Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine
Interlude

Moments later, Sydney appeared, flanked by Isabelle and Vaughn. Vaughn was leaning heavily on Isabelle, his gait awkward. Nicole rose to her feet so abruptly that the legs of the chair made a grating sound on the floor. Isabelle swallowed as she helped Vaughn into one of the free chairs.

“You are so damn stubborn, you know that?” Isabelle chided Vaughn as she leaned over him. “Always trying to be a macho man when you get hurt.”

“You need to go to a hospital,” Sydney added, a little more gentle than Isabelle. “I know it was just a flesh wound—”

“Would you two stop ganging up on me?” Vaughn snapped angrily. “I am not a child with a damned skinned knee.”

“Funny how you just went and proved it,” Nicole pointed out with a twitch of her lips. Vaughn sent her a glare and the twitch became a full-out smile.

“What happened in New York?” Jack wanted to know.

The trio shared a glance before Sydney spoke. “We found something in the box.” Wordlessly, she pulled out the canister for her father’s perusal. As he looked at its contents gingerly, Sydney noticed the liquor out on the table. Her brow lifted as her gaze went from her father to Nicole. Nicole tilted her head inquisitively.

“Were you two playing a drinking game or something?” Sydney inquired.

Nicole snickered. “Shoot, no. Could you see your daddy playing a drinking game? Saying that your father was playing Larry King or something would be more apt.” As Jack’s own brow rose behind Nicole’s back, she yawned broadly and stretched her limbs. “Well, I’ve had a long day. If y’all will excuse me…”

Nicole breezed out of the room, leaving the others in their silence and taking the mirth with her. Sydney picked up the bottle of whiskey and put it away, her face set in disapproving lines. Isabelle watched Jack for his reaction while Vaughn watched her for hers.

After a moment, Jack remarked, “We have no way of knowing what these are without proper testing and perusal.” He rolled them up and put them back into the canister. “But we have to prepare for the possibility that these pages may be from Rambaldi.”

Isabelle pursed her lips together and nodded silently. Her mind off the liquor now, Sydney looked at Isabelle with empathy. Isabelle inhaled deeply then her eyes settled upon the injured Vaughn who had been staring at her the whole time. She pursed her lips together, appearing as if she were going to be stern again, but her mouth trembled a little.

“You need to go home,” Isabelle said to Vaughn. “You’re already as pale as bone. Not to mention Lauren’s probably worried. I’m sure Eric called her and told her you were shot in the leg.”

“It’s just a flesh wound,” Vaughn repeated for the millionth time.

“I’ll help him to his car,” Sydney offered. “You go ahead and go to bed. I know it’s been a long day.”

“It’s been a long day for us all,” Isabelle amended as Sydney helped Vaughn from the chair. Vaughn stared at her for a long moment before reaching out to touch her face. Without warning, he pulled her to him in an embrace that implied closeness rather than sensuality.

“I’m sorry I acted like an ass,” Vaughn murmured against Isabelle’s hairline. She still used the same shampoo after all of these years…

“And I’m sorry I overreacted when you got shot,” Isabelle said. She stepped back and looked up at him. “I wish you wouldn’t risk yourself to protect me. I can protect myself. Whatever happens, I can handle it.” She leaned in and kissed him on the cheek, a brush of the skin that seemed as sexless as their embrace but hinted at their familiarity. Jack glanced at Sydney for her reaction; she only appeared relieved. Jack frowned. “Good night, Michael.”

He echoed the sentiment and allowed for Sydney to assist him to his car. Isabelle watched them go, and then, after sighing wearily, turned to Jack. With a nod, she said, “Good night, Mr. Bristow. Thank you for protecting Nicole and Sophie while we were gone.”

Jack watched the woman, and for some odd reason he felt a strange sense of distrust. It could have been a symptom of his protectiveness of his only daughter, or it could have been a hunch. Whatever it was had him saying the one thing he knew would get a rise out of her.

