A/N: A Gift of Thought will be published on Amazon in June 2012, probably around the 12th. If you reviewed it here while it was in process and would like me to send you a free copy in Kindle or PDF, send me a message with your email spelled out (because otherwise fictionpress strips out the address) and I'll be happy to send you the revised version. And if you enjoyed it here, it would be really, really lovely if you reviewed it on Amazon. If it weren't for the reviews, I wouldn't keep writing. Thanks!
The airport was already decorated for Christmas.
If Dillon had still been alive, he would have said something wry and sarcastic about the materialism of contemporary American society, about Christmas as an excuse to sell stuff, about cheap glitter being no way to celebrate light into darkness.
As it was, though, he kind of liked it.
He wished he knew what he was doing in the Orlando Airport on the day after Thanksgiving, though. The crowds were crazy. The lines wound back and forth, back and forth, through the huge open space with the gigantic screen of arriving and departing flights. Dillon didn't have to worry about standing in line, of course, but he was following his father, Lucas, and he didn't want to lose him in the chaos.
For the first few years of his afterlife, Dillon had been trapped in the place he died: the backseat of a black Ford Taurus. He supposed he was lucky, really. He'd died from an accidental overdose of stolen prescription pills, trying to jumpstart a psychic gift. Most of his family had one—his grandpa and his Aunt Nat could see the future, his dad could read minds, his Uncle Zane could find anything—and he'd been tired of waiting for his own to show up. It was a stupid way to go, he knew, but at least he hadn't died in a car accident. Eternity stuck in a smashed-up wreck sitting in a junkyard wouldn't be fun.
Last winter, though, he'd met a woman, Akira, who could see and talk to ghosts. She'd introduced him to some other ghosts, including Rose, who was pretty much his best friend now. She'd also, although it was sort of an accident, broken his tie to his car. He was no longer trapped. He could go anywhere, do anything.
He was a little nervous about it.
Oh, sure, he was a ghost, so it wasn't like anything really bad could happen. He couldn't get cold or wet or hungry. And he was already dead, so nothing could kill him. But he'd seen that there were dangers for ghosts in the world and Akira had told him stories. He just didn't know whether he'd recognize trouble when he saw it.
Plus, what if he got lost? What if he got stuck somewhere and couldn't get home again? What if he ran out of energy and faded away to nothing?
Being dead had done nothing to make Dillon less anxious.
Still, he was determined. Life—or afterlife—had to have more to offer than watching television with Rose or hanging out at Akira's lab while she worked. Despite all that might go wrong, Dillon was going to travel with his father for a while.
Okay, so maybe traveling with your father didn't sound ambitious.
But as fathers went, Lucas was the mysterious type. Dillon didn't really know him. He'd been raised by his grandparents and for most of his life Lucas had been a "swoop in for an action-packed weekend before disappearing again" father.
Not that Dillon was complaining. He hadn't even seen his mom since he was a month old. She'd dropped him off at his grandparents so they could babysit and never came back. Dillon didn't really blame her for leaving. She'd been awfully young, his dad even younger. He didn't like to think about it, but when Dillon died, he'd been older than his dad was when he was born.
A wide-eyed little boy in Mickey Mouse ears was staring at him. Dillon paused and grinned at the perplexed look on the boy's face, wondering if the boy could actually see him. Then he realized that Lucas had gotten several people away and hurried after him.
It wouldn't be a big deal if he got stuck at the airport, he told himself. His home town, Tassamara, was hours away by car, so it'd be a long walk. But, hey, he had nothing but time. Still, he'd rather not lose his dad quite so early in their trip.
He wondered if he should send his dad a text to ask where they were going.
That was the other thing Akira had done for him. She'd helped him find a way to cope with the worst part of being a ghost: not being able to communicate with anyone. After much practice and many destroyed electronic devices—his Aunt Grace bought them in bulk when she learned what he was trying to do—Dillon had succeeded in manipulating his own ghostly energy to send text messages.
It wasn't as crazy as it sounded. Grace found stories of ghosts that had tried communicating using radio waves. Supposedly someone had even invented a device that let spirits combine audio clips to send messages, although it didn't seem to work very well. Akira had a theory that the digital signals used by cell phones, computers, and e-readers required less power and were therefore easier to create than audio transmissions, but Dillon didn't care how it worked as long as it did.
Unfortunately, long conversations were out. Dillon could send a few words, even sentences, but his energy was limited enough that he hadn't bothered to ask where they were going that morning. Anywhere would be more interesting than his car. Still, he was surprised to wind up in a public airport. His dad traveled a lot but not usually on commercial flights. The family company, General Directions, owned several planes: one fancy corporate jet that could cross oceans, and a few smaller private planes for shorter hops. Was something wrong with them?
