Part W, in a continuing story from A to Z [link to the beginning]
Dinner that night was quite an event. Zoey was exhausted and in pain; Ferraro was tense and taciturn; Sam was back to being sullen and silent, once again garbed in her skirt and cardigan uniform. Ferraro’s twin cousins, Roger and Regina, might have been amusing with their undisguised hatred for each other, if their table manners hadn’t been so thoroughly disgusting. And Ferraro’s mother, Elizabeth Marie Fulton Ferraro Leighton, who was properly addressed as Lady Leighton, was like a shroud of haughty disapproval casting a suffocating pall over the entire household.
Other than that, it was a lovely gathering. At least the food was delicious. Unless you were Lady Leighton, who apparently never overlooked an opportunity to provide guidance and correction to those in need.
“Mrs. Darby, the roast is a touch dry,” she said. “Perhaps if you learned to select a better cut of meat.”
And, “Anton, the light in here is rather harsh. It makes the dullness of the silver so needlessly apparent.”
And, “Really, Roger, must you slurp every drop? It’s not as if you’re lacking sustenance.” This with a pointed look at his substantial girth.
And, “Samantha, don’t slouch. You inherited the unfortunate Ferraro height and must resolve to make the best of it.”
Zoey was ready to strangle her, but she’d have to vault over the table and was simply too tired. Maybe she’d be recovered by breakfast. But then the woman decided to stop ignoring her.
“I find physical exertion to be so vulgar,” she said, giving Zoey a look of utter disdain. “Don’t you, Ms. Preston?”
“Yes, Liz, it certainly can be.” Zoey gave the woman her brightest smile. “If you’re doing it right.”
The woman’s face flushed a dull red as Ferraro coughed to cover a snort of laughter, but at least she stopped talking.
Collapsing into bed that night, Zoey realized she was looking forward to the ball, as it meant being one step closer to these people leaving.
The day of the ball dawned clear and warm and hectic. After a week of cleaning and polishing, and with the impending resumption of centuries-old hospitality, even the mansion itself seemed to stand up a bit straighter for the occasion.
Zoey’s team began arriving in the guise of caterers and wait staff and valets. Jake and Marcus, her business partners and oldest brothers, had rearranged their schedules at the last minute and were on hand to help her review security. Both were “retired” military and she felt more confident having them on hand. Even with their constant teasing.
“Hear you had a run-in with a squid.” This from Marcus, former Army Special Forces and the only non-Navy sibling. “Growing up in an entire family of them, I’d think you could handle one measly specimen on your own.”
“Don’t let the General hear you say that,” said Jake, the oldest, a Marine and used to the nickname. “Squid’s are fearsome beasts.”
Marcus scoffed. “Not bad as an appetizer, if you use enough ketchup.”
“This thing could have supplied appetizer, main course and dessert for several battalions,” Zoey said dryly. “With leftovers for a week.”
That had both men laughing. “Next she’ll be regaling us with tales about kraken and megalodons.”
“Maybe Nessie herself.”
They joked, but Zoey knew from the tightened jaws that they’d noted her injuries. She didn’t have time for their concern. She had plans to review and people to protect. Everyone agreed that if someone intended to harm Ferraro or his niece, the ball would be the best opportunity to make a move.
Sam tracked her down when it was time to dress and get ready. The girl had somehow convinced Zoey to let her help with hair and makeup. Zoey had visions of gelled spikes and heavy black eyeliner, but Sam surprised her with a deft and minimal touch. She had managed to find a pair of shoes that not only fit Zoey and matched her dress but, more important, that she could run in.
“We clean up good, don’t we kid,” Zoey said, feigning confidence and mentally repeating mantras. Fake it ’til you make it. Never let ’em see you sweat. Go big or go home. More like, stand in a corner and hope no one notices how awkward you are.
“We’ll be the belles of the ball.” Sam sounded rather glum, her earlier excitement gone.
Sam shrugged. “Grandmother says I have to leave the ball early, that it’s not proper for a young lady of my age to be seen in attendance past a certain hour.”
Oh for godsakes. What century did the woman think they were in? “Sam, leave her to me. You just concentrate on having fun and enjoying your first ball.”
“What if no one asks me to dance?”
Zoey looked at her, tall and slender and graceful, with poise and beauty that shone from within, “Believe me, Sam, that is not going to be a problem. Now come on, your uncle is waiting to escort you into the ballroom.”
Zoey had prepared herself for the idea of Ferraro in a tux. He wore clothes with a casual innate confidence and she knew it would be an impressive sight. But she’d forgotten it was a costume ball. He wasn’t wearing a tux, and she wasn’t prepared. At all.
He had his back to them as they approached. He wore a formal black jacket with long tails, tailored to emphasize his broad shoulders and lean hips. Snug buff-coloured breeches were tucked into polished black boots that rose to just below the knee. He turned to face them and Zoey felt suddenly faint. He wore a snowy white shirt, a red sash around his waist that matched her dress exactly, and strapped to his side was a shiny dress sword.
