Fanfiction Based On Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Series Rated MA For Mature Adult

The Wedding Party
By SpangleMaker9

Summary: The perfect person appears at the worst possible moment, and one unforgettable encounter changes everything. AH. Bella & Edward.
Once you’ve read, and enjoyed this story, show the author some love and review:

Chapter One ~ Prologue ~
Bella- November, 2005 Bella's mind was full of lists and plans and beautiful words. But one word overrode all the other more poetic ones: Latte. She knew she'd make no headway on any of the lists and plans unless she addressed that one more prosaic word first, so she changed course as she made her way across the University of Washington campus, heading towards her favorite coffee cart to get her fix. There were a couple of students on line ahead of her when she got there, so she bounced on the balls of her feet while she waited, both to stave off the damp cold of late fall in Seattle and to focus her mind as she tried to order her thoughts. There were papers due and short stories to write for the competitive creative writing program she belonged to, but the thoughts that predominated in her mind were all about New Moon, the little upstart literary magazine she'd founded the year before.

Bella had many friends in the creative writing program frustrated with the lack of opportunities to get their work published. So she did some research, wrote a grant proposal, and started a magazine in an unused utility closet in the English department. She had recruited help. Alice, of course, was her other half at the magazine, just as she'd been since they were kids. And Angela, another friend from high school, also pitched in when her class schedule in the Public Policy department allowed it. But New Moon was Bella's baby, she personally read every submission, actively sought out new authors far beyond the confines of UW, and pushed hard to get the magazine distributed all over the Pacific Northwest. New Moon and the writing it showcased were her passions and the center of her life. A lanky frat boy in a backwards baseball cap was surreptitiously watching Bella as she bounced and fidgeted in line. She was bundled up in her navy pea coat in the damp late November Seattle chill, but her long brown hair was loose and curling down her back, and her cheeks were flushed with the cold and her enthusiasm. Although her expression was distant and her eyes unfocused, they were bright and the frat boy couldn't help but notice and appreciate the view. But Bella was oblivious to the attention, as always, too distracted by all she had to do and all she wanted to accomplish. When it was finally her turn she leapt forward, slamming both hands on the edge of the cart in her enthusiasm and caffeine-fueled desperation. The middle-aged man working the cart smiled at her, "The usual, Bella?" "Yes!" she moaned dramatically. "I need a latte in the worst way, Fred. A huge one!" Fred chuckled as he scooped an extra dollop of milk foam onto Bella's latte, just the way she liked it. "You eat this morning?" Bella scrunched up her nose and shook her head as she tossed her bills on the cart and stowed her wallet. "No time, I'll grab something later." Fred shook his head and slid a bagel across the counter next to the latte. Bella opened her mouth to protest, since she hadn't paid for it, but Fred held up a hand to silence her. "I don't wanna hear it. You can pay me by eating it." She smiled and took a bite. Her whole body tingled in response to the taste and she figured she was much hungrier than she'd realized. "Thanks, Fred. I needed that," she muttered around the mouthful of bagel. "See you tomorrow!" She waved at Fred over her shoulder as she strode briskly away. The frat boy behind her paused for a minute, swiveling his head to watch her go, until Fred cleared his throat loudly and fixed him with a disapproving glare. Bella walked as fast as she could towards the English department, trying to make up for the time lost stopping for the latte. By the time she bounded into the "offices" of New Moon, her cheeks were flushed and her dark eyes were sparkling as she chewed down the last of her bagel. Alice looked up and thought, not for the first time, that her best friend was remarkably pretty in cold weather, even when she was chewing with her mouth open. She blushed easily and the cold brought it out, but it contrasted perfectly with her pale smooth skin and dark eyes. Her clothes were always a little too LL Bean for Alice's tastes, but when Alice could get control of that, nobody could hold a candle to Bella. The best part was that she was completely unaware of it. She blew through her life completely distracted by her writing and her little magazine with no clue about the impression she gave off, all enthusiasm and boundless energy and unaffected beauty. Alice turned her eyes back to her computer screen and her attention back to the phone conversation she was still engaged in. "I don't care what he's got ahead of us, we have a deadline. So he'd better get the artwork done and over here by four today or we'll all be screwed!" Alice paused to listen to the assistant in the graphic design

department stammer some more excuses before she cut in as if she hadn't heard. "Yes, yes, that's all freaking fantastic, but I need my graphics, so here's how it's going to work. You're going to bump us up in queue and when I check my email at four, they'll be there, won't they?" As always, Alice's persistence and tone of voice worked its magic, and within minutes, the poor beleaguered assistant was promising on time delivery when half an hour ago he'd declared it impossible. "What was that about? Why the rush on the artwork? Deadline is tomorrow." Bella asked as she squeezed past the filing cabinet that hemmed her desk in on one side and shucked off her coat before falling into her chair. Alice and Bella's desks faced each other and were so small that they could reach across them sitting down and shake hands. Alice dropped the receiver back on the hook and sighed, her air one of unconcerned detachment, waving her hand dismissively. "Yeah, well, the printing office called and told us we were bumped by some rush job for the president's office." "What?" Bella snapped, her hand already reaching for the phone in a panic. "Cool your jets! I'm on it!" "What are we going to do?" Bella was already making new lists in her head, re-prioritizing the day as she spoke. "I called my buddy, Phil, at the printing plant, and I begged," Alice said brightly. "He found us a window. He can squeeze our job in, but it's got to be then." "You're amazing, Ally," Bella said on an exhale. "When is it?" "He'll run us from four a.m. to five." "Four this morning? Christ!" "I know, I know, we lose twelve hours on deadline, but it was the best I could do." Bella closed her eyes and pictured her happy place as she did her best to stay calm. "It's okay. We can do this." "Sure we can," Alice sang. "We can do anything. Because we are brilliant, and beautiful, and we rule the world!" Bella was chanting along in unison before Alice got as far as "beautiful". Alice had been saying it since they were girls. Alice laughed, and reached up to straighten the broad bright floral scarf she had around her head holding back the front of her hair before reaching back to artfully muss the messy black layers in back. Bella eyed her outfit for the day. She was wearing a bright, psychedelic-print A-line mini-dress and enormous yellow hoop earrings, and her eyes were dramatically outlined in black, like Cleopatra. Bella thought she looked like a gothed-out version of Goldie Hawn on Laugh-In. "What's with the dress?" Bella asked. "Isn't it amazing? It's Pucci! I found it at the Salvation Army over on Water Street for fifteen dollars! They always get the best stuff in there, and they haven't got a clue how great it is." Alice fingered the dress that looked more like a Halloween costume fondly, and Bella smiled indulgently. "Oh! Before I forget, Charlie called looking for you," Alice said quickly. Bella scowled into the interior of her backpack. "Why didn't he call my cell?" Alice waved a dismissive hand, "You know what a Luddite he is. Anyway, I like it when he calls here because then I get the chance to flirt with him!" "Eeeww, Alice, stop! That's my dad!"

"I can't help it! He gets all cute and flustered just like you are right now! I bet he blushes just like you, too. Oh, come on! You know I'm just kidding. Charlie is like my dad!" Bella said nothing; she just smiled at the mental image of Alice getting her dad all flustered, and for a second she was sorry she wasn't here to see it. "Did he say what he wanted?" she asked, still digging in her bag. "Nope, just asked you to call him later. Send him a kiss from me!" "Shut up, Ally!" Alice collapsed into laughter at her own joke as Bella started pulling files out of her bag and adding them to the piles on her desk. "Oh, Ally, did you get that short story I emailed you last night?" "I got it, but I didn't get a chance to read it yet. Anything good?" Bella clamped a hand over her heart and closed her eyes, the way she always did when she read good writing. Alice loved watching the reaction, how she seemed absolutely transported by the words. "God, Ally, it was amazing. So, so good. We have to find room for it." "But this issue is full. We did the layout already!" "I don't care, we'll shuffle stuff, we'll find room. It just has to go in, it's…it's just brilliant! So beautiful and moving and…." Bella's face lit up, and her voice pitched up the way it did when she got really excited about a submission, which happened quite a lot. "Alright, alright, I'm sold. Let's get to it and figure out where it's going to go." Bella reached to the front of her desk and her hand ran into a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums wrapped in paper. "What are these?" "They call them 'flowers'," Alice said slowly, widening her big grey eyes and smirking at her own joke. Bella gave her a bored look and threw a paperclip at her. Alice laughed before smiling slyly. "Jay brought them by for you," Alice said with feigned disinterest. "Jay? That guy from the student newspaper? He came by again?" "Yup," she said, turning to her laptop. "You really did a number on that guy, B." "Don't be ridiculous. He interviewed me about New Moon, that's all." Alice shook her head at her friend's complete obliviousness when it came to the opposite sex. Alice could tell the instant that Jay had laid eyes on Bella that he was interested in her, and now he'd brought her flowers twice in one week and Bella still thought it was nothing. "Yeah, well, I don't think he intends for that to be all," Alice said. "What are you going to tell him?" "I don't know, I hadn't really thought about it." "Do you want to go out with him?" Alice asked, making Bella pause and look up. "I don't have time," she said dismissively. "You can find the time if you want to. So, do you want to?" "I don't know. He seems…nice?" "Nice?" Alice cocked an eyebrow at her. "He's cute," Bella said, her tone growing slightly defensive, which made her wonder why she was defending a guy she wasn't sure she was remotely interested in.

"He's cute," Alice nodded in agreement, but not very enthusiastically. "But..." "I know. But," Bella agreed. "I'm not sure he does it for me." Alice sighed, "I'll point out, B, that since you launched New Moon, nobody has done it for you. Or to you." "I've been busy. So, you think I should go out with him, then?" Alice shrugged, "He's cute enough. And the flowers are nice. You don't need to marry the guy, but maybe it wouldn't hurt to let him buy you dinner. You could use a little…um, recreation." Alice secretly thought that he was nowhere near good enough for Bella, whom she believed to be a nearly flawless human being. But Jay seemed harmless, and if the guy could convince her to leave the office for just one night and relax, then he'd serve his purpose. "I'll think about it," Bella muttered before she turned back to her laptop. "Think about what?" Angela asked from the doorway, eyeing the room and trying to figure out where she could squeeze in. "That guy Jay from the newspaper is wooing her," Alice smirked at Angela. "Ooh, there's wooing going on!" Angela said, her eyes widening as she flapped her hands around her face in excitement. "There's no wooing happening!" Bella protested half-heartedly. "He brought me flowers. That's all." "Flowers?" Angela said earnestly, dropping into a chair to the side of Alice's desk and leaning forward on her elbows. "That's the second time this week!" "I know! That's what I said!" Alice chirped, scooting her chair closer to Angela's. Angela adjusted her glasses as she settled in to dish with Alice. "Guys, just drop it," Bella said, opening up the brilliant short-story submission from last night. The opening line caught her attention again, and she almost forgot to finish her thought. "He's brought me flowers a couple of times, which I'll admit is nice, but I'm really busy. I have no idea if I even want to go out with him. I don't know what I think about him." "Well, you better decide fast, because here he comes," Alice hissed. Alice had less space for her chair, being pinned up against the wall like she was, but unlike Bella, who was blocked in by a filing cabinet, she could see the office door, which sometimes came in handy. Jay poked his head in, looking at Alice expectantly, since she'd been there earlier when he'd dropped the flowers off. Alice looked back at him appraisingly. He had sandy blonde chin-length hair that he kept tucked messily behind his ears. It was rather unfortunate hair, but Alice was giving him a pass on it since it was college and everybody had questionable hair. He was short, which was an ironic criticism coming from Alice, who barely cleared five feet. Again, she was willing to overlook it since he was still taller than Bella. He had nice high cheekbones and decent blue eyes. The eyes were on the smallish, squinty side, but he had a warm smile and an open expression on his face that offset the squinty eyes. He was nothing special, but if he could get Bella out of the office for once, she'd approve of him in the short term. Alice smiled back at him and tipped her head to indicate Bella back in the corner. Jay craned his head around, looking over Angela's head, and finally spotted Bella nearly blockaded by her desk. His flowers were still lying where he'd left them. He wondered what that meant, that she hadn't put them in water or unwrapped them or anything. "Hey, Bella!" he called from the doorway. "I just wanted to make sure you got the flowers I left for you." Bella blushed and glanced away. "Um, yeah, I did. Thanks."

Jay nervously shifted from foot to foot. Bella kind of intimidated him. Really, who starts their own magazine in college? She was clearly smart and driven and incredibly passionate about everything she did. He was worried that the second he opened his mouth she'd find him hopelessly stupid and dull, even though in most other aspects of his life, Jay never worried about his intelligence. But Bella's beauty, along with the creative energy that nearly danced off of her, made him doubt himself, which was a new, uncomfortable sensation. Jay took a deep breath and soldiered on. "Are you busy? Can you grab a coffee?" There. It was out there. He'd asked her. "Oh, wow…um…today is actually really bad for me. We just had our deadline bumped up and we're going to be here all night." Bella could tell he was nervous about asking her out for coffee, and about the flowers, and she felt genuinely bad that she had to shoot him down. But today really was impossible with the deadline moving up. "Oh," he said, his face clearly showing his disappointment. "That really sucks. But hey, why don't I bring you some dinner? You have to eat, right?" "Yeah, I suppose so. That would be really nice, actually. Thanks." He beamed at Bella and she softened towards him just a little bit more. Offering to bring them dinner really was nice of him. "Fantastic," he said. "I have a class that gets out at 6:30. I'll call you and find out what you guys want." "Thanks, Jay." "Um…that means I'll need your cell number." "Oh, right! Give me your cell, I'll put it in." Jay leaned into the room over Angela's head and handed Bella his phone. He didn't have to move out of the doorway to reach her. Bella programmed her number into Jay's phone. She was fully aware of the larger implications of this. Now that he had her number, he'd call her and ask her out for sure. As Bella typed in her number, she decided that she'd say yes. He'd earned it by offering to bring them dinner tonight, if for nothing else. Jay stayed for just a minute longer, chatting a little, but working for the newspaper had given him a healthy respect for tight deadlines and he cleared out fairly quickly. Angela and Alice managed to restrain themselves until Jay was just out of earshot before they fell apart into giggles, recounting every detail of the encounter breathlessly to each other and comparing opinions about various aspects of it. "So you're going out with him, then?" Angela asked when they finally took a break. "Yeah, I guess so," Bella shrugged, already fully engrossed again by the new short story. "I mean, it doesn't have to be anything serious, right?" Angela watched her face grow intense and focused as she re-read the story and knew that Bella was lost to them for the time being, so she turned back to Alice to deconstruct the Jay situation further. As for Bella, the new short story drew her in completely, and she didn't think about Jay again until he called that night to ask them about dinner.

Bella- Present Day "Bella? Hey, B, come on, Eleazar just got here and we need to go say hello," Jay tugged on my elbow, his voice desperate.

After all. made me smile a little. Jay had never really liked him. who were mostly strangers to me.I shook my head slightly to clear it of all those distracting old memories from college and the days of New Moon. his face earnest. I smiled with as much warmth as I could muster as Jay tried to be witty and intelligent. Make me look good. In my mind. relying more and more on wire feeds. Come on. like so many other newspapers. There had already been two rounds of layoffs. Jay was desperately worried about his job. He was sure if he could somehow connect with Eleazar. He could be a bit of a loner and prone to moodiness. but he wasn't listening anymore. he'd gotten a long way by making himself invaluable to the right people. I'd worked all day. Granted. and Eleazar wasn't particularly fond of him. I didn't think any of his good qualities would be enough to save him this time. silently begging me to be brighter. It was a junior position. newly-installed head of the International Desk. I'd almost forgotten what he was like back when we first met. ingratiate himself in just the right quarter. and single-minded determination coupled with his undeniable talent as a journalist. He was scanning the room eagerly for Eleazar. Jay's job was all but done for. I didn't want to socialize with his work associates. I knew that. and everybody was holding their breath to see where the axe would fall next. We need to go say hello. smothered by his need. He simply refused to face reality on this issue. though. though. the mindless monotony still managed to wear me out. too. he could save his job. That all felt like another lifetime. B. and if he hung on and did well. I did my best. I couldn't deal with the responsibility of Jay. to say that I had nothing to say that anyone would find interesting. pretending to be interested in all the newsroom intrigues. was cutting back on its in-house reporting staff. but there was prestige in it. he was a genuinely good person. My boss." "Help you out how?" "Just talk me up to him. more charming. I didn't want to spend the evening hanging on Jay's arm. Eleazar." his tone shifted and he leaned in close. his desperation. but forced himself to pay court to him anyway. but somehow. I sighed a little and turned to look at him. But if you could get past that. and fierce hard work. had allowed him to build something out of his career in spite of his other deficiences. But the Inquirer. it paid almost nothing. Jay had landed this job on the International Desk at the Seattle Inquirer right out of college. had joined the staff six months ago. the Spanish. I need you to help me out with this. or simply through sheer will. so sweet and hopeful. catching my eyes with his. and always wellmeaning. You know. I escaped to get another drink and ended up hiding from everyone for a bit. I knew that. can you talk to him? Please? I really need to impress him. with his talent it might have been the start of a highly successful reporting career. you can do it. I didn't want to be at this party. These days sullen and withdrawn seemed like his default mood. These days my happy place was just an old memory from my . I was tired and not in the mood to charm anyone for him tonight. The paper couldn't afford to keep him. funnier. way-toosuave. Jay constantly cast his frantic eyes at me. "And Bella." I opened my mouth to protest. But Jay just couldn't accept that. "Eleazar's here. dead-end job hardly required much brain power from me. and touched my hand in conversation too many times for comfort. It was the only thing keeping me from getting annoyed with him tonight. "Sorry. That. I made idle party conversation with Eleazar as he stared down my dress at my cleavage. Although remembering Jay from back then. and sometimes it felt like it might have happened to someone else entirely. my lousy. It took everything I had in me to keep my own head above water in the wilderness of my life. what?" Jay stared back in disbelief that I could be thinking about anything else at such an important moment. Eleazar. I felt crushed by the pressure. leaning into a corner and letting my mind wander to my happy place.

So I swallowed down my distaste and let Jay lead me back into the party." "Edward. They're all coming after me. "I don't have any clothes here. I pulled that tiny memory out and wore it smooth like a stone whenever I needed to feel safe and carefree again. knowing there was no way Alec was backing down. So I pleaded a headache and begged Jay to take me home. After all." "So help me out. If I had to tolerate Eleazar touching my arm with too much familiarity one more time. here. too. "Jay. but by nine PM. simpler time when someone looked at me with such uncomplicated love. How well you hold your eggnog is not going to make a difference in the next round of layoffs. it's just a Christmas party. Every now and then. I remember feeling it warm the tops of my bare feet as they rested on the wooden porch steps. I owed him that much. though. I was going to scream." I mumbled half-heartedly. The chicks dig it. ~*~ Edward. you live at this fucking hospital. don't you get how important this is?" he whispered in my ear. Try as I might. I'd always hated that job. "Fuck it. prepared to do all I could to help him out. Jay needed me to be there for him now. Utterly forgettable. so I made the effort when he hauled his catch home. my fictional headache now suddenly absolutely real. You know how much I need you.Present day "Come on. Just what I need. Charlie had been working on my truck again. Scrubs are like a fucking magnet.teenage years. I'm going in scrubs. I just couldn't transport myself back to that earlier." He scowled at me. ordinary Saturday. Just some completely ordinary Saturday afternoon sitting on the porch of my old house back in Forks. "You and me against the world. Right?" He nudged me gently. How could I ever forget? I was being selfish. I've been on duty for thirty hours. I knew it. I was done for. And if I don't have you. It wasn't working tonight. Isn't that important to you?" I sighed and rubbed my forehead. Just come out for a couple of drinks." I sighed. Jay eventually found me and I took my place at his side again. "But B. tugging gently. "I'm sorry Jay. or he'd just smile at me. "Bella. remember?" I remembered. This is my career we're talking about. Except for some reason. It had been so sunny that day. It is important to me." I snorted dismissively. I just want to go fall into bed and sleep until I have to come back. Alec. doing what he could to keep the big red beast running. I was hoping that you'd be a little more supportive of me. "A magnet for chicks shopping for single doctors. Such a dull. when days like that became impossible because Charlie was long gone. I never did forget it. but Dad loved to brag all through dinner about how much better food tasted when you caught yourself. Edward. and in the coming years. I had been cleaning the fish Dad caught that morning. The pull on my scalp made me feel slightly more alert. "Jesus. Now I demand that you come out with me and have just one drink. I don't have anybody. You know that. waving a hand at my scrubs." I groaned and dragged both hands through my hair. he'd glance up from the engine and make one of his dryly funny comments. I need you on my side now." .

grabbing my coat out of my locker and following him out of the staff lounge. with your looks. Mulligan's Bar was crowded and noisy. I'd slugged back a beer within a few minutes. I'm going for another beer. The bar was just two blocks from the hospital." Alec was shrugging into his coat and pulling on his gloves. or Kirstie. I thought she might faint dead away. There were half a dozen women scattered around us. But now…none of it really interested me anymore. She didn't really want to talk about herself anyway. towards a lanky blonde girl who was ostensibly chatting with her friend. Jesus. Alec.juvenile. "Hey. Or rather. or something. Dartmouth! That was Ivy League! What about med school? Columbia! She exclaimed over that forever." he tipped his head towards the bar. and felt a flutter of interest." Alec gave a crude thrust of his hips to indicate exactly what kind of fun he meant. Her name was Kristy. and women in the market to hook up with doctors hung out here every night. she wanted to ask me questions about myself. I slid off my stool and ambled over to the bar. Where am I supposed to meet a girlfriend?" "Well." "Yeah. It just seems a little. "Hey. Her smile broadened instantly. They seemed innocuous enough. But all the questions were killing my interest fast. You're allowed to have a little fun." "Quit being so damned picky. but I'm twenty-eight now. I imagined her naked and underneath me. you could be cleaning up. a convenient hunting ground. plus the doctor thing. "Alec. when he paused for air. I'm good. She was pretty enough. barely taking their eyes off our table. I'm just not all that interested in the random hookups. I might have been bored sick of the bar scene. She gave me a sly little smile as I leaned in to get the bartender's attention and I gave her a tight smile and a tiny tilt of my chin in greeting. Or maybe it was a magazine. check it out.. Hey. Where did I go to school? Oh. let's go. the same strategically revealing clothes. and I flinched in distaste. Her body was nice. but I was still a guy and she wasn't repulsive. Now. The attention made Alec stand up a little straighter and talk a little louder. I don't know. I was on the verge of asking her if she'd like to cut to the chase and just request a credit check when I noticed Alec getting shot down by her friend and retreating to our table. purposefully choosing an open spot right next to her. It was the same overly made up faces. During my residency it came in handy.Alec shook his head sadly. as you so helpfully pointed out. I sighed in defeat. if you're in the market for more. I was cutting my losses and bailing on this bullshit." I replied. "Some of us will take all the help we can get. "I'm not some monk. Kristy. ." I said. She leaned in close to me and used any chance she could to touch me. but it didn't do anything for me. but I live at this hospital." "So go get yourself a girlfriend then. was certainly making it clear she was available and interested. man. you know. and was now moodily casting glances around the bar while Alec regaled me with tales of the surgical residents trying to steal patients out from underneath each other. I wasn't too clear on it. everything I didn't want when I'd been awake this long. It was fine when we were in med school. Where was I going when I was done with my residency? When I told her Lenox Hill had asked me to stay on. the same bright. She worked at a publishing house.. you start at the bar. turning to face her. but she'd angled her body towards me and was checking me out notvery-subtly." "I don't want some chick who's interested just because I'm a doctor. or Kirstie. false smiles I'd been looking at in this bar for three years now. "Do you want anything?" "No. she wanted to talk about me. Fuck it." she said softly.

" Alec waggled his eyebrows at me suggestively. That would keep me out of his way. to be doing it completely alone. man. I'm there for one thing only. packing. staring with unseeing eyes at the nightly news. at least for this one night. I think I might cash it in." I said. grateful. single bridesmaids. Alec. her friend sent me packing. sprawled on the couch. too. right?" I rolled my eyes. but that was probably a fruitless wish. And of course tomorrow morning I was leaving for Chicago and Alice's wedding for four whole days. I suppose. Maybe I can look up some old friends. man?" Alec cried as I approached the table. and that was becoming a whole new kind of misery. I hoped he might not be home yet. "Oh." Alec sighed heavily. "Yeah. It was so easy to leave that behind when I shut my computer down every day. not this one. small-minded co-workers and their daily internal squabbles and turf wars." "Not for me. But as soon as my bus reached my stop. that's right. the incomprehensible technobabble from the engineers which I had to turn into blandly-worded manuals that the average thirdgrader could understand. There's always Friday night. At least I would be busy tonight. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter One ~ The Kick Inside ~ Bella Close your eyes and let it all go. . Kristy/ Kirstie looked horror-stricken that I was leaving. and I'm really not in the mood to chat with some chick who thinks combing through my financial prospectus is a great alternative to foreplay. I'm beat. I'm going out of town this weekend. "Weddings are awesome places for getting laid. The paper had cut his hours back. I let my head tip back on the seat and my mind clear of the day's mundane little trials as the music from my iPod filled my ears. my roommate from college. It wasn't hard to forget about my job. At least it's in Chicago. And I could just as easily leave behind my petty. I could shake off the stupid drudgeries from work easily enough. so he was almost always there when I got home. "Never turn your nose up at cute. desperate to just fall into my bed and sleep. sliding into my coat. I'd still have to face Jay. I tried to tell myself that. "She was totally into you! Where are you going?" "Home. so I averted my eyes as I told her it was nice meeting her and then I beat a hasty retreat. "Yeah." "Not for me.I stood abruptly and made a quick excuse. my friend." I shook my head and laughed but I didn't say anything as I followed him out into the cold. "What the fuck. But it wasn't working. well into his second beer. and that's handing over the ring. A wedding." Alec clapped me on the shoulder as I zipped my coat.

I never knew what would set him off. Finally I made my way down the hall to the living room." Jay waved a hand absently towards the kitchen. Yes. B. the bastard is out to get me." I held up my hands to ease him off. He was afraid the plane would crash. I'm Alice's Maid of Honor. all the little tasks to keep me busy and distracted. Well. then. but the weather was raw and wet and I just wanted to be inside even if it meant I'd also be closed in with Jay's oppressive presence. He was lying on the couch." he mumbled. Eventually I quit even asking him. I let myself into our tiny rental house quietly. true to everything I'd ever known about Alice. He used to be sweet and funny and charming. This tense limbo was killing him. Look. sorry. I never could understand how he spent so much time on that couch. exactly where I expected him to be. But I had a bad feeling that it wouldn't be so easy for Jay. Instead. I'm going to get changed and make us some dinner. I'm leaving tomorrow morning. You know this. chastising myself internally for looking forward to escaping from Jay so much. because then at least he'd know and he could move on.My bus shuddered to a stop and I made my way to the front. I took just a minute to sort the mail and hang my keys on their hook. B. I'm telling you. not his. and never for so long. "Hey. "Sorry. They were my friends." I said tentatively. Yes. "Why are you leaving me. Things were too uncertain at his job for him to get the time off. "How was your day?" He made a face. you know. It was black leather." "I'm sure you're imagining that. I couldn't wait to get on that plane tomorrow and fly away from him. Alice didn't like him (that was sort of true). and found myself feeling grateful that he was staying home instead. bathed in the flickering blue light of the television. But then again. Jay. I was supposed to miss him." He just scoffed and shook his head. Something needed to change. I guess for a reason. his eyes staring blankly at the screen. dropping my bag on the table inside the front door. Jay was there on the couch. he'd always been prone to these self-pitying funks. I'm going to go start packing. And you could have come. "I grabbed a pizza on the way home. I'll be back on Sunday. Eleazar is talking about me behind my back again. He must have liked it. was shaping up to be one for the . "Same shit. He was so touchy these days. never taking his eyes from the television. beer balanced on his chest with one hand." "Packing?" "Alice's wedding. I spent half an hour digging hopelessly through my closet looking for suitable things to wear for the weekend. I was pathetically excited about this trip and his absence from it. "Hey." "Oh…okay. you haven't seen how it is. he picked it out. This wedding. B?" I rolled my eyes and my shoulders sagged. Every time the subject of Alice's wedding came up the excuse was different. "I'm not leaving you. hard and uncomfortable. but never like this. I was supposed to be sorry that he wasn't coming with me. I wanted to drag out my short walk from the bus stop. Jay. he really said that to me. You were invited. Sometimes. I actually found myself hoping he'd just lose his job once and for all. Why would he…" "You're not there. remember?" He groaned. ready to be done with this conversation. Jay. I sighed and turned towards the bedroom.

You have no idea. her voice reverberating into my cell. but I was glad that he'd apparently found some outlet for his unhappiness. The problem was that my wardrobe just didn't really provide a lot of options for dressy occasions. Staring at my dismal closet looking for better choices was depressing me. My cell rang and I scrambled to fish it out of my bag. really. At least he was sitting upright and functioning and leaving me out of it. my maiden slave. at your service." "Ah. exhausted sigh. Although I'm glad I eventually re-thought that unicorn ice sculpture." "Well. B!" "Soon. but there were certainly going to be a lot more events than just the wedding itself.. This time tomorrow I'll be there. I have news for him. "Ally!" I sang out as I walked back to the bedroom. Complicated and disaster-prone." . He was typing furiously. Whenever I can drag you away from the wedding madness. She was totally crying. It's insane. As I packed up my toiletries." I laughed out loud at that.. He only gets one maiden slave and that's you. woman! I resemble that remark!" I laughed hard and it felt…so good. "No. B.ages. "Oh my God. muttering to himself." "Mmmm. It's so unfair that you live so far away. But he should know that the maiden ship sailed for you years ago. Tell me again why we didn't just elope to Hawaii?" "Because you've been planning this day since you were five. I had almost no call for clothes like that in my life anymore. I could hear Jay in the office on his laptop. I had no idea what he was up to. so the black dress went into the suitcase. though. How's it all coming together?" "Oh. Your Maid of Honor slave. "He said if he'd realized that maiden slaves were part of the deal. I just can't wait for you to get here! I need you. I didn't want to bring the black sheath dress I wore to the Inquirer's holiday party a few weeks ago. where I'd left it. "Sweetie!" "How are you holding up. carefully drawn out in crayon on construction paper…with glitter. She hadn't distributed my official itinerary yet. me too. B. Ally. There had been plans. you're right. although I didn't doubt for a second that one existed. huh? I love the sound of that!" I heard a low male voice murmuring in the background and Alice shrieked. I can't tell you how excited I am to see you. anyway.okay!" she said in a high. Alice." "Hey." "Don't cry!" "Okay. She wasn't kidding. doll?" Alice gave a huge. little voice. "What the hell is Jasper saying?" Alice came back on the line laughing. so I moved on to the bathroom. he'd have bought into this wedding racket years ago. doll. it's good. But I didn't have a lot of other options. but I'll make it happen by sheer force of will." "Hmm. That was a bad night full of unpleasant memories and the dress seemed permanently tied to them now. "Oh. pinched. "I'll be there tomorrow and we'll have four whole days together.

He buried his face in my neck. I'm going to miss you so much. "B. God! Tomorrow! B. it was probably the last thing on earth that I felt like doing. Ally." I thought she snorted dismissively. He pushed my oversized t-shirt up my ribcage and his hand found my breast." "So…" she began with that false-casual tone of voice I knew so well. not long like it had been when we first met. I think this weekend will be really fun for you." . "B." "Stop. So I reached up and ran a hand through his hair." "Love you." I sighed heavily and let my head fall back on the bed. But Angela will be here!" "I know! I'm so excited to see her again. baby. Be safe!" I disconnected the call and just lay back on the bed for a minute. He was breathing hard against my shoulder. okay?" "Yes! Oh. I love you. I knew she didn't really like him. so Alice saw quite a bit of her. Jay thrust his hips against my thigh and I could feel that he was already plenty into it. which was fine with me."I know. Ally. clutching my cell like a lifeline. I'm so excited!" "Me. Jay reached down and pushed my panties off my hips and I helped him the rest of the way. But when Jay heard me getting ready for bed." I wasn't really into doing this tonight." Angela had gone to DePaul for grad school and ended up settling in Chicago as well. too. It seemed impossible that she lived so far away from me. "And the rest of the wedding party is great. too. She was supposed to be in my life every day. the tension evident on his face. his arm came down across my waist. Jay still hadn't emerged from the office. I sighed and squeezed my eyes shut and tried to get into it." "Go. As I turned out the light and settled on my pillow. I exhaled heavily and plugged my phone in to charge for the night before heading in to the bathroom to get ready for bed. But he needed me and the comfort of our relationship. He barely spoke. he shut down his computer and came to bed. his fingers beginning to massage my hip. and I really just wanted to crawl into bed and count down the hours until I was on the plane flying towards Alice. In fact. Sometimes it physically hurt to hang up the phone with Alice. it was no big secret. honey. And I was leaving him at his lowest. go! Although you know I'm taking you out for new stuff when you get here. you know how I am. I had to get up early for my flight the next day. but I let it go. I envied them so much sometimes." "I'm looking forward to it. Jasper has great friends. I leave in eight hours and I've only just started packing. He ground himself into my hip and groaned. "Is Jay still staying home?" "Yeah. It was cropped short now. not just relegated to a phone call or two a week. "You have no idea how much I'm looking forward to it. "Well. Bella. which was making me feel really guilty. But we had an unspoken agreement to not discuss it unless absolutely necessary. go. too. It sucks that I'll be so busy. you feel so good. kneading my breast. It felt like there was a permanent hole in me where my daily Alice used to be. Bridezilla! I don't want to hear it! I'll see you tomorrow. He's really sorry to be missing it. He just can't get away from work right now.

