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.
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.”
“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.