Tuesday, February 5, 2002 | By: Drotuno

Smoke and Mirrors Chapter 20

CHAPTER 20

BELLA

"Where you goin'?" Kurt asked as I stepped off the small porch of that hunting cabin and into the very early morning air. The rain had stopped, but it left the air in the woods still feeling very damp.

I glanced up at the driveway that was now filling with official vehicles and then back to him. "When Eleazar starts working, it's best to stay out of the way," I told him, but in reality, the house was squicking me out to all hell and back.

Edward had been right to order Kurt to take me away from that basement. There was no fucking way I'd have made it even past the first step. None. The musty stench, the sound of rats scurrying in the corners, and the small glimpse I'd caught of that skeleton were absolutely too damn much. And I was smart enough to know better than to force it.

That had been about two hours ago. Kurt and I had left the top of the basement stairs and wandered around the house. It was old, obviously not used very often, and completely falling apart. The only signs that anyone had been there recently were in the room where we'd found Robert Reynolds and in another bedroom at the end of the hallway. Both showed signs of recently eaten fast food, discarded dirty clothes, and rumpled beds. After giving the cabin a once-over, I'd decided to take a look around the surrounding grounds.

"Take out your flashlight," I told him. "We won't go far, but we'll take a sweep of the area out here."

"Okay, but I'm not letting you outta my sight," Kurt muttered, frowning down at his feet and rubbing the back of his neck. "Ed will kill my ass if something happens to you. In fact, don't touch anything. I don't want you to get snagged by a thorn, poked by a splinter, or bitten by any fucking bug."

I grinned, because Edward's amused chuckle echoed over the radio, followed by softly murmured words. "Smart man, Kurt."

"Overprotective asses," I teased them both, but I understood it. It had been a rough couple of days, and what we'd just found inside that house was not helping matters.

"Bellissima," Alec laughed softly. "Don't make me come out there."

"You're no better than they are," I snarked back, smiling in spite of it all. As their chuckles died down, I turned my attention to my surroundings and to Alice. "Pixie, keep in touch with Myles. I want an update on Robert Reynolds as soon as the hospital admits him," I told her.

"Yup, yup, yup... No problem," she replied. "Whatta ya wanna bet Preston thought his ass was dead already?" she asked, though to no one in particular. It had probably just been tossed out into the office. No one really answered her, either, because deep down, we knew she was most likely spot on with that theory.

Kurt stayed quiet by my side as we shined our flashlights around the small yard and just inside the woods. He was so very easy to teach, opting to stay silent when he was doing something he'd never done before, except to ask questions or to make comments on something he'd seen.

"Is that..." he started, tilting his head and shining his light off to a far corner of the property. "Is that a shed of some sort?"

"Looks like it. Damn, you can barely see it. Like the house," I mused softly as we made our way toward the other building that looked no bigger than one of those storage sheds for sale at a giant ass hardware store.

Moss, trees, weeds, and shrubs covered the entire thing. Our lights highlighted its decay in perfect clarity, and I could imagine in the daytime, the damn thing was green and gray with the forest that was naturally claiming it as its own.

"It's padlocked," I noted, patting the pockets of my cargo pants. "Mickey's tried to teach me how to pick these, but I'm shit at it," I chuckled, looking up at Kurt. "She's lucky I learned handcuffs and simple doorknobs."

"Hang on," Edward snickered, walking up behind us.

I didn't have to even ask; he was there to keep watch over me, despite Kurt's presence. But he was also breaking the lock off. Pulling his large knife from his boot, he jimmied the actual hook off the rotten doorjamb, causing the door to tug open with a creepy squeak of its hinges.

"Now, what was that about handcuffs, sweetness?" he asked, his voice low and so fucking sexy as he raised an eyebrow up at me.

Laughing at his crooked as hell smirk, I shook my head and shoved him out of the way. "Hush, you." I snorted, grinning at his shameless chuckle. "Didn't hear you bitchin'," I muttered on my way past him in order to shine my light inside the shed. "Ew," I breathed, shaking my head. "Um, Alice...did this guy practice taxidermy or some shit?"

"Willis? No idea," she said wearily. "What I mean is... He wasn't trained as one, nor did he own any sort of business license to practice it."

"Hmm," I hummed noncommittally.

The shed contained a table, several wooden carvings of animals, and boxes of what looked like glass eyes. It was straight out of a fucking horror movie, which Kurt was quick to point out.

"Remember that movie, where the kids move in with their grandfather? You know...the vampire one? And he does this shit on the side and the kids flip out the first time they see the room? Yeah, this is some Texas Chainsaw Massacre shit right here," he babbled, not really expecting an answer as he shined a light on overflowing shelves of just creepy shit.

"This shed doesn't really look...used. Or at least, it hasn't been used in a fucking long time," Edward noted softly, adding his own flashlight to the mix, only to finally find a chain to a bare bulb over our heads. He tugged it, grimacing as he said, "Yeah, I'm not sure if that helps or just makes shit worse..."

I snorted at his wry statement, but he was right. Adding the light only let us see all the more – more carvings, more antlers, more jars. Spiderwebs and their residents occupied just about every corner. There were piles of what looked like fur or skins of some sort on one shelf, bones of every shape and size on another. But it was the tray of tools that had me trying to back away, only to run into the solid entity that was my husband. It was the same type of rolling tray that Miller had used to keep his own "toys" in order.

"Bella?" he asked, placing a warm hand on my shoulder.

I squeezed my eyes closed, trying to maintain my shit, because I really didn't need a panic attack out here. Using the scent and feel of Edward, I took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. A strong arm wrapped around my waist from behind, and I gripped his sleeve, allowing myself to lean into the only person that could ground me.

