The next morning, the dozen Blue Wings and their chaperons loaded onto a small sightseeing shuttle and headed to the Aquarium and Arboretum. Today, they were doing the tourist thing. Kyle had laughed when Willow and Gracie volunteered to help feed Sophia to the sharks, then Tiana jokingly chastised them for trying to poison the poor fish. Camille had shaken her head them all and scolded Kyle for ‘encouraging the monsters’. The whole team had a great time at the giant aquariums and hesitantly left the underwater tunnel that connected it to the Arboretum. Wandering through the simulated tropical rainforest had the kids from the mountains in awe until Willow had spotted one of Tiana’s stalkers. The teens closed ranks around their friend. Camille noticed the shift in the behavior of her team, but when she asked what’s wrong, they all said, "Nothing."
When he appeared the third time, Willow had enough and Tiana was on the verge of panicking. Willow, Gene, and Will hung back in the flower exhibit room, and confronted the man.
“Sooo, why are you following us, big guy?” Willow surprised the man when she stepped out from behind a display. She was glaring at him hatefully. He turned to leave but Will and Gene were standing, arms folded by the other door, blocking his escape.
“It isn’t polite to follow people. What do you want with our friend?” Willow demanded in an icy tone.
“Look, little lady, I am just doing my job,” the man said.
“Stalking a terrified teenager is your job? How nice. Does it come with major medical or Obamacare?” Willow asked sarcastically.
“I’m not here to stalk anyone,” the man tried to back away from her, but Will had come forward and shoved the guy hard into a display. The tall, lean Junior stood several inches over him.
“It sure looks like that is exactly what you’ve been doing here. She’s our friend and you’re scaring her. So shove off and if we see you again, we’ll take care of you our way, the wet way,” Will snarled, pointing his finger in the man’s face. “And I guarantee I can hold my breath longer than you can.”
Gene walked past with a smirk, before Will followed him, Willow was the last to go.
Her voice was as cold as her deep blue eyes, “We’re not kidding, mister. We will drown you if we see you again. And that goes for your friends too. Poolside is a dangerous place, mister. Accidents happen all the time.”
When Will, Gene, and Willow reappeared in the group, Camille demanded, “Where did you three get lost at?”
Gene held up his phone, “I dropped it when I tied my shoe. Glad we found it or mom would have murdered me.”
“Well, that’s good. But don’t wander off without telling me or one of the chaperons, you never know what kind of people are hanging around.”
“Yes, Coach Wally.” They agreed sheepishly.
Kyle was on the phone when Camille looked back at him, she tipped her head at his scowling expression, raising an eyebrow. He mouthed the words, ‘Tell you later.’
She nodded and followed her team, announcing, “Okay, twenty more minutes then we have to head back for dinner. Our dive practice time is after.”
Kyle had vanished when they got back to the hotel, Camille tried not to think about the kiss he’d stolen in the butterfly room of the pavilion or that he’d then left without saying goodbye. Cursing her heart for beating again, she took her daughters, Tiana, Gene, and Will to their practice. She considered take a few dives too, just to feel the fall.
Kyle paced back and forth in his suite in front of his head of security and one of their professional bodyguards.
“How could a bunch to teenagers figure out they were being watched? Your guys are supposed to be professionals, Mr Benton.”
“Sorry, Hightower. Walsh and Dianzo are always line of sight. The kids know them, feel safe around them, but we rotate between the three of us in the background to be more discrete,” Benton explained unhappily.
The man from the Arboretum shook his head, “They made me and they know there are more of us. William specifically said ‘you or your friends’.” He smirked, “Those kids have balls. It was like they knew I wasn’t armed because of the venue and where to corner me without witnesses. They said exactly what they meant, no posturing. And I believe they meant it when Willow said they would drown one of us to protect their friend. Kyle, her eyes had that same look yours do when you get pissed.”
“Great, what now?” Kyle scowled.
