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Chapter 56: Captured
Storm
palladian23 wrote in superwebnovel
Author's Notes/Warnings: Violence, threats, near-death experiences, and a change of clothes

Hoping everyone is having a great weekend; enjoy the new chapter!

Thanks, as always, to my editor-in-chief, gwoman for helping me make this story better.


Back to Chapter 55

Lex looked at herself in the mirror and smoothed the veil attached to her hair, even though it was fine, and wondered why she'd ever signed up for this. The months between November and May had somehow evaporated thanks to work and wedding plans, and there only remained a few hours left before she and Rolf would be married.

Despite the blur of all of the work she'd done in the intervening months, there had been a couple of things that stood out for Lex. MSI's trial at the ICC still progressed, but the company had been prohibited from doing business within the EU due to the fact that the trial had brought up evidence of a number of practices that MSI hadn't refuted that were illegal in the EU. Also, in mid-April part of the gang who'd engineered the bank burglaries—the two sisters, the psychic and the one like Serena, as well as the man they'd suspected of being a hacker and the mastermind of it all—had escaped custody together. The preparations had been careless while the three were being transported to wait for trial, and they'd vanished.

Shaking her head to dislodge the thought and instead focus on the current proceedings, Lex had another look in the mirror of the vanity. She smiled at the recollection that it was the same one she'd sat in front of as she'd gotten ready for her first date with Rolf, but it now lived in Lily's room. Lex had given away some of her old furniture when Rolf had moved in, in order to make space for his things, and Lily had chosen that piece.

She smiled at herself and tried to ignore the tremble in her hands as she gripped the edge of the table to survey it, noting that Lily kept it emptier than she ever had, with only a box of tissues and a tube of lip balm in one corner. Lex looked back up and smoothed the short sleeve down of her dark blue silk dress, recalling how long it had taken to pick out and shaking her head at the patience of her friends for accompanying her on so many trips.

Casey had gone for a white dress with a big veil and a train and everything else that Lex couldn't bear to think of for herself, so she'd been glad when Casey had only begged her to get a veil so they could both have one. Lex had reluctantly agreed, and had gotten one that attached by a comb in her hair and only came to her shoulders.

Lex smiled at herself in the mirror as she recalled how long it had taken them to find the right place to hold the wedding. To her surprise, Riss had chosen the job of being the one to arrange the venue, and she’d taken either Lex, Casey, Lou, or Rolf (or the lot of them) around to any number of places around town for them to look at. Some had seemed all right, but no one had picked out a favorite until they’d seen one hotel in particular. It stood on the other side of town from where they lived, but Lex had fallen in love right away with the polished marble floors and carved wood everywhere, and she had been able to see from a peek at Rolf that he seemed to feel the same way. Once they’d been shown some of the event rooms that they could choose from, Casey and Lou had seemed to be just as impressed by the stained glass and huge fireplaces as well as the way they’d managed to incorporate modern conveniences into the space without impacting the antique feel of the rooms.

She frowned then, wondering where Lily and Casey had gotten off to. Since Lily had chosen to be in charge of transportation, she’d stayed at the house, but Mr. Chen and Ron had gone ahead to the hotel along with Riss, Victor, and Derek, who’d arranged the food and flowers between the three of them. Lily had suggested that she assist with Lex and Casey’s makeup and hair, and even Serena had said she’d join them, according to Lex's glance at the clock, in another five minutes, but the two other women had said they’d be upstairs already.

Hearing a noise out in the hallway, Lex half-turned from where she sat in front of the mirror, but the smile died on her face as a strange man stepped through the door. In the quick flash of the moment in which he crossed the room, Lex noticed that he looked to be several inches taller than her, dressed in jeans and an untucked rugby shirt. She turned to ask him what he was doing there, wondering if he'd come on some sort of wedding business, but she could almost taste her heartbeat in her throat a split-second later as she saw a gun appear in his hand. Lex began moving then, getting low on the bench she sat on as she heard the man's voice.

“Please, don't move,” he said, the tension plain in his voice, but the tone also sounded clear. “If the people downstairs hear a shot here, they'll begin shooting all of your friends downstairs. You wouldn't want that, would you?”

She glared at him and sat back up, opening her mouth to speak before she saw him put a finger to his lips just before he clamped down on her shoulder and pressed the gun to her temple.