"I can't." It was a simple statement, but it had both boys kicking into gear. Before I knew it, the shed was slammed closed again.

"Better?" Kurt asked, glancing between me and Edward, who was still wrapped around me from behind.

"Yeah, that's just...gross," I groaned, shaking my head to clear it and backing away from the shed, shining my flashlight at the surrounding area.

The clearing in which the hunting cabin sat met the woods like a brick wall, except for one small break in the flora. It practically screamed "go in here." I stepped away from the boys toward what I could now see was a trail disappearing into the woods. The path was pretty grown over, though still quite visible.

Stopping and turning toward them, I thought aloud. "What if... What if Ike was the only one that used this place. Until..." I held up a finger. "Until Preston killed Molly Parsons. We all agree that Ike slowed down his activities with the exception of Kyra about five years ago, which would put us around the time that Molly died. What if Ike showed Preston this place?"

"Where are you going with this, sweetness?" Edward asked, tilting his head at me. "And you weren't thinking of taking that trail alone, were you?" he tacked on, his eyes darkening almost to pitch.

"No," I said, shaking my head and looking between him and the start of the trail. "I'm just thinking that this trail looks...abandoned. Look."

Edward sighed, nodding in agreement, but Kurt groaned.

"We're so taking a walk, aren't we?"

"Yeah," Edward answered, pulling out his Glock as his eyes never left mine. "You will stay between us, Bella. No arguments."

I nodded, following his strong back and broad shoulders in the beam of my flashlight. Kurt fell in right behind me, and our lights flickered around us as the guys back at the hunting cabin called to Edward.

"Don't go far, Ed. And if you find something...don't touch it!" Benny ordered.

"Yeah, yeah," Edward sighed, and even though I couldn't see him, I knew he was rolling his eyes at the unneeded warning. "Bella's got a point, though. This trail does lead somewhere. Stand by. We'll keep you posted."

"Ten-four," Wes, Benny, and Eleazar all answered at the same time.

As we meandered away from the house, Alice piped in over the radio. "Guys, Robert Reynolds is in a coma. They are currently transferring him from the ER to ICU. He has major bruising to his liver and kidneys, a contusion on his head, and he was majorly dehydrated," she explained.

"Thank you, Alice," Benny sighed, sounding weary. "Do they have any sort of prognosis for him?"

"He's not looking good," she replied, "because if his kidneys and liver have permanent damage and don't start functioning on their own, he won't make it... Or he'll just stay in that coma."

The radio went quiet after that, and Kurt, Edward, and I continued on down the path. It wound west, dropping just a bit before we came into another clearing – and a dead end. The three of us split up, shining our flashlights over the ground in different directions over a space roughly about half an acre in size. The ground didn't seemed to have been disturbed recently, but that didn't mean anything.

"Um, guys?" Kurt called out from the opposite side of the clearing, his focus on the ground at his feet. "Please, please, please tell me I'm seein' shit."

Edward and I locked gazes across from the clearing, only to rush over to him. I groaned, shaking my head as I pulled Kurt back. Sticking up from out of the ground was what looked like the shining crown of a skull. It was easy to see the jagged lines of the growth plates in the light of our flashlights.

"Benny, you're gonna need a team down here," Edward sighed, kneeling next to the white spot in the middle of all that green. He took out his knife again and carefully cut away some of the grass and moss that was around it. It didn't take much to reveal the eye sockets, and Edward glanced up and back at me. "I'd bet this whole fucking place is one giant ass graveyard," he murmured, shaking his head.

I shined my light around the clearing one more time, nodding in agreement, because I was starting to see small mounds everywhere. "Yeah, baby. I bet you're right."

"Damn it," Wes sighed over the radio. "Don't move, guys. We'll send a team out there. I'm waiting on another one to get here, but that shit will have to wait until the sun comes up."

"Ten-four," Edward said, standing up straight after sheathing his knife back into his boot. He reached up, tugging the bill of my baseball cap lightly. "My team... Once the Feds get this shit done, we're going back to the safe house," he ordered, but his eyes were soft, kind, and a touch sad as they never left mine.

I nodded slowly, understanding that he not only wanted me out of there, but that sometimes, he just couldn't stand the cruelty of the world. He'd seen terrible things during his tours of duty, even more as a mercenary soldier for his father, and he'd told me more than once that finding me was the most heartbreaking thing he'd ever laid eyes on – though the latter may have been just a personal and emotional event for him. My Edward took things hard, and even though I'd been having a hard time with this case, it was indeed taking its toll on my husband, as well. The problem was that he would internalize it until we were alone, opting to channel his anger and frustration into hunting Preston Raulson.

I reached up and cupped his face, dragging my thumb underneath his eye, because he looked so damn tired. Nodding slowly, I said, "I see this face. You want to start planning. One request?" I asked, tilting my head at him.

"Anything, sweetness," he whispered, his brow furrowing.

"I want to love on our kids when we get home, and no plans until we've slept. Period, Edward. We've been up two nights in a row. It's not up for argument," I told him, shrugging a shoulder. "We need a break before we concentrate on the next step, or we won't make smart decisions."

Edward was quiet, his shoulders sagging in relief just a bit. Despite his need to be in control, he would concede shit to me occasionally. And from the look on his face, this time, it was needed.

Leaning forward, he pressed a kiss to the top of my hat. "Yes, ma'am."

~oOo~

EDWARD

Ten bodies. Ten motherfucking bodies. And they weren't fucking done yet.

