The last time I’d visited, the original offices of Ford Enterprises had taken up at least ten floors of the Sovereign, from the 11th floor to the 21st, but it had only expanded since then. Even though it was no longer the beating heart of the business empire – that honor had been split up and passed to the offices run by professional CEOs in various locations around the country – the original offices had always held a specific place in my family’s collective hearts. This had been where the business had first taken root, where my grandparents had dug their heels in and carved out a place for themselves, and they had always treated it as hallowed ground. No real decisions passed through the halls anymore, but it was still a place of prestige.
At this time of night, the other offices in the Sovereign were closed. The only visible lights I could see, just before we pulled into the underground parking garage, came from a band of illuminated windows comprising about two floors. That would be the fundraiser, located in the converted conference room. It was a lucky streak that no one else in the Ford offices or in the building, as a whole, had been tasked to work late. Dealing with bleary-eyed computer operators and interns wouldn’t have been a gamebreaker, but there wasn’t any reason to look down on a windfall that would probably make things easier, either.
Our driver pulled into a parking spot and switched the car off, then exited and opened the door to allow my grandmother and me to step out of the vehicle. Devlin and CJ joined us ladies and the four of us made our way over to the elevator.
It almost felt normal. Before I’d decided to pursue a less-than-legal lifestyle, I’d attended any number of fundraising dinners and charity balls with an assortment of perfectly functional, yet fundamentally boring gentleman callers. It had been expected that, as a nominally public figure, I would eventually find someone suitable to marry so that I could pop out babies and continue the family name. My own opinions on the matter hadn’t ever seemed to interfere with the plans of my parents and grandparents.
That hadn’t been pleasant, for obvious reasons, but it hadn’t taken any of the allure away from formal events like this. I enjoyed getting dressed up in fancy clothes that I couldn’t reasonably just wear out on the streets. There hadn’t been many opportunities for me to indulge in that side of my personality since the Lady’s manipulations had forced us to go on the run. So, even though I’d only agreed to attend this particular fundraiser to case the building for a later excursion, I wasn’t going to put up too much of a fight about the circumstances said casing would be happening under.
“So,” Devlin said, while we waited for the elevator to make its way back down to us. “Can you tell us a bit about what exactly we’re raising money for? I know that it’s for Sarah’s sister and some cause she’s championing but, aside from that, she’s been a little light on the details.”
Virginia checked the time on her phone before responding. “Well, you know what her sister actually does for a living, don’t you?”
“She’s a surgeon of some kind, unless I’m getting it horribly wrong.”
“That’s about as much as I can understand,” Virginia said. “Not so much with the actual surgery nowadays, but she’s still got the skills from what I hear.”
“Pediatrics,” I offered. “At least, that’s what she was specializing in the last time we spoke. She might have changed her mind, honestly, or just decided to go with something else.”
“Ah, yes, that’s what it was.” Virginia beamed at me. “Anyway, she decided to step back from the ER a couple years back so that she could devote more of her attention to the administrative side of things. She was always good at that. Getting donors to provide the money to upgrade the facilities, seeing to it that there weren’t little babies waiting for treatment, that kind of thing. Makes sense when you think about it.”
“Why’s that?” Devlin asked.
Virginia opened her mouth to respond, visibly thought better of it, and changed the topic in an instant. If I could read the blatant microexpressions on her face, then Devlin surely could. He said nothing about it, though. His cover identity probably wouldn’t be a master of nonverbal communication and, even if the cover ID was skilled in that area, it was still within reason that he’d want to keep those abilities secret for as long as possible.
“She’s always had a soft spot for ‘em,” Virginia said.
That was true, as far as I remembered. Virginia just wasn’t telling the whole truth. But who was I to judge someone for a little bit of deliberate obfuscation?
The elevator arrived and we stepped inside. Devlin didn’t speak again until we were headed up to the Tower’s fifteenth floor. “So, this fundraiser is for the hospital?”
Virginia shook her head. “No, no! Well, not really. See, there’s a lot of babies and teenagers that aren’t close enough to her hospital to get the care they’re looking for.”
“Not close enough,” I said darkly, “or not rich enough.”
“Maybe a little bit of that, too,” Virginia said. She didn’t seem the slightest bit perturbed by the change in my mood. Perhaps she knew me better than to take the bait or perhaps she was simply wrapped up in her story. “We all decided – your mother and your father too, Sarah – that the best thing we could do for them would to be to establish a foundation that works toward building or funding hospitals inside their communities. That way, even after we’re gone, they won’t be plain out of luck.”
“That’s a noble thing she’s doing,” Devlin said. “Using her abilities to help the people who can’t help themselves, I mean. Not a lot of people who’d go out on a limb like that for people they don’t even know.”
I was careful to keep my eye-roll small enough that only Devlin would notice it. Flattery , however veiled it might be, worked under almost any circumstance, so I nudged him with my hip and pretended that the elevator had simply jostled us together.