Lucas swung his bag onto the conveyor belt, and placed the contents of his pockets into a plastic bin. In classic security theater mode, he slipped out of his shoes, and dropped them and the coat he was carrying into another bin. Pacing forward barefoot, he stepped through the gate of the metal detector, the bored TSA agent barely registering his presence. But as Dillon followed him, the detector started beeping wildly.
The guard waved Lucas back while Dillon waited on the other side of the detector. If Akira had been here, she might have explained what happened scientifically, but it looked like his ghostly electromagnetic field energy messed with the metal detector. Next time, he'd walk around.
Lucas walked through the detector again, his expression revealing nothing of his thoughts. Dillon wondered whether his dad realized what had happened and that Dillon had set off the machine. This time the detector was silent.
Too silent, Dillon realized, as the guard frowned and gestured to another uniformed man. While the second security officer ran the handheld wand over Lucas's clothes, the first held out a hand for his travel documents.
Lucas passed them over without comment, then smiled and said to the guard in front of him, "Busy day today. You guys should get holiday pay."
"That'd be nice, wouldn't it?" said the guard, finishing with his scan and straightening up.
He stepped back and away, and glanced at the first guard who shrugged and handed Lucas's paperwork back with a casual, "Here you go, Mr. Murray. Have a safe flight."
Lucas's last name was Latimer, just like Dillon's.
As they walked away from the security checkpoint and boarded the monorail that would take them to the gate, Dillon's mind was racing. Why was his father traveling under a false identity?
What the hell was going on?
Guarding Rachel Chesney was a pain in the ass.
Sylvie kept her face impassive, her hands tucked behind her back, while she listened to Rachel's father rant. To keep her mind occupied, she considered exit strategies. The room only had one door to an outside hallway: could she get her charge out of one of the two tall windows if she had to?
Probably not while Rachel was puking, she admitted to herself. Not without a climbing harness and much more time than they'd have if armed intruders were banging on the door.
So in the absence of a quick escape: how would she defend the space? The suite had an entry foyer, small, but if she lifted the sofa onto one end, she could shove it against the door. It was a sleeper sofa, so it'd be heavy, but it looked doable, and it would definitely slow down incoming assailants.
With Rachel already in the bathroom, huddled against the toilet, Sylvie would have to put her back to the bathroom door and take out the enemy head-on. Probably better to drag Rachel into the living space, and move her behind the bed, Sylvie decided. No one would get upset about a little vomit on the floor if they were under attack.
Not the way her father was already upset about her very public puke in the hotel ballroom, anyway.
"What do you have to say for yourself, Ms. Blair?" Raymond Chesney finally snapped. His usually pale, benevolent face was flushed with fury, and the brown eyes behind his round glasses were blinking rapidly.
Oh, goodie, he's going to let me speak, Sylvie thought, before saying, expressionless, "As I told you when you hired me, sir, I'm a bodyguard, not a babysitter."
"You're supposed to take care of her!"
"Close protection on a teenage client requires the establishment of a trusting relationship." Sylvie didn't let her eyes drop from their focus on the glint of Chesney's glasses. It was a trick she'd learned that let her look as if she was maintaining eye contact. Raymond Chesney was a wealthy man, and a force to be reckoned with in Washington. She wouldn't—shouldn't—let him bully her. "I can't do my job if I'm viewed as an adversarial authority figure."
"Stopping a fourteen-year-old from doing vodka shots is hardly adversarial!"
"I protect my charges from outside threats, sir, not from themselves." Sylvie kept her voice neutral, although inwardly she was scoffing.
Right. Now he objected. She hadn't seen him complaining when he sent his daughter off to 'hang out' with the nineteen-year-old son of one of his pet politicians. What did he think a nineteen-year-old would be doing at a party like the one going on downstairs? He was lucky it hadn't been anything worse.
Of course, she would have intervened if Rachel had been in danger. And she had, in fact, stopped Rachel from having a fourth drink. She just hadn't realized that three drinks would be enough to put the girl under the table. But there was no reason Chesney needed to know any of that.
"Ha," Chesney snorted. He turned to Ty Barton, the leader of the security team, and said, "From now on, Lydia's on party duty. Get Rachel home. We'll discuss this again later." He took a quick glance in the mirror, smoothed his hand over his balding head, and tweaked his black bow tie, before turning and stalking out of the room.
"Sylvie," Ty started.
