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.


  1. Please, don't make Edward do anything too stupid! I loved this chapter, it was so sweet and real. :)The kiss was great and I love this Edward so much. Well, at least when he's not being an idiot. ;) I'd hate to see him screw everything completely up. I have a bad feeling about James and what's about to happen, though. :(

  2. Hi honey! Don't worry too much about James--he's really just a means to an end. He won't be around for long.

    I'm kind of partial to my Edward as well! ;) He has some issues to work out, though, for sure. Even if he does screw things up, have no fear, I will put Humpty Dumpty back together again. :) You know I can't keep Edward and Bella at odds for long! I wouldn't want to anyway.

    Thank you for reading and leaving such lovely comments! I appreciate it! (((hugs)))

  3. This is such a fun read! Edward is wonderful the way he wants her, and the way he berates himself. And Bella herself is so cool; she appears to know what she's doing (but probably has her own self-doubts). I loved the KISS, the cat fondling, and the clever inner and outer dialog. Can't wait for what happens next!!!

  4. Thank you hunnybunny! Yes, from Edward's POV, Bella comes across as the cool one while he's all over the place. Then her POV will be the opposite! Those two crazy kids. ;) I can't wait for what happens next, either. Wonder what it'll be? LOL ;D