“Shhhh,” he said, his eyes narrowing as his expression turned dangerous and full of some dark humor. “I’ve heard all about your voice, my friend, and I’ve been told that if you try to speak I should shoot rather than let you, so why don’t you be a good girl and put this on,” he finished, throwing a dark blue bandanna into her lap. “Look at that: it even matches your dress.”

She glared at him before picking it up, and she found it odd that her hands remained steady as she tied the thing over her mouth, and smoothing her veil down under it as she placed it. The man laughed in a way that indicated he didn’t find something funny and stepped forward, pulling on the gag while he put the gun in his waistband, then tied it tighter with a yank, so that the gag sat in her mouth, pulling at the edges of it in a way that made Lex's eyes water.

“All right, sugar,” the man said, grabbing her arm to get her up, “time to move. We're going downstairs. Not the march you had in mind today, but all your friends are waiting for you to arrive.”

Lex felt as if her stomach had just fallen through the floorboards. She got up with care, trying to thread her way around Lily's furniture as the man pulled on her upper arm. He made her walk first down the stairs, but he kept his hand on her gag, yanking it if she went too quickly for his liking. She was blinking tears from her eyes by the time they reached the first floor, but at least the man could yank on her arm again, which felt much less painful.

He'd headed them in the direction of the living room, Lex realized, and she couldn't help shooting a surreptitious glance at Art's computer in the front hall as they walked past. She noted it looked as if it had been turned off, screen blank. The man seemed to notice her glance and smirked at her, giving her a shove. “Don't worry about your security system. I think you'll find none of the electronics in this house are working right now.”

Art, she worried, wondering if anything had happened to him and hoping against hope that he remained safe with Riss. A moment later she had much more to worry about as she stumbled into the living room. As she looked to the right, where both of the sofas sat, her eyes widened as she saw a dark haired stranger with a build similar to Lou's holding a strange-looking long gun pointing at the first couch. He held the barrel of the gun to the middle of Casey's chest, where she sat on the edge of the couch between Lou's spread legs, her back resting on him.

She caught her friends' eyes, knowing the dismay in theirs must mirror her own. “Don't worry,” a male voice from across the room said, breaking into Lex's thoughts. “It fires anti-tank rounds, so even though your friends are probably normally bullet proof, I don't think they could withstand that.”

Lex turned from Casey and Lou to survey the rest of the room, finding Lily and Rolf sitting on the second couch, covered by guns held by the two sisters she remembered apprehending at the bank, Win and Iris. The man who'd spoken she recognized as Hardy, the one Lex suspected of masterminding the bank burglaries, and he smiled at her and gestured with his gun.

“Please, Ms. Mansfield, have a seat next to your lover,” he said, his voice electrified with tension. “Or should I call you Ms. McKilliam?”

As she sat on the couch, Lex could feel the hair on the back of her neck rise at hearing that old name again and tried to ignore Hardy as she studied Lily and Rolf. Neither seemed to be injured, although Lily appeared frightened. Rolf just looked sad as Lex met his eye, and she reached out to squeeze his hand to let him know that she hadn't given up.

Looking back up at Hardy, Lex could see by his raised eyebrow and slight sneer that the gesture hadn't been lost on him. “Getting married, were you?” he asked in a way that told Lex he already knew the answer to his question. “Rather archaic and perhaps sort of sweet, but not very modern. It's too bad you spent so much time planning for something that isn't going to happen, but I guess that's life, isn't it?”

Lex heard Casey growl on the opposite couch and glared up at Hardy, wanting to ask what the hell was going on but unable to. She gestured for a pen and paper, to which he cocked an eyebrow as he continued to stare at her. “Oh, you'd like a few last words? Well, all right, I guess you let me say my piece after you captured us. Bill, find some paper and a pen for Ms. Mansfield.”

He addressed the man who'd gone to fetch Lex in the first place, and Hardy covered Lex with his own gun as Bill left the room. “I have to admit, I've been wondering where you went to school. You must have quite a background to have outsmarted me, but as you see, it didn't help you in the long run.”

Bill appeared with a pad of paper and a pen from where they usually sat in the kitchen beside the telephone. Lex blinked furiously as she saw the homey-looking thing that Casey had picked out, with kittens chasing each other in one corner, and wrote four words before tilting the pad up for her captor to see.

