Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 15 - Profession, part 3

Edward Cullen’s Little Black Notebook
Tuesday, August 22 (cont’d.)

“Whoa. Wait just one cotton-pickin’ minute,” Jasper drawled over the phone. He was born and raised in Texas until he was twelve, and the remnants of his southern accent come to the surface when he’s under duress.

“Okay. I’ve ceased picking cotton. Continue.” I like giving him crap about it.

“You’re bringing how many people to our rehearsal tomorrow night?”

“Well, I guess seven, if Angela comes and brings her boyfriend, Ben.”

“Seven. And one of them is Rosalie Hale?” He said this as if he was about to face a massive jury of his peers, with Rosalie as its ruthless judge. Of course, he may not be too far off the mark there.

“Yeah, but she’s coming as Emmett’s date. Totally unofficial. I’m sure she’s not expecting to hear some polished concert. She probably just wants to hang out and have fun for awhile.” I tried to imagine Rosalie relaxing. A “chill” Rosalie was truthfully not something I could picture.

Jasper’s sardonic grunt told me he was having the same trouble. “I can’t believe Alice didn’t tell me this.”

“Well, you know how she loves the element of surprise. So act surprised. Pleasantly so. Or my ass is grass.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t want to disappoint her. Or unleash her wrath upon you, either one. But I’m glad you clued me in so I won’t be blind-sided,” he said in a grateful tone. One thing my sister apparently hasn’t figured out about Jasper is that he can deal with just about anything as long as you prepare him ahead of time. He’s all about strategy and planning. Flying by the seat of seat of his pants, not so much.

“I figured you’d appreciate the heads up,” I said. “Honestly, you guys are sounding pretty tight these days. Think of this as a test run before you set up some gigs. Rosalie might actually be helpful, you know? Give you some pointers. I mean, assuming you want to make it out of the garage one day.”

Jasper let out a wry laugh. “That’s the thing. Sometimes I think I don’t. Some days I’m perfectly happy being a music teacher by day, amateur folk singer by night. My little pond is comfortable, if limiting.”

My own wry laugh joined his. “Well, you know you’ll get no argument from me. I’ve turned playing it safe into an art form the past few years. But maybe it’s time for us both to stop doing that, now, before it’s too late. We’re not getting any younger.”

“Feelin’ that quarter-century crisis a bit, are you? I told you it would get to you. So what are your plans to break out of the mold? You gonna finish school? Or maybe let Rosalie get an earful of your own music?”

I felt the familiar uneasiness crawl like a spider down my back at the thought. “I don’t know. I’m just going one step at a time. Letting Bella into my life was a big enough hurdle for right now.”

“Maybe the biggest one, all things considered,” Jasper agreed. “The other stuff might seem a lot less daunting now that you’ve done that. Sounds like things are going well there…?”

My perma-grin took up residence again. “Very well. Too well, maybe. I miss her whenever she’s not around, which is ridiculous, because I see her all the time. It freaks me out a little when I think about it.”

Jasper let out a low whistle. “You do have it bad. I must admit, I’m not looking forward to your sister going back to school, either. I’m getting used to her making waves in my little pond,” he laughed.

“I knew she’d get to you. She has a way of insinuating herself wherever she wants to be. And she clearly wants to be with you. Don’t worry, she’s not going anywhere. Not in spirit, anyway.”

“Yeah, but this long distance thing…I don’t know. I’ve rarely seen it work for anyone.”

“It’s not that far,” I argued. “If I know her, she’ll find a way to get back here as often as possible.”

“I may have a road trip or two in my future,” he said, a bit wistfully. I realized that if he and Alice were even half as serious as I felt about Bella, their upcoming separation would be extremely difficult on both of them.

“You know what they always say. If it’s meant to happen, it will happen. Geography won’t matter in the long run,” I tried to encourage him.

“You’re right. I can’t worry about that right now, anyway. I have to worry about record execs showing up to one of my lame band rehearsals first.”

“Stop,” I ordered. “Don’t even think that way. You’re damned talented and you know it. Hell, Rosalie already heard you jamming with that orchestra the other night. She knows you’ve got the goods. Now it’s time you got your own music heard. It’s all good.”

“Right. All good,” he repeated, like he was trying to convince himself. “Make sure you’ve got a cooler downstairs because I’m bringing plenty of beer.”

“You know it,” I laughed. “Don’t worry about the beer, I’ll stock up. But bring some lawn chairs, if you think about it. I don’t know how many old office chairs are still lurking down there, and we’re going to need places for everyone to sit.”

Jasper agreed to bring chairs along with the band’s gear. After we hung up the phone, I went down to the main floor and rounded up as many chairs as I could find and dusted them off. Back upstairs, I pulled out some old blankets to use in case anyone wanted to sit on the floor, then found the Styrofoam cooler I’d used in my college party days and cleaned it out. I figured that the next day I would stop and get ice, beer and snacks for everyone after work, although Bella had insisted she was bringing food during one of our text chats during the day.

I relaxed on the couch in front of the TV, ignoring it in favor of thinking back on my morning. Today had been different than the other two times I’d been lucky enough to wake up and find Bella lying next to me. Today I awakened flat on my back with her curled around me, her arm across my chest, her leg hooked over mine. My chest was her pillow; her hair, my blanket. My hand rested atop her head, holding her close. I lay still for a moment, savoring the sight and feel of her claiming ownership over me. My fingers stroked the silky strands of her hair, tangling and then combing through them. Dawn began to seep in around the edges of her window, giving her ivory skin a celestial glow. I was struck again by the knowledge, deep in my bones, that this was how I wanted every morning of the rest of my life to be.

As the sun rose higher, Bella frowned a little in her sleep, not wanting to wake up. She told me she wasn’t a morning person. But as she stirred and became conscious, her frown dissipated. She squeezed me closer and a smile lifted the corners of her lips. Her hand roamed my chest now, thumb rubbing my nipple, which only made my morning wood harden further. When her eyes opened, they looked upward immediately in search of mine. They were a mirror of my own conviction that this was the future I wanted; an assurance that she wanted it, too.

We said very little. Soft, gentle kisses and touches were our language in the early morning light. Finally Bella suggested that we shower before Angela got up. I followed her to the bathroom and waited while the water warmed in the old-fashioned shower. I peeled her underwear carefully from her and tossed them on the hamper lid nearby; she did the same for me, releasing the stiff evidence of my desire for her. She smiled as she ran her hand over the length of it, then grasped it gently and stroked it up and down.

My breathing was quick and shallow by the time we stepped into the antique porcelain tub and under the stream of hot water. Our shower was a strange water dance again, filled with kisses and caresses amidst soapsuds and scrubbing. My erection was throbbing for release within minutes, and Bella’s busy hands were my relief. As I came closer to erupting, she surprised me by sitting on the edge of the tub and taking me in her mouth, licking me up and down and swirling her tongue around me until I thought I would pass out from the exquisite torture. Instead I came, right on her tongue, while she lapped at my pulsating cock. I shuddered at the sight and sensation of her wet, pink mouth working me while my cum dripped down her chin. My fingers were buried in the soaked strands of her hair, massaging her scalp as I came down from my insane high.

“You amaze me,” I sighed as I pulled her up from her perch and swirled her under the water, rinsing her face. “I know you don’t like doing that.”

She wiped the water from her eyes and scowled up at me. “I love doing that. Don’t you ever doubt it.” She reached up and wrapped her arms around me, pulling at my neck so that I would bend my ear to hers. “Breakfast of champions,” she whispered with a giggle.

“Hmm. I’m feeling a bit hungry myself,” I murmured as I hugged her tightly to me. I worked my way down her body with my mouth then, tasting every bit of her satin skin, lingering on her tight, pink nipples as my hands roamed her nether regions. She sighed with pleasure as I took a seat on the tub myself, pulling her left leg gently upward and positioning her foot on the porcelain next to my thigh.

I took my fill of her sweet pussy then, gently licking and probing with my tongue and fingers until she was panting and whimpering softly. I was again aware of the need to be quiet, stifling my own moans as I tasted her delicious flesh. I buried my face in the heady, hot scent of her sex and tongued her deep inside, over and over, until she dug her fingernails into my shoulders and sobbed softly. My hands grasped her hips, fingers pushing into the firm cheeks of her ass and holding her steady as she shook from the force of her climax. Her fingers wound through my hair, clutching my face to her groin, and I reveled in the captivity. I didn’t want to stop devouring her, stop teasing that swollen mound and the bright pink opening behind it.

So I didn’t stop. I continued to plumb her depths relentlessly with my tongue until she came again, her moans louder and more uncontrollable this time. At last she collapsed against the wall behind her, the shower curtain making a soft rustle under her meager weight. I relinquished her slowly, unwilling to let go of her. She was my drug, and as soon as I came down from one fix, I wanted another. Thankfully she seemed as reluctant to pull away from me as I was her. We lingered under the hot water, bodies pressed together, until we finally heard a rap at the door. Angela was afraid she would be late for work, and were we about done?

I hated rinsing Bella’s perfume from my face; hated brushing her taste from my mouth. I wondered if she felt anything like that about me. The intensity of my longing scared me a little. I was quiet again after we brushed our teeth and dressed. Bella didn’t have time to fix me breakfast, and I hadn’t expected her to. I needed to run home and put on fresh clothes anyway, so I grabbed a fast-food breakfast burrito on the way to work.

We text-messaged all day long. Silly, inconsequential things.

What are you doing for lunch?

Corner café per usual. You?

Rosalie ordered in from the Thai place down the street. Wish our offices weren’t so far apart.

Me too. I’d rather have more of what I had for breakfast. Breakfast of champions, indeed.

Seems like that was more of an appetizer. I think I’ll be ready for the main course again soon.

You have no idea how excited I am to hear that. I’m pretty sure I’ll be starving by tomorrow night. How early can you be at the loft?

I can’t. It’s Angela’s turn to cook and Ben’s coming over. He wants to be our designated driver so we can eat, drink and be merry at your place. ;) Besides, I have to make my famous seven-layer dip. You won’t want to miss that.

I’m sure I’ll love your seven-layer dip. I look forward to all of your layers, especially removing them. I just don’t know if I can wait until the end of the evening.

Well, you’ll have to. I’m not into public performances. I doubt you are, either.

