Tag Archives: A to Z Challenge

A to Z Challenge: V

VPart V, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

Zoey grabbed the tentacle around her waist with both hands and held on. The squid was only holding her with one now and the last thing she wanted was for it to suddenly pull her out of the water and fling her into the rocks. Well, okay, that wasn’t the last thing she wanted. She also didn’t want it to drown her, which was starting to seem likely.

Zoey was good at holding her breath underwater — she had to be in her adopted family — but the squid was pushing her limit. Her lungs were burning. Just as she was about to inhale, the squid flexed its tentacle and shoved her back into the air. The speed was dizzying.

Zoey heard a chime and then Ferraro’s voice.

“Ms. Prescott.”

She had strapped the phone to her forearm earlier, not wanting to risk it falling out of her pocket. Not a great time for Ferraro to be checking on her, given his edict to stay out of trouble.

“Hello, Anton,” she gasped, trying to catch her breath. “Sorry, can’t chat. Kind of busy here.”

“Samantha informs me you’re having a little problem with the jet ski. She seems quite concerned.”

“The problem is slightly bigger than I thought.”

“I am somehow not surprised.”

She bent her arm and turned it so he could see the squid, which had raised itself partially out of the water again and seemed to be watching her.

Ferraro swore. “How is it you manage– never mind. I’m activating the weapons on your phone.”

“Weapons? There are weapons?” She gasped and held on tighter as the squid shook her wildly from side to side.

“Touch the screen and give the command sword. But remove it from your arm first or you’ll lose a hand. I’m on my way.”

Luckily, she had both arms free and could unstrap the phone. Now she just needed not to drop it. Holding it well away from her, not sure what to expect, she did as Ferraro instructed. Instantly, a bright white stream of light extended from the end of her phone.

“Oh my god, it’s a lightsaber!” She was so startled she almost did drop it.

She took a deep breath, hoping she wouldn’t hit the water too hard from this height, and slashed at the tentacle holding her, severing it. She fell for mere seconds before the other tentacle grabbed her, this time wrapping around in a way that pinned both arms to her sides. She singed her right leg slightly before she managed to redirect the laser.

This looks a lot easier in the movies, she thought, and then watched in complete awe as the tentacle she’d severed grew back.

The tentacle around her squeezed, barbs digging into her skin, and then plunged her back toward the water. She drew as deep a breath as she could, given her lungs were being compressed, and tightened her grip on the phone.

The water didn’t extinguish the laser. Nice. Because if the squid held her under there much longer, she was going to have to cut off the other tentacle, even if it was a temporary measure. She didn’t have time to worry about that, as she was being pulled out into the air again, this time headed straight for the squid’s sharp beak.

The creature paused then. One of its huge dark glassy eyes swiveled like a periscope as it seemed to be scanning the area around the cove. Zoey craned her neck and saw Ferraro and his entire household standing at the edge of the cliff, watching.

Well, this is humiliating, she thought. If her team got wind of this– no, she couldn’t bear even thinking about it.

The tide had risen to almost the top of the cliff, covering the beach and the steps. Ferraro had removed his shirt and was kicking off his shoes. He couldn’t seriously be thinking of jumping in, she thought. But that’s exactly what he did.

Zoey felt movement and focused her attention back on the beast holding her. It had pulled her closer to its mouth and the writhing arms that surrounded the maw were poking at her. Twisting her wrist, she swiped the laser at the ones closest to her. She watched them fall into the sea . . . and then grow right back.

The tentacle squeezed harder, pulling her closer, the sharp hooked beak opening wider.

She heard a fierce roar, felt heat on her face even as a dark shadow blocked the sun. She knew that roar.

The squid did fling her then, straight at the white rocks ringing the cove. She landed in the water just short of hitting them, but had the breath knocked out of her and dropped the phone. She swam over and took hold of a jagged outcropping, just in time to see Bubbie engage the squid in combat.

