Story Title: Is This the Worst Time To Kiss You?

Summary: The town calls him "Berserky" who likes to wander into convenience stores, rip into beef jerky and gnaw on the sticks. Touch him, you'll feel the consequences. Since his father's death, he hasn't been the same. I would know. I'm the only one with a good view inside his windows. Edward 'Berserky' Cullen Jr. is my neighbor.

Pairing: Edward/Bella

Rating: M

Word count: 10074

Disclaimer: All things Twilight belong solely to Stephenie Meyer. No copyright infringement is intended

...

Is This the Worst Time To Kiss You?

He wears crisp white boxers. The t-shirt was once white, but now it just looks worn and yellow. The robe is not one you'd find in a store these days. The plaid is a mix of browns, yellows, beiges and whites. It hits his knees, but when he bends in the yard to do his morning exercise in socks and flip-flops, it rides up. And just to give a nice little visual, he doesn't always wear those crisp white boxer shorts. The glory appears like morning, like looking into the sun, you have to look away. Not a bone of shame in that one.

The town calls him "Berserky" who likes to wander into convenience stores, rip into beef jerky and gnaw on the sticks in the middle of the aisle. No one would get near because if you did, you'd get whacked in the ear. Sharp and quick. It happened that day a few months back and to everyone's surprise. Duly noted.

Worst part was the middle schooler ran out the store with a bleeding eardrum, crying his eyes out. He was one of the worst school bullies who had made a few quiet classmates bleed, even run them out of town, family and all. So, it wasn't like everyone was going out of their way to run to his aid so quick, maybe just appalled watching all the blood running down his neck.

You could hear the mom yelling and running up the street, purse in hand, to press him to her Double D sized bosom. But everyone knows Ms. Cherrie is a bit of a problem in town, too—the badgering, cop-calling, nosy bitch you get as a neighbor. So, really, who was to say it wasn't a turn of karma?

We went about our day, but not before we made sure to watch Berserky casually leave the store, robe waving away behind him. He had a handful of unpurchased beef jerky and vacant eyes. We realized the severity of this situation. He could hurt anyone. He wasn't tamed.

Dad told me once, his tabs were taken care of by a rich uncle in the city. Berserky never did pay for an item he snatched up. Everyone seemed to be fine with that, ten-foot pole fine.

I saw the chaos walking to work. I had my eyes on little Bobby with the bleeding ear. I didn't notice Berserky walk by. When he did, his shoulder definitely connected with mine. I stumbled back and looked just in time to see those scabbed up knuckles of his make it through the nest of hair he had on his crazy head.

That was the third time he ever made contact with me. He never did bang at his head with fists and throw a fit; that only happened when others ran into him. And it was an easy mistake to make. He made sure to take up a sidewalk all to himself, zigzagging his way back home. Not because he was drunk or high on pills, though I'm sure he was. He zigzagged because fuck the world and get out of his way.

I'm not sure exactly the day Berserky became this... unhinged. I try to think back on it. The days past, in class, when I called him Edward, and he'd respond. Sharp green eyes. Sharp jaw. Sharp wit. Like a whip.

Some say he didn't take his grandfather's passing well. My guess it's why he kept the robe. That thinned out cotton never left his grandfather's shoulders when he was home.

Some say it was when his mother died of a broken heart. No one was sure, but it was anyone's guess. Edward Cullen Sr. was tragically murdered on that fateful day, the bones and skin finding purchase on gravel as he was dragged. Some whisper, here and there years later, that they can still find strands of his hair between pavement cracks, woven in weeds. Thick bronze hair.

The Cullen men were the most fierce, brawny looking males in town. Their looks got them in trouble. Loving or falling for any one of them was like making a deal with the devil. That cut up body of Edward Sr. was still young. Never even saw the age of 40. In those cracks, not a single woven hair was gray. Bronze strong.

I didn't witness the scene. I don't remember much anymore. Everyone got an eyeful, though. That body tied to the bumper of a Continental like a new parade came to town. Every elderly, child, man and woman saw an unrecognizable man, naked and bloody. Some limbs missing. A warning to the family.

No, Edward wasn't well from that day on. That state of mind wasn't part of his daily life or surroundings. I would know. I'm the only one with a good view inside his windows.

Edward 'Berserky' Cullen Jr. is my neighbor.

It's Saturday. I'm taking it easy. It means I get to watch. Stake out. It's shameful, but I'm shameless. Jessica comes to visit sometimes and we sit at the table all morning or out back soaking up the sun. But she never once leaves here without taking a peek, too.

"You're obsessed," she said once. Yeah, I am. I want to figure him out. See the patterns. Document every move.

For a while, I didn't care. For months when I moved in, the blinds were drawn and that big ol' house was dark. He was there. He inherited it. A two floor with a wrap around balcony upstairs, right off the master bedroom. I know where the cracks and the weak boards are. I've climbed the rigs a couple of times before. That was years ago. It's been so long I can barely see it in memories where dirty chucks, bikes and childhood bloody scabs reside. Now the house is old, faded and chipping away.

I left. Life was big and freeing outside of this stuffy town after high school. It's exciting when you're young, willing to thrive. Then you realize it was perfect where you started. With Mom gone and Dad off living with his new wife, I'm left with this big house and no real aim in life. No real aim aside from him outside my windows.

One day I woke up and there were no blinds in that mysterious house on this dead end street. It was startling. Edward. Alone. Just that single lamp illuminating his profile, morning and night. Never clicked off. A spotlight over his favorite chair. It became a routine to share breakfast, lunch, and dinner with someone who didn't know where the world started or ended.

He was a different person, and I never questioned anyone about it.

The mornings he'd wear boxers, I couldn't peel my eyes away. Sweat rolled down his chest as he pulled his body up a pipe. It was dug into the porch out back for pull-ups.

