SNEAK PEEK

Glass-Slipper-dot.com
by Rebecca Anderson

PROLOGUE

Senior Good Witch and "Granter," Mirabelle Saintly, studied the image on her computer screen as she sipped hot peppermint tea and enjoyed the evening’s balmy California breeze drifting through her open window. The young woman in the picture before her looked like she was trying to smile, but only succeeded in a pensive grimace. Horn-rimmed glasses and a mass of long auburn hair nearly obscured her delicate features.

Mirabelle spoke to her supervisor, Mary, through the PC-

linked headset, "So, this is my assignment. What’s the young woman’s name?"

Mary’s usually cheery voice had a worried edge to it. "Her name is Eileen Pringle, and her wish wasn’t direct. The child still doesn’t believe herself worthy of attaining her dreams. Her wish came as a loved-one’s bequest." Bequests were rare, and considered a special event by the entire Wishmaker’s network, and could only be given by someone who had "passed on" without attaining their own wish in this lifetime.

Mirabelle could hear Mary blow out a long breath. "But there’s something else. I’m afraid Eileen Pringle’s not just another assignment, Mirabelle." Mary paused so long Mirabelle began to worry the connection had been broken. When Mary finally continued, her voice held a wavering quality Mirabelle had never heard in all the eons she’d known her.

"I hate to put such an awesome responsibility on you, but the future of our entire organization is riding on your success with this client. Wishmakers is in imminent danger of being disbanded. Forever."

Mirabelle felt the tiny hairs on the back of her neck prickle. "But, didn’t Minerva just Grant?"

Mary’s sigh was deep. "Her client lost heart. I’m afraid both Minerva and the young woman gave up."

"Oh, dear, that’s so sad." Mirabelle sipped her rapidly cooling tea. The breeze through the window brought the distant, mournful cry of a coyote, as if even the animal kingdom knew disaster loomed close.

Mary said, "Sad for Minerva and her client, but devastating for Wishmakers, as well as the future generations of prospective ‘Grantees.’ Minerva is now on probation, which, you know, relegates her to Helper. That drops the number of active Granters to exactly half what it was at the beginning of the new millennium. Besides that, our recent successive failures have taken our energy reserves down to critical. We have only enough power for one more Grant. If we succeed with Eileen we’ll be on the road to recovery. If we fail …"

Mary didn’t have to finish. Mirabelle knew the Good Witch power structure. It had been close to the crucial stage for nearly a hundred years now. That’s why they had gone all-out to update. They’d even enlisted outside help. If they could only make it through this crisis, she was sure they would prevail in the new millennium with more energy and power than ever. If not, Wishmakers, and the entire network of Granters would fade—as many other so called "Fables" had—into oblivion.

Mirabelle studied Eileen Pringle’s face again. "You can count on me, Mary." She squinted to look past Eileen’s eyeglasses, happy to see clear, intelligent blue eyes. And there was something else. "I see a lot more to this young woman than her solemn demeanor suggests. Eileen Pringle’s spark isn’t out altogether. A little encouragement, and it could be rekindled, I’m positive."

She leaned closer to Eileen’s image, studying every feature as she listened to Mary.

"Do everything in your power to bring Eileen to Granting." A moment of silence. "But, no shortcuts. I know we’re desperate, but we must maintain our integrity. She still must become enlightened before you grant. We wouldn’t gain anything if we won the battle but lost the war."

Mirabelle felt a queasy uncertainty wind its way through her stomach. Wishmakers entire future—or lack thereof—rested on her shoulders. "I’ll do my very best, Mary." Now why had that come out sounding hopeful instead of certain?

Mary coughed expectantly.

"I know, I know. The power of positive thinking. I will do it." Mirabelle chided herself for her negativity. Wishmakers very last seminar had been on the insidiousness of negativity.

"You’re quite capable, Mirabelle. Otherwise, you wouldn’t have been given this case. Just keep rule number one in mind and you’ll do fine."

Mirabelle chanted the rule as if it was a mantra. "Look beyond what the client thinks they want, to what they really want. Always good to remind ourselves." Although Mirabelle didn’t really need reminded, she wasn’t put off by Mary’s prompt. She knew her supervisor’s heart was in the right place. Mary wanted each and every one of their client’s dreams to come true.

