Happy Valentines Day, 2018. I think you'll enjoy this chapter. :-)
September 13, 2003
I’d set up the library much as it had been for that horrible conference some two years ago after 9-11.I figured that would be the best place for everyone to meet, since there were chairs around the edge of the room, while the center was empty.The other option was the dining room table, but then the problem would be figuring out where everyone would eat, so in the end, this seemed to work best. At one end of the room I’d set up an easel with a paper pad on it, and I’d made a schematic of what we knew and what we were dealing with, such as I could piece together, to give us someplace to start.
“What time does everyone get here?” Matt asked me.
“This afternoon,” I said.“I planned to start our meeting at 3:00.”
“Should be interesting,” he said.
“That’s probably an understatement,” I said ruefully.I was pretty uptight about this meeting, but Matt was probably the only one who knew that.
“Where’s your mother?”
“She went for a ride this morning, and from what I can tell, after that she went to hide in her room,” I said.
“Probably a good idea,” he said.“Takes some guts for her to even be here.”
“She’s trying to reinvent herself,” I said with a shrug.“That means she has to clean up her act, and she’ll need all of the people here to be on her side.”
“She’ll owe them,” he said, shaking his head.“That’s going to bug the shit out of her.”
“I’m more worried about what kind of trouble Lord Preston is trying to cause,” I said. I decided it was important to focus on one evil maniac at a time.“I still haven’t figured out what his deal is.”
“Neither have I,” Matt said.I’d shared what Brad had told me with Matt, Mary Ellen, Tiffany, and my mother, but none of us had been able to figure out what he was up to.“JP will be here.Maybe he’ll put it all together.”
“Maybe,” I said, although I was more inclined to put my money on either Brad or my mother.This whole business was a little too unsavory and complicated for conventional thinking.
“I just spoke to Alex,” Mary Ellen said, as she breezed into the room.“They should be here within the hour.”
“Everyone else should get here soon as well,” I said.I’d already sent the car to the airport to pick up JP, Stef, and the rest of their group.
“Then the fun begins,” Mary Ellen said with a chuckle.“I’m looking forward to seeing Mother explain herself.”
“She’s not the only one who has pissed people off,” I said, reminding her that she’d acted pretty heinously.
“The only person I’ve been unpleasant to is JJ, and he won’t be here,” she said.“Besides, they’ll all be busy with Lord Preston and Mother.”
“Probably right,” Matt agreed.
One of the maids walked into the room, halting our conversation.“Mr. Danfield, the car is about to pull up.”
“Thank you,” I responded politely, and went to the foyer to welcome my guests to my ancestral home.Mary Ellen chose to vanish to her own room, which told me she was a little more stressed about seeing these people than she let on. Stef was first through the door, of course.“Welcome!”
“Thank you so much for hosting us,” Stef said.
“It’s the least I can do, considering I lived with you for over three years,” I said with a smile.
“Just your presence alone was compensation enough, which is saying something, considering the size of your appetite,” JP said, cracking me up.Darius and Will were next, followed by Brad.
“We can show you to your rooms,” I said, and had the staff there to assist me.“The Duke, Alex, and Nana should be arriving shortly.I plan to meet at 3:00 in the library.”
“We will see you then,” JP said.They all went off to their rooms except Brad.
“Jake Pike is supposed to be here soon.We missed him at the airport.Will you make sure he can get past the gates?” he said.
“Of course,” I said, and went to handle that.
As soon as I’d done that, I heard the sound of a helicopter.That sound drew Mary Ellen out of her room, and she, Matt and I went out front to greet our English contingent.We watched as the helicopter banked then lowered itself gently onto the front lawn, and then waited until the rotors stopped, before walking near the craft.There was no reason to get decapitated due to an overzealous greeting.
Nana was the first out of the helicopter, followed by the Duke.We were engrossed in greeting them while Alex was all but whisked off by Mary Ellen.“Wade, how wonderful to see you,” Nana said, giving me a genuine hug and a kiss.
