Friday, April 29, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 13 - Transformation, part 1

Edward Cullen’s Little Black Notebook
Sunday, August 22

When Jessica Stanley excused herself to go to the ladies’ room, I breathed a sigh of relief so strong that the orchid table decorations fluttered from the breeze. I’d never been so happy to have someone out of earshot in my entire life. It wasn’t her ears, but mine, that I was trying to spare. From the time that I picked her up at her apartment last night to the moment we settled at our table in my uncle’s vast back yard, she did not shut up. The tasteful chamber orchestra assembled halfway down the table-covered lawn could not compete with Jessica on a roll.

I knew she was a talker. Emmett warned me that I’d be sorry I asked her to the Black and Red Ball. I just didn’t know that it would be this bad. All of the qualities that made her a good receptionist--outgoing, enthusiastic, inquisitive--were the ones that were driving me bonkers now that I had to socialize with her outside of the office. In the short twenty minutes it took to drive to The Highlands, Jessica had managed to cover at least as many topics of conversation. I quickly apprehended that there was no point in trying to keep up. She really didn’t require any participation from me at all, other than the occasional nod and smile.

Her small talk started off just fine. She commented about how excited she was to represent Cullen & Cullen at the fund raiser, and how hard she would try to make a good impression on our business associates. But her prattle soon deteriorated into revelations of how long it took for her to get her hair done in its labor-intensive up-do, how expensive manicures and pedicures were these days, how difficult it was to find a dress that would accommodate “the girls” (which she illustrated by gesturing to her considerable cleavage with a self-congratulatory smile,) and how lucky I was to be a man so that I didn’t have to deal with such rigorous efforts to beautify myself.

That’s when I got worried. I had made it very clear to her that this was a business date only, and that she would be helping to represent our practice. After all, if Rosalie and Bella could play that hand, so could I. But now that Jessica was all glammed up for the big gala, she seemed to be regarding this as an actual date. I couldn’t imagine why else she would assume it was okay to discuss her anatomy so openly with her boss. Worse yet, I began to imagine the kind of poor impression she would make on our colleagues if she was as loose-lipped with them as she had just been with me. I hadn’t planned on having to police her all night long. Her behavior was always appropriate in the office, so I could only pray that she’d display the same sort of sense and self-restraint in a social setting.

As soon as Jessica disappeared into the house to use the guest bathroom, my eyes began to comb the grounds for signs of Bella in the growing crowd. I wondered what she’d be wearing. I was having difficulty imagining her in anything but jeans, her hair spilling down her back with wild abandon. I loved her hair that way. It never looked more glorious to me than the morning after I made love to her all night. I longed to muss her hair beyond recognition on a regular basis. I missed the smell of it and the feel of it between my fingers more than I ever knew it was possible to miss something.

That’s not even true. I missed so many things about her, I couldn’t count them all. But I felt it most acutely when last Saturday morning rolled around and I had no massage appointment with Bella. I hadn’t filled her spot with anyone else, either. I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It seemed silly to come into work on a weekend for only two appointments, and I wondered if I should just begin working Thursday afternoons again and forget Saturdays altogether.

Alice came to my rescue. During the time I normally would have treated Bella, my sister scheduled an appointment for me to meet with the tailor that our family had gone to for as long as I could remember. I didn’t argue with her; I knew it was time for me to get a new suit for the upcoming occasion. For the first time ever, I actually wanted to. I wanted to look good for Bella, and, quite irrationally, to one-up Jacob. I despised how superficially my mind was working in that regard. The whole upcoming affair felt like a bad script from an old “Dynasty” TV show episode.

But here I was, decked out head to toe in a Gucci suit that fit me like a glove. I’d never owned a set of clothes so meticulously fitted to every inch of my body, from the crisp white shirt to the slim trousers to the jacket that framed my shoulders perfectly and narrowed to a nipped two-button waist. When I tried it on this morning after the alterations were done, the tailor’s eyes gleamed with pride. I had to admit it looked incredibly sharp. I felt like real man in it somehow, instead of a kid playing dress-up. It was a surprising coming-of-age moment.

After giving the tailor a generous tip, I went and got a haircut to match. This was the cleanest-cut I’d looked since puberty. Mom would probably pass out from joy when she saw me. I had no idea what Bella’s reaction would be. I knew what I hoped it would be, but something told me she’d be just as happy to see me in jeans and a t-shirt, assuming she would be happy to see me at all. Alice assured me she would, but I still had my doubts.

“Edward, Edward!” An excited, high-pitched voice suddenly echoed across the terrace, followed by the sound of noisy footsteps rushing across the flagstones behind me. For a second I was terrified that I would turn to see Jessica and “the girls” bouncing my way. I looked over my shoulder and was relieved to see my eldest cousin’s four-year-old daughter running toward me at a pace that I was sure would result in her ending up with two skinned knees.

“Hey, slow down there, Batgirl,” I laughed as I left my seat and went to meet my second cousin, Lilly, halfway. She barreled toward me with arms outstretched, dark curls flying, face flushed and beaming as only a child’s can be. I leaned down and scooped her up in my arms, whirling her around a few times until she squealed with delight.

“How’s my favorite superhero today?” I asked her as I tucked my elbow under her rump and clasped my hands around her waist, holding her fast against me. The last time I had seen her at Uncle Bill’s birthday party last month, she had been dressed in a Batgirl costume that she refused to remove, even when it was dinner time.

“I’m good,” she grinned, throwing her dimpled arms around my neck. “Mommy made me take off my bat cape and leave it in the car, though,” she added with a pout.

“Well, your dress looks much prettier without it. The black cape doesn’t really match your pink and red flowers, now, does it? And the mask covers up your pretty face.”

She giggled impishly. “You’re pretty, too, Edward,” she said, one tiny hand tugging on the knot of my tie, the other tickling me behind the ear. “You got a haircut.”

“You noticed, huh? I did that just for your grandpa and my mom, so they’d be proud of me. But I still can’t hold a candle to you, Lillypad. Not only are you completely adorable, you’ve got flowers in your hair,” I pointed out.

“You can have one!” she exclaimed, reaching up to remove one of the dainty rosebud- entwined barrettes that held back her curls on either side.

“No, honey, those are for you. Boys don’t wear flowers. Boys aren’t pretty like girls are,” I corrected her. “Boys are handsome.”

“You’re handsome,” she amended, putting her hand to my face. “Ouch--scratchy,” she proclaimed with a grimace at the feel of my perpetual stubble. Before I could apologize, Lilly added, “She’s pretty.” She pointed over my shoulder, a huge smile on her face for whoever was behind me.

I shifted my little cousin on my hip and turned to see who she was talking about. Standing a few feet away was a stunning woman in a long, black dress that clung to her pale-skinned curves like the twilight clings to the rising moon. Her hair hung in perfect, symmetrical waves down one shoulder, curling over her breast and teasing the swath of cream-colored flesh exposed by the plunging neckline of her dress. Her lips were painted a lustrous garnet to match her purse and her mile-high heels. Lavender and smoke rimmed her eyes--the most beautiful, fathomless, glistening drops of Hershey’s syrup I’d ever seen.

I couldn’t stop staring. My mouth hung slightly ajar and my pulse raced. I tried to reconcile the freckle-faced, rain-soaked girl I’d first kissed in my car two weeks ago with the glamorous, sophisticated woman who stood staring up at me now. I had always thought Bella was beautiful, with or without make-up. She looked like a painted doll now, her skin flawless porcelain, her cheeks glowing pinker by the second as my incredulous eyes raked over her. I caught her doing the same to me. As her gaze swept up and down my body, I felt my dick stirring to life. Thank God it wasn’t on strike this evening.

