Disclaimers: None. If you're still reading my stuff at this point, you pretty well know what you're getting into. If you don't have an open mind or if you find something you think needs disclaiming, you are still more than welcome to let me know. It won’t change anything, but it may make you feel better. Ugliness will earn you a smack to the back of your head.
Thanks: To Phil, Mac and Jeanne for reading through this for me to pick up Pink & Fluffy’s dropped letters. Their contribution to making this a better read is much appreciated.
Author’s Notes: This is part one of what will likely be a four story arc. And it’s what I was working on when Steph asked me to play in the Academy Valentine’s Invitational, so it became my Valentine’s offering for 2012. Thanks for the invite, Boss!
The Storyteller’s Cardinal Rule is in effect... but kind of suspended in this part.
Favors of Fortune – Part One
When I Wasn’t Looking
Copyright, February 2012. All rights reserved.©
It’s a little bit like déjà vu as I lean against the doorjamb watching her. She’s sitting at the bar in jeans and a hoodie – one hand jammed in her pocket as the other caresses a vodka tonic. The hood of her sweatshirt is still covering most of her head, and she’s wearing a pair of glasses that help hide the features of her face. She stands out from the crowd, however, just because of her casual dress, and I have to wonder what she did to gain admittance into this exclusive club.
It’s only a little bit like déjà vu, though – because twenty-seven years ago, it was me sitting at the bar trying to figure out the meaning of life... my life, anyway. I was lucky that I had someone who cared enough to listen, so now it’s time to pay that forward. Now it’s my turn to be the mentor, so I push away from the door and make my way towards the bar. It’s only the badge I flashed at the door that allows me passage into the inner sanctum – I know I’m not dressed for this swanky place. When I got the call, I didn’t hesitate, but came immediately; I wasn’t expecting to get pulled from my bed at one-thirty in the morning. Good thing I sleep in sweat pants and a tank top... all I had to do was pull on shoes and grab a jacket before I took off after her.
The bartender looks at me, but doesn’t comment on my attire – he’s already seen the flash of gold and gotten the nod from the bouncers at the door. Instead, he cocks an eyebrow in question.
“Vodka martini down and dirty, and one more vodka tonic for the lady,” seeing her head pop up from the contemplation of the ice in her glass at the first sound of my voice. “But no more,” I instruct him firmly. She opens her mouth to argue, but a single look from me snaps her mouth shut quickly enough. She frowns hard, but keeps her attention firmly on her glass.
The silence is uncomfortable while we wait for our drinks, but I’m not going to be the one to break it. She already knows she’s in trouble with me for running off alone. I need to see if she’s willing to share what had caused her to do so.
I’m down two olives and half a martini when she finally speaks, and only the fact that I’m listening for it enables me to hear her whispered words.
“How did you know when you were in love?”
I’m grateful I don’t have anything in my mouth; I’m pretty sure vodka burns a lot more going up than it does going down, and I’m going to need every bit of coherence I’ve got to answer this question honestly. I clear my throat.
“I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess this is why we’re sitting at some ritzy bar at oh-my-God o’clock in the morning?” I don’t mention the fact that she came here alone or that one of my people had to follow her and stick around as inconspicuously as possible until I could get here. We’ll get to that soon enough and she knows it. Instead, she chuckles at my description of the time and nods her head slowly, as if she’s really not quite sure it’s the truth.
“I asked my mother that once,” I tell her, holding her gaze with my own. “She said if I had to ask, it was already too late.” Brown eyes widen and fill with tears before they drop to the remnants of her vodka tonic. I reach out a hand and cover the one closest to me, and she instinctively clasps it tightly. “I don’t think that’s necessarily true, though.”
“You....” She stops and clears her throat, though her eyes remain focused on our joined hands. “You don’t?”
I shake my head. “I don’t. I think it’s a lot more complicated than simply wondering if you’re in love.”
She shifts our hands until hers rests on top of the back of mine, tilting my fingers until she got a good look at my wedding set. “Will you tell me... about you?” motioning to the rings. I nod.
“I’ll share if you will.”
She bites her lip and blinks rapidly, forcing back the tears as she inclines her head and stares at the ceiling for several long minutes. Finally she draws a deep breath and nods. “Okay,” she agrees huskily. “Maybe you can help me figure this out. But not here... please?”
“Not here,” I nod. I slide from the stool and she catches a look at the gun tucked beneath the jacket. Her eyes widen, and I look down before casually closing the jacket. I drop a few bills on the bar and pull her from her seat. My team has a car waiting, and it only takes a minute to return to our hotel.
“Can we go to your room?” she asks. “Part of my... problem is probably still in mine.”
“Malcolm?” She nods slowly. “I’ll have it seen to. But yeah... we’ll go to my room.” We enter the elevator and head for our floor. One nice thing about being in charge of this detail – I was able to put us all on the same floor, so security is easier to manage. I pull one of my guys over with a jerk of my head as we emerge from the lift, ushering her into my room as I give him his instructions. Then I follow her in and close the door. It’s going to be a long night.
“Would you care for some milk?” I offer as she crosses the room to sit in the semi-comfortable chair. “I have homemade peanut butter cookies if you’re hungry.”
She looks at me with something akin to shock in her expression. “Where did you get homemade cookies and how did you score a fridge in this place?” slipping her jacket off and hanging it on the back of the chair.
I chuckle. “It’s easy when you know the right people, and my daughter sent the cookies. My kids are your age, you know, and she lives here in town. You can sit on the bed if you’d rather – I know that chair isn’t particularly comfortable. Take your shoes off and make yourself at home.”
She tilts her head as she considers my offer, then smiles as she removes her shoes and pulls back the side of the bed I hadn’t been sleeping on. After twenty-seven years together, three years of being a widow isn’t enough to break the habit of asking for a king size bed. “No I didn’t know. You’re not like anyone I’ve ever met,” she comments. “And trust me... that’s a good thing. And yes... I would love some milk. Do you have skim, by any chance?”
This time my laughter is full-blown, and she looks bemused by the sound. “I’m sorry,” I say when I catch my breath. “Does this really look like a body that worries about milk fat content?” she glances at me, and I can tell she’s torn between honesty and politeness. Because while I’m by no means out of shape – I can’t afford to be in my line of work - I’m not the skinny spring chicken I once was either. I give her an out. “Believe me – I haven’t worried about that in a long time. I can call room service if you’d rather though....”
She shakes her head and accepts a glass of milk, sipping on it gingerly; her eyes widen at the unaccustomed richness of its taste. I set my own on the table so I can remove the accouterments of my job before I crawl into the other side of the bed. She doesn’t say anything when I set the ID case down or when I slide the gun off my waistband. When I remove my jacket however....
“Holy crap!!!” I look around trying to figure out what I’ve missed. “You’ve got tattoos!!”
My eyebrows go into my hairline. “Yeah? So do you – what’s your point?”
“How did you...?” I cock an eyebrow and she looks chagrined at my response and turns her focus to her hands. “Sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. It’s just... unexpected, you know. When we see you, you’re always so straight-laced and polished. I just never thought....”
I shrug. “No worries... I shouldn’t have snapped. I’ve had them for years, and like yours, mine are pretty personal to me. They remind me of many things.” I pick up the box of cookies and offer them to her. “Cookie? They’re amazing.” She smiles at me briefly and takes one out of the box. She nibbles carefully, then turns shocked eyes in my direction. “I did tell you,” I remind her smugly, and offer the box again. She takes a couple more and settles in to enjoy her snack.
“So what do you want to know?” I ask after topping off her glass. It may have been like drinking cream to her, but these cookies were impossible to eat without some serious liquid indulgence. Just in case, I set a half-filled glass of water beside her milk – worse comes to worst, she can add one to the other to make the whole milk more tolerable to her palate. I figured I’d let her ask a few questions first – if she could relax a little, taking care of whatever was troubling her enough to risk expulsion from the program would be easier for both of us.
“What would you like to share? I mean,” setting the milk down so she could talk with her hands. “You probably know everything about all of us – I’m sure there are files you had to read before you took this assignment. But we know nothing about you, except... well, nothing, really. I now know you have tattoos and a daughter. And that you’re married.”
