Sunday, December 5, 2010

Massage Therapy, Chapter 5

Edward Cullen’s Little Black Notebook
Saturday, July 17, 2010

The first thing I did when I got home tonight was go up on the roof and have a cigarette.

I know, I know. You hated it when I smoked. I hate it when I smoke. But sometimes that acrid burn in my chest just feels so fucking good. I’m not sure how filling my lungs with smoke seems to clear my head, but there you go. Just one of life’s ugly little ironies.

If any occasion warrants a slip-up, this is it. I feel like I’m going to come out of my skin and I’m not even sure why. Alice is right--I don’t get this way over women. It just doesn’t happen. I can’t figure out why this girl makes me so self-conscious that I can’t even speak to her like a normal human being.

Actually, that’s not true. I know exactly why. She saw me. Really saw me tonight. It’s one thing for me to let it bleed for a group of strangers I’ll never see again, or for my family who loves me unconditionally. But it’s quite another to have a client see me in such a revealing light.

It’s more than that, of course. It’s the way she sees inside me that scares the hell out of me. It feels like she knows me, somehow. Like all my secrets are laid bare when her eyes bore into mine. I think I could tell her about you, and she’d get it. She’d understand. But I don’t want anyone to get close enough to me to be able to do that. I’m not ready. But the hell of it is, if I’m not ready now, when will I ever be ready?

Alice figured out what was up right away, naturally. I have to hand it to her; she restrained herself admirably after Isabella Swan and her friend left our table tonight. I could see her nearly bursting at the seams, waiting to interrogate me about her as soon as the opportunity presented itself. Unsurprisingly, she attacked me with the fervor of a Tasmanian devil the minute Emmett went to the men’s room.

“You like her!” she squealed, eyes shining triumphantly, as if she had discovered the secrets of the Sphinx.

“Of course, I like her. She’s a nice girl,” I answered with feigned indifference.

“Oh, no. You like her-like her,” she said with innuendo-laden relish.

“Alice, you sound like you’re twelve years old.”

“And you’re acting like it, pushing her away and pretending she annoys you. Edward, I haven’t seen you look at a girl that way since…well, ever, now that I think about it,” she declared. Her eyes grew wide with wonder. “My God, it finally happened… you met a woman who found a chink in your armor! I’ve been praying for this day to arrive, and here it is. Thank you, sweet baby Jesus!” She turned her eyes heavenward and pressed her palms together as if in prayer.

“Put down the crack pipe, Alice. You’re hallucinating. And even if you weren’t, do I need to remind you that she’s a client? That makes her off limits.”

“Edward Cullen, do not tell me you’re going to use ethics as an excuse not to pursue the only girl I’ve seen you look at like a human being in years.”

“I’d lose my license if I hooked up with a customer, and you know it. Or do you not give a damn because it’s not a medical license? You sure as hell wouldn’t encourage Emmett to date a patient,” I spat. “And I’m sure that’s why you waited for him to leave the table before you even brought it up--because you know the whole subject is verboten.”

“I know,” she conceded with a pout. Seconds later, her eyes lit up again. “Send her to Kate for treatment! Then you can ask Bella out.”

“Stop, already,” I sighed, refilling my glass from the pitcher. “I don’t want to send her to Katrina. I know I can help her, and it’s better if Emmett and I work as a team.”

“Okay, fine. Heal her first, and then date her,” she grinned.

I gave her an exasperated glare for what seemed like the tenth time this evening. “You do realize that any of those ideas are considered sexual misconduct for a health practitioner, according to Washington state law,” I reminded her.

“Edward, come o-o-on,” she pleaded. “She’s perfect for you, I can tell. You both love music, and clearly neither of you suffer fools gladly. I love her already because she’s the only girl I’ve ever seen who can make you nervous. This is a first! And by the way, you’re kind of a jerk when you’re nervous. But in a sort of cute, growly way. Like a hibernating bear who’s just been poked with a stick. I think you’re in need of a good poking,” she finished slyly.

I considered denying that Isabella Swan had any effect on me, but there really was no point. My sister knows me better than anyone, and even though she was away at school through most of what went down the past few years, she still knows how I think and how I react to things. We have almost a strange telepathy, as if we can zone in on each other’s brain waves. It makes me want to strangle her half the time, yet it’s comforting it its own weird way.

I definitely couldn’t deny that I’d behaved like a complete jackass when I refused to call Isabella Swan by her nickname, but I knew that the minute I did, I’d fall all the way down the rabbit hole. It would be one more step toward familiarity with her that would only encourage me to want more. If I called her the name that the people closest to her did, I would want to be one of those people. I couldn’t allow myself such a luxury. It was a good thing Alice hadn’t caught that part of my conversation with Ms. Swan, or she never would have let me live it down.

“There’s no point in discussing this, Alice. There can’t be anything between us.”

She let out an irritated sigh. “There already is, you ding-dong. Fighting it is only going to cause heartache for you both.”

“You’re definitely jumping the gun here. I barely know the girl,” I reminded her. “And what makes you think she’s interested in me, anyway? She didn’t even try to sit next to me. She looked like she’d rather be anywhere else than at this table.”

“That’s because she was as nervous as you were. You were like a perfect mirror of each other. She couldn’t stop staring at you. Trust me, I am well-acquainted with the symptoms of those who have fallen under the Edward Cullen spell. But what shocks the hell out of me is that this time, it’s mutual. You are finally getting a taste of your own medicine,” she said gleefully. “I really want to go over there and hand that girl a medal. She just proved that you’re a Real Boy, Edward. With a Real Heart and everything!” She jabbed my left pectoral with her index finger a couple of times for emphasis.

“That’s enough,” I growled at her. “If I’ve been wooden the past few years, you know exactly why.”

She relented then. “I know. But it’s been awhile since I’ve seen anyone get to you. You built a pretty big wall around that heart of yours. I just don’t want it to atrophy in there.”

“Don’t worry. It’s beating just fine,” I assured her. Thankfully Emmett returned then, effectively ending our discussion. Even Alice knew that any breach of conduct in his fledgling chiropractic business would not be taken lightly by our brother. He’s easygoing about most things, but when it comes right down to it, he takes his responsibilities as seriously as I do. He’d be the first one brandishing a butcher knife to emasculate me if I ruined our business partnership by not being able to keep my dick in my pants.

He’s never had any reason to worry about it until now. This is the first time I’ve ever been seriously tempted to break the code of ethics that I’ve sworn to uphold. It isn’t just some physical attraction I feel for Isabella. There’s this nagging emotional undercurrent that tugs at my gut whenever she’s around. I couldn’t keep my eyes from wandering to her table the rest of the night, and I kept hearing her words in my head again, defending her job when she knew how I felt about the recording industry. I mean, I have nothing personal against it, or what she does. It’s just not for me. But I could tell that it pained her to have to reveal her profession to me after the callous way I’d dismissed it. She was probably afraid of offending me. It’s true that at first I felt duped, like she had somehow pulled a fast one on me by showing up tonight with a secret agenda. But I quickly realized that she had no way of knowing I would be there, nor that I like to write and perform music as a hobby. It was pure coincidence that brought us together this way. Or kismet, if I’m to believe a born romantic like Alice.

Either way, I like that she stood up for herself. And by the time she was done describing what music means to her, she had me by the heartstrings, and a few other parts as well. She’s as passionate about it as I am. When she insisted that music could save people, I knew she was talking about herself. To say my curiosity was piqued is an understatement. I’m aching to know what she’s been through that made her say that. I wonder if it had something to do with the car accident. Maybe she wasn’t alone in that car. Maybe something else had happened that day that wounded her more deeply than a back injury ever could.

That’s why I can’t shake the idea that she and I could have something together. That we might be able to help each other. That I could confide in her about what happened with you, and she wouldn’t pity me or judge me like everyone else does. Maybe I could find true empathy with this girl.

But not now. And not in the foreseeable future. At this moment, I have to concentrate on just being her therapist and working on her back next Saturday morning. Nothing more, nothing less. No letting my mind wander to other parts of her body that I can’t touch; no blurting personal questions that I have no right to ask. A little small talk, maybe. But that’s it. Right now, it can only be business---the business of making her better. There’s no point in making any other conjectures beyond that.

Satisfied with my mental pep talk, I decided smoking on the roof was not altogether a bad thing. I took my pack of Camel Lights out of my jeans pocket and peered into its opening under the dim moonlight. I was just about to shake the last cigarette out of the pack when I suddenly felt something warm and heavy brush against my pant leg.

“Fucking rats!” I exclaimed in a rather unmanly tenor as I jumped away from the offending critter. But the pair of glowing yellow eyes that peered up at me were far larger than those of a rodent. A plaintive “meow” soon met my ears, pulling a relieved sigh from my smoky lungs.

“Geezus, cat,” I said, reaching down and giving it a quick scratch behind the ears. “You scared me for a minute. You’re not gonna tell anyone what a pussy I am though, right? I’ll leave that title to you.”

The cat blinked its iridescent eyes at me knowingly, as if to tell me my secret was safe with it.

“What are you doing all the way up here on the roof, anyway? You’ll find dinner a lot easier to catch on the ground floor, or in the basement,” I told the feline as it rubbed back and forth along my legs, probably hoping I’d hand it a snack. I was pretty sure the cat would be plenty well fed with the mice and rats that I constantly fight in this place.

I still can’t believe I convinced Mom to let me live in one of her family’s old buildings in the industrial district. I guess she probably would have given in to just about any request I made back then. Once home to a now-defunct textile mill owned by her ancestors, the rustic brick building had been rented to a number of companies over the years but was now empty. She had planned to sell the property, but when I was looking for my own place after starting Massage School, I convinced her to let me convert part of the upper floor into a spacious apartment. I refinished the hardwood floors myself and waxed them until they shone again with their original luster. I tore out the old drywall to reveal beautiful exposed brick walls beneath. Jazz, Emmett and Dad helped on the weekends, and it was the best therapy I could have had at the time. I sometimes miss getting lost in those kinds of physical tasks--the ones that require too much concentration for me to dwell on the past. I suppose I could build some walls to create more separate rooms, but I like the big, open feel of the place the way it is now. Mom always jokes that I could rent it out as a bowling alley if I want to make some extra money. As it is, I feel blessed that I don’t have to pay rent like most guys my age do.

As I stood contemplating having another cigarette, I looked down at the cat massaging a figure eight around my ankles. It appeared to be a large, long-haired orange tabby, from what I could see under the moon’s pale blue rays. It purred as it rubbed its scent on me, as if that would make me warm up to it and give it something a little more gourmet to eat than water rat.