“Isn’t she pretty, Edward?” Lilly demanded. The childish pitch of her voice thankfully dampened any further inappropriate thoughts or bodily functions on my part.

“No, Lilly. She’s beautiful,” I whispered loudly to her, never once taking my eyes from Bella’s. “Her name is even Italian for ‘beautiful.’ Do you know the Italian word for ‘beautiful?’” I finally tore my gaze away from Bella’s and fixed it upon my cousin’s eyes.

She shook her head “no.”

“It’s ‘Bella.’ This is Bella Swan. Bella, this is my second cousin, Lilly Platt,” I introduced them as I drew closer to my siren.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lilly,” Bella smiled, taking a couple of steps to meet us. Her dress parted and her long, ivory legs beckoned to me as she walked. Was she trying to kill me? She really didn’t have to try this hard.

“Your name is Beautiful Swan?” Lilly asked in wonder.

Bella laughed, but her blush deepened as she offered her hand to Lilly. My cousin obligingly reached out and shook it.

“I couldn’t possibly look as beautiful as you do,” Bella smiled. “Are you Edward’s date this evening?” She gave me a quick, rather sheepish glance.

No, but I wish I’d thought of that, I felt like saying.

Lilly burst into peals of giggles. “No, he’s my daddy’s cousin! He’s my favorite. But don’t tell Emmett!” She suddenly looked worried.

Bella smiled and leaned in to whisper confidentially, “Your secret is safe with me.” She smelled of flowers and spice.

Lilly gave Bella, then me, a serious look. “You are both beautiful,” she said sagely. “You should kiss, like my Barbie and Ken do.”

Bella let out a truncated laugh, then looked nervously up at me. My cousin’s reasoning tickled me thoroughly.

“Out of the mouths of babes,” I mumbled, raising an eyebrow at Bella. “Do you make your Ken and Barbie kiss, Lilly?”

“Yes. But they want to, so I don’t have to try very hard.”

“I don’t doubt that. So do you suppose you can make me and Bella kiss just as easily?”

Lilly’s face scrunched in consideration. “Well, I don’t know. You’re a lot bigger than my Barbies.”

Bella laughed again, and I joined her. It felt so good; it was such a relief. I knew we still had work to do, but I suddenly felt more confident about us than I had since our miscommunication ten agonizingly long days ago. Our eyes met again, and I hoped she could read the unspoken apology in mine. Alice had already told me that Bella felt bad about her parting shot at me that day. She only spoke the truth, and I had it coming after the way I botched delivering the news that I would no longer be her therapist. But I could see the “I’m sorry” in her expression now, a melancholy pleading that cut me to the bone. I couldn’t take any more sadness in her eyes, especially if I had put it there.

I was about to put my sentiments into words when the tiny girl on my hip piped up again. “She’s pretty, too. But not beautiful. Not Bella.”

I managed to stop staring at Bella long enough to recognize the figure approaching from behind her. Jessica wasn’t running, but she was bouncing all the same, her half-exposed melons bobbing up and down in perfect time with the tendrils of hair escaping her up-do.

“My God, Edward, this place is huge!” she exclaimed as she strode past Bella and planted herself next to me. “It took me ten minutes just to walk from the ladies’ room, through the entire first floor of this, hello, mansion, and across this monster terrace. I had no idea your family was this loaded!”

Bella stared at Jessica in chagrin, as did I. Jessica did not seem to register our disapproval, her attention now captivated by the child in my arms.

“Oh my God, who is this? Could she be any more adorable? I seriously doubt it. I’m Jessica. What’s your name?”

Confronted with this new, rather loud personality, shyness suddenly overcame my cousin. She promptly buried her face in my jacket rather than answer the question.

“Come on, now, Lillypad,” I coaxed her gently, stroking her silky curls. “Don’t be shy. Jessica is nice. She works for me and Emmett at our practice. She’s our receptionist. She answers our phone and makes appointments for us and all kinds of very important things.”

Lilly turned her head slightly so that one eye could peer out at Jessica. She quickly hid her face again, giggling at this new game.

“Aw, it’s okay,” Jessica smiled, tickling Lilly under the arm. Lilly squirmed and clung to me more tightly. “I was shy, too, when I was your age, believe it or not.”

I was inclined toward “not.”

“Bella, good to see you!” Jessica continued, turning her restless attention to the next victim. “I didn’t know you’d be here. Who are you here with?”

Bella glanced at me briefly and the pink seeped into her cheeks again. “I’m here with some work colleagues, actually. My bosses and a friend.” She gave me a pointed look as she uttered that last word. “It’s kind of a work function--a little PR for our company.”

“Oh, well, join the club,” Jessica laughed with a nod at me. “Edward finally decided he could trust me to represent Cullen and Cullen in public without embarrassing him.” She meant it as joke, but I couldn’t help wincing. Bella caught my expression and bit her lip quickly. I knew she was holding in her laughter.

And I knew that I was hopelessly in love with her.

“Edward, where’s my daddy?” Lilly interrupted plaintively, her eyes scanning the burgeoning red-and-black-attired throng.

“I don’t know, honey. Why don’t we go find your parents, okay?” I suggested. She nodded happily.

As I turned to go, I asked, “Can I bring you ladies some drinks on my way back?”

Jessica immediately gave me her order. “I’d love a rum and Coke. Or is that too low-brow for a party like this? How about one of those apple-tini things? Ooh-ooh, no, a mojito!”

I tried very hard not to cringe again. “Sure,” I agreed. “Bella?”

“Nothing for me, thanks. Jake is actually getting us drinks right now,” she said quietly, biting her lip again.

“Of course,” I replied, my words more clipped than I intended.

I excused myself and went off in search of my cousin Steve so that I could return his pride and joy. I found him and his wife talking with my Uncle Bill. It seemed they were in search of Mom, who was no doubt running around after the caterers to make sure that the platters of hors d’oeuvres and champagne were being circulated properly, and that the dinner was going to be served on time. I offered to go look for her, in no hurry to return to my date, nor to see Jacob return to Bella’s side.

I found Mom in the kitchen with Bill’s wife Liz, buried behind the massive center island, checking under the lids of warmers and counseling the staff as if they were about to present dinner to the Pope instead of a group of charitable Seattleites.

“Why don’t you let them do their jobs, Mom?” I suggested gently as I leaned over the numerous baskets of gourmet breads, fruits and cheeses covering the island countertop. “That’s what you’re paying them for.”

She looked up in surprise, then shock. Did I look that different? A big grin lit up her face. She was the most effortlessly lovely woman I’d ever known, never more so than tonight in her elegant red gown, though it was now covered with a large apron encouraging anyone nearby to “Kiss The Cook.”

“Edward!” she exclaimed at last, removing an oven mitt from her perfectly manicured hand. “You look so handsome.”

“Shocking, I know,” I replied. She rolled her green eyes at me and shook her head, one wisp of honey-colored hair escaping her chignon and teasing her face as she hurried around the island to greet me.

“You always look handsome. But you don’t always look clean,” she laughed as she gave me a hug.

“Amen,” Aunt Liz interjected as she hastily re-arranged a platter of crudités, to the dismay of the server about to carry it out to the guests.

“No comments from the peanut gallery,” I protested. Liz gave me a good-natured wink.

Mom grabbed my hands in hers and looked me up and down. “Oh, honey. You’re really all grown up. I mean, I’ve known that for awhile, but… you just look so mature tonight. Like a real gentleman,” she gushed.

“Well, you did raise me to be one. I guess it finally took hold despite all my efforts to avoid it.”

“Stop,” she ordered, giving my hands a squeeze. “You’ve always been a perfect gentleman, from the time you were a little boy.”

I guffawed loudly at that. “I’m glad I’ve had you so thoroughly fooled this entire time. It did make my teenaged years a lot easier.”