“Widowed, actually,” I reply softly. Even three years isn’t enough distance to make it any less painful a reality to have.
“Oh... oh – I’m so sorry,” covering her mouth with her hand. “I seem to be screwing up all over the place tonight. Maybe I should just....” swinging her legs over the side of the bed. I grab her arm and tug her lightly back towards me.
“Maybe you should just lean back and take a deep breath. It’s all right – you didn’t know and it’s been three years. I promised to share if you would, remember?” She nods her dark head, and the length of her hair falls down to cover her face. I reach a hand up to tuck it back, and she tilts her head and smiles at me. I return the gesture. “It’s all right,” I repeat. “I do know all about you, but I don’t actually know any of you. What you can read in a printed file rarely tells the whole story about anything or anyone. So how about we figure it out together?”
“So tell me about it,” she says as she slides down to lay on the bed, turning on her side and propping her head up on one hand. I clasp my hands together over my belly and loll my head in her direction for a brief moment before letting my eyes focus on the far wall. “How did you know when you were in love?” This time, that question just gives me a melancholy smile, and I let my mind travel back thirty-odd years to another time and place – when life was exciting, and I was young.
He was dashing in his uniform – a mutual friend had introduced us at her wedding where we were both part of the bridal party. I can’t say it was love at first sight, because really... who believes in that?? I can say I was a little smitten with him, but then they do say that a girl marries a man much like her father and Daddy was a career Marine. So I was impressed by the uniform... even if it was Air Corps blue instead of Marine red – and I was going to have to explain that slight breach of protocol to Daddy. Fortunately, *he* would eventually be impressed with the man wearing it.
“Wait,” she interrupts me, dragging my mind back from that first rush of infatuation. I turn my head and arch an eyebrow at her, and she flushes just a little. “Do you have a picture?”
I smile and reach for the Pad that stays on constantly for several reasons. With a couple motions, I expand it to its full size and find the folder I’m looking for, then I hand it over where she can see. “Take your time,” I instruct her. “We’ve got as long as you need.” And with that, I rise from the bed and move over to the door. I need to find out what’s happening outside my room.
Caleb comes over as soon as he sees me crack the door, and I step outside though I don’t close the door behind me. I don’t want her to get the wrong idea. Given what I know from her file, trust is something that she’s reluctant to give – one reason I’m willing to share with her first.
“What’s the word?” I ask briskly. Caleb doesn’t take offense – this is a high profile assignment and we’re all running under a mountain of stress at this point. We’ve done well not to crack so far, but we don’t waste a lot of time on the niceties either. He grimaces at my question.
“We got Malcolm out of the room as well as the hotel, but he’s threatened to go to McMurtry.”
“Make sure the rest know – when she left her room, she came directly to mine. Oh, and send someone out to pick up some cold remedy medicine – several different kinds. Make sure they also include some fluid replenishment and some crackers and soup as well.”
“We’ll take care of everything, Chief,” Caleb assures me, and I know I can count on him to take care of the team and the team to take care of the evidence. They will also set a cover to take care of any other possibilities if it becomes necessary to utilize such methods to keep her out of trouble. After all, sickness is a viable excuse to cover a multitude of sins. And the barkeep will swear we were never there by the time all is said and done. I nod and he smiles. “It’s little enough to do for someone who has been nothing but nice to us, and Malcolm’s an ass.”
“A rich, well-connected ass, but I’ve got enough on him right now to stir some serious shit waves if he decides to push her on this.” Caleb nods. He knows what I do, and will do what it takes to make this happen for her. “Let me get back to her. I need to find out what the hell the ass did to drive her to jeopardize everything in the first place. Everything quiet otherwise?”
“Yep. Are we canceling tomorrow’s interviews?”
“I hope not, but I’ll let you know as soon as I do.”
He glances at his watch and nods. “I hope you get some rest, Chief.”
I snort. “Me too.” I step back into the room and close the door to find her watching me. I cross back to the bed, and she hands me the computer Pad back.
“You have a beautiful family,” she comments bashfully and I smile with pride.
“I think so,” I agree with a chuckle. “But don’t let it get around. You’ll ruin my hard ass rep.”
She snorts this time and covers her faces in embarrassment. I laugh and she starts laughing as well, and it goes on for a long moment before she takes a deep breath to try and get herself under control. I wait until I’m sure she’s good to talk before I cock my eyebrow at her.
“And what were you snorting at, missy? I’ll have you know I’m known as a hard ass throughout Operations.”
She arches her eyebrow perfectly at me and smirks. “Maybe,” she agrees. “But I’d be willing to bet good money you perpetuate a lot of those stories yourself. Because you certainly haven’t been a hard ass with me – cookies and milk aren’t really a cruel punishment, you know.”
“Yes, but it *is* whole milk.” She laughs.
I glare at her and she bites her bottom lip, though I silently deliberate if it’s because she’s unsure of herself or if she’s trying to contain more laughter. I huff at her and flop back on the bed, looking up at the ceiling and folding my hands over my belly once more.
“Where was I?” I growl.
“Meeting your husband-to-be for the first time,” she responds without a hint of laughter. My eyes soften as I let my mind go back again, even as I try to focus on the task at hand.
He’d invited me for coffee and since I had only just reached majority, I thought it was a very grown-up idea. Besides, I knew Daddy would never stand for any funny business - especially before he had the opportunity to properly vet an Air Corps interloper – and a retired Marine ran the place. It made me question if he chose that as our first date intentionally to make a point to Daddy.
Coffee in the morning became lunch that turned into afternoon tea before we actually left the coffee shop to go somewhere else for dinner.
“Wait,” she cuts in again. “You’re telling me your first date – which was essentially a blind date with the man who eventually became your husband - lasted *all day*?”
I smirk. “Not just all day,” laughing at the expression on her face. It’s been a long time since I’ve allowed myself to remember any of this, much less share it with anyone and I’m glad to discover it’s not painful like I expected it to be. Instead, the memories send a warmth through my veins I haven’t felt in three years.
“So what happened?” Her voice pulls me from my reverie and I turn my head back to meet her eyes. For the first time since I arrived at the bar, her eyes are twinkling and I understand so much more than I had even five minutes before.
I smile and tilt my head back until I’m looking at the ceiling, recalling that very first date we shared.
We left the coffee shop walking side by side but not touching except as a polite, protective gesture; he was the ultimate gentleman. He opened doors; walked on the outside as we slowly made our way down the street; matched his stride to meet mine and gently guided me through crowded areas.
Dinner was amazing – more for the company and conversation than because of the food, although the food had been pretty spectacular as well. Afterwards we found a quiet spot on the beach and we sat and talked for hours... until the sun began to peek over the horizon.
We fell into silence then, watching as the world slowly woke from its slumber in a wash of beautiful color. Once it was fully daylight, he rose and extended a hand down to me, carefully easing me back to my feet though he didn’t attempt to brush the sand off of any part of my anatomy. Instead, he took care of himself and waited patiently until I finished. Then he held out his hand again, giving me the choice to accept the gesture or reject it.
We walked back towards the flight line hand in hand until we reached the cargo plane slated to take him and several others back to their duty stations. He asked for permission to keep in touch and when I granted it, we exchanged personal information. A moment later, he was being summoned to board the transport. He brushed a light kiss over my cheek and mounted the stairs, turning briefly to wave goodbye before he disappeared from my life.
“He couldn’t have disappeared!” she argues. “You get married and have kids – I’ve seen the pictures!!”
I laugh. I never imagined when the phone rang earlier that I’d be sharing my bed and my story with this brilliant young woman. I can only hope she benefits from the story and that it helps her to trust me enough to be honest... with herself if no one else. She needs a friend, and right now, I’m the best option she’s got. And with a little luck, I can guide her to make better choices than she has so far.
I offer her a droll look. “Yes, I’m aware,” I inform her. “Pretty sure I was there for all those events. But at the time, he really did disappear from my life and I had no idea when or if I’d see him again.”
“So what happened?” and I realize that’s going to be her mantra through all this. Not as bad as ‘are we there yet?’ but pretty damned close. I cut my eyes at her though I never actually turn her way, and still I can see the slight smirk gracing her lips. It makes me smile – it means she’s growing more comfortable with me, and that can only be a good thing in my book.
