Monday, July 15, 2013 | By: Drotuno

In Pursuit Chapter 17

Chapter 17
Bella POV
“Settle down, baby,” Edward said in a soothing voice as he placed his hand over mine on the counter.
Restless as I waited for it to be time to go to our first meeting with the D.A., I’d started cleaning the kitchen after breakfast – which had only been cereal, so there hadn’t been much to begin with. My nerves were shot, making me see things that weren’t there, apparently, since the spot I’d been scrubbing at I realized now was only an actual natural spot in the granite.
“I can’t,” I huffed, feeling my chest tighten. “It all starts today, and I can’t help but worry – for Alice, myself, and you. I can’t... Edward, I can’t let anything happen to you. You have to—”
“Hush,” he ordered softly, pulling me around until I was pressed against him. “We have all the best people around us, Bella. Remember that, okay?”
I nodded, finally breathing in his scent and letting it calm me.
“Good girl.” He tightened his arms and pressed a kiss to the top of my head. “Now come with me, okay? We need to get you into the vest. Iverson will be here anytime to take us downstairs.”
Clinging to him for another minute, I finally released him and turned to move over to the table, where my Kevlar vest, baseball cap, and sunglasses were sitting.
We had talked about what we’d need to wear while in the apartment building but not in our apartment. Not exactly wanting to advertise that we were hiding, lest someone try to figure out why, we’d foregone the hoodies – especially since it was still summer. Instead, Alice and I would both wear a thin T-shirt under the vest to keep it from rubbing uncomfortably, and then over it, we’d wear a regular T-shirt we’d borrow from the guys. You could still see the outline of the vest if you looked long and hard enough, but we didn’t plan to be around anyone who wasn’t a marshal or military long enough for it to matter.
Tugging off the Batman T-shirt Edward had loaned me for the day, I grabbed the vest and pulled it on, allowing him to fasten me in. Once the vest was snug, I pulled the T-shirt back on, then slid the cap on my head. Edward helped tug my ponytail through the hole in the back, and then he wrapped his arms around me, leaning down.
“I’ll keep you safe, Bella,” he swore, his eyes dark.
I knew he didn’t like to make promises he wasn’t sure he could keep, and he sounded so sure when he said it, I felt much more calm.
I moved to my tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his lips, sighing against him when the sharp three knocks followed by two slower ones came from the front door.
“That’s Iverson,” Edward said, stepping back. “Stay here until we call for you,” he ordered, and then he passed Alice as she joined me in the dining room.
I smiled at my sister, projecting more calm into it than I was feeling, “You ready for this?”
She frowned, shrugging. “Not really, but I don’t have much choice, I guess.”
“We’ll be fine,” I told her, trying to sound reassuring. “The guys’ll keep us safe.”
She started to respond, but Edward’s, “Come on, ladies. Let’s get this over with so we can get back here and relax,” from the front entry kept her quiet.
Grasping my hand quickly, she let me lead her to the guys, who were standing there with Tim Iverson.
It was the first time I’d seen him in something totally casual. I hadn’t paid a lot of attention to him before, but now that I was grasping at things to take my mind off where we were heading, I found myself realizing how good-looking he was. He reminded me a lot of Channing Tatum in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, dressed in a pair of jeans, black, long-sleeved T-shirt with the sleeves pushed up, and the short, military-style haircut. It certainly didn’t hurt when he smiled and it lit up his whole face.
“Good morning, ladies,” he said. “Ready to do this?”
“Morning,” Alice murmured, dropping my hand and taking a tiny step closer to Jasper.
“Morning,” I echoed. “Ready as we’ll ever be, I suppose.”
“We’re heading two floors down. We’ll take the stairs, and I’ll go slightly ahead of you to clear it first, all right?”
Alice and I nodded.
“Sounds good,” I said.
We were quiet as he went out first, followed by Jasper, then Alice and me, leaving Edward at our backs. The short trip down the stairs to the tenth floor took no time at all, and when we stepped out of the stairwell, I saw a door just down the hall with a man standing in front of it. I felt my breath catch, but relaxed when Tim and Jasper nodded once to him before moving to the door.
Tim knocked three times and then opened the door. “I’ll be out here when you’re ready,” he said, stepping out of the way.
Edward ushered us in with a hand on our lower backs, and then he shut the door behind us. “Stay with me while Jasper checks out the apartment,” he said quietly.
