The point is I thought maybe if I had a little fresh juice from the source…’
‘The source?’ Nate blinked, then looked at Sophie with a mildly aghast expression. ‘You mean-‘
‘Oh, pfft.’ She waved him off. ‘There may be some very slight likenesses.’
‘You’re Rebecca Silver?’
‘The inspiration for Rebecca Silver,’ I felt obliged to correct, still trying not to laugh. ‘We met in London a decade ago when I was just another try-hard penniless writer waitressing to make ends meet.’
‘I was working a mark in the café, things got a little…’ Sophie smirked ‘…complicated, Tess sort of helped me make a discreet exit and we got talking and…well. Next thing I know, I’m a muse.’
‘Huh.’ Nate scratched the side of his nose thoughtfully. ‘Isn’t that kind of…uh…risky? I mean given the nature of – well, of what we do-‘
‘Oh no, Tess is very careful,’ she assured him breezily, dismissing that consideration with a flick of her wrist. ‘It really is inspired by and not in any way biographical. I mean, I may have helped her out a little bit with some of the lingo, you know, but nothing that would be trackable. Come on, Nate, I know you’ve read those bloody books and you had no idea I was anything to do with it!’
‘Fair, fair.’ He held his hands up in surrender. ‘It’s your business, after all…’
‘So what do you need?’ Sophie asked me, pouring some more wine. ‘Not like I haven’t been busy the last few years but where are you stuck, exactly? A decision, or a twist, or something to do with a grift?’
‘More a what next,’ I admitted. ‘I won’t bore you with the details, but-‘ getting out my notepad ‘-maybe just talk around what you’ve been up to, you know, very generally, and I’ll see if anything bites?’
‘All righty then…’
So I sat there and listened to a highly potted version of Sophie’s various con jobs over the last three years, pencil going like mad to see if anything set off sparks in my brain. Nate occasionally pitched in with a wry comment or observation, and after about an hour I abruptly realised that the bits of tales being spun had some significantly missing components.
‘You’ve got a bloody crew, haven’t you!’ I could have smacked her one. ‘What happened to I work better alone or the payoff’s sweeter solo?’
Nate looked like he was trying very hard not to guffaw as Sophie’s eyes almost crossed.
‘Well – stop glaring at me like that – it just sort of happened, to be honest, and-‘
‘How can that just happen?’
She told me.
By the time she was done the bar was closing up, but I absolutely knew what I needed to break the block.
‘I want to meet them.’
‘What?’ Sophie exclaimed.
‘The rest of your crew.’ I tapped the notepad. ‘An external perspective but not an outsider’s one. Interested third parties with comparable skillsets. When can I get you one on one?’ I asked Nate, pointing the pencil at him. ‘Brunch, lunch, dinner? Tomorrow? I want your input too. And the rest of them. This is exactly what I need.’ Then, before anyone could object, which was my main method of persuasion for most things, I stood up and gave Sophie a big, grateful hug. ‘Thank you so much! Call me with a time and place!’
She was still laughing as I fled the building, despite Nate’s slightly spluttering protests, and I raced back to the hotel to get my as-yet nebulous ideas onto paper before they floated away. In fact I’d just finished a very late room-service dinner when I got a text.
Tomorrow 11am. I’ll meet you outside the pub.
Chapter 2: I Call Sprinkles
I texted back effusive praise for my muse’s status as a living legend and then fell face-first onto the bed, barely managing to set an alarm for the following morning as I did. The bright Boston sunshine woke me a few minutes before it went off anyway, so I had a long and steamy shower and then dressed with a bit more care, insofar as I was able to considering that my hastily thrown-together bag consisted of two pairs of jeans and a handful of band t-shirts. I settled on AC/DC for the top, swung by a bakery I’d noticed yesterday, and arrived outside Rory’s nearly dead on eleven, just as Sophie emerged from a side door with a broad grin.
‘They’re not exactly turning cartwheels, but they’ll co-operate. Come on up.’
‘You meet your crew above a pub?’ I exclaimed as we ascended the stairs. ‘Cheers meets The Sopranos?’
‘Hardly! Here we are.’ She flung the front door open without further ceremony and strode in, all confidence and business-like and one hundred percent Sophie, leaving me to sort of bumble in behind her and wrestle the fiddly latch closed.
‘Morning,’ Nate said without moving from the armchair he was sitting in. He didn’t look particularly impressed by my presence. Neither did most of the other three people in the room. The young blonde woman who was sitting on the back of the couch was giving me a particularly narrow-eyed scowl, like I’d just run over her favourite puppy with a lawnmower, although admittedly the chap sitting next to her with a laptop seemed to be trying hard not to explode into laughter; he was attempting to look stern, and not doing a very good job of it. The third one on the couch, a guy closer to my own age, was outright glowering, and he was doing a very good job of it, but I barely registered the intimidation factor as my stomach did an unlikely somersault. Surely men didn’t have that delectable combination of scruffy brawn and incredibly blue eyes outside of the movies?
Ahem. Focus, Fisher.
‘I brought baked goods as an offering,’ I said, holding up the bulging red box. ‘If that helps?’
‘Honey Dew’s?’ The blonde sprang up and all but ran at me, so I ended up thrusting the whole lot into her arms in a sort of sugary self-defence. ‘Oooh, apple fritters!’
The laptop user gave up the ghost as she clambered back onto the middle of the couch, laughing heartily while poking his nose through the bag with the air of a junk food connoisseur.
‘I call sprinkles.’ Then, around a mouthful of donut, he gave me a broad grin. ‘Shoulda said you was bringing bribes.’
‘Tess, meet Alec Hardison,’ Sophie said laughingly, indicating. ‘He’s our hacker and tech support. Parker there works physical security. And is a sugar addict.’
‘Digital and analogue locks?’ I asked.
‘Precisely. Nate coordinates and picks the jobs, I handle grifts and cons, you know that, and Eliot is – uh – a retrieval specialist.’
I wrinkled my nose in puzzlement, because that was a new bit of lingo that didn’t fit into my existing Sophie Glossary.
‘Aren’t you all kind of…retrieval specialists, if it comes down to it?’
‘The more common term is hitter,’ Nate supplied, seeming dryly amused by my incomprehension.
‘Oh!’ That one I did know. ‘Right. So hacker, thief, grifter, coordinator and muscle.’ Muscle was the word, too; Eliot looked like he spent his free time idly tearing old phone directories in half with his bare hands. ‘Cool. Hi. I’m Tess.’
‘This is stupid,’ Eliot snapped, but his glare was directed at Sophie.
‘It’s fine,’ she waved him off in the way only Sophie could, beaming. ‘Tess just wants to ask a few questions, like an interview, you know, nothing compromising or intrusive.’
‘You’re just saying that because she writes books about you,’ Parker said in between bites of apple fritter, but she was smiling now.
‘She does not write books about me, Rebecca Silver just happens to have been loosely inspired by-‘
I sat down, cross legged on the floor since nobody had offered me a chair, and got my notepad out like I was some kind of second hand Mary Jane Watson. I’d had the forethought to prepare some thoughts beforehand but more as guidelines, not having expected Sophie to just roll me out in front of her whole crew for twenty questions as a group interview exercise.
‘I don’t need trade secrets, just…stories,’ I said when the bickering eased off enough for me to get a word in. ‘Sophie stories preferably, but anything grifter-y would be useful. How about – uh – how about the first job you guys did together? Must have been a multi-disciplinary or there’d be no need for a crew, right?’
The details came out exceedingly blurry, but Sophie filled in enough of the gaps at least for her part of it – impersonating a Nigerian mediator to entangle a corrupt CEO – and then Hardison made a pot of coffee and somehow three hours had rapidly passed in anecdotes from what seemed to be a bizarre series of Robin Hood-esque jobs, from getting an army reservist medical care from a negligent PMC to conning an investment broker who’d swindled money from a charity trust. I particularly enjoyed the one about the investor trying to commit insurance fraud with a bunch of racehorses, the adoption agency was so ludicrous that there was no way someone could have made it up, but I had to interrupt when Parker was gleefully reminiscing over a case they’d picked up more or less by accident when she’d been doing jury duty.
‘…you do jury duty?’
‘Gotta keep those fake identities looking legit,’ Hardison supplied with a chuckle. ‘I’m just that good, y’know.’
‘You haven’t written anything down yet,’ Nate added with misleading absentmindedness. ‘Good memory?’
‘Appalling memory.’ I held up the mostly-blank page of my notepad. ‘Like I said, I don’t want plot point specific notes, just, you know…ambient inspiration.’
‘Fine.’ He rolled his eyes. ‘Well we have ambiently inspired you for nearly three hours now and actually have some work to do today, as it happens...’
‘Mind if I stay?’ I asked brightly. ‘I’ll just – just sit at the back. Won’t listen much. Just the background chatter and atmosphere, you know, good for getting the ol’ creative juices flowing-‘
‘Yeuw,’ Parker said, making a face.
‘No,’ Eliot retorted flatly. ‘Not if we’re talking about a job.’
‘I’ll put headphones in,’ I wheedled, appealing to Sophie. ‘You won’t even noticed I’m here. Put boxes around me or something. Quarantine corner. Please? It’s right on the tip of my tongue, I just need a good ambience to nail it…’
In the end – despite Eliot’s repeated protestations and Nate’s clear displeasure – I wound up relegated to a spare chair over in one corner behind several strategically relocated pot plants, but there was good free wifi from the pub downstairs and I did put my headphones in, adjusting the volume carefully to make it impossible to follow specifics of the conversation while still being able to pick up on the cadence of each voice, from Parker’s cheery chirp to Eliot’s gravelly rumble.
I deleted the last half a chapter I’d written and started again from the last decent scene I’d been happy with, and I don’t know if it was indeed the ambience or the immersion or just the fact I hadn’t tried to type anything in two straight days at this point, but the story was off and flowing half by itself inside of a handful of sentences. It was only when Hardison snapped his fingers right by my ear, which startled me so much I nearly fell off the chair, that I glanced at the clock and realised it was approaching eight in the evening.
‘You can’t just sit there all night,’ he pointed out. ‘Damn, woman, rattling away like that…we’re heading downstairs, c’mon before your eyes bleed.’
‘Oh! Sure.’ I triple checked the save and online backup of the file and then closed the laptop. ‘You guys get your – uh – new caper all lined up?’
‘More or less.’ Another easy grin. ‘You know most of it is in the planning.’
‘So I’ve had repeatedly drilled into me.’ I followed him downstairs with the others and then did an awkward little dance to intercept Nate before he reached the bar. ‘No, no, I’m buying. Dinner, beers, whatever. Least I can do.’
He blinked and then shrugged, rattling off a set of clearly well-memorised orders for various drinks and dishes, which gave me barely enough time to glance over a menu and pick something for myself, since all I’d eaten so far today was one raspberry jelly snuck out of the box when Parker had been distracted.
‘You guys got a good whiskey here?’ I asked the barman.
‘Rye or single malt?’
‘Either. I like big taste with a smooth finish.’
‘Try the Tyrconnell,’ someone drawled behind me, and I glanced back to see Eliot. ‘Single malt Irish. Works over ice but better neat, if you like deep flavour. Oak and cream.’
Trying not to dwell overmuch on the lazy and almost downright sinful way he shaped his mouth around the word cream, I shrugged and nodded to the barman.
‘Sure, make it two.’ Then I passed Eliot the second glass with an oversweet smile. ‘Just in case the bottle’s poisoned.’
He actually laughed at that, taking a pointed sip, and damn but that was unfair. A guy with a body and a face like that shouldn’t be allowed to also have a smile that could stop traffic. I focused on the whiskey and navigating back to the larger circular table the others had parked at, slotting into the spare seat between Sophie and Hardison.
‘You really didn’t have to buy us all dinner,’ Sophie said to me, chuckling.
‘Oh, I really did.’ I gestured with the glass. ‘You guys are amazing. Like concentrated creative spark distilled into human form. I hit such a zone today, I might actually not get horribly murdered by my publisher after all.’
‘Well, it’s always a good day if you can prevent a horrible murder,’ Nate remarked dryly.
‘I dunno, staging them can be fun,’ Hardison shot back with a grin. ‘Like when we stole a hospital?’
‘That wasn’t a fake murder,’ Parker said to him. ‘That was a fake deadly virus outbreak. And it was technically just one floor of a hospital.’
‘That was fun.’ Sophie grinned. ‘I got to die horribly, remember? One of my best performances.’
‘Not as good as Miz Donovan,’ Nate said to her, arching an eyebrow. ‘Of course that ended up being a little less of a performance, didn’t it?’
‘Out of interest,’ I asked as a waitress started to unload frankly obscene portions of food, even by American standards, onto the table, ‘Do you guys ever do any actual crime? Or is it nothing but Robin Hood stuff?’
‘What’s wrong with Robin Hood stuff?’ Hardison quipped.
‘Don’t worry Tess.’ Sophie winked at me. ‘You’re the only person at this table who doesn’t have a rap sheet as long as your arm. They’re all very much the genuine article.’
‘Depends how you define illegal,’ Parker added. ‘Also terms like most wanted and international no fly list.’
‘Long as nobody’s a rampaging axe murderer on their off days,’ I commented.
Eliot made a rude noise.
‘Axes. Who kills someone with an axe? Messy amateurs.’
‘Says the man who took out an entire an Uruguayan Death Squad with a piano wire,’ Sophie said dryly.
I tried not to choke on a pickle as Hardison made a show of patting my back.
‘Uh, okay,’ I managed after a moment, with only slight wheezing. ‘Whiskey and piano wire. Interesting combination.’
‘Normally he just punches people until they fall down,’ Parker put in.
‘That’s…reassuring, I guess?’
‘Never hear anyone complaining when I save your collective asses,’ Eliot shot back.
‘It was still kind of funny when we pretended you’d literally beaten that guy to death in Nebraska.’
‘Yeah, but that was part of the con.’
‘How the hell do you pretend to beat someone to death?’ I exclaimed. He gave me a surprisingly wolfish smirk that made my knees knock together under the table.
I honestly couldn’t even think of a response to that so I turned my attention to the onion rings instead, letting the rest of the conversation – and good-natured bickering – wash over my ears. My mind was only about forty percent there, the majority ticking over Rebecca Silver and the predicament I need to get her out of. I was back in the flow of it now, if I could just get it over the line...
A little after midnight the team started to break up, but I picked up on enough throwaway comments to realise they were planning to reconvene in the morning to do some more planning for their latest job.
‘Hey guys – any remote chance I could sit in again tomorrow?’
Five expressions, ranging from mild surprise – Sophie – to flabbergasted disbelief – Eliot – fixed on me.
‘Please?’ I tried. ‘Headphones? In the corner again?’
‘Absolutely not!’ Nate exclaimed.
‘Please?’ I looked at Sophie and pressed my palms together. ‘You won’t even know I’m there, I swear. I’ll bring donuts again. Two boxes.’
‘I vote yes,’ Parker said.
‘Shut up, Parker,’ Eliot growled at her.
‘I don’t see how it would do any harm,’ Sophie said placatingly. ‘I mean we didn’t notice her today, did we?’
‘That’s not the damned point!’
‘Pretty please?’ I turned to Eliot. ‘I’ll get you some more whiskey with all the piano wire you want, I just have to finish this draft and then I can-‘
‘Aw, come on, guys.’ Hardison cracked a grin. ‘Look at her! She’s like a tiny best-selling puppydog.’
Which had to have been the weirdest way anyone had ever described my pleading face, but if it worked I’d take it, and Nate was looking at Sophie with acquiescence just a bat of her eyes away. He opened his mouth, then closed it, sighed, shook his head and looked at me.
‘Nine sharp. If you’re late, you lose your seat.’
‘Yes!’ I’m not even ashamed to admit I clapped like a little kid who just got permission to have an extra chocolate biscuit from the jar. ‘I’ll be there. Thank you!’ Then I kissed him on the cheek, hugged Sophie, kissed Hardison on the other cheek, hugged Parker, hesitated, then thought what the hell and kissed Eliot on the cheek too before fleeing the building.
Chapter 3: Designated Hitter, Baby
The following morning I rose early, caffeinated heavily and then found a place that did breakfast bagels, loading up on a few different types including some veggie just in case, plus some cookies for Parker’s sweet tooth, half a dozen decent coffees and, on a silly impulse, ducked into a hardware store on the way back towards McRory’s. It was a bit of a balancing act to get into the side door, but I’d spent enough time waitressing in my younger years to make it successfully up the stairs to the condo. I knocked on the door at precisely five to nine and it opened to reveal a distinctly unamused Nate.
‘Didn’t know how anyone took their coffee or bagels so I got a bit of everything,’ I said by way of greeting. ‘Also cookies for Parker.’
He actually cracked a tiny smirk at that and waved me in. The crew were already arranged around the couch so I deposited everything on the kitchen island with a little wave and then scurried over to seat myself, booting my laptop up and making a small show of putting my headphones in.
After a moment I became aware of movement near the kitchen and some noises, and discreetly muted Alanis Morrisette to eavesdrop.
‘…egg and swiss cheese from Cutty’s, damn!’ Hardison apparently approved of my breakfast selection.
‘And cookies!’ As did Parker. ‘Cookies for breakfast! Oh man, this is the good life.’
‘She’s bribing you idiots with breakfast and you’re eating it up,’ Eliot grumbled. ‘Literally. Eating.’ Then: ‘Wait, is that a Big Shot on rye?’
I bit my lip to hide a grin.
‘-does this thing where he warms the pastrami before he puts the egg and cheese on, it’s so simple but it’s genius-‘
‘Who’s supposed to have-‘ a rustle, and I swear I could hear Parker’s little frown in between the sound of a chocolate chip cookie being munched on ‘-twenty five feet of sixteen gauge galvanised steel wire for breakfast? That doesn’t seem very nutritious.’
Sophie gave a peal of laughter.
‘Easier to find than piano wire, though. Bon appetit, Eliot.’
‘Shut up and pass me the damned pastrami,’ he retorted, but I could hear the twang of amusement in his voice.
I restored the volume, tempting as it was to just listen to them all bicker back and forth, and dove back into the new chapter. In fact I got so into it that I barely even registered how long it had been when the idea hit me like a literal sledgehammer, making me pause and blink.
‘I’ve got to kill her!’
I didn’t even realise I’d spoken aloud until the slightly befuddled silence from the rest of the room registered, and hurriedly extracted my headphones.
‘Sorry! Plot revelation. Um. I’ll be quiet.’
‘Kill her?’ Sophie echoed, aghast. ‘You’re going to kill Rebecca Silver?’
‘I’m not here!’ I waggled a hand at her and went back to it, trying not to mutter to myself too much or too audibly as suddenly the rest of the book came together like a thunderclap in my head. Now to just get it all down…
‘You aren’t really killing me – I mean her – off, are you?’ Sophie asked as dusk settled, the big screens turned off and things started to wind down.
‘Well, just because all of Rebecca Silver’s worst enemies think she’s dead…’ I said with a wink.
‘Ooh. I see! Going better, then?’
‘So much better.’ Slipping my laptop back into my bag, I grinned at her. ‘Same time tomorrow? How about – uh –waffles, maybe?’
‘Mike and Patty’s over on Fayette does a breakfast torta that’s awesome,’ Hardison called from where he was coiling up a cable. ‘Plus this thing on an English muffin they call a Baller.’
‘Is that a request?’
‘Woman, you keep feeding me and I’ll be dead of diabetes long before I complain about you sitting in the damned corner typing your stories.’
‘Typical hacker, always thinking with his snack food gland,’ Eliot muttered on his way to the door, but when I showed up again – via Mike and Patty’s over on Fayette, but not the hardware store this time – the following morning, Nate just rolled his eyes and let me in without so much as a witty remark.
‘Is that a gallery layout?’ I asked without thinking, indicating the blueprints on the big set of screens on my way to the kitchen island.
‘Barely,’ Parker said, sounding vaguely sulky. ‘If you could call something with such an embarrassingly basic security system a gallery.’
‘Parker, shut up,’ Eliot told her, then pointed at me. ‘And you, in your corner. Not a damn peep.’
‘Yessir, mister hitter sir.’ I tossed him a jaunty salute, grinning at Hardison’s snicker, and retired to the chair behind the pot plants. It was more than a bit disappointing, however, to learn that the job – whatever it was – would be going down the following day.
‘Dammit, I’ve just got one more chapter and I can feel it’s going to be the finale-‘
‘Well I’m sorry our job doesn’t conform to your writing schedule,’ Nate said sarcastically. ‘Tough luck.’
‘Maybe I could record you guys, like for portable background ambience…’ I mused, which got a very effusive noooo from Eliot and a firm shake of Nate’s head.
‘You can sit in tomorrow if you want,’ Hardison said suddenly, glancing up from the printer. ‘I’ll be remote in anyhow, these dummies wouldn’t know network security if it bit them in the ass. Hell, I turn the comms feed up on the speakers, you can get all the ambience you want-‘
‘No!’ Eliot all but yelled, looking like the hacker had just suggested some particularly obscene act involving a hosepipe, a feather duster and his own beloved mother. ‘She can’t sit in on a job!’
‘Why not? Not like she listens in or nothing like that. You cool, right?’ Hardison glanced at Sophie for confirmation when I nodded vigorously. ‘She cool, yeah?’
‘I trust in Tess’s discretion absolutely,’ Sophie assured him. ‘Plus she has an appalling memory if she doesn’t write things down.’
‘It’s a creative mechanism,’ I protested. ‘So I just get ideas and don’t accidentally replicate anything you tell me.’
‘Fine. Whatever.’ Nate clearly just wanted his apartment back for the evening. ‘Hardison, tomorrow it’s your room so it’s your call. Just don’t compromise anything. And please don’t blow the job because you’re too busy stuffing your mouth with a donut or some other culinary bribe.’
‘Dude, I can snack and hack at the same time! What kind of amateur you take me for? Any time before eleven,’ he added to me with a wink. ‘Rich people don’t get up early, even when they’re being scammed. Bring caffeine and sugar, you can sit wherever you like.’
‘You’re my new favourite person,’ I told him, grinning broadly, and decided to make an exit before anybody changed their mind or started paying attention to Eliot’s expansive gesticulations of aghast protest.
I came equipped the following morning though, took a moment to be unashamedly fascinated at the positively cyberpunk-style view on the big screens, and then retired to my corner. The background noise was a little removed given that the crew were communicating in bits and pieces through the cunning earbud tech they used – which Parker had told me were of Hardison’s own invention and really awesome – but before I knew it I had just typed out the last sentence I would ever write for Rebecca Silver. It seemed so surreal that I just stared at the paragraph for a long few moments, then triple saved the damned thing and got up to stretch my legs.
‘You finished?’ Hardison asked. He was sipping a coffee, looking rather bored.
‘I think so. Needs a go-over on the draft but still…’ wandering over to him, I risked a glance at the screens. ‘Is that the CCTV inside the gallery?’
‘Uh. Yeah.’ He grinned. ‘Without going into – uh – you know, compromising details…Sophie’s working this guy, he’s our target. Nasty piece of work. Not too bright, though. Nate’s playing cranky eccentric art professor. Parker’s behind the scenes switching some – uh – some stuff, and Eliot’s in the parking garage so they got a clean exit.’ Then he frowned. ‘That big transit is not supposed to be there, though. Hold up.’
Rapid tapping, and several screens flashed past far too fast for me to interpret.
‘Eliot, that van on your left was registered stolen two days ago in Irvington.’
‘Really? All this and a hot set of wheels?’
‘Hey, we knew he weren’t that bright going in.’
‘Hang on, I’ll check it out.’
I sat down on the couch next to Hardison as, on the parking garage CCTV, Eliot strode across to the van. He hadn’t moved more than a handful of strides before both rear doors burst open and, like some kind of horrible alternate universe clown car, a bunch of rather thuggish-looking individuals poured out.
‘Oh my god!’ I exclaimed.
‘Yeah, right?’ To my astonishment, Hardison was grinning. ‘Them mooks in for a whole world of pain.’
‘Hardison, there are seven of them!’
‘And one of him!’
‘Yeah. Nearly an even fight.’
‘Two of them have guns!’
‘Maybe even, then.’
Before I could protest further I felt my jaw hit the ground in flabbergasted astonishment. The CCTV wasn’t exactly state of the art but it was clear enough to get an idea of what was going on. Three of the goons went down before any of them even seemed to register that Eliot had moved, and when one of the remaining shooters lifted his gun he ended up with his arm bent in a decidedly unhealthy direction, the firearm clattering uselessly away. Another tried his luck with a flank but got kicked somewhere that made him sort of fold up like a concertina, at which point the final one standing seemed to think better of the whole idea and tried to run for it, only to be met with the full force of Eliot’s body weight behind one elbow to the back of his head.
‘Guys, exit’s still clear but we might want to step it up,’ he remarked, barely even breathing heavily. ‘Parker, you made the switch yet?’
‘Oh my god,’ I managed. ‘He’s like some kind of crazy GI Joe ninja Iron Fist master!’
‘Designated hitter, baby.’
‘I’m all done,’ Parker announced. ‘Sophie, you’re good to go.’
No specific acknowledgement came because of course Sophie was speaking to the mark, whoever the poor devil was, but mere minutes passed before Nate’s voice came on.
‘Game, set, match. Let’s clear out.’
Ten minutes later the four of them walked into view on the street CCTV. A couple of kids went hurtling past, as kids were wont to do in suburban Boston, and one went sprawling rather spectacularly along the sidewalk after a trip. To my bemusement it was Eliot who hunkered down to get the boy back to his feet, ruffling the mop of hair before shooing him away and jogging to join the others as they crossed the street.
‘Five-oh inbound in ten,’ Hardison said. ‘That’s a wrap, people. Nothing left but the applause.’
‘That was embarrassing,’ Parker complained. ‘They didn’t even have proper deadbolts.’
‘We’ll try to find you a more competent bad guy next time,’ Sophie told her laughingly.
I missed the rest of the conversation, sitting back and toying idly with my bottom lip, lost in thought. Contrary to Sophie’s earlier assertion about my memory I actually had pretty excellent recall for narrative details and something was starting to coalesce in my head.
Something about a man who could take down anything described as a death squad with a piano wire and fight his way unarmed out of a seven-man takedown when the opposition had guns.
Who was also good with horses, nearly derailed a whole job to get an abused kid out of danger, taught a group of Boston private schoolgirls Muay Thai for no very good reason while posing as a gym coach, and paused during a job getaway to pick up and dust off some little kid who’d fallen over.
And could also pose as a haute couture designer’s assistant, accidentally become a local baseball star more or less overnight, and outmanoeuvre both a mark and a professional investigator to safely retrieve two hostages…
I went back to my chair behind the pot plants, opened a new Word file and started typing, barely hearing whatever the team were talking about over their comms even without my headphones in.
‘Uh, knock knock?’
I actually started when Hardison waved a hand in front of my face.
‘Geez, you were a million miles off!’ He clapped me on the shoulder. ‘Going for a drink while Nate does the client meet. You wanna come?’
‘Oh. Sure.’ I hurriedly bundled everything up and went after him. ‘Everything go okay?’
‘Yeah, cakewalk.’ He grinned at me. ‘From the rattle I’m guessing you’re doing good too?’
‘So good. In fact I – ah-‘ I slid into a booth and got my laptop back out ‘-I’m kind of in a zone, do you think anyone will mind if I just-‘
‘Go nuts.’ Then he ambled to the bar and came back with a round of drinks, including a cup of tea for me, which was unexpected but very welcome. I sipped it in between quick-checking sentences, dimly aware that the rest of the team were filtering in and sitting down, exchanging amused observations about the job, but only flicking my eyes up properly when Eliot hauled a chair over, reversed it – of course – and parked himself at the end of the booth, accepting the beer that Hardison passed him with a low grunt of appreciation.
For someone who’d literally beaten the daylight out of seven professional goons less than two hours earlier he seemed remarkably at ease, chuckling dryly at Parker’s repeated protestations that a disabled baboon could have infiltrated the gallery’s laughable attempts at security and the whole job had been beneath her.
‘So how’s the ending going?’ Sophie asked me with a sly little grin. ‘Has poor Rebecca suffered through her untimely demise yet?’
‘Just need to give the draft a once over,’ I said.
‘Well we’re debriefing tomorrow morning and then I’m sure Nate has a pile of potential new clients for us to pick apart. Since you seem to have Hardison eating out of your hand, quite literally…’
‘Always make friends with the tech guy. Besides, he’s very friendly. But should I take that as an invitation?’ I added hopefully, raising my eyebrows. The last Silver story was more or less a wrap but I wanted to get my new idea more firmly off the ground before I showed it to Rod.
‘Why not? Oh, don’t worry about the others.’ She winked. ‘I’ve got it handled.’
‘Have I mentioned lately that I adore you?’
‘Not very lately…’
Chapter 4: Play Vaguely By The Rules
Whatever Sophie had done had apparently worked because nobody batted an eye when I knocked the following morning, depositing the day’s breakfast offering – BLTs and burritos from somewhere called Zaftigs – in the kitchen and then folding myself into the usual chair as Parker, who’d let me in, immediately started investigating the bags.
I battered away at my keyboard pretty much without pause until Nate threatened to have Eliot forcefully evict me from the condo so he could go downstairs in the evening, but that got me a very solid five chapter introduction to the new idea and, after a bit of thought, I also had a name I was happy with for Rebecca’s final volume so I bundled that up and emailed it over.
The following morning, I got up early so I could ring Rod when it would be roughly midday in London.
‘My god, is that actually a final draft I have in my inbox?’ was his opening line.
‘Yup. All ready to go to Angie.’ Angeline Custer, my long-suffering editor, would neaten up the edges and get everything ready for publisher approval. ‘Have you looked at it?’
‘The moment it landed in the wee hours this morning. Bold move, are you sure about this?’
‘She isn’t actually dead.’
‘Well no, but the finale has undeniable tones of being…well, final.’
‘This is the last one of the deal anyway. Eleven books is a perfectly respectable length for a thriller series.’
‘It is, it is, but-‘
‘Plus I’ve got something new.’
‘First five chapters coming your way-‘ I hit send ‘-about now.’
A lengthier pause, and some clicking.
‘New character. Interesting. Steel, huh? Nice, catchy, very workable. You know what, let me give these-‘ a short intake of breath ‘-five chapters, good lord, a once-over and then I’ll call you back in an hour.’
I had an indulgently long shower and was just finished getting dressed when my phone buzzed.
‘Tess, I LOVE it and so does Doug.’ Doug Forsythe was Rod’s go-to guy at the publisher, which surprised me. There was no way he’d have sent anything on if he wasn’t sure of it. ‘Fresh take, new character, bold tone, evolution from Rebecca but not revolution in style…it ticks all the boxes. Angie’s all over Silver Cord for the next week and we’ll be going to print as soon as she gives her blessing. How soon can you get me a completed-‘
‘Woah, cowboy.’ I had to laugh at his gushing enthusiasm; hadn’t heard Rod that schoolboy-excited since we hit first multi-sequel deal for Rebecca Silver. ‘I’m just tooling it around, you know-‘
‘Bullshit, you’ve got plot. I can smell it.’
Damn. He knew me too well.
‘All right, all right…look it might be a bit, uh, rough and ready, but even Stephen King can’t produce a whole new IP in a week, so…’
‘Fine, fine, I get it. Take your time, make it SING. Just send me snippets now and then so I can keep Doug sniffing. I’ll keep you posted on Silver Cord. Are you still in Boston?’
‘I’m going to probably be in Boston for a while,’ I admitted. ‘I’ve sort of hit a groove here and if you want the new book any time this year…’
‘Right. I’ll get Amanda on the case and we’ll fine you someone local for same timezone support.’
‘I don’t think that’ll be-‘
‘I don’t want you fiddling visa paperwork when you could be writing. It’s fine, leave it with me. Where you staying?’
I told him and could picture the look on his face.
‘Probably want to change that. Apartment?’
‘As close as possible to Providence Park. I have a…spot near there that I’m using.’
‘Studio is fine, I won’t exactly be in it much.’
‘Amanda’s on it.’ He was text and call multi-tasking again, a trick I’d always envied. ‘Six months, twelve months?’
Oh, blimey. I hadn’t exactly planned on uprooting my entire life to Boston when I’d leapt on the plane.
‘Uh, six months rolling? See how it goes, I guess.’
‘All over it. You just keep writing.’ He hung up without further comment – typical Rod abruptness once he was on a mission – but it was under an hour later when, as I was ambling around the corner towards McRory’s laden with pastries from Lovejoy Bakers by the Uptown shopping centre, Amanda called back to fire off a series of rapid instructions around visa interviews and an apartment viewing, although the inevitable creak of bureaucracy meant that it would likely be at least a month before everything could get settled. The USCIS moved at its own pace, which was somewhere between “really, really slow” and “absolute stop.”
She introduced me via email to a very enthusiastic Francine Miles who was apparently now my local assistant in Boston – wow, Doug must have really liked the new idea, Rod was pulling out all the stops – and then disappeared on whatever other mysterious errands the PA of a literary agent did all day. Still, I arrived at the condo a hair before nine and was somewhat amused when Parker opened the door again, actually licking her lips in presumed recognition of the logo on the bags.
‘That there is pure cupboard love,’ Hardison called from the couch, but apparently chocolate and cinnamon babka fell into his definition of food bribery, too.
‘Where’re the others?’ I asked, realising the pair were to all appearances alone.
‘Nate’s upstairs. Others’ll be along.’
I glanced at the wrought-iron spiral staircase.
‘What does he do up there so often?’
‘Sleep,’ Parker said in between mouthfuls of babka. ‘Wash. Shower. Shave. Sh-‘
‘He actually lives here,’ Hardison put in hurriedly. ‘Well. He rents the condo. I own the building.’
‘You’re Nate’s landlord?’
‘Yeah.’ A typically irrepressible grin. ‘Only way I could make sure we could run all the cables and stuff we need for the screens and whatnot, you know?’
‘So rather than just lightly occupying a makeshift office space this is actually a home invasion?’
‘Technically yes,’ Nate said on his way down the stairs, without missing a beat. ‘But I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Nobody else seems to.’
‘He loves it really,’ Parker said to me in a conspiratorial whisper. I chortled but privately agreed with her; Nate’s manner was not entirely unlike a grumpy old man who’d had his house invaded by a clutch of grandchildren that he couldn’t help but indulge no matter how much they might drive him up the wall.
‘I’ll keep the bribes up just in case,’ I declared, passing Nate a plate of babka and a black coffee. He snorted but nodded in thanks and crossed to collapse into his usual armchair around the screens. Not, however, before tipping something from a hip flask into the coffee. I made a mental note to discreetly enquire about that with Sophie.
She arrived a few minutes later, declined any babka but did accept a cuppa, and was followed by Eliot a little after that. He raised his eyebrows at the bakery bags, shook his head, then pointed from me to the pot plants.
‘In your corner.’
Resisting the urge to make some kind of really inappropriate comment, I affected a chastened attitude – which was very hard when confronted with Parker giggling around a huge mouthful of sweet bread – and retired to the chair, cracking my laptop open and popping my headphones in. Forget Stephen King, at the pace I was going I’d hit full George Simenon any day now.
Down in the pub afterwards, while Nate continued poring over a couple of paper files, I risked floating the idea of my stay in Boston – and potentially sit-in lurking – becoming somewhat more prolonged.
‘You’ve got something new hatching, haven’t you?’ Sophie said immediately with a knowing smile. ‘If you hadn’t finished the draft you needed by now you’d be in a complete tizz, but instead you’re like a kid on Christmas morning who just got a peek under the tree.’
‘Guilty,’ I admitted. ‘A whole new storyline, in fact. I’ve sent the first few chapters over and my publisher is practically salivating over them.’
‘Better not be about a crew of thieves who do jobs to help people out when the law can’t do anything,’ Nate said without looking up from the papers in front of him.
‘No, no, definitely not!’ I assured him quickly. ‘I told you, I don’t do biographies. It’s just a – uh – a very creativity-rich sort of environment, that’s all. Besides, nothing’s going to be locked down fast, not the speed these things run at, but I just wanted to float the idea, maybe, you know…’
‘Visa stuff, huh?’ Hardison started fiddling with his phone. ‘Damn bureaucracy, right. Oh, look at that.’
My phone beeped and I blinked in mild astonishment at the sight of an acknowledgement with a qualifying interview for tomorrow afternoon. Francine had regretfully informed me that it was likely to be upwards of a week before I even got confirmation of my application.
‘Did you just-‘
‘I mean, it’d be quicker to just make you a fake US identity but I’m trying to play vaguely by the rules here. Unless you want to skip the interview, I could-’
Laughing, still more than a bit shocked, I hugged him.
‘You bloody legend, but that’s more than enough thank you.’
‘So what, now as well as doing jobs we’ve adopted a freaking writer?’ Eliot exclaimed in obvious exasperation.
‘I like it,’ Parker said brightly. ‘She can be like our mascot.’
‘That’s the most ridiculous idea-‘
‘If this arrangement is going to become…open-ended,’ Nate said, loudly enough that the bickering stopped, ‘There are going to be ground rules.’ He levelled a pointed stare at me, so I shrugged.
‘So lay ‘em out.’
‘Nothing about activity or jobs leaves the condo. Absolute confidentiality. That means no recordings, no photographs, no notepad, no scribbles on the back of napkins, and Hardison gets complete access to your hard drive at all times.’
‘What, even the porn?’ I quipped, which got a snicker from the hacker. ‘Sure. I keep all the writing backed up on a private cloud, as it happens, but I don’t mind sharing that, too. Just no leaking plot spoilers onto Reddit, please,’ I added to him pointedly.
‘Cross my heart!’
I shrugged, opened my bag and passed him my laptop.
While he tapped away doing whatever he was doing I looked back at Nate.
‘Plenty,’ he replied with a mirthless smile. ‘You don’t get a key to the condo, for starters, you can damn well just knock, and under no circumstances are you getting actively involved with any jobs. You’re just observing the team, not in any way on the team.’
‘I don’t think any of my skillset would be much use anyway, so that’s fine by me.’
‘All right.’ He seemed rather relieved by that. ‘And if one of us tells you to walk, you walk. No questions asked. No questions,’ he repeated when I opened my mouth.
‘We’re not talking about fits of pique, Tess,’ Sophie put in diplomatically. ‘Sometimes we tangle with some very unpleasant people. If someone says walk then it’s to protect all of us, including potentially you.’
Oh. Oh. I chewed my lip and then nodded.
‘Okay. Any of you says walk, I’m gone.’
‘Nobody can know you’re sitting in,’ Nate added. ‘That means no PR stories, even anonymised, no Letterman Show interviews talking about your inside scoop-‘
‘My publicist tries to avoid me doing interviews anyway,’ I assured him. ‘I’m awful at them. But sure, if anyone asks why I’ve relocated I can just say I needed a change of scene. Artsy-fartsy types do that all the time.’
‘All right then. Next, no going to the cops or the feds. Ever. No matter what you might think you think is going on, even if it seems like we’ve all gone off the rails into cartoon-style supervillainy-‘
‘What if you’re all about to die horribly?’
‘-especially not then.’
‘Fine.’ I rolled my eyes. ‘That’s pretty much covered in the absolute confidentiality clause anyway, you know.’
‘Just making sure there’s no wriggle room.’ He actually smiled slightly, although it didn’t quite reach his eyes. ‘After all, the wriggle room’s where we tend to operate.’
‘Fair enough.’ I had to give him that one.
‘No prying into personal backgrounds. No Google searches, no coffee with reporters.’
‘That’d ruin the mystique you guys have going on anyway but sure, agreed.’
‘No out of country jobs.’ He held up a finger when I made to protest. ‘Yes, we do on occasion take overseas work, but if that’s the case you sit it out. I’m not letting you tag along with us to Guam or wherever.’
‘What about the UK? I’m a native there so no reason for anyone to query me going back.’
‘…fine, no out of country jobs unless it’s in the UK.’
‘And finally, if anyone ever approaches you about any of us, no matter who it is or who they say they work for, you tell us immediately.’
‘Heads-up re nosy people. Got it.’ I risked a small grin. ‘If it helps I can get my lawyer to draft the whole lot into some kind of official NDA-type deal-‘
‘It’s not about official. It’s about trust. Sophie trusts you, unconditionally, and that gets you in the door, which is more than anyone else would get. But that’s all it gets you. Understood?’
‘Understood.’ I waited to see if there was anything else, relieved when there didn’t seem to be. ‘You know you’re really quite scary when you do that deadpan, letterbox-mouth expression, Nate.’
‘He can also be creepy,’ Parker informed me solemnly. ‘Very creepy.’
‘…good to know.’
Chapter 5: A Ray Of Happy Sunshine
My visa went through fine, the inexplicable fast-track apparently not even raising any eyebrows at the official level, and Francine found me a lovely one bedroom apartment in a building on Chapel Street in Longwood, which was barely further from McRory’s than the hotel. I sat in the condo whenever the team met up, which wasn’t in fact every day even if they weren’t working a job, and generally parked myself in the pub downstairs when they didn’t since it turned out the place could actually make a decent cup of tea, a rarity in the US even for Boston.
After two weeks the stool I’d been crammed onto was replaced by a little desk and proper office chair – nobody owned up to it but my money was strongly on Hardison – and Sophie even bullied me out of bringing breakfast every morning, insisting it felt too much like a bribe. I generally snuck something in for Parker and Hardison anyway, even just a couple of donuts, but otherwise settled for standing my round in McRory’s along with everyone else in order to be polite.
The first non-local job came along after three weeks and was in Detroit, of all places. I told Francine I was taking a trip to do some research – which I suppose was sort of true – only to find that Hardison had booked a seat for me along with the rest of the team, so I just had her find a room in the same hotel instead.
‘It’s easier ‘cos this way I can just get three doubles and there’s no risk of Parker ending up sitting next to someone normal,’ he told me wryly in the boarding queue.
‘Let me pay you back for it at least.’
‘Don’t be crazy, girl, you got me owing ten plane rides in bear claws alone by now.’
Except, of course, the bastard had booked me the seat next to Eliot, who just gave me a long, unreadable look and then stepped back to indicate for me to take the window slot.
‘I don’t mind aisle,’ I offered.
‘I prefer it.’
It was only a little over two hours of flying but I got my laptop out to get some more writing done anyway – the first draft of this one was almost finished and I had ideas for a couple of sequels already bouncing around at the back of my mind, which was exciting in a way I hadn’t really felt about planning books since the first couple of Rebecca Silvers.
‘Do you ever stop writing?’ Eliot asked suddenly, somewhere over Lake Eerie.
‘Only when I hit a block.’ I glanced sideways at him and tried not to reflect on how very good he looked in profile with the afternoon light coming through the little window. ‘Do you ever stop acting like a grumpy bear with a toothache?’
‘I-‘ he actually looked rather indignant at that, which was rather cute ‘-I don’t act grumpy.’
‘Yes you do,’ a voice said from behind us. ‘A lot of the time.’
‘Shut up, Parker!’ Then, in a low growl that made me unconsciously press my thighs together, he said into my ear
‘I am a ray of happy sunshine, I’ll have you know.’
That was all I got out of him for the rest of the flight but it did rather short-circuit my brain for a good twenty minutes, so that was probably a small mercy. He still got my carry-on down from the overhead compartment for me, though, giving a barely-there grunt of acknowledgement when I thanked him.
The hotel was up in Madison Heights, which was enough for Parker to declare that she wasn’t leaving after the job until she’d seen the polar bears. This met with some rolled eyes but I had the feeling that the crew would indeed end up visiting Detroit Zoo before getting on any return flights.
As usual I was completely in the dark about anything to do with the job other than its very approximate location, but it was still kind of fun to work from a lap desk on a hotel bed while Hardison occupied the desk area doing the usual whatever-it-was. Eliot apparently had to beat down someone in a forklift truck, which seemed perversely to put him in a good mood, and even Nate barely protested when, once the mark was suitably handled, Parker came bouncing into the room with six tickets for the zoo.
‘I half expected you to just sneak in after dark,’ I told her teasingly.
‘There’s nothing worth stealing here. Besides, polar bears are diurnal.’
While she dragged an only lightly-protesting Hardison off towards the lake habitat, I was rather startled to see an ice cream cone appear at my elbow.
Eliot grinned, somewhat roguishly, and I felt my cheeks heat up as if on reflex. Never mind a room, the damn man’s smile could have lit up most of a state.
‘Ray of happy sunshine, remember?’
I had to laugh at that and accepted the cone, trying desperately to keep my suddenly rampantly horny imagination under control at the sight of Eliot Spencer licking a trickle of soft serve off his own wrist.
‘Are you still riding off that fun you had doing whatever with the forklift?’
‘Nuh-uh.’ He wagged a finger. ‘No job talk. We’re here to see the polar bears, remember?’
‘Parker’s here to see the polar bears,’ I pointed out laughingly. ‘What the rest of us are doing is probably up for debate.’
‘Hmm. Mostly making sure she doesn’t try to climb in with the polar bears.’ His eyes danced and I could feel myself melting even faster than the damned ice cream in the afternoon sun. ‘Although I think Hardison’s on watch right now.’
‘In that case we could always swing by and see your closest living relatives,’ I said, casually indicating the nearby sign pointing to the grizzly enclosure.
‘Oh, sure. Maybe I can throw you in.’
‘I think you get in trouble for feeding them.’
‘Only if I get caught.’
‘Plus wouldn’t you have to be the one to climb in and get me back?’ I added innocently. ‘What with being, you know, the retrieval specialist and all.’
‘Shut up and eat your damn ice cream,’ he retorted, laughing.
The flight back was rather less awkward, at least, and it was almost a little spooky how well I’d…extrapolated certain until-now theoretical details about Eliot’s personality into the new character. The grumpiness was an obvious defence mechanism of course, especially when working a job, but in fact he could be frighteningly charming in a devastatingly attractive all-American-boy sort of way. He had a wicked sense of humour, too, positively British in its dryness. None of which did anything for the raging crush I already had on him, of course, but that ship had most definitely sailed so there wasn’t much point worrying about it.
Silver Cord went to print and I snagged five copies of the first editions to give the crew, to Nate’s apparent but subdued glee; I don’t think he wanted to admit he was a fan. Sophie was delighted with the ending – the ultimate con, as Rebecca spectacularly faked her own death to finally retire peacefully to a lavish private island somewhere tropical – and even came along, anonymously, of course, to the public launch and short live reading I let Rod talk me into doing in the Barnes and Noble on Huntington Avenue. The place was packed, insanely so, and my wrist was sore from signing copies by the time I was able to escape; Sophie had already departed after the reading, claiming too much of a crowd for her taste.
I ambled back to McRory’s on a sort of autopilot and nearly had a heart attack when a loud cheer went up as I came through the door, then a grinning Hardison steered me to a table and put a copy of the book into my hands with a Post-It stuck on as a makeshift highlighter. Laughingly Sophie informed me that the locals expected their own reading, then dropped her voice and explained that only the trusted regulars were around tonight – the crew had done a little light legwork to weed out any unknowns – so the usual tight secrecy could lift a little.
Really I think she just wanted at least one evening to get open credit for her character, but it was still great fun being able to talk more openly about why I’d suddenly appeared in Boston and how I’d been inspired to create Rebecca Silver after first meeting Sophie. Eliot and Nate then insisted on taking me on a “whiskey taste tour” of the more interestingly dusty old bottles at the back of the bar; between us we must have downed comfortably over ten grand of spirits inside of two hours. It was all very touching and easily the best time I’d had in Boston so far that didn’t involve writing anything, especially listening to them trying to explain the differences between whiskey, bourbon and Scotch to a purposefully obtuse Hardison.
‘If you’re not too lit, could I presume?’ Nate asked me as midnight rolled around and Eliot threatened for the third time to break Hardison’s head over a stool for wilfully misunderstanding the difference between single malt and blended. I blinked and then laughed as he pushed an open copy of Silver Cord towards me over the bar. At least I still had my pen, so in a moment of sentimentality I wrote Nate; thanks for letting me barge in! and signed it in my best calligraphic authorship hand. He chortled and closed the cover.
‘Thank you. Was a hell of a read. I’ve got all the others upstairs, actually. I’ll deny this if you ever breathe a word, but between us I’d rate you up there with Patterson and Rankin and the like. Interested to see this…new project.’
‘It’s being finalised now, as a matter of fact,’ I said, trying not to show how touched I was by that furtive little confession. ‘The publisher’s champing at the bit to get paws on it but there’s a process, y’know.’ Then, although Rod would literally murder me if he ever found out, I had an idea. ‘How about I bring a proof copy over tomorrow? You can see how dire my scribble is before my editor smooths it all out.’