“Impatient much?” I ask, arching an eyebrow at her. “Honestly, you really do remind me of my kids. I should introduce you to them someday. You’d like them.”
“Are they like you?” shifting until she’s sitting further up on the bed, though not completely upright. Just as well – we can’t afford the time to take a nap at the moment. We’ve got to get things squared away first before someone finds a reason to ask awkward questions. I lean my head thoughtfully so as to regard her while I consider my response.
“In many ways, yes. He was gone so much that I was left to raise them alone mostly. Don’t misunderstand – he was a good husband and father, and he spent as much time with us as his job allowed him. But he was career military, and where he went, we followed. And when he was sent off on missions where we couldn’t go, we waited... sometimes for months.”
“Was it terribly hard? It seems like....” She trails off and bites her lip, considering what she really wants to know. I wait patiently, understanding she will have many questions to ask before we’re done. “Was it worth it?” she finally blurts, blushing, but holding her gaze on my face nonetheless.
“Absolutely,” I reply without thinking. “I will forever be thankful for every precious minute we had together.” I look at her squarely, letting her read the truth for herself.
“Tell me about your children,” she asks softly after another moment. “I know you have a daughter and two sons – are the boys twins?”
I smile – my children are my pride and joy, and my sons are the gentlemen their father was. “They are indeed. Ian will graduate from the Air Corps Academy with his wings and Nathaniel will graduate as a Recon Marine from the Naval Academy in the spring.”
Her eyes widen slightly, but she’s learned to school any more telling of a reaction. “That’s... impressive,” she murmurs, but I have the distinct feeling she is much more awestruck by the information than she’s allowing herself to show. I smile.
“Well, they are pretty impressive boys, in my completely unbiased opinion,” eyes twinkling when she cracks a small smile at my words.
“And your daughter?” A small frown furrows her brow. “She looks so familiar, but I can’t quite place where I’ve seen her – or why I would have done so.”
“Do you enjoy the ballet?”
“Of course!” her eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. “I’ve studied since I was a child, but I wasn’t allowed to pursue any of the performance arts as a career. Papa said it was an ‘unworthy endeavor’ for someone of my pos... for me,” the last said with more than a hint of bitterness in her tone. She looks at me critically, eyes narrowing as she tries to bridge the seeming gap in our conversation. I watch as her focus goes inward, then wait patiently when her brown eyes snap up to meet mine, studying intently. My smile grows into a bonafide grin when recognition flares in her gaze. “Your daughter is Joy Wellesly?” I nod and she squeals, her enthusiasm making me chuckle in delight. “Oh my gosh – she’s like the most famous dancer to take the stage since Anna Pavlova!”
“She’s done very well for herself, yes,” I reply modestly. Joy may be famous to the rest of the world, but she’s still the daughter to whom I gave birth, so her celebrity is of little concern to me except when it comes to her safety. My daughter is the reason I am in this business – and why I am the best at what I do. Nothing motivates a mother better than a threat to her child. And this young woman needs me to be that kind of mom to her now – even if she hasn’t realized it yet.
“I envied her, you know,” she comments softly, and I tilt my head to study her. “I was always curious to know what it would be like to have been her – to do something she so obviously loved doing... performing every night in front of so many who loved her for the happiness she brought into their lives... however briefly.” She looks around the room before allowing her eyes to meet mine again.
“I’ll introduce you – you can ask her yourself.”
She smiles shyly. “Do you think she might have some more of those cookies?”
I laugh. “I’ll make sure she does,” laughing harder when she does a little squee dance in her spot on the bed. She leans back into the pillows when she’s done, breathing slightly accelerated, but a happy grin on her face. I haven’t seen that expression on her before and I decide it suits her. It’s a shame I’m going to have to wipe it away to find out what I need to know, but before I can speak, she does, the smile on her face morphing into a more serious expression.
“I think we’ve gotten a little off-track,” she says softly.
“Good thing we’re not on a schedule then, isn’t it?” I reply as quietly, but my words cause her to visibly relax. “We’ll get to everything in time, but I promised to share. And I’m willing to answer any questions you have.”
She cocks her head and lets her brow furrow in confusion. “Why?” She holds up her hands to keep me from answering and I wait patiently for her to finish formulating her question. “What do you get out of helping me out? We both know this could wash me from the program if it got out.”
“Do you want it to?”
“NO!” she responds so fiercely I’m tempted to see if my hair caught fire. “No,” a little more calmly. “This is mine – something I earned on my own merit. Something I want to keep by my own work and effort. But no one does something for nothing. So what’s in it for you?”
“Short answer? Someone once did for me what I’m doing for you – it was time for me to pay it forward. Long answer? You’ll get that over the course of our talk... as long as you remember our agreement.”
“I remember,” she says with a sigh, eyes dropping to focus her hands twined in her lap. “It’s just....”
I cup my fingers under her chin and wait for her eyes to meet mine. When she finally looks at me, I see the tears she’s struggling so desperately not to shed. “Angel,” I say quietly. “I’m on your side here – I promise. We’ll get through this. Who knows,” I offer, giving her a smile, “I may even be able to fix things.”
She snorts, but she can’t hide the hope in her dark eyes. “Mary, if you can do that, we’ll have to change your name to the Miracle Worker.”
“Oh, Angel – you have no idea.” I say, waggling my eyebrows. That garners me the laughter I was waiting for. We’re ready to move ahead.
A hand on my arm makes me stop before I can continue, and I arch my eyebrow in question. She smirks at me and the second brow joins the first on my forehead. This time I get laughter, and though I’m glad to hear it, I’m somewhat confused by the reaction. Usually I get an answer at the very least; I don’t think I’ve ever gotten outright mirth.
After a moment, she calms, waving a hand in front of her face to help cool the flush now covering it. I cock the single brow again, and though she gives me a broad smile, she restrains herself from laughing. A couple deep breaths and she’s able to speak.
“I’m sorry,” she apologizes, though her expression belies the truth of that statement. Still, I let it slide in the interest of moving things along. “I really am. But you just reminded me of my very best friend – he always had a knack for making me laugh.” She sobers and sighs. “Then when I was twelve, he just disappeared from my life completely.”
“What happened to him?” I ask, though I already know the truth. I am more curious to hear what she says... whether she knows what really happened or only what the official story says.
“You don’t know?” her tone disbelieving.
“I want to know how his disappearance was explained to you,” I reply honestly. “You share with me, and I’ll share with you, all right?”
“Mama said his papa got a better job and they had to move away. I never understood why he didn’t stay in touch with me, though. We were BEST FRIENDS.” Her eyes are so sad and I speculate what kind of life she’s really had despite the title and position that belong to her. What I know isn’t unpleasant, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was happy either. I know for a fact she was rarely allowed to be a child, and that is yet another reason I am willing to help her now.
She stares at me expectantly, and I clear my throat. “Well,” I drawl after a long moment, “his father did get a better position some distance from where you were living at the time. But he was instructed to drop all communication with you upon penalty of... well, if not death, then vast unpleasantness.”
“Why?? What did I do that was so wrong that Paul and I couldn’t be friends anymore??”
“It wasn’t you, Angel. This was all your papa’s doing. He wanted to ensure there was nothing to divert you from following the path laid out for you. He felt Paul was a distraction.”
“I was TWELVE!!!”
“I know, Angel.” My voice is sympathetic, but I am trying to keep any inflection from my tone. There are things she needs to work out on her own, and this is one of them. I am merely a facilitator. If I let my own feelings interfere, things could go south very quickly. And she’s worth more than that.
She crosses her arms over her chest and glares at me. I hold her gaze with one full of understanding – no accusation or pity. She frowns as her expression shifts, worrying her bottom lip with her teeth as her eyes drop to her lap again. I remain quiet, knowing she is struggling with something and hoping if I wait, she will share. In a moment she looks at me once more, the confusion plain to read in her face.
“How did you know?” Now I’m the one that’s confused and I don’t hesitate to make sure she understands this. She smiles the tiniest bit. “How did you know about the nickname? Only one other person has ever called me Angel.”
“It wasn’t Paul though, was it?” knowing for certainty that I’m right. She shakes her head as she blushes, but she doesn’t offer further enlightenment. Thankfully, I already know, and she’ll understand that eventually. I smile. “I didn’t - when we started this assignment, that was the codename those of us working security on this project gave you.”
