The Fairy Tale of Sarah Walker 1/7
Summary: Sarah Walker might have grown up in a fairy-tale world, but she wasn't a princess-not until a fairy godfather and a new job transformed her. When she returns home, which boy will capture her heart-the one she's loved all her life or the one who's a prince in disguise?
Disclaimer: I don't own Chuck. No copyright infringement intended.
Author's Note: This story is inspired by the movie Sabrina, but is only loosely connected to the events of that movie. I hope you enjoy this new story! Many thanks to somedeepmystery for her story Chuck vs. the Charade, which first made me consider doing a Chuck version of Sabrina, and to Steampunk . Chuckster, aka victorianoir, for letting me bounce ideas off her.
Once upon a time, in the valleys of Northern California, there lived a small girl in a large winery. There were gardeners and grape pickers and a world-famous oenologist on retainer. Inside the winery's business offices were sales clerks, a winery manager, and a marketing director who made the winery into a destination for tourists and wine-drinkers alike.
Also part of the grounds was the estate for the Larkins, the family that owned the winery. There was a beautiful home, designed in the Mission style with windows that overlooked rolling hills covered in vines and wildflowers. There was an outdoor swimming pool, filled with saltwater, and an indoor swimming pool, heated year-round. There was an outdoor tennis court and an indoor tennis court. And there was a garage filled with luxury vehicles and one hybrid car.
Sarah Walker grew up on the large plot of land that made up Skylark Wines, observing a world of luxury without being truly part of it. As the daughter of the winery's marketing director, she wasn't exactly the help-not in liberal-minded, modern California. Yet she knew that she was an outsider. So she watched and dreamed of someday belonging someplace like this.
On a summer evening in mid-August, just before Sarah would return to Harvard for her senior year, the Larkins gave a party. It never rained during the Larkins' parties, because this was a fairy tale world.
Mr. and Mrs. Larkin were married after Mrs. Larkin, formerly Mrs. Bartowski, divorced her husband. Mrs. Larkin brought a two-year-old son to the marriage and promptly became pregnant with another son. Now twenty years later, Chuck Bartowski and Bryce Larkin were as different as two half-brothers could be.
Chuck Bartowski had attended Stanford University, majoring in electrical engineering. After his junior year, he had dropped out to run full-time the electronics company he had founded after coming into his trust fund when he was eighteen. At the age of twenty-four, he had already appeared on the cover of Wired twice and was reputed to be the next Steve Jobs.
Bryce Larkin had already attended several well-known colleges in the three years since he had graduated from prep school. The summer between his sophomore and junior years, he had gone to Europe and married a French countess-a marriage that had only lasted six weeks. This summer he had returned to his family's winery, spending time with the friends he had grown up with, playing polo and golf, and making a name for himself as the life of any party.
Tonight, Sarah would get to watch Bryce dance and flirt with the daughters of winery owners and self-made millionaires. From her perch in a tree that overlooked the dance floor, she would wish that she could trade places with those girls for just a moment.
And that is where our story begins.
Ever since her growth spurt at fourteen, this tree was a lot less comfortable. But since it gave the best view of tonight's party without revealing her presence, Sarah accepted the discomfort in order to watch Bryce.
Tonight he was wearing a tuxedo: crisp black trousers and a white dinner jacket, looking handsome and debonair. His hair was slicked back, putting all the focus on his piercing blue eyes. Just looking at him, Sarah felt her heart beat harder.
It seemed like she had spent her whole life loving him-and just as long trying to get over him. She knew he'd never notice her. Not tall, skinny Sarah Walker, with her frizzy hair pulled back in a ponytail and the large glasses she hid behind. As children they had played together on the estate, but as they had grown older, and Bryce got more and more handsome and popular, they had grown apart. But she hadn't stopped loving him.
She shifted in the tree, feeling the bark through her thin t-shirt and faded black capris. Her bare toes pressed against the tree limbs to hold her in place. She pushed her glasses up on her nose and watched to see what lucky girl had been singled out by Bryce tonight.
When he caught the hand of a petite, curvy redhead, Sarah felt the same swirl of annoyance and hope. She didn't recognize the girl, but she was very pretty and was wearing a black dress that clung to each of her curves. On the downside, she had a very annoying giggle. But the mystery woman didn't look anything like Sarah in coloring or body type, so perhaps that meant Bryce had yet to check tall blondes off his checklist of women to try falling in love with.
