Tag Archives: flash fiction

A time and a place for gratitude

Thanksgiving. A time to reflect and be grateful. It should be easy in this land of plenty, right? Except this past year it hasn’t been all that easy. We tend not to be truly appreciative of things we take for granted, and we take a lot for granted, until someone tries to take them away and then we’re all, “Oh, hell no.”

It’s been an “Oh, hell no” kind of year.

. . . and then I wrote several hundred words about things that have transpired this past year to make it difficult to feel thankful . . . until I (gently) slapped myself upside the head and said to myself, “What the hell is wrong with you? No one wants to hear that.”


So, instead, here are a few things that have succeeded in making me immensely grateful and appreciative in the past twelve months.

I have siblings. No matter how difficult certain losses and situations have been or inevitably will become, my sisters are there to share them. I am so grateful I’m not an only child.

I have writer friends. As much as I love and treasure my non-writer friends, there is a special camaraderie among writers, an understanding that doesn’t need to be explained about the struggles and triumphs of being a writer. I am immensely grateful to have found the community of smart and funny writers over in the comment section at agent Janet Reid’s blog. This is not the only place where my writer friends congregate, but it’s by far the most plentiful and diverse sampling, which has value all on its own. I appreciate that Janet tolerates our neurotic brand of crazy creativity even as she attempts to educate us about an agent’s perspective of publishing.

Speaking of that blog, Janet occasionally hosts flash fiction contests, which I occasionally enter. [WARNING: shameless self-promotion ahead] [someone has to do it] [apparently] The competition is FIERCE and I never expect to win or even be a finalist. It’s great practice, but this is not my forte. I mean, please, I can barely say hello in 100 words, let alone tell a complete story incorporating five ungainly prompt words. Except, this past weekend, my entry DID manage to be a finalist.

These were the prompt words, first names of the authors whose books were the prize:


This was my entry, exactly 100 words:

* * *

My brother’s joint was the kind they’d slip you a mickey sooner than start an honest fistfight.

The regulars played billiards in the back, the snick of balls an accent to rough voices. Couldn’t compete with the tony clubs on the north side, but the table felt was immaculate. Priorities.

Conversation petered out as I stepped up to the bar.

“We don’t serve cops.”

“Good thing I ain’t planning to order one.”

We traded hard stares, harder memories.

“Cut bait while you still can, Frank.”

He sneered.



I held the door for the Feds on my way out.

* * *

These were Janet’s comments (she generously tells us what she liked about each finalist and/or why she chose it, which is remarkably educational):

“That first line is one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. The importance of a good first line can not be overstated. And the ending is sublime. This is a perfect story.”

SQUEEEE. And yet, even with it being a “perfect story,” someone else won. THAT’S how tough these contests are (if you want to see the other finalists and winner, they’re here). But I was just thrilled, to put it mildly. A few words of praise from someone with her experience go a very long way. And for that I am deeply thankful.

Let’s see, what else.

Oh, I know! Some of you might remember that last December my Bossy Older Sister gave me a birthday gift of a year of flowers, specifically orchids. I received the twelfth delivery yesterday and I think they’re the most beautiful of all. Of course, I’ve said that about each month’s delivery. This pic makes them look rather pink, but they’re actually a deep rich cranberry colour.

November 2017

Here’s a shot from above, the colour is a bit better:

I’m grateful for her generosity and creative gift-giving skills. I posted pics of a few of the early months’ orchids last spring but sort of got distracted and forgot to post the rest of them. So here they are, April through October (slideshow):

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Aren’t they gorgeous? What’s that, you say? One of the pics is not like the others? Well, imagine that.


Yes, that is yet another thing for which I am grateful and thankful and OMG SO EXCITED ABOUT and very much looking forward to in the coming year.

What have you found to be thankful for in this “Oh, hell no” year?



Filed under health and well-being, holidays

A to Z Challenge: Reflections

A-to-Z Reflection [2016]The people behind the A to Z Challenge are asking participants to post their reflections on the month-long effort. What worked and what didn’t, what you liked, whether you’d do it again.

This was my first experience with this challenge. It might well be my last. That is not a reflection on the challenge itself or the way it was organized or whether it was worthwhile. All those things were great. It’s a reflection on the type of challenge I opted to tackle.

If you’re reading this, probably you know I decided to write a piece of fiction, a complete story, during this challenge. Yes, I am well aware of what a bad idea this was, and also experienced enough to know better. I had my reasons.

Someone asked in the comments about my process during the month. I replied that there was no process– it was sheer panic. That’s absolute truth.

