Bella Swan's heart raced at the stupidity of her current predicament. She had purposely dropped the wrong name at the wrong time to the wrong person to get the attention of the most dangerous man on the East Coast. Now, standing in the dark on the shore of the Hudson, she was here to pay the piper.
"Desperate times … desperate measures," she whispered.
As the wind coming off the river whipped around her, Bella played back the last time she had been in Carlisle's presence, the last time she had been 'in,' the last time she had access to the only man she would ever love.
~ "You fucked up, Bella—almost got him killed. This is no place for you. You make him weak," he growled as he pulled her out of the car. She glared at him but knew he was right. She was a liability, a weak spot in the defenses of the man they both valued.
As he took her elbow and escorted her to the pier where a boat was waiting, he continued, "He wants you out. He made it clear. We will be monitoring you. If the wind shifts in your direction, we'll come for you. And have no misconception, Girly; it will be me that pulls the trigger."
She acknowledged the steel in the man's threat with a nod.
"Well, it will be nice to see one friendly face when I die," she volleyed with a smirk.
He laughed and shook his head, "I'm gonna miss that mouth of yours."
"Likewise, Mr. Cullen, I'll see you around," she threw over her shoulder as she walked away from the lethal watchdog of the Mafia kingpin, Edward Masen. ~
The sound of gravel crunching under a car's tires snapped her back to the present. With her heart pounding, she scrambled to grasp the fleeting thread of bravery as she listened to the doors slamming and the ominous footfall of several men.
As she turned toward the sounds, he was there, walking out of the swirling fog, flanked by two of Edward's soldiers.
"What the hell have you done, Bella?" he barked.
"I need a sit down with him, Carlisle," she said struggling to keep her voice level.
"No, you're out, Girly, stay out," he said with heated anger.
"I need back in," she countered.
Carlisle glared down at her, his gloved hand working into a fist when the burly thug to his left moved to answer his phone.
"Sir," he said in a hushed tone and stepped away from the ring of confrontation.
Bella continued to hold Carlisle's heated gaze while her heart raced and stomach churned.
"No sir, he's in a talk," Thug 1 said with his head lowered.
Carlisle swallowed thickly, "You had to go stirring up trouble, you fuckin' …"
"No sir, no—not them, it's a 'Girly,'" the man said. As he listened to the words of fury at the other end, his head shot up to take in Carlisle's rigid stance.
When he stepped back into the ring of people, Carlisle was shaking his head as he pulled his gun from its holster to rest against his thigh.
Thug 1 shrugged in apology to Carlisle as he held his cell phone out to the woman.
"He wants to talk to you, miss," he said as he pulled his gun and pointed it at Carlisle's chest. "Sorry sir, Boss just needs me to make sure you make no mistakes—his words. Please return your gun carefully to your holster and place both hands in front of you."
Bella licked her lips and brought the phone to her ear.
"Hello," she said haltingly.
"Baby, did he hurt you? Are you all right?" Edward rushed out in relief.
She closed her eyes soaking up the warmth of his voice, "I'm fine, Edward, Carlisle was just trying to protect you …"
"Don't—don't defend his actions, Bella. Goddamn it, he was going to kill you tonight! Why the hell did you contact him? You stupid, fuckin' woman."
She flinched at his words.
"I need a sit-down, Mr. Masen. I had to risk it going wrong," she said, her voice only wavering at the end.
"A sit-down—what the hell are you playing at, Bella?" he asked.
It hit her—what she heard in the background—the rev of a car engine.
She straightened, "You're keeping me talking until you get here to sort this out yourself. Carlisle told me you'd be pissed if anyone else finished the job," she accused.
"Shut the fuck up!" he yelled into her ear. She closed her eyes willing herself to keep it together.
"I'm right here, Mr. Masen. Come and get me," she challenged and ended the call handing the phone back to Thug 1.
That moment of distraction was all Carlisle needed to move on him. He pushed the gun up, and it went off as he wrenched it out of the large man's hand.
Thug 2, previously all but forgotten, stepped behind Carlisle and calmly hit him over the head, catching him and laying him gently on the ground.
"Fuck, Pauly, we're going to be in so much shit. Carlisle is going to kill us," Thug 1 whisper-shouted to Thug 2.