She’d never in her life described a man as dashing, but in this case it fit. She also hadn’t realized she had a thing for a man in tight breeches and tall black boots, but clearly she did. Ferraro’s dark eyes scanned her from head to toe and back again, giving her a look so intense and heated she decided perhaps piratical was a better description. Good god, he was sexy.
He offered his arm to Sam and they paused at the top of the short staircase that led down into the second floor ballroom, waiting while Benton announced them to the couple hundred guests already assembled.
“Miss Samantha Leighton and Lord Anton Ferraro,” came the sonorous tones.
Zoey blinked. She hadn’t been expecting that. No way in hell was she subjecting herself to that kind of attention, she thought, deciding she’d just slip in later once the dancing had started.
She took a couple steps back but stopped short when she heard a soft wolf whistle and felt her arms being gripped in a firm hold by a man on either side of her.
“Dangerous move,” she said quietly, “coming up behind someone that way.”
“We’ve taken bigger risks,” came a deep voice from her left.
“But not recently,” said a matching voice from the right.
“We’re out of practice.”
“I thought you two were deployed,” Zoey said, trying hard to keep her tone level.
“Heard you were wearing a dress.”
“Thought you might need back-up.”
She pulled her arms free and managed to punch both of them at the same time, and then took turns hugging them. “God, it’s good to see you two. But seriously, what are you doing here?”
“It’s what family does, brat,” said Alex, number three brother.
“You need us, we show up,” said Zach, the youngest, all four of them older than Zoey.
They were acting like it was no big deal to get personal leave from a SEAL team on short notice. It made her wonder whether they even had permission. And that led her to another suspicion.
“Please tell me the General isn’t here too,” Zoey said.
“Negative. He and mom are still vacationing in an undisclosed location,” said Alex.
Zach took her arm again. “Shall we go in?”
“Can’t wait to see whether you can dance in that get-up,” said Alex, taking her other arm.
They kept a firm grip as they walked over to the top of the steps, knowing her well enough to suspect she’d bolt. There was a bit of a standoff when Benton asked for their names and her brothers just calmly and silently returned his stare. SEALS weren’t big on that kind of attention. Neither was she, but the butler already knew her name.
So Benton announced just her, his voice carrying over the crowded room. Zoey told herself people stopped and stared at her tuxedo-clad escorts, not at her. Her brothers were easily the biggest, toughest, most outrageously handsome men in the room. She’d gotten used to the commotion they all caused just by standing still.
They made it down the stairs without mishap, but her brothers kept hold of her arms. She’d allow it for maybe two more minutes.
“Which one is Ferraro?” asked Alex, scanning the room, his eyes narrowed.
Zoey’s intuition for impending danger went on full alert and she freed her arms. “Why?”
Zach cracked his knuckles. “We’d like to offer our thanks.”
“For taking such good care of you,” Alex said through clenched teeth.
So they’d seen her injuries too. Or, more likely, heard about them. Jake especially was good at gathering intel, so probably by now they all knew about the wolf as well.
“Unnecessary and inappropriate,” she said, even though that wouldn’t necessarily deter them when they got all protective like this. “I can take care of myself.”
Judging from the look they gave her, they disagreed.
Jake and Marcus came up from behind them, quietly greeting their younger siblings as if they’d just seen each other two days ago rather than the months and missions it had been.
“Family conference?” Jake asked.
“We were saying we should introduce ourselves to our host,” Zach said.
Alex added, “Polite thing to do, really.”
Zoey decided enough was enough. “Stand. Down.” She said it in the voice of someone who had at one time or another out-ranked all of them. “We’re here to protect him, not beat him up.”
“Nothing says we can’t do both,” said Marcus, her other brothers nodding their agreement.
Of course, Ferraro chose that moment to approach the group, Sam on his arm. They’d completed their duty of opening the ball with the first dance.
Sam was staring wide-eyed at the four imposing handsome men, but Ferraro seemed to take it all in stride with one assessing glance.
“Ms. Prescott. Another little problem?”
Her brothers moved as one, closing ranks in front of her, like a wall of impenetrable obdurate testosterone. She thought Zach actually growled. God, they could be so impossible. But it turned out they were no match for Miss Samantha Leighton, who had them stepping aside with a glance and a dismissive gesture of one hand.
“Zoey, there you are! I was just telling my uncle how much you were looking forward to dancing with him.”
“It’s our duty as hosts to make sure everyone enjoys themselves,” Sam said, with the social charm of someone twice her age.
Zoey had no intention of dancing. She hissed at the girl under her breath. “What are you doing?”
Sam smiled mischievously. “Kicking your ladder out from under you.”
Zoey looked up to see Ferraro had extended his hand in invitation, or maybe challenge, completely impervious to the four matching sets of glares aimed his way. Zoey decided a waltz was less dangerous right now than having him in close proximity to her brothers.
She realized her mistake when he pulled her confidently into his arms and gracefully swept her into a waltz, his steps never faltering, his gaze never once wavering from hers.
And she was forced to reassess her definition of dangerous.
W is for Waltz