I know a good deal about plot and story structure and pacing and character arcs and motivation and scene/sequel and genre expectations and . . . a thousand other things that make for good story. During this challenge, it felt like I took all those things and rather gleefully threw them out the window and just went at it. And left a huge mess to be cleaned up (working on it).

I’d write a post and get to the end and think, “Now what?” Or more accurately, “What were you even thinking here?”

When I wrote the first scene on the beach and there were bats flying in the dusky sky, I was pretty sure there was a cave. I mean, clearly, bats live in caves. But I had no idea when I mentioned those bats that there was also a dragon in the cave. And when I wrote the next scene in the dark of the cave, when I realized there was a dragon, I didn’t know anything about the dragon other than there was one. And it was much later when I realized they weren’t bats after all.

None of that was planned.

When I introduced the ermine character, I called him “Ermie” because I HATE naming characters. I wrote,

“He’s an ermine. Claims to be a royal prince of some country with a name we can’t pronounce, so we call him Ermie.”

I purposely made it ambiguous about whether it was the country or the ermine that had an unpronounceable name. And two weeks later, when Prince died and I realized what I’d written, I was stunned. Some things defy explanation. So I added a small tribute of my own toward the end of the letter V post and hoped it was subtle:

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.

Most of the “magic” in the story wasn’t planned either. It came about because I’d written myself into a tight spot and in retrospect needed something to make sense. It was like writing an outline in reverse.

And when I wrote the scene where Ferraro tells Zoey to leave, I sat here shaking my head over how stupid that was. I mean, I’m telling a story solely from her point of view and I just ejected her from the story. It was insane. Who does this?

My daughter was reading along and would text me after reading each installment during her commute home from work. After that scene, she said:

DD: NO!!
DD: I do NOT approve!!

Me: What?

DD: You know what!!!!
DD: I suppose this is one way to tell that your story is having the desired effect on readers

Me: I’m delighted that you care about these made-up people!

DD: Sam better stand up to Mr Meanie-head

Me: Maybe Mr Meanie-head had his reasons…

DD: Like what?

Me: I have no idea.

And I honestly had no idea. I then had to come up with something that would not only explain his reaction, but that would not make him look like a total jerk and would also convince Zoey to stay.

Geez. Talk about pressure.

The entire story was full of situations like that where I just wrote my way into it and hoped for the best, trusted that I could make sense of it later. There was no way to go back and edit things after the fact or delete stuff that didn’t make sense or foreshadow anything.

As nightmarish as all that was, it wasn’t the truly scary part. The worst part was that I had no idea what came next. Several people commented on the cliffhanger aspect of the posts, said they couldn’t wait to see what happened next. Yeah, I was right there with you, wanting to know.

I did know, almost from the beginning, how it was going to end. I knew the “twist” ending, which was the premise for the story. And that helped. Except when I worried that people were going to hate it. I’m still worried that people hated it.

I almost always finished writing a scene with no idea of where things were going from there. No idea of how I’d resolve some ridiculous new problem I’d just created on the fly. I didn’t know from one day to the next whether I could salvage things or I’d have to just give up and say, “Sorry, everyone. I screwed up and can’t see how to fix it. There’s no more story.” It was terrifying and exhilarating, telling a story in real time, in public.

I have to say, this is perhaps not the best way to write a story.

Please note: No one over at A to Z suggested this was a good way to write fiction. That not-so-bright idea is all on me.

In terms of the A to Z Challenge, I can’t say I regret taking part. It was exhausting and terrifying and relentless. Never have I looked forward to Sundays with quite so much desperation. The writing wasn’t even the time-consuming part. It was the editing and polishing needed before posting. The constant focus and thinking: now what?

There were times the need to use an alphabetical prompt word was helpful. It added things to the story that might not otherwise have been there. Like the Chinese junk for J. And there were times it was truly inconvenient. Some of the letters were just difficult, especially since I was writing a story and the word had to fit in.

At times, it seemed like the month would never end, that I’d run out of story ideas long before the 30th. But toward the end, I discovered the opposite problem. There was too much story left and not enough time to do it justice. So, for those of you interested in reading the final version once I finish, don’t be surprised if the last half is significantly . . . expanded. And yes, there will be more dragon.

Looking back at the month, the effort served a purpose and was a great incentive for me at a time when I sorely needed it. I’m grateful for that. I am so damn glad I did it. Would I do it again? Too soon to say. Ask me again next year.

