Sunday, February 27, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 10 - Vertigo, part 1

From the Desktop of Bella Swan
Sunday, August 8

Oh, Mom. How I wish you were here. I need you more than ever.

It’s ironic because most of the details I’m about to relate are things I’d never dream of telling you if you were still alive. Like always, I’m hoping that writing everything out in printed words will help me sort it out in my head. I don’t think there’s much to be done about my heart, though. It feels like Edward took it with him when he left this morning.

Remember what I said the day I met him? That my nerves made me feel like I was getting ready for a ride on Space Mountain? That was a profound moment of precognition on my part. The past twenty-four hours have been such a roller coaster that I feel like I’m suffering from a severe case of vertigo.

I suppose that as high as I was the past couple of days, the only place left to go was down. I spent the time between Thursday night and yesterday morning on an inflated pink cloud of euphoria. Pinching myself wasn’t enough to ensure that I was conscious anymore. I still had to replay the closing scene Thursday night in my head: Edward asking me out. Edward calling me “Bella.” And not just finally uttering the name, but saying it in such a low, velvety tone that I very nearly fainted on the spot. He whispered my name in the Sex Voice. The tone that is so utterly devastating, so utterly Edward, that the echo of it reverberated ceaselessly inside my head for the next two days. I carried it with me like the tape recorder in my pocket, replaying it in the banks of my memory again and again. I became enraptured at the sound of my own name, a name I had merely tolerated before. I heard him murmur it constantly; felt the breath of it on my face over and over. I began to imagine all the occasions in which he might repeat it; the different ways in which he might say it.

And then I suddenly froze in horror at the thought that he might never utter it again. That I would enter Cullen and Cullen Saturday morning only to be greeted by the smooth, unruffled countenance of the therapist who called me “Miss Swan.”

So when he smiled and said “Bella” the minute I walked through the door, the resultant thrill was also the sweetest relief I could have known. I’ll never understand how someone who excites me so can also soothe me like no other. But that’s exactly what he did yesterday morning. Our massage session seemed more productive than last week’s, as he managed to lull me into a state of trancelike relaxation with his gifted hands. I think that I had spent so much nervous energy anticipating our next meeting that by the time I was finally in his presence, I collapsed into a grateful calm.

I only began to tense up when he placed his hands on my ribs, so close to where I longed for his fingers to stray. My erotic thoughts soon took a dive as he started to do work that was much more like Emmett’s, intensely probing my middle and challenging my pain threshold. He asked me to hang on and be strong for him, and I did. I would do anything for him. I trust him to the point of blind folly. At least, I suspect that’s how he sees it. Yet he proves to me again and again that I’m justified in my faith. All I have to do is make him see that, and help him find a little faith in himself. I’m beginning to see that’s a lot easier said than done.

But I’m jumping ahead. The massage therapy lived up to its name; as always, Edward was a master. I felt focused and energized after he was done, and I couldn’t wait to spend the rest of the day with him. I wanted to milk every moment of togetherness out of him that I could before I had to leave for work. And that’s exactly how I thought of my evening ahead, as work. Getting The Wolf Pack signed was high on my list of priorities, but the opportunity to get to know Edward better was eclipsing it at the moment.

He offered to drive to Seward Park, which I kind of figured he would, but it was still nice to hear him suggest it. I was comforted by the fact that he drives a rather non-descript, older-model Volvo. For one thing, Volvos are safe. For another, it proves Edward doesn’t need to use his vehicle as a status symbol to flaunt his wealth. He confirmed that my assumption was correct; he’s from a well-to-do family. I tend to think that Edward dresses down and makes himself look as ordinary as possible on purpose, to draw less attention to himself. For someone both affluent and as jarringly handsome as Edward, blending in has probably been a wistfully unattainable feat most of his life.

The afternoon was sublime. There’s no other way to put it. I had dreamed of spending quality time like this with Edward so much during the past few weeks that I could barely believe it was actually happening. We talked about dozens of different topics, from the silly to the deadly serious. I found out priceless details about him that I never could have guessed in a million years. I mean, what guy is afraid of dolls? I tried in vain not to laugh as he described how he could feel their creepy eyes following him around the room. Every new piece of information painted a richer, more colorful picture of him… made him real and multi-dimensional, instead of the fantasy character I’d been conjuring up in my wishful imagination. By the end of the day I wanted the Real Edward more that I’d ever dreamed possible. I could feel the want throbbing in my chest, even when he was sitting right beside me.

The first time he tried to kiss me, I thought my heart would rupture, it was beating so hard. He told me I’m beautiful. I tried to remember if Mike had ever told me that. Jake calls me “beautiful” and “gorgeous” all the time, but in his usage, the words are generic nicknames rather than a heartfelt professions.

When Edward Cullen told me I’m beautiful, I believed it. Believed it like I never have before. The way he said it, as if it were indisputable fact, was what hit me so hard. He looked incredulous, even affronted, that other guys seemed to have missed what he found so obvious. He is the most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen. To discover that he might see me in even a fraction of that light was a revelation that I could scarcely comprehend.

He told me that the other men in my life have been fools. I could think of no other men in my life, save my father. By definition, he’s required to see the beauty in me. No one else has ever been up to the task. Mike was still an overgrown kid when we broke up last year, and Jake, two years my junior, still brims with boyish enthusiasm. Edward’s vivid green eyes, though framed with lashes so lush any girl would be envious, fixed me with a gaze that was all man. Whatever was about to happen between us was no child’s game.

I told him there had been no other men in my life before him. His nostrils flared slightly and his lips pressed together with conviction before he spoke.

“Then let me be your first.”

I will never forget those words as long as I live. The way he said them; what they implied. For one crazy moment I was convinced that I belonged to him, and he to me. I was quivering with anticipation as he leaned down to seal our covenant with a kiss. My eyes closed; my breath caught as my lips parted. At the exquisite touch of his mouth on mine, I exhaled shakily and wondered if I might faint. How embarrassing would that be?

I was saved by a group of noisy hikers coming up behind me, and I hated them for it. The moment was lost. I knew I would never rest until I got it back. And the next time, I would most assuredly not let myself lose consciousness at the key moment.

Edward managed to make a joke of the interruption, and about my statement that I found him “empirically beautiful.” I recalled the off-color comments he had made during our very first massage session, before he had ever seen my face or really knew who I was. I’d been trying to find that Edward ever since, the one who seemed irreverent and unself-conscious. And as the afternoon progressed, he revealed more and more of that unguarded side to me. I was in heaven.

I wondered if he could have the slightest idea of how enamored I was of everything about him, no matter how minute. I memorized the gait of his long-legged stride, the sweep of his large but elegant hands to illustrate his point when talking, the myriad moods of his expressive face. My favorite was his pout: lips pursed, cheeks sucked in, thick brows furrowed, eyes searching. He used this expression whenever he paused to find the right words to explain himself. My second-favorite was his smirk, usually accompanied by one raised eyebrow and a look in his eyes so suggestive that it burned a path of desire deep in my belly.

No, I take it back: my favorite expression was the one on his face right before he kissed me: lips parted, breathing fast; eyes glistening with need and want and maybe a little fear. They mirrored my own, I’m sure. That look is stamped indelibly in my brain. The feel of his mouth on mine was something else altogether.

I wonder if it would have happened if I hadn’t fallen? The encroaching rain clouds had sent us in the direction of the car a little early, but we didn’t make it back before the deluge began. I thought of you the minute my shoe slipped on the rain-soaked pavement and I went down. I could just see you up in heaven, shaking your head and exclaiming, “My poor Bella!” I heard the thunder and thought maybe you and God were having a good-natured laugh at my perpetual clumsiness.

My knee was bleeding a little and it hurt to put weight on my leg, but it was no big deal. Edward, however, flipped into some kind of knight-in-shining-armor mode and scooped me up in his arms before I even knew what he was doing. He carried me the remaining distance to the car and insisted on bandaging me up. At first I thought it was funny, and I joked that he had to kiss it to make it better. By the time he was done planting baby kisses all over my knee, I wasn’t laughing anymore. I wanted those lips on mine more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. Melodramatic, but true, in that moment.

The kiss. Oh, God, the kiss. How are there words to accurately describe a first kiss that you’ve been craving so badly? A kiss that conjures up every cliché about kisses that you’ve ever read, from fireworks and bombs going off, to drowning in ecstasy so deep you never want to resurface? It was all and none of those things; reality crushing fantasy with one swift and unparalleled blow. There was nothing but Edward in that moment: his lips, his tongue, his breath, his moans; his soft skin and rough stubble and masculine bones beneath my grateful fingers. Should I have been scared at the troth that passed through my mind at that moment? “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” But this was what I felt in that first union: irrevocably joined with this man, by a force much stronger than I am.

And this was only from a kiss.

I couldn’t stop staring at his lips after he pulled back, panting. They glistened, ripe and red, like maraschino cherries. I immediately wanted to taste them again, to pull that bottom lip between my own and suck on it.

When I finally raised my eyes to his, I saw a raw urgency there that should have frightened me a little. I had been longing to awaken the primal part of him that I’d always suspected lay dormant inside; but when I was face-to-face with the fire, I was still taken aback by its heat. Was I ready to be consumed by him? That was the danger I feared: not Edward himself, but the sway he held over me, and my overwhelming desire to give in.

It seemed that it was my turn to calm him, if I wasn’t quite ready for total surrender. I stroked his face softly, my fingers fascinated with the sandpaper sprouting from his relentless follicles. I smiled and told him that his cure had worked--the pain in my knee was gone. His breathing slowed and a smile came as the fire cooled. I was immediately sorry to see it go, and wondered when and how I could ignite the embers again.

He seemed as reluctant to take me back to my car as I was to go there. He suggested drying my clothes at his place, which sent me on yet another orbit into the stratosphere. I could barely speak during the drive there. I kept imagining him undressing me, slowly removing each article of wet clothing and replacing it with his warm hands and mouth.

I was nudged slowly out of my reverie by the realization that we were entering the industrial district of Seattle, “SoDo” as they call it, passing belching smokestacks and yawning warehouses as we drove. I started wondering where in the heck Edward lived, anyway.

As it turns out, he’s not all that far from Pioneer square, in the top floor of a rather stylish-looking brick building that has been in his mother’s family for years. He has a bachelor pad that would be the envy of most guys, open and spacious, with no one around to complain if you play the stereo too loud. The décor is simple, clean and masculine, and his music collection is to die for. You’d freak if you saw it, Mom. Maybe you already have, from where you’re sitting.

Once I set foot in Edward’s place, I never wanted to leave. I even fell in love with his cat, Lucky. A gorgeous orange tabby, he took a shine to me right away, as most cats do. Edward pretended to be jealous as I stroked Lucky’s fur while he lolled contentedly at my feet. But when I looked up at Edward, his expression was dead serious and strangely intense. He quickly mumbled something about getting me some clothes to wear while mine were in the dryer, and then disappeared.

When he returned, he showed me to the bathroom so that I could change, dispelling my earlier fantasies about him undressing me. Curiosity quickly replaced disappointment as I took in the details of the room, from the nautical décor to the navy-trimmed white towels and matching bath rugs. I bit my lip as I looked in the medicine cabinet mirror, dismayed at my bedraggled appearance, but more interested in opening the cabinet door to inspect its contents.

