As You Wish (Chapter 3)
Jo sat in the lobby of Zane's hotel, tucked out of view from the meeting room he was in. A courier had just delivered the envelope she'd brought for him from Eureka. The meeting was scheduled to end shortly, and she couldn't wait to see his reaction to the envelope's contents.
A few hours before, she'd been breathing a sigh of relief at Henry's discovery of the means by which Zane had transformed her into a child's vision of an enchanted princess. "Nanoparticles!" Henry had exclaimed at the data collected by a detailed scan of her royal garb. "There's a high concentration of them on you that is creating a field around your body. It's like an adaptation of cloaking technology—the field is causing light to bend. But instead of masking your appearance, it's producing a different one."
"So, I'm still wearing the clothes I put on this morning…they just look different?" Jo asked.
"Yes, basically. As well as feel different, as if they actually have the shape you see. Like...the hallucinations we all suffered when the PTSD device malfunctioned." Jo grimaced. She remembered just how real her hallucination of a sappily romantic Zane had seemed.
Henry turned to Grace. "This is an incredible breakthrough. I can't believe what Zane has done here. With this technology, we could go well beyond trying to hide the electromagnetic signal of an object to changing the very nature of how it's perceived…" They walked away, excitedly pointing out different aspects of the scanner data.
"Hey!" Jo called. They turned around. "Still a princess here—can we fix that before you go do your science thing?"
"Oh, yes, of course." Henry said distractedly. "Well, first we need to determine the source of the particles. Then we can try to turn the field generation program off."
"Try?" Jo squeaked. "You mean you might not be able to reverse this?"
"No, no," said Grace soothingly. "The nanoparticles will run out of power eventually." At Jo's horrified expression, she hurriedly added, "But I'm sure we can shut them down before then."
Jo dropped her head into her hands. "He is a dead man," she muttered. Raising her head, she added "And you know what? I don't care. I don't need Zane—I don't need any man. I'll just…get a dog. Or a cat. Or maybe both. But he? Is dead."
Smiling, Henry patted Jo's shoulder. "I think we can correct this without shortening anyone's lifespan." At Jo's glare, he held his hands up. "But I leave that to you. In any event, the scan showed that the greatest concentration of particles is around your waist." He reached toward her then stopped, gesturing instead in the general vicinity of Jo's midsection. "Is there anything unusual there? Other than the dress, of course."
Jo patted around her waistline. At a lump she hadn't noticed before, she reached into a pocket and pulled out a crumpled ball of paper. The note from Zane's front door. Wordlessly, she extended it to Henry, who waved it away. "No one else should touch that—just put it down on the scanner plate." As soon as the paper touched the machine, data began flowing across its display screen. "That's it—he embedded the particles into the paper. They must have activated when you touched it. Once the field built up, bam—instant princess."
"So can you turn it off?" Jo asked worriedly. "Let's try this…" Henry pressed a few buttons until a blue light shone brightly from the scanner. "That should reverse the polarity of the field."
For a few moments, nothing happened. Then the princess dress shimmered briefly and slowly faded away, leaving Jo standing in her workday black suit. Her feet, however, were still clad in the sparkly pumps. "Um," said Henry. "Those will fade too…eventually."
Sighing, Jo said "Good enough. Now, you said the particle field was programmed, right?" Henry nodded. "Can it be reprogrammed, say to produce a different image?"
"I certainly hope so," he answered. "If we can program the field at will, there is no end to what this technology could be used to do."
"Great. So this is what I want you to do…" After Jo explained her idea, Henry and Grace both balked. Grimly, Jo told them that they could do either as she asked or have Zane's death or mutilation on their heads. They were quiet for a beat, then Grace gave in. "All right, we can do that. After all, I spent a half hour lying on a grungy restroom floor tonight thanks to Zane. I suppose a little payback couldn't hurt."
"Wonderful," Jo answered. "I'll book my flight."
EUREKA EUREKA EUREKA EUREKA
The sound of chattering voices alerted Jo that Zane's meeting had ended. Stepping back, she peeked around a corner of the lobby toward the meeting room. Several men exited first, followed by Zane and two women, a matronly brunette and a tall blonde.
