They landed at JFK just before eight am New York time, in early morning sunlight where they were met on the tarmac by a member of the airport staff who led them rapidly through private doors and to a small, immaculate lounge where a uniformed driver was waiting with two polythene wrapped bags over his arm, plus a small leather case. He nodded to them as Dale approached him.
“Good morning Mr. Aden.”
Dale accepted the two bags and the case, guiding Riley towards a sign with a dispatch that said he knew this airport well.
“Showers. This way. We’ll be no more than twenty minutes.” He added to the driver who nodded.
“No problem, sir.”
“Showers?” Riley followed Dale, curiously examining the bags. “What about security? Have you got that organised as well?”
“Caroline.” Dale said as if that explained everything. “ANZ and the air craft charter organise the paperwork directly.”
“Do I want to know how she has paperwork on me? Because as far as I know, I don’t work for ANZ?”
“I lodged the paperwork to clear all four of you when I made the arrangements for Flynn and Luath to go out and get Gerry.”
Because obviously he had foreseen eventualities such as this where he would require a jet at short notice and had planned for them. Riley shook his head, following him into a marble bathroom.
The leather bag turned out to contain a wash and shaving kit. Shaving and showering in an airport was a new experience to Riley, particularly at Dale’s speed. Riley turned out the wash kit on the counter of the expensive looking bathroom, looking in vain for any brand name he recognised, then picked up what looked most useful and headed purposefully into Dale’s shower cubicle, closing the door behind him. Dale was scrubbing down like a surgeon, with the kind of speed and dispatch that would have made Flynn send him to sit somewhere and cool down, except Riley knew his shut down or in the zone look and this…wasn’t it. He looked intense. Focused. Since they’d hit the tarmac at JFK it was radiating off him in a way Riley could feel from across the room as if he was gearing up for something - this is Dale going to war – and that was exciting enough. But there was his liveliness behind it too, the very quiet and discreet kind of high energy that you only saw if you knew Dale well enough to live with him, when he was going out to clear a patch of woodland, or move sheep, or call a brats meeting in the middle of the night. And it was infectious and it was appealing as hell. And naked, extremely fit, and scrubbing down like that in such a business like way….. Riley put the toiletries on the shelf, soaped up his own hands, and Dale jumped and yelped at where he put them.
“It’s no good you telling me I can’t do that here,” he explained when Dale slithered around in his hands to look at him. “I’m in New York so I figure I might as well enjoy myself. Plus you’re walking around looking like sex on legs this morning so if you don’t want me to be distracting you later, you might want to take the time to do something about that now?”
Dale looked astounded for a moment, one of his bewildered, that doesn’t compute stares – Riley saw them a little less often now than he had done at one time; it was getting harder to shock Dale now - and then he burst out laughing, which was always even more charming, and he took a very definite hold on Riley in return.
The shower took most of their allotted twenty minutes. Dale liked to attend to important matters properly, thoroughly and by the book with a double tap kind of approach. And to check his facts thoroughly afterwards.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
The bags turned out to contain two brand new, formal and immaculate suits complete with shirts and ties of a type Riley had never worn before in his life. Naturally they were in exactly correct sizes, and nineteen minutes later, feeling very good about life in general and very dressed up, still twitching at the tie around his neck that Dale had just fastened for him far more neatly than Riley knew he would have been able to do it, and with a sense of excitement rising steadily in him like a tide, Riley followed Dale back into the lounge. James and Niall were sitting there. Both of them in equally immaculate suits and dress coats, and for all their age they were both still handsome men who wore the formal attire extremely well. They rose at the sight of Riley and Dale, a smile blossoming on Niall’s face, and Riley broke into a jog across the lounge to them to hug first James and then Niall with the enthusiastic pleasure Dale had always seen him greet these two with. Tall, white haired with his eagle face and carrying himself with the poise and the authority Dale always associated with him, James let Riley go to come to Dale, and Dale offered a hand, speaking with deep respect and sincerity rather than the kind of automatic social scripts that came out around the airport staff.
“Good morning, sir. Welcome to New York. It’s a pleasure to see you.”
A deep pleasure. These two had left their beds in the early hours of the morning to be here with him and Riley, it represented a real effort at their time of life, and they had done it without hesitation for no other reason than loving the same people and place they did. And James and Niall had been on the ranch almost from the beginning. The oldest of the family had come today to be with the youngest.
“Good morning.” James took his hand but held it to kiss his cheek, both a warm and paternal gesture that touched Dale to the heart. “You both look extremely professional.”