I was marginally into it. trying to hold it together and not cry. When I first met him. And it was Jay who cajoled me back to Seattle. I was freaking myself out. thinking if I could keep going. My hands were shaking. Then I felt guilty. What had happened to me? I was only twenty-six. but my skin looked positively ghostly. objectively. How had this happened? How had I allowed myself to slip into this stifling. He was the one who helped me arrange doctors' appointments and in-home nursing. but I looked older and so tired. I could see that. leaving me breathless. I owed him my support. His eyebrows were nearly permanently furrowed. tousled blonde hair fell across his forehead. his arms wrapped so tightly around me that I could barely breathe. I was a shadow of myself. miserably. B. so I slid out of bed and padded to the bathroom to clean up. anyone's hands. Like the life had been sucked clean out of me. Where did I go? I knew I wasn't always this person. I needed out. It was Jay who'd helped me do the research and make the phone calls. already drowsy. encouraging me to try to finish school even when all my classmates and friends had graduated and moved . dead-end relationship with him? I was dying here. I don't love him anymore. perfectly straight nose. His eyes closed and within moments. my thighs. I didn't love him and I hadn't for a long time. overwhelmingly guilty. Jay was so unhappy. staring at him. and all I could do was think about how unhappy I was.I mumbled something incomprehensible in response and tried not to think of Jay's hands stroking my breasts. maybe I could come and that would make me feel better about everything going on with us. staring into my own eyes in the mirror. this half-dead girl I was looking at. I was standing at the sink. Scolding myself didn't help. this relationship was slowly killing me. his high cheekbones. I have to leave him. So much for me. a brief parting of the clouds that let me see myself. He pushed himself into me and moaned against my skin. I thought he looked a little fierce and intense. I lay there for a moment. washing my hands as I glanced up at my own reflection in the mirror. and I needed it now. After all. He was still goodlooking. really see myself. It broke over me with a startling. By the time Jay shifted over me. but all too soon I felt him gasp and stiffen and he was done. I still lay there and looked at his face and felt…nothing. the hollows beneath them that had become more pronounced as he got older. for what felt like the first time in ages. "That was great." he mumbled as he rolled off of me. His short. I wanted to get on top so he could touch me and make me climax. And when Charlie died just six short months after diagnosis. he was at his lowest. The thought shook me so thoroughly that I had to sit down with a thud on the edge of the bathtub. Jay loves me. I clenched my hands into my hair and squeezed my eyes shut. I took in his short. Instead I tried to just imagine hands. pouty lower lip. it was Jay who helped me plan the funeral and pack up and sell the house. good-looking in his way. What made me like this? As I stood there in my bathroom at midnight. It was some sort of flash of clarity or something. my mind whispered the answer to me. and a cold sweat broke out across the back of my neck. What a lousy fucking girlfriend I was. making me feel good. I was always pale. My dark eyes were flat and dead. his slightly full. it was Jay who'd been there for me when my dad was diagnosed with cancer. I needed air. and it always made him look a little angry. his breathing evened out and I knew he'd fallen asleep. not quite reaching to his prominent brow bone. even though he and I had only just started dating and we weren't even that serious about each other. undeniable clarity. He needed me and dammit. But I was startled to realize that I couldn't remember the last time I looked at him and felt a jolt of attraction.

except for Alice. who was no support at all. knees together. over time.on. now that I looked around and thought about it. I crawled back into bed and curled on my side. I could grab Alice to talk it through with me and help me to make a plan. I was leaving tomorrow for Chicago. Jay never stirred when my alarm went off at an ungodly hour. I wasn't even sure where she was right now. something I no longer recognized. even Alice. That thought was comforting. killing my soul. I let myself ponder the logistics of it for just a minute as I tried to get my breathing back under control. I couldn't have this freak-out now when Jay was sleeping in the next room. There was only me here with Jay. It was terrifying and daunting. And I was going to leave him. And there was absolutely nothing I could do tonight anyway. a little at a time. as far away from him as I could get without falling out. How could I do this to him? But how could I stay? Jay loved me. Just the idea of being with Alice again was comforting. it just twisted and transformed. and slowly. feet bouncing slightly as I waited in semidarkness for my cab to show up. trying to figure out how I'd gotten myself into this hopeless position. and she lived halfway across the country. telling him I'd call when I got to Chicago. I didn't know where to go. Jay's. It had started off good. so they'd been relegated to the topmost of the glass shelves along one wall. There was actually very little of "me" in this house. I stared at the ceiling and thought about the dead-end my life had become until sleep finally claimed me in the early hours of the morning. I hated those shelves. Jay picked out the shelves. killing me. but Jay said they gave him the creeps. . I couldn't bear to touch him again. I already felt distant and disconnected from Jay. He even moved me in to his apartment so I wouldn't have anything to worry about. ~*~ I sat perched on the edge of our hard. where to start. also Jay's choice. Even though on the outside. He also picked out the sofa that I usually avoided sitting on. not mine. I had a little money from Charlie's pension and life insurance that was in my name alone. but I knew why I did. I laid awake for an age. and I didn't wake him. because it was so hard and uncomfortable. working in a job I hated. the center of my world. The thought made my stomach twist with anxiety and misery. living with a man I didn't love. he was dead to the world. Not now. he loved them. I showered and dressed and threw the last items into my suitcase as quickly as possible before heading out to the living room to wait on the cab. but I didn't need to worry. And what we'd just done…the sex…it felt all wrong. no tipping point moment when it all went wrong. Me. and with any luck. There were the framed black and white photographs of some generic outdoor scenes on the walls. I felt trapped. preparing to go back in to bed. I left a short note on my pillow. And then there was the sisal rug that was scratchy and awful to walk on in bare feet. Everything else I owned. and my mother. too. but he was suffocating me. I was afraid. Jay owned. My eyes stung with tears again. With one more bracing breath. a little bit more every day. My collection of heavy wooden Pacific Northwest tribal carvings that Charlie had given me over the years were on display. until I was left with what it was now. He'd been amazing. I didn't really like it. staring at the wall. The living room was sparsely furnished and modern. Something had crossed over in me. my rock. I couldn't believe I had stayed so long. I stood up and pushed my hair off my face. I was forever walking into the corners and giving myself terrible bruises. black sofa. There was no magic moment when I should have left. but it was all in Jay's place when I moved in with him and it just sort of stuck. I had no one anymore. but there were no easy answers. everything was just the same as it had been half an hour ago.

I had a flash of what I wanted in my own place. As I crouched down to get it. I took one more glance around the house. He was scowling a little now. he was still looking at me like I was a crazy woman because I was standing there with my mouth open and nearly drooling on myself. alright. With my mother out of the picture since I was six. Alice's father was picking me up. It made me almost giddy. I realized I'd dropped it. Instead. I was here. they'd played a huge part in my childhood. I almost never saw them. Four days with them as well. I was still bemoaning the cancellation of that flight. Someone amazing. Alice's dad wasn't at baggage claim when I got there. but I still felt completely turned around. but in all the jostling. My ride wasn't here yet anyway. His face… I swear I couldn't look away for what felt like several endless seconds. And it was late enough now that I'd probably spend an hour or more stuck in traffic getting in to the Loop. wishing with everything in me that I was leaving for good and I would never have to come back and face the mess my life had become. Poor man. there wasn't much to show I even lived here. being visually accosted by me while he waited for his bags. I took a look. so what was the rush? I had Alice's dad's cell number scrawled on a little slip of paper. and hopefully I wouldn't see him again. And if the world were fair. packed in with all these rude people waiting to claim my bag. pretending like I hadn't been just shamelessly ogling a handsome man at the airport. I closed my eyes to clear my head and shoved my way forward into the baggage claim crowd. I avoided it completely. Cheekbones and tousled hair and intense eyes and unbelievable lips. so like everyone else I loved. it would have landed three hours ago. Scanning the floor frantically. before the reality of "my own place" descended on me. But when my earlier flight into Midway was cancelled. He was beautiful and tall and…oh. I heard the cab driver tap his horn out front. standing in as parents when I otherwise would have been alone. I'd have bypassed it today. Someone was looking at me. ~*~ Edward I hated O'Hare. drinking a beer. too. The man made my head spin a little bit just from looking at him. his heavy brows pulled together. saving me before I panicked again. I thought I saw someone's face turn towards me in my peripheral vision. everything old and exotic and full of character. shoving up to the front when there weren't even any bags there yet. If I'd made that one. So much bigger than Sea-Tac. Then I shut and locked the door behind me and headed for the cab. They shouldn't let me out with ordinary people. and I hoped beyond hope that he was already there. Not Alice's father. making me feel sick. maybe catching up with Emmett. so I joined the huge crowd waiting at the dormant baggage carousel. As I stood at the front door.No. Whenever possible. and by now I'd be securely ensconced in my hotel room. I thought maybe it was Alice's dad so when I straightened back up. What the hell had just come over me? Whatever it was. All I could do was follow each sign for Baggage Claim as I stumbled across them and trust that I'd get there eventually. it was past now. my God. I adored Alice's parents. though. I'd just keep my eyes down until I got my bag and found Alice's dad. People were so pushy. Ugh…I was an embarrassment. I spotted it several feet away and lunged for it before it wound up stuck to somebody's foot. There were maps everywhere. They moved to Florida two years ago. and my father working long hours at the police station. I let them shove past me and fell back to the rear of the crowd where it was a little saner. . O'Hare was massive. this was the best the airline could do and still guarantee my arrival in time for the beginning of the wedding festivities.

dark-haired older man. I didn't know her well. her eyes growing wider. But that girl was crazy. getting her carry-on bag secured to the top of her rolling suitcase. She had amazing skin. But that was before Alice decided that my parents' house was too far away to suit her needs. No ghosts-of-girlfriends-past for me. A flash of movement to my left drew my attention. It took a solid ten minutes of shoving. I smiled at her slowly and raised two fingers to my forehead in a little sort-of salute. Where do girls like that hang out. with the ghost of a blush across her cheekbones. it wasn't like I could do anything about it anyway. Her cheeks flushed with a beautiful shade of pink. She stopped short of me and crouched to pick something up off the floor. As I neared the exit. Just in my direction. She looked ridiculously happy. we were staring at each other again. Ah. Her face stopped me in my tracks. so I suppose in the end it didn't really matter. This weekend would suck even harder if my luggage went missing. I craned to look over the heads of the people. pale and creamy. I suppose. and she shrieked with laughter. swallowed up by the crowd. He was bent over. When Jasper first asked me to be in the wedding. That's when her father said something to her again . I paused just inside the automatic doors to wrap my scarf around my neck and button up my coat. and in that instant. The sound and the scene made me smile. And my parents were out of town this weekend anyway. but I did finally retrieve my bag and I headed across the terminal to go find the line for cabs. I snorted derisively at the thought of a girl like her hanging off the bar next to the chicks trolling for doctors at Mulligan's. but there wasn't any sign of her. For four days. which was already a little sour at the prospect of spending four freaking days wrapped up in Jasper's wedding. I had stupidly thought that I could mix in a little personal recreation on this trip. but there was no way I was leaving this airport without letting her know that I saw her and thought she was lovely. hell. She stood up and her head turned towards me in one quick motion. so it was pointless. just a few dinners on my infrequent trips home to visit Chicago. laughing at something he said to her. dark eyes. The baggage carousel for my flight beeped and started to move and I began to say a silent prayer that my suitcase had made it to Chicago with me. she was with her dad and I was about to spend four days in wedding hell. I caught sight of the girl again. She wasn't looking in my direction anyway. I groaned out loud. Damn. I inhaled deeply.None of it was improving my mood. Beyond pretty. she turned around and was gone. A few girls from back then made it abundantly clear that they'd be delighted to see me again while I was home. I even got as far as sending out a few messages that I'd be in town to old high school friends on Facebook. Alright. Pretty. She stared back. Really pretty. under her thumb and at her beck and call for the whole four days. Must be her father. and her eyelids fluttered down. Then. not towards me. and her mouth… I took a deep breath. I felt like I'd just been punched in the stomach. the way you would with a little girl. He rocked her so her feet swung back and forth. this time running away from me and flinging herself into the arms of a tall. How could it possibly take four days to get married? It could when you were Alice Brandon. so it didn't matter. Certainly not in the bars I frequented. Then she straightened and pivoted as she flicked her hair back over her shoulder and just like that. Wedding. dragged a hand through my hair and started to shove my way to the front of the crowd. I wondered. Her silky dark hair swung forward over her shoulders. No. but still crazy. Delicate little features. I watched for a little bit longer. She was looking down at him. and shot one last look at the pretty girl with her father. Now I was staying at the Regis with everybody else. A real sweetheart and hopelessly in love with Jasper. she smiled her glorious smile in return. A girl was darting towards me. momentarily thrown by my unexpected and intense reaction. wide. very slowly.

There was very little in my life these days that was remotely luxurious or glamorous. I fiddled with the radio controls in the rental car and replayed that crazy little moment back at the airport in my head again. And he just might have been one of my favorite people in the whole world. A vacation with all of my favorite people in the world.and she turned to answer. I was secretly very excited. though. I was the one who started calling him Colonel Brandon when Alice and I were kids. but she'd always wanted a Christmas wedding. From what she'd told me so far. since the traffic into downtown Chicago was so bad. and strapping. When he caught me at it the first time I thought it bothered him. not looking at all irritated. and about their crazy. Which was good. It was really nothing. I hadn't realized how invisible I had been feeling. I ate up every single detail. But then after I met the Colonel and looked up to find him not twenty feet away. I sighed heavily and braced myself for the bitter Chicago cold outside. though. And then that smile. Bellarina?" "Sure thing. I realized with a sinking sensation that I wasn't including Jay in that grouping anymore. so at least we wouldn't have to go outside all . when I thought about it. but it stuck. but things like that just didn't happen in my life. and the little salute. While Alice's family was decidedly middle-class like mine had been. sex-starved. or at least irritated. actual butterflies. so this wedding was like a vacation for me. her black hair. Although over-the-top weddings were not really my thing." I replied. like the sun coming out from behind the clouds. and I felt a stab of guilt in my chest again. He was beautiful and magnetic. six-foot-four. ~*~~*~~*~ Bella Chapter Two ~ The Eyes Of A Stranger ~ "Why don't you see if you can find us some sort of traffic report on the radio. He had Alice's coloring. The memory of him watching me was enough to keep me flying for hours. Since my own father died. and grey eyes. But all it took was one little innocuous bit of eye contact with a handsome stranger in an airport to make me feel prettier and more desirable than I had in ages. Eventually. Colonel Brandon was tall. but where Alice was tiny. so the way I was practically salivating over him wasn't surprising. my heart stopped. I guess the luxurious wedding weekend was officially underway. we were pulling up at the Regis. I really did want to hear all about the new condo in Tampa and the Colonel's latest far-fetched business venture. Colonel. eighty-year-old neighbor. where a uniformed valet rushed out take the car while another uniformed porter came forward to retrieve my luggage. He was funny and kind and perpetually hounded by his highly-energetic wife and daughter. Jasper came from some serious old Southern money. We scurried as quickly as possible from the car through the bitter Chicago cold and wind and into the hotel lobby. The spell was broken. I silently cursed Alice for dragging me to Chicago in mid-December. it looked like it would be hours before we got there. He shot me a sideways smile at the teasing use of his old nickname in response to his use of mine. He looked like he might have been angry. I got butterflies. this thing was bound to be one for the ages. though. pale skin. I'd only become fonder of Alice's parents. watching me. I loved few people the way I loved Colonel Brandon. With Jasper's cash and Alice's love of spectacle. and for a long time absolutely everybody called him that. the cold be damned. I didn't mind. the whole wedding and most of the related events were taking place right in the hotel.

I started to cry. and now I wasn't even missing him during my fun weekend away. First I was happy that he didn't come with me. and now her hair was a sleek little jet-black Louise Brooks bob. Even if it's just for the weekend. chatting happily. Ally. I'd never been to Chicago before. It swung open under my hand like Alice had her eye pressed against the peephole waiting for me. but it suited her. We're just…" he trailed off." "You never had the patience to tough it out through the awkward in-between phases. When I saw her last year. not really capable of forming words either. calm down! It's okay. her happy. "So. setting off her tiny." I reminded her. running a hand over it. "Right? I should have grown it out years ago." she said with a satisfied sigh. ducking off the elevator on five before either one of us could start crying. I love it on you. angular features perfectly. shag hairstyle she'd worn since college. "tell me everything that you've done since we last talked. She didn't even manage a coherent word. Once I had my key card. "The new hair is amazing. She planted her hands on her hips and scowled at me. and I flashed back on my midnight revelation. and she made a little face. "It's nothing. I felt like shit." I looked at her for a second. I was having a hard time dislodging them. "No. Colonel. "We're just real glad to have you back with the family. I caught her thin little body against me and laughed. Why don't you hop off on five and go see Alice? She's been desperate to see you since she woke up this morning. That's so sweet. I need a Bella fix and I need it bad. "God. and I was completely overwhelmed. Colonel Brandon stayed with me the whole time I was checking in. And then I started to sob. just a high-pitched. my fear of ending it and being alone." I said. I thought you'd never get here! I missed you! I need you!" "Ally. no matter how tiny and insignificant." She beamed and struck a little pose. certain that some part of her carefully-orchestrated plans had gone awry and that's what she was so frantic about. throwing everything onto an arm chair. Bellarina." I said reassuringly." I smiled at him and kissed his cheek quickly. I'll take this young man on up to your room and get your suitcase all set up. Without a word. but I wasn't sure I was too keen on exploring it for the first time in these arctic conditions. his normally booming voice sounding a bit gruff. How would I ever do this to him? And after all he had done for me? The worry and guilt was starting to eat away at my chest even as I kept up a steady stream of pleasant conversation with Colonel Brandon. excited little face." "Thanks. then I was practically leg-humping some strange guy at the airport. giddy squeal before she launched herself at me.that much. I just need you. pulling my bag from my shoulder and stripping my coat off. pulling me down onto the sofa with her. I'm here now. I can help you with whatever you need. brassplated elevators that would take us up to my room. because now that thoughts of Jay and what I was planning had invaded my head again. I found room 512 and knocked. . she'd been growing out the choppy. "Bellarina. and my guilt over doing it. the porter retrieved my suitcase and herded us towards the bank of shiny. It was so different. All while he was going through a crisis at work. my decision to break up with Jay. which was good. Bella! How can you possibly live so far away?" Then she was dragging me after her into her suite.

getting myself under control.." "Shh…shhhh. then started again. Then…I don't know…last night it just sort of came on me in a flash. I nodded wordlessly and sniffed again. She kicked off her stiletto heels and scrambled up on to the couch next to me. I looked at her expectantly. "I know that makes me a terrible coward…I hate that I'm even thinking that way.I don't know what to do. "No. I get it." I choked out." she said. "Did something happen?" she finally asked. resting her forehead on my temple." Alice took a deep breath.just because you're far away doesn't mean you are ever alone. all of us. Got that?" . You know that. Just the same stuff. That was four years ago." "I know. "No. like she had something else to say and wasn't sure if she should. Ally." I whispered. pushing on my shoulders a little to get me to sit up and look at her. I mean. it's totally normal." "Bella Marie. it's me!" "What do you mean?" "I just can't…I don't…I don't think I love him anymore. losing him the way you did. softly. You don't need to throw away the rest of your life on him out of some sense of obligation. "Bella. it's really okay. It's eating him alive. Bella. I sniffed loudly and looked up."Hey. He's afraid he's going to get laid off. But you can do it. It's like I don't even know him anymore. it's so hard to think about. Alice." "He might love you. Jay didn't help re-light you. You have me…us. Jasper. He's just all I have." Saying the words out loud brought on a fresh round of tears. Alice said nothing for a long time. he held your hand and helped you make some phone calls when Charlie died. "What?" I finally prompted her. using her nickname for me that she used whenever she was really serious. "Bella. "I'm afraid of being alone. then stopped. "Jay loves me. I don't even know how long I've felt this way. Mom. nothing new. you can't stay. and I descended into uncontrolled sobbing as it all came crashing down on me. it seemed like the light just went out in you. she just rocked me gently back and forth. "What did he do now?" she sighed. It's just that things are so awful for him now and here I am. hey. and it's scary to think about walking away. "It's just…leaving him. It would happen to anybody. I don't love him anymore. Or that he's good for you." Alice barked. After everything he's done for me…" "Hey. ducking down to peer into my face as she tucked my hair behind my ear. It was like he was happy to keep you in the dark as long as he could hang on to you. "You are not alone. contemplating dumping him on top of it. I just can't….." she murmured. "Well…" she started." I shook my head forcefully. "I know. But the thing is." she soothed me as I cried. "What happened?" "Jay. wrapping her whole body around me as I sobbed and shook. right?" she said softly. when Charlie died. starting over by myself. but it doesn't mean he's right for you. if you don't love him. fresh tears streaking down my face because I knew Alice was right. Dad. tipping her head close to mine. hey!" Her face creased up in concern as she rushed to put her arms around me.

.I smiled at her and gave a snuffle. Ally. waving it in my face. No more dwelling." She snorted and rolled her eyes. Ally. "The Best Man is getting in this afternoon. but she'd made me smile. Just the parents and the wedding party. "but this is impressive." Alice said. "No more apologies. this is your weekend as much as it is mine. I think everybody will have fun together. so comforting. he's the last one. But yeah. whatever it is." She scowled and looked at her watch. But it's a great group." I sighed. no more brooding." "So is everybody here already?" I asked." "Are you kidding?" Alice said. "Because this is your itinerary. wiping away tears with her thumbs. So." "Isn't that the rehearsal dinner?" Alice made a horrified face. "First up. even in the face of the daunting schedule I apparently had ahead of me. your big weekend. the two of us together…Chicago never stood a chance!" I laughed and leaned back on the sofa. "God. I sighed and rolled my eyes. This is much more intimate. So from this point forward this weekend." I sighed. shooting to her feet and stuffing her feet back into her shoes before crossing to the table where several large binders were stacked. "I positively forbid you to think about him. flipping through it. Got it?" I nodded solemnly. since everybody is from all over. She fished through one and came out with a set of pages stapled together. It felt so good. now feeling lighter than I had in weeks." she said sternly. "Then let's hear it!" she said. I really am looking forward to this. She crossed back to me. "Oh. And you know how I am with the planning…I swear. "is dinner tonight. Just relax and have fun. just the way I always did. She reached up and took my face in her tiny hands. "what are you wearing tonight?" "Ally. no! That's Friday night. even for you. I am so sorry. Delayed flight. She smiled back and started. "We are brilliant and beautiful and we rule the world!" I joined in by the time she said "beautiful". "Good. Please?" "I promise. Just a little get-toknow you. "Jasper's mom has been dreaming of putting on an event like this since he was born. and I just walk in the door and drop all this drama on you. It's really unfair of me." "I knew it was coming. Ally. "Remember what we used to say?" I nodded and gave her a watery smile. I'm sure you won't approve. the worst of the crying past. It's ours." I said earnestly. "This is your wedding. There's time to deal with all of that later and dwelling on it now won't solve a thing." she said. "What the hell for?" she said as she smoothed my hair back out of my face. "Now." she switched her tone of voice completely and I knew what was coming next. trying to make up for my earlier hysterics. dropping her hands to grasp mine.

It felt great. something to make me feel pretty and feminine. Not necessarily shopping for a dress. Please don't call. Well. The afternoon was perfect with just the two of us. It was dark blue silk chiffon. Alice could see me wavering and went in for the kill. high on the endless possibilities held by the night before us. so caught up with chatting and laughing together that we forgot for a while that the point of this was to come back with a dress for me. so we'd stopped by her room just long enough for her to slip into a tiny black halter dress and a pair of strappy patent red high heels. It was feminine and delicate and I felt prettier in it than I had felt in ages. but just spending some time with Alice. A new dress." I rolled my eyes at her. I needed clear my head and forget about this for the weekend. You clearly need a little pick-me-up. She decided our way up in the elevator to come back to my room with me and get ready there. and Alice said they made my legs look ten miles long." I thought about that for a minute. Alice finally found a dress that she insisted I had to own. with a deep v-neck and thin straps. Come on. The skirt was swishy and soft. it seemed like forever since I'd felt like that. We stopped just inside the restaurant so Alice could check in with the hostess and I saw a few familiar faces mingling at the bar. We found a great shoe sale at one little boutique and I came away with some slightly dangerous dark gold heels." "Bella! You just cried your eyes out on my sofa the minute you walked in the door. it was unkind not to check in. Call if you need me. so I was sold. fitted to the waist. Two hours later. Butterflies at the airport. bound for the restaurant there where everyone was assembling. and she nodded eagerly. but I really didn't want to talk to him. so she called Jasper on our way up in the elevator and told him to meet us at the restaurant. God knows. Made it fine. Alice fixed her hair and makeup in my room. but she was still so effortlessly sophisticated in a way I envied. emotionless message. Alice's parents. I waited until Alice had gone to try on a blouse for herself and typed out a brief. outside of Mr. I knew I needed to call Jay and let him know I'd made it okay. I didn't have to walk around much. She put on some loud French pop music and we raided the mini bar for tiny bottles of booze while Alice curled my hair and did my makeup. Finally I settled on a text. we exited the elevator on the mezzanine level of the hotel arm in arm. But it was just dinner. But at the same time."It's only three. since that was never really my thing. skimming the tops of my knees. We laughed together and I let her pull me to my feet and out the door. I promise. "I'm the bridezilla! It's my weekend. We wandered aimlessly for a long time. If he really needed to talk to me. He would worry if he didn't hear from me. she had left behind the crazier vintage clothes she wore in college. and… "Bella!" . Jasper. Let's go find you something new. I just really hoped he didn't. getting ready to go out on a Friday. it will make you feel better. and if I closed my eyes I could almost imagine that we were back in college. we have a while until we need to be ready. –B Please don't call. Once she'd moved to Chicago and gotten her first "real job" at a local culture magazine. Eventually though. Alice was right. would be nice. he would call back. Confession time: the shopping trip did help me feel better. For me?" "Is this the shit you're going to pull all weekend to get your way?" I asked with mock severity. Alice got down to business and started her hunt. not this again. There's a little shopping esplanade downstairs with all kinds of cute boutiques. "Alice.

but spending the afternoon with the now-chic Alice and seeing this transformed Angela. and after a while I couldn't picture her without him. "Angela. since she was positive from the first night that she was spending the rest of her life with him. silky curtain framing her face. volunteering for Greenpeace. but moved to Chicago recently to take a position as CFO at a mid-sized manufacturing company. He was everything I never thought Alice was looking for. "You too! Just the same as I remember!" She meant it as a compliment. But in the end. the same familiar soft and gentle sound. This family's genetics were insane. Really. and he shook my hand enthusiastically. she'd been earnest and passionate. invisible to the unsophisticated boys in our small town. and it just wouldn't. She was in heels. and intellectual. he filled in all her missing pieces. straining on tip-toe to reach. and she had to be nearly six feet tall. He was shorter and stockier than any of them." I breathed. Then he dutifully tucked my hand into the crook of his arm and pulled me into the room to introduce me around. and once Alice met him. but where they were cool. I had to hand it to her. as the introductions were made and we exchanged a little small talk. she was all stacked curves and sex appeal. Habitat for Humanity. I decided. Laid-back. for sure. Jasper approached us then. his twin. she said she was sure he was perfect for Angie. He was delightful. I discovered. of course. Then at UW. Everyone did. Alice had insisted he accompany her home for a visit as soon as they started dating. She laughed. clasped my hand between both of hers and insisted that I call them Mims and Biff. but they didn't match up with what I was seeing. Marian and William Hale. I'd heard about him. It made my heart hurt a little to see his face when he looked at her. along with a dozen political candidates. John's suit. apparently. She wasn't helping either. Ben taught at the college with Jasper. Marian. He was blond. Rosalie Hale was every bit as tall. greeting me with a tiny Mona Lisa smile and almost no words. Angela had grown out her glossy black hair. I wracked my brain for details about her that I'd gleaned from Alice. He kissed my cheek in greeting and professed to actually notice my new dress. dark eyes. Like every other part of my life. Next were Jasper's sister and cousin. His parents. Alice was inordinately proud of their relationship. Stalled. I'd known him for a few years now. She was stunning. Hmmm. all while maintaining a 3. She worked in investments. but his baby face was open and friendly. although I could tell he only had eyes for Alice. I thought. She'd always been striking in her way. you look amazing. both blond. And completely crazy about Angie. and that's where the similarities ended. And the thick. since introducing them had been her idea."Angie!" I threw my arms around her. Mike. dryly funny and selfdepreciating. I shook off my dark thoughts so I could meet the slightly shorter. black dress and tried to make "CFO" connect with the visual. She was a puzzle. were everything I was expecting. but in high school she'd been shy and nerdy. in her immaculate pink St. elegant and slim. But the woman in front of me was nothing like that. and they seemed to actually like it. She'd been in New York. I wasn't so sure looking the same way I had five years ago was such a good thing. She'd hidden behind her thick glasses and she slouched when she walked to hide her height. high finance. I stared at the tall blonde in the tight. and Amnesty International. Smart. and now it was a dramatic. He fit himself seamlessly into our relationship and now I loved him like my brother. The frat boys around us were more interested in that weekend's kegger than in a girl as smart and driven as Angela. The astounding Hale genetics apparently dried up when they got to Jasper's cousin.8 GPA. understated. geek glasses had been replaced by sleek little black frames that set off her angular. Both tall. she seemed to be right. . platinum and lovely as her parents. sandy-haired man hovering at Angela's elbow. both handsome and patrician. Alice had mentioned the sister before. if I remembered correctly.

I was laughing helplessly. but since I lived so far away. Well. we should go on in to dinner. for Alice's sake. She fairly radiated perky. But they'd started at the same time at the magazine. Alice appeared at my side then to introduce her as her co-worker.When Jasper and I had approached." . and one of the bridesmaids. save for the empty seat across from me. "Sorry I'm late. He'll be right down. "Jazz. The only other person in the room I didn't know was Jasper's roommate from college. I'd have plenty of chances to get to know her this weekend. "The one with the delayed flight." "Who?" I interjected. "Damn! It seems like all of Alice's friends are hot!" he blurted. Then she started telling me about the first time she met Ben. Emmett. But her no-nonsense email persona wasn't matching up with the doe-eyed doll in front of me. and I marveled and delighted all over again at how she had seemed to completely grow into all her early potential. I remembered Alice's stories about her. as Jessica and I had actually exchanged a few emails. I had to check in at work. Jessica. He was massive. He smiled back. "is he coming?" "He's running behind. when a low male voice coming from behind us interrupted her story. I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt." Alice explained. Surviving him (and ultimately teaming up to run him out of the company) had bonded them for life. Happily. if he's on his way down. I didn't get any sort of vibe that he was in any way attracted to me. Alice was right. curvy girl with huge hazel eyes and a volcano of light brown curls falling down her back. He brushed right past the moment. and her place was immediately claimed by Angela. Angela was on my other side. He just seemed genuinely delighted at the degree of hotness Alice's friends possessed. anyway. so I didn't have a chance to dwell on it any further. And despite the actual words he'd spoken to me. for the absentee Best Man. and it was so warm and open that I liked him on the spot. and they'd had the boss from hell. reminiscing about college and New Moon as Alice ushered us all in to dinner. These were good people. I could feel it in the air. Mike was completely absorbed in talking to a petite." Alice was murmuring behind me. He texted and said we should start without him. immediately offering to get me a drink. I was immensely happy to be where I was at that moment and full of anticipation for the four days ahead of me. It was a perfect fit for her. "The Best Man. talking about her job with a not-for-profit that promoted early childhood literacy. Alice and Jasper were at the head of the table and I was to Alice's left. Jessica had contacted me and offered to step in. apologizing profusely in advance for the disaster he was sure would be the result of Alice's matchmaking. able to picture Jasper's distress so clearly. The bachelorette party was technically mine to organize. We fell into an easy conversation. and I found the whole exchange bizarrely charming. The rest of the table filled up quickly. and how Jasper met her at the door when she arrived at their house. Angela and I kept up our conversation. practically bursting out of his finely-tailored suit as he lunged forward to shake my hand enthusiastically. I think I blushed and Jasper punched his arm. I was glad to put a face to her name. and in any other situation they probably would have hated each other. They were nothing alike. "Dude! Behave yourself!" "What? It's a compliment! Right?" He looked at me expectantly and all I could do was smile and nod. And since we were in the wedding party together." She moved away to talk to the hostess again. which I thought was really nice of her.