"Worry about me, boys," Edward's voice broke through the darkness as his menacing form loomed before them.
"Sir," they replied in unison, standing straighter.
Bella rolled her eyes before letting them rest on the man who held her fate in his hands.
God, she'd missed him.
"You ..." she started, but Edward grabbed her by the shoulders, shaking her hard before crushing her to his chest.
The impact of his embrace sent her reeling back three years.
~ "See you tomorrow, Rosie," Bella said as she grabbed her courier bag and with a wave stepped off the subway train.
Hitching her bag on her shoulder, she began the six block trek to her walk-up on 19th St.
She stepped into the crosswalk as a dark car whipped around the corner from an alley and came to a screeching halt inches from impact. Two men in black suits emerged menacingly from the back of the car.
"What the fuck is your problem, girl?" the man with the fedora shouted.
Scared but angry, she yelled back, "Pedestrians have the right of way. What the fuck is your problem?"
Fedora frowned, taking a step toward her but his mouth relaxed into a sly grin as she turned and slammed into a wall of a man. She looked up into emerald green eyes sparkling with humor.
"Excuse me, miss; I'm sorry if my friends startled you." His velvet voice washed over her as he ran his hand down her arm before stepping back.
He was tall and stately, but as she looked back at the black car with the three dangerous men, her internal warning bell sounded.
He held her elbow, and a look of concern washed over his face. "Are you all right, Miss …?"
"I'm fine, thank you, I'm just going to continue on my way and leave you to your evening." She smirked as if she would give this stranger her name.
He shrugged with a mischievous grin and she smiled at his boyish charms.
He smiled back, running his thumb over her arm. Their eyes held, and she could almost hear the sigh rippling through her heart. What a shame he's no good.
As if he could read her thoughts, she watched his smile fade as his eyes cooled.
He stepped to the side and with a nod he said, "Have a good evening, ma'am."
His sudden formality startled her.
"Yes, well—um—you too." She smiled shyly and with a wave tothe three dark figures inthe car, she continued with shaky legs. ~
Edward pulled back from his embrace but kept her close.
He pushed her sandy hair away from her face and looked into her startled, light brown eyes.
"My God, Bella, I could've lost you tonight," he breathed.
"You're not mad?" she ran her fingers under the cuff of his sleeve, her nails lightly scratching the tender skin of his wrist.
"Oh, I'm furious, baby," he said as his eyes bore into her. "I'm a man of action; you know that, if you know nothing else, you can count on that." His grip on her arms tightened and he continued, "I'll get answers tonight and then I will get retribution."
His hands dropped as he stepped back from her.
"Yes, sir," Thug 1 barked and stepped forward.
"Take her to my car. Do not touch her unless she resists, then use only the force necessary to contain her." His stone-cold eyes never left her as he spoke.
"I won't fight this, Edward," she whispered as her small frame shook uncontrollably.
He took a step toward her, closed his eyes as his hands fisted, and motioned for Collin to step in.
Collin stepped forward for Bella to follow him.
"Stop," Edward looked from Collin to Pauly, "if anything of this meeting gets out, I will end both of you," he looked from one to the other, "so now you are your brother's keeper."
They echoed back "Yes, sir," and Collin motioned for Bella to proceed to the waiting car.
She had caught the word 'downtown' before it was carried away on the wind as Collin ushered her into the still warm confines of the leather interior of Edward's sleek, black, Maserati Quattroporte.
She leaned her head against the cushioned back, watching Edward gesticulating over Carlisle's prostrate body as Pauly began rolling Carlisle into position to lift him.
Collin shifted in front of her door, his broad back blocking her view. She closed her eyes and willed her nerves to calm.
'Downtown' was a code word for the sub-level of a warehouse. Perhaps that was where Bella would die—by her beloved's hands. She smiled bitterly, wanting Edward's face to be the last one she saw. As twisted as it seemed, Bella wanted her end to come from him, no one but him.
A sob escaped, and she swallowed deeply to silence her fears, willing her mind to happier times.
~ He and Fedora came waltzing into the restaurant where she worked two nights after the infamous run-in and asked for seating in Isabella Swan's area.
She approached the table on shaky legs. As Fedora straightened his silverware on the linen tablecloth, she opened her dry mouth to speak.
