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Excerpt for Technical Difficulties and Other Stories that Follow Saving Tessa by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Technical Difficulties

and Other Stories that Follow Saving Tessa


by Stephanie Barr


Smashwords Edition


Copyright 2018 Stephanie Barr


Discover other titles by Stephanie Barr at Smashwords.com

Conjuring Dreams or Learning to Write by Writing

Tarot Queen

Beast Within (First of the Bete Novels)

Nine Lives (Second of the Bete Novels)

Saving Tessa

Musings of a Nascent Poet

Curse of the Jenri

Legacy

Ideal Insurgent



Dedicated to Stephanie, Roxy and Alex, always.

To Chuck, Mirren and many other beta readers, proof that good beta readers are worth their weight in gold but I'm too scatterbrained to keep track of who read each story.


Cover Art by Stephanie Barr


Smashwords Edition, License Notes


This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Smashwords.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.


Table of Contents

Technical Difficulties

Roman Holiday

Aftershocks

Grandma's Cooking

About the Author

Technical Difficulties


"Lawrence, that suggestion is ridiculous. I've never been to New York and I don't want to see it from the back of a hired limousine," Dylan said, knowing the earpiece's special boom would catch his voice and little else, even though the airport was noisy and crowded. "Don't you trust me?"

"Not an inch," his chauffeur/bodyguard, Nathan Lawrence, said on the other end of the line, his anger crystal clear though he was on the other side of the Atlantic. "And I'm not suggesting. You've always been far too cavalier with your safety." Dylan just caught his muttered, "I should never have let him talk me into going with Tessa."

"Lawrence, you're exaggerating. I followed your advice and have Kinsey's husband, Harper, with me, don't I? Didn't you vouch for him yourself? Isn't this the guy that saved Tessa?" Frank Harper followed as his shadow as they made their way to baggage claim. Dylan had little doubt he was listening to Dylan's end of the conversation.

"Frank Harper is a good soldier and a solid man," Lawrence retorted. "However, he's lived most of his life in the backwoods of Alabama and in Kentucky with Joe Kinsey. He doesn't know anything more about mass transit than you do, and less than that about your personal quirks. You're a magnet for trouble. Hire a damn car."

Lawrence had not been showing his usual deference since the incident with Tessa and Dylan was wondering if he should say something about it. Still, Lawrence had helped save Tessa's life and had proven a reliable friend. So, instead of sharp rejoinder, Dylan said only, "You worry too much. People use the subway every day. I don't think it's unreasonable to assume we can make one round trip into Manhattan and back to JFK airport."

"Chikatilo targeted children riding trains."

"Chikatilo targeted children riding trains in the Soviet Union and seventy years ago. And I'm eighteen and am eighth dan in four different martial arts, two of which you taught me. And I have Frank Harper. I don't think the cases are comparable. Nor does this convince me you're not overreacting." Dylan quirked an eyebrow that Lawrence couldn't see. "Interesting that you know so much about twentieth century serial killers."

There was a pause. After all, Dylan had proved himself quite capable, hadn't he? "Fine. Give your wallet to Frank."

"What? Why? Don't be paranoid."

"Give him your wallet! You ever dealt with a pickpocket? Frank and I dealt with plenty overseas."

Dylan folded his lips. He was going to have to have a talk with Lawrence after all, but better to do it in person once Lawrence had returned from his trip with Tessa in Italy. "Fine," he said in exactly the same tone as Lawrence had used. In the hopes of avoiding more insubordination, Dylan added, "How's Tessa?"

"Don't change the subject. You sent me over here, against my own advice, because you said I was the only one you trusted with your father and your fiancée. You'll just have to trust me. Now, you need to make sure you are safe and careful. Go straight to the hotel, order a room service breakfast, then take a taxi to the UN building."

Dylan sighed. "That's overkill. I memorized the street map of Manhattan on the plane. It's not but a few blocks…"

"Taxi. And while you're at it, think about what it means to me that the boy I think of with the same affection as my own son is giving a speech to the United Nations while I'm not even in the same country. You're speaking to world leaders while your father, his lover, and your fiancée are here in Italy on a trip that could have been rescheduled at any time if you had only told us about this speech."

Dylan found himself hunching his shoulders. He had never wanted to make a production of it; he only agreed to speak because this kind of exposure was good for business. Tessa, he knew, would have postponed her trip if he'd asked, but he didn't want their wedding delayed. "It is really not that big a deal," he said, knowing he sounded defensive.

"The UN, Dylan. How often does that happen?"

"Well, it's my first one, but I'm only eighteen. I expect it will happen again. And my father gave me the UN's invitation at breakfast, though it might have slipped his mind. Or maybe he was distracted. I forget not everyone remembers everything."

"You didn't tell me. You didn't tell Tessa, but I'll let you explain that to her in person. No way I'm getting in the middle of that. So, the least you can do is make damn sure you get there safely, give a great speech, and get home safely. You hear me, Master Dylan?" Damn it, Lawrence sounded close to tears.

"Yes, Lawrence."

"I'm very proud of you, Master Dylan."

"Thank you, Lawrence."

"And vexed as well. Give the earpiece to Frank."

Dylan removed the earpiece and handed it to Harper, who looked surprised. But, Harper took it and hung it on his ear, nodding as he received what was, no doubt, a series of orders, based on Frank's mumbled, "Yes, sir." Quite a few of them, actually. Frank was getting an earful.

Frank Harper, though Dylan had not known him long, did not strike Dylan as the subservient type. He was a seasoned soldier like Lawrence and married to Dylan's security chief, and Joe Kinsey did not seem the type to ally himself with a doormat. Harper was a tall lanky man with mocha complexion and large brown eyes that made him seem vulnerable somehow, but that was just appearance. Dylan knew, from experience, he could kill if he had to. Harper had done so to protect Tessa, in fact, and then had managed to keep that headstrong girl from running out into a hurricane and doing more dangerous things. Really, that was all the recommendation Dylan needed. Perhaps the string of assents was just the result of Lawrence's force of personality, which, Dylan had also learned recently, was hard as titanium.

