Donna’s hands disappeared into the sudsy water, “You will go out to dinner with Mr. Palmer tonight and I’ll hear no arguments about it, Felicity Smoak.”
“I absolutely will not go anywhere with that pompous asshole, let alone shave my legs to listen to him spout off about how great he is for five courses.” She took the dripping plate from her mother’s hand and dried it, setting it in the cabinet to the left of the sink.
“He’s rich. He’s handsome. And he’s willing to help this family, which I can see you aren’t willing to do,” she said, glaring at her daughter. “Besides, I’ve already accepted for you.”
“You what?” Felicity yelped and froze in place, almost dropping the glass she held. “I know you did not just tell me that you set me up on a date.”
Donna looked up from washing the dishes, her face set as if she’d prepared in advance for this quarrel. “I did. We discussed it at the picnic. For once in your life you will do as you’re told.”
Angry tears threatened. “I’ve always done what’s expected of me.” Felicity never had to be asked because she simply did it, knowing what would make her parents’ life easier. This was a step too far.
“Then I expect you to do this. Quite the opportunity…” The older blonde looked at her askance. “It’s not as if you have any other prospects.”
A flash of blue eyes skittered across her memory. Shoving that aside, she answered, “Whether I have any other prospects is not the issue. I don’t like the man.”
“May you learn that liking a man isn’t always the best reason to date them, Felicity.” Her mother’s hands searched the water for any silverware she might have missed. “I got lucky with Quentin, but there aren’t many men like him.”
She tugged the dishtowel through the handle of the refrigerator and turned. “Mom, I won’t go and you can’t force me.”
“Maybe I can’t, but your father certainly can.” The sound of the draining sink filled the silence. “Quentin!”
Felicity prayed that her father wouldn’t force the issue. She didn’t think he would, but then, he loved Donna fiercely. He might agree simply to placate her. She heard him moving around downstairs in the family room.
“Coming,” he called up the short stairwell.
When he joined them in the kitchen, Donna wasted no time. “Tell your daughter that she will go on the date I arranged for her.”
Her dad looked confused. “What date? I’m sure Lissie is happy to do whatever you ask of her.”
Her eyes pleaded with him. “She wants me to go to dinner with Ray Palmer. I can’t—I won’t.”
“Is that so?” Quentin chuckled, and then schooled his features to the seriousness of the situation. “Donna, you can’t have thought that she would say yes. The man is an abominable bore.”
Hope bubbled up inside her. “See mom, even dad knows this is a bad idea.”
“Oh, I didn’t say that.” His eyes twinkled down at her. “I find that I would love to be a fly on the wall for your date.”
His wife’s face turned a shade matching her vibrant lipstick. “Do not encourage her. You know what a headstrong girl she is, Quentin. Now tell her that she must accept or else…”
“Or else what?” Felicity challenged.
Her mother crossed her arms over her chest, fixing her daughter with her best parental stare. “Or else I will never speak to you again.”
“Fat chance of that,” she muttered under her breath. She loved her mother, but sometimes her meddling tested the bounds of her patience.
“Lissie,” her father warned. Her lips clamped together. “Is it worth upsetting your mother to turn down this date? It’s only one meal. Maybe you’ll discover you like the man.”
She retorted, “That will absolutely never happen. You didn’t hear the way he spoke to me.”
Quentin studied her face, waiting to see if she would expound on that statement. When she refused, he nodded and sighed. “Well then, young lady, it seems you have a choice to make. Your mother will never speak to you again if you don’t go on this date, and I will never speak to you again if you do.”
Relief flooded her entire body. She should’ve known she could count on her dad.
“Thank you!” Felicity rose up on her tiptoes and kissed him on the cheek before fleeing the room. Grabbing her backpack, jacket, and helmet, she ran out the front door. Her mother’s offended voice could be heard the entire way out to her moped. The engine didn’t rev like a certain Ducati, but she zipped away from the curb and away from the most ridiculous pair-up her mother could’ve ever conceived.
She drove aimlessly for an hour before remembering she needed to give Oliver the information mined from the micro camera. Hanging a left at the next corner, Felicity headed back in the direction of Verdant. Since Sara’d taken over bartending on Mondays, she’d been able to grab a little freedom for herself. After the picnic yesterday, the tech genius spent the entire evening into the wee hours of the morning tracing the signal to its origin. Maybe there might have been a distraction or two when the programs she’d set up to track the Vigilante dinged their alert, but the pictures downloaded off the city’s cameras only showed his back. One day she’d discover his identity.
