THE NARROW, TWISTING road was edged by evergreens, and other trees, but mostly evergreens. There were still a few nice older houses, and some newer expensive houses dotted along the road, but mostly trees. We were climbing, though. Climbing out of the valley that most of Asheville sat in. The rich always seem to live up.
The first hint we had that the hotel was ahead was the cluster of news vans blocking the road.
The curving drive that led between the trees and the vans was being kept clear by men in uniform. Not police uniforms, but really nice valet uniforms. They kept the photographers, reporters, and cameramen at bay long enough for the limo to slip by.
The gently curving driveway spilled out among yet more trees, and suddenly we could see the Grove Park Inn.
The setting in the hills was lovely, but the building helped make it lovely. It was all stone and sort of pseudo-Bavarian, as if men in eighteenth-century clothing should come striding into view with dogs and servants. It should have looked overdone, or silly, but it didnt.
The inn looked like it had sprung up from the rocks and trees around it, perfect in its setting, organic and right.
Ive loved this place since my parents brought us here for Mothers Day when I was seven.
I see why you want to stay here, I said, and I did.
The window between the driver and Chuck and us whirred down. Chuck turned and said, You saw the media out front. There is no way they will let you explain, or believe, who you really are. If you go in there, it will be all over the news that Keith Summerland is cheating on his fiance days before the wedding.
What did the publicist want us to do about that? I said, and my voice wasnt friendly when I said it.
Chucks eyes flicked to me, then back to Jason. If you would change hotels, wed pay for your stay as long as you are in town.
I can pay for my own hotel, Jason said.
I can see that, but you see the problem from our end, right?
Jason sighed, and settled back in the seat.
Look, I said, we need to check into the hotel and get to the hospital today.
How about if we drive you to the hospital? Well wait outside. You visit with your dad, and well drive you back to the airport. That way theres no confusion with the media.
The limo had stopped a little short of the front of the building, where more well-dressed valets waited. We idled at the side of the parking lot.
I stared at him. Are you telling us to get out of town?
No, Chuck said, but his eyes were all on Jason.
Im not sure one hospital visit will do the job, Chuck, I said, getting angry and not caring that it showed.
Mr. Schuyler, Chuck said, voice soft, almost deferential.
Jason shook his head. No, Im sorry; tell the governor that I dont want to be a problem. But I havent seen my dad in three years. Were estranged, thats why he wouldnt let them tell me sooner. Now he has weeks to live and Ive got to try and make up with him. Hes a bastard, and always has been, and Ive got a few days to try to get that Hallmark moment. He looked at Chuck. Tell the governor Im sorry, but one hospital visit wont get the job done.
Will you change hotels then? Chuck asked.
No, Jason said, Ive earned the right to be here. Not because my daddy paid for it, but because I earned it. Im not going to slink away because Keith Summerland is a dick. Talk to your publicist, try to figure out a way to do damage control that doesnt include me being hidden away at some cheap motel.
You could stay with your family, Chuck said.
No, Jason said, I couldnt.
Chucks eyes hardened. Just a flash of a look, but it was one Id seen before. He had just put Jason in the problem box. A box that men like Chuck usually took care of in unpleasant ways. Maybe I was overreacting, buTHE just made my bad-guy radar go off too loud to ignore.
I had to repeat Chucks name twice to get him to look at me. Even then it was a dismissive look. He, like most of the guys in college, was looking at the physical package and making assumptions.
Chuck, lets be very clear with each other. We will do our best to stay out of your hair, and the wedding, but Jason needs to see his dad. Its bad timing that it happened on the same week as this wedding, but that is not our bad.
You are going to give them fodder to trash Governor Summerlands family in the media.
Well do our best not to, but if it happens, then Summerland is paying people to do damage control. Let them do their jobs.
She always this pushy? Chuck asked.
I hated it when men did that. Asked the men I was with why I was such a pushy broad.
Jason laughed. If you think this is pushy, Chuck, you have been hanging around with some weak-ass women.
The driver asked, Do I drop them off in front of the inn or in the parking garage?
