Some time later, they moved to the dining room to eat dinner. That night, it was Isabelle’s favorite dish: paella. Isabelle had promised to resume their conversation but only if they would eat. Sydney saw no need to refuse a nice meal especially since they hadn’t really eaten, and the plane was set to take off in about a hundred and eighty minutes. That would give them enough time to grill Isabelle and catch the plane back to Los Angeles.
They sat at a cozy table made for four in Isabelle’s dining room; Sophie sat happily in her mother’s lap and ate her dinner. Nicole portioned out the paella onto happy-looking orange-red plates before sitting down at Isabelle’s right and directly in front of Sydney, who was at Isabelle’s left. Before digging in, Nicole appraised the guests with a frown.
“Y’all gonna eat?” she asked. “It ain’t poisoned, I promise.”
“If you insist,” Vaughn muttered and shoveled a forkful into his mouth. As he chewed, he was surprised to learn that it wasn’t half-bad. It was actually well-prepared, much to his surprise. He didn’t have to say so; it showed in his eyes when Nicole stared at him, and that satisfied her enough she began her own meal.
“We’re having birthday cake for dessert,” Isabelle announced, mostly for her daughter’s sake. Sophie cheered.
Vaughn smiled faintly and forked up more food. “Was it your birthday yesterday, Sophie?”
Sophie nodded excitedly. “Mami baked me a birthday cake and sang me the birthday song,” she told Vaughn. “Maybe she can sing you the birthday song for you on your birthday.”
Vaughn looked at Isabelle as he chewed and swallowed, eyes clouded with memories. He dimly recalled a brief moment during a cold November on his mother’s porch in Northern California and a cupcake topped with a single candle with a small but persistent flame. We have an occasion to celebrate, my beloved. Today into this world you came some years ago. Her clear, beautiful voice had resonated through him as the frigid wind bit through his coat and the smell of his mother’s cooking wafted out from the inside. She’d worn a coat over a glittery gold dress and the last vestiges of stage makeup from a performance she’d had that night—the reason she couldn’t make it for his birthday. So for you I sing this tune. And wish a happy birthday to you. “She already has.” Isabelle met his gaze. She remembered, too. Happy, happy, happy birthday to you. Happy birthday, my beloved. Happy birthday to you. But she appeared as if she wanted to change the subject. “A long time ago.”
As old ghosts started to whisper of forgotten times, Isabelle did change the subject. “So”—she cleared her throat—“Sydney? You were asking me about my father. And a globe.”
“Yes,” Sydney confirmed, wiping her mouth with a napkin. “The Globe. Rambaldi.”
“Right.” Isabelle shifted gears mentally and even seemed sort of relieved about it. “I remember my father mentioning Rambaldi when I was little. He and Mama broke up when I was around Sophie’s age. They were fighting, disagreeing on his way of life. Now that I think about it…his obsession with Rambaldi might have been instrumental in their divorce.”
“Do you remember anything specific? A particular object or a certain argument?”
Isabelle paused to think. “Not really. I…” She hesitated again pensively as her brain found something new that had come up from the depths of her mind. “There was something my mother said during a fight while they believed John and I were sleeping. Something like, You never even wanted me. It was always her. Always. You only married me so you could be close to her.”
As Sydney chewed upon what that could have meant, Vaughn frowned at Isabelle. “You never told me that.”
“It came to me just now. I…” She placed her chin upon her daughter’s curly head and suddenly appeared miserable. “I buried a lot of memories from that time. It was not a happy time for me, and it shattered a lot of the ideals I had built up in my short life. I wanted to forget it, especially after Mama married Jason Flannery. Things were so much better after that.”
“I’m sure they were, but you still could have shared your feelings with me,” Vaughn reminded her.
“I know, and I’m sorry. I know I should have told you about my father’s identity, but I had separated myself from him and what he was really doing. If I had known that he was responsible for bombings and shootings and robberies on a grand scale, you’d better believe you would have known.” She shrugged helplessly. “I turned a blind eye. I didn’t want to believe and I didn’t want to see. That ended up hurting you.”
“You couldn’t have known everything,” Vaughn assured her. “After all, I’m sure your mother and stepfather shielded you from a great deal. And your father was adept at maintaining appearances. Every person like him is.”