Her brows shoot up into her hairline in surprise. “We have codenames?”
I smirk. “Of course. What kind of security outfit would we be if we didn’t have special designations for each of you? And though we’ve managed to keep most of the rest of the world unaware of that part of your life, Princess would have been a bit blatant in your case.” She agrees with a nod of head, though the anger in her eyes is clear to see.
“You really didn’t know? You seem to know practically everything else.”
I shrug. “It’s my job... as is keeping secrets. It is one reason your background is known only to those who need to know. We extended the same courtesy to all those involved in this project. If it doesn’t affect the mission, it stays with my team. But no – we had names for all of you long before you were ever introduced to one another. We’ve been on this assignment longer than any of you.”
This surprises her. Then she looks at me squarely, wanting to see the truth for herself. “So he didn’t find out because of you.”
“Not at all. I wouldn’t do something like that. And frankly, your father has no influence where I am concerned.”
She snorts and gives me a look of total disbelief. “If you can manage that, you must be on par with the Holy Father.”
This time I laugh, and she smiles, though I can see she is clearly confused by my response. I take a minute to compose myself, then I look at her and grin. “My business is information, Angel, and knowing how to utilize it to protect my clients. Even your father respects that kind of power.”
She looks like she wants to ask more, but I hold her gaze and she realizes the futility of her curiosity. Instead, she changes her tack. “So what are some of these codenames?” asked with a beguiling smile.
I chuckle and shake my head. “No way. If I tell you that, you’re going to want to spend all night trying to figure out who goes with what name. And we don’t have time for that right now.”
“Maybe later?” she asks hopefully.
“We’ll see. Ask me when we’re done here.”
“Okay. Can I ask a favor then?” She waits and I nod. “Would you mind calling me by my name... since it’s only us here? It’s just....“ I cover her hands with mine and she stops talking.
“Of course, Arianna.” I empathize – far more than she realizes.
She sighs. “Thank you. It’s just that having anyone else call me that....” I squeeze her hands and she looks at me, realizing I understand without needing details she’s not comfortable sharing yet. “So what happened next? You said he disappeared.”
“I did indeed. And he did... at least as far as I was concerned. I knew from having grown up as a military brat that any communication from me had to be static. I would only be able to talk to him directly when he instigated the conversation. Everything else would just be messages sent back and forth between us as time allowed.”
“So what happened?” I roll my eyes as her mantra plays for my ears once more, but I can’t deny her an answer. She’s starting to trust me and I need for that to happen so she’s be able to open up to me when it’s my turn to ask the questions.
“I was a young adult in college. I went on with my life.”
“WHAT?!? How could you?? What about...??”
“Chill, Arianna. My story’s not over yet. In fact, it’s just beginning.”
I went back to school – he went... well, at the time I didn’t know where he went. It wasn’t until we were married that I understood fully what his job entailed. But even then, I knew black ops meant he would be out of communication for weeks or months at a time, and if I wanted anything with him – even simple friendship – then I was going to have to accept that as part of the price of having him in my life.
I went back to school not expecting to hear from him; the war was still raging and I was confident he was off-planet and out of communication range for however long it would take to complete his mission. So imagine my profound shock when my comm system howled for my attention one morning a few weeks later while I was getting ready for class... when I discovered he was on the other end of the message stream.
“He didn’t!” her eyes wide and her smile excited. “He really called you from off-world??”
“He really did,” I reply with a chuckle. “Daddy was scandalized, but at the same time, I think that’s also when Daddy knew he was the one for me.”
“And if he hadn’t?” I scowl and lean my head to one side, not entirely clear what she’s asking. Before I can ask for her to elucidate, she continues. “If your papa hadn’t thought he was the one for you, would you have married him anyway?” She twists her hands together, then looks in my eyes again. “If he had forbidden your union, would you have obeyed him... or followed you heart?”
I blink, but I don’t lose her gaze. Though I hadn’t expected this yet, I can’t let this opportunity go by. “Let me say first that my circumstances and yours are very different, Arianna. I never had the responsibilities or expectations placed on me that you grew up with. That being said,” I offer and pause, wanting her to hear what I’m saying to her, “I loved him. Nothing would have stopped me from being with him once I recognized that fact.”
She waits a long minute before she speaks again, learning the truth of my words. “So what happened?” she asks with a little grin, knowing she’s yanking my chain by continually repeating that question.
I glare, but she just giggles. So I roll my eyes and huff out an impatient breath. “With Daddy?” I say, knowing that’s not at all whom she meant. “I think he and Mother started planning my wedding.”
She pouts. I suspect she’d stomp her foot if she wasn’t sitting in bed. “You’re not funny.”
“I’m a Marine Corps brat and an Air Corps wife. Did you REALLY expect me to have a sense of humor?”
“It never hurts to hope,” she retorts primly, and I just cock an eyebrow at her. She gives me a pleading look and I give in, which garners me a smug smile. Honestly, if I wasn’t tired from the lack of sleep and we didn’t have to get this settled before it turns into an inquiry, I’d make her wait. As it is, time is on her side right now.
“It’s not standard issue – don’t get your hopes up,” her lips pursing in an effort not to smile. “As for Edward – well, that was something else again. He kinda freaked me out.”
I nod. “Really. Think about it. This guy - that I’ve only met once - calls me in the middle of a war zone from space... just because he wanted to say hello. He missed me.”
“I think that’s incredibly romantic.”
“It was,” I agree. “It was also overwhelming.” I paused and let my mind wander back to my childhood years. “You have to understand, Arianna - for all of my growing up, Mother and Daddy had sheltered us from many of life’s realities outside the confines of the military. We knew what it was like growing up on a military base, but in many ways it’s vastly different than living as a civilian. On base, most everyone around you thinks the same way... believes in the same things... even if not to the same degree and fervor. All the boys I knew were just that... boys. And they could be cute and awkward; thoughtful on some occasions and full of themselves on others; loud and obnoxious or polite and well-mannered depending on the scenario. They were still finding themselves and very few were focused beyond graduation. That isn’t to say that they weren’t preparing for life beyond secondary education, because they were - we all were. But we were still figuring out our place in the world.”
“Let me finish.” I wait for her nod. “College was a whole new world for me. Everyone didn’t look the same or dress the same or think the same. It was a taste of freedom I had never known before.”
She frowns at me and looks at me hard. “I still don’t understand – why did it overwhelm you for Edward to call you? You spent an entire day with him!”
I rub my hands over my eyes, wishing I had skipped the vodka and ordered an energy shot instead. “Arianna, it was one thing to spend the time with Edward when we were both on leave so to speak. There was no real obligation between us and getting to know one another beyond the mutual friend who had introduced us was our choice. And I was home... in familiar territory. I knew people were keeping an eye on things – even when we were sitting on the beach all night.” I gave her a droll look. “Daddy was a Marine – do you really think there wasn’t a military presence everywhere we went that day?”
“Didn’t that annoy you?” and I know she’s speaking from experience. “To have someone shadowing your every movement?”
I shake my head. “Not really. It wasn’t like that, exactly, and it gave me a sense of security – knowing I could go out with this guy and maybe make a friend without worrying about something going wrong.” I shrug. “It’s how I grew up. It’s how I learned to be the best at my business.”
She nods. “So you were overwhelmed because....”
“Because I was an eighteen year old kid that was suddenly being courted by a grown man – a man who knew who he was and what he wanted out of life.”
She blinked. “Well, when you put it *that* way....”
I give her a half-smile. “Exactly. And it didn’t actually surprise me that he called. After all, we had exchanged information specifically to keep in touch. The part that threw me was that he called while he was off world fighting... during some downtime. That was way more serious than I expected and much, much faster than I imagined.”
“So what happened?” and though there is a small smirk still present, the seriousness of her eyes tells me she’s finally invested in the story. I take a deep breath and speak.
“I went a little crazy.”
I was a little freaked out by the time we signed off. It wasn’t that we had talked for an inordinate amount of time – we didn’t. Nor had we discussed... anything really. I mean... don’t get me wrong – we did talk. We talked about school and our mutual friend and what little he could discuss with me about his trip after we parted ways at the hanger. But it was nothing of consequence or substance. That is actually what threw me off-balance so badly.
