On the plane to Valladolid, Sydney studied the file on her alias for the mission. She was posing as the British Catherine Little, and Vaughn was her co-worker Jefferson Ferrin. They were both lawyers at a powerful international firm who handled anything from criminal law to probate law. Garza employed their pricey services without batting an eyelash as they had saved him from legal trouble many times. His second wife had called upon them for help with contesting some of the terms of Garza’s will, so their presence at the party would not seem circumspect.
Sydney looked up from the file at that moment to study Vaughn. He sat across from her reading a book and so far he hadn’t said that much to her. She could sense a slight unwillingness to be with her—or what she took as such—emanating from him. Sydney didn’t like it. Was it because of the incident with the e-mail earlier that day? She wasn’t sure. The thought of it filled her with bemusement; what was the arrangement and what was the thing that Vaughn was being kept from but deserved?
There’re probably a million possibilities, Sydney mused. But you’re not going to get anywhere inquiring him like it’s the Spanish Inquisition. The best thing to do is to be casual, polite.
Conversationally, she asked, “Did you get to read the file on the mission?”
“Of course I read the file,” Vaughn replied abruptly.
Sydney was perturbed by his tone and searched her brain for a clue as to what could have prompted his tone of voice. Sydney shifted in her seat, trying to find the right words to break the silence that had fallen like a pall between them.
Finally, she remarked meaningfully, forgetting her earlier thought about being casual and polite, “I hope you don’t expect me to keep it from Lauren if you’re having an affair.”
Vaughn’s eyes traveled to hers, flashed. “I am not having an affair. I would never cheat on my wife. I thought you knew me better than that.”
“Sometimes I wonder,” Sydney retorted, earning a fierce look from Vaughn. “So then, who were you composing that e-mail to?”
“Just an old friend,” Vaughn responded tersely. “Nothing you should worry about.”
At that, Vaughn went back to his book. Sydney placed the file aside and leaned forward. It was time to clear the air once and for all. They had space and opportunity and damned if Sydney wasn’t going to use it.
“I am tired of pretending that nothing is wrong between us,” Sydney began.
“What are you talking about?” Vaughn asked with barely feigned confusion that sounded suspiciously like defensiveness. “There’s nothing wrong.”
“You have barely spoken to me in weeks,” Sydney countered. “Every time I look at you it’s almost as if someone’s ramming hot sticks in your eyes. If you have a problem with me, let’s get it out in the open now.”
“I don’t have a problem with you, Sydney. What I do have a problem with is trying to pretend that everything can be as it was before. It can’t be.”
“I’m not asking for that!” Sydney snapped out. “I don’t want that as much as you don’t. Yes, I want things to be normal. But after what has happened, I am well aware that they will never quite be the same.” Sydney paused a beat, tilted her head a bit. “Maybe we can’t work together anymore.”
Something stirred in Vaughn’s eyes at the notion but he said nothing. When he didn’t provide a rebuttal for her last comment, Sydney fell back into the chair, unsettled. Mouth set, she picked up the file and tried to think of the mission. She tried to ignore the sting because if she didn’t, she would forget the job. And right now, the job was her life.
The scene at the Garza mansion was festive; laughter of children drifted from the backyard and mingled with the strumming of a Spanish guitar. Sydney and Vaughn skirted past the security that Garza had left to protect his property and family after dropping the names of their supposed employers. They searched Sydney’s big black purse—or Catherine Little’s purse to be precise—but found a slew of over-the-counter meds, makeup, a pack of tissues, tampons, a handkerchief with Catherine Little’s initials monogrammed into them, and a little gift for the birthday girl. They saw nothing suspicious, but Vaughn figured that they perhaps were put off by the tampons.
They found the person they were looking for taking presents from the guests and placing them on the table behind her. Delia Garza was despondently beautiful in a stylishly cut sundress. Raven hair was pulled back into a loose bun, and she was unadorned except for her wedding ring and band. She clasped hands and thanked guests for their condolences and gifts for her daughter, her ice-blue eyes glimmering with unshed tears at the mention of her late husband.
When they approached her, she turned away from the person she was talking to and walked toward them. “You must be from the firm,” she observed, holding out a hand. “I’m Delia Garza.”
Vaughn pretended to be surprised and looked down at himself. “Oh. I suppose these blasted suits gave it away. The name’s Jefferson Ferrin,” Vaughn introduced himself and shook Delia’s hand. She had a soft hand but a firm grip. He figured one requirement for a wife for Alejandro Garza would be inherent strength. “And this is—”
Sydney sneezed at that moment. The handkerchief she used at that moment wasn’t the doctored one that Marshall had created but an exact replica of it. After wiping her nose, Sydney smiled apologetically at the widow and spoke through her stuffed nose.
