“Edward,” I exclaimed, a tiny thrill shooting through me despite his obviously inebriated state. “I didn’t think you were going to show.”
“Surprise,” he said in a rather caustic tone. It sounded almost like an accusation. But of what?
My excitement sputtered slightly, then fizzled as I looked uneasily at his skeevy-looking friend. The way he kept eye-balling me gave me the heebie-jeebies. I stared back at Edward, itching to slap the stupid hazy grin off of his face. I couldn’t decide if he looked like an idiot, or sexy as hell. Maybe both.
“So this is her?” the ponytail guy asked, pointing the bottleneck of his beer back and forth between me and Edward. He made the question sound more like a statement, as if he already knew who I was. I immediately wondered what Edward had told him about me.
“Oh, I’m sorry, please excuse my rudeness,” Edward replied with exaggerated politeness. He was so sloshed that everything coming out of his mouth seemed to smack of sarcasm. “This is Isabella Swan, my favorite client. Isabella, this is James Lawrence, an old drinking buddy of mine from college.”
“Clearly,” I muttered to the drunks, begrudgingly holding my hand out to shake James’. He took it and brought it to his lips for a kiss instead. I fought the urge to wipe the back of my hand on my jacket as soon as he released it. He was slimy. That was the only word for him. He was the kind of guy I’d always avoided when I was in college myself. The kind of guy I avoided now, for that matter. I couldn’t believe this was an example of the sort of people Edward used to hang out with.
“She’s cute,” James shrugged, taking a sloppy swig of his beer. “Not really your type, but you know, it’s been awhile. Maybe your type has changed.”
I glared up at Edward, getting more irritated with him by the second. How could he stand there and let this jerk talk about me like I wasn’t even there? Worse yet, he was back to calling me by my full name, as if I were on trial and he were the judge. That was pretty rich, considering he should be the one feeling guilty right now.
“How much have you had to drink?” I demanded. It wasn’t even 10:30 yet.
“How much have we had, Edward?“ James mused. They snickered at one another like kids who’d just been caught raiding the cookie jar.
“Not that much,” Edward scoffed. “But I guess it depends on your definition of ‘too much.’ Is a fifth of whiskey too much, Miss Swan?”
I definitely wanted to slap him now.
“Well, apparently it’s not enough, since you still remember her name,” James replied with a derisive laugh. His words knocked the wind out of me and I staggered back.
“That’s enough,” Edward ordered, raising his arm in front of James’s chest, as if to keep him away from me.
I turned my disbelieving eyes on him. “What the hell have you been saying about me?” I demanded, stunned that Edward would be talking about me behind my back, especially with someone I didn’t even know.
“Nothing. He’s just being an asshole,” Edward tried to placate me as he gave James a warning look.
“Oh, he’s being an asshole? Glad you cleared that up for me,” I retorted.
“At least he’s not macking on other girls right in front of your face,” James accused.
“That’s enough!” Edward repeated, his voice now a menacing snarl as he glared at his friend.
I gaped at them in undisguised shock. What the hell was James talking about? The only thing I could think of was that he and Edward had witnessed the kiss Jake had given me, and that had been over an hour ago, before the band even began playing. As understanding dawned, I could feel rage begin to bubble deep in my veins.
“Have you been sitting back here spying on me all night?” I exclaimed, giving Edward a look of utter disbelief. That kind of behavior seemed so beneath him, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the thought of him stooping that low.
James, however, was another story. My eyes narrowed at him as he continued to spew his vitriol. “I wouldn’t call it spying,” he said with a smirk. “More like a general observation. I mean, you are in a public place, where anyone can see your little band-boy slobbering on you.”
I shook my head, still barely able to comprehend what was happening. I looked up at Edward’s guilty, impotent face and truly wanted to smack some sense into him. I’d never felt so close to committing physical violence before, but I wanted to in the worst way right now.
“I can’t believe you,” I unloaded on him at last, trying to keep my voice from quivering. “I’ve been sitting up there with my bosses and your brother this whole time, and you never even bothered to say hello? Let alone come sit with us, like a normal person would. Instead you’re hiding back here, getting bombed off your ass? Unbelievable. You are seriously fucked in the head, Edward.”
He looked like he was about to protest, so I quickly cut him off. “Speaking of your brother, I’m sure he’s wondering where I am right now. So unless you want him to come looking for me, I’m going back to our table and try to pretend I never even saw you here.”
I spun on my heels and took off for the front of the club before the tears could come, and before Edward could stop me. Would he even try? He was too hammered to catch me anyway, I thought bitterly as I stormed off.