“Nicole and I had a good long chat tonight,” Jack told Isabelle as she turned to walk out. She paused in midstep at Jack’s statement. “She told me many interesting things about you, including the circumstance of you and your brother finding her.”

Isabelle whirled in a flash and looked at him, her green eyes startled. The fact that she hadn’t had time to force the expression of pure shock she wore battled back some of his skepticism. “Nicole told you—?”

“She offered me information because she knew I doubted her integrity,” Jack interrupted, watching as shock dissolved and Isabelle’s eyes steeled. “And she understood that by doubting her integrity—and that of you and your daughter—I could make things for you difficult. She told me that she couldn’t remember where she was born or who bore her, and I believe her.” A small measure of relief came into Isabelle’s eyes but she was just worked up enough to hold up that barrier of steel. “Now I am going to ask you, and I hope you answer me truthfully.”

Isabelle broke in before Jack could actually ask the question since she knew where it was going. “I hope you do not think that I would silently accept any kind of wrongdoing inflicted upon that child, Mr. Bristow.” Her Mr. Bristow was so acrid he nearly bristled. Before his eyes, the anger that swam in her watery green orbs inverted. “I wish I’d had the persistence to get to the bottom of the situation, to press John until he told me more. But when I looked at her, every time I held her after a nightmare, I knew inside of me that if I knew who and why I would tear them apart with my bare hands. And quite frankly, the thought of doing that, the thought that I was capable of violence, scared the hell out of me.” She looked up from the fists she had clenched while speaking, and the look in them was slightly feral. “However, I feel a little less of that now.”

She, after loosening her hands, brushed a couple of tears away with her fingertips as her eyes calmed. “Good night, Agent Bristow,” she said stiffly. “I hope you have your answer.”

“That wasn’t the answer I had intended to get, Ms. Flannery,” Jack responded.

“Which is quite regrettable, because it’s the only one you’re going to get,” Isabelle shot back in that same stiff tone.

With that, she turned and walked out, stopping only once to retrieve her daughter and leaving Jack to ponder on her words.

[—-]

Outside, Sydney helped Vaughn get to his car. They—she, Vaughn, Weiss, and Isabelle—carpooled to the airstrip in his car earlier that day, but the mood was decidedly calmer than it had been in hours. Under the starry sky Sydney and Vaughn walked side-by-side, the closest they’d been in weeks, but the stroll was anything but romantic. Vaughn’s gait was very awkward, and Sydney could feel the fatigue in his muscles as he struggled to walk.

“Did you and Isabelle fight like that all the time?” Sydney asked, wanting to break the silence.

“We tend to incite volatile feelings in one other,” Vaughn admitted. “It’s almost like we inherently know which buttons will set off the other.” He sighed and shook his head. “If that canister we found turns out to be from Rambaldi…”

“Then we’ll handle it,” Sydney assured him.

“I don’t want Isabelle to get hurt by something she had no intention of getting in the middle of in the first place,” Vaughn said.

“She’s not weak, Vaughn. She’ll hate it if you try to shield her from whatever happens next. You know that as much as I do. Probably more.”

He shook his head with amusement. “I thought she was going to wring my neck for getting shot. It’s the sort of thing she would do.”

“Most women would be honored to have a man risk his life for her,” Sydney remarked. Something in her voice made Vaughn look at her, and she remembered the accident in Valladolid again. Judging by the look in his eyes, he was remembering, too. Knowing that, she added, “I know I would be.”

There a long, humming moment as that comment sunk in. In the interim, Sydney decided she was tired of beating around the bush. She was tiptoeing around the subject—why? Because she was afraid of the truth? The truth was something she was tired of being scared of, and whatever reality she was turning a blind eye to, it couldn’t be as horrible as all the other things she’d had to face over the past few months.

“Listen, Vaughn,” Sydney began, “About the accident in Spain…” Something in Vaughn’s eyes changed then, but she continued. She would not stop just because it was the easy thing to do. “I wanted to…thank you for saving my life. If you hadn’t thought so quickly, we would both be dead.”