“I am very sorry, Mrs. Garza,” Sydney said. She held out a hand. “Catherine Little. You have a lovely house.”
“Thank you.” She smiled with surprise when Sydney presented a wrapped box from her cavernous purse. “Oh, is this for my daughter? You didn’t have to.” She placed the box on the over-laden table behind her. “I suppose we should take this to the house.” She instructed a member of the family to watch things in her absence and then took Vaughn and Sydney into the house.
Delia took them up the stairs to the study. They followed, each watching the movements of Delia’s back. Sydney let out a sneeze here, a cough there, to keep up the pretense of being slightly under the weather. According to the specs of the house, the study was through the third door on the left, and the collection was housed two doors down on the right. The bathroom was not too far from that and Sydney planned to use its location well.
At the doorway of Garza’s study, Sydney sneezed loudly into a handkerchief.
Delia turned back to gaze at her. “Are you all right, Ms. Little?”
Sydney sniffled and blew her nose into her handkerchief. Vaughn tried not to laugh as the handkerchief blew comically out of Sydney’s hand. He was supposed to be mad at her, feel nothing for her, but he couldn’t help but inwardly admire her thoroughness with the cover.
“Thank you,” Sydney gushed nasally as Delia handed her the kerchief. “I’ve had this blasted cold for three weeks and still haven’t been able to shake it.”
“I told you you should have just stayed home, Catherine,” Vaughn chided her like a friendly co-worker would. Though, there was something in his tone that almost shattered Sydney’s cover: pure, genuine concern.
Part of the cover, that’s all, Sydney told herself glumly, and outwardly pooh-poohed Vaughn-as-Jefferson-Ferrin’s statement. “I don’t take sick days, Jefferson. Something important always happens while you’re gone.” She gave Delia a smile. “Perhaps now we could discuss the matter at hand.”
Delia opened her mouth to speak, but Sydney’s watch started beeping at that moment. Sydney jumped like a sick person at the loud sound.
She inhaled and placed a hand over her heart before she spoke. “My apologies. I set an alarm to alert me to the time in which my next dose of medicine was due…”
“It’s fine,” Delia assured her. “The bathroom is down the hall if you need to use it.”
Sydney thanked her profusely and left the room. Vaughn then turned to Delia, getting into his part of the mission: distracting her while Sydney swiped the Globe.
“My superiors have told me that you are a bit unsatisfied with your husband’s will,” Vaughn began.
“Alejandro died before updating his will, I’m afraid,” Delia told Vaughn as she faced the window and watched her daughter playing down below. “I always told him that he wasn’t invincible, but he didn’t listen.” The smile on her face as she turned was feeble. “Now nothing will be left to my baby to remember her father.”
“How old is your daughter, Ms. Garza?” Vaughn asked. When confusion and a bit of suspicion filled her eyes, Vaughn added, “I do not know much about your late husband. The firm sent us because they could not spare one of the senior partners…” He let his sentence trail off with a tone of contrition.
“His death was rather sudden,” Delia conceded. She inhaled and leaned on the desk. “My daughter is a toddler. She was the apple of Alejandro’s eye.” Her gaze shifted to the full length portrait over the fireplace. As resentment formed in those icy pools, Vaughn followed her stare. And got a shock.
The person in the portrait was female, and from the fullness of her face it appeared she was somewhere in her adolescent years. Her thick dark hair didn’t fall that far below her shoulders, and she wore a slate-blue dress that contrasted with the maroon background and cherry wood floor. She smiled as she stared upward at an unknown object, and the eyes that glittered with happiness were almost as familiar as the lines to an old favorite song.
No way. It couldn’t be.
“Boy Scout—I’m in the collection room,” Sydney said in his ear and effectively snapped him back to the present. “Searching for the artifact now.”
Garza’s widow spoke then, and Vaughn tried to maintain his cover. “Even though he doted on her, I could tell that he held some of it in reserve.” Delia gestured to the picture. “That’s his oldest daughter. They are currently estranged. At the time of his death, he had still hoped for reconciliation. I suppose that’s why he didn’t change his will before he was killed.”
Sydney’s voice came through again. “Boy Scout. Are you there? Say yes if you can hear me.”
“Yes,” Vaughn began, both starting a sentence to Delia and answering Sydney at the same time, “that seems rather unfortunate, Ms. Garza, but perhaps we can do something do make sure that your daughter gets some share of your husband’s estate. As a pretermitted heir, she does have some rights.”