Stopping at a gas station, she retrieved her phone and sent Oliver a quick text asking if he was free to meet. Moments later his response confirmed that he was available and Felicity calmed her sudden nerves. The grey overcast sky seemed at odds with her excitement, but the blonde reminded herself that the man wasn’t interested in her for anything other than her brain. Not that that bothered her, she considered her brain her best feature, but she had a strange desire to know what it would be like to kiss him.
Shaking her head of the random thought, Felicity pulled back into traffic and obeyed the speed limit despite remembering how fantastic it felt to ride on the back of his motorcycle, screaming through the night. Hands tightened on her moped handles instead of a six-pack of abs, cool wind pressed against her instead of the heat of his body. She really needed to get a grip. Oliver wasn’t a Disney Prince and she wasn’t Cinderella.
Her thoughts drove her all the way to the club where she parked and stiffened her shoulders. Who knew which Oliver would meet her today?
Frank guarded the door again, greeting her. “Ms. Smoak. Good to see you again. I wanted to apologize for my behavior the last time you were here.”
Taken aback, Felicity accepted his apology. “No worries, you were just doing your job, right? I’m sure there are tons of girls trying to get a sneak peek inside the domain of Merlyn and Queen.”
The bouncer smiled. “You have no idea.” He held open the door for her and she entered the sacred space.
“I really don’t think you should go and talk to this girl, Oliver.” Dig watched as his partner puttered around the room pretending his mind wasn’t occupied by the video screen showing the woman who’d just arrived. “Let me go and get the information for you.”
Oliver shrugged on the grey suit coat draped over the office chair in front of the ancient computer system. “You worry far too much, Diggle. Felicity Smoak is safe from the likes of me.”
“Then why did you wear a suit to the club today?” Arms like tree trunks bulged as the man crossed them and leaned against the metal table watching his friend.
The Vigilante grumbled. “I felt like it.” Even he knew that was one of his lamest excuses to date. “Besides, it’ll draw too much attention to you. Remember, you’re supposed to be my black driver.”
“Fair enough, man, but be careful. You need to keep her at arm’s length. Asking for her help is one thing, quite another to go riding off into the night with her.”
Oliver growled. “Trust me when I say the woman is not interested in anything I have to offer.”
Dig moved to his side, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Just because she’s not interested, doesn’t mean that you aren’t.”
He shrugged off his friend’s well-meaning attempt at advice, but he wasn’t saying anything Oliver hadn’t figured out himself. After driving Felicity home, he’d succeeded in not going to see her again for weeks. Every single day had been a challenge and he’d spent more time on the streets, only coming back to the Foundry when exhaustion demanded it.
The scarred and broken man slammed his fists on the metal table, the sound echoing through the space. “I get it, Dig. Who I am—No, what I am, is not conducive to any relationship, let alone one with a highly intelligent and innocent woman like Felicity. She has a loving family and a bright future and I’d be a fool to pull her into our world. Can we just drop it?”
He lived with his faults every day and didn’t need to be reminded that he deserved nothing good in this life. There were too many chances for his numerous enemies to use any perceived weakness against him. Yesterday, at her family’s picnic, Oliver almost confessed everything to Felicity. When she admitted she thought the Vigilante a hero…well it took all his willpower not to drag her into his arms and thank her for the belief.
Dig nodded and moved to the training mat. “Just looking out for you…” He left the rest unsaid.
Felicity waved to the petite woman with jet-black hair setting up the bar. “Hi. I’m Felicity. I’m supposed to be meeting Oliver.”
Before the bartender could respond, he strode into the club, wearing a suit. Felicity swallowed through the zings of heat shooting through her veins.
“Felicity!” Playboy smile plastered across his face, he greeted her, moving his hand to just below her backpack, guiding her to a table away from the bar.
Felicity shivered at his touch, but the smile was a disappointment. It meant distant Oliver was in charge today. “Hey, I hope I’m not interrupting you.”
“Of course not, I appreciate your help on this.” He pulled out one of the high-top chairs for her and she shrugged off her backpack. He sat as far away from her as the table would allow. “What’ve you got for me?”
Collecting her thoughts, she dug into one of the pockets of her bag. “This…” she held up the bug, “is not good news, Oliver.”
Setting the camera between them, she studied his face and watched as mental gates slammed down. “I told you, it’s a scavenger hunt.”
“Yes you did. But just because that’s what you told me doesn’t mean I believe you.” Oliver opened his mouth; Felicity cut him off. “Whatever lie you’re about to concoct, don’t. I have no intention of prying into your personal life. I don’t know what you’re playing at, but it’s dangerous.”
A hollow and brittle laugh spilled out of him. “That’s just ridiculous. Whatever could I be involved with that’s dangerous?”