“I hate cats, you know,” I informed the animal. “I’m not falling for that cuddly routine, so you might as well give up.”

It responded by purring more loudly and pushing its nose ruthlessly against my shin.

I sighed, bent down and gave it another half-hearted scratch behind the ears. “You’re relentless, you know that?” The cat looked up at me with a knowing and expectant look. It was confident it would win this battle.

“Not tonight, you won’t,” I mumbled in answer, giving it a pat on the head before heading for the door to the stairwell. I’d had enough intrusions into my life for one day.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

How did life get so complicated in just one short week?

It started out benignly enough. Work during the day, rehearsals with Jazz in the evening. We were set to play again last night at Billy’s and wanted to change it up a bit, so we tried to learn a couple of each other’s songs. I didn’t think of Isabella Swan once. Well, it would be more accurate to say that whenever the thought of her popped into my misbehaving brain, I was able to squelch it and replace it quickly with something totally unrelated.

It was working quite well until Thursday night, when Alice called to confirm our plans for the next evening. I told her that Katrina wanted to catch our set, and she was planning to bring Victoria with her. Jazz and I had offered to give the girls a lift, and Emmett had agreed to pick up Alice from the ferry and meet us there. Everything sounded fine until Alice had to go and put a bug in my ear.

“Don’t be surprised if a certain pretty brunette shows up, too,” she said portentously.

“What are you talking about?” I asked, my stomach dropping. I knew instantly what, or rather whom, she was talking about.

“I told Bella Swan that you were playing at Billy’s tomorrow night,” she replied, her voice brimming with giddy triumph.

“So you didn’t leave your cell phone at the table last Saturday night after all,” I surmised as I remembered her excuse for running back inside the bar after we left. “You went back to talk to Isabella, right?”

“Not everything in the world is about you, you know. I want her to check out Jasper. He’s awesome, and unlike you, he’s not allergic to record companies. If his band gets off the ground, it could be very advantageous knowing someone like Bella.”

“That is not why you told her to come,” I countered. “Shit, Alice, when are you going to stop interfering in my life? I seriously can’t wait until you’re back in school.”

“Whatever,” she said dismissively. “You love me, and you secretly love my match-making. I know you want to see her again. This is your chance to redeem yourself with her in a social setting. You’ll be thanking me by this time tomorrow.”

“Unlikely,” I grumbled. Anxiety began gnawing at the pit of my stomach, and I hated that she was right. I did want to see Isabella Swan again, and though I hadn’t allowed myself to acknowledge it, I’d been looking forward to my next session with her all week.

I tried not to give the idea of seeing her again at Billy’s too much thought, but my subconscious was way ahead of me. It conjured her up in the most delectable dream imaginable that night--not at the bar, but in my bed--and I awoke with a raging hard-on to prove it. The dream was so realistic that my lips were still tingling from the sensation of her mouth on mine, my skin hungry for the warmth of hers. I absently reached down and stroked myself, continuing the dream in my still-murky mind. God, what it would feel like to be inside her, her arms and legs wrapped around me, pulling me deeper….

And like some pathetic teenaged boy, I was reaching for the tissue box minutes later when my busy hand brought my erotic fantasy to its natural conclusion. Immediately after that, I mentally cursed my baby sister for setting in motion what could only be a runaway train headed for disaster. How the hell could I impartially treat a patient who was sparking such vivid sexual fantasies in my mind?

I spent the entire day trying to push those kinds of thoughts out of my head and ignore the anticipation building inside me for that evening at Billy’s. I had no idea what I would say to her if I saw her. But I was going to try like hell to at least be more civil toward the girl than I had been the last time. There was no reason why we couldn’t be friends, I reasoned. Emmett seems to have no problem having platonic relationships with women, or any of his patients, for that matter. It’s always come so easily for him, and I’m not sure why. He’s at least as handsome as I, but with an easy affability about him that I could never quite master. I have yet to meet a woman who wanted to be nothing more than my friend, other than Katrina. I know how arrogant and insufferable that sounds, trust me. But I can’t think of a single friendship I’ve had with a woman that didn’t deteriorate into mixed signals, misunderstandings and hurt feelings one way or another.

The night at the brew pub went well, and the six of us had a good time. My set with Jasper was decent, even though I messed up the lyrics a bit on one of his songs that I don’t know quite well enough yet. Still, I couldn’t help but be disappointed that Isabella didn’t show. I tried not to look at the front door every time it opened and shut, but it was a losing battle. I felt completely keyed up, exactly like I had last weekend when I saw her face in the crowd. And I could have sworn I felt her eyes on me while I was singing, like drops of chocolate melting on my skin; but when I scanned the tables this time, I saw no one familiar.

Shortly after our set, I was almost positive I saw the swing of her long chestnut hair as the bar door closed behind someone who was just leaving. The unnerving tremor that shot down my back at the sight of it seemed proof of her presence. But would she really have avoided talking to me if she had been here tonight? The thought perturbed me more than it should have. I would have to make sure that I made her feel more comfortable at our appointment tomorrow than I had the last time I’d seen her. I was reminded that my attraction to her was a paltry annoyance in light of her medical issues. She needed me to be her therapist, not some drooling lecher.

I felt remarkably calm and focused this morning when the alarm went off early. I was glad I had two appointments before hers; both fairly new clients with issues that forced me to concentrate fully on the task at hand. I had no time to be distracted or apprehensive about seeing her. I was quite Zen about my third and final appointment by the time I’d finished up the paperwork for the second.

All of that went completely out the window the minute I went to the reception area to escort my second client out. There sat Isabella, text-messaging on her phone, a curtain of hair partially obscuring her face. She looked up when she heard my footsteps, the silky curtain falling away; and I tripped and fell right into the well of her dark eyes. Figuratively, of course. But it was unsettling how she seemed to swallow me whole with one glance. I was beginning to wish that Jessica worked on Saturdays so that she could run interference for me.

Isabella smiled somewhat timidly at me, and I realized that Alice was right--the girl was as nervous around me as I was her. Somehow that knowledge was all I needed to relax a little and give her a smile in return.

I’ll be right with you, Miss Swan,” I told her. “I just need to prepare the room.” I hated how insufferably formal I sounded. Why couldn’t I say her nickname? I couldn’t even think it to myself. It felt like the only plug in a dam that was ready to crumble with the slightest breach.

“That’s fine,” she answered quickly, her anxious expression easing. I reminded myself that there was no reason for us to be so uptight around each other. The tension would only be detrimental to her treatment. It was my job to make sure she felt at ease around me. How I felt was immaterial.

After I retreated to fit the massage table with clean bedding, I went back to the reception area and put my gentlest smile to work on Ms. Swan.

“How are you feeling today?” I asked her. “Have you had any problems this past week?”

“No, not really,” she replied, putting her phone away and rising from her chair. “I do feel a little stiff and achy in spots, I guess. It kind of feels like my back wants to go back to the way it was before you and Emmett worked on me.”

“Unfortunately, that’s probably exactly what’s happening,” I said, motioning for her to lead the way down the hall to the massage room. I scrutinized her gait as she walked ahead of me, and I could see that her hips were still out of alignment.

I continued, “That’s why I’ll need to see you regularly for awhile. Emmett can manipulate your bones easily enough, but your muscles will take longer to adjust. That’s where I come in.”

She stopped and turned to look up at me expectantly after entering the massage room. I tried not to dwell on how pretty she looked, bare-faced and unpretentious in her casual t-shirt, jeans and flip-flops.

“When’s your next appointment with Emmett?” I questioned her, forcing my mind to stay on track.

“The middle of next week,” she replied. She gave me a quizzical look, a tiny line forming between her dainty brows.

“That’s good,” I told her. “I’m going to check my appointment book to see if I can fit you in right before or after, if that will work with your schedule.”

“Sure,” she agreed with a nod. “Is something wrong?”

“No,” I answered smoothly, not wanting to alarm her. “I just think you shouldn’t wait too long for your next adjustment, that’s all.”

“Why?” she demanded, the crease in her forehead deepening.

“Well, your hips are still a little ‘off,’” I explained, taking a tentative step closer. I took a deep breath and placed my hands below her tiny waist, gingerly pressing with my thumbs until I found the edges of her hipbones through her jeans. I thought I heard a small gasp escape her lips, which I tried desperately not to acknowledge.

“Your right hip is a little too high, while the left is turned forward a bit,” I continued. I pressed carefully where the problem areas were, trying to show her what I was talking about. “I suspect your leg length is off, and possibly your tailbone is tilted. This explains a lot of the muscle twists that I felt in your back last week. All your soft tissues are compensating for the misalignment. That’s why I want to work with Emmett as a team to try to get you straightened out. Literally,” I added with a soft chuckle, reluctantly releasing her from my grip.

She let out an unconvincing laugh, but her brow refused to unfurl. “Wow, it’s a miracle I’m still walking around upright,” she mumbled as her eyes drifted dejectedly to the floor. A lock of hair fell over her face, and I fought the urge to reach out and tuck it behind her ear.

“The body has amazing ways of compensating to keep you going,” I told her. “But it also has an amazing power to heal itself. Don’t worry, Isabella… we’re going to get you back in fighting form, I promise. It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.”

She smiled and nodded, but still looked unconvinced. Then and there, I made it my personal mission to take away her doubt and erase the worry from her lovely face.

“Are you ready to get started?” I asked. She bit her lip as she nodded again. I watched the pink deepen in her lower lip as she finally released it, and I wondered idly how it would taste.

Fucking hell.

I cleared my throat and glanced at the chair, the wall, the fresh flannel sheet draped over the massage table--anything but her.

“I’ll leave you to get ready. I want you to lie on your back this time so you don’t get queasy. I’ll be back in a few minutes,” I said hurriedly before leaving the room. No way in hell was I going to tell her to undress and leave her shirt and jeans on the chair, or give her the option of leaving on her bra. None of the things I usually said to clients seemed benign anymore. Any mention of her disrobing so that I could touch her had taken on a lurid undertone in my mind, tainted by my own desires that were stirring from the depths of my soul like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

I wanted her. The fact was impossible to deny any longer. I tried to come to grips with the inescapable truth as I washed my hands thoroughly in the bathroom, my fingers flexing in anticipation of caressing her smooth skin for the next hour. So you’re attracted to her…so what? I argued with myself. You can still do your job and leave her none the wiser.

