It had been one long-ass day, and even though I’d spent most of my flight time sleeping, I was still pretty exhausted.I sat in the massive dining room, surrounded by family members, hoping that I could just eat and escape before getting sucked into some long discussion.I probably could have pulled that off except for one person:Stef.When I’d gotten here and greeted him, he’d been incredibly cold and frigid, and it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that he was pissed off about JJ and he was going to take it out on me.
This place, Escorial, was my home, and I never regretted moving up here, even when things got a little rough like they were right now.I’d also learned how to deal with situations like this a little better, at least when they didn’t involve my father.In this case, my best bet was to ignore Stef and just go with the flow.If I made any moves or said anything to piss him off, it would just backfire and they’d all pile on me, so I just sat there and ate, wondering if I’d make it out of there before he started launching missiles at me.
“How’s JJ doing?” Dad asked me.I gave him a dirty look, but then relented. It was totally reasonable that they’d want to know how he was, since that’s why we went on this trip in the first place.
“Pissed off,” I said.“But he’ll get over it.”
“The intention was not to anger him,” Stef said in his frosty way.
“No?” I asked.“Then what was the intention?”
“I was worried that you would go there and just annoy him and accomplish nothing,” Stef said, being snitty. I felt all of my resolutions about avoiding conflict fading at this blatant jab.So much for learning how to deal with situations like this.
“Well then the next time someone needs to call him out for being such an ass, instead of coddling him, why don’t you go do it yourself,” I snapped at him.
“I do not coddle him,” Stef objected.
“Well, you do,” I said in a smarmy way that really pissed him off.“I was asked to go out and see if I could help him get his shit together, and Darius told me he devised a plan with you to do that.I went with it, and spent my whole weekend traveling across the country to do just that, and when I get back, all I get is a bunch of crap from you.” I had to really work to keep my volume below Grand’s approved level.
“Not much happening here anyway,” John grumbled, referring to the void that had become the Menlo social life, and conveniently changing the subject.
“This much is true,” Marie echoed. Ryan nodded ruefully.
“I guess that since I got laid, that makes it kind of worthwhile,” I said, mellowing with the two of them. Then I turned to Stef.“You know, if you weren’t so bitchy, I would have filled you in on all the gossip from this weekend.”Stef glared at me, but I’d piqued his curiosity.
“I appreciate you going to New York to try and help JJ out,” my father intervened, trying to shut down our argument.
“You’re welcome,” I said, but I was too annoyed by the whole situation to stick around, and I wasn’t hungry enough to put up with their shit. I got up, preparing to leave, when Grand’s words stopped me.
“I would like to hear how your weekend went, and I am confident that the other people at this table will treat you with respect as you share what happened,” Grand said evenly, giving Stef a nasty look that had an impact on him.
I sat back down, took a bite of food, then after my mouth was empty I told them about our encounter with JJ.It figures that with all the fashionistas in the room, my story would be halted immediately by a discussion on what we were wearing.“I am surprised you were wearing Patrick Christian,” Claire said.
“His stuff usually looks better on guys with no muscle tone at all,” Marie added.
“Thanks,” I said, winking at her.“It worked out pretty well, since I was sitting next to him at dinner.”
“That was my thought,” Stef said, mellowing out a bit.
“Your plan was successful,” I told him with a smile.“I offered to give Patrick his clothes back if he wanted them.”
Stef giggled, and that largely helped to defrost the chill that had been there between us.“And did you?” he asked.
“Well, I took them off for him, but he let me keep them anyway,” I said, winking at him.
“Dude, you slept with Patrick? What did Ella say?” John asked.Of all the Hobarts, he seemed to be the most defensive of her. I told them about her interaction with Darius, and how she decided to leave.
“It does not sound like that helped their relationship,” Jack said, referring to Patrick and Ella.He was only a little less protective than John.I wrote that off to their heterosexual appreciation of what a hot woman Ella was. I was probably lucky that Ryan hadn’t met her; otherwise he may have piled on too.