Harper handed back the earpiece as the display—projected on Dylan's arm from his wristphone—went blank. Before Harper could speak—Dylan was not interested in a second lecture—Dylan complained. "Exactly how many miles is it to the baggage claim?"

"They likely have rails for negotiating the airport, though it isn't much further."

"They do, why didn't you say so?"

"Well, first you were talking forever to Nathan, then I was. And I have a question for you—ah, here we are, through here—why do you know so much about a twentieth century serial killer?"

"I know about everything," Dylan said, matter of factly. "So we stand here and what?"

"Luggage comes down and revolves around this conveyer belt. We pick our pieces up. You never rode a plane before?"

"Been a long time since I flew commercial. We have a private plane."

"Un-hunh. Well, that explains a lot. Better give me your wallet, Master Dylan," Harper said.

"Lawrence doesn't have to know," Dylan said, then realized that sounded pretty passive as well. Who was the boss here?

"And if you lose it? I'm not the one he's going to blame."

There was no arguing that point. Harper was clearly good at taking orders. Dylan definitely preferred to give them. He sighed. "It's only because he's 'vexed' with me," he said, retrieving his wallet and placing it into Harper's open hand.

Harper pocketed it in his jacket pocket, fastened his jacket, and then retrieved a small overnight bag. "Oh, yeah, I got that for sure. What the hell were you thinking not telling him about your speech? How could everyone else not know? Did you have to schedule it for this week?"

"I didn't schedule it. It was scheduled more than eight months ago. I think it slipped my father's mind, and I didn't realize anyone else cared about it. It's for business. When Tessa and her grandmother wanted to go dress shopping in Italy, I didn't really see the conflict, especially when they insisted I couldn't go with them." That might not have been precisely true, but Harper hardly needed to know Dylan had felt slighted over a stupid superstition. As if he'd bully his way into the fitting. He had more control than that.

Probably.

He spun the wristphone on his wrist and then looked more closely when he felt a sharp edge. He noted the latch holding his wristphone in place was loose. He had pocket tools in his bag, but doubted he could fix it in the crowded train, or work on his laptop for that matter. There was a good argument that it was smarter to hire a car, but Dylan didn't trust just anyone's driving and Harper's ability to protect him was limited in the passenger seat. Even if his family hadn't noticed, Dylan's speech was well advertised, so an enemy anticipating his arrival and use of a hired car was not that far-fetched.

No one would expect Dylan to ride the subway.

Besides, it was an adventure and he'd spent far too much of the last adventure—which nearly cost him the love of his life—cooped up and helpless in his own house while Tessa was kicking herself free from of prisons, beating up kidnappers, delivering children to safety, and facing off with a meth-addicted assassin. People rode trains every day.

Harper had not been wild about the idea, but he didn't argue either. Dylan was a little disappointed he couldn't trot out his logic to someone. Tessa would understand, if she hadn't been pissed at him for not telling her about his UN speech altogether. Hard to remember such inconsequential things when she was in his arms.

"Master Dylan, I've got our bags," Harper told him with a nudge. "Don't go daydreaming while we're in public."

Right. Stupid to get distracted. Commercial flights were so inconvenient—not an adventure at all except in delays and other challenges—but he was glad Tessa had taken the private plane to Europe. "So, we have to take the light rail to Jasmine station."

"You sure you know what you're doing?"

"Yes, I memorized the stops that will take us within a few blocks of the hotel. I can change and go directly there. Are the bags too heavy?"

Harper raised his eyebrows at that. He had a small overnight back slung over his shoulder and Dylan's garment bag over his arm, which Dylan knew wasn't as heavy as his own electronics bag he brought as a carry-on. "I could carry yours, too, Master Dylan, no problem."

Dylan nodded. "Good, then you won't be hampered if we have to move. Oh, look, the line's this way."

The light rail, which had long since been converted to a superconducting rail, was only marginally crowded and smooth. Dylan had followed the directions and was, perhaps inordinately, pleased with his ability to do such a simple task.

It did not prepare him for the relative chaos at Jasmine station. It was a Friday morning and, apparently, many people were anxious to go to Manhattan. Harper helped elbow out a path so he and Dylan could get on the right train and even managed to find a place for Dylan to sit, but Dylan found himself claustrophobic for the first time, not so much due to the train—also riding smoothly on a superconductor magnetic cushion—but the press of humanity about him, the scents of perfume and sweat, the heat of bodies, the breathing, the constant sense of movement at the very peripheries of his vision. It was unnerving. He kept wanting to mess with his bag, but then was reluctant to remove his laptop and work with so many people—potentially—watching him.

When Harper took his bag from his hands and slung it over his other shoulder, Dylan realized how obvious his unease was and felt mortified. They'd just made the stop at Grand Avenue Station and a pregnant woman coming in made Dylan actually grateful to give up his seat. Maybe, standing, he'd feel less exposed.

He realized his mistake almost at once as now he imagined eyes peering at him from behind. He ran through the periodic table in his mind, then all the capitals in the world. His hand on the handle was still sweaty, which reminded him of the countless sweaty hands that had been there before, that would be touching it later. He willed his heart rate to go down. This was so stupid. He was too intelligent for such an irrational fear to take hold of him.

His heart was not persuaded.

"Are you alright, Master Dylan?"

Dylan summoned a smile. "It's an adventure."

Harper's face made it clear he was less than convincing. "Should we get off?

Dylan set his teeth. He was not fond of losing. "I can stick it out until we reach Manhattan."

They pulled into Roosevelt station and Dylan was surprised at the influx of people coming in as well as a sizeable crowd pushing toward the exit doors.