"Isabella, it's so good to see you again," Ol' Green Eyes said.
She inwardly shook herself to get her bearings.
"How do you know my name, sir?"
The answer dawned as she placed the question mark at the end of the sentence.
She glared at him. "You're the bastard that stole my wallet."
He barked out a laugh and looked to Fedora, inviting him to enjoy the joke with him; a complimentary grin was all he received. He looked back to the feisty, hissing kitten and his heart tugged painfully.
She cocked an eyebrow and waited.
"Oh, I can assure you, Miss Swan, my parentage is well established," he smirked and looked at Fedora. "Carlisle, return Miss Swan's belongings," he said and returned his gaze to linger on her. "One of my friends found it on the street after we had the pleasure of making your acquaintance."
He smiled as if he believed that pile of crap. She snatched her wallet from Carlisle's hand and resisted the urge to open it.
Green Eyes' voice, low and smooth, washed over her, "You can open it, love. It's all there."
She shook her head knowing what was inside: a five, six ones, a subway pass, a library card and a stale stick of Juicy Fruit.
"No, I trust you, Mr. Good Samaritan. Who would go to such great lengths to return a stripped wallet?" she shrugged it off with an air of casualness she did not currently possess.
He nodded, his eyes sharp and penetrating.
She stood up straight and cleared her throat. "Good evening, I'm Bella, and I will be your server tonight. May I interest you in a drink?"
He smiled, amused at her prepared spiel as Carlisle murmured, "Finally."
She was heading back to the kitchen when he intercepted her.
"Can I help you?" she asked looking up and realizing how tall and intimidating a presence he was.
"Yes, Bella, you can by saying 'yes' to dinner tomorrow night." He flashed what she was coming to call his 'smile of lethal charm.'
She began shaking her head, and he stepped closer before she could speak. "Please Bella, I want this."
She cocked her head. He really thought what he wanted should settle the matter.
"What about what I want? I don't know you. I don't even know your name, and, let me tell you, Mr. Big, your 'merry men' don't paint a pretty picture for you." She started to walk around him, but he gently grabbed her arm.
She looked up into his face and saw a truth that swayed her. His cocky swagger fell away, and she knew she was seeing this beautiful man for the first time.
"Please Bella, give me one night to prove myself to you—to show you I'm worthy."
She wanted to run her hand over his cheek and up into his hair, to sooth his worries. Instead, she stepped back. He let her while continuing to hold her arm.
"What's your name, Mr. Smooth?" She asked and watched him physically relax.
He took a small step toward her, lowering his voice, "Edward Masen, at your service, ma'am." He gave her a slight bow.
She rolled her eyes but registered the effect he had on her.
"I'm working the next two nights, but I am free Sunday and Monday night."
"I can't wait that long. When do you get off work tomorrow night?"
"No, Edward, I'm dead on my feet after a night shift."
He grinned, "I like my name on your temptingly plump lips."
She put her hand on her hip and lifted an eyebrow, but secretly his words made her swoony.
He sobered, "Okay, so no dancing. We can go to a diner and order pie and talk."
She laughed, "Way to 'wine and dine' a girl, Edward."
A look of embarrassed-alarm washed across his face, and she regretted her words.
"I'm teasing, Edward, I'm sorry. Pie at a diner would be perfect. There's a nice one two blocks over. I'll meet you there at eleven fifteen?"
"No, I'll be here to pick you up," he said firmly.
"I'm not getting into a car with a stranger. Meet me here and we can walk together," she countered.
She studied his face while he thought. He was high cheekbones and angular features. He was a Viking warrior captured in a suit. With his wild auburn hair trying to break free from its strict styling, and hard green eyes, he reminded her of what Eric the Red might have looked like in modern times.
"The weather should be mild tomorrow. It won't be too much for you to walk that far?" Edward asked, conceding with a worry line between his brows.
She smiled and shook her head.
"Then it's a date, Miss Swan. You're a hard negotiator," he added admiringly.
She mirrored his smile. When he lifted her hand and his lips connected with her knuckles, she knew underneath all the cocky bluster lived a vulnerable man in need of love and understanding.
She knew he had to be dangerous, but she also knew it was too late. He had somehow worked his way into her heart.