I’m not proud of it, but I did it. I snooped. I had to see what brand of shaving cream and deodorant and toothpaste he used, what kind of razor, what sorts of stomach- and head-ache remedies he preferred. I gently fingered the bottles as if they contained frankincense and myrrh instead of aspirin and antacid. There was no detail about Edward that I wasn’t itching to know.

I opened the bottle of after-shave I found on the counter and sniffed the familiar scent, stronger here than on his rain-soaked face, but still fresh-smelling, not heavy and cloying. Did he have to do everything right? I was beginning to look for just one thing that would make me cringe, to remind myself that he was real and attainable, not some mythical creature who might disappear at my first wrong move.

I turned to the clothes he’d given me to put on, a typically non-descript over-washed t-shirt and sweats. I buried my face in the material and breathed deeply, enjoying the faint mixture of fabric sheets and Edward that tickled my nose. The clothes were clean, but somehow his scent lingered there, intoxicating me. I peeled off my wet garments and grabbed his shower towel, hoping it was the one he’d used that morning. I inhaled deeply again, letting his essence fill my lungs and feeling not one bit guilty as I did so.

I then slowly, methodically dried every inch of my skin with his towel. Wave after wave of goose bumps rose at the thought of this very fabric caressing his naked body hours ago. My cheeks grew hot as a wicked thought entered my brain, then flamed red as I acted upon it. I pressed the towel between my legs and rubbed it back and forth, letting it arouse me further as it soaked up the creamy evidence. Even though he would never know I had left this part of me there with him, I would.

I donned his clothes finally with reverence, loving the way they softly enveloped me. Had he picked a thin white t-shirt on purpose? My nipples were easy to see through the flimsy fabric, and they were still erect from my erotic adventure with Edward’s towel. I already knew that one word, one kiss, would keep me here with him for hours, Jake and his band be damned.

I felt suddenly embarrassed at my behavior as I left the bathroom. Edward eyed me awkwardly as well, his eyes unsurprisingly fixated on my breasts. The sexual tension between us was getting almost comical at this point. When he hastily grabbed my discarded clothes and disappeared with them, I wondered if he would fondle them before putting them in the dryer, the way I had practically masturbated with his towel. We were ridiculous.

I shook my head, trying to clear it, and began to peruse his music collection. I love that he owns vinyl records--a lot of the same ones I have that were yours. More and more, it seemed like fate had led me here, although I certainly wished there had been a less painful way than throwing my back out to do it.

When Edward returned, I begged him to show me his guitars. When I discovered that he actually has a baby grand piano in that massive loft of his, I nearly creamed myself again. And that was nothing to the reaction I had when he actually sat down and played that gorgeous instrument.

He chose another song I love. He sang it to me as I sat next to him on the piano bench, and it was so profoundly beautiful that I nearly wept. I felt as close to him, as trusting, as I did earlier in the afternoon when I told him about you. Obtuse as he is, he tried to apologize for making me cry. I told him he doesn’t know what he does to me. Whatever he thinks he knows feels like only the tip of the iceberg. He tried to tell me I have it backwards, when clearly I don’t. Because when it came time to put those feelings into practice, he backed off.

I actually asked him to kiss me. I could barely utter the words, but my need was so palpable, I couldn’t help but beg. He said that he was afraid that once he started, he wouldn’t be able to stop. Didn’t he understand that I didn’t want him to stop? My body, my mind, my heart were all screaming “go.”

Edward said “stop.”

At least, he may as well have. He brought up Jake again. Jake, who had barely entered my mind all day; Jake, who is inconsequential in relation to my feelings for Edward. Why dinner with an old friend annoyed Edward so much is beyond me, especially when I made it clear all afternoon who I wanted to spend more time with. If Edward was that jealous or upset over Jake, then why not kiss me and claim me? He could have hoisted me up on the piano and fucked me then and there, Pretty-Woman-style, and I would have loved every minute of it.

Instead, he pointed out that I didn’t have that much time to get ready for my “date” with Jake. I got the message, loud and clear. The problem was, I couldn’t make any sense of it. His mixed signals were really starting to confuse me and wear on my nerves. As he drove me back to the office where my car was parked, I listened to “Doctor” Cullen make small talk in that politely detached tone of his that now made me want to scratch his gorgeous green eyes out. I couldn’t figure it out what went wrong. What was he so afraid of? It couldn’t be the doctor/patient thing standing in our way anymore. Surely he knew I would never report him, and no one needed to be the wiser.

I remembered what Rosalie said: that there was fear in Edward’s eyes. I had seen it too, lurking, sometimes spilling out when he let his guard down. Who had hurt him? Did it have something to do with the “painful events” that Alice and Emmett had hinted at? He still hadn’t even told me about his waylaid plans to be a doctor, let alone allude to any other past disappointments. I had bared my soul to him about you, as much as I could, anyway. When would he have that same kind of trust in me?

I took one last stab at making him see that he could. I asked him to meet me later that night, after the “work” part of my evening was done. He insisted on using my non-date with Jake as his excuse and his shield. I finally snapped and told him that I wasn’t the one who had hurt him in the past, and that if he wanted to stop treating me like I was, he knew where to find me.

I was shaking as I got in my car. Shaking and crying. All day Edward and I had seemed to be standing on the brink of something incredible together, and then he pulled the rug out from under me. I couldn’t believe it.

I was glad that Angela was spending the weekend at Ben’s, because I didn’t want to rehash everything so right and then suddenly wrong with my almost-perfect day. Yet I couldn’t stop the tears from flowing again as I stood in the shower, washing all evidence of Edward’s touch and smell from my body, save for the plastic bandage stuck to my knee. I refused to remove that, no matter how wet it got. I shaved carefully around it as if it were a shrine. I cursed Edward Cullen for making me worship a fucking Band-Aid. Maybe being mad at him would be easier than being sad.

I put that philosophy into practice as I stormed around the house, getting ready. I ransacked the closet, trying to something both funky but a little dressier than usual, since Java Noise VP’s Mike and Sam would be there. It’s not like there’s really a dress code at our little label, but it never hurts to try to look a little more polished around the higher-ups.

I finally settled on a fitted menswear-style jacket over my v-necked tee and skinny jeans. I tried not to think of how Edward’s white t-shirt would have looked great with this ensemble. I dressed the outfit up with a little more silver jewelry than I normally wear, then dressed it down with my favorite fire-engine red Converse high-tops. I knew Rosalie would be wearing a similar outfit but with mile-high stacked heels, a concession to fashion I was not quite willing to make.

I spent a little extra time on my hair, not because I necessarily wanted to, but because Jake wasn’t due at my door for another ten minutes and I needed to keep my hands busy. If I stopped and sat down for a minute, I knew I would lose it. Buy the time the doorbell rang, my hair was large and in charge. I tried to tame it a bit, but it only got wilder the more I played with it. I gave up, grabbed my purse and headed for the door.

“Hey, babe. You look slammin’!” Jake exclaimed as I opened the door. The sight of his big, toothy grin was a relief. His easy warmth was just what I needed to settle me down and take my mind off of Edward. “You ready for an amazing evening?”

“You know what? I am,” I smiled as I took his arm.

We went for Italian this time, and I ordered a nice, soothing plate of fattening spinach ravioli. I intended to take comfort wherever I could find it tonight. I concentrated on paying attention to Jake this time, and felt myself getting swept up in his excitement once again as we looked forward to his band’s big evening. I told him a little more about what to expect if our company offered them a deal, and asked if he and the guys had made any progress in retaining some professional representation. I was grateful to get lost in “shop talk” for awhile, a place where I felt like I had a little control and expertise.

When we got to The Rusty Nail, Rosalie and Emmett were already there, as were half the Wolf Pack members. Jake went to help his bandmates finish the final set-up onstage as I headed to the table my boss and her date had reserved. To my utter shock, she was sitting on his lap, her arm draped around his shoulders, her head bowed as she grinned and whispered something to him. She certainly looked cozy with the guy that she had reamed up one side and down the other only a week ago. She also looked a little disheveled and her cheeks were glowing. My eyes narrowed at her suspiciously as I approached.

“Hi Rose, Emmett,” I called cheerfully, trying not to let my current frustration with Edward have any bearing on my interaction with his brother.

“Bella!” he boomed with characteristic enthusiasm. “How’s it going?”

“Great,” I lied. “And you?”

“Fan-fucking-tastic,” he grinned, his arms wrapping around Rosalie and giving her a squeeze.

“Get your hands off my ass,” she growled at him.

“My hands aren’t on your ass, beautiful. You’ll know when they are.”

Rose made a big show of extricating herself from Emmett’s bear hug, smacking his broad hands away, when clearly she had no wish to go anywhere. Likewise, Emmett pretended to be wounded by her harmless slaps, when he probably enjoyed every one of them. They made an odd, yet somehow perfect pair. Was I stupid to wish for the same with Edward?

“I need to talk to Bella minute. Could you be a darling and go get us a pitcher?” Rose intoned sweetly as she rose from Emmett’s lap.

Emmett took an exaggerated breath. “Of course, sugarplum. I’ll be right back.” I didn’t miss the smack he gave her on the ass as he passed. She gasped and gave him a dirty look, which he roundly ignored.

“God, he makes me crazy,” she grunted, her eyes blazing with what looked like both irritation and lust as she watched his muscular backside saunter up to the bar. “I almost boned him outside the bar in that hideous pimpmobile of his. I don’t know what it is about him--he kissed me and I just lost it. Fucker,” she sighed.

Boy, I can relate, I thought. I was still startled when Rosalie confided in me like this, as if we were college besties instead of an employer and employee. I kind of liked it, though.

“How was your afternoon with Edward?” she asked as we took seats across from each other at the table. “I know you were hoping for big things. So… how big were they?” She wiggled her eyebrow suggestively.

I let out a rueful laugh. “I’m not privy to that information yet. Maybe never, the way things are going.”

Rose frowned. “I can tell he’s into you. Did he freak out at the last minute or something?”

My eyebrows raised in surprise. “Yeah, something like that. Things were going really well… almost too well. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it did.”

Rose shook her head. “I don’t know what kind of baggage he’s carrying around, but it seems like it’s an awfully heavy load. Are you sure you want to deal with it?”

“Yeah, I’m sure,” I sighed. “I just wish he would let me. Emmett hasn’t said anything about that, has he?”

“No, he hasn’t. We really didn’t talk much about Edward; just in passing, when he was telling me about his family. We haven’t gotten to the deep, dark secrets phase of our relationship yet.” She stopped and made a ghastly face. “Good God, did I just say the word ‘relationship,’ in reference to the Hulk?”

We both watched Emmett heading our direction, the pitcher and extra glass for me looking positively dainty in his capable hands. I giggled and said, “I’m pretty sure you did, Rose. Don’t look now, here comes your boyfriend.”

“Shut up,” she hissed, whacking me on the arm.

Emmett made a tut-tut noise as he approached. “So she hits you too, huh? The girl has an anger management problem. I have a few methods that I think would cure her, though,” he winked at me.

