When Tuesday came around again, Sydney found that she didn’t feel out-of-sorts or awkward. She realized that some of that was due to the presence of Isabelle and her small household to liven her life.
It wasn’t like her life was boring, she assured herself. With work sending her all over the planet, she didn’t have much time for what she already had in her life—which, according to some, wasn’t all that much. But then again, wouldn’t a full, active social life amid hunting down terrorists be a bit of overkill?
Nicole was in Sydney’s stylish kitchen making fried chicken and had shooed Sydney and Isabelle away when they tried to lend a helping hand, allowing them only to retrieve a couple of wine glasses and a bottle of Pinot Grigio. Biscuits were baking in the oven, homemade mashed potatoes and fresh snap beans were heating on the stove top, and there was even a rumor of baked strawberry pie floating around. Needless to say, Sydney was anticipating dinner like a small child anticipated a birthday party. It was something she hadn’t felt in a while, so she embraced it—and all of the foolishness that came along with it.
Nicole sang along with Grenique’s “Disco” as she checked on the drumsticks in the deep-fryer. Sydney and Isabelle sipped wine at the island as Sophie sat between them, drawing a picture. The scene was homey, comforting. Even Nicole cooing, Pick out my afro, slip on my high heeled shoes, put on my fancy coat—I’m heading to the disco! accompanied the scene nicely.
“I can’t begin to thank you for letting us stay here, Sydney,” Isabelle said as she lowered her wine glass. “I know it’s an inconvenience—”
Sydney waved a hand in easy dismissal. “No—wait. Of course not,” she assured Isabelle. “Truthfully, I was used to having a roommate before and having you all around reminds me of how much I missed it.” She briefly thought of Francie and Will as Sophie tugged on her sleeve. “Whatcha got for me, sweetie?” Sophie slid the picture she’d been drawing of the fruit bowl in Sydney’s direction. The drawing needed a bit of refinement, but it was still amazing for a seven-year-old, and that fact showed on Sydney’s face when she looked at it.
“Do you like it?” Sophie asked, the tone of her voice indicating she was anxious for Sydney’s approval.
“I love it,” Sydney told her, then, on impulse, placed a light kiss on her temple. Isabelle, meanwhile, smiled faintly and appeared content that her daughter liked Sydney. “Thank you. I’ll put it on the fridge after dinner.” She turned to Nicole, who was stirring the snap beans. She reached out and pulled the lid up on the pot of mashed potatoes. From Sydney’s vantage point, they looked as fluffy as clouds. Delicious. “So when’s it going to be ready anyway?”
Nicole slapped her hand away. “Girl!” she admonished. “You wanna lose a hand or something? It’ll be done when it’s done. All right?”
“All right,” Sydney repeated. She caught Isabelle’s eye and her dimples popped out as she grinned at the older woman. “Is she always like this?”
“Actually, she’s a little better behaved tonight,” Isabelle admitted, and received a glare from Nicole. “During Thanksgiving, she all but soaked me with water to keep me out of my own kitchen.”
“Y’all can go set the table or something,” Nicole suggested, waving her spatula at them. “And wash your hands. Y’all ain’t gonna come to my table with dirty fingers.”
“Yes, Mother,” Isabelle said wryly as she slid off out of the chair. But Nicole couldn’t help a smirk as they retrieved the plates from Sydney’s cabinet. The doorbell rang as Sydney and Sophie were giggling over silverware. Nicole’s eyebrows arched as she and Isabelle shared a look. Isabelle offered to get it before Sydney could move.
“I wonder who that could be,” Nicole murmured absently with a frown.
Meanwhile, Isabelle had opened up the door to find Vaughn on Sydney’s porch. He was sans tie and blazer, but he still wore the navy blue slacks and the pale blue shirt he had donned for work that morning, which was unbuttoned at the neck to reveal some of his tanned skin. He had his hands in his pockets, and he kicked at a pebble as the door came open. When he spied Isabelle, his expression changed from uneasiness to a bit of irritation.
“Isabelle,” Vaughn scolded. “What are you doing answering the door? Where is Sydney?”
“She’s setting the table with Sophie,” Isabelle told him archly. She crossed her arms over her chest. “If you’re about to yell at me, save it.”
Vaughn surprised her by saying, “I didn’t come here to fight, Isabelle. I…I wanted to come and spend some time with my daughter, if you didn’t mind.”
Isabelle nodded, reversing her thrusters. Indignation was replaced by concern. “Does Lauren know now?”
Vaughn looked down at his feet a moment, then shifted his gaze up to Isabelle. “I finally sat her down and told her about Sophie. She…is out of town right now.”
Isabelle nodded, understanding what he was trying to say without actually verbalizing it. She saw his eyes telling her all she needed to know, and the information there wrenched her heart. Tears threatened to fill her eyes. She tried to blink them away and avert Vaughn’s gaze but he was too shrewd. He took her chin gently and forced her to look at him.