Growing up as a military brat, I knew how things worked when the service people were out on assignment. There was no calling home... except in cases of extreme emergency. And calling from off world?? No... it just wasn’t heard of.
It did make me ponder what exactly his job entailed that allowed Edward that kind of access... especially to talk about mundane things like school and the weather. I decided I needed to know more about the world outside the rigidity of military structure.
Daddy was not pleased.
Her eyes widen and I can see the gears turning as she imagines what that could possibly mean. Finally she brings her attention back to the present and looks at me with something akin to awe in her eyes. “You defied your papa?”
“Maybe a little bit, but not the way you’re thinking. Not then, anyway.”
“What did you do?” The lines on her forehead furrow as she tries to conceive of what I could possibly have done that wasn’t defiant, but would still have angered my father. I chuckle.
“I shifted all my classes to online, packed up my laptop and headed out to see the world on my own.” I watch her eyes widen again and idly wonder if they are close to simply rolling out of her head. Honestly, I’ve never met someone like this young woman before – not surprising given her background. Despite her pedigree, or perhaps because of it, she’s been far more sheltered than I ever was. And yet there are so many similarities I see in myself. I question if this project – even with all the rules and protocols necessary to its functionality at the moment – is her first real taste of freedom. I will have to go back and do a little more research... and refresh myself on the facts I already have in hand.
“Wait... what?” She grabs my arm and searches my face for... well, what for, I’m not precisely sure. “Are you crazy? How could you just...?”
I cover the hand clenching my arm and pat it lightly, hoping she’ll ease her grip a little bit. I’m not sure what exactly set her off, but she’s holding on tight enough that she’s going to draw blood if she doesn’t loosen her grip slightly. “Arianna,” I say softly, hoping to calm her down and hold her attention. “It’s okay. This happened thirty some years ago, and I obviously lived through it,” I offer with a smile. “It wasn’t bad. Really,” I add at her skeptical look. “I made a number of friends – some of whom I keep in touch with even today. I learned to say ‘water’ and ‘bathroom’ in fifteen different languages.” I smile. “I have a lot of good memories tied up in that trip.”
“So why did it make your papa mad?” her hold loosening enough for the blood to flow back into my hand. “If it was such a good thing, shouldn’t he have been supportive of you?”
This time I laugh outright. “You’d think so, right? But hindsight is a wonderful thing, and all he saw when it was happening was that I was running away and running wild.” I turn to look at her and she meets my eyes squarely. I study her for a moment and she allows the examination without flinching. “You and I are actually a lot alike. It’s one reason I get where you’re coming from. I’ve been where you are, metaphorically speaking - I really do understand.”
She returns the scrutiny, and I allow her the same opportunity she gave me. She eventually tilts her head to one side and gives me a genuine smile. “Do you? Do you really think so?”
I smile back at her and nod. “Think that we’re a lot alike? Yes... I really do. Maybe not in life experience, but where it counts – yes.”
“That could be a good thing, couldn’t it? I mean, your story seems to have turned out for the best. Maybe there is hope for me.” Before I can ask, she squeezes my arm gently. “So what happened next? Did your papa come after you? Did Edward?”
“Ah, my dear... therein lies a tale in and of itself. But before we get to that, I need a bio break.”
She bites her lip and nods. “I could do with one of those myself,” trying not to squirm now that it’s been brought to her attention. I’m surprised she’s made it this long – I know she’s had more to drink than I have. I nod towards the en suite.
“Go ahead,” I instruct her. “I’ll see about getting some more water sent up.” She’s got the bathroom door closed behind her before I finish speaking. I chuckle to myself and walk to the room door. Caleb should be able to start things rolling.
Caleb is waiting just outside the door when I open it – almost as though he expected me to unlock it at just that moment. I cock my eyebrow and he smirks. We’ve worked together so long, I shouldn’t be surprised to find us so in sync... even at what-the-hell-am-I-thinking o’clock in the morning. He nods towards the cart, and I jerk my head towards the room as I hold the door wider. His smirk becomes an all-out grin and he rolls it inside.
“How’s it going, Chief?” handing me an energy shot and loading a few bottles of cold water into my mini-fridge. He grabs a few snacks and adds them to my stash as he waits for my answer.
“Slowly,” I reply. “But we’re making progress. Any word?”
“Not yet, but I feel confident Malcolm fell asleep before he could contact Fernando. So you have a few hours grace period before the royal shit hits the fan.”
“You feel confident. Did you help ensure this confidence, Caleb?”
“Of course, Chief. Never leave to someone else....”
“... the things you can ensure yourself.” It is one of our oldest rules and has kept us at the top of our game for many years. “Thank you, my friend,” I say sincerely. “Can I ask a favor?” and the look of ‘are you kidding me?’ makes me smile. “Can you dig a little deeper on Arianna?”
“Arianna?” he repeats. We never use real names – only the monikers we assign at the beginning of a mission. It makes things easier for us on a number of levels.
“She asked. Said only one person calls her Angel.”
“You think it’s...?”
“Yep.” I hear the toilet flush and know she will be returning any minute. “So you’ll take care of it?”
“You betcha, Chief. I’ll let you know what I find out.”
“Thanks, Caleb,” I say as I open the door for him to leave, pushing the cart ahead of him. I just get the door closed behind him when she steps out of the bathroom, and I grin at the look of relief she wears. “Better?” I ask.
“Yes, thank you,” said with the slightest blush.
“You can speak up if there’s something you need,” I chide lightly. “This isn’t a prison, and despite my sons’ belief otherwise when they were growing up, I’m not a jailer.”
She snorts. “I’d like to hear *that* story,” she admits. “But honestly, I didn’t realize it until you mentioned it. “
“Okay,” I answer after a brief hesitation. “Well, room service sent up more water and some snacks, so help yourself. I’ll be right back.” And I head into the bathroom. It only takes me a couple minutes before I’m back in the bedroom, but in that time, she’s crawled under the blankets and is facing the ceiling. I stare at her, trying to decide if she’s asleep when she turns her head and returns my look with a wry expression.
“I don’t think I could sleep now if my life depended on it,” she offers. “I feel like... it’s hard to describe.”
“Are you ready to share with me then?” I ask with hesitation and she shakes her head.
“Not yet,” biting her lip as though afraid I’ll scold her for refusing. I cross to the bed, and take a seat beside her, cupping her face with one hand. I am suddenly struck by the difference in our size. Though I am not a large woman by any means, she is tiny by comparison. I let my thumb brush her cheekbone, wiping at the single tear that has rolled from her eyes. She blinks and lets her eyes meet mine. “Are you angry?”
I smile gently. “Not at all. I promised I would share first. But if you decide you’re ready or need to talk, well... it’s not like my story is going anywhere. And I will finish... even if you decide it’s time to share in the middle of mine, all right?”
Her smile is a little uncertain, but, it is a smile and I smile back. She reaches up a hand to cover the hand on her cheek, clutching it lightly and pulling it from her face to hold in her lap. “Do your kids know how lucky they are to have you for a mom?”
I laugh. “You’re getting the benefit of all the things I learned making mistakes with them.” I smirk. “But you can ask them for yourself. The boys will be here with Joy and me for the holidays. I’ll make sure you get to meet them then.”
“If I’m still here then, you mean,” she snaps, her tone bitter.
“Pretty sure you will be, Arianna. Have a little faith in yourself... and me. I’m a Miracle Worker, remember?”
“I hope you are, Mary. I really hope you are. So what happened next? Did Edward come after you?”
My eyes unfocus as I let my mind wander back so many years. It’s not until she squeezes my hand that I bring my attention back to the present and Arianna who is looking at me with an odd expression on her face. “Sorry,” I say, shaking my head to clear it. “I was just remembering.” I clench her hand briefly and she releases her hold. I stand and move back to my side of the bed, sitting down and leaning back with a sense of relief. It’s been a while since I’ve had a night quite this late and it’s already starting to tell on me. I’m really not as young as I used to be.
Without a word, she rises and grabs two bottles of water from the fridge, passing me one and taking another for herself. I nod my thanks even as she cracks hers open and takes a long draught. Then she sits down once more and makes herself comfortable, then turns to face me with an air of expectancy.
