I have to give a special thanks to my betas, Mel and TwiMarti, for their very valuable input into this chapter. To my pre-reader, EveryDayBella, for her endless assistance with this story. And finally, to my newest technical pre-reader, dj071688, for her help on all things FBI.
It was still fairly early in the morning and the traffic seemed light for a Friday. I was sitting shotgun to Agent McKinley as we drove north on the five freeway through Camp Pendleton. I had my coffee clutched tightly between my hands, keeping them warm. Although San Diego had a fairly warm climate, the mornings and evenings could be quite chilly, and today the marine layer had really socked in, making it feel even cooler. This drive was supposed to be quite pretty, but the view was mostly obscured. I knew we were only a few hundred feet from the ocean, but I couldn't really make it out through the clouds and fog.
Both Agent McKinley and I were tired from the extra hours we had been putting in on this case. Agent McKinley was assigned as my training agent, and we had been working closely together all week, not just on the Volturi case, although that had occupied the vast majority of our waking hours. We were both staying fairly quiet now as we drove up the coast, refraining from conversation. It was giving me some time to reflect on the week so far. It was hard to believe that a week ago I was still at Quantico. It seemed like months ago.
We were currently heading up to the Port of Long Beach to gather information on Huang Shipping and the ship that may have been carrying stolen weapons. As I pored through the information on this ship and Huang Shipping, I found that their ships used Terminal M at the port exclusively. It may make finding the information we need a bit easier since we had only one terminal operator, Pacific International Terminals, to work with. This company ran one terminal here and one other in Portland. I didn't know if there was a connection between Huang Shipping, Pacific International Terminals, and the Volturi, but I intended to find out, and this trip would hopefully produce some leads.
Edward was right when he'd said that he and Agent Banner wouldn't likely be back before the end of the week. Once they made it up to L.A., they were ordered out to Washington D.C. that night. They didn't even have a chance to get over to the port. They had been in meetings all week with unit chiefs and assistant directors of the bureau, along with members of the Pentagon and Homeland Security. From the email updates and brief teleconferences, the general direction of thought was that the weapons were coming directly from the manufacturers. The only problem was that more than one manufacturer was involved. As a result, a team of intelligence analysts was assigned exclusively to concentrate their efforts on gathering as much information as possible.
I hadn't had an opportunity to talk to Edward at all since he left Monday. The only time we had spoken was during the teleconferences with the rest of the team listening in. Needless to say, we hadn't said a word to each other outside of the case.
Each time I heard his voice, though, my stomach did flip-flops and my heart rate accelerated. It was utterly ridiculous that this man had this effect on me, but he did. As I heard his voice talking about the current thoughts and leads on the case, my mind would drift back and I would hear him instead whispering endearments in my ear as he moved inside me. It was completely distracting.
On Wednesday afternoon, I was pleasantly surprised to find an email in my inbox from him. It was short—just a note to say hi—but still helped to quell the insecurities that had been building in my mind since I saw him last.
I still juggled between being hopeful that something could develop between the two of us and being so scared of my feelings for him that I wanted to run far away. It was a fine line at times.
Agent McKinley's voice pulled me away from my thoughts of Edward and back into the present.
"Yeah?" I glanced in his direction and took another sip of my coffee.
"So, I hear you met with my aunt last night. You're taking the apartment?"
Even though I had been slammed with work, I had managed to make it over to Mrs. Cope's house in Pacific Beach last night to see the apartment she had to rent.
I smiled at Agent McKinley. "Yes, it's perfect. I loved it. Thanks for recommending it to me."
It was perfect. As soon as I drove into Pacific Beach—or PB as the locals called it—I fell in love. The neighborhood was old and eclectic. There were homes that looked like they were built in the 1930s and others right next door that looked brand new. Some homes had been recently updated, but others looked their age. What struck me, though, was all the people out and about, riding their bikes, walking, and jogging. I could see that it was a vibrant and active community. And to top it off, the entire area was right next to both the beach and the bay.
Mrs. Cope's house was an older craftsman that looked recently refurbished. It had a large stand-alone garage in the back with a second floor apartment. It was quite quaint. The yard appeared rundown and neglected, but she explained that she was in the process of re-landscaping. In fact, a good portion of it was torn up, and instead of grass, there was mostly dirt.
