Part X, in a continuing story from A to Z [link to the beginning]
Zoey managed to escape the dance floor after her waltz with Ferraro when her comm unit, generously provided by their host, beeped in her ear and one of her team reported suspicious activity. Just as well, since she was too tense and on alert to fully appreciate the man’s considerable charm. That’s what she told herself, anyway.
The suspicious activity turned out to be two of the caterers — not her team members, thank god — having a passionate tryst in the bushes outside the kitchen door. Zoey barely stopped herself from warning them about the dangers of falling into a dragon’s cave uninvited.
She let herself back into the mansion and was checking out rooms off the main hall when she heard an imperious voice calling her name from the small salon.
Well, close enough. She stepped into the room, filled with pricey antiques and the kind of uncomfortable stuffy furniture that would satisfy even a Regency matriarch, and thought it suited Lady Leighton admirably.
“Hello, Liz. Enjoying the ball?”
The woman’s chin rose impossibly higher. “I don’t care for you, Ms. Prescott.”
“It’s not my job to be likeable, Lady Leighton. Forgive me if I’m not devastated.”
“You judge me. Yet you have no idea of what it means to lose everything, to grieve deeply. You’re young, single, childless.” She gave a sniff of disapproval. “You have much to learn.”
Zoey didn’t know what the woman hoped to accomplish with this conversation. Zoey certainly had more important things to do and wasn’t sure why she didn’t just turn and leave the room. Well, there was that whole inability to walk away from a challenge.
Zoey stared at the woman for one long uncomfortable moment before she spoke.
“I lost my father before I was born. Not sure that counts, since I never had him to begin with. I lost my mother’s family when her father kicked her out of the house for being unwed and pregnant. Ditto on not sure whether that counts on your scorecard.”
Zoey knew her voice was detached and emotionless, a stark contrast to her feelings. “I lost my mother to cancer when I was eight. My sweet, kind mother who I loved with all my heart. She was everything to me, the only person I had in the world.”
“I’m sorry for–”
“No.” Zoey interrupted coldly, despising the insincerity, her hands clenching. “I was stolen from my mother when I was five. Taken from a playground in a moment of inattention, kept in a small dark space for a week, food and drink shoved through a grate. No light, no warmth. Just the smell of cigarette smoke and sweat. Sometime during that week, before I was rescued, I lost myself.”
Zoey paused briefly to collect herself, but Lady Leighton didn’t speak.
“I was just beginning to rediscover that girl when my mother died. Five years and many foster homes later, when I was thirteen, General and Mrs. Prescott found me. They had four strapping boys and Mrs. Prescott wanted a girl. She got me, something she claims she has never regretted. And I got a family. A home. And love.”
Zoey had walked over to the hearth but turned now, her voice stone cold as she addressed the older woman. The woman who had suddenly come to represent every child who had bullied her, every teacher who pitied her but did nothing, every parent who wouldn’t let their precious darlings play with the filthy orphan. She knew it was unfair but couldn’t stem the words now, any more than she could have said them as a child.
“You’re correct when you say I haven’t lost a husband or a child or even my youth. But you’re very much mistaken if you think I don’t understand what it is to feel grief and loneliness and fear. And I understand something you apparently do not, Lady Leighton. I know how it feels to survive, no, to thrive in spite of it, to choose to live. So do not expect to earn my sympathy or my respect by virtue of the fact that you have chosen not to.”
Zoey turned to leave the room, so done with this insufferable woman and her self-righteous self-pity, and walked straight into Ferraro.
She was not in the mood for that kind of vulnerability either. “If you’ll excuse me, Mr. Ferraro, I’m needed elsewhere.” She moved around him and made her way back to the music and laughter and glittering lights of the ballroom.
He caught up with her moments later, concern on his face.
“I’m sorry. My mother can be–”
She cut him off. “Your mother is not my problem.”
He let it go, but she could tell by the determined scowl that he was far from done with the topic of what he’d overheard.
She ignored it. “Tell me who in this crowd might want to harm you. Other than my brothers.”
“More people than I care to acknowledge, most likely,” he said.
“Not helpful. What’s the deal with your cousins?”