" he murmured." Jasper indicated me with his hand as his friend rounded the head of the table to take his chair across from me. the Maid of Honor. I think the only real stranger in the wedding party is Bella. so you can get to know each other and see all the great things in each other that we see in you. too…Bella. "Hi. "I won't keep you long. I felt the smile fall from my face and my cheeks flush." Everyone around the table was suitably touched by Alice's lovely words. I was able to successfully forget about Edward for long periods of time. his gorgeous. too. I would see him. "Nice to meet you. this is Bella. You're all from different places in our lives. After all. I looked down at my hands while Alice and Jasper had a quick. Good thing I was sitting down. it already was seriously awkward. I released his hand almost immediately and smiled slightly at him. The smile and the salute. a huge city like Chicago. How was I ever going to look him in the eye without blushing? Because from the look on his face when he saw me. but then I decided I was imagining it. You know almost everyone here already anyway. "Bella Swan. I met his eyes for just a little too long before I tore my eyes away to look at Alice. from Jasper and myself. "Nice to meet you. Edward. We were spending the whole weekend together and we'd just been eyeing each other shamelessly at the airport. he looked…the way he did. He stopped in his tracks. Scratch that. how perfect it is to have all our favorite people here in one place for our special day." I said. the wine plentiful. he remembered me. and I felt a shot of heat travel all the way up my arm. too. I just wanted to say. Alice finally stood to make her little speech. and Angela and I were having a great time catching up." He snapped out of it and arranged his face back into a pleasant smile. although now and then when I'd look to Jasper. His large. The food was wonderful. my roommate from Dartmouth. and the one guy I was shamelessly checking out at the airport winds up being the goddamned Best Man. everyone!" Alice began. and it's wonderful for us to bring you together like this. I leaned forward and reached out to take it. leaning forward across the table and extending his hand to me. it really had been too long since I'd been properly touched by a man if a simple handshake from Jasper's friend was rendering me weak in the knees. "No worries. I felt a tiny flush of satisfaction along with the overwhelming embarrassment. seeming to pick up on the tension. It was certainly no big deal . Edward. A huge airport like O'Hare.Jasper smiled and stood up. who wouldn't? We were just staring at each other like morons. It means so much to us that you came to share it with us. his gaze so intense it made me catch my breath. harried smile vanishing from his face as well as our eyes met. Alice's friend from back home. speaking to the newcomer still behind me. I looked up to say hello and my voice died in my throat. this is Edward Cullen. Judging from the way he was looking at me. but then the dinner service began. so she left it at that and we all focused on the meal. Oh.. The man from the airport. "Um…" Jasper began tentatively. with occasional input from Alice.. to his friend. A couple of times I thought he was watching me. Of all the dumb luck. I was sure he remembered that moment. Christ. warm hand curled around mine. lowering himself into his chair across from me. and I was glad to have something to focus on besides the incredibly good-looking man across from me. and then back to me. This was nothing but trouble. I'm sure women checked him out like that all the time.that connection. I chanced a glance back up at him and he was still looking at me. Well. God. whispered discussion about who was going to do the talking. Jasper's eyes cut from me. This was going to be seriously awkward.

After all. "I'm not career military. "We have just missed you to pieces! Haven't we. but where Alice had gotten her father's dark coloring. "And this is Alice's mom. I jumped into the introductions. Glancing up. She was built just like Alice. Brandon in that flurry of introductions." Edward replied. Ben came to claim Angela. smiling broadly. and I smiled a little at his formal response. shaking Edward's hand. but in typical Cheryl Brandon style. Carl?" The Colonel nodded in happy agreement as Mrs. channeling my very best Emily Post. tiny and birdlike. making his way through the crowd. Left the service years ago and went into the private sector when Alice was just a kid. "How are you. have you met Edward. Alice ordered after-dinner drinks for everyone. She was just a tiny bit vulgar and loud. I saw that it was Edward. "But you're a colonel?" I suddenly understood his confusion and started to laugh. his eyes intent on me. coordinated. but surely nothing out of the ordinary for him. I laughed and threw myself into her steely grip. A little line formed between Edward's brows. Mrs. Brandon enthused. and she was tanned to a burnished gold. and perfectly. I figured that he must not know Alice's parents. He reached out to shake her hand. A little embarrassing for me. "Oh. to be sure. Brandon held me at arms' length. with his interest in military history and everything." I continued." The Colonel said." Colonel Brandon looked puzzled. highly made up. but everyone seemed to stall again at the bar. but he's too busy with his golf buddies!" "I'm surprised that Jasper never mentioned that Alice's father is career military.for him. "Colonel Brandon. we seemed to miss each other today. "You know. sugar?" she beamed. yeah. and she happily talked my ear off for the next several minutes. so I decided to help him out and steer the conversation. Brandon had artificially auburn hair that she wore in a high full twist on her head. the Best Man?" "No." Mrs. so I went to find the Brandons. "More gorgeous than ever! How is that possible. Brandon. her face creasing up in a wide smile. whereas her mother was heavily groomed. Brandon has just been telling me about her art classes in Florida. I had years of Cheryl Brandon experience under my belt. Dinner wrapped up and we all filtered out of the dining room towards the exit. Alice was effortlessly stylish. Mrs. hoping it would sink in so I could look him in the eye sometime before Sunday. "I tried to get the Colonel to sign up with me. That's what I kept repeating to myself." Edward said. "Sweetie pie!" she cooed." I said politely. I laughed and twined my arm in hers. so there was another impromptu cocktail party as everyone mingled and chatted. if somewhat brashly. throwing her arms wide. and I loved her more than life itself. she seized him by the shoulders and yanked him forward so she could kiss his cheek. "Mrs. throwing on a ten-dollar sundress and making it look couture. . She was telling me about her watercolor class at the art center when I felt someone approach me from the left. I'd missed saying hello to Mrs. Edward looked mildly shell-shocked when he straightened back up. rocking me back and forth in her firm embrace. sir. son?" "Very good. She saw me weaving through the crowd towards her and let out a loud squeal. so as soon as he reached my side. asking all the appropriate questions about the new condo and Tampa.

keeping my voice light and teasing. "Hey. watching them walk away. "Bellarina. I had to tell him. "Lucky for me I think fast. "Nice to meet you. "So. Bella. threw us a mock salute and they were gone." I had no idea where that flirty version of me had just come from. What the hell was I thinking talking to him like that? But Edward didn't seem to mind. smiling at him." Then he winked at us. so I couldn't explain why my breathing suddenly sped up or why I felt so flush. I didn't want to let go of this just yet. "Bye. sugar. and I got all excited that I knew a real live Colonel Brandon. "Then I'm sure I can't be the only one who's made that mistake. and this…this spine-tingling. never taking his eyes off mine." "And it just stuck. Mr. His eyes were still boring into mine. I tore my eyes away from Edward's dangerously pretty face and turned my attention back to the Colonel. kissing my cheek with a smack. "No. I'm sure I can keep up from here on out. reaching out to touch Edward's forearm before I realized what I was doing. and with an effort. You're new here. I surreptitiously rubbed her lipstick off my cheek with the back of my hand. Edward. On the contrary. I took a deep breath and opened my mouth to do just that when Angela's voice stopped me. his perfect lips curling up slightly in one corner." "Oh…. This was so inappropriate.. "Right. I just wanted to tell you that Ben and I are taking off for the night. I glanced over at him at the same moment he looked at me. It wasn't that I wanted to deceive him. He was just too damned good-looking. He glanced down at my hand and then up at my face and I quickly dropped my hand away. I couldn't even lie by omission. I knew I needed to open my mouth and spit the words out." I struggled to right myself mentally. "Bellarina here was so disappointed that I had never been more than a Lieutenant and that I wasn't even in the army anymore at that point. I couldn't believe he just referred to that moment so boldly. "I've been Colonel Brandon ever since! The whole damned family calls me that now!" Edward laughed." I finished. exactly. But I also couldn't lie. "Cheryl and I want to go chat with the Hales about some of the out of town guests. electric energy he made me feel would vanish. he's not really a Colonel!" I interjected. I just knew what would happen when it was out there. This is where you say "I have a boyfriend"." I replied." Colonel Brandon interrupted."No. Bella? Sorry to interrupt. just the only one in this decade.. Edward and I stood wordlessly for a moment. Will you be at breakfast?" . or why it felt like we were suddenly the only two people in the room. and she started to call me Colonel Brandon." Cheryl cooed. I couldn't even look at his face without getting completely distracted. he met my eyes and smiled back as his expression darkened slightly. At ease. So I told her that I would be happy to be a Colonel for her. "Uh. But that's okay. When I was twelve I read Sense and Sensibility." It was an innocent enough exchange. He leaned in just a little bit closer and suddenly I couldn't breathe. chuckling. I could feel the flush creeping all the way up to my hairline." I smiled at him. Colonel Brandon shook Edward's hand." he murmured." The Colonel jumped into the story. or pretend it didn't happen?" My eyes widened and my jaw dropped. Brandon was in the Army when Alice and I were little kids. but I couldn't bring myself to do it. "are we going to talk about that thing at the airport. Say it. He would shut down and he'd be distant and polite. We'll see you tomorrow at breakfast?" "Absolutely.

As she released me. Ally. I haven't talked to him about it at all and until I do. Angela? It really is great to see you again. But we may have…seen each other at the airport earlier today. "Sorry. just leave it alone. now it just trips off my tongue. "A boyfriend that you're about to dump. Ally. "But seriously. on the rocks." "And…?" "And what?" "Did he check you out. eyebrows raised. whatever is going to happen with Jay will happen. Do you know him from somewhere?" "No. good. then I'm still in a committed relationship. As he spoke. Let's talk more tomorrow." Alice was practically salivating in delight." . and I looked back for just a beat too long. looking anywhere but at Alice. Look. he glanced at me. geez. talking to Emmett. not exactly. The liquor was set in front of us and Alice shoved my glass at me. You know what. "He might have checked me out. missy." I said reflexively. just chill!" I sighed. Well. then shut it and shrugged with a smile. Where were those words ten minutes ago? Alice scowled. "See you guys tomorrow." "Why? He seems to like you…" "I have a boyfriend. Alice pulled me towards the bar." "Oh. he was totally checking you out." Alice barked." I hedged nervously. "What do you mean?" I asked innocently." We smiled warmly at each other and she reached out to hug me lightly. "No. I spotted Alice. But the fact of the matter is. End of story. "Don't you try that with me. "Two Maker's Marks. squeezing my eyes shut."Sure thing. "So you do know him! You've been holding out on me!" "Alice. As my eyes scanned the room. drink in hand. hovering just behind her shoulder. Edward. her eyes bright and boring into mine." "And…?" "I might have…sort of shamelessly checked him out. I need to steal her for a second. A boyfriend that I still live with." I grumbled. sure." "But if he likes you and you like him…" "It would be wrong. we never met until dinner. I saw Edward on the other side. until Jay and I sort out whatever we're going to do." "Alice! A boyfriend that I'm having some problems with. too? Because just now. Alice's eagle eyes caught the wordless exchange. Oh. too. "So? What the hell was that all about?" I lifted my glass to my lips and took a tiny sip." He opened his mouth to say something. You and Edward." I waved after Ben and Angela as Alice seamlessly stepped forward and hooked my arm with hers.

I slept horribly last night. so any morning-after pain from that was worth it. But what I said to Alice was the truth. Jay and I had been together for over four years. Edward was astoundingly good-looking. I glanced around the room quickly and spotted Edward. She was so not going to let this go. knowing he was looking at me made me feel like I was flying. I didn't exhale until I was safely in the elevator alone. and when I found it. the whole weekend of wedding festivities stretched before me as an endless. Yes. And this situation was nothing but trouble. No. I might have decided to end it. But in the moment that I saw Bella at that table and heard Jasper introduce her as the Maid of Honor. Well. big and small. dark-haired Maid of Honor. And yes. Alice shot me a look over her mother's shoulder as they walked away that was loaded with meaning.She huffed and looked like she was going to keep going. I reached a hand out for the faucet." I muttered angrily at myself. Then when I rounded the corner of the table behind Jazz and looked up to see her beautiful dark eyes locked on me. our lives were entwined in a million different ways. Brandon saved me by swooping in and demanding that Alice take her back to her suite and show her the pictures from her last wedding dress fitting. would hopelessly confuse an already painful and confusing situation. but Mrs. the endless. of all the craziest luck. Edward. tedious marathon that I would stoically put up with for the sake of my best friend's connubial bliss. I was going back to my room to call Jay. Then he would go to his corner and I would go to mine. watching me. erotic dreams starring a certain dark-eyed. I heard her laughing as soon as I entered the room. and I'd be the same faithful. like I should have tonight. I dropped my eyes and pretended I didn't see him and headed for the exit. the weekend before me transformed into a landscape ripe with possibilities. He would hopelessly confuse me. sighing at the sensation. just like I should. if he flirted with me again. as dazzling as he was. He was nothing but trouble. but that didn't mean that I was free overnight. and I already had enough to deal with. The next time he flirted with me. I cranked the hot up a little further. Then he set his empty glass down on the table next to him and purposefully started towards me. But we never got to just hang like that anymore. I felt practically euphoric. I caught a glimpse of my reflection in the polished brass panels lining the elevator. Damn. we had a joint checking account. the sound caught my attention. joint utilities. We lived together. And yes. I would be honest and tell him about Jay. ~*~~*~~*~ Edward Chapter Three ~ Storm Warning ~ I leaned my forehead against the cool tiles of the shower in my hotel bathroom and let the scalding hot water sluice down my back over my tense muscles. "You're a tramp. Trouble. it was the restless sleep after that which had me groaning in the shower this morning. it made me feel beautiful and desirable again. shooting the shit with Emmett and drinking too many beers in the hotel bar. Blindly. every time I looked at him I felt a little boneless. Just a few minutes before. It was too bad that I was so tired of being that girl. And even though I didn't know it was her. trustworthy girl who left Seattle this morning. first I stayed up too late. .

. It was the only thing that explained her running out of there like the place was on fire. with an enormous spread of food in front of them. And that was just our fingers. Her hair was all loose and curly. The two of them were having some intense little powwow over at the bar. I know she was the last one I expected to encounter. but it wasn't enough to keep Bella from showing up to play the starring role in my dreams last night. she bolted. then seeing her at the dinner table stole my breath away completely. I could hardly stand wondering about the rest. when I finally got a good look at them. but seeing her interact with them made me feel that she was genuine and down-to-earth. So maybe bringing up the airport thing was a little too forward. I'd moved to New York for med school and Emmett had taken on his job with Cahill Consulting. I tried to pay attention to the conversation with Alice and Jasper throughout dinner. and all of it was flawless. "Emmett couldn't wait. Her face told me that she remembered every bit of our wordless encounter at the airport. "Come on in!" Jasper called. but that seemed like a good neutral opportunity to talk to her. so we could have breakfast together. The way she blushed and stammered." Jasper said when he saw my face. I still hadn't made up my mind about the airport thing when I approached her while she was with who I now realized were Alice's parents. how easy and familiar she was with them. even if she seemed a little embarrassed by it now. The conversation was relaxed and fun. the second I started towards her. so I think you're covered. Coffee?" . but I knocked lightly anyway. I didn't know a thing about her yet. I guess that was understandable. when Alice's mother hauled her off and Bella was alone again. I felt a thrill all over my skin the minute I touched hers. were going to be taking up permanent residence in my fantasy life for some time to come. I was wondering exactly how long it would take before I could get that gorgeous girl into bed with me. I loved watching her talk to them. spending almost all of his time on the road despite being technically based in New York. even when she tripped me up with that Colonel bit. although I was beyond excited that I had. The excitement was just magnified when I shook her hand. Then finally. so breakfast was going to be our time. I hadn't met them yet. so I didn't dare get in the way of that.if I felt punched in the gut when I first saw her at the airport. I was probably the last person she expected to see in this setting.. We hadn't all been in one place together like this since Dartmouth. He and Emmett were already sitting at the table. As soon as they left us alone. I thought for sure that she was about to start flirting back and then…. At first I thought it was genius. I toweled off and dressed quickly.And the way she looked. First Angela interrupted. but really. in case Alice was wandering around in there naked or something. I was planning and plotting. The room service cart was parked next to the table with more food on it. and her legs. which was a completely novel and refreshing prospect. There's pretty much one of everything on the menu here. the airport thing just came flying out of my mouth. so coming over there seemed reasonable. Her dark blue dress showed off a lot more skin than was on display at the airport. Best not to linger too long on those thoughts or this shower would get a whole lot longer. When I got to Jasper's suite. since I was now running late to meet Jasper and Emmett. I sighed and straightened up to rinse off. the door was slightly ajar. then Alice stole her away. I distracted myself with a little male bonding and beer with Emmett. we never saw each other anymore. The only deal Jasper had made for himself during this whole weekend was to get Alice to cut the three of us out of any morning events. How soon could I talk to her alone? Should I bring up the airport? Would that be coming on too strong? And most of all. "so we took the liberty of ordering for you. Since Jasper had settled in Chicago for his teaching position. I must have come on too strong. because I could tell from her face that she'd been thinking about it just as much as I had.

Jay. I just…My head just wouldn't shut down. Goddammit. Well. I pretty much stared at her all night long like some creep." Emmett said with a shrug." I didn't say anything. Kind of a loser. Shit." "Who? The boyfriend?" "Yeah. I could tell. They'd been talking about me. "No. did I? Emmett ducked his head and snorted in laughter. I just nodded. "Em. She hates him. she'd probably buy you a drink or twelve. eyes on my coffee. "Just…be really careful. it was still a little awkward. Jazz…" I began." Jasper went on." "Where's the fun in that?" Emmett whined. "Bella…" "Has a boyfriend. I busied my hands buttering a piece of toast to avoid looking at him as I spoke. "Her situation is tricky." Jasper chuckled. dropping into the chair next to him." I mumbled. it's my job. it wasn't that. please." Emmett laughed. and I know Alice is worried about her. "I'm sure it doesn't help that you're never in one city more than a couple of days." he said tersely. "So." That was the last thing I needed to hear. but taken by a loser who didn't deserve her. one eyebrow cocked questioningly. I'm not going to pull some scandalous crap and seduce the very taken Maid of Honor at Jazz's wedding. but it wasn't that bad. they don't always. Em. and he ducked away. man. I did not honestly just say that out loud. I think…there might be some trouble there. "how much longer are you going to chase Rose around?" "Until I catch her. Jasper and Emmett looked at each other briefly before looking back at their food. She could do a lot better. "How is it that the assholes get all the good girls?" Emmett asked. I kept you up a little late last night. He pushed a cup of coffee at me as he looked up. but fuck it. I wasn't all that subtle last night with Bella. I was taking it." . Not only was she taken. I met him once last September when we were out there. if you ask me. then I didn't have to feel awkward about pumping him for information. I'm dead. I'm sure Alice would never forgive me." he said. "Seriously. laughing. The opportunity presented itself. "or else you'd have landed my sister years ago. I was sure Jasper noticed it." I put a hand up. so I guess I did. Bella's a great girl. That explains it. You're losing your edge. "Well."Yes." I groaned. Okay. Fine. that's that. if she's involved with somebody. I won't cause any trouble. "She lives with him. I didn't sleep well." Jasper responded. man." Jasper said." Emmett's hand shot out to smack the back of Jasper's head. but I don't know anything for sure. shaking his head. "Four years. If that was the case. "Hey. "Look. why she ran away like that. "I can't help that. I scowled at him." I said. "Is it serious?" I heard myself asking. so they know. "Actually.

When Alice told me about it. Forget I said anything. but she'd always shut him down. You were a total player in college. I thought it was a bit over the top and extravagant. in close consult with her mother and Mrs. and I found myself just listening and smiling in delight at how perfect her life seemed to be now. "are we going to paint each other's toenails next. Jasper had arranged to get out of breakfast every morning. I know she looks like a…" I was about to say porn star. But I think Rose craves security more than anything else. "Alright. but the rest of us haven't. but now that we were all settled in. There was no way Rose was going to sign on to be another notch in your bedpost." he murmured. and I wondered if this wedding weekend wasn't exactly what they needed to make that happen. I seriously think my balls are about to shrivel up and fall off!" "I am absolutely not emo over a girl. They were never going to let me live this one down. so I just kept steering the conversation back to her. Alice was holding court at the head of the table. Really. She was telling me all about her job and life in Chicago and Ben. making a big show of helping myself to breakfast. but I had nothing I wanted to say about any of it. laughing and talking. Emmett could be so clueless. just to be closer to Jazz when he moved here. We all knew he'd carried a torch for Rose since the minute he met her. Seattle. "She looks like she's all tough and independent. left that kickass position she had. Angela asked all kinds of polite questions about Jay. Em. "But why do you think she never gave me a shot when we were in college?" For such a smart guy. as their lives." "You think?" "Em. ladies? Can we talk about sports or something? Please? Between all the wedding shit and the two of you going all emo over girls. you may have forgotten this. I could tell by how quiet he got after my little speech that he was seriously thinking about it." "I never thought about it like that before. Both she and Alice seemed to have it all laid out just right. so I backpedaled furiously. Hale…Mims… about which relatives and friends were arriving in Chicago today and which were arriving tomorrow. "Yeah. both professionally and personally. But I didn't miss the significant look exchanged between Jasper and Emmett." I continued. and my job." Emmett had the good sense to look slightly embarrassed by his whorish past. What kind of a relationship were you going to have with her like that? Plus. Everybody knew that. for anyone in our party who wanted to come." I said. something about bonding time with his old Dartmouth roommates. ~*~ Bella Jasper's mother had reserved a private dining room in the hotel for a group breakfast buffet every morning. . "I think Rose is looking for somebody a little more stable and secure."I'm just saying. "you only ever saw her for the occasional weekend when she came to visit Jazz. were falling into place just as mine was falling to pieces." "Really?" I laughed a little and rolled my eyes." Jasper said loudly. but then I remembered who I was talking about and shot a quick glance at Jasper. Once again." I said. and I was doing a pretty good job of convincing myself that I barely noticed. she relocated to Chicago from New York. That meant Edward wasn't here either. Jazz. "Em. I'd like to see the two of them figure it out and get it together. I felt the gap opening between us. I was spending the leisurely breakfast catching up with Angela. It was mostly women. even though I suspected that a part of her really wanted to say yes. I was glad she'd done it. He knew what I was about to say. It's ancient history.

Brandon left for their rooms. Emmett and Edward just finishing their breakfast. good idea! I have contact numbers for everyone on the master guest list. but they weren't being particularly helpful in finding her alternate flights. I pulled my eyes away from him.Angela excused herself to go get some fruit from the buffet table by the windows. The news was not good. and look at the sky. "Crap. "Hey. When we got back to Alice's suite. "don't you have a lot of people flying in today?" Alice's face fell. Alice. She split it up and we each took our designated guests. to round up alternate numbers for some family members. . it will be a disaster. I found my fingers clenching reflexively at the sight. if nothing else. peering out the window." "Of course you do. Mrs. her flight had been cancelled. cell phones at the ready. It was supposed to stop entirely by mid-afternoon. and Jasper. Well. making instant friends with strangers on a guest list. let's get together in your room and we can split up the list." I drawled. But as soon as I explained what was happening with the weather in Chicago." Alice led the way." "Are you sure. Jessica and I followed. coming back to the table. he ran one hand over the back of it while he spoke. guys?" Alice asked." Angela called to her." "Well. It's already starting to snow. "Angela's got a good idea. Eight inches were predicted to fall in the next six hours in Chicago. At that moment. and a secondary list of tomorrow's travelers. it would a lovely icebreaker for the reception. making a fist around it. we found Jasper. Hale and Mrs. Absently. The others were mostly still on their phones. When Alice explained about the weather to Jasper. check in with the people traveling today. It was Jasper's Aunt Charlotte. We all have cell phones. staring would certainly not help me manage this situation. If flights get cancelled. it's looking really miserable outside. She was on hold on her landline with the airline about re-booking. and I refilled my coffee." Angela suggested." "Ally. calling up random members of the Hale family and introducing myself as Alice's Maid of Honor and asking if they had checked with their air carrier yet. I left them all with my cell number and told them to call me back if they encountered problems. "Oh. Alice explained Angela's suggestion about calling the travelling guests. but it would undoubtedly snarl flights for the day. why?" "Well. don't you remember? Maiden slave? Now let's go. and in minutes had generated a list of the ones flying into Chicago today." Angela said. Sure enough. he quickly turned on the weather channel. "My guest list isn't really your problem. Angela. Alice. Rosalie. his eyes half obscured by his unkempt russet hair falling forward. Edward was across the room from me. Angela took over the guest list. Emmett and Edward quickly volunteered to pitch in. maybe we should make some phone calls." "Really?" "Yeah. they were all happy for the tip-off and scrambled for computers and phones. his head bent over his phone. I told her I would call her right back and hung up. "Have you checked any weather reports today?" "No. and see what their plans are. I think we're going to get buried. my phone buzzed in my hand. It was a little awkward. I closed my phone as I finished with the last name on my list and sat back.

obviously. Sorry about that. We didn't speak for the trip back to Alice's room. I wasn't sure how I felt about that. telling myself it was so that I could rescue poor Aunt Charlotte. Of course. smiling a little as I said. interrupting him. "It's okay. The elevator finally dinged open and we got in." Everybody else thought that might be useful. We were next-door neighbors. enclosed space. but I didn't look at him. The silence began to stretch out and get uncomfortable. . When I got out on seven. I thought we were supposed to be forgetting this thing that was happening between us. Back in Alice's suite. as he rocked slightly on his heels. I'm going to grab my laptop and see if I can't help her out finding another flight. He knew? Who had he been talking to about me? Jasper. It was a silent ride to the seventh floor. His smile did all sorts of crazy things to my insides. leaning against the wall. and I looked up to see Edward getting comfortable next to me. "Look." he said. "Yeah." I chanced a look at him now. I retrieved my laptop as quickly as I could. her voice cheerful but surprisingly commanding as she issued her demands. but slightly…flattered. Others returned with cell phone chargers and laptops."Hey Alice. so anyone with a computer left to retrieve them. Jessica. "Yeah. I think that's a good idea. He just kept letting it happen. about what I said last night…" "I have a boyfriend. Jasper's Aunt Charlotte's flight's been cancelled. for all the chipper cheer. holding up his keycard. but I can honestly say I've never been more aware of another person's presence in my life as I was of his while we were trapped in that tiny. Edward pressed into one corner and me into the other. "Seven oh seven. I was pretty sure that whoever was on the other end of that call was going to cry when they got off the phone. I know." I said quickly. My face immediately flushed. and I looked at him questioningly." I replied. You didn't know. but he didn't seem to want to. was clearly not a woman to be messed with. The elevator was slow. A little embarrassed for sure. and I looked anywhere but at him. and he was right behind me. He said nothing. I set up on the now-empty sofa and plugged my laptop in. smiling slightly to himself." He looked back at me. his chin tucked into his chest. Edward had his hands thrust into his pockets. Jessica already had her phone glued to her ear with an airline. Edward beamed at me. Do you mind?" I suppressed a smile and waved him towards the outlet as I opened my laptop and got to work trying to help Aunt Charlotte find a flight. then he said softly. "Seven oh five. I heard him sigh deeply next to me. Edward did too. and the atmosphere in the elevator was tense. I was hoping to avoid another tense elevator ride with Edward. He was silent for a second. I was half way to the elevator before I realized that Edward had left the room when I did. but really. painfully so. No such luck. clearly delighted with this piece of news. I smiled at him politely before cutting my eyes back to the elevator button and waiting. He joined me just as I stepped in. too." This was awkward. Where the hell was the elevator? Did they have hamsters on wheels running it? "Yeah…so…can we just forget that happened?" Now I looked at him. "There's an outlet. The sofa shifted. something about his face telling me that he wasn't so sure it was a good idea. He held up his power cord.

see if they can get you on flight 387 into Gary. It did. My parents are still here. And since I saw you at the same airport. Why the hell am I thinking about that? It doesn't matter at all where he lives. I had Alice's cousin Stephanie on the phone now. each of us trying to rescue our assigned wedding guests. I'm assuming 'friends' is all that's on the table?" Damn." his eyes flashed to mine. "Well." New York. still looking at me. to pay the bills. trying to find some interesting comment to make about what I did for a living." Edward said abruptly. "So. confident and commanding. What do you want to know?" Stephanie really needed to get back on the phone and save me from him. "Well. "We are?" He grinned back." Edward was fumbling. "Um…nothing exciting. "Stephanie. Maybe there's another airport nearby that I can check…" "Gary. Forks. Geographically. since I saw you at the airport. and was running out of ideas." I moved the phone away from my mouth while Stephanie cajoled her airline. "What do you do in Seattle?" he asked politely. "Um." I looked up to see Edward watching me. about as far away from Seattle as you could get and still be in the same country. Hmm. slow and devastating. his voice had dropped so low that it sent a tremor down my spine. She can rent a car from there. "I'm on hold." "Oh…really. It's not that far. with the Weather Channel on in the background. "Try Gary. without a doubt. Indiana." he said. Edward was still on hold. . Stephanie. there was absolutely nothing of interest to say about my job. I had to get her on a flight. but all I could do was nod dumbly. I wanted to play it cool and flirt back. "Hang on. clearly sensing my unwillingness to talk about this. "So. "If we're going to be friends…" I cocked an eyebrow at him and smiled slightly. we should know something about each other. I'm guessing you're still in…was it Forks?" I cleared my throat and hoped I didn't sound as flustered as I felt." he explained." "Okay. "How'd you get into that?" I shrugged dismissively and looked away. "I edit technical manuals.The morning passed quickly. Her flight into O'Hare was cancelled and the few flights still scheduled into O'Hare were full. "If we're going to be friends. I'll hold on. and when he spoke. his cell phone clamped to his ear. Indiana…Yeah. I could assure him. I am from Chicago. I wanted to be breezy. "I needed a job when I finally got out of college. yes. "But I live in New York now." I mumbled. He was deadly. cheerful tone of voice." Edward said nothing." he continued in his earlier. But actually I'm in Seattle now. "And you grew up with Alice. She was too far to make it by train. then I can assume you're not from Chicago?" "Actually." I turned back to my laptop and typed away for a few moments. I'm googling a map of Chicago.

and I looked away in embarrassment. And at a place like that. He shrugged. One of the premier hospitals in the country. I'm sure. he's also successful and brilliant. "What made you relocate to New York?" "Med school. "They want me to stay on. My life felt like it just shrank into insignificance compared to his. Oh." I said. too." Edward smiled. think of how much you could accomplish." Great." Edward nodded slowly. which was an ironic piece of advice for me to give." I groaned internally. Nothing fancy. more than ready to deflect attention away from myself. I mean. Even I'd heard of Lenox Hill. He runs a small family practice." "I wouldn't have asked if I didn't want to know. trying to seem disinterested. "That's true. and whether or not I was happy there. And my parents are here. he's a doctor. I don't know." "Ah.. "Growing up. I'm very lucky. his expression far away. I never really imagined myself living in New York my whole life. I pictured it being like my father." He sighed and looked out of the window behind the couch. "It just sounds like there was a 'but' in that statement. It seemed ridiculous that we were even having this conversation."What about you?" I asked. "It's all working out the way it's meant to. you like New York." He was still looking out the window." "And you can't do that?" He smiled ruefully and shook his head. I was saved. when I thought about being a doctor someday. "More than you'd care to hear about. right?" "Well. My dad's a doctor too. would inevitably lead to Jay and whether or not I was happy with him. So I'll stay. I get it. I'd be a fool not to." "But?" He raised his eyebrows in question. his smile made my insides melt. "What do you do in New York?" "I'm a doctor. and I always thought. you must be really talented if they want you. What about you? Do you like Seattle?" I blanched slightly. God. and then my residency at Lenox Hill. "What do you mean?" I shrugged. I'm sure. "What are your plans when you finish?" I'd meant to just be polite but it somehow sounded to my ears like I was fishing for information on him. right?" "It's great. But still. I've really liked living there while I was doing my residency. "You should do what makes you happy. "I guess. "If Lenox Hill offers you a position. just general medicine. hell. by Stephanie's breathless return to the line to tell me that she was re-booked on a . all things considered. "What?" I prodded. I'm almost done." "Oh. He looked back and smiled. too. And probably wealthy.. Discussions of Seattle. however. you say 'yes' to Lenox Hill. Opportunities don't come along like this every day. And I really didn't want to talk to Edward about any of that. He waved a dismissive hand. Keep going." he trailed off and glanced at me sheepishly. and it's certainly a great hospital. Of course. I wouldn't mind being closer to them.

I volunteered to stay and work on the hold-outs. Alice had unwittingly struck on the most unique party icebreaker ever. having absolutely no idea how I was supposed to pull off hotness. For all the guests stranded by the weather. but Alice refused. flying into Gary tonight. no. "Oh. B." "You need to go get ready. I returned to my list to see who I needed to check back in with. Hotness. or whatever the hell Alice said I was supposed to do with it. pointing to my list.flight that was. and we made plans to meet in person at the reception." I sighed and headed for the door. yeah. I didn't own clothes that screamed "hotness". I moved onto my next stranded guest in a rush. he'd have had a complete meltdown if I walked out of the house ." I rolled my eyes." Alice snatched the paper out of my hands. Edward was back on the line with his assigned guest by then. to keep myself completely occupied and safe. The sleeves were split up the top all the way to the shoulders. you've been living under a rock for four years. I'd paired it with a red knit top with elbow length fluttery sleeves. was nothing but bad news. I'd brought the top planning to wear it with this charcoal grey wool skirt I had and with a black pashmina around my shoulders. By the time we'd finished up the late lunch from room service that Alice ordered for us. Alice? Who am I trying to impress?" "How about yourself? Seriously. It's time to come out of the cocoon. Most of the wedding party had filtered away as the list dwindled. I congratulated her as she thanked me for my help. I wondered how I'd never thought to wear it all together like this before. That tended to make the whole thing more "business cocktail reception". Talking to him…and how he made me feel while we talked. Oh. little butterfly. and I was sure I would need every one of them. I promise. But paired with the tight black pants. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Four ~ Windy City Watering Hole ~ Bella Okay. I turned around in the hotel bathroom to examine myself from the back. Hanging up. "He still doesn't have a flight. it was suddenly a surprisingly sexy blouse. I'm all over it. even if we had. I'd brought a pair of skinny black pants that were polished cotton." "Why. I can do this." "But what about Uncle Richard?" I said. Now go! Remember…hotness. I had hours to figure it out. we'd managed to get almost all of them shifted to alternate flights or onto trains. I can bring the hotness. "tonight's the Bachelorette party. at least in theory. Yes. Have you checked your itinerary?" "Yes. First. I knew why. She'll get it sorted out. which made them a little shiny and therefore slightly dressier than they might be otherwise. Well. and I was saved from any further conversation with him. And I expect you to bring the hotness. "Mims is taking over. Miss Maid of Honor. but I'd done the best I could with what I had with me. there were only a few guests who remained stubbornly stranded. when was the last time Jay and I had gone anywhere that required me to dress up like this? And second. so when I moved all of my arms and shoulders were bare.

