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Her living room was warm, but Belle still felt a chill run up her spine as Mr. Gold told his side of the events that had robbed him of his right to privacy and the respect of his neighbors.

Her day had started with a call warning her to remain at home, since Gold’s house had been targeted by someone with a homemade petrol bomb. Her hurried trek across town hadn’t been appreciated by either Dove or Gold, who had insisted that she returned to her apartment - and succeeded only after she had demanded that her provisionally homeless boss came along with her.

At the moment, dragging Mr. Gold through her doorstep seemed to be the highlight of her day.

More than anything, Belle regretted every time she had felt tempted to ask him to open up about those awful months. Mr. Gold was not the type to rail about injustice, or to protest his innocence, but his demeanor chilled as the tale came to the week before his wife’s body had been found.

The quasi-clinical recital of the weeks that had preceded Milah Gold’s death was not what Belle had expected when she’d teasingly offered to trade shelter for a story. Mr. Gold, however, had given up on talking her out of publicly taking their relationship outside the boundaries of a business contract - just to try again to push her away while in private.

Like this, it was impossible to think of him as the friendly man who had given her free reign of his astounding library during breaks - and whose complaints over her increasingly lengthy lunches were more a reminder to eat her food while it was hot than an actual reprimand. There was so little emotion in his face as he recounted the facts as he remembered them, that Belle felt as if he were again before a jury, his freedom at stake, instead of safe under her roof.

His name - his given name, a gift she seldom made use of - was at the tip of her tongue, to ask him to stop; but he had put so much distance between them that Belle felt she could reach out and feel thick walls rising sky-high around him. Curling her fingers against the temptation to hold his hand anyway, Belle wished for at least a cup of tea to give her a distraction - and to generate at least a little warmth as the story prompted shivers to run down her spine.

The privacy of the Gold marriage had been torn open during the investigation and resulting trial, all the ugly facts and faults - particularly pertaining to the surviving party - had been a constant feature in the Mirror during those weeks. Having followed the news curiously, along the rest of the town, Belle had believed that she already knew the worst.

Not five minutes into Mr. Gold’s story, Belle had admitted her naivete.

“Should I stop?”

Belle opened her mouth to agree, if for his sake only. She couldn’t imagine that the memories were comfortable. But she pressed her lips shut when she saw the resigned flash that crossed his expression. No one would have cared to listen to his story, would they? Taking a deep breath, she shook her head. “If you want to share this, I will listen,” she told him, and made herself add a reassuring smile. “Rules of good hosting, you see.”

“Give the presumed murderer a fair hearing? That’s new.”

Formerly presumed murderer,” Belle volleyed back, emphasizing the first word. “And it’s this or eating my cooking. I doubt you’d prefer the latter.”

His eyes widened, and there was a pause as he swallowed thickly, still staring at her. “Fine,” he said at last, hands curling around the handle of his cane. “We’ll order in. Where was I?”

“You found out about Milah’s affair.”

“Caught them in flagranti, you mean,” he corrected, his voice even. “No need to spare my feelings, Miss French. I am aware that what little the reporters were decent enough to withdraw from the news, Jones has been happy to share.” His lips pulled into a mirthless smirk. “He, apparently, has nothing to hide.”

“Neither do you,” Belle said loyally.

Mr. Gold gazed at her, his fingers tapping the wood of his cane in a slow tattoo. “You really believe that.”

Holding his gaze, she nodded.

“Even when I claimed that I do not remember a thing from the evening before Milah’s death until the next morning?” He chuckled without humor. “I’ve heard I bought the psychiatric agreement with my convenient memory lapse.”

Belle snorted. “From Dr. Hopper? You forget I’ve been his patient as well. He’d sooner resign from his practice than allow his conscience to be compromised.”

“Consciences can be purchased,” he said, giving her a knowing glance.

Not mine, she thought, straightening in her seat. “You don’t have that kind of money, Mr. Gold.”

He glanced at her, then gave a slow nod, acknowledging her point and seamlessly returning them to their original conversation. Shoulders that had been tense from the moment he stepped into her home dropped half an inch. “Not money, then,” he countered easily. “But there are other ways to break a man.”

Belle should chastise him for making the suggestion, but for the first time in their conversation there was a hint of heat in his voice. He was amusing himself at her expense, she realized.

Weighing her options, she decided it was better than his attempt to alienate her.

“For example?”

He lifted his eyebrows, but rose to the prompt. “Hopper startles every time he sees me in the same room. I could have had Dove threaten him instead.”

Barely keeping herself from laughing at the thought of Dove threatening anything other than a misfiled document, Belle settled for shaking her head. She could point out that Hopper had stood up to Mayor Mills, but she had witnessed that encounter out of chance, and wasn’t sure that she should share it as it had been part of little Henry’s therapy. Instead she pointed out the ridiculousness of Gold’s arguing against his own innocence. “You must have been a godsend for the prosecution,” Belle said, rolling her eyes. “It’s a miracle you didn’t do their job.”

Where he had kept his feelings under wraps as he talked about the past, his eyes warmed with laughter now that their conversation had shifted into one of the arguments where each fell into opposite positions and defended it. “I do have some self-preservation instincts.”

“As proved by your refusal to eat my food,” she said, trying to sound tart but giving in to a smile in the end. “Is it really that bad?”

“I didn’t escape death row to succumb under your lack of culinary talents, dearie.”

Belle shivered at the mention of the death penalty. It was an exaggeration, as even being found guilty wouldn’t have ended with such extreme punishment, but Belle didn’t like to even contemplate the notion. “Don’t speak like that, please,” she said softly.

He waved his hand in careless dismissal. “It was a quip.”

“It wasn’t funny,” she told him, frowning.

Mr. Gold pressed his lips together. “You have a soft heart, Miss French,” he said, as if it was some fault of hers. “You care too much.”

Stung, Belle raised her chin and met his eyes. After almost a year working together, she knew several truths about Mr. Gold that he would rather have kept hidden. “I’m not the only one, am I?”


The End