I shrugged.“Sounds like their relationship is on the rocks anyway.I don’t think that me being with him is going to be the thing that ruins it, anyway.”That was actually a big deal.Despite my general attitude, I wouldn’t have wanted to be the guy responsible for fucking up their deal.
“Yeah, but you were with her boyfriend,” John objected.
“Look,” I said firmly, to make sure I had his attention.“You can worry about that all you want.In my worldview, there are two sides to this, and Darius is on one side, while Ella is on the other.I’m with Darius.”
“So you slept with her boyfriend because you’re on Darius’ side?” John asked, challenging my horrible logic.
“No, I slept with Patrick because he is smoking hot and an amazing piece of ass,” I said with a smile.“I’m just saying that I don’t feel any obligation to Ella, so I don’t feel bad about it.”I didn’t tell him that all the shit Zach had told me about her had pretty much scorched her reputation in my mind.I looked at him intensely, trying to convey to him that this was a really bad argument for him to have, especially after what happened with that Marti chick at our party.He was no angel.He seemed to get that.
“And did Darius give Bellona the brooch?” Stef asked.
“He did, and she loved it,” I said.“He even helped her put it on, and copped a feel at the same time.”
“I hope she was not offended,” Grandmaman said with concern.
“She seemed to be just fine with it,” I said, laughing at how they had Bellona slated as someone who was prim and proper.“He told her he was her date.”
“I am sure she appreciated the attention,” Stef noted.
“So much that she let him take her back to his room,” I said to Stef.His eyes got wide in surprise.“I told you there was good gossip.”
“Darius slept with a woman old enough to be his mother?” Dad asked, as if he should be appalled.
“Seriously?” I asked him caustically. First John decides to moralize to me about sleeping with someone’s boyfriend, and now my father was going to bitch about Darius and Bellona?Sometimes, these people needed a mirror.
“There is a significant age difference,” Grand noted.
“Indeed there is,” Stef said piling on.
I stared at all three of them individually, in what was probably more like a glare.When I looked at Stef, I said “Gathan Hayes.” When I looked at Grand, I said, “That dude at Columbia University.”When I looked at my father, I said “Dustin, the dude in New York who walks around the condo naked.”
They looked at each other and grimaced, while Grandmaman burst out laughing.“I think that is a most succinct way to explain to them that they are being hypocrites.”
“It was very effective,” Claire confirmed, getting an eye roll from my father, which was pretty much a full admission of guilt, at least on his part.Grand was considerably tamed, while Stef was just shameless.It was funny how he’d gotten the rationale he needed and now he’d moved on, while Grand and my father felt the need to wallow in their guilt and hypocrisy.
“Darius passed up a wild time with Paris Hilton to be with Bellona, and he was pretty stoked about it afterward, so I think it turned out alright,” I said.
“I am glad it was an enjoyable experience for him,” Grand said stiffly.Marie, John, and I were totally unable to avoid giggling at him, despite our best efforts.
“And now I am very excited to see Darius,” Stef said.“It seems to me that at one time, we all pledged to be much more interested in his sexual encounters.This is certainly one that is worth hearing about.”
We all laughed at that, and then when the laughter died down, John looked at Ryan and mouthed the words “Stacy’s Mom.”Ryan chuckled and nodded, then John started singing that song by Fountains of Wayne, the first time I’d heard someone break out in song at a dinner at Escorial.
“Stacy, do you remember when I mowed your lawn?” John sang.
Ryan chimed in as his backup and sang “Mowed your lawn.”
“Your mom came out with just a towel on,” John crooned.
Ryan backed him up by singing “Towel on,” then he took over the next verse.“I could tell she liked me from the way she stared.”
John backed him up just like Ryan had, with “Way she stared.”
