La Casita Restaurant - Las Vistas
Isabella peaked out from underneath the large umbrella she was sitting under and stared intently at the line in the sky. The forecast had predicted a 50% chance of scattered thunderstorms and that hedged bet remained uncertain as the blue horizon to the west collided with the smoky grey clouds running up from the east.
The unseasonable heat had finally cooled down to normal with the exception of the warm gusts that blew in from the Santa Ana's kicking up off the coast. She breathed in deeply as another one swept across her, carrying the faint scent of salt water and cactus flowers.
She tugged at the tight bun that she had tied her hair up in, loosening it, wanting to let it all down but stopping just short of doing so, and forced her hands back to the table to be still. The command only lasted a few seconds before one of them picked up her fork and pushed around the last of her salad as she listened to Lexie call off items on the ridiculously long list they had spent the morning creating.
Lexie's voice faded into the sound of the palms rustling overheard, clinking glasses and dishes that a busboy was clearing from a nearby table, and the mummer of the other conversations going on around her intensified; but something was missing from that cacophony: birds. There were no birds chirping. She looked up and scanned the trees and then around the grounds and the fountain. They weren't there. Maybe the storm would come and they had been smart enough to run while they still could. Maybe she should have followed the birds.
“Boss?” Lexie's voice cut in sharply, startling her. “Are you listening?”
“The furniture,” Isabella said, dropping her fork and shifting on the hard wood of her chair. “Have you found somewhere for that to go?”
“Yes, I'll be taking some of it and I'll put the rest in storage.”
“Okay. What about the cars?”
“It took doing on such short notice, but I've found a very grateful collector to take them. They'll be donated anonymously of course; except the red Mercedes, as instructed.”
“Good. I want you to keep that.”
Lexie paused, throwing Isabella a perplexed look. “But boss -”
“Lexie, you're keeping it,” Isabella interrupted with a soft smile. “What about my credit cards and bank accounts?”
“I’ve left them intact and set up some regular, autonomous charges so that it looks like you're still using them in town.”
Isabella let out a sigh and dropped the remainder of the dinner roll she had nearly crumbled into dust. For goodness sakes why wouldn't her hands just be still? “Stacy is handling the press conference tomorrow, I've given all of the briefing materials over to my proxy, all the clothes I'm taking with me are packed...what else? What else do I need to do? I'm forgetting something. What am I missing?”
Lexie watched as Isabella downed the rest of her glass of wine and stared off into space, as had been her custom during the last 24 hours. She had gone through half a case of Merlot and had started in on the Sauvignon Blanc before Lexie could clear out the wine cellar. How she had managed not to pickle herself in alcohol, Lexie didn't know, but she was certain that her boss was right: she was definitely missing something.
“Certainty,” Lexie whispered.
“That's what you're missing. I know that a part of you really wants this, but the other part only wants to want this. You're not completely sure, so before you end your life as you know it and give up everything to follow this man, you need to be sure. You need to have certainty.”
Isabella furrowed her brow, her eyes fluttering, trying to blink back tears. Before she could speak, Lexie grabbed her hand across the table and smiled.
“I don't know what this is like and I don't know what I would do if I were you; I've never been loved the way he loves you. But, I know you. I've watched you make a lot of hard decisions and this isn't how you act when you've made up your mind. I'll do anything to want me to, as long as you give yourself the time to be sure about this.” She held Isabella's gaze for a moment before collecting her things and rising from the table.
“I'll see you later boss. I've got a lot of work to do.”
Isabella watched Lexie walk away and let a steam of tears fall as soon as she was out of sight. Why did that woman always have to be so damn right about everything? She was torn; nearly to pieces at this point, but she was tired of thinking about things, tired of sitting on the fence and waiting for this certainty that she supposedly needed. There would be hurt and pain either way and that was the only thing she was certain of.
Her phone vibrated wildly on the glass top table and she grabbed it with one hand and wiped at her tears with the other. She smiled as she read the text Nico had sent her: Stay strong baby. After tomorrow it's you and me forever. I love you.