"Mary, is there anything you can tell me about Eileen that might not be in her bio?"

"For the most part, it’s a standard "True Love" case. On the surface she seems to have lost her belief in true love. But deep inside she’s cautiously hopeful. Most importantly, she’s lost faith in herself, and she’ll never be able to recognize true love until she regains that."

Mirabelle lowered the window next to her computer, effectively blocking the coyote’s howl, then quickly checked her printer to make sure it was on. She had no time to lose. "I’ll download and get right to work."

 

ONE

As Eileen Pringle exited the elevator at Wincomp’s fifth floor offices her sensible Italian loafer caught on what must have been a rogue air pocket. Her wildly acrobatic dismount would have scored a dismal "1" by Olympic judges. By the time she recovered, the gaping mouth of the elevator doors had silently swallowed her shoe. "Damn shoe!"

"Welcome back, Princess Leia, or should I say, Princess Grace." The familiar voice came from behind her. It was kind but held a note of barely suppressed mirth.

Eileen turned, trying to generate a smile for her friend, Ray Mitchell, but after the week she’d had all she could manage was a shaky grimace. Ray was a combination older brother figure and buddy to Eileen. Although there was an age gap of twenty years, they’d hit it off from the first day she came to work for Wincomp five years ago. Many evenings they’d share both dinner and confidences. The confidences mostly revolved around unfulfilled dreams; his for wealth, hers for romance and adventure.

Kind eyes looked her up and down, stopping at her shoeless foot. Ray slowly shook his head. "Start off on the wrong foot this morning, did we?" He quickly breached the distance and engulfed her in one of his characteristic gruff, brotherly bear hugs.

She could feel the deep rumble of his chuckle against her cheek. As good as the hug felt and as much as she needed the comfort of a friend, compassion was still a threat to the raw emotions she’d waged a losing battle with for the past week. Hot tears threatened and she quickly pushed away from Ray’s barrel chest before she made a mess of his starched white shirt.

She sniffed back her tears, finally managing a smile as she gazed around the office. Everything looked exactly as it had when she’d taken her leave of absence to care for her terminally ill father. To Eileen the computer software company’s neat rows of identical cubicles gave her a sense of much-needed order. "It’s good to be back. Three months was way too long."

Ray studied the back of his hand, for some reason obviously avoiding eye contact. "I know you’ve heard the scuttle-butt around here … that you’ve been reassigned." He looked up. "I’m sure it’s just one of those office rumors." Was he trying to convince her or himself? "I’m sure the out-of-towner Brock hired hasn’t permanently snagged your job."

That very concern had been plaguing Eileen for over two weeks; ever since her boss, Brock Van Buren, informed her that her long absence had compelled him to hire someone to ‘work’ on her project list while she was away. Brock had been vague, saying he didn’t want her to worry about the office when she had more pressing matters to focus on.

Well, her father had died and now her job at Wincomp was all she had to focus on. She wasn’t about to let someone usurp either the Lead Programmer or the Security Director positions she’d worked so hard to achieve.

Eileen straightened, searching for the strength she needed. She didn’t need to look far. A ready supply was attached to the anger she felt over the events of the past week. She looked at her friend.

"Snagged my job? No way." She hoped she sounded more confident than she felt. "I’m not letting go. I need this job. Now more than ever."

Ray’s thick gray eyebrows dipped in concern. "Something happen since we talked at the funeral?"

She had to snort at the understatement of the year. The past few days seemed like a lifetime. "Yeah, Jeannette kicked me out." Ray was privy to the long-standing problems she had with her stepmother.

"What! After all you did for your father while he was sick? That witch wouldn’t even set foot in his room. You’d think just out of gratitude …. The cajones on that woman!" He looked like he might explode.

The growing pink hue of Ray’s face made Eileen rethink the possibility of sharing the more sordid details of the past week. He tended to be overprotective.

"Don’t worry, Ray, I’m fine." She crossed her fingers behind her back. "I’ve got a darling little apartment and," she presented her crossed fingers to Ray, saying with forced bravado, "a job as Lead Programmer with the hottest up-and-coming software company in California." She looked over the cubicles, their walls too high to see more than the tops of several bent heads as they worked. Straightening her spine, she tilted her chin up. "I’m ready. Just point me in the direction of mine enemy."