It was the most incredible fight she’d ever witnessed. The dragon swooping and slashing with its claws, roaring and breathing fire. The squid slashing back with barbed tentacles, latching on and trying to pull the dragon from the sky.

Just when Zoey thought Bubbie wasn’t going to win the fight, might not even survive it, the dragon lifted an enormous piece of white crystal and pressed it to the squid’s glassy back eye. The crystal grew darker and darker until it was completely black. Until the squid’s eyes were no longer solid black, but a pale colour with a dark pupil in the center.

The dragon backed off a ways, straining to stay aloft, as if the crystal were extremely heavy. The squid stopped fighting and swiveled its eyes once around the cove. It looked oddly startled. Then it submerged and squeezed itself between the rocks, brushing past where Zoey was holding on, and propelled itself out to sea in a burst of speed.

Zoey noticed Bubbie was flying in another direction, low over the water, her wings almost brushing the surface. She carried the black crystal in one claw.

“Ms. Prescott.”

Zoey turned to see Ferraro had indeed swum out to rescue her. His face was tight with anger, his eyes flashing with some emotion. He must have found a ledge to stand on, because he reached out and grabbed her arms, lifting her partially out of the water, inspecting her.

“You appear to be bleeding. Again.”

“I’m sorry to tell you this, but I dropped the phone.”

“You think I care about a damned phone?” He crushed her to his bare chest, swearing, strong arms wrapped around her back.

“It was one hell of a phone, Anton. Great flashlight feature. I’d love to read the Owner’s Manual.”

“I have more phones,” he said, pulling back slightly to look her in the eye. “There is only one of you.”

And just like that, the attraction pulling them together was back. The desire to kiss him, to have him kiss her, was almost irresistible. Zoey closed her eyes, her lips forming the word no.

“Open your eyes.” Ferraro gave her a firm shake. “You will look at me this time when you say that word, Zoey.”

She opened her eyes and met his fierce gaze. She shook her head, but she couldn’t say it.

“I can’t,” she said, and saw the flash of something in his eyes. “But I can’t say yes either. I– I need time.”

He met her gaze steadily, the tension thick between them. Then he nodded, once.

She heard the sound of someone clearing their throat and looked over to see Benton had arrived in a motorized raft. Soundless like the jet ski, of course.

They quickly made their way back across the cove, but it was enough time for Zoey to think about what she’d seen. How the blackness in the squid’s eyes matched the fathomless dark eyes of the wolf that attacked her. How they both matched the void of the menacing shadow she’d seen in the corner of her room that night. The dark shadow that had been on board the junk that wrecked.

Her thoughts were interrupted when they arrived back at the cliff, where everyone greeted them with cheers and relief. Even Ermie was there, dashing rather frantically back and forth along the cliff edge, getting splashed by an occasional wave. He seemed to be watching Bubbie, now a mere speck on the horizon.

“Is he . . . turning purple around the edges?” Zoey asked.

Ferraro glanced at the ermine. “Only happens when he gets wet. You should see him when it rains.”

Sam diverted Zoey’s attention then, giving her a big hug. The girl was beside herself with excitement now that she knew Zoey was safe.

“Did you see how that thing stood there after you got away, waving its tentacles around in the air?” Sam said. “And then it just disappeared back out to sea. You defeated it, Zoey!”

Zoey glanced at Ferraro, who shook his head slightly in answer. She knew he had seen the dragon, but apparently Sam had not. Interesting.

Ferraro insisted on carrying her across the yard to the mansion. They were both barefoot and sopping wet. He was shirtless and she might as well be, her shirt torn and bloody from the squid’s barbs. Her hair was a matted mess, her leg was singed and aching, and bruises were starting to show all over.

Benton had managed to get back to the mansion ahead of them and as he opened the massive front door, he made an announcement.

“You have visitors, sir.”

Oh hell. With all the excitement, Zoey had forgotten they were arriving today.