Then Vaughn shocked her by saying, “Sydney, I already lost you once. I wasn’t going to let it happen again. No matter what has happened between us, you still mean a great deal to me.”

In the silence that ensued afterwards, something was mended between them, but Sydney told herself not to think of what was happening as a sign of the two of them getting back together romantically. Sydney exhaled but held her breath when Vaughn’s hand moved over hers and patted it. Not able to think of anything else to say, Sydney stepped away as Vaughn lowered himself to the driver’s seat.

“Good night, Vaughn,” Sydney murmured.

Vaughn stared at her with a look in his eyes that she didn’t understand. “Hopefully.” He started the engine and closed the car door. As he drove away, Sydney wondered what that look in his eyes had meant. The red of his taillights blazed in the dark night, and Sydney realized it had been dread. It had been dread in his eyes.

[—-]

“Do you know what it means?”

Isabelle shook her head and frowned at the parchment in her lap. Nicole and Sophie were ensconced in bed, and the two women had yet to wind down after that day’s events, so they had agreed on tea to aid in the tension alleviation process. Isabelle knew that she would sleep badly after the conversation she’d had with Jack Bristow; the effects lingered like a bad case of heartburn. Sydney, on the other hand, felt that some weight had been lifted after her exchange with Vaughn.

“I’ve never seen anything like this before.” Isabelle brought it up to her face with one hand as the other grasped a warm mug of tea. “Maybe Mama knew what it meant.” She lowered the parchment then handed it to Sydney, who rolled it up carefully and put it away in the canister for safe keeping. “I wish she were here to tell me…”

Silence fell between them for the moment. Sydney had an urge to comfort Isabelle, but she also knew that she had to keep some distance from her as far as her job was concerned. There was really no conclusive way of telling what Isabelle actually knew. But Sydney followed her gut and reached out to place a hand on Isabelle’s free hand. Isabelle’s mouth quirked in a sign of gratitude but she said nothing. It was in that moment that Sydney decided to bare a piece of her she kept hidden from most of the people she knew.

“There are times that I miss my mother, too,” Sydney admitted softly. Isabelle, catching her tone, looked at her sidelong from the other end of the couch. “I remember the things we used to do together, the stories she used to read to me at bedtime…” Sydney paused a moment to force a sip of tea down her throat. It suddenly felt tight. “Then I think about all of the bad things that she did, and I wonder…did she ever really want to be a mother? Did she want to take me to the park and read me Alice in Wonderland? Was I just another mission to be carried out, another objective to be accomplished?”

“Sydney,” Isabelle said firmly. “If you continue to think like this, you’re going to end up hurting yourself.” She took a long considering look at the younger woman at the opposite end of the couch. Her long brown hair was pulled back into a ponytail, revealing a slim, stunning face complete with a sultry mouth that now sat sadly and eyes that sometimes were brown, then sometimes green. In the dim lighting, those eyes were a disconsolate brown glittering with unshed tears. “Sometimes I wonder the same thing about my own father. And then I tell myself that it’s going to lead me to an early grave.” What she said next had Sydney lifting her head abruptly. “For a woman who’s back from the dead, I’d think you’d be quite reluctant to return to that state.”

Astonished, Sydney gaped at her as she struggled to breathe. “How did you…?”

“I knew the moment we met at my house in Valladolid,” Isabelle told her. She shifted as she spied the second question in Sydney’s eyes. “Michael had come to see me after your supposed death. It wasn’t too long after my own mother had died, so we leaned on one another for a bit.” She paused, took in Sydney’s wide eyes. “He told me all about you. How wonderful you were, how much he loved you. I cried with him because I could see that the loss of you had ripped something out of him.” She looked at Sydney meaningfully. “And if it matters, I think that something’s still gone.”

Sydney shook her head and looked away. That comment inspired a hope that had to quickly be dashed before it grew into something unmanageable. “It doesn’t matter anymore. It’s in the past.”