“Why am I here?” Hardy said, looking at the paper, then laughed. “Well, it should be obvious. I've come to humiliate you with my successful plan to capture you and your friends, and then kill you so you can't interfere with my plans again.”

Lex tried to breathe through the jolt in her stomach that his words caused, bending to write something else.

“You want me to let the rest of your friends go?” Hardy said after having read, then raised an eyebrow as he shook his head. “Certainly not. First of all, they're here now. If I don't let them go, they can't testify against me or come after me later. Also, consider it an object lesson. Everyone will find out what happened to the group of you, and no one will want to interfere with my plans later on. Of course, once you're gone, I don't think I'll be able to find anyone else who can anyway, but that's beside the point.”

Giving him an odd look, Lex shook her head. Someone would have caught you, she wrote, then tipped it for Hardy to read.

He laughed after he had and said, “My friend, you're too modest! The scheme I'd worked out to rob those banks was brilliant! Likely not one mind in a hundred million could have figured it out. So, if I eliminate you, that should take out one of those minds. The rest are probably already in crime or maybe high in the government, so I should be safe.”

Lex shook her head again and wrote, You got too greedy. Someone was bound to catch you as a result.

Hardy's eyes narrowed after he read that. “Certainly not!” he replied with almost a sneer. “It takes a high-caliber mind to even come close to mine. Certainly you must have quite a background and have been educated somewhere prestigious.”

Staring at him for a moment in her disbelief, Lex knew her mouth would have fallen open had it not been tied with a gag. Rolling her eyes after a few seconds, Lex wrote, Yes, I found my community college quite prestigious.

He coughed after he read that. “Community college?” Hardy replied, as if he couldn't be certain he'd read the paper right, then consulted his phone before he continued. “Isn't that one of those dreadful schools that only give out two-year degrees?”

Lex glared at him as she nodded her head.

Hardy seemed taken aback for a moment, then rallied. “Ah, so you must be one of those rebellious children from a well-to-do family.”

Lex shook her head. No money, she wrote.

“What do you mean, no money?” he asked, his voice harsh.

No money for school. Had to go part-time and work full-time to afford it, Lex clarified, then held the pad of paper up for him to read.

He stared at the paper for several seconds, as if it the words would change to say something else if he looked long enough, then he spoke again. “Am I to understand that you're one of these tedious poor people with no education? That you ended up here because you fled being used like a lab rat in the country you came from?”

Lex glared up at him for a moment, noting that he seemed to be at a total loss. Yes, it is tedious being poor, she scrawled on the page. I have the education I could afford.

Hardy glanced down at the writing once she finished, then rolled his eyes while tapping a forefinger against his chin. “So, maybe you were just always like this? Maybe it's your special skill,” he continued, shooting Lex another look. “Did you know you were different as a child?”

Glaring up at him, Lex wrote in response, Yes, definitely.

“So annoying, to always be cleverer than other children,” Hardy sighed, but stopped as he saw Lex writing again.

That wasn't it. My parents beat me a lot. Other kids can smell something like that on you.

Hardy's expression became even colder. “So you're pathetic enough that your father beat you until the day you left home—”

They kicked me out, Lex supplied, holding the pad up for Hardy to see, breaking into his monologue.

“Oh, excuse me,” he said, glowering at her. “He beat you up until you were thrown out with the garbage. And when did that happen?” Hardy continued after he read Lex's response. “Sixteen! And we've already heard about the rest of your illustrious career,” he sneered.

He began to pace and frown then and throw sidelong glares in Lex's direction. Win gave him an odd look and tried to split her attention between watching him and training her gun on Lex, while Bill seemed to ignore him, focusing on Rolf. Lex chanced a glance over at Iris, who'd been aiming at Lily near the end of the couch, to see that the woman's gun had wilted towards the floor. She looked nervous and unhappy, her shoulders hunched and her eyes bright as if holding back tears.

Suddenly, Hardy appeared back in front of Lex again, his face sharp and angry. “I don't understand,” he said, almost hissing with irritation. “You're obviously inferior to me in every way.”

Yet I beat you, Lex wrote, then held up the pad of paper in front of her, staring at him.

A moment later, she pulled her head back sharply to turn the slap aimed at her face into an almost miss instead, meeting Hardy's eye as she did and giving him a death glare. So, you have me gagged and at gunpoint, and you still feel the need to slap me? WTF?