“That was not what he was saying just now before Dale charmed the socks off him.” Niall, slighter, half a head smaller and with hair that was almost a strawberry blond compared to James’ ice white, gave Dale a quick, gentle hug. “It was more about brats meetings in the middle of the night, being too old for this kind of nonsense and how does Flynn have two brats out of bed half the night without noticing.”
“He has his hands full supporting Jake, he’s had perhaps three hours sleep in the last two days.” Dale said quietly. “Jasper knows we’re here, sir. We have his permission.”
Riley gave him a pointed yeah, lucky he gave us that excuse? look, but James merely nodded.
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“I couldn’t stop him ringing the ranch,” Niall said apologetically, “I hope we didn’t disturb them. No one answered, but if Jasper knows then we don’t need to worry.”
“We are certainly not here to interfere.” James agreed calmly. “We’re here to help. So perhaps you would like to tell us what it is we’re here to do?”
“I’m waiting for confirmation regarding a meeting. Niall, perhaps this material would be of interest to you?” Dale handed Niall a leather wallet and Niall unzipped it as they walked – at an easy pace, Dale was well aware that two gentlemen in their eighties deserved careful consideration - and skimming fast through the carefully organised précis of data sheets inside.
“I don’t have any idea of what’s going on.” Riley said under his breath to James, who slipped his arm confidentially through Riley’s as they fell into step behind them, using the same undertone.
“In these kind of situations I usually follow. I don’t speak unless Niall cues me to, and I nod agreement at what seems like appropriate moments. I am polite. I look like I know exactly what the plan is and that nothing is a surprise. It’s been working well for years. And I work out where the good coffee is, although you don’t necessarily need to share that part with Flynn.”
Riley grinned. “Flynn likes coffee, he just knows too much about what it does to people.”
“I still blame him personally for there having been no decent coffee kept on the ranch for the past decade.” James said drily. “Some of us can’t live on tea.”
They followed Dale and Niall through another series of discreet hallways to an outside door where a long, immaculate and unflashy grey car was waiting with a driver who saluted Dale and leapt to handle the doors. Dale waved them all ahead of him, taking particular care in seeing James and Niall were both settled and comfortable before he followed Riley into the car and took the seat next to him. He checked his blackberry as it bleeped and put his seatbelt on one handed.
“Good morning Caroline.”
Riley watched him, hearing the woman’s voice on the other end of the line as the car pulled away.
“Good morning sir. Mr. Ladislaus is… shall we say somewhat consternated that you would like an immediate meeting with him and suggests nine thirty at his offices? The public relations team have just returned their draft strategy for the theoretical scenario you suggested, I’m forwarding that to you now. I think they enjoyed themselves a little too much, several members of the team who were not on duty turned up in the early hours to join in. I have a number of responses from several investors confirming information with you, and there is interest accumulating from a number of other media empires and the international stock market has begun to reflect it in the last hour. You have that data and I’ll continue to update it. To put it crudely; the sharks are beginning to circle.”
“Good. Please accept Mr. Ladislaus’ invitation.”
“Yes sir. May I make a booking at a hotel for you?”
“No, but stand the planes by for a return flight probably by late morning. Thank you Caroline, you’re as efficient as ever.”
“My pleasure sir.”
Dale ended the call and Riley shook his head. “Do any of these people ever sleep?”
“Not when important things are happening, that’s what the night shift staff are for.” Dale said absently, skimming through several emailed files on the blackberry screen. “Emails and messages are monitored through the night and when the important stuff comes through, the big fish get woken.”
“And the sharks.” Riley said with interest. “Why are sharks circling?”
“Excellent question.” James agreed. “I would like to know the answer to that too. What exactly are we doing with sharks, Dale?”
In the very dark charcoal suit with a navy blue tie that made the shirt look like white ice underneath it – and Dale looked less dressed up in a suit than as if the suit disappeared around him and just emphasised him even more – he had a very quiet, intent kind of single-mindedness to him that raised the strong swell of excitement in Riley’s gut even further. This was Dale at his most unpredictable. Dale looked across at the paper file of information Niall was still working through.
“Because I threw a whole lot of bait in the water at around 3am this morning, sir.”
“He most certainly did.” Niall said without looking up.
“Ah. Well that explains everything.” James said to Riley. “Obviously.”
~ * ~
Somewhere around four am Jake went to check on Tom, and Flynn, taking the empty glasses with him, glanced through the door of their room at Dale.
Their bed was not only empty, it was crisply and neatly made in a way that in this household was a dead giveaway as to who had made it. A single folded sheet of paper was laid on his pillow. Putting the glasses down softly, Flynn snatched it up and read it.