“Why does he need—”
“Just protocol,” Edward explained when he interrupted my question of why Jasper had to check out a guarded apartment.
I nodded and waited until Jasper walked back down the hall.
“All clear,” he said. “They’re in the kitchen.”
When we stepped into the large kitchen with the large kitchen table at one end, three people stood and smiled.
“Angela!” Alice called, beaming. “What are you doing here?”
Angela came over and hugged first Alice, then me, and said, “I’m your personal shopper – your clothing fairy, if you will.”
“Ohh,” I said, the light bulb clicking on over my head. “You’re the reason we were told not to worry about it.”
She smiled and nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”
“Well, thanks.”
Looking at Edward, she said, “I’ll be in the bedroom. Just send ’em back when they’re ready.”
He nodded, giving her a small smile before she turned and left the kitchen.
The other two people came forward then. I recognized the District Attorney from our previous meetings. Mr. Banner was in his early fifties, tall, with a head full of dark hair that was graying at the temple. He reminded me of a slightly younger Gabriel Byrne. With him was a woman I hadn’t met yet. She was dark-skinned – I was guessing Native American – and slender, maybe two inches taller than my own height. Her hair was dark, pulled up into a knot at the back of her head, and when she smiled, it was easy to ignore the long scar stretching down one side of her face.
“Marie. Mary,” Mr. Banner said, reaching out to shake our hands. “It’s good to see you ladies. This is Assistant District Attorney Emily Young. She’ll be sitting beside me at trial.”
“Good to meet you both,” she said, smiling. “I wish it were under better circumstances.”
I chuckled wryly. “As do we.”
“Have a seat, ladies,” Mr. Banner said, motioning to the table. “I’ll start by speaking to both of you, and then we’ll speak individually, as well.”
Edward and Jasper hung back as Alice and I took seats at the table, pulling off our hats.
Once we were seated, the D.A. said, “The purpose of today’s meeting is two-fold. One, to talk about when you will be called to testify. The trial officially starts on Monday the sixth. I don’t anticipate needing either of you on the stand for a couple of days. Marie, you’ll be up first, most likely on Wednesday, the eighth. Mary, you’ll be up right after your sister. I can’t say for certain how long that will take, but my best guess is no longer than a day on the stand for both of you.”
“A whole day?” Alice asked, looking sick to her stomach. I reached over to take her hand, squeezing gently.
Mr. Banner nodded. “We’ll go over specific questions over the next two days, but with breaks and lunch, we’re probably looking at five to six hours on the stand.”
“Okay,” she squeaked, taking a deep breath and letting it out quietly.
“I’ve been told you were informed about only one of you being allowed in the courtroom at a time. Is that correct?” At our nods, he said, “As per orders from the U.S. Marshal Service, you will be allowed a guard with you, and there will be others in the courtroom, as well. You’ll be perfectly safe.
“Now, what I’d like to do is speak to each of you alone and go over what you saw one more time. I want to make sure we’re on the same page, let you go over it once here before you have to get on the stand and speak about it. Mary, if you would go back to Detective Cheney, she’ll work with you on your clothing options for the trial while I speak to Marie.”
Mary’s hand shook as she squeezed mine and then she stood, moving down the hall with Jasper silently following her.
Mr. Banner waited a moment, and then he pulled out a yellow legal pad and pen. “All right, Marie. Start from the beginning, okay? Tell me everything you can remember, big or small.”
I spoke with little emotion as I went over the story again for the first time in months, starting with my sister and me going to the bar to blow off steam after a long week of work.
Mr. Banner interrupted only once, to confirm the details about the alarm. “The alarm was usually on, correct?”
Nodding, I said, “Yes, I don’t recall ever seeing it off except during the day.”
He wrote something on the pad and then nodded. “Go on.”
I told them about sneaking in so Eleazar didn’t see me, trying to avoid getting roped into working over the weekend, and then hiding when we heard the gunshots. I had to swallow back tears and bile as I told them about finding Eleazar’s body and how I’d known he was dead even without feeling for a pulse.
Mr. Banner asked a few more questions about my old job and boss in general, and then he set his pen down. “Great, Marie. I think that’s all I need for now. Tomorrow, I’ll meet with you to go over the questions I’ll ask at trial and what questions I think the defense will ask, just so you’re as prepared as you can be, all right?”