“Our fathers were brothers, both deceased now.” Ferraro sighed. “Paul and Roger had become friendly, after a fashion. He might not look capable of it, but Roger has connections. He’s made a career out of cultivating them. A contact of his gave Cerise her first break as a designer and Roger later introduced her to Paul. There was gratitude for that, I guess, beyond the family obligation.”
“Looks can be deceiving. And Regina?”
“Reggie has just always . . . been there. She goes wherever Roger goes, even though they often seem to get along like twelve cats in a bag. A twin thing, I suppose. Always been that way, since they were kids.”
“What about your suck-up solicitor?”
“Harold Davis makes way too much money in annual retainers, and is far too astute, to ever imagine it would benefit him to harm me.”
“And that secretary you fired? Is he here, carrying a grudge?”
“Alistair?” Ferraro laughed. “He thanked me profusely for letting him go, apologized for the inconvenience of finding a replacement. And he hadn’t even met you.”
Zoey glared at him. “Anyone else?”
“It’s most likely to be a competitor. Money is always motivation. I imagine there are more than a few in this room who might be susceptible to envy and greed.”
“Not many who’d act on it, though,” she said, frustrated by all the possibilities.
Lady Leighton chose that moment to approach. “Anton, a word if you will.”
“Yes, Mother? Would you like privacy?”
The woman looked over at Zoey, held her gaze, then lifted her chin. “No. This will do. I have decided to take up residence at the Leighton villa for the summer. Perhaps longer. I feel the need for a change.”
Ferraro looked more than a little surprised by this news. “Mother, that’s–”
“Indeed. In another country and not conducive to raising a young girl. I trust you will do your duty to your niece and see she is well taken care of in my absence.”
“Of course, Mother,” he said. “I’d be happy to have Samantha stay here, you know that. Indefinitely, if needed.”
The woman sniffed. “We’ll see about that. I trust you will also engage the services of a suitable tutor.”
Zoey gave the woman points for not looking her way as she said that.
“I’ll make arrangements next week.”
“Very well then. I believe I shall retire for the night. All this gaiety has given me a headache.”
She walked away and Zoey gave Ferraro a look of puzzled relief. She had wondered how long Sam would be allowed to stay before the old woman reined her back in. But this was neither the time nor the place to discuss it.
Ferraro was pulled into another conversation and Zoey continued her vigilance. She’d assigned Alex and Zach to watch over Sam and was pleased to see they were keeping her entertained. She wasn’t particularly surprised to see they were also scaring off the few young men in attendance who were near Sam’s age and seemed interested. Welcome to the world of big brothers, she thought. Hers had clearly extended their protection to include Sam.
Eventually, things started to wind down. People began to take their leave and the wait staff became more obvious about the process of clearing away used dishes.
Zoey and Marcus escorted an exhausted but happy Sam up to her room, where she promised to lock her door and stay in bed until at least noon the next day.
They split up, checking in with the rest of the team via their comm devices, making the first of several sweeps to clear the house and make sure no one stayed behind who wasn’t supposed to be there. Zoey took five minutes to change clothes. As beautiful as it was, she just didn’t feel comfortable giving orders to her team while wearing a freaking ball gown.
Checking in again on her way downstairs, she learned the cousins were in the library, helping themselves to the good scotch. Lady Leighton and her personal maid had indeed retired hours ago. Ferraro was in his study, conducting a pre-arranged meeting with guests who were also potential clients, and whose schedules weren’t conducive to regular business hours.
Benton was outside somewhere with Jake and Marcus, doing that former military male bonding thing, no doubt keeping an eye on the perimeter. Alex and Zach had said they’d probably slip away soon, something about needing to get back to base before morning. Neither one of them were overly fond of saying goodbyes.
Zoey was starting to think maybe they all could relax and congratulate themselves on avoiding mayhem, not to mention murder, when she heard loud voices coming from the direction of the library. Not surprising, since the twins had been sniping at each other all night. Didn’t seem to take much to set them off. Zoey had seen them arguing over a piece of cake earlier, while standing right next to an entire platter of the stuff.