The path down to the clearing was now well worn, and the sun had barely risen. Benny's men had set up a temporary tent in the back yard of the hunting cabin in order to process, bag, document, and get every last body ready to transport to their lab. From what Benny could tell, most of the bodies had been buried for well over five years.

Alec, my dad, and I were helping them load up the vans, but we weren't allowed back down at the clearing. Kurt was stuck to Bella's side – per my order – as she worked on her phone, kept in touch with Myles about Reynolds, and avoided the house like the plague.

With Felix's help, he and Eleazar had staged a hunting trip, even going as far as to bring the right fucking equipment. Just in case. They'd just "happened to stumble upon" the skull Kurt had found, so because they weren't on duty, they'd "called the Feds." Alec, Bella, Kurt, and I didn't exist. We weren't there as far as anyone was concerned, and Benny had only brought in the team that he trusted the most. It was a smaller group, taking a little bit longer than usual to get the shit done, so that's why my team was giving them a hand. As soon as they called an all-clear, our asses were out of there. I wanted to get Bella away from that fucking cabin, we both wanted to see our kids, and fuck, if I didn't need sleep.

As I walked past the front steps of the house, I heard Bella arguing on the phone.

"No, no, no!" she snapped, and I could tell my girl was just fucking exhausted. "Ike couldn't kill Kyra...or even Jen Jones or Layla. They were all public figures. He opted to blackmail them instead. It was why he kept a fucking journal in the first place."

Kurt nodded silently in agreement next to her, his focus on his boots.

"It was why he was so anal about keeping notes on them. He had to treat them differently than his usual victims. Hell, Rose, I'd be willing to bet some of these graves date back to the nineties when the poor nanny inherited the damn place," she continued, shaking her head and rubbing her temple. "The problem is... There's no telling where the rest of them are, because he's been doing this shit since the fucking seventies."

"She'll blow soon, kid," Alec muttered from the other end of the body bag we were carrying. "And you look like you're not far behind her."

"This shit..." I grunted, carefully setting the bag on top of the others. "This is some fucking bullshit, Alec," I sighed, sitting down on the van's bumper. "This is serial killer, horror movie...fucked up shit. How many women just disappeared into thin air because of this guy? I'm with Mickey. I hope Preston tortured the fucking hell out of his dad. Not that he's any better, because that body in the basement?" I jerked my thumb back toward the house, and Alec nodded for me to continue. "Even I could see how many bones were fucking broken, and I'm no ME."

I snatched off my baseball cap, tugging at my hair. "This case is getting to Bella. We'd gone months without any of her panic attacks, and now she's had one and a couple of close calls. I want it fucking done."

"How are you gonna lure this asshole out into the open?" he asked, staying calm for my sake, most likely.

I shook my head, too tired to even think about it. My shoulders were sore from all the lugging we'd done, my eyes felt like they had sand in them, and my heart ached every time I looked at my beautifully strong girl. No woman should have their bodies violated like these women had – like she'd almost had – and I was tired of seeing pain and fear on not only Bella's face, but the faces of every woman in the house. Not to mention the murderous scowls of the guys.

"No idea," I sighed wearily, putting my cap back on and standing up, "but I promise you... When I get my hands on this prick, I may not let go."

Another hour went by, the sun rising fully into the sky, and one more body was added to the total. Eleven bodies were buried inside that clearing. All Ike's doing, I was fucking sure of it. That didn't include the one in the basement, which Wes was treating as a separate part of the case. Since there was some hair left, he was certain they'd be able to get a DNA sample; if not, they'd use teeth or some shit.

They'd used some sort of ground x-ray to scan the clearing, determining that they'd found every body that was buried there. By the time Benny had finally called it quits, I wanted to fucking run from that fucking forest.

As the tent in the backyard was being dismantled, I called my team to go, all the while searching for Bella. I found her sitting on a fallen log not far from the SUV. She was twirling her phone in her hands over and over, staring out into space. I knelt in front of her, smiling when she cupped my face.

"My phone's dead," she murmured, shaking it at me.

"No worries, sweetness. It's time to go anyway," I told her, kissing the center of her palm. "Ready?"

She nodded slowly, leaning in to kiss my forehead just below my cap. "Yes. I want breakfast, a long hot bath, and a very long fucking nap."

I grinned. "Not necessarily in that order, right?"

She pretended to think about it for just a moment, but smirked and shrugged a shoulder. "Yeah, don't care at this point."

"Well, let's go, baby," I sighed, standing up and offering her my hand. "Eleazar is going to ride with Felix and follow us back. Alec will drive us. If you want to sleep on the way back, you can, love."

She slipped her arms around my waist and buried her face in my chest. "Hmm, I may take you up on that," she muttered against my heart.

"Good. Let's get the fuck out of here."

~oOo~

"No, Mommy!" my son giggled from Bella's lap.

I watched them from the deck for just a few minutes. It seemed like I'd been sleeping for days. After we'd gotten back from the hunting cabin, we'd done exactly what Bella had said. We'd eaten breakfast with the kids, handing them over to Esme for the day, taken a long, hot bath together, and fallen into bed, completely shattered. We'd not only slept for the rest of the day, but all the way through the night.

We'd woken up early, and Bella had opted to make breakfast, because she wanted time on the beach with our kids. Sammy was up early, but Bethy was still sleeping. Bella had spread out a blanket not far from the deck steps. I'd told her that I'd join them once I'd made a perimeter run and took a shower. I'd just come downstairs after doing those very things.

"But you're so 'moochable, my handsome boy," she told him, nibbling on his neck, his ear, only to lift his sweatshirt and blow a raspberry on his tummy. "I just wanna eat you up," she growled against his belly.

