Six months later
Whenever she walked into a room, Daniella Thomas enviably turned heads. It was a quality that she sometimes forgot she possessed, especially when she had her mind set upon her work and didn’t care about how her faultless Jennifer Dunne business suit (today, it was in a sangria hue, accented with pearls to match the pearl buttons) hugged her statuesque figure. She was so staunchly serious that her long raven hair, usually worn loose, was pulled back into stern bun. A let’s-get-down-to-business ‘do.
Michael Vaughn, dressed in a charcoal gray suit for his meeting with the indomitable Ms. Thomas, found himself drawn to the sight of her. No, he was not smitten with her as most of the males in the dining room were; the smooth way she sidestepped a server with a large tray with a polite though slightly tight smile without breaking her runway-inspired stride incited his interest. Because of the experience his previous occupation had given him, Vaughn had completed an extensive background check on Danie Thomas. He had wanted to everything there was to know about the woman that had gone through so much trouble to contact him, and he didn’t want to be shocked if she was predisposed to strapping a Glock to her inner thigh to keep troublemakers at bay.
It had been some months since his life revolved around national security, classified files, and government espionage, but some habits were hard to break. Michael Vaughn was a former CIA field agent and had once spent his life gathering intel on other persons to try to ascertain their motives. This time was not that much different; for him, it could be a matter of life and death—just on a smaller scale: his own.
There was a small period of time where his own life or death was of little importance of him because another’s life and death had been more essential. It was that of the woman he loved.
With Sydney’s death, a part of him died, and he found no reason to remain with the CIA. He became a French teacher, immersing himself into the nuances of the different world. It was a form of escapism, and however healthy or unhealthy it was, it kept him going even now, eighteen months after Sydney’s death in the torching of her apartment. He couldn’t take the same steps of the life he’d led with her by his side without her present. So he took a new path. Somewhere along that path he met Lauren Reed, and they began dating.
And now he had Daniella Thomas’s notice.
With her long strides, it didn’t take Danie long to get to the table Vaughn occupied on his own. He rose to his feet and pulled out her chair like a gentleman; the action inspired a rather unexpected smile from her.
After Vaughn retook his chair and they were facing each other, Danie admitted, “Thank you, Mr. Vaughn. I wasn’t expecting that. Quite honestly chivalry is stone-cold dead where I come from.” She greeted their server then, and ordered water. Before Vaughn he could speak, she continued, “I am going to spare you the monotonous small talk and get down to business. Did you get a chance to look at the paperwork?”
“I did,” Vaughn responded. “I read all of the paraphernalia on the school that was in the packet you sent me in the mail.” He paused a beat as Danie’s head shifted a touch to the left. “I have to admit, Ms. Thomas, your school is very nice…on paper.” Danie nodded faintly at this as if she were deliberating a reply to it. “The fact is, I am concerned that the actual product in real life would not be something I want to be involved in. Quite frankly, I have no trouble staying where I am currently employed. I am flattered by your pursuit of me—”
She cut him off effortlessly then like a knife through Brie cheese. “You think you will be dealing with a whole bunch of snobby, stuck-up little rich kids who get high marks through monetary instead of intellectual means, don’t you?” The flicker in his green eyes instead of a verbal response answered her question. “Rest assured that the students at this school are not the way you think they are.” When he shot her a skeptical look, she amended, “Well, not all of them. There are probably a few of those that you are concerned about as they are everywhere, but the rest…” She trailed off then, and went for her briefcase. Wordlessly, she pulled out a sheaf of papers and slid them across the table to him. Vaughn lifted the papers and perused them.