Wrong, on all counts. I felt his hand close around my arm, gentle but firm, yanking me to a halt. And one blasted tear was already streaking down my face as he turned me around to face him.
“Bella, please. I need to talk to you.” He was using the Masseur Voice now: low, calm, persuasive. Even swimming in alcohol, his eyes managed to penetrate all my angry defenses and pierce my soul.
“About what?” I spat, trying to keep my anger on full boil.
“Everything,” he answered simply. He looked serious. As serious as a completely smashed individual can be, anyway.
And just like that, I felt my furor reduce down to a low simmer. I’d been trying to get Edward to open up since I met him. If it took a gallon of booze to loosen his tongue, then so be it.
“Come sit with us. Talk to me,” I offered.
He shook his head, frowning. “No, I don’t want to embarrass you in front of your colleagues. That’s why I’ve been staying out of your way.”
“Then why did you get so wasted?” I said with an exasperated sigh.
“Because I’m seriously fucked in the head,” he replied. Repeating my words seemed like an act of contrition, an admission that I was right. His eyes were plaintive. “Come outside with me for a minute.”
I shook my head. “My bosses are backstage with the band right now. I need to be here when they come back.”
“It’ll only take a couple of minutes, I promise.”
I wanted to tell him to go to hell. But behind the alcoholic fog, there was a desperation in his eyes that I could not ignore. It called to me like a siren, and I knew I had to answer the call.
“Let me go find out what’s going on. I’ll make an excuse and meet you outside in a few minutes,” I begrudgingly agreed.
He leaned in close to me, his hand resting on my collarbone, and my heart raced accordingly. “Thank you,” he whispered. His lips brushed the delicate bones of my ear, sending a surge of endorphins flooding through my body.
I tore my eyes from his heavy gaze and shakily made my way back to the front of the club. As luck would have it, Rosalie, Mark and Sam were emerging from the backstage area at the same time, and we all converged at the table. Their satisfied smiles told me that The Wolf Pack becoming the newest client on our roster was practically a done deal.
“You’ve got some very happy friends back there, Bella,” Rose beamed at me. “You might want to go congratulate them.”
“Oh my God, that’s awesome!” I exclaimed, relieved to hear some good news. “You won’t be sorry,” I told Mark and Sam. “I’ve known these guys a long time, and their work ethic is second to none.”
“I’ve seen enough to know that,” Mark grinned, looking a little nostalgic. “The raw material is there. We can do the rest and let them concentrate on harnessing that energy we just saw. Nice find, Bella.”
“Thanks,” I said, blushing modestly. After all, how hard was it to “find” a talented group of guys you’d grown up with?
“This calls for a toast,” Emmett declared, refilling all of our glasses from the pitcher he’d just ordered.
“To Bella and Rosalie,” Mark said, raising his beer.
“To The Wolf Pack,” I suggested instead as I lifted my glass.
“And Java Noise,” Rosalie smiled.
Everyone touched glasses and took a hefty gulp. Emmett winked at me and then gazed at Rosalie, clearly smitten. She smiled seductively back at him, happy to be in her element, closing another successful deal. I had the feeling Emmett was going to get lucky tonight. And all things considered, I thought Rosalie was pretty lucky, too. I wished Edward could have a fraction of Emmett’s open candor.
“Why don’t you go backstage and see the guys?” Rose suggested. “They’re celebrating pretty heavily, so I hope they’re sober enough to do their second set,” she laughed.
“I can imagine,” I smiled. I wasn’t sure if I could deal with any more inebriated males tonight, but I figured I’d better make an appearance before the band went back onstage. Besides, I was truly excited for them, and glad they were joining our label. I’d deal with Jake’s infatuation later.
Sam guided me to the backstage area, where I was greeted by a champagne-soaked Jake the minute he saw me.
“Bells!” he hollered, rushing up and grabbing me in his muscular arms. “You heard the good news?”
“I did,” I grinned. “Congratulations! I’m not surprised though. I knew they’d love you.”
Jake whirled me around a couple of times and I couldn’t help but laugh at his enthusiasm. “We couldn’t have done it without you,” he said as he finally set me down. “Thanks for going to bat for us. I won’t forget it.”
I couldn’t quite meet his eyes as they grew serious. “Well, you’d better not. The hard part is just beginning, you know. Recording a CD, promoting, touring, fighting off groupies,” I joked.
“Are you kidding? That’s like a vacation, all of it!” he laughed. “Besides, you’re going to be with us for all of it, right?”
“Well, yeah, pretty much. I mean, you’ll be working with a lot of other people, but Rose and I will still be kind of overseeing everything and helping to promote you. We aren’t going to disappear or anything.”