For a moment, Jo's breath caught as she looked at Zane. Since arriving in Eureka, the terms of his parole had prevented him from leaving town without an armed escort. She knew he'd hated traveling with a guard so much that he'd eventually stopped volunteering for any offsite projects. This trip was therefore a benchmark of sorts, a sign that his post-pardon life had truly begun.
The responsibility sat well on him. He looked at ease in the group of executives and scientists, with an air of maturity he rarely showed in Eureka. Watching him, Jo felt a wave of pride. Second chances in life were rare—Zane knew that, and wasn't wasting the one he'd been given.
She was just about to call out to warn him against opening the envelope under his arm when the blonde woman stepped forward to block his path. Even with just a side view, Jo could tell her expression was predatory. With a wide smile, she leaned toward Zane, touching him lightly on the shoulder. Zane smiled politely, shaking his head no in response to a question Jo couldn't hear. The woman pouted, stroking her fingers down his arm.
Jo was startled to hear what sounded like a low growl coming from her own throat. Suddenly Zane's decision to punch the officer who'd groped her at GD seemed entirely sensible. It took all of Jo's willpower not to rush out and push the woman away—hard.
Zane stepped back from her and pointed to the envelope, clearly saying something about having work to do. When he headed for the elevators, the woman stared after him, then followed in a separate car. Jo was right behind her.
Stepping out onto Zane's floor, she saw him open the door to his room. The woman approached from the other direction, calling out to him. Since he was facing away from her, Jo couldn't see his expression, but she saw his posture stiffen. The blonde stopped just short of Zane, then stepped backward into his room with a seductive smile.
That was it for Jo. She closed the distance between them in seconds and grabbed the woman's arm. "Security," snapped Jo. "We've had reports of unauthorized visitors on this floor. I'm going to have to ask you to leave—now."
The woman protested, pushing back against Jo. "Pardon me, but this is a private matter. I am with this gentleman-" She broke off, eyes wide. Jo followed her gaze back to Zane.
He was leaning back against the hallway wall, laughing. As the women continued to stare, however, he looked around to see what had captured their attention. That's when he noticed his clothes.
Instead of the sportcoat and jeans he'd been wearing, Zane was now attired in a closely fitted black dinner jacket with braided epaulets at the shoulders. His pants were dark red with a black stripe running down the outside of each leg. Medals decorated his chest and the tan shoes he'd had on were now shiny black boots. Also, although he couldn't see it, his beard was gone and his face was framed by longer hair brushed over his ears.
Lifting the envelope the courier had delivered earlier, Zane looked at it then at Jo. "Shit," he said wryly. "Henry?" She nodded, a grin starting to spread over her face.
The blonde backed away, gaping at them. "I'll just…leave you two alone," she said quickly, then scooted into an open elevator car.
Zane shook his head, then started to grin too. "I take it you were pretty pissed at me?" he asked.
"Obviously," answered Jo smugly.
"So, are you going to make me parade through the hotel in this get-up, or can we go inside and talk?" he asked.
"Well," Jo said consideringly. "I should make you do the perp walk, especially since you sort of look like a bellhop. I was going for Prince Charming, but that sweet purity thing really wouldn't work on you." She pointed inside the hotel room. "But for now? Get in there. We need to talk."
Zane went in and sat on the bed, watching Jo carefully. With a quick grin, he patted the duvet cover. "Ever want to do it with royalty?" he asked.
Jo crossed her arms and ignored his comment. "You opened the envelope—did you read my letter?" He shook his head, then pulled a folded paper out.
On one side was his note to Jo from the morning. On the other, she'd written:
I'm not a princess. I'm tough, stubborn and tend to overreact.
You're no prince yourself. You're snarky, defensive and have lousy judgment sometimes (most of the time).
I don't need your protection, but I do need you.
You can control the TV remote in the living room. I'm in charge of the one for the bedroom (don't trust you with it).
I'll keep the bathroom counter clear so long as you don't leave your shoes everywhere.
Neither one of us can cook, so we leave food to Vincent.
I promise to do everything I can to make this work.
Zane stared at the letter for a while before looking up. "Deal," he said softly. "You've got my promise too."
Jo gave him a smile that would do any princess proud. "Great. Now get up, I'm hungry."
"Room service?" he asked hopefully.
"Not a chance. I made reservations for the most prominent table at the nicest restaurant in town. There will be pictures, so get a move on, your highness," she said and, with a brief kiss, pushed Zane out the door.
~ fin ~