Monday, January 31, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 8 - Resolve




From the Desktop of Bella SwanSunday, August 1
I couldn’t get past the fact that Jacob Black chewed with his mouth open.

To be fair, he was talking at the time. Of course, that’s probably even worse on the scale of bad manners. But Jake is so entertaining when he’s on a roll that I tried to let it slide.

I knew he’d have a minor freak-out when I told him that Rosalie would be checking out the Wolf Pack’s set last night, but I was beginning to feel guilty that I hadn’t given him any warning whatsoever. I’d been acting in accord with my general philosophy, which is that music flows better when its makers aren’t under pressure; but when Jake filled me in on the troubles the band had been having lately, I couldn’t help but want to give him a piece of good news.

His reaction didn’t disappoint. He practically howled in excitement, which drew a lot of strange looks from everyone around us in the restaurant until they caught his infectious smile. He was high as a kite after that, inhaling the rest of the chips-n-salsa at warp speed and digging into his giant beef burrito with gusto. I noticed that he sometimes held his fork in his fist, shoveling refried beans into his mouth like a hungry prisoner on rations. Was he just excited, or did he truly not know any better? He did grow up without a mom, for the most part. Surely his older sisters would have instilled some manners into him, though, wouldn’t they?

I gave him an indulgent smile as my mind strayed to dinner at the Istanbul Grill forty-eight hours ago. Edward Cullen had impeccable manners, naturally. He never rested his elbows on the table while eating. He kept his mouth closed while chewing. He swallowed before speaking. As I thought back to that evening and recalled how he managed to take big bites out of his falafel pita without dribbling sauce down his chin, it dawned on me that the Cullens had had a privileged upbringing.

I began putting together the bits and pieces of the little I knew about the Edward Cullen: Twenty-something guy with his own business, co-owned by his chiropractor brother, located across the hall from their father’s family practice. Sister following in their footsteps by attending Stanford medical school (and also eating with the daintiness of a bird across the table from me.) Collection of rare vintage guitars. Tennis outings with an upper-crusty-looking blonde. Emily Post-approved behavior in every situation.

Edward Cullen had no doubt been groomed for the pinnacle of success from the time he came out of the womb. The realization made me even more fascinated with his resultant rebellious streak, which manifested itself in subtle but consistent ways: The untamable hair. The perpetual beard stubble. The rumpled, threadbare clothes. The untied shoelaces that constantly defied their grommets. Edward cultivated an unstudied, laissez-faire attitude whenever he wasn’t required to behave otherwise.

I was suddenly determined to make him stop behaving altogether around me.

As I watched Jake inhale his food with the finesse of a longshoreman, I wondered why the sight vaguely repulsed me, even as I dreamed of bringing Edward Cullen’s baser instincts to the surface. The irony of my double standard didn’t miss me, but the reason behind it did. Jake was sweet, warm, funny, open and unassuming. Why wasn’t I willing to look past a few flaws in him, when I was half in love with the flaws in Edward?

Maybe it was because I knew that when it came to Jake, what you see is what you get. There was no deep mystery there to discover. Edward, on the other hand, was an intriguing sum of dichotomies that might take me the rest of my life to figure out. I already knew I’d love nothing more than to have the opportunity to try.

But maybe Edward was more appealing because he was so tantalizingly close, yet still out of reach. Did I simply want what I couldn’t have?

I decided to concentrate on what was in front of me before I dismissed it entirely. Besides, if I didn’t start paying attention to Jake’s non-stop nervous chatter about the upcoming show, he might get suspicious. I could only “yeah” and “uh-huh” my way through dinner for so long before my preoccupied rudeness became obvious, and unforgivable.

“So, does Rosalie have final say on whether or not we get signed?” Jake asked, eyes alight with a mixture of anticipation and trepidation.

“Not exactly, but her approval is key. She likes your demo already, or she wouldn’t be coming to hear you tonight. If she’s impressed with your live show, she’ll set up a meeting with Mark and Sam--the VP’s in A&R and product development--so they can weigh in on whether or not they think you’re a good fit for the label, what the best direction is for your sound, how to market the band, etc.” I stopped when Jake started to look more panicked than excited, and I couldn’t help but laugh.

“Don’t worry, it’s not as scary as it sounds,” I reassured him. “I already know that The Wolf Pack is a good fit for Java Noise, or I wouldn’t have pushed you guys to Rosalie so much. I didn’t do it just because you’re all friends of mine. I did it because I truly believe you guys are great and deserve the break. And you could actually make me a lot of money, let’s not forget,” I concluded, only half-joking.

“I am more than happy to do that, Bells,” Jake laughed good-naturedly. He flagged down our waitress and ordered some Mexican fried ice cream for dessert, while I declined the offer for my own, still stuffed from my quesadilla dinner.

“So if this thing really happens, I guess we need to find a lawyer, huh? Somebody to help us with the contract and stuff.” He shook his head as if in wonderment that his dreams might be about to come true. His excitement began to rub off on me, and I remembered why I got into this business in the first place.

“Yeah, you will. You definitely need to get good management and an entertainment lawyer, but we can help you out with that stuff. We work with all our artists to make sure we’re all on the same page as far as the vision and direction of the band goes. If you’re happy, then we’re happy, generally speaking.”

“Well, then, you’re about to be ecstatic, if this whole thing pans out,” Jake grinned, while I laughed in a agreement.

Jake’s dessert arrived, and I was treated to the sight of him spooning huge globs of cinnamon-covered goo past his pearly whites as he waxed poetic about being a musician.

“Dad always thought I was crazy for wanting this so much. I’m sure he would have loved it if I’d gone to college while I just did the band thing on the side,” he said with a shake of his head. “But when I’m playing live, nothing else in the world exists. Nothing can touch it. It’s the only time I feel truly alive. It’s like--” he paused to shovel more ice cream and find the right words-- “like my life makes sense from behind a drum kit. That probably sounds stupid,” he finished sheepishly, digging into the last of his dessert.

“No, it doesn’t. It makes perfect sense to me.” I vaguely remember what it felt like to get lost--and found--in my own creative process. I was just beginning to tap into that side of myself before the accident. I couldn’t bring myself to even try after that. Now I just experience that euphoria vicariously through my clients.

“Try not to be too nervous about tonight,” I advised him. “I have a good feeling about it. I think everything’s going to go really well.”

Jake raised an eyebrow as he picked up the check. “Hope you’re right.”

As it turned out, I was--about the band, at any rate. The adrenaline was clearly pumping through Jake and his Quileute brothers as they kicked into their driving opening number, and it didn’t let up as they put on a blistering show. A good chunk of the crowd was on its feet from the beginning, many of them singing along with the songs. Rose was pleased to see that they already had a loyal following, and she noted possible singles from their original material. She also made comments about their long-term potential, and possible ways to market them, to which I readily agreed. I tried to make it appear that I was giving my full attention to the Wolf Pack, and I was glad I’d seen them before so that I could pull it off.

Because the truth was, my mind was almost completely consumed with the debilitating proximity of Edward Cullen.

I was grateful that I had to look away from him in order to watch the band. That way, it would appear that I was actually paying attention to the musicians instead of him. But every cell in my body was hyperactively attuned to the warm maleness of him sitting mere inches to my left, the silken hairs of his arm occasionally brushing against mine, luring me closer. I could feel his eyes on me, probing deeper than his fingers had that morning, stripping me, exposing me. My eyelids drifted shut and I imagined this in the literal sense, overwhelmed at how good the fear felt. I knew I would open myself willingly to him, in every way, no matter how I tried to resist. I was resigned to my surrender. The resignation was enthralling.

He was beginning to open himself to me, too, though I dared not hope for too much. I was secretly thrilled when he seated himself next to me last night, no longer putting a buffer between us. It somehow felt like an echo of the massage he’d given me that morning. Our session had seemed more intimate than ever before, his fingers firm and demanding against my flesh, his breathing almost labored as he worked his way down my body. When he began stroking my legs at his usual intoxicatingly slow pace, it was all I could do to keep from moaning out loud in frustrated pleasure. The moans became harder to suppress as his hands climbed inexorably up my thighs, maddeningly close to the aching desire that burned between them. I wanted to grab his fingers and press them against the damp lace there… to make him feel what he was doing to me; to invite him to do more.

But of course, I didn’t. When he abruptly ended our session and exited the room, I put my own fingers there instead, fantasizing of his as I speedily massaged myself to a burning climax, right there on Edward Cullen’s massage table.

This is crazy, I berated myself as I dressed quickly, smoothed my hair and bolted to the front desk so he wouldn’t wonder what had taken me so long. As it turned out, I didn’t have to worry. He had disappeared as well. I busied myself writing him a check for services rendered, feeling half-ashamed as I did so. It seemed wrong on several levels to be paying this guy for the amazing things he did to me, even if he was completely unaware of half of them.

He looked a little flushed when he finally appeared, and I wondered how red my own cheeks were as I concentrated on my check-writing. He tried to refuse payment, which was very chivalrous of him. His hand brushed mine when he finally took my check; the flames licked up my arm and burned across my already fiery face.

I think he felt it too, because he began flirting with me. I could barely believe it, but he seemed unmistakably jealous of my upcoming date with Jake. I reveled in his jealousy and egged it on. But my own insecurities came to the surface, making me test Alice’s theory that I shouldn’t be worried about Kate. The smug bastard had the audacity to be as noncommittal about her as I had been about Jake. And just as the jealousy playing field became even and things were about to get interesting, Alice showed up to ruin the game.

I told her as much as we left for yoga class. She only giggled and said it was good for us, and that I should let Edward stew in his own juices for awhile, because it would help him come around. I had to take her word for it, and remind myself that I’d see him again that evening.

Yoga class was as awkward and disagreeable as I’d surmised it would be, though I
admit that I felt better when it was over. My body felt completely alive, yet relaxed
and “loose” at the same time. I used the energy to house-clean, which I despise. Angela was out with Ben, and I knew he’d be staying the evening at our place, so I thought it would be a nice gift to them both to make the place spotless. After all, they had both helped me out whenever my stupid back had given out in the past.

I got so absorbed in the task that I nearly wasn’t ready when Jake stopped by to pick me up for dinner. My hair was still damp from my shower as I hastily threw on a clean t-shirt when the doorbell rang. He suggested a casual Mexican restaurant for dinner since we were dressed down to fit the Thirsty Whale vibe later on. His greeting hug was casual as well. He didn’t seem to think of this as a “real” date any more than I did. I was fairly certain that Edward was worried for nothing--if he was, indeed, worried.

As we left the duplex and headed out to Jake’s old VW parked down the street, the thought of Edward’s jealousy made a secret smile creep across my face. Jake caught it and smiled in return, apparently thinking he had put it there. After that, his beefy brown hand took up residence on my shoulder, and remained there for a good chunk of the evening. I hoped I hadn’t inadvertently created a monster.

I didn’t really mind his arm around me until I caught sight of Edward in the bar, walking purposefully toward us with Jasper close on his heels. I stepped out from under the drape of Jake’s arm as if shaking a yoke off my back, astounded at how quickly I wanted to be free of him when Edward’s eagle eyes were on me. I realized that if the two men’s positions had been reversed, I would have pulled Edward’s arm more tightly around me rather than bolt from his side.

Edward introduced us to Jasper, who quickly got into a discussion with Paul about his rig. That left me standing awkwardly between Jake and Edward, wondering how in the hell to make polite conversation. I shouldn’t have worried, because Jake’s excited yammering filled the spaces easily as he complained again about my failure to give him ample warning that my boss was coming tonight. Edward backed me up completely, repeating my sentiments about catching musicians spontaneously when they didn’t know they were being judged. As if I need any more encouragement to fall for this guy completely, I thought.

I agreed with him, telling Jake it was time to stop over-thinking everything and just let go. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Edward as I said it. I was sure he caught my meaning, because he ran off to the bar like a scared rabbit immediately afterward. I hated that my insecurity began to rear its ugly head. Did he avoid getting closer to me because he wanted it too much, or not enough? What if Alice was wrong?