“Thank you, Arianna. I wish your parents could appreciate you the way you deserve,” seeing her eyes widen in shock. “As for Edward,” I continue without missing a beat, “I think he wanted to... come after me, I mean. I think he would have had he not been more than a world away. And whatever influence he had, it didn’t extend to bringing him home to chase a skirt, as Daddy would say.”
“Your papa was so disrespectful?”
I chuckle. “Not at all. Daddy was as old-fashioned as they come – courteous to a fault; respectful; protective... especially of the women in his life. He was also a Marine with the hard-bitten sensibilities of a career military man. He believed duty came first – feelings took a distant second to that.”
“How did your mama react to that sentiment?”
I had to smirk. “He knew better than to say something like that in Mother’s presence. He may have been the Marine, but she ruled the roost – steel hand in velvet glove kind of thing.”
“She sounds a lot like my mama.”
“She probably was. I have found that to be true in many cases where you would expect things to be otherwise. It’s how we cope.”
“You too then?”
“Me too,” I nod. “We love and support the men we stand behind, but we’re the ones who hold the homes together. Ask your mama – she’ll tell you the same thing.”
She shrugs. “Maybe,” and I can tell she doesn’t really believe it. But that’s okay – it’s not a priority right now. Nor is it something she can take care of at the moment. “So what makes you think Edward wanted to follow you? Did he tell you so?”
“Oh... not directly, no. But he did call. And he was more than a little upset.”
“How *much* more?”
“Let’s just say I shut off communications for a while, and when I turned them on again, my device nearly exploded. It was quite flattering... and a little bit terrifying. But by then I had been traveling for a little while and made a number of new friends. And I felt a little more grown up – a little better able to handle the kind of attention he was offering me.”
“So what happened next?”
I roll my eyes. We have GOT to find another way for her to ask that question – or find a way to keep that query from being made again. A woman can only stand so much, and my kids learned better a long time ago.
When I restarted my communication device, the battery nearly died from the sheer number of messages I received. When they were done downloading, I scanned through them and realized that Edward had called me every single day from the time I had left school. I had to sit down and breathe when the magnitude of what that meant struck me.
Here was a man who was off-world fighting in the thick of the war calling every day to speak to someone he barely knew – someone whom he’d only spent the sum total of one day with. Why?? And how?? Who was he that he had that kind of pull?? And who was I that he’d want to bother??
“Is that when you knew? Is that when you knew you loved him – that he was the one for you?”
I look into her eyes to find hope and excitement swirling in their depths. “You’d think I’d be that smart, wouldn’t you?” I ask deprecatingly. “It does seem pretty obvious, doesn’t it?” smiling when she nods her head fervently. “Yeah...no – I’m not that smart... or I wasn’t then. I listened to the messages he’d left for me, and decided it was gratifying to be paid that kind of attention. So I decided to accept it as my due and see what came of it.”
“Why does it sound like that was a really bad idea?”
“Because it was. He was a grown man who knew what he wanted, and I was still a kid playing games. It was destined to end badly.”
“Shh. I’ll tell you.”
I returned his messages – oh, not individually. Instead, I sent him a long missive bringing him up-to-date on what had been going on in my life since I’d left college – details about where I’d been and what I’d seen and people I’d met. But nothing personal for him.
I decided to be cute and coy and if I wasn’t playing with his feelings, exactly, I wasn’t really considerate of them either. I liked the attention he paid me, but I was unwilling to be completely forthcoming with him about what was going on. He was thousands of miles away from me, so what difference could it possibly make?
I had forgotten about Daddy.
“I take it your papa was less than happy with your actions?”
I snort, nearly falling off the bed as laughter took over. Talk about a master of understatement.... I look at her to find her watching me with an expression of bemused consternation on her face – bemusement because of my reaction and consternation because she doesn’t know where it’s coming from. I take a deep breath to try and bring myself under control. After a couple minutes, it seems to be working, and I look at her cautiously. I don’t want to fall into another fit of giggles. Another deep breath and a sigh and I’m ready to speak.
“I’m sorry, Arianna. I’m not laughing at you, honestly. But if you had ever met my daddy, you’d immediately appreciate just how ironic that statement truly is. There was never any halfway where Daddy was concerned. You were either all in or all out – no pussyfooting, as he liked to say.”
“So he was angry?”
“He was furious. Remember, he was already angry at me for leaving – running away, he called it. Then he decided I was stringing Edward along.” I look at her with a twinkle in my eye. “You think your papa has connections? You should have been the daughter of a Marine.”
“Surely it couldn’t have been worse than....”
“Arianna, until you became part of this project, your papa had people all over your planet watching over you. Otherwise, you had an escort wherever you went, but they were always overt in their attention – you were always aware of their presence. So you could plan your actions and rebellions accordingly. Daddy had friends all over the world, and most of them were skilled in the arena of covert surveillance.”
“So you didn’t know...?”
“I had no idea. At first I thought Edward had gone to Daddy, hoping he would bring me in line. I was more than a little disappointed that he didn’t deem it important enough to take care of himself. It didn’t take Daddy long to disabuse me of that idea. Edward had only contacted Daddy when he couldn’t reach me and I wasn’t responding, and then only to ensure I was all right. THAT was when Daddy called in the Marines for help.”
“Really?” Her brow furrows in confusion at my words, and I can see the wheels spinning in her mind. “Why then? Why not before? Papa would have never lasted so long.”
“Mother,” I say succinctly. “Mother asked him to wait – to give me a chance to work out things on my own. I may have been a Daddy’s Girl, but Mother was the one who understood me. And since Daddy had three girls, it was Mother who helped him understand that we weren’t Marines.”
“He wanted you to be a Marine then?” her confusion obvious. I chuckle.
“It probably would have caused him to have a conniption had either of my sisters or I decided to join the Corps. Daddy was a man of old-fashioned values, remember – he felt women were to be cherished and protected... especially those he claimed as his own... until and unless those women proved otherwise to him.”
“The doesn’t sound old-fashioned – it sounds archaic!!”
“Not really. Frustrating at times, but I married that type of man and raised two more just like them. Of course, they all - including my father - knew better than to treat any woman as less than himself. Mother made sure of that, and we all passed it to our sons. The difference is they know women are capable in every capacity and accept them as such.”
“I have so got to meet your boys,” she mutters as a touch of a blush stains her cheeks. “But I still don’t understand....”
“It would have been easier for Daddy if we had been boys... or Marines. He understood boys and he could order about Marines. Treating us as boys was out of the question and expecting us to respond as Marines would was the wrong tack. So he looked to Mother for guidance on how to deal with us.”
“So how long did you have?”
I tilt my head in thought. It really has been a long time since I thought about all this. “Hmm,” I mumble softly to myself, “I left college after my first semester.”
“What were you studying?” she asks out of the blue and it takes me a moment to refocus my thoughts.
“Theatre and music,” I reply after a second’s hesitation to reorient myself to her train of thought. I see her brows shoot up towards her hairline, and I grin. “Surprised?”
“Yes,” she admits. “A little. How did you end up doing...? I know you mentioned protecting your daughter, but....”
“Patience, Grasshopper,” I answer drolly, and she huffs impatiently at me. “I’ll tell you, but that doesn’t happen for a while yet. Do you really want to know now?”
She sighs dramatically and I wonder what she would have been like if she’d been allowed to pursue the theatre career she could easily have had. She’s got a natural flair for it. “I guess not,” she says with a hint of martyrdom in her tone. “Go ahead.”
I dip my head in the slightest hint of a bow, and she rolls her eyes. I smirk, then return to my story.
I packed up and headed out after first semester finals were over. I told Mother what I was doing and why, but all I told Daddy was that I wanted to see the world for myself. I found out later that it was three weeks before Edward contacted Daddy to see if I was all right. Daddy gave me another week – then he mobilized the Marines.
It wasn’t hard to track me. My comm device was off, but I still had my laptop, and was in touch with my mother and sisters on a regular basis. And Daddy didn’t do recon for nothing. After that it was simply a matter of calling the right person in the right place.