I felt immediately at ease around Mrs. Cope. She was sweet and motherly, and I was instantly drawn to her. The apartment was amazing. It was small—a living room with an adjacent, open kitchen, a bathroom, and a bedroom—but was also recently renovated and had all new cabinets, floors, and appliances. I would have use of the laundry machine and dryer in the garage, and as soon as the re-landscaping was complete, I could use her pool, too.
I instantly said yes and made arrangements to move in on Saturday. The only problem was I didn't have anything to move. Shopping for furniture and household goods would have to wait for the weekend. If I even had a day off then. I suspected I would still be putting in hours on the case this weekend.
Agent McKinley began tapping his fingers on the steering wheel as he continued the conversation. "Aunt Shelly is great. I'm sure you're gonna love it. And PB is so much fun. A lot of local bars and restaurants, not to mention the beach and bay."
"Yes, it will be nice to live so close to a beach where you can actually swim. We lived fairly close to the water up in Washington, but Lord, it was cold." I chuckled as Agent McKinley smiled at me.
After our short exchange, we fell back into our comfortable silence for the remainder of the trip. Every once in a while he would comment on some aspect of PB or San Diego, but nether of us was drawn into a lengthy conversation. I think we were both still getting used to each other.
It wasn't long before we pulled up at the Port of Long Beach. We quickly checked in with the port's Executive Director and met up with our colleagues from the L.A. division and Homeland Security. Tim had followed us up in his own vehicle and was there with his band of computer wizards. All in all, there were about ten of us ready to descend upon Pacific International Terminals. We followed the port's Executive Director to the offices for Terminal M.
The terminal itself was large, with three berths that could accommodate ships up to new panamax in size—just about as big as they got. Each berth was equipped with large cranes to load and unload the containers from the ships. Multiple train tracks lined the yard, allowing trains to bring the containers and goods right up to the loading area. It was quite impressive.
Agent McKinley was the agent in charge and was leading this meeting. We had warrants with us to obtain shipping records pertaining to Huang Shipping, personnel files and copies of the videos captured by the dock cameras showing the loading of the suspected ship. As we entered the offices for Pacific International Terminals, the manager, Mr. Hunt, was already in the front office waiting for us.
Agent McKinley introduced himself and explained the purpose for being at his facility. I stood in the back, next to Eric, and observed as he talked with him.
Mr. Hunt was fairly tall and quite good-looking. His blond hair was slicked back across his head, nearly blending seamlessly with his fair complexion. He seemed rather young for his position, although it was hard to tell these days. There was something rather familiar about Mr. Hunt, but at the same time very foreign. I couldn't put my finger on it.
While Agent McKinley explained our procedures, Mr. Hunt began scanning our group. When his eyes landed on my mine, his mouth lifted into a slight smile as though he recognized me, although I had never met him before. It made every hair on my neck stand on end.
His eyes were unnaturally dark—nearly black, contrasting drastically against his pale skin, and they bored into mine. I felt myself squirming a bit under his gaze, and I didn't like it. I couldn't figure out why I was reacting that way—why I felt so uneasy. I just knew that there was something very wrong Mr. James Hunt.
Mr. Hunt was, for the most part, quite agreeable. He appeared shocked that something like this could happen at his terminal and agreed to cooperate fully. He was concerned that we would be seizing documents and was particularly concerned about the computers and server, as it could interrupt business. Tim assured him that they would be making an image copy of the hard drives to take back and analyze for evidence rather than seizing the computers themselves.
Once the logistics were laid out, we began searching for evidence. The vast majority of the shipping information was in electronic format. Eric and his team would be working to create copies of all the electronic files for further analysis. I planned on working with the other agents searching through the paper files, but Agent McKinley stopped me.
"Bella, I would like you to take a look at the terminal grounds. See if you see anything out of the ordinary, anything suspicious."
"Yes, sir. That's fine," I replied.
"I'll have you go with Agent Stephens from the L. A. division." I nodded, indicating that I understood.
Agent McKinley then turned his attention to Mr. Hunt.
"Mr. Hunt," Agent McKinley said, drawing his attention. "Could you please escort Agent Swan and Agent Stephens around the terminal. They need to take a look at your property and observe your processes."
Mr. Hunt turned his black gaze back on me again, and I felt that same chill down my spine.
"I would be happy to help, Agent McKinley, but I will not be able escort them personally. I have a skin condition that prevents me from staying in the sun too long. I will have one of my staff assist you."