Her heart swelled as she read the words back quietly again to herself. She started to reply to him but the sound of footsteps shuffling towards her drew her attention. She looked up, caught between surprise and happiness as she registered the face looking back at her.
“I was just thinking about you. How are you doing? Why are you here alone,” Reese said, smiling down at her.
Isabella smiled back at him and snatched the hand with her phone in it down off the table; as if she were a child caught in an act of defiance, and slid it back into her purse as he sat down.
“I'm fine,” she said, casually wiping at any remaining tears on her face. “Lexie just left, so I haven't been alone for long. What are you doing here?”
“I was just picking up some lunch and I saw you sitting here. I got worried when you didn't return my calls the other night but the patrol guard said that everything was fine. I wish you had let me take you home but apparently your friend got you there safely.”
“He did,” she replied, turning her head to keep him from looking at her straight on as he watched her intently.
“I really wanted to be there for you, but I'm glad I wasn't, otherwise I wouldn't have found a possible suspect for the break in.”
Dropping her evasive stance she turned to him, revealing the smudged eyeliner on the left side of her face. She watched him take note of it before proceeding.
“You're not going to believe this, but I think that Sloane Stevens had something to do with this.”
“What? That doesn't make any sense. Why would she do something like this? I haven't even seen the woman in over 15 years. How did you come up with that?”
“I thought about it a lot last night. Besides the police, there were only a few people that could've known what that crime scene looked like: you, your father, and Sloane. I went back through the case files and someone took a statement from her that night at the house. She was there. Don't you remember that?”
More tears began to well up in her eyes; she blinked them away; her eyes should've been swollen shut by now with all the crying she'd done. Though buried deep, the indelible and terrifying images of that night were always with her, but there were large chunks of time that she couldn't account for; missing pieces that never made sense. Maybe Sloane's presence was one of those pieces, but why wouldn't she remember her best friend being there?
“No, Reese, I don't remember anything like that. All I can see is my mother, laying there on the ground. I remember hearing the shot and seeing her on the ground. And my father; he was in the bedroom.....that's it.” Reese reached across the table to hold her hand but she pulled it back to wipe her face again.
“Look Izzy, I don't want to believe that she could do something like this, but right now she is the only logical suspect. She was there; she described the scene perfectly in the report. All the guys who were on this case back then retired years ago and none of them would have a reason to do this. She's the only one who was there and she's the only one who, for whatever reason, openly hated you after that night.”
Isabella shook her head slowly in disbelief as Reese went on. “I need to confirm a few more things before I question her, but my gut is telling me I'm right. In the meantime I don't want you wandering around alone.”
“Why? Apparently she likes to work in the shadows. I would think being out in the open would be the best thing. Unless... do you think she was the person who tried to run me down?”
“No. You have Nico to thank for that,” he said, trying to keep his voice from slipping into the snarl that tended to materialize whenever he said that name.
“What are you talking about?” Her tone was more accusatory than surprised.
“The car that almost hit you belongs to someone closely linked to a guy named 'Cross', Dominick Cross. We matched the tag number that one of the witnesses gave us to a car that was, conveniently, reported stolen by Cross' guy the same day. He is probably the only person in this town that has a bigger problem with Nico than I do and he's been waiting to get at Nico for a long time. Izzy, this was no accident; it was personal. That's why someone needs to be with you at all times. “Reese reached for her hand again, this time making contact, as he watched a horrified expression cross her face.
“Does Nico know about this” she said, lurching forward and grabbing the arm he had resting on the table with her free hand. “Please don't tell him, Reese. He won't have to worry about it after tomorrow and I don't want him doing something he can't take back.”
The sheer panic in her voice, the pain trembling in her eyes, and the sensation of her nails almost digging into his skin through his suit jacket caused him to recoil, snatching his arm from her grip and knocking over a wine glass that clattered across the table before rolling to the ground and smashing into tiny, wet shards.
