“Life is like a beautiful melody—only the lyrics are messed up.”

—Hans Christian Anderson

 

Chapter One

 

“I’M NOT a fucking babysitter for some snot-nose rich kid,” Gray snapped out before Diesel Rawlings—his boss and owner of Rawlings Security—could finish his sentence. Rawlings just lifted one carefully manicured eyebrow, and Gray shut up. “Sir,” Gray tried again. “Sarge,” he pleaded.

This wasn’t like Rawlings. He’d always insisted his brand of security would be need only. He didn’t do celebrities. He’d turned down more jobs than he’d ever taken. Even if their company was less well-known, Gray had thought it was doing okay, but what did he know? Rawlings might need the money.

This time a signal from his boss wasn’t necessary for Gray to remain silent as Rawlings threw a manila folder down onto the desk in front of him. The red triangle stamped in the top left-hand corner suddenly had all of Gray’s attention. Red triangle meant high risk—verified threat. Either someone had already tried to finish off the target or they had hard evidence of a plan to do so.

“I want you to read the file before you say anything else.” Rawlings paused, and Gray raised his eyes to meet his boss’s pale blue ones. “I would start with the photograph.” There was a catch in Rawlings’s voice, which had Gray reaching for the file and opening it immediately.

“Fuck,” Gray said after a few seconds of staring at the picture of his new charge, knowing instantly he was going to accept the job.

Rawlings sighed. “Yeah, it’s a first for us.”

Gray nodded absentmindedly, but he was already reading the details. “Sebastian Armitage,” he read out loud and then winced. “Twenty years.” He looked about seventeen. Gray’s fingers traced the face that seemed to stare back at him. Long blond hair tied back in some sort of leather band. Wide green eyes. Head tilted to the side as if listening to something, but…. Gray’s eyes widened. “Completely deaf.”

“That’s the first thing that strikes you,” Rawlings stated flatly. “Not the obvious?”

Gray gazed at the image and shrugged. The scar—no, he thought they called it a mark—was very obvious on his left cheek. The jagged line ran from just below his eye to an inch above his lip. Enhanced. Gray had seen the TV reports, read the newspapers. Honestly, being a military brat and then enlisting, he hadn’t ever known any enhanced personally. They weren’t allowed to serve, so they’d never been particularly on his radar. He tried to conjure up details he’d read in some tabloid he usually avoided.

“Why does he need a bodyguard, though? I mean, aren’t they supposed to be super strong or fast or something?” The thought that his skills might not measure up was suddenly disconcerting.

“Not all of them, no.”

“What can this one do, then?”

Rawlings let out a short irritated sigh, and Gray subsided, knowing he had better listen. “He plays the piano.”

Gray lifted his astonished gaze to Rawlings. “So do a lot of people. Wait….” He read the next page that listed medical history. “Has he always been deaf?” That was kind of impressive. Playing a musical instrument when he couldn’t hear it. Hadn’t Mozart or some other famous dead music person been able to do that shit?

“Since he was three years old and got meningitis. He can use sign language—”

“Well, I can’t,” Gray pointed out.

“Not needed,” Rawlings carried on without missing a beat. “He reads lips. So long as he can see your face, he can understand you.”

Gray turned back to the file. “Has he been sick recently, or is this a long-term thing?” The file didn’t go into details, obviously, just listed “accompanied doctor visits” as a protection issue. A lot of doctor’s visits. Weren’t the enhanced supposed to be healthier than everyone else or something? He was sure he’d heard that.

“He had two unsuccessful cochlear implants among a multitude of other operations that attempted to repair the nerve damage and the damage to his eardrum caused by the meningitis. The last cochlear implant he had was seven months ago. They both aggravated his vertigo so substantially he was bedridden for weeks with no sign of improvement. The implant was removed both times.”

“Why does anyone want him dead?” There must be something else.

“We’re not sure someone actually does. There’s a new group that’s emerging among the enhanced, and people are making all sorts of waves against them. Instead of staying off the radar, they are trying to get the enhanced front and center. There’s also an experimental FBI team in Florida with enhanced and regular human partners.”

Gray studied the file, reminding himself of what he knew about enhanced humans. Male—and the incidence restricted to the US for some reason. No one knew why these people had started being born. There were some theories about advanced genetics, but also some about God’s damnation of humanity. Gray hadn’t listened to either.

The file contained the reports of two recent incidents involving their new client. An attack on a music teacher, who had been badly beaten and didn’t remember the incident at all—no other witnesses, so the cops were drawing a blank—and the apparent suicide of one of his protection detail. Gray frowned. That had only happened six days ago, but they had no evidence to support the two events were related.

“Is the music teacher enhanced?”

“No, but his door and his car were spray-painted in two separate incidents, making it clear that Armitage had to be dropped as a client. Apparently, Monsieur Dubois’s parents were Jewish immigrants who fled Europe in 1942. He has been quite vocal in declaring his opinions of bullies, especially in regard to any minority.” Rawlings leaned back in the huge leather chair he liked. “Sebastian is heir to a fortune in electronics, manufacturing, and other retail. His father is Quinn Armitage of A.T. Holdings. His mother was also from old money. Aside from being the A.T. Holdings heir, the kid will be worth approximately fourteen million in another nine months when he reaches twenty-one, because he also inherits his mother’s money. It never passed to her husband, and as she died in a car accident when he was four, and she was an only child herself, he is due a big payout.”