"That would be fine," replied Agent McKinley. Mr. Hunt went over to the office phone and called someone to come and escort us around the property, while Agent McKinley rounded up Agent Stevens. I stood and watched Mr. Hunt. His movements were so odd—very fluid, unnaturally so. His skin was so pale and smooth, absolutely free of blemishes. I wondered if this was a result of his skin condition. I watched as he hung up the phone and approached him.
"Mr. Hunt." He turned and looked at me, expressionless.
"If you don't mind my asking, what condition do you have?" His lips turned up a bit, but it didn't reach the rest of his face.
"I have EPP. Agent Swan, is it?" he asked.
"Yes. And what exactly is EPP?"
"Is that a common disease?" I asked.
"No, not especially. Is there anything else I can help you with, Agent Swan?" His expression had turned somewhat steely, and I could tell that this conversation was over.
"No. Thank you, Mr. Hunt." He turned and left the room, heading down the hall. I just knew he had something to do with this case. I felt it in my gut. I knew without a shadow of doubt that I would be finding out all I could about Mr. Hunt.
A short time later, I found myself walking the grounds of Terminal M with Agent Stevens and one of the stevedores. I learned quickly that stevedores were essentially dockworkers. As we walked along, he explained all the processes and procedures that were conducted when working with the transportation of the containerized goods.
Most of it I had learned over the last few days as I researched the shipping industry. There was currently one ship docked at the terminal, and it was in the process of being loaded. We were able to watch the loading as the stevedore explained how the container loading software told them which containers to place on the ships.
"There's no way to sneak on extra containers," the stevedore said. "There is a very precise list that designates the sequence for loading containers. All the container information is entered into the loading database, which then tells us the exact order to load the containers. Everything is checked and double-checked. There is just no way to get an extra container on."
Be that as it may, I thought, it still happened.
We continued to look around the facility and observed all the loading procedures. Neither Agent Stevens nor myself observed anything out of the ordinary. The more I observed the procedures, the more I had to agree—it did seem nearly impossible to get extra containers on the ship. I knew we were going to have our work cut out for us.
By noon, we had completed our search and interviews at Terminal M and were loading the documents and files into our vehicles. As soon as we got back to the office in San Diego, we would begin poring over this, trying to find a way those containers got on the ship.
As I got into the car next to Agent McKinley, I looked over to the office. There in the second-story window stood Mr. Hunt. He was glaring at our car, and then he began to laugh before he shut the blinds—very peculiar.
"Rob?" I asked. He looked my way, curious as to what I was going to ask. "What's your take on Mr. Hunt?"
"He's in on this. No doubt in my mind."
"I agree. Have you ever heard of erythropoietic protoporphyria?" I asked.
"What? No. What is it?"
"Well, I'm not sure. Only that Mr. Hunt says he has it. He says it's the reason he can't go into the sun."
"I did find that strange. But look at the man. His skin was so pale it was almost iridescent."
"I know," I replied. And, I am going to find out why.
After working late on Friday processing all the new information from the port, I woke up early on Saturday to shop for the things I would need for my new apartment. The office graciously gave me Saturday off to move in. I think most of the rest of the team was going to be working.
I went out to a few furniture stores to start. I found a bed, couch, chair, and a few tables that would work. I was fortunate that they would be able to deliver the furniture later that afternoon. I then hit IKEA and Target to pick out lamps and supplies for my kitchen and bath. After I blew more money than I currently had, I headed over to PB to move into my new apartment.
When I pulled up, Mrs. Cope was outside digging a giant hole next to her house.
"Hey there, Bella." She waved enthusiastically at me as she walked over.
"Hi, Mrs. Cope."
"Shelly, please. You all ready to move in?" she asked.
"I am." I grinned widely. This was the first place that was truly my own, with all my own stuff. No roommates to bother me or crazy, noisy neighbors who shared my walls. I was so excited.
"All right then, let's go inside and I will get the keys and the contract." She pulled off her work gloves and brushed her hands over her pants before heading inside. I followed her into her home. It was beautifully renovated with hardwood floors, granite counters, and all new cabinetry. The theme on the inside followed the craftsman style of the outside. I really loved it.
"Here ya go, Bella, two keys and a garage door opener. You can use the left side of the garage for your car." She slid the items over the counter toward me. "And, here is the contract. Just put your John Hancock here, and we're ready to go."
I signed the contract and handed over the check for the deposit and first month's rent.
"Okay, dear. But one more thing before you start moving in." She turned around and reached for something on the counter.
"Oh?" I asked.