Dylan was jostled thoroughly and someone knocked against his arm hard enough to break the loose latch on his wristphone. The next person kicked the fallen phone further from Dylan's reach. Dylan let go to retrieve it only to be swept along with the horde heading for the exit, a stampede he couldn't break free from short of violence. When Harper stepped up to follow, Dylan shouted, "Get my phone, first."

Harper scrambled after the phone, and Dylan beat his way to the back of the pack as it reached the platform outside the door. Dylan made it back to the car just in time to see the doors slide shut, Harper standing, wristphone in hand, on the other side.

"Stand back," someone from the crowd said helpfully, jerking Dylan back a couple paces as the train started off again. "Another will come."

Dylan knew that. He just wasn't sure how that helped. Normally, he would contact Harper and they'd devise a plan to meet back up, but he was short of communication devices, even though all of New York had wi-fi available. Every electronic device he'd brought with him was in the bag except his wristphone. Stupid, of course, to be so dependent on a single device. He would have been better off if he'd lost his wallet than his wristphone—a wallet he also didn't have in hand due to Lawrence's overcautiousness.

Most logically, to his own mind, the right thing would be to get on the next train and find Harper waiting at the next stop. But Harper might also travel to the end of the line and wait for him there or take a train back expecting Dylan to be waiting. Without a way of contacting him, Dylan could not be sure what Harper would do since he didn't know him that well. And guessing incorrectly could get them both going in circles.

He fished in his pocket and found three dollar coins. There had been public phones at the airport. He didn't see any here, but it was loud with trains and noise. Perhaps outside the station?

And, if not, he could get a candy bar. He couldn't eat the airplane food and he was starving.

Dylan followed the throngs and climbed up to street level, but was unsurprised to see no sign of any phones. Well, really, it was 2058 and public phones had been disappearing since the turn of the century. Dylan couldn't remember seeing any anywhere but airports and he remembered everything. So, he need only find somewhere to buy a candy bar, perhaps convince a proprietor into letting him use the phone.

Lawrence would probably recommend finding the police but that wasn't his preference. He'd never be able to keep it from Lawrence if he did. He'd just get a candy bar and wait at the station for Harper. If one of them was stationary, the odds of missing each other dropped.

Stores weren't standalone as he was used to, but tended to be the bottom floors of habitations though these were generally only a couple of stories rather than the skyscrapers New York was famous for. He saw one that looked a likely bet half a block away and walked toward dawn's rosy glow, marveling that so much humanity—seemingly dozens that had help shove him off the car—had all but disappeared. How early did stores open here? When he came closer, he realized it was more of a produce market and would have looked elsewhere except for the sounds of a scuffle in the alley next to the store.

Dylan had never claimed to be a noble man and had, notably, only gone to the rescue one other time. However, seeing a diminutive boy, clutching a bag of produce, facing off a handful of larger ruffians in letterman jackets touched a chord of recollection. And Tessa, he knew, would expect him to stand up for the child.

"What kind of cowards have to gang up on a small kid?" he asked, loosening his shoulders in case he needed to disable someone.

The biggest one, of course, snarled in response. "Get lost, loser. This little prick thinks that, just because he goes to high school, he doesn't have to follow the same rules as everyone else. We're just going to change his mind. "

"I am lost, you barbarian," Dylan said coldly. "And if he's in high school that means he's smart. Is that your issue? Envy?"

"Ha! Of this pipsqueak? If he was really smart, he'd share his notes with the jocks, just like everyone else, especially everyone else as puny as this little bastard. Now, hand 'em over. We need to get to practice."

Déjà vu, indeed. "If you really wanted to impress me," Dylan said, "you'd grow neurons instead of muscles. Do you see him carrying a backpack?"

"He can bring it to school, can't he?" Some of the boy's bravado was wavering as Dylan didn't look a bit scared and, though slim, was taller than any of them.

"That won't do you any good," Dylan said. "Knowledge is more valuable than bulk. For instance, even someone as diminutive as this young gentlemen could take all of you out handily with the right knowledge."

"Bullshit!"

Dylan flashed a smile that had quailed many far more self-assured than this thug. "Care to find out?"

One of the ruffians grabbed the boy's arm with enough force to elicit a cry. The other three bore down on Dylan who made no move to change stance. Let them think he was harmless.

The leader started with, of course, a clumsy roundhouse. Since Dylan wanted the fight to end sooner rather than later, he didn't dodge the blow—as he readily could—but spun inside it so he had his back against the brute, elbowed him in the sternum and throat, then flung him easily to the ground, where he lay on his back, gasping for breath. It had taken a second, maybe two.

Even so, the fighter's two companions had sufficient self-preservation instincts not to follow him to their own doom.

Dylan saw it as an opportunity. Grasping his wrist as if he still had his wristphone, he said just loudly enough to hear, "That should be enough video for the police. They should be here any minute."

The three boys abandoned any semblance of fierceness, scooped up their fallen friend, and ran. The smaller boy stared at their fleeting backs in astonishment. "You routed them so easily."

"Bullies are not known for their valor," Dylan said. "Are you unharmed?"

The boy, eyes wide as saucers and nearly black in the fading shadows, shook his head. "Punks. School won't let them get away with that on the grounds so they hassle me here. They know they're one failure away from being booted from the football team."

"Perhaps you should walk with a companion for a time."

The kid lifted his chin. "I'm not a child. I'm a man."

"Even men can be outnumbered. A friend might prevent any confrontation at all and wouldn't that be more pleasant?"

"I shouldn't have to."

Dylan felt moved to bestow one of his nicer smiles. "No, you shouldn't, but the world is still imperfect. In the short term, I'd be happy to walk you to your destination. And, perhaps, prevail upon you to use a phone? Mine was lost on the train."

The boy giggled. "They didn't even notice you didn't have one."

Dylan smiled again. "But you did. Sharp indeed. Do we have an accord?"

The boy smiled up at him, lovely white teeth in a dark face of youthful beauty. "You sure talk funny. Okay. I'm Rajiv Kohli. Who are you?"