Felicity ignored the deflection. “I followed the trail of this signal as it bounced all over the city. When I finally pinned down the origin, the address was an overgrown vacant lot on the east side of the Glades. The signal then disappeared two seconds after I located it. Between this and the spyware,” two things she knew were connected, “I’m coming to the conclusion that someone really is stalking you.”
“Thanks for the information, and being so quick about finding it. If you’ll just give me the address, I’ll take care of it from here.” Oliver fidgeted as she scribbled down the location, holding it out to him, but not releasing it. “You really don’t need to worry about me, Felicity. I just have very interesting friends, that’s all.”
Reluctantly, she let go of the paper and reached out to him. “Let me help you, please. Not only am I the best hacker in the tri-state area, but my dad’s a cop.” Felicity could’ve sworn he stopped himself from touching her outstretched hand.
“No, absolutely not,” Oliver barked at her. She caught the immediate regret that surfaced in his eyes. “Sorry. It’ll invalidate the game, which isn’t quite legal, as you might imagine.”
Swinging her bag over her shoulder, she stifled her worry. “Alright. Just remember, you’ve got my number and I’m more than willing to help.”
“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” he replied, the walls erected firmly between them. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work.”
Felicity huffed out an exasperated breath. “You are one of the most infuriating men I’ve ever met.”
“That’s nice.” And with that, Oliver Queen stormed away.
What a trying day, she thought making her way out to where she’d parked Charlie. Her watch revealed that it was early evening, far too early for her to go home quite yet. Instead, she headed to her favorite used bookstore. More and more certain Oliver had found himself in trouble she browsed the aisles, not paying a lick of attention to any of the titles she lifted from the shelves. Her frustration and dislike of his arrogant side warred with the memory of him sitting at a picnic table with her. She had to let this go, let him go. Just because he’d shown an ounce of kindness, a time or two, didn’t mean he wasn’t a jerk.
She simply didn’t have time for that. Bennet’s Bar looked like it might be on the upward climb, and hopefully she could start searching for a job in her field. Who knows, maybe she’d apply to work in the tech division at Queen Consolidated. It’s not like she’d ever see Oliver there since as far as she knew he hadn’t given in to his mother’s wishes yet. She reshelved another book she hadn’t bothered to peruse. Maybe once Laurel finished with Verdant they could sit down with their parents and talk about hiring a part-timer or two. She knew it was selfish, but she wanted her own life. Loving her parents and giving up her dreams forever were two different things.
Her stomach rumbled and Felicity decided that even though she wasn’t going on a date with Ray Palmer, she could still take herself out for dinner. It might be Big Belly Burger instead of Table Salt, but who cared. She picked out a couple urban fantasy novels—her guilty pleasure—she’d been meaning to read and headed to her favorite burger joint. After settling into a booth and ordering from her server Carly, the blonde chose one of her purchases and lost herself in post-apocalyptic Atlanta. The story gripped her enough that when a man walked up to her table, she didn’t notice.
“Felicity Smoak.” Her head whipped up and she froze mid-bite when she realized who stood in front of her. “I am not a man who gets turned down.” He slid into the bench seat across from her.
“What the hell are you doing here, Ray?” Panic made her posture rigid. Her gaze flicked to take in the darkened sky. Night had fallen.
He smirked at her, acting as if he exhibited normal behavior. “You aren’t the only one with tech skills. I simply pinged your cell phone. And low and behold, I find you eating dinner alone. How lucky for me.”
Appetite gone, she caught her server’s eye. “That’s not luck, that’s stalking.” She shoved her book into her bag and grabbed her wallet. When Carly approached, Felicity handed over her card. Ray attempted to pull out his wallet, but one glare stopped his motion.
“Are you really leaving? Come on, I meant no harm.” His cajoling tone needled her, as if it the whole thing were just a big joke. “Give me a chance, you might actually like me.”
“Doubtful,” she paused, clutching her backpack. “I presume you got the message I didn’t want to go out with you.”
He nodded, “I did, and got an earful from your mother for my pains. Mrs. Smoak is quite put out that you turned me down. I just don’t understand it.” He shrugged, honestly confused. “Why wouldn’t you want to go out with me? I figured you were just playing hard to get. You know, making me want to chase you.”
“No, some women might play games, but I certainly don’t.” Felicity signed her credit card slip, sliding her card back into her wallet, and stood to leave. “Good night, Mr. Palmer.”
He rose as she walked away and followed, rushing out the closing door behind her. “You can’t be serious right now.”
“I am very serious. Let me be clear, I am not interested in going out with you, now or ever.” She turned on her heel.
Ray grabbed her elbow, spinning her back around. “You don’t have to try so hard, I already like you. You know what kind of life I can offer. Give up this pretension; it doesn’t suit you. Tell me who else is going to be willing to date a simple bartender from the Glades, no matter how pretty her face.”
