Chapter 17

The next day, the Michaels left for Portland, Maine with a few of their crew to have fun with some people on Bella’s list, leaving her at the Michaels family home with Neal and Jason, the only familiar faces. It felt stupid to stay at the Michaels home because she no longer felt safe. Her home was more secure than the wide open spaces, even though they were well guarded by good friends of Nick.

They called themselves ‘The Troubles’, and like with the Michaels, a woman was in charge. Her name was Lucy and she mainly hung out in the courtyard while her men had all sides covered, and even the tunnel.

Neal kept himself entertained by trying to get away from the Troubles by sneaking past them and getting caught every single time. He found it a challenge. But with just her laptop to do damage with, Bella had started to get a little stir crazy and spent hours in the kitchen to cook food for everyone, making sure to relieve the kitchen of its contents so that maybe Jason could take her out into the city and go to a supermarket. She made homemade ice cream. Cookies. Dinner. Lunch.

The problem with the kitchen was that it was quite the professional kitchen and the pantry and the freezer were huge and well stocked. It was strange, because there usually weren’t enough people around to empty the contents of the kitchen, it was almost as if the Michaels had stuffed the kitchen in case of emergencies. It made sense, but it was still freaky. Not even Bella was this prepared.

Two weeks later, the group returned after having taken down one of the people on Bella’s list and Bella just wanted to go home. The FBI had taken her siblings into custody and frozen the family’s assets and while she knew she wasn’t safe, yet, she was getting cabin fever. It took her a while to get that at the Vineyard as there were many things to do, but being in a confined space and not surrounded by her own things, the loss of privacy… it didn’t do wonders on her mental health or her relationship with Neal.

Neal was a total gem though, he tried to keep her entertained, taught her some new tricks, lifted her spirits but she just wanted out. There were simply too many hours in a day where she was conscious. Aside from cooking and maybe spend two hours of watching a movie with Neal, she also took care of a few names on the list with her laptop. Hack, falsify records and alert the authorities. Boring stuff. Easy stuff. Her mind not engaged.

Playing poker against a con-artist, and some of the Troubles was as if playing a game nobody ever could win as everyone was cheating. The first few times it was fun, but it started to become a competition and repetitive.

But she wanted to enjoy her own home.

She was well aware that she was acting like a spoiled rich kid right now. An ungrateful brat who didn’t appreciate it that there were people helping her with her problems. She was very grateful, even though the people helping her weren’t planned. Bella would have done it all on her own. But, she would have alienated Neal because she could get obsessive, she wouldn’t have the nice people around her who liked her for who she was.

She was still fed up. This needed to end.

“We’re really appreciative with your help but, with you guys back, is it okay for Bella and myself to go back to our own home? After all, we’re connected by a tunnel and I’m sure Bella would give you the access codes to the doors for easy access,” Neal said while they were enjoying the meal he and Bella whipped up in celebration of the Michaels returning.

Bella’s heart swelled as she looked at Neal, beaming with pride. He did know her as well as he could and she didn’t have to say anything, she’d been nervous about that.

“As much fun you guys are, we really want to have a little bit of freedom back,” he added as he took a sip of his wine. “If you’re worried about our safety or don’t trust us not to leave our home, we have a guest room and Nathan and Lucy can stay in.”

Myriam smiled at that. “Why them?”

“Don’t trust Duke, Dwight is unable to make himself invisible because he’s too big and Jordan is a cheater.”

“What!” Jordan exclaimed loudly. “I do not cheat!”

“Yeah, you do,” the rest of them nodded.

“And Nathan’s most deadly enemy is words while Lucy and Bella have seemed to make some connection and seeing as that’s very rare for Bella. Yeah. Nathan and Lucy will do just fine,” Neal said with a straight face, causing Bella to let out a snort.

“Yeah, go,” Myriam nodded. “But don’t use the front door, we’ll have someone in the building opposite of yours, and if there’s anything wrong, use the tunnel to get here. To be honest, I was surprised to still find you here.”

“You told us to stay put,” Neal pointed out. “But we kinda had enough of that,” he said with a nod. “And we both want in on the next job.”

“You got it,” Myriam smiled. “Go, have fun, take Lucy and Nathan.”

~o.O.o~

After showing Nathan and Lucy their part of the house, Bella started making a groceries list for one of them to get for them if they wanted to be fed. She then put Neal in her desk chair and nestled in his lap as she waited for her computer to boot.

“What are we doing?” Neal asked playfully as he put his arms around her and nuzzled her neck. “We just got home and one of the first things you do is go here.”