"Yes, here. A little something to keep your energy up." Shelly turned around with a huge plate of homemade cookies in her hand. Oh, I was going to love this woman.
"Oh, wow. Thank you, Mrs. Cope," I exclaimed. She gave me an annoyed look, and I corrected myself. "I mean, Shelly. Thank you."
"You are so welcome. I think I'm really going to enjoy having you next door. Now, shoo, go check out your new place. And if you need anything, don't hesitate to come knock."
"Oh, I won't. Thank you again, Mrs.—er, Shelly." She laughed as she walked me out the door, returning to her large hole by the house. I quickly traipsed across the yard to the garage and climbed the steps to my new apartment.
By late afternoon, my apartment looked like a tornado had come through it. The furniture had been delivered and set up, and I had been able to at least unpack and put up the essentials, like the bed linens and shower curtain. I still had bags of stuff I purchased all over the floor and counters, and there were even more bags of trash lined up by the door.
I was just too pooped to do any more. I sat on my couch and stared out the French doors that led to a small balcony facing the backyard. I got up and stepped outside. There was a wonderful breeze blowing in off the ocean. It was beginning to cool down, and the sun would be setting soon. It was a perfect time to go out for a walk. I decided to head down to the boardwalk to grab a bite to eat and watch the sunset. I hadn't had the chance to do that since I moved back to the west coast.
I quickly changed into a clean pair of jeans and slipped on a lightweight blouse. I threw on my chucks, grabbed a jacket, and slid out the door. The house was about five blocks from the beach. It wouldn't take me long to walk there.
Once I got to the end of Diamond St, I started walking down the boardwalk toward the pier. The boardwalk was a wide cement walkway that ran along the beach for over three miles. There were lots of people out biking, skating, and walking their dogs. Once I got to the pier, I noticed the marine layer's thick cloud cover was moving back in over the beach, and it was unlikely that I would get a very pretty sunset tonight, but I didn't care. I just enjoyed being there, taking in all the sights and sounds around me. It was very relaxing.
I stopped just past the pier and gazed out at the water. There were still quite a few people on the beach even though there wasn't much sun left, and several surfers were bobbing up and down in the water. I watched for a while as some of them caught a few small waves. It looked like fun, but not like something I would want to try.
I watched as one or two were making their way out of the water, and I suddenly stiffened when I recognized that tel-tale bronze head—Edward. He was about knee deep in the water wearing board shorts with a long-sleeved surf top and carrying his board under one arm. He kept shaking his head like a dog to get the water out of his hair. I wanted to laugh at him. He began to jog lightly out of the water, and I was once again struck by how beautiful he was. How could it be that he had ever wanted me?
All my old instincts kicked in, and I quickly turned around and began heading back the way I came before he saw me. About five large steps back down the boardwalk, and I stopped. What was I doing? Why was I running away from him? I had to work with him, and I needed to find a way to be comfortable around him, at the very least. At best, maybe there was a chance I could have something more with him. And that certainly wasn't going to happen if I kept running away.
My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest, but I turned around and began walking back toward him. When I caught sight of him again, I found that he was now standing on the beach, facing away from me watching the other surfers. His board was lying next to him in the sand, and he kept rubbing his hands through his hair getting the water and sand out. It made it look much messier than I had ever seen it before and infinitely more sexy.
I stopped and watched him for a moment. He had beautiful lines—all the right manly dips and sinews. He reached up and stretched his arms above his head, and I could see his back muscles flex and bend beneath the tight Lycra shirt. I instantly remember the feel of those muscles beneath my fingers, the flex of them as he moved above me. Oh God, how I wanted him.
I began slowly walking toward him again. Each step seemed an impossible motion, but I kept going, determined to finally put myself out there. When I was just a few feet behind him, I spoke.
He whipped around when he heard me say his name, startled when he first saw me. Then a huge grin spread across his face that lit up his eyes.
I felt my whole body ignite from his reaction. He seemed really happy to see me. A giant grin infectiously spread across my face.
"I didn't know you could surf," I said, pointing to his surfboard.
"I can't really. I'm learning. You know what they say, when in Rome." He chuckled a bit and ran his hands through his messy hair again. "You, uh, didn't see me out there, did you?" he added, a bit worriedly.
"I'm just not very good, and I'd be a bit embarrassed if you saw me face plant into the wave."
I laughed. "I would love to see that," I joked, and he smiled again. I instantly felt my breath hitch in response. Would I ever stop reacting to that smile?