I really didn’t have any choice. It wasn’t like the girl could read my mind, anyway. I could keep my thoughts to myself and still be an effective therapist. I took a deep breath and went back to the massage room, rapping gently on the door.

“Come in,” came the muffled reply. I entered the door and closed it softly behind me, looking warily over to the table. She lay looking up at me with those big, dark eyes, the sheet pulled up to her neck, her bare arms clasped atop the flannel over her stomach. I swallowed hard and stealthily approached the table, as if she were a fawn that I might scare away with any sudden sound or movement.

Her eyes didn’t leave mine until I made my way to the back of the table and stood behind her. “I’m going to begin with your neck and shoulders. We’ll see how Emmett’s adjustments are holding.”

“Okay,” she agreed, closing her eyes. I wound my fingers through the silk of her hair, stretching them along the base of her skull in examination. Her neck was out again already. I held my tongue and worked on the muscles surrounding the misaligned bones instead, willing them to relax and unwind. I felt my own body following suit, for I was now in my element.

I soon got lost in the work, as I always do. The apprehension and confusion of the past week disappeared. There was only her flesh and mine now; her body’s will dissolving under that of my insistent fingers. It may be hard to believe, but in that moment, there was nothing sexual about what I was doing to her. It was the most sensual experience in the world, but in the most compassionate, healing sense of the word. I felt her yielding to me more thoroughly with every touch, and yet I was the one who felt powerless. Her body was the guide; I simply followed and straightened the path of her twisted muscles as I went.

We barely spoke. When I slid my hands under her right shoulder blade, she tried to move her arm out of the way; I murmured for her not to worry, that I would do all the work. She relaxed and let my fingers probe along her spine and ribs, and I noted to myself that Emmett would have to do more work here as well. I slowly stretched and pulled her contracted flesh, working from her spine outward. I then repeated the procedure on her left side, and it responded more readily to the suggestion of my hands. Her muscles were still somewhat resistant to the therapy, and I knew it would take a few more sessions until her body got used to being “told” what to do. It would help immensely when her bones began to stay in alignment better, too.

I realized that I hadn’t reset the sound machine, and I wondered if music would help Isabella loosen up a bit.

“Would you rather listen to something else than the ocean sounds?” I asked her softly, taking a short break and allowing my gaze to rest on her adorable freckled nose a moment. Then her eyes opened and arrested my attention completely.

“No, it’s fine. I like the beach. It’s relaxing,” she assured me.

“I know the sound machine is a little hokey, but it works,” I shrugged with a half-grin. “I can switch to music though, if you’d like.”

She shook her head. “I’m good, really. Is there something wrong? Am I not responding the right way?” The wrinkle took up residence between her eyebrows again.

“No, you’re improving, honestly. I don’t want you worry about that. I want you to relax completely, if possible. Imagine a place or a time that always made you feel happy, and concentrate on that,” I suggested. “I’m going to try to work on your lower back just a little, so be sure to tell me if anything feels uncomfortable. If you feel the slightest pinch or twinge, tell me immediately, okay?”

“I will,” she promised. I tore my eyes away from hers and moved to her right side again, sliding my hands under the middle of her back and beginning the slow push and pull to unravel her twists. I could feel her eyes on me, and I was surprised that she hadn’t closed them.

“Edward?” she began. “I just want you to know that whatever you’re doing feels like it’s working. It feels…amazing.”

That moment of hesitation as she searched for the right word nearly did me in. The sexual charge that crackled through me was the first time during the session that I had lost focus and blurred the line between the sensual and the sexual. Because in that split second, I realized that as much as I wanted to make her feel healed and whole again, more than that I wanted to make her feel complete euphoria, delirium, ecstasy. “Amazing” didn’t begin to cover what I wanted her to feel at my hands.

I replied simply, “I’m glad,” then quickly pursed my lips together before anything incriminating could pop out. I avoided her gaze and concentrated on what I was doing. At last she closed her lids and gave me some peace. Her body began to relax more and more as I worked, and I wondered if she was concentrating on something that brought her joy, like I told her to. Whatever she was thinking about, it was working.

I was very careful not to massage her lower back too deeply, because frankly, Emmett needs to do a lot more work there first. I was so absorbed in trying to unwind the knots I found there that I didn’t notice her wince.

“Edward,” she finally whispered. “I feel kind of a weird…pulling across my tailbone.”

“That’s my cue to stop, then,” I announced. I quit immediately and pulled my hands out from under her hips, accidentally brushing the edge of her panties as I did so. Lace. That was a little surprising. She seemed like a cotton boy-shorts kind of girl. I really, really didn’t need to imagine what her panties looked like, though of course the picture appeared in my head instantaneously. Every new detail I learned about her startled and confounded me, and I hated how appealing that was.

“You did very well today. I think we made a lot of progress. Your muscles became more and more responsive, which is a very good thing. Did you go to your ‘happy place’ like I suggested?” I asked with a short laugh.

She smiled a little, but her eyes were serious as she regarded me. “I did,” she said quietly. Something in her gaze made me hope that her ‘happy place’ had something to do with me. Then I mentally chided myself for such stupid wishful thinking and self-consciously raked my fingers through my hair.

“Do you feel better this time than the last? You’re not sick, are you?”

“No, I feel fine,” she insisted, though she had told me that last week, too.

“Do you need my help getting up?” I asked again, just to be sure.

“No, I’m good. Honestly,” she added, obviously seeing the uncertainty on my face.

“Okay. Just holler if you need me. You can come out to the reception desk whenever you’re ready.”

I picked up her files and left the massage room, closing the door gently behind me. I let out a ragged sigh of relief, again wondering why it was such an ordeal to treat this girl. On the one hand, the myofascial work itself was engrossing, and her issues were complicated. I usually welcomed a challenge like that. But so many feelings other than the urge to heal were fighting within me that I felt drained when our hour was up.

I was standing at the reception counter, making notes in her file when I heard her approach. She stopped across the counter from me and asked, “What do I owe you for today?”

I blinked at her for a moment, and was tempted to tell her it was on the house. “Don’t worry about it. Let’s see if your insurance will cover it first, okay?”

“I don’t think it will, but thanks,” she said, looking a little relieved. Then her brows knitted again and she stared at the countertop for a moment before raising her anxious eyes to mine. Her next words poured out in a rush.

“Edward, about last weekend at Billy’s… I just want you to know that I wasn’t trying to railroad you or anything. I had no idea that you were a musician, and I would never dream of trying to convince you to record your music. I completely understand where you’re coming from, feeling like you’d be selling out or giving up something that’s personal and special to you. I totally respect that. I just hope you don’t hold it against me.” She let out a long breath when she was done, and her shoulders slumped as if she had just dropped a giant weight from them.

I was stunned for a second, mouth agape. I couldn’t believe she had been so worried about something I’d barely given a second thought.

“Of course I don’t,” I answered quickly. “I mean, I admit that at first it seemed a little suspect, but I realized right away that you had no way of knowing that I would be there singing that night. I’m just sorry if I sounded like I don’t approve of your job. Nothing could be further from the truth. If you saw my music collection or my iPod, you’d know just how much I appreciate what you do.”

She appeared to be relieved, and I felt that way myself. “That’s good,” she said. “ I was afraid that you thought I orchestrated the whole evening or something. It really was just a coincidence, seeing you there. But…,” she paused to bite her lip, “I’m glad I did. You were great.”

I can’t adequately describe the sensation that spread through my chest at those three little words, spoken in her quiet alto, her soft brown eyes gazing up at mine. Somehow her compliment carried more weight now, alone together in this silent office, than it did last week in the noisy bar.

“Thank you,” I answered softly, my voice sounding thick. I cleared my throat, adjusted my reading glasses and decided to stick a toe out over the ledge. “I thought maybe I’d see you there again last night.”

Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open a little as she inhaled sharply. I could see that she was unsure how to respond. I couldn’t stand even the tiny bit of panic in her eyes, so I let her off the hook.

“Alice mentioned that she told you Jasper and I would be there,” I explained at last. “I think she wanted you to hear him play. She’s got a little crush on him and wants to help him out.”

“Oh, right,” she said with a short laugh. “I, uh… actually, I was there, but I couldn’t stay long. I had another commitment.”

“Oh,” I replied, wondering if that last part was really true. “I didn’t see you. You should have come over and said ‘hi.’”

“Well, you looked pretty busy. I didn’t want to intrude.” She suddenly looked terribly unsure of herself.

I shook my head, bewildered. “You wouldn’t have been intruding. It was just Emmett, Alice and some friends of mine.” I paused until her eyes met mine again. “Isabella, I don’t ever want you to feel like you can’t talk to me.”

I hated the doubt that still lingered on her face, so I took one last, unwise stab at making her believe that I was sincere. “I liked what you said about how music can save people. I believe that completely. Maybe that’s something that you and I have in common.”

There it was--that quiet desperation in her eyes; the haunted look I had recognized the first time I looked into their depths. “Well, it definitely saved me. Still does, every day, one way or another,” she admitted.

Finally, the opening I’d been hoping for. “I want to ask you about something, but you don’t have to answer me if you don’t want to.”

She looked more curious than alarmed. “Shoot,” she said simply.

I took a deep breath and tried to choose my words carefully. “Your medical records show that you got your injuries in a car accident when you were a teenager. I'm just wondering...did something else happen that day? Something that left…an emotional scar?”

The alarm came then, her eyes widening and her body stiffening. My arrow had hit the mark, and I winced at her pain. Then, suddenly, her face went blank, as if she had just shut the door on whatever memory I had evoked. Her defense mechanisms were just as effective as mine. The realization only served to make me hungry for answers, and more determined to get to the truth about her. I had the feeling it was the key to unlocking and unraveling the pain that held her twisted flesh captive.

She appeared as if she were searching for a reply when the sound of the front door opening behind her caught her attention. I looked up to see Katrina, long and lean in her tennis dress, probably coming to see what was holding me up. A glance at the clock told me I was fifteen minutes late meeting her at the coffee shop around the corner, where we had planned to grab a light lunch before our Saturday match.

“Hey, Edward!” she said brightly, flashing a toothy smile. Her eyes took in my frustrated expression, then shifted to Isabella’s pained one, and her smile faded. “Sorry if I interrupted something. I just thought I’d see if you were running late. I can wait outside.”