I nodded silently and then stood.
“Send Mary back now, please,” he said, turning away and pushing the notepad to Ms. Young.
Edward guided me down the hall, knocking softly on the bedroom door as Jasper joined us from wherever he’d been while Edward and I had been in the kitchen.
“They’re ready for her,” Edward said when Angela opened the door.
“Great. She’s just putting her T-shirt back on. She’ll be right out.”
As soon as Alice came out, Edward ushered me into the bedroom and stepped in behind me, letting Jasper lead my sister back out to the kitchen.
“I won’t stay,” Edward said. “I just wanted to say hello.”
He and Angela hugged.
“It’s good to see you,” she said. “Glad to see you guys are keeping these ladies safe.”
“Of course,” he scoffed, winking at me. “You expected less?”
She laughed softly and shook her head. “Ben said hello. He’s keeping an eye on Riley at the station.”
Raising an eyebrow, Edward said, “Oh? Problems?”
“No,” she said, although even to me, she didn’t sound confident. “Not problems, per se... More like just fidgety and antsy the last few days, so we’re being diligent about it.”
Edward nodded. “Gotcha.” Looking at me, he asked, “You’ll be okay in here with Angela?”
I smiled, although I was sure it came out half-grimace. “I’ll be fine, thanks.”
After a moment, he said, “Okay, then. I’ll be in the living room.”
Once he was gone and the door closed behind him, Angela raised an eyebrow. “You, too, huh?” she asked, smiling. “Your sister and Jasper have clearly gotten close. It’s good to see Edward like that.”
“L-Like what?” I asked, biting my lower lip so I didn’t blurt anything out.
“Happy, even in the midst of all this,” Angela said, waving her hand. “I could see it in his eyes when he looked at you, hear it in his voice when he asked if you’d be okay.”
I started to protest, knowing our relationship couldn’t come out, but she hushed me with a shake of her head.
“Don’t worry, Marie. I won’t say anything.” She smiled. “I’ve known him a long time, so I can read him better than almost anyone. No one else would have noticed.”
I finally nodded. “Thanks.”
She took my cap from my hands and tossed it to the bed. “Let’s get you out of that vest. I know how hot and uncomfortable – not to mention claustrophobic – that Kevlar can make you.”
As we worked at undoing the straps, she explained that she’d brought over a handful of pant suits, some skirts, and several blouses that I could mix and match to make about ten different outfits, just in case.
“I think the clothes should fit okay. I saw your sizes when I helped pack up your things at the hotel before. I also brought shoes, although I guessed on sizes for those. If I need to, I can exchange those and get them to you this week.”
I spent the next twenty minutes trying on the different clothes, which Angela had been right on the money about. Even the shoes fit perfectly.
“Thank you for doing this,” I said as I pulled my undershirt back on over my bra before picking up the dreaded vest to strap myself back into it.
Angela smiled. “Not a problem, Marie, really. Honestly, Al Chambers called and asked that I do it. Apparently Edward was quite emphatic that he could trust us. So the Marshal’s Service paid for them. I just got to shop and deliver,” she said with a wink.
There was a knock on the door as I was pulling my sneakers back on, and Edward said, “They’re finished if you guys are.”
Angela opened the door and nodded. “She’s good to go.”
I looked up as he stepped into the room and smiled.
“Thanks, Angela.”
“No problem. Mary’s shoes are a little bit big, but she’s going to stuff the toes with tissues, so she’ll be fine. That was the only issue. If you guys need anything else at all, give me a call.”
“Thanks,” I said as Edward nodded and moved me gently out of the room with a hand on my lower back.
Before we reached the kitchen, he murmured low, “Hanging in there?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I’m okay – or I will be as soon as we get back upstairs.”
“Okay. Let’s grab your sister and Jasper and head out, then.”
Feeling rather numb, I said goodbye to Mr. Banner and Ms. Young, allowing Edward to shepherd me from the apartment. I was aware of Tim leading the way, the rest of us following behind him like we’d done on the way downstairs. But my head was full of cotton and my stomach full of butterflies. Things were feeling so much more real now that the trial was less than a week away. And I was worried about Angela knowing about our relationship. She was Edward’s friend, so I knew she wouldn’t tell anyone, but if she’d been able to spot it, would someone else be able to as well?