Understanding that she shouldn’t press any further, Isabelle nodded. “You’re right.” She lifted her mug to her lips and took a gulp of tea. Her mind strayed on the subject of Vaughn and ended up settling upon his wife. “I wonder how she’s gonna take it,” she said idly into her tea.

Sydney looked to her again. “Excuse me?”

Isabelle turned and placed her mug aside before speaking. Suddenly jittery, she was afraid she wouldn’t be able to hold on to it. “Michael is going to tell Lauren about Sophie. And I have a bad feeling that it’s not going to turn out well.”

Ah, Sydney thought. Now the comment Vaughn made right before he left made a little more sense. Hopefully. He had been dreading telling Lauren about Isabelle and Sophie. “Isabelle,” Sydney began, “if Lauren takes it badly, it won’t be your fault. Whatever conclusions she comes to will be of her own making, not yours.”

“I know, but I…” She looked to Sydney. “I know you were shocked when you figured it out. I mean, weren’t you? I presume he told you nothing about me.” Isabelle picked at the blanket covering her legs. “He and I were in loose touch when the two of you met, and he told me about you. Alice didn’t really like me very much. She was the nice and tidy one, and she thought I was a bad influence—or a distracting one, rather.”

Sydney didn’t smother the light chuckle that escaped from her. “You? Distracting?” She hesitated thoughtfully, reevaluated. “Well, there was that scene in that one movie with the flamenco number in the flashy dress—”

Isabelle laughed heartily, a lovely sound. “I remember that. Comin’ Out, I think. One of my favorites to do.” She smiled absently into space as memories arose in her mind’s eye. “Believe it or not, I wasn’t sure I could do that scene. It was so involved and more physically demanding than I was used to. But in the end, I bore down and did it. I refused to have a double.”

“So it was you? All of it?” Sydney inquired. “The singing, the dancing?”

“I couldn’t talk for three days and was sore for a week.” She smiled wistfully. “Those were the days…”

Sydney caught the wistfulness in her tone and pointed out, “You miss it.”

“Sometimes,” Isabelle admitted, nodding. “Though, the business was slightly different then. I was ridiculed as a teenager because no one believed who I was.” She smiled then, absently as if she was remembering a sweet scene. “But Michael was different. He didn’t treat me any differently because of what I did.”

Sydney shifted to face her fully at her sigh of wistfulness. “When did you meet Vaughn? Was it in the middle of a crowded diner or at the movies…?”

“Oh no, it wasn’t as exciting as that.” Isabelle chuckled a bit and told the story, facing Sydney as if they were at a sleepover. The closeness and camaraderie was comforting and novel. “It was after my first day of school in Los Angeles,” she began.

[—-]

Several years ago. c. 1984.

It had been unnaturally cool during winter that year; the blazers that the young men wore to school as a part of their uniforms had be accompanied by overcoats that felt, at first, a little awkward. For everyone, the need to bundle up more than usual in Southern California was odd. But humans adapt to changes in their surroundings, so coats were shipped in to handle the dropping temperatures and people donned them, puzzled over them briefly, then went on with their lives.

Quite frankly, Michael Vaughn was not a stranger to the cold, so he was clad in the thick blazer that was a part of his school uniform without an overcoat. He had spent time in Northern California and in France with his mother, and he had experienced real winter—not the kind simulated by fake snowflakes. He looked up at the slate-gray sky and wondered if they would get some snow out of this cold snap. He recalled moments of playing in the snow up north with friends, the excitement from snowball fights as the bite of the cold air stung their cheeks—

The sound of a girl’s irate shout had his ears perking up, all thoughts of snow forgotten.

He rounded the corner to find three guys his age standing around a young woman with dark hair. The way the girl’s fists were clenched and the guys leered at her indicated that this was a slightly precarious situation. A part of him realized that he could get seriously injured trying to take on three guys at the same time. But Chivalry was louder than Caution, and he poised himself to jump in. He hoped he wouldn’t regret it later.