I do appreciate that you don’t like notes, but this is the best-calculated course of action I can find for all of us. I’ll be back by this evening at the latest. Please avoid Jake alerting Emerson or taking any further action regarding Mr. Loudon until I contact you. My intention is that by tonight he and Tom will have no further need to be bothered with this matter.
It was, in a disconcerting mixture, reassuring, alarming and shocking. Flynn read it twice, then went very quietly up the hallway to Paul’s room, closing the door softly behind him before he put the bedside light on and put a hand on Paul’s shoulder. Paul blinked and turned over at once.
“Tom? Do we need Emmett?”
“Tom’s ok. I just found this.” Flynn sat on the edge of his bed and put the letter into Paul’s hands. Paul ran a hand over his face and sat up to read, and Flynn saw the same muddle of emotions rapidly cross Paul’s face as he took in the contents of the note.
“What? Where has he gone? Do you have any idea?”
“I don’t know any more than you do.”
Paul read the note again, turning the paper over in the vain hope of finding any more information anywhere on it. “Oh damn… I should have made him stay with me last night, I knew you were watching Jake, I just knew I’d have an ear out for Tom and probably be up and down all night –”
“Probably all four of us together wouldn’t have stopped him.” Flynn said dryly. “He successfully kept this from both you and me last night, which tells me he was bloody determined to do whatever it is he thinks needs doing.”
Because he didn’t do that to them now unless he was really convinced he needed to. And he had the contacts, probably a hell of a lot more idea of what was going on than they did, with an entire adulthood spent in handling international corporates who employed platoons of high paid lawyers. To him this would feel such rudimentary, obvious stuff, and he was a man used to using mind and power without thinking whenever he thought it necessary. And beneath that, all the formidable loyalty he was capable of to the people here in this family, his need to take over and make things right and safe for the people he loved, to pull his weight and be a justified, worthy part of them – the knight on the white horse…that was Dale to the core. The barely a week-old, healing eagle tattoo and everything it meant, and at the moment… at the moment it was so raw for him it was painful to think about.
“This is button after button pressed, isn’t it?” Paul said bleakly. “I kept talking to him about it, I knew he was angry, we all were - but he had me nicely convinced he was doing ok… I asked him if he had any ideas, if there was anything he wanted to do and he said no, he thought we just had to wait to see what developed. And clearly he was forming a plan and he lied to calm me down while he got on with it. He must have been doing a fair amount of organising quietly behind our backs all day… But then he does – he does that when he thinks things are bad enough, he’s too good at it and that’s exactly why he does it...” Paul read the letter again, torn between deep and flooding anxiety, compassion for understanding why, exasperation with himself for not foreseeing this and with Dale for looking him right in the eye and lying to him. Again. Protectively, with good intentions, but still lying. And a whole lot of unwilling relief too, to the unease that had been in him ever since Madeleine Loudon’s letter arrived, that came with faith that Dale would know exactly what he was doing with this mess. “How long ago do you think he left?”
“I saw him asleep at midnight.” Flynn said quietly. “And he was asleep at that point. I’ve been talking with Jake since then. They’re ok. Tom’s not going to wake for a few hours yet, I think Jake will sleep now too.”
“Then at least one of us is competent, well done love. That’s one thing we can all worry a bit less about.” Paul rolled out of bed and went to the clothes hung over the chair, dressing rapidly. “What are we going to do, Flynn?”
Flynn lifted his shoulders, watching him from the edge of the bed. “Trust him, do what he asks, and wait.”
“And I’m having a nervous breakdown about Dale Aden being alone for a few hours to sort some legal problem out. Yes, I know. It’s like panicking that Wall Street might have to handle numbers today.” Paul shouldered savagely into a sweater. “It’s ridiculous, the financial word would roll about laughing.”
“But they’re not married to him.” Flynn finished. “And they haven’t been through the past few weeks with him. I know. I’m going to head out now and let Jasper know what’s going on. I’ll be back before breakfast time. I won’t tell Jake unless I have to, he’s got his hands full with Tom, he doesn’t need anything more to worry about.”
“And whatever Dale is doing we know it is going to shift things in the right direction.” Paul interpreted. “Oh I hope to God he can fix this. I’d just like to know where he is and what it is he’s planning to do!”
And if he was all right while he did it, because in this mode he wouldn’t think of that part or take into account what he’d been dealing with for the past month or two, how much it had taken out of him or how very recent it all still was, or how much he needed to learn do these things with them, and not alone. To have at least one of them with him for support to think of and look out for what he wouldn’t. I would have gone.
