Chapter 40

As a matter of habit, I always carried at least two formal dresses with me wherever I traveled.  In the past few months, there hadn’t really been any opportunities to actually use those dresses – flitting from one country to the next while destabilizing an international criminal conglomerate wasn’t the sort of hobby that lent itself to state dinners – but it still meant that I wasn’t caught completely off-guard by Virginia’s machinations.  

Devlin retired to his room, in order to piece together an outfit from his recently purchased goods, and I disappeared to do the same.  Virginia stayed downstairs in the kitchen, staring out of the back window onto the lawn, sipping from her beverage while we went.

Without any specific details to go off of, I decided to stick with the basics: a long-black evening gown, split up the middle up to my knees, complete with bared shoulders and a borderline indecent neckline.  A pair of strappy wedges I’d acquired somewhere went perfectly with the dress.  When I’d donned my clothing and teased my hair out into something that looked more like a fashion statement and less like a tuft of pipe cleaners, I gave myself a critical examination in a convenient full-length mirror. 

Not bad, Sarah,” I muttered to myself.  My fingers traced along my bare collar bone thoughtfully.  “Shame you don’t have anything sparkly for that little bit of pizzazz, but one does what one can.”

One does just fine, I think,” a male voice said from behind me.

I looked back over my shoulders and favored Devlin with a smoldering grin.  He was only peeking his head through the thin space between the door and the frame.  “You really shouldn’t just walk in on a lady while she’s changing, you know.  I could have been indecent.”

He returned my grin with one of his own, although his was more devilish than charming.  Or it was both.  It had always been difficult to separate the two, where Devlin was concerned.  “You didn’t lock the door,” he said.  “When I pushed on it, I expected it to be locked.  But please, forgive me for my intrusion.”

I winked at him.  It felt natural and easy to do it.  I didn’t like it when the easy rhythm between us was disrupted, and I certainly didn’t like being the reason for that disruption.  The conversation we’d had before my nap still lingered in my head and all of the unanswered questions his accusations had stirred up were still haunting darkened corners of my mind but, for the moment, it was good to just relax and let our conversation flow freely.  There’d be time to sort through my issues after we found the Mouse and contrived some way of taking Caelum out of play.

Mind if I come in?  Or are you planning on changing into something else?”

I pretended to think the question over and then shrugged, elegantly, with only one bare shoulder.  “No, I think this’ll do just fine.”

Devlin pushed the door fully open and stepped into the room.  As he came fully into view, it took all of my effort to keep my eyes from widening.

His other suit, specifically commissioned from our personal favorite tailor, had been cut from a fabric designed to endure a British winter.  In Georgia, Devlin would likely have drowned in his own sweat inside of a half hour while wearing it.  Instead, he’d gone to the store and picked up some lighter weight formal wear, including the suit he wore now.  

The Tom Ford was cut in a way that accentuated muscle while diminishing any unsightly curves or weight gain.  An electric blue tie was knotted at his throat in a classic Windsor, complete with a silver tie clip just above his solar plexus.  On Devlin, what with the muscle he’d put on in prison plus whatever mass he’d picked up under Mila’s tutelage, the effect was striking.  He hadn’t been gone long enough to commission a fully bespoke suit, as was his custom, but I suspected that he’d tipped a tailor to do some last minute alterations before bringing it back to the estate.  If not, then he’d been lucky enough to find a near perfect match for his physique.

Either way, it was a good look.  Good enough that I could only barely stop myself from comparing our appearances in my head.

Look at you,” I managed to say through suddenly dry lips.  “Did someone give you the heads up about this little shindig?”

He shook his head.  “I was actually out to pick up casual wear – light jeans, polo shirts, that kind of thing – when I happened on this store.  The pun was too good to pass up.  Besides, it’s not my money I’m spending, right?”

Which was a fair point to make.  The Lady was subsidizing all of our expenses with only a token attempt to keep track on our spending.  If purchasing a new suit for however much Devlin had spent got us even a millimeter closer to the Magi’s true identities, she would be only too happy to foot the bill.

Devlin closed the door behind him and locked it.  Involuntarily, I felt my breath quicken in my throat.

What are you –“

He put a finger over his lips and walked closer to me.  I turned away from the mirror so that I was facing him as he approached.  He closed the distance between us until there was only a foot or two between us.  We made eye contact and held that contact for what felt like an eternity.  There was something hanging in the air between us and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to acknowledge or ignore it.  I could sense, rather than see, that Devlin was struggling with the same question. 

He made up his mind first when he broke eye contact and spoke in a soft whisper.  “I reached out to Mila and Michel,” he said.

Disappointment – was it disappointment? – welled up from within me, but I pushed it back down and tried to focus on his words.  “And?”

Mila wasn’t able to get her hands on the supplies she wanted, but she’s apparently making due with some other options.  Less permanent options, if you catch my drift?”

