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Dead Ringer

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Silver Springs, Colorado

Beep, beep, beep, beep.

Smack.

The noise finally stopped only to drown her in silence. Why, oh why did she have to leave her comfy bed? Would it be so bad to stay under the covers and forget the rest of her life? Opening one eye, Lacey French groaned when she saw the time flashing on her alarm clock. If she didn’t get up now, she’d be late.

One more AA meeting until the trial. A ball of dread curled in her stomach at the idea of facing the gangster Killian Jones in a court of law. Suddenly, the idea of missing her meeting didn’t seem like the end of the world. Anyone who ever attempted to testify against the brigand met a tragic end. In fact, thinking about the odds made Lacey shudder.

Six months ago she saw Killian kill her friend Tamara Briggs in the basement of his strip club The Jolly Rodger. By some miracle, Lacey managed to escape and cross a few state lines before she ran out of cash. Normally, she would have just laid low, but Killian wouldn’t let her just walk away. Under his employment, Lacey was pushed around, ridiculed, and abused - all to keep her under his thumb. That pirate wouldn’t allow her to escape his clutches.

No wonder she was desperate enough to attempt a crude seduction for some quick cash. Her lack of skill in this particular department was probably what got her busted for solicitation. Lacey may have worked in a strip club, but she never fell so far as to sell her body. FBI Agent Everett Machado seemed all too pleased to throw on the cuffs and drag her into an interrogation room. However, once he had her on the other side of the table, trembling and in frantic need of a drink, he made an unexpected proposal. Avoid jail time and get immunity while having all her other past indiscretions wiped clean by entering the witness protection program? Sounded too good to be true. Once Lacey realized the price for her freedom would be her testimony, she balked.

Anyone who ever crossed Jones didn’t live to see their next birthday. She told Everett she would take her chances behind bars and he laughed in her face. Jones had people on the inside and she wouldn’t be safe once they transferred her to the general population. This tall, dark, and serious agent pretty much threatened to let Jones kill her if she didn’t put her life on the line for him. Taking the deal and hoping she lived long enough to disappear seemed like the best option.

Yet, there was one more catch she didn’t anticipate. Everett wanted her to get clean and sober. Lush witnesses didn’t hold much credibility with a jury. Naturally, she fought tooth and nail, but was thrown into one meeting after another until she received her thirty-day chip. Today would be another milestone – if she ever got out of bed.

Rolling onto her back, Lacey stared at the ceiling as memories of her past swelled. No. No, she refused to wallow in self-pity. Not anymore.

Alright, she had to either face the day or fake an illness. Well, getting out of bed was always the hardest part, right? In one smooth motion, Lacey tossed the covers aside and got to her feet. The small motel room was modest, but practically luxury compared to her last apartment.

A hot shower went a long way in making her feel human again and giving her system the boost it needed to be alert and aware. As much as she wanted to linger under the hot spray, she knew Everett’s partner would be here to pick her up on the dot. The guy didn’t mess around.

First impressions? Agent Machado didn’t look like an alpha FBI agent. His black hair curled at the ends, making him appear slightly unkempt, and though his department store suits gave him an air of authority, she never sensed a “tough guy” aura emanating from him. Well, not until he had her in the box. His partner, Owen Kemper was slightly older, balding on top, and presented more of a cowboy mentality, but Lacey got to know the pair pretty well over these last several months and they were certainly capable of keeping her on her toes.

She just couldn’t be positive that she could trust them.

Killian Jones had eyes and ears everywhere. Moles in nearly every law enforcement agency for a fifty mile radius ensured he knew about raids well in advance and was always one step ahead of the cops. Could he have someone inside the FBI? Did his reach go so far? The trial started tomorrow and she was the first witness on the list. Everett promised to keep her safe, but all Lacey thought about was whether or not she would survive the night. If she did manage not to get killed in her sleep, she would probably be ambushed on the way to the courthouse. Throughout this whole ordeal, Jones was unnaturally quiet, which made her even more paranoid. He didn’t send dead flowers or threatening notes. Instead, he let silence be its own resounding menace. If his own people were collared, they never uttered a single word against their boss. Men went to jail for life rather then roll on the guy, which spoke volumes about the kind of fear Jones inspired. Lacey couldn’t help thinking her days were numbered despite all of Agent Machado’s assurances.

Should she even be going out? Maybe some fresh air would do her good. Unfortunately, no sooner did she take two steps out of the bathroom and Killian’s face popped into her head and a shiver to race down her spine. Tall, dark, and handsome with piercing blue eyes, the gangster could easily make women swoon. No wonder why so many fell into his web. Beneath the attractive veneer, Jones was a monster. He never took “no” for an answer and used every nasty trick in the book to keep his “girls” under his thumb.

Lacey didn’t work for him long, but Tamara took her under her wing and protected her from Killian’s attentions. Though shielded, Lackey witnessed pretty horrible things going down behind the scenes. Aside from the illegal trafficking of goods, Jones treated the girls that worked at his strip clubs like possessions. He preferred them addicted to drugs and then made sure to “try them out” before letting them into his inner circle. Not even then were they safe because the guy discarded women like used issues.

In the days leading up to Tamara’s murder, Killian made a point of sitting front and center during Lacey’s stage performances. That arrogant smirk of his never wavered as he raked his gaze up and down her exposed flesh. Her rough tumble toward rock bottom was the only reason Lacey started stripping in the first place. Her drinking cost her a half a dozen jobs, no one would hire her, and cash was running out. Working in a place that could feed her addiction seemed to kill two birds with one stone. At first, she did the waitress thing, but taking her clothes off paid way more.

After her first show, she hated the sight of her own reflection, but as long as she got halfway sloshed before taking the stage, Lacey managed to make ends meet and keep the threads of her sanity. Alcohol didn’t work in blocking out all the pain, but she avoided sampling hard drugs for fear she’d wake up one morning in Killian’s bed with no memory of how she got there. Blackouts were bad enough, but at least she had them in the comfort of her own roach infested apartment.

Once the boss noticed her, Lacey knew it was only a matter of time. She appealed to Tamara, but her friend’s only advice was to deal with the knowledge that she had to eventually sleep with Killian as best she could. Lacey dreaded the idea of selling her soul for a job, but she couldn’t get hired anywhere else. Killian always made sure his girls had no way out and Lacey needed money to fuel the habit. How could she even dig herself out of this hole? One thing she knew for sure: if she was forced to yield to her boss’s grotesque demands, there would be no going back. There was no way she could come to terms with sleeping with a guy she loathed, but then the call came and Lacey knew the countdown had begun.

Killian wanted her and Tamara for a private party in the basement of the club. They danced for Jones and several of his guests, stripped, and watched their boss sniff cocaine. More than half drunk when the night started, she had a vague notion of Killian talking business out in the open, and that made her blood run cold. Rule number one in Jones’s book: Never leave loose ends.

After the party ended, Lacey dressed quickly, hoping to make a silent exit before anyone noticed. On her way out the door, she heard voices coming from the office. Pausing outside the ajar door, she couldn’t help but peek inside. Killian was standing over a kneeling Tamara with his hands around her neck, accusing her of being an informant. Tamara gurgled denials, but they fell on deaf ears. Killian already made up his mind and refused to listen to her pleas. As he squeezed the life out of her friend, Lacey saw the aroused and euphoria spread over his features and wanted to throw up. A sickening pop singled that Killian broke Tamara’s neck and her body fell like a heap of bagged potatoes to the floor.

Without hesitation, Lacey darted out the door, fear gnawing at her heels. She never looked back. Then she got snagged by the FBI. The rest, as they say, is history.

Not wanting to think today could be the last she spent on this earth, Lacey gathered her chestnut curls back away from her face and twisted them into a bun. She preferred this style because she liked her long hair off her neck, unlike her twin who preferred to leave her hair sweeping around her shoulders.

Shit! Why did her mind have to turn off that ramp? Gosh, the melancholy kept coming in waves! First, Killian and now her sister? Lacey didn’t want to decide about a reunion with her twin until after the trial. They were out of touch for six long years, so what was a few more days? As much as she yearned to see Belle again, Lacey dreaded it as well.

Alright, she needed to get a grip. Applying her make-up distracted her for the time being. Today, she went with glittering grey eyeshadow and a pale pink lip. Simple jeans, black heeled boots, and a blue and white plaid shirt completed her look. She loved deep blue. Royal blue was her favorite color, which was in at the moment. Feeling comfortable in her clothes took priority over fashion trends, which was another difference between her and her sister. For fuck’s sake, she needed to get her shit together!

In the main room, she searched for her black leather jacket. Seconds later, a loud knock vibrated against the door.

“Lacey! Five-minute call!”

Why did Owen always have to make her jump out of her skin? Finding her coat, she draped it over her arm and headed out the door before Owen had a complete breakdown. He looked bored as hell and gestured for her to follow him to the car.

“Let’s get a move-on. Everett is meeting us at the place.”

The “place”? Owen was simply incapable of saying “church”, wasn’t he? Probably because he was jaded from all the time spent on the job. Lacey had no room to judge, so she didn’t. Dawning her jacket, she followed her escort and climbed into the passenger seat. They didn’t chit-chat during the drive, so she stared out the window and let her mind wander.

How did she fall so far? As a child, so many dreams danced through her imagination. In school, she excelled at math and science but preferred cheerleading and being the center of attention at parties to studying. Her sister? Belle always had her nose in a book. The responsible sister got into college with a snap, while Lacey paid the price for neglecting her gifts. Her twin went off to have the full college experience and she was left behind to take night classes at the local community college. The threads of control quickly slipped through her fingers, especially when Lacey figured she didn’t really need any additional education. Why bother when she had a job to pay the bills? Besides, hanging out at the bar was way better than being stuck in a boring classroom.

These meetings loved lecturing everyone on reaping what they sowed, and considering her present circumstances, Lacey figured fate caught up to her big time. Working the twelve steps sounded easy on paper, but implementing them was much tougher than she anticipated, especially the making amends section.

Lacey snapped to attention when Owen made the sharp turn into the parking lot. Stiffening when her escort exited the car, she watched the agent go through the normal routine of clearing the area. Were Killian’s goons lingering in the shadows? She wouldn’t be surprised, but Owen gave the all clear and walked her into the church. Coffee aroma smacked her in the face and Lacey immediately went to hug the machine. She could really use the pick-me-up at this point. Nerves shot to hell, focusing on anything else would be a godsend.

“Hey.”

A huge smile broke out on her face when Lacey looked up to see her friend and sponsor Ruby Ward. Taller than her by several inches, with long brown hair, Ruby was sober six years and never hesitated to give Lacey a helping hand. After hitting rock bottom, Ruby went back to school, got her accounting degree, and now taught at the local college. She truly embodied the definition of a success story. In fact, the only reason Lacey even gave the program a real shot was because Ruby believed in her.

“Ruby!” Lacey hugged her friend, wondering in the back of her mind if it would be the last time. “How are you?”

Ruby shrugged. “You know how it is. Classes keep me busy and dodging the horny just-out-of-high-school hormones keeps my reflexes sharp.”

“They’re hypnotized by your beauty,” Lacey teased.

Her friend rolled her eyes. “They’re all silly children, Lace. I’m six years sober and been through more shit than they can even imagine. If they only knew, they’d run for the hills.”

“Translation: you really do fantasize about them in the bathtub, right?”

A giggle bubbled out of Ruby’s throat even as she shook her head. “Just the blonds.”

The bell rang, signaling for everyone to find a seat. As the group gathered in a circle to begin, Owen headed outside for watch duty. Just as he walked out the door, she saw Everett walk in. None of the others objected to the guards because they knew her predicament. Another reason for her to be on high alert. The more people who knew what was going down tomorrow, meant the more vulnerable she was to whatever revenge Killian Jones had cooking.

“Who wants to begin?”

Without realizing it, Lacey’s hand went straight up into the air. When the group leader nodded, she began the normal way. “My name is Lacey.”

“Hello, Lacey,” the group said in unison.

“I’m an addict. I’ve been sober for six months and it feels like a miracle considering the long road. My life is…tense at the moment. Normally, when the pressure closes in around me, I reach for the bottle. Or I go out looking for some noise and salted peanuts. And a shot of Jack. Staying sober has been really hard, but I’m still on the wagon. Despite all the horror and pressure, the one good thing is that I finally got a response from my sister, Belle. She invited me to stay with her as long as I want, but I’m not sure I’m ready. Our history is tumultuous at best, but I keep reminding myself that mistakes aren’t tragedies.”

Several more people shared their stories, or their progress, before they finally ended with the serenity prayer. After these sessions, Lacey felt lighter. Knowing she wasn’t alone in her struggles went a long way in helping her resist the pull of her addiction. The hour passed much too quickly, however, and her nerves jacked up several notches. The coffee machine called her name and Lacey was temporarily distracted when Ruby came over to chat. Unfortunately, Lacey saw Agent Machado give her the signal over Ruby’s shoulder and knew it was time to wrap up.

“I’ve got to go.”

Ruby immediately pulled her friend into a hug. ”Hang in there, aright? Everything will be over before you know it.”

Lacey really needed the encouragement and managed a small smile. “Thanks.”

Heading over to Agent Machado, she watched him tilt his chin in Ruby’s direction. “Is she single?”

“Yeah. Why?”

“Owen stares at her.”

“Not a surprise.” Lacey laughed because men gravitated toward Ruby like moths to flames. Her personality was like honey to them and there were plenty of times when the two of them hung out that Lacey realized men weren’t even giving her a second glance, which was something she was not used to in the slightest.

Thankfully, before Lacey could ever get too jealous, Everett always stepped in to cramp her style. Until she testified and got a new life, dating was out. Not that Lacey was seriously looking anyway. There were enough scumbags in her past to make her weary of the male species. Besides, she had to work on herself first.

“Nervous?”

The question popped up just as they came to a stop in front of her motel room. Everett would come for her first thing in the morning and it was hard to believe the big day finally crept up on her. Testifying always seemed so far away, but now? Now, Lacey was coming apart at the seams.

“You have no idea.”

“Listen, all you have to do is tell the jury what you saw. Then it will be over and you get a whole new life.”

“If Killian wants someone dead, they die. End of. My heartbeats are numbered.”

The last thing Everett needed was his star witness getting deer-in-the-headlights syndrome. “Lacey, if Killian knew where you were, he would have made a move by now. You’re safe. We made sure of it. Trust me.”

Trust? A chill raced down her spine hearing the word. Anyone who ever coined that phrase to her let her down in the end. Trust was earned, not bestowed, but even after all these months of Everett having her back, she couldn’t say he earned even the slightest smidgen from her. He wanted Killian Jones behind bars bad. So much so that he saw to her detail personally, which was odd considering most investigators snagged the witness and moved on to the next case. Sure, his motives for the personal touch could be because Killian slipped through the cracks so many times that he wanted to hang on until the final nail was smacked down, but Lacey sensed there was more going on here. Of course, Agent Machado never confided in her about why he wanted Killian’s ass so badly. More than his career pushed him, of that much she was certain. Personal reasons? Again, why?

Everett made sure Lacey got into the room and that everything looked status quo before heading for the door. Lacey watched from the window as he spoke to Owen, then got back into the government issued sedan and drove out of sight.

Ironic that a few hours ago all she wanted to do was stay under the covers and hide from the world and now she couldn’t sit still. Flicking on the TV, she let the news play in the background as she raided the mini fridge. A turkey sandwich called her name, but just as she was about to take that first big bite, she stiffened hearing Killian’s name come through the speakers. Eyes going back to the TV, she saw his mug shot front and center as the reporter went on about the trial tomorrow. Those cold eyes seemed to bore directly into her, as if to smack home the very likely possibility she wouldn’t make it through the night.

Lacey swallowed hard as her appetite died. Owen was still outside at his post, but her nerves flatly refused to settle. Lacey’s instincts were screaming as her fears dug deeper and deeper into her chest. Killian Jones wanted her dead, so how was she going to get out of this mess?

Chapter Text

Something was off. Way off. Everett pulled up to the motel but didn’t see any sign of his partner and the door to Lacey’s room was left slightly ajar. Shit! Dashing out of his car, he pulled his weapon and cleared the small room. No sign of his witness or Owen. At least, not until he reached the bathroom. The FBI agent left to watch over one little witness was handcuffed to the shower with a shiner swelling his left eye and duct tape over his mouth. Motherfucker!

Tearing the tape off Owen’s face gave Everett a small bit of satisfaction, but even before he asked the question, he knew what happened. “Where the hell is Lacey?”

Head throbbing and throat parched, Owen explained that Lacey made a run for it. Needless to say, his partner didn’t take the news well. His face reminded him of a coiling snake waiting to strike. Rage swirled in those dark eyes, but when he spoke Everett’s tone wasn’t as unhinged as expected.

“You were supposed to be watching her! Did Jones get her? What the fuck?!”

“No,” Owen shook his head and rattled the handcuffs, but his partner wasn’t getting the hint. Or Everett was making him squirm until he got the whole story. “Lacey got the jump on me! She started blabbering about not being safe, then when my back was turned she knocked me out! When I came to, I found myself kissing the faucet. Oh, and that bitch stole my gun.”

“For fuck’s sake, Owen! You had one job!”

“Are you going to rake my ass over the coals or get me loose?”

He should let the jerk rot. Everett inhaled several deep breaths to reel in the worst of his temper, but he looked daggers at his partner as he unlocked the handcuffs. “Come on,” he said once Owen was back on his feet. “We need to find Lacey before the situation spirals even more out of our control.”

****

Hamptons, New York. Three days later.

Chest filling with awe at making it this far, Lacey disembarked the greyhound with her one and only bag over her shoulder and her heart racing a mile a minute. The bus arrived a bit early, so Lacey decided to freshen up. Thankfully, the bus station had a decent restroom where she ditched the blonde wig. Applying fresh deodorant, then a clean shirt, she felt almost human again. Today was a huge step forward. A step she wasn’t quite ready for, but there was no chickening out now. So much time passed and Lacey really wanted to make a good impression.

In her letters, Lacey outlined her recovery, but couldn’t predict what her twin expected. One thing was for sure, she didn’t want to look like a scruffy puppy anymore than she did a former party girl. Normal. Looking normal sounded…great. Running a comb through her hair, she pulled the locks back into a ponytail then applied some fresh chapstick. Well, given her limited resources, this was about as good as she was going to get.

Her conscience nagged her as she washed her hands, but Lacey stubbornly refused to think of Agent Machado or how she let him down. There was no doubt in her mind the guy would chase her, but Belle would help. Hiding with estranged family was her best bet. Besides, considering Killian’s long reach, there was no way Lacey could be certain Agent Machado wasn’t being paid to make her bit the dust before taking the stand. After drying her hands, she headed out to the lockers. Owen’s gun felt like a fifty pound brick on her back. The last thing Lacey wanted was to use the thing – ever. Stashing it in a locker was risky, but as a precaution, she left behind a few nonessentials to help hide the weapon, paid cash, and kept the key in her pocket.

Lacey adjusted her bag over her shoulder and faced the door. Alright, no more stalling. Time to face the music. Inhaling a deep breath, she exited the crowded station and waited on the corner for her ride. Moment of truth – here she comes.

****

The latte here was tolerable, but the recipe of those in the city always smoothed over the taste buds with more flavor and breeding. Glancing at the clock, the fashionably dressed woman braced for what lay ahead. She and Lacey ended on bad terms. Hell, “bad” didn’t even begin to describe it. Well, everything happened for a reason and Belle Gold knew how to turn these circumstances to her advantage.

Her delicate hands dawned her Gucci sunglasses then grabbed her beige Coach bag and matching scarf. Paying for the coffee, she left the café next to the bus station and immediately spotted her twin lingering on the curb about thirty feet away. Belle was struck dumb not only be her sister’s profile but also by how little she carried. After six years, she expected all the alcohol to have etched a few changes across her sister’s face or maybe add on a few pounds, but Lacey looked no worse for wear. They appeared as identical as ever, which was probably for the best. The resentment rose, but Belle pushed back the emotion, along with memories of the past. If this was going to work, she had to bury the pain of the past and be convincing.

A soft smile spread across her face as Belle walked forward. Lacey caught sight of her approach and her lower lip trembled. Less than a minute later, Belle was close enough to see the tears gathering in her twin’s eyes. A calm settled over her as if a missing piece of a puzzle were settling back into place.

“You look exactly the same,” Belle said before putting an arm around Lacey’s shoulders.

And Belle was hardly recognizable! Polished and gleaming from head to toe, Lacey had to do a double-take. The designer duds looked really nice on her sister, emulating a classy air. Swallowing the urge to make comparisons and find herself lacking, Lacey hugged her sister back. “I missed you so much,” she confessed as she continued fighting back tears.

“No need to get sentimental,” Belle said as she drew back. “Just one bag?”

“Traveling light these days. You look really good, Belle.”

Instead of returning the compliment, Belle let her smile deepen. “Come on. We have the beach house to ourselves this weekend. We’ll have time to catch up and get reacquainted.”

Lacey’s eyes filled with undisguised hope. “Really?”

Belle tilted her head and gestured for her sister to follow. “The car is in the lot across the street.”

A BMW. Wow. Lacey slipped into the passenger’s seat and secured her bag in her lap before running her hand over the smooth, soft leather. Belle certainly rose up in the world. The car ended up being nothing compared to the four-story mansion on the beach! Talk about lap of luxury!

The colonial sported a cozy wrap-around-porch, but the interior was even more eye-popping! Sophisticated art lined the walls, designer furniture filled the huge square footage, and sparkling marble columns separated the rooms reminding Lacey of a palace! Afraid to touch anything and leave a leering fingerprint, she followed her sister through the long hallway to the main living room. As she gazed out the floor-to-ceiling windows with a view of the waves, Lacey wondered how her sister landed on her feet.

Their parents owned a struggling flower shop and lived the small apartment above scraping every last penny. That whole building could easily fit into this house three times over!

“Your house is huge,” Lacey gushed.

“We have a boat, too. Later, we should head to the marina and take her out on the water.”

Belle sounded detached, but Lacey figured it was because her twin was used to all this wealth. Plus, the vaulted ceilings were making her a bit dizzy. “Sounds good to me. Where’s Andrew?”

At the mention of her husband’s name, Belle’s smile faltered a bit but she quickly recovered. “He’s in London on business.”

“Oh.” Catching the uncertain look on her sister’s face, Lacey tried harder to sound normal. “Maybe I can meet him later.”

“Lacey,” Belle started solemnly. “Andrew doesn’t know about you.”

“What? That I’m here?”

Licking her lips, Belle inhaled a deep breath. “He doesn’t know I have a sister.”

Shocked, Lacey blinked rapidly. Did she hear correctly? All these years, she never anticipated that her own twin never told people of her existence. The second her mouth opened to ask for clarification, Belle turned and headed down a hallway. Following at a distance, Lacey wondered if she should force the subject. The full weight of the rejection stung more than she anticipated and her churning emotions nearly got the better of her. However, the sight of the massive master bedroom proved a decent distraction.

Lacey didn’t have time to take in the details because she saw her twin heading into the walk-in closet. Mirrors lined one wall and a remote controlled clothing rack held designer labels galore. Drawers housed any accessory under the sun from sunglasses to hats, scarves, and jewelry. Through an archway rested the shoe shelves. Having never seen such opulence up close, Lacey took a moment to compose her thoughts and focus on the matter at hand.

“Belle,” she said gently. “I don’t want to be the sister you have to pretend doesn’t exist.”

With shaking hands, she sat next to Belle on the cream-colored couch in the middle of the space. The next words wouldn’t be easy, but they had to be said. Bracing for the worst, Lacey clenched and unclenched her fingers before finally biting the bullet.

“Belle, I know I’ve hurt you in unbelievable ways. Because of what I did-”

“Stop,” she said quickly.

Lacey bit her lower lip, hoping her twin wouldn’t change her mind about the visit and hear her out.

“Lacey, we don’t have to rehash the past.”

“It’s just that making amends-”

“Is step nine,” Belle finished. “I did my research.”

Touched, Lacey placed a hand over her sister’s but Belle immediately withdrew. Her heart sank a tiny bit, but that didn’t matter when her sister sat before her very eyes willing to forgive her.

“Can you hear me out? Belle, because of my poor judgment, our lives changed forever.”

“Lacey, listen. You’re already forgiven. You just need to forgive yourself.”

Moved to tears, she hugged Belle tight. This visit was going better than she imagined! Belle’s forgiveness shined a light on her demons and offered her a safe haven.

“Enough of this mushy stuff,” Belle laughed as she got to her feet. “You should pick out something new.”

A laugh bubbled out of her throat as she gaped at the closet. “I couldn’t.”

“Come on. You only live once.”

For the next several hours, Lacey let Belle put her into fancy gowns and give her lectures on accessorizing. They always had very different tastes. Belle always gravitated toward the frilly skirts and heels, while Lacey preferred short shorts and camisoles. Well, they both loved heels, she supposed, but Lacey could appreciate a good pair of cowboy boots. However, the closest thing Belle owned to a pair of rawhide were cream colored Guess wedges that looked absolutely divine!

“Now, remember, a classy black dress is always in style. And when entertaining, always stick to the stock market, St. Bart’s, and the weather when making conversation.”

How could she not burst out laughing with all the joy filling her chest? Belle actually spoke as if she planned to welcome her back into the fold. Of course, a tiny voice in the back of Lacey’s head warned not to get too excited, too soon, but she just couldn’t keep the smile off her face.

“That’s really all there is to being a socialite?”

“Honestly? It can get pretty boring.”

"All this?” Eyes darting around the closet again, Lacey couldn’t quite fathom her sister’s blasé tone. “I find that hard to believe.”

Yes, well, Lacey didn’t know the half of it. Barely keeping her smile in place, Belle gestured for her twin to follow.

“Why don’t we have lunch on the boat?”

“Belle, I’m not sure I’m up for all that. It was a long trip and-”

“Oh, come on, Lace! It will be fun! Can’t you give me this one thing?”

Well, when she put it that way, how could she refuse? From the moment she arrived, Belle helped her forget all about Killian Jones, the FBI, and her past. All Belle asked for in return was a trip on the open water and Lacey hesitated because she was tired?

“Alright.”

Belle’s smile was huge. “Perfect! You might want a coat. The open air can get a bit chilly. Pick whichever you like.”

Lingering in the closet, her fingers ran longingly over the suede and leather, but in the end, she picked up her own thrift store imitation and followed Belle back out to the waiting BMW. The marina was an easy five-minute drive and Lacey loved the feel of the wind whipping through her hair. As they approached the boat, Lacey whistled.

“What sort of business does Andrew do? He certainly spoils you!”

“Mostly investments,” Belle answered as she led the way aboard the speed boat. “He manages his own firm with his partner, Regina Charles.”

Belle’s voice held a bit of an edge when she mentioned the partner’s name, but before Lacey could ask, her sister moved to the captain’s chair. Over the next hour, Lacey received a detailed driving lesson.

“I’ve told you enough about my life,” Belle said once they were about five miles out on the open, calm water. “What about you? Are you still…dancing?”

“You mean stripping? Nope, but I still work for tips. Waitressing.”

Her conscience urged her to confess the rest, but for now, she wanted to keep the truth about Killian and the whole fugitive mess to herself for a little longer. One more day of quality time with her sister couldn’t hurt, right? It went without saying that Belle wouldn’t like the truth and then that would be that. In fact, she wouldn’t be surprised if Belle lectured her about running from the law before calling Agent Machado herself.

“Lacey?”

“Hmmm?”

“Are you alright?”

“Yeah.” She forced a smile for her twin’s benefit. “Of course.”

“Alright. Let me get you something to drink.”

Lacey pushed her guilt to the back of her mind and focused on enjoying the reunion. However, as she sat and sipped her juice, thoughts of Tamara swirled as she stared out at the rolling waves. Her friend watched her back and protected her from the worst of Killian’s intentions and how did she repay her? By running away instead of taking a stand. On the other hand, Tamara would be the first one to tell Lacey to get gone while she had a shot. Most would consider Tamara collateral damage, but Lacey considered her friend worthy of justice.

A sudden yawn caught Lacey off guard. Fatigue quickly set in and her bones felt heavy. Listening to Belle with half an ear, Lacey laid down on the cushioned bench with the intention of only closing her eyes for a minute. What happened to Belle? Why did she only care about fashion and charity boards when she used to care about books and education and current events? Unable to put her finger on the change, Lacey’s thoughts soon drifted. Though Belle appeared agreeable and happy about their reunion, underneath the surface, something felt off. In fact, she was about to ask what changed when the pull of slumber yanked her down into the darkness.

Hands folded before her, Belle stared at the other half of herself. Her twin. They were so close as kids. Tragedy and years tore them apart, but everything happened for a purpose. She had to have faith in that much. Poor Lacey. She threw away her life. Well, maybe there was still a use for her after all. Making sure Lacey was asleep, Belle made last minute arrangements.

Chapter Text

Waves gently rocked the boat back and forth as the fog around Lacey’s brain lifted. Rubbing her eyes, the first thing she saw were puffy white clouds above her head. Where was she? A groan tore from her throat as she sat up, then her memories rushed forth.

“How long was I out?”

No response. Her eyes darted around the boat, but she realized almost instantly that she was alone.

“Belle? Belle?”

Lacey was on her feet in a flash, shooting over to the railing, but only waves greeted her. Blue stretched out as far as the eye could see and no other boats were in sight. Wait. There was something floating in the water about twenty feet away.

“Belle! Belle!”

That scarf! It belonged to her sister!

An instant later, Lacey dove into the water, barely registering the cold as she swam frantically toward the scarf. There was no sign of a body, so she dove under the surface. Visibility was close to nil, but she went under again and again and again – and again – until her lungs burned and her arms grew heavy. Fear seized her chest and desperation clawed her heart. Lacey searched for her sister until her body grew too fatigued to carry on and finally used the last of her strength to swim back to the anchored boat and climb over the railing. Collapsing onto the deck, she coughed violently and rolled. The prescription bottle caught her eye and her arm shot out. Lacey managed to sit up and force back the swelling tears long enough to read the name of the medication. Belle took anti-depressants? Something rattled inside the bottle and she unscrewed the cap. A diamond engagement ring and wedding band set fell into her open palm and that was the moment she knew.

Odd, Lacey thought the tearing loss would feel more…certain. Despite the fact she couldn’t find her twin’s body, the evidence was overwhelming. Belle’s scarf was in the water and she left behind her wedding rings in an empty pill bottle. The only thing missing was a suicide note. Face falling into her hands, Lacey wept uncontrollably. Deep, gut-wrenching sobs shook her whole being. It wasn’t supposed to end like this! They were finally on the right track! After everything, how could this happen?!

“No,” she cried as her brain tried to make logical sense of the scene. Belle had money, security, and a loving husband, so why on earth would she kill herself? Why would she swallow a bottle of pills and drown?

No answers were forthcoming. Lacey sobbed until her head throbbed and her throat was sore. Finally, she looked around and realized she was truly, truly alone. Her other half was gone. Forever.

****

Silver Springs, Colorado

Everett waited until Ruby Ward emerged from the university. She walked this route every day from the main building to the parking garage. Owen said the women were close and Ms. Ward was Lacey’s sponsor, so she was most definitely worth interviewing. An urgency simmered through his veins, reminding him that every second without a lead could mean disaster not only for the case but also for Lacey’s life expectancy. He had to get his witness back while there was still a chance to get her on the stand. If Killian found Lacey first, or if she vanished into the wind, he wouldn’t get justice.

“Ms. Ward,” he called as he held up his badge. “Agent Machado, FBI. I’d like to ask you a few questions about Lacey French.”

Yeah, the story was all over the news. “I read the papers.”

“Then you know she’s on the run. I need to know if Lacey has contacted you.”

Ruby hated that her friend ran. In fact, she was really disappointed in her, but considering Killian Jones’s reputation, she couldn’t blame Lacey either. “No, she hasn’t.”

“If she does, you need to tell me right away. She’s facing arrest.”

Accepting his business card, Ruby wasn’t sure if she could trust the guy. Obviously, Lacey didn’t because she pulled a disappearing act. “Maybe she’s better off.”

Everett blinked in disbelief. “Killian Jones is ruthless. He killed his own brother. Lacey is the only eyewitness to a murder. Getting rid of her is his only insurance. I promise you, Ms. Ward, that he is looking for her just as vigorously as we are, and if you care for your friend at all, you will call me immediately if you hear a peep from her.”

“What are you implying?”

“I think you know, Ms. Ward.” Everett looked her dead in the eye and didn’t flinch. “I look forward to hearing from you.”

Ruby’s eyes followed the handsome FBI agent as he walked back to his car and bit her bottom lip. She and Lacey were friends and now Ruby was worried sick. Was she alive? Rumor had it that Jones had the cops in his back pocket. In her experience, no one went out of their way to help former addicts or alcoholics. To the rest of the world, they were expendable lost souls, which was why they stuck together. How long would the FBI bother searching for Lacey? Jones probably already knew what the cops did anyway.

Nevertheless, Ruby slipped the card into her purse. Tonight, a stack of papers awaiting grades would welcome her home, so she wanted to stop for some fresh coffee and take-out on the way. Of course, Lacey was never far from her thoughts. Any fool could see the woman feared for her life. Ruby hoped her friend dodged both the FBI and Killian Jones, but what were the odds?

****

How she managed to drive the boat back to the marina was anyone’s guess. Lacey certainly didn’t have a clue. Where did Belle park again? Did it even matter which slip? Driving up to the first empty space she saw, Lacey disembarked in a haze. A haze that guided her back to the waiting BMW, then to the huge beach house.

The second she crossed the threshold, the full force of events slammed her in the chest and she fell to her knees. Fresh sobs shook her body as her purse crashed to the floor, spilling the contents across the gleaming marble. Lacey’s eyes fell to the half open wallet and she reached out to grab it. The picture on her license stared back at her. Hair pulled back away from her face, she smiled for the camera as if she didn’t have a care in the world. The only time she let her curls down around her shoulders was when she had a performance and couldn’t get her blonde wig to cooperate. The wig allowed Lacey to separate herself from the acts she had to perform to earn a living.

Belle’s purse rested on the coffee table. Finding her twin’s wallet, Lacey stared at Belle’s license, noting how she wore her hair half up, half down in waves. Like Lacey, Belle smiled for appearances, but those smiles were masks they dawned for the world, weren’t they? No one could tell the weight of the sorrows or burdens a person carried just by looking at a photo. Lacey didn’t know the demons she sister grappled with and now Belle was gone. The thought had fresh tears streaming down her cheeks and she let them fall until she was numb.

Floating through the house, she ended up standing in front of the huge closet. The mirror seemed to mock her very presence. A piece of her was just ripped out and crushed to dust. How could Belle do such a thing? Why? What happened?

She needed answers. She needed to know what happened to make her sister take her own life while she was sleeping on deck none the wiser. Lacey also had to stay one step ahead of the law and Agent Machado. If Killian knew where to find her, then she was as good as dead. How long could she run before she was caught? What Lacey needed was a plan.

A loose pin fell from her hair, causing her waves to cascade around her shoulders. As children, she and Belle traded places and no one could tell them apart. Of course, emulating Belle would take more than just a change in hairstyle.

With a deep breath, she stripped off her damp clothes and searched the closet for something her twin would wear. What she contemplated was dangerous and risky, but she swore this measure of action would be strictly temporary. Belle was gone and there was nothing that could bring her back. No body, no funeral, and no closure, so the guilt clawed at Lacey’s conscience even as her survival instinct had her trying on a DNKY blouse and Gucci skirt.

Against all odds, Belle found it in her heart to forgive the past. Lacey had to believe her twin would forgive this too. She could go to New York and figure out the next step.

Dressed in Belle’s clothes, Lacey stood in front of the mirror and ran her fingers through her messy hair until it looked presentable. Next, she gathered the contents of Belle’s purse, then made sure all her own possessions, included her driver’s license, were safely stashed in her duffle. She had no idea what to do about the car, so she called a taxi to take her back to the bus station If this was going to work, then she had to leave her old life completely behind. Everything should be safe in that locker, but Lacey had second thoughts about Kemper’s gun. At the last second, she shoved the weapon into Belle’s huge Coach tote and headed for the ticket booth. One bus to the train and she would be in the heart of New York City in no time. Belle’s address on her license said Park Avenue. No surprise there. Again, Lacey couldn’t fathom why her sister would want to die. Didn’t she have it all?

Second thoughts raced through her brain during the entire taxi ride from grand central to the apartment building. However, she didn’t double back or back down. This move would probably save her life. Besides, the best way to figure out Belle’s motives for doing what she did would be to walk a mile in her shoes. Maybe if she could figure out why Belle wanted to die, Lacey could find some way to live with herself.

The taxi came to a stop in front of a posh, gothic building that reminded her of Victorian elegance. Heart pounding a mile a minute, she hoped she appeared outwardly calm. What if someone saw through her façade? What if she messed up and made a glaring error that got her thrown back in jail?

As she approached the door, the uniformed doorman nodded in greeting. “Welcome back, Mrs. Gold. I hope you enjoyed the Hamptons.”

“Thank you,” Lacey answered softly as she walked through the open door. The sight of the lobby stole her breath. Would she ever get used to this sort of stuff? Being a burger and fries kind of girl, she had no idea how to handle filet mignon.

“Mrs. Gold,” the security guard asked. “Is anything alright?”

“Y-yes.” Forcing a smile, she hoped she sounded convincing. “Just a little tired.”

“I understand completely.” He stepped around the desk and escorted her to the exclusive elevator to the penthouse then pressed the button. When she stepped inside, he tipped his hat as the door closed. Wow. Classy.

Sagging against the wall in relief, she warred with the second thoughts creeping up on her. What on earth was she thinking? How did she ever decide she could get away this outrageous plan? The answer proved to be a simple one. Because she was desperate. Desperate for answers about her sister’s death and for a safe haven.

Thankfully, the staff didn’t blink at Lacey because she looked exactly like the Belle they witnessed coming and going every day. How long could she hold the illusion? As long as she could.

The elevator dinged to a stop and she stepped into the penthouse suite. One word echoed in her mind at the sight: Amazing! Not as large at the beach house, but still open and spacious. Lacey took a tour of the state-of-the-art kitchen, huge luxurious bathrooms, and everywhere in between before ending up in the master bedroom. Once again, Belle had a beautiful, well-organized closet stuffed with designer labels and rows of accessories. Across from the women’s clothing hung rows of suits, ties, and men’s shoes.

Andrew.

What was she going to do about him?

Before her brain could calculate an answer, she heard the ding of the elevator and a deep voice, tangled with a slight Scottish accent, call out.

“Belle! I’m home!”

Heart thundering in her chest at the shock, Lacey managed to recover as the footsteps entered the bedroom. Putting on her best smile, she turned to meet her brother-in-law. Needless to say, the man was not what she expected.

Older, but clearly sophisticated, Andrew Gold had long, slightly greying brown hair that dusted his shoulders, and was a bit on the short side, but he wore a suit with steadfast confidence. Distinguished but not traditionally handsome, Lacey wondered what Belle saw in the guy. Clean shaven, with obvious crinkles around his dark eyes, Andrew stared at her expectantly and Lacey let her smile deepen.

“Hi,” she said cheerfully.

Andrew didn’t comment as he started forward. All too aware she had to play the role of the loving wife, Lacey improvised what she assumed Belle would do and kissed Andrew on the cheek as he passed. Instantly jerking back, he threw her a narrow look.

“Well, aren’t you friendly?”

The sarcasm threw her off balance. “It’s been forever.”

Andrew heaved a sigh. “Two weeks is hardly forever.”

How could she be messing this up already? Belle and Andrew were only married five years, but was that enough for routine to have soured things? Lacey watched Andrew head to the closet and remove his overcoat, then turn to stare at her again.

“Have you lost weight?”

“Maybe a little.”

“Hmm. You’re too thin.”

Critical much? Lacey would have called him out for the insensitive comment, but she bit her tongue and tried changing the subject. “How was London?”

“Cold.” He shrugged off his suit jacket and hung it up before grabbing a pile of dirty shirts he left there before his trip. “I’ve got something for you. The maid said you’ve been using a new cleaners.”

His idea of getting his wife something was to throw dirty laundry into her hands? Clearly, relations between Belle and her husband weren’t great. Nevertheless, she didn’t have all the details, so Lacey nodded and spoke softly. “I’ll drop them off in the morning.”

Making a mental note to research the basics of her sister’s day-to-day life, she felt her heart continue to quicken with anxiety. Would Andrew pick up on the subtle differences? He didn’t know Belle had a twin, so even if he did, he would never suspect Lacey took Belle’s place. Right?

Without another word, Andrew brushed past her toward the bathroom, but then paused and faced her again. “Oh, and that email you sent about the ballet. I really don’t want to go.”

“Ok.”

His eyes narrowed as his fingers swifts unfastened his shirt buttons. “Well, that was easy.”

She nearly had a breakdown when he took his shirt off right then and there. His chest hair was the same shade as that on his head, but for an older man, his body was defined. And Lacey liked that he wasn’t overly hairy, but rather lightly sprinkled, as they used to say at the club. Suddenly nervous, she licked her lips and searched for a distraction before the sight of his naked chest was forever imprinted on her brain.

“I take it that business went well?”

“Well, I did get that new investor on board.”

“Congratulations.”

Andrew stiffened. “Are you being sarcastic?”

Lacey’s smile vanished. “No.”

“I’m taking a shower.”

Once the bathroom door slammed, a long breath escaped her lungs. That was close. At least Andrew didn’t flat out call her an imposter. Then again, he didn’t know any better. From his perspective, she was Belle acting weird. Given the obvious that their marriage wasn’t a blissful one, Lacey hoped Andrew would shrug her behavior off as nothing of consequence.

With her nerves shot to hell, Lacey grabbed her coat and Belle’s cell and headed out to the balcony. She had to get this burden off her chest or she was going to explode! Cold air slapped her face, but she ignored the chill and dialed the one person she could trust.

Chapter Text

After exchanging phone calls for six months, Lacey had the number down pat. She only hoped Ruby was curious enough to pick up the blocked number from Belle’s phone. Shivering, she paced back and forth as her stomach did somersaults. Finally, Ruby answered.

“Hello?”

Close to tears, Lacey forced words passed the lump in her throat. “I can’t believe what I’ve done.”

“Lacey? Where are you? What happened? The cops say you ran.”

“I didn’t have a choice! Jones was going to kill me!”

“Alright, calm down. Tell me where you are and I’ll come get you.”

Her heart melted with relief at the offer, but Lacey knew she couldn’t drag Ruby into the middle of her mess.

“I…I don’t even know where to begin.”

The worry in Ruby’s voice was loud and clear. “What’s going on?”

“Belle killed herself.” Saying the words aloud made it so much more real and the tears threatened. Lacey confided in her sponsor about writing to her sister and they debated if visiting was a good idea when Belle first suggested it. Although she trusted Ruby, Lacey could never tell her friend the full truth behind the rift. Still, Ruby knew enough.

“What? Lacey, what happened?”

“I don’t know,” she confessed. “I don’t know why she did it, but afterward, I panicked. The cops were after me. Jones was after me. And it was so easy. Everyone thinks I’m her.”

“Lace, you need to turn yourself in.”

“Why? So Jones can get his paws on me? He had people inside the FBI! It’s not safe. I shouldn’t have even called you.”

“Lacey? Lacey, listen-”

But she couldn’t. Involving Ruby would be wrong and she broke the connection before she could do more damage. Belle’s number wouldn’t be traced, so Ruby should be safe. Back in the Hamptons, stepping into her twins shoes seemed like her only out, but actually standing in this penthouse with Belle’s husband only feet away, the reality smothered her earlier assumptions.

Unable to handle the cold, Lacey went back inside. Slipping off the jacket, she put Belle’s phone back in her purse and heard the shower switch off. Panicked, Lacey slipped off her shoes and climbed onto the made bed fully dressed. She pulled the throw blanket over her and pretended to be asleep when Andrew emerged. She held her breath as he stood there in nothing but a towel and stared at her prone form. A few seconds later, he retreated to the guest room.

Relief washed through her knowing she bought some time. The events of the day finally caught up to her and an instant later she fell asleep for real. What felt like a second later, an annoying ringing sounded from the nightstand.

“Aren’t you going to get that,” Andrew barked as he entered the bedroom to grab a suit jacket from the closet. “And why are you still in bed? Did you skip your training because I said you were too thin? That’s just silly.”

His brogue took some getting used to and Lacey sat up not knowing if he was annoyed or simply being himself. Grimacing at the intruding sunlight, she rubbed her eyes to clear the fog, then automatically reached for the cordless phone.

“Hello?”

A sweet feminine voice came through the time. “Hello, Belle, did you sleep in?”

“What?”

“Don’t tell me you forgot! I saw you write our appointment in your little black book. You were supposed to meet me at the loft a half hour ago.”

“I was?” Lacey’s eyes darted around to find the book the woman spoke of and spotted it on the nightstand. Flipping through to today’s date, she saw the notation in Belle’s handwriting.

“Belle, darling! Are you there?”

“No…Ariel. I’ll be right there. Give me twenty minutes?”

“Make it thirty. Now you owe me a latte.”

Overwhelmed, Lacey hung up and waited for her heart rate to go back to normal before letting her eyes drop back to the book in her lap. Charity board meeting, yoga classes…there! The address to the loft in the margin. Belle always used to keep solid records of her schedule. Good to know some things never changed. Of course, this book couldn’t answer all the tough questions like who was Ariel. Lacey nearly asked Andrew before biting her lip. Besides, he already had his briefcase in hand. He left the apartment without so much as a goodbye. Clearly, Belle and Andrew hit a rough patch in their marriage. Maybe that’s what Belle meant when she said no one’s life was perfect.

Well, she might as well get up and see what this loft business was all about. She’d find a way to deal with Andrew later. Once again, Lacey was awestruck by the designer contents of her twin’s closet. The silk scarves practically melted through her fingers! Selecting a cream coat, a Chanel patterned dress, and gorgeous tan boots, she laid the outfit on the bed. Her eyes then spotted Belle’s purse resting next to the nightstand. Remembering the gun sent a spike of fear jetting through her system.

She couldn’t keep carrying the thing around in her purse, so she tucked the weapon beneath a pile of scarves in a drawer in the boudoir. No one should have a reason to search there. Sure, her solution wasn’t fool proof, but her stay here was temporary until she figured out the next step.

A glance at the clock had her dressing in a rush. On the way out the door, she hoped she got the right latte. Lacey slathered on some quick make-up in the car, gave the driver the address from the planner, and frowned when they pulled up to a refurbished warehouse. New York constantly evolved and so she shouldn’t be surprised this district was being transformed into luxury apartments. A workman pointed her toward the penthouse. The penthouse!

Heaving never been surrounded by so much affluence in her life, Lacey struggled not to get overwhelmed. Saws buzzed, hammers slammed, and workers shouted orders as Lacey made her way through the construction. Amidst the duct tape, covered floors, and fresh paint aroma coating the air stood a stylish redhead whose wardrobe echoed Belle’s. And the huge, sparkling diamond wedding hand on her left finger could blind someone. Ariel Butler was the architect overseeing the remodeling of this new property.

The second Ariel saw Lacey she gasped in shock. “You look absolutely anorexic! You must tell me your secret!”

Ariel didn’t hesitate to take one of the lattes from Lacey’s hand and turned to make a grand gesture, showing off the progress. “Good news, the marble guy is coming at ten instead of four and the lighting guy after lunch.”

As Ariel walked, Lacey had no choice but to follow. Her eyes darted across the seemingly endless open space in confused awe. When they paused at the end of the side wall, the redhead flashed a huge grin.

“What do you think of the exposed brick?”

“Nice, but why are we moving?”

“Ask your crazy husband,” she laughed. “I spent a year and a half finishing Park Avenue. Probably a status thing. Like my father Timothy Triton has to have the best of everything. Besides, Andrew’s loaded, so he can more than afford it.”

Maybe but something about the whole situation felt off. She may not be book smart like her sister, or a member of the upper echelon, but Lacey’s street savvy got her out of some pretty grim spots. She learned to trust her gut and right now she listened. In her world, if your instincts weren’t razor sharp, then you got gobbled up by the bigger fish.

“Come see the terrace!”

Yanked by the arm out to see the view, she shivered as the cool fall air swept around her. Gargoyles were placed on the corners of the railing, framing the city skyline. Lacey couldn’t understand what all the excitement was about, though. Sure, the sight was nice, but wasn’t there more to life?

“Isn’t it breathtaking?”

“I guess.”

A frown marred Ariel’s expression. She stared at Lacey for a long moment before tilting her head in thought. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing! Why?”

“I thought you lived for this stuff.”

Really? Belle changed that much? Her twin shunned the superficial and loved spending endless hours in the public library reading up in all sorts of subjects. Then Belle meets Andrew, moves to New York, and becomes obsessed with decorating ten million dollars in real estate? If Belle was losing her identity, then her suicide made a small amount of sense.

“I’m just tired,” Lacey said when she caught Ariel still staring at her. “Andrew came home last night-”

“You’re skinny and you’re having sex!”

“No! We didn’t! I mean-”

“I can’t even tell you the last time I saw Eric naked. Between the kids and work, it’s been impossible. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t dump him for one of the workmen. I’m sure they make more than out of work former naval captains.”

Wow! Talk about overkill! Nevertheless, Lacey soaked up the details. They may come in handy later.

“I could use a martini,” Ariel continued. “Say you’ll come out with me tonight.”

When was the last time she went out for a girl’s night with a friend? Ariel seemed sweet and charming, so why not? Besides, wasn’t she due for a stress-free moment?

“I’d love to.”

“Oh, wait! Don’t you have that thing? That charity event?”

“Oh, ummm…”

“Personally, I don’t know why you bother. I mean, I get that Nick is Andrew’s cousin, but he gives me the creeps.”

A cousin? Lacey perked at the reveal. “Why?”

Ariel’s eyes snapped to her friend and she stared again as if Lacey just grew a second head. “Why? Belle, you and Nick have never gotten along. He mocks you because you don’t have special letters behind your name. Well, he pretty much mocks all of Andrew’s friends, but it's creepy how much he and Andrew look alike. I mean, they’re more like twins than first cousins. And now he’s tooting his own horn with this opera screening to show off new levels of his superiority. And he has the nerve to call us snobs? Please. And he’s always a third or fifth wheel. If you ask me, he needs a girlfriend. Hell, he just needs a serious lay.”

A snobby cousin with credentials? “Aren’t all…people like them the same way?”

“I know plenty of people in academia who don’t have half the ego Dr. Nicholas Rush does. Probably gets larger every time he boasts about his government grants and contacts.”

Lacey’s brows arched. “Sounds like he gets under your skin even more than Bel-me.”

“Please,” Ariel rolled her eyes. “Every time we hang out with him, he’s rude and too opinionated. Good luck dealing with that tonight.”

Well, sounds like she had someone on her list to avoid. If Andrew's cousin hated Belle and gave her a hard time, maybe it was best she dodge any kind of confrontation. Should she beg out of the gala? No, she didn’t have an excuse. Besides, Belle would put on a brave face and push through, so Lacey had to do the same.

For the next few hours, Ariel showed Lacey around the loft while dictating her vision for the final decoration. At first, she thought the talk of marble and crystal and the finest of everything was too posh and arrogant, but the redhead’s enthusiasm and love of her craft earned Lacey’s admiration. Clearly, Ariel was talented.

When they parted ways, the idea of going back to the apartment had her struggling to draw air into her lungs. The more she saw of Belle’s life the more confused she became. Back in the Hamptons, Belle said no one’s life was perfect. So far, Lacey learned her sister’s marriage was on the rocks and that Belle seemingly gave up on her love of the written word in favor of emulating fashion trends, but all those issues were fixable. Why would Belle kill herself over stuff she could mend with a little bit of effort? There had to be more to the story.

Yes, staying in her twin’s shoes was dangerous. Lacey could be discovered at any moment, but she needed answers. Besides, as long as Jones wanted her head on a silver platter, she was safer living Belle’s life. She just better not get caught.

The charity event was circled in the black appointment book. A few other appointments were notated through October, but the rest of the agenda remained blank. Because Belle wasn’t planning that far ahead. Thankfully, Andrew was at work, so the apartment was empty when she was returned.

Something struck Lacey was she walked down the hall toward the master bedroom. There were no family photos on the walls. Did Andrew and Belle have everything on the Cloud or Facebook? Not even a wedding photo? Hurt stabbed her chest when he realized Belle never invited her to the ceremony. After the accident, Lacey tried so many times to explain, but Belle heard none of it. As a result, Lacey fell farther and farther down the rabbit hole. Now look where she ended up. Playing the role of the imposter to survive.

The guilt threatened to drown her and her throat went dry as the cravings for a drink made her hands twitch. One sip to calm her nerves – no. Absolutely not. If she wanted answers, she had to keep her head screwed on straight. Busying her hands wouldn’t hurt right about now either. Picking out the right dress for tonight should help distract her from the cravings. Lacey made a mental note to find an AA group and attend a meeting once the dust settled a bit. She couldn’t do this alone and she needed to be strong.

Chapter Text

The crescendo sounded absolutely magnificent. Lacey always assumed opera to be a waste of time. Who wanted to sit and listen to exaggerated singing in a foreign language anyway? Yet, instead of being bored to tears, she was actually moved. Tears prickled her eyes as she looked over at Andrew.

Clean shaven and handsome in his black Armani, he smiled back. The skin around his eyes crinkled and Lacey felt a jolt of awareness clench her stomach. He wasn’t a GQ cover model, but there was a sophisticated masculinity that captured her attention. Tonight, Andrew was much more agreeable. In fact, after the party, he greeted acquaintances and kept her on his arm while exuding a confidence rarely seen in American businessmen. That Scottish brogue added a fine twist to the package and she felt drawn to his charisma most of the evening.

“You know it’s been years since you’ve worn that dress.”

She smoothed a hand down the cherry red linen Chanel. Matching the gown with a pair of red pumps, diamond earrings, and floral perfume. Her chestnut curls were pulled back into a classic twist, but she wondered if she appeared elegant enough for this crowd. However, when Andrew complemented her, pride swelled. Maybe she got something right after all.

“It’s not too much?"

“No, it’s absolutely perfect.” Andrew swept her with an appreciative glance. “Now, how about a glass of champagne?”

“Umm, could you make it water? I have a bit of a headache.”

“Absolutely.”

Alone, Lacey wondered around the lobby, taking in the works of art lining the walls. She should mingle but without details on who Belle knew and didn’t know, Lacey didn’t want to risk getting caught with her foot in her mouth. Making her way through the crowd, she couldn’t shake the sensation of being watched. Every time she turned around, she didn’t catch anything amiss. Lacey rounded a corner and found an empty gallery and breathed a sigh of relief. Some of the pressure rolled off her shoulders and she let down her guard for a moment.

A moment later, she turned and saw a man leaning against the wall staring at her. Black suit, same frame, long hair brushing his shoulders, he was –

“Andrew?”

The man blinked but inched closer and that’s when lacey noticed the whiskers and greying beard. God, Ariel wasn’t kidding about the identical factor. He looked just like Andrew, but unless Belle’s husband could grow a week’s worth of whiskers in five minutes, this wasn’t really Andrew.

“I’m surprised you showed your face tonight.”

“Nick?”

“Don’t play coy, Belle.”

Lacey stiffened at the gruff tone. “What do you want?”

Wow. She looked at him as if she never laid eye on him before, but she called him “Andrew” with a moment of recognition that set his nerves on edge. He needed to compensate. Fast.

“I’m surprised you’re here all alone.” Nicholas inched closer, slipped his hands into his pockets, and walked in a circle around her. “You adore being the center of attention, so why wander away from your admirers? And since when did you care about academic scholarships?”

Did Ariel have this guy pegged or what? Andrew’s cousin really was a prick. “What, Nicholas? I’m not allowed to admire art?”

“Or maybe you slipped away for a secret rendezvous.”

“What exactly are you accusing me of?”

A sarcastic laugh burst from his throat. “What’s your game, Belle? You never call me by my first name unless you’re trying to butter me up for something.”

Offended, she crossed her arms over her chest. “And what could I possibly want from you?”

“A new brain? Tips on the market, or perhaps you’re going to ask me to look into my cousin’s company again.”

“I-”

“Well, you can save your breath because my answer is still no.”

Was Belle suspicious of Andrew’s company? Enough to ask his cousin for help? A man she despised? To what end? Maybe that’s what she had to figure out.

“And I…really wanted to learn about the company?”

Rush rolled his eyes. “You ken you did!”

His brogue was thicker than Andrew’s, especially when he was angry. Obviously, the hostility ran so thick she wouldn’t get any information from him, so she better cut her losses and make a clean getaway.

“I should go. Andrew’s waiting.”

“Since when do you care, Belle? The world always revolves around you.”

“I’ve had just about enough of your hostility. Excuse me.”

Lacey attempted to pass him, but Rush grabbed her arms and yanked her close.

“Stop playing games, Belle. Come clean.”

“About what?”

Those gorgeous blue eyes reflected such pure innocence that he was almost fooled. For a second, he could believe the last three months never happened. Something else was going on here, but he couldn’t put his finger on what.

When those swirling dark eyes continued glaring at her, Lacey had just about enough. Tugging her arm free, he turned on her heel and marched back to the party. Andrew didn’t ask where she wondered off to but his body language conveyed annoyance. Then Nicholas Rush made his presence public and the cousins shook hands and fell into easy conversation. Comparing them side-by-side, Lacey was amazed by their similarities. Hell, Andrew and Nicholas practically were twins! Almost just as much as she and Belle were!

Swallowing her initial shock, Lacey watched Andrew and his cousin exchange chit-chat. When she joined them, Andrew put an arm around her waist and smiled like he was having the time of his life. Nicholas stiffened at the sight but didn’t comment. Eventually, the night wore down and Andrew escorted her into the waiting car.

Between the charity gala and the apartment, Andrew’s attitude shifted dramatically. Like the shift from day to night. He became cold and distant, even irritable. Not sure of the reason for the turnabout, she attempted small talk. When that didn’t work, she waited until they were back in the apartment before starting another conversation by asking for help with her dress.

“The zipper is stuck. Do you mind?”

Andrew sighed but helped her before walking to his side of the closet. What was his problem?

“Is everything ok?”

“Fine,” he answered as he removed his bow tie. The cufflinks and coat came next.

“It’s just, I thought…”

“You thought what?”

“I don’t know. That we were cool.”

“Cool? What are we? Twelve?”

His mocking sarcasm confused her. Why did he act so cold?

“Of course, we’re not cool, Belle,” he said as he reached for the buttons on his shirt.

Inching closer, Lacey wanted some sort of truce. If she did disappear, she wanted Andrew to have some recent, warmer memories of his wife.

“Tonight at the gala, you seemed so happy.”

“Well, that was an act.” How could she really not have noticed? “This is your game, Belle. I’m just playing by your rules.”

Did Belle’s marriage dissolve to merely keeping up appearances? How tragic for both of them. Getting along with Andrew would behoove her. Plus, Lacey wanted to make right what she could in her sister’s memory. Even if it was only the little things.

“What if I don’t want to play games anymore?

Andrew rolled his eyes, looking very much like his cousin in that moment. “That’ll be the day.”

“I’m serious,” she insisted. “Why can’t we just be nice to each other? For real.”

His dark eyes snapped to her face and bore into her. “Who are you,” he softly demanded.

Lacey’s heart leaped, but she remained outwardly calm. “What do you mean?”

“You’re so different. Relaxed and agreeable…”

“And you don’t like it?”

“No. I love it, but I don’t trust it.”

Leaving those final words in the air, he headed to the shower and didn’t spare her a backward glance.

Slowly letting out the breath she was holding, she had no idea what to make of the exchange. Andrew retreated to the guest bedroom, so Lacey took a bath and decompressed. Nothing this evening went as she hoped.

Wrapped in an ivory robe she went to Belle’s jewelry box to replace the jewels she wore this evening. In one of the pockets, she found a wallet sized picture of Belle as a girl standing with their mother. On the back, written in Belle’s hand, were the words: Me and Mom. A tear slipped down Lacey’s cheek. Cradling the picture in her palm, she glanced at the ceiling before whispering, "mistakes aren’t tragedies, but please higher power, help me learn from them.”

Restless, all she did that night was toss and turn. Waking with the cravings, she realized she needed help. Lacey used her sister’s fancy phone to search a location of the closest AA meeting, then dressed and headed to catch a cab. New faces were always called upon to share first, but this time, Lacey didn’t mind. In fact, she needed to get a few things off her chest. Confession helped manage the guilt.

“This is the hardest things I’ve ever had to do,” she said of walking in her sister’s shoes. Alone, not knowing why Lacey had to pull the pieces together while managing the burden of the guilt she carried for taking her sister’s place.

“I never intended for any of this to happen,” she continued, “I have no excuses. I was selfish and scared, but I’ve sworn to make right what I can. I just feel like…every time I take one step in the right direction, I’m pushed two steps back.”

“The important thing,” the leader said gently, “is that you take responsibility for your actions.”

“The worst part is that I lost someone in all of this. Someone who meant everything to me. We just reunited, but now she’s gone and I don’t know why.”

“But you can’t lose perspective.”

Lacey nodded. “One day, I hope I can go back to the way things were, but for now, I have to stay the course.”

A few others shared and they finished with the serenity prayer. She felt a thousand times better when she left the meeting. At least there was one place she could tell the truth and not have to worry about consequences.

Back in the apartment, she wondered how Belle tolerated the silence and solitude. The living room had bookshelves built into the walls filled to the brim with novels, but they gathered dust. Clearly, Belle didn’t stay here and idle away her day reading. Instead, she worked on committees and joined yoga classes and spent her days shopping. Such a far cry from the library nerd that wanted to read every book she could get her hands on.

When did Belle toss aside her ideals and morals? Even as she asked the question, Lacey feared she knew the answer. The change happened that fateful night. Belle’s fall from grace was all Lacey’s fault. Belle eventually killed herself because of what happened that night. Lacey put her on the path and therefore she owed it to her twin to get answers.

Staring out the living room window at the view, her mind wandered to Nicholas Rush. He seemed very hostile at the party. Almost as if his whole goal was to push her into making some sort of confession. What was the reason for all the nastiness? Did he know something about Belle that could explain her frame of mind that day on the boat? Was the source of the rivalry between them what Ariel claimed? Did Nicholas look down his nose at Belle because she wasn’t as smart as him? Book smarts weren't everything!

How could she go about finding more information on the snobby professor? An internet search revealed his vast list of credentials. Should she ask Andrew for more details? Or would asking such questions raise suspicions?

Perhaps Lacey should focus more on what caused the rift between Belle and Andrew. The pair were married for five years and while it wasn’t impossible for issues to fester, Lacey had to admit she was surprised the union soured so quickly. In all the photos she found – mainly all on Andrew’s home desk – Belle looked so happy that it was hard to believe they grew distant.

Before their rift, Belle was the peacemaker. She never held a grudge. Again, Lacey’s fault. Even if she did discover the source of the anonymity what would she do with the information? Repairing Belle’s relationship with Andrew seemed superfluous, but right.

A ringing phone disrupted her thoughts, causing a gasp of fright to escape her lips. Lacey put a hand over her heart and answered thinking the caller was Ariel. When security informed her she had a visitor, Lacey gave them permission to come up without asking for a name. A few minutes later, the elevator dinged and the doors slid open to reveal the last face she ever expected to see in a million years.

No!

Lacey froze. Agent Everett Machado smiled.

Chapter Text

Oh, God! She was caught! Those were Lacey’s first thoughts facing the man who hunted her down the first time she ran. The man who cornered her into testifying against a psychopath with a happy trigger finger.

Ok, stay calm and play it cool. She was Belle. All she had to do was play the part. Unless Everett already figured out the truth?

The resemblance was uncanny! He expected as much since he knew Belle Gold was Lacey French’s twin sister, but he had to admit he wasn’t fully prepared. Falling back on his sense of humor, Everett whistled as he took in his surroundings.

“Wow! Far cry from Colorado. Ever been?”

Slowly, Lacey shook her head. Her confusion at his presence was real enough, but she had to think on her feet if she didn’t want to rouse his suspicions.

“My name is Everett Machado,” he stated as he pulled his badge out of his breast pocket. “I’m with the FBI.”

He wouldn’t be introducing himself and flashing credentials if he knew the truth, so Lacey managed a smile. “Belle Gold. How can I help you?”

“I need to talk to you about your sister.”

“Lacey? Why?”

“It’s a long story, so why don’t I buy you a cup of coffee?”

She could put him off, but she certainly landed in a unique position to figure out where the investigation into tracking her down was going. If Everett was knocking on the door of her estranged twin, then he was desperate for leads - or hot on the trail to the truth.