"Total lightweight," she interrupted him. "Three drinks, I swear. And the guys were drinking from the same bottle, so it wasn't spiked."
Ty sighed. In his mid-forties, he was tall, blond, and handsome, in impeccable physical condition, and the perfect image of a professional security expert. But he was also damn good at his job and an old friend. "He's going to want me to fire you, you know."
Sylvie shrugged. "You can if you have to."
She wasn't worried about losing her job. Working for the Chesneys was lucrative, but she could always find more work. Plus, Ty wouldn't want to let her go: not only because of their shared history, but because he was one of the few people in the world who knew how uniquely qualified she was to be a bodyguard. Close protection security consultant, she corrected herself wryly. Ty really preferred it when she used the fancy name.
Besides, Rachel Chesney was a spoiled brat. If Sylvie never had to listen to her whine again, she wouldn't exactly be sad.
"You didn't do this on purpose, did you? To get out of going to parties for the next month?"
"Absolutely not," Sylvie protested. And then the corner of her mouth quirked up, as she added, "Not that I mind."
She hated working parties. The advance detail work could be interesting. She liked conducting threat assessments. But crowds gave her headaches and the biggest risk at the actual event—at least here in DC—was that she'd die of boredom while wearing high heels. And if she was going to die of boredom, she really wanted it to be in comfortable shoes.
"All right." Ty rubbed his face. "We're short-staffed tonight."
Sylvie nodded. One of the three drivers on the team had quit a few weeks ago, and his position was still open. Normally that wouldn't matter, but two other members of the team were out with the flu.
"If I send James with you—no, that won't work." Ty was thinking out loud.
"I can drive," Sylvie suggested. "I've done the training."
Ty considered the idea. It was irregular, but moving a charge on the spur of the moment was less risky than a regular outing. He'd never agree to let her drive Rachel to school, Sylvie knew, but there was minimal risk of ambush on an unscheduled trip.
Ty nodded. "If she hurls in the car, you get to clean it up," he added, with a spark of humor.
Just then the sound of renewed vomiting came from the bathroom. Sylvie glanced toward the sound and said with a grimace, "I'll give it a little longer before we head out."
The girl ate like a bird, Sylvie thought, baffled. Well, not like a bird—didn't they supposedly eat their body weight in food every day? Rachel ate like whatever it was that ate almost nothing, which meant that logically, there couldn't be anything left in her system.
But she looked like shit, her lipstick smeared, her black eyeliner running down her face (and girls her age shouldn't be wearing eye make-up anyway, Sylvie's thoughts continued, it was no wonder those boys didn't realize she was out of her league) and her skin tone vaguely off-color.
"Roll the window down if you think you need to throw up again."
They were on the GW Parkway, on their way to the house in McLean. Sylvie had waited an hour, and then gotten a helpful bellhop to half-drag, half-carry Rachel to the black Mercedes via the parking garage.
"Not allowed," Rachel mumbled, head against the headrest, eyes closed.
"Just this once," Sylvie said with a pang of sympathy. Poor kid. Still following the rules, even when plastered. "Just if you feel sick."
Rachel didn't answer, and Sylvie stepped on the gas a little harder. She was breaking the ten-miles-over-the-speed-limit rule by a good fifteen miles, but she wanted to get Rachel home. Would she get pulled over? Automatically, she started planning her approach to the cops if she did: hands on the wheel, friendly, but not too friendly. Should she admit to the various weapons in the car? Mention her employer?
Her strategizing kept her busy until they were almost home. The gates swung open as the car neared them, and as Sylvie pulled into the long driveway, she couldn't help a sigh of relief and another glance at Rachel. Sylvie really wanted to get her inside, and not only because she didn't want to clean the car. All the alcohol ought to be out of Rachel's system, but the girl just didn't look good. She'd feel better after a shower and something to eat.
But as she reached the house, instead of pulling around to the garage, Sylvie hit the brakes, a trickle of adrenaline quickening her pulse. Someone was in the house—she could feel it.
She looked up at the imposing brick façade with its Italian limestone trim. The floodlights had gone on automatically, spreading their warm and welcoming light over the double staircase that led to the front terrace, but the windows were dark, as they should be. It didn't matter. Sylvie knew someone was there.
She closed her eyes, the better to let her sixth sense work. This was the reason Ty would never let her go. Sight, sound, touch, feel, taste, and for Sylvie, something else: something that let her detect the presence of people, know a little about who they were and understand how they felt.
For a bodyguard, it was a valuable gift.
For a Marine, it had been priceless.
Sylvie froze, hands tightening on the steering wheel. Damn it. She recognized that feel-flavor-sound. What the hell was he doing here?