The server returned then, and the pair ordered their entrees, though Vaughn found himself glued to the writing in front of him for the most part. Several moments later, Vaughn raised his eyes from the paper to Danie’s. Her eyes were an intense slate-violet and unreadable otherwise. He skillfully hid that he was impressed by what he had read; the paper written about the merits of attending the school in question outlined the pros and the cons. He found himself wanting to relent and take Danie up on her offer…
…But something inside of him didn’t want to make it that easy. It was that little demon that resisted change. It was the little demon that made him ignore speculative looks from all the single women in Los Angeles. It was the little demon that made him believe that Sydney Bristow would one day walk back through his door, alive and well…
“This paper is wonderfully written and quite persuasive, Ms. Thomas,” Vaughn told her diplomatically. There was a big but lurking in the space between his words, however, and Danie sensed it, not letting him finish the sentence.
“Mr. Vaughn, could you take a look down at the title page in front of you?”
Vaughn obeyed, brows furrowed together. It revealed that the author was a tenth grader named Abigail J. Thomas. He did not see the relevance of this—
His eyebrows jumped apart when the lightbulb inside of his brain began to blaze. Abigail J. Thomas…
“This Abigail Thomas is one of your relatives?” Vaughn asked Danie.
A smile tugged at the side of her mouth as she simply stared at him. “Abigail is my youngest daughter,” Danie told him, pride tingeing her voice. “She will be entering the eleventh grade this year, and her twin sister will be two grades behind her, but one no less or more amazing than the other.”
“But your dossier—” Danie’s perfectly arched eyebrows raised a fraction at the rushed admission under her bangs. Vaughn realized his blunder and cleared his throat. “You’ll have to forgive me, Ms. Thomas. I took the liberty of doing a background check on you to make sure that your intentions were pure. Because of the nature of my previous work—”
Danie waved it off since she had known what he had done for a living before. She too was thorough. “I would have done the same. And I would have found it odd if you yourself had not done so.”
“But your dossier…” Vaughn repeated.
“Mentions nothing about my children,” Danie finished. “Well, at least they didn’t when you checked them. I’m sure if you redid your check on me you would find indications that I am a mother. That was not quite the case completely until a little while ago.”
She opened her mouth to continue as if she were going to try to explain it to him, but Vaughn raised a hand. “You have no need to explain, Ms. Thomas. It is not my business and I am not in a position to judge you. I’m sure you’re a wonderful mother.”
Gratitude showed in Danie’s eyes. “Now do you believe me?”
It was a step in a different direction. Honestly, there was nothing much left for him and Los Angeles. Gracia was a new place with new possibilities. So he squashed that little demon and acted on the recommendation of his other side.
“I accept your offer,” Vaughn told Danie.
She held out a graceful hand above the bread basket. “Well, then. Let’s shake on it and make it official.” They did. “Welcome to Kaminari Academy, Michael Vaughn.”
Meanwhile, several miles away, Irene Thomas-Wolfe looked up from her book and beamed. She slid her reading glasses off and put them aside so that she could see the person standing in the doorway better.
“Sydney,” Irene said simply, her tone radiating pride and affection. She patted the space beside her in invitation. The tall young woman sauntered into the room and occupied the space beside her.
It was a leisurely day at the Wolfe house; the triplets were out with their father enjoying their last few moments of freedom before school started the following week. Four-year-old Lina was dozing on the couch nearby as the breeze from the open window fluttered her strawberry-blond hair. Irene was reading a book until Sydney had walked in. Judging from her spandex shorts and sports top, and the way her short brown hair was slightly damp at the temples, Irene figured that she had just returned from her morning run.
Sydney peeked at the cover of the book Irene was reading then groaned. “You’re not still reading The Poisonwood Bible are you?” Sydney inquired. Irene looked away guiltily and closed the book. She looked down at it for a moment, then put it aside. Sydney tilted her head at Irene, frowning. “Irene…”
“I can’t help it,” Irene admitted. “I can see so much of myself in Orleanna Price that it hurts. And Nathan Price and my ex-husband are cut from the same mold.” She sighed and patted Sydney’s thigh. “But you shouldn’t worry about me, Sydney. I’m just fine.” She smiled but it didn’t meet her eyes this time and tried to change the subject. “Aren’t you excited for your first day of school coming up soon?”