“I think so,” Virginia said back with a slightly raised eyebrow. “If I didn’t, you think I’d have squeezed myself into this dress and dragged my wrinkled behind back to the offices?”
Devlin offered her a warm smile. “Your wrinkled behind,” he said gently, “would not have missed this for the world, would it?”
Virginia returned his smile, though hers was a little more mischievous than his. “I think I like you, Mr. Devlin.”
CJ cleared his throat twice, louder than the confined space necessitated. The three of us turned away from our conversation to face him. “Sorry,” he said. “Just got a little tickle in my throat, is all.”
Virginia took his hand in hers and patted him on the cheek. “You’ll be alright, won’t you?”
“Yes ma’am,” CJ said immediately. He stood up straighter and lifted his chin an inch or two. “Of course. I didn’t mean to interrupt your conversation.”
“You’re my date,” Virginia said, “not my professional escort. You can relax, unless you’d rather keep walking around like you’ve got a stick up your butt.”
CJ stared at her, openmouthed as if he couldn’t quite believe those words had passed my stately grandmother’s lips, but he eventually got himself back under control. He nodded once, and the gesture was tight and controlled. The second time he nodded, though, it seemed far more natural. Not quite perfect, but better than before.
I couldn’t help but think about Mila, in the moment. For someone who was technically in our employ – or in the Lady’s, but the lines weren’t likely to ever be perfectly clear – she’d never bothered with decorum or awkwardness. I supposed there were benefits to a little bit of emotional space.
The elevator dinged to let us know we’d arrived and a subtle wave passed through us all. Virginia seemed to gather herself up, preparing herself for an evening battling with skinflints and penny-pinchers, while still remaining the epitome of grace and elegance. CJ immediately retreated back into himself; not as much as on the ride up, or during the car ride over, but enough that the hungry sharks of high society would sense weakness from a mile away.
Devlin noticed the taut muscles on CJ’s body at the same time I did. He put a hand on the man’s shoulder and flashed his most brilliant grin. “You’ll have to help me out here, alright? New guy in town, all sorts of new people to deal with. I’ll bet you know your way around these types just fine.”
CJ’s shoulders came up slightly, then dropped. “I know a few of them,” he said weakly.
“A few more than me, then!” Devlin clapped CJ on the back. “So we’ll just have to figure out a way to get through the rest of them, won’t we?”
CJ responded with a thin, watery smile. It was the most emotion I’d seen him, aside from fear or anxiety, since I’d caught him openly staring at Virginia.
The elevator doors slid open and the four of us stepped out into the fundraiser. CJ held out his hand, palm up, and Virginia laid her hand to rest there. Devlin created a space between his elbow and his side that I could slip my arm through.
My sister and I had a wealth of issues, but I’d never been one to deny objective fact. The woman could decorate. The oversized conference room I could just barely remember had been transformed into a lavish, fairytale ballroom. There was plenty of room overhead and streamers and balloons populated the air above our heads. At eye level, a wealth of tables stretched out from the elevator clear to the other side of the room, stopping just shy of a portable speaking dais that had been installed at the far end.
If it weren’t for the adults in expensive, tailored suits smiling empty smiles at each other and jostling for social position with a dozen minor maneuvers, I would have immediately equated the conference room to the secret lair of the Urchins. It had the same feeling of fevered whispers and hive mentality. As it was, however, I was more reminded of the Green Light gala in London. The people here were probably only arranging to take advantage of tax shelters or seeking positions on the board of one charity or another, though, while the people at the Green Light gala had been possessed of more sinister goals.
Of course, I’d attended that particular gala, and I hadn’t done so for strictly altruistic reasons. Morally, it was a thin line to walk.
Almost as soon as the elevator doors shut behind us, people noticed our arrival. Those standing closest to us broke off from their conversations, in order to offer my grandmother lavish greetings. When they realized that there were two Fords in attendance, instead of just the one they’d expected and presumably prepared for, a wealth of bland greetings and well wishes came my way as well. I accepted, deflected, and parried each pleasantry with an unconscious ease. One of the first things I’d learned from my parents was the ability to appear interested in conversation, without actually paying attention to it, after all.
Devlin and CJ passed beneath everyone’s notice. For Devlin’s part, I imagined that he’d found a way to subconsciously make himself beneath notice. I couldn’t imagine how he’d done it, but it was within the realm of possibility. For CJ, however, the benign neglect he endured was just a natural side-effect of his demeanor and relative namelessness. In the minds of the fundraiser’s guests, there would be plenty of time to fish for information on the pair escorting the two Ford women into their party after they’d properly flattered the Ford women themselves.
As much as I appreciated the return to high society, I could have done without the sycophants. Virginia, on the other hand, seemed to swell under the attention. She returned a warm greeting to everyone who offered one to her, shook each outstretched hand, and kissed cheeks. In her wake, we made our way through the room, pausing only when we reached a table near the speaking dais at the front of the room.