" Angela explained. just a light staining of color. Most everybody is probably snowed in tonight anyway. Jessica snapped her phone closed. but as I stood in the bathroom staring at myself. I slipped back into the strappy gold heels I bought when I was shopping with Alice the day before. and the sound of pulsating music led us to the bar itself. But we eventually found the lobby. getting lost a few times in the enclosed mall that connected the two. to protect him and his constant insecurity. I knew exactly what I'd done. Angela. "As long as I have some liquor and my girls. but what the hell? Alice commanded that I produce hotness and I would do my damnest.looking like this." "Are you okay with that. but with the travel delays I had a feeling it would just be the wedding party and the locals. dark. Alice?" I asked. I also went back into my eyeliner. "Now that's what I'm talking about! I knew you still had it in you. Bring it. There was a large. "There's a bar off the lobby of the building next door.. Frankly. Everybody knows about the change in plans and if they can make it here." She looked around at the rest of us. I can still be hot. I'd hidden myself away and dulled myself down to avoid upsetting him. B!" Alice laughed and nodded. Tonight would probably involve dancing." There were piles of deep. wet snow all over the sidewalk and more was still falling. Alice hooked her thumb at the glass doors in the front of the lobby. Alice. "Okay. Hell. it looked miserable outside." She shrugged and threw an arm around my shoulders. Jessica and Rosalie were all in the lobby by the time I got down there. semi-circular banquette table free and we commandeered that." I said as brightly as possible. "You can get there through the shopping atrium. and we'll see if he'll be nice to us. Now I slicked it fully on. I snatched my lipstick back up off the counter. In frustion. at the whole fucked up situation. The weather was keeping it less crowded than it probably was ordinarily. " me. but it's your night. at him. Jessica led the way to a relatively empty section off to our left and up a few steps." Jessica said.. "Let's do this!" The five of us made our way to the neighboring building. He'd have spent the whole night freaking out that some guy would hit on me. equally clueless. circling me appreciatively. they will. So we decided to bail on the club and go there. but there were still some people. tell him it's a bachelorette party. yeah. Several of Alice's female friends and relatives were supposed to come with us. "Okay. "Bella and I will go introduce ourselves to the bartender. Just because. when I made my appearance. dark red." "What change in plans?" I asked. I'd worry about my feet tomorrow. with multiple levels branching off on either side. I hadn't really realized it before. "It looks bad outside. so it was a seriously stupid move on my part. "Look at it out there. making it darker and smokier. that's that. It was nice enough inside. you could get from one to the other without going outside. it didn't mean it was easy to figure out. deep. I'd already applied it very lightly and then blotted most of it back off." . in theory. that's all I need. I'll brave the elements for you. "Right? That's all you need for a bachelorette party? Liquor and girlfriends?" We all looked at each other and shrugged. clustered in groups on the various levels and out on the dance floor.

maybe not Mike. a sweet smile on her face the whole time. It was going to be hard to have a night of single men cutting loose when their women were there to witness it. "What the hell are you doing here?" "Bachelor party. and it would be easy to discount her as having nothing to offer beyond that. but I was relieved and I was pretty sure everybody else was. which meant just a short hop down the sidewalk before we were back inside. I stepped up behind Bella and reached out to tap her on the shoulder just as she straightened and spun around. And then the night got a whole lot more interesting. the personality was all sweetness and light. "Aren't you guys supposed to be at a strip club or something?" "Yeah. up on a level. she had him eating out of the palm of her hand immediately. and I headed down to the bar to hand over my credit card and get the bachelor party liquor flowing. I spotted Alice and the rest of the women from the wedding party. Jasper suggested this bar in the building next door. Kevin set up a tray of shots to get us started and promised to have a waiter take care of us all night. shaking her head. We staked out a decent table over on the right hand side. Bella was leaning over the bar. but the weather was so lousy. He seemed just as keen on the strip club idea as Emmett. too. apparently straining to hear the bartender over the music. it sounded like a fine idea to me. So what are you doing here?" . She pivoted to look and chuckled softly. Jessica was really fierce about elbowing her way into the bar. But Jasper didn't want to fight the knee-high snow drifts to get there. She was like a cuddly woodland creature that had deceptively sharp teeth and a nasty temper. but it stood to reason that getting liquored up would be a pretty good start. But there was something steely and fierce under it. A little too much blue neon and black lacquer for my tastes. I failed. we just bailed and came here. smacking into my hand hard. shit!" "Ow!" "Geez!" she shouted." I shrugged. rubbing her upper arm where she'd made contact with me. and I wasn't about to argue. shoot the shit. that was sort of the plan. Emmett was the only one who was into the strip club thing anyway. With a quick glance around. Well. I was starting to get what Alice saw in her. I laughed a little to myself. but to be realistic. Emmett looked like he might cry when the guys vetoed trudging out into the snow to get to the strip club that had been in the plans for tonight. so this place would serve the purpose just fine. and I had no idea what we were supposed to do tonight. I hadn't ever been to an official bachelorette party. She was growing on me. "Oh. all throwing back shots in unison. ~*~ Edward This was much better. off to the left. all we were really going to do was sit around. And in keeping with my whole forget-my-real-life plan for this weekend. It was serviceable. For such a little thing. a canny street smarts that I'm sure no one saw coming until it was far too late. I tried hard not to notice how fantastic she looked from behind in her tight black pants. Jessica hefted the tray and headed back to the table while I handed over my credit card and spoke to Kevin about getting a tab started. nodding my head to the opposite side of the bar.She winked at the rest of the table and she and I headed to the bar. and get smashed. When you first met her. She immediately asked the bartender's name (Kevin) and with her chipper little voice and her bouncing little curls.

smiling." I wasn't sure where to start. She ran it out of the English department at U Dub. None of us really knows what the hell we're supposed to do." she replied. She recruited writers from all over the Pacific Northwest. so she got the funding together and launched a literary magazine. "You're a writer?" I finally managed. Bella and Alice would drive for hours just to deliver copies of it to some bookstore or coffee shop. "What does that mean? Your magazine?" Bella shook her head and shrugged. Bella was just looking at her toes. It certainly seemed brag-worthy. "the girls finished that first tray already. I didn't know her well. I don't think it was going to be all that wild and crazy to begin with. "Not anymore." Angela said with a shrug. "Um. Just a college thing. "Oh. "It could have just been a little departmental newsletter. so why don't you tell me what it was?" Angela smiled and elbowed Bella gently but she talked. that was for sure. "Well. "She's clearly not going to talk about it. It started off small. You couldn't go anywhere in the Pacific Northwest without finding a stack of New Moon's by the door. we did New Moon together." I nodded at her. Little did they know that it was just Bella and Alice and me in a closet!" . I couldn't figure out why she wasn't more eager to talk about it." Bella answered as she turned back and rejoined the conversation." "Bella!" Angela scolded her softly. either. She shook her head firmly. We had met over dinner at Jasper and Alice's once last year. B. It was amazing and you know it. whether they were students or not. I was impressed as hell. "We didn't want to brave the snow." she said. "but we also went to college together. It was called New Moon. but that wasn't enough for Bella." Angela continued." "Hey. huh?" She laughed. It transformed her whole face." she protested. "Edward."Bachelorette party. and of course. Bella. Angela flashed a smile at me. but I liked her. "Stop it. yeah." "You were really good." Angela said softly as she approached us from their table. in Forks. "So." Angela said." Angela said softly. "Bella's magazine. but it actually became kind of prestigious to get published in New Moon." "It was a long time ago. I mean. Jessica said to get another tray of the same. at least for us. I turned to look at her in confusion. "Bella couldn't stand how few publishing opportunities there were for the writers in her program. too?" "Yes." "Where was that?" "University of Washington." Bella shrugged and raised her eyebrows before turning back to the bar to order more. "New Moon?" I asked. besides drink a lot. I turned to Angela. "I'm back for more shots. you and Bella grew up together. "It was nothing." "Some wild and crazy singles night we're going to have. I smiled pleasantly at Angela. too. looking to Bella expectantly. And she didn't just dump the issues at the Student Union and call it a day. She had a great smile. Bella's eyes popped a little." Angela answered. not like that. I just looked at Bella in awe.

We changed plans. "The boys!" For a group of girls who were supposed to be all gung ho to do this without male companionship." Jessica threw her hands into the air and rolled her eyes." I grinned and held up my hands. "Screaming orgasm. So much for my plan to drink heavily and forget real life. "That's just perfect! We're so conjoined that we can't even do this without each other!" Jessica waved her hands to restore the proceedings and we all solemnly downed our shots. "Come on." I protested. girls. She raised her eyebrows at me in silent commentary before she turned and followed Jessica and Angela back to their table. Alice put in a lot of time." Bella finally smiled. "Uh…bachelor party. "We all know each other. None of it would have happened without her. . the most interesting thing I'd ever do. Alice locked eyes with Jasper across the bar and collapsed back into the booth in giggles. "I don't know a whole lot about these things. It depressed me to think about. poking a finger into my chest." "Just one rule. but I hated talking about those days. "You'll never guess who's here. "You guys party over there and we'll party over here. but it was really Bella's baby. It was my peak. We should sit together." she said firmly. "You must be really proud of that." "You're supposed to be at some strip club!" "Too much snow. ~*~ Bella I followed Jessica back to the table half in a fog. "It's a bachelorette party!" she hissed. "Sorry. of all things? It was sweet of Angela to gush that way." Jessica shot me a horrified stare."That's really…" I was trying to wrap my brain around producing something like that at their age. but she was still just looking at her feet." she said grimly. "What the hell is this?" I asked. then." Jessica answered absently. "There's drinking to do. didn't know there were rules. but I'm pretty sure mingling with the groom and his friends isn't how it's supposed to go. it was pretty humorous to watch every woman at the table half-stand and crane her neck to look for the men. this bar is the dividing line. clearly amused with Jessica. and I was twenty-two when it happened. waving the waiter over to order another round. I just fit in some hours here and there around my classes." Jessica huffed as we reached the table. As I was wondering what I should say that might draw her out." I looked to her expectantly. "Fine. No boys allowed!" Jessica stepped behind Bella to retrieve the new tray of shots off the bar. How had we ended up talking with Edward about New Moon." "Oh. "What are you doing here?" she barked." "That's silly. Jessica descended on us in a flurry. It was so sweet that it hardly tasted like liquor.

his broad shoulders concealing most of her. Without making a sound. her golden hair swinging down her back. Not some random guy." Rosalie suddenly piped up. It had been years since I'd been out like this. I'd had just enough liquor to be relaxed. There was a long. I'd forgotten that it could be fun. in a way. But it was because of Jazz. I scooted to the far side of the hall to slip past them and saw him reach up and fist a hand in her long. so our little group went back to our table to see if Rose had arrived with them yet. Alice was right. "Whiskey!" Jessica relented with a shrug. So the perky was a little relentless. giggling lazily. "But we're being watched. I peeled off to head to the ladies' room. it told me everything I need to know about Rose. for Mike's benefit. to be closer to her family. but that voodoo she worked on Kevin back at the bar clearly did the trick. "I've had enough of the chick drinks! Jameson's whiskey all around. and I started to feel a pleasant little curl of warmth in my chest. "I know she's a little intimidating. I made a mental note to try to talk to her a little the next time we were alone. Jessica did a little duck-and-grind. Don't look now. We slammed the new round back. What the hell? Why was Rosalie making out with some random guy outside the ladies' room? I really didn't peg her for the type. He had her pinned to the wall. Then I narrowed my eyes at the back of the guy's head. now that I thought about it. so we weren't constantly pressed by sweaty bodies." Alice said next to my ear. Screw the bathroom. Alice snorted. pulling me up by my wrist."Oh. I turned the corner and spotted a couple pressed up against the wall half-way down." Jessica said with a smirk. We danced for a little while longer. but after that…. dark hallway to the left of the bar. "I'll order us another round on my way back. "You could say that!" "But she's a lot different than you'd guess. . she resigned and moved to Chicago to be closer to him. "Aren't we supposed to drink chick drinks?" "I suck at chick stuff. whatever. She says she was looking for a change of pace. I could hold it. no. trying to see in the dark. but not sloppy." Rose growled. he sat up and took notice. Rosalie giving up her job. reshaping her entire career. her tight red dress showing off a body that really didn't need any help looking better. and I found that I was actually kind of enjoying myself. golden hair. "Let's dance!" Jessica chirped. I turned on my heel and hurried back the way I came." "But we're chicks! At a chick event!" Jessica protested. The music wasn't quite as loud and techno as it would have been. Sure enough. and the dance floor was only moderately crowded.well. with both the ladies' and the men's rooms around a corner at the end. and it showed. The rest of the girls were a couple of drinks ahead of me. Rosalie's hair. I used to be kind of terrified of her. the next round of drinks arrived at the table." I gave that a moment's consideration. and I smirked to myself. and he nodded. they were all just watching us dance. but her hands were clenched in his hair. and within minutes. Alice and Angela were slumped against each other. until Alice decided she needed a drink. "Some wild and crazy bachelors they are!" "I'm going to the ladies'. intense job in New York but when Jasper got the tenure track position here. please. She had this crazy. I stopped just long enough at the bar to ask Kevin to send over another round of Jameson's." I watched her go." She tossed her head at Jasper's table and sure enough. I grabbed Alice and she coaxed Rosalie and Angela to join us. Emmett. I thought. that we'd ended up at this bar instead of the club. Christ.I never would have expected that of her. I was glad. considering how fast our drinks were arriving." Rosalie announced. probably not since college.

it's just complicated. They're not together. though. But no. At least for Rose." Alice fixed her with a discerning stare. "Hey!" Rosalie said. I turned away and crooked my head for her to follow." "She's not holding him off right now." "She was certainly enjoying herself a minute ago. "I have no idea how far it goes. "Rosalie and Emmett!" "What about them?" "I just walked in on them making out in the hall outside the bathrooms!" Alice. "Are they together? Why didn't you tell me?" "No. so Alice and I acquiesced and Angela and Jessica followed. "What's wrong?" Alice asked. . Where are you? I called your room. the waiter materialized behind me with a tray and I snatched a shot glass off of it. I rounded on her. "Let's dance some more!" Rose suggested. He certainly wants to be. Alice's bachelorette party. his eyebrows drawn together. "Yeah. My stomach fell.I don't know…accidentally-on-purpose interrupt them?" "She's a big girl and she knows what she's doing. his face stormy. as I approached. If I engaged with him. But maybe…" "Do they do this? Randomly hook up?" Alice sighed and rubbed her forehead."Hey. I rubbed my forehead with my fingertips. Jasper says they've been dancing around each other since they were eighteen. which seemed a little out of character for her." I waved them ahead of me as I fished it out. did you see Rose over there?" Alice asked. it's just…I don't want her to be hurt." At that moment. She seemed to want to distract herself. "She never came back with the drinks. Jay. too. "Sorry. I ran into someone I knew. Do you think it's a mistake? Is she going to be sorry about it later? Should we…. I'd spend the rest of the night trying to reassure him and talk him out of his fit of insecurity. downing it quickly. and I suspect she does.B Who else is there?-J Sighing. And I think they'd be great together." I said with a smile. As I turned from the table I felt my phone in my pocket start to vibrate with a text. I just want her to be happy. No. I saw Rosalie approaching over Alice's shoulder and Emmett stalking across the bar behind her. but then shrugged and accepted the shot that arrived a moment later. I'll be right there. I just couldn't face this now. She scrambled out of the booth after me. "Go ahead. Drinks are on the way. But she's always held him off. didn't look the least bit surprised at this piece of news. guys.-J I paused and took a deep breath before I typed an answer. her voice just a little too bright. only concerned. no. much to my amazement. they've never actually dated. As soon as we were out of hearing range of the table." Before I could sit down.

but failing miserably. So there was just me keeping an eye on the girls right now. half-hoping somebody would steal it. like it always did when he drank. truthfully. before I tossed back another shot of whiskey and headed to the dance floor to join Alice. was heading straight for Rose. Call you later. Alice needs me. This was so unfair. After that tantalizing peek inside that Angela had given me. ~*~ Edward I was well into my third…or was it fourth?. Hell. The wedding party. pressing himself up against her. Those black pants. because she wasn't free. scowling and furious. He sidled up behind her and did that disgusting thing creeps do. Usually all of that stuff felt so forced and awkward. hands on her waist. My hands clenched into fists and I started up. intoxicated women dancing with increased abandon. and the girls were the peaceful. but something must have gone down. so there wasn't even a crowd to obscure them. Who knows.I typed out a terse response. All they'd managed to do so far from the looks of it was to drink too much and dance. outside of this stupid. Well. maybe she'd send him packing on her own. even if she was. I didn't want to look like the crazy stalker I was. but Bella just smirked slightly and moved away to dance closer to Angela.. she lived clear on the other side of the country.B I threw the phone on the table. Angela whispered back and whatever she said made Bella throw her head back and laugh. and that's when the jackals decided to make their move on our zebras. keeping an eye on one particular girl. reminiscing about their childhood vacations together. Two guys who looked like they'd been regurgitated from one of these office towers for happy hour were making their way to the dance floor. happy zebras that were about to get attacked by a pack of jackals. I wanted to do all that lame shit I usually dreaded. watching the girls dance in the middle of the floor.. but somehow I thought it might not be with Bella. so I didn't immediately leap to my feet the way I wanted to. that red blouse that showed off her pale shoulders and arms…I could barely think straight when I looked at her. Chatting over coffee. now I was finding myself intrigued by who she was as a person. Unavailable and out of reach. He was shoulder to shoulder with his cousin. and now he was methodically obliterating himself with the scotch. And while it might have started as just a healthy dose of lust. And attract the attention of every half-wasted guy in the bar. dark-haired friend was making a beeline for Bella. She tossed her head and her hair swung off her shoulder as she smiled and leaned in to whisper to Angela. I sat there for a while. and just talk to her. grabbing her hips and grinding his cock into her ass under the pretense of dancing. noisy bar. . Emmett had gone over a while back to talk to Rose and I'd hoped his lingering presence would have scared off the jackals. his southern accent growing broad and dramatic. Apparently the creep in the cheap suit found it as enthralling as I did because he was all over her back again. There was just that cluster of remarkably attractive. because twenty minutes later he was back at our table. They were doing their best to do the expected bachelorette thing. so I relaxed. This was starting to feel like some Serengeti watering hole. I couldn't remember the last time I'd been so attracted to a woman. or a lot of trashier girls to draw off the attention. I wanted to get her alone. But I couldn't do any of that. I could see their faces. Ben had disappeared to the bathroom. His slightly shorter. Jasper was toasted pleasantly. Damn.scotch as I leaned back in the booth and watched the girls on the dance floor. drinking and feeling sorry for myself. One of them.. leering and hungry. As I looked around the room. not surprisingly. she looked amazing tonight. getting to know each other over dinner. I wanted more. the taller one. The snow kept the place emptier than it probably would have been. Mike.

which seemed rather dangerous. closing her eyes and grabbing for my shoulders to steady herself. "Yeah. She was still dancing. Her phone was abandoned right in the middle of the table. cool. I slid my arm around Bella's waist and pulled her in against me. but then we switched to whiskey." With those words. none of them are long for this world. "You got a problem." "How many?" Bella scowled as she tried to count them. you know. to keep up the pretense that we were dancing. "Come on. and Bella's eyes widened at me. I have a problem with you manhandling my girl." I told her. her eyes never leaving my face. But the caveman thing? I can take care of myself. wait. He swiveled his head to glare at me but didn't let go. "Well. Bella was still looking at me. "Oh. I'd seen enough. She allowed me to pull her in close. calm. Oh. Rose insisted. "I don't know much about them. I caught her before she fell very far and set her carefully back on her feet. She tipped her head back to get a better look at me and made herself dizzy. he was still crushing himself against her. he leaned in and kissed her shoulder. who was looking at me with amusement. Probably very drunk. "He was practically assaulting you." I snorted disbelievingly." "Maybe I wanted to be assaulted. she managed to trip. keeping an arm around her waist since she was wobbling all over the place on her heels.Alright. I dropped my hand on his shoulder." "From the looks of the rest of the girls. even though we were barely moving. I'll walk you back to your room. I swayed a bit with her. I looked closely at her and realized she was drunk. Unthinkingly. like she really was my girl. "Get your fucking hands off of her. but had no luck. pointedly ignoring him. maybe not. your girl here doesn't seem all that unhappy about it. Shots. "Okay. . hell no. But Cheap Suit let her go and backed away." And with that. I glanced around at the other girls. "What the hell was that about?" she finally asked. They were all drunk. Even Angela." The menace in my voice stopped him cold. I surged to my feet and pushed my way through the crowd to get to the dance floor. What the hell did you drink?" "Well. glad for a moment that I had a good four inches on him. "I think maybe you've had enough fun for tonight. I made a split decision and hoped that she was okay with it and would play along. but it seems like we should…I don't know…party a lot more than this. "By that guy?" Bella shrugged. friend?" I glanced at Bella." "But it's a bachelorette party!" she protested. hands up in appeasement. when I reached them. "I think that means you've had plenty. I gripped harder than I probably needed to. was hanging on Alice's shoulder a few feet away and laughing uncontrollably. my phone is on our table!" I turned us and headed over to her table. helping her up the steps to reach it. we started off with Screaming Orgasms. Bella's face froze in horror. collected Angela." She nodded and I turned her towards the door." He chuckled briefly.

her hair a glorious tumble down over her bare arms where they peeked out of her blouse. it was a nice gesture. "Bella. I put my arm back around her waist and she didn't argue. anyway? You sounded like the Prince of Darkness. "Do you honestly expect me to believe you were into that guy's creepy advances?" "Maybe I was!" she said with false outrage. the guy was groping you!" "He was just being friendly. but Bella insisted that there was some inside route through the shopping atrium. we were winding our way slowly through the plush lobby of our hotel." We exited the elevator and started down the hall towards our rooms. trying to keep my voice neutral since I knew full well it was probably her stupid boyfriend. Her eyes went wide and her breathing stalled. but he was grinning broadly. I looked at our table and caught Jasper's eye. "Don't you think. and since all the stores were closed. but I did it anyway. come on! It wasn't that bad. I took a step forward and she jolted in surprise. Hell." "Oh. I reached a hand up to cup her chin. though. Bella just snorted in disgust and rolled her eyes before glancing at the face. She dragged her hand through her hair wearily." I said softly. It was becoming a kind of exquisite torture. something a little flowery and sweet. and she kept sliding and holding on to me to save herself. smiling teasingly at me as she spoke. but I wasn't about to stop her. She was flirting with me and too drunk to even realize it. suddenly looking tired and deflated as the liquor caught up to her. She was such a lousy liar. He face clouded and she scowled. What the hell was up with that voice. She tried to back up but she was against the wall. I had that situation totally in hand."Somebody could have taken that. She wasn't serious." I said as she retrieved it. creepy. I tried to head us back out the lobby door that we'd entered through earlier. though. she was so drunk that she might not even remember this conversation tomorrow. it was dark and empty and frankly. He gave me a tsk-tsk motion with his finger. and he had your ass totally in hand. "Yeah. her eyes drooping slightly. It was lit up with missed calls. smiling. "You know. Finally. And then you go charging in there scaring the guy to pieces. but you really didn't have to save me from that guy. Bella was wearing some strappy gold shoes that were a total hazard on the slick marble floors. dragging my thumb gently over her bottom lip." Her voice was tight and clipped as she shoved the phone in her pocket. She couldn't even keep the smile off her face. I was enjoying it too much. "Do you need to call someone?" I asked. playing along. The loser. "Ready?" I raised my eyebrows at her. "That if you're going to cheat on your boyfriend. She was still leaning heavily against me and I could smell her hair. I rolled my eyes at him and shook my head firmly. "Maybe I liked him!" We were at her door now and she backed away. "Not that bad?" I protested. I knew what I was about to do was wrong. As I steered her towards the door. and crossing the line." she muttered. she was baiting me. "No. She nodded. I smirked at her. he was just dancing!" I helped her into the elevator and hit seven. It took us the better part of twenty minutes to find it. it should be with me?" . as Jasper called him.

She fumbled in her pocket for her key card. There was so much wrong with that idea. We stood frozen for a long moment. His hand cupping my chin. made my chest tighten and my pulse race. I swiped it. Electricity bounced between us. Then I washed my face and brushed my teeth. forbidding myself the release meant that I stayed all wound up and tense for ages. This was wrong. But I stayed up when I went in. My fingers subconsciously moved to the tingling spot on my lip where he touched me and I had to stop myself from letting my hand slide down to touch everything else that tingled at the thought of Edward. I couldn't cross this line. Cullen. "Goodnight. I stood at my door until I heard hers click closed behind her. I threw the deadbolt before I let my head fall against the door with a dull thud. I stared at the ceiling and counted the cycles of the heating and cooling system. I stepped forward again and took it gently out of her hand. She was taken and drunk. ~*~~*~~*~ Bella Chapter Five ~ The High Road ~ The heater in my room cycled through sixteen times before I finally fell asleep. unmoving. Grinding my teeth together in frustration. thinking about him. Wrong. I wanted Edward. I reminded myself. what he said… that was the part I truly couldn't stop thinking about. I would have thought with all that liquor in me that I would have passed out immediately. and that would set my mind to wondering about what he was doing over there. Fuck. . the way the air between us seemed to catch fire…and Jesus. before I finally dropped my hand away and backed up. I wasn't nearly so drunk. his thumb on my lip. I absolutely could not get myself off while I was thinking about him. More than I'd ever wanted anyone. if I'd led him into my room after he opened the door for me. I wouldn't. "Take two Advil and as much water as you can drink when you get inside. then I let myself in." I said." I mumbled. Of course. Was he in bed? Was he naked? And then I'd have to start all over again counting the damned heating cycles. I turned away to my own door. Turning. really wanted to.She opened her mouth to speak but nothing came out. I paused for just a second. I wanted to know what it would feel like if we'd followed through on that moment. Because I really. She tried twice to get it in the door but couldn't manage it. My hand felt on fire where it touched her face. eyes locked. That's what I did as I laid there and tried not to think about Edward on the other side of the wall. lying there in the dark. staring at the dark sliver of the inside of her room and then at her. Bella." That seemed to snap her out of it. Every tiny sound seemed like it was coming from his side of the wall. if he'd kept going and kissed me. She was still pinned against the wall. long enough to take my Advil and drink my water as prescribed by Dr. Wrong. I was a horrible person. Thinking about it. and by the time I'd done all that. And still just as turned on. "I'll see you in the morning. And suddenly my teasing wasn't so funny any more. and the door popped open under her hand. I stayed suspended in that moment for hours.

Not when I have a boyfriend waiting for me at home. I'd slept too late for the group breakfast downstairs. and I knew exactly what I'd be facing in those messages. We'd lived together four years. the same girl who would walk off of it two days from now. I drank way too much last night. warring with myself in my head. But that didn't mean he stopped existing. The only other person who'd made it so far was Rosalie. I needed to stop this insanity with Edward before I did something I'd regret. I stood there for an immeasurable amount of time. trustworthy. but in that moment. My time to be by myself and not think about all that. And I just couldn't do it. casually dressed in yoga pants and a hoodie. I didn't love him anymore and I wanted out. I lowered myself gently onto the bench beside her. Sunday would come soon enough. I wouldn't see Edward until the evening." she groaned. and I'd pay this particular piper then. In the cold light of day. I was a mess. and I was pretty sure I'd been flirting with him. which he was entitled to do. I took a deep breath. even with no makeup and wearing sweats. I was practically asking for it. Or several. I was not the girl who spends the entire wedding weekend flirting outrageously with the hot Best Man. she looked tired and stressed. and what I'd be facing if I called. What the hell was wrong with me? I was not this girl. I didn't hear any. trying my damnedest not to listen for sounds from next door. But then I remembered his texts from last night in the bar. I knew I couldn't put him off any longer. This is my weekend. "Only a little hung over. I was the same girl who walked onto that plane two days ago. letting out a subtle little vibration every few minutes to let me know I'd missed a call. "There's a reason I don't do that shit anymore." She cracked an eye at me. I got out of bed. but he didn't know that. Yes. I groaned and rubbed my eyes. The coward in me won out and my thumb came down on delete. Jay and the whole situation was a mess that I was trying hard not to think about right now. I felt embarrassed. How are you feeling?" I smirked. Alice had booked a spa day for the bridal party. hey. Then I remembered Alice's words the first day I was here. At ten. How about you?" "Ugh…. He was my boyfriend. At least the day wasn't too stressful. No wonder he did what he did. It might be wrong and hurtful of me. I simply couldn't handle him. which was good. Not too early." . While I warred with myself. and then the rehearsal dinner was tonight. and I was steeling myself to go over there and deal with it. As beautiful as she was. "Oh. the anxious neediness. who was sitting on a gold upholstered bench against the wall in the lobby. Bella. and honest. It would be cruel of me to just ignore him all weekend. my thumb poised over "play". and I tried hard not to speculate on where he was. I presented myself in the lobby. I knew exactly who they were from. He wanted to talk to his girlfriend. her eyes closed. her head tipped back against the wall. I was loyal. Remembering what Alice told me last night. and my resolution to try to talk to her. It would probably take me all day before I could look him in the eye without spontaneously combusting. On that turning-over-a-new-leaf note. Jay. but considering all the liquor and the late-night Edward fantasies. Four times. my thumb shifted back and forth between "play" and "delete". so I treated myself to a little room service and ate my breakfast wrapped in the plush white hotel bathrobe while I watched CNN. Finally. My cell sat on the table across the room. "Hey. so I retrieved it and checked.The wakeup call came at nine.

that she gave up her driven. She was so impossibly beautiful and yet. I saw Rosalie surreptitiously pull out her cell and check the screen. "He wants me. "Does he still sleep around?" She snorted and rolled her eyes. his experience…I was so young. My job? In New York?" I nodded in understanding and encouragement. Rose seemed desperate for an outlet for all this. Out of the corner of my eye. her expression a blank. that's part of it. the irresistible pull. I was looking to make a change. We're like fucking magnets. I wondered if she had any real friends outside of Jasper." she finally said softly. her eyes bleak. There must be some reason she was pushing him away. "Hey Rosalie?" "Rose. Her southern accent was barely noticeable now. I decided to take a chance. "No. Whatever I tell myself. he just…. lilting Deep South thing must only come out around her family. I cleared my throat lightly. But even before he met Alice and settled down. her face curious. So I just kept pushing him away. sounded so intoxicating. "It's been like that since we met. so I prompted her. "If you…I know you don't know me. looking for answers." It was the most I'd heard her speak at one time since we met. Um…confession time. But his reputation. The soft. high-powered career just to be closer to her family. "Like what?" "Just…" she squeezed her eyes shut in frustration. if you want him…" Rose sat up a little and turned her head to fully face me. She was waiting for someone to contact her. What she was describing. Em was a total player. no matter how many times I promise myself we won't do it. he made that much clear from the start. but her eyes were working." I lifted my head to look at her and she did likewise. "Alice thinks that I moved here last year to be close to Jasper. Years of practice with Alice. "He wanted me. he's completely reformed." She turned her face front. flitting around the lobby. and she didn't want anyone to know.he gets to me." "Oh…thanks. I remembered what Alice said about her." She smirked softly at my joke and remained quiet for another moment. she looked lost and hopeless. All that was left was a slight twang to her vowels that gave her voice an added edge. And then I hate myself for being so weak. but if you need to talk about anything. I wondered if it was Emmett. we were freshmen in college. "I was going to the ladies room last night and I saw you…with Emmett. I just can't stay away. "Why do you hold him off?" I asked. Rose. and tipped my head back to rest on the wall too as we waited for the others. In that respect at least. for sure. in this moment." "Excuse me?" "You can call me Rose. I won't get involved with him. genuinely curious. . I used to go visit Jasper on the weekends. I want him." She rolled her eyes with a smile at the memory. And yes. She didn't say anything else for a long time. and it scared me." "What about now?" I asked softly.I laughed a little in commiseration. "When we met." "Then why not? I mean. I'm a really good listener.

