Chapter 34—Girls and Boys
I come into the office the following Monday morning prepared to move on to the dorms and show Liam around the residential facilities and the services that we provide for temporary residents when…
“Change of plans,” he says, his expression apologetic. “I need to see the Center’s financials for the last three years.”
“Three years?” I exclaim. “What does our financials for the last three years have to do with us wanting to be accredited now?”
“To make sure the Center has shown consistent sustainability and isn’t only looking for accreditation in order to be able to secure federal funds,” he says.
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I demand. “The Center’s director is independently wealthy! The assistant director is a billionairess! If this was about money, we would infuse our own funds! How could this possibly be relevant?”
“I have no idea,” Liam admits, “but these were the new directives I was handed this morning—determine if the Center is self-sustaining and can raise enough capital to function without federal funding.”
“She knows we’re not!” I admit. “She knows that every year we have to beg businessmen and community leaders for donations just to stay afloat! She was a part of this organization as a volunteer for years! She’s well aware of this!” Liam frowns.
“But… the new desks and the remodeling you spoke of… where did the funding come from for that?” he asks.
“We had a very large donation last year—$20 million. It allowed for a lot of much-needed repairs and the hiring of very necessary staff. It was that donation that made us realize that there was so much more that we could offer the community. Then, there was a second influx of cash when the PSA went live last year and a third when…” I trail off.
“When what?” he asks. I swallow hard.
“When I had the accident.” He frowns.
“What accident?” Imagine that—somebody in the State of Washington, the city of Seattle no less, who doesn’t know what happened to me. I sigh heavily. It’s not like he can’t fucking Google me and find out what happened.
“An ex-lover of my husband T-boned my car—hard. We don’t know if she was aiming for me or she thought she was getting Christian. We’ll never know; she died shortly thereafter as a result of injuries she sustained in the accident. I was in a coma for nearly two weeks; my bodyguard also sustained major injuries. I was pregnant with my twins at the time. The day before the accident, I was shopping at a small baby boutique for a gift for a friend who had just had her own baby and I was mobbed by the Paparazzi as I was leaving. I took the opportunity to promote Helping Hands. In fact, I’ve done several appearances on local television and radio shows where I’ve done the same thing. Anyway, when word got out that I was fighting for my life, donations started pouring into the Center. It was a blessing born from tragedy, but as much as it was, it’s not an unending till of money. We’ll have to seek donations from other sources and, yes, federal funding will be one of those. She already knows that! So, what does that mean?” He scratches his cheek.
“If the board can prove that your only reason for seeking accreditation is to secure federal funding, they can delay your license for up to a year.” I throw up my hands.
“And you still don’t think this is personal?” I retort. “You’ve seen what we do! You’ve seen the plans. We’re just waiting for the correct licenses to proceed. We didn’t have the money before, and although we have the money now, there’s no guarantee that we’ll have the money later! All charities function this way—they have to raise the money…”
“Yes, but charities usually have some money in reserve in case of emergency. Schools even more so or they would all close down at the beginning of each school year.” I sigh heavily and drop my head.
“Unless you’re full of bias, I know that the report that you turned in on Friday was stellar. I know that you couldn’t find a problem if you looked for one. She read that report; she saw it, too. She knows more of the same is going to come in the next two weeks. She won’t have a reason to hold us up, so she has to find one and she’s using you to do it! You need to ask her what the hell she’s looking for and what are her intentions with these ridiculous stalling tactics and you would find that she’s dirty!
“I did,” he says, to my surprise. “That’s why I’m late this morning.” I put my hands on my hips.
“And?” I ask, expecting.
“She gave me nothing,” he says. “She even chastised me for questioning my superiors, so I know something’s going on now.”
“And you’re going to proceed with this, knowing what you know now?”
“I don’t have a choice,” he says. “I’m an inspector. That’s my job. That’s what I have to do. Your only hope is to give her what she needs and show her increased or steady sustainability so that she can leave you alone.”
“She knows that for the first year and a half that she’s asking for, the Center was barely making it. I was walking around here personally cleaning offices when we met—something that she was too good to do—because Grace couldn’t even afford to monitor the cleaning staff to make sure that they were doing their jobs. Hell, Grace and I have been donating our meager salaries back to the Center ever since we’ve worked here…”
“You have?” he asks, surprised.
“Yes, we have!” I exclaim. “I’m married to one of the richest men in the free world. Before we were married, I had a thriving mental health practice and Grace is married a very successful attorney and is one of the most sought-after pediatricians in the greater Seattle area! We have money—what do we need with the money from the Center that could be put to better use in the Center?”
“Why take a salary at all if you’re just going to donate it back?” he asks.
“To appropriately account for the expenses of the Center,” I tell him. “If one of us falls ill tomorrow and can’t continue our job duties, there would have to be accountability for the funds dispersed for a new director or assistant director, although you would be hard pressed to find anybody with the experience needed to run this place on the piddling amounts that we list and are paid as our salaries.” He scratches his cheek again. That’s his tell—he’s about to say something that I don’t want to hear.
“I need you to show me, Ana,” he says. “I need to see the financials.” I march, angry and indignant off towards Grace’s office, calling her while I’m walking.
“Ana?” she answers bemused.
“Oh, you’re not going to believe this…”
Once I explain to Grace the ridiculousness of what’s going on now, I hand Liam the financials and walk away. I’ve completely had enough of this charade and I won’t sit by while he has to tear apart why we bought felt-tipped pens instead of ball point.
Knowing that Sophie’s lunch is at 11:00, I stop by the deli and get the kabobs I introduced her to that we both love so much, then dial her number.
“Hey,” she answers.
“Hey, where are you?”
“In school?” she says, with that teenage obvious tone.
“Duh!” I respond with the same sarcasm. “Where in school?’
“It’s a nice day. Come out to the courtyard. I’ll meet you there.” There’s silence.
“Okay… it begins,” she laughs.
A few minutes later, Sophie and I are having kabobs, hummus and pita bread, and sodas under the watchful eye of several teens and tweens. Halfway through our lunch and my rant about the “dork” combing through our records at the Center, two harpies that I can only label as “mean girls” stroll past our table.
“Lunch with mom,” one of them teases. “Cool points there.” Her friends laugh. I scoff.
