Friday morning offered a break in Atlanta's week long heat wave, so Chase was enjoying a hot coffee for a change when she buzzed Eva in. The redhead stalked in a few minutes later, and Chase remembered that Eva never had been much of a morning person. Chase caught Eva stifling a yawn behind her iPad and waited to be told off. Amazingly, Chase's newly appointed assistant didn't complain. Eva just ran through the schedule while Chase finished getting ready. Indeed, Eva seemed truly seemed to take her new professional role to heart, with a bit more flourish than Chase could have hoped for. Or maybe it was Eva's way of being a supportive friend, since the woman rarely conveyed any straightforward affection.
"Can you move the zoning meeting to next week for me?" Chase asked once Eva finished. "Or ask Deb to handle it, since she'll be doing all the building coordination once I've officially resigned."
Eva yawned, unhidden and outright the second time, and shifted her weight from one stiletto heel to the other. "Sure. Am I putting anything in that slot instead?"
Chase shifted this time, and Eva raised an eyebrow at her. She considered leaving Eva in the dark on this one – surely the redhead would blow a gasket at the idea – but decided that since she'd advised Devon that they put full faith in their allies, the least she should do would be to follow her own suggestion.
Chase sighed. "We have to meet with Brian," she said.
The bleary glaze left Eva's eyes as they popped open wide. "Brian who? You don't mean Brian Harris?" Chase nodded, knowing Eva's attempt to act like a proper executive assistant was about to end and was not disappointed. The woman dropped her tablet on the couch. "What the hell for?" Eva demanded. "And who's we? Because you can't be stupid enough to think putting Brian in the same room with Devon is a good idea."
"We don't have a choice," Chase replied defensively. "His lab is under contract with DPC, and they're eating the bulk of the R&D expense right now."
Eva snorted. "That's what conference calls are for. So you don't have to look at people when you tell them what to do. I'll schedule one for you guys if you need to talk to that spineless fucker today. Just don't expect me to talk to him," she hissed. "Because my suggestion would be to just have him killed and just deal with whoever took over."
"What? You can afford it. And don't get sanctimonious with me," Eva said, waving off Chase's frown. "I'd kill him myself if I could figure out how to do it and not get caught," Eva stated flatly, and Chase found that she actually believed the woman. Devon's description of Eva – the woman who would be in jail with her instead of just bailing her out – flashed through her mind. No doubt that was why Devon would put up with Eva, for Chase's sake.
For that reason, Chase took a deep breath. She hadn't mentioned this to Devon yet, and she wasn't sure, truthfully, if she would say anything to him at all. Eva, on the other hand, might understand. But first another secret had to be revealed.
"It's not just DPC, honestly," Chase admitted softly. "The truth is, I need Brian's help. I need him to do something for me."
Eva's eyebrows dropped. "What could he possibly do for you that you couldn't pay someone to do?"
Chase nibbled on her lip, and everything from the past week began to pull on her, like sandbags were being hung on her shoulders. She'd thought about it of course, day and night, and she'd broken down more often than not. She'd spent countless hours pouring over everything she could find, medical and otherwise, regarding Devon's varying conditions. The psychological ones had been easy, but the medical had been a bit harder. She'd even made a few subtle inquiries with doctors she'd met through her foundation. Then she'd gone into Brian Harris's research lab files. And just last night, finally, she'd found a mention of something, a cancelled clinical trial from years earlier, buried deep in those very files. Still, she wasn't a doctor herself, and she didn't know how much she could reveal to most people. Brian, on the other hand, might be able to provide enough information. And, Chase hoped, might even do more than that once he was free of Devon's family business in the way he was currently.
But it was just a hope, probably an unrealistic one, Chase knew. Still, Chase was willing to hold onto it for the moment. Eva's presence also offered her the type of strength she couldn't gather on her own. Chase denied the tears that threatened to come and looked into Eva's curious eyes even as her legs weakened and she dropped onto the couch.
"I need him to help me save Devon's life."
Eva blinked slowly several times, her previously pinched expression turning slack. Eva's mouth opened, then closed a moment later. Finally the woman managed to whisper, "You need Brian…to save…" The woman fell silent again for a minute. "I don't understand."
"Devon let his doctor tell me everything that's wrong with him," Chase offered shakily, "and it's not just emotional. Actually, that would probably be bad on its own, but it's made worse by the other stuff. I won't go into the technical jargon, but basically if we can't find a treatment for his overactive glands, he'll either need a heart transplant, or he'll have a heart attack that will kill him within a decade."