The appealing part of this... situation outside my window is that Edward—as I still liked to call him, the other name never sits well with me—is not a crazy old decrepit man. This enigma is as young as me and my friends. Edward is fit and quick as a panther. Under that robe and grainy clothes he is lean and built just like his father. Just enough tone and definition to make you wonder why his body hasn't failed him like his brain has.

Yes, shameful, but shameless. I watch him move on from pull-ups to sit-ups and jump rope in a mesmerizing routine.

For a second he looks focused, normal even, like I could go and ask for a cup of sugar or ask about his sister Alice and the rest of his large family. I never understood why they weren't there to keep an eye on him. Always alone. Him and his shadows.

The moments he seemed normal, calm, and peaceful, he'd quickly break the trance. Sometimes, after a few punches to a bean bag, he'd whip up scraps of metal left rotting around the yard and go nuts. He'd swing it this way or that, hitting anything in sight. He wouldn't stop until his hands would bleed. His tired body would barge into the house and plop on his recliner with a huff. Chest going, eyes dark and spent.

Some days his mood was lighter. He'd munch on snacks and let crumbs fall all over his chest and floor. Then he'd crawl around to find every crumb and sweep it right up. He'd make a perfect sizable sandwich and then segment the pieces at his chair and eat them one at a time.

He has a mint green rotary phone that sits by his chair. The curly cord reaches the floor, snaking under the vintage table. When he picks it up he barely moves his lips. Time and again it rings, day and night. The nostalgic shrill drifts through my window at night. He always picks up on the third ring.

I don't know who calls him so much or what he says. I wonder if it's Alice checking up on him. I guess it would make up for not being able to visit much. Her so busy raising four boys.

Since I've been back, I haven't spoken to her. She was my best friend once. I didn't keep in touch with anyone while I was gone. I didn't even get updates from dad. He never really talked much.

I tell myself I should move out, find a cozier place in town, start new. This house is up on a hill along with his. The biggest pair with a view over everything. The new addition in the back makes room for a sunroom. There's a new pool in the yard dad keeps maintained all year round even if he isn't here. He re-worked my childhood bedroom. He broke down walls, put a tub under bay windows. I can't complain or give it away. How could I? My grandparents built this place.

So, I give in every night and just live. I lie in bed facing the lace curtains grandma sewed years ago. I wonder how delicate his mind is. Is it like the strands of the detailed silk, complicated yet fragile? What does he think about? Where does he go when he sits for hours on his chair and stares out windows?

Then, I'd feel it. That feeling you get when you're being watched. No fear or odd feelings about it. This house oozes so much energy from the past, I never fear moments like this. I just keep still in bed wondering what he's up to and why he's up so late. I figured I let it pass since I'm always staring into his windows, he can stare in mine.

He likes to walk in the dark, inside and outside the house. His evening strolls are lengthy and daily. After dinner I watch him leave the front door open to walk around the hill. He has a pattern. He takes a left until he's out of sight. Then, he hops over his fence to the back yard. He walks across it as if he's measuring the grounds with wide strides. He'd stroll between both our houses until he reaches the front. But as he does all of this, he sings at the top of his lungs. He knows every Frank Sinatra lyric. His baritone voice is a handsome melody. His hair's erratic in contrast.

Sometimes I can't help but join in and hum the familiar song. Sometimes I laugh just listening. Then, I laugh harder remembering the first few weeks I got here.

After taking laps in the pool one Saturday, the sky opened up. I begrudgingly climbed out and grabbed a towel. I looked up and he was standing on the porch roof of his house watching. He climbed out of a window. It irked me. His blank expression stared back, no rhyme or reason.

I quickly got inside, but no later did I feel a canon ball drop from the sky into the pool. I turned to look and he made the jump right where he was—boxers, robe, socks and all. His long body stretched out as it floated under droplets of hot summer rain. The fabric was bubbled and fitted against his torso. That trail of hair making it's way down skin colored shorts, under those cut hip bones of his. A rainbow arched over the backyard just in time. It looked magical.

He sighed and sang my favorite Sinatra tune, like he knew, to add to the perfect moment. I left him to himself, though I itched to join him. It was a sticky hot day. I couldn't blame him.

Those were moments I kept in the safety of our hill. No one would understand, especially when he was suspected of committing horrific acts. The Edward I knew wouldn't have it in him to take a metal pipe to a neighbor's spine. A dislocated shoulder and a bleeding gash on Mike's head. His wife found him on their yard. Broad daylight. Mike wasn't talking after that, literally and metaphorically. Everyone knew he had a gambling problem... and a history of picking up children off their path home from school in the '80s. No one liked him. They figured he had an enemy and gratefully left it at that.

But I knew. Charlie was a smart, observant man who would mention a few things. But he was also a close friend of the Cullen brothers, Edward's uncles. There are three still living. Edward's father was the oldest of the four. Then comes Carlisle, Emmett and Jasper, the youngest. They pay Edward's tabs at local stores, but they also make sure he lives easy. Probably pity.

Sometimes they visit, mostly Jasper. When Carlisle comes into town, a posse flanks him. All in tailored suits, expensive shoes and trench coats. Carlisle sits in the livingroom while the others pace the front and back of the house.

Usually, when they do visit, someone is missing weeks after. Men would abandon their wives and kids, not to be seen ever again. Charlie would say they weren't deadbeats, but beat dead and six feet under. All anyone knew was the Cullens were dangerous and never to be messed with.

The night before they found Mike, I was looking out my window from my dark room. I saw that pipe stuck in the back porch missing. That dark patch of ground turned over in his yard was suspicious. What had he done?

When morning came, and the local station told the story, I knew. I was a silent witness shaking in her bones.

….

Alice comes to visit. The boys pour out of the car and they're already running around. She yells and reprimands like a chant from her lips. It's always there.