“You don’t keep up much, do you?” I say. “I’m not her mother. I’m Ana Grey.”
The one that made the comment has no idea what that means. The other two are now gawking in realization.
“That’s not the real Ana Grey!” some girl barks from the next table. I look over at her and she sneers at me. I turn and lean in to Sophie.
“I have imposters?” I ask, mocking concern. Sophie shrugs dramatically.
“If you’re the real Ana Grey. Where’s Chuck?” the same girl hisses. I look at her and slowly point over my shoulder to the Audi where I know Chuck is standing. About seven surrounding heads turn to where I’m pointing and spot Chuck, and now, the whispers begin.
“Oh, my God,” someone else giggles. “The new girl hired Ana Grey so she could look popular.” I gasp. I’m highly offended.
“Hired Ana Grey!” I repeat, a little louder than I intended before turning around to face the little wretch that said that. “Hired Ana Grey!” I repeat appalled, as I make eye-contact with the only person whose face has flushed stark white, so I know who said it. “I could buy this school and most likely the house you live in, and you suggest that I need to be hired to have lunch with a friend? You better Google me, little girl!”
Did I just say that?
“C’mon Soph, let’s finish our lunch somewhere else before I say something that’ll get me sued!” I roll my eyes at the little cow.
“Vale… you offended Anastasia Grey!” her friend says in amazement. “You’re crazy!” I’m packing our food, acting more offended than I really am.
“Geez, thanks.” Sophie says to Vale, playing right into my game, gathering her things as well.
“I’m… I’m sorry. It was a dumb thing to say,” the girl whimpers. I put my hands up, disgusted.
“Whatever,” I say in a dismissive tone and begin to march away from the table. Sophie falls in step behind me. She catches up and when we’re a safe distance away, we stifle the laughter in our throats.
“She’s going to be kissing your ass for the rest of the school year,” I say in a muffled voice.
“I know, right?” Sophie confirms inconspicuously. We find a patch of grass and finish our lunch. I advise her how to play out the rest of the afternoon, all bruised and offended that Vale treated me that way, and slightly embarrassed that I came to have lunch with her and her schoolmates acted that way. I’ll probably make some gossip column for coming to Sophie’s school, but I don’t care, as long as they don’t lie on me and spell my name right. I give her a hug and a kiss as I get in my Audi. To drive home the camaraderie, she and Chuck have some kind of secret fist-bump-handshake that they perform in front of everyone before he gives her a hug and we head back to the Center.
I’m in no hurry to see Mr. Westwick or to hear about his progress. Instead, I talk to Courtney about her upcoming classes next week and ask if she needs anything for the condo. She surprises me by responding that she’ll be at Mia’s wedding—that Vickie accepted the extended invitation and told Mia that Courtney would be her “plus one” and Mia was okay with it. To say that I’m shocked is an understatement.
I’m dreading the weekend, quite frankly, not only because of the circus that’s going to be the weekend, but also because my sister and friend Valerie will also be leaving for her long-awaited honeymoon once Mia and Ethan have gotten safely down the aisle. She’ll be gone for an entire month on a Caribbean cruise. I’m a little jealous, but more anxious that we’ll be separated for a month. I wonder if she felt this way when I went to Greece?
Sophie tells me all about the royal treatment she received from Vale once she got back from lunch. She didn’t feel so much like an outsider, but she’s still scrutinizing about who she’ll allow in her inner circle. That’s what I was aiming for. I don’t want her to let everybody in, but I want her to know that she has the option to let somebody in.
I’m very standoffish from Liam all day Tuesday. By Wednesday, he’s coming to me with his sleeves rolled up, begging for me to help him with some interpretation of expenditures. Again, I remember his speech from last week…
“You want me out of here as quickly and seamlessly as possible. You show me what I need to see over the next three weeks, we work together, and I’m gone.”
That option is looking more and more appealing.
“What do you need?” I ask.
We bang through the financials, the fluctuation of the figures and the explanations of the expenditures for several hours before Liam is finally ready to take a break.
“How about we discuss this more over lunch? I’m famished,” he says, stretching his arms over his head and popping the kinks out of his neck.
“Good idea. I’ll have something brought in. What do you have a taste for?” I ask.
“Don’t you get tired of being in these walls all the time?” he questions. I shrug.
“Why would I? This is what I do. I have to make sure everything is in shape. Besides, you have to report back to Ms. Felton about our financials. I wouldn’t want you to catch us slipping,” I say with a playful but irritated laugh.
“I was thinking I could treat you to lunch,” he continues. “There’s a little bistro I go to when I want some peace and quiet and the food is excellent.” I raise my eyes from my reports and look at him for a moment. Is he…?
“That’s not a good idea,” I say, turning my attention nervously back to the papers in front of me.
“Why not? It’s just lunch. I’m not asking you to marry me,” he protests.
“Which would be futile, since I’m already married,” I respond, not looking up from my papers.
“It’s two professionals going to lunch to discuss a business matter. Doesn’t your husband take his colleagues or business associates to lunch once in a while?” I finally raise my head and look at the wall. I sigh, a bit impatiently, but more at the naiveté—or blatant obtuseness—of this poor little civilian.
“You don’t understand,” I clarify, bringing my eyes to the oceans of blue staring back at me in his eyes. “I’m followed by the Paparazzi everywhere I go. They know when I buy an ice cream cone. I will not be seen alone in public with you. The scandal and spins on that story would be endless.” I gaze at him for a moment and wait for a response. When I get none, I turn my attention back to the documents on the table.
“I couldn’t live that kind of life,” he says contemplatively. “No privacy, no peace… no wonder there are so many people with you when you arrive.”
“It goes with the territory,” I say. “So, we can order lunch in and go through some more of these figures, or you can go to your bistro and I’ll meet you back here in an hour,” I say. He shakes his head.
“Who delivers?” he concedes.
Thursday, I eliminate his urge to join me for lunch by going out and picking up something for myself, dropping by Sophie’s school once more for an appearance. This time, I’m too late for her lunch, so I stop by the office and find out what class she’s in asking if it’s okay for me to interrupt for just a moment to give her a private message. Once I obtain the information I need, I make my way down the halls to her classroom and knock on the door lightly before the teacher beckons me to come in. Her face flushes a bit when she recognizes me as well.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt your class, ma’am,” I say reverently.