Ray’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. "Go get-um, Princess Leia. May The Force be with you." He looked pointedly at her shoeless foot. "But you might want to rethink your battle armor."

Eileen huffed in frustration as she looked down at her wriggling toes. Could anything else go wrong? She counted off her disaster list for the morning. First off, her glasses had broken, forcing her to wear her old wobbly stand-byes. They only corrected her astigmatism, leaving her squinting to see anything more than three feet away. Then her car had decided to have a tizzy fit, resulting in Eileen experiencing an E-ticket joy ride in a tow truck. Finally, the elevator incident with the missing shoe. Didn’t bad things happen in threes? Clinging to that fuzzy logic, she calculated she should be home free for awhile.

Ray waved her off with a chuckle and a courtly bow. "M’lady, you go face the forces of the Dark Side. I’ll retrieve your slipper."

"Thanks, Ray." She removed her remaining shoe and walked in stocking feet toward what she hopped was still her office at the far end of the room.

When she’d called yesterday to tell Brock she’d be back he’d seemed unusually preoccupied and rushed their conversation. She never got the chance to ask if the office adjoining his executive suite was still hers, or if she’d been relocated.

Great. Not only had she been tossed out of her home of twenty-eight years, but now she was also in jeopardy of being usurped at work by a stranger. The anger and frustration she’d suppressed for the past week melded with the growing agitation she felt for the unknown man.

Although Brock had made it clear he couldn’t hold her senior position open indefinitely, he’d assured her she would always have a job at Wincomp. But, she didn’t want just any job. She wanted her job as Brock’s right-hand man.

Better yet, she’d like the job as Brock’s right-hand woman. Unfortunately, in all the years she’d known Brock she hadn’t been privy to that particular application.

Eileen rounded the last bank of cubicles, coming to a screeching halt at the doorway to her office. Her worst fears became reality as she stared at the back of a stranger’s pinstriped shirt. He had no right to be sitting at her desk. She hadn’t been gone that long.

Outraged, Eileen started to step into the office, ready to do battle. But she stumbled over a small box just inside the doorway, doing a repeat of the elevator circus act. Her purse and the remaining shoe flew from her arms.

During her flailing attempt to gain her footing, Eileen noticed in her peripheral vision that the man quickly turned off her computer screen.

He whirled around in his chair—her chair—to look up at her. Intelligent eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses flashed a quick head-to-toe look of scrutiny. The look changed to wry amusement as his gaze met with her stockinged feet.

She picked up her purse while trying to unobtrusively slip her foot into the shoe and still maintain some semblance of dignity. But after several failed attempts she was forced to bend down and hold onto the darned thing while she put it on. Even then she was compelled to wrestle with the shoe which had magically shrunk two sizes.

"You must be Eileen Pringle." He glanced at his watch, reminding her she was two hours late for work. "I figured you decided not to come in today after all."

Looking up from where she’d bent to retrieve her shoe she realized she was almost eye-level and a bit too close to the stranger for comfort. As close as she was, she couldn’t help but notice he had the most sensuous dark brown eyes she’d ever seen, which did nothing to calm her anxiety. Her stomach fluttered at his shuttered appraisal, and she realized she was physically reacting to him as a man.

She straightened and moved back a step. "Well, I’m here." She didn’t bother keeping the accusation out of her voice, and hoped the glare she gave him told the stranger he wasn’t welcome.

His eyes didn’t break contact as they grew serious, yet hard. He gruffly cleared his throat. "Sorry to hear about your father." Obviously he wasn’t comfortable with the acknowledgement.

"Thank you." She felt compelled to break eye contact and focus on his left shoulder. Sure, she was embarrassed by the clown act, but more than that, she didn’t want to discuss her father’s death and the resulting chaos with a stranger who could, at that very moment, be honing in on her weaknesses.