“You just keep your methods to yourself, doctor,” she advised as he settled into the seat next to hers.

Their banter was cut short by the arrival of Sam Uley, the Wolf Pack’s lead singer. After checking in with the band, he came and sat with us for a moment to go over the set list. The band had moved a few things around so that some of their more popular numbers would be in the first set, when our A&R and product development VP’s would be listening. They could always throw in a few covers in the second set, after the crowd had had a few drinks and would be more forgiving.

The ears of Mark Durham and Sam Watson must have been burning, because they arrived at the Rusty Nail right as Sam was about to rejoin his band on stage for a quick mic check. Instead, Rose and I introduced him to our bosses. He motioned for the rest of the Wolf Pack to join us, and we all settled in to talk a little business.

Emmett listened with interest as our VP’s discussed what they were looking for and what they would expect from the band if they agreed to sign with us. Mark and Sam are both forty-ish men who cut their teeth in the Seattle music business during the grunge movement of the early nineties. Mark had been the bassist in a modestly successful grunge band, while Sam had worked in tour management before switching to a job that would require less traveling. Between them, they’ve experienced both sides of the talent/management coin, and always try to work out a deal that suits both parties. I was confident that The Wolf Pack would be happy with our company, because we really go the extra mile to do artists justice in the studio and promote them in the most effective way possible.

As I glanced at Emmett, I couldn’t help but think that his brother was the one who should be here now, listening to the things we could offer him. Edward is such a unique talent, I know he could find an audience who would appreciate him the way I do. I wondered if Emmett would pass any of his newfound knowledge about our company to Edward. Did they even talk about things like this? Edward seems to be closer to Alice than to Emmett. I can imagine the Cullen brothers butting heads often over their different approaches, much like they did the day I met them.

After our impromptu little meeting ended, everyone rose from the table to shake hands and wish the band good luck. Jake found me and whispered, “I’m really glad these guys are here, but I gotta say, I’m nervous as hell.”

“I know,” I sympathized. “But just try to put the nervousness to good use and channel it into your playing. Just give it a hundred-and-ten percent. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

“I don’t know. The stakes are pretty big here. Bigger than we’re used to, anyway,” he said, shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot.

“Jake, by the time these guys come listen to you, they’re already interested. They’ve heard the demo. I know you can blow that away with your live performance, because you have every time I’ve seen you. I believe in you. You’re going to be great,” I said emphatically.

Jacob’s dark eyes looked intensely into mine. “Thanks, Bells. I couldn’t have done this without you.”

Suddenly, he leaned in and pressed his lips to my cheek, precariously close to my mouth. I barely had time to gasp as he whispered, “Wish me luck,” and bounded up to the stage.

I glanced quickly around our table to see if anyone had noticed. When my eyes found Rosalie’s, she lifted one eyebrow inquisitively at me. Shit. It was only a kiss on the cheek, right? Like friends give each other. I hated the thought that Edward might be right, and Jake hadn’t taken our little speech to heart.

I kept my composure and slid into the chair next to Rose, grateful for the glass of frothy lager that Emmett had just poured for me. I was beginning to feel like I’d need it. Still, I nursed it slowly during the first set, wary of letting the higher-ups see me drinking too much. I didn’t want to do or say anything stupid with my reputation on the line.

The Wolf Pack was completely on point, with an almost hyper-kinetic energy that got the crowd going early on. By the time they finished their blistering set an hour later, wild cheering reverberated around the club. They had more than convinced our VP’s, who had been nodding and commenting to each other throughout the show. Afterward, Mark and Sam asked Rose to escort them backstage to see the band, and I was both nervous and excited about what was about to go down.

That left Emmett and I alone at the table, which suddenly seemed awkward in light of what had happened earlier that day. He, of course, was none the wiser.

“So what’s the deal here, Bella? You don’t get to be in on the powwow backstage?

“Well, at this point I’m technically still Rosalie’s assistant,” I explained. “She’s the one who will get credit for signing the band. But I know she’ll have my back, and give me props for finding them. It’s fine. I’ve got to pay my dues like everyone else,” I shrugged.

“Well, you’re a lot more understanding than I would be,” Emmett commented as he emptied the last dregs of the pitcher between our two glasses. When he flagged down a waitress to order more, I excused myself to go to the ladies’ room at the back of the club.

I sat on the stool for a moment, jeans around my knees, absently picking at the puckered bandage still stuck to my right knee. Why did Edward always have to be right about everything? I saw it in Jake’s eyes right before he gave me that stealth peck on the cheek: that undeniable hunger. No, no, no. I didn’t want that from him. When Edward had given me that look, I had been elated. Coming from Jake, I felt only a vague dread deep in my gut. Someday I would have to nip this in the bud, once again.

Déjà vu gripped me as I thought, what if that’s what Edward had done with me tonight? No, that wasn’t possible. Too many things were said and done that told me my feelings for him were reciprocal. Something else was driving him away from me. I just wish I knew if it had anything at all to do with me. It would help if I knew what I was up against.

I pulled up my jeans and exited the stall, then checked myself in the mirror as I washed my hands. The girl standing next to me was running her hands over her ironed hair, making sure it hung in a perfect curtain down her front. By contrast, my wild waves had drooped a bit, but still looked as if a nest of baby squirrels might be living somewhere in the mess. I rifled through my handbag, looking for a brush, but came up empty. I sighed and tried finger-combing it a bit, then admitted defeat and slathered a thin coat of lip gloss on before heading out the door.

The club was jammed with people by now, and a long line had formed to the ladies’ room. I felt a little bad that I had taken a short sabbatical in my stall. Just as I pushed my way through the queue, I stepped into the path of someone heading for the bar, and we nearly collided.

“Sorry,” I mumbled as I stopped short and glanced up at his face. He was nice-looking, with a blond ponytail and piercing blue eyes. But his features barely registered with me as my eyes drifted over his shoulder to the man towering behind him. His bronze hair was shaggy and disheveled, which I knew must be from his inability to keep his hands out of it. He gave me a heavy-lidded, jade-green stare as his cherry lips curled slowly into an amused smirk. The smell of whiskey and beer rolled off of him and his friend in waves as they stood leering down at me.

“Well hello, Miss Swan,” slurred Edward Cullen. “Fancy meeting you here.”

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 9 - Rationale, part 2

Edward Cullen's Little Black Notebook
Saturday, August 7 (cont'd.)

After the group of hikers had passed, Bella and I managed to continue walking under a two-ton blanket of silence. What was it about this girl that made me feel like a bumbling teenager again? She was no better, staring fixedly at the path ahead of us like it might disappear if she looked in any other direction. I knew I would have to be the one to speak first.

“Well, that has to be some kind of record for incredibly bad timing,” I offered at last.

“I think you’re right,” Bella agreed with a relieved-sounding laugh, finally glancing up at me. “I guess these trails aren’t as private as you thought.”

“Foiled again,” I joked. “I should have brought you here on a rainy day instead.”

She grinned, then grew quiet for a moment. “So…you really think I’m beautiful?” she asked, looking up at me uncertainly. “Not that I’m fishing for compliments--”

“Yes,” I cut her off emphatically. “Empirically beautiful, at that.”

She caught my teasing tone and narrowed her eyes at me. “Shut up.”

“’Empirically beautiful’…that’s a new one,” I repeated, enjoying giving her a hard time. Humor seemed to be diffusing the tension between us. “That’s not possible, you know. Beauty can be neither proved nor disproved. It’s purely subjective. In the eye of the beholder, as they say.”

“Edward, there isn’t a girl alive who wouldn’t find you attractive,” Bella insisted.

“I’m sure that’s not true. But it doesn’t matter anyway. There’s only one girl whose opinion matters to me, and apparently she thinks I’m perfect, so that’s good enough for me.”

“Ha! No, no, no. Good looks do not equal perfection. Don’t put words in my mouth,” she warned.

“Well, I tried to put something else in there, but I got interrupted.”

That did it. Her mouth dropped open in a surprised laugh as she punched me playfully on the arm. Her cheeks turned a most delicious shade of pink, like cotton candy.

“Ouch!” I exclaimed, shaking my arm as if her harmless swing had actually done damage. “Does that mean you don’t want me to try it again?” I continued, feeling more reckless by the minute.

“No. I mean yes. I mean….” she trailed off, flustered, and shook her head vigorously. “You confuse the hell out of me, Edward,” she finally sighed in defeat.

I answered her sigh with my own and raked my fingers through my hair. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to. It’s just… whatever this is between us kind of puts me in an ethical dilemma,” I admitted. “That’s why I’ve been resisting spending time with you; getting any closer to you.”

Her teeth worried her bottom lip again as she studied me. “Then why did you ask me here today? Is getting me out in the fresh air just part of my recovery?”

I let out a wry chuckle. “That’s what I like to tell myself. But the truth is, I just want to know you better. And right now that seems to be outweighing every argument against it that I can think of.”

The Mona Lisa smile played at her lips again. “I’m glad. I want that too. Ever since I saw you singing that first night… I can’t shake the feeling I got. I see a lot of musicians, and it’s not very often that someone moves me the way you did. Whatever it is inside you that you unleashed that night… that’s what I want; to understand where that came from. That’s the Edward I want to know,” she finished quietly.

My footsteps slowed as her words sank in. So all she wanted was to take a flashlight to the blackest parts of my soul; to pull my heart out of my chest and feel the gristle throb and squirm in her dainty fist. That’s all.

A sweat broke out on my forehead and I suddenly felt warm. I spied a park bench up ahead in a patch of dappled sunlight, and I took it as an opportunity to stop and get my head together.

“Are you hungry?” I asked hopefully. “This looks like a good place to stop and have lunch.” I motioned to the wooden bench as we approached.

“Yeah, sure,” she agreed. I was thankful that she didn’t press me any further.

We settled on the park bench and I rummaged through my backpack, withdrawing our lunch and the bottled water.

“You know you ordered my favorite,” I told her as I handed her one of the identically wrapped sandwiches.

“Really? Well, that must be a sign then, right?” I was glad that there was a lightness to her tone, as if she were only joking, even if she wasn’t.

“Clearly,” I agreed. “We’ll never have to argue over what to have for dinner.”

“Exactly. Or what to listen to. So far, I’d say we have the same taste in music. Although mine is pretty eclectic,” she said, taking a bite of her sandwich.

“So is mine,” I told her. “Surprise,” I added dryly.

We ate in silence for a moment, watching as a pair of joggers huffed and puffed their way past us.

“So how do you decide what songs to sing?” Bella asked after they were out of earshot, her eyes curious as she waited for my reply.

“Well, it helps if they’re easily adaptable to acoustic guitar. And not so tough that I can’t learn them,” I chuckled. “But mostly I like to sing songs that have meaning to me. Lyrics that speak to me in some way. That’s why I sing some of my own material, too. A song has to have a kind of essential truth to it. If I can’t connect with it in some way, it’s not worth doing.”

She nodded and said, “I figured as much. That’s what makes you such an authentic performer. I’m guessing it can be pretty cathartic, especially if the music is your own. I loved that original song you sang that night. The one about the sea of red. It seemed like you really dug deep for that one. It was so intense, so… visceral.”