‘Hey, that’d be great! I won’t breathe a word, promise.’
‘Thief’s honour?’ I quipped, which got a wider grin, and we clinked glasses.
Chapter 6: It's All Here
I did feel a little weird carrying an A4 version of Nerves Of Steel printed straight off my Word document around, but there was a sensible ulterior motive to giving Nate a pre-read in that he’d be sure to spot anything risky or identifiable in the narrative so I could do tweaks before Angie finished her first pass. In fairness I was as close to absolutely certain as it was possible to be that the book was entirely safe in that regard – I had plenty of practice after all – but it didn’t hurt to be a little extra paranoid under the circumstances.
‘So are we actually doing any prep for this client, or are you going to have your nose in that all day?’ Eliot asked wryly as he and Hardison arrived to see Nate already halfway through the first chapter.
‘Huh? Oh, no, it’s – I’ll just-‘ he closed the binder and put it aside ‘-ahem, so-‘
I thought that would be that, and retired to my corner with headphones in to fool around with plot ideas for a potential followup, more for fun than anything else, which I’d tentatively entitled Cold Steel. I couldn’t shake the notion of something high stakes somewhere different than the usual generic urban landscape, like a ski resort or some other kind of snowy setting…something involving cabins and fireplaces and a hint of wilderness survival…
‘I have a question.’ Parker said abruptly as everyone was packing up to go down to McRory’s.
‘About what?’ Nate asked, sounding mildly miffed, like she was in some way critiquing his briefing.
‘Not that.’ She waved dismissively at the screen, and only then did I notice that she had the binder in her lap and had apparently been flicking back and forth through it. ‘About this.’ Then, looking right at me with her usual combination of bizarre intensity and oblivious innocence, she gave a little frown. ‘How come you wrote a book about Eliot only you call him-‘ with a pause to glance at a page ‘-Jackson Steel instead, and none of the rest of us are in it?’
There was a short, crowded silence, and I became aware that Eliot was giving me the sort of glare he usually reserved for people he was about to throw into traffic.
‘It’s – uh – it’s not how she makes it sound,’ I managed, hurrying over to try, unsuccessfully, to pry the binder out of Parker’s hands. She was insanely strong. ‘It’s really just a-‘
‘It is, though,’ she insisted, as calm and insistent as Hardison pointing out Star Trek bloopers. ‘It’s all here; the speech patterns, mannerisms, physical description, even that thing he does with his eyebrows when he’s about to laugh and is trying to look angry-‘
I couldn’t really help the flash of author’s pride that provoked – I’d worked hard on Jackson Steel and in fairness a lot of him was based off Eliot as a sort of painter’s model – but the urge to preen was overridden by self-preservation and the fact that the tiny thief had a grip like a bloody vise.
‘It’s really not-‘ I tried again.
‘Oh, it really is,’ Nate said casually. ‘I mean I was only halfway into the first chapter but it was pretty obvious. The same way it’s obvious that Rebecca Silver is Sophie, more or less, you know, once you know...’
‘Oh, wow!’ Sophie, damn her eyes, actually clapped her hands in delight. ‘Welcome to the club, Eliot!’
‘The club?’ he spat, and then resumed glaring at me. ‘Are you serious? You put me in your god damn book?’
‘I didn’t put you in the book,’ I said hastily, finally managing to get the thing off Parker. ‘It’s just that Jackson is very – uh – very heavily inspired by you, that’s all, the same as with Rebecca Silver and Sophie-‘
‘What kind of dumbass name is Jackson Steel anyway?’
‘Title-adaptable. You know, this one is Nerves of Steel and I’m thinking Cold Steel for the second one, and then you can play it lots of other ways for-‘
‘The SECOND ONE?’
‘I mean the, uh, the potential second one…’
‘No.’ He didn’t even say it that loud. ‘Absolutely not. You call your – your book people and you take it back, right now, or so help me-‘
‘Oh come on, Eliot,’ Sophie said. ‘It’s a compliment! Many cultures consider it a sacred honour to be chosen as an artist’s muse, you know.’
‘Yeah, you gonna have to get one of them toga dresses, man,’ Hardison put in, typically unhelpful.
‘Wait-‘ I pleaded, clutching Nerves of Steel against my chest with one hand and putting the other palm out in urgent entreaty ‘-wait, how about this. I think we can all agree that people like – like Parker and Nate are very, um, attentive and sensitive to fine details, right? And they both know you pretty well, yeah?’
‘What’s your point?’ Eliot growled, and I had to swallow hard because dear god but he was even hotter than usual when he was flaming mad.
‘You read it!’ I held the binder out. ‘You read it, and if you can find anything that’s a giveaway, anything that could actually lead someone outside this room to figure out who inspired Jackson Steel – I’ll pull the whole thing. I’ll tell my agent I made a mistake, I accidentally used real circumstances in the plot. It’ll never see a bookshelf. I swear.’
Eliot narrowed his eyes.
‘Can’t say fairer than that, surely?’ Sophie said. ‘Be gracious, Eliot.’
He snatched the binder out of my hands and stuffed it under one arm.
‘One word – one damned word out of place and you pull it.’
‘Yes, absolutely, of course,’ I babbled as he whirled and stalked out. Only once the downstairs door banged did I let myself exhale and sink into the couch. ‘Oh, god, Parker, did you have to bring it up like that?’
‘Why’s it a problem?’ She seemed genuinely puzzled. ‘You did it with Sophie as that Rebecca person, and nobody figured out it was her, right? Although how come the rest of us aren’t in it?’
‘Too busy writing about her crush, that’s why,’ Hardison said with a shit-eating grin. I threw a couch cushion at him.
‘Crush?’ Then Parker’s eyes widened. ‘Ooh. You have a crush on Eliot?’
‘It’s not a-‘ I protested, then gave up as Hardison erupted into guffaws ‘-it’s not a crush, he just happens to be a very interesting person and, like when I met Sophie, sometimes people who are interesting turn into sort of ideas and inspiration for characters to…you know, to be protagonists in a story.’
‘Oh, lord, if we’re discussing the creative process I’m going to need a drink,’ Sophie said. ‘Come on, let’s get downstairs now he’s stomped off home.’
‘I hope it is just a story,’ Parker said to me as Hardison closed and locked the condo door. ‘I kind of like having you around and I don’t think you’ll be able to stay if Eliot thinks you’ve, you know…’
‘Yeah.’ I managed a small smile. ‘Thanks, Parker. But I think not being allowed to sit in with the team’ll probably be the least of my worries. Compared to, say, being shot.’
‘Don’t be silly.’ She laughed. ‘Eliot doesn’t like guns, remember? He’d probably just punch you to death or throw you in front of a truck or something.’
Chapter 7: A Legitimate Complaint
Parker’s chipper assertion didn’t exactly ease my concerns and I spent a sleepless night going over every inch of Nerves Of Steel with a fine tooth comb. Aside from the fact that it was some of my best work, perhaps rivalling the original Silver Tongue for pacing and style, I just couldn’t see anything that could be thought of as in any way compromising.
I finally passed out around four in the morning, woke with a start at seven, groaned, rolled over and lurched into the shower. McRory’s wouldn’t be open until ten anyway so I ended up parked in a Starbucks, of all places, responding to Angie’s feedback on the manuscript draft and reflecting that drinking inferior cappuccino in a horrible chain coffee place while emailing my editor was a pretty lousy way to spend my last day alive.
I’m sure I physically jumped in alarm when the proof binder was dropped heavily onto the table, and then Eliot slid into the chair opposite me. He looked down at the binder for a long moment while I tried to remember how to form words with my mouth, in between wondering how the dickens he’d known where I was.
‘Um. Morning,’ I managed after a few seconds. ‘You read it already?’
‘Yeah.’ He drummed his fingers on the plastic cover. ‘I read it.’
‘All of it?’ Admittedly my books were hardly Atlas Shrugged, but he was a fast reader if he’d finished it in one go.
‘Yes, all of it.’ A snort. ‘Last night. Until two AM.’ Another patter of his fingers. ‘Couldn’t put the damned thing down.’
Finally, he looked at me, and lopsided little smile that crept onto his face was like the sun rising.
‘It – it was good. Really good.’ A cock of his head. ‘I mean I was expecting Dan Brown, maybe Kathy Reichs at best, but…you’re a Grisham. Thomas Harris, even.’
Rather shocked at that, I blinked. Some of the more excitable critics had compared my work to Reichs before, but not Grisham and certainly never a paragon like Harris.
‘Um.’ I groped for something to say. ‘I’m…glad you liked it?’
‘And you were right,’ he added, with grudging reluctance, ‘It’s squeaky clean. No hints, holes, or, uh, indiscretions.’
‘-did you have to do the sex scenes?’ He made a grossed-out face, which was frankly rather adorable. ‘I mean it wasn’t that graphic, thank god, just-‘
It took everything in me to keep a straight face.
I gave up and burst out laughing.
‘Hey!’ he protested. ‘That’s a legitimate complaint! I mean you’re using me as a – a – a mental mannequin or whatever and you write stuff like that and-‘
‘Dude, if you think my sex scenes are yucky then I hope you never come across anything by Rolenquare.’ A grown-ass man had no right to use a word like that and have it sound so adorably miffed. ‘I keep my stuff very tasteful. The Washington Post said it teased to the bedroom door, but never set foot beyond. Admittedly that was for A Silver Lining specifically but the style isn’t that different.’ Then something else occurred to me. ‘Nate’s never objected to any of the sex scenes in my books.’
‘Nate-‘ Eliot cast his gaze heavenward for a moment and shook his head as if in despair ‘-you know what, there is no part of that sentence that I want to follow up on in any way.’
We both chortled at that, but I had to press.
‘Are we…okay? Is Jackson Steel…okay?’
‘Like I said, it’s squeaky clean. But I want Nate and Sophie to check it too. Just in case.’
‘The whole reason I brought it over was for Nate to read, so that’s no problem.’ I narrowed my gaze, waiting for the other shoe to drop. ‘But is it okay? As in I’m not going to wake up dead one morning under mysterious circumstances?’
‘Oh. Oh.’ His smile turned more than a little sheepish. ‘No. Sure. Yeah, it’s…’ one hand came up to self-consciously scrub through his hair ‘…it’s flattering, I guess. Weird. But flattering.’
I had to bite my bottom lip to prevent what would have been a very inappropriately high-pitched giggle from sneaking out at his obvious discomfiture. However I couldn’t really resist digging a little bit.
‘Am not.’ He scoffed, but it did nothing to stop the crimson on his cheeks.
‘You really are.’
‘Am not.’ Ah, the grumpy tone was back, but I could see the snap of amusement in those big blue eyes now so I held my hands up in mock-surrender just to rub it in.
‘All right, Bashful, I won’t tell anyone the big bad hitter got all discombobulated on the spot.’
‘Shut up.’ Then he stood up and jerked his head towards the door. ‘C’mon, supposed to be at the office in an hour and I haven’t eaten yet, on account of you and your damned book, so I need some breakfast and a real coffee.’
‘Starbucks coffee isn’t that bad,’ I said, which got a derisive snort as he pushed the door open and glanced back at me.
‘You coming or not?’
‘Oh!’ Barely resisting the urge to do a double-take, I stuffed the binder into my satchel and scurried after him with rather more haste than grace, having to do a ridiculous little hop-step to catch up with his long stride. ‘I – ah – I didn’t have you pegged for a caffeine snob.’
‘The swill that place calls coffee is the least of my problems with the concept of Starbucks,’ he retorted, which made me laugh, but I most definitely didn’t expect him to lead me down the street and into a tiny little boutique creperie I hadn’t even noticed before.
‘You ain’t a sugar addict like Parker, right?’ he asked me dryly.
‘Not usually first thing in the morning.’
‘Thank god.’ Then, to my lasting astonishment, he ordered two americanos and two second breakfasts, which was a pleasingly Tolkien-esque name for whatever those were, paying with a crumpled fifty from a very well-worn leather wallet and dumping the change, notes and all, into the tip jar.
‘Best breakfast crepes in the city,’ he said to me conspiratorially while noises of activity drifted through from the kitchen area. ‘Beats Dunkin Donuts any day.’
‘Er, thank you.’ I was thoroughly off-kilter by now, which was obviously deliberate on his part, but Sophie would never forgive me if I didn’t at least attempt a rally. ‘You know it kind of feels more like I should be buying you breakfast…’
‘Nah.’ He shrugged. ‘I think it’s only polite to get a lady fed if she keeps me up all night.’ Then he winked, and it was all I could do not to just melt into a flustered puddle on the rather nice floor tiles. I was still trying to recover when he gave a downright evil cackle of laughter, handing me a coffee and a well-loaded cardboard cone with another wink.
‘Heh. Now who’s blushing?’
His grin was infectious and I chortled all the way back over the train tracks until we found some benches down on a shaded part of Harvard Street. The crepe was indeed outstanding, loaded with scrambled eggs, onion, pepper and some kind of cheese I couldn’t immediately identify but which Eliot informed me was Swiss gruyere.
The coffee was better than Starbucks, too.
‘See?’ he said, gesturing to indicate our mutually perked-up state as we finished up and headed to McRory’s. ‘Most important meal of the day.’
‘So I need to add nutrition and gastronomical expertise to your seemingly endless list of unusual skills and qualities too?’ I asked laughingly. ‘Along with accidental pro baseball player, winning MMA fighter, accidental – again – country music star-‘
‘Not my fault I got an interesting job.’
‘-interesting job? Good lord, man, I had to cut half of you out of Jackson Steel just to make him believable!’
‘You saying I’m unbelievable?’ he accused, hauling a key out of his back pocket and opening the condo door.
‘I’m saying,’ I said while taking my jacket off, ‘That if Eliot Spencer, as-is, was a protagonist in a novel, no publisher would touch it because they’d say the character was completely implausible.’
‘Yeah, that’s the reason nobody ever tried to put me in a book,’ Hardison said with a grin from the couch. ‘So how’s the-‘ shifting to an extremely posh English accent without missing a beat ‘-inestimable Mister Steel feeling about his new-found stardom today?’
‘Shut up, Hardison,’ Eliot grumbled, making for the coffee machine. I went over to sit on the couch for now; the rest of the team didn’t seem to be in yet and I could hear Nate still rattling about upstairs.
‘So you dying a horrible and mysterious death, you think?’ the hacker asked impishly.
‘I may survive to type another day, provided the draft also gets a pass from Nate and Sophie.’
‘Can I read it, too?’
‘No,’ Eliot snapped, whirling and giving me a glare of warning. ‘Absolutely not.’
‘Why not?’ I asked, affecting innocence. ‘I am very good at developing narrative without relying on biography, so even the mighty intellect of the world’s greatest hacker shouldn’t find any glaring plot holes...’
‘He’s worried I’ll write fanfic,’ Hardison quipped. ‘Right, man?’
‘He’s probably more worried you’ll rib him for the love scenes,’ I said airily.
‘Dammit, Tess!’ Eliot exclaimed, but thankfully was cut off by Nate coming briskly down the staircase.
‘Where the hell are Parker and Sophie? We need to debrief the last job, and I think I’ve found our next client…’
‘Delay on the T, Sophie just texted,’ Hardison supplied. ‘They’ll be here in ten.’
Eliot shot me another glare.
‘Get in your damn corner.’
Chapter 8: The Full Set
At any rate Nerves of Steel got a pass from both Nate and Sophie – although the latter I suspected barely skimmed it through, let alone read it properly – and two weeks and one rather lengthy job involving some kind of shipping company later I got the call from Rod to confirm that Doug had positively hovered it up. To celebrate, I swung the crepe place on the way to McRory’s and loaded up for the gang, including a rather disgusting-looking cinnamon infused monstrosity they called a French Toast Crepe that was covered in syrup and stuffed with fruit, because giving Parker sugar first thing in the morning was always an amusing exercise.
‘I thought we’d agreed no more breakfast spoiling?’ Sophie said, clucking her tongue. Hardison was loading something significant up on the screens so everyone else had clustered around the kitchen island.
‘It’s a special occasion,’ I said with a grin, handing one of the onion-infused savouries to Eliot with a small flourish. ‘I found out this morning that Nerves of Steel is going to print.’
He gave me a rather alarmed look.
‘It – it is? For real?’
‘Yup.’ I had to laugh at his reaction. ‘Sorry, if you were hoping this was all an elaborate prank Hardison was pulling then you’re going to be disappointed.’
‘Hah.’ He snorted and shook his head. ‘It’s just…kinda surreal. That’s all.’
‘At least this time you won’t have teenage girls chasing you down the street,’ Parker said around a mouthful of crepe and strawberries.
‘What?’ I exclaimed.
‘From the crooked music agent job in Memphis,’ Hardison supplied from the couch. ‘I took an archive of the fan site if you want to see.’
‘God dammit, Hardison!’ Eliot snapped.
While he went to harangue the hacker at length, a laughing Sophie told me about the Forever 21 part of the incident with the supposed Kenneth Crane, and Parker showed me pictures of her astonishingly bizarre getup as “Bree”, the eccentric music star with a predilection for ducks. Her offer to demonstrate the noises, however, met with a loud no from the rest of the team, so I patted her arm consolingly and went to curl up in my chair while the briefing got going.
I wasn’t even really thinking about the new print run that much, so when Rod called me and announced – not asked, mind, just announced – that the publisher was throwing a full-on gala launch party for Nerves of Steel in Hampshire House opposite Boston Common it was all I could do to make guppy fish noises at him for several moments.
‘For god’s sake, Tess, when are you going to realise that the publisher sees your work as an ENORMOUS asset and wants to shout it from the rooftops? This is essentially a new franchise for you, it’s a HUGE deal to follow up from Rebecca Silver, and they want to make a party of it!’
‘But in Boston?’
‘The city that inspired Jackson Steel? Of course. The tourist board is going nuts over it-‘
‘It’s only one book, it might bomb-‘
‘Don’t be daft, it’s going to do great. I’ll email you the details, and I’m flying over beforehand anyway so we can chat over it in person. Pick a bit to read out for the guests, would you?’ Then he hung up, the bastard, without giving me a chance to protest further.
I’d barely had a chance to put the kettle on for a cuppa to recover when my phone went again, but this time it was Sophie which was odd because the team were working a job over in Waltham that needed Hardison onsite, so I hadn’t expected to hear from her for a bit.
‘Tess, are you busy today?’
‘Uh, not really.’ That threw me for a loop. ‘Everything okay?’
‘Oh, yes, everything’s fine, I just need a favour.’
‘Sure.’ Intrigued now, I slowly stirred my tea. ‘What is it?’
‘I need you to take Parker shopping.’
‘You – uh – what?’
‘Most of her wardrobe is functional at best and really we need something quite particular for this – er – job, but I’ve got my hands full with the mark.’
‘Okay.’ I tried not to laugh. ‘When you say particular…’
‘Garden party. Think countryside high tea. She’s supposed to be a young heiress, old timber money, but…well, you’ve seen how Parker usually dresses and I can’t seem to get through to her that “garden party” dress doesn’t mean something you would wear while actually gardening…’
I chewed at my lip.
‘Well, sure. Not that I mind – really, it’s no problem – but wasn’t me getting involved in jobs one of Nate’s very specific no-nos for our whole sit-in arrangement?’
‘I’ll handle Nate, don’t worry about that. It’s just shopping, anyway, hardly accessory to anything. Please, Tess, my only other option is to send Eliot to supervise Parker in Neiman Marcus.’
‘Fair enough – but if Nate goes off I’m just pointing him at you. Tell Parker I’ll meet her at Back Bay in…an hour?’
‘Perfect. Thank you so much!’
I wasn’t exactly a mall rat myself but being in a clothes store with Parker made me feel like some sort of Parisienne sophisticate. It was also incidentally hilarious, because once the few hovering attendants realised that the tiny eccentric blonde woman was indeed going to make a purchase, and seemed to have a near-unlimited budget, I wondered if I’d need to call Eliot in after all, for backup to beat them off.
‘Fluff. Ugh. Sequins. Ugh. Too tight. Too low-cut. How could someone even walk in that? Why does that one have a cape? Is it a dress for superheroes? Too many ruffles. Yeuw. Lace. Ooh. Sparkles…’
Barely controlling the urge to guffaw uncontrollably, I tried to steer her away from the ball gowns towards something more appropriate. Sophie had said garden party so the full-length, crystal embroidered Alexander McQueen that Parker was currently cooing over wasn’t really the right fit.
‘Try this one, maybe?’
‘To floofy.’ She lowered her voice. ‘Can’t free climb in that.’
‘Is…uh….is that something you’re going to be doing?’
‘Ah. So, something more fitted, then? And strapless probably not an option, I’m guessing.’
‘No, having your boobs falling out when you’re upside down is really annoying.’
We finally settled on a Valentino crepe shift with bright blue embroidery which was ideal for an outdoor cocktail party type of affair and met Parker’s various criteria for freedom of movement, lack of foofaraw and something colourful because I don’t want a boring dress.
It apparently worked because the job went off without a hitch and I didn’t get so much as a single sarcastic comment from Nate, but it was only as I was ambling over to McRory’s a few days later that a critical oversight occurred to me, and I hastily texted Rod.
Need five tickets for the launch party reserved plse – will email names.
He sent an acknowledgement so I hurried upstairs to the condo. Everyone else was there earlier than usual for some reason but Eliot let me in when I knocked and just motioned wordlessly to my little workstation.
‘Actually I have a quick question-stroke-request-‘ I scurried into the room and barrelled on quickly before anyone could object ‘-are you guys likely to have – I mean be actively working on – a job on the twentieth?’
‘We don’t usually schedule them that way,’ Nate said dryly, raising his eyebrows. ‘They take as long as they take. Why?’
‘Right. Sure. It’s just if you don’t have anything already lined up I wondered if maybe that meant you could possibly all be free that evening, say from eight…’
‘Why?’ Parker asked. ‘Oh! Do you have a job for us? Did someone evil steal your book about Eliot and we have to go steal it back for you?’
‘Not a job,’ I said, trying not to laugh at the sound of Eliot’s palm meeting his forehead quite audibly behind me, ‘The publisher got a little overexcited and there’s going to be a launch party for Nerves of Steel, cocktail-style sort of thing in Hampshire House. I asked my agent to hold five tickets but I haven’t given him names yet on the assumption that I wasn’t sure what names you’d variously be using.’
There was a slightly baffled pause.
‘It’s an open bar, if that helps?’ I tried. ‘I just…I mean I get it if you have a job or whatever, it’d just be quite nice if you could all be there, you know, given the inadvertent participation and all your help and patience…’
‘That sounds lovely,’ Sophie said, in a tone that suggested she was somehow accepting on behalf of the entire team and anyone who wanted to argue could save their breath.
‘I’m not sure that’s a great idea,’ Nate said anyway, scratching at his eyebrow with one finger. ‘I mean if it’s public-‘
‘It’s invite only and paparazzi don’t show up at book release parties, Nate. This isn’t New York,’ I pointed out. ‘Come on, you guys have to have lives outside of this Robin Hood stuff. Just pick one of your fake IDs and come along and enjoy yourselves!’
‘I absolutely agree.’ Sophie gave him a pointed look. ‘It’s a very healthy thing to do.’
‘You had me at open bar,’ Hardison said with a chuckle. ‘Sure, I’m in too.’
‘Me too.’ Parker grinned. ‘Got to support our mascot, right?’
That made me laugh and I risked a hopeful glance at Eliot. He sighed wearily and rubbed at the back of his neck.
Beaming, I turned to Nate, who seemed to have sagged slightly around the shoulders.
‘Might as well have the full set,’ he said, gesturing expansively to indicate that the matter was clearly out of his control.
‘Great! So I’ll just need to know what names you’re all going to be using…’
‘And the identities attached,’ Sophie pointed out. ‘You can’t just ask Rod to hold five tickets for you and then not have any explanation ready for why you wanted to invite those people.’
‘Oh, bugger. I hadn’t thought of that.’
‘Don’t worry, we’ll handle it, and I’ll drill you on the personas too, so you don’t slip up on the night.’
With that apparently decided I slipped off to my corner again, but to my lasting amusement I got a list of five names from Hardison emailed within ten minutes while he was supposedly running a credit check on someone. I put them in a new thread and sent them to Rod, having no way to guess who was who until that evening when Parker took me through the list down in the bar, which was pretty much perfect as a set of innocent cover stories.
‘We’re going to quiz you,’ she added in a somewhat ominous tone. ‘So be prepared. It won’t be what you expect.’
Other than memorising the names and minor details of the various alter egos I didn’t really think much more on the matter until the following Saturday when I was peacefully typing alone in McRory’s with a cuppa at my side and Nate suddenly slid into the booth opposite me.
‘Working up another masterpiece, Tessie?’
He was clearly going easy because the nickname was a dead giveaway, not to mention the slightly nasally accent. I summoned a bland smile.
‘Barney! How’s it going? What brings you to this neck of the woods?’
‘Oh, you know, just a little weekend ramble. You come by here often? Seems nice.’
‘Not really. I was down by the library in the Village and swung in on my way back in hope of a decent cuppa. Old pubs like these are usually the best bet in the US. Et voila,’ I added, taking a sip of my tea.
‘Oh good, good, that’s worth knowing, eh?’
‘Can I get you a coffee or anything?’
‘Oh no, no, I just saw you and thought I’d say hi, you know-‘ he got up and flashed a disarmingly gormless grin ‘-don’t forget to drop me a note if you need any more info on that Monet stuff.’
‘It was Armand-Dumaresq, you daft old coot.’
‘Right, right, of course…’
Once he’d ambled out again I had a quiet giggle and then another cup of tea. It wasn’t the last unexpected test I got over the next few days – Parker ambushed me with her persona, Lily Wrays, as I was coming out of my building one morning – but Sophie laughingly texted me on Friday morning that I’d passed muster and they would all be along that evening as promised.
Chapter 9: A Total Filter Remover
Rod had flown over a few days beforehand so we’d already had a couple of lunches and I’d listened to him wax effusive about the guest list, but the wretched man hadn’t warned me quite how large it was. He met me at the door at least, grinning approval at my attire.
‘Finally decided to actually try looking like something other than a scruffy uni student, eh?’
I stuck my tongue out at him. In fact Sophie, Parker and I had spent an entire Saturday afternoon downtown being embarrassingly girly, because I didn’t have anything cocktail-appropriate in my hastily assembled Boston wardrobe, Sophie just liked shopping and Parker needed the practice. But I wasn’t going to tell Rod – or indeed another living soul – that deciding on the rather classy blue Aidan Mattox I was currently wearing had been largely driven by Sophie’s far-too-casual observation that the bloody thing was the same colour as Eliot’s eyes.
How long had it been since I got laid? Wow, long enough that I had to think about it. Eek.
Anyway, I did the rounds with Rod, signing autographs and schmoozing with reviewers and representatives the way the PR training had taught me. The team seemed to be there and rather enjoying themselves; I spotted Parker delightedly observing Hardison exchanging quips with a local from the Boston Globe, Sophie surrounded by a little cluster of male admirers as usual, and even Nate caught my eye with a small grin and a salute from the bar. Finally managing to escape from Rod for a moment, I glanced about and then caught sight of Eliot by one of the artfully arranged hardback display tables. He had one of the books open in his hand and seemed to be staring rather fixedly at something just inside the cover.
Oh, bugger. I realised what it was and tried not to do too much of an obvious bolt across the room to his side. Yep, he was looking at the dedication at the front.
To the extraordinary ES, and the rest of the gang (you know who you are).
I always got a little sentimental when I wrote those but that one had sort of slipped into the email I’d sent Angie (and resulted in a barrage of questions of course, all of which I’d dodged or ignored). It always baffled me that anyone looked at those opening few pages.
Up closer I was both delighted and touched to see that from the expression on his face Eliot was far from unmoved by the note, if still obviously surprised. He glanced up, aware of my approach, and a hint of a blush hit his cheeks as he closed the book with a snap and replaced it on the stand.
‘Well, you are,’ I said to him, the general ambience as well as two glasses of extremely good champagne apparently giving me a confidence boost.
‘Extraordinary.’ When he blushed again, more obviously, I laughed and then indicated the stand. ‘Sorry, I should probably have run it by you, but…I figure the initials can’t be that uncommon.’
‘No, it’s fine, it – uh – it’s fine.’ One hand came up to scrub back through his hair, which was something I realised he always did on the – admittedly rare – occasions when he felt genuinely self-conscious. ‘I just didn’t expect – I mean – it’s very – uh – very…kind. Thank you.’
‘You’re welcome,’ I said, because I knew it would annoy him, but he gave only a brief eye-roll before shaking his head, apparently thinking hard.
‘You know I never – uh – never really thought of myself as anything special. I just do my job.’ A small shrug. ‘I mean I know I’m good at it, but that’s just the job, you have to be, you know? Not like this stuff.’ He indicated the book. ‘All that – that action hero crap.’
‘I’ll thank you not to write my novel off as action hero crap, thank you very much,’ I shot back with a grin, which got a slightly weary glare. ‘Oh come on, in terms of a laundry list of regular activities it isn’t that ridiculous. Besides, there’s plenty of non-action-y stuff in it too, what with the intrigue and the-‘
‘-and the sex scenes?’ he finished dryly, but before I could retort someone tapped my arm and I had to go briefly into Publicity Mode to chat to Sandra from the local Herald.
‘…a bit of a departure from Rebecca Silver I guess, even if I’m not quite genre-hopping. Well, yet!’
‘It’s marvellous,’ she gushed. ‘About time the literary world had a sexy new male protagonist, and of course being technically on the wrong side of the law…well, everyone loves a bad boy, don’t they? Especially one with a heart of gold – or I suppose steel in this case. Oh, I should write that down.’
‘I’m glad the new character doesn’t disappoint,’ I said, not bothering to hide my amusement as she extracted a pad and scribbled herself a note.
‘Hmm. Well, I for one can’t wait to get Jackson Steel home and into bed, if you know what I mean.’ She giggled and winked. ‘Hey, maybe this one’ll get a movie offer, huh? An American challenger to the old Bond throne? God, but what’s Brad Pitt doing these days, right?’
I managed a passable laugh, aware that Eliot hadn’t moved and was now outright boggling at the exchange, if making an effort to do so somewhat discreetly. Once Sandra had moved off, however, I couldn’t suppress the scoff as I turned back to him.
‘Brad Pitt? Please. You’re much better-looking than Brad Pitt.’ Then, when he cracked a grin and laughed outright, my brain caught up with my mouth and I clapped a hand over my face. ‘Oh, god. This is why I should not drink champagne. It’s like a total filter remover.’
‘Sure you ain’t just getting the confidence from that hot little blue number?’ he quipped, raising his eyebrows and making a small show of looking me up and down.
‘Don’t be mean,’ I pouted, ignoring my libido spiking at that remark.
‘Who said I was being mean?’ He motioned to the bar. ‘C’mon, let’s see if they’ve got any decent whisky to wash that fizz down with, huh?’
‘That sounds like a great idea.’
After an excellent glass of thirteen year-old Whistlepig I got dragged off by Rod for another round of hand-shaking and rather lost track of everyone else, Eliot included, but when I arrived at the condo the following morning Parker let me in with a big grin.
‘That was so much fun. The reporter at the Globe thinks Hardison runs this big software business and wanted to take him to lunch, but I told her he’s actually a fake and doesn’t even know how computers work!’
‘Er. That counts as fun?’
‘Yes!’ Her tone covered the implicit duh. ‘We got to work a mark for no reason. Also I could have lifted wallets off at least sixteen people without really trying, including your agent, but Sophie told me not to.’
‘Normally only get to go to fancy parties for the job,’ Hardison supplied from the couch with a chuckle. ‘I think Miss Lily there was using it as grifting practice. I was just talking to people, man, I dunno what the rest of you were doing…’
It turned out that Nate and Sophie had met a client downstairs earlier so I was rapidly shooed off to my corner once everyone had arrived and Nate dove straight into the briefing. I put my headphones in and spent a while looking at reviews for Nerves of Steel on various newspaper websites. They were almost uniformly flattering apart from the usual complaint from USA Today and the various UK tabloids that the book was too long and dubiously paced, which translated meant they didn’t think it was smutty and/or blood-soaked enough to count as a thriller. The worst one was still a three star though, so they were apparently feeling magnanimous.
When the briefing broke for food, at Parker’s loud insistence, I nudged Eliot and showed him the gushing praise in the Boston Herald, where Sandra had declared Jackson Steel “a modern bad boy hero for the discerning reader, as able to make you swoon as to break your arm, and with a heart of gold that turns him from a hunk of amiable muscle into both a likeable and genuinely sympathetic lead.” Then Hardison leaned over my shoulder and read the entire passage out loud, complete with inappropriate smoochy voices, and Sophie had to intervene to stop Eliot from beating him to death with a bagel.
During this somewhat rowdy lunch my phone rang and I almost jumped up in excitement. It was Rod, which meant the initial numbers were in.
‘Ooh, I should take this, sorry.’ I moved a decorous distance towards the door and picked up. ‘Hey, Rod.’
‘Tess, you god damn superstar. We hit one point six million copies sold for first day and Doug’s already talking second print run to meet demand.’
I’m not ashamed to admit I did a little jig on the spot at that, glancing over at the team, who were watching me slightly owlishly, and giving a thumbs-up with my free hand.
‘One point six million opening? That’s better than A Silver Spoon, isn’t it?’ The widely-acclaimed and much-hyped second Rebecca Silver book had apparently broken a couple of records but I couldn’t recall the specifics.
‘That’s over quarter of a million better is what it is. With that and the reviews, Doug is beyond ecstatic. He’s getting contracts drafted today, I’ll send the specifics to you once I have them, but the short version is he wants at least five more Jackson Steel books and he’s paying advances accordingly.’
For a moment I thought I’d misheard him.
‘Five more Jackson Steel books? Five?’
‘As in three plus two, four plus one, yes, five!’ Then he told me the advance figure and I had to sit down hard on the couch in mild shock. ‘Tess, you still there?’
‘Uh. Yeah, yeah, I’m still here.’ I’d done more than all right from Rebecca Silver but the amount of money Doug was talking now was getting alarmingly close to JK Rowling territory. ‘Just – wow – that’s – yeah.’ I tried to rally. ‘I mean for that kind of money he can have all the Jackson Steel he wants…’
‘Oh and one more thing – and this is unofficial mind, still very early days – but Doug also got a call from some chap at Paramount Pictures who’s, and I quote, keen to explore adaptation rights.’
‘Paramount Pictures?’ I all but squeaked.
‘Like I said, early days, early days, seems stronger than that supposed-interest from Sony that fizzled out for Silver Tongue but let’s not count our chickens just yet, eh? Still, on the offchance, how would you feel about doing the script?’
‘Oh my god…I don’t know the first thing about screenplays, Rod-‘
‘Maybe consulting then. Lots of authors do that. If it plays out, anyway, which there’s no guarantee it will, but just thought I’d float it. Oop, that’ll be Doug on my other line. Catch you later!’
He hung up and I flopped back on the sofa for a moment, putting my hands over my eyes and taking a deep breath.
‘Well?’ Hardison said after a moment. ‘Don’t leave us all hanging, girl!’
‘I think we can extrapolate most of it from her end of the call,’ Nate pointed out, a trifle scathingly.
‘One point six million copies on the first day!’ I sprang to my feet and punched the air in celebration. ‘That’s bloody brilliant, that’s – that’s Grisham numbers, that is! And they want five more! Five! From the off! That’s a six book series and I’ve barely put my pen down, not that I write with a pen but still, and some guy from bloody Paramount is already sniffing around about doing a movie-‘
‘Five more?’ Eliot echoed, seeming halfway between astounded and dismayed, just as Sophie exclaimed
‘A movie? Rebecca Silver never got a movie!’
‘Oh, we had some interest from Sony Pictures but it sort of died,’ I said to her. ‘Something about mass commercial viability in cinema, I don’t know.’
‘Bloody Hollywood,’ she grumbled. ‘Can’t handle a strong female protagonist, that’s their problem.’
‘A five book deal!’ I said again, more pointedly. ‘Even at the height of the series Doug wouldn’t commit to more than another three for Rebecca but he wants five from the off!’
‘Oh my god, I need to start on the second one.’ I barely heard that low-voiced complaint. ‘I can almost see the cover in my head…dark wood chalets in the Swiss Alps, with a trail of blood on the snow. Eliot, can you ski? Wait! It doesn’t matter, does it?’
Grabbing my laptop, I abandoned what was left of my own bagel – Hardison would probably appropriate it but that was fine – and opened up the file with the bits and pieces of ideas for Cold Steel. I could almost smell mountain air as my fingers started to fly over the keys; god it had been a while since writing came this easy. I was dimly aware of the background noise shifting as the team resumed their briefing, but it seemed like no time at all before someone lightly touched my shoulder, making me start.
‘It’s nearly eight,’ Eliot said with a very small smile. ‘Even you can’t write five books in half a damned day. C’mon downstairs for a while and decompress.’
‘Oh! Right.’ I triple saved, checked the backup and then hastily stowed my laptop. ‘Sorry. Was in a zone there. But I’m getting first round tonight.’
‘Not gonna argue with that!’
At the bar I managed to get Cora’s attention with a wave.
‘Need something a little special tonight – you got any Harper Gold Medal?’
‘Got one from the sixties out back, never opened.’
‘I’ll take the bottle and six glasses,’ I told her, which got a shrug and a laugh, but when I brought the tray over to the table where the team had deposited themselves Nate actually whistled in appreciation.
‘This what all authors drink after landing a five-book deal after a million-plus launch day?’
‘Most of the ones I know drink overpriced wine,’ I shot back, ‘But I happen to know that the local hitter-‘ pouring the first glass and pushing it towards Eliot pointedly ‘-is partial to a good straight bourbon.’
‘I think a toast is certainly in order,’ Sophie said with a grin, raising her glass. ‘So congratulations, Tess, and…well, I suppose here’s to Jackson Steel.’
That got some laughter, even from a red-cheeked Eliot, and we all clinked glasses.
‘Don’t y’all get too happy now,’ Hardison said as Parker reached for a refill. ‘We got an eight AM flight to Missoula tomorrow, remember. I emailed your ticket,’ he added to me.
‘Thanks. Where’s Missoula?’ I asked, checking my phone.
‘Montana,’ Eliot supplied. ‘Up near a bunch of national forests and an Indian reservation.’
‘Ooh. Big Sky Country.’ Then I wrinkled my nose. ‘Shame it isn’t somewhere snowy.’
‘Feel free to not come if you object to the location of the job,’ Nate said, a trifle acidly.
‘As if. Finally somewhere I can get a cowboy hat!’
‘Cowboys?’ Parker suddenly looked alarmed. ‘I thought it was a condo developer? Will there be cows? Horses?’
The others shushed her but it took several firm reassurances from Sophie and Alec that no, horses would definitely not be a major feature of the trip, before she fully subsided and we could all get on with getting lightly plastered.
Chapter 10: No Couch Surfing
It was a long eight hour flight from Boston to Missoula International, sufficient time that I actually stopped writing somewhere around Minnesota and tried to have a nap instead, which was made extremely difficult by Parker’s whispered commentary on the various in-flight movies she was watching, one after the other, which I suspect is why Hardison had wisely arranged his own seat next to Eliot for this one.
Missoula was gorgeous, enough so that I just put my chin in my hand and stared out of the window for the drive from the airport. We were staying in a big cabin just off somewhere called Seeley Lake, which turned out to be a gorgeous four-bedroom affair overlooking a glassy body of water surrounded by forest on all sides. The woman at the check-in desk was wearing a big brim cowboy hat, to my lasting delight, and seemed under the impression that the six of us were an extended family unit of some kind.
‘Always good to offload the kids for a getaway, huh?’ she cooed to Sophie, who just winked and, in a flawless Texan-style drawl, said
‘Sweetheart, grandparents and a ranch are a treasure to be savoured, especially when they’ll take three sets of grandkids all at once!’
‘Hoo, you struck gold there! Enjoy your stay now!’
‘We all related now then?’ Hardison quipped once we were safely away from prying eyes in the cabin itself. ‘Cause there’s three doubles in here so some of us’re getting cosy.’
‘There’s a couch,’ Eliot pointed out, dropping his duffel onto it.
‘No, no couch-surfing,’ Nate said. ‘Enough foot traffic outside to raise questions.’
‘There’s one twin,’ I said, ‘And I don’t mind sharing a double with someone.’ Hey, a girl can dream, right?
‘I’ll share,’ Parker said with a shrug.
‘Oh really?’ Hardison’s eyebrows went up, but of course she was oblivious and just squinted at him in puzzlement.
‘Yes, really. Why?’
I realised that Eliot was struggling to conceal a smirk as well and rolled my eyes, taking her arm to tug her into one of the double rooms.
‘I’ll explain later. Just don’t mention pillow fights, all right?’
‘Pillow fights?’ She frowned. ‘Why would you fight with pillows? You can’t hurt people with pillows.’ Then, after a moment’s consideration, ‘Well, maybe Eliot could find a way to hurt someone with a pillow but-‘
Hardison soon had all his rig set up around the plasma TV so it wouldn’t look suspicious to anyone nosing in from the patio doors, so I settled into one of the armchairs to write with my headphones in while the team ran through whatever they were kicking off tomorrow. Then there was a minor bickering session which culminated in Hardison and Eliot taking the twin room while Sophie and Nate took a double each.
Parker, it turned out, slept like the dead so I had no complaints in the morning, although it was slightly disconcerting when she came in from the shower, chucked her towel over a chair and proceeded to amble around completely and unselfconsciously naked while combing her hair and getting dressed. Something must have shown on my face later because Sophie chuckled as she handed me a cuppa.
‘She didn’t exactly have a normal childhood so her concept of social norms is…a little off.’
‘I was in Girl Guides, it’s not a problem.’ I had to giggle a bit. ‘Just…unexpected!’
‘You get used to it. Biscuit?’
‘That’s a scone – oh, right.’ I snorted. ‘This is why I’d make a crappy grifter, of course. Can’t even sort the lingo out.’
‘You get used to that, too.’
‘Mmm.’ After putting some butter on and trying a bite I was pleasantly surprised – I’d expected some weird flat thing but in fact it was like a really flaky savoury scone that just melted in the mouth, all the more so for still being slightly warm. ‘Damn! That’s good.’ I held the rest of the half up to examine it. ‘Who bought these?’
‘Eliot made them.’
‘Made them?’ I echoed in outright disbelief as Parker pranced into the room, grabbed one of them off the plate and just bit into it like a Chelsea bun.
‘Mmm-hmm,’ she confirmed, chewing busily. ‘He made those oatmeal cookies in the office last week, too.’
Unfortunately I didn’t have time to ask further questions on that entirely unexpected revelation because they were all packing up and heading out, including Hardison who would apparently be onsite for this one. Once the car pulled away I drew the curtains and settled down for some serious writing, but not before snagging the last of the scone-biscuit things. No baked goods that tasty ought to go to waste.
For the first few days it all seemed like business as usual, the team all too busy to really chat about anything but the job, so I kept to the background even with the minor disturbance of Parker getting back from somewhere and clambering ungracefully into the bed at three in the morning a couple of times. On the fifth day, as I was taking a break for a cuppa, my phone rang with an unknown caller. This was unusual enough that I hesitated a moment – it was another cell, but not one I recognised – before picking up.
‘Tess, it’s Eliot. You at the cabin?’ He sounded a little breathless, like he was or recently had been running.
‘Yes.’ Something else in his voice set off a pang of alarm. ‘Why?’
‘Listen, I need you to go to the side window and – CAREFULLY – see if you can get eyes on the path by the parking spot.’
Now thoroughly unsettled, I went over and peered through the slit in the closed curtains, rather than twitching them and giving away that someone was looking. I had been writing this sort of stuff for a while, after all, although it was a lot more nerve-wracking actually doing it.
Especially when I saw three extremely burly men marching towards the cabin and snapped back, flattening myself against the wall in a panic.
‘There’s three guys. Huge guys.’
‘Look, I’m on my way – get out of there and somewhere public. The next cabin over, or right on the lakefront, wherever you’ll be most visible to other people.’
‘Who are those guys?’ I hissed.
‘They ain’t selling cookies. Just go!’
‘But-‘ I glanced at the open plan ‘-Hardison’s kit’s all here, and those blueprints and-’
‘I said GO!’
With that, he hung up.
Chapter 11: A Mighty Fine Right Hook
I floundered for five long seconds, then for some reason my brain kicked into gear and I grabbed the nearest duffel, throwing in both mine and Hardison’s laptops, as well as all the paperwork and other suspicious-looking elements I could see. Then I bolted through the patio door with the bag over my shoulder, combing one hand back through my hair and attempting desperately to look nonchalant rather than panicked.
I was about fifty yards down the path right on the lakefront when, thank god, I saw the family in the next cabin along clambering out of their camper van. Both kids, neither more than ten, went tearing for the lake, so – hoping to hell I didn’t look like a complete lunatic – I waved at the mother as she spotted me.
‘Lovely day for it! Blimey, those two are like a hurricane!’
Of course she came down to say hello and in typical American fashion suddenly I was best friends with Anna and Ted Wainwright, up from Idaho Falls for the weekend with little Bobby and Darla, my goodness don’t they grow so fast, no I don’t have any yet, yes the weather has been good recently-
A sudden yell from the cabin made us all jump and I whirled in alarm just in time to see the patio door fly open and one of the burly intruders exit it, at speed, and sort of plow headfirst into the ground.
‘Oh my god!’ Anna clutched at her husband’s arm. ‘Ted, call the police!’
I didn’t really have a counter to that but then Eliot came storming out, grabbed the guy and punched him so hard I felt my teeth rattle.
‘Where is she you sonofabitch?’ he roared, all southern country drawl and fury, looking up and around. Seeing me, he seemed to exhale and stood up, actually running to close the distance, and before I could quite register whatever the hell was going on he had pulled me into a tight embrace.
‘Oh thank god, baby, I thought – god, I thought-‘
All I could really formulate was a sort of incoherent whimpering noise.
‘Play along,’ he said into my ear, then kissed me roughly on the forehead and drew back, brushing my hair out of the way as if to check I wasn’t injured. ‘You did the right thing, darlin,’ you all right? Yeah? Thank god you called me-‘
I nodded, catching on, although it wasn’t exactly difficult to school my face to an appropriate level of upset. It wasn’t much of a chore to let him hug me again, either, or to lean into him when he kept an arm around my shoulders and pulled me to his side, but alas I was freaking out a bit much to fully appreciate the proximity.
‘Thank god – thank you, sir,’ he was saying earnestly to Ted, ‘Them fellas was making unsavoury comments down in town, must’ve followed our car up here…’
‘Oh, good lord!’ Anna was aghast on my behalf. ‘Tess, I am so sorry, you oughta have said, trying to stay all calm and brave like that, like you was just out walking to the laundry-‘
‘That’s a mighty fine right hook you got there, son,’ Ted was saying to Eliot approvingly. ‘I called the cops when we heard the noise but can’t say I’m sorry you got here first!’
‘You should come in,’ Anna said to me. ‘I’ll make some coffee, you must be so frightened!’
‘I’m – uh – all right,’ I managed.
‘She’ll be fine, she’s a tough one.’ Eliot gave me a squeeze. ‘We’ll just wait on the cops back in our cabin – my brother and his wife, and my sister and her husband, they’ll be back any minute too.’
‘Well you just give a shout if you need anything, honey, you hear?’ Anna insisted.
Nodding and assuring the perfectly nice, normal people that I wasn’t about to faint from shock and would really be fine, we finally managed to beat a retreat back to the cabin. It was in surprisingly little disarray, but as well as the man unconscious and having his shoes lightly soaked by the lake waves outside, there was another face down on the floor and the third sort of slumped against one of the kitchen counters, both also clearly out cold.
‘You sure it was just three of them?’ Eliot asked urgently, looking around with a frown.
‘Yeah, very sure. Why?’ Then I realised what was missing. ‘Oh! Here.’ Hefting the duffel off my shoulder, I unzipped it so he could see. ‘Hardison’s laptop and that gizmo thing he was waving around, and all the paper I could grab…might be a bit crumpled, sorry…’
‘Huh.’ He looked at the bag for a beat, but then a single siren from outside cut off any further comment. ‘Dammit.’
Fortunately I recognised the grey minivan pulling up just behind the cop car with Nate in the driver’s seat, but before he’d put it into park Sophie was out of the passenger door and running. She paused for a beat on the front doorstep, looked at the bodies and then at Eliot, who’d just bundled the duffel into a cupboard.
