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Chapter no 37- GRAYSON

The Brothers Hawthorne

Eve had someone staking out the Grayson family. No matter how many times Grayson went over the facts, that was the conclusion he reached. And no matter how many times he came to that conclusion, as he drove back to the hotel, he couldn’t banish the memory that wanted to come.

“I didn’t mean to disturb you.”

“Yes. You did.” Grayson pulls himself out of the pool. The night air hits his skin like ice—or maybe that’s a side effect of talking to a ghost.

The girl in front of him looks so much like Emily that he can barely breathe.

“My existence disturbs people.” Her voice is like Em’s, too, but with a different kind of sharpness, a more subtle blade. “Side effect of being an affair baby.”

That statement reminds Grayson of who this girl really is—not a Hawthorne by name or blood but twisted in the branches of the family tree nonetheless, theirs to protect.

“What?” Eve demands, probably because of the way he’s looking at her. She pushes her hair back from her face, and Grayson’s gaze catches on the bruise on her temple—ugly, mottled edges pushing beyond the confines of a bandage. Someone hurt her.

And that someone will pay.

“Does it pain you?” He takes a step toward her, drawn like a moth to the flame.

“My existence?” “Your wound.”

Grayson finally wrenched himself from the memory and focused on what mattered: Eve had someone—a very dangerous someone—watching the Grayson family. Stalking them from afar. Given that Eve was one of the only people on the planet who knew that Sheffield Grayson wasn’t missing, that was an utterly unacceptable risk.

She’s got someone watching my father’s family—and now that I’m here, watching me. Grayson was on high alert as he slipped the black key card into the door of his hotel room. He didn’t so much as turn on the lights until he’d verified that the place was clean. No listening devices. No cameras.

No Nash.

When Grayson did finally turn on a lamp, the first thing he saw was the 3D printer he’d requested. He woke up his computer and was greeted by a circular red icon telling him the number of direct messages he’d missed from Gigi. Seventeen.

She wanted the picture he’d taken of Trowbridge’s passwords, and she’d resorted to hairless cat pictures and all caps in her attempt to get it.

I WILL BUY YOU THIS TINY HAIRLESS KITTEN IF YOU DON’T GIVE ME WHAT I WANT.

Grayson felt a tug of affection. It was remarkable, really, how quickly she’d gotten under his defenses. Don’t get attached. You know what you have to do.

Grayson transferred the photograph from his phone to his computer, then set about altering it. A 9 in one password became an 8, a 7 in another was changed into a 2. A could be easily morphed to a W, an to a D, a to a

7. Any digit could be deleted from the end of a sequence.

With every change Grayson made, he pictured Gigi’s beaming smile, her bright, dancing eyes. He finished and sent her the photo, along with a message: If you don’t get anywhere tonight, I’ll need a copy of the files tomorrow.

He tried not to feel guilty about the fact that she wouldn’t get anywhere

—by design.

Set on his course, Grayson printed a copy of each of the keys he’d designed: one an exact duplicate of Gigi’s and the other a decoy. Then he shot a message off to Zabrowski, with three directives.

The keys are ready for pickup.

You’ll want to update me on your progress.

Attached you’ll find a photograph of a car, complete with license plate. The driver was six foot two, approximately one-hundred-sixty-five pounds, blond hair, dark eyes, scar through his left eyebrow. Approximate age somewhere between sixteen and twenty, tattoos on upper arms and neck. I want identification and full background on him. Now.

Grayson made another transfer into Zabrowski’s account as soon as the message was sent. Then he shut a door in his mind on everything related to Eve and her spy. His focus came to rest instead on the two items he’d brought home the day before: the not-a-USB-drive and the index card.

His earlier attempts at revealing invisible ink had gone nowhere, so this time, his gaze was drawn to the notches in the card: two on the top edge of the card, one on the right. The other two edges were unblemished. The notches were small. Less than a centimeter, smooth, no distortion to the card. If the card had been taped to the inside of the computer, could pulling it off—repeatedly—have caused the notches?

Am I seeing meaning where there is none?

Grayson picked up the fake USB and tested its resistance when he pressed it down on the card. Nothing. He thought of the altered photograph he’d sent Gigi, about the way he was setting her up to fail—and then he thought about Savannah and the way people talked about her, even as they fawned over him.

It’s none of my business. Setting aside the items on the desk, Grayson put the keys he’d printed in an envelope and sent them to the front desk to await Zabrowski’s pickup. Refusing to dwell on that action, he entered the largest of the suite’s three bathrooms, flipped the shower on as hot as it would go, and stripped off his shirt.

Waiting for the steam inside the shower to build, he paced to the double doors that separated the bathroom from the attached bedroom. Pushing the doors open, he judged the frame to be just wide enough. With his arms in a V, he placed a palm flat on each side of the doorframe, and then he slowly lifted himself off the ground. Arms spread to either side, every muscle in them tense, every muscle in his chest and neck and abdomen the same, he held the position.

He watched the bathroom mirror fog over, watched his own image slowly disappear, and with it and the concentration it took to hold his position, thoughts and images bled from his mind one by one. First Gigi,

then Savannah. Eve. Her spy. The girls at the party.

“I am so sorry that Avery girl took all of your money.” “And chose your brother.”