“And the way she said, "You missed a spot over there",” Ryan concluded.It was hilarious, and while everyone including me was laughing, I was also pretty shocked, because Ryan had an amazing voice. I had no idea he had that much talent.I looked over at Marie, and she just raised an eyebrow in surprise, indicating she didn’t know either.
“I do not think I have heard that song, but I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed hearing you boys sing,” Grandmaman said.
“Dude, I did not know you could sing that well,” I said, then remembered to stoke John’s ego a bit by focusing on him.“I mean, I know you’re good, I just didn’t know he was.”
“I think it is very attractive for a man to have hidden talents,” Stef said to Ryan in a flirtatious way that freaked Ryan out for a second, and made the rest of us laugh.
“Dude, you just won yourself a singing gig in our talent show,” Marie said.Ryan looked at her like he was going to argue, which would have been hilarious, because there was no way he’d get out of that.In the end, he just shrugged.
“That is in two weeks, is it not?” Stef asked.
“It is,” Marie confirmed.She gave me an annoyed look.“You have some rehearsals to do.You missed our practices this weekend.”
“Fine,” I grumbled.She went on to delineate the times we were meeting with the choreographer over the next few weeks, while I pulled out my calendar and made frantic notes.
“This will evidently be quite the production,” Grand noted.“I do not remember the events from prior years being quite so organized.”
“I plan to set the bar higher, to set a new standard,” Marie told him confidently.
“I’m excited to see it,” Jack said, doting on his daughter.
“And you are singing?” Stef asked me skeptically.
“Not unless you want people to run out screaming,” I joked, since I was under no illusion that I had any singing talent.“I’m dancing.”
“You are good at that,” Claire said approvingly.
“I can make my body do almost anything,” I said, getting a look of faux disapproval from her and Grandmaman, and patronizing smiles from Grand, Stef, and my father.
Grandmaman used that as an excuse to ask me about the rest of our visit to New York, so I described our encounter with JJ that morning.“I am unclear how you think this will adjust JJ’s attitude,” Aunt Claire said, more of a question.
I was almost worried that I’d have to handle that query, but my father sighed to show me he was going to field that question.“Look, JJ turns 18 in a few months.I think it’s important that we try to help him get on an even keel before then.”
“His keel was uneven?” Grandmaman asked, but in a way that was designed to lend some humor to the discussion.
“It was,” my father answered firmly, unwilling to be jocular about this at all. “He needs to understand that coming from our family gives him lots of privileges, but it also comes with obligations.And even though he’s done a great job of landing on his feet in New York after a nightmarish summer, he’s been totally self-absorbed and incredibly difficult to deal with.”
“I’m not sure it is possible for him not to be self-absorbed,” Grand observed, which most of us thought was pretty funny, and very true.
“He needs to understand that there are boundaries he has to operate within, and that treating the rest of us badly and being rude to people who are friends of our family is simply not acceptable,” Dad asserted.“The people he is most likely to listen to are his brothers.That’s why they got stuck doing this.”I didn’t think that was true at all, but I really didn’t want to talk about this anymore, so I kept my mouth shut.
“I would have thought he would listen to Stefan,” Claire said, probing, while voicing the same thing I’d been thinking.
“It was thought that I could not effectively convey things to him,” Stef said, with considerable annoyance.It really was just like I’d told him.He coddled JJ, so when it came time to crack down on him, Stef found it almost impossible to do so without damaging their psyches.
“It is a team effort, and it sounds like Will and Darius performed quite well,” Grand said, and then smiled slightly.“That they managed to find a way to enjoy their trip as well is an added bonus.”
“It certainly was,” I said wistfully, thinking about how much fun Patrick had been.
“So now I will have a conversation with JJ, and we will establish some ground rules,” Dad declared in his authoritarian style.It drove me insane when he acted that way with me, but I was mad at JJ, so having that crap directed his way balanced things out.
“Ground rules?” Claire asked.
“He has not been seeing Casey, or talking to him,” Dad said.“Part of keeping him balanced is dealing with his issues, and that means seeing a psychologist.”
