PLEASE READ THIS AUTHOR'S NOTE. THIS STORY WILL NOT BE COMPLETED.
This is the original version of my fanfic The Hostage, pulled in fall of 2010. As I said in the summary, I'm reposting the story to clear up confusion that my debut novel, Into The Dark, is the same story. As I explained to Jami Gold, I reused the basic premise of a stalker using a bank robbery as a ruse to kidnap a woman, but the fanfic was dumped, the premise reworked, all new characters created from scratch, a new plot, etc.
In light of the understandable anger and by request, I'm reposting The Hostage because I realize pulling it was the wrong choice. I apologize to all those readers and to the reviews I didn't appreciate. I've also had a few readers of The Hostage contact me because they are excited to finish the story, and I want to make sure no one spends money on Into The Dark without being told it's not The Hostage.
This story WILL NOT be finished. Thanks.
I couldn't figure out how to hyperlink, so if you want to read the interview with Jami Gold, visit her blog - sorry, it won't let me even post the site address with parenthesis.
It's often the snap decisions that drastically shape our lives. The loner friend who decides on a whim to go out with her girls one night and meets the man of her dreams; the reckless teenager who thinks going without a condom 'just once' is all right. Sometimes it's the small, inconsequential choices that often seem like twists of fate: deciding to make a left instead of going straight and missing the huge accident that happens only seconds later.
In my case, I didn't really have an option. As branch manager, I was responsible for making sure we had enough staff, and if someone didn't show up or was late, I had to stay. I should have been out at three today, but Jessica had gone home sick and since there were loans to finish, I stepped in and began working on them.
Her office was tucked away in a partially hidden corner of the bank, so I didn't see the strange looking man come inside. I didn't notice his shifty eyes or nervous behavior; I was too caught up in crunching numbers and finishing as many applications as possible before I left for the day.
I had no idea that anything was wrong until I heard screaming. Even though Las Vegas was a high crime city, bank robberies were few and far between, so the thought never really crossed my mind as I rushed into the lobby to see what was going on.
That's when I ran into the barrel of a handgun, and I realized my life was about to change forever.
"How many hostages are there?" I asked my commanding officer as the SWAT truck rolled up to the Bank of America on 4th street.
"Eleven, including the branch manager. Six employees and five customers."
I strapped on my Kevlar and gathered up my radio. "What are his demands?"
"None yet," Johnson, our Z1, replied. "He wants to speak to the hostage negotiator. That's you, Cullen. I need you leading this one."
"Yes sir." I grabbed my assault rifle and leapt out of the truck into the sweltering Vegas afternoon. At 25, I was the youngest officer on the elite Las Vegas SWAT team. My ability to read people and quickly react to their body language and vocal intonation had made me a successful hostage negotiator, a skill I'd proven several times over the past year.
I've been on the fast track my entire life: skipping a grade in elementary, advanced courses in high school, graduating at 16. My parents had encouraged me to go into medicine believing that someone with my intelligence was meant to save lives. I didn't disagree with them; I just chose another path. I majored in criminal justice at UNLV and busted my ass to graduate in three years. I wanted to get out into the world and start making a difference, so I joined the Las Vegas Police Academy immediately after leaving college and was a patrol officer by the time I was 21. My superiors said I showed "tremendous talent and excellent leadership abilities," so when they offered me the chance to train for the SWAT team just two years later, I jumped at it. My ego and fearlessness quickly made a name for itself, and within 18 months, I was a vital member of one of the most nationally respected SWAT teams in the country.
I hurried over to the Metro officer in charge with Johnson in tow. "What's the situation?"
"Not good." The seasoned Captain was all business. "Two suspects, both armed with what appear to be Glocks. Took out the security cameras first. We have snipers up high, but the damn reflective glass on the front isn't letting them get a clear shot. The dickhead that answered the phone said he wasn't talking to anyone but a negotiator. I'm sure he's looking for a payoff and a way out." He ran his hand over his sweaty brow and sneered at the bank as though he were willing the men to come out with their hands up.
I nodded and motioned for the megaphone. "Did you get a name yet?"
"Not the perp's," the Captain answered. "Branch manager's name is Bella Swan. Dispatch ran a check on her and nothing interesting. 34, lives alone and has been with the bank for ten years. Don't think she's involved."
"What about the other employees?"
"No one suspicious. Jessica Stanley is the loan officer. She went home ill, and her location is confirmed. Assistant manager is off today, but he's been accounted for as well. No one's background sets off any alarms. Doesn't appear to be an inside job right now. We can't get a bead on the customers though. Any one of them could be involved."
"All right, Cullen," Johnson gave the order. "Let 'em know you're here while I send Black and his group around the building to look for entry points."
I cleared my throat and put the megaphone to my lips, the adrenaline already kicking in. Despite nearly two years on the SWAT team and several months as a negotiator, my heart always began to race a little bit faster when I started talking to suspects. So much hinged on my voice and on my ability to keep suspects and victims calm long enough for the rest of my team to infiltrate. It wasn't something I took lightly; I knew very well that innocent lives depended on my ability to communicate.
"This is Lieutenant Edward Cullen of the Metro Police," I spoke as clearly as possible. My squadron commander always had me introduce myself with my final rank as a member of the department. SWAT was considered a covert operation and revealing that I was a squad member to the suspect could damage the team's chances of success. "I'm a hostage negotiator, and I'm here to help you."
I adjusted my earpiece, listening to Jake calling out orders and alerting the guys to possible entry points. "I'm going to call into the bank now, and I hope you'll let me speak to whoever's in charge."
I handed the megaphone back to the captain and took the department-issued cell phone from him. The number was already punched in for me, and I waited as the phone rang over and over. Sometimes several minutes would pass before it was answered. Patience had to be my virtue.
After 37 rings, a gruff voice snapped in my ear. "What'd you say your name was?"
"Edward Cullen." I kept my tone smooth and light. "Can I ask yours?"
"You can call me Joe." There was sudden movement in the bank window, a shadow behind the reflection of the sun. "Is that you standing there in the black? Why you got a vest on? And you look all of 20, boy."
Jake's deep voice crackled in my ear. "Try to get him moving, C. I think he's the big dude by the window, but I can't be sure. We're looking in from west side and the view's obscured."
I couldn't acknowledge Jake and instead focused on Joe. "I'm on the front line," I answered him. "Department requires me to wear the vest. I'm older than 20, but thanks for the compliment. Tell me what we can do for you, Joe. How can we resolve this situation?"
He snorted loudly, and I could almost see the skepticism on his face. "I want to take my money and get the fuck out of here, Edward. How you gonna do that for me?" His snide tone made it clear I was dealing with a loose cannon; I had no doubt he would be willing to take out anyone that stood in his way of escape.
"I need some time," I told him. "I've got to talk to the Captain and see what we can do for you, but I'm on your side, Joe. I want those people out of there safe and sound, so I want to help you. Can you give me some time?"
"I ain't got all fucking day, kid!" The sun had begun to sink lower in the sky, and I could see a large shadow looming behind the window now. He was pacing quickly, reminding me of a confined cat.
"Six foot two, probably 180 pounds," Jake said. "Definitely has a Glock and may have a second weapon underneath his jacket. We need a bead on the other dude, C. He must be in charge of the hostages, and I can't see them. I'm guessing they're sitting behind the counter, but we need to know for sure. Get the two of them to talk."
I shifted my stance and leaned against the squad car, trying to appear relaxed. I could see one of our snipers on the roof of the adjacent building, but I doubted he could get any kind of shot. "I know you don't have all day, Joe," I said easily. "But I assume you know that you can't just walk out either. There are cops all over this place, and we need to work together. Can you do that for me?"
"Yeah, until you piss me off," he grunted.
"Thanks. What about your partner? Obviously you're in charge, but is he going to give us any trouble?"
I adjusted my dark sunglasses and strained to see movement behind the huge bank windows. There was shuffling on the other end of the phone and the sound of muted whispers.
"Partner is smaller. Under six feet. Both wearing masks, Joe's got light hair sticking out from under his. Partner is shaking his head and pointing … looks like they've got the hostages behind the counter like I thought. Thanks, C."
More shuffling, and Joe was back. "He's cool. But you need to get us out of here, soon. These whiney fucking people are pissing me off. If the stupid teller hadn't hit the alarm button, I'd have taken my money and walked. Now I'm in this mess."
I suppressed a smile. Those three sentences had told me a lot about Joe: he was a narcissist as were most criminals, and he had no regard for his partner's presence or life. Joe was only thinking about getting out with the money, and the partner was just a means to an end for Joe.
"We need to assess hostages," Johnson's voice echoed in my ear.
"I hear ya," I told Joe. "But before I can do anything, I need to know the hostages are all right."
"No one's been hurt! Yet," he threatened.
"That's good, but can I please talk to one of them? Maybe the branch manager?"
This was a difficult moment; getting a personality like Joe to relinquish any control or the spotlight could severely backfire on me.
"Why you wanna talk to her?"
I chose my next words carefully and played to Joe's obvious selfishness. "I think she can help you. She knows more about the bank than anyone else, and she can probably tell us the safest way to get you out. And it would be a show of good faith, Joe."
Several long seconds of silence followed, and my heart pounded in my ears. He needed to feel like we were on the same side, but if he wouldn't let us talk to any hostages, there would be little chance of negotiating a peaceful surrender. Using force would be our only option.
Jake's voice came through once more. "Female coming out from behind counter. Looks small, dark hair, suit. Must be her."
"Hello?" Her tone was soft and feminine, and my gut lurched. I hated to see anyone put through this situation.
I cleared my throat and shifted gears. Talking to hostages was an entirely different matter; I had to soothe them, let them know we were there and would do everything we could to end the situation quickly. She needed to trust me, but I also had to tread very lightly. Joe was likely listening in.
"Is this Ms. Swan, the branch manager?"
"Yes. Call me Bella, please."
"Okay, Bella. My name is Edward, and I'm here to help you. Is everyone all right?"
She was clearly frightened, but sounded determined to hold it together. "I think so," she answered. "We're all scared, but no one is hurt."
"How many of you are there?" I didn't want Joe to realize how much we'd been able to gather from security tapes and observation.
"Eleven." Her sweet voice struck a chord in me, and I shoved the emotion aside.
"What can you tell me about them? Any children? Anyone with a health condition?"
"Not that I know of." She sounded unsure. "No kids, and everyone seems healthy – just frightened and hot. They shut the air off."
Of course it had been shut off; making the hostages miserable on top of their fear was an easy way to control them.
"Okay Bella." I tried to sound as reassuring as possible. "I want you to stay calm and work with me. What can you tell me about the bank?"
There were four exits, including the back that led to the employee parking. Jake didn't have eyes on it, and I could hear him dispatching Quil and Embry to cover the position. That sounded like the best place for a staged exit, and the team quickly began working on the takedown scenario while I bought us time.
"You've been a big help, Bella. We're working as hard as possible to get you all out of there quickly. Can you hang in there for me?"
Bella had sounded strong until this point, but I could her fear began to seep through. "I wasn't supposed to be here," she whispered. "I don't know what to do. I don't want anyone to get hurt."
"You need to stay strong." My voice took on an edgier tone; she had to understand how important her role was if we were going to succeed. "All the hostages see you as the person in charge. You're their link to us, and if they see you breaking down, they will too. That leads to Joe and his partner getting upset, which makes it very difficult for us all to work together. I'm very sorry this is happening to you, but you've got to hang with me, Bella. Please?"
She sniffled, and I could tell she was trying to control the urge to cry. "Yes," she finally managed to answer. "I'll do the best I can, Edward. Please hurry."
Joe snatched the phone away from Bella then and demanded to know what we were going to do for him. I promised the Captain was working on something as we spoke. The hardest part of my job was making Joe understand that his best-case scenario was not getting shot. Every criminal in this situation was the same: they all thought they could bully us into helping them escape, but as the hours wore on, reality began to set in. The cops weren't going to roll out the red carpet and point them on a path to freedom, and if they didn't want to cooperate, things would get very ugly for everyone. Most perps couldn't handle the pressure and broke down as time passed, but Joe didn't have that in him. He was fearless and didn't give a shit about anyone. That much was obvious.
"I'm not waiting around forever, kid," Joe sneered. "Hurry the fuck up." He slammed the phone down, and I immediately turned my back to the bank window. From their perspective, it looked as though as I was talking to the patrol officer standing behind me, but I was actually speaking to Jake.
"How's it going?" I brushed the damp hair off my forehead and wiped the sweat off my brow. Kevlar was hot as hell.
"We've got the snake in," Jake told me. The snake was our nickname for the wireless camera we often used to get real eyes and ears on the situation. "Took me forever to find a way inside, but I found an air vent on the blueprints. The angles not great and I still can't see shit, but we can hear."
"What's going on?"
"Dude's a real prick, C," Jake answered. "Right now he's yelling at his partner about getting him into this mess. Partner doesn't say much, just tells the hostages not to talk or look at him. He's got an accent too, but I can't place it."
I raised my eyebrows at the information on his partner; he sounded like a passive personality, but I reminded Jake that he needed to keep ears on him as well. The quiet, passive ones were often the ones to snap first under pressure.
"Yeah I know. This Joe dude … he's going down in a blaze of glory. Now he's leering at the branch manager. Calling her a fine piece of ass. Scum."
Anger flared in me; the humiliation of others was something a narcissist fed on, but the fact that it was happening to the sweet lady on the other end of the phone struck a sour note. I didn't want him to break her down; she didn't deserve this, and she was too essential to the rescue.
As the hours began to crawl by, Jake continued to give us updates. The blazing sun had sunk in the horizon and twilight was setting in, so we had a better view of the inside. But Joe was smart, and he made sure to keep everyone away from the large bay of windows. We had to rely on our spotters for position updates, and the information was often sketchy. The tiny mic on the snake gave us the most information. The partner stayed mostly stationary, watching all the hostages carefully. He spoke very little, but Joe ranted and raved several times, knocking items off the counter and screaming at the hostages for no reason.
The rest of my squad was setting up at the back exit, hoping that I could convince the armed men to come out peacefully. Given Joe's agitated state, I had little hope of that happening. Every man on the team was ready and expecting to infiltrate when the word was finally given.
"Joe won't leave that woman alone," Jake's voice came through again. "He's moving so much that I can't make out everything he's saying – the damn snake is in a bad spot – but I keep hearing her name and various insults."
"Typical," I grumbled. "Bella represents authority to him, so he'll tear her down in order to maintain control. How's she holding up?"
"I can't hear her, but it doesn't look like she's saying much to either one of the perps. Tyler has an eye on her and she seems to be defiant, sitting with the other hostages and reassuring them."
Good girl. I checked my watch; it had been two hours since I last spoke with Joe, and I knew he was desperate for an update. Johnson had issued the order to get in position to breach the rear exit at 20:00 hours if no further progress was made, and they would go in as soon as it was dark enough.
Time to check in with Joe. He answered on the second ring this time.
"What the hell, boy? Are you people doing anything? All I see is a bunch of fucking cops walking around looking stupid!" He was gasping for air, and there was a new tremor in his voice. He was getting rattled, and I had to take advantage while I could.
"Joe, my superiors are working with the district attorney to make things as easy as possible on you, but I really need a show of good faith right now."
"What the hell does that mean?"
"You've got 11 innocent people in there. That's not helping your case with the brass, man." I leaned against the barricade as though Joe were right in front of me. "Doesn't look like you have much concern for anyone else or for working with us. You need to release some hostages, Joe."
Unsurprisingly, obscenities began flying out of his mouth.
"He's pissed," Jake told me. "Tyler said he just threw a whole thing of brochures across the room, and now it looks like he's in front of the hostages, waving the gun around. C!"
"Joe, calm down!" I snapped, my voice sharp and no longer friendly. It was time he started to understand that he no longer had control. "If you do something stupid now, you're not walking out of there and you know it. All we want is one hostage. You'll have plenty left to use for protection."
"Yeah and as soon as I get to the door with 'em, you guys take me out. You think I'm stupid?"
This was my best opportunity to build trust with him. "I promise you, Joe, no one's going to shoot at you. Just unlock the door, and let someone walk out, please."
"I'll think about it."
The line once again went dead, and I listened to Jake recount everything he could. "They're talking, but we can't make anything out. The other dude is definitely foreign though. I don't think Joe wants to release anyone, but his partner seems to be all for it. This is the most I've heard him say. What, Tyler?"
There was movement among the hostages; someone was being pulled to his feet, others were crying, begging. The captain and I took cover behind a squad car in case it was a ploy, but seconds later the door opened and a middle-aged, balding man was shoved roughly out of it. I glanced at the rooftop; the snipers couldn't get a clear shot. Officers rushed forward to bring the victim to safety and to question him for any more details that might help.
Johnson was back on the radio. "Black, does Tyler still have eyes inside?"
I turned to the side and discreetly pressed the earpiece closer in an attempt to hear over the chaos outside.
"Yeah, barely." Jake's voice was muffled. "Looks like Joe's yelling again, and the partner's just sitting next to the branch manager, watching. He bugs the shit out of me, boss. Something's not right about that dude."
The hair on the back of my neck stood up at Jake's words. He and I had been through SWAT training together, and had gone active on the squad at the same time. He had the best instincts of anyone I'd ever met, which is what made him so successful as infiltration lead. His words had confirmed the nagging worry I'd had about the partner.
"He's the brains behind this thing," I cut in. "He's standing back, letting the emotional loud mouth take the heat while he plots in silence. Tell Tyler to keep his eyes on him. You're sure he's not talking to the hostages?"
"I really can't tell, C. Every once in a while I think I hear his voice, but it's so damn soft it's hard to pick up."
I turned to the Captain. "You need to talk to the released hostage now. Find out what the partner's doing and saying that we don't know. See if he heard a name."
He turned on his heel and headed for the ambulance where the victim was being treated for shock and officers were questioning him. It was time for me to check in with Joe again. There were only thirty minutes until the team would be in position behind the bank, and I needed to make one last attempt to resolve this peacefully.
"Happy now?" He sneered over the line.
"Yes, thanks for trusting me. My boss is talking to the district attorney now, and they're close to working something out."
"I want a car out of here and a plane waiting for me," he demanded. "I'm not telling the pilot where we're going until we clear the runway."
Despite the severity of the situation, I had to fight back a laugh at his idiocy. He wasn't as smart as I'd originally given him credit for, and had clearly watched too many cop shows. He was simply the smokescreen for his very clever partner.
Jake was talking to me again. "C, Tyler finally got another angle on the video and I've got a screen in front of me now. This Joe guy is tweaking hard. The partner is talking more than we thought, and he seems to have a lot to say to that branch manager. He never gets more than a couple of feet from her, and we somehow missed them moving her. She's not with the other hostages like she was before – she's about ten feet away at a desk, and the partner is standing over her."
What the hell? Surely they weren't in it together? I'd been informed of Bella Swan's background hours ago and it was unremarkable: branch manager for ten years, divorced, came from a well-off family, average financial stability, no children, no known associates. A protective instinct crept up inside me, and I knew I needed to talk to Ms. Swan.
"Joe, can I talk to the branch manager again? I need to make sure she's not freaking out and causing problems."
"What the fuck ever, but I'm listening."
There was shuffling, and then her soft, tired voice was in my ear. "Edward?"
"Yes, Bella it's me. How are you doing?"
She hesitated, and I strained to listen to the information Jake was giving me. From what he could see, Bella was holding up all right, but she looked exhausted and incredibly frightened. That didn't sound like an accomplice.
"I'm okay," she answered. "Thank you for getting one of us out of here. How much longer until the rest can leave?"
I hated not being able to give her a straight answer. "I'm not sure, but we're working on it. Letting the hostage go was a big step, and things are in motion for Joe and his partner."
Her involuntary intake of breath told me everything I needed to know. She was more scared of the partner than Joe.
"I hope so," her voice was incredibly shaky, and then it dropped to a whisper. "He's the real leader."
"What?" I could barely hear her.
"The other – he's strange. Always talking. Controlling."
There was a sudden scuffling, a loud thump and a muted female cry. Bella.
"Shit!" Jake yelled in my ear. I could hear Joe's angry yelling and quickly hopped over the barricade, infuriated. My commanding officer shouted at me to stand down and I stopped at the curb, desperate to race across the road and find out what the hell he'd done to her.
"That's the last time you're talking to that little bitch!" Joe was shouting at me. "I don't know what she tried to tell you but if she pulls something like that again, I'm putting a bullet in her head!"
"Joe, calm down!" I matched his tone. "She was asking me to contact her family if anything were to happen to her, that was all. You're overreacting, and it's only going to make everything worse for you."
"I bet she was. You know what, I'm tired of waiting around and kissing your ass. You guys got sixty minutes to get me out of here, or someone's getting hurt. Clock's tickin', Edward."
I snapped the phone shut and grabbed at the back of my sweaty hair. It never ceased to amaze me how quickly things could go bad – how just one little word could change the entire atmosphere of the negotiation. I'd never really thought we could get Joe to surrender, but I'd hoped to have more time. Now our backs were against the wall.
I stalked back behind the barricade and took a seat in the squad car. "Jake, what the hell happened?"
The mic crackled in my ear. "C, I told you this guy was tweaking. He heard her whispering and knocked her down. She's a tough little thing – just glared up at him when she hit the floor. Joe looked like he wanted to kill her, but she stood right back up and had the balls to turn her back on him when she went over to the desk. It ain't him she's afraid of."
"What do you mean?"
"The partner. He was pointing his finger at her, mumbling something," Jake answered. "Her whole demeanor changed immediately. Sounds like she knows he's really in charge."
Apparently the partner was very quietly talking to Joe – our mics still couldn't pick him up well enough to actually hear what he was saying – but the abrasive Joe seemed to cower under the partner's words. Bella had said he was controlling, and it looked like mind games were part of his arsenal.
Johnson motioned me to join him and the captain in the command truck, and I grabbed a large bottle of water as I sat down and looked at the plans for the bank. The back exit looked fairly common, so the entry team shouldn't have any obstacles. The techs had been scouring the grainy video footage, and the guys knew exactly where they needed to go and what would stand in their way.
"We've got an identity on Joe," Johnson informed me. "Security footage from outside caught him pulling on his mask just before they came into the bank, and we made a positive ID. Name's James Jones, and he's got a record a mile long for petty theft and drugs."
Just as I'd suspected. Joe didn't have the experience or brains to pull off a bank job. He'd never been in charge. "Anything on the partner?"
"Nothing. Couldn't get a look at him before they took out the security cameras and from what our video feed shows, he never takes off his mask and sticks close to the manager."
"She's not involved," I said defensively. "Did you hear what she told me? He's scaring the shit out of her, playing mind games. He's talking a whole lot more than we're picking up."
"I agree," Johnson said. "Which means he's either a career criminal or has some knowledge of how our surveillance works."
We picked Jake up on the audio feed and started finalizing the rescue strategy. I reminded everyone that these two weren't really partners – everything Joe said related to getting him out with the money. He had no concerns about the other guy, and the partner seemed to be more interested in Bella than anything else.
The Captain joined in and relayed what he'd found out from the released hostage. "They came in and pulled guns. Joe locked the door, and the other guy told them to drop their purses, wallets and cells and get behind the counter. He wasn't interested in jewelry or money. Ms. Swan was in a back office and came running out to the lobby – the partner almost appeared to be waiting for her – and immediately stuck a gun in her face. The hostage said the partner seemed to gravitate around the Ms. Swan, and he was the one who took her back to the safe, but he gave the money to Joe once they returned. Joe watched over the hostages during that time, and he was very nervous and distracted, and that's when a teller managed to press the alarm."
"Did Joe ever call him by name?"
Something just wasn't right. "Where's the money now?
"Joe has it all," Jake's voice came over the speaker, "in a large duffle bag. He's been carrying it around as he paces. From what we've seen, the partner has nothing but his gun and an obsession with the woman."
My stomach began to twist into knots. This was no mere bank robbery – the partner had let Joe do all the talking and be in charge of the money. There was very little communication between the two of them, no discussion of demands – nothing. His only concern was watching Bella and keeping her close to him.
"Guys," I stood up, feeling half sick. "This isn't a bank robbery – not for the partner. It's a kidnapping."
All hell broke loose after my dramatic announcement. There were no longer any plans about getting either perpetrators to come out peacefully. Getting into the bank and seizing Bella before the partner managed to escape with her had become SWAT's number one priority.
"I'm sure Joe doesn't have a clue," Johnson told me as we headed back outside.
"Good," I replied tersely. As volatile as Joe seemed to be, telling him would be like lighting a match. "That should work to our advantage, and I'll make sure he stays in the dark."
Johnson agreed. "You've got to keep playing it like he's getting out of there with something. Don't let your voice give anything away."
Tyler and Jake had made some adjustments with the video equipment, and their sole focus was now on the partner and Bella. The information they were sending over the radio made my blood run cold.
"He never gets more than a foot from her, Jake. And I swear to God it looks like he's sniffing her sometimes. There! Did you see that? Fucking creep."
"Yeah, I saw it. I can't hear anything but the sound of his voice either. That motherfucker is whispering, Tyler. I'm telling you, he knows we can hear him."
"Guys," I interrupted. "I'm sure he's expecting us to come in, too. He's allowing all the focus to be on Joe and while he's going down in a blaze of glory, the partner will sneak off with Bella."
Johnson and the Captain agreed, so the plan was for me to mislead Joe while the rest of the team breached the rear exit. I often put down the mic in entry situations, but this time it was important that I keep talking and distract Joe.
"Who's the entry team?" I asked Johnson as we headed back to the barrier. My protective instincts were running high as I thought of the soft-spoken branch manager at the mercy of a calculating criminal. For the first time, I wished like hell I wasn't such a skilled negotiator.
Johnson began rattling off the guys who would go enter the bank first. Las Vegas SWAT was one of one of the few full-time teams in the country, comprised of three teams on rotating were thirteen of us on the Blue Team, and ten men would be executing the rescue mission. Of the four exits, three would be breached, with the largest group heading into the back and securing the perimeter. That was the likely route of escape because it led to limited parking, and we had little doubt the partner had a vehicle stashed there, most likely with a remote start. Jake would be responsible for getting Bella out, with Johnson backing him up.
Johnson handed me the phone. "We go inside in fifteen. I want you to call him in ten minutes and say whatever you need to – the D.A. has given us the clear."
We all felt the best route to take was to play into Joe's ego – to make him feel like he'd gained control back – and to keep the partner out of the equation. Neither gave a damn about the other; as long as Joe thought he was getting out with the money, he'd be happy.
I nodded my head in agreement and leaned back against the squad car, trying to look unconcerned. Night had fallen, making our job much easier. Our equipment gave us eyes in the dark, and many of our raids happened after the sun set. Today would be no different except there were more lives at stake.
These were the moments I'd dreamed of as a kid growing up in a working-class neighborhood of North Las Vegas. My close-knit family had to work hard for everything we had, and my parents made a lot of sacrifices so that my older sister and I could have everything we needed. My father owned a small construction business, and my mother waited tables to help keep us afloat during the slow times. Despite not having the best of everything, we never felt like we were missing out.
Still, growing up in North Las Vegas wasn't easy. We had a higher crime rate, and Esme had been mugged twice on the way home over the years. My father's construction office had been broken into as well, and the police never seemed to have enough manpower to do anything about it. I was sick and tired of hearing about crime and worrying about something happening to my mother and sister every day. My parents had hoped I'd used my high intelligence to go into the medical field and forge a better life for myself, but being a cop was the only thing I'd ever been interested in. Esme tried to get me to consider law school, but I wanted to be out on the streets, not safe behind a desk.
I always struggled to explain to my mom why I lived for such a dangerous job, and I wished I could made her understand that it was moments like these, in the calm before the storm, when my heart was racing, that I knew I'd made the right decision. I was meant to save people.
"C," Jake's voice echoed in my ear. "Seven minutes until we do this. You ready?"
The corner of my mouth turned up in a smirk at Jake's customary check in. It had been our routine since training to say something to the other before any kind of raid. We never knew what could happen on the other side.
"I've got the easy part today," I answered him. "You be smart and get the girl out. No heroic shit."
"Fuck that. I've got a date with Leah tonight. No way am I spending it in the damn ER. See ya soon."
I closed my eyes and said a silent prayer for my friends that would be going into the bank. The possibility of losing someone was always there, but we couldn't dwell on it. I glanced at my watch and took a deep breath: time to call Joe. The success of our mission was in my hands. If I couldn't keep Joe occupied, the squad would be facing a hail of bullets as soon as they entered the lobby. Kevlar only helped so much.
"Cullen," Joe snarled into the phone. "You better have something good to tell me."
I stared at the now dark windows of the bank, wishing I could see more than just his shadow. The lights were off inside, and Joe's constant pacing was difficult to make out. We knew the partner had all the hostages behind the large counter, so I had no chance of spotting any of them.
"I've got good news, Joe," I replied smoothly. I hated having to get down to the criminal's level and lie, especially when it could come back to haunt us in a court trial, but the district attorney had given us the go-ahead. Joe needed to feel safe, but I couldn't suddenly start promising him the moon or he'd get suspicious. "We talked to the DA, and they don't want you to hurt anyone, including yourself. They want to work with you, and if you can give us a bit more time, they're getting everything together for a peaceful release."
I could hear Jake and Johnson over my earpiece – all teams were in place, and they were getting ready to go in. Keeping Joe's attention in the next several minutes was crucial.
"What the hell does that mean?" He snapped. "What are they getting together?"
"The DA is on your side, Joe. She's working with the cops to ensure you can walk out of the bank and into a vehicle without getting shot. They've just got to get everyone in line, understand?"
Joe began muttering his agreement, rambling about the cops kissing his ass and letting him walk. I offered a few more encouraging words, letting him know that things were working out just how he'd planned.
"We're inside. In back hallway by the vault."
The words sent the familiar chill down my spine, and I desperately wished that I were next to Jake instead of outside waiting. Reminding myself that the mission would fail unless I did my job, I started to lay the compliments on thick.
"I gotta hand it to you, Joe, you played this one really well," I made sure my voice sounded appropriately impressed. "When I first talked to you, I thought this was going to be an easy take down, but you proved me wrong. You outsmarted us all."
"Of course I did." He was getting cocky, and his pacing had stopped. I could just barely make out his shadow at the far end of the lobby. His back appeared to be towards the counter where the hostages were, which hopefully meant the squad could enter the area completely undetected.
Jake was whispering over the radio now, and I strained to hear the conversation. They'd rounded the corner offices and could now see the hostages huddled behind the large teller counter. Bella was still separated from them by the constantly hovering partner, but she wasn't allowing him to control her. The squad could hear her consoling an older woman, promising her that everything would work out if she could just hold out a little longer. I admired her strength; there was no doubt she was afraid of the partner and most likely suspicious of his attention, but she took her role as authority figure among the hostages seriously and was doing her best to be strong, just as I'd instructed.
Continuing to gloat, Joe was completely clueless as the guys took their positions outside of the dark lobby. So far, so good.
There was a sudden female cry, and my body went rigid. One of the hostages had seen a member of the SWAT team.
"Go, go, go!" Johnson yelled.
"What the fuck?" Joe screamed at me. "Cullen, you lying piece of shit!" He slammed the phone down, and I focused my attention on the radio noise.
Johnson was shouting at Joe to stand down – that he was surrounded. It sounded like Joe was brandishing his weapon, threatening the officers. I could hear him calling them cowards for sneaking into the dark with their night vision goggles. The second team entered from the side, and there was no way out for Joe. He flew into a rage, and I winced as the sound of weapons being discharged pierced my ears.
"One down!" Johnson yelled. There was no sound of panic over the radio, so I knew Joe must have been shot.
I listened hard for Jake, knowing he was responsible for seizing Bella. He'd intended to go after her before anyone realized the team was in the building, but he had to change his game plan after the hostage's scream took away the element of surprise. A few grunts and curses were all I heard from him for several seconds.
"In pursuit!" Jake suddenly shouted. "Soon as shots were fired, the other guy grabbed Bella. He's heading down the east hallway!"
I grabbed the set of blueprints from the Captain, ignoring his protests. The east hallway appeared to lead to a storage area, and there was no sign of another exit. The only other option was the basement.
"I think he's trapping himself, Jake," I jumped into the conversation. "Nothing down there but more rooms. Watch yourself."
Johnson, Quil and Embry were racing after Jake while other members began to evacuate hostages. The front doors were finally opened as Tyler and his guys began to lead the remaining victims outside to the waiting ambulances, while medics entered the building.
Another gun shot. "Motherfucker!" Jake yelled. "He shot at me!"
The partner dragged Bella down the darkened flight of stairs, firing behind him several times. His shots were haphazardly aimed, but they forced SWAT to halt at the top of the stairs and take cover.
"There's no place for him to go," Johnson insisted, breathing hard.
The sound of Bella's terrified voice pierced my heart. "Help me!" she was screaming. "He's going to take me! Stop!" She was suddenly silenced, and I had to force myself to stay put.
"Fuck, I think he hit her with something," Jake groaned. "I don't even know if she's conscious anymore. He's not taking you anywhere, honey!" He called out to Bella. "He's trapped and he knows it."
The next few minutes were a loud blur of noise and impatience as I struggled to figure out exactly what was going on. Johnson was talking to the partner, warning him that all of this was useless, and they would simply take him out if he didn't cooperate. The strange man never said a word; he just continued to fire the occasional shot up the stairwell. It was too dangerous for the guys to attempt to go down, and unless we could figure out another way inside or get a clean shot off, the situation would turn into a standoff.
I wanted to scream and demand they go after him, but common sense told me that walking down those stairs was a suicide mission. I hated being in this position, waiting and listening.
Then he made a mistake. The tall, lanky man still wore his dark mask, blending into the pitch-black basement, but when he peered around the stairwell, Jake could just make out the whites of his eyes. He seized his chance and fired once. I could hear the grunt of impact as Jake's bullet connected with some part of the perp's body and the thud as he fell to the floor.
Bella's scream echoed over the radio, and there was the sound of scuffling in the basement as the four SWAT members waited to see if the man was able to fire his weapon again.
"He's gone," Bella's weak voice was barely audible to me. "He just shoved me aside and disappeared."
What the hell? That made no sense, unless every instinct I possessed was off and Bella was actually a part of it. I could hear the guys debating this very fact, wondering if she was trying to lure them into an ambush.
"I just don't buy it," Jake was arguing. "That woman was genuinely scared. Bella?"
"Yes? It's so dark, I can barely see. I don't even know where the light is. Please help me!" The terror in her voice was evident, and I was seconds away from entering the bank and going to get her myself.
"We will," Jake assured her. "Listen, I'm SWAT officer Jacob Black and we want to help you, but there's no way our guy isn't still down there. We've seen the blueprints, and you told Edward there were only four points of entry, including the front door. The only exit is right here where we're standing."
The squad could hear her fumbling around in the dark basement, cursing the lack of light. "I've heard the stories, but I didn't think … I thought it had been sealed. Oh my God!"
"What is it?" Jake and I both shouted. She couldn't hear me, but I hated not being able to participate.
"It's the old door," she called up the stairs, and I turned up the mic as loud as possible. "This building is new, but it was built on top of the foundation of one of the city's original buildings. This door led to the tunnel system, but we were told it had been sealed up years ago."
The tunnels were one of the city's best-kept secrets. Vegas may be known for fun and debauchery, but it also boasts a large homeless population, ranking second in the nation. Hidden beneath the famous Las Vegas Strip and branching out across the sprawling metropolis was an extensive storm drain system, christened the Las Vegas Tunnels. The homeless found shelter there, and the complex labyrinth was known for its dangerous culture.
"Is the door open, Bella?" Jake asked.
"Yes!" She shouted. "I can see it now and smell the stale air. It's rank!"
"Why the hell didn't he take her?" Embry was asking. "He could have dragged her with him and had a head start."
"He's injured," Johnson explained. "We have no idea where Jake's shot hit him, and he knew if he took her she'd just slow him down, if not completely incapacitate him."
"Didn't look like a strong dude," Jake agreed. "He's on the run now."
Johnson immediately put out the alert and began campaigning with the brass to pursue. SWAT wasn't very familiar with the tunnel system, however, and we couldn't just go charging in despite the blood trail we knew we'd have. Inner city cops were more knowlegable about the storm drains, and the Captain began rounding up a group to go in after him.
While Johnson pled our case, Jake, Quil and Embry headed down to retrieve Bella, weapons drawn in case the partner was hiding in the dark tunnel entrance. I left my vest on and went into the now secure bank. City cops were in charge of taking the hostages' statements, and my entire team was assembling inside the bank, ready to go after the partner.
The lights were finally on, and the place was a mess. Paper was everywhere; desks and chairs were knocked over. Tyler pulled off his helmet and mopped the sweat off his forehead. "Can you believe this shit? I never thought about the fucking tunnels – that sure as hell wasn't on the blueprints."
"Yeah, I know," I agreed. "I saw them too, and there was nothing. Did you guys get anything from Joe?"
Tyler shook his head. "Nope. We were hoping to get the other guy's name but once Joe fired at the boss, we had to take him down. He was dead before the paramedics even came in."
Despite his criminal acts, I felt the same hollowed sense of loss I always did when a mission took a fatal turn. I wasn't surprised, but the result was still disappointing. He belonged to someone, and now that someone's life would be in shambles.
"You think she was in on it?" Tyler asked me as he took a huge pull of water.
"No." My response was instant. My number one priority on the squad was communicating and reading people, and I'd never once gotten the impression that Bella Swan was anything but a victim in all of this. "You heard her on the radio, Tyler. She was in shock when the guy disappeared."
"Yeah, she was."
Our conversation was cut short as Jake appeared in the lobby with a small, dark-haired woman. Her pale skin was bruising around her cheek and eye where she'd been hit, and there were wisps of wavy hair escaping from the knot at the nape of her neck. She had shown nothing but strength throughout this entire ordeal, and even now she walked of her own accord, holding her head up high and refusing Jake's assistance.
Her eyes scanned the room at the sound of my voice, and I took a cautious step forward. "Over here, Bella." The last thing I wanted to do was frighten her. Despite her obvious courage, something about her struck me as delicate, as though she needed to be handled with extra care.
"Edward?" She turned towards me, and her face registered surprise. "You? But you're … how old are you?"
I laughed and slowly moved to stand in front of her. "25. How are you doing?" I couldn't help but notice that she didn't look close to being 34. Her skin was flawless and probably glowing on a normal day, and her eyes were a dark shade of brown. She was an attractive woman, and I could easily see why she'd been the target for a kidnapping.
"Okay," Bella answered vaguely. "I'm sorry about the age comment, but I'd pictured you much older." Her chin quivered slightly. "Your voice and your words were the only things that kept me calm in here. Thank you."
"I was just doing my job, but you're welcome." My eyes swept over her, and I noticed her hands were shaking violently. "You should be really proud of yourself," I continued. "You helped keep everyone alive."
Bella nodded and then glanced around the bank, suddenly looking half nauseated. "Can we go outside, please? I'd like to get out of here for a while."
Johnson joined us before we could head out. "Listen, they're (define "they") not letting us go into the damn tunnels. We're not familiar enough with them and they claim we're too valuable to risk it. He's left a blood trail – Jake nailed him in the shoulder – so Vice is coming in and taking over. We're out."
"How did he get the door open so easily?" Bella asked quietly. "I know the history of this building, and I've been down there several times. I know it was sealed."
Johnson scratched his head, unsure of what to say. He didn't want to rattle Bella any more than she already was, but after everything she'd just been through, she had a right to know the truth.
"It was opened from the inside, right?" I asked Johnson, who nodded. Bella looked confused, and I continued. "That means that prior to entering the bank, the partner had already broken the seal. It was his plan all along to take you that way."
Bella closed her eyes for a brief second as she processed what I'd said. "I see. Thank you for telling me." Her stoic reaction threw me off guard; most people would have lost their composure, but she simply steeled herself and prepared to move forward. I'd never seen a victim react that way.
She asked again to go outside, and the three of us escorted her out to the waiting paramedics, as Jake grumbled his discontentment about not being able to 'finish the damned job'. Bella showed no signs of a concussion, but they wanted to admit her to the hospital as a precaution. I watched her with interest, noting how she seemed to withdraw into herself and put up a shield as soon as anyone began speaking with her. She wasn't hiding information; she was hiding herself.
"No." She stubbornly refused the paramedic. "Tomorrow is my day off, and I've got things I need to get done before coming back here. I'm sure the president will want to get the bank reopened immediately, and he's going to need my help. Thank you, but I'm fine."
A sweating Metro detective took Bella's statement, jotting down everything she could remember from the six-hour ordeal, and she agreed to come downtown the following day to speak with him again. The detective offered to drive her home, but she didn't have anyone to help her pick up her car the following day.
That's when it dawned on me: she hadn't asked us to call anyone for her. She hadn't been expecting someone to be waiting for her, desperate to rush into the safety of his arms. I knew she was divorced, but I would have expected someone to be there for her. Maybe the rest of her family lived out of state …
"Isn't there anyone we can call for you?" I asked her gently as she continued to decline the detective's offer. "You really shouldn't be driving tonight after everything you've been through."
Bella brushed the loose tendrils of hair out of her face and stared up at me with calculating eyes. "No, there's no one around, and I'd prefer to drive myself. I'll be fine. Thank you so much for everything."
She took the detective's card and reassured him she'd be at the station at noon tomorrow and then headed toward the employee parking garage as though nothing had happened.
"Miss Swan!" Detective Morris sputtered in surprise. "You were the subject of an attempted kidnapping, and the subject is at large. You can't just get in your car and drive home!"
Her shoulders tensed, and she slowly turned back around. "What do you suggest I do? I have to get home somehow – I need to feed my cat!"
"Isn't there anyone you can call?" Morris snapped, clearly irritated.
"No!" She burst out, her composure beginning to slip. "I don't have any family, and I'm divorced. There's no one to come for me. I told you guys that!"
"Bella," I gently laid my hand on her arm, and she recoiled as though I'd shocked her. I withdrew it immediately, not wanting to further agitate her. She'd been through more than enough already. "Sorry, but you really shouldn't stay at home tonight. It's obvious this was planned, and he probably knows where you live. You need to let the police secure your house first."
"I have to feed Otis," she whimpered in defeat.
My heart went out to the shaken woman in front of me. It was becoming clear that this was just another lousy day in her life, and I wished there was something I could do for her.
"Do you have any neighbors?" I kept my tone relaxed, trying to calm her down.
She chewed on her lower lip. "There's one couple I talk to occasionally – I take care of their plants when they go out of town. I guess I could call them, but their number's in my phone and I didn't get it back."
"It was probably with the bags of money Joe had. What's their last name? I can get the number for you."
Once again, her expression was uncertain and almost judgmental. "Why are you helping me?"
What the hell did I say to that? Was this woman so alone that she didn't know what it was like to be taken care of at all?
"It's my job," I finally answered. "Their names?"
"McCarty. Emmett and Rosalie McCarty."
My head hurt like hell. I just wanted to go home, take a Xanax, curl up with Otis and pass out. The past few hours had been like some vivid nightmare I couldn't wake up from. Maybe if I slept long enough, I would forget it and find the strength to move forward. Sleep had worked for me in the past when my life had fallen apart, and it was the only way I knew to deal with this mess.
It had been obvious that creepy bastard was going to try to take me. I knew it the second he had us all corralled behind the big counter, and I could feel his eyes on the back of my head. My sixth sense had kicked into overdrive, and there had been no doubt in my mind what was going on.
I didn't need to ask to know that Crazy Joe was in a body bag now either. I'd heard the shots going off as the taker had dragged me out of the lobby, but I didn't have it in me to feel sorry for him. I was too focused on what was happening to me.
The taker had spent hours taunting me, his gun always visable, whispering strange and random things about my hair color, my skin, the weather and the smell of the bank. He rambled on about anything he could think of but only to me. He kept his voice to a whisper, clearly aware of the police listening in.
As he hauled me down the stairs and into the basement, I was too exhausted to fight the gun that was digging into my back. All I could do was trust that Edward would keep his promise about rescuing me.
By the time the two SWAT guys finally descended the dark basement stairs to help me, I was numb. My ears were still ringing from the shot that knocked the taker down, and my head ached from where I'd been punched. Tall, dark and handsome SWAT guy checked me over, shining a damn bright flashlight in my eyes, and then he carefully helped me to my feet. He and his buddies said something about my having a concussion, but there was no way I was going to the hospital. My insurance deductible was too high, and the bank was going to need me now more than ever.
Despite my desperate need to get the hell out of the bank, the sight of SWAT officer Edward Cullen stopped me in my tracks.
I'd expected him to be attractive – his voice was too lovely for him not to be. But he wasn't nearly old enough to have been so calm and skilled at his negotiations. I couldn't help but blurt out the age comment and immediately felt foolish. He handled it with grace, however, and his obvious dedication to his job was impressive. After insisting that I call him Edward, he hovered nearby while the paramedics assessed me and the pushy detective rattled off his questions. I answered them as best as I could – I was still trying to sort everything out in my head.
What had the man wanted with me? The cops had come to the same conclusion I had in the first five minutes of the robbery: Joe and the taker had two different agendas, and Joe was completely clueless about it. By the time SWAT came into the building, I'd resigned myself to my fate. The taker was too calm and calculating, his fixation on me too intense. He knew bits and pieces of my daily routine, boring and repetitive as it was, and he'd obviously been planning this for a while. But the tunnels? I should have remembered that little piece of history about the bank and sensed that was his plan of escape all along.