"Wait," Eva muttered faintly, "he's not even forty. Hell, he doesn't even look like he's thirty…"
"A big part of that is that his pituitary gland overproduces. It keeps him looking young," Chase explained carefully, measuring her breathing all the while, forcing her own voice to remain steady. She knew she wouldn't be able to do it for long however. "But between that and his overactive adrenal gland, his heart's gotten weak. His brain…his actual brain tissue, also shows signs of trauma. His scans look similar to someone who's had multiple concussions, because he has the equivalent of chemical spills happening in there. And of course, he probably has taken a few blows too. And he can't have any kind of heart surgery, now or in the future, since he's allergic to every kind of anesthesia currently available. And of course it's dangerous to try anything new, because if he goes into anaphylactic shock, the counter is adrenaline, which would probably kill him instead of save him."
Chase finished in a rush, knowing if she hadn't gotten it all out in that one breath, the most important information probably wouldn't have made it out at all. Her eyes were already wet, and her mascara made her feel like her eyelids were trying to glue themselves together.
Eva hardly looked as though she'd digested any of it yet. Her hands clenched and unclenched a few times, almost as though she was trying to physically grasp what Chase said a piece at a time. "But…why didn't he say anything? I mean, even if you guys had gotten divorced..." Eva muttered before her voice trailed off.
Chase swallowed hard. "That's why he made the alimony offer. It would have given me the controlling share of everything he has, and apparently his will leaves me everything else."
Eva's jaw clenched. "He wasn't just making an alimony offer. He was making arrangements for when he croaked." She shook her head. "He gave up. I can't believe he just gave up."
"I don't think he felt like he had anything left," Chase managed, fending off the guilty wave brought on by the knowledge that she was directly responsible for him feeling that way.
Eva's lips almost disappeared for a second. The woman half turned her face away and wiped at her nose. "This kind of shit is why I always hated Devon. This is why I'd have rather tied you down than let you marry him. God, after all this time, he's still an asshole," the redhead spat, or tried to. But Chase heard Eva's voice waver.
"That's why I need Brian's help," Chase muttered. "There were a couple trials a while back. One out of DPC, and another they'd partnered on with another smaller firm in the UK. The research is still there, it's just not being pursued right now. But we can start it back up. From what I saw, there was some real promise there."
"But you don't know that for sure."
Chase shrugged, sniffling again. "Devon gave up, but I can't. I have to try, and it's the best thing I've got right now."
Eva sat down and nodded. "So what are you gonna do? Just walk into Brian's lab and tell him you're taking over DPC? It might be a little early to show your hand like that."
There was truth in that assessment, Chase admitted. Still, the urgency of Devon's health far outweighed a possible business strategy. "I think," Chase said softly, "that Brian will want to help Devon, whether we're running DPC or not. I think us taking over will just make it easier. But I'll figure it out when I get there."
Eva sighed. "I'm surprised Devon agreed."
"He hasn't." Chase refused to wilt under Eva's skeptical glare. "I didn't tell him this part yet."
"It's not like we've been whispering," Eva deadpanned. "If he didn't know before, he does now."
It was Chase's turn to blink before she realized what Eva implied. "Devon's not here."
Eva's mouth fell open. "I thought you guys were working it out, getting back together…all that crap."
"I'm not going through with the divorce obviously," Chase replied, "but he moved out over a year ago. We can't pretend nothing's changed since he left."
In truth, she wanted nothing more in the world than to have him come home. The house felt emptier every day he was gone now, to the point Chase could barely sleep, even on the sofa. But that was an unrealistic desire, not something Chase had expected, even if she'd asked. Which she hadn't, knowing he would have either agreed and regretted it immediately, or refused outright in part because of the bruises she still nursed around her ribs. So she'd settled for reality; she was talking to him every day at least, thinning the barrier between them as much as she could without pushing him too hard, too fast.
Chase told Eva about that as well, including her injuries, as a way to explain. Although she worried the redhead might blow a gasket, Eva instead looked even more shaken.
"He's really that bad?"
Chase nodded. "Dr. Mancelli's trying a new drug combination, but it'll take a couple weeks for it to saturate his system. Until then…"
"Putting him in front of Brian isn't a good way to keep him calm," Eva said.
Again Chase shrugged, frowning. "I was expecting you to freak out."
"Why? Devon wouldn't hurt you."
"I know that."
Eva shook her head gravely. "No, I mean seriously, he's got to be really messed up if he let that happen. I remember what he's like when he thinks you've been hurt. Hell, I still dream about some of those days," she mumbled, her blue eyes unfocused, her mind obviously in the past. "The night you got cornered at his family's party and he came after you at that condo you gave us; the night his brother attacked you and we thought you were dead; that Christmas Eve when you lost the baby and we thought you might not make it out of surgery. I'll never forget Devon's face each of those times." Eva shivered even as she seemed to pull herself back, and she rested her head on the back of the couch, letting it loll to the side to face Chase directly.
