Authors: Jessica Grey
Copyright & Disclaimers
Atone: A Fairytale
Copyright © 2013 by Jessica Grey
Tall House Books
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are either products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without the author’s permission.
For the real Becca,
thank you for helping me see the hero in Nicholas.
~ Chapter One ~
HAT DO YOU
mean I’m Nicholas Hunt’s emergency contact?”
The people in front of Becca Ward in line at her favorite fast food joint all turned their heads in surprise at the loud shriek that had replaced her usual husky alto. Becca normally would have felt some embarrassment for disrupting the pleasant hum inside of Ernesto’s Pizza by screeching like a banshee, but she was to—well, there wasn’t really a word that could cover the mixture of shock, annoyance, and anger she was currently feeling—to care.
“There has to be some mistake,” she assured the voice on the other end of the phone, in a lower tone. “Like a really huge, colossal mistake. Is this some kind of joke?”
The buzz of conversation resumed around her, and she pressed her cell phone tighter to her ear, trying to hear what the man was saying. The connection wasn’t the best. This was the last time she would answer an international call on her cell in a public place. Or possibly ever, if the result was going to have to be thinking about Nicholas Hunt.
“Hold on,” she said. “I can’t hear you; let me go somewhere quieter.” She put the call on hold and reluctantly slipped out of line. Damn Nicholas Hunt. She hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him in two years and here he was making her lose her place in line at Ernesto’s. At lunch. On a weekday. Becca looked sorrowfully at the length of the line behind her recently vacated spot as she headed for the door. She was looking at another fifteen-minute wait just to order, once she got off the phone.
She stepped out into the warm afternoon sunlight. Not that a sidewalk on a large street in Los Angeles was going to be much quieter than the inside of a pizza joint. Becca grimaced and headed down the street toward her car. Just what she wanted, to sit inside her hot car and talk to someone about Nicholas Hunt. Maybe she should start looking around for camera crews. This had to be some sort of elaborate setup to get her to melt down on a hidden camera show. There was no other explanation. She doubted that even if she were the last person left on earth, Nicholas would list her as his emergency contact.
“Sorry, not leaving,” she called to the driver of the Mini Cooper that was hovering right behind her space like a bird of prey waiting to swoop in and steal her metered spot. The driver shouted something and drove away. “Have a nice day,” Becca muttered under her breath.
She glanced down at the screen of her phone as she swung open the door of her Jetta and slid into the driver’s seat. Nicholas was in France, or had been the last she’d heard. She had no idea what the country code for France was, but she was beginning to get a sinking feeling that no one was going to jump out and shout that she’d been punked.
“Hello? Thanks for holding. I can hear better now. Could you repeat everything? I think I must have misheard some of what you said.”
“This is Becca Ward?” The slightly accented voice sounded like it belonged to a middle aged man.
“Yes.” Maybe that was a bad idea. Maybe she should just tell him he had the wrong number and decline any future calls that were not obviously from within the lower forty-eight.
“This is Francois Gagnon. I am Mr. Hunt’s employer.”
“Yes, I’ve heard of you.” Becca rested her head on the steering wheel in defeat. Dr. Gagnon was Nicholas’s former advisor, his current employer, the archeologist who had discovered the ancient bed that just so happened to hold former princess, and current fashion student, Lilia de la Foret in an enchanted sleep for over eight hundred years. “How can I help you, Dr. Gagnon?”
“I am calling because I am concerned for Nicholas. I found your contact information among his papers. It seemed very clear that if something were to occur to him you should be contacted.”
“I’m sure there must be some mistake,” Becca assured him. “Doesn’t he have anyone else listed? His parents? Or a friend or girlfriend or something?”
Or some random guy on the street who would probably care more than I would?
“No, there is not anyone else listed. There’s also contact information for an Alexandra Martin? But in looking through his belongings it seems as if he meant to contact you. I could, however, call Ms. Martin.”
“No, it’s okay, don’t bother Alex.” Becca knew Alex had picked up Luke from the airport earlier that morning. Bringing Nicholas into her day seemed like a crappy way to start off her summer vacation with the boyfriend she so rarely got to see.
“I’m sorry, Dr. Gagnon, I really do think there’s been a mistake. I don’t know why Nicholas would have my contact information, but I can assure you we’re not on the best of terms. I don’t think he’d want help from me, or from Alex either.”
“I understand, Ms. Ward. I had hoped...it is a very concerning matter. There were some notes along with your name that led me to believe you might know what was going on. I am not quite sure who else to contact, but we will find someone.”
Becca glared at the floorboard of her Jetta, her head still on the steering wheel. Why was Nicholas keeping notes about her? And why did he have either her or Alex’s information in the first place? She wasn’t sure if she should be worried or just pissed.
