Being Red: Chapter Seventeen

“It feels like we just did this,” Henley says, setting two bottles of tequila and a six-pack of bottled light beer on the granite countertop as the guys roll in carrying a lot more of our gear.

I toss two duffles of ammo unceremoniously onto the couch, rub my palms together to rid them of the feeling of straps pinching my flesh, and turn to face her. “I’d say it feels like déjà vu,” I agree, “if this wasn’t so much fancier.”

I scan the space with its spacious open concept living room and kitchen, my eyes lingering on the massive island separating us. It’s almost bigger than my entire kitchen. And the TV would fit at least two of mine within its area, if not three. The mansion we’re taking over for the weekend is huge, modern, and not at all my style. The oversized house is almost all white and shades of grey, both inside and out. The color alone robs it of any hominess it could have ever hoped to have. I must admit I like the pool, though, despite its generic rectangular shape and the equally unoriginal bushes and patches of grass that serve as landscaping around it. Luckily, the lack of any larger foliage means there will be nowhere for Benjamin Dwight or his men to hide.

My smile is predatory. I can tell by the look Henley gives me.

“Sometimes I think you like your job too much,” she says, pulling food out of the cooler Casey placed in the kitchen beside the enormous stainless steel fridge.

“It has its perks,” I admit.

Like getting rid of baddies who are truly a menace to society. Or perhaps that’s just my way of justifying my questionable lifestyle. Not like I had much choice to begin with, but I’m on this path and there’s no turning back now. I may as well make the best of it. Right now that means getting to work. So, I help Henley unpack the rest of the food before retrieving my suitcase from where Hayden left it for me in the foyer as the guys finish unloading the vehicles in the garage.

I want to choose a room on the upper level, but I send Henley up while I take the only one on the main floor. The room looks out over the pool, but I don’t choose it for the view from the king sized bed. No, I choose this room for the view from the outside looking in. If I’m to be the bait for a hungry wolf, we all agreed I must make myself a juicy sitting duck, and what better way to do so than to frame myself with a convenient set of glass french doors?

Once I set my outfit for this evening on the bed and unpack the rest of  my things as though I couldn’t care less about finding anything again, I step back with my hands on my hips to survey my handiwork. Pleased with the chaotic scene, I zip up my suitcase and set it at the end of the bed. Then I go check on my team’s progress. Henley is still unpacking upstairs in a much more orderly fashion than I did, and the guys are busy readying gear, setting up our surveillance system, and tying into the mansion’s security system and video feed.

“Set a motion alert here,” I tell Glenn, pointing at the small video frame of the empty patio on the other side of the french doors that lead to my room. “I want to know if anyone tries to sneak up on me.”

“You got it,” Glenn says, deep in thought as he clicks through a bunch of menus and types in commands too fast for me to keep up.

Satisfied, I give his shoulder a grateful squeeze and leave him to it. I want to walk the grounds before evening steals what sunlight remains. It’s one thing to look at the architectural plans detailing the grand patio and pool area and another to get a feel for the layout in person.

“Babe,” I say, the word slipping naturally from my lips but leaving an uncomfortable feeling in my chest. When Hayden’s attention instantly snaps to me and he pauses what he’s doing to focus on whatever I might need, I feel almost guilty, and the sensation in my chest grows heavier. But now isn’t the time to dwell on whether his love for me is really as sincere as it feels in this moment, so I shove my emotions aside and say, “Let’s do a walkthrough before we lose the light.”

“Sure thing,” he agrees, setting aside his armored vest to join me.

When he nears, Hayden grabs my hips and pulls me in for a lingering kiss. I am reminded again that he may actually love me. His affection feels so genuine today, and kissing him back isn’t as difficult as it has been recently. A small voice in the back of my mind asks if I can trust the feeling. The truth is, I don’t know. There are few things I can trust these days, and no matter how it may feel, I am not sure a bond formed from my forced upbringing is one of them.

“Get a room!” Casey yells, drawing me from my thoughts. He tosses a pair of black tactical gloves at us, and we break apart to throw him twin glares.

“Back to work!” I tease, happy to lean into our usual group dynamic.

“If only my boss would set a better example,” Casey tuts with a disapproving expression more befitting of a nun than a seasoned mercenary.

I laugh, and it feels so natural. Suddenly I wish more than anything that I could trust the bonds I have with my team members. We have been through so much together, had each other’s backs for years, and I have to wonder if there are perhaps some things that Gregor’s machinations cannot pervert. Maybe the bonds we share are stronger than the will of the man orchestrating it all. If only I knew.

To maintain the levity in spite of my weighty thoughts, I grab Casey’s gloves off the floor and toss them at his head. He swipes them out of the air with a dramatic flourish before they make contact.

“Missed me!” he taunts with a triumphant laugh.

“Dammit. Pipe down,” Glenn tries hard not to smile when he looks up from his laptop. “Some of us are actually trying to work around here.”