“We wanted to keep Tiana’s security small, unobtrusive, and the rest of the protection detail out of sight, so the kids wouldn’t be looking at them and give them away to Valtini’s people if they are here. But we didn’t expect the kids to be the ones to spot the rest of us.” Benton rubbed his beard. “Kids these days spend all their time looking at their phones, not around. What did you do, Sheridan?”
“Nothin’ I don’t normally do, Benton. I’ve spent the last 3 days watching these kids, they are not your normal kids. They are smart, observant, and constantly scanning the people around them unless they are at the diving boards at the pool, especially those girls. I am not surprised they spotted us,” Sheridan observed. “I think you should just introduce us, Mr Hightower. They are already aware of us, so it wouldn’t hurt. And if they think we’re the bad guys, they might do something rash and put themselves in danger.”
There was a knock, and Walsh walked in. “There’s a problem, boss. Gene just told me, the kids spotted three guys they think are following Tiana and confronted one on their field trip today. They even have pictures of Benton, Sheridan, and Booth.”
Kyle groaned and sat down, “We have two days of competition left. Then we are moving back to Colorado. Keep your heads down and don’t get spotted again. I’ll tell the team we have extra security in the background, and not to worry.”
“Good luck with telling anything to teenagers,” Benton retorted snarkily. “If they are looking for us, it could cause more trouble than it solves, but we’ll keep our distance.”
“I don’t know if that will work, Mr Hightower. I’ve been on these kids 24 solid since we got here. Watched them training in the weight room and at the pool, I think they could handle someone enough to at least get away. They all know some self-defense,” Walsh claimed. “They are smart, dedicated, and loyal. They are that girl’s best line of defense, but they need to know you three aren’t the enemy.”
“I told you so,” Sheridan agreed.
“Gawd, I hate protecting kids. Can’t tell them anything because they always think they can handle everything, and athletes are the worst. That’s why I left the secret service,” Benton growled.
Kyle shook his head, “I’ll talk to them. This guy is a professional criminal. He wouldn’t hesitate to hurt any of them. I’ll make them understand. Walsh, are they still at the pool?”
“Should be on their way back now. Dianzo is driving them,” Walsh clarified.
Benton scowled, “Get everyone together. Mr. Hightower can introduce us.”
Camille walked out of her bedroom the next morning to find Kyle sitting at the dining table.
“I ordered room service, I thought we could talk before you and the team headed out today. Orange juice or tea?”
“Both thank you.” She sat down, with a slight smirk causing him to frown.
“Okay, okay... you were right, I should have introduced all the bodyguards to the kids,” Kyle admitted. “I listened to someone who hates teenagers, and he was wrong.”
“Well, that’s almost an apology,” she smiled, sipping her tea.
“You don’t have to be so smug about it,” he grumbled, looking back down at his tablet computer. “The storm dropped nearly 4 feet of snow on my build site. The crews are digging out the heavy equipment to start working again. But it is supposed to be much warmer by the time we get home which means building in the frozen slush.”
She eyed him, murmuring over the lip of her tea cup. “That sounds nice.”
Deep blue eyes held hazel ones, “What sounds nice? Frozen slush?”
“No. Home, you said when we get home.” She tried to take a breath but her admission squeezed her chest with the fear he would deny it. She blushed slightly, changing the subject, “Soooo, how did you sleep?”
“Not well. I would have slept better if I’d had a goodnight kiss,” he answered cheekily.
“Didn’t you get enough of that the other night?” She could feel the blush creeping up her neck.
“I could never get enough,” he grinned, and wiggled his eyebrows up and down.
“Oh good grief, you’re as bad as the girls,” she lamented.
“Who’s as bad as us girls?” Gracie asked.
“We’re not bad, we’re bad-ass,” Willow announced as she picked a piece of toast off the tray. “What for breakfast?” Lifting a lid, “Yah, waffles! DIBS!”
“Hey, NOPE! Those are mine!” Gracie yelled, “I asked dad for waffles last night.”