No, she couldn’t be. I was reassured when Edward sat down next to me before the band started. I was positive I wasn’t imagining the feel of his eyes on me during the show, though I couldn’t be sure he was staring without getting caught doing the same. It was impossible for me to steal a look at him, since I had to turn away from the band to do it. But he was so beautiful in the rainbow of kaleidoscopic stage lights that I couldn’t look away once I’d glanced back at his perfect face. His eyes met mine, and the swirl of emotions I saw there drew me in and held me as they always did. His lips parted and he drifted toward me… so close, so ready for a kiss. My heart pounded as his breath cooled my face, a heady mixture of Edward and alcohol that I was desperate to taste.

That was precisely the moment that the band decided to end their set, prompting Rosalie to grab my arm and “talk shop” for the next five minutes. Pulling away from him was physically painful, and again I had to put every ounce of concentration I had into behaving normally with Rose. (Speaking of whom, the story of Rosalie and Emmett deserves its own entry. I don’t know whether to laugh or cringe about the incidents that entangled my boss and my chiropractor last night. I think I’ll wait to weigh in on the matter after I see her tomorrow.)

Alice put in a plug for Jasper before Rose left the bar, mentioning that he’d be performing with a “friend” later in the week. She wisely left Edward’s name out of any discussion with Rosalie, but I couldn’t stop myself from letting him know that I had his back, too. I mustered a little bravery, fueled by beer, and pressed my thigh firmly against his under the table.

He didn‘t touch me in return, but he didn‘t move his leg away, either. I assured Jasper that I would record him for Rosalie, and I pushed my leg harder against Edward’s as I added that I was looking forward to seeing both of them perform again. The knuckles on the back of Edward’s hand whitened as he gripped his beer mug more tightly, and I fought to hide my satisfied grin. Alice was right. I’d have to be patient, but I decided I would crack his fa├žade, one way or another.

Even though I was sincere in my offer to help Jasper, I was ready to yank some strings off of any nearby guitar and strangle him with them when he asked Edward to take him home early. It seems like every time we might make some progress, or at least have a little time to talk one-on-one, something or someone gets in our way.

The squeeze Edward gave my shoulder felt much more meaningful than it should have, and I began to fear that I was reading too much into a commonplace gesture once again. I wanted to pick Alice’s brain about it after Edward and Jasper left, but when Emmett returned to the table, she became oddly mum about the subject of her brother. After a moment’s thought, I realized that Edward’s no-dating policy with patients is probably standard industry practice, and that Emmett wouldn’t look favorably upon that kind of behavior any more than Edward does. It’s probably part of the Hippocratic oath or something. And even though Edward isn’t technically a doctor, it obviously doesn‘t keep him from behaving as if he is. That’s just Edward. And ironically, that integrity is one of his most attractive qualities, even though it keeps getting in our way.

Alice and Emmett kept me company while the band dismantled their set and hauled it into Sam’s rusted Chevy van. I keep hoping I’ll see the day when they don’t have to drive beater cars and drag their own gear to gigs around the city. I’d love nothing more than to see The Wolf Pack make it big, or at least be successful enough to live comfortably and realize their dreams.

Jake talked a mile a minute on the drive back to my place, still amped from the show. I assured him that Rosalie had been as impressed as she seemed, and that we would probably contact the band soon about meeting with the higher-ups. He bounded up the steps two at a time to the landing outside my front door, laughing at me as I ran to catch up with him.

“I can hardly believe it, Bells,” Jake said, shaking his head at his good fortune as I got to the top of the stairs. “Things are finally starting to happen for us. And who’d have ‘thunk’ it would be because of you?”

He suddenly grabbed my chin in his hand, and my stomach twisted nervously. Oh, no. He wasn’t really going to try to kiss me, was he?

I shook my own head, trying to dislodge it from his thumb and forefinger. “It’s not because of me. It’s because of your years of practice and hard work. I’m just the middle man,” I insisted, looking down. I couldn’t bring myself to meet his dark, deep-set gaze.

“We make a good team,” he replied. That was not what I wanted to hear. That “we” sounded a little too couple-y for my liking.

“Sure,” I agreed weakly, still ineffectually trying to disengage my face from his hand. Apparently that simple word was all the encouragement he needed, for his face loomed closer, his lips taking deadly aim at mine.

I instantly twisted my face to the side so that his kiss landed harmlessly somewhere between my cheek and jaw. He let me go then, stepping back slowly and giving me a perplexed look.

“I’m sorry, Jake. It’s nothing personal. We just really need to keep things professional between us, especially now,” I rattled nervously, trying to erase the troubled expression from his face. “If we’re going to be working together--and I think we will--then we need to keep things a little more objective, know what I mean?” I bit my lip and looked up at him dubiously to see if he bought it.

The muscles of his face relaxed a bit, and a resigned, mirthless grin tugged momentarily at his lips.

“Sure, Bells,” he said quietly. “I don’t want to do anything to mess up our relationship. We are still friends, right?”

“Of course we are,” I insisted with a relieved sigh. “I just think that we need to be careful to keep it that way. Business and pleasure usually don’t mix very well, you know? It’s just better to keep things platonic.”

“You’re right,” he agreed, though he still looked unconvinced. “That doesn’t mean you won’t still hang out with me sometimes though, does it?”

“Of course not. You know I will.”

He nodded and reached out to briefly stroke the side of my face. “Thanks again for everything, Bella. I’ll talk to you soon,” he said as he turned and descended the stairs from our landing.

I stood looking after him a moment, the irony of my situation dragging my sinking heart with it as it settled through me. No matter how I try to ignore it, that tiny sliver of self-doubt keeps taunting me with the same nagging question.

What if this is how Edward’s been feeling about me all along?

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Massage Therapy - Chapter 7 - Interference


Edward Cullen’s Little Black Notebook
Saturday, July 31I’ve always thought of myself as a rational person.

Sure, I’ve had my wild, impetuous moments. A lot of them were with you. But for the most part, I look before I leap. Think before I act.

So why do I feel like I’m willfully walking a tight-rope without a safety net these days? Moreover, why am I beginning to relish the feeling?

I made the mistake of arriving at the Thirsty Whale a minute too soon, or too late, depending on how you look at it. Soon enough to be accosted by the sight of Isabella Swan clutched beneath the brawn of Jacob Black’s bare arm, looking like she was enjoying herself immensely. Too late to do anything about it.

My reaction was so instantaneous and so volatile that it shocked the hell out of me. I wanted to charge across the room and peel his swarthy paw from her skin with a crowbar.

Irrational.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. Looking back, it was merely the culmination of a week of escalating preoccupation with this girl, topped off by my intrepid sister springing a surprise dinner on the two of us Thursday night. I was amazed at how entranced I was just sitting across the table from Isabella. Watching her smile, chew, swallow, laugh, fidget, blush, look away, look back, look inside. I don’t know how she got in so quickly, but here she is… seeping around my edges, settling in my nooks and crannies.

Every day I wake up inside her. She is a part of my morning ritual now, my fantasy version of her taming my morning wood by various sensual and titillating methods. I wonder if reality is half as good as I make her in illusion. I know it doesn’t matter anyway. For one thing, I can never allow myself to find out; and for another, I am beyond grading her on some useless scale against past conquests. She’s exempt; separate.

She has already won.

My shapeless, impure white lab coat was my best friend this morning, able to mask my struggles to hide the beast of longing within as I worked on Isabella Swan. My brow was beginning to bead with the sweat of trying so hard to concentrate on the medical aspect of the task at hand. And, medically speaking, things are looking up. She is getting better. Her tissues are more pliant, more willing to be coaxed back to their natural state. Her body is getting used to being manipulated now. I like telling it what to do. I was high on the feeling of her surrender as the fascia relaxed and stretched in response to the pressure of my hands.

But it was nowhere near enough. I couldn’t stop myself from imagining the other ways she would yield to me and let me in, if only I would move my hands a little lower, a little further, a little deeper. If I knelt down and breathed her floral spice deep into my lungs, sucked the nectar from her lips, licked the salt from her alabaster skin. If I drew quicker and quicker breaths from her lungs, moans from her throat, cries from her mouth. Clutches from her limbs. Quivers and shudders from her core. I want her to trust me with her body in every way possible.

Even her body is not enough. I want everything that animates it from within--the traits that makes it hers. The beating soul that makes her liquid eyes melt into mine, pump through my veins and engorge my cock in a throbbing, primal drumbeat.

Bella. Bella. Bella.
I tried desperately to stop the insistent yearning as I worked. The more I tried to ignore my arousal, the harder my dick got. I’m pretty sure I haven’t had such lack of control over it since junior high school. It knew what it wanted, and my fingers were mere inches away from the prize.

That’s what I get for being celibate the past few months. I tried to remember the last time I had sex, and the effort it took to recall the details told me it had been too long.

My dilemma wasn’t about the sex itself, obviously. I can get that anytime I want, which sounds grotesquely arrogant, but is patently true. I spent nearly two years proving it. Perhaps the ease of the conquests was what eventually made them lose their charm for me. Or maybe it was the feeling of yawning emptiness that always followed.

It wasn’t even emptiness, now that I think about it. Nothingness would be a better word. I felt nothing for any of the girls I bedded; neither affection nor animosity. Perhaps only a vague sense of guilt, if any of them seemed to be eager for more than one wasted evening. But even that I could rationalize away with the knowledge that these were consenting adult women who knew what they were doing, and I’d certainly made no promises that extended beyond the breaking dawn. My drive to get laid seemed more a biological imperative to which I acquiesced than a conscious desire.

So my desire for Isabella Swan felt all the more intense because of the long dearth of feeling that preceded it. The want, the need were swift and acute as they obliterated the numbness that had been my ally before. Their invasion was total and all-encompassing, for I didn’t want just her sex. I wanted her laughter and her gravity, her twists and her straight arrows, her intensity and her unbearable lightness, her secrets and her truths, her pain and her ecstasy. I wanted her, every bit of her, this girl lying before me.

The sweat continued to dampen my hairline as my erection strained beneath the layers of cotton that held it at bay. I couldn’t keep touching her. I would go crazy if I kept touching her. I would rip the sheet from her body, clutch her breasts between my greedy fingers, climb atop her and plunge myself deep between her thighs if I didn’t stop touching her. And she would wrap those insanely long, slender legs around me, grab my ass in her hot little hands and pull me so deep inside that I’d start sobbing like a baby at the sensation of finally losing myself in her. Because surely my touching her was driving her crazy too.

Wasn’t it?

I tried to steady the ragged rhythm of my breathing as I slid my hands away from her lower back and hip, the edge of her panties taunting my fingers with a lacey caress.

“Is everything all right?” she asked, the concrete sound of her voice a welcome distraction from my fevered imagination.

“Everything’s fine,” I answered, amazed at the smoothness of my reply when a torment of desire churned within. “I’m actually going to move down to your legs for awhile.”

I wanted to clock myself across the jaw as soon as the words tumbled from my mouth. I had planned to examine her legs and feet to see how they were aligned with the rest of her body, as I had yet to work on anything but her torso. But why in the hell did I pick now to do it, when I was already so preoccupied with the thought of those limbs wrapped around me?

“Okay,” she said softly, her eyes fathomless in the amber glow of my desk lamp. I felt them follow me as I moved down to the end of the table and wrapped one hand around her slender ankle, feeling the connection between her foot and leg. It was angled a bit, not straight like it should be. I wasn’t surprised; the twist that ran through her torso continued its detrimental journey right down her leg. I massaged her foot gently with my other hand, continuing to work her ankle in tandem. Her toenails were painted a deep eggplant that looked black in the dim light. A bit goth, and disturbingly sexy.