‘Home invasion,’ he said, which got a nod, and suddenly she was hugging me and all but wailing into my ear.
‘Oh gawd, I can’t believe it, a little place like this you think is gonna be so safe, just a nice getaway and-‘
By whatever mysterious mechanisms the team used they seemed to have coordinated the cover story on the fly, so I ended up with Parker sitting on one side holding my hand and Sophie on the other with a comforting arm around my shoulders while a rather indignant Eliot and apparently aghast Nate talked to the cops. It wasn’t particularly tricky to act distraught, and when the rather overplump sheriff addressed me directly I settled for nonverbal nods or headshakes in agreement with whatever yarn the guys were weaving.
Finally the whole lot left, the still-unconscious toughs in handcuffs, at which point Hardison flew into a genuine panic until the duffel and its contents were confirmed as having barely left the room.
‘For god’s sakes.’ Nate snapped, all but slamming the front door once the area was clear. ‘This is why having a sit-in is such a bad idea.’
‘Nate, that’s unfair,’ Sophie said to him, dropping the maternal act and standing up. ‘It could have just as easily been any one of us!’
‘Besides, if she hadn’t stashed the blueprints and the other stuff, those goons might well have been able to grab enough to blow us and get out before I could stop ‘em,’ Eliot added.
‘The agreement,’ Nate said, looking at me, ‘Was that if someone says walk, you walk.’
‘I did walk.’ I drew myself up a little, both pleased and relieved at Eliot’s apparent approval of my actions as well as Sophie’s firm defence. ‘I just also grabbed. And then walked. Quickly.’
‘Damn lucky, too,’ Hardison said with feeling. ‘Even just one of those printoffs would have been enough to land us in some awkward-ass questions.’
‘Then maybe you shouldn’t have left them lying around,’ Nate pointed out to him wearily.
‘Hey, man, since when do we do a full everyday tidy-up in the safe house? You’re the one pushed too hard and got the mark’s panties in a twist!’
‘I did not push, it was just a-‘
Parker patted my arm in what she probably thought was a comforting way as the inevitable bickering started.
‘That was pretty quick thinking. You’re a natural.’
‘Well,’ I managed a small smile, ‘I just thought what would Rebecca Silver do…’
That got a little giggle.
‘Nice. So, until the shouting stops, want coffee?’
‘Yeah,’ I said gratefully. ‘Coffee sounds good.’
Chapter 12: That Warrior Monk Thing
Parker and I both got up and just sort of sidled off into the kitchen, but thankfully the argument seemed to wind down – it never was clear who exactly had won – just before the machine clicked off. As I was learning was so often the case, the team could go from seeming like they genuinely wanted to kill each other one minute to laughing and joking the next, often without noticeable pause, and sure enough everyone, even Nate, seemed almost jovial when we went back out.
‘So is the job okay?’ I hazarded after a few sips of sweet caffeine.
‘It’s fine,’ Sophie assured me. ‘We’d just…closed business with the mark when we realised he’d sent goons after – well, after us – and by then-‘
‘Things would’ve gotten un-closed pretty fast if they got paws on that prep,’ Hardison commented. ‘This is why I don’t like printing stuff!’
‘But they didn’t,’ Parker reminded him brightly. ‘Oh! Tess saved the job!’ She poked me in the arm. ‘Go you!’
‘Probably best if we all forget about that part,’ I muttered, with got a snort of evident agreement from Nate.
In any event it turned out that Hardison needed to do some light digital mopping up, so I kept him hydrated while the others took turns showering and changing out of their personas into more comfortable clothes. It was only then that I realised that my t-shirt was almost soaked through with panic sweat, so I had a quick rinse and changed too, emerging from the bathroom to the sounds of chopping and bubbling from the kitchen.
To my lasting astonishment Eliot was apparently making dinner, aided not even remotely by Parker sitting and watching him with owlish intensity as though he was performing some kind of complex alchemical procedure. His hair was pulled back in a ponytail with a blue bandana keeping it away from his face.
‘Huh,’ I said. ‘I thought Sophie was kidding when she said you knew how a kitchen worked!’
‘It’s like magic,’ Parker said, eyes wide. ‘Swoosh swish stir…and then food happens.’
Eliot rolled his eyes but it was all I could do not to laugh out loud.
‘Need a hand with anything?’
‘I got it,’ he replied with a shrug.
It turned out to be an enormous bowl of pappardelle with clearly from-scratch basil pesto, pine nuts and some kind of creamy parmesan sauce to top it off, which was beyond delicious, especially paired with a light local beer someone had picked up. Hardison made some typically cheeky comment about hybrid Texas-Italian cuisine and got threatened with a fork, but in between laughing and trying to mop up every scrap of the sauce with my finger I managed to get a word in.
‘I do have one very important question, actually.’
‘Oh yeah?’ Eliot asked, watching with barely-concealed amusement as Parker started to slurp up a single long piece of pasta inch by inch.
‘All that and cooking this good…’ I cracked a grin ‘…exactly how are you single? Can someone explain that, please?’
That got quite a lot of laughter, and Hardison all but doubled up, but Eliot just chuckled and rolled his eyes.
‘You’re hilarious. No, really.’
‘I’m serious!’ I protested – possibly it was some kind of delayed shock acting at this point, because the beer really wasn’t that strong – and gestured broadly. ‘You do all that fighty stuff-‘
‘-yeah, and you sing – or so I’m told – and you look like, you know, that, and you cook, and bake-‘
‘Stop.’ Ah, there it was, the hand through the hair and the blush on top of the embarrassed little grin. For some reason being able to drag the reaction out of him was deeply pleasing, but I left it there and let the others take over the ribbing for a while.
Of course the ungrateful schmucks were all about to let him do the cleanup as well so I took charge the British way, shooed him out of the kitchen and yanked Hardison in with me, putting a dish towel into his hands.
‘How come I’m the one gets dragged in for kitchen duty?’ he complained.
‘Parker’s too fast,’ I shot back in a too-sweet tone, which got a laugh, but he accepted the first freshly-scrubbed plate I passed him and got drying without further nonsense. In fact we worked in quiet tandem for a couple of minutes before he suddenly said
‘He dates, you know.’
‘Eliot.’ A crooked grin. ‘On jobs he’s always spouting some random bit of trivia and like “oh I dated a neurologist once” or “oh I dated a civil rights lawyer once” and all that. He ain’t got that warrior monk thing going on you seem to think he does, I’m just saying.’
I hid a grin.
‘I never said that.’
‘Like hell! How are you single…‘ he dropped into a rather terrible facsimile of my accent which would have probably earned him a slap from Sophie.
‘Are you trying to imply something, Alec?’ I flicked some water at him, which made him do a quite entertaining little dance of protest.
‘I ain’t needing to imply something right in front of my damned face – woman, you throw dishwater at me again I swear to god I will brick your damn hard drive!’
‘Shut up and dry the damned saucepan.’
Still chortling, he complied, but did catch my arm on the way out of the room.
‘Tess. For real, though. He dates, you get me?’
‘I get you.’ I managed a small smile and patted his shoulder. ‘I’ll stick to writing Jackson Steel, I think.’
‘Pfft.’ He waved a hand in vague disgust and hurried off to stop Parker from fiddling with whatever gizmo she’d lifted from his bag – or pocket, knowing Parker – so I ambled out of the patio door and plopped down on one of the lounge chairs overlooking the lakefront. The evening air was warm but there was just enough of a pleasant trickle of a breeze to prevent the temperature from being oppressive.
I relaxed there and watched the water for a little bit until the only light was the ambient from the house behind. It was rather surreal to think that some nameless thug had been smacked into the ground only a handful of steps away mere hours ago. No wonder I was getting more writing done since coming to Boston and meeting the team; there was generally an extremely minimal chance of routine boredom setting in.
As if I’d somehow summoned him with my thoughts – oh, now there’s a happy concept – the second chair gave a small creak as Eliot sat down on it. He’d unbuttoned the front of his shirt, exposing the black vest underneath, and let his hair back down.
‘You okay?’ he asked after a moment, glancing at me.
‘Sure, I’m fine.’ I couldn’t stop the smile that crept out. ‘Thank you again for dinner.’
‘No problem.’ He shifted slightly and looked down at his hands. ‘I’m sorry you got mixed up in the job. Especially like that. You did pretty good.’
‘It wasn’t exactly hard to act freaked out,’ I pointed out. ‘What with the large men and all the violence. Besides, it was basically an accident, Nate’s supposed over-grifting aside.’
‘Yeah.’ For a moment Eliot looked almost guilty. ‘Still.’
‘I’ve watched you kick plenty of ass over Hardison’s various screens, El,’ I said.
‘Sure.’ A half-shrug. ‘But I’m sorry you had to see it, you know, up close and personal. It’s different – very different – on the other side of a screen.’
‘Not disagreeing with that.’ I remembered the visceral crunch of the knockout blow and shook my head to clear it. ‘It happens, though. It’s part of it. I’m not under any illusions about what the job sometimes entails. It’s not something you need to worry about…I dunno, about sanitising for me, or something.’
‘Still sorry.’ He went quiet, looking out over the lake. ‘Sorry you saw through the cracks, y’know?’
‘The cracks?’ Curling up on the chair, I turned slightly onto my side so I was facing him. ‘What cracks?’
‘In the…front.’ Another half-shrug. ‘Behind all the fooling around, and the whisky, and the Robin Hood stuff.’
I chewed at my bottom lip for a moment, rather moved by that confession and trying not to feel too miffed at the idea that he – or anyone on the team, in fact – had to keep up any kind of front for me. Then something occurred to me and I smiled, mostly to myself.
‘You’re like kintsugi.’
He blinked and gave me a deeply sceptical look.
‘I’m like…Japanese pottery?’
That made me laugh.
‘Not just pottery, it’s the one where they take something that’s been damaged, you know, broken or – or put through the wars or whatever – and they repair it but with gold, right?’
‘Golden joinery.’ He nodded. ‘Or kinsukuroi. Golden repair.’
I had to laugh again, shaking my head.
‘Of course you speak Japanese – anyway, my point is that the whole idea of kintsugi is that something can be rebuilt and repaired to be not just like it was before it was damaged, but better than it was before, like the break and repair makes it more beautiful, rather than something to just try and hide away or disguise. That’s…like you.’
He stared at me with a somewhat baffled expression so I found myself wittering on.
‘I mean it isn’t like the cracks in the – the front, or whatever you want to call it – are showing some kind of hideous thing underneath, you know, like oh god Darth Eliot or something. Just they’re there, part of the whole, but sometimes they’re easier to notice or see, like…like when they let the gold through, show the light.’ Nice articulation, Fisher. ‘Oh, god, that was a mess. I’m better at writing stuff down. You know what, give me a week, maybe ten days, I’ll get you a second draft of that whole bit and that – that’ll make you weep-’
Thank god he was laughing with me now, but even in the dim light there seemed to be a warmth to his eyes that I couldn’t remember seeing before.
‘You see, this is why I don’t grift,’ I added, trying to fight mortification with humour in the best English tradition.
‘Yeah, no kidding.’ He chuckled but seemed to sober quickly and gave me a look that bordered on almost outright affectionate. ‘I think – uh – I think I know what you were going for, though. And…thanks, I guess.’
‘Any time.’ I smiled back, and for a long, breathless moment time seemed to actually stand still. So of course I had to open my mouth again and ruin it. ‘For the record, it was absolutely zero hardship to handle all the hugging and holding and being called darlin’ which in that accent should be outlawed…’
He laughed again, and just like that everything was back to normal.
Chapter 13: No Problem At All
Once we got back to Boston the team took a little time off while Nate pored over a bunch of potential new clients, so I took a break from Cold Steel for the duration to play tourist around the city for a bit, which I hadn’t actually done until now, and rocked up to McRory’s four days later feeling more than ready to get cracking on the final third of the new book.
I was rattling away peacefully when I happened to glance up at the screens and did a double-take at the sight of someone I knew very well plastered up there in full view. Yanking my headphones out, I got up and wandered towards the couch.
‘That’s Jodie Macneil! She’s not crooked – what are you doing to her?’
‘You’re not supposed to be listening!’ Parker shouted before anyone else could.
‘I’m not – I mean I wasn’t – I just glanced up and I know Jodie and she’s lovely-‘
‘Miss Macneil isn’t the mark, Tess,’ Sophie said with a small grin. ‘She’s just a person of interest associated with the mark, don’t worry.’
‘Oh, thank god.’ That was a relief; if lovely, bubbly, irrepressible Jodie, who spent her life bouncing between charitable organisations convincing rich assholes to part with their money for a good cause, had turned out to be corrupt, I think my entire faith in humanity would have just collapsed in on itself like a neutron star.
‘Wait-‘ suddenly Nate’s expression turned shrewd ‘-you know Jodie Macneil?’
‘Yeah, I met her at the launch party for Silver Lining, she was on someone’s arm or other – I used to go to a lot of her auctions in London, donate signed books, that kind of thing.’ I realised the others were looking at me with vague bafflement and turned defensive. ‘What? She does a lot for elephants. I like elephants!’
‘Well our mark is going to be at one of her fancy charity galas this Friday night,’ Hardison said. ‘Got that out of his online schedule, but I can’t find a full guest list anywhere-‘
‘Oh, Jodie hates digital stuff. She keeps ledgers. Says it’s safer, better for donor privacy.’ I shrugged. ‘Not sure why anyone would be upset or embarrassed about donating to save elephants, but that’s rich people for you.’
‘Aren’t you worth like two hundred million?’
‘Well-‘ I was a bit taken aback by that; I hadn’t realised Alec had nosed into my financials, although it was hardly a surprise really ‘-yes I suppose but I mean I’m not rich rich, like rich people are rich…’
For some reason this set Parker giggling like a schoolgirl but Nate waved that consideration off.
‘If we get to that gala we can make contact with the mark. Just the initial touchpoint, it’s a refer-on sort of thing, guy who knows a guy and all that.’
‘Nate,’ Sophie said warningly.
‘I can give Jodie a call,’ I said with a shrug. ‘Give her a signed copy of Nerves of Steel and she’ll spot me a ticket and a plus one, no problem.’
‘And you already know her, so that isn’t suspicious.’ Nate seemed rather enamoured with the idea.
‘Yeah, I mean I haven’t heard from her recently but since I moved over here and she’s doing her thing it isn’t exactly a huge stretch.’ I shrugged. ‘I assume you’d be the plus one?’
‘Hmm…might be better to play it at a remove-‘
‘Nate,’ Sophie snapped, which made him look at her.
‘What happened to Tess not getting involved with jobs, hmm?’
‘Well it’s not involved, really, not as such…’
‘It’s just a ticket,’ I said. ‘And to be honest if Jodie had remembered I was in Boston she’d probably have emailed me to ask for something anyway and then I’d be going anyway so…’
‘Exactly-‘ Nate wagged a finger ‘-exactly. It’s perfect. Easy route in to the mark, nothing to raise any eyebrows.’
‘Are you sure about this?’ Sophie looked at me. ‘This chap we’re after is not a nice man and if something happens-‘
‘He’s going to what?’ I said. ‘Decide to set a bunch of armed thugs on a bestselling novelist in the middle of a charity gala ball?’
There was a loaded pause.
‘All right then.’ Nate clapped his hands and rubbed them. ‘Tess, make the call please.’
‘Sure. Who shall I say is my plus one?’
‘Darren Fontaine,’ Hardison supplied. ‘Let’s say he’s a, uh, a literary agent-‘
‘No!’ I wagged a finger. ‘Not an agent. Rod would hear about it and never forgive me.’
‘O-kay, then what?’
‘A fireman?’ I suggested brightly.
‘He needs to have connections.’
‘Fine.’ He sighed wearily, still typing. ‘I’ll think of something...’
I ducked outside the condo into the stairwell and called Jodie, who exclaimed in delight and promised to scold her assistant for not letting her know I was still in Boston. After a ten minute catch-up she was more than happy to accept a signed copy of Nerves of Steel for the auction in exchange for a pair of tickets, and signed off joking about an interrogation to find out what had kept me this side of the Atlantic on Friday.
Back in the office the team seemed to have decided that the mysterious Darren Fontaine would be a campaign publicist with ties to Washington who’d worked mostly behind the scenes but with great effect on several notable candidates, and happened to have met me at the Nerves of Steel launch party simply by virtue of being a local bigwig and the rest, as Hardison put it with a filthy grin, was just boy met girl, right?
‘More like uncle meets grown-up niece,’ I complained, indicating Nate. ‘Jodie’s going to be all over me! What am I supposed to say, he writes poetry?’
‘Thank you for that,’ Nate said, deadpan, ‘But I’m not going to be going with you. Sophie and I will be needed in play later for the main part of the con. This is just the intro, remember?’
‘Oh.’ I tried not to act too relieved at that, but Sophie started laughing anyway. ‘So who’s playing the oh-so-connected Mister Fontaine?’
‘Hardison or Eliot, you pick,’ he said casually, already looking through another file of paperwork. Bastard.
‘Nope!’ I waved my arms effusively. ‘Not touching that. I’m just sharing a ticket my friend gave me. You do your job picking assignment whatever, mister mastermind.’ Admittedly the idea of being on Eliot’s arm for an evening wasn’t exactly a hardship, but then I normally knew other people at Jodie’s galas in London…
‘Eliot should do it,’ Sophie said, the traitor, and gave me a not even remotely subtle wink. ‘Hardison’s too young for Tess anyway.’
‘That’s no fun,’ I shot back, rather amazed at how steady my tone came out. ‘How do you know I wouldn’t like a hot, nerdy toyboy for an evening?’
‘Ha!’ Hardison crowed, elbowing Eliot pointedly. ‘See? Hot and nerdy – mutually exclusive my ass!’
‘I could take Parker instead,’ I suggested, ‘Raise a few eyebrows.’
‘That’s not the kind of attention we’re looking for,’ Nate said wryly. ‘Eliot, you’re up.’
‘All over it.’ Hardison was already tapping away on his laptop, presumably falsifying documents and news stories and god only knew what else. ‘So shall I change the name to Jackson Fontaine, or-‘
‘Let’s steer clear of amusing coincidences,’ Nate told him without looking up from the papers.
‘Aw man, you ain’t no fun.’
‘This thing’s going to be black tie,’ I put in, suddenly remembering. ‘Like, full on, as in I’m going to have to go shopping because I don’t have anything suitable on this particular continent. Will that – uh – be a problem?’
Eliot flashed me a grin and I swear I felt my knees knock.
‘No problem at all. Darlin.’
‘Oh.’ I tried not to get ruffled, because he damned well knew what he was doing with that of course. ‘Well. Good.’
‘Don’t forget the prep,’ Sophie put in. ‘Stay light on details, but have one or two significant things to drop.’
‘Can’t I just smile and nod at whatever he says?’ I protested, which got one of those filthy chuckles from Eliot.
‘Careful now. Girl could get in trouble that way.’
I slapped at him, cheeks burning, and tried to focus on what Sophie was saying. It wasn’t like I hadn’t heard her talk shop before, but listening from the point of view of a novelist going for authenticity versus someone who was going to have to try and imitate her were two very different things.
‘If all else fails, stare at their shoes,’ Parker said helpfully.
‘I find it helps. If you’re not sure what to say next. Stare at their shoes and try to memorise them. Makes it look like you’re thinking really hard.’
‘Okay, we’ll discuss that terrible idea later,’ Sophie said, turning back to me, ‘Please do not stare at anyone’s shoes…’
Chapter 14: For A Good Cause
I put Cold Steel on ice for the time being – pun fully intended – and spent an inordinate amount of time practicing in front of a mirror or with Sophie, who it turned out was actually quite a good coach once she’d shooed Parker off for making very counterproductive suggestions in an effort to assist.
‘There is one last, very critical thing,’ she added as she was about to leave my doorstep on Friday afternoon with only a couple of hours to go.
‘I’m so glad you left it until now to say that,’ I shot back, a trifle more acidly than I’d intended.
‘Don’t get in over your head.’ Her expression turned serious, which made me frown in puzzlement.
‘I’m not the one doing anything with the mark, though.’
‘I’m not worried about you getting in over your head with the mark,’ she replied, raising her eyebrows significantly, and held a finger up when I made to protest. ‘Just remember. It’s a performance. For both of you. All right?’
I rolled my eyes.
‘I’m not about to fall in love with Eliot just because he’s pretending to be my date for one evening, Sophie.’
‘Just?’ she echoed pointedly.
‘Oh come on, that’s not fair-‘
‘Just be careful, all right?’
With that she was gone and I groaned heavily before going for a shower and to get ready. I’d never been one for heavy makeup but with the aid of some masking tape and a YouTube tutorial I got a decent smoky eye look going on, and a subdued bit of lipstick. The jewellery was new, too, but less expensive than it looked because – unlike Parker – I wasn’t a huge fan of shiny things, and after I’d done a few laps of the apartment in the dress and heels I was confident I wouldn’t sprawl on my ass. It was a Rene Ruiz, floor-length and strapless in blue brocade, with black Gianvito Rossi sandals, which I’d gone with almost entirely on the recommendation of the nice lady in Saks Fifth Avenue.
Well, all right, I had said I preferred blue but apparently that “suited my colouring” anyway, whatever that meant.
The result at least was surprisingly pleasing; I’d never pass for a supermodel but I could scrub up passably when I put the effort in. A Jimmy Choo clutch, the one big splash I’d allowed myself in Selfridges when A Silver Tongue was first published, giving it more sentimental than monetary value, was the only other thing joining the ensemble. I’d considered a shawl but the event was indoor so it seemed silly to bring one and just have to carry it around.
There was a knock at the door just after seven, the official starting time for the gala, so after the short drive over to Bay Village the timing was pretty much perfect. I’d never understood the whole thing of not putting the start time as when you actually wanted people to show up, but then there was a reason I kept out of most high society type stuff unless it was helping to support a type of animal I happened to find adorable.
Then I opened the door and all thoughts of elephants, and indeed anything to do with wildlife, fled clean out of my head to leave a sort of gooey mush behind. I must have stood there openly boggling for a few more seconds than was really healthy, because Eliot actually blinked and glanced down at himself in mild concern.
‘Nuh-‘ I cleared my throat ‘-ahem. Nothing. Sorry. Just…damn.’ Oops, that sort of slipped out by accident, but the hearty laugh it got out of him more than made up for it.
‘Hey, you look pretty damn yourself,’ he replied with a grin. ‘Nice colour. Shall we?’
I locked up and then carefully lifted the hem of the dress skirt with one hand so I didn’t trip on the stairs, only to nearly fall over anyway when he let out a rather indecent whistle, followed by one of those dirty chuckles that always made my cheeks heat up.
‘Don’t do that!’
‘Nothing wrong with appreciating a nicely turned ankle. Especially in shoes like that.’ He winked, and I swatted at him with my clutch.
‘Nicely turned ankle – what is this, the seventeen-hundreds?’
There was a town car waiting downstairs, which I managed to get into positively gracefully by my standards, trying not to let something else inappropriate slip out when he decorously helped to tuck the dress inside before closing the door and walking around to get in the other side. I even spotted the raised eyebrows from the driver in the front mirror as he pulled away, clearly aimed in my direction, and tried not to preen.
Being in a full leather vehicle interior en route to a gala ball at the somewhat ominously named The Tower on Arlington Street was not exactly how I’d pictured my Friday night at the start of the week, and that was before taking into consideration the extremely diverting situation of Eliot Spencer in a god damned tuxedo sitting next to me. Of course that getup was meant to make a guy look good, there was a reason it was a mainstay, but good didn’t even begin to cover the way the cut of the jacket exquisitely framed his shoulders or the bright white shirt somehow made his eyes seem an even deeper blue than usual. Something glinted as he moved his head, and although his hair was loose around his shoulders I caught a glimpse of discreet silver rings in both his ears.
‘You doing okay there?’ he asked with a note of teasing.
‘Barely,’ I shot back, just about censoring a giggle. ‘It just suddenly occurred to me that other than Jodie and you, I won’t actually know anyone at this stupid party.’
That got a soft chuckle.
‘I’m sure you’ll manage.’
‘So who’s this…’ I hurriedly self-corrected ‘…chap you’re meeting?’
‘Let me worry about that.’ He softened that rather firm tone with another wink but I nodded, honestly quite happy to know as little as possible about the job itself.
It was only a short ten minute drive past Fenway Park and through Back Bay, but there were a few cars queued up outside the venue so it took a little bit for us to get to the front. Before I could do anything Eliot was out, coming around to open the door for me with a hand to help steady myself as I got to my feet. There was a small crowd of lookie-loos around the entrance and what looked suspiciously like a handful of reporters, probably for the local society pages, which hadn’t occurred to me, but as he offered me his arm and ducked his head a little I realised why he had worn his hair down for the night.
Well thank god one of us knew what we were doing. I tucked my hand into his elbow, not unaware that I was grinning like an idiot, and concentrated on not losing my step in the heels as we went inside. Inside was all chandeliers, rich wood and polished floors, a live band playing at a genteel volume that kept conversation at a gentle murmur.
‘Guess a lot of people like elephants,’ Eliot said to me quietly, but now we were past the press he’d lifted his head again and I could see the amusement on his face.
‘Jodie is very persuasive.’ I sighed. ‘I always find it a bit…well, naff, to be honest with you. Thing how much more could go to the cause itself if the fundraising didn’t have to be so tarted up. If you want to donate to a charity, just bloody donate and get on with it.’
‘Except rich jerks want to feel like they’re getting something in return for their generous donations,’ he pointed out with a small smile. ‘And to have their egos flattered for said generosity.’
‘Rich jerks are jerks,’ I said, very quietly.
‘That’s why they call them jerks.’ He suddenly fell silent and I realised someone was making a beeline for us, but it was just Jodie. Of course she was swathed in some probably totally bespoke piece of silk and satin like a second skin, looking movie-star glamorous and making me instantly feel like a complete bumpkin who’d accidentally put on a princess dress and tried to sneak into the ball.
‘Tess, you made it. Thank you so much for the signed copy, I’ve already had quite a few people expressing significant interest and a lot of excitement, not to mention two that I know of who decided to RSVP at the eleventh hour specifically to be in with a chance, so…’
‘Oh, crikey. Well, glad it got so much interest, I guess?’
‘The auction’s going to go great, I can feel it.’ Then her gaze turned to Eliot and her perfectly-coiffured eyebrows went up. ‘And this…oh…this must be the reason you’re still in Boston, I assume?’
Eliot’s indulgent laugh was loud enough to cover up my slightly hysterical semi-choked version, and he promptly extended a hand.
‘Darren Fontaine. Miz Macneil I assume? Tess told me you throw quite a party…I can see she definitely wasn’t kidding around.’
‘Oh, call me Jodie.’ She shook, beaming. ‘Lovely to meet you, Mister Fontaine.’
‘Call me Darren. Any friend of Tess’s, and all that.’
‘Well sure thing, Darren. Oh Tess, there’s someone else you must meet-‘ suddenly turning, she plucked at the arm of a passing man, who turned to reveal a clean-shaven face that looked like it had been outright sculpted rather than grown, and ordinarily would have sent me into a little dither just with a glance ‘-this is Karl Collier, with the Boston Review, one of our…later RSVPs who was very keen to talk to you.’ She winked at me, not even remotely subtly. ‘Excuse me, I have a million people to talk to, you know how it goes…’
‘Oh – gosh – hello.’ I blinked as Jodie sashayed off. ‘Well, it’s lovely to meet you, Mister-‘
‘Karl, please.’ He took my rather limply held-out hand, turned it over and actually kissed the back while I tried not to squirm and giggle like a complete imbecile. ‘Your author headshots do not do you justice…may I call you Tess?’
‘Sure,’ I managed, although it came out sounding beyond goofy and I probably looked like an absolute tit, too.
‘Darren Fontaine.’ Suddenly Eliot was there, extending one hand while the other slid around my waist to hold me against him in a vaguely proprietary manner, his palm settling on my far hip. Oh my. The gesture was unquestionably possessive in nature, and my stomach exploded into unhelpful butterflies at the feeling. Feeling rather hot all of a sudden, I concentrated on trying to keep my expression under control as Collier’s left eyebrow twitched a fraction, but he returned the bland smile and shook.
‘Pleasure.’ Then his gaze flicked to Eliot’s other hand, and to my lasting astonishment his hackles went up. ‘Of course the lovely and talented Tessa is a well-known quantity in my circles…what is it that you do, Mister Fontaine?’
‘Political consultant. Washington, by way of Oklahoma.’
‘Quite a destination switch.’
‘It pays to be adaptable. Literally, in many cases.’
‘I’m sure. However did you two meet?’
‘The launch party,’ I said, hopefully not too quickly. ‘For my latest book.’
‘Ah yes-‘ Collier turned that megawatt smile on me again ‘-Nerves of Steel. Brilliant…a start to a new series, I hope?’
‘You and my publisher,’ I admitted with a small grin.
‘One of my clients was kind enough to get me an invite, knowing I’m a bit of a fan, and…well.’ Eliot gave me a rather amorous look then, which made my stomach flip over. ‘You seen the lady, right?’
Collier laughed politely, but it didn’t reach his eyes.
‘I do indeed. Local client? Anyone I might have heard of, perhaps?’
‘Sorta. And no, you won’t have heard of him…at least not yet.’
‘I see. Well, it was lovely to meet you, Tess-‘ with another big smile at me that vanished instantly when he looked at Eliot ‘-and Mister Fontaine, of course.’
With that he moved off, but apparently my unhappy little noise didn’t go unregistered as Eliot gave me a disbelieving sort of stare.
‘Don’t tell me that jerkoff was your type.’
‘He was from the Boston Review,’ I protested as he towed me away. ‘Not the reviews at the Globe, the Boston Review, it’s an absolute powerhouse, Helen Vendler called it the most stimulating approach to artistic and political discourse in the United States-‘
‘We’re not here to flirt with book people!’
‘You might not be,’ I pointed out, ‘But I’m technically-‘
‘I see the mark.’ He abruptly stopped walking and sort of swung me around, settling both hands on my waist and pulling me against him, which put our faces very close together. ‘He’s over at the bar.’
I managed a little squeaky sort of affirmative noise, but Eliot’s gaze was fixed over my shoulder and he seemed to be concentrating, listening to something – oh. Of course. He had an earpiece in and was probably being fed information by Hardison and the rest of the team. He’d shut down Collier fast because it was a distraction from the job, not because he gave even the slightest toss that the guy had been coming on to me.
Bugger. This was exactly what Sophie had been trying to warn me about. Now I felt like a first class moron, not to mention a complete dim-witted bint, and it was all I could do not to let it show openly on my face.
‘I’m going for a drink,’ Eliot said, giving me a quick squeeze and a small smile. ‘You want anything?’
‘No, I’m fine, thanks.’
His brows creased for a moment.
‘You know, we’re allowed to drink on duty. Not cops, remember?’
‘I’m just…fine. Thanks.’ I patted his arm, more than a trifle lamely. ‘Go do the – er – the thing.’
‘All right.’ He held my gaze for a beat longer and then let go of me. I sighed, glanced around, confirmed that yep, I did in fact know nobody here apart from Jodie, and found a chair to sit on. My clutch buzzed and I took my phone out of it to see a text from Parker.
Hardison says you sound sad. Are you ok?
That made me smile a little. Typical Alec.
I’m fine. Just being silly. Then I added, Also kind of miffed I didn’t get an ear thing.
A few moments passed and then another text arrived.
Sophie says you should go talk to the book man ;)
That actually made me chuckle. As if on cue I heard a throat being cleared and looked up to see Collier, who immediately broke into a smile.
‘Pardon the intrusion. You – ah – looked suddenly rather lonely.’
‘Oh, no, Darren’s, uh-‘ I motioned feebly in the vague direction Eliot had gone, spotting him now deep in discussion with an older man at the far end of the bar ‘-business stuff, you know.’
‘Shocking. Perhaps you’ll let me get you a drink?’ Collier flashed a grin and held both hands up. ‘I’m no poacher, I assure you…I just hate to see a beautiful woman sitting alone.’
Well, that put paid to the down-in-the-dumps like a shot of adrenalin because nobody had ever called me that before – the best I’d ever got from a guy before was kinda all right and that was after he’d downed six pints – so I stood up and tried not to simper too obviously.
‘I am partial to a good whisky, believe it or not.’
‘Whisky!’ He laughed, to all appearances genuinely delighted. ‘Tessa, if you’d arrived on my arm I wouldn’t have let someone pry you off with a crowbar. I seem to recall seeing a bottle of twenty-five year old Springbank on the bar shelf, assuming you don’t object to scotch?’
‘Good lord, man, if you offer me Campbeltown you might just walk out of here with me on more than your arm,’ I exclaimed, which got another laugh before he took my elbow and gently steered me towards one of the less isolated seating areas, stepping away as I arranged myself on a couch and returning with two pleasingly full glasses. The scotch went down smooth with a beautifully full aftertaste, and a few sips went a long way to cheering me up.
Collier was extremely charming and seemed very familiar with my work, quizzing me in a typical reviewer’s way about process and plot ideas and the like, mostly Rebecca Silver but with a little diversion into Jackson Steel and what had sparked the idea. It wasn’t exactly hard to play coy about that and he seemed to enjoy trying to bait me about it, which had us both laughing a great deal.
‘-as part of the auction, just given the interest I’ve already had in the book I thought-‘
Abruptly I realised Jodie was sitting next to me and had been talking at me for at least half a minute. Probably wanted me to read an excerpt to stoke up the bidding.
‘Sure, whatever. Just let me know when,’ I told her. She thanked me effusively and then scurried off.
‘Very generous of you,’ Collier said, eyes dancing. ‘Are you sure your…date won’t object?’
‘He’s busy,’ I said with a shrug, indicating where Eliot and the mark, whoever he was, were still conversing.
‘He’s an idiot,’ Collier corrected. I chortled and cocked my head at him.
‘I thought you weren’t a poacher.’
‘And I thought you were spoken for, which was evidently incorrect since Mister Fontaine seems more enamoured with Mister Serrano over there than he does with you.’ A wink. ‘A gentleman should always put the work in to keep his lady happy, especially when she looks like this-‘ motioning up and down me, which made my cheeks burn ‘-and has dressed up for the occasion.’
Honestly at this point he could have dragged me out by my hair and I wouldn’t have objected, but I was fortunately saved from whatever dopey response might have dribbled out of my mouth by Jodie taking to the podium in front of the band and starting the auction.
There was a good range of donations up for bids; I was tempted by the two all access behind the scenes passes of Franklin Park Zoo, but decided it might get tricky if Parker decided she wanted to try and ride the giraffes without Hardison there to talk her out of it.
Collier murmured that he saw someone else he knew and excused himself, which was a little disappointing, but then Eliot sat down on the couch next to me and I realised the other man was just attempting discretion. Ha. A shame it was a wasted effort, but never mind.
‘All done,’ Eliot said quietly. ‘Mark’s on the hook.’
‘Good.’ I wasn’t sure what else to say to that. ‘Uh, well done?’
‘Thanks. Sorry, getting the guy to shut up was the hardest part.’
Jodie chose this moment to announce the signed copy of Nerves of Steel, so I was obliged to stand up and wave modestly to the polite applause.
‘…and I’m delighted to announce that the winner of this auction will not only get this signed first edition of Tess Fisher’s new series, but also a dinner date with the woman herself – though I can’t guarantee she’ll give away any clues about Jackson Steel’s next adventure!’
My jaw dropped. When had she – when had I – oh bugger. She hadn’t been asking me about reading a bloody extract, and I’d been so distracted by Collier that I’d only gone and agreed with her on reflex. Crap.
‘Wow,’ Eliot said. ‘You really do like elephants.’
‘Oh my god-‘ I turned to him in desperate appeal ‘-I swear to god, anything you bid I will double-‘
‘That’s not really in the spirit of the auction.’ He flashed a wolfish grin. ‘What happened to if you want to donate, just bloody donate?’
‘This isn’t about the bloody donation,’ I hissed, choosing for now to ignore the even worse mimicry of an English accent than Hardison’s piss-poor attempt, ‘This is about me not having to take some random weirdo fan out for dinner!’
‘Well some random weirdo fan just bid ten grand, so…’
‘What?’ I looked back at the crowd and was outright floored to see Collier grinning at me. ‘Oh. Oh. You know what, never mind.’
That got one of those wicked cackles that made tingles dance down my spine but I tried to ignore it as the bidding closed on twelve and a half thousand dollars; Collier apparently had competition but he kept at it until the other guy bowed out. Considering the poshest place I’d ever been on an actual date was a Pizza Express, that one was going to take a while to sink in.
‘Is tomorrow night to soon to presume?’ Collier was suddenly back, all affable and beaming smiles. ‘Assuming of course that Mister Fontaine here isn’t going to register a protest.’
‘As long as it’s for a good cause, I’ll play nice,’ Eliot replied with a small smirk. ‘Just make sure you get her in bed by midnight. Or failing that, bring her home.’
I nearly choked at that, as the pair of them laughed like it was the biggest joke in the world, while somehow still contriving to look like they were one side-eye off punching each other in the face. Finally Collier took a card from his jacket and scribbled something on the back of it, handing it to me with a small flourish.
‘They hold a table for me on Saturdays. I’ll meet you at seven?’
‘Um. Sure.’ He was gone by the time I thought to flip the card over to see what he’d written.
‘Holding a table at Menton’s every Saturday, huh?’ Eliot commented. ‘Definitely more money than sense. Steer clear of the duck, they always overcook it so it’s like old tire rubber. And I could do a better mushroom-ricotta pappardelle in my sleep. But otherwise I guess it’s mostly okay.’
‘Duly noted,’ I managed, tucking the card into my clutch and downing the remainder of my scotch. ‘Thank god this is over at least, I have most of a day before I need to start panicking about that…let’s get out of here.’
‘Why?’ he asked. ‘It’s barely ten and this place is just starting to warm up.’
‘But the thing – you did the thing, right? So-‘
‘First of all, leaving so suddenly would look suspicious and be more than a bit rude to your nice friend, and secondly-‘ he flashed a somewhat lopsided grin ‘-you made getting that thing done a helluva lot easier than it might have been, so-‘ the grin suddenly vanished and was replaced by a scowl ‘-shut up Hardison – hold on-‘
I watched in mild bemusement as he tipped his head on one side, appearing for a moment to have an itchy ear, only to palm something and slip it into his pocket.
‘That’s better. Talkative asshole.’ Eliot gestured to the bar and then the band. ‘Bourbon? Or a dance first?’
‘No way do you know how to waltz,’ I said disbelievingly, which got a roll of his eyes.
‘Like it’s hard. Come on.’
‘If you step on my feet, I’ll kick you.’ I let him take my hand and pull me onto the floor, unable to help the surprised noise that snuck out when he deftly swung me about and settled his other hand on my waist. ‘Oh my god, you do know how to waltz.’
He just laughed and I shook my head.
‘At some point I’m just going to stop being surprised by the random skillsets you have.’
‘Hope not. The look on your face is always priceless.’
That made me giggle and, feeling daring, I leaned lightly against him. Admittedly he wasn’t the tallest guy ever, probably a hair under six feet, but I was a terminal shortass anyway so in the heels he was almost the perfect height for me to lean my forehead against his chin. His arm moved to encircle my waist and I half closed my eyes, hearing Sophie’s warning ringing in my head but figuring it couldn’t hurt to pretend just for a little bit. The merest hint of some kind of woodsy cologne hung about him this close and when I risked a quick flick of my gaze upward I got just a hint of a downright sinful grin and a rather mischievous glint in his eyes, before he spread his palm out over the small of my back and dipped me as the song wound down.
‘Showoff,’ I muttered, my face all but on fire as he pulled me straight again, chuckling that wicked chuckle.
‘Darlin’, you have no idea,’ he said in my ear. ‘Can I get you a drink now?’
‘Only if it’s whisky!’
Chapter 15: The Switcharoo
I all but forgot about Collier and the whole reason we were at the damned party in the first place as the rest of the evening disappeared into dancing and some truly excellent scotch. The band wrapped up just before midnight but with a wink Eliot escorted me out of The Tower and around the corner to a little place jammed into the gap between the Stuart Street and Route 28 intersections called Cusser’s, where at the most upmarket takeaway window I’d ever seen he got us both a hot lobster roll and something called a Summer Smash, which tasted of bourbon and mint and citrus and something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
We went and sat by the fountain in Statler Park to eat and talk as Boston’s late night life buzzed around the area, and I could almost fool myself into thinking it was something like a real date rather than just the kind courtesy of an unlikely gentleman thief who felt indebted for a favour. He even noticed my attempt to conceal a small shiver against the late chill – so much for not needing a shawl – and had his jacket tucked around my shoulders before I could so much as squeak a protest.
Once we’d grabbed a cab back to Brookline he insisted on walking me right to the door of my apartment despite my protests, laughingly insisting that door-to-door was all part of the service.
‘At the risk of causing a scene, could I interest you in a nightcap?’ I offered, once I’d returned his jacket. ‘I’ve got a bottle of Norfolk grain whisky that Rod sent me burning a hole in my sideboard. It’s pretty good stuff, as long as you don’t mind sweet.’
‘I don’t mind sweet at all, but I’d better get back.’ He grinned. ‘Got work to do tomorrow while Sophie and Nate are reeling in the mark.’
‘Oh, right. Of course.’ That brought reality crashing back down, but it was probably for the best. I summoned a smile as best I could. ‘Well, good night, then.’
‘G’night.’ He made to go but something made me check him.
‘Thank you. For tonight.’ Fumbling for something else, I gestured absently. ‘I mean it wasn’t a huge deal about the invite thing, you didn’t need to – you know, spend a whole night humouring me.’
His smile warmed me down to my toes.
‘Who said I was humourin’ anybody? I’ll see you later, Tess.’ A wink. ‘Have fun with your book guy.’
With that he was gone, so I shut the door, banged my head on it a couple of times and then went to take my outfit apart so I could go to bed.
I knew Hardison would be onsite with the team in his van, Lucille, for much of the following day so I slept in and had a very leisurely morning and early afternoon before hopping online to check things like dress codes for the restaurant, but fortunately something cocktail-y would do so I decided to revisit the Aidan Mattox from the launch party, which had been sitting idle in the closet since it got back from being dry-cleaned.
At least Jodie wasn’t the sort to do something like give out a personal number, so I was meeting Collier – should probably think of him as Karl if we’re having dinner together – at the restaurant. I called a cab and tried not to pick at my nails, half-thinking about texting Sophie but then remembering that the team were on a job so she was probably very occupied at the moment.
I got there ten minutes early, thought sod it and went up to the host.
‘Excuse me, I’m meeting Karl Collier, he said there’d be a table?’
‘Miss Fisher, of course. This way, please.’
She got me seated at a rather nice table by the window and after a moment’s deliberation I ordered a bourbon Manhattan to settle my nerves. At more or less dead on seven someone slipped into the chair opposite me and I looked up with a slightly over-bright smile, only to descend immediately into bafflement as the stocky, distinctly brunette man who was sitting there was definitely not Karl Collier.
‘Pardon the switcharoo,’ he said with a tiny smirk.
‘Uh.’ Rude. I tried to regroup as he adjusted his jacket. ‘Oooh…kay?’
‘Sorry I’m not a blonde hunk with cheekbones that could cut glass,’ he said with a surprisingly amicable grin, ‘But you could potentially be an enormous help to one of my cases. Jim Sterling. I’m with Interpol.’
I boggled at him, then boggled at the badge he was holding up, then boggled at his face again.
‘You – uh – what?’
‘You were at a bit of a party last night,’ he said conversationally, putting the badge away and taking a phone out of his pocket, tapping something up before sliding it across the table, ‘Same place you met Mister Collier in fact, which was lucky for me given what I’m on the trail of right now and his predilection for wondering how high when someone with a badge asks him to jump.’
I looked down at the phone and felt my blood run cold. The picture was a little fuzzy, presumably taken off a camera with less-than-ideal resolution, but it was still very obviously Eliot. He had a beanie hat on and what looked suspiciously like a pickaxe slung over one shoulder, head down and walking.
‘Recognise him?’ Sterling asked neutrally.
‘That’s-‘ I swallowed hard ‘-that’s Darren.’
‘Ah, yes…Darren Fontaine, I think the alias he’s using right now.’ There was actually a slight hint of sympathy there and I felt my ears prick up. ‘Tell me, Miss Fisher, does the name Nate Ford mean anything to you?’
I picked the phone up and stared at the picture for a long moment.
‘Ford, like the motor car?’
‘The very same.’
‘No. I don’t think so.’ Squeezing my face up into a dismayed grimace, I managed what was hopefully a passably convincing sniff. ‘I don’t understand, is Darren in trouble, or-‘
‘Darren’s real name is Eliot Spencer,’ Sterling said. ‘He’s a professional thug and a thief, definitely not a political consultant, and I’m afraid you, my dear, are a pawn in whatever his crew are currently up to, so-’
I burst into tears.
It wasn’t planned, it definitely wasn’t graceful, and it turned quite a few heads in the restaurant, but for some reason seemed to be the preferred mechanism by which my brain wanted to manifest the intense surge of raw panic that sort of exploded in my head at that instant.
Sterling was clearly not expecting that, which made two of us, and seemed rather stumped on what to do about it. I tried to get myself under control, accepting the napkin he passed me. Then I had an idea, and dabbed at my eyes while flapping my other hand.
‘I’m so sorry, I – I just – he was so nice, you know? I don’t exactly meet lots of, you know, dateable guys, and Darren’s so lovely, really charming and handsome, with the bluest eyes I ever saw-‘
I waffled on in this vein for a few minutes until the tears stopped. Sterling was clearly trying to look sympathetic but not doing a terribly good job of it; he seemed to mostly want to bang his head against the table. Which was good; Sophie had once said to me that if in doubt, a dappy bint act will get you out of most situations.
‘Yes, well-‘ he was also impatient to get the conversation to wherever he wanted it ‘-if you could just-‘
‘Oh god, I’m a mess, I’m sorry – let – let me just go clean myself up a bit, I’ll just-‘ I got up, still all dithery, and made a beeline for the ladies’ room before he could formulate a coherent objection ‘-won’t be a sec, sorry…’
‘Hurry back,’ I heard him mutter.
Ducking into a stall, I yanked my phone out of my purse and dialled Sophie. Voicemail. Damn. I tried Eliot instead and he picked up on the third ring.
‘Tess, everything okay?’
‘No, everything is not okay,’ I hissed. ‘Collier didn’t show up, it’s some guy from Interpol who’s here with a picture of you on his phone and he’s asking about Eliot Spencer and Nate Ford and what the hell am I supposed to do?’
‘Crap – hold on.’ There was the sound of movement, some muttering, a door slamming and then a beep.
‘You’re on speaker, Tess.’ That was Nate’s voice, mercifully level and steady. ‘Sophie’s on the mark for the job right now but Eliot and Parker are on their way to the restaurant and Hardison’s here with me. You did the right thing calling us, okay, so just stay calm. Where are you right now?’
‘In the ladies’ room.’ I dropped my voice to a whisper as the door went. ‘In a stall.’
‘All right, good. How’d you get away?’
‘I burst into tears, which to be fair I didn’t exactly plan, and fed him a load of rubbish about how my heart was broken because Darren wasn’t who he said he was. Think I freaked him out so when I said I was going to nip in here to clean myself up he didn’t argue.’
‘That’s excellent, well done. Did you get his name?’
‘Sterling. Jim Sterling.’
‘Aw, HELL naw!’ Hardison exclaimed.
‘Nate, he was asking about you, too. He asked if the name Nate Ford meant anything to me. I said I didn’t think so and then started wailing about Darren again.’
‘That’s good, Tess, that’s very good. If he thinks you’re just another mark you’re going to be fine. Now listen, this guy knows our faces so we can’t intervene directly, but Parker will find a way to get you an earpiece and then I’m going to talk you through how to shut Sterling down, okay?’
‘I can’t con this guy!’ I protested. ‘He’s a freaking Interpol agent, and-‘
‘You’ll do fine. I’ll talk you through it, and if you get in trouble then Eliot’s nearby and he has a backup plan. It’s just a little…loud, so let’s avoid using it unless we really have to, okay?’
‘Oh my god.’ I pinched the bridge of my nose. ‘Nate, I really don’t think-‘
‘Parker’s there. Go!’
Then the bastard hung up on me. I cursed for a bit, stuffed my phone back into my handbag, then came out of the stall and took a moment to wash my face and clean myself up a bit; thank god the mascara was waterproof. I nearly jumped out of my skin, however, when Parker dropped into sight behind me having apparently found a vent or something that passed through the ceiling of the restroom.