She'd always been a sucker for a stray. ~
She was shocked back into the moment by the sound of the driver's side door flinging open and the gust of chilled wind that accompanied the movement. Her heart stopped and rushed as Edward slid in behind the wheel, slamming the door behind him.
She leaned forward, "Can I sit up front with you?"
He didn't look at her. "No, I need distance to think clearly."
"I understand," she said in a small voice and sat back as the car began to move.
His fists, white knuckled, gripped the steering wheel.
'I understand'—the woman understood nothing.
He wanted to climb over the front seats and lay her down. He wanted to grab fists of her hair and slam into her in a punishing pace until she screamed his name. He longed to pull her onto his lap and wrap her safely in his arms, to feel her safe in his arms. His fingers flexed on the steering wheel at the thought of strangling her until her eyes bulged, releasing the rage and hurt running putrid inside of him. But his eyes stung at the thought of pillowing his weary head between her breasts and crying as her slender, healing fingers combed gently through his hair. He wanted to kiss her lips until they were puffy and tender-sweet, but his fists tightened their grip at the thought of dragging her by her hair into a field and hurting her as deeply as she had hurt him.
He glanced at her lovely, scared reflection in the rearview mirror.
No, she didn't know a damn thing.
He pulled onto the street with his thoughts racing. As he drove silently through the night his mind bounced in extreme directions but always returned to one memory—standing at the foot of their bed, rumpled with a night of their lovemaking, and the soul-crushing devastation of being betrayed and abandoned—alone.
When he pulled into the garage, Jasper Hale was waiting.
"Get out," he said over his shoulder.
He walked around the car as Jasper closed the back car door behind Bella.
He held his hand out, and Jasper shook it with a questioning look.
"You're my acting Second as of now; take any measure necessary to ensure her safety until my return." Edward glanced at Bella and again felt the cold steel blow to his heart. He looked back to Jasper, "No communication, gag her if you must." He hesitated, a picture of over-kissed lips and creamy skin in tangled sheets flashed through his mind. "No tape."
Jasper looked from his boss to the woman, and his face hardened with firm determination at the command of his boss.
He watched Edward take a step toward Bella and watched her sway, drawn like a magnet, toward him. Edward's face hardened, and with the spell broken, he stepped back.
"Edward, what the fuck . . ."
"Carlisle, I'd shut the fuck up until you know why you're here." Edward took off his coat and tie as he spoke, handing it to Pauly. He took pains to roll his sleeves and sat casually across from his former Second and crossed his legs.
He looked Carlisle in the eye for a moment. Carlisle crossed his arms across his chest, a defiant tell.
Edward nodded, knowing how to proceed with the interrogation.
"What were you doing out there, Carlisle?"
"That bit …"
"Watch your descriptive words, Carlisle—your only warning." Edward nodded for him to continue.
"Miss Swan dropped your name in Newton's, on 19th street. I had three of James' people coming to me wanting to know if you were crossing lines into their turf. James wanted a sit-down. I had to sort it out."
"Carlisle, where was I when this went down?" Edward uncrossed his legs and leaned forward.
With Edward's cold eyes pinning him, Carlisle shifted in his seat—another tell.
"You were here. I was taking care of it like a Second should."
Edward sat back and studied his prey. When a mist of perspiration formed on Carlisle's upper lip, he continued.
"What were you doing with Bella tonight, Carlisle?" Edward lifted his eyebrows waiting.
"Sh—She was compromising you, Edward." When he saw his words were ineffective, he added defensively, "She was just supposed to be your weekend plaything. You've always had a blind spot for that girl. It was going to get you killed. I had your back." He dropped his head as his voice softened, "I always have your back, Edward."
Edward dropped his head over his laced hands and nodded. "You've been my Second for a long time, Carlisle. We've been through a lot together."
Carlisle looked up with hope in his eyes. Edward met them, "Why weren't we together on this one?"
Before Carlisle could answer, Edward stood.
Carlisle looked up in alarm, "Edward?"
Edward looked to Pauly. "Hold him here until you get my call," he said as he slipped his suit jacket on and stuffed his tie into his pocket.
"Yes sir," Pauly nodded.
Transport to the meeting room.
After sending texts to Jasper and Pauly, Edward placed his phone in his pocket, leaned back in the wingback chair and closed his eyes.
What was it about this woman that had everything so knotted up?