“It’s good to see you too,” I said.“Welcome home.”
“The weather’s a bit warmer than the last time I was here,” the Duke said.“Perhaps there will be time for riding?”
“We are scheduled to meet with everyone at 3:00 in the library,” I said, cluing them into the schedule.“I’m not sure if we’ll have time after that, but you are certainly welcome to ride tomorrow.”
“Then we shall play it by ear,” he pronounced.We led them up to the house, but Nana didn’t need an escort to her room, and she led the Duke off with her.Matt raised an eyebrow.
“That’s certainly not proper, her sharing a room with him,” Matt joked, cracking me up.
“Dude, that’s the first time I’ve heard you say ‘proper’,” I teased.
At 2:55, Brad and Will appeared, followed shortly after that by the arrival of Jake Pike.“Sorry I was almost late,” he said, and looked a little breathless.
“You made it on time,” Brad said, smiling at him.I was trying to decide if they’d fucked yet, but I couldn’t get a read on it.
“I was delayed in DC,” he said softly, so only the four of us could hear him.“Talked to a guy at the South African Embassy.He told me that the real power in the Preston household is Lady Preston.She calls the shots, and he goes with the flow.”
“So he brought the title, and respectability to the marriage, and now he is reduced to being nothing more than a doormat?” Brad asked.
“We were struggling to figure out how he can at one moment be an idiot, and another be brilliant,” Jake said.“Maybe he’s only brilliant when he’s doing what his wife tells him to do.”
“Maybe,” I agreed, but we all chuckled at that.
Everyone else arrived, greeting each other in a relatively pleasant way, only it was restrained because there were still a lot of bad feelings.The tension levels were high, but they soared off the scale when my mother walked in.She looked incredibly chic in a gray tailored suit, and I actually felt sorry for her until I remembered all that she’d done to deserve this animosity.Still, I was impressed with her courage.
“Welcome,” I said to the crowd.“We have a mystery on our hands, one that I am convinced involves all of us.The purpose of this assembly is to see if we can put our collective knowledge together and work out what is going on.”
“So this is just an information session, not a strategy session?” JP asked.
“I think we have to take things one step at a time,” I said.“It is important that we are open and candid, and that means that as far as these issues go, we must trust each other.”
Will was sitting on the couch next to Darius, but he stood and walked up to my mother, who sat there in one of the leather side chairs like she was a statue.I knew that someone had to take the bull by the horns and address my mother’s issues; otherwise this conference would go nowhere.I’d expected that it would be Brad, who would be more on a level with her, or perhaps JP, as the head of his family.I was a little nervous that Will opted to confront her, and even more apprehensive when I saw the fire in his eyes, revealing the rage that burned behind them.“You worked pretty hard this summer to mess up my life, and to mess up the lives of Zach and JJ,” he said to her in an assertive way.“You all but destroyed JJ’s skating career, and he was the winner of the US National Championship, the best skater in the country.You attempted to destroy one of the most important relationships in my life, and you plotted to ruin Zach’s career as well.He’s one of the best running backs in the NCAA, yet you had him drugged with narcotics and threatened to blackmail him.What you did was despicable.”
She swallowed hard, and then looked him in the eye.“In retrospect, my motives were positive, in that I wanted to preserve my daughter’s marriage, but my methods in doing so were not.I apologize for any harm you, Jeremy, or Zach Hayes suffered.”That blew us all away, but it didn’t take the wind out of Will’s sails.
“Thank you for your apology, and I accept it on behalf of me, Zach, and my brother,” Will said.“But I want you to know that the reason this ended so calmly is because Wade all but begged us to back off and let it roll off our backs.”
“That would seem to be a wise course of action in this situation,” the Duke said, in a vain attempt to save my mother.