“Oh, no, it’s quite alright. Mrs. Grey, right?” I smile widely.
“Yes,” I say sweetly. “Can I borrow Sophie just for a minute? I promise I won’t keep her long.”
“Oh, by all means. Take all the time you need. Sophia?” she says, urging Sophie to join me. I smile as Sophie rises from her seat, her brow raised, and her expression bemused. I put my arm around her shoulder and begin to talk before we leave the room.
“We’ve got to change our plans a bit,” I say, before we leave the room. I close the door behind me.
“What’s up?” she says.
“Not a thing,” I say. “Just a little something to drive home She’s All That for people who may not have seen it. How’s your day going?”
We chat for a minute or two, then I tell her to tell anyone who asks that we’re planning something important and had to change our meeting spot. I came to tell her that security will take her to the club this evening, so she’ll have to change out of her school clothes. Of course, if it were true, that information couldn’t wait since the club has a dress code. Her teacher would understand.
Friday is upon us before we know it, and I’m more than satisfied that we have shown Mr. Liam Westwick that although we were not sustainable when dear Gloria was on staff, we have more than made up for that shortcoming in our fundraising efforts over the last year and a half. I vent to Ace that evening about the disaster that is becoming our hopes of accreditation before going home to prepare for the evening and wild weekend with the family. No matter what happens, next week will be the last week that I have to put up with this investigation.
“You’re fucking kidding, right?” I say to my brother when he calls me on Wednesday at the office.
“Afraid not, bro,” he says. “Ethan just let me know that his frat brothers and groomsmen will be throwing a stag party on Friday night right after the rehearsal dinner and you and I are expected to be in attendance.” I take off my computer glasses and rub my eyes. I fucking hate bachelor parties. I haven’t even been to that many and I still hate them. I think I just hate the idea of them. They’re nothing but trouble.
“Don’t they get the idea that bachelor parties are for bachelors and we’re not bachelors?” I protest.
“Apparently not,” he says. “Between me, you, and the lamppost, I have a feeling that Ethan’s brothers can get to be a rowdy lot and Mia wants us around to try to help keep them in line.”
“Oh, I hope the hell my little sister does not think I’m going to try to get in between a bunch of frat boys, a keg, and a stripper. That won’t be happening!” I declare.
“Well, hopefully, it won’t get to be all that bad, but maybe with the bride-to-be’s brothers in attendance and a few of his trusty members of security, the super rowdy and uncontrollable among them will just be slightly wild and untamed.” I roll my eyes.
“I have no intention of being a babysitter, nor do I plan to have my security staff act as crowd control. We’ll be talking to Ethan before this night even happens. I have no problem being uninvited from this event!”
“Okay, but as much as you may bark about it, you don’t want to be uninvited from the wedding, so tread lightly, bro.” I groan inwardly. He’s right. I’ve made little snide comments about the three-ring circus that I expect Mia’s wedding to be, but I still don’t want to miss seeing my baby sister get married.
“That’s why you’re going to be there with me,” I say, recruiting him for the task, “and don’t even think of backing out. You and Val are going to be hightailing it out of here on your cruise after the wedding and I’ll be left to deal with any fallout from this situation. So, the least you can do is talk to this man with me before the fact.”
“Okay, you got me there. Let me know when you want to set it up…”
“Tonight. I’ll let you know where,” I tell him.
Several hours later, Jason and I arrive at the Men’s Club, the nondescript building on the Alaskan Viaduct near the waterfront that James introduced me to a few years ago for Boys’ Night. I haven’t been here in a while and it’s the perfect place to discuss a damn bachelor party!
The place kind of reminds me of that bar on that show that my mom used to watch, where everybody yells out your name when you walk in the door… only there’s no women here.
“Well, look what the cat dragged in,” the bartender says as Jason and I take a seat at the bar. “Hey, Jimmy, your friend finally decided to join us again. What’ll you have, Chris?” Speak of the devil, I look in the direction that he’s gesturing in and James is at a table talking to a few guys. I wave him over when he raises his head.
“I’ll have a beer,” I tell the bartender.
“And your friend?”
“Club soda,” Jason says. “I’m driving.”
“Will do,” he says, and goes to get our drinks.
“Hey, Christian, long time, no see. What brings you here tonight?” James puts a hand on my shoulder and offers his free hand to Jason and they shake.
“Elliot and Ethan are coming,” I tell him as the bartender returns with our drinks. “It appears that my soon-to-be brother-in-law has plans for a bachelor party. Somehow, I think Elliot and I are supposed to be chaperones or something with my security staff apparently being drafted for some type of crowd control and I’m not necessarily on board for this plan.” James raised his eyebrows.
“Neither am I,” Jason chimes in.
“Oh, really?” he says. “And when is this merriment supposed to ensue?”
“Oh, that’s the best part… two days,” I inform him, taking a swallow of my bear.
“Two days! Okay. Well alrighty then. And whose grand idea was this?” James asks.
“Well, I’m thinking it might have been Mia’s, but I’ll find out when Ethan gets here,” I say.
“And when will Ethan get here?”
“I’d say in about 10 to 15 minutes,” I reply looking at my Hublot.
“Good, because I’ve got something I’d like to run by you if you don’t mind, so it’s kind of good that I ran into you.” He takes the seat next to me at the bar.
“Do you need some privacy?” Jason asks. James shakes his head.
“No, it’s okay, but thanks for asking.” He turns his attention back to me. “Do you remember that talk that we had last year when I first told you that I wanted to be a part of your PSA?” he asks.
“I vaguely remember some of it,” I reply. “There’s been a lot going on, you know.” He nods.
“I told you that I wanted to volunteer at some kind of charity to help kids like me that had been or are being abused and suffering in silence.” He looks down into his beer. I nod. Oh, yeah. I remember that conversation. We talked in detail about it.
“I remember now.”
“Well, I’ve changed my mind.” I raise my brows. “It’s a worthy cause, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not my cause. My cause is to find an organization that helps LGBT kids identify with who they really are and not be afraid of that identity. That was the root of my problem in the first place, right?”
“I see where this is going,” I reply. “Have you found it?”