Her mouth trembled, but she firmed it into a line. After a moment she said, “I should have told you about Sophie before, Michael. I put you in an impossible position with your wife and hurt you in turn. I am so sorry.”
“I’m a big boy, Isabelle,” he reminded her. “I could have told her sooner if I wanted but I didn’t. And that’s on me.” He hugged her. “But knowing sooner would have helped.”
Isabelle chuckled as Nicole’s irate shout floated out to them. Apparently, Sophie had dared Sydney to stick her finger in the baked strawberry pie and, from the sounds of it, Nicole had swatted her away with her spatula before she could complete the challenge.
“We’d better get in there before Sydney gets grounded in her own house,” Isabelle suggested with a half-laugh. She turned to walk inside, but paused as something occurred to her. “Michael?”
He stopped beside her, looked at her sidelong. “Yeah?”
“I told Sophie who you were. Are,” she corrected. She looked up at him. “I explained, in somewhat simple terms she could understand, that you couldn’t be with us because I didn’t allow you to.” She watched as Sydney and Sophie comically finished setting the table. “When she asked me why I’d done that, I told her that I thought I was protecting you. And I did. But after she went to sleep, and I got to thinking about it, I realized that I did you a great disservice by taking away your choice to be protected or take the risk.” She slipped her hand in his. “I want to fix that. Be her father.”
“Isabelle,” Vaughn started, “I am her father.”
“Good,” Isabelle remarked with a nod. She patted his broad shoulder and gave him her award-winning smile. “So then you can give her the birds and the bees talk over dinner.”
She bit off a laugh at Vaughn’s horrified expression and secured the front door.
At the sound of the door closing, Sophie and Sydney both looked up. Sophie, with all of her childish understanding, dropped the plate she had been holding onto the table and ran headlong into Vaughn.
“Oh—wow!” Vaughn exclaimed as the breath was knocked out of him. “Hi there.”
Sophie raised her head and grinned at him. Her eyes danced with glee. “Hello. Can you stay for dinner?” Not waiting for him to answer, she turned to Isabelle. “Mami, can he stay for dinner?”
When Isabelle looked up at Sydney, a question in her eyes, Sydney said, “It’s okay. Vaughn can have dinner with us if he wants.”
After a humming moment, Vaughn stopped fighting the grin that had threatened to break out onto his face. “I definitely want. Hey,” he said when he spotted the pie cooling nearby. “Is this—?” Nicole swatted his hand with the spatula before his fingertips could touch the crumbly lattice topping. The plastic hit his skin with a sharp snap. “Ow!” Vaughn protested, jerking his hand away. “Hey! What was that for?”
Nicole looked mama-stern as she crossed her arms over her chest and glared at him. “Did I tell you to touch the pie? No,” she cut him off when he tried to speak. “Now go wash your hands. Dinner will be ready in two minutes.” As Vaughn rubbed his hand and walked toward Sydney’s bathroom to wash his hands, Nicole added loudly, “And you’re on kitchen duty afterwards, buddy. So don’t try to skulk out after dessert.”
Sydney covered her mouth to contain her chuckle, and Isabelle remarked, “Yes, I’m afraid she could be much, much worse than this.”
Several miles away, Marisol Sebastian took off her reading glasses and rubbed at her tired eyes.
She had seen better days, and that she would readily admit, but the past few days had been staggering in the wake of her best friend’s phone call. You might have something someone dangerous wants. Ten cuidado, chica. The vivacious thirty-six-year-old had bumped heads with mudslides, violent storms, heinous rock climbs, but there was something more menacing about an unknown assailant. She couldn’t look him or her in the eye and overcome the fear. Right now, information was her only ally.
She had examined the artifacts that she had acquired from Alejandro Garza’s collection, looking for cracks and secret compartments. At the end of her search, she had discovered a yellowed piece of paper with a name on it. Evangeline Gosselin.
Who was she? Her gut—and, as a superstitious woman, she always trusted her gut—told her that this woman was important, but she could not figure out why. Brow furrowed, she reached over and picked up the phone. Yes, she didn’t know why, but she might know someone who would.
After two rings, a female voice came across the line with the sounds of pots and pans clanging against one another in the background. “Hello?”
“Hey chica, it’s Marisol,” she greeted the woman.
The woman sighed heavily at the sound of Marisol’s fatigue-laden voice. “Tell me that you’re at home curled up in bed with a good book.” When Marisol said nothing, she groaned. “Dammit, Mari. You need to put all of this to rest. You’re going to wear yourself out trying to find something that’s not there.”
“It’s there,” Marisol insisted fervently. “Or something’s there that I need to find. Look, this isn’t the time to scold me. I called to ask you to do me favor.”