He ignored the startled gasps and stares from the lookers on whose attention was sharply fixed on the two of them. He only watched her as she pulled herself back, staring at him, waiting for him to confirm his compliance with her plea. Anger surged through his body, boiling up faster than he could control, evaporating any filters he had hidden himself behind for her sake. His eyes alight with anger and his tongue sharp; he took a breath and poised himself to tear into her.
“That's what you're worried about? To hell with the fact that someone tried to kill you, you don't want Nico, the very person that put you in this position, to do something he'll regret? He should regret ever going near you!” Reese hissed. “He should regret betraying me first time he did and ruining your life now. But he doesn't; all he cares about is taking what he wants even if he destroys it and everything around him in the process.”
“Reese, please,” Isabella whispered.
“And you're no better. You're willing to tear apart your whole life to be with him. Your career, your company, your friends, your family, everyone who loves you; all of that be damned as long as it's you and him against the world. That's what happens after tomorrow right? You're still going to be with him?
“You don't understand,” she tried, but he kept on going.
“No, I don't understand. After everything he's put you through, no matter how he risks both of your lives, no matter what other options you have at your feet... you're always going to choose him. What a damn fool I've been to think it could ever be any other way.”
He turned away from her and let out a frustrated groan. They fell into silence as he stewed and she sat quietly, taking in the deeper meaning of his words and the reality of feelings she wished he didn't still harbor. She remembered her thought from before: no matter what she did, there would be hurt and pain either way. It had made perfect sense before, but she had never considered that he would be one of the casualties.
“I'm sorry Reese, but I can't help who I love....or who I don't. I don't expect you to understand this, but I need you to respect it. Please don't tell Nico about what you know. Please!”
Reese looked down at the table at a thin red trail that led to the balled up fist he had resting on it. He lifted his hand and confirmed that he was bleeding; some of the shards from the wine glass must have flown up onto the table where he had been pounding that fist. Still looking down, he took a napkin and wiped the blood away. He could see her reflection in the glass, her eyes intense, studying him. They were desperate and full of pain and if he looked into them he knew he wouldn't be able to do what was now his only option. He stood up, still refusing her gaze and spoke quietly.
“Call the station and ask for Luke Dennison. He'll take over the security detail at the house and the office. He might have some other questions for you about the break in and I'm going to give him the file I started and the information about Sloane. You should call Eden and at least say goodbye to her; it would kill her if you left without a word again. Nico, probably already knows about Cross by now; word on the street travels fast. But you don't have to worry about me saying a damn thing to him or to you again.....I'm done.
Rook’s Warehouse - Phoenix Heights - Downtown Las Vistas
*BANG, BANG, BANG*
The thud against the rusted steel of the front door jolted Rider from his sleep and brought him face to face with a half-naked woman who coyly smiled at him before disappearing into the bathroom across the hall from his room. Rider felt a draft on his thigh and looked down, horrified to see that he had kicked the sheets off of him during the night. He jerked them up over his naked body and gave a sharp, angry blow to the broken a/c unit in the window above his bed.
“Calm down, I’m coming,” he heard Rook shout as he made his way down the stairs, shooting Rider the usual surly glare as he passed his doorway. “Put some fucking clothes on,” he hissed.
Whoever was on the other side of it pounded on the door again, the sound of the rattling metal echoed throughout the vastness of the warehouse that Rook had made into his version of a home. Rider sat up on the edge of the bed and scanned the floor for his jeans and a pair of shoes that he could throw on quickly and listened for the click of Rook’s gun -- a welcoming ritual that every unexpected visitor received -- but when he heard the heavy door creak open and Nico’s deep rumbling voice pour into room he realized the fire drill was over.
He reached for the jumbled pile of denim anyway and slipped them on as well as a ratty t-shirt, and headed for the bathroom just in time to see the woman, still half naked, scurry back up the stairs; her rust colored hair covering the crucial parts of tanned skin peeking through her sheer bra. He peered up the spiral staircase until she disappeared into the room above and then continued to his destination as Rook and Nico talked in the other room.