She licked her lips and glanced at Rachel, who was leaning against the car door, her head propped against the window, her eyes closed. She could back out, turn the car around, and run. But that would get complicated. What would she do with Rachel? And it was probably too late. If Lucas had found her here, he wouldn't walk away.
Reluctantly, her foot light on the gas pedal, Sylvie pulled the car around to the garage. He was in the second floor study, the one right next to the master bedroom suite. She'd get Rachel tucked away in her own bedroom and then go see what he wanted.
Knowing that it was Lucas waiting, not a burglar or a kidnapper, didn't slow Sylvie's heart rate. If anything, a combination of dread and anticipation had it racing. How long had it been? A decade at least, she realized.
That time in Milan was the last. She'd been just out of the corps, angry, bitter. He'd been . . . rich. Her lips quirked as she helped Rachel up the back staircase, her hands gently guiding the girl's wavering steps. He'd always been rich, of course, and wasn't that half the problem?
She would have been what, twenty-seven? Her thoughts continued inexorably on. They'd been in the galleria, that street with the huge glass ceiling by the cathedral. She'd been drinking espresso at some café, wondering what she was going to do with her life, and he'd been walking by with that woman, the one with the honey-colored hair and the little black dress that probably cost more than a Marine earned in a month. Walking and laughing until he saw her, and then his face froze.
Sylvie felt almost nauseous. Milan hadn't ended well. She pushed away the memories of Lucas's lips on her skin, his hands caressing her, the bedroom in his posh hotel that they didn't leave for two days, the bitter words that she'd thrown at him when she stormed away.
Had he looked for her then? She hated to admit it, even privately, but she probably owed him an apology. Maybe more than one.
Or maybe her sick feeling was caused by the smell of vomit that lingered around Rachel.
She wondered what had happened to the blonde.
"Do you want to take a shower?" she asked the girl as they entered her bedroom. Instinctively, Sylvie assessed the room. Ugh. She'd seen the house blueprints for security drills, so she knew where Rachel's room was, but this was the first time she'd ever been inside it. It was pretty, but cold. White furniture, mauve walls, almost no personal touches.
"No." Rachel shook her head.
"You should brush your teeth and change your clothes."
"Don't wanna," Rachel mumbled, dropping onto the bed, and letting her eyes close.
Sylvie eyed her, not quite sure, and then made a decision. "On your feet," she ordered, using the voice that in a different life had made recruits cower.
Rachel's eyes opened and her head rose. "Wha—" she started.
"Come on," Sylvie said, taking her arm and tugging her up, off the bed, toward the bathroom. The bathroom was as bad as the bedroom, both ostentatious and somehow austere. Marble, glass, gold-plated fixtures, but none of the mess that would say a teenager actually worried about pimples in front of the multiple mirrors. "You can get in the shower on your own, or I can put you there. Which is it going to be?"
Rachel batted Sylvie's hands away, then spotted her bedraggled self in the mirror. She winced. "All right," she said. "Okay."
Sylvie gave her a considering look. Satisfied, she said, "I'll be back to check on you."
Closing the door to the bedroom behind her, Sylvie took a deep breath. Why was Lucas here, she wondered, as she headed to the study. Why had he come looking for her? And why hadn't he turned on the lights, she thought irritably, flipping the switch by the door.
The look of surprise on his face as he looked up from an open desk drawer was an answer of sorts to her questions. Without pause, without thought, she took two steps sideways, putting her back to the wall instead of the open doorway as she slid her hand smoothly into the carefully disguised slit in her little black cocktail dress and pulled out the semi-automatic that had been holstered at her waist. She flowed naturally into a comfortable shooter's stance, both arms up, gun aimed at him, as her brain finally caught up with her actions: he hadn't known. He wasn't here for her.
She concentrated, reaching out with her sixth sense, searching for other intruders. Was he alone? The only other presence she felt was Rachel, so she let the tension drop out of her shoulders as she frowned at him.
"Beth?" He looked older, she noted. The black hair had a few touches of silver, and there were new lines around his eyes. It looked good on him. 'What did you do to your hair?' he thought. 'And—ruffles? Really?'
She resisted the urge to touch her hair, tightening her grip on the gun. The color, a demure brown, was much less noticeable than her natural ginger, and much better suited for the invisible companion she aspired to be. As for the ruffles, 'Tough to hide a gun under a skin-tight dress,' she answered the thought. "What the hell are you doing here, Lucas?"
The flood of feeling she got back from him didn't answer the question, but she tried to sort out the emotions: he was angry, frustrated, searching for something.