“Bigger screens to see what they’re doing with the Cullens,” Bella sighed happily. “And I want to see if you’re willing to forge a painting for us,” she smiled at him. “There’s this painting of Lorenzo Medici that’s absolutely stunning and it would be perfect above our fireplace.”

“Me?”

“You’re better at that stuff, I would get the details almost right… it’s gorgeous, Neal, I think you’ll find it a challenge too.”

He let out a snort. “I think I know what painting you’re talking about,” he opened the browser after her computer had booted and did an image search for it. “It’s one of the most striking paintings there is, Lorenzo’s features are well documented and his blue eyes seem to be looking at you.”

She nodded as he found the image.

“He’s gorgeous,” Neal smiled. “But I can do better than that, I promise. I know exactly what we need above that fireplace.”

“Really? You want to make an original Neal Caffrey like the other painting you did?”

Neal hummed for an answer. “Although when I’m done with it, you may want to hang it in a more private place…”

“Neal,” Bella laughed.

“You better do what you wanted to do right now because you and I have a date with our bed that’s long over due.”

Bella bit her lip as she looked at him through her eye lashes. Yes, their current needs were more important than checking up on her relatives who were supposedly in prison. “Yeah,” she put her arms around his neck and softly kissed him. “You’re right, our own bed does sound really nice… so does our bath…”

~o.O.o~

There was no hope that morning when she woke when the sun came up through the half closed curtains. Neal was softly snoring away still, and she forced herself to stay in bed for longer as she was so comfortable, but eventually relented and made her way into the bathroom to get herself cleaned up and dressed before making breakfast and coffee for her love and their temporary house mates.

Bella started off making banana bread with oatmeal so that could go in the oven before she started on the waffles. She made a bit of waffle batter with pumpkin and cinnamon to make a few waffles with, and once they were in the waffle iron the smells were just fantastic in the kitchen. Add the coffee to that and she was in heaven.

She hopped on the kitchen counter and grabbed her mug of coffee before settling there to look out the window. There were cars passing by, pedestrians and cyclists. The occasional drunk tourist stumbling back to their hotel. Bella really loved her home, and hoped that she’d never had to leave New Orleans permanently – make New Orleans her home.

She liked the quiet times like these, it made her forget everything else that was going on, it made her feel as if she was back at the vineyard of Uncle Garrett. Peaceful. Ready to take on the rest of the day. Bella knew that he was in hiding right now, Liam had put him away securely, and she couldn’t call him out of fear that his connection wasn’t safe. Liam had assured her that Garrett was fine, though, so that was one worry off of her chest.

They’d been holed up in Bella’s house for a few days now, basically trading the Michaels’ house for hers, and she was itching to take a stroll through the Quarter. Maybe get a few canvasses or replace her baton that she left in the car in Paris. While they had plenty of items in the house to protect themselves, she always liked to carry her expendable baton everywhere, just in case, and she’d felt naked.

So that was the plan for today. Head into New Orleans. Maybe ditch her escort. While Lucy and Nathan were great at protecting people, they didn’t have a lot of experience with the art of disappearing in the streets. At least Lucy didn’t.

After breakfast, Bella grabbed her bag and waited for Lucy to be ready. She had said she wanted to have a girls day out with Lucy, and she would, in the beginning, have that. Retail therapy. Bella bought some nice artisan soaps at the boutique and then had lunch with Lucy on the waterfront. Excusing herself to use the restroom, Bella headed inside and left through the side door out of Lucy’s sight and made sure to stay clear of cameras before hopping on one of the carts and went on her way.

She was happy when she acquired her baton and then went on a shopping spree in a comic store, finding figurines and comic posters to adorn her computer room even further. Bella then went to an antique bookstore and picked up a few books on art for Neal and some classic movies on VHS before going back to the Quarter and had a coffee at the waterfront, enjoying the weather and just watching the water. It was nice and peaceful.

“Izzy Sheppard?”

Bella looked up to see an older woman standing in front of her. She had red hair, dressed immaculately and she had this air of authority around her. But she wasn’t law enforcement. It was entirely possible though, that she was part of the Volturi or one of their associates. Bella set down her cup of coffee on the table as her free hand slid into her bag to take hold of her baton. If needed, she’d hit this woman so hard she’d stars until the next century. “Who wants to know?”

The woman handed Bella her business card. “Sara Ellis, Insurance Investigator with Sterling Bosch. Can I sit with you for a moment?”

