“Hmm,” Bella said with a smile. “Looks like you and Fred are turning into a regular thing.”

Charlotte scowled at her. “Get to work.”

Bella worked nonstop until 6:00 p.m., but the entire time she was thinking about Michael and his brother Leo. If Michael was able to answer his questions about Leo, she wondered if Michael would finally be at peace. She wondered what kind of person he would be. She wondered if he would be free to love and be loved.

Despite all his success and hard work, Michael felt unworthy of love. She identified it because she had felt that way after her mother had abandoned her. After all, if her own mother had dumped her, wouldn’t everyone else?

Stephen had made her believe in the possibility of love. She thought he’d believed in her. She’d thought he’d been committed. She was the one who’d left to pursue her dream and left her aunt and Stephen behind. Even though Stephen had encouraged her, he’d needed her when he’d lost his job and his confidence. She’d thought Stephen was the sweetest man in the world. Lately, she wasn’t as sure about Stephen as she once had been. He just didn’t seem as sincere.

She was sure that although Michael was as sincere as the day was long, he also was not the sweetest man in the world. His background had given him rough edges. He didn’t love her. He wanted her. The more she was with him, the more she wanted him freed from his demons. Without those demons, he would be so much happier, so much more fulfilled. Free to love and receive the love he deserved, even if she wasn’t the one for him.

Twelve

B ella whisked into Michael’s home a bit later than she’d planned on Monday. “Hello? Any news?”

Silence followed. “I’m in the den.”Bella felt a sinking sensation in her stomach and rushed to the den. “Is there a problem?”

“No.” His gaze was shuttered. “Why do you ask?”

“Because you sound like someone has pushed your mute button,” she said.

One side of his lips lifted in amusement. “I’m fine. No hot dogs?”

“No. I was slammed at work then had to run errands. I can fix some if you like,” she offered.

“No. Gary can prepare something for us.”

“I always feel guilty about that,” she said. “We’re just two people. We should be able to fix our own.”

“I can afford it,” he said.

“Still,” she said.


“What do you want for dinner?”

“I’ll fix a peanut butter and honey sandwich with bananas and potato chips,” she said adamantly.

He chuckled. “He’s planning shrimp creole for me.”

“Oh, that sounds delicious,” she said, her mouth watering.

“Wouldn’t want to keep you from your peanut butter sandwich.”

“You’re an evil man,” she said.

His face hardened. “You’re not the first to know that.”

The self-contempt in his gaze took her breath away. “Michael, you have to tell me what happened. Something happened.”

“Another dead lead,” he said and shrugged. “Nothing new.”

“I’ve been thinking about this,” she said eagerly.

“Thinking about what?” he asked, his gaze cold.

“Thinking about Leo,” she said. “After I read the investigator’s report, I wondered if you should put an ad in some of the Pennsylvania newspapers.”

“If that were the best way to proceed, the investigator would suggest it,” he said.

“But what if you and your brothers did it?” she asked. “Maybe that would have more impact than it would from the P.I.”

Michael’s nostrils flared in anger as he looked at her. “Bella, we’ve already discussed this. It’s none of your business.”

“But you’re suffering,” she said, clenching her fists. “I can’t stand it.”

He lifted his hand. “Enough. I’m spending the night alone. You’re on your own.”

She felt as if he’d stabbed her by shutting her out. “Michael,” she said.

“Good night,” he said and turned away.

Frustrated and hurt, Bella wanted to throw something against the floor-to-ceiling windows and make them break. She wanted to break down this barrier between her and Michael. Their relationship had become very different from what it had been when it started. Every now and then she felt as if she were getting past the walls Michael had built around himself, but then she felt as if the walls were forged from concrete.

“Oh,” she groaned, pushing her hair from her face. Why should she stay here? She would just become more frustrated and upset. Fine, he said she was on her own. She would leave.

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