Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. I am in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise, I just use their creations to have my wicked way with them. No copyright infringement is intended.
This story would be nothing without my amazing beta-team, Jadsmama and Ladysharkey1.
Square One: noun a starting point; initial stage or step: If this plan fails, we'll have to go back to square one.
I was so far out of my fucking depth it wasn't even funny anymore.
I smirked at a few old ladies coming out of the subway station as I moved aside to let them pass, their giggles and really fucking awkward looks made me want to shower. What the ever-loving fuck? Women that old weren't supposed to give you those kinds of looks. It was just…wrong.
"Are you okay?" Bella gave me this really weird fucking look and in spite of her kind words I could see something had shifted in her. Something that made me wonder if she really gave two shits about whether or not I was okay.
"Yeah," I muttered, rubbing the back of my neck as I tried to figure out what the hell I'd done to mess up this time. "You?"
"Fine," she muttered back in that fucking monotone voice girls use when they are anything except okay but don't want you to stick your fucking nose into all the reasons they aren't. "Let's just do this."
Okaaay. I arched my brow, watching as she marched forward with quickly.
It wasn't until we reached the entrance of the Esplanade retirement home that one of us spoke again; the look on her face when I grabbed her arm to stop her because I was too out of breath from keeping up with her to actually speak for a whole thirty seconds. "What?"
"I…I feel like I should warn you," I wheezed, wishing Tanya had been more adamant when she'd invited me to tag along on her morning runs. "My aunt…there's a reason we all call her Crazy Lola."
"Yeah?" For the first time, I saw something of the Bella I'd left behind at her apartment the day before yesterday. Wait…this couldn't still be about that, could it?
Knowing that I would probably open up a whole different can of worms, I merely settled on explaining myself. "She was married to Amelia's brother, Frederick, my great-great-uncle, and it was quite the scandal, actually, since she was barely eighteen when they tied the knot and he was quickly closing in on his sixties. He had only been a widower for a couple of months. Hell, they were married only about five years or so before my dad was born."
"Which would make your granddad…what, about the same age as her?" I could see that I finally had her attention for the first time that day; the wheels in her head visibly spinning as her eyes held me spellbound.
"Quite a lot older actually, since he didn't marry before the age of thirty-four." I grinned, shaking my head at the antics of my long deceased ancestors. "It's actually a good thing that old Freddie robbed the cradle because it means you have someone to talk to who has her information straight from the horse's mouth."
"As long as the horse is willing to talk," Bella muttered, side-eying a small gathering of elders as they made their way into the building. "Or the source still has all her ducks in a row."
"Oh, don't worry about that," I chuckled as I guided her inside and towards the elevators. "Aunt Lauren might be nuts but she's definitely not senile." I pressed the call button, watching the numbers go down as one of the elevators made its way towards us. "Besides, if there's anyone who can get a man to speak, it's her. As far as family gossip goes…she knows it all."
"Good for us," Bella muttered, moving in as the elevator doors opened and taking up a spot as far away from me as the confined space allowed.
I growled, already fed up with her distant behavior. Moving towards her through the crowd of old people stuck in the cramped space with us, I was met with an icy glare as she tried to scoot even further into her corner. "What did I do wrong, Bella?" I whispered, obeying her silent demand for space. "Is this still about the other night?"
For a moment her eyes made contact with mine and the amount of fear, pain and doubt I saw in them killed me more than if she would have just smashed her fist into my face because I knew I was to blame for all that shit. "Not now," she merely spoke before averting her eyes again.
"Later, then?" I pressed as I started to feel like this whole thing was slipping right out of my fucking hands.
She sighed, looking all kinds of annoyed even though she did commit to a grumpy, "Later."
Well, at least that was something.
The corridor that housed Aunt Lauren's apartment still had that same, mauve and beige appearance that was meant to radiate opulence but really just started getting on your nerves the minute you stepped inside. And we hadn't even reached Lola's place.
"She's a cat lady," I warned Bella as we stood in front of her door. "But probably not the way you expect…"
I didn't have time to explain further before the door swung open and Lauren's small frame came into view; her face hidden by huge glasses and her body clad in that same cacophony of colors that had always made her stick out at family gatherings. With her sharp hawk-like Arian features, she breathed a strange mixture of one part freaky gypsy lady, one part Nazi camp commander.
And people still wondered why we called her 'crazy'.
"Edward!" she cooed, her arms still surprisingly strong as she crushed me into an unwanted hug. "Why does it always take so long before you visit me?" The sharp sting of her hand as she smacked my right in the cheek made me blink in shock. Fuck me, the crazy broad just fucking bitch-slapped me! "Your father and little Petey come over almost every week, like good nephews should and even Garrett and Molly are good about visiting their poor old auntie every now and then, but you…"
Her eyes narrowed, causing me to take a step backwards in case the crazy old bat wanted to go in for seconds. "I-I'm sorry?"