“Sorry,” we all say in unison, none of us particularly sincere as we hold in our laughter.

“What are we sorry for?” Henley asks.

“Look who decided to join the party!” says Casey, offering a wide grin to soften the insult.

“What’s next?” she asks me, ignoring him entirely. “I can make dinner after I organize my gear.” With a wicked grin, she adds, “We all know my cooking is better than that shite Casey tries to pass off as food.”

“Nice burn,” says Hayden, giving his sister a nod of approval.

“I never claimed to be able to cook,” Casey shrugs, unperturbed. “It wasn’t in the job description.”

“Anything’s better than that gelatinous red pile you call spaghetti,” Glenn mutters. Then louder, “Now with all due respect, shut the hell up or get the hell out so I can concentrate. This is a delicate process and I don’t want to miss anything.” 

Properly chastened this time, Casey goes back to cleaning his rifle, Henley hurries to give her gear a once-over, and Glenn turns back to his computer. Once everyone is hard at work, I lead Hayden to my room, pick my way through the obstacle of my things strewn about, and throw open the large glass doors. The early evening air rushes in, already far cooler than the indoors, and I grab a hoodie off the floor, pulling it over my head to fend off the chill.

We walk out onto the expansive patio side by side and immediately look back to scan the doorway and surrounding walls. There is a security camera to the left, and I note it must be the one Glenn added the motion alert to for me since it is aimed straight at the french doors leading into my room. There is another camera a few feet away that monitors the pool.

 “There is almost nowhere to hide unless you’re a racoon or something,” Hayden says, echoing my thoughts from earlier.

I nod, “It’s great for security, but it also means we have no way to conceal ourselves either.” I’m glad our plan isn’t dependent on such a strategy, and I highly doubt Dante’s will be either. His persona doesn’t really scream ‘subtle’ to me. “As we discussed, I still think they will hit hard and fast to try to force our hand and to give us less time to react. They know we might be watching, but they won’t expect us to be on high alert on our supposed time off.”

As we work our way around the rest of the house looking for any weaknesses in our defenses or breaks in our surveillance, we note all possible points of entry.

Hayden points to the kitchen window, and I laugh.

“I don’t think anyone’s hoisting themself through that window just to land in the sink,” I say. “Not when they can waltz right in through the patio doors where I’m sleeping or simply use the enormous glass door or multitude of windows right around the corner that empty much more conveniently into the living room.”

“I’m just covering all the bases,” he says.

“We’ve spent so much time together, you’re starting to sound like me,” I tease. Perhaps it’s my near-death experience talking, but I say, “This time I just want to be practical and not overthink everything. This house is almost all concrete and glass. Dante and his crew are going to take the easy way in.”

“This one’s perfect then,” Hayden says with a grin, pointing at the small frosted glass of the bathroom window which is high enough on the wall that it has to be at ceiling height on the inside.

I poke his arm in annoyance but can’t help smiling. “No. Not that one either,” I laugh.

“I miss this,” he says. “Laughing with you.”

I’m not immediately sure how to respond, but I quickly settle for, “Me too.”

It’s the right thing to say. If he’s playing me, then he’ll think I’m still under his influence. But if he’s not? I don’t know. It’s not like we have a future together either way. I am what he hates, and this isn’t a fairytale. We won’t be together in the end, and I don’t know if two people at such odds can even be friends.

So I smile and continue our walk around the perimeter of the house. I hope my smile looks more supportive than wistful and that Hayden thinks I’m just ready to be done walking the grounds so I can eat dinner and not that I’m running away because I don’t want to deal with any more emotions right now.

We finish our rounds of the exterior of the house just as the sun is setting. We agree the front door is the most fortified entry point, aside from busting through a concrete wall. The door is a solid piece of steel, which is supposed to look modern and artsy. To me it just looks industrial and uninviting, but in this case, that’s exactly the message we want to send. Satisfied, I lead us back into the house.

The aroma of enchiladas greets us. I inhale deeply in appreciation and anticipation. Henley really is a wizard in the kitchen, and I can tell she has done something amazing with beef, beans, peppers, and cheese. I hope she’s made her homemade avocado salsa too. I think I can smell it, the delicious combination of avocado, lime, and cilantro wafting to my nose. Perhaps I really can detect it with my not entirely human sense of smell. Either way, my mouth waters, and I am so thankful Dante and his goons are very unlikely to come for me during dinnertime. I’d hate for them to ruin this meal for me, although it would give me another excellent reason to punish them.

“Let me just slip into something more comfortable real quick,” I say to no one in particular and everyone at once.

When I return to the kitchen, I am wearing the outfit I set aside earlier: a Kevlar vest beneath a matched set of blue silk pajamas and a pair of fuzzy, polka-dot socks with grippy soles. I have a knife strapped to each wrist and ankle. I feel prepared for anything.

“Let’s eat!” I say, ready to down my food before I have to put down some wild animals.

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