After the horrific explosion on Route 16 outside Graham, Texas, which took the young lives of Edward Anthony Masen and Isabella Swan Cullen, monumental changes occurred for many of the key players once considered synonymous with the victims.
The deaths were never pinned to any culprit, nor did anyone ever take responsibility for the tragedy. The Federal Witness Protection case simply closed, and the authorities moved on.
Senator Jasper Whitlock endured embarrassing federal hearings, where he was accused and found guilty of corruption, pandering, tax evasion, and extortion. Stripped of his Senate seat, he currently awaits sentencing. Gianni D'Emilia was found guilty of committing numerous RICO violations and began serving an eight-year prison term in a federal detention center in Houston, shortly after the death of the woman responsible for bringing him to justice.
After inheriting a substantial amount of wealth, Renee Swan's life became unrecognizable. She'd been named sole beneficiary on Isabella Cullen's life insurance policy, and discovered she'd been listed as joint account holder for all of her daughter's overseas funds. Felix Daniels and his fiancée, Claudia Angiello, moved to Dallas once Felix stepped into the role of president of Cullen Oil, as specified in the terms of Edward Masen's last will and testament.
Several months later, following the sudden deaths of the victims and the ensuing public and political turmoil, Emmett Cullen was summoned to the office of the new president of the oil company.
The phone on Felix's desk buzzed. "Mr. Daniels, Mr. Cullen is here to see you."
"Thank you, Bree. Send him in." Felix stood, staring out his floor-to-ceiling windows and chuckling at the traffic and mayhem caused by the flurries that had fallen since late morning. Dallas winters were never anything to write home to Boston about, but at least they were entertaining. It wasn't every day you saw a city paralyzed by a quarter of an inch of snow on the ground.
"Emmett, come on in. And please call me Felix," he scolded, jokingly. "We've discussed this before. You're only a year older than I am."
Emmett huffed and smiled, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'll start next time."
"Good." Felix extended his arm, pointing to the leather couch. "Have a seat." Both men unbuttoned their suit jackets and sat, elbows on knees, ready to talk business.
"Before you begin, I just wanted to again tell you how sorry I am over the loss of Mr. Masen. I know he'd been your good friend."
Felix swallowed tightly with a pinched smile. "The best kind. Thank you."
"We'd only spoken on the phone a handful of times. I'm sorry I never got to meet him in person."
Felix sat forward, pouring two glasses of scotch. "He spoke highly of you, Emmett." Felix handed over the drink. "He'd always been very impressed with your work ethic, the knowledge, and expertise you brought to the table."
The men held up their glasses while Emmett toasted. "Thank you, sir. To Mr. Masen."
Felix quirked his brow and sipped, amused by Emmett's conditioned response to respect those in authority. He knew this guy had been mortified time and time again. First, he lost out to Edward. Then, he didn't get named sole heir to the Cullen Oil fortune after his father's passing a year earlier.
"It's imperative that I continue to travel to see that Mr. Masen's investments don't fall apart now that he's gone, which is why I've asked you here today. I'd like to offer you the position of Vice President and sell you a portion of the company . . . that is, if you're interested."
Emmett—caught mid-sip—coughed up what alcohol remained in his throat. Felix snickered.
"You all right?"
Emmett pounded on his chest. "Yes, yes, sir. Felix"—he shook his head—"sorry, you've more than caught me off guard." He gasped again through a chortle, appearing stunned. "I'd love it, love to. I—I—I'm honored, and I promise you I'm up to the task."
Felix held up his glass again. "I know you are. And if I may . . . I know you recognized me last year when I started coming here after Mr. Masen bought the company."
Emmett's eyes widened, a blush crossing his dimpled cheeks. "I did." He fiddled with his coaster, spinning it on the table. "You were Isabella's driver."
"I was." Felix nodded. "She was a dear friend of mine. Her loss has been just as painful for me."
Emmett clasped his hands, his thumbs tapping together. "I said some pretty awful things to her last year after the reading of my dad's will." He sighed, appearing disheartened. "I'd take them back if I could. I may not have agreed with her ethics, not that I'd been the authority on morality at the time, but she didn't deserve what happened all last year, all of the public scrutiny and especially how things ended for her." He glanced off to the side. "She was . . . special. I'm sorry you lost your friend."