I looked into her admiring eyes and wanted to tell her how well she had guessed the truth: that the sea of red was my own blood and tears and dismal failure pouring out of me in that moment. But I couldn’t seem to make my mouth form the words. She was already getting too close to the scar tissue binding that old wound shut.

She took another bite of her sandwich and chewed thoughtfully for a moment. I did the same, though my appetite was waning. Lately I had thought of nothing but getting close to this girl, and now that the moment was at hand, I could feel myself closing up like a clam protecting its tender innards.

“Edward, do you remember when you asked me about the car accident?” she said quietly, not looking at me. She crunched a potato chip between her teeth, making me wait until she had swallowed. “You wondered if something else had happened that day. You asked me about emotional scars.”

I nodded and braced myself for whatever was coming.

“Well, you were right,” she said, lifting determined eyes to mine. “I wasn’t alone in the car. I was with my mom.”

My heart sank as I realized what she was about to tell me. I didn’t want to hear her struggle to say the words, but I knew she needed to do it.

“We were driving on a main thoroughfare through our suburb, going through the intersection…for some reason the lights weren’t working. They were stuck. They didn’t change in time, but we didn’t know, we didn’t realize…. This huge truck… it was just right there, all of a sudden… like it came out of nowhere.” Her words were halting, her eyes distant, reliving the horror. “She was gone in an instant. Right after it happened, I was still conscious. I looked over at her, and I knew.”

Her eyes brimmed with tears, but she held them back. I had to hold back my own as well. My heart broke for her. I wanted to take away her pain but knew I was powerless. I knew only too well.

“Bella,” I whispered, reaching a hand out to console her, sweeping the hair from her face and resting my hand gently against her neck. I’m sorry seemed trite, almost insulting. I tried to convey my empathy through my expression, my touch.

“I moved to my dad’s house in Forks because I had nowhere else to go. It wasn’t so bad,” she said with a wan smile. “He and I are a lot alike. He didn’t push. He just let me… be. To deal with it in my own way, in my own time. I even saw a psychiatrist for awhile,” she admitted. “But at some point, there’s nothing more anyone can say or do for you. It is what it is.”

She paused for a moment and frowned into her water bottle. “The worst part was that I didn’t just lose my mom. I lost my best friend. I told her everything.”

My fingers found her face, gently stroking her cheek. One tear finally spilled over from the well of her left eye and streamed into my waiting hand. I wiped it away as her eyes searched for strength in mine.

She must have found it, because she suddenly laughed and said, “You want to hear something crazy? I still tell her everything. I write to her all the time. I just get on my computer and pour out all the mundane details of my life in these long-winded letters that she’ll never read. But sometimes it feels like she’s there, reading over my shoulder, you know?”

I know. God, how I know. I was screaming to tell her. How could I keep it from her, now that I knew just how much we really had in common?

But this was her mother she’d lost. There was no comparison. She didn’t need to deal with my confessions now.

“It’s not crazy,” I told her, my thumb caressing her cheek, reassuring her. “I understand better than you think. And if you feel her looking over your shoulder sometimes, it’s probably because she is.” I wasn’t sure what I believed about heaven and hell. But I wanted to believe that Bella’s mother could be a comforting presence to her, because she deserved it.

“I like to think that,” Bella said, the side of her mouth curving upward in a sad smile. “Anyway, you have your answer now. I definitely have ‘an emotional scar.’ Probably more than one. So now you know what you’re dealing with.”

My own words echoed back to me from our dinner at the Turkish restaurant. She had come clean with me and answered my questions at last. I knew that my turn would come eventually.

“I’m glad you told me,” I said softly, my fingers straying to her temple, stroking her hair. “I don’t know what it’s like to lose a parent, but I do know what it’s like to lose someone too soon. It’s never fair, and it leaves you wondering why. I think you are incredibly strong and brave. And I want to help you get even stronger.”

She reached up and put her hand over mine, her fingers warm as they gripped my wrist. “You already have,” she whispered. “And I’m not just talking about the massage therapy.”

I took her hand in mine and laced my fingers through hers, gripping them tightly. I wished I could will her to recover completely, to be whole and undamaged again. But how could I do that for her when I couldn’t even do it for myself?

“Edward,” she said softly, my name wafting like angel’s breath from her lips. “I know there’s something you’re not telling me. But it’s okay. I’ll never pressure you. I just want you to know that whatever your story is, you can trust me with it.”

I gazed at her beautiful face and wondered how I got so lucky. She was too good to be true. Too good for me, at any rate.

“I do trust you. It’s not about that,” I assured her. I stared at our hands joined together, mine dwarfing hers. I didn’t want my demons to do the same.

“Let’s leave my stories for another time,” I implored. “It’s too nice a day to get caught up in the past anymore. You know what they say about the present, right?”

“No, what?”

“It’s a gift.” I tried to keep a straight face, but couldn’t stop the snicker that escaped.

“Present…gift. Ha, ha,” she said, drawing out the fake laughs at the end.

“Sorry, I couldn’t resist.”

“It’s actually true, though,” she smiled, giving my hand a squeeze. I nodded and squeezed back, then reluctantly disengaged my fingers from hers.

“So, why don’t we finish up this lunch and then head back out to the loop?” I suggested. “The view of Rainier from there is pretty sweet. We can start planning our climbing expedition. Because after we’ve conquered the rest of the parks and forests around here, I know you’ll be itching for a bigger challenge.”

“You’re hilarious. I was wrong; you should be a comedian instead of a singer,” she said, her voice laced with sarcasm.

“I’m a regular Renaissance man. Too bad we don’t have any apples so I can impress you with my juggling act.”

“Really now,” she snorted, eyeing me doubtfully. “You’re kidding, right?”

“Would I kid you about something like that?”

She scrutinized my face carefully. “Yes, I think you would.”

“You have a suspicious mind. Eat your sandwich,” I ordered with a grin.

“Yes, sir,” she replied, taking an exaggerated bite. “You’re kind of bossy, you know that?”

“It has been brought to my attention a time or two,” I admitted, sinking my teeth into my own chipotle chicken.

“It’s disturbingly sexy,” she said, giving me a provocative sideways glance.

The mouthful of sandwich I’d been chewing suddenly plummeted down my esophagus in one surprised gulp. “You really shouldn’t have said that. I might start telling you what to do more often.”

She looked unperturbed. “Just because you tell me to do something doesn’t mean I have to do it.”

“Now, see, that’s exactly the kind of insolent behavior that just eggs me on. Be forewarned.”

She only giggled. “I’m not afraid of you, Edward.”

But I’m terrified of you.
I didn’t let it show. I merely raised a warning eyebrow at her, tempered with a smirk.

We kept the conversation light from then on. I was pleased that Bella didn’t pass on dessert, wolfing down her cheesecake brownie with gusto and making some rather distracting noises of pleasure as she did so. She didn’t seem to hold back with me anymore, and the thrill it gave me rivaled the fear of giving in myself.

By the time we made it back to the paved path that circled the island, I had learned that Bella adores the color blue, hates getting up in the morning, loves Gruyere cheese “even though it smells like vomit,” doesn’t own a pair of high-heeled shoes, and favors Gerbera daisies “because they’re so cheerful,” though lilacs came in at a close second because of their scent. Likewise, she was now privy to my preference for used, well-washed clothes (they’re softer); my dislike of shaving; my recurring addiction to the Discovery channel; my penchant for books about the supernatural; and my irrational hatred of dolls (they’re creepy, eyes always following you with that unblinking, glassy stare.) We share a love--inherited from our parents--of old Loony Tunes and Monty Python episodes, 60s and 70s music, and 80s teen flicks (they broke the mold after John Hughes.)

We were two old souls finding common ground as we traveled the winding trail back to the main path. I lost all track of time and place; there was only Bella beside me, her presence overwhelming all my senses, rendering me senseless. So I was surprised when we emerged from our shroud of green to a bank of clouds being pushed our way by a strong wind whipping over Lake Washington. Our sunny Seattle day had given way to its perpetually gloomy counterpart, and thunder began to roll in like a bowling ball aiming for its hapless pins.

“I suppose we ought to head back for the car,” I said reluctantly. “It’s still a good half-mile back to the parking lot.”

“I guess so,” Bella agreed, sounding as unhappy about the prospect as I did. “I probably need to get back to my place before too long anyway. I have to get ready for tonight.”

“What’s tonight?” I asked, suddenly uneasy.

“I guess I didn’t tell you, did I? Rosalie convinced two of our bosses to check out The Wolf Pack tonight at the Rusty Nail, so we all have to be there,” she said, making it sound more like an obligation than something she really wanted to do.

“That’s great news, right? You must be excited.”

“Yeah, of course I am. I’m just not really anxious to cut our day short,” she explained, giving me a sideways smile.

I tried to curb my satisfied grin. “Well, it’s only two-thirty,” I said as I pulled my cell phone out and checked the time. “What time do you have to be there?”

“The show’s not until nine, but I told Jake I’d meet him for dinner first to go over a few things. He’s got about a million questions for me. He’s wound tighter than an eight-day alarm clock right now,” she laughed.

All I heard was that Bella was having dinner with Jacob Black. Again.

“So what time do you have to meet him?” I asked at last, trying in vain to sound nonchalant.

“He’s picking me up at six-thirty, so we still have plenty of time,” she answered brightly.

All I heard was that that gym monkey had managed to finagle another date with Bella without her even being aware of what he was up to. Or was she? My mind began to seethe with unwelcome thoughts.

I looked at my watch and figured I had less than two hours left of my afternoon with her, and half of it would be taken up in drive time. I began to mentally curse the encroaching clouds. As if in retribution, large drops of rain began to splatter the pavement around us, one hitting me square on the tip of my nose.

“Shit,” I mumbled, picking up the pace. I could see the parking lot in the far distance, but it was still likely we’d be soaked by the time we arrived at my car.

“I guess we shouldn’t be surprised,” Bella sighed, hurrying to keep up with me. Despite the height difference between us, her legs were nearly as long as mine. Thinking about that drove me crazy, but it was impossible to ignore as I glanced down at her ivory legs pumping swiftly next to mine.

We had nearly made it to the lot when the sky opened up, pouring a deluge of cold water on all of us hapless humans, who began racing to their cars.

“Should we make a run for it?” I nearly had to shout over the sound of the torrential rain hitting the pavement.

Bella nodded and I grabbed her hand. I remembered where I had parked the Volvo, and I steered us in that direction as we ran between the rows of cars, water splashing up around our ankles and soaking our socks and shoes. Bella let out a kind of laugh or scream as we tried in vain to beat the downpour, and we began to run faster.

Suddenly, I felt a hard tug on my fingers, and her hand was abruptly wrenched free of mine. I looked down to see Bella sprawled on her hands and knees; she had slipped on the slick pavement and fallen.

I crouched quickly in front of her, gasping, “Are you okay?”

She squinted through the rain into my frantic face and began to laugh. “I’m fine. I do this all the time.”

I helped her to her feet and looked her over; her right knee was raw and oozing droplets of blood, which quickly mixed with the rainwater and trickled in rivulets down her leg. She winced as she put weight on it, and I began to fear she had twisted her ankle.

