Monday, January 18, 2010

Amnesia, Chapter 7 - Lessons

Okay, Edward is not at the airport, nor is he sporting the hat and shades, since he's indoors. But I am definitely borrowing Rob's wardrobe (and pretty much every other part of him) for this chapter.


“I don’t want to go back to the party.”

I looked pleadingly up into Edward Masen’s dark blue eyes, grabbing the front of his red and black flannel shirt between fumbling fingers, trying to pull him closer. He was immovable as a statue. I scooted closer to him, pushing my leg between his, and pressing my groin against the bulge in his pants. He groaned softly and uttered my name. The sound of it hovered somewhere between a curse and a prayer.

“Please, Edward,” I begged, reaching one hand up to touch the side of his face. His skin was cold, smooth marble under my hand. He wasn’t human, and I didn’t care. Whatever he was, I wanted him. Wanted him like I’d never wanted anything or anyone in my life. The smell and feel of him made me so high that I was sure the alcohol I’d drunk was innocuous by comparison.

He relented with a sigh, his breath blowing over me like a cool autumn breeze. He leaned in the open door of my truck, bending over me and pulling me to him as his mouth closed over mine. The kiss was mind-blowing, spectacular, like a 4th of July fireworks display going off in my head. My fingers lost all sense of direction in the thick clouds of his hair, and my legs gripped his stone form as if he were the only thing keeping me from floating out of my body and into the heavens.

His hands roamed all over me, leaving delicious, icy tingles in their wake. I tugged impatiently at his shirt, sliding my hands underneath and exploring the taut muscles of his back. His breath was noisy on my neck as he rained kisses all over my face, down my jaw and over my collarbone. My roving fingers traveled up the gentle ripples of his abdomen and over the smooth planes of his chest, my thumbs rubbing his nipples in circles. His moan of pleasure in my ear reverberated down my spine and warmth gathered between my legs as I pressed myself against him.

“Bella,” he whispered, as his impossibly long fingers pushed their way under my dress and up my thigh. His thumb pressed into the hollow of my hip, near my groin, and I gasped sharply, my hips jerking up to meet the erection straining against his jeans. “I want you, Bella,” he murmured, his hand continuing its ascent over my quivering abdomen and up to the thin fabric of my bra, stroking my nipple into a hard knot as I whimpered pitifully with desire. “You’re mine, Bella, and I’m yours. No one can change that.” He kissed me deeply, hungrily. My name continued to escape his lips, over and over, the sweetest music I’d ever heard. “Bella…my Bella…are you okay? Wake up, Bella…can you hear me?”

His voice changed, becoming more shrill and high-pitched. It hurt my ears, and I cringed. My head began to pound. “Edward?” I asked in confusion. “What’s happening? My head…my head hurts so bad.”

“Bella…it’s the booze…Bella…

My eyes snapped open to find Alice Cullen’s concerned face mere inches away as she urgently hollered my name. I cringed again and my head fell back to the pillow with a thud. “Geezus, you scared me,” I grunted, realizing with grave disappointment that my incredible make-out session with Edward Masen had only been a dream.

I scared you? Crap, Bella, you were moaning so loudly that I thought you were going to be sick again. I even brought the barf bucket with me, see?” she declared, shoving a yellow plastic pan in my face. I groaned and turned away, a wave of nausea overtaking me at the sight of it. I was pretty sure I’d used it a couple of times during the night, and had vague recollections of Alice holding my hair back while I vomited over the side of the bed.

“Please, Alice, put that thing away,” I pleaded. “Just looking at it makes me ill.”

“I’ve never seen anyone hurl so much in one evening,” Alice informed me. “I didn’t know it was possible. Esme went to get you some juice and some aspirin. And toast, too. You need to try to keep something down before we can send you back to Charlie.”

“Oh God,” I groaned. “I can’t even think about food. And going home? Oh God, no….”

Alice let out a small giggle. “Honestly, Bella, you’ll be fine. It’s early. You can sleep some more. But please try to eat something first, okay? For my mom. She’ll be very hurt if you don’t.”

I buried my head under the covers and moaned some more. I heard Esme’s voice in the doorway not long after, and sure enough, I peeked out to see her carrying a tray of apparent hangover cures: my choice of water, soda or juice; some buttered toast, a bottle of vitamins and a bottle of aspirin. I thanked her as sincerely as I could, then choked down a few bites while she and Alice smiled expectantly at me.

“I’m so sorry this happened to you under our roof,” Esme apologized to me. “I thought my kids were more responsible than to let drugs or alcohol run rampant at a Cullen party.” She made it sound as if they had somehow besmirched the family name with their irresponsibility. Alice displayed a hang-dog expression as her mother assured me that it would never happen again.

“It’s my own fault, Mrs. Cullen,” I admitted, wanting to take the blame off of Alice. “I knew the punch was spiked and I kept on drinking it. A lot of it. I never really drank before last night.” My stomach roiled slightly and I took a generous swig of the clear soda. I tried to muffle the belch that followed, but it did make me feel better. Alice giggled and then stopped abruptly at Esme’s stern look.

“Well, the fact remains that my children weren’t paying close enough attention to what was going on,” Esme insisted. “Their father and I would have been responsible if anything had happened to any of you kids on our property. I’m still appalled that you were almost hit by a broken tree branch! We’ll be lucky if your father lets you come visit Alice again.” Alice frowned in response.

“Broken tree branch?” I asked, trying to recall what she was talking about. I had a vague memory of Edward bending over me, and scooping me up in his impossibly strong arms to carry me to the house. But not much else registered about the end of the evening.

“Yeah, that stuffed witch we had hanging from the catalpa tree snapped the branch right off,” Alice said guiltily, as if it had somehow been her fault. “It nearly fell on you and Edward. You got a little scratch on your leg, but Carlisle cleaned it up for you.”