I worked my way slowly up her shin and calf, gently stretching the areas that were pulled tight. I marveled at the length of her legs, impossibly long and leanly muscled for such a petite girl. The soft swell of her thigh beneath my ascending hand nearly made me groan out loud. I imagined grasping and squeezing it while she rode me like racehorse.

For fuck’s sake, Cullen, calm down, ordered the one sliver of cogent brain matter than remained in my obsessed head. I began to wonder if the fact that I had made her off-limits, sexually speaking, is what rendered me so desperate to have her. Maybe I was just behaving like a petulant child, craving the one treat I wasn’t allowed to enjoy. But what was the answer? Allowing myself to enjoy her? Not possible.

I carefully worked my fingers under the flannel sheet and over the lace of her panties until I found her hip joint. I pushed on it gently, then more firmly, and watched her face for signs of pain. She winced slightly, but I pressed on. The muscle needed to give way in order for her hips to be moved back where they belonged. I knew Emmett had already done something similar using a pressure point technique, but my method would work longer, slower, deeper.

“Try to relax,” I whispered as I pushed my fingers more insistently against the joint. Her brow furrowed again and she whimpered softly, but I didn’t give in. She would have to take a little discomfort in order for progress to happen. And I wasn’t giving up until she was better. No matter that in the back of my mind I had an ulterior motive: I wanted those hips as stable as possible before I positioned myself between them and thrust inside her, repeatedly and recklessly. I could deny it, but the thought, the desire, would not be ignored.

It also wouldn’t be acted upon, I reminded myself.

And so the rest of the session went: the angel on one shoulder supervising as I treated her other leg, smoothing out its twists and turns; the devil on the other, daring me to do the things I really wanted to those gorgeous legs. The hour drew to a close, and the angel won. The devil retreated to the merciless throbbing in my groin.

“How do you feel?” I asked, trying to make my tone of voice benign.

“Incredible,” she sighed, wiggling her feet beneath the sheet. “I don’t know what you did, but my whole body feels… alive.” She said the last word with relish, and I knew I truly couldn’t take any more.

“That’s good. That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” I answered softly, my voice nearly strangled in the grip of my rampant hormones. “I’ll leave you to get dressed and meet you outside.”

She nodded and I escaped the room with a relieved sigh. I’m completely embarrassed to admit that I had to make a beeline to the men’s room to jerk off like a prepubescent with no control over himself. But there was no way I could face her out in the front office, knowing my dick would be pointing straight up at her, desperate for her to relieve its misery. So I relieved it myself, swiftly and thoroughly, before it stole one more bit of my brain power.

I washed my hands thoroughly when I was finished, then splashed my face with cold water for good measure. I put on my calm, composed, professional look, checked its appearance in the mirror, and made my way out to the reception area.

Isabella was writing a check for the appointment. She pushed it across the countertop toward me before I could protest. When I glanced at it, I saw that it was made out for the full amount of the past three sessions.

“Miss Swan, I told you I would work with your insurance company to try to get these treatments covered. I’ll have my father write a letter of reference if necessary. You don’t need to pay for these now,” I told her with a frown. I actually hated the idea of her paying me for my time. I would work on her gratis for the rest of my life if it meant that I could improve her health.

“I appreciate that, I really do,” she said earnestly. “If I get reimbursed, that’s great. But I got paid yesterday, so it’s fine, really. I want to give you what I owe you. You and Emmett have already made a big difference in how I’m feeling, and there’s no price I can put on that.”

There was no price that could be put on how gratified that made me feel, either. I smiled back at her and accepted the payment, ringing it up and handing her the receipt. My fingers brushed against hers and I felt the ripple effect up my arm.

“So, are you excited about your date with Jacob tonight?” I asked abruptly, trying to keep the bite of sarcasm out of my tone. Real smooth, Cullen, I berated myself.

Her eyes narrowed and she studied me a moment, her lips twisting into a slight grin. She was enjoying my jealousy. Fine. At least she had a hint of what I was going through. I don’t think I could stand it if I was really out on this limb by myself.

“I’m looking forward to catching up with him. We haven’t talked in awhile,” she answered coyly.

“It’s nice to reconnect with old friends,” I agreed, certain my tone gave away my annoyance.

“I’m actually looking forward to all of us hanging out together later,” she told me. “Didn’t you say Emmett and Jasper would be coming along with you and Alice?”

I nodded, pleased at her attempt to subvert attention from her alone time with Jacob. “Yeah, they all want to check out the band. Should be fun.”

“I think so,” she agreed with a smile. “I can’t wait to introduce you all to my boss, Rosalie. She’s kind of a force to be reckoned with, but she’s good at what she does. If she believes in the Wolf Pack, she’ll really go to bat for them. I’m excited for them. A lot is riding on how they perform tonight.”

I gave her a half-smile, trying to put aside my pettiness and be happy for her friends. “What time should we show up? You know, so we don’t interrupt your date.” The last word came out like a dart, sharp and piercing. Fucking hell, why can’t I just cut my tongue out and be done with it?

Her eyebrow raised and she gave me that shrewd, questioning look again. “We’re having dinner early, but we have to be at the Whale by 8 p.m. The band goes on at nine. So, anytime after eight would be good.” She paused a moment, then added, “That way you can have dinner with Kate beforehand or something.”

I could feel my eyebrows shoot up toward my hairline. Was she serious? I suddenly realized that she thought there might be something going on between me and Katrina, the same way I assumed there was something between her and Jacob. Oh, this was rich. I was tempted to set her straight on the subject of Kate, but then thought better of it. If I had to worry about this Jacob kid, then it wouldn’t hurt for her to wonder about Kate, either. Very high school, I know. But I was kind of enjoying this game of cat and mouse. Having a little leverage now made my uncontrollable behavior during our session a little easier to live with.

“Kate won’t be coming with us tonight,” I informed her simply with a beatific smile. I scrutinized her face, enjoying the upturned corners of her mouth immensely.

“Oh. Well, that’s too bad. She seems nice,” Isabella said rather disingenuously.

I couldn’t stop the Cheshire grin that spread across my face. “She’s very nice. You’d like her.”

Her chin lifted ever so slightly as she replied, “The way you’ll like Jake, I’m sure.”

I let out a soft chuckle, loving that she was enjoying this as much as I was. “Absolutely. I look forward to getting to know him better.”

She let out a quick snort of laughter as well. “Really, now?

“Well…not half as much as I’d like to get to know you,” I boldly admitted. The resultant blush that flooded her cheeks was in danger of making my dick stir to life again, and I was beginning to not care.

And then, because our flirtation was taking such an interesting turn, my baby sister managed to ruin it by bursting through the front door at that precise moment. I still haven’t determined whether that was a blessing or a curse. Perhaps a bit of both.

“Hey, Bella! Are you ready to go bend your body into a pretzel?” she grinned in greeting.

Thanks for the imagery, Alice, I thought grimly.

“Um, no,” Isabella said frankly with a feeble laugh. “You said this class was for beginners.”

“It is, don’t worry. They show different variations of the poses for beginners and intermediates, so you can ease into it. You’ll be fine.” She looked up at me and added, “I’ll take good care of her, Edward, I promise.” She made an elaborate show of crossing her heart with her index finger.

“Yeah, no undoing all my hard work,” I joked. “Isabella is doing much better and I don’t want anything ruining that.”

“Am I, really?” my patient asked with a hopeful smile.

“You are. You’ve improved a lot already. Your tissues and muscles are becoming much more flexible. The yoga will be good for you,” I assured her.

“Okay,” she sighed, sounding like I’d just sent her off to the gallows instead of yoga class. I couldn’t help but chuckle, and the dour look she gave me only made me laugh more.

“Come on, let’s go or we’ll be late,” Alice ordered, heading for the door. “Do you have gym clothes with you?”

“Yeah, they’re in the car,” Ms. Swan answered, following my sister after giving me a small wave good-bye.

“Have fun,” I called after them with mock enthusiasm. Isabella turned back long enough to make a rather snide face at me, which amused me greatly.

“See you tonight,” I replied with a smirk. The smirk faded as her pheromones dissipated from the air around me. What was I thinking, flirting with her like that? It wasn’t even flirting, really. More like a clumsy profession of truth. I do want to get to know her better, in every way possible. And I couldn’t stop myself from looking forward to this evening, regardless of the fact that she would technically be on a date with someone else. She might not think so, but I was willing to bet that Jacob Black did.

I clobbered Kate at tennis again this afternoon. Every time I pictured Isabella in the “cat” or “downward-facing dog” yoga positions, I would channel the resulting sexual frustration into a brutal backhand return. After only one match, Katrina yelled, “I surrender!” from her end of the court.

“What, giving up so soon?” I teased as I jogged down to meet her.

“There’s no point in trying to beat you when you’re keyed up like this,” she sighed with a shake of her head. She picked up her water bottle and took a hefty swig, then changed the subject.

“So how are things going with the patient you’re not supposed to be pursuing?” she asked, giving me an accusatory look. I should know I can’t get anything past her.

“Great. Fantastic. So good that I had to go jack off in the bathroom like a 12-year-old after I treated her today.” I grabbed her water bottle and took a few gulps, ignoring her flabbergasted expression.

“Oh, no you didn’t,” she gasped before giggling profusely.

“Oh, yeah. And it gets better. I’m also crashing her date with another guy tonight.”

Her eyes were saucers, and her open mouth matched. “Who are you, and what have you done with Edward Cullen?”

I could only grin in response. Something in my face must have given me away, because she said the very thing that I’d been thinking.

“…Or maybe this is a taste of the old Edward, and I’m finally getting a glimpse of him.”

“You could be on to something there,” I admitted ruefully. “Clearly my behavior has regressed at least ten years.”

“Well, there is that,” she agreed with a laugh. She squinted up at me a moment, studying me. “But it’s more like there’s a spark in your eyes that I’ve never seen before. Sort of a mischievous twinkle. I don’t know, exactly. But something’s different.”

What’s different is that I met someone who makes me feel alive again, I thought, cringing at the hackneyed phrase. But the truth of it outweighed the triteness. I merely shrugged and helped Kate gather up her gear, heading back to the clubhouse. Before we went our separate ways, she leaned in the open window of my Volvo and said, “I don’t recommend masturbating in your office, and I certainly don’t condone date-crashing, especially on a client. But I have to say … Isabella Swan looks good on you.”

Her words from this afternoon rang in my ears as I now watched Isabella Swan look good on Jacob Black. I didn’t want to admit it, but she did. She was relaxed and smiling as she stood close to him, his arm draped loosely around her shoulders. They were near the stage, talking to some of the other guys I recognized from The Wolf Pack. Jacob was waving around an Amstel Light as he spoke. His teeth practically glowed in the dark under the low bar light.

“So, that must be Bella’s date,” Jasper stated, following my gaze. He hadn’t really met Jake or his Quileute band mates since Alice had monopolized most of his time at the Java Shack a couple weeks ago. “Nice teeth.”

I couldn’t help but grin at Jasper’s assessment, the sarcasm barely detectable in his low-key delivery.

“Aren’t they? Maybe I should find out the name of his dentist.”

“Don’t bother. I’ve got a bottle of Clorox at home that you can gargle with. Much cheaper.”

Jazz and I exchanged puerile snickers and clinked Heineken bottles together.

“Well, are we gonna stand here and take some more pot shots at this guy, or do you wanna go introduce me to him and your… client?” His emphasis on that last word let me know that I hadn’t fooled him for a moment when it came to my feelings about Ms. Swan.

“I suppose I shouldn’t put off the inevitable any longer,” I agreed. She hadn’t seen me when Jasper and I arrived, but I noticed her almost instantly, her effortless beauty easy to spot amongst the overly made-up girls who frequented the Whale. It was also hard to ignore the way Jacob Black seemed to be touching her constantly in some way, as though he were trying to establish ownership over her slight frame. I was again overwhelmed at how much I disliked this guy already.

I shook off the jealousy, gave Jasper a nod and headed toward the front of the bar as he followed. I couldn’t take my eyes off of Isabella as I approached, waiting for her to notice me, eager to gauge her reaction.