Sarah wrinkled her nose. It was doubtful Bryce actually had a checklist, but it didn't change what he would do next. He would dance with her before sending her off to the indoor tennis court. While she waited, he would sweet-talk a bartender out of a bottle of champagne and some glasses, then join her there. They would dance and drink champagne and kiss, and it would all be so romantic and dreamlike.
Biting her lip, Sarah wished she could be practical about this. That she could find some way to actually do something about this situation. If she could just know if there was really a chance . . . if she could suddenly become pretty and show up at one of these parties and just dazzle Bryce, to see what it would be like to have him smiling at her like he was smiling at that redhead.
But for that to happen, she'd have to learn how to stop hiding. And Sarah didn't know if she was ready to be the center of attention.
The sound of her father's voice sent her scurrying down out of the tree. "Hi, Dad," she said, brushing her hands over her clothes to remove any bark chips or leaves.
Jack Walker was tall and rangy, with eyes that saw everything. He could take one look at a person and have them all figured out within seconds. So she knew there was no way he couldn't figure out what she was feeling right now.
He rested a hand on her shoulder. "Shouldn't you make an early night of it, with flyin' to the East Coast tomorrow?"
"I know, Dad. Just . . . just give me a few minutes."
"Hmm," he said, looking over at the party.
"I'll be right up," she said, referring to the small apartment they shared, on the top floor of the building that held the winery's business offices and tasting room.
Jack nodded. "All right, darlin'. Just don't go all in unless you're going to win."
Sarah managed a small smile. "I know."
Her father turned and walked off, his steps loose and relaxed. Sarah suspected he had already had one or two glasses of wine, and would now have a few more before going to bed.
Putting aside his drinking, he was right. She should go to bed. Go to bed early, get up early and finish her packing, and then get on that plane that would take her back to Boston and her studies. But economics had stopped being interesting a long time ago, even if she had a natural talent for statistics and theories. She knew that there was a job waiting for her here at the winery whenever she wanted to take it. And it was just yesterday that Mr. Larkin had encouraged her to consider a postgraduate course at the Sorbonne, one that "we would be more than happy to pay for, since it would make you so much more prepared for working at the winery, Sarah."
But was that what she wanted to do? Sarah wasn't so sure.
With a sigh, Sarah leaned down and picked up her flip-flops from where she had kicked them off prior to climbing up the tree. She turned and practically ran right into Bryce, the champagne bottle he had resting on his shoulder almost hitting her in the jaw.
"Oh!" she gasped, stepping back. "Bryce! I'm so sorry. The-the tree must have hidden me."
Bryce laughed. "And here I thought Mother had planted some man-killing trees. But it's just you. 'Night, Sarah." He stepped around her and headed towards the indoor tennis court, whistling as he walked.
Sarah watched him go. "Yeah, just me," she said softly, gnawing on her lower lip. She slipped on her shoes and started walking, her hands sunk into the pockets of her capris.
It was supposed to be a nice, aimless walk. A chance to clear her head before she went to bed. But of course, her stupid traitorous feet carried her over to the indoor tennis court.
She shouldn't watch. Getting confirmation of what was going on was pointless because Bryce never deviated from his same strategy. But . . . but she still wanted to see. So she crouched down in the bushes and peered through the glass that enclosed the tennis court.
Moonlight was the only illumination. The music from the party's orchestra drifted on the air, faint and melodic. As Sarah watched, things had already progressed to the private dancing portion of the evening. Soon, he would move her into the far corner and under cover of darkness he would-
Her eyes stung with tears and Sarah felt like a fool. She stood up and broke out into a run. Her feet would hurt in the morning, but she didn't care.
When she reached the winery office, she threw open the side door with a bang, not even caring if she woke up her father. She just wanted to move through the offices to the back staircase that led up to the apartment. But after taking five steps into the building, she realized she wasn't alone.
Chuck Bartowski was standing by the door to the wine cellar, where the high-end bottles were stored. He looked at her, his eyes confused. "Sarah?"
"Chuck. Hi," she said, quickly rubbing a hand over her face. Any earlier tear stains were now covered up by rivulets of sweat, her hair was falling out of its ponytail, and she knew her feet and lower legs were dusted with dirt. She looked like a mess, and Chuck was dressed in a slim-fitting suit, looking every inch the grown-up professional he was.
She had barely seen him this summer; everyone said that he was working nearly round-the-clock at his company. Not that he needed to work so hard. It wasn't for the money, since he had barely tapped into his trust fund before his company had released some kind of amazing cell phone that rivaled the iPhone, so she had heard. That product was the start of a line of successes and a ton of money.