Lawrence would undoubtedly advise against giving his real name, but Dylan found himself answering, "Dylan Chroz."

He didn't expect any reaction, actually, but the boy surprised him again. "Dylan Chroz who invented hovercars? Who wrote the KISS operating system? Who wrote OTOT, Quantum Scout, and Master of Antares? No way! Those are my favorite games! What are you doing here?"

"OTOT?"

The boy rolled his eyes. "Overthrow: Tools of Treason."

"Oh. Those. I was rather making a point. Someone told me I didn't have the soul to write a good video game that would sell, so I wrote three different kinds, though I had a good friend write the dialog. I'm glad to see you like them. Want to beta test the expansion to, er, OTOT?"

"Would I!"

"As for why I'm here, I'm rather lost. I'd intended to go to Manhattan and I accidentally stepped off the subway and was separated from my companion. I'm hoping a phone call would allow me to coordinate with him."

Rajiv nodded. "I'd loan you my wristphone but I've got the implant." Not surprising. Many young people, including Tessa, had the earpiece surgically implanted.

"Perhaps I could send a quick text?"

"Oh? Sure thing." Rajiv held his arm out and Dylan typed quickly on the projected display to let Harper know he was safe and would be calling him shortly. "What happened to your phone?" Rajiv asked when he was done.

"I dropped it on the train, that's how I ended up outside the car."

"And you don't have a computer?"

"My companion was carrying it."

"Hmm," the boy was leading him down a side road. "Why don't you just buy a new wristphone? Did you lose all your numbers?"

"I can remember my phone numbers but, I'm afraid, my companion has my wallet as well."

Rajiv nodded and Dylan thought that was the end of it but the boy gave him the side-eye. "Dylan Chroz, you're having technical difficulties."

Rajiv's smugness and demeanor was so like Tessa, Dylan couldn't help laughing and was still chuckling when Rajiv led him to a door beside a closed computer repair shop—not yet opened—and went inside and up the stairs. Dylan had memorized the address as a matter of course. He should probably have Harper come to him since he wasn't sure of his way back. He hadn't been paying attention.

The boy opened the door at the top of the stairs with a thumb print and held the door open for Dylan. "Mom! Dad! We have a guest!"

A man in pants, suspenders, and an undershirt immediately came out of his chair, his hand out. "Yes? Rajiv, who is this man?"

"Some of the students were hassling me when I got the fruit," Rajiv said, "but he rescued me without any trouble. Scared them with the police, too, so they might leave me alone from now on."

The man, with round old-fashioned glasses he looked owlishly through, appeared first dismayed and then brightened at once as he shook Dylan's hand with enthusiasm. "Thank you, kind sir, thank you. Really, it's too bad that Rajiv has become a target because of his intelligence."

"I'm familiar with the phenomenon," Dylan said, retrieving his hand as inconspicuously as he could.

"Dad, this is Dylan Chroz!"

The father looked skeptical. Dylan was wearing only jeans and a t-shirt, not exactly projecting the aura of technical tycoon. "Surely not, Rajiv. He's not even wearing a wristphone."

"Yes, I fear I misplaced it on the subway," Dylan said. "I am having, er, technical difficulties. I don't blame you for not believing me. However, if I could borrow a phone to call my companion, I would be quite grateful."

The man immediately unlatched his own wristphone and offered the earpiece. Harper answered on the first ring, clearly upset, but Dylan did not allow him to list his grievances. "I'll explain it all to you when you arrive, Harper. Can you get here off of Roosevelt Station? I would like to be able to reward this family for their inconvenience. The trains run with sufficient regularity, I shan't miss the speech at one pm. We still have nearly 6 hours."

As Dylan spoke, the father whispered to his son loud enough for Dylan to hear, "The Dylan Chroz would never ride the subway. He's rich."

Dylan rattled off the address to Harper and explained it was only a couple of blocks from the train station. "I can wait for you outside."

"Certainly not," Mr. Kohli said before Dylan could hang up. "You'll both be our guests for breakfast."

Dylan might have argued, but his hunger was a living beast now and Rajiv was begging him with his eyes. "Very well. Did you hear that, Harper, come in through the door next to a computer repair shop and knock on the door at the top of the first flight of stairs."

On the other end of the line, Harper sighed. "What are the odds you ever explain this to me? Never mind, I'm glad you're safe. Perhaps Nathan won't have a coronary."

"Did you tell Lawrence?"

"Of course I did."

Of course he did. Dylan stifled his own sigh. Well, he'd worry about that later. "Come as quickly as you can."

"I'm already at Roosevelt station. I should be along shortly."

Dylan found himself pleased that Harper had done as he hoped and hung up the phone with a smile. "Thank you very much, er, Mr. Kohli."

"What is your real name?"

"It actually is Dylan Chroz. Since my speech at the UN was advertised, I didn't want to ride in a hired car with a driver I was unsure about." Finally, he got to explain his logic to someone. "And the subway was an adventure, perhaps more than I'd intended."

Dylan knew he had an easy self-assurance that many picked up quickly. And he suspected that Mr. Kholi had heard the speech advertised and had heard Dylan speaking of it on the phone. Dylan pushed his hair back from his face and flashed his Rolex.

"How many core processors in a Chroz Quantum Cube?" Mr. Kohli demanded.

Dylan smiled. "Sixteen in this generation. Next February, we'll be coming out with one that has sixty-four."

"Really?" Rajiv asked, but his father looked dumbfounded and pelted Dylan with more questions, no longer testing Dylan but asking his expertise and thoughts. The man was growing more and more excited.

When a lovely woman with a little caste mark on her forehead entered, Mr. Kohli could hardly speak in his excitement. "This is Dylan Chroz, the Dylan Chroz. This is my wife, Aanya. Please, Aanya, make sure there is enough food for two more guests."

