Part I, in a continuing story from A to Z [link to the beginning]
It was dusk when Ferraro returned with his niece. Zoey looked on from the edge of the rooftop helipad as they landed, wondering what else she had missed while exploring the house and grounds. Two obviously armed bodyguard-types jumped out and scoped the place thoroughly, giving her a more than cursory glance, before they turned and motioned for the passengers to step down. Clearly, well-trained professionals. What the hell?
Ferraro emerged next, then extended his hand in a gesture of assistance. Zoey watched as a sullen teenaged girl appeared, pointedly ignoring both the bodyguards and her uncle, and had a sinking feeling this was the niece. It had to be. And she was no child. If Zoey had to guess, she’d say 14 years old, so not an adult either. A horrible age.
She was tall and thin, almost gaunt, her skin so pale Zoey wondered whether the girl had ever spent any time outside. Her short hair might have been an expensive cut, it was impossible to determine with all the gel, but Zoey suspected it was the girl’s own hand at work. She wondered at the lack of make-up, but could imagine it had been confiscated. Repeatedly. The contrast of the black knee-length skirt, plain white blouse and gray cardigan — no doubt a uniform of some sort — was jarring and incongruous.
There was so very much wrong with this scenario, Zoey was tempted to disarm the guards and force the pilot to get her out of there, at gunpoint.
The girl looked up just then, her gaze locking with Zoey’s. It was an unexpected, unguarded moment for both of them. The raw pain and anger and disillusionment Zoey saw in those eyes destroyed her teenage self all over again.
She’s me at that age.
This girl needed her. There was not even a flicker of doubt in her mind. Seems her instincts had been right after all.
Her certainty was accompanied by the knowledge that she was in for one hell of a fight, given the way the girl quickly looked away and brushed past her on the way into the mansion without so much as acknowledging her existence. Oh yeah, this was going to be a knock-down, drag-out, last-one-standing kind of thing.
If Ferraro knew what was good for him, he’d stay out of the way. But first things first.
“I take it that was your niece,” she said as Ferraro approached where she stood.
“Indeed. Miss Samantha Leighton. I apologize for her manners.”
Zoey shook her head. “Don’t. What’s with the muscle?”
“A necessary precaution, I’m afraid.”
Well, that told her exactly nothing. “Dangerous, is she? Likely to steal the flatware? Strangle us in our sleep? Defect with state secrets?”
“They’re for her protection.” He hesitated. “She’s the sole heir to her parents’ fortune. And mine.”
Zoey searched her brain for an elusive memory. Leighton . . . why was that name familiar? Oh. Oh, damn. “Her parents were . . . Paul and Cerise?”
She saw a wave of grief and pain cloud his expression before he composed himself. “Yes. Paul was my brother, from Mother’s second marriage.” She suspected this was not going to be a topic for discussion.
However, there was still the matter of the bodyguards. “Do you feel safe here?” she asked.
“Do you believe I’m safe here?”
His gaze flicked over her scorched face and scraped knuckles before returning to look her in the eye. She’d never known anyone capable of saying so much without speaking.
“Safe from intruders,” she amended.
He nodded, somewhat grudgingly.
She was well acquainted with his state-of-the-art security system and blew out an exasperated breath. “Anton, this place is a damned fortress. Your niece will be fine here. Send these guys back with the chopper.”
She was more than a little surprised when he did just that.
They entered the house to the sound of Mrs. Darby announcing dinner. Zoey expected the meal to be a bit awkward. She’d forgotten just how petulant teenage girls could be.
After a formal introduction, which Samantha interrupted to insist she preferred to be called Sam, conversation was almost non-existent. Zoey didn’t let it stop her from enjoying the meal. Mrs. Darby was an excellent cook.
After a particularly long silence, Sam spoke. “Does this mean that guy, Alistair something-or-other, is gone?”
“Was he the one who sorted and filed two entire cabinets full of junk mail?” Zoey asked.
Ferraro gave her repressive look. “Mr. Smythe took his duties seriously. Yes, Samantha, he’s gone. He accepted a position as assistant curator at a museum.”
