When Vaughn walked over the threshold of the house he shared with his wife, he felt it. It overshadowed the pain from his wound and the burden of the last several hours. It was a keen awareness that the moment he had been dreading for months was near: the moment he was going to tell Lauren the truth about Isabelle and Sophie.
He wasn’t ashamed of Isabelle, not by any means. She was beautiful, caring, and smart, and dealing with her in Valladolid and in New York had proved that she had guts to add to the list. Beneath that pale skin and olive-green eyes was a woman with a spine of steel—but her heart was softer than one might think. And her heart was bruised to some degree by his not acknowledging her presence to the woman with whom he had vowed to spend the rest of his life. It wasn’t until that moment that he had stood over the threshold of his house that he understood why. In do so, he had shunned his daughter.
The golden light spilling onto the wooden floor from the living room alerted Vaughn to the possibility that his wife was still awake. He limped toward the signs of life and found himself holding his breath as if he were going to be diving into dark depths of water. Now or never.
As soon as Lauren spotted him, she leapt up from the couch and rushed to his side as if he was coming home from war instead of a simple mission to New York City. The breath he had been holding was summarily knocked out of him as the robe-clad, loose-haired woman embraced him.
“Oh God—Michael,” she breathed. “Weiss called and told me everything.” She squeezed him tightly. “I’m so glad you’re home.”
Let’s see how long that lasts, he thought tiredly. After a few beats, he pulled away from his wife, much to her amazement. It was stamped across her face, shimmering in her eyes. He focused on those eyes to keep him steady.
“Could we sit down?” he asked. “There…I have something to tell you.”
Lauren gripped his arm urgently. “Tell me? Is everything all right?”
“Sit down,” he urged wearily.
Lauren stared at him worriedly as if she were concerned that he were going to fall apart any second. Truthfully, she wasn’t that far off; amid the dearth of pain medication, Vaughn relied on sheer will to keep him focused and upright. He knew he could not rest until this secret was revealed.
“Michael, whatever it is you have to tell me, it can wait,” Lauren told him. “You’re exhausted and you’ve been hurt. You need to rest.”
“This can’t wait,” Vaughn insisted. “This absolutely cannot wait.” Lauren opened her mouth to protest, but Vaughn clamped his hands on her shoulders so that she was forced to look into his face. “Lauren, there is something you have to know about Isabelle. And her daughter.” He paused and considered the best way to tell her. After a second, he figured that a concise admission would be best. “Sophia Flannery is my daughter.”
For a couple of beats, nothing happened. Then Lauren’s face went slack and her lips parted as she searched his eyes for any sign of duplicity, any sign that this was just a joke and it could fade away with a fingersnap. But all she saw in his eyes was weariness—and apprehension. That set her off and made her react.
“What?” she managed. “You mean…that…that woman you and Sydney brought from Spain bore you a child?” Before he could answer, she shifted away from him and shook his hands off of her shoulders. “How long have you known?”
“I’ve known about Sophie since she was a baby,” Vaughn explained. “Isabelle only revealed to me Sophie’s paternity after her mother died. After…we thought Sydney died.”
“And you didn’t tell me.” The bitterness slashed at him and he braced himself against its onslaught. He dimly realized that it probably hadn’t been a good idea to mention Sydney’s name either. “You coupled with that…woman, she had your child and you didn’t care to tell me? If she hadn’t had to come with you and Sydney back to Los Angeles, how long would it have taken you to tell me, Michael? When the girl was graduating high school?”
“I was going to tell you, Vaughn insisted tightly. “To be honest, I had resigned myself to the fact that I would never know that little girl, if she had turned out more like me or more like her mother. Isabelle wanted me to have nothing to do with Sophie, and she had her reasons. So I tried to pretend she didn’t exist. I didn’t tell you because I was trying to put Isabelle and Sophie in the past.” As Lauren pushed up from the couch and began to stalk away from him, Vaughn spoke softer. “I’m sorry, Lauren. What I did was stupid and you’ll have to forgive me for that. But please give Sophie and Isabelle a chance.”
With her back to him, Lauren suddenly asked, “How much do you love her, Michael?” She turned, and Vaughn could see the emotion swirling in her eyes. “Do you love her more than me?”