“I think I have,” he says, looking up at me. “It’s kind of cliché,” he laughs. “At first, I was hoping to get involved with Helping Hands when I saw the work that the Center does, but then I stumbled on this organization called Seeking Self. I know the name is cheesy and I’m pretty certain that they may have seen the PSA for Helping Hands and gotten the idea of the name from Helping Hands and from the work that they do. It’s a fairly new operation—only a few months old. Right now, we’re only dealing with teenagers beyond the age of consent. You know it can get a little tricky dealing with sexuality and minors.”
“Only too well, my friend,” I say, taking a drink of my beer. “Tell me about Seeking Self…”
James and I talk a while about his project. He’s right about the taboo and the stigma associated with trying to get the word to a minor that there may be a safe haven for youngsters who may be struggling with their sexual identity or orientation. They are so many gray areas and legalities and moral issues to consider. The LGBT topic is so controversial as it is, just when discussing LGBT rights among adults. He’s talking about a whole new can of worms when he thinks about approaching open discussions among minors. It’s not until I look at my watch again that I realize that half an hour has passed and neither of these slackers have shown up yet. I’m just about to get on my phone and find out what hole they’ve fallen into when I see Elliot finally grace the doorway with Ethan close behind him.
“Where the hell have you two been?” I ask as they approach the bar.
“Ethan got lost,” Elliot says. “I was just talking him in. This place is hard to find. I got a little turned around for a second, too.” He gestures to the bartender and asks for a Coke.
“Whatever’s on tap,” Ethan says.
“I’ll let you guys get to it,” James says. “We’ll talk more later, Christian.” I lift my beer to him and he nods before joining his friends back at the table. I turn around to face Ethan.
“Okay, so, what the hell? I get two days’ notice that I’m supposed to be at your bachelor party with your frat brothers and your groomsmen? Have we forgotten, A, who I am? B, I ain’t no bachelor? C, who I’m married to? D, frat brothers? Are you high? E, two days?”
I sit waiting for Ethan to answer and he turns to Elliot as if for backup, who is sipping his Coke and looking expectantly at Ethan. When the groom-to-be doesn’t answer in a timely fashion, Elliot adds, “Are you expecting me to bail you out? I’m married, too, bro! And you’re hoping to marry my kid sister. What’s the deal?” Ethan swallows hard.
“Okay,” he puts his hands up defensively. “It’s just a bunch of guys getting together to have a good time. What’s the big deal?”
“A bunch of guys,” I say nodding. “Frat brothers and groomsmen. Guys getting together for a bachelor party. A bunch of guys getting together for your last night of freedom and you didn’t tell me until two days before… in fact, you didn’t even tell me… he told me…” I point to my brother, “… that I’m expected to be in attendance. Why the delay?”
“It just… slipped my mind,” he lies. My lips form a thin line.
“You’re sinking fast, Ethan,” Elliot says, turning around in his stool. “Look, somewhere during the course of your lifetime, you’re going to need to have us on your side. Male solidarity and all that. You might want that to start now.” Ethan rolls his eyes and sighs heavily.
“Alright, alright. So, we’ve… had some stories in college…” he trails off.
“Mm hmm,” I coax.
“Some of the guys… have gotten a little rowdy…”
“Mmm hmm…” I knew it.
“There may have been an incident or three… I just didn’t want you to get all Christian Grey and start running background checks and shit! Passing out NDA’s and telling people where they couldn’t go, what they couldn’t do and say,” he says, flailing his hands about. “It’s my bachelor party, after all!” I frown.
“Then, why did you invite me?” I ask, perplexed.
“Well, hell, it would have been rude not to!” he retorts. “I mean, you’re a cool guy and shit, you’re my fiancée’s brother! Why wouldn’t I invite you?”
“But you don’t expect the situation to be vetted because it’s your bachelor party?” I ask. He looks at me aghast.
“Why would my bachelor party need to be vetted? Will the strippers need to be strip-searched before they strip, too?” He exclaims.
“Ooooooohh, dear God,” Elliot groans into his glass. I just shake my head and laugh. This poor kid—he can’t be this naïve.
“You’ve been with my sister for how long?” I ask the rhetorical question. “You’re about to marry her in three days and you still don’t get it? I’m sitting in an unmarked club having a beer with my brother and my soon-to-be brother-in-law and my security guard is sitting next to me and you’re asking me why your bachelor party that I’m attending has to be vetted?
“Each time that I, my wife, her PA, and each of our children leave our respective homes, each one of those people has to have a separate guard with them everywhere they go and you’re asking me why your bachelor party that I’m attending has to be vetted?
“Half of downtown will be blocked because of your wedding! You have no idea what I have been through because of people who can’t come to your wedding and you’re asking me why your bachelor party that I’m attending has to be vetted?
“My wife’s near-death, coma-inducing accident, the birth of my children, and my grandfather’s funeral were all televised events and now some private eye from Detroit has been following my father around and you’re asking me why your bachelor party that I’m attending has to be vetted?”
“They have?” Elliot interrupts. I turn to him.
“Yes, they have. I’m supposed to have the details tomorrow.” I turn back to Ethan. “I know that you’re not privy to every little detail of every little thing that happens in my life, Ethan, but you have seen enough to know that I’m not just worried about tabloid fodder and gossip rags. While everything may not be a dangerous situation or a safety issue, some things are. My wife and her father went to a harmless baseball game and he ended up being accosted and arrested. I’m not just being paranoid, here! Give me a break, man!”
Ethan’s lips tighten as he looks around the club in contemplation. He doesn’t look pleased at all. The wheels are grinding in his head and I can tell that he’s considering his options as he’s sitting here. He wouldn’t lose a bit of sleep uninviting me from that party and I wouldn’t blame him for a second, nor would I bat an eyelash, especially since I now know that there will be strippers present—my very least favorite aspect of the festivities. He slides from his barstool and pulls his wallet from his back pocket.
“It’s going to be a private party,” he says, his voice going from casual to almost CEO tone. He pulls a few bills from his wallet and tosses them on the bar, way too many for one beer. “In the penthouse of the Four Seasons. I’ll email you the guestlist, the entertainment company, the caterers, and security before the night is over. Vet away.”