“You’re not fine,” I told her. Before she could protest, I scooped her up in my arms and held her tight against me while I hurried as fast as I could to the car. I set her down gently outside the passenger door as I fumbled in my pocket for my keys. As soon as the car was unlocked, I eased her into the passenger seat, slammed the door shut and zoomed around the car to slide in behind the wheel.

Panting slightly, I pushed my wet hair out of my eyes and looked worriedly over at Bella. She was grinning at me much like a Cheshire cat, albeit a rather drowned-looking one.

“What?” I demanded.

“That was very heroic of you. Very sweet. Considering all I did was scrape my knee,” she giggled.

“Are you sure? How’s your ankle?” I reached over and pulled her right leg gently upward, twisting her body toward mine. I gingerly examined the bones above her foot, then glanced up to see her still-amused expression as she watched me.

“My ankle is fine,” she insisted. “In fact, it’s feeling pretty happy right now, all things considered.” She nodded toward my hands still circling her leg.

Geezus, this girl was going to be the death of me. Well, two could play at that game.

I slid my hands slowly up her calf and gently cupped the back of her knee, placing my thumbs on either side of the ugly scrape beaded with blood. “It’s a good thing I brought the first aid kit, after all.”

Here eyes were dark and luminous, her wet lashes stuck together in clumps. I’d never seen her look so pretty. Her vibrant pink mouth seemed to beckon to me as she slowly bit her lip. It was all I could do to let go of her long enough to disentangle myself from my backpack and find the first aid kit.

She said nothing as I cleaned the blood and rain from her leg with a hydrogen peroxide-soaked gauze pad. I dabbed first aid ointment lightly on the raw skin, quickly checking her face for signs of pain. Her brow furrowed slightly and her lips pressed together tightly, but she made no sound. Stoic. I knew she would be.

I finished by covering the area with another scrap of clean gauze and fastening it in place with a large bandage. “How’s that?” I asked softly.

“Perfect,” she whispered. “Thank you, Doctor Cullen.”

I exhaled in a quick laugh. “I may not be a doctor, but I did get my Boy Scout badge in first aid.”

“You’re a doctor as far as I’m concerned. No one’s ever healed me the way you do.”

Something in her voice made me wonder if one of my siblings had been talking to her, telling her things. My eyes narrowed as I studied her. She knew I had planned to be a doctor. And in that moment, she knew that I knew. Her eyes were curious but patient. I was at a loss.

Bella saved me. “You did, however, forget one very important thing,” she accused with mock severity.

“What’s that?”

“You have to kiss it to make it better.” Her eyes gleamed with mischief.

My grin was irrepressible. “Far be it from me to impede the healing process with such negligence.” I gently lifted her leg while I bent my head down. I placed a gentle kiss right below the bandage, one to each side, and one above before resting my lips on the plastic tape directly over the wound. When I raised my eyes to hers, her lids were heavy, her lips parted, waiting. Wanting. The same way, the same thing that I wanted.

I lowered her leg to the car seat, placing my hand next to her thigh. My body was twisted to face her as I leaned in, my mouth zeroing in on hers with missile-like precision. Her breath was coming fast, in shallow bursts, mingling with mine as our lips drew closer. Her eyes were open, sweeping the length of my face and back up again, taking me in as I was her. Neither of us let our lids flutter closed until contact was made; and at that first meeting of soft against soft, our lips uttered tiny moans in unison, as if the release was too much to bear in silence.

I tilted my head slightly for better access, not satisfied with just a taste this time. My mouth opened against hers, my hungry tongue sliding between her lips, demanding entrance. It met no resistance as she responded in kind, her sweet tongue coming to meet mine, eager to begin this dance.

I moaned again when I felt her hands on my face, gently stroking the shadow on my jaw before settling into the wet curls behind my ears. The kiss went on in maddening slow motion, a mutual exploration of this delicious new territory that neither of us was eager to end. I reached toward her with my right hand as best I could, caressing the soft line of her cheek and following it down to the hollow of her neck. My mouth would not be swayed from its target, lips instinctively feeling for hers, tongue tasting and searching and memorizing this new playground. The resulting sensations traveled like shockwaves through my body, each rolling into the next so that I couldn’t discern where one ended and the next began. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d experienced a kiss this significant, this memorable. Perhaps I never had.

Our breathing was even more labored than before as we finally paused to catch our breath, though each other’s was infinitely more desirable. Her fingers were feather-light as she stroked my face, yet the reverberations shook me down to my core. I wanted her hands all over me, her body wrapped around me. I was ready to pull her on my lap and take her right there in the parking lot, the pouring rain outside camouflaging the view of our bodies from prying eyes. My thoughts were chaotic as I stared at her wildly for a moment, seriously considering it.

Bella’s eyes were round as she looked into mine, slightly surprised but unafraid at the intensity she found there. I closed my lids and took a deep breath, needing to gain control, reign myself in. I didn’t know how much longer I could balance on the edge of this knife blade. I was very nearly ready and willing to freefall for her.

Bella’s hands continued their gentle, soothing strokes along my cheeks, my jaw, my neck. When I finally looked at her, her eyes were my anchor.

“It worked,” she said softly, a small smile playing at her lips.

“What worked?” I asked, my voice ragged.

“My knee stopped hurting.” She paused while I relaxed and managed a chortle. “In fact, I’m not really sure I have knees anymore. I think they might be Jell-o now.”

And just like that, Bella allowed me to rationalize our entire first kiss away as nothing more than my doctor’s duty. I had kissed her hurt and made it all better. I knew that I had become truly delusional if were trying to keep up any pretense of physician’s protocol now. But it was the only thing making me pull away from Bella and start the car so I would take her home instead of having my way with her in the back seat.

I glanced over and saw her shiver slightly as she folded her arms around her middle. She was still sopping wet, her ponytail a bedraggled mess hanging over one shoulder, her rigid nipples clearly visible through her soaked t-shirt. Shit. Why did I have to notice that now?

I forced my eyes northward to hers. “Are you cold? I can turn on the heat.”

She shook her head. “I’m just missing you next to me.”

Double shit. “I’m really trying to actually leave this parking lot and get you home safely. You are making that very difficult,” I finally admitted in exasperation.

“I’m sorry,” she said, not sounding very sorry at all. “I think you injected me with truth serum sometime during that kiss.”

“Really? Interesting. I’m going to have to deliberate on how to use that to my advantage,” I said as I checked the mirrors and backed out of our parking spot.

“Ask me anything,” she said bravely.

“Okay,” I said, taking her up on the offer. “Why did you agree to have dinner with Jacob Black again?”

The exasperation was hers this time. “It’s not a date. I told you, it’s work.”

“I’ll bet you a recording contract that Jacob doesn’t see it that way at all.”

She shook her head vehemently. “I made it perfectly clear where we stand. He knows this is strictly business. Well, and friendship. We’ve always been friends.”

“So he did try something last weekend,” I surmised, feeling vindicated. I glanced over at her guilty face and got my answer.

“Look. I just explained to him that business and pleasure do not mix. It’s a recipe for disaster. I don’t want to risk losing his friendship, or souring the business relationship. Besides, I don’t have those kinds of feelings for him,” she ended staunchly.

“You’re absolutely right, about all of it,” I agreed, wondering if she would see the irony.

She was quiet a moment. “And yes, it did not escape me that that’s probably how you’ve been feeling about me this whole time.”

“Right again. Except for the part about my feelings for you,” I said quietly. I kept my eyes on the road as we merged onto Columbian, but I could feel her gaze burning through me.

“Well, then. We’ll just have to figure something out,” she said matter-of-factly.

I tried to stifle my guffaw and settled for smiling and shaking my head. She made it sound laughably simple. Maybe it was. Maybe I should just say “fuck it” and do whatever I pleased.

I turned the car’s fan up a bit, but it was no match for our damp clothing. My jeans were feeling uncomfortably stiff and cold next to my legs, and I couldn’t wait to get home and change into dry clothes.

“Hey,” I said as an idea dawned. “My place actually isn’t that far from here. Why don’t we go there and throw your clothes in the dryer? I don’t want you to spend the next hour soaking wet while I take you to your car and you drive home.”

“Oh,” she said in surprise. “Sure, that sounds great.”

I took a mental inventory of how I’d left the loft that morning. It wasn’t too messy. I generally keep things simple and uncluttered so I don’t have a lot to clean. I was reasonably sure I wouldn’t be embarrassed to have her see my place right now.

We grew quiet as I neared the industrial district and took the exit to my neighborhood. I was glad to see that the worst of the rainstorm had passed, and only a few stray droplets were now hitting the windshield. Bella finally spoke as we passed the old factories and crumbling brick buildings.

“This is where you live?” she asked incredulously.

In answer, I turned the corner and pulled up in one of several vacant parallel parking spots in front of the old Cullen mill that I now called home. I smiled at the confusion on her face as I turned off the engine. I quickly got out and went to her side of the car, opening the door and extending my hand.

“Welcome to Casa Cullen,” I grinned.

She said nothing as she put her hand in mine and let me pull her from the front seat. I kept my fingers entwined with hers as I unlocked the main entrance and led her through the cavernous, empty main floor to the service elevator.

“It’s a good thing I trust you,” she joked as the lift chugged and trundled up to the third floor. “It feels like there’s not a soul around.”

“Well, on a Saturday, there’s probably not,” I admitted. I raised a provocative eyebrow at her and gave her a lewd smirk.

“Stop,” she ordered, letting go of my hand in order to give my shoulder a half-hearted shove. I laughed and put my arm around her as the elevator ground to a halt.

When I unlocked the heavy door to the loft, I barely pushed it open before indignant meowing met our ears. Lucky had been asleep on the couch when I left this morning, so I’d left him inside. He voiced his displeasure at being held captive as soon as we entered the room.

“Oh, this must be Lucky!” Bella exclaimed, her eyes lighting up at the sight of him. “He’s beautiful.”

“He cleaned up all right,” I shrugged. The cat was entranced with the arrival of someone new into his sphere--someone who might have better food to eat, or a softer lap to sit on. He wasted no time rubbing his scent of ownership all over Bella’s bare legs. She merely laughed and knelt down to pet him, immediately finding his favorite spot to be scratched, under his chin. He responded by throwing himself at her feet, writhing and rubbing himself all over her shoes in a most shameless manner.

“Look at how fickle this cat is,” I exclaimed. “See if I ever give you salmon again, Benedict Arnold.”

“Aw, don’t listen to him, Lucky,” Bella cooed as she crouched down and rubbed his belly while he purred loudly. “You know where to come for some good lovin’.”

Most happily married couples I know always say they have a moment when “they knew.” That moment when it struck them that this was the real deal; this was “the one.” I always thought it was horse hockey. And then I watched my cat fall in love with Bella, and there it was.

I Knew.

I took a deep breath and did the only sensible thing: I fled the scene. I excused myself to my bedroom to find something for Bella to wear while I dried her clothes. I found my smallest plain t-shirt and pair of drawstring sweats, figuring she could tie them tight around her tiny waist.