But Sydney would not be deterred. “Irene,” she said again. “You can’t keep doing this to yourself. You cannot blame yourself for what happened in your marriage to Robert Bullock. And reading this book—no matter how masterfully it is constructed, especially from a literary point of view—is not—I repeat—is not going help you.” She wrapped an arm around Irene’s shoulders. “Maybe we should take advantage of this quiet time to act like we’re in high school.” Irene laughed gently at the thought. “Come on!” Sydney cajoled. “We can break out the Doritos and the Cheez Wiz—”
“And strawberry ice cream,” said a little voice from behind them.
Sydney whirled around. Four-year-old Evangelina Wolfe was sitting up on the couch, blue eyes alive with youth, hope, and innocence. When the child saw Sydney, Lina came barreling into her, saying nothing. Irene frowned, wondering why her baby daughter was being so quiet.
“Oof!” Sydney grunted. She emitted a chuckle. “I’m glad to see you, too, kiddo. Did you sleep well?”
The ends of Lina’s mouth dropped a touch. She looked down at the floor at her feet as if she didn’t want to answer. Sydney frowned at this. Lina usually chattered like a hyperactive hummingbird, especially with Sydney. This solemnity was unlike her.
“What’s the matter?” Sydney asked Lina. “Did you have a bad dream?” Lina nodded silently. “Do you want to talk about it?”
Lina didn’t move or speak. Sydney rubbed her arm and waited for Lina to find the courage to speak. Whatever it had been, it had scared the four-year-old into silence. Silently, Irene rose from her chair and left the room. She thought that perhaps ice cream would make Lina feel better. Not to mention, she sensed the closeness between Sydney and her daughter needed not to be interfere with by her.
Sydney glanced up at Irene’s exit but said nothing. She looked back down at Lina’s strawberry-blond head and continued to wait silently.
“Lina?” Sydney inquired. Lina said nothing. Sydney sighed and decided that perhaps she should ask questions and lead Lina to talk about her dream. “Were you in the dream?” Lina shook her head. “Were Mommy and Daddy in the dream?” Lina shook her head again. “Were your sisters in the dream?”
At this question, Lina seemed to freeze. Lina turned to look up at her. Her blue eyes were filled with fear.
“You were in my dream, Sydney,” Lina said softly. “It was really scary and dark and I couldn’t find Mommy or Daddy or my other sissies. And you were on fire.”
Sydney hugged Lina closer to her and frowned as she pacified her in a low tone. The little girl was one of her favorite people in the Wolfe household and she was grieved to hear this. But above it all, it sent a weird shiver down her spine.
Irene reentered the room with a small bowl. Lina didn’t even look up; she seemed intent on holding on to Sydney. Sydney nodded silently at Irene and took the bowl. She turned to Lina as Irene pulled up a chair and sat in it.
“Look, Lina,” Sydney said, showing the little girl to contents of the bowl. “Mommy brought you some strawberry ice cream.” Lina took it and set it in her lap but didn’t touch it beyond that. Sydney shared a worried look with Irene. A question passed between them. What do we do?
“Maybe you should enjoy your ice cream with some cartoons,” Irene suggested, not caring that she was spoiling the child. Lina said nothing and followed her mother to the television. A few moments later, the child was immersed into the colorful world of Daffy Duck and his hilarious shenanigans. When she was sure that Lina’s attention was diverted, Irene pulled Sydney aside near the window.
“Is this the first time she’s had dreams like this?” Sydney asked in a whisper.
“I have never head her describe anything like what she told you. Sure, she’s had nightmares with monsters and ghosts but nothing like this. Nothing.” Irene sighed. “And you were in her dream. I don’t want to think about what that means.”
“Irene.” Sydney placed her hand on Irene’s. “Listen to me. It is just a dream. Maybe she’s worried about losing me as a family member or something of that sort. You all mean a lot to her.”