I sighed and said, “No, it’s fine. Ms. Swan and I were just finishing up here.” We all exchanged awkward looks, so I filled the silence with introductions. “Isabella, this is a good friend of mine, Katrina Denali. Katrina, this is my newest client, Isabella Swan.”

“Hi,” Katrina said warmly, stepping closer and holding her hand out to Isabella’s. “Nice to meet you. You can call me Kate.”

“Of course,” my client responded, giving me a short but pointed glance as she shook Kate’s hand. “You can call me Bella.”

Katrina caught her meaning and let out a hearty laugh. “I think Edward is allergic to nicknames. Emmett must have called him ‘Eddie’ one too many times as a kid.”

I gave her a withering smile and grabbed my brother’s appointment book to see when he had Isabella scheduled, then compared it to mine. I was booked and wouldn’t be able to treat her that day. As I looked through my schedule, I realized next Saturday would be the soonest I could see Miss Swan again unless I had a cancellation.

“I won’t be able to schedule your appointment until a week from today. Will that work for you?” I asked her.

“Sure, that’s fine,” she replied in a subdued voice, avoiding my gaze. I must have gone too far, asking her what had happened to her. She looked like she couldn’t wait to leave.

I filled out the appointment reminder card and handed it to her. She quickly stuck it in her back pocket, mumbled “Thanks,” and zoomed around Katrina like the card had caught her pants on fire. The door was still swinging shut as my “See you next week” trailed off behind her.

Kate let out a low whistle. “What was that all about?” she inquired, leaning over the counter on her elbows.

“Nothing. I’m just trying to get to the root of her problems, that’s all,” I said as I put the appointment books away.

“Edward, you aren’t disobeying our Golden Rule, are you?” she asked in a warning tone. “No personal questions, right?”

“I just think that if she could talk about the car accident that made her end up this way, I could make a lot more progress with her,” I insisted.

She scrutinized my face a moment. “Are you trying to convince me of that, or yourself?”

“Neither. I know half of her problems stem from emotional pain as well as physical,” I said matter-of-factly as I fished my keys out of my pocket.

“You know that, huh? For a fact?” she asked skeptically as I escorted her out the door and locked it behind us.

“I can just tell,” I shrugged. “I can feel it in her body. I can see it in her eyes. Don’t you ever trust your intuition with your customers?”

“Sure, to a point,” she replied as we headed down the street. “But I think you’re asking for trouble if you’re making those kinds of assumptions about someone you’re treating. Especially if you’re starting to care a little too much about her…?”

I ignored her curiosity as we turned the corner and reached the entrance of the café. I opened the door for her and followed her in, then pretended to be consumed with studying the menu on the blackboard over the counter even though I knew it by heart.

“Edward, please tell me you aren’t going there with that girl,” Kate said reproachfully. She then turned to the barista and ordered a vegan sandwich and iced tea, allowing me to once again dodge her queries. But, much like Alice, I knew she wouldn’t let it go. I ordered a Panini and a plain black coffee to clear my head, and we sat at a nearby table to wait for our food. Kate started in on me immediately.

“I saw the way you were looking at her. I almost didn’t recognize you--you’re such a cool customer most of the time. I’ve never seen you so…un-cool,” she teased. “Maybe even a little hot and bothered. That’s a new one,” she grinned.

“God, not you too,” I muttered under my breath, taking a sip of my coffee.

“Excuse me?”

“You and my sister both. You seem to have some weird delusions about my feelings for Isabella Swan. She has some serious physical issues, and I want to help her. It’s as simple as that.”

“So Alice saw it, too. That little preoccupied gleam in your eyes. You’re invested in her. You don’t do that with people very often. Can’t say I blame you,” she sighed.

“Don’t worry, I’m not going to do anything stupid,” I told her, and this time, I was trying to convince myself as well as her. “I wouldn’t do that to Emmett, for one thing. And for another, I worked hard to get my shit together. I’m not about to blow it by getting involved with a client.”

Katrina studied me for a moment, idly stirring her straw in her tea glass. “It’s too bad that’s how you met. It’s nice to see you actually interested in a girl, even if you keep telling yourself it’s only professional.”

I gave her an annoyed look, which only made her grin. “Well, hopefully, she won’t be your client forever, right? And if you want, you can always refer her to me. I’d be happy to help her, and help you in the process.”

Kate was sincere in her offer, and in her wish to help me. I know that much is true. But some perversely selfish part of me wants to be the one to help Isabella Swan. Is it so wrong to want to be someone’s savior instead of destroyer?

I thanked Katrina for the offer but assured her I had things under control. I then less-than-subtly changed the subject and asked her how her job was going. She works for a spa that specializes primarily in relaxation massage methods, but she still does some more intensive therapy work like I do. She said business is pretty good, but still suffering a bit from the slow economy. When times are tough, only the elite few can afford to pamper themselves.

I must admit that I feel a little guilty about having been one of those few my entire life. My parents aren’t swimming in cash, but they certainly aren’t hurting, either. Mom comes from “old money,” by Pacific Northwest standards, anyway. The Platts built their fortune from the logging industry in the mid-1800s, as many immigrants to the west did back in the day. Her ancestors later turned to timber milling, and even branched out into textiles and a few other sundry goods as the area boomed. Most of the family business was eventually sold off, and my grandparents, and now my mom Esme, have managed to make a tidy income off of some wise investments, most recently in technology.

Dad’s no slouch, either, though he comes from much more humble middle-class beginnings. He always jokes that if he hadn’t become a doctor, Mom’s family never would have allowed him to marry their daughter. That’s patently untrue. Carlisle Cullen is the type man who always knows the right thing to say or do, in any given situation. He could charm the habit off of a nun, if he had the mind to, which of course he never would. I often tell him he should go into politics, except that he’s too honest.

But it’s Mom’s connections that get me membership at the Seattle Tennis Club. Usually a place filled with yuppie douchebags is the last place you’ll ever find me; but the tennis courts and amenities are so awesome that I can never pass up the chance to use them. Katrina loves it. I usually have a hard time dragging her out of the hot tubs after our match.

Today was no exception, but I was kind of enjoying relaxing by the pool myself. The only problem was that I started imagining what it would be like if I brought Isabella here. We could hang out on the beach and maybe go boating. I wondered if she’d like that. I wondered what she’d look like in a bikini. Then I got irritated with myself and once again made Kate leave before she was ready.

“Damn it, Edward, when are you ever going to learn to relax?” she grumped as she threw on her cover-up and collected her duffel bag. “If I had membership here, I’d never leave. You keep telling me how great the food is, but we never stay long enough to have dinner.”

“Sorry, I have some errands I need to run,” I told her. “Besides, I have to keep testing you to see if you’re only friends with me because I can get you in here. Maybe next week we should use some municipal courts instead, just to keep things interesting.”

She laughed and answered, “That’s fine by me. You know I don’t really give a shit about this kind of stuff. But the tennis club perks do sweeten the deal a little. Especially when you’re in one of your moods.”

I ignored that last remark, because she’s put up with a lot of crap from me over the past couple of years. She’s the only one who knows the ugly details of what happened between you and me. I had to tell someone, and I didn’t want to burden my family with that. So Kate has put up with a lot, to put it mildly.

I drove her back to our medical complex to get her car, then stopped at the market for some groceries on the way home. I’m a completely crappy cook, but I hate living on fast-food and take-out, so I make the attempt every now and then.

I can only blame armfuls of groceries for the fact that I didn’t see the cat run in the front door of my building when I unlocked it. I also managed to miss it following me to the service elevator. Only when I felt its thick tail brush up against my shin as the elevator’s noisy gears carried us upward did I realize there was another living thing besides me in the confined space.

I let out another rather unmanly sound until I realized that I was not trapped with some giant rat as I feared. The cat was already too busy trying to poke its nose in my grocery bags to acknowledge my high-pitched curse.

“Yeah, I’ll bet you smell something good in there,” I grunted at it. “If you think I’m giving you any of that fresh salmon, you’ve got another thing coming.”

The cat meowed plaintively, clearly not happy with my mandate.

“I’m not letting you in my place, either. You’re probably infested with fleas.”

Sad, round, yellow eyes peered up at me before the nose-rubbing on my leg commenced.

“Geezus H….” I muttered as the elevator opened directly in front of my door. There was basically no place for the animal to go unless I escorted it back down on the elevator or threw it out the window onto the fire escape. I sighed as I unlocked the door, knowing that the cat would race inside before I could possibly stop it. It investigated every corner of the loft with the thoroughness of a health inspector while I put away the groceries. Apparently satisfied that nothing was beneath its standards, it approached me with a loud yowl that I was pretty sure had something to do with the fish.

What I did next might surprise you. Or maybe not. I’m never sure how well you knew me. I grilled the salmon with some lemon, garlic and black pepper like I always do. But I threw a bit of it to the cat before I did. I know it will never leave now. I knew it the minute I did it.

“I think I should call you Isabella,” I told it, giving it a grudging scratch or two behind the ears as it begged at the table. “I didn’t want you or need you in my life. But here you are. Now what do I do with you?” I mused softly as the cat purred contentedly.

“Before I name you, I’d better check something,” I told it, grabbing its tail and taking a quick look underneath. The furry evidence of his manhood was still intact. “I guess ‘Isabella’ is out, then. I don’t think she would have appreciated that anyway.”

I tossed a tiny piece of the fish down to him, which he gobbled greedily off the glossy floor. “I should have figured you for a tomcat, anyway, as big as you are,” I said idly. “You’re lucky I haven’t thrown you outside yet. Get ready for it, because you are not spending the night in here. At least not until I’m satisfied you’re not crawling with lice or something.”

He looked up at me with ravenous eyes, as if the bits of fish I’d already given him were simply a tease. I threw him another morsel and admonished, “This is the last one. After that it’s canned tuna fish. And that’s only until I can get back to the store and get you some cat food.”

He seemed satisfied with that, as he commenced with the leg-rubbing again. He certainly was an affectionate cat. Or maybe just a desperately lonely one.

“I guess I could call you Tom,” I told him with a laugh. “Tom Cat. That’s fairly unoriginal, though, isn’t it?” I thought for a moment, and then realized I’d already named him.

“Lucky,” I said, “welcome to your new home. As long as you keep the vermin out, we might be able to work out an arrangement.”

He looked up at me through narrowed slits, his expression one of superlative wisdom. Or possibly that of the cat who just swallowed the canary, I’m not sure which.

“I know, I’m a sucker,” I sighed, allowing another ear scratch to turn into a long stroke down his back and along his thick, bushy tail. “But who knows? Maybe I’ll turn out to be the lucky one this time.”