Her eyes raised to the ceiling once more. “I know you’re no angel. But you have a good and courageous heart. And tonight, the outside looks just as dashing as the inside.”

I couldn’t help but smile, for a fleeting moment feeling like that bashful little boy whose mother’s approval meant the world to him. Courageous heart. That’s what I wanted more than anything. Maybe tonight I would find it.

I leaned in and gave her a kiss on one rosy cheek. “You look beautiful, Mom. And the outside has always matched the inside.”

I thought she was going to tear up over that one. Instead, she seemed to shake herself slightly before quickly pulling the apron over her head and tossing it to a nearby counter.

“All right, my handsome son. Let’s go greet our guests.”

I offered my arm and she took it. We glided out to the loggia and chatted briefly with the guests who lingered there. Then Mom and I descended the steps to the crowded terrace and began the formal mingling. I forced myself to search for the fire-engine red satin dress that contained my date rather than seek out Bella, ten times more elegant in her basic black. I finally spotted Jessica with Emmett and Rosalie. I motioned for my brother to come our way, and he brought both girls with him.

We made the appropriate introductions; both Jessica and Rosalie managed to defy their true natures and give my mother gracious, genteel greetings. Esme Cullen has always been warm and fun-loving, but carries herself with such poise and grace that she seems to inspire the same behavior in others. I’ve watched her perform the miracle time and time again, and this evening was no different. My mother and father have always effortlessly commanded--and received--respect. And I’ve always admired them for it.

I apologized to Jessica for not getting her drink, and excused myself to visit the open bar that had been set up on the far side of the terrace. I wondered how many mojitos she would be able handle before she became loopy. I hoped it would take a few so that I wouldn’t have to worry about what she’d say or do. I ordered myself a gin and tonic with the intention of nursing it slowly. I would not allow a repeat performance of my disastrous drunken behavior two weeks ago. No matter what, tonight I was going to make damned sure I kept my wits about me. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t stop plotting and planning about the outcome of this evening. I didn’t care that Bella came to this party with Jacob Black on her arm, or that I had made the woeful mistake of bringing Jessica Stanley.

Tonight, Bella Swan would be coming home with me.

I was halfway back to Jessica and the others, a drink in each hand, when I spotted them: Bella, Jacob, my father and a couple of his doctor friends, chatting amiably near the table I’d left earlier. My footsteps lagged as I stared at Bella. The sight of her literally took my breath away. I didn’t understand how the men around her could be carrying on with their banal chit-chat, seemingly oblivious to her jaw-dropping beauty. Even Jacob had a benign smile playing at the corner of his lips, his wandering gaze distracted by the splendor of the Platt family estate. Maybe I was simply used to the posh surroundings, but I’m pretty sure I could be at the Taj Mahal and see only Bella if she were there with me.

She must have felt the weight of my eyes upon her, for hers began to stray in my direction. I slowed my pace even more, waiting, willing her gaze to find mine. A moment later, it did. I felt the tremor of the impact, a quick jolt of adrenalin feeding my hunger for her, as our eyes met and consumed. I tried to manage a smile and nod, then faintly motioned to my mom and the others as my leaden feet trod in their direction. I had no desire to go anywhere except toward Bella.

Her lips parted, the upper one twitching slightly at one corner. Her smile was slow to come as well. Her enormous eyes were doing all the talking, beseeching, inviting me in. I wondered how loudly my own were crying “yes” in answer. But somehow my legs continued independently of my wishes, returning me to my obligations of the moment. My eyes were the last to grudgingly follow suit.

“Oh, awesome, thanks!” Jessica blurted with gusto when I handed her her tall, mint-leaf infused drink. She took a sip and declared, “Oh-em-gee, this is, like, so freaking good.”

I took a generous swig of gin and enjoyed the faint metallic taste of it on the back of my tongue. I had the feeling it would be all I could do to keep myself from knocking back one after the other just to get through the evening.

Instead, I let the drink grow tepid in my hand as I made the rounds with Mom, Emmett and our dates, greeting old family friends as well as new. I was grateful that Jessica seemed to be just intimidated enough by the upper-crust guest list to remain relatively quiet as the schmoozing continued. Rosalie introduced us to the higher-ups from Java Noise and their wives when they arrived, and they appeared a bit gob-smacked to discover that they would be sitting with the Cullen family at one of two head tables, while the Platts occupied the other. Emmett wanted Rosalie next to him, so my enterprising brother had managed to rearrange the seating accordingly. I was a bit gob-smacked myself at this little development. I couldn’t tell if it was the gin or the impending nearness to Bella that caused the warmth to spread through my body. All I knew was that I was suddenly famished and couldn’t wait for dinner to begin.

The sun began its slow descent to the west, casting glittering diamonds across Puget Sound in the distance. Right about the time I realized I hadn’t seen Alice arrive yet, a worried-looking Emmett pulled me aside.

“Have you seen our sister?” he asked. “It’s not like her to be so late to something like this.”

I glanced at my watch and realized that dinner time was drawing near. “I don’t know. I hope Jasper’s car didn’t break down or something. You want me to give them a call?” I offered, reaching for the cell phone in my pocket.

“Maybe you should,” he said. “This is beyond fashionably late, even for her.”

“I’ll try her first,” I said, easily finding her number in my contacts. I stepped away from the crowd in order to hear better.

She picked up on the first ring. “Hey,” she said breathlessly. “I know, I know. We’re late. The valet just parked the car. Where are you?”

“Still on the terrace, but people are starting to be seated. Get your ass back here.”

“I’m coming, I’m coming!” she hissed.

“That’s what she said,” I heard Jasper interject with a wicked chuckle before Alice abruptly ended the call. Oh, no. Hell no. I wasn’t sure I was ready to deal with the implications of that comment.

Sure enough, moments later, I spotted my sister hastily dragging my best friend by the hand through the loggia. They both looked flushed and slightly disheveled as they rushed down the terrace steps toward us. I knew that look all too well.

“Tell me you were not doing what I think you were doing,” I hissed quietly as soon as they were within earshot.

“We weren’t doing what you think we were doing,” Jasper said agreeably, his twinkling eyes admitting otherwise.

Alice smoothed her hair, then her dress. “It’s your fault for having such irresistible friends.”

“Thank you, darlin’,” he whispered in my sister’s ear. She grinned adoringly up at him.

“Oh, geezus. Couldn’t you have waited until after the benefit to get it on?” I shot Jasper a slightly aggravated look. A sheepish yet ultimately unapologetic expression crept over his face as he shrugged in defeat.

“Alice! There you are,” Mom exclaimed with relief when she noticed the arrival of her wayward daughter. “I was beginning to worry.”

“Sorry, Mom,” Alice replied contritely. “Jasper had a little car trouble. We should have called.”

I narrowed my eyes at Alice as if to say, Car trouble, my ass. But I wasn’t surprised that she had come up with that excuse. She had probably somehow read my mind when I was wondering if that had been the hold-up. It wasn’t the first time we’d had an eerie moment of clairvoyance.

“Nothing serious, I hope,” Mom said to Jasper with impressive-sounding concern. I could tell that she didn’t believe Alice’s fib for a minute. Neither did Emmett. He raised a skeptical eyebrow at the pair, but held his tongue.

“No, just got a little low on oil. We made a quick pit-stop, filled her up and had that motor purring again in no time,” he answered without missing a beat. I wanted to elbow him in the stomach for producing such a veiled innuendo in reference to my baby sister. I settled for giving him the stink eye as soon as Mom’s back was turned.

Emmett had already turned his attention back to Rosalie, perhaps rescuing her from Jessica’s interrogations. When I reluctantly returned to my date’s side, she began filling me in on the excruciating details of Rosalie’s designer gown and shoes. Even Alice, who had been shopping with Rose and Bella on that particular day, had spared me the girl-talk details.