I’ll leave that to Jasper. But if he takes his clothes off, he’s outta there.

Bella answered with an “LOL” and we returned to our jobs. Now I get to sit here and try not to imagine her at yoga class tonight with Alice. If I picture her in any sort of gymnastic positions, I’ll end up spending the evening jacking off like I did every day before we started dating. I’d rather skip the solo missions and wait for the real thing.

The cat is perched next to me on the sofa, eyeing me like I’m a pathetic chump again.

“Nope. Just pussy-whipped,” I told him, giving him a scratch under the chin. “Surely that’s something you can understand.”

His eyes squeezed shut in sage acknowledgement.

Friday, August 25

Time is running out for me, Tanya. I’m going to have to tell Bella everything.

I don’t know why I didn’t do it last night. I should have. It was the perfect time, after she finally came clean with me. Her soul is completely open to me now; her perceived blemishes all out in light. Her pain, her guilt, her horror. I am humbled that she finally bared it to me, let me share in it, let me try to soothe it. I always sensed she would understand about us, and now I know it with absolute certainty.

But I freeze in terror every time I attempt to say the words. It feels like I’m about to pour poison on a beautiful flower. Like my past will cast a shadow so dark that it will swallow the light of my relationship with her. And I need that light. I need it desperately. I can’t afford to lose sight of it, or worse yet, put it out.

And so I bide my time, bite my tongue, hold in my own pain and guilt and horror. Wondering how long I can keep up the charade.

I don’t know whether I want to clobber Rosalie Hale or thank her for being the catalyst that finally broke down Bella’s last walls of secrecy. I am a hypocrite of the worst kind for loving the closeness that it brought between Bella and me, when I’m still struggling through my own defenses just to reach her. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around everything that’s happened the past forty-eight hours.

Wednesday night went off without a hitch, or so I thought. Jasper’s band was a bit nervous at first, but they had warmed up and relaxed a little by the time my brother arrived with Rosalie on his arm. Jasper introduced her to bassist Hank and drummer Stew, then once again tried to describe the eclectic mix of musical styles they had co-opted into their own unique sound.

“Don’t worry about trying to pigeon-hole yourself into a genre,” she told them. “Just let the music do the talking. It’ll speak for you.”

I raised an eyebrow at Emmett after hearing Rosalie spout those little pearls of wisdom. His proud, “that’s my girl” grin told me all I needed to know about their relationship.

Alice had ensconced herself in a chair not far from the band, and the rest of us paired up in a semi-circle around her: Rosalie and Emmett, Angela and Ben, Bella and me. Behind us I’d pulled up an old desk and covered it with an array of snacks, Bella’s seven-layer bean dip at its center. That and the cooler of beer below kept us wandering back and forth during the impromptu concert, and a low buzz of chatter filled the room while the band worked out difficult passages of music. When they finally succeeded in plowing through a song to the finish, everyone cheered wildly.
The atmosphere was fun and laid-back, and Rosalie was surprisingly relaxed. Her demeanor now compared to the first time I’d laid eyes on her was like night and day.

“Do you think Rosalie likes what she hears?” I asked Bella, figuring she could read her mercurial boss better than I could.

“I think so. Hard to say. Jasper’s band is still a little rough, but the potential is obvious. She’s probably making furious mental notes under that smiling exterior,” she laughed.

“I figured as much.” I let my attention linger on Bella then, her nearness a distraction that only grew more pronounced as the evening went on. By the time she bent over the cooler and pronounced it empty, the sight of her ass in those tight jeans she always wears was too much to take.

“I have more beer upstairs in the refrigerator,” I announced, getting up and grabbing Bella’s hand. “Why don’t you come help me with it?”

I was already leading her to the service elevator by the time she replied, “Sure.”

We avoided each other’s gaze as we waited for the doors to open. The minute they closed behind us, I attacked her.

More accurately, we attacked each other. It’s just that I got to her first, and I had her pinned to the wall in seconds. Our kisses were desperate, almost crazed, like we’d been separated for weeks instead of a day and a half. By the time we were in my apartment, I had her t-shirt thrown to the floor and was working on the hooks of her bra.

“We can’t do this now!” she hissed, her voice low even though no one could possibly hear us two floors down.

“Oh, yes, we can,” I insisted. The bra hooks came open and I pulled the offending contraption from her body. “We can and we will.”

I captured one breast in my mouth and the other in my hand while she pushed feebly against me.

“No. Everyone will know,” she protested. “We can’t be gone that long.”

“Then you’ll have to come fast,” I mumbled before sucking her nipple into a raised, pink ridge.

“This is crazy,” she said, her tone beginning to show signs of succumbing. Still, she twisted against me and turned in an attempt to head for the refrigerator. I held her fast, pressing her back against my torso. I leaned down and whispered in her ear.

“You make me crazy. You like making me crazy. I can’t wait anymore. And I don’t think you want me to.”

I steered her back toward the living room in the direction of the couch, all the while kissing my way down her neck and shoulder. When we reached the sofa, I slid my hands down her belly to the closure of her jeans. I unbuttoned and unzipped them, then yanked at the fabric. It stuck stubbornly to the sides of her hips.

“Why do you always wear such tight pants?” I complained, trying to pull them down without hurting her.

“Look what they do to you,” she pointed out in reply.

“Fuck,” I grunted, giving them a final tug over her backside. They finally freed her gorgeous ass from their constraints, taking her underwear with them. I ran my hands over the smooth, round flesh and groaned at how good it felt under my fingers. I moved my hands to the front, down her stomach, between her legs. Her back arched and her head fell back, letting my fingers probe the slickness between her thighs.

“God, how I want you,” I sighed into her hair. I could feel the need to possess her seize me again like it did the first time I took her in my living room. My voice was nothing but a hollow rasp when I made my demand.

“Get on your knees.”

I heard her breath catch; watched her back expand with oxygen before it collapsed and let the air shakily escape. My hands were on her shoulders, pushing her slowly downward, facing the couch. I gazed down at her naked body leaning over the sofa cushion, ass pushed back, waiting for me. I was half-mad with desire as tore my t-shirt over my head and let my cargo shorts drop to the floor. I straddled her legs with my own and sank to my knees behind her. I ran my hands up and down her arched back and over her hips; then I grasped her cheeks, pulling them open. The jeans binding her at the knees wouldn’t let her legs spread more than a few inches apart, and I couldn’t wait to feel the resulting friction when I pushed inside her.

I fingered her opening again, amazed at the amount of cream I found there. She was as turned on by this as I was. I groaned, grasped my cock and slid the head between her tight cheeks, seeking her wet heat. She pushed back against me and we both moaned loudly as I filled her. Had it only been a few days? It seemed like it had been years since I felt those silky ridges surround me, engulf me, taunt me to press further inside. She was insanely tight with her thighs pressed together, and each thrust into her flesh forced a sigh of ecstasy from my lips.

Bella wasn’t quiet either, her soft cries and murmurs spurring me on, her body pushing rhythmically against me, eager to take me in. She looked over her shoulder at me, at our bodies coming together, before stretching her hands out to grab the back of the sofa cushion beneath her. I leaned over her and splayed my hands over hers, clutching her fingers between mine, pushing my body against her as I drove in deeper.

“How fast can you come, Bella?” I whispered in her ear as I picked up the pace. “If you come now, they might not know what we’re doing. Not for sure. They might think we’re just making out a little.”

“Yeah, right,” she managed to gasp over her shoulder.

“But if you take a little longer, then they might wonder. They’ll know something’s going on,” I taunted her between thrusts. “Maybe you’re giving me a hand job. Maybe I’m eating you out again like I did yesterday morning.”

She moaned again at my dirty talk. I plunged faster, more recklessly, letting the couch cushion beneath her absorb the shock of my body slamming into hers. I continued like this for a minute or two longer, sensing we were both close, but still holding out. The knowledge that we were already busted was somehow insanely titillating; the thrill of the illicit encouraging us to prolong the moment.

“Now it’s too late,” I whispered between ragged breaths as I pounded her mercilessly. “There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that my dick is inside you right now, fucking the hell out of you. They’re just desperately trying not to picture it. But they won’t be able to ignore the glow on your face when we go back downstairs.”

“You’re such a bastard,” she growled, her words muffled by the sofa cushion.

“And you love me for it,” I insisted, high on the absolute knowledge that it was true. “You love me and you’re going to come for me.”

I removed one of my hands from hers and slid it around her hip, over her belly and between her legs. I worked her clitoris in time with my thrusts, and her answering cries of pleasure were more than I could take. I came, hard, exploding like a firecracker, overwhelmed again at how amazing it felt to lose myself so deep within her. When she climaxed a moment later, she milked the last dregs of cum from me with a force that took my breath away. I collapsed on top of her, relishing the feel of our damp skin pressed together, her long hair silken against my face. I covered her with tiny kisses. The faint salt of her skin was delicious to me, better than anything I’d tasted all day. I didn’t care if we ever went downstairs. Our friends and family could entertain themselves, as far as I was concerned.

Her breathing calmed and she stirred beneath me, pushing against me. I slowly raised myself from her and pulled out, hating the moment as I always did. I continued to massage and kiss her back, her neck, her shoulders as she lifted herself up off the couch. I slid my arms gently around her and sighed contentedly into hair.

“Why do I let you do these things to me?” she asked softly, rhetorically. But I attempted to answer anyway.

“Because you like them. Because you want me to.”

She shook her head, but the movement was weak, barely perceptible. “Why do I want you to? That’s what I keep trying to figure out,” she sighed.

I stood and pulled her up, turning her toward me. My hands cupped her face, thumbs stroking her cheeks. I looked into her eyes and tried to give her the answer wordlessly, but her gaze was still clouded, perturbed.

“Bella, from what I know about you, you’ve spent most of your life trying to be strong and capable and in control. I know how exhausting that can be. It feels good to let go of the reins once in awhile and let someone else take them. Someone you trust. Someone you love.”

Her eyes brightened; her lips stretched into my favorite smile. “You’re just saying that so I’ll let you ride me more often.”

I chuckled and kissed the tip of her nose. “It’s worked so far. But I don’t mind you taking charge every now and then. You know I like it when you tell me what to do.”

“Then put on your clothes and get me a comb. I’m going to be embarrassed as hell when we go back downstairs.”