“I can’t wait,” he grinned, his eyes shining with excitement and a little something else that made me uneasy.
“Me neither,” I said a little less buoyantly. I was beginning to fear that he was coming in for another kiss. I was grateful when the rest of the Wolf Pack interrupted us to tell me thanks for getting their feet in the door. I congratulated them all and glanced surreptitiously at my watch, wondering how long Edward would wait for me.
The band was due back onstage shortly, and they excused themselves to get ready. As Jake tried to corner me again, I noticed a red “exit” sign over his shoulder on the far wall.
“I need to call Angela and I can’t get any reception in here,” I fibbed, gesturing toward the door behind him. “I want you guys to kill it out there, okay?”
“You know it,” Jake grinned. He pulled me in a quick hug but nothing more, then released me and bounded back toward the stage. I sighed with relief and zoomed toward the side door, hoping it was unlocked. It opened easily and I walked out into the summer night, enjoying the warmth that still lingered under the moonless sky.
I peered around in the dark, trying to take in my surroundings. The door had opened into a narrow alleyway between the club and its restaurant neighbor. The rank aroma of a dumpster to my left sent me wandering off in the other direction, toward the road, where a single street lamp cast circle of illumination on the pavement below. Silhouetted in its backlight was a tall, lanky figure leaning against the side of the building. I watched as he raised one hand to his face, creating a tiny red glow that flickered and then dimmed. The burning tip of a cigarette, I realized. As I drew closer, I recognized the lean lines of his long torso and limbs; the disarray of his hair.
“Edward?” I whispered.
He turned toward me, but I couldn’t quite see his face in the dark. I approached him slowly, sure it was him, but still wary in case my senses were wrong.
“Bella?” he replied, his velvet voice sounding as surprised as mine did. He had been looking for me in the direction of the front sidewalk, not the back door.
“I’m sorry I took so long,” I apologized, though I wasn’t certain he deserved an apology. “The band’s getting signed. I just came from congratulating them backstage.” I motioned to the side entrance in explanation.
He nodded and took another drag from his cigarette. “That’s great. I’m happy for you.”
I stepped closer, moving around so that I could see him better in the street light. Its pale blue rays carved his face into an architecture of perfect masculine beauty.
“Did he kiss you again?” Edward asked. His eyes were hard to read in the low light, but the annoyance in his voice was impossible to miss.
“No. And if he had, I would have turned my head.”
He took another puff from his cigarette. I hate smoking. I especially hated how sexy he was making it look right now.
“I was right about him. He’s not giving up.” Edward exhaled loudly, turning his head to blow the putrid smoke away from my face.
“It doesn’t matter what he wants. I told you what I want. Now it’s your turn,” I said, throwing the ball in his court. I stared at him relentlessly until his gaze faltered and fell. He frowned down at his fingers, where his cigarette had burned down to ash. He dropped the butt, squashed it quickly with his black leather boot, and fumbled around in his pocket for another. It was clear that he was using his effort to light up again as an excuse to ignore my challenge.
“You’re smoking,” I observed, trying not to make it sound like a judgment. “Since when do you smoke?”
He studied me, perhaps trying to discern my feelings on the subject. Or possibly he was just trying to stay awake and upright.
“Since high school,” he said flatly, unapologetically. He put a fresh cancer stick to his lips and set a butane lighter flame to the tip, inhaling deeply.
I felt my irritation returning. “You wanted to talk to me. So talk.”
He twiddled the cigarette between his long fingers, then put it to his mouth again. He was nervous, although I wasn’t sure how he could be, as pickled as he was. Finally, he settled his skittish eyes on mine. They were luminous blue-green liquid in the streetlight.
“I had a great time with you today, and I’m sorry I fucked it up,” he said. His free hand reached for his hair and found its comfort, fingers burrowing, hiding. I waited patiently, knowing more was coming. He took a deep breath and continued.
“I’m sorry that I’ve been using lame excuses to keep you at a distance, when I’m the one who’s too much of a chicken-shit to let you in. I’m sorry that I pushed you away instead of facing my feelings for you. And I’m sorry that I wasted my time with a jackass like James tonight when I should have done the right thing by you instead.”
Were my ears ringing? I stared at him, dumbfounded. His string of honest declarations nearly flattened me. I would have been a lot more impressed if he hadn’t needed so much liquid courage to say them, but I figured we had to start somewhere.
His expression grew pensive as he waited for my reaction. I let him sweat a little longer, until his brows furrowed and he turned his attention to his cigarette again.
“I accept your apology,” I finally relented. When he looked back into my eyes again, I asked him, “Now, what are you going to do to make it up to me?”