"I remember when you told me about the betrothal thing. Back then I thought you were an idiot to stay with Devon when you had the chance to get out. But you're not like me. You never cared that he's Devon Dunn, so I knew there had to be something else you saw that the rest of us couldn't because of who he is. And don't get me wrong, I still hate him," Eva added with a slight grin. "But if you had gotten divorced, nobody else would have been good enough for you, ever. For whatever reason, it's like that prick loves you in a way no one else could, in ways most of us will never understand."
Chase only noticed that her mouth was hanging open when her tongue began to burn from lack of moisture. She snapped it shut, almost biting it in the process. She stared at Eva, and Eva returned the look, unflinching and unabashed. Chase felt as though Eva was willfully projecting her own strength and resolve into Chase. And Chase needed every bit of it.
"I can't lose him," Chase blurted out.
Eva nodded. "We'll get him fixed up, and we'll get him home, and probably not in that order." Then, to Chase's even greater amazement, Eva wrapped her arm around her and pulled her in a tight hug. "We won't let him give up, Chassie. I promise."
Chase pulled herself together in time to touch up her smudged make up and still make the appointed Friday meeting at her office. Eva, to her credit, showed no indication that anything out of the ordinary happened when Devon and Rose arrived. She even jabbed Devon about the gray in his beard as they called the meeting to order. Chase had little to offer but a few comments, so she spent most of the time taking a few notes and appreciating how much Rose had accomplished in the past week. Rose had, after all, been tasked with the finer points of the coming takeover. She'd contacted the most receptive board members, suggested things may not be as financially secure as they'd been led to believe by the current DPC leadership team, and promised that help was on the way to correct anything amiss. Even the newer additions to the DPC board knew Devon's reputation, and most new Devon personally. His name alone inspired a type of confidence most stockholders wished they could bottle and trade on Wall Street as its own commodity. Just the news that he was trading his academic profession for a renewed business pursuit had people buzzing.
Devon at one point chuckled. "Is that what the last few days have been about?" Rose grinned while Chase looked between the two. Devon glanced her way and shrugged. "The stock has gone up a bit, seemingly out of nowhere since there've been no public announcements to cause it."
Rose nodded. "The board members can't buy themselves for fear of being accused of insider trading, but they can make discreet suggestions to the right people if they feel good about things. And Devon always makes them feel good," Rose said to Chase specifically.
"So by what you're saying, we'll be able to move on this sooner than we thought," Chase indicated.
"Paul Brase has already called for a vote of confidence meeting next Tuesday. Devon will be voted back in immediately after Greg's voted out."
Chase balked. Devon's expression proved he was equally surprised. They'd both talked about having at least another few weeks to get things ready. And of course, to get Devon fully used to his new meds. Chase started to say, "That's too soon," but Devon interrupted.
"Tuesday it is, then." Devon stood up, clearly signaling that the meeting was adjourned. "Just make Greg's shit is out of my office on Wednesday. If you will excuse us," Devon declared as he turned to Chase, "but Chastane and I have another appointment."
Chase noted the surprise on Rose's face and the slight hesitation in Eva's. Devon ignored Rose for a moment, but he regarded Eva for several seconds longer than Chase would have expected normally. He took an audible breath and glanced sidelong at Chase. "Are we bringing her along then?"
Chase tried not to wither under his obviously perturbed, albeit indirect glare. Of course he could tell, by Eva's lack of reaction, that she knew at least some of what they'd planned for their afternoon. Instead of apologizing, Chase steadied herself. "Not this time," she replied defiantly. She noticed Eva give her a supportive wink and felt better immediately.
Devon's eyebrow quirked upward, and he glanced between Chase and Eva another moment before shrugging. "All right then." Devon motioned for Chase to come with him, but, she noticed sadly, he remained very careful not to actually touch her.
It wasn't until they'd gotten into the limo that Devon allowed his irritation to show. "Am I going to regret letting Diedra talk to you?" he demanded as they pulled out of the drive.
Chase gritted her teeth. She'd known it was coming. Chase imagined how he would feel once they finished with Brian. Still she kept herself as poised as possible while Devon frowned at her from the opposite seat.
Although the lab facility itself was located out in yet another Atlanta suburb, Naomi had told Chastane that Brian spent the majority of his time at the satellite office on the Emory hospital campus. Indeed when Naomi made the appointment for "the Dunns" – she'd been pretty vague with the person scheduling the meeting on Brian's end - his office hours at the hospital had been confirmed. Thankfully that kept the trip short enough to allow Chase not to think about pissing Devon off once again for very long. Naomi also stated that every time either Greg or she, or the two of them together, had ever shown up, a lab assistant who barely glanced at them always showed them in. According to Naomi, they should have no problem getting into his office incognito. Until they saw Brian in person, of course.
Chase watched Devon tense a little more with every mile they drove until they pulled into one of Emory's back lots. At that point she could see that he was gripping the edge of the seat so hard that his olive skin had gone a yellowish-white around the scars on his knuckles.