“You look gorgeous,” I told her, smoothing her wild tangles with my hands. “You’re all flushed. I told you, you can’t hide that fresh-fucked look.”

“Remind me again why I let you near me?” she groused as she began looking around for her clothes.

I leaned in and whispered the words straight into her ear. “Because I give you incredible orgasms.”

“Oh, that’s right,” she said in mock forgetfulness.

We dressed quickly and I went to the kitchen to get the beer out of the refrigerator. The wall clock there told me we hadn’t actually been gone that long.

“I think we may have set a record for world’s fastest quickie,” I told Bella as she pulled her t-shirt over her head. “Normally that’s not exactly something I’d be proud of. But I guarantee you I will take my time and savor round two later on.”

“What makes you think there will be a round two?” she challenged me.

“Because I promise to play nice. But I don’t expect you to. In fact, I prefer that you didn’t.”

The provocative look she gave me was almost enough to make me hard again already.

“Don’t tell me what you’re thinking, or we won’t be going back downstairs at all,” I warned her. She grinned impishly and went to the bathroom in search of a comb.

By the time we were ensconced in the service elevator again, we were both appropriately dressed and groomed in our best attempt to disguise our inappropriate behavior. Bella looked increasingly nervous as the elevator neared the ground floor.

“Don’t worry,” I tried to assure her. “You look beautiful. Glowing.”

She responded with a slight sneer. I smiled sweetly and leaned in to give her a gentle kiss on the forehead right before the elevator door opened. Bella headed straight for the cooler with her six-packs of imports, and I followed with a couple of cases of domestic. The band had decided to take a break, and had joined their audience in sprawling atop blankets spread over the old hardwood floors. The guys began hooting and clapping when they caught sight of us bringing the beverages.

“It’s about time. When you left to get beer, I thought you went upstairs to get it, not Pioneer Square,” Emmett ribbed us, getting up off the floor to help me with the cases.

“Sorry,” I apologized rather insincerely. “I had to feed the cat.”

Snorts and titters traveled the room, and Bella’s face went from pink to scarlet. She quickly bent over the cooler, her hair hiding her embarrassment, and deposited the beer bottles two at a time into the ice.

“’Feeding the cat.’ Is that what they’re calling it these days?” Jasper razzed me as he and my sister approached. He took a Heineken out of my hand and added, “I’ll have that, thanks.” He grabbed another from the cooler and handed it to Alice, who gave me her best Cheshire cat grin.

I refrained from making an obvious crude reply, but could not entirely stifle my smirk, even when Bella shot me a look of complete consternation. I leaned down to help her unload the beers, then pulled her aside for a moment.

“You have nothing to be embarrassed about,” I told her in a hushed voice. “I’m not ashamed that I love you and want you as much as I do. I don’t care who knows it. Especially when these are friends and family who want us to be happy.”

She looked up at me in dismay. “I’m not ashamed of you, or us.” She grabbed my hands in hers and squeezed them tightly.

“Then kiss me,” I whispered softly.

Her eyes said everything I wanted to hear as she tilted her face up to mine. “So bossy,” she murmured before her lips touched mine.

“Get a room!” Emmett bellowed from the blanket where he now lay, propped up on one elbow. Rosalie lounged on the floor in front of him, her head resting on his stomach.

“They already did,” she grinned, giving Bella a wink.

Bella’s blush was less severe this time, and she hid her face against my chest instead of under her own hair. I rested my chin on top of her head and rocked her gently in my arms. It was one of those rare, perfect moments when I knew what real happiness was.

I grabbed a couple of beers for the two of us, then we joined Angela and her boyfriend on the floor. Ben, Hank and Stew were having a techie discussion about what kind of amps and sound effects the band was using; Angela was politely pretending to give a damn. She looked grateful for our intervention.

“So Edward, are you gonna join us for a couple of numbers?” Stew asked. “We could use a little doo-wop in the background. Makes Jasper sound like a real singer,” he kidded.

“I heard that,” came Jasper’s reply from across the room. Seconds later, an empty beer can from his vicinity sailed through the air and landed square on the top of Stew’s shaggy blond hair. The room erupted into laughter and shouts of “Nice shot!”

I took a surreptitious glance at Rosalie, who was snuggling with my brother and looking fairly unthreatening at the moment. I was feeling a little brave and crazy anyway. Who cared if she did hear me? It wasn’t like it would amount to anything. I decided I should get over myself and the idea that she’d even want to badger me into recording for Java Noise.

“Yeah, I’ll sit in if you want,” I told Stew. “Not sure Jasper will have me, though, after that crack you just made.”

“I’ll think about it,” came his voice from two blankets away.

“The guy’s got bionic hearing,” Hank laughed.

“Comes from teaching high schoolers all day. If you don’t pay attention, you’re dead meat,” Jazz intoned ominously.

That led to a discussion of possible names for the band that related to Jasper’s profession. Detention, Home Room, The Grade, The Tutors, Skip Day and Honor Roll all got bandied about. Finally the guys ditched making a decision in favor of playing some more, and this time I borrowed one of Jasper’s guitars and joined them.

We did a few covers that I knew first; then I tried to play by ear and throw in some vocal harmonies on some of the band’s original numbers. We didn’t sound too bad for a bunch of semi-drunken amateurs jamming in an abandoned textile mill. We had fun, at any rate, and our equally inebriated audience was highly appreciative. A couple of times I caught Rosalie watching me like a hawk, her face seemingly relaxed but her eyes sharp and calculating. I ignored her and kept on doing what I love. I was in too good a mood to worry about what she was thinking.

By eleven o’clock we decided that we really should have done this on a weekend instead of a work night, because everyone was reluctant to leave. The band packed up their gear while the rest of us folded blankets and cleaned up the remnants of the snacks.

I cornered Bella and whispered, “You’re staying the night here, aren’t you?”

“Are you asking?” she countered.

“Yes, I’m asking. I’ve been told that demands will result in my chain-yanking privileges being withheld.”

“Well, lucky for you, I happen to have a soft spot for bossy rock stars,” she murmured in a sexy voice.

“Wow. My first groupie. Hot,” I replied with a sly grin.

“You have no idea.” The seductive look she gave me made me dispatch our guests and haul our leftover beer and food back upstairs in record time.

This time, Bella was the one tearing at my clothes, shoving me toward the bedroom. The hungry look in her eyes fueled my desire like nothing I’d ever known before. I lay back in grateful ecstasy as she pushed me down on the bed and crawled all over me, kissing and nipping and clawing her fingers up and down my body. By the time she straddled me and lowered herself onto my rock-hard dick, it was all I could do not to come right away. The sight of her grinding and dancing atop me as she took me inside her again and again was the most jaw-droppingly sexy thing I had ever seen. It wasn’t just the sensual movement of her body that did me in. It was the emotion in her eyes. So deep, so full of desire, so beyond desire. Her eyes made love to me with as much fervor as her body did. I only hoped that I was rising to the occasion in every way, giving back what she gave to me, letting her know how much this connection meant to me; how much she meant to me.

“I love you” never seemed like enough. There should be stronger, better words to describe something so intense and all-consuming. I could only hope that where words fell short, actions would speak for me.

I don’t know how long we made love. It seemed to go on all night, in fits and starts, from climax to climax, position to position, as we christened every corner of my king-sized bed.

We were sound asleep with exhaustion when my alarm clock went off yesterday morning. I begged Bella to play hooky. I had Thursday afternoon off per usual, and only three appointments scheduled for the morning. I was ready to reschedule them if Bella played along.

I wished to God she had. If she had just spent the day at my place, then I would have missed Rosalie’s phone call to my office at 9 a.m., wondering if I could stop by Java Noise to speak with her during lunch. She acted coy and evasive when I wanted to know what this visit was regarding. Then she asked me not to mention it to Bella, because it was a “surprise.”

All morning long, I couldn’t shake the feeling Rosalie Hale was about to remind me why I hate surprises.

The reception area of Java Noise was small but comfortable, decorated in soothing earth tones and cozy furniture. I was unable to relax in the overstuffed chairs, however, as I braced myself for whatever Rosalie was about to spring on me.

I heard the staccato clip-clop of her heels long before I ever saw her. By the time she entered the carpeted reception room, I was already on my feet in uneasy anticipation.

“Hi, Edward,” she smiled. “I’m so glad you could come. I just have a little something I want to discuss with you. Actually, it’s more of a puzzle that I think you might be able to help me solve.”

She motioned for me to follow her back down the hallway. We passed several offices whose glass walls revealed their occupants to my inquisitive eyes, but Bella did not inhabit any of them.

“I’m not sure what kind of puzzle I’d be any good at helping you with,” I said warily as we turned a corner and entered a more remote part of the building. The doors were few and far between now, with no windows to clue me in to what lay beyond.

“Here,” Rosalie smiled when she reached the last entrance on the right before the corridor veered off yet again. She opened the door and said, “You’ll soon find out.”

She flipped several switches on the wall and fluorescence filled the room as we entered. We were surrounded by sound engineering equipment--microphones, recording devices, processors, equalizers, stacks of speakers. I looked around, perplexed at what we could possibly be doing here, unless Rosalie was about to surprise me with some sort of news about Jasper’s band.

“Nice, isn’t it?” she asked with a bright grin. It was the sort of grin that was a little too wide, a little too tight around the edges. My wariness grew as I waited for her to continue. “I mean, it’s small, but it gets the job done. We do lots of pre-recording and dubbing here. We farm out the work for our bigger acts to recording studios. But an artist just starting out, like the Wolf Pack, or say, Jasper’s band, would do some recording right here in-house.”

So this was about Jasper’s band. I couldn’t quite breathe a sigh of relief yet, though. Rosalie’s forced cheer was belied by the icy glint in her eyes. Something was very wrong here.

“Why did you ask me to come here, Rosalie?” I asked point blank. “If this is about signing Jasper’s band, you should probably go straight to them, don’t you think?”

“Well, that’s the thing I wanted to talk to you about. Jasper’s band has a lot of potential. The guy’s got a quirky music sensibility about him, and he’s definitely got some guitar chops. His rhythm section is solid. But you know what really got my attention last night?”

I played along against my better judgment. “What’s that?”