He blinked at me a couple of times, and I realized he was probably trying very hard to focus. I raised an eyebrow at him and gave him the kind of suggestive look he was so good at. He exhaled in relief as a slow grin crept across his gorgeous mug. “I can think of several things. Quite a few, actually.”
“I’ll bet you can. Whether or not you’re able to act on them at the moment is another story,” I teased. By the looks of him, I figured he was about an hour away from passing out entirely unless I could get some good, strong coffee into him.
“Oh, I might surprise you, Miss Swan. In the past, I have proven to possess some fairly impressive skills, even while intoxicated,” he leered down at me.
“Well, it’s pretty impressive that you just uttered the word ‘intoxicated’ without slurring, I’ll give you that.”
“I want you to give me a lot more than that,” he murmured. He was leaning closer, venting a cloud of boozy smoke all over me, yet my body still instinctively stretched up toward his, yearning for his kiss. His face blurred as his lips came closer, and I could taste every evil he’d consumed this evening as I inhaled his breath. I made an involuntary face, then quickly placed my fingers over his beautiful lips before they touched mine.
“Huh-uh,” I refused him. “I’m still pissed at you for stalking me all night. That was despicably low, not to mention, immature. You’re going to have to work for my forgiveness for that one.”
He scowled petulantly. “I didn’t plan to spy on you. I didn’t even intend to come here. I called James because I just wanted to get drunk and forget everything for awhile, and he happens to be excellent in that capacity, if nothing else. We started off at a different pub, throwing back shots and chasers. He finally got me to admit what I was trying to escape from. Next thing I knew, he was getting a cab and dragging my ass here.
“Literally, the first thing I saw when I walked in the door was MonkeyBoy laying one on you, and I just… I don’t know. I wanted to punch that big fucking Ultra-Brite smile right off his face. I didn’t want to stay, but I couldn’t bring myself to leave, because you were here. I knew I was in no shape to meet your bosses, so I just sat and drank some more.”
I tried not to smile at the fact that he felt compelled to stay because of me, and that he referred to Jake as “MonkeyBoy.”
He shook his head and stared at me dolefully. “You know how when you’re drinking, you just keep thinking that one more will finally drown everything out, but it doesn’t, so you have another…and then another…?”
“Edward,” I sighed softly, reaching up to smooth the worried wrinkles from his brow. “I don’t have to tell you that doesn’t work. You can escape a lot of things, but you can never escape yourself.”
His eyes probed mine, the one lucid part of him that remained searching for something there. He looked tired. The lamplight etched shadows under his eyes that looked deeper than usual.
“I think you should get out of here and sleep it off. We can talk about all of this tomorrow,” I suggested. I began walking toward the front of the club, holding my hand out to him to follow.
“I’m fine,” he protested, sounding a little like a kid complaining that he was being sent to bed early. He grabbed my hand and began weaving clumsily, his feet unable to walk a straight line. “Wait, lemme finish this,” he mumbled, stopping short and sucking on the dregs of his cigarette as if the nicotine were his lifeline.
“You’re being ridiculous,” I told him, grabbing the stub out of his hand and tossing it to the alleyway. He gaped at me a moment, a child whose favorite toy had just been taken away.
“Now who’s being bossy?” he exclaimed, a slow smirk forming. “You’re right--it is sexy. Tell me what to do some more. Tell me what you like.” He rubbed his thumb suggestively along the inside of my palm, and just like that, the child’s play was gone.
“Come on,” I sighed, pretending to be highly irritated with him. In reality, a slow burn was beginning in my nether regions. I gave his hand a yank as I made my way toward the sidewalk again.
“Yes, mistress Swan,” he continued in that insane Sex Voice of his. How he managed to find and unleash it through all the booze was beyond me. “You have handcuffs in that handbag, by any chance?”
“You wish,” I shot back over my shoulder. He stumbled along after me, giggling like a schoolgirl. As we rounded the corner, Edward managed to trip on a crack in the pavement and nearly went down, then began giggling anew.
“Jesus Christ,” I swore, grabbing his arm and trying to pull him upright. “Do you want me to have to bandage you up like you did for me earlier?”
He smiled down at me. “I think I’d like that. I think you’d take good care of me.”
I wished he’d stop shooting all those little arrows straight through my heart. He still had perfect aim, even when he was seeing double.
“I think I’m going to have to,” I sighed. “I’m worried about you getting home in one piece tonight. I think you should stay at my place so I can keep an eye on you.”
That startled him into a second or two of sobriety before the mischief stole over his face again. “What will your roommate have to say about that? Is she into threesomes?”