"Thank you." Felix cleared the emotion thickening in his throat. "I just wanted you to know that when I spent a little bit of time with her last fall, she only had good things to say about you, and she hoped you got what you deserved both in your personal life and your career."
Emmett dipped his chin, a reserved smile on his lips.
"Anyway, I can't do much for your personal life, but I think she'd be happy to know what's happened here today. You've more than earned this," Felix assured, standing up.
Emmett leapt out of the chair and reached his hand out to shake Felix's. "That means a lot; I appreciate it. Promise I won't let you down."
"Glad to hear it." Felix grinned, happy that the last of Isabella and Edward's wishes was in place.
After Emmett left his office, Felix dialed his fiancée's salon in midtown and spoke to the receptionist who answered. "Claudia, please." He was placed on hold, certain the mystical spa music was about to put him in a trance.
"Tranquility, this is Claudia. How can we help you escape today?"
Felix chuckled, his excitement brewing at a fever pitch. "You can meet me at our house in two hours and make sure your bags are fully packed. We have a date at a little, authentic Italian restaurant I think you're gonna love."
"Grazie mille, Armando." Isabella thanked the young waiter, who'd driven over the catered trays from Cucina Carbone. "Ci vediamo domani sera".
"Prego, Signora. Buona sera."
Isabella came back to the dining room and started unwrapping the trays of food she'd ordered from their restaurant. She could've made them herself, knowing her recipes like the back of her hand, but she wanted to enjoy the opportunity to entertain her guests this week rather than be stuck in the kitchen, slaving over the stove and oven.
It had been over three months since Edward made good on his promise to whisk her away forever. Though he gave her the choice to go anywhere in the world, Isabella knew they were meant to be in Italy. It was where she rediscovered the modicum of goodness that remained in her soul after her selfish world fell apart last year. There in Italy, she reconciled who she had been with who she wanted to be, healing herself of the twisted need to always gain more, while realizing what she had with Edward was all that she needed. Italy was where she fell in love with him, and ultimately where she realized there might be a chance she could someday fall in love with herself.
The elaborate plan that brought them back to Italy had been executed flawlessly. A row of identical black SUVs with tinted windows lined the enormous Young County garage in separate bays on the day of her final transfer. Drivers remained in each car, never knowing if their vehicle truly held the witness and her temporary guest, who'd only been slated to go to the next destination. Each agent listened for the car door, and after they heard the alert from the radio that it was their turn to depart, the metal bay door lifted. One by one, each car exited the garage seamlessly, taking off to the specific destination–unknown to them—plugged into the GPS. It made it more than easy to slip the remote-controlled car into the caravan. Edward and Isabella, following the instructions they'd received that morning in her motel, had climbed into the SUV in the bay furthest from the entrance. It was driven by a man Alistair worked closely with in the States. Alistair had hacked into the federal system to learn the protocol backward and forward and had no trouble detonating from his nearby location, undetected. Minutes later, a spectacular act of pyrotechnics occurred, allowing the couple to escape unnoticed. The explosion had been so massive, the fire so hot, that whatever human remains Alistair had planted within the now-charred frame of the car were burned beyond recognition, and therefore unidentifiable. Chaos ensued; all the other vehicles were called back to the scene and accounted for. All of them, except the additional SUV which headed straight for the Texas coast. It wasn't until Edward and Isabella heard from Felix later that night that they started to breathe a little easier, realizing that Alistair's display worked, and they were about to be free. They arrived at a marina in Kemah, where a newly purchased yacht had been moored, ready to take them across the Gulf to Tampa. They remained on the yacht until Sunday morning and then found their private jet waiting—fueled and ready—to fly them to Rome.
All of the banking paperwork had been put in place weeks earlier, naming Renee beneficiary and joint-account holder for Isabella's monies, and Felix in charge of Edward's multiple accounts and business ventures. Everyone they loved would've been taken care of, if somehow they hadn't made it out of the escape plan with breath still in their lungs.