But those scars reinforced Chase's resolve. She remembered that surgery, performed a few days after Robbie attacked her all those years ago. That was the day she'd learned of Devon's allergy to anesthesia. At the time, she hadn't understood how he could have that surgery wide awake with a mild alternative, even though his sister swore he'd come home from his first round of boarding school possessing an substantial tolerance for pain that seemed to increase as he got older. Majorie explained during his hand surgery that he'd rarely had occasion to test his pain threshold until he took up karate. Of course he'd achieved his black belt so quickly that, in high school, Devon switched to Muay Thai.
His twin sister laughed when she told the story of him preferring the more mixed martial arts style even though their father had considered the whole thing barbaric, not to mention a waste of Devon's budding talents. But Devon enjoyed the physicality, the extra push it put on his body and the way it engaged his mind in a different direction. In his first ranked competition after getting into the sport, Majorie explained that he dislocated his shoulder during an early round match. According to Majorie, he'd gone to the locker room, popped it back in himself, and returned to compete in four more rounds and win the with only a mention of a little soreness. At the time Chase had attributed the story to Majorie's knack to hero-worship her brother in certain cases. His twin was, without question, Devon's biggest cheerleader, so naturally she must have exaggerated the details of his injury. Now Chase knew better.
Unfortunately, Devon didn't possess the same numbness inside his heart or his mind. Chase knew Brian cut into both, brutally and jaggedly. However she refused to allow his angst to cost him what could be their best chance at finding a way to manage his health. First and foremost, Chase had hardly come to terms with being a divorcee. She simply would not consider the possibility of having survived everything else to lose him to his own body without a fight. God – her mother's or anyone else's version of God – could not possibly be so cruel. And if there was no God (and she admittedly had wondered a couple times over the years and the tragedies they'd suffered along the way), well then all the more reason to find her own solution and make it work.
Chase hadn't paid enough attention to the fact that she hadn't moved to exit the car or that she'd just stared at Devon for several minutes.
"You're up to something," he said softly. Only then did she realize he'd held her eyes for a while.
Chase swallowed, berating herself silently. Devon always made her feel transparent, like there was nothing within her that he couldn't see if he looked hard enough. It was part of Devon's magic really, the way he seemed able to read anything in front of him even with no words present. He didn't sound angry, or even suspicious. Another testament to how much trust he'd placed on her since their budding reconciliation.
She wasn't lying to him, Chase told herself. She was preventing an emotional complication on Devon's part until they took care of their primary objective, which was dealing with Brian's lab and its contract with DPC. The rest wasn't a lie. It was just timing. She'd made an executive decision on Devon's behalf, much like many he'd made for her own good in the beginning of their relationship. And he would know about it soon enough.
The driver had already opened the door for them and waited patiently.
"Do you want to wait here?" Chase offered, a large part of her hoping he would do just that.
Devon released his grip on the seat's edge quickly and flexed his fingers. He closed his eyes for a moment. "I'll be fine."
True or not, Chase accepted his answer and finally got out of the car. Devon followed, squinting at the sunlight reflected off the mirror-glass around the small offshoot wing of the hospital. He remained slightly behind, finally forced to touch her just enough to guide her with his hand at the small of her back.
As Naomi described, a bored looking man in a lab coat stood by the reception desk. He picked up the phone, muttered, "Your eleven o'clock's here," and offered them clipped directions before rushing off.
Despite Naomi's assurances, Chase couldn't believe it would be so simple. "How does a lab space like this not have some type of security?"
Devon shrugged. "Up here it's just a few meeting rooms and offices. They won't have anything of value in this area." Devon then pointed to a set of metal doors at the end of one hallway. "That, I expect, leads to the actual labs, exam and record rooms between the offices and hospital itself. That will be locked down like Fort Knox."
Chase sighed. That made sense, but it reminded her she had a lot to learn about this industry, and very little time to do so.
Then Chase felt a change occur in Devon's stance that pushed everything else from her mind. She felt the slight pressure increase at her back. More startling, the atmosphere around Devon seemed to condense and harden within seconds. And then she heard the shaky voice cut through.
Devon didn't move immediately, so Chase had to shift and look around him. Brian stood equally still, his mouth slightly open and his hazel eyes popped wide behind thin wire glasses. Unlike Devon, Brian looked like he'd aged decades in the past ten years. His hairline had receded a bit, highlighting wrinkles and lines a thirty-something shouldn't have, and there was a lot more gray than sandy brown in his hair. Brian was at least ten pounds underweight, and possibly more.
Her movement seemed to break the initial trance. Brian's eyes darted from Devon to her, and amazingly, they widened even further.
"Oh my God…Chase."