I looked under the blankets to see the gauze taped to my shin. “Well, that’s not surprising,” I sighed. “Don’t worry, my dad is used to me doing klutzy things. This won’t be enough for him to forbid me from coming back here.”

Esme smoothed my hair back and gave me a half-smile. “Well, I’m just sorry anything happened to you while you were here. I’ve already called your father, last night and again this morning, to assure him you’re okay. I told him you wanted to stay late and help Alice clean up after the party last night, so he doesn’t expect you back too early. You’re welcome to stay here until you feel better.”

So Esme told my dad a little white lie to save my behind. “That was above and beyond,” I sheepishly told her. “Thanks. I’m sorry you had to lie for me. I’m the one who drank too much; I should have to own up to it.”

“Well, I’ll leave that between you and your dad, okay?” she said, patting my hair before rising and excusing herself from the room.

“Your mom is so cool,” I sighed in relief to Alice. “I can’t believe she did that for me.”

“Yeah, she’s pretty awesome,” Alice smiled. “I think it’s because she’s so young. Best foster mom ever!” Then Alice’s eyes widened with rabid curiosity. She leaned in and whispered excitedly, “So tell me what happened between you and Edward Masen!”

I looked at her in confusion. “Uh….what do you mean, exactly?”

“Oh, come on! You couldn’t keep your eyes off each other all night! The two of you disappeared for awhile, and then you came back wearing different shoes, with your make-up half-eaten off your face! Spill, immediately!”

I gaped at her blankly as I processed her words. The dream I’d just had began playing in my head….Edward kissing me, pulling me closer…me, clinging to him, pushing my body against his…was it real? I tried hard to think. It certainly felt real in the dream. The images in my head were vivid, but I couldn’t seem to separate the dream from reality. What, exactly, had happened?

“Crap,” I sighed dejectedly. “I’m not sure. The alcohol gave me brain fog. I think maybe he took me to my car…so I could change my shoes. Yeah, that’s it!” I was relieved to remember him carrying me through the spooky tunnel. And then, the shocking sensation of his hand on the back of my legs as he removed my shoes. It was real. Edward touching me…Edward putting my sneakers on me, one at a time. I suddenly remembered how mesmerized I was by his eyes, his voice, the curve of his lips as he asked me if I felt free. Oh, God…it had really happened. He had kissed me. Or, more to the point, I had kissed him. I felt my cheeks grow hot as I realized how forward I had been.

“What, wha-a-at?” Alice demanded, trying to read my expression. “Tell me what happened!”

“Oh, no. I think I threw myself at him,” I wailed, slapping my hand to my forehead. “My memory is pretty blurry…but, I think…I kissed him.”

Alice squealed and clapped her hands together. “That’s classic! Don’t be embarrassed, Bella. Trust me, he loved it. He loves you. I mean seriously. The boy has it bad. I watched you two from afar all night. The way he looks at you…so jealous, so protective. If you really did make the first move, he was probably in heaven. Guys love that stuff!”

“You think so?” I asked weakly, still feeling mortified. How would I face him again? I could picture the smug, self-satisfied look he might give me the next time we met. I pulled the bed sheet up over my head.

“I know so,” Alice insisted, yanking the sheet out of my hands. “I have a good feeling about you two. I’m not sure how it’s all going to work out…but I know it will,” she beamed.

“Yeah, well, you’re an optimist, Alice,” I observed. “You always expect the best. I wish I could be more like you. I expect the worst, and then I’m pleasantly surprised when it doesn’t happen.”

“Oh, Bella,” Alice laughed, grabbing me in a quick hug. “You’ve got to have more faith in fate. Things have a way of working themselves out. You’ll see.”

I shrugged dubiously and tried to swallow a few more bites of toast, washing them down with the soda and an aspirin chaser. I told Alice I needed to sleep a bit more, and she left me to burrow back under the covers awhile longer. I tried to remember the details of the night before, but the evening was still hazy. I nodded off and was disappointed that I had no more dreams about Edward. When I awoke later, I was feeling well enough to get dressed and head back home to Charlie’s. I thanked the Cullens profusely for all they’d done for me, and then spent the drive home trying to figure out whether or not I would tell Charlie the truth about last night. I decided I would play it by ear.

It turned out I had worried for nothing. Charlie had decided to go fishing with Harry Clearwater, and left me a note saying he’d return later in the day. Relieved, I spent the afternoon trying to concentrate on homework in between daydreaming about Edward Masen. Bits and pieces of the evening kept coming back to me, but I wished I had a clearer picture of exactly what had happened. Ironically, I recalled Edward telling me about having no memory, and I was surprised that he seemed so okay with just picking up and starting over. I would have been trying to contact every living relative I had in order to piece my life back together. But maybe there were things he wasn’t telling me---things about his life that were too painful to remember. Maybe his amnesia was a comfort, somehow, like mine was.

I still couldn’t believe that out of all the girls at the party who flirted with him, he chose to spend the evening with me. Maybe Alice was right. Maybe he really did have a thing for me. She was exaggerating, Alice-style, when she claimed that he loved me. I wasn’t that deluded. But he was so attentive, and if my memory was true, not just confused with dreams, he had kissed me like no boy had ever kissed me before. I squirmed in my chair just thinking about how amazing he felt. The evening had been surprisingly comfortable for October in Washington, yet his skin was cold to the touch, like he’d spent the whole day outdoors in cold weather. His warm flannel shirt didn’t keep his hands from giving me goose bumps with every touch. But they were the kind of delicious shivers that you got when someone whispered right into your ear, or grazed your arm lightly with their fingers and made all the hairs stand on end. I imagined Edward doing those things and goose flesh rose all over me at the mere thought.