He growled when he looked at the sheet. “Just shut up for a minute, would you?” he replied, giving her a withering glare. “I'm trying to think this through.”

Hardy fell silent again and Lex took a moment to dart a glance around the room to check out her friends. Lou and Casey both sat staring at the man holding the large gun at them. Lex squeezed Rolf's hand again, meeting his gaze as he turned away from his captor for a moment. Glancing over at the doctor, she saw Lily raising her eyebrow at Iris, standing in front of her with a bowed head, gun drooping towards the ground.

A moment later, Lex caught something out of the corner of her eye and could have sworn she saw movement, but when she turned to focus her attention in that direction, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Lex shook her head, trying to plan what she should do. Her mind had been trying to work through the possibilities in the background as she'd conversed with Hardy, but she hadn't been able to figure out a way to get everyone out of this. She stared at the carpet for a moment, willing herself to come up with something, her eyes distracted by the sharp patterns of light and shadow in the room. Hardy and his team had pulled the blinds shut in the living room, but the gaps that remained sent bars of brilliant light out that contrasted with the deep shadows in the corners of the room.

Lex looked up as Hardy raised his head to continue speaking, but at that moment she heard a different voice at the living room doorway.

“...didn't find anyone upstairs, so I figured you were all down here—”

Her eyes bugged open, Lex swiveled her head to the doorway along with everyone else as Serena came through the door of the living room, looked around, then turned and ran back down the hallway.

Lex tried to get off the couch as she spotted Serena, realizing that she'd forgotten about her friend arriving, but Hardy pressed his gun harder against her forehead and pushed her backwards at the same moment Casey shouted at Serena to run.

“I thought you said you'd searched the house,” Hardy hissed in Bill's direction.

The other man glared at Hardy. “I did,” he replied in a growl.

“Well go get her before she gets away entirely,” Hardy said, his glare becoming even angrier. He turned to the man holding the huge gun with the anti-tank rounds, who'd moved the gun following Casey's shout to rest it against her breast. “Would you stop that, you giant pervert?” Hardy said, his lip curling in a sneer. “We're here for revenge, nothing more.”

“I don't know, boss,” the huge man said, still staring at Casey, who looked angry enough that Lex wouldn't have been surprised to see her leap up and attack the man at any second. “She looks pretty sexy in that dress. Maybe you could just turn your head for a while and—”

“You idiot!” Hardy replied, and Lex noted that he shouted and that his face had begun to turn red. “We are here for a purpose, to get information, not for you to get off! We've been here for too long already; once Bill gets back...”

Lex stopped noticing what Hardy said at that point, not that hearing someone describe her own death bored her, but because she noted something else occurring in the room. By the prickle on the back of her neck, Lex could feel someone else in the room with them, probably in the far corner by the bookshelf. She took advantage of Hardy's divided attention to shift her eyes in that direction and back, but the shadows lay deep there and she could see nothing. After a moment, however, Lex glanced along the long shadows between the bookshelf and where Hardy, Win, and Iris stood, thinking that something seemed out of the ordinary. After a moment she noticed that the shadows had begun moving as if the curtains were blowing in a breeze, but none of the windows had been opened.

Pulling her gaze back to scan her captors again, Lex became aware of Win's attention on her and would have cursed if she hadn't been gagged. Hardy had moved a step away, calling for Bill since the man hadn't returned yet, and then Lex sensed a surge of movement out of the corner of her eye.

She turned her head as someone appeared next to the large man threatening Casey and Lou. As she watched, both people disappeared a split second later, along with the gun. Whipping her head back around to the people in front of her, Lex saw Jan standing behind Hardy then, a wicked looking knife resting along Hardy's neck from under his chin to behind his ear. Jan was a couple inches taller than Hardy, but he'd otherwise positioned himself so that Hardy's body made a perfect shield between him and Win or Iris.

“Don't move, slime,” Jan said, his mouth near Hardy's ear. “And you can hand me that gun, thanks very much.”

Jan carefully held Hardy's body against his as he took Hardy's gun, slipping it into his trouser pocket. He brought his arm around Hardy's chest once he finished, then focused his attention on Win and Iris.

“OK, bitches, unless you want your friend here to become a bloodletting experiment, I'd suggest you drop the guns,” Jan growled, pressing the knife harder into Hardy's throat, causing the man to gasp.

“Hardy!” Lex could barely hear over her blood pounding in her ears as Win swung in the man's direction, discharging her gun as she did.