“It seems as though he is planning to stay in New York, so perhaps he should find someone there to work with,” Grand opined.
“I think that’s a good idea, and so does Casey.Casey even gave him some recommendations, but JJ has done nothing about those,” Dad said.I wondered how he knew that, and then I began to wonder how many people they had spying on JJ.Sometimes these people were just a little too scary.
“I think if we can just get Carullo to sleep with him, that will take care of his attitude,” I joked.It was funny that my father grimaced at that, since he’d slept with Carullo too.It was interesting how that really didn’t bother me at all.
“Were you planning to join us in Virginia next weekend?” Grand asked me.I almost moaned in annoyance at how that would trash yet another weekend, and at how I so did not want to immerse myself in all of this conflict, but at the same time, I wanted to help out and do my part.
“I haven’t thought that far ahead,” I said, avoiding a decision.
“We’ll let you know what our plans are, and you can tag along if you want to,” Dad said pleasantly.After that, dinner was pretty calm.When it was finally over, I was able to escape back to my patio with Ryan, John, and Marie.We sat around, getting high and bullshitting about people at school, until my phone rang.I saw that it was Zach.
“I need to take this,” I said, and that served to break up our little gathering.They left my room, even as I answered the call.“Hey.”
“Hey,” Zach responded.God, his voice was sexy.It was so deep, and so smooth, it almost sent tingles up and down my spine.
“You were amazing this weekend,” I told him in my sexiest voice.
“I got all kinds of kudos from the team,” he said.
“I wasn’t talking about football, but you were good there too,” I teased.
“So were you,” he said, then paused.“That was pretty freaky.” I knew he was referring to that guy catching us fucking in the closet.
“No shit,” I agreed, letting him take the lead on this conversation.“I about shit a brick when he showed up there.”
“Me too,” he agreed. “I had a good talk with him today, and we’re cool.”
“What does that mean?” I asked.If he’d been standing in front of me, I’d have been able to see him shrug.
“He told me that he likes to play around with guys once in a while, but he hasn’t done anything for a long time,” Zach said.
“What about his wife?” I mean, I wasn’t the authority on encouraging celibacy in a relationship, but I wanted to know.
“She doesn’t know,” Zach said.“Joe, that’s his name…” I realized that I didn’t even know who this dude was.
“Joe Silva,” he said, giving me his last name.“His wife can’t really keep up with him.He’s too horny.So he lets off steam if he can.”
“That’s kind of fucked up,” I said, knowing that while it bothered me, it wouldn’t bother Zach a bit.
“That’s his deal,” he said in a tone that confirmed he had no issues with Joe’s behavior.“He said he’s been hoping to run into someone he could have fun with, and be safe with.”
“Dude, he barebacked you,” I said, unable to hide how much that bothered me.
“So, he’s safe, and so am I,” Zach objected.
“How do you know he’s safe?” I demanded.“Shit, he’s fucking around on his wife.And you don’t know her, and you don’t know who she’s doing.”
“She’s not fucking around on him,” he said.
“How do you know that?”
“He told me she wasn’t, and I believe him,” Zach said.And that was really the core issue.Zach had found a fuck buddy and decided to trust this guy.Nothing I said would change anything.
“What the fuck was he doing in that closet in the first place?” I asked.
“He said he was checking out some equipment, and when you came in, he was curious, but he decided to play it cool and see what happened,” Zach said.
“So what you’re telling me is that he barebacked you on Saturday, and he’s going to keep on barebacking you,” I said, trying not to sound upset. Based on his reaction, I must not have pulled it off.
“I don’t tell you who you can and can’t fuck!” he objected, all full of outrage that was mostly faked.
“No, but I’m not barebacking anyone but you,” I said.“If I fuck around with someone else, I’m safe.”
“Will, look, it’s just this one other dude.He’s pretty cool.You’ll like him once you get to know him.”He was whining and that bugged the shit out of me.