Lucky purred and gave me another slit-eyed, shrewd gaze. We both knew I wasn’t talking about him.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Massage Therapy, Chapter 4

From the Desk of Bella Swan
Friday, July 23, 2010

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to have a digital recorder in my life.

Now I can listen to Edward Cullen whenever I want to, which is often. In fact, I can’t stop. It’s a mindless action that my index finger performs every twenty minutes: hitting the repeat button. His voice stops, my brow crinkles, my lips frown, I hit “repeat.”

It’s kind of destroying me.

Okay, maybe that’s a little melodramatic. But what he does to me is too intense for me to behave any other way. No one I’ve ever met has moved me like this before. Body and soul, he owns me. And the more I get to know him, the more afraid I am that my mind will follow, and then where will I be? Because he has made it clear that I am not standing on a two-way street. So heading any further down this road will only lead to heartache.

But right now, with the body and soul already in mutiny, my mind keeps losing the battle. And that deviant two-thirds of me is pleased as punch that stealth-recording possible new artists for Java Noise is a part of my job. That inescapable fact absolves me of any wrong-doing in capturing my massage therapist’s positively mind-blowing performance at Billy’s last weekend, and again tonight. Tonight’s set didn’t have quite the same raw urgency as last week’s, and he was joined by a folksy bass singer named Jasper Whitlock on a couple of tunes; but the magic was still there, hanging in the air like fairy dust from the wands of Sleeping Beauty’s fairy godmothers.

So the fact that I can’t play these recordings for Rose is absolutely killing me. She and I spend ridiculous amounts of time combing Youtube and amateur websites for any sort of talent that’s out of the norm; going through tons of demos and videos from people who shamelessly hawk their talents, big or small, eager to get a foot in the music industry door. And then there’s Edward Cullen, sitting there like a goldmine filled with untapped treasure, but he won’t let me get through the bedrock to reach the brilliance hidden within.

I guess I should backtrack a bit. It all started last Saturday night, when I innocently went to Billy’s Brew Pub to check out the open mic night, as I often do. I came armed with my trusty recorder and equally trusty roomie, early enough to grab a table near the front, yet far to one side. I like to surreptitiously study the performers and judge the audience reaction, yet be close enough to get a decent recording for Rose. Angela and I settled in with a pitcher of our favorite lager and sat gamely through the first few acts: a dreary, dread-locked, white folk-singer chick; an Asian hippie who spent half his distracting performance flicking his long hair out of his face; and a Jamaican guy whose Rastafarian rapping was the probably the most interesting thing I’d heard so far. I made a mental note to listen carefully to his recording later, to determine if he sounded as good without the congenial bar buzz as his backdrop. Angela seemed to like him, and she’s usually a pretty good, impartial judge of talent.

But then he stepped onstage, and my heart stopped. For a split second I didn’t even recognize him. His scholarly glasses were gone, as was his formal lab coat, of course. In its place he sported an extremely faded, shrunken t-shirt that barely managed to cover the length of his torso; a pair of hole-infested button-fly jeans; and the same untied black suede shoes I’d stared at for an hour through the donut hole the day before. He clearly hadn’t shaved in the last 48 hours, and the hair atop his head somehow seemed to have grown as well. The hazy golden light that shone over the small stage lit his gravity-defying mane into a glowing halo over his furrowed brow. His handsome face was a sculptor’s dream, its chiseled curves and planes creating stark geometric patterns of shadow and light. He looked like a preoccupied, unkempt deity of some kind.

The audience hushed and murmured as he sat down upon a stool and did some final tuning of his beautiful vintage Gibson Dove acoustic, and I wasn’t sure what struck me more: his haunting presence, or his commendable taste in guitars.

“Look at that guy!” Angela exclaimed in awe. I glanced at her long enough to see that her eyes were saucers as she stared up at the stage. She pushed her glasses up her nose as if to get a better gander at him.

“That’s my massage therapist,” I answered, sounding as stunned as she did. Angela gasped in surprise, then whacked me on the arm as if to demand further explanation. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from him long enough to respond.

But my initial astonishment was nothing to the shock I felt when he opened his mouth.

He mumbled a soft “hello,” then announced the name of the song he was about to sing as he picked out the slow, poignant notes of the intro. He was a decent, if not masterful, guitarist. The song he chose was one I knew well, by one of my favorite artists. The tune was a favorite as well. But what guy does a cover of an Ani DiFranco song?

I listened carefully to the lyrics as he sang, though I knew them by heart. The only way he would have chosen an aching, heartfelt song like that was if the words meant something to him. He certainly sang the song as if they did.

I'm sorry I didn't sound more excited on the phone
I'm sorry that after all these years
I've left you feeling unrequited and alone, brought you to tears
I guess I never loved you quite as well as the way you loved me
I guess I'll never really be able to tell you how sorry
I am

And I don't know what it is about you
I just know it's not what it was
I don't know why red fades before blue it just does
and I don't know what it is about me
that I just can't keep still
I keep thinking someday I will make this all up to you
and maybe someday I will

I guess I never loved you quite as well
as the way you loved me
I guess I'll never really be able to tell you how sorry
I am
sorry I am
sorry I am
sorry I am*

I felt like I was looking through a window into Edward Cullen’s soul while he sang. As if his mere presence on this stage hadn’t bowled me over enough, I was shocked to discover that he sang beautifully as well. His deep, soft speaking voice could not have prepared me for the clear, warbling tenor that now filled the room. Though he sang the Ani tune with subdued remorse, much like the original, I could sense the power that lurked in those vocal chords, waiting to be unleashed. His delivery perfectly mimicked his physical appearance at the office yesterday: restrained to the point of bursting at the seams, like something was about to give.

I didn’t have to wait long to see and hear what that something was. When he launched into his next number, apparently an original, his performance turned transcendent. His voice grew more gruff and impassioned as the song went on, building to a keening wail by the time he reached the end. He sang with such fervor that it sometimes sounded as if he might veer off pitch, like a runaway train jumping the tracks; but then he’d steer his voice back on track and find the note again, his tremulous vibrato clinging to it as if it were a life preserver.

In that moment, I finally saw--no, felt--that untamed part of him now thrust to the surface, like a nerve twitching visibly under a thin veil of skin. From the moment we met, I sensed that something was lurking under that carefully controlled façade. Now I knew what that something was. I recognized it all too well.


Edward Cullen was suffering, and this was his release. I couldn’t even decipher half the lyrics of his second song, and it didn’t matter. The emotion behind them spoke more clearly than the most perfect enunciation ever could. All I caught was something about being lost in a sea of red, and I can guess what that metaphor is all about. But guessing isn’t good enough, and I know it never will be. I want to know what was behind such an outpouring of emotion on that tiny stage. I want to know Edward Cullen…to get under his skin, the way he does mine when he touches me. Here he is, so concerned with making me better, when he seems to need a healing touch at least as badly as I do.

He finished his performance by reining in his raspy wail and reducing it to a muted whisper. By the time his last dulcet guitar notes wafted into the air, the entire audience was silent as a stone. They had to have felt the same power and anguish emanating from him as I had, or they would have littered the empty air with the mindless background chatter that’s ubiquitous in any bar. But Edward Cullen had managed to stun every single patron into hushed awe for one profound moment, before applause and shouts of approval began to fill the room.

In that split second of agonizing silence after he stopped playing, I could see the panic in Edward’s eyes before he squeezed them shut. He thought they didn’t like him. How he could have surmised such a thing was beyond me, but it was as clear as day in his stricken green eyes before they closed.

When he opened them again, his surprise was just as evident, followed by his embarrassed pleasure. His cheeks flushed slightly as he looked hesitantly around the room, evidently trying to absorb the adulation that he seemed to feel was beyond his grasp. Why didn’t he think he deserved such praise for his talent? It was baffling to me. Surely this wasn’t the first time he had ever performed. He was a little too self-assured as he took the stage, and too free in his performance, for him to be a novice.

As his eyes warily swept the crowd, I watched his bashful grin turn into a large smile of recognition. I followed his gaze to a table across the room, where I saw his brother Emmett, and a pretty slip of a girl next to him. Both of them looked especially touched by Edward’s performance, and I wondered what his relationship was to the tearful girl who was clapping so vigorously for him. I immediately identified the resulting pang that traveled through my chest as jealousy, followed swiftly by frustration. I mean, damn it, Mom, I told you I was in danger of falling for this guy already. But now that I know he’s a musician--and a damned good one, at that--I am surfing on a banana peel.

My eyes drifted back to the impossibly gifted and gorgeous man onstage, and as if he sensed my stare, his eyes suddenly zeroed in on mine like heat-seeking missiles. I certainly felt as if I’d been struck, my body quivering from the impact. I couldn’t look away, and neither could he, it seemed. He pinned me with his gaze for a prolonged moment, and I felt powerless under the weight of it. I tried to read his penetrating eyes but was too dumb-struck to think straight. He looked nearly as shocked as I must have when I first caught sight of him in a place I didn’t expect. But there was more to his expression than that. Dismay, maybe? Or even fear? There was a tangible vulnerability in those big eyes of his, studying me cautiously from under thick, knitted brows.

He looked away suddenly without smiling, then rose from his stool and lifted the guitar strap from around his neck. He nodded in deference to the cheering crowd, eyes downcast, and exited stage right. He hurried back to the table where his brother--and girlfriend?--stood waiting for him, still clapping. The girl threw her arms around him with such abandon that the jealousy expanded like a suffocating sponge through my chest. Even my shoulder ached with envy to be hers as he buried his face there, his arms enveloping her tightly for a moment. Emmett gave him a couple of pats on the back, almost in consolation rather than congratulation. There was something more going on here than just a great performance. Edward seemed to have gone through some kind of catharsis, one that his two bar mates recognized. The knowing, sympathetic looks in their eyes piqued my curiosity even further. What was going on with Edward Cullen, anyway? What had happened to him that provoked this kind of emotional bloodletting?

“That was an intense look between you two!” Angela exclaimed over the subsiding applause, nudging me with her elbow and dislodging me from my trance. “Did you have any idea how talented he was? And what the heck happened at that massage session yesterday? Is there something you’re not telling me?”