Rarely did he ever listen in on their conversations, which, whenever he was around, were carried out in a code that only they seemed to understand, but something in Nico’s tone compelled him to keep his ears open this time. He entered the bathroom and cut the light on, but made sure not to close the door all the way.
He turned on the faucet, waited the usual ten seconds until the brown water ran clear, splashed his face, and wiped it dry with the bottom of his shirt. The humming from the un-braced pipes drowned out the little that he could hear of their voices, so he shut off the hot valve and turned down the cold until the humming stopped. Easing his way out of the bathroom and avoiding the squeaky floor boards in the hallway, he reached the archway to the main room, pressed himself up to the exposed brick wall to and listened.
“It’s simple Rook, either you have time or you don’t,” Nico said, taking a cautious seat on one of the splintering wooden stools at the counter while Rook foraged around in the refrigerator for a beer.
“I already made plans for tomorrow night, besides you were the one who said you had to do this exchange; ‘didn’t want to spook Reggie with a new face,’ remember? Or was that just a bunch of hot air?”
Nico scowled as he snatched the beer that Rook set down in front of him and took a swig. “Look, I’ve got something else I’ve gotta do and I need you to take care of this for me. Are you in or out?”
Rook leaned closer to him and inhaled sharply causing Nico to pull away. "Smells like you've already been doing something else or someone else," he said leaning back. "Either that or you've traded in your Old Spice for perfume.”
Nico took another drink from the bottle and tried to keep his expression even as his brother’s changed from the usual mask of distaste into utter disappointment. “You just don’t learn do you,” Rook said, shaking his head and taking the last gulp from his bottle before chucking it in the trash.
“Fuck it,” Nico hissed, taking another sip and rising from the stool. “I’ll just get Dice and C.J. to do it, I don’t have time for this shit.”
“You’re seeing her again, aren’t you? How much more shit do you want to get into running behind this broad? Damn near everyone has bailed on us because the Feds are on our backs, we’re losing the only deals that do come through because no one can ever find you, and now that the whole world knows about the two of you, Cross is throwing his weight around. We’re up to our necks and you just keep digging us in deeper.”
“What did you just say? What the hell does Cross have to do with anything?”
“Shit!” Rook said under his breath, realizing the slip he’d made.
“Tell me what the fuck is going on!”
Rider stood, still pressed against the wall, hoping that no one realized the water was still running. If either one of them caught him now he’d be dead. Now it all made sense: the recent lack of visitors and phone calls, all of Rook’s ‘damage control’ trips to the police station, Nico’s episodes of disappearing for days at a time. It all had to do with some woman that Nico was ‘seeing again.’ Maybe it was the same woman that Bianca had been upset about, the one who had been all over the news with the funny last name: Morocco or Monacco or something.
The sudden touch of a hand on his shoulder startled him. He turned quickly in its direction just in time for another hand to clamp down on his mouth. It was the woman from before, still smiling at him, but this time she was fully clothed.
“If you’re going to spy on someone you might want to make sure nobody sees you,” she whispered as she removed her hand from his mouth. “You might want to turn that water off too before you flood the place.” Before he could speak she put a finger up to her mouth, shushing him, threw her purse over her shoulder and sauntered out into living room. Not knowing what else to do Rider took her suggestion, shut off the water and crept back to his post at the wall.
“I’m leaving Rook,” the woman said, giving him a lazy wave and barely glancing at either man as they continued their standoff. Rider listened to the click of her boot heels as they trailed across the old wooden floor and dissipated behind the slam of the steel door.
“Who the hell was that? Why didn’t you tell me someone else was here?” Nico said, shooting daggers at his brother with his eyes.
“That was just Tori. She doesn’t see anything and she doesn’t hear anything. My women are well trained, which is more than I can say for you.”
“Whatever. Tell me about Cross.”