Now I couldn't be home alone. At least not tonight. The last thing I wanted to do was to impose on my neighbors, but I obviously didn't have a choice. I didn't miss the fact that Edward Cullen was using his considerable negotiating skills on me, but I was simply too tired to put up a fight. I just wanted to sleep.
Of course the McCarty's had immediately offered to take me in, and I grudgingly agreed to a police escort home, leaving my car downtown. I could feel Edward staring at me as though he were trying to figure me out, and I felt uncomfortable. On cue, he softly spoke my name.
"Bella?" The sound of his voice sent an odd shiver down my spine, along with a nervewracking sense of comfort. During the long hours in the bank, I'd replayed his words to me over and over, clinging to them for my own sanity. If I focused on taking care of the hostages as Edward had instructed, I could block out some of what the creepy taker was saying to me.
"Yes?" I looked up into his eyes, and underneath the bright street light, I could see they were a very pretty shade of green, a perfect match for his copper-colored hair.
Edward smiled warmly at me. "Do you mind if I ride along with the patrol officer? I'd really like to do a quick recon on your place and make sure you get to your friends safely."
"They aren't my friends," I automatically corrected him. "Just neighbors."
His lovely eyes narrowed perceptively, and my stomach flipped. Why was he paying so much attention? "Still, I want to check your place out. Is it all right?"
"Whatever you like." I had to refuse medical attention twice more before I was allowed to leave and reassure the nervous detective that I would be at the station tomorrow. I followed the stocky patrol officer to a fancy new police cruiser and automatically got into the back seat, declining Edward's offer to sit up front. The back seat was much less invasive.
I leaned against the cool leather and watched the lights of the city fly by as the car wound through the streets toward my home in Henderson, a suburb about seven miles from the Strip. My reflection glared back at me in the illuminated window, and I gingerly touched the swollen bruise on my cheek. That was going to take some time to heal.
"A good piece of meat works wonders," Edward said casually.
My eyes snapped forward, and I could see him studying me in the mirror. "Excuse me?"
A small smile played around the corners of his mouth. "For the bruising. It's an incredible cliché, but it's also true. Buy a t-bone, and slap it on there. It will go away a lot faster."
"Thanks." I crossed my arms over my chest and tried to go back to watching the lights. Despite the violence and bitter memories this town had left me with, Las Vegas at night always made me feel better. The harsh reality of the world was hidden by bright lights and beautiful architecture, and the city at night really did seem like a place where dreams could come true.
Edward was speaking again, asking for directions to my place in Henderson. I lived in the Big Horn Condos, a nice area that backed up to the mountains, complete with beautiful views, pretty parks and happy families. It was safe, clean and certainly pretty but not showy like a lot of the condominiums in Henderson. The patrol officer flashed his badge at Roy, one of the night security guards, and I sunk down in the backseat, hoping Roy didn't recognize me.
My building was at the south end of the complex, and I was fortunate enough to be located on the second floor. Edward insisted on doing what he called a 'perimeter sweep' before allowing me to go inside.
"Looks clear, but I'm going up with you." His voice had a new tone of authority. He instructed the young patrol officer to stay behind, and we headed into the building. Edward's eyes never stopped moving as he took in every detail, obviously looking for things I knew nothing about. The elevator ride was silent, and I carefully studied my knock off boots, too uncomfortable to look him in the eye.
"Give me your key, please." He unlocked the door and slowly peered inside my dark condo, his body tense. I waited nervously behind him and took in his entire uniform for the first time. He was still wearing the dark clothes of the SWAT team, although he'd discarded the heavy, protective vest. A radio hung on his hip, and there was some kind of mic in his left ear. My eyes were drawn to his right hand as his long, slender fingers hovered over the large, black gun holstered to his waist.
I hadn't even blinked when tall, dark and handsome SWAT guy had entered the basement brandishing his huge assault rifle, but the sight of the handgun that was so similar to the one my tormentors had worn was too much for me, and my stomach recoiled.
"I'm going to be sick!" I shoved Edward aside, ignoring his orders to stand down, and made a mad rush for my bathroom. My body finally gave into the stress it had endured today, and I wretched loudly into the toilet until there was nothing left in my stomach.
As the dry heaves finally ceased, I laid my aching cheek on the cool porcelain and came face to face with a pair of glowing yellow eyes.
"Otis," I sighed, reaching up with a shaking hand to pet the fat, orange tabby. "You never let me down, you know that?"
He answered with a loud mewling, informing me that he was starving, and I attempted to stand and find the poor animal something to eat. The room tilted suddenly, and I grabbed onto the iron towel bar to keep from falling.
"Whoa," Edward stepped into the bathroom, completely unfazed by the unpleasant mess I'd created. He gently grabbed my arms and guided me to the sink. "Well, that took a lot longer than I thought it would." He turned on the cold water and soaked my blue hand towel before handing it to me to clean myself up.
"What?" I asked as I pressed the cool cloth to my face.
"The shock is finally settling in, Bella." His tone was gentle, as though he were talking to a small child. "That's why you threw up."
"I threw up because I saw your gun, and it's just like theirs."
"Yes, and that's called shock. I'm glad you're not going to be alone tonight."
I shook off his concern, quickly brushed my teeth, and then began throwing some things into an overnight bag. "I take it no one's been here then?"
"Doesn't look like it," he replied, his eyes once again roaming over me. "Why don't you finish and then have a look around. Tell me if you see anything out of place."
Everything looked just as I'd left it: pristine and boring. Various shades of neutrals and whites littered the place – Otis was the most colorful thing I owned. I fed the hungry cat and made sure he had water, promising him I would be back home tomorrow, and then locked up as Edward looked on.
Emmett and Rosalie lived in the other second floor unit, and I expected Edward to simply wait for me to go into their place, but he stopped me before I could knock.
"Listen, Bella. I've had a lot of experience with victims, and I have to admit, you're one of the most peculiar ones I've ever seen. You handled yourself incredibly well, but I'm not sure you've really come to grips with what's happened to you. I think you may need some help to deal with everything, and that's normal."
My expression turned cold, even as my heart pounded at his words. "Edward, I appreciate everything you've done for me today. You were grace under pressure and most likely saved my life, along with all the other hostages, but we're done here. I'm safe and sound, and I'll be checking in with Detective Morris tomorrow."
The dismissive tone didn't faze him; he merely smiled and dug into his pocket. "I didn't mean to upset you, but like I said, I've dealt with a lot of victims, and I can tell you right now that you're going to try to move on like this never happened, and it won't work. You need to talk to someone, especially since the guy is still at large. Once you recover from the shock, the real mind games will start."
Edward stepped forward, invading my personal space, and handed me a white business card. "My sister and her husband run a support group for victims of violent crimes. They're both therapists and very easy to talk to. When the time's right, give them a call."
He moved back with a smile and motioned for me to knock. Half-dazed, I followed his instructions. This guy was far too perceptive for my liking, and I just wanted to get away from his intense stare.
The door flew opened, and a nervous Emmett McCarty reached out to shake my hand. He was large and appeared intimidating, but he was a very nice, jovial man. "Bella! We saw on the news but had no idea it was your bank! Are you okay?"
"I'm fine." The response was automatic. "Thank you for letting me stay, even though it's unnecessary."
"Of course it's necessary!" He argued. "You shouldn't be by yourself tonight." He glanced at Edward. "Are you a cop?"
Edward extended his hand. "SWAT officer Cullen, I'm the one who called you. You and your wife understand one of the perps is still at large, correct?"
I marveled at how easily the man could go from concerned observer to authority figure.
"Yeah, I got that. It's okay; we don't want Bella to be by herself." He turned to me. "Rose had to crash. She's got an early meeting tomorrow, but said to make yourself at home."
I nodded, half-sick at the idea of making myself at home in Rosalie's house. She was kind but extremely out of my league.
Edward assured Emmett and me there would be a patrol outside the community all night, and he was pleased to know the building's alarm system was newly installed. Emmett took my bag, and I turned to finally say goodbye to Edward Cullen.
His concerned stare was back in place, and I raised my chin in defiance. "Thank you again for everything, Edward." I extended my hand and he quickly seized it, sending another annoying shiver down my spine.
"You're welcome, Bella. Please listen to the police and do whatever they ask. It's the best way for you to stay safe. Don't worry about the partner. We'll catch him."
"I'm sure you will. Take care."
His red lips turned up in a lopsided smirk at my clear dismissal. "You too. And don't lose that card, please – just in case you change your mind." He nodded and then turned, heading down the hall and out of my life as abruptly as he'd shown up. I watched him walk away, suddenly feeling even more alone than usual.
"Come on in Bella." Emmett's deep voice broke into my melancholy. "You need to get some rest."
I closed the door wondering if anything would ever be the same again.
Chapter 3 – Never Think?
I couldn't sleep.
The small guest room was too quiet, and I missed the comforting sound of my old, noisy fan. I needed its strange lullaby more than ever, as my overworked brain refused to be still, replaying the details of the night over and over again like a broken record, so full of intrusive images it couldn't settle on just one.
My face still hurt like hell, the ice having long ago melted, and the painkillers were doing nothing. The memory of the taker refused to go away. His taunts and innuendos were burned into my head, along with the strange glint in his eyes as he constantly watched me. Like so many other times in my life, I wished I had a real ability to see the future. At least I would know what his plans were, and I wouldn't be in the position I'd been in for the past several years. I pushed that miserable truth aside and went back to obsessing over the last several hours.
The police tried to convince me it was doubtful he would come back for me, insisting they were just being cautious, but it was hard to take them seriously when I wasn't sleeping in my own bed. The taker had clearly known about the old entrance to The Tunnels in the bank's foundation – a fact most of the employees weren't even aware of. The history of the building was public record, but finding the door and breaking it open from the inside of the storm drains must have taken some intense planning. My family ties had been severed long ago, so I was dumbfounded as to what he was after. If it was about money, then why the hell had he let crazy Joe hang onto it? It was obvious from the start that the taker wasn't planning on them leaving together. Had he picked me out of millions of other thirty-something in Vegas and somehow fixated on me?
I had to stop thinking about it. There were no answers right now, and I needed to rest. As a headache began to creep up the sides of my skull, I struggled to find a positive memory from the night.
Edward Cullen immediately made his way into my thoughts, and I wanted to pull my hair out. The last thing I needed to think about was the observant young SWAT officer with the incredible voice. I remembered the way he'd studied me, as though he knew I had an entire well of secrets, and my stomach knotted. I wasn't sure if the reaction was to his beautiful green eyes or to the perception within them, but I was even more unsettled.
I threw off the down comforter, wishing I'd brought my robe. You'd never know it was 80 degrees outside by the frigid temperature in Rosalie and Emmett's condo. I tapped my phone and grimaced when I saw it was 3 am. Sitting on the edge of the high bed, my toes barely reaching the frieze carpet, I stared at the LCD screen, suddenly wishing there was someone I could call. I'd made it clear to Edward I didn't need anyone to talk to, and that was usually true. Solitude was something I was more than used to, and I always had Otis to listen to me, but I'd never needed companionship like I did right now. I wanted to pour my heart out and be reassured that everything was going to be all right. I just wanted a friend, and there wasn't a single soul to call.
Bridges had been burned with my family a long time ago, and I had been immediately cast out of our circle of friends when Paul had left. They had never been my friends anyway, but being forgotten was still a slap in the face. Everything had always been about Paul, and I'd just been too blind to see that. I guess that's what happens when you're seventeen and fall in love with a man ten years your senior. He'd replaced the father I'd never really had, became the lover I longed for and made me feel safe and wanted. I finally fit in and no longer felt like the odd girl in the corner when I was by his side. He was the only person I felt I could truly confide in, and that feeling only intensified when we ran off to Las Vegas right after I graduated high school. He was all I had … and he reveled in that.
Paul had walked out just two weeks after my 29th birthday, claiming we'd grown apart because of my occasional bouts of depression. He'd been seeing someone else for a while, and I'd been too afraid to say anything. The divorce was quick and amicable; we split everything 50/50 as long as he didn't have to pay alimony. Paul just wanted to wash his hands of me and everything I'd ever meant to him, and he did just that. I quickly found out the friends were really his, and I had no one.
I don't like to think about the days that followed my divorce. The overpowering depression nearly won out, and I questioned every decision I'd ever made. I went through the motions until the house was sold and I'd found a place to live but then took a leave of absence from work and holed up, utterly broken. There were days when I thought I'd never recover, but an inner strength I didn't even realize I possessed emerged, and I slowly pulled myself out of the dark. I'd never really known who I was, and I didn't want to remember the person I'd been for the last several years, so I began the process of starting over. I worked my way up to branch manager at the bank to help pay the bills on the new condo I could barely remember purchasing, and life went on.
Sitting in the cold guest room and mulling over my past, a startling truth settled on my heart: if the worst had happened, there would have been no friends to inform, no grieving husband, no broken children … just a mother and stepfather who hadn't spoken to me in 16 years. My life consisted of Otis and the few material possessions in the place across the hall. The familiar crushing misery threatened to engulf me as a moment of intense clarity washed over me, and I realized how utterly alone and pathetic I was.
I clutched my chest, steeling myself again the pain. It wasn't going to pull me under this time. I was alive, I could take care of myself, and I was worth something. I'd helped those people in the bank tonight, and hopefully they'd never forget that. I wiped the moisture off my cheeks and sucked in a deep breath of air. I would never allow myself to give into the depression again. I had to make the best of what I had and I would keep moving forward, no matter how solitary of an existence I led.
My stomach growled loudly, and I decided food would be the perfect distraction. Poor Emmett had been so sweet, hovering over me like a mother hen as he'd shown me the guest room and made sure I had everything I needed. He'd pleaded with me to eat something, but all I'd wanted was to shower and crawl into bed. Now I was starving, and there was no way my complaining stomach would wait until morning. Hopefully, both Emmett and Rosalie were asleep and wouldn't be subject to my creeping around their apartment in my old t-shirt and faded sleep shorts. I snuck down the hall, grimacing as Emmett's snores rumbled. One benefit of living alone: silence.
Their condo was basically a mirror image of my own, so I had to fumble around to find the kitchen. Quietly as I could, I hunted through the cabinets until my eyes landed on a box of Lucky Charms. That would do. Instinct served me well as I discovered Rosalie kept her dishes to the left of the sink, just as I did, and I settled at the counter to eat my bowl of cereal. I was halfway through when a noise in the hallway startled me, and I jumped to my feet, heart racing.
"It's just me," Rosalie's soft voice called out. "Relax." She padded into view, and I was surprised to see the woman who was always impeccably dressed wearing old sweats and a worn shirt. "Sorry, Emmett woke me up because of my snoring. He couldn't take it anymore."
"That was you?" I blurted out. "Holy shit!"
Rosalie's face heated up, and I instantly felt bad. "I'm sorry, that was rude. I just … that's surprising."
"I need to have the sinus surgery, but I don't want to," she said sheepishly. "I'm afraid my face will scar."
That didn't surprise me. Rosalie McCarty was one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen, even when she was wearing old, junky clothes. She was tall and curvy, with flowing blond hair, spotless skin and violet eyes that could rival Elizabeth Taylor's. I wasn't ugly by any means, but if I looked like her, I wouldn't want them messing with my face either.
"I don't think it scars, but I don't blame you," I quietly went back to my cereal. "Sorry for rummaging around, but Emmett said to make myself at home, and I was starving."
Rosalie stared. "Bella, are you kidding me? You were almost kidnapped! I don't give a shit about your rummaging around the cabinets. How are you?" She stepped forward to examine my bruised face. "That looks painful."
"It's not bad," I lied, jerking away from her. "And I'm okay, thanks."
She sighed and sat down on the bar stool next to me. "There's no possible way you could be okay. Do you want to talk about it?" Rosalie laid her hand on my arm and gave it a gentle squeeze, and I was touched by the kind gesture. She was a nice woman, and it would be wonderful to have a friend like her. But the urge to communicate had passed, and I'd been alone so long I didn't know how to open up anyway. She didn't need to hear about my problems, and I didn't want to spill my life story.
"No thanks," I replied. "I just want to forget it and move on."
"Forget being held at gunpoint and almost kidnapped?" She scoffed. "That's not something you can forget – that's something you need to deal with and talk about."
I finished my cereal and headed to the sink to rinse out the bowl. "Really, Rose, I'm fine."
She sighed, shaking her head. "You are a hard nut to crack, Bella Swan. Why won't you let me in? I would love to be your friend and be there for you."
Her earnest tone surprised me, and I had no response. "You're such a sweet person," Rosalie continued, "but you're always so quietand I never see you having company. Do you have anyone you can talk to about this?"
Emotional overload had left a crack in my defenses. "Not really. But it's fine," I backtracked at my mistake. "Like I said, I'll be all right. Just need to rest tonight and move on tomorrow."
"That's ridiculous," she snapped, leaving her perch on the stool and stomping around the corner. She yanked a drawer open and began digging through its contents. "You need to talk to someone about this, and if you don't want it to be me, then fine. But there are support groups out there …"
Edward's suggestion came to mind, as well as the image of his long, slender fingers as he handed me the card for the victim's group his sister ran (CHECK). "What are you looking for?" I changed the subject.
Rosalie didn't miss a beat. "Smooth. I'm looking for something to write on. I've got to be at work early in the morning, and I want you to have my cell number in case you come to your senses and decide you want to talk."
"Thanks, Rose, but I'm tougher than I look. I can handle it."
"Sure, Bella." She fished out a piece of scrap paper and quickly scrawled her number on it. "I don't know what's happened in your life to make you believe you've got to be the rock of Gibraltar, but it's okay to need someone every once in while. Doesn't make you weak."
"I know that," I bristled. What was I supposed to say? I'd always been the outcast, watching from the sidelines, not allowed into the inner circles because of my quiet personality, my high intelligence and my tendency to brood. Rosalie McCarty was a nice woman, but she didn't strike me as the type who would be able to put up with the intensity that came with being my friend. "I appreciate your help, but I'd really like to deal with this in my own way. It's always worked for me, and I'm sure it will again."
Rosalie looked disappointed and shoved the paper into the pocket of my shirt. "I don't know what's happened to you in the past, but I hope you can learn to let go of it and start living your life. Let someone in before it's too late, Bella." She patted my cheek and shuffled away, leaving me alone in the kitchen.
I found my way back to the cold guest room, feeling as empty as I had when I'd left it earlier. Despite the events of the long day, nothing had really changed. I was as isolated as ever and completely clueless about how to fix it.
Fitful sleep eventually came with dreams full of rushed whispers and dark colors. I woke up covered in sweat, my heart pounding. I couldn't remember what the dream was about, but it had been terrifying. I could see the sun shining in behind the room-darkening blinds, and knew I should get up. I needed another shower, and I had to get back home to feed Otis.
It was past eleven when I trudged out of the guest room, feeling slightly better. I wore a comfortable blue shirt, khaki shorts (CHECK) and my favorite pair of sandals. There was little to be done for the bruising on my face; I moisturized and put on a little powder and some lip-gloss. Emmett was in the kitchen just finishing up his breakfast.
"Good morning, Bella!" He sang cheerfully. "How are you doing?"
I smiled despite my heavy head. "Better, thank you."
Emmett grinned. "Hungry?"
"Not really. I've got to call a cab so I can get downtown and pick up my car before I meet the detective." I wasn't looking forward to getting grilled again. Detective Morris had no people skills, unlike the smooth-talking Edward Cullen. I grimaced at the reminder and turned my attention back to Emmett. "Are you off today?"
"I took this morning off," Emmett replied. He worked for a landscaping company, hence the large display of plants in their condo. "I wanted to make sure you were doing okay, and I'm not letting you take a cab. I'll drive you to pick up your car."
Anxiety rushed over me. "No, I can't let you do that. Go to work, please."
Emmett shut the refrigerator door and leaned over the counter, his blue eyes boring into me. "Bella, you have to let us help you. That guy is out there, and as far as we know, the cops have no leads. You can't just go running around like nothing's happened."
"I can't impose…"
"I'm not taking no for an answer. There's no way I'm letting you leave here by yourself, and I'm not thrilled at the idea of your leaving the station alone."
Emmett would hear no more arguments and followed me to my apartment where I fed Otis and listened to the messages on my machine. There were two from the bank president expressing his gratitude that I was all right and telling me to take the rest of the week off. I'd been hoping he would need me to take care of things at the bank. Now I'd be stuck in my apartment – or worse yet, my neighbors' – with only my thoughts to keep me company. "He's afraid you'll sue," Emmett told me when we headed out to his Jeep.
"Because you were almost kidnapped from his bank. He's liable for your safety. A good lawyer could make a case for you, I'm sure."
I just shook my head; I would never do that to Mike Newton. He treated me well, encouraged me to bounce back after the divorce and had been happy to promote me to branch manager. I was lucky to work for the guy.
Emmett helped me into the large Jeep, and I was immediately nervous. I wasn't very good in social situations anymore. A work environment was different – I knew my position there, and no one wanted to pry into my business. Emmett seemed to genuinely care, and I was afraid of saying something stupid.
"So," he broke the strained silence. "What was that SWAT guy telling you about a support group?"
I bit my lip suppressing a groan at the reminder of Edward. I felt bad about being rude to him after all he'd done, but everything about the man made me nervous. He was too good looking, too perceptive, too good at what he did. If I weren't careful, I'd end up telling him all of my secrets.
"Yes," I finally answered. "His sister is a therapist, and she runs a group. He thought I should check it out."
"Sounds like a good idea."
"Why?" Did Emmett think I needed therapy? Could he tell I had issues?
"I didn't mean to offend you," Emmett said quickly as he swerved into the left lane to pass another car. "I just think after what you went through, talking to someone who knows how to help would be a good thing, don't you?"
"Sure." There was sarcasm in my tone, and Emmett let the subject drop. The rest of the ride was quiet, but as we turned onto the Strip and neared the bank, the weight on my chest seemed to grow until I felt as though I couldn't catch a breath. I closed my eyes as we drove past the building, which was still taped off with the yellow crime tape.
"We're past it," Emmett whispered. "You okay?"
"Fine, thank you."
I guided Emmett to my red Chevy Malibu, and he insisted on checking the car out before letting me leave. He wrote his cell phone number down and made me promise to go right from the station to the store, pick up a new phone and then call him.
"Thank you Emmett. I'm sure the police will let me go home tonight, but I appreciate all you and Rosalie have done for me."
"Just do whatever the police ask, all right? You're welcome to stay over with us as long as you need to."
I politely told him what he wanted to hear and then made my escape. I could only handle so much attention at a time, and I needed to clear my mind before talking to the sour-faced detective.
My stomach was in knots as I headed downtown, and somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew it wasn't just because I was dreading giving my statement. I could only hope SWAT officers didn't hang out at the precinct.
"Is she here yet?" I asked Sergeant Johnson as I arrived at Las Vegas Metro's downtown location. Although SWAT worked throughout the city, we called downtown headquarters. I was off duty today, but I wanted to be briefed on Bella's case. Johnson seemed to never leave the station, always filing a report or working on our next training, so it was no surprise to find him at his desk.
"Who?" He asked, hidden behind a mound of paper.
Johnson peered around the stack of sheets, his bushy eyebrow raised. "Oh it's Bella, is it? Last time I heard, it was Ms. Swan."
I rolled my eyes. "Come on, boss. She's a victim, and I know she's coming in today to brief with Morris. I helped escort her home last night, and I just wanted to know how she was doing."
He looked unconvinced. "I'm sure she's fine. Looked like a tough cookie."
That was an understatement. Aside from her predictable reaction when she saw me draw my weapon, Bella had seemed barely fazed by what she'd been through. Her grace under pressure had amazed me, and the way she stood up to James and his partner, positioning herself between them and the hostages, took courage few people possessed.
Once we arrived at her apartment, however, and I saw how pristine and cold her life was, I had to wonder who the hell was taking care of her. She had no one to call; the only one she was worried about was her fat tabby cat, and she barely knew the neighbors. Why was she so isolated? Loneliness emanated from her, and I could see the quiet acceptance of her life in her brown eyes. That nearly vacant look had haunted me all night, and I'd barely been able to rest. It wasn't right that such a strong woman could be so emotionally detached after an experience like that. There was something more there, and I could only hope she would take my advice and go visit the victims' support group.
"Any leads on the escaped partner?" I asked Johnson, trying to distract my mind from the mystery of Bella Swan.
"Vice tracked him halfway through the damn tunnels – way off the Strip. Looked like he disappeared, but they bullied some junkies into giving up some location information. They're following up on it now."
I didn't have a lot of faith they'd catch him. This had been an organized endeavor; anyone who'd done enough hands-on research to escape through the dangerous Vegas tunnels had no fear and knew exactly what he was doing. I checked my watch, noticing that it was just past noon. Bella was supposed to be talking with Morris, and I decided to stroll down to his department and check in.
"See ya later, boss."
Johnson grunted at me and went back to his paperwork, and I headed through the decorated halls of the new police station.
"C! Wait up!" Jake yelled at me, his long legs quickly matching my stride. "What are you doing here?"
"Checking in on the Swan case," I answered. "She's coming in to talk to Morris, and I wanted to see how she was doing."
Jake stopped walking and put a broad hand on my chest. "Really? That's interesting."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
He held up his hands at my defensive tone. "Look man, you're one of my best friends and I know you. Is it a good idea to be going after a victim? I mean, isn't there some kind of ethics code or something?"
"Jesus, Jake," I shoved him off and kept walking. "First off, I'm not going after her. I escorted her home last night and for all her bravado, I think she needs help. Secondly, yeah, there are rules. If she's an active case, it's pretty frowned on."
"Sure, sure," he laughed. "Hey, don't get me wrong, she's hot. I don't blame you for looking twice, even if she's a little older."
"I'm not looking!" I didn't bother to hide my exasperation. "I don't think she has anyone to be there for her, and she doesn't even realize how much she needs that." Realizing how emo I was starting to sound, I struggled to backtrack. "I just want to make sure she gets through this until the partner's caught."
Jake didn't believe me, but he didn't press the subject. "I should have nailed the bastard in the head," he grumbled. "Then he wouldn't have escaped. The fucking tunnels! Can you believe that shit?"
"No," I was still reeling from how things had gone down. "But you were shooting into the dark, and they didn't want you to shoot to kill. You did the best you could."
Jake started rambling about how he would have liked to handle it, but I was no longer paying attention to him. Bella Swan was sitting in an uncomfortable chair outside of Detective Morris' office looking incredibly nervous. She was dressed casually in shorts, and the male in me couldn't help but appreciate the view of her shapely legs, as well as the way the light-blue shirt she wore complimented her skin. Her dark, wavy brown hair fell over her shoulder, hiding her face from me, and I was struck by the sudden urge to sweep it out of the way.
As though she could sense my scrutiny, her head suddenly turned and our eyes met. I cringed at the darkened bruise on her temple (CHECK); I'd nearly forgotten the bastard had hit her. Irritation flickered across her face, and she quickly turned her back to me.
"Nice," Jake snickered. "Looks like she's not interested, C."
"Shut the fuck up and go bother someone else."
Jake smirked and then sauntered up to Bella. "Ms. Swan, how are you doing today?"
She stared up at him, clearly unnerved by his friendliness. "I'm fine. But I'm sorry, I don't remember your name."
"It's Jake Black."
"Well Jake, thank you again for getting me out of that basement." Her voice was soft, and I had to strain to eavesdrop. "And I'm really sorry I didn't remember about the entrance to the Tunnels. I still can't believe it."
Jake waved her off. "Don't worry about it. You just need to take care of yourself and let us help you until we catch this guy."
"Do you really think you'll be able to do that?"
He opened his mouth, no doubt ready to sugarcoat the situation, but I finally found my voice. "We're going to do everything we can, Bella," I ventured closer and watched as she visibly tensed at the sound of my voice. "But I don't want to mislead you – it's going to be very difficult."
An awkward silence hung over the three of us as Bella closed her eyes and pinched her mouth into a tight, straight line. Was she pissed off or just frightened at my words?
"C's right," Jake broke the tension. "The department is busting our ass to catch him. Try not to worry, okay?"
Bella's eyes popped open, and a subtle mask fell down over her face. "I'll do my best, thank you."
Jake headed down to the training room, leaving Bella and me in another charged silence. I couldn't help but be fascinated by her body language: she was now sitting straight in the chair, angling herself so she was literally giving me the cold shoulder. Tension came off her in waves, and I knew I had to tread very carefully if I wanted any chance of getting closer to her.
"Are you okay?" I asked quietly.
"Yes," she replied curtly. "Perfectly fine."
"That's funny because you really don't look fine."
Bella turned to glare up at me, her eyes bright with anger. I hadn't realized what an interesting shade of brown they were until now. "I'm sorry, Officer Cullen. I apologize if I'm tired and bruised – I had a bit of a rough night, and I'd really like to get this interview over with so I can get on with my life."
Her hateful tone caught me off guard, and I wasn't able to keep my cool, something that was completely unlike me. "First off, Bella, I told you to call me Edward. Secondly, I wasn't referring to your looks at all. You look great for everything you've been through and if you'll recall, I was there. I know what happened…"
Bad choice of words.
"Excuse me? You were there?" She snapped. "Really? I didn't see you in the bank with a psycho holding a damned gun to your head! And I sure as hell didn't see you in the basement when I thought he was going to kill me. All I heard was your voice, trying to talk them down. You were safe outside, Edward!"
What was wrong with this woman? "I just meant I know you went through hell, that's all!" I took a deep breath, trying to calm my temper and soften my tone. "Look, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. I just thought you looked upset sitting here, and I wanted to make sure you were all right, that's all. I was worried about you, Bella."
I had no idea where that last sentence came from, but the affect it had on her was instant. Her shoulders sagged and a pained expression flickered across her face. "I'm sorry," she finally mumbled. "I barely slept last night, I'm exhausted, and I just want this to be over with. I took it out on you, and I apologize. You've been extremely kind to me, and that was totally uncalled for."
Struck by the sadness in her voice, I knelt down so we were at eye level. She immediately lowered her face and without thinking, I slipped two fingers under her chin and tilted her head until our eyes met. "Don't worry about it. You've been through something awful, and you need someone to take it out on, right?"
Her eyes narrowed slightly, and I knew she'd caught on to the double meaning in my words. The mask and formal tone returned. "Again, I'm sorry. Since it looks like you're willing to be honest with me, what do you think the chances of catching this guy are?"
The abrupt shift in topic didn't faze me. "Why didn't you sleep well?"
"I was just wondering why you had a hard time sleeping." I shifted out of my crouched position and settled on my knees. "Don't get me wrong, I'm not surprised. But was it because you were out of sorts and not in your own bed, or because you were still scared? Do you feel safe at Emmett's?"
I really had no idea why I was asking her all of these questions, nor did I expect her to give me any answers.
Her candid response surprised me. "I felt safe there," she whispered. "Yes, I was out of sorts and I missed Otis, but I just couldn't stop thinking, you know?" She wasn't looking at me but rather staring straight ahead, as though she were talking to no one.
"About what happened?" I prompted.
"Yeah, but not just that. About everything and nothing. My mind just wouldn't shut off."
Bella's expression was so sad I couldn't help but reach out and touch her again, laying a hand on the soft skin of her arm. The physical contact was like a switch; she immediately tensed and snapped back to her closed off persona. "Just a long night, but you never answered my question. Do you think they'll catch him?"
Her eyes were narrowed and guarded, and I knew I'd pushed her enough for now. "Honestly?"
"Catching him is going to be really tricky," I sighed. "The guy was prepared. He knew that entrance was there, and he knows the tunnels. Sounds like we may have a lead, but I don't want to get your hopes up."
She nodded stoically as though I were giving her some kind of construction estimate instead of telling her that her life was still potentially in danger. "I won't. What's the lead?"
"Ms. Swan, why don't you come into my office, and I'll tell you what we know." Detective Morris was suddenly at her other side, glaring at us both. He motioned for Bella to enter his office and then turned to me. "Got it under control, Cullen, thanks."
I rolled my eyes as I got to my feet. Some of the detectives around the station had a chip on their shoulders against SWAT, myself in particular. They didn't like all the attention we received, even if it was earned, and to see such a young officer rise up so quickly pissed them off to no end. Fucking politics.
Ignoring the red-faced detective, I turned to Bella, who had jumped up and was now watching me from the doorway. I was struck once again by how small and fragile she really was despite the shield she surrounded herself with.
"Do you still have the card I gave you?"
She pursed her lips. "Yes, I do."
"Good. Use it, please." I grinned, and her pale skin was suddenly very pink. What was that all about?
"Take care, Edward," she called over her shoulder as she rushed into Morris's office. He turned on his heel and stomped inside, slamming the door.
"Douche." I stretched and checked my watch. It was getting close to noon, and I had to meet my sister for lunch. I was in no mood to hear her bitching because I was late again, so I hurried out to my car, wondering what had put that cute little blush on Bella Swan's face.
It was another hot day, and I cranked up the air conditioning in the silver Volvo; my car was the one luxury I'd afforded myself after making the SWAT team and receiving a nice increase in salary. My apartment in East Las Vegas was a modest one bedroom, and I'd been able to save enough to make a large down payment on the car. I drove around for ten minutes looking for a parking spot and then walked the last few blocks to the Carson Street Café on Fremont.
Of course she was waiting for me, tapping her little foot impatiently.
"Finally!" Alice grumbled as I slid into the booth across from her. "I swear to God, you're never on time for anything."
"Bullshit. I'm only a couple of minutes late, so that doesn't count."
Alice huffed and flagged down the waitress, ordering the usual for both of us. My sister and I had been coming to the Cafe once a week since I'd joined the force. She'd been extremely proud of me but terrified at the prospect of something happening, and she insisted we make time for one another. Alice was three years older than me, but we'd always been very close, and even though I loved to tease her about it, I looked forward to our weekly lunches just as much as she did.
"Read the paper this morning." She cut right to the chase. "Sounds like things got a bit messy, baby brother."
I scowled. No one pushed me harder than Alice; I both loved and hated her for it. "I did my job as well as I could. The guy escaped into an old entrance to the fucking tunnels, Al."
"Yeah, I read that." She took a sip of her tea. "Have they found him yet?"
"You know I can't discuss case details with you."
She twisted a lock of her short, wispy, black hair around her finger. "I'll take that as a no. What about the branch manager? The papers said she refused to talk to the press. How's she handling it?"
Alice had gone to UNLV on a full scholarship just as I had, and had majored in psychology. She was a licensed therapist, and she and her husband Jasper ran a successful downtown practice. Their victim support group was something they did on spare time as Alice had grown tired of seeing so many victims of violent crime with no one to talk to because they didn't have any insurance.
"It's hard to say," I hedged, chewing on my lip. "Bella's hard to read."
Alice paused, glass in midair. "Bella?"
"Yeah, that's her name."
"I figured that much, jackass. I've just never heard you refer to a victim by a first name. It's usually pronouns or 'the vic.'"
She was right. I had to maintain a level of detachment and professionalism in order to do my job, and most of the time it was second nature to me, just as my negotiating skills were. But something about Bella Swan was different, and it bugged the hell out of me.
Alice cleared her throat, waiting for my response.
She sat down her glass and smirked at me; this was one of the only times our family resemblance was noticeable. I was tall; she was short. Her hair was black, and mine was reddish-brown. Aside from our pale complexions and green eyes, we didn't look very much alike – except for the crooked smirk. We'd inherited it from Carlisle, and our mother insisted it was the reason we got away with so much when we were little.
"So this Bella," Alice started fishing. "You think she's hard to read? Why?"
"I have no idea," I said honestly. "She was so tough last night, but at the same time, it was like she was walking around with some kind of giant shield – like all the strength was just a mask. Every once in a while, I'd catch a glimpse of something in her eyes. I just don't know what it was."
"I'm not following you."
I pulled at my messy hair. "She had no one to call, Alice. Hours in that bank, almost kidnapped, and there was literally no one. It was like she was on auto-pilot, just wanting to get home and go on with her shell of a life."
Alice raised her eyebrow. "That's pretty harsh. You saw the woman at her worst, Edward. How do you know she has a shell of a life? As for her being on autopilot, that's normal after a trauma like that. It usually takes a few days for the reality to sink in."
"I just know," I said stupidly. "She was embarrassed about not having anyone, and she worked so hard to keep an emotional distance from all of us. There were no friends she could call to stay with, and she barely knows her neighbors. I can't explain it, but when I saw her today…"
"You saw her today?" Alice interrupted. "When?"
"I stopped into the station before I came here. I wanted to see if they'd made any progress on her case."
"Did you know she was going to be there?"
My sister was every bit as perceptive as I was and to my annoyance, she knew me better than anyone. "Yes. I wanted to see how she was doing. I took her home last night, and I could tell she was putting on a big front."
Alice was staring again.
"You took a victim home?"
I glared at Alice over the server's arm as she set our plates down in front of us. "No, that sounds like I took her home to my fucking bed. Sorry," I told the wide-eyed waitress. She nodded and quickly left. "I rode along with the uniform to her condo in Henderson. I wanted to check out her place myself."
"I see. Is that all you wanted to check out?"
"Edward, you've never helped escort someone home before. Once the crisis is under control, you always take off the vest and walk away."
"That's not true!" I argued. "I volunteer with your support group all the time." Shit. I hadn't mentioned that fact to Bella; hopefully she wouldn't be too pissed off if she actually showed up and I was there.
"Yeah, but those aren't victims you've had personal contact with. This is entirely different, and you know it. Don't bullshit me."
This was one of those times I hated being so close to Alice – we were always able to get inside one another's heads. Lying to her was no use; she'd just nag me until I gave in and told her.
"All right, she is different. Don't ask me why, Al. Part of it's the case – it's unlike anything I've handled before. But it's also the woman. She seems so alone and for some reason, I feel like I should be there to make sure she gets help when she finally admits she needs it."
Alice was quiet for a few minutes, processing what I'd said. "Did you give her my card?"
"Did you tell her you volunteer?"
"Edward!" She dropped her fork in frustration.
"I swear, I completely forgot! I was so focused on checking her place out and then today, she started out so cold to me that when she did finally start talking, I was too surprised to think of it. Honest." I crossed my heart and smiled at sweetly as I could.
"You're lucky I can always tell when you're lying, you spoiled brat," she grumbled. "But Edward, you should have told her. If you see her again, please be honest. Trust is one of the most important things with a victim, and if she feels like you have an ulterior motive, you'll set her back."
I leaned back in the chair, confused. "I know that. But what do you mean, ulterior motive?"
Alice smiled mischievously. "I don't know Edward, what do you think I mean?"
"What?" I felt the heat rushing to my face. This was the one thing I hated talking to my sister about. "No, Alice. I mean, yeah, okay, she's very attractive but I wouldn't … that's just …" I stammered, completely frustrated she'd come to the same conclusion Jake had.
"Calm down," Alice laughed. "I just meant it could look like you were trying to hook up with her by getting her to the group, not that you were actually interested." She paused, narrowing her eyes. "Are you?"
I took a large bite of my bacon cheeseburger and glared back at her. "No, just concerned. Can we please talk about something else? What are we getting Dad for his birthday?"
"Changing the subject?" She grinned. "Okay I'll allow it for today. But if you just happen to see – was it Bella?" She took my huff as a yes and continued. "If you see her again, please let her know you volunteer with us and that your paths may cross if she stops by. Okay?"
"Okay," I grumbled. "But I doubt I'll see her again. I'm not handling her case, and I can't keep snooping around."
Alice cocked her head. "Well, you know where she lives, don't you?"
Under My Skin
I practically fell into the vinyl chair in Detective Morris's small office. My heart was still pounding from my emotional altercation with Edward, and I was in no mood to deal with the pushy detective's repetitive questions. All I could think about was the way Edward had studied me – as though he were reading between the lines of my expressions. His ability to get under my skin was extremely frustrating. What had possessed me to tell him I couldn't sleep, much less why? I tried to chalk it up to Edward's skills as a communicator, but I could still feel the warmth on my skin where he'd touched me, which left me feeling raw and exposed. I didn't like it, and all I wanted to do was get home to Otis and escape.
Naturally, Morris was against that. "Ms. Swan, I'm sorry but I don't think you should be staying anywhere alone right now. The suspect is still at large, and while we do have some leads, it will take time to follow them."
"Edward already told me that," I answered. "But I would prefer to stay at my own place. The building has been checked, and I have an alarm. Besides, if he wanted to snatch me from my apartment, I think he would have done that already instead of staging an elaborate bank robbery, don't you?" That was something else that had been bugging me all night. Why had the man gone to such lengths and involved Crazy Joe if all he'd wanted was me?
Detective Morris turned red. "First off, Officer Cullen isn't a detective. His job ends when the crisis situation does. He's not qualified to be discussing the case with you. Secondly, I realize your building has an alarm, but we have every reason to believe that this man could find a way around that…"
I ignored his obvious issues with Edward. "And what are those reasons? Because he breached the sealed tunnel entrance that we'd all forgotten about? Fine. But again, why? I would think that getting into my apartment would have been a lot easier, not to mention he could've simply grabbed me in the parking lot. Why didn't he just do that? Why involve so many innocent people?"
He adjusted his crooked tie and glared at me. "Those are answers we won't have until we catch him and question him, Ms. Swan."
"Stop calling me Ms. Swan. It's Bella."
"Bella," he clenched his teeth. "As I was saying, this is a high-level criminal and …"
"You're talking in circles," I snapped. "I get it. He's smart, and of course he could get into my building if he wants to. But I'm not going to let him interrupt my life any more than he already has. I'm willing to have security detail or whatever the hell you call it, but I'm going back to my own place today, and that's final." I stuck out my chin and glared at Morris, daring him to argue. I'd spent too many years letting Paul call all the shots, and now that I'd lived alone for so long, I wasn't about to give up my independence. I may be lonely, but I wasn't weak.
"Bella, I strongly advise you to stay with your friends for a few days until we have a better idea of what's going on. He's wounded, but we don't know how badly. We don't know if he's operating alone or what his motive is. We don't even know his name!"
Morris was clearly frazzled, and I tried to sound less belligerent. "I understand that, but I don't want to burden Emmett and Rosalie anymore. I barely know them. Now, you had some questions for me?"
The pudgy man looked as though he might explode, but seemed to finally realize I wasn't going to change my mind. We spent two hours going over every detail I could remember from my time in the bank until I got fed up with him asking the same questions in different ways.
"Look, I've told you everything I can think of!" I threw my hands in the air. "I was in the back, in Jessica's office, processing loans. I heard a scream from the lobby and went running out to see what happened. Next thing I know, there was a gun in my face, and I was being dragged behind the counter. I went with the taker to help him get the money, and he gave it to Crazy Joe. The taker shoved me behind the counter with all the other hostages, and I tried to keep them calm. Joe freaked when the cops showed up and wanted to know who pressed the alarm. Taker didn't seem to care – he was focused on me, and I knew then I was in trouble."
"How did you know that?"
I resisted the urge to smack Detective Morris across the face. "Call it women's intuition. It was obvious by the way he hovered around me and was totally disengaged from Joe. I didn't have to be a cop to see that."
"And you believe he was African American?"
"I didn't say that. I only saw a few glimpses of skin, and he's not white. He could be African American or some other ethnicity. He wasn't very dark-skinned, either. More like a Mediterranean complexion."
He scribbled something in his little notebook, and I continued my rant. "What else is there? You guys could hear a lot of what was going on. You know what happened when SWAT entered."
"Why do you call him the taker?"
"Because he tried to take me, and I don't know his name." Wasn't it obvious? How had this man made detective?
"I see. And tell me again what he said to you."
My stomach rolled. I'd relived this twice already, and it had been more than enough. "I can't even remember all of it. Most of it didn't make sense. Some of it was lewd comments about my appearance; some of it was random chat like we were buddies."
"He tried to engage you in conversation? Or did he just taunt you?"
"Both. He'd go from one extreme to the other. After a while, I just tried to tune him out and focus on taking care of everyone else." He didn't need to know the specifics; I found it hard to believe the words the taker used would tell Morris anything more than what we already knew: he was a grade-A creep.
"Did he say anything about kidnapping you? Or mention anything about the tunnels? Something that may not have specifically related to the bank but to the storm system in general?"
I rubbed my temples, trying to sift through my jumbled memories. He'd whispered so much crap in my ear; it was hard to pick out individual comments. "Nothing about kidnapping me. That I know for sure. And nothing about the bank, but he did say something about the homeless – how they lived in another world, and the people of Vegas walked on top of them. At the time, I took it as more rambling and assumed he was bitter."
Of course that had been a reference to the tunnels. Thousands of homeless lived there amid make-shift camps and poorly constructed shelters. "I should have known then what he was planning."
Morris actually looked sympathetic. "No, you shouldn't have. Your mind was being assaulted with terrible things, and there's no reason you should have made that connection. That's why we do these interviews. Victims often remember details after they're removed from the situation."
I scowled. I was getting sick of being labeled a victim.
Morris sighed. "I know you're exhausted, and I think we've gotten as much as we can today. You mentioned you were taking some time off work? Your boss doesn't need you?"
"Yes, he wants me to take the week off. He's hoping to reopen the bank on Monday, but that depends on you guys. He doesn't want me to be around there for a few days."
"That's a good idea. You need to take some time and deal with what happened. Some rest may also help you remember more details because every one is important."
"I know." I gathered my bag and stiffly rose to my feet. "We're done, then?"