But not searching for her.
And not searching for Rachel.
She straightened, letting her gun drop to her side. If her charge wasn't in danger, she shouldn't be holding a weapon on Lucas. Yeah, she wanted to know what he thought he was doing, but not enough to risk hurting him.
"Same question goes," Lucas answered. "What's your involvement with Chesney?" Sylvie felt him thinking but the thoughts were moving too quickly for her to catch. The emotions, though—suspicion, hostility, a wary anger—those were as clear as if he were acting them out in semaphores.
Sylvie looked down, busying herself with putting her gun back into its concealed holster, as she debated her response. Then, with a one-shouldered shrug, she told him the truth. "I work for him. Part of his security team." Looking up, she added with a wry twist to her mouth, "You know, the ones tasked with stopping people from breaking into his house and ransacking his desk?"
The sense of hostility she felt from him lessened, but only slightly. "Hardly ransacked," he said, pushing the drawer closed and standing. "No one was supposed to be here tonight."
'True,' she thought to him, 'but how do you know that?' Aloud, she said, "Rachel wasn't feeling well. I brought her home early. And you're the one who's not supposed to be here. I should call the police, you know."
'Yeah, right,' his thought came quickly. 'And let the whole DC area know your security wasn't good enough to keep me out?' His words, though, were more conciliatory. "We should talk."
Talk? Inadvertently, her gaze dropped to his lips. That's what he'd said the last time they met, but that wasn't what they'd done. Wasn't what she'd done. He was giving her the perfect opportunity to apologize. She might never stop feeling guilty, but at least she could be honest about her faults. "About Milan," she said. "I'm sorry."
He looked almost startled. "No," he replied, shaking his head. He paused, then continued, looking troubled, "You weren't wrong. But that's not..."
She wondered what word he was searching for. Important? Relevant? Meaningful? She didn't want him to say any of them, so she spoke first. "Rachel might come looking for me any minute. You need to get out of here."
Lucas's eyes flickered around the room, a glance that tried to take it all in and store every detail, and then he stepped away from the desk.
"Looking for a safe?" she asked him, lips tight. She might be letting him go, but he needn't think he was coming back. Chesney didn't need to know about this, but she had to tell Ty. They'd find Lucas's entry point and close the hole in their security immediately. 'How did you get in?'
He grinned at her, and she knew he'd read the underlying thought, not only the surface words. She narrowed her eyes at him, not quite a glare, and he put his hands up, in open-handed innocence. "I couldn't miss that. You know how it goes."
She did know. The two of them together reinforced each other's abilities. Sylvie hadn't even had—or known she had—her own sixth sense until she started spending time with Lucas in high school. When he wasn't around, she never got clear thoughts, just flavors, sensations of ideas. When she was around, he started seeing below the surface. It was as if their two abilities created a feedback loop, making both of them stronger.
'Did you take the security cameras down?' she asked him mentally, as she gestured him out the door ahead of her. She heard the sound of the shower in Rachel's bathroom, but she put a finger over her lips to indicate the need for silence anyway. 'I don't want to get recorded with you.'
'In the back,' he conceded, so she led him that way, treading as quietly as possible. Her mind was racing, trying to decide what to say, what to ask. She had so many questions. At the back door, they paused, and she turned to face him.
She might not see him again, so she had to ask the most important question first.
"How's Dillon?" She tried to muster a smile. "He ought to be in college now, right? Did he follow you into the Ivy Leagues?"
"Beth . . ." he started and then stopped.
"Sylvie, now," she said into the silence. Why couldn't she read him? His emotions weren't making sense to her, as if they were a scent she couldn't identify, a taste she didn't recognize.
"You went back to your own name?"
She nodded, as if it wasn't important, as if reclaiming her name hadn't caused her months of mixed emotions, a complex twist of anger, pain, relief, satisfaction, grief, happiness, even fear. She was still trying to understand what she was sensing from him. "Lucas, what aren't you saying?"
"It's complicated." The words on the surface were meaningless. It was the words below that mattered. 'He's dead.'
"He—what?" The words felt strange in her mouth, as if her face had suddenly gone numb and her lips couldn't shape the letters.
"It's complicated," he said again.
'You were supposed to keep him safe!' Her thoughts were a scream. She brought her fist to her mouth, biting down so the sound couldn't escape.
"Sylvie." Lucas reached for her, putting his hands on her shoulders, but Sylvie brought her arms up, knocking his away. Stepping back, she glared at him.
"Get out." She reinforced the words with mental fury, 'Get out or I will call the police.'