“This is where I leave you,” Tim said, smiling down at us. “I’ll be back tomorrow, same time.”
“Great, man. Thanks,” Edward said before turning away and gently pushing me into the apartment.
“I’m gonna go...” I motioned to my clothes. I needed the vest off before I started hyperventilating from all the emotions that were slowly overtaking my sanity.
Edward followed me into the bedroom we were sharing, and when I yanked the top T-shirt off over my head, he was there to help undo the Velcro, allowing me to shrug out of the vest.
Face in my hands, I dropped to the edge of the bed and breathed deeply.
“Talk to me, Bella,” Edward said, sitting down beside me. He pried my hands away from my face and made me look at him. “Did something happen with Angela?”
I shook my head. “Just kind of losing all the adrenaline I had running through my system, so it’s hard to think straight.” I shivered, feeling chilled in my light T-shirt after having the vest on.
He nodded, wrapping an arm around me and rubbing my arm to warm me up.
“She knows, by the way,” I whispered, afraid that he would be upset.
Instead of being shocked or angry, Edward laughed, shaking his head. “I thought she might. The look she gave me before we left was pretty telling.”
“You’re not worried?”
He shook his head again. “Nah. She and Ben are good people. They won’t say anything, Bella, I swear it.”
“No, no!” I rushed to assure him. “I wasn’t worried about that. I know if they’re friends with you, they wouldn’t do that. I was just worried about anyone else noticing.”
“It’ll be fine, baby. Trust me.”
“I do,” I promised with a nod.
“Good.” He smiled and pressed a kiss to my temple. “Get dressed and then let’s get some lunch. I think we need a movie marathon this afternoon.”
I agreed and smiled as I said, “Sounds perfect.”
Edward POV
I was pretty fucking sure that Bella had no idea how damned sexy she was. I felt like a true shit for noticing it through all that was going on, but I honestly couldn’t help it. As I helped her into the Kevlar vest for her private meeting with the D.A., I had to grit my teeth with just how good she looked in my clothes. I’d thought my USMS shirt had looked the best on her when she wore it to bed, which was just about all the time now, but holy fuck, if my old black Batman tee hadn’t just about driven me mad.
Once we were back in the apartment and had spent the rest of the day watching movies, I’d made her put it back on before bed. That, and nothing else. Then, I’d fucked her hard against our bedroom door, just to watch her fall apart and to take away the worry that seemed to hover around her like a heavy cloud. She’d laughed at my reaction but taken it all in stride, wearing a silly-sweet smile when she finally fell asleep in my arms, still in my shirt.
Today, it was my Nike T-shirt – a simple navy blue with a bright white swoosh on the left. It was much tamer, much safer, but still looked fuck-hot on her. For a split second, I wondered if they made Batman lingerie, and not that silly shit for kids.
I groaned, mentally chastising my brain for waking up my dick. Now, he was completely on-board for anything and everything Bella was willing to give him. He was turning into her personal sex-slave. Not that I could blame him. Ever.
“Edward?” she whispered, running her fingers along my clenched jaw as I finished with the straps of the vest. “Are you upset about something?”
I huffed a laugh, shaking my head. “No, Bella. Just worried for you.” It was an innocent lie, but if she knew what I was really thinking, we’d be late for the meeting with no acceptable excuse as to why. “This will be hard, but not as hard as next week.”
She nodded, taking my Nike shirt and pulling it over her head. I was helping her with her hat, making sure her hair came through the hole in the back, when Tim’s knock echoed through the apartment.
I cupped her face, kissing her quickly but not as thoroughly as I would’ve liked. “You can do this. Ready?”
She nodded, taking a deep breath, and fidgeted with the straps of the vest before leaving our room to walk toward the front door, where Jasper had just called out that it was clear. Iverson was waiting patiently out in the hallway. He smiled kindly, nodding to me once.
“Just you today?”
Bella grimaced. “Yeah, just me.”
We took the stairs like the day before, with Tim leading and me at the rear. When we got to the apartment two floors down, Tim knocked three times before opening the door.
I placed a heavy hand on Bella’s shoulder. “Stay here with him, and I’ll clear the apartment, okay?”
Bella swallowed nervously but nodded.
The D.A. and his assistant didn’t even bother to greet me when I breezed through the whole place, checking bathrooms, bedrooms, and closets.