"Yes, but let me advise you one last time to continue to stay with your friends."
"Thanks, but no. Now, can I get my phone back?"
The phone was still being processed for evidence, so I would have to stop at US Cellular on the way home and get a loaner. Fantastic.
Morris gave me another one of his cards and assured me there would be a detail outside of my building for the next few days. I was to let one of them know when I was leaving and where I was going, and someone would likely be tailing me. I wasn't happy about that fact, but I knew I had no choice.
Detective Morris escorted me out to my car, and we passed Jacob Black on the way out of the station. He was lounging against someone's desk, laughing and drinking coffee. He grinned and waved at me, and I smiled shyly back, feeling stupid. Morris introduced me to the two patrol officers that would be providing my detail for the rest of the day and finally allowed me to leave.
I felt like I was on display as the unmarked car followed me to the cell and grocery stores and finally home. I made sure to call Emmett as promised to give him the number, feeling like an intruder. I didn't understand his need to look after me, and I certainly didn't want to impose on their lives.
The patrol officers followed me into my condo complex hovering over me as I picked up my mail. I could feel the eyes of the neighbors watching, no doubt wondering what was going on. The cops insisted on checking over the apartment before allowing me to go in and finally leaving me in peace. They would be on duty until late evening when they'd be replaced with another pair.
Otis wound himself around my ankles, meowing loudly. I scooped up the fat cat and held him tightly; I needed his sense of familiarity, and the sound of his purring calmed my frayed nerves.
After the groceries were put away and the cat was fed, I grabbed an ice pack for my face and settled down onto my couch with the mail, determined to forget everything that had happened in the past 24 hours.
Water bill, electric bill. Cable. Bank statement. Today's issue of the Las Vegas Sun. I cried out in shock when I saw the picture of me on the front page being led out of the bank by Edward, Jacob and their boss. I looked like a zombie, and the bruises stood out against my pallid skin. The headline was even worse: "Bank Robbery Staged for Attempted Kidnapping of Branch Manager." The article described what had happened, and there was a section on me, the "quiet, reserved" woman. Tears streamed down my face as I read the short paragraphs on my life. Everything that had been written was basic fact, things the reporter could find out from public record. He even mentioned there had been no one to interview about the 'reclusive' bank manager, and he questioned why anyone would want to take me.
I tossed the paper aside and angrily wiped away my tears. What right did that bastard have to reduce my life to a few paragraphs and question my worth? I may not have anyone, but I wasn't insignificant. I was still a human being, and there was more to me than just black and white words on a page. Angry, I snatched the paper back up, intending to rip it to shreds. I glanced at the picture again and saw something I hadn't last night. Edward's arm was around me, although he wasn't touching any part of my body, as he guided me away from the shouting reporters and towards the ambulance. More moisture seeped from my eyes as I stared at his protective stance; no one had ever watched over me like that. I'd spent years trying to convince myself that Paul was taking care of me, but he'd never held my hand or guided me through a crowd. He just expected me to follow as I'd done since the day we met.
Edward had only been doing his job, but it was nice to see that even for just a few moments, someone felt like I was worth protecting.
Otis jumped onto my lap, scaring the hell out of me. "Damnit, Otis!" I yelled. "Don't do that!" The fat cat just glared at me and made himself comfortable. I grudgingly scratched behind his ears, and he purred loudly. "You're right." I shook off the self-pity that had been threatening to swallow me whole. "I've got you, and you're all the man I need."
I put the paper out of my mind and turned on the TV, searching for something that would occupy my thoughts, but nothing could deter my brain from the memories of last night. It wasn't the horrifying time I'd spent trapped in the bank I couldn't stop thinking about, however. It was Edward Cullen and his advice about the victim support group. The card was laying on the coffee table, taunting me.
Was he right? Would I have that hard of a time putting this all behind me? Or had he just been doing his sister a favor? I knew instinctively that wasn't the case; he'd been sincere, although why he gave a damn was beyond me. I felt lousy for the way I'd treated him today at the station, but seeing him had been the last thing I'd wanted to do. Despite my best efforts at giving him the cold shoulder, he'd gotten much too close, physically and mentally. His very presence made me feel unsteady and all jumbled up inside. I lashed out, yelling at him about something that wasn't his fault. But when he'd said he was worried about me, my resolve to push him away had momentarily dissipated. No one ever worried about me, and somehow I knew he meant every word.
When he'd raised my head and looked into my eyes, my heart felt as if it were going to pound right out of my chest. His scrutiny was terrifying yet comforting all at once, and for a brief moment, he managed to break through my defenses. But the feel of his soft fingers on my arm had sent a jolt of something throughout my entire system, and I'd immediately withdrawn. The effect the man had on me was like nothing I'd ever experienced, and it scared the hell out of me.
"Oh well," I told a sleeping Otis. "It's not like I'll ever see him again, anyway. He's not handling my case."
The thought bothered me even more than it had last night, and I closed my eyes, wanting to get back to the Bella who felt nothing and went through the motions as best she could.
A sharp rap on the door sent me to my feet, and Otis went flying off my lap, hissing loudly. My heart thumped hard as I stared across the living room; I never had any visitors. Surely it wasn't the taker … he would have had to get by the two cops, and I doubted he would knock.
"Bella?" Rosalie's voice called, and my shoulders sagged. I wasn't sure if Rose knocking on my door was better than the taker or not.
"Coming!" I smoothed my shirt and dusted the cat hair off my shorts before slowly opening the door. "Hello, Rose. How are you today?"
"Pissed off, that's what." She crossed her arms. "Why are you here by yourself? Emmett said you refused to stay with us!"
"Rose, I really appreciate your taking me in, but I can't ask you to keep doing that. There's a police detail outside, and the guy who tried to kidnap me is hurt. He's not coming here."
"Did the police say it was all right for you to stay alone?"
"They advised me against it, but I'm not worried."
She clutched her blond hair. "Well I am! I can't just hang out across the hall and hope you're okay in here all by yourself."
"That's really kind of you, but please don't worry about me. It's fine, really."
Rosalie groaned, clearly realizing I wasn't going to budge. "Fine. Then at least come have dinner with us. You shouldn't be sitting here alone after what happened anyway."
"You are. I'm not taking no for an answer, so come on."
I was too tired to argue with her, so I grabbed my keys and locked the door. "All right, but I'm not just sitting around while you cook. I'll help."
Rosalie snickered and lightly put her arm around my tense shoulders. "You think I'm cooking? Please, Emmett's already started the oven. He does the cooking, not me."
Emmett greeted me with a cheerful 'hello' and a warm hug, and I stiffly returned it. Affection hadn't been a part of my life for a long time, and I was rusty. He was making chicken enchiladas, and the smell was mouth watering. Rosalie forced me to sit down at the table and then waved two wine bottles in front of my face. "White or red?"
"Uh, white?" It had been so long since I'd had a glass of white I couldn't even remember what it tasted like.
Rose filled a crystal glass and then set it in front of me. "I want you to sit back and relax. You need it."
I took a sip and tried not to cringe at the bitterness. I'd forgotten that wine was an acquired taste.
They both wanted to know what was happening in my case, and I gave them what little details I had.
"There was a blood trail that led into the tunnels, and the cops followed it to an abandoned camp. Detective Morris said it looked liked a few people had been staying there."
"In the storm drains?" Rosalie looked disgusted.
"Yeah, baby." Emmett answered for me. "It's so sad – there's an entire population living down there. They have camps, shelters. It's like their own community. It's not something Vegas likes to advertise."
"I had no idea," Rosalie whispered. "Why doesn't the city do something about it?"
"Because Las Vegas is about having fun and getting away from your real life," I said darkly. "It's easier to ignore a problem than to face the consequences of dealing with it."
Rosalie looked me directly in the eyes. "Is it now?"
I ignored her jab. "Anyway, the camp was empty and the blood trail ended. The cops figure he must have patched himself up and moved on. The tunnels go for miles and miles so he could be anywhere. Apparently they got some information from another transient down there, and they were following up on that lead."
"That's it?" Emmett slammed the stove shut. "They didn't give you anything else? How long were you at the station?"
"A few hours. And yes, that's it. Detective Morris is going to keep me updated, and of course I have my little protection squad outside, but that's all I know." I took another longer sip of wine, trying to settle my nerves. I wasn't used to spending so much time talking about myself.
"So what's your plan?" Rosalie asked.
She tossed her blond hair over her shoulder. "Yes, your plan. Emmett said your boss gave you the week off, and it's obvious you're going to stay at your place no matter what we say. What are you going to do?"
I hadn't really thought about it. I couldn't exactly go running around the city right now, and I didn't have any interest in that anyway. "I guess I'll just relax," I answered lamely. "Try to get some cleaning done or something."
"Your place is spotless, Bella," Rosalie snorted. She topped off her wine and then ran a perfectly manicured fingernail over the small scratch in their dining table. "Since you'll have some time off, maybe you'd like to help me out?"
I couldn't imagine what she would need me for. "With what?"
"I'm an interior decorator. Did you know that?"
I glanced around the spacious condo, taking it in for the first time. It was very contemporary and far more colorful than my own. "No, I didn't."
"Yep. I'm starting new job this week, for a new build on the other side of Henderson, and I'm short on crew. I know it's hard work and I understand if you're not up for it after everything, but it would be really fun, and you wouldn't be stuck at home."
I didn't know what to say. The idea of being among unfamiliar people, doing something I wasn't really used to, was more intimidating than sitting around by myself with my morose thoughts, but Rosalie was so kind I hated to disappoint her. "I don't have a lot of experience with that sort of thing."
"Can you hold a paint brush?" She laughed. "Seriously, it's not rocket science. There's some cleaning, painting and shopping involved. You'd really be helping me out of a jam, Bella." She leaned across the table, her violet eyes wide and beseeching. "And it would make us feel better, knowing you weren't alone all day with that psycho on the loose. Please?"
The part of me that longed for a life outside my own wanted to say yes, and sitting at home could be dangerous in more ways than one. "Okay, but I warn you, I'm a klutz."
Rosalie clapped her hands excitedly. "Yay! And don't worry, so am I. The last job I knocked over half a gallon of paint on the hardwood floors. Cleaning it up was not pretty."
I laughed and finished my glass of wine, still feeling slightly out of place. Emmett launched into a story about work as he finished dinner, and I was grateful to be able to listen quietly. Just as he was taking the enchiladas out of the oven, there was a loud knock on the door. I dropped my fork in surprise, and Rosalie paused with her wine glass in midair.
"What the hell?" Emmett grumbled. "We didn't buzz anyone in."
The knock came again, louder, and I felt sick to my stomach. Surely the taker hadn't just walked into the building?
Emmett glared through the peephole, and then stepped back in surprise. "No wonder he got in." He unlocked the door and quickly pulled it open. "Hey there, what can we do for you?"
"Is Bella here?"
My heart raced at the sound of his voice, and my palms were immediately clammy.
"Yeah, come on in." Emmett stepped aside and Edward Cullen strode into the room, still wearing the same faded jeans and green t-shirt he'd been wearing at the station earlier. His face looked much less friendly, however, as he crossed the entryway and came to stand in front of me.
"Why didn't you listen to me, Bella?" he demanded, his large hands on his hips. Butterflies erupted in my stomach as his green eyes bore into my own, his chiseled jaw taut with anger. The man was even more beautiful when he was upset.
I was so taken aback by his sudden appearance and my immediate reaction to him that it took me a few moments to remember how to speak. "Excuse me?" I finally managed. "What are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about the fact that I told you to listen to Morris and do what he asked in order to protect yourself! Instead I find out that you're insisting on staying by yourself! What are you thinking?"
My temper flared, and the butterflies disappeared. "What I'm thinking is that this is none of your damned business!" I snapped. "Who do you think you are, coming in here and chewing me out like you know me?"
Edward opened his mouth to retaliate, but Rosalie jumped to her feet and stood in front of him. "Hold up! Before you keep yelling at my friend, could you please tell me just who you are?"
I stared at Rosalie in surprise. I was her friend?
He took a deep breath, pinching the bridge of his nose. "I'm sorry," he said quietly, his voice much more controlled. "I'm Edward Cullen. I'm one of the SWAT team members that helped Bella last night."
Rosalie's eyes bulged. "You're the hostage negotiator? Emmett, you didn't tell me he was so good looking!"
Emmett snorted. "Sorry, Rosie. I was too tired to properly check him out last night. Besides, Bella's a girl. She should have told you how hot he was!"
Edward's cheeks turned pink with embarrassment, as did my own. "Uh, thanks," he finally said. "I'm sorry I barged in here, but I was worried about Bella and hoping to talk some sense into her."
"My sense is just fine, thanks." I twisted in my chair so that my back was to Edward, fuming. How dare he?
He sighed loudly. "Look, I'm sorry I yelled, but you need to reconsider, Bella. It's not safe for you to be alone."
I ignored him, pouring myself another glass of wine. I glanced at Rosalie, and she was staring at me intently. "What?"
"Nothing," she smirked and then turned to Edward. "Emmett made enough food to feed a small army. Why don't you stay and have dinner with us, and we can discuss this rationally?"
My mouth dropped open; I was speechless. What was she thinking? I might be slightly anti-social, but I was pretty sure you didn't put your friends in this kind of situation.
"I'd love to, Mrs. McCarty, thank you," Edward's smooth talking tone was back in full force, and I grimaced.
Alice had suggested multiple times that I go to Bella's place and let her know that I was a volunteer with her group, but I didn't feel right just dropping in on the woman, especially since she was an active case. I'd pressed my luck enough today as it was, and I ignored my sister's complaints as I walked her to her car.
"Whatever," she grumbled. "But remember you promised me that if you did see her again, you'd tell her."
"I know, and I will."
Alice blew me a kiss and peeled out of the parking lot in her little yellow coup, driving way too fast as usual. How the woman never got a ticket was beyond me.
I spent the rest of the afternoon running errands, and I'd intended to have a quiet evening at home, trying not to think about Bella Swan. And then Jake called.
I held the phone away from my ear; the background noise was so loud I could barely hear him. "Jake, where the hell are you at?"
"At the bowling alley with Leah! Listen, guess what I heard?"
"Bella Swan told Morris she wasn't going to be staying with her neighbors. He claims he practically begged her, and she flat out refused. Called her stubborn and ignorant."
"She did what?"
"Yep. The captain was pissed off at Morris for letting it go down that way, but he swears she didn't give him any choice. Guess she's got the week off too, so she's even more at risk. She did agree to a detail outside of her place though."
"Thanks, Jake. I'll call you later."
I didn't even stop to think as I stormed out to the Volvo and headed towards Henderson. Before I knew it, I was flashing my badge at the surprised cops outside the gates of Big Horn Condos and then pounding on her door. Fear cut through me when she didn't answer, and I'd rushed across the hall to interrogate the McCarty's.
I really hadn't expected her to be at the neighbors, and my frustration had gotten the best of me when I'd started yelling at her. She was right; I really had no right to be invading her life, but her stubbornness was going to get her killed.
Bella was still turned away from me, and I decided to give her some time to cool off. Rosalie offered me a drink, which I declined, and I took the seat next to Bella.
"So Edward, how'd you get to be a cop?" Emmett asked, sitting a plate of steaming chicken enchiladas in front of me. "And how old are you, anyway? I thought you had to be a lot older to make it to SWAT."
Bella's head tilted in my direction; she was listening. Maybe she wasn't so pissed off after all.
"I'm 25, almost 26," I answered. "I graduated high school and college early and worked hard at the academy. My superiors saw I had a talent for communicating, and I was offered the chance to train for SWAT."
Rosalie whistled. "Wow. The consummate overachiever. How long have you been in SWAT?"
"Almost two years."
"Damn that's awesome, dude." Emmett finished serving the others and sat down on the other side of the table. Bella had no choice but to turn around in her chair, but she immediately brought her long, wavy hair over her shoulder, still hiding from me.
"Is it always like yesterday?" Rosalie asked. "Are you the main hostage negotiator?"
"No, it's not always like yesterday, and I'm one of several. We do a lot of raids on drug houses, serve high risk warrants, that kind of thing."
Rosalie was about to ask another question, but Emmett hushed her. "Honey, I think SWAT is supposed to be kind of a covert operation. He probably can't tell us a lot, right?"
"Right," I nodded, finally taking a bite of food. "Wow, this is amazing. Are you a chef?"
"Nah," Emmett answered. "I'm a landscaper, but cooking is a hobby. If I didn't, we wouldn't eat." He winked at his wife, who smirked.
"So true. I can barely boil water."
Emmett nudged Bella. "What about you, Bells? Are you much of a cook?"
She'd been quietly eating her food, determined not to engage, but her head shot up at his words, panic etched across her face. "What did you call me?"
She turned pale. "That's what he called me. I'd forgotten."
Rosalie reached across the table and seized her hand. "Who? The partner?"
"Yes." Tears pooled in her eyes and she clung tightly to Rosalie's hand. "When he was talking about my hair or my eyes or making nasty remarks, he'd call me Bells. His voice – even with his creepy whisper – had such a haunting tone to it. Like it was some kind of secret code or something."
Her lips began to tremble, and her face constricted as she struggled for control. "I'm sorry," she murmured. "I just need a minute." She jumped from the table and ran into the hallway. A door closed, and the three of us stared at one another in shock.
"She needs help," Rosalie finally broke the silence. "I know she had a hard time before she moved in here, and she already had issues before yesterday. We can't let her go on like this."
"What can we do, Rosie?" Emmett sighed. "We don't even really know her, and we certainly can't make her get help."
"We know her enough." His wife retaliated. "I can't just stand by and watch her pretend to live her life like it's all good! Someone has to be there for her!"
"Why is she so alone?" I interrupted. "There was no one for her to call last night, and I had to convince her to let me call you guys."
Emmett ran a hand through his curly hair. "I have no idea. She moved in here a few months after we did, and she looked like a ghost. She was so thin, pale and just sad. It was obvious she was going through the motions of life. But as time went by, she began to look better and would speak to us occasionally. I figured things were looking up."
"But she's always alone," Rosalie lowered her voice. "She's always home unless she's working, and I've never seen her have visitors. She started looking after our plants when we were out of town and every time we'd return, I'd try like hell to get close to her, but she just puts up a wall. Hell, we talked more last night than we have in the three years we've all lived here!"
Sadness welled up inside me. None of this was right. "She shouldn't be staying alone. She's not working this week, is she?"
"Nope," Emmett answered. "She talked to her boss this morning, and he seems like a good guy. Made her take the week off."
"So she's here, alone, all day?"
Rosalie smiled. "Not quite. I convinced her to help me on a decorating job this week. I was shocked she agreed, but she'll be occupied during the day and safe."
I chewed on my lower lip. "Yes, but you both need to understand that this guy was planning this and watching her. Anyone who could escape through the tunnels the way he did is well organized. We're hoping that his gunshot wound will slow him down, but you need to be careful and realize what you're involved in."
Emmett looked slightly worried, but Rosalie just laughed. "Honey, I work with a crew of five big, strong contractors. We'll be just fine." She leaned towards me and rested her chin on her hand, her violet eyes calculating. "But I have to ask, is it normal for SWAT to take such an active interest in a case? I thought you guys were done once the situation was diffused?"
I could feel my skin turning pink. "No, it's not really normal and to be honest, I have no idea what I'm doing here. She seemed so alone last night and again today at the station, and after everything she went through, I hated to see her by herself. I want to help, even if I shouldn't."
I lifted my eyes to meet Rosalie's and was startled by the look on her face. It was a cross between admiration and condescension, and I had no idea what to make of it.
"What?" I asked her.
"Nothing," she said vaguely. "I just think it's amazing that with all the bullshit you encounter, you're here for her. That's really something."
I shifted uneasily. Why was I here?
"Didn't you give her a card for your sister's support group?"
"Yeah." That reminded me of the promise I'd made my sister, and I didn't really want to talk to Bella about it in front of the McCarty's. "Do you think she'd let me talk to her about that?" I glanced down the hallway where Bella had disappeared.
"I don't know," Rosalie answered, her smile growing wider. "But that was the bedroom she escaped to. Why don't you knock on the door and find out?"
I pushed my half-eaten plate of enchiladas aside and slowly headed toward the closed door, wondering what in the hell I was getting myself into.
"Come in," her quiet voice called out at the sound of my knock.
I took a deep breath and opened the door. "Hey, are you all right?"
Bella looked up in surprise at the sound of my voice. Clearly, she wasn't expecting to see me. Her pretty face was streaked with tears, and her eyes were red from crying, making her dark bruises stand out even more.
"What do you want?" Bella's voice shook, and before I realized it, I'd crossed the room and was kneeling beside the bed.
"I want you to get help," I answered, gingerly taking her hand. "Things like this are going to keep happening, Bella. When you're in a situation like last night, your brain does what it has to in order to survive. We compartmentalize, and a lot of the details are pushed to the backburner until the trauma's over and our minds are under less pressure. More and more upsetting memories are going to keep coming back, and you can't expect to deal with them on your own."
Bella glanced down at our hands, her small one trembling in my grasp, and then raised her eyes to meet my gaze. A single, fat tear ran down her smooth cheek and on instinct, I reached out and wiped it away with my thumb. Her eyes widened at the contact, and I quickly pulled my hand away from her face. "Sorry," I whispered. What was wrong with me?
"It's okay." Her voice was equally quiet. We stared at one another for a few seconds before she finally spoke again. "I've always dealt with things on my own, Edward. I've gotten quite good at it over the years. I'm sure I'll be fine now that I know what to expect."
I wanted to shake her. "But you don't know what to expect other than flashbacks! I have no idea what you've been through in the past, but I'm willing to bet it's nothing like what you're dealing with right now. You can't just push this aside."
Bella withdrew her hand from mine, and my skin immediately felt cold. "How do you know all this? I thought your sister was the therapist."
Shit. Now was as good a time as any. "She is," I began. "But I've had some training in counseling victims."
She raised her eyebrow. "Is that through the department?"
"Well yeah, but it's not mandated. It's a special interest of mine, and it helps me be a better negotiator. The more I help people, the more I can learn to read them."
"That makes sense." She took a deep breath and rubbed her eyes. "I'm sorry about yelling at you earlier. I know you're concerned, but I don't want to stay here. I need to be in my own home."
I slowly rose to my feet and sat down in the chair across from the double bed she was sitting on. "It's okay. I shouldn't have barged in here and chewed you out like that. I just want you to be safe."
She rolled her eyes. "Well, I let Rose talk me into working with her this week, and something tells me they'll be checking in at night, too. And of course, there's my security detail. I'll be fine."
"He's still out there," I argued. "That's another reason why talking to someone would help. The fact that he's not behind bars yet just adds to your torment."
Bella's eyes flashed as she glared at me. "My torment?"
"I just meant the torment of everything you've gone through," I clarified. What had happened to the woman to make her so sensitive about everything?
She looked away. "You really think your sister could help me?"
"Yeah, I do. She's dealt with so many people – hell, our mom was mugged twice when we were kids. Alice works with victims of rape, domestic abuse and hostage situations. You name it, she's probably dealt with it."
"I guess I can think about it," she finally whispered.
I cleared my throat, knowing that I had to come clean. "I should tell you now – it completely slipped my mind last night – but I actually volunteer with Alice's group when I have the time."
Bella stiffened and I hurried to clarify myself, although I had no idea why it mattered so much. "It's not a big deal, but I mentioned that I'd given you her card today when I saw her, and she wanted me to tell you. Trust is so important, and she didn't want you to get the wrong idea, you know?"
She slowly turned back to face me. "The wrong idea?"
"Yeah," I laughed nervously. "Like that I'd told you about her group just so I could see you again and … you know, hit on you or something," I finished lamely. "I promise you, that's the last thing I was thinking about when I gave you the card."
Oh fuck me. That didn't come out at all the way I'd wanted it to. I could literally see the mask coming back down over her face, just as I was beginning to get through to her.
"Don't worry, Edward," her tone was clipped and formal. "I wasn't under that assumption at all. Thank you for your concern, but I'm doing fine." She slipped off the bed and headed for the door, her shoulders squared defiantly.
"Bella, I didn't mean it like that …"
"It's fine. We should get back to Rosalie and Emmett."
She strode out of the room, leaving me alone like the ass that I was.
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I watched her leave the room, her walls firmly back in place. What the hell was wrong with me? Bella had finally begun to admit she needed help, and then I go and swallow my damned foot. I hadn't met to hurt her feelings; I was just trying to make sure she understood that I would never take advantage of my position, or try to manipulate her after what she'd been through. Instead I made her think she's unattractive and uninteresting, and that certainly wasn't the case.
Now Bella was even more withdrawn and I had to find some way to fix it. I followed her out the bedroom, trying to figure out what to say to her.
For all of my communication skills, I wasn't great with the opposite sex. At least not when it came to dating them. I'd had my share of relationships, but they'd always fizzled out because I just simply lost interest and we never had anything in common. Las Vegas was full of beautiful women, but I'd yet to meet a woman who was truly interested in me; very few appreciate my intellect and thirst for knowledge, and most had little tolerance for my desire to work for the department. I knew my high standards were part of the problem. I'd grown up surrounded by two very dynamic, strong women and they were a hard act to follow. Just about every woman I met fell woefully short.
'Bella could certainly match Esme's inner strength,' I thought to myself as we approached a wary Emmett and Rosalie. My mother's life hadn't been easy; she grew up poor, and gave up the scholarship she'd earned to UNLV to take care of her dying father. But she had no regrets, and I couldn't remember her ever being bitter when she had to sacrifice for Alice or me. Bella's resolve was similar, but she carried around so much baggage she could barely stand up straight,
She sat back down at the table and began quietly eating, her face devoid of emotion. Rosalie raised her eyebrow at me, but I shook my head and sat down. My gut told me saying anything about our altercation in front of Rose and Emmett would only dig me in deeper.
Emmett cleared his throat and tried to ease the tension. "So Edward, you grew up in Vegas?"
"Yeah, North Vegas." I snickered at their expressions. "I know, rough neighborhood, but it also gets a bad rap. The area I grew up in has gotten a lot better the last several years, and my parents still live in the same house."
"Is that why you became a cop?" Emmett asked.
"Pretty much. I wanted to do something to make a difference, you know?" I was uncomfortable with talking so much about myself, especially with Bella quietly fuming beside me. "What about you guys? Are you from Vegas originally?"
"Nah," Rosalie answered. "We moved here from Phoenix a few years ago. Emmett's company was branching out, and we wanted a change of scenery."
"How long have you been married?" Bella asked softly, speaking for the first time since we'd left the bedroom.
"Five years," Emmett said proudly. "Got married when we turned 25, but we were high school sweethearts. Known each other all our lives." They gazed at each other across the table, and I looked away, feeling out of place. My eyes fell on Bella, and sadness was etched across her face as she watched the happy couple. Was she thinking about her divorce? Did she miss him?
Why the hell did I care?
Suddenly she looked straight at me, briefly narrowing her eyes before flipping her hair over her shoulder and hiding her face. The woman was a master at closing herself off.
"What about you, Bella?" Rosalie casually asked. "Did you grow up in Las Vegas?"
Her shoulders tensed. "No. Seattle."
"You moved here after your divorce?" Rosalie pressed.
Bella's fingers tightened around her fork. "No, we moved several years before that. We were married here."
"So your married name is Swan, then?"
"No. I went back to it after the divorce." Her tone was clipped, and her grip on the fork was so tight I was afraid she'd break it if she were questioned any further.
"You guys like Vegas better than Phoenix?" I changed the subject. "Guess the weather isn't much different."
Rosalie glared at me, well aware of what I was doing, but Emmett ran with it. "Yeah we do. Phoenix is probably better as far as crime rate goes, but it's so beautiful here, and the company I work for has been really successful."
I started asking Emmett as many questions about landscaping as I could think of, hoping to steer the focus off Bella. She never looked at me, but I could see her slowly relax, and the fork was safe. As Rosalie began clearing the table, Bella jumped up to help, practically running out of the room.
"What happened in there?" Emmett whispered. "She's even edgier than before."
"I screwed up," I hung my head. "Don't worry, I'm going to talk to her before I head home."
He didn't get the chance to question me any further, and as soon as the dishes were clean, Bella made her escape.
"Thank you so much for dinner Emmett, it was delicious," she said quietly. "It's getting late and I'm running on very little sleep. I'm going to head home, but I'll check in tomorrow."
"We've got your cell number now, so I'll be calling you about work," Rosalie gave her a hug, which Bella awkwardly returned.
She turned to leave, barely glancing in my direction. "Thank you for checking on me Edward, but I'm fine. Take care."
"Let me walk you to your door," I insisted. "There's no reason for you to go alone."
"It's just across the hall!"
"I don't care." I quickly shook the McCarty's hands, thanking them for dinner, and then gestured for Bella to move aside so I could open the door. She refused to look at me, and her face was like stone as she stepped out of the way. The hall was clear, and she strode ahead, the tension rolling over her in waves. I had no idea what to say.
She roughly shoved her key in the lock, and then pushed open the door. "Good night," she mumbled without looking back. The door began to swing into my surprised face, and I just barely managed to catch it with my forearm before she slammed it shut.
"Bella, please! That came out all wrong back there! I didn't mean to offend you."
She stiffened. "You didn't offend me."
"Bullshit. You were actually opening up, thinking about seeing Alice, and then I hurt your feelings. I didn't mean it like it came out at all."
Her right fist clenched at her side, and she finally turned around, letting the door close. Her carefully arranged expression was no surprise. "Don't worry about it, Edward. I know you were just trying to help, and I'm sure you don't find me repulsive. And of course you'd never take advantage of your position. No harm done."
Her voice was flat, robotic, and it grated on my nerves. "Why do you do that? It's like you flip a switch and close yourself off emotionally. I've never seen anything like it."
Just like that, her switch came back on. "Listen to me. I know you're trying to help, and you've been wonderful. You've gone above and beyond the call of duty, and I've been a cold bitch to you at times. But you don't know me, no matter how well you can read people. All you know is what you've seen in the last 24 hours, and the situation isn't exactly normal, is it? Please stop trying to save me. I don't need it."
This woman got under my skin unlike anyone I'd ever known, including Alice. "You don't need it?" I laughed. "Really? Because I'm pretty sure the bastard who tried to take you is still out there. You need it, in more ways than one."
"That's what I'm talking about!" She pointed her finger at me. "Fine, I need protection from the creepy taker. That's why I agreed to the super-cops outside. But that's all! I don't need to be taken care of!"
"You need to talk to someone…" I snapped, stepping closer to her and closing the short distance between us. As she glared up at me, I noticed that her brown eyes had flecks of gold in them. They were very pretty.
"That's isn't your concern," she argued, not backing down. "You're not a detective. Why are you even here?"
That was a question I'd been asking myself all night. I'd never gone to such lengths for a victim; I often checked in on their cases, but visiting their home had never even crossed my mind, and I'd certainly never sat down and had a fucking meal with one.
"I have no idea," I answered honestly, my shoulders sagging. "Jake heard you'd refused to stay with the McCarty's, and the next thing I knew, I was in my car heading over here. I guess I just want you to be safe."
Surprise flickered across her face, and her entire demeanor changed, just as it had done at the station earlier in the day. "I appreciate that," she said softly, "and I will be. I have faith your guys outside won't let anyone in. He's going to try to come here anyway, especially with a gunshot wound."
"You don't know that."
"No, I don't," she admitted. "All I know is that everything in my world has suddenly been turned upside down and most of it's completely out of my control. But this," she gestured behind her, her voice growing louder, "this is in my control. This is my home, and it's the one place I feel at peace. I'm not going to let him take that from me. Can you try to understand that?"
Our faces were only inches apart, and as Bella stared up at me with intense, pleading eyes, the air around us seemed to change. It grew thick, almost smothering, and although the hallway was silent, loud sound rushed through my head. The noise was a strange, like a large gust of fast moving air combined with my own suddenly erratic pulse, making me feel off-kilter and slightly dizzy. Better?
"Yes," I finally managed to say, stunned by the charged atmosphere and unable to tear my gaze from hers. "Yes, I can and you're an incredibly brave woman."
"Or stubborn." She sounded slightly out of breath, and her hands were trembling.
"That too." I took her shaking hand, completely out of my element. "Will you please consider talking to Alice? If my volunteering bothers you, I'm sure we could work something out. I can make sure I'm not around when you are."
Her breathing still uneven, Bella looked down at our hands, and then gently pulled away. "I'll think about it. And if I decide to visit the group, there's no need for you to stay away."
"I don't want to make you uncomfortable."
"I'm always uncomfortable," she scoffed. "Don't worry about it."
I raised my eyebrow, and she bit her lip, clearly afraid she'd said too much. "Never mind. Just let me think about it, okay? It's not easy for me to talk about myself."
"Yeah, that was pretty obvious at dinner."
She flushed red. "I just don't like to talk about the past. It's pointless. But thanks for saving me. Again."
"You're welcome." I was about to say more, but my pager suddenly went off, breaking the strange intensity that was beginning to swirl around us once more. "Shit, I gotta go. The boss has decided to make a last minute raid on a drug house in North Vegas."
"I thought you were the negotiator. What's there to say to a bunch of druggies?"
"Not much," I said ruefully. "I'm a hostage negotiator when the situation calls for it, but I'm always a SWAT member. Jake and I usually go in first in these situations."
"Why?" She was flustered and clearly worried.
"Because he's the best infiltration lead we have, and I'm the best communicator. It seems to keep the casualties low."
Her face paled. "Your job is dangerous."
"It is, but we're well prepared." The pager sounded a second time. "I have to take off. Please call Alice."
"I'm always careful," I smirked, and she blushed just as she had in the station. Was she blushing over me?
Bella quickly turned and headed into her apartment, immediately switching the light on. The fat yellow cat jumped down from the couch and rushed to greet her, mewling loudly. "See you," she glanced at me over her shoulder, hiding her face yet again.
"You too. Please let the security detail do their job, and have fun helping Rosalie. It might be just what you need."
She nodded, and then slowly shut the door. Just before it closed, I heard her murmur, "please come back safe."
The sincerity in her tone sent shockwaves through me, and I rushed out of the building in a haze, trying to figure out what had just happened.
I locked the door and collapsed against it, barely able to think straight. I'd felt more emotions tonight than I had in years. My heart had threatened to beat out of my chest when Edward showed up announced at Emmett's, and then I was ready to kill him for his attitude. I'd be determined to ignore him throughout dinner, but Emmett's innocent use of the nickname the taker had given me had ruined all of that.
How ironic he'd chosen that name.
"Where are we going, Mommy?" I asked Renee as she loaded up the old station wagon. It was fall, and I had just turned four. Phil hadn't come into the picture yet, so it was still just Renee and me.
"We're moving, baby," She heaved an overflowing box into the car. "Mommy got a new job in a better area of Seattle, and we're going to have a bigger apartment. Isn't that great?"
I shrugged. "But what about my new friend?" We hadn't lived here very long, and I'd just found someone to play with.
"You'll make new friends," Renee said off-handedly. "That's easy for kids." She glanced at me. "Most kids, anyway."
Disappointed, I sat down on the curb, and she knelt in front of me. "Listen, watch what you say to people when we get to the new place. Other kids don't like it when you talk about things they don't understand. They're not going to play with you if you're weird, Bells. So you need to try really hard to be like the other kids, all right?"
Of course, no one at the table knew the name was a double whammy for me, dredging up things I'd rather not think about ever again. The three of them had stared as I struggled not to lose control, and my eyes had welled up with stupid tears. Escaping to the bedroom seemed like a good idea until Edward showed up. I had to give it to the man – he was an excellent negotiator. In just a few minutes, he had me very close to calling his sister, and everything he was saying was making sense.
Then he screwed it up. Hearing he was a volunteer had been bad enough, but his dumb ass remark about never trying to hit on me cut right to the core, even though I knew that wasn't what he meant. I'm not ugly by any means, but his comment still hurt, especially when I'd been sitting there on the guest bed, thinking about how handsome he was and how very persuasive his green eyes could be.
Anger had kicked in as a self defense mechanism, and I immediately went back to being a bitch. I sat in brooding silence during their conversation, although it hadn't surprised me to hear that Edward had grown up in North Las Vegas. It explained a lot about his personality and his choice to go into law enforcement.
I should have kept my mouth shut, but the dynamic between Rosalie and Emmett was so authentic and beautiful I had to know how long they'd been together. And then the focus was on me and heading down a road I absolutely didn't want to revisit. Naturally, Edward was able to sense my distress and changed the subject. His ability to read people was both useful and irritating as hell.
That ability didn't explain what had happened in the hall, however. Not only was he able to break down my defenses yet again, but he had also affected the very air around us. My pulse was racing and I was barely able to catch my breath. His eyes had drawn me in; looking away wasn't an option. All I could do was try to remember to breathe and wait for him to break the spell.
His pager had saved me from saying too much, but the idea of him charging into a place filled with dangerous drug dealers made me sick to my stomach. How did his family stand it? What if he didn't come home?
Otis stood up on his hind legs, pawing hard at me. "Okay!" I grumbled, heading into the kitchen. "Didn't I just feed you a few hours ago?"
He sat down next to his bowl and glared at me until he was fed. I leaned against the counter, feeling extremely alone in the quiet apartment. The light in the entryway cast odd shadows across the living room, and my stomach clenched with nerves. The door had been locked, and I knew there was no way anyone could be inside, but that didn't stop my mind from running wild.
"You have the most beautiful hair, Bells. When the light catches it just so, I can see the red highlights. Are those natural? Of course they are; everything about you is. I can see that."
It was as though the taker were suddenly standing next to me, his mouth at my ear once more. I clutched my head, trying to make it stop.
"That color is very pretty on you. Did you know that the color black has a physical and emotional effect on us? It makes us feel inconspicuous, but it also evokes a sense of potential and possibility. Which were you trying to do, Bells?"
"Stop!" I shouted into the empty apartment. Otis hissed and took off running, his fur standing on end. Trembling, I sank to my knees on the cold tile floor. The taker seemed to follow me, his creepy whispers haunting me.
"Poor Joe. He's not able to cope in these hard times and he hasn't learned to adapt to the financial climate we're in. So he resorts to petty thievery. Did you know that after the stock market crash of 1929, there was a wave of suicides in the New York's financial district? It is said that the clerks of one hotel even started asking new guests if they needed a room for sleeping or jumping."
"Please leave me alone," I begged to no one, digging my hands into the grooves of the tile. The breathy whispering continued to echo in my head, and I struggled for control of my thoughts.
"You're not really here, you're not really here," I began to chant. "You've already lost, and I won't let you win." I repeated the words over and over until I was practically shouting and the memory of the taker's voice was forced out of my head. Exhausted, I lay down on the cool floor, and Otis cautiously crept back into the room. He sniffed my hair and then the wet tears on my cheek, touching his pink nose to my skin. Satisfied I was done yelling, he began to purr loudly as he crawled into the crook of my arm and curled himself into a large ball. He flicked his tail in my face several times, just to make sure I knew he was there.
"Thanks, buddy," I ran my hands over his smooth fur. "I don't know what I'd do without you."
He blinked his yellow eyes and yawned.
"I'm tired too," I mumbled, my face still pressed against the kitchen floor. "That's why I'm laying on the damn kitchen floor talking to my cat like some loser."
Loser. One of Paul's favorite words for me when I'd said or done something he didn't like, especially toward the end of our marriage.
I scowled and refused to think about him anymore. I'd wasted ten years of my life on my ex-husband, and that had been more than enough. Gently dislodging Otis, I pushed myself off the floor and slowly stood up. I was dirty and tired, and a nice, hot bath had never sounded so good.
The apartment was still dimly lit and bathed in shadows, so I walked carefully, turning on the lamps and peering into the corners. Of course there was no one there, but I felt better checking. Otis raced ahead of me, procuring his spot on the bed while I stripped and turned the steaming water on full blast.
As I waited for the tub to fill up, I stood in front of the mirror, examining my naked body. The bruises on my face would go away, and I was fortunate to have good, clear skin. My pale complexion forced me to wear sunscreen, so my face was mostly free of lines. I turned to the side, examining my profile. At 5'4", I was short, but had curves in the right places. They weren't as exceptional as Rosalie McCarty's, but my body could hold its own. My chest still looked as good as it did when I was 25, and my butt was still pretty firm.
All in all, I had nothing to be ashamed of. Time had been good to me, if very little else had. Edward's thoughtless comment still stung, regardless of how he'd meant it. As I eased into the hot water, I wondered if any part of the young SWAT officer did find me attractive, despite the age difference He struck me as an old soul who was light years ahead of most people his age. His concern for me had been so intense it had taken me by surprise, and even Edward had admitted he hadn't known what he was doing when he'd rushed over here tonight.
My mind drifted back to our encounter in the hallway; his piercing green eyes locked on mine, and something hovering in the air around us. I'd never experienced anything like those few moments, and I couldn't remember a man ever looking at me that way. I had no idea what emotion was behind the stare, but it affected me all the same. I couldn't stop thinking about Edward's angry expression when he'd stormed into the McCarty's, or the tender way he'd spoke to me in the bedroom, before he tripped over his words. But most of all, I thought about the way he'd held my hand, his long, warm fingers enveloping mine.
I shifted in the steamy water, my fingers wandering over my stomach and thighs. It had been far too long since I'd been with a man, and I was rarely interested in taking matters in my own hands, but tonight was different. An aching need was building up inside of me, and I was suddenly desperate to relieve it. My right hand inched further down into the water, brushing over the bare skin between my thighs. I'd shaved for so many years it was habit, even if no one ever saw it. I slipped a finger through the wet folds and then pushed it slowly inside, moaning softly at the sensation.
A second finger soon followed as I began to rock my hips, splashing water outside of the tub. My thumb found the button of nerves, and I moved it deliberate circles. I grabbed my breast with my free hand, rolling the nipple gently. Pleasure was building, tightening and I began to move faster, chasing what I so badly needed.
I closed my eyes and was assaulted with images of green eyes, bronze hair, a strong jaw and a killer smile.
"I just want you to be safe."
"Fuck!" My hips came out of the water as a powerful orgasm washed over me, overtaking every nerve ending until I was gasping for air and ready to collapse. I bit my lip hard, refusing to scream his name as the pleasure finally peaked and then began to ebb. My shaking right hand slid off my body and into the water with a loud splat, and I lay half-submerged, trying to catch my breath.
As I slowly came down from my high, I began to methodically wash, trying in vain not to think about what had just happened or who had caused it. By the time I'd climbed out of the tub, I'd convinced myself that I was just in major need of stress relief, and Edward's presence had been of assistance. And he certainly wasn't interested in me; he was a professional and took his job seriously.
I flipped on the fan and fumbled around in my nightstand for the Trazadone. I hated taking any kind of sleep medication, but this one was safe and I couldn't handle any terrifying dreams tonight. Otis was sprawled out on my pillow, and I shoved him aside, ignoring his protests. It was nice to be back in my own comfortable bed, but the room seemed more empty than usual. I couldn't bring myself to turn off the bedside lamp, and lay awake, staring at the ceiling fan and the shadows it made on the walls.
My traitorous mind kept going back to Edward, wondering what had happened on the raid he'd been called on and if he was all right. I couldn't imagine what it was like to be in his shoes, putting your life on the line for others on a daily basis. As the medication kicked in, my hazy thoughts slowly ebbed away, and I fell into a dreamless sleep.
The ring of my cell woke me up much too early. "Hello?"
"Rise and shine!" Rosalie's cheery voice rang in my ear. "I'm running errands today for the job, and I could really use your help. Pick you up in a bit?"
Why was this woman so hell bent on being my friend? Couldn't she tell by the sparseness of my condo that I had very little talent when it came to decorating?
"Bella? Are you there?"
"Yeah, I'm just trying to wake up. Are you sure you want to have me tagging along?"
"Of course I do! It gets so boring doing everything by myself, and I can't stand the thought of you sitting at home alone all day. Please?"
She had been so much kinder to me than I deserved; my surly attitude hadn't deterred her at all. The least I could do was humor her for a day.
"Okay. Give me some time to wake up, though."
An hour later I was following Rosalie to a dark red SUV, dressed comfortably in cut-off jean shorts and a lightweight pink tank top. It was already hot outside; a major heat wave had rolled in last night and was supposed to last for a few days. My hair was piled high on my head, with a few loose strands to help cover the bruises on my face, and I wore my favorite black sunglasses. Rosalie was dressed just as casually, wearing paint splattered shorts and an old U2 concert tee, so I didn't feel to out of place.
Before we left, I grudgingly checked in with the two officers that would be my detail, and they assured us they would be shadowing us all day.
"How'd you sleep last night?" She asked as we headed into downtown Henderson. "Were you able to get any rest?"
"Yes, thank you. I pretty much passed out."
"Good," she cranked the air conditioning up. "Did Edward take care of things, then?"
The memory of my time in the bathtub flashed through my mind, and I whipped my head around, staring at her through the dark lense of my sunglasses. "Take care of what?"
Rosalie smirked, never taking her eyes off the road. "He walked you to your door. He made sure everything was safe, then?"
"Oh, yeah," I breathed. "Yes, everything was safe."
"Did you guys talk?"
My guard was instantly back up. "About what?"
"Come on, Bella. There was obvious tension between the two of you when you came back from the guest room. Did something happen?" A sly smile played at the corner of her mouth, and I hurried to clarify.
"Not what you're thinking!" Heat crept up my neck. "He was worried about my reaction to things, that I didn't know how to handle the memories as they came back. I assured him I was fine, and we talked about his sisters group."