Of course, she wasn’t very forthcoming about Bella, either. But her cat-who-ate-the-canary grin every time I grilled her about the subject had given me hope during the arduously long week. If Bella had still been upset with me, Alice would not have been able to hide it. Instead, I got the distinct feeling that there was some sort of plotting going on behind my back. After seeing Bella tonight, I was pretty sure her plan was to stun me senseless at the mere sight of her. That part definitely worked. What intrigued me was whether or not she had something else up her sleeve after so thoroughly getting my attention.

Two long, rectangular banquet tables at the edge of the terrace would hold the Platt and Cullen families, while the remainder of the lawn and its paved pathways were dotted with round, red-linen covered tables seating six to eight guests each. Now that Alice had arrived, Mom herded her children and their guests toward the Cullen table, where our places were assigned with ornate name tags written in a delicate calligraphy. Mom and Dad were to sit at either end of the table, their spawn and plus-ones lined up one side, Java execs and their significant others down the other. Emmett was next to Dad and I sat at Mom’s right, with Jessica, Alice, Jasper and Rosalie sandwiched in between.

And there, directly across the table from my designated chair, sat Isabella Swan. Her date was nowhere to be seen, and I secretly hoped he’d get lost on his way back from the men’s room or wherever he’d disappeared to.

Bella sipped a glass of burgundy as we approached the table. The wine matched her lipstick, the colors bleeding into one as she tilted her head back to drink. I took my eyes off of her only long enough to pull out Jessica’s chair for her. Dad had hurried from the foot of the table to do the same for Mom, and Bella smiled up at him, evidently impressed by his chivalry. She did say she liked a guy with manners.

Her eyes shifted quickly back to mine and I refused to let them go. As I sat down, still staring, Bella’s cheeks reddened. I wondered if it was the wine or my relentless gaze that caused it. Her grin deepened and she began to look embarrassed. Perversely, this only made me want to rattle her further. I scooted my chair closer to the table, glancing underneath it long enough to locate her foot before I bumped it gently with my own.

“Excuse me, Miss Swan,” I murmured, trying to sound sorry.

“No problem, Mr. Cullen,” she replied with that Mona Lisa smile I was so fond of. She crossed her legs, and as she did so, she brushed the toe of her shoe slowly and deliberately up my shin. My heightened nerves carried the sensation all the way up to the hairs on the back of my neck. I took a deep breath as her eyebrow raised at me slowly, taunting me.

So this was how it was going to be? Holy fuck. No matter how quickly I could manage to maneuver her away from this party, it wouldn’t be soon enough.

My mother was the first to burst the little bubble Bella and I had already created around ourselves.

“Do you know this lovely young lady, Edward?” she queried, nudging me for an introduction.

“Sorry, Mom,” I replied in all sincerity this time. “This is Isabella Swan. She’s an Artist and Repertoire scout for Java Noise, but I met her when she came to Emmett and I for treatment a few weeks ago,” I explained. “Bella, this is my mother, Esme Cullen.”

I watched them both anxiously as they smiled at one another and said “hello.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Cullen,” Bella said shyly. “I’m very honored to be here this evening. This is a lovely event.”

“Call me Esme,” Mom insisted warmly, which was code for “I like you.” I relaxed a little and reached for my drink. Not surprisingly, Bella insisted that my mother call her by her nickname.

“Well, Bella, the honor is all mine, that you and your company would come help us remember my sister this way,” Mom told her. “She would have loved that you work in the music business. Edward used to sit for hours with Jeanne, listening to her records while she told him stories about sneaking in to see Hendrix and Joplin playing live when she was a teenager. She got him playing the guitar, too. He’s a very talented musician--he plays the piano beautifully.” She stopped and gave me the I’m-so-proud-of-you smile, the kind that always makes me blush.

“I’ve been lucky enough to hear him. He’s very talented,” Bella agreed quietly. “He has a lot of gifts.”

I felt my face grow even warmer, and my self-conscious fingers reached for my hair.

Mom studied Bella a moment, then me. Her expression was shrewd. “I can’t argue with that,” she smiled at last.

“Sorry to interrupt, but did I hear you say that your sister saw Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin perform live?” Jacob Black had returned to our table just in time to catch that little tidbit, and to butt in on our conversation.

Mom nodded and smiled. “She was a few years older than me, and she used to give our parents fits, sneaking off to see all the San Francisco bands whenever they traveled up north.”

“Wow. That’s so cool,” Jacob commented, flashing Mom a blinding grin. “I’d give anything to have seen Hendrix in his heyday.”

“Me too,” Bella chimed in. “I’ll bet it was fun hearing her stories.” Her gaze was fixed upon me, and it had the same affect on me as the gin had.

“It was fun,” I agreed. “She had a way of making you feel like you were there.”

“You must miss her a lot,” Bella continued, including my mother in this last observation as she gave us both sympathetic looks.

Mom nodded with a wan smile. “Her legacy lives on in Edward’s living room. He kept her entire record collection, I think,” she said with a laugh.

“Oh, I know, I’ve seen it. I’m dying to hear some of those old records,” Bella enthused. Suddenly she let out a tiny gasp and her eyes darted to mine worriedly, like she had let some terrible secret slip. Mom gave me another surprised look.

“You know you’re welcome back any time,” I reminded Bella. I glanced over at Jacob to see if he had picked up on the fact that Bella had visited my place before. The hard look in his eyes told me that he most certainly had.

“Well, your sister sounds like she was a great lady,” Jacob addressed my mother. “I’m sorry I never got a chance to meet her.”

“Thank you, …?” Mom’s voice trailed off as she prompted him for his name. She had no idea who the native American at our table was.

Bella’s face went crimson. “I’m so sorry, I never introduced you,” she apologized. “Mrs. Cullen--uh, Esme, this is an old friend of mine, Jacob Black. His band just got signed at Java Noise.”

Jacob thrust his arm across the table in order to shake Mom’s hand, nearly knocking Bella’s wine glass in her lap. She grabbed the base of the glass and steadied it before disaster struck, while Jacob appeared oblivious to his blunder. I didn’t realize how annoyed my expression must have been until I caught Bella trying to stifle a grin as she looked at me. I shook my head slightly in exasperation, wondering when I could get her away from the buffoon next to her. She looked down at her lap and bit her lip, and I knew that she was trying very hard not to laugh again. I felt her foot rest against my shin for a moment, almost in reassurance. It looked like our non-verbal communication during dinner might be vastly more entertaining than I had anticipated.

Jessica, who had been bending Alice’s ear, suddenly turned in our direction and gave Jacob a curious look.

“You’re in a band?” she demanded.

“Yeah, The Wolf Pack. I don’t know if you’ve heard of us. We’ve only been playing the local circuit for a few months now,” Jacob informed her.

“Get out!” Jessica exclaimed, slamming her mojito to the table for emphasis. “I just saw you guys, like, a few weeks ago at Maggie’s Farm. You were freaking amazing! Why didn’t I recognize you at first? Maybe it’s the suit. Which is hot, by the way. So you must be the drummer, right? Am I right? I totally would have remembered you if you’d been out front.” Her big blue eyes blazed at him appreciatively.

“Well, thanks,” he replied with as much bashfulness as he could muster. “Bella’s the one who got us a record deal with her company, so I hope to make her proud.”

Bella grinned weakly at Jacob’s praise. Jessica, however, was undeterred.

“Oh my God, that is awesome. Bella has great taste, right? So I’m going to be able to download a Wolf Pack CD one of these days?”