“When you joined them,” she said flatly. Her smile faded slightly. “A three-piece band is a hard thing to pull off well. The Police did it back in the day, but let’s be honest, they had more talent and skill between the three of them than most five-piece bands do. Most trios really benefit from a good rhythm player and backing vocalist. If Jasper’s band had that, I might be interested. No, make that, I’d definitely be interested.”

Her gaze was as pointed as her words. There was no mistaking what she was getting at.

“So basically you’re telling me that you’d sign Jasper’s band if I was part of the deal.” I could feel my hackles rising slightly at the insinuation that my friend and his band-mates couldn’t make it without me. Not to mention the fact that she was trying to coerce me into commercializing my only real emotional outlet.

Rosalie raised one elegantly sculpted brow. “Why beat around the bush? The whole combo came to life the minute you stepped in. It’s obvious to me where the real draw is out of the four of you. I heard that piano tune you wrote for Bella, so I know you’ve got the talent. Why aren’t you pursuing it? You could take his band in a whole different direction. I got the impression that you were holding back last night, singing back-up. I’ll bet what I saw was only the tip of the iceberg.”

Her eyes were sharp, almost accusing. I sighed and repeated my usual spiel. “I think you overestimate my talents, first of all. And second, I’m not at all interested in pursuing a music career. It’s strictly a hobby for me. A personal one, at that. I have no desire to sell my soul to the public for money. Not that I have any delusions they’d be buying.”

Rosalie let out a snide laugh. “Oh, they’d be buying, all right. I’m not overestimating anything.”

With a grimly triumphant smile, she leaned over the soundboard and flipped a couple of switches. The speaker stacks popped to life, and the room was soon filled with sound. The first thing I heard was an acoustic guitar strumming a mournful but impassioned rhythm. It took a few seconds before the music’s familiarity struck me like a two-by-four between the eyes. I stared, stunned, at the control panel while a singer’s raspy wail joined its guitar counterpart, then soared over it, taking flight. The lyrics spoke of pain, of suffering, of guilt and regret. The voice was rife with emotion, raw and pushed to the point of breaking. I continued to gape at the recording equipment as if the singer would materialize from it like a genie from a bottle. But that was ridiculous. The singer was already here.

The singer was me.

My lips moved imperceptibly, mouthing the words. Lost in a sea of red. Impossible. Rosalie Hale couldn’t possibly have this in her possession. Not this song. Your song. The song I only sang once in public. The song I never want to sing again.

“How did you get this?” My words were so faint, they could not be heard above the din of my own pain as it rattled the walls of the studio. But as soon as I uttered them, the answer hit me far more brutally than any two-by-four ever could. It split me right down the middle this time, eviscerating me, gutting me.


I was too sick inside to be relieved when the music stopped. Apparently Rosalie had seen my lips moving and wondered what I had said. I couldn’t repeat it. I couldn’t look at her. I couldn’t move. I was trying to process the fact that Bella had recorded me and never told me about it. And now Rosalie had the proof. Surely Bella couldn’t have given this song to her boss. She wouldn’t do that to me.

“This is you, isn’t it?” Rosalie demanded. She sounded small, muffled, after the loud volume of my own personal hell had stopped reverberating around the room. I was still unable to respond. Apparently she didn’t actually require a response, because she continued on full-bore without me.

“I know it’s you. Don’t bother denying it. Call me crazy, but when I thought back to Saturday night, and then last night, I started putting two and two together. At the Black and Red Ball, Alice asked if you were going to sing. You said you weren’t sure. And then, after you dedicated a song to Bella that you wrote for her, you played some instrumental version, which I thought was odd. It was structured exactly like a traditional pop song would be, so I don’t believe for a minute that there aren’t some lyrics floating around your loft for that thing. It was almost like you didn’t want anyone to hear you sing. Or maybe it was just Bella’s bosses that you were trying to keep that little talent from.”

I could barely comprehend her tirade. What the hell was she getting at? Bella’s apparent betrayal of my trust was all I could think about. It simply couldn’t be true.

I glanced at Rosalie long enough to see her impatience at my lack of reaction, and then my eyes fell again.

“Then came last night’s band rehearsal. Nobody there seemed one bit surprised when you joined in and unleashed that crazy-good voice of yours. You stole the show instantly, and yet everyone was completely blasé about it, like they’d seen it all before. Maybe I’m paranoid, but I couldn’t help but think that there was some big conspiracy going on that I was deliberately being left out of. I was pretty damned upset with Emmett for never once mentioning that his little brother possessed such talent, when I spend most of my waking hours in search of people who are half as charismatic a performer as you are.

“Not only that, Bella didn’t seem surprised, either. That’s when I realized that she must have seen you perform before. I started wondering how long ago that was. How long was she keeping you under my radar? And more importantly, why? Why the hell would she keep a talent like yours quiet? A talent that could really advance her in this business?

“I couldn’t figure it out. I barely slept last night, thinking about all of this. Wondering what the hell was going on. I’m not proud of it, but I came in early this morning and snooped. I combed Bella’s desk for some evidence. And what do you know?”

She stopped for a moment, and I heard a faint mechanical noise. I managed to focus on her again, long enough to see her pull a memory stick out of a USB port. She waved it at me, grinning bitterly.

“A whole CD’s worth of songs that sound suspiciously like the guy I heard backing Jasper Whitlock’s band last night,” she clarified through gritted teeth, apparently irritated with my stupefied expression. “Song after song after song. Originals, covers, duets with Jasper. All by Bella’s new boyfriend, of all people. Here she is, sitting on a potential goldmine for our company, and she doesn’t say one God-damned word about it to me.” She paused, ostensibly for dramatic effect. “Now, tell me, Edward. What the hell am I supposed to think about all of this?”

I stared at her blankly. I was still trying to absorb the fact that Bella had recorded me not once, but several times, without my knowledge or permission. At least she hadn’t willingly given the songs to Rosalie. I couldn’t believe that she would betray me like that. But she did keep it from me all this time. Why? To what end? I hated being suspicious of her. And I hated Rosalie for sending my thoughts in that direction.

As for the latter’s suspicions, I couldn’t make heads or tails of them. I raked my fingers through my hair, trying to process everything she had just told me. I finally shook my head and simply asked her, “What exactly are you accusing us of?”

She glared at me as if I were the most annoying simpleton she’d ever met. “Do you really need me to spell it out for you? In this day and age, it’s easy for any Joe-Blow off the street to decide to start his--or her--own record label. Computer technology has completely changed the music business over the last decade. It’s harder than ever for traditional record companies to show a profit; easier than ever for upstarts to try to do it themselves. With Bella’s training and connections, and your talent… again, what am I supposed to think?”

Her meaning was clear enough now. My hackles were far more than raised as I stared at her in disbelief. “You seriously think that Bella is about to mutiny and start her own company? You can’t honestly believe that she would betray you like that. She’s loyal to you to a fault, though right about now, I can’t possibly imagine why. You certainly don’t deserve it,” I spat. I was practically seething with outrage at the woman my brother deigned to call his girlfriend.

“Do you think I want to believe such a thing about her? About either of you? Bella’s been like a little sister to me. I’ve mentored her and trusted her with everything I know about this business. But it’s the only reason I can come up with for her cloak and dagger act. I don’t even want to approach her about this unless I know I have good reason to. If I’m way off-base, I’d love to know it right now. That’s why I asked you here. So enlighten me, Edward. Why has everyone been hiding your light under a bushel for so long?”

I was certain I was visibly shaking by then. I could feel my limbs quake with anger as I tried desperately to control my voice. “Because I asked them to. I meant it when I said I want nothing to do with recording or selling a single note of my music. Not for myself, not for my family, not even for Bella; and most certainly not for you. If you want someone to blame for missing out on another precious acquisition for your company, then you don’t have to look any further than across this room. My music isn’t for sale. I’m not for sale. Try to wrap your mercenary mind around that if you can, and leave Bella out of this.”

Rosalie opened her mouth in rebuttal, but I cut her off before she had the chance. “I’m going to pretend that this conversation never happened. I’m not going to tell Bella how quick you were to distrust her and assume the worst about her. Not because I give a damn about keeping your miserable secrets, but because I wouldn’t want to hurt her like that. But if you ever give her a reason to doubt your faith in her, I’ll tell her everything so fast it will make your head spin like a top.”

With that, I was out the door before I had to hear one more word from her wretched lips.

My mind was in turmoil as I marched back toward the front of the building. Rosalie Hale was some piece of work, making groundless accusations like that, especially behind Bella’s back. Instead of confronting her employee with her concerns, she took the coward’s way out and ferreted the information from of me instead. What the hell did Emmett see in such a conniving shrew of a woman? I wondered if I should tell him what she’d been up to. I had the feeling that if I waited long enough, she’d eventually hang herself without any assistance from me.

The truth was, I really didn’t give a damn about Rosalie one way or the other. But I cared deeply about what all of this meant for Bella and me. I couldn’t understand why she would keep her recordings of me a secret. What was she planning to do with them? Why would she leave them lying around where her boss could come across them? I realized that my performances were all public ones, and that anyone with a camera phone could have captured them and stuck them on Youtube for all I knew. I had no right to feel like my privacy was invaded. I surrendered it every time I took to a stage with a guitar in my hand.

So why did this feel underhanded, somehow? Because the recordings had been obtained by the person I now trusted like I’d trusted no other? I had no legitimate reason to feel deceived. And even if I did, it was certainly just retribution for all the lies of omission I’ve told her, and continue to tell her, every day that I leave you out of the equation.

I was so lost in my own chaotic thoughts that I nearly knocked down the first person I ran into when I got to the lobby.

“Sorry,” I apologized absent-mindedly as I pushed past him.

“Christ almighty, Cullen, where’s the fire?”

I started at the familiar voice, then blinked and tried to focus on the dark, deep-set eyes of Jacob Black. I had no idea how to reply. Like Rosalie, he seemed to require no response.

“If you’re looking for Bella, she’s right behind me. We just got back from lunch. She’s feeding the meter, if you want to wait.”

He obviously enjoyed letting me know he had just taken my girlfriend out to eat. If he only knew how badly I wanted to punch someone, anyone, at that moment, he would have kept his Goddamned mouth shut.

“Edward!” came a softer, gentler exclamation from the direction of the door. I turned my irritated gaze toward Bella and tried to compose myself. “What are you doing here? Were we supposed to meet for lunch?” She looked confused.