Lex launched herself to one side, pushing Rolf out of the way to try to get her body clear as she did, expecting to feel a sharp, burning pain at any moment. Instead, after she opened her eyes, not realizing she'd closed them, she saw a bullet rotating in the air about an inch below where her left eye had been and an inch from where her head had sat, pointed downwards. Lex swallowed then, realizing that it would likely have been a fatal shot, tearing up all the major arteries coming into her heart. As she raised her eyes, she saw that Win had noticed it too and stood staring, her shoulders slumped.

“Ladies, please,” came Derek's voice from across the room. Lex turned to see him stepping out from beside the bookcase in the far corner at the same moment that Casey and Lou got up off the couch, heading for the side of the room Lex, Rolf, and Lily had ended up on. “No more shooting. As you can see, it won't be effective.”

He'd had to speak up as he continued, due to the sound of baying coming closer and closer. Iris had dropped the gun by that point and stood crying, looking at her sister. Win glared from Derek to Hardy and back for a few moments, but then dropped her gun, turning her attention towards Jan.

The baying got louder a moment later, however, as a flood of wolves poured into the living room, bowling Win over, some growling and snapping in front of Hardy, and a few circling Iris without a sound, watching the young woman now sobbing on her knees on the living room carpet.

Captain Shapiro stepped into the room then, surveying the scene with a satisfied expression, Lex thought. “Good work, everyone,” he said, then leaned down to fasten some familiar-looking, mostly transparent material onto Win's head.

As he stood back up, he said, looking around the room, “Hardy Flechette, Win and Iris Walcott, you three are under arrest for the assault, battery, kidnapping, and attempted murder of Special Forces officers in retaliation for performing their sworn duties.” He plucked the bullet from the air in front of Lex with gloved hands and put it into a plastic bag he'd fished out of one of his pockets.

While the captain spoke, Lex noted Riss and Tamara stepping into the living room. Tamara headed to where Jan held Hardy, and Riss leaned down to where Win lay, still surrounded by growling wolves. The wolves stepped back as Riss zip-tied Win's hands together and pulled the woman up to a sitting position. Lex felt someone working at the knot at her neck at that point and turned to face Rolf as the gag fell away.

“Are you all right?” he asked, touching her cheek high above where the gag had sat.

She tried to smile but gave it up as the corners of her mouth lifted and pain shot through her. “I'm fine,” she said a second later, putting her hand over Rolf's. “My mouth is a little sore, though.”

He glared over at Hardy at that, and Lex followed his gaze to see Jan and Tamara leading the man over to the couch Casey and Lou had abandoned. Lily had a hand on the still-weeping Iris' shoulder, talking to her, and Riss guided Win in the same direction Jan and Tamara had taken Hardy. A moment later Rolf and Lex stood, glancing to where Captain Shapiro, Casey, Lou, Derek, Tamara, and Jan had gathered in front of the couch Hardy and Win now occupied. At the same moment, Serena appeared next to Iris.

“You weren't thinking of going anywhere, were you?” she growled, looking at the pale young woman.

Iris, still crying, looked up at Serena and shook her head, squaring her shoulders. “No, I'll be staying right here.”

“Well, you won't mind if I fasten myself to you, then?” Serena said, reaching out for a zip tie, which Riss supplied after glancing over in their direction.

Rolf, meanwhile, had crouched down and been surrounded by a number of wolves sniffing his hands, arms, and face. He gazed downwards, and Lex could just hear him saying. “Thanks for coming. We really needed the help.”

A light-colored wolf that Lex knew must be Lucy put her paw on Rolf's leg before drawing back so that she could see Win and Hardy on the couch, her top lip drawing back in a silent snarl. The other wolves surged forward to sniff at Lex and Rolf, and Lex felt she could read the clear concern in their eyes.

“Thank you,” Lex said in a quiet voice, opening her hands and letting them hang down by her sides so they could be sniffed as much as anyone liked.

After another few moments in which Lex watched Serena, followed by Lily, get Iris off the floor and then move her towards the group in front of the couch, the wolves gathered after a sharp cry from Lucy. She gave a glance at Hardy and Win, and then at Serena and Iris, before heading out of the room. Lex could hear the group of them running up the stairs as she and Rolf stepped up beside all of their friends and colleagues in front of the couch.