A wave of pleasure traveled through me when she caught my gaze, her eyes widening and her smile broadening. Better yet, she took a quick step away from Jacob, causing his arm to fall from her shoulders.

“Hey, Edward,” she greeted me, her cheeks reddening ever so slightly. “I’m glad you could come.”

As if I would miss an opportunity like this.

“Isabella,” I replied smoothly, “this is my friend Jasper Whitlock. Jasper, Isabella Swan. And Jacob Black, if I remember correctly,” I added evenly, including my nemesis in the introductions. I wasn’t about to let any ruffled feathers show concerning the amiable-looking kid who shook hands in greeting with us once again.

He re-introduced us to the other guys in the band, and Jasper immediately got into a conversation with guitarist Paul over the vintage Strat that that rested with his onstage gear.

“Oh, man. I still can’t believe you didn’t tell me your boss was coming tonight,” Jacob complained to Isabella, his body bouncing up and down with nervous energy. He turned his attention to me and said, “Bella waits and springs this on me at dinner, that her A&R manager is coming to check out our gig. I mean, this is huge. If we had known, we would have rehearsed a little more, you know? Made sure that we were really tight.” He gave her a gentle tap on the arm with his fist, like a mock punch. I wanted to punch him for real for even joking about hitting her. She didn’t seem to see it that way, for she only giggled.

“Isabella likes the element of surprise,” I told him, though my eyes refused to leave her face. “She’d rather see what you’ve got when you’re not self-conscious and trying too hard.”

Her eyes widened in surprise and a grin stole across her face. If she had ever wondered if I had been paying attention, her questions were now answered.

“Edward’s right. It’s better if you don’t have time to over-think things too much. I know you guys have rehearsed plenty. Now it’s time to just… let go.” Her gaze drifted back to me, and I comprehended her meaning perfectly. My pulse began to race, and a maelstrom of emotions flooded me, threatening to overwhelm whatever bit of reason I had left.

I drained the last of my beer in a few greedy gulps and excused myself to get another, asking if I could get her anything before I escaped. She told me she was fine, while Jacob’s deep-set eyes darkened at me in annoyance. Clearly he saw himself as the one who would take care of her needs, and he didn’t appreciate my interference. I hid the childish smugness I felt and headed for the bar, wondering what the hell I was getting myself into. Did I really want to do this?

I took a long draught of my second Heineken and felt inevitability wash through me along with the beer. I was losing any choice in the matter. I could no more ignore the pull toward Isabella Swan than I could stop the twilight from coming every evening. Those deep brown eyes of hers would eventually consume me, and I was beginning to crave the warm, soothing darkness I sensed I would find if I let myself drown there.

As I turned from the bar to make my way back to the stage, a woman who was the antithesis of Isabella’s soft warmth blew past me like an arctic front. Blonde hair flying, crystalline eyes flashing, she practically stormed through the crowd toward the stage, appearing as if she would trample anyone foolish enough to cross her path. Her beauty was astonishing--icy, perfect, forbidding. I couldn’t help but appreciate her curves as she flounced by me, but I knew her type--more trouble than she’s worth.

I followed the blonde curiously, somehow not surprised when she halted in front of Ms. Swan and began gesticulating wildly, obviously quite upset about something and venting to my client. Isabella looked sympathetic to the blonde’s plight, whatever it was, and seemed eager to placate her. As I approached and began to hear snippets of the blonde’s tirade, I realized that I might have had my first glimpse of Rosalie Hale.

“…and then this Neanderthal has the nerve to tell me that if I had signaled sooner and not slammed on the brakes to steal his parking space--AS IF!--he never would have hit me. I reminded him that if he hadn’t been riding my ass for two blocks with his giant gas-guzzling Range Rover and talking to his girlfriend instead of paying attention to what he was doing, he wouldn’t have plowed into me!”

Range Rover? Uh-oh. Surely she wasn’t talking about….

I looked over my shoulder just in time to see my brother and sister approach. Emmett looked from me to the blonde and a huge grin split his face. He put his index finger up to his lips to silence me before I said anything. He and Alice lined up next to me and the three of us stood in silence, listening. Alice looked up at me and shook her head, rolling her eyes a bit, as the blonde carried on.

“I know the type. Thinks he owns the road with his giant fucking 4-wheel-drive monster truck. He probably looks for little Beemer convertibles like mine to play bumper cars with down the highway. I told him if there was so much as a scratch on the bumper, I would make him replace the whole thing.”

“So, was there? A scratch?” Isabella asked, biting her lip worriedly. Her eyes darted from the blonde’s face to Emmett’s bemused one behind her.

“No, luckily for him. I would have taken that gorilla to the cleaners. I’m telling you, if my car acts up even a little in the next month, I will hunt him down and make him pay, one way or the other. You know what I always say about guys who drive over-priced penis extensions like that Ranger Rover of his: he’s clearly compensating for lacking in another department.” She held up her thumb and index finger about three inches apart in illustration, just to make sure we got the drift.

Emmett could no longer contain his mirth. “Tell you what, Blondie. Why don’t you take me for a test drive so I can disprove that theory?”

Alice began giggling as the blonde whirled to face us, anger and surprise twisting her lovely features. When she looked up at Emmett’s grinning mug, fury took over.

“You have got to be kidding me,” she snarled. “You followed me in here? I told you I don’t want to exchange names and numbers. I’d prefer to forget this whole incident ever happened.”

“Fine. That will make it hard for you to ‘hunt me down and make me pay’ if there’s anything wrong with your precious Beemer, though. But I’ll enjoy seeing you try.”

The twinkle in my brother’s eye was unmistakable. He loves nothing more than a challenge. He welcomes women like Rosalie Hale with open arms. “I love a handful,” he’s fond of saying. “Two handfuls is even better.”

Isabella piped up before her employer could unfurl another string of invectives. “Rosalie, he didn’t follow you in here. I invited him here tonight. He’s my chiropractor, Emmett Cullen. That’s his sister Alice, and brother Edward, my massage therapist,” she finished, pointing at us one by one. “This is my boss, Rosalie Hale.” She gave us a pleading look, imploring us to play nice.

“Charmed, I’m sure,” Emmett replied, grabbing Rosalie’s manicured hand and planting a kiss on top before she could withdraw it in a huff.

“Unbelievable,” she muttered, still glaring. “I’m surprised he doesn’t crush you to death by accident,” she said to Isabella, her eyes raking up and down Emmett’s brawn. There was definitely something else in her expression besides distaste.

I leaned down and whispered in Alice’s ear, “Here we go.”

She giggled and put her hand up to my ear. “You should have seen them going at it outside. We barely bumped her car, but she came out screaming like a banshee. It was hilarious. Emmett was so into it, I thought he might throw her down on the hood and mack on her; and I’ll bet you a 12-pack that she would have loved it.”

“Oh, I won’t take that bet. I think you’re right.”

We stopped whispering in time to hear our brother insist on buying Rosalie a drink, saying it was the least he could do for causing her and her vehicle so much undue distress. “I’ll even throw in a free chiropractic treatment,” he added. “You know, in case my rear-ending you so violently caused any damage to that lovely neck of yours.”

“You’re disgusting. And I’ll take a Glenlivet on the rocks.”

“I love a woman with expensive taste,” he grinned. “When I get back, let me tell you my theories about women who drive candy-apple red luxury convertibles. You might find them interesting.”

Rosalie gave him a half-hearted sneer, her eyebrow raising provocatively. She excused herself to go to the ladies’ room, while Alice and I exchanged knowing looks that said, Game on.
We decided to pull a couple of tables together before the place got too crowded, and the band went to finish setting up their gear. I was glad to see Jacob disappear behind his drum kit, though I didn’t mind if he caught a glimpse of me pulling out a chair for Isabella and then seating myself beside her. Alice and Jasper got cozy across the table from us.

“God, what a disaster,” Isabella moaned, propping her elbow on the table and resting her temple in her hand, her body turning toward mine. “Could there be a worse scenario than Emmett and Rose getting in a fender-bender?”

I shook my head and let out a laugh. “It’s not that bad. In fact, I’m kind of thinking that that was a perfect set-up. A real ice-breaker.”

She gave me an incredulous look. “Seriously? You don’t want to get on Rosalie’s bad side. She’s the coolest boss ever, but she does have a temper and she’s not afraid to use it.”

“If anyone can handle a firecracker like Rosalie, it’s my brother. In fact, I’m pretty sure this is his favorite type of foreplay. And I don’t think Rosalie is as averse to the idea as she appears.”

Isabella raised a skeptical eyebrow, while Alice agreed with my assessment. Jasper wisely refrained from comment, and instead offered to pick up the next round of drinks. He ordered a pitcher for the four of us, and we settled in as the band started to warm up. Rosalie returned and sat next to Bella, and the two of them began “talking shop” about The Wolf Pack. A strange discomfort pulled at my insides while they discussed the viability of the band--their look, their sound, their general appeal and talent level. I had never aspired to be a professional musician, but listening to the girl I already adored sound so excited about someone else’s potential produced a new and unwelcome envy within me.

Emmett returned with drinks for Rosalie and himself, then sat across from her and leered at her relentlessly. I couldn’t see her reaction very well from where I was sitting, but I could see that whatever it was, it only egged my brother on. I know him well, and it was clear that he would not rest until he broke down this woman’s defenses.

I knew a thing or two about crumbling defenses, the hairs on my arm rising every time I brushed against Isabella. Having her so close was maddening. I loved the nearness, but it only sparked a craving for more. I hated Jacob Black for being able to so effortlessly touch her and pull her close, knowing that she wouldn’t take offense. Then again, I was certain that if I did the same, she would not react negatively.

And yet I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t make the move. I sat next to her in a quandary of frustration for the rest of the evening, dividing my time between watching the band and watching her. I would have studied her exclusively if I could have gotten away with it. The way her eyes gleamed and her body swayed in time with the music was mesmerizing to me.

I watched The Wolf Pack long enough to discern just how talented each musician was, and how well they worked together. Their synergy was very good. Jacob and the bass-player, Seth, were in perfect sync, providing the solid rhythm section necessary to anchor a band and let the guitarists and singer shine. Quil did a fine job on rhythm guitar while Paul was a madman on lead, truly gifted and drawing lots of cheers from the crowd for his biting solos. Sam was a solid front man, having a kind of alpha-male presence that commanded respect. The Wolf Pack was good. I observed Rosalie and Jasper studying them, and could see that their judgments matched mine.

I looked at Isabella to see her reaction, and caught her looking at me instead, her eyes intense, lips parted. Oh, God. I wanted to kiss her so badly I thought I might explode. I could feel my face drifting closer, my eyes pulled into hers, the breath coming fast between my lips.

“Wow, that was fantastic!” Rosalie suddenly exclaimed, grabbing her employee’s arm as the song drew to a close. Isabella blinked up at me a moment, a long sigh escaping her mouth. She seemed to pull away from me with reluctance, turning to her boss and agreeing that the set had been great.

It was the last song of the night, and the cheers and applause were thunderous in appreciation. Isabella’s friends had done well. They had set out what they wanted to do in impressing Rosalie Hale, and had made Isabella look good in the process. I reminded myself that any musical find of hers that ended up being successful could only be good for her, and my petty jealousies needed to take a back seat.

The band made their way past the patrons who congratulated them and surrounded the two Java Noise reps, thanking them for listening, and asking about the next step in getting signed with the company, if the offer was on the table. I didn’t want to eavesdrop, but I overheard Rosalie saying something about bringing in some higher-ups to hear the band and they would talk after that.

The excited band members went to tear down their equipment, Jacob grabbing Isabella in a sort of headlock and planting a kiss in her hair first. I barely had time to register my irritation before he released her and bounded back up on the stage.

“Well, that was definitely worth my time,” Rosalie smiled at Isabella. “Regardless of the pain and suffering I endured on the way here,” she added with a sour look at Emmett. Emmett smiled angelically in return, clearly undaunted.