Heart pounding with fear at the latter, she agreed and grabbed her purse. Lacey escorted Everett to the shop on the corner. They found a table in the back and Lacey listened to him explain why he came all this way.

“Mrs. Gold, I need to know where your sister is hiding.”

“I have no idea.”

Everett didn’t buy it for a second. “She’s in a lot of trouble,” he warned.

“Well, I didn’t assume you came all this way because she was jaywalking.”

He burst out laughing. “That’s amazing. Same pretty face, same sarcastic wit.”

Going oddly calm despite her rising panic, Lacey didn’t want him jumping to a conclusion that hit too close to home. “Look, I don’t understand what Lacey’s brush with the law has to do with me. We haven’t spoken in years.”

“Listen, your sister was the only witness to a murder, but she’s now a fugitive. She stole an agent’s weapon is now considered a priority for my department.”

“Wait,” Lacey held up a hand. “Stole a weapon? Lacey wouldn’t do that.”

His brows shot up his forehead. “You sound confident for a woman who hasn’t spoken to her in years.”

“We’re twins,” she said as if that explained it all.

Well, he couldn’t speak to that, so Everett decided to share a bit more of the story to help Belle understand and hopefully gain her cooperation. “As I said, Lacey witnessed a murder but ran instead of going to the authorities. We caught up with her and charged her with prostitution, but agreed to drop those charges in exchange for her testimony.”

“Prostitution, huh?” That charged rubbed her the wrong way. Lacey never intended to sleep with the guy. She planned to lure him in with a few kisses, steal his wallet, and knock him out before making a clean getaway. The cops moved in the second she suggested payment as a means to get her target to lower his guard and the jerk pressed charges, giving the FBI leverage.

“People do desperate things under pressure.”

Figures his gender bias refused to see any other scenario or explanation.

“We’re very concerned for her safety.”

“Why? You said she’s a fugitive that didn’t testify.”

“Because the man she was supposed to put away is now back on the streets and if he wants to keep his freedom, killing your sister is his only insurance. If you know anything you need to tell me. She’s facing arrest – or worse. Even if you two are estranged, I assume you don’t want her dead.”

No, Lacey most certainly didn’t want her sister to be dead, but they couldn’t go back in time and change the past.

“I have no idea where Lacey is,” she finally said. “I can’t help you.”

Then why did he get the impression Belle Gold was hiding something? Everett slipped her his card and swore to keep in touch. “I’ll be in New York for an extended period. If Lacey contacts you, make sure to let me know.”

Breathing a sigh of relief at his exit, she figured her secret was safe, but for how long? Machado was a bulldog that never gave up on the scent. Assuming her sister’s identity afforded her a measure of protection wouldn’t be incorrect, but this cover couldn’t last forever. Rattled, she left the coffee shop and headed back to the apartment. If Machado could find Belle, how long before Killian did the same? And the FBI would be tracking that gun. She had to get rid of it.

But where? How?

Lacey pondered possibilities the rest of the day. After dinner, Andrew retreated to his home office and Lacey announced she was going for a walk. Snatching the gun from the scarf drawer, she tucked it into her purse and dove out into the night. She could throw the piece in a random gutter, but guns could be found by persons unknown and used for goodness knows what. The last thing she wanted was the death of another innocent person on her conscience. No, this gun needed to be hidden where no one would ever find it. Like Jimmy Hoffa’s body.

Lacey ended up at the loft. With all the construction, she could stick the gun away in a wall somewhere and only she would know. Shrouded in darkness, the loft felt intimidating. With each echoing footstep, she feared a monster would burst out of the shadows and choke the life out of her.

An old newspaper rested by a tarp and bucket. Removing the gun from the purse, she wrapped up the weapon. Now all she needed was the right hiding spot.

“Belle?”

Gasping, she whirled to see Ariel. Hand over her pounding heart, she stood. “You scared me!”

“What are you doing here?”

“I thought I would check up on the progress.”

“At nine at night?”

“I was in the area.”

At first, Ariel looked suspicious, but she waved off the explanation a second later and showed her friend some light fixtures. “Won’t these look amazing on that wall over a black lacquer table? Don’t worry about the holes. They’ll be filled in tomorrow.”

A smile curved her lips. “Perfect.”

“I’m glad you’re here. Help distract me from my mundane life. The kids are driving me up a wall. Why else am I here at nine o’clock at night?”

“At least you have a sense of humor about it.”

“Don’t get me wrong, I love Eric to death, but we’re approaching the seven-year itch and are stuck in a slump.”

“What you need is a hot date night and some fancy lingerie.”

Ariel laughed. “I like the way you think. Tell me more.”

They brainstormed for about an hour before finally parting ways. Ariel left first, giving Lacey the chance to stash the gun. By the time she got home, Andrew was already sleeping in the guestroom. Lacey ended up on the edge of Belle’s bed wondering if she made the right decision. Should she cut her losses and leave New York? And go where?

Alright, she obviously needed a plan, but until she could outline a plausible course of action, Lacey had to stay put and calm down. Ironically, she slept like the dead that night. Andrew was gone by the time she woke, but Nicholas lingered in the living room.

“What are you doing here?”

“Good morning to you, too,” he said sarcastically.

“I’m serious, Nicholas.”

The look he threw her was one of irritation mixed with…longing? However, the expression vanished seconds later when his frown deepened.

“My cousin asked me to look at the figures for a new venture. He gave me the run of the place so I could work up some projections.”

Lacey folded her arms across her chest and jutted a hip. “He didn’t tell me. And what’s wrong with your place?”

Nickolas tossed his hair over his shoulder and threw her a narrow-eyed look. “First of all, this place is nicer. Second, why should he? The two of you are barely on speaking terms.”

“Mind your own business,” she snapped.

Nicholas grinned in triumph. “Did I hit a nerve?”

Annoyed, Lacey needed fresh air. “I’m going for a walk. Don’t touch anything.”

He threw up his hands in mock surrender, but the second the elevator doors closed, he sprang into action. Nicholas went for her closet first, rooting through her drawers and shoes. Finding nothing out of the ordinary, he moved to the nightstand, then the bathroom, and finally the rest of the apartment. Nothing.

Well, maybe Belle was smart enough not to leave evidence lying around. With all the sabotage happening at Gold/Charles Financial and the nasty string of “accidents” occurring with convenient timing, there had to be a link somewhere. Belle had motive, access, and resources to sell out the company to the highest bidder.

Raking a hand through his hair, Nicholas took another turn around the apartment. He ended up in her boudoir sitting at her make-up desk and looking through her jewelry case. The wallet-sized photo wasn’t new. He saw it before many years ago after the wedding. Colette French died before Belle and Andrew met, but she never uttered a word about what happened and no one ever pressed for details.

Once he put the photo back where he found it, he took out his phone and dialed the one number stored in the memory. The contact picked up on the third ring.

“Nothing out of the ordinary, but I can have her followed.”

He frowned at the reply. “Then I’ll do it myself!”

Listening to the response, he gritted his teeth.

“Fine,” he snapped before hanging up.

Belle wouldn’t be able to hide her crimes forever. Come hell or high water he would uncover her secrets and then the whole house of cards would come tumbling down. Maybe, just maybe, when Belle was purged from their lives, he and his cousin could finally pick up the pieces and move on.

****

Fifth Avenue was the ritzy and fabulous mecca of fashion and class. With nothing else better to do, Lacey figured there wasn't any harm in taking in a few of the city’s sites. Agent Machado assumed she was her sister, so she had to play the part. Besides, Andrew’s cousin really ruffled her feathers. There was something odd in the way he stared at her when he thought she wasn’t looking.

In her old life, Lacey loved shopping trips. The most she could afford were stops at the local Marshalls or TJ Maxx stores of she wanted name brands. However, armed with Belle’s credit card, she could walk into Sacs or Nordstrom and buy whatever her heart desired. For the first time since her life was tossed into upheaval, Lacey let down her guard and acted like her old self for a few hours. Purchasing some Hourglass Cosmetics and a bottle of Chanel No. 5 made her feel affluently gorgeous. Of course, the magic bubble burst once she returned to an apartment that wasn’t her own. Guilt squeezed her heart.

What as she doing? Belle was barely gone and Lacey stooped to using her credit card as a stress relief? Making a mental note to return the items, all thought scattered when she entered the living room. His sexy brogue echoed in her ears. How did he manage to look so sensual even when livid?

Andrew shouted at one employee or another, but paused and wrapped up the call the second he saw her.

“Everything ok,” she asked.

“Fine,” he snapped before storming out of the room.

Lacey almost went after him, but her phone rang. With a sigh, she grabbed the device and answered without checking the caller ID. “Hello?”

“Mrs. Gold, this is Dr. Marks. Sorry to call so late, but you didn’t show up for your appointment this afternoon.”

“Sorry. I must have forgotten to write it in my book.”

“Well, reschedule when you can because your bloodwork came back positive.”

“Is that…a bad thing?”

“No! It's a very good thing. Congratulations, you’re about four weeks along.”

“Pregnant!”

The word exploded from her mouth before she could help it. Simultaneously, she caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of her eye. Andrew. He overheard everything.

As she swiftly ended the call, Andrew asked if that was her doctor. “You’re pregnant?”

The second Lacey confirmed it, he said he had an errand and headed right for the elevator. Too shocked to care, Lacey stumbled into the bathroom and stared at her reflection.

“Belle,” she breathed. “What did you do?”

****

Andrew banged on the door of a turn-of-the-century brownstone on the “bad” side of the island. His cousin answered. One look at Andrew’s face and he stepped back to let him in.

“What the fook? We agreed-”

He turned to his cousin and looked him directly in the eye. “You’re going to be a father.”

“What?”

“Belle is pregnant.”

Chapter Text

Shock covered Nicholas’s face.

“Are you sure?”

Andrew scoffed. “I take it the pregnancy wasn’t planned?”

Nicholas glared. “Don’t be a bastard.”

“Hey! This was your plan, cousin!”

“Because with my marriage to Belle on the rocks, and the fact the two of you don’t get along, it was the perfect solution to have you investigate the firm, while I tried to figure out who’s gunning for us!”

“Nicholas” let out a long sigh. “You had to take my place because-”

“Belle is as much a suspect as anyone else and you didn’t want her to know. Plus, having a decoy come in handy.” Nicholas-as-Andrew crossed his arms over his chest. “The plan has worked so far. If you want to switch back, then we can think of something, but I’ve already shaved for you, so…”

Andrew ran his hands over his face. A baby. Wow. He never imagined he would have children, but this news made him feel…lighter somehow. Lately, all he and Belle did was fight. Conception must have happened the night before he and Nicholas switched lives. They were shouting and one thing led to another and…they had wild sex. Glorious sex. However, the next morning, Belle grew silent withdrawn. Clearly, their night together didn’t make her trust him, so Andrew went through with his plan.

“If it matters, Belle seems to be genuine about patching things up and not playing games,” Nicholas supplied.

“Really?” Andrew scratched his whiskered chin.

“Came out of left field, honestly. You think she’s on to our plan? Or does she have something else up her sleeve?”

“I doubt it. I can read Belle like one of her beloved books. Earlier today when I went to search the apartment, she didn’t even blink twice at me. No spark of recognition. There was also no evidence suggesting she was behind the sabotage.”

“Are you sure? Or is it the wishful thinking talking?”

His eyes narrowed. “I know you don’t like my wife-”

“Because you could have done so much better.”

“But she’s innocent until proven guilty.”

Nicholas shook his head. What did Andrew see in Belle anyway? Sure, she had a pretty face, but she also had a selfish streak most overlooked with a flash of those big baby blues. Ever since their first meeting, Nicholas thought her superficial and Belle considered him a narcissistic snob.

“I’m trusting you, Nicholas,” Andrew continued. “To run Gold/Charles in my place and figure out what you can on your end. You always were better at unlocking sequences and tracking codes.”

“Yeah,” he agreed. “The firm would already have collapsed without my help.”

“And I’ll owe you big time if I survive this.” There was already one attempt on Andrew’s life and he had no idea if there would be another. So far, no one went after Nicholas while he played at filling his cousin’s shoes.

“Hopefully, this charade won’t go on that much longer.”

“What do you want me to tell Belle?”

He wanted to pull his wife into his arms, hug her close, and bask in the joy of expecting a child. Unfortunately, he had to keep his distance. The light faded from Andrew’s eyes when he realized Belle may not want the baby. Their marriage wasn’t in a good place at the moment.

“Go easy on her, will you,” he finally answered.

Nicholas rolled his eyes. “If she’s behind this-”

“She’s carrying my child!” Inhaling a deep breath, Andrew reeled in his temper. “Just cut her some slack, alright?”

“Fine.”

Nicholas could be civil until he had enough evidence to convince his cousin that Belle was poison. Sure, she wasn’t close to the nightmare that was Andrew’s first wife, but she had a way of bending Andrew to her will and Nicholas never trusted all of those innocent smiles.

“So, what’s our next move?”

“We seem to be out of them,” Andrew sighed. “Our opponent will show their face again. We just need to be patient and prepared.”

“I’m close to tracing the leak at the firm.”

“Tread carefully,” Andrew warned. “No one can suspect us.”

“Not a problem. I should get back before your wife starts asking questions.”

With a nod, Andrew walked his cousin to the door. They were a family with a strong sense of honor. Nicholas may not get along with Belle, but he wouldn’t harm her, and he certainly wouldn’t be tempted to seduce her. When all of this nonsense was over, he could reclaim his old life without Belle ever being the wiser.

Leaving the apartment, Nicholas-as-Andrew headed back to the posh side of Park Avenue. A baby wouldn’t complicate matters much. About time one of them carried on the family legacy. He buried himself in his work ever since Gloria’s death and never considered dating. In fact, Nicholas shunned social functions like the plague. He never expected love would visit the likes of him a second time around.

“We should go out!”

Ariel’s proclamation reached his ears the second he stepped off the elevator.

“Where would we go,” Lacey asked.

“Somewhere with a lot of music. Please? Eric is staying out late with his navy buddies and I actually have a sitter. No need to waste the time off.”

“Ariel, I’d love to, but-”

“Andrew!” She seized his hand the second he walked into view and tugged him forward. “Tell Belle that we need to go out. You’ve both been working so hard, as have I. Come on!”

“I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”

The redhead scoffed. “Since when did Scots get so boring? Call your cousin! We’ll make it an even four. That way we can have girl time and you won’t be alone.”

Since she obviously wasn’t going to let the matter drop, Nicholas took out his cell. “He may want to stay buried under his rock.”

“Then it’s your job to convince him. Belle, let’s raid your closet! I’m in desperate need of a touch-up!”

Throwing Andrew a helpless look, Lacey led Ariel to the master bedroom. The second they were out of sight, Nicholas explained the situation to his cousin.

“I’ll go.”

“What? Andrew-”

“It’ll be fine.”

Pissed when the line went dead, he knew what Andrew was about. He wanted to see Belle in person, especially since finding out about the baby. Understandable, but the more time he spent with Belle, the more likely the chance his wife would catch on to the bait and switch. Sentimental fool could ruin everything!

They ended up in a loud, crowded club where the music thumped so hard it made Lacey’s chest hurt. Andrew relaxed when his cousin arrived. Ariel didn’t notice the awkward exchange between the men, but rather kept insisting her best friend share a drink with her.

“I really can’t.”

“Why not,” Ariel wanted to know. “What will one little drink hurt? You never cared before.”

“Well, I-”

“Belle is pregnant,” fake Andrew insisted beside her. “We just found out today.”

“Pregnant! You sneaky bitch! That explains why you haven’t been drinking! Isn’t that great news, Nick?”

“Yeah. Great news.”

There was something very odd in the way Rush studied her. Not quite menacing really, but rather…well, almost like she was an experiment he couldn’t figure out. Since the moment she met him, Nickolas acted grumpy, aloof, and disapproving of her in general. Clearly, he and Belle never got along, but Lacey wondered what caused such a rift.

“I need a refill,” Ariel announced.

“I’m good,” Rush said.

“Come on,” Andrew invited. “I’ll buy the next round.”

As the pair headed for the bar, Rush pulled Lacey aide for a private word. The concern in his eyes took her off guard. Before she could get a syllable in edgewise, he beat her to the punch.

“How are you feeling?”

“Why do you care?”

“Any morning sickness?”

“No,” she said cautiously. “Not yet. I’m only four weeks.”

Frowning, Andrew hated that he had to keep up this façade when his arms ached to hold his wife and feel the joy of this moment. Lately, he kept thinking about how they fell in love and dwelled on the happier times. The beginning of their marriage was pure bliss. The child could bring that magic back, but if Belle felt the same optimism, wouldn’t her emotions be aimed in the wrong direction? The fault wasn’t hers, of course, but the jealousy consumed him nonetheless.

“Are you happy about the baby?”

Why even ask such a thing? Surely, there was more to this conversation that just concern for his cousin. “How can you ever think otherwise?”

“Because you and Andrew have been at each other’s throats for months. You’re only pregnant because of a-”

“Hey! Don’t you dare presume anything about my marriage! I don’t know how much Andrew had told you, but our private lives are ours, so keep your nose out of it!”

Taken aback by her possessiveness, Andrew nearly smiled – until he remembered his wife would be going home on the arm of another man. “Why the sudden shift, Belle?”

How could she put him off? Since she didn’t know the details of the troubles between her twin and Nicholas, or about her twin’s marriage, Lacey couldn’t speak to them. The best she could do was dodge the question because Nicholas would see through any lie.

“I want my marriage to work,” she finally answered. “I love Andrew. Maybe I lost sight of that for a while, but I took inventory of my priorities.”

“Why?”

His brown gaze burrowed into her and Lacey swallowed hard. The intensity of the moment felt like a threat and she lashed out in self-preservation.

“I don’t owe you any explanations, Nicholas. As I’ve already said.”

Lacey marched off to find Andrew and Ariel but felt Nick’s gaze burning into her back the entire way. She would have to be very careful around him. One misstep and he could figure out the truth.

Something didn’t feel right, but Andrew couldn’t put his finger on what. At least, Belle was happy about the baby. With all the animosity, he feared she wouldn’t be, but seeing her with his own eyes helped put most of his fears to rest. Yet, he couldn’t shake the nagging sensation hinting at the subtle change in his wife. Belle wore her hair swept up and back instead of falling freely around her shoulders, which was her signature style. The change was nice and she looked beautiful, but it felt wrong to him on some level.

Watching his cousin dance with her, Andrew’s jealousy hiked up a notch despite the fact he really had no reason to be worried. Nicholas devoted himself to bachelorhood. Not one date in the last ten years since Gloria passed. He lived to work, but one would never know it by the way he twirled Belle in circles.

“You look like your puppy just died.”

Roused from his thoughts, Andrew glanced at Ariel. Was his melancholy over his wife that obvious? “Where’s Eric? Normally, he never misses a night out.”

“Working,” she said while making quotes in the air with her fingers.

“You suspect he’s up to something else?”

“I think he’s having an affair,” she confessed. Unable to meet his gaze, she continued. “He is out at all hours, we are always fighting, haven’t had sex in over a year, and I found a hotel key in his pocket a few days ago.”

“There could be a logical explanation.” Personally, he hated the idea of those two being in trouble. They were always so affectionate and open. If they couldn’t make a marriage last, what hope was there for him and Belle? Probably not much since he suspected her of betraying his company and stealing millions. Still, Andrew could forgive all that if she really did want to work things out and raise a family. Unless, it turned out Belle hired those people to kill him…

“I haven’t gotten up the courage to talk to him.” Not caring if the confession made her sound cowardly, Ariel finished the rest of her martini.

“Isn’t it better to know?”

The redhead shrugged. “Sometimes ignorance is bliss.”

That statement certainly sounded true in Belle’s case. She danced with Nicholas as if she didn’t have a car in the world. Of course, she had no clue the man she laughed with wasn’t her husband. And Nick sure played his part well. Or perhaps Andrew wasn’t used to seeing his cousin smile. Nick adopted a permanent state of mourning since Gloria.

“Do you miss her?”

Andrew blinked at Ariel’s question. “Who?”

“Your wife. It’s been ten years, hasn’t it?”

Glancing at Belle again, he downed the last of his whiskey. “Sure feels like it.”

“You need to get back on the horse. I can set you up with-”

“Thank you, Ariel, truly, but fix your own love life before prying into mine.”

Wow. No wonder no one liked the stuck-up professor. Tossing him a nasty look, she went to dance with her friends. Andrew ordered another drink and pondered how he could get out of this mess and back to his old life.

Chapter Text

“That was amazing! Thank you so much!”

Lacey’s impulsive hug had Nicholas stiffening. He pretended all night as part of the job, but on the way home, his mood soured. He enjoyed himself little too much and Belle’s open, affectionate gestures just crashed through the wall he erected around his heart. Common sense said he couldn’t dare indulge these softer feelings. Instead, he had to find a way to shut her out, while maintaining his cover.

What did she do wrong? In the club, Andrew was happy and smiling and now he looked pissed as hell. “Andrew?”

“It’s late,” he said evenly. “And there is some work I have to get done.”

“Ok.” Watching him head down the hall, Lacey raked a hand through her hair and blew out a long breath. Andrew went from hot to cold in no time flat. Was it because of something she did? Worry curled and festered in her stomach. Tonight, she had a great time but what right did she have to party with Belle’s friends while her sister was gone? There wasn’t a body to bring closure. Lacey couldn’t properly grieve, but she couldn’t step out of her twin’s shoes just yet. At least, not until she had a plan.

A hot bubble bath helped ease the worst of her tension, but Lacey couldn’t escape the fact she was on borrowed time. How long could she keep up with this charade? Climbing beneath the covers she hoped Belle wouldn’t haunt her dreams.

Several hours later, Nicholas sat in an armchair staring out the window with a glass of single malt in his hand. Something shifted in him tonight when Belle hugged him and he wasn’t sure he liked it. They never got along. Belle wasn’t his type. Nicholas repeated these facts over and over, but other realities overwhelmed the chant.

From the first moment they met, he found his cousin’s wife attractive. What red-blooded man wouldn’t? However, he never thought Belle smart enough to keep up with him. Oh, she tried a little too hard and that got on his last nerve as well. They clashed and he ended up dismissing her utterly. Of course, the loss of his own wife could have clouded his judgment. Gloria was his whole world after all, and while she wasn’t an academic, her music rivaled even the most brilliant of composures. Her loss devastated him.

Yet, here he sat getting drunk over the fact he was suddenly drawn to Belle in ways he never imagined possible. Maybe because she just reminded him of Gloria? Or perhaps these feelings were just a residual consequence of playing the role of his cousin? Belle got under his skin to the point he actually gave her a second glance. Something changed in her because he didn’t remember observing the backbone in her posture or the slight edge in her behavior before this evening. Then again, did he ever really look at her? A solid strength simmered beneath Belle’s surface. A strength of character and a confidence he admired.

However, Nicholas wasn’t a fool. He recognized the blossoming attraction for what it was but hoped it would run its course soon enough. He must be on guard. Otherwise, these protective instincts would grow into something more than he bargained for. Needless to say, falling for Andrew’s bride went against the code.

A few weeks ago, he and Andrew went through a few dry runs before making the official switch. He saw firsthand how much tension existed between the couple. Belle acted hostile and distant. She lashed out at the slightest provocation and made threats. Add her behavior together with the fact she asked suspicious questions about Gold/Charles properties and holdings, and Belle looked guilty as sin. So, he and Andrew had a business trip to London scheduled. They used the two weeks to dig up leaks within the company and see if they could find the source of Andrew’s woes. Andrew also hired a private investigator to follow Belle. Unfortunately, it was almost as if Belle knew someone dogged her steps and ditched the tail before dropping off the grid. That’s when Nicholas assumed his cousin’s identity and took control of the firm. In the meantime, Andrew stepped into his shoes to conduct work from the shadows.

The second Nicholas “returned” from London and Belle resurfaced, she started acting…agreeable. Why? Was she on to their scheme? At first, he suspected as much, but learning about the pregnancy added a new perspective to events. Hormones could be the reason for her change in behavior. Plus, learning she would have a child could be her motive for wanting to work on the marriage. Andrew certainly wanted to go with door number two.

Next, his cousin would suggest they switch back. Unfortunately, they needed to know once and for all if Belle was even involved in the skimming of funds and the coincidental accidents that kept happening. No one messed with their family. He and Andrew were thick as thieves when they were kids and that bond only strengthened as the years passed. Old habits die hard.

Maybe he disliked Belle because he saw how happy she made Andrew while he suffered the emptiness of life in Gloria’s wake. Perhaps Belle was worthy of his admiration and friendship after all. Because of the baby, he did want to look out for her. Of course, Nicholas would have to remember his role as gatekeeper and make sure he didn’t get too close. The task appeared simple enough, so why did he worry it would be easier said than done? Polishing off the last of his whiskey, Nicholas headed for the guestroom.

****

What time was it? Crap! Lacey saw the glowing numbers on the clock and jolted out of bed. Dashing through her morning routine, she made tea and a breakfast tray and took it out to the living room. The idea of curling up with the paper and a warm cup of English Breakfast proved too tempting to resist.

The second she rounded the corner, she heard Andrew grumbling into his phone.

“Look, I know we negotiated that, but I want out.” He glanced over his shoulder hearing her footsteps and adopted a more pleasant tone. “The wife just walked in. We’ll finish this later.”

Obviously, she interrupted a conversation he didn’t want her to overhear. Lacey put the tray on the coffee table and sat, surprised that Andrew joined her. He snatched the paper before she could, then settled his gaze on her.

“Do you think Nick was acting strange last night?” He asked the question to test the waters and see if Belle suspected they weren’t who they claimed to be.

“You know those academic types,” she shrugged. “Grumpy.”

“And that’s it?”

“Why? You think something’s going on with him?”

“No. Ariel did tell me he nearly bit her head off when she offered to set him up with someone.”

“It’s been a while, right?”

Nicholas shifted in his seat. “Gloria was his whole heart. She alone kept him grounded. Finding someone that special again is one in a million.”

“He doesn’t know until he tries, though. Yes, one can find the perfect love, but each story is different and special in its own way. I don’t think he should let his grief take over his life.”

Hypnotized by those gorgeous blues, Nicholas couldn’t tear his gaze away. Belle seemed to latch on to a part of him he suppressed for far too long and he couldn’t quite figure out how to break free. Every syllable she said tugged deep because he did want to find love again. However, the spell broke the second she asked for details about Gloria. Wanting to keep that part of his life private, he got to his feet.

“I’m late for work.”

Did she say something wrong? Again? Why was he so defensive about a woman who died a decade ago? Ariel would probably have answers. She proved to be a fountain of information. Lacey just had to get her to open up during a conversation and steer her in the right direction.

With a sigh, she grabbed the discarded paper from where Andrew tossed it and opened the gossip section. As she sipped her tea, she caught up on all the socialite scoops. Maybe a quiet morning would help her think. Goodness knows, she could use an epiphany right about now.

****

New York was a bust. Everett didn’t have a shred of evidence to prove Lacey ran to her twin, so he would have to head back to Colorado empty handed. In fact, he was on his phone booking his flight when the call came through. A local cop in the Hamptons found something linked to the open investigation, so he dropped everything to drive upstate.

Did Lacey leave a clue behind that would lead to her whereabouts? If so, it made sense. His background check into The Golds revealed a beach house and boat registered in the wealthy zip code. Plausible scenarios started bouncing around his head. All he needed was one big break and he would be on the trail to getting back his star witness. Everett refused to let Killian Jones get away with another murder.

Once he hit the outskirts of the town, he was directed to the local precinct where he got a folder pushed into his hands instead of any real introductions. The local chief didn’t make small talk.

“What’s this?”

“The rundown on the four punks who broke into the bus station lockers.”

Everett frowned. “And what does that have to do with Lacey French?”

The chief held up an evidence bag full of open letters. Actual paper letters. “Didn’t think much of it at first, but then I noticed the names written above the addresses.”

He took the plastic bag and read the names for himself. Sure enough, right there scribbled in delicate handwriting were the addresses of Belle Gold in New York and Lacey French in Colorado. “Her sister said they hadn’t spoken in years and these postmarks are as recent as last month. I wonder what else Belle Gold is lying about.”

“I take it, this helps?”

He nodded. “Mind if I take these?”

“Sure. Kids already signed confessions and we have security cam footage.”

An idea popped into his head. “Any way we can get a camera pointed at this locker?”

“Sure. Whatcha thinking?”

That if Lacey came back he would nab her, and if Belle checked the locker, he would have proof they were in contact. Proof that could lead to a warrant on Belle’s phone and a pass to check all her communications. “Let’s read through these letters then put them back where we found them. If anyone comes back for them, we have leverage.”

“Not a problem.”

Good. All the pieces were falling into place. Soon, Everett would have Lacey back in custody and he could finally put this demon to rest.

****

The sky grew darker and darker earlier and earlier. Walking to clear her head, Lacey knew she could get on a plane and fly out of the country or to the middle of nowhere and hide, but without money or resources, she wouldn’t get very far. They could trace Belle’s passport, so Lacey would need a backup identity waiting at her new destination, then another and another…and her head hurt thinking about every precaution needed to live a life on the run. Money was at the top of the list, and the only money she had access to was Belle’s and Andrew’s. After stealing her twin’s life, Lacey didn’t think she could drain her sister’s savings account too.

Her phone beeped signaling a new voicemail. Ariel’s voice came through clearly. “Hey. Meet me at the loft. I think I…I have something to tell you.”

Her friend sounded close to tears. Gaining her bearings, she realized she was only a few blocks away. Lacey didn’t think twice about heading to the loft to meet her friend. The late hour didn’t faze her.

“Ariel,” she called once she crossed the threshold. No answer. Leaving her purse by the stairs, she took a turn around the first floor and called again.

“Ariel? Are you here?”

No answer. Rounding a corner, her breath suddenly hitched. A man dressed from head to toe in black with a matching ski mask looked around the front of the open space. Heart in her throat, her first thought was that Jones finally found her and sent a man to end her life. Slipping off her heels, she waited for the guy to head in the other direction before darting around the corner toward a rigging covered in a tarp. If she was lucky she could hide until he was far enough away from the front door so she could make a run for it.

Lacey crouched and strained her ears to hear his footsteps. Angling back, she accidentally hit the boom box one of the workers left behind and a song began playing. Patsy Cline’s “I Fall to Pieces”. A mistake that could cost her life.

Immediately turning toward the sound, the guy approached her hiding place - fast. Lacey was a sitting duck! With a burst of adrenaline, she made a break for it. The stranger gave chase. A second later, he tackled her to the floor. Landing hard, Lacey cried out in pain but the guy took advantage of her lapse to grab her neck. Anger and survival instinct kicked in as she clawed and kicked. A knee made solid contact with his gut and he loosened his hold long enough for Lacey to break free and crawl away.

His hand snatched her ankle and yanked hard.

“You have the wrong girl,” she shouted.

He didn’t listen or let her go, so Lacey kicked him in the face, scrambled to her feet, and ran for the door. Unfortunately, her luck didn’t hold because he was on his feet almost immediately and following hot on her heels. The wall the contractor sealed a few days earlier blocked her escape, so Lacey shifted to turn in the opposite direction, but that’s when the guy tackled her again. They slammed into the wall so hard, they burst through the drywall. Plaster rained down on them as they landed hard on the other side. Dust swirled as the wind got knocked out of their lungs.

Stunned, Lacey fought to regain her wits. If she didn’t do something fast, she would be joining her twin in the afterlife. Hell, she wanted to live! Rising to her hands and knees, she saw the gun peeking out of the newspaper only a few feet away. No sooner did make a grab for it, her would-be-killer climbed on her back in an attempt to get a good grip on her neck. Lacey bucked and managed to roll him off her, but there wasn’t much time. Her hands grasped the heavy gun and she twisted to aim the weapon at the stranger. He didn’t stop. He didn’t hesitate. He came at her again with a roar.

“I’m not Lacey!”

He didn’t pause his charge. Lacey fired.

When the smoke cleared, the guy lay unmoving on the floor.

Panting, but unable to draw air into her lungs, her eyes went wide. Did she really just shoot someone? Kill someone? Alright, she had to keep her cool. This man wouldn’t have stopped until she was dead, so this was self-defense.

Careful of the blood pouring from his chest, she removed the ski mask. The face belonged to a man she didn’t recognize, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. No pulse. Oh God!

Through her shocked haze, instinct took over and Lacey checked his pockets. However, finding a photo of a feminine face knocked her back to reality.

Belle smiled brightly for the camera. The label at the bottom even read Belle Gold. And it must be a picture of her twin since Lacey never posed for this. So…wait. The guy came here to kill Belle and not her? That meant Jones didn’t send him. So who did?

Who wanted her twin dead?

****

Paris, France

Chestnut curls flowing loosely around her shoulders, Lacey’s double checked her reflection in the mirror. The phone rang. Hopefully, the call she was waiting for.

“Hello.”

“Belle,” came the voice of her hired hand. “We have a problem.”

Chapter Text

Adrenaline pumping, hands shaking, and nerve endings going nuts, Lacey struggled to her feet. Oh God, she just killed someone! Panic seized her heart as she stared at the blood pooling beneath the body. What should she do? Call the police? Then what?

If she got the police involved, then Agent Machado would most definitely get on her case. Plus, there was the small matter of the gun being FBI issue that could be traced back to her. If Machado ran her fingerprints, she was dead in the water. The best course would be to hide the body until she could figure out a plan of disposal.

Finding some tarp, sheeting, and rags, she stuffed the wound, rolled up the body, and pulled it into a messy corner with construction discards. Bleach and other cleaners were easy to find. Lacey scrubbed the stains on the floor, then went to the unfinished bathroom to clean her hands and face. Thankfully, she wasn’t splattered with too much of the guy’s blood. No sooner did she find her shoes and slip them on, she heard someone turning a key in the lock. Hands snatching up her purse, Lacey slipped the gun inside and tried to stay calm. Did the dead guy have backup?

She nearly collapsed with relief when Ariel walked through the door. Ariel’s expression was the exact opposite of her friend’s. Her eyes widened with shock and horror. For a second, Lacey thought Ariel spotted the body. Desperate explanations were on the tip of her tongue, but her throat thickened. Scared and close to a heart attack, she couldn’t tear her eyes from her friend.

“Oh, my god,” Ariel breathed. As instant later, she was livid and marching toward the shattered wall. “I told them to put up a light fixture, not knock down a wall!”

Lacey blinked. “What?”

“That idiot contractor! Look at this mess! I’m mortified!”

Seeing an opening to buy herself some time, Lacey pushed Ariel toward her idea. “Do you think we should hire a new contractor?”

“I do! It will delay construction for a few days, but it will be worth it.” Hands on her hips, the redhead stepped over the crumpled chunks of plaster.

“So, no one will be here?”

“No, but in the end, we need someone who can follow directions, don’t you think?”

“You’re the architect, so you know best.”

Ariel nodded, but then caught the odd look on Belle’s face. “What,” she asked.

Lacey shrugged. “Nothing. I was just wondering what the holdup was. You asked me to meet you here.”

Hesitating, Ariel faced her friend. After a few seconds, she inhaled a deep breath and shared her fears. “I’ve already told Nick, of all people, my suspicions.”

“About what?”

“Eric. I think he’s having an affair, so I confronted our nanny.”

“That’s why you were late?”

Lacey had no idea what she suspected. Ariel wouldn’t have asked her to meet here to set her up, right?

Ariel nodded. “Not that it matters. I was wrong. Her girlfriend made it clear Eric is not her type.”

Her heart went out to Ariel. Having the man you love fall out of love with you and betray your trust was one of the worst feelings in the world. “Then who is he sleeping with?”

“Hell if I know.” Forlorn, Ariel began to pace. She paused dangerously close to where Lacey hid the body. “Am I just crazy?”

Unable to tears her eyes from the body, Lacey didn’t hear the question.

“Thanks a lot.”

“No!” Blinking to attention she did her best to reassure Ariel. “Sorry. Um, have you considered that Eric isn’t having an affair? That maybe it’s just what you said about being busy?”

“You know, I –I don’t know what to think anymore.”

“Maybe you just need a good night’s sleep.” Lacey put her purse over her shoulder and turned toward the door. Luckily, Ariel fell into step beside her.

“Yeah. That and happy pills. I’m grabbing a cab. You coming?”

“Sure.”

The fresh air did her good because the more Lacey thought about what she did the more her head spin. She couldn’t think of anything else during the cab ride. How she kept her cool with Ariel was anyone’s guess.

Back at the apartment, she called out to see if she was alone. “Hello? Andrew? Anyone home?”

Not hearing an answer, she went straight to Belle’s closet, grabbed a large duffle bag and packed a change of clothes. Time was running out. Lacey knew that the body would be found eventually, so what would happen then?

She wanted a drink. Bad. Her next impulse said to call Ruby, but she resisted because her friend didn’t deserve to get caught up in this mess.

Lacey couldn’t believe she took a life, even in self-defense. She never thought she would be the type who could ever do such a thing. The whole point of becoming Belle was so she would be safe from Jones, but now someone wanted Belle dead. So where did that leave her? Was she even safe as Belle?

Hands rubbing her bruised neck, she had no idea where to go or what to do, but every instinct screamed for her to flee New York. The gun kept showing up like a bad penny, which meant she might as well keep it on her for now.

“Belle?”

Stunned, she whirled to see Andrew giving her an odd look. Despite all her churning emotions, she noticed how handsomely comfortable he looked in sweats.

“What are you doing?”

“Oh. Um, just getting the dry cleaning.” How was she going to make a clean exit now?

Nicholas’s frown deepened. Belle looked like a deer caught in the headlights and he wondered what she was hiding. When he saw the clothes in her hands, he relaxed a bit. If something else was bothering her, he wanted to help. A complete 180 from what it would have been six months ago.

“Are you ok?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You don’t look it. Come on, it’s late. Time for you to get some rest.”

Naturally, she balked at the idea. “I’m not really tired. I thought I would head out for a walk.”

“What? At midnight? Pregnant? No, absolutely not.”

“I just need some fresh air.”

“Then go out on the terrace.” Her face fell and Nicholas felt like a heel, so he softened his tone. “It's not just you anymore, Belle. You have to think for two now.”

Ok, there wasn’t a way to get out of this gracefully, so she backed down. “I know.”

“Then please do as you’re told. For once, hmm?”

He caressed her arm and she stiffened. Heaving a sigh, Nicholas let his hand fall. The move was an unconscious one, but her reaction to it made him curse his softer impulses. Without another word, he retreated to the home office near the elevator. Lacey wasn’t going anywhere tonight, but could make a fresh start in the morning.

A quick shower later, she put one a silk nightgown and climbed beneath the covers but didn’t get much sleep. Her conscience replayed events over and over again. The man in the loft was a professional. If she didn’t shoot him, he would have broken her neck. So why couldn’t she come to grips with what happened?

Without really intending to, she grabbed her phone off the nightstand and called Ruby. The hour was late, even with the two hour time difference, so she wasn’t surprised when her friend didn’t pick up. Putting the phone back, she stared at the ceiling. Six years ago she made a horrific mistake that shattered lives. Practically six days into being her twin and she took a life. What was wrong with her? All things considered, the fates certainly liked making her their favorite chew toy.

What felt like a second later, sunlight streamed through the window. Groaning, Lacey rolled over and buried her head in the pillow. Apparently, she fell asleep after all. Sitting up, she saw the note on the unrumpled side of the bed. Andrew kept his distance but did check on her.

Thought the two of you could sleep in

The gesture would have been sweet on any other day, but Lacey couldn’t let her heart soften any more than it already had toward Andrew. She wasn’t Belle and she couldn’t keep pretending.

A skeleton of a plan took shape as she showered and dressed. She would head to the loft and make sure the body remained hidden. Once she knew she had some time, she would stop by the bank and take out as much money as Belle had, then go straight to JFK. Yes, she swore only yesterday not to, but that was before she had a dead man on her hands. Right now, she didn’t have a destination, but it didn’t matter. Keeping her sanity meant leaving New York. It was the only way to put distance between herself and more federal charges. She messed up big time, but couldn’t take anything back.

In her daze of worry, she knocked over a vase on her way to the elevator and a flashback hit her hard. Drinking at her usual dive, she drunkenly spilled her beer everywhere. The bartender cut her off and snatched her keys, but no one wanted to shuttle her home. Strung out, she couldn’t believe her diehard drinking buddies didn’t have her back! Now, when she needed them, they couldn’t be bothered? The loneliness choked her and she was forced to swallow her pride and beg Belle to come pick her up.

Back then, Lacey partied so she didn’t feel alone. Keeping up with Belle on the book smarts was impossible, so she strived to find her own identity. In high school, she was popular and spunky, while her twin was the odd ball out. But when her popularity didn’t magically get her into college, Lacey fell harder into the devil-may-care lifestyle. Belle’s lectures about waking up too hung over to focus on school went ignored. Her sister graduated with honors and returned to Silver Springs triumphant with a degree, but all Lacey accomplishments consisted of building her tolerance threshold.

Wow, she turned out to be one hell of a disappointment, huh? Craving a drink to push away the pain, she snapped back to reality and dug her sobriety chip out of her pocket. She was nearly six months sober due to hard work and discipline. Did she really want to throw all that way because of this latest mistake? Bad habits threatened to snowball, so she had to be very, very careful. Mistakes aren’t tragedies, right? Well, death was a tragedy no matter how it happened.

Fifty-five minutes later, Lacey walked into the loft with her heart racing a mile a minute. No one was here. Thank goodness for small favors. The body was where she left it. Mentally sorting through all the cop serials she ever watched on TV, she discarded one method of disposal after another. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted an electric saw that could easily dismember a body, but Lacey had no idea how to deal with the mess. Before she could work herself up any further, her cell rang.

Ruby’s number flashed on the screen like a godsend. “Hello.”

“Lacey! You called. What happened?”

Unable to keep the truth bottled up for another second, she filled her friend in on what happened last night. “Someone was after Belle. I don’t know what to do.”

“Go to the cops,” Ruby insisted.

“I can’t! I’m a fugitive!”

“No, Lacey is on the run, not Belle,” Ruby corrected. “Go to the police as your sister.”

“But Belle just murdered someone with a stolen gun that can be traced back to Lacey! I’m screwed either way!”

“Then don’t stick around,” Ruby hissed.

“And go where? Back to Silver Springs?”

“I told you, I will come to you. We’ll figure something out.”

“Ruby, you can’t come here.”

“Stop telling me what I can and can’t do. Let me help you.”

“How?”

“Look, if you don’t want me coming to you, then meet me halfway.”

“Then what?”

“I’m not sure,” Ruby confessed. “But we’ll figure it out. Lacey, I’m here for you. Whatever you need. Friend, sponsor, you know that, right?”

“Yes.” From the beginning, she and Ruby clicked. They understood each other’s pain and grew close very quickly. Like sisters.

“Then meet me. When can you leave?”

“The body’s hidden, at least for now. I just hope I can get far enough away before they find it.”

Once they hung up, Lacey scrubbed the stains she missed last night and added another layer of tarp over the body. Tossing the garbage, she headed for the door. The second her hand grasped the knob, there was a knock. Biting back a gasp she glanced through the peephole.

Agent Machado! Again? What could he possibly want? She thought she was in the clear where he was concerned, but apparently, she had that all wrong. Staying out of his clutches required thinking on her feet.

“Mrs. Gold, are you there?” He knocked again. “It’s Agent Machado. Your housekeeper said you might be here.”

Slowly, she placed a hand over the deadbolt thinking she could lock it and sneak out the back, but Machado had other ideas.

“I can see you.”

Crap! Now what? She had to get rid of him, but how?

Chapter Text

“Mrs. Gold?”

“Sorry,” she said as she pretended to unbolt the door. “This door can be tricky.”

Lacey opened up and stepped into the hall, then immediately closed the door behind her.

“Actually, do you mind if I used your bathroom? Cops and coffee,” Everett joked. “I promise to be quick.”

Not buying it for a second, she locked the deadbolt. Under no circumstances could she let Machado inside to snoop around. Knowing her luck, he would stumble over the body and then game over.

“With all this construction it’s a mess in there, but there’s a bathroom in the donut shop across the street.”

Machado cast her a hard look but she didn’t break a sweat as she pocketed her keys and headed for the stairs. Unfortunately, Machado followed.

“Do you mind if we go somewhere to talk?”

“Normally, no, but I have to head uptown for a doctor’s appointment. Maybe we can postpone.”

“Mrs. Gold, I really need to talk to you about your sister.”

“And I want to know about the investigation, but I’m really late.” Bursting into the street, she hailed a cab.

Everett blocked her path, but Lacey dodged around the other side and climbed into the back seat and gave the driver the address of the bank on Belle’s debit cards. Staring in disbelief, Everett put his hands in his pockets and watched the yellow car fade into the distance. This wasn’t over. Not by a long shot. He tried playing nice, but now the gloves were coming off.

****

Restless, ambitious, and seductive, Regina Charles embodied the patience and stealth of a black widow and the predatory skills of a tiger. The black-haired maven was a thorn in the side of her friends and a raging nightmare to her enemies. Observing her through her office window, Nicholas debated his options. Personally, he thought Regina a solid suspect for not only siphoning funds from the firm but also for sponsoring the “accidents” befalling his cousin.

Thus far, he came up empty-handed on evidence, but his gut screamed that Regina had an agenda. Unraveling the financials and tracking the funds took finesse, but no matter how many sleepless nights it took, Nicholas would find the trail. Like the rest of the staff, no one suspected he wasn’t Andrew. Or maybe Regina did know and was playing coy.

Presently, she lounged back in her executive chair, phone to her ear, working her magic on a client. “Do I think high-frequency trading is dangerous? I think it’s essential. Computers are replacing everything these days and I’m embracing the technology! Oh! My business partner just walked in. Do you want to finish this up over lunch? Fabulous! I’ll see you then.”

All business as she replaced the receiver and studied Andrew, Regina wasn’t one to beat around the bush. This firm was her baby, but she knew the reality of their predicament. Still, keeping up appearances was important until the final countdown.

“Where is that list of Algo traders?”

Nicholas put his hands in his pockets and fixed Regina with a dead-on stare. “I stopped compiling it last week.”

“Investors like new blood, Andrew,” she huffed.

“And we have to focus on finding new investors,” he stressed. “Not new employees. Are we all set for tonight?”

Rising elegantly to her feet, Regina picked up a folder of quality reports and tucked it into the crook of her arm. “I just confirmed with the Diamond SoHo. We’re good to go. Eight o’clock.”

“Have you spoken with Belle?”

A frown marred her face. “Why would I?”

“She did plan the event.”

“And I let her pick out the cocktail napkins, but I can take it from here, thank you very much.”

Regina’s blatant dismissal of Belle had Nicholas gritting his teeth. There was a time he would have been equally dismissive of her, but lately, he saw a whole new side to Belle that roused his protective instincts. Maybe the fact she was pregnant turned the tables a bit. After all, Belle was family and she carried the next generation.

Regina headed off to her meeting and Nicholas retreated to his office to regain his equilibrium. Keeping this firm afloat while plugging the leaks and uncovering the identity of the sabatagor seemed like an impossible task. The odds aware against him, but no one equaled him in cleverness with numbers or in skill at tracing patterns. If everyone thought Andrew oversaw to the day-to-day, they wouldn’t suspect anything amiss and their enemy wouldn’t see them coming. The element of surprise was on their side.

Whoever was behind the thief and murder attempts were good. Too good. Nicholas would bet his life savings the culprit was an insider. Perhaps a few insiders. A team dynamic wasn’t outside the realm of possibility.

So far, the breaks in the financials only led to more dead ends, but Nicholas refused to give up. One way or another he would figure out who wanted to screw with this firm and he would see them destroyed.

****

A sense of urgency pumped through her veins as she entered the bank and walked up to the kiosk. Scanning Belle’s debit card, Lacey’s fingers trembled. Cameras were everywhere, but hopefully, no one would figure out the truth until she was long gone.

The screen prompted her for a pin number. Four digits. What would Belle use? Taking a breath, she put in their mother’s birthday, but the ATM rejected the number by flashing an error message. Next, she typed in their father’s birthday, then their home address back in Colorado. Both were wrong and she got locked out of the account.

Shit. Lacey needed money fast. Having no other choice, she walked up to the teller.

“Excuse me, I want to make a withdrawal, but I just changed the pin on my account and I already forgot it.”

The woman smiled. “Not a problem. I can help you. May I see your driver’s license?”

“Of course.” Did she look as nervous as she felt? Her fingers shook as she pulled the plastic card from her wallet. No one could tell her and Belle apart, but what if something gave her away?

The teller took the license, looked at Lacey, then back at the license. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, she looked up the account information, then asked Lacey to follow her. Was she in trouble? The bank manager’s office? What was going on?

Mr. Atkins wore a navy suit, sported a simple pair of glasses, and flashed a warm smile before inviting her to sit. “Mrs. Gold,” he said cheerfully. “How many times have I told you if you need anything, to come to me personally? Special clients get special treatment.”

Ah, he sucked up to her because Belle and Andrew were rich. What a relief! Spying the name tag on the desk, Lacey let her smile deepen.

“I was in a hurry, Mr. Atkins. I didn’t want to bother you.”

“No trouble at all. How can I help you today?”

“I wanted to withdrawal the amount in my checking account.”

The manager typed a few keys and brought the account up on the monitor. “There’s not much in there.”

“Oh, I’m sure it’s fine.”

“Hmmm.” Mr. Atkins clicked a few more keys. “What about the account I set up last month? For emergencies only?”

Well, she considered running from the law an emergency, but this guy thought her an affluent socialite so she should play into that. “Does a show sale at Sacs count as an emergency?”

The manager laughed at the joke and printed out the necessary paperwork. “Just sign on the bottom.”

Would he notice her signature and Belle’s didn’t quite match? No, thank goodness. He didn’t even glance at the papers before he promised to return with the cash. A grand total of fifty thousand dollars! She never laid eyes on this much money in her life!

Of course, Belle probably never batted an eyelash at such an amount, so Lacey accepted the bag and tucked it away in her oversized purse. Thanking the manager, so headed out the door. This would be more than enough to make her escape! Hailing a cab, she told the driver to head to the airport.

Two minutes later, her phone rang. The caller ID said Andrew, but she debated ignoring the call. Then again, it may look suspicious and the more she kept up appearances, the more time she had to make a clean getaway.

“Hello.”

“A pipe burst at the hotel and the entire ballroom is flooded.”

“That’s…unfortunate.” Lacey didn’t have a clue what he was talking about.

“You have no idea,” he continued. “Regina left for her lunch meeting, so it’s fallen in my lap. So my first thought was where can I book a place at such short notice? Any ideas?”

“For…?”

“The cocktail party tonight! Belle, please don’t tell me you forgot.”

“No,” she said quickly. “I was actually on my way to get my hair done.” Lord, she hoped she sounded convincing.

“Good. So, I was thinking about having the party at the loft. It’s not ideal, but given the circumstances-”

“Andrew, that’s a terrible idea!”

“Why? It’s empty and it’s big. We’ve invited over 300 guests.”

“Exactly! It’s not finished! With the construction and all the tools lying around, it’s a lawsuit waiting to happen!”

Plus, someone will find the dead body!

“Trust me, Belle. With some hard work and determination, we can turn it around by this evening. Your imagination always targets the perfect theme. I need you to head down there to let the event planner inside.”

“Andrew, I really don’t think-”

“Belle, he’s on his way now.”

Holy crap! She could continue to the airport, but if she didn’t do damage control, then the body would be found sooner rather than later and if she vanished into the blue now, then Belle’s identity would be compromised along with Lacey’s! Asking the driver to change course, Lacey hoped she wasn’t too late.

****

“You have something for me?” Everett stopped by the local NYC branch of the FBI to see if he couldn’t get a lead on Belle Gold that he could use to his advantage.

One of the agents handed him a file. “Everything you’ve ever wanted to know about Belle and Andrew Gold.”

Everett flipped open the folder. “Anything interesting?”

“Not exactly a page-turner. They’re your typical Upper East siders. He’s in finance, she’s on the board of every charity. They’ve been married almost five years. No criminal records. Andrew Gold grew up in Glasgow but became a nationalized citizen over twenty years back, so he didn’t marry for a green card.”

“And that’s it?”

The other agent shrugged. “They honeymooned in Venice and lead normal lives. Not much to tell and they don’t seem like the types to harbor a fugitive.”

Everett scoffed at the presumption. Just because this couple had some cash and status, suddenly they could do no wrong? “We found a duffle bag at a bus station that proves Belle lied about being in touch with her sister. I don’t trust her.”

“What else can I do?”

“The Golds own a loft on Warren St. See what you can dig up.”

“Sure thing.”

Sitting at an empty desk, Everett poured over the file and hated to admit there wasn’t anything viable he could take to a judge for a search warrant. Earlier today, Belle refused to let him into the loft, their contractor was fired, and he got an alert that she withdrew a great deal of cash. Why would she do all that unless she was hiding Lacey in that loft?

His case was a bust without Lacey’s testimony. Killian Jones went back at his club to enjoy the profits of his empire, while innocent people decayed in the ground. Everett couldn’t let the case go unsolved. Tamara Briggs died because she went out on a limb to be his CI. He swore to get justice and refused to rest until he followed through on that promise. Come hell or high water, he would find Lacey French. And Everett didn’t care how many socialites he had to tear down to do it.

Chapter Text

The party planner beat her to the punch. About half a dozen people were wondering around the loft and going through the tools. Lacey rushed to where she hide the body and breathed a sigh of relief seeing the tarp untouched. Unfortunately, the place would start to smell if she didn’t think fast.

“Belle!” The flamboyant party planner spoke with a level of familiarity that jolted Lacey out of her thoughts. His exaggerated hand gestures and hip rolling walk spoke volumes, but he was friendly enough and didn’t notice her unease.

“You look gorgeous, as usual. Per your suggestion, I went with the Titanic vibe. Antiques, elegance with steam trunks and violins. Gin and tonics. It will feel classic and make people want to hand over their money. Do you love it?”

“Yes.”

A relieved laugh left the planner’s throat.

“You know, I was thinking we should give everyone a lunch break.”

He shook his head. “Darling, there’s no time.”

“Of course, there is,” she said cheerfully. “The food truck is downstairs and I’m buying.” Lacey grabbed a hundred from her purse and handed it over with a smile.

“Well, tempt me with trans fats and how can I resist?” He took the money and clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention.

“Lets’ take twenty for lunch! On Mrs. Gold! Hurry up before she changes her mind!”

As the event planner headed for the door, Lacey was already puzzling out a plan to hide the body in one of those fancy trunks. If she hid the piece out of the way, no one would be likely to find it until after the party. One more night as she sister and then Lacey would make a break for it. How hard would it be getting through one party be?

Pushing the trunk to the body, she got to work lifting the dead weight. Turns out, arranging the limbs so they would fit was tougher than she anticipated. A sweat broke out on her forehead and by the time she managed to secure the body and lock the trunk, drops dripped down her temples. No sooner did she wipe her face, the planner returned. Talk about a close call.

For the rest of the afternoon, Lacey watched the loft transform into an elegant atmosphere for the rich and privileged. With two hours before the party, there wasn’t much time to run home to get ready. He background in applying make-up and costumes in a pinch behind the stage came in handy now. Of course, thinking about her stripper past threw a blanket of insecurity over her head.

Who was she kidding? Belle was the smart, elegant one. All Lacey knew about socializing involved winning drinking games and dancing on bar tops. Lacey had to make sure one of Andrew’s 300 guests didn’t stumble on the body and blow her cover. The second the party was over, she could sneak out and head to the airport and a nonextradition country.

Nerves ready to shatter, she searched Belle’s closet and selected a simple, but finely cut black dress. Styling her hair into a straight ponytail added the perfect touch. A pair of gold metallic pumps added the final detail. She could do this, right? Well, she didn’t have a choice.

Andrew sent a text saying he would head straight to the loft after work, so Lacey hailed a cab and braced for the worst. A cover story already weaved through her head in preparation for a worst case scenario. The head planned greeted her at the door. Why didn’t she learn his name? Music pounded and tables were set. To her left, waiters were setting up trays of appetizers. Soon, the guest would arrive and there would be no going back.

“You look beautiful,” the planner praised. “Everything is going off without a hitch. Trust me, you will have nothing to worry about.”

If only he knew the half of it.

“I’m just nervous, I guess.”

“Why? Sweetie, you’ve done this a thousand times.”

“I know, but it suddenly feels like I never have.”

He waved off her concerns. “Oh, it’s easy. Stay away from religion and politics and stick to tennis, St. Bart’s, and the stock market. You’ll be fine. And when in doubt, drink plenty of champagne.”

Lacey accepted the flute but held it away from her as if she got a whiff of something offensive. Given all the stress and uncertainty, there was nothing she wanted more than to drink and forget her cares. Watching hundreds of people indulge when she couldn’t added another level of anxiety to the mix. Her mouth watered for a sip, but she didn’t want to throw away her sobriety. Before she could change her mind, she put the glass on the table and busied her hands by seeing to last minute details. There was too much at stake to get drunk.

On full alert, Lacey focused on the guests instead of what they were drinking. Ariel introduced a few new faces and Lacey met Eric. The guy seemed the brooding type but otherwise harmless. Nicholas arrived before Andrew and threw her a nod of acknowledgment, but then went to brood in a corner with Eric. Making the rounds, she steered guests away from the trunk.

No sooner did she provide one guest with a chair, she turned around and saw Andrew.

“Everything ok,” he asked.

Lacey nodded. “My face hurts from smiling so much.”

“I can’t believe how it all came together. I wouldn’t believe the mess that was here three hours ago.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” she remarked, thinking about the body.

Andrew did a double take. “You look lovely, by the way.”

Touched that he noticed and thrilled by the compliment, some of the tension eased out of her shoulders. Their gazes locked and she swore a connection pulled between them. Unfortunately, before Lacey could dwell on the occurrence, a woman with jet black hair, wearing a matching black sheath dress that showed off cleavage for days, came between them. She held up a glass of champagne and wrapped her other arm possessively around Andrew’s. Her glossy ruby red lips curled into a wide grin.

“Wonderful to see you again, Belle,” she purred.

Instantly disliking the woman, Lacey returned the gesture for appearance’s sake.

“Do you mind if I steal your husband?”

Did she mean literally? The woman didn’t wait for an answer but simply escorted Andrew to the other side of the room. Lacey would have followed but Ariel found her a moment later.

“Regina is the reason women hate other women.”

So that was Regina! Wow. No kidding. “She’s Andrew’s partner.”

“Sorry,” Ariel waved her hand. “I shouldn’t say such things. She’s a financial genius. I wouldn’t trust anyone else with my money, but she’s a snake in Louboutins.”

Unable to help glancing over at the pair, Lacey had to admit she didn’t appreciate the familiarity between Regina and Andrew. Was it just her, or did Regina put a hand on Andrew’s shoulder a little too often?

“I give you credit, Belle. Not many wives would let their husbands work alongside that.”

Ariel finished her champagne and reached for another.

“Easy there,” Lacey asserted.

“I need it,” the redhead stated before taking a sip.

Alright, something happened. Ariel wouldn’t be drinking so much, so fast without a reason. “What happened?”

Heaving a sigh, Ariel leaned closer so only Belle would hear. “I’ll tell you later. Just let me get through tonight.”

“I couldn’t agree more.” Lacey’s eyes darted back to the trunk. So far, so good. Only a few more hours and she could make a break for it.

Guests swept Ariel away and Lacey went out to the terrace for some fresh air. Being Belle sure wasn’t easy. Her conscience nagged her every second of every day. She made so many mistakes already, but if she cried now, she wouldn’t stop, so she had to keep her composure a little while longer. There would be plenty of time for self-pity once she was far away from New York.

Footsteps sounded behind her and Lacey turned to see Nicholas. Gathering her composure, she once more played her role. “Having fun?”

“Not really.” In all honesty, real Andrew missed his wife. Watching her this evening reminded him of the early days when their marriage was solid. When they were happy and in love before all the fighting and grudges.

“I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Well, I’m here to support my cousin.”

“I figured as much. You don’t seem the mogul type.”

A sarcastic huff passed his lips. “I’ll try not to take offense.”

“I don’t’ mean it that way.”

“Really?” He cocked a brow, the challenge in his voice obvious.

To avoid a confrontation, she politely excused herself and headed back into the party. She checked on the trunk, but the second she turned to socialize, she nearly collided into none other than Agent Machado. What the hell? Didn’t he know how to take a hint? Her heart echoed in her ears, but Lacey recovered as quickly as possible.

Ah, the surprise on her face was a good start. Everett had to admit, he liked the fact he made some hedge way in cracking her armor. “Mrs. Gold,” he greeted. “I hate to crash, but you’re a tough woman to pin down.”

He couldn’t be here! Lacey had to think of a way to get rid of him! Fast!

A waiter offered him food and Everett accepted with a smile. “I hope you don’t mind. I’m starving.”

How she managed to keep her smile in place was anyone’s guess. “Help yourself.”

Everett already popped two shrimp in his mouth. “Pretty good.”

Lacey folded her arms over her chest, waiting for him to get to the point.

“Can we talk?”

Her first intent was to refuse, but what if Machado wanted to make a scene. Out of the corner of her eye, she spotted Andrew and decided keeping a low profile would ensure her chance of getting out of here undiscovered.

“Fine,” she finally answered. “Follow me.”

Stepping out to another part of the terrace, Lacey faced the agent who may or may nor be on Jones’s payroll. This guy had an honest, yet tough demeanor, but if she trusted him it could mean a death sentence. It didn’t take long for Machado long to play his hand.

“Did you know this building used to be a cannery back in the 1920’s?”

Lacey kept her expression neutral. “No, I didn’t.”

“Yeah,” he continued. “And then a department store took it over in the late 1960’s. In fact, your loft used to be the men’s department.”

“Did you come here to give me a history lesson?”

Everett chuckled. “No, I just love old buildings. I love the history and architecture. Your contractor is doing a fantastic job preserving the structural integrity. Oh, wait. Did you just fire him?”

Lacey shook her head. “What are you getting at?”

His eyes hardened. “Call me crazy, but I think there’s a reason you’re keeping people out of this place.”

She scoffed. “Last I checked there were hundreds of people inside.”

“Oh, well, tonight sure, but any other night…”

Machado let the meaning sink in but before Lacey could think of a retort, she heard Ariel yelling. Rushing to her defense, Lacey arrived just in time to see her friend slap Eric across the face. Clearly drunk, Ariel’s accusations were slurred and Nicholas stepped in to help separate the arguing couple and guide Ariel to a chair.

Lacey threw Machado a sideways look. “I’m going to need to make sure she’s ok.”

“I’ll wait.”

“Actually, I think it’s time for you to leave.”

Everett held up a hand as an innocent look crossed his features. “I’m just trying to get some answers.”

“No,” she snapped. This guy threw his power around thinking his badge gave him impunity. Lacey knew her rights, so she pushed back. “You’re trespassing! And harassing me!”

“So this is how it’s going to be?” Machado rolled his eyes. This rich types.

“I’m not tolerating this any longer.”

Fine. He’d let her have this round, but Everett was far from done with her. “Good evening, Mrs. Gold.”

Lacey didn’t take her eyes off Machado until he was out the door.

“What was that,” Andrew asked.

“Just a party crasher. Don’t worry. I got rid of him.”

“Are you alright?”

Not by a long shot but she couldn’t exactly say so. Instead, she placed a hand on his arm. “Fine.”

Andrew nodded then laced his arm through hers, then guided her across the room to introduce her to several guests. They mingled for another half hour before Regina claimed him for the sale pitch. The whole point of the party was to land investors. People hated parting with their cash unless they had solid guarantees, so Andrew’s job was to be convincing without promising the world.

Always the center of attention, Regina stepped onto the dais, clicked her glass, and called Andrew to her side. The crowd gathered around but Lacey lingered toward the back.

“Someone wise once said that price is what you pay, value is what you get. At Gold/Charles, this is been our motto for the last ten years.”

No sooner did Andrew finish his sentence, a phone started ringing. Women in the crowd began checking their phones, but the ringing went on and on until Regina got frustrated.

“Where is that coming from?”

“Sounds like it’s coming from that.”

Following where a woman pointed, Lacey’s heart lurched in her throat. The trunk! How did a phone get inside the trunk with the dead body?!

Chapter Text

An unanswered ringing phone always put people on edge. Regina Charles was no exception. She started stepping down from the dais to put a stop to the insufferable noise.

“For goodness sake!”

“No!” Lacey couldn’t let anyone look inside that trunk! “Let me.”

Before Regina, or anyone else, argued, she darted to the trunk. “One of the workers probably left something behind.”

