Prologue

Prelude
Indulgence

In the ides of August…

It was quiet in the Vaughn household on the evening of the fourteenth. There were no romantic interludes with candles and soft music planned, no social outings with friends. The two occupants of the house converged at their house, consumed a serene meal, and did a little reading (grown-up homework courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency). Before heading to bed, they engaged in their pre-bedtime rituals which included the usual bathing procedure. Every now and again, they might shower together or she would take a bath on her own. That night, she soaked in the tub by herself, while her husband went to his study during his time alone.

Lauren and Michael Vaughn, on the surface, seemed the typical married couple, as the events of the evening had shown. They were prone to good days and bad days. Unfortunately, there had been a considerable amount of “bad” days since Vaughn had returned from Hong Kong three months previous. That was an incident he didn’t want to think about. But the truth was, Vaughn had felt a bit withdrawn throughout the whole ritual of a night at home on the night of the fourteenth. His mind had been miles away. Five thousand, seven hundred eighteen miles away.

While his wife was luxuriating in the bathtub, Vaughn allowed himself to partake in an indulgence of his own.

Everyone had hidden pockets of their lives that they only brought to light when no one was around, like a worn picture whispering of the past. On the night of fourteenth, the whisper came all the way from Spain.

Vaughn moved aside his folder on the Covenant’s movements in Europe, glancing guiltily at his cracked door. Judging from the sloshing sounds coming from tub and his wife’s contented sighs, he knew he had a little while yet. So he opened a drawer and unearthed a nondescript manila envelope that would have not aroused suspicion in the clutter of his desk drawer, but by itself, it hinted at something clandestine.

He had fought with himself day and night ever since he had married Lauren. One day he had decided to tell her; by the end of the day, he found his mouth shut on the subject and ready to move on to something else. Either that or he had totally forgotten the whole dilemma because his mind was occupied with other problems (or one problem in particular). So here he was, married to Lauren Reed, having declared to be with her for better or for worse through sickness and health, for half a year with a secret eating a hole inside of him. A big secret.

Inside of the envelope were a letter and a sheaf of photographs and magazine clippings. The letter he could recite from memory; he left it inside the envelope, opting for the largest, glossiest photograph instead.

The person in the photograph he chose wore her hair unbound. The curly mass of mahogany brown framed a heart-shaped face. Her milky white shoulders were bared by an off-the-shoulder dress in a peach hue. Olive-green eyes as intense as his own stared at an unseen point off-camera, and the coral-shaded lips were slightly upturned at the edges, as if she were thinking of an amusing irony she shared with no one. A cream-gloved hand was placed in her lap, and as she was angled toward the viewer, she held the other gloved hand over the V exposing her chest—a sign of modesty. He always smiled when he noticed that, thinking of what her reaction could have been. She would have punched his shoulder laughingly and would have told him not to read too much into a silly picture.

He placed the picture aside and pulled one of the magazine clippings from the envelope. It touted the exploits of a Manhattan-born beauty who had taken Broadway by storm with her kaleidoscopic talent while giving a bit of background on her early life. After skimming the slightly overdone article, he pulled another photograph from the pile, one that included a younger version of him and another guy flanking her at the sides. They all wore baseball caps and huge grins. Vaughn recalled the rousing game they had just come from and smiled again. They’d made a bet, and she’d won like she always did.

An indefinite amount of time had passed when he heard the door to the bathroom open. He heard Lauren’s footsteps in the bedroom, heard the pause. Quickly he slid everything into the envelope and the envelope underneath the folder at which he was supposed to be looking.

When Lauren walked into the study with her tawny hair piled on top of her head, she saw her husband poring over a file from work. He tapped a pen idly on the desktop as he read, and his brows were furrowed in concentration. He didn’t look up immediately when she entered, so she went to him at the desk to get his attention.

“There you are,” she said with a smile. Lauren placed a hand on his shoulder and he gazed up at her. “Still working?”

“Yeah. Just looking at some stuff for the briefing tomorrow morning.” He paused as she glanced down at the desktop. One of the corners of the envelope was visible. Vaughn placed her lips on hers so that she was distracted from his desk long enough to conceal the corner. When she pulled away, a light smile curved his lips. “You smell nice. Is that new?”

Lauren beamed at the observation. It was nice that despite their times of discord that he would notice something like the scent of her body wash. Though, with her at this proximity, it was hard to miss without holding his breath. “The saleswoman at the store recommended it. Do you like it?”

“I do. Very much.” Vaughn carefully closed the file folder on his desk and set it neatly in the middle of the surface. In one smooth move, he stood and kissed her on the cheek.

“You go on to bed,” Vaughn told Lauren. “I’ll be there in a minute.”

Lauren complied and left him alone once again. After she had left the room, Vaughn exhaled heavily and collapsed in the chair. Silently he berated himself for not telling her sooner, chided himself for not finding the balls to sit her down and tell her at that moment.

I will tell her tomorrow, Vaughn told himself. I will take her aside, away from work, and tell her.

Of course, a more cynical person would have recognized the fact that that was an empty vow, thought only to ensure a false sense of accomplishment. But Michael Vaughn didn’t think about it any longer. If he did, he’d find that heart-shaped face in his dreams.

[—-]

Meanwhile, five thousand, seven hundred eighteen miles away, a woman watched the rising of the sun with a multi-colored blanket covering her shoulders to ward off the pre-dawn chill. She wore a sweater and jeans, but she couldn’t quite ward off the cold. She was not sickly or anemic, but on the morning of the fifteenth, and only on the morning of the fifteenth, she always felt cold.

Her roommates, so to speak, were ensconced in slumber. She didn’t want to rouse them; this was her time alone, and she was going to take it. She liked the tranquil peace before the day began. In her life filled with toys, cartoons, math homework, and the occasional grocery expedition, this was one of her few mature indulgences.

She wasn’t a lonely woman by any means, nor did she feel crowded by the direction her life had taken or the people in it. She was content with her accomplishments and didn’t regret any choices she’d made. Well, perhaps just one.

But you let him go, she reminded herself. You let him go—when you both needed each other most. And you know who to thank for that.

Yes, she did, and she thought about dancing on that person’s grave…

But that would be rather vulgar of her. She had breeding, right? Her mother had taught her to turn the other cheek, to act and not react. Not to mention, she was an adult. She was above such overtures. It was all in the past, and everything was better because of it. She was better because of it.

So, with that thought, she brought the blanket tighter around her and headed into the house. She had a birthday cake to make.

 

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