"I see," Rosalie answered. "Anything else? You still seemed pretty upset when you came back out."
I bit my lip, unsure if I wanted to divulge anything else to her. I'd never had a girlfriend to tell things to, and I wasn't sure what the rules were. "Well…"
Rosalie reached across the leather seat and patted my knee. "Sometimes it helps to talk things out, you know."
That's what I'd always heard. I had just never been very good at it. "It turns out he volunteers with his sisters support group when he can. He'd forgotten to tell me about it, and he didn't want me to think he had any ulterior motives, like trying to hit on me. He made it clear that wasn't an issue for him." The words came out in a rush, and I was surprised at the bitter tone in my voice. I waited nervously for Rosalie's response, feeling miserably exposed.
"Wow," she finally said. "Sounds like he really put his foot in his mouth. He said something to Emmett about saying something stupid and needing to fix it."
Rosalie stopped at a red light, and turned to smile at me. "Yep. Guess it was obvious he felt bad about it. No wonder you were pissed! Although, he definitely didn't mean it like it sounded. You know that, right?"
I looked away. "I guess. He said in the hall that's not what he meant at all, and he was worried about me." I had no intention of telling Rosalie everything that had happened in the hallway last night, especially since I had no idea how to explain what had occurred between Edward and me.
"That's obvious. He rushed into our place last night like he was going to lay down the law." She fanned herself as she hit the gas. "That was hot as hell, by the way."
"When he stormed in, all hot and bothered about you being alone! That is one hell of a man, Bella. And I don't think you need to worry about him not hitting on you."
I pushed my sunglasses farther up my nose. "I don't understand."
Rosalie pulled up to the tile store and snagged the last parking spot, forcing my babysitters to park on the street. "You do realize that SWAT doesn't solve cases, right? They just handle the immediate situation, and then they move onto the next."
"So? The man had no reason to be there last night. He came on his own, and not because of your case. Because of you. You get under his skin, that much is obvious."
I flushed, remembering what Edward had said last night about not knowing what he was doing. "I think he just feels sorry for me."
"Bullshit. He sees a hot, single woman that intrigues him. Feeling sorry for you has nothing to do with it." She hopped out of the SUV, waving at the uniforms watching us. I quickly followed, trying to sort out what she was saying.
"Call me Rose," she linked her arm through mine. "Only my mom calls me Rosalie."
The intimate gesture took me by surprise, but it was impossible not to respond to her. "Okay, Rose then. You do know he's only 25, right?"
"I figured he was somewhere around there. So?"
"So I'm 34! He's nine years younger than me; he doesn't see a hot woman. He sees a victim."
Rosalie stopped at the door and glared at me over the top of her big, black sunglasses. "Nine years is nothing, Bella. Guys his age love women in their thirties and they chase after us all the time. You're beautiful and trust me, he sees you as much more than a victim."
I smiled politely at her and pulled open the door. "Whatever you say, Rose. You don't even know the guy."
"Doesn't matter," she snorted. "He was pretty transparent."
She breezed into the store, calling the manager by name, and I stuck close by her side, not wanting to be noticed. She had several paint swatches with her, and immediately began comparing them to various pieces of ceramic tile. None of them suited her, so she asked to see more samples, and we were led to their stock room to look at even more samples.
The manager left us on our own, and Rosalie was determined to involve me in the process. She asked my opinion on every piece, and seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.
It had been so long since I'd paid attention to anything with color; Paul had loved color, and our house had plenty of it. He made all of the color choices, picked out all of the furniture, and decided where everything needed to be placed. Every room had been lavishly decorated and while the home had been beautiful, I had never really felt like it was mine. I just lived there.
When I'd purchased my condo, I'd been too depressed to think about what it looked like, and by the time I resurfaced, the white seemed calming and peaceful to me. Now it just seemed blank.
"What do you think of this one?" Rosalie held up a piece of tile with several earth tones mixed into it. It looked more like slate, and it blended perfectly with the paint swatch she wanted to use.
"I like it," I answered honestly. "It's colorful but not overwhelming."
She beamed at me. "Me too. Let's go order and then it's on to the next!"
Her enthusiasm was contagious, and while she placed her order, I asked to use the restroom. It was in the basement, and I headed down the stairs with a smile on my face. The day was going well, and I was actually looking forward to spending the rest of it with Rosalie. Then I rounded the corner and found myself looking down a dimly lit, empty hallway. The restroom was at the very end, and my palms were suddenly clammy. It was nothing like the bank, and yet it was far too similar.
Panic crept up into my lungs so quickly it was as though someone had sealed off my airways. I gasped loudly and my heart pounded in my temples. Tears welled up in my eyes as the memory played in my head.
"Time to go, Bells." He grabbed my arm and was dragging me away from everyone. The bank was nearly pitch black, but I could hear the SWAT members shouting now that they'd been spotted. My arm ached from his grip, and I screamed for help.
"Now, now," the taker whispered loudly. "That won't do. You need to be quiet or someone will end up hurt."
Then he whirled around and fired his weapon at a pursuing officer, the sound much to close to my ears.
Rosalie's voice sounded far away; I could barely hear over my own screaming. Her hands suddenly gripped my shoulders, and she was shaking me.
"Bella! Bella, it's Rose! What happened? Are you all right?"
I managed to quiet down but couldn't answer her. The words caught in my throat and I stared into Rosalie's violet eyes, trying to process what was really going on.
"Did you see someone? Should I get the boys outside?"
"N-n-no," I finally managed. "Th-the hallway. It's so dark. He d-d-dragged me and f-fired at SWAT. So dark!"
"Oh Bella," Rosalie whispered in understanding. "It's okay. You're safe now." She wrapped her arms around me in a tight embrace, and to my complete surprise, I hugged her back. I buried my face against her warm shoulder and pressed my eyes closed, trying to block out the terrifying images. Rosalie didn't say anything else; she just let me cling to her as I tried to calm myself.
"Is she okay?" The nervous manager spoke from behind her. "Do I need to call someone?"
"She's fine," Rosalie assured him. "Just give us a minute, please."
I heard his retreating footsteps on the stairs, and sucked in a huge gulp of air as I finally pulled away from her.
My cheeks were wet with tears, and Rosalie dug into her purse for some tissues. "Here," she gently wiped my face. The fear had drained me of all my inhibitions, and I simply stood there, letting her clean me up.
"Do you want to talk about it, Bella?"
"Not really." What was there to say? It had happened and it was over with. I was fine.
Rosalie pushed a lock of sweaty hair off my face. "You can't keep ignoring these flashbacks. They're not going to go away."
"I know," I whispered, blinking back more tears. "I don't want to think about it today, though."
She sighed, clearly frustrated. "Okay, but you're going to have to eventually. What do you need right now?"
My breathing had finally returned to normal, and my heart was no longer racing. I felt the familiar pressure, and glanced down the dark hallway. "I really need to pee." My hands trembled at the idea of going down there alone, however safe I might be.
"You know what, I do too of a sudden," Rosalie said, shoving her purse back onto her shoulder. "Too much coffee this morning. I'll walk down with you and we can take turns."
Emotion suddenly welled up inside me, and I was afraid of speaking. I couldn't risk letting it all out.
Nothing was said as we walked together down the dark hallway, and I focused on the sound of Rosalie's breathing and the smell of her perfume. She waited outside for her turn, and the walk back upstairs was just as silent. When we reached the top, I impulsively grabbed her hand. "Thanks, Rose."
She squeezed back. "You're welcome, Bella."
I waited for her to finish her order, and was thrilled to head out into the hot sunshine. The security detail was still across the street, and we waved to let them know things were all right.
"I want to grab a copy of the Sun," Rose said, walking to the nearby stand. "Emmett made off with ours this morning, as usual."
"I didn't even think to check mine," I answered. Seeing myself on the front cover yesterday had been enough.
Rosalie paid for the paper and yanked it out of the machine. She scanned the headlines, and her gasp sent a shiver of fear up my spine.
"What is it? Is there something else in there about the bank?"
"No," she answered. "It's … here," she thrust the paper into my hand. "See for yourself."
My eyes raced over the page, looking for what had caught Rosalie's attention. The headline was buried below others, and it was toward the bottom of the page, as though it weren't as important as the new city ordinances.
Nausea rolled over me in waves as I read the words. 'SWAT Officer Shot in Routine Drug Bust.'
I strapped on the hot Kevlar, clearing my mind of everything that had just happened between Bella and me in the hallway. My head had been in the clouds on the ride to the station to meet the rest of my team, trying to figure out what happened between the two of us and why I felt this urgent need to help her, but that had to end for the moment. It was time to do my job.
"Here C," Jake tossed me a helmet. I put it and my protective goggles on, which were already drenched with sweat. It was too late in the evening to be this fucking hot. I checked my assault rifle, making sure it was loaded and ready, and then jumped out of the Peacekeeper to join the rest of the team on the dark end of the street.
We were in old North Las Vegas in an area where drug deals on the corner were an every day occurrence. Tonight's raid was on a rambling old two-story, and it was a known meth lab.
"I don't have to tell you guys to be careful," Johnson said to the five of us. It was easier to use a partial squad in these types of raids because too many people caused chaos. "You know how volatile this shit is, and we have no way of knowing how secure the owners have the lab." He checked his own gear before continuing. "The house belongs to Demitri Costa, an Italian-born local known to be running a mid-sized meth ring. If we can take him down, it will send a message to the bigger guys."
"Yeah, like don't fuck with us," Jake quipped. Everyone laughed and then grew quiet as they started preparing for the raid. Jake and I checked each other's equipment, doing our customary check in.
"You ready for this, C?"
"Hell yeah!" He closed his mic and stepped close to my ear, talking quietly. "But you seemed pretty preoccupied when you showed up at the station. Upset about Ms. Swan?"
"I don't know. I tried talking to her and got nowhere." No way was I telling him about sticking my foot in my mouth or what had happened after. Jake would never let me live it down.
"You called her? I didn't know you had her number. Nice."
"I don't have her number."
He turned his head sharply, smacking his helmet against mine. "Fuck! Watch it, Jake!"
"Sorry. You went over there?" He hissed, and I had to strain to hear him.
"Yeah. I'll tell you about it later. Shut up."
His dark eyes glared at me through the protective headgear, but I ignored him. Everything he wanted to say had already been racing through my mind, and I couldn't think about it anymore.
Johnson began giving the orders as we waited against the untidy hedges on the side of the dilapidated house. "Black, you and Cullen take the back entrance. Surveillance shows the lab is in the kitchen, and Costa will probably be in there. You know what to do."
There were at least two other hostiles in the house with Costa, so Quil and Embry waited on the perimeter as backup while Johnson and Tyler headed to the front door to serve the warrant.
Jake and I snuck around to the back, and he took the lead as we silently crept onto a sagging old porch. I turned my mic up loud, listening to Johnson issuing the warrant, my assault rifle in position.
He pounded on the door. "Dimitri Costa! Las Vegas SWAT! We have a warrant to search your home. Open up!"
Loud shuffling and shouting came from inside the house, and Jake stepped back, his weapon cocked as we waited for Johnson's instruction.
"Costa!" Johnson shouted again. "You've got ten seconds to open up or we're coming in!"
"Just a fucking minute!" Someone yelled back. The front door opened, and we could hear Johnson speaking to a male with a heavy Italian accent.
"Where's Dimitri Costa?"
"No you're not, son," Johnson answered. "We know what he looks like, and you're about half his age. Step aside so we can come in. Now."
"Fuck you." He slammed the door, and more loud noise came from the back of the house.
"Boss, I think Costa's in the lab back here," I told him. "What are your orders?"
Jake gave me the signal and then stepped back, slamming his big foot against the shaky door. Three kicks later it fell open, coming off the hinges, and we cautiously walked inside. The putrid odor of methamphetamine cooking broke through my helmet, and I shook my head, trying not to gag at the smell. How anyone could willingly put that shit into their body was beyond me.
The kitchen was just past the cluttered mudroom, and we had to pass stacks of ammonia and suspicious looking tanks to get to it. Jake entered first and I followed, standing shoulder to shoulder with him and blocking the entrance.
"Don't move!" I shouted at the middle-aged Italian man who was rapidly dumping the contents of a silver container down the sink. "Las Vegas Police! Drop the container, and turn around slowly with your hands up."
The canister fell into the sink with a clang, and he turned around, his hands above his head and his face twisted into a scowl. We had surveillance photos of Dimitri Costa, and this wasn't him.
"Where's Costa?" I asked. The man just glared at me, refusing to answer.
I scanned the room, noting the only exit was behind us. Johnson and Tyler had entered from the front and were arguing with the man who'd opened the front door.
"He's in the house," Johnson told us. "I'm sure of that." He motioned for Jake and me to search the house while he and Tyler took care of the two suspects. The living room was cluttered with filth, and we carefully pushed aside some of the stacks of papers and clothes in case Costa was hiding.
A floorboard squeaked above us, and Jake hurried to the stairs. We crept up the creaking steps as quietly as possible, trying not to trip over the various beer bottles that had been left on them. Once on the landing, we carefully looked up and down the large hallway. There were three bedrooms: two to our right and one to the left. The creak had come from directly above us, and I motioned to Jake I was heading left. He nodded, checking to his right once more. Just as I moved to turn, the bedroom door flung open and the sound of a gunshot rang in my ears.
There was no time to react; white-hot pain shot through my left arm, and I slumped against the wall, trying not to lose my balance. Jake immediately stepped in front of me and fired once, hitting Costa in the shoulder and knocking him down.
"C! Where are you hit?"
"It's just my arm," I gasped. "Take care of Costa."
I could hear the rest of my team shouting over the radio, wanting to know who'd been shot, and the sound of footsteps echoed off the stairs as Jake subdued the shouting Italian. I stared at the old wooden banister; the bullet had torn through it, slowing down its trajectory.
Quil was suddenly there, carefully checking me over and sighing with relief when he saw it was only my arm. "It's Cullen, he's hit in the arm, boss," he radioed to Johnson. "9 millimeter. Jake nailed Costa in the shoulder."
"How's Cullen?" Johnson's voice crackled over the radio. "Did the bullet go through?"
"I think he'll be okay." Quil glanced around, looking for the bullet. "Yep, there it is," he pointed to the wall above me. "Stuck right in the fucking plaster."
"Good," Johnson answered. "I've already called a bus. Sit tight, Cullen."
"Quil, deal with Costa," Jake ordered, kneeling in front of me. He whipped a utility knife off his equipment belt, deftly sliced through the SWAT fatigues I wore, and then cut off the left sleeve. The bullet had skimmed through my upper arm and blood was running down it, creating a nasty stain on the floor.
Jake tied the torn sleeve around my arm to slow down the bleeding. "Looks like a clean through and through to me," he said as he secured the makeshift bandage. "Hopefully it didn't get any muscle."
"I hope so," I grimaced. "I don't want to miss a bunch of work."
"Typical. Just sit here and wait for the bus."
"Since when do you give orders? Last time I checked, we had the same rank." I scowled at him.
"Since your ass got shot. Automatically puts me in charge. Now shut up."
"You do realize I'm the first one to take a gunshot, right? That gives me a leg up on you."
Jake snorted. "I think you've lost too much blood, C. I don't remember ever making that rule."
"It's an unwritten rule." I used my good arm to unbuckle the suffocating vest. The heat outside was oppressive, and Costa's shit-hole of a house had no air conditioning.
"You fucking pig!" Costa shouted at Jake as Quil put pressure on his bleeding shoulder. "You shot me!"
"Shut up!" Jake snapped, jumping to his feet and towering over the injured man. "You shot a cop! That gives us free reign to take you out. You're just lucky I have good aim."
Costa began rattling off threats in Italian, and Jake flipped him off. The paramedics arrived, and one began poking around on my arm while the other dealt with Costa. His injury was worse than mine, and he was quickly taken down to the waiting ambulance. I had other ideas, however.
"It's just a flesh wound, right?" I asked the medic who was cleaning me up.
"Looks like it, but you need to go to the hospital and get it taken care of."
I glanced down at her nametag. She was about my age, with jet-black hair. "I know, Irina, but wouldn't it be all right if my guys took me? I really don't want to be in the ambulance. Too crowded." I smiled flirtatiously at her, and her eyes widened.
"Uh, well," she stammered, blushing. "I guess you can refuse care, but I really shouldn't let you."
"But I'm a cop, Irina." I said sweetly. "Shouldn't that count for something?"
Behind her, Jake had taken his helmet off and was rolling his eyes at me. "I'm pretty sure we can't take a bleeder in the Peacekeeper, C. I think you're supposed to ride in the ambulance."
"Damn right he is," Johnson snapped as he trudged up the stairs. "Cullen, quit using your charm on the poor woman. Rules are you ride in with the medics. Just hope you don't have to stay the night."
I grumbled my discontent as Irina helped me to my feet, and gripped the banister for support as we slowly headed down stairs. Once we were outside, Jake helped me shed the Kevlar and the miserably hot uniform top, leaving me in just my fatigues and a sweat-soaked, black t-shirt. Costa was already in the ambulance, and I made sure to sit as far away from him as possible. His uninjured arm was cuffed to the gurney and he'd been checked for concealed weapons, but I still didn't trust him.
"Cullen," Johnson strode up to the ambulance as the medics were getting ready to leave. "You do what the docs say, all right? If they want you to spend the night, then do it."
"Boss, I'll be fine," I argued, ignoring the burning pain in my arm. "I'm not missing a shift."
"You're lucky!" He pointed his finger at me. "That bullet could have easily hit you in the neck. If you have to take a few days off, so be it. Take this shit seriously. Got it?"
Johnson stayed to finish booking Costa's accomplices while Jake insisted on going with me to the hospital and rode up front. Vice would take charge of Costa once he was admitted to the hospital; Irina had him stabilized, and he was no longer our concern.
I leaned against the ambulance, wincing as Irina cleaned my wound. "Sorry," she apologized. "I know it stings."
She glanced up at me, a shy smile on her face. "So, how long have you been a SWAT officer?"
"About two years. How long have you been a paramedic?"
"Six months," she answered as she applied a clean bandage. "Is it scary?"
"Being in SWAT. You never know what you're getting yourself into, do you?"
I shrugged and then groaned as a fresh wave of pain shot through me. "No, but we have really good intel, and we do a lot of training. We're as prepared as possible."
Irina brushed a lock of her black hair behind her ear; she was very pretty, with pale skin and dark eyes. "You probably don't have a lot of time to date then, do you?"
"Depends," I answered vaguely, feeling strangely uncomfortable.
"On what?" She batted her eyelashes at me, a coy smile on her face.
Was the paramedic really hitting on me? I guess that's what I get for trying to sweet talk my way out of something. "Lots of things." I closed my eyes and rested my head against the cold metal again, hoping she'd take the hint. Irina was pretty enough, but she was probably just like every other girl I'd run across and not worth the time.
"Are you single?" She asked bluntly, and my eyes popped back open. "Because if you are, I know a great party that's happening tomorrow over by UNLV. My best friend's a grad student and, she can get us on the list."
Just as I'd expected, although I couldn't believe she was offering to take me to a damn party when she had just cleaned the bullet hole in my arm. I looked pointedly down at my injury. "Somehow I doubt I'll be up to it."
"Oh come on," she pressed. "They'll probably give you plenty of pain killers. It'll be fun." She scooted closer to me. "I might even play nurse for you if you're nice to me."
This was why I'd virtually given up dating. This woman was supposed to be a professional, for Christ's sake. "I'm seeing someone," I snapped, no longer feeling the need to be friendly.
Irina was clearly disappointed. "That's too bad. Can I give you my number in case you change your mind?"
The ambulance screeched to a halt at the emergency room doors, saving Irina from further degrading herself. Costa was wheeled out first, and then I was forced into a wheelchair. A reporter from the Sun was already waiting, firing off questions, and I shook my head, refusing to answer.
"Jake!" I called as they wheeled me into an exam room. "Call Alice, would you? She'll have my head if she sees this shit on the news first."
He waved at me. "Yeah, soon as I get done dealing with Costa. Check on you soon."
I'd been very lucky. The doctors were able to clean the wounds. The 9 mm semi automatic had only grazed me; a few inches either way and I might not be sitting in a cold room, waiting for my sister to pick me up. It was well past midnight and I hated to bother her, but Jake had to go back on duty.
I heard the sound of her flip-flops on the tile floor before I saw her, and the door was flung open. Alice sighed with relief when she saw me, her hand over her heart and her face ashen. Behind her was the last person I'd wanted her to call.
"Edward!" My mother rushed past Alice and gathered me in her arms. "Are you okay?"
I glared at Alice over her shoulder and she shrugged, unconcerned with my anger.
"Mom, I'm fine. It's just a flesh wound."
Esme's hands fluttered over the bandage as though she wanted to take it off and see for herself. "Are you sure? Did you hit your head? The bullet didn't hit an organ and they don't know it yet?"
"You watch too much TV," I reassured her. "The bullet sliced through my arm and ended up in the wall. It's minor."
Alice gave me the clean t-shirt Jake had her pick up on the way over. "How long will you be off work?"
"Probably about a week," I grumbled. I'd attempted to argue with the doctor about that, but it was no use. The order for me to remain off duty would go straight to my commanding officer.
Esme helped me get the shirt on; my arm hurt like hell and lifting it over my head was even worse. "I want you to come home with me tonight."
Alice snorted, and I gave her a dirty look. "Mom, there's no reason for me to do that. All I need to do is rest, and I'm pretty sure I can handle that."
"Edward, you could have been killed!" She finally began to cry, leaning her head on my good shoulder. "Do you know what it felt like when Alice called? I nearly passed out!"
"That's why I didn't want her to call you!"
"That would have gone over like a lead brick," Alice cut in. "What if she saw it on TV first? Stupid reporters are everywhere."
"You should have let me call her. Why do you always have to be control?"
She stuck her tongue out at me. "Because I'm the oldest, dummy." She gathered up the few personal possessions I'd had with me. "Have they discharged you yet?"
I turned away from her, refusing to acknowledge her pushiness. Alice chuckled and stepped in front of me, her blue eyes twinkling mischievously. "Eddie," she cooed sweetly. "Don't be mad at me!" She grabbed my cheeks and squeezed them, just as she had always done when we were kids and I was chunky. "Look at this face! Your chubby cheeks are so cute!"
I smacked her hands away. "They're not chubby anymore! Knock it off!"
"Then stop being a baby!"
"Enough," my mother stepped in. "Alice, your brother's been shot. Stop tormenting him. Edward, answer the question. Have you been discharged?"
"I'm waiting on the final paperwork. Does Dad know?"
Esme nodded. "Yes. He had another damn back spasm on the job today, so I made him stay home in bed. He's waiting for an update, though, so I should let him know you're leaving soon." She excused herself to call Dad, leaving me alone with Alice. I was determined not to talk to her but as usual, she knew just what to say to make me crack.
"I burst into tears when Jake called," she said quietly, sitting down next to me. "His first words were, 'Al, I need to tell you something,' and I just lost it. I was so afraid his news was much worse."
Shit. I wrapped my right arm around her, and she buried her face in my chest. "Even when he told me you were going to be fine, I couldn't be sure until I saw you. Jesus, Edward!"
"I'm sorry," I rested my chin on top of her head. "I should have called myself, but I wanted you to know right away."
Alice sucked in a deep breath and sat back up, wiping the tears from her face. "No, it's fine. Thanks for thinking of me."
She wanted to know what happened, and I gave her the cliff notes version. "He got the jump on us, but I keep thinking I should have been more careful. I thought my head was in the game, but …" my voice trailed off as the image of Bella's face flashed before my eyes. She had told me to come back safe; what would her reaction be if she heard the news? Would she even care?
"What is it?" Alice asked, honing in on my expression. "Were you distracted?"
"No. I don't know," I stammered. "I wasn't thinking about her when we were on the job, but everything just felt different. I can't explain it."
"Her?" Alice's eyes were wide. "Are you talking about what's her face? The bank manager?"
"Bella. Yeah. I saw her earlier."
My sister simply stared at me, waiting for an explanation. Naturally, I spilled my guts, starting with my overreaction to Jake's news about Bella refusing to stay with the McCarty's, to her response to the innocent nickname of 'Bells,' and ending with my dumbass remark about the support group. I couldn't tell her everything about the hallway, however. It was too intense, too personal, and there were no words to describe it. I wasn't even sure what had happened.
"So I walked her back to her condo and made it clear I hadn't meant it like it sounded. We talked a bit, and she agreed to think about getting help."
Alice raised her eyebrow, knowing full well I was editing. "Uh-huh. Do you think she will?"
"I have no idea. She needs it. You should have seen the way she clammed up when Emmett called her 'Bells.' She was terrified, and the flashbacks are just going to keep coming." I closed my eyes, remembering the way Bella had stared at me in the hall, her brown eyes intense with some kind of emotion. "But she's so fucking closed off and stubborn. I just don't know."
"Wow," Alice breathed. "This is quite the situation you've got yourself in, little brother."
"What do you mean?"
She patted my hand. "Such an interesting, complex woman who's clearly in need of help. You love to save people. See where I'm going with this?"
"Not really." I was confused. "Yeah, I would love to help her, but it's not because I want to save people. It's because she has no one Al, and that's not right. Someone's got to be there for her!"
A strange expression came over her face as the nurse finally strolled in with my discharge papers. "Okay then. Just don't let your need to do good cloud your judgment."
I quickly signed the papers. Esme reappeared and quizzed the nurse about my injury and the aftercare, and Alice had to pull her away.
Hospital rules mandated patients be wheeled outside, and I complained the entire way.
"My legs work fine!"
"Hush," Esme said. "Your father says you're staying with us tonight, and we're not taking no for an answer. You can go home in the morning after you've had a good breakfast."
I climbed into the passenger seat of her Jeep, knowing it was useless to argue. Alice handed me the bag that contained my badge, watch and weapon. "I'll call you tomorrow," she kissed my cheek. "Don't put me through that shit again. Love you."
"Love you, too."
My eyelids began to droop on the drive to my parents, and I dozed off to thoughts about Bella, hoping she was all right.
I climbed out of Rosalie's SUV, exhausted. The physical and emotional rollercoaster I'd been on the last few days – not to mention the oppressive heat – was beginning to take its toll on me. My episode in the basement of the tile store had been frightening, even though I'd managed to shake it off and continue shopping with Rosalie. I was completely unnerved I could have such a reaction to something so benign, and I began to wonder if Edward had been right about the flashbacks.
Thank God he was all right. The headline in the paper had taken my breath away, and I'd read the article at lightening speed, sighing with relief when I saw he'd already been released from the hospital. My gut reaction had been to race back to my condo for his sister's card and try to contact him, but I managed to convince myself that would be just a little bit crazy.
Rosalie had watched my reaction with all too observant eyes. "You okay there?"
I folded the paper and handed it back to her. "Of course. Sounds like he got lucky."
"Sure does. Dangerous job."
She didn't say anything else, and we spent the rest of the day shopping for her supplies, my security detail two steps behind the entire time. The house she was decorating was a new build in Henderson, and the owners had very extravagant tastes. They'd given her a list of colors to work from and had specific demands about the kinds of fabric and materials to be used.
"You went to school for interior design?" I asked her as we drove to yet another store.
"Not at first," she replied. "I started out as an art major, but quickly realized I wasn't going to make any money at it, so I switched majors. What about you? Did you go to college?"
The tension was back immediately. "Community college. Southern Nevada."
"But I thought you grew up in Seattle?"
"Wow. So did you and your ex move here to go to college?"
I ground my teeth, trying not to be rude. Rosalie didn't deserve that. "Something like that."
Rosalie heard the edge in my voice. "Can I ask one more question?"
My lips actually twitched into a smile. "Just one."
"How old were you when you got married?"
Of course that was the question she would ask. "Almost 19."
She whistled. "Wow, you were just a baby."
"I guess. Can we talk about something else, please?"
Rosalie looked slightly hurt, and I rushed to explain. "It's nothing personal, Rose. I just don't like talking about my past. I was too young, followed Paul blindly and spent 10 years of my life in a one-sided relationship. It's over and done with and going over the details just makes me unhappy. I'd rather talk about more pleasant things with you." I was out of breath when I finished and slightly overwhelmed. That was the most I'd told anyone about myself in a long, long time.
She seemed to sense this and offered me a kind smile. "Fair enough. No use wasting any more time on the louse."
The conversation moved on to safer topics, and I relaxed as we discussed favorite movies and books and whether or not Rosalie should suck it up and get the sinus surgery she needed. It was past 8pm when we finally got back home and still hot as hell. The news said the miserable heat would last a few more days, and for a fleeting moment, I missed Washington and its cool, green summers. Shaking the memory out of my head, I climbed out of Rose's SUV, exhausted but oddly content. I literally couldn't remember the last day I'd spent with a friend, and with the exception of the panic in the basement, it had been a good day.
"Thank you so much for coming with me," Rosalie said after my security detail had given me the okay to go into my apartment. "I'll let you sleep in tomorrow, but I need to go over to the new build some time. Can you go with me?"
"Sure," the instant response surprised us both. "As long as it's after noon."
"No problem." She hugged me goodbye, and I was able to return the gesture without flinching. "You have my cell number if you need me, right?"
I did, somewhere. "Yeah. But I'm just taking shower and passing out."
Rosalie stuck out her hand. "Give me your phone, and I'll program it in."
My place was quiet, save for Otis's demanding yowl, and I quickly flipped on the lights, uneasy. I wasn't used to getting home so late, and apparently had a newfound fear of the dark.
Otis licked my leg, glaring up at me for arriving so late. "Did you eat all your food?" I poured him another cup and he dug in as though he'd been deprived for days. "We're going to have to put you on a diet, buddy. Your tummy is getting sagging skin syndrome." I jiggled the loose skin under his fat belly, but he was too interested in his food to care.
The heat outside had seeped its way into my condo, so I turned the air down on the way to the shower and made sure the bedroom light was on. The cool water felt good on my sticky skin, and I stayed under the spray until I was practically freezing. I towel dried my hair and then slipped into my old sleep shorts and raggedy t-shirt. Otis was already stretched out in bed, attempting to clean his large stomach, and I sat down on the edge to put some lotion on.
"I had good day," I told him. "There was a little issue in one store, but other than that, I actually had fun with Rose."
My thoughts drifted to Edward once more and to everything he'd said to me about getting help. I'd worked hard for years to keep my inner thoughts and emotions under lock and key, believing that privacy would serve me best. But after talking with Rose today, I was beginning to wonder if I'd been wrong. The experience in the basement had been terrifying, and it had been a relief to tell her just a little bit of what had happened.
Maybe I did need to talk to someone.
I reached for the bedside lamp, desperate for sleep, but before my fingers could close around the metal chain, the lights flickered and the apartment was suddenly bathed in darkness.
For a few moments, I was completely disoriented and then immediately broke out in a cold sweat as my eyes blinked rapidly, struggling to focus. I was frozen in my spot on the bed, completely terrified.
Why had the lights gone out? Was it just my apartment or the entire building?
Something soft and furry brushed against my arm. Otis. I fumbled around in the blankets and scooped him up. I needed some sort of normalcy to help me think straight. He purred loudly, snuggling his head under my chin.
'Okay, Bella,' I took deep, calming breaths. 'Use your head. Where's the flashlight? Do I even have one?'
I needed to get up, find a candle, flashlight, a fucking match – something. But I still couldn't move. My muscles were hardwired to the paralyzing fear that had taken over my brain. Rational thought wasn't possible.
Otis squirmed; I was squishing him. The moment my grip eased up, he leapt out of my arms, landing with a thud on the floor. My eyes were adjusting to the near-complete lack of light, and I could see his yellow ones looking up at me. With trembling hands, I reached for the nightstand, pulled open the drawer and fumbled around for some source of light.
There was nothing.
I had to get up. My legs shook as I slowly rose to my feet, knees banging together. This was far worse than what happened in the bank. At least I had my sight then and could see what was coming. This was like having a smothering, hot blanket draped over me, with no chance of escape.
I heard the pad of Otis's feet on the hardwood floor as he left me to fend for myself, unaware I couldn't see in the dark as he could.
With outstretched hands, I began to feel my way toward the living room. My fingers hit the doorframe first, saving me from a face plant, and I crept forward. The living room was just as dark as the bedroom, all the blinds having been shut earlier to keep the hot sun out.
"Fuck!" I shouted when my toe slammed into the couch. I flew forward, sprawling over the overstuffed arm. Tears welled up in my eyes as I reached for my poor big toe. It was already throbbing with pain, and I hoped it wasn't broken. Those things took forever to heal.
A sudden bang from the kitchen nearly stopped my heart. What the hell was that?
"Otis?" My voice seemed loud in the quiet dark. "Is that you?"
Shuffling and a faint meow. He was probably walking on the counter, just to piss me off.
"Bad boy." I grumbled, pushing myself off the couch and gingerly standing. The toe hurt, but I was able to wiggle and put weight on it, so I began the slow process of moving forward once more. There were matches in my junk drawer and a candle somewhere in the kitchen. That was all I needed.
The flashback came out of nowhere this time.
"Are you afraid of the dark, beautiful Bella?" The taker whispered as he leaned close to me, sniffing my hair once again. Night had fallen, and the only light in the bank came from the streetlights. I could just make out the people closest to me.
He nodded. "Did you know the technical name for fear of the dark is Nyctophobia? I don't mean the normal, fleeting fear we all experience when the lights go out, but rather the irrational anxiety we experience when it's dark. Some people even have panic attacks from it."
I didn't respond, and he continued in his creepy, breathy whisper. "Studies show the phobia is more common in childhood, and adults who suffer from it haven't faced the problem and probably had a bad experience with the dark in the past."
He shifted closer to me, and the stench of his sweat invaded my nostrils. "I don't understand it myself. Darkness is our friend, Bella. It hides our imperfections and protects us from the realities of daylight. We can be anything we want to in the dark. It's my favorite time of day."
"Oh God," moisture streamed down my face as more images assaulted me. Dark, calculating eyes, the slight accent and the overpowering smell of his sweat. He was always so close, hovering, his fingers brushing against my arms more times than I could count.
"Darkness is our friend, Bella."
My lungs began to constrict, and the panic overwhelmed me. Was he here? Had he somehow cut the lights to the building? Was he in the apartment with me right now?
Claustrophobia set in as the room seemed to shrink, and the taker closed in on me. I could feel his breath on my neck, and his scent suddenly crept into my nose. He'd surrounded me yet again, and I was trapped.
"No!" I whipped my head around, gasping for air and searching in vain for some sign of his presence. Was that real, or just my tired, tormented brain playing a cruel trick on me? "Please, please don't hurt me! Just leave me alone!"
Stumbling forward, arms outstretched, I tried again to make it to the kitchen. I needed a weapon – something to protect me. He wasn't going to take me out of my own home.
I smacked my shaking hands against the granite bar that extended from the kitchen and slid forward, trying not to lose my balance again. Cold metal touched my fingertips.
The LCD screen glowed warmly, and I barely registered that it was only 10:30pm as I held the glowing phone high over my head, panning it around. I couldn't see anyone, but the light didn't reach very far. He could be hiding in the corner, watching and laughing.
The phone suddenly rang loudly, and I nearly dropped it in shock.
"Bella!" Her voice was one of the most beautiful things I'd heard in a long time. "I'm so glad Emmett found your number! I was about to come banging on your door. Are you okay? I thought of you the second the lights went out."
"Rose." The choking fear was overwhelming me. "Can't … so scared. Help me!"
"Emmett!" Rosalie yelled. "Give me the flashlight, now. We've got to get Bella!" I could hear her unlocking the door, and the sound of her footsteps coming down the hallway. "Bella, are you still there?"
"We're here. Just open the door for us."
My knees were banging together; I wasn't sure I could walk that far, but I couldn't be alone in this apartment right now. The taker seemed too close, too real. Everything that had happened was suffocating me, and I had to get out.
"Bella? Can you get to the door?"
"Yes." I focused on counting my short, unsteady steps to the locked door, using my phone as a light. Twelve beats later, my hands were struggling with the latch and then Rosalie was there, her flashlight shining in my eyes. I squinted at the glare, knowing I must be a sight with my frizzy, half-dried hair and pale, tear-stained face.
I didn't give her the chance to move, collapsing into her arms. My entire body shook with fear, and I sobbed onto her shoulder, holding on as tightly as I could. Emmett stood behind her, holding a small lantern, looking worried.
"Why?" I choked out. "Why?"
"Why what?" Rosalie asked, rubbing my back.
"Why are the lights out? Is he here?"
"No!" Emmett answered. "It's the heat – all of Henderson is without power. But this building has a generator, and it should be back on soon."
The stupid heat. Of course that was it. My sobs dissolved into painful hiccups as I tried to regain control. Why was this happening?
Rosalie gently pushed me back, her hands on my shoulders. "Did you think it was the partner coming for you?"
I felt ridiculous now, but the urge to talk to someone overruled my self-imposed barriers. "I didn't know. The lights were just off, and I tried to keep it together but … I couldn't think straight, and then …" my voice caught as the terrifying moments in the bank raced through my mind. "I remembered something he said in the bank about the darkness. How it was his friend. I just lost it, and I swear I could even smell him here!"
Emmett spoke before Rosalie could. "You've got to call that detective first thing in the morning and tell him everything you've remembered. He said even the smallest details were important."
I nodded, knowing he was right, even if it meant dealing with Morris again.
Rosalie still held onto my shoulders, her face full of compassion. "Bella," she began. "I know you're used to taking care of yourself, but you can't go through this alone. I'm so happy you asked for my help tonight – that's a big, big step for you. I'll be there as much as you need me to, but I'm not a professional. You went through a traumatic experience. You need to talk to someone who can help you learn how to get past it. There's no shame in that. No one would expect you to navigate through this all on your own."
I stared at Rosalie as another, much older memory flashed through my head.
"Mom, it was terrible," I sat down on my mother's bed, watching as she rushed to get ready to go out to dinner with my stepfather, Phil. I was eleven, and they'd been married for three years. (CHECK) "She told everyone I wet the bed, and they all believed her! I tried to tell them I'd spilled my drink, but no one listened to me. They made fun of me all day and called me names!"
Renee yanked the door of her large, walk-in closet open, looking for a pair of her expensive shoes. Phil took very good care of her. "Bella, I'm sure your stepsister didn't mean to embarrass you. She probably misunderstood what happened, and then someone else twisted it around."
"No, she's the one who said it. I heard her."
My mother turned on her heel, glaring at me. "Listen. I know you're jealous of her, but there's no reason to be. You just need to work harder at being more like her and trying to fit in better. That would solve all your problems."
I hung my head, disappointed by Renee once again. "Mr. Alistair said I should talk to the guidance counselor about getting along with her."
"What?" Renee's face flushed with anger. "Don't you even think about discussing family problems, especially ones you've brought on yourself, with an outsider! You need to grow up and learn how to take care of your own issues, Bella. That's what I had to do."
"Bella?" Rosalie's soft voice pulled me out of the hurtful past. "Did you hear what I said?"
I looked into her violet eyes, thinking about what a good mother she would make someday. "Yes, I heard."
"What are you going to do?"
This was another one of those moments that could define my life. Two paths lay before me waiting for my decision. I could stay on the lonely, broken road I had been on for most of my life or find the strength to start down a brand new one. I'd been alone for so long, even when I was married, that the idea of living differently was overwhelming. But the thought of continuing to suffer as I had tonight, with no one to lean on, was far worse. I was worthy of help, and I had people who actually wanted to give it.
I blinked. "Can you help me look for the card Edward gave me?"
I was nervous. Rosalie had offered to come with me, but she was busy with work and this was something I needed to do on my own. The experience last night had been one of the most frightening of my life, and after retrieving Alice Whitlock's business card, I had meekly followed Rose and Emmett back to their condo, still shaking. We sat quietly in the candlelight until the buildings generator kicked on around 1 a.m. Trying to sleep had been futile – my dreams were full of darkness, fear and creepy whispers. I seemed to sleep better as morning approached and didn't wake until after eleven.
"You're up," Rosalie said as I padded into her kitchen. She was dressed for the day, and I felt self conscious in my tattered pjs. "Sleep okay?"
"Eventually," I yawned. My eyes fell on the table where I'd left the card. "Are we still on a generator or is power restored?"
"Em said it was back on in most of the city, but the electric company said the heat could cause additional blackouts. They're hoping for the best."
"Guess I'll have to carry a flashlight around then," I half-heartedly joked.
Rosalie didn't beat around the bush. "Who are you calling first? Morris or Alice Whitlock?"
Detective Morris was pissed I hadn't called him after remembering the taker called me 'Bells (c.d.)' and questioned the significance of the name.
"There is none," I told him. "It was something my mother called me years ago when I was a kid. It was just a coincidence."
"Is there any way this man could know you?" Morris huffed.
"No," I answered flatly. "I haven't spoken to my family since I was 18, and I didn't recognize his voice."
Rosalie's head shot up at my confession, and I shrugged my shoulders. What else was there to say?
I told him about the odd things the taker had said to me, the smell – everything I'd remembered in the past two days.
"Thanks for telling me, but you've got to call sooner next time. Is there anything else?"
Jesus. This man had the personality of a fucking dishrag. "Yeah, do you have any more leads? What happened with the one you were following up on?"
"I'm sorry, we don't," Morris's tone was defensive. "The one we had went nowhere, which is why you need to tell us everything."
"I have now. I'll call you if I remember anything else." I hit end, resisting the urge to throw my phone. "How did that man ever make detective? Don't you have to have some kind of people skills? I wish he were more like Edward. At least he knows how to communicate!"
Rosalie raised an eyebrow, and I immediately blushed. She shook her head and pushed the business card across the table. "Next."
And now I was sitting in a booth at the Blueberry Hill Restaurant in Henderson waiting to meet Alice Whitlock. The phone call had been easier than I'd expected; she was soft spoken and seemed very understanding. When she heard about the flashbacks and my episode in the dark, she suggested getting together and offered to come to me. Hopefully, she would turn out to be as kind as Edward.
"Bella?" I recognized her voice immediately, and slowly turned to face the woman who was approaching the booth. She was petite, even in her high heels, and the only resemblance I could see between her and Edward was their porcelain skin. Alice had blue eyes and short, black hair, and was very pretty.
"Yes," I found my voice. "Please, sit down."
Alice smiled warmly as she offered me a delicate hand. "It's nice to put a face to the name. I'm so happy you called."
My stomach flipped. Had Edward discussed me with her? Of course he must have mentioned giving me her card, but had he talked about me?
"Thank you," I responded. "And thanks for coming here to meet me."
Alice smoothed her silky summer dress and slid into the booth across from me. "It's my pleasure Bella, really. How are you doing today?"
I took a deep breath trying to remember that I'd called her for help. "Okay. Tired. Sick of the heat."
"Oh my goodness, me too," she pushed a lock of black hair behind her ears. "It's impossible to stay decent when it's like this."
I nodded, feeling extremely awkward. Should I start? What would I say? My stomach began to turn at the thought of divulging so much to a complete stranger, and my leg bounced with anxiety as we each placed our drink orders.
"I know you're nervous," Alice leaned across the table and patted my hand. "And I'm going to be honest because trust is very important in this situation. My brother has told me the basics of what happened, and he's talked a lot about you."
My eyes threatened to pop out of my head. "He has? What's he said?" I had no idea why my heart rate sped up or why I was so interested in Edward's opinion of me.
Alice's lips turned up in a familiar smirk, and I couldn't stop the gasp. She looked so similar to Edward at that moment it was uncanny, especially since they really didn't look alike. "I know," she laughed in understanding. "We get the grin from our dad, and it's the only time you can tell we're related."
Heat rushed up my face. "I … sorry, it just surprised me."
"Don't worry about it. As for what Edward told me? He mentioned you were incredibly strong and stubborn. He thinks you hold a lot in and was concerned about the flashback you had at your neighbors' the other night. Edward feels like you need someone to talk to you."
A strange sense of disappointment rushed over me, and I scowled in frustration.
"You okay?" Alice asked.
"Sure," I responded, biting my lip against the question I'd so badly wanted to ask her for days. Fuck it. "How is he, by the way? I – we saw in the paper he'd been shot, but the article said it was minor."
Alice studied me for a moment before answering. "Yes, it was and he's doing well, thank you. Going a little stir crazy being home, but he'll be back to work in a few days."
"I bet he is," I said dryly. "He's very dedicated to his job. What he did for me at the bank was incredible. I only spoke to him twice, but both times, he made me feel like everything would somehow be all right." I blushed again, and she tilted her head, her expression calculating.
"Edward's very good at what he does, and he's got a big, big heart. He wants to make things better for everyone but…" she paused, and a look of concern flashed across her face. "He seems to have taken a special interest in you. I've never seen him go out of his way like he did the other night when he heard you weren't staying with your neighbors."
I shifted uneasily, unsure what Alice was getting at. "Is that a bad thing?"
"Not at all," she replied. "It's just unusual. But let's get back to you. Tell me more about why you decided to call."
What was so unusual? What did she mean by special interest? I wanted to ask more questions, but I'd already made a fool out of myself, and that's not why we were here.
I looked out the window, feeling like a mannequin on display. Breaking down in front of Rose had been bad enough, but a complete stranger? What was I thinking? She didn't want to hear my problems
"Bella." Alice folded her hands over the dark Formica table. "I can't imagine how hard this is for someone as private as you, but I want to help. Helping people is what I do, and I love it. Please talk to me."