My reverie was interrupted by the phone ringing. I thought it might be Charlie calling to check on me, but was shocked to hear none other than Edward Masen’s silken baritone over the receiver.

“Bella, is that you?” he asked. My heart raced at the sound of his voice.

“Yes, it’s me. Hi, Edward,“ I said. No one else sounded like him.

“So you’re alive,” he chuckled gently. “I was a little worried after the way you were hitting the punch bowl last night. How do you feel?”

I gave a small laugh. “I’m recovering. I slept all morning at the Cullens.‘ I lucked out that Dad is fishing today, so I’m just kind of chilling here. How about you?”

“I’m fine,” he replied evenly. “I have to go to work in a few minutes. I just wanted to make sure you were okay today. How’s your leg?”

“It’s all right. It was just a scratch. It’s so weird, I don’t remember much about that whole tree branch falling. Did it really just miss us?” I asked him worriedly.

He let out what sounded like a sigh of relief. “Yeah, it did. We were pretty lucky. I’m sorry that branch caught you on the way down, though. So…exactly how much do you remember about last night?” he asked cautiously.

I was glad he wasn’t in the room to see me blush. “Well, a lot of it is kind of fuzzy,” I admitted. “I remember I had fun though. There was kind of a nice moment in my truck, as I recall.” My face felt like it was on fire.

He laughed and it sounded husky and delicious, like warm buttered toast. “That was pretty much the highlight of my evening. I was hoping you’d remember it,“ he said, and a thrill radiated through my chest.

“I think it would be pretty impossible to forget,” I whispered. Let‘s do it again sometime, my pathetic brain suggested.

“I feel the same way,“ Edward said quietly, then paused a moment. “I wish I could talk longer, but I really have to get going. I’m glad you’re okay.”

“Well, thanks for calling to check on me. I’m fine, really,” I assured him.

“Good. So…I’ll talk to you later,” he said noncommittally. My heart sank.

“Sure,” I said lamely. We said our good-byes, and I heard the crushing click of the receiver going dead.

What was that about? I wondered in confusion. He made the effort to call, told me in not so many words that kissing me was the highlight of his night, but then never asked when we could get together for a repeat performance. I will never understand men as long as I live, I thought in frustration. I attacked the rest of my homework with a vengeance and pushed all thoughts of Edward Masen’s irresistible, if freakishly cold, pink lips out of my head.

Charlie returned home not long after Edward called, and he was a welcome distraction. He and Harry had caught some big sea bass, and I helped him clean the fish and get them ready for dinner while he regaled me with stories about the trip. I decided not to fill him in on my stupid behavior the night before, not because I was afraid to take the punishment I deserved, but because I didn’t want to get the Cullens in trouble. Dad could easily arrest them for allowing minors to drink on their property, and for all I knew, the police station may have been fielding calls today from angry parents. I didn’t want to add any fuel to the fire. It wasn’t the Cullens’ fault that Tyler had brought a bottle of rum to the party, and it certainly wasn’t their fault that I had loaded up on the stuff because I was so self-conscious in Rosalie’s form-fitting costume. I couldn’t regret wearing it, though, because the reactions I got from boys were a first for me. Though I doubted I’d ever feel comfortable being the center of all that male attention, I definitely could get used to being the center of Edward Masen’s attention. His penetrating gaze left me feeling stripped bare and vulnerable, and yet I felt inexplicably safe with him at the same time. The profound effect he had on me both unnerved and excited me. I didn’t know what I would do if he never called me again.

Unfortunately, he gave me the chance to find out. The entire week passed without another word from Edward. School dragged painfully as I daydreamed fruitlessly about him in between dull lecture classes and mindless chit-chat with my friends. I didn’t even have his phone number, though I wasn’t the type to pursue a boy unless I was pretty sure he liked me. If I had ever been convinced of Edward’s interest, that conviction had dwindled to a crumb by the end of the week. Even Alice didn’t have any news for me, though she’d attempted to pick her brother’s brain for information several times. She tried to assure me that the bar had been really busy lately, and reminded me that Edward went to work every day just when I was getting out of school. I was half-hoping that she’d suggest going to Jake’s Place some time to hang out with Emmett, but it turned out her family was going on a camping trip and would be gone the entire weekend.

By Friday’s lunch hour, I had resigned myself to a depressing weekend of homework, TV, or, worse yet, shopping with Jessica. She was hell-bent on finding a new dress for next weekend’s Winter Formal even though she didn’t technically have a date yet. She was sure that Mike had been about to ask her at least five times in the past two weeks, but she had yet to receive an invitation. I was afraid to tell her about the numerous hints he’d been dropping to me about the dance. I had no desire to go with Mike nor to make Jessica jealous. I tried to steer Mike in her direction, but he seemed oblivious to my maneuvers. I was truly amazed at how dense boys could be sometimes.

I took a bite out of the apple from my lunch tray, my mind straying from my friends’ conversation and wandering to what it would be like if I could take Edward to the FHS Winter Formal. I couldn’t picture his glorious, statuesque form in the dingy gym, although as part of the dance committee that Jess had signed me up for, it was my duty to try to beautify it for the occasion. Jess, Angela, Lauren and I already had plans to stay after school next Friday to disguise its dull interior under massive crepe paper snowballs, streamers, sparkling snowflakes and other winter-themed décor.

“So, Bella, are you in?” Mike Newton’s voice interrupted my train of thought.

“In on what?” I asked, embarrassed.

“Earth to Bella,” Jessica joked, nudging me. “Daydream much?”

Mike ignored her jabs and said, “We’re all going to Jake’s Place tonight for some darts and pool. You wanna come?” he asked expectantly.

I straightened in my chair at the mention of Jake’s, then tried to look casual. “Sure,” I agreed. “What time?”