“You know him, I don’t, and I’m not willing to trust my life to some dude who I met in a closet and who’s cheating on his wife,” I said, probably in much too nasty a tone.
“Well I do know him, and I know he’s safe,” Zach said firmly, all but drawing a line in the sand.
I sighed.“I’m going to think about this for a bit, OK?”
“That’s fine,” he said, even as he mellowed.“We’re in town next weekend.”
“Who are you playing?” I asked, like that mattered to me.
“Illinois,” he said.
“I’m not sure if I can make it,” I told him.
“Look, I know you’re busy and you can’t drop everything to come see me play all the time,” he said. Only that’s not what he meant.He was really telling me that he didn’t need me to be there.
“I’ll see what I can do,” I said, even though I was in all but a panic to get off the phone.“Hey, my dad just showed up to talk to me.I gotta run.”
“No problem,” he said casually. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“Later,” I said, and hung up the phone, even as the tears began to all but cascade out of my eyes.He’d found someone else to help him out, to fuck him, and now that he had Joe, he didn’t need me.
September 9, 2003
Palo Alto, CA
“JJ is on the phone for you,” Grace told me.
“It only took him three days to finally call me back,” I grumbled.
“I’ll put him through,” she said.There was a small pause, then I saw JJ’s caller-ID on my phone, showing me that we were now connected.
“Hello,” I said coldly.
“Hi,” JJ said, sounding strange.It was like he was nervous, excited, and happy, all at the same time.
“You couldn’t have returned my call on Sunday?” I asked tersely, letting him know how annoyed I was at being ignored.
“I’m sorry, I’ve been busy,” he said sincerely.“I’ll do better in the future.”That was not the reaction I was expecting.
“That’s fine,” I said, even though I was pretty fucking confused by this person who seemed friendly and accommodating, attributes I certainly wouldn’t have attributed to JJ.“I just wanted to let you know that we’ll be landing on your doorstep tomorrow night.”
“You will?” he asked, as if confused, then got sober.“For 9-11.”
“Yes,” I said gently, recognizing that this would always be an open wound for us.“There’s an opening ceremony for the Peace Bell in New Jersey that we’ve committed to attend.”
“Peace Bell?” he asked curiously.
“It wouldn’t be something we normally would go to, but this bell is being set up in Ridgeway, New Jersey, to memorialize local New Jersey citizens who were lost on 9-11,” I told him, trying to keep the annoyance out of my voice.“Your mother and Hank are going to be two of the people whose names will be inscribed onto the bell.”Jeanine’s parents had all but strong-armed me into being at this thing.I didn’t like them, so that had meant they’d had to use a lot of guilt to get me to agree.
“I didn’t think Mom was from Ridgeway,” JJ said, more of a question.
“Neither did I, but evidently it’s close to the Jersey Shore, where your grandparents have a beach house, so that’s why she’s being included.”
“I’m not sure if I can do that,” he said nervously.
“That’s fine.Will isn’t sure he’s going either,” I added.
“Who all is flying out here?” JJ asked.
“Stef and Grand, me and Will,” I told him.“Darius may try to make it, but he isn’t sure.”
“I’ll make sure the rooms are set up for you guys,” he said in a friendly way.
“I appreciate that,” I responded in the same way.“We’re going to spend a few days in New York, then we’re going to Virginia.”
“To Goodwell?” he asked.
“Yes, there’s a big meeting we have to attend.I don’t know if that works into your schedule or not, but after what you dealt with this summer, this may give you a chance to explain to certain people how happy you were about having your life fucked with,” I told him, in a slightly playful way.
“I’ll think about it,” he hedged.
“I don’t know if this matters or not, but Alex should be there, and so should Mary Ellen,” I added.I was dying to know what his deal with Alex was, but I was determined not to pry.
“Interesting,” he said evasively.“I’ll see you tomorrow night.”
“We’ll call you from the plane with our ETA,” I said, then ended our call.