He knew the moment I turned my comm device back on and he waited for me to contact Edward. Daddy waited another two months for me to ‘come to my senses’ as he called it – then he came to see me. Because he knew that Edward wasn’t able to call me out on my behavior as long as he was off-world.
“Wait... he broke into your computer and comm device to find out what was going on between you and Edward?”
“Essentially, yes. And I was livid when I found out. Of course, Daddy was never a stupid man. I didn’t know a thing until *after* Edward and I were married.” I scrunch up my brow in thought. “Come to think of it... neither did Edward.”
“Daddy was a Marine. He could keep a secret with the best of them. Even Mother wasn’t aware until all was said and done.”
“So what happened next?”
Daddy arrived, full of piss and vinegar, but as I would later discover, he was actually playing it rather cool... for him anyway. He wanted to know what I thought I was doing – wandering around the world alone like some sort of free-spirited hippie. I found that kind of funny, because I hadn’t traveled alone for very long before I fell into a group of like-minded individuals – that is to say... kids like me that were trying to find ourselves and our place in the world. And there was nothing hippie-ish about us – we were all working in some capacity or other... paying our way just like everyone else.
Of course he put my back up fairly quickly with his accusations. I was still going to school and maintaining my GPA; the only issue I had in that department was the fact that I needed to return to school at some point to do my practicals. But I had plenty of time to take care of those things. I had only just completed my first year of college.
Still, his attitude and accusations threw me off stride – he had always been supportive of us girls for as long as I could remember, and to have him act otherwise hurt me a lot. So when he brought up Edward, it made me angry. And I was mean.
“Mean to your papa or mean about Edward?” she asks, interrupting my train of thought.
“Both,” I say sadly. “Not one of my prouder moments.”
“Mine either,” she mumbles, her eyes dropping, but I hear and understand her perfectly. I wait, but when she doesn’t say anything else, I return to my storytelling.
Daddy took my anger in stride – after all, I was *his* daughter and he knew very well exactly from whom my temper was derived. I accused Edward of being less than honorable by having Daddy check up on me. Daddy was so quick to tell me the truth about that situation that it was a marvel my hair didn’t catch fire. Then I accused Daddy of interfering in business that wasn’t really his – truer than I knew at the time, but he had his story ready.
And in fairness, he really did come to talk. I just had no way of knowing he already knew the truth about everything. I think he knew more than even Edward and I did.
“Did you have a good relationship with your papa?” she asks, drawing me out of my memories once more. I blink slowly and refocus my mind back in the present, then slowly turn and look at her. She’s lying on her side facing me, head propped up on her hand. Her face is schooled to neutrality; but the expression in her eyes gets my attention and I question again what we missed in all the research and background checks we’ve done on the kids in this program. Because this girl has always been brash and outspoken and confident to an almost irritating degree and that’s not what I’m seeing reflected back at me. No one is more thorough than my team, so whatever it is that’s bothering her, it’s buried pretty deep – or is something we couldn’t possibly access. She holds my gaze and I smile, glad that the sadness in her eyes fades with that action. I nod.
“I did, actually,” I answer. “For all that our personalities were alike – and don’t get me wrong... that caused some serious head butting in my youth – Daddy was someone I looked up to and admired for a number of things. Even when our opinions were diverse and we had to agree to disagree, he was someone I not only loved, but respected as well.”
“What about him?”
“Excuse me?” cocking my head in question, because I’m not sure what she’s asking me.
“You said you loved and respected him,” waiting for me to nod – which I do even as my brows twist in confusion. She bobs her head in acceptance. “But what about him? How did he feel about you? Was it mutual – the love and respect? Or were you simply a responsibility he loved in an abstract way? Is that why he was so anxious for you and Edward to be together? So you were no longer his responsibility?” her tone bordering on hateful.
Holy wow! Talk about blindsiding a person! I don’t know what I expected, but I can safely say this... attack, almost... wasn’t on my list of possibilities. I make a mental note to talk to Caleb again and have him look into her father as well. There is a lot more going on here than simple frustration or rebellion. I comb my hands through my hair and meet her eyes again, but she looks away before I can get a good read on the emotions swirling in the darkness of her expression. I let it go and look at the ceiling; I don’t need her to get defensive with me. I chuckle and the sound draws her head back up and turns her face in my direction. I keep my profile in her vision, though I cut my eyes so I can just see her in my periphery.
“On my wedding day, Daddy and I had a few minutes alone in the vestibule before we walked down the aisle together. I’ll never forget his words to me. He said, ‘Baby girl, I’m proud of you – of who you are and what you’ve achieved. I’ll admit I was a little worried for a while there, but you came through beautifully. Edward is a very lucky man, and your mama and I like him a lot. But you’ll always be my girl and I love you.’ He made me cry before we even entered the sanctuary.”
I feel the sob at almost the exact moment I hear it and I turn to see anguish on her face. I react like the mom I am and wrap her in an embrace that shelters her as if she were my own. I’ve held each of my kids like this at different points in their lives – highs and lows - so I am content to let her cry until she’s done. Sometimes, it is the most cathartic release of emotions one can experience, and I know for a fact she hasn’t been allowed that very often in her young life.
She curls up into me, hanging on for dear life and I realize I need to talk to Caleb. There is no way this girl – this young woman – is going to be able to do any interviews later today. When this is done, she’ll need rest. These kinds of emotions are exhausting, and if she’s been holding onto them for as long as I suspect, it’s no surprise we’ve seen her all over the place during the selection process... especially as we’ve gotten closer to the end.
I sigh, then begin humming a tune I sang to each of my children when they needed comfort. I feel her relax into me, and in only a few minutes, she’s asleep. I ease her out of my arms and onto the pillow, covering her gently before moving towards the door. I want to talk to Caleb again before she wakes up; we need to make a few contingency plans.
She reaches out in her sleep and from my spot on the bed I glance down over the rims of my glasses to discover that her search for a missing something or someone is actually bringing her back to wakefulness. While I would have been content to let her sleep a little longer, I’m not going to object to her rejoining me in a conscious state sooner rather than later. Despite the brief respite we’ve acquired by canceling her appearances and interviews today, we are still on a tight schedule – perhaps even moreso as we are likely going to have to provide an explanation for her withdrawal from set plans. Fortunately, the proof is ready... if the questions get asked. I am hoping the talk I had briefly with Caleb will help him head them off at the pass.
She blinks slowly, as if trying to orient herself to where she is and why she is here. “Did you have glasses before?” she asks in a raspy voice when her eyes meet mine. I laugh as I shake my head.
“I didn’t need them before,” I say as I pull them off. “I can see perfectly fine to talk to you; reading tiny print on a Pad screen is another matter altogether.”
“Sorry,” she mutters as she discovers how tucked into me she actually is. She cuddled up quite close to me when I returned from my talk with Caleb. Now she releases the arm she’s clutching and shifts to lie flat on her back before pushing herself up into a sitting position. She pulls her knees up to her chest and props her head on them, looking at me directly. “Whatcha reading?”
It’s the most casual speech I’ve heard from her, and it catches me by surprise. She is usually so precise in everything she does. I wonder if this means she’s growing more comfortable with me or if it’s simply her exhaustion talking. A raised eyebrow makes me realize I’m taking too long to answer and I shake my head. “Sorry... some of us didn’t get a power nap,” I say with a smile so she knows I’m kidding. “Just some reports. In my job, they’re never ending.”
She nods, though I can tell she really wants to pursue it. She bites her lip and focuses on the glasses resting in my hand. “So why glasses? Why not surgery? It’s not like you need to hide who you are from people.”
“Like you do, you mean?” I ask kindly and wait for her to nod. “Actually, sometimes I do need to hide to do my job properly, but in this case it’s all about control,” I tell her. “I control these,” waving the glasses at her. “When I wear them; where I keep them; what they look like. Surgery means letting someone else have control over something I can’t afford to lose.”
“You think they would mess something up?”
“I’d prefer not to find out – not as long as I have a choice in the matter.”
“I can relate. Sometimes it’s the little things, you know?”
“It’s always the little things,” I tell her. I keep my eyes locked on hers and she doesn’t flinch, though I can tell it’s a struggle for her not to look away from me. I take a deep breath and turn to the nightstand, setting the Pad and my glasses in their place and giving her a chance to relax. When I turn back, she’s still watching me. “So do you want to talk about it or should I continue?”