There it was. The face of a guilty conscience faced with the tangible ghost of past wrongs. The voice people used in a confessional. Brian's already pallid skin seemed to drop to a new level of pale, and Chase caught herself battling back a sympathetic itch at the back of mind. Still, in those thirty seconds Chase knew that the years, his circumstances, and who-knew-what-else had not been kind to the once carefree Brian Harris.
Chase nodded in acknowledgement and looked at Devon to try gauging his reaction, physical and emotional. Immediately she knew Devon was suffering from a dual reaction to seeing Brian, even if he hardly showed a reaction on his poker face. But the stormy blue color projected what must have been going on in his head. No one would appreciate Brian's aesthetic deterioration better than Devon, except maybe Majorie. Chase discreetly put her hand around the one Devon had at her back, sliding it along his palm and stopping at his wrist.
Devon swallowed but allowed her the pulse check; he was probably doing a similar thing in his own head, she realized. But he seemed okay, all things considered. His new med combination so far was preforming remarkably well, considering he'd only made the switch two days earlier. Then she took his hand and, thankfully, Devon let her weave her fingers into his without trying to move away from her.
Another testament that Devon felt okay physically but was deeply shaken within. Devon showed no sign of speaking though, and Brian looked like he was in a daze. But they couldn't stand in the lobby all day.
"Is there somewhere we should go for this meeting?" Chase asked with much more confidence than she felt at the moment.
"Meeting?" Brian muttered in a monotone before jerking. "Oh…right. Wait…"
Chase realized Brian kept looking at Devon. He would only look at her for a heartbeat at a time. "The appointment's with us," Chase explained.
"Oh. Oh!" Brian cleared his throat and looked around as though the lobby was a foreign space to him. "Um, okay. I thought it was Greg, so I cleared a conference room. But it's not, obviously, so yeah… Let's go to…my office."
Another wave of sympathy for Brian assaulted Chase, despite every logical reason for her to feel like he was simply a victim of his own bad karma. Repeat accessory or pawn to the Dunn family, Chase wondered if Brian really deserved this, whatever "this" was.
Brian moved toward the opposite hallway, and Devon kept holding Chase's hand as they followed. The office they entered was sparsely furnished. Several piles – forms, folders and sticky notes mostly - littered the desk surface. Brian seemed to consider sitting there but moved instead to the couch and chair setup on the other side of the room. He took a stiff looking high back chair, motioning for the couple to take the sofa. Chase sat down, but even though Devon kept her hand, he remained standing beside her, using the wall as a lean on.
"So…um…" Brian seemed to have too much nervous energy to sit, so he stood up too. And he still avoided meeting Chase's eyes. "I'm surprised you two wanted to see me. What's up? How've you two been? I mean, there's been stuff on the news lately, but…you know how that is."
Devon's grip on her hand increased enough to let her know he didn't like the personal questions from Brian. One look at his expression reinforced that suspicion. She raised an eyebrow at Devon. They hadn't discussed who would actually do the talking, now that she thought about it. She'd assumed he would cover the business aspect, as he knew his company better than most, even after so much time gone. Devon's expression softened slightly when he returned her look.
Devon apparently had a different idea as he leaned down, not close enough to whisper, but close enough to be comforting. "Handling people will be one of your primary duties," he supplied. "Do your CEO thing."
Chase was about to argue, but something in Devon's face took the words away. Perhaps she wasn't used to the beard yet, but it seemed like something dark was brewing there, almost like his pre-beard five o'clock shadow was taking over the entire surface of his skin.
"CEO?" Brian asked, still to Devon. Devon however straightened up and simply kept looking at Chase with those steely blue eyes.
And then she understood. Devon had noticed it, just like she had. That Brian wouldn't look at her. That Brian was in fact doing everything he possibly could not to look at her. Reasonably Chase would have expected the opposite. Sure, she'd been hurt by Robbie while Brian was in the room, but Brian had betrayed Devon. Chase had actually expected Brian to be more likely to avoid his former best friend, not the other way around. Since the opposite seemed true now, Devon intended to force Brian to face her, and by extension, face the biggest sin committed against Devon himself. What she didn't know yet was Devon's intent for pushing the confrontation. Did he need to see Brian show more visible regret? Did Devon want to see Brian fumble and squirm? Was it an interrogation tactic to keep Brian on edge?
This wasn't the time to ask if she was being used, or worse yet, accept that conclusion as foregone and request the specifics of why Devon was using her, and in what way. Plus she had her own objective. Devon effectively just passed her the microphone, so to speak. Fine. She rebelled instead by pulling her hand from Devon's and placing it on the arm of the sofa.
Chase considered her next words carefully. "We're here because DPC is about to go through a transition that will affect your contract with us."
Chase had used "us" intentionally, and indeed Brian caught the ownership reference immediately. His eyes darted back to her for a second before shooting upward to Devon again. Brian almost looked like he was ready to beg Devon to offer the explanation.