“I told you not to touch me you asshole,” the girl was saying to one of the guys. The guy she was addressing, in typical fashion, was outfitted in a letter jacket, and one of his friends chuckled at her statement as if it were some grand joke. They reached out to touch her again and she swung out faster than they—or Michael—could blink. The blow connected with someone’s jaw, and outrage sounded among the trio.

“That bitch!” said Jock Boy while nursing his hurt jaw.

“Looks like she’s got some backbone,” jeered Jerk Number Two. “Maybe she got it in acting class.” The word acting came out like a taunt.

“I don’t care where she got it,” snapped Jock Boy. “She’s gonna regret hitting me—”

“Maybe you should pick on someone your own size.” And there Michael Vaughn made his big entrance as the mysterious savior in this lopsided scene. His remark had the guys turning away from the girl with varying degrees of shock. The girl looked the most surprised.

Jerk Number Two nudged Jock Boy. “Looks like one of the eunuchs from the private school’s trying to prove his manhood.”

The girl pushed her way through them to stand beside Michael as the guys sniggered among each other at the comment. Her forehead was in the general region of the tip of his nose, but the way she stood beside him with her feet spread and fists clenched indicated she wasn’t going to let height be a disadvantage.

“Looks to me like you’re trying to prove yours by picking on a girl,” Michael remarked.

“Oh, please,” said Jock Boy. “Spare me. The girl is barely worth fighting over.”

“Oh you know it’s true,” agreed the girl. “But in my opinion you’ve got teeny tiny dicks so you can’t pick on anyone but people you think are defenseless. I’ve seen sewer rats and street bums in Manhattan with bigger cojones than you.”

Jock Boy’s expression changed, and Michael knew that her sharp-headed barb had hit its fleshy mark. Incensed, Jock Boy lunged himself at her—only to receive a left jab to his uninjured jaw from the so-called eunuch. The force of it made him fall back into his friends, and he struggled against them as he threatened Michael and the girl.

“I’m gonna bash your face in!” he shouted angrily. In response to that, Michael pushed the girl behind him and acted as her shield. Jock Boy’s friends saw the intent in Michael’s eyes and understood that he was not as puny as he appeared. They dragged their angry friend away and peace descended upon the unknown girl and her rescuer.

The girl exhaled, looking a bit shaken. When Michael turned and reached out to touch her, she shifted away quickly, and he found himself staring into a pair of suspicious green eyes. He opened his mouth to speak as his own eyes changed, but something about the girl’s expression stopped him. He took his hand back slowly, careful not to make any sudden movements. He sensed that the girl was wary of him even though he’d just saved her from bullying.

“I just want to make sure you’re okay,” Michael assured her gently.

“I’m fine,” the girl said, sounding a touch prickly. She pursed her lips together at that moment as if she had listened to herself. She sighed and softened her tone. “Listen, I appreciate you coming to my rescue. That was brave of you.” She gazed off to the east, opposite of where a cloud-shrouded sun dominated the sky. “The people are different here than they are in New York.”

“I’m pretty sure they are with it being a different coast and all.” The girl looked back at him, a bit of abashed amusement in her eyes. “You live around here?”

She jerked a thumb to her right. “A couple of blocks that way. My family and I live on Cabrera.” She kicked at a pebble with her toe, realizing that she was slightly intrigued with the shaggy-haired, emerald-eyed knight. “What about you?” She nodded at his blazer. “You don’t go to public school, do you?”

“I go to the boys’ school a few blocks from here, just like my dad did when he was my age.” When he frowned as his words died in the air, the girl tilted her head quizzically. What she did not realize was that she had been a witness to an abnormal occurrence, an unexpected moment of candidness that made him feel bare, exposed. However, it didn’t take her long to discern that something profound had happened, and concern rapidly overtook bemusement.

Hating the silence that had fallen, the girl hurriedly introduced herself. “I’m sorry; I seemed to have forgotten my manners.” She stepped forward and thrust out a hand. “My name is Isabelle.”

“Michael,” he responded in kind, shaking her hand. It was on the small side, but it seemed sturdy and smooth. “My name is Michael.”