I love my job. I want babies. What kind of life is that?" I didn't say anything I just shrugged and shook my head. "Jasper and Alice are getting married. wrapped in her misery. "You're telling me! And it's been going on so long. "Yeah. where the rest of the girls were already camped out on the wooden benches around the room. I had no idea what to do. so we didn't have far to drag our pathetic. primarily. I want to get married. exfoliated. too. crazy family. I had this tiny awful apartment that I never saw. Nights. Alice is great. I felt panicky. "I know what I want. She drew a deep stuttering breath. I love her. I had been massaged. "What? Does he not want a family?" "I have no idea!" she threw her hands up in frustration. That means we're family now." I said finally. Anytime you want to talk. Thanks for letting me dump all that on you. The spa attendant wrapped me in a luxurious white fluffy towel and deposited me in the sauna. and left him. "He's never in one place long enough for me to ask him! He spends his entire life on the road. I'm here. working at the very top of my industry. leaving Angela leaning on the wall next to us. It's just…. but she's Jasper's fiancée. was such an unlikely dichotomy that Rose and I convulsed into helpless laughter. humorless laugh. I want to build a life with someone. Part of me really liked it. you name it. that's all I would ever have. No friends. We took a moment to commiserate and tease each other before Alice herded us on to the spa. weekends." She gave a short. Tough. Rose. So thanks…again. God!" Her eyes rolled to the ceiling in frustration. She looked at me sideways and threw me a flash of her radiant smile. And Emmett…" She sighed and shook her head sadly. "No problem." I waved a hand dismissively. So I left New York. "Oh."It was amazing. for the next two days anyway!" She chuckled a little and shook her head before we were interrupted by Angela's quiet voice. "You are a good listener. I feel like part of me is always going to be waiting for him. Two hours later. relaxed pile of glowing supple skin. Well. left the job. looking just as haggard as we felt. Thankfully it was in the indoor mall downstairs. coming from calm. "I don't really have any women friends. He's got this place in New York. I spent hours and hours at the office every day. figuring I'd be less likely to see her magnificent body and feel inadequate if I was . What I've always wanted. I liked the power. I wish it could be Em. dancing around each other like this." I gave her fingers another squeeze before I released her hand. "I see." Her bottom lip trembled slightly and her eyes grew glassy. That seemed to be all Rose needed or wanted right now. but that's not all I love. Alice and Jessica arrived moments later. no boyfriends. I'm a complete stranger. me and Em. squeezing her fingers slightly. that I'm starting to feel like I'll never be able to open myself up to meet someone else. sweet Angela. I don't think I've ever told anybody all that stuff. an incredible opportunity that I'd worked my ass off to achieve. But you know what? All I had was my job. God. Rose was going to cry. hung-over asses. I didn't want any more of this every-now-and-then bullshit with him. I chose to sit next to Rose. but he's not someone I can build a life with. And I knew if I stayed in New York." "Oh. scrubbed and buffed into a boneless. I guess so. consulting for these companies. And I was really good at my job." She laughed in spite of her watery eyes. and that seemed to help her get herself under control. So I just reached out impulsively and gripped her hand. beautiful Rose was going to cry. but he sees less of it than I saw of my place. that's dismal. I want to raise a big. my fucking Christ! Remind me to never do that again!" The raunchy words.

Sounds totally convincing.." Alice groaned. "What about you. "He and Jasper got so loaded last night. . Feel Good pretty early. I headed to my closet." "Why do you say that?" Angela mumbled. It reminded me of Eleazar staring down the front of it all night long while Jay clutched my arm in desperation. It was another hour before I was back in my room. my disappearance seemingly forgotten. I think he wound up throwing up in the bathroom. and my eyebrows were flawlessly shaped. God…. I opened my mouth to defend myself but nothing came out. At least not while he's throwing-up hot mess. like I'd never be able to wear it again. "He was just saving her from some creep. The dress felt tainted. her head resting on her folded arms. "She was wasted. deflecting her even further. since Jazz was already passed out by the time I got back! So all we're left with today are hangovers and no sexin' to show for it. "Me?" "Like we haven't seen you and Mike sniffing around each other all weekend. Bella. It also made me think of all the unpleasantness that awaited me when I returned home. but I wished I had another pair of eyes with me to help me find something appropriate. Bella did disappear with Dr. pulling out my black sheath dress to see if it needed pressing before tonight. She rolled her head to the side to give me a tired. a little smile curling her lips. As my hands closed around the black fabric. It figured that the one and only time in my life that I was the one who wanted to go shopping. I still had plenty of time to hit the shops downstairs. "We are so fail at being bachelorettes." "Yeah." "Are you sure nobody hooked up?" Jessica asked with a sly grin. one eyebrow cocked. Anything you want to share?" My face flamed. The problem was that I hadn't brought anything else appropriate for tonight. So gross. half in pleasure." Jessica rolled her eyes. "After all. I glanced at the clock. Alice was still watching me. Just looking at the dress reminded me of Jay and the holiday party at the paper. grateful for the rescue. right Bella?" I nodded dumbly. but my finger and toenails were expertly buffed and polished. touching my lip. half in residual hangover misery. I just closed my eyes and let my head fall back against the wall. little half-smile in greeting. She was stretched out on her stomach along one of the benches on the lowest level. But when I glanced across the room." Great. Sorry. I still had a while before I needed to start getting dressed for the rehearsal dinner." Rose interjected to her rather than opposite her." Everyone else chuckled. isn't the idea that we get shitfaced and laid?" Alice shrugged "We all managed the shitfaced part but nobody hooked up! Not even me. depression closed over me. but I'm not hooking up with that hot mess. "These two guys were rubbing all over us. my cuticles looked fantastic. Alice would have a last meeting with the wedding photographer. thinking of Edward backing me into the wall. What's going on there?" "Ugh. "Well. "Oh. and I think Edward just wanted to make sure that guy didn't follow her back to her room or something. I was wasted. Jessica?" Rose asked.

I'm just surprised he's even been flirting. so we hadn't looked very hard. OCD tendencies. She was reserved and subdued. but friendly. but you did skip out of the bar with Edward pretty early last night. but we'd both been more interested at first in finding a caffeine fix. Now it's your turn. I reasoned. and although she wasn't overly demonstrative. "Don't give me that. but that's all. he's oddly moral. Nothing happened last night. What's his name?" "Jay. She'd only hesitated briefly when I called to ask her to come shopping with me. and although he does get around. he and Alice don't really like each other. Taken usually means thoroughly off-limits for him." I mumbled automatically. "I told you that nothing happened. "I have a boyfriend. grateful for Alice's controlling. I still hadn't found a dress. but I liked Rose." "It still means off-limits. I hit send." . Rose. Rose? It's Bella. Rose just snorted and waited for me to continue. "He's been flirting with me. in her way. leaving out the embarrassing. I covered for you today in the sauna." My answer couldn't have been more succinct. my tone of voice less inviting." "He knows you have a boyfriend?" she asked. "Alright. a real stand-up guy." Rose said into the silence. He just walked me back to my room. and I suppose I owed her." "What? What does that mean?" I asked." "I'd think he'd make the effort. I found the number and before I could chicken out. sipping coffee. And I haven't missed the way he's been looking at you all weekend. embarrassed that it seemed like everyone had noticed our flirtation. So tell me about your boyfriend. Bella. Give it up. Can I ask you for a favor?" ~*~ Twenty minutes later. "Hey. "And where is this Jay? Why didn't he come this weekend?" "He couldn't get away from work." "I know." I flushed and ducked my head. if I'd tried. incriminating bits. I know. "Hmm. since she'd made the wedding party program each others' numbers into our phones the minute we arrived. except the way he's looking at you. "I didn't exactly push him too hard to come." "What about?" She narrowed her eyes at me. I kept getting the feeling she was pleased that I'd asked her. Rose and I were strolling companionably through the shopping arcade." I huffed a little. After a moment I did. It wasn't the same as the free and easy conversation Alice and I shared. "Just that I've known Edward for a long time. "I spilled my guts this morning. I asked Rose to spill her secrets with me this morning. But. I'm not so sure. still uncomfortable with where this was headed." "It doesn't matter. Sorry." "Yeah. I'm still taken. I nodded." I insisted. She is your best friend.I scrolled through the contacts on my phone. Plus.

it would have. "You're right. Plus. Edward lives on the other side of the country." I nearly stopped walking when I heard the words leave my lips unbidden. "Because I've seen him looking at you. But how Rose described him didn't fit with the image in my head." She gave me a conspiratorial nudge with her elbow before steering me into a boutique and effectively ending the discussion. I figured you'd understand the whole geography problem." "Trouble in paradise. But I still kept circling back around to what Rose said. I couldn't believe that I was openly discussing the situation with a virtual stranger. but. the fabric shimmered and hugged my body all the . then I'd go home on Sunday and never see him again. I haven't left yet. that's all. Why not?" "Just…things have been difficult lately. And the idea that he was particularly interested in me… Stop. haven't you? Yes. I see. I could do this." "Yeah. Just stop it now. This is already complicated and painful. as we each silently flipped through racks of dresses. "Oh. I'm leaving him. huh?" Now it was my turn to snort and roll my eyes. She was holding up a slip of black silk charmeuse hanging limply off a hanger. Then I laughed a little. but it just came out like that. anyway. "I can't believe I just told you all of that. he'd been flirting wildly with me. I hadn't even been thinking it. I'd have never glanced twice at it if I'd been looking at that rack. I've also seen you looking at him. considering. her voice gentle. I was embarrassed that it was so obvious to everyone. sounding so certain. "Really?" "Yes. This whole thing was rapidly spiraling out of control." "I said I'm leaving Jay. I thought."Ah. Bella." I murmured in agreement." she thrust it at me. It had a deep V in front that went all the way down to the empire waist seam just under my breasts. I could. Was that really true? Yes. It's just…it would have been nice if it worked out." Rose's voice snapped me out of my little panic attack. I swear. so in spite of the high waist. I have. He has no clue that I'm even thinking about this. like I'd already made up my mind. I'm sorry to pry. I just assumed that was how he was with women. "I guess sometimes it's easier to tell a stranger. pardon my saying so. The skirt was gently flaring and cut on the bias. Well. now we're getting somewhere. that she'd never seen Edward so interested in someone before. who had a satisfied smile on her face. but Rose seemed certain." She nodded in agreement. I needed the break. So why not Edward. "Hardly paradise. I don't need to make it harder." Rose laughed. the 'Doctor Cullen' thing is just a magnet for gold-diggers. Just tonight and tomorrow. I needed to stay as far away from Edward Cullen as possible. More than I've seen him be before. then?" Rose prompted. I was twirling in front of Rose. "Go try it on. And you seem really great. Sure. It's just that he seems so into you. but I didn't know him. It was for me. Tense. "This one. too." Five minutes later. I've barely even said it to myself in my head. certainly better than the money-grubbing barflies he usually winds up with.

I flipped through the stations on the television in my room. Thank you. but gave up in bored disgust after two chapters. then finally stammered a response. But beggars can't be choosers. Bella.way down to my hips. . I still had a few hours to kill before I needed to start getting ready for the rehearsal dinner. Except I wanted to." she said lightly. The gift shop was just as hopeless as I'd feared. The front and back knotted together at my shoulders. leaving silky ties trailing down my upper arms and the skirt stopped just above my knees. but the programming options available in the middle of the day on a Friday left a lot to be desired. Alice was still tied up with a flurry of last-minute meetings. right? I mean. Deciding to take my cues from him. After last night. The fabric was so supple and soft. Just touching it felt sexy. it's not like anything actually happened. trying to decide if I could possibly get through it. But I shouldn't." ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Six ~ Precipice ~ Bella After my shopping trip with Rose. Rose. but I figured it was worth a shot. I can't. I decided.. "Rose!" "Kidding! I'm kidding! Just buy the damned dress. "I love it. The requisite Dan Brown along with every single book Oprah ever recommended. that was definitely a bad idea. My heart turned over in my chest.. "Come on. and I flushed from head to toe. flooded my mind. I'll go with you. interspersed with some generic chick lit about rich husbands and evil bosses. it was no big deal. and I was discovering that sitting around alone led to brooding. All the heat and intensity from last night. hands stuffed in his pockets." he offered helpfully. I didn't have much hope that they'd have more to offer than the entire Dan Brown collection. and brooding was bad. Alone with Edward." Alarms went off in my head and my stomach flipped. I had nothing better to do anyway. Definitely not." I waved a hand indicating the lackluster choices I had to work with. "I. I knew that there was a gift shop in the lobby of the hotel. Aside from my breakdown on the afternoon I arrived. along with the subsequent embarrassment. "There's a Barnes and Noble at the end of the block." I turned to see Edward peering over my shoulder." "He won't be able to keep his hands off you. It was just as well. smiling casually at me. She was getting married tomorrow. Except I wanted to. I opened my mouth. I would just blow it off. we hadn't had any time for a real heart-to-heart. I'd brought a book which I'd tried to start on the plane trip to Chicago.I'm not. which was too bad. Rose was a genius. No. I was standing there examining the back of one. this dress was perfect. looking slightly rumpled. "I didn't peg you for the naughty nanny type. when a low voice that was rapidly becoming very familiar spoke over my shoulder. his jaw covered in a light scruff. closed it again. The last thing she needed was to be worrying about the sorry state of my life. It was just some weird moment that I was entirely too fixated on. He seemed fine however.

" he took both my hands between his large ones and started to rub briskly to warm them up. "Here. Broad daylight. His long fingers slid across the backs of my hands as we separated. He was right. The main part of the sidewalk was clear but there were still heaps of snow pushed to either side and filling the gutters of the street. Come on. It took a few seconds for my head to clear. shooting forward and snatching a book off a pile on the New Releases table. He looked at me and drew a deep breath."I don't have my coat. A wall of wind slammed into us the second we hit the sidewalk and I screeched a little. Just the idea that anything I could do would make him smile like that… I followed him through the lobby and we paused when we got to the glass doors. hands in his pockets. too and nodded." I murmured half-heartedly. and suddenly the problem was no longer being too cold. "I know this guy!" she sighed. It's just a bookstore…and maybe coffee. moving towards the New Fiction section. too much?" he asked sheepishly. Don't slip. "It's right there. bitter cold. half-chattered." I murmured." I heard myself saying. blowing on my hands." Then he reached down and took my hand in his as he pushed open the door with the other. but I was shaking like a leaf as we finally burst through the glass doors to the bookstore. I jogged after Edward as he walked with his enormously long strides towards the Barnes and Noble. I shook my head a little and turned away. He trailed after me. "He's from Portland. but it did. "No. My eyes skimmed author names and titles. looking for something that jumped out at me. And then something did. and the books quickly took over." I shouldn't. "It's still pretty wet outside. no. He shot me a sideways little smile and pointed at the windows at the front of the lobby. so be careful. His little half-smile widened to take over his whole face and it made me catch my breath. "Oh. stepping up behind her and peering over her shoulder. smiling at him in spite of myself. disentangling my hands from his. my God! It's freezing out there!" I half-laughed. We published a couple of his pieces in New Moon!" . "Let's go!" he shouted. It's fifty feet at the most. it was hardly any distance at all. pulling me after him down the short stretch of sidewalk. "Sorry. my God!" Bella sighed. The cold wind bit right through my thin sweater and jeans and I was instantly frozen. and I couldn't tear my eyes away from his fingertips on my skin. "You ready?" I took a deep breath. turning the book over in her hands and reverently running her fingertips across the author's name. "He did it!" "Who? What?" I asked. If you brave the cold. See? You can see it from here." I muttered. stomping my feet to warm myself back up. I just need to…thaw a little. Before I could think about the appropriateness of it. It made me tingle all the way up my arms and into my chest. Right? "Okay. he was pulling me outside into the harsh. That can't be wrong. "I'm good. ~*~ Edward "Oh. I'll buy you a coffee when we get there. I want to.

But there was another. so it's like its own food group for me. flirting with her.She spun to look up at me. black. I'm so excited to dig into this!" I chuckled and pulled it out of her hands. I had decided to listen to the irresponsible voice for once. But my career path seems to be on a very different trajectory than his. Now you get coffee." She was talking out loud. Sure. You're in good company. "Well. "Are you going to see your parents while you're here?" "Ah…no. She was absolutely breathtaking. He's a great person and a brilliant doctor. not-soresponsible voice in my head that was more than happy to take advantage of any opportunity she gave me to spend time with her. her face alight. skimming the inside of the dust jacket. There was definitely a voice in my head." I shrugged. When my mother found out that I was going to be staying in the city. He's so sensitive. "I…well." "Sorry you're missing them. Do you drink coffee?" She nodded eagerly. "He's so incredibly talented." I placed my hand against the small of her back to guide her to the little coffee bar in the corner of the bookstore. so we snagged a little table for two in the window." "I really admire my dad." ." "Are you close to them?" she asked. too much. "So I guess you found something to read?" "Hmmm?" she mumbled absently. I'm so happy that he got a book deal!" She clutched the book closer and flipped the front cover open. My dad had a conference in Madison. As soon as we sat down. I became a doctor because of my father. I'm a medical resident. she decided to tag along with him. "You want to be like him. For the moment. He's brilliant!" She clasped one hand over her chest and her voice got breathy. "Oh! Sorry! Yeah. safe place. as if she was determined to keep this in a friendly. You have to handle him just right…. I got to sit closer to her this way. at least. responsible voice. "I'll catch them next time. "Are you happy about that?" I sat back as I thought about it for a second. "I just hope he got a good editor. It was fascinating to watch. She had a boyfriend. transported to somewhere else completely. Jasper had hinted that things were rocky. She ordered a gigantic latte and I just got the house coffee. the smart." "But…" "A deal's a deal. I'm a total addict. you should read it. Lenox Hill is…it's amazing. I loved it. her eyes dreamy. Of course. finally tearing her eyes away from the first page and looking at me. The armchairs were all full. but she was still with him until she stopped being with him. except I wanted her here with me so I cleared my throat. Right now I owe you a coffee. Her voice was distracted. You braved the cold and nearly turned into an icicle. I didn't mind. but not really to me anymore." Bella narrowed her eyes at me a tiny bit and tipped her head to the side. That's nice. "Later. I took just a second to consider that. that was telling me to back the hell off and leave this girl alone. peering at me over the rim of her cup." Bella's face got soft as she smiled gently. Which meant that buying her coffee. She lived with was all really wrong. That was practically like being married. "Yeah. I guess I am. her expression distant. "Yes. she started talking." I smirked. She was just lost in that book. "His work…oh.

But now that Bella had. It's great. "I dropped out of college during my senior year to take care of him. Yeah. if you knew my mother…" she gave a short bark of laughter." "That must have been so hard for you. that haunted expression still all over her face. No fifteen-year-old wants to catch his parents making out in the kitchen. even if it meant I'd be alone. How about your dad?" She almost didn't need to answer. Is it what you want?" It seemed like an utterly ridiculous question. then. If Lenox Hill wanted you. that's…" . So I had to take care of him at the end. The answer was assumed." Bella threw her head back and laughed and I soaked up the sound. still looking at the people walking by outside. right. Six months after diagnosis. I honestly didn't know the answer. "My mother left when I was really little. the last time I heard from her. She seemed to sense she'd put me on the spot. "Are your parents still in Washington?" Bella's laugh faded abruptly. I just wanted it to be over. "What about you?" I asked. "Um." she said without emotion. bitter way for someone's life to end. "I can't imagine that's going to last. "It's sweet that your mom went with your dad this weekend. No one had ever asked me how I felt about Lenox Hill. Were you able to spend some time with him before he died?" She smiled bitterly and looked out the window. I was opening my mouth to apologize. But they embarrassed the crap out of me in high school. Pancreatic cancer. "Depends on your point of view. "Towards the end I was actually wishing he would die. no. see?" she said softly. Bella." "I'm sorry. I could see it written all over her face the minute I said it. I just scowled at my hands for a minute. It was the most aggressive of all the major cancers. I have no idea where my mother is. Can you believe that? He was all I had in the world. "Bella…" "There was just the two of us. I knew what that meant. with some guy named Cody. About four years ago." "Hmm? Oh. "I'm so sorry. Bella. for him to be out of pain. and she focused on her hands as she turned her coffee cup in circles." "Jesus. so she breezed along to a new subject. but it was so bad. tucking it away in my file of Bella fragments. and I was immediately sorry I asked. with a staggering mortality rate." "So they're divorced. which. they're still a little joined at the hip. I wanted to. It absolutely ripped people apart. to tell her she didn't need to talk about it and it was wrong of me to ask. still not raising her eyes. North Dakota. "It is. "He died. Was it sudden?" She shrugged. I couldn't say anything. they're a great example of how a marriage should work." I sucked in a breath through my teeth. I was a doctor.She nodded sagely. I'd seen patients consumed by pancreatic cancer. I suppose. It was always just Charlie and me. I knew it was a vicious. But I think there might have been a ranch involved. when she spoke and cut me off." She sighed heavily. you fell on your knees and thanked your lucky stars and you said yes.

not a question. but you certainly seem to have a passion for it. I just needed a couple more things to finish my English degree. She smiled and kept her eyes on the table. and because he had her." I stared back into her face as a lot of little things began to make sense. I had plenty of the right classes." I nudged her new book sitting on the table between us." "So your degree is in…?" "Well. the vibrant. Jay pushed me to finish. but I couldn't help but press for details while she was willing to share. and eventually she did. So I quit writing. Jay…I remembered what Jasper had said. a statement. and it wasn't good. After I lost Charlie. I'd been a creative writing major." I said softly. there could never be a place in her life for me. I was jealous that because he was there. It was a long time ago. Writing…that kind of writing. and harder for me to figure out. But what I was feeling now was a lot thornier." She didn't look at me. I felt a strange sort of sadness clawing at my chest. No room or need for me. for the aftermath." "It took so much out of you. At least for me. problems or not. She didn't want to talk about him. I couldn't. "I did. but…the program I was in. I couldn't imagine how an experience like hers could bond two people together. and her face was impassive as she nodded tightly. a weak smile on her face." "Did you ever think about going back and finishing your degree?" She nodded tightly. Slowly. I needed distance. My mood was rapidly turning black as I brooded over it. I survived. but she was far from okay. it was clear. "It's really okay. Every minute of every day. thinking of him taking care of her. but in the end I ended up graduating with just my degree in English.She finally turned back to look at me. Yes. He…he helped me through it. she'd survived. I should have moved the conversation on to something harmless and innocuous. "Your boyfriend…you were together then?" Her eyes widened in surprise. Edward. real emotions. She probably couldn't envision life without that guy. Her life was full. And at a certain point. I was jealous of him. "It was good you had your boyfriend to help you through it. they had been together for four years. I was jealous that he was the one she leaned on. I just couldn't do it anymore. I needed to not hurt so much. It felt ridiculous for me to be sitting here trying to find a way into her life. I wanted Bella. I missed him. this woman who I was so attracted to and so interested in. who'd already tied her life to someone else. "It hurt. it demands that you open yourself up emotionally. Her magazine. I said nothing. I was angry that I'd never get a shot at her. real thoughts. I just needed a break. that he was the one she needed. so that's what I did. What you're writing needs to come from someplace real. I just waited for her to go on. this desolate look on her face. Sure. all of my emotions just seemed to lead to one place. When I came back. And it was easier. she nodded." She sighed and looked back out the window. after my dad died. supporting her. I'd been jealous before over the purely physical part. Bella shrugging it all off like it was someone else. "I did try. that I . That was easy to understand. energetic girl that Angela had described. I missed him. He'd been there for it." "Why not creative writing? Pardon me saying. And the guy. "We'd just started dating. it's really hard to get into and very demanding.

The impulse was almost overwhelming." he mumbled. and I. I have to start getting ready. reaching out to touch my arm lightly. Whatever that was. And still we sat looking at each other. Tapping into one emotion inevitably opened the floodgates to all of them. . Don't they make a cute couple?" "Cute?" I raised my eyebrows. But somehow. blowing cold once more. too? He didn't make me think too hard or feel too much. And that had been a relief. "Um. let's talk about Jasper and Alice. She laughed. just make contact. I clenched my hands into fists underneath the table. it just crystallized in my mind and flowed out of my mouth. from hurting. "Not the word I would have thought to use. easy. Sorry to bring up such lousy subjects." I cleared my throat uncomfortably. he was comfortable. We reached our doors and he threw a smile at me over his shoulder. for one. In those early days." I said with false brightness. almost missing my arm entirely." "But they fit. I smiled and nodded. Because I really wanted a chance with her. and the same thought seemed to occur to Bella at that moment. Unexpected. "Yes. "You just checked out there. "Yes. before she became someone else's. her hand. talking to Edward. My skin burned just the same. And after a while." We didn't speak much again. "Right. But that was impossible. "Fine. was gone now. It was true. and I'd never have it. don't they?" Her face was getting a little dreamy again." "And Alice isn't exactly Jasper's M. kind of like it did when she'd discovered her new book. after I lost Charlie." I shook my head and forced a smile. ~*~ Bella Edward and I barely spoke on the elevator ride back up to our floor. because she cut her eyes away to the street again and inhaled sharply through her nose. "See you tonight. The rehearsal dinner. and I realized mine had as well. Was that what Jay had been. It shook me up and made me think. I collapsed on the couch with my new book lying momentarily forgotten in my lap. Bella's smile faded. We just cleared our coffee cups and made our way back to the front of the store and out into the bitter. All that stuff I said about my writing…I hadn't even thought about it in those terms at the time." She nodded quickly. very unexpected. I just wanted a break from feeling. "Are you okay?" she asked softly. I'd better get back. I just nodded and let myself into my room. writing about anything at all had just been too painful. her face. and emotionally neutral. Let's talk about Jasper and Alice. He wasn't at all what I was imagining for Alice. was grateful for that.O. "Perfectly. And I didn't like where my thoughts were taking me. that weird moment of honesty back at the bookstore. Reach out…touch her. I didn't think I'd ever really thought about it like that at all.hadn't known her when she was free. I felt my stomach flip in a wholly unfamiliar way and my chest thrummed with some emotion in between elation and sadness." She met my eyes and smiled in return.

but in that dress…The black contrasted dramatically with her pale skin and complimented her dark hair and eyes. And I'd been such a coward that I'd accepted his love and stayed for years. That had been a mistake after all. And Edward…the bookstore. I had enough on my plate to deal with. we got a little closer. intimate conversation we'd shared this afternoon was gone. I had to put the brakes on this fast before it got any further out of my control. And that meant that he and I were dangerous around each other. Hell. But outside of that. When I asked him about his hospital in New York. I can do that. too afraid to feel anything more than the half-love I felt for Jay. because of our roles to fulfill. The scary part was that I got the feeling that it wasn't just me. I could tell I hit a nerve. I was the one who was off-limits! And even if I wasn't. Did I really do that? Consciously. that dress. He was off-limits. intoxicating Edward Cullen to the mix. Soft and slightly exotic. It was the rest that gave me chills and terrified me. her scent assaulted me. I was crying before I realized it. She was a beautiful woman. murmured hello. since I was supposed to escort her down the aisle. I'd steer clear of him tonight. I needed to stop now. but she didn't look at me and she hadn't said anything to me other than a brief. it was all so wrong. I could imagine just how it would feel under my fingers. Because it wasn't going away. I made him think about things that he hadn't before. The friendly. I didn't need to add the beautiful. And it was wrong. And it looked silky. until I had no choice but to go stand next to her. We would inevitably be thrown together in the rehearsal. I didn't know what happened to me around him. no. but it made my head swim. ~*~ Edward Deep breaths. no sharing. sliding over her skin… Okay. I hoped I still could fix it. I could scarcely breathe. disgusted by myself. . She stood next to me. no Edward. How the hell was I going to keep from touching this woman? She seemed to be avoiding me as well. too afraid to try it again alone. This thing. But it was crystal clear now that was exactly why I latched on to him. waiting for our cue to practice walking down the aisle (remind me again why we're here?). I didn't know what it was. studiously keeping my distance. As we stood there. I decided. It's just the rehearsal dinner. Every time we talked.I closed my eyes and let my head fall onto the back of the couch. I had made so many mistakes. and I had so much to fix. I hoped that this time I could be strong enough to make the right choice. let him deepen a relationship that had no real roots. no talking. That. I was attracted to him. we were still separated by an entire continent. a little more intimate. I just have to sit next to her through dinner and keep my hands to myself. especially when the circumstances were so impossible. her arm in mine. I understood. this connection I had to him. He was safe and had demanded so little of me then. But Jesus Christ. I looked anywhere but at her as the wedding party assembled and the Officiant talked us through the logistics of the wedding ceremony. in a way I'd never been to anyone before. not the easy one. seemed to be going both ways. her hand tucked into the crook of my elbow. the closeness I felt with him in those moments. Fantasizing about touching her was most certainly not going to help me manage this situation. I talked to everyone around me. That conversation. The minute I looked up from my conversation with Jasper and Emmett to see her coming into the banquet hall with Alice. I was already far too wrapped up in thoughts of her after the afternoon in the bookstore. giving voice to thoughts and feelings that I hadn't even shared with Alice. Yes. Why did I talk to him like that? He was a stranger and I was telling him things.

trying to engage in their animated conversation about the next Star Trek movie. so beautiful. That was interesting. "I'm glad you found your book. Well. I groaned internally. into her mind and heart. Bella was just listening. too. Bella was nodding throughout. I found my spot. How about you?" I asked. my curiosity was piqued even further when I noticed that it was Rose doing the talking. As I watched. to re-direct her. be mine. Their heads were bent close together. and I wondered if she was really so engaged or just playing along. as she described some disaster that had befallen the wedding favors and the extraordinary measures she'd taken to rectify the situation. "Yeah.I flinched and nearly growled out loud in frustration. I would have felt like the fates were tormenting me. "A very good thing. her face transformed and she was somewhere else. She would not." I closed my eyes to break the connection. faces tense. then I respected that. Then she reached out and grasped Rose's hands in hers and squeezed. in a corner near the entrance with Rose. her face creased with concern. Rose smiled faintly and squeezed back. I didn't do "taken". except that she was the Maid of Honor and I was the Best Man. I hastily rearranged my face. this huge. Alice was talking a mile a minute. It was too much and too far. I glanced around to see where she might be and spotted her across the room. She nodded slowly. Off the market. She seemed emotional. could not. Why the hell was I so obsessed with this? With her? She was taken. If she was somebody else's. Except there was this thing. fine. turning my head back to the front." I exhaled heavily and she looked away. More drama. the story…. and it was just the way these things worked breaks your heart and makes you feel fantastic all at the same time. I really wished the two of them would just finally sort out whatever they were to each other and fucking get on with it already. but I had pretty strict rules about this. Not available. "Me. her hands flailing. and there was a small interlude of polite milling around as we all sorted out our places at the long table. . as emotional as Rose ever got. I liked having my fun with women." I couldn't help but smile at her when she was like this. and goddamn it. and of course Bella was placed next to me. I felt like I was falling…into her dark eyes. just what we needed. We reached the hotel restaurant where the rehearsal dinner was being held. undeniable thing that kept rearing up between us whenever we were together. trying to relax and look happy. "How's the book?" Once again. Bella was walking ahead of me between Alice and Rose. and that was the last time we spoke during the rehearsal itself. I couldn't keep doing this. "So. urgently whispering to each other. Dinner followed at one of the restaurants in the hotel. but I couldn't focus. I guess it was a good thing we braved the cold then. I walked there with Jasper and Mike. She pulled to a halt and the two of them stepped to the side. The writing. Was she thinking about me the way I was thinking about her? Emmett passed us to catch up to Rose." I muttered. there it was again. "Are you okay?" Her quiet voice at my side made me jump. deep in conversation. huh?" She came out of her reverie a bit and looked up at me. I was just thinking about something. "Well. leaning forward and whispering something in her ear. faces close.

and tried not to look at her and tried not to smell her. And now I was really in trouble. I know I spoke to Jasper's parents on my right. but that was a blur. too. Rose was upset and talking to Bella about it. admiring her. Bella had a comforting arm around Rose's shoulders now. her thigh just inches away from my thigh. falling for her… that was another thing entirely. I marveled at the sight. I knew that unless she slapped me and told me to fuck off. I realized. I thought back to the fierce. remembering their tense little tête-à-tête in the hallway on the way here. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Seven ~ Let No Man Put Asunder ~ Bella "Alice. Probably Emmett. I didn't think in all the time I'd known Rose that I'd ever seen her with a close female friend. Women were terrified of Rose. I have no idea what we ate or how it tasted." I said in the most conciliatory tone I could muster. one or the other. sweetie. Then I looked to the two women in the corner again. And if she let me kiss her. So I sat there next to her all night. her hand next to mine on the white tablecloth. but I don't know what we said. I know Bella spoke with Alice's parents. She was rapidly proving herself to be just about perfect in every way. All I could feel was her body near mine. we were both doomed. Cheryl Brandon sighed in defeat. Alice shot her mother a death glare through the mirror. I was a doomed man. and my estimation of Bella grew tenfold. And Bella had just met her. because there was no way I'd be able to stop there.Rose was confiding in her about something. lonely Rose I knew in college. but liking her. Because lusting after her was one thing. like so many women I'd met before? But she was not that. Brandon was hovering behind Alice where she was seated at the vanity. and I concentrated on not reaching under the table to touch her knee or brush against her thigh. It was remarkable that she had gained Rose's trust so fast. and I felt my heart swell a little at the sight of it." Alice shot me a thankful smile. "You don't think she looks a little…severe?" she stage-whispered loudly. her face creased with worry. murmuring something in her ear. are you sure you don't want to add a little baby's breath to that headpiece?" Mrs. I willed the night to pass faster or never end. . I wasn't going to be able to resist trying to kiss this woman before the weekend was over. "I think Alice looks perfect. coming to visit her brother nearly every weekend because she just wanted to feel close to someone. Alice rolled her eyes dramatically and huffed. I stifled my laughter. and Bella was displaying all the signs of being a supportive understanding friend. Because by the end of the night. "I don't think baby's breath is exactly Alice's style. Why did she have to be so…good? Kind and sweet and smart? Why couldn't she have opened her mouth and shown herself to be brainless and vapid? Another shallow gold-digger. Cheryl Brandon turned to me.