Ferraro didn’t even pause. Just strode into the front hall, Zoey still in his arms, to the astonished and disapproving stares of his twin cousins. And his mother.

V is for Visitors

 

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Filed under A to Z Challenge, Anton and Zoey, just for fun

A to Z Challenge: U

UPart U, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

After several more hours of torture, watching Sam try on a glut of dresses, Zoey desperately needed to expend some pent up energy. Fortunately, Ferraro had decided there would be no more work or lessons for anyone until after the ball.

“I’m going for a swim in the cove,” she told Sam. “You want to come along?”

Sam gave her a dubious look. “That place is creepy. I went in once when I was little and there were slimy things in the water.”

Zoey hadn’t noticed any seaweed, but who knew what might be in there with the way the cove changed almost at whim.

“You can sit on the beach, all prim and proper like a little old lady,” she teased, laughing. “Be sure to call for help if I start to drown in slime.” She made gurgling and gagging noises and soon both of them were laughing.

“I do want an excuse to wear my new clothes,” Sam said, holding up a couple pair of shorts and some T-shirts. They were still sort of dressy looking for someone her age, but a big improvement over what the girl had been wearing.

“The only excuse you need is wanting to be comfortable.”

“Hey, Zoey?” Sam sounded hesitant.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks for doing that with me. Looking at dresses and stuff,” she said quietly. “I didn’t want to go in there by myself.”

Oh hell, now she felt bad for avoiding it. “Sam, any time you need back-up, you let me know. I’m there. Just, please, no more today.”

“Deal. But don’t forget, you still need to pick out shoes.”

“Oh, for godsakes. Help!” Zoey faked a plea, “The girl is trying to kill me.”

They agreed to meet up in the kitchen after they changed, where they packed a picnic lunch. Or, more accurately, where Mrs. Darby shooed them out of the way and packed it for them. And Zoey dutifully phoned Ferraro, as agreed, to let him know they were leaving the house and where they were going.

Someone had arranged to have the weeds cleared from the stone steps and, between that and the low tide, they easily made their way down and set up a blanket on the narrow strip of sand between the cliff and the rocky shoreline.

Zoey had gotten a key to the beach shed from Benton a few days earlier, after her grudging promise not to create any havoc with the contents, but hadn’t had time to investigate. She left Sam to sort out the food and was almost to the shed when she heard a sound that stopped her dead in her tracks.

Giggling. Children giggling.

Zoey raced back over the sand to where Sam was sitting, ready to defend her if needed. Although how she’d defend against ghosts was beyond her. She slowed her approach when she realized Sam was giggling too.

“Sam? Are you okay?”

“Of course I am. Come meet the ghosties, they say they’re sorry for bothering you the other night.”

“You can see them? Wait. They talk?”

“Well, they talk to me. Maman never could hear them, but they loved her. They always came to listen to her read bedtime stories when we’d visit here.”

“I’ve only heard them giggle.” Zoey squinted in the sunlight. “Where are they?”

Sam pointed to where the water lapped gently against the beach. “They’re splashing each other in the shallow water. See?”

Zoey could just barely make them out, shimmery and almost transparent in the bright light, splashing and giggling, darting about and floating, having a grand old time.

She felt another presence then. Uncomfortable, like someone was staring at her. Slowly, senses on full alert, she scanned the cove for intruders. There. A flicker of light, a reflection off something on the aged side of shiny. She relaxed and smiled as she realized what it was.

“Hey, Sam,” she said. “Will you be all right here for a few minutes? I want to go check out something over on those rocks.”

“Sure.”

“Stay out of the water until I get back,” she said sternly.

Sam shuddered dramatically. “There’s nothing in the world that would make me get into that water.”

Zoey ran up the switchback path that led to Bubbie’s cave, smiling when she saw the dragon sitting at trail’s end, sunning herself, using the huge stone walls on either side as arm rests.

“Who is this then, schlepping up to my cave all casual like she just left yesterday.”

“Hello to you too, Bubbie. It hasn’t been that long.”