But strictly as a strategy for writing fiction? No. I can’t say using the A to Z Challenge is the best approach for writing a novel. Don’t do that. Unless, you know, you’re hopelessly stuck and doubting your abilities and on the verge of giving up on writing entirely. In that case, I highly recommend it.



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

A to Z Challenge: Z

ZPart Z, the last in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

Zoey was drifting in the void, trying to hold on. She wasn’t ready to go, didn’t want it to be over.

She heard his voice calling her through the darkness and fought even harder not to let go. She didn’t want to leave this place. Not yet.

“Zoey love, are you all right?”

No, she wasn’t. She wasn’t ready for it to end.

“Zoey, c’mon. It’s okay, let go.”

She sighed and opened her eyes, giving in to the inevitable, and smiled up at the handsome familiar face leaning over her.



This used to be a post containing 1750 words and the ending of a story. I’ve deleted almost all of those words for reasons I talk about HERE.

The TL;DR version is that I hated this rough draft ending and have changed it, drastically, in the expanded and edited version of the story I’m planning to self-publish. If you’re new to reading this blog and haven’t yet read the regrettable ending, I don’t want you to get that old version stuck in your head.

Tough decision, really tough, because it seems like a giant tease to delete it (even though it was available here for almost three weeks). But I’d rather do that than leave any more readers disappointed with an ending that just doesn’t work.

If you’d like to be notified via email when the revised story is available, you can sign up here for my mailing list.



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

A to Z Challenge: Y

YPart Y, in a continuing story from A to Z  [link to the beginning]

Zoey vaulted over the edge and scrambled down the cliff, reaching Anton within seconds.

“Damn you, Ferraro, don’t be dead. I won’t forgive you.”

She checked his pulse and it was strong, he was still breathing. But he was out cold and his shoulder was bleeding. She felt around the back of his head and it was bloody, so he had a head wound. She hoped it was from the fall and not a bullet.

She pulled his shirt away from the shoulder wound. It was high, the bullet hadn’t hit bone.

She touched her comm unit, “Man down. Target taken. All report.” There was no reply. She repeated her command. Nothing. The thing was dead. She realized she hadn’t heard any chatter since before the scene in the library. Damn it. The kidnappers must be using jammers.

She hadn’t taken the time to get a replacement phone from Ferraro and was now regretting her oversight. She’d bet money those things couldn’t be jammed. She had to go after Sam, now, but couldn’t just leave Ferraro unconscious and oozing blood all over the beach. No telling when the next high tide might rush in.

She needed help. Even as she had the thought, she felt a hard shape in his shirt pocket. His phone.

Great, except it wasn’t programmed to work for her. She pulled it out anyway and brushed sand off the face. It was slightly larger than the one he’d given her, but also lighter weight. Then she frowned. There was a slight dent in the screen. From a bullet? If so, it had saved his life. What was the thing made of anyway?

She was absently running her finger over the dent, her mind racing through options, when the screen suddenly lit up. Was it a glitch of being hit or was it working?

“Call Benton,” she said. It chimed.

He answered. “Yes, sir.”

“It’s Zoey. Ferraro’s been shot. He’s unconscious, on the beach. They took Sam and I’m going after them.”

The man didn’t even blink. “Go. On my way.”

Zoey bent down and pressed a quick kiss to Ferraro’s forehead. “Don’t you dare die before I get back.” And then she ran to the beach shed.

She hoped someone had retrieved the jet ski and put it back inside. Apparently they had, but they’d also locked the door. And Zoey had no idea where the key was– probably at the bottom of the cove after her misadventure with the squid. She could break the window, but it was too small for even a child.

“Damn it,” she said, slamming her fist into the door. “I need a key.”

She heard a chime and looked down at the phone she still held. There was a small golden bar of light extending from one end, maybe an inch long. She stared at it. “No. There’s no way.” But she grabbed the lock with one hand and pushed the bar of light into it like a key.

The lock clicked and fell open. Either Ferraro’s phone was malfunctioning or– “Are you programmed to accept my commands?” she asked, not expecting an answer.

A message popped up on the screen: Yes, Ms. Prescott.

Well then. “We’re going to have a talk about this later, Ferraro,” she muttered under her breath, strapping his phone to her arm.

She pulled the jet ski over the sand and into the water, checking the charge meter as she raced over the cove in the dark. Just under twenty percent. She hoped it was enough.

She’d been up close with the huge white rocks and knew the jet ski wasn’t going to fit between them. They were more like a solid wall under the surface, no breaks. She could see the dark outline of a ship further out. She needed to get to it, fast, and it was too far from the rocks to swim.