“About 7 o’clock. I can give you a ride,” Angela offered. I thanked her and told her I’d take her up on it.

I spent the afternoon on a euphoric but nervous cloud of anticipation. I hoped Edward would be working, and I hoped that he would be happy to see me. Maybe Alice was right, and a week without a phone call meant nothing in “boy time.” Yet I couldn’t help but feel like something had gone wrong. Maybe I had only imagined Edward kissing me so intensely last Saturday night, and my “beer goggles” were making me remember things the way I wanted to instead of the way they really happened. Maybe he had only called me Sunday because it was the polite thing to do, especially after I had clumsily scraped up my leg and nearly fallen down drunk in Alice’s shoes. The more I thought about it, the more I realized what a fool I must have made of myself. No wonder Edward hadn’t called again.

I tried to keep my worries at bay as I dressed for the evening, changing my shirt three times before giving up and settling on a long, form-fitting ivory sweater and my ubiquitous jeans. No matter what I decided to wear, there were sure to be hotter girls than me vying for Edward’s attention tonight. Either he liked me or he didn’t. There wasn’t much I could do about it, and I certainly wasn’t going to borrow any more style cues from Alice and Rosalie to try to make an impression that I couldn’t live up to anyway.

I left a contented Charlie with a six-pack of Reinier beer and a football game on the big-screen TV, promising him that Angela would have me back home before midnight. He seemed happy that I had made friends in Forks and waved me away with little concern, patting his cell phone in his pocket and advising me to give him a call if I needed a ride home.

“Guess what?” Angela asked me excitedly as soon as I settled in the passenger seat of her VW. “Eric asked me to Formal! I was beginning to think he’d never get up the nerve to do it. Just when I was trying to get the courage to call him and ask him myself, the phone rang and it was him. He said he didn’t want to ask me in front of everyone tonight and embarrass me, or himself, in case I said ‘no.‘ Isn’t that cute? I’m so relieved!” she said with an exaggerated sigh.

I laughed at her run-on speech and told her, “That’s great, Angela! I knew he liked you, I could tell. I told you he would have said ‘yes’ if you had asked him.”

“I know, I know,” she smiled, “but I just wasn’t as sure as you were. Sometimes you can’t see your own situation objectively, you know? I couldn’t have taken the rejection if I had been wrong.”

“Well, now you know what guys go through,” I said. “No wonder they get so nervous and tongue-tied about asking us out.” I tried to imagine Edward Masen nervous and tongue-tied. He seemed above the usual teenaged angst, but maybe it was just a cool façade. Maybe inside he was as insecure as the next guy.

I tried to remind myself of that as we met Mike, Eric, Tyler and Jessica in the parking lot of Jake’s and headed for the front door. My stomach did flip-flops as I followed the boys inside, half-hiding between Angela and Jess in an effort to look less obvious than I felt. I glanced in the direction of the bar, and was gob-smacked by the vision of Edward filling a pitcher from one of the taps. Every time I saw him, I was stunned senseless by his poetic good looks. As if he could read my mind, he looked up and found me instantly, staring right through my circle of friends as if they weren’t there. His intense gaze made every nerve in my body dance on the head of a needle, and I looked away self-consciously as the pin-pricks coursed through me head to toe.

The boys found a table near the arcade games and claimed their chairs, leaving us girls to sit squarely facing the bar across the room. I groaned inwardly as I sat down and removed my coat, while Angela asked us all if we wanted to share a pitcher of sodas. I glanced apprehensively at Edward and found his stormy eyes continuing to bore holes through me. His expression held no hint of a smile. In fact, he looked almost… perturbed. Was he unhappy that I’d shown up where he worked? Hadn’t he told me that I was welcome to come see him any time? My cheeks stung in mild humiliation and I buried my face in my purse, happy to have the distraction of digging for some money to give Angela.

“Oh my God, that hot guy, Edward, is bartending!” Jessica exclaimed, her eyes brightening at the sight of him. “Did you know he worked here, Bella?”

“Yeah, I think Emmett Cullen got him the job,” I replied quietly.

“Really? So, he’s friends with the Cullens, huh? I guess that’s why he was at the party last week then,” Jess said. “I thought maybe it was because you had told him you would be there.”

I looked at her in consternation. She was clearly pleased at the idea that Edward might not be as interested in me as she had originally thought.

“No, he didn’t know I’d be there,” I admitted.

“Huh. He seemed into you at the party. But then he never called after Sunday, right?” she pressed.

“I guess he’s been busy,” I said lamely.

“That sucks. Tell you what, I’ll go get our drinks and put in a good word for you, okay?” She gathered up the dollars we’d each thrown on the table and practically ran to the bar before I could protest. I could just imagine the “good words” she’d come up with to tell Edward. I doubted they’d have anything to do with me.

I tried in vain to ignore Jessica’s full-court-press flirtation with Edward, replete with hair-tossing and profuse giggling. To my dismay, he rewarded her phony efforts with one of his easy grins, joking with her and giving her the warm, crinkly-eyed looks I liked to imagine he reserved only for me. I was almost thankful when Mike began talking to me so that I was forced to look away from the depressing sight of my friend hitting on the guy I dreamed of calling my boyfriend. I tried to focus on what Mike was saying as he rambled on, but I was hopelessly distracted by the blurred image of the two traitors out of the corner of my eye.

“….so, anyway, I thought that maybe, since it seems like you aren‘t dating anyone, you’d like to go to Winter Formal with me.”

My head jerked in Mike‘s direction and my eyes snapped to meet his. His expression fluctuated rapidly between attraction, nervousness, hope and fear. I knew that look all too well. It was the look that I probably had on my face every time I thought about Edward. I glanced quickly at the bar in time to see and hear him let out a short, loud laugh while Jessica waved her arms around animatedly, telling him some doubtlessly inane story.