He sighed and let himself go back.
~ They sat in the coffee shop sharing peach cobbler. He'd picked apple pie the night before, a much better choice, but her grandma made the best cobbler, and this shop had the closest one to her memories. He just enjoyed the view as she closed her eyes with each bite.
He could watch her all night. Bella was drop dead gorgeous, but she was clever and sweet too. As she took another bite and smiled at him, Edward remembered stepping out of Black's shop and slamming into this feisty little bird. She was mouthing off to Carlisle, and although she was shaking with fear, she stood her ground.
Damn, she was spectacular. Edward knew that night he wanted her, but now, after two nights of sitting and talking, she owned him. Bella treated him like a regular guy, and he found the way she looked at him quite addictive. He'd never had that before. Even as a boy, he was singled out as above par, Mafia royalty.
He sat next to her in the booth both nights and as she spoon-fed him some of her cobbler he saw the waitresses smiling out of the corner of his eye.
She sat back and laughed as he made a face.
"Carmen," she called over his shoulder, "can you get the man a slice of apple pie? I think I've tortured him with my cobbler long enough."
When a warmed slice with melting ice cream appeared before him, she smiled brightly and sang, "Isn't that a dainty dish to set before the king?" reaching out to smooth his hair from his forehead.
"Kiss me," he whispered.
Her eyes held his as she leaned into him. When their lips met, he pulled her closer. His groan set her off, and he felt her fingers run through his hair as her tongue slid along his lower lip.
As he opened to her, he tasted peaches and sugar. She was intoxicating.
The bell chiming over the door brought the room back to them, and they broke apart grinning like naughty children. She sighed deeply, and picked up his fork, serving him a bite of warm, gooey apple pie.
He nodded and ran his hand over her cheek before catching her at the nape and pulling her into another kiss, apples mingling with peaches.
He pulled back, holding her gaze.
Edward smiled to himself in the dim light of the meeting room. That's how she had things in a tangled mess. She owned him from the beginning. His smile faded as the end of their story bled into his memory.
He sighed and rubbed his face. When he heard the echo of doors opening and footsteps on the staircase, he stood and poured himself a drink.
He was just taking his seat as Jasper ushered Bella into the room. As Jasper pulled out a wingback chair for her to sit at the table, Edward noticed that in this lighting she was pale and thin with shadows under her eyes.
He put his phone in his pocket and looked at Jasper. "As my Second, you should sit to my right."
"Sir, if I may?"
Edward nodded for him to continue.
"Sir, if Carlisle is going to be in this meeting, perhaps I shouldn't muddy the water by pushing my promotion in his face."
Jasper rested his hands on the back of Bella's chair. He watched Edward's eyes follow his hands and quickly removed them.
"Yes, it would help to keep the meeting focused. Sit to Bella's left," he said.
"Yes sir," Jasper stepped away as Collin entered the room.
"Collin, bring in tea for Miss Swan," Edward said without looking at the woman to his left.
"Of course, sir," he nodded.
Jasper grinned as the burly soldier left to figure out how to make tea.
Pauly held the door for Carlisle as he sauntered in, taking the seat to Edward's right without question.
"Carlisle," Edward said with a nod in his direction.
"What's going on Edward? What's this bi—person doing here?"
Edward cut a look at Carlisle and wondered, not for the first time, what he had against Bella.
"Collin, Pauly, bring two bottles, water, and glasses from the bar. Jasper, Carlisle make yourselves a drink."
Carlisle grabbed the bourbon bottle out of Collin's hand, poured two fingers and downed it before pouring two fingers more and sitting back to breathe deeply.
Jasper took a bottle of water and a glass. Edward nodded his approval.
Collin returned and placed a steaming Styrofoam cup with a Lipton label hanging off the edge in front of Bella.
"Thank you, Collin," she said.
"What the hell is that?" Edward barked.
Collin backed up, "Sir?"
"She doesn't drink from cheap cups." Edward stood, and Collin took another step back.
"Edward," Bella laughed, touching his sleeve, "you're scaring the poor man."
Edward broke his glare at Collin and looked down at her. She was laughing, and for the first time in a year, he smiled.
She patted his hand for him to sit and turned to Collin.