She and her brothers might tease each other mercilessly, but at least they weren’t complete idiots about it like these two. Well, not usually.
Zoey hesitated at the partially closed door of the library, not sure whether to intrude. She’d exchanged a handful of words with the two earlier, but didn’t feel comfortable just barging in on a private argument. Then again, they were clearly in need of a mediator and she wondered whether it was wise to let Ferraro know things were escalating to the point of possible breakage.
Zoey was only half-listening, not really caring what had them riled up this time, when she heard Cerise’s name mentioned.
“You always were half in love with that woman, never satisfied with what we have,” said Regina, her thin voice a screeching whine.
“And you have no ambition beyond your next meal, you stupid fat cow,” Roger yelled back.
Zoey saw movement out of the corner of her eye and held one hand up for silence as Ferraro approached, apparently done with his meeting.
“You ruined everything with your idiotic plan, brother.”
Roger was in a rage. “No,” he roared, “you ruined my brilliant plan with your stupid impatience and petty jealousy.”
There was a crash and the sound of breaking glass.
Ferraro pushed open the double doors and stepped into the room. “What is going on in here,” he said, his tone carrying a warning.
Roger whirled around, his face and neck flushed with rage and drink, his eyes wild. “YOU,” he said, gesturing with his glass and sending scotch in an expensive arc. “You didn’t even have the fucking decency to get into the right goddamned car.”
“Roger, shut up,” Regina screamed. “You stupid, stupid fool.”
Ferraro had gone frighteningly still, every muscle tensed. “What car,” he said, his voice deadly.
Roger seemed not to have even heard him. He was past all care or reason, sobbing now, slurring his words. “You were supposed to die, you bastard. Instead I lost my beautiful Cerise. Oh god, I lost her.” He turned on his sister, his voice low and ugly. “But I’ll have Samantha, in spite of you.”
Regina paled, but hissed back at him. “That girl will be halfway around the world by morning. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it, dear brother.”
“Fucking hell,” Zoey swore softly, already turning away.
Roger roared and lunged at his sister, incoherent in his rage.
Anton stepped back into the hall, slamming the doors closed. He pushed a button on the doorframe and a wall panel slid back. He touched it and gave a terse command, “Secure this room.”
He didn’t wait for the clicking to stop before he was running for the main staircase, passing Zoey who had sprinted ahead of him. He reached the door to Sam’s bedroom, not even bothering to knock. One well-placed kick had the frame splintering. They ran into the room, calling for Sam.
The room was dark but Zoey saw it all at a glance: the white curtains billowing in the breeze, a neatly cut pane of glass sitting under the window, a large X of reflective tape on the intact pane above it. Marking the room.
The air carried traces of stale cigarette smoke and fear-drenched sweat and suddenly Zoey was back in the horror of that small dark place. Alone and terrified. She barely registered Anton pulling covers off the bed, looking under it and in the closet. Making sure.
Sam was gone.
“No,” Zoey said, shaking off the past with an effort. “Not again. Not on my watch.”
She followed Anton over to the window, where a sturdy rope dangled down past the opening. Without even a moment of hesitation, he grabbed it and levered himself out the window, fast roping to the ground like he was one of her team members, Zoey right behind him.
They ran across the distance to the cliff. She saw a flash of movement near the edge and realized they were only seconds behind the kidnappers. Anton’s much longer legs were closing the space quickly and she watched as he jumped over the edge without so much as slowing down. She heard voices yelling and the roar of an engine.
There was muffled gunfire, three shots in quick succession, and Zoey hit the ground, crawling fast on her stomach, head down. Her heart was pounding hard, her breathing laboured. She reached the edge and looked over. A motorized raft, pale limp form in the bottom of it, several dark shapes. Angry yelling, swearing. Two men on the beach, fighting, struggling over something. The glint of a gun. Two more shots and one of the men fell onto the rocky beach– a tall dark haired man wearing a white shirt, a slash of red around his waist, another spreading across his shoulder.
Zoey froze in horror, her mind screaming denial, her ears ringing so loudly she almost couldn’t hear the sound of the engine fading as it raced away in the dark.
X is for X marks the spot