“Looks like he’s the one behind the hit and run on your girl. My contact on that side of town saw him in the area that day and the car that almost hit her was the same kind that one of his guys always drives: black Audi A6. The police even matched it up, of course the asshole reported it stolen, but it’s the same car.”
Rider’s stomach dropped as he continued to listen, his mind grabbing memories and putting together pieces of a puzzle that didn’t look good.
“Why am I just hearing about this?” Nico shouted.
“I just found out last night and I didn’t know she was still a problem until you came in here smelling like a rose bush; and she is a problem for us, a big one. You need to let this go before Cross puts someone else’s blood on your hands.”
“It’s not just her,” Rider said quietly, coming out of hiding and entering the living room to the surprise of both men.
He braced himself trying to figure out how could give back even a fraction of the fury coming his way as Rook began charging towards him. “What did I tell you about listening to my conversations, kid? You need to learn to mind your own damn business!”
Nico, looking just as riled up and angry, pulled Rook back before his balled up fist could strike, and, when convinced that his brother had contained himself, approached Rider for answers.
“What do you know?”
Rider paused a moment, catching Rook’s fiery gaze and then looking back at the roiling storm behind Nico’s eyes. There was something that he knew; something he should've told long ago. He wasn’t going to catch a break on this one and he decided that if he lived to the see the end of this day he would be very lucky. He sucked in a breath, puffed his chest out in a weak feign of confidence and began to speak.
“That Cross guy is not just after, um, that lady you were talking about. I’ve seen that car before; once at the house and then again downtown, the other day. I never saw who was in it. They sped off, both times before I could get a good look. I didn’t think it mattered at the time, but now....I guess I should’ve said something before.”
Rook lunged towards him again. “You didn’t think it mattered when a strange car is hanging around casing the house or following you on the street? Two times you saw the same car and it didn’t matter, you didn't think to tell anybody about it?” He stared a Rider, waiting for a response that never came and then threw up his hands and turned to Nico. “And you call this little shit a part of our family? What kind of loyalty is that? You sure can pick’em, can’t you? What a fucking idiot!”
Rider tried to stand firm against the insult but shame dragged his head down and his eyes to the ground. It never mattered what Rook thought of him, they had hated each other on sight, but the look on Nico’s face, a mix of disappointment and disgust, burned him to the core.
They all stood silently for a moment and then he watched as Nico’s feet turned and walked away from him. He looked up to see him whisper something into Rook’s ear that sent him flying out of the room and up the stairs. This time he heard the click of the magazine sliding into Rook’s gun. He didn’t need to understand their code to know what that meant. A moment later Rook returned with a familiar bulge protruding from the back waistband of his jeans. The old steel door creaked open again and he threw Rider another dirty look and headed out without a word. Nico followed behind him, but stopped short before he left, and without so much as a backwards glance, he finally addressed Rider.
“I want you to pick Bianca up from school and take her home now! You don’t make any stops and you don’t leave once you get there, got it? Is that something you think you can fucking handle by yourself!”
“Yeah” Rider said, nodding as if Nico could see him.”
And with that he walked out, slamming the door behind him.
Monacco Shipping International Offices - Downtown Las Vistas
“Ms. Monacco, I expected you back earlier. There's someone who - “
“Stacy I can't see or talk to anyone right now,” Isabella said, interrupting her. “I need you to move the press conference up to this evening.”
“This evening? But there's no way that I can --”
“Find a way! I haven't made one comment about this whole mess since it started and if the press wants to hear what I have to say they'll be here this evening; 5:30pm sharp.”
“Okay, I'll take care of it but there someone who -”
“Not now Stacy, please, just not now.” Isabella walked away before her assistant could say another word, scurried into her office and slammed the door.
“Maybe next time you should let her finish,” The voice was deep, accent laced, with a terrifying familiarity that she had dreaded and longed for at the same time. The commanding yet friendly tone had been perfected over time to ensure obedience and an underlying fear of what might come if it hardened or rose at the tiniest sense of defiance. It was dynamic, dominant, and uniquely her father's.
“Hello Querida. It's been a long time.”