I shook my head in bewilderment. “I don’t know,” I admitted. “Nothing happened, really. I did feel sort of sick by the time it was over, and he seemed irritated that I hadn’t told him I wasn’t feeling well. He was just concerned about my health, I think.” Sure, he had joked with me a bit during the massage, but by the end, he was all business. I was pretty sure I’d been the only one feeling something profound when I looked into his concerned green eyes. At least, that’s what I thought until now.

“Huh. It looks like a little more than that, from where I’m sitting,” Angela countered. She took a sip of beer and her eyes followed mine to the table across the bar. “I wonder if that’s his girlfriend, then?” she mused as she regarded the threesome. “Maybe he has a thing for you, and he’s afraid she just saw the evidence.”

I let out a feeble laugh. “Doubtful,” I said wistfully. “I mean, look at him. There’s not a girl in this bar who wouldn’t go home with him right now if he so much as glanced sideways at her.”

“I beg to differ! I love my Ben, even if he isn’t a Greek god,” Angela grinned.

“He’s better than a Greek god,” I corrected her. “He’s sweet and humble and treats you like a goddess.”

“I did get lucky,” she admitted with a contented smile. She and Ben Chaney have been together since high school and are the most solid couple I know. They give me hope that someday I might be able to find the kind of love they have--deep, strong, secure. I certainly never had a good example of that growing up, since you and Dad seemed to have irreconcilable differences as far back as I can remember. I’m not blaming you, of course. Unfortunately, I think the Angelas and Bens of this world are the exception, not the rule.

“By the way, the other guy at that table is Edward’s brother, Emmett,” I informed my roommate, gulping more of my beer. I suddenly was feeling parched.

“The chiropractor?” she exclaimed. “Okay, I’m starting to understand why you were so nervous. He’s huge!”

I laughed in agreement. “Yeah, I know. He turned out to be kind of a gentle giant, though,” I admitted.

“He looks nice,” Angela observed. “Why don’t we go over there so you can say ‘hi’ and introduce me to them? You could nose around and see if Edward’s interested in recording something, too. You’d probably get a big, fat bonus from Rosalie if you could sign him to Java Noise!”

I instantly shook my head in refusal. “I don’t want to bother them. It looks like they’re having kind of a personal moment.” Still, a tiny shiver of excitement traveled down my spine at the thought of getting Edward Cullen to join our label. Would he be open to something like that? If so, this could be the beginning of a very nice, reciprocal arrangement between us. He could cure my messed-up back, and I could give him a shot at a music career. Surely with a gift like he possessed, he’d be willing and eager to meet with Rose.

“You’re just worried that the girl with them is Edward’s girlfriend,” Angela accused with a sly smile. “You won’t know unless you go over there and find out.”

The beer was starting to taste better and better as I contemplated making the journey across the bar to greet my new physicians. Even though Edward wasn’t technically a doctor, he still acted and dressed like one. Only his hair and shoelaces refused to comply with the code of professional decorum he had imposed upon himself while in the office. By contrast, his appearance now was one tin cup away from Street Bum, and I was overwhelmed at how absurdly attractive he made that look.

Just as I was gathering my courage to take my best friend over to the Cullen table, by some miracle the girl sitting with them got up and headed for the ladies’ room. I couldn’t help but exhale with relief. I took another quick swig of beer and muttered, “Okay, let’s get this over with.”

Angela let out a surprised laugh. “Why are you so nervous? I thought you said the Cullens were really nice.”

“They are,” I agreed. I wasn’t sure why I was apprehensive. There had been something so personal about Edward’s performance that I felt as if I had eaves-dropped or intruded upon him somehow. That was ridiculous, of course. If that had been the case, then every patron in the bar was a guilty voyeur.

“You look like you’re about to introduce me to your executioner,” she chuckled, grabbing her purse. For some reason, it certainly felt as if I was about to stick my neck out on the chopping block. I couldn’t forget the wary, almost alarmed look in Edward’s eyes a moment ago that had reminded me of a blinking “caution” sign on the side of the road.

I took a deep breath as we wove around the tables and chairs toward the Cullen brothers. At least I was sure to get a positive response from warm and friendly Emmett, I reassured myself. To my utter dismay, no sooner did I have this thought than he rose from his stool and headed for the bar, leaving Edward alone at the table.

I stopped short in panic and was nearly mowed down by Ange, who stumbled into my suddenly stock-still backside.

What’s up with you, Bella?” she demanded in my ear. “Why are you so afraid of this guy?”

“I’m not afraid of him,” I scoffed as my heart mocked me with its increasingly staccato rhythm. “I just…don’t want to bother him,” I reiterated.

“I doubt it’s any bother for him to hear compliments about how talented he is,” she argued. She gave me a gentle nudge followed by a not-so-gentle order: “Now, GO.”

I took a shaky breath as I robotically approached the table where Edward Cullen sat, lifting a beer mug to his mouth. I admired his luscious lips caressing the thick glass, and was mesmerized by the movement of his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he swallowed. How could anyone make such a mundane act look so sensual?

I tried to swallow the nervous lump that was lodged in my own throat as I caught his eye. “Hey, Edward,” I managed to croak, clearing my throat after the fact.

He looked somewhat startled to see me there, and that odd deer-in-the-headlights look flashed through his eyes again as he set down his mug and rose from his bar stool. He recovered quickly and a small grin claimed victory over his reluctant lips.

“Isabella,” he replied, managing to say my name like it was dripping in honey, and making my nether regions respond in kind. “What a nice surprise, seeing you here,” he added with a too-polite smile. I still sensed that he was disconcerted I’d caught him in such an unguarded moment.

“I know. I was really shocked to see you here, too,” I agreed. “Oh, and it’s just ‘Bella.’ My friends all call me Bella.”

His pink lips pursed a bit as he softly replied, “Yes, but you’re my client, so….” his voice trailed off and his eyes fell a bit sheepishly as he grabbed his beer from the table for another draught.

I stared at him in undisguised shock. I could not have been more stung if he had physically slapped me. I literally took a step back, as if to make sure I stayed behind the boundary he had just set between us with all the subtlety of a falling anvil. As I blinked in disbelief, I reminded myself that he was simply making it crystal clear that things would stay professional between us as long as he was my therapist. So why did it feel like a personal affront?

Ange noted my stunned reaction and quickly spoke up to save me. “I’m Angela Weber, Bella’s roommate,” she offered, sticking out her hand toward Edward in greeting. “We just wanted to tell you how great you were up there. You’re very talented.”

Edward looked embarrassed again as he shook her hand. “Thank you, I appreciate that. It‘s nice to meet you, Angela.” The fact that he repeated her name so easily made the blood begin to percolate in my veins.

“Do you perform often?” she continued politely. I knew it was an effort for Angela to keep the conversation going, because she’s as innately shy as I am, if not more so.

“Once or twice a week, maybe,” he answered, gulping more lager. It suddenly struck me that he was behaving the way I had before I came over to his table--drowning his nervousness in beer. “I like to do open mic nights, just for fun. Let off a little steam,” he explained in feigned nonchalance.

“That was a little more than just fun,” I blurted before I could stop myself. Edward looked at me in alarm once again. What the hell was he so afraid of? “Your performance was extremely moving,” I continued, feeling my cheeks grow hot. “It was really… heartfelt,” I concluded lamely, not able to articulate what I really wanted to say when he was staring at me in such consternation. “The whole audience felt it.”

There was a brief but heart-stopping silence as his eyes pierced mine, deep emerald arrows flecked with gray in the dim light. “It’s nice to be able to connect,” he said at last. “Even if it’s just for a moment.”

My heart commenced its incessant pounding again, foolishly wanting to believe that his words were laced with personal meaning. My head quickly reminded my heart that he was so opposed to “connecting” with me that he couldn’t even bring himself to use my nickname in casual conversation.

Apparently, his brother Emmett had no such problem.

“Bella!” his voice boomed over my shoulder as he elbowed his way through the crowd. He set down three shots of what looked--and smelled--like whiskey on the table. “Good to see you! How are you? Are you feeling okay today? Any soreness?”

I immediately felt more at ease with his big teddy-bear persona filling the awkward spaces around Edward, Angela and me. “I‘m kind of sore, yeah. But I actually feel a little better. I’m starting to think that maybe you can help me,” I smiled at him. My smile faded slightly as I turned to Edward and added, “Both of you.”

Edward’s face softened a bit and he answered quietly, “I’m glad to hear that. I think so, too.”

“We’ll have you fixed up in no time,” Emmett assured me with an easy smile. “You girls want to join us for a shot? We’re toasting my little brother’s success tonight. He was pretty awesome, eh?” he grinned, raising his beer.

“He was incredible,” I agreed, my voice barely a whisper. I glanced at Edward’s tense expression and quickly looked away. “We don’t want to impose,” I added to Emmett with an apologetic smile. “We just came over to say hello, and congratulations.” I could hardly stand the feel of Edward’s eyes on me anymore. Their gaze felt like an accusation, but I couldn’t figure out what I was guilty of.

“Oh, don’t run off,” Emmett entreated. “At least stay and meet our little sister. And who’s your friend, here?” he asked, smiling warmly at Angela.

Sister? That was quite possibly the sweetest word I’d ever heard. Although I wasn’t sure why it mattered anymore, given Edward’s standoffish behavior toward me.

I introduced Angela to Emmett, who gregariously shook her hand and then pulled up some bar stools, insisting that we sit down. Angela was the buffer between Edward and me, while Emmett flanked my other side. He then flagged down a passing waitress for two more shots, which he insisted we share with the Cullen siblings.

As if on cue, the littlest Cullen bounded up to the table from the back of the bar. Up close, she was clearly a diminutive female version of both of her brothers: as beautiful as Edward; as effusive as Emmett. She looked Angela and me over and announced, “Well, will you look at this--my brothers have already found two gorgeous girls to hit on. What are the odds?” She grinned facetiously and shot Edward a raised eyebrow. He looked even more flummoxed than before, and his glare at her was downright intimidating. She seemed to delight in his irritation, her smile broadening.

“I’m Alice Cullen,” she beamed at us, putting her arms around our shoulders in a brief hug. “I hope these two have been behaving themselves while I was away. Honestly, I can’t leave them alone for a minute before they seduce every female within ten-block radius.” She laughed and shook her short, spiky hair in mock disapproval, then danced around the table to seat herself between the two.

“Hey now, don’t go making us look bad in front of a patient,” Emmett admonished. “This is our new client, Bella Swan, and her friend, Angela Weber.”