As Isabelle tried to accept Vaughn’s assertions, Sydney decided to right the subject matter again as an idea bloomed in her head. “Is your stepfather still alive?” Sydney asked. “Maybe—”
The sound of a dog barking from the outside made Sydney bite off the rest of her sentence. There was a bit of shuffling, and the barking stopped abruptly—a little too abruptly. As suspicion bloomed in them, Vaughn and Sydney looked at each other. It seemed that the cozy dinner at the charming little table in the cute little house was now going to have to come to a close.
“Isabelle, are you expecting company?” Sydney inquired in a low tone.
Isabelle frowned and raised her chin from the crown of her daughter’s head. “Not at all. No one usually comes to visit…”
Then the adults at the table went silent as the meaning of this dawned on them in varying degrees, except for Nicole’s breathy and consternated Aw hell.
“I think we’d better get moving,” Nicole said softly as she plucked Sophie from her chair and moved around the table so stealthily that it was barely heard. Isabelle, Vaughn, and Sydney were all in various states of motion. Sydney and Vaughn were checking their firearms while Isabelle grabbed her purse and Nicole’s.
“So how do you propose we get out of here?” Sydney whispered to Vaughn.
“Well, first off, we gotta know what we’re up against,” Nicole pointed out, overhearing. She went into the darkened living room after giving Sophie to her mother. When she returned, she described the person she’d found walking toward the house.
“Sark,” Sydney said.
“If he’s here alone, then he might not know we’re here,” Vaughn pointed out. “We could use that to our advantage.”
“Who is Sark?” Isabelle wanted to know. “Do you know him?”
“I guess you could say that,” Sydney responded wryly.
“I take it y’all ain’t bosom buddies,” Nicole observed. “So this not a social visit.” She looked to Isabelle. “I’ll go answer the door.”
Isabelle shook her head vigorously. “I’ll go.” She started forward when Vaughn placed a hand on her arm as the knock came on the door. She found herself a little startled by the fervor in his eyes.
“Not with my daughter you’re not,” Vaughn declared.
Not with my daughter you’re not. How dare he use that tone of voice with her like she was some idiot? Isabelle’s eyes narrowed and flashed with anger. She looked to be hairbreadth away from hitting him. “I don’t have the damn time to argue with you, Daddy Dearest.”
“You don’t understand. This man is dangerous. He will not hesitate in killing a child, and I will not have Sophie dangled in front of him. Do you understand me?”
Isabelle’s nostrils flared, and Nicole recognized the intent to maim in her eyes. As much as she didn’t like Vaughn’s sudden show of paternity, she didn’t want to have to clean the blood from the floor. That stuff never completely came out. “I’ll take Sophie,” she assured Isabelle. “Go answer the door. We’ll go to Fee-Fee’s room and figure out how to get out.”
Isabelle gave Vaughn one more fulminating glare before stalking down the hall to answer the door. As they heard her open the door, Nicole ushered them to Sophie’s room. She flicked on the television, turning the volume high enough to be considered normal, and left the door open a crack. Nicole placed Sophie on her feet in front of the TV and then she began systematically stuffing things into a bag.
“The best way to get out is through the window,” Nicole said in a low tone as she zipped a bag with Sophie’s things. She gestured to the window nearby. “It’s at the back of the house but we can circle around, get to the driveway.”
“Sounds like a plan,” Sydney agreed. Nicole strode out of the room then, through a door that obviously led to Isabelle’s bedroom. Sydney admired the way she kept her head and realized that they could not stay. “But how do we get Isabelle out without Sark noticing?”
“We’ll have to get her back into the room somehow,” Vaughn proposed. He pursed his lips together. “As much as I want to apprehend him…” His eyes slid in Sophie’s direction. “I don’t want to risk any casualties.”
Sydney sighed, but she understood. With three civilians in the mix, the focus was undoubtedly on the civilians and keeping them safe. Not to mention apprehending Sark was not the mission’s objective. Too bad it wasn’t, Sydney mused.
Nicole reappeared with another bag. “Passports and other stuff,” she explained. “I’m guessing we’re going back to the ol’ US of A so I grabbed the important things.” She tickled Sophie, made her laugh. “Ready for an adventure, Fee-Fee?”