Flipping the lock and opening it, she held her breath as the stench of decay curled under her nose. One more day and this would be all too noticeable. Yes, the ringing was definitely coming from inside here, the dead man’s jacket pocket to be specific. Lacey snatched the phone, turned it off, and quickly relocked the trunk.

“Got it!”

Chuckles danced through the crowd as all attention shifted back to the hosts. Sweat dripped down the back of her neck as Andrew and Regina continued their pitch. How did she miss the phone when she searched the body? Probably because she was a scatter-brained nervous wreck. Lacey stepped forward, intending to hear the rest of Andrew’s speech, but a tall man with white hair in a dark suit stared her straight in the eye.

Where did he come from? She didn’t recognize him from her hour of schmoozing. As he headed toward the door, a chill gripped Lacey’s heart and a sense of foreboding raced through her veins. Just before he ducked out the door, the stranger pinned her with another hard stare before wading into the shadows. What in the world was that all about? Did that stranger have ties to the man she killed?

The questions plagued Lacey throughout the rest of the party. However, she had to put her game face back on and do some more mingling while Andrew closed a few deals. Out of the corner of her eye, Lacey noticed Nicholas looking at her as if he were trying to puzzle something out. Well, she couldn’t afford to worry about him right now.

Eventually, the party winded down and Lacey joined Andrew to thank their guests for coming. She didn’t see the mysterious man again, so that was one relief. The last guest finally walked out the door, so Lacey went to find her clutch. Regina cornered her and flashed a grin.

“Nice move,” she crooned.

“Excuse me?”

“Some might call it desperate but in finance we call it ‘strategic.’”

“What are you talking about?”

Regina threw her an isn’t-it-obvious look. “Getting pregnant.”

What a bitch! Lacey resisted the urge to yank Regina’s hair out by the roots and remained outwardly calm. “Getting pregnant isn’t a strategy.”

“It is if you want to keep your husband.”

What the hell did that mean? Lacey opened her mouth to respond, but Andrew joined them.

“What are you two whispering about over here?”

“I was just telling Belle how excited I am about the baby.”

“Oh, that makes two of us.”

Andrew seemed genuinely happy and the guilt squeezed Lacey’s throat. However, she didn’t resist when her “husband” put an arm around her waist and shared some good news. “The party was a success. I managed to get six new investors.”

“Congratulations!” Lacey smiled; happy for him.

“On that note,” Regina interjected. “I’m going to call it a night.”

“Let me call you a cab,” Andrew offered.

“Goodnight, Belle,” the brunette said coyly before winding her arm through Andrew’s. Was there something going on between Regina and Belle’s husband? Goodness knows what woman knew how to flirt. With a sigh, Lacey watched the pair leave and sank into one of the empty chairs to gather her thoughts. Ariel approached with a look of apology on her face.

“Hey,” Lacey said. “I didn’t know you were still here.”

“I wanted to apologize. I hope I didn’t ruin your party.”

“Are you kidding? You gave everyone something to talk about.”

Boy, didn’t she know it? Ariel did manage to summon a small smile at the joke.

“You ok,” Lacey asked.

“Not really. I’m a disaster.” If she was being honest…

“Ariel, if Eric makes you so unhappy, why don’t you leave him?”

“I can’t,” she confessed.

“Why not?”

“Because…I still love him. I know I shouldn’t, but I do. Isn’t that pathetic?”

“No,” Lacey stated. “It’s human.”

Grateful, Ariel squeezed her friend’s hand. “You think so?”

“You’re going to get through this.”

“I know,” the redhead nodded. “With the help of friends like you.”

Her heart warmed at the compliment. For the first time since she ran, Lacey felt like she was really helping someone. The warmth felt…good. So good that she didn’t want to part with it. A small voice in the back of her head warned that getting attached to these people was the worst thing she could do. Walking in Belle’s shoes wasn’t safe anymore, so she had to run again.

While Belle and Ariel chatted, Nicholas went over to his cousin. Andrew lingered in a darkened corner, staring at his wife. Nicholas felt strange seeing his cousin disguised in his image, but the softness in Andrew’s eyes worried him more.

“She was wonderful tonight,” the real Andrew said when Nicholas paused beside him. “Almost like her old self.”

“Andrew,” Nicholas warned. “She could be putting on an act to hide something, or to get me to lower my guard.”

“I know my wife,”’ he started.

“Then being vigilant won’t hurt. Or do you forget the reason why we switched places to begin with?”

No, he didn’t need reminding. Nicholas didn’t love Belle. In fact, he was highly suspicious of her, and as such, would be able to pick up on the smallest clues long before he could. As much as Andrew hated to admit, Belle was his weakness. His love for her clouded his judgment, so he always strived to hide it – even from her. When the firm started having troubles, he pushed Belle away. The rift in their marriage was his fault and he took the blame, but if Belle really wanted to fix it, then so did he. Unfortunately, Andrew would have to do that through Nicholas.

“Arrange something special for her,” he advised his cousin. “A thank you for all she did tonight.”

“Like what?”

His mind drifted back to when they first met. Andrew stumbled across Belle’s path in a library of all places. However over the years, her preferences drifted away from books to fashion and jewelry. Andrew suspected she threw herself into knowing all she could about the topics to fit in with the New York crowd. Upon reflection, he never should have allowed her to change for him. Perhaps, gradually, he could help rekindle her interest in her old passions, but for now, Andrew should stick to his mission.

“A private fashion showing or the like,” Andrew finally answered. “There should be contacts in my rolodex.”

Nicholas nodded then shifted his gaze back to Belle. Tonight, she came through and looked gorgeous while doing it. Could it all be an act? Before the London trip, she was dangerously close to discovering the truth about the firm. By all appearances, tonight she seemed to have turned over a new leaf. She also seemed oblivious to her past threats. Such behavior indicated she wanted to leave behind old grudges, but appearances were deceiving.

As much as Nicholas hated to admit, every time Belle smiled at him this evening, his heart lurched with longing. Thinking of her as a deceitful jezebel helped him keep his lusts in check, but playing the role of an adoring husband had him seeing Belle in a new light.

She was off-limits. Forbidden. Plus, he never had any interest in her before, so clearly his growing infatuation stemmed from the act. As long as Nicholas was aware of the source of his feelings, he could manage them well enough.

Pushing aside thoughts of his cousin-in-law, Nicholas shifted his attention away from temptation and back to his cousin. “How is your end of the investigation going?”

“Slow,” Andrew admitted. “Regina is very, very good at covering her tracks. Compiling evidence will be an uphill battle.”

“If she is even behind the attempts on your life. So far, nothing has happened since my return from London.”

“No news is good news, I suppose.”

“I’ll keep an eye out.” Nicholas started to head back to Belle, but his cousin grabbed his arm.

“And the pregnancy? How is she doing?”

“She seems fine. A bit restless.” A frown marred his expression. “She cries out in her sleep sometimes, but I haven’t brought it up.”

Andrew didn’t like the sound of that on bit. “She needs proper rest and to take care of herself.”

“I’ll make sure she takes it easy.” Nicholas patted his cousin’s shoulder. “This is all for the best. If Belle is innocent, then keeping her away from what we’re doing will protect her.”

He certainly hoped so. Andrew came up with this scheme never thinking there would be an innocent baby thrown into the mix. Intentions counted for jack shit. The only direction to move was forward. Reluctantly, he watched Nicholas return to Belle’s side and kept to the shadows.

Belle’s laughter tickled his ears and Andrew couldn’t tear his eyes away. Jealousy boiled in his gut watching her smile at his cousin. Jealousy and guilt. The only reason he didn’t march over there right now and put an end to the farce was because he knew once he found the guilty party, he could slip back into his old life - and Belle’s arms - to pick up where he left off. Also, Belle would never forgive him if she discovered the truth. Any progress being made within his marriage would be lost. Of course, all this progress was being made by proxy.

Having had enough of the charade for one evening, Andrew left without another word. No one noticed. Nicholas escorted Belle and Ariel outside and hailed Ariel a cab. Eric left her at the party after her outburst.

“I feel so bad for her,” Lacey said more to herself than to Andrew.

Nicholas had his quarks, but even when he and Gloria were at their worst, which wasn’t too often, he never considered cheating. Eric was a fool in his book.

“I’m sure they’ll work it out one way or another.”

Lacey blinked at the apathetic tone. “How can you say that? The Butlers are our friends.”

He bit his lip to hold back the truth. Andrew tolerated The Butlers because of Ariel’s father. Timothy Triton was a mogul with billions. For years, Andrew coveted getting Tim as a client. The feather in the cap, so to speak. Of course, Ariel’s friendship with Belle wasn’t enough to entice Triton.

“We shouldn’t get in the middle of it, Belle,” Nicholas said during the cab ride home. “All Ariel has are suspicions and we shouldn’t automatically condemn Eric.”

Typical man. Did they all stick together whether the allegations were true or not? Lacey let the matter drop, but she fully intended to support Ariel no matter what.

A second later, she mentally kicked herself. Lacey already cared too much, but she had no choice but to leave. Her heart ached for the loss of her twin, but walking in Belle’s shoes wouldn’t bring her back. Sure, she felt closer to her sister, but reality couldn’t be ignored. She was a fugitive with a dead body at her feet. Running was her only option.

Back at the apartment, she had to admit she would miss this place. A hot shower went a long way in clearing her mind. Wearing her sister’s silk robe, she inhaled Belle’s scent and swallowed the lump in her throat. With effort she recovered and refused to back down.

All that was left to do now was wait until Andrew fell asleep and make a break for it. In the meantime, she had to keep her hands busy. Putting Belle’s jewelry away provided a distraction. Andrew entered a few minutes later to hang up his suit jacket.

“I was watching you tonight,” he started.

Worry knotted her brow. “Did I do something wrong?”

“No.” He turned and gave her a soft smile. “Quite the opposite.” If he was honest, Nicholas was impressed with how she kept calm under the pressure and pulled the party together at the last minute. Belle was attentive to the guests and didn’t rise to Regina’s bait. “You were great with handling everyone.”

Relieved, Lacey smiled. “I didn’t do anything that special.”

“Oh, no, you did.” Their gazes locked and he sat next to her on the settee. “It’s been a long time since I felt like you were in my corner. Tonight, it might sound silly, but I felt like I got the old Belle back. Don’t go away again.”

The first part of the speech were Andrew’s words, but the last sentence came from Nicholas alone. He like this version of her and didn’t want Belle to vanish and transform into the vindictive version he saw fighting continuously with his cousin. A second later, Nicholas started to understand why. When their gazes locked, something he hadn’t felt for a long, long time rose in his chest.

Sparks raced up and down her skin when he placed his hand over hers. Her blood heated, but she wouldn’t all her heart to soften toward this man. Andrew wasn’t even hers! Indulging this yearning would be pointless!

Her hesitation made Andrew jump to his feet. Without a single word, he marched out the door. Moments later, she heard him enter the guestroom. Clearly, he expected more from her, but Lacey couldn’t offer him what he craved. She wasn’t Belle.

Once the door to the guest bedroom closed, she got to her feet and dressed. Next, she packed a bag, secured the cash, then sat on the edge of the bed. The muffled sound of the TV came through the walls, so she had to sit and wait. After a few more hours, her eyes grew heavy. A bit of rest couldn’t hurt, right? Sitting against the pillows, she closed her eyes, swearing it would only be for a few minutes.

Chapter Text

The bar was packed. Music played as people laughed, danced, played pool, and had a jolly night out. Honestly, Lacey wanted to be right there with them, but tonight she wallowed in her own misery. Today was rough and as much as she didn’t want to be alone, she couldn’t shake the sensation of abandonment. All Lacey craved was a little companionship, but the guy she started dating a few weeks ago dumped her via text, then her boss fired her for speaking up against his hypocrisy.

Being the center of the party, the girl everyone bought drinks for, was Lacey’s signature. Her claim to fame. Yet, when she came here looking for salvation, no one gave her a second glance. In the end, she got drunk faster than normal and ended up sitting at a table alone. One phone call was all the bartender allowed, so she dialed the number of the person she thought she could count on.

“I feel like I’m going to be sick,” she told Belle when her twin finally arrived.

Annoyed and not bothering to hide it, Belle leveled her sister a long look. “How much have you had to drink?”

“Too much.” At least she could admit her limitations. “And you need to pay him,” she finished with a thumb pointed at the bartender.

Eyes rolling, Belle crossed her arms over her chest. “Why?”

Lacey couldn’t look her in the eye. “Because I got fired.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“No, but it wasn’t my fault! My boss is a total dick!”

Belle scoffed, not believing a word. “God, Lacey! You said it was an emergency so I left a date! Turns out, you’re just broke and drunk!”

Oh, god! Next, Belle would start lecturing her about going back to school and cleaning up her life! “I’m sorry, Belle! Ok?”

“No,” she snapped. “You’re selfish!”

“Belle, I need you tonight!”

“The only thing you want is someone to clean up your mess.”

Taking five twenty-dollar-bills out of her purse, she slapped then down on the table. “This should cover your tab and your ride home, but this is the last time, Lacey. Get your act together.”

Without another word, Belle marched out of the bar. Lacey stared at the moment with a lump in her throat. Money didn’t hug you back…

Gasping awake, Lacey’s eyes snapped to the clock. Crap! She slept longer than she intended. At least Andrew was asleep. On her feet, she went to splash some cold water on her face, but the dream lingered. Belle wasn‘t wrong when she called Lacey selfish. She didn’t appreciate Belle when she was alive and now it was too late.

With her marriage in tatters, Belle probably got sick and tired of cleaning up messes and bending over backward to fit into a society she probably resented. Add in the fact someone was trying to kill her, and it’s no wonder Belle spiraled. Lacey assumed Belle’s identity to protect herself from Jones and the law, but she stumbled upon something much bigger.

Lacey’s mind whirled as she grabbed her bags and headed into the hall. If she was going to make her escape, then she needed to go now. However, the guilt and loss haunted her every step. Nausea hit her suddenly and she rushed to the hall bathroom. Everything she consumed at the party came back up and the tears leaked down her cheeks as she heaved over the bowl. Behind her eyes, she saw the dead body of the hitman and the full realization of what she did hit full force. Next, came the face of her twin, blue and bloated from the freezing water. Belle kept asking Lacey why she didn’t save her and the tears came harder.

Weeping woke Nicholas from a sound sleep. What the hell? He climbed out of bed and padded barefoot to the hall where he spotted the glowing bathroom light. The crying got louder as he approached and he saw Belle through the slightly ajar door bent over the toilet and crying her eyes out. His heart snapped.

Before he realized what happened, Nicholas was by her side, holding her hair back, and crooning soft words of comfort. Call him crazy, but he didn’t think this version of Belle capable of any deceit or corporate espionage. All he saw was a frail, pregnant woman in need of comfort and a firm shoulder. Nicholas’s protective instincts wouldn’t be denied, so he held her tighter until her illness passed, then rocked her back and forth on the bathroom floor.

“I’m here,” Nicholas whispered as he stroked her hair. “It’s ok. You’re going to be ok.”

Burying her face in his chest, Lacey couldn’t remember the last time anyone held her. Really held her. Her mother? The thought made Lacey cry harder and she clung to Andrew like a lifeline. Oh, she wanted to tell him the truth! Against every principle of common sense, Lacey wanted to throw herself at Andrew’s mercy and beg forgiveness, but would he grant her absolution? Her sins seemed to be compounding lately.

“Everything’s alright,” Nicholas murmured. He wanted to know what happened to make her so upset, but asking in this moment seemed intrusive. Morning sickness could strike at any time, so he supposed she got hit with a nasty dose, but the tears spoke of something deeper and more troubling.

The full force of recent events combined with her rift with Belle, of what happened to Tamara, then her twin’s suicide, to the dead hitman in the loft, all crashed heavily upon Lacey’s chest, making each breath burn. She wanted to forget, but booze wouldn’t cut out the horrors. She knew that much, but her situation didn’t improve, no matter how she tried to make amends. All Lacey received for her efforts was more blood on her hands.

“Andrew,” she sobbed. “I’m so, so sorry.”

“Belle,” he gently whispered. “There’s nothing to be sorry about. A good night’s rest will make you feel much better.”

Inside her head, Lacey laughed hysterically. Is that all it would take? To cure her of her demons? A good night’s rest?

“No,” she moaned. “It won’t ever be ok again.”

Frowning, he blinked rapidly. What did Belle have to feel so guilty about? Those words sounded like a confession of sorts, but did it have to do with the firm or with something else entirely? People could be tricky, so should he give her the benefit of the doubt?

“Come on.” He scooped Belle up in his arms and stood. “Let’s get you back to bed.”

Lacey didn’t protest. In fact, she didn’t want to be parted from his warmth just yet. Tucked back under the covers, she looked at Andrew. Those dark eyes burned into her for a long moment before he climbed into bed by her side. Now he was back in this bed, he wouldn’t leave again, but Lacey wasn’t worried. First thing in the morning, she would make her escape and that would be that. For now, she curled into his warmth and went back to sleep.

Nicholas liked the sensation of her cheek on his chest. He enjoyed the softness of her hair between his fingers. No matter how many times Nicholas swore up and down he was just playing a role, the truth was that Belle got under his skin. Nothing would be the same again.

****

Lacey’s eyes snapped open just before dawn. A gasp left her throat an instant later. Andrew slept beside her so she carefully climbed out of bed. Her clothes were rumpled, but she didn’t care as she snatched her shoes from the floor. The bags were still in the hall where she let them, so Lacey scooped them up and headed down to the lobby.

What she did to that hitman was self-defense and she understood now that if she didn’t do what she did, then she would be the one in a morgue. He was after Belle and Lacey wanted to know why. Last night, Andrew took care of her so tenderly that it threw Lacey off guard. She owed the man a debt. He was family and just because her twin was gone didn’t change that fact in her book.

Mind made up, Lacey headed to the loft. The party planner would be back to clean up the remains, which meant she had to get rid of that trunk and its contents…somehow. Entering the space she turned on a few lights and took out her phone. She had to call Ruby and tell her friend not to meet at the rendezvous after all. Hearing Ruby’s voicemail message, Lacey sighed.

“Hey, it’s me. My bags are packed and I’m all set to go, but I can’t. For the first time in my life I’m not leaning on people. Belle’s family needs her to stay and I want to do what I can for them. I hope you understand.”

Hanging up, Lacey found the trunk. “Ok,” she sighed.

Showtime.

This wouldn’t be pretty, but she had to face the consequences of her actions. Unlocking the trunk, she lifted the lid.

Nothing.

Wait. How was this possible? Where did the body go?! What the hell was going on?

Lacey forgot how to breathe as she stared at the empty trunk. No, not the same trunk. There were no blood stains here. Even wrapped in a tarp, there would be something. What happened? Did someone come here after the party and take the body and leave a replica? If so, who?

****

Paris, France

This bank catered to the wealthiest in the world. The branch in the States warmed up to the upper classes, but the main hub in this city didn’t disguise their snobby attitude. Unless one had a Rolex or designer label somewhere on their person, they didn’t get past the revolving door. Belle kept her bitch face on and headed to the front counter. No one touched her.

The amount she had in her account was a pittance to them, but if she wanted to succeed, then she needed cash. Andrew underestimated her. His arrogant cousin did as well. Once she had the proof she needed, then she wouldn’t hesitate to make her escape and blow the whistle. Step one was getting the evidence.

Speaking flawless French, she handed the teller her withdraw slip and asked for cash.

The teller didn’t bat an eyelash as he looked up the account. A few seconds later, he apologized in his native language.

“I’m sorry, mademoiselle, but this account has been closed.”

“What? When?”

“Yesterday. At the Manhattan branch.”

Manhattan branch? There was only one person who could have done that. Annoyed, she turned on her heel and walked out of the bank without saying another word. The second she was out on the street, Belle took out her phone and called the person helping her in this whole scheme. The second he picked up, she got straight to the point.

“She’s running everything. It has to get done! The sooner, the better.”

“Understood.”

Hanging up, Belle headed back to the hotel. She had to pull out Plan B. Fast.

****

After the shock wore off, Lacey raced back to the apartment. With the security there she would feel a hell of a lot safer. With a thousand questions running a mile a minute, she ended up in the kitchen and started a pot of coffee. What should she do next? Uncertain, Lacey wandered into the living room and sat on the couch. In her hand was the phone her would-be-murderer had on him. What did it all mean?

“Belle? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you up this early.”

Lacey managed to conceal her fright. She was so worried about what happened at the loft that she totally forgot Andrew would still be here. Lacey’s fingers tightened around the cell phone as she crossed her arms over her chest. Putting on a smile, she rose to her feet. Last night, he was really great and supportive. One day, she wanted to repay the favor.

“I couldn’t sleep,” she confessed.

“More morning sickness?”

Unfortunately, Lacey couldn’t tell him the whole truth, so she played along. “Not pretty is it?”

“I’m sure it will pass.” The second the words left his mouth, Nicholas knew he sounded insincere.

“I made you some coffee.” The look her threw her had her heart skipping a beat. “Is that…weird?”

“Not at all.” Nicholas had no idea if Belle ever made his cousin coffee in the morning. Recovering, he resolved not to be so gruff. He supposed her was grumpy because he didn’t expect to wake up alone in bed. Then again, he had no idea what he expected.

Letting his features soften, he gave Belle a smile. “I’ll take it with me to work. Oh, and there is something I need you to do for me.”

“What?”

“It’s a surprise. I’ll have the address in the foyer. Be there at eleven.”

A surprise? The last thing Lacey needed now were more surprises, but she thanked Andrew and helped him put some coffee in a thermos, then walked him to the elevator. Once the doors dinged closed, she stared once again at the dead man’s cell phone. Unsure and scared, she called Ruby. Even with the time difference, her friend should be up and about. A sign of relief left her throat when she picked up on the fourth ring.

“Did you get my message?”

“Yes,” Ruby said. “But I don’t think staying in New York is a good idea.”

“If I leave, I’ll be on the run,” she reasoned. “As long as I’m Belle, I have some safe haven. Of course, I have to figure out who’s trying to kill her.”

“Lace, do you know how ridiculous that sounds? You already killed one man.”

“I think he was a gun for hire. It’s the only thing that makes sense. Someone specific is behind all this.”

“Alright,” Ruby sighed. “What are you doing to find out who wants Belle dead?”

“I have the hitman’s cell phone. Maybe it leads back to them.”

“Anything one the caller ID?”

Lacey shook her head. “I checked that. No calls, texts, or photos. Nothing.”

“Try prying the back off. Maybe there’s a serial number.”

Cradling her cell between her shoulder and cheek, Lacey tried getting the back off the other phone, but it was stuck. “Hold on a sec.”

She headed for Andrew’s desk and grabbed an envelope opener and placed the edge of the blade at the bottom of the phone. The blade slipped off the plastic too fast and stabbed Lacey in the hand, causing her to drop the phone.

“Ow! Shit!”

“Lacey?”

“I’m fine.” On her hands and knees, she reached under the desk to retrieve the cell but got distracted when she glanced at a photo on one of the bottom shelves. The picture frame held a shot of Andrew and Belle outside in the cooler months smiling for the camera. Lacey recognized the shot because it was the same one of Belle that hitman had in his jacket! Oh god, was Andrew behind the hit?

Chapter Text

“Lace? Lacey? Are you there?”

“Yeah. I think I found something.” Lacey fished under the desk, grabbed the phone, then went to find her purse. Sure enough, the picture she nabbed from the killer’s jacket that night was a cropped and blown up version of Belle from the same picture Andrew had framed on his desk!

“What,” Ruby asked.

“Ruby, I’m not sure, but Andrew had the same photo that the killer did sitting on his desk. He was cropped out of it like someone wanted to protect his identity.”

“Not exactly a smoking gun,” her friend pointed out.

True. Lacey pushed down her panic and thought rationally. “I know Belle and Andrew were having problems. She killed herself for a reason. If Andrew is mixed up in what happened, I need to know.”

“Listen, spinning theories gets you no where. You have to link the phone directly to him.”

“I know.”

“Lacey be safe while doing it, ok? Whoever is after Belle is after you, too.”

“I’ll be careful,” she promised. “And I’ll keep in touch.”

“Ok. Bye.”

Ruby hung up and grabbed her briefcase. She had an early class today and was going to be late. After burning rubber and parking in the school’s parking garage, she headed toward the door when someone called her name. She turned to see a stranger.

“Hey! Got the time?”

Ruby looked over her shoulder but before she could call for help, was punched in the face. Stars exploded behind her eyes and she stumbled back several steps. A few seconds later, she lost consciousness and was thrown into the back of an unmarked van.

When she came to, pounding music pulsed above her head. Ruby’s temples ached but when she tried lifting her hands, she realized her wrists were handcuffed to the chair. A chair she was also tied to so securely, she could barely breathe. Heart lurching in her throat, she knew she was in deep, deep trouble.

Killian Jones stepped forward and flashed a wife, threatening grin. “Welcome, Ms. Ward.”

He dangled her cell phone in front of her face. “Where is Lacey French?”

“I don’t know.” She wanted to sound brave and certain, but her voice shook.

Jones’s smile brightened. "Let’s see if that’s really true or not, shall we?”

****

“Bad news. The judge denied the warrant.”

Did he hear correctly? Everett shook his head in disbelief. “Why?”

“Belle Gold is too far removed from Killian Jones.”

Unbelievable. “What’s with this judge? Belle Gold is Lacey French’s twin sister! We need her phone records to find our witness!”

The junior agent didn’t understand why Everett was so upset. Shit like this happened every day.

“What more does the judge want?”

“He didn’t bother to ay, Machado.”

“Of course not. Well, we’ll find another judge.”

“And when you get the same result?”

“We keep looking until we find someone who gets it.”

“And how long are you planning on staying in town?”

“Until Belle Gold leads me to Lacey French.” Machado was stubborn enough to not budge an inch.

“You don’t have any proof French is still in town,” the junior agent argued. “Wouldn’t it be easier to head back to Colorado and find another way to get Jones?”

This kid really was wet behind the ears. Luckily, Everett didn’t mind educating him. “We’ve been after Killian Jones for ten years He’s been involved in armed robbery, gun trafficking, drug trafficking, prostitution, racketeering, and at least nine murders. That we know of.”

Shifting on his feet, the other guy knew he just dug himself a pretty big hole.

“So far,” Everett continued. “Nothing and no one had been able to stop him. No RECO, no nothing. Fifteen of his lieutenants have been convicted, but not one had turned on him because they’re all scared. Lacey French was one day away from changing all that.”

“Yeah, then she ran.”

Machado nodded. “Odds are right to her sister. I believe Belle Gold is harboring a fugitive and the more I find out about her, the closer I get to Lacey. And when I do have Lacey French back in custody, I will put Killian Jones behind bars.”

Conversation over, Everett manned the phones to find a new judge to get that warrant. The Golds were rich and connected to more powerful people, which worked against his efforts. Machado didn’t have solid evidence proving Lacey was in New York. Hours later, he had to abandon the warrant idea and draw up some new ideas. They still had the camera footage of the bus lockers from the Hamptons but otherwise, he was back to square one.

****

An electronic store seemed like as good as place as any to ask some basic questions. Lacey asked the clerk on duty to tell her what he could about the hitman’s cell phone.

“It’s disposable. Goes for about thirty bucks.”

“Can you tell if that phone called his number?”

The clerk gave her an odd look when she tried handing him a slip of paper, so she amended. “I think my husband is seeing someone. We’ve been married a long time.”

“Well…there is something like a sim card inside, but reading them requires some pretty high tech we don’t sell. The only people who have access to hat kind of information are the cops and the FBI. Maybe some drug dealers. The whole point of this phone is that the people who use them want to stay anonymous.”

Great. A dead end. Lacey thanked the guy and headed to closest café for some coffee. If she couldn’t read the phone, she had to think of another approach. What wouldn’t she give for a fraction of Belle’s book smarts right about now?

****

Paris, France

Perfectly poised at the hotel bar, Belle smiled when her target walked in to get a drink. He wore a suit and spoke with a Scottish accent like her husband. She could understand him, which helped her cause when the bartender looked blankly at the man.

“I’ve had a rough day. I need a shizzitini.”

The bartender shook his head. “What’s that?”

“Never heard of it? It's popular in the States. Ok, it had an energy drink. Some shizzi, and I don’t know what else.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Barrett, but my English is not so good.”

Taking her cue, Belle spoke in French and ordered him a drink.

“Thank you,” Will Barrett said. “I think. What am I getting?”

“The closest thing to a shizzitini,” Belle smiled “Vodka and a cup of coffee.”

“Wow,” he laughed. “That sounds degusting.” He then turned to the bartender and asked for just coffee.

“So you don’t’ speak any French,” Belle asked.

“I only moved here a month ago,” he confessed. “Will Barrett,” he said by way of introduction.

“Nice to meet you, Will Barrett.”

They started chatting and Will came to sit at her table. Belle turned on the charm and wound Will around her little finger.

“So, Will, what is it that you do?”

“International finance. That’s why I don’t know any French. Most of me work is done in English.”

“Ah, so you fly around on a private jet to deliver briefcases of cash to Saudi princes?”

“Something like that,” he chuckled. “I work for a subsidiary of an American firm. Gold/Charles. Have you heard of them?”

“No,” she lied. “But then again, I do keep my money under the mattress.”

“Probably safer that way,” he chuckled.

Now that she had him hooked, Belle needed to leave him dangling a bit. “It’s getting late, so I should get going.”

“But I don’t even know your name.”

“Cora,” she answered. “Cora Farrell.”

Taking a card out of her clutch, she handed it to him. “If you ever want a French lesson.”

Belle’s smile widened when she felt his eyes follow her out of the bar. Playing the role of the femme fatal was never her thing, but desperate times called for desperate measures. Once Will let down his guard, Belle would be able to get the proof she needed to blow the lid off of Andrew’s secrets and disappear with his money.

Back in her suite, guilt gnawed her conscience. As hard as she tried, her heart wouldn’t stop loving Andrew. He may be an evil roach, but she still loved him. What kind of a fool was he? Before she fled New York, Andrew had people following her every step. She and Andrew had shouting matches when she started asking questions about it. After so many years, Belle couldn’t tell when her husband lied to her and had every reason to believe the worst.

Out of no where nausea hit hard and she ran for the bathroom. The sickness was violent and exhausting. When Belle finished emptying the contents of her stomach, she sat back with a heavy sigh. Belle hated that though she loved Andrew, clearly he didn’t love her back anymore. She had to do what was necessary to survive and if that meant using Will Barrett then so be it.

****

By the time she left the electronic store, Lacey was late for that appointment Andrew set up. Taking a cab to the address didn’t shine any light this mysterious errand might entail. Each step into the dirty alley set her heart rate on edge. Given the picture she found earlier today, Lacey couldn’t be sure this wasn’t a set-up. What if Andrew lured her here intent on having someone pick up where the hitman left off? Should she make a break for it? Maybe staying her wasn’t such a good idea after all.

The side door burst open with a bang and Lacey nearly jumped out of her skin.

“There you are!”

Blinking, she inhaled several deep breaths. “Ariel?”

“Come on in.”

Wow! Models and designers were gathered among a background of techno beats as they were fitting and planning the final details of an upcoming fashion show.

“What is all this, she asked.

Ariel introduced her to the head of PR for Douglas Brenan’s designs. He wore a black turtleneck with thick black framed glasses but carried off the look with an air of confidence Lacey envied.

“Mrs. Gold, you’re invited to pick out any items your choose from our fall collection.”

She blinked in disbelief. “Really?”

“Really,” he grinned. “Have a look around and root through the racks. I’m here if you have any questions.”

What in the world? A backstage, advanced look at a fashion collection. This was right up Lacey’s alley! She always loved style fads and make-up trends more than classic literature or brain puzzles. At the thought of her twin. Her smile faltered a bit, but before she could dwell on the sadness, the PR guy returned with a bottle in his hand.

“Champagne, Mrs. Gold?”

“No, thank you,” she told him.

Ariel also refused the perk. After last night she couldn’t stand the sight of alcohol.

“Thank you for this, Ariel.”

“Don’t thank me,” she laughed. “Thank your husband! He was the one who organized all this!”

Andrew did? To what end?

“It’s his way of thanking you for the party last night,” Ariel continued.

“Really?”

Ariel rolled her eyes. “Is it that hard to believe you have a fabulous husband?”

Sort of. Lacey couldn’t quite dismiss all her questions even in the face of such an extraordinary surprise. Last night, Andrew offered her comfort, but this morning she saw another angle that put the tenderness in perspective.

“Do you see anything that sings to you,” Ariel asked.

“They’re all so stunning,” she answered while admiring a sequined ball gown.

“Don’t limit yourself to just one. I’m along for the ride. I can’t believe Andrew is taking you to Swan Lake!”

Lacey frowned remembering the first night she met Andrew. “But he doesn’t even like the ballet.”

“He hates it! That’s what makes this so amazing, Belle! It’s all about you!”

Yes, it sounded generous, but could she trust all the lavish gifts? “Why do you think he’s doing all of it?”

“Who care why!” Hands on her hips, the redhead followed Belle to one of the racks. “You have to stop being so suspicious and just enjoy it.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

“I guess I’m trying to figure out what his intentions are.”

Her friend’s jaw dropped. ”The man is fitting you in a custom-made gown for the ballet and you’re questioning his intentions? You always do this!”

Lacey blinked. “I do?”

Ariel nodded. “You never think what Andrew does is good enough. He used to make you so happy. Then you two started sniping at each other and arguing all the time. Take it from someone who had a husband to complain about. Andrew is a good man.”

Lacey really wished she could believe that, but until she had an explanation for that cropped picture, she doubted she would share Ariel’s opinion. Needing a change of subject, she asked for Ariel’s take on a few of the gowns, then finally chose me that stole her breath.

“Come on,” the PR maven said. “Let’s get some lunch and chat about fashion week.”

Well, when he put it that way, how could she refuse?

Chapter Text

“My heels are killing me. I’m hailing a cab.” Ariel raised her hand to get the attention of one of the yellow taxis.

“We should do to Balthazar’s,” the PR guy said. “I can always get us in.”

As a cab pulled up to the curb, Lacey’s phone started ringing, but not Belle’s sleek smartphone. It was the hitman’s cell that made the noise. Mouth going dry, Lacey considered ignoring it, but if she hoped to find out who wanted Belle dead, the reason may just be on the other end.

“Belle,” Ariel called. “Aren’t you coming?”

“I have to take this. Why don’t the two of you go ahead? I’ll catch up.”

“Alright.” Ariel waved as she got into the car.

Once they pulled away from the curb, Lacey answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Hello, Mrs. Gold.” A gruff male voice came over the line.

“Who is this?”

“You dropped your scarf.”

Glancing down, Lacey saw that she did indeed drop her scarf. The fabric fell a few steps back. She retrieved it but her anger at being watched got the better of her.

“Who is this,” she demanded again. “What do you want?”

“You have something of mine and I want it back.”

Scanning the crowd, Lacey was shocked by how many people were on their phones as they went about their business. This creep could be any one of them, or he could be watching from a building or something. The idea was enough to scare her to the bone. Thankfully her temper kept Lacey from crumbling.

“I’m not going to hurt you, Belle. Just follow my instructions and this will all end.”

“Why the hell should I listen to you?”

“You don’t have a choice. You killed our mutual friend in your loft so if you don’t want me to tell…”

Blackmail?

“Do you see that bench to you right? Next to the playground?

“Yeah.”

“Hang up and put the phone on the bench then walk away.”

Lacey automatically closed the cell, but her mind raced as she approached the bench. If she did what the guy asked, he would leave her alone. Guess she was right about the professional hit theory. Someone hired a killer to target her twin. But who? Lacey did as instructed and put the phone down, but she only took a few steps when a thought popped into her head.

What if those people got the phone back and came after her again? They were desperate to get this thing back, which meant the longer it was in her hands, the better off she would be. Shifting on her heel, Lacey turned around, snatched the phone, and went to catch a cab. In a public street with cameras, she doubted Mr. Mystery Voice would try anything.

Back at the apartment, she made sure she was alone, then tried tracing the last call made to the phone. The operator said the number was blocked, so she was back to square one. Oh, maybe Ruby would know a trick. Taking out her other cell, Lacey called her friend’s number, but the line rang and rang and rang before finally going to voicemail.

Unbeknownst to Lacey, Ruby was being beaten by Jones’s thugs in an effort to get her to roll on Lacey’s whereabouts. They grabbed her chest, mad lewd comments, and threatened rape. Thankfully, Killian called dibs, so Ruby knew they wouldn’t touch her before their boss did.

What these punks didn’t realize was that while she was an addict, she lived on the streets. Ruby knew how to defend herself and get out of tight situations. If these wimps uncuffed her, then they would be in for a shock. Right now, her best bet was to play possum and wait. While refusing to confess Lacey’s location, she started sketching and escape plan.

Lacey, however, had no idea what was happening to her friend and instead debated her next move with regards to this latest crisis. Was that Andrew’s voice making the threats? He could have used one of those boxes to disguise it somehow. Or probably someone he hired? Andrew could be in this up to his eyeballs. What she needed was another clue to point her in the right direction. The more she knew about Belle’s life, the more pieces she had of the overall puzzle.

Belle’s orange appointment book peaked out of the purse, so Lacey took it and sat at the desk in the living room. Most of the written appointments already passed, but when she flipped through the pages, she found a business card to a law firm.

Her phone rang and Lacey picked up when she saw Ariel’s number.

“Hey, what happened? You never made it to lunch.”

Oh no, she totally forgot! Lacey gave the first excuse that popped into her head. “Sorry, my doctor called. I missed all my first trimester tests.”

“Oh, I remember those. Don’t worry. The baby will be perfect.”

If it even existed, but she couldn’t dwell on that right now. Her gaze fell back to the business card as Ariel went on about fashion week.

“Belle, what has gotten into you?”

“I’m distracted. Sorry. Ah, do you know a firm Price, Zimmerman, and McDonald?”

“Isn’t that Aubrey Zimmerman’s firm?”

“Aubrey Zimmerman…”

“The divorce attorney,” Ariel supplied. “What made you think of them?”

“Oh, I came across an ad in one of those celebrity magazines. You know actors and divorces.”

“Heh, maybe I should hire Aubrey Zimmerman.”

Lacey sympathized. “Are things really that bad?”

“We’ve gone from shouting at each other to being two ships in the night.”

“Ariel, I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah, well, it is what it is. I have to pick up the kids, so I’ll call you back.”

“Alight.”

After hanging up, Belle stared at the card. Was her sister in the middle of divorcing Andrew? If so, that could be motive for Andrew to want her dead. Unless she followed this lead, then questions would nag her until kingdom come. Mind made up, she pocketed the card and grabbed her keys.

****

Nicholas debated calling Belle all day. Did she enjoy the surprise he planned? He wanted to see the look on her face when she realized she had her pick of the designer’s fashions. Lately, he enjoyed the sight of Belle’s smile and didn’t care if it was dangerous.

Heaven help him, Nicholas wanted to hear her voice. No sooner did he pick up the phone to call her cell, Regina burst into his office like a tornado with a grudge. Was it too early for a drink?

“Eric Butler wants to pull out of the hedge fund,” she raged.

“Yes,” Nicholas said as he placed the phone back into its cradle. “I read his email.”

Her eyes widened at his casual tone. “And you’re actually considering this?”

“If he wants to pull out, I’m not going to argue.”

“Why not?” Regina couldn’t believe Andrew was going soft! They needed every penny and he knew it!

“Because he only has, what? Three hundred thousand with us? It’s not worth it.”

“I don’t care about Eric! I care about Ariel’s father! We’ve been trying for years to get Triton on board but we’ll never succeed if we lose The Butlers!”

“The last time we chased that albatross it was a disaster.” Regina’s ambitions got under his skin and not in a good way. “I’m not going down that road again.”

“Do I need to remind you what’s at stake,” she asked icily.

No, she most certainly did not. In fact, Nicholas knew about the financial woes a hell of lot more intimately than she did. Thus far, she never suspected he wasn’t Andrew, and Nicholas hoped to keep it that way. Still, Regina’s skill at deceit bordered on pathological. She ran this firm as if she truly believed it stood on solid ground.

Nicholas cut the woman a stern glare. “I’m not interested in making enemies. Least of all, Triton. Let Eric cash out.”

Gritting her teeth, she wanted to rip Andrew’s throat out but managed to maintain her cool exterior. “Fine.”

If Andrew didn’t want her to cause waves, then she wouldn’t, but that didn’t mean she was giving up. Oh no, Regina had plenty of tricks up her sleeves. She would be more than happy to stand in Eric’s way and her first trick as calling Ariel to the office to get her to sign the paperwork. Regina had a feeling Mrs. Butler didn’t have an inkling of what her husband planned. They already had problems. What was one more wedge?

****

Arriving at the building housing the law firm, Lacey caught the elevator and pressed the button for the accommodating floor. What she didn’t expect was a fellow socialite to rush into the box, all energized and carrying FAO Swartz and Tiffany’s shopping bags. Tall with strawberry blonde hair, she seemed a bit eager to get on Belle’s good side.

“Belle! You walked right past me in the lobby!”

“Oh!” The stranger wore an excited and expectant expression, which had Lacey thinking on her toes. “I-um…my head was just somewhere else.” Her eyes fell to the bags. “How’s the family?”

“Oh, well, it’s back to school time, but it's great! And Jack is still pounding the pavement for Delta and Abercamp. What about you guys? I thought we would see you and Andrew at The Phantom and the Opera – you never miss it!”

The woman’s cheerfulness itched Lacey’s nerves, but she put on a happy face. None of these socialites had a clue, did they? “We’ve just been so busy lately,” Lacey finally answered.

The elevator stopped and opened on Lacey’s floor. The law firm’s logo was stamped on the opposite wall in bold silver letters. No one could miss it.

“This is me. Say hi to Jack and the kids for me.”

“Oh, sure! Bye!”

Forgetting the woman instantly, Lacey spoke to the receptionist and took a seat. Lawyers loved to keep people waiting, but about five minutes later, she was escorted into Mr. Zimmerman’s office and asked to take a seat. The name partner remembered Belle by name, which hinted he knew her sister long enough to be apprised of the details about Belle’s marriage. Lacey just had to get him to talk somehow.

“I didn’t think I’d be seeing you again, Belle.” He sat behind his desk. “So, were you able to find the answers you were looking for? You were pretty upset the last time you were here.”

“I…hope I didn’t say anything I might regret.”

“Well, as I remember it, you were adamant about altering the prenuptial agreement, but I never received any changes so I figured you and Andrew worked through your problems. Although, if you did, you probably wouldn’t be here.”

So, from what she gathered, leading up to their visit in the Hamptons, Belle fought with Andrew and sought out a divorce attorney. Not a good sign, especially if they were fighting over money. "Did I mention how bad the fighting had gotten?”

The attorney nodded. “You did. Has it gotten physical?”

Lacey licked her lips. “Did I give you that impression?”

“Call it intuition, or years of experience, but I got the impression that you were scared of your husband.”

“Really?’ Belle wasn’t just fighting with Andrew, but she consulted a divorce attorney because she felt threatened. The more she uncovered about her sister’s life, the more alarming the revelations.

“I don’t mean to make you uncomfortable, Belle. My only point is that any abuse changes the dynamics of the case. We can revisit this when you feel more comfortable. My office did track down the quick claim deed you signed for 227 Pratt Street. You may have been right that he was trying to hide the value of this particular investment.”

“227 Pratt Street?”

“It’s a building Andrew’s company acquired. The date on the photocopy looks like it was changed, which means your husband may be attempting to cheat you. If you can find the original deed, then we may have a real opportunity to claim half of the value of that property.”

Well, it certainly sounded like Andrew was hiding something. If Belle looked into this property, maybe Lacey should as well. Thanking Mr. Zimmerman for his time, Lacey promised to be in touch if she found the deed.

Armed with a bread crumb, Lacey decided to see where it led. What she discovered about Belle’s marriage was off-putting, but she didn’t have evidence to directly link Andrew to the photo in the dead man's pocket. Not yet. She needed more and couldn’t go on assumptions. Taking a cab back to the penthouse, she went straight back to Andrew’s desk.

Chapter Text

The bottom drawer wasn't locked, so did that mean he had nothing to hide or that he thought he couldn’t get caught? Lacey’s fingers quickly sorted through the tabs on the folders and found the one marked 227 Pratt Street. Adrenaline burst through her veins as she opened the folder. No sooner did her eyes scan the pages, she heard Andrew’s voice snap behind her.

“Belle?”

Startled, Lacey left the folder on the desk and whirled to face a very livid Andrew. She never saw him lose his temper, but she had a feeling she was about to see what Belle had to put up with.

“Do you want to tell me why you went to see a divorce attorney?” Before she had a chance to answer, he gritted his teeth and shook his head. Nicholas got the call and raced home for a confrontation. He needed answers now. “Is this where we’re heading?”

Stomach quivering, Lacey had no idea how to manage the situation. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Peggy Lewis told Jack she saw you going into Peirce, Zimmerman, and McDonald and he called me.”

That lady from the elevator? Boy, that was quick! The women Lacey knew back in Colorado could gossip but news traveled by the millisecond around here!

“I just had a question I wanted an answer to,” Lacey finally managed.

“Questions about what?”

As he made his demands, Andrew invaded her personal space until she backed into the desk. Just in case, she grasped for the envelope opener. A second later, he reached around her and grabbed the file.

“227 Pratt Street?” Nicholas shook the folder under her nose. “How many times do I have to tell you it's worthless? Go down there and look if you don’t believe me!”

No sooner did the words leave his mouth, Nicholas saw her wide eyes and realized he was frightening her. Honestly, he assumed she stopped digging for clues where that property was concerned, but he let down his guard when he absolutely shouldn’t have. Belle’s curiosity about the past brought her dangerously close to the truth and he couldn’t afford to let her learn anymore. Stepping back, Nicholas shook his head.

“Why don’t you trust me, hmm? You used to tell me I was the only man you could trust and now you’re sneaking around behind my back to see divorce attorneys?” He raked a hand through his hair, then placed both on his hips. “I was a fool to think things were getting better between us, wasn’t I?”

“Andrew,” Lacey whispered. “I’m sorry.”

There was genuine hurt reflected in those dark pools and she hated that her research led her down this road because seeing Andrew as a vulnerable husband wanting to repair his marriage tugged at her heartstrings. Still, Lacey couldn’t be naive despite the circumstances putting this outburst into perspective.

“And here I was trying to do something nice for you today!”

“You did! The dress was an amazing gesture.”

“But it’s never enough, is it, Belle? I‘ve done what you asked and stopped playing games, but it seems that it’s all in vain because you can’t even meet me halfway.”

Those words lingered between them. Lacey sensed Andrew wanted something from her, but as much as she wanted to grasp the olive branch, her churning suspicions kept her silent. How could she apologize if he really did try to hurt Belle? His temper just now held enough fierceness to prove Andrew capable of such a thing, but the anger came from a place of hurt, not wrath.

With a sigh, Nicholas shook his head at her hesitation. What did he expect, really? Same old Belle.

“I’m heading back to the office. Oh, and by the way, you can take Ariel to the ballet tonight. The two of you can compare notes on how much you hate your husbands.”

Lacey jerked when he slammed the wall on his way to the elevator. Inhaling a deep breath, she fought for calm. Lacey didn’t want to fight with Andrew, but she had to find out if the whole divorce and dispute over the deed had anything to do with the hitman or Belle’s suicide. In for a penny, in for a pound. Lacey came too far to back down now.

****

Silver Springs, Colorado

Pale, menacing eyes stared her down as Ruby waited for her captor to speak. Straddling a chair, Killian Jones held up her cell phone. “We can hack into this. See if you have any messages from Lacey. I’ll be merciful if you tell me everything now. Otherwise, I’m going to get very, very upset.”

“Will this be after you untie me?”

Laughing in the face of her sarcasm, Killian glanced at the two thugs on either side of him. “She’s funny, isn’t she? A real spitfire. I’m looking forward to taking you for a test ride.”

Yuck! Gross. Ruby would rather die than let this cocksucker put his hands on her!

“Where’s Lacey,” he demanded.

“I’ve told you a thousand times that I don’t know.”

“And tolerated quite a hefty beating, but that could just mean you’re a tough nut to crack.” Killian leaned closer, all his humor gone from his expression. “Tell me where Lacey is,” he demanded again.

“Why don’t’ you just let her go? She didn’t testify! She’s the reason you’re free! She’s not a problem as long as she doesn’t come back!”

“Exactly,” Killian sneered. “I like my freedom, but I hate loose ends.”

“I told you,” Ruby pleaded. “I knew where she is!”

Clearly not believing a word, the crime boss held up the chip they found in her pocket. “You know, Ms. Ward, I’ve never been an addict. So, tell me, what does this represent? Five years of sobriety? What does it feel like to be denied something you can’t live without? A lot of work, I’ll bet, huh?”

What was he getting at? Killian flicked the chip like a coin and laughed when he caught it in his palm. A chill raced down Ruby’s spine. They were just getting started.

****

From the outside, 227 Pratt Street looked like an abandoned warehouse marked as condemned fifty years ago. In fact, Lacey was surprised there weren’t squatters. Armed with the folder, she entered the dirty, dusty, and crumbling structure to check out the suite. Mildew clung to the air and the piles of crumbling furniture and folded cardboard boxes were scattered throughout the room. Whatever used to be here moved out a while ago. And in a hurry, but the looks of the scattered papers. By all appearances, the space probably served as some sort of office. But why would Andrew feel the need to hide it?

When her heel crunched on one of the scattered papers, Lacey bent to pick it up. Asbestos? The Heath Department sent an official notice, so that could explain the sudden move. Maybe Andrew was right all along about this place being worthless.

“Andrew was telling the truth,” she sighed. Good. Lacey didn’t want to be wrong about him.

She let the paper fall back to the floor and that’s when she heard a glass bottle rolling across the floor. A frown marred her brow. Was someone here?

“Hello?"

A door about thirty feet away opened and the same man with white hair from the party crossed the threshold. What was he doing here?!

“Hello, Belle.”

That voice! He was the man on the phone! Whiteout hesitation, Lacey took the gun out of her purse and leveled it at the stranger. The guy didn’t even blink.

“I want the phone.”

Oh yeah? Well, she wanted to be the Queen of Sheba. “Who sent you here?”

“Just give it to me and I’ll let you go.”

Fat chance! Lacey knew if she handed over her only leverage, she was dead. “Not until you tell me what’s going on.”

The stranger gave her a blank look.

“I mean it! Who are you working for?”

“Come on, Belle. You don’t want another dead body to deal with, do you?” He started walking toward her as if he had nothing to fear. “I took care of the first.”

Seeing an open door out of the corner of her left eye, Lacey knew she had to think fast. f she acted now, she might get enough of a head start to outrun this psycho. Darting for the door, she didn’t dare look back.

“Give me that damn phone!”

Her heart pounded hearing him give chase, but Lacey kept running as fast as her feet could carry her. Down the stairs and out the front of the building, she knew the guy was hot on her heels. Luckily, she was able to hail a cab and make a clean getaway. Well, almost. Mr. Thug would keep coming back until he got what he wanted and she may not be able to escape next time.

“Greenwich Park,” she told the driver and took out her cell. “Agent Machado, please.”

If she wasn’t so scared then Lacey would have smiled at how fast the switchboard put her through. He agreed to meet her in the park in half an hour. Given their last meeting, Lacey hoped to be civil, but a public place offered a measure of protection from both dangers.

Controlling her churning nerves was easier said than done, especially when she spotted Agent Machado and he made a point of making eye contact. They met by one of the vendors stands. Everett was all smiles as he greeted Lacey’s twin. To say he was curious about her sudden call would be an understatement.

“I was surprised to hear from you, Mrs. Gold.”

“How’s the search for my sister going?”

“We’re getting closer every day,” he said casually. Everett noticed the way her eyes darted around as if she expected someone to jump out from behind the hedges and ounce. Now, what could possibly make her so nervous?

“You know, we don’t have to do this here,” Everett offered. “I have a perfectly boring office just a few blocks away. I can’t serve you anything fancy, but I can brew you a bad cup of coffee.”

And be put on his turf? No. Lacey didn’t want to give him an opportunity to snatch her fingerprints or DNA. Besides, she wanted her pursuer to find her. He probably already did and watched them right now. If so, Lacey guessed the stranger would call her any second.

“Here’s fine.”

There she goes, looking around again. Everett started thinking he was the patsy in this situation but would have to play it out to be sure. “You called me, Mrs. Gold. Remember?”

“Yes. I, ah, wanted an update on the case and see if you had any leads on Lacey.”

“Yesterday you were so eager to get rid of me.”

Lacey’s back straightened. “My husband’s party was hardly the time or the place.”

“I don’t know much about Lacey,” he confessed. “I was hoping you could help me with that.” Mrs. Gold gave him a blank look and Everett’s hands went to his hips. Enough with beating around the bush. “Looks like I got my hopes up. Ok. How about I tell you what I know about you?”

“I don’t-”

“I know yesterday you withdrew $50,000 from a bank over on 76th Street. I know you missed a dance class and a historical society meeting. Both conflicted with the party, but you never called to cancel, which is something you always do.”

As a gesture of covering the slowly burning panic in her gut, Lacey crossed her arms over her chest. Agent Machado wanted to unnerve her, so she had to play this just right. Summoning that upper-class snobbishness, she stared Machado down.

“So I needed money and missed and a few appointments? That’s not a crime.”

“I’m not your enemy. I just want to know where Lacey is. I can help her. And you.”

Before Lacey could respond, the phone started ringing. She dug it out of her purse, answered, and heard that same gruff voice.

“Why are you talking to the FBI?”

Lacey let the guy on the phone hang a bit as she focused on Machado. “You’ve been a big help. Thank you.”

Everett threw up his hands when Mrs. Gold rudely walked away to take her phone call. She didn’t want to finish this conversation, then fine. There were several other ways he could approach the situation.

When she was out of earshot, Lacey answered the white-haired man’s question. “I want you to know that if anything happens to me, or if that body is ever found, that FBI agent gets this phone. Which leads them straight to you.”

“You have no idea what you’re doing,” the voice snarled. “Or who you’re messing with!”

“Clearly someone as desperate as I am to keep a secret. Looks like I bought myself some insurance.”

Hanging up made her feel like a badass. Elated to have the major problem solved and a huge weight lifted from her shoulders, she headed out of the park. Next on the list was figuring out once and for all if Andrew was behind all of this.

Chapter Text

Being blindsided was never fun. Eric stormed into his office demanding to know why the firm called his wife about cashing out of the fund. Nicholas gritted his teeth and took the abuse, but he knew exactly who was to blame.

“Eric, my apologies, but Ariel was informed of the initial withdrawal because her name is on the portfolio. Any oversight-”

“You saw her at the party,” he raged. “Don’t you think it would have been awkward to discuss this matter with her?”

“Eric, this is the first I’m hearing about this.”

“You know what Ariel’s like!”

Nicholas battled his temper. He wasn’t used to dealing with people on a customer level. “How am I to know what you do or don’t discuss with your wife?”

“Forget it!”

Eric marched out of the office as Regina walked in. The brunette arched a brow at her partner.

“That didn’t look too pleasant.”

Yeah, she made a mess and left it for him to clean up! Then again, what else did he expect from a viper? “You could have made that withdrawal without Ariel’s signature.”

“Ah,” Regina played dumb as she sat on the edge of Andrew’s desk. “Is that what you wanted me to do? Hide the truth from his wife?”

“Oh, cut the crap, Regina.” Nicholas sat behind his desk wishing like hell he could get rid of this woman. “This isn’t about Ariel and you know it. I told you to leave it alone. Why can’t you listen?”

“I’m trying to protect us!”

“And I don’t need to be lied to. We’re partners, remember? Look, next time tell me your scheme first so I can prepare for the fallout.”

Straightening, Regina left the office without another word. Landing Timothy Triton as a client would make a world of difference in their chances of staying afloat. Andrew knew this, so why tell her to back off? Some Scottish honor code? Well, she worked too hard to get where she was now and she’d be damned if she would let this house of card crumble without a fight!

****

Ariel’s home was a lovely townhouse in a historical part of Brooklyn. Lacey was still shocked by the luxury these people took for granted. Belle’s life and friends were so glamorous that Lacey’s eyes hurt from all the sparkle. Obviously, money wasn’t everything, or Belle would still be here.

“Can’t I change your mind,” Ariel asked when Lacey handed her the ballet tickets. “I know how much you love Swan Lake.”

“I don’t think so. I’m just glad the tickets aren’t going to waste.”

After the fight with Andrew, Lacey knew she couldn’t go to the ballet on his dime. Besides, Belle may have adored the story, but Lacey preferred a good action movie any day.

“Is Eric going with you?”

“No. He’s at a café working on his resume of all things. Supposedly. I’m the last person he wants to see. I’m taking a friend who promised me dinner after.”

Glancing down at the pile of mail on the table, Lacey blinked. Disbelief rushed through her brain and she grew lightheaded for a moment. How did Ariel come to have the same photo of Belle and Andrew that the hitman and Andrew had on his desk?

“Why do you have this,” she blurted. The question came out before she could think twice and Ariel gave her a strange look.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s …on Andrew’s shelf.”

“It was also on about 500 refrigerators on the Upper East Side,” Ariel supplied. “Darling, it was you holiday card.”

Holiday card! Relief washed through Lacey’s system at the news. Andrew wasn’t the only one with the photo which meant it was common, which meant the person who wanted her twin dead could have been on the holiday list, or someone close to one of the hundreds of people who got the picture. Alright, the pool of suspects just blew wide open, but Lacey could give Andrew the benefit of the doubt, and that was a huge revelation.

“I just meant why do you still have it,” Lacey quickly recovered.

“Sentimental, I guess. Are you ok?”

“Yeah. Much better, actually.”

In fact, she was inspired. Lacey wanted to mend bridges with Andrew for Belle’s sake as much as hers. He seemed like such a good man beneath the rough exterior. A layer he adopted because of the fighting. Thanking Ariel, she headed home.

Goodness, Lacey did a hell of a lot of back and forth today, but there was one more stop she wanted to make. Like the tickets, Lacey didn’t want the dress she got this morning to go to waste. In the end, her plan was a gamble, but she felt that she was doing the right thing.

****

Nothing. Raking a hand through his hair, Nicholas couldn’t believe he couldn’t narrow down the window of the disappearance of the missing funds, or track the nanoseconds it took for more to be siphoned off. There had to be a back door in their firewalls, but whoever planted it covered their tracks. They clearly knew how to get in, take what they wanted, and escape without leaving a trace.

Honestly, work wasn’t the only source of his stress. Belle vexed him to no end. He couldn’t tell Andrew about the divorce attorney. His cousin would insist on switching back and wooing Belle. Andrew would think her innocent until proven guilty, but Nicholas preferred unequivocal proof of her innocence. Regina remained number one on his suspect list, but Belle was a close second. Nicholas couldn’t afford to go easy on her.

Or was it already too late? Were his feelings softening to the point of distraction? Every second they spent together drew him closer into her web, and Nicholas couldn’t help but wonder if he was a willing victim. His attraction to her only intensified over time, which both memorized and horrified him.

When a knock came on the door, he automatically called for the person to enter. Nicholas expected his assistant, but his eyes snapped up when a familiar voice said his name. Speak of the devil. What was Belle doing here?

“Why are you here when the curtain call is in ten minutes?”

He couldn’t even look at her and Lacey’s heart sank. She hurt him deeply, but she wanted to make up for it now.

“I’m not going to the ballet.”

Puzzled, Nicholas forced his eyes to focus on her face. “Why?”

“I want to explain to you about the attorney.”

Folding his arms across his chest, he heaved a sigh. Part of Nicholas wanted to tell her to leave, but the other part wanted to hear her out. The blasted softer side won. “Go on.”

“I want to see him a while ago when things between us were…tense.”

He snorted. “That’s putting it lightly.”

“I know, which is why I was weighing my options. And then, things seemed to get better, so I went there today to call it off.”

His heart lifted hearing those words. Nicholas swore it was only for his cousin’s sake, but as long as Belle was sticking around, that meant he would get to see more of her. However, he couldn’t quite let down his guard.

“Why should I believe you?”

“I’ll be honest. I thought some really awful things about you.” Like the fact he could be a killer, but she left that part out. “But it was entirely based on fear. Then I realized that if we are going to move forward, then I’m going to have to stop listening to other people and trust you. Can you forgive me?”

This was the most genuine behavior he ever saw from her. Before Nicholas could answer, Belle removed her wrap to show off the gown she picked out earlier today. His breath hitched in his throat and he hardened instantly. Clawing at his self-control as she approached, Nicholas swallowed hard.

“What you did for me today,” she continued. “It wasn’t that it wasn’t good enough. It was the nicest thing that anyone’s ever done for me.”

Never did any of her past boyfriends get her flowers, let alone a designer gown. Andrew’s gesture did touch her and Lacey wanted him to know it.

Rising to his feet, Nicholas saw the black sequined gown in all its glory and fought to find the right words, but in the end could only speak the truth as best he could. “You look beautiful.”

So much so that she stole his breath. If Belle was willing to come here and meet him halfway then Nicholas could put in the effort. Yes, a few suspicions still rattled around the back of his mind, but for now he wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Lacey glanced out the window when Andrew fell silent. She wanted to say more but couldn’t find the words, so she made an effort to ease the moment.

“The view is really stunning.”

Nicholas chuckled. “You say that like you’ve never seen it before.”

Well, she never did. Her heart ached that she couldn’t tell him the truth, but once she found out why Belle died, she could leave Andrew with some happy memories.

“I’m looking at things with a new appreciation.”

“Ok, then.” Turning to her, Nicholas gently closed her hand over hers.

“Ok, then what,” she managed to ask as electric tingles raced up her arm.

“If I’m asking you to trust me, then I have to trust you. I hope from this point on we can be honest with each other.”

Guilt tore at her throat, but Lacey swore to be honest with Andrew. Just not about her real identity.

“I want…that too.”

Inhaling a sharp breath, Nicholas wasn’t fully prepared for the elation that hit him square in the chest. Yes, he wanted honesty and he would be as honest as possible in return. When he and Andrew switched back, then hopefully Belle would never know the difference.

“What we used to have was pretty wonderful,” he managed. “If there’s a chance of getting that back…”

“I know.” Lacey squeezed his hand. “One step at a time.”

“I can handle that,” he smiled. “Why don’t we head home?”

“I’d like that.”

Wrapping an arm around her waist, Nicholas escorted her to the elevator. With every step, he wished Belle really was his wife. What was coming over him?

****

Paris, France

Laughing as they entered the hotel, Will wrapped an arm around Belle’s shoulders. They bumped into each other at the museum and really hit it off. What Will didn’t know was that Belle followed him there. Working up a repertoire would have him eating out of the palm of her hand in no time.

Will held the keys to European Operations and if she wanted solid proof about what Andrew was up to at the firm, she needed to get Will’s help. Seduction would be the easiest way to get close to him, but Belle refused to go that far. For better or for worse, she still loved Andrew. Maybe they were doomed, but Belle could not switch off her emotions.

“Why don’t you join me for dinner,” Will invited. “We can continue our conversation about the constellations and art.”

“I would li-” Belle’s words cut off when the sudden nausea hit her out of the blue. Blinking rapidly, she tried to recover, but her stomach rolled.

“I’m sorry,” she managed, “But I have to go.”

“What? Why?”

She held up a hand and made a break for the restroom. Will called after her, but Belle couldn’t look back. She barely made it and felt like she hacked up a lung by the time the sickness passed. What in the world brought that on?

Will didn’t wait for her, which wasn’t a good sign. Belle called his room, but no answer was forthcoming. Next, she knocked on is door with the same result. Out of all the men that could have been in Will’s position, Belle got stuck with the narcissist.

Back in her own suite, Belle paced the floors. Her sickness didn’t make sense. Or did it?

Her heart slammed in her chest as she ordered a kit from room service. An eon passed before she had the results and when the stick turned blue, she wanted to laugh and cry all at once. Her first instinct was to call Andrew, but as the phone rang her smile faded.

Rubbing his whiskers, Andrew leaned back in his chair to stretch. Working on tracing those missing funds was a tough task. His old cell rang and the screen said the number was blocked. Who could this be?

“Hello?”

Back in Paris, Belle held her breath. Oh, it felt so good to hear his voice! She had no idea how much she missed it. Missed him.

“Hello?”

A thousand words dangled on the tip of her tongue, but if Andrew knew what she was up to, he would never tell her the truth. For her baby’s sake, she had to stick to the plan.

“Who is this?”

Belle hung up and went to lie on the bed. If she really as pregnant, she would have to find a doctor. Hopefully, she could get what she needed and make a fresh start. The baby wouldn’t complicate her plans as long as she acted quickly.