Bristling, I turned my attention fully on Mike, looked him square in the eye and said, “Sure, I’ll go to the dance with you.”

His blue eyes widened in surprise for a moment before a huge grin broke over his face. “Okay, so…great! Great.” He smiled and nodded a moment, looking briefly at a loss for words. Then he continued, “Do you want to go get dinner first? Tyler and Lauren have reservations at Biaggi’s in Port Angeles, so I thought maybe we could join them and then come to the dance later.”

“Uh…well, okay,” I agreed unenthusiastically. I wasn’t sure I wanted to drive nearly an hour and back to dinner beforehand, and I was even less thrilled about hanging out with Lauren. I really didn’t even want to go to the dance. All I wanted right now was to march over to Edward and Jessica and punch them both in the face.

I listened with half an ear to Mike planning our date together, wondering what the hell I’d gotten myself into. Finally Jessica arrived toting a pitcher of Cokes, followed by none other than Edward, who placed a tall glass of some clear carbonated beverage in front of me. Startled, I looked up at him and asked, “What’s this?”

He regarded me with an almost accusatory look. I suddenly had a strange feeling that he had overheard me accept Mike’s invitation to the formal, though that was physically impossible from across the room.

“Jessica told me you like Sierra Mist,” he explained in his buttery voice. “It’s on the house.”

My brows knitted in confusion. “Thanks…?” I said, giving him a questioning look.

“Anything for you, Bella,” he said without a trace of sarcasm. Before I could reply, he turned and walked back to the bar while I admired his backside in spite of myself and wondered what the hell had just happened.

I looked at Jessica, who had taken a seat next to me. “What was that about?” I demanded.

“I don’t know,” she shrugged. “He asked me what happened at the party Saturday night after you got hurt, and I told him how Tyler was so drunk that he tripped over the snack table and fell into the dance floor. It was like dominoes---half a dozen kids went flying!” she laughed, punching Tyler on the arm. Tyler began protesting that Mike had pushed him, which Mike vehemently denied.

“Wow, sounds like I missed all the fun,” I said, then turned to Jessica. “So why did Edward bring me my own drink?” I asked her.

“Well, when I ordered the Cokes, he asked me if you liked anything special. I told him what you usually drank at school, and he started pouring you one just like that. He’s, like, way into you, Bella. He kept sneaking looks over here and I think he was pissed that you were talking to Mike. You should go for it! He is ridiculously hot.” She sounded mildly annoyed that she’d struck out with him, but two seconds later she seemed to forget about it and was laughing with everyone else about their drunken escapades last weekend.

I sat in stunned silence, mildly horrified. What had I just done? I looked over at Edward, who was frowning slightly and apparently concentrating very hard on polishing bar glasses into diamonds. My heart plummeted down to my toes. Had my stupid insecurities just ruined everything?

As if in answer to my silent fears, Mike chose that moment to make a public announcement. Loudly. “Guess what, everybody? Bella Swan has agreed to accompany me to Winter Formal. So we’re finally going to see whether or not the girl can dance! She says no, but I beg to differ,” he crowed, giving me a wink. I began praying for a trap door to open under my chair and swallow me in the basement below.

Everyone hooted and cheered us with their sodas. Everyone except Jessica Stanley, that is. She gave me a look of undisguised shock, with a little hurt and anger thrown in for good measure.

“Wow, that’s really interesting, Bella,” she said finally in a strained tone. “I thought you hated dancing.”

“I do,” I answered dismally. I tried to think of an excuse as to why I’d accepted Mike’s date offer but came up empty. How could I tell her that I had overreacted in a spurt of irrational, and, it turned out, unwarranted jealousy? I sank in my chair and felt the heat of mortification flood my face.

“Well, you two ought to have a fucking fantastic time, then,” Jess muttered bitterly. She jumped up, grabbed her purse and made a bee-line for the bathroom. Angela looked at me with an odd mixture of sympathy and disapproval, then followed after her friend. I grabbed my soda and took a hefty swig, half-wishing it had a couple shots of vodka thrown in. But then again, look where that had gotten me last weekend.

I looked over at Edward, but he was busy filling orders from the only waitress who was working the floor. A couple of pretty 20-something women entered the bar, and I watched their eyes widen in unmistakable attraction as soon as they caught sight of the gorgeous bartender. They seated themselves in front of him and began the familiar flirting game. I realized this might very well turn out to be the longest night of my life.

With a sigh, I decided I’d better find Jessica in the ladies’ room and make things right with her before the evening got any worse. It was bad enough watching Edward get hit on by adult women; it would be even worse enduring Jess’s glares and sardonic remarks all night.

I found her dabbing at her eyes with toilet paper while Angela assured her that the dance meant nothing; it was only one evening. I interrupted only long enough to agree, telling her that I didn’t even want to go to the dance, let alone go with Mike.

“Then why did you say yes?” she yelled, blowing her nose for emphasis.

“Because… when I saw you and Edward talking and laughing like that, I thought… I don’t know. I thought you were hitting on him. I was jealous,” I admitted. “So when Mike asked me to Formal, I just accepted without thinking. I’m sorry, Jess,” I said sincerely. Boy, was I sorry. I’d be even sorrier when I actually had to go through with the date next weekend.

Jessica snorted in response. “There’s no point in hitting on Edward. All he does is talk about you. Lauren told me about how he blew her off, twice! I mean, that’s crazy. I’ve never seen a guy ignore Lauren. But for whatever reason, Edward only sees you, Bella. And apparently so does Mike,” she sniffed.

I would have felt more insulted if I didn’t already know how absurd it was for Edward to be interested in me. He could have any girl he wanted. I still had no idea why he wanted me. Mike, however, was a little easier to figure out.