Eileen forced herself to meet his eyes. "And you are?" She did a quick appraisal of her own, doing her best to be objective and reevaluate her initial attraction. He was no Brock Van Buren, but he could be considered handsome, if you liked the nerdy-preppy-with-an-attitude kind of guy. Were bow ties back in style? If so she’d been gone longer than she thought. With his dark hair, he reminded her of Dean Cain’s Clark Kent TV character. Was Superman hiding behind those glasses?

She shook off the ridiculous whimsy only to have it replaced by another, which she couldn’t as easily shake off. Her instincts told her that Daniel Collins was hiding something.

"I’m Daniel Collins. Programming. New Guy at Wincomp. New Guy in LA." His mouth quirked in what she took as a smile, and he got up to offer his hand.

Why he was in her office? Fighting raging territorial impulses, she ignored the feeling she was letting her guard down around the enemy, and put her hand in his. He had a strong, warm handshake, bringing to mind her father’s words that a person could be judged by their handshake. She had to remind herself that her father hadn’t been such a hot judge of character or he wouldn’t have chosen Jeannette for a wife.

She pulled her hand from his and tilted her head up so she could look through her too-big frames and into his eyes. They were light brown, almost golden. Too bad eyes that nice were obscured by glasses. She saw a look of speculation in those eyes, and she had the feeling he was sizing her up. Did he consider her a threat? Why, if he already had her job? Maybe it wasn’t a done deal after all.

"Daniel," she sighed deeply, not bothering to hide her frustration. "This used to be my office. Do you know—"

"Still is. Mine’s over there." He jerked his head toward the cubical opposite her office.

She fought the urge to relieve the tension in her neck by cracking it; positive it would sound like pistol shots in the quiet office. "Any special reason you’re using my terminal?"

"I’ve been working back and forth on your projects as well as mine. Mr. Van Buren gave me your password. Said you wouldn’t mind since I’d be helping you out."

Helping her out of a job, he meant. She did mind? Big time. For the first time since she met Brock over eighteen years ago, she was furious with him. How dare he let a complete stranger have access to her program data. What if Daniel Collins wasn’t what he appeared to be? One of the programs she’d been close to completing just might be her pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. She couldn’t believe it might be in jeopardy because of Brock’s unthinking act.

Eileen finally gave in and bent her neck to the side, the satisfying resounding pops caused Daniel’s eyebrows to shoot up. "Well, Daniel, it seems I kinda do mind."

Daniel held up his hands. "Bad call, huh? Well, then I’ll leave you to your work. The jobs I completed are in your mailbox and so is Mr. Van Buren’s schedule. They’re all yours. Sorry to have stepped on your, ah … toes." She caught the smirk as he glanced at her shoeless feet. He got up and picked up the box she’d tripped over. Then he left, quietly closing the door behind him.

She looked around her office, suddenly wondering why she’d taken for granted that Daniel Collins wanted her job. The office rumors she’d heard from various co-workers had been like acid, slowly eating away at her confidence for the past two weeks. Maybe, like the guy said, he’d only been trying to catch up on some of her work while she was away. She should apologize for her bitchiness. It wasn’t like her at all. Just because her life had turned sour didn’t mean she had to take it out on a complete stranger.

It didn’t look like he’d messed with anything on her desk, so she couldn’t fault him for that. The coveted bottle of "fairy dust" she’d gotten from her mother on a childhood trip to Disneyland still sparkled from on top of her PC. Her prisms still hung in the window ready to paint tiny rainbows on her wall when the late afternoon sun hit them. And the toy "Magic Eight Ball" sat in it’s usual spot in front of her manuals, waiting to answer life’s more serious questions. She sure could have used it while she’d been gone. If only it really could magically answer the questions fate had thrown her way.

Even though almost a week had passed since her father’s death, she still didn’t have the answers she needed as to why she’d been left out of his will. She had her suspicions—and they all led to the devious Jeannette and the possibility of a forged will—but she didn’t have answers. She wasn’t even sure how to go about getting them.

A knock on her door rattled Eileen out of her thoughtful quandary. She tucked a stray hair into her rapidly loosening French braid and ran her tongue over her lips, hoping it would be Brock at the door. When she opened it to find Ray standing there she tried not to look disappointed. Her missing shoe dangled from one of Ray’s fingers.

"Thanks a million, Ray." She took the shoe and put it on, instantly feeling some measure of composure return.