Chapter Text

One day at a time meant Andrew no longer used the guest room, but slept in the queen sized bed in the master bedroom. Oddly enough, despite never having had a sleepover kind of relationship, the sensation of having Andrew next to her made Lacey feel safe. Unfortunately, her subconscious nagged her to no end.

Did she really have to make amends to Belle’s family by getting close to her husband? Lacey knew it wasn’t her place, but she felt a connection with Andrew that she couldn’t explain. Belle was gone. Eventually, she would have to cut ties, but would it be so wrong to leave Andrew with a few fond memories instead of echoes of the harrowing past?

An afternoon of shopping was just what she needed! Leaving her bags in the living room, she called out to Andrew. He entered the room wearing a knowing expression that made Lacey’s skin crawl, but she maintained a lighthearted tone in hopes of glossing over the strange moment.

“I was thinking we could get Chinese from that place around the corner.”

Andrew’s eyes narrowed. “Belle hates the Chinese place around the corner, Lacey.”

She went very, very still. “What did you just say?”

“Lacey French,” he stated. “That is your name, isn’t it?”

She feigned ignorance. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He grabbed the duffle bag and rattled it under her nose. “Don’t lie! I found your bag at the bus station! They thought it belonged to Belle, but it was full of clothes she would never wear! It didn’t make sense, but then I found this license.” Andrew thrust the piece of plastic in her face. “Belle’s picture, but Lacey French’s name.”

“It’s not what you think!”

“What have you done with Belle?” Voice cracking, Andrew’s eyes showed his devastation.

“I didn’t do anything,” Lacey swore. “We were on the boat and she drowned!”

“You let her drown!” The accusation slapped like a whip.

“I didn’t! I swear! I tried to save her!”

“You lied to us all! Me, Nicholas, Ariel!”

“Andrew, I’m so, so sorry! I never meant to hurt any of you!”

“Don’t apologize to me,” he spat. “Apologize to her!”

When he pointed behind her, Lacey turned and saw a soaking wet, blue-skinned, bloated corpse with Belle’s face walking toward her. No! No!

Waking with a gasp only to find herself alone in bed, Lacey realized what she thought was real was just a dream. A nightmare. Though relieved, her subconscious was trying to warn her about that bag she left in that bus locker. The bag was a loose end she couldn’t afford. How could she get back there to dispose of it?

“Belle?” Andrew emerged from the closet with worry clearly etched over his features.

He must have gotten up early for work. Goodness, she became spoiled not having a job to get her butt moving in the morning. Well, Lacey really couldn’t get one now being a fugitive and Belle certainly didn’t toil.

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah.” Lacey forced a smile. “Just a bad dream.”

With a shake of his head, Nicholas faced the mirror to knot his tie. “You haven’t slept well in weeks. This can’t be good for the baby.”

“You know…” she seized the opening before it passed her by. “Maybe I could get out of the city for a while. Going to the Hamptons will be good for me.”

“By yourself?”

“Just for the weekend.” So she could deal with that duffle bag before anyone could find it. “I could use some time on my own.”

Heaving a heavy sigh, he tightened the knot and faced her. Andrew filled him in on what happened last year and said it was the turning point in their relationship because that’s when things between him and Belle really broke down. If she meant what she said about moving forward, then why go to the Hamptons alone? Out of habit, Nicholas’s suspicions rose.

“You want to be alone on your birthday?”

Oh, wow! She completely forgot! Her shock must have been obvious because Andrew arched a brow. “With everything going on, I lost all track of time.”

“You? Forget your birthday? Look, I know you’ve been upset about what happened last year, but I hoped you would let me make it up to you. I thought we were making a fresh start.”

“No, I want that. I like how things have been lately.”

“Well, if you want to get way to the Hamptons, let’s go.” He smiled with excitement. “Let’s make a birthday celebration on the beach like we used to.”

“I’d like that.” Who wouldn’t? A birthday on the beach? Lacey never celebrated her special day in such a fashion and the idea warmed her heart. Andrew warmed her heart.

“I can finish work early. We can drive out this afternoon.”

“There’s no reason for you to rush. I can take the Jetty.”

Nicholas’s jaw dropped as he momentarily came out of character. Spoiled, selfish Belle taking public transportation? What was she really up to? Remembering the role he was playing, Nicholas laughed off the lapse.

“Funny, Belle. I’ll send the car service for you and make all the arrangements. We’ll do the usual.” His smile remained intact as he put on his coat. “I’ve missed these weekends.”

“Me too.”

The second he walked out of the bedroom, Nicholas’s smile vanished. Were pregnancy hormones responsible for such a reversal? Belle wanted to visit the Hamptons alone? Once he was in the elevator, he called Andrew.

“I’m coming with you,” his cousin insisted.

“Are you sure that’s wise?”

“Belle and the baby need me, even if they don’t know it.”

“Look, if you are distracted-”

“I’m not,” Andrew pressed. “I’ve hit a brick wall. I could use some perspective. Unless there’s a reason you want to keep me away.”

Like the fact Nicholas was becoming more attracted to Belle with each passing second? No, he wouldn’t cross that line. “We traded places so I could investigate Belle with open, unbiased eyes. If you’ve changed your mind, then let me know.”

“Have you gathered evidence against my wife?”

Before suspicions were enough, but now his cousin demanded solid evidence? “Pregnancy or no pregnancy, she’s hiding something. This morning she suggested going to that Hamptons alone.”

There was a long pause on the line. Finally, the real Andrew spoke. “I’m still going with you for her birthday.”

Gritting his teeth when Andrew hung up on him, Nicholas hailed a cab. His besotted cousin needed to be impartial. So did he, come to think of it. Maybe if Belle thought he let down his guard, she wouldn’t expect his vigilance. The element of surprise was always good to have in one’s back pocket. He simply had to remember the Belle he knew from the old days, instead of the warm, affectionate creation that slept beside him last night. Easier said than done.

****

The first thing Lacey did once she was dropped off in the middle of the town square was make a B-line for the bus station. Her bag and coat were right where she left them. Unfortunately, she had no idea a secret camera recorded her every move.

Security immediately emailed the footage to Agent Machado. He couldn’t conceal his elation. The fact Belle knew where to get the bag meant Lacey French had to still be in New York. His ploy worked, so all he had to do now was head to the Hamptons and see what kind of fruit fell if he shook the trees.

****

Empty, quiet, and soaked in the scent of the ocean, the beach house was exactly as Lacey remembered. Walking over that threshold without her sister was tough and her mouth watered for a drink. Undoubtedly, there was a liquor cabinet around here somewhere, but she had to stay sober to keep her cover. Her automatic coping mechanism was calling her sponsor, so she reached for her phone.

Voicemail again? Where was Ruby? She didn’t just vanish without a word.

“Hey, it’s me,” Lacey said at the beep. “Are you mad at me? I know you don’t want me staying here, but I’m ok. I hope you’re alright because I’m starting to worry. Please call me.”

Belle’s magnificent closet was the same, but that would be the first place someone would look for the duffle bag. Lacey found a guest room and inspected the simple closet, but hearing Andrew call her name startled her into dumping the bag and coat in there without thought and then rushing to meet him in the foyer.

“You’re here early.”

“I pawned all my work off on Regina. Who wants to be in the city when you can be on the beach? Oh, and I brought a guest.”

Her eyes followed his gesture and saw Nicholas lingering in the doorway. Oh no. Andrew’s strange, brooding cousin? Nicholas Rush gave Lacey the creeps, but she had to be polite.

“Hello, Nicholas.”

Andrew arched a brow at the greeting. Why did she suddenly insist on suing his first name? Andrew should care about the shift in that detail, but if felt so wonderful to see her again that he didn’t question it further. “Happy Birthday, Belle. How are you feeling?”

The mention of her twin’s name threw Lacey off kilter. Today was Belle’s birthday too and she wasn’t here to celebrate.

“I, ah, need some fresh air,” Lacey mumbled the words as she darted for the door. “Andrew,” she said over her shoulder, “can you come with me?”

Nicholas threw his cousin a helpless look before following Belle out the sliding patio door. The sight of his wife looking so happy and content on the arm of his cousin was something the real Andrew wasn’t prepared to witness. He never predicted reconciliation and as thrilled as his heart was at the possibility of repairing his marriage, the jealousy of seeing Belle attached to another man tore at his insides.

None of this was Belle’s fault, of course. She had no idea that they switched places, but deep down shouldn’t she know the difference? Shouldn’t she automatically feel that something wasn’t right? Andrew hated to think in such jealous terms, but what if Nicholas was romancing his wife a little too well?

His next thought had Andrew’s stomach falling to his knees. If they were repairing their marriage, it would only be a matter of time until they re-consummated the relationship. People in hell would get ice water before Andrew let his cousin touch his wife! Perhaps the time had come for them to switch back.

Then what would happen to the firm? Nicholas had more skill at cracking codes and tracking worms. Having him on the inside gave them a better advantage but could Andrew live with himself if he chose the money over love? Besides, if he let Regina off scot free then who’s to say she wouldn’t pull the same scam again? Yes, Andrew knew perfectly well of his part in the whole mess, but he worked diligently to repair what damage he could. The firm would need a miracle to survive, but he wasn’t quite ready to give up yet.

There had to be another solution. One that didn’t separate him from his wife. Andrew hated seeing Belle look at Nicholas with that big, beautiful smile of her and then notice the devotion in her eyes. Once upon a time, she looked at him what way and now she bestowed that look on another man.

Unable to take the torture of watching the pair sit on the beach, he marched away from the door and went to find his laptop. As long as he was forced to be on the outside looking in, he might as well get some work done. Andrew would find the time for a private word later. Right now, work seemed like the best distraction.

****

Straw hat and sunglasses in place, Lacey perched on a rock while Andrew looked out at the horizon. The wind felt warm against her cheeks, but thankfully the humidity didn’t interfere with the day. She couldn’t wait to get away from Nicholas. He looked at her as if he expected something, but got disgruntled when she couldn’t figure out his subtle messages. No wonder he and belle never got along.

“The water looks calm today. Can’t wait take the boat out.”

Just the mention of the boat made Lacey queasy. Awful memories of the day Belle drowned started to surface, but she pushed them back. “Pass on that.”

Arching a brow at her bitter tone, Nicholas turned to her, but Belle looked beyond him at the ocean. Feeling his eyes on her, she turned and clarified.

“Just the thought of rolling on those waves makes me nauseous.”

Ah, yes. He kept forgetting about the baby.

“Of course.” His phone buzzed and Nicholas automatically checked his messages.

“Work?”

“It’s only one text, Belle.” Remembering what Andrew told him about last year, Nicholas gritted his teeth. His cousin was so upset about Belle and the fight that came afterward. He stayed in the city and Belle fled to the Hamptons. Relations between the couple quickly deteriorated after that night. Obviously, she remembered too, so Nicholas felt like he had to offer reassurances.

“What happened last year won’t happen again. We were in a bad place and I didn’t think you wanted me around, so I left dinner. I’m sorry and I promise it won’t happen again.” Nicholas backed up his words by turning off his phone and placing it in his pocket. “I’m going to make this birthday the best one ever.”

Touched, she smiled. “It’s been a long time since anyone has ever done that for me.”

Andrew’s touch made her heart skip a beat. For the first time in years, Lacey felt safe. Here, with this man, there was no hitman, no gangsters, and no FBI. With Andrew, Lacey felt like there was nothing but hope on the horizon.

Chapter Text

The second the laughing couple returned to the house, Andrew seized the opportunity to talk to his cousin. “Andrew, may I have a word?”

Lacey shouldn’t feel offended by the intrusion, but she couldn’t help it. Nevertheless, she smiled and told Andrew she would get a glass of water. The second she was out of earshot, the real Andrew pulled his cousin into a spare room and locked the door.

“I think we should switch back,” he announced.

“Before we have evidence of who wants to destroy us? That’s crazy!”

“I want to be with my wife! She needs me!”

Nicholas feared this would happen. “Belle wanted to come up here alone.”

Andrew shook his head. “You told me earlier. So? Maybe she wanted some peace and quiet.”

“On her birthday,” Nicholas challenged.

At that point, Andrew didn’t have a counter-argument. “That is strange.”

“Exactly what I thought, so I called her bluff and arranged the party.”

Raking a hand through his hair, Andrew couldn’t believe Belle wanted to spend the one day a year she insisted on constant attention in solitude. The whole rift in their marriage started because he had to work last year. “Maybe she thought she would be spending that day alone anyway?”

“After the surprise you planned,” Nicholas scoffed. “You’re in the middle of repairing things, so why would she assume that? Belle claimed to want to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, but there is more going on here. Mark my words, Andrew. She’s hiding something.”

A little laugh passed his lips. “Why is it so hard for you to believe that Belle realized she was pregnant and wanted to make the marriage work? That she wanted a happy home for the baby?”

“Because she was playing the nice card with me when I returned from London before the doctor called to break the news.”

Andrew still didn’t want to he believe the worst. “She could have suspected about the baby before the actual tests.”

“Fine,” Nicholas shrugged. “If she suspected, why wasn’t there a single pregnancy test around the apartment?”

“Maybe she did one during the two weeks we were prepping for this scheme,” he snapped. “Why can’t you give her the benefit of the doubt?”

Because hating Belle was much easier than admitting he was developing feelings for her. Sensations that dug deeper than anything he ever felt for Gloria and that scared him to death. Hating his cousin’s wife gave Nicholas some much-needed perspective.

“Think about it, Andrew! Before we came up with this idea, Belle confronts you about Pratt Street. Then we make our move and suddenly she’s agreeable? She wants to work on the marriage? Fine. I, like you, gave her the benefit of the t when I heard about the baby, but then she’s sniffing around the home office for paperwork on the Pratt Street building again! Explain that! And when I call her on it, she says she wants to leave the city. Alone. On her birthday. Why? She’s hiding something!”

When the facts were cast under that light, Andrew had a tough time full excusing the past. They did fight like cats and dogs and the change did come out of left field.

“We have a rock solid prenup,” he sighed. “Belle knows as well as you and me that if we get divorced she doesn’t get a penny. A baby changes the whole dynamic.”

Nicholas arched a brow. “I checked with her doctor. The pregnancy is legit.”

“Then why not give her a break?”

“Andrew, listen. Based on what I’ve seen between the two of you and what you told me, you bot were at a breaking point. Sure, a baby changes things, but do you really think Belle capable of doing a complete 180 so fast? After your fight bad then surviving that ‘accident’ where the brakes failed in your car?”

“She’s still my wife,” he hissed. “Innocent until proven guilty.”

“And I respect that, but you have to admit the other side of the coin doesn’t look as polished.”

“Belle needs her husband, especially if she wants reconciliation!”

Nicholas threw up his hand. “I’m stressing one day at a time and taking things slow. If I sense Belle wanting a more intimate level, then we can revisit this, but right now, we need to get evidence against whoever is setting us up. We agreed that you investigate Regina and I trace the codes at the firm while looking into Belle."

“You don’t have anything solid against her, do you?”

“No,” Nicholas stated. “Look, I know you think I want her to be guilty, but I don’t. For your sake, I don’t.”

“No kissing on the mouth,” he growled as he pointed a finger.

“Only chaste kisses on the cheek.” He gave the Boy Scout salute. “Swear.”

Andrew still didn’t feel an ounce of reassurance. Eventually, Belle would wonder why her “husband” resisted intimacy. All the more reason or them to work faster at finding out who wanted them bankrupt.

“A few more weeks,” he conceded. “Then I want to be there for my child.”

Not seeing any point in arguing, Nicholas nodded. He would be watching Belle very, very closely this weekend. The cousins left the room and met Belle in the kitchen. She sat at the island, her gaze fixed on the window with her glass in her hand as if she was staring out into space. When she noticed them approach, she smiled and Nicholas felt an answering jolt in his chest.

“Everything ok?”

Matching her reaction, Nicholas forced a smile. “Of course. Just consulting on a birthday surprise.”

Lacey glanced quickly at Nicholas, then back to Andrew. “I really don’t need anything else! You’ve already done enough.”

“Nonsense!” Nicholas-as-Andrew put on a supportive smile. “We are going all out.”

Andrew wanted to add in a supportive word or two, but before he could utter a single syllable, a crash sounded in the living room. The three exchanged confused glances before heading down the hall to investigate. Ariel and Eric whirled around to face their hosts, both looking embarrassed to have been caught in the middle of a fight.

Nicholas glanced at his cousin before stepping forward. “What is going on?”

The couple exchanged looks as if daring the other to explain. Finally, Ariel spoke up. “Andrew said we were doing the old Belle birthday bash.”

“I didn’t know you were coming.” Lacey was happy to see her friend.

“I assumed you were expecting us.”

“We were,” Nicholas cut in again. “I just didn’t think you would let yourselves in.”

“We can leave,” Eric announced, then threw his wife a poignant look.

The redhead was having none of it. “I was really looking forward to a weekend away from work and the kids.”

“We would love to have you,” Lacey offered. “I’m sure it’ll be fun.”

Eric shifted on his feet and looked constipated at the idea of a weekend in the Hamptons, but Ariel beamed. Lacey hated seeing the strain between the couple but hoped a time-out from their normal routine would open some windows of communication. Maybe she could help just give them a push. She liked Ariel and wanted her friend to be happy. Plus, a distraction from her birthday would be most welcome.

****

Warm sun, cool breeze, and calm waters. Seems like this weekend would be perfect weather for the mingling one percent. Everett drove straight through town to the local station to get an update on what was happening at The Gold’s abode. Thus far, Andrew’s cousin Dr. Nicholas Rush and The Butlers were in attendance. Some kind of party? Then he noticed the date.

Oh, yes, Lacey’s birthday. That meant it was her sister’s too. Ironic that he kept telling Lacey that by the time she had her next birthday she would have a whole new identity and life and her testimony would be over. Looks like he was half right. If Belle knew here her sister was, then Everett refused to rest until he had a location.

Killian Jones walked free and clear and with each second he put more lives at risk. Tamara Briggs was dead because of him and Everett failed to save her. The guilt would haunt him the rest of his life. However, the sensation also fueled his determination to nail Jones to the wall and see him behind bars for the rest of his miserable days.

Meeting with the locals, he gave then a brief run-down of what he needed and what he was after. “Lacey French ran from police in Colorado on September sixth,” he began. “The night before she was supposed to testify. Thanks to the bag you guys recovered at the bus station, we knew Lacey was here in the Hamptons on, or before, September ninth. Then she disappeared. Belle sent Lacey letters long before Lacey was even on the run. Now, Belle Gold can talk her way out of anything, so confronting her about the bag will more than likely get me nowhere. What I need from you guys is solid evidence that the twins have been in contact after her escape from custody. If I have that, then I can get search warrants and phone taps. Hell, I can charge Belle with obstruction of justice.”

The chief nodded and picked up a folder. “Those eyes you asked me to put n Mrs. Gold-”

He handed Machado the contents. “We saw several cars arriving at the Gold residence one we identified as Ariel and Eric Butler.”

Everett grinned from ear-to-ear. “Ariel is vulnerable. She thinks her husband is cheating on her. Maybe I can twist that to my advantage.”

The chief frowned. “How?’

“Pressure Ariel for answers about Lacey and plant seeds of doubt. She’ll run to Belle with her suspicions and possibly create a wedge I can use.”

“We have your back, Machado. Whatever you need.”

“Thanks.”

First order of business was finding Ariel Butler and getting started.

****

The tension between Ariel and Eric grew so thick that Lacey asked her friend out for a late lunch. Ariel seemed just as relieved as Lacey to put distance between herself and her husband. They found a little outdoor café in town and sat at an umbrella table to chat. Lacey waited until their beverages arrived before bringing up what happened at the beach house.

“What’s going on with you two,” she gently asked.

Ariel shook her head. “I’m not sure. When Andrew called I was so excited. Then Aric and I fought all the way up here. By the time we arrive, I was so appreciated and I lost it. I’m trying to believe it when he tells me he isn’t cheating, but every bone in my body tells me he’s hiding something. I thought coming out here and getting away would be good for us. We used to love coming out here and sailing. Now we can’t even survive two-hour car ride.”

Sympathy poured out of Lacey. More than anything she wanted Ariel to find happiness again. This woman was nothing but nice to her since she arrived in York. Sure, Ariel thought she was really Belle, but they got along really well and Lacey honestly though she and Ariel could have been friends if she knew her identity from the start.

“If you love Eric, then fight for him,” she stressed.

Ariel smiled, but clearly, she had no idea how to go about doing what Belle suggested. Things between them were just too tense.

“You would tell me if there was anything I could do, right?”

“Yes,” Ariel said. “God, but I’m even sick of hearing me talk about this. I’m going across the street to that adorable shop to find clothes for the twins.”

Her two twin boys were a handful, but she adored them to bits.

“I’ll finish up here and meet you back at the house.”

Ariel put her hand over her friend’s. “You’ve been great, belle. I want you to know how much it means to me that I can talk to you about this stuff. You’ve been like a sister.”

The mention of the word “sister” had Lacey stiffening, but Ariel didn’t notice. Watching the redhead cross the start, Lacey fought back tears. Ariel did feel like a sister and it killed her that she couldn’t share the day with Belle. Why did she have to fall asleep? Why wasn’t she there when her twin cried for help? Did Belle sink quietly under the waves? Or did she die thinking Lacey didn’t want to save her? Considering the empty prescription bottle that held her sister’s wedding ring, Lacey assumed Belle swallowed the contents and fell overboard when she went drowsy.

Memories assaulted her and there was no holding them back. Before she could stop them, she was lost in a sea of the past. Twenty-two years ago, the sisters shared a very special birthday and Lacey recalled every last detail.

Chapter Text

Unable to move a muscle, Lacey stared into her latte as the past unfurled.

“Belle,” twelve-year-old Lacey called as she ran up to the store window. “Isn’t t beautiful?”

The knick-knack shop in town sold jewelry, as well as some glittering necklaces. Currently on display were some of the most elegant pieces Lacey ever saw. They shimmered on those neck-shaped manikins, the round price tag stickers on the top corners.

“One day, I’m going to have one of those,” Belle pointed to a glittering gold choker. The price was much more than they could afford.

The sisters had the day off from school, so their mom gave them some extra money and said they could buy something special. The amount wasn’t much since the flower shop wasn’t doing well these days, but the girls went out in hopes of finding a bargain.

“We should buy something with our money,” Lacey said.

Belle sneered. “We only have twenty bucks.”

Turning to look at the other window, Lacey spotted a pale blue sapphire pendant in the shape of a heart surrounded by tiny diamonds. Sure, it was fake but it looked so pretty.

“What about this? They’re pretty and cheap.”

Reading the price at $14.95, Belle sighed. “Not cheap enough.”

“But it’s our birthday,” Lacey said sadly. She loved fashion and accessories. Belle didn’t really have time for such things, but Lacey really wanted this.

“It’s unfair that we don’t have a big party with tons of presents. I hate being poor. When I get older, I’m going to have everything I want. I’ll read every book in the library and get scholarships to wherever I want.”

Since she hated school, Lacey kept staring at the necklace, listening with half and ear. “I just really want that.” She looked to her twin. “We can always buy one and share.”

Belle shook her head. “How will we know whose turn it is?”

“Make it simple. It will be your turn for a year, then mine. And the year after that it will be yours again.”

“Like forever?” Belle smiled. “That’s kinda cool.”

They bought the necklace and kept up the tradition every year until their fallout. Suddenly, Lacey had the urge to feel the necklace in her palm and never let it go. Paying the bill, she hurried back to the house.

****

“Ariel Butler?”

Whirling, the redhead frowned at the stranger in the suit. “Can I help you?”

“I hope so.” Everett held up his badge and let her have a good long look. “I have a few questions.”

“About what?” What could the FBI possibly want with her?

He took a photo of Lacey out of his breast pocket and held it up so Ariel could see the mug shot. Her face automatically scrunched in confusion.

“You want to ask me about Belle?” Odd because this photo hardly looked like her friend. Did he Photoshop it or something?

“No, this is about Lacey French. Belle Gold’s twin sister.”

The shock on her face couldn’t be faked. Given they were estranged, the circumstances made sense. Nevertheless, Everett pushed for answers.

“Ms. French is a federal witness turned fugitive. We have good reason to believe that Belle is harboring her sister in her unfurnished loft or somewhere else in the city.”

Ariel blinked. “That’s impossible.”

“Why do you say that, Mrs. Butler?”

“Because I’ve worked all sorts of odd hours at that loft and I can assure you that no one is squatting there.” Handling back the photo, she crossed her arms over her chest.

What is it with these elites? “And can you account for the three days the loft was empty while you hired a new contractor?”

“There was a rather large party there the one night,” she argued.

“Oh, I know. I was there.”

Ariel’s eyes narrowed. “Really?”

“Really.” Everett didn’t miss a beat. “I also know your friend withdrew a large amount of cash and missed several appointments that day. She’s hiding something.”

“Why? Because the place was empty for a few days? Look, if someone else was there then I would have noticed when I got back.”

“Are you sure? A second ago you didn’t even know your best friend had a twin. Is it possible you wouldn’t have known what to look for?”

“Maybe,” she admitted. “But I think you’re wrong about Belle hiding this Lacey character.”

“Mrs. Butler, Lacey is armed and considered dangerous and we need to find her before she gets into more trouble.”

“And I appreciate that, Agent…”

“Machado,” he supplied.

“Agent Machado. I can’t help you. Until you told me, I had no idea Lacey French even existed.”

“But now that you know, you can keep your eyes and ears open. Ask Belle about her twin. Maybe she’ll confide in you.” Everett handed her his card. “And call me when she does.”

“Or what?”

“I’ll arrest you for obstruction.”

What. A. Jerk. The FBI ass threw her a superior smirk before heading away and Ariel turned the business card over in her hand. What the hell was going on? A twin? Why wouldn’t Belle have said anything?

Confused and hurt, Ariel wandered back to the beach house in a daze. The sun felt too bright and intense, so she sat in the living room. What if she did learn something about Lacey? Should she tell the cops? Time passed but Ariel wasn’t aware of the minutes ticking by until she heard footsteps entering the room.

Why was Ariel sitting alone in the dark? Lacey’s first thought was that she and Eric had another fight. The man barely said two words to her since his arrival, which had her wondering if Belle pissed him off like she did Nicholas. Then again, Andrew’s cousin just rubbed her the wrong way.

“The guys went golfing,” Lacey said cheerfully. “We can spend our time catching up on six months of trash magazines if you want.”

Ariel appreciated the gesture, but she wouldn’t shake the shock from her encounter with Agent Machado. “Why didn’t you ever tell me about Lacey?”

Lacey’s smile vanished as the blood drained from her face. “What?”

“An FBI agent approached me today. He told me how she’s on the run from the police.”

“You spoke to Agent Machado?”

When Ariel nodded, Lacey’s heart fell to her feet. Did Machado suspect she switched with Belle? The odds of finding Belle’s body were astronomical, but not impossible. Did Lacey come this far just to get caught?

“What did you tell him?”

Why did Belle look so frantic? Ariel thought she should be the one demanding answers. Her best friend lied to her for five years! Belle was no better than Eric!

“I told him nothing because I didn’t know anything!” The redhead approached her friend with accusation in her eyes. “I’ve known you for five years, Belle! I had no idea you had a sister, let alone a twin! How do you keep that hidden?”

Relief washed through her system despite Ariel’s anger. She had every right to be upset, but Lacey was glad she didn’t have ammunition that would help Machado. Still, Ariel deserved an explanation, so Lacey stuck as close to the truth as she dared. Sitting on the couch, she sighed before meeting Ariel’s gaze.

“We’re not a part of each other’s lives,” she began. “My sister did something....unforgivable.”

To this day, Lacey couldn’t forgive herself for that night. Belle couldn’t either.

“What did she do,” Ariel prompted.

Pain sliced through Lacey’s heart, but she swallowed hard and found the words. “She ruined her life. Infected mine with her poison. One bad choice after another and she never acted like her actions had serious consequences until it was too late. Finally, I didn’t recognize her anymore.”

Every syllable was true. Lacey made so many mistakes that she could never take back. The snowball effect cost her dearly and sent her into a downward spiral that led her here. As hard as she tried getting sober and making up for her mistakes, Lacey couldn’t escape that past. She couldn’t help her sister when it counted the most, and Lacey would give anything to turn back time and fix everything.

“I’m…ashamed of what she did.”

Sympathizing, Ariel studied her friend carefully. “Do you have any idea where she might be?”

Tears stung her eyes but Lacey blinked rapidly. She knew exactly where Belle was and it felt like a part of her was dead with her sister at the bottom of the ocean. Finally, Lacey looked at Ariel and shook her head.

“No,” she managed past the lump in her throat. “I should have saved her. I thought I had her back, but then she was gone. Broke my heart all over again.”

“Sweetie, I’m so sorry.”

Lacey appreciated the support, but her friend knowing about the twin thing could be problematic. “I-I haven’t told Andrew,” she confessed.

“Why, Belle?”

“I met Andrew after the fallout and never had a reason to bring it up. I know I should tell him, but I’m not ready.”

Understandable. Besides, Ariel didn’t think this matter was any of her business. “Well, he won’t hear it from me.”

“Thank you,” Lacey whispered. “I’m grateful.”

“Gosh, Belle! All these years I never would have guessed. You’re always so excited about your birthday. It must have eaten you up no tot be able to share it with your sister.”

Was it difficult for Belle? Every year, Lacey always blew out an extra candle and wished her twin well. Then she wallowed in self-pity and usually whipped out a bottle of wine and whatever else she had on hand to help her drown out her emotions.

“It was our special day.” Lacey always hoped Belle would come around and even sent her the necklace each year hoping that her twin wouldn’t send it right back. With these memories returning to the forefront full force, Lacey struggled to maintain her composure. Only a few weeks passed since the indecent, so Lacey stepped into her twin’s shoes knowing there would be an uphill battle on her hands. Never in a million years could she have predicted what happened but…

Silver Springs, Colorado – six years ago.

Heart pounding in her ears, Lacey knocked on the door. Belle answered, but her ice-cold expression conveyed her fury.

“I thought I was clear,” Belle stated. “I don’t want to see you.”

Yeah, Belle made it clear, but Lacey refused to accept that final word. In fact, she took extra care today to look put-together and not resemble a ragamuffin for this meeting. Lacey even brushed her teeth and made sure she didn’t touch a drop of alcohol that morning. “It’s our birthday,” she said softly.

A thousand words of apology danced through her head, but Lacey said them all before to no avail. She was hurting, too, but didn’t think she had the right. Instead of putting words to her churning emotions, she held up a single cupcake she picked up ten minutes ago from the local bakery. Two candles stuck out from the cheesecake frosting.

“Red velvet. Your favorite.”

Belle blinked but stepped aside to let Lacey inside. A few steps in, her twin noticed all the boxes and Belle’s precious leather-bound first editions packed away. In fact, all the art was off the walls and the kitchen seemed to be put into boxes as well. Belle couldn’t be moving! Could she?

“Where…where are you going?”

“To New York,’ Belle said matter-of-factly. “I’ve met someone.”

Andrew brought the color back into her world. Belle never thought she could ever feel happiness again, but Andrew changed everything when she least expected it. Neither of them counted on falling in love, but when they realized what was happening, they didn’t waste any time. Belle got her life back, but when it came to Lacey, she couldn’t chase away the resentment.

“Belle, you can’t run away.”

Fury snapped in her blue eyes. “Don’t you dare lecture me! Andrew and I are in love and I can start over.”

Snatching the heart necklace out of her open jewelry case, Belle threw it on the ground at Lacey’s feet. “I never want it back.”

Confusion and hurt swirled in her chest. Lacey fought tears as she bent to retrieve the precious piece they exchanged back and forth every year since they were kids. When she lifted her eyes to her twin, she instantly caught Belle’s sincerity and determination. Belle meant every word. She didn’t want the necklace back because she never wanted to set eyes on Lacey ever again. Betrayal and hurt that went beyond any definition clutched her tight. Before she could totally breakdown, Lacey turned on her heel and marched out of the apartment...

“Belle? Belle,” Ariel called. “Are you alright?”

“Yeah.” Blinking to attention and forcing a smile helped reassure her friend. Lacey swallowed the memory and forced her concentration to center on the present. What was done, was done. Nevertheless, the knowledge that six years ago was the last time they ever shared a birthday would haunt her forever.

Chapter Text

She wished she killed Lacey with her bare hands! Belle couldn’t access any money. Her plan was going to hell in a hand basket, and to add the cherry on top, Will brushed off her apology. Yes, he asked after her health when she said she was sick, but then he said he would see her around and didn’t spare her another glance. Belle needed a plan to get back on his good side and fast!

Sitting in the bar, she nearly ordered a coffee, but then remembered the positive pregnancy test. Could she have tea? The decaffeinated stuff wasn’t worth drinking in her opinion so that left water. Her phone finally rang and Belle smiled at the caller ID.

“Hello.”

Her partner in New York asked what she needed.

“I hit a snag.”

They bounced ideas back and forth but her hired henchman couldn’t offer many useful suggestions. In the end, Belle would play the sympathy card and if that didn’t work, then she’d find another approach. One thing was for certain: she refused to leave Paris empty-handed.

By the time she ended the call, Belle wondered about Andrew. Did he figure out Lacey wasn’t her? Could he pick up on the subtle differences if he didn’t know about her twin? Belle loved her husband, but money, power, and position soon jammed a wedge in their marriage neither of them could pry out. Belle remembered stumbling across the Pratt Street property and confronting Andrew. Another huge fight resulted and he made clear if she did anything about her suspicions he would get her out of the way. A few days later Belle noticed that she was being followed. She hired a P.I. but the guy watching her appeared to be of the professional variety. Andrew wasn’t bluffing so she needed an exit strategy.

Coming up with the plan to escape was easy. So was setting events into motion but maintaining momentum seemed to require more resources than she had at her disposal. Well, Belle would have to think on her feet, that’s all. Failure wasn’t an option. Especially now, with a baby in the mix.

Would Andrew have been happy with the news? He always wanted kids. Goodness knows he dodged a bullet with that monster of a first wife. Milah had a miscarriage and they fell apart as a couple soon after. Of course, Milah’s drinking and affairs didn’t help.

Belle always thought there would be time for children, but then they never stopped fighting. The truth about his business came to light, which proved to be a game changer. As much as Belle still loved Andrew, love no longer held sway. Belle would follow through with her plans and then raise this baby alone if she had to. Lacey turned out to be a wildcard, but that situation was being monitored. All she could do now was cross her fingers and hope her twin didn’t cause any unnecessary problems. For now, Belle’s full focus had to be on getting back in Will’s good graces. Men let down their guard so easily and once she got her hand on the proof she needed to tear down Andrew’s firm, Belle could then take the funds she needed and start a new life. Guilt crept up on her occasionally, but with the baby to consider, Belle refused to be weak. Not now.

****

The house was quiet. All the guests were sleeping. Andrew didn’t stir when Lacey slipped out from under the covers. In fact, he gave her plenty of space on the king-sized bed. They agreed to work on the marriage, but he kept his words about going slow. Lacey knew it couldn’t last forever, but it would buy her time.

Tip-toeing downstairs, she retrieved the duffle bag and intended to head for the beach, but a light flickered on in the living room. Muffling a cry, she put the bag behind the couch and walked around the corner to see Nicholas sitting on the cushioned chair.

“Wakeful?”

“What on earth are you doing?” Lacey kept her voice low as not to wake anyone upstairs.

“I could ask you the same,” he challenged.

“I need some air. Probably hormones.”

“Morning sickness at 1 am?”

Wow, he really was an ass! “Nausea can happen at any hour, Rush.”

“Ok,” he chuckled. “Back to last name basis? I suppose the truce was too good to be true.”

“What do you want?”

To see what she was up to. Andrew didn’t want to believe Belle had an ace up her sleeve, but here she stood. Alert and full of color, she hardly appeared nauseous. Something else was going on with her, but what?

“I couldn’t sleep.” That was true, at least. “So I figured I would get some work done. I could use a break.” He closed his laptop and rose. “I could walk with ye if ye like. You shouldn’t be out at this hour alone.”

“It’s a private beach. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

His eyes narrowed. “The water’s freezing. Why don’t I get Andrew?”

“There’s not need to wake him and I’m not going for a swim.”

“Alrigh’, but-”

“You know what, I’ve changed my mind. I’ll stay in. You should rest.”

She really wanted to be rid of him, huh? Why? The best way to figure that out would be to play along. “Great. Then I’ll head up, too. I’ve done all I can tonight anyway.”

Lacey nodded. “After you.”

He flashed a grin and headed upstairs. Lacey left the bag by the couch in hopes no one would stumble upon it for the next few minutes. She watched Nicholas close his door, then she snuck into the master bedroom. Andrew snored away, so she waited a solid fifteen minutes then tiptoed back downstairs. This time, Nicholas was no where in sight.

Bag in hand, she headed down to the fire circle and started a blaze. Lacey didn’t notice the figure that followed her. The real Andrew kept to the shadows and wondered why Belle felt the need to sneak out of the house just to start a fire. Watching her toss the duffle bag had him inhaling a deep breath. Wat was in there she was so desperate to hide?

Her old life went up in flames. Fitting. Lacey no longer wanted to be the girl that couldn’t stay sober. She didn’t want to keep making mistakes. Instead, she wanted to find out why her sister died and who was responsible for the attempted hit at the loft. Because lately Lacey figured Belle was pushed into taking such drastic actions. Yes, walking in her twin’s shoes kept her safe from Jones, but eventually she would have to move on, and Lacey swore she would once all the loose ends here were tied.

Lacey’s gaze fell to her old driver’s license. The only evidence left that Lacey French ever existed. Tossing the ID into the fire proved therapeutic. The only items she kept were the letters from her sister. They were all she had left of Belle. Only when the bag and clothes burned to dust did she return to the house. Never once did she suspect anyone saw her movements.

Once Belle was back inside, Andrew raced across the beach and put out the fire. Unfortunately, she was smart enough not to leave a trace. A few shards of recognizable fabric rested in the ashes but thing else of use. What was Belle hiding? Was he wrong to trust her?

The real Andrew hated to indulge his cousin’s skepticism, especially when they had a baby on the way, but he could no longer deny Belle’s motives weren’t pure. His wife wanted to come here alone to destroy whatever it was she threw into the fire. He didn’t catch too many details since he was forced to hide so far away, but he saw enough. So what came next?

****

Happy Birthday, Belle.

Those were the first words that popped into Lacey’s head when she woke up. The bed was empty which meant Andrew already started his day. She didn’t want to get up or face the reality that this would be the first birthday since Belle’s death. Rolling over, Lacey cried into her pillow.

Spending her tears felt like a healthy purge. Afterward, Lacey took a hot shower and started to feel normal. Then a familiar craving circulated through her system. Worry gnawed at her bones while she dressed, however. Ruby wouldn’t just vanish without a word. Then again, exams were coming up for the students, so maybe she got swamped?

Andrew made breakfast. His stuffed French toast was the best she ever tasted. Hearing her moan in delight, Andrew chuckled.

“You act like you’ve never tasted it before.”

“It’s been a while.”

His smile remained in place, but Nicholas’s eyes twinkled. Andrew never made stuffed French toast. He always did and Belle would always say she couldn’t have the extra carbs. Something was definitely off here.

The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end and Lacey knew she made a blunder. “Since I’ve indulged in something like this,” she clarified. “I’m getting all sorts of cravings.”

Hmm…should he believe her?

“I have a whole day planned,” he continued. “Shopping in town, a walk on the beach, and a gourmet meal tonight with our guests.”

Touched, Lacey squeezed his hand. “You didn’t have to go to so much trouble.”

“Belle, it was no trouble. It’s your birthday.”

Her answering smile of thanks and a jolt of awareness through his system. Unable to resist the impulse, Nicholas leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her forehead. A second later, he saw his cousin enter the kitchen. He drew back but acted casual under the intensity of Andrew’s scrutiny.

“Morning,” Nicholas greeted.

The real Andrew rubbed his whiskers and nodded. “Good morning.”

Andrew desperately wanted to shave, but while this charade played out his hands were tied. The aroma of cooked meat and sweet syrup filled his nostrils and he approached the stove. Nicholas made his signature French toast and some rested on Belle plate? He arched a brow as his eyes snapped to his wife.

“You’re eating that?”

Lacey stiffened at his sharp tone. “Why not?”

“You’ve never touched them before.”

Why did Nicholas keep such close tabs on Belle’s diet? “I’ve had a few pregnancy cravings,” Lacey said defensively.

Instantly, Andrew’s face softened. Yes, of course, that did make sense. However, what he witnessed on the beach last night didn’t. Getting his cousin’s attention, Andrew requested a private word.

“I’ll be right back.” Nicholas-as-Andrew gave Belle a warm smile. “Finish your breakfast.”

Lacey giggled. “You don’t have to tell me twice.”

The second the pair exited the room, Lacey wondered if she should follow and eavesdrop. Obviously, her faux pas with breakfast stood out like a sore thumb. Better to ply Andrew for answers during this shopping excursion when they were alone. Nevertheless, she had a feeling she would have to be more careful about the little things.

Andrew headed to the den and closed the door. Before his cousin could ask, he got right to the point.

“Belle snuck out of the house last night to burn something on the beach.”

Nicholas’s eyes widened slightly, but then he regained his calm. Placing his hands in his pockets, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to be right in his suspensions. “What did she burn?”

“I couldna get close enough to tell.” Raking a hand through his hair, Andrew sighed. “I really hoped you were wrong, but she's hiding something.”

“Any clue in the remains?”

“Just small strips of burned fabric. I can’t even tell what it came from. Could be clothing or something entirely different.”

“Should we confront her?”

“No.” Andrew didn’t want to tip his hand. “Let’s keep a close eye and see how this plays out.”

“We cleared out the Pratt Street building,” Nicholas stressed. “Belle doesn’t know about the new location.”

“Yet, if she’s sniffing around, it could be only a matter of time.”

Silence stretched between the two men. Nicholas didn’t want his cousin to dwell in a sea of doubt, but Belle gave them reason.

“Has Belle been acting odd to you?”

Andrew blinked. “How do you mean?”

Nicholas explained the French toast. “It seems odd that she wouldn’t have rejected the meal.”

“Maybe because it came from ‘Andrew’,” he stressed. “And not you.”

“Maybe, but there are several little…quarks that don’t add up.”

“Could be the pregnancy or the fact she is hiding something from us. Belle was never a good liar.”

Unbeknownst to the cousins, Ariel came down the hall and caught the tail end of their conversation. Andrew and Nicholas didn’t have the twin information but she did and the gears in her head started turning. Come to think of it, Belle did act sort of funny that one say at the loft and appeared confused about the simplest stuff.

What if there really was something fishy going on? What if it had something to do with Lacey? There had to be a way to find out.

Chapter Text

Ok, showtime. Will lingered by the concierge which meant he would undoubtedly witness the inevitable exchange. Belle had to get back in his good graces and he seemed the white knight type. Head held high, she started across the lobby. Sure enough, Will glanced her way. As if on cue, the concierge came around his desk and spoke in a gruff French accent.

“Mademoiselle Farrell, excuse moi but I need to speak with you.”

Belle paused and threw Will a nervous look before focusing on the man in uniform.

“Can you come to my office, ce vu ple?”

“Now isn’t a good time.”

“Neither of us wants a scene, but if you would like to extend your stay, then we must discuss payment. Now.”

Will swooped in and gave the pair a big smile. “There you are,” he said to Belle. “If we leave now we’ll just make the meeting.”

The pair exchanged glances before Will continued. “Am I interrupting?”

“Not at all, Mr. Barrett. I was unaware you knew Ms. Farrell.”

“We work together and are about to be late for the boss. You know how he is.”

The concierge nodded. “Please give him my regards. Ms. Farrell, please see me at your earliest convenience.”

“Thank you,” Belle mouthed to Will.

In reaction, he smiled and escorted her out of the hotel. “Don’t mention it. Why don’t I treat you to a cup of coffee?”

She beamed. “I’d like that.”

They found an adorable spot on a corner with rows of open tables al fresco. Will polity waited until they were served before asking questions. Belle anticipated this moment and knew sticking close to the truth would be the most convincing method. Will had to want to help her and not have a reason to doubt her motives. Luckily, she worked out the perfect tale of woe. Shame that it closely mirrored her life.

“What’s going on with you?”

Belle sighed. “Having a lousy week, I guess. I’ve always dreamed of coming to Paris. I took lessons for years. This is my first trip. My husband always promised to take me, but when I left him, I decided to come alone.”

Will blinked at the mention of a husband but remained sympathetic. “Does he know you’re here?”

She shook her head. “I guess you could say I ran away. I had a plan and savings, but all that money I had to live on was drained from my account. I can’t afford my hotel and I can’t ask anyone back home for help because then he would know I was here. Everything is falling apparat,” Belle lamely finished.

Stuck on every word, the empathy oozed off of Will in waves. “Do you think your husband took your money?”

“I don’t know.” Belle wiped at her damp eyelashes. “I don’t want to think about it because…well, I found out when I got here that …I’m pregnant. My husband doesn’t know and I don’t want him to because he’ll take the baby from me if I go through with a divorce. I’m so confused, but what I do know is that I’m not ready to go home.”

“Cora,” he breathed. “I’m so sorry. That must be awful.”

“And the most pathetic part?”

“What?”

“Today is my birthday.”

A huge grin broke out on Will’s face. “Wait. Let me get this straight. So, you always wanted to come to Paris and you’re finally here on your birthday. Miserable?”

“Pretty much.” Belle laughed. “Pathetic, huh?”

“It is not acceptable. Come on. We’re going to celebrate.”

“Where?”

“I’m going to show you the city and take your mind off your woes.”

“I’d really like that.”

Round one to her. Finally back on track, Belle couldn’t keep the smile off her face. Things were looking up. Added bonus? She didn’t have to spend her birthday alone. Sure, Will wouldn’t have been her first choice, but he was a gentleman and kept her from thinking of Andrew.

****

Hamptons, New York

Machado read the report about the citation from the marina. The Golds were cited on September ninth for putting their boat in the wrong slip.

“What does this have to do with Lacey French,” Everett asked.

“The timing fits,” the local said. “We know Lacey was here that day. I followed up by interviewing everyone at the marina. No one remembers seeing Belle Gold or Lacey French, but I checked some local security cameras and I came across some interesting footage. I sent you an email.”

Everett immediately snatched his phone of his belt and watched the video. Grainy and blurred, the video may not hold up in court since the ID wasn’t a hundred percent but knew the woman in the footage were the twins. Armed with the video, he doubted Belle Godly could talk her way out of this one. In fact, he felt like going for a little drive.

****

Cool night air blew in from the waves as the private chef set up on the patio. Lacey still couldn’t believe Andrew went to so much trouble. Eric, Ariel, Nicholas, and Andrew met her in the living room for appetizers before they headed out to the back for an al-fresco dinner.

All smiles, Andrew handed out champagne flutes but winked at his wife when she hesitated. Lace took the flute and inched closer when he called for a toast.

“To Belle, my beautiful wife. Happy Birthday.”

Everyone clicked glasses and sipped. Eric coughed with disbelief at the taste. “Sparkling cider? Seriously?”

“Well, if Belle can’t drink, it doesn’t seem fair for us to indulge on her day.”

Eric rolled his eyes at his wife and murmured under his breath. “Since when was life ever fair?”

“I can’t believe all these presents,” Lacey said to cover the awkwardness. “It’s all too much.”

Ariel laughed. “You can never get enough presents.”

“I don’t deserve all of this.”

“We’re just getting started,” Andrew announced. “You are alright with the chef, aren’t you? Because the last time we were at his restaurant you said the steak was overcooked.”

“Oh!” Lacey plucked up an appetizer and popped it in her mouth. “It’s delicious.”

Ariel’s jaw dropped and Andrew’s eyes narrowed. Oh no. did she make another mistake?

“What,” she asked innocently.

“Did you just eat meat?” Ariel looked positively scandalized.

“Yes?”

“Belle, you haven’t touched meat in three years!”

“Must be the cravings again. I guess today was a good a day as any to indulge.”

Chuckling, Andrew leaned in to kiss her cheek. Their eyes locked as he lifted a hand as if to touch her hair, but at the last second, he held back.

“Happy Birthday.”

From the opposite corner, the real Andrew glared daggers at his cousin while he sipped the cider. Was I his imagination or was Nicholas playing up the role of doting husband a bit too much? They agreed to hunt down what Belle was hiding, but his jealousy would have him marching between them and asserting his rights.

That moment with Andrew had Lacey’s heart skipping a beat. How could she have such sparks with her sister’s husband? What was she doing here? And why did Belle have to die?

“Belle, sweetheart,” Andrew asked. “Are you alright?”

His concern made this fell all the more wrong, so Lacey politely excused herself to get some fresh air. What she really needed was space before she burst into tears. So preoccupied with her own emotions, she didn’t notice Nicholas follow her. Lacey remembered the necklace and headed to her room and opened the knick-knack box where she hid Belle’s letters.

Last year, Lacey sent the necklace to Belle hoping for a reconciliation. Her twin couldn’t still be mad after five years, right? With her last letter, Belle returned the necklace, asking Lacey to wear it when she came to visit. She hesitated because she wanted to see how she was received first, but now she clasped the pendant around her neck. Somehow, with it on, Lacey felt closer to Belle.

Ready to face the others, she turned and nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw Nicholas lurking in the doorway. Before she could demand to know what he wanted, he offered her a smile.

“You’re wearing it.”

“I told you about his?”

“You don’t remember? I was there when you got it in the mail last year.”

“It’s just hard…thinking about her.”

“You wouldn’t tell me her name and you didn’t wear the necklace, but you wouldn’t stop staring at it.”

And Andrew remembered feeling despondent over the fact Belle wouldn’t open up to him back then. However, he hated the sight of the fresh tears on her cheek. Despite current events, this woman was still his wife, carrying his child. He wanted to gather her up in his arms and kiss away her sadness. The urge to confess the truth and ask for forgiveness rose so quickly, but Andrew managed to resist the impulse. As much as he wanted to ask if they could start over, he couldn’t just dismiss the way she looked at Nicholas…he remembered that was how Belle used to look at him. As if he was the center of her world.

When he and Nicholas exchanged stories for the switch, Andrew held this one back. He wasn’t sure why, but he never did get specific answers as to who the mysterious friend was that sent her the gift.

“Does this mean you two have made up?”

Lacey didn’t want to discuss her sister with Nicholas Rush and shrugged before she headed for the door.

“Is this about last night? I was rude and I apologize. I guess, I thought you were hiding something.”

Going still, she stared at Nicholas. What exactly did he want from her? A denial?

“Let’s just forget it.’

“But you do seem different,” he pushed.

“Pregnancy does that, Nicholas.”

“And you never used to call me that.”

“Pardon me for trying to be more civil.” Tired of the conversation, she turned on her heel and headed back to her guests. Unfortunately, she didn’t see Ariel eavesdropping in the shadows. Yes, Belle always called Nicholas “Rush”. She sued to say that he wasn’t civilized like Andrew. That the man had too much Scottish brogue to fit into their crowd. So what the hell was going on?

“Are you alright,” Nicholas-as-Andrew asked when Lacey returned

“Yeah. Just some nausea.”

“How about dinner, then?”

“Sounds wonderful.”

The group headed out to the back patio where they had a candlelit table and settings waiting. Waiters stood at the ready. Lacey still couldn’t believe Andrew went to so much trouble. How could Belle have been unhappy with this life? Simply asking the mental question had the guilt bubbling, so she squashed it and ate.

“Did I finally get a birthday right,” Andrew asked.

Lacey beamed. “It’s amazing! Thank you.”

The waiters served dinner and Andrew beamed. “You favorite.”

Really? Belle liked this strange looking dish? One bite later her taste buds exploded and understanding dawned. In fact, she asked Andrew if he intended to finish his portion so she could scoop it off his plate. They laughed in delight as they traded plates.

“Don’t gain too much weight,” he joked.

“This coming from the guy who said I was too thin?”

“Touché.”

Observing Belle closely, Ariel had to admit she never saw her friend so relaxed and open. Pregnancy hormones caused this drastic a difference? Belle couldn’t stop criticizing Andrew for months leading up to that one morning she came to the loft looking lost and losing interest in the renovation. If she didn’t know any better, Ariel would say Belle was abducted by aliens or…switched!

The idea popped into her head and Ariel knew she was right. Belle always wore her hair down and lately she seemed to prefer an up-do. Sure, that face alone wasn’t solid evidence but add in all the little things and Ariel started seeing a pattern. She was good. Ariel had to give Lacey that much credit. If she never had that conversation with the FBI guy, then Ariel never would have put two and two together. However, she mentally put together all the idiosyncrasies and initially blamed the pregnancy. It did make sense as to why Belle suddenly did a turn-about with her marriage. Now, though? No way.

Glancing at Eric stuffing his face, the disgust overwhelmed her. Abruptly, Ariel got to her feet and made a quick excuse before running off. Eric rolled his eyes and cursed under his breath, but Andrew and Nicholas were both concerned for their friend. Andrew started to rise, but Lacey tugged his arm.

“I’ll go. She’ll talk to me.”

Nicholas let her go, then glanced at an apathetic Eric before meeting his cousin’s gaze. Belle followed Ariel and he sat back down wondering what the hell was going on.

Chapter Text

“Ariel? Ariel, where are you?”

Wandering through the darkened house, Lacey’s worry increased. Phone in hand, she called her friend’s cell, but Ariel didn’t answer. Flustered, she left the phone on the hall table and checked another room. Nothing. No trace of the redhead anywhere. Did Ariel come this way? Back in the hall, she jumped out of her skin seeing the shadow of a man. The front door was left ajar and Lacey clenched her fists at her sides in preparation of a fight.

“You shouldn’t leave your door open.”

Lacey’s shoulders deflated at the familiar timber of Agent Machado’s voice, but anger swiftly followed. “You can’t be here.”

“This is a courtesy call,” Everett said simply. “One last chance for you to come clean.”

“A what?”

“I know you’re lying to me. Lacey was in the Hamptons. With you.”

“This has to stop!” Why was he hounding her every move! Why couldn’t he just let her go? “No more talking to my friends, my family-”

Everett pulled his phone out of his pocket, held it up, and played the video. Lacey’s wits were stolen for several seconds, but gradually Lacey gripped her street smarts and realized the video was grainy and there wasn’t a full shot of either her or Belle.

“Prove that’s Lacey,” she challenged. “Prove it in a court of law.”

A burst of disbelieving laughter escaped his mouth. Fingers she would pull this crap with him. “I have Tec people in the New York office combing the footage as we speak,” he bluffed. “Do you really want me to come back with warrants, or do you want to explain this to me now?”

She could call his bluff, but Machado would only get more determined and dig even deeper. If she wasn’t careful, her cover would be blown and he would haul her off to jail. Lacey came up with a plausible story off the cuff.

“Cut the crap, please,” Everett continued. “I know you and Lacey were on that boat.”

Slowly, she nodded. “Alright, yes. Lacey came to visit.”

“Because you invited her.”

“How do you know that?”

“We traced Lacey’s movements here and found the duffle bag.”

Crap! This whole time they knew about that? They read the letters?! Of course they did. Agent Machado was nothing if not thorough.

“I had no idea what Lacey was mixed up in,” she began. “At first, we reconnected and went out on the water, chatted and caught up on each other’s lives. Everything was nice until she told me about running from the police. I freaked out and we fought. I told her I didn’t want any part of her drama. We headed back and we continued fighting the whole way…”

Machado hung on her every word, but Lacey couldn’t make a single slip or he’d see through her tale. “I told her I never wanted to see her again and that’s the last I saw of her. Look, I get that she was scared now, but at the time, I didn’t give her the benefit of the doubt and I have no idea where she’s gone.”

“How did you know where to find the bag,” he challenged.

“She left the key on the boat. I found it and wondered if there was anything that could tell me where she went. I’m only trying to do the same thing you are and that’s to find my sister.”

He considered for a moment then challenged her yet again. “Why did you withdrawal all that money last week?”

“Because I needed it. There’s no law against spending your own money.”

“What did you spend it on?”

She folded her arms across her chest and told him the same thing she told the bank manager. “Shoes.”

He laughed in her face. “You expect me to believe that?”

“Look, you can search my house, my apartment all you want! You can follow me around for the rest of my life, but I promise you that you won’t find Lacey!”

Pretty convincing speech – if she didn’t already lie to him on multiple occasions. Silence dragged between them until Lacey broke it first.

“I think you know the way out.”

She left without her phone, which Everett snatched to have a look through her contacts. The phone wasn’t password protected and he discovered that low and behold, Belle had Ruby Ward’s number. This elitist didn’t stop lying, did she?

Trusting Agent Machado went on his way, Lacey continued searching for Ariel. She finally found her friend in the spare parlor in the back of the house and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Ariel! I’ve been looking all over for you!”

Nothing could have prepared Lacey for the anger on the redhead’s face. She closed her laptop, stood, and approached.

“Ariel? What’s-”

The slap landed so hard that Lacey saw stars explode behind her eyes.

"That’s for lying to me, you bitch!”

Hand on her stinging cheek, the horror and shock was written all over her face, but that didn’t halt Ariel’s bitter tirade.

“How could you? My best friend! You came here and claimed to be her and listened to me open up about Eric and al suspicions to what end?! Con me? I’m so stupid!”

“What do you-”

“Don’t even think about playing dumb with me – Lacey!”

My god! She knew? How? When? Who else did Ariel tell?

“Ariel,” she started. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do!” The redhead snatched Lacey’s hand and turned her wrist upward. “See? No scar. Belle had a scar there from a burn she got from a cooking class we took a few years ago, so that makes you an imposter!”

“Ariel, please,” Lacey begged as her stomach fell to the floor. “I can explain!”

“Oh, really? I highly doubt that! Good think Andrew and Nicholas are already suspicions. If they knew about the whole twin thing, then they’d be putting two-and-two together just like I did!”

“Please, Ariel, I’m begging you! Don’t tell them!”

“Why not? Andrew should know who he’s sleeping next to every night.”

“You need to listen to me!” Desperation clawed at Lacey’s every nerve ending.

“No. I don’t.”

Panic made it difficult to breathe. If Ariel told the truth, then she was dead in the water! Agent Machado would drag her back to jail and Jones would have her killed.

“It’s a matter of life and death! Mine! I’m begging you to hear me out. My life is in danger! I have no choice!”

“Save it,” Ariel snapped. “I’m done with this! Stay away from me!”

Storming out of the house, Ariel didn’t look back. Lacey gave chase, but Andrew came to find her.

“Dinner is getting cold. Did you find Ariel?”

Mouth dry, she could only shake her head.

“It’s not the end of the word.” Nicholas hated seeing her looking so upset and ran a hand down her back in a gesture of comfort. “Ariel will come around. Let’s cut into that cake, shall we?”

“Aright.” Forcing a smile throughout the rest of the dinner wasn’t the easiest task, but Lacey managed. Eric lingered seemingly unconcerned about his wife. Did he not care at all?

That night, she didn’t dare sleep. Lacey half expected Ariel to come back and blow her whole cover. At any moment, FBI could storm through the doors. Andrew fell asleep within moments of his head hitting the pillow, which was probably for the best. Every time she called Ariel’s cell, the voicemail kicked into gear. How much time did she have before the cavalry stormed the gates? Maybe she should make a break for it now.

****

Paris, France

Belle heard the knocking and sat up in bed. Who could be here at this hour? Dawning her robe, she hoped it wasn’t security coming to throw her out on her ear. Instead, Will stood on the other side holding a silver tray.

“Good morning,” he smiled.

“Hi,” she smiled. “How are you?”

“I’m here to thank you for teaching me some French yesterday.”

Elated that her plan worked, Belle stepped aside. “Come in,” she invited.

Belle sat on the couch and Will lifted the silver lid with a flourish. A croissant with a single candle rested on a doily. Laughter bubbled out of her throat.

“Where did you get that?”

“I have my ways. I figured the carbs would be good for the baby.”

“That’s really sweet, Will. Thank you so much.” Accepting the bread, she eagerly took a bite.

“There was something else.”

“What,” she asked.

“I had a chat with our friend downstairs. I know him pretty well because our company does a lot of overseas business. Clients travel here from all over the world so we have an open account. Seems he was unaware that we have a very special client in town now. A Miss Cora Farrell that will be staying indefinitely.”

A gasp escaped her throat. “Will! You shouldn’t do that! You could get into serious trouble!”

He waved her off. “Trust me. No one will blink at the charges. This way you can stay in Paris as long as you like and not have to worry. Stress isn’t good for babies.” Truly touched, she gave him an impulsive hug. I can’t thank you enough.”

“How about dinner tonight at the restaurant?”

Belle laughed. “Sounds perfect.”

“I have to get to a meeting, but do you mind if I freshen up in the bathroom?”

“Not at all.”

The second Will was out of sight, Belle snatched his briefcase. Paperwork signed by her husband was right where she expected it to be. Hiding what she needed, Belle put the briefcase back where Will left it. He didn’t suspect a thing when she walked him to the door.

Grabbing her phone, Belle called her contact. They picked up on the fourth ring. “The plan is back on. Will Barrett just extended my hotel stay on the company dime. This is going to be easier than we thought.”

Their response made her smile deepen. Things were looking up and soon she would have her freedom. Hanging up, a frown marred her face as she took in the signature. Something looked off in the loops and swirls. Belle stared for several long seconds, but finally decided she shouldn’t be so paranoid.

Once she had the paperwork for the official quarterly reports, she would find a way to get the real numbered from Andrew. Proving her husband’s form a fraud would be the final link chaining them together. Aside from the baby of course, but he would never know about the baby if she could help it. So far, the plan remained on track.

Lacey may have survived the attempt on her life, but Belle knew the threat wasn’t gone. Whoever wanted her dead would try again and Belle doubted her twin’s luck would continue to hold. Everyone would think she really died, which was fine. Belle had a while new identity set up and she intended to live in Paris with most of Andrew’s money.

Five years ago, she never would have gone to such extremes. Belle would never have imagined harming anyone or stealing, but the events leading up to the present hardened her in ways she couldn’t have anticipated. Once this charade was over, Belle looked forward to getting back to her old self. In her mind’s eye, she could see her and the baby sitting in a café and reading old, leather bound books for hours on end.

First things first, though. Belle had to make sure her twin wouldn’t throw any more wrenches into the mix. Her partner was being paid handsomely to watch from the sidelines, but he may have to take a more active role. She would have to see when all the chips fell before making a final decision.

Eating the last of the buttery croissant, Belle placed a hand over her stomach and grinned. The damsel in distress card worked beautifully. Will should remain hooked until she got what she required. Overall, not a bad day’s work.

****

Silver Springs, Colorado

Ruby gasped for air when Jones’s thugs stopped force-feeding her shots. Between the beatings, they kept her drunk and docile. Sometimes Jones watched, sometimes not, but he gave strict orders not to touch her. Not yet. He had first dibs.

Light-headed, Ruby fought to stay lucid, but the alcoholic haze forced on her made the world spin. Five years of sobriety down the drain. Part of her considered giving Killian what he wanted, but the other part knew the gangster wouldn’t just let her go scot free. Like he said, he hated loose ends. If she didn’t escape then she was as good as dead.

“Ms. Ward,” Killian said testily. “You try my patience. Soon, I may be forced to take more drastic measures.”

Coughing as the alcohol burned her throat, her first thought was that she missed the rush of this high. Drunk, Ruby felt like she could do anything. Of course, that was part of the problem. At first, losing inhibitions felt empowering, but the consequences were often brutal.

Killian got in her face and Ruby couldn’t stop laughing. The slap cut off the sound and as her cheek burned the full realization of what was stripped from her sank deep. Clenching her truth, Ruby didn’t know how many more beatings she could take.

“Tell me where Lacey French is hiding.”

“I don’t know.” Ruby’s head spun and she liked feeling loose and above the rest of the world. If they get her drink enough and she passed out, then the pain would stop.

The hangover would be a bitch, but she figured the pain could reset her clock. Five years of sobriety. Five years of hard work. Five years and they thought they could break her so easily?

“Ruby,” Killian chided. “There is no reason to protect a stripper. You’ve been gone for a week. You’ve been fired from your job and you’re behind on the rent. And no you’ve fallen off the wagon. Your life is falling apart. Tell me where to find Lacey and I’ll let you go so you can put it back together.”

She laughed. “You’re such a liar.”

Arching a brow, the criminal grinned from ear-to-ear. “You’re pretty smart.”

“And you’re still a liar.”

“She’s off her rocker,” one of the thugs said,

Jones shook his head. “You gave her too much.”

“But boss!”