“Come on, Jess. Mike just likes me because I’m the new girl. I’m like a challenge or something. Now that I’ve actually agreed to go out with him, trust me, the mystery will be over and he won’t be interested anymore. Especially after he sees me on the dance floor,” I assured Jessica.

She let out a small laugh and said, “I’ve seen you in gym. Just don’t break any of his toes, okay?”

“I won’t even have the chance. You should bring a guy friend to the dance, and I’ll set it up so that you end up with Mike by the end of the evening. I’ll be the worst date ever. He’ll be dying to get rid of me by the time it’s all over,” I promised.

Jessica looked slightly offended. “Don’t do me any favors, Bella. Maybe I don’t want your sloppy seconds, okay?”

I let that remark slide, since I knew there was very little I could say to make her feel any better about Mike’s interest in me. The only thing I could do would be to make it clear to Mike that I considered him only a friend, and hope that eventually he’d come around to the fact that someone who really liked him was right under his nose.

“Come on, let’s go back before the guys get suspicious,” Angela suggested, giving Jessica a quick hug and squeeze. “Don’t give Mike the satisfaction of knowing this bothers you.”

“Exactly,” I agreed. “Plus, I need your help to kick their asses at darts or pool, because I suck at both,” I told Jess. She gave me a half-hearted smile, and I could tell that things would be strained between us until the entire Winter Formal fiasco was over.

We found the guys in the middle of playing some old-school video games, but they quickly accepted our challenge to a boys-against-girls round of darts. I didn’t really understand the rules, and just tried to get my darts on the board, preferably somewhere in the vicinity of the bull’s eye. Though Jessica and Angela held their own admirably, the boys trounced us easily and decided to move on to the pool tables. Ange and Jess went to refill their glasses while I absently practiced some more with the darts, determined to improve my aim.

“Will it help if you imagine my face up there on the dart board?” a warm voice suddenly murmured in my ear, stirring the hairs on my neck and making me jump in surprise. I looked up into Edward Masen’s amused eyes and crooked smirk as he leaned over my shoulder, and my traitorous heart began to beat wildly at his nearness.

“Why would I do that?” I asked him, perplexed.

“You tell me. You’ve been ignoring me like I have the plague ever since you walked in here tonight,” he said reproachfully.

My eyebrows shot up in disbelief. “I’ve done no such thing,” I protested. “You’ve been busy entertaining all the female customers. I’d hate to eat into your tip money by distracting you,” I said acidly. I nodded my head in the direction of the women at the bar, who were watching him like hawks as he stood over me.

His eyes narrowed and caught mine in a deep stare. “Too late. You’re always a distraction to me, just by being in the same room.”

I suddenly knew what it meant when women in olden days “swooned” over a man. If anybody could make a woman wish for smelling salts, it was Edward.

I was determined to keep my cool this time, unlike last Saturday night. “If I’m such a bad influence, then why did you invite me to come hang out here? I believe you said I was welcome any time.”

A grin spread across his face. “Productivity is highly over-rated,” he asserted. “Besides, I happen to be on my dinner break right now. The only person I want to entertain is you.”

Tingles surged up and down my body as if he were running his fingers over my skin instead of just looking at me with those penetrating eyes. He was going to make keeping my composure, and my ability to speak in complete sentences, very difficult. I cleared my throat and managed, “How do you plan to do that?”

A soft laugh escaped his perfect lips. “I can think of a few things, but none of them are really appropriate for an all-ages establishment. So… how about a game of pool instead?”

Was he trying to kill me? Probably not, but if he kept up the innuendo-laden remarks, he might succeed.

I followed him to the very last pool table at the back of the room. Jake’s wasn’t full yet, and this part of the bar afforded us a modicum of privacy. We passed Mike, Tyler and Eric on our way, and the three of them gaped silently, Mike looking particularly taken aback. I felt a twinge of guilt. I never should have agreed to go out with him when I only wanted to be friends, especially when I knew Jessica liked him. I sighed heavily and picked out a pool cue, dusting the tip with chalk while Edward racked the balls on the pool table.

“Wow, you really think I’m going to beat you that badly?” Edward asked.

“What do you mean?”

“That heavy sigh. I’ll be gentle, I promise,” he grinned.

I let out a mirthless laugh. “It’s not that, although I’m sure you will beat the pants off of me.” He quirked one eyebrow and made me squirm. “Figuratively speaking, of course,” I added, quirking an eyebrow in return. “No, I was thinking about something stupid I did earlier.”

“Oh, you mean accepting a date with that Mike Newton guy?” Edward said nonchalantly, examining the pool cues for a straight stick in the right length.

“How did you know about that?” I demanded.

“The whole bar knows about it,” he chuckled. “His voice carries.”

I buried my face briefly in my hands before pushing them through my hair in agitation.

“So why did you do it, if you don’t want to go?” he asked me, chalking his pool stick and leaning against the pool table in an unconsciously sensual way. My eyes traveled down the close-fitting black knit shirt he wore, over his button-flied crotch to the bare knee cap poking through the hole in his jeans.

“I don’t know,” I lied, concentrating on Edward’s knee. I wanted to reach down and stroke the soft, light-brown wisps of hair that poked through the ragged denim hole.

“Oh, so you mean it wasn’t to get back at me for talking to Jessica?” he teased. My eyes flew up to meet his at that remark.

“Of course not,” I lied again. “Contrary to your beliefs, my world does not revolve around you.” I could practically feel my nose growing with that one.

“That’s too bad. I was hoping we were operating on a level playing field,” he said softly, rising and turning toward the pool table. He removed the rack from the balls and said, “You want to break? Ladies first.”

I stared at him, my heart still pounding at his words. Was he saying that his world did revolve around me? How could that be? And why? I shook my head a little and forced myself to focus on the game at hand.