Vaughn sighed and lowered his head a moment before meeting her eyes unflinchingly. She didn’t specify which she she meant, but Vaughn took a wild guess and said the first thing that came to mind. “I love Isabelle very deeply, Lauren. She has been a dear friend—and only a friend—to me for a long time, no matter what hell she puts me through. But Sophie is my daughter. Now that I have the chance I would give her the moon and the stars if I could. That is something you just have to understand.”
Silence fell around them like a heavy pall after that admission. Vaughn stared at his wife’s back, wondering where he stood with her. Wondering where they would go from there. As instants slipped away without her approval, he had a feeling in the pit of his stomach that the path on which they would be going would be riddled with thorns.
“I’m going to bed,” Lauren told him in a low, angry tone. “Please don’t come up after me.”
She drifted from the room, leaving him numb and exhausted. Vaughn watched the doorway as the sound of her muted footsteps faded away during her ascent of the stairs. It had happened; he had jumped the first hurdle in a line of what he realized would be many others. The fatigue bowled him over again, and he knew sleep was inevitable. He laid back on the throw pillow gently and went off into a dreamless slumber.
In the corner of a swanky nightclub swathed in alcohol, smoke, and sweaty, languid bodies, Samara recrossed her legs with a wince. The scrape on her knee had scabbed over but was still sore. She glanced at her watch as a roving waiter replaced her empty water glass and realized that her acquaintance was late.
It added to the irritation of the day. Not only was she unsuccessful in getting what she ordered to get but she also was not able to thwart Isabelle and her allies. That was the biggest disappointment of all. She had wanted to get the best of that…of that… She exhaled slowly in an attempt to purge the anger from inside of her. When an observant pair of eyes spied her from across the room, she was at the closest to fuming as she could get. Samara was not a woman of violent emotion, but her face showed the tell-tale signs of irritation when Sark strode up.
The song that poured from the speakers as he walked through the smoke and dim light was “Smooth Operator.” That Samara would always remember whenever she looked back upon this moment as the first of her new life—her new life being in charge of her destiny.
The lyrics that Sade crooned into the murky squalor fit Julian Sark well. Despite his injuries at the hands of their adversaries, he moved with assurance and skill. He still had a bandage at his neck and probably another underneath his sharply pressed dress shirt, but you couldn’t tell when you looked into his eyes. He appeared unruffled, suave as fine liquor.
He’s laughing with another girl
And playing with another heart
Placing high stakes, making hearts ache
He’s loved in seven languages
Samara trained her cool blue eyes on him. “It’s about time you got here,” she complained, though there was no heat in the tone. It would have been uncharacteristic of her.
Sark smoothly sat down, not irritated in the slightest. He removed a manila envelope from the inside of his jacket and slid it across the table to her. When she looked at it then at him warily, he nodded to indicate that she should open it.
“It didn’t take long to figure out,” Sark explained as she looked at the papers in disbelief. “I found it odd that Samara Catherine Lewis seemed to be created out of thin air.” When her eyes blazed with anger, he continued. “You didn’t want anyone to know who you were and went to great lengths to mask your true identity.” He finished simply, as the tension mounted, “Why?”
Samara lowered the stack with a muffled bang, teeth bared. “Don’t you dare force me to explain to you.” She glanced around as if she were going to find someone eavesdropping on their exchange. Of course, there was no one; everyone around them was focused on their hedonistic activities. “I covered my true identity for good reason. I would have been killed if they knew I was Darcy Aileen Flannery.”
“Enlighten me. Why is Darcy Flannery such a doomed human being?”
Samara flung the papers at him. “Don’t act like you don’t know why. Every Covenant cell leader would have me gutted for being a part of the family they think is blaspheming Rambaldi’s name.”
Sark, bemused of course, took a few moments to retrieve the papers from the floor so that he could gather his thoughts. Samara’s (he thought of her that way; it was disorienting to think of her as Darcy Flannery, even if she was merely Isabelle’s half-sister) show of anger was oddly intriguing, but even more was her claim of peril. If she knew of his plans to kill off the cell leaders she feared, she would be comforted, but he decided to let her in on it once she gave him her story. Blaspheming Rambaldi? What did that mean exactly?