I returned to break up the Lucky love fest and show Bella to the bathroom so she could change. Once back in my bedroom, I peeled off my own damp clothes, trying not to imagine her doing the same in the next room. My dick was already at half-mast and had been on and off ever since we kissed. It wasn’t used to the celibacy I had imposed upon it the past few months, nor was it used to being tied to my emotions anymore. It was as confused and aroused as the rest of me. I grabbed a baggy pair of sweats to camouflage its flexing muscles, then threw on one of my arsenal of faded, threadbare t-shirts.

As I returned to the open living area, Bella emerged shyly from the bathroom, a diminutive version of me in her matching outfit. I was a thin guy, but my clothes hung on her like sacks. Yet the thin, soft cotton of the shirt I’d given her still clung tenaciously to her slight curves, its v-neck exposing an expanse of creamy skin between petite breasts pointing subtly up at me on either side. I had never seen anything in my life as sexy as Bella wearing my clothes. When I looked at her wet garments balled up between her hands and realized she had no underwear on, my dick lost all sense of propriety.

“Here, let me take those,” I offered, quickly reaching out and taking her discarded clothing. I made a beeline for the far end of the loft, which housed the odd combination of my laundry area and a gym of sorts, complete with weights, a treadmill and a boxing bag. I sorted her impossibly small shorts, shirt, underwear and socks and put them in the dryer. I tried not to finger her pastel cotton bikinis and bra too long, though it was ridiculously tempting to do so. I realized that her cotton panties where trimmed with lace, and I remembered the times I had felt it beneath the shield of flannel during our massage sessions. She had split the difference between no-nonsense comfort and sexiness with one effortless choice.

The One.

I ran my fingers roughly through my damp hair, trying to rub some sense into my ridiculous brain. I inhaled deeply and went back to the living room. I found Bella peering at my stacks of CD’s and vinyl albums, piled high up the walls in various shelving units. At its center was my piecemeal stereo, comprised of an old turntable, cassette and CD player, an iPod docking station and everything in between.

“You have records!” she marveled, her fingers flipping through the cardboard covers.

“I like to listen to old stuff on vinyl,” I admitted. “I love the sound, so rich and warm. I even like the scratches and pops.”

“Me too,” she enthused. She stopped and pulled out a Carole King album. “I can’t believe you own this.”

“I have Joni Mitchell, too,” I laughed, unashamed.

“I still have all my mom’s old albums,” she said. “I couldn’t bear to part with them. I didn’t want to, anyway. She had great taste.”

“So did my parents, and aunts and uncles. I’ve always liked old music. I love to go to the few record stores that still exist and look at all the vintage vinyl. Sometimes I think I was born too late.”

“I’m glad you were, or I would have missed you,” she said. I barely had time to register the comment before she discovered my punk rock collection and began squealing over original editions of The Clash, the Ramones and the Stooges.

“I wish I had time to stay and listen to some of these,” she said wistfully.

“You can come back, you know,” I smiled.

“Can I?” she asked. We hadn’t really determined how we were going to “figure something out.”

“Of course.” I already didn’t want her to leave.

“So where do you keep your guitars?” she asked. “I know you must have more than one.”

“You’re good,” I grinned. I led her out of the living room, past the bathroom and partitioned-off bedroom, and back to the open end of the loft. My five guitars, another old sofa, stacks of music and a baby grand piano resided not far from the hum of the dryer at the end of the huge space.

Her eyes swept the length of the room, quickly taking in the gym and laundry appliances, then growing round as they settled on the piano. Apparently all thoughts of my guitars were gone.

“You play this?” she gasped, walking toward it and running her fingers lightly along the polished lid.

“Since I was a kid,” I replied. “Mom made us all take music lessons. Piano was my choice. Guitar came later.”

“I can’t believe you have this in here,” she whispered in awe. “This is beautiful.”

“It sounds pretty nice, especially with these acoustics,” I answered, motioning to the high ceilings.

“Will you play something for me?” she pleaded, her voice small and childlike.

“Sure. What do you want to hear?” I asked as I followed her and pulled out the bench.

“Anything. Whatever you want.”

“Well, I’ve got all the classical music I learned as a kid in the piano bench,” I began. “But, there is a song I’ve been trying to learn. Don’t laugh too hard if I mess it up.”

“I’d never laugh at you,” she said. “With you, maybe,” she added with a laugh.

I sat down and pulled the bench up to the keyboard, then motioned for Bella to sit next to me. Her eyes were bright with anticipation as she scooted onto the bench. I tried to quell the queasiness that rippled through my belly every time I was about to perform, let alone a private show for someone whose opinion already meant to much to me.

As soon as the melancholy chords of the song began to flow from my fingers, I felt myself calm down a little. The words came easily then, because at this moment, they could have been my own.

There's one way out and one way in
Back to the beginning
There's one way back to home again
To where I feel forgiven

What is this I feel, why is it so real
What am I to say

It's only love, it's only pain
It's only fear, that run through my veins
It's all the things we can't explain
That make us human

I am just an image of something so much greater
I am just a picture frame, I am not the painter
Where do I begin, can I shed this skin
What is this I feel within

It's only love, it's only pain
It's only fear that runs through my veins
It's all the things you can't explain
That make us human

After the last chords drifted off into the silence, I slowly looked at Bella, who sat still as a stone next to me. She seemed slightly stunned as she looked at me; her eyes were filled with tears.

“I didn’t mean to make you cry,” I apologized instantly. The last thing I wanted was to make her sad again, after what she had revealed to me earlier.

“Edward,” she said softly, shaking her head at me as if I were completely daft. “You don’t even know what a gift you have.”

“Bella,” I replied evenly. “You might be a little biased.”

“Stop,” she whispered, pressing her fingers against my lips. She shook her head at me again. Her fingers drifted down my neck, leaving trails of warmth that settled on my chest beneath her hand. “You don’t know what you do to me.”

Her eyes and her words were liquid fire, branding me. In one sentence she had just expressed the very essence of my growing feelings for her, and my fear of giving into them.

“You have that backwards,” I murmured, raising my hand to her face, tracing the delicate swell of her cheek, my thumb caressing the soft edge of her jaw. Our faces had drawn close again, each breathing in what the other exhaled. I couldn’t stop staring at the perfect bow of her upper lip, plump and delicious; but I was frozen, unable to move.

“Kiss me,” she said, her words so gossamer light that I nearly didn’t comprehend them.

I rubbed my thumb over that lip, memorizing the shape and feel of it. “If I kiss you, I’m afraid I won’t be able to stop.”

“Is that a bad thing?” Her lips moved against my thumb as she formed the words.

“It is if you want to make it to dinner on time.”

She stared at me in surprise. Her face fell as she backed away from my hand; I let it fall to my lap. I hated to put a damper on the moment, but she was the one who was about to leave to meet another guy for dinner. As much as I tried to tell myself I had nothing to worry about, I just didn’t trust Jacob Black, even if Bella did. And as the clock ticked closer to the time she would be with him, my unease grew.

A loud buzzing noise jarred us both. The dryer’s timer had gone off, effectively ending whatever moment we might have salvaged.

“I guess that’s my cue, then,” Bella said, rising from the piano bench and walking back to the dryer.

“You don’t have to do that,” I called after her, getting up to follow.

“You’ve done enough already. I can at least get my own clothes out of the dryer,” she replied as she approached the machine. I watched her gather her things and walk back toward me, but she didn’t stop. “I’ll just go change in the bathroom,” she said as she passed.

Fuck. Killjoy, I berated myself. If I’d played my cards right, maybe I could have convinced her to ditch monkey boy and stay with me instead.

And maybe that’s exactly why I did it.

Bella thanked me for loaning her my clothes, and showing her my place, and playing her a beautiful song. Her subdued politeness felt like daggers to my gut. My own long-perfected subdued politeness felt right at home. It carried me through the next half-hour as I drove her to her car and asked benign questions about her job and her evening ahead. It was almost like our long, open conversations and our amazing kiss had never happened, and we were right back to being therapist and patient.

It was easy and comfortable. I hated it.

She was about to exit my car to go to hers, when she suddenly turned to me, her eyes feverish.

“Please come see me tonight. Come to the Rusty Nail later on. Our bosses will probably only stay for the first set, and then we can just have fun. Rosalie is bringing Emmett. You can keep me company while the band plays,” she said, her voice almost pleading, her eyes hopeful. She didn’t want to lose all the progress we had made today, and now it was time for me to figure out if I wanted to do the same.

“So I’ll be Jacob’s chair warmer while he’s playing? I don’t know if I really want to be a fifth wheel,” I hedged. There had to be some kind of award for the lengths I was going to just to shoot myself in the foot.

She was beginning to look frustrated, almost angry. “I don’t know what I have to do to convince you that this is not a date tonight. I don’t want to date Jake. You’re the one who seems determined to push me in his direction, for some reason that I cannot even begin to fathom.”

I tried to formulate a denial, but my tongue was tied.

Bella took a deep breath; it sounded shaky. But her voice was low and controlled when she finally spoke. “I don’t know who hurt you in the past, Edward, but I’m not her. If you want to stop punishing me for what she did, you know where to find me.”

My mouth was literally agape when I looked at her. She was out of the car and slamming the door in my stunned face before I could reply. Surely Alice hadn’t told her anything. She wouldn’t. No, Bella just knows me. Not the details of my life or my past. Just the workings of my mind; the essence of who I am. She gets me. But even she has her limits.

My mind was in turmoil the whole way home. I tried figure out how to go back somehow; to put the contents back into Pandora’s box. I knew I couldn’t; I knew I didn’t want to. But I didn’t know how to go forward, either.

Things are worse now that I’m home. I’m swilling beer, choking down pizza, cursing at the cat. He’s eying me disdainfully like the fucking idiot I am. After all, he knew where to go for some good lovin’, and had no trouble staying when he got there.

Emmett is out with Rosalie; Alice is with Jasper; and soon Bella will be with Jacob Black. And if I sit here thinking about this for one minute longer, I will lose my goddamned mind.

I need to get out of here and find something to keep me occupied. Something involving copious amounts of brain-numbing alcohol sounds perfect. And when that’s my MO, I know exactly who to call.

I’m checking my cell to see if I still have his number. Even though I haven’t gotten falling-down drunk with him since college, I have the feeling he’ll still be up to the task if he doesn’t have any other plans this evening.

No more rationalizing for today. In fact, no more thinking whatsoever.

It’s time to call my old buddy James.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 9 - Rationale, part 1

Edward Cullen’s Little Black Notebook
Saturday, August 7

I think I’ve figured it out. I’ve replaced rational thinking with rationalizing instead.

That’s how I’ve managed to convince myself that I didn’t really push the boundaries of therapist/client relations by spending most of the day alone with Isabella Swan.

The rationalizations are plenty, and they come more and more easily. First of all, I haven’t breached the American Massage Therapy Association Code of Ethics in any way. Nor have I violated Washington state sexual misconduct laws for massage therapists, since our walk through the park today was not technically a date, but rather a part of Ms. Swan’s therapy, designed to build her strength and stamina. Likewise, seeing her Thursday night was business-related on her end, since she was listening to Jasper in order to report back to her boss. Nothing inappropriate has happened thus far, in the eyes of the law.