“I’d be doing you a favor by hanging up the phone and making you get some rest. How long has it been since you’ve been to the doctor? Moira-Selene says you canceled your last appointment with her and didn’t make a new one.”
Marisol sighed. It was the same old tune, different station. “And this is what I get for having a doctor-turned-cook for a friend.” When her friend made of sound of indignation and attempted to speak, Marisol added, “Don’t dignify that with a response. Just listen. I found something odd in the stuff Izzy gave me. I don’t know what to make of it.”
“You didn’t find that Globe thing did you? And why’s it so important anyway?”
Marisol bit off the urge to tell her friend the whole story. She had decided from the outset that she would be the only person, besides Isabelle, that would bear the burden of knowing what was actually going on. And that was only because she’d browbeat it out of Isabelle when she’d called. “No, I didn’t. I found this piece of paper with this name on it.”
“What’s the name?”
“Some woman. Evangeline—”
A loud sound in the background cut Marisol off. Her friend yelled at someone and more pots clanged. Marisol sighed and patiently waited until the clamor passed. Meanwhile, a soft thump from somewhere outside the office met her over-sensitive ears. She rose carefully, brown eyes sharp, and pressed the cordless up against her chest. She skirted the desk and walked to the doorway. Peering out, she saw the darkened museum only lit by the dim security lights and the shadows made by the display cases.
It took a couple of seconds for her friend’s impatient voice to reach her ears. “Sorry,” Marisol apologized distractedly. “I thought I heard something.”
“You aren’t there alone, are you?”
“I’ll be fine,” Marisol assured her, unearthing some impatience of her own. She didn’t have time to be babied. “But that woman’s name—”
“Oh yeah. Evangeline something? Did you have her last name?”
Marisol lingered at the doorway still, listening for more sounds. Frowning, she walked out of her office and roamed around, listening for more foreign sounds. “Gosselin.”
On the other line, after a long pause, something shattered on the ground. That caught Marisol’s full attention because the woman on the other end was quite dexterous and would not have easily dropped something. “What? Did you say Gosselin? Evangeline Gosselin?”
“Do you know who I’m talking about?”
The woman’s voice was eerily calm when it came across the line again. “Mari, Evangeline Gosselin is my grandmother. My father’s mother. Marisol, what does Isabelle Flannery’s father have to do with my grandmother?”
Before Marisol could say anything, a loud crash came from somewhere outside of her office. She sighed. Those damn displays. They probably didn’t screw them into the wall correctly. “I’ve gotta go, chica. I wish I could figure this out for you. I’ll call you later if I find out anything.”
“You better. And you better go straight home.”
Marisol figured that anything less than a tacit agreement would incite another several minutes’ scolding, and that was exactly what she gave. After exchanging goodbyes, she put the phone back on the charger and thought about the scolding she was going to give to two of her employees in the morning.
What she didn’t know was that she wouldn’t get to.
After the rousing post-dinner game of Charades, Sydney found herself cleaning her kitchen with Vaughn. It was the first time they had been really alone since she’d seen him off the other night. But Sydney felt little of the discomfort that had plagued them prior to their trip to Spain. She knew that she could attribute some of that to the friendly gathering that had just taken place. However, Sydney was astute enough to notice that Vaughn himself had relaxed around her. Whatever shield he had thrown up to defend himself from her had been carefully disarmed.
Isabelle was getting Sophie ready for bed as Nicole took a quick shower. Sydney had feared she would come to dread sharing a bathroom with three other females, but she found that Nicole and Isabelle were minimalists by nature; Nicole could take a thorough shower in two-and-a-half minutes while Isabelle elected to be the caboose on the nightly bath train. Both were refreshingly self-contained and tidy, but Sydney got the feeling they didn’t feel like they were home. Sydney frowned over this as she scrubbed at the pan that had contained the mashed potatoes. A slow jam trickled out of Nicole’s radio and added to the relaxed atmosphere.
Don’t be afraid of the way you feel
It’s real love
Don’t be afraid of the way you feel
It’s real love
Vaughn glanced over and saw her frowning. He dried clean silverware and placed it in a glass to be put away later.
“What’s wrong?” he asked.
Sydney shook her head. “Nothing. It’s fine.” She scrubbed at the pan, wanting to change the subject. Remembering the taste of the potatoes, she smiled faintly. “Wasn’t dinner awesome? Nicole can really cook. I haven’t eaten like that in a long, long time.”
“Yeah,” Vaughn agreed. Sydney placed the cleaned pot in the plain water on Vaughn’s side and he picked it up to dry it. “I’m probably going to be doing a few extra sit-ups to work it all off. I had never had a baked strawberry pie before. And the lattice oatmeal topping…” He placed his hand on his heart as he pretended to swoon. “I thought I was going to die on that first bite.”