She climbs up the porch and she's already looking around at all the mess. Edward sees the kids and he becomes one. Alice barely says hello and gets going with laundry and scrubbing the floors. The big bucket of dark water rolls behind her as she mops. She yells and grumbles all the while at a passing child undoing all her work with his muddy shoes. The boys end up in the yard using sticks and scraps as swords. It only spurs Edward to do insane things like climb the porch and dive at them from above. He growls, he howls, they laugh hard and roll around trying it, too.

I itch to go, to tell her I'm home, to apologize. Her life is in abundance but upside down. Mine is nothing but a failure to launch and cowardly finding my feet again in my parent's old house.

Before I find my courage, she's already packing up the kids, wiping down countertops to leave. The house is spotless. Her one arm curls around Edward's neck where he sits in his chair, watching the boys collect legos off the floor. She says her goodbye with a whisper and a kiss by his ear. He nods. That's the only contact he gets from a human being. Probably ever. He seems just fine with that, even if he does look solemn after they leave.

When Jasper comes by it's a different scene altogether. They sit in the living room and they are calm and collected. A long conversation. Jasper is mostly quiet and nodding all the while.

I'm making lunch on a Sunday and catch my fifth glimpse of the event. On my sixth glance, Jasper and Edward look up and meet my eyes. A pang in my chest. I look away. Fuck. What was that? I don't attempt another look. I drag my ass back to the couch piled with files from work.

The sun seems to dim and dance over the living room walls suddenly. I turn to see a shadow by the front door outside. Even though I'm watching it happen, I jump from the scare. The doorbell rings. I try not to yelp aloud.

I use the window we always go to sneak a peek at whoever is at the front door. I pull the curtain strategically to let an eyelid flutter between the folds. Another eye stares right back. This time, I do scream.

"Isabella?" he calls out. "It's... Jasper Cullen." I roll my eyes and collect myself off the floor. I tighten the robe around me and reach for the doorknob. I'm red as a pomegranate. Maybe he's come to tell me to stop spying on his nephew, then pop my eardrum. I'm definitely shameful now.

He smiles. His complexion's tan and smooth where he's shaven. He's in his early fifties and damn handsome in a suit and combed back hair. My nostrils flare as his cologne wafts over the threshold.

"You just got back from Chicago, didn't you?" He drags his eyes from my head to toes. I can't speak, so I settle for a nod. He notices I'm not offering him to come in. He slowly stuffs his hands in his pockets where the tails bundle at his wrists. "Man, I haven't seen Charlie in quite a while. Where has that old beast been all these days?"

"I... um... he…he's not here." I stutter. He grins like it's obvious he isn't. I breathe a little. Compose myself. "Yes, well, he lives with Sue in… far away, for years now. I'll… tell him you stopped by," I say. Hint, hint. Good-bye.

But he doesn't catch. I step back when he invites himself in. I'm shaking now.

He turns in circles in the foyer, his eyes scanning the crown molding and the granite counter tops in the kitchen. The stairs going up are oak wood with white crisp banisters. He whistles low. "Fine looking interior. Charlie always did like his material things classic and well made." He peers into the living room. My heart is pounding. He turns to me and grins. "And makes classic beautiful looking things, too. You look a lot like your mother."

"How can I help you?" I push this awkward meeting to a purpose.

"My nephew there was telling me about the prettiest girl in town living next door. I wanted to say hello, welcome you back to the neighborhood." He nods. "And hopefully catch up with your old man." As he speaks, he wanders the bottom floor of the house. I fidget. I follow him around helplessly as he steps into the dining area, opens the closet under the stairs and drifts to the back door of the sunroom. He takes it all in. Confidently. Like he's an officer in search of burglars.

"You don't mind, do you?" He gestures around him, excusing his forwardness. He asks permission after.

I square my shoulders, cross my arms at my torso and fix this real quick before it's too late. "Actually... I do. I've got a lot of work to do. Work week starts up again tomorrow."

"Of course," he says with a smile, but his slight chuckle says the contrary. I take it not many people say "No" to him. I escort him out, wishing with all my might he leaves. This man makes my skin crawl.

His shiny italian shoes step out over the threshhold, and I breathe a little. His gaze is kind, but that smirk has a tinge of malice. "I see the loan has been put to good use. He wanted to give his daughter the best," he says with a knuckle tap on the pane. "Can't blame him for being a sucker for porcelain rosy cheeks and eyes like his," he says about me.

I'm dumbfounded. He descends the porch and walks down the sidewalk. He never brings a car. He just disappears. This time, I wish he'd disappear for good.

I slam the door and march to the window. Edward is there, stoic, looking into my windows through his lashes.

"What do you mean it doesn't matter?" I whisper over the phone, but what I really want to do is scream. Starbucks is full. I've found a spot for lunch nonetheless. People come and go. They don't stick around since there aren't many tables free.

"Bells, it was long ago. Years. I've payed them back, with interest. It's nothing to worry about, baby doll." Dad is calm over the phone and I don't understand how this isn't a big deal to him.

"So, you do admit to making a deal with the Cullen brothers in the 70's for some money?!" My head is swimming.

"Well, yeah, everyone was doing it then. It was tough times. Banks weren't helping. Your mother and I were young and... stupid. You were a newborn, we were completely out of our heads. We needed a little help."

"How the hell did you pay it all back?"

"Slowly, that's for sure. The Garage helped a lot. I was able to hire more mechanics, it was good for the town, for families," he says. I'm quiet. I didn't think of it that way. Dad was never one to struggle in my time growing up. There was never lack of food in the fridge or empty gas tanks. I was one of the fortunate kids on the block. So, I get it. My shoulders drop, and I begin to understand. "You didn't let him in the house, did you, Bells?" I shake my head. I could never say why Jasper Cullen knocked on the door yesterday.

"No, no. He just... asked for you and left."

"Good. Just... be careful. Make sure you…"

"...lock the door and bolt every night. Gotcha." I finish the sentence for him. Like a broken record.