“I’ve found the wooden chest,” Sydney informed Vaughn breathlessly. “Opening it now.”
“She’s got most of his collection,” Delia said bitterly. “He spent nearly his whole life compiling it, and she will likely sell it off to the highest bidder without batting an eyelash.”
Riding on an urge he could not suppress to defend the mysterious woman, Vaughn disagreed. “I’m sure she wouldn’t be so careless. She has to have more respect for her elders than that.”
Delia frowned at him. She seemed to have heard a tone in his voice that made her suspicious. She straightened and walked toward him, her head tilted. Something like fear snaked up his spine as a line of sweat tracked down it, but he remained cool on the outside. “Mr. Ferrin, is it? It seems you are trying to defend a woman you don’t know. And I’m trying to figure out why.”
When Sydney’s flabbergasted voice came through again, it nearly shattered his calm.
“It’s not here! I repeat, the Globe is not here! Vaughn, we have to get out of here! It could be a setup!”
Vaughn fought not to waver when he remarked to Delia, “Forgive me, Ms. Garza. It was just merely conjecture.” He forced a smile. “I am lawyer after all. I’m supposed to be a master at conjecture.”
Delia peered at him for what seemed like an eternity. Her ice-blue eyes were unreadable, and her expression was blank. Vaughn did not look away. He knew that she could have called for the guards if she sensed any suspicion, and they would have shot him and Sydney on the spot. So he knew that keeping her gaze was paramount.
Sydney reentered the room, then, face flushed, and shifted the dynamic between Delia and Vaughn. She sneezed again and excused herself, causing Delia to soften and momentarily forget the exchange she’d had with the so-called Jefferson Ferrin.
“Perhaps we can settle this matter another time,” Delia conceded, hands clasped in front of her. “Ms. Little, you look flushed.”
“I tried to take my sinus medicine and—silly old me—I choked on the water,” Sydney explained with a half laugh. “I’m surprised you didn’t hear me. I spent at least ten minutes coughing.”
“Perhaps we should return to the hotel,” Vaughn suggested, rising. “I think you would do well with a hot toddy.”
“Indeed,” Sydney agreed. “I am very sorry, Ms. Garza, that we couldn’t get everything straightened out, but once we get back to London, we will meet with our superiors so the matter can be cleared up immediately. Your daughter will have what she deserves.”
In the car on the way from the Garza mansion to the safe house, Sydney shook her head in disbelief over the outcome. She was so wrapped up in the error and trying to figure out how it occurred that she didn’t notice Vaughn’s silence as he drove.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” Sydney commented. “It was supposed to be in the wooden box.” She paused thoughtfully. “Unless Garza moved it without telling anyone. Or maybe someone took it before the party…”
But Vaughn remained quiet, offering no theories to hers. The image of the painting in Garza’s study came back to him, and the sting of betrayal was deep. His calm, rational side told him to not to jump to conclusions; after all, she’d had full rights to keep things from him if she’d wanted to, including her connection to a very bad man. But his emotional side wondered why she hadn’t told him. Why had he had to find out like this?
Sydney placed a hand on his arm and jolted him from his reverie. “Vaughn,” she said abruptly. “We’re being followed.”
Vaughn looked in the rearview and found a black car on the road some car lengths behind them, but it was too close for comfort. There was only the driver behind the wheel with one other passenger. Vaughn stepped on the gas and tried to speed away, but their followers merely zoomed even faster and caught them. Sydney braced herself on the door and the dash as the car rammed their back end.
“Dammit,” Vaughn muttered in frustration. “Who are these people?”
“Maybe they’re Garza’s security,” Sydney suggested hastily. “Maybe they’ve made us.” She looked at him meaningfully with wide eyes. “And Garza was suspected of being Covenant, right?”
Vaughn couldn’t entertain the possibilities—or any other ones—because their assailant rammed them again, and quite effectively; Vaughn lost control of the car, and the vehicle skidded off of the pavement as Sydney and Vaughn bounced around like marbles in a shaken jar. They collided with a tree, with the driver’s side catching the brunt of it, and the momentum threw them toward the windshield. If it hadn’t been for their seatbelts, they would have careened on through. The airbags deployed, adding to the force of the crash.
Sydney tried to snap to as she heard a car door slam several yards away. Footsteps got louder as they neared. She smelled smoke, and she ached everywhere. She bore down on the pain and turned to Vaughn, who looked as if he were unconscious. She had to wake him up—now.
“Vaughn,” she whispered urgently. “Vaughn—wake up!”
Vaughn remained unresponsive, which filled Sydney with alarm. After a few agonizing seconds, Vaughn’s eyelashes fluttered. When his lids lifted, his green eyes were dulled with confusion and pain.