I heard the words tumble like ice cubes from my lips. “Clearly you already had other plans.”

Her forehead scrunched in worry; the ubiquitous tiny line formed down the bridge of her nose.

“We were working and we got hungry, so we went to the Turkish place. It was totally spur of the moment. Did I miss a text from you or something? I would have waited if I’d known you wanted to take me to lunch.”

I heard a faint coughing noise to my left. “See you later, Bells,” Jacob mumbled, giving her a smile. His smile soured as he glanced at me before taking off down the hall.

“I was here to see Rosalie, actually. She had some questions for me about Jasper’s band, so I stopped by on my way home for the afternoon. It was spur of the moment, too.” I tried to keep my voice even. I wasn’t sure why I was feeling annoyed. I only knew I needed some time alone to collect my thoughts before I talked to Bella again.

She shook her head. She knew me too well. “You’re lying to me. What’s going on?” Her voice was tense.

I forced my lips into a smile. “I’m not lying. We were talking shop for a bit, that’s all. Why don’t you go back to work, and I’ll talk to you tonight.” I reached out to briefly touch her face, then turned to go.

She grabbed my arm to stop me. “Edward, what’s wrong? What did she say to you?” The worry line was etched even more deeply between her eyes.

I released my frozen grin long enough to lean in and give her a peck on the forehead. But no matter how I tried, I couldn’t keep the chill from my voice. “Nothing’s wrong, Bella. I just have a few things on my mind. Everything’s fine. I’ll talk to you later.”

“Edward….” Her anxious voice trailed off as I gently pulled my arm from her grip and headed for the front door.

The maelstrom in my head continued the entire drive home. I wasn’t even sure what my problem was. I was incensed at what Rosalie had pulled, but I couldn’t figure out why I was upset with Bella. She probably routinely recorded the musicians she went to see, so that she could listen to them again, and turn them over to Rosalie if they were any good. I should have been thrilled that Bella had kept the recordings of me to herself.

Maybe it was because she had that song. Because she had evidence of the brutal catharsis I had gone through that night; because that was her first impression of me, so soon after we met. What if she had listened to it over and over? Reliving my second-hand pain; trying to dissect my demons? I remembered how utterly raw and exposed I felt when I discovered that she had seen that side of me. How petrified I was to ever show her that much vulnerability again.

And I hadn’t. Not really. Not like that. Maybe that’s what was bothering me. The fact that even though I had come so far since that night, I was still holding back. Still keeping things from her. And the fact that she had hidden that recording from me only made the knot of unease tighten in my gut.

What else was she keeping from me? And why couldn’t I come clean with her?

By the time I reached the old mill, the weather had worsened to match my mood. The omnipresent bank of clouds overhead finally released their heavy burden, pelting fat drops of moisture on the pavement as I parked the car. I looked around for the cat, wondering if he would want to come inside. The weather had been nice when I went to work that morning, and I’d left him outside.

“Here, Lucky!” I called, my voice echoing down the street and bouncing off the brick buildings. I repeated the call a couple more times for good measure, then unlocked the side door of the building.

What happened then took only a few seconds, but they were the longest seconds of my life. I wasn’t sure which I saw first: Lucky, running across the street toward me; or Bella’s ancient red truck, barreling around the corner. My eyes somehow took them in simultaneously, even though they were coming from opposite directions. Perhaps it only seemed that way because the two converged in my line of vision in one swift, horrifying moment.

The screech of slamming brakes and squealing tires pierced the air. Bella barely missed Lucky, who streaked past her right front tire by the narrowest of margins before reaching the door behind me. But my sigh of relief was cut short at the sight of the rusted vehicle losing control on the newly wet pavement. It whipped sharply to the left and spun in a semi-circle across both lanes before skidding to a stop, mere inches from the cars parked on the other side of the road. Miraculously, there had been no on-coming traffic. Bella’s truck now sat in the left lane, facing the proper direction, as if she had been driving that way all along.

My heart was pounding as I raced across the street toward the truck. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. I raised wild eyes to the car window, trying to get Bella’s attention through the glass. She sat still as a stone. Her face was frozen in terror, her knuckles white as she gripped the steering wheel.

“Bella! Open the door!” I yelled, pounding on the metal with my fists. I tried the handle again, yanking on it like I might be able pry it open with my bare hands. My tone was even more desperate this time. “Are you all right? Open the door, Bella! Let me in!”

Her frightened eyes finally seemed to register my frantic attempts to reach her. She raised a shaking hand to the door lock inside. As soon as I heard it release, I ripped the door open and leaned into the cab, throwing my arms around her.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” I felt icy fingers clutch at me, heard sobbing breaths on my neck. “You didn’t hurt yourself, did you?”

Her voice shook with fear as she pulled back and fixed me with a petrified gaze. “Is he dead?” she whispered hoarsely.

“Who, Lucky? No! He’s fine. You missed him. He’s at the front door, see?” I nodded over my shoulder to the building behind me. Bella’s face collapsed in relief, and then the tears began to roll down her cheeks. “He’s fine, baby. He’s got nine lives, remember?” I assured her, pulling her close again and rocking her in my arms. “I’m only worried about you. Let’s get you out of this truck so I can check you over, okay?”

She only gripped me more tightly, sobs wracking her body. I was scared to death that she had hurt her back again and was unable to tell me. She clearly was in a bit of shock. I soothed her with soft words and caresses and kisses, trying to calm her and get her out of the vehicle. But for some reason, she was inconsolable. Her crying only worsened, and was soon verging on hysteria.

“You’re scaring me, Bella,” I told her. I closed my hands tightly on her arms and shook her slightly, desperate to get her to pay attention to me before she went off the deep end. “If you’re hurt, you have to tell me where. You have to tell me what’s wrong. Bella… please.”

Her tear-streaked eyes finally snapped into focus as they found mine. Her lips trembled violently; her words came out in broken, jagged sobs.

“I killed her, Edward. I killed my mother.”

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Massage Therapy, Chapter 15, - Profession, part 2

Edward Cullen’s Little Black Notebook
Tuesday, August 22 (cont’d.)

I couldn’t believe Dad was pulling this crap with me at 7:40 on a Monday morning.

“I’ve got an appointment coming any minute, so….” I protested, glancing back at him before aiming my retrieved keys for the keyhole.

“This won’t take long,” he insisted. “Would you please come to my office for just a moment?”

I felt a little like a school kid who was about to get lectured by the principal. It’s uncanny how parents can take you right back to the days when you felt defiant for no reason other than you were unable to act on it.

I shrugged and followed him down the hall to his family practice. I greeted the receptionist, Donna, who was always the first one in the building every day and had been since I was old enough to walk. Per usual, she was austerely but impeccably dressed, and gave me a comforting smile as she glanced at me over the top of her glasses.

“Nice to see you, Edward,” she said. “Would you like some coffee? It’s just finished brewing.”

“Thanks, Donna, but I’m good,” I told her, raising my café cup in explanation. “It’s nice to see you, too.”

Dad led the way to his office, then bade me to take a seat. I perched on the edge of one of the modern black leather and chrome chairs that faced his desk, ready to bolt as soon as he finished scolding me once more for not being front and center every minute of the Black and Red Ball.

He surprised me by sitting in the patient chair opposite me rather than his own desk chair. He even turned the chair to face me. It reminded me a little of the time Bella came to see me in my office, and I tried not to think about how disastrous that had turned out. I decided to cut my father off at the pass before he wasted his time and mine.

“Look, Dad, if this is about me disappearing Saturday night, I already told you I’m sorry I missed the auction. I had something I had to take care of. It won’t happen again. I’ll send an engraved apology to Mom if that will make you feel better.”

Dad stared at me in mild shock, clearly taken aback. I guiltily raised my coffee cup to my lips and took momentary solace in the hot, creamy liquid as I sipped it carefully. When my father finally spoke, he was quiet, sounding a bit injured.

“All I wanted was to tell you how happy your mother and I were to see you with Bella Swan the other night. I had the pleasure of speaking with her for a bit, and she’s a lovely young woman. You so seldom confide in us anymore… it was quite a surprise to see that you’ve found someone you obviously care about. A welcome surprise, though. We did wonder why you didn’t bring her to the party to begin with, but I suppose that’s none of our business.”

“You suppose right,” I grumbled. I wasn’t in the mood to receive his blessing over Bella any more than I had been to hear his rebukes about you, Tanya.

Dad took a deep breath and sighed heavily, brows compressed into well-worn creases. “I wish you could let go of all this anger and resentment you have toward me, Edward. I’ve been happy to take the brunt of it these past few years so that you’d spare your mother. But the truth is, neither of us ever thought Tanya was right for you. We made no secret of it. And frankly, we were right.

“But we never would have wished the horror of how it ended on either of you--you know that. We had no idea she how ill she was. I can’t begin to know what you went through. And if I was too hard on you afterward, not understanding enough… then, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to push you. I just didn’t want you to give up on yourself; on your own life. That’s all.”

I tried to look into my father’s eyes; I knew I should. I knew I would see all of it there: the sorrow, the guilt, the pity, the carefully-concealed judgment.

But I couldn’t seem to stop staring at the perfect knot of his navy blue tie instead. It was the only thing keeping me sane and calm and contained. The only thing keeping the tears at bay… that exquisitely symmetrical piece of silk under his clean-shaven neck.

He taught me how to knot a tie like that when I was little. I had been dying to learn how he did it, so he showed me in painstaking detail how to get the knot in just the right place, and how to manipulate the fabric into a pristine triangle. I practiced with one of his old ties in the mirror, obsessed with making it as perfect as he did. I got better and better at it over the years, and by the time I was tie-wearing age, I could make it look almost as neat and crisp as he did.

That was about the time that I rejected wearing ties altogether.

Dad sighed now at my silence. He reached across the space dividing us and put his hand on my shoulder. “I miss you, son. I miss the way things used to be. I guess I’m hoping that if you find happiness with Bella, you’ll try to share it with us. At least with your mother. She likes Bella, a lot. She’s talking about inviting the two of you over for dinner, along with Emmett and Rosalie, and Alice and Jasper. If she did, would you consider coming?”

At last I raised my eyes to meet his, knowing I would give in to his beseeching look. The realization finally struck me that it wasn’t Dad’s failed expectations of me that had frustrated me all these years.