“Angela is staying at her boyfriend Ben’s this weekend. And you’ll be staying on my couch,” I added immediately, before he could get in another crack.
“Naturally,” he agreed, though he sounded smug and expectant. I thought to myself that even if he did end up in my bed, he’d black out before he could lay a hand on me. What a shame.
I dug the cell phone out of my bag and dialed my usual cab company. I gave them the address while Edward leaned lazily on the railing outside the front door, grinning at me. The monstrous bouncer eyed Edward’s drunken posture suspiciously.
“We’re leaving in ten minutes,” I told the guy as I grabbed Edward’s hand and pulled him toward the front door, practically daring the doorman to separate us. Monster Bouncer rolled his eyes a bit as he checked our admission stamps and let us re-enter the club.
When I glanced up at Edward, he looked highly amused. “I like Bossy Bella. Very take-charge. I’m impressed. And more than a little turned on.” He grinned down at me, letting his heavy-lidded gaze settle on the non-existent cleavage of my v-neck shirt. I hoped he wasn’t a boob man, because he was sure to be sorely disappointed.
“Slow your roll, dude,” I said, making him giggle again. “I’m going to go make up an excuse to everyone. I’ll tell them I have a minor roommate emergency or something. You can come with me, if you’d like to say ‘hi’ to your brother,” I added acidly.
“I’ll take a pass, thanks. I have enough problems without getting an ass-kicking too.”
“Which you kind of deserve,” I couldn’t help but add as I turned to go.
“Don’t worry, I’m sure I’ll be hurting enough tomorrow without it,” he sighed. “I’ll find James and let him know I’m leaving, then meet you by the door.”
I nodded and headed to the front of the club, where the band was still jamming. A large crowd was gathered in front of the stage, dancing and cheering. I found Rose and Emmett cuddled together at their table, looking quite cozy and very much alone. They didn’t even see me until I was practically on top of them.
“Did Mark and Sam leave?” I yelled over the music to Rosalie when I got within earshot.
“Yeah, they did. No worries, though, they left right after you went backstage. Where the hell have you been? We were about to start combing the bar for you.”
“Angela called while I was backstage--she had a fight with her boyfriend. I had to go outside so I could talk on my cell. She’s pretty upset, so I’m heading home early. Give my apologies to the band, would you?” I felt a little guilty leaving Rosalie holding the bag. I looked at my watch and was a relieved to see that the band’s set probably wouldn’t last too much longer.
“Sure, no problem,” she smiled. Emmett nodded and waved good night over the din. I was glad that I didn’t have to explain anything to him. I felt guilty making up lies to cover for Edward’s behavior, but I couldn’t bear to send him off alone in a cab in his condition.
I searched room for James, as much as I hated to see him again. I finally found him at the bar, chatting up a heavily-painted blonde with massive cleavage spilling over her tight top. Edward was nowhere around. I looked by the front door, but he wasn’t there either.
I swallowed the bile that rose in my stomach as I approached, then tapped him on the shoulder. He swung around, his ponytail brushing against my hand and sending a wave of revulsion through me.
“Well if it isn’t the lucky lady who’s taking Edward home tonight,” he said sardonically.
I ignored his innuendo and asked, “Have you seen him?”
“He ran to the little boys room. If you’re lucky, he’ll hurl in there instead of at your place,” he laughed.
I gave him a withering look and turned to leave, but he was still talking.
“I have to hand it to you. I didn’t think I’d see Edward get himself tangled up with a girl for a long time after that whole mess with Tanya. I don’t know how you managed it, but you seem to have done a real number on him.” He looked me up and down in that way that made my skin crawl. “Maybe it’s because you’re so different from her.” He shrugged dismissively, then turned back to his slutty-looking conquest.
The bile rose again as I hurried away from him and headed for the restrooms. There was no line to the ladies’ room, so I went in and staggered toward the last stall. I was suddenly seized with a sickening insecurity that literally made me quake. I sat on the toilet, rocking back and forth, holding my middle.
That whole mess with Tanya. The words rang in my ears; the name filled me with inexplicable anxiety. Tanya. Was she part of the terrible, life-altering moment that Edward’s siblings had spoken of? A past girlfriend, obviously. Things must have ended badly. Very badly, for Edward to be so deeply affected.
He must have really loved her. A girl who was “so different” from me. Visions of women like Kate Denali danced in my head: long, lovely, tanned blondes with big boobs and curvy hips and toned legs and everything the polar opposite of my short, pale, slight self with the messy brown hair.
But for whatever reason, Edward Cullen was waiting outside for this tiny brunette, I reminded myself. And if I didn’t get out there soon, he might be in danger of passing out and getting himself arrested.