Dr. Gagnon was being very mysterious. He was speaking of Nicholas in the present tense, so obviously he hadn’t gone and gotten himself killed somehow. But whatever it was, it meant Dr. Gagnon was going through Nicholas’s personal effects. A coma? Maybe someone had kidnapped him? Maybe he’d finally annoyed the wrong people and some French mafia family had...here Becca’s imagination ran out. She had no idea if there even
a French mafia, or what they’d do to someone who annoyed them. Make them eat baguettes until they died of carb overload?
She banged her head twice on the steering wheel.
Don’t ask, don’t ask, don’t ask.
“What, um, what has happened to Mr. Hunt?”
There was a brief pause, as if Dr. Gagnon was considering whether or not to answer her. Which made sense. Just a minute ago she’d been adamantly saying she couldn’t have been Nicholas’s actual emergency contact. “Mr. Hunt has always been of the opinion that there was more than meets the eye in our dig in the south of France. He has become rather, uh, single-minded in his pursuit of proving that there is some kind of—this is going to sound quite fantastical—some kind of
involved with the site. The rest of our company recently relocated to Paris, and Mr. Hunt chose to remain near the original site. Shortly after, however, he returned home, but I haven’t been able to get in contact with him for several weeks. I received a package in the mail from him. It mostly made no sense, but it did have your name and contact information listed in it.”
Becca resisted the urge to hit her head against the steering wheel some more. She supposed it had been too much to hope that Nicholas would just forget all about the magic and go along like a good little soldier. “And in these papers he said I should be contacted?”
Should be blamed is more like.
“Yes. There was also quite a bit about someone named Lilia, but that was quite irrational in nature.”
“I just bet it was,” Becca said grimly. She’d kill him. With her bare hands. Too bad he was so far away. How dare he be messing around in things he had no right to mess with? The fact that he had contact information for both her and Alex, and any information about Lilia at all, made her eyes cross in rage.
“Wait a minute,” she continued. “Did you say Nicholas went back home? As in, he’s back in
“Yes, he returned to the States several weeks ago.”
Suddenly the thought of killing Nicholas with her bare hands didn’t seem so far-fetched.
“What exactly do you want from me?” Becca considered suggesting that Dr. Gagnon just call the police and report Nicholas as missing. But if he was keeping some sort of weird files on the three of them, she wasn’t sure she wanted to get the cops involved. She wasn’t so much worried about herself or Alex, but she didn’t want anyone looking too closely at Lila. They’d paid a lot of money to create an identity for her after it became apparent that she couldn’t just magically return to her own time, and in theory it should hold up under scrutiny. Becca didn’t really want to test the theory, though. “Nicholas is a grown man. If he wants to quit his job and disappear, he’s allowed.”
“True. If he had just quit, I would be less concerned, but his increasingly erratic and obsessive behavior leads me to believe there is more going on than just a man wanting to quit a job. Previous to his decision to stay at the site, he’d lost weight, become distracted. There was something—a look that was not quite right to his eyes. I am sorry to have bothered you, Ms. Ward. I thought, perhaps, you were close to him, or knew how to contact his family.”
“No.” She almost choked over the suggestion that she was “close” to Nicholas. Not that Dr. Gagnon could’ve known anything about their history. He sounded like a nice enough guy, concerned for an employee’s well-being. Although he seemed to like Nicholas, which immediately made his judgment suspect in Becca’s estimation. But then, pretty much everyone liked Nicholas, at least at first. She supposed falling for his smarmy charm was just something people did.
“I’m not really sure how to get hold of his family,” she said, once she’d recovered from the little choking-to-death-on-her-own-spit episode. “I, um, I guess I’m concerned as well about Mr. Hunt, but I don’t really know quite what to do at the moment. Why don’t I take down your number and I’ll get back to you.” She pulled out her day planner and stared blankly at her array of colored pens. She loved color coding her notes, but she was at a complete loss as to what color best represented “What the holy heck?!” She finally settled for a plain blue pen and jotted down Dr. Gagnon’s number.
“Do you have Nicholas’s number or address here in L.A.? I, uh, the information I have for him is all from before he went to France.” Not that she’d ever had a phone number for Nicholas Hunt, but Dr. Gagnon seemed to think she had some sort of connection with him. It was also beginning to filter into her shocked brain that she would eventually want to get her hands on whatever Nicholas had sent Dr. Gagnon about them, so it would benefit her to play the concerned friend. She wrote down the number and address. “I’ll try to get back to you in a day or two. I can maybe check with Alex and see if she has a better lead on his family than I do.”
“Thank you, Ms. Ward. I appreciate your assistance.” The professor’s voice was colored with relief. Becca felt slightly guilty as she hung up the call. She wasn’t actually going to call her friend and ask if she knew anything about Nicholas’s family. She didn’t want to interrupt Alex’s and Luke’s reunion. Plus, she doubted Alex knew any more than she did.