“I knew you wouldn’t be disappointed,” Isabella replied. She glanced at me, then over at Jasper. “You know, Rose, Jasper has a band of his own that I think could be promising. I’ve heard him do some solo work that was great.” Her eyes flitted to mine again, slightly hopeful, but mostly resigned.

“Oh yeah?” Rosalie said, her eyebrows raising at Jasper. “What kind of music do you do?”

“Kind of a weird blend of blues, folk and rockabilly,” he grinned slowly, surprised but pleased that Isabella had gone to bat for him. “We need a little more rehearsal time and some gigs under our belt before we waste your time,” he said modestly.

“Well, I trust Bella’s judgment. Maybe she can record you sometime and I’ll take a listen.”

“He and a friend are playing Thursday night at the Java House again,” Alice interjected, wisely avoiding looking at me and giving the “friend” away. “You’ll come, won’t you, Bella?”

“Of course,” she smiled. “I wouldn’t miss it.” Her leg drifted over and touched mine under the table, waking up my hyperactive dick again. I took a deep breath and concentrated on keeping my hand from grabbing her thigh.

Rosalie said she’d love to hear Bella’s recording of Jazz, and then got up and excused herself, saying she had to meet her parents for an early brunch tomorrow. Emmett immediately rose from the table and insisted on escorting her to her car. She snapped that she didn’t want him anywhere near her vehicle, since he could probably dent it just by leaning on it with his beefy paws. He replied that he’d make sure he rested his beefy paws on softer, less rigid surfaces just in case.

“Lay one finger on me and I’ll mace you so thoroughly you won’t be able to see for a week,” she hissed as she sashayed away from the table.

Emmett ogled her ass lewdly and said, “Ah, but then I won’t be able to appreciate your beauty, and that would be a travesty.”

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” she muttered over her shoulder.

“Ah, how my lady lies,” Emmett said, his voice trailing off as he followed her toward the door.

The four of us exchanged looks and began to laugh simultaneously.

“This is the best time I’ve had all summer,” Alice announced. “Classic.”

Isabella rolled her eyes. “Yeah, I love nearly having heart failure when I find out that my chiropractor just had a fender-bender with my boss.”

“It was nothing, really,” Alice insisted. “We barely tapped her car and she went ballistic. She must be a bear to work for!”

“Actually, she’s not. I mean, she does have a temper, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen her riled up like that. Emmett seems to know how to push her buttons.”

“That he does,” Jasper agreed with his usual subtle innuendo and a quirk of one eyebrow. “Match made in heaven.”

“Or hell,” I laughed.

“Or both,” Alice grinned.

After our laughter subsided, Jasper thanked Isabella for mentioning him to Rosalie and told her how much he appreciated it. He said that he and his band have been rehearsing a lot and are going to try to line up some shows soon. “I’ll try not to let you down,” he told her.

“Impossible. You’re so good, truly. I’m really looking forward to seeing you again.” Her leg pressed harder against mine and she looked up at me. “Both of you.”

I wondered what she would do if I really did kiss her, right here in the middle of the bar, in front of Alice and Jasper. But I knew I wouldn’t do it. Our first kiss deserved better than that.

And then I realized that I was thinking in terms of “firsts” instead of “nevers.”

Let the drowning begin.
“Speaking of the band, I’ve got a lot of stuff I’ve got to take care of tomorrow,” Jasper announced. “You ready to take off?” he asked me.

“Sure,” I reluctantly replied. Since I’d given him a ride here, I didn’t have much of a choice, unless I forced him to close down the bar with me. I turned to Isabella, and without much hope asked her, “Do you need a ride home?”

“No, Jacob brought me. The band won’t be too much longer tearing down the stage. Thanks for the offer, though.” I wanted to believe that there was as much disappointed longing in her eyes as there was in mine.

“Okay,” I answered softly. “I’ll see you Thursday, then.” I squeezed her shoulder briefly as I rose from my chair, the cotton of her t-shirt soft under my fingers. It was as much as I dared to do, and I hated my cowardice.

She nodded up at me as Jasper and I left, while Alice promised to stay awhile and keep Bella company until Jake was free. Jasper and I passed Emmett as we made our way to the door and laughed at his shit-eating grin.

“Did she deck you?” I joked.

“Hell, no. She did, however, agree to have dinner with me next Saturday night.” He blew on his fingernails and polished them on his collarbone in a gesture of victory.

Jasper laughed and high-fived Emmett while I shook my head. So now my brother is going to date Isabella Swan’s boss. Just what I need--one more thing pulling me into her personal sphere outside of the office.

“You can thank me now or later,” Jasper commented as we climbed into the Volvo.

“What do you mean?” I asked him.

“I know you wanted to hang around there and fuck with Bella and Jake’s so-called date. I saved you from making a nuisance of yourself.”

“Oh, thanks. I’m forever grateful that you dragged me away early so that I can spend the rest of the night wondering what the hell’s going on between them.”

“You should be grateful!” Jazz exclaimed, scowling at me. “How many times have you told me that clients are off-limits? You can’t date her, and I can see how much that’s getting to you. Why put yourself in temptation’s way?”

I sighed as I pulled out into the glowing night traffic that crept through the city. “You’re right, I know. But I’m getting to the point where… I don’t care anymore.”

I could feel Jasper’s shrewd gaze on me. “That can be dangerous territory, you know.” He paused, then added, “I’m not just talking about the doctor/patient thing, either.”

“I know. Believe me. I just don’t know how much longer I can stay away.”

We drove in silence for a moment. Finally Jasper said, “Can you make it until Thursday, anyway?”

I looked over at his lopsided grin and returned one of my own. “Yeah, I can do that much.”

But now that I’m home, all I can do is look at the clock and wonder if Jacob Black is kissing Isabella Swan good night. Or worse.

“She won’t let him do that, will she?” I said aloud.

Only this time, I wasn’t just talking to the empty air. A loud purr sounded in response to my question, and a pair of yellow eyes glowed reassuringly at me from the couch cushion next to mine. I scratched under Lucky’s chin while he rubbed his furry cheek into my hand.

I know this is the only reassurance I’ll have for tonight.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 6

From the Desktop of Bella Swan
Saturday, July 24

“Hey, beautiful, how ya feeling these days? R U on the mend? I thought if U were up to it, U’d like to grab some dinner w/me & then check out The Pack tonight. We’re playing at Maggie’s Farm on the east side. What do U think?”

I think you’ve got a lot of nerve, that’s what I think, I glared back at the text message on my cell phone. Two weeks? Two weeks Jacob Black waited to find out how I’m doing. And then he had the audacity to ask me out, on a Saturday morning, for that same night. Clearly he never read or even heard of The Rules. Just because he and I have known each other since we were kids is no excuse for him to treat me like a reliable old pair of sneakers.

Still, I have to appreciate the irony of him text-messaging me as I sat in the waiting room of Cullen and Cullen, PC. If it weren’t for my over-zealous efforts to fix up our shabby apartment for Jake, I never would have met Edward Cullen. Or, if I had, it would have been in a place like Billy’s, where I no doubt would have approached him about signing with Java Noise and been unceremoniously shot down.

I wondered if Edward was a mind-reader, because no sooner did I start thinking about him than he showed up in the reception area, clipboard and files in hand. The sight of him bowled me over once again, he was so ridiculously handsome. I wondered if I would ever reach the point where his mere presence didn’t make every nerve in my body sing in anticipation. Eye contact with him never failed to send a surge of adrenaline through me, and his smile seemed the only remedy to calm it.

He was finishing up with the patient before me and told me it would be a moment. I was glad, because that gave me time to recover from the impact of his gorgeousness, and to send Jake an appropriate return message.

“Hey, Jake. I’m slowly getting better w/reg visits to a chiro and MT, thx for asking. Sorry, I have plans tonight. Maybe some other time if you give me more notice.”

I hit “send” with a smirk of satisfaction. I actually didn’t have any plans, and had considered going to check out his band again for Rose, but I certainly wasn’t telling him that. To be honest, I really hadn’t given him a thought this past week. I was too busy trying not to obsess over Edward, and then feeling crushed at the sight of him with his blonde bombshell date last night. Obviously Alice Cullen had no plans whatsoever to set me up with her brother if she asked me to show up on his date night. She probably just wanted to help out Edward’s friend Jasper, since she thought he’d be more amenable to the idea of a music career. Jasper is talented--he has a quirky voice and mad guitar skills--but Edward possesses a kind of hypnotic charisma that can’t be learned or bought. Then again, maybe I’m biased. The more I know about Edward, the more unclear my perception of him becomes. Isn’t the opposite supposed to happen?

My appointment with him today didn’t help matters. It seemed to go by in a blur of pure sensation. Certain points stand out in my mind, like when he first grasped my hips, ever so gently, and then probed the outline of my hipbones through my jeans. A nervous thrill shot through my groin, followed by a slow, gathering warmth between my legs. All he was doing was measuring my hips in order to tell me just how screwed up they are, but my hormones were oblivious to such cold, hard facts.

Those insistent hormones continued to tip the scales throughout the massage session. I couldn’t look at Edward for long, because whenever I did, I couldn’t relax. It had been a lot easier when I thought it was Emmett who was working on me. Now that I knew the truth, my mind could not ignore the knowledge that it was Edward’s beautiful hands probing my body so thoroughly, and excitement prickled through me in response. I attempted to concentrate solely on the wonderful things he was doing to my strained muscles, but then I’d begin thinking about his fingers straying to more intimate parts of my body…imagining the things he could do there. Realizing how badly I wanted him to touch me that way. Wondering what his mouth would feel like instead…those tender-looking lips exploring me, raising goose bumps on my skin as his breath cooled the wetness his tongue left behind.

Sometime in the middle of my frustrated sexual fantasies, he stopped and told me to imagine something that had always made me happy, so I would relax more. I tried thinking back to when I was a kid and you took me to the beach, Mom. I remembered that time we vacationed in California and you helped me build sand castles all day, then wiped away my tears when the tide came in and washed my little kingdom back into the sea. Life was so blessedly simple then; hurts so easily mended.

I gradually realized that his suggestion had worked. I actually had calmed down a lot, recalling happy memories. I began fantasizing about being at the beach again, but this time, with Edward. That is, the Edward I’d seen glimpses of--the one with an easy smile, the one who joked with his friends and made them laugh. It would be fun to spend a day with him, just horsing around in the water.

I wondered if we could do that--just enjoy each other’s company without the underlying tension that seemed to taint every interaction with each other. Then again, if the tension was partly sexual--and it certainly was on my end--there was something to be said for that. I wouldn’t want our dynamic to be so comfortable that we were in danger of falling into the “friend zone.”

That’s where I’ve always placed Jacob Black. He’s a couple of years younger than me, and when I moved to Forks my junior year in high school, I barely recognized the kid with whom I’d spent summers playing in the tide pools near the Quileute reservation. We continued to hang out occasionally whenever our dads got together, but I never felt anything beyond a platonic fondness for him.

That’s why I was so surprised when I went to check out The Wolf Pack for the first time a few weeks ago. I knew they had been practicing for years together, but I’d never heard them play an actual gig. I was shocked at how tight they sounded, and how good they already were even though they were new to the Seattle bar scene. I was impressed, and it was nice to see some home boys do good in the “big city.”

I was even more impressed when Jake came to give me a bear hug after their set, because his massive muscles nearly crushed me in their exuberant embrace. I wondered when he’d gotten so big. Did drumming really build biceps like that? I’m not really into muscles, but I had to admit that Jake was looking pretty fine, all grown up and filled out. It was the first time I’d ever flirted with the idea of something beyond being buddies with him. So when he asked me out, I was surprised but intrigued at the thought of our longtime friendship taking a turn. I was even a little nervous about it. He’d never made me nervous before.

