They arrived in Los Angeles nearly a day later. Since Nicole refused to be left out of whatever was to happen next, and, additionally, Isabelle refused to let Sophie out of her sight, Sydney and Vaughn had to get clearance to let them inside CIA headquarters. So the displaced trio accompanied Vaughn and Sydney to work.
As the quintet entered the pen, Lauren shot up from her desk chair and went to her husband, whom she had not seen in almost two days. As she took in the scene, she seemed to stop short at the sight of Vaughn’s hand on Isabelle’s shoulder and the other clutching Sophie’s along with the bruise on his cheek.
“Michael—what happened?” she began.
Vaughn frowned and shifted away from Isabelle, eyes filled with bemusement. “Dixon didn’t tell you?”
Lauren shook her head. “No, he didn’t.” She flicked a glance at the displaced trio, a glance that had Nicole inwardly putting her hackles up. “Are they agents, Vaughn?”
Sydney decided to speak up then. “No, they’re not, Lauren.” She gestured to the trio. “These are Isabelle Flannery, her daughter Sophie, and Nicole Smith. After our mission went awry in Valladolid, we”—her voice hitched a bit on the pronoun but only Vaughn noticed—“found out that they could be crucial to finding the Globe. So we brought them with us so we could ensure their protection. Especially since Sark somehow escaped CIA protection.”
Lauren said nothing then. Sydney suggested they move to Dixon’s office to wait on everyone else and also to get out the way. As they were settling in, Weiss came onto the scene, taking in the new faces in stride—that is, until he got to the little girl holding Vaughn’s hand. And saw his buddy stamped there on her face. Marshall entered a few beats later, but everyone was transfixed by the jovial Weiss unhinged by a seven-year-old.
“Well, hello,” he managed.
“Hi!” Sophie announced energetically. “My name is Sophie. Do you have a gun, too?”
“Sophie!” Isabelle scolded when Weiss laughed. She gave him an apologetic smile. “I’m sorry. We had a little incident in Valladolid and she’s been asking every agent she sees if he or she has a gun.”
“Incident?” Weiss inquired, and looked to Sydney and Vaughn for an explanation. “What exactly happened in Spain?”
“We encountered Sark,” Sydney responded. “He and Vaughn”—Vaughn stared hard at Isabelle and she narrowed her green eyes at him—“and Isabelle had a brief altercation and Isabelle shot him.”
Weiss and Lauren gaped at the seemingly innocuous Isabelle with varying degrees of shock.
“Two times,” Sydney continued almost as if she were giving a report. “One was a flesh wound on the neck and the other was in the shoulder. He was unconscious when he was taken into custody. An unidentified vehicle intercepted the ambulance transporting Sark and helped him escape. The authorities in Valladolid are willing to help us in that respect.”
Weiss nodded, then shifted incredulous eyes to Isabelle. “So…” Isabelle looked up at him. “Who taught you how to shoot? John Wayne?”
“My father insisted that I learn how to use a gun,” Isabelle responded. Then, her eyes clouded a bit as she remembered Sark’s words. “He and my older brother.”
Vaughn’s brow lifted. “And I find it strange that John would have let you touch a gun. He would be appalled if he were still alive and knew what you had done in Valladolid.”
Isabelle’s eyes flashed. “I had to do what I had to do, Michael. I had no other option. It was either have you gutted like a trout or bring you back to Los Angeles in one piece. I’m a civilian but I’m not stupid. Besides, you heard the things he said about my brother. I couldn’t let that rest.”
“What you did was careless and could have gotten you or me or Sydney or Sophie killed,” Vaughn disagreed. “I still can’t believe you were that irresponsible, Isabelle.”
“Gee, I guess the token black chick could get shot and you wouldn’t shed a tear, huh?” Nicole quipped dryly, but Vaughn was paying no attention.
“I had to do something,” Isabelle snapped out. “I wasn’t going to sit there and do nothing while some dangerous man threatened your life. He could have gone after Sydney, Sophie and Nicole when he was done with us.”
“Thanks for remembering me,” Nicole muttered.
“Hard to forget.” Isabelle addressed Vaughn again. “Now look. I don’t know what kind of woman you think I am…”
“You are obviously reckless and thrill-seeking. I thought maybe being a mother had cured you of those little tendencies, but maybe I was wrong. There is no way in hell that you could have managed shooting Sark in the forehead to save me.”
Nicole rolled her eyes at Vaughn and looked to Sydney, because, honestly, she felt that Sydney had some pull here. “Can we give him an open-handed slap in the mouth so he’ll shut the hell up?”
Lauren opened her mouth to protest. Weiss pursed his lips to try and stifle the smile that threatened to break out onto his face. Sydney found that she couldn’t help dimpling a little, even as Vaughn sent her a glare sidelong. For some odd reason, she was amused by Vaughn getting flustered at Isabelle for knowing how to wield a firearm. Isabelle just sighed and shook her head in disbelief.