“I can’t break,” I lamented. “I’ve tried before, but I don’t have the strength. The balls hardly move.”

“You just have to aim in the right place,” he said with a smile. “Here, I’ll show you.” He set the cue ball in what he explained was the most strategic spot to effectively break apart the triangle of pool balls, then gently positioned me at the end of the table.

The next thing I knew, I was bent over, the pool stick in my right hand, its length resting on my left fingers. Edward leaned over me, the entire length of his body touching mine. He placed his cool left hand around mine on the table, showing me how to properly rest the cue on my fingers. His right hand covered mine on the butt of the stick, and he began pushing and pulling it back and forth slowly over the closed bridge of my left hand, setting up the correct aim on the cue ball. I tried to pay attention to his instructions as he breathed them directly in my ear, but the sensations of his legs behind mine, his groin pushing against my backside and his chest pressing on top of my shoulder blades obliterated all coherent thought. Tremors sped through me as I imagined how this would feel without the barriers of our clothing in the way. I’d had wild fantasies before, but always with some imaginary faceless lover, never a real person. I was shocked to realize that I would let Edward take me this way…that I would relish it. He could take me any way he wanted me, and I’d probably do nothing but groan in submission. I wanted him like I’d never wanted anyone in my life.

“…and when you have the angle in your sights, you need to really pull back on the stick. It‘s not about speed, it‘s about accuracy. You want to aim low on the cue ball, the sweet spot, so it will hit with as much impact as possible and then spin back to you,” he ordered in a low, husky tone, his strong hands guiding mine to smack the pool cue firmly into the white ball with one quick, long thrust. It hit the triangle of balls in a loud succession of cracks, sending a blur of stripes and solids in all directions. I could barely pay attention to which balls made it into pockets, I was so turned on by the sexual overtones of Edward’s instruction. I wanted him to do to me what he’d just done to the pool balls.

I had the feeling his mind must be wandering to the same wanton place mine was, because he hovered over me a moment longer, his spicy-sweet breath cooling my cheek in quick, uneven bursts. His lips grazed my ear as lightly as butterfly wings before he pulled away and stood up. My body instantly ached for him and I rose immediately, searching for the reassurance of his broad chest against my shoulders. He rested his chin on top of my head and said, “See? You did it. You’re stripes.”

I should have known his eyes would be quicker than mine. I let out a shaky laugh, and Edward asked me which move I was going to make next. A hundred lurid thoughts crossed my mind before I gathered my wits and pointed to the striped 12 ball that was teetering close to a corner pocket. Edward backed away and let me make the easy shot, then asked me again what I was going to do next.

The game went on that way, with Edward leading me through the possible plays, and giving me tips on how to improve my aim and follow-through. He never came that close to me again, which was a mixed blessing at best. Still, I could scarcely concentrate, my senses were so consumed with his nearness. I finally scratched during a tough shot, and Edward retrieved the cue ball for his turn. I watched him, mesmerized, as he skillfully sank nearly every solid ball there was, no matter how impossible the shot looked.

“Wow,” I exclaimed as he cleaned up the table. “You should do this for a living. Do you hustle any of the guys who come in here?”

“Not too often,” he said with a wicked smirk. “Sometimes I can’t help myself though. Depends on how much of an arrogant prick the guy is.”

I laughed and observed, “So your victims all have it coming to them. That seems fair.”

His face grew suddenly grim and he said, “Most of the time. Sometimes I make mistakes.” I got the feeling he wasn’t talking about pool anymore, but I wasn’t sure to what else he could be referring.

He was about to win the game, when he overshot and sent the 8-ball flying into the side pocket behind his last solid. He let out an exaggerated sigh and said, “See? I’m not all that. You win, Bella.”

I rolled my eyes. “You let me win, Edward,” I accused, giving his rock-hard chest a playful shove. He gave me my favorite crooked smile in return and said, “Would I do such a thing? You won, fair and square. But we forgot to call the stakes before we started the game. What do you want for your prize?”

Holy crow. He had to know I wanted him and nothing else, but I wasn’t ready for such an admission. Suddenly, I had my answer.

“Your phone number.”

His brow furrowed a bit. “I don’t have a phone,” he finally admitted wryly. “Not yet, anyway. The Cullens are helping me out with a few things…like getting some I.D., so I can take care of stuff like that. Trust me, if I had a phone number, I’d be programming it into your phone at the top of your favorites, just so you don’t forget me.”

“As if I could ever do that,” I told him before I could stop myself. Being coy never seemed to work with this guy. He disarmed me completely. Then again, he rarely pulled any punches with me either. “Is that why you didn’t call all week?” I asked hesitantly.

“Mostly. I had to use the phone here last Sunday when I called, and this place is not exactly conducive to a private conversation. Plus…I’m not sure that spending time with me is such a good idea for you, Bella,” he said quietly, turning away and placing his pool cue back in the wooden rack on the wall.

“What do you mean?” I demanded, panicking slightly. “Why would you say that?”

“Well, it seems like something always happens to you whenever I’m around. I’m beginning to think I’m bad luck for you,” he said, reaching over tentatively and taking a strand of my hair between his fingers.

“That’s ridiculous. If anything, you’re the one who keeps coming to my rescue. Trust me, Edward, I‘m as graceless as they come. Ask Charlie. He’ll tell you how many times I trip over things and run into countertops. I mean, I don’t blame you if you don’t want to hang out with such a klutz,” I blurted, looking down at my Keds in embarrassment.