Now I saw the real resemblance between her and Edward. They both had an uncanny ability to read people and understood what to say to get them talking.
"I guess I need help."
"Why now? From everything I've heard, you hold onto your privacy as though it's a lifeline. You mentioned 'your friend Rosalie,' when we spoke earlier, instead of just calling her a neighbor. It seems you're slowly allowing people in, at least to some extent. Why the sudden change?"
Wow. Edward must tell her everything; it was obvious she knew how I'd responded to everyone's offers of help and about how closed off I was. Had he told her about the hallway?
"I don't know how to explain it."
"Can you try?" Alice prodded.
I bit my lip, fighting the urge to close myself off. "I'm not a weak person. I haven't had the easiest life at times, but I've gotten myself through it. This thing with the bank," I closed my eyes, searching for the right words, "is worse than anything I've faced before, and I don't know how to deal with certain things."
Alice sipped her iced tea. "The flashbacks?"
My palms were clammy. "Yes. I thought after the first one that I could handle it, but they come out of nowhere. I think I've forgotten a lot of what happened in the bank, and the oddest things are triggering the memories."
"That's totally normal," Alice reassured me.
"Edward said it was a self-defense mechanism," I murmured, remembering our encounter in the bedroom. "That our brain intentionally blocks things out so we can cope, but eventually it all comes out."
"My brother, the amateur psychologist," she said wryly. "He's right though. It's the little details that are often the most important, and they're triggering your memories. Does there seem to be any one thing that does it?"
I looked down at my sweating glass of Coke. "The dark."
"Do you have to sleep with the light on now?"
"No. But I have to turn all the lights on in my condo, and when the lights went off suddenly last night, I thought I was going to lose my mind. It was awful." My voice was barely above a whisper, and I felt foolish for telling a stranger how pathetic I was.
"Stupid heat," Alice said kindly. "To be honest, last night doesn't concern me as much as what you mentioned about the basement of the tile store. It's normal to panic some when the lights go out like that, and your panic was made worse by your trauma. The basement is what I want to hear about. What exactly happened?"
An involuntary shiver ran up my spine. "I went downstairs to use the restroom, and suddenly I was looking down a dark hallway. All I could see was the hall in the bank and the room he dragged me into."
"And this was in the bank?"
"Yes." I explained about the original foundation of the bank and about the long forgotten door that led to the Vegas storm drains. "It was his plan to take me through there." I closed my eyes, trying not to think of what would have happened if he'd succeeded.
Alice looked me in the eyes. "And he's still out there, probably hiding in the tunnels, correct?"
I shrugged. "Probably. The police don't seem to have any real leads. It's like he's ghost."
Silence fell over us as Alice mulled over everything I had told her while I leaned back in the leather booth, emotionally exhausted. I wasn't sure I could talk about myself any more today.
"You've taken a really big step in talking with me," Alice finally said. "And I know it wasn't easy for you by any means. I do think you'll benefit from attending the group because you need to see that there are others out there with similar fears and issues, and you aren't alone. I can't begin to understand what you went through in the bank, but they can."
Bile welled up in my throat. "Talking in front of all those people? I don't … that's not me. It's hard enough to sit here and talk to you, let alone a bunch of other strangers. They don't need to hear my sob story."
"Bella, why did you call me?"
I blinked. "I told you, I need help. I don't know to make the flashbacks stop."
"Then you have to trust me. I can't just wave a magic wand and make them go away, but what I can do is work with you so you'll be able to gain control over them when they do happen. And the support group is part of that. It's something I truly believe you need to do."
"Will I be the most pathetic one there?"
Her attractive face turned sour. "Please don't use that word again when you're referring to yourself or to anyone else in the group. You are all victims of a crime – some worse than others. Two women in my group are rape victims. One survived a vicious beating by her husband. One of the men is a robbery victim. Everyone's scenario is different, but the resulting fears are very similar. Pathetic is not a word I condone, however."
"I'm sorry," I flushed, feeling terrible. "I'm just not used to any of this. I was taught to rely on myself, and …" my voice caught, and I refused to say any more. This was not a road I was ready to go down.
"It's all right," Alice's tone was gentle again. "I know there's more than one issue at work here, and I truly hope you'll talk to me about them all one day, but for now, we need to focus on the flashbacks and your fear."
I wasn't sure discussing the past would be of any benefit, but I knew I had to face the present. "You really think the group will do more good than us just meeting one on one?"
"I'll make you a deal," Alice replied. "You come to group tomorrow, leave all your inhibitions at the door, and spend an hour listening and sharing with us. Then we can talk about how best to move forward. Can you do that?"
"Just an hour?"
I wanted to say no, run out of the restaurant and forget all about our conversation. But then I remembered the panic from last night and my decision to find a new path. "Yes," I breathed. "I'll give it a try."
Alice beamed. "Thank you. Today is a fresh start for you, Bella. You're not going to regret it."
I tried to match her kind smile, wishing I could be as sure as she was. "I truly hope so."
My stomach was still rolling as I drove home, the security detail shadowing me the entire way. The idea of sitting around with a bunch of strangers, yakking about my problems, was terrifying. I hadn't meant to offend Alice with the word 'pathetic', but that's how I felt. Showing weakness had never been encouraged in my family.
"Stop crying, Bella," Phil snapped. I was fourteen, and we were supposed to be on our way to the Seattle Renaissance Festival. I'd been looking forward to it for weeks; I loved the medieval period and was excited to watch the various events. My stepsister didn't want to go, however, and had thrown a monumental fit this morning. At the last minute, plans were changed. We were now going to the mall instead. "You need to suck it up and realize you can't always have things your way."
Of course Renee agreed. "Didn't you get to pick the movie last month? Now it's your sister's turn."
Stepsister! I wanted to scream. That spoiled, selfish girl would never be my sister. She lived to torment me – to make sure I remained underneath her on the social totem pole in the background of Renee and Phil's lives. I'd grown used to it the past few years, but today was a colossal disappointment.
"It's not fair," I pleaded. "You promised me, and I did all my homework this week. I'm even ahead on it." I chewed on my lip wondering if I should take Mr. Alistair's advice. "It makes me feel like you don't care about me when you do things like this. Like you love her more."
"Enough!" Renee turned around in the front seat of Phil's Mercedes. "I don't want to hear a bunch of ridiculous whining. The decision has been made, and it's final. Running off at the mouth about your hurt feelings isn't going to change it."
I sat back in the seat, staring at the scenery as it raced past. Beside me, my stepsister laughed quietly. "Loser," she whispered.
Later, Renee would apologize, claiming she didn't want to upset Phil because he was so oversensitive about his daughter getting upset. Her mother had died when she was very young, and Phil was all she'd had (CHECK). He'd spoiled her rotten, and she took complete advantage of him. Renee bought me a new dress, as though the expensive material would make up for everything.
I blinked against the tears. Thinking about Renee was pointless now. She was out of my life, and nothing was going to change that.
I hated being off work, even if it was just temporary. My life was so wrapped up in doing what I loved I didn't know what to do with myself when I had time off. I wasn't allowed to drive, and my mother had convinced me to stay with her and my father for a few days. I loved my parents and the house I grew up in, but it had been four days since the raid, and I was going stir crazy.
"Come on, Dad," I wheedled over breakfast. "Let me come work with you today. My arm feels better, and I know how to do a lot of stuff! I'm tired of hanging out around here while you guys work!"
Dad had started taking me to work with him when I was twelve, and I'd spent my teenage years earning extra money by helping him out although I was never sure how they could afford to pay me.
"I don't know, Edward," my father ran his hand through his graying, blond hair. "You're supposed to be resting."
"That's all I've done! I promise I'll just do minor stuff. Besides, it's my left arm and I'm right handed. Please?"
Carlisle glanced around the small kitchen making sure Esme was out of earshot. "You know your mother will have my ass in a sling, right?"
I smirked, knowing he was giving in. "So don't tell her. Say you're dropping me off at Jake's. She'll never know."
"Yeah, unless you get hurt and wind up back in the hospital."
My mother looked unconvinced when we told her I was heading to Jake's. "Isn't he working today?"
"No," I answered honestly. It was his day off, but he was at the movies with Leah. "Just on call."
"If he gets paged, you can't go, Edward!" Her voice was shrill, and I rolled my eyes.
"I know that, Mom. I've got 3 more days before I'm allowed to go back on duty, and Johnson knows that. He'd just tell me to leave."
She kissed me goodbye and eyed my father and me suspiciously as we left.
"She doesn't believe us," Carlisle said as we climbed, already sweating, into his black pick-up truck. It was over 80 degrees and not even 7:30am yet.
"Don't worry about it." I felt like I'd been let out of a cage and bounced around in the seat.
My father laughed at me, and I was glad he wasn't as emotionally overbearing as mom. He'd been waiting up for us the night of the raid, sore back and all, but once he saw I was okay, he'd simply hugged me and told me to be careful and then gone to bed. Esme bless her, hovered. She had no problem working a long shift at the restaurant and then coming home to wait on me.
"Your mom likes having you home again," Dad said. "She'll never admit it, but I think having both you kids living on your own has been hard on her, especially since you raced through school."
"I know, but I can't help it if I'm smart," I quipped although I felt bad for my mother. "Besides, she sees both of us all the time."
"It's not the same as having you home, son."
We pulled up to the construction site, a remodel in newer North Las Vegas. Carlisle had already gutted the entire kitchen, and his crew would be laying the new floor today.
"You remember how to tile?" He asked me as we headed inside.
I nodded, and after I promised not to put too much pressure on my arm and take it slowly, Dad put me to work laying the new porcelain tile. It was a slow, tedious job, but it was something I'd always been pretty good at, so there would be no complaints from me.
"Don't put a lot of weight on that arm, Edward," Dad reminded me as he went to work installing the new peninsula.
"I won't." The floor was already prepped so Jose, one of Dad's longtime workers, and I began applying the tile cement.
It was so fucking good to be doing something other than laying around wondering what the guys were doing and even worse, how Bella Swan was doing. Alice's words in the hospital had bugged the shit out of me. Did she think I was trying to save Bella? That I looked at her as some kind of project? Alice had been swamped all week, only having time to check in on me every day, so I hadn't had the chance to grill her.
Bella wasn't a project for me; she was a person who needed help and for whatever reason, I felt compelled to be there for her. I knew it wasn't normal and probably stupid, but I couldn't help it. I'd nagged Jake into checking on her case for me and was disappointed there'd been no new leads. The son of a bitch that had tried to steal her was out there somewhere, and she was in danger.
As I worked, the cop in me thought about motive. The fact that the partner had staged such an elaborate show in order to kidnap her bugged the hell out of me. He had to know how alone she was; it would have been incredibly easy to snatch her at home, and no one would have been the wiser. Instead, he'd involved an unstable hothead and ten (CHECK) other innocent people. There had to be a reason for his actions, but I had no idea what it could possibly be. My gut told me the partner was a narcissistic sociopath who got off on creating the spectacle, but I still believed there was more to it than that.
I wished to God Morris wasn't handling the case. The guy was a classic case of department nepotism. His dad was a captain at South Central Command, and Morris had been a rookie there but had transferred downtown when he was promoted to detective. He didn't have a bad case record, but it wasn't stellar either. He also had no people skills, and Bella deserved better. Morris had little compassion for her situation, and I had no doubt he was more concerned about making a name for himself on a high profile case than in doing what was right for her.
My cell rang, and I nearly dropped the trowel, afraid it was my mother. Thankfully, it was only Jake.
"C! How's it going over at Mommy's?" He teased, well aware that I'd been going crazy. "She still wanting to spoon feed you?"
"Shut the fuck up," I grumbled. "For your information, I'm actually at Dad's work site (c.d.)laying tile. Mom thinks I'm with you, so if she or Alice happens to call, lie."
"If you say so, but your mom kinda scares me. She'll have both our heads if she catches you."
"Don't worry about it. What's going on?" I went back to work, smoothing out the cement.
"Well, I was just talking to Tyler. He's on shift today, and I'd told him to snoop around and see if he could get any new info on the Swan case since I know you wanna give her some extra special attention…"
"Shut up and listen. Guess who called in with new details yesterday morning?"
I felt slightly dizzy. "Bella?"
"Yep. Apparently she's been remembering stuff. He said some weird shit to her, C. Talked to her about being afraid of the dark – even knew the scientific name for it. Went on about how beautiful she was, the color she was wearing and its meaning. Fucking creepy."
I stopped working and leaned back on my heels, stomach churning. "Being afraid of the dark? Did he tell her he was afraid of it?"
"I don't think so. Just talked about how people shouldn't be scared and darkness was their friend, or some shit. Dude is a grade A psycho."
"Did she tell Morris about the partner calling her Bells? When I had dinner with the McCarty's the other night, Emmett innocently called her that and it triggered the memory. That's when I tried to convince her to get help."
"Yeah. Her mom called her that when she was really little but says there's no way the partner could know her. She hasn't seen her parents in 18 years, C. 18 years!"
My stomach turned. I'd assumed her family was out of the picture, but this was worse than I thought. What had happened to keep her away from her family for so long? Was it her choice, or theirs?
"Yeah," I answered, wiping the sweat off my forehead. The air conditioning couldn't keep up with the damned heat. "Just thinking."
"About how you'd like to comfort Ms. Swan?"
"I swear to Christ, I'm going to clock you next time I see you, Jake!"
"Sure, sure. Seriously, about what?"
"What do you think?" I stood up and stretched my legs. It was already past ten, and I'd been working for over two hours. The cement was almost fully applied, and the tile would come next. "18 years, man? Can you imagine? No wonder she's so closed off."
"I know," Jake sighed. "Billy drives me fucking crazy most days, but I can't imagine not seeing him." Jake's Dad was wheelchair bound and lived with his older sister, Rebecca. He was a nice guy but took great pleasure in giving Jake a hard time.
"Did Tyler find out anything else? Like how she reacted when she remembered?"
"No. Morris got all huffy with Tyler and told him to back off. Fucking prick."
Jake promised to let me know if he heard anything else, and I told him I'd see him back at the station soon. The rest of the day went by in a haze as I tried to focus on work and not think about what Bella may be going through. I wanted so badly to jump in Carlisle's truck and race over to her condo, but that would be overstepping my bounds, and I'd already done that once.
Still, I worried about her all day. There was little chance the memories had just popped into her head, and after her reaction the other night, she simply wasn't equipped to deal with them.
We finished a little after five, and the floor was laid. Tomorrow the crew would grout it, but one day had been enough for me. My arm felt pretty good, but my knees and shoulders ached, and I needed a shower. The white shirt I wore was soaked with sweat, and there were smudges of tile cement all over my jeans.
"Hide those from your mother," Carlisle said as we pulled into the driveway. "Wash them at your house and hurry up inside. She gets off work at 6. Get cleaned up!"
"Jesus, Dad, chill out! Mom's bark is way worse than her bite!"
"Says the spoiled youngest child. Go!"
I trudged into the house and headed for my old room, which still looked the same as it had when I moved out after college – twin bed, athletic posters and clothes on the floor. I stuffed my dirty jeans into the suitcase Alice had brought over and then went across the hall to shower.
I stood under the hot spray, rolling my head from side to side and stretching my neck muscles. It was amazing how hard physical labor was on the body, even if you were in shape. My father yelled at me not to use all the hot water, and I hurried to finish, still trying not to think of Bella Swan.
Fortunately, I was now able to clean my arm and bandage it by myself. Mom had been disappointed when she realized I didn't need her to help me anymore.
Esme was home when I emerged from my room, hair still damp. Carlisle was sitting in his recliner, his head buried in the newspaper, hiding. She raised her eyebrow when I sauntered into the kitchen, and I gave her the Cullen smile before diving into the refrigerator.
"Awfully early for a shower," she slipped out of her work shoes. "What did you boys do today?"
"Not much," I answered, grabbing a leftover slice of pizza and a can of Coke. "Hung out and played video games, mostly."
"Worked up a sweat, did you?"
My father coughed, sinking further into the paper.
"Well, Mom, we are in the middle of a heat wave. I worked up a sweat just walking to Dad's truck." I grinned and then took a bite of pizza.
Esme's eyes narrowed, and she grabbed the pizza out of my hand.
"Hey! I'm hungry!"
She slammed the pizza on the laminate counter, glaring at me. "You've still got some tile cement under your nails, sweetheart. You might want to wash your hands again before you eat."
Oh shit. Sure enough, there were traces of cement on my right hand. "Well, see…"
"Save it," she growled. "You're an adult, and if you want to disobey doctor's orders, that's your right, even if it is stupid."
"Mom, my arm's fine! It was a flesh wound!"
Esme ignored me and stomped into the living room where my father was still hiding. Her tiny little frame towered over him, and she tapped her foot, waiting. "Carlisle Cullen!"
"Yeah?" Dad finally put down his paper and gave my mother the original Cullen smile.
"Don't even try that shit!" She yelled. "I can't believe you took him to work! And had him tile!"
"He's right handed, Esme! Besides, he's not a baby anymore! And I told him you'd be pissed off, but he didn't care!"
That asshole. I gaped at my father although I wasn't surprised he'd sold me out. He hated having Esme pissed off at him.
"I'm sorry honey," Carlisle tried a different track. "But the poor kid has been cooped up in this house for three days, and he wanted to make himself useful. You're the one who taught him how important it is to work and make your own way, so how can you blame him for not wanting to sit around and feel useless?"
I bit my lip, trying not to laugh. That was a low blow. Esme glared at him, and I started to sneak out of the kitchen, knowing full well he was in for it and I was probably next. My phone buzzed again, and it was Jasper.
"Hey man, what's going on?" I asked my brother-in-law. "You back in town yet?" Jasper had been at a conference for the last week, and Alice had been busy handling both of their clients.
"Just landed an hour ago." He sounded like he was running. "Flight was delayed. Listen, how are you feeling? Arm doing okay?"
"It's good. Still a little sore, but it's fine."
I heard the beeping of his car as he unlocked it. "Good to know because I need a favor."
Kate, one of his and Alice's main volunteers for their support group had called in sick, and they needed someone to fill in. Jasper and Alice felt it was important to have someone at group sessions that had extensive experience dealing with crime, and I'd already attended several. Kate had been a patrol officer for several years and had a lot of experience dealing with rape victims.
"Sure, I can be there. I just can't drive yet."
Group started in 45 minutes, and Jasper was already on his way. I waited in the kitchen for him, gulping down pizza and ignoring the sounds of my parents making up in the living room. I hated it when they got all mushy.
A car horn sounded, and I jumped up. "I'm going to help out at Jasper and Alice's support group tonight," I told Carlisle and Esme. "Not sure when I'll be home."
They waved me off, only interested in each other. I grabbed my wallet and keys and then hurried out the door. I seriously needed to get back to my own place.
Jasper's blue hybrid sat waiting, and I jumped inside, already hot. "Hey, man."
"Good to see you," Jasper grinned. "Let's see the war wound."
I rolled up the sleeve of my black t-shirt and carefully unwrapped the gauze bandage. The wounds had healed quite a bit, but they were still pretty red and nasty looking.
"Cool," Jasper said. "Think they'll scar?"
I shrugged. "Probably. Alice said to put vitamin E on them."
"You should. Wouldn't want to mar up that skin all the girls love," he teased.
Jasper wanted to know exactly what had happened, and I told him about the raid, not sparing any details. Jasper was an intellectual and belonged in his office, but he loved to hear about my job and live vicariously through me.
Alice and Jasper held their group meetings at Canyon Ridge Christian Church. The church had many groups of its own and had welcomed Alice and Jasper's with open arms. It was a safe location, and most people felt more relaxed in one of their large, brightly lit meeting rooms. Church volunteers also provided food and beverages, and my sister worked very hard to make the environment as friendly and non threatening as possible.
We pulled into the parking lot, and several cars were already there, including my sister's yellow ? I followed Jasper into the building, helping him to carry the materials he'd brought with him.
"Jaz!" Alice called, running to the door and nearly jumping into his arms. "I was afraid you weren't going to make it, baby. I missed you!"
He rested his forehead against hers, staring into her eyes. "I missed you too, Allie. So much."
I looked away, embarrassed. Why did everyone always have to get mushy around me?
Jasper kissed Alice and then pulled away. "Kate called; she's got a bad cold and can't make it."
"Shit!" Alice smacked his shoulder. "Why didn't you call me? I could have tried to get someone else!"
"Are you blind?" I asked from behind Jasper. "I know you're short as hell, but I'm standing right here."
Alice stepped around Jasper, her eyes wide with surprise. "Um, what are you doing here? How'd you even get Mom to let you out of the house?"
I glared at her. "I worked with Dad today, thank you very much. And Jasper called me to fill in. What do you think I'm doing here?"
My sister looked strangely nervous. "Are you sure you're up to this? Shouldn't you be resting?"
"Come on, Allie," Jasper wrapped his arm around her and led her into the church. "It's a flesh wound, and it's not like he's doing manual labor. He's already done that for the day."
Her expression didn't change, and I felt her nervousness creeping up on me as I followed them into the church and down the hallway to the meeting rooms. Most of the group was already there, and I went around the room, getting reacquainted.
Tanya had been date raped three months ago, and she was having a hard time getting back out on the social scene. Seth had been a victim of a robbery in his dad's store. The perp had stabbed him, and Seth had been very lucky to make it through. He was only 17. Angela was another rape victim, and unlike Tanya's case, she didn't know the bastard. The police were still looking for him. Victoria had been viciously beaten by her husband, and he still didn't seem to understand what a restraining order meant.
"Hey guys," I sat down next to Seth. "How's everyone doing?"
Tanya shrugged, folding her arms across her chest. Victoria smiled warmly at me and pushed her red hair out of her face. "All right. How are you?"
"He got shot," Seth spoke up. "I read about it in the paper."
Victoria gasped, and Tanya looked mildly interested.
"Thank God you're okay," Angela put her hand over her heart.
"Yeah, it was just a flesh wound in my left arm. I'm fine."
Seth wanted to know what happened, and just as I started to tell him, Alice tapped me on the shoulder. "I need to talk to you."
"Can it wait, sis? I wanted to catch up with everyone before we got started."
She shook her head. "No."
I excused myself and followed her across the room where the little kitchenette was. "What's the deal? You're acting awfully funny. Are you pissed at me or something?"
"Of course not, stupid. I just …" She rubbed her temples. "I wish Jasper had called me before he talked to you. This isn't really a good night for you to be here."
Alice stared at me. "Think about it, Edward."
I was totally confused. There was no reason for me not to help out tonight, unless …
"Bella," I breathed, my heart rate speeding up. "Is she coming tonight?"
"Yes. She called me yesterday, and we met up in Henderson. She's had some flashbacks and isn't able to handle them. It was like pulling teeth to get her to come, and I don't want her to freak out if you're here."
I knew there had to have been more to those flashbacks. I wanted to press my sister for information on exactly what Bella had gone through, but I knew better. "What do you think I should do? I'm not supposed to drive yet, and I came here with Jasper. Do you think she'll freak out if I'm here? She told me the other night it wouldn't be a big deal."
Alice twisted a lock of her black hair around her finger, an annoying habit she'd had since we were kids. "She may have, but this is the real deal and she was so skittish yesterday. Sorry, but you should hang out in one of the extra rooms or in the chapel until group is finished."
"But you'll be short one," I half-heartedly argued, wanting to see Bella.
"We'll manage. Go now before she shows up."
Jasper wanted to know what was going on, so Alice quickly explained to him while I told everyone else goodbye. I glared at the patterns in the carpet as I headed down the hall to one of the other meeting rooms, wishing like hell I could do something to help.
I was so lost in my thoughts I didn't see her at first, but her sharp intake of breath gave her away. Butterflies erupted in my stomach, and I slowly raised my eyes, unsure of her reaction.
Bella stood just a few feet away, wearing cut-off shorts and a dark blue tank top, with thin spaghetti straps. The color looked amazing against her porcelain skin, and her thick hair was pulled off her face into a loose pony-tail. Christ Almighty, was I checking her out?
"Edward," she breathed, her face flushed. "I didn't expect to see you here."
Fuck me. "I had no idea," I held my hands up, already rambling. "Jasper called me at the last second to fill in, and he's been out of town. He doesn't know about you, and I didn't know Alice had talked to you. I can't drive, so I'm stuck here, but I'll be hanging out in another room during the session. Last thing anyone wants is for you to be uncomfortable."
Silence hung between us as Bella absorbed my words, her dark eyes unreadable. "Didn't I tell you to be safe?" She finally murmured. "And then you go and get shot."
I sighed with relief. "Sorry about that. But I was careful. Just happened."
Her eyes raked over me. "Alice said it was a flesh wound. How are you feeling?"
"Fine," I shrugged, slightly surprised by her concern. "Still a little sore, but I helped my Dad out today since the department has me on mandatory leave."
"Isn't your dad in construction?"
"And aren't you supposed to be resting?" She crossed her arms, looking way too much like my mother.
"It's fine," I assured her, glancing at my watch. I wanted so badly to ask about her flashbacks but resisted. She wasn't here to confide in me. "Well, group's about to start, so you better get in there. I'm really proud of you for coming, Bella. I'm not sure what's happened the past few days, but you're doing the right thing."
She looked unsure and without thinking, I gently grabbed her shoulder. "It'll be fine, I promise. Go on."
Bella nodded, and I moved aside allowing her to pass. Sighing, I headed for the other meeting room, hoping I had enough charge in my phone to play some games.
"Edward?" Her soft voice startled me.
I turned around, and she looked so lost, her deep brown eyes searching my own. "I know it's a lot to ask, but would you please come to group with me?" A lovely blush covered her face and she bit her lip, clearly nervous. "I – I think I'd feel better if you were there."
A strange lump welled up in my throat. "Sure," I answered, stepping close to her. "Let's go."
I felt like throwing up when I walked into the church, bile rising in my throat with every step. Even though I needed to get past the flashbacks and find a way to live my life, the prospect of baring my soul in front of a bunch of strangers was nearly as terrifying as being held hostage. Every nerve in my body was screaming at me to turn and run, and I was very close to obeying. Then Edward rounded the corner, auburn hair tousled, his concentration on the phone he held, and all the air left my lungs.
I paused in mid-stride, shocked and intimidated by his presence. My eyes traveled over his long, lean frame, finally settling on his handsome face. His expression was tense, sad, and I wondered what he was thinking about. Suddenly he looked up, his eyes meeting my own, and a strange, irritating sense of calm washed over me. My heart raced just a little at the sound of his voice, and I would have smiled at his ramblings if I weren't so anxious about the idea of him not being at the meeting. God help me, I felt better with Edward there, and when he turned to walk away, the nausea returned full force.
The words were out of my mouth before the thought was even processed. "I know it's a lot to ask, but would you please come to group with me? I – I think I'd feel better if you were there."
He was clearly surprised, and cautiously stepped forward. "Sure. Let's go."
We walked side by side down the hall, our arms close but never quite touching. No words passed between us, but the silence was comforting, a sort of calm before the inevitable storm. A wooden door loomed ahead, and my palms began to sweat. An unseen pressure was suddenly on my chest, and I clenched my hands into fists, once again fighting the urge to run.
Edward turned to face me as he reached for the door handle. "Ready?"
"No," I whispered, unable to speak any louder.
"This is the best thing for you, Bella. But you've got to be sure. The group won't do you any good if you're too upset to communicate." There was no judgment in his soft voice, just genuine concern.
"Will you sit next to me?" Again the words came without thought. I had no clue why I was suddenly clinging to Edward instead of pushing him away, but all that mattered right now was getting through the meeting.
"If that's what you want."
"Okay, then. Let's go." My voice sounded much braver than I felt, and my legs threatened to give out as the door was pulled open.
Edward gave me an encouraging smile, and we stepped into the room. The place was a blur of faces as everyone turned to look at me, and I swayed on the spot. The sudden warm pressure of Edward's hand on my back was the only thing keeping me upright. Alice's blue eyes stood out in the blur, and I focused on her surprised face. Her gazed shifted between Edward and me, and she gave her brother a rather nasty look.
"I asked him to stay, Alice."
"I see," she replied stiffly. Her eyes remained on Edward for a moment before flashing back to me. "If that's what you prefer, then of course he'll stay." She gestured for us to come further into the room, and my feet felt like lead as I shuffled forward.
"I'm so glad you came, Bella," Alice's voice had returned to a friendly tone. She glanced at the handsome man standing beside her. "This is my husband, Jasper."
Jasper stepped forward, extending his hand. He was tall and broad shouldered with wavy blond hair that fell gracefully to his chin. He looked more like a surfer than a therapist. "Welcome, Bella. Would you like to sit down?"
I was barely aware of shaking his hand and struggled to speak. "I guess."
There were a few empty chairs, and I slowly made my way to them, eyes on the floor. My skin felt hot, and I cursed myself for wearing a stupid ponytail. I had no safety barrier. Shaking, I took the seat on the end and then realized Edward was no longer with me. He was talking quietly to his sister, their expressions intense. Edward put up his hand signaling the end of the conversation, and Alice narrowed her eyes, clearly wanting to say more.
Was this about me? Had I done the wrong thing in asking him to come in?
Edward strode across the room, his pale cheeks slightly pink. Our eyes met, and he smiled. "Still want me to sit here?"
He sank down onto the folding chair, stretching his left arm out and absentmindedly rubbing his bicep.
"Is that where you were shot?"
"Does it hurt?"
"Not too much," he answered, still messing with his arm. "It's just kind of itchy and tingly. Probably because the skin is healing."
"Were you scared?"
His green eyes flashed to mine, and an odd sensation crept over me. "Yeah, at first. The guy charged at me, I heard the sound of the gun being fired and then felt a lot of pain. It took me a few seconds to process where I'd actually been shot."
The image bothered me more than I wanted to admit. "I'm glad you're okay."
Edward looked down at his hands, seemingly embarrassed, and then glanced up at me through his long eyelashes. "Me too."
A throat cleared. Jasper was smiling at us, but his wife looked unhappy. She sat in the center of the circle, a notebook in her lap and a pen in her hand. Once again, her eyes narrowed as she stared at her brother, but her expression cleared when she looked at me, and she smiled reassuringly.
"I think we're ready to begin." Jasper's voice was even softer than Edward's. "Should we introduce ourselves for our newcomer?"
A murmur of agreement came from the small group, and Jasper continued. "Okay, then. I'm Jasper Whitlock, as you all know. I'm a licensed counselor, and this is my wife, Alice. She's also a licensed therapist, and has a lot of experience working with victims of violent crime." Jasper turned to the redheaded woman on his right.
She cleared her throat. "My name is Victoria Tanner. I'm here because my husband is a bastard. His last beating put me in the hospital for a week, and he's having some issues with the restraining order." Victoria pushed her unruly hair out of her face, and I noticed there were dark circles underneath her eyes. Apparently I wasn't the only one having trouble sleeping.
The dark-haired boy was next. "I'm Seth Clearwater, and I was robbed at my dad's convenience store a few months ago. Got stabbed. Almost died. Still not over it." He was abrupt and to the point but didn't seem overly anxious or bitter.
A tall, willowy blond spoke to the floor. "I'm Tanya Denali, and I was date raped six months ago. He's in jail, but I still don't trust anyone." Tanya kept her arms wrapped tightly around her, and she never once looked up.
"I'm Angela Weber," the dark-haired girl on the other side of Edward said. "I work at the Bellagio as a blackjack dealer." Her voice was very soft, and I had to strain to hear. "I was raped six weeks ago, and he's still out there. I never got a good look at him."
I felt sick to my stomach again and not just because my turn was rapidly approaching. These people had been through so much, and I was the lucky one. My body hadn't been violated or seriously injured.
Edward stretched out his long legs, reclining in the stiff chair. "I'm Edward Cullen, Alice's brother. I'm a member of Vegas SWAT, and I worked as a patrol officer prior to that."
The pressure on my chest was back, and the room closed in on me. Renee's voice rang in my head, screaming at me for talking about our problems, and my voice caught in my throat. I couldn't say a word.
"It's okay," Alice said kindly. "The first time is never easy, and everyone's been there."
My mouth opened, but no sound would come. All I could hear was my mother.
"Bella Swan! I can't believe you've been talking to that pathetic guidance counselor behind my back! That nosy bastard Mr. Alistair doesn't need to know your problems, and he's obviously not doing his job because you seem to think everyone else is at fault, and the issue is simply you. As always."
Were my eyes leaking? Salty tears rolled down my face, and the room started to spin. I couldn't do this.
"Bella?" His voice was low, almost husky. I watched in silence as Edward's long fingers came to rest on my shaking left hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. He said nothing more but didn't let go.
"I'm Bella Swan." Seconds ticked by. "I work at Wells Fargo Bank. A few days ago, two men came into the bank in masks saying they were going to rob it."
Silence. All eyes on me. My own were trained on Edward's hand; he had tile cement in his fingernails.
"We were held hostage for several hours, but it was all an act – at least for the man who never left my side."
My right knee bounced up and down; my flip flop smacking against the carpeted floor. "When SWAT came in, the man tried to take me. He dragged me down to the basement. There was an old entrance into the storm drain system – the Vegas tunnels. Was his plan all along."
One of the women gasped.
"He got away. SWAT shot at him, but they can't find him now. He's out there somewhere, and I keep getting these awful flashbacks about what happened. I'm suddenly scared of the dark – when the lights went out the other night, I lost it. I … I'm all alone. And he's still out there."
There was nothing left to say. My face was wet, and there were no more words left in me. Not right now.
Alice was suddenly in front of me, holding a box of tissues. "You did very well," she whispered. "Take a few of these and rest for a bit. Listen to the others."
For the first time in minutes, I looked up. She gently shook the box of Kleenex. "Please." Alice's eyes slid to my hand, still enclosed in Edward's large one, and then to her brother's face.
Reflexively, I glanced at him, unsure of what to expect. He wasn't looking at Alice however; his eyes were on me. "Alice is right." He finally let go of my hand and reached for some tissues. "That was a major first step, and I'm really proud of you."
Edward pressed the soft Kleenex into my still-open palm. "Here."
He nodded, our eyes still locked. The air surrounding us was once again charged with energy, but it was different than what had happened in my hallway. This was some sort of strange, calming connection; a weird kind of contentment I'd never experienced.
Alice's soft sigh broke the moment, and we both turned to look up at her. Her expression was a mixture of frustration and curiosity, and I had no idea what to make of any of it.
"I'm glad you were here, Edward," Alice said.
Some kind of understanding passed between the siblings as they stared at one another. "Me too," he answered.
She nodded, and moved to join Jasper on the other side of the small circle. I sank down into my chair, clutching the tissues, focusing on Edward's presence next to me. Too cowardly to look at anyone else yet, my gaze shifted to his long legs still stretched out in front of him. His jeans were well worn and tattered, but they fit well. Too well. He crossed his ankles, his feet clad in ugly, black Nikes. Who would buy those shoes?
"I tried to go out with some old friends last week," Tanya's voice drew me away from Edward's ugly shoes. Her knees were now drawn to her chest, and she wrapped her arms around them tightly. "I knew everyone there, and they promised to look out for me. I got as far as the bar, but then some skinny dude hit on me, and I bolted. Didn't even tell my friends."
Tanya's eyes darted around the room never really making eye contact. She was pretty, but her face was thin, her expression haunted. Raped. I hoped her attacker was having a good time as a prison bitch.
'That could be me,' I thought to myself. 'I could be sitting here having been completely violated. If he'd managed to get me into those tunnels, he most certainly would have raped me.'
He likely would have done much worse.
The thought sent a shockwave through me, and I shivered. Edward's head immediately turned. "You okay?"
He nodded and gently patted my knee, as if to say he understood, and my eyes watered at the sweet gesture. Why did he care so much?
Alice and Jasper talked about Tanya's recent experience at the restaurant and what she could learn from it. It was good she'd made the attempt to go out with friends, and she now had something to build on.
"I tried to take the bus home from work yesterday," Angela said. She turned away from Jasper and looked directly at me. Her dark eyes were friendly, and she offered a slight smile. "The rape happened at the bus stop, at night. Haven't been able to take the bus since. Thought last night would be different, but as soon as the doors closed, I panicked. The driver was pissed, but he let me out."
"How did you get home?" My question surprised everyone in the room, including me.
"I had to take a cab."
"How's that any different?" I asked. "You're still alone. Isn't that the worst part?"
Angela thought about my question. "Yeah, but the cab drops me off in front of my apartment, and the drivers will stay and watch me go inside for a few extra bucks. The bus stop isn't the same. Lots of … dark, empty places."
Our eyes met, and for the first time, I realized there was someone who might just understand the paralyzing fear. Her attacker still roamed the streets, too.
"I can't lock up the store," Seth spoke up. "It's okay if someone's there with me, but I still freak out a little. There's no way I could be alone in there yet."
"The man who stabbed Seth was looking for a quick fix," Edward explained to me. "He was pissed when Seth couldn't open the register and lost it. Right?"
The boy nodded. "Yep. Wanna see my scar?"
Before I could answer, he was on his feet and lifting his blue t-shirt to reveal an angry line across his chest. It was just inches from his heart. "Never forget, right?"
"How old are you?" I asked, amazed by his candor.
Jesus, he was just a baby. Why were there so many awful people in this world?
Jasper told Angela that she too was making progress and suggested she begin riding the bus in the daylight with her cousin or friend. "Take it in small doses."
Both he and Alice were pleased to hear Seth was working nights again. "Two weeks ago, you couldn't do that," Alice grinned. "You're getting there."
"How are you doing, Victoria?" Jasper asked.
The red-haired woman sighed. "Same. He keeps calling; the police keep telling him not to." She looked pointedly at Edward. "Why can't your people keep him in jail?"
Edward sat up in his chair and leaned forward to rest his elbows on his knees, his black shirt stretching over his broad shoulders. "He made bail, Victoria. What does he say when he calls?"
"Nothing," she scowled. "The number's blocked too, but everyone knows it's him. We just can't prove it."
"But he's staying away?"
"How do I know?" She snapped. "I don't see him, but he could be creeping outside waiting for the right moment. He said he wasn't going to let a restraining order stop him."
"And the divorce?" Alice asked quietly.
"Tied up in paperwork," Victoria grumbled. "The cocksucker's contesting everything, and we can't meet face to face."
Anger emanated from her, and she had every right to be furious. She couldn't do anything without looking over her shoulder, wondering when the next beating might be. Or worse. And the police weren't helping.
The resemblance to my own case was unsettling. Did I look that angry all the time? Were my eyes full of hate, my voice short and curt, lashing out at the wrong people?
"What about you, Bella?" Jasper asked kindly.
I tensed. "What about me?"
"What happened this week?"
"I already told you…"
"You said you lost it," Angela corrected kindly. "But you never really explained what happened."
I crossed my arms over my chest; the weight was back.
Edward shifted closer to me, but before he could speak, Angela continued. "I know it's hard, but talking about the details really does help."
"I've already talked about them with Alice, and my friend, Rosalie."
"Then why are you here?" Victoria snapped. "If you don't want to share, why waste our time?"
"Victoria," Tanya reprimanded. "Give her a break. She's new."
"She's also uninjured. She wasn't violated like you were or beaten like me."
Even as Victoria complained, it was Renee's voice that rang in my head.
"You're fine for God's sake. She didn't mean to knock you off your bike, Bella. It was an accident. Go clean up your knee, and don't get blood on my carpet. Stop crying!"
Long-festering anger from years of hurtful comments by my mother – of watching her constantly put her new family first and treating me as though I were a burden – welled up inside me. Only once had I ever really confronted her, and that happened far too late. The damage had already been done, and then it became Paul's turn to manipulate me. After all I'd been through the past few days, including remembering a past I'd worked hard to forget, my nerves were stretched so far they finally snapped. The frustration that lived inside me could no longer keep silent.
"Excuse me? Not injured?" I spat. "Do you see the bruise on my face? It's fading, but it's still there. I can't imagine what you guys went through, and I'm sorry, but don't tell me I'm not injured!" I glared at Victoria. "Do you know what it's like to be trapped for hours with a crazy madman ranting about getting out with his money and an even crazier guy hovering over you, whispering in your ear? Talking about everything and nothing? Then realizing he was going to take you into the fucking Las Vegas tunnels? That the whole bank robbery was some kind of elaborate rouse – and for what? God knows what he had planned for me, and he's still out there, walking around, just like the bastard that raped Angela!"
I gasped for air, but the anger continued to flow. "I went shopping with Rosalie the other day and panicked when I went downstairs to use the restroom. I couldn't breathe, couldn't think straight! All I could see was a tunnel and the dark! He could have been there, just like he could have cut the lights the other night. He could be waiting one day, and I'd never know. I'm terrified and have no clue who I am anymore. Just because I don't have scars or big bruises or wasn't sexually assaulted, don't think I'm not injured. I've been injured most of my life!"
My entire body was shaking, and I suddenly realized I was standing, my legs barely supporting me. My trembling hands flew to my mouth. What had I done? "I'm sorry," I choked out. "I … I didn't mean to get so upset…"
Victoria actually smiled. "Feels good, doesn't it? Don't apologize for having feelings or for needing help. That's why we're here, and I fucking hate what's happened to all of us, including you. Life's not fair, and it's bullshit certain people are still on the loose." She stood as well and took a few steps toward me. "I didn't want to talk at first either. I was ashamed for letting him beat me, for staying with him, for not being strong enough to fight back. Some days I still feel that way, and the last thing I want to do is come here and discuss it."
She glanced around the room, and her tone softened. "But I do it anyway, and every time I walk out of this place, I feel a little bit better. Even if I still don't know how I'm going to really escape him, it helps to know there are people out there who understand what it's like to be as damaged as I am."
Victoria was standing directly in front of me, and I could see the scar above her eyebrow, no doubt from her louse of an ex. "So cry. Scream. Throw things if that's what it takes. Just don't bottle it up. Don't sit there and hold it all in. That's the only thing I can't stand to see."
A nod was all I had the strength for, and Victoria shrugged before walking back to her seat.
"I think that's good for tonight," Jasper said quietly. He started talking about how proud he was of everyone for moving forward – for being brave enough to face things. I was too numb to listen and was only vaguely aware of the soft pull of Edward's hand guiding me to the chair.
"Bella?" Alice kneeled in front of me. "You okay?"
My fingers refused to drop Edward's hand. "I … yeah, I think so."
"Will you come back next week? Same time?" Alice glanced at her brother. "I can't promise he'll be here. We have a few law enforcement people that help out, and Edward will be back to work."
My heart sank, but then I looked up at Angela and Tanya. They both smiled, and Angela waved as she left the room. Even if Edward wasn't here, I wouldn't be alone. "Yes. I'll come."
Alice grabbed my free hand. "I'm glad. You did so great, and don't worry about that outburst – you needed it. Victoria was spot on, and that's why I wanted you to come. Sometimes other victims are much more helpful than we are."
She turned to her brother. "Of course, if you're around, you're welcome to attend, unless Kate's here."
"Good to know."
Alice smiled sweetly. "But can I talk to you for a minute, little brother?"
Edward's upper lip curled at her tone, and he grudgingly let go of my hand. "Well, Jasper's my ride, so I'm stuck here until he's ready anyway."
"I can take you home," I offered. Where the hell did that come from?
Shocked, Edward stared back at me. "Really? You hungry? I was gonna beg Jasper to stop somewhere."
Now that my nerves had started to settle, my stomach did feel incredibly empty. I hadn't been able to eat all day. "Yeah, I am."
His smile was breathtaking, and I felt ridiculous. "Let me talk to Alice, and then I'll walk with you, okay?
Alice looked less than pleased but followed Edward to the corner of the room. I looked away, not wanting to intrude…or to worry their argument was about me.
"Good job tonight, Bella." Jasper sat down next to me. "Alice told me it's difficult for you to open up, but you did great."
I flushed. "Thanks. I can't believe I exploded like that."
"It's perfectly fine. I'd much rather see that than nothing at all."
"Bella and I are going to get something to eat, Jaz," Edward had returned. "She'll give me a ride, so I'll see you later, okay?"
His brother-in-law looked surprised and turned to his wife, who shrugged. "Uh, okay." Jasper answered. "Call me tomorrow."
Edward nodded and then turned to me. "Ready?"
In a daze, I followed Bella to her car. Between her change in attitude and everything she'd shared tonight, my head was spinning. Alice wasn't helping the situation either.
"What's going on here?" Alice hissed, glancing at Bella. She looked exhausted, but there was a spark of life to her I hadn't seen before. The group was going to help her.
"She offered me a ride. What's the big deal?"
"The big deal is that you're a cop, and she's an open case…for starters!"
I glared at my older sister. "Do not ever question my ethics. I've done nothing wrong – I'm just helping her out, and this support group is something I've done for a long time."
Alice snorted. "Yeah? I've never seen you hold another victim's hand or be so in tune with … anyone."
Heat crept into my cheeks. "Okay, fine. There's some kind of connection. She needs help, Alice. I can't stand to see her so alone and scared."
"You don't even really know the woman! Can't you see what's going on here?"
My eyes flashed to Bella, who was talking to Jasper. She bit her full bottom lip, looking nervous, and I felt an odd fluttering sensation in my stomach. "It's not like that, Al."
"Keep telling yourself that." She rubbed her temples. "Look, I just don't want her forming some kind of unhealthy attachment to you because she sees you as her savior. And then when she's better, it's over. And then you're hurt."
"It's not like that. She's not like that."