When she smiled, it lit up her face in a way that made her pale heart-shaped visage dazzling. “Michael,” she repeated. “Nice to know my knight in shining armor has a name.” She picked at a fingernail idly, not quite knowing what to say. She appeared hesitant to end the encounter, and Michael felt likewise. He didn’t know how to explain the urge to remain in her presence; perhaps being in the company of males most of the day made him desperate for female attention.

Boldly, he asked, “Would you like for me to walk you home?” She looked up abruptly, green eyes filled with shock. Her look filled him with a slight trepidation, and he added haltingly, “I mean, I want to make sure…”

She chuckled good-naturedly, eyes dancing at the prospect, and his hopes soared. “Of course you can walk me home.”

Michael fell into step beside Isabelle as they headed toward her house, and they talked about their favorite music. Isabelle admitted to like the music her mother played from the previous decade which ranged from flamenco from her native country to rock and roll from the Beatles; Isabelle and the girlfriends that she’d left in New York listened to pretty much anything, and she nodded with great approval at Michael’s love for Jimi Hendrix. They discussed their favorites from contemporary music and found that their tastes were similar.

Suddenly, without warning, Isabelle started to sing. Her voice was smooth and sweet, the kind that would have spun silk out of lullabies. Michael was so stunned by its purity that he nearly stopped in place.

She says her love for me could never die,
But that’d change if she ever found out about you and I.
Oh, but her love is cold,
Wouldn’t hurt her if she didn’t know,
‘Cause when it gets too much,
I need to feel your touch.

Michael recognized the song because he’d heard it on the radio the previous day. It was a good song, one he liked. When she turned to grin at him, he sang along with her, their voices blending into one.

I’m gonna run to you,
I’m gonna run to you,
‘Cause when the feeling’s right I’m gonna run all night,
I’m gonna run to you.

They finished the chorus and listened as their voices echoed away from them through the dry, cold air. He found himself looking at her with wonder as she strode alongside him. After a couple of beats she felt his gaze and met it unflinchingly.

“What’s wrong?” she inquired, frowning.

Michael blinked. Once he realized that he had been staring at her without explanation, he shook himself out of his reverie and hastily apologized. “I’m sorry. Look—I have to be honest, I’ve never heard anyone who sounds like you. Your voice…”

Isabelle’s cheeks flamed and the light in her eyes dimmed. “I didn’t mean to just start singing like that.” She stuffed her hands in her pockets and concentrated on the ground in front of her. “I’m sorry.”

Michael’s brow furrowed. He placed a hand on Isabelle’s shoulder involuntarily before he could begin to feel embarrassed by making such a bold move. His fingertips rested upon Isabelle’s comfortably worn leather jacket and he felt her warmth—and her tense shoulder muscles. She was anxious all of a sudden, and he wanted to know why.

They paused on the sidewalk underneath a street light that would illuminate the darkened path in a few short hours. Isabelle tilted her face up to his. Her lips were pursed and her eyes were slightly troubled.

“I don’t understand,” Michael remarked. “You shouldn’t be sorry because you have talent.”

Finding no way to refute that, Isabelle shrugged. “I still shouldn’t have flaunted it like that—”

Michael laughed then, cutting her off. “Isabelle, if I had a voice like yours, everyone would know.” Isabelle looked away uncomfortably and Michael’s eyebrows lifted. “What—does everybody know? That couldn’t possibly be true…” Isabelle slipped away from him then, pulling her collar up to buffet herself from the wind. When he caught up with her (it didn’t take long; he was a few inches taller than she was and his strides were quite long), he could only see the top part of her face; the bottom of her nose and her mouth were concealed by the upturned collar.

“It’s not like you’re Madonna or something,” Michael commented. Those moss-green orbs flickered across him in silence. Michael stuffed his hands in his coat pockets, too, and thought about what this meant. He thought he understood, but the possibility was so outlandish that he felt dumb even to consider the thought. But Isabelle supplied no explanation for her silence, so he figured the worse that could happen was he could be embarrassed in front of a girl. Gee. Not something that was new. Distressing, but not new.

