Page 36 of Stinger

He stared at me, something warm and tender filling his eyes.

"Dylan's working on it. He's trying to pinpoint a location for the guy we're tracking, the one we know is responsible for the set-up. His name is Gabriel Bakos. Problem is, he moves around so damn much, it's hard to track him. If we can just pin him down, we can go in and we can make him talk." He huffed out a frustrated breath.

"That sounds dangerous."

"It's a man's life we're talking about. My friend's life. A man who not only didn't kill a woman, but who has saved hundreds."

I sighed, closing my eyes briefly. "I know. Okay, what else? Tell me everything."

"We have Dylan on it. It's just a waiting game right now. A f**king frustrating as hell waiting game."

I looked at him for a minute, thinking. "I can get the case continued to give you more time," I offered.

His eyes snapped to mine. "That'd help," he said quietly. "I'd never ask you if I didn't know for a fact–"

"I know. It wouldn't be questioned. D.A.'s continue cases all the time."

"It wouldn't affect your career? Your reputation?" he asked.

I shook my head. "No. Not if I continued within reason."

He nodded.

I breathed deeply and sat back again, trying to solve this puzzle in my head, using all the evidence that I knew I had against an innocent man. Shit! Shit! Shit!

"Can't you go to the police?" I asked. "I mean, surely they'd be able to collect some evidence… somewhere, or question this Bakos, or something." I frowned, thinking over my words.

"No. First of all, if we went to the police with our story and told them what we'd been doing, all of us could face arrest, and then Josh would really be fucked. Also, police are restricted by search warrants and other red tape. We have all the expensive technology the police don't have, and we're still having a hard time tracking him. Even if we got his location and gave it to the police, by the time they got in there, Bakos would be cleared out and so would all the evidence. We need to get to him first. We can't work under the restraints of law enforcement if we want to be successful."

I chewed my lip for a minute, going over his words. I knew how the legal system worked, better than most people, and unfortunately, he was right. Vigilante groups, even ones doing good work, couldn't be encouraged by the police.

"I've gone over it a thousand times," Carson said. "There's no solution yet. We just have to wait."

I sighed, not surprised that he had read my mind. "How do we do that though? How are you not pacing the floor right now?" I groaned.

"Because if I do that I'll go crazy. I have to have faith that with all of us working together, we'll figure this out. I can't consider the alternative. Until there's a reason not to be optimistic, optimism is what I'm choosing."

I huffed out a breath, my shoulders sagging, still doubtful about whether I could do that or not.

"Go take a shower, Buttercup, and then we're going to run to the grocery store. I only bought some necessities yesterday."

I sighed, but stood up, intending on doing as he said. When I was halfway out of the room, I turned around and walked back to Carson. I sat down on the opposite side of him this time and when he turned his face to mine, I whispered, "All those years ago, I knew, I knew, who you were. Thank you for proving me right." Then I stood up and walked to the shower.

**********

Carson

I sat on the couch and listened to the water start to run. I couldn't help the smile that spread across my face. My Buttercup was f**king amazing. Had I really ever doubted that? No. That was the reason I wanted her back so fiercely it was like an ache in my bones.

Grace had seemed shocked by my story, but she had been on board before I even finished telling it. And she was proud of me. I saw that pride shining in her eyes and it f**king undid me. I had changed my life for me, but she had been the catalyst, and I would never deny that. And so the fact that she was proud of me, well, that meant everything.

I brought the dishes into the kitchen and put them in the dishwasher and then stoked the fire a little bit and sat back down on the couch. By the time Grace came out of the bathroom fully dressed, her hair falling loose, I was feeling relaxed and so damn happy. There were no secrets between us now. We were a team, she was with me, and despite the predicament that I was in, I felt a deep serenity settle inside. Something washed over me that I couldn't identify, the feeling that a final puzzle piece had just clicked into place somehow.

She walked over to me and straddled me and wrapped her arms around me and just held me to her for several minutes as I breathed in her shower-fresh scent.

She sat back slightly and looked at me with a slight frown on her face.

"Grace," I said, "You need to try to shut off your brain for a couple days while we're here. I know I just dropped a whole shitload of information on you. But I'm telling you, you will just drive yourself crazy if you keep working the information around in your mind while there's nothing we can really do. Trust me, we've gone over every angle, and we have more information than you do right now about the players in this situation."

She looked past my shoulder and bit her lip. Finally, she took a deep breath and whispered, "I'll try."

I studied her. "Okay. Oh, I went out earlier while you were sleeping and got you something."

"What?" she asked, frowning slightly.

I got up and went and grabbed a bag by the door.

"I looked for your missing boot this morning but it was nowhere to be found. It's snowed so much, it's completely covered over. So, I bought you some new boots and a waterproof coat, some gloves and a hat. I'm sure my fashion sense is lacking, but they'll do the job." I handed the bag to her.

She took it and dug around inside for a minute, checking everything out. "Not bad, actually," she smiled.

"Good. Put them on and we'll get going. I looked at your one boot to get your shoe size so hopefully those fit."

She pulled on the black snow boots with some kind of fake fur showing at the top and the gray and black jacket and smiled up at me. "Perfect," she said.

"Try on the gloves and hat too. I want to see the complete snow bunny look."

She raised one eyebrow but pulled the gloves on and then put the hat on too. Goddamn, she was cute. I couldn't help grinning at her.

She rolled her eyes at me but took my hand and we walked outside.

Before I had even locked up the cabin, the worried expression was back on her face and she was biting her lip. As she started walking slightly in front of me to my truck, she said, "Carson, what about the rock the girl was–"

I made a snowball and nailed her right in the back of the head. She stopped, dead in her tracks, interrupted mid-sentence and turned toward me, an incredulous look on her face.