He shoves his wallet back into his pocket and looks as if someone stole his lollipop.
“Thank you,” I say, “I don’t know any other way to put this that doesn’t sound like I’m telling you to tell you tell your friends to behave, but…”
“I know, tell my friends to behave,” he says, and he sounds like a petulant child who has just been told that he can’t stay out past curfew. He walks to the door and stops just as he opens it.
“Oh, by the way, did Mia tell you that Ana and Val are going to the hen party?” he says before he exits the club.
“Did you know they were going to the bachelorette party?” I ask Elliot when we arrive back at the Crossing. He shakes his head.
“Val never mentioned it to me,” he says. “I mean, I guess I kind of assumed…” He shrugs. I roll my eyes. Shit, I guess I really should have assumed, too. Butterfly and Mia are pretty close for the most part. Why wouldn’t she go? I turn to Jason.
“Is there any way to find out where Mia’s hen activities are going to be without me having to grovel to her and find out myself?” Jason winces.
“Probably not this late…” Just as he’s denying me, my phone buzzes and it’s Mia. Let the groveling begin.
“Ethan just called me and he’s pouting,” she says, and she sounds a little whiny herself. “We’re doing the party bus thing and we’re going club hoping. Do you want to send some of your goons with us?”
Oh, shit fucking hell motherfucking grass-eating goats from Hades. That went so fucking well when Butterfly did it.
“There’s no way I can rent the most exquisite suite in the state, cater the most expensive food in the country and fly in the Thunder from Down Under and convince you to move your party to a private locale, is there?” I say almost begging. My sister bursts out in hysterical laughter.
“You’d do all that to keep Anakins out of public?” she cackles.
“Yes!” I declare. “Bad things happen when people see her. They’re not nice or they try to grope her or hurt her or steal her in their Butterfly nets!” I lament. Mia laughs again.
“I’m afraid not, big brother, but I’ll make you a deal. I’ll agree to whatever security measures you put in place to make sure Anakins doesn’t fall prey to any Butterfly nets.” She’s still laughing, but I’m serious. I sigh. It’s comforting that she’s willing to cooperate with me.
“Thanks, Meelo,” I say, still deflated.
“Anytime, Cwis. I’ll text you the limo service and you can coordinate security and transportation.” We end the call. I look at Elliot.
“Party bus,” I say. “Club hopping.”
“Oh, shit,” he says, with mirth. “That didn’t go so well last time.”
“Tell me about it. Mia agreed to let me provide security, though. I have to run it past my wife… because of last time…”
“Yeah, I remember,” he says. “I didn’t get the whole story, but Val says it was kind of tense.”
“Kind of?” I say, throwing an incredulous look at him. “Tight as a vise and cold as Antarctica!” I shiver at the thought of the disaster that was the night before my wedding.
“That doesn’t sound like a pleasant combination,” my wife says as she rounds the corner from the kitchen into the family room where Elliot and I are talking. Our expressions must give us away, because she eyes us cautiously. “And I’ve interrupted something.”
“Not really,” I say, holding my arms out and beckoning her to me. She comes over to me and I sit her on my lap. “Mia’s rehearsal dinner and hen party are Friday night. I’m assuming you’re going,” I say.
“Oh,” she says, as if she had forgotten. “Yeah, I… guess. I mean, there’s no reason for me to go to the rehearsal dinner, but yeah, she did mention the hen party. So, I’m assuming I’m going.” She looks over her shoulder at Elliot. “Val, too.”
Elliot does that bobble-head-nodding thing.
“Well… she’s doing the party-bus-club-hopping thing,” I say. Butterfly’s brow rises.
“Ooohh,” she replies.
“And… I’m… doing security,” I add warily. Realization dawns and she says nothing.
“And I wanted to know if you were okay with that,” I say finally. I sit quietly without breaking eye-contact with her. Our last situation involving a hen party, a party bus, and security was Butterfly’s bachelorette party, where I sent extra security with them to the clubs, one of which had the express instructions to report Butterfly’s every move to me. Not only did it result in one of the most humiliating punishment fucks I had ever given her, effectively ending her hen party, but it nearly destroyed our relationship of mutual trust as it turned out to be one of the dumbest decisions I’ve ever made even to this point of my life.
I’m hoping that she can see that I still realize that even now.
“Yes,” she says, gazing back at me, “yes, I’m fine with that.” I sigh deeply. I know I fucked up, and she knows that I know I fucked up. Crisis averted.
“Anybody in particular you want?” I ask.
“Chuck, of course,” she says. “He and Ben usually work well together. I let you decide the rest.” That makes me feel good.
“Very well, Mrs. Grey,” I say with a smile.
“Was that the Antarctica you were speaking of?” I purse my lips.
“Yeah, it was a pretty chilly night,” I admit, remembering the cold shoulder she gave me when I approached her in the castle after the parties were over. I never felt so rejected in my life. I remember trying to pray that night… at least I think I did, I don’t know. I was pretty drunk.
“Well, I’ll go find my friend and tell her we’ll have an entourage. I’m sure she didn’t expect anything less,” she says with mirth. She leans down and kisses me on the lips before gazing in my eyes for a few moments more. I know that she’s trying to tell me that it’s really okay, and I believe her. Thank God. She rises from my lap and I watch her walk back through the kitchen and disappear through the dining room.
“You’re so gaga over that woman,” Elliot teases.
“And you’re not gaga over Val,” I say in a disbelieving tone.
“Fucking loopy, man,” he confirms. “Fucking loopy.”
“Well, this just keeps getting better and better,” I say, as Alex reveals the story to me why it has taken nearly two weeks to make any headway on who the asshole is following my father. Dustin Carver is—was—employed with Best Shields Family Investigations in Highland Park. Was is the operative word here as being made is not a preferable quality for employment. Hence, Mr. Carver’s employment was terminated. Dad never said he saw anybody else following him, but that doesn’t mean that no one else was following him, so we put a covert officer on him again last Thursday, and yes—he had another operative following him.
Alex let the guy keep following him throughout the weekend because we were never going to find anything if we kept pinching the private eyes. Same company—Best Shields. Pulling the private eye’s records wouldn’t give us anything. We needed the company records. So, a scan of incoming transactions for the past three weeks gave us a familiar hit. One we never would have expected.