‘Hi.’ She held her hand out and opened it. ‘Here.’
I took the earbud, which didn’t look like much, and carefully popped it into my left ear. It felt weird.
‘Wriggle your jaw.’ She demonstrated, so I tried to imitate her and blinked when the shape seemed to pop into place, like it had been made to fit into that particular spot on an ear canal. ‘There you go.’
‘What’s Eliot’s backup plan?’ I asked urgently.
‘No idea.’ Then, before I could formulate anything further, she spun me around and all but shoved me back through the door into the restaurant. ‘Go!’
I managed not to fall over, even when Nate’s voice suddenly came through again.
‘All good? Just whisper, it’ll pick up.’
‘Uh. Yeah,’ I murmured, trying not to move my lips too much.
‘Perfect. Now we can hear everything you can hear, so just get back to the table and keep up the heartbreak stuff for a bit, let me gauge what Sterling’s thinking.’
I managed a vaguely affirmative noise and went to sit back down.
‘I’m so sorry, Mister Sterling. I just, um…’
‘Not at all. I understand it’s quite a shock,’ he said, almost graciously, and poured me some water from the decanter on the table. ‘Now I know your novels tend to be more on the side of the con artist than the law enforcement, Miss Fisher, but these are some very bad people and I really need your help to bring them to justice.’
‘I just thought that Darren was-‘ I took a sip and shook my head ‘-god, I feel like such an idiot.’
‘Good,’ Nate said. ‘Keep working that.’
‘It’s not your fault,’ Sterling assured me. ‘People like him are professionals. They fool a lot of people – very smart people – every day. Easy to say, I know, but try not to beat yourself up over it.’
‘My god, you’ve actually got him feeling sorry for you. Okay, let’s put up a brave front. You’ve been fooled but you’re tough and you kind of want to get one back, all right?’
‘Okay.’ I swallowed a few times and nodded. ‘But what can I do? I mean I’m a rubbish liar, unless it’s in print I guess, and if these guys are criminal masterminds or whatever then surely-‘
‘Not to worry.’ Sterling flashed a grin. ‘They’re smart, yes, but I’m smarter.’
‘Wrong.’ A snort. ‘Ask how you can help.’
‘So-‘ I tried to stay focused ‘-what can I do? I mean I don’t really know that much about Darren – in fact apparently I know nothing about Darren. It’s not like I can give you his home address or anything…’
‘No, no, nothing like that.’ Sterling slid a card across the table. ‘If he contacts you again, or if he mentions any of his…colleagues, just let me know anything he says to you. Sound doable?’
I nodded, a little hesitantly.
‘Okay. I guess I can do that.’
‘Text or call, whatever’s easier, right?’
‘Marvellous. I appreciate your help, Miss Fisher, and I promise you, I’ll do everything in my power to make this scumbag and his friends pay for what they’ve done to you.’
Standing, he gave me a nod and then was gone. What they’ve done seemed a little melodramatic, since really the only sin “Darren” had committed was – in theory – breaking my heart, but I was just glad the guy had left. Waving over a waiter, it didn’t take much to make up a little story about being stood up, which I suppose was technically true in a way, and then exit the restaurant at a trot.
‘Perfect,’ Nate said once I was in a cab. ‘This may even work out in our favour. But listen, Tess, even if Sterling thinks he’s got you on side he’ll be having you watched. Might even tap your phone. So as of now, don’t initiate contact with any of us. Steer clear of McRory’s, don’t email, don’t call, text, anything. Lose the earpiece, crush it and drop it in a trash can somewhere random. Understood?’
‘For how long?’ I asked, more than a tad dismayed and alarmed at that notion. ‘Are you – I mean is this-‘
‘We’re not booting you.’ He actually sounded mildly amused at the notion. ‘But with everything in play right now and Sterling sniffing around we just have to be extra careful. If anyone calls you in-character – Darren, for example – make sure you stick to it. Can you do that?’
‘Good. Just hang on. We’ll be in touch.’
The connection went dead. I chewed my lower lip for a moment, then tipped the earpiece out and stopped the cab with it tucked into the palm of my hand.
‘This is fine, I could do with a walk.’
I ducked into a CVS that was still open for a pack of gum, “dropped” the wrapper along with the earpiece and stepped on it, then dumped the whole lot in a nearby bin. Longwood Medical wasn’t exactly a dodgy neighbourhood but I still felt excessively paranoid and kept glancing around and behind me, half expecting to see mysteriously looming Interpol agents in every shadow.
Chapter 16: A Mouthful Of Ashes
The next week was unmitigated hell. I jumped every time my cell so much as burped but didn’t hear a peep from any of the team. Of course they were working a job, so possibly it was just business and they’d get to dealing with Sterling later, but they left a noticeable hole. It was mostly the silly little things, like not being able to exchange Star Trek memes with Hardison, no randomly texted messages or questions from Parker (like what’s a garter or these seagulls sound depressed or is broccoli safe), no sudden invites to an unexpected afternoon tea at Abigail’s on the harbourfront with Sophie.
So when the following Saturday afternoon my phone rang and the caller ID displayed Nate, I all but did a little dance as I picked up and probably sounded weirdly breathless.
‘We got a problem.’
‘Eliot’s in trouble, and not the kind he can punch out of. I need to put you in play with Sterling.’
My throat constricted unpleasantly.
‘What do you need me to do?’
‘Call him. Tell him Darren asked you to meet him at the 75 on Liberty Wharf for lunch, and asked if you minded him bringing his friend Laura. Then head down there as soon as you can.’
‘Right. Okay.’ Once he hung up I found the card where I’d stuck it to the fridge and dialled Sterling, who took his sweet time answering. ‘Mister Sterling?’
‘Miss Fisher. Everything all right?’
‘I – uh – Darren just called me. He invited me for lunch down on Liberty Wharf.’
‘He said he was bringing someone else – a friend – someone called Laura?’
‘I see.’ A pause. ‘Head down there. See if you can get a picture of this Laura.’
I threw my coat on and called a cab, not wanting to wait for the T. My stomach was churning frantically, not so much for whatever Nate was plotting but because he’d said Eliot was in trouble…and it sounded like real trouble. Realising I was chewing my nails and hurriedly forcing my hands to my lap, I had the driver drop me right outside the park and scuttled across the street.
Just as I was about to enter the restaurant my phone buzzed. I checked it and saw a text from Nate.
Change of plan. Head up past the car park and turn right, then follow it and go left down Seafood Way. Wait by the trees next to the big warehouse.
Crap. I about-faced and hurried off, checking my phone a couple more times in case anything else came through, but nothing did. It was a good ten minute walk along some rather quiet industrial streets, but then midday was presumably not a very popular time for seafood freight even in Boston.
I found the empty dirt lot with the little clutch of trees and stood with my hands in my pockets, rocking back and forth on my heels and wishing to god Nate had given me something other than just a set of treasure hunt instructions with no context. Typical. For a few minutes I toyed with the idea of texting him back…but no, he’d said not to initiate contact with any of the team, which almost certainly included replying to things.
A rather beaten-up old truck came trundling around the corner and parked up, somewhat sloppily, next to the lot, which made me crane my neck worriedly. Then I saw Eliot get out and it was like a huge weight just vanished from my shoulders, especially when he glanced around, saw me and made a beeline for where I was standing.
‘Hey,’ I said, not bothering to try and hide the relief in my voice. ‘Thank god, when Nate said-‘
‘They got Nate,’ he snapped. ‘And Sophie.’
‘They-‘ my blood froze ‘-who’s they? What-‘
‘The god damn feds!’ he roared, coming at me so rapidly I involuntarily stumbled back a bit. ‘They killed Hardison! I have no idea where Parker is, and-‘
‘What?’ I clapped a hand over my mouth. ‘Alec – Alec’s-‘
‘Three bullets in the chest. Because of you.’
My back impacted the tree trunk, which was a good thing because otherwise I’d have fallen.
‘He’s – but-‘ I couldn’t formulate thoughts, let alone words. There wasn’t anything in my head except a dull roar.
‘You sold us out,’ Eliot snarled, fury radiating off him like a palpable heat. ‘I knew we should never have trusted you, and now Sterling’s got everything! Everything!’
‘But – Nate said-‘ I began feebly.
‘Do you know what I do,’ he asked, his voice turning frighteningly quiet, ‘To people who betray my friends? Who get my team killed?’
I could only stare at him, wide-eyed and beyond terrified, dimly aware that I was shaking like a leaf while that blank roaring in my head seemed to drown out the entire world.
Suddenly he turned, swore, looked back at me and then, with evident reluctance, made for the truck at a sprint as screeching tires echoed close by. The engine gunned and he was long gone by the time the two black sedans pulled up, the door of one opening to reveal Sterling.
‘God dammit!’ he yelled, apparently at nobody in particular. ‘This close. We were this close!’
He started haranguing several of the people with him, some plain clothes but some with blue FBI jackets on. My legs finally gave way and I sort of slid down to the bottom of the tree with a small bump, still shaking.
Sophie? Nate? Oh god. Alec. No. My brain went into mad overdrive. What had I done wrong? I’d heard Nate tell me to go to the wharf, and then the text – oh god, the text. Anyone could have sent that from his phone, or faked it being from his phone, and somehow me acting on it had blown whatever he’d been planning and-
I started in alarm when someone touched me on the shoulder.
‘Miss Fisher?’ A female FBI agent peered down at me, not unkindly. ‘I’m sorry, Mister Sterling has had to leave but he said you’d been a great help to his investigation. Are you all right?’
‘I-‘ then I clapped a hand over my mouth, not trusting myself to try and form words.
‘We’re going to take you home, okay?’
I managed a nod, somehow got to my feet, let myself be led to one of the cars. The streets of Boston passed in a dull blur, and I was being helped up, taken upstairs, sat down. Someone put a cup of coffee in front of me.
‘Thank you for all your co-operation, Miss Fisher. Is there anyone you’d like us to call for you?’
Slowly, on semi-autopilot, I shook my head.
‘No,’ I heard myself say. ‘There’s no one.’
Sophie. Eliot. Nate. Parker. Alec. Oh, god. Alec.
The coffee was cold by the time the silence of the evening abruptly registered. I was sitting in the darkened room, no lamp on, staring blankly out of the window with that lovely view over the river towards Fenway. It held all the appeal of a mouthful of ashes so I went to the bathroom, flipped the light on, mechanically undressed, turned the shower on and stood under it. No matter how high I turned the temperature it did nothing to warm the chill in my bones.
Chapter 17: Had To Be Sure
I didn’t remember when I started crying, but I didn’t really seem to stop for the next two days, barely leaving the bed because there, even when I couldn’t sleep and just lay there curled in on myself in misery, it seemed possible to at least pretend the whole thing was some horrible bad dream.
Do you know what I do to people who betray my friends? Who get my team killed?
My phone rang but I ignored it. Then it rang again. And again. Why wasn’t it going to voicemail? With an irrational spike of anger I sat up, ready to hurl it across the room, but the caller ID stopped me dead.
Why? Why would someone…gulping, I hit accept.
‘H – hello?’
‘Tess, finally! We’re all wrapped up with the job, and Sterling, that pain. Thank you for your help. Eliot said you turned out to be quite the actress down at the wharf.’
I dropped the phone and had to scramble to pick it up again.
‘Sophie? You’re – you’re not-‘
‘-heading to the pub, see you in a bit, okay? I have to hear about your method!’
I stared at the phone as she hung up. That had definitely been Sophie. I knew her voice. Was it…was it some kind of trick, somehow? But how? Why? Frantic now, I threw on the first pair of jeans and shirt I could find, stamped into my shoes and grabbed my satchel, heading for McRory’s at all but a run. It was late, after closing time, but…
I burst in through the door to see the team clustered around the bar laughing and chatting as though it were any other night when Cora would toss Nate the keys and tell him to close up himself when they were done. There was Sophie, perched elegantly as always on a stool, Parker sitting on the bar kicking her legs, and-
Bolting, I didn’t so much hug Hardison as collide with him and start squeezing, feeling my eyes dampen as it registered that yes, he was indeed real and there and very much had a pulse.
‘Dang!’ He gingerly hugged me back. ‘Down girl, it ain’t been that long!’ Then, when I didn’t let up, a note of genuine worry entered his voice. ‘Uh. Tess? What’s up?’
I drew back enough to see the utter bafflement of his expression.
‘You’re okay? You’re really okay?’
‘You said-‘ I whirled on Eliot and shoved at his chest with both hands, which had about as much effect as a ping pong ball on a glacier but that didn’t stop me doing it again ‘-you said he was dead! That he got shot! You bastard-‘
‘Woah – woah.’ He caught my wrists and held them without discernible effort as I tried – fruitlessly – to continue smacking at him. ‘That was the con, Tess, for the guys Sterling had watching…’
Then, with a kind of grim inevitability, his gaze slid sideways.
‘I had to be sure,’ Nate said calmly. ‘She’s not bad, but Sterling’s one of the best, and the reaction had to be genuine enough for him to buy it, or it wouldn’t have worked.’
Eliot let go of me so suddenly that I stumbled back, and he took a heavy step towards the bar.
‘You said you told her. That she knew.’
‘I had to be sure you’d play it hard enough, too.’
‘Oh man-‘ Hardison looked between the two with dawning horror on his face ‘-you son of a – this crap again? You run cons on the mark, man, not the team-‘
‘She’s not on the team,’ Nate said.
‘She ain’t a mark, neither,’ Eliot barked.
I groped out blindly with one hand and found the edge of a table to steady myself.
It was a con. It was all a con. Finish the job, get rid of Sterling. It…it wasn’t real. It WAS just a nightmare.
‘Sit down before you fall down.’ Sophie was there, helping me into a chair. A glass arrived in front of me and I downed it without a second thought, wincing at the burn. Her tone shifted to one of barely-suppressed fury. ‘For god’s sake Nate, you had her thinking we were all going down? That Hardison was dead?’
‘Alec’s not dead,’ Parker said to me, pouring some more whatever-it-was into the glass. ‘He’s very not dead. He’s talking way too much. I have met dead people – well, seen dead people – and they’re really not very-‘
I managed a nod, downing the glass again which, against all logic, seemed to make the room swim back into something like focus. Sophie had literally put herself in between Nate and Eliot, who had a set to his shoulders that advised of extremely imminent violence although, in fairness, the look on her face was barely less murderous.
Getting up, I put one hand on Sophie’s shoulder and another on Eliot’s with as firm a push as I could.
‘It’s okay. Guys. It’s okay.’
‘What?’ Eliot exclaimed. ‘It’s not okay! God, you thought – I should have realised-‘
‘Did it work?’ I asked Nate. He nodded.
‘It worked. Job’s finished, client got what they needed, we’re all away clean and Sterling is back chasing stolen antiquities in Europe, well out of our way.’
‘All right then.’ I swallowed hard. ‘So that’s…that. Cost of doing business, right?’
He did have the good grace to look very slightly abashed.
‘I had to be sure.’
‘I know.’ I forced the words out. ‘It’s okay.’
‘Are you kidding me?’ Hardison muttered.
‘Tess?’ Sophie locked gazes with me and I managed a nod, repeating again like some kind of mantra.
There was a silence, during which I suddenly became aware that I hadn’t showered in most of three days, that my hair was a positive bird’s nest and my face probably still blotchy and swollen with tear stains. In short I no doubt looked an utter fright. I also had slightly less than zero idea of what the hell to say to anyone next.
‘I’m-‘ it took another swallow ‘-I’m going to go now.’
With that I fled the bar, heading back towards my apartment at a trot while frustratedly dashing fresh tears from my eyes and scrubbing at my face with the back of one hand.
When a hand caught at my elbow I whirled, registered Eliot and flinched before I could think about it. He stopped dead and then took a step backwards while putting his hands up to shoulder height so they were clearly visible, but the obvious de-escalation gesture didn’t stop the hurt that was written clearly on his face at my reaction.
‘Not now, Eliot.’ I ducked my head and tried to get a hold of myself, turning to walk away. ‘Just – just not now.’
‘I’d never hurt you,’ he blurted. ‘Never. You – you know that, right?’
I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears that threatened to well up, but couldn’t look back at him.
‘It’s okay,’ was all I could force out, yet again, and increased my pace.
Thank god, he didn’t follow.
Chapter 18: Where The Light Shines Through
Back at the apartment I had a long shower and a fresh cry that left me utterly exhausted, then collapsed into bed and slept for eleven hours straight. When I woke I felt strangely calm, if rather flat. My phone had exploded with messages but I didn’t want to look at them, so downed a protein shake as my usual makeshift breakfast when at home and then, bizarrely, sat down at my desk with Cold Steel and got to work.
I’d never really used writing as a form of escapism mechanism before – not that I’d ever before needed any as badly as right now – but the rattle of the keys was oddly soothing and it felt good to hammer out the words, like the effort was in some way resetting my mind. I skipped lunch so I didn’t have to pause, and only stopped when I realised I was struggling to physically focus. After downing another shake I went to bed, slept surprisingly soundly until eight the following morning, had a more brisk shower and then did the same thing.
On the fourth day of this rinse-and-repeat I finally decided to look at my phone. There were literally dozens of messages from Hardison and Sophie saying they were checking in and wanted to make sure you were all right and, in Alec’s case, offering to either do horrible things to Nate’s bank accounts and/or threatening to hack into my apartment if I didn’t confirm I hadn’t thrown myself in the river or something. Parker had only sent two texts, the first saying know you need time but miss you and the second promise not to let Alec hack your stuff. That almost made me smile. There was nothing from Nate – naturally, it wasn’t really his style – and no word from Eliot, either.
I stayed in and kept writing, answering a few emails from Rod and Angie, occasionally lamenting the time difference, and then had a sudden realisation. After looking at it from all angles for a few days it seemed really to be the only logical course of action left, so I got dressed properly, made a few arrangements with Francine and then headed to McRory’s that afternoon. Cora gave me a little wave from the bar which I returned on reflex while looking around. Parker and Hardison were sitting in a booth together peering at something on his laptop, but if they were in public there was no way it would be related to a job so I walked up to them.
‘Tess!’ Parker spotted me first, of course, and flashed a big smile. ‘You’re back!’
‘Damn girl, where you been?’ Alec stood and gave me a quick hug. ‘I mean I get it, I do, but just going radio silent like that…I had a scan set up to check the PD didn’t pull you out the harbour!’
‘Sorry,’ I said, and meant it – it was typical Hardison to over-worry, but as usual his heart was in the right place and I hadn’t intended to upset him. ‘I didn’t mean to freak anyone out. I just needed some time.’
‘Figures – man, I ever tell you ‘bout when Nate hypnotised me for a job? Asshole had me thinking it was all sunshine then dropped that on me after. Hell, getting your head screwed with by Nate’s practically a rite of passage around here.’ He gave me a gentle punch on the arm. ‘You officially on the team now, know what I’m saying? Well, I guess honorary on the team but-‘
‘I’m going to go,’ I said. Parker frowned.
‘You just got here.’
‘I mean go as in – uh – as in back to London.’
‘Oh.’ Her face actually fell. ‘Because of this? Because of Nate?’
‘Well, no...I’ve just been doing some thinking and…’ I shoved my hands into my jean pockets and constructed a shrug ‘…it isn’t like I was hanging around with Sophie every day while I wrote Rebecca Silver anyway, and you guys have work to do. Having me sitting in can clearly cause a problem, and it isn’t one you should have to deal with because what you’re doing is important. So.’
‘But you’re our mascot.’
‘You ain’t been no problem at all,’ Hardison added. ‘Hell, you saved our asses in that damn cabin, and getting poked by Sterling’s like another of them hazing things, nothing you did wrong-‘
‘I know.’ I felt myself smile. ‘But thank you for saying it.’
‘But-‘ Parker began and I hurriedly cut her off.
‘It isn’t like this is goodbye forever. I mean I’ll probably be back for the next release party, or if I need to research anything, and if you guys ever get a London job we can do lunch or whatever. We can email and stuff. I’ll send you some chocolate from Selfridges.’
She pouted, brows creasing.
‘I don’t understand why Nate did something mean but you’re the one who’s leaving.’
I gave her a little hug and tried to conjure a smile.
‘It’s okay, Parker. Really. You guys have got to keep doing your thing, all right? I’ll miss you, though.’
‘You’ll come back later?’ Hardison asked. ‘Before you go, I mean. Say goodbye to everyone else?’
‘Oh. Um. My flight’s tomorrow evening, and I have packing to do.’ I chewed at my lip. ‘I’ll drop Sophie a text or something, maybe see if we can grab a cuppa at the airport, but Nate’s – well – Nate, and Eliot-‘ my throat closed up and I had to cough to clear it ‘-anyway, I’m really crappy at goodbyes so if you could please just, you know, mention it to them, and…well, hey, we’ll talk next time, right?’
He gave me a long look and then just nodded.
‘All right. We’ll tell them. Have – uh – have a good flight.’
‘Thanks.’ I hugged him, for quite a while, then hugged Parker again and left. It was hard to pretend not to notice when she started protesting vehemently to him as I opened the door, but I forced myself not to look back and made for the apartment at a quick trot.
Francine had confirmed my flight leaving from Logan International at seven o’clock for the following evening, so that gave me the rest of today and most of tomorrow to get packed up. Considering the still very sparse nature of my Boston wardrobe, the two splashes for the launch party and the charity gala aside, I could probably still manage with just a carry-on and maybe one checked bag.
I got to packing, more for something to do than any particular sense of urgency, and was debating how to get the blue brocade safely stowed without ruining it when there was a knock at the apartment door. Leaving it on the hangar for now, I went into the main room and hid a grimace; it had only been an hour or so since I’d left McRory’s and I hoped to god that Sophie hadn’t heard about my decision from Hardison first and opted to come harangue me about it.
The sight of Eliot through the peephole was very unexpected, and made me hesitate for a good few seconds before opening the door.
‘Hi,’ he said, flatly. ‘Hardison called me.’
I gave a nod of acknowledgement, not really thinking there was much to say to that.
‘Can I come in?’ he asked.
That was an odd request, but I couldn’t really think of a good reason why not so I just stepped aside and motioned him through the door so I could close it behind him. He took a few steps and did a quick visual sweep of the room before turning back to me.
‘Not rushing on packing, huh?’
It took me a beat to realise what he meant.
‘All the furniture and what-have-you came with the apartment. I’m almost done, actually, just clothes and my laptop really. Was trying to figure out how to get that darn ballgown into a bag without writing off the brocade.’
‘Oh.’ A small nod. ‘Travel light, huh?’
‘Well, it isn’t like I’d planned on a prolonged stay when I came barrelling over here anyway. All those shopping trips with Sophie were just practice for Parker.’
‘She’s pretty torn up, you know. Parker, I mean.’
‘Yeah, she did seem upset.’ I chewed my bottom lip. ‘I’m sure she’ll be fine. Just needs something shiny and a new job to focus on.’
‘Yeah.’ His gaze still hadn’t wavered and it was honestly rather unsettling. I found myself shifting from foot to foot and trying to find somewhere else to focus on. ‘Tess.’
‘You never answered my question. Outside the bar.’
That made me look at him, and the expression on his face was like a punch to the gut. I hurriedly cleared my throat and tried to regroup.
‘I’m not going back to London because you went full hitter and scared the bejesus out of me at the wharf, so if that’s what you’re thinking-’
‘So I did scare you.’
‘Of course you bloody scared me!’ I exclaimed. ‘I thought you were going to kill me!’
‘Nate was supposed to-‘ Eliot paused and set his jaw ‘-he said he’d briefed you. It was part of the plan to get rid of Sterling, so he’d write you off as a source and-’
‘I know. And he needed to make sure my reaction was genuine which is why he didn’t brief me. Hence the whole scaring the bejesus out of me part.’
‘But-‘ for a moment he actually looked hesitant, which was something I’d never seen on him before ‘-even without knowing the – I mean you still thought that I’d-‘
‘Strangle me?’ I finished, trying not to sound too openly cynical. ‘Or beat me to a pulp, or slit my throat, or whatever else there is since I know you don’t like using guns?’
‘You believed that – that I’d hurt you?’
‘I believe that if someone killed Hardison – or any of the team – you’d tear them apart with your bare hands,’ I pointed out. ‘And don’t pretend you wouldn’t – or couldn’t – because we both know that’d be a lie.’ Scrubbing a hand over my face, I shook my head. ‘Eliot, I’m not leaving because of that. I know you’re not just a grumpy teddy bear with a mild gastronomical obsession, for god’s sake. If it was going to be a problem it would have been one long before the wharf.’ Sighing, I shook my head. ‘This, being here, seeing the jobs, it’s been…a, well, it’s honestly been a privilege. It’s been amazing. And I love hanging out with you guys. All of you – even Nate, if you can believe it – but sticking around and being such a huge risk and liability so, what, so I can have a good background ambience for writing?’ I snorted. ‘That’s not fair. Not even a little bit.’
‘You really think that’s the only reason you’re still here?’ he asked, sounding almost disappointed. ‘That we’re just indulging you? Sophie’s writer friend?’
‘Well-‘ that rather baffled me ‘-yes?’
‘Then you’re wrong!’ he exclaimed. ‘You’re part of the team. Yeah-‘ when I made to protest ‘-I know you don’t work the jobs, but you keep Hardison caffeinated and you show Parker how girl stuff works and you even occasionally get Nate to act like a god damned human being. You’ve proven you’ve got our backs. You’re on the team.’
‘That’s ridiculous,’ I said, although it came out rather hollow, and wiped impatiently at my eyes. ‘I’m a hanger-on at best, that stuff isn’t important to the jobs – and besides, I can be the acting team mascot just as well from London.’ In an attempt at levity I tried a small smile, although it came out closer to a grimace. ‘Sophie can give you some great tips on how to shut me up when I call you up at some ungodly hour in a panic because I’m stuck on a chapter.’ He just carried on staring so I went into babbling mode. ‘Look, you want some coffee? I should have offered, you’ve been standing there whole minutes – you know what, I’ll just put the kettle on and-‘
‘Don’t,’ he said, surprisingly quietly.
‘-don’t put the kettle on?’
‘Don’t go.’ Folding his arms, he looked down at the floor for a long moment before meeting my gaze again. ‘Don’t go back to London. Stay here. I want-‘ a pause, and he swallowed hard ‘-I need you here.’
‘Need me?’ The scoff escaped before I could censor it. ‘Like Nate claims to need Sophie?’
‘No.’ A small, one-shouldered shrug. ‘Nate says he needs Sophie to keep him losing control and going off the rails. I don’t worry about going off the rails. I got the control.’
For some reason that made me give a mirthless chuckle.
‘So what, you need me here to flatter your ego with Jackson Steel? Didn’t think you were the type.’
‘I need you here because you remind me I’m not just a pair of fists.’
‘Because,’ he went on, ‘Knowing the way you see me… I can almost look myself in the eye in the mirror again. I feel like more than just the guy with bloody hands trying to make it up to the world. It’s – it’s like you see it, all of it, and the way you put it in that damn character is just-‘ for an instant he actually hesitated ‘-it’s like you look right through the cover. Except you don’t see it as a cover. Just cracks.’ The tiniest hint of a smile tugged at one corner of his mouth, and the warmth that came into his eyes, the same way it had outside the cabin by the lake, made my heart leap into my mouth. ‘Cracks where the light shines through.’
For a long moment I just stared at him, lost for words and pretty much everything else.
‘Eliot-‘ that was all that came out. What could I possibly say in response to that? What did he want me to say, if he even wanted me to say anything? How-
The notion cut itself off when he closed the distance between us in two strides, cupped my face in his palms and kissed me. It was surprisingly gentle, soft and achingly sweet, and after an instant of pure shock I melted, lifting one hand to touch his cheek while the other slid into his hair. I felt rather than saw him smile against my mouth as the first kiss seamlessly became a second, and a third, then he was pulling my body flush to his and I was twining my arms around his neck as the apartment and Boston and the entire damned world just fell away.
Holy crap, I’m kissing Eliot Spencer.
…and now Eliot Spencer has his hands on my ass.
The giggle escaped before I could censor it but just elicited a low, rumbling chuckle in response. He caught my lower lip between his and tugged for a moment before taking a few steps, steering me along with him away from the kitchen. My back impacted a door and I felt him groping for the handle to open it, then it took every shred of coherent thought I had left not to burst into laughter when a low thud confirmed it only opened outwards.
‘…that’s a closet.’
‘Dammit,’ he growled, spinning us both around while pulling me into another kiss. We bumped off a couple more walls down the little hallway and then through a different door, which turned out to be the bathroom. Eliot’s mildly exasperated look when he glanced up and realised once again sent me into a tirade of giggles, but he just flashed a rather wolfish grin in return.
‘Third time’s the charm, right?’
In fairness the bedroom door was both ajar and the only one left, but I barely had time to shove my suitcase out of the way before the back of my legs hit the end of the bed and I half-sat, half-collapsed onto it. Eliot backed off enough to shrug his jacket off his shoulders and then did a distinctly ungraceful dance to haul off his boots and socks before pouncing on me with another growl that made my stomach flip over. Before I could really register it he’d hauled my t-shirt off over my head and unsnapped my bra – with one hand, no less – before going to fiddle with the button on my jeans. I was more interested in peeling the button-up off him, stripping one sleeve at a time and then tugging impatiently at the beater underneath until he lifted his arms to let me pull it off him. Our fingers clashed clumsily as we both went for each other’s jeans again but then he pushed me down onto my back and levered himself up over me, and the last vaguely coherent thought I had was that now I really hoped Sophie didn’t get the idea in her head to show up on the doorstep and start shouting.
Chapter 19: Some Dumbass Hail Mary
‘Y’know, not that I’m judging – and believe me I take it very much as a compliment, personally – but you are one fast finisher, woman.’
I glanced up from where I was currently sprawled sideways across the bed with my cheek on Eliot’s stomach and grinned at the lazy smirk plastered all over his face.
‘Well in my defence-‘ reluctantly levering myself up a bit, I kissed up his body to his chin and grinned idiotically when he slipped an arm around me ‘-one, you are really hot...’
He laughed at that, a surprisingly boyish sound, and gave me a squeeze.
‘Two,’ I went on, sliding a hand appreciatively down his chest to idly trace around his belly button, ‘You are really, really good at that.’
The muscles in his abdomen constricted in another chuckle, then he caught me by the wrist and lifted my exploring hand up to plant a kiss on the palm.
‘And three-‘ shifting a little to get comfortable again, I tucked my face into the crook of his neck ‘-I haven’t gotten laid in like two years, so pardon me for being on a bit of a hair-trigger.’
‘Two years?’ he echoed, seeming torn between dismay and disbelief.
‘It’s hard to paint the town red of an evening when you’re holed up writing.’
‘Well, glad I could help break the dry spell.’
‘Mmm.’ I chortled. ‘Was definitely overdue a long, tall glass of water.’ That got one of those really wicked laughs out of him and I grinned, sighing happily when one of his hands came up to stroke my hair before sliding down my bare shoulder, fingers skidding idly back and forth over my skin.
‘I meant it, you know,’ he said quietly after a moment. ‘About not wanting you to leave.’
I propped myself up on my elbow so I could see his face and was a trifle surprised to see the seriousness of his expression. He reached up and put his palm over my cheek with a little smile that seemed almost sad.
‘What, you thought this was just some dumbass Hail Mary?’ Stroking a finger down my forehead, he softly tapped my nose. ‘I swear to god, Tess, if Nate ever tries to pull that with you again…I’ll put him in the damn ground.’
‘Why do I have a horrible feeling you’re serious about that?’
‘Probably ‘cause I am.’ He stared at me, seeming to be searching behind my eyes for something. ‘I know it won’t ever be, y’know, picket fences and a porch swing, but…what do you think?’
For a long moment I entertained the thought that it might actually be possible for my heart to burst right out of my chest, then dropped my head and gave him a long kiss before cracking an irresistible grin and letting my forehead fall onto his shoulder.
‘Is that a yes?’ he asked laughingly.
‘Until someone pinches me and I wake up…’
‘I’ll pinch you if you like, but you’re already awake.’ He turned his head to speak directly into my ear. ‘Darlin.’
I shivered – it wasn’t even entirely exaggerated – and then suddenly thought of something.
‘Oh, crap – what time is it?’
‘Uh, seven, eight maybe? Definitely went past six somewhere between the first time and the – uh, well…’
‘I have to call Francine!’
I scrambled up and grabbed my knickers where they’d been flung over a lampshade, casting about for a top since I had no idea where my bra was. The first thing I found was Eliot’s beater but I threw it on anyway, found my phone – which confirmed it was nearly half past seven in the evening – and hurriedly dialled Francine.
‘You don’t have to put clothes on to make a phone call,’ Eliot said with a chuckle.
‘I do. It feels…weird not to. Francine? It’s Tess. I’m so sorry, I know it’s late-‘
‘Is everything okay?’
‘Yes, yes, everything’s fine – did the lease cancellation come through yet?’
‘Um, not yet, but they said it’d take a couple of days to-‘
‘Great, tomorrow first thing can you – uh – un-cancel it, please? And cancel the plane tickets, I know they won’t refund it but that’s fine-‘
‘Un-cancel the lease cancellation?’ The poor woman sounded understandably confused at that. ‘Are you…staying in Boston, then?’
‘Yes – uh – last minute chance of plans. Tell them I’ll go for a – uh – a twelve month, if that’ll soften them up. Or if not then just see if you can find me somewhere else, please. And a hotel room to cover the gap.’
‘I – ah – of course. I’ll get that all arranged first thing tomorrow and let you know.’
‘You’re a gem, thank you so much.’ Tossing my phone onto the dresser, I exhaled in relief and turned around, stopping short at the sight of Eliot still sprawled on the bed with the sheet barely covering him, his gaze wandering rather unashamedly up and down my body. When he gave a lazy sort of smirk I unconsciously pressed my thighs together and felt my cheeks warm.
‘Turn around for me.’ He made a circling motion with his finger. More than a tad confused, I did so, holding my arms out a little and glancing back over my shoulder just in time to see him bite at his lower lip. His gaze was fixed rather firmly on my backside.
‘You, ah, got any more like that?’ he asked, quirking one eyebrow.
Now thoroughly confused, I looked down. They were just plain boy shorts, the usual sort of knickers I wore, entirely unadorned, pretty conservatively cut with only the barest hint of cheek at the bottom and – oh, apparently he liked them. A lot. A smug grin arrived on my face without me having full say in the matter and I turned to saunter back over to him, deliberately exaggerating the sway of my hips.
‘Eliot, are you trying to tell me you have a thing for modest knickers?’
He laughed – a wonderfully free and full sound – then half sat up to catch my waist and pull me onto his lap.
‘I’m telling you that you’ve got a cute ass and it looks good in those pant-‘
‘No!’ I clapped a hand over his mouth. ‘Don’t you dare say it!’
Puzzlement registered on his face.
‘That is the worst word America has ever butchered into the English language and I hate it,’ I told him firmly – and only mostly jokingly. ‘It’s an ugly, yucky word, it makes me cringe and-
‘All right, all right,’ he laughed, prying my hand away. ‘Your cute ass looks really good in those-‘ barely keeping a straight face ‘-those knickers. Happy?’
I collapsed into giggles, because that sounded all kinds of weird in his accent, but while the expression he was wearing was all playfulness it was pretty easy, from the way I was straddling his waist, to tell that the appreciation for my rear had not eased up. Which made me feel positively giddy, because I knew from an offhand comment Sophie had made that Eliot had literally dated models in the past, so that definitely lent considerable weight to his apparent approval.
‘Hey.’ He kissed the tip of my nose. ‘Stop thinking so hard, huh? What’s up?’
‘Nothing.’ I kissed him back, lingeringly. ‘Just…you know, with all the yoga instructors and supermodels and – I don’t know – ballet dancers and whatever that you’ve seen naked, getting told my bum counts as cute is pretty major.’
Smiling, he slid his hands down to my buttocks and squeezed, which made me squirm a little.
‘I guess you’re just going to have to take the compliment about your-‘ dropping into an appalling facsimile of my accent again ‘-your bum, aren’t you?’
That set me giggling again.
‘Always been an ass man, have you?’
‘Nuh-uh. I’m a woman man.’ A sly wink. ‘Like seein’ how all the parts fit together.’
‘Oh, very smooth.’ I grinned as his grip shifted to the small of my back. ‘A man cannot live by ass alone, is that it?’
To my delight that got another hearty laugh, then he lifted his hand to brush some hair back from my face.
‘You got no damn clue how sexy you are, do you?’
I made a face on reflex.
‘You got me in bed, El, you don’t need to fib.’
‘Ain’t fibbing.’ He pulled me up his body so I had to brace my hands on his shoulders or tip over. ‘You’re a tasty bit of English spitfire with a nice ass and gorgeous smile who goes off like a rocket, and who makes the cutest little squeaky noises when I do this-‘
I yelped – all right, yes, it did come out a bit squeaky – and collapsed helplessly against his chest as he gave another of those truly wicked cackles that ought to be outlawed. He tipped my chin up with one finger and gave me a lingering kiss that warmed me all the way down to my toes, but before I could say anything else our stomachs rumbled in alarming synchronisation, setting us both laughing.
‘Think we’re gonna need feeding before another workout,’ Eliot said with a wink.
‘I haven’t exactly got stocked cupboards right now.’
‘Hmm.’ I ducked down and nibbled along his jaw. ‘Could just gobble you up some more…’
‘Sustenance, woman!’ Sitting up and tipping me onto the bed at his side, he leaned over to grope around in his discarded jeans for his phone. ‘Pizza?’
‘Village on Washington Street does a Napoli that’s actually passable for a takeaway pie.’
‘Sounds good.’ I hid a grin; greasy carbs were clearly never going to be an option with Eliot. While he ordered I scrambled up and dug around in my partially-packed suitcase until I found the Norfolk grain, which I still hadn’t drunk, and chuckled at his grin and thumbs-up of approval.
‘Gonna need that back,’ he said once he’d hung up, indicating the beater.
‘What, I can’t pull it off?’ I asked, glancing down at myself. It hung down pretty low on me and very loose – if I turned to one side too fast it wouldn’t be covering much at all – but it was comfortable and it smelled of him.
‘Oh, you’ll pull it off all right...’ Lunging, he pinned me down without any discernible effort and shucked the vest off me, slinging it over his own head before turning to drag his jeans on. ‘Someone’s gotta get the door and I ain’t letting some delivery guy get a look at you like that.’
‘…so he can look at me like this instead?’ I replied with totally faux-innocence, lounging back against the somewhat disarranged pillows. Glancing back, he cracked a wicked grin, but before I could say anything else he leaned down for a kiss and the next moment we were making out like teenagers in the back seat. Which rather made me lose track of time, because Eliot was one hell of a kisser, so I made a disconsolate sort of noise when there was a rap at the door and he broke off to go answer it, flashing a glance over his shoulder at me.
‘Feel free to eat like that. I ain’t complaining.’
That set me laughing again but I spotted his shirt slung over the nightstand so appropriated it, doing just the middle set of buttons up and grabbing the whisky bottle before peering out of the room as the sound of the front door closing and a distinctly appetising smell of tomatoes and cheese drifted in.
Popping the box on the counter, Eliot shoved his wallet into his back pocket and then paused when he spotted me. A smirk slowly appeared on his face.
‘Now that look I like.’
‘You don’t mind?’ I asked, a trifle bashfully because I’d never really gone for wholesale clothing theft before, but the bright chuckle he gave was more than sufficient reply.
‘C’mere and grab a slice so I can get it back off you.’
It didn’t take much to coax him over to the sofa, and the Napoli was good; they’d at least used real feta and fresh spinach, which was more than a lot of places did. Eliot cracked the bottle of whisky open when I passed it to him, looked at me, shrugged and then took a swig from the neck before passing it back. Laughing, I did the same, and the sweet burn was an unexpectedly pleasing follow-up to the creamy cheese and tomato.
‘I feel terribly bohemian,’ I said after licking my fingers clean from my second slice. ‘Barefoot in flannel, eating pizza on the couch and drinking whisky straight from the bottle with a rugged, long-haired Apollo…’
He laughed, but I caught the hint of a blush as well and felt rather pleased that I could still get that kind of reaction out of him, considering what we’d spent most of the afternoon doing.
‘You’re a sweet-talker,’ he said, raising his eyebrows pointedly.
‘And you’re a hunk. We’ve all got our crosses to bear.’
Another laugh and not-quite-blush, then he flipped the lid closed on the box and pulled me onto his lap.
‘Getting my appetite for something else back, I think.’
‘So I don’t need to get you drunk first?’
‘Not even a little.’ But he did take the bottle from me, downing a swig and then giving me a deep kiss, the taste of his mouth definitely a heady chaser to the sweetness of the liquor.
‘Mmm.’ I licked my lips. ‘I think that just became my new favourite way to drink whisky.’
‘Better save the rest then.’ Looking away just long enough to screw the cap back onto the bottle, he tossed it aside and then stood up, holding me against him and off the ground without any apparent effort. Barely resisting the urge to swoon, I wrapped both legs around his waist and giggled when that elicited one of those wolfish chuckles. Then he hooked a hand under each of my thighs and carried me easily back into the bedroom, and the minor consideration of where the damned bottle had landed fled clean out of my mind.
Chapter 20: A Cut Price Indoor Batman
I woke up to a slit of light coming in through the curtains almost directly onto my face, grumbled something and flipped over, only to find a still-cooling spot next to me along with a distinct lack of Eliot. That was a tad dismaying so I sat up and cocked an ear, then felt an irresistible grin sneak over my face at the sound of cupboards opening and closing and vaguely muttered obscenities from the other room.
Getting up, I slipped his flannel on again and padded out to the kitchen just in time to see him slam another door with a noise of exasperation.
‘Why is there nothing in your damn cupboards except god-damned protein shakes?’
I had to chuckle at his almost offended expression.
‘Well, good morning to you, too. I don’t keep a lot of food around – when I’m working I tend to just grab a shake so I can keep writing rather than having to pause and-‘
‘You actually live on those things?’
‘Um. And multi-vits. Just when I’m really in a zone and I’m not going out-‘
‘No wonder you kept getting writer’s block. Brain’s a body part too, got to feed it.’ He rolled his eyes at me. ‘Get dressed. I’m taking you for breakfast. In your clothes.’
I half expected the crepe place again but instead he took me to somewhere on Harvard Street called Martin’s; it was a cute little place halfway between a café and a diner, right down to the counter seats. A pretty young waitress with blonde hair greeted Eliot by name – a rare enough occurrence – but her smile vanished almost instantly when she realised I was with him.
‘Am I running a poisoning risk here?’ I asked in a low voice once she’d moved off to tend to the coffee pot. He chuckled softly and, to my delight, reached over the table to take my hand. ‘And…did that risk just go up by a factor of five?’
‘She doesn’t do the actual cooking so I think you’re safe,’ he replied with a wink.
The place did a pretty good local approximation of a full English, the oh-so-American inclusion of pancakes far from unwelcome, and the staff didn’t slip anything horrible into mine, either. In fact we ended up lingering until quite late into the morning over several cups of coffee, escaping onto the street just ahead of the pre-lunch rush.
‘I really got to go,’ Eliot said regretfully as we reached the junction with Washington Street. ‘Need a shower and a change of clothes, for a start…’
‘Shower I’ll allow but you don’t need clothes,’ I shot back playfully, ‘Clean or otherwise. In fact-‘ tilting my face up so I could kiss him on the lips ‘-I may bribe Hardison in gummies to hack Congress and get a ban on you wearing clothing ever again put on the end of some bill and made into law…’
‘Oh yeah?’ He kissed me back. ‘Only problem is-‘ another kiss ‘-if you talk to Hardison about me being naked in any context-‘ another kiss ‘-I’ll have to break his neck, and that’d be a problem.’
‘Maybe that’s a price I’m willing to accept for a perpetually naked Eliot.’ I put a hand over my heart and affected false melodrama. ‘A single sacrifice for a greater cause.’
‘You’re insane.’ But he was smiling. ‘Seriously though. I got stuff to do. McRory’s later?’
‘Seven.’ Another kiss, more lingering. ‘See you there.’
I let him go, beaming like an idiot, and felt my cheeks burn when he glanced back over his shoulder at the crosswalk with a smile and a wink, then blew me a kiss before striding off towards the T.
Once I was able to scrape myself up off the pavement – or sidewalk, whatever – I went home and had a long shower and change of clothes myself. Then I unpacked again, changed the bedsheets and took several calls from Francine, who had managed somehow to successfully press the undo button on the whole matter of my returning to London in less than twenty-four hours, and on a Sunday at that.
After praising her effusively and emailing the agency to arrange a bonus for her by way of thanks, I actually went shopping up along Harvard Street, figuring that if I was going to be sticking around in Boston for the foreseeable I probably ought to expand my everyday wardrobe a little bit beyond two pairs of jeans and six band t-shirts. In fact I wound up in a local shoe shop as well, because my battered pair of Converse wouldn’t really go all that great with the cute-but-casual wrap dress I’d picked up, but restricted myself to just a pair of classic Mary-Janes with a three inch heel because Sophie would never forgive me if I extensively shoe-shopped without her.
Around ten to seven, in the dress and shoes with a blazer against the chill, I arrived in McRory’s feeling like a giddy schoolgirl on a first date and went up to the bar to order a bourbon.
‘Make it two. I got the lady.’ A warm palm settled on the small of my back and I felt myself smile as Eliot leaned around me to slide a note across the countertop. Then he turned his head and kissed my cheek softly before speaking into my ear. ‘You look hot. That all for me?’
‘Wait until you see underneath,’ I murmured, thinking of the lacy shorts I’d picked up, and pressed my thighs together with a small gulp when that elicited one of his wicked cackles.
‘Better sit down before I drag you outta here. Darlin.’
On the way to a table, however, we were intercepted by Parker; she came in, glanced about, spotted me, and then did a sort of hop-skip-leap across the intervening distance.
‘Tess! You’re still here!’ Then, urgently checking her watch. ‘Your flight’s leaving in less than an hour. Oh. Did you change your mind?’
‘I – ah-‘ I groped for what to say, having not really thought this far ‘-yeah, I did. Got given a good – a very good – reason to stay.’
‘A reason?’ A little frown, then she seemed to take in how close Eliot and I were standing, not to mention that he had his hand on my back, and the penny dropped. ‘You – and you – you’re – oh!’
With that almost hypersonic squeal she threw her arms around us both and squeezed while doing a funny little jig-dance on the spot, until I managed to choke out
‘Parker – airflow-‘
‘Oh! Sorry.’ Letting go and backing off, her grin turned only a trifle sheepish. ‘This is so great. You’re going to be our mascot forever!’
‘I’ll get a t-shirt made,’ I said dryly as Hardison ambled in, laptop under one arm as always. He paused and did a not-quite double take, then broke into a broad grin. My brain caught up and prodded me with a helpful reminder.
Hardison called me.
Before I could think of anything to say he strode up, still beaming, and regarded us rather smugly.
‘Those ain’t no getting-on-a-flight clothes, I’m guessing.’
‘Not even close.’ Eliot clapped him on the arm and they exchanged a grin. ‘Thanks, man.’
‘Don’t mention it. Glad I could help y’all get your heads outta your asses before some of y’all got on a damned plane and crossed the Atlantic…’
I gave him a hug and a peck on the cheek.
‘You’re a brat. Thank you.’
We found a booth and just like that it was any other evening in McRory’s. Well, except for Eliot sitting close enough that our legs were pressed together, with one arm slung casually over the back of the bench around my shoulders. It took everything in me not to just turn and snuggle up against him like a limpet, but I restrained myself because I wasn’t sure how happy he would be with overt PDA and I had previous for being over-tactile.
Sophie arrived a little bit later and made Hardison squish up so she could sit down with her glass of wine, then took one look at Eliot and I and cocked an eyebrow.
‘Tess was going to go back to London and told me and Hardison last night but he called Eliot and Eliot convinced her to stay so she’s still here,’ Parker said, somehow all in one breath and a remarkably calm tone, like she was just describing the weather.
‘Going to-‘ Sophie blinked and stared at me ‘-and you were going to tell me about this when, exactly?’
‘Uh, I had been planning to call you before my flight,’ I said hurriedly, recognising that wide-eyed indignant expression that would turn into outright scolding at any moment, ‘See if we could grab a cuppa or something before I went. But I got a little…distracted.’
‘Because she was having sex with Eliot,’ Parker added helpfully.