“Oh! Nice to meet you,” Alice smiled at us, turning her attention to me. “Don’t worry, you are in excellent hands with these two. Second only to Jesus in the healing department. They are the best, the very best,” she insisted, her face filled with a mixture of love and pride. “Look at the hands on this one! He was born to massage your cares away,” she sighed, prying Edward’s elegant fingers off of his beer mug and waving his hand in example before giving it a squeeze. Edward’s warning look relaxed into a resigned laugh and a shake of his own tousled locks. He clearly had a soft spot for his baby sister’s cheerleading.

“…Not to mention, play the hell out of a guitar!” Alice suddenly added, her tiny fingers lacing briefly with her brother’s long ones before releasing them. “Did you catch his set? Was he not fantastic? Not a dry eye in the house. I saw grown men weeping on the way to the ladies’ room, I kid you not!” she exclaimed.

She finally took a breather so I could actually answer her question. “Yes, he was amazing. The best I’ve heard in awhile.” My eyes couldn’t help but revisit his beautiful face, and they were instantly caught in the web of his long lashes as he stared relentlessly back at me. I was too busy trying to untangle my gaze from his to notice the pregnant pause that had ensued. The sound of Alice emitting an exaggerated stage cough finally tore my eyes away, and when I looked at her, she was quirking an inquisitive eyebrow at her middle brother again.

She turned to me, gave me a smile and said, “Yes, Bella, he is amazing. More than you know.”

“Have you ever thought of recording anything?” Angela piped up, smiling innocently at Edward. I gave her a warning kick under the table.

Edward shook his head adamantly. “No, I could never do that. I mean, maybe for myself, but not to sell or anything. I’d never want to turn it into a money-maker. It’s too personal.” His tone of voice indicated his distaste at the idea, and my heart fell. Not only was he uninterested in being my friend, he clearly wouldn’t want to do business with me or my record company, either.

“Honestly, Edward, you’re depriving the world of a very special gift,” Alice sighed. “Not many people can get an entire bar to shut up just to hear them sing. Maybe you’ve missed your true calling,” she told her brother. Something in the dark look that flashed between them told me that this was a sensitive subject, one that they had clashed over before.

“Alice thinks she’s an authority on how everyone should live their lives, and isn’t afraid to tell them so,” Edward shot back, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Perhaps you’re the one who missed her calling. You’d make an excellent vocational guidance counselor,” he scowled into his mug before taking a long swig.

Alice seemed unperturbed. “I would, at that,” she agreed blithely. “It’s good to know that I’ll have something to fall back on if the whole pediatric medicine thing doesn’t pan out.”

Emmett took a deep breath and, with the authority of a long-suffering referee, announced, “Okay, okay. Everybody back to their corners. The only rounds I want to deal with are of the pilsner variety.”

The waitress blessedly arrived at that moment with our extra two shots of whiskey, which I was actually beginning to look forward to. Maybe the liquid fire would help take the edge off of the increasingly tense atmosphere. I tried to fish some money out of my purse, but Emmett and Edward simultaneously insisted on paying, then argued with each other over who would get to do the honors.

“Men,” Alice sighed with a grin and a roll of her doe eyes. Meanwhile, Edward won the battle of the bill after pointing out that Emmett had just bought the other three shots. He smiled obligingly at the waitress as he handed her a wad of cash, adding in that irresistible Sex Voice of his that she should keep the change. She blushed and grinned at him in a way that swelled the jealousy sponge again before I could stop it.

“Don’t even think about it,” I could swear I heard Alice hiss at Edward in a low voice. I was beginning to get the idea that wherever Edward Cullen went, he drew swarms of girls to him as easily as nectar attracts bees. Still, the look he threw Alice after her remark could hardly be called sweet. It was nothing short of venomous.

Emmett seemed oblivious to the sibling squabbling, or he was simply used to ignoring it. He passed out all the whiskey shots, raised his in the air and said, “I’d like to propose a toast. To Edward, for being an effortlessly talented SOB. Thanks for sharing the wealth with all of us here tonight.”

“Hear, hear!” Alice agreed, lifting her glass. Edward squirmed uncomfortably, his cheeks reddening slightly. Angela raised her shot glass, and I did the same. But before we could all touch glasses and toss back the whiskey, Edward cleared his throat and said, “I’d like to make a toast, too.”

A hush fell around the table as Edward picked up his shot. “To my brother and sister, for always standing by me, no matter what,” he began, his expression sober as his eyes glanced from one to the other. Sympathetic smiles spread across their faces, and again I was sure that there was an untold story behind the looks they exchanged.

“To Miss Swan’s health,” Edward continued, his eyes capturing mine once again. My heart fluttered like one of the many bees lured into his garden, even as I was incensed and perplexed by his inability to simply say my name. “May she be healed and whole once again.” His gaze was unbearably intense, as if he were scrutinizing the landscape of my soul and discovering the remnants of a war zone there.

Whole. How did he know that I’m not, and that I haven’t been in so very long? Could he really see inside me somehow? There was no way he could know the truth. No one does, except you and Charlie.

I stared at him with a measure of the fear and trepidation he’d shown me earlier, suddenly feeling like I was the one whose innermost secrets had been exposed. His eyes seemed to be both inquisitive and reassuring in that moment, like he was trying to figure out if he and I were carrying around the same type of emotional baggage. Something told me that we were, though I still had no clue what his might contain.

Finally Edward turned to my roommate, and he finished his toast with, “And to Angela, for being a good friend to Isabella.”

How the heck could he know that? I certainly wasn’t going to argue that truth, though. We all clinked our glasses together, Emmett and Alice loudly emitting “Cheers!” and “Bottoms up!” as we threw our heads back and let the whiskey’s fire engulf our throats. I relished the warmth as the liquid burned through my belly and slowly seeped through my limbs. It swirled with all the beer I’d chugged earlier and tingled through my veins, creating a pleasant buzzing sensation in my ears.

Maybe I really am a bee, I mused, giggling out loud at the silly thought. Edward’s face turned toward me again with a bemused smile at the sound. I decided he really was the most beautiful kind of flower, turning the pink petals of his cheeks toward me. If only I could be his sun, was my next alcohol-induced wish. But there was no way that this man would ever revolve around me. I was quite certain that if anyone was exerting gravitational pull in this situation, it was him.

“Are you okay?” he asked me, the smile still holding his lips its sweet embrace. God, he really is the sun. He's dazzling, I thought. In that moment, I was dazzled.

Or maybe just drunk.

“I’m great,” I replied emphatically with a loopy grin. The tension between us seemed to have been washed away by the Maker’s Mark; or perhaps I was just too tired to care what Edward Cullen thought of me anymore.

Emmett’s hearty laugh cut through the humming in my ears as he joked, “Okay, no more shots for Bella.”

That remark prompted the concerned, probing look from Edward again, and my happy buzz began to dissipate. Lord, he probably thought I was a drunken idiot. Next he’d be telling me I shouldn’t drive home. Which was probably true, but that was beside the point. Knowing Angela, she would soon switch to Cokes and transport us safely back to our duplex at the end of the evening.

“So Bella, what do you do?” Alice suddenly asked from across the table. “Are you still in school?”

Oh, no. Here it was… the million dollar question I was hoping no Cullen would ever ask. I’m a terrible liar. I can’t think of a quick fib to save my life. But in that moment, I was ready to champion a career choice as a stripper rather than have to admit that I work for a record company.

“No, I graduated a couple of months ago,” I said, measuring my words. “I’m doing some paid internship work right now,” I added vaguely. That wasn’t entirely a lie. I had interned with Java Noise during my senior year at U-Dub, and A&R manager Rosalie Hale hired me as her fulltime assistant after graduation. She hoped to move up in the ranks, and wanted to groom me to take over her position in that event.

“Oh, that’s great,” Alice smiled encouragingly. “What kind of work do you do?”

I concentrated on Alice’s expectant face and ignored Edward’s curious one as I quietly replied, “I’m an Artist and Repertoire scout for the Seattle branch of an indie label, Java Noise. Maybe you’ve heard of it,” I ended uncertainly, my last sentence sounding more like a question than a statement.

All three pairs of Cullen eyes stared at me blankly for a moment, round and slightly stunned. I couldn’t bear to glance at the green ones to the left, so I concentrated on Alice’s hazel eyes as they slowly filled with comprehension, then excitement.

“Yeah, I’ve heard of it!” she exclaimed with a huge grin. “So you look for new talent for the label, right? Wow, that’s awesome!”

“That’s really cool, Bella,” Emmett concurred, nudging my arm congenially with his elbow. “So are you working tonight? Checking out the unsigned singers?”

I took a deep breath and shifted my eyes to his twinkling blue ones. “Well, sort of, yeah,” I admitted, cursing myself for leaving my neglected beer on our table across the room. I needed it to hide behind, to drown in, before I had to face the poisonous green arrows I could feel trained on me from the other side of the table.

“So how does that work?” Alice went on excitedly, leaning toward me. “You check out amateur performers at clubs and bars, and then report back to the record company which ones you think are worth signing?”

“Something like that,” I answered, desperately wishing Alice would stop alienating me from her brother with every word she dragged out of my mouth. “My boss, the A&R manager, checks out the artists I recommend in person, and if she thinks they have potential, we approach them about the possibility of signing with our company. If they’re interested, we bring in upper management to hear them and to begin negotiations. But most of the time, we get so many unsolicited press kits sent to us that we’ve usually heard a band or artist’s demo before we make the decision to go see them live. They usually come to us rather than the other way around.”

I took a deep breath and continued hurriedly, “But I like coming to open mic nights, because sometimes when artists don’t feel like they’re being judged, they give a more honest performance. I’ve heard some really amazing music at places like this because the performances were just pure artistic expression. No self-consciousness, no nervousness, no desire to impress. Just… honesty. And that’s really the kind of music we want to produce at our company. Something that’s real, that can touch people. Music can change lives. It can save people.” I stopped awkwardly, realizing that I had just rambled on far longer than was necessary. I had also revealed myself in a way I hadn’t intended, though perhaps they would not pick up on that.

I should have known better. When I finally gave in and looked at Edward, his eyes had melted to a liquid jade, and he regarded me so seriously that I almost wanted to weep with frustration. Talk to me. Explain yourself to me. Stop holding me at arm’s length so we can figure out what it is between us that keeps pulling us toward each other. Please tell me you feel it, too. These were the fruitless pleas that peppered my thoughts; thoughts I could never hope to convey with even the most open gaze back at him.