Once on terra firma again after landing in Rome, they drove the familiar route back to the hills of Sorrento, where Edward surprised Bella with an official welcome home gift in the form of a four-bedroom villa all their own. Complete with a solarium, which housed a luxurious in-ground pool and hot tub, and a retractable roof allowing them to enjoy the sun on pleasant days or pool time even in the pouring rain. The acre of property boasted an enormous vegetable and herb garden for Bella to cultivate, alongside the small lemon grove she was eager to manage. It was paradise, as far as she was concerned.
Isabella knew she'd never wholly deserve the life she was living, but she spent every minute of the day being thankful for it nonetheless.
"How can I help?" Renee walked into the dining room sipping her Merlot. "Damn, this place smells delicious. And these are your recipes? Like really?"
Isabella smiled. "Mostly, yeah. I mean, there are a few of Claudia's family recipes on our menu—and we send them some of the profits—but the rest are mine and Edward's. I got pretty handy in the kitchen when we were in Sorrento last fall."
"Can't believe you and Edward own a quiet little restaurant. It's beyond perfect for the life you have now." She put her wine glass down on the credenza. "But, is it really safe for the two of you to be out and about, though?"
"Well, remember it's Bianca and Ernesto who own the place. Edward still doesn't feel totally comfortable being out all the time, but he found the place for us, and hired a couple of cooks and a few people for the wait staff in the beginning to get us going. I met with the chefs to give them the recipes we wanted to use, and they shared some of their signature dishes with us." She grabbed the tongs to toss the garden salad. "That's how we came up with the menu. I've always worn my glasses and a wig when dealing with them . . . but we've also kept extremely close watch on any news coverage ever since November. I'm not international news-worthy. Maybe it made international CNN or BBC coverage in the day or two after it happened . . . but ever since then?" Isabella shook her head. "We're not worried at all. That chapter is closed," Isabella assured, still breathing a sigh of relief, knowing how differently it all could've turned out.
Renee came over and wrapped her arm around her daughter's shoulders. "I'm really proud of you. It's no secret that I've never been a model mother—"
Isabella couldn't help the snort that interrupted. "Nor I a model daughter, Mom."
Renee bumped her hip into Isabella's. "As I was saying, I'm extremely proud of who you are today, and I'm so sorry I wasn't there to show you the ropes of this crazy life."
"Stop, Mom." Isabella shook her head. "We're okay. I'm fine, and I made it. I have a life that I'm excited to live every day. A loving, generous, beautiful man who's proud to call me his." She smiled, catching his eye from the pool deck when he sent her a wink. "I'm lucky beyond measure."
"Edward does seem pretty fantastic," Renee cooed, looking out where Edward and Felix were relaxing with a cooler full of beer.
"Hey!" Isabella snapped her fingers in front of her mom's face. "Eyes over here, cougar. He's taken!" she scolded, her mirth obvious.
Renee winked and waggled her eyebrows. "Ernesto Carbone is a mighty fine catch, my dear Bianca."
"Don't I know it?" Isabella stirred the sausage, peppers, and onions before recovering the tray with foil. "So, are you seeing anybody right now?"
"Oh, there's this cop who comes in for a bagel every morning," Renee mentioned nonchalantly, stirring the lemon broccoli rabe. "Toasted blueberry bagel with strawberry cream cheese and a large coffee, black. Even when one of my girls is available, he stands aside until I come out of the office so that I can wait on him."
"Reeeeeally?" Isabella was more than impressed that her mother seemed to be speaking about a man who held down a job with a steady paycheck. It was already enough of a shock to Isabella's system when Renee decided to take a chunk of the money she'd given her in order to open up a bagel shop in the San Fernando Valley. "Aaand?"
Renee shrugged. "And he's cute." She smiled, looking like she had a secret all her own. "He's got a mustache, too. Definitely some pussy tickler potential there," she giggled.
"MOTHER!" Isabella screeched before both ladies burst out in laughter. She'd been mortified to hear her mother's candor, but thrilled to be having a moment of levity with this woman. The rest of their lives might not be filled with pedicure dates and shopping weekends, but if they could laugh and still find love within their left-of-center relationship, Isabella would be satisfied. "Let's go, sexpot. I have a dinner to serve."
The ladies made their way to the solarium, where Isabella found Edward now sitting on a deck chair, joking with his friends. She came up behind him, wrapping her arms around his neck. "Hey," she whispered, kissing just below his ear.