Of course, a Detroit Mafioso wouldn’t be using a family investigative detective agency when he has Egyptian-silk-clad consiglieres at his disposal. So, no, it’s not Sunset.
Federally-protected witnesses would know better than to put themselves out there and risk exposure. So, no roads point to either of the Myricks.
But, yes, there is a blaring Grey name showing bank transfers in large amounts for fees and expenses over the last several—several—weeks. And the name…
No, not Freeman.
Now, this would normally give me cause for concern. Why would my beloved cousin whom I helped get out of Detroit be funding the spying on and investigation of my father?
Therein lies my answer.
First, my beloved cousin is no longer in Detroit. She’s in California now.
Second, there’s no one on this earth named Nolanda Grey anymore. My cousin’s name is now Yolanda Carpathia.
Further examination of the account used to transfer funds to Best Shields indicates that it’s a trust in Nolanda’s name that she never got. Freeman is the grantor and the signatory. He’s been dwindling it away since the divorce and the audit has been in progress.
It’s time to call Cali…
“Hey, cousin! How are you?” Lanie answers when I call.
“Not too bad. How about you?”
“We’re hanging in and holding on,” she says. “What’s new?”
“Well, I promised that I would keep you abreast of developing stories and I have a new one, but first I have a question for you.”
“Do you have any idea why Freeman would be having my dad investigated or followed?” The line falls silent.
“Okay… can you say that again?”
“Is there any reason that you can think of that your father would have my father investigated?” It’s like I can hear the wheels turning and smell the smoke.
“Uh… did they share any assets?” she asks.
“I don’t think so,” I say. “Dad’s been gone from Detroit for decades. If they had, Freeman would have come to Seattle and claimed them long before now.”
“What about Grampa’s house?” she asks. “I know there was some question about that.”
“Okay, I probably need to be a little more specific,” I tell her. “Your father’s dropping a bundle on having my father followed by a private investigator.” I hear her gasp.
“A bundle from where?” she nearly shrieks. “All his money should either be tied up in the divorce or the audit!”
“Oh, that’s the best part. His money is tied up. This is yours… or at least it should be.”
“Mine?” she asks, confused. “I don’t get it.”
“No, and you won’t either,” I say. “He has a trust set up in the name of Nolanda Grey that you were supposed to get, but he’s the grantor and he’s been spending it. Right now, he’s spending huge chunks of it on private investigators following my father around Seattle for God only knows what reason. Now, I don’t know how long he’s been spending that trust or what else he’s been spending it on, but that trust is being spent and it’s in your name. So, when tax time comes, who do you think is going to be responsible for that money?”
“He can’t make me responsible for that money if he’s the grantor and he’s spending it!” she declares.
“Oh, I can guarantee you, he’ll find a way. And even if he can’t, he’s spending huge chunks of money right now that should probably be going to you or you mom.” The line falls silent again.
“I gotta go, cousin. I need to call my mom’s lawyer and the IRS.”
“I thought you would, and I need to call my dad. Keep me posted.”
“Always a pleasure, cousin Christian.”
For some reason, I’m not at all excited about going to Mia’s bachelorette party tonight. My mood could be attributed to any number of factors. It could be the ongoing investigation at Helping Hands that has me wound so tightly that I can’t relax to save my life. It could be the fact that venting to Ace about it and how uncomfortable I am with the whole thing for an entire hour didn’t help to relieve any of the tension one bit. It could be the fact that I’m about to spend an evening with a bunch of catty women who are all going to smile in my face, but would love nothing more than to clock me over the head, tie me up in a corner, and fuck my husband senseless while I watch. Or it could be the discomfort that I feel taking part in yet another party-bus-club-hopping hen night after the fiasco that was my own.
I had a terrible time choosing my wardrobe tonight. There was a battle going on between refusing to half-step around these debutant bitches and not wanting to cause my husband to have a coronary. He somewhat made that decision easy for me by telling Elliot to meet him at GEH and they, along with a chosen entourage of security, would rendezvous with Ethan and his groomsmen at the location of the bachelor party. At least this way, I could choose something to wear and not have to worry about the fallout until I got home.
I needed something sexy—a party dress that was hot, but not trashy. I chose a sassy wine mini-cocktail dress with a black lace halter floral overlay and plain black Louboutin platform stilettos. My hair is falling in large barrel waves and less will be more tonight as the only jewelry that I’m wearing are some modest earrings hiding under my hair and my wedding and engagement rings. Val, on the other hand, is all dolled up in a red bodycon bandage dress that hugs her tiny frame like a glove. She couples her dress with a pair of nude stilettos and a large, gold, link bracelet and earring in a matching motif. She and I are in the back of one of the Audis headed to Palisade to meet the party bus for the festivities. As intended, we skipped the rehearsal dinner and will meet the bride’s party as they are finishing up.
“You’re awfully quiet, Steele,” Val says. “What’s running around that head of yours?”
“You know I’m not Steele, anymore, right?” I tease. She’s been calling me that even though I’ve been married for over a year now.
“Force of habit,” she says. “Besides, if I call you Grey, it’ll be like talking to myself. Now, stop evading the question.” I rub my chin.
“Isn’t it obvious?” I ask. “I’m not looking forward to tonight on any level. I don’t want to see Mia’s catty friends, I’m distracted with what’s going on at Helping Hands, and I don’t want a repeat of what happened at my own bachelorette party. And I’m letting it be known right now—if anybody recognizes me and tries to start any trouble, I’m leaving immediately.
“I get it,” she concurs. “I’m starting to get those ugly glares in public myself. I knew it would happen sooner or later, but I thought it would be later rather than sooner since El is nowhere near as popular or famous or whatever as Christian. But nope, I’m getting the stinkface,” she says. “So, if you go, I go. And I don’t think you have to worry about this party turning out like yours did. From what I do remember, there were more than a few mistakes made that night by more than one person—present company included—that won’t be made tonight.”
I know she’s referencing the fact that she and my other best friend basically pimped me out for dollar dances to every guy in the club, an action that caused me a lot of grief with my then-fiancé and basically ruined my entire evening.
“Well, it’s water under the bridge now,” I say, trying to change the subject.