"Hmm," she huffed, crossing her arms in front of her chest as her eyes swept over to Bella. "And you bring a guest?"
Glancing sideways at my girl, I could see she was equal parts scared and amused by the certifiable old hag standing in front of her. Bella's hand trembled as she proffered it for Lauren to shake. "I'm Bella Swan, a historian interested in your late sister in law? I believe Doctor Cullen has spoken to you about me?"
"Ah, yes!" And just like that, Aunt Lauren's eyes began to shine as she motioned for us both to step inside. "You're the young girl interested in the family history, unlike some members of this family…" She leveled me with another furious glare as she tugged at Bella's sleeve, dragging her inside her lair like a sacrificial maiden. "Come in, come in."
I could see the exact moment Bella's eyes first fell on my great-grandmother's 'pets', her movements stopped as her whole frame went rigid. It was the same reaction everyone had stepping inside Crazy Lola's home for the first time. And who wouldn't when the beady eyes of twenty mounted cats looked at you from just about every flat surface in the house? It was probably the fucking Valhalla of every taxidermist in America, but to the rest of us it was just plain old fucking creepy.
"You never told me about the cats," Bella hissed, trying desperately to keep her face in check and not look at the creepy felines.
"I tried," I defended myself as I took a seat next to her on the sofa while Aunt Lauren sat down in her own, comfortable lounge chair, patting the head of one of the cats sitting on the side table next to her seat. Fucking psycho! "You were the one who didn't want to talk, remember?"
And because she knew I was right, she merely huffed in that way chicks huff when they want to let you know you'd better watch your balls because they're gonna get you one way or another. "Thank you so much for agreeing to speak to me, Mrs. Cullen," she spoke, turning to the woman with a plastered smile on her face.
And damn if it didn't make me jealous as hell!
"It's my pleasure, dear," Crazy Lola answered. "Do you want some tea before we start, or jump right in?"
Bella took one look at the small kitchenette that had stuffed cats lining the counters and decided to skip refreshments—which, since the old lady never offered me anything, meant we'd be going without.
"Before we start I should give you a warning," Lauren stated, her eyes already had that glassy distant look I remembered them getting whenever she spoke about our family's history; which was a lot. "As much as I've heard about her, I never really met Amelia, seeing as I wasn't even born the year she died."
"She died during childbirth, didn't she?" Bella asked, her fingers setting her iPhone to begin recording. "In 1918, correct?"
Lauren nodded pensively. "It was only a couple of weeks after her husband had left for France." Her face scrunched up at the mention of the man I'd only heard describe as 'vile' by members of my family. "Of course Henry didn't care that after her disastrous delivery of little Edward, the doctor had warned them that a second pregnancy would be considered a very great risk. No, he had to have everything the way he wanted–with a nice safe 'spare' in case something happened to his 'heir'. He didn't even bother to stick around and support his wife." Lauren shook her head; her despise for the man as clear as day. "No, he had to go off and fight while he could still earn some of the glory on the battlefield."
"You don't think he took up arms for more patriotic reasons?" Bella wondered, her bottom lip sucked in between her teeth as she soaked up all of Lauren's words like a sponge.
"Psha!" Lauren huffed. "From what I gathered, Henry Blake didn't have a patriotic bone in his body! The only reason he enlisted was because he thought it would reflect well on his image to return home as a war hero. It was just his bad luck that he found himself on the wrong end of a German rifle somewhere near Thiérache, two days before Amistice."
"Bad luck, or maybe just Karma catching up with him," I snorted, Lauren's cold blue eyes immediately settling upon me.
"Perhaps," she mused, "though I have always found it strange that a man who seemed to have been able to buy off every single risk he had encountered–including during his short-lived military career–would have ended up right in the middle of the frontline. Something about his death never added up as far as I was concerned." She tapped her lips, a conspiratorial smile lacing her lips. "Not that his death was ever discussed in detail between Freddie and me. In fact, Frederick hardly ever spoke about his own military life or the years that preceded it."
"But you know about Amelia?" Bella subtly tried to steer the conversation back in order.
"Oh definitely," Lauren nodded eagerly. "My Freddie was by her side until the end. You see, he had already done his part for his country but he got wounded at the Somme and was sent home before Henry Blake even set sail. She was right there by her side until Amelia passed." Lauren leaned forward, her eyes gleaming with the happiness only a good piece of family gossip could bring. "I think that's when she convinced him to take custody of the boy."
"Edward?" Bella confirmed.
Lauren nodded. "Frederick would never speak of it but I always had my doubts about that baby. Not that Amelia had ever stepped so far out of line that she caused a scandal but, apparently, there was some talk about her and some artist doing the rounds right before she married Blake. And, of course, there's the fact that the Blake family never put up a fight for the boy even though he was the only one to carry on the line, since Amelia's second child was stillborn."