The tide was high enough that the powerful motorized raft had skimmed between the tops of two boulders. She didn’t think the ski had that kind of power. She was going to have to jump and hope the landing didn’t destroy the machine. Or kill her.

She calculated the angle and velocity as she raced in a tight circle, creating a wake. Then she took a deep breath and headed full speed straight at the space between two rocks, lifting up with all her strength at the last minute, using the water as a springboard.

She cleared the rocks and shoved the ski to one side just before she hit the water, hard. Losing teeth on impact with the handlebars was not in her plan. She swam over and got back on the ski, ignoring the ache in her shoulder, racing toward the ship that was still anchored a ways out.

They’d had plenty of time to make way. Why weren’t they moving? Was there a problem with Sam? She’d been limp in the raft, so they’d either drugged her or knocked her out. Had they miscalculated and hurt her badly?

She came alongside and secured the ski as best she could, using a mooring line that hadn’t been coiled properly. Sloppy, she thought. These people might be deadly, but they were careless.

She quietly climbed over the rail and hid in shadows, listening to a small group of heavily armed men gathered several yards away, engaged in a heated argument.

“I say we take the easy money, same as always.”

“The client promised more, we just need to hide the girl. Couple weeks, he said.”

“I don’t trust him. Don’t seem right in the head.”

“Cap’n come around yet?” a third voice asked.

“Still out cold. That bastard Ferraro throws a mean punch.”

“I still say we sell her like the others. The sister offered a bonus.”

“Cap’n won’t like it. He made a deal with the brother,” said the third man. He almost sounded reasonable.

“Money’s money. I’ll take your share, you don’t want it.”

“His share of nothin’ ain’t going to buy you a single pint, idiot.”

Zoey clenched her fists, still furious about the cousins’ treachery. She hoped they killed each other and saved everyone the trouble.

It sounded like the argument wasn’t ending any time soon. She needed to find Sam and get her off the boat. She made her way across the deck and to the hatch, figuring the girl was being held below.

She paused at the bottom of the ladder, not sure where to start. It wasn’t a huge ship, but time was a factor. She heard a faint tapping and smiled. Morse code. Zoey was going to have to reconsider her stance that Sam spent too much time with lessons.

Sam had been dumped in a cramped storage room, gagged, her hands tied. Her eyes flashed with rage until she realized who had entered the space. Zoey saw the bruise and swore softly, but gave thanks the girl hadn’t been drugged.

Zoey quickly freed her, whispering to her to keep quiet.

Sam let out a small sob. “Zoey, I’m so scared. They were t-talking about s-selling me.”

“Shhh, Sam, it’s okay. I’m going to get you out of here.”

They made their way back on deck and Zoey lifted Sam over the rail and helped her onto the jet ski.

“Sam, you know this thing can only carry one of us.”

“I’ve never ridden one, Zoey.”

“It’s easy, I’ll show you. I want you to steer toward the big white rocks, okay? Wait there for help.” Zoey was certain her team wasn’t far behind at this point.

“What about you?” Sam’s voice was low but frantic.

“Don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine. You can do this.”

Sam threw her arms around Zoey in a rather desperate hug. “You be careful,” she said, her voice all quavery.

“I always am,” Zoey reassured her. “Now get moving, nice and easy. You’ve got this.”

Zoey stood there watching for a few seconds, making sure Sam was underway. Then she climbed back up over the rail. She was going to sink this heap and every bastard on it.

The crew was still arguing, passing around a bottle of whisky now. A few were sounding a bit subdued, but a couple of them were getting more belligerent. She heard the voice of the third guy, trying to convince them to wait for the captain to come around.

Zoey made her way below, looking for anything she could use as fuel. She found what she was looking for in the hold. And then some.

Holy shit, she thought, staring at the crate full of automatic weapons she’d just opened. She opened another crate full of military grade explosives. This sure complicated things. Who were these guys?

If she had her team, they’d apprehend these idiots and recover the cargo. But she was on her own and didn’t have time for that. She unstrapped the phone from her arm. Best she could do was record the evidence before she destroyed it.

“Camera,” she whispered. The phone obliged and she took several shots. She hit “send,” hoping the images were going somewhere she could find them later.

Now she needed a detonator. She hadn’t seen any in the crates. Either these guys were too smart to store them with the explosives or too stupid to know how the stuff worked. Or their supplier was too clever to give them both. She’d bet on the latter.

She’d exhausted the possibilities and was thinking she’d have to load a couple of the guns and shoot her way out. Those odds weren’t in her favour, but it was looking like her only choice.