“I may only be seventeen, but I’ve been raised by some pretty smart guys, and I’m not an idiot,” Will said.“I’ve got my family behind me, and my friends behind me, at least most of the time.”As he said that last phrase, he glared at Nana, who almost recoiled from his intense look.“So we’re good, and all is well, but if you fuck with me again, I will hunt you down and make sure you can never harm me or the people I care about again.”
Mary Ellen leaned over and whispered in my ear.“Holy shit, I see what you mean.”I’d told her earlier that Will was hell on wheels, and she’d finally gotten to see him in action.It was all I could do to refrain from laughing.
“Then let us both hope our interests remain aligned,” Mother said coldly.This had to grate on her to the extreme, to be lectured and threatened by some young punk, but amazingly enough, it seemed to get through to her.I decided that having Will do this, confront her, would probably work out well.She wouldn’t take his threats seriously, at least not visibly, but she would know he was dangerous.If Brad, JP, or Stef had said that, she may have seen it as a challenge.
“Cool,” Will said, and smiled at her.He held out his hand, and Mother stood up and shook it, returning his smile half-heartedly.
“One moment young man,” Nana said, as Will went to walk back to his seat.“And what did I do to make you think I wasn’t your friend?”
She expected Will to melt under her assault, but he was still pretty fired up.“Uh oh,” Matt said to me sotto voce.
“When Trevor was beaten up, you jumped on the bandwagon, accusing me of being behind it,” he said to her boldly.“Were you aware that I had pledged not to do anything to him?”She said nothing.“Were you?” Will demanded.
“I was,” she responded through clenched teeth.
“Then I would have expected that you, as a friend, would believe me, and would have faith in me, and that you’d have my back,” he spat at her.“Instead, the first thing you do is sell me down the river.”He turned to address the Duke.“Your Grace, I would think you would be a good arbiter of honor in this situation.Is that the way one is supposed to treat one’s friends?”This whole scene was so hysterical, I felt my controls starting to fail me, especially when Matt and Mary Ellen were visibly snickering.
“I would be most interested to know if that’s appropriate behavior as well,” Mary Ellen chimed in, just to perpetuate the situation.
“It is not,” the Duke pronounced, getting a very foul look from Nana.
“You know, you have been such a rock in my life,” Will said to Nana.“When we went to Buzz Dalby’s funeral, one of his nephews took me to see his rodeo horse.This guy was a complete asshole, and the first thing he did was shock the hell out of the horse with a prod.” It was funny to see all of us get upset at that, at the thought of a horse suffering from abuse.“After a rather unpleasant conversation, I bet him that I could saddle the horse and ride her around the ring.If I could do it, I got the horse, but if he won, I had to give him $5,000.I made the bet because I knew I could do it, because you were the person who trained me how to deal with horses.The stable hands were stunned that in the hour I had to prepare, I didn’t try to mount her at all, I just put ointment on her wounds, and eyeballed her, and talked to her.You taught me to build that trust.So when it came time to ride her, she tried to buck me off, but not all that hard, and I was able to do it.Now she lives at Escorial.That’s all you.”
Nana smiled. “Good job.”Then she got up and gave Will a big hug.“I won’t doubt you again.”
“Thanks,” he said, and then sat down.Sometimes Will’s theatrics created really explosive situations, but in this case, he’d actually managed to eliminate most of the tension in the room.My mother had to deal with him, but when she’d apologized to Will, it was as if she was apologizing to all of us.And by calling Nana out, he’d dropped her and the Duke off of their high horses, as they both tended to look down their noses at the rest of us, JP excluded, as being junior to them.
“Now that we have gotten those things out of the way, I would like to discuss the situation we’re currently facing,” Brad said.“So far, the death toll in this deal is at least three people, and I’m not willing to see anyone else lose their life.”
“Three people?” Nana asked.
“Buzz Dalby, my pilot, and my copilot,” Brad said.“It seems that whatever is going on is tied to Lord Preston, and none of us have been able to figure out what exactly his deal is.”
“He is a real estate developer in South Africa,” Alex said.