You wont change hotels? Chuck asked.
No, Jason said, we wont. He sounded so serious, so unlike himself, that I touched his shoulder. Almost as if I was reassuring myself it was still him. He could be firm, and strong, buTHE usually chose not to be. Id always known that it was a choice on Jasons part, but for the first time I was seeing just how much strength of will he hid behind that charming smile.
Drop them off in the parking garage; itll slow down the feeding frenzy.
The limo passed the front entrance and glided into the dimness of the parking garage. There were armed security guards making sure that no one got back there who wasnt supposed to be there. Id never seen uniformed security at a hotel before. I wondered who was paying for it.
The driver got my door, and Chuck got Jasons side. I ignored the driver and slid out with Jason. A show of solidarity, yeah, but also that creepy feeling I had. Id have flashed my badge at Chuck if Id been certain seeing a federal marshal would have spooked him more. Some professional bad guys react really badly to badges of any kind.
Id hold the whole badge thing in reserve. This was Jasons gig, not mine. My flashing my badge when I didnt need to might undermine hiswhatever the hell he was doing.
The driver got the bags out of the trunk. Chuck said, Can you at least not be too intimate in public so they dont get pictures of you doing the brunette?
She has a name, Jason said.
Im sorry; can you please not be up close and personal with Ms. Blake in public while youre in town?
One of the uniformed security came close and whispered something to Chuck. Shit, he said.
Whats wrong? I asked.
Theyve spotted a photographer hiding among the cars. I thought we were paying you guys to make sure this didnt happen.
Jason looked around, and I followed his gaze. There was a figure crouched between two midsized cars. He had a camera with a huge lens on it.
Chuck grabbed a suitcase and tried to get us moving. I was willing, but Jason took my hand. He drew me in against him. I knew whaTHE was going to do before he did it. I said, Are you sure this is a good idea?
No, its a terrible idea. He said it just before he kissed me. He kissed me, not like he meant it. He kissed me not because he wanted to kiss me, but because it would cause trouble. I didnt like it, but I knew if I struggled that it would both smear my lipstick and maybe make him try for more of a kiss. He was in such a strange mood that I just wasnt sure how to handle him.
Chuck came and shielded us from the camera with his broad back. To the unfamiliar guards, he said, Get that camera. To Jason, he said, Why?
Jason broke from the kiss and gave the taller man a look Id never seen before. It was a look: part anger, part stubbornness, part just strength and ill will. It was a look more at home on my face than Jasons.
I dont like being told what to do, Chuck.
Now you do sound like Keith.
You have no idea how much like Keith I can be.
I dont need the two of you fucking this week up, Schuyler.
I am not one of the Summerlands, Chuck. You dont get paid to boss me around, so dont try.
Jason reached for my hand. I made sure he got the left one. I wanted my gun hand free just in case. Because if looks could have killed, Jason would have been a greasy spot on the pavement.
Teasing large armed men was not a healthy hobby, and Id be talking to Jason about that when we werent in public.
The big mans hands were flexing slowly at his sides, while I think he counted to twenty. If a camera hadnt been aimed at us, I was pretty sure wed have seen more of Chucks temper than just a little flexing.
The photographer was running toward the sunlight with the guards in pursuit. He was taking pictures over his shoulder the way youd shoot a gun to slow down your attackers, but not really sure youd hit anything. BuTHE was aiming at Jason and me, not the guards.
Carry your own damn bags then. Chuck said it through gritted teeth.
Happy to, Jason said, and his voice was angry. His eyes were very blue, a rich, deep color. I realized it was the color of his eyes when he was angry.
The photographer was out of sight now, and the guards had vanished with him. Jason picked up both suitcases, got the balance of them, and headed for the door. I took the overnight case with all the guns in it and followed him. I kept an eye on Chuck as we moved up the back entrance.
He was right about one thing: Jason had deliberately put a rumor into that camera. It would hit the news before anyone thought to ask if it was some distant relative. Theyd all believe it was Keith Summerland with a lover going into a hotel just five days before his wedding to someone else.