He breathes on the phone. "You should come visit. Take some time off work. I think you're too holed up in that place alone. You love Chicago, don't you?"

I loathe Chicago. I'm not getting into that with him. Life after high school in the big city wasn't working out. I quit a newspaper job as a copywriter. I made sure to tell the editor to stick "his" ideas up his ass after he printed his name instead of mine. "We're a team, it's how it works," he said. I dare not bring up Riley over anything either. I still have nightmares. I still feel the bruises—Riley's hand sized marks on my arms. Then, he went too far.

I am done with Chicago.

"Sure, I'll plan it out," I say begrudgingly. I do miss him and Sue.

I hang up with a new odd perspective of my parents. They've always been the perfect citizens, never cutting corners, responsible tax paying townies. Now I find out they were one of the unfortunates to fall into schemes from a family "business." I shudder at the thought.

I look up and do a double take. At some point, Edward walked into the shop and stood in a long line. No wonder everyone went quiet. I hear whispers of "Berserky" behind me. I want to turn and tell them to fuck off, but my eyes are glued to this man upfront. My heart picks up instantly.

I don't get to see him this close. I'm taking it all in, every inch and hair out of place. He's a mess today. Dark eyes, pale skin. His knuckles have healed but it doesn't help much for those dried, worked hands. Fidgety. Nerve-wrecked. He seems like he'll blow at any second, a ticking bomb.

He's looking over shoulders, scratching his unruly head and pacing. Just as I knew he would, he steps up and walks past everyone. I hold my breath.

"Hey," he says. A guy turns and faces him, a coffee in hand. He's an off-duty cop. I would know, he directs traffic on rush hour and always comes in on his day off to get a coffee. Edward doesn't know. He bumps into his chest and flails his arms over the counter. "Can I get some service here? I don't have all fucking day!" The cop lays a hand on his shoulder. Edward flinches back. "Don't touch me. I don't… I don't like to be touched," he says as he shakes his head over and over.

I begin to stand but think better of it. How the hell would I help any? The snickering from the back is loud enough. I glare at the guys over my shoulder. They're construction workers from down the street.

"I just want a coffee and one of those cheese danish things. Black coffee, not that macchiato bullshit. Black, no sugar," Edward says loud. The cop tries to ease him with calm words. He steps back and it seems to be working. Edward looks confused now, hands on hips as he paces.

Everyone in line automatically disperses. Edward is relieved. He places both hands on the counter and waits for his black coffee, no sugar. He grips the danish in one hand and the coffee in the other. My heart is a drum because he isn't leaving the shop, but pulling back the random vacant seat in front of me and sitting. I quickly move my items to make room for him. Literally everyone stares. I force myself not to.

The crowd slowly goes back to quiet chatter. I don't know what to do with myself. My hands. My breathing. My legs. He maneuvered the seat so we're pressed together at the leg. His warmth pulling through. Yet this isn't the only surprising detail of this moment. Today he decided to wear jeans. Soft, fitted ones. His bare feet in sandals. His robe around his shoulders still, smelling like fabric softener, thanks to Alice. The greasy waves of his hair fall over his forehead. His beard is overgrown. He takes a hefty bite of the danish and sips on his paper cup, lid off. He flicked that over his shoulder. No time to waste.

I watch his hands move. His nail beds are smooth and neat. The veins over his hands run up dry knuckles, disappearing under the robe's cuffs. There's one thing I never noticed him wearing before and it's a fine Rolex wrapped around his wrist. The metal is shiny and new. Diamonds dot each hour. He turns it and glances at the time.

I dare to do it—I open my mouth and speak. "Hello, Edward. It's been a while." I nod curtly. I don't look up. I nonchalantly take a sip of my coffee that's cold on my tongue. His head slowly moves up, eyes with it. I can feel the heat of his stare. I look just in time to see a crumb stuck to the corner of his lip fall off. He doesn't utter a word. I swallow thickly.

The assholes in the back stand and leave their mess behind. They're loud and obnoxious. They snicker after walking by. The last one trailing them bumps into our table. His tool belt grazes it loudly. He looks out of it, unfocused, intoxicated.

Edward glances at his watch after they pour out of the door. He stands. My heart sinks. He grabs his trash and used cup. He pauses for a beat. Then, he crumples up my mess and takes it with him to dump. "Thanks," I mutter.

He marches out the door.

It takes a moment. I sit at the table I just shared with the most complicated man I've ever met. I collect myself and count to 10. Lunch is over. I run out to get to work. I cross the street and pass a crowd of construction workers milling about in one spot. I crane my neck as I walk by and they're familiar. Blood soaks the tool belt on the pavement. The owner's eyes are alert now. He grips his thigh where a screwdriver is stuck. The second tool was driven through his hand. Some people are looking around to see who it was. I know. I know exactly who it was.

The off-duty cop locks the handcuffs around his wrists, his hands blood red. Edward is pushed into a black, unmarked, waiting car. "Everything is under control," the officer says. He lifts a hand and gets behind the wheel. He doesn't wait for the ambulance to arrive.

I don't see Edward that night, nor every night for a month after that.

"Bells." Charlie smiles. He pulls me into his warm hug. I hand him over my carry-on. He chuckles.

"Dragged me all the way here, you drag that up the stairs."

"My pleasure. Elevators, babe," he says with a wink. Sue is gorgeous in dark sharp pants and a white crisp suit jacket. Her red lips are dark and flattering against her complexion. As a stylist for the rich and famous, she lives, eats, breathes fashion, and she's fabulous. She hugs me. I smile at Charlie in his jacket and slim slacks over her shoulder. I've never seen him this... modern. He's happy. It's been years since Mom died and he's been alone since. He deserves everything. He's a small town boy dressed as a hip city man living in a condo... and enjoying every last bit of it while retired. The many garages he has built for himself are still standing and well managed. His days are spent at fine restaurants, museums, and box tickets to Cubs games when in season.