"Of course, Chandresh," she said with a calm that made it clear she neither knew nor cared who Dylan was. Dylan eyed her silver and purple silk sari and figured she'd stepped out to change. Bet she hadn't been cooking in that. "I heard Rajiv when he came in."

When Harper arrived five minutes later, a feast of wheat porridge and milk with fresh fruit—apples and some small brown form of banana—was ready. Dylan was known as a picky eater, but he found it all delicious and the conversation never faltered. After eating, Dylan would have offered money for the time and inconvenience and taken his leave, but the Kohlis refused the money and had a different plan.

Mr. Kohli said that there was a station with a line to Grand Central Station nearby and that would take them directly next to the hotel. And he would call his cousin, who drove a taxi in Manhattan, to take them to the UN building and be at his service. Mr. Kohli, it seemed, was set on taking the day off to make sure Dylan made it there safely and was returned, intact, to the airport.

Odd that Dylan never seemed short of caretakers, whether he wanted them or not.

As they walked to the other station, Dylan made phone calls, first an exchange with his furious but relieved chauffeur and another to his father to explain he wasn't in danger and did have his bodyguard. His father told him Tessa had taken to the streets in a wedding dress and Lawrence had chased her, which handily explained the terse phone call before. Tessa's grandmother was not worried and, somehow, that relieved Dylan. Plus, Lawrence would have a hard time ringing a peal over Dylan, having misplaced Dylan's fiancée.

Once on the train, Mr. Kohli made sure they were in a safe corner, unlikely to be dislodged, and went to greet an acquaintance. Harper seemed even more bewildered by the state of affairs than Dylan was. "So, how is it that a guy like you, who's been driven hither and yon since birth, a man completely without any tech, without even his wallet, could land in Queens, at first light, and end up being treated like royalty?"

Dylan thought of what he'd learned about people from Tessa, about the example she set, and grinned. "Tessa."

"You ain't gonna tell me shit, are you?"


Roman Holiday


Nathan Lawrence, ex-Seal commander, long-time bodyguard and chauffeur to a brilliant and talented but troublesome teenager, Dylan Chroz, finished his instructions to Dylan's substitute bodyguard. Nathan then disconnected his wristphone with unusual violence. Modern electronics didn't give one the same cathartic effect as slamming down a phone once did.

For the first time in Nathan's life, he was at a loss to determine what emotion he felt most strongly. Anger, of course, that his beloved charge was going to give a speech at the United Nations in a few hours and that Nathan had only found out yesterday when he was in Italy, at Dylan's insistence. Anxiety, with Dylan all but alone in a city he'd never been to before and determined to ride the subway of all things. Dylan had been driven everywhere since he was eight years old and for good reason with all the kidnapping attempts and his general instinct for trouble. Frustration that, despite the fact Dylan did have a substitute bodyguard with him, Nathan wanted it to be him with Dylan and there was nothing he could do about it. But, perhaps most of all, Nathan felt unbearable hurt.

Dylan Chroz, a boy he'd spent hours with daily for ten years, was giving a speech to the United-freaking-Nations and Nathan had had no idea. He couldn't personally make sure Dylan got there safely. He couldn't sit there and watch, tears in his eyes, as Dylan dispassionately wowed representatives from nations around the world. He couldn't guard his boy's back on the way home, glowing with his own pride.

Nathan was having a really hard time not resenting the hell out of the blameless Frank Harper, who was subbing as bodyguard for him. Nathan breathed in, then breathed out a shaky breath. Well, he knew at least one person who shared his resentment: Tessa Miller, Dylan's fiancée who was just as shocked to find out about Dylan's speech when she was in Europe.

But Tessa needed nothing else to set off her anger. She was in the throes. He could hear her before he even entered the consulting room. "Can you believe him? The United Nations! He didn't think it would interest me! Would I like him to cancel?"

"Darling, we know," Dotty Miller replied, her voice as censorious as Nathan had ever heard it. "We need to focus on the gown. Now, I think this is perfect. So sleek and classic"

Nathan must have spent longer on the phone than he had thought if Dotty had lost patience. He was equally surprised that she was pushing fashion, but she was the one who'd insisted coming to Italy for Tessa's dress.

Dotty Miller, Tessa's grandmother, was about as far from a fashionista as any woman Nathan had ever known. Not that she wasn't a comely woman for a grandmother, undoubtedly far older than her apparent age and perhaps twice as old as she dressed, which was in ethereal but brightly-colored hippie-wear. Even now, she wore a neon orange sundress and diaphanous shawl in contrasting cobalt, along with beads of every shape and color and an actual crown of flowers in hair dyed a fetching purple today.

The contrast from her avant-garde appearance and the elegant—but stiff—gown she indicated could not have been more marked. Nor did it impress Tessa.

"I don't like it, Dotty. Looks constricting. I don't have the slightest interest in a gown that looks like I'll need a corset to get into it and a can opener to get out of. And that train is, what, twelve feet long? Going to hire a phalanx of girls to carry it for me?"

Dotty narrowed her normally misty blue eyes to laser sharpness. "This designer is one of the best in the world! Listen, Tessa, this is not a wedding in the back barn with a few dozen relatives. This is an important society wedding and it's essential that your look be above reproach. You don't want to embarrass Hugo!"

Hugo Chroz, the future groom's father, looked quite startled at the assertion this wedding was a business event or that Tessa could embarrass him wearing anything she chose, but swallowed any refutation at a single glare from Dotty.

Tessa was made of sterner stuff. "Ridiculous! And the hypocrisy of that coming from you is astounding. You don't even believe in marriage. You know and I know that Hugo wouldn't force me to wear a dress I didn't like and, absolutely, you know Dylan wouldn't care. He doesn't even think a speech to the United Nation is important. If we married in a barn, he probably wouldn't bat an eye."

Nathan had to admit Tessa had a point.

