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.