After the competition, Lee and I headed back up to our rooms for a siesta, as did all of the guests who were staying over. The house was packed.
The children had gone home and a small army of servants dissembled the carnival in the front yard. The real birthday party started at 8:00 p.m. and was scheduled to go all night.
Lee held out his hand. In it was one of the Five-seveN's rounds. He held up his smartphone. “Wanna read the ballistics report? I'm guessing it'll have markers similar to the ones that Cash took.”
I really don't want to think about that at all.
At least he was on the ball.
“Nice work.” I sat down on the bed and pulled off my shoes. “My case-building skills went out the window at the first sight of piranha-mouthed RaÃºl.”
“A real nasty piece of work.”
“AJ and I won't be anywhere near him.”
“RaÃºl's going to be waiting for his chance to slip the blade in,” Lee said.
Gee, you think?
I grabbed the throw on the end of the bed and lay down. “That's why AJ and I are going to be joined at the hip. And you?”
“Me? I'm on duty.” His face hardened. “Watching you walk neck-deep into shit and wondering how far you plan on going.”
“We're at Carlos Grieco's Tampico estate. Surrounded by his elite Five-seveN army. My plan is to take it easy tonight, maybe get a little sun tomorrow, and jet back to Chicago on Monday. So, honestly, Lee? How 'bout you have a couple of drinks and chill out?”
He leaned in the doorway, forearm on the jamb, considering.
I closed my eyes.
“Yeah,” he said after a long pause, his voice sounding like it came from a far-off place, “Maybe I'll do just that.”
After he left, I heard him turn on the shower in his bathroom.
The man was born in a barnâthe door connecting our rooms was still open. But getting off the bed to close it seemed like an overwhelmingly onerous chore. Until I caught a glimpse of himâunaware or uncaringâpadding naked into his bathroom.
Then I was sorry I hadn't.
* * *
Carlos turning fifty-three was like Bud Light Party Town meets
only without the giant snow pile of coke. Instead tidy trays of lines and pills were served by women in itty-bitty nurse costumes.
Acrobats and a band in the front, a light show and a band in the back, and a full casino in the main house. Ice sculptures, martini towers, the most ostentatious food stations imaginable, and half-naked women everywhere you looked.
AJ was higher than high after besting RaÃºl. A speedball of coke didn't hurt, either.
Everywhere we went, people thumped me on the back and congratulated El Cid for his clever way of saving C-Rey. After more small talk than at a nervous insurance salesmen's support group, AJ led me onto the black-and-white dance floor set up on the back veranda. The sparkles on my Sue Wong cocktail dress flared and fluttered as he gave me a whirl. “Did I mention I'm in love with you?”
My eyes bulged like a soft thing being held in
The Grapes of Wrath
“For saving C-Rey.” He laughed. “I may have
fiebre del Ãrtico,
but it'd take more than your sweet face to make me cross swords with Stannislav Renko.”
“The fake-out with the safety . . .” He shook his head, still chuckling. “I thought RaÃºl was gonna blow a gasket. Goddamn pissant motherfucker. You're like that fucking kid from
“I want my two hunnert dollars!”
He laughed and pulled me in. “Damn, Maisie,” he murmured. “What are you doing marrying Renko?”
RaÃºl approached us, a stunning young woman on his arm. Eighteen, nineteen tops. They stopped inches from us. The blonde let go, prowled over to AJ, and slid her hands up his chest. “Happy birthday.”
AJ caught her wrists and held them away from him. “It's not my birthday.”
Eyes flashing, the teenager jerked away and returned to RaÃºl's side. Hate radiated off her.
Which was weird, because AJ was a good-looking guy and he hadn't been impolite.
“A mistake anyone could make, right, cousin?” RaÃºl's nostrils flattened in smug repose, making him look more than ever like a piranha. “Tell Carlos I'm waiting with his other birthday present in the wine cellar.”
“Yes.” AJ's hands curled into fists at his sides.