Bella looked at the card and slowly nodded as she thought of where she heard the name Sara before. And it was then that she knew. “Uh, sure? How did you find me?”

“Finding things is what I do, Miss Sheppard, finding people isn’t that hard,” Sara smiled as she sat down. “You came back into the country last month accompanied by this man,” she said as she pulled up a photo of Neal on her phone and showed it to her. “I watched the CCTV, I know you know him.”

“Yeah, that’s Neal,” Bella nodded.

“I’m trying to find him. Do you have any idea where he is? Where he might be? Any means of contacting him?”

“Why is an Insurance Investigator looking for my friend? What did he do?”

“Oh, I’m not looking for him in any official capacity,” Sara replied.

“But you introduced yourself to me as an Insurance Investigator with Sterling Bosch,” Bella said confused. “Isn’t that you introducing yourself in official capacity?”

Sara’s mouth almost fell open. “Force of habit.”

“Right.”

“Look, he’s my friend. I’m worried about him, that’s all. He’s just so damn hard to get a hold of.”

Bella reached for her coffee with a small smile on her face. “Ex-boyfriend?”

Sara sighed and nodded. “It’s complicated. We ended things amicably but you know… friends with benefits and all… I mean… wouldn’t you? He’s a great guy!”

Bella shrugged. “Maybe there’s a reason he didn’t stay in touch with you. He leads a busy life, after all.”

“Does he?”

“Yeah,” Bella nodded as she took a sip of her coffee. “Neal told me he’s into antiques. Mostly paintings.”

“He just can’t let it go, can he?” Sara muttered under her breath, shaking her head. “Anyway, can you tell him to call me?” she asked as she pointed at the card. “No matter where he is, I’m willing to travel.”

“For what? A quick fuck?” Bella rolled her eyes at the woman as she finished her coffee and put money down on the table. “Doesn’t sound like the Neal I know.”

“Because he’s likely not the Neal you know,” Sara replied quickly. “He’s a con artist. Suspected of many crimes but nothing really stuck. He did time in jail a while back for bond forgery. You can’t trust him.”

“And yet you want to see him again,” Bella said thoughtfully, anger bubbling underneath her skin. “What are you? Some bad boy groupie? Is that your kink? Do bad boys turn you on?” When Sara remained quiet, Bella continued. “I know Neal as a compassionate, smart and thoughtful guy. His mind is sharp and he’s extremely funny. Whenever he’s around, I feel safe with him. I don’t care that he’s a con artist, I’m a big girl and can take care of myself. You, however, should be careful with this obsession of yours. You don’t know who you put in harm’s way with it.”

Sara looked at her for a moment, realizing something. “You know who he truly is.”

“Of course I know who he is, he trusts me enough to tell me the truth about himself. It’s my job to protect his secret, and if you cared anything about him, you’d back the fuck off because you know damn well what he did and why he did it. If you are his friend, as you claim to be, you respect that.”

“I can’t.”

Bella got to her feet as she looked at Sara. “Then I pity you.”

“Imagine being in my shoes for a moment.”

“I have.”

“Then you know it’s hard.”

She sighed and tiredly pinched the bridge of her nose. “Miss Ellis, you really need to let him go. From what I understand is that you two weren’t together when he did what he did and you have no reason to behave the way you’re doing now. You’ll only hurt yourself in the process. Hell, get some help, because this obsession isn’t healthy. Like… at all.” Bella made sure that her hand was still in her bag, firmly holding on to her baton. “Enjoy New Orleans, have a good day,” she said as she walked away.

While Bella was extremely annoyed and angry with her boyfriend’s ex, she had to keep her head. She needed to make absolutely sure that she wasn’t being followed by Sara as she made her way back home, and from what Neal had told her about Sara; Sara was quite good at chasing people.

But Bella was better.

Bella understood obsession. Obsession with numbers or code wasn’t bad, but people obsessing over other people? That could turn ugly. Fast. And it wasn’t just Neal’s life on the line. Someone with Sara’s resources could fuck shit up for her. She could dig deeper, look passed the surface. Figure out who Bella was, who the Cullens were. The Volturi. No, Sara Ellis was a threat.

She eventually made it back home through the tunnel and she was greeted by the furious faces of Nathan, Lucy, Myriam and Nick. “I’m fine.”

“You still have a giant fucking target on your back and you ditched Lucy?” Myriam said furiously. “For what?”

“Me time,” Bella said as she dropped the bag of goodies on the couch and crossed her arms over each other. “And I came back safely. And I won’t do it again, I promise.”