Ray leaned against the doorframe, crossing his arms as he whispered, "How’d it go with the out-of-towner?" He jerked his head, indicating the man in the cubical behind him.

"Not too hot." She moved closer to Ray so Daniel wouldn’t overhear. "He seems okay. Not too nice, but then I’m sure he doesn’t think I’m Miss Congeniality, either." She realized she had most likely taken her anger at Jeannette out on Daniel, and that her fears about losing her job were probably unjustified.

Ray said, "Brock let him use your terminal until Daniel’s workstation was ready. But ever since Collins heard you were coming back, he’s been hurrying to get his stuff transferred to the new workstation’s data base."

Eileen took a deep breath. If Brock had let Daniel Collins use her office, maybe she was directing her anger at the wrong man. "I guess I didn’t have to be so bitchy. But still, I have the strong impression he’s here under false pretenses."

"Darlin’, I’ve taken you to one too many film noir movies. Collins seems like a regular guy to me. Why don’t you just ask him what’s going on?" Ray glanced back toward Daniel. "I need to get back to work. We on for lunch?"

She really should try and smooth things over with Daniel. "I’ll meet you downstairs at noon. Thanks, Ray."

When Ray left, Eileen leaned out her doorway to see if the adjoining office’s double doors might be open, as they always were when Brock was in. But his office was closed and, she was sure, locked up tight. Remembering Brock’s strong inclination for security in his own office, she began wondering all over again why he’d given Daniel her password.

A glance toward Daniel’s cubical told her he was already deep into a programming setup. She walked up behind him, noticing he seemed stymied by what was on his screen.

"Daniel?"

He jerked around to look at her just as he had when she’d surprised him in her office. Why was he so jumpy? Although her instincts still told her he had something to hide, her rational mind said he was probably just a caffeine junkie. Or maybe, like her, he was working on a secret project.

He acknowledged her with a, "Yes?" his expression cautious.

"I’m sorry we …" She bit back the words, ‘got off on the wrong foot,’ before they left her mouth. Instead she began again. "I’m sorry I was so cross. I’d like to start again." She held out her hand as a peace offering. If they both stayed on, she’d most likely be working closely with Daniel. Tension between them could create an unbearable situation in a job she loved.

Digging deep she found a trace of humor. "Hello. My name is Eileen Pringle, and I’m a slightly paranoid workaholic."

He stood up, towering above her. Why did men always do that? It made her feel so small. And this guy was at least six-four. He took her hand in his, the handshake firm but gentle. Evidently Daniel was a forgiving kind of man. "Hello Eileen Pringle. My name is Daniel Collins, and I, too, am a workaholic."

***

Undercover FBI agent Daniel Manatucci—alias Collins—had been startled when he realized one of his prime suspects, Eileen Pringle, was standing behind him. That made twice she’d sneaked up on him, and it had him mentally scratching his head. Since her level of grace just about matched her "four" on the "one-to-ten" beauty scale, he couldn’t figure out how he hadn’t heard her coming a mile away. For some reason his senses were definitely off kilter when he was around the woman. That meant he’d have to be even more careful and stay alert when she was close by.

Eileen bent to the side to look around him at his computer screen. "Anything I can help you with? Just want to reciprocate, since you’ve been doing my work."

He stepped aside. Good luck if she could solve a problem he’d worked on for over two days. "Just a glitch. I’m sure I’ll …" His voice trailed off as he watched her step past him, quickly assess the screen and begin clicking through the program.

She seemed like she was in a better mood, and he wondered what brought about the change. Now might be the time to ask her about the apartment Van Buren had told him about. He wasn’t sure when Dr. Jekyll would leave and Ms. Hyde might reappear.

Daniel took notice of her focused concentration as he asked, "Mr. Van Buren said you’d recently moved into an apartment close by. I relocated for this job, and I’m staying in a motel until I can find a place. He said he thought there might be an apartment available in your complex."

After working over two weeks trying to find out who in Wincomp had hacked into sensitive government files, Daniel realized the assignment would be a lengthy one. He’d need to find a more comfortable place to live, and living in the same apartment complex as one of his suspects was perfect.