"Did you just throw a snowball at my head?" she asked.

"Yeah, I did," I said, feigning a bored expression.

"I see," she said, bending down and gathering up some snow and beginning to form it into a snowball.

I laughed. "Oh, Buttercup, you have another thing coming if you think you can even–" and with that, she nailed me right in the face and then laughed out loud, doubling over.

I closed my eyes and wiped the snow from my face, blinking wetness out of my lashes.

"That's it. It's on," I said, scooping some snow up and starting toward her.

She shrieked and ran as fast as her big, clumpy snow boots could carry her, which wasn't very fast at all. I laughed and watched her, giving her a head start. It was the least I could do.

She ducked behind some trees, and I went wide around the grove and came in behind her. I watched for a couple minutes as she peeked out in front of her, and then went back to work on her "stockpile," about twenty formed snowballs next to her knees.

I very, very quietly removed my coat and then laid it on the ground and scooped as much snow into it as I could. Then I picked it up and moved behind trees, getting closer and closer to her. She didn't hear me coming.

When I was close enough, I came out in the open and moved in as she was forming another snowball, the sound of her gloves working in the snow, a mask to any noise I made. Then I raised my full jacket and dumped the whole pile of snow on her head.

She screamed and whipped around, shaking snow off of her. I tackled her gently and rolled her in the snow as she laughed and shrieked.

"Who is the Snowball Battle Master?" I asked, pressing down harder into her.

She laughed harder, trying to buck me off of her.

"Who, Grace? Say it. You are the Snowball Battle Master, Carson. The Heavyweight Champion of the Frozen Tundra! Undefeated now and forever!"

"Okay! Okay! You are, Carson, the Snowball Champion of… whatever! What you said! You're the Master."

"I know," I said and she laughed. I grinned back, kissed her on her lips, and jumped up and helped her to her feet.

I gathered her in my arms, my smile fading as I studied her face. "I know it's not possible to stop thinking about everything that's going on with Josh entirely and that's good, because some small idea could be the thing that gives us a break. But right now, we get to enjoy each other too, okay? Everything that can be done is being done and so let's not make ourselves too crazy. I want you to relax and trust me on that, all right?"

She studied me and then after a couple seconds, she nodded. "Okay," she said.

"Okay," I repeated.

I shook my jacket out and put it back on, only the outside slightly damp. I brushed Grace off and we walked to my truck. A few minutes later we were headed into town.

I took my phone out as we drove and texted the guys. I had told them that I'd text them anytime I had cell service, and then they would know they could call me if they needed to.

We drove to the supermarket in town and when we got out and started walking to the store, I grinned over at Grace. I thought back to the day before when I had run into this same supermarket for a couple items to sustain me for a few days. What a difference a day made. It was still surreal that Grace was here with me.

"What?" she asked.

"Nothing, just you," I said, grabbing her hand. "You make me happy."

She let go of my hand and grabbed me around the waist and squeezed me.

Half an hour later, our cart was loaded up with everything we'd need for the next couple of days. Christmas was two days away and so Grace insisted on buying a ham and several different side dishes and the ingredients for some dessert that was a tradition in their household.

As she read the back of a can of something, I asked, "Grace, your family… " I trailed off not knowing exactly how to ask if they were okay with her missing Christmas to be with me, someone they had never even met, probably never even heard of.

She turned to me, her brow creased slightly. "My sisters are ecstatic, Carson. They knew that Alex wasn't the one for me the first time they met him. My dad… well, that's probably a different story. But my sisters have tricks up their sleeves as far as handling him. It'll be fine." She looked confident and so as long as she felt good about it, so did I.

We walked to the deli counter and ordered several things behind the case, and I stood waiting as Grace walked a few steps away to look at something on a shelf next to the counter.

I glanced over at two young women who looked to be in their early twenties who were giggling and smiling at me. I smiled a small, polite smile and looked forward again as I heard one of them whisper, "He's so hot!" to her friend

Grace came up to me and I saw her glance at them quickly, obviously having heard what they said, before bringing her arms up around my neck and kissing me on the lips.

I brought my arms around her waist and chuckled down at her.

"What?" she asked.

"I like it when you claim me, baby," I whispered teasingly. "But just so you know, you already did that a long time ago."

She smiled up at me, shaking her head slightly. "That's not what I was… " She tilted her head, looking up as if reconsidering. She grinned. "Okay, I totally was."

I laughed and picked her up off the floor, kissing her lips harder.

We put our order in the cart a few minutes later and then walked over to the small pharmacy at the back of the store.

We walked to the condom shelves and Grace looked back at me, biting her lip and looking around before grabbing a box off of the shelf and putting them in our cart under some other items.

I couldn't help laughing at her and as I did she turned around, glared at me and started pulling the cart. "Come on, let's go," she whispered.

I laughed harder. "Grace," I said quietly, "We're not robbing the place. We're buying condoms, like responsible adults."

She paused, shaking her head slightly, and she walked to me, smiling a small smile. "I'm pretty lame, huh?" she asked. "I can speak in front of a crowded courtroom, and yet buying condoms turns me into a nervous sixteen year old." She laughed.

As I gazed down at her, a warmth filled my chest, "No, you're not lame, you're beautiful, and amazing. Let's get back."

"Okay," she said quietly, smiling up at me.

We checked out and drove back to the cabin. The snow was still coming down lightly, casting a stillness over everything, making it feel like we were in a world all our own.

CHAPTER 32

Grace

We brought the groceries into the cabin and started unpacking them. I set ingredients for grilled cheese and tomato soup to the side so that I could make us some late lunch after everything was put away.

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