“Enough!” He shot dangerous looks at his men. “Let her sober up, then let the jack out of the box. See where it leads us.”

The men exchanged looks. Ruby was their only chess piece, but no one dared contradict the boss. Jones would gut them and leave them to die in a puddle of their own blood. Best course for survival meant following orders without complaint.

Chapter Text

To say the ride back to the city was tense seemed like the understatement of the year. Ariel refused to pick up her phone. She took her car and ditched them, leaving Eric to hitch a ride with them back to Manhattan.

“What exactly did you say to her,” Nicholas accused from the back seat.

“Nothing,” Lacey insisted. Why couldn’t Andrew’s cousin take public transportation back? The whole trip all he did was throw her accusing looks.

Did they know about Agent Machado? Lacey thought she did a pretty good job of keeping him away from Andrew, but how long could she play interference? Belle never told anyone even existed, which enabled Lacey to make such a smooth transition, but now Ariel was out there armed with the secret. How long before everyone else heard the truth? Lacey flat out refused to go back to jail. Agent Machado would toss her away and throw away the key. For revenge.

“Don’t worry,” Andrew told her in the elevator back to the penthouse. “I’m sure Ariel will be in touch.”

“I hope so.”

“I hope this hasn’t ruined your birthday.”

Lacey managed a small smile. “No, everything else was lovely.”

“Good.”

After depositing her bags on the bed, Lacey couldn’t stay cooped up in this apartment. Yes, the irony of feeling claustrophobic in such a huge space wasn’t lost on her but she needed to get out into the fresh air.

“I’m going for a walk.”

“Belle.” Andrew blinked. “Are you sure that’s wise?”

“Just a quick turn around the park,” she said. “To clear my head.”

“If you’re sure.”

“I am.” Lacey threw Andrew a brilliant smile and grabbed her purse. Once the elevator doors closed, Nichols called his cousin. “She’s on the move.”

****

People mingled everywhere and Lacey couldn’t believe how easily she adapted to life in the city. Belle must have loved the history and art. There was so much here to stimulate her twin’s intellect. Lacey could see Belle coming alive while living in New York.

“I need to know why.”

Whirling at the sound of Ariel’s voice, Lacey gasped in shock. “You’re here! We thought-”

“I’m here for answers,” the redhead clarified.

“Aright.” Ariel deserved some context and some level of explanation. Since the other woman already knew the truth, her best bet would be to come as clean as possible, but Lacey would also have to know Ariel’s intentions.

The pair found a café and sat to indulge in iced lattes as if they were two ordinary friends out for a day of shopping. Unfortunately, the image was an illusion.

“Where is Belle? You owe me that, at least.”

Yes, she did. Lacey inhaled a deep breath and chose her words carefully. “Belle and I met in the Hamptons…”

The whole story poured from Lacey’s lips. She didn’t realize how good it felt to release the burden until after she finished. Ariel, on the other hand, appeared dumbfounded.

“I can’t believe it. Belle really killed herself? Do you know why?”

Lacey shook her head and swallowed the lump in her throat. “That’s one of the reasons I’m still here. I need answers as much as you do.”

“My god.” Ariel’s eyes narrowed as she shook her head. “She was my best friend and I had no idea she was in so much pain. There were a lot of things I didn’t know.”

“Me too,” Lacey acknowledged.

“She was like a sister to me. And to learn she’s gone and you’re here instead-”

“I’m sorry,” Lacey said quickly. “I can’t imagine how you must feel.”

“I don’t know what I feel, honestly." How was she supposed to wrap her head around all this information? Finally, Ariel met Lacey’s gaze. “How long?”

“How long what?”

“How long have you pretended to be Belle?”

“Two weeks.”

“I don’t get it.”

“It’s complicated, Ariel-”

“No, I don’t get what kind of person does this to their own sister.”

“A desperate one! Ariel, I didn’t want to do this, but I don’t have a choice! The man I’m supposed to testify against wants me dead. You can’t tell anyone!”

Ariel smirked. “You really are Belle’s sister, huh? All you care about is yourself. For the record, you could have done witness protection.”

“Jones has contacts in every law enforcement agency in the country!” Lacey had to make Ariel understand the severity of the situation.

“Well, even if that’s true, I don’t have to do anything you say. I don’t know you – Lacey.”

With those final words, Ariel rose and walked away, leaving Lacey to stare after her in total shock. After a few moments, Lacey swallowed hard as bone-chilling worry gnawed at her nerves. The old cravings rose as well, which caused Lacey’s eyes to dart up and down the street hoping to see a bar sign. She wanted a drink. In fact, she wanted one so badly she almost took out her phone to google the closest location. No one in New York would care or even notice that she was an alcoholic. No one would warn her not to fall off the wagon.

Fear over what Ariel might do tore through her very core. Ariel knew the truth and Lacey was helpless to prevent the woman from running to the FBI or even Andrew. How could he react? Would Andrew despise her? Probably. Common sense said her switch wasn’t a permanent solution, but Lacey didn’t want Andrew to discover the truth from anyone else. Lacey should come clean while she had the chance and before Ariel beat her to the punch.

****

Andrew followed Belle toward the park and saw her meet with Ariel. At least the woman was safe. He didn’t dare get too close because if Belle noticed him the whole plan could go up in smoke. So, the real Andrew lingered across the street and watched the women in the café. Based on the way Ariel stormed off the conversation didn’t go well.

Poor Belle looked like she was on the verge of tears. Andrew wanted to run across the street and scoop her into his arms, but before he could indulge the impulse Belle headed for the subway. How did she even know how to make sense of the lines? She considered the train a crass method of travel. Andrew kept an eye on her but lost sight of Belle in the crowd on the platform.

Calling Nicholas to give an update, he couldn’t help but get impatient. “We have no idea where she’s going or what she’s going.”

“Andrew,” Nicholas started. “Calm down.”

“Why? She’s pregnant doing lord knows what!”

“You want to be protective, and I get it, but we have to wait and see if we can get her to let down her guard. Once she makes a mistake, we’ll be ready.”

Part of what Nicholas said made perfect sense, but Andrew wasn’t in the mood to hear it. He hung up the phone and headed back to Nicholas’s apartment to catch up on his work. At least that way, he could calm his chaotic thoughts and not worry about his wife. With all his heart, Andrew didn’t want to think the woman he loved could be behind all the sabotage, but what other conclusion could he draw?

****

“Great meeting.”

Lacey blinked at the tall, Navy SEAL type that cornered her at the coffee nook after the serenity prayer. “Yes, it was.”

“Matt,” he said as he extended a hand. “Matthew Scott. Sober four years and just switched here from Flushing. I gotta confess, they had better coffee.”

Unsure why this stranger was telling her his life’s story, Lacey smiled and nodded politely. “I’ll take your word for it.”

“What’s your name?”

Pushy much? A strange feeling erupted in Lacey’s gut that made her hesitate. Learning long ago to trust her instincts, she played along but refused to reveal too much about herself.

“I thought these meetings were supposed to be anonymous.”

Matt chuckled. “Touché. Well, if you ever want to talk, give me a call.” He took a business card out of his shirt pocket and placed it in her palm.

“Thank you, Matt.

“Anytime Ms. Anonymous. Remember, you’re not alone.”

Grateful, Lacey left the meeting with a sense of control she desperately needed. Ariel may know the truth of her situation and have the power to destroy her life, but Lacey still clenched her sobriety close and that is what truly mattered. She didn’t cave to temptation, which was something worth taking pride in until she could figure out her next move.

With Andrew at work, she returned to an empty apartment. Back in Colorado, dreams of winning the lottery and living a life of luxury always rested in the back of her mind. Belle hit the jackpot, but Lacey had no idea how she filled the hours of boredom. Right now, Lacey could do little more than pace the floors and wonder what Ariel’s next move would be. The money she withdrew from the bank remained hidden in the closet, so Lacey did have the option of running if push did come to shove. As much as she hoped Ariel wouldn’t stab her in the back, maybe Lacey should cut her losses while she had the chance.

Cooking a homemade meal busied her hands and mind enough to temporarily take her mind off her troubles. When Andrew came home from work he was happy to see her efforts, but as they ate, the conversation felt clipped and forced. Was it her imagination or did she see suspicion in those dark eyes?

“How was your day,” he asked.

“Fine,” Lacey replied. “How was yours?”

“Interesting,” Nicholas debated how much he should tell Belle about what he knew. A direct approach could take her off guard, but a more subtle one might yield more answers.

“My cousin called earlier. Seems Nicholas swears he saw your doppelganger in Queens this afternoon.”

What?! Lacey barely masked her shock, but her whole system jolted from the news. “My dopple-what?”

“It means double or identical. I would think someone who reads like you would know the term.”

“I haven’t had a lot of time for reading. Besides, don’t they say everyone had a twin out in the world?”

“He thought the resemblance uncanny, but I assured him you would never be in that part of the city.”

Nicholas Rush seemed determined to undercut her at every turn, apparently. Lacey couldn’t let him sway Andrew. She needed Belle’s husband on her side.

“Actually, I was in that part of the city today.”

Arching a brow, Nicholas put down his fork and stared. He certainly didn’t expect her to come clean. “Oh?”

“I met Ariel, then headed into Brooklyn to do research and talk to a few people. The charity board wants to raise money for rehab programs, or at least it’s an idea they’re tossing around, so I decided to check it out.”

Plausible and neat. The story could very well be the truth. Nicholas wanted to press for more details, but they were told they had a guest. Playing the part, Nicholas greeted Ariel with a smile.

“What an unexpected surprise,” he said when Ariel emerged from the elevator. “What brings you here? Come and sit with us. Let me fix you some dinner.”

Ariel politely declined. “No, thank you, Andrew. Actually, I came to talk to you.”

Dread churned in Lacey’s stomach. The redhead came her to open that can of worms and Lacey was desperate to defuse the situation. “Ariel,” she interjected. “Can I talk to you alone?”

Alone, huh? What could this be about? Nicholas, of course, had to pretend to trust there was nothing amiss, so she said he would give the pair privacy, but Ariel declined the offer.

“No, Andrew. Stay. What I have to say is a game changer, so I should speak to both of you.”

Lacey pleased with her eyes, but her friend appeared absolutely nonchalant about the anxiety she caused.

“Ariel, don’t.”

“Belle, please.”

The fact she called her by her sister’s name and didn’t spill the beans wasn’t comforting in the least. Lacey felt like a helpless goldfish dangling between a cat’s claws unable to breathe of escape her fate.

“I know how close we all are,” Ariel started again. “You may not like what I have to say, but I have to be honest. I’m unable to continue work on the loft.”

Did she hear that correctly? Lacey blinked rapidly. “What?”

“I’m overwhelmed, Belle. Between what’s been going on with Eric and the contractor fiasco, I think I should take a step back. My head is not in it.”

“Well, that’s very disappointing.” Nicholas admired Ariel’s talent a great deal.

“But we completely understand,” Lacey added.

“Of course.” Nicholas gave Ariel a warm smile.

I won’t leave you hanging. I have a list of replacements, which I’ll give you if you promise you don’t hate me.”

Nicholas chuckled. “Don’t be silly. Right, Belle?”

“Right.”

The women exchanged knowing looks, which had Nicholas wondering if Belle already knew of her friend’s plan to pull out of the project and that caused all this weird behavior. Thinking it wise to excuse himself, Nicholas headed for his home office.

The second he was out of sight, Lacey wanted answers. “Ariel, I can’t thank you enough for-”

“Yeah,” she snapped. “Don’t thank me yet. I have a few demands.”

Demands? Lacey had no idea why she was surprised. Most people behaved this way. They got leverage over someone and then showed their true colors. “Why don’t we talk on the terrace?”

Ariel led the way. Once they emerged, she faced the stranger who looked like her best friend. “The last twenty-four hours have been torture. I keep going over in my mind how I missed Belle’s cries for help and how I could have been s blind as to not figure out what was going on sooner. I mean, until I knew there was a twin in the picture, I may have gone on believing the lie.”

“I never intended for any of this to happen.”

“To make matters worse,” Ariel continued as if Lacey didn’t speak. “Is that I know in my bones Eric is having an affair. He was the love of my life. I gave him my whole heart and he crushed it.”

Lacey sympathized, but she didn’t know how Eric related to the current situation. “What does that have to do with me?”

Ah, the core of the matter. A small grin curled Ariel’s lips. “I’ve given it a lot of thought and I recognize how unique your situation is and I’ve decided you can help me with Eric.”

“How?”

“I want a divorce, but that bastard doesn’t deserve one cent of my money or custody of our kids. There’s an air-tight infidelity clause in your prenup.”

A sickening feeling rolled in her stomach and Lacey had a bad feeling she knew where Ariel was going with this. “Ok, but I don’t see what that has to do with me.”

“I did my research on you, Lacey. Your arrest for prostitution-”

“I was never a hooker! Look, I needed money fast and I tricked that guy, but I never intended to follow through on the proposition!”

“The arresting FBI agent thought differently. Plus, you were a stripper. How can you blame people for making the connection?”

“Ariel,” she began as calmly as she could manage. “The FBI wanted to trap me into making a deal. I was a drunk. My life was in a downward spiral, ok? I was arrested because I ran after witnessing a friend of mine being murdered!”

“And ran again, which is why you’re here. If you want to continue living Belle’s life and want me to stay quiet about it, then you’ll drop by the brownstone tomorrow at midnight. I’ll be out and you can seduce Eric. It shouldn’t be hard, all things considered. Once I catch him in the act, then you’ll have my unequivocal silence.”

Good lord, Lacey never would have pegged sweet Ariel as such a vindictive brat! “What exactly are you getting at?”

“I want you to sleep with Eric, or I’ll tell the world who you really are.”

“Ariel, please don’t do that! We can talk about this!”

Lacey’s desperation didn’t move her in the slightest. Ariel looked this stranger in the eye. “You have until tomorrow at midnight.”

With those final words hanging in the air, Ariel marched back to the elevator. Shocked and barely able to draw breath into her lungs, Lacey felt like she escaped the frying pan only to be consumed by the flames.

Chapter Text

How she managed to put up a front for Andrew was anyone’s guess. Nightmares plagued her about Ariel exposing her to the FBI. Luckily, Andrew didn’t suspect her distress. At least, Lacey didn’t get that impression as they went through their morning routine. The second Andrew left for work, Lacey raced to the liquor cabinet and took out a bottle of Scotch. Single malt. Really high quality, which meant it would taste smooth going down and give her the quick oblivion she craved.

Lacey went so far as to open the bottle, but then she realized how close she was to falling off the wagon and grabbed her cell. The ringing continued on and on and on until the voicemail clicked.

“Ruby,” she sobbed. “Where are you? I’m suffocating! Ariel is…my past is choking me. I don’t know what to do.”

Oh, talking to nothing was useless! Lacey needed an anchor and Ruby refused to answer her phone! Hanging up, she threw the device across the bathroom. Staring at her reflection as she repeated the mantra of AA, prayers, and quoted rehab steps, Lacey fought for control. After a while, she dared a look at the bottle on the counter. She survived Jones and so much more only to cave to weakness now? Almost six months of sobriety for nothing?

No. She refused to let the alcohol have power like that over her anymore. Andrew may be pissed, but she poured the Scotch down the drain.

Her lungs gulped in air as she retrieved her phone and headed out to the bedroom. Lacey grabbed her purse and rummaged through the contents to find that card. She needed a lifeline and while this avenue wasn’t her first choice, Lacey felt as if she was out of viable options. Half an hour later, she sat across a table from Matthew Scott.

“I almost drank the whole bottle at 9 am,” she concluded.

No judgment showed on his face. “You felt powerless, but you used the steps to take person inventory. That takes a great amount of strength. You should be proud of yourself.”

Proud? She had doubts on that score. “I hate how this feels.”

Hands shaking, she poured a packet of sugar into her coffee, but half scattered over the rim and onto the table.

“Can you tell me a little more about your problem,” Matt asked. “I may be able to offer better advice.”

Again, red flags fired in her head, warning her to use caution, so Lacey didn’t get too specific. “I’m not sure I should.”

‘Yeah, I get it. When I first started the program I had a tough time opening up, too.”

“It boils down to two choices. I can either do something I know is wrong. Something that will steal a piece of my soul, or I can risk losing my family and everything else.”

“Wow,” he blinked. “Though choice.” And it sounded a lot like blackmail to him.

“If I go through with it, I won’t be able to live with myself.”

“But you can still refuse?”

Lacey nodded. Ariel wanted her to become a literal whore and Lacey knew she couldn’t live with such a choice. All that time spent dodging that fate in Jones’s club would be for nothing. Tamara’s protection would have been for nothing.

“It’s hard to give advice without the specifics,’ Matt continued. “But let me just say that at the end of the day sobriety is all that matters. So, the only way for you to stay sober is to take the path that will preserve your dignity. Addicts feed on shame. We both know how true that is and if we’re not careful we all end up in jail or institutionalized – if we don’t die. Personally, I’m two for three. Does that help?”

“Yeah.” Lacey needed reminders of those harsh facts. Ariel’s ultimatum seemed like the end of the world a few hours ago, but now she realized she had some cards to play.

“You got a bumpy road ahead, Ms. Anonymous, but if you want I can be your sponsor.”

“That’s really nice but I already have one.”

“Really? Where were they when you nearly broke today?”

Lacey didn’t have a clue and that worried her to the core. Ruby never went off the radar and days passed since their last conversation. However, she couldn’t share all of that with Matt. “Maybe I should go find out. Thanks for the offer, Matt. I’ll keep it in mind.”

“My pleasure. Anytime. I mean it.”

After thanking him again, Lacey gathered up her purse and headed back to the apartment. No matter how many times she called, Ruby didn’t pick up so she finally gave it a rest. Right now, the more pressing matter of what to do about Ariel had to have her immediate attention. At the last second, she instructed the cab driver to drop her off at the loft instead.

Ariel was here and Lacey gathered all her courage for a confrontation. The countdown started, so she didn’t have much more to lose. Crossing the floor to where the redhead stood, Lacey stiffened her spine and met the other woman’s eye.

“I’m not doing it.”

Brows arching, Ariel gave a little giggle. “Of course you are. You don’t have a choice.”

“I came here to reason with you. I’ve already fallen into a situation I can barely crawl out of. My only intention was to hide and leave the people in Belle’s life with some happy memories before disappearing for good. I won’t fall back into another bad situation like the one I ran from.”

“Actually, I had a feeling you might say that, but have you really stopped to consider the fallout? How do you think Andrew is going to feel when he learns he’s been sleeping next to a two dollar hooker?”

“Stop,” Lacey snapped, offended by the accusation. “I managed to keep enough of my dignity to avoid-”

“Quit the game, Belle!”

“Please keep your voice down!”

“Andrew should know about the booze. Actually, I should tell that FBI guy.” Walking around Lacey, Ariel leaned in to whisper in her ear. “Imagine his shock when he realizes that fugitive he’s been chasing all this time was right under his nose? Come on, Lacey! Have you thought this through? Aren’t you supposed to be pregnant for crying out loud? You had no right to do this to the people in Belle’s life!”

“I’m trying to help!”

The desperate plea fell on deaf ears. Ariel remained unmoved. “This had nothing to do with that.” She met Lacey’s gaze. “Everything you’ve done had been self-serving. All you’re doing is justifying your guilt.”

“That’s not true,” she insisted. Why wouldn’t Ariel listen? Where was the sweet woman Lacey first met who was worried about her husband? Funny how people’s true natures spring to life once they have a little bit of leverage over someone else.

“The meeting with Eric happens tonight.”

“Do you have any idea how many lives you’re ruining? How the ripple effects will change the circumstances of everyone involved, including yourself?”

“Spare me your drivel. I’m only taking a page out of Lacey French’s playbook. I stumbled across an opportunity and I’m taking advantage. Isn’t that your excuse?”

Disbelief washed over Lacey’s being. Ariel wasn’t her friend. Was she ever really Belle’s? “I did what I had to do in order to survive. You’re out for revenge. Have you considered how this will affect your boys, Ariel? They’re innocent in all of this! And so is Andrew!”

“My boys don’t need a philandering father!”

“I’m not planning on being my sister forever! Just long enough to fix things! Can’t you give me a chance?”

Cold as stone, Ariel didn’t budge. “By midnight. Or Andrew hears everything.”

Lacey shook her head even as despair flooded her chest. “I won’t do it.”

“Yes, you will. We both now you don’t have a choice.”

So much for reasoning with the woman. Apparently, Ariel was the same level of bitch as all the other socialites in this town. Without another word, Lacey cut her losses and left. She may be down, but she wasn’t out yet. There were a few more options to explore, but she already knew she wouldn’t sleep with a man she barely knew. Eric Butler was Ariel’s problem, not hers.

****

“Any luck finding out what Belle was doing in Queens?” Andrew needed answers and was sick and tired of being blown off, so he came to the office to confront his cousin.

Nicholas gestured for Andrew to sit but the man just crossed his arms over his chest and paced the floor. “She claims she was conducting research for a charity event.”

“And you believe her?”

Nicholas shrugged. “I have no reason not to.”

“Why not?”

“Because the only time she flinched or got nervous was around Ariel, so I’m guessing their discussion earlier at the café had to do with why Ariel backed out of the project, which all seems logical. Plus, I called the charity and Belle submitted her suggestion to them about recovery shelters.”

“Hmm.” Andrew scratched his whiskers. “Maybe.”

Watching his cousin pace made Nicholas feel a slight pang of envy. He longed to wear his jeans again and not have to dress to impress every day. These suits were so confining. “Why so quick to condemn her? All you wanted yesterday was to clear her name.”

“I know.”

“So what’s the problem?”

“She used the subway.”

Nicholas didn’t get it. “And?”

When they first met, Belle’s strong independent streak was one of the many reasons he fell in love with her. That version of Belle would never have blinked twice at the subway, but the woman she transformed into while in New York was a completely different breed.

“Nothing,” Andrew finally answered. “I just have to get me head straight. I’ll see you later.”

Andrew disappeared before Nicholas could comment. Just as well. He had plenty of work to do and thinking about Belle would only slow him down.

****

The sun set hours ago and the clock ticked down to a new day. Each tic seemed like a mocking echo in her ears. Andrew called to say he had a conference call with Asia and not to wait up, but Lacey couldn’t settle. The midnight hour came and went, but her phone didn’t explode with angry messages or calls. Half an hour later, Ariel burst through the elevator.

“Andrew,” she called. “Are you here?”

“He’s at the office.” Lacey emerged from the living room and confronted her former friend.

“It’s past midnight,” Ariel raged. “I waited outside the brownstone. Eric showed up but you didn’t. You realize your time is up. I gave you a chance to help me but now there is nothing you can to do save yourself. Everyone is going to know who you really are, Lacey.”

“Do you have any idea how many twisted things I’ve learned about my sister’s life in the last few weeks? How she compromised her soul and who she really was to blend in with the likes of you?”

“Well, she sucked.”

“Yeah, but Andrew loved her. He doesn’t deserve to have her memory dragged through the mud. To know his last days with her were wasted on petty arguments.”

Ariel remained unfazed. “Not my problem.”

“Wow. Weren’t you telling me just a day ago that she was your best friend?”

“Don’t use her memory as your bargaining chip,” Ariel spat. “You’re embarrassing yourself!”

“I realize how angry you are, but I’m the one who supported you through your fears and anxieties! I wanted to be a real friend to you, Ariel! The kind of friend Belle wasn’t.”

Close to tears, Ariel shook her head. Lacey had a point but that didn’t mean she was a selfish bitch. Eric’s infidelity had her coiled so tight that she lashed out at the first person she could.

“I don’t…I shouldn’t have asked you to do this. I-I need to get out of here.”

“Ariel! Ariel, wait!”

But the redhead caught the elevator and Lacey was left alone to wonder what happens next. Ariel still had the power to ruin her life. Hopefully, she would take Lacey up on the friendship offer and not call Machado. At this point, she couldn’t be sure of anything. Should Lacey make a run for it now?

****

Ariel burst into tears during the cab ride home. She wasn’t a blackmailing bitch! Belle was her friend and now she as dead. Her sister needed help. Sure, Lacey’s method was fucked up, but one some level Ariel understood why she did it. One the run from a murderer, she probably felt desperate. Everything she read on Killian Jones would make the New York crime families pale in comparison.

So what happens next? Shouldn’t she tell Agent Machado the truth? He would take Lacey away, but would she be safe? Killian Jones killed every potential witness against him for the last twelve years. What would Ariel have signed Lacey up for if she did turn her into the authorities?

Exhausted, mentally and physically, Ariel paid the cab driver and decided to sleep a solid eight hours before making any final decisions. All the lights were off inside the house. Her boys were tucked safely in their beds. Ariel would sneak into their room and give each of them a kiss before falling into her own bed.

“Ariel Butler?”

Startled she turned to see a total stranger climbing the steps behind her. “May I help you?”

“Yeah, I need to talk to you about Lacey.”

“How do you know about Lacey?”

“It’s important that we speak.”

“Do you have any idea what time it is?”

“Yeah.”

Keys in hand, Ariel refused to deal with this right now. “Make an appointment with my office. We can talk tomorrow.”

He didn’t have time for games. Moving with lightning speed, he grabbed a fistful of red hair and gave Ariel a solid punch to the guy. Unfortunately, he underestimated her will to fight back. A blow to his nose had him stumbling backward. Ariel seized the opening to put her keys in the lock. Her attacker recovered and made a grab for her just as she stumbled over the threshold. They fell through the door and landed in the foyer. Ariel opened her mouth to scream, but a hand clamped over her lips, blocking the nose from waking the whole house. In the struggle, a vase fell to the floor and shattered. A piece sliced through Ariel’s temple. However, thanks to adrenaline, she landed some punches and kicks to her attacker.

Ariel managed to break free but could do little more than crawl toward the phone. Vision a blurred mess, she reached out to grasp the cord. Just a little farther…Her assailant grabbed her legs and halted her progress. Ariel renewed her struggles, but her energy was fading fast. She scratched the man but the battle was quickly lost. She passed out and the man lifted her body over his shoulder and carried her outside to his waiting car. Once she was dumped in the trunk, he pulled away from the curb with no one being the wiser.

An hour later, Eric returned from a tryst to find blood smeared on the walls and floor. What the hell happened?! Where was Ariel?

Eric’s first instinct was to call the cops, but how long before they figured out he was cheating on his wife? How long before he was blamed? Eric found his sons still asleep and the nanny passed out drunk. No surprise there. He dangled that tidbit over the woman to make sure she covered for him when he snuck out, but…Ariel was gone.

Shit! Eric needed an alibi! The cops couldn’t touch him if he had one, right? What should he do? What happened to Ariel?

Chapter Text

Another dead end. Andrew spent all day chasing one link of code that ended with a smack into a brick wall. At this point, he wanted to get home, trim this beard, and collapse into bed. Money still went missing and he had no clue where it was going. This had to stop. Regina had to be stopped. If he failed, then all this effort to switch identities and gain the upper hand would have been for nothing.

Only feet away from his front door, Andrew’s cell rang. He expected it to be his cousin, but the screen flashed another name entirely.

“Hello?”

“Nicholas,” Ariel sobbed through the line.

“Ariel? Is everything alrigh’?” A glance at his watch said it was nearly two in the morning. Why would she be calling at this hour?

“Can you meet me at my house? I need to tell you something.”

“It’s really late.”

“Please,” she begged. “It’s an emergency.”

He knew Ariel for many years and she never reached out to Nicholas for anything. In fact, Andrew thought the pair only knew each other in passing. Her call sent off alarm bells.

“I’ll be right over.”

Half an hour later he knocked on the door, but Eric answered. Both men were taken aback.

“Nicholas,” Eric said. “What are you doing here?”

“Ariel called and asked me to stop by. Is she here?”

“No, actually, she’s out.”

“May I come in and wait?”

Eric put up a hand and refused to budge. “It’s late, but I’ll tell her you stopped by.”

Andrew blinked as the door slammed in his face. He called Ariel back, but only got her voicemail. What the hell? What was so important and why would she vanish before telling him?

****

Wracked with nerves, Lacey tossed and turned all night between praying for a miracle. Her only chance of keeping her house of cards intact was Ariel showing a hint of mercy. Climbing out of bed hours before the alarm, she left Andrew sleeping. Lacey vaguely remembered him getting in late, but he fell asleep the second his head hit the pillow.

Anxious as hell, she paced the living room and watched the nocturnal glow of the city lights slowly fade with the rising sun. Mind racing, Lacey collapsed on the couch and tried to think of a way out of her predicament. Should she run now? The idea of leaving Andrew tore at her heart for reasons she couldn’t fully understand, but if she didn’t seize the opening, the cage door would slam shut. Uncertain, her gaze fell to the coffee table. The puzzles caught her eye and before Lacey realized it, she had a pen in hand and was in the process of writing numbers in quick succession. By the time Andrew stumbled into the living room dressed for work, she finished the last puzzle.

The sensation of being watched had her lifting her eyes and a jolt of fear spiked through her gut seeing Andrew staring blankly at her. Blinking rapidly in response, Lacey didn’t know what else to do so she pushed to her feet and attempted to act natural. Did Ariel get to him already?

“Are…those my cousin’s puzzles?”

Of all the questions she expected to roll off his tongue, Lacey never expected that one. “Umm…I dunno. They were lying on the coffee table.”

Nicholas took the pages from her grip and sorted through them. “And you did them all yourself? Just now?”

“I needed a distraction.”

Right answer after right answer slapped him in the face and Nicholas suddenly had trouble drawing air into his lungs. Incredible. No, more than incredible. When his gaze returned to Belle, it felt as if he laid eyes on her for the very first time. The attraction already blooming beneath the surface lurched fast-forward into full infatuation.

Only the most advanced students in the highest GPA ranking are given these puzzles and only a portion of them end up getting them correct – after months of concentration. Belle solved them all in one restless morning?

“Not even the students can solve most of these.”

The awe in his voice and shock on his face had Lacey fumbling for an explanation. “Are you sure your cousin didn’t exaggerate?”

“No,” Nicholas said flatly. “It’s how they weed out the potential Einstein’s for the big government projects.”

“Oh,” she said weakly. Well, how to respond to that? “I probably just got lucky.”

Lucky? No, Belle knew what she was doing or none of these would be correct. Unable to help it, Nicholas stared at Belle while he warred with the urge to kiss her full on the lips. Was she always this talented and he just never saw it because she insisted on hiding behind fashion and fancy luncheons?

Ok, if she didn’t lighten the mood soon, Lacey could be in some serious trouble. Rising, she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and kissed his cheek. “Hey, don’t look so shocked. Even fashionistas like me have a little twinge of genius.”

Chuckling at the joke, Nicholas felt some of the pressure in his chest ease. “Maybe, but-”

“Have you heard from Ariel? I’m worried about her.”

“Well, come to think of it, she called Nicholas last night and asked him to come over.”

Dread sank like a stone in her stomach and Lacy eased out of Andrew’s hold. “Really? What did she say?”

“That’s the funny thing. When he got to the brownstone, Eric said she was out and he didn’t let Nicholas wait for her to get back. A bit odd, really. And I haven’t heard from her.”

“That is strange.” A sliver of hope rose, but Lacey’s gut said there was something very, very wrong with this picture. Why would Ariel call Nicholas of all people? It’s not like she was the mad scientist’s biggest fan.

Thankfully, that awkward moment between her and Andrew faded and his smile came back full force before he left for work. Another bullet dodged. How long could she keep this up? The second she had the penthouse to herself, Lacey took out her cell and tried calling Ariel. She got the voicemail and groaned in frustration, but left a message anyway.

“Hey, Ariel. Andrew said you called his cousin last night. I can only think of one thing you’d want to tell him. I thought we came to an understanding. Look, the last few days have been overwhelming, but I meant it when I said I want to be the friend to you that my sister can’t be anymore. Just…please call me back.”

Once she hung up, a long steady breath left her lungs. If Lacey ran again, would she ever stop? A familiar tingle spread through her fingertips and the urges rose. What wouldn’t she give for a good tequila shot right about now? In fact, the more she thought about having a drink to take the edge off all her worry and stress, the worse the cravings got. Lacey stared at Andrew’s liquor cabinet for a solid five minutes while her mind raced with explanations of how to get away with it If Andrew noticed some of the alcohol missing. Finally, she dashed into the bedroom and palmed her cell. Ruby didn’t pick up, so she tried the next best thing. Oh God, why did she keep getting everyone’s voicemail?!

Hands shaking, Lacey at least managed to keep her voice calm and steady. “Matthew, it’s Ms. Anonymous. I was hoping I could meet you again in person. My sponsor is still out of state and…I’ve been under a lot of pressure with that problem I told you about…well, I really want a drink. It’s all I can think about. You should have my number now, so if you have a few minutes, I would appreciate it.”

Making the call was the right move. No sooner did she hang up and the landline rang. The front desk said she had a visitor from Ariel’s office. Lacey’s heart caught in her through but she gave permission for them to come up.

Ariel’s assistant was a light a bubbly girl in her mid-twenties. She stopped by to drop off the keys to the loft.

“I’m sorry to hear we’re dropping out of the project. By the way, you haven’t heard from Mrs. Butler, have you?”

“I haven’t,” Lacey admitted. “Why do you ask?”

“She wasn’t at the office when I got there, and I haven’t been able to reach her on her cell.”

The spike of dread returned. Andrew said Ariel wasn’t at home last night, so where could she be?

“I’m sure it’s nothing,” the bubbly assistant said. “But if you hear from her, would you mind asking her to call the office?”

“Sure,” Lacey nodded. “Thanks again for dropping off the keys.”

Once the elevator doors closed to take the woman to the ground floor, Lacey inhaled a deep breath. Something here just didn’t add up. On impulse, she grabbed her purse and headed out to hail a cab. Knocking on Ariel’s front door yielded zero results. No one seemed to be home. She called Ariel again, left another message, and started to descend the front steps.

“Belle?”

Whirling at the sudden sound, she nearly jumped out of her skin when she saw Nicholas. “You scared me. What are you doing here?”

“Same as you, apparently. Looking for Ariel.”

“I wasn’t aware the two of you were close.”

Andrew-as-Nicholas shrugged as he inched closer. God, Belle looked beautiful this morning. His fingers itched to run through her hair and hold her close, but he didn’t dare considering the circumstances.

“We’re no’,” he said carefully. “Ariel called me last night, out of the blue.”

“I know. Andrew told me.”

Yes, he had to keep his cousin in the loop on every detail, otherwise, their plan would fall apart. Andrew hated deceiving his wife this way, but he didn’t have much choice given all the unanswered questions.

“Any idea why she would wanna talk to me?”

“How should I now?”

“You are her best friend,” he pressed.

“Yeah and she isn’t answering my calls, so I’m in the dark same as you.”

“Belle-”

“Look, Nicholas, I don’t have time to get into a debate with you. In fact, I have an appointment.”

The longer she spoke to Andrew’s cousin, the greater the risk she could give herself away. Given the intense scrutiny in his eyes right now, hailing a cab seemed like the best idea. So what if she was rude? Her twin used to be rude to Nicholas all the time, right?

As he watched the cab drive away, Andrew raked a hand through his hair. Every fiber of his being just wanted to hold his wife and bask in the fact they would soon be parents, but all the reasons to doubt her glowed like neon lights in his face. Did Belle know something about Ariel? She certainly acted like she had something to hide. He had to find out what.

****

Silver Springs, Colorado

Everett crossed under the yellow tape and headed straight for the officer in charge. A single flip of his badge gained him an immediate update.

“Ruby Ward was reported missing when she failed to show up for her usual AA meeting ten days ago.”

Owen Kemper joined the party and gave his partner a nod. “I got wind of this and reached out to you in New York. With Lacey on the lamb, we figured Ruby would lead us to her, but then we found her car over here in its usual spot and signs of a struggle. Wherever Ruby Ward is now, I don’t think she’s with Lacey.”

Everett shook his head. “Just last week I saw her number in Belle Gold’s cell phone. Lacey’s sister.”

“Is there a connection?”

“I’m not sure,” Everett sighed. “But I will.”

The pieces didn’t quite fit, but they would if he took careful note of the details. Kneeling to get a better look at the drops of blood staining the cement, he hoped this latest piece contributed to the whole somehow.

“I still owe her for clocking me,” Owen grumbled “Lacey French.”

“Yeah. If I were you, I’d be more worried about the gun she stole from you.”

“Well, either way, I don’t know how it’s going in the Big Apple, but believe me when I say no one wants you to find her more than me.”

As Owen blabbered away, Everett caught sight of something and started walking. Owen followed.

“What is it?”

Everett gestured to the discarded cigarette butts. “I think this is where they waited.”

“Who?”

“I think they waited here to watch for Ruby and then they took her.”

“You’re thinking Jones’s goons?”

“Makes sense if they thought Ruby Ward was more than just Lacey’s sponsor. Have CSU check these butts for DNA and run the results against all known associates.”

“Will do.”

Straightening, Everett let out a long breath. If Jones stopped to kidnapping, that meant he was getting pretty desperate. Heaven help Ruby Ward if they didn’t get a lead – fast.

****

“Talk,” Killian demanded through clenched teeth.

Head spinning, soaked in her own sweat, Ruby fought to hold on to every thread of coherent thought.

“Tell me where Lacey French is and I’ll make the pain stop.”

Liar. The word echoed through her pounding skull, but Ruby couldn’t make her tongue work to tell the gangster to go to hell. Jones wanted answers and he got angrier and angrier the longer he went without them. Killian finally backed off then nodded to one of his men. Ruby’s mouth was forced open and the open bottle was thrust under her nose. Instantly, her mouth watered.

“Nothing quite like that smell, huh,” one of the goons taunted. “With all the alcohol we stuffed down your throat, then those few days off, I figure you’re pretty parched right about now.”

Ruby thought she was in for another waterboarding session a la top shelf style, but instead, they left the bottle just out of reach and started walking away. Oh, that aroma tickled her nose and her stomach clenched in response. Just one nip! Her head pounded like a jackhammer. Just one sip to take the edge off!

“Wait,” she called in a cracking voice. “Wait! I’ll tell you everything you want to know!”

Killian’s smile spread from ear-to-ear. They all broke in the end. Now, time to tie that loose end real tight.

Chapter Text

Guilt gnawed at her skin like a rigged scab. Lacey couldn’t seem to banish Rush from her brain on the cab ride over to meet Matthew. Perhaps it was the way those dark eyes stalked her that put Lacey on edge. The insanity sometimes made her skin crawl. If anyone could figure out the truth and turn her over to Machado, it would be Nicholas. However, once they pulled up to the café, she resolved to think about Nicholas later.

Yet, one question repeated in her head. Why on earth would Ariel call Andrew’s cousin of all people? If she wanted to spill the beans, why not go straight to Andrew? Not having answers only upped Lacey’s stress levels, so by the time she entered the café, she wanted a drink more than she ever did in her life.

Matthew found a window seat and waved her over. A coffee already sat in front of him. Grateful, Lacey joined him and nodded in greeting.

“Thanks for meeting me.”

“No problem,” he said easily. “Whatever you need.”

“I appreciate that.” And she did. More than he could comprehend. “All I can think about is finding the closest bar and tossing back shots. My nerves are…frayed. I’m barely on the wagon.”

“It’s ok,” Mathew assured her. “Look, what’s important is that you realized you needed help and you reached out. Even better, you managed to hang on until help arrived. You should be proud of you discipline.”

Disciplined? Her? Lacey wished she deserved such high praise. Right now, she felt the walls closing in and there wasn’t a glowing exit sign anywhere.

“You can wake up in the morning, look in the mirror, and say you have no regrets.”

Could she, though? No regrets? Lacey felt plagued by them.

Her thoughts must have shown on her face because Matt’s gaze sharpened. “Hey. Are you ok? You look like you’re lost or something.”

“Sorry.” What possessed her to contact this practical stranger? Matthew couldn’t understand what she did. Sure, she rationalized the move as one of desperation and survival, but with Ariel missing, the potential for disaster loomed on the horizon. Dragging Matthew into her orbit wasn’t fair.

“Sorry,” she repeated. “I just remembered I have an appointment. I really appreciate your help.”

Before he could stop her, Lacey was on her feet and out the door. In her wake, Matthew rubbed a hand over his face and stifled several curses. This whole sponsor gig was a hell of a lot more complicated than he imagined. So was keeping tabs on Ms. Anonymous or that matter. Well, he had no choice but to roll with the punches and hope she didn’t do something reckless in the meantime.

****

Silver Springs, Colorado

Music thumping, drinks pouring, girls dancing…the club certainly knew how to reel in the customers. Everett walked into Killian’s establishment with Owen at his back feeling like a Wild West sheriff hunting the outlaw in the local saloon. Actually, the analogy wasn’t too far off the mark.

Beneath his feet, he had no idea Ruby Ward was tied to a chair, soaked in sweat, blood, and stale alcohol, desperately gripping the last strands of her dignity as she wavered with her conscience and her addiction. Instead, Everett’s gaze raked over the scantily clad dancers in the cages. Most men would feel a twinge of lust, perhaps a slight hardening in their loins, but he felt indifferent to the lure. No sooner did he turn away, Everett was confronted by Killian. Ah, the famous crime boss in the flesh.

“Agent Machado,” Killian greeted with a suspicious grin.

Weren’t they beyond such pleasantries? Cutting to the chase, Everett looked the gangster in the eye. “The name Ruby Ward ring a bell?”

“No.” Jones wore a suave smirk. The men behind him zeroed in and guarded their boss.

Nonplussed, Everett pressed harder. “No? Friend of Lacey French? You sure you don’t know her?”

Killian just stared.

“You remember Lacey, don’t you? You made the mistake of choking one of your dancers to death in front of her, then she was going to put you behind bars for life by testifying, but then got cold feet. None of this jogs your memory?”

Machado had to give the guy credit. Never once did Killian’s stonewall routine crack.

“Ms. Ward was reported missing a few days ago and my partner and I were hoping we could take a look around and see if she ended up here.”

“Do you have a warrant?”

“Why,” Owen asked. “You got something to hide?”

Killian’s cold stare focused on Everett - hard. The silent warning was clear and one of his thugs finally answered the question.

“No warrant, no search.”

More male testosterone surged between the alphas, but Killian broke the tension first when his smirk returned. “You pigs can stay for the show, though. I’ll even throw in a free dance.”

With a condescending wave, the mobster headed to the back room. Everett could choose to linger and hope he stumbled upon something useful, but Jones was way too smart to leave evidence out in the open. Instead, he decided to get back to headquarters and work on that warrant. Lacey was in the wind, her sponsor was missing, and Everett knew all paths would eventually lead back to his nemesis. Killian’s desperation would make him mess up eventually and Everett would be there to pounce. The end of the road was within sight. He could practically taste victory! First step was getting the legal paperwork handled. Just a few more hours.

****

Hours upon hours of crunching numbers gave him one hell of a headache. Not to mention the unease eating away at him where Belle was concerned. Andrew knew things were off between his wife and her best friend. Nick swore everything was under control, but after seeing her this morning, Andrew felt that there was more boiling beneath the surface. If he didn’t know any better, he could have sworn Belle was a stranger.

Should he call Nick? And say what? They already knew Belle was keeping secrets. The question was what exactly was she hiding? As much as Andrew wanted to be the one to soften her up and earn her confidence, he had to trust his cousin knew what he was doing. With millions on the line, they couldn’t afford any mistakes.

Then again, Andrew didn’t give a shit about the money. If he lost Belle because of this, he doubted he would ever be able to forgive himself. Heaving a sigh, he decided to take a break and get some lunch. Just around the corner was a hot dog stand and Andrew purchased two of the usual before heading back to his door. Unfortunately, two people blocked his path. A man and a woman, but the woman did all the talking.

“Dr. Nicholas Rush?”

“Who wants to know?”

The pair flashed their badges. “I’m Detective Saldana and this is Detective Towers. We were hoping you could answer a few questions about Ariel Butler.”

Andrew’s brows shot up his forehead. “Ariel?”

“Have you spoken to her recently?”

“She called me late last night, but I haven’t seen or spoken to her since, no.” The cops eyed him as if gaining his measure. Luckily, he possessed a stellar poker face. “Is something wrong?”

Detective Saldana shook her head. “May we come in and talk?”

The police wanted to talk to him? Not a good sign, but he couldn’t think of an excuse not to allow them to have their way. “Sure,” he answered as eh reached for his keys.

Once they got an eyeful of the apartment, they started asking about his work and what exactly he did for his cousin.

“Financial advisor is a step down for someone of your stature, isn’t it, Dr. Rush?”

Andrew shrugged then gestured to the couch. “My brother pays a hell of a lot better than the university.”

“Must be nice to have connections.”

“It has its perks.” Once they were all seated in a semi-circle, Andrew wanted to dispense with the pleasantries. “What do you want to ask me?”

“Do you know why Ariel wanted to speak with you?”

“No.”

“We understand you visited her residence.”

“Yes, but her husband, Eric, said she wasn’t there, so I left.”

“And are you aware she didn’t show up to work this morning?”

“No, I wasn’t.” They exchanged stares and Andrew’s frown deepened. “I don’t understand. You think something happened to Ariel?”

“Her father called us when he failed to get ahold of her,” Detective Towers interjected. “He thinks she may be involved in foul play.”

“What?”

“And according to her phone records, you’re the last person she spoke with.”

“But I thought you had to wait forty-eight hours before concluding someone was missing.”

“Mr. Triton is a very powerful man and a concerned father.”

“I imagine he is, but I don’t know what more to tell you.”

Detective Saldana shared a quick glance with her partner, then nodded to Dr. Rush. “Would you mind coming down to the precinct? We have some photos we’d like you to look over.”

“Me?”

“Yes.”

They didn’t’ look like they would take no for an answer, so Andrew decided to play ball. He didn’t have anything to hide. But Belle may. Should he mention her? As Ariel’s best friend, Belle would already be on the cops’ radar.

“May I eat in the car?”

As Andrew followed the detectives and climbed into the back of their vehicle, he didn’t notice the taxi passing by with one hell of an astonished passenger. Lacey sure as hell saw him though and there was no mistaking the cops. Shit! Were they on to her?

Panic seized her chest and Lacey jumped out of her skin when her phone rang. Recognizing Matthew’s number, she wondered if serendipity was on her side.

“Hello?”

“Hey,” Matthew greeted. “I just wanted to make sure you’re ok.”

“I’m sorry about dashing on you like that. I appreciate your help.”

“Anytime.”

Figuring the timing of this call was a sign, and the fact she could be in for one hell of a bumpy ride, Lacey decided to take a chance. With Ruby MIA, she needed someone to talk to. >p>“Does that offer still stand? Of you begin my new sponsor?”

“As long as it’s a regular thing, Ms. Anonymous. It can’t just be when you think you need help.”

Could she commit to that? “My schedule is a bit hectic.’

“I’m up for it if you are.”

“Alright. I’ll be in touch.”

“I’ll be here.”

Heart a bit lightened by the exchange, she hung up and lost sight of Rush and the police car. What was going on? Should she call Andrew? Maybe talking to Nicholas directly would be a better option? Andrew could ask too many questions. All the worst-case scenarios raced through her head. What was her next move?

****

The warrant came through in the middle of his lunch hour. Owen practically snatched the paper out of his hands to share the big news. A hit came through on the system for the DNA found on the cigarette butts at the scene of Ruby’s kidnapping. Racing over to the club, Everett hoped they found something viable. Armed with CSU, they flooded the parking lot.

“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Everett said as he marched through the door. ‘”FBI! We have a warrant!”

People scattered as Owen killed the music. Jones looked up from his card game and threw Everett a disgusted look. For his part, Everett remained unfazed. Spotting the basement door, he asked the kingpin to open it.

“I lost the key,” Killian spat.

“That’s ok. I’ve got a key right here.” Everett produced a crowbar and broke the lock with a savage whack.

Downstairs, evidence lingered of someone being held prisoner, but they were no signs of a captive here now. Shit. He shouldn’t have goaded Jones. If Ruby Ward was here at any point, they moved her once they got a hint Everett was coming for them. CSU did their sweep and if there was any evidence pertaining to Ms. Ward’s case, they would know if a few weeks. Bad news was, Ruby may not have that long. Of the woman did know anything about Lacey, then neither of them were safe.

“At least we ruined the scumballs' day,” Owen commented.

Everett wanted to smack the wall. Jones deserved to burn in Hell for killing Tamara! One way or another, he was going to best Jones. He wouldn’t give up on Ruby Ward or Lacey French.

Chapter Text

“Let me get this straight,” Andrew said after half an hour of being interrogated by the two detectives. “You’re not even sure Ariel is missing, but you drag me down here and are questioning me like a suspect?”

“Dr. Rush,” Saldana pressed. “You are the very last person she spoke to, so you’re our best lead. Learning her frame of mind makes all the difference.”

“Yes, but you don’t know for a fact she’s actually gone,” he argued. “For all you know, she went for a long drive without telling anyone.”

“True, but her car is missing and no one has heard from her since eight this morning.”

“And you think I’m involved?”

“No, but-”

“Then I’m free to go?”

“Dr. Rush, you said Ariel was upset. Do you know what about?”

“For the millionth time – no.”

Eventually, they let him leave the precinct but not without the usual threat about not leaving town. The second he was in a cab and out of the sight of the station, Andrew dialed his cousin. “We need to meet. The apartment in an hour.”

Andrew hung up before Nicholas could refuse. Right now, he didn’t care what sort of work Nicholas had tied up. Last night Ariel acted erratic and Andrew had the foresight to call his cousin first thing and warn him just in case Ariel showed up at the penthouse or office.

When Nicholas finally arrived he listened without interrupting. After Andrew finished retelling the saga, Nicholas rubbed his chin and shrugged. “I have no idea why Ariel would want to reach out to me and not you.”

“She wasn’t herself at the beach house and there’s tension between her and Belle.” Andrew paused, almost afraid to voice the fear aloud. “You don’t think she figured out what we did, do you?”

Nicholas’s eyes snapped to his cousin. “No.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Ariel was acting oddly during Belle’s birthday and Belle practically jumps out of her skin when I mention Ariel these days. I think whatever Ariel wanted to talk to you about, it involved Belle, not us.”

“A simple falling out, or something more?” Andrew hated to think there was more to the story because he couldn’t bear the idea of his pregnant wife neck deep in duplicity.

“Andrew, you may have to face the fact Belle is tied up in all of this. She and Ariel could be working together.”

That was the last thing Andrew wanted to think. “Did Belle go out last night?”

“No,” Nick admitted. “But she was up really early this morning and…not herself.”

“How do you mean?”

His original shock returned as he recalled how Belle solved those puzzles. Never in a million years did he ever think Belle capable of holding her own amongst leagues of scholars, but the evidence laughed at that assumption. No one helped her, so Nicholas warred between admiring Belle and struggling with a deepening of his disdain. Unfortunately, admiration and a sting of another, softer emotion started winning out in his mind and heart. Needless to say, the guilt tore at his conscience. Nicholas went into this plan expecting to uncover Belle’s worst side. Never once did he expect to develop…feelings. Shit, was he as lovesick over the woman as Andrew?

“Nick?”

“Probably pregnancy hormones,” he said once he blinked back to attention. “She doesn’t sleep well.”

“Are you sure that’s all it is?”

The question wasn’t just aimed at Belle’s condition. Nicholas looked his cousin dead in the eyes. “You know I have no designs on Belle.”

Lair – his conscience roared.

“But I admit to wanting to read the worst into every little thing. For your sake, I’m doing my best to make my judgment balanced. Belle did not leave the penthouse last night, but she was up early this morning. Maybe because of hormones or maybe because she was up to something. I can keep a closer eye on her.”

“And if she gets suspicious of you? No. Don’t give her any reason to doubt you. We’re walking a dangerous line as it is.”

Poor sod. Andrew held fast to the idea that if Belle looked close enough, she’d realize Nicholas really wasn’t her husband. Andrew claimed he didn’t want their plans to go up in smoke, but secretly, Andrew wanted Belle to guess what they were up to because that meant deep down Belle still loved him.

Part of Nicholas fully understood the mentality, yet the other part hated Belle for warming up to him without being the wiser. Thin line was an understatement. Nicholas couldn’t tell if he wanted to strangle Belle or kiss her senseless, which gave him some idea of what Andrew suffered. Until he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt of Belle’s innocence, Nicholas flatly refused to fall any deeper into these confusing emotions. He had self-control dammit! What he would continue to do is play Belle until he got answers, then he would switch places with his cousin.

“Any idea what Ariel wanted?”

“No,” Andrew said solemnly. “What I do know is that they’ll look at Eric – thoroughly. If he comes up clean, I’ll be back under the spotlight.”

“Well, we can’t let that happen.”

“I’m open to suggestions, Cousin.”

Nicholas rubbed his bare chin once again and let loose a few curses. IF the police dogged their steps before they figured out who was after Gold/Charles Investments, then they may never get answers. Talk about being stuck between a rock and a hard place.

“I’ll think of something. In the meantime, sit tight and keep me posted.”

”I will,” Andrew promised. “And Nick?”

“Yeah?”

“Did she have the first ultrasound yet?”

“Not that I know of.”

His face fell a tad hearing the answer. “Let me know?”

“Sure. Of course.”

Once the door shut behind him, Nicholas felt his chest constrict. Belle carried his cousin’s child. She would forever be off limits, so he needed to reel in his fantasies before things got out of hand. Nevertheless, the memory of those puzzles kept scratching the back of his mind.

****

Pacing did nothing to abate Lacey’s nerves. How long would the police question Nicholas? What did Ariel tell him? What did she want to tell him?

Unable to wait for Andrew to get home with news, she dialed Andrew’s cell. He picked up on the third ring and sounded like he was in a cab.

“On my way back from a meeting,” he explained.

Lacey inhaled a deep breath and laid her cards on the table. “I passed Nicholas’s apartment today,” she began. “He was getting in the back of a police car. Any idea what that was about?”

“The police wanted to question him about Ariel.”

“Why?”

“Because her father reported her missing,” Andrew supplied.

Missing? Lacey’s heart fell to her feet. Who could want to hurt Ariel? “I thought you had to be gone for forty-eight hours?”

“Apparently, Ariel’s father pulled some strings and Nick was the last person she called before she fell off the radar. The police wanted to know what they said and if Ariel was upset.”

“What did he say?”

The pause on the line lasted so long that Lacey thought she pushed too hard and roused Andrew’s suspicions, so she fumbled for an explanation. “I haven’t been able to get in touch with her either and I’m worried.”

Not total lies. Ariel possessed the knowledge to blow her cover. If Ariel vanished, Lacey worried the cause wouldn’t be random, but rather linked to something more sinister. Like Jones finding out her location.

Shaking off the thought, Lacey highly doubted Jones would ever make such a connection. Unless Ariel reached out to him…again, unlikely. Ariel wanted to use Lacey’s identity as leverage, so going to Jones wouldn’t behoove Ariel’s blackmail. So what happened?

“Ariel was upset,” Andrew finally answered. “But Nick didn’t know why. If anything, the cops will turn their attention to Eric. With all their marital problems, he seems like a more viable suspect.”

Eric! Of course! Why didn’t she think of that sooner? “I hope she’s ok.”

“So do I. Listen, Belle, I have to get into a meeting. I’ll talk to you soon.”

He hung up before she could respond. Heaving a sigh, Lacey tossed the call on the couch. Did Eric do something to Ariel? If not, the authorities would shift focus back to Nicholas and if they started scrutinizing Ariel’s social circle, then they could start seeing the cracks in Lacey’s armor.

She couldn’t let that happen.

On impulse, she grabbed her keys and coat and headed out again. Half an hour later, she stood on Ariel’s doorstep, banging on the door until Eric opened up. The second he saw her, he groaned.

“What do you want?”

“Answers.”

“Ariel isn’t here,” he growled.

“Then where is she?”

“How am I supposed to know?”

Oh, his poker face was good, but the panic in his eyes demolished his tough-guy routine. “I know she’s been reported missing. Please, if you know anything-”

“I don’t,” Eric snapped. “So leave.”

He started to close the door, but Lacey inserted her foot over the threshold. “I’m not leaving until I get some answers.”

“Typical Belle. All high and mighty.”

Eric threw her a nasty look, but he relented and let her enter the apartment. Upon first glance, nothing seemed out of place. Then again, Lacey wasn’t exactly in a position to know since she didn’t spend more than one afternoon here.

“I’m not leaving until you tell me about the last time you saw Ariel.”

Crossing his arms over his chest, Eric looked down his nose at her. “We had a fight. Nothing new there. She stormed off and said she was going to work.”

“There’s more.”

Eric scoffed at her audacity. “You think so, huh?”

“It’s written all over your face.”

“And why should I tell you?”

“Because I want to help.”

“That’ll be the day.” Rolling his eyes, Eric let loose a humorless chuckle. “You’re the wedge that came between us! She meets you, her business booms, my navy career goes down the drain! Ariel despises the fact I’m not upper crust.”

“Eric,” Lacey said calmly. “Ariel’s father pulled some strings and now the police are involved. They’ve already interviewed my cousin-in-law. You’ll be next.”

“What?” He did a double-take. “Why on earth would Ariel be connected to your cousin?”

“Rush was the last person she called before dropping off the map.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know.”

Frustrated, Eric raked a hand through his hair. “Look, I know Ariel and I have our problems, but I would never hurt her. I came home and-”

He broke off, blinked back tears, and turned away.

“Eric,” Lacey prompted. “What happened when you came home?”

Whirling around to face her, he let her see the rage and the fear. “Ariel left for work, so I left for my usual bar on the corner. I didn’t get in until three and Ariel wasn't here.”

He was hiding something. She could feel it. However, when Eric met her gaze and swore he wouldn’t hurt his wife, Lacey saw his sincerity and believed him. Her gut said he still hid some serious details, but overall she believed him.

In the end, she took her leave and headed across the street. Phone in hand, she called the local bars and the third confirmed that last night Eric Butler hung around until last call. Hailing a cab, she waited for Eric to make a move. Thankfully, twenty minutes later, he left the house carrying a black garbage bag. Lacey had the driver follow him all the way to Brooklyn where he dumped the bag in a random dumpster. And once he left the scene, she went to investigate. Finding his bag wasn’t difficult because it was right at the top of the heap. Inside, however, Lacey found items that made her jaw clench. Bloody rags and pieces of a broken vase.

Eric came home and found a mess and instantly knew how it could look if he reported it. So instead of calling the cops, Eric cleaned up the evidence of a struggle. If the police got wind of this, Eric would be on their slab for sure. Lacey’s conscience nagged her. In her gut, she knew Eric was innocent, but this evidence was damning. The police would grill him. Maybe they would find a way to blame the husband, but if Eric proved to be a dead end, then the cops would look to Andrew and Nicholas. She couldn’t let that happen any more than she could let an innocent man take the fall.

So what was the solution?

The only way Lacey could think of to protect her identity and keep her cover was to throw herself under the bus. It was a gamble, but so far, everyone believed she was Belle. Besides, if Ariel ever was found and wanted to spill the beans, this red herring would add doubt to Ariel’s claims and buy Lacey time.

Before second thoughts could ruin the plan. Lacey removed her glove and pressed her fingertips against the broken porcelain pieces. Afterward, she resealed the bag and found the closest payphone.

Chapter Text

As predicted, the police hit Eric hard. The second they uncovered his cheating ways, the cops used those indiscretions as motive for wanting to get rid of his spouse without the messy divorce. Unfortunately, they didn’t have any physical evidence to tie Eric to the disappearance, so Lacey called in an anonymous tip. Eric was interrogated for hours about the garbage found in the random dumpster, but the cops released him the second the fingerprint scan identified Lacey French’s prints as those on the broken vase. The case suddenly turned on its ear and shifted full focus to the FBI fugitive.

Eric was released while Detective Saldana called Everett Machado. Never before did Everett feel such relief receiving a phone call in all his life. Cleaning up the mess of the failed search at the club, Everett had doubts that he would be allowed back out in the field. He honestly thought he had Jones dead to rights. Obviously, someone tipped the mobster off – again – and the scum managed to cover his tracks before they arrived with the warrant. The way he saw it, Everett only had himself to blame. He walked into that club half-cocked because he thought he had a sure thing, but Jones slipped between his fingers like the oily snake he was.

In order to save his reputation, and stay on the investigation, Everett needed a break. Getting the call that Lacey was in New York felt like a godsend. Needless to say, he booked the earliest flight available. Sure, the NYPD only had a set of fingerprints, but a lead was a lead.

On his way to the airport, he called Belle Gold. What would the sister have to say? His hunch about Mrs. Gold shielding her sister was right after all. On the fifth ring, she answered her phone.

“Hello?”

“Mrs. Gold. This is Agent Machado.”

Yes, Lacey expected his call since she called in the tip. Having the agent back in her life wasn’t ideal, but Lacey could tolerate the necessary evil. Besides, if Ariel really was a victim of foul play, then she wanted to best people on the case.

“I’m sorry to bother you at this hour,” Everett continued. “But I just heard the news about Ariel Butler. I would like to, ah, offer my sympathies. I know how close the two of you are.”

“Thank you.”

“Can you think of any reason why your sister would want to hurt your best friend?”

Through she anticipated the question, she made a show of being surprised and confused. “Why would you ask me that?”

“Because we have Lacey’s fingerprints linked to evidence in the case. I’m out of town at the moment, but I’ll be heading to New York in the morning, Mrs. Gold. I’m sure I’ll see you real soon.”

After hanging up the phone, Lacey inhaled a deep breath and buried her fear. She prepared for Machado’s return. He thoroughly believed she was Belle, so she had to give the impression Lacey was out there somewhere. Without Belle’s body, Lacey knew the illusion could last as long as she chose. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to fake this for too long.

****

Paris, France

Belle’s eyes scanned the latest set of numbers from swiped from Will. So far so good. Hearing her phone ring, she blindly reached out to answer. Would she hear good news or bad news?

“Yes?”

Her partner’s voice came through the line loud and clear. “The Ariel problem has been taken care of.”

Belle’s heart sank. She loved Ariel. In so many ways, her friend was the sister she never had these last five years and her conscience rolled with the reality of what she ordered done.

“Belle? Are you there?”

“Yes.” Back on the moment, she steeled her heart. “I didn’t want it to come to this.”

“A necessary evil. Now the plan can move forward.”

“Let’s hope Lacey doesn’t have any more surprises tucked up her sleeves.”

****

After another night of fretful sleep, Lacey turned on the news to see reporters ambushing both Eric and Nicholas outside their respective homes. Reporters shouted questions in their faces. Eric was accused of being a cheating bastard and asked if he murdered his wife for his mistress, while Nicholas was asked over and over about Ariel’s last words.

“Belle.”

Lacey looked up to see Andrew wearing a worried expression.

“You’ll stress yourself out watching that. Come on, you know that’s not good for the baby.”

“I know, but it’s hard not to watch.”

Coffee in hand, wearing a very sleek black suit with a pink silk tire of all things, Andrew looked handsome as hell this morning. Lacey couldn’t help admiring his form as he sorted through some papers on his desk.

“I can’t believe they’re bombarding Nick. He’s not even a suspect, but that’s the American media for you.”

Belle blinked at the statement. “Do you know any private investigators?”

The question had the real Nicholas frowning as he lifted his head to study Belle. “Do you think the police aren’t doing their job?”

“I think this case is more complicated than they know.”

“What makes you say that?”

Lacey couldn’t bring herself to broach the subject last night, but she needed to cover all her bases, which means she had to trust Andrew with a tidbit of truth about her sister. Well, a huge bit, but it couldn’t be avoided.

“Can you sit with me?”

Nicholas arched a brow and wondered if Belle was finally going to be honest about her strange activities. He sat across from her and waited. He watched Belle inhale a deep breath and the action stole his breath. She was so beautiful, even in her nervousness, and desire coiled in his loins. While Belle started and stopped her prospered speech, Nicholas was able to reel in his baser urges. Belle finally got her words out, but it was the last thing he ever expected to hear.

“There’s not an easy way to say this, so I’m just going to say it.” Lacey met Andrew’s gaze. “I have a twin.”

Wait. Did he hear correctly? A twin? The irony hit him square in the chest as Nicholas stared stoically at Belle.

“What?”

“Andrew, I know this is a shock, but-”

“More than a shock,” he exclaimed. “Why didn’t you ever say anything?”

“Because we – Lacey and I – had a falling out before you and I even met. I wanted her out of my life and I never told anyone she existed.”

“I’m not just anyone, Belle! I’m your husband!”

Part of Nicholas didn’t understand the fury rising in his chest, but the other part, the larger part, felt utterly betrayed. Belle lied to him – to his cousin - for years!

“I know and I wanted to tell you, but-”

“What, it never came up?” Nicholas laughed bitterly. “In five whole years of marriage you never once thought to tell me? You couldn’t find the right moment?”

