Part T, in a continuing story from A to Z [link to the beginning]
Zoey had thought she was dealing with potential corporate espionage or information theft, testing Ferraro’s physical and cyber security for a possible breach. Which was a somewhat amusing exercise in futility, given the amount of money he was paying her to waste her time looking for holes that didn’t exist. Even she couldn’t gain access to the fourth floor of the mansion, where his personal living space and actual office were located.
But now, the job had changed. Now she was dealing with the threat of murder and kidnapping, possibly resulting in extortion. It was no longer amusing.
And she was no longer confident in her skills or ability to handle the situation. It was too close to the last protection job she’d been involved in, the one that had gone horribly wrong. The one she took responsibility for, even though everyone agreed the events had been beyond her control to prevent or stop. It was why she no longer did this type of work.
But now she was stuck, doing a job that made her feel inadequate. And on top of that was the looming ball, a situation that made her feel inadequate and foolish, albeit for different reasons.
She’d put off going to the Sartorial Torture Chamber, as she’d come to think of it, but Sam finally grabbed her hand and dragged her along, full of gleeful anticipation.
It was hard for Zoey to complain too much, since it was a relief to see the girl in high spirits again. Sam and her uncle had done the whole apology thing, with less angst and awkwardness than Zoey had feared would be involved. Even so, the atmosphere had been subdued for a while afterwards.
So now here she was, reluctantly cooperative, standing in the middle of a huge room that looked as if every costume department of every movie ever made had vomited itself into the space. Given that Cerise had been a gifted artist/designer and had consulted on quite a few films, the description wasn’t far off. Many of the designs, for both men and women, were hers.
Sam was turning slowly in a circle, eyes sparkling, looking like she wanted to touch everything at the same time. Zoey could hardly believe this was the same sullen girl who’d gotten off the helicopter mere weeks ago.
“Oh, I’ve missed this. Seeing all their things, smelling them,” Sam said softly, inhaling the faint lingering perfume and aftershave of her parents.
Zoey hesitated. “Don’t you have– I mean, you must have some of your parents’ things. At your grandmother’s home.”
“No. Grandmother had everything sent here. She doesn’t approve of make-believe and frivolity. She says living in the past is a weakness.” Sam shrugged. “She’s a very serious type of person.”
Zoey bit her tongue hard, stopping herself from saying what type of person she thought the woman was. She watched as Sam wandered over to a large armoire whose shelves looked to be overflowing with costume jewelry and scarves and hats and all manner of inexplicable accessories.
She tried to dismiss it as showy nonsense, refusing to admit feeling intimidated by it all.
Sam pulled open one of the bottom drawers and suddenly fell to her knees, giving a loud gasping sob. “Oh, maman,” she whispered. “Oh, I’ve missed you.”
Zoey rushed over to see tears streaming down Sam’s face as she held a framed photograph of Cerise in trembling hands.
She felt sick to her stomach. “Sam. Please don’t tell me–” she couldn’t finish the thought. It was too awful.
Sam brushed one hand across her eyes. “I have a picture of my father. Grandmother said she didn’t have any of my mother.”
“But you can look at pictures of them on the internet, right?” It wasn’t the same as Sam having her own, but the couple had been extremely photogenic and a favourite of the paparazzi because they’d always stopped to smile. So happy, so in love.
“No, all the social media and entertainment sites are blocked on my computer,” she said absently, as if it were normal. “Do you think– would my uncle mind very much if I kept this? Oh, look, there are more!” And she began pulling them out of the drawer, one after the other, a huge smile on her face now.
Zoey couldn’t stand it. She was going to kill the woman for denying her granddaughter this simple joy. “Sam, I think your uncle would be delighted for you to have all of them.” And with the way she was feeling, if he objected she’d simply kill him too.
Sam seemed content just knowing the photos were there, to look at whenever she wanted, and only set one aside to take back to her room.
They finally turned their attention to the dresses.
Sam had unerring taste and seemed to know at a glance which dresses would look good on her. She soon had quite a selection set aside to try on. There was also a small pile of casual clothes, none of which were skirts or cardigans. Good for her, Zoey thought. It wasn’t surprising there were so many choices, given she looked so much like her mother, with the same slender narrow-hipped build.
Zoey was another matter. There wasn’t a single dress in the room she didn’t despise, just on principle.
“What about this? It’s formal attire,” she said, running a hand down one sleeve of an exquisitely tailored tuxedo. She had a sudden image of Ferraro wearing it and changed her mind. “Or maybe this,” she said, laughing. It was a Big Game Hunter type of thing, complete with a mosquito-netting-draped pith helmet.