What a load.

Of course, I don’t believe any of these flimsy excuses. I know full well what I’m doing, and what I want. I want to have my cake and eat it, too. It doesn’t help matters when the cake seems so willing, even eager, to be eaten.

Yes, I know exactly how crude that sounds. And you know me well enough to know that my mind has already gone there a dozen times. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of me follows.

The jig is pretty much up, anyway. I was so close to telling her the truth about you today that I nearly choked on the words. Finding out that Bella and I have the same coping mechanisms drew me closer to her than ever before, yet I couldn’t seem to take that next step to let her in. I told myself that it wasn’t the right time; that I didn’t want to lessen the weight of her confessions by throwing my own into the mix.

The rationalizations of a coward.

At least I should ’fess up to you, Tanya. I don’t know why I use the pretense of writing to you when I know you’ll never read these words. I wouldn’t want you to. I’d never hurt you like that. I caused enough irreparable damage as it is. It’s time to drop the ruse and just admit that I’m only writing to myself--empty, hollow musings that give me the illusion that I’ll somehow come to grips with everything if I work it out on paper. At least Bella’s letters are written out of love. Mine are born of guilt and regret.

I didn’t plan to call her “Bella.” I was afraid to say it out loud. In my mind, I had finally allowed myself to think it, but it was attached to a modifier I could not seem to expel: my Bella. I’ve never felt such a need to possess someone before. Not in greed, as though I would let no one else near her; but in reverence, placing no one else above her. Letting her possess me in return is what’s difficult. Part of me is resisting with every fiber of my being--the part that is afraid I can never measure up, never be worthy of being hers. The part that’s afraid I can never love her the way she deserves. The part that wonders if I’m capable of loving anyone that way.

But the part of me that’s still willing to throw caution to the wind called her by the nickname she prefers before I left her on her doorstep Thursday night. She couldn’t possibly know what a concession that was--tantamount to my hoisting the white flag of surrender. Now I’m just biding my time before the next breeze catches it and it begins to unfurl.

Earlier in the week, I kept my time--and my mind--occupied by rehearsing with Jasper. I suggested that we play all of Thursday night’s set together and just swap lead vocals on a few songs. I knew I would be nervous with Bella’s eyes and ears on me, but I thought I’d breathe easier with Jazz there to back me up. He was probably aware of my motivations, but he refrained from comment. We managed to cover pretty much any and every topic except our love lives. He probably had no more desire to discuss his feelings for my sister than I did mine for Bella. We deftly, blithely avoided the elephant in the room.

I was happy when he offered to drive us all to the Java House the night of our set. It made the occasion feel a little like a double-date even though it technically wasn’t--another rationalization. I was becoming adept at creating them by then. I had one for nearly every time I touched Bella that night: I was just being polite; I was just helping her when she choked on her beer; I was just brushing that perpetually defiant lock of hair out of her face. But I could come up with none for the deliberate way I held her hand in the car. I simply couldn’t stop myself. We had both admitted that we couldn’t help thinking about one another. I had to touch her then; to put substance behind the words. Her fingers between mine were small but strong. She turned her hand and offered it to me, palm up, and I knew that was her moment of surrender. My own was inevitable, and yet that obstinate part of me still held its ground. It wouldn’t let me kiss her good night, no matter how badly we both wanted it.

Bella was my last client this morning. I always schedule her last. It’s becoming a regular appointment now, understood by us both: Saturday morning, 10 a.m. I see her last so that I am preoccupied with other customers before she arrives, and so that I have time to recover from seeing her afterward. Last week that entailed relieving my hard-on in the bathroom, a low moment that I had no wish to relive this time around. Today I would have to learn to tame the beast like the adult I supposedly am, since we wouldn’t be parting ways afterward. She would be spending the day with me instead.

I could think of nothing else from the time I asked her out until this morning. I’m pretty sure I’ve never looked forward to a simple walk in the park so much before. I had no intention of using the paved path that circles Seward Park; I was much more interested in taking the dirt trails that meander through the woods at its center. It would allow us more privacy so that we could talk. I decided it was imperative that I get to know her better, because my preoccupation with her was bordering on the ridiculous. It was high time for me to decide which part of me was going to win this internal tug of war over my feelings for her. To put it more bluntly, it was time to shit or get off the pot.

I was staring at Emmett’s notations on her chart with a sinking feeling when she arrived. I had planned to have her lie on her stomach this time and do some basic Swedish massage, giving her a break from some of the more intense myofascial work. But Emmett wanted me to work on her ribs and possibly perform a psoas release, if needed. That required her to be on her back, which now meant I would be distracted by her lovely face, not to mention the outline of her nipples under the thin flannel sheet.

I began to wonder if it wouldn’t be better to refer her to Katrina after all.

“Hi, Edward,” her warm alto met my ears. I looked up to see her staring up at me uncertainly, her bottom lip caught under her teeth until a smile tugged it free.

“Bella,” I said, the word sounding like a whispered prayer. I cleared my throat and asked, “How are you doing?”

“Really good,” she said emphatically. She pointed down at her feet and added, “I don’t have hiking boots, but I think these will do for a walk in the park, right?”

I peered over the countertop down at her shoes, a rather rugged-looking pair of leather sneakers. “Those should be fine,” I told her. “When we tackle Mount Rainier one day, we’ll get you some decent boots.”

She let out an incredulous laugh. “In your dreams,” she snorted. “You’ll be lucky if I make it a few miles through the woods today.”

“Are you trying to tell me I’m going to have to carry you back to the car this afternoon?” I meant it as a joke, but when our eyes met, they were dead serious for one heart-stopping moment.

Bella blushed and answered, “I’m pretty sure you won’t have to resort that that. One of us with back problems is enough.”

“Please. You look like you weigh about 110 pounds soaking wet. I think I could handle it,” I said with a smirk. I suddenly found myself wondering how long I could hold up her body weight if her arms and legs were wrapped around me while I bounced her up and down on my cock. Maybe if I pushed her up against a wall….

I shook my head as if to dispel the image, and led her down the hall to the massage room. I left her to get undressed, my vivid imagination wandering unfettered as I pictured her removing her shoes and socks, her cap-sleeved t-shirt, her cargo shorts and finally her bra, leaving only her panties intact by the time I returned. Would she actually wear lace panties to go hiking? I still couldn’t quite understand why she favored girly underwear underneath her decidedly tomboyish clothing. It was one of her many mysteries that I was itching to solve.

I washed my hands thoroughly in the sink and tried to wash away my lurid thoughts as well. I imagined them swirling down the drain along with the soapy water, leaving my mind clean and absolved of any impure thoughts.

It worked until I entered the massage room and approached the table. By the time her dark, languid eyes gazed up into mine, I was lost in my desire for her again. I closed my eyes for a moment to gather my wits, then managed to find my tongue.

“Did Emmett tell you that he wants me to work around your rib cage today?” I asked.

She nodded and looked up at me expectantly.

“He suspects that a group of muscles called the psoas muscles might be responsible for some of your back problems. That requires me to do some deep tissue work below your ribs and above your hip. I’m going to work on your neck and back a bit first to relax you before I move on to any psoas work, okay?”

She nodded again and closed her eyes as I made my way to the head of the table and stood behind it.

“Is there any particular music you’d like to listen to?” I asked as I swept her hair gently out of the way.

“I like to listen to you. Maybe you can just sing to me,” she answered, fixing me with her upside down gaze.

I stared at her a moment, startled. “I don’t think I can sing and concentrate on why I’m doing at the same time,” I finally said with a chuckle.

“I know,” she smiled. “I was only kidding. Sort of.”

I took a deep breath. “Maybe later,” I offered with a laugh. But I was only half-kidding, too.

I let my usual CD of Eastern-influenced music waft gently through the room as I began to work on her neck and jaws, slowly releasing the tension from her and taking great satisfaction as her forehead relaxed and a smile played lightly upon her lips. I felt my own tension drain away as I let myself get lost in the process of unwinding Bella’s fascia and soothing her muscles. As I worked my fingers down her back, I allowed myself to notice nothing but the feel of her flesh and bones pressing down on my hands, demanding that I concentrate on doing what I do best.

By the time I was finished with her back, Bella’s face was a placid sea. I had managed to reach a rather Zen place myself, the healer in me taking precedence over everything else.

“Bella,” I said softly as I moved around to her right side. “I’m going to work a little on your stomach muscles and ribs now. Try to stay relaxed.”

She nodded up at me. I allowed myself only a glance at her face, her eyes too tempting a distraction. Likewise, I refused to look directly at the soft swell of her breasts as I placed my hands gently on the flannel sheet atop her stomach, feeling the tight sheath of muscles stretching across her belly. I wondered if she did tons of sit-ups or crunches, though she didn’t seem the type. If not, then she carried a lot of tension there. I worked diligently to relax the muscles, easing my way toward her rib cage. I gently probed the edges of her ribs, one hand on each side. The right side was tightly bound, as Emmett had noted. I placed both hands there and began to press and push my way around the bones, deeper and deeper. Her stomach muscles began to tense in protest, and a peek at her wincing face revealed her discomfort.

“Try to hang on a little longer,” I urged as I probed deeper, forcing the muscles to release. “Don’t forget to breathe.”

She still let out a long sigh of relief when I finally removed my hands. “I’m sorry. I know it’s not fun for me to work on that area. But your back will thank me later,” I told her.

“It’s okay,” she said, her eyes steely with determination. “I can take it. I want to get better.”

“That’s what I want, too,” I assured her. “I’m going to have to slip my hand under the sheet for a moment so that I can find the group of muscles I need to work on,“ I warned her as I worked my hand under the flannel, being careful not to expose her in any way. I then explained what I was about to do as I probed deeply to find the posas muscles that connected her spine to her hip. I would have to push gently but firmly to force the tension from this hard-to-reach group of muscles, and she would have to put up with some discomfort once again.

She took a deep breath and nodded for me to continue. It took only a couple of minutes, but I had to push my fingers deeply and forcefully into the soft white flesh between her ribs and hip. When I finally felt the muscles give way, immense satisfaction flooded me. I lived for moments like this, when I knew I had succeeded in “fixing” someone. The fact that it was someone I cared about only added to my gratification.

“The worst is over,” I told her with a smile. “I’m going to check your hips again and then we’ll be finished for today.” She said nothing as I worked my way down to her hip joint. She giggled and her pelvis twitched under my fingers.

“Sorry, I’m ticklish there,” she apologized. Suddenly sexual impulses flooded me again at the knowledge of how sensitive the nerves were at the apex of her hip and groin. I pressed more firmly on the pressure points while I tried to suppress mental images of exploring the indentation from her thigh to her crotch… pushing the fabric of her panties aside …stroking the tender flesh there until she was wet and ready.

Holy fucknuts.

I removed my hands immediately and walked to the other side of the table, this time working on her left hip through the flannel sheet. I couldn’t afford to touch her skin anymore. I could barely look at her as I told her to get dressed, and I wondered if the huskiness of my voice gave away my lust. I also wondered if my touch ever felt sexual to her… if it sent her mind wandering to the same playground I always visited whenever I had my hands on her. Sometimes when she looked at me, I was sure she wanted me as much as I did her. Or was that just another trick played by my desperate mind?