Felicity’s heart began to pound when he wouldn’t release her. Her free hand reached into her jacket pocket, slowly retrieving her pepper spray. She didn’t want to use it on the billionaire, already seeing the headlines tomorrow—‘Glades Bartender Attacks Pillar of Central City’—That wouldn’t go over well.
“You should release me now.” Ray let her go as if he’d been burned by her caustic tone. She took a step away from him and felt herself breathe easier. “Let me explain something to you. In case you ever intend to date another woman, when she tells you no, she’s not being cute, or coy, or playing hard to get, she means it. Your only response is to walk away. If for some ungodly reason she changes her mind, she will initiate contact. Though why any sane woman would find an arrogant, pushy, stalker like you attractive is beyond me.”
He retreated a few steps, putting even more distance between them. “Well, I…well, I…”
“I think the response you’re looking for is: I understand and apologize for my boorish behavior.”
“No one has ever spoken to me so bluntly.” His face took on a look as if he were just a lost little boy, uncertain as to why he was being scolded.
Felicity wouldn’t let it faze her. “An unfortunate oversight, in my opinion. Men like you seem to think the world is simply there for the taking. It is not.”
Shock lined his face at her words. “My gravest apologies, Miss Smoak, I did not think. I’ll just be going. Have a good evening.” He turned brusquely to leave.
Felicity watched every step he took until his driver opened the door of his black BMW and Ray slid inside without a glance behind.
If stumbling upon Felicity’s moped parked near Big Belly Burger seemed a twist of fate, then seeing her exit the restaurant with Ray Palmer hot on her heels had been fate’s punch to his gut. He wanted to see her happy, but he didn’t want that conceited prick anywhere near her. When it became apparent she wasn’t with him willingly, the Vigilante almost let loose a zip line arrow and swooped down to snap his neck. Anger surged through his body when the man placed his hand on her. If it hadn’t been completely obvious that she had the situation under control, he might have lost his tenuous grasp on his temper.
He debated following and putting the fear of God into the asshole until she broke down in tears, hunched over the seat of Charlie. Within seconds, he came down the fire escape and crossed the street to her, slowing the closer he got. He hadn’t been stalking her, but he had stayed when he knew she was there, and Felicity had been scared enough for one night.
“Are you all right?” His voice modulator deepened his words and the tear-streaked woman startled. “Hey, hey, hey…it’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.”
She began laughing hysterically. “Isn’t this just the topper on the cake? Rescued by the Vigilante. Well, not exactly rescued since I’d already handled everything, but of course the night I meet you, I’m sobbing my face off in residual terror.” She scrubbed at her eyes, smearing the light make-up she wore.
Oliver thought she looked more beautiful than ever. He repeated his question. “Are you okay?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m fine.” Felicity took in big gulps of air, attempting to calm herself. “See? All better.”
Tears still streamed down her cheeks and the Vigilante reached out with his gloved hand to wipe them away. Far too close to her, he ducked his head, hiding beneath the shadow of his hood.
“Who are you?” She raised her blue eyes searching for his.
He backed away, his fingers rubbing together from the absence of touching her. “No one.”
She reached for him, but dropped her hand when he took a step back. “Thank you, no one.”
“No need. As you said, you’d already taken care of the situation.” Oliver needed to extricate himself. He felt the urge to take her into his arms and protect her from the entire world. He reminded himself that bringing her closer would put her in more danger. He locked away the feelings that threatened to overwhelm him.
The Vigilante watched as she stiffened her shoulders, her face haunted. “You don’t know how quickly something like that can turn bad.”
He growled, tightened his grip on his bow. “Who? When?” He would kill whoever touched her, terrified her so much that the fear still lived inside her.
“It was a long time ago. He can’t hurt me anymore,” her words a whispered mantra. “I need to go. And I’m sure you need to get out of the light. Anyone could see you here.”
He couldn’t tell her he feared only her light. “You okay to drive?” He gestured to her waiting moped.
“Yes, I’m alright.” She reached up and touched his cheek, but made no move to unmask him. A deeply buried part of him wished she would. He didn’t want to hide from her. “Thank you. Now, go be the hero I know you are.”
She pulled on her helmet, and climbed onto Charlie. Her words clung to him. He notched an arrow and released it, feeling the claw catch on the roof above.
“Be safe.” He released the lever and soared up to the building. Standing on the edge, outlined only by the moon, she raised her hand in goodbye to him. He watched her drive away. One more patrol and then he would check to make sure she made it home safe.
When he turned, he came face to face with a young man in a red hoodie, a gun pointed at his chest.
“What are you doing with my sister?”