Gray stared mutely at Rawlings. The red triangle had still been put on the file, so Rawlings was taking this seriously.

“I’ll be honest. The high threat indicator was added to his file because of his enhanced status. The police are not sure if the attack on the teacher was an escalation or a mugging gone wrong. Dubois lives in Center Hill and was known for walking his small dog alone.”

“At regular times?” Gray asked.

“Yes.”

Gray returned his gaze to the photograph. “Why us?” With that sort of money, they could afford their own army, and Rawlings was insistent on keeping their name low-key.

“Because the boy is adamant he will only allow one person, and his father is so desperate to get his cooperation he is agreeing to anything. They’ve always had a small team of security guards who double as drivers, and Sebastian—according to his father—has been upset by Smith’s death. We were recommended by their family solicitor because of the Saudi princess job we did last month. Apparently he knew one of their bankers, and our name was mentioned.”

Gray dragged his eyes from the boy’s picture again to read the police report. “Sebastian should have been at a music lesson that day and canceled.”

“Yes, but the music teacher isn’t wealthy, and there is no other evidence to explain why the music teacher would have been targeted, and that’s what has his old man freaked. He is worried obviously that the intended target was his son and the music teacher bore the brunt because of his absence.”

“And the security guard?”

“Arron Smith, one of the four-man security team and who had been with them for just over three years, was found dead at his home on Thursday with a single gunshot wound to his temple. The police are thinking suicide, and the postmortem also indicates that. Messy divorce and likely to lose his children after being linked to a site dealing in child pornography. His ex-wife threatened to drag him back to court to contest visitation, meaning he would also lose his job, and he was already in debt because of the divorce. The cops have interviewed Sebastian, but there’s no evidence and nothing to link the two incidents except both targets had close dealings with the family.”

“Was Smith subject to any blackmail we know of?”

“No, but I’ve already spoken to a Detective Carter from APD, and they’re thinking it’s a possibility even if they can’t find any mail, electronic or otherwise, to suggest that. Carter also put in a good word for us.”

“Suicide note?”

Rawlings shook his head. “No, but that doesn’t mean anything.”

“I guess,” Gray acknowledged.

“I spoke to the father this morning. He was panicked, but I don’t think it’s going to be a hard job to secure Sebastian,” Rawlings added after a moment’s silence while Gray read the file.

“Why?” Gray gazed at him. Teenagers were a pain in the ass. Teenagers with money doubly so. He wouldn’t be the first twenty-year-old Gray had to put firmly in his place.

“Because the boy is nearly a recluse. He keeps to himself. Homeschooled even before he transformed at age twelve. The only place he ever went was his music lesson and doctor’s appointments.” Rawlings shrugged. “Not much of a life, if you ask me, but easier to protect while the cops find out who is behind it.”

“What are his enhanced abilities?”

“None that we can see. He has no abilities that anyone is aware of. The father was quite clear on that.”

“No abilities?” Gray repeated doubtfully.

“They’re not all Superman.”

Gray looked up again. Rawlings was grinning like he had just made a huge joke, but whatever it was went straight over Gray’s head.

“So basically, we have an unfortunate suicide and possibly a mugging, and the only direct link to Sebastian is because he knew both victims and the piano teacher had a bit of hate mail concerning him.”

Rawlings didn’t bother with an acknowledgment. Gray took one more look at the photograph of Sebastian Armitage and the flash of humor someone had managed to capture in his expressive green eyes. He stood up. “Tell them to expect me tonight.”

 

 

GRAY DROVE home and let himself into his one-bedroom depressing-as-fuck apartment in an old block behind Georgia Tech that originally—he was sure—used to be student accommodation. And judging from the noise his neighbors managed to make in the early hours, the rest of the block probably still was student housing. He could afford more. He could afford better. But what was the point? Years of sleeping wherever he was ordered to meant he didn’t really care where he laid his head now.

His machine was blinking as he let himself in. The answering machine had to be nearly as old as he was. Hardly anyone bothered with a landline these days, but his cell was only ever used for work, and he didn’t give out his number to anyone. It would be someone trying to sell him something. He pressed the Play button before walking into the bedroom to pull down a ragged duffel bag big enough for a few days’ clothes, then paused on his return and walked back to the closet to open his gun safe. The machine bleeped twice, indicating someone had called and not left a message, and then bleeped again, and a message began playing.

“Gray?”

Gray’s heart thumped hard at his sister’s voice, and he froze before he reached for his spare holster and ammunition.