“And broke your heart!”

His heart wasn’t broken. It couldn’t be when keeping himself aloft took every ounce of focus he had. When his thoughts finally stilled to silence, his arms gave out. He fell to the ground, to his knees.

He didn’t stay down for long.

The shower was too hot, but Grayson didn’t back away from the spray or turn down the heat. He wasn’t sure how long he’d stood there when his phone rang. But when he turned the water off and stepped out of the shower, when he saw the call was incoming from a blocked number, he prepared himself.

Eve’s spy would have reported back by now.

Grayson shouldn’t have answered her call, but he did. “What do you want?”

“Answers.” That’s not Eve’s voice. It was the girl who’d called before. Her register was lower than Eve’s, not quite husky but only a hair’s breadth from it. “Specifically, two of them.”

“Two answers.” Grayson’s reply sounded haughty to his own ears.

“I was four.” Within that lower register, her pitch rose and fell. “It was my birthday. I lived with my mom. I barely knew my father, but for some reason, I was with him that day.”

Your father, Grayson filled in, but he didn’t interrupt her, didn’t stop her, forced himself to listen to every pause, every breath, every word.

“My father”—she said that phrase like she had to force herself to put those two words side by side—“gave me a candy necklace with just three pieces of candy left on it. I guess he ate the rest?” That only half sounded like a question. Her voice went husky, breaking at odd intervals like what she was saying broke her. “So. He gave me the necklace and a flower. A calla lily. And he leaned forward and whispered in my ear, A Hawthorne did this.

She didn’t pause, but Grayson’s brain latched on to those words, forcing him to play catch-up as she continued speaking.

“And then he turned and started walking away, and that’s when I saw the gun.” Now she paused. “I couldn’t move. I just stood there, holding what

was left of that candy necklace and the flower, and I watched my father and his gun walk up the stairs.”

There was something in the way she paced the words that made it sound like she was relaying something that had happened to someone else.

“And at the top of the stairs, he turned around, and he said words that didn’t even make sense, gibberish. And then he disappeared. Less than a minute later, I heard the gun go off.”

The deliberate lack of intensity in her voice hit him almost as hard as her words, as the mental image she’d given him.

“I didn’t go upstairs.” That sounded almost like a question. “I remember dropping the flower, and then, all of a sudden, my mom and stepdad were there, and it was over.” This time, he heard her inhale, audibly, sharply. “I forgot about it. Blocked it out. And then a couple of years ago, I started hearing and seeing the name Hawthorne all over the news.”

It wasn’t a full two years ago. Grayson pushed down the urge to make that point. “My grandfather died.”

“There was a new heiress. Mystery. Intrigue. A real Cinderella story.

Hawthorne. Hawthorne. Hawthorne.

Grayson thought about what she had said—what she had been told. A Hawthorne did this. “You remembered.”

“In dreams, mostly.”

For some reason, that hit him hard. I almost never dream. The words very nearly escaped him. “You said you had two questions.” Grayson needed to keep this conversation on track.

“I said that I wanted two answers.” Her correction was cutting and precise. She wasted no more time in specifying the first. “What did your grandfather do?”

Grayson could have argued with her, could have pointed out that Hawthorne was not an uncommon name. But instead, he thought of a room in Hawthorne House filled with stacks and stacks of files. “I could not say.” He kept his voice just as curt as hers. “But probabilities being what they are, whatever Tobias Hawthorne did or did not do, it likely ruined your father financially.” That was all he intended to say, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that he owed her more.

Couldn’t shake the thought of a little girl holding a single lily and a mostly eaten candy necklace. Staring at an empty staircase. A gunshot

ringing in her ears.

“If you tell me your father’s name…” Grayson started to say. She cut him off. “No.”

Annoyance surged. “What do you expect me to do without a name?”

“I don’t know.” She sounded… not vulnerable. Not angry, exactly. “The last thing he said, at the top of the stairs…”

Words that didn’t even make sense,” Grayson murmured.

What begins a bet?” she quoted. “And then he said: Not that.” The girl waited for Grayson to speak, but impatience didn’t let her wait long. “Does that mean anything to you, Hawthorne boy?”

What begins a bet? Not that.

“No.” Grayson almost hated to say that to her.

“I shouldn’t have called. I don’t know why I keep doing this.”

She was going to hang up. Grayson realized that simultaneously with another, more unexpected realization: He didn’t want her to. “It might be a riddle.” Grayson heard a little hitch of breath, then continued. “My grandfather was very big into riddles.”

“What begins a bet?” The girl’s voice took on a different tone now.

“Not that.”

And then she really did hang up. Grayson kept holding the phone to his ear for the longest time. He realized that he was dripping water onto the mat, that his skin, still pink from the punishing heat of the shower, was now chilled.

Grabbing a towel, he turned the riddle over in his head, and then he texted Xander. Are you back at Hawthorne House?

The reply came almost instantly: Nope, followed by a suspicious array of tiny illustrated symbols: a party popper, musical notes, a flame, and a crown. But I have connections, Xander’s next text read. What do you need?

“Connections?” Grayson snorted—but that didn’t stop him from replying to Xander’s text. I need someone to look back through the old man’s List.

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