“He is not,” Brad said to him.“He is linked to the drug cartels in South Africa, and he is currently in Mexico trying to stir up trouble with those cartels.”
Alex looked questioningly at his grandfather, who seemed to be gathering his thoughts.“My son has been married twice.His first marriage was to Alex’s mother.He then remarried.It is his second wife that is the source of these problems.”
“Please enlighten us,” I said, to prod him on.
“It will require a bit of family history, so I would impose on you to be patient until I have finished laying it out,” the Duke said.
“You have the floor,” JP said in a friendly way.
“The first Duke of Suffolk had three sons, and these three sons pursued very different paths.The oldest, my ancestor, was a politician and a courtier, as was expected of someone of his rank, especially in those days,” he said.We all ignored his incredibly snobby tone.“The youngest son went into the Royal Navy and became one of Britain’s most successful naval officers of the Napoleonic Wars.”
“Are you on speaking terms with that branch of the family?” Mary Ellen asked.
“There have been various family tussles that have made them less than intimate with us,” the Duke said.“They are friendly acquaintances at this point, nothing more.”
“If for no other reason than they usually support the Labour Party,” Alex joked.
“That is a good reason,” the Duke said, being the dedicated Tory that he was.“It was the middle son who caused the most problems, and the great schism in our family.His name was Albert, and he was forced to leave England when the first Duke all but disowned him for his gambling and whoring.”
“He was a party animal,” Will said to Darius.
“He was purportedly one of the most charming men in the realm, but completely unscrupulous, and devoid of morals.He went to India to make his fortune, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?” I asked, trying to follow his reasoning.
“You are probably familiar with the Opium Wars between Britain and China,” the Duke said.“Albert Granger was responsible for setting up and administering the opium trade.”I wasn’t completely up on that side of history, but JP was.
“As I recall, the justification for that was that the Chinese would only legally accept silver in trade for tea, but there was illegal demand for opium.In that way, by exporting opium to pay for tea, the East India Company was able to avoid a massive silver drain,” JP said.
“That was the challenge,” the Duke said.
“So Albert Granger was, to all appearances, a nineteenth century drug lord,” Brad concluded.
The Duke looked intensely irritated by that, and then relented.“That is a reasonable way to analogize it,” he said in his lofty way.“When Charles, my son, found himself single, he opted to date and marry Sabrina Granger.”
“Why is that significant?” I asked.She would have become Sabrina Granger when she married Lord Preston anyway.
“Because that was her maiden name,” the Duke said.“Sabrina Granger is a descendant of Albert Granger.Charles would have had me believe that their marriage was the reunion of two branches of the family after all these years.”
“But you did not,” JP said, stating the question as a fact.“Why?”
“Because they had not given up on their primary business venture, narcotics, and there was no place in our family tree for such miscreants,” he said, the disdain dripping off his words.“My father was still alive then, and he was quite well-connected politically.It was due to his influence that I was able to retain Alex in Britain after their marriage, even when Charles left for South Africa.”
My mind was reeling from this.My mother had thought Lady Preston was a DeBeers heiress, but that would seem to be wrong, unless she was linked to that family as well.I looked at her and could see her smirking, which was almost as scary as the Duke’s comments.What did she know about this, and what new scheme was she plotting?“Why didn’t you tell us this before?” Mary Ellen demanded.
The Duke gave her a patronizing look, as if to challenge her right to grill him like a prosecutor, but he answered her anyway.“It was a tawdry affair, and as we have all but disowned Charles, there seemed no reason to bring up skeletons in family closets.In the same way, we did not dig too deeply into some of your past relationships or family matters.”
I found his attitude infuriating, enough that it sparked me to say something.“I hardly think that failing to disclose to us that Mary Ellen’s future father-in-law is a drug lord is a tawdry skeleton best left hidden.”
“Wade, we do our best to pretend it isn’t so, and perhaps that has led us to believe that to be the case.I am sorry if our self-delusion led us to deceive you,” the Duke said.I nodded, because no good would come of fighting over this.