It took me a moment, but I did.  I nodded to signify as much.

Michel,” Devlin continued, “is doing a tour of the city so that he can get his head around travel time and whatnot.  Either one of them can be at the Ford building within ten minutes, if we need them.”

It’s a fundraiser, Dev,” I said.  “I don’t think…well, let me not summon the wrath of the thing from on high, but you know what I’m getting at.”

And I told them as much.  She isn’t worried, but Michel is concerned about your cover.”

It was my turn to shake my head.  “Virginia was married for years to a businessman, and they were both inclined to tackle problems without waiting for the other.  She won’t think it’s weird if my fake husband is off somewhere else.  And you were kind enough to give her a valid reason why the two of us would be spending time together.”

The triptych, yes.”  Devlin smiled.  “I was particularly proud of that one.”

I swatted lightly in his direction and he easily dodged the strike.  “Don’t get cocky.”

I make no promises,” he said.  “Anyway, you’re the one who decided we were attending.  Care to share why with…well, it’s a small class, but the metaphor still stands.”

The room we’ll need to break into,” I said, “is five floors above the one where they’re holding the fundraiser.  I’ve got a valid reason to be at that party and I won’t have to actually sign in to any sort of system to enter the building.  Once I’m inside, though, no one’s really going to be looking at me. Virginia does have a tendency to suck up all the oxygen in the room.”

I don’t know about that.”

Don’t know about what?”

Devlin found something interesting in the corner of the room and locked his eyes on it.  “I don’t know that people aren’t going to be looking at you, that’s all.  Maybe in a different dress, or…no, actually, it wouldn’t really matter.  Are you sure you’ll be able to slip away without people following you with their eyes?”

Heat bloomed in my cheeks which, mercifully, weren’t capable of turning red.  “Yes,” I said, with a mixture of emotion that didn’t really belong in this conversation, “yes, I’m sure.  Anyway, I should be able to make up some sort of excuse that’ll get me out of the room long enough to examine what kind of physical security the server room has.  If someone sees me, so what?  I’m a Ford, it’s my family’s building.  I can go back to the party and no one will even think it’s all that strange.”

What am I supposed to do, then?” Devlin asked.

What you normally do.  Schmooze with the muckity-mucks, rub elbows, see if you can find out any information that might be useful to us in the long term.”

Devlin frowned slightly.  “I feel like I should be the one assessing physical security, Sarah.  No offense, but you don’t know what you’re looking for.”

In response, I walked over the dresser, dug around for a bit, and withdrew one of the miniature cameras I’d held onto.  “Which is why,” I said, “you’re going to be able to look over the footage later.”

Devlin had the good graces to look a little sheepish.  “I’m big enough to admit that I hadn’t thought about that.”  He paused.  “Oh!  I almost forgot.”

He rushed out of the room before I could ask him exactly what had slipped his mind and returned a moment later with a black velvet box.

Devlin,” I said slowly, “what is that?”

With no small amount of fanfare, he opened the box to reveal a brilliant blue gemstone set in a sort of golden harness.  The harness twined up into an unbroken long golden string.  In the electric light shining down from above, the gemstone glimmered and shone.

I opened my mouth to say something but my throat was too dry to form coherent sounds.  I swallowed, tried again, and found marginally more success.  “What is…what is this?”

Well, the guy behind the counter told me it was a necklace,” Devlin said, “but judging from your reaction, I feel like I should go get a refund.”

His flippant attitude helped me to get my figurative feet underneath me.  “You know what I mean, Dev.”

I wasn’t being fair to you earlier,” he said.  “I know that you’ve got issues that I don’t.  You know, family things.  So I thought I’d get you a little something to make up for it.”

A part of me wanted to tell him that he hadn’t been unfair, that he’d raised some valid questions that I needed to ask myself.  But voicing those thoughts would’ve raised other questions I’d been trying to avoid and this wasn’t the time.  I wasn’t honestly sure if it would ever be the right time, but now certainly wasn’t.  So I buried that part of myself as deep as I could and focused on finding an appropriate quip.

Well,” I said finally, “as long as we’re spending other people’s money.”

He gave me a strange look that I couldn’t read.  “This one,” he said, “I bought out of my own funds.  What good is an apology that someone else paid for?”

If my grandmother hadn’t chosen that exact moment to call to us from downstairs, I don’t know what I could possibly have said in response.  Maybe it would have been something lighthearted enough to get the two of us away from the dangerous ground we were currently treading on.  Or maybe those feelings I was trying to ignore – the feelings that threatened to pull me down everytime Devlin did or said something unexpectedly sweet – would have finally grown strong enough to have a voice of their own.

But she did call to us.  So what I actually said was easier to bear and infinitely more professional.  “That’s our cue,” I said.  “If you’d be so kind?”