"No! No eat me!" he argued in a full on hysterical laugh, and for a split second, they reminded me of my relationship with my own mother.

I chuckled softly at the blood rushing to my boy's face as she practically kissed him to death. There was a part of me that didn't even want to go near the perfection that I was watching, but a tug on my jeans caused me to change my mind.

Looking down, I smiled. "Morning, little sweetness," I said, lifting Bethy up by the straps of her denim overalls. Today's color was lime green – from her hair thingies at the end of her braids, to her high-top Chucks. "Tell me you didn't dress yourself," I chuckled, holding her out at arm's length just to hear her laugh.

"No, Daddy," she giggled, kicking her legs in the air uselessly as she pointed inside the house, where Esme was smiling at us and stirring a cup of coffee. "Gamma helped."

"Oh, gotcha," I snickered, kissing her cheek. "I think Mommy has breakfast out there for us. Wanna go?"

Bethy nodded, wrapping her arms around my neck as I carried her down the deck steps and across the beach. I plopped her down onto the blanket, sitting down next to Bella.

"There you guys are," Bella chuckled, opening her arms for our daughter. "I was beginning to think you'd forgotten us."

"Nope," Bethy chirped, sitting between her mother's legs with her back to Bella's chest and taking the breakfast sandwich that Bella had made.

"Thanks," I said when she handed me one as well.

"Daddy," Samuel huffed, sitting himself down beside me in the sand with his castle making toys. "Water," he said, a pudgy finger pointing down to the shoreline.

I glanced out at the crashing waves, but shook my head. "Too rough today, pal – and cold."

"Wanna see bugs," he said, grinning up at me.

I laughed, running my fingers through his hair and kissing the top of his head. "Crabs, Sammy."

"You know, we should just get them an aquarium with some hermit...bugs," Bella chuckled, laughing harder when I rolled my eyes her way.

"Don't start," I sighed, shaking my head and shoving the last bite of my sandwich into my mouth. Once I'd swallowed and taken a sip of coffee from the thermos she'd handed me, I said, "Fine. I guess we can."

"Weally?" Bethy gasped, her mouth full as she glanced between me and her mother.

We'd never allowed pets, because it just never seemed to be the right time. Bethy always wanted one of Aunt Kate's Husky puppies, but every time a litter was ready, something was going on to where it just wasn't feasible. Sammy's birth was a prime example of that.

"Yes, really," I growled dramatically, chuckling at her excited little happy dance in her mother's lap, "but name them something cool...like Smith and Wesson."

Bella snorted into hysterics, burying that shit into the top of Bethy's head. "Edward, I swear..." she giggled, shooting me a side glance, only to turn her attention back to Bethy. "Okay, fine. When we finally get back home, we'll make a trip to the pet store. All right?"

"When will we go home?" Bethy asked, handing me the rest of her sandwich that she didn't want.

Bella and I paused, locking gazes for just a moment. I waved our daughter over after finishing off the rest of her breakfast.

"Come here, baby," I sighed, giving Bella one more glance as my daughter crawled into my lap. "We're not sure how much longer. I know you miss school and your room. We're working as quickly as we can."

"Y-You h-haven't c-caught th-the b-bad g-guy y-yet, D-Daddy?" she sputtered sweetly, gazing up at me. I never gave her enough credit, because my baby girl was sharp. She knew why we weren't home.

"Not yet. Soon, pretty girl," I vowed, kissing the side of her head and locking gazes with Bella again. "In fact, when Mommy and I go in later, we're gonna work on that."

I was so done with this fucking case. I was ready to catch this asshole Preston and put my fist through his damn face. Prison wasn't going to be good enough for me this time around, and I wasn't exactly sure how to deal with that feeling. Wes and Benny had enough evidence to put this motherfucker on Death Row, but I wanted him to suffer. A lot. Every day, for the rest of his miserable fucking life.

Bethy nodded, but smiled wryly up at me. "You can get him, Daddy. No one beats you."

"Yeah," Sammy said softly, and both of them tackled me onto my back.

I laughed, hugging them closer as they tried to pin me down. Soon, Bella joined them, and I was being dog-piled by my whole family. Bethy pinned down one of my hands while Sammy crawled onto my stomach. Bella was no better by sitting on my legs.

"If I get my hands free, someone's getting tickled for this," I warned them in a grunt.

"Promises, promises, Mr. Cullen," Bella taunted, laughing when I pulled my other hand out from under Sammy's foot, and the kids bolted off of me with squeals of terror and laughter.

"Yeah?" I growled, wrapping my arms around her and tickling her.

"Edward, stop!" she begged, kicking her legs when I sat up and pulled her to my lap.

Hugging her closer, I buried my face in her neck. "G-God, s-sweetness, I-I r-really f-fucking n-needed th-this," I whispered in her ear.

"Me, too," she said with a soft, sweet smile as she cupped my face. "I miss...normal."

"Yeah," I sighed, looking up to see the kids picking up seashells and then back to the beautiful woman in my arms. "Not that we've ever been...normal."

Bella giggled, her eyebrows flickering up. "True. Fine, then I miss our normal. How's that?"

"Better," I snickered, kissing her lips softly. "Guys, don't go far," I called out to Bethy and Sammy.

"We won't, Daddy!" my little sweetness promised.

Keeping Bella cradled on my lap, we watched them just...be. They gathered shells, investigated rocks, and I finally relaxed about them getting too close to the water once they began a sand castle project. Eventually, the house behind us started to come alive, and we weren't the only ones on the beach.

My dad and Esme sat down beside us as Caleb and Abby joined Bethy and Samuel. Bella situated herself between my legs, wrapping my arms around her.