“A dragon could die between visits such as yours.”

“I thought dragons couldn’t die,” Zoey teased.

The dragon heaved a huge smoky sigh. “Only from sorrow and loneliness, but don’t mind me.”

Zoey sat down on a small boulder. “I’ve been meaning to come see you, but things have been sort of hectic. How are your babies?”

“The little dears are getting so big. They’re napping now, waiting to come out and fly during the dusky time of day when people convince themselves everything is a trick of the light.”

“They’re beautiful. I’m so glad I got to see them.”

“Most of your kind lack the imagination for it,” the dragon said with a huff, compliment and insult rolled into one. She angled her head toward the beach. “I see your family has expanded.”

“No, not family–”

“Of course, family. You think I don’t know from family?”

“That’s what I want to talk to you about. Her name is Sam. Samantha Leighton, Ferraro’s niece.”

The dragon didn’t reply, just raised one hoary eyebrow. Waiting.

“Remember you said you’d guard my treasure?”

“Vowed. I made a solemn vow to guard your treasure.”

“Yeah, well. I didn’t have any treasure then. Now I do.”

The dragon frowned, thoughtful. “This girl is your treasure?”

“Yes.”

“Oy. Always with the difficult treasure. You can’t find something nice I can keep in my cave?”

“Bubbie, I need to know– if something happens to me, I need to know she’ll be safe.”

If something happens, she says. What, you forget I also granted you protection? This is nothing to you?”

“Of course not. It means the world to me. It’s just,” Zoey hesitated. “There might be a time when you can’t protect both of us. You might have to choose. If that happens, I release you from your vow.”

The dragon gave her a fierce scowl, golden eyes glittering, flames shooting from her nostrils. “No one has the power to release a dragon from a vow. ‘Tis why they are seldom made.”

Zoey sighed. She hadn’t thought this request was going to be difficult. Then again, she was dealing with a dragon. Unstable, unpredictable, unfuckingcooperative.

“Okay, how about this. If both of us are in trouble, you help her first.”

The dragon roared. “You dare to underestimate me?”

“I’m just saying. Some trouble is worse than others. I’m tougher than I look and can take care of myself.”

“You’re a puny human.”

“Hey,” Zoey protested.

The dragon shrugged, settling her bulk against the sheer stone cliff. “Yes, yes, fine. For a puny human, you’re not so bad,” she acknowledged. “You’re sure this girl is your treasure?”

Zoey followed the dragon’s gaze down to the beach where Sam was playing with the ghost children, sun shining on her smiling face, breeze ruffling her short hair, looking happy and carefree and young.

“Yes. I’m sure.”

The dragon nodded. “I thought as much.” She stood and spread her magnificent wings. Zoey cringed, knowing what was coming next, wondering how she was going to explain it to Sam.

Now you worry? Please. The girl can’t see or hear me. Not unless I want her to. Now stand up.”

Zoey stood.

“ZOEY PRESCOTT, YOU ARE STILL UNDER MY PROTECTION. I HEREBY REAFFIRM MY SOLEMN VOW TO PROTECT YOUR TREASURE, AND SAMANTHA LEIGHTON.”

Zoey felt a bit pedantic about the need for clarification of the wording of that particular vow, but decided let it go. She was both humbled and reassured by the formality of it all. “Thank you, Bubbie.”

The dragon snorted fire again. “Go on with you now, burn off some energy. You’re throwing off sparks like a brawler dragon spoiling for a fight.”

Zoey acknowledged the truth of that, exhaling a burst of laughter at the sheer relief of being understood, feeling light-hearted for the first time in days, and ran back down to the beach.

Like Sam, she had opted for shorts and a T-shirt, deciding she’d rather wrestle the jet ski than swim. She wasn’t carrying enough gear to make swimming sufficiently challenging anyway, and needed the workout. She unlocked the shed and dragged one of the machines out onto the sand. She spent several minutes trying to find a fuel gauge or even a gas cap, until she realized it was electric. Or solar. Or nuclear. Whatever. At this point, she wouldn’t rule out any possibility when it came to Ferraro.