I would have gone with him in a second if he’d asked.
But that would take me away from Tom and Jake, away from Flynn who he knows is run ragged trying to do ranch work and be here all day in case they need him… he wouldn’t take Flynn from that, he wouldn’t take Jas from Mason, he’s always so aware of who has their hands full and he’ll never add to it if he can help it. Of course he wouldn’t ask. He’d just fix it himself the way he does.
The phone was in its cupboard in the kitchen, out of sight and turned off as they kept it anyway when they had a client with them, and more urgently now to avoid disturbing Jake and Tom.
And be honest, we’re starting to rely on Dale knowing and telling us if a call comes in that we need to worry about, whether we leave the phone on or not.
Paul turned it on and checked the messages and leaned on the table to catch Flynn’s eye.
“Three. One from Ash around 2am – and James?” Paul’s voice rose in curiosity, “ – and Wade-?”
“Saying what?” Flynn paused by the door to listen, pulling his jacket on. Paul heard the messages out, relaying as he listened.
“Ash – he suspects we may not be aware that Dale and Riley held a - conference call?! - In the middle of the night to which Gerry, Darcy, Wade and Niall were invited… What? Seriously? We had six of them at this in the early hours and nobody - Dale put to them that he knew how to stop this business with Loudon, Gerry is absolutely distraught that Dale thought we could end up with reporters and TV cameras all over the ranch – good grief, could that happen?” Paul abruptly looked up at Flynn, a good deal more alarmed. “They all agreed it was the right thing for him to go and do what he could, and to take Riley with him - Riley? Riley’s gone too? – and Niall! Niall’s gone with them… what the hell are they doing? Gerry absolutely refuses to tell Ash where they’ve gone or what they’re going to do, just that they all agreed it was the right thing…. Ash says to let him know if there’s anything he can do. James…. Says much the same thing, but he’s going with Niall and they’ll meet our two by breakfast time- oh thank God, they’re with James… He says Niall is convinced Dale is right and is doing the best possible thing about it, they’re hoping this works and we can have a whole household discussion on middle of the night conferences later. Wade… Don’t worry, Dale knows exactly what he’s doing.” Paul heard out the last of the message and turned a shell-shocked face to Flynn. “What the hell is going on?”
Flynn left the door, came to him and Paul buried his face in Flynn’s shoulder.
“Good morning.” Jasper said from the doorway, heeling his boots off. Paul lifted his head, trying to Flynn’s eye to do his best to pretend he hadn’t just been near to tears. Jasper saw it anyway. He put his hands gently around Paul’s face, kissed him and dropped another brief kiss on Flynn’s mouth on his way to the sink where he washed his hands.
“Riley is with him. Dale came to get him around half past one this morning. Their plane went out a little before 2am.”
“You knew about this?” Paul demanded. Jasper nodded.
“Dale explained he had a plan to end this business with Jake and Tom and the Loudons. I thought if he wanted Riley in on it then it was going to be a good one.”
“Apparently he held a conference call with half the brats in the family,” Paul said exasperatedly, “In the middle of the night, we’ve got James and Ash on the phone explaining,”
“Yes. He held a brats meeting.” Jasper dried his hands and hung the towel neatly over the oven rail. “Dale initiated a brats meeting before he acted.”
There was a large precedent for that in this household. And abruptly Paul understood exactly why Ash and James and Jasper had stood by in the middle of the night and let that meeting conclude before they asked any questions. Had the meeting been held openly in broad daylight in front of them, Paul knew he and Flynn would have treated it with equal respect. None of them had ever entered a meeting other than by invitation, it was a tradition as old as this household.
“So,” Jasper said mildly, “Following on a majority vote he, Niall and Riley are representing the decision of the brat contingent of the family in this matter with their full knowledge and approval.”
“Not mine.” Paul said hotly. “And he’s talking about the ranch getting overrun with journalists because of this wretched Loudon woman-”
“We’ve got nothing to be ashamed of here. If that happens it happens.” Flynn said steadily. Paul glared at him, still standing in his arms.
“What about the clients who rely on us for privacy? Flynn that would be terrible! Darcy is a known name in his field, with an active career, this would stick all kinds of mud to him. You. Luath. Niall. Dale, not that Dale would care- Ash, Gerry, Theo -”
“It’d be a three minute wonder and forgotten again, wrapped around someone else’s chips tomorrow. And Dale believes he can do something about it, and he knows more about this than the rest of us put together. If he’s risking saying he thinks he can, he means he’s got a plan he can’t find a loophole in.”