Because he was three years older than her and not friends with Bryce, Sarah had never spent much time with Chuck while they were growing up. In her memories, he was just . . . there. Usually with some kind of giant fantasy novel in his hand when he wasn't closed up in his room, doing things with wires and computers. But he had always been nice to her, and now here she was, storming through the offices like a crazy person.
"Are you okay?" he asked, taking a few steps closer to her.
"I'm fine," she said quickly, trying to ignore his concerned face. "Do you need help with anything? If I can't do it, I can get my dad."
He looked unsure, then gestured towards the wines. "I was looking for a bottle of that '89 Cab Sauvignon. The one that won all those awards for the winery."
She crossed the Mexican tiles that paved the floor of the large, spacious room and joined him in the doorway. "It should be all the way in the back on the left, fourth shelf from the bottom."
"Are you sure?" he asked doubtfully before moving into the long, narrow room that was used for this cellar. "I looked back here and didn't find . . . wait. Here it is!"
As he closed the door behind him, holding a bottle of wine in his hand, he gave her an appreciative, impressed look. "Can you do that with any wine we own? Say exactly where it is?"
Sarah felt her spirits rise a little. "I just have a good memory," she said. "What's the wine for?"
"Oh, business," he said. "I've got an investor I'm trying to charm." He gave Sarah a small, nervous smile. "That's why I need the wine, to make me seem charming. Of course, it would be easier if he wasn't thinking about where his daughter was."
His daughter? Her confusion must have shown, because Chuck explained. "He's super-protective of his daughter and there hasn't been a sign of her for the last hour."
The sinking feeling in her stomach told Sarah that she probably knew exactly where this missing daughter was. "Is she a redhead by any chance?" Sarah asked, knowing that she didn't sound nearly casual enough.
Chuck's eyes narrowed. "She is." He took a step towards her. "Sarah, you wouldn't happen to know where she is, would you? Because her father is really worried about her . . . "
It was hard to see him through her smudged glasses. But the smudges also helped to hide her eyes, so Sarah didn't make any move to clean her glasses. "I just know that she's safe," she said, not wanting to get the girl into trouble. But her innate honesty quailed at lying to anyone. So, after a moment's hesitation, Sarah told him. "She's with Bryce. I mean, I think she is."
Within a moment, she could see that Chuck had made the connection. She should feel bad about breaking up Bryce's date and wrecking his evening. And she did. But only a little.
Chuck quickly patted her shoulder. "Thanks, Sarah. You've been a big help. Hey, you're twenty-one now, right?"
She nodded, resisting the urge to sarcastically remind him that she had been twenty-one since March. But instead, she watched as he turned and grabbed a bottle of good, middle-of-the-road red wine. "Here, have this on me. Charge it to my account. Just don't drink it all at once-but you should know that with your dad working here, right?" He gave her a nervous smile. "I have to go. Good night, Sarah."
Her hands took the bottle without any conscious thought. "Good night, Chuck," she said, watching as another member of the Larkin family walked away from her. But since Chuck was actually a Bartowski, he at least threw a look back at her as he stepped out of the door, even giving her a little wave before he strode away on his long legs.
Sarah looked down at the bottle. If he had stopped to ask her, she would have told him that it wasn't necessary for him to reward her like this. She would have said that she wasn't a big fan of wine. She would have told him she especially didn't like red wine. But instead, Sarah took the bottle and slowly climbed the stairs to the apartment. Her father was snoring in his bedroom, passed out again, so she went into her own bedroom.
It would be tempting to drink the whole bottle, contrary to how Chuck had warned her. But . . . but there was nothing wrong with drinking half the bottle, was there?
With a tight grin, Sarah went into the kitchen and found a clean juice glass and a corkscrew. She proceeded to knock back a few glasses while IMing with her roommate, who was already back in Boston. Back where Sarah should be.
The wind was whipping and the sky was overcast as Sarah walked through the streets of Cambridge. It was the day before Thanksgiving, and her roommate had invited a bunch of her friends into their apartment for the start of her traditional Drink Your Way Through Thanksgiving event. That meant Sarah made herself scarce over the weekend, since she had a low tolerance for drunk people, thanks to how she had grown up. At least it let her get started on studying for finals.
Snow was just starting to fall as she pulled open the heavy door of the Widener Library. Noticing that someone was right behind her, she held the door open for the older man. He nodded to her. "Miss Walker."
What? Sarah did a double-take. "Excuse me, how do you know my name?"
The African-American man, tall and foreboding, smiled slightly at her. "We've been watching you."