“Have I seen anything you’ve been in?”

That did it. Isabelle stopped in her tracks and gazed at him. From the set of her mouth (he could now see it through the front opening of the jacket) he could tell that the question hadn’t made her happy.

“What’s it to you?” Isabelle demanded, her New York brogue deepening. She crossed her arms over her chest. “And if I had been ‘in’ something, I’d bet you’d go to school tomorrow, acting all macho, and tell all of your little buddies about how you saved Isabelle Flannery from almost getting her ass kicked.” With that, she turned on her heel and left him gaping at her in her wake as her long mahogany ponytail bounced on her back.

In his mind, he recalled the other evening when he had been doing the dishes after dinner. His mother had been watching television while she helped him tidy up when a trailer for a new movie had come on. It had been a drama about a young girl who sought refuge from the effects of her mother’s debilitating sickness in a magical figure everyone around her thought was part of her imagination. It was called The Moonlight Junction, and it showcased a talented group of actors, including the pale-faced ingénue Isabelle Flannery, who had appeared in one of his mother’s favorite musicals.

He recalled the anguished face of the girl in the trailer, compared it to the face of the one who was stalking away from him at that exact moment. When comprehension dawned, he got a shock.

“You’re Isabelle Flannery?”

The awe and utter disbelief in his voice had her halting again. She had come across a lot of people her age who knew who she was—her former harassers included—and rarely had anyone sounded as completely enthralled as Michael Vaughn had.

Mostly people jeered at her; in her normal existence, she didn’t cavort among the Manhattan night life or curse like a sailor. She didn’t seem like the ballsy and rebellious Tina from Vice and Virtue, or the pampered but repressed Abigail from Wicked. Mostly people thought that she thought she was something special, a big shot because she had been on a Broadway stage, on the silver screen. Honestly, she liked slipping from character to character while still going home to her identity at the end of the day. It wasn’t about the money or the fame, but no one understood that.

Isabelle slowly circled to face Michael. With her hands together to keep them warm, she responded, “Yes, I am Isabelle Flannery. Who’d you think I was?”

“I dunno.” He paused to scrutinize her, the petite young woman in jeans and no makeup. Tina had sworn by her black eyeliner, and Abigail’s face had not the refinement that Isabelle’s currently had. “But I never expected, not in a million years…”

“So what, you want me to sign that clean white shirt of yours or something so that you’ve got proof you met me?”

Michael shook his head. “I would never ask you to do something like that. That would be kind of gauche, wouldn’t it?” When Isabelle relaxed and agreed, he added, “But my mother wouldn’t mind you signing my sock. It costs less to replace.”

Isabelle made a face at him.

Michael held up his hands in a gesture of goodwill. “I’m kidding. Truthfully, my mother probably would mind you signing my sock. But I’m sure she’d love to meet you…” Isabelle’s eyebrows arched. “…if that’s okay. She plays the cassette of Verve: the Musical quite religiously around the house and I have to admit I know almost all of the words.” Isabelle merely blinked, not saying a word, and Michael felt the heavy burden of awkwardness wash upon him again. “But I’m not putting any pressure on you, not at all. You really don’t have to meet my mother if you don’t want to…”

Michael trailed off as a strange sound met his ears. He stared at Isabelle as her shoulders shook and her breath came out in short puffs—she was laughing!

“Um, I didn’t realize I was a comedian,” Michael muttered. “Do you mind telling me what’s so funny?”

Isabelle came up and laughingly punched his shoulder. He yelped when the blow connected; he was a lanky, sturdy guy, but Isabelle was stronger than she looked, apparently.

“You’re cute when you’re nervous,” Isabelle told him. “Babbling about me meeting your mama.” She laughed again. “And here I am, used to guys throwing themselves at me in all kinds of indecent ways because of what I do, having met you, who wants to get his sock autographed and take me home to Mama. Isn’t that something?”