"Collin, there was a tea set in the cabinet over the sink. I believe you'd find a tin of tea on the tray with it. Two spoons of the loose-leaf tea in the pot, hot water and don't forget the strainer, it should be with the set. You can do this," she said and smiled encouragingly at him.
He nodded and backed, with relief, out of the room.
Carlisle watched the display with disgust. He shook his head at the way this woman played Edward like a fiddle.
Edward leaned forward to Carlisle. "I don't pretend to understand the venom you have against this woman, but this is the day of reckoning, my friend. You best lay all your cards on the table because there is no tomorrow.
He turned to Bella, "You wanted a sit-down. You have a sit-down, Miss Swan."
"Thank you, Mr. Masen."
Collin returned carrying a tray with a teapot, matching teacup and saucer, and two cookies tucked next to the cup.
"Lovely, Collin, well done," Bella said.
"My God, can we get on with this?" Carlisle growled.
"I wouldn't be in such a hurry, my old friend," Edward warned.
Edward saw Bella's hand begin shaking at his warning and motioned for Pauly to pour for her.
"Allow me, ma'am," Pauly said taking the pot from her.
"Carlisle, this is no more than I would do for any man who has crossed me. This is a sit-down, and we abide by sit-down rules." Edward slammed his hand on the table, "So shut your fuckin' mouth!"
Edward sat back and took a calming breath, "Your meeting, Miss Swan."
Bella cringed as her tea cup teetered on the saucer and took a deep breath.
"I know you're surprised to see me after a year." She turned to Edward. "But I saw things in the past two months that lead me to believe that maybe I didn't have all the information."
"So you decided to throw around Mr. Masen's name and bring trouble into his house?" Carlisle cut in.
She squared on him, and Edward smiled inwardly. 'There she is—my little fighter.'
"You want to talk about bringing trouble into Mr. Masen's house? Okay, let's, Mr. Cullen. Why is that bar now known as a Masen bar? Why is it also known for buying and selling women in the back room?"
"What!" Edward sat forward, and Jasper mirrored him.
"You forget I lived in that neighborhood. Rumor has it; it crossed lines six months ago, and the back room opened about the same time."
"You are a lying, fucking bitch," Carlisle spat across the table just as Edward backhanded him across the mouth.
"I told you to watch your descriptive words, Carlisle."
He turned to Bella as he pulled on his cuff, "Can you back up your accusation. I can't kill someone on rumors, baby," he said venomously.
She looked down at her hands.
"Well?" Edward pressed.
"Knowing what I—was to you, Rosalie tipped me off."
"That nasty bitch?" Carlisle growled.
Rosalie was an informant for them. She knew everything and everyone in three of the five boroughs. If anyone knew the street news, it was Rosalie.
Edward nodded at Jasper to check it out and watched him leave the room.
Bella sat forward. "Y—You told me you didn't deal in trafficking, Edward. Tell me you aren't …"
"I don't answer to you, Miss Swan. You wanted out, well you're out. You don't get to know my daily dealings or pass judgment on them."
"I wanted out? What the hell does that mean?" She said, shaking with rage.
"We don't have to listen to your maudlin whining or your blatant lies, Girly," Carlisle said as he held a napkin against his bleeding mouth.
He turned to Edward, "Who are you going to listen to, this woman whom you haven't seen in a year, who betrayed you, or your friend and right-hand man?"
Edward locked eyes on her. "Why did you come back?"
"I needed to know if you took over the bar. I—I couldn't believe it. I don't believe it."
He placed his hands flat on the table. "Why did you come back, Bella?"
Carlisle leaned forward to speak, but Edward's hand shot out silencing him.
"I wanted to make sure you were all right, that you weren't in trouble. If I know, who else does?" Bella shrugged.
Edward's hand slammed down, spilling bottles and teacups, "WHY DID YOU COME BACK?"
She began rocking, and hot tears ran down her face as she looked him in the eye, "BECAUSE I SAW IT!" She pointed to his chest, and he grabbed something under his shirt. She wiped her face with the back of her hand. "The footage of your father's funeral, you were a pallbearer, and you were wearing it outside of your shirt. You—You kissed it before you lifted the casket." She began sobbing and gritted out, "I'm so sorry for your loss. I w—wasn't there—I'm so sorry."
He sat back stunned.
Collin brought her a napkin and a cup of water.