“What’s going on?” he mumbled.
“Accident,” Sydney said quickly. “Assassins. We gotta move.” She got him out of his seatbelt and got the driver’s side door open just as a bullet shattered the windshield. That seemed to revive Vaughn enough that he maneuvered himself out of his seat and onto the hard ground below. With a quick spurt of strength, Vaughn pulled Sydney from the car and onto him as the passenger side door was thrown open.
They came face-to-face with the driver of the furtive black car, a dark-haired man with a bald head and dark, dark eyes. They could see the cold calculation in them as he pointed the gun at them and prepared to shoot.
What happened next seemed to come in slow motion. Vaughn shifted, rolling over slightly so that he was protecting Sydney from whatever was to come. Sydney felt, for a last act, it was quite telling. It meant that, deep down inside, that Vaughn would always care for her. She closed her eyes as the sound of gunshots filled her world. She braced herself for pain, for the end of her life.
But it never came.
Sydney’s eyes snapped open. What she saw, in the frame of the open passenger side door, was nothing. Then man was gone.
She sucked in a breath to speak but Vaughn shifted again at the crunch of dry leaves underneath feet. She watched as he shot the driver’s partner, a thick-haired guy with a five-o’clock shadow. The man fell to the ground with a thump, and his gun clattered to the asphalt with a metallic clang.
In the peace that ensued, Vaughn lowered his weapon and breathed heavily. The adrenaline that had been pumping through his veins was starting to ebb away, and through his growing fatigue, he didn’t realize that Sydney was still huddled against him until she brought herself to a sitting position. Was it odd that he wished that she hadn’t moved?
“What was that?” Sydney asked Vaughn breathlessly as air wheezed out of her lungs. The shake of Vaughn’s head indicated that he didn’t know either.
Back at the CIA safe house, the two agents peeled themselves out of their disguises, which were damaged after the heinous extraction process. Sydney went straight for the bathroom, holding her bleeding arm, while Vaughn took off the bloodied black blazer and stained white collared shirt and threw it aside.
Vaughn, clad now in a white undershirt and the torn black slacks, went to his laptop and powered it up. Remembering Delia’s statement about Garza’s oldest daughter, he searched a database for known information on the late Rambaldi aficionado and arms dealer. After a few tense moments, Garza’s profile loaded with a cheerful ding, and Vaughn skipped over the vital stats to his personal information.
Spouse(s): Maria Celina Fuentes (m. March 1965-June 1974, deceased); Delia Maureen Tomas (m. February 1998-present)
Children: Jonathan Lamar Garza de Fuentes (deceased), Isabelle Esperanza Garza de Fuentes, Graciela Rosaura Garza de Tomas—
Whoa. Wait. All of the thoughts floating around in Vaughn’s mind came to such a sudden stop that they seemed to crash and pile up like a multi-car collision. He blinked at the screen dumbfounded as the crash in his brain was cleared away, and mental traffic moved smoothly again. The implications of the information in front of him jump started his brain cells, and beginnings of thoughts came to their logical conclusions. Suddenly some of the questions that hadn’t been answered made sense.
But it stung a lot that he didn’t know this before now.
“The plane takes off in two hours,” Sydney yelled from the bathroom. “We have to contact Dixon, fill him in that the mission has failed and that we were followed. Then we go home and figure out where to go from there.”
“We can’t go home yet,” Vaughn said to Sydney.
There was a pause and then a crash as something fell into the sink. “What the hell do you mean, We can’t go home?!” Sydney exclaimed angrily, storming out of the bathroom in black pants and tank. The wound on her arm was bandaged. “The mission failed. Garza didn’t have the Globe after all, and obviously the intel was erroneous. The only thing for us to do is to go back to Los Angeles immediately.”
“We have one more stop,” Vaughn told her tightly, his eyes affixed to the screen.
“And where the hell is that?”
Vaughn wordlessly turned his laptop toward her so that she could see what was on the screen. Sydney recognized the face from somewhere, but she could not recall the place or time. The woman in the ID photo was ethereally beautiful, and the blue background of the picture enhanced the color of her eyes and hair against her pale skin.
“We have to go see this woman,” Vaughn told her. “She could help us.”
“How?” Sydney demanded. “How could she help us?”
Vaughn lifted his eyes to hers, and when he did, she could see an anguish there that she could not understand, even after the moment they’d had after the accident. Suddenly, there was more than those missing two years between them, and she felt herself thrown off-stride. “Because she’s the estranged daughter Delia Garza was talking about.”