"Hungry?" Sue asks. "We have reservations at 8." I nod and she links her arm around mine. As much as I've learned to loathe this place, it still feels like home. I know the way to all the great places around here, including the restaurant.

We sit and Sue orders a bottle of Brachetto, even though we haven't ordered a starter yet. Dad grumbles but pours a glass of the dessert wine anyway. Sweet and bubbly. The lighting in the restaurant casts a glow over the tables and silverware. The chandeliers canopy a second floor that overlooks our table on the main floor. I sit back and lift my gaze to see the colors dance over the walls. Classical music drifts softy through the space.

I take a hefty breath. I try not to remember this place. I don't want to ruin this moment with Dad and Sue. Riley's parents were sitting just a couple of tables down from here. Riley was talking a lot, making plans. I was included, but not involved. His mother was elated. The date was set, yet he never popped the question. I said so, I interrupted the conversation and mentioned the irony. The table grew quiet.

I left the next morning with a black eye and a broken spirit. I wanted to kill him. That day. Yesterday. Tonight. Every single moment I wish it with all my might.

"Honey, you alright?" Sue asks, a smile in her voice. I blink to look at her. I get ready to charm my way back to normalcy, but the doors open.

Carlisle steps through with two men at his sides. They climb the steps and sit at the far table on the second floor. I can see everything.

"Yup. I'm... great," I mutter to Sue, wide-eyed. I lift my glass for her to pour me a portion.

"I knew you two would love this wine," she says smug. All the while, I'm watching as Jasper and Emmett find their way to the Cullen table of three now. They don't greet one another at all. They sit and pull at their suit jackets—a waiter takes Emmett's, Jasper unbuttons his but keeps it on. He cuts up the butt of a cigar.

He's the old school classic type, fedora off his shiny hair sitting by his side. I remember his scent instantaneously. Emmett is relaxed as he rolls up his sleeves, no tie. A 5 o'clock shadow is sprinkled over his face. He's handsome in his poker face. I glance at Carlisle and he's the most intimidating of all. His white hair is like Ivory tusk over a sharp Humphrey Bogart face. They barely move their lips as they converse. Two waiters rush around them without a pause. I itch to be a fly on a wall.

I glance at Charlie and he's unaware. I'm relieved. No way would I want a meet and greet this second. I try to carry a conversation with Dad and Sue. I ask a lot of questions just so they'll get going and I can wander.

The waiter comes by to our table and she's a lot less rushed. I chuckle at that. Maybe it's the nerves. I take long sips of my glass and I can't keep still.

I grab my purse to find the ladies room. "Bathroom. Be right back," I say to both of them. I stand. I quickly sit back down again.

Sue looks perplexed. "Well, that was fast," she says humorously. My stomach cramps up. I could die just now. Strike me dead.

I cover my face and whisper. "Oh, you know, just someone I promised I'd never see again." Sue is perceptive. Charlie is not.

"An old friend? Don't you want to say hello?" he asks.

Sue touches his arm. "What part of what she said didn't you get?" She looks over at the door. She approves what she sees with a "hmph." She stares.

"Dad, it's Riley. As in my ex whom I don't want to see, like, ever." Charlie cowers in his seat in understanding.

"Well, if that's Riley I can tell you right now, he's my best paying client," Sue mutters. She takes a sip of her glass like she's enjoying a show. "And boy is he handsome."

I look from under the bend of my arm and then I'm frantically looking around. The man at the door sure as hell isn't Riley. His dark blue suit is tailored to every toned limb immaculately. A dark tie is tucked inside the lapels of his suit. The glow of the room catches the sparkle in his onyx cufflinks. His blonde locks are coiffed and tight around his ears. When he walks, people make room and stand by walls. The manager and hostess quickly lead him in, surpassing all who wait to be seated.

There's something about the way he moves. I forget who I'm looking for. His presence brings that familiar pound to my chest. I can't place him, but that gait when he walks, I know. A ring decorates one of his digits. His hands fall at his sides making white knuckled fists, like he'll walk up to a man and use his bare hands to kill or maim. Where is he from?

Sue giggles. "Uh huh, you too, young lady. Get in line," she says to me. The ultimate bachelor in the room. I shake my head, watching him ascend the stairs flanked by four men—two at his front and two at his back.

"That's not Riley."

"Riley?" Charlie looks up to catch a glimpse but he's too late. Riley is in plain view by the entrance, a woman at his side. I suppose she's his next victim. His gait wasn't anywhere near as impactful when he entered the room, yet there are chills up my spine.

"Who is that?" I ask Sue about the former. She takes a peek over her shoulder. We watch all three Cullen brothers stand and shuffle around the table to offer him the best spot. They strategically wait for him to sit first. The hostess lingers. She bends at his ear and her lips are close. Just one lift of his hand sends her away, red-faced and hastily.

"He's a business owner's worst nightmare, a woman's most delicious daydream and a curiosity you should never feed into, missy." She looks at me sharp. "So don't stare or your eyes will burn."

I roll said eyes. "Jesus. That's sounds ominous and ridiculous."

She shakes her head. "Oh, but it isn't."

"Where's Riley?" We look at Charlie, and he's completely lost and out of touch. He knows it ended badly with him, but not why. I feel awful. I still can't help rolling my eyes at him.

"Eat. You get upset when you're hungry," Sue tells him. He grunts and stabs his steak. His beefy thumb scrolls through his new phone gingerly. It's insane what Sue has trained him to do.

I sneak a peek over her head. This stranger's eyes are so piercing and familiar. His jaw flexes when Carlisle opens his mouth to speak. He shakes his head curtly. He smooths his tie down after that hand of his shook the table with a bang. It was Inaudible to my ears with the cacophony around us. The brothers sit back and purse their lips distastefully. He blinks slowly and speaks to them with a snarl around his teeth.