“Better than sex,” Sydney commented.
“Better than…” Sydney let out a nervous laugh as Vaughn gave her a dumbfounded look. “Wow. That’s…that’s sort of pushing it there. I think you might need to be reacquainted with some better sex.”
“Mm-hmm. And you thinking about helping or something?”
Sydney pursed her lips together and tried to flight the flush that crept up on her cheeks. Nicole, now in comfy pants and a white wifebeater, stepped up into the kitchen, her brown eyes gleaming with amusement. She crossed her arms over her chest and looked to Vaughn. Vaughn decided to skirt his way around Nicole’s question by suddenly deciding to look in on Isabelle and Sophie. Nicole smirked at him as he walked past her and into the guest bedroom.
“Is it my imagination or is the man just not getting any at home?” Nicole asked impishly.
Sydney gave her a look of disapproval. Nicole just blinked at her innocently. She turned back to the dishes and sensed Nicole stepping up to the spot Vaughn had formally occupied. After a few quiet moments of drying dishes and putting them away, Nicole remarked, “You’re a stand-up gal, Sydney.”
Sydney paused and shook her head. “I have this bad feeling I’m going to regret asking you why you think that.”
Nicole made a gesture of dismissal. “Girl, don’t be afraid of what you feel. Some women in your shoes would be knocking boots at the nearest Motel 6 with Michael Vaughn if they felt for him what you do.” She closed a cabinet and stood beside Sydney again. “And we ain’t gonna even talk about his wife.”
Sydney raised an eyebrow at her tone. “Nicole, what is it about Lauren Reed that bothers you so much?”
“I can’t trust the woman,” Nicole admitted after a moment. “I feel like if I look away for one moment she’ll drop-kick my ass. And Izzy won’t even agree with me. She says I’m only hating on Lauren because she’s with Vaughn and Izzy’s not.” She flicked a glance in Sydney’s direction. “And you ain’t either.”
Nicole moved away to put up clean, dry plates and Sydney found herself looking at Nicole’s back. “Nicole, I appreciate your confidence in me, but you can’t dislike someone without knowing them first. If Lauren and Vaughn are together now it’s because it’s the way it’s supposed to be and we have no right to mess with that.”
Nicole turned around and Sydney saw her eyes roll. “Whatever you say,” she muttered, and decided to change the subject. “So did y’all find out about that thing that was in Izzy’s box? Is it by that Rambaldi guy?”
Sydney shook her head absently. The canister had been whisked away to be analyzed several days ago, and yet they received no updates about it. “So far nothing. I was wondering,” Sydney began, changing the subject herself, “how did you learn to cook like that?”
The night was dark and hid her well. Her long hair was stuffed into a black cap, and her willowy body was clad in black as well. She clung to the shadows to stay invisible. She could not risk being discovered especially now; she had just killed a woman.
The warehouse with the red door was within walking distance. She glanced across the street to make sure that the road was deserted. After a still moment, she dashed out and ran to the door. She knocked three times. After a moment, the door opened.
Underneath the light from a single bulb were chairs and a crate. She pulled the cap from her head and her golden hair spilled out. Behind her, her associate stopped.
“Is it done?” Sark asked.
“Marisol Sebastian is dead,” Lauren told him. “However, she was talking to a friend on the phone about the name she found among the collection. We might have to take some measures to ensure the CIA doesn’t learn of the name.”
Sark shook his head and walked past her. He stopped underneath the lightbulb. “They won’t understand what the name means, even when they learn of it.”
Lauren crossed her arms over her chest. “Perhaps you should tell me what it means so I will not be out of the loop. I feel like there are some things that you are keeping from me. This doesn’t seem conducive to our plans.”
“I promise you, it is not intentional. Lauren, our plans are two-fold, and I did not inform you of that change.” Sark paused thoughtfully. “You may come out now.”
It was then that Lauren realized that there was someone else in the room. Tensed, she watched as a tall woman came out of the darkness, clad in dark clothes. Her long chestnut hair flowed freely down her back and her ice-blue eyes were cool. She regarded Lauren with equal parts disdain and distrust.
Lauren hated her instantly.
“Lauren, this is Samara Lewis,” Sark said. He hesitated, taking in Lauren’s blazing eyes in the semi-darkness, and made a decision. “However her real name is Darcy…Flannery.”
Lauren’s eyebrows came together at the name. She remembered off of the top of her head that Isabelle had a stepsister, one she hadn’t seen in many years.
“So what do you know?” Lauren inquired.
Samara glanced at the unoccupied seat in front of her. “Sit down and I will tell you everything I know.”
*“Disco” originally performed by Grenique. Written by Geoff Harper, Rasheem “Kilo” Pugh, Tejumold Newton, and Vada Nobles.
*“Real Love” originally performed by Skyy. Written by Solomon Roberts.