Edward's hands gripped hers on his chest while he tilted and turned his head to face her. A sexy smile crept across his face. "Another." His gruff voice stirred her desire.
Isabella hummed and moved her mouth over his, capturing his upper lip between hers. She relished his warmth, tasted the Peroni on his breath and enjoyed the manly stubble surrounding the smoothness. They captivated each other until she feared the only solution would be to drag him to the nearest closet to satisfy her urges.
When she pulled away, Edward pouted, protesting, "Get back here; that was just getting good!"
"Just?" She parroted, offended.
He yanked her around to the front of his chair and pulled her down onto his lap. Smiling like a kid in a candy store, holding Willy Wonka's golden ticket, he demanded, "Another."
Isabella snickered and leaned in while Felix hollered from the pool. "All right, break it up, you two." She and Edward smiled, staring into each other's eyes like goofs as Felix continued to tease. "I think the Carbones are about to kick us out, honey."
Felix climbed up the shallow steps of the pool, water trickling down his caramel-colored, toned chest. Claudia whistled like a construction worker as he sauntered her way. Miraculously, he managed not to get a drop of water on his Ray Bans while shaking his head to fling the excess water away.
Claudia grumbled from her chaise lounge. "Hey! Thanks a lot, Cujo! Ugh!"
Tearing his towel from the back of her chair, he dove toward her chest. "You know it." He peppered his girlfriend with kisses in between growls. "I'm your very own lap dog." Claudia squealed when he went for her neck.
Isabella rolled her eyes, enjoying her friends' silliness, so thankful they had each other, now that she and Edward were no longer a fixture in Texas.
"Dinner's ready, everybody," Isabella called out, trying to remember why she'd come outside in the first place, if it wasn't to get lost in an endless lip-lock with the man who held her heart. "Let's go eat while it's still hot."
"C'mon, you two," Claudia sang, approaching. "I hear Cucina Carbone makes the best eggplant parm around!"
Amid the chuckling, Felix pulled his sunglasses off and winked at Isabella as he passed. Her friendship with that man had been her lifeline back to this alternate reality she now cherished. She'd forever be grateful to him for never giving up on her.
"Shall we go to dinner, mia cara?" Edward pulled Isabella's hair away from her collar bone and laid a gentle kiss there. "My Bianca worked hard to set up that fine feast on our table for our guests. It should be enjoyed."
"I have a confession." Isabella's voice was no louder than a whisper. "I did it all for you," she pledged, grazing her fingernails along the base of his hairline.
Edward cupped his hand around the back of her neck and drew her lips to his once more. It was warmth and passion and comfort. Their tongues swept along each other's in the sweetest of dances until he pulled back again. "I've always loved you, Bella, and I always will."
She sighed, content in his arms and comforted by his promise that hadn't wavered since the first time they'd arrived in Sorrento last summer. "More than money, more than notoriety, more than anything I once thought held any value at all . . . Edward, this life with you reminds me every day that nothing will ever matter more than our friendship or our love."
They exchanged smiles, pledging their forever's through a shared gaze, knowing the journey ahead of them would be ever sweeter holding each other's hand and occasionally playing Scrabble by candlelight for old time's sake.
A/N: And that's where our journey ends, dear readers. I have to thank you for coming along on this wild ride. You trusted me enough to write these highly flawed characters, take them through their storm and arrive safely on the other side. My greatest feeling of joy came when some of you, who were so disgusted with Isabella and her nastiness, stuck with me to watch her evolution to the point that you were cheering for her safety and happiness by the end. I'm so glad you endured this roller coaster ride. Let your anti-WIP friends know that we are officially complete!
To my GREEDy team: Your tireless work on my behalf was inspiring. Thank you for loving these characters as much as I did. And extra lovin' for my MFEO LaMomo for her gorgeous Italian translations, helping us all fall in love with Hermitward a little bit more.
New Yummy story is in the works . . . no title yet, but I've already posted a picture tease on my Facebook account where a bride and groom are dancing together, and the caption reads, "I danced with two men on my wedding day . . . the one I married and the one I wish I married." If it sounds intriguing to you, just hit that 'follow author' button, and you'll be hearing from me again soon.
Thank you for being here. XO, Jen