But then I threw my back out of whack again, our date never happened, and Edward Cullen came into my life. Any thought of Jake was completely forgotten the minute I looked into Edward’s eyes. My hopeless attraction to him has eclipsed any fleeting interest I may have felt for my old friend.

And now, I was reveling in his touch, giving in to the gentle but insistent pressure of his hands beneath my body while he worked. His long fingers were as warm as the sun’s rays on my skin, sinking deep into my flesh and soothing me like no one has ever done before. I never wanted him to stop.

That’s precisely when my stupid tailbone started to twinge at me again. Traitor, I cursed it, wincing slightly as the strained sensation increased. I finally had to tell Edward it was bothering me, and the disappointment of his hands pulling out from under my backside was as unwelcome as the nerve twitch that had prompted him to stop. He seemed very concerned that I might be sick again, or that I wouldn’t be able to get up okay on my own. I began wondering how many truly crippled up people he treats. Or was I really that big of a mess at the end of our session last week?

After he left the room, I cringed at that thought as I eased myself off the table and got dressed. I decided I’d better get it together if I ever hope to have this guy see me in a romantic light. What if he’s afraid I’m too fragile to ever be fuckable?

Then I laughed at the audacity of my hopes and reminded myself about the blonde I saw him with last night. I am clearly nowhere near his type. He probably has about as much desire to fondle my flat chest as I do to replace a toilet seat ever again.

When I wandered out to the front desk to pay for my session, he insisted we wait to see if my insurance will cover it, which I know it won’t. But it was a relief that he helped me put off the inevitable, since pay day is still a week away. As I looked up at his beautiful visage, still smacking of dishevelment beneath his tidy jacket and glasses, I longed to break the ice with him somehow. More than ever, I want to get to know the untamed Edward hiding behind that carefully controlled surface.

I decided I would try apologizing for how things went down last Saturday night, not knowing if he had felt cornered when I admitted why I was at Billy’s. I was relieved to find that he hadn’t given it nearly as much thought as I had.

But before I could get too comfortable, he turned the tables on me. I was shocked when he mentioned that he thought he might see me at Billy’s again last night, until he explained that Alice had told him he might. He almost sounded disappointed when he thought I hadn’t shown; and again when I admitted I was there but didn’t speak to him. I can still hear his words ringing in my ears, rattling me to my core: “Isabella, I don’t ever want you to feel like you can’t talk to me.”

When he told me he understood what I’d meant about music being able to heal people, I thought I must be dreaming. Most of my daydreams have centered around Edward Cullen being interested in what I have to say, or relating to me on some level. So for him to offer this up as “something you and I have in common” was sweet music to my ears.

But immediately after that, I found out why people always say to be careful what you wish for. I truly thought I wanted to share everything with him… until he asked me point blank about the one thing I can’t talk about.

I still can’t believe he hit the nail on the head like that. I stared at him, frozen, wondering if he had somehow looked up the state records for Arizona and read what had happened. But how the hell would he have known to do that? Which left the even more implausible, yet apparently accurate idea that he has some kind of uncanny intuition about me. That he truly sees into my darkest depths and knows what’s lurking there. But how could he?

Unless there’s a dark spot on his soul, too. Maybe that’s what I see when I look in his eyes… what I hear when his singing veers a little too close to an anguished wail. Perhaps we’re holding up mirrors to one another, playing a kind of emotional “chicken.” Testing each other, waiting to see which of us will reveal our ugly truths first.

I was frantically trying to figure out what to say to him--how much to explain without giving myself away--when I heard the door open behind me and felt a whoosh of hot air hit the backs of my bare arms. Relief flooded me. I turned to see the next patient who had unwittingly saved me, and my relief was soon replaced by the increasingly familiar jealousy sponge. I might as well get used to it if I’m going to waste time pining over a guy like Edward.

In waltzed the blonde from last night, stunningly statuesque and yet still somehow cute as a button in her ponytail and tennis dress. Who the hell actually wears those things? More to the point, is that really the kind of girl Edward goes for? Because I can’t see him willingly suiting up in the requisite tennis whites. Then again, it seems I find out something about him that surprises me on a regular basis. But surprises like model girlfriends are the kind I can do without.

I ducked out of Cullen and Cullen as fast as I could, feeling like an idiot for the pipe dreams I’d been creating about Edward. Granted, he had looked almost annoyed when his Barbie-esque friend, Kate Denali, had interrupted us; but it was getting to the point that I didn’t trust my judgment on that score anymore. The fact remained that she was the one he was escorting out in public, not me.

So why the personal questions, then? Why would he ask me if I had “an emotional scar?” Could that really have something to do with my treatment? The more I think about our brief conversation, the more confused I become. If I ever figure out men, it’ll be some kind of miracle. It probably won’t happen until I’m fifty, when it’ll be too late to put the knowledge to good use.

I stopped by Panera on the way home and picked up lunch for Angela and myself. As I waited in line at the counter, I checked my phone messages. There was a new one from Jake.

“Sorry, Bells, I should have called sooner. Been having some trouble w/our booking agent--looking for a new one. Tonite’s gig was last min. How ‘bout next Sat? We’re playing at the Thirsty Whale. Dinner first, my treat, wherever U want. I’ll call U later.”

Hmmm. At least Jake was offering me a dinner date, even if it was via text message. It’s probably more than I’ll ever get from “Mr. Cullen.” Thinking about him playing tennis with the Barbie doll--or Barbie Denali, as it were--made me vaguely nauseous. I pushed the thought aside and decided I might as well accept Jake’s invitation. But I thought I’d let him sweat it out a little and wait until he called me before I said “yes.”

Ange and I spent the afternoon cleaning the duplex and then opted for an evening in with a couple of movies. Sometimes my ears just need a rest from judging music all the time. I’m ignoring the nagging voice that tells me I really just want to hear Edward again, and anything else would be a let-down. I keep wondering if he’s playing anywhere tonight, and if the Barbie Denali is in attendance.

Jealousy is a very ugly emotion, Mom. Not that this is news. But I’m not sure I’ve ever felt it so keenly before, strangling me in its grip. I’m envious of anyone who gets to see the side of Edward that I’m dying to know. So my resentment of the seemingly-nice girl I met this afternoon only makes me feel both irritated and hopeless--not a very attractive combo.

I’ve decided I’m calling Jake tomorrow. That’s an appropriate amount of time to make him wait, right? I might as well give the guy a chance. Maybe he’ll surprise me.

Later, Mom. Love you.

~Bells



Thursday, July 29

Edward Cullen nearly got me in hot water yesterday morning.

He is blissfully unaware of this fact, of course. For a start, he couldn’t possibly know that he’s been the star of my increasingly romantic dreams for the past couple of weeks. My subconscious has been having a heyday while I sleep. It clearly doesn’t realize how pathetically far-fetched its scenarios are.

Edward and I were playing tennis this time. I don’t play tennis. I don’t play any sport that requires me to utilize hand-eye coordination in order to avoid injuring myself or others with flying missiles. But Edward was wearing another delectably body-skimming, tattered tee stretched over baggy shorts, and the muscles of his forearms rippled masterfully with every stroke that he foolishly lobbed my way. Astonishingly, the dream version of me was doing a commendable job returning his serves. The sheer absurdity of such a notion is no doubt what alerted my dormant consciousness to the fact that it had better end this nonsense immediately.

As my slowly-waking mind continued the ludicrous dream scenario--which ended with a heated argument-turned-violent make-out session over the tennis net--actual sleep eluded me completely. Frustration finally took over and forced me out from under the covers. I decided maybe I could make myself useful by going to Java early and taking care of a few things before Rose got to work.

On the way to the administrative area, I found myself lured toward one of the smaller recording studios--dark, empty and inviting in the early morning hours. What would he sound like on this kind of sound system? The desire to find out was overwhelming. I didn’t know how to use all the equalizers, but I had a basic understanding of how to play back recordings on the complicated equipment.

I had already converted my recordings of Edward and loaded them onto my iPod, but I still had the originals on my digital recorder as well. It would connect easily with a USB port, if I could only find the proper place to plug it in. After a little finagling with some chords and wires, I finally hit pay dirt.

Edward Cullen’s impassioned singing and guitar accompaniment soon swelled through the room, reverberating off the acoustically perfect walls and washing over me in waves of raw emotion. Perfectly imperfect, beautiful and ballsy, ugly and urgent and pleading…so many things conveyed in the space of mere minutes. I closed my eyes and lost myself in the gruff warmth of his voice. Its sinewy tendrils snaked under my skin, wrapping around my vitals more tightly than that twisted “fascia” of mine that Edward was so patiently trying to unravel. He had no way of knowing the hold he was taking in its place, replacing every bond he loosened with a new and different one that tied me to him.

As the song that had gripped me came to an end, I reluctantly opened my eyes just in time to see the always-immaculate Rosalie Hale approach the window and beckon to me with a crook of her finger. I let out a shaky sigh of relief as she disappeared down the hall toward her office. I would have died a thousand deaths if she had burst through the door and demanded to know more about who was responsible for the amazing music filling the room.

I retrieved my Edward demo and rushed down the hall into her office, quickly explaining that I was giving a few artists a second listen. My hand drifted to my back right pocket and patted the digital player that lay snuggled between the tight layers of denim.

Rose waved a hand dismissively, apparently unconcerned with what I’d been doing. She had already moved on to the latest stack of press kits to invade her desk, dividing them into some sort of personal filing system that only God or Einstein could figure out.

“Good news, Bella,” she began, pulling out the contents of one of the manila envelopes and giving it the once-over. I recognized the faces of the native Americans on the glossy black and white photo. “I played a few songs from this hometown band of yours for the suits,” she explained without preamble. “They were interested in hearing more. When’s their next gig? I want to go with you to hear them myself.”

“The Wolf Pack?” I asked. “God, they’ll be so excited if Java is interested in them! They’re playing this weekend, actually. I’m having dinner with Jake and then catching their set at the Thirsty Whale. You want to meet me there?”

“On your date? Uh, no thanks,” Rose laughed. “I don’t want to horn in on that action, as long as you keep it separate from business.”

“Believe me, you wouldn’t be horning in,” I scoffed. “Jake and I go way back. It’s not even a real date, I don’t think. Besides, I’ll be sitting by myself while they’re playing. I could use the company, and an impartial set of ears.”

“Well, the energy of the live stuff you caught a couple weeks ago was better than their demo. I like some of their original material. I want to see for myself if they can deliver the goods,” she mused as she perused their press kit. “I think they’d do well regionally, if not nationally. Not sure I’m sold on the name, though. Sounds too much like ‘Wolf People.’ Maybe they could just shorten it to ‘The Pack,’” she suggested, resting one perfectly manicured fingernail along her jaw as she studied their photo again.

“Maybe,” I reluctantly agreed. “’The Pack’ sounds a little like cigarettes, though,” I added with a wrinkle of my nose.

Rosalie let out a raucous laugh and hooked one shiny blonde curl behind her ear. If she weren’t such a cool boss, I might have to hate her just a little bit for looking so much like Edward Cullen’s type.

“Well, we can work on that. Give me the address and I’ll meet you at the club. Maybe at dinner you can do a little PR for us and see if they’re interested. Find out if any other labels have been sniffing around. They’ve got a good, current sound and I think that Sam guy has real lead man potential.”

“Cool,” I said, growing excited about the prospect of working with my Quileute friends. “I really need you to hear them, because I think they sound promising live, but I’m afraid I’m biased.” I instinctively touched my fingers to right ass cheek once again, where Edward Cullen rested in aggravating anonymity on my recorder. I wondered what Rose would think of him if she saw him perform. No, that’s not true; I didn’t wonder at all. I knew what she’d think. She’d want to sign him immediately. I couldn’t allow myself to consider what else she might want to do to him.

“So, heard anything else lately that tripped your trigger?” she asked. The comment was offhand, but I felt heat begin to filter through my cheeks. Every day that I kept Edward hidden in my back pocket--literally, at the moment--I felt a little more dishonest. I considered Rose both a mentor and a friend, and this job was not only my bread and butter, but my one true love for the past year. Yet if push came to shove, I already knew without a doubt that I would never betray Edward’s trust.