“Looks that way,” Jacob answered with a growing smile. “With the help of these fine gentleman, hopefully,” he added, gesturing to the Java Noise execs to his left, who in turn launched into a glowing endorsement of their latest acquisition. If Jessica wasn’t sold before, she certainly was now. The way she eyeballed Jacob Black across the table left little doubt as to where her interests lay.

Jacob’s feelings were a little harder to read. He seemed flattered by her interest, but I didn’t know if it was enough to sway his affections away from Bella. Fortunately for me, I was sure that Jessica could keep him distracted with her chatter as long as he was trapped across the table from her. That would give me free reign to ogle and tease and caress Bella with my eyes during dinner without having to endure Jacob’s constant glares at my audacity. Not that I would have let that stop me anyway. I wouldn’t have been able to keep my heart off of my sleeve last night if I’d wanted to.

Only Mom was able to interrupt my preoccupation with the gorgeous creature seated opposite me. She kept us both engaged in conversation during the first couple of courses, inquiring after Bella’s health since being treated by Emmett and me. Bella was forthright about her past and what led her to my office, leaving out only the part where I had foisted her off on Kate. She merely said that she was improving and didn’t need to visit us as frequently anymore. I rested my foot next to hers under the table, a silent thank-you. It felt like she and I needed to sort out exactly what was going on between us before involving anyone else, let alone my mother.

By the time our entrees had arrived, the wine was flowing freely amongst everyone at our table, and so was the conversation. The talk continued to center around music, and the Java Noise crew had plenty of humorous anecdotes about their experiences in the business. It was a fitting tribute to Jeanne. I could practically hear her raucous laughter joining ours, her spirit seeming to permeate the atmosphere around us.

“Well, I’m excited to know that there’s so much talent here tonight,” Mom said as the dessert cart made its way around the table. I watched Bella choose a decadent-looking raspberry cheesecake, and again I noticed that the syrupy fruit matched her lips. I couldn’t wait to watch her wrap her mouth around every forkful. I sentenced myself to a slice of devil’s food torte, the allegory too much to resist.

“Ooh, right, Mom!” Alice exclaimed in answer to her comment. “It’s almost time for ‘Sing For Your Supper.’ You’ll have guinea pigs galore tonight.”

“Guinea pigs…?” Bella echoed anxiously.

“Don’t worry, I’m sure I’m the only one who’ll be forced to sing for his supper,” I lamented, giving Mom a sideways grin. Bella’s eyes widened and a tiny grin spread across her face. It amazed me that she looked so excited to hear me perform. I can’t begin to describe the high that it gave me. One thing’s for sure: I’d certainly never looked forward to playing at the Black and Red Ball this much before.

“Edward, I’ve never made you do it and you know it,” Mom argued.

“Coercion through guilt is the same thing,” I teased her.

“Oh, stop,” she ordered. She regarded the perplexed faces around the table and began to explain. “I always have a little segment after dinner that I like to call ‘Sing For Your Supper.’ I put a donation hat out in front of the orchestra for our guests to throw money at anyone brave enough to sing or play along.”

“Karaoke of the Rich and Famous,” Emmett interjected with a grin.

Mom hushed him and continued. “It’s a lot of fun, and you’d be amazed at the money we make from it. Edward usually gets the ball rolling for me with a song or two.”

“Lucky me,” I deadpanned.

“So which are you going to do this time, Edward?” Alice asked. “Sing or play? Or both?”

I studied Bella moment before answering. “I haven’t decided yet.”

“Well, that’s rather… mysterious,” Jessica commented. “I didn’t know you could sing or play an instrument!”

“Neither did I,” Rosalie’s surprised voice wafted down the table. I couldn’t see her from where I was sitting, but I could imagine the suspicious look that probably twisted her features at the moment. Bella blushed and put her wine glass to her lips as if wanting to dive into it and disappear. She had kept my poorly disguised secret, and evidently so had Emmett.

My decision was made. Any singing I did tonight would be for her ears only.

After everyone finished their desserts, Mom rose from her chair, all the men at the table following suit. She laughed and motioned for everyone except me to sit down. I followed her dutifully down the lawn to the orchestra area, hovering near the piano. My pulse began its familiar nervous gallop as Mom stood at the microphone and introduced the guests to her next fund-raising opportunity of the evening, imploring them to let their dollars do the talking if they liked what they heard.

“Once again this year, my youngest son has agreed to start things off for us tonight. Edward, why don’t you tell everyone what you’ll be performing?” Mom prodded, moving back and motioning for me to step up to the mic.

I hate public speaking. By comparison, disappearing behind the piano would be a cakewalk. I felt my fingers comb through my hair before I could stop them, and I knew Mom was probably dying to grab my hand to still its nervous habit.

I cleared my throat and said, “I’ve actually written an original piece for this evening. Tonight is a very special night, and this is for a very special person.” I looked back through the sea of faces, easily finding Bella’s pale perfection among them. Her eyes were wide and expectant as they looked into mine.

“This song is called ‘Bella Notte’… beautiful night,” I said softly, as if she were the only person there to hear me.

And when I sat down at the piano, I played her song the same way.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 12 - Anticipation, part 2

From the Desktop of Bella Swan
Saturday, August 14

Healthy Horizons Day Spa was the polar opposite of Cullen and Cullen, PC.

As I waited nervously for my appointment with Katrina Denali, I wandered the front of the spa, which was a retail cornucopia of new-age remedies. I sniffed the essential oils, feng shui candles and bath products designed to calm and soothe. I perused the selection of health-related books that suggested ways to treat my recurring back problems. But I couldn’t stop glancing to the anterior of the building, which was divided into numerous private rooms for massages, facials, steam therapy and more. I wasn’t sure how I was going to react upon seeing Kate again, or what I would say to her. I was hoping that she would take the lead and somehow make this easier on me. I wished desperately that I was in Edward’s massage room now, stripped down to my underwear and climbing under the flannel sheet, waiting for him to come and lay his hands on me.

“Bella, so good to see you!” a faintly familiar voice greeted me. I quickly put the candle I’d been inhaling back on the shelf and turned to face Katrina Denali--all six feet of her. It seemed like it, anyway. She was nearly as tall as Edward.

“Good to see you, too,” I managed, trying to return a fraction of her toothy smile.

“I’m so glad you decided to let me help you and Edward out,” she continued as she approached. “He’s very concerned that you continue to get the proper treatment for your back. Why don’t we go talk a bit, and then get started?” She motioned for me to follow her to the back of the spa and I obeyed.

Katrina ushered me into a massage room only faintly reminiscent of the one at Cullen and Cullen. It was a bit more austere, in pale shades of cream, yellow and blue; far less darkly sensual than Edward’s. The music playing softly in the background was soothing and tranquil, but not as exotic. And Kate’s blonde, blue-eyed lightness was in direct contrast to Edward’s green-eyed intensity.

“I know it’s none of my business, but I’m really excited that Edward decided to refer you,” she said as she closed the door behind us. She motioned for me to take a seat next to her desk, then joined me in her matching blue office chair. “He’s been wrestling with this situation with you for a few weeks now. His one ironclad rule is that he won’t get personally involved with clients. Besides, he really wanted to be the one to help you. He’s got a bit of a God complex that way,” she said with a wry laugh. “But he obviously decided that a personal relationship with you was more important to him. That’s a big step for him.”

I stared at her, stunned into silence. She had just shed some much-needed light on Edward’s motivations, and it struck me how much my reaction must have upset him. I suddenly felt like a bit of an idiot for my irrational behavior the other day.

My dismay must have been apparent, for Kate’s smile faded and she asked, “Is everything okay? I’m sorry if I overstepped. It’s not my place to comment on your personal life, I know. It’s just that Edward is one of my dearest friends, so when I see how happy you make him, I want to do whatever I can to help you two out.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you,” I said, feeling a bit queasy. “I’m not sure how happy he is with me right now, though. I may have overreacted a bit when he told me he wasn’t going to be my therapist anymore. It’s nothing personal against you.” Well, not completely. “It’s just that I really felt like I was improving with his help,” I faltered.