“Is everyone all right?” Captain Shapiro asked, looking at Casey, Lou, Rolf, Lex, and Lily in turn.

Casey sighed. “I'm fine, I just feel really stupid. I was going to get some flowers in the garden when they surprised me. They had that guy with the big gun, and I couldn't figure out a way to get away from him. I don't know how they found us, but I guess they could have climbed the garden wall to get in once they did.”

Lou shook his head. “I'm fine, too. They didn't manage to get off any shots, at least with the anti-tank gun,” he concluded, glaring over at Win.

Lily still looked shaken, in Lex's opinion, but she said, “I'm all right, it was just a big surprise.”

Rolf glanced over at her and sighed. “Lily and I were in the kitchen when they came upstairs with Casey and Lou. They told us they'd shoot the two of them unless we cooperated, so there wasn't a lot else to be done. Fortunately, I think we're all fine,” he concluded, turning towards Lex.

Lex nodded in response. “I'm good. I may have some bruises later, but I'm OK.”

“All right then,” the captain said after another glance around the circle, and Lex smiled as she heard the calm relief in his voice. “Excellent job, everyone, especially in pulling all of this together so quickly and working so well with non-team members. We've got ground transport coming for the prisoners, Serena, if you don't mind waiting until that arrives before bringing everyone back.”

Lex turned away to hide her tiny grin as she saw Serena give the captain an interested smile. “Certainly,” Serena replied. “Whatever you like.”

As she focused back on the group then, Lex gave everyone a second look. “You all came right from the hotel?” she asked, knowing the answer.

Tamara stood fixing Jan's bow tie and brushing off his short black jacket before she turned to look at Lex with a smile. “None of us were on duty today,” she reminded Lex. Tamara's dress, a sleeveless dark green fitted from shoulder to waist with a skirt that billowed out to stop at her ankles, showed off her now bare feet. Lex nodded in return as she wondered if Tamara's shoes were in the next room or back at the venue.

“Some of the people who are on duty today are coming to pick up the prisoners,” Captain Shapiro added, and Lex smiled, then stopped as the pain kicked in.

“I should get back to the hotel as soon as I can, though,” Derek worried, looking quite handsome, Lex thought, in a dark brown suit with a blue shirt that almost matched his eyes and a striped blue and brown tie.

“Wait a minute,” Casey asked, “how did you guys figure out what had happened? I’d hoped Lex would come up with something, because I didn't figure anyone would be able to find out what happened to us until it was way too late.”

Captain Shapiro glanced over at Riss then, who looked away at a nearby wall. As she did, Lex took in her friend's dress with an approving eye. The sleeveless black dress hung by one strap over Riss' left shoulder, emphasizing her delicate shoulders and collarbones as it trailed away, the overall close fit of it showing off her friend's petite frame. “Well,” the captain said after a few moments of staring in Riss' direction, “it started when Riss told me that her monitoring program for this house went offline, and then she said she'd had a look and every electronic thing at the house had gone dark.”

Art, Lex suddenly remembered, shooting a disturbed look over at Riss, who met her eye and nodded once, her eyes calm. Lex sighed in relief and felt her shoulders drop, figuring that meant Art was all right.

“I told her to wait a few minutes, to see if the power had just gone out and would go back on, but then your friend Serena showed up,” he continued, looking over at the woman in question.

Serena smiled and Lex tried not to follow along. Her friend had on a completely form-fitting blue velvet dress. She wore it off the shoulder but it also had long sleeves and a skirt that fell to mid-thigh. Serena's impossibly high black heels must have added another few inches to her height, Lex thought, and her friend smelled deliciously sweet, as usual. “I was pretty upset when I first got here,” Serena added. “You didn’t see me, but I showed up just in time to see the guy with the gun leading you away, Lex, and when I heard him say that they'd gotten everyone else, I was too afraid to interfere because I figured they'd shoot someone.”

“When she came to us, we realized there really was something going on,” Captain Shapiro added. “So we gathered everyone there who could come out and help and figured out what to do.”

“You’d better watch out for him, Lex,” Serena said, smiling over at the captain. “I think he could give you a run for your money with his planning skills.”

Lex heard a knock at the front door then and saw Riss hurry to answer it. Stepping back to look down the hallway Lex watched as Riss opened the front door and saw a slight blonde woman who stood there dressed in a standard-issue Special Forces jumpsuit. “I understand we have some people to pick up here,” she said, throwing a curious glance into the house.