“Oh, maybe a couple of possibilities,” I hedged. “I want to see them again before I hand them over to you.”

“Okay,” she shrugged. She gathered a couple stacks of the thick manila envelopes and shoved them across the desk toward me. “You can get cracking on these, then,” she grinned.

I groaned in mock protest as I scooped up the latest batch of submissions and carried them to my tiny office adjacent to hers. It was only after I’d unloaded them onto my desk that I realized I hadn’t once worried about hurting my back by hefting the huge stack. It was a small victory, but it was progress all the same. I smiled a little to myself and decided I would tell Emmett about it at my appointment that afternoon.

Rose let me leave a little early to get to Cullen and Cullen on time. I felt a little on edge as I sat in the waiting area, wondering if I would get a glimpse of Edward, even though I knew he had other appointments. I was a bit disappointed when Emmett came out and ushered me into the exam room shortly after I arrived.

After a brief examination, he echoed what Edward had told me on Saturday: I had quite a few bones out of alignment again. He worked on me for a good half hour, pressing a rib back into place, pushing my vertebrae and hips into submission, and torturing me with that pressure-point stuff that sends my nerves screaming during the blessedly brief moments that he skewers them with his thumbs.

“You should have those things registered as lethal weapons,” I moaned after he was done.

He let out a hearty laugh and commented, “You are not the first patient to suggest that, actually. But the important thing is, how do you feel now?”

I walked around a bit and realized that I felt pretty good. My body felt loose instead of tense, and nothing ached or bothered me. I told him as much, and his answering smile and twinkling blue eyes were infectious.

“Small price to pay then, eh?” he said. “Don’t worry, Bella, eventually your body will get used to the adjustments and things will stay where they should be.” He looked over my chart and asked, “Are you doing the stretching exercises Edward recommended?”

I bit my lip sheepishly. “A little. Not as often as I should, probably.” I was pretty sure that once or twice a week, when I thought about it, was not the answer he was looking for.

“You know, you might try a yoga or Pilates class to help gain some strength and flexibility. Alice goes three times a week. If you’re interested, I’m sure she’d be happy to take you along some time.”

“Well, yeah, sure,” I agreed less than enthusiastically. I actually wouldn’t mind hanging out with Alice, but obviously physical activity and I have never been on good terms. You can attest to that, Mom. I shudder to think how many scrapes you bandaged when I was a kid.

“Do you have my sister’s phone number? If not, I can give it to you. I’m sure she’d love to hear from you,” Emmett encouraged.

“I do have it, actually. I think she’d like me to listen to Jasper some time,” I explained. Somehow it seemed wise to leave Edward out of the equation.

“I’m sure she would. Jasper probably wouldn’t mind it, either. Edward’s another story, of course.” Emmett shook his head ruefully, then continued, “As for the yoga, I think he would agree it’s a good idea. He’ll be on you like white on rice if he finds out you haven’t been following his orders, trust me,” he chuckled.

I had the fleeting thought that I would love nothing more than for Edward to be “on me,” in any capacity. But I realized that Emmett was referring to Edward’s exacting standards. Normally I bristle at anyone telling me what to do, for any reason. So why is the thought of Edward bossing me around sort of…hot?

“I’ll give your sister a call,” I promised, following Emmett out to the reception counter.

Jessica was her usual bubbly self as she took my payment and scheduled me for another visit at the end of next week. It was near closing time and yet she still seemed to have enough energy to go for another eight hours. I envy people like that. As much as I love hearing live music, there are some nights when I just don’t have the will to go hang out in clubs and bars. I guess I get that homebody gene from Dad, huh? You always said I’m just like him. The older I get, the more I see it. It was surprisingly easy being with him when I moved to Forks, even though I thought that was the last thing I wanted to do. He’s been my rock. I don’t know what I would have done these past few years without him in my corner.

I dragged my feet at the counter, hoping that Edward would finish with his patient and make an appearance before I left. I kept Jessica talking as long as I could, which is actually pretty long, since she’s a jabber-box; but I finally had to admit defeat and head out to my car.

Once inside, I fished through my purse until I found the scrap of paper with Alice’s number scribbled on it. I knew I’d better call her now before I lost my nerve. My fingers shook a little as I punched the numbers into my cell phone. I knew it was the possibility of getting closer to Edward through her that made the blood course so rapidly through my veins. It certainly wasn’t the thought of starting exercise classes that had me trembling in anticipation.

“Hello?” Alice’s upbeat warble met my ears.

“Hi, Alice? This is Bella,” I said awkwardly. “Bella Swan, from Billy’s last weekend?” I added uncertainly, suddenly wondering if she would even remember who I was.

“Of course, Bella!” Alice exclaimed as if I were her long-lost best friend. “I’m so glad you called. What’s up? Do you need a partner in crime for some talent-trolling?”

“Um, well, maybe. I’m staying in tonight, but I’ll probably go to an open mic night tomorrow night at one of my regular spots downtown. Unless you know of someplace new I can check out,” I added clumsily, hoping that it didn’t sound like I was fishing for the next date Edward would be playing somewhere.

“Oh, I’m game for anywhere you want to meet up. It’s weird--when I’m away at school so much, it almost feels like I’m a stranger to this town when I come home, you know? Like I don’t even know where it’s cool to hang out anymore.”

“Where do you go to school?” I asked.

“Stanford,” she replied nonchalantly, as if anyone can gain admittance--or afford tuition--to such a place. “I went there because I originally planned on getting into biochem and medical research. But when I started doing some hospital internships, I fell in love with pediatric medicine. I felt so gratified when I came home at the end of the day, even though I saw heartbreaking things in the peds unit. I almost transferred back to U-Dub because it has such an awesome med school for primary care. But I love San Francisco, and I kind of like being away from the fam, as much as I love ‘em,” she concluded.

“I can understand that,” I said, though that wasn’t quite true. Dad was always easy to live with, and I miss you like crazy. I most certainly can’t understand any desire to be far away from the Cullen brothers. But maybe if I were related to them, I’d feel differently.

“So, the reason I’m calling, actually, is to ask you about where you take yoga classes,” I told her, changing the subject. “I had an appointment with Emmett today, and he seems to think I should try to do some toning and stretching.”

“Oh, that’s a great idea,” Alice answered. “Are you free Saturday? There’s a place I go to that has a really good program for beginners and intermediates, and the instructors are great.”

“Well, I have an appointment with Edward at 10 a.m., but I’m free before or after.”

“Ooh, lucky you! I would kill for one of Edward’s massages. Of course he never gives ’em to me because I refuse to pay him,” she laughed. “How about we go afterward? You’ll be good and loosened up for the class. I can come meet you at the office and we’ll go from there.”

“Sure,” I agreed with as much enthusiasm as I could muster for the prospect of taking yoga. Before I could add anything else, Alice asked me again about tagging along with me to an open mic night tonight. We made arrangements to meet in Belltown, and she seemed excited to come with me. I felt a little thrill of anticipation, too, but for different reasons, I was sure.

Just as we were about to hang up the phone, Alice interjected one last time.

“Hey, you want to grab some dinner beforehand? There’s this Turkish place near your office that I’ve been dying to try out,” she suggested.

“Sure, sounds good. I’ve eaten lunch there and the food is great,” I agreed, trying not to sound too eager. I actually like Alice, so I couldn’t help but feel guilty for wanting to find out more about Edward through her.

As it turned out, I worried needlessly. I found out tonight that Alice has a few schemes of her own. Schemes with which I’m fully on board. Grateful, even.

We met in the entryway of the Istanbul Grill at 6 p.m. and were seated immediately, as the place now held only a fraction of its large lunchtime clientele. The Grill is a favorite among a lot of Java Noise staff, with its mix of American and traditional middle-eastern fare and an atmosphere more cozy and than exotic. Alice ordered veggie kebabs while I opted for their excellent baba ganoush.

After a few benign pleasantries, Alice fold her hands under her chin and fixed me with a probing stare.

“I don’t believe in beating around the bush,” she announced. “So, what do you think of my brother?”

I covered my surprise with a large gulp of my iced tea. “Edward? Or Emmett?” I stalled.

Alice only laughed. “I hate to tell you, but you’re fooling no one. It’s very obvious that there’s something going on between you and Edward. I’m just wondering if I should get my hopes up.”

It was my turn to laugh then. “Well, I’m flattered that you think I’m a good choice for him, but I think he would beg to differ. I don’t seem to be his type.”

Alice scrunched her nose in bafflement. “What makes you say that? You are exactly his type. Well, as much as he has a type. He’s been acting kind of weird lately--weirder than usual, anyway. But I definitely like the kind of weird he is when he’s around you.”

I shook my head, now baffled myself. “Well, considering I keep seeing him with this--” my lip curled in a mixture of distaste and defeat--“blonde bombshell of a woman, I think you’d better cool your jets over the idea of him ever being interested in me.”

“Blonde bombshell…?” Alice looked perplexed.

“Yeah, Kate something. I forget her last name,” I lied in an effort to sound nonchalant about the Barbie Denali.

“Oh! Kate Denali?” Alice exclaimed. Her raucous peals of laughter rippled through the restaurant, drawing a few curious glances. “Trust me, you don’t need to worry about her! Satan will be putting on a parka the day anything happens between Kate and Edward.”

Her giggles subsided as her eyes drifted toward the door behind me, and she began waving wildly. “Speak of the devil and he shall appear. I invited Edward to join us--I hope that’s okay,” she grinned, looking rather devilish herself.

A wave of excited panic swept over me as I shifted my glance to the left and saw his lithe form come into view. I lifted my gaze slowly up his faded jeans and over his dull red-and-blue-plaid shirt, its sleeves rolled up so that I could admire the forearms I’d been dreaming about that morning. I finally mustered the bravery to look at his face, which registered its usual expression upon seeing me--mild shock. Obviously Alice had failed to tell him that I would be here, and vice versa. Sneaky, sneaky girl. I’m beginning to like her more and more.

“I’m going with Bella to check out some music tonight,” she explained to her brother as he sidled into the booth next to her. “I thought it would be nice if she could have dinner with us beforehand.”

Edward gave me that slightly wary smile, the one that simultaneously frustrated and enthralled me. I’d give anything for him to simply look happy to see me.

“Nice to see you,” he said. He uttered no name in greeting, of course. I suppose that’s better than “Ms. Swan.”

“Nice to see you, too.”

An awkward pause fell upon the table as Edward and I looked away from each other, while Alice’s eager eyes bounced back and forth like a tennis ball between us, probably looking for signs of attraction to justify her duplicity.

Edward raked evenly-spaced rows through his hair with one hand while he reached for a menu with the other. “So, have you two ordered already?”

We nodded in agreement while he perused the menu intently.

“Bella’s going to come with me to yoga class after her appointment with you Saturday,” Alice informed her brother. “Doctor’s orders. You should be pleased.”

Edward looked up at her with a slight grin, and then his green gaze settled over me. “That’s great. I think that will be good for you.”

“I hope so. Exercise and I have not traditionally been the best of friends.”

His grin increased, disarming what little shield I might have left. “Well, here’s to new friendships, then.”

I could not defeat my own answering smile, nor did I want to. Alice began bouncing up and down in her seat, her leg apparently pumping furiously under the table.

The waitress arrived with our drinks, and Edward ordered the falafel platter with kisir and baba ganoush on the side. I assured him that was an excellent choice, and his resultant smile sent tingles right down to my toes. Alice excused herself to go to the ladies’ room, and the tingles increased to a swarm underneath my skin as she crawled over Edward and disappeared to the back of the restaurant.

“Alice didn’t tell me you would be here,” I explained immediately.

Edward’s brows furrowed. “Would that have kept you from coming if you’d known?”