"Is that what the stock bump was about? Greg called me and asked if we'd done an announcement before clearing it with him," Brian said to Devon. "That's what I thought this meeting was about."
Chase scowled. Brian's avoidance was starting to get annoying. "The stock's climbing because certain people may have heard about a possible leadership change."
"That kind of uncertainty would tank the stock though most of the time until something happens," Brian said, "unless…" Brian blinked several times. "Devon, you're taking DPC back?"
Annoyance morphed quickly into anger. "For fuck's sake, Brian, you might as well get used to looking at my face," Chase snapped. "You're going to be seeing it a lot after next week's vote."
It felt like an eternity passed, but Brian did finally, slowly drag his eyes downward to meet hers. Brian muttered, "I'm sorry," so softly that Chase barely heard it. At the same time, Chase suspected those two words carries multiple apologies at once, as well as an admission to their inadequacy.
The elephant in the room had become a zoo. Chase knew she needed to clear it out before anything could be accomplished. She took a deep breath and leaned back, but she held Brian's gaze firmly, but without judgment. At least she tried to do that. "It was a long time ago, Brian. It doesn't matter anymore. All I care about right now is ensuring your compliance with our new operating standards once they are in place, as well as your attention to proper regulatory inspection and financial reporting."
Chase watched Brian's reaction and was reminded how underappreciated Brian's intellect had been compared to Devon while they were in college together. When the two had been side-by-side, Brian had more opportunity to forget a strange woman's name than to show off his own remarkable faculties.
But Brian had graduated in the top two percent of his class at Emory, and not with Devon's help either. The two had been on completely different academic tracks, and Chase recalled how Brian had been lauded for a brilliant scientific acumen, particularly in biology and genetics. Even though Brian hadn't bragged about his own academic merits unless pressed, Majorie certainly had. So naturally, Brian could figure out this math.
"You saw the books?"
Chase nodded. "DPC's, yes, we saw them. We'll need yours though to get the full picture."
Brian's shoulders slumped. He took off his glasses with one hand and rubbed his face with the other. "So you've reported it? Or are you waiting until the transition is completed on your end?"
Chase sighed. "Neither. We're going to revise the reporting, obviously."
Brian's head cocked and his brow furrowed. "You're not reporting us for fraud?"
"We'd rather just buy you out to bring you back under the DPC umbrella."
"I don't think that'll work," Brian mumbled.
Chase raised an eyebrow. "Why not? You can't have so much expense on the books that we can't cover it, and your contract is pretty clear about whether you can be fired."
Brian was already shaking his head and, probably without realizing the move, Brian glanced up at Devon again. But this time he looked briefly before coming back to Chase. "It's not that. It's…something else. It'd be better for everyone if you just turned us in."
Chase frowned. Brian felt guilty, but requesting jail time as punishment. "Turn yourself in, then," she suggested, even as Devon sucked in a breath beside her.
Brian snorted. "I'd love to. I would've done that three years ago if I could have. But I can't. If you guys report us though –"
"My father," Devon rumbled, making Chase and Brian jerk simultaneously.
Brian stared at Devon again, but this time Devon returned it. Chase saw something new on Devon's face this time. The calculating analytic expression had replaced the blank slate he'd been offering before. And for the first time – although Chase could have imagined it – Devon seemed to show a hint of pity.
Brian nodded. "You know how my dad was, man. What he didn't drink away, he gambled and lost. And then mom left him, and he just gambled that much more. By the time I got to middle school, he owed so much money. So much fucking money…"
Devon took a deep breath. "Father bailed him out."
Brian huffed. "Yeah, and gave him more to gamble away. So instead of owing bookies, he owes your dad a fortune, literally. And then it came time to start collecting, and I found out that my dad's deal with the devil included me, his first born son, just like in some nightmare movie."
"That's why you did all this?" Chase breathed, hardly able to believe it, except she'd been in a similar position once herself, at the mercy of the Dunn family.
Brian offered a sad grin. "It didn't seem too bad at first. I was supposed to go to a fancy school I'd never get to attend on my own and keep an eye on one of Gregory's kids and keep him out of trouble. Not that I did; we damn near got expelled our junior year for spiking the sparkling grape juice fountain at prom. But that was the job at first. I was supposed to be around since you didn't seem to make friends of your own, other than -"
"So my father assigned you to earn my trust and keep me in line by playing the friend card," Devon deadpanned.
But Brian was shaking his head fervently, taking half a step in Devon's direction. "No, I actually wasn't supposed to get that close. I mean, I was supposed to be around, but I was supposed to be an acquaintance. My dad actually flipped out on me when he found out we were spending summers together and stuff. It wasn't my job, he'd tell me. I was gonna screw up his bank book and all that. But it didn't seem like that big of a deal, because honestly you were bullet proof, man. You didn't give a fuck what they said, or what your dad told you. And they never had anything to use, and I damn sure wasn't about to change you. You were like a brother to me by then. So working off my dad's debt by hanging out with you didn't even feel like a job or anything. It was a bonus. Until…"
You were bulletproof… Chase replayed that phrase in her mind over and over while, out loud, she said, "Until Devon met me."