Bella and I shared a look of shocked excitement, her eyes widening as she added two and two together in her mind. "So you think Edward wasn't really Henry Blake's son?"
Lauren shrugged, her wrinkly old hands folded underneath her chin as she slowly and carefully shifted back in her seat. "There's no evidence, of course, but what other explanation could there be? I think Fred and his mom must have something on the Blake's as well, though, since they never claimed their money back or even spoke of the matter ever again for as far as I can remember. The whole affair just died out, until nobody even remembered the strange adoption case anymore."
At the 'no evidence' Bella's face fell and I could imagine why. I mean, to us that was a really fucking big thing. I mean, I might actually be related to one of the greatest modern composers of all time. I wasn't stupid enough to think that our deductions meant anything in the scientific and historical worlds. Nope, those people usually really got off on stuff like evidence and facts.
"I know where you may be able to get some proof, though." We both looked up as the crazy old bat spoke again. "As much as Frederick held his tongue about what happened back in those days, I know he was in contact with Amelia's old ladies maid or her family for some time because when they read his will after my darling Freddie died, he left quite a little sum of his money them…the Casey family I think they were called."
"Do you know where they live?" Bella asked, perking up again at finding a new lead.
Lauren shook her head, smiling sadly. "But I think there might be a mention of their address on the will, which should be in your father's possession." She nodded at me, acknowledging me voluntarily for the first time. I wasn't sure if I was supposed to be fucking happy about that.
Soon after, just as I was trying to think of some polite excuse to make our escape, a nurse came in to hand over Lauren's afternoon medication, and Bella was apparently as eager as I was to get away from the crazy lady and all of her dead cats. As much as I hated those little rat-catchers when they were alive, they were even worse when they were dead…and still looking at me.
"So, that was…interesting," Bella muttered once we were on the safe side of Lauren's front door again.
"That's one way to put it," I nodded, too set on finally finding out what the hell was the matter with her to go into the whole revelation part of our afternoon. Even if I was still coming to grips with the potential consequences of everything I'd heard.
"I still can't get over the 'how', though," she continued to mutter, her thoughts far, far away as we stumbled over to the elevator. "I mean…she wrote him that letter and it couldn't have happened before that. And in the letter…Amelia ended things with Johannes."
"They must have found a way to meet after she sent it," I shrugged impatiently. "So do you want to tell me what the hell I did wrong?" I knew it wasn't the most sensitive way to go about this whole thing but I had to know. I mean…I was going fucking crazy from trying to figure it out.
"Outside," she snapped, her hostility back in force as we silently rode the elevator and jogged–well, I did–towards a small patch of grass across the street from the retirement home when she sat down on a park bench and I just stood there awkwardly in front of her until she motioned for me to sit.
And then proceeded to drop a bomb on me.
"Were you ever going to tell me about your legal history?" she questioned; her eyes on fire with betrayal and anger. "Or enlighten me about the fact that you were arrested recently and are facing charges of drug dealing right now?"
I hung my head, ashamed. "I was going to tell you," I started, not realizing it was the goddamn truth until the words were out of my mouth, "but I knew how you'd feel about this so…motherfuck!" I grabbed my hair, knowing it was probably going to be the last conversation I had with her. "I knew I stood a good chance of losing you once you found out just how much of a fuck-up I am, so…"
"So you left me in the dark," she snarled, "and by that you made me look like a total idiot when my friends found out I was dating a drug-dealer! I defended you, for God's sake!"
The brief elation at having her describe us as dating deflated at the rest of her words. "For what it's worth: I didn't do it," I muttered, not daring to look at her for fear of what I'd see, even if that made me a complete fucking pussy. "I do drugs sometimes and, hell, I'd be the first to admit that I ran with the wrong fucking crowd for a while, but I never sold that shit. I…" I looked up, finally finding the balls to look into her eyes because I knew she had to see where I was coming from with this. "The only thing I was interested in fucking up was my own life, never that of others. Until I met you…"
She met my stare, her eyes first hard and challenging before they softened, mirroring my own helplessness as she visibly struggled with herself. "I can't…I don't know what to do anymore. I…I like you, you know I do…but I don't know if I can live with the things you've done."
I nodded. "I understand." I got up from the bench knowing that if I sat there for much longer and allowed her to really stick that fucking knife into me, I was going to lose my shit even more than I already was. "I won't bother you again if you don't want me," I muttered, holding onto a l final bit of hope that she might turn around because–as frail as she sometimes seemed, my girl was fierce like a fucking lion when she wanted. "You have my number if you change your mind."
I didn't look back as I walked away from her. Not because I didn't want to—because God knew I did —but because I just…couldn't.
It might sound strange but this is actually a good thing.