“It’s normal for clients to feel apprehensive about switching therapists. I’m sure he understands. And I’m going to do my best to follow his recommendations to the letter so that you keep improving exactly the way he would want you too,” she assured me. She picked up a couple of fax pages from her desk and looked them over. I glanced at them and saw several paragraphs hand-written in an elegant scrawl that could only belong to Edward. I wondered what he had written about me.

“Emmett and Edward sent me some notes about the care they’ve given you so far,” she said as she perused the faxes. “It looks like you’ve been making good progress.”

“I have,” I agreed. “At least, I think so. I guess that’s why I was afraid to make a change.”

“Edward and I took a lot of the same courses together in school,” she informed me. “We’re both fully trained in the type of myofascial work he’s been performing on you. I have no intention of changing his methods or doing anything other than what he’s outlined here. He was very thorough and clear in his recommendations for you.”

I blushed, secretly pleased. “He is kind of bossy.”

Kate laughed, a rich bell tone ringing throughout the room. “He can be,” she agreed. “In this case, though, I agree with him. Now, I’m going to have you stand up so I can examine you before we get started.”

I dutifully rose from my chair while she eyeballed me up and down. She then moved behind me and gently ran her hands over my shoulders and down my back, her fingers finding and probing the various trouble spots as she went.

“Okay,” she announced as she stepped away and headed for the doorway. “I’m going to let you undress and get situated on the table. I’d like you to lie face down for the first part of the massage. I think you’ll be okay if I keep it brief,” she smiled. I cringed as I realized that Edward must have detailed my reaction the first time he ever worked on me. I wondered what else he had revealed about me to her.

I undressed and tossed my hastily-folded clothes on the chair next to the desk. As I turned toward the massage table, a framed photo on the other side of the desktop caught my eye. I recognized the two women in the picture: Kate, and the redhead with whom she had waltzed through the door of Billy’s the night I hid and watched Edward perform with Jasper. I wouldn’t have thought anything about a photo of Kate with her friend, except that there was something about their posture that spoke of much more than friendship. The redhead was seated on the grass in a scenic locale with Kate behind her, arm thrown possessively across her in a close embrace as she grinned over the redhead’s shoulder. The redhead clasped Kate’s wrist; their foreheads were pressed together. Their faces beamed with happiness. It looked remarkably like an engagement photo. I gaped openly at the image as the question popped into my head: Was Katrina Denali a lesbian?

I instantly remembered Alice Cullen’s statement that hell would freeze over before anything ever happened between Kate and Edward. He always acted like I was being silly whenever I indicated I was jealous of her, but he never revealed exactly why. Maybe he felt it wasn’t fair to bring her sexual orientation into our arguments; or maybe he enjoyed making me jealous, as payback for his unwarranted worries about Jake. I didn’t put that past him. The possibility of Kate swinging the other way--away from Edward--filled me with a giddy sense of relief.

I climbed upon the massage table, considerably more relaxed than when I’d first arrived. Regardless of her relationship with Edward, Kate’s warm, easygoing demeanor made it hard to dislike her. In a way, it was comforting to know that these were the sorts of people Edward surrounded himself with now, instead of lowlifes like James. As I rested my face in the donut hole, I couldn’t help but think back to my first massage with Edward, when I mistakenly had thought Emmett was working on me. I longed to see Edward’s untied shoelaces in my line of vision now, knowing that his touch on my neck would be the next thing I’d feel.

Instead, my down-turned eyes were soon met with the sight of a pair of neatly tied, brightly-colored tennis shoes after Kate knocked and entered the room. I wondered if she’d be meeting Edward for a match later, and if that was something they did regularly. I’d never wished so hard for someone to be a lesbian before--ironic in light of the fact that she soon would be running her hands all over me.

She announced that she was going to work primarily on my upper body today, which was unsurprising given the still-sensitive nature of my tailbone. She told me that next week she would address that issue more directly.

Katrina’s fingers were long like Edward’s, but lacking his masculine strength. My muscles still responded to the methods she employed because they were methods my body recognized. As the minutes ticked by, I had to acknowledge that it was much easier to relax with her, knowing that the hands manipulating me were not Edward’s. I was unable to perceive her touch as sexual because it wasn’t his. Instead, I was able to concentrate on the feel of my tissues softening and stretching under her gentle but insistent pressure. Why did Edward always have to be right about everything?

“You feeling okay?” she asked as she made her way slowly down my back.

“I’m fine,” I nodded into the donut hole. “Really good, actually.”

“Your muscles are responding very well, much better than what Edward described at the beginning of your treatment. He’s a very gifted therapist.” Her tone was admiring, almost envious.

“He’s wonderful,” I concurred, the words slipping out almost wistfully.

“Well, I’m going to do my best to continue in that vein. Now, I’d like you to roll onto your back. I’m going to work on your neck and shoulders a bit.”

I obeyed, careful to keep the sheet covering my body as I maneuvered onto my back. Kate, with her bodacious mammaries, didn’t need to witness my glaring lack thereof. Not that she would care anyway, with a gorgeous girlfriend like the redhead, assuming that was their relationship.

Katrina coated her hands with a lavender-smelling lotion before working my pectorals, shoulders and neck. She even swirled her hands up into my hair, gently massaging my scalp and literally pulling the tension from my jaws and forehead. She really was nearly as good as Edward; and after she was done, I told her so.

She smiled and said, “Well, those are pretty big shoes to fill, so I’ll take that as a compliment.”

I tried to muster the courage to ask her about the photograph on her desk, but could come up with no unobtrusive way to do it. I decided I would ask Alice about my suspicions after I left the spa.

When I had called Alice to tell her I couldn’t make yoga class due to Rosalie’s hi-jacking of my Saturday, she had decided to ditch exercise in favor of joining us. The day after Jasper agreed to escort her to the Black and Red Ball, she ran out and bought herself a dress; but that apparently didn’t dampen her enthusiasm for helping Rosalie and I shop for ours. I already knew I would be the odd woman out on this day of traditional female pampering. Rose and Alice had been gearing up for a day of shopping and facials like athletes psyching themselves up for a big game. I wondered if I could get away with being merely a bench-warmer this time around. I already knew the answer to that. They’d drag me into the fray anyway, so I might as well be a good sport about it.

I dressed quickly after Kate finished our session, then met her at the front desk to set up an appointment for next week, same time. I was still disappointed to be meeting with her instead of Edward, but if he had arranged this so that he and I would be free to see each other, I’d be stupid to harbor any ill will toward either of them.

An hour later over lunch at the Cheesecake Factory, Rosalie concurred.

“You’re looking at this all wrong,” she declared with a wave of her avocado egg roll. “If you start dating Edward, you can finagle the massages for free.”

“Huh, good luck with that,” Alice rebutted from the seat next to mine in our restaurant booth. “I think he used me once as a guinea pig while he was in school. After he got his license, he refused to touch me without payment up front. Mercenary.”

“Well, how was the massage with Kate, anyway? Was it that bad?” Rosalie asked.

“No, she’s actually really good. Not the same as Edward, of course, but I doubt anyone is.” I suddenly remembered my question for Alice and turned to her. “I saw a very interesting photo on Kate’s desk, of her hanging on some gorgeous female redhead, looking a little… Sapphic. Is that why you told me not to worry about her and Edward? Is she…?”

Alice’s peals of laughter stopped my question in its tracks. “A lesbian? Totally! The redhead is her fiancee, Victoria. You mean Edward never told you that?”