“I don’t suppose you have a handy detonator in there,” she murmured to the phone, only half kidding.

The screen lit up and a message appeared: You mean like this?

It flashed again and an image popped up. Zoey just stared, not sure at first she was really seeing what she thought she was seeing. How was this even possible? She touched the screen and two small metal prongs extended from the base of the phone, the screen changing to show a timing device.

“Ferraro, I’m falling hard for you here,” she whispered, and got to work. She paused just before she set the timer, realizing this option would destroy the phone.

Another message flashed, briefly, as if it read her mind: It’s just a phone. I have more.

Then the screen went back to showing the timer. Zoey gave a soft laugh and set it for two minutes, figuring that gave her enough time to get off the boat and away from the blast. Her finger was poised over the final screen to arm it when she heard a soft voice from behind her.

“Appreciate if you’d hold off on that, brat.”

She was so startled, her finger touched the screen.

“Alex,” she hissed, “what the hell are you doing?”

“Cleaning up a little inventory problem.”

“You’re on a fucking mission here?” she said, furious. “And you didn’t think I needed to know?”

“Classified,” he said, giving her a familiar cocky grin.

She swore under her breath. “I am going to kick your ass, sailor.”

“Did you just arm that thing?”

She nodded and looked at the screen. “One minute, fifty.”

“Plenty of time.”

“Did your guys get Sam?”

“Jake and Marcus have her.” He held up one hand, listening to an earpiece. “Roger that. Got a change of plans here, hoss. Ninety seconds and this thing blows. Get everyone clear in sixty. That means you too, Zach. Out.”

He reached over and ruffled her hair. She was going to kill him and then kick his ass.

“C’mon, brat,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”

They came up on deck to the remnants of a fistfight. The bad guys were losing, but there were a few stragglers. Alex shoved a life jacket at her. “Put this on and stay behind me.”

“Oh please,” she mumbled, shrugging into it. Zoey turned in time to see bad guy number three coming up behind her brother. She laid him out with a kick behind the knees and had his combat knife in her hand before the guy knew what hit him.

“Jesus, Zoey,” said Alex, shaking his head. “He’s one of mine.”

The man levered up off the deck into a fighting stance and growled.

“Farley, you hit my sister, you’re a dead man. Time to go.”

Zoey grinned and tossed the knife back to Farley and the three of them took off, side by side, and went over the rail at a dead run.

She felt the first bullet hit the back of the life jacket. No problem, it hit at an angle and missed her. The second one grazed the back of her thigh and stung like a son of a bitch. The third hit her left biceps. That was going to be a problem.

She heard a stream of vicious curses from the men on either side of her just before they all hit the water. She let the momentum of the dive carry her a good distance and surfaced to the sight of flashlight beams searching the water, hard male voices calling her name. She gave a sharp whistle and, when the beams hit her, pointed at the boat and then her wrist. The count she’d been keeping in her head was ticking down.

She resumed swimming, hard and fast, away from the boat. Saw her brother’s team doing the same. She was tiring too quickly, slowing down, and knew she was losing blood. Damn it. She wasn’t far enough away.

She executed a shallow dive, fighting the life jacket’s buoyancy, and kept swimming. The blast came exactly when she knew it would, muffled through the water. She felt debris rain down around her and swam harder, holding her breath.

The next time she surfaced, she was fading fast. She paused, glanced back at the glowing wreckage and, in spite of her injuries, felt a huge rush of satisfaction wash over her. It was done.

All the bad guys had been exposed and defeated. Sam was safe. Anton was alive, she could feel it. Her brothers had backed her up, just like they’d been doing since the day the Prescotts took her in.

“Mission accomplished,” she said softly.

She drifted in and out of consciousness, bobbing in the waves, weightless and detached. She felt the warm glow of sea glass on her chest and heard the slow flapping of massive wings. She smiled as the magnificent dragon swooped down, claws extended, and then felt herself being plucked from the sea and soaring through the air.

She came to again on the hard black sand beach, people crowded around. She searched for the one face she wanted, needed to see. She had to tell him.

“Ms. Prescott. I would be most grateful, in future, if you would take care to avoid all these little problems.”

Oh, that wonderful voice.

“No more problems, Anton,” she managed, her voice weak. “Just an answer. Yes.

He lifted her gently, cradling her in his strong arms, his mouth close to her ear. His quietly fervent words for her alone. “With you, Zoey love, it’s always been yes.”

And then there was nothing but total blackness.

Y is for Yes



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

A to Z Challenge: X

XPart 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.

“Ms. Preston.”

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.

“Ms. Prescott.”

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



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