“That man has the best toys,” she murmured. She pushed the ski into the water, walking it over to in front of where Sam sat.

She tossed her shoes on the blanket. “I’m going to take this thing for a few spins around the cove.”

“You’re crazy. But have fun.”

“Oh, I will,” Zoey grinned.

The machine was completely silent, and at first she missed the sound of an engine. But it was powerful and soon she was racing across the water, leaving waves in her wake and then coming around to jump them. She felt the burn of exertion in the muscles of her legs and arms and shoulders, and pushed herself harder, hoping the workout would result in the kind of much needed sleep caused by physical exhaustion. She raced the wind and spun in circles until she was dizzy and then raced some more, laughing at the speed and power and freedom of being one with the machine and the water.

Taking a break, she steered to within a few yards of shore, calling to Sam, “This thing is awesome. I wish it were a two-seater so I could give you a ride.”

Sam shook her head. “No way. I’m keeping my feet on land.”

Zoey looked at the meter showing the remaining charge and calculated she had at least another twenty minutes or so. But the ghosts were gone and she didn’t want Sam sitting there feeling bored and left out.

“I’m going to take another quick spin. You want to head back up to the house?”

“Nah, I’m having fun watching. I’ll wait.”

Zoey waved to Sam and was turning the ski into deeper water when she felt something cold brush against her foot.

“Hey, knock it off,” she said, thinking one of the ghosts had stayed behind to play. She felt it again and gently kicked out with her foot, pushing it away.

It came right back. A more insistent nudge this time, cold and sort of slippery. A fish, she decided, and slowly steered the ski away.

She felt a tug on her leg as she increased speed and realized something was wrapped around her ankle. Damn, what a time to get caught in seaweed. As she slowed to see how tangled she was, she felt a stinging pain in her ankle.

She looked down just in time to see something pale grey and shiny wrap itself higher around her calf. Oh god, not seaweed. It was a tentacle.

She felt cold flesh slide wetly around her other ankle. Another tentacle. Fuck. She revved the ski at full throttle, trying to break free, but the tentacles just tightened.

Was it an octopus? No, they don’t attack people. Neither do wolves, said a little voice in her head.

“Zoey?” Sam called from shore, worry in her voice. “You okay?”

“I’m fine,” she called, lying for all she was worth. She could certainly handle a misguided little octopus. “Just a bit of seaweed.”

“Do you need me to come help?”

Zoey looked up to see Sam wading into the water. “NO. Stay back. Get out of the water, Sam,” she ordered.

The tentacles gave a firm tug and Zoey tightened her grip on the handlebars, fighting just to stay on the ski. Whatever this thing was, it was strong. She looked out over the water and saw that the surface was bubbling and roiling now, the entire cove sloshing back and forth like water in a tipped bowl.

Okay, so maybe she couldn’t handle it.

“Zoey? What’s happening?” Sam sounded panicky. Zoey needed to get her off that beach.

“Sam, I’ve got a little problem here. Run up to the house and get help. Now. GO.” Zoey glanced away from the tentacles long enough to see Sam running up the steps, screaming for help. Good girl.

She felt something cold slither up the outside of her thigh, higher, over her hip. She looked down in sick fascination as the tentacle just kept coming, longer and thicker as it rose out of the water. It circled her waist and Zoey took one hand off the ski to grab at it, pull it away.

It was too slippery. Slimy. Using both hands now, trying to get a grip on it before it could tighten its hold. She felt another one slide up her other leg, watched as it too wrapped around her waist and over one shoulder. The tentacles had suckers and she felt them latch on, even through the thin wet fabric of her T-shirt, their barbs piercing and stinging.