"You don't know!" Alice snapped. "She's a nice woman, but she has some serious issues. You heard what she said about being injured her whole life; there's a lot more to her than just the hostage situation. She's not used to being taken care of, and I don't want either one of you to get burned."
This was ridiculous, and Bella was waiting. "I'll keep that in mind. Are we done?"
The detail from the station was also in the parking lot, and I could only hope they were rookies who didn't know me. I wasn't doing anything wrong, but the boss wouldn't particularly like my leaving with Bella, not to mention going to eat with her.
"Here's my car." Bella stopped in front of a red Chevy Malibu. She peeked over at me, looking nervous. "Where do you want to eat?"
"Uh, Brisam's is close by. It's a diner with a little bit of everything."
Her hands were still trembling as she slid behind the wheel, and the tension was back. Was she having second thoughts?
"Listen, if you're uncomfortable, I can still ride with Jasper. It's okay."
"What? No, it's fine," she stammered. "It's just that this whole night has been kind of new for me. I don't really know what I'm doing." Her cheeks were bright red.
I nervously ran my fingers through my hair. "Well, to be honest, it's new for me too. I don't usually socialize with …" my voice trailed off, not wanting to use the word.
"Victims?" She finished bitterly.
"Please don't be offended. It wasn't an insult at all. I'm just used to moving onto the next case. You're different, and I can't seem to walk away." Fuck. Why had I said that? She's going to think I'm some kind of nut job.
Bella's wide eyes searched my own, and I wondered what she was thinking. "Well," she finally sighed. "At least we're both out of our element."
The awkwardness lifted somewhat, and I gave her directions to the restaurant. The radio played softly, and I rested my head against the seat, trying not to stare at her. I wanted so badly to ask her about the last few days – about what had really happened in the apartment when the lights had gone out. But she'd been pushed enough for today.
"You can change the station if you want," she said, biting her lip yet again. Apparently that was a nervous habit.
"It's fine," I answered. "I'm not picky."
It was past eight, so the restaurant was relatively empty and we were seated right away. Bella slid into the small booth across from me, her eyes everywhere but on my face. She picked at the table with her fingernails, barely glancing at the menu.
"Their chicken sandwich is good," I offered.
"Is it really spicy? I don't like spicy."
"Nah. It's pretty tame."
Our orders were taken, and Bella stared out across room, her eyes flickering over each person, as though she were carefully studying them.
"I don't think he's here," I said gently.
She finally met my gaze. "How do you know?"
"You have a detail. And you're with a cop. Besides, look around. There are only five men here, and four are white. The last guy is African American, but you weren't sure if the partner was. And this dude is short and stout; the partner is thin and tall. Remember?"
Bella visibly relaxed. "I see what you're saying. It's just hard to think clearly right now."
"Of course it is. You had a rough night."
"I don't want to talk about me anymore if you don't mind." She glanced down at the table and then looked up, blushing again. "Tell me what happened…when you got shot."
She listened with wide eyes as I described the raid. For some reason, I wanted her to hear the whole story, so I spared no details, telling her about the decay of the house and the rotten smell of the meth. I painted a clear picture of Jake and me sneaking up the stairs and how the shot had come out of nowhere, hitting me in the arm.
"What happened to Costa?" Her face was pale again.
"Jake took him down. Leg wound. That's what happens when you shoot at a cop."
"How can you be so calm about it?"
I shrugged, pushing the pasta around on my plate. "Because I'm all right, I guess."
Bella set her chicken sandwich down. "But you were shot. A few inches higher and you probably wouldn't be sitting here right now. Doesn't that bother you? Don't you feel like a victim too?"
How could I explain this to her without sounding condescending? "Sure it bothers me. It was scary as hell, but I'm a cop. I know I'm putting my life on the line every time I strap on the vest. That's my choice. Victims don't have one."
There was no response, and we both went back to our meals. Bella's face was a mixture of emotions, and I was once again at a loss for words, afraid to ask the questions I really wanted to.
"They're not going to catch him, are they?" Her voice was small, frightened.
Instinctively, I leaned forward and took her small hand, just as I'd done earlier. Bella's eyes fluttered to our hands and then back to my face, but she didn't pull away. "I don't know," I answered honestly. "I've had Jake keeping tabs on the case since I haven't been at the station, and there isn't much to go on right now. He's completely in the wind."
"A fucking ghost."
I wished to God there was something I could say to console her, but lying wasn't the answer. She deserved to know what she was up against. "I'm sorry," I finally said. "But you've got to remember you're not alone. You have people that care and want to keep you safe."
"I'm sure Rosalie and Emmett will get sick of the situation soon enough," Bella said sadly as she pulled her hand away, leaving mine cold and empty. "That's why I shouldn't get so close to Rose; she doesn't need this in her life."
"Rosalie has wanted to be your friend for a long time, and I think you're underestimating her."
Bella looked away, clearly unconvinced.
"I wasn't just talking about the McCartys either," I mumbled, wondering where the hell my filter had gone.
Confusion spread over her pretty face. "Who else is there?"
Seriously? Had she been alone so long she couldn't see there were people all around who cared? "Uh, me for one. Do you think I'd be here, probably facing an earful from my superiors, if I didn't?"
"What? I don't understand."
I pointed to the black car that had been tailing her all week. "I'm sure they recognized me, and it will get back to Johnson. We're not exactly encouraged to stay in contact with open cases."
"Oh!" She finally understood. "But … why? And what about the support group? You've done that before."
"Yeah, but like I said, I've never done more than that. Going to dinner with you isn't exactly protocol, regardless of the situation."
A dark looked crossed over her face, and I worried I'd offended her again. "That's just stupid," she snapped. "You're not doing anything inappropriate, and I'm supposed to be protected. What's the big deal?"
"It's just to protect the department's reputation. They don't want people saying a cop tried to take advantage of someone in a vulnerable state. It's not a written rule, just frowned on."
Her next words surprised us both. "So does that mean I can only see you when you're at group?" A fiery red blush burst over her cheeks. "Wait, that sounded bad. What I meant was…"
"It's fine," I chuckled. "I know what you meant, and no, it doesn't. I'll explain everything to Johnson. Don't worry about it."
The 180 she'd done in the last few days toward me was astounding, and I couldn't help but wonder if Alice had been right. I wasn't worried about getting hurt, but attaching herself to me wasn't going to help Bella get past her issues.
As though she could read my mind, Bella suddenly asked about Alice. "Is that why your sister looked upset with us at times? Because she was worried about you?"
"Something like that."
She scowled. "Be honest with me, please."
What the hell? Might as well get it out there because ignoring the issue wouldn't help. "Alice is more worried about you. She's afraid you'll see me as some kind of white knight or something. That you'll form an unhealthy attachment to me because I was there for you during the hostage situation, and that was something new for you. She's just afraid it will set you back." I wasn't about to tell her my sister had insinuated I felt more than just concern for Bella.
She was quiet, absorbing my words, and I waited, afraid to push. "Is that what you think is going on?" Bella asked quietly.
We stared at one another, and that fucking overpowering energy was back again, flowing between us so strongly I could almost hear it buzzing. Heat crept through me, every nerve ending was on high alert, and I shifted in the booth, my body reacting to the look in her dark eyes.
"No. I don't know. It's possible." I felt slightly short of breath.
Bella simply continued to look at me with unreadable eyes, and the air thickened. My heart was pounding, and blood began to rush to the last place I needed it to right now. Fuck.
I had to talk or the situation between my legs was going to get completely out of control. "You were so on and off with me last time I saw you, and I get that. I was pushy; you're independent. But tonight, it seemed like you suddenly needed me. It was totally unexpected."
She finally looked away, and her incredible spell was broken. I took a deep, cleansing breath, trying to think of as many offensive images as possible.
"I know I was rude to you before," she whispered. "But it's not because I didn't like you, or appreciate what you'd done. It was a defense mechanism because you read me way too well. I didn't like that, and I'm still not thrilled with it."
"That's what I do, Bella."
"I know. But no one's ever been interested enough to even begin to understand me. You threw me for a loop." She turned back to me, and her eyes were shining with tears. "But then I spent the day with Rose and felt like a normal person for the first time in a long time. Even after the flashback, I felt okay – until I saw the headline in the paper."
"What headline? Something about your case?"
A single tear ran down her cheek. "No, the one about you being shot. I thought something terrible had happened and the feeling was awful. You're a good guy, and …" she sighed, frustrated. "I don't know what I'm trying to say. The point is, I know you're not a white knight. You aren't perfect, and I don't expect you to climb the highest tower to rescue me."
"Good, cause I never could climb a rope very well."
A tiny laugh escaped her, but then her expression turned serious again. "When I saw you tonight, I just felt better. Maybe I am clinging to you because you seem to care. I don't know. But the idea of you sitting with me while I spilled my guts made walking into that room a hell of a lot easier."
The waitress brought our check then, and I snatched it up before Bella could. "I'm glad. I wanted to be there for you, but I was afraid you wouldn't want me involved."
"I didn't think I would, until I saw you standing in the hallway." Her tone was gentle, and my entire body reacted to her once again. I felt lightheaded and knew we had to leave before things got even weirder.
Bella rose to leave as I tossed a couple of bills on the table. My gaze was immediately drawn to the cutoffs she wore and to the shape of her legs. Before I could stop myself, my eyes traveled up her body, admiring her soft curves. Bella suddenly arched her back and then rolled her neck to the side, stretching.
A low moan escaped me, and she turned. "Did you say something?"
I pressed my legs together, feeling like a damned teenager all over again. "Uh, no. Wasn't me."
The air outside was still smothering hot, but I welcomed it; anything to get my mind off the bizarre affect this woman had over me.
Bella wanted directions to my place, and I felt stupid telling her I was staying at my parents'. "Mom is a little overprotective."
She grinned, carefully navigating traffic. "That's a good thing. Don't take her for granted."
I didn't miss the sadness in her voice. "Someday, will you tell me about your family? Why it's been so long since you've spoken to them?"
Her lips pressed into a tight line. "How did you know that?"
Oops. "I told you I had Jake snooping. That's what you told Morris."
Bella's small fingers gripped the steering wheel, and she didn't answer for a few minutes. The silence was painful, and as we neared my parent's house, I began to panic. What if I'd pushed her away again? What if she wouldn't talk to me anymore?
"Morris is a douchebag by the way."
Relief washed over me, and I burst out laughing. "That he is. Let me know if he gives you a hard time."
"How did he ever make detective? Talking to him is like eating dirt."
"That would be nepotism, my friend. It's alive and well everywhere."
We turned onto my parents' street and were suddenly in front of their modest three-bedroom house. It had gone through many upgrades over the years, and my mother kept a beautiful front yard, but the place wasn't anything spectacular.
The lights were on sending a friendly glow across the small front porch and illuminating the rose bushes. "It's so pretty," she breathed. "Like a little postcard."
"Yeah? It's kind of … simple," I finished lamely.
"Not simple. It looks like a real home." Her tone was wistful, and I couldn't keep my mouth shut.
"You never answered my question, though."
Moonlight streamed into the car from her sunroof, and her skin looked even more delicate, her bruise nearly unnoticeable. I was hit with the sudden urge to touch her face and clenched my hand into a fist.
"Yes, Edward, someday I'll tell you about my family and why I haven't spoken to them. Someday."
I could live with that. "Well then, I better give you my number. Just so you're prepared."
Her lips twitched, and she dug her phone out of her bag. "Program it in."
Number programmed, I handed the phone back to her. "Listen, I meant what I said earlier. I'm really proud of you for doing so well tonight."
"I know," she whispered, her voice suddenly husky. "I don't think I could have done it if you hadn't been next to me."
Just like that, the charge was back, crackling all around us. My brain was cloudy, and I was hit with the overwhelming urge to hold her. Bella leaned toward me, her eyes half glazed over, and I couldn't stop my fingers from brushing over the soft skin of her right arm.
Her mouth parted. She was moving closer to me; I couldn't think.
Headlights suddenly flashed behind us, and I blinked, dazed. The detail.
Bella immediately retreated as far away as possible, and I grabbed the door handle. I had to clear my head.
"Thanks for the ride," I said. "Don't lose my number."
"I won't." She sounded short of breath. "Goodbye."
I stumbled out of the car, completely confused. What was happening to me?
The Endless Struggle
What to do, what to do. No matter how hard I tried, her face was there. The wide, brown eyes, the sound of her quiet and controlled voice always calling to me. She never should have gotten away, but I suppose I'm partially to blame for that. The game was too much fun, watching Joe stalk around the bank lobby, shouting and puffing out his chest as though he really believed he had a chance in hell of escaping. Listening to him negotiate with the cop, thinking he was in control, was like watching a play dripping with satire. The entire scene was pure entertainment, and the shaking terror of the hostages only added to the fun. I was the silent puppet master, pulling the strings while everyone – including good ole Joe – was too stupid to see who was really in charge.
This was my show, and all I had to do was sit quietly with Bella and watch things unfold. It didn't bother me that so many lives were being drawn into my web; those people were just play things to exploit. All I cared about was the end goal and carrying out the plan I had spent months formulating.
As I watched an older woman cry, her withered hands shaking, I was reminded of the T.S. Eliot poem that had long been my favorite:
Half the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important
They don't mean to do harm
But the harm does not interest them.
Or they do not see it, or they justify it
Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
To think well of themselves.
Such great truth, an unbiased look at mankind! Every single human being on the planet is inherently selfish and focused on their own basic survival. The vast majority are cowards, hiding behind the rules of society, their lives pathetic and unfulfilled.
But there are some of us who are strong enough to follow our basic human nature, thinking of ourselves first and foremost. We take what we want and need, regardless of rules or how our actions may affect other people. We want to feel important because we know we deserve to, and we have the guts to accept who we truly are.
I was going to take what I wanted, and no one would be smart enough to stop me.
But I think she may have known all along: her defiant stance, the way her eyes flashed to me when she mumbled into the phone, begging the young SWAT officer outside to save her. She knew I was really the one to fear.
She just didn't know it was all for her.
I almost had her, too. She had struggled as I dragged her through the hallway and down the stairs. I hated having to subdue her, but she left me no other alternative. She would have understood in time.
We should have left then; the door was unlatched, all I had to do was pull it open and make our escape.
But one SWAT member got too cocky for his own good – the loud one calling out his reassurances and interfering. I couldn't just walk away – a grand exit was the final act, and what could be better than shooting one of those self-righteous bastards?
The subsequent gunshot wound and searing pain was something I hadn't counted on, however, and I'd fallen backwards, unable to think clearly. She'd risen to her feet, scrambling in the dark for some kind of weapon. When her body landed on mine, I briefly thought about trying to continue, her scent and softness overwhelming me, but common sense won out. This was not in the plan – it wasn't the way things were supposed to begin at all. I couldn't be injured and do what I wanted to do. I would have to retreat and take care of myself first, as always.
I had no choice but to abort my master plan and run. The injury left me weak, unable to take care of myself or her.
So I fled, once again focused on the most important person in my life – myself. I needed to heal, to regroup. But her beautiful face haunted me, teased me, appealing to my other basic human instincts.
What to do, what to do.
The morning light crept inside the guest room underneath the heavy shades, and I shifted in the bed, unwilling to get up. Rosalie had taken one look at my pale, exhausted face after I'd returned from the meeting and had insisted I stay with them again. Too tired to argue, I'd simply fed Otis, gathered a few things from my place and crawled into the comfortable bed.
I had expected to lie awake replaying the meeting over and over in my head and the intense moments with Edward that followed. But my heavy eyes fluttered closed, and the next thing I saw was a sunlit room. For the first time since the bank, I slept through the night – with no dreams.
Now, as I lay wide-awake, I could no longer control my rambling thoughts. The memories weren't about the intensely emotional group session, however. All I could think about was what happened after: the strange connection that often flared between Edward and me and how I felt so frustratingly safe with him. Conversation between us wasn't easy but somehow seemed natural. I couldn't guard myself as carefully with him, and part of me didn't want to.
By the time we'd pulled up to his parents' quaint little house, my head was spinning and my emotions were all over the place. I had given everything I had to the group, and the strange attachment I was beginning to feel toward Edward was unnerving. Was Alice right? Was this just an illusion, something fake and unhealthy, or was the energy that flowed between the two of us real?
It sure as hell felt real to me as we sat in the car. My usually tightly-controlled filter had stopped working much earlier in the night, and I heard myself telling Edward that I wouldn't have made it through the meeting if he hadn't been with me.
He wanted to kiss me then, and I would have let him. My chest had ached with some kind of need I couldn't describe, and in that moment, I wanted nothing more than to be in his arms.
I rolled over, feeling ridiculous. What had I been thinking? This was a man I barely knew, and yet I constantly found myself laid bare around him, willing to open up more and more. Alice must be right – clinging to him as a result of my circumstance was the only thing that made sense, and it wasn't fair. I was stronger than that, and Edward certainly deserved better.
Why had I agreed to tell him about my family? The past wasn't something I wanted to revisit, and telling Edward – or anyone else – what had happened would do no good. It was over and done with, and I wasn't going back. There had never been a moment's regret after I walked away from Renee and Phil, not even when Paul had left me and I was utterly alone. My mother wasn't worth the time, or the effort.
"Bella?" Rosalie knocked softly. "Are you up?"
"Yeah." My voice was still thick with sleep. "Come in."
She padded into the room dressed for work in well-fitting khaki capris and a lightweight purple blouse that made her incredible, violet eyes stand out. "Hey." She sat down on the end of the bed. "How are you feeling this morning? You were completely wiped last night."
I sat up and pulled my knees to my chest. "Okay. I actually slept all night."
"Good. I was surprised you got back so late – the meeting must have lasted longer than you expected?"
Heat surged through me, and my face turned red. "No, not exactly." I averted my eyes, hoping Rosalie would drop the subject, but she honed right in on my nerves.
"Bella? Why are you blushing?"
"It's nothing, really."
Rosalie gracefully crossed her legs, a knowing smile on her face. "Edward was there, wasn't he?"
Another tell-tale blush. "Why would you say that?"
She started to laugh. "What else would make you blush like that?" Rosalie looked at her watch and then settled in on the bed. "I've got a half an hour before I leave for my meeting. Will you tell me how the night went?"
Old habits begged me to say no, but I owed Rosalie, and I needed someone to talk to who would be straight with me.
"Yeah, he was there," I admitted. "He didn't know I was attending and offered to sit out, but I asked him to come in with me."
"What made you do that?"
"I have no idea," I answered honestly. "I felt sick to my stomach walking into the church, but the second I saw him, I felt better, like I could get through the night. Then the misery came back when he said he wouldn't be in the room. I just couldn't handle that thought, and I have no clue why."
Her eyes searched my own, clearly thinking about her next question. "The group helped then?"
"Maybe. But it was brutal." Once I started talking to Rosalie, it was impossible to stop. The details of the night poured out of me, from the terror of first speaking to the comfort of Edward sitting next to me and his sister's observation about us. When I got to the part about offering him a ride and then going to dinner, Rosalie's eyes nearly popped out of her head.
"Wow," she breathed. "That's unexpected."
"It's wrong, isn't it?" I babbled, wringing my hands. "My case is open like Edward said, and Alice is probably right. I'm just clinging to the guy because I see him as a savior. What if I'm sending all sorts of mixed signals?"
"Whoa." Rosalie held her hands up. "It sounds like he was just comforting you as a friend." She narrowed her eyes suspiciously. "What else happened?"
"Nothing, really. It's just … the energy between us. I can't explain it."
Rosalie waited patiently as I stammered through the details of my dinner with Edward, my worry for his job and then the incident when I dropped him off at his parents. "I don't know what the hell happened, Rose. It's like I can't help myself when I'm around him and end up saying things I shouldn't. This charge gets in the air surrounding us, and I lose all sense of myself. I actually got lightheaded last night! It's ridiculous!"
"Why?" She countered. "It's obvious you're attracted to him, and I'd say the feeling is mutual."
"Right," I scoffed. "He's just being a nice guy, and besides …" my voice trailed off as I remembered the look in Edward's eyes when he'd leaned close to me, his breathing altered, lips parted.
"Besides what? I swear if you bring up the age difference again, I might smack you."
I attempted to run my fingers through my tangled hair. "That's not really it. I don't think the age difference would keep him from being attracted to me, but there's just no way that's what's going on. I'm a victim, an open case, and that's how he sees me. It's how he has to see me! I think Alice may be right – I'm attaching myself to him because of what he represents, and I can't do that. He's just reacting to me, and I'm misleading him."
"She's wrong," Rosalie grumbled. "The attraction between you was obvious the night he barged in here. Even Emmett could see it, and he never notices shit like that. Edward clearly sees you as much more than a victim, or he wouldn't be risking getting in trouble at work to spend time with you."
I shook my head. "I don't think so, but it doesn't matter. Nothing can happen, and nothing will happen. I can't drag him into my life – it's not fair."
Rosalie stood up and then glared down at me. "He's already in your life, Bella. Please don't shut him out. He's obviously good for you, in whatever capacity, and you need that. You deserve that. Don't sell yourself short."
She fretted over leaving me alone, but I assured her I would be all right. "Are you sure? What are you going to do today?"
"Nothing exciting. I need to clean and do laundry; I only have two days before I have to be back to work." An involuntary shiver ran through me, and Rosalie gently put her hands on my shoulders.
"You don't have to go back right away, you know. Take another week's vacation, and you can work with me."
I smiled at her generosity. "As much fun as I had, I've got to get back to work. The paycheck is kind of important and besides, those girls from group last night went through far worse than me, and they're not sitting around, hiding from things."
"See? That group has already helped you. Are you going back?"
"I said I would."
"Then do it, please."
Rosalie headed off to her meeting, and Emmett was working as well. I was left to my own devices, a rare occasion for the last few days. After straightening the guest room, I locked their condo and headed across the hall to my own.
The fat, orange cat was waiting for me with narrowed eyes. It was past 10 a.m., and he was hungry, of course. He trotted alongside me as I fumbled around the kitchen, looking for his food, and then purred loudly as I absentmindedly petted him. My thoughts were still full of Edward Cullen and everything Rosalie had said.
There was no right or wrong answer. I had no idea what ignited the chemistry between us but knew I couldn't act on it. Edward deserved better than damaged goods, and while the age difference wasn't a bad thing, I wouldn't allow him to make the same mistake I once had.
"You're much prettier than your sister," Paul said, scooting closer to me on the park bench. It was late September, and I'd just turned 18. Paul Alistair had recently quit his job as guidance counselor at my high school and was beginning a new career as a human resources manager. Having been my lone confidant for three years, Paul knew the way Renee and Phil treated me and had been the only person I could rely on.
"Stepsister," I immediately corrected him. "You know we're not really related."
He grinned, and I blushed. He was so handsome with his dark hair and tanned skin, and I'd had a little-girl crush on him for a couple of years now. "That's obvious," Paul agreed. "She's so tall and skinny, with all that strangely-colored blond hair. And so unpleasant. But you…" He casually draped his arm around the back of the bench. "You're so naturally pretty, and your hair is the most beautiful chocolate brown, but it also has red highlights in the sun. I love it."
Our first kiss was that day, and it was just as I'd always dreamed it would be: soft, tender and loving. We began dating in secret after that because Paul insisted Renee and Phil would never understand. They would be upset about the difference in our ages, even though I was a legal adult.
"Maybe they're right," I said one cold February day. We had met in secret at his friend's place. Our relationship was still fairly chaste as Paul supported my decision to wait until marriage, but he was beginning to push my physical limits. "You're older, more experienced. I'm just a kid."
"Bella." He gathered me into his arms providing the comfort I so desperately longed for. "You are no kid, and thanks to your selfish mother, you've had to grow up too fast. You're so mature – an old soul. That's why we're so good together."
I shuddered at the memory ashamed at the way I'd let Paul manipulate me. I was just a kid then – a lonely, miserable person who was all too willing to allow him to control my life, as long as he made me feel cared for.
Renee had gone ballistic when she finally found out about the two of us and for a while, I'd actually felt guilty about my relationship with Paul. She ranted and raved about how stupid I'd been to let him into my head and like a fool, I had allowed my mother to convince me I had wronged her in some way – that I'd taken advantage of her trust and the home she and Phil provided for me. Renee didn't believe I was still a virgin, despite my insistence, and my stepsister took great joy in telling everyone in school what a little slut I'd turned out to be.
And then a lifetime of lies caught up to Renee, and I finally heard the truth. Never had I hated her more than I had in that moment.
"How could you?" I'd screamed, my voice hoarse from crying. "You never even gave us a chance!"
"I had to do what was best for me!" Renee shouted back, with no trace of remorse. "If I was going to be stuck with you, then I was going to make the best of it!"
That was the last day Renee Dwyer was ever stuck with me. One late night phone call to Paul, and he was picking me up before dawn although we hadn't spoken in months. All I had was my large duffle bag crammed full of clothes, a few keepsakes, my journals and the money I'd managed to save over the years. I left a note for Renee in a place only she would find it, and that was the last time I ever spoke to her.
I should probably make amends, but I couldn't find it inside me to give a damn. I wasn't stupid – many of my issues with life and relationships stemmed from Renee, and I probably needed help in dealing with the past if I truly wanted to move on.
But dragging Edward into my messed up life wasn't right, and I sure as hell wasn't going to be like Paul, manipulating him for my own needs. Rosalie and Emmett were there for me now; I wasn't entirely alone. I would be just fine without bothering Edward Cullen anymore.
Like I had done with so many other things in my life, I pushed thoughts of Edward aside and focused on what had to be done. The weekend was spent catching up on cleaning and laundry and spending some time with the McCarty's.
Sunday night, I was determined to sleep in my own bed, although Rosalie worried and begged me to stay with her and Emmett again.
"Please, Bella." She paced in front of my door, frowning. "Tomorrow's your first day back, and you've been jittery all day. You need a good night's rest!"
She was right. I'd been a nervous wreck all afternoon, and Emmett had distracted me by enlisting my help in repotting some plants. I had no idea what I was doing, so we ended up with dirt all over the hardwood floors, as well as my face, but the idea served its purpose. I laughed and managed to forget about the impending Monday for a little while.
"I have to do this, Rose," I argued, frustrated with my growing dependence on her. "Look, I've always taken care of myself, and this past week has been incredibly difficult for me. I appreciate everything you guys have done, and I'm happy we're friends, really. But I have to do this on my own, even if I have to sleep with the damned light on."
She pursed her lips, and I could tell she was fighting the urge to keep arguing. "I don't mean to be so pushy with you," she finally said. "You have come so far this week – I just don't want you to have a setback."
"I know." I closed the distance between us and awkwardly wrapped my arms around her. I wasn't used to initiating this kind of physical contact. "I'll be okay."
Rosalie returned the hug, holding me tightly. "You'll keep your phone close? And call me if you need to, even if it's 3 a.m"
Still worried, she finally left and I went about my business as though nothing in my life was different. It was surprisingly easy to slip back into my normal routine: shower at 10 p.m., lay out clothes for tomorrow, feed the cat and then climb into bed.
I left the light on and squeezed my eyes shut, determined to treat tomorrow like any other Monday.
"You're seriously pissing me the fuck off, Jake," I hissed at my best friend. The weekend had crawled by, and the first two days back at work had been even worse. Johnson had heard about my leaving the support group with Bella and then taking her to dinner, and he spent 30 minutes Tuesday morning chewing my ass out.
"It's not against the rules!" I'd argued. "You know I volunteer for the group. It was Bella's first night, and she was upset. I needed a ride, and then we got something to eat. She got some extra police protection out of it. What's the big deal?"
"You know damn well what the big deal it!" He slammed his big hand down on his desk. "It makes you look bad, which in turn makes us look bad. And it's frowned on if she's an active case, Cullen!"
I shook my head, furious, but he continued. "This isn't the first time you've fraternized with her. What about the night of the raid? Were you not at her apartment building before?"
My mouth dropped open.
Johnson actually laughed. "You thought I wouldn't hear about that? I was informed when you were en route to the hospital, but because I like you so much, chose to let it go. This is the only warning I'm giving you: while she's an active case, don't be hanging out with Bella Swan. That support group of your sister's is one thing, but that's all. Got it?"
A curt nod was all I could muster, and Johnson sighed. "Look Edward, I'll level with you. I don't give a shit what you do with this woman. But the department will. You're one of the best cops I've seen in a long time, and as your superior, I can't let you fuck that up because you've got an itch to scratch. Let the case get closed first."
It wasn't a fucking itch, but I knew the boss was right, and he'd never had anything but my best interests at heart. "What if it's never closed, Aro? I can't just brush her off – you don't know what she's been through in the past. That would hurt her, and that's the last thing she needs right now."
He tiredly rubbed a hand over his face. "Edward, the likelihood of the bastard being caught isn't good. I don't know how long the brass will keep the case open – it could be indefinite. Or they could decide he's out of the city and no longer a threat. I just don't know."
I had left his office feeling sick to my stomach. The idea of only seeing Bella at the occasional group session – if she even continued to attend – wasn't acceptable. I had spent all weekend trying to figure out the pull she had over me and still had no real answers. That didn't stop me from wanting to see her, however.
Jake flicked another paper clip at me. Our entire Blue Team was at Downtown Area Command for a mandatory training on department procedures, and all of us were bored to tears. It had been six days since I'd spoken to Bella, and I was irrationally moody. I'd really believed she might call me. I knew she had returned to work and was eager to know how things were going. I toyed with the idea of wandering into the bank, but if I came near her outside of Alice's group, Johnson would have my ass.
Another paper clip bounced off my still slightly sore bicep and landed on my lap. Irritated, I snatched the silver paper clip, straightened it out and jammed the sharp point into Jake's outstretched arm.
"Goddamn, C!" He shouted, rubbing the spot. I was pleased to see I'd drawn blood.
On my other side, Tyler was choking back a laugh, and I could hear Embry and Quil snickering behind me.
"Ahem," the department stiff said. Lt. Cope was short and pudgy, her graying red hair pulled into some kind of weird twisty thing. "Do you two need to be separated?
More laughter from Tyler, and I gave the Lt. my most charming smile. "No ma'am. I apologize."
She flushed from head to toe and adjusted one of the many flyaways from her funky knot of hair. "You better not." The flirty tone wasn't missed, and Jake snorted, still rubbing his arm.
"Jesus, what is it with you and older women, lately?"
I sneered at him, and he smirked, daring me to do something else. At the front of the room, Johnson coughed loudly and glared at us both.
"Remind me to punch you after this," I whispered.
Two long hours later, we walked out of the station into the heat of the afternoon. The miserable training was finally over and most of us were on call but free to leave.
"You ever gonna tell me what went down the other night?" Jake asked.
I'd been avoiding the subject of Bella with Jake – and my sister – for days. I didn't want to hear Alice's inevitable lecture or Jake's teasing but was reaching the end of my rope. I needed to talk to someone.
"Yeah." I pointed to the small deli a few blocks down. "Let's go in the air conditioning and get something to drink."
As soon as we were seated, the questions began. "What the hell happened, C? And don't tell me nothing. I already know she was at the meeting, and you've been all emo and shit since. Give it up."
"Honestly Jake, I don't even know what happened. It was like she was a different person towards me. She actually wanted me to be there and reached out to me. And the tension between us was overwhelming sometimes."
He cocked his head. "Sexual tension?"
"I guess. But I've never felt sexual tension like that. I mean, usually you flirt, you feel the chemistry and then something happens. But with this woman, the atmosphere just fucking changes. There's no flirting. All of a sudden I can't breathe, my pants are getting tight, and I don't know what the hell's going on."
Jake ran a hand through his closely-cropped black hair. "And you're sure it's not just because you want to bang her?"
"What?" I spluttered. "I never said anything about banging her, man. I just want … I don't know what the fuck I want."
"Your pants getting too tight means at least some part of you wants to bang her," he snorted.
I stared at him, and he rolled his eyes. "Okay, okay. It's not just that. You care about her."
"But why? I barely know her."
"Yeah, but given how hollow it sounds like her life has been, you probably know her better than anyone else right now."
"She has Rosalie, too."
"But you're the one she wanted at the group."
I played with my discarded straw wrapper, deftly tying it into a knot. "Alice thinks she may see me as sort of a savior and might be attaching herself to me for the wrong reasons."
"It's possible. What does Bella think about that?"
"She wasn't sure," I replied. "I think she's as confused as me."
The memory hit me full force: her eyes partially closed, full lips parted and her breathing shallow. "I almost kissed her, Jake. If the detail hadn't rolled up on us, I would have."
He choked on his lemonade. "You didn't tell me that part! Jesus C, you could get in trouble for that shit!"
I shrugged. "I guess, but don't worry; Johnson already laid into me. It won't happen again."
"Do you want it to?"
Did I? I couldn't get my mind off Bella, but it seemed callous to see her in that way, especially after all she'd been through. "I don't know. I can't stop thinking about her, wondering how she's doing. She went back to work this week, and it's killing me not knowing how she's handling it."
"I'm going to take that as a big fucking yes," Jake replied. "I think you've finally found a woman complex enough to keep your attention."
The sweating glass of water slipped from my hands and landed on the table with a clink. Water spilled everywhere, and Jake dove out of the way. "Goddamn again, C! You're gonna make me look like I pissed myself!"
A waitress was already mopping up the water, but I was frozen on the spot, struck dumb by Jake's words. He couldn't possibly be right, could he? I was constantly complaining about not finding a woman who was interesting enough or who could come close to stacking up against my mother and sister. Was this why I was so stuck on Bella Swan?
Jake slapped the back of my head. "What the hell is wrong with you?" He glared at me as he sat down in the now dry seat. "You're lucky that shit didn't end up on my pants."
"Do you think that's it?" I asked, leaning forward on the old table. "That's why I'm so into Bella?"
He sighed, crossing his arms over his broad chest. "I dunno man, maybe. Sure seems like it. I've never seen you like this over anyone else, C."
Burying my face in my hands, I moaned in frustration. "But all I know about her is that she's got a lot of baggage, she's been hurt … she's not like any other woman I've …"
My voice trailed off, and Jake raised his eyebrow. "Yeah?"
"No," I argued. "It's just the pain she exudes. She needs someone, and I like to help people, that's all."
"Sure, sure. That's why you guys have all these crazy, heated moments. You're just a Good Samaritan."
Frustration built up inside my chest, and I wanted to rip my hair out. There had to be a way to stop obsessing over this woman and treat her like any other friend. Not knowing how she was doing didn't make it any easier – it was ridiculous not to be allowed to pick up the phone and call her. Then again, I didn't have her number. She had mine and hadn't called. Maybe she wasn't even thinking about me – after all, she had Rosalie next door. Bella probably didn't need me as much as I wanted her to.
"Doesn't matter anyway," I grumbled. "Outside of Alice and Jasper's group, I can't even have any real contact with her." I thought about the way her troubled eyes had studied everyone at dinner the other night as she searched for the partner and desperately wished I knew how she was doing at work.
"We could always check on her," Jake said thoughtfully.
"How?" I snorted. "Morris isn't telling either one of us shit, and Tyler's on the asshole's list now, too."
"Fuck Morris," Jake snapped. "He's not worth the dirt on my size twelves. But there is someone else we could call – someone who probably knows exactly what's going on. And you've already looked up her number once."
I stared at him. "You've got to be kidding me."
"Do I look like I'm joking?"
"I'm pretty sure there's a rule against looking up numbers for personal use, dumbass. I don't need any more shit from Johnson."
Jake pulled out his iPhone and quickly began typing in something. "Well, what do you know?" He smirked. "The phone book is a wonderful thing sometimes, C."
He handed the phone to me, and there it was, in black and white: Rosalie and Emmett McCarty's number.
"No rules broken, dude. Not even if you call. I'm sure Rosalie will keep it quiet."
I couldn't make the call, not with Jake sitting there watching my every move, so I scribbled down the number. He said I was a pussy, but I still wasn't sure checking up on Bella was the right thing. Aside from skirting the rules, I didn't want to piss her off. She hadn't called; maybe she didn't want me to know how she was doing.
Jake headed to check on his Dad, and I climbed into my Volvo, immediately cranking the air conditioning. We were on call and it limited our activities. I didn't like getting too far from the station, so I decided to go home. Maybe the peace and quiet of my own place would help me think.
My apartment was in east Las Vegas, and it was a modest one-bedroom. The place was cool and dark when I walked in, the sun having been shut out. I tossed my keys and wallet on the table by the door and then made my way into the living room, stretching out on my comfortable couch. I flicked on the flat-screen TV – one of my only luxuries – and tried to find the Cubs game. My father was a lifelong fan, and I'd had no other option but to follow in his footsteps. I found the game just in time to see Derek Lee hit a two-run homer onto Waveland, giving the Cubs the lead. I settled in to watch the remaining innings, trying hard to clear my head.
It worked for a while, and I was actually dozing off when my cell phone beeped, signaling a text.
'Did u call yet?'
'No,' I texted Jake back.
I tossed the phone onto the coffee table. Jake just didn't understand; he hadn't really seen how standoffish Bella had been, so he could have no idea how much of a change the other night had been for her. I didn't want to push my luck.
But how was she? Were the flashbacks worse now that she'd gone back to work? Had she even been able to walk through the door? I couldn't imagine how difficult it must have been for her, and I had little doubt she would have put on a brave face and simply gone back to work, shutting everyone out.
'Maybe that's why she hasn't called,' I reasoned. 'Maybe she's had a major setback and is at square one. Rosalie might need help dealing with her, and since Bella had opened up to me, it might not hurt to check in.'
Digging the number out of my jeans pocket, I grabbed the phone and dialed before I could wimp out. Sweat beaded across my forehead, and my chest was suddenly tight. This was getting ridiculous – I never got nervous.
"Hello?" A male voice answered. Emmett.
"Uh, hi. Is this Emmett?"
"Yeah," he answered brusquely. "Who's this?"
"This is Edward Cullen. I'm not sure if you remember me…"
"Hell yeah, I remember you! What's going on, man?" His voice suddenly grew serious. "Is there a break in Bella's case?"
"No," I answered. "I … uh … well…" Jesus Christ. So much for being good with words.
"Is everything okay, Edward?"
"How's Bella doing?" I blurted out. "I'm sure you know by now I was at group with her the other night and it went well, but I know she went back to work and she hasn't called. I gave her my number in case she needed it, but she must not. Then I thought maybe going back to work set her back, and she might be avoiding everyone, and since she seemed to want me at group, I figured I might be able to help."
The words came out in a rush, and my face must have turned five shades of red. Thank God Jake wasn't around.
A few long seconds of silence followed, and I felt sick. He probably thought I was some kind of stalker.
"She's okay," Emmett finally answered. "As good as can be expected after going back into the bank."
He informed me the detail was still keeping a close watch on her, staying outside the bank for the duration of her work-day and following her around town as they had been. "She was pretty quiet and withdrawn Monday. Rose tried to talk to her, and Bella admitted it had been rough and she just wanted to sleep."
"Is she staying at her place?"
"Yeah. Rosalie wanted her to stay here, but Bella insisted on sleeping in her own bed Sunday. Hasn't been back."
"Has she had anymore flashbacks?" I asked, dreading the answer.
Emmet sighed. "Listen, I hate to be a dick, but I'm not sure it's my place to be telling you this. Gaining Bella's trust is a work in progress for Rose, and she would kick my ass if she knew I was betraying it."
My heart sank – he may as well have said yes. I had to get some more information out of him though, or I would go crazy. "I understand completely. I'm just really concerned for her because she took some major steps the other night. Is there anything you can tell me?"
There was shuffling at the other end of the line. "Hold on a second, all right?" There was muffled noise in the background, and I was sure I could hear the sound of a woman's voice.
"Edward?" Her voice was soft and without anger.
"Hi, Rosalie. How are you?"
"Tired. Just got home from working on a site all day, and my feet are killing me. Let's not beat around the bush – Em says you're calling about Bella?"
"Yeah, I was wondering how she was doing at work."
"Didn't you give her your number?"
"Um, yeah but I haven't heard from her."
More silence, and even as my brain formed the words to get Rosalie talking, I knew I couldn't do it. If Rosalie really had Bella's trust, it would be selfish of me to try to break it. "I'm sorry to bother," I finally spoke. "I was just worried about her."
"It's okay, Edward," Rosalie answered. "I wish I could tell you everything that's gone on, but if Bella found out she'd shut me out for good, and that just can't happen. She can't be all alone again."
Some kind of strange lump welled up in my throat at her words. "I'm glad she has you. And so is she."
"She has you too," Rosalie replied. "Even if she doesn't understand why. Don't allow that to change, all right? No matter what happens, be there for her."
The hair stood up on the back of my neck. "What are you talking about? Of course I will, but what could happen?"
"I can't say any more, Edward. This week has been rough, but she's getting by."
There was just one more question I needed the answer to. "Is she going to group this week?"
"I hope so," Rosalie whispered. "I truly, truly hope so."
She would say no more, and I numbly thanked her even as I tried to figure out the cryptic meaning in her words. From the grave tone in her voice, it was easy to tell Bella was having a hard time. Emmett had all but confirmed she'd had at least one more flashback and being stuck in that bank for eight hours a day all week had to be torture for her. She needed to come to group.
Without thinking, I called my sister.
"Well hello, little brother!" She sang. "Finally decide to return my phone calls, did you?"
"Alice," I cut to the chase. "I don't need any grief right now, but I called the McCartys to see how Bella was handling the week back at work – and no, it's not against the rules – and it doesn't sound very good. You need to call her and make sure she comes into group this week."
"Don't Edward me! I know you're worried and believe me, I hear you. I'm keeping everything you said the other night in mind, and I honestly have no idea what the hell is going on. All I know is that she needs to be there."
I could hear the clicking of her heels as she walked. "I don't want you at group this week," Alice said. "Kate's already scheduled, and Bella needs to do this without you. I want to see how she handles it."
Of course she did. She also wanted to interfere, but if she was willing to call Bella, I wasn't going to argue. "Fine, but only if you call her. And don't let her know I talked to the McCartys, for God's sake! She needs to trust them. Just act like you're checking in on her."
"I got it, jackass," she grumbled. "I was going do to that anyway, and don't tell me anymore. I don't want to slip and say something I shouldn't."
Alice promised to call her immediately but refused to give me any details of the conversation. All I got was a text saying she had spoken to Bella, and she'd assured Alice she would be attending the session on Thursday.
'Remember, ur not attending. And dont nag me for any deets. Love u.'
I spent the next 48 hours arguing with myself over what was right. The answer was black and white, but there was some kind of cloud in my brain that refused to see anything clearly. I wanted to do what was best for Bella, but I needed to see how she was doing for myself.
When group meeting time finally came, I aimlessly drove around the church's neighborhood, still debating. I thought about just parking and watching her leave – to just see for myself that she was all right – but that felt wrong. She was already being watched. I couldn't talk to her in the parking lot either; the detail was probably salivating to bust a top SWAT officer bending the rules again.
I should just go home. Alice had given explicit orders.
But she hadn't said I couldn't wait in the lobby – just that I couldn't attend the group.
"Fuck!" I yelled to no one as I drove by the church for the fifth time. I was getting to be as creepy as the damned partner. If she wants to talk to me, she'll call. I have to do what's right for her, not me.
My mind was made up when the phone rang. "Hello?" I answered curtly, without looking at the caller ID.
"Cullen!" Johnson barked. "The detail said they've seen a Volvo that looks like yours driving by the church a few times. Is that true?"
Motherfucking, ass-kissing jackoffs. "Yeah. I need to talk to my sister, and she won't answer her phone. Gonna catch her when the meeting's over."
"Sure. Is Swan there?"
"Because Morris is trying to get a hold of her, and she's not answering her phone."
Game on. "Why? Has there been a break in her case?"
"You could say that," Johnson snorted. "It'll piss off the detectives, but Morris has it coming. Since you're in the neighborhood, why don't you head in and break the news to Ms. Swan?"
"What's the news, Aro?"
His next words were the last thing I was expecting to hear.
Let it Be Me
It was odd walking into the room without Edward – as though he should be by my side. He probably would have been if I'd called, but I just couldn't do it. To draw him into the web of my past and my misery seemed so careless and selfish, and he could do so much better than me. I cared too much to hurt him that way.
Alice and Jasper both greeted me warmly, and Angela patted the seat next to her. Habit begged me to sit away from everyone, but I was trying to move forward. Timidly, I sat down, feeling completely out of my element but too worn out from my week to fight. Rosalie had worried I wouldn't attend group and had even offered to go with me, but I wanted to get better. On my own.
And I'd promised Edward.
"How are you?" Angela asked softly. Slightly more relaxed than last week, I was able to focus on her face. She was very pretty, with large brown eyes and black hair. Her complexion was flawless, and her skin was nicely tanned.
"I'm here," I answered honestly.
She nodded in understanding. "Rough week?"
I closed my eyes. "That's an understatement. First week back since it happened."
Angela scooted closer. "I know it's awful, but look at it this way: you made it through the week and got yourself here. That's more than a lot of people are able to do."
The others were filing in; Tanya and Seth both smiled in my direction, and Victoria simply nodded.
"I guess that's a good way to look at it," I replied. "I just keep thinking that he's still out there. The bank sealed the tunnel entrance off again, and I haven't been near the basement, but just the thought is paralyzing."
"I know it is. The first day I went back to work, I was sick to my stomach. And my attack didn't even happen there – I was just terrified to be outside of my apartment." Her voice grew stronger. "But it gets better. You just have to focus on the end goal."