"An apartment?" She seemed to stiffen as she glanced back at him, then returned her focus to the terminal. "Then you’re staying on." She tapped several keystrokes, thoughtfully moving aside and giving him access to see what she was doing. He noticed she never used the mouse. Daniel was a mouse man all the way. "Voila!" she said, and just like that, the program problem he’d slaved over for two days was solved.

She looked extremely pleased with herself and Daniel had the feeling she expected him to be upset. On the contrary. He’d heard that Eileen Pringle was a smart when it came to computers, and he’d just seen the proof of her techno-wizardry firsthand. There was more to the woman than he’d originally thought. Maybe much more. Even though his background check on her indicated she was on leave when the hacking occurred, Daniel mentally moved Eileen up a notch on his list of suspects.

Eileen returned her full attention to him. Daniel took a closer look at her as she went on, "Well, I’d better get to work. Do you know when Brock’s coming in?"

Either the thought of having Daniel for a neighbor was unpleasant, or her personality leaned toward the absent-minded-professor type. She couldn’t possibly have forgotten his question about the apartment so quickly. He realized they’d gotten off to a bad start. That wasn’t like him, especially when he was on assignment. Making friends with the suspects was and integral part of his job.

He answered her question first. "Mr. Van Buren said he’d be in around eleven. He had some personal business." He turned on the charm. "About the apartment?"

She chewed the corner of her thumbnail, and he noticed how gracefully tapered her long fingers were. Her, "I don’t know if there’s a vacancy," held a note of dismissal.

Evidently she couldn’t see his charm through her huge, cockeyed glasses. He continued to smile. Keep it non-threatening, buddy, keep it non-threatening. "Brock seemed to think there would be. Could I have the apartment manager’s phone number?" He really wanted to stick close to Eileen Pringle, and what better way than to live next door.

"I have to warn you, the place is kinda old. Circa thirties or forties."

Man, she really didn’t want him around. He challenged her but kept it friendly. "I was told the whole place had recently been renovated."

Finally, she relented. "Well, okay. I’ll get the number." She pivoted, heading back to her office, giving Daniel a nice view of slim calves and ankles. He’d always maintained that clothes like the prim, below-the-knee skirt and white Peter-Pan-collar blouse she wore were a real crime on any woman. So were the practical flat shoes, even if they were expensive. He knew quality when he saw it, and the cashmere sweater said she did too. But she dressed like she didn’t want to be noticed, or like she was hiding out. That thought sparked the question, hiding from what?

If he hadn’t already researched her background and discovered that, physically anyway, with Eileen Pringle what you saw was exactly what you got, he might wonder if she was working at Wincomp undercover, too. Even in her high school yearbook photo she’d been hidden behind glasses and looked slightly disheveled.

He started to turn back to her office to take a second look, but just then Brock Van Buren walked through Eileen’s doorway. Daniel kept them in his peripheral vision. They were talking low, so he couldn’t catch what they were saying, but from their body language he could read them pretty clearly. Still, he wished his sound enhancer hadn’t stroked out yesterday.

Daniel watched as Brock pushed an errant strand of Eileen’s hair behind her ear, his finger lingering on her cheek a moment longer than either a casual friendship or employer-employee relationship dictated. The way Van Buren squeezed her shoulder was intimate, yet not as if the guy really had a serious interest in her.

Could Daniel be reading too much into what he was seeing? He thought not. In fact, he had the feeling that at last he had his first real lead. Those two were definitely in cahoots. Why else would a playboy like Van Buren cater to someone like her? Eileen Pringle seemed like the last person on earth a guy like Van Buren would find attractive. The man was all spit and polish, a hair never out of place. And his body language said he wasn’t in love with the woman. For some reason, he was leading her on.

On the other hand, anyone with two eyes could see that Eileen was head-over-heels for Mr. Blond Jock; her look said it all. Daniel had to wonder if the look said she’d do anything the man asked. Like maybe using her considerable computer expertise to help Van Buren hack into government files? Background revealed the guy was attuned to computer technology, but whose true forte was business.

As he covertly watched the two he had to keep in mind that they were both suspect. They could be in on this together or either one of them could be on their own.

Copyright 2001 by ImaJinn Books