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"You do not want to mess with me," Sydney Bristow said, struggling to keep her voice light. "Really. You have no idea."
"Or what?" Burke Wells teased, dangling a heavy book just out of her reach. "You'll beat me up?"
"There are so many possibilities. Let's just keep it vague."
One strawberry blond brow hiked suggestively, emphasizing the mischievous gleam in Burke's hazel eyes. "If you're going to put it like that, I'd rather hear you spell it out."
Sydney lunged across the library table, catching her hip bone on its sharp edge as she tried to snag the book. Her grab came up short.
Burke's playful smile grew broader. He waggled the book tantalizingly.
"What is this? Junior high?" she burst out, exasperated. "I have to study, Burke, and this is the only day I can do it. You said you had to study too."
He relented at last, handing over her history textbook. "You're so serious today."
"You ought to try it sometime," she said, still peeved.
She never would have agreed to go to the library with him in the first place if he hadn't assured her they'd study for Friday's American history quiz. Friday probably seemed a long way off to him, but Sydney's perception of time had changed radically since she'd become an agent-in-training with the top-secret branch of the CIA known as SD-6. Her handler, Reginald Wilson, was forever calling her in for briefings or sending her off on missions, making it imperative for her to take full advantage of any spare second she could call her own. Her most recent mission in Oahu had left her so far behind in her classes she was starting to worry she'd never catch up.
"It's just a quiz," Burke said. "You act like it's the final."
"It will be the final, in seventeen days, and I don't know any of this stuff!"
"Can you believe it's almost summer?" he asked, changing the subject. "What have you got planned?"
"Besides repeating this class?"
Burke shook his head, his red hair brushing his broad shoulders. "Try to lighten up for just five minutes, okay? Look around you. We're practically the only ones here."
Sydney sighed, casting a glance through the huge group study room. The fact that Burke was right changed nothing. If she'd learned anything during her freshman year of college, it was that the number of people in the library was always inversely proportional to the beauty of the weather outside--and the sunshine that Sunday morning was gorgeous. The students with any control over their schedules would wait until dark to even think about studying. Unfortunately, Sydney wasn't a member of their privileged ranks.
She sighed again. "At least we aren't bothering anyone."
"You need to learn to relax," he said. "What are you so wound up about?"
"I have to learn this material!" She tapped the textbook in front of her. "If you already know it all, why don't you test me?"
"You mean ask you questions? Like a pretend quiz?"
"Go ahead. Give me your best shot."
Not that it's going to take a SWAT team to pick me off in this class, she thought, watching Burke pull the book across the table and start flipping its pages. American history ought to be my best subject. After all, I am a spy for the U.S. government.
She'd do better if Professor Baldridge stuck to concepts and major events, or even rough chronologies, but his midterm had demonstrated an obsessive fascination with dates, exact locations, and equally forgettable trivia.
"Okay," Burke said slowly, moving his finger down a page. "Where was President Kennedy shot?"
"Texas is a big state."
"Dallas," she said, gaining confidence. "Downtown Dallas."
"Date?" Burke asked.
"November 22, 1963."
"Name of his assassin?"
"Lee Harvey Oswald."
Burke snorted. "Right. If you believe in fairy tales."
Sydney stifled a groan. For a second there, they were almost accomplishing something.
"Did you see that show on public TV the other night?" he went on. "The one where those photographers proved that a bullet from the School Book Depository would have created a shadow trail visible in film shot from the grassy knoll?"
"Are you sure it wasn't the Sci Fi Channel?"
"Very funny," he said, undeterred. "You should have seen it. They found this new way of digitally enhancing the photographs taken that day, and then they did tests with dummy shots under the same atmospheric conditions and . . ."
Another conspiracy theory, she thought, tuning out. And this one's not even original. At least when Burke got worked up about CNN as a form of mind control, or the fast food industry's plot to supersize Americans, or even the subversive nature of soap, she found his theories amusing. He must be running out of material.
"I mean, the whole idea that some wacko with a gun, working completely alone, could bring down a president . . ."
Right. Because that's never happened before.
She wondered if Burke had any idea how young and naive his relentless suspicions of the government, the media, corporate America, and just about everything else made him sound.
Noah has his flaws, but at least he's serious, she thought, gazing off into space. The big question is, is he serious about me?
Ever since they'd returned from Hawaii, Agent Hicks had been running hot and cold, affectionate one day, distant the next. She understood they needed to keep their relationship secret from SD-6, but sometimes it felt like Noah was trying to hide it from himself too.
"Sydney?" Burke said, breaking into her thoughts. "Syd, are you still with me?"
"Huh? Oh, sorry. I might have checked out during the satellite coordinates of the overpass nearest the motorcade."
"But that overpass is key! If somebody had--" He stopped in midsentence, reading her expression. "No, I'm sorry. You keep telling me you need to study, and I keep fooling around. I must be driving you crazy."
"Not exactly crazy," she said, not wanting to hurt his feelings.
"It's just that I never get to see you." An impish smile curled his lips. "At least not as much of you as I'd like."
Sydney smiled back at his innuendo. "I'm not saying you'll ever succeed with that, but making me fail this quiz won't help."
"Which is why we need to study!" he said, thumping the pages of her open book. "What have I been telling you since we got here?"
For the next hour, Burke was a reformed character, peppering her with sample quiz questions. She did pretty well at first, but once he got past the easy stuff she started falling apart. She remembered the dates and motivations behind the Korean War but forgot the difficult names of the cities involved. She defined Cold War perfectly but couldn't come up with the journalist who'd coined the phrase. When she drew a blank on the democrat President Reagan defeated to win his second term, she lost patience with herself.
"I was alive then!" she cried, disgusted. "If I can't even remember what happened during my lifetime, what chance do I have with the rest of that stuff?"
From the Paperback edition.