Her sigh was audible after a few seconds. She would know the likelihood of him returning the call was less than zero. “I wanted to share some news with you.” Gray frowned. He remembered her last call had also gone along the same lines. If she was in any trouble, he would be there instantly, but he didn’t deserve her good news, and he had no idea why she thought he did. There was another pause. “We would love you to come for Thanksgiving. You are always welcome,” she added. “You don’t even have to let me know beforehand if you’re on a job. Just turn up if you get back in time.” There was another pause and a self-deprecating laugh. “I hate these things. I always sound weird. Anyway, like I said, I want to tell you something, and….” There was a hitch in her breathing. “Tabitha has grown so much. You wouldn’t recognize her.” He heard her swallow. “I love you. Talk to you soon.”

You wouldn’t recognize her. He knew Pink hadn’t meant the dig, but he felt it all the same. Gray shook his head. Tabitha was better off not knowing him, but he grudgingly gave Pink points for trying. He’d spoken to Pink maybe a dozen times in the past four years and seen her maybe five. But she never altered. She always seemed to have the unshakable optimism that he would suddenly become the big brother he had been once upon a time and not the person responsible for ruining her life. He wasn’t sure if it was optimism, insanity, or stubbornness that kept her calling. He supposed he would have to call her back, but he didn’t have time now. That was what he told himself, anyway.

 

 

THE HOUSE reminded Gray of some creepy show on TV back in the day. Old and huge, it seemed depressing as hell, from the tall narrow windows that wouldn’t have looked out of place in some gothic church, to the long winding driveway that set the scene for some Hollywood blockbuster. A lot of the old Victorian houses in Inman Park had been broken up into apartments, but this was intact, and he guessed it cost a lot of money to keep it that way.

Gray parked his silver-gray Mercedes coupe—which cost him more than his apartment and usually stayed in storage half the time—next to a sleek black Mustang and a red BMW 5 Series. He ran a practiced gaze over the area. The drive led to a large triple garage on the right, and in front of the house, mature trees dotted the lawn, which stretched around both sides. A fence circled the property. Not a fence designed to keep anyone out, he thought in disgust and doubted even the local kids would have trouble scaling it.

Security was nonexistent. He’d simply driven right up to the house—the electric gates wide-open—without being challenged once or seeing so much as a guard dog, and they were supposed to have a security team. That would have to change, first thing. He glanced at the clock on the dash and briefly considered waiting until someone asked why a stranger was sitting in their driveway, but he had an appointment, and he hated being late. Restraining a sigh, he climbed out, shut the driver’s door, and then opened the rear passenger door for his bag. He heard the house door open just as he was turning around, and an older man stepped out.

“Mr. Darling?”

Gray hid the wince, not only because after all these years he still hated his last name, but if he was up to no good, he simply could have said “yes” to the question and assumed an identity that would have given him immediate access to the house. Gray nodded his assent, and the man put out his hand. “I’m Joseph Keswick, Mr. Armitage’s assistant. Andrew is still briefing his team.”

Briefing them on what? Gray wondered whether something had happened that morning. He knew from the file that Andrew Derwent was in charge of security for the family, and on first impression the man was doing a piss-poor job, but Gray remained silent on that and shook the offered hand. “Have there been any further incidents?”

Mr. Keswick glanced at him in slight exasperation before he turned and stepped into the house. “Mr. Armitage’s tires were slashed while he and his driver were in the bank.”

That was either ballsy or plain irritating, depending on how you looked at it. Traffic cams should have caught it. “Mr. Armitage was just trying to explain to Andrew and his son why it was necessary to increase security.” Gray followed Mr. Keswick down an expansive hallway. Explain to his son? He thought Sebastian had asked for a one-to-one. He could understand Andrew Derwent being put out, but seeing as how the man was accountable for him walking in unchallenged, Derwent didn’t deserve any sympathy. He deserved firing. Gray certainly wouldn’t have had him securing a shopping mall based on what he’d seen so far.

“Sebastian doesn’t want the increased security?” Maybe they had been misinformed. It wouldn’t be the first time parents or managers wanted their family or assets protected and said family was less than impressed.

“No, he wants to go somewhere, and Mr. Armitage thinks it’s a bad idea. Would you like to get settled and put your bag in your room?”

Gray immediately shook his head. “No, thank you,” he said firmly. “I’d like to go to the security briefing.” He also wanted to know where the son wanted to go. According to the file, the young man never went anywhere.

Mr. Keswick’s eyes widened. “I’m sure so, but Mr. Armitage will expect to meet you first.”

“And Mr. Armitage isn’t at the meeting?”

“I believe he is in his study,” Keswick replied. He paused outside an oak door similar to the many they had already passed, but before he had a chance to open it, the door was flung open and a young man nearly knocked them both over as he stormed out. Gray had his hand pressed on the man’s chest to stop his forward momentum before he even thought about doing so.

Sebastian Armitage. Gray recognized him immediately at the same instant Sebastian registered Gray’s hand and flinched. Gray dropped his hand, trying to look unthreatening, but before he got a chance to speak, Sebastian’s green eyes flicked over Gray’s for a second before they dipped. The young man turned abruptly and headed toward the impressive staircase, then took the stairs two at a time. Gray had a second to catalogue his angry expression, the flush present on his high cheekbones, and that the photograph of him didn’t do Sebastian justice, scar or no scar.

Way to go, Darling. Suddenly and for no apparent reason, he felt really old.