"Get the fuck out of his life," Carlisle growled as he pushed his chair back.
Collin stood behind her chair, and Pauly took a step forward.
Jasper walked into the room and took in the tense posturing.
Edward looked up, and Jasper nodded.
He came to stand behind his chair as Edward's eyes hardened to cold stone.
"Sit down, Carlisle."
The deadly steel in Edward Masen's voice sent a chill throughout the room.
Bella struggled to regain control, and Edward left her to it. He couldn't think clearly about her at the moment, so he turned his attention to his trusted Second of more than a decade.
"Carlisle, explain Newton's."
"What, you know as much as I do. James took it over in payment for debt about six years ago." Carlisle shrugged, but Edward caught the shift of his eyes and noted the pulse of the vein in his throat. He calmly pulled his gun from its holster and laid it gently on the table.
"Explain Newton's, Carlisle," he seethed as he ran a slender finger along the barrel.
Carlisle licked his lips as he looked around the room of hardened faces.
"What do you want me to say? James is responsible for that sorry excuse for a pub." He shrugged, and Edward sat back and crossed his legs, waiting.
The silence bore down on him, and Carlisle felt a drop of sweat run between his shoulder blades.
"She's a FUCKING liar, Edward! What do you want to hear!" He started to rise from his seat, and Pauly pushed him back in the chair.
Edward ran a finger along the razor sharp crease of his pants as Carlisle began to shake uncontrollably.
"This is the third situation in a year you had to 'clean up' for me, Carlisle. How is it my Second feels the need to get his hands dirty? How is it that turf lines keep getting blurred, and only you can bring both sides back to toe the line? Why is it you're Johnny on the Spot every goddamn time there is a betrayal to clean up, no witnesses to interrogate, and I'm brought in after the fact?"
"I—I was just trying to be a good Second," his voice lowered, "a good friend," Carlisle said before dropping his hands into his lap.
"A good friend wouldn't run a side business and steal from me. A good friend wouldn't lead others to believe I was weak," he shot a look at Bella and added, "that the Masen line was weak."
Edward thought of his father's heart attack and how he stepped into his father's shoes that evening. All of this started after that night. His mind raced to a room full of his father's top men witnessing the passing of the torch to the son and heir. Carlisle was standing next to him with pride glowing on his face. His thoughts skipped to Carlisle crowing after everyone had left. "We're going to rule the world now!" He had slapped Edward on the back. "Nothing can stop us now!"
Edward's eyes shot to Bella. She had left him two days later.
Carlisle's voice replayed in his head. "She wanted out, said she couldn't take the restrictions, your control, and bad temper."
Edward had countered, "I can talk her back."
Carlisle just shook his head with a pitying look. "She said she could do better, that she deserved better."
That had been the nail in the coffin. Edward had always known she could and should do better. He had wished better for her, but was selfish and couldn't bring himself to send her away.
The idea that she had never really loved him sat like a stone in his gut for the past year.
He leaned forward, his cold voice disturbing the silent room.
"Bella, tell me now why you left." He did not look at her, but out of the corner of his eye, he saw her tremble before clasping her hands in her lap.
She took a deep breath as the room waited. Edward noticed Carlisle was already shaking his head.
"I did not leave you, Edward. You sent me away, threw me away like a used Kleenex. You were the king and didn't need me to slow you down, to embarrass you," she ran her thumb over her bare ring finger, "to be your weakness."
"I never …" he began.
"I heard the tape, Edward. You—and I quote—'were sick of that bitch. It was time to cut her loose and move on.'" She looked down as her voice faded.
His blood ran cold in his veins, and he whispered, "Who told you this? Who played that recording for you?"
She stilled and then met the truth in his eyes, "Carlisle."
His eyes softened, and she had her apple pie boy back for just a moment before they hardened to stone and his face set in a mask. He reached for his gun and stood in one smooth motion.
Carlisle looked up at his boss, his friend, and the look on his face knocked Bella's breath away; relief that the end would come at Edward's hands and –love. She knew because it was how she would feel.
Edward cocked the gun and placed it at his friend's temple. "You should have killed her, Carlisle," Edward said.
Carlisle nodded, "Your one moment of weakness will get you killed," he quoted and added, "We would have just gotten here faster."