“Ya snooze, ya loose!” Willow was already stuffing half a waffle covered in whipped cream, caramel, and sliced bananas in her mouth. Her eyes shone mischievously, “MMMMmmmm, sooo goooodddddd.”
“Daaaadddyyyy.” Gracie whined, “Willow’s eating my waaaafffllllleeeesssss....”
Kyle laughed and lifted the other cloche off to reveal a second plate of waffles, whipped cream, banana slices, and caramel sauce. “I believe I have Waffles Foster for two this morning.”
Camille just shook her head as Gracie snatched the plate, murmuring to the food, “Hello my precious.”
Gracie sat next to Kyle, delicately cutting her waffle into bite-sized portions. Willow reached across the table with a fork, and tried to snag a piece of waffle from Gracie’s plate. But Gracie blocked her stepsister’s fork with her own, her voice deadly, “Touch my waffles and I will fork you.”
“You wouldn’t dare fork me,” Willow hissed back and tried again.
“I’m not kidding, sister. I will fork you,” Gracie declared stabbing the table between them.
In a moment both were dueling with cutlery, and the next moment Camille snapped, “Enough. Eat your waffles. No one is forking anyone this morning.”
Suddenly Gracie’s stifled a laugh and Willow’s eye went wide before her face dropped into an innocent mask, “Not unless you fork dad, then we could get our baby brother soon rather than later.”
Camille’s jaw dropped open then she snapped it shut, as Kyle’s booming laugh rolled out of his chest. Camille sputtered over the girls’ snickering, “I...No. Just... I... I am going to... to check on Tiana, you ... sea monsters.” She glared at Kyle who was wiping amused tears from his eyes, viciously growling, “Stop encouraging them.” And then she stormed out of the room.
When Tiana didn’t open her door, Camille opened it slowly. She could hear the water running, gagging and sobbing coming from the bathroom.
“Tiana, sweetie? Can I get you anything? Do you need a doctor?” Camille turned off the shower spray and draped a towel over the teen’s back.
Tiana was kneeling on the floor of the shower stall, having a bout of morning sickness. “I... I’m s-s-sorry to b-be s-so much t-trouble, Coach.”
“Tiana, you aren’t any trouble. You just have morning sickness, it's normal.”
“But all the security guys Mr Hightower hired because I didn’t know that guy’s name. And he could be out there, watching for me. What if he got to mum? I mean she hasn’t called me all week. She’d call if she could right?” Tiana’s pale green eyes begged for answers Camille didn’t have.
“I am sure she would call if she felt she could. But she could be somewhere that she can’t call from, or she might be afraid that people might find her, or find you if she calls. Maybe it’s her way of protecting you from being blamed or hurt because of what she’s done,” Camille hoped she sounded sincere; she was making excuses for a woman she despised, it felt like lying.
“You’re a terrible liar, Coach,” Tiana laughed bitterly, “But thanks for not saying what everyone is thinking.”
“What’s that?” Camille didn’t want to put her own thoughts into words.
“That my mum’s a witch who let me get raped and stole from people who trusted her, that she’s a user and a liar. It isn’t wrong to say it because it’s all true.” Tiana’s voice had the same sound Camille remembered her own having once upon a time, on the morning at a wedding that never was.
“T, you don’t know that for sure. The evidence is bad, but maybe she had a really good reason,” Camille had to hope for the best. She had learned the hard way, that things no matter what they appear, may not be what they seem. ” You don’t have to dive today if you don’t feel up to it,” Camille reassured her.
“No... no, I want to dive. I want to prove that I can do it. That the things my mum did, the thing that happened to me, that they won’t destroy my dreams.”
“I am so proud of you,” Camille hugged her and helped her up then remembered, “Kyle ordered waffles with bananas for breakfast, you better hurry and get dressed before the sea monsters eat them all.”
“Yes, Coach,” Tiana answered laughing, her teammates ate like football player, then she added quietly, “Thanks for everything.”
Camille smiled, “You are very welcome. Now hurry or you’ll be stuck with garnish and warm orange juice for breakfast before we head to the pool.”