‘Thank you for that clarification, Parker,’ Sophie said, rolling her eyes while the rest of us laughed.
‘In my defence, Eliot is a very good distraction,’ I admitted with a small grin. ‘Still. Sorry.’
‘And you shopped without me.’ She gestured to indicate my attire, and actually looked under the table. ‘Including shoes! Well, now I feel betrayed.’
‘It was only one pair, and I was thinking of you the whole time which is why it was only one pair-‘
‘If you’re talking about shoes I need a beer,’ Eliot said with a snort, getting up. ‘Refill?’
‘Yes, please.’ I cocked my head to admire the sight of him walking away towards the bar and laughed when Hardison made gagging noises. ‘Hey, if you hadn’t made that phone call I’d be lamenting the crappiness of the in-flight movie roster by now!’
‘Oh I’m hacking everything these days. CIA, FBI, Secret Service, y’all’s brains…’
‘You can’t hack my brain,’ Parker told him firmly.
‘Girl, you wanna bet?’
‘Steady now,’ Sophie warned with a chuckle.
Eliot returned with a round of drinks and gave my knee a quick squeeze as he slid back into the booth, immediately returning his hand to my thigh once he’d popped the top of his beer. I didn’t mind that one bit and shuffled up a smidge so our legs pressed together again, as Parker and Hardison started playfully bickering about how to hack each other’s brains. When Sophie brought up neuro-linguistic programming again I threw a coaster at her.
‘Don’t spout stupid pseudo-science in earshot of me, missy.’
‘We’ve all seen her do it,’ Eliot said, seeming surprised by that.
‘Oh, please. What Sophie and Nate do isn’t NLP, it’s just advanced psychological priming. NLP got discredited way back in the eighties when nobody could find an evidence base for it.’
‘Told you,’ Hardison said with a grin, opening his laptop, and for some reason we spent the next hour debating the pros and cons of various types of neurolinguistics and psychology, which mostly consisted of Sophie making some outlandish claim from some grift or other followed by Alec and I shooting her down with empirical studies while Parker and Eliot watched with growing amusement.
‘How come you know so much about this stuff?’ Eliot asked me when Sophie took a break to get another round.
‘Studied linguistics at university,’ I supplied. ‘And then did a lot of reading and research for Rebecca Silver.’
He seemed mildly impressed at that, if rather surprised, giving my leg another squeeze and flashing a smile.
‘Brainbox, huh? Thought you met Sophie when you were waitressing.’
‘Yup.’ I shrugged. ‘Got the degree, didn’t say I knew what to do with it.’
‘That’s why I never bothered with college.’
‘Don’t blame you. Especially given how they much it costs over here.’ Then I spotted a familiar figure sitting alone at another booth and sighed. ‘How long has Nate been there?’
‘About an hour,’ Sophie supplied as she sat down again. ‘He was looking at potential clients. I was going to let him stew a bit longer.’
‘Well, I’ll be the soft touch then.’ I nudged at Eliot until he moved to let me out of the booth, smiling a little at his rather bridled expression. ‘I’m the one who was in bed crying for two days because I thought I’d got Alec killed. So I think I get to call dibs on being the bigger person.’
‘All right.’ He didn’t seem convinced but I patted his shoulder in what I hoped was a reassuring way and then went to the bar, ignoring Hardison’s mild exclamation of for two days?
Picking up two glasses of Jameson blended, which was Nate’s preference when he wasn’t just doing what Sophie glumly referred to as maintenance drinking, I went over and plopped them on the table, sitting down in the booth opposite him.
He looked up from the papers he was perusing and gave me a slightly puzzled squint.
‘You’ve self-exiled temporarily because the team are all giving you the frosty treatment over the Sterling thing, but since I’m technically the wronged party I’m calling pax.’ I lifted my glass, waited until he did the same and then clinked against it. ‘There. Now you can quit brooding like a cut-price indoor Batman and come sit with the rest of us.’
He took a swig and looked at me for a moment.
‘If you’re expecting some heart-warming moment and a grand apology-‘
‘Wrong narrative.’ I grinned, rather enjoying being able to needle him. ‘I don’t expect a volcano to apologise or promise not to do it again when it erupts and buries a village.’
‘So I’m a volcano, am I?’
‘Lot of similarities. Does a lot of damage at first glance but people still live on the slopes for the longer term benefits even if they have to put up with periodic rumblings and the occasional shower of flaming debris.’
That got a tiny hint of a smirk, because of course the megalomaniacal bastard would approve of being likened to a literal force of nature.
‘So. That’s that, then.’
‘That’s that, you miserable git.’ I stood up. ‘Come on, you’re taking up a whole booth and this place is crowded tonight.’
He snorted but did come with me, snagging a free chair on the way and parking at the end of the table. I slipped back in beside Eliot, who switched his beer to his other hand and draped his now-free arm over my shoulder without so much as a blink.
‘So, any new client prospects?’ Sophie asked as though Nate had just come downstairs.
‘A few. Rogue real estate trader, corrupt insurance agent-‘
‘Ugh, another one?’ Parker said.
‘-they’re not exactly rare, Parker – and what appears to be someone embezzling from a playground development fund, of all things.’ The last file he passed directly to Hardison, who opened it to flip through the papers while tapping on his keyboard with the other hand.
‘Someone’s embezzling from a parks fund?’ I echoed. ‘That’s a new low, isn’t it?’
‘You’d be amazed.’
‘We could take this one down with two or three phone calls to the right people,’ Sophie observed, having been sifting the other pair of files in the meantime. ‘Although this real estate chap’s a nasty piece of work…looks like he’s trying to branch out into the Strip, lots of appointments out there.’
‘Guy’s got aspirations of being the next Sheldon Adelson,’ Nate agreed.
‘Who?’ Parker asked,
‘Richest single casino owner in the game,’ Hardison supplied. ‘Started with the Sands, ripped it down to build the Venetian, made a ton of money, expanded overseas…these days he owns the entire Las Vegas Sands corporation, guy’s worth twenty-three billion.’
‘He’s not the mark, though,’ Sophie commented.
‘Is that a hint?’ Nate said to her.
‘Well it’s the casino guy or a vacation,’ Hardison announced, grinning smugly. ‘I just blew mister stealing-parks-from-kids wide open with three emails and one accidental e-document misfile.’
‘Seriously?’ I exclaimed.
‘Age of the geek, baby.’
‘We can do the phone calls for the insurance guy on the bloody plane,’ Sophie added. ‘I vote this one.’
‘All right, then, we’ll brief tomorrow morning.’ Nate took the file from her and passed it to Hardison. ‘Doable?’
‘Very doable…’ the hacker went quiet again apart from occasionally fiddling with his laptop.
‘Yay.’ Parker beamed. ‘New bad guy and Tess isn’t going back to London after all!’
‘You were-‘ Nate actually blinked at that ‘-what?’
‘I had a change of plans and then a – uh – change of change of plans,’ I said. ‘Let’s leave it at that.’
‘Not going to be a problem, is it?’ Sophie added, giving him a pointed look.
‘No.’ He gave her one of the bland not-smiles he normally reserved for drunks who tripped him up in the bar. ‘I am apparently some kind of metaphorical volcano-’
‘What, full of hot air?’ she shot back without missing a beat, so he never got to explain my clever analogy because everyone was laughing at him too hard. Which seemed a fair outcome to me.
‘You’re pretty forgiving,’ Eliot said to me later as we turned the corner onto Chapel Street. ‘Took Hardison weeks to get over the hypnotism thing.’
‘Being mad at Nate strikes me as a bit of a waste of time.’ I shrugged. ‘Besides, it wasn’t like he didn’t inadvertently set off a chain of events that really worked out well from my perspective.’
‘Spending two days crying in bed?’
‘After that!’ I snorted. ‘And it was my first time getting someone fake-killed.’
‘Yeah. Sorry again about that.’
‘Not your fault.’ By now we’d reached my building so I turned to face him. ‘Seriously. I think the last few days have given me a whole new appreciation for the term emotional rollercoaster, but…’
‘You’re worth it.’ Then my brain caught up with my mouth and I groaned, closing my eyes. ‘I actually said that out loud, didn’t I? Oh my god I’m the worst kind of cheeseball.’
He chuckled and pulled me into a kiss.
‘Nothing wrong with a little cheese. Besides, I recall you offering to show me what’s under that dress…’
‘Isn’t there a briefing tomorrow for a new job?’
‘That’s tomorrow.’ His eyes flashed. ‘I ain’t tired enough to sleep yet. How ‘bout you?’
I didn’t even bother dignifying that with a reply, just grabbing his arm and towing him inside while he laughed.
Chapter 21: Start Playing It Smart
I’ve never been much of a morning person so when I drifted back into consciousness my first thought was oh crap I didn’t set an alarm. Then my nose registered a series of delicious smells permeating the apartment, which definitely wasn’t usual upon first waking, and I started to blearily sit up in vague confusion.
‘You are a really deep sleeper,’ Eliot said, coming in through the bedroom door with a tray and a grin. I blinked a few times, torn between appreciating the sight of him with only his beater over his jeans and my stomach’s interest in the smell of pancakes, orange juice and what looked like an honest-to-god pot of tea.
‘I’m not much good at mornings.’ I yawned and scrubbed a hand back through my hair as he sat down on the bed and settled the tray between us. ‘Oh my god, how long have you been up?’
‘Told you I don’t need much sleep.’ He kissed me on the forehead. ‘Had a shower, then did a little kitchen stocking.’
‘Bisquick?’ I quipped.
‘These are proper pancakes, who the hell you think you’re talking to?’
That made me giggle, having fully expected a retort along those lines, and I picked up a piece of food to examine it.
‘Oh my god, is that bacon?’ He’d cooked a strip into each pancake, which explained their oddly elongated shapes, and there was a little dipping bowl of syrup on the tray. ‘Breakfast finger food? How have you been single so long?’
‘Well I ain’t any more, right?’ he said with a little smile, which made me flap one hand in mild frustration; I had a mouthful of delicious pancake-bacon-with-syrup and had to finish chewing and swallowing before I could kiss him. Of course he chuckled at that, too, before taking a bite out of the piece I was holding and flashing an adorable grin that made me melt into puddles.
After that we made quick work of the tray but he just shooed me into the shower when I offered to wash up, so by the time I emerged suitably dressed – back in jeans, but this time with a rather nifty new pintuck-sleeve blouse rather than a well-worn band tee – the kitchen was probably the cleanest and tidiest it had been since I’d moved in, and somehow it was only ten past nine.
I could definitely get used to this.
We took the long way to McRory’s to get coffee and apparently arrived just after Hardison, who was sprawled full-length on the sofa with his laptop.
‘Morning lovebirds,’ he said with a wicked grin, earning himself a glare from Eliot. ‘Hey dude, you gonna be up for planning this today? What with being up all night and all on that other job – ow-‘ as I swatted him around the head on the way to my chair in the back.
Fortunately Nate came downstairs after that so I slipped my headphones in and got typing, barely even noticing when Sophie and Parker arrived and the briefing got fully underway. In fact despite everything else, and the vaguely surreal sense of normality at being back in the condo tapping away after the events of the last few days, I got into a serious zone and was rereading the last few paragraphs in a state of minor shock when, halfway through the afternoon, Eliot touched my arm and put a cup of tea beside my laptop.
‘Yeah.’ I blinked and rubbed at the back of my neck. ‘I just finished Cold Steel.’
‘Very good. I’m like four months ahead of schedule. Thank you,’ I added, picking the tea up and taking a sip. ‘How’s the job planning going?’
‘Got an angle to work. Fancy a trip to Vegas?’
‘Ooh!’ That made me sit up. ‘We’re going to Las Vegas?’
‘Hardison’s booking it all now.’
‘Please tell me we can visit the Bellagio! I need a picture of the five you by the fountains. For…reasons.’
‘We’re staying in the Bellagio. Nate’s going to pull his famous sleazebag investor play, so…’
‘So a suite, for entertaining-stroke-savaging the mark?’ Then a thought occurred and I reached up to finger the collar of his shirt hopefully. ‘I don’t suppose there’s any chance of that tux making another guest appearance, is there?’
That got a laugh.
‘Afraid not. I ain’t George Clooney.’
‘Well no, you’re miles hotter than Clooney-‘
‘Clooney and Pitt, huh?’
‘And Damon, obviously.’
Hardison started making kissy noises at that point so with a low growl Eliot went to threaten him into silence, but in fact once everyone met up at the airport the following morning I was rather surprised when Alec pulled me aside.
‘This thing’s happening, right, so I figured time to start playing it smart.’ He held out well-stuffed envelope. ‘Passport, bank cards, ID, social security, all that, for one Tessa Stone. Joint citizenship, so you don’t gotta fake an accent. We’ll work up to different first names, ‘kay?’
‘Oh!’ I was surprised at that, and also mildly shocked; I hadn’t seen any of his forgeries up close and they looked, well, perfect. ‘Did El ask you to-‘
‘Didn’t need to.’ A grin. ‘You think it wouldn’t cross someone’s mind this English author woman visits places and then some bigwig jerk gets ripped off? Got to be careful with that stuff, keep all our asses covered.’
‘I…actually hadn’t thought of that.’ I grimaced, then gave him a hug. ‘Thank you.’
‘Hey, it’s my job.’ He winked. ‘Just do us all a favour and don’t wear our boy out so much he can’t do his job, too…’
‘I’ll try to restrain myself,’ I assured him laughingly. In fact despite my best efforts to convince him otherwise Eliot had insisted on sleeping at his own place last night, citing the need to stay focused with the job coming up. We did get to sit together on the plane, though, and business class at that, which was much nicer than having to put up with Parker’s in-flight commentary for five straight hours.
The second we landed the team went into business mode; as usual I was deliberately light on the details so I just settled for giving Eliot’s hand a squeeze and then dragging my suitcase off into Arrivals to lean into the idea of being a solo traveller. I’ll admit my heart was in my mouth when they checked the ID over but it passed without so much as a flicker, which really I ought to have expected because…well, Hardison.
I caught a cab to the Bellagio and spent a little bit boggling at the strip – I was supposed to be a tourist, after all – then went in to check in and explore my room. It had a view of the fountains, a desk and a huge king-sized bed which was big enough to get lost in. I was contemplating that somewhat regretfully when my phone buzzed.
You checked in ok? Eliot. I smiled.
This place is bigger than my first flat. Going to come see?
After the job.
Damn the man’s professionalism.
I did a bit of exploring, got completely lost in the casino, twice, – which at least made the ditzy tourist act easy to keep up – and was sitting by the window admiring the evening display on the fountains when my phone buzzed again, this time with a text from Hardison.
Wanna come up? Tower Suite.
I replied with an affirmative and managed to navigate my way to the right door, which opened into an astonishingly lavish miniature apartment with its own damned foyer.
‘Right?’ Hardison pushed into view back on the wheeled chair by the desk and waved me in. ‘Team’s all downstairs already and Sophie’s all over the mark.’
‘Cool.’ I did a little judicious investigating and tried not to laugh at the obvious sleeping arrangements from where shoes and things were arranged; Nate in one queen, Eliot and Hardison top-and-tailed in another and Parker occupying one of the chaise lounges in the corner while presumably Sophie had the solo king to herself. ‘I see you boys like to get all cuddly. Should I be jealous?’
‘You know technically I saw him first,’ Hardison shot back with a cheeky grin. ‘Oop, hang on – yeah, he’s at the craps table. No, the one with the dice. God, woman, how can a professional thief not know the difference between roulette and craps, huh?’
‘It’s just stupid ways to lose money,’ Parker complained over the comms. ‘They all look the same to me!’
‘Hold fire, Parker.’ That was Sophie, a tad urgently. ‘We may need to shift the play.’
‘Mark’s a little savvier than we thought,’ Nate supplied. ‘Might need an extra distraction to make the lift.’
‘Distraction, huh?’ Hardison worked his jaw for a moment. ‘You know, I could just-‘
‘Nothing like that. We need subtle. And potentially prolonged. He’s a talker.’
‘I can’t be a dumb bimbo AND make the lift,’ Parker hissed.
‘What we need,’ Nate said slowly, ‘Is an extra bimbo.’
‘No,’ that was Eliot, so decisively that it honestly turned me on a bit. ‘Absolutely not.’
‘It’s fine.’ I leaned towards the microphone. ‘Nate, what do you need?
‘Dim but flirty. Doable?’
‘Uh…I think so?’
‘Tess,’ Eliot said urgently, ‘You don’t need to-‘
‘It’s fine, El,’ I assured him. Nate, of course, hadn’t so much as skipped a beat.
‘Parker, prep her. We’ll hold it together until you get back.’
‘…prep?’ I echoed in mild alarm.
‘God dammit, Nate,’ Eliot muttered. Hardison gave me a grin and handed over an earbud, which I put in on something vaguely akin to autopilot. Then, before I could summon the wherewithal to enquire what prep meant, Parker burst in and whisked me into the main bedroom, diving at the big duffel open on the floor to start rummaging through it like something out of a cartoon. How she’d got up to the room so fast considering the kitten heels and extraordinarily tight-fitted bodycon dress she was wearing was honestly beyond me.
‘Here. Put this on.’
This was a little red number covered in sequins, tight all round and with a neckline low enough to count as indecent public exposure. I boggled at it for a moment, examining the thing from all angles.
‘There is no way I’m fitting into that.’
‘Try something of mine,’ Sophie said, which made me jump because the comms made it sound like she was right in the room with us. ‘Little more generous on the top shelf.’
‘Top shelf?’ Parker blinked. ‘Oh! Boobs.’
An investigation of Sophie’s three suitcases turned up a very slightly classier beaded sheath dress which I could just about fit into provided I left my bra behind…and didn’t try to walk too fast in the embellished suede mule sandals, which Parker lent me because her feet were closer to my size.
‘What are you forgetting?’ Sophie asked in a sing-song tone. Parker made a face at me and then I caught on, recognising the uncharacteristically heavy eyeshadow and bright lipstick she had on.
‘Makeup! Bimbos don’t go natural.’
‘This is a really stupid idea,’ Eliot complained; he sounded like he was walking fast. Stomping fast, rather. ‘I swear to god, Nate, if something goes wrong-‘
‘It’ll be fine, Parker’s doing the hard part. All Tess has to do is sit and giggle.’
‘Because acting like a brainless floozy comes so naturally,’ I muttered, hastily raiding Sophie’s Gucci cosmetics case to tart myself up like a street walker. ‘There, that’ll have to do. Am I going to need to fake some crappy accent as well?’
‘No, stay English,’ Sophie said. ‘Posh it up. Mister Lapowski likes European ladies.’
‘No, me,’ Nate said dryly. ‘It’s the little things.’
‘Nate’s persona is Frank Lapowski,’ Parker told me as we went to the suite door. ‘He’s a man with a lot of money, that’s all you really need to know. I’m Clara, floozy number one, and you be…uh…’
‘Amelia?’ I suggested. ‘That’s pretty English and sort of posh.’ Apparently the novelist’s ability to rapidly invent names for minor characters was a useful skill after all.
‘Amelia. Perfect. Eliot is Henry Powell, Frank Lapowski’s muscle. Don’t worry about Sophie and Hardison. Got it?’
‘Amelia, Clara, Frank, Mister Powell.’ I nodded. ‘Yeah, I think so. If in doubt, giggle brainlessly.’
‘That’s the spirit,’ Sophie said. ‘You’ll do fine.’
Chapter 22: Bimbo Number Two
When the suite door opened to admit Eliot I nearly did a double-take, my mind going somewhere entirely inappropriate at the sight of him in the quintessentially bodyguard all-black suit and white shirt with the top couple of buttons undone, complete with mirrored shades, although those were currently pushed up over his hair.
‘Can you even breathe in that thing?’ he asked after a beat spent looking me up and down in a way that made me very much wish the team wasn’t in the middle of conning someone.
‘Long as I don’t have to run any marathons.’
‘You sure about this?’
‘I’ll be fine.’ I went to peck him on the cheek but he stopped me. ‘What?’
‘Aw, we can’t have a little secondary storyline where Mister Powell and Amelia are planning to run away together?’
‘It’s a con, not a soap opera,’ Nate said dryly. ‘Get a move on, please.’
‘Right.’ Eliot huffed. ‘Ladies?’
‘Have fun!’ Hardison called cheerfully, but the door closed before I could think of a suitably pithy comeback, and then we were having to make a decent hustle to the elevator.
‘Big, dumb smile,’ Parker reminded me, breaking into a grin so utterly inane that I burst out laughing, so it must have looked like someone had just told a filthy joke when we arrived downstairs. Still, it probably wasn’t a bad thing to be all giggly, and probably sold the act more while the pair of us tottered along just behind Eliot as he pulled the sunglasses back over his eyes.
Nate was sitting at a craps table with three other guys, one of whom was presumably the mark, in one of the uglier suits reserved for his more tasteless personas.
‘You take right,’ Parker murmured, so I peeled off to that side and leaned an arm on Nate’s shoulder with the most simpering expression I could conjure.
‘Oh, hey doll,’ he said offhandedly, ‘Feelin’ better?’
‘All better,’ I enthused. ‘Mister Powell got me an aspirin and my headache cleared right up.’
‘Fine, good.’ Of course the absentminded dismissiveness was all part of the act, and god help me I actually recognised the slightly nasal, huckster voice he was using. ‘Come on, are we playing or admirin’ the carpet here?’
‘English, eh?’ The most well-dressed of the trio of men at the table – well, arguably except for the casino employee – gave me a look up and down that made me very glad there was a high powered shower back in my room. ‘Something wrong with American girls, Lapowski?’
‘Darling Clara is from Sweden, if you’re wondering,’ Sophie supplied in my ear. ‘Don’t ask me how but Parker can do a really good Swedish accent for some reason.’
‘They ain’t bad but you know these European girls, they got way more imagination.’ Nate cackled. ‘And not half as many hangups, neither!’
It took every ounce of my self-control not to burst out laughing when he slapped my ass, which probably wasn’t the best reaction to have but it was Nate, for goodness’ sake. I managed to get out a brainless titter rather than a guffaw, at least, and squirmed a little on the spot for added effect which set several bits of me jiggling thanks to being bra-less under the skin-tight dress. The mark – or so I assumed he was – seemed to appreciate that, too.
‘You’re a man of taste, Lapowski, I’ll give ya that. Yankee broads got too many highfalutin ideas for my taste.’
Inwardly I was rolling on the floor by now. Did he really just say the word highfalutin and mean it?
‘Here sweetie, little luck, eh?’ Nate held up the dice to me, so I made a small show of blowing on them. A flick of his wrist and they went tumbling. ‘Oh-ho, there we are, straight seven, atta girl!’
‘Anything for you, Frankie.’ Then I planted a big kiss right on his cheek, for the hell of it. This of course meant leaning over, as the stool was a little low, and thank god the dress was skin-tight or the mark would have probably been able to see all the way down to my navel.
Still, even if the leer on his face was making my skin crawl, I definitely had his attention.
‘You’re doing great, Tess,’ Sophie said to me, ‘That’s just what Parker needs, a little room to manoeuvre.’
So against all logic and reason, not to mention personal preference, I spent the next couple of hours acting the vapid floozy and fawning all over Nate. It was hard not to glance at Parker as she sort of oozed around the table doing whatever she was doing, but I tried to keep my focus on the mark so I didn’t inadvertently give her away.
It seemed to take forever before the game ended – I didn’t know enough about craps to really grasp the details but Nate seemed to have the biggest stack of chips so presumably he’d won – and Parker and I were being sort of ushered away in a manner that just screamed now the men are talking.
‘Okay?’ I asked her once we were in the elevator.
‘Perfect.’ Another grin, but a genuine one this time. ‘You really are a natural.’
As we emerged on the Tower floor, however, some instinct made me go quiet at the sight of four large men at the far end of the corridor who had a rather goon-ish air about them.
‘Crap,’ Parker muttered. ‘I don’t have my taser.’
‘Why not?’ I hissed as we looped arms and started down the corridor at a suitably meandering pace.
‘Where would I put it?’
‘Eliot, problem upstairs,’ Hardison advised.
‘On my way.’
‘Oops!’ Parker stumbled a bit, presumably on purpose because I’d never seen her so much as slip. ‘Wow, that champagne was strong, huh?’
Catching on, I nodded and giggled.
‘Frankie won’t mind if we take our shoes off up here, Clar. He’d say better that than end up on our faces, right?’
‘He’s such a sweetie, my last guy was all about freakin’ appearances…’
We paused next to a side table with some rather solid-looking objects on it, including a crystal vase which looked to me about the right size for smashing onto someone’s head, and made a bit of a theatre piece of getting our shoes off while giggling with each other and extolling Frank’s many imaginary virtues.
‘You ladies all right there?’
Uh-oh, Goon Number One had a not-at-all-reassuring smirk on his face and had closed the gap in the corridor to alarmingly within grabbing distance. I tried to remember the last self-defence class I’d taken, which was tricky because it had been well over a decade ago.
‘We’re fine, thank you!’ I tried, waving in a limp-wristed sort of way. ‘We just had a little too much champagne downstairs is all.’
‘And our shoes are hard to walk in,’ Parker added with another gormless grin.
‘Anything we can do to help?’
‘No, really, thank you-‘ I tried not to sound too panicky but it was getting steadily harder ‘-we’re fine, honestly-‘
‘Is there a problem here?’
Oh thank god, Eliot had just walked out of the elevator behind the four guys, who glanced back at him and exchanged amused glances. Of course under normal circumstances one vs four would be a foregone conclusion, but Eliot Spencer in a fight definitely fell outside the realm of normal circumstances.
‘No problem, buddy,’ Goon Number Two replied with a chuckle. ‘Just chatting to these ladies.’
‘That so.’ Eliot took the sunglasses off, closed them carefully and put them into his breast pocket. ‘You know who those ladies are here with?’
‘Don’t see ‘em with anyone right now.’
‘You get one warning.’ Folding his arms, Eliot regarded the quartet with an utterly blank expression. ‘Mister Lapowski doesn’t like other people touching his things.’
‘That so.’ Goon Number Two, who seemed to think of himself as the wit of the group, chuckled. ‘Well I don’t see Mister Lapowski around here neither…buddy.’
He didn’t get to say anything else because Eliot just moved like liquid lightning, and while I’d seen it on plenty of cameras now it was still impossibly impressive in person. Admittedly what I knew about practical hand to hand could fit comfortably on the back of a sugar packet, but he was like magic. Elbows, fists and feet connected with resounding cracks on various parts of goon anatomy, but whenever one of them struck back he just somehow wasn’t there. If I didn’t know any better I’d have sworn the man could teleport.
It took all of five seconds, including the heartfelt kick to Goon Number Two once he was on the ground, then Eliot stepped over the human debris he’d just piled up and looked at Parker and I.
‘You okay?’ The question was for both of us, but his gaze lingered on me.
‘Yeah, fine.’ I nodded and gave him a little smile of reassurance, a tad surprised that I was actually telling the truth this time. The goons hadn’t exactly been unintimidating, but knowing he was literally moments away seemed to have effectively neutralised any real fear factor. Well, that and being distracted by getting those damn shoes off.
Back in the suite Hardison just gave us a thumbs-up and indicated the screen, where he was observing Nate sitting at the bar with the mark, deep in conversation with lots of effusive gesturing. Parker stripped off her dress without so much as a by-your-leave – she’d apparently forgone all her underwear, given the tight fit – and just sort of ambled off, stark naked, into Sophie’s room to dig out some other clothes. I had to bite my lip to stifle a laugh at the way Hardison spun around to stare fixedly at the screen while Eliot sighed and pinched at the bridge of his nose as he turned his back.
‘I take it she’s always done that?’ I asked.
Once Parker came out again – now fully clothed – I nipped in to change as well, starting with getting all the overdone makeup off my face. Then my lack of a professional thief’s flexibility came into play, of course, and after doing an ungainly little dance with my back to the vanity for a minute I gave up.
‘Can I borrow someone to help get out of this bloody thing, please?’
Eliot stuck his head around the door, chuckled at my evident predicament and then came in, pushing it not-quite closed behind himself.
‘I’m pretty sure Parker is triple-jointed and Sophie’s presumably some kind of clothes witch,’ I said with a grimace. ‘Or I just need longer arms.’
‘I gotcha.’ He stepped up close – very close, really closer than was necessary but I wasn’t going to complain – and drew the zipper down with a slowness that made my pulse pick up, following the contact with his other hand to work the seam open. I let my eyes slide closed in enjoyment when he gently moved my hair out of the way to kiss the back of my neck. As his mouth travelled along my throat I lolled my head to one side, then affected a mildly scandalised tone in the overblown accent I’d been using all evening.
‘Mister Powell, aren’t you being a little…familiar?’ A giggle snuck out. ‘Do I need to tell Frankie about this?’
His low chuckle sent lightning bolts up and down my spine.
‘Maybe we should just keep it a secret. This job’s gotta have some perks, right?’
‘Hmm.’ One finger trailed down my spine, making me shiver, and he nipped lightly at my ear with the merest delicious hint of teeth. ‘You go commando too?’
‘Only on top, or I’d never have fitted into it. Sophie may be closer to my proportions than Parker is but apparently I’ve still got her beat on cup size – hey!’ I exclaimed when Eliot stooped, caught the bottom hem of the dress and just pulled it off right over my head.
On reflex I clapped my arms over my chest and scrunched my face up at him in the mirror to stifle a laugh at his cheeky grin reflecting back at me.
‘Now there’s a Vegas view.’
‘Hardison and Parker are right next door!’ I scuttled over to the armchair where I’d left my normal clothes and hurriedly got dressed, trying to ignore his snickering. Any further shenanigans had to be postponed, however, when the sound of the suite door opening and closing was followed by the clack-clack of Sophie’s Louboutins on tile, so we went back into the other room.
‘Mark’s on the hook,’ Nate said amicably, crossing to pour himself something from the bar. ‘He’s pretty keen, too, but let’s…let’s slow down the timetable. Dangle the carrot a little longer, make sure he’s good and caught before we reel him in the rest of the way…’
‘Aw, dang,’ Hardison commented while still typing, ‘Would you look at that, the totally legitimate building permit is caught up in totally legitimate paperwork.’
‘Might have to grease the wheels a little more to push it through given how fast he wants to move,’ Sophie agreed with a grin, patting him on the shoulder.
‘Hey, we’re taking all his money anyway so what’s a little more?’
‘So it worked?’ I asked the room in general.
‘Like a charm,’ Nate replied, loosening his tie.
‘Except for the part where a bunch of goons showed up outside,’ Parker said cheerfully.
‘Actually that worked in our favour. Turns out Darrington has an appreciation for – and I quote – a man who takes care of what’s his.’
‘So he sends some goons up here for your girls and because those assholes wind up on the floor that makes you what, some kind of man of honour?’ Eliot sounded as sceptical as I felt at that conclusion.
‘And they say chivalry is dead,’ Sophie muttered, rolling her eyes.
‘You guys meet the most charming people,’ I remarked with a snort.
‘Thanks for your help,’ Nate added, and actually raised his glass in my direction. ‘Bimbo Number Two was very convincing.’
‘Oh, good. In that case, if we’re all clear, I’m going to head down to my room and have a very long bath.’
‘Go nuts,’ Hardison said. ‘You’re good.’
‘Want me to walk you down?’ Eliot asked.
‘I think Mister Powell had better stick close to his employer,’ I said, but gave him a peck on the cheek. ‘I’ll be fine.’
I took a slight detour on the way to the suite door, though, and clapped Nate on the ass as hard as I could as I went past him, which elicited a rather pleasingly high-pitched yelp.
‘What the f-‘
‘That’s how it feels, you smug bastard!’
Chapter 23: All Of You
I swung the door closed on the sound of uproarious laughter, which was probably the sweetest sound of the world given that it was at Nate Ford’s expense. The tub back in my room was fairly enormous so I filled it up and went for a full lounge until I actually felt clean of the mark’s creepy gaze, winding up smelling rather strongly of rosewater thanks to the bubble bath.
Once my hair was dry I clambered into the enormous bed and was checking some emails from an ecstatic Rod – he still seemed to be in shock that Cold Steel was ready so far ahead of deadline – when my phone pinged. It was a text from Eliot, which made me smile.
You did great today. Job should be wrapped soon.
It was kind of fun, I typed back. Although I’d much rather have been your moll than Nate’s!
I could picture his chuckle at that.
Maybe some other job.
This bed’s still too big!
You think you got problems? Then he sent me a slightly blurry picture clearly taken from his end of the bed which showed Hardison with his arms hugging mostly pillow as well as one of Eliot’s own socked feet. Moments later a second photo arrived of Nate sprawled on the next bed with one arm over his head but also catching flies and presumably emitting sawing noises.
I spent a moment chortling at that – of course Alec was a huggy sleeper – and then, just to rub it in, wriggled down under the duvet and held my phone up so I could take a photo showing how much space there was.
You could always come down here.
Which was disappointing, but not unexpected.
For the next few days I kept well clear of the team, pootling around the Strip, playing the tourist, exploring the shops but not daring to buy anything in case Sophie smelled it on me, and even crossed two things off my bucket list by visiting both the Grand Canyon and the Hoover Dam. Which certainly gave me a new appreciation for the air conditioning, if nothing else.
I was just emerging from the fascinating but gruesome Bodies exhibition in the Luxor late one afternoon when my phone buzzed with a cheery text from Hardison announcing that the job was done. That explained the number of cop cars surrounding the Bellagio and all the shouting going on, at least. I slowed down so I wouldn’t get caught in the rush and spotted a quintet of familiar figures lurking in the lobby when I finally got inside. Parker waved at me happily so I trotted over.
‘All good,’ Nate confirmed. ‘Flight back’s tomorrow morning at eleven, so until then…’
Parker was off at such a speed that I could have sworn I heard Hardison’s neck crack from whiplash as she dragged him with her. Nate and Sophie elected to go to one of the bars for a quieter drink, so I tried not to show how pleased I was when Eliot gave me a small smile.
‘Oh god yes. So if you fancy a decent night’s sleep-‘ I winked at him ‘-well, that’s if you think you can cope without Hardison snuggled up to your feet-‘
‘Shut up.’ He hooked an arm around my waist. ‘Dinner first, I’m starving. Had to kick three guys off a balcony earlier and one of ‘em got a couple of lumps back.’
‘Are you okay?’ I asked, alarmed at that casual pronouncement, and peered at him anxiously. He didn’t seem to be in any pain, or limping, or anything like that.
‘I’m fine. C’mon.’
That was all he’d say about it, but after eating we went back up to my room and I was highly amused to see his mostly-empty duffel sitting on one of the armchairs already; he hardly brought anything when travelling, presumably some kind of holdover from his mysterious service days. No sooner had the door closed than he had my back against it and was kissing me quite thoroughly, which I didn’t object to at all, but I didn’t miss the oh-so-slight wince that flitted over his face when I tugged him closer by his belt loops.
‘Go get in bed.’ I kissed him on the tip of the nose. ‘I’ll get some ice.’
‘I’m fine,’ he growled, which made my stomach flip over, but I ducked under his arm anyway and got on with putting together a makeshift ice pack from one of the hand towels and all the ice I could find in the minibar. When I came out of the bathroom with it Eliot was sprawled out on the bed in just jeans and vest, which was quite the sight even if he was still a tad overdressed for my taste.
‘Where?’ I asked, kneeling down next to him. He tapped the right of his torso, just below his ribs, so I lifted the beater and put the wrapped ice onto the very obvious bruise forming there, trying to ignore the small sigh of relief that provoked. ‘What happened?’
‘Balcony. Limited room to manoeuvre. That’s all.’ A shrug. ‘C’mere.’
Smiling, I lay down next to him and then tucked myself up against his side when he draped an arm around me. It felt nice, but once I felt my eyes getting heavy I leaned up and kissed him, then reached across to flick open his belt buckle and pop the top button.
‘Yeah?’ he asked with a lazy grin.
‘You need sleep. Stay there.’ I tugged his jeans down his legs and flung them away over a chair, then changed quickly into my night shorts and a cami, hauling the duvet up over us both. ‘Want more ice?’
‘Nah, ‘m good.’
‘Sleep, then.’ I set the alarm on my phone and then flicked off the light, getting comfortable on the pillow next to him. ‘Promise I won’t hug your feet.’
‘Very funny.’ His hand found mine under the covers with a small squeeze. ‘Night, Tess.’
‘Night, El.’ I kissed his cheek, letting my eyes close and the sound of his breathing lull me rapidly into sleep.
Of course he was still up before me the following morning; I woke to the sound of the shower running. That provoked some extremely tempting images but I firmly told my libido to shush, the poor man was injured and didn’t need molesting right now.
Uh-oh, the sight of him all damp with still-wet hair and nothing but a towel around his waist was not particularly helping that situation. I caught his smirk and the waggle of his eyebrows but forced myself to just peck him on the cheek before going to shower myself…only a little colder than usual.
After getting dressed and unceremoniously shoving my suitcase closed I realised Eliot was watching me with a rather intent expression from where he’d perched on the end of the bed, sadly now fully clothed.
‘Okay?’ I asked him.
‘Yeah.’ He shifted slightly, almost awkwardly. ‘We okay?’
‘Yeah?’ Then I panicked. ‘Is – uh – is there a reason we wouldn’t be?’
‘No, just-‘ he chuckled a little ‘-I didn’t think you meant come downstairs to just sleep, y’know?’
‘Oh.’ I sat down next to him and picked at my nails, not sure what to make of that. ‘You were hurt, and tired. I didn’t want to – uh – presume, I guess.’
‘A bruise ain’t hurt, Tess.’
‘A bruise that size is!’ I huffed. ‘Pardon me for not wanting to give in to my libido and accost an injured man who hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep for the last week.’
His face softened and the half-smile that he cracked was almost a little shy, which abruptly made me catch on.
‘El, you’re a lot more to me than just some delicious hunk of all-American heartland beef,’ I said, trying to pitch my tone at jocular-but-sincere. ‘I care about you. All of you. Including the non-beefy bits.’
Thankfully that got a small chortle in response. I kissed him gently and tucked some stray locks of hair behind his ear, trying to pretend I didn’t notice the tiny hint of relief in his expression. Good lord, I’d assumed that the serial nature of his dating history was down to how much he’d moved around before finding the crew, or just his own preference for playing the field, but that little glimpse of unexpected anxiety painted things in a rather different light. Deciding it would probably be best not to call it out, I stood up and tried to turn brisk.
‘C’mon then, hitter, let’s get some food in you before we have to spend a five hour flight listening to Parker re-enacting rollercoaster rides.’
‘Definitely gonna need something to eat before that,’ he said with a laugh, and just like that everything was fine.
Chapter 24: Something's Gonna
It was nice to be back in the far more temperate climes of Boston and the team already had plenty of new jobs lined up. After couple of locals, including one I got summarily booted from but later found out had involved Nate’s father, of all people, we had a short trip down to Virginia for something involving a coal mine – as usual I steered clear of the details – which seemed more routine, insofar as there was such a thing for the team. At least afterwards I got to scrub Eliot clear of soot in the hotel bathtub. He even deigned to let me wash his hair for him, but drew a firm line when I offered, only half-jokingly, to comb it out and braid it.
A week later I was stuffed into my chair drafting out ideas for the third Jackson Steel story, which had been gradually taking form in my mind and was tentatively entitled Steel Cent, when Sophie suddenly slammed her pen down and stalked out of the room. Alarmed, I took my headphones out.
‘Is she okay?’
‘She’s fine,’ Nate said, a little too quickly. ‘Uh. I think.’
With that he went after her, which was worrying in itself, but I didn’t have time to think on it much before Hardison got his laptop out with a small shrug and started tapping away at something. I made a face at Parker, who just made it back – no help there, I’m not sure what else I expected – but before I could voice an enquiry Eliot said something quietly to Hardison, who paused and nodded, before coming over to me.
‘Hey. Going okay?’
‘Yeah - is Sophie all right?’
‘Just something hit a nerve, that’s all.’ He hunkered down beside my chair. ‘Listen, I know London’s technically on the team do-fly list for you as far as Nate’s concerned but-‘
‘The job’s in London?’ I almost levitated off the ground in excitement. Finally! ‘Well then we won’t need a hotel, you can all stay at my place and maybe take a few days off after, take Parker to the Chocolate Museum and I can show you that café where I wrote most of Silver Tongue…’
‘I don’t want you to go.’
That shut me right up.
‘Why? It’s London, it’s not like I’d be out of my element or-‘
‘It’s not the location that’s the problem. It’s the mark.’ Standing, he folded his arms. ‘Who he’s connected to.’
‘Oh god, is it a publisher or something?’
‘No, nothing like that.’ A sigh. ‘The guy we’re going after is connected to some bad people. Not corporate tax evasion bad, not pulling preschool funding bad…I’m talking really bad. Terrorism, hostage-taking, human trafficking, all that kind of stuff.’
I closed my laptop and stood up, frowning.
‘That’s a lot badder than the usual bad guys, isn’t it?’
‘Yeah. It is.’
‘Then why has Nate even agreed to-‘
‘It’s complicated. The less you know, the better. Please.’ His gaze bored into mine. ‘Just stay in Boston. Do some writing. We can – we can visit London some other time. Some other job. Okay?’
I chewed my lip and nodded.
‘Okay. I’ll stay here. But El, if this guy is that bad-‘
‘It’ll be fine.’ Looping an arm around my waist, he drew me in and gave me a kiss. ‘Be a couple weeks, tops.’
Being sans Eliot – and the team – for two weeks in Boston didn’t exactly sound like the most appealing fortnight, but his demeanour was so serious that it didn’t seem wise to question things any further. He wouldn’t even let me come to the airport to see them off, giving me a lengthy embrace outside McRory’s and then disappearing into the cab with the rest of the team.
It was radio silence too, of course, so I spent the next eleven and a half days – not that I was counting – swaying between miserable, bored and worried out of my mind. Then they were back, the job was done, and I dragged Eliot into my apartment for most of the ensuing forty-eight hours to show just how much I’d missed him.
A few more jobs later, including one that sadly took over Thanksgiving, and suddenly we were staring Christmas right down the nose. Nate suggested that the team take some time off, a break from the jobs – and each other – but I put my foot down.
‘Nobody has any Christmas Day plans, right?’
A series of shrugs and muttering.
‘Right. So you’re all coming to my place and I’m making Christmas dinner. The full works. Stuffing, Yorkshire pudding, proper pigs in blankets, dripping gravy, mince pies and a chocolate Yule log.’
‘Oooh!’ Parker’s eyes were like saucers. ‘That sounds amazing!’
‘I really don’t think-‘ Nate began.
‘Nope,’ I said, quickly cutting him off. ‘No thinking. Just show up. Three PM, sharp.’
‘No buts!’ I wagged a finger at him. ‘You’ll show up, you’ll be on time, you’ll smile, you’ll pull a cracker and god help me, you will wear the bloody paper hat.’
I walked out before anyone could formulate any further objections, grinning at the distant sound of Sophie exploding into laughter. Of course the team ended up taking a job anyway – on Christmas Eve, no less – which I suspect was someone’s attempt to weasel out of it, but I got up early and got cooking anyway and they did all show up, even if I got the impression Sophie had dragged Nate most of the way by one ear.
Hardison had taken some photos and even a short video of parts of the job, god bless the man, so I didn’t miss out on seeing Eliot as the world’s most disgruntled mall Santa. He was pretty grumpy about that, too, but when I gave him the other half of his Christmas present once the team had gone home he quickly forgot about it.
New Year wound up being job-free, miraculously, and I spent most of it curled up against Eliot on the couch watching the harbour fireworks through the big east-facing window. He seemed pensive, almost distracted, but whatever was on his mind didn’t stop him from giving me the most toe-curling stroke-of-midnight kiss I’d had in my entire life. Assuming it was something to do with an upcoming job, I decided not to pry – he generally changed the subject anyway if I tried – and more or less forgot about it.
So two weeks later, after one brief but highly entertaining local job involving the Mary Baker Eddy Library and a tub of pudding mix (I didn’t ask), I was more than a little shocked when Eliot showed up at my door one evening looking as close to spooked as I’d ever seen him.
‘El?’ I pulled him inside and shut the door quickly, slinging the deadbolt across. ‘What’s wrong?’
‘I need you to do something for me.’
‘What?’ Worried now, I gave him a hug, but my alarm dialled up to eleven when he didn’t return it. ‘Eliot, what’s going on? Is it a job? Did something happen?’
‘Something’s gonna.’ He took a breath and finally met my gaze. ‘I need you to pack up and go back to London. Like – like it’s permanent. Lose this place, take all your stuff, just-‘
‘Why?’ I insisted.
‘Just do it,’ he snapped, which threw me for a loop because – with the notable exception of the con at the wharf – he’d never once raised his voice in my direction. Not in that tone.
‘El, you’re scaring me,’ I managed after a beat to regroup. I almost expected another snap but instead his shoulders sagged and he dropped his eyes, which was somehow worse.
‘I know. I’m – I just need you to-‘
‘So tell me the why,’ I said firmly, battling to keep my voice level. ‘Give me the why, and then we can discuss the what. Fair?’
His jaw locked in frustration but he nodded.
‘The jobs we’ve been doing over – well, for a while now – haven’t just been random. A lot of them have been getting us closer to one particular guy. I’m not going to tell you his name so don’t ask. But he’s – he’s a bad guy. Really bad, worse than you can imagine, like-‘
‘Like the job in London? That’s why you didn’t want me there?’
‘Yeah.’ He folded his arms and chewed his bottom lip for a moment. ‘Only now he’s here, and we’re going right for him, and it’s going to get…messy, and I don’t-‘
‘Okay.’ I forced a nod. ‘You don’t want me hanging around and being an extra risk when you’re going to have your hands full keeping the crew from getting strung up. I get it.’
‘I don’t want you anywhere on this guy’s radar, Tess. Not the same continent, sure as hell not the same city. I should never even have – I mean it’s bad enough the team are-‘
‘You know this guy,’ I said, voicing the thought as I had it. ‘You’ve – what – you’ve gone after him before?’
‘No.’ He swallowed, hard. ‘Worse. Much worse.’
Frowning, it took me a moment to catch on, and when I did it felt as if my heart just dropped into the pit of my stomach like a lead weight.
I chewed at my lip. Come on, Fisher. You told him it wouldn’t be a problem. So make it not a problem. Taking my phone out of my pocket, I dialled Francine.
‘Tess, hiya! What’s up?’
‘Need some urgent arrangements, sorry about this – family emergency. I’m going back to London for the foreseeable so I need the first plane ticket you can get me. I’ll take a carry-on, can you get everything else shipped back and then take care of the apartment? You’ve got the Islington address, right?’
‘Oh. Of course. I’m so sorry to hear – are you all right?’
‘I’ll be fine. Just send me the ticket as soon as you can get it, please. Don’t worry about the seating, I’ll handle coach if it’ll get me there sooner. Thanks.’ Hanging up, I stepped closer to Eliot and took his face in my hands. ‘As soon as I hit tarmac I’ll get on the horn with Rod, see if he can drum up some interviews or – or a guest speaker tour, or some damned thing. He’s been making rumbles about wanting to do something ahead of the Cold Steel announcement anyway and this way I’ll be nice and, you know, visible. So you go do whatever you gotta do – god I actually just said that out loud – and I will be there waiting for when you’re done.’ I absently smoothed down the lapels of the blue check flannel he was wearing. ‘Okay?’
‘I don’t know how long-‘
‘I said I’ll be waiting. Full stop.’ Feeling my eyes welling up despite my best efforts, I wiped at them impatiently with one hand and looked up at him. ‘El, I’d wait a hundred years for you if I had to. And I’d still be a total cheese ball about it, so…consider that fair warning.’
The look he gave me was almost enough to make me burst into tears, but then he pulled me to him and was kissing and hugging me like he never wanted to let go. I tried to focus on keeping it together but knew my cheeks were visibly wet when I had to draw back to check my phone as it buzzed.
‘There.’ Wiping at my face, I sniffed a bit. ‘Leaving from Logan in less than two hours. I’d better get my ass in gear and call a cab.’
‘I can’t see you off.’
‘I know.’ I kissed him again, more gently. ‘It’s okay. I’ll be fine. And as public as I can be. Comms blackout, right, so just get Alec to set up one of those media monitoring feeds he does. You can watch me make an idiot out of myself on Channel Four or whatever.’
‘Sure.’ He gave me one last, heartbreakingly tender kiss and then turned to go, but I checked him at the door.
‘The hitter’s job is to get the whole team out safe, right?’
A small nod, and slight frown.