RaÃºl and the girl sauntered into the kitchen.
“Why did you do that?” I asked. “Agree to tell Carlos?”
“Easy. If I don't tell Carlos, RaÃºl tells him I'm making decisions for Carlos's life. How soon until I'm making decisions he doesn't know about the business?”
“I see your point.”
“Either way, my dear, our night is at an end.”
“I have to tell Carlos about the gift. After which, one of two things will happen.” He counted off on his fingers. “One, Carlos wants the girl. I spend the night entertaining my delightful
Grieco.” He snapped out his second finger. “Two, Carlos wants the girl gone. Which means I must extricate her from here as quietly and pleasantly as possible. RaÃºl, naturally, would prefer she make a scene.”
I nodded. “Got it.”
“Why?” I asked. “Do you need some help?”
AJ shook his head. “But you do.”
“I don't getâ”
“You don't actually think RaÃºl is going to let that contest lie.” AJ grasped my upper arms and put his nose inches from mine. “You can't be alone tonight.”
I winced. “I kind of gave Sharpe the night off.”
“Okay.” He saw a Five-seveN at the edge of the pool and waved him over. “SeÃ±ora Renko is in your charge. Do not leave her side. No matter what RaÃºl says.” The soldier nodded. AJ rattled off another series of orders, this time in Spanish, then kissed my cheek. “I have a very special day planned for the two of us tomorrow.”
“Can't wait,” I said.
The Five-seveN watched him leave. His focus switched to me.
“I think it's time for a drink,” I said, moving toward one of the bars. I actually had two Cuba libres, and picked up some interesting background on my step-in bodyguard's South American childhood of murder and mayhem. Around 2:00 a.m., I started yawning and couldn't stop.
The Five-seveN escorted me to my room.
Lee wasn't in his room. He wasn't answering his phone, either.
“Will you help me find him?”
The Five-seveN nodded vigorously. “
After fighting our way back through the casino crush on the main floor, we slid out a side door and I walked the perimeter of the backyard, looking for Lee.
He was nowhere to be found.
We crossed the pool area and walked down to the beach. I kicked off my shoes and walked down along the sand, the Five-seveN keeping a moderate distance from me. The sand was smooth, but after the day I'd had, too much work. I moved down to the water's edge, the beach easier to navigate. Cool, salty water splashed up against my ankles. I shivered.
This wasn't like Lee. I tried to feel annoyed, but rising unease was the only sensation I could generate.
Where the hell is he?
Five jaunty beachfront cabanas were just up ahead. Over my shoulder the Five-seveN was getting nervy as I strayed farther than his comfort zone.
Yawning, I turned back at the last one.
Against the whisper
of the surf came Lee's laugh. Half-chuckle, half-purr. A panty-melter. Followed by a high-pitched titter.
“SeÃ±ora Renko,” the Five-seveN shouted.
I backed away from the tent to the water. The flapping of canvas was unmistakable. Lee stumbled out, shirt completely unbuttoned, shoulder holster, gun, and jacket still on, feet bare. “Maisie?”
Go back. Go back to the tent.
“Maisie?” He caught up to me and snagged my arm. “You okay?”
AJ's guard came at us. I waved him back. “Sure.”
He stood, weaving slightly. “Isthsâit's not what you thiâ”
“Wanted to let you know I'm turning in.”
Lee put a heavy hand on my shoulder. “Lessgo.”
“Don't you want to say good night?” I pointed at the tent.
“Nah.” He reeked of tequila. Like he'd taken a shower in it. “Lessgo.”
“Shoes might not be a bad idea.”
“Shit.” He gave that traitorous laugh. “Hang on.”
I didn't wait, but I didn't exactly run, either. He caught up, stumbling, grabbing my arm and knocking us both down into the sand.
The Five-seveN was at my side, helping me to my feet before I'd even pushed myself up.
“Aww, fuck.” Lee got to his feet, leaning slightly. “I'm sorry.”