A table tent had been embroidered with Virginia’s full name and placed at the center of the table. Virginia picked a spot and allowed CJ to pull her chair out for her before taking a seat. Devlin lifted an eyebrow behind the man’s back but he did the exact same thing for me a moment later.
“Were you expecting other people?” I asked, carefully maintaining a polite smile as I talked through my teeth.
“Why, Sarah,” Virginia said, “I’ve got you and your new friend as company. Who else could I possibly want to spend time with?”
I wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic. I also didn’t particularly care to find out. “That’s for you?” I asked, gesturing at the dais.
Virginia sighed and allowed her thousand watt smile to dim slightly. “You’d think that your sister would’ve been happy enough to even get me here, but no.” She dragged out the last syllable until I chuckled at her ridiculousness.
“Do you already have something written?”
She shook her head. “I’m an old woman who ought to be in bed already,” she said. “If I just climb up there and repeat the same word for twenty minutes, they’ll still empty out their pockets and pat themselves on the back for it.”
“For all the good it’ll do,” I muttered.
“What was that?”
“Nothing, nothing.” I waved a hand dismissively in front of my face. “When are you giving your speech?”
Virginia removed a slim cell phone from her purse and checked the time. “An hour, give or take. Enough time to grease the pump a little bit more, I guess. CJ?”
CJ pushed his chair away from the table and offered Virginia his assistance. Leaning heavily on him – a little more heavily than she seemed to need, I noticed – my grandmother got back to her feet.
“You’re just leaving us here by ourselves?” I protested, mainly for appearances. If Virginia needed to butter up the local philanthropists for an hour, before giving a twenty minute speech, I had a hard deadline to work under. Scouting wasn’t difficult work, but it never paid to rush any part of a job. It would only take one missed camera to set us on our heels, after all.
“The two of you’ll just have to find something to entertain yourselves with, won’t you?” She patted CJ on the shoulder. “I’ll need him to help me get around, unfortunately. Now, I think I see Veronica Argent over there, if you’d be so kind, CJ.”
Dutifully, CJ allowed Virginia to lean some of her weight on him and the two of them walked off together like that, heads tilted towards each other like they were sharing some secret.
“Well,” Devlin said, when they were safely out of earshot. “They’re not even trying to be subtle about that, are they?”
“Your grandmother and CJ,” he clarified. “You don’t see it?”
“See what, Dev?”
“They’re…” He paused, considered his words, and started over. “If they aren’t involved, Sarah, they’re certainly on the way to it.”
I blinked, mentally flashing through the oddness of the interactions between Virginia and CJ over the past twelve hours or so. Now that Devlin had said it, I couldn’t help but see all of the obvious markers. The way they kept checking each other out; the fact that she’d pressured me into accompanying her, when she’d apparently already ordered a suit for CJ; hell, he’d been openly appreciating her dress from as far back as the house.
But she was my grandmother. Unbidden, my mind attempted to sketch in the details of their relationship and then violently seized up before any images could be offered up.
I squeezed my eyes shut and held out a hand to Devlin, lest he continue speaking and shatter my brain entirely. “I do not want to talk about that.”
“Fair enough,” Devlin said. I could hear the barely suppressed laugh in his voice. “Fair enough. Let’s talk about business, then. When are you going to make your escape?”
I took another second or two to make sure I’d sealed away any thoughts of my grandmother and CJ before opening my eyes and answering. “Soon,” I said. “I’ll probably wait until more people have an opportunity to start circling her and then I’ll slip away.”
“How long are you going to be gone?”
I checked the time on my own phone. “Assuming nothing between here and there is under construction or otherwise off-limits? Maybe forty minutes, if I want to do a thorough job. Add in another ten minutes, since I’ll be photographing and recording everything for you to look through later.”
Devlin nodded thoughtfully. “I can’t help but notice that this plan now leaves me all by myself.”
I reached over and pinched his cheek in the most grandmotherly fashion possible. “I’m sure you’ll be able to keep yourself busy. Who knows? Maybe you’ll make a new friend.”
“Or,” a drawling voice said from behind me, “maybe you’ll get the chance to catch up with an old one.”
I recognized the voice. As soon as the softened consonants and the slow, even baritone reached my ears, my blood went ice cold. My hand fell away from Devlin’s cheek and I turned to get a good look at the newcomer to our table.
The man was a little over six feet tall, tanned, and muscular in a way that reminded me of swimmers than weight lifters. He wore a tailored suit, just like everyone else at the fundraiser, but a string tie was knotted around his throat instead of something more traditional. His eyes, a shade of green eerily reminiscent of new money, glittered with undisguised amusement.
“Or I got another idea,” the Texan said. He hooked an empty chair with one boot, pulled it out, and dropped unceremoniously into it. “All three of us can have a little sit-down. How’s that sound to ya’ll?”