“You keep saying that. You’re a flight risk,” Myriam said curtly. “Maybe I should just handcuff you to your bed.”

“Won’t work,” Neal said amused as he walked into the room and saw the look on Bella’s face. “You’re pissed off.”

“I am.”

“But not with them.”

“Nope,” Bella shook her head. “While I am safe, I did identify a new threat to you, Neal. To us. To all of us, actually, because if this bitch starts to dig even further, we’ll all be in danger of the remaining Volturi and associates of the Cullens. Not to mention old enemies and shit like that.”

“Another one?”

“Oh yeah, and it’s not even related to me, either. It’s one of Neal’s friends. She has a penchant for bad boys and tried to warn me about him,” she said with a playful smile on her face and then looked at him as she took the business card out of her bag and walked over to Neal to hand it to him. “She wants you to call her.”

“Ohh, ex-girlfriend?” Lucy piped up, intrigued.

“An ex who’s an Insurance Investigator and uses company resources to hunt down her ex-boyfriend she’s obsessed with and wants to get back with,” Bella replied with a nod. “She found me because she watched the CCTV of our arrival at the airport and figured I was a friend of his.”

“What?”

“Facial recognition and all that, I suppose,” Bella kept her eyes on Neal, searching his face for answers but he looked half ashamed, half scared. “Imagine what she could do with her resources.”

“I am,” Neal said as he ran his hand over his face, knowing full well the mess that Sara could get them in, or even herself. “We can’t con her, she’ll see a con coming from miles away. She’s determined enough to keep digging even without her resources at Sterling Bosch so getting her boss to fire her because of this isn’t an option either. This is a disaster.”

“Well, glad you’re home safe,” Nick said as he pushed himself off the chair he was sitting on and took Myriam’s hand. “We’ll leave you to it. Don’t ditch your escort again.”

“We’re working on an elaborate plan to take down five of your list at the same time and might need your help later,” Myriam smiled widely. “So don’t leave.”

“Not going anywhere,” Bella shook her head and not before long, she and Neal were alone. “Sara’s a bitch. She’s an obsessed… junkie, jonesing for you.”

“She wasn’t like that, at all,” Neal defended himself. “I swear.”

“She’s dangerous.”

“I realize that. I’ll call her. This isn’t like her, at all.”

“And what if she doesn’t give up?”

Frustrated, he ran a hand through his hair and sighed. “I don’t know. Maybe ask Mozzie to deal with her, hypnotize her or something.”

Bella scoffed. “Yeah right.”

“Let me call her and if things don’t work out, we’ll see what else we can do.”

Neal called Sara, and Bella left him alone with her computer to do so, but she doubted that him talking to Sara would actually work. She headed into the kitchen where she found Lucy and Nathan just hanging out and started on dinner. And dessert. Today was a good day for dessert. Some sweet, boozy dessert.

“You need to stop escaping, girl,” Lucy shook her head. “Making us look bad.”

“I’m not going out again. You can have my keys, change locks or whatever, I’m not leaving this house, not even with one of you,” she said as she took her phone to start a playlist and used bluetooth to route it so that Taylor Swift was blaring through the speakers in the kitchen and then started to ignore Lucy and Nathan who were sat at the kitchen island.

This shit was on her.

Cooking would definitely help.

She could erase Sara Ellis, just as easily as she did with the remnants of Neal’s old life. Shitface could do that, despite Bella having recently retired Shitface, Shitface could make a comeback. Sara Ellis would feel the wrath of Bella Cullen for being a potential threat to her and the one she loved. Bella really hoped that Neal could talk Sara out of things this time, he was going to have to up his game this time but she was sort of confident. Neal was a smooth talker. He and Sara had a history and Bella was confident that he could use that.

Bella kept cooking and eventually Lucy and Nathan left, but Neal appeared in the same spot, just looking at what she was doing. The kitchen island slowly filling with goodies and it wasn’t until Bella started yet another project was that she was stopped by Neal pulling her into his arms. “You don’t need to feed an orphanage, beautiful,” he whispered in her ear. “You’ve got nothing to worry about, Sara’s backing off.”

She sighed happily in his arms. “Really?”

“Yes,” he smiled as he planted a kiss on her neck. “She’s going to destroy all the information she’s gathered on you, on me, and she’s going to move on. For her own safety,” he kissed her neck again. “And I’m also going to find someone who can keep an eye on her from a distance, to make sure that she backs off and stays that way.”

“And if not?”

“I’d rather don’t want to think about that, but for now, we have one less thing to worry about.”

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