"'We'?" Sarah asked, quirking an eyebrow. "Are you part of some kind of secret society? I don't think they admit women. So unless you've got a scholarship to give me, I'm not interested."
"Miss Walker, my name is Langston Graham." He pulled out a wallet and withdrew a business card, holding it out to her. "Have you ever thought about serving your country?"
"Look, I'm not a military type," she started to say, taking his card. Her eyes widened when she saw what was printed on the card.
Assistant Deputy Director
Central Intelligence Agency
She stared up at him. "This isn't some kind of prank, is it?"
With a deep, throaty chuckle, he shook his head. "No, Miss Walker. If you're free, could I buy you a coffee?"
Not really knowing what else to do, Sarah nodded. Mr. Graham-Director Graham?-led her out of the library to one of the local coffeehouses. The whole way, she felt her mind whirling. The CIA was interested in her? A woman with no upper body strength and thick glasses? This had to be some kind of mistake.
But at the same time . . . she really, really hoped it wasn't a mistake. Because it was the last thing she would have ever considered doing, but working for the CIA suddenly seemed ideal. She hated the thought of being an economist, and the only other option for paying off her massive student loans was going back to California and working at the winery. And being there, so close to Bryce, watching him while he never noticed her-
No. She couldn't do that. And now, here was a man giving her another option. One that would be so totally different from what people would expect, what she had thought she could do.
Something that would let her find out who she was supposed to be.
By the time Mr. Graham came back with her coffee, Sarah had retrieved a notebook and pen from her backpack and devised a long list of questions. She launched into them, taking sips of coffee as she scribbled notes. The assistant deputy director was straightforward in answering her questions. When he couldn't answer a question, he told her whether it was a matter of national security, something that wasn't shared with anyone who wasn't a member of the agency, or her question just wasn't applicable. She appreciated that.
The more they talked, the more she felt convinced that this was the right choice for her. Finally, it came down to her last question. Looking at Mr. Graham, she spoke quietly. "Why me?"
"Because you have potential. Due to your intelligence and your personality, you fit a certain profile that we look for in people your age. In addition, do you remember the psychology class you took in your spring semester?"
"Yes, of course. PSYCH 312-Psychology of Impulse. My advisor, Dr. Coburn, recommended I take it."
"Dr. Coburn is the one who first recommended you to us, a year ago. She encouraged you to take that class because it's used to screen potential recruits. Due to your scores on certain exam questions-"
"Oh!" Sarah said, straightening up in her chair. "All those strange questions with the logic games and the visual puzzles?"
"Yes," Mr. Graham said. "Correct scores on those questions often reflect an individual who could be a resource for us." He pushed aside his untouched cup of coffee. "Miss Walker, we are very interested in you. If you accept our offer, your training will be fast-tracked. In two years-three at the most-you would be in the field, making a name for yourself."
He paused, then continued. "The CIA would buy out your student loans as well as pay you handsomely. We understand that you have applied for a postgraduate course at the Sorbonne. You will be accepted to that program, on paper. You will tell your family and friends that starting this summer, you will be too busy to come home or to have visits-that your studies require absolute immersion. But instead of attending the Sorbonne, you will be undergoing rigorous training that will shape you into what the Agency thinks you can become."
Sarah felt her heart beat faster. So quickly . . . and in the field? That meant-they wanted her to be a spy. That was-
"This is crazy," she muttered under her breath.
"No, Miss Walker, it's a sign of how important you could be. How important you already are."
Mr. Graham's eyes never flickered. She searched his face, trying to see if he was on the level. If this was true. She leaned back as she received her answer. It was all true. The government wanted to turn her into a spy. She wasn't sure what that really meant. Because she doubted that being a spy was like a James Bond movie.
For a moment, she considered asking him what would happen if she failed, or if she just turned him down. But she knew: she would go back home, work at the winery, and always wonder if she could have done this.
And right now, that was the last thing she wanted. So Sarah Walker, who used to take days to make the simplest decisions, made her choice in the blink of an eye. She looked at the assistant deputy director of the CIA and said, "Sign me up."
To: jwalker at skylarkwines . com
From: swalker at sorbonne . edu
I suppose by now I should be saying "Cher Papa" so I can show off my French, but I know how you feel about the frogs.
After six months, I finally feel like I'm starting to settle in. I'm sorry that I won't be home for Christmas, but I'm working very hard and learning a lot. For the first time in a long time, economics is fun, thanks to all these different perspectives here. And Paris and the Sorbonne is beautiful. I'm so glad I came here.