"Benny just called," my dad sighed, glancing over at us. "They rushed the DNA on the body in the basement."

"And?" Bella and I asked at the same time.

"Molly Parsons," he answered with a nod. "She's been dead for five years. They're still working on the other eleven bodies."

Bella let out a long, slow breath and nodded, like she'd figured as much, and then she turned back to my father. "It's time to catch Preston. Are Benny and Wes ready to do this?"

"Yes. In fact, they said when you come up with the way to draw him out into the open to let them know," he told her. "They know you want to bait him, and they're in total agreement. They think it'll work."

"I'm not sure that using just the media will work," my girl sighed, linking our fingers together. "I'm afraid we'll need more."

Footsteps in the sand alerted us to someone's approach, and we all looked up when Jordan and Kyra joined us.

"Well," Jordan sighed, sitting down on the other side of us with Kyra next to him, "I just might have an idea that might work..."

~oOo~

BELLA

We stared at Jordan for just a moment, but he smiled wryly.

"You guys want to draw Preston out into the open, right?" he verified, and we all nodded. "Then use the media, make an announcement that Kyra's about to film a video for a song off the new album, and draw him there."

I looked back to Edward and then over to Carlisle, who were both studying him silently, their faces blank of all expression. It wasn't that they didn't like his idea; they were just weighing every scenario.

"That would be a security nightmare," Carlisle suddenly mused aloud, rubbing his chin. "You're talking...extras, film crew, actors... Right?"

"Yes, but use a closed set, film it as a nightclub setting, and use someone Preston won't know to screen extras. Let him in." Jordan's voice had an urging tone to it, and he continued to ramble on. "We could use a warehouse. Stage everyone there. I could have my crew build the set ahead of time, and my film crew could preset the cameras."

"Preset the cameras," I mused, shaking my head. "Maybe, but I bet Alice could run those remotely..."

Edward sighed deeply, shaking his head, but looked over at his dad. He shrugged one shoulder, saying, "I won't even consider it without talking it out...with the entire fucking crew."

"Fair enough," Carlisle said, standing up from the blanket. "I'll call them all to the back deck."

He walked away, but Esme was studying Kyra's expression. "You'd have to be there, Kyra. Do you realize that?"

"Yeah," she sighed softly, nodding once and looking down at her hands in her lap.

"See? And I'm not sure I fucking like that idea," Edward murmured, but he was so busted.

"Ooh, Daddy!" Bethy gasped, because she'd been in earshot when he'd said it, picking up a little shovel.

Edward barked a laugh. "Sorry. Hundred bucks, little sweetness. Got it."

"Imma tell Unca Em," she told him, pointing a little finger his way and smiling an evil as hell smile. "He says I let you cheat, just 'cause you're my daddy."

Edward chuckled again, burying his face in my shoulder while we all laughed with him. "She's tough," he snickered, shaking his head.

"She's your daughter," I reminded him, kissing his cheek, because at the moment, she wasn't letting him off the hook so easily.

"Unca Em!" Bethy suddenly yelled, bolting for the back deck, but Edward was up like a shot and after her.

As fast as her little legs could carry her, it was still no match for Edward, and he scooped her up. Squeals of laughter escaped her as he tickled her, kissed her neck, and flipped her upside down, almost all at once. Little lime green sneakers kicked in the air as he growled things in her ear that we couldn't hear. Her smile took over her whole reddening face as her small hands tried to grasp at any part of her daddy that she could reach – his face, his arms, his chest, and his unrelenting hands.

Emmett grinned when he stepped out onto the deck, shaking his head and folding his large arms across his chest.

"Unca Em! Help!" Bethy pleaded, though her hysterical giggles gave away just how unserious she was about being rescued. "Daddy owes the swear jar! I told you I didn't cheat!"

Edward's grin was hilarious when he looked up to a highly amused Emmett, who reached for Bethy. My heart suddenly ached, because this was our normal. This could have been any Sunday afternoon, where the guys grilled out while football was on. Where the kids played hard all day long with and without parents, and where we just babbled bullshit all damn day. My girls would talk trash, the guys would talk trash, and none of us had a care in the world, except what cheater we were catching next.

"How much does he owe, baby girl?" Emmett asked her, swinging her up to his shoulders so she could sit.

She leaned down to his ear, giving her daddy a mischievous grin. "A hundred bucks."

Emmett gasped dramatically, spinning to mockingly glare at Edward. "You dropped an f-bomb?"

Edward's head fell back with his laugh, his cheeks tinging pink, because he was so busted. He looked so sweet, so fucking sexy, as if only for a moment, our cares didn't exist.

"I swear, I don't ever remember Edward blushing," Kyra laughed.

"I'm pretty sure he never did until Bella came along," Esme laughed, looking over at her. "But Bethy seems to cause it the most."

"Expensive swear jar," Jordan muttered, but a chuckle escaped him, and Kyra snickered, too, because she'd said the same thing not long ago.

"You try changing military men of their really bad habits," I snorted, shaking my head and standing up.

"It's like a salmon swimming upstream," Esme chuckled, watching the temporarily lighthearted boys, her gaze warm and filled with an unconditional love that was almost palpable.

"Bethy was a surprise," I told them, waving the three of them toward the deck, "and so very smart, so they had to learn the hard way. Especially when she started repeating everything they said. All of them."

It took a few minutes to get the boys to settle down, to have the kids go back to building their sand castles, and for everyone to pull up a chair out on the deck. But once they did, the mood changed and everyone settled down to business.

It was Carlisle that started us off. He sat forward, leaning his elbows on the table. "I'll get you the warehouse in L.A."