Once again, Angela came to my rescue. “Bella is a natural at spotting people with real potential. One of the bands she found last year is about to release their first CD, and the buzz for them is huge. She just has a knack for knowing what will reach people. She knows quality when she hears it,” she finished proudly, giving my shoulder a squeeze.

“I don’t doubt that,” Alice concurred. “After all, she recognized how great Edward was tonight, right?”

“Alice,” Edward admonished under his breath, as if willing her to be quiet.

“Better than great,” I agreed, piercing Edward with a look that I could only hope was as unnerving as the stares he’d nailed me with all night. “But I would never try to pressure anyone who wasn’t interested in a music career,” I amended quickly.

“Bet you were surprised to see little Eddie here on stage, weren’t you?” Emmett asked me, giving his younger brother a teasing grin. Edward bristled visibly at the nickname. Suddenly I began to understand why he was so averse to shortening my name, even though I’d asked him to.

“Very,” I replied. “I had no idea who was playing tonight. I never do. I just make the rounds to different places with open mic nights, hoping for a pleasant surprise. And by the way, Angela is an excellent friend, because she comes to keep me company often.”

She shook her head and laughed. “Like I need incentive to have a drink and listen to some great music,” she downplayed.

“Yeah, well, it’s not always great,” I laughed. She and I had just heard some real duds last Wednesday. It was all we could do to keep from laughing over the recordings I was trying to make. Eventually I just gave up and we went home early.

“Well, it sounds like a fun job to me,” Alice asserted. “If you’re ever in need of another wing-girl, call me up! I’ll be here for another six weeks before grad school starts.”

She looked excited about the prospect. I couldn’t help but be excited about it as well, but for ulterior motives that I really didn’t want to think about at the moment.

“Sure, I’d like that,” I agreed, returning Alice’s expectant smile. I purposely averted my eyes from Edward’s face, because I was certain I would not like the expression I’d find there.

The lights began to dim a bit in the bar, and I looked up to see another performer ready to take the stage. There was no way I was going to whip out my recorder in front of the Cullens. Edward would probably have a coronary if he knew I had captured his performance without his consent.

“Thank you so much for the drinks. This was great,” I began, rising from my bar stool. “But I do need to concentrate on the other musicians and maybe take some notes for my boss,” I explained, nodding my head back toward our abandoned table. By some miracle, no one had stolen it yet. Apparently the half-full pitcher and glasses we’d left behind had kept the patrons at bay.

The Cullens all murmured “sure” and “of course” as Angela rose from her seat to join me. I tried not to look at Edward before I left, but that required the kind of Herculean effort I could not muster. When my eyes met his one last time, I could not read them.

“See you next Saturday,” he said as I finally turned to leave. He remembered when my next appointment was. Was that normal? Did he remember when all his clients’ next visits were scheduled?

I nodded and tried not to read more into it, though that was a losing battle. I felt his eyes on me all the way back to our table. In fact, I could sense his presence keenly throughout the evening, pulling me, begging me to look back at him. I fought the urge for the next two hours, glad for my digital recorder, as it would be the only way for me to accurately judge anyone else I heard the rest of the night. My concentration was reduced to a crumb. Every nerve in my body seemed to be attuned to the shaggy-haired Adonis seated across the bar.

I was actually relieved when they left. A surge of adrenalin shot through me as Edward headed for the door, the sight of him after resisting a peek for so long sparking an electrical charge in every deprived cell of my body. When he gave me a glance, a crooked half-smile and a wave, the shockwave only intensified.

The Cullens were halfway out the door when Alice suddenly turned and ran back to where Angela and I sat. Her eyes were gleaming fervently as she pushed a piece of paper at me across the table.

“It was great meeting you both,” she said breathlessly, though her attention was aimed mostly at me. “I’d really like to hang out with you and talk. I was serious about coming with you while you’re working some time, if you’d like.”

“Sure, that would be great,” I agreed, looking down at the piece of paper. On it was scrawled Alice Cullen’s name and cell phone number.

“You should definitely come here next Friday night,” she continued with her contagious enthusiasm. “Edward’s going to play again, AND his best friend, Jasper Whitlock, is playing too. They are so freakin’ good together! Jasper is amazingly talented. He’s starting his own band. He’s got tons of potential, and none of Edward’s misplaced humility,” she said with a laugh. “Definitely worth your time.”

“Good to know, thanks!” I told her. The tiny tremors traveled through me once more at the thought of seeing Edward perform again. And I would love to be able to pick Alice’s brain about her brother, though I felt a little guilty at the thought of using her like that. She seems like a nice person, someone I could be friends with regardless of who her brothers were.

After Alice left, Angela raised an eyebrow at me. “Edward’s sister seems awfully anxious to get to know you better. I think she’s polishing up her bow and arrow, ready to play a little Cupid.”

“You’re crazy,” I scoffed. “The guy can barely stand me. He won’t even use my nickname, he’s so hell-bent on keeping things impersonal between us.”

Angela merely laughed. “He is the classic example of Shakespeare’s protesting too much. He’s about this close to losing any sort of professional distance he’s trying to keep between you.” She held up her thumb and index finger, squeezed together, to illustrate her point.

I shook my head in denial. “The way he kept glaring at me all night, I think you’re way off base.”

She laughed even harder. “Pardon my French, but have you never had a guy eye-fuck you before? He wants you. Badly. And by the way, you were doing some pretty obvious eye-fucking right back at him.”

I stared at Angela in horror. “No, I wasn’t. I was just trying to figure him out. He’s impossible to read.”

“Then you’re trying too hard,” Angela sighed, taking a swig of the Coke I knew she’d order. “What’s going on between you two was pretty easy for the rest of us to figure out. Alice honed in on it in about two minutes. I watched the wheels turning in her head the entire time we were sitting with them.”

I shook my head again, still skeptical. “I didn’t see anything of the kind.”

“That’s because you were too busy boning Edward Cullen with your eyeballs,” she teased.

“Stop,” I moaned. I hoped I wasn’t that obvious. Was I? And no matter what she said, Edward was not that obvious, either. Whatever his eyes were trying to convey, it wasn’t just about sex, if even at all. I knew I was probably doomed to spend the rest of the week replaying this evening in my mind and trying to assign all sorts of meaning to it that wasn’t even there.

Thankfully, I was swamped at work and had no time to daydream about Edward Cullen. I filled the evenings with as many impromptu music gigs as I could find, though I heard nothing as tremendous as his performance had been. I didn’t call Alice to go with me. I felt like I needed as much distance from the Cullens as I could get, so that I could look at Edward with objective eyes the next time I saw him.

I'm glad I did. Because what I saw tonight put an effective end to any sort of crazy thoughts that might have crept into my mind unbidden.

I got to Billy’s early and found the most obscure table I could, in a tiny booth slightly hidden from the main bar. I was terrified that Edward would think I was stalking him, showing up here again in less than a week to hear him play.

As I slowly nursed a Guinness Stout from my little nook, I watched the door and waited. My heart leapt into my throat when I finally saw him enter the bar, as glorious and tattered as ever, in another nondescript, over-washed t-shirt and grungy jeans. This time he wore deeply creased and weathered Doc Martens on his feet, the laces again refusing to stay tied. I wondered if he bothered to tie them at all. And how did he manage not to trip over the stray shoestrings?

Edward was followed by a handsome guy with longish, wavy blond hair and a toothy, lopsided grin similar to Edward’s. He must be Jasper, the guy Alice had told us about. He held the door open for two more people, and my heart plummeted quickly to my stomach as they breezed into the bar. Tall and Amazonian, a beautiful blonde and redhead sauntered in and followed Edward and his friend to a table across the room. They seated themselves blessedly out of my line of vision, so that I wouldn’t have to look at them, nor be discovered in my little alcove. But I had seen all I needed to. Both of the women were so out of my league, I almost laughed at the absurd idea that Edward Cullen would ever be attracted to me instead.

Emmett and Alice entered Billy’s moments later, scanning the room for their brother. I slunk back in my seat, though I was sure I would go unnoticed. Smiles of recognition soon spread across their faces, and they took off in the direction of Edward and the others. How cozy, I thought. Edward and Jasper were no doubt trying to impress their dates with their talent, and the other Cullens were here to cheer their brother on as always. Obviously Angela had been way off base about Alice’s intentions where Edward and I were concerned. There was no “Edward and I.” That much was now crystal clear, if it hadn’t been before.

I stayed throughout Edward and Jasper’s performance. They each performed solo, and though I enjoyed Jasper’s unusual style, Edward still touched my heart with his impassioned singing in a way that few people ever have. They worked well together as a duet, Jasper’s resonant bass complementing Edward’s tenor vibrato. Their rhythm guitar dueling was excellent as well. The crowd ate them up once again, and why not? There was little not to love.

I couldn’t will myself to stay after they had finished playing. My powers of concentration were even less tonight than last week after hearing Edward perform. I could think of nothing but what might be going on at their table across the room, wondering if it was less stilted and tense than our meeting had been last week.

Of course, it was. I allowed myself a small peek before I sneaked out the door. Edward and the blonde had their heads together, and their faces were all relaxed smiles. Edward was talking animatedly about something, his beautiful hands gesturing as he told his story. Everyone at the table turned their attention to him, and by the time he was done, they all laughed, as if he had said something hilarious. I felt like I was looking at a complete stranger. Why was he so open with them, and so restrained with me? I felt like the starched white collar of Edward’s lab coat, uncomfortably constricting him, keeping him from being himself.

Disappointed resignation settled over me as I drove home. Perhaps things are better this way. If I want Edward to help me, then I need to be able to relax around him. The heightened attraction I feel for him would only stand in the way of that. Building all sorts of impossible romantic scenarios around him is not only pointless, but foolish as well. There is a reason Edward Cullen has been keeping me at bay. Now I can see clearly what that is.

I am strangely calm and increasingly detached as I contemplate seeing him tomorrow morning. This is a good thing, I think. I need to concentrate on my recovery. You know how long it’s been, Mom, and how much I need it. I think I finally have my head on straight about this guy, and what I really need to accomplish here.

But if I’m being honest with myself, there’s a new ache inside me that has nothing to do with my back. It feels like I’m about to replace one pain with another. I hope I’m wrong about that. More than ever, I can’t afford to have feelings for Edward Cullen. I have to be strong. I know you’re with me in spirit. I’m going to hang on to that.

Wish me luck. I’ll let you know what happens.

Love you so much,


*"Sorry I Am" written by Ani DiFranco.  Copyright Bug Music OBO Righteous Babe Music