Marshall raised a hand slightly since he wanted to interject. “I for one don’t think that would be very nice to do to Agent Vaughn.” Nicole and Isabelle raised their eyebrows at him as if they disagreed. So Marshall, in his endearing, bumbling way, amended, “But then again, it might be a bit silly for Vaughn to be worried about Ms. Flannery’s skill with a firearm as she is the daughter of Alejandro Garza and they probably had nice father/daughter moments involving a gun and some dented up cans, which would be a nice thing for a woman in any situation because we all have to know how to defend ourselves, right? I mean, don’t we?”
“Yeah, don’t we, Vaughn?” Weiss teased, despite himself.
“Shut up, Weiss,” Vaughn said tersely.
“Ain’t no point in getting mean,” Nicole chided him. “Dude has a point. Isabelle is stronger than you think she is even though she had a baby and all—and lord knows y’all couldn’t handle that, so don’t even pull that caveman act like you did on the plane and on the car ride on the way here. It’s kinda tired.”
“Please don’t pick on my husband,” Lauren said to Nicole. “He has a right to be concerned. Someone could have gotten killed.”
Nicole turned her brown-eyed gaze upon her with the air of And who asked you what you thought of the situation? “Well, no one did, so calm down. And your husband needs to get over it.” She peered at Vaughn again. “Besides, shouldn’t it be a load off your mind that Izzy can handle herself? I mean, damn. Grow some sense, man.”
Before Vaughn could speak, Lauren spoke for him. “My husband has plenty of sense. You cannot berate him for his concern for Ms. Flannery and her child in what was obviously a very foreign situation for them. In fact, it seems quite crass of you to do so.”
As Lauren made her statement, Nicole’s eyes widened and her facial expression clearly said, Oh hell no! Seeing the vocal barrage that was to come, Isabelle placed her hand on clenched fingers and shook her head.
“That heffa doesn’t know who she’s dealing with,” Nicole said under her breath.
Isabelle’s eyebrows quirked meaningfully and Nicole said nothing more even though her surly expression indicated she wanted to do otherwise. Isabelle turned to Vaughn, voice even, and remarked, “So this is your wife?”
Sydney looked to Vaughn for his reaction, remembering her statement back at her house. Vaughn, a little bemused, responded, “Yes, this is my wife.”
“I see,” Isabelle merely said. Sydney understood the meaning in between those two words, and it seemed she didn’t approve entirely of Lauren. That gave her a small measure of pleasure, even though she knew she shouldn’t have been worried about what others thought of Lauren.
Jack and Dixon entered the room right then. Their entrance wasn’t brisk per usual, which indicated that perhaps they had been listening to the exchange. Marshall, Sydney, Weiss, Lauren, and Vaughn moved to their seats and Nicole, Isabelle, and Sophie were left standing. As Jack claimed his own seat, Dixon went to greet the upright trio.
“Thank you for offering to help with this,” Dixon said with genuine gratitude in his voice. “I understand that this is a very unique situation for the three of you, and we will try in every way possible to ensure your comfort and protection.”
Isabelle thanked him, clasping his large hand in both of her smaller ones. “Thank you, Mr. Dixon. Nicole, Sophie and I appreciate your efforts.”
Nicole held up a hand. “Actually, there is one thing.” As Dixon nodded to indicate he was all ears, Nicole leaned in and asked, “Could we put a muzzle or something on the blonde one? That would be for comfort, of course.”
Lauren’s mouth dropped open. Sophie giggled. Isabelle nudged Nicole, who looked at her innocently. Dixon didn’t know how to respond to that other than saying, “We will do what we can, Ms. Smith.”
“Thank you, sir,” Nicole thanked him. She grinned at Isabelle, who could only shake her head in a mix of amusement and disbelief. She followed Dixon to the head of the room as Nicole took a seat with Sophie in her lap.
“As you all know, the mission to Valladolid to retrieve the Globe failed,” Dixon began. “Agents Vaughn and Bristow were unable to complete their task because the intel we received was incorrect, not due to any dearth of skill on their part.” A smile tugged at Sydney’s lips at that statement of encouragement. “Garza must have had the artifact moved or this was a deliberate set-up on someone’s part. The appearance of Julian Sark hints at probable Covenant involvement. There was a skirmish involving Sark and he was injured. Unfortunately, he somehow has escaped custody, and the security breach is being investigated.