His words fell like a cement brick onto the deck, causing all of us to look his way, because if Carlisle was offering up the place, then he obviously had something in mind – or he was comfortable enough in our crew's abilities to step forward with this idea.

"And the construction of the stage?" Edward asked, his voice sounding skeptical. "I don't know, Dad. This could really backfire..."

"I don't think so, kid," Alec mused, tracing his eyebrow with his index finger as he stared unseeingly at the tabletop. "I think Jordan's onto something. We could completely contain the warehouse. Have Benny and Wes – along with El and Jasper – set up as spotters around the building. Everyone else inside. And I do mean...everyone."

Rose's head shot up from where she'd been looking over Alice's shoulder at the computer. "Everyone..." she mused, glancing around the table, but stopped Edward when he started to say something. "Hang on," she said softly, turning to Jordan. "You're thinking club setting," she stated, and he nodded. "Alec's right. If we contain the whole process, then technically, everyone could be there. Position everyone throughout the crowd, except for Alice. Have her controlling the cameras and sound. Maybe put Makenna in there with her to monitor the crowd."

"No, I'll stay with Alice," Mickey volunteered, her cheeks tinging pink. "I have no choice. Mack can handle a club crowd, especially people acting like a club crowd."

Makenna nodded, and we all realized that Mickey was removing herself from the danger because she had no choice. She had no alternative but to keep herself and her unborn child away.

"I'm not sure I'm comfortable with having Kyra in front of a crowd of people," Edward stated, shaking his head and running his hand through his hair. "Are you?" he asked the woman in question directly. "Kyra, if something goes wrong..."

"I trust you," she said simply to him, but she meant the entire deck full of people, because she glanced around at all of us, finally landing her gaze on me, and suddenly, I just...got it.

"Bait and switch," I whispered, and she nodded fervently, grinning at me. "Bring it down to the end...when we go to leave. Preston can't touch you when you're on stage. The security, the witnesses, there would be too many, but once you're off the stage, that's when we switch...you for me." I spun to Edward. "It's perfect. She's right. It would totally work."

Edward glared at me, letting out a deep breath. "I'm assuming it's me that will be...switching you?"

"Yes," Kyra and I both said.

"What about me?" Gator asked, looking to Edward for the answer, but it was Rose that answered gently, because he'd more than once complained that he wanted to help. However, we'd had no choice but to keep him out of sight.

"The fans know you, and so does Preston," she stated, narrowing her eyes at him. "I'm pretty sure if you weren't there, front and center, that would tip him off...despite the fact that Kyra's supposed to be with Edward."

My husband snorted humorlessly, his gaze flickering between me and Kyra, and I knew Edward well enough to know that he was fighting rolling his eyes at the mere mention that he was supposed to be with someone other than me. He rubbed his chin, finally turning to his dad. "We don't do a damn thing unless this is planned down to every inch of the place and every minute of the day. I can't afford mistakes..."

Alice turned her computer around. "Well, let's start...with finding a place. And you might want to get Benny on the phone."

With that said, the planning stage began, and it didn't stop – for days.

We took various breaks, moved the whole process into the office, and plotted the whole thing out. Carlisle, Eleazar, and Alec met with Teri Foley in L.A. to scope out the best places to set this shit up, which they found not far from Solstice's office. Jordan worked with Alice and Mickey with the cameras and how to operate them. Kyra and I worked together to make sure our clothes, our makeup and hair, and what we were supposed to do with Edward after the filming was over was exactly the same, but in a way that hid my face.

But it came down to trust between our crew and Jordan's employees and contractors.

"Fuck," Edward growled, pacing in the office and shaking his head. "With the construction crew, the...I don't know...fashion people, and the extras... That's just too many outside influences. Can't we shorten this list?"

Jordan groaned and rubbed his face in frustration. "Okay, fine. Reduce the amount of extras. I can add in more with CGI instead. But the stage has to be built somehow."

"We could build it," Jasper stated softly, but we all turned our attention to him. "Seriously. Come on, Ed. You know you could rig some shit that could be set up in large pieces. We build it here, load it in a mover's truck, and then install it ourselves. It's not like we couldn't use the early arrival to our advantage. We'll pose as the construction crew...and the camera setup crew."

"And we've got the makup-slash-hair-slash-clothes thing, Edward," Makenna giggled, motioning between myself, Rose, Cassie, and Esme. "No offense, Kyra, but if we can dress up to catch a cheating husband, then we can dress you up in order to put you on stage."

Kyra laughed, covering her mouth when Edward wasn't so amused as he rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on, Edward," she chided at him softly, still giggling. "We're trying our best to get it done the way you want."

He sighed, smirking and bracing his hands flat on the office table. He turned to Jordan. "I assume you have some sort of...design for this stage?"

"If Carlisle can get me some dimensions, then...yeah," Jordan replied, nodding.

Edward stood up straight, looking over at Jasper and dragging his thumb along his bottom lip. "I need my tools... And I want my chopper."

I frowned, looking up at him. "Why, baby? What are you thinking?"

He scowled, shook his head, and sighed wearily. "We have no choice but to get you both inside that warehouse at the same time. There's enough room for me to land at the back, avoiding the crowd that will be out front, because if Alice has anything to say about it, the whole fucking universe will know all about this event."

Alice grinned up at him, but stayed quiet, only shrugging a shoulder.

"The appearance of the chopper would give some credibility to the whole thing," Emmett mused. "It was there for Kyra's last show..."

"Exactly," Edward huffed, pointing toward him, but his eyes were on me. "And if for some reason, something goes wrong, I can get all of you girls out of that warehouse in less than two minutes."