I pulled myself together and looked long and hard in the mirror, trying to see the good things that Edward told me he saw. Trying to see the beauty. If he saw it, it must be there somewhere, right?
I sighed and turned away from the glass, then made my way out to the front door. There he stood, leaning against the wall, looking bored and ready to nod off; and he was still the most gorgeous thing I’d ever seen. He could protest all he wanted, but he truly was empirically beautiful. No one could possibly think that about me.
And yet when he saw me coming, his face transformed. A broad smile pushed his pink cheeks upward and crinkled his eyes, his boredom replaced with happiness. He was indisputably happy to see me. I had to hang onto that, no matter what.
“I was beginning to think you ditched me,” he scolded gently as his arm went around me. I put mine around him as well, to help steady him as we exited the building. Our cab was waiting, and I considered it a miracle that no one had snagged it while I was having my mini-breakdown in the bathroom.
“I would never ditch you,” I assured him. He opened the cab door for me; I scooted over so that he could enter through the same door instead of going around.
“Thanks,” he whispered, placing his hand over my thigh and giving it a gentle squeeze. “How’s your knee?” He ran his fingers lightly over the fabric of my jeans where he knew the scrape was.
“It’s fine. You kissed it and made it better, remember?” I hooked my arm through his and laid my head on his shoulder. I needed his reassurance now.
He took my hand and slid his fingers between mine. I felt him rest his cheek against my hair; he let out a sigh. We rode in silence this way for several miles, bodies pressed together, warm and drowsy.
Edward was drowsy, anyway. I was still too preoccupied to relax. Finally, I could stand it no longer. I had to know.
“Edward, are you asleep?” I whispered.
“Hmmm? No,” he said groggily.
I took a deep breath. “Who’s Tanya?”
I felt the length of his body stiffen; his fingers gripped mine a little more tightly. “What makes you ask?”
Great, a question answered with a question. “James mentioned that he was surprised to see you ‘tangled up with a girl’ after ‘that whole mess with Tanya.’”
Edward was silent a moment. “What else did he say?”
“Nothing, really. Just that I’m very different from her.”
He squeezed my hand more tightly and began rubbing his thumb along mine. “That’s true, you are. Thank God.”
I pulled my head back to give him a quizzical look. He smiled gently and continued.
“She was a girlfriend in college, that’s all. I’m really not up to talking about our old girlfriends and boyfriends right now, if that’s all right.”
“Sure,” I agreed, not really eager to launch into my past with Mike Newton, either. There wasn’t much to tell. It was the typical short-lived college romance, doomed to fail by the time graduation rolled around. Mike certainly didn’t have the earth-shattering effect on me that I feared Tanya did on Edward.
Edward was snoring softly when the cab pulled up to my house. I hoped I could rouse him long enough to get him up the stairs.
“Hey, borracho, we’re here,” I spoke in his ear as I nudged his arm.
He grunted softly and mumbled, “Did you just call me a drunk?”
“Yes. A drunk who’s bi-lingual--impressive.”
“Tri-lingual. I also speak French. La langue d’amour,” he grinned, giving me a sleepy sideways look.
“Even better. A tri-lingual drunk with a one-track mind.”
“What, you don’t like the track I’m on?” he asked. “I don’t believe that.”
I ignored him and reached up to pay the cab driver. Edward immediately began to fish for his wallet, insisting on paying.
“I got it,” I told him, shooing his hands away. “You can pay me back tomorrow if you’re hell-bent on being chivalrous.”
“I am, and I will,” he declared as he swung the door open and stepped out of the taxi. He swayed slightly, but seemed to get his bearings by the time I joined him.
“Come on, Mister Stumbles,” I teased as I put my arm around his narrow waist and steered him toward the stairs.
“I’m starting to take offense to all this name-calling,” he grumbled as we climbed the steps, though he didn’t sound offended at all. He was still grinning like a loon. “I get it. I’m a drunken idiot. You don’t have to rub it in.”
“I know I don’t, but it’s fun,” I giggled as we trudged up the wooden staircase. “You’re actually pretty cute when you’re blotto. Well, when you’re not being an asshole. But I think I can blame a lot of that on your buddy James. I can’t believe you used to be friends with that guy.”
“Yeah, well, that was another life.” I couldn’t decide if he sounded relieved or wistful.
“Do you miss it?”
“No,” he answered emphatically. “Every time I think I do, something like this happens to remind me why I’m glad it’s over.”
“What do you mean by ‘it?’ Glad what’s over?”
“College. Bar-hopping. Hanging out with douche-bags like James. Being one myself.” His voice was brittle.