Swallowing her panic took more effort than she expected. Lacey’s hands clenched in her lap as she fought to find her voice. “I know this is a lot, but it’s a part of my life I wanted to forget! Andrew, I know it was wrong, but Lacey was more trouble than she was worth!”

Getting into Belle’s character and repeating all the words her twin voiced to Lacey in the past tore a new hole in her heart. Belle was gone and all those harsh words from their past could never be taken back. Pain sliced through her chest at the realization, but right now she had to put her own personal pain aside and focus on what needed to be done in the present.

“What did she do that was so awful?”

Andrew’s question had Lacey’s breathing in a sharp breath. “Lacey was always in trouble. I watched her waste her gifts in favor of partying with the popular kids. She dove headfirst into drinking. Hard. While I worked my ass off in college, Lacey couldn’t keep a job. She was always in trouble with the law! Whenever she had to sleep it off in the drunk tank, I had to bail her out. I always ended up being the one picking her up, dusting her off, and pushing her to be a productive remember of society. Nothing I ever did stuck for long. Lacey never gave a crap about anyone but herself and never cared about the consequences of her actions until it was too late!”

A scathing summary of her past, but a true one. In that regard, at least, Lacey could be honest. For his part, Andrew looked livid.

“And why didn’t you think you could share this with me?”

“It wasn’t about that, Andrew. Look, Lacey represented a part of my life that was over and done. I fell in love with you, moved here, and made a new life. I never thought I would see her again.”

Nicholas opened his mouth to argue, but the elevator dinged and they both turned to see who arrived. When the real Andrew walked into the living room, Nicholas glared at Belle and saw her jerk slightly. In fact, Lacey’s heart lurched at the sight of Andrew’s cousin. Rush was not Belle’s biggest fan, so undoubtedly he would use this opportunity to get in his digs.

Lacey mentally chanted the serenity prayer and hoped she could handle the prickly man without the need for more drama.

Immediately sensing the tension in the air, Andrew looked to his cousin-in-disguise, then at his wife. “I’ve interrupted something.”

“Yes.” Nicholas straightened his tie and faced his cousin. “But you might as well hear this too.”

“Andrew!” Lacey’s face flushed crimson. “I’m sure Rush doesn’t-”

“He’s a part of this family too, whether you like it or not, Belle!”

“What’s going on?”

Nick turned to Andrew and repeated the secret Belle just confessed. “Belle has a twin sister.”

Jaw dropping, Andrew blinked at his wife. Annoyed, Belle rolled her eyes and threw him an angry glare.

“What,” she snapped. “You and Andrew are practically identical! Why is this a stretch?”

The real Nicholas ended up shouting an answer to her question. “Because we have always been honest with you!”

At Nick’s outburst, Andrew’s head snapped around. So far, Nick did a great job impersonating him. The way he and Belle glared at each other made it seem like they were a real married couple in the middle of a snit. For Belle’s part, she didn’t know any better, but Nick…well, his cousin looked furious. Sure, they guy never needed an excuse to dislike Belle, but Andrew got the impression Nicholas was taking this news more to heart than he should.

Jealousy rose quickly, but Andrew put a lid on the worst of it as he stepped between the pair. “Why don’t you start at the beginning.”

Taken off guard by the fact Rush was giving her a chance to speak over Andrew, Lacey glanced at her husband and gathered her thoughts. With a pang of regret, she remembered she had to play this role and the burden felt heavier than she anticipated. Earlier, she got lost in the ruse and fully believed she was Belle. For them to buy her story, she had to be as convincing as possible.

“Why are you just telling us this now,” Andrew-as-Rush asked.

“Because Lacey was supposed to testify in a murder trial. She ran at the eleventh hour and showed up on my doorstep. I took her in, but she bolted again and the FBI contacted me.”

The men sputtered curses hearing the last bit. Her story wasn’t as bad as she painted it, but Lacey reminded her conscience that the explanation had to fit her created narrative or she could be found out before anyone found Ariel. If all the focus was on her, then that didn’t bode well for her friend.

“Now they think Lacey might be involved in Ariel’s disappearance.”

“What?” With a shake of his head, Nicholas glared at Belle, all of his tender feelings shedding. “That’s absurd!”

“I don’t understand it either, Andrew! I didn’t want you caught up in all of this!” Lacey felt desperate for him to believe her, and not just for the sake of her cover.

“No, you would have just kept me in the dark for the whole of our marriage!”

“I don’t want you taken off guard when the police talk to you.”

“I see,” he bitterly spat. “You’re only coming clean because you have to.”

All the progress they made these last few weeks teetered on a razor’s edge and Lacey could feel Andrew slipping away. She couldn’t put her finger on exactly why the pain in her chest was so bluntly crippling, but her hand ached to reach out to Andrew and soothe his hurt. In the end, she froze when Rush’s gaze blatantly scrutinized her.

Viewing his marriage from an outside perspective, Andrew had no idea what to think. His cousin played him well – said exactly what he would have in the moment – but Andrew couldn’t keep the doubt and jealousy from taking over his conscious mind. Could this secret be what Belle hid from them all along, or was there more going on? Nick was right about Belle only telling them about her twin because she had to, which meant she could have more secrets in her closet.

For his part, Nicholas stared blankly at Belle. Outwardly, he appeared calm, but inwardly he cursed himself for a fool. How could he have been so blinded by her?

Both men were clearly confused, hurt, and angry, but Lacey only had eyes for her husband. ”Please,” she begged. “Say something!”

Why did he feel so betrayed? Because he thought he and Belle had a real connection? That he was helping his cousin fix his marriage? The whole reason Rush agreed with the switch with Andrew was because Belle couldn’t be trusted and right now, she proved his original instincts correct. So why did it hurt?

Unable to formulate an answer to Belle’s desperate please right off the bat, Nick watched Andrew step in and address his wife.

“I don’t understand why your sister would want to hurt Ariel of all people.”

“I don’t know either. Maybe she needed money. If she fell off the wagon, it would make sense.”

Silence stretched until the phone suddenly rang, slicing through the tension. Still disgusted, Nicholas answered.

“Yes, send them up.” He hung up the receiver then settled his attention back on Belle as he fiddled with his cufflinks. “The police are here.”

A few minutes later, Detective Saldana entered the penthouse with her partner. After presenting her badge, she took the measure of both Nicholas Rush and his cousin, the powerful Andrew Gold. The similarities obviously struck her to the point her eyes kept darting back and forth between the two.

“Brothers?”

“Cousins,” Nicholas-as-Andrew stated.

“Ah.” Her attention shifted to the woman she assumed was Belle Gold. “Mrs. Gold, I have a few questions for you.”

“Of course.” Lacey clasped her hands together to keep them from trembling. Though she knew this confrontation was on the horizon, the reality reminded her too much of being caught like a fish on Machado’s line. “We can talk in the living room.”

“Actually, we’d prefer the precinct.”

As some of the color drained from Lacey’s face, she felt Andrew step in line beside her and didn’t feel quite so alone. In fact, her heart soared when he defended her.

“Is that really necessary?”

“We’ve uncovered a suspect in Mrs. Butler’s disappearance and we believe Mrs. Gold has vital information. As such, this case is now a joint investigation with the NYPD and the FBI.”

“A federal case?”

“Mr. Gold, I know you have a lot of questions.” Saldana didn’t look the least bit sympathetic. “If your wife comes with us, I hope we can get some answers.”

Well, that made two of them.

Chapter Text

Three pairs of eyes locked on her. They waited for an answer. Lacey felt her skin go cold, then clammy. Out of no where her feet prickled as if she were standing on a bed of needles. The police thought she was Belle and had no reason to suspect the truth. As long as she could keep up the illusion, they would be chasing ghosts and not digging too diligently into Belle’s movements. As long as Lacey stuck to Belle’s routine, of course.

On impulse, she squeezed Andrew’s hand and returned to the moment. “I’ll just get my purse.”

So far, no one gave the suppose cousin much attention, which struck Andrew as odd considering Detective Saldana grilled him in an interrogation room not twenty-four hours ago. Andrew kept quiet and observed while going over the facts in his head.

The second Belle left the room, Nicholas let his temper slip. “You don’t have phones at the precinct?”

Saldana blinked. “Pardon?”

“You could have phoned my wife to tell her you were coming. Why the personal escort?”

“It’s a courtesy, Mr. Gold.”

“My wife is pregnant,” he stated plainly but with a slight touch of rancor. “And she’s been through a lot these past days. This better be brief.”

Both Saldana and Andrew were taken aback by the possessive tone, but for different reasons. The detective didn’t need a lawsuit, but Andrew…well, he would have done and said exactly the same in defense of his wife. However, hearing Nicholas utter the words roused Andrew’s suspicions. Suspicions he may give credit to if not for the fact he knew Nick still mourned Gloria as if her death was yesterday.

Playing this game wouldn’t be easy. Hell, he knew that going in, but he never expected Belle to want to be on good terms again or work on their marriage. Now she was doing all of that with an imposter and Andrew loathed every second! Thankfully, he reeled in his temper and regained control.

“Dr. Rush,” Saldana said to get his attention. “Why don’t you come along as well? We may have a few follow-up questions.”

“Sure.”

“Excellent.”

Back in the bedroom, Lacey paced and drew deep breaths into her lungs. She needed to calm down and think of a plan in under a minute. If she took too long that detective would get suspicious. Ok, think! She needed something to push the cops away from her and back on “Lacey”. But how?

A light bulb went off in her head and she dialed Belle’s phone using the disposable cell. Getting the voicemail, she prayed her ruse worked.

“Hey,” she said. “It’s Lacey. I’m not sure what to say or how to explain but I think I really messed up this time…”

Finally hanging up, a long breath passed her lips. Being herself pretending to call her sister, then going back to impersonating Belle was like trying to follow multiple lines sprouting off in different directions all at once, but Lacey didn’t have much of a choice. Everything would be fine. Andrew had her back and he didn’t even suspect the truth, so the police wouldn’t either.

The entire ride to the station was spent in silence. Andrew texted away on his phone, barely paying her a single glance. His stiff posture communicated the fact he wasn’t too pleased by what she shared earlier, or having his morning routine interrupted by the cops. Plus luck enabled Lacey to share the news about being a twin with both Andrew and Rush before the detectives arrived on her doorstep. Would her luck hold? At this point, all Lacey could do was cross her fingers and pray.

Unlike the FBI headquarters, where she was dragged after her initial arrest, the NYPD station smelled of stale coffee and rubber sole shoes. The floors were scuffed and the cabinets in the corner had a layer of dust. Her heels made minute clicking sounds against the sticky tiles. At first, her nose crinkled, but then she remembered that it wasn’t that long ago she lived in a roach motel.

What happened to her? When she first stepped into Belle’s shoes only a few weeks ago all this luxury stunned her senses. Now? She wrinkled her nose at anything less than fifth avenue standards? Maybe she really fell too far into her twin’s life.

Before Lacey could continue her mental flogging, she spotted Agent Machado speaking with one of the uniforms. He looked at home within these walls. As her panic rose, Lacey was instructed to follow another uniform while Saldana crossed the bullpen to speak to Machado. Ready or not, Lacey was now embroiled in this case.

Andrew and Nicholas were escorted to separate rooms. Lacey hoped she shared enough about herself to throw the cops off Eric and onto her phantom suspect. Back braced against the cold metal chair, Lacey’s conscience nagged her. Messing with evidence could hurt the search for Ariel. Possibly, the real suspect could go free! Did she make a big mistake? What if they failed to find Ariel because they were too busy looking for “Lacey” and missed vital clues?

Too little, too late, so she would have to do whatever she could in here to persuade the cops to continue their search. One thing Lacey knew for sure was that if Agent Machado thought he had a shot at catching Lacey, then he would stop at nothing to locate Ariel.

As Lacey chilled in the interrogation room, Everett faced Saldana and listened to her go over how they decided to bring The Golds and Dr. Rush here.

“I understand you want to protect your witness,” Saldana started. “But my priority is finding Ariel Butler.”

“Come on, you know you can’t release Lacey’s name or photo to the press,” he said. “At this point, all we can confirm is that we have a suspect.”

And Everett was fully prepared to pull rank and toss the case out of Saldana’s clutches if need be. “If Killian Jones believes Lacey French is right here in New York, he’ll make sure someone takes care of her. Matter of fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if he added a personal touch and came here to do the deed himself.”

Saldana made a face, communicating her belief that Machado over-exaggerated the situation. She heaved an exasperated sigh but resisted rolling her eyes. “You talk as if this mid-western dealer is a top mobster.”

“Look, Ariel Butler is Lacey’s twin’s best friend. We’re working toward the same goal.”

Plus, he didn’t have the time or the inclination to outline Jones’s network to a two-bit detective.

Everett nodded to Saldana and headed down the hall to where Belle Gold waited. A smile nearly cracked his armor when he looked through the two-way mirror and saw the woman standing with her arms crossed over her chest and looking positively regal. Finally, Everett entered the interrogation room and nodded in greeting.

“I appreciate you coming down,” he began.

Belle stiffened at his approach and Everett pulled out the chair for her. “You look a little nervous. Can I get you anything? Water or coffee?”

This session would go a lot smoother if she cooperated, but Lacey knew a trip to the police station was a lot like falling into Fairyland. If you didn’t want to get trapped forever in a cage, don’t eat or drink anything.

“Let’s just get this over with,” she said as she sat in the offered chair. Briefly, she wondered if Andrew was alright. The other detectives were probably grilling him and Rush about Lacey right now.

Agent Machado straightened his tie while studying her with a critical eye. Flashbacks of the first time she sat in a room like this one across from the agent rose. Lacey inhaled a deep breath and reminded her nerves that she wasn’t a frightened girl anymore.

“Let’s just start from the beginning.” Everett hoped this time around he would get some straight answers from the socialite. “Take me back to the Hamptons. September ninth you-”

A knock on the door cut him off mid-sentence and Everett turned to see Saldana poking her head around the door. “Got a sec?”

Stalling tactic. One designed to make the suspect sweat a little. Lacey knew what she had to say, so it didn’t matter how long Agent Machado played this game and kept her waiting to say it. Less than a minute later, Machado returned and shook his head.

“That’s interesting. Your husband and Dr. Rush both knew exactly who Lacey French was and I thought you were keeping your sister a secret.”

A spike of fear raced down her spine because she confessed no such thing to him, but then she remembered he spoke to Ariel and made his own conclusions based on her friend’s reaction. Feigning a casual shrug, Lacey hoped she appeared unconcerned.

“It’s hard to keep that kind of secret with you sniffing around all my addresses.”

“Do you have any other information you’d like to share?”

Lacey seized the opening and nodded as she took her cell out of her pocket. “My sister isn’t in New York anymore.”

Accessing the voicemail, she played the message she left for herself back in the bedroom.

Hey, it’s Lacey. I’m not sure what to say or how to explain, but I think I really messed up this time. And I don’t’ think there’s anything you can do to fix it. I have to leave New York. I was thinking Europe. We always used to talk about going there. Anyway, I just wanted to say I’m sorry and…goodbye.”

“She left it this morning,” Lacey added as she exited out of the app. “I tried calling back but the number is blocked.”

Everett held out his hand for her cell. “May I?”

Not seeing any other choice, she dropped the device in his palm. He immediately checked the time stamp and arched a brow. “This was left shortly after Detective Saldana arrived to pick you up.”

Lacey shrugged. “So?”

“So, how can I be sure that you weren’t helping Lacey? Telling her to get out of town?”

“I assure you, Agent Machado, talking to you doesn’t help my sister.”

Well, she had a point there. Adjusting to sit on the edge of the table, he looked Belle in the eye. “What did Lacey mean when she said she messed up big this time?”

“I don’t know.”

“What was your sister’s relationship with Ariel Butler?’

“I don’t know. As far as I know, they’ve never met.”

Not liking the answers, Everett pressed harder. “We have evidence connecting Lacey to Ariel’s disappearance. I can put her at the Butler home and you have no idea how your twin and your best friend know each other?”

“The only connection I’m aware of is a conversation you have with Ariel about my sister.”

“Do you even care about your best friend, Mrs. Gold? Do you care that your sister is involved in this mess? Do you feel anything at all for either one of them?”

“What kind of question is that?!”

“You tell me.”

Pissed, Lacey got to her feet. “We’re done here.”

Though she walked out of the room with an air of regal dignity the Queen of England would admire, Lacey feared Machado would yank her back and say he recognized her for the fraud she really was. Oddly enough, the door slammed behind her and no shouting or scuffing footfalls followed her down the hallway. Her sole focus centered now on finding Andrew, but she crossed paths with Nicholas the second she rounded the corner.

Haggard, he arched a brow at how she nearly collided into him.

“Are you ok?”

Taken aback by the question, Rush couldn’t quite hide his surprise, but he nodded. “How are you? How’s the baby?”

“I’m fine,” Lacey answered, ignoring the subtle stroke of guilt. “How was it? Did they ask you ridiculous questions?”

Of course, Belle would want answers, but real-Andrew didn’t have time right now. He needed time to process all this new information. Running a hand over his beard, he mentally noted he had to trim the damn thing again. “I’m just gonna head home.”

Just as Andrew turned to leave, his cousin emerged and approached Lacey from behind. Nicholas-as-Andrew put a gentle hand on her shoulder to get her attention.

“The car is waiting downstairs.”

He sounded put out and Lacey wished she could say something to make this whole situation better, but no genius words spouted to mind, and so she silently followed his lead. They took all of three steps when Agent Machado called to them.

“Mrs. Gold! Just one more thing.”

As she turned, she caught Andrew’s annoyed expression out of the corner of her eye.

“It’s about Ruby Ward.”

Snapping to attention. She never expected to hear her sponsor’s name. Unable to get ahold of her friend, the worry mounted, then exploded into a full blown panic seeing the look in Machado’s eyes.

“Andrew, why don’t I meet you downstairs?”

“I’ll wait in the car.”

He barely spared her a second look as he bolted for the door. Afraid of what other surprises would hit today, Lacey returned her attention to Machado and prayed the news wouldn’t be as bad as she feared.

Chapter Text

“I know you’ve been in contact with Ms. Ward.” Everett saw no point in beating around the bush when the stakes were this high.

How did he know that? Maybe it didn’t matter but Lacey felt uneasy as she feigned a nonchalant shrug. “She called me a few times after Lacey ran. She seemed concerned.”

“Now there is reason to be concerned about her. Ms. Ward is also missing.”

Lacey’s heart fell to her knees. Did Jones get to Ruby?!

“Any possibility Lacey is working with Ms. Ward on a ransom demand?”

“What?! That’s outrageous!”

“Is it,” Everett challenged.

Words about Ruby’s integrity nearly slipped off her tongue, but she caught herself at the last second. “You should have led with that if it’s really what you think.”

True, but Belle’s reaction just now had Everett’s hackles rising. If Mrs. Gold never met Ruby, why the passionate defense? “It’s a long shot, but we’re exploring every angle. I think it goes without saying that if Lacey calls you again you should tell me. The same goes if Ms. Ward tries to contact you as well. If the two are in cahoots, it might make Lacey want to come forward and testify.”

“How do you figure?”

“Because the most likely suspect in Ms. Ward’s disappearance is Killian Jones. Lacey’s return will shift his focus and render Ms. Ward as insignificant.”

“Which translates to him releasing her?”

Everett shrugged. “Maybe, but Jones would likely give up Ruby to have another crack at Lacey.”

Yeah, except she saw through his bluff. Jones was a ruthless animal and if he had Ruby there was no way in Hell he would just let her go. “Unless she’s already dead.”

“There were signs of foul play, Mrs. Gold, but we’re still investigating. I’ll be in touch.”

Dismissed, Lacey walked outside in a daze. Ruby’s cell went straight to voicemail for a while now. How could she not have sensed something was wrong? Lacey’s inner dread kicked up a notch imagining Ruby in Killian’s clutches. To make matters worse, Andrew acted as cold as ever. Looks like she had a lot of fences to mend. Hopefully, in the midst of this investigation, the police wouldn’t look too closely at Belle’s life. At least, not yet.

****

A bead of sweat trickled down her cheek to drip onto her lap. The humidity from the bag over her face put Ruby in this uncomfortable position and with her hands tied behind her back, she couldn’t wipe away the moisture. Head spinning, she forgot to stay conscious.

When she fed Killian a story about Lacey escaping to Europe, he didn’t look convinced in the slightest, but Ruby kept up with the tale through a few more beatings. Eventually, Jones left her with a few of his goons and they tied her up, threw a sack over her head, and dragged her out to a van. She thought they would do more, but thankfully they kept their hands to themselves.

Ruby couldn’t be certain, but she thought a day, maybe two, passed since then. Working the cuffs around her wrists, Ruby head her babysitters talk about stopping for a bite to eat. Soon enough, they parked and she heard two doors slam. Silence engulfed her. Working fast, she was able to flip the sack off her head and work it so her hands were bound in front of her. Getting out of the car was easy, but she wobbled on her feet. Pain let her know she was alive, but Ruby doubted she could run very far.

The gas pumps were a dead giveaway. Ruby eyed the path to the ladies’ room. Hiding would be good, but getting gone would be better. Across the street, people were lining up at the bus stop. The destination didn’t matter. Ruby ran toward the lien and blended in with the crowd. Luckily, no one asked her for a ticket. Maybe she could get to the next stop unnoticed as well. As the bus pulled away, she started at the gas station until it was out of sight. Only then did she dare close her eyes.

A long, hot soak would get rid of the alcohol stench, but for now Ruby was thankful to have escaped. Killian Jones kidnapped and tortured her, but he wouldn’t stop there. He wanted Lacey and it didn’t matter what he had to do to get his hands on the missing witness. Ruby had to warn her friend.

****

New York City

So far away, yet they looked close enough to touch. Stars were wondrous beacons. Why didn’t she ever take the time to properly appreciate them? The fall nights started getting chillier, but Lacey wasn’t quite ready to go back inside. Today was a tough one and her guilt pressed heavily on her heart.

Footfalls sounded behind her. There wasn’t a point looking up because she knew who approached. Andrew came to stand beside her, hands in his pockets. He followed her gaze to the sky. Several moments passed before he finally spoke.

“They asked me a lot of questions about your sister,” he began. “Questions I can’t answer. And they asked about Ruby Ward.” He waited for Belle to face him. “Who is she?”

“Ruby is my sister’s AA sponsor.” Lacey fought the urge to cry. Memories flooded, especially of the night they celebrated her three-month milestone.

For years, Lacey didn’t think anyone else could really understand what she went through. The vicious cycles of drinking to control the world around her, then failing miserably, then feeling the high only to crash and burn. Lacey felt helpless in fate’s clutches. Ruby understood, though. She helped Lacey realize she wasn’t alone and for the first time since she could recall, Lacey became empowered. Of course, this friendship got so close, so fast, that a few lines were crossed and Ruby misunderstood Lacey’s attachment. There was a fumbled kiss that ended up lingering, but when they came up for air, the awkwardness hit had. They discussed Ruby’s homosexuality but Lacey already had an inkling her friend leaned in that direction.

Ruby wanted to quit their AA relationship, but Lacey wouldn’t hear of it. They would move forward and keep the line in the sand visible from then onward. Lacey couldn’t lose another person from her life.

Andrew was still staring at her, which helped Lacey return to the present moment.

“How bad was it,” he asked. “The drinking.”

Honesty was the best policy, so she went with that. “There were times I thought she would get killed or go to jail for a DUI. Lacey stole and partied and didn’t care who she hurt along the way. I’m amazed she didn’t end up on the streets.”

“I read up on her,” Nicholas-as-Andrew confessed. “Online newspapers say she witnessed a murder in a strip club. She was a stripper, Belle. She ran at the eleventh hour like a coward. What sort of people was she mixed up with? Are we even safe?”

Studying Belle’s husband, words left her. As much as Lacey wanted to confess all, she knew Andrew would never forgive her, so she continued with the lie. “Lacey left the country.”

“So she said, but how do you know for sure? An alcoholic stripper picked up on prostitution charges that you haven’t seen in six years? How do you know she’s not lying? Or involved in Ariel’s disappearance? How do you know she won’t try to extort money from us?”

Is that all he cared about? The money? How did she even begin to convince him that “Lacey” was gone?

“I’m not sure you know what she’s really capable of.”

For a moment, Lacey wondered how her reputation became synonymous with the Big Bad Wolf. The harsh judgment in his eyes was a tough pill to swallow, but her jaw clenched with determination. Lacey stepped into Belle’s shoes for a very specific reason. One she shouldn’t forget.

“She’s gone, Andrew,” Lacey stressed. “Isn’t that enough? She can’t hurt us anymore.”

“Alright,” he bit out. “But I can’t forgive the fact you weren’t honest with me. I guess our promise about no more secrets was an empty one?”

A lone tear slid down Lacey’s cheek despite her best efforts. “I told you the truth.”

Anger flooded those dark eyes. “Only because you had to.”

As those harsh word hung in the air, Nicholas wanted to reach out and ease Belle’s sadness. Damn! She lied and he felt like the heel? Without another word, he left her alone with the stars.
More tears fell and Lacey didn’t bother wiping them away. Just when she had it beat, that familiar craving tingled. Lacey snatched her phone and scrolled through the contacts until she found Matthew’s name. He agreed to be her sponsor now, and lord knows she needed one, but with Ruby missing, how could she replace her friend with someone else?

As the craving worsened, the realization that she may not have a choice in the matter became crystal clear. Andrew was pissed and who could blame him? Though the hour was late, she dialed Matt. He answered on the fifth ring and agreed to meet at a café. So far, the guy was a rock.

“I need your help, but I also need discretion.”

Matt arched a brow at the intrigue. “Tell me you didn’t down a few shots or pour vodka in your water bottle.”

“No.”

“Then that’s all I need to know.”

It was cool how at ease he was about…everything. Matthew claimed he saw much worse than she and Lacey wanted to believe that but also wondered if anyone else had to switch places with their dead twin and stay one step ahead of the law to keep up the charade.

“My best friend is missing.” And she probably botched the investigation with her meddling. “Two days now.”

“Like gone, gone? Or she got fed up and didn’t tell anyone she went to the spa gone?”

“I wish that was all it was. Her name is Ariel Butler.”

Matt nodded. “I heard about her on the news. She’s that architect. The story sounded like her husband did it.”

“He didn’t.” Lacey trusted her gut on that score.

Arching a brow to convey his doubt, Matthew then crossed his arms over his chest. “You have inside information or something?”

“I know that the cops are chasing the wrong suspect.”

“Wow.” He drew out the word. “How do you know that?”

Lacey’s expression went blank as a board. Mathew got the hint and nodded once. “File that under the tab of too many questions, huh.”

She nodded. “Yes.

“Ok, and what do you need from me?”

“You were a cop right?”

“After the navy, yeah. Why?”

“I thought you could do to the precinct and ask a few buddies-”

Matthew’s laughter cut off the rest of her sentence. “What am I supposed to tell them? My anonymous friend has a feeling you’re chasing the wrong guy? But she can’t tell you what, or who, or why, how or when?”

“Matt, I came to you because I don’t have anyone else I can trust.”

Jokingly he grinned. “And you trust me? You haven’t even told me your real name.”

Lacey mentally debated her options, which weren’t many. Quickly, she realized she needed to take a leap of faith if she hoped to help Ariel. “Belle Gold,” she answered.

“Belle Gold, I think we’re finally making some progress. You know when I offered to be your sponsor, I doubted it would be this involved.”

“Does that mean you’ll help me?”

“I can make a few calls and see what I come up with. No promises, though.”

Relief flooded her system. For the first time in days, Lacey felt that things would be alright. Finding Ariel and making matters right with Andrew were her full focus. With Matthew’s help, she would hopefully be able to point the police away from “Lacey” and toward the real suspect. Whoever that was.

****

Ruby managed to get home, grab some cash and clothes, then head to the Greyhound station. Three state lines later, she realized she was being followed. Taking out her aggression on her pursuer using a bathroom stall door ended up being great therapy. One of Killian’s goons thought they were being sly, but she caught on fast. Ruby made sure no one else followed her when she boarded the next bus. Soon, she would be at her destination.

****

Lacey never expected to hear from Matthew so fast but he called the very next afternoon. They met and he gave her the run down.

“Lacey French is still the main suspect,” he said casually. “And she’s your twin sister.”

Logically, Lacey should have expected that rabbit to pop out of the hat but shock still flooded her senses at his announcement. How should she respond?

“Is that why you’re so hell-bent on proving her innocence?”

Again, Lacey couldn’t get her voice box to function. Matt noticed her struggle but had no idea what to think.

“Belle, I want to help. I got a peek at the case file and the sore thumb that sticks out to me is Ariel’s car. No one knows where it went. Maybe someone’s hiding it? The real suspect, maybe? The car could lead to a substantial break in the case.”

And maybe Eric ditched it before he disposed of those rags in that random dumpster. “Let me see if I can get a lead on that.”

“At this point, I know not to ask how you’re going to pull that off.” Matt chuckled. “Being your sponsor sure isn’t dull.”

“Will you call me in the meantime if you find out more?”

“Not a problem. I live to serve.”

Lacey smiled with genuine gratitude. “If I haven’t said it already, thank you, Matt.”

Matthew flashed her a huge grin. “You didn’t. And you’re welcome.”

All that was left to do now was wait. Well, that and see if Eric would tell her anything about Ariel’s car. Lacey needed another plan of action. If it wasn’t one crisis, it was another. Was Belle’s life ever this boring?

Chapter Text

“Are you sick of the police hounding you?”

Eric rolled his eyes at the rich bitch standing on his stoop. “Jesus! You’re like a bad rash!”

She was called worse. Lacey looked Eric dead in the eye and continued. “Listen, I’m about the only one that believes you didn’t hurt Ariel. Working with me is in your best interests.”

Unable to deny that fact, Eric begrudgingly stepped aside. “Tell me what you want so I can throw you out.”

As she crossed the threshold, Lacey refused to be intimidated by his gruff manner. “I know a guy who can help, but I’ll need to know where you stashed her car.”

His eyes bulged. “You can’t be serious.”

“He’s a P.I.,” she pressed. Matt wasn’t a private investigator officially but he was one, sort of, so she wasn’t really telling a full lie. Well, ok, a little white lie, but it was for the greater good.

“Look, the cops have stopped looking beyond you and Lacey. They’re not evening thinking about other possible suspects.”

A scoff passed his lips. “Last I checked, your bitch twin was neck deep in this! You’re the reason my wife is gone!”

“And Lacey’s in the wind, which leaves you for the police to focus their full attention on! They need more to go on, so they’ll watch your every move until they find a way to pin charges on you, so just tell me where the car is.”

Eric looked down his nose at the haughty socialite. “Why do you care so much? Huh, Belle? I don’t believe for a second all this concern is for Ariel!”

“Fine. If you refuse to believe I care about my best friend, believe I want my sister found so she can stop messing up my life!”

Though he barked a laugh, humor never reached Eric’s eyes. “Heaven forbid your reputation suffer because of an ex-con in the family tree.”

The barb stung, but Lacey refused to rise to the bait. “Just tell me.”

“Why should I trust you?”

“Because I’m the only one who has your back on this.”

“So you say,” he challenged. “This could all be an elaborate rouse!”

Seriously? How thick was this meathead? “Eric, I want to find both my sister and my friend. You want your wife back. The cops don’t have any fresh leads on Lacey, so they’ve all but given up and won’t overtax themselves to think outside the box. I’ve got a guy on the investigation, so help me help you, or pray your lawyer can untangle you from this net.”

Shit. His lawyer told him the cops were presently searching for links between him and Lacey French. They wouldn’t find anything since he didn’t fucking know the woman, but that wouldn’t stop the persecution. A crumbling marriage on the verge of divorce and a multimillion-dollar life insurance policy held more weight than a fugitive and a set of fingerprints.

“Fine,” he grumbled. “But don’t make me regret this.”

Five minutes later, Lacey walked out the door with a piece of paper in hand. A cab picked her up easily enough and they made a pit stop at one of the last pay phones sprinkled in the area. Once she called Matt and gave him the information, she headed home.

Honestly, that chore ended up taking less effort than she anticipated. Eric acted like an ass, but his sense of self-preservation won the day. Lucky thing too because she didn’t have a Plan B. All there was left to do now was sit tight and wait to hear from Matthew. Lacey prayed he found a clue that would lead to Ariel.

Back in the apartment, she checked the mail and paused flipping through the envelopes when she found an open invitation. Eric’s father-in-law planned a benefit gala this evening to showcase Ariel’s work and draw more media attention to her disappearance. The postmark said this arrived yesterday. Why didn’t Andrew tell her?

Lacey called him immediately but was taken off guard by his terse tone when he answered the call.

“I dinna think ye wanted to go,” he snapped. Andrew’s brogue shined through when he was upset. “It’s not like we’ve been on the same wavelength for the last five years.”

“A guilt trip? Really, Andrew?” If he had a clue about all the stress and juggling she had to deal with maybe he wouldn’t be so quick to judge. Then again, he couldn’t know the truth. Not yet.

He sighed heavily over the line. “I’m going. If you wish to join me, you know where to find me. I’ll be home to change.”

The line went dead.

Shit. Maybe Belle had the right idea not telling Andrew about her existence. With a sigh of her own, Lacey went to the closet and sorted through her twin’s gowns. Something simple, elegant, and somber. Guilt and helplessness motivated her to do more than just sit around a luxurious apartment and twiddle her thumbs.

Would she ever stop making a mess of her life? First Belle and now Ariel? Doing anything he could to make things right meant she had to try.

Hours later, Lacey fastened a pair of diamond teardrop earrings and dared a glance at her husband. Andrew’s rigid back faced her as he knotted the silk tie around his neck. Smoothing her hands down the black linen gown, she inhaled a bracing breath.

“Are you sure you still want to do this? You seem upset.”

"I’ll be fine.” Nicholas made the final knot and smoothed his fingers down the silk. His patience for Belle wore thin. Mostly, the reasons centered on the fact he had trouble getting back into his role. The fantasies of having Belle in his bed overwhelmed his common sense.

Clearly, Andrew didn’t get over stuff quickly. Then again, how could Lacey blame him? News of a twin sister was a pretty big bombshell. Lacey wanted the tension to pass, so she tried again to smooth matters over.

“I didn’t tell you about Lacey because I was ashamed,” she began. “No one should feel that way about their own flesh and blood.”

Nicholas finally faced her. “Why should you feel any shame? It’s not like you did all those horrible things.”

Oh, if only he knew! A sharp breath seized her lungs as she came closer and met his gaze. “It’s different with twins,” she explained truthfully. “I don’t know how to put it into words. I always felt responsible for her. I guess I was afraid if you knew the truth, it would change the way you saw me. As a piece of white trash instead of a woman worthy of being your wife.”

“You should have given me a little more credit.” Nicholas would have judged her harshly in the beginning without a doubt, but his cousin? Andrew’s heart held much more capacity for compassion.

“I’m sorry.” Lacey’s heart ached at the fact Belle wanted to keep her a secret, but she also knew she discovered to be disowned. Sure, she downplayed it all now only because she knew Andrew never heard the full story. If Belle didn’t confess to being a twin, then she certainly didn’t confess the rest.

“Sometimes it’s easier to lie.”

Andrew flashed her a look that said “yeah right” and Lacey titled her head in a come-on gesture. “You know what I mean, Andrew. No one tells the whole truth all the time. It makes us vulnerable.”

He couldn’t argue with her there. Nicholas inclined his head, encouraging her to continue.

“I’m sure there are some things you haven’t been perfectly honest with me about.”

Again, she hit a zinger. Before he even realized what he was doing, Nicholas confessed a truth he never intended.

“When I found out you were pregnant, I wasn’t happy.”

Lacey’s face fell. A father not being happy about an unexpected pregnancy wasn’t unusual, but somehow she got it in her head Andrew would be different.

Belle’s hurt expression tugged his heartstrings in ways he never anticipated. Instead of letting that truth sink in, he wanted to explain and comfort her. What on earth was happening to his steadfast resolve to despise this woman?

“We were barely speaking, Belle. Our sex life was practically nonexistent. A baby sounded like a complication that would only make everything worse.”

How could she argue? Maybe if Andrew ever learned the truth, the news may be such a harsh blow?

“But then I realized,” he continued as he clasped her hands. “This baby is a blessing. He or she means everything to me. I just don’t want anything to ever go wrong between us again.”

Nicholas started to say what he knew Andrew would say to Belle but a strange sensation engulfed him as he spoke. An epiphany shattered the walls around his tender feelings. Nicholas meant every single word that rolled off his tongue just now. This child wasn’t biologically his, but he wanted this baby. The child was family and therefore cherished. Belle was cherished.

The realization hit him like a wrecking ball. When did his opinion of Belle shift? Never before did he consider her more than passingly attractive, but raw desire for this gorgeous creature burned through his veins. Even though in the back of his mind, Nicholas knew he was sinking in dark waters, he didn’t want to deny any of these newfound cravings.

When their gazes met, Lacey felt something in her soul slip and an undeniable tug of desire mixed with molten heat seized her being. Even as she ached to touch him, her conscience warned that Andrew didn’t belong to her. He was Belle’s husband! How could she commit adultery on top of everything else?

But Belle was dead. The whisper repeated over and over that Andrew was free – as was she. Still, Lacey was living a lie! The lust swimming through her limbs didn’t care about such particulars.

“Andrew,” she breathed.

Oh god, his hand on her bare shoulder caused an electric zap of tingles to race through her being! Did he feel it, too? This undeniable connection?

How could he not touch that bare skin? Just one touch, he swore. Just a small taste to take with him to his dreams, but when their eyes met, Nicholas couldn’t remember how to breathe. Damn this wasn’t logical! No equation or analysis could have prepared him for this overwhelming sensation taking over every fiber of his being and demanding to possess her!

Unlike his supposed wife, Nicholas knew what indulging this infatuation would mean. Adultery. Utter betrayal of his cousin whom he loved like a brother. Someone he was willing to bend over backward to help protect.

“I don’t want to lose you…”

Touched beyond all reason, Lacey leaned forward to hug him. The connection between them surged and coiled. As their cheeks brushed, Lacey paused her retreat. He smelled so good. Being held felt indescribably wonderful. When was the last time someone held her? Despite the thousands of reasons to keep space between them, she couldn’t bear to be away from him just yet.

Their lips were so close. Unable to stop herself, Lacey took a chance and pressed a gentle kiss to the edge of his lips. An innocent touch just to see what he tasted like, but a possessive growl vibrated in Andrew’s throat and a split second later he seized her closer and deepened the kiss. Lacey had no idea what she expected, but the softness and finesse he used to inhale her essence caught her off guard.

Never before in her life did Lacey receive such a tender, passionate, electrically charged connection. Hell, she never experienced such a passionate kiss in all her life. Heavens help her and Belle forgive her because she wanted more!

The kiss deepened still and desires seized until they were clinging to each other, desperate for the net touch. Neither realized Andrew’s phone started ringing. When the noise did penetrate her consciousness, Lacey curled her fingers in Andrew’s hair and held him to her, silently urging him to ignore the summons.

He was going straight to Hell. And Nicholas didn’t care one iota. Belle awakened his senses and made him crave like he never did before – not even with Gloria.

No, no, no – this was wrong! Belle belonged to Andrew! She carried his child! Yet, she kissed him!

Only because she thinks I’m Andrew!

The though finally roused Nicholas from the exquisite haze to take a steadying breath. Lord, Belle trembled in his arms! She felt their connection, too!

An annoying ringing persisted and Nicholas glared at his cell.

“Sounds important,” Lacey said breathlessly.

Frustrated, Nicholas snatched the phone and was startled to see his cousin’s name on the screen. Did Andrew somehow know? No, he couldn’t. Could he?

Clearing his throat before answering, Nicholas schooled his features and diverted his gaze from Belle to answer. “Hello?”

Lacey’s fingers went to her lips. She could still taste him. Her eyes shifted to the window. Andrew could kiss like an expert! With that kind of chemistry, how did he and Belle end up barely speaking?

The question stung like a slap to the cheek. How easily she forgot her twin in that moment! In Lacey’s defense, what if Andrew didn’t have the same level of chemistry with Belle? Her heart slammed against her ribs for several reasons. First, if Andrew and Belle didn’t have the same connection that meant what she just shared with him was unique and real. Second, what if the change roused his suspicions?

What should she do? If Lacey pulled back now, that could make Andrew angry as well as curious. Crap! Now that she opened this can of worms, how did she close it again?

Chapter Text

The benefit gala was everything one would expect of an upper crust affair. Black tie with designer gowns costing thousands, gourmet food, and classical music topped off the glittering spectacle. Lacey’s hands fidgeted as her eyes scanned the crowd. Nerves seized her being not only because she felt so out of place, but also because she couldn’t get that explosive kiss out of her head.

How could she have kissed her sister’s husband?

But Belle was dead.

Yes, but Andrew didn’t know that.

Crap, how did she keep messing up her life? If Lacey was completely honest, she knew part of stepping into Belle’s shoes meant playing the role of the doting wife. Andrew’s attractiveness struck her almost instantly. The excuse that Lacey had to be intimate with him acted as a balm to her conscience. At first, she assumed the task would be a chore, but when faced with the reality…Andrew was quite wonderful. Getting to know him over these last few weeks was surprisingly pleasant.

Then she kissed him. Lacey’s growing feelings warred with her promises to Belle and the fact she was living a lie. Well, she would worry about that later. Right now, Lacey’s focus narrowed in on the party and smiling at the right people. Across the room, Eric stumbled. Lacey knew that posture all too well. Eric reached his limit. An older man approached Eric and they exchanged a few words before the older man weaved into the crowd and vanished. After inhaling a bracing breath, Lacey approached Eric.

“Shouldn’t you be taking it easy?”

Bulbs flashed in their faces. Photographers outside the windows coveted a shot of the husband and best friend of the missing Ariel for tomorrow’s edition.

“No,” Eric snapped. “Isn’t this what grieving husbands are supposed to do, Belle?”

“At least come away from the window.”

Eric scoffed. “I should have made more of an effort. Cherished her while I had the chance.”

“This wasn’t your fault.”

“Was it Lacey’s?”

The rancor in his voice sent a chill down her spine. “No.”

Eric didn’t look like he believed her. “Can I leave yet, or am I required to attend this circus for a certain amount of time? I never mastered the rules.”

“Come on,” Lacey urged. “Let’s get you a car.”

Helping Eric toward the door, not even a fool could miss the stares and whispers aimed at the display. Let them gossip. Lacey felt sorry for people who had nothing else better to do than to stick their noses into other people’s lives.

The second Eric’s care drove off, the fatigue and stress caught up with her. Temples pounding, she inhaled a deep breath and gazed at the crowd. She almost went back inside but thought she caught a glimpse of a familiar face. Realization hit her full force.

Ruby?!

No sooner did Lacey take a step forward the fatigue made her head spin. “Ruby?”

The swirling wouldn’t stop. Her vision blurred and nothing made sense. A strange buzzing in her ears started. Seconds later, the darkness rushed her consciousness and Lacey fainted dead away.

****

“I have a surprise for you.”

Everett arched brow at Detective Saldana. “A good one, I hope.”

“Oh yeah.” She handed him the report. “We got a hit on Ruby Ward’s debit card.”

“Seriously?” He eagerly flipped open the folder. Excitement raced through his blood. “The ATM is in the city.”

Saldana showed him a surveillance photo. “This was taken two hours ago.”

“That’s her! That’s Ruby Ward alright!”

“Safe and sound apparently.”

Everett’s eyes narrowed on the woman’s face. “She looks worse for wear since the last time I saw her. If she’s in New York, that means Lacey is, too. All we have to do is find Ruby and let her lead us to Lacey.”

“Let’s hope it goes that easily.”

Oh, it would all fall into place nicely. Ruby looked like she fell off the wagon – hard. Everett did feel a moment’s pity because Jones most assuredly didn’t show her any mercy, but that circumstance would make predicting her movements easier. Soon, he would have Lacey French back in custody. Everett could almost taste triumph.

****

She halted as a sharp pain stabbed through her skull. What happened? Ruby! Lacey saw Ruby! That’s what she thought before her world went dark.

Paramedics framed her vision. “You fainted,” one said. “We’re going to get you to the hospital.”

Lacey’s voice didn’t work. Confusion fogged her sense. Where was Ruby? Was she safe? In all the chaos and fussing around her, Lacey didn’t notice Ruby followed her to the hospital by taxi.

A few hours later, Nicholas-as-Andrew paced the waiting room and spotted the other woman. Recognition lit up his features. “Excuse me,” he said as he approached Ruby. “You helped my wife at the gallery. Thank you.”

Ruby recognized Andrew from the gallery as well. He claimed to be Lacey’s husband and rode with her to the hospital. “No trouble,” she murmured.

“I really appreciate it.”

Ruby couldn’t understand the anger that simmered in her veins. She didn’t want this man’s gratitude. Then again, since she knew he was actually Belle’s husband, Ruby thought her reaction a bit over exaggerated. There was no one in this town she could trust aside from her friend, so she wouldn’t warm up to Andrew anytime soon.

Ruby gave the man a nod, but thankfully a doctor called him away. Ruby took that opportunity to fade into the background. Shit, she needed a drink.

Nicholas glanced over his shoulder and saw the strange woman dashing through the double doors. Odd. Most would have asked for a reward the second they noted his designer suit. Well, he wouldn’t worry about her now. Belle needed his full attention. What made her faint like that?

Dread engulfed him as he marched down the corridor toward Belle’s room. Thankfully, he got the call after he left Andrew. They had a hit on one of the old accounts, but tracing the origins of who was using that account would take some time. Every second he spent with this cousin plotting their next move, Nicholas wanted to confess the truth of his feelings. He should have told Andrew about the kiss but didn’t want to hurt the man. Poor bastard already missed Belle something fierce. Besides, Nicholas swore he wouldn’t touch Belle again.

Yes, he just got caught up in the role – but no. He should be honest with himself at the very least. Nicholas wanted Belle. Even now her taste lingered in his mind and his loins throbbed with longing. Never in a million years did Nicholas expect to feel such a powerful connection to any woman again, but Belle somehow slithered past all his defenses. However, that didn’t mean she was suddenly fair game. As his cousin’s wife, Belle would always be out of reach.

There had to be some solution that could put her off until the cousins could switch back. Repairing a rocky marriage would have ups and downs. The kiss they shared would be forever imprinted in his memory, but Nicholas refused to allow one indiscretion to rule his life. The time had come to dig in and move forward.

A few seconds later, that resolve slipped a bit at the sight of Belle propped up in the hospital bed hooked up to beeping machines. She looked so pale and fragile. Cautiously, he approached and gently took her hand in his. Her eyelids fluttered and those gorgeous blues smiled at him. Nicholas’s chest tightened, but he managed to find his voice.

“How are you feeling?”

A small smile tugged her lips. “Like I did a Humpty-Dumpty off a wall.”

How could Belle have a sense of humor lying in a hospital? Nicholas admired her for her strength but also wanted answers. Before he could ask any questions, a doctor and a pair of nurses walked through the door. The nurses pushed an ultrasound machine next to Lacey’s bed.

“What’s going on?” Lacey felt the panic rising and had this urge to run out the door before her lies came crumbling down.

“The doctors just want to check on the baby.”

Andrew’s answer had her heart pounding painfully in her chest. There wasn’t a baby! How could she possibly explain? Eyes wide, she gripped his arm. “It’s not necessary, Andrew.”

“Relax,” he urged. “They don’t suspect anything, but they will feel safer if they had a look.” Honestly, he wanted to have some peace of mind as well that the next generation thrived.

“Andrew, it’s been such a long day.”

“Belle,” he said with a tad of sternness in his tone. “I know you feel well, but to refuse an ultrasound is crazy.”

“I didn’t mean-”

“You’ve had a concussion.” Nicholas squeezed her hand. “Belle, please do as the doctor asks.”

If she did, then she would be exposed as a fraud! Machado would know! Killian Jones would find her and kill her in her sleep! But Lacey couldn’t tell any of this to Andrew!

A beeping noise reached her ears and Lacey’s gaze shifted to the doctor prepping the machine. Think! How could she get out of this mess? Fake a fit? The doctors would see through that, right? Lacey wracked her brain for a solution, but none was forthcoming. The doctor would soon conclude she was never pregnant and that would be that.

“Lift up your gown, please.”

Since she had no other option, Lacey did as she was told. Cool gel made contact with her skin, causing her to wince. The doctor used a wand to spread the substance over her belly. Her breath lodged in her throat as the machine lit up with an image of her uterus.

“Try to relax,” the doctor advised. “The first ultrasound is tricky because the baby is no bigger than a bean.”

Lacey bit her dry lip. Could she dive out of this bed and make a run for the exit?

“How’s your head?”

“Sore,” she told the doctor.

“What caused her to faint,” Andrew asked.

“She was in a hot, crowded environment. That’s all it takes. Mrs. Gold, can you shift to the left please?”

Lacey complied, but with her heart racing, she couldn’t control her fear.

“Is everything ok,” Andrew asked.

“Well, I’m not seeing anything.”

Nicholas did not expect that answer at all and frowned in confusion at the news. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t…see a baby.”

Unexpected pain sliced through his chest. No baby? “But I thought this was a precaution. The nurse assured me my wife was fine.”

An idea popped into Lacey’s head and she seized the opening. “I had some bleeding last week.”

His eyes widened and snapped to hers. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because I didn’t want you to worry.” Lacey turned to the doctor. “I was told spotting was normal.”

“It can be.” They turned off the machine. “I can’t be certain, but it sounds like the embryo attached outside the uterus and those are rarely viable. Only a small amount of bleeding would have occurred with this type of miscarriage versus a full one because there wouldn’t have been a placenta.”

The clinical description didn’t help ease the blow. The news hit Nicholas harder than he imagined. Belle looked like she was in shock. Why wouldn’t she be? They thought they were having a baby and now they…weren't. Oh lord, what was he going to tell Andrew?

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

With those words, the three medical personnel left the couple alone.

She dodged a bullet. A huge one. And Lacey’s cover remained intact. Still, the utter devastation on Andrew’s face added to the pile of guilt already hanging over her head. One more lie.

“Let me, ah, see about getting you discharged.” Nicholas cleared his throat and wished he had words of wisdom, but all he wanted was to get out of here.

Lacey rubbed her hands over her face and prayed she didn’t cause more damage. What Andrew didn’t know was that his child died with Belle weeks ago. Now he had a proper chance to mourn. Pure circumstance was the only reason he ever knew about the baby in the first place. Belle certainly didn’t tell him before she took her own life. Maybe her twin didn’t have a clue herself.

Lacey couldn’t picture her twin doing what she did if she knew she was pregnant. Would the knowledge have saved Belle’s life? The answer was impossible to predict. Right now, Lacey mourned not only her sister but the innocent being that never had a chance.

Or did she just slap a justification on a selfish act? Ariel accused her of being such when she explained how she took her twin’s identity. Making amends with Belle’s family seemed only right, but did Lacey use Andrew and his cousin as a shield from the truth? That she was only in this to save her own skin? Lacey hated that the baby died and that Andrew was feeling the pain of the loss. Only time could heal this wound. So, what was her next move?

Chapter Text

Hood over his head, Matt kept to the shadows of the parking garage. Ariel’s car was parked right where he was told it would be. Thank goodness for small favors. Popping the locks, he did a thorough run through. All spick and span except for the drop of dried blood on the trunk’s closing latch. Foolish mistake.

He nabbed Ariel when her back was turned, but the bitch put up a hell of a fight. Even when he cracked her on the head, she crawled inside her house and left a bloody mess. If he wasn’t so pressed for time, he would have done a better clean-up job, but he had to get Ariel out of the equation before she had a chance to blab her big mouth.

A rag drenched in bleach took care of the leftover blood stain. Closing the hatch, he let the car sit. Even if the cops found it now, nothing would lead back to him. Besides, Matt had a few more tricks tucked up his sleeves.

Taking his cell out of his back pocket, he dialed an international number. The called connected to Paris, France.

“Hello,” the familiar voice answered.

“Found the car.”

“Anything left behind?”

“Just some blood.”

“Hers?”

“No,” he said grimly. “Mine from when she hit me.”

“Good thing you found it.”

“Don’t thank me. Thank Lacey. The cops are still chasing her ghost. Very clever.”

“Never underestimate a rat’s survival instincts.”

“She’s the only solid suspect, so the cops will never connect me to Ariel’s disappearance.”

“And everyone still thinks Lacey is me?”

“Don’t worry, Belle. Ariel never had a chance to tell a soul. We made sure of it.”

Belle certainly hoped so. She never planned for anyone to know about Lacey, but once the cat was out of the bag, Ariel refused to keep the secret. Very unfriendly of her. Until whoever tried to kill her actually succeeded in killing Lacey, Belle had to make sure Ariel stayed out of sight. Why couldn’t Ariel at least have felt some sympathy? Instead, all she cared about was her lying, cheating husband and using Lacey’s identity to get some comeuppance. Well, that wouldn’t fit in with Belle’s carefully laid plans.

“Call me with the next move.”

Matt hung up and Belle inhaled a sharp breath. All wasn’t lost. All she had to do was make sure Lacey continued living her life. Once she heard of Lacey’s demise, then Belle would be free.

A hand covered her belly as her conscience nagged her. Lacey owned a part of Belle’s soul as much as this child did. Revenge was a dish best served cold and Belle never thought she would crave such a thing, but all she had to do was picture her mother’s face and the venomous resentment rose full force.

Lacey never took responsibility for her life. She expected someone else to come along and fix everything. When their world shattered and Belle actually needed support for a change, where was her twin? Playing the victim card. Again.

Fed up, Belle cut the toxicity out of her life. If her sister worked to turn her life around, then Belle would have witnessed a real transformation and would have found the internal fortitude to deal with their circumstances. Instead, Lacey sang the same song and cried for sympathy. And after what she did?! That was the last straw. Belle washed her hands of her twin and started over.

At first, her life with Andrew was nothing short of a fairytale. Then all he ever did was work and they started snapping constantly. Yet, no matter how bad things got, she never in a million years thought Andrew would steal. Hell, she never thought he would want her dead, but reality proved pretty undeniable.

Lacey may be her twin, but she was never a good sister. Even if Belle wanted to pull the plug on her plan, a child was now in the mix. Therefore, Belle didn’t have a choice. At least, that’s what she kept telling herself.

Nausea rose and Belle raced to the bathroom. Unable to keep anything in her stomach, she felt sick at heart as well as in body. A craving for Andrew’s comforting embrace engulfed her anew.

How could she still love that man after all he put her through? All these heavy decisions cut at her soul, but Belle had to stay the course. If she wanted to survive, if she wanted her baby to have a chance, then she didn’t have another option.

****

New York City

The ride back to the apartment was spent in total silence. Lacey truly regretted this turn of events. If only Andrew hadn’t overheard that phone call, he never would have known about the baby and wouldn’t be hurting now. On the other hand, he did have a right to know about the child that briefly existed. Right?

How on earth was he going to break the news to Andrew? Nicholas never thought he would feel such a punch to the gut at the news of the loss. He could only imagine how Belle was feeling and how his cousin would react to the news. Belle gazed out the window looking lost. Words escaped him. What did one even say at a time like this?

The silence between them lingered as they exited the elevator and entered the penthouse. Blindly following Belle to the bedroom, Nicholas sat beside her on the bed wishing he could comfort her and take away her pain.

“I’m sorry.” Lacey didn’t know what else to say. He hurt now because of her mistakes and she felt awful. And helpless.

“There’s nothing for you to be sorry about,” Nicholas said hoarsely. Seizing her arms, he forced her to look at him. “What happened wasn’t your fault. All that matters is that you’re ok.”

Nicholas’s heart broke that she felt like she owed him an apology.

Such a sweet man. Lacey understood now what Belle saw in him.

“I’ll make you some tea.”

“Are you sure? If you’re in pain-”

“Not physical pain,” she said to assure him. “It’s just…sad.”

He squeezed her hand and pulled her into a warm hug. The feel of his hands rubbing her back made her feel safe and cherished. All too soon, Andrew pulled back.

“Don’t worry about the tea. I’ll let you rest.”

Lacey wanted to ask him not to leave, but the words lodged in her throat. Andrew left and Lacey raked a hand through her hair. What a mess. Was the worst finally behind her? Somehow, she doubted it.

Unexpectedly, her cell rang. A delayed voicemail came through from an unknown number. A familiar voice made Lacey breathe a sigh of relief.

“Lacey, it’s Ruby. I’m at the motel on 95th, room 610. I really need to see you. Come quickly.”

So, it was Ruby at the party! How did her friend know where to find her? Did Jones hurt her? A thousand more questions swirled in her head. Needing answers, Lacey grabbed her coat and told Andrew she was going for a walk to clear her head. Naturally, he protested, but she swore to be back in an hour.

Stomach in knots, she had no idea what to expect. When Ruby opened the door, the bruises on her face stood out like sore thumbs. Anyone could tell she went through the ringer. Lower lip trembling, Lacey pulled her friend into a hug.

“I was so worried!”

Ruby rested her chin on top of Lacey’s head and inhaled her friend’s perfume. Oh, if only things were different! But they weren’t. Collecting her composure helped Ruby put on a brave face.

“Tell me what happened,” Lacey gently demanded as they pulled back.

Where to begin? With a shrug, Ruby managed to talk about the basics. “Jones was looking for you. Since I was your sponsor, I guess he figured I had answers, so he had his goons jumped me.” She trailed off as the memories surfaced. Terror scratched her veins, but Ruby firmly reminded her nerves that she escaped. She was safe now. “I didn’t tell him a thing.”

“Ruby,” she breathed. “How did you get away?”

Jones wouldn’t have made it easy, that’s for sure.

“Tricked them. They set me loose thinking they would follow me right to you, but I managed to do a bait-and-switch and double back. I grabbed some stuff and came here. Look, we have got to go.”

Lacey knew that was the plan, but... “I can’t.”

Ruby’s eye widened. “What? Why not? Jones and the cops are after you – us!”

“I sort of threw Lacey under the bus,” she explained.

Ruby’s temples started to pound as the confusion set in. “I don’t understand.”

“I had to keep my cover. If the police dug too deep or looked too close, they could have found out the truth. I had to make them think Lacey was in the wind so that my status as Belle would be unquestionable.”

“Why the hell would you do that?”

Desperation clawed at Lacey’s throat. “I didn’t have a choice!”

Ruby bit back her temper. Oh sure, she wouldn’t have been thrown into one of Jones’s basements if she didn’t get mixed up with Lacey French in the first place, but what was done was done. Lacey may have a harder time laying low, but the best thing for both of them was getting as far away from the city as possible.

“I can move you into a hotel close to the apartment.”

Ruby’s gaze sharpened. “No. I’ll manage.”

“You don’t even know where you’re going,” Lacey reminded.

“I’ll get my bearing, Lace.” Using Lacey’s real name to prove at point gave Ruby a small sense of satisfaction, especially when her friend flinched. Lacey was getting too caught up in her twin’s life. If Lacey wasn’t careful, she would disappear into Belle’s persona.

What Ruby didn’t notice, was how Lacey soaked in the small, telltale details Ruby thought would go unnoticed.

The shaking fingers, bloodshot eyes, and constant fidgeting were dead giveaways. Though Lacey didn’t doubt Ruby’s tale of escape, she couldn’t help thinking there was more involved. Plus, Ruby clearly fell off the wagon. Jones’s doing, but Ruby obviously didn’t want to talk about it.

“Are you sure you’re ok?”

Ruby nodded. “Fine. I’ll come up with a plan.”

More guilt raced through Lacey’s system. Her friend wouldn’t be in this situation if not for her. Lacey took out her wallet, emptied the contents, and held the wad of bills out to Ruby. “Try to rest.”

Rest, huh? Maybe in a million years. As Ruby pocketed the money, her knuckled brushed against the chip. Pulling it out, Ruby held it up to show Lacey. “I snagged it before I left. It’s your six-month chip.”

Ruby pressed the round piece of plastic into Lacey’s palm, and met her eyes. “So you don’t forget who you are.”

What frightened Lacey the most was how close to home those words hit. All this time bonding with Andrew and Ariel dragged Lacey deeper and deeper into Belle’s life. Worse, she wanted to keep it. Who wouldn’t want to be married to a rich, successful man and feel safe? Being Belle solved all her problems – when she wasn’t creating more drama to keep up the facade.

“I’ll be in touch.”

Ruby watched Lacey leave with a heavy heart. Harboring a crush on the other woman wasn’t a good idea, but Ruby couldn’t help it. Lacey was straight and Ruby accepted that fact but that didn’t stop her from wishing. If captivity and torture at Jones’s hands taught her anything, it was that every moment of life was precious. Ruby refused to give up on her friend. Not because she was strong or loyal but because deep down, Ruby’s love for Lacey was stronger than her terror of Jones.

Yes, Ruby’s heart clung to what could never be.

Heartbroken and sobriety were a horrible combination. Ruby pulled the wad of cash from her pocket and stared at the green paper. Lacey may have her new chip, but Ruby lost hers. No. Jones and his goons stole it from her. Pissed, she found the closest bar. Jones pushed her right off the wagon so she might as well enjoy it.

****

Six months. Lacey stared at her reflection and remembered the first day she met Ruby.

A knock sounded, scattering those thoughts.

“Belle,” Andrew called through the door. “Everything alright? You’ve been in there all morning.”

“I’m fine,” she called. Lacey pocketed the chip and turned to open the door. Andrew looked at her with such tender concern that she felt even more like a fraud.

“You don’t have to worry about me.”

“I took the day off so we could spend it together.”

As sweet as that sounded, Lacey couldn’t have Andrew underfoot because she wanted to check on Ruby. Her friend survived a harrowing ordeal and needed her. Since she didn’t have a story to spin for Andrew, Lacey made up an excuse.

“I have a follow-up doctor’s appointment.”

“Well, I’ll go with you.”

The hopeful look in those dark eyes tugged her heartstrings, but Lacey hardened her resolve. “I’d rather go alone.”

Nicholas gritted his teeth in an effort to push down his hurt and frustration but his words came out harsh, even to his own ears. “Belle, we should be together at a time like this.”

Was he suspicious? Lacey gave him a soft smile to smooth things over. “I appreciate that. You have no idea how much, but please, I – this is something I have to do alone.”

What woman suffered a miscarriage and wanted to be left alone? Perhaps some harbored the burden of their grief on their own shoulders, but Nicholas didn’t get the impression Belle was that type. He frowned when he realized Belle didn’t look ashamed or distraught. She looked desperate to leave the penthouse, however. Nicholas’s old suspicions of her rose.

“Fine,” he bit out.

Lacey placed a reassuring hand on his arm. “I’ll see you later.”

Nicholas watched her leave and wondered if he should follow. Normally, he would call Andrew and give him a heads-up, but right now he wasn’t sure he could face the man. Plus, he had to figure out how to break the unpleasant news to his cousin.

Chapter Text

With nothing else on his calendar, Nicholas decided to be productive. Not ready to face Andrew, he headed to the office. An hour later, Regina walked in carrying a portfolio under her arm and wearing a dark green sheath suit that showed off a generous amount of cleavage.

“Good morning,” she said cheerfully.

Not in the mood, Nicholas didn’t return the sentiment. “I’ve fired the head of European Operations.”

Regina blinked at the unexpected news. “What on earth did he do? When I last met him in Paris, he showed me twenty percent returns!”

“He lost transfer documents with my signature on them.”

“Are you sure?”

“He’s blaming subordinates, but I think he’s lying.”

“What are we going to do?”

Nicholas’s grim expression remained locked on his computer screen. “Don’t worry, Regina. I’ve taken care of it.”

And hacked all the man’s correspondence. If he was connected to the leak and the people trying to kill them, then Nicholas will know soon enough.

“Is something else bothering you? You’re never this ruthless in the morning.”

He didn’t want to answer, but Regina had a habit of nagging until she pried information out of her targets.

“Belle lost the baby.”

Nicholas didn’t mean to blurt the words, but they poured off his tongue despite his best intentions.

Shock and sympathy played over Regina’s features. “Andrew, I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.”

“Go home and be with her.”

“I offered, but she wanted to be alone.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“You can always try again.”

Could they? Is that what he would tell his cousin? Funny, Nicholas warmed up to the idea of a baby pretty quickly. The mental picture of Belle with a child in her arms – his child – was an image Nicholas had a tough time pushing to the back burner. Andrew would be devastated since he was elated from the beginning.

“Thank you, Regina,” Nicholas finally said.

“If you need anything you know where to find me.”

Once Regina left, Nicholas told his assistant to hold all his calls. He didn’t feel like dealing with anything right now.