It was my own.

I suddenly felt weary of the resentment I’d been carrying around--not just toward the convenient target of my disapproving father, but at the hand Fate had dealt me. Maybe now that Fate had relented and given me the gift of Bella, I’d be ready to let go of old grudges. I knew it would be easier said than done. But this could be a good first step.

“Yeah, sure. I’m sure Bella would love to come to dinner,” I told Dad, with a somewhat sheepish smile.

His answering smile was one of relief. “Your mother will be happy to hear that. She loves nothing more than to plan a party, you know. She’ll be restless now that the ball is over for another year.”

I let out a short laugh and agreed.

“Thanks for listening, Edward,” Dad said as he rose from his chair. I followed, still secretly enjoying the fact that I was ever so slightly taller than he was. When I had surpassed his height at sixteen, I remember that was the first time I had truly felt like a man. Now, nine years later, I decided that it was about time I start acting like one.

I looked my father squarely in his pale blue eyes and said, “I’m sorry that I’ve been behaving like kind of a jackass for awhile now. I know you just wanted what’s best for me.”

Dad’s surprise at my apology was nearly surpassed by his look of contrition. “Yes, but it’s up to you to decide what that is. Not me. I never should have judged the decisions you made, and your choice of career, especially in light of the trauma you went through. I just want you to be happy, Edward. That’s all I’ve ever wanted for you.”

I nodded in agreement. I was somewhat shocked at his concession, but not at all shocked that when he spoke of my happiness, Bella was the first person to pop into my mind. My love for her had already filled a void that no profession ever could.

Dad leaned in for an awkward hug, which I returned even more awkwardly, trying not to spill coffee down his back.

“I love you, son,” he whispered. I fought back those damned tears again.

“Love you too, Dad,” I mumbled before ducking out of the room. His expression of grateful relief was still etched in my mind as I hurried back to Cullen and Cullen, PC before my first client arrived. I was amazed at how relieved I was myself to have forged the beginnings of a truce with my father. I felt like I had just learned a valuable lesson in how to get out of my own way.

I met Emmett, who was just arriving, in the hallway. The keys in his hand turned out to be unnecessary, since Jessica had already arrived and unlocked the office for us.

“Damn, did you get called on the carpet already for your transgressions?” my brother asked, nodding his head toward Dad’s office door as we entered our own.

“That’s what I figured I was in for when he said he wanted to talk to me,” I admitted. “Believe it or not, he actually ended up apologizing for the way things went down between us when I quit school.”

Emmett’s eyebrows raised incredulously. “He seriously said he was sorry for riding your ass about not finishing U-Dub and going on to med school?”

“Well, not in so many words. He’d probably have choked on them if he’d tried to say that. But he did admit that it was my choice to make, not his.”

Emmett slapped his hand on my back. “Progress, little brother. Major progress.”

I nodded and smiled back at his twinkling blue eyes. He looked about as happy as I did to see a fence mended in our family. He never liked to be in the middle of familial drama, though as the eldest, he often ended up being a mediator of sorts.

“Hey, what are you doing for lunch today?” Emmett asked before we parted ways to head to our respective offices.

I had planned to spend my lunch hour sending dirty text messages to Bella from my usual spot at the corner café, but I kept that to myself.

“Nothing special. What do you have in mind?”

“I dunno. Chinese maybe? It’s been awhile since we hung out,” he said.

I tried not to eye him suspiciously. I couldn’t help but wonder if the Cullen men had concocted some plan to bring the black sheep of the family back to the fold.

“Sure, Chinese sounds good,” I agreed amiably. It probably wouldn’t hurt to be on better terms with the males of the flock, my brother included. I had the feeling he had a question or two to ask me about Bella. I still wasn’t sure what he thought of me dating a former--or current, for him--patient.

I grinned at Jessica with new appreciation as I passed the reception counter.

“How was your weekend, Mr. Cullen?” she asked with a knowing smile.

“It was outstanding, thank you for asking. And how was yours, Ms. Stanley?”

“More fun than the law allows. But I managed to get sprung from the pokey in time to make it to work today,” she joked.

“Your dedication is commendable, Ms. Stanley.”

“At your service, as always, Mr. Cullen,” Jessica teased in a sing-song voice over her shoulder while I walked down the hall.

My first client was a heavy middle-aged woman whose extra weight caused at least half of her problems. I tried to relieve her burdened tissues as much as I could before I sent her to Emmett for the rest of her treatment. I had spent half of her appointment itching to get to my cell phone to text Bella. I didn’t know how busy she’d be, or if she’d be able to reply. But at the risk of coming across like a Stage Four Clinger at the onset of our relationship, I typed my first lovesick message of the day at nine a.m.

How are you this morning? Well rested, I hope. How many hours until dinner tonight? I miss you.

As I stripped the bedding from the massage table, my phone sounded its reply.

I’m great this morning, except for missing you too. Rose says I’m walking funny, but I think she’s just trying to get me to dish the dirt on our weekend. None of her business. Dinner is nine long hours from now. Just come by after work. You can help me cook. ;)

I couldn’t wipe the grin from my face as I typed my reply.

Walking funny? Well, I did vow to debilitate you by Monday, so now you know I’m a man of my word. I promise I’ll be good tonight--hugs and chaste kisses only. I make no promises for the rest of the week, however. Nine hours is torture. But not as much torture as cooking. My contribution is the wine, remember?

Her reply was swift.

Ha--wine or whine? I’m putting you to work. Homemade meatballs don’t prepare themselves. P.S. Don’t be TOO good tonight.

I can’t help it--I’m always good. But when I’m bad, I’m better. Is it too early for an off-color joke or three about “meatballs?”

It’s always too early for that.

Liar. I know exactly what you’re thinking about right now.

There was a longer pause after that. I smirked ceaselessly as I made up the massage table for my next client and waited for Bella’s reply.

I give up, you caught me. I was just debating how I should prepare your meatballs tonight. Should I handle your meat gently, or give it a good pounding first? Sometimes it’s more satisfying to be a little rough with a good hunk of beef until it eventually becomes nice and tender. Maybe I’ll have to give it a taste first before I roll it around in my hands… just to make sure it’s not too salty or bitter. Then I have to decide what to do with the balls. Large, medium, small? I tend to be like Goldilocks--I want them juuust right. Just small enough to fit a whole one in my mouth, but big enough to satisfy my taste buds. Your thoughts?

I gaped at the phone for a moment and wondered how it was possible to love and want this girl more than I did yesterday.

I have no coherent thoughts left. All the blood has left my brain and rushed to another part of my body. I hope you like sausage meatballs, because I’m bringing a long, stiff roll of it to dinner with me.

I adore sausage. It’s delicious. But it makes me thirsty, so bring a gallon jug of water along, too.

I laughed out loud before replying, then finished preparing for my next appointment.

Your wish is my command, Princess. The toad’s next client has arrived. Dreaming of your transformative kisses…. ~Edward.

I didn’t read her reply until an hour later. A toad? Egad! Indeed, thou art in truth as horny, but thou art far more handsome. Surely thou art at least a frog; neigh, the handsomest frog I have ever encountered in my tiny kingdom. I shall be happy to bestow hundreds of kisses upon thee, caring not one fig if thou art transformed or not. I love thee exactly as I find thee. ~Princess Bella.

I made only one reply the rest of the morning. Mistress Bella, I am not worthy of your love. But I shall spend the rest of my life attempting to earn it. ~Your Lowly Frog.

I was still smiling over her last message when Emmett and I sat down with heaping platefuls of Chinese lunch buffet at Ching Dow. There is nothing lowly about you. I hold you in the highest esteem. And you cannot earn that which already belongs to you. ~Your Grateful Mistress.

“You’re looking awfully chipper for a Monday,” Emmett commented before digging in to his Szechuan beef.

“I’m feeling all right,” I said in understatement as I dipped an egg roll in some sweet and sour sauce.

“Good weekend, I presume? Looks like things were going well between you and Bella when you left Saturday night.”

“Very well. Pretty spectacular, actually.” It was impossible to hide my giddiness. I didn’t want to. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt this good, deep down in my bones.

Emmett’s grin was genuine, the kind that stretched from ear to ear and squeezed his eyes into two tiny glints of blue shining from the middle of his face.

“I’m happy for you, bro. Seriously. I never thought I’d see that spark back in your eyes. I mean, don’t take this the wrong way, but you were like an empty husk for so long. You looked like my brother, but the life was missing. It was like Tanya took your soul with her when she went.”

I looked at him, slightly stunned. He’d never said anything like this to me before. He’d always been the strong, protective, supportive brother, no matter what life handed us. He’d never said a disparaging word to me or made a judgment about how I’d handled anything. I was definitely starting to think that he and Dad had made a joint decision to get everything out in the open. I only wondered, why now? Had Bella made that obvious an impact on me? I felt it so strongly inside, I’d be a fool to think it wouldn’t show on the outside.

I shook my head and gave Emmett a wry grin. “I wasn’t sure I even had a soul after that,” I told him. “I certainly didn’t listen to it for a long time, anyway. I thought I had it buried pretty well. I guess I just needed to find someone with the patience to dig it up and take the tarnish off of it.”

“Nice analogy,” Emmett said with a short laugh. “Who knew such a fragile girl could heft a shovel like that?”

My answering chortle was soft. “Bella’s not fragile. She’s one of the strongest people I know.”

Emmett raised an eyebrow, but didn’t look surprised. “Rose has only good things to say about her.”

“And how is Rosalie, anyway? You seem pretty happy yourself these days.”

Emmett shook his head as the same wide grin claimed his face. “I love a girl who keeps me on my toes, I can’t deny it. I don’t know why. Why do I always get involved with these high-maintenance women, Edward? Shit. I just make so much damned work for myself.” But he didn’t look like he minded toiling one bit for Rosalie Hale’s affections.

“Because you have a blessedly uncomplicated, black and white view of the world, Emmett. A girl like Rosalie is the spice of life for you--she adds the color. And she needs someone like you to cut through all her drama crap and get down to brass tacks. That’s why, and how, it works.”

My brother let out a loud guffaw. “Very astute observation. Why haven’t you ever had that kind of clarity about your own life?”