“Were you that bad?” I asked him. “Were you a womanizer?” I would have been surprised if he hadn’t been. He’s too good-looking not to have taken advantage of it at some point in his life.
“I had my moments,” he admitted. “I’ve done things I’m not proud of.”
“We all have,” I reassured him. I tried not to think about Edward’s past anymore, and how many women might have been in it. He was here with me now, and that was all that mattered.
We successfully reached the landing outside our duplex and I pulled my keys out of my purse’s side pocket.
“Welcome to my humble abode,” I said as I unlocked the door and pushed it open. I’d left a lamp on in the living room because I hate coming home alone to a dark house. I had no way of knowing that this time, I wouldn’t be alone.
“This is nice,” Edward said as his sleepy eyes perused the place. This was the first time I was glad he was inebriated, so maybe he wouldn’t notice the hodgepodge of mismatched furniture and décor Angela and I had gleaned from flea markets and garage sales.
“Eclectic,” he smiled. “Cozy.” Even drunk, nothing escaped him.
I pointed out the kitchen to the left and the bedrooms to the back, then motioned for him to follow me to the bathroom on the right. I showed him where the aspirin and antacids were in the medicine cabinet, then dug in the cupboards underneath until I came up with a brand new toothbrush.
“Here,” I said as I tore off the packaging. “You’re in luck, we have a spare. It’s yours.”
He stared at the toothbrush like I’d just handed him a key to Fort Knox.
“Wow. Thanks,” he said, giving me the strangest look, like he was deeply touched at my generosity. “You’re like a Girl Scout.”
“What, prepared? I guess so,” I laughed.
“Or maybe you have a whole drawer full of toothbrushes for all the guys you lure back here, and I’m just one of the many,” he joked.
I gave him a look that wordlessly expressed how ludicrous, even insulting, that was.
“I’m sorry,” he grinned. “I’m very grateful for this right about now.”
I left him to brush his teeth while I found clean blankets for the sofa. As I carried them out to the living room, I wondered how I was going to sleep, knowing he was in the next room. I certainly never imagined that the first time I spent the night with Edward, it would be under these circumstances.
I went to the kitchen and got him a glass of water and a vitamin, hoping it would ease his eventual hangover. When I came out of the kitchen, he was just leaving the bathroom.
“Minty fresh,” he proclaimed as he pointed at his delectable mouth. “Want a taste?”
He really was trying to kill me with the innuendos. From any other guy, they would have been laughable. But from Edward, even the lamest come-ons were tempting beyond belief.
“Maybe after I brush my own teeth,” I put him off. “Here, take this. It’ll help your hangover.”
He dutifully placed the vitamin on his impossibly pink tongue and washed it down with several gulps of water. “Man, I’m thirsty,” he commented as he downed the rest of the glass.
“Yeah, I’ll bet.” It felt strange, yet instinctively natural to be taking care of him like this. I was surprised at how much I wanted to do it, and how much I enjoyed it.
“Don’t forget, there’s aspirin and stomach medicine in the bathroom if you need it,” I reminded him. I was suddenly afraid I had just crossed the line into mother hen territory.
He smiled down at me. “I know. You just showed me.”
“Right,” I said sheepishly. “Okay. So… I’m just going to go get ready for bed. You can watch TV if you want--the remote’s on the coffee table. I made up the couch for you.”
“I see that. Thanks.” He didn’t move; just stood there, gazing at me, unblinking.
I could barely tear my eyes away, or make my body move. I mutely gestured toward the bathroom like a mime, then slowly made myself turn and head in that direction.
“Bella?” his voice called after me as I opened the bathroom door.
I whirled around, my face a question mark.
“I was right. You do take good care of me. And I like it.”
His voice was warm butterscotch, melting the last of my resolve, if I had any to begin with. What the hell was I thinking, making him sleep on my couch? Why wasn’t I dragging him into my bedroom instead?
I wrestled with that question as I smiled at him and closed the bathroom door behind me. I pulled my hair back and tied it in a hair band, then scrubbed the make-up off my face and brushed my teeth. I’d been ready for Edward to take me on his piano a few hours ago. And now that I had him here in my apartment, too drunk to fight me off--which he clearly didn’t want to do anyway--I was acting like a nervous virgin. Was it the way he’d been waffling earlier, pushing me away? He had apologized for that, and pretty impressively, under the circumstances. Or was I getting spooked by the ghosts that still seemed to haunt him, no matter what he said?
I stared at the extra toothbrush in the holder as I placed mine next to it. It seemed hugely significant somehow, like a marker of Edward arriving in my life. The Real Edward--serious, silly, smart, foolish, and everything in between. I’d wanted him so badly, and here he was. The emotional paralysis that threatened to take me was an eye-opener. I suddenly understood what had made Edward push me away earlier.