“During the mission, Agents Vaughn and Bristow encountered Ms. Flannery here, who is Alejandro Garza’s oldest daughter.” He looked to Isabelle. “If you don’t mind, Ms. Flannery…”
“Not at all.” Isabelle took a small step forward, making sure she had their attention. “Ms. Smith, my daughter and I were…visited”—the word came out with a bit of irony; Sydney and Vaughn glanced at each other—“by Agents Vaughn and Bristow at my house a little over thirty-six hours ago. They explained to me what Mr. Dixon just informed you, and I told them that I had donated my father’s collection to my friend Marisol Sebastian. Ms. Sebastian owns a museum in Gracia, a few miles northeast from here. As we were in transit, I contacted Ms. Sebastian about her inventory, and she told me that she didn’t have anything that resembled a globe.”
“Do you think your father could have hidden it away somewhere without your knowledge?” Lauren inquired. “After all, you spent years estranged from one another so there is hardly any telling what he did with the artifact.”
“We think that Garza probably hid it among something ordinary of Isabelle’s so that it would escape notice,” Sydney piped up. She got a nagging feeling that Lauren was trying to negate Isabelle’s importance and it pissed her off. “It’s probable Isabelle has it and doesn’t even know.”
“If Garza left most of his estate to someone else, why would he entrust something so important to a daughter he didn’t consider his own?”
“Because he’s not stupid,” Vaughn responded, earning varying degrees of astonishment from everyone. Though, Nicole looked the most shocked, while Lauren appeared like Vaughn had just cried mutiny. “Alejandro Garza was a shrewd and dangerous man, but he took pride in his offspring. Without his oldest male heir, Isabelle was the only viable choice. He knew she would get rid of most if not all of it; it’s the way she is. She doesn’t like to revel in things that mean nothing to her, and most of her father’s collection is just that: things that mean nothing to her.” Isabelle stared at him slack-jawed as he spoke. “So in knowing that, Sydney, Isabelle, and I agreed that it was probably hidden in something she would have saved from his collection. Maybe something that had to do with her mother.”
Thinking of her deceased mother, Isabelle looked to the floor. Her eyes were filled with unshed tears. Sydney herself swallowed, thinking of all the emotions that had been brought to the surface at the mentioning of a dead mother on the plane as they had been discussing the Globe. When Isabelle’s eyes rose, they fell upon Sydney. Sympathy and anguish were both alive in those green depths. But before Isabelle looked away, those same eyes steeled.
“If all of this is true,” Jack began, “if Alejandro Garza did in fact anticipate his daughter’s movements to be rid of the collection we thought the artifact was a part of, then how do we go about securing the Globe before the Covenant does? Where can we find it?”
Isabelle inhaled, but Nicole spoke instead. She could tell that Isabelle was working through something at the moment. “Izzy has the stuff she actually kept in a safe-deposit box at a bank in New York.” She looked at her friend. “I don’t know what’s in it. I never asked.”
“We need to move onto the box immediately,” Dixon said. “Agent Vaughn, you will accompany Ms. Flannery to New York, posing as her husband.” Lauren pursed her lips together and slid her eyes in the direction of her husband. Vaughn met her gaze momentarily before looking away. “Sydney, you and Weiss will be on comms. I think this is a simple enough mission to do without Op Tech. However, Agent Vaughn, I am trusting you to protect Ms. Flannery during this mission. Do not fail.”
“Mm-hmm,” Nicole intoned. “He’d better not. He’ll have to answer to me and I can assure you”—she leveled a steely glare upon Vaughn—“he won’t like it.”
Since he couldn’t think of anything to say to that, Dixon ended the briefing by dismissing them, and that broke the silence.
Sydney watched as Vaughn pulled Lauren out to the hallway where he could talk to her in relative private. Judging from her pinched expression, his first task would have to be to reassure her that things were fine, but there would be no telling how she would react after she learned the truth about Sophie…
“That was something wasn’t it?” Weiss remarked to Sydney.
“Yeah. I thought Nicole and Lauren were going to come to blows.”
“As much as I like Lauren, my money’s on Nicole. She has that ready-to-rumble look.” He glanced at Isabelle speaking to Dixon. She appeared anxious, and she was gesturing toward Nicole and Sophie, who were both chatting animatedly with Marshall. “I wonder what’s wrong.”
“She’s worried about Nicole and Sophie,” Sydney revealed. “She doesn’t trust just anyone to watch them. She’s afraid Sark will try and go after them while we’re in New York.” Her eyes flicked in the direction of the hallway where Vaughn was talking to Lauren, and she queried Weiss in a low tone, “Did you know about Isabelle?”
Weiss exhaled. “Honestly, Sydney, he never mentioned her,” Weiss responded, matching her discreet tone. “Vaughn knew her brother—Jonathan Flannery I think. He used to be a detective for the LAPD, but he was killed about six or seven years ago.”
Around the time Sophie was born, Sydney calculated, even though she didn’t know if it meant anything. Pondering upon that, Sydney was silent when he father strode up to her and Weiss.