Some time later, Isabelle moved around the dining room as she cleaned the table. Her actions were purposeful and deliberate but not hasty enough to rouse the suspicion of the attractive young man in dark slacks and a charcoal-colored shirt. Sydney and Vaughn’s plates were absent as to keep the pretense that they were alone. The short-haired, blue-eyed man watched her and leaned on the door with a sort of causal elegance that belied his gravity. If Isabelle hadn’t been told that he was dangerous, she would have figured it on her own—though, it would have taken a bit of time as his wickedness was hidden under a layer of gloss.
“You look a bit young to be a museum curator, Mr. McGuire,” Isabelle noted aloud, relying on a bit of acting prowess to keep her from burying one of the dinner forks in his neck. She figured a bit of implied flirtation would be as good a veil as any.
“Thank you,” Julian Sark, alias Matthew McGuire, said smoothly. “I suppose my skill has served me well in my field.” He shifted and straightened as she began to stack the plates on top of each other. As he came toward her, Isabelle tried mightily not to flinch. “Here, let me help you.”
She flashed him a smile. “It’s quite all right.”
“No. I insist.” When their fingertips brushed, Isabelle inwardly cringed. On the outside, she gave him an understated smile as he lifted the plates. He paused for a second, sniffed the air. “What is that scent you’re wearing?”
His eyes met hers, and she could see the calculation under the charm in those slate-blue depths. In an instant, she saw that he meant to woo her like she was some kind of empty-headed college girl or some lonely single mom who read Harlequins after everyone went to bed and coax whatever he wanted out of her. A blaze of indignation began inside of her and burned the fear away. Like hell he would.
“It’s called Motherhood,” Isabelle told him with a bit of steel in her voice. She took the plates out of his hands and walked toward the kitchen as he peered at her with a bit of amusement.
“Damn him,” Vaughn swore from behind Sophie’s door. “Flirting with her…”
Nicole rolled her eyes as she threw one of the bags she had packed out of the window. She shoved his shoulder. “Would you snap out of it, man? Izzy can handle herself.” She heard the chirp-like whistle that indicated Sydney didn’t find anything suspicious on her visual of the yard. She sent out an answering whistle to indicate she heard. “Get ready to cue the distraction.”
Isabelle stood at the sink in her kitchen. She lowered the dirty dishes into the soapy water and inhaled the aroma of dishwashing liquid and her own irritation. She was a smart woman, but she was out of her league here, and she would be the first to admit it. How did one handle herself against a known bad guy? Did you offer him a cup of tea, discuss soap operas, the weather, or the stock market? And there was no telling if he was armed or not…
“I have to tell you, Mr. McGuire, your interest in my father’s collection is staggering, but I hate to break it to you—I donated most of the pieces to a museum owner in California. I am no longer in possession of what you want.” She turned her head slightly so that he could see her striking profile. “I’m sorry.”
He waited a beat then pointed out, “Well, if you only gave away most of it, then there is some still in your possession, Ms. Flannery.”
Nitpicking bastard, Isabelle thought angrily. She blew out the breath she had been holding through her nose. “If you would like to take this up with my lawyers, be my guest. To be honest, I wanted little to do with the things my father had accumulated and the donation was the best thing I could have done for me and the rest of the world.” She placed the plate she had been cleaning on the rack to dry. “If you want to speak to the person I gave them to, I have her number. Perhaps she wouldn’t mind bartering with you.”
There was another silence then, and Sark came to stand beside at the sink. She caught his wispy masculine scent, and if it had been a different situation, she would have noted the fact that it suited him. In this case it just taunted her anger like a bully’s whisper.
“I find it telling that you would merely give away millions of dollars of priceless artifacts because of the person to whom they formerly belonged,” Sark told her. “You and your father must have been on terrible terms.”
At the mention of her father, Isabelle’s voice cooled. “My relationship between my father and me is no business of yours, Mr. McGuire. In fact, I would appreciate it if you would refrain from mentioning my father. I am grieved by his death but I would rather forget him.”
Sark opened his mouth to speak but a child’s shout came from somewhere in the house. Startled, as she knew that was her cue to get away from Sark and escape, she dropped a plate into the sink and it clanged against the others as soapy water splashed onto her sweater. “Dammit,” she swore with an urgency in her voice that was not difficult to feign. “That’s my daughter. I have to go check on her.” She placed a bracing hand on Sark’s firm chest. Her hand was stamped there with water. “Stay here. I’ll be right back.”