He laughed and threaded his hand through my hair, rubbing the back of my neck and pulling me closer. “Well, you’re the cutest klutz I’ve ever seen, then. Maybe you’re right…maybe I’d better stick around so I can save you from yourself.” I felt his lips on the top of my head, and I drifted toward him, my hands grabbing the thin folds of his shirt at his waist. I itched to pull the fabric up and explore his bare skin with my fingers. I nearly forgot we were even in the bar, hidden in our dark corner together.

A loud cracking of pool balls across the room suddenly reminded me of our whereabouts. I looked sideways at the pool table several yards away, where Mike had begun a new game with an especially aggressive break. He glared at us with undisguised disgust. I quickly backed away from Edward, who dropped his hand from my hair as he comprehended my actions.

“Maybe you should get back to your friends,” Edward advised. “My break is about over anyway.” He looked over at the now-crowded bar area, where the only other bartender was quickly mixing drinks as the waitress filled pitchers.

“Thanks for the pool lessons,” I said, my voice thick with longing. I knew I would have fantasies about Edward and pool tables for weeks.

“You’re a natural. Keep practicing…you’ll be as good as me in no time,” he whispered. Were we still talking about pool? I didn’t know and didn’t care. “You could stop by after school and play… and keep me company while you’re at it.”

I was elated that he wanted me to come see him again, but reality quickly squashed my enthusiasm. “I work most nights after school at Newtons,’” I sighed dejectedly. “Plus, Charlie probably wouldn’t be thrilled with me visiting a bar every night, even if Jake’s makes it a point not to serve minors.”

“Well, considering I haven’t even met your dad yet, it might not be in my best interest to start off with a bad impression,” he agreed. Yet? My brain registered this tiny word with a thrill of hope. Edward’s lips twisted in bemusement as he said, “So you work with Mike most nights, eh? That will give you two plenty of time to plan your big date next weekend.” He laughed, but looked a little annoyed.

“Please don’t remind me,” I moaned. “I have to live with Jess for the next week, too. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

“So you really don’t like this Mike guy?” he queried.

“No. I mean, yeah, I like him fine, he’s a good buddy. But that’s all he is,” I insisted.

“Hmmm. Well, I’m not so sure he understands that,” Edward frowned, giving Mike an irritated glance. “You may have to make it a little clearer for him.”

And with that, Edward tilted my chin up with his hand and covered my mouth in a kiss. I gasped when his cool lips met mine, and he took the opportunity to glide his tongue in between my open lips. My mouth responded instantly, my tongue twirling with his in an erotic dance. Every nerve in my body sprang to life, as if Edward’s kiss were the source of an electrical charge. When he broke away, I slumped toward him, the current broken. His blue-gray eyes seared mine as he stroked my jaw with his thumb. “I promise you I’ll see you again soon, Bella,” he murmured. Then he turned and walked back to the bar, leaving me staring after him, stunned and immobile.

I came back slowly to earth, realizing with dread that three pairs of shocked eyes were glued upon me from two pool tables away. Eric and Tyler stared, then nudged each other and began talking in low voices. Mike’s expression was unreadable, there were so many emotions crossing his face. My feet felt like lead as they carried me toward him, trudging as if I were facing an executioner. I stopped a couple of feet away from him and waited for the verbal onslaught.
Mike took a deep breath, then finally spoke. “What the hell was that about?” he demanded. “Are you dating that guy or what? Didn’t you just meet him a couple of weeks ago?”

“Yeah, I did. And no, we’re not dating, really. I mean, I don’t know. We’re just getting to know each other,” I said weakly. He shook his head in disbelief. “Look, Mike, I totally understand if you don’t want to take me to the dance,” I continued. “I never meant to give you the wrong impression about us. I really do like you…just not…like that.” I cringed at my piss-poor explanation.

He seethed for a moment longer, and then announced, “I don’t take back invitations. I told you I’d show you a good time at Winter Formal, and I meant it. That Edward dude isn’t the only guy with a trick or two up his sleeve,” he added with a grim smirk.

I gave him an incredulous stare. He couldn’t be serious. Was he really viewing this as a challenge? Like he’d somehow figure out a way to lure me away from Edward? Holy crow. This was going to be worse than I thought.

I was trying to formulate a reply when Angela and Jessica thankfully interrupted, deciding that they wanted to join in this round of pool. We tried another game of boys-against-girls, and this time the females fared better. I tried to ignore Mike’s obvious attempts to impress me with ridiculous one-armed and behind-the-back shots. I wished he would focus his attentions on Jessica, who laughed and encouraged his goofiness while he stole meaningful looks at me on the side. In the meantime, I couldn’t stop staring at Edward, who was charming all the women gathered around him at the bar and watching his tip jar fill with cash.

I didn’t think I could take a minute more of the insanity when Angela announced that she had to get home because she had to work early in the morning. I breathed a sigh of relief and grabbed my coat, saying good-night to the guys and whispering more apologies to Jessica, which she ignored. Mike made a big show of hugging me good-bye when he noticed Edward looking in our direction. I made a silent plea for help with my eyes as I looked at him over Mike’s shoulder. Edward’s lip raised in an amused grin at my self-imposed plight. I felt his gaze follow me across the room and out the door, and I wanted nothing more than to drag him out of the bar and take him home with me. I realized with a start that I didn’t even know where Edward was living. There was so much I didn’t know about him, and yet I felt connected to him on such a visceral level that the details of our everyday lives didn’t seem to matter.

I tried to explain myself to Angela on the way home, though I’m sure I didn’t make any sense. None of the evening made sense to me, except for the time I spent with Edward. Everything else just disappeared when I was with him. But now I would probably have to face the rest of the week, and the dance, without him. And I’d have to start by spending the whole next day working with Mike at the sporting goods store. I groaned inwardly at the thought as I thanked Angela for the ride and trudged up to the house.

I wasn’t sure how I felt about God and the order of the universe. But if I believed at all in a higher power, this seemed like a good time to start praying.

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