But Dotty Miller was hard as diamond under that delicate exterior, and, as Nathan had seen before, a shrewd negotiator. Without so much a heartbeat's hesitation, she clasped her hands together, her now luminous eyes swimming with tears. "But, my darling! Your parents, who never lived to see this wondrous day, I have to think of them! I have to do for you what they had no chance to do themselves: give you the wedding of a lifetime! You are, after all, marrying a man who truly appreciates you."

"Sure he does," Tessa muttered, her expression mulish but softening. Only her years of experience in dealing with Dotty could have allowed her to stand against such a picture of selfless misery. Hugo was patting Dotty's shoulder sustainingly, murmuring words of assurance that made it clear that, if it were in Hugo's power, every indulgence would be made available. Nathan had to forcibly restrain himself from offers of his own, even though it was really none of his business. And even though he knew Dylan would be thrilled with whatever Tessa wanted, up to and including a burlap sack.

The gown was lovely, a slim sheath of shimmering ivory satin with long slim sleeves and a beaded detachable train thoroughly festooned with rhinestones and lace. The dress reminded him of Audrey Hepburn's heyday. Cool elegance, the perhaps complete opposite of Tessa herself.

"We could have ordered a dress from a catalog, you know," Tessa said. "Then I could be in New York with Dylan." She spared a glance for the harried looking shop assistant. "No offense."

"And have your parents roll in their graves? You are marrying the love of your life. Don't you want the best? You could have an original Tsgobba!"

Tessa sighed. "I want it to be my dress, something I can move in, something that makes me feel happy to wear." She lifted a finger. "I want a fairy tale dress."

Nathan was impressed. It was a master stroke. Game, set. and match.

Dotty Miller was poet, child author—including several fairy tales, dreamer, cherished lover of a younger, charismatic, and very wealthy man. There was no way for her to resist such a declaration.

"Yes! Of course!" she said at once, still clasping her hands, but now in the throes of ecstasy. "A fairy tale wedding! This will never do!" She consigned the fine gown to the saleswoman without hesitation and demanded dresses more in keeping with her granddaughter's preference in a tone of some ill-usage and impatience.

Hugo, who looked as if he'd like to be, really, anywhere but where he was, asked, "Was that Dylan just now?"

Tessa, eyes sparking, raised a hand. "I don't want to hear another word about him. I cannot believe—!"

"Yes, Mister Hugo," Nathan said, answering Hugo's distress. "He is going into Manhattan on the, er, subway!"

"He what?" Tessa screeched. "He doesn't know anything about New York!"

"Tessa, subways are not that dangerous," Dotty said, in a tone that argued she was tired of this subject. "And he does have Harper with him. He's not a child but a fine young man, well able to make a simple excursion through New York."

"Why didn't he hire a car?" Hugo asked.

"He seems to think it will be an adventure, sir."

Tessa blew out an angry breath, but Hugo only smiled, then chuckled. "He really is an interesting boy."

And this is what Nathan had to deal with.

Another half dozen dresses were brought in, these with ruffles and full skirts, flirty bodices and, often, intriguing embroidery. Nathan was surprised to see that several weren't white at all but pink, yellow or, in one case, a stunning ice blue with peacock blue embroidery. Nathan was not surprised to see Tessa fascinated with it. It still had a fitted bodice, but with flirty puffed sleeves, the ruffled skirt pulled up in a charming bustle with an underskirt of the same peacock blue peeking through. It all but screamed "Cinderella."

But it was too Cinderella for Dotty. "Dear, how about this one? Still some color, a lovely blush, but with a wide skirt and bows. It's magical without looking like a costume."

"I want to try on this one!" Tessa insisted, her own blue eyes—darker but no less emotive than her grandmother's—drinking in the blue gown with undisguised admiration.

Nathan shared a glance with Hugo and, at the unspoken plea, offered, "Perhaps we can obtain some refreshment. Dotty, why not come with us to the waiting room so Tessa can change and she can come out wearing the different dresses."

"Starting with this one," Tessa insisted.

Dotty sighed, probably guessing that, once in that gown, Tessa would be unlikely to look elsewhere. She pinched the chiffon between her fingers, looked at her granddaughters beaming face, and cracked a smile. After all, Nathan surmised she was thinking, Tessa's happiness was what Tessa's dead parents would really want on her wedding day.

Nathan had just fetched tea and served it to Hugo and Dotty when the phone rang. His stomach dropped when he saw it was from Harper.

"Excuse me, sir," he said tersely and took the phone call. "What is it, Harper? Is there a problem?"

"Er, yes. I'm afraid there is. I've lost Dylan."

"You lost Dylan?" Nathan burst out. "You lost Dylan Chroz on a subway?"

"I thought you should know."

Nathan, noting the startled looks of Hugo and Dotty, walked a distance away and said more softly, but through gritted teeth, "How the holy hell did you lose my boy?"

"Well, he kind of got swept up by the crowd and the doors closed…"

Nathan pinched his nose between his eyes. "And you weren't with him? Damn it— Never mind, we can go through all that later. And. We. Will. The good news is that he's a bright boy. He'll undoubtedly had a plan when you called him, right?"

But, even as he spoke, Nathan found his heart clutching. If Frank had called Dylan, Dylan would have done his damnedest to talk Frank out of talking to Nathan. And Dylan could be damned persuasive.

"About that…" Harper said on the other line, not in a way that was even vaguely reassuring.

"Why haven't you called him?"

"Well, that's how we got separated. He dropped his wristphone, let go of the handle to grab it and got swept away. I was following but he wanted me to grab his phone. I had it in hand, with him coming back in and me going out when the doors closed."

"Has he sent you a text? There's wifi all over New York. Has been for a couple of decades."

"I kind of have his computer, too."

"How did—never mind that, too. So, he could buy a phone. Damn if they don't sell those in every convenience store. He'll call you or me any minute."

There was a slight pause and the hairs stood up on Nathan's neck. "You made him give me his wallet. Y'know, so no one picked it."