I ditched my white overcoat in the laundry basket in the back room of the office, then removed my glasses and put them safely in their case. I really only need them for reading, but often wear them while working so that I don’t have to take them off and on all day just to make notations and read patient files.

I shoved the glasses case into a side pocket of the small backpack I had brought with me today. So far it contained only bottled water, a first-aid kit and bug repellent. I planned to take Bella to the coffee shop nearby and order a lunch to go.

I returned to the massage room, which Bella had vacated. I turned off the iPod and stripped the bedding from the table, resisting the urge to take a deep whiff of the sheets like I usually did. I threw them in the laundry basket, hoisted it up and carried it out front with the backpack. I had dressed in a t-shirt and jeans under my coat today so that I was ready to go.

Bella stood near the counter, pulling her long hair into a ponytail and wrapping a hair band around it. My favorite lock of hair drifted out of captivity and settled at the side of her face. Her eyes were bright and she smiled as I approached.

“I have to warn you, I’m not the most outdoorsy person you’ll ever meet. And not the most graceful, either. I hope you have a first aid kit with you,” she said, eying my backpack.

“I do, actually,” I said with a grin.

“You must be a mind-reader,” she joked.

“Or maybe I know you a little better than you think,” I suggested.

“Maybe,” she said dubiously, biting her lip.

I ignored the urge to kiss her and instead nodded my head toward the door. “Are you ready to go? I just need to put the laundry in my car and then we can grab some lunch.”

“Sounds good,” she replied, heading for the entrance as I followed close on her heels. When we got there, she pulled the door open and held it for me since my hands were full.

“You didn’t need to do that,” I admonished. “But thanks.”

“I wanted to. And you’re welcome.”

She followed me silently to the Volvo and waited as I deposited the laundry basket in the trunk. I led her around the corner to the café, where Bella surprised me by ordering my favorite sandwich, the chipotle chicken. I ordered the same, plus some kettle chips and their truly decadent cheesecake brownies for dessert. I didn’t know if Bella had a sweet tooth, but it was better to be safe than sorry. She didn’t seem like one of those girls who pretends to eat only salad and then chows down on Ben and Jerry’s in secret every night. If she wanted a brownie, I hoped she would just take one. I stowed everything in the backpack and we headed back to my car.

“Why don’t I drive us there, and then I’ll bring you back to your car later,” I suggested.

“Sounds good,” she agreed. I opened the passenger door for her and she smiled up at me as I closed the door behind her. She did say she liked a guy with manners. That’s good news for me. My mother would have a conniption if any of her children were ill-behaved, and she drilled proper etiquette into our heads at an early age.

The drive to Seward Park from our office was about twenty minutes when the traffic wasn’t bad. I turned on the radio and let Bella choose the station, unsurprisingly a local one that played some lesser known artists. We listened without speaking for a few moments, and I began to worry that we were both too shy to even have a normal conversation together without anyone else around.

“Have you been to this park before?” I asked, determined to end the awkward silence.

“A couple of times, with some college friends. We had a picnic and the guys went kayaking. It’s really pretty, from what I remember.”

“I love it because it’s got a little bit of everything. Swimming, hiking, a playground for kids. My parents used to take us to Seward Park all the time when I was a kid. You can’t beat the views, either,” I said.

“So you grew up in Seattle?” Bella asked.

“Yeah. My folks have a place on Bainbridge Island. They keep talking about finding a place in Bellevue or Mercer Island so dad wouldn’t have to take the ferry every day, but they like the shoreline property and it’s been in Mom’s family for years, so they’re kind of attached to it,” I explained.

Bella let out a low whistle. I gave her a questioning glance.

“I kind of guessed that you came from a wealthy family. Despite the holey clothes,” she added with a laugh as she looked at my bare knee poking through my jeans.

“We do all right. I’m not into flaunting it, though. And I make my own way, for the most part. My apartment is the only thing I don’t pay for, since my family owns the property.” I hoped I didn’t sound too defensive, but I really hate judging or being judged on any kind of class system. We all put our pants on one leg at a time.

“I wasn’t trying to imply that you’re spoiled or anything. You seem really grounded, like you had a good upbringing. By a family who loves you, I mean,” Bella said, starting to sound flummoxed. “I’m sorry, this is just not coming out right.”

“You’re fine,” I assured her. “I didn’t take it that way. It’s true that I had a privileged upbringing. Maybe it shows more than I think it does.”

“No, it doesn’t. I mean, it does show in the way you carry yourself--the way you behave, like a gentleman. But you don’t come across snobby or arrogant or entitled at all. None of you do. Your parents did a good job raising you, I think. I like your dad a lot, from the little I know. He was really helpful when I went to see him after I hurt my back again. He sent me to you and Emmett,” she reminded me.

“My dad’s a good guy. He has good intentions, anyway,” I allowed. He never voices the disappointment I see in his eyes sometimes, at any rate, I added mentally.

“What about you?” I asked her, eager to change the subject. “I get the impression you didn’t grow up in Seattle.”

“I didn’t,” she confirmed. “My parents were both from this area originally. Dad was content to remain a small-town cop on the northwest peninsula, but my mom was itching to get out and see the world. They married young and had me pretty quickly, but then Mom grew more and more restless. They finally divorced and Mom and I moved to Phoenix. She wanted to go someplace where the sun was always shining.”

She stopped and looked out the window at the blue skies overhead as we cruised down Columbian Way. I waited for her to continue, but she remained silent.

“So you came back up north to go to college?” I questioned, anxious to hear the rest of her story.

“No, actually I moved in with Dad when I was sixteen. Mom and her new husband were talking about moving to Florida and I didn’t really want to go there. So I ended up in the tiny town of Forks with my dad. Kind of a big culture shock at first,” she said with a tiny grin, finally looking back at me. “But I got used to it. Now this seems more like ‘home’ to me.”

“Well, I’m glad you stayed here,” I told her. “Otherwise I never would have met you.”

She looked up at me in surprise, and then pink crept into her cheeks. I wondered how she could doubt my interest in her. I felt as transparent as cellophane, struggling continually to hide my feelings.

Bella was quiet after that, but the silence didn’t seem uncomfortable this time. We listened to the radio and made small talk about the songs that were playing. Every time I took my eyes from the road to glance at her, she wore a tiny Mona Lisa smile. She looked happy. She looked like I felt.

Once we arrived at our destination, I chose the parking area closest to the wooded trails and was lucky to find a spot. The park was crowded today. Plenty of Seattle natives were taking advantage of the nice weather to jog, walk their dogs or have picnics.

“I thought we’d start on the dirt trails that go through the woods, if that’s okay,” I told Bella as we got out of the car. “Less crowded than the loop.”

“Sure,” she said amiably, following my lead as we started down the paved path that circled the island. We took the first marked entrance to the forest, and within minutes we were swallowed under a tranquil canopy of green. Only the sound of our footsteps, and the occasional bird, met our ears.

“It’s really beautiful here,” Bella said at last, staring up at the massive firs, cedars, hemlocks and yews as we walked. “It feels sort of …sacred.”

“This is one of the few places left around Seattle that has old forest growth,” I informed her. “Some of these trees are over 250 years old.”

She smiled up at me and said, “Thanks, tour guide. So what other nuggets of information do you have for me?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “God, I sound exactly like my father. He loves this shit. He used to make us all learn the different trees and ground cover when we came out here. Some of them are native to the area and some aren’t. I’ve forgotten a lot of it, but if he were with us right now, he’d be giving you the lowdown, believe me.”

“That’s cool, though, that your dad took time to teach you stuff. My dad did take me fishing with him a couple of times when I was a kid, but he gave up after I refused to kill the worms by putting them on the fishing hooks,” Bella laughed. “He was not impressed with my campaign to save the poor, defenseless bait.”

“I can just see you, all riled up over the injustice of it all,” I grinned at her. “I’ll bet you were cute at that age.”

“I was cute until about eleven. Then the dorky years began. I grew so fast that I was nothing but skinny, uncoordinated limbs everywhere. You do realize you’re hanging out with a closet geek, right? Geekdom never truly disappears. Once you’ve lived there, it sticks with you.”

“Is that so?” I said, giving her a once-over. As pale and reedy as she still was at twenty-two, I could believe that she was quite thin and gawky during puberty. I suddenly felt overly protective of her, wishing I could go back in time and clobber anyone who made fun of her or picked her last for their team in gym class.

“Yes, it is. Not that you would know anything about that. You were always popular, with your pick of girlfriends, right?” she guessed.

I was unsure how to respond. “I did all right,” I finally admitted.

“I’ll bet you did,” she said with a snort. “There are people in this world who are empirically beautiful…people who are universally acknowledged as being attractive. That’s you. Then there are people whose looks grow on you when you get to know them better, and people who start off as ugly ducklings and then finally blossom into swans.”

“And which category do you think you fall into?”

“The grower,” she said with a shrug. “To know me is to love me,” she added with a self-deprecating laugh.

I stopped dead in my tracks. Bella took a few steps forward, then turned and gave me a puzzled look.

“The very last thing you said is the only true sentence that’s come out of your mouth in the last minute,” I told her. “The rest is complete crap.”

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, then furrowed in confusion.

“You really don’t have any clue, do you?” I said in amazement.

“About what?” she demanded.

“How beautiful you are.”

She stared at me with huge doe eyes, uncomprehending.

“Has no one ever told you that before?” I asked in disbelief.

She regarded me silently for a moment. “You’re the first person who makes me believe it,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper.

I closed the distance between us with a few steps, then reached out and gently tucked her ubiquitous stray lock of hair behind her ear. I ran my fingers along her jaw and under her chin, tilting her face upward.

“The other men in your life have been fools,” I said, running my thumb along her plump bottom lip.

“There haven’t been any men in my life. Only boys,” she answered.

“Then let me be your first,” I whispered, lowering my face gently to hers. Her lips were tantalizingly close, her breath warm on my face. I wanted to taste her so badly that my mouth was watering. I watched her eyes close and her lips part slightly; my face mimicked hers as I leaned down closer. At last my lips brushed hers, light as butterfly wings; tentative, searching, asking for permission. In answer, her lips--so soft, so tender--began to press more firmly against mine. I raised my other hand to her face, holding it gently, caressing her silky skin. I was about to deepen our kiss, to taste her with my tongue, when a cacophony of voices met my disbelieving ears.

Bella jumped away from me slightly. I raised my head to see where the infernal, cursed noise was coming from. A large group of hikers was rounding the bend just ahead, their chatter preceding them and ruining what could have been a perfect moment. It was a good thing I wasn’t armed, because I wouldn’t have left a single one of them standing.

Bella let out a ragged breath as she drew back, her face flushed, suddenly bashful. She was adorable. I wanted to put my arm around her and pull her to me as we began to walk again, but I settled for staying close by her side as the talkative group approached. By the time they would finally be out of earshot, I knew the romantic moment would have long since passed. I supposed I should have thanked them for saving me from giving in to temptation.

The problem was, I no longer wanted to be saved.