"You would," he teased, nudging me on the arm. "So, what are you doing here?" he asked.
"Oh, I just moved into an apartment here. Uh, Rob's aunt, Shelly Cope, she had an apartment for rent over her garage. It was perfect for me." He smirked, looking like he was in on a joke that I didn't know about.
"What?" I asked.
"Oh, nothing. So, you're living here in PB? Me too. You'll like it a lot." He paused and then suddenly added, "Hey, we should car pool to work."
Oh, riding every day to work with Edward might be fun. "Definitely," I replied.
We were both quiet for a bit, that awkward silence taking over. His face turned more serious again, and I wondered what he was thinking. I watched as he reached out and grabbed my hand, shaking it a bit to loosen me up. Then he gently intertwined our fingers. I slowly looked up from our hands and into his face. His eyes were intense as he searched my face for some sign that this was okay. I suddenly flushed, and he smiled sweetly at me.
"I love it when you blush like that," he said, and I blushed even more deeply. Then he laughed, breaking the spell. "So, Bella, what are you doing tonight?"
I looked into his face, trying to figure out where he was going with this. "Uh, nothing really. Why?"
"Well, I thought you might like to grab a bite to eat with me. You know, something low key. Sandwiches or something." He dropped my hand and reached down to pick up his board.
"Uh, okay," I replied. "Do you want me to meet you somewhere later?"
"What? No, now. Come on. I just have to stop by my house and change real quick."
I must have looked a little startled, because he rolled his eyes. He grabbed my hand and began pulling me with him, not giving me much choice in the matter. But, who was I kidding? I would have followed along anyway.
He walked over to a bicycle and began unlocking it. He mounted his surfboard onto some brackets attached to the bike: a really ingenious little device that carried the surfboard along the side of the bicycle. He pulled out some flip flops that were in a bag behind his seat and slipped them on. Then, he grabbed the handlebars and steered the bike onto the boardwalk while walking alongside it. He looked over to me.
"Come on. It's not far."
I took a few quick steps and caught up to him.
"So, when did you get back?" I asked.
"Late last night. God, it's been a long week." He sighed. "I even went in this morning to catch up on things. I'm afraid this case is just getting started. We're going to be really busy. You picked a good time to come on board," he joked.
"Yeah, well, leave it to me to time it so well."
We continued to banter back and forth about the case and the office as we walked along. He filled me in on the long week in Washington. It seemed everyone was pointing fingers at everyone else. The Pentagon insisted the weapons were being obtained directly from the manufacturer, but Edward wasn't totally convinced.
"It may be that they are coming from the manufacturers, but the Pentagon hasn't shown any evidence that they're not coming from them either. I just don't think it's going to be that simple."
"No, I don't think we can really discount anything at this point," I agreed.
We had walked a few blocks away from the beach onto a quiet street and Edward stopped. He straddled his bike and looked over at me. "Okay, hop up. We can ride the rest of the way."
I looked at him like he was crazy. "Hop up where?"
"On the handlebars. I won't let you fall."
"I think that's illegal."
"I do happen to have a few connections in law enforcement. I think we'll be okay," he said, and winked at me.
I looked at the handlebars of the bike and thought that there was no way my butt was going to balance on that. "Uh, you do remember the incident in the halls at Quantico, right? And the time on the track?"
Edward leaned over so that he was eye level with me, his face just inches from mine. "Bella, take a risk with me. Get on the bike." I knew that he didn't just mean the bike. He was figuring me out, understanding that I was akin to a wild animal—ready to bolt at the first sign of danger. And Edward Masen was definitely dangerous to my heart. But he wanted me to try. I knew what he meant when he asked me to take a risk. It was time.
"All right. But don't let me fall." I reached out for the handlebars and hoisted myself up with Edward's help. I felt Edward start to pedal and the bike lurched forward, causing me to emit a little yelp.
"I won't let you fall, Bella," he said. "Trust me. I won't let you down."
And at that moment, I knew it was going to be okay. I could trust him. I suddenly felt free and exhilarated, and I yelled out. I could hear Edward laughing behind me as he sped up.
It was time to take a risk with my heart. I was going to let Edward Masen in.
AN: Just an FYI, I'm am back in school and knee deep in papers. I am going to fit my writing in as much as I can, but what that means is that updates will not come on a regular schedule. Some may be frequent and some may be further apart. I will do my best to get updates to you as fast as I can. I love writing this story, and plan to write as often as time allows.
Please review. It means the world to me.