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 fa├žade. Now I knew what that something was. I recognized it all too well.

Pain.

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,

Bella


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