Nathan couldn't talk for a moment, his jaw was clenched too hard. When he managed to speak again, he knew his voice was brutal. "Where was your charge abandoned?" Behind him, he heard sounds of a squabble, but it would have to wait. Hugo was probably going out of his mind.

"Queens. Uh, Roosevelt station."

"Go back there. Get out at the next stop and go back there. He'll be in the area."

"But what if he—?"

"Trust me. He'll think about all the possibilities—it's what he does best—and then he'll stay put since he can't contact you because he knows if he's not moving, you aren't circling each other." Please be what you'd do, Master Dylan, Nathan thought with all his might, hoping his thoughts could reach that brilliant boy since Nathan had no other method.

"Yeah, that makes sense. Alright."

"And call me when you find him. That exact moment."

"Yes, sir."

Nathan disconnected, took one last breath to calm himself, and then turned back, figuring he'd be calming Mister Hugo or Dotty down. He found only a placid Dotty and a store attendant who was in hysterics.

"Where is Mister Hugo?"

"He went after Tessa," Dotty explained, showing very little sign of distress herself. "Did you find Dylan?"

"Not yet, but Frank's working on it. What do you mean, 'he went after Tessa?'"

The store attendant roused herself from her catatonia and squeaked, "That dress was worth sixty-five thousand euros!"

"Yes, well, when Tessa came out—really, Nathan, she was so lovely, I couldn't possibly argue with her any more, stunning, really—Hugo told her that Dylan was lost in New York."

Of course he did. "So, where did they go?" Nathan prompted.

"Oh, Hugo wasn't going anywhere, but Tessa said, 'But he doesn't know anything about New York!'—we used to live there, you know, though Tessa was only a child—so she gathered up her dress and dashed for the door. I wasn't quite certain of her reasoning, but Hugo ran after her because, you know, she may know New York—though really, it was so long ago—but she's never been to Rome before."

The nascent headache Nathan had been grappling with was now a full-fledged migraine, pounding behind one eye and likely giving him a tic. "Which way did they go?"

Hugo slammed against the glass doors, panting, and dragged one open. "How can she run so fast in those heels? I'm too old for this."

"Those shoes cost twelve thousand euros," the store attendant announced, having moved from shock to outrage.

"You lost her?" Nathan said. "Which way did she go?"

"I think she was heading in the direction of the Vatican. She might call a taxi to get to the airport."

"Oh, no, dear," Dotty said. "I doubt she could fit a wallet anywhere on that dress."

"No formal from this shop," the store attendant said snippily, "has pockets."

"See? Though, really, with those full skirts, how hard would it be to include one? So inconvenient," Dotty murmured.

"It's not inconvenient for me and I have my phone. I'm going after Tessa."

Hugo frowned. "But your leg. It still hasn't recovered…"

"Yes, well, I might not be able to outrun Tessa, but I have my wallet, so I'll be calling a taxi and I'll scour every inch of this ancient city until I find her."

Hugo blinked and nodded. "Excellent plan. I'll stay and comfort Dotty."

Nathan was already dialing local information for a taxi service and shook his head since Dotty appeared to be the least concerned of them all.

Italian was, fortunately, one of the languages he could get by on, at least enough to have a taxi sent his way with orders to find him as he strode after Tessa as quickly as he could manage.

*

Tessa was not a runner. Well, she could run, of course, but she rarely ran just to run. She found it boring. The one exception was when she was in turmoil and then she'd run to help clear her head much the same way as Dylan would pound steel in his sword smithy. Though running was easier to explain to lay people than sword smithing.

When Tessa had heard Dylan was lost, her heart had faltered and all she could think about was getting to him, getting a taxi, getting to the airport, getting to New York.

That and trying not to kill herself on the slick black stones that made up roadways and walkways in Rome. The heels were a liability so she'd run on her toes, but it was painful and strained her knees in ways she hadn't expected.

She'd also had a few minutes for the running to clear her head and that had brought a few other far too reasonable realizations to the fore, not the least of which was that she didn't speak Italian. Nor did she have so much as a coin on her let alone enough money to pay a taxi or buy a plane ticket if the pilot of the Chroz private plane wasn't willing to fly her. Nor did she have her phone—the saleswoman had insisted she remove it while changing. And she was running through the streets of Rome, in a wedding dress (she didn't own), wearing stupid shoes (she would never own), with absolutely no idea which direction she was going and where it would take her.

The dress moved nicely, though, so she could definitely dance all night in it, though maybe not this particular dress since she tore off a few ruffles here and there. At least. And what was that black mark? Oil?

Truth was, now that she'd kicked her brain back in gear, she realized that running off, half-cocked, was not only stupid without at least some money but also just dumb in general. By the time she could get to New York, the situation would almost undoubtedly resolved, probably before she could get to the airport. And she would have no better way of keeping track than staying with Nathan.

Tessa stopped. She thought back to when she'd run out. Had someone chased her? Was it Hugo? Or—not Nathan! He was still recovering from the wound he got protecting her!

Tessa turned on her heel, intent on going back. Except, she had absolutely no idea where "back" was in relationship to her. She was on a main thoroughfare and had just crossed the River Tiber, but, looking back, it just look like a snarl of traffic, streets at odd angles and cars parked in every spare inch, including many of the walkways. She wasn't even sure how she got there.

Maybe she'd recognize something if she walked back in that general direction. Surely, it couldn't all look the same.

Within minutes, struggling to get back with insane drivers darting around and through every tight space, she had to recognize how distracted she had been. She had nearly been run over half a dozen times, despite following traffic signals precisely. It was a miracle she hadn't had an accident on her way out.

She was trying to cross a smaller street, "something" Cimatori, crossing between two parked cars with the intent to slip across when the traffic allowed, when the heel of her ridiculous shoe caught between two stones, flinging her directly into oncoming traffic.

A strong arm caught her about the waist and hauled her back from possible death and probable injury.

