Chapter 66

Alice did not overdress for her date. She was tempted to; a very real desire burned in her to pull out all the stops and show up at her date’s door looking so good she literally struck him mute. It was only the identity of the man she was going out with that halted those inclinations. Had it been Nick, Alice would have charged forward with the plan full-tilt. She would have taken a special, lovingly-malicious glee in forcing him to spend the whole night playing it cool while trying to act like he wasn’t paying attention to her dazzling form. But she wasn’t going out with Nick. She was going out with Nicholas, and he simply didn’t fill her with the same playful joy she would have gotten from spending a night with Nick.

That thought rested heavily on her mind as she pulled her car into a parking space outside Nicholas’s apartment. Alice pulled down the mirror and checked her make-up once more. It was fine, as always, subtle and well-applied, the perfect complement to her pastel green dress. For Nick, she would have chosen something bolder. Then again, she wouldn’t have had to ask Jill to dig through records and get Nick’s address, as she had with Nicholas. The two of them could have just left from Melbrook, enduring sappy advice from Vince, stern warnings from Mary, and good-natured teasing from Hershel or Roy. None of that was happening, though. Instead, the others were helping Chad get moved in to Nick’s old room, and Alice was chasing the ghost of her feelings by going out with the quasi-stranger who had inherited Nick’s body.

She took a step out, straightened the skirt of her dress, and put her game-face on. This was something. It wasn’t what she wanted, but it was better than the ache of missing Nick she’d been dealing with for the last several months. Nicholas had become Nick once. There was always the chance that he could eventually grow into him once again. If that possibility existed, she wanted to nurture it along, and she damn sure wanted to be there when it came to fruition.

This wasn’t perfect, but she still chose it over nothing.

 *              *              *

Eliza let out a soft whistle as she stared out the window of Nicholas’s apartment. The gentleman of the hour stood in the bathroom, door ajar, as he carefully inspected himself one last time. Despite his knowledge that the purpose of this evening was purely for information gathering, that damned memory Nick had slipped him kept popping up, unbidden, in his head. Each time it did, an accompanying sensation of anxiousness and excitement about the upcoming evening materialized as well, which drove him to the current state of fastidiousness regarding his appearance.

“Not too bad,” Eliza called back to him. “And she looks a far sight higher class than the girls you always hound in the casinos. What the hell does she see in you?”

“I am known for being charming,” Nicholas replied, emerging from the bathroom. Jerome sat on the couch silently, watching Nicholas as he passed. Ordinarily Nicholas would have preferred to ready himself in solitude, however the extenuating circumstances of his situation demanded he call in Ms. Pips tag-alongs. “Are you two suitably prepared?”

“For the fifth time, yes,” Eliza said, rolling her eyes. “We wait five minutes, then follow the tracker you’ve got on you. Jerome and I hang back, stay out of sight, and only emerge if Nathaniel makes a move.”

“And if the tracker should go dead?” Nicholas prodded.

“Call immediately, get your current location, and stay as close as necessary to ensure you both are watched over,” Eliza quickly replied. “Jerome and I know the plan; this isn’t our first covert bodyguard job. What’s got you so on edge? For all Nathaniel knows you’re just after some strange; there’s no reason to think he’ll definitely make a move.”

If Nicholas answered honestly, he’d have told them he wasn’t entirely sure what had him so nervous, but he suspected it was predominantly due to the fact that he had feelings for this girl. That meant he cared about her safety, and the idea of exposing her to danger twisted a part of his stomach he hadn’t even known existed. Nick could have told him what that part was; unfortunately, Nick’s counsel was not so easily obtained.

“The girl is the daughter of a very wealthy and powerful man,” Nicholas informed Eliza. “Endangering her could lead to extremely severe consequences, both for myself and for our Family. Her safety is paramount in this evening’s outing, higher priority than my own.”

Eliza cocked an eyebrow. “I’m not sure we’re permitted to make that sort of prioritization.”

Nicholas readied himself to defend the decision, but Jerome came to his aid before it was necessary.

“Nicholas is right,” Jerome agreed. “Though it was unnecessarily risky for him to make a date with someone so connected in this situation, we should put the girl’s safety first. No one of us is more important than protecting the Family as a whole. Injury to her could impact all of us, something bad to Nicholas will only affect him, as well as possibly you and I.”

“Great, so now she’s more important than all three of us,” Eliza sighed.

Nicholas pointedly avoided commenting on how important Alice was. That was information they didn’t need to know, plus he wasn’t entirely sure of it himself. One memory didn’t mean everything. There were certainly countless others that shined different lights on the relationship he’d once had with this girl. Surely some of them would quiet the uncertainty whispering in his mind. Since it seemed the only way to access those was to push forward, Nicholas steeled his resolve and prepared for the date.

A single chime echoed through the apartment, the sound of a doorbell. Eliza and Jerome slipped soundlessly to the back room, Eliza touching one finger to the watch on her wrist to assure him she was keeping watch on the time. Nicholas waited the few seconds it took for them to vanish, then pulled open the front door to greet his guest.

 *              *              *

In the parking lot below, a man who had been elbow-deep in the engine of his truck only moments before was making a greasy-fingered phone call while hunched in the shadows.

“Yeah, the apartment you told me to watch. Someone new just showed up. It’s a girl. No, a different one. Blonde, tall, green dress. She’s not going in, it looks like they're talking in the doorway. Wait, hang on, now the guy is coming out and locking the door. They’re going somewhere.”

The man paused, listening intently at the voice on the other end of the phone.

“I can do that, just tell Nathaniel to make sure the cash is ready.” He closed the phone quickly, then produced a new tool from the open box at his feet and headed back to the truck’s exposed engine. It was as perfect camouflage in a college parking lot as a white coat in a snow bank. As the blonde in the green dress and the young man got into her car and drove off, they did so under the man’s watchful eye. Only when he was sure they were gone did he wipe off his hands and set about to his next task.