“No,” I admitted, feeling a little irritated with him all over again. “He always told me not to worry about her, but he never said why.”

Rose let out a scornful laugh. “Well, of course he never told you! It was in his best interest to keep you guessing, especially if he’s been worried about Jake. Men,” she snorted, shaking her head.

Alice looked apologetic. “I just assumed he had told you. I really can’t make any excuses for him--he should have been upfront with you, especially when he referred you to her for treatment. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I mean, her sexual orientation is really none of my business. Besides, Edward keeping that from me helps alleviate my guilt over what I said to him the last time we spoke,” I sighed.

Both girls were silent, their faces curious. I didn’t want to admit the crack I’d made about him not being a real doctor. It was a low blow I never should have delivered, no matter how upset I was at that moment.

“I said something pretty hurtful that I wish I could take back,” I finally admitted, looking down at my plate and pushing the last few bites of crab cake around with my fork.

“Bella, trust me, Edward doesn’t fault you for anything that happened,” Alice said carefully. I knew she had probably spoken with him and was most likely trying to figure out which of our confidences to keep. “He’s the king of self-blame. The way he told you he was sending you to Kate wasn’t exactly tactful. Which is very unusual for him, by the way.” She munched thoughtfully on a shrimp roll. “You know, I think that’s actually a good thing--the way you keep Edward off balance. He’s become far too self-contained and controlled all the time. He’s been playing it safe for awhile. It’s time for him to stop, and I think he finally realizes that.”

“Sounds like Edward and I have more in common than I thought,” Rosalie commented. “Your other brother has been doing a good job of turning my world upside down lately,” she added to Alice with a slightly perturbed grin.

“That works both ways,” Alice replied happily. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that fire in Emmett’s eyes over a girl. He is completely smitten. And unlike Edward, I’m sure he wouldn’t even care that I’m telling you that.”

“He is an open book. It’s refreshing,” Rose agreed. “And kind of irresistible, after most of the game-players I usually attract.”

“God, this is so awesome,” Alice suddenly exclaimed, looking back and forth between me and Rose. “I can’t believe my brothers finally found cool girls they really like, who already know each other. It’s like kismet. We are going to have so much fun at the ball next week! I can feel it.” Alice’s leg began its requisite pumping and the booth bounced in accompaniment.

“Well, there is the slight problem that my dinner date is actually Jake,” I reminded her, glaring across the table at Rosalie. She appeared unfazed.

“A technicality,” she said dismissively. “I got you there, right? I had no way of knowing if Edward would ever get around to asking you.”

“He did wait too long,” Alice agreed. “He forgot the ball was even coming up. Boys are so clueless, and my brothers are no exception.”

“Boys are allergic to anything requiring them to dress up and act like civilized human beings,” Rose intoned.

“I can’t wait to see Jasper in a suit,” sighed Alice. “I might have to break my three-proper-dates-before-sex rule if he looks as devastating as I think he will.”

“Ah, the three-date rule. That’s a good one. Definitely hard to follow sometimes, especially with the Cullen brothers,” Rose said, giving me a knowing wink.

“Well, if my complete communication breakdown with Edward after last weekend is any indication, the three-date rule should definitely be enforced,” I said glumly. I wondered if things would have turned out differently if I had just stayed in my room Saturday night and let Edward and his stubbed toe fend for themselves.

Alice gave me a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry about it. Edward’s not going anywhere. He’s so jealous over you bringing Jake to this party that his eyes are ten shades greener than normal. You should see the suit he bought this morning--midnight black Gucci, being fitted like a glove as we speak. I didn’t even have to nag him to go to the tailor. He wants to look good, and I know damned well there is only one reason for that,” she concluded, waggling her eyebrows at me.

I tried once more to picture Edward in a suit, long and lean and dashing. I knew he would pull it off spectacularly. I suddenly felt a little more serious about our impending dress-shopping excursion. I wanted the impression-making effort to be a two-way street.

“He bought a new suit for this? The boy is serious, Bella,” Rosalie agreed. “You need to up your hot factor, chica. Luckily, you are in very good hands.”

Rose and Alice exchanged self-assured smirks. “I love makeovers,” Alice said with relish. “Not that you need one, Bella. Just a little fine-tuning.”

“Great,” I sighed in surrender. “Tune away, ladies.”

I put myself in their capable hands for the rest of the afternoon. The only (and obvious) rule for attire at the Black and Red Ball was that it be mostly black, red, or some combination thereof. Rose and Alice dragged me to most of the big-name department stores downtown, as well as some designer boutiques, in search of appropriate dresses. The price tags were well out of my budget in most cases. Money never seems to be an object for Rosalie, and I’m not sure if she has credit card debt up to her keister or if her parents help her out. Perhaps I’ll be in for a sizeable pay increase if I ever work my way up to her position at Java Noise. All I know is that Rosalie didn’t blink an eye when the strapless, floor-length crimson gown she fell in love with had a $750 price tag attached. We all agreed that it was stunning the minute she walked out of the dressing room in the curve-hugging dress, which was dotted with exquisite beadwork along the bodice and trailing down the split floor-length skirt.

“You look like Jessica Rabbit,” I exclaimed.

“Emmett is going to bust something when he sees you in that,” Alice proclaimed.

“That’s exactly the idea,” Rosalie said with a quirk of one eyebrow. We knew the dress was a done deal, and so was Emmett.

Now all that remained was to find something for me, plus shoes and accessories, of course. I had tried on several things in half a dozen stores, but nothing was right. Either they didn’t fit well, were too froufrou for my taste, or were the wrong color. I was beginning to despair in spite of the girls’ assurances that we wouldn’t rest until we found the perfect dress. “I want Edward to shit himself when he sees you,” Alice insisted poetically.

“I’d rather he didn’t,” I laughed, “though there are other involuntary reactions that I wouldn’t object to.”

“Ha-ha, fine. I really can’t think about that the fact that my brothers have penises, though, I’m sure you understand.”

I couldn’t stop thinking about that fact, unfortunately. Ever since last Saturday, an undeniable resolve had taken root deep inside me: I intended to make Edward Cullen’s manhood hard as a rock the next time I had the opportunity. I wanted him sober and suffering with desire for me. I’d condemn him to enduring the Black and Red Ball with blue balls half the night if need be. I simply had to make him want me as much as I wanted him. And I had to find The Dress that would do the job.

The miracle happened just as I was about to give up all hope. I had begun to flip through racks of garments that weren’t even my size, just in case there was something hiding somewhere that I had missed. And suddenly there it was: a stunningly simple black gown in my size that had ended up on the wrong rack. I pulled it out and looked it over; it appeared that it would fit. I practically ran to the dressing room before Alice and Rose even knew where I had gone.

It was an elegant long-sleeved wrap dress, tying underneath at the waist and then draping through a wide, simply ornamented belt before falling in a long train at the back. Every step I took would reveal my legs as the wrap-front opened and flowed behind me. The fabric formed a deep V down my chest, revealing more flesh than I normally dreamed of showing in public. But my decided lack of cleavage made the neckline less shocking somehow, and the way the fabric gathered as it met the belt seemed to add some dimension to the curves I did have. From the back, the dress clung in all the right places, hugging and accentuating my backside in a rather sexy way.

A slow smile spread across my face as I looked at myself in the mirror. This was the one.

I exited the dressing room and went in search of Rose and Alice. I found them in the shoe department, debating the merits of pumps that either matched or contrasted with the dress. I cleared my throat loudly until both looked up. Their expressions were all I needed to cement my decision.

“Be-e-ella-a!” Alice squealed, rushing up and grabbing my arms as she looked me up and down. “This dress is amazing. You look a-ma-zing! You must get it. Are you going to get it? You have to get it. Edward is going to shit when he sees you in this. Holy mackerel on a cracker.”