Meeting Tim’s gaze through the open door, I said, “We’re clear.”
“I’ll be here,” he stated, ushering Bella in and closing the door behind her.
“Good morning, Marie,” Mr. Banner greeted her, guiding her to the table where files, books, and briefcases were scattered everywhere. “Have a seat and we’ll get started.”
I made myself invisible, but stayed close enough that I could keep my eyes on not only Bella, but the rest of the apartment. Technically, I was to be a part of the background. Had this been any other witness, I probably wouldn’t have paid as close attention as I was about to. But this wasn’t just any other witness.
The Assistant D.A., Ms. Young, glanced my way, her eyes raking from my head to my feet. I kept my face completely void of any emotion, trying my damnedest not to roll my eyes. I was used to the look, but I neither wanted it, nor wanted to encourage it. When she smiled, I gave her nothing, which made her focus back on Bella.
“Okay, Marie,” Mr. Banner started, slapping a legal pad down in front of him. The damn thing was filled with black scrawling handwriting. “Here’s what we’re gonna do today. I want to go through what I’m going to ask you in court next week. Then, I want to go over what the defense is most likely going to ask you.”
He was easy on her for the most part, but it was hard watching Bella relive the night of her boss’s murder over and over. Each time she told it, it came out sounding flat, emotionless but honest. They went through the details of her relationship with Eleazar Denali, whether she’d ever seen the defendants in her office before, and finally, they spoke about the bar, Aria.
Banner asked her how much she’d had to drink, who she’d spoken to, and what time they’d left. He then walked her through leaving, walking to her office, the details about the alarms, why she didn’t want her boss to see her, and exactly what she’d heard, seen, and done while inside that building.
“Good, good,” Banner praised her once she was through recounting it all. “You’re doing great.”
Ms. Young slid another legal pad over to Banner but gave Bella a small smile. “Marie, before we go through the questions that the defense might ask of you, we need to go over who they are calling to the stand to try to discredit you. Okay?”
Bella nodded and fidgeted nervously, gazing down at her hands on top of the table. It was all I could do not to go to her, tell her that she was kicking this shit’s ass, but I couldn’t. I wanted to catch her eye, but from where I was standing, it wasn’t possible.
Banner nodded, dragging the pad over. “The fact that you’d been drinking is probably what they’ll focus on.”
“I wasn’t drunk,” Bella sneered. “I’d had a couple of beers and a shot, but by the time I walked to my office, I was sober.”
“We know that, Marie,” Ms. Young soothed. “But it’s the only thing going for them at this point. They have the bartender on their list of witnesses, along with a Jacob Black.”
Bella groaned, shaking her head and rubbing her eyes with the heels of her hands.
There was a part of me that wanted to beat this Jacob Black senseless for ever having touched her. It was irrational and stupid and juvenile, but it was there. I clenched my fists, which were locked behind my back, practically shaking with a thick, feral jealousy that I hadn’t felt in years. I’d felt it with Maggie and Randy, but not since then. I’d never allowed it, never allowed anyone to bring out that side of me, but this...this was harsher, almost violent. Gritting my teeth, I focused on Bella, whose cheeks were pink with anger and most likely embarrassment. But what brought me back to reality and calmed my temper was the list of questions that Banner was going over.
“Marie, they’re going to want to knock you off your game, so to speak,” Banner said softly, tilting his head at her. “You can’t let them. Just answer them as calmly and honestly as you can, and I’ll do my best to protect you by objecting to anything irrelevant. Okay?”
“Okay,” Bella whispered, biting on her lip.
Ms. Young nodded. “Good. Let’s see how you do. Now, did Jacob Black give you anything other than alcohol?”
“No. I don’t do drugs.”
“Could he have put something in your drink?”
“No. I never put my drink down anywhere.”
I wanted to smirk in pride. That was a fucking awesome answer. I’d seen more shit in bars than I liked to talk about, and more than once had I told a bartender to watch a motherfucker.
“Did you know Mr. Black before the night in question?” the assistant asked.
Bella shook her head, shifting in her seat. “No.”
“Ms. Brandon, do you make it a habit of having sex with strangers?”
“What?” Bella asked with a squeak to her voice.
My fists clenched so hard behind my back that every knuckle popped.