Zoey thought she heard Sam mumble thank god under her breath, but her expression gave nothing away.
More silence. Zoey could tell Sam was examining her, looking for any weakness, any advantage. She’d often done the same. It wasn’t long before the girl said, “What happened to your face?”
Zoey shrugged. “A dragon breathed on me.”
Ferraro choked on a sip of wine and Zoey very carefully did not look at him. Sam rolled her eyes as if to say, whatever, and continued picking at her food.
“Grandmother lets me drink wine with dinner.” This was directed at her uncle.
“You forget the woman raised me, too,” his reply more wry than stern.
Zoey saw Sam rake him with a look that all but said, And look how that turned out, and stifled a smile.
Deciding to start as she meant to go on, Zoey pushed her own untouched glass of wine across the table. “Here, you can have mine.”
“Anton, she’s got to learn to handle alcohol sometime. Might as well be here in the safety of your home, instead of at some drunken frat party.”
Ferraro glared at her for a long tense moment, more unnerved by the thought of his niece at a frat party than by the idea of her drinking a small glass of wine, she suspected.
He cleared his throat. “Mrs. Darby,” he called. The woman entered the formal dining room as if she’d been hovering in the hallway in case anything was needed. No doubt she had been.
“Please see the dinner table is set with three wine glasses in future.”
“Certainly, sir. Will there be anything else?”
“No, thank you, Mrs. Darby.”
Zoey looked up to see Sam watching them with wide eyes, as if they were an exhibition of strange creatures never before seen. She noticed the girl hadn’t eaten much, if anything, on her plate. And she suddenly realized Sam hadn’t been served the same meal she and Ferraro had been given. She had a plate full of steamed vegetables.
“So, Sam, are you a vegetarian?”
The girl looked startled, whether by the question or being addressed directly wasn’t clear. Didn’t anyone ever talk to her, ask her anything?
Sam arranged her face into a blank expression before she replied. “Vegetables are an important part of a nutritious plan for maintaining weight and general health.”
Zoey exchanged a concerned look with Ferraro, who then set down his fork and focused all his formidable attention on his niece.
“Answer the question, please, Samantha.”
Sam stared down at her plate so long, Zoey was beginning to think she wouldn’t answer. Ferraro simply waited her out. “No, sir. I’m not a vegetarian.” A pause. “Not by choice.”
Ah, there was that little bite of defiance Zoey knew was right under the surface.
“Mrs. Darby.” This time there was more than a hint of command in his tone when he called her.
“From now on, everyone at my table will be served the same meal.”
“Of course, sir, but your mother–”
“Are there allergies involved, Mrs. Darby?”
“I thought not. There will be no exceptions.”
This time Sam did a better job of hiding it, but Zoey could tell the girl was rattled. Deciding they’d all had enough upheaval for one day, she was about to excuse herself when Sam pulled some papers out of her sweater pocket and pushed them across the table to Zoey, right past the still untouched glass of wine.
“My tutor sent this for you.”
“Oh?” Zoey took the pages.
“It’s an itinerary. A lesson plan and . . . my schedule.” It was the first time Zoey had seen even a hint of vulnerability. “She wasn’t convinced Uncle Anton would find a suitable replacement out here in the– out here.”
“She wasn’t wrong about that,” she muttered, unfolding the itinerary. What she read had her blood boiling.
“Have you seen this, Anton?”
“I have not, Ms. Prescott.”
“Just as well,” she said under her breath. Zoey carefully re-folded the papers, resisting the urge to crumple them into her fist, and stood. “If you both will excuse me, I have preparations to make for tomorrow. Sam, I work with your uncle in the morning, beginning at nine,” she emphasized for Ferraro’s benefit, “and will meet with you in the sunroom after lunch. Say, one o’clock.”
“Yes, ma’am.” But Sam’s defiant glare was a clear signal that all the girl’s prickly defenses were right back in place, stronger than ever.
That was fine, Zoey thought. For now.
After all, Sam had no way of knowing that Zoey had decided creating a new lesson plan might be slightly less complicated than arranging an assassination. But only just.
I is for Itinerary