“I’ll bet,” Michael said, for lack of anything better to say, as Isabelle fell back into step with him. They walked for a bit, side by side, without saying anything.

To break another silence, albeit a more comfortable one, Isabelle inquired, “So what about your family? What are they like?”

It was Michael’s turn to be uncomfortable. He averted Isabelle’s inquisitive gaze and stared at the rooftops of the houses they passed by so he didn’t see the confusion pass over her face. “I, uh… It’s just me and my mother. My father…” Isabelle shook her head and swore under her breath at the evident sorrow in his voice. “My father died when I was a little boy.”

“Oh Michael,” Isabelle began, green eyes wide, “I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

He shook his head and shrugged it off, not looking at her. “It’s okay. You didn’t know. You couldn’t have known.” He hazarded a glance at Isabelle. He’d expected that she would feel pity for him, want him to cry on her shoulder. Or she would want to help him “work” through his feelings in a Sally Jessy moment. Instead, what he sensed from her was…understanding. It was a welcome change from the usual female reaction that usually left him feeling uncomfortable.

“You seem…okay,” Isabelle began hesitantly. Michael looked at her puzzledly. “I mean, you’re not getting into trouble and blaming it on your dead father, so I guess your mother is doing a good job. You don’t know how many jerks I see trying to wreak havoc on everyone else because they think they’ve been screwed out of a normal childhood. Pussies.”

Michael choked out laughter at the word. “Well no, not me,” he managed. Isabelle shared a look with him and couldn’t help but laugh, too.

“It’s true,” Isabelle insisted when her laughter had subsided. “So you stay the way you are, okay?”

Michael met her intense gaze with a nod as they paused in front of a two-story house. “Okay, I promise.”

“Good.” She gestured toward the house they’d stopped in front of. He spied the shiny silver car in the driveway. Her mother drove a Mercedes. He wondered what she was like. He wondered what her whole family was like and how it felt to live with them. But he didn’t have the time to ask her as she was getting out her house key. “So I guess I’ll see you…around.”

“Oh sure. Around.”

“Thanks for walking me home. Those guys were jerks. I mean, I would have gotten rid of them, but… Well, thanks all the same.”

“Oh, no problem.” There was a pause. Isabelle couldn’t quite walk to her house, and Michael could not force himself to leave. Something tangible existed in the air between them, a link neither wanted to break. Finally Michael inquired, “So would you like to have a burger sometime? Maybe I can take you home to meet Mama afterwards.”

Isabelle laughed at the last part, which was obviously said in jest. “I’m gonna get a toothache with you around.” After a moment of consideration, she nodded. “Yeah. We’ll have that burger sometime.” She turned as the door opened and a dark-haired young man about Michael’s age and height stepped out onto the porch. From his vantage point, Michael could see a slight resemblance though the guy’s skin was duskier than his sister’s. “Hey—stop acting like you’re my warden, wouldja Johnny?”

“Stop calling me Johnny!” was the irate shout. “The name is Jonathan. And stop playing Love Connection. Mama wants you in the house ahora.”

Isabelle rolled her eyes, her exasperation obvious. “Whatever,” she muttered. She turned to Michael with an exasperated smile. “I gotta jet or he’s gonna come over here—and trust me, we don’t want that.” She offered him a spunky wave as she backed away. “See you later. Hey—maybe you can walk me home tomorrow.”

Michael had to crush the urge to be overly happy about the new development; he managed a nonchalant shrug of shoulder that seemed cool. “Oh sure. Awesome. See you later.”

She shot him one last smile before running up the walkway to the porch. Michael watched, with some amusement, as she ran up the steps and punched her older brother in the shoulder. She dashed away as he was holding his injured shoulder, and he rushed after her, declaring war. The door slammed behind them, closing Michael off from the sight of their familial dynamics.

As he walked home thinking about Isabelle, he couldn’t help the feeling his life was not going to be the same now that she had walked into it.

*“Run to You” originally performed by Bryan Adams. Written by Bryan Adams and Jim Vallance.

 

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