“No objectivity,” I smiled. “But maybe that’s changing.”

“Well, something is. For the better, I might add.”

We ate in silence for a bit. I finally decided to bring up the subject myself and get it over with.

“About my dating Bella,” I began. “I was serious when I told you that nothing ever happened during any of our sessions. I made sure that I was completely professional with her at all times. I actually resisted seeing her outside the office for as long as I could, but we kept running into each other. Although, Alice had something to do with that, truth be told.”

Emmett only laughed. “I don’t doubt it. Any of it. Edward, you act like we just met or something. I remember you when you were in diapers, for chrissakes. Of course I know you’d never do anything inappropriate in our office. It’s not in your nature.

“But you must think I’m thick as a brick not to notice what was going on between you and Bella. The writing was pretty much on the wall that first night when she heard you sing at Billy’s. I mean, I know I’m no Alice when it comes to sixth senses, but anyone with two functioning eyes could see that you two were inevitable.”

Emmett took a sip of green tea, and the demitasse cup was dwarfed absurdly by his large hand. I was too surprised by my brother’s words to laugh at the comical sight.

“Why didn’t you ever say anything?” I finally demanded.

“Why didn’t you?” he countered. “I kept waiting for the day that you’d confide in me about what was going on. I knew it must be bothering you, treating someone you were attracted to. I know you’ve always been closer to Alice, and that’s fine. But I thought maybe this time you’d come to me, since it was work-related. I mean, don’t you think I’ve ever struggled with the same thing? There have been a couple of patients that I would have loved to ask out, and it killed me not to act on it. I might have been able to help you out. You never know,” he shrugged.

He tried to look blasé, but I realized that I’d hurt him with my secrecy. Emmett has always been the quintessential strong, silent type. It’s always been easier to talk about things with Alice, especially emotional stuff. I never even realized that our closeness had bothered him. Then again, he never would have let it show.

I shook my head in regret. “I’m sorry I didn’t come to you. I should have been upfront about what was going on with me. I guess I was so busy trying to ignore Bella and my feelings for her that talking about them just wasn’t an option. Never mind the fact that I was worried you wouldn’t approve. After I stopped treating her, I really did mean to come clean with you about everything. I’m sorry that you found out the way you did, Saturday night. That wasn’t right.”

“Found out? Please,” he scoffed. “Like I said, I’ve known from the get-go what was up with you two. Remember who did the seating arrangement for the Black and Red Ball?” He gave me a wink before taking a hefty bite of spring roll.

A slow grin crept over my face as I thought back to his admission that he’d arranged the seating so that he could be next to Rosalie. I had always assumed that Bella’s position across the table from me was a happy coincidence. Now I knew that my brother’s scheming was nearly as instrumental as my sister’s in getting Bella and me together. Today was certainly turning out to be a day of surprise revelations.

“Thanks,” I said at last, a bit sheepishly. “It’s a little humiliating to know that I needed this much outside interference from my siblings just to get with a girl. But considering the outcome, I’ll deal.”

“Hey, that’s what big brothers are for. Next time just don’t make it so hard for me to impart my infinite wisdom and experience upon you. My ability to keep you from fucking up so royally could save you a lot of time and grief in the future,” he grinned impishly.

I balled up my napkin and threw it across the table at him. It bounced harmlessly off of his massive chest.

“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said with mock sourness. And then, more seriously, “Let me know if I can ever return the favor.”

Emmett’s grin turned sincere. “I may take you up on that offer sometime.”

We finished our meal in easy silence, dotted with small talk about Alice’s latest plan to get Jasper’s band heard by Rosalie. Emmett said he’d make sure his girlfriend was at my place Wednesday night with bells on.

The afternoon seemed to drag. It was an effort to concentrate on my clients when my mind kept wandering, revisiting the amazing events of the past forty-eight hours. Connecting with Bella, then re-connecting with my family… it was almost too much to process. I didn’t know how to deal with the emptiness of my life being filled to overflowing in so short a time. I felt like I was going to burst at the seams. The minute my last client left for the day, I tore off my lab coat like a mummy coming back to life and stripping its casings away.

“Dinner with Bella?” Jessica guessed with a laugh as I zoomed past her desk.

“And her roommate,” I admitted with a twinge of minor disappointment.

“Kinky,” Jessica commented with the quirk of an eyebrow.

“Doubtful,” I replied with a roll of my eyes. “I’m a one-woman man.”

“Lucky Bella,” Jessica smiled.

Lucky me, I corrected her mentally as I practically sprinted to my car. I made a pit-stop to my favorite liquor store and picked up a nice Chianti, per Bella’s request, as well as an excellent Nero d’Avola. I took the stairs two at a time to her upstairs duplex and stood panting, waiting, after I rang the bell. I wondered idly what it was about this girl that had me so anxious to see her again less than twenty-four hours after I’d left her at this very doorstep. I just hoped she was even half as excited to see me.

“Hey, Edward,” came Angela’s warm greeting as her face appeared on the other side of the screen door. “Come on in. Bella’s got her hands in a bowl of raw meat at the moment,” she explained with a laugh.

I passed on the crude responses that flitted through my head and merely said “hello” to Angela. She thanked me for the wine, looking over the bottles and raising an eyebrow at me.

“Wow. Pretty nice selections for a Monday evening,” she remarked.

“Only the best for the best,” I smiled.

“Smooth,” Angela said with a laugh. “No wonder Bella has it so bad for you.”

I tried to suppress my self-satisfied grin while Bella’s roommate motioned for me to follow her to the kitchen. My heart picked up its pace a little when I caught sight of her in form-fitting jeans and a t-shirt at the counter, mixing a large chunk of ground meat, breadcrumbs and God knows what else in a bowl with her bare hands.

“Look what Edward brought,” Angela exclaimed as she waved the bottles at Bella. She leaned over and whispered what sounded like “Expensive!” in her ear.

Bella raised a chastising eyebrow at me, but her smile was pleased. “Naturally,” she whispered back to her roommate.

I wanted to throw my arms around Bella and engulf her in a kiss, but restrained myself in the presence of a third party. Instead, I put my arm lightly around her waist and gave her a soft peck on the cheek.

“Hi, sexy,” I murmured in her ear, making sure that Angela couldn’t hear.

Her answering blush was warm enough to heat my own cheek as I held my face close to hers. I looked over her shoulder down at the mixing bowl and added, “Be careful there. It’s fine to manhandle the meat a little bit, but you don’t want to overdo it.”

Her blush deepened, as did her grin. “Thanks for the tip. I’ll keep that in mind.” She glanced up at me, and I felt the familiar bubble encase us for a moment.

Angela busied herself getting wine glasses from the cupboard, looking a little embarrassed. I released Bella’s waist and leaned on the counter next to her instead.

“Your roommate gave you away just now,” I told her, glancing in Angela’s direction with a grin. “She says you have it bad for me.”

Angela gave me a look of mock warning, but Bella only laughed.

“I wonder what on earth would make her think such a thing.”

“I don’t know. I may have to pick her brain later and find out what you’ve been saying about me.”

“Nothing that I haven’t said to your face already,” Bella replied candidly.

“This seems to be my day for full disclosure,” I commented. Bella gave me a quizzical look. “I’ll explain later,” I told her.

Out of the corner of my eye, I spied Angela struggling with the wine bottle opener. I gave Bella another quick kiss before going to help her roommate.

“Good choice,” I said as I took the bottle of Nero d’Avola from her and pulled out the cork.

“I’ve never had this kind,” she replied, holding her glass up so I could pour for her. I filled the bottom of her glass, then the other two on the counter.

“Cheers,” Angela smiled, holding up her wine.

“Hey, no fair! I want to be in on the toast,” Bella pouted from across the room. She had begun to pat the ground meat concoction into medium-sized balls and place them on a piece of waxed paper.

“Here,” I offered, picking up her glass and mine and carrying them to her. Angela followed, the offered a toast again.

“To Bella and Edward, and the end of your failure to communicate,” she grinned.

I raised an eyebrow at my new girlfriend. “I guess that answers my question about how much you’ve told your roommate.”

“Just make the toast, will you?” Bella grumbled, scooping up another handful of ground beef.

“I’ll definitely toast to that.” I clinked my glass and Bella’s against Angela’s raised one, then held Bella’s drink carefully to her lips so that she could have a sip.

“Ooh, that’s good,” she and Angela said in unison, then started laughing.

“How long have you two been roommates, anyway?” I asked with a smile. I’d had this brand of Nero d’Avola before, but took a good whiff and tasted it to make sure the vintage was decent.

“Uh, since freshman year,” Angela answered. “So I guess this is our fifth year, right? Now that we’ve graduated.”

“Angela’s been my best friend since I moved to Forks when I was sixteen,” Bella said. “And I’m her second-best friend,” she added with a laugh.

“That doesn’t seem fair,” I accused.

“She’s referring to my boyfriend, Ben,” Angela explained. “I’ve been dating him almost the entire time I’ve known Bella. Boyfriends are different than girlfriends, though,” she said reproachfully to her roommate. “Two completely different animals. A girl needs a ‘bestie’ of both sexes, as far as I’m concerned.”

“I won’t argue with that,” I said.

“Me neither,” Bella agreed, with a smile at me.

I heard the ring of a phone in the vicinity of the living room. “Speak of the devil. I’m sure that’s Ben,” Angela said, disappearing to go answer it.

I hoped that Bella would think of me as her best friend some day. I wondered if she already did. I was pretty sure I felt that way about her, though there were still things I balked at telling her. A little part of me was still worried that if she knew everything about me, she wouldn’t stick around.

I frowned and pushed that thought to the back of my brain. I refused to let paranoia have the upper hand this evening. I put on a smile instead and asked what I could do to help. Bella was quick to hand me a jar of marinara sauce, claiming she couldn’t get the lid off. I removed it easily, then asked what other manly tasks she had for me. She laughed and said there were none, so she begrudgingly let me hover over her while she added a slew of herbs and spices to the sauce and then poured it into a large pan on the stove. I insisted on helping her place the meatballs in the pan one by one. She planned to simmer them slowly in the sauce for awhile, claiming that they would absorb a lot more flavor that way.

“It smells good already,” I told her as we washed our hands after handling the raw beef. “You’re a great cook. I think I might be in love with you.”