He neatly slid the papers back into the envelope and asked that very question.
The change in Samara was stark. Her face went slack and those cool blue-gray eyes went blank. All the indignation bled out of her at the sight of Sark’s ignorance. “You mean…you don’t know?”
“Why do you think I asked you to enlighten me, Samara?” Calling her by that name seemed to endear him to her, just a bit. “Whatever stigma your family name carries is interesting but unbeknownst to me. If you tell me, I might find means to assist you.”
Samara snorted sardonically. “I find that hard to believe.”
“I will dissuade you,” Sark remarked, “after you explain what you mean. I assume some great secret ties your family to Milo Rambaldi. I would like to know what that secret is.”
“Fine.” Calm again, Samara took a sip of water. She now realized that she had the upper hand (at least for now). “I assume that you know nothing the Fellowship of the Goddess.” Sark shook his head to indicate that she was right; he didn’t. “The Fellowship of the Goddess was formed in the late seventies by Alejandro Garza, my stepfather, and a sociologist from France. Garza and the woman met after Garza acquired the Globe. They were devoted to uncovering the mystery of the lost woman of Rambaldi and revealing her importance to other enthusiasts. My father, Jason Flannery, became involved nearly a decade later and funded a search to find proof that the lost woman existed. During the search, part of a document had been found. It, to this day, has not been translated.” Samara paused for a moment. “It is believed that the pages are part of a personal record of some sort. If they are, they will be very pivotal to the validation of this woman’s existence. Unfortunately, the resurfacing of this information had incited the anger of some of our superiors, and Garza was killed in Russia over three months ago for trying to use his Covenant ties to gain assistance in translating the pages.”
Sark’s eyebrows knitted together. “I’m not sure I follow you, Samara. Everyone knows about the Chosen One from page 47. It’s common knowledge. I don’t understand why your family is in any kind of danger.”
Samara shook her head at him, and Sark felt that telltale sensation of something gargantuan looming over his head. It was that sort of feeling that occurred before one found out something life-altering.
“Have you ever read The Da Vinci Code, Sark?” Samara inquired. When he indicated that he had, she pressed, “Do you remember what it insinuates?”
Sark blinked. “It insinuates quite a bit about Jesus Christ, among them the fact that Mary Magdalene was his wife and bore him children.” Following that chain of thought, Sark added in a matter-of-fact tone, “The Chosen One had not been Rambaldi’s wife. If she had been, she would not have the same importance.”
Samara nodded slowly. “You’re right about that,” she merely said, letting her words and the implication of them float between them.
It was Sark’s turn to be deeply amazed once the implication dawned. “So you mean…”
“There was another woman in the Rambaldi mythology,” Samara told him. “On the Globe there are the initials M.A.R. Of course, you know that Rambaldi’s own initials are M.G.R. So they are not his. They are those of his wife. And what’s even worse,” Samara continued, “the woman my father and Garza worked with believed that my mother was a descendant of Rambaldi and his wife. Which would make me a descendant as well.”
“Oh yes,” Sark said thoughtfully after a moment to adjust, “now I can see why you concealed your identity.”
Samara took a sip of water. “I knew you would.”
Sometime later, Sark called Lauren while on the way to a private airstrip. He knew that it was bedtime wherever she was, and she was probably with her husband.
That made calling her all the better.
After Lauren picked up and issued a sleepy greeting, Sark commented, “How’s that darling husband of yours, Ms. Reed? Is Agent Vaughn in bliss right next to you?”
“No he’s not,” Lauren responded stiffly. “He is sleeping on the couch.”
Sark clucked his tongue. “That’s a pity. Marital spat?”
“Hardly. The bastard coupled with that Flannery woman and just now decided to let me in on the big secret.” Before Sark could say something to that, Lauren asked, “I assumed that there is a reason why you called me.”
“Yes. We need to meet and discuss some things. I’d rather not go into them over the phone. Can we meet soon?”
“I think that can be arranged. It seems I’ve now got some time on my hands.”
Sark smirked at the wry tone of her voice. “I’ll bet you do…”
* “Smooth Operator” originally performed by Sade. Written by Sade Adu and Ray Saint John.