I was still shaking my head after my rather surreal conversation with JJ when Stef came into my office.That he did so without knocking would have been surprising, but his frazzled expression brought my defenses to peak level.“We have a problem.”
“I assumed,” I said, even as I got up and joined him at my conference table.
“I got a call from Maria Ortega Dalby,” he said, referring to Buzz’s widow.“She phoned me as a courtesy with information she thought might be useful to us.”
“She said that some friends of her told her they had learned that Jake Pike was being held,” he said.
“Held by whom?” I asked, and felt myself get almost as panicked as Stef was.
“She did not say who had him, only that he had been kidnapped,” he said.“She made it seem as if their only motive was to blackmail someone, presumably us, into paying a ransom for his release.”
“Much like what happened to you,” I said, remembering when he’d been kidnapped in Acapulco.That had been just one of the many nightmares I’d had to deal with in my life, but fortunately, it had ended up with a happy ending.
“I think this time it is much different,” he noted.“I am fairly certain he has been captured by the Ortega Cartel.There will be no white knight to save him, as happened to me.”
“Joaquin hardly turned out to be a white knight,” I said, referring to the boss who had released Stef.The leader of a drug cartel could hardly be considered a white knight.
“The term is subjective,” Stef said airily.
We said nothing for a minute, as he let this news sink into my psyche.“They have Jake,” I finally said, stating the obvious.
“Evidently,” Stef said.“Or at least they claim to.”
“Do you know what they want?” I asked.
“The conversation was circumspect, as you might imagine, but the end result was that Maria wanted those properties along the border,” he said.
“That must have been very circumspect,” I noted dourly. I couldn’t imagine how she’d manage to raise that issue without incriminating herself.
“Indeed,” he confirmed.“It was explained that if I made sure she had that land, that would give her the financial resources to rescue Jake herself.”
“How terribly noble of her,” I said sarcastically.
“Yes, but it would appear to confirm that our suspicions, that she is deeply involved with the Ortega Cartel, are correct,” he said, which was a very good point.
“I guess the first thing we need to do is make sure she’s telling the truth, and that they actually do have him,” I said, thinking out loud.
“She told me that he was fine, and that she pleaded with her friends to intercede with his captors to make sure he was not harmed,” Stef said, getting an eye roll from me at her duplicity.
“I guess the good news in this process is that by trading land for Jake, we have a reasonable hope that he will be returned safely,” I said.
“And that is important to you?” he queried, trying to dive into my personal life.Normally that wouldn’t bother me, but I was stressed and I didn’t want to think about Jake in a non-business way.If I did, it may cloud my judgment.
“I would do the same for anyone who worked for us,” I responded forcefully, so much that he raised his eyebrow to note that my vehement response gave away the fact that I had grown closer to Jake as we’d worked on this whole nightmare.
“I am sure that you would,” he said supportively.I sighed and collected my thoughts again.
“Unfortunately, the person best able to advise us in this situation is presumably captured in Mexico somewhere,” I said.This was the big problem with Jake being a lone wolf.If he was taken out, I had nowhere to turn for backup.
“I was under the impression that he was meeting with Joaquin, so maybe he would have some knowledge about Jake’s situation,” Stef mused.
I sighed again, and looked at him, totally exasperated.“We’re about to get pulled into the middle of a Mexican cartel war.”
“I would correct your statement, and suggest that we are already in the middle of it, we are just only now aware that we are,” he said smoothly.
“What do you think we should do?” I asked him, even as my own brain searched for options.
“We are supposed to leave shortly,” he said, looking at his beautiful Cartier watch.“We may get some additional insight from JP, and we pledged to approach this issue as a team.”
I wasn’t as focused on collective decision making as he was, but I usually got my head handed back to me when I didn’t do it, so I went with the flow.“If you can give me five minutes, I can be ready to leave.”I’d driven both of us in to work today, so that meant he was on the same timeline.
“I will meet you in five minutes,” he said, glancing at his watch again, then left my office.