where did you just go? I thought I was going to have to send out a search party. But was he really just flirting? Could I really discount our encounters as a little physical attraction? No. B. Her grey eyes were dark and dramatic and her little bow lips were slicked with dark red. strapless. okay. securing a wispy little fingertip veil over the silky black wedge of her hair."Well." "Thanks. where Jessica and Angela were making tiny adjustments to the bridesmaid's bouquets. The bridesmaids' dresses were unconventional. There was no other word for it. Surely you have more important things to be thinking about right now. The skirt was made up of panels of wispy chiffon." "And I haven't. and now you. I might add. I guess you girls know best. that's all. There was no room in my life right now for him. "Okay?" "Yeah. sexy dresses. looking up to smile at her. Ally. please. flaring out ever so slightly from the knees down. really. I was still standing in front of the floor-length mirror. with little string straps and a deep V neckline. It was hardly surprising that Edward was flirting so heavily with me." "What?" "First Rose gave me the third degree about this. ending in uneven points around my knees. She had an elegant crystal-encrusted comb at the crown of her head. And that made me confused and more than a little scared. Her dress was a simple ivory silk satin sheath. It felt like I'd spent this entire weekend tricked out in a string of revealing. God. Ms. not you too. I stepped up behind Alice and put a hand on her bare shoulder." I glanced at myself in the mirror and had to agree with Alice. There was nothing else to her and she didn't need another thing. Every inch of Alice was perfect. Red and black iridescent silk chiffon. a very sexy bridesmaid's dress. She was breathtaking. Alice cleared her throat pointedly and my head snapped up. "Oh. In an Edward-y way. but I'd been just staring off into space. It was. You promised me you wouldn't let it get to you this weekend. Swan?" "No. "Just thinking. dare I say it." "I always have time to think about you. too? Minutes before you're supposed to be walking down the aisle. In my day you got a little fancier on your wedding day. "Anything you want to share with the group. I looked like a woman that men would flirt with." I lied." Alice smiled broadly. "Hey." I groaned." "Not about Jay. I couldn't. Alice. In a good way. and I liked it. even if I did pick out the dress. which was not at all surprising for Alice. B. I swear. "You look so beautiful." She moved off to the main room of the suite." "I'm fine. I'd forgotten I could feel this pretty." . nothing. you have been a little…distracted. Ally. "Thanks for that. You look pretty good yourself. and certainly no room for all the complications that came along with him. I love her but…guh!" I laughed and fixed a wayward hair on the back of Alice's head and she went back to smoothing her eyebrows." she said." "Yeah. babe.

hands clasped tightly in front of him. it made my breath fail in my chest for a moment. Then it was time and the music started to play. her sequined periwinkle jacket throwing tiny reflections all over the walls. Jasper stood at the front. I was here for her. and arrangements of velvety red roses and white lilies exploded from every corner and ledge. Mrs. and for the moment. And like it always did." I said. shortly."Nothing to tell or nothing you're willing to share?" She was smiling up at me with that devious grin I knew so well. adjusting our dresses. then Jasper isn't doing something right. and I helped Alice re-secure her veil. Once the photographer wrapped up the portraits." Alice said. "Alice. we had finally managed to leave the room and we had Alice bundled into an elevator. He saw her and his face dissolved in an ear-to-ear grin that made my heart hurt. Colonel Brandon reported for father-of-thebride duties and Mrs. Do I need to speak with him?" Alice laughed. handsome in his black tuxedo. His eyes were soft. and for a minute I wanted to laugh at how so very little had really changed about us. lightly clutching a spray of three calla lilies in one hand and her father's arm in the other. darkest secrets. Then I . she seemed willing to drop the subject. "Now can we stop talking about something that's never going to happen? It's just wrong. This was Alice's night. herding us towards the door. Mrs. if you can seriously think about continuing this conversation later tonight. The hall was lit by more white taper candles than I could count. Edward and I were positioned to stand next to each other several times. and he had a happy grin on his face as he watched Jasper watching Alice approach. Brandon pulled Alice and the bridesmaids away and shooed the men into the hall where Mrs. the doors were thrown open and Jessica took her first steps down the aisle. laughing and talking with the groomsmen already waiting there. The room was filled with happy chatter as we straightened skirts. like I had been looking at his face my whole life even though it was brand-new to me. missy. and we spent the next hour preserving tonight for all time. Brandon left us to go find her seat inside. smoothed hair. and I was sure his face must have been a reflection of mine. In a tuxedo. but Angela poked her head around the door frame and interrupted. exchanged bouquets and checked the mirror redundantly. pointing a finger at me. and I'd seen him be pretty hot quite often already. "Hey. Edward in a tux had to be the hottest thing I'd ever seen. I managed to avoid speaking to Edward by staying close to Angela and Ben. It was like an odd sort of recognition. The ceremony was spectacular. Within a few minutes. we didn't talk. We spent a few minutes fixing lipstick and fluffing hair. I caught sight of Edward over Jasper's shoulder." "I'll finish with you later. Ben had to repeat himself twice before I could focus enough to answer his question. "Both. I was going to get through this last night in Edward's intoxicating presence by focusing on that and only that. This night was going to be endless. on her way down to join herself in marriage to Jasper. but that didn't mean I didn't see him. Our eyes finally met and there was that same flare of intensity and heat that there always was when I looked at him. we both muttered strained "hellos". I focused my attention wholly on the photographer's instructions. I think it's time to go downstairs. his shaggy blonde hair tamed for the night. A string quartet played Mouret's Rondeau as the bridesmaids preceded Alice and Colonel Brandon down the white runner. ladies. but otherwise. Hale was waiting to claim them." Alice sighed heavily and opened her mouth to continue. His face was frozen and he looked nervous as hell until I stepped to the left and Alice appeared behind me. The first time. We assembled outside the hall. Brandon was flitting around the room. The elegant bridal veneer did little to hide the eager inner thirteen-year-old looking to trade our deepest. The photographer arrived.

setting forth on this journey through the rest of their lives together. I promised myself. radiate with this kind of joy. We all laughed as he released her.. The rest was a blur. trying to think of a way to neutralize his compliment. our voices high and pinched as we tried not to mess up our mascara. Alice turned to me and passed me her lilies as the Officiant began the ceremony. anyone. "You look beautiful. I love you. The Colonel wasn't even trying to hide the fact that he was crying as he stepped away to join his wife in the front pew. not even when things were good. I blushed and looked at my feet. I'd put up with so much since then. drinking ourselves under the table. we'd already be at the reception. The Officiant began to speak and I did my best to pay attention. and we were left smiling tightly at each other. Even in our best moments. All because he was kind and supportive when I needed someone. But I could see now that never. Thanks for just. it's you. He spoke first. his eyes boring into mine. But when she talked of the promise that Alice and Jasper were making. and for Jasper. causing my insides to ignite with just those three words. I never could really picture the two of us standing where Alice and Jasper were now." . plus I knew that if she had her druthers. all out of gratitude and some pathetic fear of being left alone. stopping just short of scandalous. for making this girl.. "Yeah. I still had no idea of what I would say. But finally the line of well-wishers thinned. I felt my heart swell with love for her. This was Alice's moment. "Thanks." I whispered. It was time to stand by myself and start all over. and the happiness I saw there made me tear up as well. Alice did a great job choosing the dresses. and I knew that there was no way he'd make it easy for me. who was truly my sister. sweets. "I'm so incredibly happy for you. "It's not the dress. Well. did I ever seriously consider making this promise to him. too. For the better part of an hour we were both too busy making small talk with guests for there to be any real interaction between us." he said softly. his insecurity. at the wretched situation I'd allowed myself to fall into with him. Edward stood next to me. The Officiant pronounced Jasper and Alice husband and wife as a beaming Jasper pulled Alice into his arms and kissed her hard. before he leaned in again and murmured. and nothing would distract me from her now. She retrieved her flowers from me and I hugged her. So much. Colonel Brandon leaned down and kissed Alice's ivory cheek before passing her hand to a beaming Jasper. his eyes darting around the room. The ceremony was mercifully short. smiling and shaking hands. the faith they were showing in each other. I wanted to cry in frustration at the waste of time. exactly how I would end it and leave.dragged my eyes away from him and resolved not to look again. Alice always had unerring good sense about these things. we were a foregone conclusion right from the start. She looked directly at me for just a moment. the recessional.being here and being you. but I knew without a doubt that I would do it. the lack of passion. that would change." Edward was quiet for a moment. In his mind. and Alice tried to remove her lipstick from his mouth with her thumb. the way my life seemed to shrink to accomodate his. Way better than the usual horrors I've seen. the receiving line. Jay had always taken our eventual marriage for granted and was therefore not in any great hurry to make it official." "I love you." Both of us were crying at this point. my mind wandered of its own accord to Jay. Ally. I released her and she fell in beside Jasper as the wedding party led the way out of the hall. to be kind and supportive. B. greeting the hundreds of family and friends who'd come.

but Rose and I were both past that. let's go. he held her left hand and absently toyed with her new ring. scooting it in for me. It was in a room adjoining the one where the ceremony was being held. I just needed a little space for a minute. so there wasn't far to go." "Yeah. smiling. "It's nice. his eyes on Jasper and Alice. willing my heart rate to slow down.I closed my eyes and inhaled slowly. but I barely kept from running. He'd tamed his wild auburn hair tonight. "Yeah. He rested a hand on the small of my back as he escorted me to the long table reserved for the wedding party. which had to be a first. while with the other. Because they're waiting for you to introduce the wedding party. I knew I needed to get some distance from him and clear my head a little if I hoped to make it through the night unscathed." She watched me for a second before she said. I could see little gold flecks in the bright green of his eyes and I noticed how insanely long and thick his eyelashes . I could feel it. He's just…it's intense. I'd never been so close to his face. she'd confided in me. Last were me and Edward. "Thank you. Jasper kept leaning over to whisper things in Alice's ear and every time. Then came Rose and Emmett. The rest of the wedding party preceded us. as he tried hard not to stare down into her cleavage. "Edward?" I thought about lying. then. I'd confided in her." I whispered lamely. I left the stall. Alice and Jasper took their spot next to us at the head of the table and I was momentarily distracted from my own problems by the ridiculous glowing smiles on their faces." She said nothing. before I looked up at him. I was wondering just how long I could put this off when I heard the door open and the soft click of heels enter. his face absolutely serious. huh?" Edward's low murmur right next to my ear made me jump. so completely lost in each other. "Bella? Are you in here?" It was Rose. They looked so happy. trying to ignore how good it felt to touch him even in this tiny way. one eyebrow slightly arched. threatening to swallow me whole. and it just kept growing. Ben and Angela. but it still looked so thick and silky. Something had shifted. "Is everything okay? You just vanished. He rested one hand at the base of her neck. Edward ducked his head and looked at me questioningly. Mike with Jessica. but I just smiled tightly and slid my hand into the crook of his offered arm." "Right. He's got to escort you in. there was no way I could claim I'd gotten lost. He was looking at me. He was leaning in close to me. the two of them looking absolutely anywhere but at each other. I'd felt it start to shift under me yesterday in the bookstore. I tried to walk slow. "Okay." "I see that. that's all. I'll see you at the reception. and my hands fisted against the impulse to touch it. and I felt his fingers brush across my shoulder slightly before he sat down next to me. Sorry. she would duck her head and smile broadly. the tension between them so thick you could almost reach out and touch it." She ushered me out ahead of her and we rejoined the wedding party clustered by the entrance to the reception. she just appraised me. his eyes intense. like a chasm opening under my feet. Can you handle tonight?" "I'll be fine. smiling awkwardly at her. "Excuse me." And then I fled. One more night and I'm gone. I swear that once I saw her actually blush. I need the ladies room. He helped me into my seat. I found a rest room and locked myself in a stall and hid there until I thought that everyone had gone into the reception. his fingers playing with her hair.

And I could smell him. I was actually asking her if she was going to marry her loser boyfriend. but I couldn't bring myself to care any more. So…are you and Jay up for this any time soon?" It was really a blameless question. As I broke my eyes away." His name fell from my lips automatically. "What about me?" "Are you walking down the aisle with…what's his name again?" "Jay. I found myself wondering how it would feel if I leaned forward just a little and let my cheek brush his.were. I was certain that this thing . Dinner was served. the same mindless mania I'd fallen into last night at the rehearsal dinner. although my heart was racing at the direction this conversation had just taken. but before I knew it. just to see what he'd feel like on my tongue. until the DJ asked us to raise our glasses to toast the bride and groom. he just kept staring at to her. I still lived in New York. It made my head swim and my mouth water. But this didn't feel blameless.touch her. I had a serious boyfriend. and it didn't feel at all like casual conversation. but I was barely aware of what they put in front of me. How happy they are. I hadn't thought about what to say. It's nice. either. I was in trouble tonight. then she was going to have to say it outloud. I just wanted to sit as close to her as possible. I was just tired of trying to stay away from her. Right. He didn't respond to my head shake. he smelled like soap and skin. I knew that now without a doubt. He wasn't smiling anymore and he wasn't looking at Jasper. But that little shake of her head broke something in me. I swallowed thickly and tried to remember what he'd just said to me. I wondered if she was as distracted by my presence as I was by hers. I felt myself sinking into something I knew was wrong. I realized my hand was trembling. Those sparkling green eyes were fixed on mine. She didn't say anything. reaching out for my wine glass. Tension was rolling off Edward in waves. ~*~ Edward She shook her head 'no'. Bella scarcely touched her food. but she shook her head 'no'. I was assaulted with an urge to lick him. his cheeks and jaw were completely smooth. it was the kind of question people asked you at weddings when you had a serious boyfriend. He was still her boyfriend. He'd shaved very recently. but his face was still fierce. She still lived in Seattle. I couldn't make myself be aware of anything else in the room. I couldn't manage any actual words. so I decided I wouldn't. but I felt my head shaking slowly." "How about you?" I looked up at him then. pinning me like a butterfly to a board. it is. I don't know what came over me. right there along the underside of his jaw. I tried telling myself that it didn't matter. From that moment on. "What?" "Alice and Jasper." "Yes. If she wanted me to back off. his dark brows drawn together. "Jay. Edward's shoulders relaxed infinitesimally.

Then I reached for Bella's and slid it forward. if that makes any sense. you haven't had enough. "For the lady. I snapped my head around to look at her. "I miss the potential of her. Bella and I watched them in silence for a few minutes. I'm not sure…" "That's not nearly enough. "How long have you known Alice?" I asked in her ear. It would have been nice to have a mother when I lost my father. Alice adores you." I am a total bastard. to have not been alone for that. Alice. My mother left. that was pretty much it. Bella flushed. "Sorry." "Do you miss her?" Bella paused to consider the question for a moment. sir?" "Yes. sliding my glass forward." I smirked at her. her eyes staying on mine the whole time. They took to the floor. too. She didn't need him. and Bella's eyes followed Colonel Brandon as he made his way to Alice's side. helping her out of her seat." "You're not alone. her eyes misty. reaching up my right thumb to rub it gently across the back of her shoulder and I saw a flush of goosebumps raise along her arms. we were even closer. The DJ requested that the parents of the bride and groom join them on the dance floor. He loved her until he died." I said. The first day of kindergarten. I've already had two glasses. "Um. I was sitting here plotting the seduction of this woman." She shifted her eyes to the side to look at me. as well. this woman who was taken. She nodded her head at the server. She was staring at Alice. but she took the wine glass when the server handed it back to her and raised it to drink. my right arm draped across the back of her chair. Her parents do." I didn't say his name or allude to him in any way. The music began and the DJ announced the first dance of the bride and groom. "Enough for what?" "If you're saying no. I didn't exactly have a lot waiting at home for me. I nearly groaned outloud in self-disgust. but my meaning was clear. "More wine. who was now married to my best friend." "Oh. She's always been my best friend. I think that's why I'm so close to her parents. that was more information than you needed.was not entirely one-sided. I miss what might have been if she'd been different. who'd apparently been trying to get my attention. If she could have handled having a family. And she was Alice's best friend. my father never really got over her. And after my mom left. I saw her shiver at the feel of my breath on her neck and I smiled. . Not for security. I imagined leaning forward and running my tongue along the same path my breath had just taken. and not for anything else. you know." "I'd like to know. too. Jasper stood and took Alice's hand. But was she attracted enough? Did she want me enough to do something she knew was wrong? Realizing where my thoughts had gone. "Since we were little kids." I said. please. Alice's tiny frame pressed up against Jasper. What the hell was wrong with me? "Edward?" Said woman's seductive voice broke me out of my self-flagellation. You've got…other people in your life.

" I shot a bored. watching her dance with Colonel Brandon. I just wanted to focus on the feel of her hand in mine. her dark hair gently curling and swaying around her bare shoulders. Truly. she just gazed back.She smiled softly and looked down at her hands. letting me help her to her feet. but I didn't look away from Bella's face. Told me to leave her the fuck alone tonight." "Jesus. I leaned in close to her again. but it felt like we were completely alone. I needed to say something. her downcast eyes. Swan?" She smiled and slid her hand into mine. We just slowly moved in tandem. "Yeah. I lost my train of thought. She was beaming up at him. "Alright. Ms. "Looks like your night is sucking as much as mine. reaching out to put my hand on her waist and pull her into me. Just close the deal with her. What are you waiting for?" . her head tipped back. For good. I knew it and I didn't care. I didn't care. Alice and Jasper's wedding song was still playing." Emmett drawled. "Shall we dance. my arm holding her close to me. Maybe I'm tapping some hot cousin or family friend or some shit. I reluctantly released her waist and let Alice's father lead her away. It was the closest I'd ever been to her and I felt drunk from the contact." The DJ saved us from another too-intimate moment by requesting that the wedding party now join the bride and groom on the dance floor. I resolved to lighten the mood between us. but she always says that. Bella cleared her throat and dipped her head before letting go of my hand. for that matter. too slow for the new song that was playing. Edward?" Colonel Brandon's voice shattered our moment. Maybe I've moved on. I think I'm just starting to figure that out. dark and glittering in the candlelight surrounding us. We were dancing too close for casual acquaintances in a wedding party. Three hundred guests were watching us as I led her to the dance floor. I could feel the whole length of her pressed up against me. we might be creating quite a little scandal. address what was happening. fine. curled around each other. I heard the DJ inviting the rest of the guests to join us on the floor. She sent me packing. "Where's Rose?" I asked absently. She kept her eyes down. I stalked back to the table and dropped into my chair. her body pressed to mine. I swallowed down the maddening lust and want I was feeling. but her breathing was shallow. it made me happy to see her have this moment with him. She settled one hand on my shoulder and I held our joined hands curled against my chest. I turned to face her. "Why do you assume it's Rose that's twisting my nuts tonight? Maybe I'm done with that shit. She was just as affected by what was happening between us as I was. not wanting to look away from Bella. People might talk. I couldn't take it any more. "Do you mind if I steal our girl away for a dance. She didn't seem to be waiting for more from me. especially after all she'd told me about her own father. "At Last" by Etta James. Em. fingers entwined. falling heavily into the chair next to me. Eddie. I turned to look at him and tried to arrange my face into something less murderous than what I was feeling. ask her if she wanted… "Bella?" She finally raised her eyes to me. her lips parted slightly. holding a hand out to her. and I was grateful to him for filling that role for her in whatever small way he was able. I was sure of it. Bodies filled the space around us and still we swayed. Clearing my throat. just staring into her beautiful face. disbelieving glance at him over my shoulder. It's Rose. My heart broke for her loss. not speaking.

letting the scotch work its way into my system. one option is looking very good. "Fuck. What was there left to lose at this point? I'd already pushed this whole thing way too far. That's the problem. Em. Bella was cautious. I might as well do it thoroughly. I'd scooted my chair closer to hers in her absence. First to the happy couple. Angela was just as far gone. "When did you get to be so wise?" he finally said with a wry chuckle. reveling in the warmth sliding down my throat. I draped my arm around the back of Bella's chair and as the evening wore on. She wants Mr. watching Bella dance with Alice's father. you're just going to let her get away? You're going to watch her marry some other undeserving fuck someday? Because you know that's what will happen if you don't sort this out. white picket fence." Emmett stared into his scotch for a long moment. my thigh was pressed along the length of hers. Don't listen to me. then looked across the floor to where Rose was dancing with her father." "So what. None of my options are very good right now. She's perfect. then to our old friendships. Emmett leaned in close to whisper in my ear. slumped into Ben's side. Jasper signaled the waiter for a bottle of champagne and the wedding party began toasting. Home-by-six." Emmett just blinked at me for a minute. soft grin on her face. Over my fucking dead body. There was always a reason to drink a little more. Emmett was right. Not now. and she only shifted a little closer to me in response. The song ended and Bella returned to the table. right? You'll be sitting here getting drunk while you watch Rose out there in the white dress with some other guy."She doesn't want me. I don't know. I followed his line of sight to where she was still dancing with Colonel Brandon. In their inebriated state the two of them could barely keep their hands off each other. Alice asked for extra bottles and the refills flowed liberally. She's not like that. "Is she messing with your head?" He nodded at Bella out on the dance floor. If I was going to hell. I made lazy circles on the skin of her bare shoulder. and that's just not me." "Well." I thought about that for a minute." He shoved a glass of scotch towards me and I threw it back. Em. "And fucking go for it. and although she was definitely feeling the effects of the alcohol. and how you really want to watch it play out. pensive. man. And that's the problem. I don't know shit." "You'd better think long and hard about the future. I let it slip down. Alice had abandoned her bridal decorum and her shoes and had her legs draped across Jasper's lap as he rubbed one of her feet. she's not messing with my head." "So?" "So what?" "What are you going to do about it?" "I have no idea. The cake was cut and there were more champagne toasts. "The hell if some home town boy is going to get his hands on Rose. a happy. I might as well just keep going. "No. Rose and Emmett had disappeared…again. not like this. then to our families. Drink more. so when she settled in. she wasn't sloppy drunk like Jessica and Mike. . Em." And that was the truth. make a move and see what she did. until it was draped across her back and she didn't make me stop.

she just let me lead her away. so all that was left were the out-of-towners staying in the hotel. we were suspended in a little bubble of air between the two of us. gripping her tightly. I need to talk to you. hers tipped. We were far too close this time. Couples moved and swayed all around us. I was still standing right in front of her. The hallway led to some administrative offices and was unlit and empty. but she didn't hesitate. rubbing gently. I knew I told her I needed to talk to her. The reception had long since left respectability behind. She sighed and rolled her head forward to rest her forehead against my chest. "What is it?' I whispered. I was breaking every rule I had. wrapping my arm around her waist. That's it. and my hands closed around her upper arms." She looked at me. She tensed under my hands. into her personal space. She just rose to her feet to follow me. I stepped forward. much warmer than back at the table. The candles lining the room were burning down. her face apprehensive. I pulled her in to me. "Come on. and she shut her eyes tight. I stopped rubbing her arms and my fingers curled in. but her eyes stayed locked with mine. I knew I should just back away. There was no one there to judge us. all they had to do was stagger upstairs to their rooms. The lush music filled the space. reveling in pure sensation and the warmth of her body pressed against mine. But I didn't care anymore. and I reached my free hand down to grab Bella's. Again. I closed my eyes and rested my cheek against the top of her head. so close. I could see the war going on inside of her. which was on its way to total oblivion. My hands were still gliding slowly up and down her arms. They didn't have to worry about driving home. words of any kind seemed entirely inadequate. so they had all had way too much to drink. down a small dark hallway to the right of the DJ's table. My head was leaning down towards her. She was torturing herself over this attraction and instead of helping her. pulling her into my side as I leaned down and whispered. Her face froze. It was ridiculous to keep pretending that we were just friends or that this wasn't happening. eyes wide. but she didn't want to. "Come dance with me. but she was resisting. I let my thumb skim across her cheekbone and leaned in. Bella leaned back against the wall.. letting my lip brush her ear very gently. The local guests had mostly departed. . I was taking advantage of her confusion.. I tightened my arm around her shoulders. she was looking up at me in this dark half-light of the hallway. too and finally came to rest on my shoulder."Unchained Melody" began to play." I walked her off the dance floor. holding her hand tightly against my chest. Her head tipped forward and I could sense that her impulse was to rest her cheek on my shoulder. her eyes locked on me. And goddammit. reassuring her. breathing each other's breaths. giving her some space. but I didn't want to. making the place swim with heat and fragrance. I tightened my hold on her and turned my face down to hers. As I tipped my head forward. "Edward. just inches between us. I felt her sigh. I took a half step in. No one noticed the Best Man and the Maid of Honor wrapped around each other in a completely inappropriate way out on the dance floor. but fuck it. I was done. She didn't argue or resist. And never mind the wedding party. so she didn't bolt. and it was warm out here on the dance floor. soft and sweet. bare skin between her shoulder blades. "I just…" She had her eyes shut tight and her hand was gripping mine fiercely. but now that I had her here alone. She knew she should push me away." Bella murmured. to judge me for what I was about to do. Our faces were close together. I bent my head down to her ear as I slid my hand up her back to rest on the warm. She leaned against me. The scent of her hair drifted up to me. and I was nearly flush with her as I brought one hand up to cup her face.

There was nothing there but desire now. to thrust myself against her and let her feel me where I wanted to be. I pressed harder and her lips opened under mine slightly. mark her. God. say the . I hoped for his sake he could still get it up on his wedding night. Can we have all the single ladies?" I picked my head up to look Bella in the eye. And there was no way that I was letting go of her now that I had her. There was no way that this was wrong. Jasper sat back at our table. to wrap it around my waist. gripping her tight as my tongue plunged into her mouth. she felt so good. "And now for the throwing of the bouquet. Better still." I wanted her so fucking desperately that I thought I might kill for her in that moment. She gasped for air underneath my mouth. wanting to suck. Her head was thrown back and my teeth were just skimming the skin pulled taut over her collarbone when the DJ's piercing voice cut through the fog of my lust. pushing slightly on my chest." she whispered. willing her to stay here with me. She would have to send me away. her eyes fluttered open and met mine again. caressing it through the silky fabric of her dress. Alice was up on the DJ's stand. bite. seeking hers. come back to my room. Bella hung towards the back of the group. kissing her. I gripped. She was wasted. Her eyes were wide. let me strip you bare and touch every inch of you. I found it. pulling her hips tighter to mine. The jolt of heat and electricity that flared as I touched her startled me. back to the reception. "I have to go. knowing she could feel how hard I was and how much I wanted her. tasting more of her. her nails softly scraping my scalp as she tugged my head closer to her. who never resurfaced with Emmett. my lips just brushing the corner of her mouth. moaning quietly into her mouth. without a backwards glance. She ran away down the hall. Instead of the guilt I should have felt. as close as I could get to Bella without intruding on the event at hand. pink lips. all of you. skimming down to her thigh. but I wouldn't force her into a wall in a dark hallway and ravage her. I pounded my head into the wall a few times for clarity before I slowly followed her. She ran a finger over the edge of her lips. I felt only elation as I leaned in and pressed my lips to hers. Nothing existed but her in this wrong moment that felt so perfect. fuck all that shit. lay underneath me. She was giving in. grinning madly at his new wife. closer. My hand left her hip. At the feel of my breath on her face. only the seriously intoxicated guests remained. more. so I moved to her neck. I released her face and slid my hand into her hair. her mouth dropped open as she dragged in deep breaths. but then all I could think of was getting closer. fisting it. to wipe away her smeared lipstick. she tasted so sweet." She squeezed her eyes shut and balled her hands into fists. I released her arm and reached around her waist. and swept it with my own. Alice will want me. "I have to go. arms thrown wide across the backs of the neighboring chairs. I leaned in close. She sighed into my mouth. "Stay. barely paying attention to the jostling scrum of female friends and relatives around her. It was all I needed as I pushed my tongue in. pulling her up tight against me. distracted. swaying lightly and giggling. I pressed her back against the wall and dropped my hand to her hip. I didn't return to our table. The girls from the wedding party were all in attendance in the cluster on the dance floor. The reception had cleared out dramatically. This was not over. I stared into her eyes. and I felt the tiny gesture in my groin. So I stepped back with a sigh and let her slip out from underneath me. instead I paced along the back edge of the dance floor. That wasn't right. tasting her. also drunk as hell. except for Rose. I felt her fingers in my hair. it was clear. Her hands slipped up to my shoulders and then kept going as she laced her fingers together behind my neck. I wanted to pull her leg up. now that I'd felt her. "Bella…" my voice was ragged. Yes. Cake and champagne and Bella. her slightly swollen.I tipped my head down closer to hers and exhaled.

I needed to stop. Without a glance in my direction. huh?" She pouted dramatically. but Jessica seemed too far gone. and threw the flowers back over her shoulder. very very best friend." I leaned my head back away from Jessica's drunken slurring in my ear while still trying to keep my grip on her waist. if you can't manage that on your own." "You're no fun. She waved the flowers wildly overhead before she staggered drunkenly to the side. Now let's get you to your room where you can sleep this off. His mouth…nobody had ever kissed me like that before. I wasn't confident at all that I'd be able to obey her. I'm not sleeping with you and hooking up with some random stranger is not an option." . Gone. I drew a deep breath. but damn! You're like my new. Christ. closed her eyes. Anything to help distract me from that. "I want to hook up with Mike!" "Maybe some other time. before I would give up on this. My whole body was set on fire and my face flushed just from the memory of it. then you're probably too drunk to be thinking about sleeping with him. loudly exclaiming her love and devotion to her. so let's just…" "Who said anything about a stranger?" she giggled. but Jessica came out the winner. Where's the fun in that?" I smiled as "sense" came out with a lisp. Bella smiled at her indulgently before tightening her grip on her waist. Jess. Bella caught her in time to keep from going over. "Well. It was taking all of my coordination and concentration to keep us both upright and moving towards her room. nearly toppling over in the process. Alice laughed again before she turned around. nearly toppling me over in the process. And even then. The tussle was epic. right? Alice told me you were cool. skimming my skin. but plenty alive to wiggle constantly in my grasp and stagger wildly. That was okay. I love you soooo much! You know that. "Sleep? Alone?" "Don't you think that's for the best?" "No way! No sense wasting all this liquor and all this hotness just so I can sleep alone. what just happened in that dark hallway with Edward. She was completely unwieldy. Now help me…" "Noooo! Tonight! Come on. too. C'mon! Help me find Mike and then you can get back to Edward. Bella! Help me find him!" "Jess. "I love you. nearly dead weight. though. adjusting my grip on Jessica. Jessica was hanging from Bella now. gripping my hair.words to make me leave. she turned and helped Jessica out of the reception hall. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Eight ~ He Called Me Baby All Night Long ~ Bella "Bella. Jessica. holding my hips…Oh. It was even better than his hands. those incredible hands. Bella tried to get her back on her feet.