Tell me how everyone is back home. Did Maggie have her baby yet? How did the annual softball game between Skylark and Sweetie's Winery go? I'm sure it was better for Skylark not having me play-even in right field I didn't have much to offer. And Bryce? How is he doing?
I miss you more than you know. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, Dad.
Closing the lid of the laptop computer, Sarah sighed softly at the web of lies she had spun for her father. There wasn't much that was true in that email. Yes, it had been six months since she had graduated from Harvard, with full honors and no student loan debt. For her father and anyone she used to know, she had immediately jetted off to Paris to settle in and improve her French before her classes began at the Sorbonne.
But in reality, she had spent the last six months getting her ass kicked in a thousand different ways. Her training had begun with intensive physical conditioning and lessons in a wide variety of martial arts. She had thought she was in good shape, thanks to running a few times a week and not being one to eat a lot. But joining the CIA meant being in the best possible physical shape.
It had been agony. The first four months, she had constantly been sore and bruised. But then, like a switch being flipped, everything started making sense. She could deflect blows and strike out without having to think of the move first, her body moving faster than her mind could. Any remnants of the freshman fifteen melted away, along with the merest traces of fat. Her body was now lean, toned, and nearly unrecognizable to anyone who used to know her, let alone herself.
Pushing her glasses up on her nose, Sarah got up and stretched. As she did, her jeans nearly dropped past her hips. With a groan, she yanked them back up. It was becoming clear that she needed new clothes, ones that would fit her new body. But how? She was in Middle of Nowhere, USA, and it wasn't like there was a mall within a hundred mile radius. Besides, she had no car and no access to the very large salary that she was being paid.
No, she'd just have to deal with it until she could figure out how she could go shopping. For now, she had to get ready for the start of a new unit of study. Since she had mastered the basics of martial arts, she was moving on to Observation and Infiltration.
Sarah tightened her belt and slid her feet into the plain navy blue sneakers that all the recruits were required to wear. As she walked out of her small bedroom, she considered the distance between her old life and her new one.
It was lucky that her father hated to fly, especially internationally. Since he thought she was in Paris, there was almost no chance that he would travel to see her. And since she was "too busy" to come home, her training could continue uninterrupted. She thought that she was doing well-at least, she hoped so. The CIA instructors weren't big on positive reinforcement.
Joining a crowd of fellow recruits, Sarah stepped into the classroom and took a seat. While most of the others had brought their laptops, she relied on her memory and a small notebook to remember what she had learned. Already she had heard whispers of "teacher's pet" and "freak" behind her back. But just like all the muttered insults throughout her life, Sarah ignored them.
A woman walked into the room. Slim and medium height, she had platinum blonde hair that fell in waves to her shoulders. Her makeup emphasized her dark brown eyes and full, pouting lips. She wore a red wool dress, one that draped gracefully over her figure. When she set her briefcase down on the desk at the front of the room, everyone grew quiet. She stood in the front of the room, her eyes sweeping over the gathered students. When she spoke, her voice possessed a hint of a French accent.
"Good morning and welcome to Observation and Infiltration. One of the bedrock principles of any intelligence agent is the ability to gather information without appearing to be doing so. To blend so perfectly into your surroundings that no one will notice you-unless you wish them to notice." She gave them a small smirk. "Tell me, what about me do you think is an act?"
Various recruits called out suggestions. The woman waited, taking them all in, then smiled. "Nope, my record's still intact. You haven't gotten 'em all." Now she spoke in a slow Texas drawl.
The woman drew off her wig, revealing a tight-fitting cap over her own hair. She removed that and shook out a dark, shining bob. "My name is Professor Day," she said, adopting a throaty British accent. "Today, I was distracting you. Making you notice how different I am from you."
Professor Day reached into her pocket and took out a rubber band, using it to pull her hair back into a neat ponytail. She kicked off her high heels and unzipped her dress. Wiggling out of it, she revealed a pair of jeans rolled up above her knees and a gray t-shirt, the same uniform the recruits wore. Whistling, she rolled the jeans down and adjusted the sleeves of the t-shirt.
Sarah watched, enthralled like the rest of the students, as the professor opened her briefcase and took out a pair of navy blue sneakers. She put them on, sitting on the edge of the desk. From her briefcase, she removed a packet of tissues and wiped away her makeup, leaving her fresh-faced and much younger-looking. Flashing a smile at the students, she spoke in a flat Midwestern accent. "Now I look remarkably like all of you. Does anyone think there's anything else I'm faking?"
Staring at the professor, Sarah thought about her movements, how she spoke, and what else she could change about her appearance. Suddenly, an idea came to her-one that was ridiculous, but she was certain of it. Taking a deep breath, Sarah lifted her hand in the air.