The girl rolled her eyes. “Zoey, get serious. Here, try this.”
Sam handed her a billowing armful of deep dark red material with lace and beads and what appeared to be a plunging neckline. Or maybe that was the back.
“Are you out of your mind? There’s no way I’m wearing this.” She’d stand out like the beacon Bubbie had once accused her of being. If she had to attend this stupid ball, she planned to be unobtrusive and hide in a corner where she could keep an eye on everyone.
“Oh please, Zoey? At least try it on. The colour is perfect for you.”
Zoey had never worn anything this colour in her entire life. She was certain it was anything but perfect for her. But Sam looked so hopeful.
“It looks too small. I bet I won’t even be able to zip it up. And look,” she held it up in front of herself, “it’s way too long.”
“Zoey, you’re holding the shoulders at your waist. Just go try it on. There’s a changing room right there.” She pointed and gave a stern look that reminded Zoey entirely too much of Ferraro.
Zoey stomped off to the changing room, softly muttering every swear word she knew. She’d put the stupid thing on and then take it right back off. No harm, no foul.
It took her a few minutes to figure out which was front and back, as both formed a rather alarming vee, but she finally decided the zipper must go in the back. She’d stepped into it and had the top pulled halfway up when she realized her plain cotton sports bra wasn’t going to be a good look.
“Do you have it on yet?” came Sam’s voice.
“Working on it. This is more complicated than it looks,” Zoey replied through a face full of cotton.
She returned her attention to the dress, realizing the lengths of lace she’d thought might be some kind of weird belt were actually sleeves. She threaded her hands through, slowly, worried she was going to tear something. Then she twisted around to grab the zipper and pull it up, again slowly.
She was right, the darn thing was too small. Determined now to at least get it all the way on, as promised, she tightened her abs and pulled the zipper up the last few inches.
And just as she decided the effort had been ridiculous, ready to zip it right back down and off, the dress sort of . . . settled. It felt as if the confection of fabric and lace took a breath and sighed and then simply adjusted itself to fit. Like it had claimed her.
It was no longer too tight or too long. The sleeves that had felt short and snug were now comfortable, the ends touching the back of her wrists in a graceful point. The bodice flowed over her curves like a second skin, the material narrowing to hug her waist and flowing over her hips in gentle folds that fell elegantly to the floor.
It was perfect.
Even the stupid traitorous sea glass in her necklace was glowing red to match. Zoey swore viciously, and not under her breath this time.
“Zoey! What’s wrong? Do you need help?”
She needed help, all right. Help getting out of her promise to attend this ill-conceived ball.
Sam pulled open the door and stared, shocked into silence. Her smile started slow and then grew to light up her entire face. “Oh, Zoey, it’s perfect. I knew it would be.”
“I look like a freaking princess,” she grumbled.
Sam clapped her hands together, practically bouncing with excitement. “I know, that’s the whole point of dressing up for a ball. Isn’t it amazing? Here, try this necklace– oh, never mind, yours is perfect. Here, these earrings match.”
Zoey glared at the earrings. Then she looked again, and blinked. They looked genuine. Hell, there must be a fortune in diamonds and gems just sitting over on the armoire. She was so out of her element, it was ridiculous.
“I am not going to wear more jewelry. I’m not even sure I’m going to wear this dress.”
“Of course you’re wearing the dress. And you don’t need jewelry anyway. You’re absolutely gorgeous. Oooh, just wait until Uncle Anton sees you in this.”
Zoey froze, her mind a sudden chaos. She’d known the ball was going to be well attended. She’d studied the guest list. She’d known she was going to get no end of grief from her team about showing up in a dress. She could handle them. What she hadn’t considered, not really, was that Anton Ferraro was going to see her looking like this.
She stared at herself in the full-length mirror. She didn’t know this person, didn’t know how to be this person. She looked at her pale exposed toes peeking out from under the hem of the dress, slowly raised her gaze up over the flowing skirt, the nipped-in waist, the fitted bodice that revealed cleavage she didn’t know she had, the fabric that hugged her shoulders before trailing lace down her arms.
She imagined Anton’s gaze doing the same.
Zoey focused on her face, her flushed cheeks and parted lips and slightly wild eyes . . . and saw an expression she’d never seen there before.
Sheer, unadulterated — and wholly unacceptable — timidity.
T is for Timidity