Brian shuffled and finally sat down. "Yeah. When we first met you, none of us knew who you were. But then Devon got pulled to London, and they found out who he was seeing. Devon's dad called me in and told me who you really were before he came back. He was pissed that your grandmother hadn't kept him informed of your whereabouts."
Devon growled. "I figured Evelyn knew all along, but I didn't have the chance to ask her myself before the bitch decided to drop dead."
Brian nodded again. "Well yeah, she'd kept track of Chase ever since Chris found out about her."
Chase blinked. "Chris?" She noticed a look pass between Devon and Brian that proved they, once again, knew something she didn't, just like the old days. And they both looked pained.
But this time Devon seemed content to actually share information. "Christopher Darborough was Ken's son with his wife. He was your half-brother."
"And he was Devon's only other friend in school," Brian added.
Another feeling assaulted Chase from decades past. That realization of how little she knew of her own Darborough family line.
Brian seemed to notice her expression, because his brows went up. "You never heard about Chris? I mean, Devon never told you about him at all?"
Devon exhaled slowly. "We…preferred not to talk about the past."
And it was true. Chase couldn't fault Devon for that. He had offered, once, to fill her in on what he knew of the family that made her rich. She'd declined, perfectly content in her ignorance. But now…she'd had a brother. A brother who'd died before she could meet him. Plus, if Chris Darborough had been a friend of Devon's before he died…
She didn't even know how her brother died. Or when. Or how old he'd been. Chase didn't know…anything. Unlike the passing of her father or grandmother, this time Chase did feel a strange pang of loss, of wondering if they'd shared a type of pawn's kinship in their families' power plays. Had her mother known about him?
"You said Chris found out about me?" Chase asked, knowing they'd strayed far from their original meeting agenda but unable to restrain herself.
Brian nodded. "He knew Ken slept around, and I guess he overheard something when he was four or five. Anyway, he told Evelyn, and she helped him track you down when he got old enough to understand what having a sister could mean." Then Brian chuckled harshly. "I think it was part of his master plan. Actually, remember what he used to say?"
The question was obviously meant for Devon, and Chase caught the shadow that passed over Devon's face. This time Devon seemed content not to answer, although he didn't look like he would stop Brian from telling her.
Brian looked back at Chase. "Chris was an only child, and the Darborough group was just as tightly bound as the Dunn kids were. Maybe worse, since there were so few of them. So we were the closest thing to siblings Chris had all his life. But the first thing Chris said when he found out he had a sister was that maybe Devon's dad would set the two of you up to get married. Then he'd have a sister and a brother at the same time." Brian laughed, his gaze distant. "Chris was a great guy. He was a lot like Devon. He was so…normal, considering where he'd come from. But he always wished he'd had a big family like Devon's."
Chase tried to picture it in her head, but it made her heart ache in a new way. Then Brian jerked and jumped to his feet.
"I have a picture of him. You wanna see it?"
Chase's mouth fell open. She stood herself and turned to Devon to see him equally off guard. But his pupils were normal, she noted off-handedly. Because yes, she did want to see a picture of Christopher Darborough.
Brian seemed to understand, because he pulled out his wallet and dug around for a second before taking out a folded picture. He handed to Chase, and she took it in a hand she hadn't realized was shaking until she saw it before her eyes. She unfolded the faded photo and recognized three of the four people in it immediately as well as the location it had been taken. The Florida beach house. Teenagers in a jumbled row, still wet from swimming or surfing or whatever they'd done before the picture was taken. Arms thrown around each other, everyone smiling wide, carefree in a way they would all lose in adulthood.
At one end was a younger Brian, held down by a much longer-haired Majorie's arm around his neck. Her other arm was wound through her twin brother's arm. Teenage Devon looked much like he had when they met, except a little lankier perhaps, but he was obviously already in his sports phase if his muscle tone was any indication. And beside him, an arm over Devon's shoulder, stood the lone person Chase had never met in person.
This wasn't like when she saw Evelyn Darborough's photo and hardly felt any relation to the woman in that black-and-white newspaper photo. This time Chase immediately felt like she knew Chris Darborough, at least a little bit, like a deep genetic reaction to their shared DNA. Of course he was much more handsome than she was pretty by her own estimation. They had the same hair color though, and his eyes appeared to have a similar orange-brown color as hers as well, or maybe that was just a distortion of the photo. He was the tallest of the group – he'd inherited that from their dad, she assumed – but he smiled widely. There was something more genuine in that young man's smile when compared to the other three. Like he wasn't quite broken yet by his family's dictates, or maybe they didn't come down on him the same way Gregory Dunn had with his children.