“No, it’s not, or you wouldn’t be uptight about it now,” she confronts. “But I won’t dwell on it. Let’s just do our best to have a good time, even if we have to do it alone, okay?” I flash her a weak smile.
We meet with Mia’s group and discover that the party began before we even got there. Mia is in fantastic spirits and I’m certainly not one to be a Debbie Downer. Now, what I had was luxury, but more like a party… shuttle, for lack of a better word. What Mia has is an opulent party coach! There’s going to be some serious celebrating tonight!
“Okay, bitches, listen up,” she says, garnering our attention once we’ve all boarded. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the affectionate use of the term “bitches” in the way they’re using it nowadays. I mean, we’ve used it sarcastically for years, but it’s just different the way they use it now. “I know most of you whores have seen The Wedding Date, so you’re familiar with a little game called ‘Pub Golf…’”
I throw a cautionary look over at Chuck and he just nods once, so I try to keep my panic at bay.
“Traditionally, we would play 18 holes, but we got a late start, so in the spirit of fairness and with the hopes of my brother’s security not having to scrape anyone off the floor, we’ll attempt nine.”
The girls all yelp and scream like wild zoo animals as some bottle of some amber liquid is produced from some bar somewhere and shot glasses are being filled.
“Now, pay attention, because this is the important part. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to finish all nine holes lowest under par. The rules are placed all over the bus…” She gestures to the pieces of paper scattered around the party bus, “and I have enlisted secret scorekeepers to tell us at the end of the night who the winner is. That winner will get a secret prize at my reception. Now, the two biggest keys to winning pub golf—no barfing, finish your drink in one gulp. More than one gulp, you lose strokes, which will, of course, fuck up your par. Since I went to prep school with all of you and college with most of you, I know you tricks know how to swallow.”
Whoooo-hooo-hoooaa, good shot, Mia!
“In the event of a tie, there will be a dance-off at my reception, so be prepared.” I round of laughter fills the room and a bit of heckling of some of the girls for their obvious lack of skills. A shot glass wanders into my hand and I discover that it’s Armagnac. We’re shooting Armagnac? Alrighty, then.
“This is the first of nine holes,” Mia says, holding her shot glass in the air. “Those of you in the wedding party will have your detox treatments at the spa in the morning, so I only ask that you avoid trips to the ER tonight for alcohol poisoning. Those of you who aren’t are on your own, so know your fucking limits. I swear to God, I’ll disown you cunts if you ruin my hen party.”
I should have had this conversation with the cows at my hen night.
“Alright, bitches, let’s get this party started! One! Two! Three…!”
“Fooooooooooouuurrrr!” They all scream—and scare the shit out of me, I might add, before we all throw back our shots. This must be a little thing they added to the game themselves. I’ve never seen anybody yell, “four” before taking the shot. Then again, I’ve never seen anybody do shots of Armagnac, either… except Christian, after a really bad day.
“Good God! What the fuck is this fire water?” one of the girls exclaim after swallowing the brandy. Some of the others are coughing a bit as well.
“What the hell did you pour, Monica?” Mia says. She grabs the bottle from Monica’s hand. “Oh, hell, you’re banned from bartending duty. We’re gonna be sloshed before the fourth hole!”
We get to the first club and what the hell is it? Yep, you guessed it, a male strip joint. Debbie Downer dawdles in the back until the rest of the party unloads, then I stay on the party bus. Mia and her friends stick around for about an hour, then admit that the scene is dead before they’re back on the bus—a little liquored now—and headed for the next club. We hit at least four more clubs and four more “holes” before midnight and I have to say, we’re really having a good time. The cats are keeping their claws retracted and nobody recognizes me or Val, or at least they’re not paying any attention to us with Mia and her friends stealing the show, which is fine by me.
By now, the liquor is settling in quite nicely and I’ve danced and loosened up a bit. Val and I are at one of the tables with three of the girls from the wedding and one other of Mia’s friends and of course, someone brings up my husband.
“You know,” she says, slightly slurring her words, “Christian really is one hot guy. You can’t blame us for turning into blubbering hunks of stupid girliness when he shows up.”
“Yeah,” another pipes in, just as tipsy as the first. “We mean no disrespect, we… just can’t help it.” She does this snorting-giggle thing in her throat that lets me know that she totally serious. There’s no malice in what she’s saying. They just don’t know what to do with themselves when he’s around.
“How does somebody stay so hot for so long?” a third one asks, sipping her drink. “Just… he hit… like, puberty or something, and he just got… hot. And then the older he got, he got hotter and hotter…” She looks like she’s going to start drooling on herself any second. “Does he wake up like that?”
“He’s even hotter when he’s asleep.” The words are out of my mouth before I can catch them. Val’s neck snaps over to me and my hand flies to my mouth involuntarily. I’ve had too much to drink. I need to stop talking. Raucous laughter erupts at the table as I realize I verbalized my thoughts and the girls are having a ball at my expense.
“I knew it!” one of them exclaims. “He’s a god 24/7. The world is so unfair.” She tosses her drink back and slams her glass onto the table. “And Elliot… Kate really had some nerve showing up at the shower like that,” she adds in a semi-sober moment.
“I’ll say,” the first girl slurs. “Whatever happened to that baby? Once it came out that he wasn’t a li’l Grey, she disappeared, until recently. What gives?”
“Ethan’s wedding,” Val chimes in and the girls turn to her. “She’s hoping it’ll soften the Greys up and give her an ‘in.’ She’s wrong. They hate her now more than ever.” I scoff.
“She killed any possible chance of that when she tripped you at that damn garden party,” I say, my head still a bit fuzzy. I need some water. I look over at Val who seems as sharp as a tack. “You’re not drunk,” I accuse. She leans in to me.
“I’m the secret scorekeeper… and you’re losing,” she says with a smile.
“I’m not playing,” I say, bottoming out my drink in two dramatic deliberate gulps. “That was two gulps, did you count them?”
“That wasn’t a hole,” she laughs, “but I’ll put two on your par since you’re such a smart ass.”
“Fuck you. Bitch,” I say, sticking my tongue out at her.
“C’mon on, girls, it karaoke time!”