"Yes?" the professor said, pointing to Sarah.
It would be sure to get a reaction, but- "Take off your fake breasts, sir."
A ripple of noise spread across the room as everyone leaned forward, searching to see what Sarah saw. The professor grinned widely. Without saying anything, she-he-turned around and pulled off his t-shirt, revealing a set of broad shoulders and an extremely uncomfortable-looking bra. He undid the bra, then turned around and let it fall to the floor, taking his breasts with it. Then he unwrapped a strip of flesh-colored tape from around his neck, revealing his Adam's apple.
The professor bowed and picked up his shirt, and there was a burst of scattered applause. Professor Day pulled his shirt on, then looked up at Sarah. "Very well done, Recruit Walker. How did you realize I was a man?"
"When you bent over to roll down your jeans, the-the breasts didn't move correctly. They looked fake." Sarah couldn't help blushing a little. "Honestly, I was just guessing you were a man. I thought it could just be fake breasts, but I decided I should take a chance."
He laughed. "Thank you for helping me prove my point, Recruit Walker. Which is-through the magic of hair and makeup and clothes, it is possible to look very, very different from who you actually are. This transformation is a bit extreme, but it's in line with what you will be expected to do in your careers."
"As a result of such transformations, it is easy to forget who you are. To get lost in your part, to use an acting metaphor. This is why it is crucial to know who you are, before you put on a lick of makeup or a wig." His eyes swept over the room. It might have been Sarah's imagination, but she thought they lingered on her. "Before anyone turns up their nose at that, this is solid psychological theory. So you better be ready to get comfortable with yourself. Learn who you are and what you look like, so you will know that you're actually a blue-eyed blonde when you look like a green-eyed redhead."
Sarah bit her lip and looked down at her folded hands as Professor Day kept talking. Get comfortable with herself? Suddenly, she wasn't looking forward to Observation and Infiltration as much as she had been.
To: jwalker at skylarkwines . com
From: swalker at sorbonne . edu
Hi, Dad. This is just a quick email before I leave. One of my professors invited the class to his country home for a long weekend and I'm just waiting for my cab to pick me up and take me to the train station.
I thought my classes this past year were tough, but I think this last semester has been the hardest one yet. I have my final papers to finish and present before the school, and if I don't do well I might not receive my certificate. I'd really hate for that to happen, so I'm working as hard as I can. It's the presentation I'm really dreading-you remember how I've always hated public speaking. Having to do a speech in French is ten times worse! But I feel as ready as I'll ever be. I keep remembering what you always said: just imagine everyone in their underwear. It's actually helped!
What helps me get through all the hard work is the thought of what lies ahead. Getting a job, making new friends, having fun without worrying about papers to write. And I'm looking forward to seeing you as soon as I'm done with school. You, and Napa, and everyone back home. How is Bryce doing, by the way?
There's the taxi!
"So, Sarah," Professor Day said as they walked around the indoor track, cooling down from their run. "Are you excited about finishing your training?"
Sarah looked at Professor Day, whom she now called by his first name of John, and nodded. "I am. I feel like I'm ready." She sipped from her water bottle.
"You are ready," John said, giving her a proud smile. "One of the best recruits I've ever taught."
"You only say that because I'm still the only one to spot that you were in drag on the first day of O&I," Sarah said with a grin.
"That's partly it," John said, staying serious. "But it's more than that. You truly have come a long way."
The pride in his voice made Sarah smile a little. "I have. And I'm looking forward to seeing how far I can go."
"Just as long as you remember that hair can do things other than go into a ponytail," he teased.
She laughed softly. "Yes, John."
If it hadn't been for John Day, Sarah wouldn't feel nearly so confident about her future. He had done more than teach her; he had become a mentor. By taking her under his wing, John had waved a magic wand to help her transform herself. Over the last year and a half, she had slowly developed her own sense of style, determined what clothes worked best for her depending on the situation she was in, and had become very competent with hair products and makeup.
It still surprised her when she caught sight of herself. There was still a moment of disconnect, when she expected to see a frizzy ponytail and the thick glasses that she had never really needed. Now, she saw shiny blonde hair and big blue eyes, clear skin and an amazing figure. But it was still a mask, just like her glasses and her oversized clothes had been. That was the purpose for all of her hard work on her appearance: so she didn't need any obvious props to become a different person.