She turned her head to see a nice-looking man, a workman by his clothes, frowning at her and speaking to her in Italian—which she couldn't understand. He ended what sounded like a long question with, "... Bella?" which she guessed was beautiful. She did speak French and Spanish.

He still had his arm companionably around her waist which was a little unnerving, especially since her heel was still caught between stones. "I'm sorry," she said, "I don't speak Italian. Parlez-vous français?"

"Oh, you're American, eh, Bella?" he asked in a thick but understandable accent. "That explains much."

She couldn't really argue with that, but it didn't make her current posture feel less awkward, even though her savior was making no move to capitalize on his position. Still, she wasn't a doormat. She gave him a little push and broke the contact. "Thanks for saving me," she said, holding on to his arm for stability as she tried to yank her errant heel from the stubborn street.

Behind her, she heard hard brakes and a car door open. A second later, her Sir Galahad and been pushed away with a long string of what sounded like angry Italian. New hands, firm, held her elbow as she wrestled with footwear. She might not recognize the words, but she knew the voice. "Nathan!"

"Tessa, are you unharmed?"

"Yes, Nathan and don't scold him. He saved me from accidentally diving into traffic."

"Excuse me, Miss Tessa," Nathan said, then reached down and wrenched her shoe from the hold it was locked in. "I do not believe these shoes survived your adventure."

"Good. I hate them."

"Tessa," Nathan said through gritted teeth. She remembered the last time she had made him this angry. It hadn't been pretty. "What the holy hell do you think you were doing? Running out like a crazy woman, scaring us all to death. As if we didn't have enough with Master Dylan wandering Queens and getting adopted, apparently, by the natives."

"He did? Oh good!" Tessa felt like a weight lifted from her chest.

"Don't 'oh good' me! What the hell were you thinking?"

"Well," Tessa said, "I wasn't really. I didn't really start thinking until I'd been running a while. That's why I was trying to get back."

Nathan slapped his forehead.

"But I got lost."

"Tessa," Nathan started but was interrupted.

"Bella, you shouldn't be with this this old man. You are young, bellisima, and too beautiful. Come with me instead."

Tessa shook her head. "It's the dress. I knew it, it's the dress. Nathan, I have to have this dress."

Nathan wasn't paying much attention, though, instead lecturing the man in Italian. The man started, shifted, then sighed while patting his own heart a few times, and left with a blown kiss for Tessa.

"He really did save me," she told Nathan.

"Yes, well, and maybe his intentions were of the best, but you couldn't know for sure. You're very lucky not to be hurt. Did you twist your ankle? Let's take the taxi back."

They climbed into the taxi, shamelessly waiting and backing up traffic, and headed back to the store per Nathan's direction.

"You're not going to tell Dylan, are you?" Tessa asked

"Hell no, and don't you tell him either. I was just telling him he needed to trust me."

"Whew. Do you think they can fix where I tore this dress?"

*

After Hugo hung up after telling his son about Tessa's disappearance and getting assurances that Dylan, himself, was safe, Hugo gave a sigh of relief, then jerked up as he realized Dotty might see things differently, with her granddaughter still at large. "I'm sorry, I forgot, you must be worried about Tessa," he told Dotty.

"Why? She can't actually get far and she'll remember, soon enough, that running out was stupid. Really, everyone worries too much. Wasn't I right about Dylan? Weren't you ever young and lost somewhere new? Children need some adventure."

"I'm not sure I can take too much adventure with these two, but I do see your point. Tessa's not likely to run into too much danger dressed like Cinderella in the middle of the afternoon."

"Pity about the dress, though, that first one. I just love the lines of it."

Hugo chucked her under her dainty chin and then succumbed to the temptation to kiss her. "My son and I are both very lucky men. You know, just because that dress didn't suit Tessa's taste, there's no reason you couldn't buy a variation for yourself. You can be as elegant as you'd like. I think you'd look amazing."

Dotty curled up all but in Hugo's lap. "You know, you may not be a technical genius, but you're a very wise man. Can I have the train?"

"Absolutely."


Aftershocks


"The longer and harder you fight me, the more pain I'll put you through," the Shadow Man said, his face dark in the limited light, his teeth glowing bright, his eyes gleaming in the near-dark like a cat, mesmerizing. "The longer you resist, the more I'll hurt you. I have a whole storm to have my way with you."

Tessa willed herself to swallow her fear and answer bravely, but her voice was a squeak, "You might kill me, but I'll be damned if you'll break me." Even to her own ears, it sounded laughable.

"I killed Nathan. I killed his buddy. And after I've taken my own sweet time with you, I'll take out your boy."

"I won't let you." There was no power in it and she couldn't find more within her. She had to save Dylan! Where was her strength?

"You'll learn, stretch. They all do." It was as though he were breathing his words into her ear though he was a stride away. Then, quick as thought, he slid past her, bringing the baton down with great force, but she caught the baton with her frying pan like a shield, jarring it and twisting it out of his grip. As the baton spun away into the darkness, though, the shock left her own fingers nerveless and she lost her grip on the frying pan as well. .

His arms slid around her torso and squeezed, lifting her off her feet and bringing tears of pain as her bruised ribs were crushed. Desperate, she cupped her hands and slammed them to his ears. She pushed back enough to slam her elbow up and into his nose, while her knee did the same to his balls. His arms loosened enough for her to wrench herself free, gasping in pain from her ribs. She spun and threw him in a judo throw over her shoulder. He failed to roll and slid, face first, into the darkness beyond the chemical lights.

She leaned on the back of the couch, trembling from fear and pain. Perhaps he was out and she could escape. She ran toward the open maw of darkness, a doorway into the maelstrom she could hear outside.

Instead, he rose, like a specter, the Shadow man, a gun gripped in his hand. "Checkmate, bitch."

Tessa froze. At that moment, she knew. She was a dead woman. She was going to lose. This asshole was going to kill her and then take out Dylan and she couldn't stop him.


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