“Riley and Dale flew out of here in the middle of the night, we don’t know where they are and you’re ok with that?” Paul demanded. “You’re both of you just ok with that? Jas, do you even know where that plane was going?”
“The brats meeting did. And they were going together. So I gave them permission to go.”
Flynn pulled Paul over against him before he could reply to that and hugged him for a while, and after a moment Paul took a rather shaky breath and hugged him back. Flynn glanced over Paul’s head to Jasper. “We’re going to try not letting Jake know until we have to. Jake’s got enough on his hands and Dale said he’d prefer no more hares started until he contacts us.”
Jasper nodded calm agreement.
“Great.” Paul ran his hands over his face and went to put the kettle on. “Absolutely wonderful. And does anyone remember what happened the last time he took on a serious work project?”
“Yes.” Jasper took a seat at the table. “And so do Riley and Dale. They’ll do it differently this time.”
“We’re waiting.” Flynn said quietly. “That’s all. He’s with Riley. Ri doesn’t take much crap from Dale, and he picks up fast if Dale is spinning. Niall’s there, James has got an eye on them, he’ll help if they need it. Dale’s going to be ok.”
A folded sheet of paper with his name on in Dale’s handwriting was resting against the kettle. Paul picked it up and unfolded it. It was immaculately written of course.
If you are reading this, then the decision of the brats’ meeting was that it was necessary to end this harassment of Jake and Tom by the Loudons. I promise when I am done you will have nothing more to worry about in that direction and neither will they. I will be home this evening.
I promise you will have nothing more to worry about. That spoke volumes about where his head had been when he’d written this note.
And I didn’t see it. I should have seen it. I should have known and expected it and looked harder. I should have known he’d need help with this and that he really wouldn’t want it.
It was the game they’d been playing together for weeks, trying hard to play on the same side.
“I’ll be home this evening.” Paul repeated aloud. He handed the sheet to Flynn who was nearest, and put the kettle on the stove. “Argh. He vanishes in the middle of the night and he’ll ‘be home this evening’.”
“Dale doesn’t see it the same way we do.” Jasper said mildly, having read the note over Flynn’s shoulder. “Travelling to him is a mundane thing, he doesn’t have the same concept of distance. He’s been used to disappearing to other continents without much notice for weeks at a time.”
“And for him this is like dropping into Jackson to have a quick word with the bank manager, I know.” Paul pulled his hands over his face, his voice changing. “I know. A few hours out of the state to him is a drop in the ocean. He might not even see it particularly as ‘going’ anywhere, he’s just at a meeting, home later, and he’s in problem solving mode….”
Flynn put the note down on the table and pulled a chair out for him. “Paul. Sit down, I’ll do that.”
Paul surrendered the mugs to him, dropping heavily into the chair. “I wish I’d never agreed to that lone camp out, it was too soon and I knew he’d see it at some level as ‘the end, all fixed now’ and so would we-”
Jasper took his hand, saying nothing, just holding it gently between both of his. Flynn made tea, brought the mugs to the table and took the chair on Paul’s other side. Paul took a long breath and accepted the mug Flynn passed him.
“Yes, I know he needed to do that, it was important to him and he would feel he needs to do this too. He would really, really feel he needs to do this too. And we’re all upset and we’re busy with Tom and Jake, and that’s triggered him every which way, but I hate that this wretched woman has made him do exactly what he’s been trying so hard to work on stopping – lying to us, taking over to fix things for us, it’s pushed him right back into the exact habits we’ve been trying to break. Gerry warned us all, didn’t he? In times of stress it’s going to happen, he won’t be able to help it and every time we let the old pattern win it sets him back again, it strengthens the ‘this works’ connection, and it’s so important it doesn’t.”
“But I think this is different.” Jasper said mildly. “Yes, I agree with you, he lied to you and he withheld. We’ve definitely been strong-armed. We’ll talk about that. But. He held a family meeting to agree action. He’s gone with Riley, James and Niall, on family agreement to a family agreed plan. I think it’s very much about being connected to us, he’s made some different choices here. This is exactly what he meant when he talked to us about the tattoo. His commitment to us, the responsibility he feels, all of that energy directed into here.”
And with Dale, that energy was immense and sometimes, yes, that could feel like a ten thousand volt power cable inserted directly into the orifice of your choice; when he was running on high he wasn’t aware he was even doing it to you.
This is what I’m meant for, he’d said. A calling. A form of service.
Yes, but not alone sweetheart. I didn’t sign up to you ever having to do any of this alone.
Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2015