Everyone was quiet, letting Edward think as he rubbed the back of his neck. And to be honest, it was a smarter plan, because it would bring Kyra in like the superstar that she was. It would prove to Preston that she wasn't alone, was still "with" Edward, and that he was not even a blip on her radar. It would knock him for a loop. At least...that was what I was hoping.

"Besides, I'm pretty sure you won't let me load my tools in your new car," he mumbled, grinning when the entire office burst into hysterics.

"Oh, I don't think so, mister," I laughed, shaking my head.

"Yeah," he chuckled, tilting his head at me just like his baby boy. "I figured as much."

I folded my arms across my chest, sitting back in my chair, and studied my husband. Despite how adorable his face was, he was desperate to get this just right. He wanted this shit over, he wanted to catch Preston, but he wanted everyone safe. We'd taken and taken and taken from Preston until he was backed into a corner and most likely desperate as fucking hell, which would make him deadly, so to release Kyra's whereabouts was dangerous as shit. Edward wasn't taking hers, mine, or his crew's safety for granted. At all. But Kyra was right; we were doing our best to accommodate him and his plan, so we needed to know exactly what he was thinking.

I pointed to the empty chair next to mine. "Okay, Edward. Talk to us. Tell us the whole thing from the beginning."

~oOo~

Groaning in want and appreciation, I had to force my gaze out the window of the Camaro. Edward was pushing my car, testing it as we drove north toward our home late in the evening. He'd practically snatched the keys from my hand, grinning like a little kid as he'd slid into the driver's seat slowly. We'd decided that if we left just after dinner, we could catch some sleep in our own home, flying back early the next day.

While we were gone, the guys were to pick up all the supplies needed for the stage that Jordan and Edward had designed. Well, it was Jordan's design, but Edward had altered it so that it could be assembled in pieces. Alice was working on lighting, hooking it up to a computer program she'd designed so that no technical crew would be needed. It would work with the music, the cameras, and the sound system. Rose, Cassie, and Makenna were working on clothes and makeup.

It was to be a simple video made to look like a live performance in a small underground club setting. In order to eliminate the need for more costumes, the ad that Alice was going to place was going to insist that the extras dress for that very thing – like they were going out clubbing. All messages, tweets, and announcements were written and ready to go. As soon as we got back with Edward's tools and chopper and we'd built the stage, every last message would go out over the internet.

The key was not using fans as the extras, despite the ad that we had no choice but to place. The key came from Teri Foley. She was going to send us several of her acting clients, explaining to them how to act, what to wear, and why they were really there. They would be paid handsomely for all of it, signing a non-disclosure agreement to keep their mouths shut at least until after the video was filmed.

"It's fitting, this car," Edward said, breaking the silence and shooting me his sweet, crooked smile.

My brow wrinkled in confusion, because I wasn't sure I understood what he was talking about. "Fitting?"

"Yeah, I mean... Wasn't your dad working on an old Camaro when we met the first time? The same Camaro my dad practically drove until the wheels fell off?" he asked in a chuckle.

I giggled, biting my bottom lip and looking around the inside of my new car. "Yeah... Yeah, it was. Charlie would've hated this," I told him, running a finger across the dash. "He liked old cars. Not the new ones. He liked fixing them up and reselling them. My mom hated it."

Why we always talked about our pasts while we drove, I had no idea, but we did, especially when it was just the two of us. It probably stemmed from when we'd been in hiding from Royce King. It was better than the radio, better than silence, and it always seemed so damn comforting. It was our way of learning about each other back then. Now, it just kept us close.

"What do you remember about that day?" I asked suddenly, smiling in the memory of the cutest thirteen-year-old boy I'd ever laid eyes on. Edward had been gangly, soft-spoken, and his stutter had been attached to every word he'd tried to speak.

Edward smiled, his eyes on the road in front of him, but even in the limited lights of the car, I could see how far away his gaze was.

"Flashes of things," he finally answered, giving me a quick glance, only to reach out and touch my face with the backs of his fingers. "I mean... I was mad at my dad for making us move, but I wasn't sure I wasn't just...mad at life in general." He sighed, shrugging a shoulder. "We'd just sold the house I'd grown up in, and he'd told me we were moving. I was too shy to feel comfortable with making new friends."

I reached up and took his hand in mine, linking our fingers together. Turning in my seat just a little, I laid the side of my head against the headrest in order to just look at him.

"Then he told me we were stopping by Charlie's," Edward chuckled, squeezing my hand and rubbing his thumb over my skin softly. "I'd only heard about your dad. I'd never met him, so I wasn't exactly thrilled that the long ass drive to where we were going had just been extended. My dad didn't tell me about you until we pulled into your driveway."

I chuckled, nodding for him to continue, because if we'd talked about this before, I didn't remember it.

"I was so... I don't know...young? Is that the best word?" he asked, but didn't really wait for an answer. "I'd love to tell you that I loved you then, but girls weren't exactly on the radar yet."

Giggling, I picked up his hand and kissed his scarred knuckles, only to run my fingertips across his callouses.

"Don't get me wrong, love," he said, his eyes meeting mine briefly; they were warm and sweet and framed by his long, dark eyelashes. He turned his gaze back to the highway. "I felt like an ass that I'd tripped you. I'd been looking at the Camaro and had started to back away from it, and suddenly, I was tangled up with dark hair, skinny legs, and knobby knees." He released my hand and tickled the top of my knee, causing me to squeal in protest.

"But you were so...cool," he sighed, leaning into my kiss to his cheek when I couldn't not kiss him for that. "You made me feel like nothing bad was worth the worry. You made me feel like I wasn't the only one in the world that had lost their mom, you know?"