As Lex watched, Serena looked over at Iris before heading for the front door with her in tow, Captain Shapiro reached for Win’s shoulder to help her off the couch, and Jan turned towards Hardy.

“Wait,” Hardy said, drawing back. “I want her to take me.”

He gestured at Lex as he finished, and both Jan and Rolf frowned, Rolf turning to glare at Hardy. Before either of them could speak, she nodded. “All right,” she said, “but everyone else will be right here, Hardy. Please don’t do anything odd, because people might get the wrong idea and you could end up getting hurt.”

“You have my word that I won’t try to physically attack you,” he responded, his eyes dark and his expression difficult to read.

With a sigh, Lex reached forward to grasp Hardy’s arm and shoulder, helping him off the couch. “What is it?” she said, knowing he must want something.

“I want you to tell me the truth,” Hardy replied in a voice just above a whisper. “I don’t think you did before.”

She shook her head and felt weariness seeping into her as well as an elevated awareness of Rolf and Jan close behind them. “Look,” she said, unsuccessful at keeping the anger out of her voice, “I told you the truth earlier. God knows why.”

Shooting him an annoyed look, Lex could now read Hardy's curious expression. “OK,” Lex continued, “maybe I’m not as smart as you. That was a brilliant plan you came up with. But it seems I’m smarter in at least one respect, and that’s that I know there are people out there in the world who are smarter than me. Also, I know if I piss off enough people for long enough, I'll hit upon someone with enough time or brains to figure out my most brilliant plans.”

Hardy fell silent and Lex thought he might be considering what she'd said as they walked down the hallway together, but about halfway to the front door, he shook his head. “That is a clever way to put it, Ms. Mansfield, but not very convincing. I just asked because I figured that if you weren't a genius, you caught us because someone tipped you off. I’ve since gotten rid of the most likely suspects, so I simply needed confirmation. But, since you’re not willing to give it…well, let’s just say that I’m not going to have to do all the work to get rid of you.”

She stopped near the front door, pulling him to a stop with her. “What do you mean by that?” she hissed, leaning in close to Hardy.

He chuckled, then said, “When you’re in jail, you have access to the most appalling people, but do they love to talk. I’ve heard that a large organization is most interested in what you’re able to do these days. Very, very interested…to the tune of large sums of cash. Seems that you’re one of the few successful outcomes of some rather hideous experiments they've been conducting.”

Lex could feel that her mouth had dropped open. “You…wouldn’t,” she said, knowing as she did that he certainly would.

At that moment, Rolf came around and grabbed Hardy’s other arm and yanked him away from Lex while Jan hovered over, his knife out again and his black, threatening expression back.

“Time for you to leave,” Rolf growled out.

“Oh, Mr. Kaiser,” Hardy replied, his voice loud now. “Surely you know that enough money can get you out of all kinds of scrapes—“

Lex could only watch as Rolf hurried Hardy down the front steps and across the sidewalk, then slammed the car door after pushing Hardy into the vehicle, as she hung onto the frame of the front door, her stomach churning. Just how long will it be before MSI tries to reclaim 'their property,' she wondered.

She felt Jan's hand on her shoulder for a moment before it disappeared, and she just watched as Rolf came back inside. People had started to come downstairs with their formal clothes back on, and Lucy and a number of Rolf's younger cousins came to speak to them before they gathered around Serena who brought them back to the hotel. Lex knew she must have said something to respond to them, but she couldn't for the life of her remember what it was.

After a few minutes, Captain Shapiro, Riss, Tamara, Jan, and Derek gathered near the kitchen in the hallway, waiting for Serena to return. “I know this has been a shock for all of you,” the captain said, shooting a glance at the group who'd been in the house. “We'll tell the people at the hotel that there will be a delay. If you decide you want to postpone the date or anything like that, I'll apply to have the extra costs covered. I can't guarantee anything there, but don't feel like you have to put on a party today if you're not up to it. I'm sure your relatives would understand,” he concluded, looking at Rolf.

Serena had appeared partway through his speech and moved to the center of the waiting group. “I'll be back in a while to help with makeup,” she said, smiling as she looked at Casey and Lex, but Lex also could see the uncertainty in her friend's eyes. “Don't get started without me.”