For the very first time, I see Carlisle look vexed.

"Now you know who's boss," Sue says with a grin. "Peculiar isn't it? The youngest, yet most ruthless. Do you know his father?" I shake my head.

She leans in like it's a secret and she's dishing the finest gossip. "Edward Cullen Sr." I cut my eyes back to the group upstairs. I almost gasp. Those mannerisms I definitely memorized. They're recorded in my brain where fascination and obsession resides. That's Edward 'Berserky' Cullen Jr. sitting across the room. Crazy neighbor at large... and looking nothing as such.

His hair is much lighter, trimmed. His face clean shaven. He's wearing… more than pants. Of course I wouldn't have recognized him.

Sue continues to tell me the scoop. "Carlisle wasn't too keen on the son of the eldest running the business, but he was proven wrong. That boy can withstand any challenge."

"You dressed him," I say. She chuckles.

"Picked those cuffs out myself. Strict orders, only this suit for these specific ones. Great listener. Great abs. Great tipper." She pops a forkful of steak through her red lips.

"Is that how you know so much?"

She points with a thumb. "Your father has told me stories. Hasn't he told you?"

"What's that?" Dad. A game is on. He's catching the scores. He doesn't look up. I guess some things never change.

She waves a hand and continues on. "I swear, that man's life is fabulous, probably juggles five women at once. Who knows? Problem is, no one seems to know where he goes for long periods of time. He hides from the law. A lot. He just got back from a long trip."

A long trip from his crazy bin is what. I know. I know where he goes. I wonder if Charlie knows. My lips are sealed shut.

"So, he's... boss," I say dryly. I'm trying to understand. She nods eagerly.

"They watch him like the apple of their eye. More valuable than all the money they gamble and invest. He visits when there's business to do... or when there's trouble." She refers to the way he looks—pissed.

"But, why him?" I shrug. He's just a crazy guy from high school I barely remember. He commits sins around town and never gets caught. He likes to exercise in the nude with just socks on and goes berserk in public. I don't say these things.

"He's, what you call, an artist. He's a genius at what they do. The brothers are of age. They need to pass down the business. It's been years now. He's what? In his thirties? He's not new to this." She pauses. Her brows knit. "How long have you been away from home or living here and not known? Don't you remember?"

"It's been years, Sue. I barely remembered anyone when I moved back home," I explain. She shrugs.

I watch him. He crosses a leg over the other. He sits back and looks bored while the others look flabbergasted. He lifts a few fingers and looks away. It's all it takes for all of them to cease their badgering, it seems.

Edward. A mob boss. That motherfucking lying piece of shit. I regret ever feeling any pity for him. All lying men in my life. I look at Charlie, and he's happily ignorant of all this. Thank Christ.

I chance a look over at Riley, and suddenly I feel nothing. No fear. Just angry. Then, I watch as he stands and ascends the stairs towards the big boy table. My stomach plummets. A few men stop him mid-flight. Riley gestures over where Emmett is eating, elbows up, napkin tucked in his collar. Jasper looks up. One nod. They let Riley finish his steps.

"Oh, God," I whisper. Sue looks over.

"Isn't that…? Well, I'll be damned."

"What the fuck is he up to? Is he involved?" I feel hysterical. My hands tremble and, of course, it would make sense. This awful man involved with awful people.

Charlie looks up. He catches sight of Riley. Then he turns in his chair. "Well, I'll be… Girls, the Cullen brothers are here." He jabs an elbow at Sue. We roll our eyes at him. It's only been our conversation all through dinner. He squints a bit. "Isn't that Riley?"

"Keep your voice down for heaven's sake!" I hiss. I could strangle him. Sue laughs silently and lays her head on his shoulder.

I point at Dad. "You're telling me everything. I need to know why my ex is talking to the Cullens."

"Easy girl. Who knows? I haven't seen them around in a long time. I mean, they do own the place." My mouth falls open.

I watch, mortified, as Riley walks up to their table holding his date around her waist. He pats Emmett on his shoulder with his free hand. I cringe at the audacity. Emmett looks sharp at the hand until Riley pulls it away. Edward is dabbing at the crease of his slacks uninterested. He takes a swig of his ebony drink. He doesn't even look up once. The table is tense still and a moron is interrupting. Riley has never been good at reading people.

Carlisle smiles at the girl. He reaches out, and she hesitates but makes her way around the table. She shakes his hand. He has better ideas. She's on his lap and highly uncomfortable. Riley rubs his neck like he does when he is also, but all he does is smile.

Everyone ignores him, but not his date. Her dress wrinkles at her waist. Carlisle's hand dips out of view. He looks into Riley's eyes and speaks as he does unspeakable things. The girl wide-eyed. She tries to fight it. The table jolts from underneath, but it's no use. He's got his hand buried in her and the other in her hair.

The brothers don't even flinch. Jasper pours ebony liquid into his glass. Emmett wipes his lips clean after finishing his meal. Edward watches Riley real closely.

I feel blood drain from my face. Sue and Charlie are suddenly busying themselves with the check. The relief floods me. I grab my purse and quickly begin to get us the hell out of here.

Dad tells us he's heading out to grab us a cab.

"Yes, go," I wave a hand. I want to run after him but Sue is still lingering at the table. She gulps down the wine left behind in each glass.

"Bathroom," she announces with a smile. I want to die. She scurries off, and I'm left behind to sign the slip. All the while I'm frantically glancing up and seeing the horror unfold. I grab my purse and stand.

Riley begins to descend the stairs. I slow my strides. I attempt to turn back. My heart's a drum. Fuck. Nowhere else to go but move it along. I hide behind a waiter's tray and keep up the pace.

I look back. He's left his date behind at the Cullen's table. I hold my breath and dig my nails into my palms. How could he leave her there? I want to gouge his eyes out, but those same dark eyes blink and find mine from where he stands. I tense.

