Bella had been to New Orleans once. Once. And she had fallen so much in love with the French Quarter that she had acquired her own space behind her family’s back while she was cleaning up after them. Mia Robbins was the proud owner of a huge guest house on Dumaine Street, half a block away from Bourbon Street and Royal Street. She hadn’t actually lived in it yet, but it would be the perfect hiding spot.
The guest house was far too big for her, but she really hadn’t been able to control herself as she’d walk passed it. 10 bedrooms and 9 bathrooms was definitely overkill for just one person, much like Uncle Garrett’s apartment in Paris, but that was smaller in size. Bella’s guest house was over 5000 square feet in space, and before she had bought it, it was used as a bed and breakfast but it had been in disarray and she had been able to scoop it up for a low price.
There was no way that she was going to use it as a bed and breakfast. She liked her privacy. It hadn’t been easy to restore the 1820’s Creole Mansion to its original state, Bella wanted less rooms and less bathrooms – she figured to half it would be best but loved the walls, the ceiling and the patio of the space.
Cracked tiles and exposed brick everywhere. It truly was like a home in the French Quarter like you’d see on television.
She had hired one of the best and private renovation specialists with whom she had communicated while away. There now was a big kitchen area with everything she’d ever wanted and still remaining in the style of the house. These days, everything could be made or bought with the right amount of money and it was easy for Bella to get money.
For her, it was important to have a big stove, lots of counter space and a fridge that was three times the size she was. There was also a lot of space to put appliances and kitchen implements. Cupboards. Drawers. Large table with chairs. She couldn’t wait to see it all in the flesh, sort to speak.
She had seen pictures of the den, of her computer room, the master bedroom and several guest bedrooms. There was a library without books and one of the other rooms had been made smaller but it was her art studio.
The big covered walkways over the street and the external stairs had also been a great selling point. You couldn’t actually see the stairs from the street, as it was hidden behind two doors, but once you were through the doors, there was a passageway to the patio and on the right a set of stairs to get to the top. Underneath the stairs there was a lot of storage space.
A private security firm that she trusted had done the security on her home. Cameras. Alarms. And once installed, she remotely wiped all of their access codes and made her own.
Her home was every girl’s wet dream. Bella hadn’t been sure if she’d ever use it, but now she would. No one knew about her home, not even her family. It was safe, and New Orleans was filled with enough hiding spots should things get a little too hot underneath her feet.
But first, they had to actually get there. Carlo’s forged passport for Neal had looked great, a lot better than either she or Neal could have come up with in a short amount of time and it got them through customs at Charles De Gaulle Airport. It was always rewarding to see hard work rewarded like that. Neal mentioned that he was excited to go to New Orleans, seeing as while he had traveled far and wide while running from Peter Burke, he’d never been to New Orleans.
And seeing as Bella had only been there once before, they both couldn’t wait to explore the beautiful city.
During or after their brainstorm on how to set up the Cullens, of course. It was more important to take them down, and they’d likely have to move to a different city to get everyone together but for now, nobody knew that she was going to be in New Orleans and she deserved a breather, didn’t she?
She didn’t know much about New Orleans other than she’d been there for a job once with her family and that she had her own home there now. And also that it was likely that she and Neal had to pay a visit to the Michaels family. The Michaels were a family of con-artists themselves, and they basically claimed the French Quarter as their own. At least that’s what she remembered what her parents had told them. It was always good to inform the major players that you were in town.
And not meaning any harm.
It was going to be a tossup between the Michaels’ accepting her and Neal’s presence in the Quarter after Edward made promises to Nick Michaels and, of course, didn’t make good on his promise, so Bella was ready for repercussions. Or whatever the Michaels decided.
Maybe she should have thought before she bought the house. The worst outcome would be that she’d have to do a few things for the Michaels family. Who cared?
But she truly didn’t mean any harm. She simply wanted to live there, her work was all done online anyway. It was Neal that worried her, but Bella was certain that he could switch off too. Be normal. Do things he liked that didn’t have anything to do with stealing or forging. Just relax. Forget the rest of the world for a while.
But, first order of business was to arrive in New Orleans, get through customs, grab a taxi and go and admire her own place. Followed by buying groceries, some clothes and sleep, in no particular order.