"I love you," I whispered against his jaw, sitting back down in my seat as he murmured the sentiment right back to me.

Edward was quiet for a moment, shifting gears and changing lanes. He sighed deeply, shaking his head slowly. "I remember your Aunt Jane and the apple pie," he said, grinning beautifully when I laughed. "I remember stuttering and thinking you were laughing at me, but then...you weren't."

"No, I wasn't."

"I remember your tree house," he went on. "All those posters of places you wanted to see. I felt so lucky that I'd seen Alcatraz and you hadn't. I felt...proud that I had something in common with you, because you seemed so much more...together than me. Like you knew yourself better."

"Oh, I envied you," I giggled. "And you made me nervous up there. Like I was showing a stranger this secret... Plus, you were this cute boy I was crushing on..."

Edward grinned, shooting a glimpse my way and rolling his eyes. "And then I remember when it was time to go, I didn't want to. I'd made my first new friend, and it felt like my dad was taking that away, too, because we weren't going to live anywhere near you..." He huffed a laugh, saying, "I was pissed off all over again once we were back in the car."

"I never shut up about you to Aunt Jane for two days straight," I admitted with a giggle. "Edward says... Edward's been to... Guess what! Edward emailed me..."

"Really?" he laughed, his head falling back to his own headrest.

"Really."

The next sentence out of his mouth was totally expected, because we had regrets.

"God, I wish we'd kept in touch," he groaned, shaking his head and gripping the steering wheel.

"Me, too."

Suddenly, he veered off the highway, coming to a stop on the side of the road and putting my car in park. He turned to me, grasping my face almost roughly, and his eyes were so very contrite and warm, but fierce as he gazed at me.

"No, you don't understand, sweetness. I know I've said it before, but I really wish we'd never stopped talking. You have no idea how badly I wish that I'd only known you. Just you," he whispered, brushing his lips across mine with just barely a touch to emphasize exactly what he meant. "We wouldn't be knee deep in this fucking shit if I'd only ever been with you..."

"Oh," I interrupted him, because it finally sank in, and kissed him to shut him up. "Oh, baby. Don't. I know that's how you feel, and believe me, I've daydreamed what it would've been like to have gone to one of your baseball games, or to prom...or even what our first kiss would've been like. I even wondered what it would've been like to know you were so far away in a war, fighting to get back to me, but Edward... We wouldn't be us if we hadn't experienced life apart before you came to get me."

My breath hitched and tears welled up, because his love for me was so fucking palpable inside that car that I could practically feel it all around me as his hands ran through my hair and touched my face.

I grasped either side of his face, whispering, "I'm so in love with this man...right here...that it probably isn't healthy, but I don't care. I love you and your flaws and your past, because without it, you wouldn't be you."

Had I been standing when he kissed me, my knees would've buckled, but as it was, I was able to pull him closer once he dove for my mouth. His fingers wove into my hair, pulling me closer as a beautiful groan escaped him. The kiss started out rough and almost awkward, but he slowed it down, his tongue slipping languidly along mine. He tasted of the coffee we'd stopped to get and just everything that made my girly parts ache with want and love and need.

He pulled back, kissing my lips softly one more time. "Y-You r-really w-would've g-gone t-to m-my b-baseball g-games?" he sputtered, and somewhere deep inside of me, that stutter caused me to want to squeal and kiss him stupid all over again, because that question wasn't being asked by the thirty-two-year-old man in front of me. That was being asked by the thirteen-year-old shy boy that I'd laughed with for a whole afternoon.

"Oh yeah," I crooned, nuzzling his nose with mine, up one side and down the other. "I'd have stolen a jersey, too. You know...to sleep in..."

The sexy as hell growl that escaped him made me giggle.

"What number were you?" I asked, just to watch my favorite carnal-filled smile take over his handsome face.

"Ten, baby," he chuckled.

"Of course you were," I laughed. "A perfect ten, handsome."

He kissed me until we were both practically drunk with it, but pulled back again. "When this is over... I mean... Do you still want to travel?"

I shook my head no. "Where do we need to go?" I whispered, running my fingers through his hair. "No, Edward. I don't need anything but my family...and maybe a trip to Aunt Kate's," I said, raising an eyebrow at him.

He snorted, countering my gesture with an eyebrow of his own. "You wouldn't be meddling with Mickey now, would you?"

"Perhaps a little," I said innocently, shrugging a shoulder, "but damn, they're more stubborn than we are. Has she even called him? Or has he called her?"

"No," he grunted, sitting back a bit, but his hands didn't leave my face. "You know I'd give you anything, sweetness..."

I smiled and nodded, turning to kiss his palm. "I know, baby. And what I want is this case over and done with, to be back home with our kids, and to get our girl back in school."

Edward nodded, smiling softly, and I could tell we were totally on the same page with that. He leaned over, placing a kiss to my cheek and then dragging his lips down my jaw to my neck, just below my ear.

"We'll have the whole house to ourselves, love," he crooned softly, opening his mouth to my skin to leave a long, slow, open mouth kiss.

I giggled, because I just couldn't help it. He reduced me to a puddle of goo sometimes with just a simple change in the tone of his voice. It would go from loving, to fierce, to a pure sexual tenor in the blink of an eye.

"Well, then drive, flyboy," I chuckled, pushing at him as he smiled against my earlobe. "We won't get anywhere sittin' on the side of the highway."

He chuckled, finally sitting up straight in the driver's seat and shooting a sexy as hell smirk my way. He cranked the car, shifted into gear, and grunted, "Yes, ma'am."

0 comments:

Post a Comment