He turns to me after the last step and the corner of his lip curls up. "Bella," he says loud. I look away. I focus on the exit.

No, no, no.

There's that moment when you see your life before your eyes. This time, when he grabs a hold of my elbow, I see every memory he left encrusted deep inside. All the pain. All the yelling. All the tears I shed because of him. My bones feel the cracking blow to my cheek when he let himself go that day.

Heat rises. Blood boils in me. Reactively, I roll my fist back and punch him square. His head snaps back. I feel the crack under my knuckles on my second swing. One for me. One for the date he left behind. I snatch my elbow off his grasp and find that exit.

"What the fuck?" he shouts.

I feel the blood wet on my fingers. I flex my knuckles at my side. Nothing has felt so invigorating, so alive.

Sue pops up from my right, unaware. I smile, and she joins my side without breaking a stride. We head out the doors and into the night.

When I slam that cab door shut, I'm left with this strong electricity running through my veins. I like it. I like it very much. Dad and Sue, none the wiser, see me smiling.

I feel that familiar buzz again. The one I get when I'm alone at home and in bed. I look out. Then I realize, as the cab pulls out, this familiar buzzing always appears when Edward is watching, just like he is at the crowded doors looking out from the restaurant.

Work is gray. I'm back to the grind, but the grind hasn't grinded me yet. This spirit of mine is as light as a balloon, as cotton, as a fucking slice of cheesecake.

Man. Cheesecake. I pick up a piece at the deli on my way home. Every night is a celebration night if you ask me.

The trip to Chicago was fun, relaxing, and life changing. I still feel it weeks after.

Sue begged me to stay. I thought about it hard. But work is getting better. I'm at the brink of getting promoted and jobs in the city are too competitive. I have a voice now. People respect me. So, these pencils skirts, blouses, and heels are helping to shape a more serious role in my life. I strap on the wonder bras and button up the silks, because here I come world, this is me.

I do up my hair and pin it straight. My bangs are just right, my makeup contoured and lids winged. I feel great.

Jess joins me for dinner. I tell her about the closure I felt the moment my fist connected with his despicable face. She laughs. She snorts loud. We swish our cocktails under our smiling lips.

That night, I hear the shrill of that mint green phone ring inside that vacant house. It's been locked for months, but on the third ring, it stops.

Edward's profile appears when he clicks on his lamp. It illuminates his usual chair. The town eventually believes he's back from an asylum. He's better. He's a little less insane. The corrupt law slapped his wrist for stabbing a man with two screwdrivers. But I know. That man owed a substantial amount of money and no payments were sent on time. Such things get you an immobile right hand.

The days pass and he paces around the house like a ghost. I don't know how he does it. I don't understand it.

His hair is back to its unruly bronze self and a beard frames his dark circles again. He plays the part phenomenally, so much so that I wonder if he's a twin. Could he really fall this unhinged time and again? I don't know. So many medical possibilities. Schizophrenia floods my mind. It's unnerving.

I see him in town, to everyone's chagrin. He takes, he manipulates, and interrupts the peace.

I try to find remnants left behind from that night at the restaurant, but there's not one speckle of proof. I forget, little by little, the sharp handsome man I once witnessed. This is the Edward that's left, a lost heart, mind, and soul. They can't possibly be the same.

Sometimes I get angry. I want to bang on his door and insist he tells me the truth. Then, I watch him and the crazed eyes can't be anyone else's but his. Alice comes by and the boys run around again. She wouldn't condone this behavior if it weren't true. I know Alice. Alice was the kind heart in our circle. She had a fierce spirit and was a force to be reckoned with. But there she is, cleaning up the mess of an insane, troubled man... and being humane about it.

I watch his windows less and less. The same routine makes for a disjointed infatuation. Jess and I find a rhythm after work. I make friends, and I keep them. Everything seems to fall into place—until one night everything changes.

I look at the clock. It's 3 a.m.

I'm up. I pull back the lace curtains, and I'm standing in plain view. I'm pissed. Where is this ridiculous light coming from? I'm sick of his crazy spells.

I squint at the light and then it goes out. I push the window open and lean out. "Hey, asshole!" I shout. "Do you mind?" Then the back door to the yard swings open. Edward comes running out. The street light catches that sharp knife in his hand. He hides. He rips a line from his robe. He wraps it tight around that balled fist. And I know, it's to keep it secure when he's ready to swing.

He looks up at me. I slowly see his index finger come up to his lips.

My stomach seems to curl in itself. I look back at the window adjacent to mine.

One pop. Two.

The window shatters above me. I fall into my room and slam my back to the wall. Oh, God…

My ears swish and swish. I hear nothing but my panting and feel glass bits under my palms. Everything goes quiet.

I think, I think. Everything Charlie has told me floods in. "Something happens, find that glock in the hallway." Was he preparing me for something like this? I crawl frantically there. Where the fuck is it? I tear down everything in there. Nothing.

A loud noise drifts from outside. I crouch and look out a smaller window. I gasp.

Edward's chest is bare, glistening. His boxers are streaked with crimson red. He holds up a thin metal sheet and he launches it through a neck. The black-clothed man's body flinches on the ground, then stops moving.

A second figure staggers to his feet. The knife and piece of plaid robe hangs from the man's torso. He pulls it out. The growl pushing out of him is furious and loud. He skillfully flips the knife and catches it for a better grip. He swings at Edward's chest but he dives out of reach. He kicks at the ground and catches whatever is in flight.

I start. The pop of the gun firing is loud. He empties the barrel on that one alone.

I run down the stairs. I lock the bolt to the door. Charlie's badgering floods my ears. Stupid. I go for the windows and check every lock on those. I run to check the kitchen door. I see Edward hop over my fence through the window.

There are more out there and they come to kill.