My eyes popped open wide in surprise. “No, of course not. I just didn’t want you to think I‘m stalking you, and that I put her up to this.”

He let out a small laugh, more like a gust of breath. “I didn’t. I was worried you might think the same about me. She didn’t let me know you’d be here, either.”

I considered telling him that he could stalk me all he liked; that in fact, I would probably welcome any aberrant behavior of his if it meant we could spend more time together.

Instead I settled for, “Looks like Alice has some… interesting ideas about us.”

He made no reply, but his eyebrow and the corner of his mouth raised enticingly in unison. He stopped the impending smile by wrapping his lips around his water glass and taking a sip. I watched his face morph into the impartial mask of the therapist as he spoke.

“I want to apologize for asking you such a personal question at the office last Saturday. It’s none of my business what happened to you in the past. It’s only my business to help make you better now. I hope you’ll forgive me.”

I tried not to let my face fall as the rest of me visibly slumped in my seat. I want no apology from him. I want his interest, even if it means I’ll eventually have to come clean about everything. If I ever need a confessor, I already know I want it to be him.

“There’s nothing to forgive. You were just concerned. It was actually nice of you to ask.”

The “V” that formed between his brows cracked the mask. “It’s just that sometimes the body doesn’t know the difference between physical pain and emotional pain. All it knows is that you’re hurting, and it does everything it can to protect you. Sometimes it helps me to know what I’m dealing with. What you’re dealing with.” He pursed his lips after this statement, evidently worried that again he had assumed to much. He hadn’t at all.

“I get that,” I replied softly. “You’re not too far off the mark. It’s just hard for me to talk about, that’s all.”

To my relief, the mask dissolved entirely. “I get that, too, believe me. But if you ever want to talk… you can trust me.”

An emotion swelled through my chest that was the exact opposite of the jealousy sponge. I could only nod in reply, because I didn’t trust my throat to let the words out.

Alice returned then, nudging Edward over and sitting in his place.

“So how was the trip to the vet? Did you get Lucky all fixed up?” she asked him enthusiastically, lightening the mood. Before he could answer, she turned to me and added, “Edward adpoted a new cat! He’s gorgeous. At least, he will be after he’s all cleaned up.”

Edward laughed and said, “Lucky is fine. He’s got his shots, been de-wormed, de-loused and de-flea’d. He’s extremely pissed off with me at the moment. If he only knew how lucky he is that I didn’t have him castrated, he’d be a lot more grateful.”

“Ah! I can’t wait to see him!” Alice exclaimed. “I’ll bet he’s beautiful now. He’s a stray orange tabby that was hanging around Edward’s building and just sort of wormed his way into the apartment,” she informed me before turning back to her brother. “I admire his persistence. He’s just what you needed.”

“Huh. We’ll see,” he muttered with a sour grin. “Between the vet and the pet store, this stupid feline has fleeced me of several hundred dollars already. He’d better be a good mouser and a good foot-warmer come winter. I hate cats. You know that, Alice.”

I studied Edward’s face and saw that his eyes did not match his gruff words. He was already in love with his new pet, no matter how much he protested on the surface. I was dying to meet Lucky and discover how he managed to pull off such a feat.

Alice wasn’t buying it, either. “People change, Edward. Happens to the best of us. If we’re lucky, it’s for the better.”

The siblings exchanged a secret sort of smile, and I was a little envious. There are many times that I wished I had a brother or sister to confide in, or even a cousin. My family is too small. I try to appreciate what I have instead of mourn what I’ve lost, but it’s difficult sometimes.

The rest of dinner was spent in small talk, with Edward telling us funny stories about his inquisitive new pet, and Alice warning me about one of the older regulars at yoga class who seems to have taken one too many acid trips during her hippie years. The only anecdote I could think of was to fill them in on my latest project, Jake and The Wolf Pack. I won’t lie--I did it mostly to see if I could get a rise out of Edward. I wasn’t disappointed.

“So he finally called you, huh?” Edward remarked after I told him whom I was texting last Saturday morning. “He waited long enough.”

“That’s exactly what I thought,” I agreed, the warm tingles returning to my body at Edward’s accusation. “I let him sweat it out before I returned his call.”

“That’s good,” Alice said, her eyes tennis-balling us both again. “I hope you told him where to go.”

“Well, not exactly. He and I are old friends, since we were kids. The band has been having trouble with their booking agent. They probably don’t even have any formal management at this point, which they desperately need. Anyway, I agreed to have dinner with him and see The Wolf Pack tomorrow night. My boss is coming by later to check them out, so that’s promising.”

“That is!” Alice exclaimed. “You think they could have a real shot?”

“Yeah, I do, actually,” I said, studying Edward’s frown as he reached for his soda. “They sound pretty great. They’ve been working hard the past few years, so I’d love to see them get signed with us.”

“I think I met your friend Jacob Black and the rest of them, actually,” Edward commented. “Alice, you remember the native Americans Emmett introduced us to a couple of weeks ago at Billy’s?”

“Oh, sure! Well, sort of. I was a little busy at the time,” she smiled.

“With Jasper, I know,” Edward razzed her. “Anyway, at the time I wondered if he was the same guy you were dating. I guess he was.” His eyes pierced mine questioningly.

“I wouldn’t say we’re dating. Not at all,” I denied. “It’s really more of a business date, anyway, since Rosalie will be there.”

“Is that your boss?” Alice piped up.

I nodded, still staring at Edward. He hadn’t so much as blinked. Our eyes were transfixed, just as they had been the first night I saw him perform.

“Well, if it’s not a date, then maybe we’ll stop by and take a listen. I told Jacob I’d check out his band sometime,” Edward announced in a clipped tone. If I didn’t know better, I’d swear he was jealous. I would love nothing more than to see him seething with jealousy, the way I always seem to be whenever I see him with Kate, or any other woman, actually.

The booth shook with Alice’s frantic bouncing. “Oh, that would be awesome. I mean, if you don’t mind, Bella. We don’t want to intrude or anything.” She clearly was ecstatic at the thought of intruding, and I couldn’t say I was opposed to it, either.

“No, I’d love it. They’ll be at the Thirsty Whale downtown. Do you know where it is?”

Edward nodded and told Alice it wasn’t far from his place, so she could stay with him if she wanted. Then they discussed the possibility of Emmett and Jasper coming along with them. Suddenly, my upcoming date with Jake seems to be getting very crowded. I don’t feel too bad about it, since I’m fairly certain that if the evening ends with his band getting a foot in the door at Java Noise, everything else will take a back seat.

After we finished eating, Alice suggested Edward come with us, but he begged off, saying he’d better check on the cat and see how he was doing after getting worked over so thoroughly at the vet. I imagined that his eyes were more intense than usual as he told me he’d see me Saturday morning, but I’m sure I was seeing what I wanted to. I watched his broad shoulders and cute ass appreciatively as he sauntered down the sidewalk toward his car, which was parked opposite of mine. When he disappeared around the corner, my eyes finally shifted to Alice and her Cheshire grin.

“You are so gone on my brother,” she stated, her doe eyes shining.

I let out a sigh of surrender. “Is it that obvious?”

“Oh, yeah. I recognize the signs. You’re not the first, I must admit. But I think you might be the last, and I could not be happier about that,” she said in a satisfied tone.

“Wow, that’s a pretty bold statement,” I told her, trying to suppress a dangerous swell of hope at her words. What would make her think that Edward was interested in me enough to forego other women?

“Maybe. But you don’t know Edward like I do. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him like this. Maybe never, in fact. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him get jealous like he did when you brought up that Jake guy. That was genius on your part, by the way! That worked on my brother like a charm. Trust me, Edward likes you. Very, very much,” she said confidently as we approached my beater truck. Alice had taken a cab from the ferry terminal to the restaurant, so I was driving the rest of the evening.

I still get nervous driving sometimes, even though the truck has been completely refurbished with every safety feature money can buy. This was one whim Charlie gave into: my desire for the sturdiest, safest vehicle possible. I like the combination of my truck’s ancient, impervious steel exterior with modern airbags, seatbelts and anti-lock brakes.

“If Edward likes me, he has a funny way of showing it,” I said as I unlocked the doors. “Sometimes he looks at me like I have the plague and he’s afraid he’ll catch it.”

“Well, as long as you’re his patient, it’ll be an uphill battle,” Alice admitted as she climbed in and put on her seatbelt. “He’s got a no-dating policy with his clients. But, he won’t be treating you forever,” she grinned conspiratorially. “Besides, I think he might cave if you keep at.”

“Really?” I said uncertainly as I revved the groaning engine. “You think I should be more obvious with him? I don’t know if I can do that. I’m not the most outgoing person, if you hadn’t noticed.”

“Yes, but you’re honest and straight-forward. You shoot from the hip, and Edward loves that. Just be yourself and everything will take care of itself,” she said confidently as I checked the mirrors, looked over my shoulder and pulled out into traffic.

“Right. Simple.” I shook my head a little and said no more as I concentrated on getting us to Belltown in one piece.

“It is simple. Don’t make it complicated. I’ll remind Edward to do the same,” she smiled, settling back against the worn red leather headrest.

We had fun at the Gooseneck Pub, listening to some Celtic and folk-inspired music that was pretty good. I recorded the performers, though I wasn’t certain any of them were a good fit for Java. Alice remained quiet during the acts, then bent my ear in between. She talked a lot about Jasper, and I could see that she was as certain of her future with him as she was about mine with Edward. I wish I had a fraction of her faith in fate’s good graces. In my experience, Fate can be a cruel master.

We didn’t stay out too late since I had to work in the morning. When I dropped Alice off at the terminal, she said the oddest thing to me. I’m still trying to figure out what she was talking about.

She thanked me for taking her along to the bar, and said she was looking forward to “getting me yoga-fied” on Saturday. But as she turned to go, she whirled back suddenly, her expression more serious than I‘ve ever seen it.

“About Edward. You should know that he’s been through some stuff. Some really… painful … events.” It was strange hearing the normally mellifluent Alice struggle to find words. “If it seems like he’s pushing you away, he probably is, and I know why. It’s not my place to say any more. Just, please don’t let him discourage you. Promise me you’ll be patient with him, okay? Don’t give up on him. He’s worth it.”

I looked at her pleading hazel eyes and nodded mutely. She suddenly grabbed me in an awkward hug and whispered, “Thanks, Bella.” Then she boarded the boat, turning and giving me a subdued wave before she vanished.

I mulled over her words the entire way home, wondering what on earth had happened to Edward Cullen. I had been entirely right about my suspicions the first time I heard him sing. Maybe when he brought up emotional scars, it was because he had a sizeable one of his own.

I slept fitfully, waking in the middle of the night from a disturbing dream. I was out sailing with Edward, skimming along the pristine waters of Puget Sound on a rare sunny day. As always, the fair weather didn’t last long, and rain clouds soon overtook us, spewing cold needles of liquid down upon the craft. Edward turned the boat around to head back to the shore, and as the vessel keened to one side, I lost my balance and fell overboard. The frigid water engulfed me instantly, its icy fingernails clawing the air from my lungs as I shrieked Edward’s name. He frantically grabbed the life preserver and tossed it to me, hollering for me to grab it so he could pull me back to the safety. I clutched for the ring but kept losing my grip, my numb, wet fingers finding no purchase on the slippery surface.

“Bella!” His ragged voice thundered across the water more loudly than the storm. “Hang on--I won’t lose you, too.”

As he leapt from the boat and swam toward me, a peculiar calm settled over me, even as the choppy water threatened to pull me deeper. I saw Edward coming, and despite the calamity surrounding us, I knew with perfect clarity that everything would be okay. His hands met mine in the water, grasping them firmly. He pulled me in his arms... and I woke up.

I lay staring at the ceiling for a moment, pondering the meaning of the dream with little success. Only one thing about it stood out vividly in my mind as the rest of the illusory drama faded and I slipped into unconsciousness once more.

It was the first time I ever heard Edward Cullen say my name.