I couldn’t help but laugh at Alice’s enthusiasm. I was actually pretty excited to see Edward’s reaction myself.

“Turn around,” Rose ordered from her chair, where she sat with one strappy red shoe on her foot and the other in her hand. I obeyed, turning and giving her a melodramatic sexy look over my shoulder.

“Your ass looks incredible in that. Your legs, too. You get the right shoes to go with that and Edward doesn’t stand a chance. Not to mention Jake, or half the guys at this party.”

I felt a blush warm my cheeks at their compliments. For the first time in my life, I began to look forward to an occasion in which I had to play dress-up. I was even interested in trying on shoes, and left the dress on while I did so. Rose was on a mission as well, and we both decided that contrasting colors were better: she chose a pair of stacked black pumps, while I went for something similar in red. I was hesitant to cheapen the elegant look with red shoes, but Rose and Alice both thought that if I got a matching clutch, it would be in keeping with the Go Red For Women theme. I found closed-toe pumps in a deep scarlet color that managed to look classy rather than trashy, and I strolled around in them for a bit to make sure I could do it without falling down.

I was so happy about my purchases that, like Rose, I didn’t even look at the price tags until I took them to the register. I nearly had heart failure when the clerk rang them up. I felt a horrible pang of guilt as I handed over my credit card, but then I came to a decision: I would take cash out of the settlement to pay for them if I had to. You know I’ve never spent a dime of that money on anything frivolous. But somehow this time I knew you’d approve.

I was actually ready for our trip to the salon after our shopping excursion. I never knew shopping could be so exhausting. At least I could relax at the spa while they exfoliated and moisturized and whatever else they planned to do to my complexion.

“I hope you like this place,” Rosalie grinned as she ushered Alice and I through the towering glass door and into a serene ocean-colored waiting area. “This week they’ll do the facials and waxing so our skin has time to recover. Next week we’ll be back for hair, make-up and nails before the party.” Her eyes were aglow with anticipation.

“You really live for this kind of stuff, don’t you?” I commented with a laugh. “How did you ever get into the music business?”

“Eh, the pampering only feeds my ego. Music feeds my soul,” she replied. Succinct, insightful comments like that one always remind me why I like Rosalie Hale despite her deceptively superficial appearance.

Moments later, the three of us were lined up like monkeys in one of the many spa rooms, our freshly scrubbed faces covered in some kind of aromatic green goo, cucumbers over our eyes. We reclined in thick terry spa robes and laughed about what the boys would say if they saw us now.

After the masks were wiped clean and various toners and emollients were gently rubbed into our skin, we were each taken to private rooms for further grooming. A no-nonsense looking Asian girl invited me to lie down on the spa table after studying my face and announcing, “We wax your eyebrows and upper lip. You have little bit of shadow there.” She pointed at the corners of my mouth.

“Well, I am a brunette,” I grumbled as she prepared the hot mixture at a nearby table.

“What about down there? How much you want removed?” She turned and pointed in the area of my crotch.

I stared at her blankly. “What are you talking about?”

She picked up a card that presumably contained the spa treatments Rose had ordered. “Your bikini wax. You want a landing strip, or you want it all off?”

I stared at her some more. “You--you have me down for a Brazilian?” I finally stuttered. Clearly Rose had no clue about my fear of waxing. Obviously, since she was my boss, we’d never discussed it.

“Yes, full wax. You want legs too?”

“No, I’ll just shave those,” I said with a shudder. The idea of waxing my legs entailed far too much skin being tortured than I could possibly bear. But something about the bikini wax held a certain appeal, in light of Edward’s proclivities. He had spent quite a bit of time in that area. I was hoping he’d feel like doing that again. Maybe it would be nice to have it all smooth and bare and…ready for him. Just thinking about it made me ready.

She approached with the pot of warm wax and a small wooden stick, then leaned in and dotted the sticky substance around my eyebrows to catch any stray hairs. She followed suit with my upper lip. As she pressed small strips of cloth into the wax, she asked the million dollar question again.

“Leave landing strip? Or remove all the hair?” Her hand hovered near the opening of my spa robe. I ignored the stab of panic in my stomach and forced myself to say the words.

“Take it all off.”

I’m not sure my bravery has been tested to such a degree in quite some time. First came the humiliation of every intimate part of me, front to back, being coated in hot wax and pressed firmly with cloth strips by a complete stranger. Then came the waiting period as my pubic hair and the cloth adhered to the cooling wax, while I tried to brace myself for the impending pain. It’ll be quick, I reminded myself. It’s just hair. You’ll be fine.

The tiny bit of calm that I had managed to achieve disappeared the minute the Asian girl returned to my room to finish the job. I squeezed my eyes shut as she approached. The sting of the tiny cloths being yanked from my face was sharp but brief. The technician applied some soothing balm to the spots and smiled as she viewed her handiwork.

“Okay, you ready?” she asked as she made her way south. “Hang onto sides of the table. I do it fast. You be fine,” she said authoritatively with a brief smile.

I held in the screams as the girl ruthlessly and repeatedly ripped what felt like three layers of skin from my entire groin. I felt like I was on fire, my crotch burned raw and radiating with pain. What have I done? I’ll never be able to have sex again! was my first agonized thought.

The technician only smiled down at my hairless pussy, evidently pleased with the results of her chamber of horrors. She closed the spa robe over me and reached for a tube of cream on the nearby table. “Here, you put this on now and repeat later as necessary. You be fine in a day or two.”

After she left, I dabbed the ointment gingerly on my smarting skin. I had to take a look at myself in the hand mirror she had left on the table to see how bad it was. I was surprised to see that my flesh looked fairly normal, save for its bright pink appearance at the moment. It was strange seeing myself that way, completely hairless, every detail of my genitals clearly visible with the slightest parting of my legs. I wasn’t sure if I liked it or not. I wasn’t sure what Edward would think, either. But I felt oddly brazen about the decision, now that it was done. Besides, the hair would grow back in no time anyway.

I dressed carefully, hoping my panties wouldn’t rub too much on my tender skin. I was sure I was walking a little funny, too, like I’d just survived a weekend-long sex marathon. Hopefully the next time I was sore like this, that would be the reason.

“God, that bikini wax is always a bitch, isn’t it?” Rose said in far too chipper a tone as I slowly approached the front of the salon where she and Alice waited. Maybe they got bikini waxes all the time and it didn’t take them as long as mine apparently did. I really didn’t feel like asking.

I smiled weakly. “Yeah, you could say that.”

“Oh, but it makes for such amazing sex,” she sighed in obvious pleasure. Alice raised her eyebrows and nodded in agreement. I only hoped I’d soon get the chance to find out, and that my nether regions would be sufficiently recovered enough to enjoy it.

“So how do you feel, ladies? Ready to take on the world?” Rosalie smiled expectantly as we exited the building and headed for her BMW.

“Absolutely. Or Jasper, at any rate,” Alice laughed.

A grin stole across my face as I walked down the street, my body feeling newly alive and aware. It was as if the removal of that protective patch of hair had only intensified and exposed the awakening inside me that Edward had sparked last weekend. I’d never been so conscious of my sexuality before; never felt it burning so insistently between my legs, demanding satisfaction.

But the difference in me was much more than that. The clothes, the grooming, were merely pieces of evidence. The real transformation lay far deeper.

“I feel like I’m ready for anything,” I said resolutely. “Like I’m ready for everything.”

Rosalie and Alice gave me a knowing smile, like they understood. Perhaps we all share the same secret. I have no doubt that we’re ready to take on the world--at least, our world, and the people we want in it.

But are they ready for us?

Visual for the next chapter. Just add a tie to Robward.