Bella couldn’t contain her excitement as they were driven into the French Quarter. There were no words, really. The rich history mixed with some of the new…The buildings, the people… it was as if she was seeing it for the first time, but she wasn’t. But she was now in New Orleans for herself. It was now her home. And she’d fallen in love all over again. Even in the car, she could hear the faint notes of jazz music and she couldn’t wait to go to one of the bars to experience it all live.
“We’ve talked about this, Neal,” Bella looked at him, still wearing a stupid grin on her face. “It’s Izzy, unless we’re safely inside my house.”
“Sorry,” Neal laughed. “But the look on your face is just adorable.”
She stuck out her tongue to him. “This is what true freedom feels like. You’re going to love my house.”
“You haven’t even seen it yourself!”
“I’ve seen enough,” she replied as she looked back out of the window. “Forget Paris. New Orleans is a majestic unicorn compared to Paris.”
“It’s also French.”
“I know,” Bella looked back at him with a smile. “But this is the first time I’m somewhere by myself. Not with my family, not on a family deadline or with my uncle. No strings, no obligations… my own private sanctuary…” She then sighed happily. “I can do whatever I want, when I want, without having to tell someone I want to do something.” She then jabbed his arm with her index finger. “And for the next few days, I want to enjoy being in New Orleans, soak it all up and do fun stuff. I need fun stuff.”
“The Dirty Dancing kind of fun stuff?”
“Nooooo,” Bella shook her head. “The drinking, dancing and sightseeing kind of fun stuff. Maybe even some karaoke.”
“Oh, no, not karaoke!”
A devious grin appeared on her face.
“Now we’re definitely going to do some karaoke!”
Her home was everything she could have ever wished for, and more. It was secure, it was big, there were so many tiny details that she loved. Her computer room was interesting, something she hadn’t seen clearly on the pictures, but it was in the room with a loft, and all of her computer things were on the loft, and downstairs there was a nice area to hang on one of the comfortable sofas she bought and a big screen TV with an entertainment set.
There was also a fridge that she could stock up with for drinks or snacks and the walls had frames on them with enlarged covers of comic books that she liked. Some Hellblazer comics, others were that of Supergirl or the Green Arrow.
Because she didn’t take any of her belongings with her when she went to Uncle Garrett, and they’d likely be destroyed by now by her family, the display cabinets were empty, but she was certainly going to fill them with trinkets she could find.
Another important area to her was the kitchen and it was everything she’d hoped for. Exposed beams and exposed walls, and the entire kitchen in a classic French country style. The big stove and the big fridge-freezer combination melted perfectly into the area. She loved the way how the light wood worked with the grey of the countertops and then there was some dark red in her kitchen somewhere too.
The kitchen felt nice and homey and she couldn’t wait to start cooking in it.
And as with all the other rooms, her bedroom was even better than the pictures she’d seen of it. Again with the exposed beams on the ceiling, but all the walls were intact. French doors opened to the balcony overlooking the patio and giving access to the other rooms on that side of the building and there was a fireplace installed as well. A fake one, but a good fake, nonetheless. It did look like logs were burning with the fireplace turned on, but the heat came from other areas.
Bella almost had a nerdgasm when she figured out that the heating in her room was connected to the fireplace. Turn on the heat, the fireplace switched on.
And just because she could, there was an Emperor sized bed in her bedroom. Plenty of room to get nightmares, toss and turn all night without actually falling off. Although, knowing her luck, she’d manage to fall off the bed anyway. Bella fell down onto the bed and sighed happily. The mattress was just right.
She peeled herself off the bed after a few minutes of just lying there, and explored the rest of the home before finding Neal in the patio. “What do you think?”
“Your home is amazing,” he replied, nodding. “A bit impersonal though.”
“I’m going to fix that,” Bella pointed out as she sat down in one of the other chairs. “I have nothing. It’s likely my family has thrown it all away or destroyed it, which is fine, I have all the personal items I need in the bag I took.”
“That’s not a personal item, Neal, that’s a tool,” Bella laughed. “Nah, just small things. A trinket, a picture… that sort of personal item. Everything else is replaceable.”
He nodded, knowing the feeling all too well. “My friend Mozzie has this teddy bear. Tattered. He got that when he was growing up in an orphanage and called it Mozart. Moz has moved a lot over the years, but where he goes, that bear goes. I didn’t take anything with me, couldn’t, really. Not with the way how I left.”
“What would you have taken with you?”