Her hand dropped to her side and she prepared to walk away—when he grabbed her arm. He had it twisted behind her back and her whirled around within a blink of an eye. She was so shocked that she stumbled into the dish rack she kept in the second basin with her free hand.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Flannery,” Sark said in a deceptively pleasant tone. “But you’re not going anywhere.”
When Isabelle’s shocked gasp was followed by a dull thud and some rattling, Vaughn and Nicole shared a look of startled fear and both found that the instinct to protect was present in the other’s eyes.
“What the hell—?” Nicole began, already halfway out of the room.
Vaughn placed a hand on her taut shoulder and pulled her back. “Let me handle this,” he said softly under the sound of the television. “You get Sophie outside to the car and I’ll get Isabelle out.”
“Mami.” Sophie tugged on Vaughn’s pant leg, the eyes she’d inherited from him filled with anxiety. He looked down at her and his heart lurched once in his chest. How could he explain what was going on to a child—and even more, this child? “Where’s Mami? I want Mami.”
“Mami’s coming, sweetie,” Vaughn assured her gently as he manfully tried to keep the haste and panic out of his voice. “You have to go with Aunt Nicole now and find Sydney while I go get her. We’re going to go someplace for a little while where’s safe. Mami will be with us.” He brushed her soft cheek when doubt appeared in her eyes. “Trust me. Okay?”
After a long humming moment, Sophie nodded tremulously and went to Nicole. Nicole gave him a fierce look before she and Sophie disappeared into the darkness that indicated that if any harm came to Isabelle she’d maim him. What she didn’t know was that if anything happened to Isabelle, it would be like, in some measure, hurting himself.
Within a split second, Vaughn became an agent, and he padded down the darkened hallway toward the sound of Isabelle’s terse voice. It was like a beacon, the only thing that kept him calm. She was still alive, so there was no reason to lose control. He had his gun drawn and he was prepared to fire upon the sight of Julian Sark.
“What the hell do you want from me?” Isabelle demanded. “I already told you what happened to my father’s collection. It can easily be verified—” Her sentence ended on a grunt as he tightened his grip on her twisted arm. “Dammit, let me go.”
When Sark spoke, his voice was still smooth as whipped cream with a slight jagged edge that promised to draw blood. Until now, she had only heard that sort of tone in movies, on stage. Now it was frighteningly real. “You know what I want from you, Ms. Flannery. I want the Globe. I know you have it.”
“And what makes you think that I do have it?” She gritted her teeth as the pain merged with the fury that sent adrenaline through her veins. “I don’t have the Globe, for the last damn time. Now let me go or you’ll regret it.”
There was a struggle at that declaration, and Vaughn’s heart lurched again. He heard Isabelle yelp after a sharp slap, and then she came crashing to the ground on her back a mere four feet away from him. Her dark hair was mussed and her green eyes were alive with equal parts fear and fury. Her hands were balled up into fists, and when Sark came for her, she kicked him with the force of a livid mule. She wasn’t going to die quietly. And if Vaughn had anything to do with it, she wouldn’t die at all.
For the second time that evening, time slowed and dripped like waterdrops with the agonizing speed of molasses. Seeing the light from her daughter’s room spilling out into the hallway, Isabelle whipped her head in that direction, prepared to scream for her to stay back, get away. When she saw Vaughn, her face changed; all of her breath left her lungs and she started to scramble up to her feet. He caught her outstretched hand in his own, hauled her to her feet and pushed her behind him in two swift moves.
With Vaughn as Isabelle’s shield, Sark came face-to-face with his adversary. His lip was bleeding where Isabelle had punched him, and when he recognized the intensity of Vaughn’s eyes as Isabelle clung to him, bemusement filled his eyes.
“You two know each other?” Sark inquired. He smirked at Vaughn as their expressions said it all. “What a small, small world it is. You seem to get around, Agent Vaughn. Tell me, will your wife appreciate your relationship with a woman such as this one?”
“My marriage and my involvement with Isabelle Flannery is my own business,” Vaughn snapped, his weapon hand as steady as a brick house. “You are in no position to taunt me as I have a gun pointed at you.”
Sark idly touched a fingertip to his weeping lip then lifted his eyes to Vaughn’s again. “So then, perhaps we should even the odds.” And with that, he raised a gun of his own, pointed it at Isabelle, and pulled the trigger.