I swiped the sand off my dress. “No worries, Lee.”
I bent to pick up his shoesâhis combat boots actually, more comfortable to be sure, although not exactly aproposâbut he beat me to it. “Lead on.” A goofy smile split his mouth, his teeth gleaming in the moonlight.
It took several minutes to make it back to the main house. The Five-seveN torn between trying to help Lee and trying to protect me. Inside, the gambling and partying were as wild and loud as when it started. The three of us garnered not even the slightest glance as we made it to the central staircase.
“Thanks, but I got it from here,” I told the Five-seveN.
He followed us at a short distance.
Lee and I started up the stairs. Getting him upstairs was hard work, and he had no problem letting me do the bulk of it. “Geez, you're so sweaty. What have you been doing?” I said, instantly regretting the words once they left my mouth.
“Uh . . .” He knocked into the railing.
God only knew what happened to his key, so we stumbled to my room and then into his through the open en suite door.
“Come on.” I walked him backward to the bed. His legs bumped up against it. I slid off his jacket, helped him out of his holster, and set them both on the nightstand.
“I mean it.” His hand slid to my butt. “I reallyreallylikeyou.”
“Lee, seriously. Knock it off.” I caught his wrist and tried to force his hand down. “Your whole mad-crush-credibility rolled back to zero after you ran out for your last-minute booty call.”
“Booty call?” The haze left his eyes for a moment. “I just wanted to crash for a minute,” he said. “How was I supposed to know there was a girl in the tent?”
“That's not what I'm talking about. . . .” There's no reasoning with a drunk. “Oh, never mind!”
“I do. Mind.” He dropped backward onto the bed, pulling me down on top of him, hand still on my butt, the other around my waist, his mouth warm and tasting faintly of tequila and lime. “I mind a lot.”
I tried to push myself off of him. His hand left my waist and slid up the nape of my neck, my hair, pinning me to his chest. I wasn't going anywhere.
“C'mon, Maisie. Tell me what you're talking about.”
I had no right to press it. But he was trashed. And I wasn't above taking advantage.
Just ask RaÃºl.
“The night before we left Chicago,” I said. “At the apartment. I wanted to ask you something and you were on the phone, laughing that laugh of yours, and . . . And then you left.”
“Admit it. You like me,” he teased. “You think I'm hot.”
“Jaysus, Lee. You're drunk.”
“Jaysus, Maisie. You're jealous.” He laughed, deep and warm, and it popped something inside me. His fingers traced around my ear, down my jawline to catch my chin. “I was talking to my sister.”
Sure, you were.
“Easy, Cowboy. There's a fine line between cuddling and holding someone down so they can't get away.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I made that mistake at the barn.” He shook his head. “Cuddle, no. Hold down, yes.”
“Where did you go that night, Lee?”
He craned his neck and buried his face in the deep V of my dress. “To . . . er . . . uh . . . pick up a prescription.”
“Okay, darlin',” I said, swinging into the McGrane boys' patented “
let 'em down easy
” Western drawl. “Time to turn in.”
I rolled off of him and he let me. With a groan.
His jacket was on the nightstand. I hung it up. By the time I crossed the room to my own, he was out.
I closed the door.
For as much as I hated his lie, a part of me liked that he didn't want to hurt my feelings, even when he was drunk.
Heady stuff, being pursued like that. Risky and reckless in that overly open sort of way. No girl's above that kind of compliment.
And for that, he didn't deserve to suffer too terribly.
I snuck out into the hall, found a member of the staff, and requested four bottles of Gatorade, a roast beef sandwich, chips, and some birthday cake if there was any left.
By the time I was ready for bed, there was a scratching at my door. The server brought the domed tray into my room and put it on the bed. I gave him a twenty. I didn't know if American dollars were okay or even if I should tip, but he seemed okay with it.
I added one of my mini travel bottles of Excedrin, a couple of B-12 tabs, and a note.
Rest and recover, Champ.