“I talked to some guys in the South African embassy,” Jake said.“They said that Lady Preston pretty much runs the show, and that Lord Preston does what she tells him to do.”
“Sounds like they know him pretty well,” Alex said disdainfully.
“I certainly hope people don’t say that about us,” Mary Ellen said playfully.
“Not at this point, anyway,” he said, smiling at her.
“What happens when Your Grace sadly passes on, and Lord Preston becomes the Duke of Suffolk?” Stef asked.
“That will not happen,” the Duke said firmly.
“How can you preclude him from claiming his inheritance, his title?” JP asked.
“Property no longer passes with the title, so I have structured our estate such that it will go directly to Alex and his heirs,” the Duke said.
“Yes, but that does not affect the dukedom, the title,” JP countered.
“That may be a tougher battle,” the Duke said.He was clearly dodging the issue, but it seemed impolite to press him further.I wondered what big scheme he had dreamed up. Yet another thing to worry about.
“I learned one other thing,” Jake said, taking the pressure off the Duke.
“Indeed?” JP asked.
“I learned the code word for their plans,” he said.
“When you say ‘their’ plans, you are referring to Lord and Lady Preston?” JP asked, for clarity.
“Yes,” Jake confirmed.“I didn’t learn what it meant though.It’s Blankford.”If he had set off a bomb in the room, it would have gotten a less volatile reaction.
“That’s Ricky’s title,” Mary Ellen said, showing some maternal concern.“Are they planning to do something to Ricky?”
“Do Lord and Lady Preston have children?” I asked.I already knew exactly where this was going; I was just trying to guide the others to the same conclusion.
“They do,” the Duke said.He looked truly flustered, something that would have shocked Alex if he weren’t doing even worse.In fact, Alex looked more freaked out now than he did at Thanksgiving dinner when Mary Ellen told him she was carrying his baby.“They have a son, who is ten, and a daughter, who is eight.”
“And the only thing standing between them and inheriting the Dukedom of Suffolk is Alex and Ricky,” I said, laying it out there.
“That’s why they called it Operation Blankford,” Mary Ellen exclaimed, making the whole thing sound like it was casted as a script for Mission Impossible.“Alex, we have to protect our son.”
“He’s quite safe at home, dear,” Alex said, “but I will make some phone calls to make sure of it.”
“Let’s take a break so you can do that,” I said, recognizing that everyone was much too upset to go on without dealing with the basic security issues.
“Before you go, I’d like to know if you’ve told anyone you were going to be here,” Jake asked Alex and the Duke.
“Only our staff,” Alex said.
“I need to talk to you,” Jake said to me urgently.
“We’ll meet back here after dinner,” I announced.I led Jake, Brad, Matt, and Will off to the Conservatory where we could speak privately.
“What kind of security do you have here?” Jake asked.
“We have a staff of about fifteen people,” I explained.“Four of them are employed in the house, five are employed in the stables, and the others manage the grounds.The household staff generally is responsible for admitting people to the estate.”
“Do you have any weapons here?” he asked.He was starting to freak me out just a bit.
“You think they’re going to attack us here?” Matt asked.
“It would give them an ideal opportunity,” Jake said.“Everyone who stands in their way is here except for an infant left back in England.”
“And if they were all killed, who would fight to keep that infant out of Lord Preston’s hands,” I mused.Presumably Ricky’s paternal grandfather, who would then be the Duke of Suffolk, would be seen as an ideal guardian.“We have some hunting rifles, but that’s it.”
“I think we need to hire security, and have them brought in now,” Jake said urgently.
“I see no reason why such a precaution is unwise,” JP said.
“If you give the word, I can set it up, but you’ll have to coordinate with your grounds people,” Jake said.
I looked at all of them, and even got a slight nod from Matt.“Do it,” I said.