The knock on my door. Bella. That violated every girl code in the book. But instead I stayed where I was. "Alright then. kids. guys. Bella. heading back down the hall towards my room. I really shouldn't hand her off to a guy who possibly had all kinds of less-than-honorable plans for her.I flushed and stammered. She was shooting me withering glares now. so maybe I just should. Jessica beamed at him like her dream man was sweeping towards her. Hey! Jess. won't you Mike?" I gave him a fierce glare. He really liked her. "I think…I mean… I think Edward was looking for you. worst line. Anything to ground me. willing me to vanish. "Mike will take good care of me. "Hey! I was looking for you!" Jessica cooed. She stumbled and it took both me and Mike to right her. She was clearly wasted. The impulse to do so was almost overwhelming. then I would be okay." she murmured into Mike's neck. But it echoed through the room like a gunshot. I could leave tomorrow without crossing that last. "I saw you two tonight. bring me back to reality. I turned to stare at the door. willing this feeling to go away and leave me in peace. releasing her grip on me to throw her arms around Mike's neck. On the other hand. "I'm not going back. I was saved from coming up with a response by the voice of the very person Jessica was hoping most to find. I'll make sure she's okay. with my forehead and my fists pressed against the cool wall." I murmured. if you want to go back to the reception. just to my left. alone here in the dark. I gripped my key card so hard that the sharp edges of the plastic were nearly cutting into my palm. I didn't turn on the lights. knowing exactly who it was and what would happen if I . "I can get Jess back to her room." I turned and continued back down the hall and around the corner to my room as Mike and Jessica's voices faded into the distance." Maybe I was a moron. was soft. "Will you. just listening to my own breathing. "No. Jessica wanted him. my eyes closed tight. making me jump. I welcomed the pain. A huge part of me wanted to run right back downstairs to the reception. Bella. I just leaned against the wall in the dark. All that champagne was still making me feel a little fuzzy and warm." "Bullshit. It was the look in his eyes when he glanced down at her that finally convinced me. "It's fine. find Edward. Mike?" He smiled and held a hand up to placate me. even when she was stone cold sober. Nothing had ever felt so right. barely a tap. it wasn't just alcohol and lust. she was remarkably clear on this subject." she snapped. I promise." I threw up my hands and turned on my heel. Goodnight." I looked from her to him and back again. but I actually believed him. have fun. his face flushed. drag him back to that dark hallway and pick up where we left off. so on the one hand. trying to clear my head. If I could just make it through the rest of the night. and my nerves were absolutely shattered by what had happened tonight. You think I can't tell what's happening?" For someone so incredibly drunk. She'd wanted him all weekend." I froze and looked at my feet. "I…I don't know what you're talking about. right? "It's cool. Mike was stammering now. his eyes bleary. "You're not going back to the reception?" I turned my head to look back. She was a big girl. I found the key card tucked into the side of my strapless bra where I'd stashed it earlier tonight and let myself in. Bella! Wait up!" Mike was jogging unsteadily down the hall towards us.

tighter against me. I never truly made up my mind. touching me. abstract concepts that had no bearing on what I was feeling. I stepped forward into the narrow opening. holding myself steady. wanting him closer. He looked full of barely restrained emotion. Bella…" He released the doorframe and his hand dropped to my hip. a tangle of lips and tongues and grasping hands. but the rest of the lights were off. I knew there was no way I could resist opening it. he wasn't forcing his way inside. one hand gripping the frame hard. holding on. and he clumsily slid it through the lock to open the door. Before I could stop to think it through. my forehead still pressed to his and I nodded. no longer tame and tidy like it had been earlier. We stood pressed together from knees to chest. His tongue danced across mine. almost to himself. The room was only faintly illuminated with its dull yellow glow. It looked like he'd been raking it ceaselessly with his fingers. It was like there was never any choice to be made in the first place. my hand reached out on its own. I could feel the warmth from his body moving through me like a drug. I didn't ever really decide to do it. I let him lead my body forward one unsteady step until he was just a breath away from me. Edward holding my head firmly as his mouth moved with mine. he turned his face and crushed his mouth on mine." . filling the opening. replaced with his teeth. shaky exhale. He slid his arm around my waist. then disappeared. My hands fisted into the fabric of his shirt. His eyes were squeezed shut. bending my head to meet his. his ragged little breaths ghosted across my cheek. And I knew exactly what would happen once I did. He didn't need to hear any words from me. his voice was low. The instant I knew he was on the other side of that door. pulling me into the hall. setting my skin on fire. My lip tingled where his teeth had been. His hair was a mess. when he was right here in front of me. then releasing before his tongue invaded my mouth again. not when he'd sought me out. to his door that was right next to mine. "Please. Then we were stumbling backwards into his dark room. shoving roughly into my hair. He let go of my hair to blindly fish his key card out of his pocket. And it was that same startling flash of heat and electricity that I felt when he kissed me downstairs at the reception. but he wasn't pushing on it. Edward was there. letting in a shaft of light from the hall. Bella. scraping my bottom lip. I closed my eyes tight. "You're so beautiful. his knuckles white. like one tiny change in the atmosphere around him would cause him to explode. "I've wanted you since the minute I laid eyes on you. making my head swim and my thoughts cloud. There was no way I could refuse this. Right and wrong had ceased to matter. they seemed like strange." His other hand left the door and his fingers wove into my hair at the base of my skull. reaching up to grip the back of his neck. I pushed his jacket off his shoulders and down his arms. He never released me. The lock clicked and the door opened in towards me. a ragged rumble from deep in his chest. his fingertips massaged my scalp. At that moment. his mouth never left mine. pulling me gently. holding my head against his. nipping and tugging. I wanted him…this… this one night together. He tossed it free before his hands came back to my body. I moaned in response. Or maybe that was from my fingers earlier. closing around the brushed steel handle and depressing it. as his lips finally left mine and skimmed down my neck. "just give me tonight. His right palm rested flat against my door." he murmured. His head was bowed and he wasn't looking at me. When he finally spoke. And I let him. When he felt me make that tiny motion against him he let his breath out in a long. "I know it's wrong…and that I have no right to ask you…but please.opened it. skimming up from my waist. He leaned forward. resting his forehead against mine. There was one small wall sconce lit right by the door. With a stifled groan. so badly that nothing could have stopped me now." he whispered. across my bare back. Let me have tonight with you.

I wrapped my arms around his shoulders as he settled in against me. Tonight I didn't want to be me. I moaned and closed my eyes. and for the most part. his hands on my breasts…my body was on fire and I thought he might be able to make me come just like this. with Edward touching me. I gasped as the top of my dress fell to my waist in a useless puddle of silk. I opened my eyes and looked down at him. God…" the words tumbled from my lips as I arched away from the wall. brushing. his lips still brushing my breasts just above my bra as his hands gripped my hips and held them to his. right where I was desperate for it. I didn't. the sensitive skin just above the fullness of my breasts. pinning me to the wall. and he dipped his head again to continue his exploration of the skin he'd just bared. I didn't want to live my life. I gasped at my loss of balance. hooking it over his hip. kissing my jaw. Instead. almost black in the dimly lit room. Without warning. uneven breaths as his tongue traced along the top edge of my dress. I clutched on to his shoulders to steady myself and when his mouth moved down over my chest. His hands were both underneath me. under his hands and under his body. It drove me mad. the skin of my neck and shoulder.I closed my eyes. holding me up. willing him to touch me harder. Jesus. I just wanted to exist suspended in this moment with him. my earlobe. I felt a tug and heard a soft sound of tearing fabric as he tore them free of the dress. I felt one of my shoes slip off my foot. holding me against him. He slipped his leg forward between my knees until his thigh was pressing against my center. Then he was back. I sighed as my nipples reacted to the pressure and the friction. his soft amazing mouth and tongue assaulting mine. and it was pressed directly against me. his thigh pressing against me. was enough to make me grow wet. I didn't want to think about my real life right now. held up by his hands and the wall at my back. Not here. His eyes were dark. vibrated across my skin. tugging. and we still had most of our clothes on. driving me to an intense state of arousal. You weren't going to wear it again. helping me ride against him. his thumbs scraping the lace and my skin above it. pushing me backwards until I hit the wall with a thud. raising me up. yes…With the shift in position. he hiked my other leg up. He reached underneath me. It hadn't been like this with the few men I'd dated in college. were you?" his voice. low and rough. his hardness rubbing back and forth against me. His hand slid down over my hip. I could feel the whole hard length of him pressed against my panties as my ruined dress rode up to my hips. This time I met his mouth first. holding him tight against me. pulling on my thigh. He did. His fingers were gone as he reached around behind me and released the clasp. kneading. cupping me through my bra. gripping his shoulders with both hands. Carefully. The sight of him. his fingers tangling in the little straps like he was going to lower them down off my shoulders. cupping my bottom. His hands skimmed up over my ribcage. even through layers of fabric. letting Edward's voice and his words wash over me and obliterate all knowledge of myself. pushing my tongue in hard against his. and making me feel… Edward shifted his mouth. I dropped my forehead to his shoulder and just concentrated on the sensation of his hips grinding mine into the wall. He rocked his hips into mine and I groaned through my teeth against his lips. I could feel how hard he was. His hands came up to my shoulders. I slid my palms up his neck to dig my fingers into his hair. his warm hands on my bare skin. and certainly never with…Don't even think his name. and his expression was feral and intense as he looked up at me from under his heavy brows. "Oh. making a low sound in the back of his throat that vibrated all through my body as he kissed his way up my throat to my mouth. he shifted . "It's a bridesmaid's dress. and I kicked the other one away before hooking my calves more securely around him. Edward grasped my hips fiercely. My head tipped back and I was dragging in deep. raising my leg. But within seconds I felt secure. not now. But I couldn't help but realize that no sexual experience I'd had in my life before compared to what was happening with Edward right now.

He gave me what I wanted. my panties were soaked through. embarrassed that he'd been able to turn me on like this with our clothes still on. clinging to his shoulders. I dipped my head to kiss and lick each new inch of skin exposed as his shirt fell open. his expression clouded and dark. "Do you want me to…" he whispered. "Edward…" He shifted his hand slightly underneath me and two fingertips brushed the most sensitive spot and I cried out." His fingers brushed me again and I tightened my arms around his shoulders. gasping. the same way he'd bared mine. the muscles of his stomach shuddered and he groaned. I bucked against him and then I came apart in a blinding flash of sensation. and I wanted all of it. sliding along my bottom until his fingertips reached the edge of my panties right at the little hollow at the inside of my thigh. every touch and taste I could get. I clung to his shoulders. moaning his name. He straightened up and I missed the warmth of him against me." he whispered. I gasped in his ear. over his ribs. my useless legs still wrapped around him. It was ." "Oh. to the soft skin of his abdomen with its sparse sprinkling of hair. savoring all of him. He turned and took a few steps across the room until he was at the edge of the bed before gently lowering me. Only one chance to touch him and feel him and experience this with him. there was a little voice in my head reminding me that I would only have this with him once. "Please. as he slid his fingers up and down me. All I could do was grind my forehead into his shoulder while I ground myself against his hand as I rasped out. as his hips thrust into me and he pressed me into the wall. lightly-muscled torso. peel his clothes away and bare his skin. his high cheekbones and squared off jaw all just planes of light and shadow in the dim room. dipping slightly into the wetness of me. wanting to undress him. His eyes never left mine as his hands went to the buttons of his shirt. He continued to stroke me as I rode out my orgasm. I sat back down on the bed.or wrong-ness of what I was doing here. slowly straightening away from the wall. As I flicked my tongue out to taste him. He smiled and dropped his hands to my hips as my shaky fingers went to work on his shirt buttons. but he only stood between my slightly bent knees at the edge of the bed. his lips just under my ear. I glanced up at him to see his face and he was looking down at me. I had a moment of self-consciousness. His tux shirt was all the way open but still hanging from his shoulders." Edward tightened his grip on my backside. and I took a second to appreciate the sight of his glorious. I'd stopped questioning the right. I pushed myself up then. "You're so wet. and began to undo the button on his pants. and I couldn't look away for a long moment. I only wanted more of him and his perfect fingers. "I want to be inside of you. slowly picking up speed. His eyes looked black. Oh. slipping his fingers under the edge. I skimmed down his chest. But still. He began to rub gently back and forth over me exactly where I needed it. God…" And the sound of him. I'd just given myself over to it fully. brushed away any of those worries. I knew he was going to touch me and he'd feel how wet he'd made me. my knees between his slightly parted feet. pressing harder. He sighed. Then his fingers scraped across my panties and he hissed in my ear. standing on my unsteady legs. "Yes. his hand coming up to tangle in my turning my face to kiss his neck. "Yes…" I finally managed to mutter. baby…God. nearly undone by my reaction to him. you feel amazing. holding me against his chest.

I crawled slowly back up over her. He was exposed before me and before I could think too much about what I was doing. moaning as my tongue invaded her mouth." he rasped out in my ear before his mouth came down over mine again. she was all mine. until they were gone. an animal sound. I leaned forward and slid him into my mouth. I have very different plans and we're just getting started. I needed to feel and touch and possess every inch of her. Goddamn. "These need to come off. I don't want it like that with you the first time. My mouth watered. I sat up briefly to shrug the rest of the way out of my shirt before bringing my hands back to her hips. Her hips flared gently and her waist dipped in small. before cupping my cheek in his palm. "If I only have tonight with you. "Not like that. Then he suddenly shifted and tugged on my hair. but just a little curvy in all the right places. and the thought of that was nearly enough to finish me off on the spot. She was nearly bare to me now. too. And her body…she was slight. only barely restrained by the fabric.insane that he could be so beautiful under his clothes. soft mouth. His hips rocked gently into me a few times as I slid him out and back in. His hand dug into my hair. and now it was all laid out below me against the snowy sheets. so I slid his boxers down over his hips and to the floor. my hands and knees caging in her body. fisting tightly. Black lace. her breasts filled my hands perfectly. He raised a hand and scraped his thumb across my cheekbone. My dick. Bella!" he ground out. He hissed again and muttered a string of unintelligible obscenities. I didn't think I was all that great at it. pinning me to the bed as his body came down across mine. But she needed to understand. pulling me away. which had known untold bliss in her mouth just a few minutes ago. She was ideal and at least for tonight. I needed her to feel this. For tonight she belonged to me and only me. She gasped and her hips arched off the bed. my hands itched to touch her everywhere. I let them slide off his hips." I could barely register his words.before he was surging forward. . I leaned forward slightly and pressed a kiss to his tip through the cotton." I muttered. Bella sank into the mattress under me. right over her hip bone. ~*~ Edward I pushed my tongue into her mouth. She closed her eyes and her head tipped back as I hooked my fingers in the sides and dragged them down her legs. the implication in them…the first time…. her legs were long and just right. and I knew I was being a little rough. hip to hip. her warm. The sound went straight to my center and I was wet for him all over again. I scraped her dress the rest of the way down over her hips. I paused at her hips. A guttural groan. Easing down the zipper of his tux pants. "Jesus fucking Christ. And her scent…I was so close to her now. leaning down to sink my teeth into one lightly. hardened even further. She was so pale and smooth. following the trail of her panties. with small pink tips. I leaned forward and let my lips skim down her right leg from her hip to her ankle. She would be wet again. kissing and licking as I went. I looked up at him questioningly. The hard length of his cock was pressing against the front of his boxers. Then. Her lovely skin was one of the first things I'd noticed about her. She wiggled slightly to free it and I whipped it off over her feet and tossed it across the room. and I was going to have it all. With one hand. I could smell her arousal. ripped out of his chest and his head fell back. running my fingers over her panties. her hands coming up to tangle into my hair. It made me feel bold. almost all of her naked and exposed. like porcelain. He shook his head roughly. pushing me back. Bella. but he had certainly seemed to be enjoying himself.

"Uhhh…Edward…" her voice came out as one long sigh. Her hand came up to the back of my head. I parted her with my fingers and licked. dipping my tongue into her belly button. letting my raging hard on hit the inside of her thigh. pushing her tongue against mine. Maybe he hadn't. listening to her ragged breathing as she came down from her orgasm. She did. "Do you feel me? How much I want you?" I thrust my hips against hers. as my fingers continued their path along her thigh to her center. She must have been close already. softly. Lifting up on my knees. I knew that. show him that she…what? Belonged to me? I had her on borrowed time. her dark eyes half-closed. shaky moan. then pulling back out. wet skin. to open her underneath me. pulling my face into hers. Oh. I pushed my tongue back in her mouth. reaching her hands up to my hair again. dipping in. like no one had made her feel this way before. She tasted too good. sweet and just a little salty. . fuck…. I ran my tongue across her bottom lip where she'd bit it and pulled it into my mouth. pulling me down onto her. the soft expanse of skin just above her sex. but I couldn't help but notice that for a woman who theoretically had plenty of experience in the bedroom. Her hips rocked gently against my hand as I worked my way further down. so I could take that perfect pink mouth with mine again. She kissed me back hard. Maybe I couldn't keep her. her fingers twisting in my hair. I wanted to taste the rest of her. just feeling her soft. twisting. because it wasn't long at all until she arched up off the bed and clamped down around me. but no one had ever made her feel the way I would tonight. I wanted to wrap myself in her and never come up for air. that delicious little soft spot right under it. I needed her. fuck is right. Her eyes slid closed and she moaned. "We're not done yet. shouting out my name into the dark room. so wet. pushing herself up off the bed." she whispered. I kissed along her jaw. "Edward…" she breathed against my mouth. Bella moaned and collapsed back on the bed. Her breathing hitched and her mouth fell open. not thrusting in. reveling in her taste. I settled over her. desperate to bury myself inside her. her navel. she felt too warm. I leaned in and kissed her softly and she hissed. She stared down at me. I settled my hands on her thighs and slowly moved them apart. I had worked my way across to her other hip and I had to fight back the urge to bite down again…hard. sucking gently. I pushed forward until I was hovering over her. her teeth digging into her bottom lip. so I just pressed my lips down on her silky skin and swirled my tongue across her. I wanted to leave a mark on her. Finally I kissed her lips. dipping my head to kiss her ear. "Oh. I certainly didn't want to think about her with him. letting her deepen it." I murmured between gentle kisses. I smiled softly at her as I slid my palm down the inside of her leg." I whispered. I traced her opening with my middle finger. more than I'd ever needed a woman before. kissing her stomach. Some base. So good…she tasted so very good. moving down her neck. She was wet. I was painfully hard.I trailed my mouth across her stomach. But I couldn't do that to her. I pushed into her with my fingers while I stroked her with my tongue and set up a gentle rhythm. I didn't want to think about her life outside this room. Her hands were in my hair. her hips arching underneath me. "Bella. down between her breasts. I shifted again and settled myself between her thighs. At least I had that. you feel so good. Her thighs were still trembling with the aftershocks as I pushed my way up her body again. elemental instinct urged me to let him know she'd been mine. My fingers still caressed her softly. Her taste… I dipped in again and lost all control. I could feel it in my gut like a physical pain. I liked that idea. I skimmed her lips and as my fingers parted them and moved in. Just thinking about it made me growl in frustration. she reacted to me like every moment of this was new to her. I exhaled across her stomach and she let out a low.

"Hold on. Jesus. I pressed harder with my other thumb. I shifted my hips and as easy as breathing. this was so much better than any dream. Bella. until she began to meet each one. as it took every ounce of control I had left not to explode as the vibration moved through her body and all around me. my voice like gravel. "Are you ready. I wanted to see the evidence of her all over my body. Her nails dug into my skin and I welcomed it. She just moaned. She would be the end of me." I whispered. that beautiful face as she came. I had a flash from a dream I'd had that first night in Chicago. Edward…" she wrapped her calves around the backs of my thighs and my dick hit the wet center of her. And I was so deep inside her… The best thing about having her over me like this was that she opened her eyes and stared down into mine. God. so I began moving into her. "You're so beautiful.. I pushed off of her." I whispered out loud. baby. "Mmmmm. So wet and hot and tight and…just right. slow and gentle at first. arching back." I ran my palm down the length of her thigh. I wanted to watch those eyes. I was already about to explode when. "Is this good?" she whispered. sweetheart?" Her eyes were closed. rocking her hips gently against me."Oh. because I was greedy and I wanted her to come again. Her back came up off the mattress as I settled into her and I wrapped my arms fully around her." she gasped. holding her close. "Jesus. I wanted to remember the real thing. "Bella. fishing around on the nightstand. her hips colliding with mine." I muttered. But I wouldn't do it yet. running my thumb over the arc of her cheekbone. her hips bucking against me. the long pale line of her throat exposed. I'm so close to coming right now you could recite the fucking alphabet and get me there. "I want you to come again. She folded her legs up and braced her hands on my chest. her pink lips a little swollen as her mouth dropped open. Bella riding me. "Oh. bringing her over on top of me." Perfect." She chuckled softly and I gritted my teeth. hooking the back of her knee. so I rolled onto my back. . I slid into her. whimpering and curling in on herself. So perfect. I reached my thumb down between us and hit that spot. "Oh.. out of nowhere. "Can you?" "Edward…" I rubbed a little harder and her hips bucked and she moaned. just above where we were joined. "Please. I knew these were in here. I reached up my free hand and cupped her cheek. Edward…" And then she came. fuck. So beautiful. her head tilted back. She lifted her knees. Her hair was a wild dark tumble around her shoulders. long and low and feral. her fingers curling into my chest. thankful that I left the damned things in my travel bag all the time just as a precaution. her nails digging in slightly. This was why I had dragged her into my room instead of staying in hers. I freed a condom from its wrapper and rolled it on before settling myself over Bella again." My eyes literally rolled back in my head.

" "I know. tucking her head under my chin. and I wished I could see her face to read her expressions. pulling her in closer to my side." I whispered into her hair. so much I wanted to say to her. I heard her draw in a breath and hold it." "And you live in…" "I know that. What time?" "Seven. I turned my head so I could breathe in the scent of her hair as I fell asleep. too…hard. guttural growl ripped through my chest as the sensation raced through me." She was silent for a moment. A low. And it's not easy. When it was all set I settled on my back again. "I'll get a wakeup call. Stay with me. "Stay. planting little kisses on my chest in-between breaths. her head on my shoulder. But are you really happy?" She paused for a long time before answering. The silence bore down on me like a weight." I cut her off quickly. With a sigh. But I want this." I rolled away from her to the phone to make the call. This time she came readily. "That's all I want. But there was no way she was leaving Chicago without hearing something…anything from me. throwing her leg over mine. "I know you're not free." I whispered into the dark. "My flight is early tomorrow. breathing hard. not as boneless as just a moment ago. But sleep wasn't coming. I leaned away and dealt with the condom as quickly as possible so I could lie back and pull her to my side again. like she was going to give me the speech and get up out of this bed and leave. all I had to do was think about myself buried inside of her as she came. "But things are really complicated. holding her tight on me as I thrust up into her. I don't have any answers. She felt so good like this. There was so much I was thinking and feeling. Instead I had to wait for her to puzzle out her answer and speak. like there was nowhere else on earth that she belonged. Bella collapsed down onto my chest. her arm across my chest. It felt like years. She sighed again and it felt like the beginning of goodbye." My arm around her back tightened on instinct. okay?" She paused again. "I want more than this with you. She lay against me." ." she finally said. I wrapped my arms around her shoulders. and almost everything seemed completely off-limits. "No. "We'll talk. Can we…we'll just talk. I'm not. Forget your life for just tonight. leaving me shaking and stunned. too. and I did. It's a mess. Bella. I know that. holding her tight. "But I'm…" "I know. but she was slightly stiff now. I gripped her hips firmly. I wanted to scream. Bella. That's all I can promise right now. "I should go…" "Please." she whispered.Because I'd been holding it off for what felt like forever. she shifted her hips and lifted herself off me. My body might have been thoroughly satiated but my mind was a wreck. tightening around me. For now.

pushing my face into the hollow under his jaw. Edward had shut off even the wall sconce by the door so there was no light save the thin slit of street light seeping in through a tiny gap in the drapes. And all the time. I couldn't look away. We were all tangled. he pushed into me. his chest pressed tight against mine. still pinning me with his body. pressing my lips to his neck that was now slightly stubbly with the growth of his beard. miles of his bare skin pressed against mine. pinning me underneath him. slowly rising and falling. It was so intimate. The middle of the night. still not back in reality just yet. I kept my arms wrapped tight around his ribs as the whole length of him shuddered against me and finally stilled. There was no urgency now. But the dark kept me wrapped in my dream-like state. we worked together and against each other. breathing in the air he let out and in that moment. my temples. holding my head as his body pressed down into mine. I pulled him down until I felt the satisfying warmth of his breath in the crook of my neck and the full weight of his body pinning me down to the bed. his tongue raking mine. softness and friction.I pressed my lips to the top of her head and she rubbed her cheek along my chest. At some point. My body curled up underneath him. He sighed and I inhaled instinctively. His eyes never left mine. pulling me open underneath him. low moan released into my mouth. his face just inches from me. burning intensity. even if I wanted to. As he settled in. The side of his face was pressed to mine. His hands closed around the backs of my thighs. Bella curled into my side. It was only then that I finally let myself slip into sleep. warm chest. His eyes were wideopen. His hand was skimming over my back and ribs. Slowly. no air between us. too. I covered it with my hand and stroked her knuckles with my thumb until her fingers relaxed and her body went slack. That was what woke me up. his hands still held my face fast. "Bella…" It was all he said. our faces so close together that we shared the same breaths. He sucked his breath back in and I heard myself moan. his eyes staring down into mine. he rested his weight on his elbows on either side of me. He held my face. her hand fisted on my chest. he was sliding against me. My head was pillowed on his hard. I was nobody and we were nowhere. I finally exhaled and the exhaustion caught up with me in a rush. I angled my head up. exhaled. He shifted and caged my face with his hands. long and slow as our bodies recombined themselves and created some new thing together. my hairline. still. I felt myself start to wind up underneath him and he pressed his mouth against mine. as he stared into my face and pushed his body into mine. ~*~ Bella It was dark. Always under him. arms and legs. it was like he devoured me whole. all the ache and want sucked away. Edward moaned in the back of his throat and rolled. his fingertips pressing into my cheeks. The thought rocketed out of nowhere and made me gasp in longing and pain. I wouldn't be here when he shaved again. Late. Then he did. Mostly it was just sensation. the feeling of my body coming alive under his hands of its own accord. whimpering against his lips. always his. flat black in the meager light leaking in to the room. I floated. and I felt his lips kissing along my jaw and my cheek. When he found it. his long. swallowing up my gasping cries as they left my mouth. seeking my mouth. only a slow. I had no sense of time. ~*~~*~~*~ . This…this was where I belonged. He held me tight and still underneath him as I came apart. He fell against me like he'd been made to fit exactly there. lost in the timeless dark. so firm and still so gentle. about to enter me again and I was opening for him. setting fire to my skin everywhere he touched me.

just kill me now. face him and what came next. feelings. and I didn't want woke me up. He groaned underneath me and I felt the vibration all through his chest. It must be somebody knocking at the wrong room. It brought back a flood of sense memories from last night. but polite. I shifted a little. I felt panic bubbling up in my throat. "Fuck!" I suddenly found my voice in the worst way imaginable as I bolted upright in bed. I heard it. Edward. "The hotel computer went down last night. And right now. My breathing got shallow and rapid. muffled and far away. He opened the door and there was silence. geez. because if I woke up. I heard Edward fumbling around in the semi-dark room. I guessed. carefully settling me back on the bed before he slipped away." My eyes flew open and I saw the readout on the bedside alarm clock. Colonel Brandon. Is she…Ah. this is terribly embarrassing for you." "She's here. I was about to fling myself out from underneath the covers before I remembered that I was completely naked. I heard Edward mutter as the pounding continued. Jesus Christ. a drunk wedding guest maybe. Once he got rid of this wayward drunk and came back to the bed. "Edward…" "Sir?" Edward's voice was raspy. There was a long. The pounding stopped for a moment. louder. the wakeup calls didn't go out this morning…. emotionless. so I didn't open my eyes and I tried to sink back into oblivion. I'd never survive this. I wanted sleep. I just wanted to go on enjoying sleeping next to naked Edward. The time would come soon enough when I would have to wake up and face it. Damn. touches. I would have to acknowledge that I was waking up next to Edward…naked Edward. a string of half-intelligible obscenities. trying my damnedest to find my way back into the oblivion of sleep for a little while longer. "What can I do for you?" "I'm sorry if this is…it's just that I noticed last night… so I wondered if maybe…" Colonel Brandon trailed off for a moment. I'd have to talk to him. I felt his hand skim gently down my hair. curling onto my side. sharper. but then it resumed. sounds. pregnant silence. but I squashed it down. I flinched. I'm sorry.Chapter Nine ~ Daylight ~ Bella It was the pounding I heard first. "I'm looking for Bella. So I squeezed my eyes tightly shut. Think about . Edward had turned back to me and I could see Colonel Brandon's shocked face over his shoulder. The pounding continued. There was no way I could hope to retreat back into sleep now. but it didn't seem to have anything to do with me." Edward's voice was flat. I felt him shift out from underneath me. Now it was on Edward's door. Don't think about it yet. Everyone drank so much last night…or was it still tonight? Maybe they were lost or confused. Edward exhaled heavily. I was sore between my legs. Must not hyperventilate. along with the avalanche of confusing and terrifying emotions that would come with it. Not yet. closer. willing myself to disappear into the covers. pulling on his pants. She's not in her room and I'm supposed to drive her to the airport. I swear. 8:45. Then I heard a voice that stopped my heart cold.

shoving it in untidy piles into the suitcase. and for a second I just wanted to drop the sheet and wrap my arms around him and never let go. There was no way I could look at his face as I left. don't think. don't think. I'd kicked them across the room.this later… this horrible. An involuntary moan escaped my throat. pressing one last kiss against my forehead. mortifying. not here. I did find my key card on the floor where I'd dropped it. Oh fuck. don't think. Because my heart would absolutely break and I couldn't. Thank God my room was next door. scooping up anything left out. As I scrambled out of bed. "Ohfuckohfuckohfuck…" I stumbled around the room. I didn't look back. I supposed. Then I was back in my room. but as I retrieved it I remembered the broken straps. sweater and boots from yesterday." I heard Colonel Brandon muttering. I fastened it with a hair tie I fished out of my bag. fumbling and cursing the whole time. I was going to have to beat a retreat in this sheet. and I snatched it up. my sweater was crooked. I'd never be able to wear them again after last night anyway. don't think about Jay. I made a whirlwind pass through the room. then my bra and underwear weren't going to do much good. which was exactly what I was. It helped . Well. and he brought his mouth down hard on mine. towards the door. "Go. don't think." I was sprinting for the door. and now he took a step in my direction. though. I closed my eyes and tried to just concentrate on breathing. Pointless to try to get that back on. I opted to just leave them on the floor. it was only for a second." I didn't let myself meet his eyes. "Bella…" Edward stood unmoving in the middle of the room the whole time I'd frantically raced around him. not now…I just needed to go. Don't think. I couldn't. In the bathroom I essentially scraped my arm across the counter. "I have to go. I said nothing. I just twisted out of his grip and raced for the door. I found my dress in a pile by the desk. and no matter what. I could think about all of this later. spinning me to face him. "I have to go. Tell Bella I'll be in the lobby. he released me. Our doors were right next to each other. Don't think about Edward back in that room. I wrenched the sheet free and wrapped it around myself. Right now. In a matter of minutes I'd cleared the room and was dragging my suitcase to the elevator. get some clothes back on. I made the mistake of opening my eyes. and I saw myself reflected back in the polished brass panels of the elevator. but his arm shot out. Ditto the shoes. I dropped the sheet and bolted for my suitcase. desperate to get this over with. just concentrate on getting the hell out of here. if I was going to do this wrapped in a sheet. Once inside. hooking around my waist. Don't think." I moved to brush past him. trying to locate my clothes. half of my shoulder exposed. and the door clicked shut. Hastily scraping my hair back. "I'll just give her a minute. His other hand came up to the back of my head. the remnants of my eye makeup was smudged under my eyes. any of my clothes. My hair was a ratted mess around my shoulders." he murmured. get the hell out of this hotel. Before I had to make that choice. I looked like some slut making her walk of shame. "Be safe. swiping all my toiletries into my bag. It would take me longer to find them than they were worth. so although I had to make an appearance in the hall wrapped in a sheet. pulling on my jeans. don't think about Colonel Brandon waiting in the lobby. miserable moment. with the door locked behind me. Just don't think.

I slid out of my seat after him. I couldn't meet his eyes. I couldn't think about him. Minutes later. I couldn't even let myself think about last night." "I'm going to pretend that I didn't see anything out of the ordinary this morning. I cringed inwardly.. I had to just push that aside until I got out of Chicago. my carry-on bag bumping brutally against my hip." he whispered gruffly. just making it through security and to my flight on time consumed all my attention and energy." I couldn't respond. "Thank you. "I don't know what I was thinking. the plane pushed back from the terminal and taxied out. miserable at the thought that I had permanently ruined my relationship with Alice's father." I mumbled something incomprehensible. sweaty heap. Closing my eyes. I was breathing so hard. folding me into his firm embrace. It was too much. "You're a grown woman. Bella. Bellarina. "You should…just… take care of yourself. . all I could do was stare at him." "I wasn't myself. When I heard him tentatively clear his throat. "If traffic isn't too bad. What was there to say. He finally pulled up at the curb at Departures and hopped out of the car to get my suitcase. dragging my suitcase with me. We were completely silent for the first fifteen minutes of the drive. too soon. collapsing into my seat in a heaving. You don't owe me any explanations.. about what had happened. I nodded my head weakly before backing away. the closest thing to a parent that I still had. I was just swiping my fingers under my eyes to clean up the makeup as the elevator opened into the lobby. We stood awkwardly for just a moment on the curb before I impulsively threw my arms around his neck. I made it with just minutes to spare. shifting awkwardly from foot to foot. I had to race through the concourse. okay?" I couldn't respond as my throat closed up with tears. I had no other choice but to let him take my suitcase from me and follow him out to the car that was waiting at the curb. "We love you." Finally I choked out an answer. eyes wide." "But. really? Small talk was impossible in the face of the elephant currently sitting between us. "Thank you." I was practically hyperventilating. "Let's get a move on. Colonel Brandon stood near one of the columns. It was close. I just focused on the noises of the plane and the flight attendant's announcements.marginally." he muttered. So I just listened to the sounds of the plane's machinery and blocked out everything else. The Colonel just stood on the curb next to the car and watched me walk away. "That means I won't say anything to Alice or anyone else. willing the ground to open up and swallow me whole. When it didn't. Colonel Brandon held up a hand to stop me. "So last night…." I said quickly. you should still make your flight." He nodded tightly.. I couldn't think about it yet. We lapsed into silence for the rest of the ride." I muttered into his neck. I had a little too much to drink and I just. After that. baby.. I just curled into myself.

but I couldn't fathom how anything could grow out of this impossible situation. at least for the next little bit. I groaned. but what did that even mean? He lived three thousand miles away from me. I retrieved my suitcase and was in a cab speeding along the empty highway back towards my house and real life before I knew it. huddled on the filthy floor of an airplane bathroom. My emotional breakdown coupled with my sleep-deprived night caught up to me once I was back in my seat. Without warning. and one thought about this man had me wildly aroused. It matched my mood perfectly. my body wracked with sobs. oppressive and suffocating. Fishing my toothbrush out of my bag. When we split. Except that I didn't really want to purge it. The connection I felt to him was undeniable. there was the mess with Edward to deal with. When I fished it out and looked at the screen. I looked almost normal. the other hand fisted against my mouth to stifle the sounds I was making. still smelling of Edward and sex. As my hair tumbled free. I was grateful for it. I felt sick to my stomach at myself. that much was absolutely clear. determined to pull myself together. and it was Sunday. The less time I had to think about it. too. and my nerves came alive in spite of myself. This plane would land in a couple of hours. Everything felt heavy. I wanted to cling to every moment of last night for as long as I lived. The sky overhead was grey. and Jay would be waiting for me at the other end. towards the bathroom. I had to pull it together. I'd slipped up. Edward. not because of my infidelity. I needed to extricate myself from our relationship. sobbing my eyes out at my reckless. I closed my eyes. the better. slicking it back into a ponytail. What I was going to do about Edward was infinitely more complicated. As wrong as it was. I bolted up out of my seat. What had I done? And what the hell was I supposed to do next? This morass of complicated emotions was exactly what I had been trying so hard to avoid. his body on mine. Now if I could just purge it from my head as easily. I smoothed my slightly damp hands over my hair and brushed it out. Remembering his face made me begin to remember everything else. and in moments I'd collapsed down onto the floor of the tiny bathroom. one arm wrapped tight around me. He didn't deserve this from me. and make sure he never found out about it. He'd always been there for me. I glanced up at the mirror and there was my guilty. but the least I could do was keep that from him. Did you make your flight?. And there was still the unresolved issue of the other man I lived with. his body. and I barely knew him. it would be because of our incompatibility. haggard face once again. still clinging to me. here I was. I pulled my hair tie free. the air was wet and cold. to dwell on it. He didn't deserve my wretched betrayal. I quickly brushed my teeth. he deserved respect and fair treatment in this. Christ.Edward . More guilt. I was hit with the smell of Edward. unfaithful behavior. Just his name in my head made my breathing stall in my chest. and I couldn't come to any conclusions about that. wiping away the smeared makeup. and I passed out cold.Half an hour later we were at cruising altitude. I couldn't imagine who would be trying to reach me at this hour. my stomach plunged to my feet. When I finished. Now in addition to the mess I had to face with Jay. Raising my hand. and the "fasten seatbelt" light dinged off. I stood up and splashed water on my face. his hands. I threw the latch and leaned forward onto the edge of the tiny sink. so the airport was quiet and uncrowded. My phone vibrated in my bag next to me. Once inside. only waking up when the plane touched down. My eyes filled with tears. a sob wrenched its way up out of my throat. now more so than ever. remembering his beautiful face as I backed away from him in his hotel room this morning. He said he wanted more. but I couldn't hurt him. At least I could face Jay without worrying about the sex showing all over my face. his skin. bound for Seattle. Because of the time difference. intending to brush out the mess and put it back again in better shape. his aftershave. it was still early in Seattle.