‘Emphasis on whole team,’ I said. ‘Which includes, you know, yourself. For the record, right?’ When that got the tiniest hint of a rueful smile I barrelled on. ‘So you go kick this asshole repeatedly in the face or whatever, and I’ll see you – and the rest of the team – back in London when the job’s done. Understood?’
The smile broadened just a little and finally reached his eyes. He nodded.
Then he was gone.
I took ten minutes to have a very thorough cry, then got to business packing a carry-on and calling a cab. Francine was in full Busy Mode despite the hour, bless the woman, firing through email updates with military-style precision; subletting the apartment to run out the lease, getting everything I couldn’t take immediately boxed up and shipped back, all that sort of logistical stuff. I got to the airport in plenty of time and found myself looking at the group text on my phone, which had been silent since yesterday morning.
Setting my jaw, I typed in good luck xx, then deleted it and all the team’s contact numbers just before stepping on board the plane.
Chapter 25: Job's Done
The next three months were beyond interminable. It was surreal enough being suddenly back in London and my house in Islington, let alone catching the Tube rather than the T and remembering that cabs drove on the other side of the road, but the nagging anxiety about the team – and Eliot especially – was never far from my mind. Rod seemed to gather that something was up beyond my vaguely noncommittal rumblings and did his best to keep me busy.
My publicist had a couple of minor coronaries but grudgingly admitted that the BBC Breakfast interview went surprisingly well, although as usual I was more at home doing signings and readings in book shops or university campuses than being on the mainstream media. In between publicity stuff I did some first aid courses and started a self-defence class again; I couldn’t write a single damned word and it seemed less painful to just fill up every day to avoid thinking too hard.
Still the silence dragged on. I kept my eyes peeled on the news around Boston but everything seemed quiet, which was either very good or very bad. The launch party for Cold Steel came and went, and as I stood there looking at one of the hardback copies in a beautiful new Valentino dress I’d picked up because the colour reminded me of Eliot’s eyes, I found myself genuinely wondering if I’d ever see him or the rest of the team again at all.
Two days later, a rather dashing literary professor at the London Met made a pass at me and it was all I could do not to throw up on him. I left that signing early and went home determined to finally unpack the last two boxes Francine had sent from Boston.
The second had one of Eliot’s flannels in it. He must have left it at the apartment, so Francine had dutifully had it packed and sent over with everything else. It even still smelled of him. I sat there hugging the damned thing and cried for nearly an hour, like something out of a bad Jane Austen ripoff. Then the following morning I got back on the horse, scrubbed up and went to be the guest of honour at the London Writer’s Café lunch.
A week after that, I was awoken somewhat blearily at seven in the morning by my phone buzzing insistently. I groped out for it blindly and flicked the bedside light on, sitting up and squinting at the screen. It was a text, sent from an unknown number.
My heart leapt into my mouth as I opened it.
Arriving Heathrow 1409 GMT, terminal 5. Never did see you on Channel Four but the breakfast interview was cute.
Eliot! I actually shrieked out loud, which must have given the neighbours a turn, but by the time I’d got my fingers working again sufficiently to text back the number told me it couldn’t be reached. Damn. Either it was a burner or he’d just got on a plane, or somewhere else with no signal.
Except there was one person who always had signal, as a matter of personal and professional pride, no matter where he was or what he was doing. I typed in the number from memory – god bless Hardison for suggesting I memorise his emergency cell – and it picked up on the second ring.
‘Tess, hey girl!’
‘Are you – is everyone all right? Where are you?’ Just the sound of the cheeky hacker-brat’s voice again was enough to lift my spirits. ‘Is Eliot with you?’
‘We’re at the airport, just doing a phone switch, you know, trading burners and whatever. You got the flight info?’
‘Heathrow terminal five, ten past two?’
‘That’s the one. Inbound from San Lorenzo with a five hour layover, then on to Boston.’
‘San Lorenzo?’ Wasn’t that one of those odd little banana-republic type countries somewhere? ‘You know what, never mind, tell me when I see you. But everyone’s okay?’
‘All peachy, pinkie-swear. Job’s wrapped. We kicked so much ass they gonna have to invent a new word for how awesome we are.’ Then, more quietly, ‘Eliot’s fine. Hell, he’s better than fine, ain’t seem him this close to damn cheerful before. Parker put a dumbass panama hat on him, he didn’t even threaten her.’
I let my head fall back as sweet relief flooded through me.
‘Look, I gotta go, but see you in a few, yeah?’ I could picture his grin. ‘We’ll bring you back something nice, right?’
‘Just bring me back the team and your hitter!’
He hung up then. I flopped down, hugging my phone like an idiot, and stared at the ceiling for a long moment. I still had Eliot’s flannel on – I’d taken to wearing it to bed for some semblance of comfort – and it probably smelled more of me than him at this point, but that didn’t stop me pulling the collar up around my face for a moment to inhale deeply.
Wait, ten past two GMT? That was seven hours away. An idea hit me like a ton of bricks and I leapt up, storming downstairs while grabbing my laptop and a protein shake to perch on the kitchen table. It would be expensive, but not like I couldn’t afford it, and more than worth it. I spoke to an extremely helpful woman at Heathrow who walked me through all the arrangements – after recognising my name, which was mildly gratifying – and then I rang Rod to let him know.
‘I really hope at some point I get to meet this bugger who has you continent hopping,’ he said in a mostly-jocular grumble. ‘And don’t pretend it isn’t a bloke because it’s bloody obvious.’
‘At some point, I swear.’
‘And what shall I tell Foyles?’
‘Tell them next time to put Jackson Steel in the right bloody section.’ I technically had an appointment in three days for a brief appearance at Southbank, after the signing and reading from Nerves of Steel had caused several fire code violations at the Charing Cross store. I didn’t feel bad about it though because the idiot manager, who apparently hadn’t read past the female author name on the cover, had put it in under Romance rather than Crime & Thrillers.
‘…that’s actually a fair point. All right, you’re off the hook. Although while I have you-‘
‘I know, I know, book three. I’ve got six months before I need to get you a draft!’
‘Just reminding you of your always-debatable approach to deadlines, Tess. Ciao for now.’
At midday, when it was a vaguely civilised hour in Boston, I called Francine and got a hotel arranged on the other end, then did a whirlwind tour to get a holdall packed, although I dressed with more care than I had on my first mad dash across the Atlantic. Angie had dragged me to Selfridges in an attempt to cheer me up and talked me into a rather classy new Brunello Cucinelli midi dress and a pair of absolutely gorgeous Stuart Weitzman over-the-knee suede boots that made my legs look twice as long as they actually were, and this seemed like the perfect time to give the ensemble an outing. Then I totally ruined the sophisticated effect by throwing Eliot’s flannel on as a makeshift jacket before charging down to the cab.
I must have looked like some kind of absolute nutjob because the handful of other people waiting in Arrivals at Terminal Five gave me a pretty wide berth. Then the display pinged up with an advisory that flight BA6921 from San Lorenzo was running slightly behind schedule due to high winds, and it was all I could do not to scream.
Finally, after what was without question the longest twelve minutes of my entire life to that point, it showed as touched down, and I was practically hopping from foot to foot by the time people actually started to trickle through from the baggage claim.
I saw Alec first, largely by virtue of his height, and started doing a mad sort of jump-and-wave to get his attention, but Parker spotted my antics before he did and waved back with similar vigour. Then I spied Nate, helping Sophie with her two enormous suitcases, and – of course – there walking at the back to keep an eye on everyone was Eliot. I made a noise which probably closely resembled some kind of tortured wildcat as he looked up and saw me, but before I could really do anything else he bounded across the intervening space, ducked under the tape barrier – to the mild alarm of several nearby security guards – and pulled me into his arms. Laughing, burying my face in his hair, I felt my feet leave the ground as he actually lifted and spun me around before drawing me into a deep kiss.
Dimly aware that Nate was amusedly calming down the security personnel in the background with some story about the man he’d met on the plane being back from a deployment, while the others were mostly laughing their asses off, I managed to find purchase on the floor and squeaked when Eliot just crushed me close and kissed me again.
‘Missed you, too,’ I managed when we finally broke off. He laughed, by far the most free and outright happy sound I think I’d ever heard him make, and swung me around again. ‘Woah!’ Not that I was complaining, but he’d never been so boisterously affectionate before, and definitely not in public. ‘What’s gotten into you?’
‘Yeah, c’mon man, you’re making a scene,’ Hardison said, although he was grinning nearly as broadly. I managed to extricate myself long enough to give him and then Parker a quick hug, followed by a longer squeeze from Sophie and even a brief one-armed embrace from Nate, but then several nearby staff coughed pointedly and we had to get out of the way or cause a serious walkway blockage.
‘God I need a cuppa,’ Sophie said once we were no longer being glared at. ‘That nonsense they were serving on the plane was a travesty.’
‘We should probably get to the other terminal and find somewhere to sit there,’ Nate suggested. ‘We do have five hours before the connecting flight but this place is always such a damn maze-’
‘Nope!’ I interjected delightedly. ‘You have four hours before your flight to Boston, and you’re not going to spend it sitting around a public terminal. Follow me.’
That got five near-identical looks of mild bewilderment but with a sort of collective shrug they all trailed after me anyway. In fact Eliot caught my hand in his, something he’d never done before, which made me smile but also had me wondering anew at his changed demeanour. He was dressed simply even by his standards, just a black t-shirt over his jeans, devoid of luggage as usual, but I fancied I could see a new bounce to his step, and when he caught my eye with a smile even that seemed somehow…lighter, like he’d finally shed some kind of heavy weight he’d been carrying for a very long time.
‘That’s mine,’ he murmured as we got onto the escalator, touching the sleeve of the shirt with a chuckle. ‘Thief.’
‘I’m no Parker. You left it behind in the apartment, don’t even know when. Wound up getting packed and shipped with the rest of my stuff.’ I squeezed his hand. ‘Job’s…done?’
‘Yeah.’ His smile turned positively dazzling. ‘Job’s done.’
Even the way he said it spoke volumes more than just the words, but for now I settled for another kiss and tugging him towards the concierge, who accepted the slip I passed her with a nod.
‘This is the whole party?’
‘Yes, all six of us.’
‘Splendid. This way, please…’
‘Are you mad we were gone so long?’ Parker asked in a hiss. ‘Are you going to have us all murdered?’
‘No, Parker, I’m not about to have you all murdered in Heathrow Airport. I just wanted to…’ I constructed a slightly embarrassed shrug ‘…you know, show you how much I missed you. All of you.’
‘Oh!’ Of course Sophie recognised the livery on the two black BMWs. ‘You never did!’
‘Oh, I totally did,’ I shot back. ‘What did you think I meant, a Costa voucher?’
‘What the hell’s going on?’ Eliot asked me, clearly torn between amusement and curiosity.
‘Nothing bad,’ I assured him as we got into the back seat while Nate took the front and Parker yelled shotgun behind us. ‘You’ll see.’
It was no particular surprise that Sophie had seen the private VIP lounges at Heathrow before, exclaiming that they’d changed the paintings and promptly starting to critique the décor, but amusingly enough I didn’t get the impression that any of the others had flown this posh before, at least certainly not as the VIPs themselves. Parker got a little bit squinty-eyed and suspicious at the porter who came to take charge of the checked luggage, but the box of Harrods Heritage chocolate biscuits on the sideboard successfully diverted her.
‘This is awesome!’ Hardison had taken up occupation of the big conference-style table on one side of the room and was already playing some kind of sci-fi game on his laptop. ‘I thought we’d end up sitting in that damn Fortnum and Mason place for five damn hours again. This place is like the Ritz!’
‘The Ritz isn’t all that,’ Sophie told him offhandedly, examining the wine chiller. ‘Ooh, the Château Haut Batailley…’
‘They don’t give you chocolate biscuits at the regular airport,’ Parker said in between happy munches.
‘Wait until you see what comes with the afternoon tea,’ I told her, which sent her scuttling off to peer through the menu pamphlets.
‘You really didn’t need to do this,’ Nate remarked, sticking his hands in his pockets and giving me a look that bordered on indulgently good-humoured.
‘I wanted to.’ I shrugged and sat down on the couch, smiling when Eliot plopped down beside me and threw an arm around my shoulders to pull me against his side. ‘I’ve missed all you miscreants like crazy, you know. Yes, even you, you miserable git,’ I added when Nate seemed a little incredulous, which actually got a grin out of him before he wandered over to investigate the alcohol.
‘Gonna spoil us, huh?’ Eliot said to me with a grin.
‘I figured I’d focus on spoiling the team to keep myself distracted enough that I don’t just drag you off to the nearest cupboard and molest you until we’re both delirious,’ I replied with a wink. To my delight he threw his head back and barked out one of those filthy cackles I loved so much, then gave me a squeeze.
‘Mmm. Hold that thought, huh?’ Then he dropped his voice and leaned down to breathe into my ear. ‘Darlin.’
The tea arrived at that point, which was probably for the best, and after Parker had been pried off the macaroons and Hardison had confirmed the room was free of bugs, I finally managed to get something like a coherent version of what they’d been up to.
‘So you committed treason and then subverted a democracy?’ I said, more than a little taken aback at the sheer scale and scope of the entire thing once all the most salient points had been explained. Taking down evil investment bankers and CEOs was one thing, but this…
‘We gave the Department of Defence back,’ Parker said. ‘So it was only a little bit of treason.’
‘Plus the democracy was already pretty heavily subverted by the corrupt president incumbent,’ Sophie added, ‘So actually you might say we sort of saved democracy in San Lorenzo, really.’
‘But the bad guy is definitely gone?’ I pressed. Eliot smiled and kissed my forehead.
‘Gone. San Lorenzo was the last place he had left to hide, and now they’ve got a properly elected government? He’s never getting out of that cell.’
‘So you’re all going to go back to foiling regular corporate douchebags, now?’
‘That’s the plan.’ He cocked his head. ‘Well. Maybe a couple days off, first.’
‘Then a couple days off to recover from the couple days off, huh?’ Hardison quipped.
‘You wish you had those kind of days off, man,’ Eliot shot back with a laugh, giving my leg a squeeze that made my stomach flip over in anticipation.
It was rather exciting to board the plane from a car on the tarmac, which I’d never done before. Sophie took it all in stride of course, so I let her take charge and just stuck close to Eliot. The plane was a nifty little thing which he identified as a Gulfstream G3, and the interior was more like another lounge than a normal aircraft, even if there were lap belts built into each place on the couch and the various seats.
‘You know ninety-seven percent of aviation fatalities happen in general aviation rather than commercial flights,’ Parker said happily as she settled into one of the big leather swivel chairs. ‘And on average five small planes crash every day.’
‘We have an impeccable safety record, ma’am,’ the unfortunate steward said hurriedly. ‘There’s really no need for any concern-‘
‘Try not to take her personally, Larry.’ Of course Sophie already knew the guy’s name and had probably seen the pictures of the his family, too. ‘She’s just a minefield of random information.’
‘…uh, yes, ma’am.’ Then he wisely exited the plane, probably a touch faster than normal. Of course I’d specified no need for a steward on the flight itself so we could chat freely, and Hardison was already discreetly running some kind of palm-sized doohickie around the cabin to assuage Nate’s ever-present paranoia.
‘Bloody hell,’ I had to comment once we were in the air. ‘Is there some kind of physics thing where smaller things go faster somehow, or does it just seem that way?’
‘Biology too,’ Eliot said, deadpan, and waggled his eyebrows in a way that had me collapsing into giggles.
Parker complained about the lack of inflight movies so Hardison hooked his laptop into the screen and showed me some clips he’d saved from the news cycles in San Lorenzo when the team had been in the process of manipulating the election campaign.
‘Rebecca?’ I exclaimed after he’d run the initial press conference where Sophie had stepped in as the fiancé of the rather bewildered opposition candidate. ‘You really had to use Rebecca?’
‘Rebecca Ibanez, it isn’t like it’s an uncommon name!’ she protested.
‘Didn’t want to use Rebecca Peron, then? Or was that too on the nose?’
‘Wait, wait, you gonna love this-‘ Hardison tapped a few keys ‘-part of the smear job on the incumbent, this was on the local equivalent of CNN…’
I bit my lip to stifle a squawk of laughter at the sight of a bespectacled Eliot being interviewed by a reporter, posing as some kind of Canadian animal rights activist who claimed to have seen a dog fighting ring happening in the presidential palace. Partway through he actually scooped up a puppy from off-camera and stood there petting the little thing – which spent the entire time trying to get its tongue up his nose – while answering questions about the dreadful cruelty he’d supposedly witnessed.
‘D’awww.’ I made kissy noises. ‘Look at him! So cute and cuddly and pettable, I just wanna squish him up. Plus he’s holding a puppy, which is a bonus.’
Eliot facepalmed while the others howled with laughter, although Parker did emphasise that there was in fact not a dog fighting ring and the animal was a stunt puppy they’d borrowed from a local family, a little boy named Polpetto which translated to “meatball.” That seemed like a disturbing name for a dog to me, but Sophie assured me that in the native Italian it was a term of endearment.
‘So can I call you Polpetto?’ I asked Eliot quietly.
‘You try it and I’ll kick your cute little ass,’ he said, kissing my forehead with a smile.
I dozed off against him at some point, likely without much in the way of grace or poise, and came round to him clipping the seatbelt across my waist.
‘We’re just out from Logan, starting down.’
‘Thanks.’ I waited until he’d fastened his own belt and then leaned against his side. ‘Have you got anything urgent to do once we land?’
‘Oh, I got something very urgent to do,’ he purred. ‘Darlin.’
‘You know I’m sitting right here and can hear how nasty y’all are being, right?’ Hardison said loudly.
That shut us both up, albeit with some chuckling, but didn’t stop Eliot from putting his hand on my leg and running it up and down my thigh for the whole of the landing process. It was all I could do not to just sit there openly squirming until we got off the plane.
‘Aw, we don’t get to see the carousel.’ Parker was visibly disappointed when the porter brought the luggage directly to us in the arrivals lounge. ‘I like seeing all the bags go round.’
‘Yeah, but none of that queueing and whoosh through the security checks, right?’ Hardison nudged her. ‘You hate standing in line.’
‘They take so long! Everyone has a bit of paper. Fine. Move on. Who cares.’
Everyone split up at that point to head to whatever passed for home in Boston, but Eliot just settled a palm on the small of my back and silently followed me while I checked into the hotel. I’d booked the Hilton at the airport more for ease of proximity than anything else, which turned out to be a rather good idea because the elevator doors had barely closed before he had me pinned to the wall inside and was kissing me like it had been years rather than months. Not that I had a single problem with that. It felt like it had been decades.
We spilled into the room, barely letting go of each other except for the bare minimum to tear off items of clothing, although when I stooped to unfasten the top of the boots Eliot shifted like lightning, pinning both my hands above my head and nipping at my ear with a low growl.
‘Leave ‘em on.’
Chapter 26: Not A Batcave
However later it was – with the time difference on top of everything else I had no idea – I stirred back to something vaguely like consciousness at the feel of Eliot moving. There was a brief light, which made me groan, and then a cold bottle of water was pressed into my hands. Sitting up, I took a grateful swig and then handed it back, burrowing into his side as he climbed back into the bed and draped one arm around me while his other hand came up to stroke gently through my hair.
‘You seem different,’ I said, after luxuriating in the caress for a little bit.
‘Not bad different. Just…different.’ Smiling against his chest, I idly traced an elaborate curlicue out on his skin with one finger. ‘Happier, maybe, or…I don’t know. Lighter, somehow.’
‘Yeah?’ The observation seemed to please him. ‘Well, the guy we took down…he’s been hanging over my head a long time. It is kind of a load off, I guess.’
‘Good.’ I gave him a squeeze. ‘I’m glad it’s over.’
‘Mmm.’ A long exhale. ‘Missed you.’
‘Missed you more.’
‘What?’ Then I squeaked as he flipped us over so I was underneath him, but didn’t really get a chance to get another word in after that.
The next two days passed in a dreamy blur of Eliot, the king-sized bed and some surprisingly good room service food, but reality had to creep back in eventually. At least it was a novel way to get rid of jet lag.
On the third morning I had to decide whether to extend the stay or check out before midday, so while Eliot had a shower – alone, this time, and that had been a very fun first experience for me – I went online to see if there was anything local to McRory’s, but not too pokey, that I could shortlist to save Francine some time.
Then I lifted my phone up to fully occupy my field of vision in a rather futile attempt to not get distracted by the sight of a freshly-showered Eliot with nothing but a towel around his waist. The bed dipped as he sat down and then pulled the screen away with one finger to give me a kiss, glancing at what was on it and giving me a questioning look.
‘Chapel Street’s sublet until the end of the lease,’ I explained. ‘Just seeing what’s about.’
‘Why d’you need another place?’
‘…because I don’t want to live in a hotel room?’
‘Right, yeah, no, I meant-‘ he actually dithered a little ‘-you could, uh, stay at my place. If you wanted to.’
I dropped my phone and stared at him.
‘My place,’ he repeated. ‘It’s up in Back Bay West, by the river. Plenty of space. Not as close to McRory’s I guess, but only like fifteen minutes on the T – what?’
‘Are you asking me to move in with you?’ I exclaimed, a bit more breathlessly than I’d originally planned. He broke into a wicked grin.
‘Yeah. I guess I am. What d’you think?’
‘Uh.’ My brain took a moment to get back up to speed. ‘I think I never envisioned living in the Batcave?’
‘It’s a loft, you-‘ then he started laughing ‘-god, you’re worse than Hardison. Get dressed and we’ll go take a look, huh? You can always find another hotel if you think it’s that bad.’
‘As long as it doesn’t have any creepy oil paintings of Old Nate hung up anywhere it’ll have the condo beat,’ I said dryly, but did get up and moving. I’d never in a million years expected him to make such an offer and frankly just the chance to see where he lived was more exciting than it had any right to be.
The building definitely bore absolutely no resemblance to a cave; it was a rather lovely redbrick that looked like it had once been a factory or mill or something back in the day, like so much of Boston. There wasn’t a lift but it was only three storeys so that wasn’t too much of a hardship, and when Eliot opened the door and led me inside I’m not ashamed to admit I gave an outright gasp because the place was beautiful.
It was mostly one room, all open plan, exposed brick and wooden beams with high ceilings and full-length windows, including a couple of bay seats, with an impressive view over the river. The substantial kitchen area – of course – had oak doors and granite tops with clean, modern lines, with a bar counter and a couple of stools as well as a four-top table and chairs in matching wood. The rest of the main room was largely empty except for a black leather three-seater parked in front of a rather nice recessed electric fireplace, but it smacked of deliberate arrangement rather than just happenstance vacancy. I spotted a well-worn punchbag and a set of weights in a corner, a guitar sitting next to a wide, crammed bookshelf, and a little L-shaped set of stairs going up, presumably serving as roof access.
‘Wow.’ I suddenly became aware that Eliot had paused and was looking at me for a reaction with almost a hint of nervousness. ‘This is gorgeous! How did you find this place?’
‘It used to be covered in this hideous plasterboard, if you can believe it,’ he said, and I knew him too well by now to miss the slight blush on his cheeks at the implied compliment. ‘Stripped it down to the brick and started over. You – uh – you like it?’
I beamed at him.
‘Definitely not a Batcave.’
‘C’mon, I’ll show you the rest. Only one bedroom, but…’
‘I can always sleep on the couch to protect your virtue,’ I said dryly, which got a proper guffaw before he dropped his keys onto a wall hook and beckoned me around the corner. I hurried after him and was not disappointed with the rest; a short but spacious passageway opened onto a compact but functional bedroom with blackout curtains and a whole wall of built-in drawers and closet space, mostly empty. The bathroom was spacious and similar to the kitchen’s neat modernity, although I was genuinely surprised to see the rather enormous whirlpool bathtub as well as the walk-in shower with – joy of joys, especially in a US apartment – a washer and dryer stacked next to it.
‘You ain’t seen the best part yet,’ Eliot added, taking my hand and tugging me up the staircase. It turned into more of a short ladder at the top end, I heard the clank of a bolt and then he was leading me up through a hatchway onto the roof. Except it wasn’t just a roof so much as a green terrace; raised beds crowded with plants, the floor laid with either wood hatching or honest-to-god turf, and there was even a big hammock strung between the two (presumably now non-functioning) chimney stacks with a pergola-style tent roof constructed over it as a sort of makeshift garden room.
‘Oh my god, this is amazing!’
He grinned, evidently pleased with my reaction.
‘It’s mostly kitchen garden. Tomatoes, eggplant, potatoes, herbs, some stuff for the bees…’
‘So you grow your own food as well as cook it?’
‘Most of it, yeah.’
I threw my arms around him and wondered, for about the ten millionth time, what in the world such an astonishing man could possibly see in a mousy little English writer like myself.
‘You’re so incredible.’ Drawing back far enough to kiss him, I had to laugh at his expression; not smug, just pleased and gratified, like when someone complimented his cooking.
‘So is that a yes?’
‘Oh!’ I’d almost entirely forgotten why I was there. ‘Yes, yes it is.’
‘Absolutely!’ I gestured to indicate the loft in general. ‘Somewhere this nice, with built-in scenic views of the river and you? I’d have to be mad to pass on that.’
‘There’s nothing about me that’s just scenic, darlin-‘ he winked ‘-you wanna go try out the mattress?’
‘Oh god yes.’ Laughing delightedly, I let him tow me back downstairs and into the bedroom.
The mattress definitely passed muster following a very thorough workout, after which Eliot made dinner while I perched on one of the counter stools to make some calls and do a bit of logistics. How the devil the man pulled together such a delicious stir fry out of whatever odds and ends had survived in his freezer after he’d been gone for so long was beyond me, but I wasn’t going to argue with it.
Afterwards we curled up together on one of the bay seats; it had started raining lightly and the water pattering against the high glass windows, combined with the view over the river as the sun went down, was enormously relaxing. After a little bit I half turned onto my side and snuggled unashamedly into Eliot’s chest, sighing happily when he just gave a soft chuckle and kissed my forehead.
From this angle I could see most of the bookshelf, and the sight of all eleven Rebecca Silver books lined up next to the hardback copy of Nerves of Steel made me grin. Then I remembered what I’d forgotten to do, felt shockingly remiss, and hurriedly sat up to extricate myself.
‘Woah, woah-‘ Eliot exclaimed as I raced off to the bedroom to rummage through my suitcase before sprinting back to him ‘-what the-‘
‘Here.’ Skidding very slightly on the wooden floor in my socks, I plopped back down and put the copy of Cold Steel into his hands. ‘I forgot I had it, what with…everything.’
‘I kept a copy for Nate, too,’ I added with a wink. ‘But I’ll just sort of leave that lying around in the condo at some point for him to find. He hates admitting he’s a fan.’
‘Didn’t realise we missed the launch.’ Eliot grimaced. ‘Sorry.’
‘You were stealing a country. It happens.’ Leaning against him again, I giggled at the face he pulled, then tucked my head back under his chin as he flipped the cover open and read the dedication out loud.
‘To the real Jackson Steel, with-‘ he paused and swallowed ‘-with more thanks than I know how to give.’
‘I’m a sap,’ I said quietly. ‘You know that.’
‘Yeah.’ He set the book aside and wrapped both arms around me, nudging my cheek until I looked up at him and then giving me a long, deep kiss. ‘You don’t gotta thank me for anything.’
‘I do, though.’ I trailed a finger down the undone top of his shirt and toyed idly with a button, putting my ear to his chest so I could hear his heartbeat. ‘I really do.’ My eyes fell on the bookshelf again and then trailed down to the guitar on its stand. ‘You know, I’ve never heard you play.’
‘Hmm?’ He turned to follow my gaze. ‘Oh. You – uh – you wanna?’
I sat up, a little surprised at that ready offer.
‘Sure. If you want.’
‘Yes, please!’ I beamed and rearranged myself as he got up to retrieve the instrument, sitting back down on the end of the seat and checking the strings. ‘I’ve heard Hardison talk about that music studio job so often but I wasn’t sure if Nate mind-twisted you into it, like the thing with the violin…’
‘Nah. I volunteered, actually. Like an idiot.’ Eliot smiled slightly, extracting a pick from the top of the guitar, and strummed lightly. ‘Any requests?’
‘Would you-‘ I cocked my head ‘-would you do that one? The song from the job?’
‘Oh, so you want vocals too, huh?’
‘You don’t have to if you don’t want to,’ I protested, but he was grinning. ‘Tease.’
He just winked and then struck a chord, eyes sliding half-closed in concentration. I actually started in surprise when he started singing; I’d never been terribly musical myself but I knew a hell of a set of pipes when I heard one and Eliot definitely met that criteria. Leaning back against the bay wall, I just listened and enjoyed; it was a lovely tune even if the lyrics were a tad bleak.
‘…that’s me, thinking of you.’
As the last note died away he looked up at me and pulled a face that made me giggle.
‘Bit rusty. Sorry.’
‘Nuh-uh. That was beautiful.’ I grinned again when he blushed a little. ‘I mean, the song was a wee bit depressing but I suppose that’s country for you.’
That got a chuckle and he idly strummed a few random chords.
‘Still, very soulful,’ I added. ‘I can see why the teenie-boppers were all over you.’
His hand froze.
‘Oh, Hardison showed me all the fansite stuff he stripped down,’ I confirmed. ‘He didn’t keep any of the recordings you did, though. Said it wasn’t fair on the client.’
‘I’ll break his damn legs,’ Eliot growled.
‘Live version’ll be much better, anyway, I guess. Less-‘ I remembered something Alec had mentioned and battled to keep a neutral expression ‘-less pitchy.’
‘And his arms.’ Then he shot me a glower that made my stomach flip over. ‘You want pitchy, huh?’
Before I could think of how to respond to that he’d launched into Dust On The Wind, which was an excellent song but the sheer indignance of the rendition had me in stitches.
‘Pitchy? Yeah?’ He prodded me with the pick. ‘Pitchy enough?’
The third song I wasn’t immediately familiar with – he identified it as Honeysuckle Rose, an old 1920s jazz number, all of things – but I actually recognised the opening chords of Hello Again by Neil Diamond as he strummed them, and damn…by the time he was done with that one all I could do was lean over and give him a slow, deep kiss.
‘Thank you. That was lovely. I’ll hold Alec down while you break bits of him.’
‘Always knew you were a stand-up gal.’ He flashed a grin and went to replace the guitar on its stand, then held a hand out to me. ‘Bed?’
‘Oh, my!’ I clapped a hand to my chest in faux-shock and affected a terrible southern belle accent. ‘L’il old me going to bed with Kenneth Crane? I don’t know ‘bout all that – hey!’ This was as he hoisted me effortlessly over his shoulder, flicking the lights off casually as he passed them on the way to the bedroom. ‘Unhand me, you brute!’
Laughing, he tossed me onto the bed and then pinned me down with a hand either side of my waist with a frankly wolfish grin.
‘Oh, darlin, I ain’t unhanding nothing-‘ the deliberately accentuated southern drawl made me squirm beneath him ‘-not until I done had my way with you good and hard.’
All I could really summon by way of reply was a little squeak as he kissed me, but after that I was far more interested in getting his clothes off than trying to engage in witty repartee anyway.
Chapter 27: A Big Word
It only felt like a couple of hours later when I felt Eliot move and get up. Groaning, I rolled over into the warm spot he’d vacated and groped out blindly until I found his leg. He chuckled and caught my hand.
‘Just going up to do some gardening. Go back to sleep, ‘kay?’
I mumbled something inarticulate and snuggled down into his pillow, hearing another chuckle as he moved off. I’d never been terribly good at mornings, especially early ones, and dozed for a while longer. The next time I opened my eyes the digital clock on the bedside table advised that it was just after eight, still rather earlier than I usually dragged myself upright but I did anyway, pulling on my sleep shorts and, after a moment’s thought, stealing one of Eliot’s hoodies. Having an explore of the kitchen, I found the coffee machine and made a cup the way he took it – no sugar, just a hint of creamer – before padding barefoot up the stairs to the hatchway.
There was a pleasant early chill on the roof with a hint of a breeze. I spotted him hunkered down next to one of the beds, apparently weeding. He glanced up, hearing the latch, and smiled a greeting.
‘Morning.’ I bent to kiss him.
‘Hmm.’ He fingered my sleeve with a knowing smirk. ‘That’s mine.’
‘This gonna be a thing, huh?’
‘That a problem?’
‘Not even slightly.’ He patted my leg. ‘Go sit. I’m almost done.’
‘Okay.’ I put his coffee onto the repurposed stack of pallets acting as a table and then levered myself up onto the hammock, managing to successfully lay down without tipping out of the other side. It was actually pretty wide, strung out to stay reasonably flat, and could probably accommodate two people quite comfortably. Now, there was a thought to take to a happy place...
Turning carefully onto my side, I tucked an arm under my head and watched Eliot work, weeding and aerating with a small trowel while checking each plant. The current focus of his attention looked to be green beans, wound around a wooden tepee-like structure in the middle of the bed to act as a support. Periodically he threw something, with perfect aim of course, into a big compost bin sitting roughly in the middle of the roof. There were a couple of rain barrels too, with a rather battered steel watering can sitting near them.
It was remarkably peaceful, the sounds of early commuting Boston only a dim background hum, and if I hadn’t been so oddly entranced watching him I could have easily fallen asleep there. Considering the normal manner of his movements was generally guarded, on the verge of explosive aggression given his role in the team, seeing him do something so physical with relaxed shoulders and careful touches was fascinating. The thought made me smile, recalling the first realisation I’d had of that strange duality between power and gentleness which had prompted the creation of Jackson Steel. Eliot gardening was like Eliot cooking – or Eliot in bed! – with that same capability for raw force mingled inextricably with something tender and soft and astonishingly sweet.
God, I was so in love with the man, it bordered on ridiculous.
As I had the thought a smile spread irresistibly over my face. Well, that’s new. But it was impossible to come to any other conclusion, really, rational or otherwise. Of course I’d always been a hugely squishy sap but not so much on the romance side; that was Sophie’s trademark weakness, not mine. Was this how she felt when she looked at Nate, despite him being an arrogant son of a bitch with an ego the size of Jupiter? It wasn’t like Eliot was entirely without flaws. He closed off and shut down if something upset him – really upset him – and tended to resort to cutting sarcasm as a default response mechanism, often without much of a filter, not to mention being perpetually evasive and obfuscating about a lot of quite major things from his past.
…not that I gave a rat’s ass.
He lifted one gloved hand suddenly, index finger extended, and blew on it lightly. I squinted and felt a small chuckle escape as the ladybird buzzed away back onto the trellis, where he watched it for a moment with a tiny little smile before standing and pulling the gloves off to stick them into his jeans pocket as he walked over to me. The coffee was still steaming a bit in the morning air and I found myself admiring the movement of the muscles in his throat as he took several long swallows.
‘I love you,’ I heard myself murmur, ‘So much.’
He froze for a beat and then sat down on the pallets, facing me, with utterly impassive look on his face. For a moment he toyed with the now-empty mug and then finally, almost warily, met my gaze.
‘That’s a big word.’
‘No it isn’t.’ I risked a small grin. ‘Wouldn’t even get you double digits in Scrabble.’
‘Right.’ A small grimace flitted across his face. ‘I meant-‘
‘I know.’ I tried to keep my face placid while cursing up a storm internally. ‘It’s okay. It’s – it’s not like you have to say it back, or anything. Promise,’ I added when he opened his mouth, and waited until he closed it again with a tiny frown. ‘I’m not saying it because I want – or god forbid expect – anything back. I just…wanted you to know. Okay?’
He looked at me for a long beat, eyes impossibly blue in the morning light but still completely unreadable.
‘Okay,’ he said quietly, after what felt like half an eternity, and looked to be searching for something else to say. I sat up, swinging my legs over the edge of the hammock, then stood and leaned down to kiss him softly on the lips.
‘Think I’ll go try out the shower, all right?’
‘Sure,’ he muttered, gaze dropping back to the mug in his hands, so I just tucked some stray locks of hair behind his ear and then made for the roof hatch. I even managed to wait until I got into the shower before clapping both hands over my face and giving a silent scream into the spray.
You bloody plonker, Fisher, why the HELL did you have to think that, let alone say it out loud?
Okay. Damage control. Don’t bring it up again. Give him space to process, and possibly freak out. What else? God, did I need to call Sophie? No, she’d probably give me some crap about calling him on it or something similarly ridiculous, like Eliot was the same sort of person as Nate who just needed to be poked repeatedly into feeling things.
So just…act normal. Pretend it didn’t happen. Minor verbal diarrhoea. Happens to everyone. Har har, what a larf. No, actually, don’t laugh it off, that’s a bad plan, just don’t – don’t say anything. Let it lie. Lie there and…and fester. God.
The towels were dark grey and very fluffy – nicer, in fact, than the ones at the Logan Hilton had been – so I tried to focus back on sensible, material sort of things to stop my mind from churning madly in helplessly idiotic circles. Get dressed, normally, jeans and a super-comfy Blondie print t shirt, beat hair into a vaguely acceptable state, totally casual nothing-bothering-anybody wander out into the main room.
‘Was going to head down to Copley Square,’ Eliot said, lacing up his boots by the door. ‘Decent farmer’s market. Grab some breakfast, do a little stocking…you wanna come?’
‘Sure,’ I managed. ‘Sounds good.’ Of course, great idea, externals, something else to focus on. The man was a bloody genius.
I found my Converse in my bag and tried not to register excessive amusement at the sight of Eliot with a couple of cotton grocery totes tucked under one arm. Too late, it occurred to me that diving into something so wholeheartedly domestic might not be the brightest idea, but by then we were passing the library and turning down Dartmouth Street so were pretty committed.
It was a nice farmer’s market. Admittedly Egyptian koshari and baladi bread from a corner stall was a tad unusual as breakfasts went, but it was warming and hit the spot nicely. Everything seemed to be genuinely from local farms around Massachusetts, including some place called Stillman’s which, Eliot informed me solemnly, was the only place in town to get proper meat, Hardison’s obsession with the downtown deli by Faneuil Hall notwithstanding.
‘You like curry?’ I asked as my nose began to twitch at the smells coming from a positively Silk Road-esque spice market stand next door to Stillman’s.
‘Real curry, or British curry?’ he shot back with a grin.
‘Funny.’ I poked his arm. ‘When I was at uni I used to do shifts in a real curryhouse and Mister Chatterjee taught me how to make proper stuff, not yellow goo with raisins in. I do a mean memoni biriyani, I’ll have you know.’
‘You offering to cook me dinner?’
‘I didn’t kill anyone at Christmas, did I?’
‘All right.’ He held his hands up in mock-surrender. ‘Curry it is.’
‘All right, then!’
That cheered me up a bit and gave me a good excuse to insist on carrying one of the bags back to the loft; I’d only had to grab some fresh ginger after a lengthy interrogation as to the contents of his spice rack had left Eliot acting borderline offended at the implication it might lack anything the recipe called for.
We hopped two stops back on the T for speed and everything seemed back to being fine, my blurted confession of the morning to all appearances forgotten, which was a relief. He gave me a proper tour of the kitchen, needling me in evident amusement the whole time because I didn’t know the official chef-type names for some of the fancier tools.
In my defence, how was I supposed to know that the proper term was microplane zester rather than long mini grater thingie with a handle?
At any rate now I really wanted to kick his culinary ass so I decided to start dinner early to give it plenty of time to simmer down. Of course the bastard sat on a counter stool to watch, ostensibly in case I forgot where something was in the cupboards.
‘What the hell are you doing?’
‘I’m dicing an onion.’
‘You’re going to slice your hand off – c’mere.’
Before I could formulate much in the way of an objection he’d pulled his hair into a rough ponytail and moved to stand behind me with a small tutting noise.
‘First of all that’s for fiddly work like de-veining shrimp.’ Taking the small knife I’d plucked from the block, he set it aside and slid the handle of a chunkier chef’s knife into my palm. ‘This the one for chopping.’
‘Does it matter?’
‘Does if you’re gonna do it right.’ Sliding his arms around my waist so one of his hands was over each of mine, he curled his fingers. ‘Pull your fingertips in more, so the flat of the blade uses your top knuckle as a guide. That way you won’t cut anything off.’
I did my best to imitate, which was rather tricky, not least because having him pressed up against my back like that wasn’t exactly the kind of sensory stimulus conducive to focusing on the chopping board.
‘There you go. You got it halved, right, so small strokes down, don’t try to slam it into the block, if you have to push that hard it needs sharpening – that’s better. Now turn the knife flat and make a couple horizontal cuts – away from yourself, dumbass – and then go vertical again…’
It was extraordinarily hard to concentrate with him wrapped around me, fingers lightly guiding on my wrists and the whisper of his breath on my neck when he spoke, but somehow I got the bloody thing diced. Then I reached for the lamb shank – which I’d spent a while dickering over at the market because the cheeky bugger at the stall seemed to think he could foist some fatty chunk of rubbish off on me – and Eliot clucked his tongue again, switching the chef’s knife for a boning one with a pointed clear of his throat.
I tried not to get the giggles as I de-boned the thing and trimmed it down before cubing it; in my tenure at Mister Chatterjee’s we’d had precisely three utility kitchen knives which had to do for pretty much everything, so I’d never exactly learned how to do things chef-style so much as just get the bloody food cooked please and thank you so much!
My garlic and ginger peeling and cutting apparently passed muster at least, if barely from the look on Eliot’s face, so I shooed him off to rinse and soak the rice while I got the lamb into the marinade and started the sauce. We even did an amusing little back-and-forth bicker over the spice rack – he was clearly rather surprised that I knew the difference between sweet and hot paprika – until I finally got the whole lot into the oven to bake. Then I had to talk him through the cucumber riata as I made it, as apparently it wasn’t in his repertoire, and we spent the next half hour washing up and cleaning the kitchen down in surprisingly easy harmony.
All right, so maybe I was a tiny bit nervous as I served up; it had been a while and it was the first time I’d really cooked anything specifically for Eliot – Christmas dinner with the team didn’t really count – but I exhaled in relief when he registered clearly genuine enjoyment at the first mouthful.
‘Don’t sound so surprised,’ I retorted with a grin, which got a spluttering sort of protest as the kick hit him.
‘…crap, that’s spicy-‘
‘That’s why you have the riata with it.’ Plopping another spoonful on his plate, I tried not to laugh at the sight of him flapping absently around a mouthful of beer. ‘Too hot?’
‘Just been a while since I had a real curry, that’s all,’ he shot back, more than a little defensively, which made me laugh.
‘Oh, so I don’t qualify for the goo and raisins classification?’
‘Not at all. Hell, last curry I had this good was in Myanmar.’
‘What the heck were you doing in Myanmar? Was that a job?’
‘Not with the team.’ He constructed a one-shouldered shrug. ‘But it was…uh…off the books, so to speak.’
‘Is this one of those things where if you tell me, you’d have to kill me?’
‘Maybe a l’il bit…’
After dinner we perched at opposite ends of one of the window seats and had another beer. It was a decent Sam Adams IPA, thank god; Eliot only drank mainstream crap like Budweiser when he was on a job and just needed something for the look of it.
‘Where’d you learn to cook, anyway?’ I asked after he’d circled around the Myanmar question from several just as uninformative angles. ‘Don’t think that’s part of whatever mysterious spec ops ninja training you did in the forces.’
‘Started in home ec class,’ he replied easily, grinning. I nearly choked.
‘High school? Seriously? Oh my god, is this the part where I find out you were actually a weedy little dork when you were a kid?’
‘Nah. Varsity football, hockey and track.’ He winked. ‘Not baseball, though.’
‘Wait, I know this – can’t score on defence, right?’
‘And nobody thought it was weird that the star quarterback-‘
‘How’d you know?’
‘-duh – was doing home economics class?’
‘Oh, they thought it was weird.’ A wicked chuckle. ‘Didn’t stop me, though.’
‘Honestly?’ Leaning forward a little as though sharing a deep secret, he smirked. ‘The teacher, Miz Lansdown, had the most amazing pair of-‘
I waved off further explanation, exploding into laughter at the notion of a teenaged Eliot inadvertently discovering a love of cookery in between gawking at his home economics teacher’s bosom. In fact I was still trying to stifle little spurts of giggles, like aftershocks, when he suddenly said
‘I do, you know.’
‘Hmm?’ Scrubbing a hand back through my hair, I refocused on his face. ‘Do what?’
Well, that sobered me right up, although it did nearly make me choke on another mouthful of beer.
‘Wh – what?’
‘I love you.’ He smiled, and it was halfway between warm and wistful. ‘So much.’
I boggled at him, completely stumped.
‘Sorry I…froze up, earlier,’ he added ruefully. ‘Just the last girl who said that to me – who I said it back to – she wound up, uh, marrying someone else, and…’
‘Wow.’ That was somewhat out of left field but I shook my head to clear it and put my now-empty bottle down, shifting to his end of the seat so I could nestle into his side. ‘Well, if it’s any consolation, the last guy I said that to laughed at me and patted my head.’
‘Yup. Like I was a pet spaniel.’
‘Damn.’ Eliot snorted. ‘What an asshole.’
‘Marrying someone else is kind of an asshole move, too,’ I pointed out.
‘I did…kind of disappear on her. A lot.’
‘Forces?’ I tucked myself under his arm when he lifted it around me.
‘Yeah.’ A small huff. ‘What was your guy’s excuse?’
‘Suggesting he gave me an excuse implies he registered that there was a problem,’ I said dryly. ‘Considering he dumped me by text message two days later by saying that he – and I quote – just wasn’t feeling it, ya know, I don’t think there’s much extra analysis needed there.’
‘Wow. Definitely an asshole. And a moron.’
‘Well, yours sounds like a dummy too. I mean, don’t get me wrong, those three months on the uber bad guy were hell, but if the only other option was no Eliot ever…’
I felt the rumbling laugh in his chest as he tugged me up his body a little for a long, sweet kiss. When it broke I barely moved back, so our lips brushed together.
‘I love you.’
This time his smile was blinding.
‘I love you, too.’
Then he pulled me close again into another kiss, and all considerations about past failed declarations and Matt Towbury from Islington fled clean out of my mind.
Chapter 28: Could Get Used To This
It was almost alarming how rapidly we settled into a routine after that; cooking, cleaning, laundry, it all just sort of worked. I supposed I shouldn’t have been so surprised since we were both grown-ass adults, but considering the series of unmitigated disasters that all my fleeting attempts at cohabitation with past boyfriends had been it was nonetheless a rather pleasant discovery.
Eliot didn’t sleep an awful lot on an ordinary day but my comparative slothfulness didn’t seem to bother him; more than once he got up at some ridiculous hour to do some gardening or go for a run or whatever else he was up to, then undressed and slipped back into bed so I didn’t wake up alone. Which was very sweet, not least because he was an unexpectedly voracious cuddler and I normally drifted out of slumber to him spooned tightly against my back with his nose half-buried in my hair.
I got a set of keys and the security codes for the building but, at his insistence, kept mail routed via Francine and a PO box. I suppose in his line of work the idea of stuff literally dropping onto the doormat wasn’t very advisable. Still, it was less than a fortnight after getting back when he got a phone call after dinner one evening and somewhat amusedly informed me that the team were heading off to a job. All I was able to deduce from this was that it was somewhere bloody cold when he came out of the bedroom wrapped in a ski-style coat with one of his thicker black beanies jammed on his head.
‘It’s halfway up a mountain so no, you’re sitting this one out,’ he informed me when I pouted at him. ‘You can warm me up when I get back, yeah?’
‘Cross my heart.’ Leaning down, he gave me a long kiss and turned to murmur into my ear. ‘Love you.’
‘Love you, too.’ I caught one gloved hand and gave it a squeeze. ‘Be careful.’
‘Always.’ Then with a wink and a quick grin he was gone.
I sulked for a bit, in a half-assed sort of way, then got dressed – including one of Eliot’s flannels as a top layer – grabbed my laptop and went to do a little local exploring, as I still hadn’t seen much of Back Bay West. To my delight the loft turned out to be within easy walking distance of both Trident Booksellers and Café 939, both excellent indies with a heavy student crowd.
In fact I got recognised in Trident and ended up signing some excitedly-produced copies of Cold Steel from a handful of locals, but everyone was very friendly so I wound up sitting in there most of the day working on Steel Cent. They had a decent selection of teas, oolong as well as earl grey and even proper loose leaf English breakfast, and they did a vanilla ice cream bubble chai as well which I made a mental note of because Parker had developed a mild obsession with sweet bubble tea since I’d introduced her to the concept.