“You might be? Yesterday you seemed pretty sure.” She swatted me on the arm with the hand towel in reprimand.

“Oh, that’s right,” I replied, slapping my forehead as if it had slipped my mind. “But you didn’t agree to marry me. That was the problem.”

“You bringing up marriage the day after we got together is the real problem, I think,” she retorted with a shake of her head.

“What, you think that’s too soon?” I teased.

“Don’t you?”

The weird thing was, I didn’t anymore. If you’d asked me before I met Bella, I would have had a completely different opinion.

“So you’re just killing time with me until someone better comes along?” I needled her.

Her eyes popped open wide in disbelief. “You can’t possibly think that.”

“What should I think, then?”

She shook her head again. “You are impossible, Edward Cullen. And by the way, you never actually asked me to marry you. You just acted as if it were a given.”

“Ah. So it really boils down to semantics, then.”

“Ask, and ye shall receive. Demand, and ye shall sit alone, yanking your own chain,” she grinned. She pushed past me to get into the refrigerator, then pulled out a couple of packages of fresh pasta and set them on the countertop. I grabbed her from behind and wrapped my arms tightly around her, then put my lips to her ear.

“As I recall, you enjoyed giving in to my demands. And may I remind you that you made a few of your own. It’s all about give and take, Princess.” I kissed my way down the silky hair at her temple to the smooth skin of her jaw. She sighed softly and I squeezed her closer. “I’m perfectly capable of yanking my own chain, but I like it much better when you do it. And I’m pretty sure you take great pleasure in yanking it for me.”

She squirmed a little in my grasp, so I loosened my grip on her just enough for her to turn around to face me. Her arms wound around my neck as she stretched her body upwards.

“I’m all out of witty banter,” she sighed, her fingers curling in the hair on the nape of my neck. “I think all the blood has left my brain and rushed to a different part of my body.”

“Banter is highly overrated.” I finally managed to stop grinning when my lips met hers. My senses were soon overwhelmed by wine and flowers and spice and Bella, the taste and smell of her fused into a heady cocktail that I couldn’t get enough of. I don’t know how long we kissed, but eventually I was cognizant of a loud throat-clearing noise nearby.

“Don’t mind me,” Angela said as she scooted past us and grabbed the open wine bottle. “Just getting a refill. Thanks again for bringing this, Edward. I think you’ve spoiled me for Arbor Mist now, though.”

“God, I hope so,” I cringed. I reluctantly let go of Bella while Angela refreshed all our glasses.

“So why isn’t Ben having dinner with us tonight?” I asked.

“He was here all weekend,” Angela answered with a shrug. “The engineering firm where he works is clear across town, nowhere near the accounting firm I work at. We usually spend weekends together, and maybe a night or two during the week. That way we see each other when we want, but I still get to do my own thing, like keep Bella company when she’s working nights.”

I nodded politely and tried to understand. I couldn’t imagine dating Bella for six years without wanting to live with her. I’d only known her for six weeks and I already wanted that. Of course, maybe the newness of our relationship was why I couldn’t get enough of her. Maybe after six years, we would reach that comfortable stage where we didn’t miss one another when we weren’t together. I couldn’t fathom it.

My expression must have given me away, because Angela suddenly continued. “You’re probably wondering why we don’t live together. Well, it’s partly because my parents are incredibly old-fashioned. They never would have helped with my tuition if I had lived with my boyfriend during college. But now that I’ve gone this long without moving in with him, I’m kind of holding out for more. I think if he wants to continue our relationship for the long haul, then he needs to take the next step and make it official.”

I nodded, unable to really argue with that. Bella studied us both with interest.

Angela suddenly cringed slightly. “Oh, dear God. It finally happened. I’ve turned into my mother.”

Bella began giggling. Angela ruefully joined her, then admitted, “I guess I’m as old-fashioned as she is.”

“There’s nothing wrong with that. I happen to be very pro-marriage myself, actually. When you meet the right person, there’s no reason not to do it. I’d consider it a privilege to spend my life with the woman I love.”

Both girls stared at me like I’d just uttered some pig-Latin that they were desperately trying to decipher.

“Spoken like a guy whose parents are still happily married,” Bella said in a stage whisper out of the side of her mouth.

“True,” Angela admitted in the same exaggerated whisper. “I think he should be put in a Petri dish and studied. Perhaps he can be replicated in a lab environment so that women everywhere can have a man without commitment phobia.”

“Ooh, interesting!” Bella exclaimed. Then her face scrunched into a mask of disapproval as she looked me over. “On second thought, mass production could be a mistake. I think this unique example of the species should be observed first in his natural habitat, to discover if he will actually make these alleged commitments of his own volition.”

“In other words, you want to keep him for yourself,” Angela accused.

“Damn skippy,” Bella said with a grin.

I gave them both my best withering smile. “I’m so glad I could amuse you, ladies.”

“We’re not amused. We’re in awe,” Bella insisted.

“Hmm,” I mumbled skeptically. Behind all the teasing, I wondered if there wasn’t something more to Bella’s comment about my happily married parents. Maybe her parents’ divorce when she was so young had tainted her opinion of the entire institution. I decided that I had better give the marriage jokes a rest until I figured out exactly where she was coming from on that score.

Angela threw a salad together while I tried to set the table, no mean feat when I didn’t know where anything was located in the girls’ kitchen. Bella put the pasta on last, and it cooked quickly. By the time we sat down to eat, I was famished. I tried not to inhale my dinner, but Bella’s such a phenomenal cook that I seem to devour every morsel in record time. She seemed pleased that I couldn’t stop raving over dinner. She said that if she’d known she could have won me over with food, she would have brought a pie with her to every massage appointment. I told her it was definitely not too late for her to lure me with homemade pies.

I tried to help Angela wash the dishes afterward, but she shooed me away. Apparently she and Bella have a schedule worked out, and I was not a part of it. When Bella cooks, Angela cleans up afterward, and vice versa.

Bella and I settled on the sofa in front of the TV, flipping channels in search of something that grabbed our attention. She asked me what I had meant earlier when I’d mentioned my day of “full disclosure.” I gave her a synopsis of the conversations I’d had with Dad, and then with Emmett. I was still shaking my head in disbelief as I filled her in.

“Wow,” she commented when I was done. “That’s amazing. I’m so happy for you. I know the rift between you and your dad had been bothering you for a long time.”

I rubbed my hand up and down her shoulder, grateful for the weight of her head on my chest as she leaned against me. “I finally realized that his disappointment in me was just a mirror, you know? A constant reminder that what was really bothering me was that I had disappointed myself.”

Her face was troubled as she looked up at me. “Do you regret not going to med school?”

I let out a long sigh. “Sometimes. But I’m not so sure I would have been any happier as a doctor than as a massage therapist. Wealthier, for sure,” I admitted with a laugh. I grew sober at my next thought. “But then I never would have met you.” I stroked her hair and smiled down at her. “And I wouldn’t trade you for all the riches in the world.”

“Angela’s right. You are smooth,” she smiled.

“It’s not a line when it’s the truth,” I corrected her.

Angela joined us in the living room then and brought the wine with her. We polished off both bottles while lounging on the couch, swapping work stories and yelling at some reality TV stars for their moronic behavior. For my part, the yelling was a way of venting after having to hear Bella talk about Jacob Black and his band. I hated hearing about her daily interaction with him, but I didn’t want to sound like some jealous control freak. Besides, his behavior toward her had turned a bit frosty after Saturday night. But what bothered me was that it seemed like Jacob’s coldness bothered her. I pulled her closer to me, trying to impart enough body heat to take away the chill of her old friend turned foe.

Finally the wine was gone, the reality show ended, and Angela excused herself to get ready for bed.

“I should go,” I said reluctantly. I didn’t budge so much as a toe, however. I was too content in my drowsy cocoon of wine and Bella’s warmth.

“I think you’ve had too much wine to drive,” she protested sleepily. “I think you should stay the night.”

“Mmm. Sounds nice. I like your bed. It’s cozy.”

She snorted softly into my neck. “It’s tiny. Your feet hang off the end.”

“You noticed?” I smiled. “I don’t care. I like to curl up around you instead.”

“I noticed that, too.” She sighed, her breath warming my jaw. “I like it. Makes me feel safe.”

“I’m glad you feel safe with me.”

We continued to sprawl, unmoving, for several more minutes.

“So, we should probably brush our teeth and, like, go to bed,” Bella finally mumbled.

“Mm-hmm. Do you still have my toothbrush here?”

“Of course. I knew you’d be back.”

“You did?”

“I hoped. You had me worried when you ran off that morning, though.”

I sighed. “That was a low moment. One I wish I could take back.”

She shook her head, her hair tickling my ear. “No regrets. It’s a waste of time.”

I sighed again, this time in happiness. “Have I told you today that I love you?”

“Yes. Tell me again.”

“I love you, Bella Swan.”

Her lips curled into a smile next to my Adam’s apple. “I love you, Edward Cullen.”

It took us another twenty minutes to finally drag ourselves to the bathroom and brush our teeth. We did it together, just like we had the day before. We giggled at each other again, but a little less this time.

Once in her bedroom, I stripped down to my underwear and watched Bella do the same. Her cheeks colored slightly as she took off her bra, and I loved that she was suddenly bashful again, even after the no-holds-barred weekend we’d just had. She quickly opened a dresser drawer and grabbed for a t-shirt, but I reached out to stop her.

“I like the feel of your skin next to mine,” I told her. I closed the drawer and pulled her to me, kissing her gently.

“I do too,” she sighed. “But no sex tonight. My hoo-ha can’t take it.”

I chuckled at her choice of words. “I happen to be very fond of your hoo-ha. If it’s in need of rest, I am happy to oblige. Well, maybe not happy, but… agreeable.”

“My hoo-ha thanks you,” she said with a measure of relief.

“Ask it how it feels a few days from now, and it may answer differently.”

I cut off her giggles with more kisses and pushed her toward the bed.

“Oh, I think my hoo-ha will still be grateful, but for very different reasons.”

“Your hoo-ha knows me well.”

I reached down, yanked the covers back and pulled Bella onto the bed with me. We kissed and caressed and crawled our way to the middle of the bed; then we lay still, limbs entwined, breath merged, pillows shared, covers twisted.

I slept like a baby for the third night in a row.