A few hours later, the real Andrew popped by the office. He received Nicholas’s message about the head of European Operations and decided to follow-up. On the top floor, he nearly collided with Regina.

“Nicholas,” she gasped as she regained her bearings. “Fancy seeing you here.”

“I have business with my cousin.”

“He called you, did he? Well, I’m glad he has someone to talk to.”

“About what?”

“Oh, I guess you didn’t hear, then. Andrew has been in a sour mood, but one can hardly blame him given the news.”

The real Andrew’s patience quickly wore thin. “What news is that?”

“Belle lost the baby. He’s taking it rather hard.”

The blood drained from his face. “What?”

“Oh!” Regina blinked rapidly. “I thought you knew.”

“No,” he choked. No, he didn’t know Belle lost their child. Tears threatened, but anger swiftly chased away the pain. Why didn’t Nick tell him? Clearing his throat, Andrew then forced his gaze to Regina.

“When did it happen?”

She shrugged. “Yesterday, I think.”

Yesterday? And not one phone call?

“Come to think of it, I’ve seen you around more in the last few months than I ever have,” she remarked.

Andrew left Regina in his rearview as he marched past his assistant and into his office. His cousin’s head snapped up and Andrew slammed the door shut behind him.

“Why the bloody hell dinna ye tell me?!”

Nicholas rose with his hands up. He didn’t pretend to not understand what Andrew meant. “I was trying to find the right way to break the news.”

Grief tore through his being with such force that Andrew’s knees wobbled. That child was hope. A bright future he craved with every fiber of his being. Andrew stumbled to the closest chair and collapsed into the seat. He wiped angrily at the tears gathering in to the corners of his eyes as he glared at his cousin.

“You should have called me immediately.”

“I know.” Nicholas spoke solemnly.

“How is Belle?”

“Sad, but…”

Andrew’s eyes narrowed. “But what?”

“She brushed me off when she went to her follow-up appointment and rushed out the door. My gut says I should have seen what she was up to but then this crisis arose.”

“So, my wife loses our child and you still suspect her of being mixed up in this espionage?”

The accusation was understandable and Nicholas reeled in his own temper because he knew he fully deserved Andrew’s wrath. In fact, he should confess everything but didn’t want to add to his cousin’s hurt.

“Perhaps she isn’t tangled up in the company’s problems, but she’s hiding something.”

Unable to bear another moment, Andrew put his face in his hands and let the tears fall. Five minutes ago he thought he was going to be a father. Now that dream was torn away and there was nothing to be done.

“When all of this is over,” Nicholas said gently. “You two can ty again.”

Andrew barked a humorless laugh, lifted his head, and wiped away the tears staining his cheeks. “And when will it be over, Nick? We are barely plugging the leaks and so far tracing the source has been challenging at best.”

“I found another link in Paris.”

Andrew blinked. “When?”

“Just now.” He retrieved the report from his desk and handed it to his cousin. “I never would have detected the drain if I wasn’t going over out former employee’s accounts with a fine tooth comb.”

The puzzle now had one more piece. “Any way to stop the current withdrawals and find out who authorized them?”

“I’ve taken precautions but the sooner we have a new head of European Operations, the better.”

“Any ideas?”

“I have a short list.”

Andrew nodded. “Then I’ll take care of this.”

“Are you sure? If you need to take time-”

“No.” Andrew rose and folded the report before tucking it in his breast pocket. “This company is all I have now.”

He was halfway to the door when Nick spoke.

“She still loves you, you know.”

Right there. That spark of hope in Andrew’s eyes was the reason Nicholas didn’t come clean about the kiss.

“Should I ask how you know?”

“Because I see it every day,” he said thickly. “It’s just aimed at the wrong man.”

Andrew couldn’t deny the complexity of the situation. More than anything he wanted to step back into his own shoes, hold his wife close, and move forward with their lives. Unfortunately, until the threat hanging over their heads passed, they had to take these precautions. Giving Nicholas a single nod, Andrew promised to be in touch then headed out the door.

Bloody hell! How did that woman ensnare him? He knew Belle had secrets! Her twin sister was a major reveal and the fact Belle kept such a thing hidden for so long should be a huge red flag. If she hid Lacey’s existence for five years, what else was she concealing?

Suspension kept the lust at bay, which was why Nicholas indulged the sensation and wondered if Belle was involved in the espionage and pondered how she could have pulled off her schemes.
****

An urgent need to see Ruby again drove Lacey out the door. However, Ruby wasn’t in her room. Worried, she called her friend’s cell.

“Hey, Lace,” Ruby answered.

“Where are you?”

“Out getting some necessities.”

Was it paranoid to think Ruby sounded strange? “I can wait.”

“No, this will take a while. I’ll call you later when I’m settled.”

“Alright. If you’re sure?”

“Yeah. Lace, I’m fine. Don’t fret like a mother hen, ok?”

Lacey smiled because now she sounded like the old Ruby. “Alright. Bye.”

Seconds later, her cell chimed again. This time, the screen said Matthew’s name. Hoping he found a clue, she agreed to meet him at a café. Lacey desperately wanted to make everything right but also felt like she tripped into a chasm of chaos. Half an hour later, Lacey faced Matt across an outdoor table waiting with bated breath for him to share what he found.

“I found the car,” he began. “Spent three hours there, but only found a few hairs that belonged to Ariel but little else.”

“You sure?” Lacey’s heart fell.

Matt shrugged. “I know you were hoping for better news.”

“Thanks for trying. It’s more than most would do.”

A frown marred his features. “Why do I think there’s more going on than the whole Ariel thing?”

Probably because she had a full plate and her frustrations were written all over her face. “My old sponsor is in town.”

Lacey wasn’t sure why she said so much to a man she hardly knew, but these days she lacked confidants and needed an outlet.

“Ah, and you’re trying to tell me you want to breakup?”

His tone sounded joking, but his eyes were serious, so Lacey quickly reassured him. “No, I like what we have.”

“Good. You made me nervous.”

“Sorry. I’m stressed. Ruby’s visit complicates things.”

“How so?”

How to explain? Ruby knew the truth, but judged her horribly for it. And where did she even begin to broach the subject that was Andrew? “My husband and I are going through some issues.”

“Hey,” Matt said gently. “Just be honest. Remember, once you come clean-”

“You stay clean,” Lacey finished. “I know and I appreciate it. Truly.”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

They finished their coffee and Lacey said her goodbyes. The second the brunette was out of sight, Mathew’s easy-going demeanor dropped and he grabbed his cell out of his pocket. Belle answered on the third ring.

“Ruby Ward is in New York City.”

What? Does Lacey know?”

“She’s the one that told me.”

“What the hell is she doing there? Do you think Ruby suspects the truth?”

“Oh, yeah. Lacey shares everything with her sponsor. She can’t help it but I’m trying to pace myself with the questions. Hands down, Ruby knows that Lacey is pretending to be you. What she doesn’t know is that you’re still alive and pulling the strings. Lacey is being cautious with me because of her situation, but earning trust is tough. I’m going for more supportive than intrusive.”

Belle gritted her teeth before biting out orders. “Just make sure she doesn’t mess things up.”

“I’m taking a different approach now, Belle. The Ariel thing got way out of hand. I didn’t sign on to this job to-”

“Spare me the details. I’ve spend the last four weeks listening to one man complain about his job. I don’t need to do it long distance.”

Without waiting for a response, Belle ended the call and shifted her full attention to the knocking sounds at the door. Belle put on her best smile and twisted the knob to reveal her friend. Will approached and greeted her with a huge grin.

“I figured I would stop by and invite you one more time to Rome. The company’s footing the bill.”

Oh, she was tempted, but Belle didn’t want Will to get the wrong impression. They may be separated but Belle still loved her husband and despite all the lies, her loyalty to him remained steadfast. Anyway, she had to stick to her plan, which meant staying put.

“You’re sweet but I want to see more of Paris.”

Will chuckled. “As if we haven’t seen all the sites already.”

His teasing tone made her smile widen. “Yes, but there is still the countryside. Have a good time in Rome. Don’t miss your flight.”

Will appeared slightly disappointed but he didn’t pressure her. “Alright. If you need anything, you have my number.”

“I do.” Belle hugged him. “You’re really a great guy.”

“Tell that to my wife,” he joked.

Belle’s smile vanished and she stepped back into her room. Will realized his mistake and nodded.

“I made it awkward. Sorry.”

“Not at all. We both need to work through our feelings for our spouses.”

Too true. “I’ll see you when I get back.”

“I look forward to it.”

Once he caught the elevator, Will mentally scolded his lack of finesse. Part of him did want to move on and Belle was sweet and gorgeous and just his type. Anastasia certainly didn’t want to remember she was married, so why should he? Just his luck he would meet the perfect girl in Paris and she would happen to be tied up in marriage drama of her own.

Chapter Text

Paris, France

Will leaned back in the cab to clear his head when his cell rang.

“This is Will,” he answered.

“Please hold for Mr. Gold.”

Mr. Gold was calling him directly? Will’s heart slammed against his ribs and he barely had time to gain his bearings when the gruff, slightly Scottish accented voice sounded over the connection.

“Will, Andrew Gold.”

“Hello, Sir! What can I do for you?”

“I wanted to let you know that Mr. Greene is no longer with Gold/Charles.”

“Really?” Will couldn’t conceal his surprise. “I just spoke with him last night.”

“I wanted to talk to you about replacing him.”

“Sir?”

“How about switching your flight from Rome to New York so we can discuss this in person?’

Will managed to hold back a howl of triumph. “I’d love to.”

“Excellent. I’ll see you when you get here. My secretary will make all the necessary arrangements.”

Talk about a shock. Will’s excitement vibrated through his bloodstream, making him feel like he wanted to go everywhere at once. His career was suddenly on the fast track! Anastasia would be thrilled. Will wished he could see the look on her face. As the cab rounded a corner, Will threw his head back and laughed.

****

New York City

Updating Eric exhausted her emotionally. Lacey had no keep reminding herself that no matter how grief-stricken Eric appeared now, he did cheat on his wife without remorse. All Lacey could hope for was that this whole mess acted as a wake-up call to the guy’s wondering penis.

Back home, she sorted through Belle’s calendar to the back where random notes were scribbled. Lacey didn’t have a clue as to who wanted her sister dead. Ariel’s situation distracted Lacey from that score. Could the same people that put a hit out on Belle be involved in Ariel’s disappearance?

The movement of the elevator distracted her and Lacey’s gaze lifted to see Nicholas of all people walk into the foyer. “Andrew’s not back yet.”

How could his own wife stand only a few feet away from him and not see him? Andrew’s emotions were tangled in an incomprehensible web. He ached to let the truth roll off his tongue but he also wanted to shake Belle silly until she opened her eyes. Most of all, Andrew wanted to gather Bell close and rock her in his arms until the pain went away.

“Nicholas, is something wrong?”

Snapping to attention, Andrew noted her clear eyes and positive appearance. Belle didn’t look like a grieving would-be-mother. “Andrew told me about the baby.”

He said the words more harshly than intended but couldn’t take them back now.

“He did?”

“Yeah, he’s really torn about it and you’ve shut him out.”

Lacey should have guessed his cousin would learn about the baby eventually, but she never expected Nicholas to show up on her doorstep. “And you came all this way to accuse me of something?”

Since Lacey didn’t appreciate his tone just now, she didn’t particularly care if she sounded gruff.

The real Andrew shrugged. “You dunna look devastated. You look relieved.”

“That’s a really nasty thing to say!”

“Come on, Belle! You never wanted Andrew’s children! Admit it!”

The pain of her sister’s loss surfaced which caused Lacey to fight back tears. Grief for Belle and her unborn baby squeezed her heart. Yes, she stepped into her sister’s shoes but that didn’t mean she didn’t love her sister and didn’t wish her back every second of every day!

“Don’t you dare talk to me like that, Rush!”

“Why not? It’s the truth!”

“Get out,” she said as tears welled in her eyes. To her surprise, he inched closer and refused to back off. “Do you even care that the baby died?”

“Of course I care!” A precious life was gone. One that never had a chance and Lacey wished with every fiber of her being that she hadn’t fallen asleep on that boat. Maybe then her sister would be alive and finding a reason to live for her child. “Don’t you think I’m riddled with guilt over this? I keep repeating everything over and over in my head, wondering which moment was the turning point that I could go back and fix! That if I paid more attention, I could have prevented the loss?!”

“Then why push Andrew away?”

“That’s none of your business!”

The hell is wasn’t! Maybe Nicholas was right about her hiding something.

“Fine.” Throwing up his hands, Andrew marched to the elevator. The second the doors closed he smashed his hand against the panels. Their baby was gone and he couldn’t shake the helplessness overwhelming him.

What was Rush’s problem? Lacey’s heart smacked against her ribs as she wondered if she should tell Andrew about the visit. No. He would most likely take his cousin’s side. The last thing Lacey needed right now was for Andrew to be suspicious of her too. There were already enough problems on her plate.

****

A sixth sense prickled down her spine the second she stumbled out of the bar on unsteady heels. They weren’t in uniform but Ruby could make out the cops instantly. Dread clenched her gut and she made a break for it. Unfortunately, she barely sprinted ten feet down the street before she was tackled to the ground and hauled off in the back of a police cruiser. Her elbows, palms, and knees were scraped raw and bleeding. Bruises gathered beneath her skin, but these pigs wouldn’t care about that. Hell, Ruby would be lucky not to wait hours chained to a bench before they decided to process her.

Oddly enough, they didn’t send her to a cell. Instead, Ruby was dragged by her handcuffs to a cold, stale interrogation room where one of the suits pushed her into a seat and left her to wait. For what or whom, she didn’t have a clue. The doorknob wouldn’t budge, so she paced for a few minutes before reclaiming the chair.

Twenty minutes later, Agent Machado graced her with his presence.

Well, well, well, look what the cat dragged in. If this chump thought she would cave, then he had another thing coming!

Douche.

“I thought you had this beat, Ruby.”

Ah, here came the sympathy. The cop trying to relate to the poor drunk in order to squeeze answers from her, or some shit. Ruby wasn’t thick enough to fall for the scam.

“How long have we known each other,” Everett continued. “Seven months? All that time you were dependable and honest. So, tell me what happened.”

The silence lingered a solid five minutes. Finally, Machado dropped the façade.

“Ms. Ward, if you really want to stay hidden, don’t pay for your motel room with a credit card.”

Fuck, is that how they found her?

“Who says I’m hiding?” Ruby snapped and threw Machado a nasty glare.

“Killian Jones, maybe?”

Ruby’s lips clamped shut. Answering that question could be a death wish. Of course, that didn’t stop the guy from putting on the pressure.

“He beat you, didn’t he? Until you told him where Lacey is.”

“I don’t know where Lacey is,” she stated.

“Ruby, you know me. If Jones kidnapped you, then tell me. Trust me. If you do, we can put him away permanently.”

A scoff passed her lips. “Who would believe me, huh? Just another drunk that fell off the wagon? Jones’s defense team would have a field day and you know it!”

“Can you at least admit you came here looking for Lacey?”

“All I know was that she hooked up with her sister, but now she’s gone. I can’t find her. No one can.”

Everett shook his head. Why were women so goddamn stubborn? “You do know I’m not out to punish her, right? I want to help her.”

Barely resisting the urge to roll her eyes, Ruby didn’t bother concealing her sarcasm. “Right. You’re selflessly trying to help her. You need Lacey! That’s the only reason you’re still looking.”

“I’m not denying I need her,” he countered. “She’s a valuable witness. I also know she trusted you with her life be reaching out to you once and at some point, she may do it again. When that happens, I hope you do the right thing. Before Jones gets her first.”

A guilt trip? Ruby watched Agent Machado walk out of the interrogation room and picked at her nails. The shakes would start soon. Hopefully, they would cut her loose before the cravings got too much to handle.

Shame flooded when she remembered Machado smelled the alcohol on her. Well, fuck him! He had no idea what she endured! And where was he and all his sympathy when she was getting beaten and fearing rape?

An hour later, Ruby stumbled out of the precinct doors and shielded her eyes from the blinding sunlight. Well aware the cops could be following her every move, she headed back to the motel. She’d figure something out but first, she needed a drink.

****

News programs rarely had happy stories to tell. Why was that? Just a ratings game, or were the networks a bit more sinister? Lacey listened to reports of another car accident but her body felt numb. She couldn’t stop thinking about Belle and her unborn baby. She was going to be an aunt and felt silly for hurting about the fact she wasn’t. Did she as the estranged sister, have any right to feel sorrow over the baby she probably never would have known if circumstances were different?

Lost in her thoughts, she didn’t hear Nicholas enter the room. Those puppy dog eyes seemed to beg for something, but Lacey hardly knew what Rush wanted from her. Was he still angry about earlier? When she sat next to her on the couch, her thoughts scattered. Lacey kept her eyes on the TV but her posture stiffened.

“How are you doing?”

The question was softly spoken, which had Lacey chancing a glance at him. “Fine.”

The silence lingered a bit before Nick spoke again. “I’m sorry about the bairn, Belle.” His voice cracked a bit. “Truly.”

Lacey’s throat thickened as she nodded. “I feel awful.”

“I started thinking a younger generation would be…sweet. Do you think you’ll try again?”

How was that any of his business? A second later, Lacey shook the thought away. Of course, Rush would be concerned for his cousin. “I don’t think so,” she whispered. “I just want everything to go back to the way it was before. You know?”

Andrew-as-Nicholas’s heart crushed at hearing those words. He stared at his wife with disbelief, as well as silent hurt. The baby acted as a beacon of light for them and now it vanished out of existence. Still, wouldn’t Belle want to try again? Andrew did. He wanted a bonny lass with her mother’s eyes.

Yes, on one level, he was happy on some level because Andrew didn’t want the woman he loved trying again with his cousin, but the knowledge that the dream of a family just slipped through his fingers crippled all logic.

From the hall, the real Nicholas overheard the whole conversation and noted the devastation on Andrew’s face. Belle seemed oblivious. Raw hatred for her rose in his chest, successfully cracking the tender emotions plaguing him. Good. He needed perspective.

How could Belle speak so bluntly about such a tragic loss? His anger at her continued into the next morning as he pretended to be the calm businessman and read the newspaper. Belle’s casual greeting set his teeth on edge. Did she have any idea what Andrew was going through? Did she even care about her husband’s grief?

No. Because she couldn’t tell them apart.

“Good morning.” Lacey offered Andrew a smile, but he ignored her. Weird, but she continued. “I was thinking we could have lunch today.”

“Do you mind,” he rudely asked. “I’m reading.”

That came out of left field. Something was very wrong here. “What’s wrong?”

Nicholas didn’t bother looking up. “Just doing what you want. Going back to the way things were.”

Lacey drew a blank. “When did I say that?”

“To Nick. Last night. He’s very upset for the both of us, Belle, and you shrugged it off and said you didn’t want to have another baby!”

“Because it’s too soon! Andrew, I want things to go back to before Ariel and my sister-”

“Belle, this baby changed things between us. Without it, I don’t’ know where we stand.”

“Andrew, please-”

Her phone started ringing before she could finish her plea.

“Take it,” he snapped.

Lacey would have turned it off, but the name on the screen made the breath hitch in her throat. “Let’s talk about this later.”

“I have to get to work and I have a business dinner later. I would invite you, but I know how much you hate those.”

“I don’t,” she swore. “I just want us to spend a little time together.”

His eyes were cold and flat. “You have a funny way of showing it. Take your call.”

The ID displayed Ruby’s name, so Lacey reached to answer while Andrew caught the elevator.

“Where have you been? I left a ton of messages?”

Ruby’s voice shook when she spoke. “I need to see you, Lace.”

“Ok, sure. There’s a coffee shop on 83rd across from the park. Meet me there.”

“Alright.”

The second she hung up the phone, Lacey grabbed her purse and rushed for the elevator. The second the door closed her cell rang again. “Hello?”

“Mrs. Gold, this is Agent Machado.”

Crap! What did he want? “I’m surprised you called, I thought you were leaving town.”

“Change of plans. Did you know Ruby Ward is in New York?”

She hesitated but then answered truthfully. If her voice sounded a bit clipped, she didn’t care. “Yeah.”

“Have you spoken to her?”

“I’m actually on my way now.” The elevator reached the lobby and Lacey stepped out. “Do you think she knows where Lacey is?”

“I don’t know but if she tells me, I’ll call you.”

“I appreciate that, Mrs. Gold.”

There was a strange echo on the line and when Lacey got to the door, she realized why. Everett Machado waited like a spider wearing a broad grin. He was two steps ahead of her and Lacey had no idea how to get out of his clutches.

Chapter Text

Lacey’s stomach plummeted to her knees. As she struggled to put a lid on the rising panic, she stared down Machado hoping her emotions didn’t show through her expression. That annoying grin rubbed her the wrong way. What a candy ass! Lacey leveled him a look that said she wasn’t about to tolerate his games, but before she could get a word out edgewise, he beat her to the punch.

“I have a better idea. Why don’t you wear a wire so I can have you on surveillance from across the street in case Ms. Ward had anything interesting to share with you?”

Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck! A wire? If he did that her cover would be blown for sure! There would be no way to warn Ruby!

“I’m not comfortable with that.”

“Oh, no, no, no, come on, Mrs. Gold. You’ve been so cooperative lately. I would hate to have to do this the hard way.”

He had her backed into a corner and she knew it. Everett could practically taste victory.

“What,” she said sarcastically. “You’ll throw me in jail if I don’t do it? My husband’s lawyer will earn his retainer.”

“I’m sure they will when I show them pictures of you meeting with Eric Butler.”

Her eyebrows arched at the threat. “What’s so shocking about me having a conversation with my friend’s grieving husband?”

Everett shrugged. “Nothing on the surface but Mr. Butler is an admitted adulterer. It won’t take much to convince your lawyers or your husband you’re on of his many conquests.”

Lacey folded her arms over her chest and called his bluff. “That’s beneath you.”

“Cooperate, Mrs. Gold and we won’t have to test your theory.”

In this moment, she figured she was right not to trust Agent Machado with her life. He wanted Lacey so bad he was willing to stack the deck. What little respect she had for the guy just flew out the window.

Not given much of a choice, Lacey followed Agent Machado to the surveillance van, then let him put a wire on her person. All the while her mind raced. How could she possibly give Ruby a heads up? Agent Machado gave her instructions, but she hardly listened. Finally released, she saw Ruby waiting at a table and put on her best smile.

“Sorry, I’m late. You must be Ruby.” Lacey gave her friend a poignant look. “I’m Belle.”

Ruby didn’t get the hint but sat when Lacey did.

“I wish we were meeting under better circumstances,” Lacey continued.

“What?” Why was Lacey acting so weird?

Something was wrong with her friend. Lacey noticed the bloodshot eyes but didn’t want to jump to conclusions. Ruby just escaped hell, so it would follow she would have a few sleepless nights. “Are you ok?’

The brunette’s eyes widened. “Are you,” she snapped.

Crap! Ruby wasn’t getting the hint! Lacey had to think fast! Her skin itched knowing Machado was listening from the van.

“I’m holding up considering what happened to my sister.”

When the waiter brought their coffee, Lacey seized the opening and “accidentally” spilled her brew in her lap, then made excuses. “Oh! That’s going to stain! Excuse me for one second!”

Lacey darted inside the café and found the uniformed waiter. “I need your help.” Before the guy could protest, Lacey slipped him a hundred.

The kid pocketed the cash and didn’t protest when Lacey snatched his notepad and quickly scribbled instructions and her message. Lacey gave the waiter a look to make sure he understood, then nodded.

“Two minutes.”

“It’s your money, Lady.”

No, it belonged to a dead woman, but she didn’t correct him. Hopefully, Machado would assume their exchange was about the stain. As the waiter walked off, Lacey rushed back to her friend. Thankfully, Ruby didn’t split.

“Sorry! I’m so clumsy.” Lacey gave her friend another look, but Ruby's face remained confused. “Have you heard from Lacey?”

Before Ruby could ask what the hell was going on, the waiter came by and showed Ruby the food menu with the note attached on the inside.

I’M WEARING A WIRE. MACHADO IS LISTENING AND WATCHING.

Ruby’s eyes widened but she quickly recovered and played along. “No, thanks,” she told the waiter then looked back at Lacey. “I haven’t heard from her. That’s why I came to New York. I want to find her, too. She told me about…you.”

Relieved that her impromptu plan worked, Lacey gripped the paper cup and felt her heart settle into a normal rhythm. “She ran from me but Lacey might surface for you. You know, Ms. Ward, if she does you can tell me. You can trust me.”

“It’s not about trust.” Obviously, Ruby had doubts about her so-called friend since she acted so shady. “I’m in the dark about where to even begin. I was hoping you could point me in the right direction.”

Though she appeared lucid, Lacey recognized the fidgeting. Ruby looked at the drinks with longing. Almost as if she hoped one would magically hold a shot of whiskey. Shit, why didn’t she realize it before? Poor Ruby!

Back in the van, Everett threw down his headphones in disgust. This tactic wasn’t working out as he hoped. About ten minutes later, the pair parted ways and Mrs. Gold marched back toward the van with avengeance.

“What the hell was that,” she demanded as she threw the wire at his face. “You didn’t tell me Ruby Wad was a drunk just like Lacey!”

“We had eyes on you the whole time,” Everett said calmly. “You were never in any danger. We needed to know what Ruby did.”

“What about offering to help her? You helped Lacey, right?”

“Because she was a witness in my case. Ruby Ward isn’t my responsibility.”

He couldn’t be serious!

“I see.” The sarcasm dripped off her tongue. “I get it. Only help those you have a vested interest in. Got it.”

This high-and-mighty act from a woman with a Park Avenue address? Belle Gold had some gall! Then again, she also had a point. Everett’s conscience nagged him, but he let Belle go. With this plan in ashes, he needed a new approach. Besides, he knew where to find her.

Racing down the sidewalk in heels wasn’t a picnic, but Lacey wanted to catch up to Ruby before she went too far. Luckily, Ruby paused at a corner to gather her surroundings. “Ruby!”

The tall brunette turned around, but she didn’t look happy. “You lied to me,” Lacey accused. “The one thing you said you would never do!”

Sick of the act, Ruby dealt out words as good as she got. “I’m sorry, am I talking to Lacey or Belle?”

“I didn’t have a choice! Machado cornered me about the wire!”

“Oh, so you’re Lace now, huh? I can’t tell anymore! Can you?”

Lacey’s jaw dropped. “I hate having to be someone else, Ruby!”

Her friend scoffed. “I think you’re starting to like walking in Belle’s designer shoes. Spending her money! Hell, even having a guy in your life!”

“He’s Belle’s husband!”

“You’re calling me a liar, but you’re the one that’s full of it!”

“This isn’t about me right now! This is about you!” Lacey grabbed her friend’s arm and forced Ruby to stop and face her. “You’re off the wagon.”

“No, I’m not!”

Lacey saw through the obvious lie. “Why, Ruby?”

“It wasn’t my fault!” Tears swelled in those brown eyes and Ruby couldn’t hold them back. “Jones did this to me! He waterboarded me in vodka, Lace! Got me drunk to loosen my tongue and when that didn’t work, they took it away to dangle the fish. None of this was my choice!”

Unable to believe her ears, Lacey’s heart dropped to her knees. Poor Ruby! “Oh god, why didn’t you tell me?”

“It’s not easy, Lace! I’ve been sober five years! Five years and that son of a bitch took it away just like that!” Ruby snapped her fingers for emphasis but it was clear by the look in her eyes that Jones did a real number on her.

“I barely got out alive,” Ruby whispered. Her voice cracked at the end and she loathed the pity reflected in her best friend’s face. “Now I’m thirsty all the time. But I beat this once and I can do it again, ok? I’ve got it under control.”

“Let me help,” Lacey pleaded.

“I could use some money.”

“No.” Lacey didn’t even hesitate. “I won’t feed the habit.”

“I need to wean myself, Lace! You know how it is!”

Yeah, she knew exactly what the abyss looked like and Ruby stood on the edge. Seeing her like this broke Lacey’s heart but she had to stand firm.

“Step one, Ruby. Admitting you’re powerless.”

Hearing the words caused Ruby to pinch the bridge of her nose. “I don’t need you to remind me of the steps!”

“You won’t beat this if you’re still drinking!”

“Lacey-”

“Let me be the one who’s straight with you.”

A little laugh bubbled out of Ruby’s throat. “How can you be straight with me when you aren’t honest about who you even are?!”

What hurt the most? Ruby was right. Helpless, Lacey watched Ruby walk away but didn’t follow. Ruby wouldn’t listen and Lacey couldn’t force her hand. How could she not blame herself for getting her friend mixed up in her mess?

Without any other options, Lacey headed home with a heavy heart. This horrible morning faded into an amorous afternoon. Lacey spent hours going through Belle’s belongings but still wasn’t any closer to figuring out why Belle wanted to die. Time flew and soon she had to get ready for that business dinner.

She hurt Andrew this morning, so now Lacey wanted to show him she could make the extra effort. The goal was never to have a rift between him and his wife.

Without warning, Ruby’s words filtered through her head. The implication that Lacey had a thing for Andrew was clear but Lacey dismissed it. Andrew was handsome, yes. And yes, there were a few sizzling sparks, but that kiss was a mistake. Andrew would always be Belle’s. Getting too close would only lead to heartache.

So why didn’t Lacey take a step back? Because she liked playing with fire. Pushing borderlines is what made her into a party girl in the first place. Seemed old habits were immortal. Or at least a part of her behavioral blueprint.

Dressed, perfumed, and ready, Lacey stood before the mirror and stared at her reflection. She wasn’t Belle. Yet, she finally admitted the truth she refused to acknowledge so far. Lacey wanted to be her twin. Sure, the lifestyle would tempt anyone but a deeper layer drew her into this role. For the first time in a long, long while Lacey felt accepted. She felt safe. Even with the martial issues, Andrew didn’t try to control her or boss her around. His confidence oozed from his every pore. Lacey couldn’t explain the sensations properly but these days she wrapped herself in Belle’s life and didn’t want to crawl out of the warm, protective cocoon.

Tonight, Andrew didn’t expect her because she wasn’t exactly invited. There was time to bow out. Given what Ruby said today, logic dictated Lacey should take a step back. The only problem with that course would be risking losing the opportunity to find out why Belle killed herself.

Without a doubt, someone wanted her twin dead. Lacey bought some time on that score but how long before that hitman paid her another visit? Lacey needed to know the truth and the only way to uncover that would be to go all in. Decision made, she whirled away from the mirror and grabbed her clutch off the bed.

On her way out the door, she gave Ruby a call. No answer. Hopefully, her friend wasn’t getting sloshed at a bar. Guilt choked her again. If not for Lacey running away from the FBI, Ruby would still be safe in Colorado. She would still be sober. Jones would never have trashed her if Lacey had the courage to take a stand.

Then again, if by some miracle she lived long enough to say her peace and vanish into the ether through the witness protection program, Jones could have still lashed out at anyone she left behind. Even if he was thrown in jail, Killian Jones had a long reach.

A shiver raced down Lacey’s spine. Heaven help her if that reach ever came to New York. One way or another she would help Ruby. She would make things right for everyone. A tall order, but Lacey had to give it her best shot.

Chapter Text

Regina and “Andrew” met Will Tremaine at one of the most exclusive five-star restaurants in the city. Fully absorbed by his role, Nicholas wanted to get a feel for the man and see if Will was not only capable but trustworthy. Will would be taking on a very large amount of responsibility and with the current state of the company on shaky ground, Nicholas had to be very, very careful.

Casual chit-chat broke the ice. Regina flattered Will with compliments on his suit, but Nicholas followed up with personal questions as they were seated.

“Tell me, Will. Are you married?”

“Separated,” he acknowledged.

“French women are high maintenance,” Regina joked as she opened her menu. “Careful playing that field.”

“Well, I’ve met a few but ironically I’ve hit it off with an American woman while in Paris.”

Nicholas arched a brow. “Romantically?”

“She’s gorgeous and I’m very open to the possibility but right now we’re just friends.”

“I’m sure you’ll be able to charm her,” Regina laughed.

“Maybe,” Will laughed back.

No sooner did the chuckles die down, Regina’s smile vanished because she saw the woman approaching their table.

“Well, look who’s here.”

The second Nicholas saw Belle his heart threatened to burst with joy. She came after all – for him. All the previous anger he harbored toward her flew out the window. Belle loathed business dinners but their relationship meant enough that she decided to come tonight to support him. And that smile…the sight of it warmed Nicholas’s blood and spread straight to his loins. Not so much that he couldn’t maintain control but just enough to percolate his lusts.

“You came,” he said with wonder.

Andrew’s astonishment made it all worthwhile. Lacey kissed him on the cheek without thinking. “I hope you don’t mind. Your assistant told me where you were.”

“No, of course not.” Beaming, he introduced Belle to Will. “Will, I’d like you to meet my wife.”

Shocked to his very core, Will stared at the face of the woman he knew as Cora. “Your wife?”

Naturally, Lacey didn’t know Will from Adam but wanted to make a good impression so she offered a smile and her hand in greeting. “Hi. I’m Belle Gold.”

Will shook her hand but had no clue what the hell was happening. Throughout the meal, Cora – no, Belle – laughed and joked with Andrew and Regina as if she knew them for years. Yes, he knew Belle – Cora – had a husband, but why wouldn’t she tell him that her husband was his boss?!

As the night wore on, Will attempted to grit his teeth and bear it, but he couldn’t help feeling like someone wanted to make him into the fool here. Finally, he couldn’t handle another moment and caught Cora’s eye. She smiled with the same blank expression she had all evening.

“I hope the bosses aren’t giving you hard time.”

The pleasant comment nearly sent Will over the edge. He leaned forward so that only Cora would hear his response. “I didn’t realize you were the boss’s wife.”

The accusation in his eyes threw Lacey for a loop. “Excuse me?”

“Is that why you told me your name was Cora?”

Cora? What on earth? Lacey’s shock was written all over her face but before Will could grill her further, Andrew interrupted.

“So, what did we miss?”

Will didn’t point out Belle’s deception but being a gentleman took every ounce of willpower he possessed. He made small talk but not one spark of recognition flashed in Belle’s eyes all evening. Either her acting skills were Academy Award winning level or she lied to him about her marriage. On the surface, Mr. and Mrs. Gold looked as solid as they come.

After the dinner concluded Belle was a total stranger in his eyes. Women. Were none of them honest?

Lacey had no idea what to make of Will. Aside from that weird exchange in the beginning, he seemed like a regular businessman. Maybe he just mistook her for someone else? Putting the incident out of her mind was easy when she focused on Andrew. Regina threw Lacey a few sly grins but she ignored those as well. As long as Andrew was happy, she was happy.

“I’m glad you came tonight,” he told her in the car on the way home.

“I am, too.” On impulse, Lacey grasped his hand. “And I meant what I said. No more games.”

Nicholas chuckled. “The old Belle never would have stayed though a three-course business dinner.”

“I want our marriage to work, Andrew. I truly do.”

“Me, too,” he said gently. “Baby or no baby.”

“I’m glad.” And she was. The time would come when she had to quietly slip away in the night but for now, Andrew had some good memories and it warmed Lacey’s heart.

****

Paris, France

A shrill ringing stabbed through her slumber, causing Belle’s eyes to reluctantly open. Her cell rested on the nightstand and she threw out her arm to check the caller ID.

Will?

Why was he calling at this hour? Groggy, she answered. “Hello?”

“I’m surprised you even answered, Belle.”

Her heart did a flip and dread seeped through her veins hearing that last syllable. How did he find out her real name? Judging by his clipped tone, not in a good way.

“Excuse me?”

“Now I know why you didn’t want to go to Rome with me.”

Will left the dinner with a knot in the pit of his stomach and a burning need for answers. He dialed the cell number Cora – no Belle – gave him and didn’t hold back the hostility. He felt like a fool and blamed her for the humiliation.

“You were too busy flying to New York to see your husband!”

Shit! Was Will in New York? And he somehow crossed paths with Andrew and Lacey?! Belle had to fix this fast!

“You are an amazing actress! I spent three full hours with you pretending we never met!”

“Will,” she said with as much calm as she could muster. “I’m coming back to Paris tomorrow. We can talk-”

“Don’t bother.”

“What? Will, please!”

“You might want to find a new hotel. Gold/Charles is done footing the bill!”

“Will-”

The dial tone echoed.

Belle raked her hands through her hair as her mind raced. What the hell just happened? Should she tell him about the baby to get him back in her corner? No, she’d play that card as her Hail Mary if needed. Will’s cooperation was essential to her plan, so losing him now would set her back to square one. He’d forgive her if she played the damsel in distress. Belle knew it.

Calmer, she supposed Lacey adjusted to her new life pretty well if she was rubbing elbows with Andrew’s business associates. Al hot stab of jealousy slashed through her heart. Even though she suspected Andrew wanted her dead, she couldn’t switch off her love for that man. Sure, she could blame the hormones but her heart knew the truth. Plus, their baby connected them forever.
The plan had to work, so Belle had to put her personal feelings on the shelf. This wasn’t just about her anymore. Her child came first. Belle was now responsible for another human being and she had to make sure they had a fair shot. Whatever the truth, she had no choice by to see this through.

****

New York City

When was the last time she woke up warm, happy, and ready to face the day? Well…never. At least not since she was a kid. A smile stretched Lacey’s lips the second she realized Andrew’s arms were wrapped around her shoulders and snuggling her close.

Nothing sexual happened last night, not even a kiss, but they took comfort and solace in one another which felt so much more intimate. Before thoughts of the fine line could sour her good mood, Lacey got up and dressed. She made coffee and Andrew whipped up some pancakes when he joined her in the kitchen. He settled in to read the paper while Lacey solved more math puzzles. Catching Andrew’s stare, she cracked a joke. Not a particularly funny one, but they couldn’t seem to stop laughing. A perfect morning.

Lacey didn’t want to part just yet, so insisted on accompanying him down to the lobby to wait while the staff called the car. The moment they emerged from the elevator, they found Ruby waiting. Lacey’s happiness evaporated at the sight of Ruby’s misery.

Dirty and clearly disoriented, Ruby smelled of stale alcohol and her eyes were rimmed in red. As she drew closer, Lacey noted the sheen of sweat coating Ruby’s face. Withdrawal symptoms. Textbook.

“I think I need some help.”

The pleading whisper tore Lacey’s heart in two. Without thinking, she pulled Ruby into a hug. “Of course I’ll help you.”

Feeling eyes on her, Lacey turned to Andrew to make introductions. “Andrew, this is Ruby Ward.”

Slowly nodding, Nicholas studied the woman clearly fraying at the edges and his suspicions itched.

“Why don’t we take this upstairs?”

The elevator ride was spent in silence. They showed Ruby to the living room then went to get coffee.

“I remember you from the hospital,” he said. “Why didn’t you say you were a friend of Belle’s sister?”

“I didn’t want to intrude.” Ruby accepted the coffee with a smile.

Lacey nudged Andrew for a private word. “Can Ruby stay here tonight? I know she’s Lacey’s friend and that’s not a ringing endorsement but she helped me at the party. Ruby was Lacey’s sponsor and a good influence.”

Why was Belle pitching this so hard? Odd how one minute they could laugh together without a care in the world and the next he suspected her of some scheme. Belle kept her twin a secret for over five years and now she suddenly knew about facets of her estranged sister’s life? True, that FBI agent could have filled her in but the only way he would get real answers was to fall down the rabbit hole.

“She helped you when it counted and that’s all I need to know.”

Belle’s relieved smile told him she believe his sincerity. However, Nicolas received a jolt of awareness when Belle took his hand and laced their fingers together. Gazing into her eyes, Nicholas had difficulty not falling under her spell.

“I’ll be late for work. Why don’t you help our guest settle in? Call me if you need anything.”

“Thank you for understanding.”

Nicholas automatically went for a quick peck on the lips and she didn’t resist. The sizzle between them sparked. For a moment he stood there stunned but recovered enough to function. In the elevator, his fingers touched his lips. His flesh tingled all the way to the office.

Rabbit hole, indeed. If he didn’t reel in these emotions soon, there would be no telling what would happen or the complications that would arise. Nicholas refused to betray his cousin. So why couldn’t he purge Belle from his blood?

Andrew couldn’t be any sweeter even if she dipped him in chocolate. Lacey’s heart fluttered watching him walk away but quickly shifted her attention back to the matter at hand. With Andrew now sleeping in her bed, the guest room was free. Ruby’s eyes widened at the first glimpse of the space. Lacey imagined she looked the same those first few days walking in Belle’s shoes.

“Let me get you some extra towels.”

Holy crap! Ruby’s whole apartment could fit into this room! No wonder Lacey didn’t want to leave. The other side lived pretty well.

“The trashcan is next to the bed,” Lacey supplied when she returned. “Just in case.”

“I know this is awkward but thank you.”

“I’m just there for backup.”

Ruby felt truly humbled. “Lace, I don’t want to mess anything up for you.”

“You won’t. Ruby, no matter what I’m always here for you. Always. Get some rest.”

Ruby’s heart did a somersault as Lacey left the room. Why couldn’t she shake these feelings? Lacey was straight but Ruby fell hard anyway. The one kiss they shared turned out to be a huge mistake. For Lace, it was all water under the bridge, but for Ruby, she relived the moment over and over in her imagination. Never in a million years would Ruby ever confess it. There was a reason Ruby bravely resisted Jones’s torture. Ruby could never betray the woman she loved.

Chapter Text

One night was more than enough. Her pride refused to let her be a burden, so Ruby asked Lacey if she knew of another place to crash.

“I can pay for the hotel.”

“No. Lace, I can’t live off charity forever. Once I’m fully sober and back on my feet, I’ll get a job, but there has to be a halfway house.”

Halfway house? Lacey’s instincts rebelled at the idea. Thankfully another idea sprang to mind. “Let me make a call.”

Ten minutes later, she returned to the room beaming. “Good news. My sponsor in New York has a room for you at his place.”

“Him?”

“His name’s Matthew Scott. Former army lieutenant and cop who has helped me out a lot.”

Ruby’s gut coiled but she assumed that her jealousy ignited the reaction. Her friend has a skill for sizing up people, so if Lacey vouched for this guy, she would go with the flow.

“You sure he won’t mind?”

“Not at all. He’ll make sure to help you through this and you came come to our group.”

Yeah, she should go back to meetings as soon as possible. Killian Jones may have torn her down, but he wouldn’t keep her there. Ruby could wallow in the gutter or she could stand up and put one foot in front of the other.

“Alright. Let me get my bag.”

A half hour later they entered nice clean, if plain, apartment building. Lacey led the way. “Don’t worry. You’re going to get through this.”

Glad that something was finally working out for once, she knocked on the door at the end of a long hallway.

“Belle,” Matt greeted.

“Hey, Matt. This is Ruby.”

Matt extended a hand. “Ruby, nice to meet you.”

A strong, firm, and confident grip. Most would find that reasoning but something felt off. Still, Ruby pushed her impression to the back of her mind.

“You’re in good hands,” Matt continued. “Come on in.”

Clean, tidy. The type of apartment one would expect of a former soldier. The two bedroom had minimal furnishings, but at least Matt didn’t have beer cans lying around. Lacey helped Ruby get situated in her room, then they sat and chatted with Matt for a while. This guy came off as harmless. So much so, in fact, that Ruby thought all her initial misgivings misplaced.

Lacey eventually left and Matt remained polite and non-threatening. In fact, Matt took her to a meeting the second she asked. Afterward, Ruby started to develop trust. And why shouldn’t she? Lacey and everyone in the group raved about him. Matt never pushed and ruby slowly let down her guard. By the next meeting later that week, she felt like she was on the right track back to full sobriety.

****

“Define real vacation.”

Nicholas smiled and leaned in for a kiss. The small pecks were part of the act, but deep down he knew he played with fire. Nevertheless, Nicholas looked forward to the all-too-brief sensation of her lips against his. Walking this dangerous path to get Belle to drop her guard and reveal her true intentions was risky at best, but he didn’t think there was another choice.

“After everything you’ve been through these last few weeks, I’d say you’ve earned some place warm. For me, golf. For you, spa treatments are a must.”

“Probably,” she laughed.

His grin widened. “I’ve got it.”

“Do you? Where do you have in mind?”

“You have to guess.”

My, my, he was quite playful this morning. Lacey decided she liked it. “Um…Fort Lauderdale?”

Nicholas burst out laughing. “If you didn’t want to guess, you should have just said so.”

“Tell me!”

“Turks and Caicos.”

“Turks and Caicos…” She didn’t have a clue about the destination off the top of her head, but it sounded exotic. “Turks and Caicos,” she repeated. The place sounded posh. “Sounds good to me.”

“I’ll get my assistant to book it now.”

Temptation proved too much to resist and Nicholas leaned in for another swift kiss. He could tell his conscience these touches were meaningless touches meant to prevent Belle’s suspicions from asking why her own husband refused to touch sleep with her. Again, his heart knew the falseness of such delusions. Nicholas craved these moments with Belle more than he should.

“I’ll make some coffee.”

“And I’ll accessorize.”

Lord, the sight of his backside walking away made her heart pound. Shifting her attention to the closet, she reached for a purse on the top shelf and remembered Owen’s gun. The cold steel pressed into her palm and a shiver raced down her spine. This gun was the missing link. If she got caught with it in her possession, the jig would be up. If she let it out of her sight, she ran the risk of it popping up later to do more damage.

Memories of the night she ran flooded to the surface. Six weeks ago she waited in that motel room for Killian to make his move. Lacey thought for sure she was going to die…

After padding the bed, Lacey turned off the lights, faded into the shadows behind the door and waited. If Jones wanted her gone, she’d go down fighting. A lot of people underestimated her, but being in her fair share of bar brawls helped her pick up quite a few tricks.

Sure enough, about a half hour later, someone jimmied the lock, snuck inside, and went straight to the bed. Lacey crept up behind them and just when they turned, landed a solid right hook to their jaw. Pain radiated through her hand but she ignored it as she dove for the light switch. A moment later, her jaw dropped.

“Owen?!”

“Lights off,” he rasped while holding a hand to his bleeding lip. Bitch knew how to throw a punch.

Lacey switched off the lights immediately. Did Owen break in here get to her? Were Killian’s goons here?

“Dammit, Lacey! My face!”

“What are you doing? You scared the hell out of me!”

Owen wiped more blood off his mouth. “I had to make sure no one was watching. You’re not safe.”

“I’ll call Machado.”

“Don’t.” Owen looked her dead in the eye. “Look, half the Bureau is on Jones’ payroll.”

Her eyes widened. No way could it be that many! He had to be over exaggerating!

“That can’t be true.”

“Lacey, if you testify tomorrow, there is no way you’ll make it into the protection program. You’ll already be dead.”

A lightning jolt of fear shot through her system, making her heart jackhammer beneath her rib cage. Owen just outlined her worst nightmare.

“You can’t trust the Feds,” he continued.

“You’re a Fed.”

Owen snorted. “Yeah, and I’m the one here telling you to run like the fucking wind.”

Those words struck a chord of immediate trust. Owen not only risked his job but federal charges if caught helping her escape. If he was among the ranks taking money from Jones, then he wouldn’t bother taking such a risk in the first place.

“I don’t have anywhere to go,” she said lamely.

“What about family?”

“My sister, but…it’s complicated.”

“Anywhere is better than here. Go to her.”

Without another thought, Lacey grabbed her duffle bag and started packing. Owen took his gun out of the holster and handed it out to her.

“Take this.”

Lacey shook her head emphatically. “I don’t want it.”

“Look, you need protection and I need to explain how you got away. It's easier if you take it.”

“I don’t like guns.”

“Lacey-”

“No.”

Lacey turned her back on him and continued stuffing her meager belongings into the bag. Funny how her whole life fit into such a compact space…

Snapping back into the present, the gun still rested in her hand. Owen didn’t wear her down but when she checked her duffle for a clean shirt at the first bus stop, she found the weapon tucked under her jeans. Lacey had no idea how it got there, but all she wanted now as to be rid of it. There was only one person who would help with such a task.

Lacey put the gun back in the hiding place and found her cell. Several deep breaths later, she sat on the edge of the bed and dialed Matt’s number.

“Hey, Belle.”

“I have a question.”

“Shoot.”

“Ha. Funny. How do I get rid of a gun?”

A long pause came over the line. Finally, Matt spoke.

“Something tells me this isn’t a hypothetical inquiry.”

“It’s not.” Lacey looked toward the door but thankfully there wasn’t any sign of Andrew. Nevertheless, she spoke in a hushed tone. “It’s a cop’s gun that can be traced back to my sister. I thought about throwing it in the East River but with my luck, it will sprout fins and swim.”

He laughed. “Belle, guns down swim or float or anything like that. But they do have a way of turning up when you least expect it, so unless you’re going to melt it down or file off the serial numbers, tossing it in the river is probably a bad idea. Do you want me to take care of it?”

“No. I-I couldn’t. I’ve already used up all your goodwill.”

“You can’t run out of goodwill. I’ll take care of it. No sweat.”

“Thank you,” Lacey gushed. “Is Ruby with you?”

“No. I left her at the apartment. I’m at the public library because my computer went down. But I have good news on the Ariel front. A police buddy of mine got her bank statements.”

“Is that good?”

“I’m looking through the email now. Might take me some time to make heads or tail of them, but I will find her.”

A huge sense of relief washed through her blood. “Thank you so much, Matt. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without you.”

“I’ll see you at AA.”

“Ok. Bye.”

Matt disconnected the call and tucked his cell into his back pocket. He smiled as he headed into the kitchen of what once was his mother’s house to make a sandwich. Poor Lacey had no idea she was wrapped around his little finger. Once he had that gun in his possession, no one would be able to prove Lacey wasn’t Belle. Plus, he’d have leverage for a rainy day.

Bologna on wheat, with lettuce, tomato, and mayo. Matt grabbed a paper plate, then reached for a set of keys on his belt. Sandwich in hand, he made his way to the basement door and unlocked the padlock. Down a flight of stairs, he paused to watch the blindfolded, destroyed women struggling against the ropes secured to her chair. He knew she could hear him, so he placed the sandwich on a table just out of reach, then knelt in front of her. Bracing his hand against the arms of the chair, he spoke loud and clear.

“When I take off this tape, you’re not going to cry.” He grabbed her face between both hands and held her still. “You’re not going to spit and you’re not going to beg. If fact, Ariel Butler, you’re not going to make a peep.”

He let go of her face but she still struggled against her bonds. All in vain because she was wrapped tight to the chair. What did this psycho want with her?

The blindfold itched, but as long as she had it on, Ariel guessed there was a chance she could make it out of this mess alive. She didn’t see his face, so what meant she wanted her alive. But for how long?

“You’re going to shut up and eat your bologna.”

The sting of tape ripping off her mouth oddly enough was a sensation she grew used to while being in this hellhole. The aroma of meat and bread wafted under her nose and her stomach gurgled. Ariel didn’t put up a fight while her captor fed her. She was too hungry and too tired but that didn’t mean she was giving up. The first chance she got, she would take this motherfucker down and get back to her family!

Chapter Text

“I’ve been kicked around badly the last few weeks.”

The confession came easier than she thought it would. AA was always a safe place, but talking about what Killian did to her made Ruby’s throat close.

“The things I’ve been through…I guess it was easy for me to believe there are no good people in life. Someone proved me wrong.” Ruby gave Matt a grateful smile. “Matt gave me a place to stay when I had no where else to go. No strings. Pushed me back into group, obviously.”

Ruby paused to get her emotions under control. Behind her, the door opened, revealing Lacey. Matt noticed her instantly and hoped she brought that damn gun with her.

“I haven’t had a sip of alcohol in six days,” Ruby proudly announced. “It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s a start and I owe it to Matt, so thanks.”

Light applause filled the room. Lacey sat and they continued with the meeting. A few more people shared their stories, but Lacey held back. So much happened in her life and not just where Ruby and Ariel were concerned. As much as she itched to get her thoughts out in the open, she realized Ruby truly needed support. Lacey’s issues would have to be pushed to the back burner.

Finally, they concluded with the serenity prayer and Lacey caught Matt’s eye. He titled his head to the hall and when Ruby went to chat with a few other members, Lacey snuck out.

“You have it,” he asked.

“Yeah.” Digging the scarf out of her purse took a few moments but she promptly handed it over.

Unwrapping the gun, Matt checked the chamber to make sure it wasn’t loaded. Satisfied, he tucked the piece in the back waistband of his jeans.

“Can I ask how your sister stole a cop’s gun?”

“She didn’t.” Which was the truth. Owen probably had good intentions dumping it in her bag, but the resulting headache wasn’t a picnic. “I don’t know how she got it or why she left it behind, but I want it gone.”

Matt studied her for several moments, using his cop instincts to judge if she lied. Ironically, his gut said she wasn’t trying to pull the wool over his eyes. At least, not when it came to the gun. Could there be more to Lacey than he first assumed?

Well, even if there was, it didn’t matter. He was in this for the payout. Pure and simple.

“We should get back.”

Matt nodded and followed her back into the meeting. As usual, all the men surrounded Ruby in a semi-circle. If only they knew.

“Hey,” Lacey greeted. “You ready?”

“Sure,” Ruby said her goodbyes and headed out after her friend and Matt.

Once they hit the street, Matt said he had an errand to run and split off.

“How about some lunch?”

“Sure.” Ruby could use a sandwich. Sharing in the group took a toll sometimes.

They found a nice little deli on the corner. Though the place was booming, they managed to get a table. Twenty minutes later, Lacey laughed when her friend ordered her third cup of coffee.

“Nice to see you back on the black.”

“Wouldn’t be rehab without an eight cup a day habit.” After a generous sip of the black brew, Ruby sat back and studied the beautiful brunette. “What were you and Matt talking about earlier? Exchanging babysitting tips?”

“Ruby, neither of us is trying to smother you.”

“I’m not complaining. I needed the help.”

“Actually,” Lacey leaned closer and spoke in a hushed tone. “We were talking about the gun.”

The cup paused halfway to Ruby’s lips.

“I gave it to him to depose of,” Lacey continued.

“You really think it’s a good idea to give up your only protection?”

“That’s evidence against me,” she stressed.

“Lace, you can blame your invisible fugitive alter ego if the gun ever fell into the wrong hands.”

“Yeah, but the authorities would march straight to Belle’s door asking questions. From there, it would only be a matter of time before they figure out I’m not Belle. The gun was a linchpin to revealing my real identity. It’s better this way.”

Ruby doubted it but she kept her mouth shut for a few reasons. Lacey was her friend and Matt treated her with decency. Though she didn’t know the guy well, he didn’t give Ruby an obvious reason to doubt him. Not yet.

“I don’t get the sudden rush, though.”

“I can’t have it in the house anymore. Andrew is just starting to trust me.”

“Lace, how can there be any trust in you pretending to be the guy’s dead wife?”

Hurt reflected in her friend’s eyes the second the words tumbled from her lips. Ruby apologized. “I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but this whole situation was only supposed to be temporary.”

“I know that.”

“Do you? Belle’s life is not yours and I already see you drowning in it! I’m worried.”

“I’m grateful for your concern, but I’m not leaving until I figure out who wanted to kill my sister.”

Ruby didn’t like it one bit. In her mind, Belle was dead either way and answers didn’t always bring closure, but again she kept her lips clamped around these thoughts. Lacey’s stubborn streak was about as breakable as a brick wall. “Alright, well, what do you know so far?”

“Aside from the phone, not much.”

“Search the apartment,” Ruby advised. “See if you missed a clue or something.”

Good idea.

A few hours later, Lacey rooted though Belle’s desk and her books, hoping all the while for something unusual to pop out and bite her in the nose. When she came up empty-handed, Lacey went through the contents of Belle’s purses and wallets. A prescription bottle fell to the floor from a particularly gaudy Gucci.

How could she have forgotten about this? Lacey examined the label of the bottle she found on the boat the day her sister drowned. She must have been so in shock by Belle’s suicide that she put it aside and forgot all about it. Out of sight, out of mind. Especially after the attack in the loft and its aftermath.

Now, Lacey held the bottle and read the doctor’s name. A quick internet search got her a phone number. Not having an inkling of what to expect, Lacey inhaled a deep breath and dialed.

“Hi,” she said brightly when the receptionist answered. “I’d like to make an appointment.”

“Name?”

“Belle Gold.”

As luck would have it, they had an opening that very afternoon. The fact her twin was in therapy didn’t come as a huge shock. Hopefully, Lacey could get a glimpse into what her sister went through in her last days, perhaps glean her frame of mind. Any tidbits to help her comprehend the reason why Belle did what she did would be welcome.

The assistant showed her into an impeccably clean office decorated in varying shades of beige. The psychiatrist looked just as put-together. Then again, it was her job to put her patients at ease.

“Hi.”

“Hi.” The doctor took her pad, stepped away from her desk, and say in the single leather chair a few feet away.

Lacey went to the couch in the center of the room.

“Felt like a change, I see,” Dr. Morris commented.

“Pardon?”

“You usually sit in the armchair.”

Lacey’s heart jolted as she realized she would have to watch her P's and Q's around this doctor. “It felt like a couch kind of day,” she said lamely.

A pregnant pause filled the room before Dr. Morris continued. “How are you?”

“I’m good. The usual.”

Keeping her expression neutral, the doctor stared at Lacey for several moments. Could she see that she wasn’t Belle?

“And some of the less…usual,” Lacey capitulated.

Dr. Morris finally opened her notepad and began writing. “Before we begin, I just have to ask. Why are you calling yourself Belle Gold?”

The fact her eyes didn’t pop out of her sockets was a miracle. Did Dr. Morris guess the truth? How?!

“W-what do you mean?” Lacey had to maintain control.

“You never use your real name when making appointments.”

A flashback of the dinner with Will burst to the surface. He called her Cora. He knew Belle – somehow – but as a woman named Cora. That fact in and of itself was a whole other bag of worms but Lacey latched on to the memory and used it in this moment. The second she uttered the name aloud, Dr. Morris nodded.

“Cora Farrell.”

If nothing else, Lacey just got another clue about Belle. Her twin used an alias. Why and for what were questions she would have to address later.

“Discretion has always been important to you.”

“This is a new me. No aliases required.” Even as she said the words, her conscience cringed.

Impressed, Dr. Morris wrote in her notebook. “Whatever name you’re using, I’m glad you decided to return to therapy.”

“I am, too. In fact, I can’t remember why I stopped in the first place.”

Instead of the doctor taking the bait and elaborating, silence filled the office. Lacey didn’t know what to say next. Thankfully, the doctor spoke.

“You mentioned earlier that things were less usual. Would you like to talk about that?”

How to even answer?

“How has your life been different since we last spoke?”

Another pause. Lacey suspected she looked like a deer caught in a pair of headlights.

“You’ve never been this quiet before, Belle.”

“Um, it’s just…things are better with Andrew. In fact, Nicholas doesn’t seem to hate me as much anymore. Andrew is even planning a vacation for us.”

Dr. Morris was astonished. “Wow. That’s incredible progress. Sounds like you transformed your life and you did it all outside of therapy. Which begs the question, why come back now?”

“I don’t understand,” Lacey blinked.

“Belle, you’re repairing all your major relationships. You’re making strides in your family life, and yet, after months away something has made you reach out to me.”

Naturally, Lacey couldn’t be honest about her motives. This doctor probably didn’t know Belle had a twin any more than anyone else did.

“I’m not really sure.”

“Well, think about it. What was different this morning than any other? Less usual, as you put it.”

“I-I can’t exactly say.”

“You came here to explore something with me. Something different.”

Not really, but the gears in Lacey’s head started rolling. The second she heard the words, flashes of passionate kisses played through her mind. Memories of the feel of Andrew’s lips against hers warmed her blood. In fact, Lacey’s core tingled and clenched at the thought of kissing him again. With Andrew, she wasn’t playing a role. Not anymore. The weight of that realization made her gasp.

“My god,” she breathed. “I’m falling in love with Andrew.”

Dr. Morris arched a brow at Lacey’s choice of words and Lacey quickly amended.

“All over again!”

****

“Your scowl is deeper this morning.”

Andrew said the words lightly, but Nicholas didn’t get the joke. Anger and guilt rode him hard. Nick should tell his cousin about the kisses and promise that they meant nothing, but if he did that, Nicholas would be a liar.

Nick never saw this side to Belle. The smart, sarcastic side that somehow challenged his quick-working mind and kept him centered all at once. No one ever made him feel so…anchored. Not since Gloria and he feared Belle’s grip on him sank deeper than hers ever did. The realization roused his temper. How could he betray Gloria like this?! Whom he swore to love until the end of his days?
Yet, beneath the self-loathing, Nicholas knew he couldn’t promise and if they hoped to find evidence Belle had a hand in this espionage, then he had to get his hands dirty.

“Nick?”

“Yeah?” He snapped to attention to see that Andrew looked worried.

However, Andrew didn’t ask the questions really on his mind and instead focused on the matter at hand. “You were right about our European base. Many of the discrepancies are happening around the Paris hub.”

“Really?” Nicholas checked his cousin’s findings. “This could be the source of our woes or it could be someone digging because they have suspicions.”

“A whistle blower?”

“Possibly. I’ll take this in with me and cross reference the data I uncovered on my end. Maybe we’ll finally get a solid lead.”

“And the background on Will Tremaine?”

Nicholas shrugged. “Clean, so far.”

Andrew’s eyes narrowed. “I’m sensing a ‘but’ in there.”

“He was stationed in Paris until recently. We will have to keep an eye on him.”

Chapter Text

He despised lying. Nicholas greeted his assistant, then settled into the office and replayed his conversation with his cousin. Andrew could tell something was off and he wouldn’t let the matter drop, no matter how casually he may change the subject now. Then Andrew asked about Belle just as Nicholas walked out the door.

“Is she alright? The miscarriage must be tough.”

“She’s coping,” he answered Andrew. Nicholas should have mentioned the vacation idea but his throat closed. Clearing it, he forced his eyes to meet his cousin’s. “In fact, she seems to be handling it better than you, which makes me cautious.”

“How so?”

“You always said Belle took things to heart, yet the loss of her own child doesn’t shake her composure? And she’s adopted this Ruby Ward woman as a charity case.”

“People cope in different ways. You’re describing classic deflection.”

If Andrew wanted to delude himself, then Nicholas wouldn’t argue. Of course, the pot seemed to be calling the kettle in this instance. Lately, Nicholas couldn’t shake Belle from his system and he knew full well he had to because there was just too much at stake.

Andrew knew his cousin like the back of his hand, so he picked up on the unusual silence. Yes, Nick never gave Belle the benefit of the doubt, but the bark left his bite lately.

“Are the two of you still fighting?”

“Yes.” Nicholas didn’t see the point in hurting Andrew unnecessarily. “I’m mad at her for blowing me off, but I’ll smooth it over.”

Andrew didn’t have a reason to doubt his cousin’s word on the matter, but suspicions nagged the back of his brain. “She’s been through a lot.”

“So have you. Plus, Belle is still hiding something. Of that much, we knew before…” Nicholas cleared his throat and covered quickly for the awkward moment. “I still say we have her followed.”

“There’s a chance she could get suspicious. It would be wise to wait until we have a better idea of exactly what to accuse her of.”

“Fine.” Nick didn’t see the point in pushing the issue. Andrew wanted to believe the best of Belle. For now, Nicholas wanted to as well, so he didn’t put up the fight his common sense urged him to.

“I’ll get to the office and call if I find anything.”

And now, here he sat – reliving the kisses he shared with a woman so off limits she came with a demolition countdown. What the hell was wrong with him? Did he fall so far into the role that he couldn’t dig himself out? Nicholas knew very well who he was and what he wasn’t. He could walk away from the Park Avenue lifestyle in an instant. The variable tripping him up here was Belle.

She consumed his daydreams. Her scent coated his blood. No matter how hard he tried purging her from his system, Nicholas couldn’t shake his desires. Instead, he vowed not to get to the point where he cuckolded his own cousin. They were blood. Nicholas’s loyalty was unwavering on that score.

So why did his conscience call him a fat liar?

“Now is the time to hit Triston.”

Regina somehow entered his office without him hearing a single footstep. Nicholas closed the folder on his computer and studied the vulture standing in front of his desk.

“We’ve been down this road,” he warned.

Regina refused to budge. “He’s weak. Sick. His daughter’s disappearance has made him more vulnerable than ever!”

“Regina-”

“He’s wondering about his legacy,” she pressed. “Asking if his grandchildren will one day be up to the task of walking in his footsteps. Or if his money is invested with the right firm. You and I know that the right place is with us.”

Boy, she was good. Nicholas would have believed the pitch if he didn’t know any better. However, he threw Regina a flat look and waited for her to trail off before adding his two cents.

“No.”