The team were still gone after a week so I went for a potter to explore the area a bit more, forgoing my small fan club of respectful regulars at Trident for a day, and took a sneaky detour to Victoria’s Secret at Copley Place because there were some things I definitely did not want to shop for during a girls’ day out with Sophie and Parker. Especially Parker, given her complete lack of filter…
When I got back from that little outing I was delighted to hear the sound of the shower running, so went to hastily put everything away. I was just sliding the drawer closed when Eliot came through from the bathroom, one towel around his waist and another rubbing through his hair.
‘Hey!’ I went to give him a kiss, then gasped in alarm before I could help myself; he was covered in bruises, huge ones, all over his torso and shoulders, which were days old because they’d already darkened and stood out as ugly purple blotches against his skin. ‘What the hell happened?’
‘Parker and I may have…fallen into a hole,’ he said with a small grimace. ‘Landed hard. That’s all.’
‘Yeah. You know, we were climbing the mountain and there was a lot of snow and then it caved in and we fell into a – uh – a cave. Under the snow, and the ground. A hole.’
‘Climbing a-‘ I shook my head, pushing curiosity aside ‘-never mind. Get dressed and I’ll grab some ice.’
‘Have you eaten yet?’ I added on my way out.
‘Just coffee on the plane.’
I got him settled onto the couch with an ice pack under each arm for his ribs and another for his right shoulder, which seemed to have taken the brunt of the impact, then bustled around the now-familiar kitchen to whip up a quick pomodoro sauce that I could throw over the fresh fettucine I’d picked up yesterday.
‘Could get used to this,’ Eliot murmured with an impish little smile once I had everything cleared away and switched out the ice packs for him.
‘Falling into caves?’ I shot back, rejoining him on the couch with two beers.
‘I meant this.’ He gestured. ‘Coming home to a lady who ices me up and feeds me.’
‘Well this lady would prefer you didn’t need the icing up, but is glad you’re home.’ I gave his hand a squeeze. ‘Is Parker all right, or did she use you as a landing pad?’
‘She didn’t, but she’s okay. Hardison spent the whole time bitching about the cold but he’s fine too. Nate got altitude sickness and nearly killed himself, but he’ll be all right, and Sophie never left the rec tent so she’s peachy.’
‘Sounds like Sophie had the right idea.’ I gave him a peck on the cheek, pleased when he turned to catch my lips and deepen the kiss, but forcing myself to break off when his hand slid onto my leg. ‘You’re hurt, El!’
‘Not that bad.’ The same hand started to go walkabout as his eyes danced. ‘C’mon, what’s a guy have to do for a proper welcome home around here?’
‘Go strip and get in bed,’ I told him. ‘I’ll be in with you in a sec.’
‘Giving me orders now, huh?’
‘Go!’ I gave his thigh a light slap as I got up, which set him chuckling but he did move, so I went to the bathroom to get a couple of Tylenol and the tub of arnica cream I knew lived there; Eliot hated going to medical professionals so kept a surprisingly broad range of supplies in the big medical cabinet next to the bathtub. It took some needling to get him to take the painkillers – he didn’t like to get too numbed down in case it caused him to overreach and worsen an injury – but I got him to swallow a pair of tablets with some water, then turned him onto his stomach so I could give the worst of the damage on his back a good rub down with the cream.
‘Could definitely get used to this,’ he mumbled after a few minutes.
‘I’m not much of a masseuse,’ I said playfully. ‘But apparently I can get arnica cream on all the purple bits.’
‘Yeah. Feels good…’ he trailed off into a low groan, shifting a little under my hands. After a couple more minutes I realised his breathing had changed and, upon leaning down to check, that he’d in fact fallen asleep.
Well! That was probably for the best; it was typical of him not to realise, or perhaps just want to admit, how tired he was until he actually came to a full stop. I went to rinse my hands and then carefully climbed in next to him, flicking the lamp off before laying down. The bed had never felt quite right without him in it, but when I reached over to lay one palm lightly on the small of his back it didn’t take long for just the feel and sound of his breathing to lull me into a deep sleep.
I actually woke up before him the following morning, which was a first, and looked over to find that he didn’t seem to have moved overnight at all. In fact his face was still squashed rather adorably into the pillow, lips slightly parted but eyes firmly closed. Resisting the urge to cuddle up and kiss him, I slipped out from under the covers and got busy. The smell of eggs, toast and coffee seemed to rouse him but I got back to the bedroom with the tray before he’d done more than sit up.
‘Never had the chance to bring you breakfast in bed before.’
‘Oh, I could definitely get used to this,’ he replied with a boyish grin, absently rotating one arm.
‘Stiff?’ I passed him the fresh ice pack I’d brought in, which he took with an appreciative grunt. ‘You know, a hot bath might be better at this point.’
‘The garden’s fine,’ I added pointedly. ‘The aphids have all buggered off or been eaten by the ladybirds. Told you putting those marigolds in with the tomatoes would work.’
‘Yeah?’ He smiled around a mouthful of toast. ‘Where’d you get that idea, anyway?’
‘My mum’s a cottage gardening machine.’
‘You mom, huh?’ That seemed to surprise him. ‘You never talk about your parents.’
‘My parents are…complicated.’ Good lord, that was not a conversation I wanted to get into right now. ‘As opposed to you, mister open book about his past?’
‘…fair point.’ A little laugh. ‘So, what’ve you been up to, other than gardening?’
‘Found a couple of nice coffee places for writing in, did a little shopping…’
‘Saw the bag in the closet.’ His grin turned wicked. ‘When do I get to see what’s inside?’
‘When your back’s the right colour again!’
That got one of his patented grumpy squints, of course, but I did convince him to have a warm bath that evening; I changed into one of the slips I’d bought on my little expedition and brought him a beer while he was in there, which didn’t do much in the way of prolonging his soak but definitely cheered him up. We had nearly a whole two weeks to relax after that, which was like a wonderful sort of mini-holiday, and he got to register approval of my private shopping trip several more times.
Which he did, with great enthusiasm.
Chapter 29: A Dragon To Slay
After that, and giving Nate a serious ribbing for nearly killing himself with altitude sickness up some mountain in Alaska, things returned to the usual measure of normal. I got to accompany the team on a couple of local jobs, including one particularly memorable one during a murder mystery party, and got the first draft of Steel Cent over to Rod more than two months ahead of schedule, to his lasting delight (and astonishment).
What I never in a million years expected was to one day arrive in the condo with Eliot only to have my progress to my usual spot arrested by Nate saying
‘Actually, Tess, we could use you on this one.’
‘What?’ Eliot exclaimed, which rather echoed my sentiment on the matter.
‘Correct me if I’m wrong-‘ Nate tapped a control that made a familiar face flood the main screen behind him ‘-but I think you might have an interest in this mark.’
‘Oh, Mister Collier has been a naughty boy,’ Sophie supplied with a grin. ‘We’re on the job to give him a spanking for it. You in?’
‘I don’t-‘ Eliot began, but I’d already dropped my satchel on a chair and hopped onto a stool next to Parker ‘-Tess, this is not a good idea!’
‘This bugger stood me up and threw Interpol at me,’ I said firmly. ‘If I can help slap him about, I’m game.’
‘All right then.’ Nate smirked and nodded to Hardison. ‘Run it.’
I planted my chin in my hands and boggled in unabashed fascination as photographs, tax records, email chains and all sorts of things I’d always taken for granted were at least semi-private flashed across the screen. The gist of the situation was that, as well as skimming from the Boston Review’s donations pool, which was horrible enough, Collier had been subverting quite a lot of submissions from various newbie or unheard-of authors to remove them from the public pool and remake them in his own name.
He’d apparently been doing this for quite a few years at this point, but relatively recently had stolen a short but powerful essay on race and gender equality in American politics and passed it as his own work at a public event in Cambridge, earning himself enormous acclaim and kudos as the one white man in the whole of the USA who apparently truly understood the struggle of ethnic minority females.
The actual author of the essay, a young political science student named Kassidy Cooper, understandably had quite a problem with this and refused to take it lying down. Being without any real legal recourse, the original essay copy having been conveniently stolen and thus leaving her no proof that she was the original author, she’d wound up in communication with Nate through whatever strange and mysterious channels that normal people heard of him and the team.
‘Did she not type up a copy?’ I asked. It seemed an obvious question.
‘Kassidy’s barely making her tuition while working a ninety-hour week,’ Hardison supplied. ‘The only computer access she has is at her college library but she hardly has time to get there. She photocopied her hand written version of the final essay and sent that into the Review by old-fashioned snail mail. All her old drafts and whatnot are long gone from the back of napkins and whatever else she scrounged up to write it on. Girl had no reason to think the damned Boston Review wouldn’t play fair with it so she didn’t exactly keep a forensic paper trail.’
‘Getting an essay published in the Review would put her on the literary and political map,’ Sophie mused. ‘It would open all kinds of doors for her, not least scholarships and financial assistance.’
‘But instead the poor girl’s working triple shifts at a fast food joint while Collier, estimated net worth in the region of sixteen million, gets all the acclaim and credit,’ Nate finished. ‘So we’re going to steal her essay back, humiliate and discredit Collier, and get hold of a bunch of his money to put Kassidy through the rest of college without crippling debt or a nervous breakdown.’
‘Is there any end game to this where Collier gets punched repeatedly in the face?’ I asked, trying to fight the almost physical wave of nausea that welled up. ‘Or perhaps gets his dick cut off with a slightly blunt letter opener?’
‘Ooh.’ Parker beamed at me. ‘That sounds like fun!’
‘Let’s focus on the essay for now,’ Nate said wryly. ‘Recrimination in due course.’
‘But doesn’t Collier know that Interpol chap – Sterling?’ I added as that unpleasant memory resurfaced. ‘Won’t that be a problem?’
‘Oh, he ain’t friends with Sterling.’ Hardison chuckled. ‘Jimmy boy barged in and flashed his badge around to steal that charity date because he was monitoring Serrano and clocked Eliot at the gala; Collier was just the guy who got caught in the crossfire. With Sterling chasing some stolen Vatican doohickey around southwestern Europe he’s got no interests in Boston right now so Collier is wide open. And of course he’s already passingly familiar with both our resident bestselling author and the politically-connected Mister Fontaine, which gives us a way in.’
‘At the gala he was interested in the idea of Fontaine having a local client,’ Eliot said thoughtfully. ‘Asked if it was anyone he knew. Might be he’s trying to get into the game.’
‘He’s got the money to run but he’d need party backing for a real shot.’ Sophie tapped her chin with one finger. ‘Has he been courting anyone in the area?’
‘Plenty of local bigwigs are regulars at his parties and events,’ Hardison said, presumably neck-deep in Collier’s digital diary and address book. ‘Pretty comprehensive. If I didn’t know better I’d say he’s trying to get their attention or something. Might also explain why his work – aka the stuff he’s stolen – has been taking on a steadily more partisan bent recently. Dude’s trying to paint himself as the next damned JFK.’
‘Using work stolen from penniless students who can’t fight back.’ Parker made a face. ‘How…political.’
‘We can sell him the running dream,’ Sophie said, ‘That part’s easy. But I don’t think it’ll be enough. He doesn’t just want to get onto the Hill, he wants to make a splash, a big statement, have hordes of adoring masses looking up to him and cheering him as the next big champion of democracy, probably set himself up for a run at the White House in a few years. He wants to be the white knight…’
‘You can’t be a white knight without a dragon to slay,’ I remarked.
‘Exactly.’ She laughed. ‘And what’s slaying a dragon without a fair maiden to rescue?’
I abruptly realised they were all looking at me.
‘Uh, guys, I hate to break it to you, but that ship sailed a long time ago-‘
‘You’re damn right it did,’ Eliot said to me with a lopsided grin.
Nate buried his face in one hand while everyone else collapsed into laughter, but once Parker stopped snort-giggling like a hysterical piglet I was finally able to get them to explain what the hell the plan was.
It was apparently a game called the Shanghai Two-Step which, like all of the other ridiculous con names, I was fairly sure they made up on the spot. The practicality was that Nate was going to play the part of Darren Fontaine’s local client, an up-and-coming candidate for the senate, while Sophie would pose as an opposing consultant looking for her own candidate. I was apparently the extra “incentive” for Collier to take the leap into candidacy in case he didn’t buy the yarn Sophie was spinning, which of course would necessitate the transfer of a significant chunk of money. While he was occupied with a nascent election campaign, Parker and Hardison would be taking advantage of the access to his house and personal correspondence to find proof that Kassidy was the original author of her essay, along with as many of the others he’d stolen from as possible.
‘When you say incentive,’ I said to Nate, ‘What exactly are you expecting me to do…?’
‘Just be visible on Eliot’s arm,’ he said. ‘Like at the gala. Collier’s natural competitiveness will do the rest.’
‘On the basis of what?’
‘On the basis that Collier got the hots for you, girl,’ Hardison supplied with a grin. ‘Damn, man dropped over twelve grand just to get a chance to take you to dinner.’
‘Exactly,’ Sophie enthused. ‘Put him into a situation where normal alpha-male-tended competitiveness will flare up anyway, add your presence as an unspoken prize to be won, he’ll be falling over himself. By the end of this you’ll be able to get him to do whatever you want with a mere flick of your wrist!’
‘Men are weird,’ Parker said around a mouthful of cereal.
‘I don’t think this is a blanket men thing, Parker, more a weird rich guys Sophie plays mind games with thing. Right?’ I added hopefully in Eliot and Hardison’s direction, but just got a series of mumbles and noncommittal noises from the pair of them. ‘Ugh. Fine. Men are weird.’
The first part of the plan was for Darren Fontaine and I to wind up (by pure coincidence and Act of Hardison, of course) at some fancy party. Not one of Jodie’s – I insisted on that – but it didn’t take Alec long to find something. It was also, of course, an excuse to go shopping, as if Sophie ever needed such a thing, and with a sort of inevitability Parker ended up coming along too.
‘This is a ball, you know,’ Sophie said pointedly, half-dragging me into Saks in the Prudential. ‘That means full skirts, waltzing and candlelight and champagne-‘
‘And lots of rich people with really pickable pockets,’ Parker added with a sigh.
‘As long as it also means Eliot in a tuxedo again,’ I muttered, which got a laugh from Sophie while Parker just pulled a confused face.
‘What’s so special about Eliot in a tuxedo?’
Of course trying to explain that kept me occupied for a good while, especially because, wilfully or otherwise, Parker just didn’t seem to comprehend the idea of Eliot being sexy in any kind of configuration. Then Sophie was bundling me into the changing rooms with an armful of gowns despite my protests, and insisted I try every single one on.
‘This one is obscene,’ I protested, after having to take my bra off altogether to try on a plunging neckline Jay Godfrey that left bare skin most of the way to my belly button. ‘It’s like an overpriced porn star dress! How would I even – I’d have to tape it down or something!’
Back in the changing room I did discreetly take a picture in the mirror and send it to Eliot, but settled on a rather more modest Michelle Mason cowl neck with spaghetti straps in sky blue silk for the actual event. Of course then Sophie insisted on shoes, and talked me into a frankly obscene pair of ankle wrap Rene Caovilla sandals.
‘And you can’t go with those old bits from Accessorize, Tess-‘
‘Watch me!’ Then my phone buzzed with a text message. It was from Eliot in response to the mirror snap and just said woof which made me almost double over in laughter. Escaping from Sophie by dint of sort of sending Parker in the direction of the jewellery counter (“Oh! Tanzanite!”), I swung by La Perla for something that would work under the open back of the dress.
The event itself was in the Wharf Room at the Boston Harbour Hotel, right on the waterfront, in support of some kind of fundraising that felt the need to get rich people to go to a fancy party to donate to it. At least there wasn’t an auction or anything to worry about this time. I also got an earbud so I could join in on comms for the team, which started fun but rapidly got tedious because, unsurprisingly, having Nate right in my ear wasn’t exactly something to turn cartwheels over.
Chapter 30: A Little More Conscience
‘This is kind of exciting,’ I admitted to Eliot, my hand tucked into the crook of his arm as we carefully navigated through the mass of people at the hotel. ‘I feel like a Bond girl.’
‘You look like one,’ he said with a wink. ‘Those shoes…damn, woman.’
‘Maybe later you can see just the shoes and what’s under the dress,’ I shot back, which got a wicked chuckle. ‘But only if you let me undo your bowtie with my teeth.’
‘Sounds like a deal, darlin.’
‘You guys KNOW you’re on comms and we can ALL hear you, right?’ Hardison exclaimed.
‘And the shoes were my idea, by the way, so you’re welcome,’ Sophie added.
‘Focus please,’ Nate said, and I swore I could hear him pinching the bridge of his nose. ‘I’ve just seen Collier. In fact I think he’s seen you, because he just made a beeline.’
‘Yeah, I see him too.’ Eliot slipped an arm around my waist and pulled me against his side. ‘Jerkoff.’
‘Be nice,’ I murmured.
‘I’m not the one who’s gotta flirt with him.’
Of course knowing that Collier was an exploitative, lying sleazeball made it somewhat trickier to conjure a smile when he approached but apparently I managed it.
‘Tess! Proof of the power of prayer – I’ll never forgive myself for missing our dinner, but Jodie would not give me your number no matter how much I begged…’
‘I hope you didn’t try to get a refund off her,’ I said. ‘After all, I showed up.’
‘All right, I deserved that.’ He clapped a hand to his heart as though I’d struck him. ‘But really, when an – ahem – person such as Mister Sterling asks for a favour-‘
‘I’ll assume he flashed his badge at you,’ I said with a roll of my eyes. ‘God knows I couldn’t get him to put it away in the restaurant.’
‘Well thank god for Boston society, although I seem to recall you left us for London for a while earlier this year…?’
‘Publishing stuff.’ I waved that off. ‘No rest for the wicked.’
‘Of course. Cold Steel? Marvellous work.’
‘It was hard not seeing Darren for so long, of course,’ I added, ‘But we managed.’
‘Now, darlin, you know it’d take more than the damn Atlantic ocean to let you go,’ Eliot said, with a smile that went from warm to barely-concealed loathing as his gaze settled on Collier. ‘Mister Collier.’
‘Mister Fontaine. Still working on that…local candidate?’
‘Well, elections don’t happen overnight.’
‘Of course, of course.’ Another smile of very thinly veiled disgust. ‘Perhaps I could prevail on you for a dance later this evening, Tess, as an apology…?’
‘As a start on one, maybe,’ I shot back with a wink, which was when Nate ambled into the conversation.
‘Darren, a word if I can – oh, I beg your pardon-‘
‘Go on, steal him away,’ I said with a resigned sigh and a roll of my eyes at Collier, like it was a private joke. ‘God forbid we get a single night without campaign talk.’
‘You’re a saint, sweetheart – hi there, Jed Barnett-‘ Nate added, sticking a hand out and pumping Collier’s arm fit to yank it off ‘-I’m headed for a seat on the Hill, or at least that’s the plan with Darren here.’
‘Be right back,’ Eliot said, giving me a quick kiss, and then he and Nate sidled off to have a totally fake conversation about a non-existent election campaign.
‘Election, huh?’ Collier said. ‘Must keep him busy.’
‘Darren doesn’t tell me how to write books, I don’t pretend to understand half of what he does,’ I replied with a small shrug. ‘Don’t think I’m going to sidestep into political thrillers any time soon!’
‘I should hope not, given your evident talents in your own field.’ A flash of a smile. ‘I’ve been dabbling a little in the written word myself, although more essay prose than fiction I admit…’
Somehow I kept my expression fixed despite the suddenly urgent desired to smack him repeatedly around the head with the Gucci clutch Sophie had lent me; the big buckles on the front would probably leave a beautiful indent in that stupidly chiselled jawline.
‘Try not to grind your teeth QUITE so audibly,’ Nate said wryly. ‘He’ll get his comeuppance, if we do this right.’
‘Remember what we discussed,’ Sophie added. ‘Bland but casual interest. Keep flicking your gaze back to Eliot so it’s clear you’d rather be with him, the fact he doesn’t do the same will reinforce Collier’s view of you being neglected.’
‘You’re writing?’ I managed to ask Collier, and Sophie’s noise of approval in my ear told me I’d apparently hit the tone just right. ‘New aspirations, or just dabbling?’
‘I would never presume to dabble, I assure you,’ he replied. ‘Just trying to put something out there, you know, into the zeitgeist as it were. Mostly cultural and societal commentary, although it has been quite well-received.’
‘Zeitgeist?’ Hardison echoed. ‘Is this dude for REAL?’
‘Looking to become a columnist, then?’ I said, battling to keep a straight face from Alec’s comment. ‘I’m fairly sure you’ve got more contacts in the newspaper world than I do, so…’
‘Well I suppose it’s the difference between just talking the talk versus wanting to really change things, although-‘ then he actually shook his head and chuckled ‘-here I am wittering about work like an idiot. Given Mister Fontaine’s – ahem – distraction, might I press for that dance now, perhaps?’
‘Oh, well…’ I glanced over at Eliot and Nate, who were deep in conversation – the fact that I could hear over the comms that it was about last night’s football game just made the apparent seriousness of the dialogue all the funnier – and worried at my lip ‘…I suppose while Darren’s still busy…’
‘Mister Fontaine seems to be almost perpetually busy,’ Collier remarked with barely-concealed disdain, taking my hand to lead me onto the floor. ‘Dare I ask if he ever takes you anywhere that doesn’t involve his work?’
‘He’s a busy man with a very important job,’ I said with a hint of wistfulness, playing the forlorn apologist, ‘Especially when compared to writing silly fiction books.’
‘Silly fiction-‘ Collier’s face turned suitably aghast ‘-I thought he claimed to be a fan!’
‘Oh, he’s never said it quite in those words.’ I shrugged a little. ‘But I don’t think either of us are labouring under any false illusions as to whose work really matters, in the grander scheme of things.’ Then, dropping my voice a little as if sharing a confidence, I jerked my head to indicate Nate. ‘Jed has a lot of ambition and backing…he’s got his sights set well beyond the House, I think, and Darren’s determined to be the one who gets him there. Could lead to – well – to all kinds of things, I guess. I don’t really know how it all works. But if you’re talking about making a difference…’
‘Perfect,’ Sophie murmured.
‘Always good to have a greater cause, I suppose,’ Collier said with barely-concealed distaste.
‘I suppose.’ I risked a wan, brave little smile. ‘It’s just a bit…consuming, that’s all. Still, gives me plenty of time to write!’
‘Something of a – ah – a silver lining, then?’ he shot back with a grin.
‘According to my publisher, at least!’
‘Tess – oh, excuse me-‘ Eliot caught my arm so I let go of Collier and immediately gave him my full attention ‘-look, Jed and I are going to head back to the office, got a few kinks to work out before Monday’s call and – well, I know I said tonight was all-clear but-‘ he flashed a not-very-apologetic smile.
‘It’s okay.’ I affected disappointed-but-resigned, just like I’d practiced with Sophie in the mirror a thousand times, and nodded. ‘Work first, right?’
‘Thanks, sweetheart.’ He gave me a quick and absentminded peck on the cheek and took my elbow.
‘Another time perhaps,’ I said quickly to Collier.
‘Well there’s no reason you’re needed in the – ah – the office, surely?’ he replied, almost too quickly.
‘Are you kidding?’ Eliot chuckled. ‘Nobody better to keep a campaign team caffeinated on all-nighters than this lady right here! C’mon, Tess.’
Then he rather peremptorily steered me away towards the door while I shot Collier an oh well sort of shrug, immediately picking up conversation with Nate again like I was just some sort of baggage he had to tow along.
‘He’s about to blow a self-righteous gasket,’ Sophie said, sounding positively gleeful. ‘Good job!’
The three of us got into the town car – well, Nate and Eliot got in, still talking, and I scampered to another door because we’d play it until we were well clear, you never knew who was watching – while Hardison cackled in amusement, and then Sophie’s voice came on again, shifting to a flawlessly polished Harvard accent as she went into character with Collier as planned.
‘Not a fan of Mister Barnett? Or is it his campaign team you object to?’
‘More the latter – I’m sorry, you are?’
‘Maria Gambourne, Mister Collier. You could say I’m in the same line of work as Mister Fontaine there, only I like to think I choose my candidates with a little more conscience.’
‘I very much enjoyed your essay on modern equity and equality for minorities and women in last month’s Review. It showed…the kind of sensitivity I wouldn’t expect from a white man in a privileged position. Uncanny, almost.’
‘Good lord,’ I said once we were back at McRory’s and safely into the condo. ‘She’s terrifying.’
‘Bone chilling,’ Nate agreed with a grin.
‘You oughta be ashamed of yourself,’ Hardison called to Eliot from where he was perched with his laptop, ‘Dragging your lady around like that, smart novelist and you’re using her for coffee runs. For shame, dude, for shame.’
‘For shame,’ Parker agreed solemnly.
‘That’s-‘ Eliot glared at both of them ‘-that’s Fontaine, you jackasses, it’s the character-‘
‘Shut up,’ I told her, grabbing Eliot by his lapels to give him a kiss. ‘Are we listening to Sophie being scary for the rest of the night, or can I take you home to do unseemly things to that bowtie yet?’
‘Only the bowtie?’ he asked, wriggling his eyebrows.
‘Y’all can take your comms out if you’re getting frisky, thank you,’ Hardison said loudly.
‘Maybe we should leave them in,’ I shot back. ‘You might learn a thing or two.’
While he made gagging noises we did take the earbuds out, though, and after about ten more minutes Sophie confirmed that Collier was coming to meet Maria Gambourne at her campaign offices downtown tomorrow morning at eleven.
‘So do we rent an office and deck it up?’ I asked. ‘Bunting and fake posters?’
‘Why rent when you can steal?’ Nate replied with a wink. ‘Get the campaign manager conveniently diverted for a few hours, change some name plates, plant some papers, Sophie walks in…’
‘And while Collier’s planning his entry to politics to win his beloved novelist’s heart from the evil Fontaine-‘ Alec added in a sing-song tone.
‘-we raid his house to find evidence he stole all those essays,’ Parker finished. ‘Easy peasey.’
They high-fived and I shook my head.
‘Not that I’m complaining but why exactly was I needed for all this?’
‘Emotional motivation,’ Nate said, idly pouring some whisky into a glass and taking a swig. ‘Just a plain offer to get into a campaign based on some essays this soon…it’s too convenient. Too well-timed. We don’t need him to just want to run for office because he’s got latent ambitions. We’ve got to have him needing to run, to win, to beat the supposed bad-guy and play the white knight. Taps into his competitiveness, self-righteous chivalry, one-upmanship, not to mention good old-fashioned hormones…whole bunch of buttons that make him infinitely easier to twist around in circles. And steal a bunch of his money, of course.’
‘Huh.’ Leaning against Eliot’s side on the couch, I cracked a smile as realisation hit. ‘Head and heart. That’s why you need Sophie around.’
‘Sure, she’s the best grifter in the-‘
‘You go after the intellect, the mastermind bit, all the dominos lining up to some cunning ploy, but Sophie goes for the hearts and minds and gets people to want to believe in what you’re selling them.’ I waggled a hand, rather pleased at the symmetry. ‘Yin and yang. Ego and id.’
‘Well I don’t think that’s quite how I’d put it-‘ he began in a sort of spluttering protest, but I barely heard him because Eliot was chortling, Hardison had nearly inhaled a mouthful of orange soda and even Parker was grinning broadly.
‘Got it in one,’ Eliot said, slipping an arm around my waist and giving me a more lingering kiss. ‘Brainbox.’
‘Narrative trope, more like.’ I rolled my eyes. ‘How predictable of them.’
‘If you’re all quite done,’ Nate said, standing and drawing himself up a little in a totally failed attempt to reassert something like authority over the room, ‘We’ve got a campaign office to steal tomorrow, so…’
With that we all headed out. Eliot stripped his tie on the T out of habit so I never did get to try taking it off with my teeth, but he demonstrated such thorough and enthusiastic approval of the La Perla underneath the dress that I decided to forgive him.
Chapter 31: Job's Still Young
Eliot was up and gone early the next morning, helping Parker do the case and discreet infiltration of whatever unfortunate campaign office the team were appropriating downtown, but I had an appointment to meet Hardison at nine anyway so grabbed a couple of breakfast bagels – along with a box of donuts, as we’d be picking Parker up later – and spotted Lucille parked just outside Newbury Comics. A quick knock on the side door, in the cadence of the opening of the Imperial March from Star Wars, and it slid open to reveal a grinning Alec.
‘Morning,’ I replied, looking around with interest; I’d never actually been inside the infamous van before. It smelt rather oppressively of ozone and gummy sweets but was a lot cleaner than I’d expected.
‘Got Collier’s address,’ Hardison added around a mouthful of bagel, indicating the rather swanky colonial house on the screen. ‘Dumbass is into all that smart home hype, whole place is connected up, not a single air gap! Rich idiots are my favourite kind.’ Then his phone beeped and he checked it, slapping one knee. ‘Right. Let’s get Parker.’
I took shotgun and he explained what exactly smart home hype and air gaps were on the way. A grinning Parker hopped in and dove into the donut box with a happy squeal, then we swung by South End and Eliot clambered in from whatever he’d been doing in the meantime.
‘Keys, I’d guess for car, garage and house-‘ I was rather taken aback as he emptied his pockets onto the desk ‘-cloned the cell and-‘ waggling what looked like some kind of weird USB drive ‘-that not-so-smart lock doohickey.’
‘Ooh.’ Parker examined it from all angles as I gingerly looked at one of the keys.
‘Why are his keys made of-‘ I tapped a fingernail against it ‘-plastic? Resin?’
‘Because they’re copies,’ Alec said from the driver’s seat. ‘Not much good raiding the mark’s stuff if he knows it’s been taken.’
‘Lift, copy, drop back,’ Parker agreed, giving me a grin. ‘No signs of break-in, and no reason to suspect anyone would or could have stolen his keys, so nothing to trace back.’
‘This is what you were doing all morning?’ I asked Eliot, feeling my eyebrows raise.
‘Parker did the lift and drop, I took the copies.’
‘Better have got the smart key right, dude,’ Hardison added pointedly. ‘If I have to patch in again, I’m gonna be super grumpy, you get me?’
‘It’s not my fault your god damn gadgets and gizmos don’t always work!’
‘My gizmos work just fine when they ain’t been kicked and punched and dropped in damn rivers!’
Parker and I focused on trying not to burst out laughing as the pair of them bickered back and forth like an old married couple, then finally we arrived in Chestnut Hill and parked up around the corner from Collier’s address. The neighbourhood was gorgeous, all leafy sprays and enormous yards, the quintessential suburbia for the Massachusetts elite class. The front yard two houses down had an honest to god golden retriever puppy frolicking in it. I half expected Kevin Spacey to appear on one of the big porches.
Parker stripped her top off with her usual lack of self-consciousness and replaced it with a polo shirt carrying the logo of a local cleaning company, presumably researched and-or infiltrated by Hardison earlier. Alec did some kind of digital wizardry onto a plastic keycard and a USB stick, which went into her pocket, then she grabbed a Swiffer I hadn’t even noticed was propped in the corner and hopped out of the van, ambling off with it casually over one shoulder and a bounce in her step.
‘She really does enjoy herself, doesn’t she?’ I found myself saying before Eliot pulled the door closed again.
‘Nothing wrong with liking your work,’ he replied with a smile, parking on the spare chair and pulling me down to perch on his lap while Hardison took the main one and fired up the screens.
‘…donation to match, of course, but as a sign of good faith…’ Sophie’s voice, in-character as Maria Gambourne, drifted briefly through the interior.
‘Sounds like that’s all going fine.’ Alec tapped a key. ‘How’s it look?’
‘All good,’ Parker said. ‘Nobody around. Do I seriously just wave this card thing at the door?’
‘There’ll be a reader, look like a flat pad or a thin box.’
‘Got it.’ A dim beep. ‘Wow. Even the lights came on. The-‘ a vaguely disgusted noise ‘-the security system’s offline!’
‘Told you, mama!’ Alec laughed. ‘Smart home hype, man. One easy all-access pass for yours truly.’
‘Wow.’ That shocked me a little. ‘You scanned one thing off him and you can just walk into his house?’
‘Age of the geek, baby.’
‘Rich morons and their toys,’ Eliot muttered, which made me chuckle.
‘Found his office. Laptop.’
‘Boot it up and plug in, I’ll scrape the lot. Could route in via the wifi,’ Hardison added to me, ‘But given this guy’s piss-poor attempt at physical security, hell, this is easier.’
‘Got it. Going to have a look around.’
While Parker went through every drawer and cupboard in Collier’s house, I swung my legs over to get comfier on Eliot’s lap and pecked him on the cheek.
‘I’m glad this one doesn’t involve you getting punched, at least.’
‘Job’s still young,’ he replied with a lazy smile.
‘There’s nothing incriminating here,’ Parker said suddenly. ‘I guess he got rid of any paper copies. Shredder’s empty, though. I’ll check the garbage outside. Oh! Kitty!’
Hardison facepalmed as the thief got distracted by making kissy noises and fussing one of the local cats that had wandered into the garden – which seemed like a perfectly logical reason to get side-tracked to me – but after a few minutes the animal wandered off, to her evident disappointment, and not long after that she clambered back in through the side door looking considerably more dishevelled, and a bit put-out.
‘Nothing papery in the garbage.’
‘Might be burning it,’ I suggested. ‘Turning shredded paper into bricks for a fireplace is pretty easy. My mum does it with old newspapers all the time.’
‘Good thing we ain’t stuck mangling paper.’ Hardison took the USB stick back from Parker and popped it into the slot on the keyboard. ‘Aw, look at that. He put a folder password on it. Adorable. Oh, hell yeah, there we go…’ sitting back a little to motion at the screen, he grinned ‘…raw image files, OCR scans, and the metadata on the files has the dates they were created on. Thank you, Canon.’
‘So that’s it, then?’ Parker said eagerly. ‘We can prove he stole all that stuff?’
‘With bells on, mama. No sweat.’
Back at the condo Nate was very pleased with the take from the day, but a rather grumpy Sophie confirmed that she’d had less success than hoped in getting Collier on the hook for the campaign scam.
‘It isn’t quite white knight enough yet,’ was her verdict. ‘Fontaine he loathes, of course, but he said he didn’t know enough about Jed Barrett to consider him as an opponent. I told him that the guy was a nasty piece of work underneath all the smiles and handshakes but he wanted proof.’
‘Proof of corruption in a fictional political candidate?’ I echoed. ‘How the hell do we do that?’
‘Easily.’ Nate drummed his fingers on the tabletop. ‘After all, a campaign manager is going to be in all the pockets of his would-be congressman. We just need to convince Collier that Fontaine has something on Barrett that he can acquire, preferably in a way that lets him also prove to you that Fontaine is supporting the bad guy, and it needs to be something believable but disgusting enough that Collier’s self-righteous moral outrage sends him running back to Sophie to help him…well, to slay the dragon and win the hand of the princess.’
‘And that’s easy?’
‘Comparatively.’ He shrugged. ‘We’re going to need another party, and…something disgusting on Jed Barrett.’
‘Sex scandal!’ Parker suggested, loudly, waving one arm in the air. ‘We can do photoshop stuff again!’
‘No, it needs to be something worse than that.’ Sophie tapped her bottom lip thoughtfully. ‘Something that’ll really get Collier’s back up, really clash with the hero persona he wants for himself…give him a real villain…’
‘Like what, baby eating?’ I exclaimed. ‘Collier’s stealing essays off penniless students to advance his own literary agenda, so we’re kind of scraping the bottom of the barrel here, surely?’
‘It isn’t about what’s worse than his kind of bad,’ Nate said. ‘It’s about what he thinks is worse. He’s trying to paint himself as the next champion of civil rights and liberty, a total progressivist, right? So we just need to drop a hint that Barrett is on board with something that Collier’s ideal public persona would deem reprehensible.’
‘Gender equality?’ I hazarded. ‘Maybe…um…Barret might want to ban abortion or something?’
‘No, it’s still a blue state so that wouldn’t be believable – no political consultant with even half a brain would back a local candidate with those kinds of leanings.’
‘The arts,’ Sophie said with a smile. ‘Collier’s misusing his position at the Review for his own ends but he’s still a dedicated patron of the arts. Literary, musical, everything. If we could convince him that Barrett – and by extension Fontaine – want to somehow gut art and literature in Boston but are keeping it quiet for the campaign…’
‘And that gives him a good topical reason to ride to the rescue of his favourite lady author by showing her how little regard her evil consultant boyfriend has for her profession,’ Nate agreed. ‘Perfect. So we just need something incriminating, and a way to have Collier discover it.’
‘Incriminating emails I can do,’ Hardison said, having been tapping on his laptop while we’d been talking. ‘But a party Collier will be at…I can also do.’ He looked up and grinned with that usual irrepressible cheek. ‘How about a fundraiser for the BLO?’
‘The hell’s the BLO?’ Eliot asked with a frown.
‘The Boston Lyric Opera!’ Sophie sounded delighted. ‘Oh, Hardison, that’s perfect.’
‘Next Tuesday evening on the Common. Let’s see, I’ve got Mister Fontaine, Miss Fisher, Mister Barrett-‘
‘Not Gambourne,’ Nate said. ‘Too much of a coincidence. We want him to put the effort in to go to her with what he finds out.’
‘Woah, wait – opera?’ I protested. ‘I hate opera. It’s just people screaming in Italian or German about murdering each other and making discordant screeching noises! Lloyd Webber, Phantom of the Opera, absolutely, let’s do it, but actual opera makes my ears hurt and it triggers my fight-or-flight response. Usually the latter.’ Then, aware that Eliot was giving me a somewhat intense look, I coughed and dropped my eyes. ‘I actually ran out of a production of Carmen I got invited to at the Royal Opera House. Well. I sort of snuck to the end of the row. Then I ran out. So.’
‘You ran out,’ Sophie echoed flatly, as if I’d just explained how I’d murdered her pet kitten in front of her, ‘Of a production of Carmen.’
‘God, I love you,’ Eliot said to me quietly.
‘-because I ran out of Carmen?’
‘I loathe opera.’
‘Oh my god.’ I leaned over to kiss him. ‘I love you, too.’
Parker and Hardison both got the giggles at that, while Sophie buried her face despairingly in her hands and Nate pinched the bridge of his nose with an aggrieved noise.
‘There won’t be any opera performed at the party, it’s a fundraiser, so can the pair of you please just put aside your dislike of the form and stay on-mission?’
The plan eventually came out that I was to be the bait – since it apparently had worked very rapidly to lure Collier in at the other party – so that Nate and Eliot could be “overheard” having some scathing but not-quite-discreet conversation about funding for the arts, then Nate would happen to leave his, or rather Barrett’s, phone lying around with the incriminating emails Hardison had cooked up on it. Collier would find the phone, poke around, discover it and then go fleeing back to Sophie with proof of the potential opposition’s villainy.
‘How do we know Collier is going to pick up someone else’s unlocked phone and look at the emails?’ I demanded, the whole thing seeming rather mad when it was laid out. ‘And even if he does, what if he just randomly screams about it to all the opera people rather than running off to whatshername-‘
‘Jealousy, ego, curiosity, complete disregard for privacy,’ Nate said casually, ticking off on his fingers. ‘And he won’t make a scene at the event because that will mean admitting he did look at someone else’s emails, which would damage his whole white-knight self-projection. He needs to be the guy to swoop in and save the day, not the one who sees a broken window and calls the cops.’
‘But how can you know that? Like, to be sure enough to-‘
‘Because I know the narrative.’ Then, to my lasting astonishment, he winked at me. ‘Collier’ll take the bait. Just keep on playing the neglected damsel. We’ll do the rest.’
Chapter 32: Dig The Knife
Sadly this incarnation of said neglected damsel didn’t get to see Eliot in a tuxedo twice in the same week as the BLO party was a cocktail evening, not that he didn’t look drop-dead gorgeous in the dark grey two piece and burgundy shirt, but it was rather fun to see the bandstand on the Common all decked out in fairy lights and satin drapes.
It didn’t take much effort to play up reluctant boredom, either; the whole concept was that Jed Barrett was there courting potential campaign donators, with his consultant in tow of course, so Darren Fontaine’s lady friend was really only there as a form of arm dressing. About an hour in I spotted Parker in a waitstaff getup – she gave me a wink and a grin before slipping off into the crowd with a tray of champagne – which was a nice surprise but threw me somewhat.
‘What’s Parker doing here?’ I risked murmuring behind a sip of my drink.
‘Contingency,’ Sophie supplied over the comms. ‘If Collier’s being…difficult, she can lift something from his pocket to move him where we need him.’
‘Or spill something on him,’ Hardison added with a cackle.
Well, it was vaguely comforting to know that even Nate’s semi-omnipotence wasn’t above considering additional eventualities, so I tried to stay focused on sticking to Eliot’s side and looking bored, neither of which were particularly significant challenges. Two and a half interminable hours later, it finally paid off.
‘Tess?’ Collier hurriedly excused himself from whoever he’d been talking to and made a beeline for me. ‘I had no idea you were involved with the company here?’
‘Oh, I’m not.’ Glancing at Nate and Eliot, who were still conversing in character – how the hell they’d kept it up for literally hours at this point was entirely beyond me – I took the chance to sidle away a bit. ‘Jed’s courting the society crowd for potential donators and of course-‘ a bitter little laugh ‘-heaven forbid he go anywhere without Darren…’
‘Shocking. Does he just drag you around after him everywhere?’
‘Well, in fairness I keep insisting on coming along.’ I constructed a small shrug. ‘We see so little of each other most of the time, sitting in a car with him to get to these things is probably the closest we’ve had to a date in a while. But-‘ dismissing that with a brave little gesture ‘-I had no idea you were into the musical as well as the literary. Must admit I don’t know much about all this operatic business, I keep being introduced to people with Italian words after their names and for all I know it’s some critique of their hairstyles…’
‘Well done,’ Sophie said in my ear. ‘Give him a chance to do some mansplaining and you’re halfway home free.’
I gave it as long as I could while pretending polite interest. Collier certainly did seem to know a lot about opera, assuming he wasn’t making it all up of course, and he was certainly keen to share it, so I managed to pretend rapt attention while inwardly wondering how the hell Sophie did this for a living without losing all patience and beating someone to death with her Jimmy Choos.
‘We’re coming up on your left,’ Eliot advised quietly. ‘Give it thirty seconds and then find an excuse. We only need a couple minutes.’
We were next to the pop-up bar so I paused, idly adjusting my hair so I could look around for a moment, and spotted the two of them ambling up, apparently deep in conversation. Resisting the urge to ogle at Eliot for a long beat, because the lighting was very flattering and made him look even more handsome than usual, I turned back to Collier.
‘Sorry, I’m just going to nip to – uh, how do you put it here, powder my nose?’
‘I’ll have a bourbon waiting for you when you get back,’ he replied with a grin.
‘Now you’re spoiling me!’ I wagged a finger at him and then headed off in the direction of the visitor’s centre, which would give the boys plenty of time to get themselves overheard. At any rate it was quite a pleasant little walk in the cool evening air, reminding me of sitting with Eliot in Statler Park after Jodie’s elephant gala, eating lobster roll and listening to him describe the non-classified parts of a trip he’d once taken to Moscow which had involved a visit to the Kremlin Armoury Museum. I’d jokingly asked if he’d been there to “retrieve” the Orlov diamond and he’d cracked the most adorable grin before winking and saying he’d been more tempted by Pozharsky’s sabre.
‘We got him,’ Nate said confidently as I was a few minutes out on the way back, and sure enough Collier did seem rather distracted when I got back to him. He’d forgotten the damn bourbon, too.
‘Let’s dig the knife a little deeper,’ Sophie suggested with a certain malicious glee. ‘Eliot, give Tess an excuse to gush a little over Fontaine.’
I wasn’t sure what the dickens she meant by that but apparently he did, suddenly materialising at my elbow and giving me a little kiss.
‘Sorry for abandoning you, sweetheart. Jed’s almost finished the rounds, give me ten more minutes and we’ll get out of here, huh?’ Then, lowering his voice, he ducked his head to murmur right into my ear. ‘Lace or silk tonight? Guess I’ll have to find out the old-fashioned way.’
Of course that set me giggling, especially when Hardison made loud gagging noises through the comms, but sure enough as he moved off again Collier seemed to gain renewed interest and drifted back to my side.
‘Ah, Mister Fontaine remembered you exist after all?’
‘He’s just busy, but he’s generally very good at making it up to me later.’ I nibbled at my lip. ‘It’s just the job, you know, but honestly-‘ it didn’t exactly take much effort to look over at Eliot with a stupidly besotted and starry-eyed smile ‘-he’s actually a real sweetheart.’
‘I’m – ah – I’m sure.’ Collier looked like he was torn between throwing up or throwing a punch, but that was kind of what I was going for so I counted that as a success. ‘I’m so sorry, I have to head off myself as it happens, but – well, would it be too presumptuous to ask if we could perhaps have coffee some time?’
‘Oh. I – uh-‘
‘Play coy but not too coy,’ Sophie advised. ‘Got to give the man a little hope, after all!’
‘-well, why not.’ I dithered a little bit and then accepted the slick phone he proffered, putting in my number. ‘I’d be an affront to my ancestors if I didn’t point out that I prefer tea, though.’
‘Of course.’ He flashed a grin. ‘You can get a lovely tea in the Taj by the Public Garden.’
‘I’ll have to take your word for it.’
‘Until I can show you!’
‘Perfect,’ Sophie said. ‘Now off you go, always leave them wanting more!’
Right on cue, Eliot appeared at my side and slipped an arm around my waist to sweep me away. Of course we had to get into the car with Nate, which rather ruined the effect, but once we’d unloaded him back in the vicinity of McRory’s at least we got to go home together. It turned out that undoing shirt buttons with my teeth, in lieu of a bowtie, was more difficult than expected, but that didn’t stop it being very fun having a good try.
Chapter 33: Tea And Cake
‘Gotta say, sitting around waiting for some mark to call my girl for a tea party ain’t exactly my favourite way to pass the time,’ Eliot commented a couple of afternoons later in the condo, which made me laugh.
‘Your girl, huh?’ Although I didn’t mind that one little bit. In fact it made a rather nice fizzy sensation go off low in my stomach, especially when he narrowed his eyes in a faux-glare.
‘If that asshole tries anything-‘
‘Don’t be daft. He’s not like that. Besides, it’ll be a cup of tea in a public place, not some private tête-à-tête with easy access to an axe for murdering purposes.’
‘Again with the axes.’
‘He is taking his sweet time,’ Sophie agreed absently, stirring her tea. ‘Two days is a bit of a slowdown by Collier’s previous standards when it comes to Tess.’
‘Oh.’ I grimaced. ‘Do you think I blew it?’
‘No, I’m sure you didn’t. Just didn’t expect – oh!’ This was as my phone, sitting on the coffee table like the proverbial watched pot, went off. ‘Speak of the devil?’
‘Yup.’ Exhaling, I hit accept. ‘Hi, Mister Collier, how are you?’
‘Still a jerkoff?’ Eliot asked under his breath, so I bit my lip to stifle a giggle and poked him in the arm.
‘Tess, it’s wonderful to hear your voice again. I wondered if perhaps I could invoke that much-delayed raincheck for tea at the Taj tomorrow afternoon, say at four?’
‘Hedge a bit,’ Sophie reminded me at a murmur. ‘Then accept, but put a time cap on it so he doesn’t think he’s getting a whole evening with you.’
‘Oh, well-‘ I dutifully um-aah-ed for a moment ‘-sure, that’d be lovely.’ Then, raising my voice a little as if calling to someone further away, I added, ‘Darren, can we meet at the Taj tomorrow, before the thing?’
Eliot cracked a grin and slid to the end of the sofa so his reply would be suitably distant but still audible.
‘Sure, sweetheart, we can head off from there – don’t forget it starts at half six, though.’
‘Of course. Mister Collier-‘
‘-ahem, Karl – I’d love to do tea tomorrow but I need to meet Darren nearby a little after six, so-‘
‘I’ll take what I can beyond passing waves at parties, my dear. Four it is then – I look forward to seeing you.’
‘Sure, thanks.’ I hung up just in time to see Sophie roll her eyes.
‘Six? For god’s sake, Eliot, you could have given it a little longer...’
‘You’re lucky I didn’t make it forty minutes,’ he shot back. ‘Sitting there plying my woman with tea and cake…’
‘Well have you ever tried a little plying of your own?’ she retorted, in the tone she normally reserved for delivering some withering verdict about Nate’s interpersonal habits.