Devlin nodded and stepped behind me to drape the necklace in place.  The gemstone rested against my sternum, just above my breasts, as if he’d taken me to the store and sized it with me standing there.

Do you like it?”

I swallowed down a lump of nervousness before answering.  “I can’t help but notice,” I said, “that it matches your tie perfectly.”

He shrugged a little too casually.  “Strange how that worked out, isn’t it?”

I smiled at him and he gave my shoulder a brief squeeze.  Then, without waiting for me to say anything else, he stepped away and left the room.

I spent another few seconds staring at my reflection in the mirror.  The necklace wasn’t the sort of thing I would normally wear, but it was exactly the kind of thing that Devlin would immediately fall in love with.  For a long-time art thief, he had surprisingly mundane taste in jewelry.  He never selected gaudy works, festooned with diamonds or elaborate filigree.  His tastes ran more in the direction of simple, unique pieces that stood out for their simple beauty.  Even the engagement ring he’d given me so many years ago had been an unremarkable polished green gemstone, fixed into a plain silver setting. 

But it had been from him and I’d loved it, just as I already loved this new gift.

My grandmother called for me again.  I slipped the miniature camera into one of my handbags and deliberated momentarily over what else I should bring with me.  Habit and prudence won out over my better angels.  I added the encrypted cell phone I used for jobs to the handbag, as well as two flash drives and a USB cable. 

All things being equal, it was probably better to be safe than sorry.  I hadn’t yet gone wrong by being too paranoid.

With all that packed up, I gave myself one last examination in the mirror before I gathered my things and headed down to the house’s main entrance. Devlin was leaning against the railing at the bottom of the stairs, one leg crossed at the ankle in front of another, engaged in a conversation with someone I couldn’t see.  When I reached the bottom of the staircase, I was surprised to find the guard from before, CJ, fiddling with the cuffs of a very expensive looking suit of his own.

When CJ saw me, he immediately stood up straighter and reached up to remove the hat he wasn’t actually wearing.  “Oh, uh, Miss Ford!”  His voice squeaked, like he’d just hit the worst part of puberty, and I smothered the urge to laugh.  “You look very lovely, ma’am.  That’s a very striking necklace you’ve got on.”

Oh, this old thing?”  I affected an impersonation of a Southern belle.  “You’re too kind.  And, if you don’t mind me asking, why are you all dressed up?”

Virginia entered the foyer from one of the side rooms, gesturing extravagantly as she spoke.  “You didn’t think I expect you to stay by my side all night, did you?”

My grandmother stepped into view and twirled like a little girl, allowing her deep red dress to twirl around her feet.  It tightened around the midsection and bust, giving her the appearance of a much younger – which was to say, bustier – woman than she actually was.  She’d curled her hair and done up her makeup, too.  The total effect wiped away at least thirty years from her face, if not more.

Look at you,” Virginia said.  She hurried to give me the grandmotherly once-over.  “You could afford to show a little more skin, I think, but otherwise I am impressed, Sarah!”

And you,” I countered, “are showing a little too much skin, aren’t you?”

Virginia waggled a finger at me.  “When you’ve been around as long as I have, you learn to work with whatever you’ve got left.  Besides, I don’t get the chance to make the boys go a little crazy all that much anymore, now do I?”

I started to respond, but my brain picked that moment to put two and two together.  I looked back at CJ who was openly staring at my grandmother. When he noticed my attention, he jerked his eyes away and muttered something vaguely apologetic under his breath.

Is he your actual date, then?” I asked, tilting my head in CJ’s direction.

Well, I don’t trust just anybody,” Virginia said.  “CJ’s been here for a long time and I know that he knows where to keep his hands.  Don’t you, CJ?”

Uh, yes ma’am,” CJ said, still not looking up.

Now!”  Virginia clapped her hands sharply together.  “We have a car waiting outside.  People to see, wallets to empty.  Your sister’s fundraiser isn’t going to fundraise for itself, will it?”

I rolled my eyes.  I still wasn’t entirely comfortable with this new, energetic, warm Virginia Ford, but I wasn’t exactly against it, either.  “I guess not.”

Scoot, then!”  Virginia put action to her words and actually started to push me from behind with one hand.  With her other, she nudged Devlin from his post and closer to the door.  Our shoulders bumped together as she shoved us toward the door.

She’d picked a car that didn’t quite have enough room for the four of us.  CJ sat next to her, leaving a respectable amount of distance, which forced Devlin and I into closer proximity than we might otherwise have chosen.  It wasn’t an uncomfortable fit by any means, but it took a bit of effort to make sure that our hands weren’t brushing together every time the car turned too quickly or hit a bump.

A bit of effort that I might not have always undertaken.  Devlin, bless his heart, didn’t seem to mind.   

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