As the group disappeared, Lily looked over at the others and said, “I'll be upstairs waiting.” She didn't seem happy to Lex, but appeared as steady as usual as she turned to go up the stairs.

Lex glanced over at Casey and Lou and could feel Rolf doing the same beside her. Casey nodded and turned towards the kitchen while Lex and Rolf went into the dining room on the opposite side of the hall. She felt her stomach flip over as she looked over at Rolf once they stood by the dining table, and as he turned towards her, the expression on his face intense, it seemed to confirm what she'd been thinking. He's had second thoughts, and given what just happened, it would be the best thing for me to let him go anyway. She swallowed and gazed away at a picture that Casey had picked out for the room, a sailing ship on a calm sea on a fine day. Lex began wishing she stood on the deck of that ship as she finally made herself speak.

“Look, I understand if you've had second thoughts. It would only make sense: I mean, I don't know what will happen once MSI finds out about me. They asked me about it during the trial, even. I'm just one woman and they have the resources of an entire corporation—”

“Lex, stop.” Rolf's voice cut into her nervous speech, which caused Lex to fall silent. “Look at me, Lex.”

She turned as if her whole body had gotten stuck in tar, mentally cringing at what she might see in Rolf's eyes. As Lex met his gaze, however, she could feel something that had been wound too tightly in her chest relax. Rolf's eyes seemed concerned and intense, but otherwise he looked at her as he always had, as if he really saw her.

“Nothing that happened today has changed my mind at all,” Rolf said, reaching out for her hand. “I've always known how much danger you're in because of what happened to you, and it has occurred to me that they might come for you again. But you're kidding if you think that anyone under this roof would just sit by and let MSI come and collect you. Or anyone that we work with; I think you know that they'd go to the wall for you, and I know that you'd do the same for them. They may have power, but so do we. Don't give up on us, Lex.”

He'd drawn her close to him by now, and Lex felt like the heat in his gaze had melted the frozen desperation that had sprung up in her after she'd heard what Hardy had to say. She kept staring at Rolf as he continued to speak. “Now, if you've somehow changed your mind, or you're too shaken up to continue today—”

“No,” Lex interrupted, shaking her head as she gave a fraction of a smile. “If anything, I'm more convinced I'm doing the right thing.”

Lex had to catch her breath as Rolf smiled as he rarely did, big and open, a sign that she knew meant he felt happy. He pulled her in for a kiss then, and they didn't let each other go until they were both out of breath.

“I hoped you'd say something like that,” Rolf said, his smile a little crooked now.

Smiling in return and not able to feel any pain from it for the moment, Lex laughed. “Do you want to go see about Casey and Lou? If we're going to do the ceremony today, we probably should get going.”

Rolf just kept smiling in return and offered her his arm. When they poked their heads around the edge of the kitchen door to see Lou and Casey kissing, Rolf let out a low whistle. Casey opened an eye to look at the two of them just a moment before she and Lou moved apart.

“So, I guess you're still up for getting married today?” Casey guessed, looking at Rolf and Lex together.

“There's a consensus here as well,” Lou added, his eyes sliding over to meet Casey's as he took her hand.

She grinned, then looked back at Rolf and Lex. “All right, let me go freshen up, then I'll be up to let Lily and Serena play with our makeup.” Casey gave Lou a final quick kiss, then walked to the kitchen door. As she walked past Lex, she made a disapproving noise.

“Lex, they tore your veil,” she said, pulling the delicate fabric up for Lex to see.

Sure enough, Lex spotted the tear around where the gag had been and sighed. “Unfortunately, I think I may have sweated through this dress, too. I'm lucky it didn't rip anywhere.”

“Do you have anything else you could wear?” Rolf asked, looking at Lex with his eyebrows drawn together.

Lex thought for a moment, then nodded. “How about the green one you bought for me while we visited your parents' house?”

She relaxed as she saw him smile as she said it. “I'd be honored if you chose that one.”

Casey put her hand on Lex's shoulder. “All right, then, let's get moving.” She leaned over to look into the kitchen. “And Lou, that includes you,” she added, looking at the black pants and white shirt he wore, and Lex realized Hardy and company must have grabbed him while putting on his wedding clothes.

“See you upstairs,” Lex said with a grin in Casey's direction. She grabbed Rolf's hand as she headed for their room to get dressed again.

Forward to Chapter 57
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Comments about anything you liked or that you thought could be improved are extremely welcome!



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