“Could you excuse us, Agent Weiss?” Jack asked the male agent. Weiss gallantly excused himself and left Sydney and her father alone.
Recognizing the look in her father’s eyes, Sydney asked, “What’s wrong, Dad?”
“Nothing really. I just…” He trailed off and met his daughter’s bemused gaze. “I’m worried about how you’re taking this, another woman with a history with Michael Vaughn.”
Sydney snuck another glance at Isabelle. This time, she was holding Sophie and reprimanding Nicole about going at it with Lauren moments before. “Isabelle is different. I don’t know how to explain it, Dad. I know she would rather see him happy, whether it’s with her or not. She doesn’t seek to use their past against him or hang it over his head. She has Sophie and Nicole, and for her that is enough.”
“She has the blood of an international terrorist in her veins,” Jack reminded her.
“And so do I,” Sydney shot back. “But I chose to be what I am, and she has, too. She hardly wants Sophie to live through the hell her father put her through. I haven’t known her for more than half a day but I know that.”
“I just want you to be careful, Sydney. You don’t know everything there is to know about Isabelle Flannery.”
Meanwhile, the topic of the Bristows’ conversation bit her lip worriedly and glanced outside the briefing room. “I really don’t want to go out there yet. What if they’re still talking?”
“Then just walk past them. Damn, Iz, don’t get all twisted about her feelings.”
Isabelle gazed at Nicole meaningfully. “I don’t think she knows, Nicole.”
Nicole froze. Her brown eyes went as huge as saucers. “What?!” she boomed, her voice reverberating in the small room. Isabelle shushed her as curious glances came their way. “Don’t shush me! That boy has lost his damn mind! He ought to have told her as soon as he said I do. Or on the honeymoon or something.” She lowered her voice in a loose caricature of Vaughn’s but it came across more Carlton Banks from the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air instead. “Hey sweetheart, before we get it on on these here satin sheets, I’ve got something to tell you. I’ve got a baby mama.”
Sophie tittered, finding the Nicole’s delivery funny even though she didn’t know what the statement meant. Isabelle was stuck in between exasperation and amusement so she only said, “Nicole, Michael would not use the phrase baby mama.”
Nicole blinked. “So?” Isabelle sighed. “Look—point is, he should have told her. So don’t worry about it so much. It’s on him.” With that, she grabbed Isabelle’s arm and led her out of the room. They passed Vaughn and Lauren, who looked as if they were in the throes of a serious conversation. “If you look back, you’ll turn into salt, girl.”
Suddenly, Vaughn called out her name, and the trio stopped abruptly.
“You’re gonna turn into stone!” Nicole hissed.
“Shut up, Nicole!” Isabelle hissed back. She turned to face Vaughn and Lauren with a friendly look on her face. “Yes?”
“Lauren and I were just discussing things,” Vaughn began, “and I know you’re understandably concerned about keeping Sophie and Nicole safe while we all are gone.”
“Yes, that is a great concern to me,” Isabelle agreed. “What did you have in mind?”
“Well, Lauren could watch over Nicole and Sophie while in we’re in New York.”
Isabelle subtly nudged Nicole, making her bite off an Oh hell no. “That would be lovely,” she responded with a dazzling smile. “Thank you, Lauren.”
“Oh no, it won’t,” Nicole disagreed, not heeding Isabelle’s glare. Nicole looked at Lauren point-blank and continued. “To be real, I don’t trust you. This is my Fee-Fee we’re talking about here.” At that moment, Sydney and Jack walked out of the briefing room, talking, and Nicole swung a finger in Jack’s direction. “Him. I’d rather stay with him.”
Everyone looked to Jack with rapt interest.
There was a humming pause before he spoke as he took in the eyes appraising him. “I am not a baby-sitter, Ms. Smith,” Jack responded archly. “In that capacity, I think Ms. Reed would be better suited.”
Nicole broke away from Isabelle and walked up to Jack. She stared up at him, her gaze unwavering despite the palpable presence that made all the other agents sit up straight whenever he walked past. “I’m the baby-sitter in this scenario. We need a bodyguard, not State Department Barbie over there.” She jerked a thumb in Lauren’s direction.
“State Department Barbie?!” Lauren spat. “How dare you…?”
“Ms. Reed,” Jack said in a booming voice that brought order. Vaughn consoled his wife as Jack then turned to Nicole. “If you are done name-calling, Ms. Smith—”
“Just calling it like I see it,” Nicole broke in.
“Then I have to say I get your point, but I am a senior officer with the CIA and a very busy man indeed. I have better things to do than to provide protection for you and your charge.”
Nicole’s right eyebrow quirked. “Mm-hmm. So whatcha doing tonight?”