Banner turned to Ms. Young. “See, I think I’d have to object here. But I’m not so sure that the judge will overrule it.” He turned to Bella. “Answer the question.”
“Not a habit,” she spat back at him, “no. It just...happened.”
My chest hurt at the sound of her tone, and even worse when she looked to me briefly for help and I couldn’t do shit about it in that room. She was utterly mortified. I shifted my gaze to the floor, but didn’t move otherwise. When Bella had first explained her feelings of guilt back in Connecticut, I’d told her that no one could blame her for getting hers, for doing what every other hot-blooded American did on a fucking Friday night – myself included. The difference was, I wasn’t being called out on my behavior in a fucking court of law. And suddenly, I just...hurt for her. I couldn’t imagine having to explain my own past, my own encounters with strangers in front of a room full of people.
Banner coached her on her answers, telling her to stay calm, that no one would think less of her, but I could tell that shit was a flat-out lie. Had Bella been a man up on that stand, then no one would think less of him, but she wasn’t. She was a beautiful young woman who’d had a damn good career, and she held no long-term relationship. The defense would make her out to be a whore.
They switched gears on her, seeing that she was flustered.
“Marie, did you like your boss?” Ms. Young asked.
Bella shrugged, almost belligerently. “He was my boss. He treated me well, paid me well, and had been willing to take me straight out of college. He trusted me with some pretty big accounts, and I wanted to do well.”
“But you avoided him?”
Bella snorted. “He had a bad habit of calling an early end to my weekends. Yeah, I was avoiding him that night. Working six days a week wasn’t exactly what I signed up for.”
Both lawyers nodded, but it was Banner that spoke. “Excellent.”
They spent a little over an hour longer going over everything one more time, coaching her on better ways to answer questions. They told her that her sister’s testimony would only strengthen hers and that the two detectives – Ben and Angela – would do even more damage to Volturi’s defense. Before they let her go, Banner reminded me that they’d need Mary the next day, the same time. I nodded stiffly to him before knocking on the door to let Tim know we were coming out.
I had to give him credit. One glance at Bella’s face, and he left her alone, merely guiding us back up the stairs to the penthouse. I opened the door and let Bella in, but Iverson stopped me.
“She okay?” he asked.
“She will be when this is all over,” I told him and then thanked him.
He waved, saying he’d see me tomorrow.
I went inside to see Jasper and Alice looking dumbfounded and Bella nowhere in sight. I sighed, gripping my hair and shaking my head.
“What the hell happened?” Alice whispered, walking to me. “We tried to talk to her, tell her that we ordered Chinese, but she just...walked by.”
I nodded. “Jake.”
Alice eyes widened. “Oh. Edward, she... Do you want me to talk to her?”
I shook my head. “No. I think me being in the room made it worse.”
Jasper grimaced, but nodded. “I’ll let you know when the food is here. I have to go downstairs to get it.”
Waving a hand, I walked down the hallway to the bedroom that Bella and I shared. I walked in just in time to see her sling the Kevlar vest across the room and at the wall. It smacked hard, rattling a painting that was there. For a second, I thought it would fall, but it only swayed on its nail. Her hat flew next, but stalled out about halfway.
“Go away, Edward,” she snapped, not looking at me as she paced like a tiger in a cage.
“No. Can’t do it, Bella,” I countered, sitting on the edge of the bed. “I told you I wouldn’t do that. You said you didn’t want me to leave you alone, remember?”
She huffed but shook her head. “Well, if I didn’t need a new life before this fucking trial, I’ll sure as hell want one once it’s over. I make a good witness, but I’m a whore...”
“Bella!” I snapped, hating the derisive tone in which she was talking about herself. “Baby, come here,” I said, trying to soften my voice.
She came to stand in front of me, but it wasn’t as close as I wanted, so I reached out and pulled her between my legs. Her eyes were fiery yet sad as she focused more on my chest than my face. Taking her chin between my thumb and forefinger, I forced her gaze to mine.
“What did I tell you when you first told me about forgetting your phone and the night with Jake? You were feeling all this fucking needless guilt over something that wasn’t your fault.”
“That people forgot things all the time and that it didn’t matter that I was getting my rocks off with a guy,” she muttered, sounding like a child reciting some memorized passage.
I chuckled because she’d practically said it verbatim. “That’s right. Whose fault is it?”