“There was a time you would never have needed this much convincing,” she stated icily. “Too distracted planning your next holiday?”

“Don’t accuse me of losing my focus just because I don’t share your urgency.” Nicholas rose to his feet and stared Regina down.

Of course, Regina refused to be cowed. “How is this for urgent? Two of the six investors we landed last month have pulled out of the fund. If we don’t get an account large enough to cover those losses, you know what that could mean!”

As if he needed reminding! Nicholas put his nose to the ground to help Andrew flush out the reason for the current decay of the firm. He spent nearly every hour of every day hunting down codes and transactions, searching for patterns in the numbers, and hitting dead end after dead end. No one was fighting for this firm harder than he and Andrew!

“I have other business to see to, Regina,” he stated coldly. “We’ll talk about this later.”

“Fine.” Regina left his office but the matter was far from dropped. Triton could be their one shot at salvation and she would be damned if she would roll over and give up so easily!

****

“The way he looks at me, it’s like…he can’t believe how kind I’m being. Like he never knew I could ever make him this happy. I know it’s only temporary because of how things were before, but I don’t want it to end. I want to keep surprising him.”

Lacey spent the last forty-five minutes gushing about Andrew and her feelings. Honestly, she had no idea what came over her but not once did she feel like she had to guard her words around Dr. Morris. Lacey discussed her would-be romance with impunity.

Dr. Morris smiled and closed her notebook.

“Wait. What’s happening?”

“Time’s up,” she said.

Already? Lacey looked at the clock to make sure. Wow. She had no clue she could ramble like that. Lacey didn’t want the session to end yet!

“Can I buy out the next session?”

Dr. Morris’s response was a soft chuckle. Guess that was a no. Lacey got to her feet and remembered why she came here in the first place.

“Do you think we should renew my prescriptions?”

“I wasn’t planning to. You seem to be doing very well without them.”

“So, you don’t think I’m depressed anymore?”

A slight frown marred the doctor’s features. “Belle, you know full well I didn’t prescribe those for depression.”

What did that mean? Why else would Belle have taken those pills?

“You’re doing great, Belle. I’ll see you next week.”

Ah, her cue to leave. But how could she without any real answers?

“Ok.” Lacey grabbed her purse. “Thank you again.”

Down in the lobby, Lacey paused. Could she wait until next week? What if something else happened between now and then? She was still mentally debating her options when her cell went off. A panicked Ruby came across the connection and Lacey had to tell her to slow down.

“Ruby, you’re freaking out over mouthwash?”

“I know it sounds crazy, Lace, but I got a really bad feeling.”

“Why?”

“Well, when I pointed this out to Matt, he looked at me dumbfounded. I know not all alcoholics chug mouthwash to take the edge off, but I didn’t trust myself around it. And it surprised me that he acted so nonchalant about having it around. Recovering addicts are very careful about what they expose themselves to but Matt didn’t seem to realize the significance until I said something.”

“Did you ask him about it?”

“He said an old girlfriend must have left it and he didn’t realize it was in the bathroom. Then he poured it down the sink.”

“Ok, it’s a bit weird, but I don’t think Matt fell off the wagon.”

“Well, I thought he had something to hide, so I started snooping around.”

“Ruby!”

“I know, I know. I didn’t really find anything.”

“Then there you go.”

“Lace, listen. When I got to his drawers, I noticed four pairs of socks, four shirts, and four pairs of boxers.”

“Ruby, what does that have to do with anything?”

“The batteries in the remote control are still in the shrink wrap! Matt claims he’s lived here for months, but he’s never used the remote once?”

“Ok, I admit that is strange.” Lacey doubted anyone could go more than a week without turning on a TV even if just to check the weather.

“Can we trust this guy?”

Good question. Lacey opened her mouth to respond but just then Dr. Morris stepped out of the elevator. She told the guard she was taking her lunch break. Perfect! Lacey couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

“Ruby, I’ll call you back. Promise! I’m in the middle of something.”

Without waiting for a response, she ended the call, dropped her cell back in her purse, and darted for the elevator. Luckily, the receptionist left the office door open. Lacey was able to get access to Dr. Morris’s office with no one the wiser.

The desk was well organized and Dr. Morris preferred paper to computer files. Lacey found a tab with her twin’s name and yanked out the folder. The first page consisted of notes from Belle’s last session. Jackpot! Or maybe not. Footsteps sounded in the hall, heading her way! No sooner did Lacey stuff the page in her purse and put the folder back, the key sounded in the lock. Caught like a deer in the headlights, her jaw dropped when Dr. Morris returned. Gee, that was a quick lunch!

“Belle,” the other woman said sharply. “What are you doing in here?”

With a split second to make up an excuse, Lacey fumbled. Her mind drew a blank and the words that tumbled from her lips sounded lame even to her own ears.

“I just want to talk more. I didn’t want to wait until next week. And I should tell you about the dream I had-”

“You wanted more time?” Dr. Morris was pissed. “So you violate my privacy?”

“I-I thought therapy wasn’t about judgment.”

“I’m calling security.”

“No need! I know my way out.”

Unconvinced, Dr. Morris escorted her to the elevator. “Given this incident, I will have to reassess if we can continue therapy together.”

Lacey entered the elevator. “I understand.”

When the doors closed, she realized she may have just burned a valuable bridge, but in the long run, it was better this way. Dr. Morris might have eventually caught on to the fact she really wasn’t Belle. The second she left the building, Lacey pulled the page out of her purse and began skimming the page. According to Dr. Morris’s notes, Belle suffered from paranoia and feared for her safety. Belle swore she was being followed and that someone was “out to get her”. Dr. Morris took one look at a wealthy socialite and thought Belle invented the tale to add more drama to her life. Given the attack at the loft, her twin wasn’t making up a damn thing. Anger boiled in Lacey’s gut and her vow to find who wanted her twin dead renewed full force.

Dr. Morris prescribed Belle pills as if that would magically fix the problem. The psychiatrist didn’t advise her patient to make a police report. If she had, maybe Belle would still be alive.

Lacey folded the paper but caught a scribbled pattern at the bottom of the page that read “Gramercy Cathedral”. Next to the words was Dr. Morris thought that this was a place Belle sought solace.
“Belle went to church?”

Sure, they were brought up to believe in God, but they didn’t attend church regularly. Then again, if Belle didn’t feel safe, seeking sanctuary wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. Checking out this church couldn’t hurt. Maybe Lacey would discover more about her twin’s final days.

****

The meetings that afternoon seemed to drag on and on and on. Finally, Nicholas and Regina wrapped up the last conference call. She didn’t wait five minutes before bringing up Triton again, which severely rubbed Nick the wrong way.

“Are you going to call Eric?”

“Now isn’t the time, Regina.”

“Eric is our in! Without him, Triton is untouchable! He has more handlers and layers of security than the president!”

Nicholas raked a hand through his hair. “There are other ways.”

“Really? Because when I tried getting his direct line, the closest I could get was his assistant’s assistant!”

“You saw Eric at the tribute party. He isn’t going to listen to me.”

“The husband of his missing wife’s best friend?” Regina was sorely tempted to roll her eyes. “Play your cards right, Andrew! For crying out loud!”

“Throwing financial jargon in his face when he fears for Ariel’s life is not the way to do business! It reeks of desperation!”

“Well, if you’re not interested in saving our company, who am I to argue?” Regina made a show of shuffling papers waiting for Andrew’s response but a knock came at the door and Belle of all people popped her head inside and threw Andrew a warm smile.

“Are you ready?”

A smirk spread his lips. Regina arched a brow.

“I invited my wife to lunch.”

Watching the pair leave the conference room, Regina shook her head. Since when did Andrew turn into a lovesick puppy? If she wanted Timothy Triton as an investor, she would have to take matters into her own hands.

Chapter Text

Lacey downloaded directions to Gramercy Cathedral when her phone chirped a reminder. Looks like her fact-finding mission would have to be put on hold. Excitement raced through her blood at the idea of seeing Andrew. Falling head over heels in love never felt this…wonderful. Lacey realized she never knew the meaning of love until Andrew.

That breakthrough in therapy hit her like a lightning bolt, but now she simply wanted to bask in the joy of being in Andrew’s company. Which was why she postponed her trip to the cathedral for lunch.

Lacey’s elation lasted about two whole seconds before her conscience slapped her silly. Belle’s face floated to the surface and Ruby’s words of warning echoed in her ears. A split moment later, anger threatened to choke her. Yes, Andrew was Belle’s husband, but Belle was gone! The circumstances were not ideal or fair, but why shouldn’t Lacey take what happiness she could and live in the moment?

Because by pretending to be her twin, Andrew was deceived. What he thought he was experiencing and rebuilding with his lawful wife were really happening with an imposter. Andrew would always belong to Belle. Deep in her heart, Lacey wanted to be loved for her. Fighting tears, she had no choice but to be cautious and fall back into character.

Never in a million years did Lacey expect to fall for her own brother-in-law, but the milk spilled and there was no going back. Her feelings would only deepen the longer she lingered in New York. But how could she walk away without answers? As long as she assumed her sister’s identity, Lacey had to string Andrew along, but if she gave him her whole heart, maybe he would sense it on some level and be able to forgive her deception?

What ridiculous wishful thinking! Lacey’s intentions were pure when she slipped into Belle’s shoes, but she started to realize that no matter how she looked at the situation she was the bad guy. People were going to get hurt if the truth ever came out and there would be no one else to blame but herself. Unfortunately, Lacey felt trapped between a rock and a hard place with no other solution in sight.

If she wanted answers about Belle, then she had to stay put. However, she also had to swear that she would leave once those answers presented themselves. No matter how deeply she fell for Andrew, Lacey would have to let him go. Best get used to the inevitable.

Right now, Andrew had to believe she was Belle and that would be easier if he felt affection for her. Putting her own heart on the line would end badly, but Lacey couldn’t just ignore her overwhelming feelings. Well, one way or the other, Lacey would have to learn to compartmentalize. At the moment, Lacey focused on the day ahead.

First, there was lunch with Andrew, then Lacey planned to continue her search for facts about Belle. And somewhere in between, she had to get to an AA meeting. All while not falling too deeply into her twin’s life that she couldn’t climb out again. One day at a time.

Seeing Andrew with Regina didn’t come as a shock. Yet, there was something about the businesswoman that Lacey didn’t trust. Nevertheless, she put on a brave face and pulled Andrew out of the conference room. He had a full plate of paperwork, so they decided to order in and eat in his office.

“Did you see the look she shot me,” Lacey asked after they finished their sandwiches.

“Don’t mind her,” Nicholas replied. “Regina just had a bee in her bonnet over landing Ariel’s father as a client.”

Unable to resist, Nick laced his fingers through hers and relished the sensation of her touch. The sizzle of their connection was undeniable and her smile shot through his very core. Craving this woman became an addiction. The question was whether or not Nicholas could control his urges. He walked along a razor’s edge.

“She thinks we’re not acting fast enough and she’s probably right.”

“I get the business part,” Lacey said, “but Andrew, Ariel is still missing. Her father has to be going through hell.”

“I know. Triton has a weak heart among other health issues, which isn’t exactly unnoticed by Regina. She’s pitching the legacy angle.”

“I think my food is going to come back up.”

Nicholas chuckled at her sarcasm. “I know you don’t like guessing games, but what about a thought experiment?”

Her brows shot up her forehead. “A thought experiment? You almost sound like your cousin.”

“Bear with me.” Nicholas squeezed her hand, secretly delighted when she returned the gesture and the awkward moment when she noticed the cousin thing passed. “What if it all went wrong?”

“What?”

“What if the right thing costs us everything? The loft, the apartment, the house in the Hamptons, and even the clothes.”

“And the sushi,” she half-joked.

Nicholas laughed again. “Yes, even the Shushi. Would you stand with me?”

There wasn’t a hint of hesitation. Lacey loved all the luxury sure, but she didn’t grow up with it and didn’t need it. Andrew meant more than any fancy home or designer wardrobe. “I’d stand with you.”

That wide smile, those shimmering blue eyes, all conveyed total love, and trust. So much so that Andrew sucked in a slow breath. Bringing her hand to his lips, Nicholas kissed her knuckles wishing with all his heart Belle would choose him if the truth about his identity really did come out. Of course, such a thing could never happen. He was a fool for even hoping.

“I should get back to work. What are your plans for the rest of the day?”

“Well…” Lacey figured she might as well see if Andrew knew anything about that cathedral place. “What if I said I was going to church?”

“You?” He barked a belly laugh. “In church? You’d melt.”

“Not funny,” she giggled. “Seriously!”

“Belle, after the fuss you made over getting married in the park at twilight instead of a church?”

Ok, well, in that case…”It was just a thought experiment.”

They laughed, but Lacey still had every intention of checking out the lead. She moved to kiss Andrew goodbye, but he evaded her touch, which was weird. Lacey chalked it up to his busy schedule. Lunch with him was nice and her heart felt much lighter as she left the office with a smile on her face. Lacey hailed a cab and gave the address of that cathedral.

****

The sound of the key in the lock made Ruby jump ten feet. Matt came through the door and the second he saw her, he gave her a questioning look. “What’s up?”

“I need to apologize,” she said quickly. “For freaking out this morning. After everything you’ve done-”

“Hey, it’s fine.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yeah. I just came by to take a quick shower. Will you be ok today on your own?”

Ruby nodded.

“Alright.”

Matt left his leather jacket draped over the chair and went into the bathroom. The second she heard the shower spray, Ruby searched the pockets. Inside Matt’s wallet was a single key with a tag on it. The tag had an address. Strange.

Ok, part of her knew she was being petty and ungrateful going through his things, but every instinct said Matt was hiding something huge. Pocketing the key was risky, especially if he noticed it missing but she did it anyway. Matt came off like a nice guy but kindness was only skin deep. Underneath all the civility, everyone had demons. Ruby wanted to uncover Matt’s.

Once she heard Matt leave the apartment, Ruby waited a full ten minutes before she headed down to the mailbox. This key opened the box and she found a single envelope inside. The name was the same but the address printed didn’t match this building. It matched the address on the tag. Why did Matt need two addresses? This fact in and of itself was weird but add in with all her other suspicions and it felt like a huge break. Ruby made up her mind then and there. She should check out this second address.

****

Gramercy Cathedral was indeed a church. Once upon a time, at least. Outside, yes, the building looked every inch a grand place of worship. Inside, however, was a whole other story. Music pounded and people packed every corner. Drinks flowed freely, and Lacey’s mouth instantly dried. Six months ago, she would have been right at home, laughing making merry like all these other people.

Wiping her sweaty palms on her pants, her eyes darted around the room. Seeing a free corner, she sought refuge until she could get a grip.

Drinking at parties started out as something forbidden and fun but Lacey was quickly pulled under into a tornado she couldn’t control. After the accident, everything went hardcore. Right now, Lacey could practically taste the tequila on her tongue. Before she got sober, a hundred problems chased her heels. Yet, walking the straight and narrow didn’t do her any favors. Sober and on the run, she had an unknown hitman on her tail, a friend missing and was falling hard for the last guy on earth she should have.

If ever there was a time to drown her sorrows, it would be now. Oh, the temptation made her shiver with need. What would one little sip hurt? Lacey knew the answer, though.

Never in a million years would Lacey have chosen to go to AA on her own, but now that she kicked the bottle, she managed to let go of so much of her haunted past. Did she want to throw all that progress away for a single taste?

No. Absolutely not. Lacey just needed to get a grip and when she felt in total control, she could figure out why her sister came here in the first place. Lacey closed her eyes, inhaled a deep breath, and mentally recited a prayer. She could do this.

Unaware of how long she lingered in the shadows, Lacey emerged from her hiding spot and headed for the bar. Two steps later, she froze. A very familiar face sat on a stool ordering a whiskey. Matt.

Lacey’s stomach churned and she ducked into another corner. Matt fell off that wagon? When? What the hell?

“Are you sure you need a second whiskey,” the bartender, a brunette with DDs, asked.

“I haven’t had a drink in five days,” he answered. “Just pour.”

The bartender did as requested and Matt downed the contents in a single gulp.

“Can I help you?”

Startled, Lacey turned to see the bouncer giving her that look. A glance back at Matt and she gathered her courage. “Have you ever seen that guy here with…me?”

The guy’s blank but expectant look had Lacey reaching for her wallet and handing him a fifty.

“No,” he answered. “But he’s in here a lot. Always orders whiskey. Always on his cell.”

What were the odds that Matt turned out to be a regular at a bar linked to Belle? Was he the one out to hurt her twin? If so, why?

“Thank you.”

Lacey headed for the exit before Matt caught her. Did her sponsor play her? If so, to what end? Was he even a real alcoholic? Based on that scene in the bar, the answer seemed like a resounding “no”. So many questions rattled around in Lacey’s head, but she would need help getting answers. Once she reached the street, she called Ruby and told her to meet at the Park Ave apartment. They had some brainstorming to do.

Back inside the club, Matt’s cell shrilled and he stepped away from the bar to answer. “Hello.”

“It’s me,” Belle said through the line. “How’s the situation with the old sponsor?”

“Status quo. Cleaned her up and stashed her in the apartment but Ruby’s no Ariel. She doesn’t suspect anything. Plus, I don’t have enough room in my basement for two hostages.”

“I’ll take your word for it.”

“Look, Ruby knows the truth about Lacey, but she wants to protect her friend, which means she’ll stay quiet. Plus, that little thing you were so freaked out about when she arrived in New York is now in my possession.”

“She gave it to you?”

“Yup.”

“Matt, the only reason she had the gun in the first place was because the cop you hired gave it to her.”

“Yeah, and I told you he’d need a story to cover his ass. Kemper got her to you, didn’t he? That’s what you wanted.”

“Yes, but keep me posted.”

“Will do.”

Hanging up, Belle wished she wasn’t so far away. Her carefully laid plans started unraveling and it would be easier to keep an eye on things if she was in New York. Unfortunately, she still needed more evidence. Evidence only obtainable in Paris. If she could get Will back in her corner, that is.

Out of left field, a wave of nausea had her running to the bathroom. Curled up on the bathroom floor, Belle hoped to make her escape soon. For her baby, Belle would do whatever was necessary. All of this would be over soon.

Chapter Text

After Belle left the office, Nicholas confronted Regina. “I’ve made a decision about Triton. I’m not going to pursue it. If that means losing everything, then so be it.”

Regina stared at her business partner for a long, steady moment. Control hanging by a thread, she leaned back in her chair. “May I ask why?”

“A month ago, I would have gone headfirst ahead with your plan, but now I have more to live for than the bottom line.”

Or the endless haze of research that made up his old life.

Unbelievable! Regina rubbed the tension in her shoulder before speaking.

“Belle,” she said with undisguised bitterness. That goody-two-shoes bookworm never stopped meddling!

“I guess I want to be the man she thinks I am.” In more ways than one, but Nicholas dare not voice those thoughts.

Regina watched Andrew leave the office and wondered how the hell she could fix this situation. For love, he was willing to toss aside all their hard work? Well, Regina wasn’t going to throw in the towel! As usual, if she wanted something done right, she better do it herself. There had to be a way to get to Eric and bend him to her will. One way or another, she’d find a way to have her way!

****

“I’m such an idiot!”

Lacey sat down and felt the huge weight of failure crush her shoulders. “He came up to me in AA and I didn’t even question it! You weren’t here and I needed someone.”

Listening to the whole story, Ruby hated how hard Lacey was on herself. “None of this is your fault. The guy went to a lot of trouble to gain your trust.”

“But why?” Lacey couldn’t figure out the connection. “The antidepressant Belle took was prescribed for paranoia. I think she was just scared. Maybe she knew someone as trying to hurt her. Then she went to that bar – the same one where I saw Matt. It can’t be a coincidence. She told her shrink about it, obviously. Why else would the woman have made a notation?”

“You think Matt was the one who wanted to hurt your sister?”

At a loss, Lacey shook her head. “I don’t know. He has had every chance to hurt me but didn’t. Maybe…because he knew I had a gun.” Lacey looked at the ceiling and groaned at her stupidity. “Which I just gave him! Shit! I have to get that back!”

Ruby threw up her hands. “Before we do anything, we need to find out more about Matt and what he really wants. There might be something here.”

Ruby showed Lacey the mail she found but nothing sparked. A bill? To another address? Why on earth would Matt have another address? This didn’t bode well.

“I can check it out,” Ruby offered.

“Are you sure?”

The brunette shrugged. “Why not? He doesn’t know we are on to him. Might as well while we have the element of surprise.”

Lacey’s gut urged caution but the burning need for real answers overwhelmed her common sense. They sketched out a plan and decided to act tomorrow. The sooner they figured out what Matt was up to, the sooner they would stumble out of the dark.

****

Thank the Lord for paperwork. The perfect pretense. Regina showed up on Eric Butler’s doorstep with a logical excuse, wormed her way into his living room, and waited for his guard to drop. As luck would have it, Eric left his phone out on the table when he went to get her a glass of water.

Jackpot!

Forwarding a few…revealing pictures and emails to her own account, Regina quickly put the phone back where she found it and did her best to look innocent. Should she play her hand now or wait?

“You look preoccupied,” Eric commented when he returned, glass in hand.

“Just business.”

“Trouble in paradise?”

“Just that love has turned my partner soft.”

Eric shrugged. “We should appreciate those we live while they’re here with us.”

“Yes, of course.” Regina figure blackmailing Eric when he got all watery over Ariel wasn’t the best choice. “My apologies.”

Regina took her leave armed with the knowledge that all she had to do was press a button and Eric would be her puppet. In a few more days, Triton would be a Gold/Charles client and most of her worries would be bad memories.

****

How many times did she sit at a table nursing a cup of cooling coffee these days? Lacey had a feeling she didn’t want to know. Seconds later, Matt came through the café door and Lacey forced a smile.

“Your message sounded urgent,” he said as he took a seat at the table. “Everything ok?”

Absolutely not. Lacey’s life was falling apart, but Matt couldn’t glean any of her anxiety or the jig would be up. Instead, she inhaled a deep breath.

“You know how it is. Some nights are worse than others. I didn’t rip you away from anything important, did I?”

“I was actually looking into Ariel’s case again.”

Matt updated Lacey on what one of his cop buddies found, but Lacey didn’t register the words. All she could think as she stared across the table was that Matt deceived her. Every word out of his mouth was probably a lie. He lied because he wanted something from her, but Lacey didn’t have a clue what that could be and it drove her mad.

“Belle?” Matt waved a hand in front of her face. “You ok?”

Lacey blinked to attention and nodded. “Yeah. Just overwhelmed. Despite it all, you’ve done so much for me these last few days. The last few weeks actually. Above and beyond the call of a sponsor. I guess I’m wondering why.”

Matt smiled and sat back in his seat. “Just a good guy, I guess. I’ve been where you are, remember?”

Oh, she highly doubted that but kept up the pretense. Faking gratitude was easy when she knew at this very moment Ruby was at his other address finding out exactly what he was hiding.

“I’ve been such a mess.” Lacey continued, “Dragging you into the disappearance and asking you to help me help Ruby stay sober. Then all that stuff with the gun. I have no idea what I was thinking asking that of you.”

The hairs on the back of Matt’s neck prickled. “The way to explain it is that the reasoning was logical.”

“I never should have made it into your problem. It was a mistake.”

“Belle-”

“It’s a stolen gun,” she continued in a rush. “A stolen cop’s gun.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, but there are ways to make it untraceable,” he insisted. “Ways I’ve already started to pursue.”

“Matt, I really appreciate it but I should take it back.”

Aw, hell. Matt maintained eye contact and kept his cool.

“Belle, I’m confused.”

Lacey looked him dead in the eye. “I need the gun.”

Matt wanted to punch her in the face but he cracked a smile instead. “What do you need a gun for?”

She answered honestly, not caring if he picked up on the underlining truth. “I don’t feel safe anymore.”

That humor vanished and Matt became serious. “Why not?”

“I just meant that Ariel is still missing and we don’t know if it had anything to do with me. Whoever took her is still out there and I would feel better if I was armed.”

How could he argue with that? “Alright. I don’t have it on me. I left it with a guy who said he could take care of the serial numbers.” The lie rolled off his tongue smooth as silk. “No phone numbers, so questions. It’s going to take a day or two to get it back.”

Getting to his feet, Matt had no intention of bowing to her demands, but best not give her an inkling just yet.

“Wait!” Lacey jumped up. “You don’t have to leave right this second. I mean, we still have to finish our coffee. Please, I didn’t mean to offend you-”

Oh, Matt saw right through her little speech.

“I don’t have anywhere to be.”

He grinned at her desperation. “I do, but I’ll be in touch.”

“Matt,” Lacey grasped his arm. “Thank you. I mean it. For putting up with me.”

He nodded. “You’re welcome.”

The second he headed out the door, Matt looked over his shoulder to make sure Lacey returned to the table. Likewise, Lacey watched him until he got on the back of his motorcycle and merged into traffic. The second Matt was out of sight, she snatched her cell and dialed Ruby. Hopefully, her friend would have enough time to get out before Matt caught red-handed.

For his part, Matt cursed like a sailor when he dialed the real Belle and got her voicemail. This plan was going to hell in a handbasket and that bitch couldn’t bother to pick up his call? The beep sounded in his ear and Matt snarled. “Belle, she’s on to me.”

Pissed, he disconnected the call and increased speed. Arriving at his house in record time didn’t ease the rolling in his gut. There was no way he was going to get tricked out of his payday. Belle promised him six figures and he would be damned if he didn’t collect every penny.

****

“Are you ok?”

“Yeah,” Ruby said. “I got out when you texted. He didn’t catch me.”

Lacey breathed a sigh of relief into the phone. “Did you find anything?”

“No, but I found his cell phone. It’s dead, but I can get a charger. There might be some clue on it about what he’s really up to.”

“And you don’t think he’ll suspect it’s missing?”

“Hopefully, before he puts two-and-two together we’ll find something.”

“Ok.” Lacey didn’t voice her doubts. Not only would that not be fair to Ruby, subconsciously, she didn’t want to consider how Matt could so easily turn on them.

“I’ll call when I find something more concrete.”

When they disconnected, Lacey exhaled a long breath. On the surface, the mission was accomplished so she gathered up her purse and headed home. A hot bubble bath sounded like heaven. Lacey pushed her worries to the back burner. As long as she pursued answers about her twin and all the intrigue surrounding her, then Lacey could function. Soon, something would go her way. Soon.

****

Andrew paced the length of the room while raking a hand through his hair. He couldn’t stand still. When the bell rang, his thoughts shattered and raced to answer the summons.
“Come in,” he called.

Nicholas crossed the threshold and immediately noticed his cousin was wound tighter than a cheap watch. One look at the poor sod and Nicholas knew Andrew didn’t bother sleeping last night. “You said it was an emergency.”

“Tomorrow is my anniversary.”

Nicholas blinked a mere moment before the full realization hit him. “Andrew, look. Nothing is going to happen.”

“But what if she expects it?”

Thought the idea of claiming Belle for his own tempted Nick beyond all reason, he reassured his cousin of the harsh facts. “She’s had a miscarriage and runs hot and cold on a good day. She’s also keeping secrets.”

“Nick, Belle wants the marriage to work! So do I! If we are still on the rocks, then I wouldn’t be pushing right now, but-”

“You don’t trust me?”

“Aye, of course.” Andrew would trust Nicholas with his life. “But Belle is smart.”

“I can pick a fight,” Nick said dismissively. “Should be easy enough to put her off.”

“Then she’ll never forgive me for ruining our anniversary!”

“Christ, Andrew!” Nicholas didn’t mean to lose his temper, but what the hell did his cousin expect him to do?! “Then what should I do? Invent a business trip?”

“Switch back!”

Stunned, Nicholas stared. He had to admit, he didn’t see this coming and had to think on his feet. “And the risks-”

“It’s only for one night!” Andrew pressed the issue because he yearned so badly for Belle that he couldn’t think straight. “I need to give this to her.”

And if Nicholas wasn’t tumbling headfirst into love with Belle then he wouldn’t have argued. He probably would have helped Andrew and walked away without a second thought. Yet, a primitive part of him didn’t want his cousin to go anywhere near his own wife. Honor demanded that Nick not lay a finger on Belle and he had every intention of abiding by the rules, but that didn’t mean he wanted another man near her either.

“The most practical of arguments is the obvious,” Nick slowly stated. “If you shave, I can’t grow a beard overnight. Nor can you. Think why we took two weeks away to make the full switch, Andrew. Or have you forgotten?”

Andrew rolled his eyes as a laugh rolled off his tongue. “We can make up some excuse! Men shave all the time! I love Belle! It’s my anniversary and I want to be with her! Why are you standing in my way?”

For half a moment, the truth wanted to flow forth but Nicholas bit back the impulse. He didn’t understand his own feelings, so how in the world could he even explain them to his cousin? They’d fight, beat each other bloody, and then Andrew would switch back and abandon their plan. No matter what, he couldn’t let that happen. Things may be quiet now, but danger still stalked them. If Andrew steeped back into his own life, then they ran the risk of never finding out who targeted him and the company to begin with. Andrew could be playing right into Belle’s hands! Nick would be damned if he would allow his cousin to fall into an early grave!

“Remember what I told you when you asked why I would risk my life for you?”

Andrew nodded and swallowed hard at the memory. “Because you wanted to be with Gloria.”

“Rebuilding a marriage is slow work, Andrew. I’ll have an excuse but we can’t risk switching back and jeopardize the plan. Not at this stage if we want to figure out who is trying to kill you and steal your assets.”

“And you still suspect Belle?”

Nicholas didn’t bother denying it. “We don’t have evidence to clear her.”

Rubbing his chin, Andrew then walked to the window and stared out for a solid five minutes. Finally, he turned to his cousin. “White roses are her favorite. At least give her something sweet before you tear out her heart.”

Nick nodded and patted his cousin on the shoulder. The fact Belle wasn’t totally honest with him should have sobered Nicholas enough to not want to get tangled in her web. Unfortunately, he couldn’t shake his feelings so easily. An understanding passed between them and Nicholas thought it wise to take his leave and not press his luck.

Chapter Text

White rose petals line the hallway floor. A trail that led into the candlelit living room. Bouquets of white roses filled the space, giving off such a sweet aroma that it brought a smile to Lacey’s lips. In the center of the room, sitting on the couch, was Andrew. That smile of his sent a jolt straight to her core, making her loins tingle with desire. Lacey tried to remember all the reasons why this man was forbidden but couldn’t quite manage the task.

“Andrew?”

His smile widened. “It’s not overkill, is it? White roses are your favorite.”

“No, it’s amazing,” she breathed. Lacey cautiously approached the couch. “What did I do to deserve all this?”

Rising, Nicholas’s palms itched to touch Belle’s soft cheek but he managed to keep his hands to himself and focus on the reason for this evening. All of this was just for show. Yes, that’s why he spent the whole afternoon with the florist and setting the scene. All to see the look of awe on her face. A look that if stole his breath. Nicholas could claim to be keeping up pretenses until he turned blue, but the truth of the matter was that he wanted to romance this incredible woman.

Belle stole his heart. Yanked the rug out from under his feet when he wasn’t even looking. Nicholas played with fire and well he knew it, but he couldn’t resist the lure of the flame.

“I know it’s not until tomorrow,” he said gently. “But I wanted to wish you Happy Anniversary.”

“Thank you.” Truly touched, Lacey couldn’t take her eyes off of him. No man she ever met when to such lengths. This man was incredible.

“Can you believe it’s been five whole years?” He took her hand in his. “Feels like-”

“Six weeks,” she finished. That’s how long she pretended to be Belle.

Belle. Unpleasant thoughts rose, but Lacey pushed them back. Selfishly, she wanted to enjoy this moment. Her heart belonged to Andrew and she didn’t want to think about anything else.

Six weeks, yes. That sounded about right. Six weeks of upsets and downs, highs and lows, and unexpected attraction…

“I made reservations,” he said by way of distracting his growing lusts. Belle smelled incredible, looked gorgeous, and felt so soft that his control hung by a delicate thread. “For 8:30 tomorrow. You’ll get your real gift then.”

“There’s more? Andrew-”

“Trust me. You’re going to love it.”

“I-I don’t have anything for you,” she confessed. Lacey didn’t know the anniversary because Belle didn’t write it in her planner.

Those dark eyes bore into hers. “I have everything I need.”

How did he know exactly what to say to make her melt? All her walls crumbled. Lacey’s inhibitions vanished to be replaced by an all-consuming need for this man and this man alone. Before she realized what happened, the words rolled off her tongue.

“I love you.”

And she did. With all her heart and she didn’t regret voicing her feelings.

Inhaling a sharp breath hearing her confession, Nicholas squeezed her hands. All those weeks, Belle responded to him. Yes, she thought he was another man – hell, he was pretending to be that other man – but the connection they formed felt no less real for it. He was the one she held close at night. Who she confided in. And she was the one that touched his heart and healed his soul.

“And I love you.”

The second he said the words, he realized they were true. Nicholas admired this woman and all he wanted was to make her happy. The smile she gave him now proved to be his undoing. Nicholas touched his forehead to hers, wishing with all his heart circumstances were different. Yet, despite all the deception, this moment between them was honest and real and he held onto it for dear life.

“It’s been a while since we’ve said that,” he said thickly.

If Nicholas didn’t remember he played a role, things would go too far. He couldn’t cross the line.

“Feels good,” Lacey murmured.

When Nicholas nodded she leaned in for a kiss. Part of his mind screamed to resist, but Nicholas didn’t listen. Instead, he bowed to temptation and took a taste. A sweet, soft kiss. Then another and another until they clung desperately as they panted for air.

Overwhelming need took hold of Nicholas and in a moment of blind lust he lifted Belle into his arms and carried her to the bedroom. He laid her on the mattress as if she was the most precious of flowers and relished the sensation of her soft skin against his.

No, he should stop. Nicholas heaved breaths as he pulled back in an effort to reclaim his wits. Belle captured his gaze and maintained eye contact as her hands slowly unfastened her bra. Mouth watering for a taste, Nicholas’s hand reached for a soft mound but then he remembered his cousin and jerked back.

“I’ll be right back.”

The spell shattered. Lacey should be grateful, though. Wanting Andrew while she deceived him was ten sizes of wrong, but she couldn’t turn off her love. When she undressed for him, Lacey knew this wasn’t just sex. She fully exposed her body and her heart to this man, which was a first for her. Andrew owned a piece of her very soul and had the power to break her completely.

Belle’s loss remained fresh and painful but why shouldn’t Lacey experience life? Love? This man treated her with respect and tremendous care. For the first time ever, Lacey opened up to another human being. These new sensations were incredible and frightening all at once.

Yes, there were a million reasons why they shouldn’t do this, but Lacey didn’t care. Right now, all she wanted was to feel alive. Even if only for one night. Because realistically, how long could her ruse last?

However, when Andrew darted for the bathroom, Lacey’s eyes prickled with tears. What happened? Why didn’t Andrew want to touch her?

Nicholas’s nails dug into the marble counter until his knuckles turned white. Unable to look at his reflection, he gritted his teeth and closed his eyes in an effort to regain control and ignore his raging erection. He had to put Belle off somehow. Then he would take a cold shower. Freezing fucking cold. Maybe two. Or maybe he had to jerk off. Oh, hell maybe all of the above.

“Andrew?”

Her soft voice felt like music to his ears. With effort, he opened his eyes and wished he hadn’t. Belle stood in the doorway, naked from the waist up, her pink nipples begging for attention. Nicholas forgot to breathe and his erection throbbed so hard it hurt.

“Belle," he croaked.

“Did I do something wrong?”

“No,” he growled the word. “I just…need a moment.”

“Why?”

“To calm down.”

The disappointment was written all over her face. “You don’t want me.”

“That’s not it,” he swore. “Lord, it’s not. We just…shouldn’t risk things. Rebuilding a marriage takes time.”

“It does.” Lacey stepped into the bathroom and approached the man who held her heart. If Belle were alive, she would never be doing this, but her sister was gone. Lacey was alive and truly in love for the first time in her life. Her world could shatter tomorrow, so she only had today. Killian could find her and put a bullet in her brain and she would die with the regret that she never felt Andrew’s touch. Machado could discover the truth and haul her off to jail and Andrew would look at her with utter disgust. If either fate came to pass, Lacey didn’t want to regret passing up this one chance.

Carefully, she cupped his cheek in her palm and watched Andrew’s eyes close. “We only get one life. One chance. You and I …this connection is something people wait their whole lives to find. I can’t ignore it. I want you.”

Lacey’s fingers traced down his chest, paused at his belt, and then ventured lower.

Nicholas’s breath hitched in his throat as he watched the rest of her clothing pool at her feet. His heart slammed against his ribcage at the sight of her bare mound. Was she slick for him? Hot to the touch?

Mouth dry, he couldn’t tear his gaze away but stood as still as a statue as she leaned closer. He had to deny her – deny them both. A second later, Nicholas’s resolve cracked. Belle rubbed him through his slacks and Nicholas doubled over with a groan.

“It’s been so long,” he ground out in plea. He had no one since Gloria. Belle had no idea of this and Nicholas knew it would be difficult to last for her.

Lacey seized the opening and wrapped her other arm around his neck and whispered in his ear as she stroked him. “I love you. I want this. We have all night.”

No, no, he couldn’t! But she smelled so sweet, felt so soft – Christ! Her clever hands made their way inside his waistband and gripped his length, then stroked his naked flesh until stars sparked behind his eyes. Completely undone, Nick buried his face in her neck and struggled out of his pants.

Moments later, he lifted her to sit on the sink and pushed her knees open. As her head fell back, he took a pert nipple into his mouth while he stroked her outer folds. Nick groaned against that soft breast. In response, her arousal coated his fingers.

“I need you now,” he rasped.

Lacey revealed in his strong grip and the sensations rolling over her being. “Take me. I won’t break.”

Passion swirled to overwhelming heights. Nicholas couldn’t have hesitated if he tried. He grasped her hips and positioned himself between her thighs. He paused as if hoping to come back from the brink of no return. The moment was lost when the woman he loved grasped his rigid cock and placed the tip at her entrance. Their eyes locked and Lacey pushed him inside her hot, slick, sheath.

They cried out in unison and Nick’s grip tightened as he thrust himself to the hilt. Lacey sobbed his name as her head fell back. His large, thick penis filled her nearly to bursting! Oh, and his powerful thrusts hit just right! So perfect!

“Yes,” she sobbed as her nails dug into shoulders. “More! Urgh! Yes, right there! Oh god!”

So tight! Lord, he couldn’t stand it! Nick knew he wouldn’t last long but he needed to please her. He tasted her other nipple and never paused his thrusts. Nick’s hands went to her clit and stroked the sensitive bud. Belle bucked and writhed and screamed for more. One little pinch and he felt her fall over the edge of bliss.

Her tight, throbbing cunt milked him hard and Nicolas shouted as his seed burst. The orgasm seized his being in a firm grip as he pumped and pumped until he was spent. When Nick finally returned to himself, he realized Belle hugged him close and combed her fingers through his hair while wearing a satisfied smile. The look of acceptance in her eyes had his throat closing.

Before the guilt could consume him alive, Belle said something that twisted him up even more in this tangled web.

“Take me to bed and do it again.”

Hearing the sultry command, Nick lifted Belle in his arms and carried her to the bed. This time around wouldn’t be a quick coupling. Oh no, this time, he intended to fully explore every inch of her body and fuck her until dawn.

Andrew gave her the best orgasm of her life and Lacey wanted more! Of course, it may be hard to top that intensity but she was willing to try! However, during the next several hours she learned just how skilled a lover shared her bed.

At first, they kissed and explored at a leisurely pace, getting tangled in the sheets. The slow burn turned out to be a tease. Lacey fell into an almost delirious state when his mouth closed over her sex and played with her.

God! Yes! Yes! Yeeeeesssss! Ohhhhh!”

Lacey arched off the mattress as those clever fingers caressed her inner folds and his tongue licked every inch of her intimately. He nipped and teased her clit until she swore she would come, but at the last second, Andrew withdrew the pressure. Only when she begged did he continue touching her.

“Please,” she sobbed as he brought her to the edge over and over again just to yank her back from the brink. Frustrated beyond all reason, her hands fumbled about until they found his hard erection.

The sound of his cry filled her ears and a sense of power surged through her veins. Lacey quickly gained the upper hand, shifting their positions so she was on top, then bent to take him between her lips. He tasted absolutely divine! One lick and she wanted more. Lacey only managed a few sucks before Andrew rolled her onto her back and shoved her thighs open. A second later, he sank deep. The moment he filled her completely their gazes met and held.

Unlike the first time, their lovemaking now was slow, sweet, and unhurried. As they moved together, Lacey’s arms and legs wrapped around the hard muscle of his body and relished the sensations rushing through her bloodstream. So this was making love! No wonder it fueled art and dreams and the universe! Lacey couldn’t get enough of when they came together in a perfect blaze of passion and ecstasy, she knew she would never be able to let him go.

Chapter Text

Nicholas woke to the sensation of a soft breast rising and falling beneath his cheek. At first, he nuzzled into the warmth, but as he grew aware of the sheet bunching around his waist and the naked state of his body, shame rushed him.

Belle looked so beautiful naked and asleep. The way her chestnut curls framed her face against the pillows made Nicholas drew in a sharp breath. He missed waking up next to someone. Most of all, he missed waking up with someone he loved.

Dear God, what did he do?! Easing slowly out of Belle’s arms, Nick rose quickly and quietly from the bed, leaving her to rest. In the bathroom, anger so thick choked his windpipe. How could he betray Andrew like this? After swearing not to?

Last night was pure bliss, but one night in Belle’s arms was all he could ever afford. The full reality of last night fell into place but Nicholas refused to feel sorry for himself. None of this was Belle’s fault. She assumed she made love to her husband, but Nick had no such excuse.

Yet, despite the horror, shame, and guilt tearing him apart from the inside out, his cock hardened. He wanted Belle again. Nick wanted her forever.

Pissed, he took a freezing shower but his erection refused to get the memo and die down. Gripping his aching flesh, Nicholas tugged roughly. A few minutes later, he spilled as pleasure and pain snaked through his bloodstream. Nicholas watching his seed swirl down the drain and swore Andrew could never know what happened. Last night was a mistake. One he refused to repeat. Ever, ever again.

Maybe, with Belle out of his system and the edge worn off, he wouldn’t feel so controlled by his lusts. Nicholas could suspect Belle capable of wrongdoing in the aftermath just the same as he did before things got so twisted. Unlike his cousin, Nicholas could still believe the worst of the woman despite the mind-blowing sex.

Finally, his erection dissipated and Nick washed the rest of his body. Halfway through his getting dressed, Belle stirred in bed. At first, Nick ignored her. The urge to reach out and greet her with a kiss bit at him, but Nicholas managed to hold his tongue and his emotions in check.

“What are you doing over there?” Lacey hoped to wake up in Andrew’s arms and bask in the afterglow but, apparently, he had other ideas.

“I have to get into the office. There’s work I have to handle before our reservations.”

Really? Work tore him from her bed? Oh, now she could understand why relations between him and Belle took a cold turn. Lacey held her tongue as she studied his moments. Once he put on his jacket,

Lacey held out a hand. “Come here.”

At first, Nicholas wanted to refuse but what if she got suspicious? He may be an adulterer but there was no reason to put his mistakes on Belle. Nick grasped her hand, kissed her knuckles, then sat on the edge of the bed. Belle immediately hugged him and he couldn’t resist rocking her in his embrace.

“Good morning,” she murmured before kissing his neck.

One last taste. Nicholas swore he would only kiss her this last time as he covered her lips with his. “Good morning,” he said softly.

“I can’t wait for tonight.”

Nicholas swallowed hard. “Neither can I.”

Not quite the enthusiasm she hoped for. “Everything ok?”

Nicholas couldn’t afford to dwell on self-hate or pity. There was work to be done. “Just mentally checking off the list of the last minute details.”

His smile went a long way in putting Lacey at ease. When Andrew rose to return to the closet, she stretched and decided she should stop lingering in bed and get dressed as well. She dawned one of Andrew’s shirts and headed for the bathroom. A glance over her shoulder revealed that her husband watched her with keen male interest. Thrilled down to her bones, Lacey purposely left the door slightly ajar in case Andrew wanted to join her in the shower.

Unfortunately, Lacey was disappointed. After her morning routine, she ventured back to the bedroom to find it empty. Andrew vanished. Business concerns took over, which was a tough blow to handle. Lacey did her best to try and not be offended as she swept her hair up and off her neck. A moment later, the pungent aroma of coffee hit her senses.

When she reached the hallway, she heard Andrew on his cell. She wanted to speak to him but the elevator dinged, dividing Lacey’s attention. Ruby stepped out of the elevator and offered her friend a smile. The pair exchanged greetings.

“Is Andrew here,” Ruby asked.

“Getting ready for work.”

“I charged the phone,” she whispered. “But it isn’t Matt’s.”

“What do you mean?” If the phone didn’t belong to Matt, then who could it possibly belong to?

Ruby held up the phone and pressed the side button. An image of Ariel with her boys showed on the screen.

“But that’s Ariel,” Lacey said aloud. “Wait. M-Matt has Ariel?”

Shock radiated through her whole being. Questions flooded but no answers were forthcoming. Lacey trusted Matt! Why on earth would he kidnap Ariel? It didn’t make sense!

Needing air, Lacey walked out on to the terrace and Ruby followed. Cold wind slapped Lacey’s cheeks and she welcomed the discomfort, even as she rubbed her hands together to ward off the chill.

“What would Matt, of all people, want with Ariel? It doesn’t make sense.”

Ruby empathized, but she wasn’t about to give Matt the benefit of the doubt. “If Matt is innocent, why does he have her cell? Lace, the door to his basement was padlocked. No one does that unless they’re trying to hide something.”

Ruby had a point, but Lacey didn’t know what to think. “If Matt is behind the hit on Belle, why take Ariel?”

“To hurt everyone around her? Because the hit failed and he wants revenge? Any number of reasons.”

“We should go back to his house-”

“Are you insane?” Ruby’s eyes bulged. “I nearly got caught once, and I am not about to do it again! We should go to the cops! Let them handle Matt.”

“Tell them you broke into his house to steal a missing woman’s cell phone? Ruby! They’ll throw you in jail before they investigate a thing!”

“Fine. We don’t tell the whole truth, but make them suspicious enough to look into Matt.”

“To what end?”

“If the cops think Matt is a viable suspect, they’ll search his house, find Ariel, and this will all be over.”

True. If Ariel was trapped in that house, then Lacey couldn’t stand by and do nothing.

“Belle,” Andrew called as he stepped out onto the terrace. Lacey stiffened at the sound of his voice, fearing he overheard their conversation. However, the sight of his smile made her relax somewhat.

“Ruby,” he greeted. “What a pleasant surprise. What brings you here?”

“Just wanted to thank you again,” she smiled.

“Glad to see you’re doing well.”

Ruby took note of the way Lacey inched toward Andrew and grasped his hand. The pair seemed in sync and beamed at one another in a way that suggested a new level of intimacy. At first, jealousy threatened to choke Ruby because she knew Lacey would never sleep with someone for the sake of her cover but managed to keep her game face on. Still, her heart broke a little.

“I’m off to work but wanted to say Happy Anniversary.”

“Happy Anniversary.” Lacey didn’t hesitate to accept his kiss but did feel Ruby’s gaze studying her as Andrew took his leave. A blush coated her cheeks.

“Anniversary, huh?”

Ruby’s tone was light but Lacey still felt self-conscience because there was no denying the truth. “Five years already. Can you believe it?”

When Ruby didn’t respond, Lacey became desperate to change the subject. “Let’s try this your way and call the cops.”

****

Paris, France

After making sure Matt had the situation in New York was under control, Belle turned all her attention on repairing her friendship with Will. She couldn’t tease him with the hint of a future romance after what happened with Lacey, but there was one ace up her sleeve that could rally him back to her side.

Once the morning sickness passed, she stared at her reflection at the mirrored vanity. The knob on the cabinet ought to do the trick. For her baby, Belle could take a hit. However, her story had to be convincing, or Will wouldn’t forgive her and she would never get her hands on the evidence she needed to prove Andrew’s duplicity.

Belle steeled her resolve, grasped the bottom of the cabinet door, then jerked it open to fast the knob made contact with her eye. Stars danced behind her vision and pain exploded through her skull, but Belle gritted her teeth and swallowed a cry. That should definitely leave a mark. By the time Will returned to Paris, Belle would have everything she needed.

The next morning, she received a call that Will was at the bar. Belle snatched a pair of sunglasses and headed downstairs to meet him. Slipping on the glasses, Belle inhaled a deep breath. Here goes nothing.

Will appeared legitimately upset and guilt jerked Belle’s conscience. Lying wasn’t her first choice, especially since Will turned out to be such a nice guy. Hopefully, she could make it up to him. Then again, the cold look Will threw her when she took the seat beside him indicated she may have an uphill battle.

“Hey,” she greeted softly. “I want to explain.”

Will rolled his eyes. “Maybe I’m not in the mood for more lies.”

“Will-”

“I know what you did,” he hissed. “I went through the paperwork. You used me.”

Belle didn’t deny the accusation. “Can you give me five minutes?”

Time stopped for several moments but Will’s shoulders relaxed and he leveled a look at the beautiful brunette. He thought…well, no matter. He refused to believe another word Belle said.

“Andrew found out I was in Paris,” Belle began. “I slipped up and used my credit card. He asked me to come back and work things out.”

“So the second I leave, you sneak back to New York?”

“I thought you were already in Rome,” she pleaded. “Besides, we’ve been together for five years. I thought I owed it to our relationship to try.”

“What do you really want, Belle? I know you didn’t fly all the way back to Paris to apologize. Based on the evidence, you used a fake name to pull the wool over my eyes.”

“I didn’t use a fake name to trick you.” Belle removed her sunglasses to give Will a good view of her black eye. “I did it to hide.”

Belle paused, saw Will’s sympathy warring with his anger, and then continued. “Andrew and I didn’t exactly work things out.”

“He hit you?!”

Belle’s conscience cringed at Will’s rage. Andrew would never raise a hand to her. Throughout their marriage, he was kind and tender, but when push came to shove, he apparently hired others to do his dirty work.

“Andrew puts on a good face, but he isn’t the man you think he is. He is a very powerful man. There was no way he would let me just leave, so I had to come up with a plan of escape. Will, I need leverage.”

Will’s coldness faltered a bit.

“I’m sorry for lying to you but you have insider information.”

“So, you befriended me because you believe something illegal is going on at the firm? Belle, I find it hard to believe using false pretenses and getting me to risk my career was your only resort.”

“I was wrong not to trust you. I see that now, but if you were in my shoes, wouldn’t you be a bit gun-shy?”

“Maybe,” he admitted. “But you pretended to like me to get back at your husband and that’s the same sort of thing my ex would have done. Do you have any idea what it feels like to be made a fool of-”

“Will, your friendship is something I don’t deserve, and yes, I had ulterior motives, but I would like a chance to make it up to you.”

Silence fell around them that seemed to last an eternity. Will finished off the rest of his drink in a single gulp and moved to stand. “You should put some ice on that.”

Gaping at his retreating back, Belle couldn’t believe Will just walked away after that rude parting shot! Apparently, Will’s pride took a bit more soothing before he relented. Her hand fell to her belly and Belle remembered that she had one more card to put into play. There was no other choice. Belle had to get her hands on proof and ensure that her husband never laid a hand on their child.

****

Nicholas shouldn’t have been shocked to find his cousin in the office. All things considered, he should have guessed Andrew wouldn’t have been able to stay on the sidelines, but this morning he was the preoccupied with thoughts of last night. Luckily, Nicholas had one epiphany on the way over.

“How did it go last night?”

“Fine,” Nicholas answered in a clipped tone. “Belle ate up the roses.”

So then why couldn’t his cousin look him in the eye, Andrew wondered. “And tonight?”

Guilt tore his conscience to shreds, but Nicholas managed to maintain his composure. “I’ve come up with a solution.”

“Which is?”

“I’ll propose again.” When Andrew merely arched a brow, Nicholas elaborated. “A vow renewal will buy some time as well as provide a distraction. A full-scale celebration will take time to plan and should put her off until the new ceremony is complete.”

“Which will be when?”

“I’ll propose a minimum of six weeks, which should give us enough time to find evidence one way or the other.”

Andrew scratched his chin as he mulled over the idea. That plan could work. “I have something that may help with the evidence part.”

Nicholas stared at the folder his cousin held out to him for a split second before taking the offering. Upon opening the folder, he saw a photo of Ruby Ward. Next came a rap sheet a mile long. “Theft,” he read aloud. “Public drunkenness, felony car theft,” he flipped a page, “six months in jail…none of this points to a career in corporate espionage.”

“And yet Belle is spending a lot of time with her.”

Nicholas shrugged and dropped the folder on his desk. “She’s concerned for her sister and she thinks Ruby has answers.”

“Lacey is on the run, Ruby isn’t.”

“She helped Belle when she collapsed at the gala,” Nicholas pointed out. “She’s barely sober. And you think Ruby is mixed up in this situation?”

“I can’t think of any other reason why Belle would bother with the woman.”

“Maybe she has a generous heart?”

Andrew crossed his arms over his chest and glared. “Since when did you start defending my wife?”

“I’m simply repeating what you told me about her, Andrew,” Nick sighed. “You used to sing her praises to the heavens.”

“If Belle is mixed up in all of this, it’s possible she recruited Ruby to help.”

“With what exactly? When would their paths have even crossed?”

“I’m not sure, but I’m going to find out.”

“Andrew,” Nicholas called when his cousin marched toward the door. He waited until his cousin faced him. “We have to examine all the evidence and follow where it leads. Assumptions will only take us so far.”

“That’s what I am doing,” he stated before walking out the door.

Chapter Text

The second he opened his front door Matt figured Lacey had more guts than he gave her credit for. Thankfully, he was the type to always be prepared.

“Are you Matthew Scott,” the woman asked.

Matt nodded and leaned against the doorframe. “Can I help you?”

“I’m Detective Saldana and this is my partner Detective Brody. We would like to ask you a few questions.”

“Liz Saldana?”

“Yes.”

“You used to work with my buddy Steve Norman.”

“How do you know Steve?”

“He was my partner for five years.”

Detective Brody’s brow arched. “You’re NYPD?”

“Retired. Marines before that. What can I do for you?”

“Have you heard of Ariel Butler?”

“From the news.” Matt gave the officers an innocent look with a dash of mild confusion.

“What about Ruby Ward,” Saldana cut in.

Matt’s face filled with understanding. “Yeah. From AA.”

“She claims you have a fake apartment.”

“Fake?” He chuckled. “She needed a place to stay, so I let her crash at my place. Just so she wouldn’t get the wrong idea about my helping her, I came here to my mother’s old place. She recently passed.”

Saldana threw him a sympathetic glance but continued in a formal manner of questioning. “Have you ever seen this?”

When she held up a bagged cell, he shrugged. “They all look alike.”

“It’s Ariel’s. Ms. Ward claims she found it at your place.”

“Guys, I know you’re just doing your job, but Ruby has been sober for what? Six days? Her word and memory shouldn’t be taken as gospel. But I have no problem with you taking a look around.”

“We appreciate that.”

As he closed the door behind his unwanted guests, Matt thanked his lucky stars he had the foresight to move Ariel after Lacey dropped hints about the gun. He had to put the cops off his scent, which would be tough enough. The real problem in this scenario was Lacey. Enough games. His ass was on the line and he wanted his money.

After a thorough search turned up zilch, Saldana and Brody headed back to Park Ave to have a chat with Ruby Ward and Belle Gold. They filed the complaint, so they would follow up, but Saldana wanted a crack at Ms. Ward. The woman had links to Lacey French, who was connected to this case. A big bust would look good on her record. Not to mention getting in good with the FBI couldn’t hurt.

“You’re thinking conspiracy,” Brody asked as they entered the posh apartment building.

“Maybe one of opportunity,” Saldana theorized. “Lacey takes her sister’s rich friend but gets in over her head. Ruby arrives in town, warms up to Belle Gold, and now accuses a former cop?”

“You think the plan is unraveling and they’re getting desperate?”

“Could be but there is only one way to find out.”

Mrs. Gold welcomed the detectives into her home and showed them to the living room. “What did you find out?”

Saldana didn’t beat around the bush. “Mr. Scott says he’s never seen the phone. Or Ariel Butler. His place came up clean.”

Ruby and Lacey exchanged looks.

“We’re running prints on the phone,” Saldana continued, “until the results come back there isn’t any proof. It’s your word against his.”

“Would you mind coming down to the station to answer a few more questions,” Brody asked Ruby.

“What for?”

Sensing her friend’s fear, Lacey stepped in. “You think Ruby is involved in this?” She didn’t bother to conceal her outrage. “I can assure you-”

“I don’t think anything, Mrs. Gold,” Saldana interrupted. “I know that Ruby Ward, the sponsor and friend of the main suspect in the case, is somehow in possession of the victim’s cell phone.”

“Because I found it at Matt’s!” This was so unfair! But what else did she really expect? Always blame the drunk. Cops were all alike.

“Are you sure Lacey French didn’t give it to you?”

Ruby looked over at “Belle”. “No. She didn’t.”

“We also spoke to Mr. Scott’s neighbor who saw a woman matching your description lurking around his house yesterday.”

Ruby scoffed.

“A residence you claim you’ve never been to.”

“Fine,” Ruby sighed. “Let’s just get this over with.”

“Then I’m coming with you!” There was no way Lacey would leave her only friend to their mercy.

“You’ve already been questioned,” Detective Brody interjected. “It’s not necessary for you to tag along.”

“Belle, he’s right,” Ruby said. “Can we have a moment,” she asked the detectives.

They nodded and moved off, but not far and they kept the pair in their sights.

“Matt’s smart,” Ruby whispered. “If the police didn’t find anything, he must have moved Ariel. He’s also an ex-cop, which means they’ll believe him over me. Matt knows it, so let me answer their questions. I don’t have anything to hide.”

****

Pissed, Matt waited until the cop car was out of sight before he pulled the bottle of Jack out of the cabinet. Pouring a glass, he downed the contents in one gulp and then poured another. Next, he called his partner in crime.

The second she answered he went into his tirade. “Your plan is unraveling faster than a two-dollar-whore. I had no idea what your sister knew, but-”

“Matt, calm down,” Belle snapped.

“Don’t you tell me to calm down!” He threw his glass against the wall. “She knows where I live! Her cunt drinking pal stole Ariel’s cell! They know I have her and it’s only a matter of time before the cops do too! And you’re not paying me enough to face federal kidnapping charges!”

“Where is Ariel now?”

“I moved her before the cops got here. If I didn’t realize someone was in the house and I didn’t follow my gut, Ariel would have been rescued and I’d be behind bars!”

“Matt-”

“Ariel knows too much.”

Cold fear raced down Belle’s spine. “No.

“Do you want to get caught? Because I know I don’t! You want to catch your husband with his hand in the cookie jar, then you need to see this through! Ariel knows about the plan. I think it’s time we cut our losses.”

“You were supposed to keep her quiet! That’s all!”

“Plans change.”

“Matt, if you hurt her-”

“Spare me, Belle! It’s a little late to pretend you give a damn! You spoiled princesses in your ivory castles! While you’re living it up in Paris, I’m back here doing all the heavy lifting! My ass is in a sling! Not yours!”

“She’s my friend.” Belle never wanted Ariel hurt but couldn’t have predicted how she would react to Lacey.

“Belle, I’d hate to see how you treat your enemies.”

How dare he! She wasn’t an evil criminal! She didn’t try to kill anyone or cover up corporate theft and corruption! That title belonged to her husband! She was nothing like Andrew or Regina. Ariel wouldn’t be collateral damage. Belle would make sure of it.

“Matt,” she said calmly. “There’s no reason for us to argue.” If he got any angrier, he could do something rash and Belle needed him to stick to their plan. “I know I need you, so tell me what you want.”

There was a long pause before he finally answered. “Double what you promised me.”

“Fine. But it will take me some time to come up with that kind of money.”

“Figures,” he scoffed. “If I’m doing this pro-bono, then I’m doing it my way.”

“Matt, please!”

“Sorry, Belle. Game over. You no longer get a say.”

The line went dead and a spike of fear sliced through Belle’s heart. What did she do? All her carefully laid plans were spiraling out of control. Belle couldn’t ask Will for help but she had to find a solution. First things first. She had to get to New York and talk Matt down. As far as the money went, she would think of something.

That line in the book Of Mice and Men kept replaying over and over in her head. Best laid plans, indeed. Belle concocted this scheme to run away from a powerful man that wanted her dead. A man she stilled loved when push came to shove, but she had to be stronger than her treacherous heart. For her unborn child, Belle must make sure Andrew paid for his crimes.

Did she deserve all this chaos because she deceived Lacey? Belle had no idea how to forgive her twin. Ever since that night six years ago she loathed the very air her sister breathed. The mention of Lacey’s name set off her temper. Tricking Lacey into switching places and letting her twin take the fall in her stead seemed an apt punishment. Yes, Belle’s conscience gnawed her ever since she followed through with the idea, but if given the choice between saving her sister and saving her baby, there wasn’t even a contest.

Besides, Lacey had no one to blame but herself.

Packing the necessities, Belle knew there was still a chance to rally Will to her side. She planted her pregnancy test where a maid would be sure to find it. Next, she left a note for Will at the front desk. He wouldn’t be able to resist the bait. The rest would fall into place.

On the way to the airport, she wondered how she became so scheming and sly. Life changed her in ways Belle didn’t like. When she met Andrew, she thought she found her prince charming and would leave all the nightmares behind.

For a while, she lived the fairytale. Or so she thought. The more she transformed to fit the Upper East Side lifestyle, the more she lost her sense of self. The rift between her and Andrew grew wider and wider and he started working all the time and never noticed her struggle.

Then the fighting escalated from little spats to weeks on end of constant silence. Andrew didn’t care about how his wife bent over backwards for his benefit. In fact, he acted like she was the one putting on airs. She accused him of caring more about work than her and when he didn’t deny the accusation, she started exploring divorce options. That was what led her down the rabbit hole.

Andrew discovered that Belle was looking into his property holdings and grew even more hostile. Soon afterward, Belle realized she was being followed. The dream of happily ever after descended into another nightmare. How could the man she loved, the man she devoted her whole heart to, hire a hitman? Maybe she should have seen it coming. Andrew Gold didn’t become as powerful and rich as he did by playing by the rules.

Well, Belle decided if she wanted to live then she would have to beat Andrew at his own game. Good thing she had a secret ace up her sleeve in the form of Lacey. Of course, the way things were going, Belle had to pray that Andrew didn’t discover the truth about her sister before Belle had a chance to clean up this Ariel mess.

Maybe, when all of this was over, Belle could find her way back to her old self. She could imagine sitting in a library surrounded by books and reading all afternoon, but those musings would have to be put on hold. Right now, she had no other choice but to reach for her cold ruthlessness and survive.

****

Silver Springs, Colorado

Everett didn’t think he would be back so soon. The call came and here he stood. Standing over the body of another C.I., Everett’s throat thickened. This would never have happened if he found Lacey in New York – if he never let her flee in the first place. He shouldn’t have left her alone that night, but regrets would have to wait.

Steel determination had him fisting his hands at his sides and forcing his eyes to look long and hard at the result of his failure. Yet another stripper killed on Jones’s orders. The photographer’s camera flashed in continuous snaps to capture every minute detail of the scene but Everett didn’t flinch. No, he would remember every detail and find a way to make Killian rot behind bars.

“Hey.” Owen approached his partner. “How was your flight?”

“Long.” Everett wasn’t in the mood for small talk. “You have a rundown of what happened?”

Owen nodded and got down to the particulars. “Our vic is Mary Curtis. Silver Springs local, mother of one, and dancer at The Jolly Rodger.”

Just like Tamara and Lacey. “Let me guess, Jones has an airtight alibi?”

“Jones?” Owen scratched his chin. “Just because she worked at the club?”

“That and she was my informant.”

Owen’s eyes widened. “You’re shittin’ me. Everett-”

“A few weeks ago, she told me Jones had a guy inside the bureau. Called him, The Matador.”

“Wait, wait, wait, we’ve been working this case for two years and you never said anything about-”

“Because Mary only came forward after Lacey split,” he clarified. “I only just learned about Jones’s spy and I swore I would keep her safe and keep what she told me a secret even from my co-workers. The inside guy – this Matador – must have been following her.”

“I haven’t heard whispers about any matadors, Everett.”

“Well, keep your ears open. The last thing I need is to find your corpse in your apartment or a gutter somewhere.”

Owen scoffed but didn’t argue. They lingered at the crime scene until the coroner took Mary’s body away. Everett made the sign of the cross. May her soul rest in peace.