“I understand her fear,” Irene admitted softly. “Because I too dread seeing anything happen to you, Sydney.” Sydney looked at her, her eyes filling with moisture. Irene squeezed her hand. “I have no idea where you come from, and frankly, I don’t care. “You’re as much a daughter to me as the nine young women I gave birth to, no matter who you are.” She wiped a tear from Sydney’s cheek. “You’re right. I am not going to worry about this. And you’re going to watch cartoons with Lina.”
“Will you put the book away and read a nice, tawdry romance novel instead?” Sydney asked, making Irene laugh. Irene mirthfully agreed and Sydney rose from the window seat to join Lina, who was now giggling at Daffy Duck.
Irene watched with her lips pursed together as Sydney joined Lina on the couch. Irene had sheltered Sydney as much as she possibly could after that fateful night when she had entered her life. She had no clue where the young woman had come from before she had landed in her den, not too far from where they sat now, and quite truthfully she didn’t want to know. It was inessential. Not to mention, she took refuge in her ignorance. It was the only thing that kept her sane.
Later on that night, Vaughn had a beer with his best friend and former co-worker Agent Eric Weiss. Vaughn was in a rather indescribable state after his meeting with Daniella Thomas. He couldn’t decide whether or not he wanted to be happy about it or regret that he’d made such a sudden move. Weiss, on the other hand, wanted to know if Danie’s backside was as good in person as it was in the magazines.
“Well, is it?” Weiss pressed over the din of the bar. Vaughn shook his head in exasperation and brought his beer bottle to his lips. “Come on, Vaughn. You’ve got to stop holding out on me. This is the stuff we’re supposed to be talking about in places like this.” He gave a suggestive smile and nod to passing waitress wearing a shirt that she must have grown out of when she was twelve. She smiled back and tried to get Vaughn’s attention, but he was focused on his drink. “See? We’ve got to be talking about something and I refuse to talk about the weather.”
Vaughn sighed. “Why are we on the subject of Daniella Thomas’s ass? Can’t we talk about something else?”
“After you tell me about Danie Thomas’s ass.”
Vaughn threw up his hands in defeat. “Fine. The magazines don’t do it justice, Eric. Does that suffice for you?”
“Yes!” Weiss said in triumph. “I knew it.”
Vaughn glared at his best friend in exasperation. “So why did you ask me then?”
“I just wanted to see if you were man enough to notice.”
“Man enough? What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Vaughn demanded indignantly.
Weiss laughed heartily. “I don’t think you want me to answer that.” Vaughn said nothing, choosing instead to take another swig of his beer. “So what are you going to tell Lauren? I assume you haven’t told her about your new position at Kaminari yet.”
Vaughn shook his head and fiddled with the cap to his beer bottle. “Truthfully I haven’t gotten that far yet.”
“When was the last time you talked to her?” When Vaughn began to look guilty, Weiss’s eyebrows arched. “Whoa. Are you avoiding her or something?”
“I just found out about it this afternoon,” Vaughn insisted fervently. “Would you cut me some slack?” Weiss just stared at him, the beginnings of a smirk on his face. Vaughn continued in a quieter tone, as if he were hesitant to admit it, “It’s not like she’s my girlfriend or something. We just went out on a few dates, that’s all.”
Weiss popped a peanut into his mouth and crunched on it. “And that’s fine, but you have to decide whether or not she’s worthy to tell.” Vaughn opened his mouth to speak but Weiss cut him off with a wave of his hand. “Chill. I am by no means going to tell you what to do since I do too much of that already.”
“You won’t hear any arguments from me,” Vaughn quipped.
“If you’re nervous about investing so much in one woman, then don’t be,” Weiss continued. “Lauren seems like a really nice one. So don’t screw this up if you don’t have to.” Vaughn considered this, chuckling at the last statement, as Weiss added, “So does Danie Thomas prefer white or red wine?”