Caught, helpless, she felt herself being lifted off the ski. Higher and higher over the now wildly churning water. She could see an enormous grey shape under the water, easily forty feet long, undulating and shifting. More tentacles lifted out of the water as the entire thing came to the surface, displacing water in a rushing sluice.

Eyes. Two huge glassy black eyes. Sharp beak nestled smugly in the center of writhing arms. Elongated body. Pointed tail. Not an octopus, then.

No, she knew what this was.

Dangling over the water, unable either to attack or defend herself, Zoey had the fleeting irrational thought that she was one of the few people to ever get this close to a giant squid. Lucky her.

And then the thing dragged her underwater.

U is for Underwater

 

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Filed under A to Z Challenge, Anton and Zoey, just for fun

A to Z Challenge: T

TPart 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

 

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A to Z Challenge: S

SPart 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

 

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A to Z Challenge: R

RPart R, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

Zoey decided it made more sense to stay than leave at this point in the mission, and her days fell into a routine. Working with Ferraro in the morning, going over lessons with Sam in the afternoon, meals at the same time every day. Her late afternoon workouts in the gym were like clockwork, her sleeping and waking times didn’t vary enough to make a difference.

Zoey was bored out of her mind. Restless. She tried to break the monotony by designing experiments and field trips for Sam, any excuse to spend time outdoors, but the options were limited.

They crawled around on the lawn, stalking bugs. Identified various leaves and ferns and berries. Watched birds, listened to their calls, even climbed into a few smallish trees to peer into nests. They made huge messes in the kitchen while Zoey patiently explained that cooking was basically chemistry you could eat.

The trouble was, Zoey had done all those things before. The only thing keeping her sane was that Sam had never done any of them, and was excited about every tiny new discovery.

No matter what they did, Ferraro always seemed to be somewhere nearby. Keeping an eye on things. Or maybe just wanting to be included, she couldn’t tell with Mr. Tall Dark and Inscrutable.

Every time Sam caught sight of her uncle, she rushed over to show him what they’d been doing. It was touching to see his apparent interest, not to mention disarming to watch his stern mouth curve in a genuine smile for his niece.

Of course, it was also satisfying to watch his expression the day he’d caught Zoey teaching Sam how to sharpen and throw knives. Or the time they’d hotwired the ignition of one of the classic cars he kept stored in his massive garage. Or the day Sam told him they’d used modeling clay to learn how to mold C-4 to direct the force of an explosion.

Sam was always quick to explain the science behind each experiment. Zoey might have smirked a time or two, but felt satisfaction in teaching Sam valuable life skills.

The one area where Sam surprised Zoey was in the gym. After years of being sheltered, Sam loved physical activity. One of her favourite things was the climbing wall. Zoey hesitated at first, but Ferraro had top of the line gear and all the safety equipment a person could ever ask for. It wasn’t long before Sam was strapped in and scrambling up the easier routes on the 20-foot wall, laughing with delight as Zoey belayed her down.

The girl was getting stronger and more physically confident every day. So it wasn’t much of a stretch when Sam convinced Zoey to teach her how to rappel. Sam loved it and was surprisingly good at it. And rather quickly grew bored with the indoor wall.

“Let’s rappel down the cliff by the cove,” Sam said one day.

“Absolutely not. It’s too dangerous.”

“I’m not a baby,” the girl pouted, rather like a baby. “I’ve seen you climb the cliff and you weren’t even wearing any gear.”

“That’s different, Sam. I’m stronger and have had years of experience. Besides, there’s nothing in that area to use as an anchor.”

Sam looked so defeated. And Zoey was so bored. “I’ll see what I can come up with, okay? Something safe.” The girl frowned at that and Zoey laughed, “Okay, something safe and fun.”

It took a while to scope it out, to make sure it was indeed safe, but two days later Zoey packed up their climbing gear and told Sam to follow her, she had a surprise.