Chase meant to turn and offer the picture to Devon but realized that Devon was almost right up against her, looking over her shoulder. His expression was unreadable.
"How old were you guys?" she asked quietly.
Devon's eyes narrowed slightly. "Sixteen, I think," he said softly. Then he pointed to a car hood in the background, closer to the house. "That was my first Beemer, if I'm not mistaken."
"Chris went with you to pick out that car, didn't he?" Brian asked.
Devon nodded. "Father suggested I find something… distinctive, something equal to our family's status. He didn't want me to embarrass him, I suppose. But I wanted something more normal, so Chris snuck me out to go car shopping." Devon's own lips betrayed a grin. "Father was furious when I brought it home, but he didn't dare lay into me too hard since Evelyn's grandson had been complicate in its selection."
"I never understood that. Your dad tiptoed around the Darboroughs a lot back then."
Devon shrugged. "They had more money than us. Simple pecking order, really."
Chase gaped. "Wait, my family…"
"Was worth more, yes. That was, of course, before the drug industry's boom after Part D passed Congress and lawsuits forced several mergers. If Evelyn had remained active in real estate during the housing boom and got out at the right time before the crash – which she would have, without question, she was brilliant when it came to timing the market - you'd likely be richer than me now. But as we both know, your grandmother wasn't in the game actively when she died, and she had one hell of a debt load. She robbed you, really."
Chase snorted. She hadn't started a billionaire, true, but she'd been damn close when everything was settled. And there was the fact that she was a billionaire now, in large part from her own exploits.
Which reminded Chase, again, that they were there in part for business. But she didn't want to lose the chance to learn about her brother either. Would Devon tell her more about him later? Or would he close down once they left and he had time to rebalance?
And there were the trials she needed Brian to reactivate. How many more tangents would they break off on before they covered everything she wanted?
Devon seemed to read her mind, because he took the picture and handed it back to Brian. Chase kept herself from grabbing it back, even though that's exactly what she wanted to do.
Brian pushed it away and pointed to Chase, and she tried not to look too gratefully taking it. "You keep it," he said firmly. "You should have one. Chris would have wanted you to have it."
Chase reluctantly slid the photo into her purse. Devon watched her as she did so, and to her relief, he took over the more formal meeting after that. At some point they all sat down while Devon explained what would happen when he took over, what her role would be as his CEO, and what would be expected of Brian's lab upon completion. It took less time than she'd expected, until Devon switched tracks slightly.
"Do you know how much your father owes?" Devon asked just as Chase expected the meeting to end.
Brian shrugged. "I don't know the exact figure. Thankfully he's got advanced Alzheimer's now, so he can't gamble anymore at least."
Devon nodded. "My father pays for his care then."
Chase groaned as Brian nodded. Just another pawn indeed, and in the worst way.
Devon looked thoughtful for a minute before standing up. "Well, my father won't be able to afford a studio on the south side of Atlanta when I'm finished with him, so other arrangements will be made."
Brian swallowed and nodded. "Thanks for the heads up. I'll make some calls."
"Forget it. It's done. I'll handle it," Devon interrupted as he stood.
"But…" Brian looked as taken aback as Chase felt. "I don't know what to say, Devon."
Devon grimaced. "Just shut up and go run some tests or something," Devon growled. "And keep your mouth shut. If I find out you ran off to tell my brother or Father what's happening before I want them to know, I'll break your neck."
"Of course, sure. But seriously, all things considered, man, you shouldn't joke about killing people, you know, since…" Brian chuckled, although he shuffled nervously.
Devon leveled an even glare at Brian. To an outsider it might have seemed normal, but what Chase saw in that look made her blood go cold.
"It's not a joke," Devon replied matter-of-factly. "My shrink says it's much easier to kill the second man than the first one. Whatever threats you may have gotten from my father over the years should be put into perspective." Devon's eyes narrowed slightly. "Don't fuck me over this time."
Chase's first rational thought after witnessing that exchange was that perhaps, in this case, she would reach out to Brian about the drug trials when Devon wasn't around.
As Devon and Chase returned to the lobby, heading for the car, rushed footsteps followed by Brian's voice echoing through the empty lobby one last time.
"Hey," he called out, making them both turn.
Chase took Devon's hand by default this time, and he seemed to appreciate the gesture, tensing slightly.
Brian looked conflicted for just a second before smiling a smile that almost looked like one of his old ones. "It was really good to see you two again. Together, I mean. Really good." Brian shrugged. "I just wanted to tell you that."
Chase decided she'd let Devon be the respondent for them both.
Devon nodded once but otherwise looked neutral. "We'll be in touch."