She was probably right, but the events of the past week had left me wondering if I had the strength to get better. Monday had actually been easier than I'd expected and tricked me into thinking everything would be all right. The next day slapped me in the face. Since then, I'd felt as though I were standing on the edge of the abyss with my mouth wide open and no sound coming out. The despair that crept up on me at night was reminiscent of the days after my divorce, and I refused to go back to that place. That resolve alone had been enough to make me come to the meeting.
"Hi everyone," Jasper sat down in the middle of the group, and Alice took the seat in between us. Her smile was friendly, and I tried to respond in kind. A sinking feeling settled over me as I realized group was about to start and Edward really wasn't coming. All week, I'd fought against the urge to call him but harbored secret hope he would be able to attend tonight.
In his place was a tall, willowy blond. She took a seat in the middle of the circle and introduced herself as Kate. "I was a patrol officer for several years, and I'm now a member of Metro P.D's Special Victims Unit," she said. She seemed nice enough, but it wasn't the same as having Edward beside me.
I listened quietly as the others described the week and their progress, or lack thereof. Alice deliberately left me for last; she and I had spoken yesterday, and she knew things had been difficult.
"Tuesday was so bad, Alice," I had said when she asked how I was doing. "And ever since then, I feel like I'm just wading through."
"Are you willing to tell us about it at group?" Alice asked. "If you're not, we can talk now, but I really think it would be better if you discussed things with the group."
I didn't want to discuss it at all but given the option, I chose to put off talking and wait for tonight. Now everyone was waiting for me to speak, and I didn't have the warmth of Edward's hand to comfort me.
"Bella?" Jasper asked kindly. "Alice mentioned she spoke with you yesterday, and you had a tough week. You want to tell us about it?"
'Fuck no!' I wanted to scream. Couldn't I just crawl into a little ball and listen to everyone else? It was suddenly hard to breathe, and I felt stuck in my own skin. I hated every single minute of this shit.
"It's all right, Bella," Angela whispered. "You can do this."
I drew my legs up to my chest, wrapped my arms tightly around them and rested my head on my knee. I purposely looked away from Alice and Jasper, but my gaze fell instead on Victoria. She stared right through me, her eyes fierce, and raised an eyebrow, challenging me.
"Monday was my first day back at the bank," I mumbled, looking straight at the redhead. "My friend Rose wanted to drive me, but I refused. I thought it was something I needed to do for myself. My boss greeted me at the door and walking inside was surreal. The place looked as though nothing had ever happened – like it was all a dream – except for the new paint on various spots of the wall where the random bullets from the taker's gun had hit. My boss was there all day, and he worked closely with me. I think he was trying to keep me distracted and it worked, for the most part."
My entire body had been shaking when I walked through the double doors, and I was never more grateful to see Mike Newton's cherubic face. He claimed there was no reason for me to be working the front lobby and quickly guided me back to his office. "I'm so behind on paperwork and would really appreciate your help, Bella. Can you work in here with me this morning?"
I knew exactly what he was doing but didn't give a damn. I spent the entire morning safe in his large office, ignoring the stares of other employees as they passed by. It was obvious they wanted to get a look at me, even though many of them had never been interested in my life. Jessica walked by Mike's office three times, her curly hair bouncing, and I wanted to slap her. Was I some kind of freak show?
"What about Monday night?" Victoria asked. "Did you sleep?"
We were still staring at one another, and it was oddly comforting. "I did, actually. I was kind of numb but functioning. But Tuesday …" the words caught in my throat, and I swallowed hard against the impending cry.
"What happened Tuesday, Bella?" Alice prodded.
The tears couldn't be stopped, and I tasted salty moisture on my lips. "Everything was going so well," I whispered, focusing on Victoria's pale face. Her expression was much more kind, and she nodded encouragingly. "I went into my own office and did okay until I needed something from the main store room."
"Where's the store room located?" Jasper said quietly.
"Towards the back of the building, close to the damn stairs. I should've asked for someone else to go for me."
Victoria was still watching me closely. "Why didn't you?"
"I did at first. I asked Jessica, and she said she was busy and not an errand girl."
"Aren't you her boss?" Tanya demanded.
"Yeah," I answered, feeling stupid. "But she always looks down her nose at me, and she has this way of making me feel like the world's biggest loser. I didn't want to add to her reasons."
"So what happened?" Alice prodded.
I shut my eyes against the memory, wanting to forget.
Jessica walked away, her three-inch heels clicking along the tiled hallway, head raised arrogantly. Sometimes she reminded me so much of my stepsister it was creepy. I stared down at the file on my desk, knowing damned well I couldn't complete it until I went to the upstairs storage room. Mike would have gladly gone, but he was at a meeting all day, and I didn't want to ask anyone else. Jessica was probably already talking shit about me.
I leaned against my large, metal desk, sucking in deep breaths in an effort to calm myself. There was no reason to panic – the bank had been deemed safe, the tunnel entrance had been sealed, and the bastard wasn't going to come back in here.
I could do this, and I needed to. Stubborn courage rose inside me and I squared my shoulders, smoothed my knee-length navy skirt and left my office. It was close to noon, and the lobby was full of people here on their lunch break. All of my employees were too busy to notice my slow approach through the hallway, and that was fine with me.
My palms were clammy and my heart pounded a little harder with every step, but I was managing. The hall was brightly lit, and there was no reason to be afraid.
Then my eyes landed on a darkened spot on the gray tile, on a stain that had been there for years, just a few feet away from the stairs. On that horrible day, as he dragged me down the hall, my eyes on the floor while I fought against him, that stain had told me we were nearing the stairs.
The flashback came hard and fast, paralyzing me.
"Who do they think they are?" The taker spat as he dragged me down the hallway, firing his loud weapon back at the yelling SWAT officer. "All I want to do is make things better, and they're trying to fuck it up!" His grip was like iron around my waist, and my heels scraped the floor; I twisted around in vain, unable to land a good kick.
Our footsteps were thunderous on the stairs, and then we were in the basement, in the large, open space no one bothered with anymore. The taker shoved me aside, and I landed on my hands and knees on the cold floor. The basement was dark, and a loud, creaking sound filled my ears. What the hell was he doing?
"Help me!" I screamed. "He's going to take me! Stop!" He jerked me to my feet, and the takers' large, gloved hand connected with my face, making me see stars. I fell back to the floor, defeated.
More sounds in the dark: creaking, groaning and struggling with something. SWAT upstairs, calling down to us. The taker situated himself at the corner of the stairwell and began randomly firing at the police, all the while spewing hate about anyone and everyone.
"Stupid woman," he hissed. "As if I didn't know the police were coming in. If she would have just kept her big mouth shut, you and I could have snuck off without SWAT noticing. We'd be free!"
Another shot fired, and the sound resonated in my already aching head. "Things will be so much better when we get out of here, you'll see. I know you're alone and sad, but you don't have to be anymore."
The darkness was suffocating, but my hands searched for something, anything to use as a weapon. There was no way out for him down here, but he didn't seem to realize it.
An old, musky scent assaulted my nostrils and I recoiled. What on earth could that be?
"Soon, Bells. Soon."
Another shot, this one sharp and quick. A thump and a grunt, and the taker fell to the floor wounded. He quietly moaned in pain; I had no idea where he was hit, but I seized my chance. With a burst of energy, I pushed myself to my feet, determined to run for the stairs. Before I could go anywhere, however, his fingers closed around my ankles, and I fell on top of something soft. The taker.
"Where do you think you're going?" He grabbed at me – I was lying across his stomach – and I fought with everything I had, kicking and punching. "This isn't the way it's supposed to be!" The taker sounded unhinged for the first time. "You're supposed to come with me!"
Another kick and I was free, rolling away from him.
"I won't forget this." His words were so soft I barely heard them and then suddenly he was gone, the sound of his retreating footsteps echoing in the space.
Where could he be?
"He's gone!" I cried out. "He just shoved me aside and disappeared!"
My hands were shaking as I recalled the events, and my shirt was soaked with tears. Someone had handed me a Kleenex, but I hadn't thought to use it.
"Why did he leave you?" Seth asked softly.
"I don't know," I choked out. "No one does. He was injured … maybe he was afraid he couldn't control me."
"He seemed to be focused on his version of things," Jasper mused. "He had a specific plan, and it didn't go the way he needed it to. Therefore, he had to abort."
"Why the bank?" I shouted angrily. "I live alone – it would have been so much easier to snatch me from home. Why all this cloak and dagger?"
Alice put her hand on my arm. "Bella, look at me, please."
My tear-filled eyes met her concerned blue ones. "I don't have the answer to that question and as valid as it is, it's not what's important right now. What did you do after the flashback?"
"Curled up and sobbed."
I sank to the floor, my face buried in my knees in a near fetal position, and cried harder than I had in years. All the memories and the walls I'd built to contain them had crashed through my consciousness in the last week, and the pressure was breaking me. I cried for the coward inside me and for all the things my mother had said and taken away. I cried for my isolation, my sadness and for the person I feared I would never be.
By the time Jessica found me, all I had left were painful, hiccupping sobs. "What the hell, Bella?" She asked, standing over me with her hands on her hips. "Did someone die?"
Had I not been so upset, I would have laughed at the irony of her statement. I'd never really lived. Not the way everyone else had done. "No," I answered. There was no way I was going to confide in Jessica Stanley. "Just having a bad moment."
"Yeah well, you look like hell. You might want to go into the bathroom and clean up." A small sneer crossed her face, and the resemblance to my stepsister was nauseating.
Once again, anger was my friend. I pushed myself to my unsteady feet and hastily wiped my face. "Thank you, I will. Please go get that file for me."
"Excuse me?" She snorted. "I told you, I was busy and not an office girl."
"You weren't too busy to come wander back here though, were you?"
"I was looking for you, Bella. You have an appointment coming in."
"Fine." I smoothed my skirt (CHECK). "As I said, please get that file and bring it to my desk."
She opened her mouth to argue, and I held up my hand for silence. "Listen to me, Jessica. You'll understand this today: I'm your superior. I hired you, and I can and will fire you. You do what I ask, and don't talk to me like I'm dirt underneath your shoes. I treat all my employees fairly, but I'm done with you taking advantage of that. Get the file, now."
Jessica gaped at me, and I stared her down, daring her to argue. Finally, she flipped her curly hair over her shoulder and stomped down the hall.
Everyone in the group was smiling at me. "What?"
"Good for you, putting the little bitch in her place," Tanya chuckled.
"No shit," Victoria agreed. "Jealous little hag."
Jasper was grinning as well. "I agree, well done and much needed. And don't think because you broke down and cried that you mishandled the flashbacks. Sometimes we all need a good cry to clear our heads. Have you talked about this with anyone else? How did the rest of your day go?"
"After I cleaned myself up, I sort of went on auto pilot. I called the detective on my case and told him what I remembered and then told Rosalie when I got home that night."
"Were you still so upset, or was it easier to talk about?"
I laughed bitterly. "No, it wasn't easier. I didn't want to say anything to her, but she wouldn't back down. Rose has a way of making me spill my guts."
"Good friends are like that," Alice murmured. "How did you feel after you discussed it with her? Relieved?"
Had I felt relieved? "I don't know. It was like I was numb. I felt like that most of the week, for the most part."
Going into the bank hadn't become any harder, but the numbness was too much like the past. I'd gotten so down after Paul left and was terrified of history repeating itself. Still, at times I relished not feeling anything – it made life much easier.
Jasper picked up on my discomfort. "What is it, Bella?"
Great. Another near mind reader. "I don't really like going through the motions," I whispered. "It's too much like what happened after my divorce. I was utterly alone and wanted it that way. I got so depressed and closed off and literally walked around like a zombie for months. I can't go back there." I grabbed my head with both hands, trying to shut out the memories of that time. "I won't."
"You're not," Angela gently pulled my hand away from my head. "You didn't get help then, did you?"
"You didn't confide in Rosalie or anyone else, right?"
I shook my head.
"That's why it's different. Look how much you've been communicating since that day at the bank. It's awful, don't get me wrong, but look at the good things it's brought out in you."
I blinked. I'd never stopped to look at things that way; I'd been too busy worrying about turning back into a zombie and living in the past that I was missing the improvements I had made.
"Angela is right," Alice encouraged. "The numbness is your mind's way of helping you get through the day, and as long as you're aware of that and not shutting people out, I'm not worried about you. Honestly, you've already come farther than I thought you would at this point. I was pleased with last week but given your tendency to withdraw, I worried you would backslide, especially with another flashback."
Group was nearly over, and I felt as though I had monopolized it, but everyone stopped to tell me how proud they were and how they looked forward to seeing me next week. Alice reminded me that I could call her day or night, especially if I had another flashback.
I was the last member to leave, and Jasper guided me to the door. "Bella, the next time you have a flashback, I want you to write everything down. That includes what you remember and how it makes you feel. Can you do that?"
"Sure," I replied, unsure of how that would help.
He shook my hand. "Great. Take care, and I'll see you next week."
I made my way toward the church lobby, my head swimming. Tonight had gone so much better than I'd expected. Talking about it was like walking on nails, but the weight that lifted off my shoulders made the torture worth it.
"Bella?" His voice startled me and for the second time in a week, I stopped short at the sight of Edward. He was pacing in the entryway in worn jeans and a fitted white t-shirt (check). A strange series of emotions crossed his face as we stared at one another, and my heart beat a little bit faster.
I was so happy to see him.
"Hi," I breathed, momentarily forgetting my decision not to allow him to get close to me. "What are you doing here?"
Edward flushed. "Well … you hadn't called, and I wondered how you were doing. My boss doesn't want me fraternizing with you outside of group, but I was determined to talk to you, so I was driving around. Then I realized that if you wanted to talk to me you would have called, so I decided to go home."
His awkward rambling around me was so endearing; how was it that such a smooth talker tripped over his tongue every time we spoke? "Yet here you are. Did you change your mind?"
Part of me hoped he had, hoped he was there to demand I tell him all about my week. I wanted him to hold me and tell me everything would be all right. But I couldn't allow that. It was too much of a risk – for both of us.
"Not exactly," Edward stepped closer, and I recognized the serious look in his eyes. "There's information on your case, and Johnson wanted me to tell you. He didn't want you to hear it from Morris."
My stomach literally turned over. "What is it?
"He's dead, Bella."
In seconds, her face went from pale and scared to shocked and confused. "What? Who?"
"The partner. He was found last night, and the forensic guys concluded it must be him."
"I don't understand, Edward."
I gestured toward the chairs in the lobby. "Sit down and I'll explain it to you."
Last week, Metro police had responded to a car fire a few blocks away from the bank and very near one of the many entrances to the tunnel system. The fire was cause by a fuel leak, and the situation appeared to be an open and shut case of property damage at first.
"Then they discovered the body," I said, sitting down next to her. "He was laying in the backseat – probably sleeping – and looked to have been trapped."
Bella closed her eyes. "That's awful, but how could they possibly know it was him? He didn't leave any fingerprints at the bank, did he?"
"No, but they recovered bullets from his gun. Remember when he fired at Jake and the guys?"
Her face paled, and she shivered. Of course she remembered – she was with the partner as he fled.
"Well, they got the ballistics test back this afternoon, and those bullets matched the gun in this man's possession. He was too badly burned for any fingerprints or facial recognition, but between the ballistics match and other items, the Las Vegas Forensic Laboratory have decided it's him."
"What other items?"
"Well, they're in pretty bad shape, but there are several pieces of clothing that match the description given by you and the other hostages. Once Metro realized this, they were able to fast forward the forensics and match the gun. That's why we got the results so quickly."
Bella leaned back against the plush chair, stunned. We sat in silence as she absorbed everything I'd told her, and I watched her reaction carefully. Her hands were clenched into fists against her bare thighs, and she was shaking. Her skin was paler than normal, and the pink t-shirt she wore made her look extremely delicate. Her dark, wavy hair was loose around her face, forming a protective curtain around her.
"Are you all right?" I whispered.
"I don't know."
Without thinking, I brushed the hair off her right shoulder, anxious to get a better look at her face. My fingers barely brushed the smooth skin of her cheek, and then I gently cupped her face in my hand. Her mouth fell open slightly before she turned to look at me.
"Do you think it's him?"
I couldn't move my hand. "I think there's a very good chance it is."
"But you don't know for sure?"
I ran my thumb along her jaw. "No, but the ballistic evidence is very good."
Bella closed her eyes and leaned into my hand. "Do they know anything else about him?"
"Other than he appeared to be living out of his car, no. They're working on a name, but don't get your hopes up. A lot of vagrants are lost in the system."
Her body relaxed, and I finally moved my hand. Of its own volition, my arm slid around her small shoulders. "They've closed your case, Bella. The brass has full confidence in the lab, and they wanted to put the city's fears at rest. As far as the Metro Police are concerned, it's over."
Even as I spoke the words, I realized the implications of what I was saying and from her body language, she did as well. She stiffened and her eyes flew open. My heart fell at the look on her face – it was the same Bella that had pushed me away that very first night.
"Thank you for telling me." She squirmed out of my gentle grasp. "It's good to know I don't have to keep looking over my shoulder. Hopefully I can move on from here."
I stared at her cold expression. "You're welcome," I replied, shell-shocked. "I hope you can too."
Bella stood, fishing her keys out of the small bag she carried. "I need to be going, however. It was good to see you, Edward."
Seriously? Was that it? We'd gone from an intense connection to this in seconds?
"Wait!" I jumped up, unwilling to let her walk away. "How was your week? The first day back?" I had to be careful – she couldn't know I'd spoken to Rosalie.
"It was okay," she replied. "It wasn't without incident, but talking about things tonight really helped. Thank you again for telling me about your sister and her group."
"What was the incident? Did you have another flashback?"
Bella raised her chin in defiance, but her expression was apologetic. "I really don't want to talk about it, Edward. I'm exhausted, and I need to be getting home." She moved to step around me, and my hand reflexively shot out and grabbed her arm.
"What the hell, Bella?" I snapped. "Last week you needed me just to walk into the meeting, and now you're treating me like a complete stranger! Did I do something to piss you off?"
"Of course not," she scoffed, pulling her arm away. "And you are kind of a stranger. We don't really know one another – we've just been thrown together by circumstance."
Stunned, I stepped back in surprise. "Really? Is that why you opened up to me last week? Why you said you'd tell me about your family one day?"
"That was a moment of weakness!" She argued. "What happened with my family is in the past and no one's business. Why do you insist on pushing your way into my life?"
"I haven't!" I growled back at her, stepping closer. "I was going to hide out last week, and you asked me to go with you. You invited me to ride with you. I only responded to your cues. Do not put this on me!"
"Yeah, well, you're not responding to them now! And what is exactly do you mean by 'this'?" She scoffed, playing dumb.
"I don't fucking know!" I'd forgotten we were in a church. "What do you call the energy that swirls between us and clouds my brain? And don't say you haven't noticed because I know you have!"
She looked away, rattled. "You're misreading things," she said weakly.
"Bullshit. Is that why we almost kissed the other night?"
Her cheeks turned red. "I … that was …" she stammered. "Edward, please back off!"
The desperation in her voice was clear, but I couldn't stop. "Why?" I pressed. "Why should I back off? You wanted me to be there last week, and now you're as cold as ice. Why, Bella?"
She shook her head, still unable to look at me. "Your sister was right. I have some kind of hero complex towards you, and it's no good for either one of us. I wouldn't be a good friend for you, Edward. I'll take so much more than I'll give. And you deserve better."
"How do you know what I deserve?" I said bitterly. "We're practically strangers, remember? For all you know I'm a womanizing jerk."
She actually cracked a small, watery smile. "You're not and we both know it. I'm the jerk. You don't need that in your life. Like I said, I'm not good a friend for you."
I wanted to pull my fucking hair out. "Who said anything about just being friends?"
Bella's eyes finally snapped back up to meet mine and we stared at one another, the air thick with heated tension. She opened her mouth to respond, but the sound of Alice's voice stopped her.
"I don't know what's going on here, but we're leaving and we need to lock up." My head snapped around to see her and Jasper staring at us both. Alice was furious, and I was in no mood for her shit tonight.
I held out my hand. "Give me the keys and I'll lock up, Al."
"I don't think so, baby brother. Leave."
"Don't give me that baby brother shit, Alice. Give me the keys and go, please. Bella and I need to finish this."
"Edward, she's an open case!" Alice practically screeched. "You can't …"
"Not anymore," Bella replied.
"What?" Both Jasper and Alice were stunned.
I quickly filled them in and reiterated to my sister that Bella's case was no longer active. "So I'm telling you again, Alice. Give me the damned keys."
"Don't worry about it." Bella seized her chance. "I'm leaving."
I watched her walk out the door, my heart sinking farther with every step she took.
"Edward!" Alice pulled on my arm. "What are you thinking? Her case is barely closed, and neither one of you needs this…"
I jerked away from her. "Alice, not now!"
I raced outside, hoping to catch Bella. A quick scan of the parking lot revealed the detail had already left; God forbid the city pay for an extra night.
Bella was leaning against her car, her head down. Throwing all caution to the wind and with no idea what to say, I raced toward her.
She pushed herself away from the car. "Edward, please leave me alone," she shouted. "I'm begging you!" Her face was streaked with tears, and her eyes were red from crying.
"Why?" I pleaded. "Why are you pushing me away?"
"I told you! I'm no good for you!" A hot wind blew, and she angrily shoved her hair out of her face. "You're younger than me and have so much going for you! I've been in that position, and I would just drag you down. I won't do that! I won't make you miserable!"
"What are you talking about? Who cares if I'm younger than you?"
"I care!" She shouted. "My husband was 10 years older than me, and he used it to his advantage our entire marriage. I won't be that person!"
Beyond frustrated, I grabbed her shoulders. "You're not that person, Bella! You're closed off and scared, but you're not cruel. You care about others, and you're good. Can't you see that?"
She pushed my chest with her small hands. "I have so many skeletons, Edward. So much I've never dealt with. I'm only now realizing how much they've affected my life and you're better …"
"Stop saying that! I'm just a normal guy who's made his share of mistakes. I'm no better than you or anyone else!"
Bella continued to push me away, but I held fast to her shoulders. "No." Her voice trembled. "I don't want to be friends with you or anything else. It's too fucking hard!"
The words cut deep and I dropped my hands, ready to give up. But the look on her face told another story; it was so sad, her eyes dull and defeated. "You're a liar," I breathed. "You want me in your life but you're afraid and hiding behind the excuse of wanting to protect me. This is all about fear, just like so many other issues in your life!"
"You're an ass!" She choked.
"Yeah I am, but I'm right and you know it!" Common sense begged me to walk away from this infuriating woman, but my feet wouldn't allow it. Instead they stepped closer until she was against the car and we were chest to chest. "I don't know what's happened in your past or why you've been separated from your family for so long, but I know it's something big. Your ex was a bastard, and I know this thing with the bank has fucked your head all up. But it's also made you face some demons, and that can only be a good thing."
Bella pushed against me again, and I stepped back to give her space. "I don't think you've ever had a man be there for you just because he wanted to be. Because he needed to be." I had no idea where any of this was coming from – just that I had to tell her. "But I do. Let it be me, Bella. Let me be that guy."
She stared up at me, her face pink, her eyes red and her lips open in surprise. The wind continued to sweep through the parking lot, and I brushed her hair out of the way and cradled her face. Bella gasped at the contact. "Edward."
She gazed at me as I moved closer, a myriad of emotion in her brown eyes. Fear. Sadness. Need. Want. Her eyes closed just before our lips met, and her body melded to my own. Bella's small arms wrapped around my neck and her fingers threaded into my hair, tugging it softly. Her lips were sweet, urgent, amazing. She clutched at me, pulling closer even as my hands tightened around her waist. The need to consume her was overwhelming; tongues clashed and mouths gasped for air as the kiss deepened. The incredible energy that always flared between us was channeled between our mouths, and I never wanted to let her go.
But the need for air eventually overtook us both and we slowly pulled apart, gasping and trembling. "Jesus," I breathed, still holding her. "That was incredible."
Bella nodded, her fingers still twisted in my hair. Her lips were swollen, and she'd never been more beautiful. For a brief moment, all of her walls were down, and her eyes shone with happiness.
Then she pulled away. Her entire demeanor changed, and I knew what she was going to do.
The connection was lost; reality crashed in. "Bella, don't."
"I have to go," she begged. "Please!"
I stepped back, broken and confused.
Bella swayed as she unlocked her door, practically falling into the seat of her Malibu. "I'm sorry," she cried. "I'm sorry!"
Then she was gone, driving off into the Vegas night and leaving me standing in the church parking lot, completely alone.
Hours could have passed as I stood in utter bewilderment and misery; the hot wind blew and sweat beaded across my forehead. Bella.
"Hey," Alice's hand closed around my own. "Jasper's heading home, but how about you and I go home and talk?" Her voice was without reproach, and I squeezed her hand.
Alice took the keys to the Volvo, and we rode in silence back to my place. My brain was a mess of jumbled thoughts and emotions; I had no idea what was happening to me. I'd had my share of women, but the attachment never lasted. Each and every one turned out to be just like the last and eventually, I stopped trying to feel anything real and started enjoying the physical.
But that kiss with Bella trumped any sexual experience I'd ever had, including the wild ones with my first girlfriend. And yet it wasn't about sex, although every fiber of my body had screamed for it the moment our lips had met. It was so much more, and I had no words to describe it.
Alice parked the car, driving through the garage way too fast, and the silence continued as we rode the elevator to my apartment. She unlocked the door, tossed the keys on the table and then dug around in the fridge until she found a Heineken.
"Are you on call?" She kicked off her shoes.
"Good." She handed me the beer and then climbed onto one of my tall bar stools. Her little body looked slightly comical sitting on such a high perch, but I was too out of sorts to laugh. Alice rested her elbows on the gleaming countertop and interlaced her fingers. "So?"
Suddenly exhausted, I sat down on the hardwood floor. "I'm all fucked up, Allie."
"I can see that. Start from the beginning and don't leave anything out."
My sister listened quietly as I described all of the heated moments with Bella, what happened at the diner and in her car afterwards and the subsequent confusion. She was surprised to hear Bella and I had discussed her theory about Bella's attachment to me.
"That didn't piss her off?" Alice interrupted.
"No, but it made her think. Maybe too much."
"Hmm. What about tonight? Why the hell were you even around?"
There was never any lying to Alice, so I had to admit the way I'd warred with myself all week, wanting desperately to see Bella and doing what was best for her.
"And you'd really decided to drive away?" She asked doubtfully.
"Yes! And then Johnson called."
"And you had the perfect excuse."
I glared at her and she held up her hands. "Sorry. Continue."
I stared at the floor as I told her what happened tonight. It hurt to relive Bella's words and thinking about the kiss was even worse.
"And then she left. She kept saying she was sorry, but she still left, Allie. And I'm standing there like a fucking fool!"
The sound of the bar stool scraping against the floor resonated throughout the apartment. Her small feet padded across the room, and then Alice sat down next to me, sliding her arm through mine. "Oh Edward," she sighed. "I was afraid of this."
"It's not because she sees me as a savior," I argued. "That's not it at all. She's afraid."
"Of course she is. No, I don't think she sees you like that. It worried me last week, but the way she was able to disengage from you and then open up so well at group tonight settled my mind."
"Then what the hell is she afraid of?"
My sister chuckled and squeezed my arm. "The same thing you are, dummy. She's falling for you and has no idea what's going on. Trouble is, she's got a hell of a lot more past to deal with than you do. Your issue is easy: you've never felt this way. Hers is the same but with a shit-ton more baggage."
Sometimes I hated the way she was able to crawl inside my head and easily break everything down.
"I'm wouldn't say I'm falling for her."
"Oh shut the fuck up!" Alice groaned. "Please don't try to deny it any longer – it was obvious from the moment you started talking about the woman. Anyone with a brain could see it, especially since you've been running around all clusterfucked since you two met. Admitting it to yourself is step one."
"Say it," she challenged in her annoying therapist's voice. "Out loud."
"Say it!" She jammed me hard in the ribs with her pointy, little elbow.
"All right!" I yelled. "I'm falling for Bella Swan! There! Happy now?"
An irritatingly satisfied smirk crossed her face, and I wanted to smack her. "A little. Next step is deciding what you're going to do about it."
She pinched my cheeks, and I shoved her away. "What I'm going to do about it? What the hell is there to do? She walked away."
Alice rolled her eyes. "Jesus Christ, you're so wet behind the ears. Sometimes I wonder how in the hell you're a star negotiator. Did you even hear what she said? Her husband was older than her, and she's afraid of hurting you. It may sound screwed up to your ears, but it makes perfect sense to someone like her. She's smart enough to know that behaviors are learned, and because you've awakened something overwhelming inside her, she's going to grasp at anything to keep her distance."
"You think she feels the same way?"
She leaned back, her expression thoughtful. "Until tonight, I wasn't sure. But, despite Jasper's ramblings about your privacy, I watched the two of you in the parking lot, and her body language said it all. Not to mention that kiss. The way she responded to you was unlike anything I've ever seen. You literally turned her on."
"Alice!" I blushed fiercely. This was almost as bad as when I was sixteen and she found my newly acquired stash of condoms. "Can we not discuss that?"
"I don't mean sexually, pervert. I said literally. Like she was shut down, and then you kissed her and she came alive. I watched it happen, Edward."
Everything she was saying made perfect sense, especially given how closed off Bella had been. But could I really have the same affect on her as she had on me?
"You know the answer." Alice read my mind. "She gave it to you when you kissed her."
All of our lives, my older sister had been the one person I could count on to be honest, to not spare my feelings and to give me the best advice possible. She was fiercely loyal and equally protective of me. There was no way she would lead me down this road if she didn't truly believe what she was saying.
"So what do I do?"
Alice ruffled my hair and then dodged my swatting hand. "That I can't tell you. You've got to make that decision on your own." She crawled off the floor and into the loveseat, curling herself into a ball. "But just remember if you decide to pursue her, she'll be against it. Bella has been through way more than we know about, and she's not going to accept your feelings –or her own – without a fight. Getting her to really let you into her life will take patience and thick skin."
I hung my head; of course, after all the years of uninteresting dates and hookups, the one woman who consumed me came with a load of baggage.
"So," Alice continued, tossing a pillow at me. "There's one thing you've got to ask yourself. Is she worth it?"
I did the only thing I could. I ran away. His lips touched mine and an overwhelming need flared inside me, the force of it unlike anything I'd ever felt. I forgot who I was, who I'd been, and I didn't care what the consequences of my actions were. I just wanted to be consumed by him. I clutched his soft auburn hair, pulling him as close as possible. His body wrapped around mine as though it were made for me and for a few brief moments, everything in my life was as it should be, and for the first time, I could clearly see the road ahead.
The need for air ruined everything; the second our lips parted, my mind went into self-hate mode. How could I? How could I allow the pull he had over me to overrule my common sense? No matter how incredible the physical connection was, I couldn't do this to him – or to myself.
The look on his face as he begged me to stay was something I would never forget: skin flushed from the kiss, hair tousled from my roaming fingers, eyes wide and brimming with sadness.
I am an ass.
The drive home was a complete blackout – I was suddenly parked and climbing out of the car, numb. Habit made me look around for the detail, and then I remembered they were no longer needed. The taker was dead. I was free.
I leaned against the elevator wall, staring at the carpet patterns. They were elegant scrolls, and it was impossible to tell where one began and the other ended. Kind of like my sad life – impossible to tell where one screwed up situation began and another ran its course.
The elevator doors opened with a clang, and I slowly walked to my door, still feeling nothing. My emotions had been everywhere tonight, from fear to anger to frustration, to shock and need and finally, shame. I'd been fighting the numbness all week, not wanting to go back to the zombie I was after my divorce, but the misery I felt now was unbearable. I was stretched too far to take any more, and the blankness anesthetized my pain.
Inside the apartment, I did the same thing I always did: flipped on the lights, kicked off my shoes, discarded my purse and fed the cat. He rubbed my legs, begging for attention, and I automatically petted him.
The bright light of the refrigerator hurt my eyes for second, but I rummaged around until I found some leftover pasta and a bottle of water. I don't remember what it tasted like, but the pasta filled me up. I set the discarded bowl on the coffee table and leaned back into the couch, unaware of walking into the living room to eat. I greedily drank the water still staring at nothing. The floor lamp had been turned on, and the room was well lit. Had I done that?
Otis jumped into my lap and meowed loudly. I threaded my hands through his thick, orange fur, my mind blank. A welcome relief.
Slouching down, I gazed at the ceiling, once again noticing patterns. The plaster had some kind of strange swirl pattern – no beginning, no end like the carpet scrolls. I followed the lines until vertigo set in and then closed my eyes. The cat kneaded his paws into my stomach, getting comfortable, and a wave of tiredness washed over me. So easy to sleep.
"This is the start of a brand new life, baby," Paul said as we merged onto I-90 E. A week had passed since I'd left Renee's and because I was over 18, there was nothing she could do about it. Not that she wanted to – she didn't give a damn about me, and I'd made it clear if she bothered me ever again I would tell everyone in her precious social circle exactly what she had done and taken away from me.
I wasn't sure Paul would take me back – it had been months since we'd spoken (CHECK). But when he heard exactly what Renee had done, he'd welcomed me with open arms. After our relationship had been discovered, he'd endured harassment at work and was looking to start over. I'd just graduated high school and would be 19 in the fall. Both of us wanted to get the hell out of dodge, and Paul had a notion to go to Vegas. "It's the start of a new life, Bella," he said. "We can be ourselves without any bullshit stigma attached. Just you and me in paradise, baby."
He made it sound so wonderful, and I didn't care where I was, as long as it wasn't around Renee. Before I knew it, his truck was packed with his many belongings and the few items I'd left Renee's house with, and Seattle was history. Paul had a friend from college in Vegas, and he was able to help us find an apartment and a job for Paul. We eloped shortly after with little fanfare and only two legal witnesses, and I gave my new husband the special part of me he so longed for. The experience was painful and quick but got better. Paul especially loved using my mouth, and while I didn't really enjoy it, I thought that's what a good wife did. I eventually started having the occasional orgasm, although it was often luck. After we were married, I worked part time and started community college in the fall. (CHECK) For a while, life was good. I was happy to play the perfect, young wife and knew my place.
I remember the first time Paul yelled at me – our first real argument. We had been in Vegas for a few months, and he was happy with his job and new friends. I was busy with school and being a wife, so the two of us didn't get to go out much. That was fine with him, but one Saturday night, I wanted to go out to dinner. He had other plans.
"Jesus, Bella!" He yelled when I mustered up the nerve to plead for his time. "Don't act like a damned child! I see you all the time, and the guys are having poker night. You can't throw this on me at the last minute. Who will they get to fill my spot?"
"I just want to be with you…"
"You've got to stop being so damn clingy! I need space! I'm not your fucking caretaker, woman!"
I quickly backed down, not wanting to upset him or be selfish. He had saved me from a life of misery, and I needed to be grateful. Paul was the only one who understood what I'd been through, and he reminded me of that when he came home later, drunk and reeking of alcohol. I grimaced as he slid inside me, my body unprepared for him. Thankfully, it was over soon, and he was asleep.
I blamed myself for the fight, and it was the first of many times he manipulated me. Within a few years, whatever identity I might have escaped Seattle with had been trampled down by him until I was simply his shadow, with no idea of who I was. I convinced myself I was happy, that this was the most I could have expected in a situation like my own: the girl who wasn't wanted by her mother, a burden to her stepfather who fell in love with a man ten years her senior, a man who'd known her since she was 15. My life was no fairy tale, and I'd made the best of what I'd been given.
Even when I found out about Paul's affairs and confronted him, he turned the tables making things my fault, and I believed him – or let him convince me that I did.
"You're such a cold fish, Bella!" He glared at me, unremorseful. We'd been married four years, and I wanted a child. Paul didn't and made sure I took my birth control pills every night. "You just lie there half the time, and I can't tell whether or not you're enjoying it. At your age, you should be a wild woman, not a slab of meat."
Tears of embarrassment flowed down my face. Was I that bad? I tried to follow his lead, but he was the only man I'd ever been with. He never took any time with me, going from zero to sixty before I'd even warmed up. I'd recently started pleasuring myself, just to get some relief, and thought it was helping my bedroom skills. "I'm sorry," I mumbled. "Tell me what you want. What can I do to make it better?"
That was the beginning of new positions, of learning dirty talk and oral tricks. Paul never performed on me, but had several ideas for what I could do with my mouth. He loved to put me on my knees and pound into me, but I never had the powerful orgasm that was supposed to come with it.
That was the beginning of my occasional bouts of depression; I felt like a failure as a spouse and also at life. I could do nothing right, and everything was my fault. It took a long time for me to realize that Paul was just as responsible for my depression as I was.
By the time the marriage ended, he'd had several affairs and I didn't even care anymore. I'd fallen out of love years ago and hated myself for being so naïve and having to rely on him. Thankfully, I had a decent job at the bank, but the idea of living on my own for the very first time terrified me. I'd never truly been connected to any human being, but there had always been someone to put a roof over my head and pay the bills. I took care of the paperwork for Paul, but it was his income that paid for the house and car. My little Malibu had been bought used the last year we were married, and I was shocked he'd allowed me to keep it in the divorce.
"I guess this is the last of it," he said as he shoved the final box in his Yukon. His new, younger girlfriend was waiting impatiently in the passenger seat, filing her nails. The house was sold, and we were due to be out of it tomorrow. Paul had paid for movers, taking most of the furniture with him. I would be making several trips by myself tomorrow to my new little condo in Henderson.
I stood to the side watching him. The numbness had crept up on me in the last few weeks and was terrifying at first. Now it was my only coping mechanism. The fear of the unknown sat like a giant weight on my shoulders, for despite his mistreatment and cheating, the one constant I'd had in my life was walking out on me. I was totally lost.
"Don't forget to get the key to the realtor," he said. "I don't want to deal with that bitch anymore."
Paul finally turned to face me, and my hidden vindictive side took pleasure in seeing how much he'd aged the last ten years. He wasn't yet 40 but looked like he was much past that benchmark. His thinning hair, once so thick and dark, was full of grey, and his face was weathered and wrinkled from too much sun.
He smiled, as confident and cold as ever. "Sorry things didn't work out, Bella. But we had a nice ride, didn't we? And I rescued you from that God-awful mother of yours – don't forget about that. Without me, you would probably still be stuck under her thumb and at some dead-end job."
He looked so cocky, so self-absorbed, and I'd never hated him more. After years of putting up with his insults and cruelty, I finally snapped. It was probably the first time I yelled back at him. "You self-righteous bastard! I'm not that scared little girl anymore, Paul. I have no regrets about leaving my mother, but don't think for a moment that I'm still so naïve I haven't figured out what you did."
He stared at me in shock, and his reaction only fueled my anger. "You're no hero. You have manipulated me since I was a teenager, and you picked up where Renee left off. You wanted a wife you could control; a virgin piece of ass that was too grateful to you to misbehave. You had affairs because you're a pig not because I couldn't satisfy you. You got off every time – I sure as hell didn't."
Paul's face was beat red, and I took cruel satisfaction from his embarrassment. "You left now because I'm not a little girl anymore, and you found someone younger and probably equally as dumb as I was. I'm scared as hell to be alone, but I'm not going to miss you. I haven't loved you for years, and seeing you walk away is no loss. It's a relief!"
"You … you ungrateful bitch," he spat, taking a step forward.
"Fuck you. Go live your miserable life and stay out of mine."
"Enjoy this little moment," he sneered. "You're almost 30 and divorced. You've got more baggage than anyone I've met – Mommy Dearest and Daddy issues all rolled into one. No man is going to want you. You're lucky you had the time you did with me because you're a lonely spinster from here on out, Bella."
I squared my shoulders, determined not to let him see me cry. "I'd rather be alone and lonely than grow old with someone like you."
He glared at me and then was gone, tires squealing. I stood in the driveway for several minutes, trying to wrap my head around everything that was happening. I'd finally stood up to Paul, but just like with Renee, my strength came too late. So much damage done.
Yet another chapter of my life was over, but this time I had no one to rescue me. The numbness and subsequent depression set in, not because I missed Paul, but because I feared he was right. Who would want me now? Maybe if I'd left Seattle on my own all those years ago, if I'd become my own person, I would have had a chance, but it was too late for that now. My baggage had piled up until the burden was too much to bear, and by the time I was settled into the new condo, I was barely functioning. The idea of waking up to an empty place – of having no one at all to come home to – was polarizing. The misery consumed me for weeks (check).
Eventually, my inner strength won out, and I resurfaced a different version of Bella Swan. No longer the needy, innocent little girl, but a survivor ready to move on with life – albeit with a new outlook. Cautious, unwilling to trust and convinced it was all right to be alone. Solitude was the best thing for someone like me. Every day, I told myself I was living again, but deep down, I knew that some essential part of me remained numb, simply going through the motions and getting by.
Until I heard Edward Cullen's voice and my life changed in a split second.
I'd been a livewire of emotions since that night, and while the experience had been excruciating, it was also exhilarating. As unbearable as the flashbacks were, to feel something real, to speak honestly and openly, to have people in my life who genuinely cared, was something I'd never really experienced. There were no words to describe the relief those connections brought me. Or the fear. I hadn't truly communicated with anyone since I was a gawky teenager sitting in my guidance counselor's office, crying about something my mother had said to me.
I'd bared my soul to Paul, had trusted him with everything I was, and the man had simply used it to his advantage.
I couldn't let that happen again.
Tense okay since she's dreaming about her past? Yes
I woke with a start. My face was buried in the couch cushions, and I'd been crying in my sleep as my subconscious replayed my life story, desperate to communicate I knew what it wanted to say. Edward had been right, and this was about my own fear for myself, not for what I would do to him.
I would never hurt him. But he could destroy me.
Hiccupping sobs shook my entire body, and I could barely catch a breath. Where was the blissful numbness that shut out all emotion, cocooning me and protecting my heart? The dreams had pushed it far away, and I needed it more than I ever had. I didn't want to think about anyone or feel anything. I didn't want to remember the touch of Edward's lips or the affect his voice had on me. I wanted to forget the way his skin warmed mine – how my body wanted to become a part of his and never let him go.
I tried in vain to calm down, to return to a state of uncaring, but nothing worked. Images of Edward flashed repeatedly through my mind, unrelenting in their determination.
I cried until I was hoarse and there was nothing left inside me. Why couldn't I just forget?
Edward's voice rang through my head. "I don't think you've ever had a man be there for you just because he wanted to. Because he needed to. But I do. Let it be me, Bella. Let me be that guy."
God, how I wanted it to be him! His presence in my life had awoken a part of me that had been dormant for far too long, and that new voice refused to be silent as it screamed for rational thinking and for Edward. Fresh sobs erupted at this realization because I had so royally screwed things up.
I fell asleep at some point, cried out and broken. It was a restless sleep, my dreams filled with sad, green eyes and the sound of Edward's voice pleading with me. Paul made several appearances as well, reminding me I was doomed to be alone for the rest of my life.
Pounding on the door startled me awake and for a moment I was completely disoriented, confused as to why I was laying on the couch in yesterday's clothes. Shit! Work! I jumped to my feet, scaring Otis.
"Bella!" Rosalie shouted from the other side of the door. "Are you there? You're not answering your phone, and you never called after you got home last night. I'm freaking out!"
Last night. Friday night. No work. My stomach rolled as I remembered everything that had happened and the news Edward had given me. Was the taker really dead?
I stumbled to the door. "Sorry," I mumbled as Rosalie stared at me. "Put my phone on silent and feel asleep."
Silence hung between us as she looked me up and down, taking in my disheveled appearance and tear-stained, puffy face. "What the fuck happened to you?" She finally said. "Did you see the bastard that tried to take you?"
I shook my head. "Just a rough night."
She followed me into the apartment, and I ignored her as I went into the bedroom and attempted to clean myself up. One look in the mirror told me Rosalie had good reason to be worried. My hair was tangled, my skin blotchy, and my mascara had run leaving tracks on my cheeks. I looked worse than I had when SWAT brought me out of the bank.
After washing my face and attempting to tame my hair, I changed into soft, comfy shorts and an old t-shirt. Rosalie hadn't said a word the entire time I was out of the room, and I secretly hoped she'd left after seeing I was alive. I wasn't in the mood to talk about anything.
Naturally, she was waiting, having straightened up my living room. She sat quietly in an overstuffed, beige chair, her blond hair and red top a startling contrast to the neutral tones of my condo.
I continued to ignore her and went into the kitchen to find something to eat.
"It's Saturday," Rosalie drawled, still in the chair. "I have all day, so take your time."
I slammed the refrigerator door shut. "Rosalie, not today, please. I just want to be alone."
"I can't do that, Bella."
"Why not?" I stomped back into the living room ready to snap. "Aren't I entitled to a little bit of privacy? I know you're trying to help, but I don't need a 24/7 caretaker. I want to be left alone for a while!"
God, I was such a bitch. I needed a scapegoat, and who better than the person who'd given me the most in the last two weeks?
"I can't even breathe without you checking up on me," I ranted. "I know you guys all think I'm this fragile person, but I've done just fine on my own, and I can take care of myself!"
Rosalie was silent, absorbing my hateful words. Finally, she rose to her feet, tall and statuesque. I would have expected tears, but her usually kind eyes were bright with anger.
"Are you done?" She snapped. "Do you feel better yet? If you don't, please continue. I can take it."
I didn't know what to say.