Neal shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe the key to June’s house. It felt like home. Never stayed in a place long enough before that.”
She smiled then. “And here you are, leaving your cozy apartment in Montmartre to come with me to New Orleans.”
“Eh, I got bored,” he laughed. “Getting that Picasso was definitely a highlight, for such a simple job.”
“You got into the Louvre, that sounds so much more exciting!”
“You could get into the Louvre, even bypass their security system without actually having to do all the work,” Neal pointed out. “Even with all the new upgrades I told them to get. No, I liked getting that Picasso because I actually liked working with Mia, and then finding out she was you. The Picasso and everything that followed after taught me a great deal.”
“That you can still pull a con for the thrill and fun, but that there’s a different, a sort of beneficial for all angle that interests me,” Neal replied, smiling at her as he leaned back in his chair. “I never thought of that. I just wanted to keep the items because they were worth money or beautiful.”
Bella had figured that that was the reason why Neal stuck around, and that was alright. While he had seemed to have found his ‘off switch’, and acted a lot more relaxed, he was still an opportunist and Bella wasn’t going to allow herself to be played. She’d just have to crush that small crush on him that she was developing. No more figuring out what he looked like underneath his clothes. Likely well-sculpted but she’d never see him like that unless she’d catch him without his shirt on. And that was creepy.
“Well, I still keep some of the things I get, but having a storage space somewhere filled with beautiful antiques and paintings is an insult to the artists. Best place for them is to stay in museums where everyone can look at them. Going after the bad people is what I like, I get my money elsewhere, anyway,” she replied as she dug around in her pocket. “Speaking of which, Neal Carter has a bank account, there’s 50k in that account,” she said as she placed the card on the table with the code attached on a sticky note. “I”ll get you the papers later. The money can be traced back to legitimate sources. On top of that, if you’d like, I can get you a pencoin account like the one I have, where the money you’ll have will be untraceable and I can set up an extra funnel. Whenever I decide to have a bad guy donate to a charity, you’ll get a percentage of that money.”
He looked at her in surprise. “Why would you do that? I do have money, you know.”
She shrugged. “I figured you’re sticking around not only to help me with the Cullens but also to learn a different way to pull off a con for different reasons, so having some money might help you maintain your lifestyle, and payment for the job.”
“Wow,” Neal let out a breath and shook his head in disappointment, maybe hurt. “You really think that little of me?”
She tilted her head as she looked at him and scratched the side of her head. “What other reason could there be for you to follow me to New Orleans? Aside from the reasons previously mentioned and getting the chance to make fools out of the Cullens and run from your insurance investigator ex-girlfriend?”
“You really make me sound like an asshole when you put it like that.” Bella could see that he was hurt, Neal looked like he had received a slap in the face. “For someone who’s good at cold reading people and manipulating marks, you’re really clueless as what’s happening in front of your face, aren’t you? You truly switch off.”
“I’m sorry,” she replied.
Neal leaned forward, a big goofy smile on his face. “No, that’s okay, it’s cute. But let me tell you the real reason I’m here, with you. I think you’re an amazing person, Bella, and I really want to spend more time with you, to be with you.”
She let out a breath she didn’t know she was holding and nodded. Friends. Fine. She could work with that, she didn’t have enough of those. “Okay.”
“And not just as friends.”
Bella looked at him in surprise. “Sorry?”
He gently placed his hand on her arm and squeezed it gently. “I really like you, Bella. When we were at the museum, working together as Mia and George? I practically forced myself not to think about you because I knew what I was going to do and I didn’t want to ruin your life, because you didn’t deserve it. When you walked in on me stealing the Picasso, I forgot all about that,” he replied. “And sure, I wasn’t quite sure what to think when your uncle told me you were a Cullen, because they’re known to be ruthless assholes, but you’re different. You’re this beacon of light who touches every person it comes into contact with and you’re beautiful. It’s so easy to be around you and just be, and that’s very special.”
She felt her face redden and warm up. “Uh…”
“So, in short, I’ve fallen for you, Bella and I don’t want to get up. Please tell me that I’ve read you correctly and you feel the same because otherwise I’ve made a huge ass out of myself.”
Bella bit her lip as she looked at him. She had not expected this to happen. “I’ve been wondering myself how good we’d be together. Not just as partners in crime.”
“Let’s figure that out then.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Can I kiss you now? Please?”