Was I really ready for this? It had been serious between us from the start. Anything that happened now was only going to carve his niche more deeply into my soul. But the alternative--walking away from him--was unthinkable. The only thing I could do now was be honest, with him and myself. I decided I’d play it by ear.
When I crept quietly out of the bathroom, I looked for Edward on the couch. It was empty. My eyes searched and found him across the room, leaning over the end table where several framed photos of me, Angela and our friends were displayed.
I cleared my throat; he straightened and turned. “It’s been a long day,” I heard myself say. “I’m going to get some sleep. Do you need anything else?”
His heavy eyes still seemed to gleam with hunger as he stared at me from across the room. He didn’t answer.
“Just yell if you do,” I said, my voice cracking pitifully. I cleared my throat again and hated the warm flush that began to creep over my face. “Good night,” I called as I escaped to my bedroom and shut the door behind me, cursing my cowardice. For better or worse, Edward and I were more alike than we ever dreamed.
I tried to comfort myself with the thought that I didn’t want my first time with Edward to be when he was too drunk to even remember it the next morning. For that matter, he might not even recall half the things he said to me tonight, including his apologies. Knowing my luck, he’d be calling me “Miss Swan” again in the morning, and not in a “handcuff me to the bed and give it to me now” kind of way, either.
I peeled off my clothes and donned my usual sleepwear, boy shorts and a cotton camisole. I turned on the fan and crawled into bed with no hope of falling asleep in the near future. I could think of absolutely nothing else but Edward on my couch. I wondered how many clothes he’d removed. What was he sleeping in? What if he was naked? Oh, God, how I longed to see him naked, to feel every inch of his skin next to mine. It seemed extremely unfair that he’d already studied nearly every part of my body with his hands, and I’d only had the pleasure of memorizing him with my eyes.
Just as I began fantasizing about going out to the couch and massaging him the way he had me, I heard a loud yowling noise, followed by a little cursing. I jumped out of bed and threw the door open, listening. Mild cursing continued in the direction of the kitchen. I ran around the corner and through the doorway, trying to see what was going on in the pale light streaming through the kitchen window. I finally discerned Edward leaning on the dining table, one leg crooked as he bent down and rubbed his foot.
“What happened?” I exclaimed. “Are you okay?”
“I stubbed my toe on the chair,” he grumbled. “It’s nothing.”
“Why didn’t you turn on the lights?” I asked him. “What do you need? Let me get it for you.”
I spied his empty glass on the table as he said, “I just wanted to get some more water.”
“Here, I keep a pitcher in the refrigerator,” I said as I grabbed his glass off the table and opened the refrigerator door. I got a few ice cubes out of the freezer and plopped them in the glass, then filled it with water. I turned around to hand it to him, and I froze.
He was wearing nothing but a pair of black boxer briefs. The light from the refrigerator spilled over his naked chest, illuminating the slight swell of his pectorals; his flat, pink nipples; the gentle ripples of his abdominal muscles; the smattering of light brown hair and moles that decorated his torso. That endless, long, inviting torso. I followed the trail of hair that joined his navel to his groin, growing thicker until it disappeared beneath the waistband of his underwear. My eyes continued their journey down to the rounded bulge between his strong, well-muscled thighs.
No, really, do it, I thought madly as I stared at his glorious physique. On the counter, over the kitchen table. I didn’t really care. I wanted him, now, however I could get him. Whatever hesitation I’d been feeling was erased with one look at what I’d been missing.
I finally had the sense to be vaguely embarrassed that I’d been openly ogling him, and I looked up sheepishly into his face. I needn’t have worried. His eyes were traveling the length of my body, up and down again, with equal intensity. Pins and needles of desire began to dance between my legs at the ravenous look on his face.
“What are you wearing?” he finally rasped.
Well, certainly nothing very sexy, I thought. “Is that a rhetorical question?” I asked.
He couldn’t seem to muster a laugh.
“Here’s your water,” I said lamely, holding out the glass. He stared at me like I’d gone mad, then finally took it from me and managed a few gulps.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he whispered hoarsely. He stepped closer and reached past me, setting the glass on the counter behind me. The refrigerator door swung shut as he pulled me closer, his hands cradling my face. I could feel his breath hot on my forehead as he towered over me, making me feel small and feminine. The pale moonbeams through the window flickered like flames in his eyes. They were fierce as they raked over me, and I felt that inferno building in him like I had earlier that day. But this time was different. This time, he was giving in, letting it out.
And this time, I was ready for him.