Part S, in a continuing story from A to Z [link to the beginning]
To say Sam had an epic meltdown over her uncle telling Zoey to leave would have been a vast understatement. Zoey could hear her all the way up on the third floor, where she was putting the last of her belongings into her worn duffel.
The ranting tear-drenched anger. You don’t understand. You’re just like Grandmother. You never let me do anything.
The low tones of Ferraro’s response.
The anthem of every troubled teen. I can’t wait until I’m old enough to leave here. I HATE YOU.
The pounding of feet, the slam of a door. Barely muffled out-of-control sobs of anger and frustration.
The words brought back Zoey’s memories of herself as a young girl, bouncing from one foster home to another, trying so hard to push people away, desperately afraid they’d let her. It broke her heart a little to hear the words being said by someone she cared about. And directed at someone who had inexplicably become important to her.
Zoey sighed and zipped the bag shut. She slung the strap over her shoulder, shaking off the remembered pain of being told, once again, that it was time to leave. Refusing to hear the echoes of overly kind voices saying there would be a different place, one better suited to her. Damn it, she wasn’t that kid anymore. She had found that place, the people who wanted her. She gave thanks for that, for them, every single day.
This situation was completely different. And Sam wasn’t that kid either. She had family who loved her, who wouldn’t ever let go. She’d be fine.
Zoey made her way down the front stairs, pushing away memories of being carried up them. She had one last thing to do before she left.
The doors to the study were open. Ferraro was there, on the far side of his desk with his back to the room, staring out the leaded glass panes. Posture straight, shoulders squared, hands in fists at his sides. Powerful, imposing, commanding. Alone. Zoey walked in, didn’t speak, just quietly set the high-tech phone in the center of all that polished wood, then turned away.
She paused just before she left the room. “She didn’t mean it, you know. Sam loves you.”
And then she left, pulling the heavy front door open herself in Benton’s absence. She assumed he was making arrangements to have a car brought around to take her into town. If traffic was light, she could probably still catch the last train back to the city. She focused hard, concentrating on next steps and not what she was leaving behind. She was so very good at that.
A short while later, she heard the door open behind her. She didn’t need to look to know it was Ferraro.
“I realize it’s a big estate,” she said, forcing a casual tone, “but it’s taking longer than I expected to drive a car up from the garage.”
“There won’t be a car,” he said, the words controlled.
Well, then. Okay. So much for catching that train. “Not a problem. I’ve walked farther,” she said, and stepped off the stoop onto the walk.
“Do you honestly think I’d make you walk?” he asked, his voice deadly quiet.
She kept her back to him and shrugged, not wanting to look at his expression just then. Afraid of what she might see. Or might not.
“Ms. Prescott. Zoey. I want you to stay.”
She did turn then, slowly, and stared. He was focused on something in the distance, maybe his pride. She waited for him to speak.
“Sam’s not the only one who said rash things in the heat of a moment today,” he said. He ran a hand through his hair in an impatient gesture, then swore low under his breath. “Can we please stop pretending I don’t know who you are?”
Zoey narrowed her eyes, remembering that first time she’d seen him, not even remotely what she’d been expecting. “No. You agreed, we all agreed it would be best for me to be undercover. Complete strangers.”
“Things have changed.”
“Indeed. You no longer trust me,” she said. And that was huge for her. A deal breaker.
“I got another note today.”
Zoey knew about the notes. General threats, vague and difficult to substantiate, but cause for concern. The reason for her being there.
“This one was different. It said–” he stopped, looked her in the eye. “It said, ‘It would be so easy to pluck her off that roof right now. You’d never see her again.'”
Zoey gasped as she realized the implication. Someone had been watching them.
“I didn’t know what it meant,” he said, frustration plain. “Then I heard Sam screaming and ran outside. I came around the corner and saw her on the ground. I thought she’d fallen. There was a dark shape, someone coming down after her. The sun was in my eyes and–”
Oh, Christ. “You thought someone was taking her.” Her own personal nightmare.
“By the time I realized it was you, what you two were doing, that Sam was laughing– all that terror reached a flash-point of rage and I just– lost it.”
“Guess I’m lucky you weren’t armed,” she said, in a weak attempt at levity. In truth, she was shaken, hearing him recount the scene from his perspective.
He didn’t answer, just leveled a look at her that clearly said he had been armed. Right. Very lucky. That little adventure had been far more dangerous than she’d realized.
“There’s something else.”
“Of course, because that’s not enough for one day.”
“The accident– no, the attack that killed Paul and Cerise. It was meant for me.”
“What?” It was the first time she’d heard this theory.
“I didn’t think it mattered, at first. We were told it was just an accident, worn tires, driver error, bad road conditions.”
That’s what everyone had thought, until recently when new evidence was discovered. “What makes you think you were the target?”
“That night, after the ball,” he ran his hand through his hair again, “I’d offered to give some woman a ride home. She said her friends had left, had no cab fare. At the last minute she claimed she’d forgotten something and went back inside. I offered to wait, but she waved it off. Paul and Cerise were there. He joked that he wasn’t going to wait for me to sort out my woman troubles, he was too impatient to get his own woman home and into bed.”
“So they got in that car. Instead of you.”
He nodded, his face hard and lined with grief. Guilt. “It haunted me, knowing a quirk of fate, hesitation over a fucking forgotten scarf, killed them instead of me. It should have been me.”
“But it wasn’t a quirk, was it. It was a set-up. Who was the woman?”
“I don’t know. Melinda, Melissa, something. I’d never seen her before that night. I haven’t been able to find her.”
“And you’re just now telling me this?” she asked, livid at being kept in the dark about something so important. “So it isn’t that you no longer trust me. You never did.”
He didn’t reply, but his face was set in lines so stubborn and determined, the family resemblance he shared with Sam was unmistakable.
Then it dawned on her. “Oh hell. That’s what you’re doing with this ball, with the sudden need for testing your flawless security. You’re setting yourself up as a target.”
He didn’t deny it, just narrowed his eyes and clenched his jaw tighter.
“Oh no. Not gonna happen. Have you told Jake and Marcus about this? No, of course you haven’t. Damn it. Okay, first of all, the ball is cancelled.”
“No. Your company is the best, you can handle this.”
“Sure, the other division of it. My division deals with cyber threats, protecting property, testing and finding holes in security. I don’t do personal protection.”
“You used to, and not all that long ago. You still do the training.”
“Listen, Ferraro, you’re not just risking your own safety here.”
“No, not anymore. That all changed today, when they targeted Sam. And I can’t tell her, can’t explain. I don’t want that weight on her. I need you here, Zoey. You’re wrong, there’s no one I trust more to keep Samantha safe.”
He extended his hand, the fancy phone resting all darkly sleek on his palm. A plea, and a measure of his trust. As far as it went.
Fuck. He was right about needing protection. For Sam and for himself. It didn’t matter what he intended, she wasn’t going to let him sacrifice his own safety out of some misplaced sense of guilt. There wasn’t time to find someone else. Not anyone qualified. She’d call in the other teams from– wherever they were, and hope they arrived in time. But she couldn’t just leave.
“Fine. I’ll stay,” she said, forcing the words out through gritted teeth. She grabbed the phone, ignoring the shiver as their hands made contact. “Any more deep dark secrets you want to share before I go back undercover, Ferraro?”
“None that I can think of, Ms. Prescott.”
She knew he was lying, of course. Just as he clearly knew she wasn’t going to call him on it. Not yet, anyway. She just hoped that fact didn’t get them both killed.
S is for Secrets