She remains silent for a full minute after my question and I’m tempted to repeat myself... except I know very well she heard me. “Why are you doing this?” her voice a bare whisper.
I stare at her; I know I explained this already. “I told you....”
She holds up a hand and shakes her head. “I know what you said about paying it forward. But what happened? What did someone do for you that you need to pay it forward? And why me? Why this? Why now? Is it because I’m a...?”
I put a finger over her lips and she stops talking immediately. I figure she’s probably a little surprised by the touch. I haven’t instigated anything so personal but the hug when she started sobbing, and even then she was reaching for me first. “Why is it so important to you to know why I’m doing it?” My query is soft and she looks at me with confusion. If I didn’t know better, I’d say she was expecting anger or defensiveness. There’s definitely more than a hint of those emotions in her response to me.
“It just is! Now tell me why!” fierce and demanding.
“Would you like me to lead into it or just jump to the middle of my story?” I ask calmly. She glares at me, and it is all I can do to keep from laughing aloud. Seriously, if you’re going to try to intimidate someone with a look, you should probably make sure they didn’t learn that look first at the feet of a master. I can’t keep my lips from twitching, though, and she crosses her arms over her chest defiantly.
“Go on,” she growls and this time I do laugh. Really, it’s like watching the cub swat at its mother and honestly? Been there, done that... several times. I hold up a hand to stop her before her lips part to retort and take a deep breath.
Daddy let me rant for a while... at least until I accused Edward of dishonor. He put a stop to that pretty darn quick. By the time he was done explaining to me that *I* was the reason Daddy had come to find me and Edward wasn’t, I had calmed considerably. I was still upset with him for involving himself in my life like he was, but he reminded me that he always had been involved in my life and told me that my technically being an adult didn’t absolve him of his responsibilities as a father.
“He sounds like a good man,” she says, her fury from before gone now. “I wish I could have met him.”
I smile. “You would have liked him. And he would have loved you.”
“And your mama?”
This time I snort. “Pretty sure she would have adopted you.”
She gazes at me thoughtfully. “I think I might have liked that. So what happened next?”
With my initial anger cool, Daddy decided to talk to me about what really concerned him. He already coveted Edward as a son-in-law and didn’t want me to lose him because I was a kid playing games. He knew Edward was just what I needed in my life. He just needed to show me without revealing that he knew I was... playing games, I mean.
“I take it he was successful? I mean... he did get Edward as a son-in-law after all, right?”
I chuckle. “He did. But he wasn’t immediately successful. I wasn’t ready to be tied down to anyone or anything – not even someone as suited to me as Edward was. Especially not him, if truth be told.”
“Why not? Isn’t that what most people spend their lives looking for – someone who fits with them?”
I smile. “You think that now because you’re an adult – a real adult, I mean. You’re done with school; you’ve been working for a few years; in your mid-twenties. So your mind has turned to thinking about life in a broader sense – about families and children and someone to spend your life with. But be honest, Arianna. At eighteen... even with all the responsibilities that were already part of your life because of your position and heritage... were you really thinking about finding your one? Or tying yourself down to even more responsibility?”
She furrows her brow and I can tell she’s trying to remember where she was and what she was doing seven or eight years prior. Finally she sighs and pinches the bridge of her nose. “I don’t remember eighteen,” she confesses. “I have been working since I was a child of eight, and I was in training for three years prior to that.” Her voice is low and matter-of-fact, but I can tell she’s more upset about her lack of memory than she wants to let on. But what troubles me more is her insinuation that she was working at the age of eight. There is nothing in my files that shows anything of the kind and I speculate if perhaps she really is suffering from some sort of malady that causes hallucinations. I reach a hand over to feel her forehead and she frowns but allows the touch. I cup her cheek, then the back of her neck, but I don’t feel a fever. “Mary?”
“Sorry, kiddo,” I offer as I remove my hand. “I was wondering if you were feeling all right. I know you have an eidetic memory, so for you to admit to not remembering something....”
She shrugs. “Probably just the exhaustion talking. It’s not like I’m much of a night owl if I’m not working. And when I’m working, I’m focused.”
“Speaking of,” and I watch her eyebrows shoot into her hairline, but she nods her consent for me to continue. “You said you’ve been working since the age of eight. Now, I know why your best friend left and why your eighth grade science teacher was transferred. I know that your mama talked your dad into letting you go to a regular school as long as you maintained your tutors to keep up with your mind and keep you far ahead of your peers – she wanted you to have friends and experiences like others your age. I know how you snuck out of your room on Friday nights when you were in high school so you could be like all the other kids in your class.” Her eyes widen and I grin. “Don’t worry; your dad doesn’t know about that either, and I for one am not going to enlighten him.”
“Thank you,” she whispers.
I shrug. “Every kid deserves the right to rebel a little. And you were never in danger.”
“You were watching over me even then.”
“For a long time, Pri... Arianna,” changing my tack when I see her flinch. “I’m sor....”
She holds up her hand and shakes her head. “Don’t be. We both know it’s true. I’ve just gotten used to not having to be her all the time and Malcolm never fail to....” She breaks off and clears her throat. “Was there something you wanted to ask?”
“Yeah – you said you’ve been working since the age of eight, but that’s not what my records show. I want to know what I missed. I can worry about how I missed it later.”
“I’ll make a deal with you,” and though her eyes are twinkling with mischief, I agree. It’s nice to see the young woman we all love making an appearance again, no matter how brief. “I’ll give you the low down on my work, if in return you tell me about my eighth grade science teacher AND what I was doing at eighteen. It will drive me crazy if you don’t.”
“Short trip,” I quip, laughing aloud when she smacks me across the belly. “All right,” I agree. “But you first.”
“Fair enough,” she sighs, sitting up straighter and taking a drink from her now tepid water bottle. She makes a face, but swallows it anyway, then sets the bottle on the bedside table. She takes a deep breath, then starts talking. “You know I was put in royal training at the age of five,” waiting for me to nod. “I hated it,” she states flatly. “All the kids my age were playing and I was stuck learning how to sit and how to walk and which fork to use.” She chuckles wryly. “I was five – how many forks did I really need?” She shrugs. “Nevertheless, it was part of my training, and I did what was expected of me. It was easier than fighting.”
I remain silent, knowing that her talking is only a good thing for me... even if it’s not what she needs to be talking about.
“By the age of eight, I had most of it down pretty good and my lessons were only twice a week. Still, I wasn’t allowed to play very often – not as often as I wanted to, anyway.” She sighs again, and it occurs to me that maybe she does need to talk about this. This has been building for a long, long time. “Science had fascinated me since I started reading and the more I read, the more ideas I had. I made the mistake of writing some of my ideas down where they could be read, and Papa found them. When he realized the implications of what I had written, he immediately cut back on the deportment lessons and assigned a number of our top scientists to me.”
“Excuse me?” I cut in, hoping I misunderstood. “Assigned them to you for what purpose?”
“In the beginning, they were my tutors... my teachers. Eventually, they were my research assistants – for a while, anyway. Until I surpassed their ability to comprehend my work,” she says without a hint of humility or bias.
No wonder I had missed this. We thought they were *just* her teachers. I clear my throat. “When did that happen?” She tilts her head in question and I recognize the gesture instantly... especially since she can’t follow my train of thought. “When did they stop being your teachers and become your assistants?”
“Oh, I was....” scrunching up her forehead in thought. “Thirteen, I think. But I was scheduled in the lab just like any other scientist was. Papa made it clear he expected results – not immediately, of course, but eventually. So for me, it was work... even if it was unpaid.” I’m pretty certain she can see the fury in my eyes, especially when she places a gentle hand on mine. “It’s all right, Mary; it was a long time ago.”
“Not so long that I won’t make mention of it when I see him. Because no matter how long ago it was or wasn’t, that is still completely unacceptable. Don’t you worry – he’ll never know I heard it from you. With everything else I have to present, this will just be another footnote.” I cock an eyebrow at her and smirk. “Trust me – Miracle Worker, remember?”
She smiles. “I remember. And I’m even starting to believe it. So it’s your turn,” squeezing my hand lightly before moving hers to wrap around her legs again. “Tell me.”
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