September 13, 2003
I was lounging on the couch, watching the taped results of the Nebelhorn competition.It had taken place last week, and had been won by a Canadian, Nicholas Young, but I’d been too busy to actually view it until now.Even as I watched Young skate, I grudgingly gave him kudos for doing really well, especially since he’d been competing in the juniors last year and had just made the jump to the seniors.I knew from personal experience how tough that could be.I knew the guy who won silver pretty well.Scott Smith skated in Boston, and was a nice enough guy.The guy who won third place, Nick LaRoche, always seemed like he was a mobster, but maybe that was because he came from a totally fucked up family.I watched them skate, and then watched the others who didn’t even make the podium.Watching them skate for the cheering crowds was kind of a bummer, since there was no denying the rush of the competition.If I’d have ramped up my rehab and pushed it, I could have been there.I tried to objectively compare my routine to Nick Young’s, and I was pretty sure I could have beaten him.Then again, remembering the World’s “disaster in Dallas”, it was a good idea not to take anything for granted.
I sat up and instinctively straightened my hair, then thought about what my life would have been like if I were still skating.I’d be in that pressure cooker environment, with all kinds of stress, but I’d also have a staff taking care of everything and fawning all over me.I remembered the victories, and that made me smile, then I remembered the defeats, and that was less positive.Then I remembered the stifling moral code that was inflicted on me, demanding that I be pure and chaste, and that I do nothing to ruin my public image.That had been truly awful.In the end, I decided that I’d made the right call.I was here in New York, doing well with my social life, doing well in school, and enjoying my freedom.There was no reason for me to miss the highs of winning a competition when the price to pay was so great.
The door flew open, both annoying and scaring me at the same time.I jumped up, wondering who was bursting into the condo on Saturday afternoon, and was surprised to see that it was Carullo.“Sorry,” he said, since he knew how much I hated loud entries like the one he’d just made.“Hands were full.”He was carrying all kinds of stuff, so it was no wonder he’d all but busted down the door.
“No problem,” I said pleasantly, shocking the shit out of him.He probably thought my message was just so much bullshit.But my brothers had done a good job of coaching me on how to handle him, and being bitchy wasn’t going to lure him out of Luka’s grasp and into mine.“Here, let me help you.”
“Thanks,” he said, and let me pick up some of the lighter things.I followed him with his stuff to his room, and set it on his floor.I’d carry it back, but he could sort through it.He must have thought that was a good idea, since he did the same thing with the crap he was carrying.“Who are you, and what have you done with JJ?”
I laughed.“I’m not always a dick.”
“No, you’re not,” he said.He walked up to me and wrapped his arms around me gently, then gave me a nice kiss, one that I returned, making sure not to be more enthusiastic than he was.It wasn’t too hard, since he smelled pretty nasty, like a combination of sweat and ashes.He led me over to his bed, where we both sat down.
“You weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow,” I said.
“Came back early,” he said simply.
“Did you have fun?” I asked, even as I secretly hoped their weekend had been miserable, and that Luka had been bitten by a snake.
“It got old.You can only handle so much beautiful nature,” he said.I agreed with him, but I meant it, and he didn’t.
“Well it’s nice to have you back,” I said.“You want to go get something to eat?”
“I just had lunch,” he said.Something was bugging him, but rather than prod him, I figured I’d let him tell me what it was.“Maybe we can do dinner later.”
“That’s fine,” I said.“I’ll leave you alone so you can unpack.”
“Jay,” he said to stop me.“I’m sorry.”
“What for?”I mean, I thought he should be sorry, but I wanted to know why.
“For leading you on, and then for being a total dick about it when I went away,” he said, then sighed loudly.“I came back because I felt guilty.”
That was irritating, that he only came back because he felt guilty.“You were honest when we started hooking up.You told me you couldn’t be in a relationship.I should have asked you why, and you should have told me.”
“I should have,” he said.“Let me clean up and then we’ll go out, and I’ll tell you what’s been going on in my fucked up mind.”
“Dude, I don’t know if we have that much time,” I joked, making him smile, and then I left him alone to wash the nasty camping smell off his body.