As they finished their cooldown and began stretching, Sarah thought about what was front and center in her mind. Reaching the end of her training was making her nostalgic. No, not nostalgic-just very conscious of how she had changed. Not only physically, although her looks had definitely improved from where she had started two years ago. But on the inside, she had changed, too.
Sarah knew now that nothing in life fell into your lap. Everything happened based on your actions and choices. Being recruited by the CIA was due to her grades and hard work. Succeeding here was thanks to applying herself and learning everything she could.
That wasn't to say that luck didn't play a role. After all, she didn't think she would have ever learned how to wear clothes or apply eyeliner if it wasn't for John. He was like a fairy godfather to her. He had shared his years of experience with her, supported her during her rough patches and cheered her when she succeeded. If she hadn't become friends with him, Sarah doubted she would have improved so much.
But luck only went so far. And she knew now that waiting around and hoping for things to change didn't work. You had to make the change happen. If she didn't receive an immediate assignment, if she ended up going home for a while, she wouldn't wait for Bryce to notice her.
She would make him notice her. She wouldn't waste her time with a crush: she would find out what it was like to be the girl in the indoor tennis court.
Smiling to herself at the image, Sarah looked down at John. "Have you heard anything about my assignment?" She fluttered her eyelashes at him, putting on her most enticing look.
But since John was the one to teach her that look, it didn't work on him. "You know I can't say anything, even if I did know anything. Director Graham will be arriving tomorrow to pass out initial assignments. You'll find out then."
"You can't even give me a hint?" Sarah wheedled.
"My lips are sealed," he said, grinning at her.
It was tempting to keep trying, but Sarah shrugged and gave him a small smile. "You can't blame a girl for trying." She jumped to her feet. "I'll see you later."
As she waited for the elevator to take her up to the residential floors, Sarah mentally planned the rest of her day. With her workout completed, the rest of the day was wide open and she should use the hours productively. Practice her Russian, since it was the language in which she felt weakest-go through her clothes and evaluate what she should pack and what she should store-or she could just be lazy and take a nap.
When the elevator doors opened on the main floor, the smile was still on her face. But when she saw Langston Graham step into the elevator, she quickly schooled her face into a more neutral expression. "Director Graham."
"Recruit Walker," he said with a nod. "Although it's nearly Agent Walker. As of noon tomorrow."
Sarah couldn't help a tiny smile at his words. "Yes, sir."
"I've arrived early in order to speak with you. About your assignment."
"I'm very eager to hear what I'll be doing, sir," Sarah said, looking up at Director Graham.
He swept his eyes over her in a probing gaze, as if comparing her current appearance and attitude to her former self. Or perhaps that was just her imagination. Whatever the reason, he nodded again. "I have an office on the first floor. Report there at four o'clock and we will discuss your first assignment."
"Thank you, Director. I look forward to hearing more," Sarah said, noticing the elevator had arrived at her floor. She considered imitating his cool, professional nod, but didn't think she could pull it off. So with a quick sidelong glance, she stepped off the elevator and kept her stride as natural as possible as she walked towards her room.
Now that her afternoon was set, Sarah quickly prioritized. A shower, a light lunch, and then research. Because she wanted to walk into that office fully prepared for whatever Director Graham had to say.
Precisely at four o'clock, Sarah knocked on the door that lead into Director Graham's temporary office. She smoothed down the skirt of her dark suit, then lightly ran a hand over her hair, which hung about her shoulders in loose waves. The look she was going for was professional, businesslike, but still feminine. She hoped she was successful.
"Enter," came Graham's deep voice.
Sarah opened the door and stepped inside. "Director Graham," she said, before shutting the door and walking towards his desk.
"Good afternoon, Recruit Walker." He gestured towards the chair in front of her and Sarah sat down, crossing her legs. "Your performance has been exemplary throughout your training."
"Thank you, sir," she said, folding her hands in her lap. She kept her eyes on his face, determined to not fidget or hide from his attention. This was what she wanted: to be recognized for her hard work, for the skills she had struggled to acquire. In a sense, this was like her final exam.
Graham looked down at a file spread out over his desktop for a moment, then looked up at her and leaned back in his chair. "I understand that you grew up in California-that your father works for a winery there."
It was an unexpected question, but Sarah thought she managed to hide her surprise. "Yes, sir."
"Skylark Wines, run by the Larkin family. A winery that has a connection to Bartowski Electronics."
She shifted slightly in her chair when he didn't say anything more. It seemed that Director Graham was looking for her explanation of the situation.
"Yes, sir," Sarah said. "Chuck Bartowski is the son of Mary Larkin from her previous marriage. He started a computer company when he turned eighteen and has been running the company full-time since he was twenty-one."