“Volturi,” she whispered, tears welling up in her eyes, and I fucking hated it.
“That’s right,” I praised, pulling her closer when a sob erupted from her. “Sweetheart, why are you crying?”
“This... They... They made me feel...dirty,” she sputtered, looking away from me.
Grasping either side of her face, I turned her back to me and wiped away the tears that spilled down her cheeks. “I, for one, like it when you’re dirty,” I crooned, raising an eyebrow at her and chuckling when she did this absolutely adorable sniffle-snort combo thing, but she didn’t say anything else. “Bella, no one there will give a complete and utter fuck after this trial is over. In fact, that girl won’t even exist anymore. Marie Brandon and all her bar-hopping ways will fade away like a puff of smoke – I’d kill for a smoke, by the way.” I grinned at her frown, but kept going. “I know this is hard, but—”
“Necessary, I know,” she finished for me, rolling her eyes.
“Yes, true, but I was going to say I can’t judge you on any of it,” I admitted.
“Really? You looked so pissed down there,” she gasped, finally locking gazes with me for real.
I smiled, kissing her lips, and said, “I was really pissed, but not at you. I wanted to go to you, tell you that what people think shouldn’t matter in the big picture. But I couldn’t. They’d have seen right through me. It was all I could do not to pull you away.”
She relaxed infinitesimally in my arms but only nodded. “I thought you’d think differently of me.”
I snorted, shaking my head, and wiped away another tear or two. I really fucking hated to see her cry.
Sighing, I trailed my fingers down her beautiful face. “We are so alike,” I whispered, my brow wrinkling at the pure truth of that. Sniffing once, I asked, “Do you want to know what I was doing on the night in question?”
Bella’s dark eyes snapped to mine, and she licked her lips slowly as her brow wrinkled. I couldn’t tell what she was feeling because her face held an expression I didn’t recognize. She was quiet for a moment but swallowed before speaking.
Laughing humorlessly, I shook my head. “I was spending my night much like you, Bella. I was drunk on Jack Daniels, hanging out in a bar with Jazz, and then...a hotel room.”
“With Jazz?” she asked, giggling and squeaking when I gripped her sides.
“No, silly ass,” I growled at her, but I could see that she understood. “With a woman,” I stated, which quieted us down again.
Bella licked her lips and then smirked. “Was she pretty?”
I fought my smile and won, shrugging a shoulder nonchalantly as my hands traveled over her ass, down her legs, and back. “Eh, I think I’ve seen better. Was Jake all that?” I asked with a grin.
“No. I have seen better,” she said, letting her eyes rake over me.
“See? No blood, no foul,” I sang, patting the side of her leg. “Just don’t ask me her name,” I whispered conspiratorially.
“Oh, damn. It was like that?” she groaned with a shake of her head, rolling her eyes at me. Instead of judging me, she leaned in and sighed contentedly.
“Yeah, me and Mr. Jack Daniels had a long talk,” I told her with a chuckle, but sobered up almost immediately. “Look, sweetheart, this’ll suck...bad, but you just have to blurt it all out, and then you never have to look back. You can leave Marie behind and be Bella. However you want Bella to be.”
“Not like that. Not anymore.” Her nose wrinkled as she shook her head.
“Good, ’cause I kinda want you all for me,” I purred, leaning in to kiss her, interrupted by a knock on the door.
“Ed, Bella. I need to go downstairs,” Jasper called from the other side of the door.
Bella looked to me, grabbed my face, and kissed me. “You should go. Get in that cigarette before you shoot some-damn-body.”
Grinning, I kissed her back. Hard. It left her a little jelly-like when I pulled away. “You’re the best, my Bella.”
She rolled her eyes, waving me on, and said, “I told you... Rome wasn’t built in a day. And you’ve done amazing.”
I nodded and kissed her forehead. “Thanks.” I opened the door to see Jasper standing there. “I’ll go,” I told him, holding up my cigarettes from my pocket, and he nodded with a smirk. Turning to Bella one last time, I grinned. “Fuck ’em, Bella. Silver lining, remember?” I reminded her, thinking about how she’d liked that Bella Swan didn’t have an ex named Mike. I was hoping this would work the same.
She nodded, smiling shyly. “Got it. Fuck ’em.”
Jasper and I laughed, both saying, “Thatta girl!” before leaving her in the room.


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