‘He doesn’t need to ply,’ I put in quickly, ‘Firstly because he cooks, and secondly because if we stay in I get to have my cake and eat it too, as it were, so…’
That got a guffaw from Hardison as well as a wickedly approving chuckle from Eliot, but Sophie and Nate both just rolled their eyes, in rather alarming synchronisation.
‘Eliot makes you cake?’ Parker exclaimed, sounding almost offended. ‘How come he never makes us cake? And what else would you do with cake if not eat it? That’s what cake’s for.’
Exchanging grins, the rest of us left poor Hardison try and follow up on that one.
The following afternoon I opted to revisit the Brunello Cucinelli dress and Stuart Weitzman boots, which Sophie assured me was an ensemble perfectly suited to tea at the Raj provided I wore a proper jacket and not a borrowed flannel shirt. As I came out, Eliot looked up from where he was reading on the couch and a frown arrived fairly obviously on his face.
‘Not good?’ I looked down at myself, a tad confused because he’d seemed to like the outfit perfectly fine whenever I’d worn it before, including post-Heathrow. ‘Is it the jacket?’
‘Nah, it looks great. Just-‘ an outright scowl briefly surfaced ‘-don’t like the idea of that asshole drooling over you in those damned boots.’
A giggle escaped before I could censor it and I went to stand in front of him to run my hands through his hair. Then he closed his book with a snap and tossed it aside, manhandling me onto his lap so I was obliged to swing my legs up over the arm of the couch and hook an arm around his neck to avoid toppling. He gave me a long kiss that made my toes curl and it took every ounce of self-control I possessed to break it off and smack at his shoulder.
‘I’m supposed to be meeting Collier in half an hour!’
‘Well you don’t want to be on time,’ he pointed out. ‘Give the guy the wrong idea.’
‘I thought you liked that I was prompt.’
‘Hmm. Prefer when you’re fast.’ He flipped us so I was on my back and planted himself over me with a lopsided grin, one hand going walkabout down my thigh and up under the hem of the dress, which made me squeak and smack at him again.
Chortling, he sat up, then stood and helped me to my feet, watching with a filthy smirk as I hastily straightened out the dress and my hair.
‘We’ll finish that when you’re done. Darlin.’
‘As if I needed another incentive to get this over with!’ I gave him another kiss and picked up my bag. ‘See you in a couple of hours. Please don’t you be late and leave me stuck with the sleazeball for longer than planned.’
‘Never.’ A wink. ‘My timing’s always perfect. Earbud?’
‘Oh, right.’ I took it out of my purse to pop into my ear. ‘Sophie I understand listening in, and Nate I suppose, but why exactly is everyone going to be on comms for this?’
‘Hardison’ll be ready to dig into anything you might need to feed Collier about Fontaine, or Barrett. Parker just likes eavesdropping. And I need to listen in so if something goes wrong I can get in fast and get you out of there.’
‘Something like Collier being an axe murderer.’
‘For example.’ With a softer smile he gave me a more lingering kiss. ‘Ten minutes, then I’ll be right behind you, all right? If anything seems off, you say-‘
‘-that I’m having an unexpectedly colourful headache,’ I confirmed, and gave him a last peck. ‘I’ll be careful. See you in a bit.’
I could feel his stare on me until I was out of the loft and down the stairs, but tried to focus on getting my story straight for Collier during the quick ten minute hop on the T to Arlington. The Taj was beautiful, it had to be said, like something out of an old Daphne du Maurier novel, and the café-cum-tea-room was the poshest place I’d ever been in, all dainty porcelain and golden light fittings. I’d arrived about ten minutes after four and was actually relieved to see Collier sitting at the table the hostess ushered me over to – for a horrible moment I’d almost expected to see that bloody sod from Interpol again.
‘Sorry I’m a bit late,’ I said, ‘There’s a campaign fundraiser tonight and it’s all go at Darren’s office, what with one thing and another…’
‘No need to apologise.’ Collier offered a smile. ‘Don’t tell me Mister Fontaine is still using you as a glorified tea lady!’
‘Well it isn’t like I can contribute much to the actual campaign,’ I pointed out. ‘If you bring too much outright imagination into these things I’m told people get quite grumpy about it.’
‘Never been tempted to enter the arena of non-fiction writing, then?’
‘Not remotely! Isn’t that more your field, these days?’
‘Beautiful,’ Sophie said, and I barely managed not to jump because I’d almost forgotten about the comms. ‘Just keep up the patter like that and you’ll be absolutely fine.’
It was actually surprisingly easy to do just that, firstly because after that one encouraging remark she opted to keep quiet, and secondly because I didn’t really need to lie about anything for the vast majority of the time. Collier didn’t exactly want to chat about Fontaine or Barrett – understandably enough – so under other circumstances it would have been a moderately pleasant afternoon drinking excellent Darjeeling while chatting to someone I would have found rather likeable and charming, if only I didn’t know what he was doing with the Review’s paper submissions. I actually lost track of time a smidge, which was a tad embarrassing, but it was five past six by the beautiful enamel clock on the wall when Eliot – suited up as Darren Fontaine – appeared at the table.
‘Sorry to interrupt, but the lady and I have a prior appointment.’ The smile directed at Collier didn’t reach his eyes, and carried a strong undertone of a clenched fist.
‘Oh lord, what time is it?’ I affected a minor dither. ‘I haven’t made us late, have I?’
‘Not yet, sweetheart, but…’ Eliot tapped his wristwatch pointedly, playing the mildly ticked-off professional to the hilt, and I stood.
‘I’m sorry Karl, I have to go, but thank you for the tea – perhaps we can do this again some time.’
‘I think you’ve indulged one fan long enough, don’t you?’ Eliot said with a glance at Collier that danced right along the line between disdain and outright loathing.
‘Don’t be rotten, Karl’s been thoroughly lovely to chat to.’
‘I’m sure he has, but we should really-‘
‘Enjoy the fundraiser, Tess,’ Collier said, pointedly addressing me directly. ‘If you can. Hopefully we can find a broader window another time. Perhaps after Mister Fontaine finds an intern to make his coffee for him.’
‘Oof,’ Sophie commented. ‘He’s on the hook, all right.’
‘Don’t forget to defend Fontaine,’ Nate reminded me. ‘No fun rescuing a princess if she’s halfway out of the dragon’s cave already.’
‘Well I wouldn’t want an intern on Darren’s arm at the parties,’ I said, getting up and hooking my hand into Eliot’s crooked elbow while shooting him an adoring smile that wasn’t in any way faked, then giving a more neutrally polite nod of my head to Collier. ‘Thank you again, Karl.’
He just inclined his head with a small smile as we left, but it wasn’t until we turned off Newbury Street that I dared to exhale properly.
‘I swear he was about to suggest Fontaine could hire someone to be on his arm too,’ Hardison quipped. ‘That dude got ISSUES, for real.’
‘Oh, hello.’ Sophie chuckled. ‘Miss Gambourne is getting a phone call…’
Chapter 34: An Obsessed Fan
As we turned onto the greenway path on Commonwealth Avenue I sighed, leaning against Eliot a bit more while Sophie dropped into character to accept the call and arrange a meeting with Collier for the following day. He slipped an arm around my waist and pressed a kiss into my hair.
‘I think I might make a Rebecca Silver after all,’ I commented. ‘Well, as long as I can carry on not having to actually lie about anything and only talking to men who are inexplicably infatuated with me.’
‘I did have an obsessed fan once,’ I added, abruptly remembering. ‘His name was George, but he thought I was Rebecca Silver and in fairness he definitely wasn’t right in the head. Wrote me tons of letters, then met me at a signing and almost cried in disappointment.’
‘I think that I wasn’t a jaw-dropping beauty who could charm a diamond off the Pope.’
Another snort, but Eliot was scanning the pathway around us and seemed rather distracted.
‘You okay?’ I tried, now a little worried that maybe I’d done too well at chatting to Collier and somehow upset him.
‘We’re being followed,’ he said in a low voice, holding me a little tighter against his side. ‘Three guys. They’re not very good at it.’
‘Hang on,’ Hardison said. ‘I got CCTV by the statue.’ A pause. ‘Eliot, one of ‘em’s got a gun.’
‘What?’ I exclaimed, but didn’t even have time to really process that alarming announcement before Eliot whirled, letting go of me while throwing a roundhouse punch. There was a whump and then a yelp of pain from the recipient, and I caught a glimpse of a body hitting the ground before an arm went around my neck and someone started trying to pull me backwards.
‘El-!’ That came out on more of a shriek than I’d quite planned, but as he turned I saw an outright murderous expression descend onto his face. My pulse spiked in terror as I registered the gun barrel pointed at my left temple by the man who had a grip on me, and Eliot hesitated mid-step. Then, to my astonishment, he visibly relaxed and actually directed a grim sort of smirk at my assailant.
‘That’s obviously a prop gun, man.’
I felt the guy freeze and his grip faltered ever-so-slightly. Really? Then, taking advantage of the stiletto heels on the boots, I rammed my foot back into his shin and dragged it down while elbowing as hard as I could into his midriff. He clearly wasn’t expecting that, either, letting go of me and sort of staggering back with a low oomph noise, but before he got more than two steps Eliot walloped him on the nose and he crumpled to the ground, out cold.
‘Where’d you learn to do that?’
‘Self-defence classes,’ I managed. ‘Took some in London while you guys were off stealing an election, or whatever.’
‘Nice moves.’ He seemed almost proud, and more than a little bit impressed, which was irrationally pleasing. ‘Could have aimed better with your elbow, though, put him down rather than just knocked him back.’
‘Smack off and run like buggery was the general idea.’ Then I sat down on a bench, legs going a bit wobbly as the shock caught up to the adrenalin. ‘What the hell was that? Did…did we just get mugged? Randomly?’
‘Maybe.’ Eliot hunkered down and extracted the handgun from the unconscious man’s hand, holding it up with an almost offended expression. ‘This thing’s made of rubber. What the-‘
I definitely didn’t expect him to suddenly shift to a sprint while hurling the bloody thing in my direction, but a yelp of pain from a bush behind me revealed the target and I twisted around on the bench to see him haul a third man out into the open. Two quick movements and the would-be-attacker was pinned to the ground with both his arms twisted into a distinctly uncomfortable-looking lock behind his back.
‘The hell’s your game, buddy, huh?’ Eliot barked, but only got a series of incoherent whimpering noises in response.
‘He dropped something,’ Hardison advised. ‘Tess, look left.’
When I did it was easy to spot the phone, so I managed to get to my feet and went to retrieve it from the path. It was unlocked and looked to have been recording a video.
‘He was…filming it? Is that a thing muggers do in Boston?’
‘Anything to get on YouTube. Check the messages?’
‘There was an outbound phone call about fifteen minutes ago. The contact name is just C.’
I started to read it out and then stopped, blinking in shock.
‘Oh my god. That’s Collier’s number!’
‘Oh, DAMN.’ Hardison actually burst out laughing. ‘Boy sent a couple of toughs – well, what he calls toughs – to try to grab Fontaine’s phone. And had them FILMING it!’
‘Local guys,’ Eliot said, standing up and giving the now-unconscious third man a casual kick. ‘Pretty useless, but probably the seediest people someone like Collier could get hold of at short notice.’
‘To steal your – I mean Fontaine’s – phone?’ I glanced at the trio in mild horror. ‘I guess it would make it look like a regular mugging, or something…but why film it?’
‘Not many political consultants are brawlers,’ Nate put in, sounding rather amused. ‘I’d bet Collier was hoping for some suitably embarrassing footage he could show someone – probably you, in fact – as an extra nudge to get you to join his corner, as it were.’
‘That’s a weird reason to pay for someone to get beaten up,’ Parker said.
‘Good lord.’ I shook my head and then tossed the phone to Eliot; he’d pulled out his own cell which had one of Hardison’s clever cloning programs on it. ‘Has Karl Collier ever tried visiting planet Earth, do we think?’
‘That explains the delay in him contacting you.’ Sophie sounded positively gleeful. ‘He must have been setting this up so he could get at Fontaine’s phone for proof of Barrett’s plans, knowing you’d likely meet up afterwards. Clever. Well, sort of.’
‘Yeah, I got texts and voicemails, friends of friends intro and all that.’ Hardison cackled. ‘Including the location for a dead drop to get Collier the phone.’
‘Perfect,’ Nate said. ‘Let’s make sure the drop gets made. Sophie can do the rest tomorrow.’
‘What about these guys?’ I asked, indicating the bodies.
‘They’ll wake up eventually.’ Eliot shrugged. He was dialling someone on his own phone, and held it up. ‘Yeah, police? I’m on the Commonwealth Avenue greenway and there’s some guys here, looks like they’re drunk and might be looking for a fight…yeah, they’re by the Hamilton Statue and – oh – oh, I think they’ve seen me, I gotta go.’ Dropping the vocal façade of panic, he hung up and chuckled. ‘These idiots’ll have a list of minor priors, I bet. BPD won’t be turning them loose any time soon.’
‘So we just…leave them here?’
‘Sure. Not like it’s raining.’ He flashed a grin and then came back to my side, giving me a quick hug and a kiss. ‘C’mon, let’s get outta here before the cops show.’
‘CCTV’s cleaned,’ Hardison said. ‘You’re welcome.’
‘Thank you, Alec,’ I replied, because it only seemed polite, but Eliot just laughed and hurried me along the path back towards the loft. Parker met us part way to take the phone, presumably to deliver it to the drop point. Once we were home and the comms were out he grabbed some ice for his knuckles while I threw together a quick dinner.
‘Why’d you take self-defence classes in London?’ he asked after we’d finished.
‘I don’t like pottery?’ I shrugged. ‘Was just trying to keep busy. Did a bunch of first aid stuff too. Couldn’t write anything, I was too worried, and it just seemed like…something that might be useful. Especially after the goons in Vegas.’
That got a small smile.
‘Once this job’s done, how about we hit a gym and see what your form’s like?’
‘Ooh.’ Rather liking that idea, I snuggled up to his side. ‘Is that an offer for one-on-one ass-kicking lessons?’
‘Why not? Finally got Hardison blocking properly, showed Sophie how to throw a real punch, taught Parker locks and pressure points…’ he winked ‘…probably long overdue getting the team mascot skilled up, huh?’
‘Sounds like fun.’ I kissed him. ‘Although if we’re going to be rolling around on mats together I reserve the right to get insufferably horny and go totally off-task.’
He tutted, grinning.
‘Guess I’ll have to teach you some discipline then. Darlin.’
As he downed the last of his beer I jumped up and made for the bedroom at a run, breaking into a grin at the sound of him exploding into laughter before he came after me.
Chapter 35: Be A Sweetheart
Late the following morning Sophie confirmed that Collier was thoroughly on the hook, although he’d apparently blanched somewhat at the proposed campaign fund donation she’d floated.
‘Which is expected,’ Nate said with a shrug once everyone was back in the condo and fully caffeinated. ‘Often takes an extra nudge, especially for a man who sees himself as the good guy.’
‘I suppose you’d know,’ I remarked, which got me one of his mildly exasperated glares as well as laugh from Sophie.
‘So how do we nudge him more?’ Parker asked. ‘He’s so reluctant to do something he considers illegal…’
‘Except when in pursuit of a woman he thinks is worth breaking the law for.’ Then Nate gave me a smug grin, which was downright unsettling. ‘We can use the attack – well, the attempted attack – to our advantage.’
‘How the hell do we do that?’ I said, wrinkling my nose.
He grinned – the bastard was actually enjoying this.
‘Let’s go steal a white knight.’
Of course that was a typically unhelpful Nate-esque conclusion but once he actually explained what he was planning, and Sophie did a bit of drilling with me on how to sell it, I felt a little more confident. Not a lot, because it still seemed utterly mad to me, but she insisted it would push the right buttons on Collier.
Two hours later we rocked up to Massachusetts General and the private room that Hardison had appropriated using whatever dark techno-sorcery one did to “borrow” an unused room in a hospital. While he and Eliot did what they were doing to prep in the room itself, Nate insisted on walking me the long way to the coffee shop.
‘This is going to look bad, all right?’
‘Really bad,’ Parker enthused over comms. ‘Super awful death’s door bad.’
‘-okay, maybe not quite that bad. But it’s fake, remember, it’s all fake, for Collier’s benefit.’
I narrowed my eyes at him.
‘You’re warning me about – what the hell is Hardison doing to him in there?’
‘Nothing he can’t handle,’ Sophie said firmly; she was also offsite given her role as the rival politico.
‘Handle?’ I exclaimed in alarm.
‘Just try to stay calm and not go off the deep end this time, okay?’ Nate said. ‘Eliot extracted certain…assurances about your mental state before he agreed to this.’
I barely resisted the urge to throw something at him.
‘Are you pretending someone died again?’
‘No, no, nothing like that, just – well, you’ll see, come on…’
It probably was a good thing he’d warned me this time because the moment we went back into the room I actually dropped my tea in alarm; admittedly to Nate’s credit he caught the paper cup before it dropped more than a few inches, having clearly expected me to do something of the sort.
In my defence, while I’d expected Eliot to be in the hospital bed I most definitely hadn’t expected him to look like he’d gone twenty rounds with an irate gorilla that held a grudge. As well as a bloodily split lip and horrible graze all along the left of his jawline, he had a magnificent shiner around one eye which was almost swollen shut, not to mention the series of plasters over his nose and forehead.
‘Oh my god!’ I ran to his side and gingerly touched a relatively unscathed bit on one cheek. ‘What did – I mean how did – what-‘ then, whirling on Hardison ‘-what did you do?’
Eliot burst into laughter at that while Alec just grinned, gathering up the black cases he’d come in with and sort of sidling out before I could find something to throw at him.
‘It’s not real,’ Eliot said once he was done chuckling, catching my hand in one of his bandage-wrapped ones and giving my fingers a squeeze. ‘I mean I was all for just going out and getting in a fight to take some lumps for the look of the thing, but didn’t want you to freak out.’
‘Not…real?’ Then I caught on. ‘Oh my god – like – like stage makeup?’
‘Hardison is a man of many unusual and varied skills,’ Nate supplied. ‘However if you could please hold on to that feeling of blind panic when you call Collier, it’ll help sell it.’
‘You could have told me that, you bastard!’
‘Yes, but then you wouldn’t have the initial reaction to work from as a basis for the lie.’
‘Give me my bloody tea back. I’ll drink that then call Collier.’
Snorting, he did so and then quit the room. I poked Eliot in the shoulder, aware that he was still grinning.
‘You’re supposed to be in horrible pain!’
A wicked cackle.
‘Really wanna kiss you right now but can’t. That count?’
Smooth bastard. I fought back a laugh of my own and found an untouched bit of his forehead to peck, then took a sip of my tea and got my phone out.
Okay. What had Nate said, hold onto that feeling of blind panic? I huffed a few times to mess up my breath, which was a tip Sophie had given me, and then dialled. Panic and worry, panic and worry…
‘Tess, what an unexpected pleas-‘
‘Karl, I’m so sorry but I didn’t know who else to call – it’s Darren – he’s in hospital – got attacked last night and-‘
‘Oh my god.’ Well, Collier was a better dissembler than I was. ‘Where are you?’
‘Massachusetts General, I just-‘ I scrunched up my face so it sounded passably like I was crying ‘-it’s so awful, these dreadful men just attacked us and-‘
‘I’ll be there as soon as I can.’
The moment I put the phone down Nate came back in with a laptop as well as several piles of political-looking paperwork, and proceeded to pile things around the room before evicting me from the chair beside the bed to park firmly in it himself. The computer went onto the swing-over table on the bed, and when booted up was strewn with a Hardison-prepped desktop covered in polling data and other miscellanea. A couple of mostly-empty vending machine coffee cups completed the picture of a workaholic’s hospital room. It was pretty appalling.
‘It’s like The West Wing meets Twelve Angry Men,’ I remarked. ‘With a dash of Metro General.’
‘Perfect, then.’ Nate ushered me out of the room. ‘Remember, despairing girlfriend of overworking neglectful man who is also now neglecting his own health in favour of his self-appointed mission-‘
‘I got it!’
In the corridor, however, it took me a solid minute to calm down from the verge of bursting into hysterical laughter to try and focus on the exercises Sophie had given me. Imagine those injuries were real. Imagine Eliot’s really there, really hurt, but he won’t rest and nothing you say will make him slow down…
That made me think of the awful bruises on his back and shoulder from the job up the mountain, which definitely sobered me up a bit, so by the time I heard footsteps coming down the corridor I was able to look suitably miserable and even sniffle a bit.
‘Tess, I’m so sorry, are you all right?’ Collier actually gave me a quick but mannerly embrace, holding me off himself to check for damage. ‘What happened? A mugging?’
‘I don’t know. Maybe. These awful men, and one of them had a gun and-‘
‘Tess!’ Nate opened the door and stuck his head out, back in character as Barrett. ‘Tessie, there you are, be a sweetheart and grab us some more coffee, would you?’
‘You can’t be serious.’ Peering through the door, Collier seemed genuinely appalled at the sight of a visibly beaten and battered Darren Fontaine still apparently working at full tilt. ‘Are they both insane?’
‘I can’t get Jed to back off and Darren keeps insisting he’s fine and-‘ I sniffed again ‘-I should get that coffee for them I suppose…’
‘I’ll come with you.’
He helped me bring two cups back from the vending machine at the end of the corridor while making sympathetic noises to my babble of rather incoherent distressed expressions. I opened the door back into the room and took the coffees in, biting my lip in what hopefully looked like suitable upset when they each took one without even looking up from whatever was on the laptop screen.
‘Darren, are you sure you shouldn’t be resting-‘ I began, lingering at the other side of the bed and cautiously reaching out to stroke some hair back from Eliot’s cheek. He batted my hand away impatiently and actually shot me a glare.
‘Will you stop fussing, Tess? We’re on a deadline here – a real deadline – and your pestering ain’t helping!’
‘You’re hurt, and the doctor said-‘
‘Look, just wait outside, okay?’ he snapped. ‘We’ll call if we need some more caffeine or anything.’
‘More caffeine?’ I exploded. ‘You’re lying there black and blue and you still want me to just act like I’m your – your tea lady? I’ve been worried sick, you were unconscious for hours, they had to give you an MRI scan for god’s sake!’
‘Marvellous,’ Sophie enthused. ‘Now the riposte…’
‘There’s nothing wrong with my damned head, and this is important!’ Eliot actually raised his voice to a near-shout, and if I hadn’t known better – this time at least – I would have thought he was genuinely pissed. ‘I know if you miss a deadline you can just bat your eyes at the publisher but this is real work and I don’t have time to listen to your hand-wringing, so wait outside or go home but either way get out!’
I bolted from the room back into the corridor. It wasn’t hard to feign upset after that little tirade, although I knew it was fake, and I even managed to squeeze a few tears out.
‘Good god!’ Collier was positively beside himself, but didn’t get any further before a familiar-looking blonde in scrubs hurried down the corridor.
‘I heard shouting – oh, did he go off at you again, honey?’
I nodded tearfully and accepted the tissue Parker-the-nurse passed me. She gave me a quick little hug and then patted my back, looking at Collier.
‘If you’re a friend please take her home, the jerkoff in there may be the one covered in bandages but her I’m worried about. The way he treats her – ugh.’ Then, making a small show of tutting and rolling her eyes in semi-professional dismay, she ambled off.
‘I quite agree,’ Collier said firmly, taking my shoulders and turning me to face him. ‘Tess, god knows I’ve held my tongue given the relatively passing nature of our acquaintance but Fontaine’s behaviour is just unacceptable – in fact I’d call it borderline abusive. You’re worth so much more than what that odious man has reduced you to.’
‘And now the realisation,’ Sophie nudged.
‘You know…’ I sniffed and then rubbed at my eyes, straightening my shoulders ‘…I think you’re right. He was so lovely and charming at first but – well.’ Getting my phone out, I made a small show of deleting and blocking a number on it. To be fair, it wasn’t like I’d need the details of the alias any more. ‘He can jolly well rot with Barrett and they can bloody run away to Washington together for all I care. You hear me, Darren?’ Opening the door a crack, I yelled inside. ‘You can both just sod off and take your campaign crusade with you! The posters were all rubbish anyway!’
Eliot seemed honestly bewildered at that, and I wondered if maybe Sophie and Nate had conveniently forgotten to give him the full brief for the scene…or maybe he was just a better conman than he generally took credit for. Either way as he started a half-hearted protest I turned and marched away, with Collier hot on my heels.
‘Well done,’ he said once we were outside and I took several sorely-needed deep breaths. ‘That was magnificent to see, Tess, and more than deserved on his part.’
‘I can’t believe I did that.’ Then I hugged him, as much to give myself a moment to properly reconfigure my facial expression as anything else given that Hardison was complaining in my ear about how his posters were works of art thank you very much, not that anyone ever appreciates it. ‘Thank you so much, Karl. I mean – there was no real reason for you to come down here but I just-‘
‘Think nothing of it,’ he said firmly, taking one of my hands in each of his. ‘I’m just glad to see you finally give that asshole the brushoff he so richly deserves.’
‘Still. Thank you.’ I risked a slightly watery smile. ‘You’re a far better friend than I deserve.’
‘Only a friend?’
That threw me for a loop, but he gave my fingers a quick squeeze and flashed a grin.
‘Don’t worry, I won’t push you to anything so soon but – you know what, can you give me just a moment?’
I could only stand there with a boggle-eyed look on my face as he extracted his cellphone and dialled.
‘Oh, hello,’ Sophie said. ‘I’m getting a call…’
‘Miss Gambourne?’ Collier had an oddly determined set to his face. ‘I’ll have the full amount to you by the end of the day. Let’s make Friday happen. I want to destroy Jed Barrett, and Darren Fontaine. Deal?’
‘It’ll be entirely my pleasure, Mister Collier,’ Sophie replied, in character. ‘I’ll send you the details as soon as everything’s arranged.’
‘Marvellous, thank you.’ He hung up and beamed at me. ‘Tess, I’m going to run against Jed Barrett. I’m going to bury him, and Fontaine with him, and – well – would it be too much to ask for you to come to the announcement? I can think of nothing better to kick off my campaign than just knowing the most beautiful woman I know in the world is in the same room.’
‘Don’t worry about being in a tizz about that,’ Sophie advised. ‘That is a…sudden push, even by his standards.’
‘I know this seems extraordinarily presumptuous,’ Collier added, taking my hands again, ‘And you very literally just ended things with Fontaine but…’
I hugged him again because it seemed like the thing to do and it gave me a couple of extra seconds to summon a smile which hopefully didn’t seem too fake.
‘That’s wonderful, Karl.’ Drawing back, I risked pecking him on the cheek. ‘Let’s do it! Let’s kick their Washington-loving politico asses. Together.’
‘Together?’ The man looked like he was about to explode from happiness. For a fleeting instant I almost felt a tiny bit bad for him. ‘Tess, I swear to god you’ll never do another tea or coffee run in your life!’
I definitely didn’t expect him to kiss me – this part in the movie was generally where the latest MTV one hit wonder started playing while the camera did a stupid spin-around – but the next thing I knew he’d swept me up and was doing exactly that, and it took every inch of my self-control not to freak out and start kicking or slapping. Not that he was a bad kisser, as such, in fact far from it if I was being honest, but his aftershave was far too strong compared to the more subtle, woodsy scent of the brand Eliot used, and his mouth was the wrong shape, and he was a little too aggressive with his tongue.
‘Oops! It’s all right, just make the surprise work for you,’ Sophie suggested, sounding extremely amused. ‘After all, someone who’s only just dumped a man who was destroying her self-esteem wouldn’t be expecting that either.’
‘Is he KISSING HER?’ Eliot exclaimed. ‘I’ll break his arms off and ram ‘em up his-‘
The sound of what was hopefully Nate intervening to arrest that offer luckily cut off the rest of the threat but I tried to focus on Collier when he finally released me, not unaware that I looked more than a little cross-eyed.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, not sounding even remotely apologetic. ‘That was a little forward of me.’
‘It’s – it’s okay.’ At least the breathlessness didn’t need to be faked; air had been about to turn into a serious issue. ‘I don’t mind. Really. Just didn’t – um – expect it, that’s all.’
‘Clearly it has been far too long since you were kissed properly, my dear. Something I hope I can remedy…again…?’
‘I – uh – I hope so too, but I should really get home…I’ve been here for hours and-‘
‘Of course, of course. Can I give you a lift, perhaps?’
‘-give HIM a LIFT, I’ll kick him into the god damned sun-‘
Battling to keep a straight face while Eliot ranted over the comms, I gestured idly.
‘I need to swing by Darren’s and pick up some things, you know drop my keys through the letterbox and whatnot, might take a bit-‘
‘I’m not busy.’
‘Well, you-‘ I floundered, trying not to let the panic show ‘-uh-‘
‘Should be busy,’ Sophie supplied. ‘He’s got a campaign to launch, hasn’t he?’
‘-you should be busy,’ I parroted, and gave Collier a playful little tap on the lapel. ‘You’ve got a campaign kickoff to plan, haven’t you? I’ve seen enough over the last year to know that doesn’t happen by itself!’
‘It can wait a couple of hours. Unlike some people, I have my priorities straight.’
‘Let me have a little cooldown time, Karl,’ I tried. ‘Please? This is all just very sudden and I – uh – I just need to clear my head. Which you aren’t very conducive to, so…’
‘Of course, I’m sorry-‘ he chuckled, immediately contrite ‘-forgive me trying to rush ahead. Walk you to a cab?’
He beamed like he’d just been given the crown jewels when I took his arm, so I tried to focus on just keeping a little smile on my own face while we walked down to Cambridge Street. He even hailed me a cab, which was a lot easier for a man with long arms.
‘You get this lady wherever she needs to go, and drive like there’s endangered condor eggs in the back seat,’ Collier said to the driver, who glanced at me and just cracked a knowing grin.
‘Let me know when you’ve got that launch party all ready,’ I told him, leaning out of the open back window a little. ‘I wouldn’t miss that for the world.’
‘You bet.’ He kissed me again, mercifully more briefly, then stood back and rapped on the roof of the cab. I kept up a coy little wave until we were out of sight in the traffic, at which point the driver chuckled.
‘So where to, miss?’
‘Lincoln Street,’ Hardison suggested. ‘Believable address area – just in case, never know – and you can hop the T from South Station.’
‘I’d better get back to my – er – the office,’ Sophie added. ‘Sounds like I’ve got a busy afternoon.’
‘Get him all lined up,’ Nate said, and I could hear the bloody smirk. ‘We’ll knock him down on Friday. Parker, did you find somewhere suitable yet?’
‘Hardison’s booking it all now.’
‘Perfect. Last mile, people.’
I gave the driver a good tip and actually went into one of the posher-looking apartment buildings near where he’d dropped me, lingering with my phone until he’d driven away and then taking the earbud out to slip it discreetly into my purse. It was just a short walk to the station from there although I nearly had a heart attack when I changed lines at Park Street and felt someone get onto the carriage very close behind me.
‘Nice drive, darlin?’
Whirling, I laughed in relief and threw my arms around Eliot. He’d lost all the makeup and set dressing Hardison had layered onto him so I had no qualms about giving him a long, deep kiss, even if the sour-faced old bat sitting opposite looked personally offended by the display in a semi-public space.
‘Mmm, that’s better, got the taste of sleazebag out of my mouth…’
‘Yeah? Well…better make extra sure,’ he quipped, raising his eyebrows, and to the miserable biddy’s lasting ire we ended up making out like teenagers for most of the ten minute ride, hopping off at Hynes both laughing our asses off at her disapproving sucked-a-lemon glare.
‘I really don’t know how anyone does this for a living,’ I admitted as we rounded the end of the block. ‘It’s absolutely exhausting. I feel like I could sleep for about a week.’
Eliot chuckled and gave me a squeeze.
‘How about I get you a coffee, huh?’
‘How about you make me an early dinner?’ I countered with a grin. ‘Then we can go to bed early…’
‘Oh really? You’re that tired, huh?’
‘Depends how well I can refuel, I guess…’
‘Oh, I see how it is.’ He cocked his head, affecting deep thought. ‘Paella?’
‘Mmm. I love your paella.’
‘You love all my cooking.’
‘Well, all your cooking is delicious, that’s hardly my fault!’ I leaned up to plant a kiss on his jaw. ‘How about you do that while I get changed into something less comfortable and then we can forget about the job for a little while?’
‘Hmm.’ A sly grin spread over his face. ‘Sounds like a plan.’
The only response I was able to formulate was an incoherent squeak as he stooped to effortlessly tip me over his shoulder before taking the stairs up to the loft two at a time.
Chapter 36: It's All In The Timing
Collier called me the following afternoon with the details for the party on Friday where he was planning to make his big announcement. Nate confirmed that the list of RSVPs included a whole shedload of senior people from the Review as well as most of Collier’s associates in Boston society and, as an added bonus, the BPD Commissioner who had miraculously ended up on the guest list meticulously prepared by Sophie-as-Maria-Gambourne. Hardison was onsite for the evening too, playing venue AV technician, but I spotted Lucille parked a little way down the street and realised, once I had the earbud back in, that Nate, Eliot and Parker were pretty close by as well.
Feeling like an incredibly fake Jackie Kennedy in the Shoshanna crepe wrap dress that Sophie had insisted I get new for the occasion, I managed to hang onto Collier’s arm and get introduced to a lot of very nice literary and artsy-type people without making a complete ass of myself. It took two odious hours before the stage was fully set, as it were, but finally Sophie-as-Maria took the stand on the small podium at the front of the room to introduce Collier formally for the announcement.
I gave him a peck on the cheek for luck and applauded politely with the rest as he went up, beaming that megawatt smile around the room.
‘Here we go,’ Sophie said quietly, arriving at my side. ‘It’s all in the timing.’
It’s a good thing she thought to stand by me, because I’d have entirely forgotten the part about making a discreet exit in favour of exploding into totally inappropriate laughter as, instead of the supposedly-planned campaign launch slideshow to stirring music, the screen behind Collier lit up with all the files that uncovered his theft from the Review’s paper submissions and, as an added bonus, the fact that he’d apparently used his position at the journal to cheekily shift about a hundred grand in “campaign funds” from the Review’s donation coffers. As if that wasn’t enough, because Alec Hardison had to be the overachiever, the speakers blared out a recording as accompaniment to the visuals – it sounded like Parker had provided the voice over talent – announcing the real author of each essay or critique as it appeared onscreen along with the meta data confirming the date and time of the scan or image.
The last thing I saw before Sophie whisked me out of a side door was Collier’s aghast expression and the police commissioner rounding on him with a firm clear of his throat. Hardison met us on the stairs and we bolted at top speed for Lucille, bundling inside just in time to hear the police scanner come to life as a car was summoned to the building for an arrest related to mass fraud and theft, or something similarly official-sounding.
Even better, we drove back to park up just opposite the venue entrance and opened the side doors of the van to watch as Collier was summarily escorted out in handcuffs by a gruff-looking detective while the cream of Boston’s literary scene watched in aghast amazement amidst lots of head-shaking and muttering.
He looked up just before being shoved into the back seat and a look of utter bafflement crossed his face as he took in the sight of us; Nate idly leaning with his hands in his pockets, Sophie perched on the chair in the back, Hardison and Parker up in the front grinning out of the same side window, and me standing with my back to Eliot’s chest as he wrapped an arm around my shoulders, leaning in to kiss my cheek.
‘There,’ Nate said to me in a low voice. ‘Watch and you’ll see the exact moment he clocks it.’
‘Not to mention the moment his heart breaks,’ Sophie added with a smirk.
I hid a grin and turned to let Eliot pull me properly into his arms, tilting my head up to give him a real kiss and yes, well, maybe I made a bit of a show of snuggling against him after that but it felt like I’d earned it. There was an instant’s glimpse of Collier’s jaw dropping open in horrified realisation and then he was gone, into the car and being driven away.
‘How much we get him for?’ Hardison asked.
‘Five million,’ Sophie supplied. ‘He had it, but not liquid, and couldn’t get it fast enough for the campaign “deadline” so opted to “borrow” it from the Review, always with the plan of replacing it of course…’
‘That and the IP violations’ll clean him out and land him a chunk of time,’ Nate said smugly. ‘The editors and trustees will lead the charge on that one I expect, given the Review’s reputation; they’ll want to make it clear it was the action of the man, not the magazine. All the real authors get settlements, public retractions and apologies, and Mister Collier can work on his essay prose from a jail cell. Come on, let’s go before someone starts paying us any real attention.’
‘I think I see why you love this job,’ I commented once we were back in McRory’s and Nate had slipped off to make the call to the client. ‘I’ve been top of the NYT Bestsellers list five times now but that look on Collier’s face was better than all of those put together.’
‘You did well for a pretty involved first-time grift,’ Sophie said. ‘Might make a Rebecca Silver out of you yet!’
‘Nooo, thank you…I think I’ll stick to playing occasional spare bimbos if you need them,’ I said firmly, grimacing and downing the shot of bourbon in front of me. ‘Well, and cheerleading for the team hitter, of course.’
‘Damn right.’ Eliot hooked an arm around my waist and gave me a kiss. ‘Gotta get you a uniform for that, huh?’
I thumped him for being a pervert while Sophie and Hardison snickered and Parker squinted in confusion, but fortunately Nate was back before she could formulate the inevitably awkward line of questioning.
‘She’ll be here in an hour or so. Well done,’ he added to me with a wry expression. ‘Your micro-expressions were barely convincing, and I’ve seen better body language control from an Alzheimer’s patient, but clearly Collier’s infatuation with you carried the day, so…’
‘Nate!’ Sophie started batting at him in protest at that matter-of-fact delivery but I let the giggle slip out as I rather agreed with the verdict; I was never going to take up full-time occupation as a professional con artist, even if I appreciated the skillset in other people.
‘No, no, Soph, he’s right, I was pretty awful, not to mention I spent most of the time torn between wanting to laugh or slap the mark round the head. I think you’ll have to stick to Parker as your star grifting pupil.’
‘I think that’s an excellent idea,’ Nate said, so I smacked him on the arm on principle, but we were all chuckling by now so there wasn’t much feeling in it.
After another round the pub door opened to admit a very nervous-looking young woman who turned out to be Kassidy Cooper, so Nate went to do the wrapup with her. When he slid the large cheque across the table – courtesy of Karl Collier’s “campaign donation” which Hardison had already vanished via a series of shell accounts and god knew what else – she clapped a hand to her mouth and started crying.
‘Oh dear.’ Sophie started to get up but I beat her to it and slid into the chair beside Nate, to his evident surprise.
‘Kassidy?’ I asked as gently as I could. ‘My name’s Tess. Tess Fisher.’
A few watery blinks and then she boggled at me.
‘Tess – the Tess Fisher? The novelist?’
‘Yep, that’s me.’ I indicated Sophie as she took the other chair. ‘Meet Rebecca Silver. Well, the inspiration for her, at any rate.’
That got an outright double-take, so I nodded to the table and indicated Eliot.
‘And that’s Jackson Steel. Or, again, the model for.’
‘Oh my god!’
‘You can’t tell anyone,’ I added, with what was meant to be a conspiratorial wink but probably came off more like an uncontrolled facial tic.
‘That’s – that’s amazing! I had no idea-‘
‘Your essay was amazing, Kassidy.’ Probably better to get her back on-topic. ‘I’m crappy at non-fiction but someone with your way with words…you can really do something with that. You should do something with that.’ Getting out my phone, I hit send on the two emails I’d drafted earlier with Hardison’s assistance. ‘There. I’ve just introduced you to two agents that my agent knows on this side of the pond who specialist in socio-political commentary work. Once the Review issues those redactions I have a feeling they’ll be pretty keen to talk to you.’
She burst into fresh tears, rambling gratitude and appreciation to me, to Nate, to the coasters on the table, to the hanging lamp and pretty much everything else in the general area, but Sophie got her calmed down and after a few more minutes we were able to get her moving out of the bar. I tried not to guffaw inappropriately when she confirmed that the first thing she was going to do – after depositing the cheque of course – would be to quit her job slinging fries at the fast food restaurant so she could have more free time to write and actually work on her degree.
‘That was very sweet,’ Sophie said to me once the girl was gone. ‘Bit risky though, isn’t it, sticking your neck – and name – out there?’
‘I suspect Miss Cooper will be a paragon of discretion,’ Nate observed with a chuckle, but actually raised his glass to me with something vaguely akin to a genuine smile. ‘But yes, it was…a nice thought. For Bimbo Number Two.’
After I offered to pour his whisky into his hair as recrimination for that, and we’d all had a few more drinks, Eliot and I went home and wound up on the roof garden, curled up together on the big hammock while the breeze from the river took the edge off the warm springtime evening.
‘Can hear your brain creaking,’ he said after a few minutes. ‘Still thinking about the job?’
‘Not really.’ I snuggled under his arm a bit more, smiling against his shirt at the feel of his fingers lightly stroking between my shoulder blades. ‘Just…thinking.’
I felt rather than saw his smile against my forehead.
‘Just…I mean, two years ago I was sitting in my house in Islington banging my head against the table because I was so stuck on writing a chapter I got desperate enough to call Sophie and randomly fly to Boston.’ With a small sigh, I constructed a shrug. ‘The worst case of writer’s block I ever had, and it wound up…here. Hanging around with the Avengers, helping some kid writer get something like justice, and…’ my own smile sort of snuck out without me having any say in the matter ‘…now I’m in a roof garden hammock with my new muse, the love of my life, who could kill Chuck Norris with his pinkie…’
That got a rumbling laugh and Eliot gave me a squeeze, nudging my nose with his.
‘Love of your life, huh?’
‘I know, I know.’ I grinned up at him. ‘Cheese ball, remember?’
‘Told you, ain’t nothing wrong with cheese.’ He leaned down and gave me a long, sweet kiss. ‘I’m pretty damn glad you got stuck on that chapter, too.’
‘Well, I hope there are plenty more.’ I sighed happily and breathed him in. ‘Chapters, I mean. And jobs.’
‘There will be, darlin.’ He tucked my head under his chin and laced our fingers together. ‘There will be.’
fin (for now)
Chapter 37: (Missing Scene): Beard Burn
Missing scene mini-fic set just before the main part of chapter 24. Because I wanted to do some shameless fluff with Eliot and Tess, and remembered the throwaway line about the coal mine...
‘El, did you want me to – oh good lord.’ I stopped short at the sight of Eliot in the doorway, covered in dust and grime, and felt my nose twitch. ‘Were you actually down in the mine?’ Not that he didn’t look rather adorable in the overalls, but at no point had anyone mentioned the team literally wandering down into a highly carcinogenic underground environment. Then again, I’d been holed up in the slightly classier hotel in town next door to Parker while she ran something in city hall, so I hadn’t exactly had my usual blow-by-blow ringside seat with Hardison.
‘Nah, I got like this in the parking lot. What do you think?’
Ah, it had been one of those jobs if he was in the mood to abuse sarcasm. Hiding a grin, I licked my thumb and cleaned off a spot on his cheek so I could kiss it. He responded to that with a low growling noise, which set me giggling, so I tapped the end of his nose.
‘Go shower the soot off while I get some food, then I’ll run you a bath later.’
‘Don’t need a bath,’ he grumbled.
‘You do unless you want to share a bed with Hardison. Although I doubt he’d let you in either smelling like that.’
That just got some incoherent chuntering noises but he did kick his boots off in the general direction of the door and sort of grouched his way towards the bathroom. Resisting the urge to needle him some more, I waited until I heard the shower running and then went in to retrieve the pile of sooty clothes for the laundry sack, wrinkling my nose and not envying the job of whatever unfortunate hotel staffer got to wash that lot. Admittedly most of it would end up in the local Goodwill anyway – god forbid Eliot actually travelled with much more than the clothes on his back – but it was at least thoroughly worn in.
Grimacing at the runoff going down the drain in the stall, which was actually black, I took a moment to have a discreet ogle at the always-enjoyable sight of a buck-naked Eliot at full stretch in the shower and trying to wring the soot out of his now-soaked hair, then went to grab something for dinner because the room service in the place was absolutely diabolical. Parker and I had fallen in love with a little eatery just across the street which did take-out along with some decent local brews anyway, and I knew he’d would be hankering for a good beer.
He told me bits and pieces about the job in between mouthfuls of Brunswick stew and pale ale. Although the notion of Nate deliberately getting himself caught in a cave in (one admittedly contrived by Act of Hardison, but still) was extremely amusing, I was less impressed with the idea of Eliot himself wandering around the mine solo looking for an actual bloody bomb, and said so.
‘Found it though,’ he said with a shrug and a wicked grin. Typical. ‘Plus now the miners can take collective ownership of the place and they’ll have enough cash to fix the place up to proper safety standards. Going with Nate to tell ‘em about it tomorrow.’
‘The Robin Hoods strike again,’ I agreed, before I could comment further he scrubbed a hand back through his hair and scowled when his fingers came back with a dusting of soot.
‘Gonna have this stuff hanging around for weeks.’
‘Probably need a deep cleanse to get it all out.’ Then an idea occurred to me and I chuckled at it. ‘Why don’t I run you that bath? Be good to relax after all that digging out rockslides, and I can give your hair a scrub.’
‘What, I ain’t sweet-smelling enough for you, now?’
‘Hmm.’ I made a show of sniffing him and grinned when he shot me a mild glower. ‘Come on, a little bit of pampering won’t kill you. Don’t make me invoke girlfriend privileges.’
‘Girlfriend privileges?’ he echoed, sounding torn between dismay and amusement at that idea, but it didn’t take much more cajoling – including giving in to his insistence that I changed into a white t shirt – before I managed to get him into the tub. Admittedly the sight of Eliot half-buried by lavender-scented bubbles was a little incongruous, but the steam certainly improved the ambient smell of the room.
‘I’m supposed to be washing you,’ I complained laughingly after he’d shifted a bit and soaked me.
‘Yeah, but now I can see your bra,’ he replied with a wicked smirk, and I barely resisted the urge to facepalm.
‘Dunk under and get your hair wet or I swear to god I’ll take a photo of you covered in those bubbles and send it to Hardison to use as a lock screen.’
He made a grumpy noise but grudgingly obeyed, slicking the soaked locks back from his face and then carefully leaning back so I could reach more easily. I got my hands lathered with shampoo and went at it without further preamble, digging my fingers in right to the roots and stifling a giggle when that actually provoked a low, almost pleasured groan. After a minute or so I saw that he’d closed his eyes and was practically purring under my touch.
I bit my lip to stop a guffaw escaping and kept at it, pausing a few times to rinse the gunk out from under my nails via the sink. My hands were aching by the time Eliot’s hair finally rinsed completely and consistently clean, but I made him stay put in the now-cooling water until I got some conditioner through it anyway.
‘I can give it a comb,’ I offered as he stood to get out, accepting the clean towel I passed him to dry himself off with positively unholy vigour. ‘Turban it up to dry for a bit…could even put some braids in and get some nice waves going on, if you want.’
That earned me a warning glare so I left him to go at it with the dryer and a brush, and twenty minutes later he emerged back in sweats and vest with the dark mane on his head restored to something like its former glory. I made a small show of running my hands through it as he climbed into the bed beside me, only for him to pull the duvet back and then raise his eyebrows.
‘I was not planning on getting into bed with a soaking wet t-shirt on, El,’ I pointed out with a chuckle.
‘Hmm. Rather you got the bed wet another way…darlin.’
‘How are you not tired?’ Not that I was complaining at the way his hands were going walkabout under the oversized band tee I was using as a makeshift nightgown. Then he kissed me and I’ admit I squeaked in surprise, because his usual scruff had grown out halfway towards a full beard which felt very strange.
‘What?’ he asked, drawing back a little with a tiny frown at the screwed-up face I was making.
‘Prickles.’ I rubbed a hand over his bristly chin. ‘Never kissed you with full-on fuzz before.’
‘Don’t like it?’
‘Just…different.’ I tugged him in to try again, smiling against his mouth when he took the moment of distraction to flip us so he was fully on top of me. ‘Don’t start something you aren’t planning on finishing, mister.’
‘Who said I weren’t planning on finishing?’ he retorted with a wink. ‘Last week with nothing but Nate and Hardison bitching in my ear and all those boys down the mine…maybe I got an appetite worked up for more’n a good beer, huh? Besides-‘ leaning down so his breath blew hotly right on my ear as he dropped his voice to a whisper ‘-I can think of a few places might be fun to try a little beard burn…what d’you think?’
I pulled him into a deeper kiss and wound my arms around his neck by way of an answer, grinning when that got one of his truly wicked chuckles before he yanked the tee off over my head and slithered down my body under the duvet to prove his point.
And in fairness to the man, he was very right.