"Okay then." Rosalie continued. "It's my turn, and I want you to listen very carefully, got it?" She didn't give me a chance to respond. "For three years, I've watched you live in solitude, out of fear and God knows what else. It was obvious that you needed help, but every time I reached out, you pushed me farther away – until the last couple of weeks. It took a lot of work, but your walls have finally started coming down and you let me in. You know damned well you wouldn't have made it through some nights without me. You need help, but I'm done coddling you. It's time you put on your big girl panties and deal with all of your issues, including the past. None of what's been going on is just about the bank, and we all know it."
"You don't know what you're talking about," I stammered.
"Yes, I do. You were held hostage by a madman, but you've also been a hostage your entire life. It's time to stop being a victim, Bella."
I clenched my fists, angry at how right she was. Since I'd been a child, I'd been manipulated and lied to by my mother then Paul. And then, by me. I'd hid behind all the wrongs I'd experienced instead of facing them head on and taking control.
And now I was trying to shove away the one person I'd ever truly been able to call a friend.
"Go ahead," she challenged. "Yell at me; tell me to leave. Tell me I'm wrong. But we both know that's not the case. I'm not going to walk away from you, Bella, no matter how hard you push. That's not what friends do, and I'll be damned if I fail you."
I wanted to scream, to throw something. Why couldn't she just let me wallow in peace? Give me my shell of a life and get out.
Instead, I sank down on the couch, brand new tears forming in my red, swollen eyes.
"The taker's dead. They closed the case. Edward told me last night, and I tried to push him away. He kissed me. I kissed him back. And then I ran…like a fucking coward."
Rosalie said nothing as she crossed the room and sat down next to me. "Shit," she exhaled. "Sounds like you had a busy night. Can you start from the beginning?"
"Cullen!" Morris shouted, hurrying out of his office. "Get your ass in here!"
I stopped in my tracks. "Are you kidding me? I don't take orders from you."
Our Blue Team was meeting in the conference room for a debriefing on a warrant we were about to serve, and I was in no mood for the detective's shit. I turned my back and continued walking, leaving Morris huffing in his doorway.
"Don't you walk away from me, you little shit!" Morris slammed into me from behind, knocking me hard into the wall. "Who do you think you are telling Swan about the guy being dead?"
My reaction was immediate as all the pent-up frustration from the past few days came to a head. I shoved my elbow hard into Morris' sternum knocking him backwards and then turned, towering over his short, pudgy form. Before he could retaliate, I pushed him across the hall until his back was against the drywall, pinning him with my left forearm against his throat. "You think it's smart to attack a SWAT officer from behind, you little pussy? I could knock your fucking teeth out before you even knew what hit you."
Morris struggled, but his efforts were useless. "Fuck you, Cullen," he snapped. "Department pretty boy gets a pass from bending the rules because he's an all-star. Tell me, did you finally get to fuck the Swan woman once you told her the case was closed and she was safe? Did she like banging a young stud? I bet she was great in the sack …"
Jake wrenched me away a split second before my fist connected with Morris's jaw. "Motherfucker!" I shouted at the smirking detective. "Jake, let me go!" I pushed his broad hands away, but he held fast.
"C, settle the fuck down. You know this piece of shit will press charges if you hit him. He's not worth it!"
"What the fuck?" Johnson stomped down the hall, furious. "What's going on here?"
"What's going on here is that your precious superstar negotiator went behind my back and told Swan – my fucking case – that the partner was dead and her case was closed. And didn't even bother to tell me! I just talked to the woman, and she said 'Edward' had already informed her." He turned his red face back to me. "On a first name basis with any other vics, Cullen?"
I lunged again, and Tyler stepped between Morris and me while Jake held fast to my waist. Even in my anger-fueled haze, my stomach turned knowing he'd spoken to her. How had she sounded? Was she upset? Did she care that she'd hurt me? Was she safe?
"Enough!" Johnson shouted. "Morris, your beef is with me, not Cullen. I called him and told him to tell Swan. She was at his sister's support group, and he was waiting to talk to Alice. Thought it would be better coming from him than the likes of you."
"What?" Morris spluttered. "You had no right, Johnson! That's my case! Are you trying to bang her too?"
"Don't say another fucking word about her!" I yelled. "You don't know shit about Bella, and you're a lousy detective. How do you know that's really him?"
Morris glared at me with hatred in his eyes. "I know you've been chasing her like she's a bitch in heat since that first night."
It took both Jake and Tyler to hold me back after that remark. "You never answered the question, jackoff," Jake piped in. "Are you sure there's no mistake?"
"This is why you brutes are SWAT and not detectives," Morris said pompously. "Ballistics don't lie. Done deal."
"Are you opening up a murder investigation then?" Tyler asked.
"You're kidding, right?" Morris adjusted his tie. "Looks like issues with the vehicle, and the guy was a vagrant – a criminal. No reason to waste the city's money now that he's off the streets."
"No reason?" I was incredulous. "How about finding out why the hell he went after Bella in the first place? Don't you want to know?"
"Does it really matter?" Morris snapped. "She's alive, he's dead. It's over. No use in wasting anymore taxpayer dollars."
Johnson ordered Jake and Tyler to take me into the conference room while he dealt with Morris, and we could hear them shouting at one another until the door was shut.
Jake finally released me and shoved me into a chair. "Jesus Christ, C! This woman's got you all fucked up!"
I shook my head, not wanting to say any more in front of Tyler, and Jake got the hint.
"This ain't right," Tyler said. "I find it hard to believe that body is the partner's."
I had been so focused on telling Bella – on just seeing her – when I heard the news that I'd believed it with little question. But now, I wasn't so sure. Everything had been far too convenient. Too easy.
"I know," I told Tyler as Jake nodded in agreement. "I'm not sure I buy it, either."
The three of us were debating the issue when Johnson appeared a few minutes later saying nothing about the altercation except for me to steer clear of Morris for a while.
"Now, can we all get our heads in the game for today? We've got three warrants ahead of us, and I don't want any fuckups."
The raids went smoothly, and we apprehended two out of three suspects, so the day was a success. By the time we'd gone back to Command and shed our equipment, it was after 9 p.m. and I was exhausted. The hectic events of the past several hours had kept my mind off Bella, but now that I was in my car alone, everything was rushing back.
The kiss, her fear. My confusion.
Was she worth it? Was anyone?
I'd never been the popular kid; I was always small and nerdy with my nose buried in a book. My parents encouraged my intelligence and were thrilled when I'd skipped a grade. It just made my social life worse, however. Now I was even smaller and more of an outcast. Then the summer before my freshman year of high school, I had a growth spurt, my braces came off, and I let my hair grow out from its usual buzz cut. By the time school began, I looked like a different person, and it was hard to tell I was younger than the rest of my classmates. Girls that had shunned me for years were suddenly friendly, and I was being encouraged to try out for the football team, even though I'd never played.
Apparently, being smart was all right as long as I looked good. The hypocrisy left a bad taste in my mouth, and while I did what I had to in order to fit in, I knew most of it was just a mirage. I joined the football team and wound up a varsity running back by sophomore year. I was in the middle of the social circle – not untouchable, but not low on the totem pole either. Everyone liked me, but most of them didn't know who I was at all. Alice continued to be the one person who accepted me the way I was and the only one I could truly confide in. Then I went to college hoping for a fresh start and to be appreciated for my thoughts first and my looks second.
It didn't happen, reinforcing my belief that most people were narrow-minded and shallow. The women I dated did nothing to prove me wrong, and I slowly developed the idea that I'd either have to compromise my ideals or remain unattached and just enjoy the physical aspects of female attention. The latter option was much easier, and I'd been happily unattached for a while.
Now Bella Swan had come into my life and turned everything upside down. I had no idea what to do about her or about the confusing web of emotions I was trapped in. Without thinking, I wound up in my parents' driveway. The kitchen light was still on, and I knew my mother would still be up. I hurried up the sidewalk and let myself in the house.
Esme was at the kitchen table sewing a button on one of Dad's work shirts.
"Edward!" She laid down her sewing kit and gave me a hug. "What are you doing here this time of night?"
"Just got off work." I shrugged and sat down at the old table.
"Everything okay? Did someone get hurt?"
"Yeah, everything's fine," I reassured her. "I just felt like stopping by."
Esme studied me for a minute. "Well, are you hungry? I could fix you a sandwich."
"No," I replied. "I've been running around in the heat all day and don't really feel like eating."
She nodded and sat back down to finish the shirt. A few minutes passed in silence as I watched her quickly sew the button back on, trying to figure out why I was there
I didn't even notice she was finished until she cleared her throat. "What's wrong with you? Are you sick? Heat stroke?"
"No, Mom, I don't have heat stroke. I just have a lot on my mind."
She folded up the shirt. "Then talk to me, honey. That's obviously why you came by."
I ran my hands through my hair with no idea where to begin. I hadn't even mentioned Bella's case to my parents. "It's a long story."
"So start talking."
My mother said nothing as I told her all about Bella Swan, starting with the details I could reveal about the hostage situation and her case. I glossed over the heated moments between the two of us, but she got the point. Esme couldn't hide her shock when I told her about the argument in the parking lot and subsequent kiss and sighed in understanding when I repeated what Alice had said.
"Well," she breathed when I was finally finished. "As usual, your sister's right. It's pretty obvious you have feelings for this girl, but she's got some real issues. How old did you say she was?"
"34," I answered, averting my eyes. That fact may not go over so well.
An entire two seconds of silence passed, and then my mother burst out laughing. "Oh, I can't wait to tell your father!"
"We've had a bet going for years. I've always said you belonged with an older woman because you are such an old soul. It goes beyond your intelligence, you know. That's why you weren't finding anyone compatible – they weren't ready for you yet. Your father, the moron, disagreed. He didn't see that age would make any difference and thought you were just being picky."
"I don't follow."
"It means I'm right, and I can't wait to cash in on my winnings." She rubbed her hands together and from the glint in her eye, I didn't want to hear any more details.
"So you bet on me?"
Esme finally managed to stop laughing. "Oh, it was all in fun, honey. And to prove your father wrong, of course."
I rolled my eyes. "Well, I'm glad you're not pissed, but that doesn't really help my situation."
She sighed and scooted her chair around next to me. "Oh sweetheart, this is one of those times when I feel like we may have failed you. Maybe we shouldn't have had you skip a grade or encouraged you to fly through college. I know you never felt like you fit in and just went through the motions. I think it's left you a bit jaded."
"It's not your fault!" I argued. "I had to skip a grade – school was so boring. And if I hadn't, I probably wouldn't be where I am today. All that's thanks to you and Dad, so please don't say that."
Esme ruffled my hair. "Thank you. But I still think you're jaded."
"Maybe. But it's not my fault that most people only care about looks and money or are so two-dimensional they aren't worth the effort."
"Good Lord, Edward. You sound like a judgmental snob!"
I blushed. "I don't mean it that way. I've just never met anyone that intrigued me like Bella does. It's not just her past or her hidden secrets. It's everything about her. I can't get her off my mind, and I don't know what to do."
"You've already admitted you have feelings for her," Esme countered. "And her case is closed, so what are you confused about?"
I swallowed thickly. "Is she worth it? With all the baggage she has, she's going to try to push me away. Even if she does let me in, she'll still fight her emotions at times. It's not going to be easy at all, and I could wind up really, really hurt."
That had been the one positive about not finding anyone I was interested in: I never had to worry about getting my heart broken.
My mother slipped her arm around my shoulders pulling me close despite her small frame. "Edward, there are no rewards in life without some risk. Look at what you do for a living! You risk your life every day for the satisfaction of doing what you love, of helping people. And all that makes the risk worth it, right?"
"Well then, this is no different. Yes, you could get hurt. This woman could never recover; she could chew you up and spit you out. She could spend the rest of her life running away from everything."
I lifted my head off her shoulder. "That's not very encouraging, Ma."
"Hush. She could do all of those things. But she could also get better because of your presence in her life. The two of you could grow together and find something amazing. But you'll never know if you don't take the risk. And then where does that leave you?"
"Right where I am now."
"Exactly," she replied. "You know the answer. You just have to be ready to accept it."
My mother sent me home with two sandwiches and a hug, insisting that I eat and get some rest. Every word she'd said made sense, and I knew she was right. I just had to decide where to go from here.
I wanted Bella. I wanted to be a part of her life, but she'd literally run away from me. How long should I wait to see her? Should I give her some space or call? I worried about her all week wondering how work was going and if I should stop by and check on her. And whether or not she was safe. Going completely against protocol, I called Emmett McCarty to tell him that although the ballistics evidence was impressive, I still wasn't convinced the partner was dead. Someone needed to keep an eye out for Bella if I wasn't going to be around.
"That's what I was afraid of," Emmett said. "I know you told Bella you thought it was him, but it all sounded too good to be true."
"I want it to be him, and it could be," I replied. "The ballistics don't lie, and there's a lot of circumstantial evidence. But …"
"But what, Edward? Don't pussyfoot around this!"
"But it doesn't feel right. It's just too easy of a close."
"What can we do?" Emmett asked. "She's trying to move forward, and I don't want to scare her."
I closed my eyes, trying not to think about Bella moving forward without me. "Just keep an eye out for anything strange. Watch out for her. That's all you can do right now."
Emmett promised to take care of her, and I went back to my internal struggle. Should I call Bella?
Alice thought I needed to let her come to me. "She's the one who has to get her thoughts straight. She has to be ready for this, and she can't do that without space. Give her time. I'll see how she is at group – maybe I can get a better idea then."
Luckily, I was working the next night of group and didn't have the opportunity to drive aimlessly around the church. I was distracted in the TRUCK, however, and Jake told me to get my head in the game before we started our raid.
"Come on, C. You can't keep doing this," he whispered. "Just call her – or stop by. Sweep her off her feet with some grand gesture. Women love that shit."
Most women did, but Bella Swan certainly wasn't most women.
I spent a week agonizing, debating and stalling. I couldn't make up my mind, and every time I decided to go to her I had no idea what to say and chickened out. My pride finally demanded I make her come to me and I listened, too cowardly to do anything else.
And then on Sunday, she called. Luckily I was off shift and was able to answer my phone.
"Hello?" I didn't bother to hide the surprise in my voice.
"Edward? It's Bella."
"Uh, hi." What did I say? I had a thousand questions and not one of them would come out; all I could do was relish the sound of her voice and wish I could be face to face with her.
"Is this a bad time?"
"What? No, not at all. How … how are you?"
"Okay," she answered. "Getting by."
My heart pounded in my ears during the awkward silence.
"Do you hate me?" She finally asked.
Is that what she thought? Maybe I should, but there was no chance of that ever happening. "God no," I said. "I'm hurt and confused, but I don't hate you. I told you, I care about you."
Bella took a deep breath. "I think we should talk, face to face. Would you mind if I came over? I think … I should come to you. I owe you that."
The air left my lungs and for a moment, I was too shocked to speak. She wanted to see me? Alone? Here?
"Edward? Are you still there?"
"It's okay," her voice was shaky. "I understand if you don't want to see me. I wouldn't if I were you."
"No!" I shouted, afraid she would hang up. "I mean, yes, I want to see you. I was just surprised you asked."
"So, is it okay if I come over?"
"If that works for you."
I gulped. It worked just fine; I just hoped I could figure out what to say by the time she arrived. "Yeah, let me give you my address."
"And I ran away."
I rested my head in my hands, waiting for Rosalie to tell me what a coldhearted bitch I was and how Edward deserved better. She was silent, however, and I finally looked up at her with questioning eyes. Was she too disgusted by my actions to speak?
Rosalie twirled a lock of her blond hair around her first finger. "I have one question for you, and I really need you to answer honestly. Can you do that?"
I nodded. No point in being evasive now.
"Good." She leaned closer to me, a serious look on her face. "Is he a good kisser? With those lips, he's got to be, right? How was it?"
Shocked, I stared at her, my mouth hanging open. That was her first question? She waited expectantly for my answer, a tiny smile playing at the corner of her mouth.
"Oh." And suddenly I was giggling, something I hadn't done in a long time. Rosalie joined in, and her full belly laugh only made me giggle harder. Happy tears began to leak out of my eyes, and I leaned across the couch, trying to catch my breath.
"Answer the question!" Rosalie demanded, also in tears. "Can he kiss or not?"
"Yes!" I gasped. "He's an amazing kisser, and his lips are every bit as wonderful as they look!"
My muscles were soon aching from laughter, and Rosalie finally got a hold of herself. "Laughter is the best medicine," she finally managed to say. "Don't you feel just a little bit better?"
I raised my head off the cushions, still slightly breathless. "Yeah, I do. A little."
"Awesome." She leaned back, and her face grew serious once more. "So why are you pushing him away? Is it really because of what you told him about your ex, or is Edward right? Are you scared?"
I took a deep breath and sat up knowing I would need to tell Rosalie more about Paul in order for her to understand. And I knew I would have to be honest with myself as well. "Both," I replied. "It's both."
She waited patiently for me to explain.
"You know that Paul was 10 years older than me, but you don't know everything. As you may have assumed, my home life was pretty shitty, and I promise I'll tell you more about that one day. I'm not ready yet."
I looked away from her questioning violet eyes. "When I started high school, I was particularly miserable and started visiting my guidance counselor on a regular basis. I needed someone to talk to, and he seemed to genuinely care. He was the only person I could talk to about my mother and the issues at home and about how bad I felt. He made me feel like I wasn't alone, and I spent the first three years of high school confiding in him. He became a friend."
"That's nice," Rosalie said. "It's good you had someone like that."
"Yeah," I answered grimly, knowing my next words would shock her. It sounded terrible to my own ears, and I could hardly believe how naïve I'd been. And continued to be, for ten years. "Paul was my guidance counselor, Rose."
She dropped the apartment key she'd been fidgeting with. "Excuse me? Did you just say …?"
"Yes, I did. I married my high school guidance counselor."
"What the fuck?" She swore, standing up and pacing around my small living room. "How is that legal? Didn't he lose his job? Didn't your parents give a damn?"
I held my hands up. "It's a long story, but Paul had quit as counselor before we started dating. Technically, there was no conflict of interest. We saw one another in secret for several months my senior year of high school until Renee found out in March."
I flinched. "My mother."
"We argued. She didn't believe I was still a virgin – I was – and told me I was a stupid little girl that had allowed a sleaze ball to manipulate me." I almost laughed at the irony of her statement. "I was an embarrassment to her and Phil, my stepdad."
Renee stood at the bottom of the stairs screaming up at me. "I can't believe you did this to me, Bella Swan! How could you run around behind my back with your teacher like a little slut? Do you know what people are going to say about you? About me?"
I sat on the top stair crying. "He wasn't my teacher; he was the guidance counselor. And he treated me better than you ever have. He cares about me!"
Renee snorted. "What he cared about was getting you into bed and taking your virginity. I hope you enjoyed it!"
"I told you, we haven't! I don't want to yet …"
"Spare me your lies, Bella. You've been lying for months, and I'm certainly not going to believe you now." She drew to her full height, a menacing look on her face. "You are not to see Paul Alistair again, understand? You've humiliated me, and all I've ever done is put a roof over your head and food in your belly. This is the thanks I get?"
I blinked. "Sorry. Anyway, Renee forbade me to see him and for a while, I obeyed. I felt terrible about myself and for the shame I'd caused my family. Until …" my voice trailed off as memories of that day came back. I hadn't spoken of it in years. "I confronted my mother about something, and all hell broke loose. I basically disowned her, and early the next morning, Paul picked me up. We stayed in town for another week, and Renee never tried to see me. Then we moved to Vegas."
"Wow." Rosalie shook her head. "You don't have to tell me anymore. Paul took advantage of you for years, didn't he? He knew your weaknesses and exploited them?"
"And you're afraid Edward will do that?"
"No," I clarified. "I'm afraid that with my baggage, I'll wind up using him. He's younger than me, and I don't want to treat him the way Paul treated me."
Rosalie stared at me. "You're kidding, right? For one thing, Edward's 25, not a teenager. He's not in the same place in life as you were back then. And … you're not Paul."
"But I have so many issues – so many things I need to work through. What if it's too much for him or I make him feel like he's responsible for me? I don't want him to feel as though he's tethered to me."
She sighed. "I get that, but Edward's an adult. You've got to trust him to make his own decisions, and the fact that you're aware of the issue means you won't allow it to happen. I think you're hiding behind that, anyway."
I didn't answer.
"You've never been able to trust anyone, have you? You thought you could trust Paul and probably saw him as some sort of savior, and then he hurt you. I can't imagine what went on when you were married, and I completely understand why it's so hard for you to trust now." She paused, allowing the words to sink in. "And now, Edward has been kind of a savior, and you're developing feelings for him. You're afraid of history repeating itself, but you're much more afraid for your own heart, aren't you?"
I bit my lip against the impending sob. "Yes."
Rosalie walked over to the couch to sit next to me. I said nothing, my mind fixated on the truth of her words. After a few moments of silence, she took my hand. "I know you're scared, but you're not that same neglected little girl just waiting for someone to take advantage of you. You have a support system and friends who care and who would never allow that to happen. And Edward … Edward Cullen is not that guy. You know it."
I did. Edward was the opposite of Paul; he was kind, thoughtful and brave. He put others before himself every day. And he was genuine.
"That's what scares you the most," Rosalie whispered. "He could change everything for you, and the possibility is as terrifying as it is exhilarating, isn't it?"
"It is." My voice shook. "The way he makes me feel, just by being there, is like nothing else I've ever felt before. What would it be like to be even closer, to see him every day…to be with him? How amazing would it be? And how many ways could my baggage fuck it up? And when that happens, how crushed will I be? If he can already make me feel so much more than I ever have, how badly can he destroy me?"
"Oh, Bella!" Rosalie held my hands with both of hers. "I won't lie to you; of course things could go bad. There's always that chance. But there's also a huge chance of being happy, of being with someone who cares about you and won't hurt you. If you don't give Edward a shot, you could be missing out on the rest of your life!"
"I know! I just … change is so scary. I've been alone for so long and even though the solitude was suffocating, it was safe. I didn't have to worry about being chewed up again."
"No," Rosalie agreed. "But I have news for you. Your life has already changed, Bella. It's moving forward whether you want it to or not. You're clinging to the past out of habit, but you can't keep doing that. Life goes on, period. What you make of it is up to you and you alone."
I stared at the coffee table, at a loss.
"Remember what I said about putting on your big girl panties and that you needed to stop being a victim?"
"I meant it. Yes, you've been burned, treated terribly and put through a harrowing ordeal. But that's all over with. Now you are the only one dragging it out. Move forward."
"I know you're right," I mumbled. "I just don't know how to."
"You've already started," she said encouragingly. "Going to the group and facing the flashbacks. Talking to people. Those are huge steps. Keeping going and start talking about the real issues – your past. I don't think you'll be able to move on from anything until you deal with it, but that's just my opinion."
"I like group," I leaned against Rosalie's shoulder. "It's sad and painful, but just being there makes me feel better."
Rosalie wanted to know more about the taker, so I told her everything Edward had said. "And the case is closed."
"Wow. All because of the bullets matching?"
"The mask and stuff was with the body. Sounds pretty convincing, right? Same build too." I needed her to agree that the taker was really dead.
"Yeah," she replied. "I'm sure the police wouldn't close the case if they weren't positive, either. So that's one huge obstacle behind you. Maybe the flashbacks will slow down now that you don't have to worry about him being out there anymore."
"I hope so."
She let go of my hand and we sat quietly, each of us lost in thought. Rosalie's words rattled around in my head as I tried to make sense of everything. I needed to find my center and figure out where to go from here.
"Thank you," I finally spoke, "for not letting me push you away."
Rosalie smiled. "You're welcome. Being a pushy bitch is one of my specialties."
I laughed. "I'm glad. I'd be lost without you right now."
She patted my leg. "Wanna get out of here? I have a living room to paint. The place is just a few blocks away, and it's very close to the malt shop. We could imbibe some chocolate first – it's the best kind of therapy, anyway."
I had no idea what I'd done to deserve a friend like Rosalie McCarty; she knew when to push me and when to give me breathing room. She wasn't going to fail me.
"Yeah, I do. Let's go."
I've never been a person who takes action. I'm a listener and a thinker. A contemplator. Much of that was learned behavior; Renee called the shots when I was a child even when Phil came along. My opinion was never asked for, and I went along for the ride. Nothing really changed when I married Paul – he was just a new to listen to.
In the few years since my divorce, I had truly believed I was finally in charge and making decisions about my life. But I wasn't. The past and my inability to deal with everything – as well as fear – fueled my actions, especially since the hostage situation. It took me several days to accept that fact, even after my talk with Rosalie. Admitting faults is a hard thing to do, and I struggled. I knew I wasn't to blame for Renee's treatment of me or for Paul's. But I had to hold myself accountable for allowing them to keep me down long after they were out of my life.
Time passed by in a haze as I sifted through my memories and slowly began to accept the role I had played in my own fate. And when I finally jumped that hurdle, I was at a standstill once more. Action needed to be taken, but I was clueless as to what the right move was.
Rosalie said I needed to have individual therapy with Alice as well as continue with group. "And you need to call Edward."
I wanted to, but fear of rejection terrified me. I had so much to say, and worrying about his reaction was easier than actually seeking it. So I stalled and thought about it some more.
Work was slightly better than the last week; I kept to my office and Mike had me busy with a lot of paperwork and interviews. I didn't have to go near the basement or deal with a lot of customers. That was a relief as was the knowledge that the taker was no longer roaming the streets.
Emmett, however, didn't buy it. "Bullshit." He said as soon as Rosalie and I told him what had happened. "How can the police be absolutely sure that it's him?"
"The ballistic evidence sounds pretty good to me," Rosalie insisted, glaring at her husband. "This is a good thing, Em. She can put it behind her now. And the cops aren't going to close her case if they aren't sure. "
"Right." Emmett snorted. He turned to me. "Didn't you say Morris was an idiot and you had no idea how he made detective?"
A shiver ran up the base of my spine. "I did, but that was because of his lack of people skills. I'm sure he's competent."
"What did Edward think?" Emmett asked.
"He thought they most likely had the right guy," I answered softly, trying not to thinking about the intense look in Edward's eyes that night.
"But he didn't say he was positive about it, did he?"
"Enough, Emmett!" Rosalie's tone was sharp. "Edward wouldn't say that if he was worried they didn't have the guy. It's over – let her move on."
Emmett had grumbled his disagreement, leaving me with a hollow feeling in the pit of my stomach. What if he was right?
"It's him." Morris had insisted when I went down to the station a day later to fill out paperwork. I was on my lunch break and terrified I would run into Edward. Fortunately, there was no sign of him or Jake.
"You're sure?" I asked Morris.
He was clearly offended. "Look, I don't know why you heard the news from Cullen. The proper procedure would have been for you to come in and allow me to explain it to you to make sure you had all the details."
I sat down in the tattered chair in front of his desk. "So explain them now."
There was nothing new. Edward hadn't missed anything. The ballistics evidence was solid, as were the items left at the scene. The body was too badly damaged to discern anything else, and the chance of learning the man's name was slim.
"What if you're wrong?" I challenged.
Morris turned red. "Ms. Swan, it's obvious you don't find me competent, and I'm sure Cullen had something to do with that. But let me assure you, I know what I'm doing as does our ballistics lab and the chief of detectives. This was his call, not mine."
"I don't think you're incompetent," I clarified as I stood up. "I just think you're rude and obnoxious."
He closed his eyes briefly. "Be that as it may, I am a qualified detective, as is my boss."
"Fine. What do you think? Do you agree with the decision? And don't play politics, either. Be straight, please."
Morris sighed and leaned against his cluttered desk. "If we didn't have the ballistic evidence, I wouldn't completely agree. But that's irrefutable. So yes, I agree, and I think you can stop worrying about him."
There was nothing more to say. I thanked Morris for his efforts, and he promised to inform me if a name was ever discovered.
By the time the next group session rolled around(CHECK), I was a nervous wreck. What would I do if Edward were there? What would he do? I wanted to go to group and to talk to Alice, but I wasn't ready to face him yet. I still didn't know what to say.
Alice surprised me with a phone call a few hours before the meeting. "I just wanted to make sure you were coming tonight."
"Well…" I hesitated.
"Look, Bella," Alice sighed. "I'm sure you've assumed that I know what happened last week, and I do. But I'm not upset with you, and your personal issues with my brother are none of my business. I want to help you get through this, and I really hope you come tonight. Now that the partner is dead, you have a really good chance of moving forward."
"I know," I answered. "I want to be there, believe me. But …"
"Edward's not coming. He's on duty. Kate will be there instead."
So I attended, and the night went well. I hadn't had any flashbacks during the week, and both Alice and Jasper attributed that to knowing the taker was gone. Jasper suggested I try walking down the bank hallway next week, going as far as I could until I felt uncomfortable.
After the meeting was over, Alice pulled me aside, and I braced myself for a lecture. She'd been kind during group but as Edward was her brother, I expected her loyalty to lie with him.
"I'm glad you came tonight," she said as she shoved her notebook into an overflowing briefcase. "You seem different this week. More … sure of yourself."
"Yeah," I agreed. "I've had a lot to think about this week, and I'm working through some things."
"Just taking real control of my life and not standing behind the past. And admitting that I've done nothing to really help myself."
"Wow," she smiled. "That's quite a revelation. A lot of people never get to that point."
"Thank you. Actually, thank Rosalie. She's the one who got through to me. Well, for the most part." I blushed and looked away, knowing it was obvious I was referring to Edward.
A small hand touched my arm. "Call him, Bella. When you're ready, call Edward."
It took me two more days to get the guts to dial his number, and my knees had grown weak the second I heard his voice. Now I was standing in front of his door, scared shitless. I still wasn't sure what to say to him.
Finally, I knocked.
She looked tired. Dark circles rimmed her eyes, and her skin was pale.
"Hey," she said.
"Hi. Come on in." I had rushed around to clean up and then jumped into the shower while I was waiting for her to arrive, and had just gotten dressed when I heard her knock. Now she was standing in my apartment, wearing cut off shorts and a little, white t-shirt, and I couldn't think clearly.
Her hands in her back pockets, she stood in the middle of the small living room looking around. I watched as she examined the few pictures I had; all of them were with Jake and my family.
"You look like your dad," she finally said. "Except for the hair color. That's more like your mom's."
I tried not to stare at her shapely legs. "Yeah. Alice is the oddball."
Bella laughed. "Where's the Irish in the family? Who gave her the black hair and blue eyes?"
More proof that this woman was more than looks. "Grandpa Cullen was Irish although he was born here after his parents migrated to New York. He moved out west where he met his wife. Guess her genes had more say until Alice, and she got the Black Irish traits."
She fidgeted with the hem of her t-shirt. "I guess so."
More silence as she looked around my apartment. "No accolades?"
"Well, seems like you're pretty young to be in such an esteemed position. I assume you probably earned a lot of awards along the way?"
I had, all my life. I just didn't feel the need to display them. "I have. Showing them off is not for me, though."
I chewed on my lip hating the small talk but not wanting to push her.
"Thanks for letting me come over," she whispered, staring at the floor.
"Thanks for calling."
Bella sucked in a long, deep breath. "I'm not sure what to say even though I know what I want to tell you. Does that make any sense?"
More than she could possibly know. "Yeah, it does."
"There's a lot you need to hear in order to understand. And I think I owe you that much."
I walked over to the couch and sat down. "I'm listening."
She watched the floor for several seconds before finally joining me on the couch – as far away as possible.
"You were right," she began. "I am worried about hurting you, but more than anything, I'm worried about getting hurt."
Bella finally looked me in the eye. "That's where the long story comes in. I'm not ready to tell you everything about my mother yet, but I am recognizing that I need to and I will, eventually. I'm just not in that place yet."
"But you do need to know a few things about her, so here goes." She paused as if to steel herself. "Renee is the definition of a narcissist. She thinks she's more important than anyone else, and what people think about her is one of her top priorities. In her mind, she's better than everyone else and doesn't care about anyone's feelings. And she can't stand to be criticized because deep down she's more insecure than most of us are." Bella shook her head. "Of course as a kid, I didn't realize that. It took me years to understand who Renee really was. For the longest time, I thought that's how mothers were."
"Jesus," I exhaled. I couldn't imagine growing up that way. "I'm sorry."
Bella nodded. "When she married Phil, my stepfather, I was ?. I thought things would be better because Renee didn't have to struggle anymore and I'd gained a stepsister." Her expression grew dark. "I was completely wrong."
Bile rose in my throat. "Bella, your stepfather … did he …?" I couldn't even say the words.
"What? No, no. There was no sexual abuse; nothing like that. Phil was absent in my daily life unless he was choosing his daughter over me. Do you know that he didn't want to adopt me? Because he worried it would hurt Lauren too much? Her mother had been killed in a car accident a few years before Renee and Phil met, and Lauren never got over it. Lauren also used it to her advantage. My last name was different than Renee's, making me even more of an outcast."
I barely heard the last part – I was just grateful he hadn't molested her.
"Anyway, once I got into high school, I started talking to the guidance counselor. Over the years, my visits to him grew more frequent, and he became a friend – the only person I could be myself with, or so I thought."
I wasn't prepared for her next words. "He quit his job the summer before my senior year and that fall, we began dating. Paul – my ex-husband – was my high school guidance counselor."
It took me a full minute to process what she was saying. I could hear the clock ticking in the background. "He…what?"
"Paul was my guidance counselor." Her face was turning red. "You don't have to tell me how dumb I was. I was naïve and alone, and he was ten years older than me and so handsome. I couldn't believe my luck and after the final confrontation with my mother, he was all I had."
I felt half sick. "And he took complete advantage of that."
"Yes, he did."
It was my turn to stare at the floor while she waited for my response. "Is that what you meant last week? That you'll take advantage of me? Because I'm younger than you?"
Bella looked away. "Yes, sort of. I'm afraid that all my issues will make any kind of relationship between us unequal, and you'll wind up being hurt. I don't want to manipulate you or use you in any way."
"You're not like that."
She shrugged. "Maybe."
I rested my forehead against my hand, still trying to get to the bottom of what she was saying. "So how was I right, then?" I pressed, glancing at her out of the corner of my eye.
"Because my reactions to you have been out of fear for myself," she said softly. "You see, Paul took care of me when something bad happened in my life. I turned to him when I was at my worst, and he spent ten years taking advantage of me."
She held up her hand. "And now, something even worse has happened to me. And I've turned to you – someone else to take care of me. Once again, I'm clinging to someone who saved me and having an emotional response to him."
My heart plummeted. "So you think your feelings about me aren't genuine like Alice said after that first group meeting?"
"Oh no, they're genuine. And unlike anything else I've ever experienced." Her face was now bright red, and we stared at one another as the words hung between us. The charge was suddenly back, pressing down on the room and making it difficult to breathe.
"And that's bad?" I managed to ask.
"I don't know. It could be!" She stood up as if to put more distance between us. "Don't you see? Paul leaving me nearly killed me – I was so depressed and felt worthless, stupid. I knew the mistake I'd made with him long before we divorced, but he was all I had. I didn't want to be alone."
She began to pace the small room. "And now there's you making me feel things I never felt for my husband. Don't you see?" She repeated. "Paul broke me, but you … you could destroy me."
Her fear and pain seemed anchored to my chest; I felt them too. "Bella, I would never … I could never…"
"You can't tell the future, Edward. I know you're nothing like Paul and your intentions are pure, but you don't know what's going to happen, especially with my baggage standing between us. And the age difference."
"The age difference means nothing!"
"Now it doesn't. But what if it does down the road? When I start to look older than you and some young, blond thing is vying for your attention. What about then?"
Down the road? She was thinking that far head? "You were right the other night, too," I told her. "We don't really know one another, not that well. So it's natural you would assume that some blond bimbo would catch my eye."
Bella closed her eyes as if the very idea brought her pain.
"So let me tell you something about my past. I skipped a grade in school and got through college in three years. That's part of the reason why I'm where I am at such a young age. For a long time, I was a nerdy little boy in braces. Until I hit puberty and everything changed. It was okay to be smart then; I looked good."
She walked back to the couch and sat down. "I can't imagine you in braces or little."
"I was. And in college, it was more of the same. Every woman I've ever met was more interested in my looks than anything else. I couldn't have a discussion about literature with them or politics or about anything of real substance. They thought I was dumb for going into law enforcement, and most of them thought I should find a way to live off my looks."
I moved a little closer to her. "I've had opportunities with plenty of beautiful women, Bella, but none of them interested me enough to have a relationship. Until you. You're the first woman that has made me want – to need – to know more about you. I can't stop thinking about what you might be doing or how you're holding up. You're in my thoughts almost constantly, and that's a first for me."
Her breathing hitched at my words. "I know it doesn't compare to your insecurity, but I'm scared too. You could break me, just as I could break you."
I smirked. "But we can't tell the future, can we?"
Another nudge toward her. "You're as beautiful as any of the women I've been with, and they can't hold a candle to what you've got on the inside. Please believe that."
A stray tear rolled down her cheek. "I'll try."
We were only a few inches apart now, and I settled against the cushions, not wanting to crowd her. "So what does all of this mean? We've both acknowledged our fears and the reasons behind them. Now what?"
Bella bit her lip and another tear escaped. "I'm not sure, but I hated not seeing you."
"Me too," I whispered. "I've been worried sick about you. Have you had any more flashbacks?"
"No." She wiped her cheeks. "Jasper and Alice think it's probably because the taker's dead and my subconscious is more secure."
She surprised me by turning to face me and grabbing my arm. "Do you really think he's dead? That it was him? Morris said it was the chief of detective's decision and …"
"Fuck Morris," I spat. "When did you talk to him? What did he say to you?"
Bella recoiled at my outburst. "Jesus, you two really hate each other, don't you?"
"He's a prick. What did he say?"
"Just that he thought it was him, but the guy's a suit. He doesn't have the balls to say differently if his boss has closed the case."
So perceptive. "You're right, he doesn't."
She grabbed my arm again. "But you do, and I trust your opinion more than his anyway. Do you really think it's him? I know you said so the other night, but what about now, after you've had some time to think about it?"
I took her small, trembling hand in my own, watching her eyes grow at the contact. This was my chance to warn her. "Honey," I said softly. "I have to be honest with you; the other night, I was so happy to know that I could talk to you without looking over my shoulder that I wasn't thinking clearly. I thought there wasn't much to worry about, but now that I've had time to think, I'm not so sure."
"The ballistics are strong, and the body could very well be the partner. But if the decision had been mine, the case wouldn't have been closed. You would still have a protective detail, at least for a while. Just in case."
Her eyes searched mine for answers. "So you think it's all a mistake? Why would he have the gun, then? And the clothes?"
"If it's not him, they were probably stolen. It happens all the time, especially in the homeless culture. Possessions are the only means of money for them."
"What if it's more than that?" She whispered. "What if he … faked it?"
Too smart for her own good. "Then he would be even more calculating than I originally thought. Let's not make that assumption right now." I didn't want her to entirely let her guard down, but I didn't want her living in fear anymore, either.
"So what do I do? I thought I could go on … I thought it was over!"
I held her small hand with both of my own and gently brought it to my lips, my eyes locked with hers. "It's most likely over, Bella. Don't let this scare you – just keep your eyes open for a while, and I promise I'll keep you safe. If you want me to." I brought our enclosed hands to rest on my chest.
I expected her to pull away, but she continued to stare at me. "Thank you for being honest. It's probably him, but I just have to remember that … it may not be. And I'm counting on you to keep me safe." Before I could respond, she laid her head on my shoulder, her hand still enclosed in mine.
My heart raced as I tried to stay calm and not give in to the urge to pull her on top of me and press my mouth to hers. Very slowly, I slipped my arms around her shoulders, praying she wouldn't push me away. Bella tensed for a second before moving closer and snuggling her head underneath my chin. We sat like that for a long time, with no words, just listening to the sound of each other's breathing and to the traffic outside. My right hand had a mind of its own, playing with a lock of her thick hair.
"I'm sorry I ran from you," she finally spoke, her lips dangerously close to the sensitive skin of my neck. "That was incredibly cruel of me."
My fingers trailed down her bare arm. "It wasn't easy, but I understand. I pushed you too far."
"You didn't. Someone had to."
Quiet once again settled over us, and I became acutely aware of her small hand wandering over my side and finally settling on my chest. I prayed she couldn't hear my heart pounding. She snuggled a little closer, and I couldn't stop from wrapping my arms tightly around her, consequences be damned.
There was no tense moment this time; Bella sighed contentedly and let her fingertips drift to the opening of my v-neck t-shirt. I swallowed hard, hoping my body wouldn't react too strongly.
"Rosalie says it's time to put on my big girl panties," she mumbled into my neck, her breath hot.
"The morning after I left you, I tried to push her away too. She wouldn't have it and told me off."
"Yep. Made me spill my guts and see that I need to face my fears and take charge of my life. She helped me work through my confusion about you."
I would have to send Rosalie McCarty flowers. "How did that go?"
"I'm here, aren't I?"
She'd shared so much with me today, and I understood her actions now. Still, I had questions. Why had she left with Paul? What was the final confrontation with her mother about? And what happened now?
The alarm on my phone went off and I sighed.
"What's that?" She lifted her head, looking around the room.
"My phone. I have to leave for work in half an hour."
Now she tensed. "Will you be going on any raids?"
"Possibly. I know we have warrants to serve."
Her hand fisted into my t-shirt. "Your job scares me. I know why you do it, but it still scares the hell out of me."
I smoothed her hair. "Don't worry about me. We all take care of each other."
Bella finally raised her head, meeting my gaze for the first time in an hour. Her eyes were a little red from the tears, but they were also bright with emotion. Heat flickered between us, and I once again fought the urge to kiss her.
"What happens now?" She whispered, her lips only inches from my own.
"Between us? What happens?"
The heat threatened to smother me. "Right now?" I squeaked.
Bella flushed and then laughed. "No, silly. Now as in, 'from this point forward.'"
I felt incredibly stupid and had to look away from the force of her eyes. "Oh yeah, that."
She laughed and rested her head against my shoulder again. "Yes, that."
"It's up to you. I know what I want."
"What's that?" She was looking at me again, and I felt dizzy.
"You," I breathed. "But on your terms."
She closed her eyes and licked her lips, and I almost came undone right there. "You know this won't be an easy road. I have a lot of shit to face. I'm not just going to be able to jump into things with you. I could try – I could put everything aside and go headfirst, but I think that would end in disaster, don't you?"
Her eyes were opening again, waiting for me to speak. "I do. You need to take care of yourself first." My stomach rolled. Did that mean I had to stay on the sidelines?
"I want you in my life," she whispered. "I know there's a lot of things I need to do on my own, but I don't want to be alone. I need you there with me." Her expression was full of pain as though she were admitting a great weakness.
"I want to be there for you."
"I might freak out and try to push you away again. I might have doubts. I'm damaged, Edward."
I gently held the hand she'd been using to wrinkle my shirt. "I won't let you push me away again. If you let me in your life, I'll be there to stay, Bella."
The implication hung in the air, and she swallowed nervously. "Do you mean that? You won't walk away because I'm not the person you want me to be?"
My heart broke a little for her in that moment. "I want you to be who you are, Bella. As long as you're happy with yourself, I will be too. And no, I'll never walk away from you." I gathered all of my courage. "But I need you to be sure. I'm prepared for a rocky road, but I can't handle you changing your mind about me. So if you're not ready, tell me now. Remember, you could hurt me too."
Bella's eyes searched my own, gauging my sincerity. I gazed back at her as calmly as possible, hoping she could see I meant every word. Finally, she slipped her hand from mine and ran her fingers over my stubbled jaw. "I'm ready," she murmured. "But we need to move slowly – get to know each other. You know … do things normally."
I grinned. "Normal would be great."
My alarm sounded again giving me a ten minute warning. "Shit, I have to get going."
She took a deep breath and finally pushed herself away from me. I was happy to see that she looked disappointed. "Please be careful."
"I will be."
She raised an eyebrow. "I seem to recall you saying that once before, and the next day I read in the paper you'd been shot."
"Look at it this way," I stood up, and then pulled her to her feet. "The likelihood of me getting shot again is pretty slim."
"Right." She shook her head, and her eyes drifted past me to the bar that separated the living room and kitchen. "What are the balloons for?" She asked, pointing to the bouquet of red and blue balloons that were anchored by a teddy bear.
"Oh, those." I blushed. "They're from my mom." God, I felt stupid. "Yesterday was my birthday."
Bella stared wistfully at the balloons before turning her attention back to me. "That's sweet." She glanced at my mouth and then slowly stood on her tiptoes to wrap her arms around my shoulders. "Happy birthday, Edward. Sorry I'm late."
My head was foggy again. "Thank you."
"I don't have a present for you."
"You're here. That's enough."
Another look at my mouth. "I guess there's one thing I could give you?"
Please, please, please.
And then her lips were on my own, gentle and warm. This kiss was unlike the urgent, angry first kiss we had shared; it was slow and measured as I followed her lead. Her hands clung to my neck and I pulled her off her feet, our mouths still moving. When her tongue found mine, I moaned softly. Her fingers moved to trace my jaw, and then she cupped my face in her hands, gently drawing my bottom lip in between hers. I gasped in surprise and need, and she pressed her mouth against mine one last time, and I could feel every line of her body against me. Incredible.
Too soon, she pulled away. "Will you call me when you get off your shift or text to let me know you're okay?"
She smiled and kissed my chin. "I'd better go then. Be safe, please."
I was in a haze but managed to remember something important. "Can I have your phone number?"