Zoey would have dearly loved to rap off the main four-story part of the mansion, but it was too risky for Sam. The rooftop helipad seemed like a good compromise. Roughly 30 feet off the ground, it wasn’t much higher than what they’d been doing. Plus, it had the added benefit of helicopter tie downs. You couldn’t ask for stronger anchors than that.

The only trouble was that the doors accessing the helipad from the mansion were locked. So she led Sam up into the attic of the adjacent two-story garage and through the access door to that roof. Then climbed a ladder Zoey had dragged up there, gaining access to the helipad.

“Wow,” Sam said, walking to the center of the roof, taking in the view of the grounds and the sea beyond. “This is so high.”

“We can climb down the way we came up, Sam. We don’t have to do this.”

“No way. I want to do this. It’s just . . . so high.”

Zoey grinned and reached one foot back, then pushed the ladder so it fell onto the garage roof with a clatter.

Sam spun to face her, eyes wide but glittering with excitement. “Oh my god, Zoey, what did you just do?”

“You said you wanted an adventure, girl. Let’s do this.”

Zoey wasn’t as nonchalant as she appeared. If she’d seen even a trace of fear or uncertainty in Sam’s eyes, she wouldn’t go through with this. She could easily retrieve the ladder and help Sam climb back down. But Sam didn’t need to know that. Not right now, anyway.

It took time for Zoey to rig the anchors and ropes and harnesses, to double and triple check that everything was set up safely. But finally it was time.

There were puffy white clouds in the sky, no wind to speak of. A perfect spring day for a little outdoor fun.

Zoey ran through all the instructions again, for the billionth time, reminding Sam she’d have her on belay just like in the gym, only from up top. She helped Sam over the edge, always a bit scary the first time. But Sam didn’t seem scared. She was excited, her face lit up with it, but calm as she listed to Zoey’s reminders.

“Remember to look at the ground, so you know where you are. Once you’re down, I’ll be coming right behind you. Got it?”

“Got it.”

And then there was no more chatter, just the usual call and response, and Sam was on her way down. Her descent was flawless, the landing uneventful, just a perfect textbook run. Sam took a few steps back, out of Zoey’s landing space, and threw herself down in the thick grass, rolling like a puppy and laughing with delight.

Zoey flew down at her own normal fast pace, feeling the familiar rush, loving the freedom and the power of the controlled fall. She touched down and got clear of the ropes, then flopped down next to Sam in the grass. The girl reached over unexpectedly and grabbed Zoey’s hand, squeezing it, offering friendship and trust along with the shared joy of their adventure.

Zoey squeezed back and couldn’t help but think it was a damn near perfect moment.

Until a shadow fell over her face. The towering shadow of a very angry man.

Sam jumped up, still breathless with excitement. “Uncle Anton, did you see? Wasn’t it amazing? I can’t wait to go again!”

But this time her uncle didn’t smile. Or even look at his niece. His attention, his rage, was focused solely on Zoey. She got slowly to her feet and braced herself. But it wasn’t enough. She was completely unprepared for the magnitude of his fury.

“How dare you,” he said, his voice like ice. “How dare you be so reckless and irresponsible.”

Zoey tried for calm, but she’d never been good at that when anyone questioned her capabilities. “I am not reckless. I am a certified instructor with hours and hours of–”

“NO. I am not interested in your goddamned experience.”

Zoey spared a glance at Sam, who was trembling and white-faced at her uncle’s outburst.

“What you did was dangerous and stupid and unforgiveable.”

Zoey opened her mouth, to say what she wasn’t even sure, but Ferraro wasn’t done.

“I trusted you to keep her safe and instead you do this. No. More. There has already been too much death in this family. I will not tolerate this.” The man was shaking with rage.

Zoey heard Sam’s gasp as, too late, realization washed over her. She hadn’t understood, hadn’t comprehended the depth of his grief, his fear. His need to protect.

“Ms. Prescott, your employment is terminated. You have one hour to pack your things.”

Her voice was quiet, subdued with guilt and regret, when she said, “It will only take me ten minutes.”

R is for Regret

 

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