"According to your file, it was expected that you would work for Skylark Wines when you were finished school," Graham said, eyeing Sarah.
"More that if I wanted, there was always a job waiting for me at the winery," Sarah said slowly, her mind working hard to determine just what the director was getting at.
"Do you think such an agreement would exist for you to work at Bartowski Electronics?"
Suddenly, a piece fell into place. There had recently been some reports about Chinese spies attempting to infiltrate American electronics companies, because China wanted to acquire the original designs for the tech, instead of just manufacturing it. If one of their targets was Bartowski Electronics . . .
"I don't know, sir," Sarah said. "I suppose that it could be arranged. I don't really know Chuck, but . . . but if I contacted him, I think he might be willing to listen to me."
"We thought the same, so we've already begun making arrangements." Graham lifted a folder and passed it to her. "This contains your mission brief. Due to this assignment taking place in familiar environs for you, and the skills you have so conclusively demonstrated, you'll be flying solo on this one. You will have a contact in San Francisco if you require any equipment or analysis."
Sarah nodded, holding the folder firmly. "Thank you, sir." While it was a huge sign of the CIA's trust in her that they were letting her handle this on her own, she wasn't sure how she felt about going back home. About confronting so much of her past . . .
Although maybe that was exactly what she needed. This mission would give her the chance to close the book on her old life. Like something out of a fairy tale, she could return home as a brand-new Sarah and get some questions answered before starting a new life.
Like finding out just what it felt like to kiss Bryce Larkin. Because Sarah had no doubt that she could get him to kiss her, with how she looked now and what she knew how to do. And maybe in the last two years, she wasn't the only one who had changed. Maybe Bryce had changed, too.
She felt a small smile appear on her face. "Thank you, Director Graham. When do I leave?"
"You're booked on an afternoon flight tomorrow. Your dossier, background materials, and contact info is in that folder," he said, gesturing towards the folder he had given her. Reaching into the desk drawer, he took out a cloth bag and handed them to her. "Here are your credentials. Report to Agent Jones down the hall to be issued your sidearm." Once Sarah had taken the bag, Graham stood and extended his hand. "Good luck, Agent Walker."
The emphasis he placed on her new title sent a thrill down her spine. Sarah rose from her chair and shook his hand. "Yes, sir. Thank you, Director. I won't let you down."
He smiled a little at her and nodded. "Safe travels."
Sarah couldn't help giving him a wide smile in return before she turned and left the office. Once she was in the hall, she couldn't wait. She quickly unzipped the cloth bag and pulled out a leather wallet. Opening it up, she saw the CIA shield opposite an ID card, bearing her name and picture.
Holding her badge, Sarah felt a wave of emotion. It was real. She was a CIA agent now. Sarah Walker wasn't just Jack Walker's daughter anymore, or the tall girl who always hid behind her glasses. She was a pretty, smart, confident woman now. This badge proved it.
This might be the best moment of her life. Any butterflies she had about going home had flown away. Because it felt like nothing could hold her back. Nothing could stop her.
She tucked her badge into the pocket of her jacket, then started walking down the hall, enjoying the click of her heels against the linoleum floor, feeling her hips sway a little more than usual. As she walked past a clump of male agents, she realized that they had turned to watch her walk by them.
A wide smile broke over her face. She was half-tempted to stretch out this feeling. To see if any of those men was interested in celebrating with her. But she quickly discarded that idea. She had work to do and men were a dime a dozen.
To: jwalker at skylarkwines . com
From: swalker at sorbonne . edu
Well, Dad, this is my last email from this address and from Paris. I graduated yesterday and tomorrow, I'll be flying home.
I know this will surprise you, but while I'm coming back to Napa, I won't be working at Skylark. I've taken a job with Chuck Bartowski's electronics company, working in his finance department. I hope this doesn't annoy the Larkins, but this position with Bartowski Electronics is amazing. And I'll be living with you again until I can start looking for an apartment.
This is such an exciting time for me. I'm so ready to be done with school and starting my first job. I've changed so much since I left for Paris that remembering who I was makes me dizzy. I've left the frizzy hair and the glasses behind me.
More than just my appearance, I've changed on the inside. I'm not the scared, shy girl I used to be. I now know how I want to live my life, so I can't wait to get started living. I'm looking forward to showing you how much I've changed-and what hasn't changed.
I should arrive at the winery sometime after dinner. Don't worry about picking me up at the airport; I'll rent a car when I land and drive out to the Valley.
End, Chapter 1