I let out a cry. The depths of me empty out in a smothered shrill. A firm, dry knuckled hand presses to my lips.

"Hello, Bella. It sure has been a while," he says. My ear feels the warm words so close.

I grip the hand that holds my screams at bay. Those smooth, neat nail beds are rough and bloody now. I breathe and breathe. Edward Cullen Jr. has finally come to kill me.

He tosses a key onto the kitchen island. The worn sticker on it reads "Swan."

"Can I let go now?" he whispers. I shuffle my feet. My locked knees find their strength. His chest a stable surface to perch myself against. No struggle in his lungs pressed to my backbone. He's calm. I nod. He lets go.

His free hand is curled around my back. His other wiggles its fingers with a "Hello." He smiles, but it just makes him look deranged.

"If I told you to run and hide, would you do it?" he asks easy. His eyes take me in, capturing my full attention. I don't speak. "Well," he says, "If you don't, you might not be alive in about... hm, ten seconds. I don't think you'll be OK with that." He shakes his head.

He moves, and with every step, I'm pulled, too. His gaze never leaves mine, but he reaches behind the cabinet by the fridge. A chrome gun appears in his hand. He wraps his arms around me and cocks the barrel in two hands.

"So...are you ready?" His brows lift. "I've seen you run, you'll do just fine." A few of his fingers skim over my cheek, down to my neck. He pulls on stray locks of hair and tucks them back.

The moonlight dims from the windows. Time is running out. I nod. He grins.

"Go, hide behind the stairs." He tilts his head.

I run. Like hell.

I cover my ears and crouch. Pull after pull of gunshots take over the kitchen. There's a mirror. I watch him hide behind a wall and shoot around it. Windows shatter everywhere.

"Don't worry. I'll get Charlie new ones," he says from where he stands. He pulls the magazine out, no bullets. He charges behind the couch empty handed. The plush cushions split. Filler spills out from every bullet hole. He shoots back with a shotgun now. Where the hell did he get that?

"I'll get a couch, too!" he yells. He shoots and shoots. Then I realize, this house is his den, full of hidden guns at his disposal. I'm just in the middle of it.

Tears spill down my cheeks. This man is insane. It's true. All of it. I'm going to die here with him.

He pulls me to my feet. "Come. You need a gun." The latch to the basement door is locked. One swing of the rifle and it breaks. The stairs going down lead to pitch darkness. My cheek is pressed to his shoulder blade. Yesterday, I was having a cocktail. Yesterday I was complaining about my uneventful life. Here I am, with a mob boss' back muscles as my guide.

The light flickers on, and then I'm huffing and puffing, turning in circles.

"What the fuck?!" I go berserk this time. My hands claw the air. He's already pulling on a bulletproof vest off a weapon infested shelf. Glocks, semi-automatics, knives, and ammo line up on a wall. I've never been down here. I never knew Charlie allowed this.

All the lying men in my life.

"Who the hell are you?" I seethe.

He shakes his head as he pulls up a pair of dark pants, tennis shoes next. "I know, I know. What matters is Charlie is good. Pure. We owe him." I stare at him. He stuffs twin guns behind his back like that right there wasn't just batshit. "I'll let you break my nose later. Free swings, no charge." He refers to the blows to Riley's face. And maybe it's been him all along.

He takes me to the far corner of the basement. He pulls a latch and bangs a door open. This side of the house is vacant. Weeds sprout high. A fence blocks a path to a main street.

He pulls a sweater over my nightdress from... somewhere. The street light is dim at the threshold. I see his eyes. His hands on my arms pull me close.

"Is this the worst time to kiss you?" he asks. I'm speechless. Am I supposed to answer that? He dips his head. He almost does, but he looks torn. "I'll make it up to you. I'll never let them near you again. I'll play a homeless man. I'll be a mental patient if that's what it takes. You and me this time, far away, anywhere you want."

My brows knit. "And what makes you think I'd go anywhere with you?" I spit. This crazy man.

A faint smirk plays at his lips. "You love me. You always have. Remember you told me? I meant to say it back."

The feeling from my limbs seems to dissipate. I stare. I utter no words. "Of course," he murmurs low. He lets go.

He slips a gun in my hand. I grip it hard. It feels right.

"Go. Don't stop running. Call Charlie. He knows everything." I look at the gun. I look at him. He crashes his lips to mine anyway. Weakness crawls to my knees. He pushes me out the door, and I'm supposed to use these legs now.

I'm far. The night is still, asleep—except for those popping sounds I leave behind. I run and run in my bare feet. Then, I stop. Dead still.

I turn in circles. I stare at the rose bushes lining the path. I stare at the dark sky above. I stare and I stare until everything morphs into memories.

Mom died in my arms under these stars. The car swerved into a rose bush. Thorns tore at my legs. It was one shot to the back wheel, that's all it took. Then, there were more. These bullet-size scars at my ribs and my neck have to mean something. The only proof left.

I left this town, not because I was young and curious—I was young and broken. I was forced to forget, to heal from deep wounds.

What was it? God, what was it? I tap, tap, tap this metal against my foggy brain. This nostalgia at the tip of my tongue—ready to tell me everything I used to know.

Edward. His bare chest against mine, our first time. Those sharp green eyes, teaching me everything he had to learn for himself. Too young for such anger. No, he was never the same after his father was dragged dead.

You fall for a Cullen man, you're walking dead. His lifestyle. His family. His business. It all becomes yours. He said, "Don't leave." I wanted a simple life, not watching one slip away in my arms. He said, "I'll go where you go." I ripped myself out of his life. I took Mom with me. Eighteen shouldn't be the ripe age to use a gun on a man. I killed him. I killed that stranger by the red rose bushes. Then, everything went black.

I cock this gun because I remember how. I turn right back. I was his right-hand girl, and he was all mine.

Yes, I remember everything.

So, I run. Like hell.

...

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