Edward nodded. "True. Have you anything more to say?"
"I did it for you, for us. When the Eastern European Syndicate wants you, you don't say no, Edward. I—I thought you would come around when you saw how powerful we could be. I—wanted us to rule it all—together."
Edward swallowed thickly. "Now I will rule alone, my friend," he said as he pulled the trigger.
The gunshot seemed to fill the room and slowly absorb into the walls as a fine red mist filled the air. Edward's eyes shifted from his friend to his heart and saw her round, red eyes locked on the slumped form across the table. Tears pouring from her eyes pooledat her hands firmly clasped over her mouth.
"Collin, take Miss Swan out of the room." Edward watched Collin gently help Bella to stand and with a large arm wrapped around her, escorted her out the door.
"Pauly, call in the cleaners. Remember, you and Collin are bound to silence." Edward waited for Pauly's acknowledgment before he turned to Jasper.
"Jasper, you are my Second. Pauly is a witness."
Jasper nodded and bowed slightly. "Thank you, sir. I won't fail you."
Edward looked at the body draped over a widening pool of blood and back to his new Second. "I know you won't," he said and ran his hands through his hair. "Set up a meeting with James for tomorrow. We meet on his turf to make this right."
"Yes, sir," Jasper said and stepped aside for Edward to pass.
Edward found Collin pacing the hallway in front of the bathroom door.
"She threw up. I went in with her, but she said she needed to clean up alone. There is no window or exit but this door. I heard the water just a second ago," Collin said.
Edward held his hand up for the large man to cease his nervous rambling. If he didn't know better, Edward would say Collin was genuinely worried for the girl.
He patted his shoulder as he passed. "You've done well tonight, Collin. It will be remembered. I'll take her from here."
Collin took a step toward his boss. "She'll be all right, sir?"
Edward purposely did not look up at the man towering over him. "She'll be just fine. I'll see to it," he said.
Collin stepped back with a slight bow. "Yes, sir, I'll just go help, Pauly."
Edward nodded as he pushed open the door.
She was sitting against the wall with her legs pulled up to her chin and sucking on a mint.
He moved quietly to slide down the wall next to her and scooted close enough for their arms to touch.
"I was gutted every day you were gone, and now I'm afraid I've pushed you away for good," he whispered.
She sniffed and laid down with her head in his lap. He gently ran his fingers through her silken locks and waited for the ax to fall so he could seek out his own death.
"I want back in," she whispered.
His hand stilled and she continued, "I want back in, and I want to be by your side for the rest of our lives."
He let out the breath he had been holding. "I want that too. I'm so sorry …"
"No, we're not doing that tonight. I came here prepared to die and I'm not sure how I feel about the reversal of events—I think I'm okay with it—but I can't … It can wait until tomorrow. Okay?"
He smiled and rested his hand lovingly on her head. "Yes, baby, we have all the time in the world now."
She sat up and placed her hand tenderly on his cheek. "I love you. I have never stopped loving you."
He closed his eyes, and a shy smile rested on his face as he reached behind his neck and unclasped the necklace. He slid the engagement ring off the chain and onto her delicate finger and then pulled her onto his lap, wrapping his arms tight around her. "Nor I you, not for a moment."
He leaned his head and she met him halfway. His groan chased her sigh as their lips met. They took their time, reacquainting, reclaiming, each seeking forgiveness and solace in the other. He placed loving kisses on her chin, her cheek, her nose until she smiled at his sweetness.
"Take me home, Mr. Masen," she whispered against his lips.
His eyes held hers. "I want you back in my bed."
"Our bed," she whispered and drew his bottom lip between hers. His tongue tickled her lips until it got its way and slipped alongside hers, tenderly caressing.
"Our bed, baby," he said with a kiss to her neck.
He helped her stand and wrapped his arm around her waist as he put his phone to his ear.
"Yeah, one order of apple pie and peach cobbler—to go. The name's Masen."
She giggled as he pushed his phone into his pocket and his heart skipped a beat at the sound.
He wouldn't think of his friend's betrayal or the precious time Carlisle stole from them.
He drew her firmly against him. "I love you," he whispered, his lips trailing down her long graceful neck.
She was here, back in his arms and he'd burn down the world to keep her there.
"Forever," he vowed as his mouth covered hers.