Two holes later, I’m sitting in a karaoke bar downtown in the lower level of one of the hotels. A group of girls are on stage belting out the worse version of B-52’s “Love Shack” that I’ve ever heard in my life and I can’t believe I’ve agreed to sing something. I can hold a tune, but I’m no Mariah Carey. I’ve mixed a little water with my liquor so that now, after a few trips to the bathroom, I’m not as loopy as I was before. Still loopy, just not as much.
“You look a little scared, Steele,” Val teases. I put my finger and thumb together and close one eye to confirm her statement. “Don’t worry, you can’t be worse than that.” She jerks her head to the obviously drunk group screaming into the microphones.
“Love shack! Lo-lo-love shack! Love shack! Lo-lo-love shack!” Oh, God, please make it stop. If my high wasn’t blown before, it is now.
“Whose great idea was this?” I lament as my ears start to sting from the screaming.
“Aw, c’mon Steele, karaoke is a blast when you’re drunk, especially watching other drunk people making a fool of themselves,” Val teases.
“Well, I must not be drunk enough because this isn’t fun at all!” I tell her. She laughs and looks back at the stage. The song thankfully ends, and the screaming banshees actually bow and leave the stage as someone down front cheers and whistles.
“Don’t encourage them,” I yell out, but not loud enough for them to hear me. I’m not trying to start a fight, after all. The DJ calls the next singer and I’m happy that it’s not me, not only because my song is a slow song and I wouldn’t want to follow that riveting version of “Love Shack,” but also because I just don’t feel like singing yet. I picked a song that jumped out at me as soon as I saw it, probably because we were talking about Christian earlier.
Once they’re liquored up, Mia’s catty friends are actually kind of nice on the inside. We talked more at the other bar and this one and I discovered that a lot of them are just looking for Mr. Right and not finding him. They would have loved for Christian to be their Mr. Right—gorgeous, rich, powerful, sexy, and I don’t dare tell them that he’s a beast in bed. They may just become suicidal… or homicidal. I can’t help but feel sorry for them in their plight. I got him. I’m in love with him and he’s in love with me. That’s what made me choose the song I did. So, we’ll be friends in my sympathy for the poor things tonight, then tomorrow, after the reception, we’ll all avoid each other again.
Except that Lily girl. Drunk or sober, she’s intent on avoiding me like the plague.
The next singer starts to belt out a not-so-bad version of “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” and that’s what I feel like doing.
“C’mon, secret scorekeeper,” I say, grabbing Val’s hand and dragging her from her seat. “I wanna dance with somebody.”
She follows me to the dancefloor and we leap around, giggling and singing like we’re in a mosh pit. A few of the other girls from our table join us and soon, we’re clustered on the floor like the B-52 bunch taking over this poor girl’s song…
“Don’t you wanna dance? Say you wanna dance? Don’t you wanna dance?”
“Don’t you wanna dance? Say you wanna dance? Don’t you wanna dance?”
We’re hugging and giggling and panting out of breath… until the DJ calls my name.
“C’mon, Ana, you’re next.”
Val turns to me and giggles, tossing a napkin to me.
“Take this with you. You’re sweatin’ like a pig.”
“Bitch,” I hiss as I walk to the stage. For me not to like the affectionate use of that term, I’ve used it a lot tonight. I dab the sweat from my forehead and eyes and much as I can and stand in front of the mic. The light is shining in my face and I can’t see anybody, just a bunch of shapes and shadows. I smile, shrug, and nod at the DJ. The music starts playing and the lyrics start scrolling running on the screen. I don’t need the lyrics. I know the song…
“I used to cry myself to sleep at night, but that was all before he came;
“I thought love had to hurt to turn out right, but now he’s here, it’s not the same;
“It’s not the same…”
The bar falls silent as I begin to sing my love song to my husband. I imagine I must look a fright all sweated out and streaked, and as for my voice, well… they’d have to tell me how that sounds.
“He fills me up, he gives me love, more love than I’ve ever seen;
“He’s all I’ve got, he’s all I’ve got in this world, but he’s all the man that I need.”
Slowly, one couple, then two couples work their way to the floor to sway softly to the music.
Hmm, I guess I must be doing okay…
“And in the morning when I kiss his eyes, he takes me down and rocks me slow;
“And in the evening when the moon is high, he holds me close and won’t let go;
“He won’t let go…”
By the time, I get to the second chorus, the dancefloor is full, and by the time I get to the key change, our table is going crazy and singing backup from where they sit. Mia is beaming, her eyes glistening with tears and I almost can’t finish the song. The crowd cheers as I sing the last note and protests when I hand the mic back to the DJ.
“Sing another one!” someone yells from the audience. The DJ still hasn’t relieved me of the microphone and other people join in with the first person requesting a second song.
“Go ahead, sing another one.” I grimace.
“I don’t want to be rude!” I protest. Other people are waiting to sing.
“They want you to. Go ahead.” I look questioningly at the small crowd on the dancefloor and they’re gesturing and chanting for me to sing another song. I know my voice isn’t that great, but it’s not bad, either. Maybe they’re just trying to avoid a replay of “Love Shack.” I shrug.
“I don’t know what to sing,” I tell him. He looks at his music for a moment.
“Another Whitney song?” he asks. “’I Have Nothing?’” I nod.
“I know that one, yeah. That’s a good one.” So, I go back up to the stage, and the crowd starts to cheer. The music starts, and I sing…
“Share my life, take me for what I am ’cause I’ll never change all my colors for you…”
I’m really wiped out when I get back to the table after that one. Mia’s all weepy and hugging me, telling me that she didn’t know my voice sounded like that. I didn’t think it was anything special, but it made her happy, so I’m happy. My best friend knew that I would need water when I got back to the table, so she had it waiting for me. I dry the remaining sweat off my forehead and neck and bottom out the bottle. Jesus, that tastes good. Mia’s friends all tell me how well I did and that I’ve motivated them to try even though a few of them can’t hold a tune. B-52’s, here we come. I lift my hair off my neck to get some cool air back there and I feel my phone vibrating in the small purse that I brought with me. I retrieve it and swipe the screen.
**I swear to God that I’m not following you or spying on you. Come out to the hallway and bring Val with you. **
A/N: Pictures of places, cars, fashion, etc., can be foundat https://www.pinterest.com/ladeeceo/raising-grey/
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