B I won't bother you there. I felt nearly nauseous with guilt. I just started typing. to forget that anything out of the ordinary had happened. just barely. A discarded t-shirt was draped across the back of the couch. I felt like I could hardly breathe. but the second I stepped foot inside. I wanted to still feel connected to him in any way I could. no tears. I was desperate for Edward. and already I couldn't live with myself. There were so many. Looking around. no chance of a shameful confession. it would be easier to do what I needed to do. Still nothing. fished my keys out. I couldn't stay here anymore. He was shirtless. and a glance towards the kitchen to my left told me it wasn't much better. I was gone for four days. . Once inside.My heart rate skyrocketed seeing his name glowing on my phone. I needed to face it. leaning against the door and breathing deeply. but I knew I needed to plow through it and start fixing things. Here it was. no recriminations. The familiar feel and smell of our house made me shake with anxiety. On autopilot. I knew it had to be as soon as possible. Maybe if I was mad at him. his dark blonde tousled hair.. Take care. I took a moment to steel myself. The situation threatened to overwhelm me. On the other. I snorted in disgust. I wanted to hide. Are you home already?. I let it swell inside me. Jay was sprawled across the bed on his stomach. Pizza boxes were stacked on the stove. I dragged my suitcase up the walk. the sheet tangled around his hips and legs. I sat down gently on the edge of the bed and touched his shoulder. taking up the whole thing. maybe even today. especially if I maintained any contact with Edward.Bella I had just closed my eyes and tipped my head back on the seat when my phone vibrated again. I noticed that the house was a mess. and I was struck by how little his looks affected me now. I stopped thinking about it. Made the flight. even though the silence permeating everything made me think Jay was still asleep. Had he been drinking non-stop the entire time I was gone? The room was heavy with the sour smell of stale beer in an airless space. I wanted to turn around and run away. I was just a few hours into the lying and deceit. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. he really couldn't keep it together better than this for four days? Instead of trying to tamp down my irritation like I usually would for the sake of avoiding an argument. and a pair of dirty socks lay on the floor in front of it. Facing Jay in a few minutes would certainly be easier if I hadn't just been in contact with Edward. No response. I shook him a little. I had to face this and face him. We'll talk later.E Tears welled up and choked my throat as I stuffed my phone back in my bag. arms spread wide. The bedroom looked as bad as the rest of the house. I headed back to the bedroom to wake him up and let him know I was home. It was like I was looking at a stranger. the fine lines of the muscles of his back and arms. On the one hand. This place was oppressive. The cab pulled up in front of my house. and let myself in. I couldn't sneak around like this. Beer bottles littered the nightstand and the floor next to the bed. There were empty beer bottles all over the living room. He was taking care not to contact me when I was home because I'd be with Jay. Once again I was struck by his good-looks. but that was impossible.E Almost. I had to start dealing with the mess I'd made. I missed him already. the shadow of stubble across his jawline. Maybe we'd get into a heated blow-up and I could just storm out. I hadn't really planned my exit strategy. head on. I'd go out of my mind. I was out of time to think about this anymore.

"Jay, I'm home. Wake up." He groaned and rolled his face further into his pillow. "Jay?" Another groan and he rolled back to look at me out of one bloodshot eye. "Bells?" "Hey. I just got home. Are you okay?" I asked, because now that I got a good look at him, I could see that he wasn't. He looked haggard and worn-out. Another stab of guilt. What if he'd been sick all weekend, and I'd been too much of a coward to even answer his calls? Too busy fucking someone else to even call him. Stop. I can't think about that while I'm here with him. I'll never make it if I do. "Bella," he groaned, rolling onto his side and reaching his arms around me. He shifted a little and dropped his head onto my lap. I reached up a tentative hand, hovering over his head for a minute before I made myself touch him, stroking his hair half-heartedly. "Oh, God, Bells. Everything is just shit. It's all over." "What are you talking about? What happened?" "I got laid off. On Friday." My heart stalled in my chest. I knew it was coming, but still, now that it had, I felt stunned. And trapped. How could I break up with him now on the heels of this? I couldn't. That was the answer. I was fucking trapped. I'd have to stick it out at least until he'd gotten through the worst of this. My throat closed up and I felt like I was choking, like I couldn't breathe, but I forced myself to keep stroking his hair, his shoulder, so he wouldn't sense my panic or see the horror on my face. "Oh, Jay. I'm so sorry. Why didn't you call me?" "I fucking tried. You didn't call me back. Where were you, Bells?" Guilt and self-loathing twisted in my stomach, making me feel physically sick. "I'm sorry, Jay. I lost my charger," the lie slid easily from my lips. This must be how it starts, with one little lie that leads to another and another. "I just found it this morning when I was packing to come home." He made some muffled, non-committal sound and I think he believed me. "It's not exactly a surprise though, is it? We've been sort of expecting this for a while, right?" He reared back then to look at me, his eyes unnaturally bright and fierce. "What the fuck are you talking about?" "The cutbacks, the layoffs," I said, confused. "They've been letting a lot of people go. It seemed like it was just a matter of time." Jay shook his head fiercely. "No. This was all Eleazar. That bastard has been out to get me from the start. He was always trying to fuck me over. And now he's turned management against me, I fucking know it! Telling lies about me and…." "Jay, come on. I'm sure you're just…." "I know it!" he snapped. "Okay, okay. Just calm down, Jay," I said, holding up my hands to placate him, not sure where all this anger at Eleazar was coming from. It was just a crappy situation that we'd seen coming for months. Well, I had, anyway.

Then he groaned and buried his face in my lap again, tightening his arms around my hips like a vise. "It doesn't matter. It will be okay, won't it Bells? We'll be okay, right? Tell me it will be okay. It'll still be you and me and we'll be okay." He was breathing in ragged gulps, barely holding back his emotion. I'd never seen him so undone, so vulnerable. My face twisted and I was glad he couldn't see me. I had to do this. I had to lie and help him through this at least for right now. I had to tell him whatever he needed to hear. "S-sure it will. You'll be fine. We'll be fine. Everything's going to be okay, you'll see." He drew in a long stuttering gasp, his eyes still squeezed shut. I tried to shift away a little, to extricate myself from his grasp. "Hey, Jay, I overslept this morning and I didn't have time for a shower, so I'm just going to go…" "No, please. Please, Bells, just stay here. Please." He gripped me tighter, tugging me down to lay next to him. I lowered myself slowly, letting him wrap himself around me and rest his head against my chest. I wrapped my arms around his shoulders lightly, trying to make every move comforting and easy. "Okay. It's alright, Jay. I'm right here." "Don't leave, Bells. Please, don't leave me," his voice was just a muffled rasp against my sweater. I nearly choked on the tears that suddenly welled up in my eyes. They spilled out, making hot streaks across my temples and into my hair. I swallowed painfully against the constriction in my throat as panic and desperation flooded me. More than I'd ever wanted anything, I wanted to bolt out of the bed, out of this house, and never look back. And it was the one thing I absolutely could not do. Every minute I stayed here with him made me feel dirty and wretched, and yet I couldn't get away. I couldn't escape Jay, and I couldn't escape myself. Instead of settling down, he seemed overcome by his anxiety. His breathing sped up, becoming harsh and uneven, as tiny whimpers broke from his throat. I stroked his hair, willing him to calm down, wishing that he'd fall back asleep and let me go. He didn't. He just clung to me in desperation. "I'm right here, Jay," I whispered against the top of his head as I rocked him, trying to calm him. "I'm not going anywhere. I promise."

Chapter Ten ~ Long December ~
Edward "Edward?" I don't know how long I'd been standing there with the open chart in my hands, pen poised just above the paper, staring at it, but seeing nothing. Kate's voice right next to me finally broke me out of my daze. "Are you alright?" Her face was lined with worry, her blue eyes narrowed at me in concern. "You've been staring at that chart for ten minutes, and you haven't written anything." I shook my head and smiled weakly at her. "I'm fine. It was just a long few days in Chicago. I guess I'm still recovering."

She relaxed, and a smile spread across her face as she leaned on the nurse's station next to me. "So, did you have a good time?" All I could do was blink at her for a minute. A good time? Was that how I would describe this weekend? Bella? Well, yes, but it was also so much more. Honestly, I couldn't begin to describe the weekend, so I settled for lying. "Yeah, it was fun. Nice to see old friends, all that." "Any past loves come back to haunt you?" she asked, eyes dancing, her voice teasing. "Uh, no. Alice…that's the bride…she kept us pretty busy. I didn't even see my parents while I was there." "Oh, that's too bad. I know how close you are to them. They sound like such lovely people. I'd love to meet them sometime." I shifted uncomfortably, because Kate's tone had turned into something slightly wistful, a little hopeful. I'd heard it from her before, and I knew what it meant. She'd been dropping hints, subtly expressing her interest in me, for quite a while. I'd even been considering it. Of all the women in my acquaintance here in New York, Dr. Kate Pierce was probably the one I had been most seriously considering actually dating. She was a beautiful woman, with thick, sandy brown hair falling in waves down her back, a heart-shaped face with a faint dusting of freckles across her cheek bones, nice eyes, and a great body. But right now her attention, her pointed questions about my parents, just made me edgy. Because while a week ago, I'd been toying with the idea of asking her out, that was all before. Now, the idea of spending one-on-one time with her left me feeling cornered and a little depressed. "Well, maybe the next time they come to the city," I muttered, turning back to the chart and finally scribbling my notes there. Kate stood expectantly next to me for another moment, waiting for me to continue telling her about the wedding, but I couldn't. I needed to get out of there. I snapped the chart closed and stuffed it back in the right slot. "Excuse me, Kate. I've got a patient waiting." "Oh, sure. So do I. Maybe I'll see you at lunch?" There was the hopeful tone of voice again, the pleading eyes. I looked away and waved a hand absently. "I have a lot of catching up to do today. I'm working through lunch." Her face fell, but I didn't linger, I just turned on my heel and hurried away down the corridor to the doctor's lounge. It was in the middle of a shift, so it was empty. I fell heavily onto one of the hard, lumpy couches and dropped my head into my hands, rubbing the heels of my palms into my eye sockets. It was true; I was tired. I hadn't gotten back from Chicago until late yesterday afternoon. But that had nothing to do with how I felt. I was strung out, distracted, uneasy, and completely pre-occupied. Bella filled my thoughts. I wanted to reach out to her, talk to her. I'd wanted to do it yesterday morning before she left Chicago. I told her that I wanted more the night before, but I'd been hoping to actually talk it through in the morning before she left. I wanted to ask her about her relationship, how she was really feeling, what she thought might happen next. But that was before that epic clusterfuck with Alice's dad. In the end she'd just sprinted away from me, and I'd had no choice but to let her go. I'd texted her once I figured she was home, just because I was at the airport myself by then and I couldn't stop thinking about her. She answered, which made my heart stupidly soar, but since she was almost back to her place, and back to him, I couldn't really launch into anything deep. I'd wrestled with myself all night last night, wanting to call her and have the conversation with her I'd hoped to have in Chicago. I still had nothing to say and nothing to offer; all I could do was tell her how I was

feeling, that in the space of four days I'd completely fallen for her, that I didn't want it to be over. But I didn't call, because I knew the odds were she was home with him, and I didn't want to make problems for her. Thoughts of him made me begin to question whether or not I should say anything to her at all. She was in a relationship; I knew that going into it. We lived three thousand miles apart. Maybe I should just back off, let her make the next move and tell me what she wanted, and take it from there. But I couldn't do that. I wanted her. She hadn't left my thoughts since she left my room yesterday, and I just couldn't stay away. I pulled my phone out of the pocket of my scrubs and scrolled to her number. While I thought about calling, I rubbed my thumb over her name absently. I figured she was back at work today, like me. But on the off-chance that she wasn't, I decided to text again. That way, she could ignore it until she was alone if she had to. The subterfuge and plotting was already starting to make me feel sick to my stomach. How the fuck had I managed to get here, sneaking around behind some other guy's back with his girl? Hadn't I always sworn I'd never do this? But it was too late; I did do it. And now I couldn't undo it; I didn't want to. I spent another ten minutes trying to decide what to say before finally deciding to open up simple and go from there. Hey. How's it going?- E It was pretty pathetic how I just sat there on the couch, clutching my phone and staring a hole through it, waiting for a response. When the phone finally vibrated in my hand, I nearly shouted out in surprise. Hey. I'm fine. How are you?- B I exhaled heavily, not even realizing I'd stopped breathing. Her response was completely neutral, no insight to be gleaned from her words, but she did respond, and fairly quickly, so I decided to take the plunge. Can you talk now? Can I call? We should talk about us.-E I waited ten minutes for her response. Ten minutes with my phone clutched in my hands, my fists pressed tight against my forehead. Ten minutes with my heart in my throat, half-fearing that I'd never hear from her again. Then my phone buzzed in my hand, and I nearly leaped out of my skin. There can't be an us. Not right now. I can't. I'm sorry, it's just really complicated. –B I stared at the glowing screen for a full minute, waiting for those words to sink in. She was telling me no. She was back home with him now and she chose him. There can't be an us…. I raked a hand through my hair and fell back on the couch, staring at the ceiling. I felt like I could hear my heart thudding loudly in my ears. Whatever existed between us, that intense connection I felt and that I was sure she felt, too…it wasn't enough. I knew it was the chance I was taking. She had a long and complex history with him, and I was just some guy she met at a wedding. There had always been the possibility that she would go back home and put it all behind her. I knew the risk had been there and I'd chosen to overlook it. My phone was still clutched in my hand because, even though she'd just shut me down in terms of anything further happening between us, I just didn't want to let her go, and right now all I had left of her were a few texts. I lifted my phone again so I could see it, re-reading her words. This was a mistake. She said no. I should just leave this alone and walk away now. I should get up and go ask out Kate, who was completely available and dying for me to do it. But I wanted Bella, in whatever tiny, meaningless way I could have her, even if it was only friendship. Even if all I'd get from her were some stupid, pointless texts. So I clicked and wrote back. Okay, no us right now. I understand. Can we still talk? Just friends?- E

Bella I was still hunched over my desk, head in my hands, struggling to keep the tears at bay again, when my phone vibrated next to me. I snatched it up and stared at it. Okay, no us right now. I understand. Can we still talk? Just friends?- E My hands were shaking, and there was no way I could stop the tears now. I'd just blown him off and he still wanted to be friends? Could I do that? Should I do that? I knew what the right course of action was here. I should erase his messages and never respond. My course was set, at least for the near future. Letting anything at all linger with Edward would only make it harder on me; it would only compound my guilt. Because even if his texts were entirely innocent, what they did to me was not. The second I saw his name pop up on my screen this morning, my heart nearly exploded in my chest. It was all I could do not to dial him back impulsively. I just wanted to hear his voice and feel connected to him again. But that would be wrong and a mistake, so I took a deep breath and responded, using the most neutral words I could muster. Then when he said he wanted to talk about what happened and us, I'd nearly lost it. I'd spent the last twenty-four hours trying to compartmentalize Saturday night; to close it off in my mind so I could function from minute to minute. With one tiny text he brought it all flooding back. Once I'd finally disentangled myself from Jay, I'd taken a shower, turning the hot water up so high it was nearly scalding. I'd stayed in until it ran cold, as if the hot water alone could wash away my indiscretions. I'd managed to muddle through the rest of yesterday in a storm of manufactured business; unpacking, laundry, house cleaning. Jay eventually moved out of the bed, but only to the couch, where he spent the day drinking himself into oblivion. I should have been annoyed, but I was only grateful, throwing a blanket over him when he eventually passed out and retreating to our bed alone, where I sobbed noiselessly into a pillow until I finally fell asleep. I'd gone into work early this morning, leaving Jay still sleeping on the couch. And now I sat in my cubicle, my monitor unchanged for over an hour as I hyperventilated with my phone in my hand. The war raged in my head. I shouldn't answer. I wanted to answer. If I kept it simple, if we didn't talk about anything real, then how could it be wrong? We'd just be friends and friends was okay. I knew I was just lying to myself, but a small moment of justification was all it took to weaken my resolve, and I was typing back. Okay, friends.-B Good. Friends. So,*friend*, are you back at work today?-E In spite of the fact that I was still crying, his text made me smile and I let out a choked little chuckle. How had he managed to turn it all around so fast? I couldn't explain how he'd so seamlessly been able to switch gears, but I also wasn't about to argue. He was the only good thing I had to hang on to right now, even if I couldn't have him the way I wanted him. He said he was okay being my friend; then I was going to take him at his word, accept his friendship and hold on for dear life. I started typing back. Yes, back at work. Hate it. How about you?-B Well, I don't hate it, but I'd rather not be here now.-E I know what you mean. This place is more hateful than usual today.-B What are your co-workers like?-E

Embittered failed writers. Miserable human beings, for the most part. Oh, wait...I guess that includes me.-B Stop it. I bet you're brilliant. Angela said you were.-E I was okay once. Now I translate the engineer's babble into words us regular humans can read.-B Well, it serves a purpose. Everybody reads manuals. Wait. Forget that. Nobody ever reads the manual. Sorry. :( -E I chuckled out loud at his attempt to spin something positive out of my mind-numbing job. I guess we can't all save lives, Dr. Cullen.-B I practice General Medicine. I don't save too many lives. Most of the time I diagnose sinusitis and write scrips for antibiotics.-E So I guess there's drudgery in every line of work.-B There is today.-E I sighed and closed my eyes, letting my phone rest against my forehead. I wanted to stay suspended in this little bubble with him all day. But if I was going to do this, maintain this friendship with him, I needed to keep it brief and light. So I lied. Gotta go. Meeting starting. -B Of course. Later, then.-E Later. Would he really text again? Was he really okay with just being my friend? I had no way to know. I hoped he would. I had no answers to any of this; Jay, Seattle, New York- but I wanted him to keep talking to me. And if he did text again, I knew that there was no way I would ignore him or tell him to leave me alone, even though that was exactly what I should do.

I unlocked the front door and stepped inside as quietly as I could, since I had no idea these days what I would be facing when I got there. The living room was pitch-dark and quiet, but light spilled down the hall from the office, so I figured Jay was back there. I set my bag down on the table inside and flipped the lights on. New Year's Eve. You'd never know it looking at our house. There wasn't a trace of festivity here; not even left over from Christmas. I hadn't even gotten a tree this year; there hadn't been any point. Jay wouldn't have noticed, and I didn't care. I wondered absently if maybe I should have, if for no other reason than to brighten the place up a little. Who was I kidding? No tree would fix what was wrong in this house. I'd never been particularly fond of the house, and now I absolutely loathed it. It had never felt particularly homey to me, and now it felt like a veritable prison, one where the walls were closing in tighter every day. If I ever got clear of this place…no, when I got clear of this place…when I had sole say over my living arrangements again, it would look nothing like this. Everything in my future felt so uncertain, but there were two things I was absolutely sure of: one day I would get out of here, and when I did, I would leave every shred of this place behind me. Jay burst into the room from the hallway in a flurry of motion. He brushed past me, unseeing, heading straight to the windows that fronted the street. He cast one quick, furtive glance up and down the dark street outside before yanking the drapes closed and plunging the room into total darkness. I sighed and switched on one of the lamps by the couch. Jay swiveled his head sharply towards me, the first time he seemed to notice I was even in the room.

I'd seen it at her house before. too." I said. I parted the drapes and peeked. I could see that they were stacks of copies of the Inquirer. His hair was a mess." "It's fucking Eleazar. circling words. shirtless and barefoot." "What is? What are you talking about?" "The messages. Don't worry." he snapped. In the meantime. He was angry all the time. almost like he couldn't look straight at something even if he wanted to. but now that I looked. I was just trying to let him work through it. There were notes scribbled all over the place. I tried to stay out of his way as much as possible. Bells. His eyes were jumping around constantly." I said slowly. Finally. to get it all out of his system. he was parting the curtains again to look at the white car. I was just waiting for him to get his bearings back. was almost unfamiliar to me. sister. . Heidi's. "What's this. His eyes were too bright and intense. I've checked for mics but I haven't found them yet. Jay. that frantic look I was growing accustomed to." I turned to look at Jay in stunned disbelief. "I just told you. "Of course he has! How do you think he knows what I've been doing? I told you he was out to get me. look at me. as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. pointing to a pile of newspapers on the dining table. I've figured it out! That bastard thinks he's got me just where he wants me. "It's how he stays in contact with his bosses. "Eleazar!" Jay hissed at my side. for him to recover from the blow a little. He wasn't looking at me. pulling his face free of my hands. dark black marker underlining passages. It's New Year's Eve. and then I was out of here. forcing him to face me. you know." "What?" I asked in confusion." He half-turned. Some were cut up. And there was writing all over them. and he hadn't shaved in days. Something was desperately wrong with him. spotting nothing more than an empty white car across the street. His face. He jerked his head back. "It's probably just somebody visiting a neighbor. "What are you looking for?" I asked lightly. which suited me fine anyway. for just a moment. full of anger and agitation. I'm keeping my eye on him. I hadn't noticed them in the dim room when I first came in. laying a hand on his bicep. trying to gauge his mood. He flinched away from me. It seemed like he'd slipped into an altered state in the two weeks since the layoff. He scoffed loudly." he growled. and turned back to the window. so much so that half the time his ranting didn't even make sense to me. but it's all in there if you know where to look. "He's been watching me for days! I think he's been in the house. "Suspicious looking car that's been parked out there all day. "No one has been in the house. He was dressed in just his dark cargo pants. I reached up and took his face in my hands. I think it belonged to our neighbor. cold dread racing down my spine. clippings littering the tabletop and scattered across the floor. his eyes met mine. It's all in code. of course. but I see it. he won't get past me. He grunted slightly to acknowledge me." I said cautiously. He sends them messages in the paper. Jay? What are you doing with all these papers?" He waved a dismissive hand at me as he went back to peering at the street through the drapes. not just the understandable anger about losing his job. What the hell was wrong with him? "Jay. But I'm one step ahead of him. He thinks he's so clever."Hey. but I'm one step ahead…always one step ahead…just have to stay one step ahead…" I took an involuntary step back away from him. This was so much worse. My stomach lurched. indicating the window. Jay. I'm keeping an eye on that bastard. Not just the depression. crossing the room so I could look out the window and see for myself.

wrapping my arms around myself because I felt like I was about to blow apart into a million pieces. As bad as it had been before. Jay stayed at the window. This was happening. this crazy fixation on Eleazar…Jay was sick. But he was also capable of being so excited and enthusiastic about things. Mental illness symptoms An hour later. I thought making notes. so wrapped up in my own head that I hadn't noticed him falling apart right in front of me. I was leaning towards the latter. I realized that there had been small signs all along. things that I chalked up to his stress and depression. I started typing. Bella? Susan and I are heading over to check out that new Chinese place for lunch.I kept backing up until I hit the couch and slowly sank down. Finally. and then he started beating his clenched fist against his thigh in agitation. my face wet with tears. He was still mumbling to himself. dark periods that would eventually pass. There were a couple of things on the pad underlined. When I was sure everyone had gone. ~*~ "Hey. this was beyond terrifying. even though we had nothing in common to speak of. I felt stupid and blind. hard enough that he must have been hurting himself. and it had been pretty bad. I think I'll stay here and do a little online shopping during lunch. Do you want to come?" I looked up from my monitor at the front office secretary. the notepad at my side filled with my scrawled notes. thanks. Jay was sick. Typing it would make it real. because of the mood swings. enjoy yourself!" "Thanks. He could throw himself into a project obsessively and work his fingers to the bone when he . I was still glued to my computer. I had no idea what to do." I waited quietly until I heard the voices of Monique and Susan fade down the hall. Well. The paranoia. He'd always been prone to depressive funks. and I had no idea where to turn." I said as casually as possible. very sick. She was leaning over the partition. I felt more overwhelmed than ever. I couldn't ignore it or make excuses for it anymore. He kept his angry. But it didn't. but he didn't seem to feel it. Monique. But it was real. fun! I bet there are all kinds of good after-Christmas sales. My fingers hovered there for an age. And every place I looked. how to help him. but I brought my lunch today. I just didn't know what I had been seeing. when I thought about it in this new light. I dropped my head into my hands and gave in for just a moment to the overwhelming fear and sadness. for years. I saw terms like no real cure and does not respond well to traditional therapies. Instead. would make me feel better. and I needed to face it and do something about it. She was the only person in this place I actually liked. really. How could I have missed this? Little things he had said and done for the past couple of weeks. watching for imaginary villains that only he could see. long. taking a deep breath. I slammed my hand over my mouth to stifle the sound of my crying as I gasped for air. mumbling incoherently to himself. Schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder. Now that I had read and researched just this little bit. It was daunting and depressing. "Um. Have a good lunch. treating it as a problem that needed to be solved with clear steps to be taken. the most likely culprits. "Oooh. frantic eyes on the street. started coming back to me. smiling slightly. and I hadn't even realized it until this very moment. I turned back to the monitor and reached for the keys. and he would likely be sick in some way for the rest of his life. more in control.

She'd demand I leave immediately. E . probably triggered by the stress of his job loss. Although knowing what I did now. Jay's family was a mess. She'd just be getting back now. calling Alice would just be unpleasant. I'd call her. or cry. That same desperate need to escape was clawing in my chest again. I couldn't just walk away. accusing me of being in on it. someone to make sure he was taken care of. and homeless. I felt myself getting sucked under. The rest. And that's where the news got even worse. And without that network to take care of him. outpatient monitoring. And after that…surely there were halfway houses. too. seemed to be some form of schizophrenia. and he'd just been very good at coping and covering it up. That trait had gotten him where he was today. I couldn't do this. I imagined what she'd say to all this misery currently on my computer screen. My instinct was to reach for the phone and call Alice.chose to. that he'd managed to achieve so much by himself. Mania. Even if he got his illness managed and under control now. I'd given enough already. It all meant that he had no one. but that person couldn't be me. That was the part that left me desolate. but she'd run away from home when she was a teenager and he'd never heard from her again. making me practically jump out of my skin. He would never be rid of it. Whatever the cause. Last night. his future was bleak. I had no idea how I was supposed to convince him. Jay had no family. The state had finally stepped in and taken custody of him when he was sixteen. Step one: get him to see a doctor. I had to get him into a hospital or something. I'd always admired that about him. It was all just too much to face… My cell vibrated at my elbow. I now knew to call it. But he'd been completely on his own since he aged out of the system at eighteen. It was one of the many things that bound us together when my dad died. "Untreated schizoaffective disorder will often leave a patient friendless. And it absolutely could not be me. The best he could hope for would be to control the symptoms so he could achieve a level of functionality. A lifetime of treatment. Nothing good. Because just like me. I wondered if all the turmoil in his childhood had planted the seeds for what was happening to him now. So that was a failure. Jay was so busy on his computer chasing down his imaginary demons that he almost never called me. no one to step in and care for him in my place. something. He'd been lucky enough to land in a decent foster home with a woman who helped him finish high school and apply to college. the paranoia and the delusions. I couldn't be expected to just give him my life. His dad took off when he was young. it was clear. At least not until I'd figured out a way out of this. the flip side to his dark periods. when he flipped out about the house being bugged. He only had me. After I'd sorted out what to do." He needed someone to help him get better. I hadn't called yet to tell her about Jay losing his job because she'd been on her honeymoon. the page full of websites and names of agencies and hospitals. And he didn't choose to exert it. I had to at least get him some help first. or both. And while I agreed that I needed to find the quickest path out of this mess. I needed a plan first. and his mother was an alcoholic. no parents or siblings I could call for help. Once again. My eyes fell again to my notes. it was completely beyond his control. so I doubted it was him. Maybe he'd been sick in some way or another all this time. I just needed to figure it out. and she'd never made any secret of that. He ranted and screamed for hours. No. I'd sat him down and asked him to talk to someone. and now I knew I really couldn't. He had an older sister. the rate of relapse within one year was 60%. without strong family support. come up with a plan. There had to be someone…someone to step in so that I could step out. I flipped it over to see the face. the end result was the same. The crushing pressure made me want to scream. I knew he needed help and support. She hated Jay. penniless. Website after website stressed the importance of a strong support network.

lonely.-E I thought you said you didn't save lives. I was covering in the ER on NYE. I'm sorry. a guy who would have died lived because of me. Thanks.I'd have never guessed that one glimpse of a single letter could make me feel what that 'E' did. So you're just a pinch-hitter?.-E I can't. Besides. and besides.-B Exactly. you did. That left his real life. In case anyone…Jay…ever saw it. So chipper and cheerful. –E Very funny. Do you want to talk about it? I'm a good listener. content… I'd shortened his name from 'Edward' to 'E'. There weren't any answers to those questions right now. I couldn't talk about anything in my real life with him. Hey. Absolutely everything was wrong. –B It's just my job. How about you?. anyway. Elated. And yes. and it still made me deliriously happy to see his name pop up on my phone. so I kept it simple. A very long night full of gunshot wounds and alcohol poisoning. –B .B I'm sorry.-B I only save lives when I'm covering vacations.-E Ah. so I always texted back and I chose not to question too closely why we were still talking or what was really going on with us.-E That sounds awful. After that first and only attempt to discuss what had happened between us. Let's talk about you. resting my phone against my forehead. what should we talk about?-E I smiled and shook my head. We were friends. Liar. I told him I couldn't talk about it and he had never alluded to it again. anticipatory. just to be on the safe side. But I couldn't burden him that way. what I was having for lunch… silly. although the subterfuge made me feel wretched. eyes closed. when he first started texting. never about anything meaningful. I needed it. I just got some bad news about a friend today. And talking about the time we'd spent together was absolutely off limits.B What's wrong?-E I paused for a minute. He'd ask me how my day was. you are a good listener. He still texted. What was wrong? How was I even supposed to answer that? Everything. Pretty lousy. I missed him. What could we talk about? Good question. guilty.. actually. And what happened between me and Edward was certainly anything but ordinary. flushed. it wouldn't be right to talk about Jay's problems with Edward. How was it possible to miss someone I'd only known for four days? But those were not just any four days. innocuous questions that made me smile even as they left me aching and sad. He'd texted me nearly every day since I'd gotten home. how's the first Monday of the New Year?-E I smiled a little in spite of myself.-B So if we can't talk about that. A second-string life-saver. That doesn't suck. I see. –B Did I really make you laugh?-E Yes. How's your day? Were you hung over after New Year's Eve?-B Hardly. But thank you.

letting myself get in so deep with a woman I knew I couldn't have. and I hated that I was here and helpless when she was having a hard time. Her hair was brushing my jaw. and then cursed myself for being so stupid. rub her shoulders as she unloaded to him. I cursed my predicament all over again. And she said I'd made her smile. keep hanging on to the tiny edge of her life that I had.Excellent. made her day a little better. and I'd cave. to change. the itch to hear from her would be too great. The music was swirling in my head again and she was pressed up against me. She smelled so good. Usually. still filled with all those depressing words and statistics.-E Look at you. Then I reminded myself for the thousandth time that it wasn't my place. pretty definitively. It was my own damned fault. If I slid my hand up her back. at least for the moment. She had hesitated. "Unchained Melody". That's what he was there for. that was enough. No. she'd just quit responding and that's how our conversations. That was how it was supposed to work. she'd talked to me. keep being her friend. She was going to go home tonight to him to be comforted. even when typed out on my phone. just had a way of making me feel better. are you okay. started playing out in the restaurant. –E I winced. And she'd chosen him." Alec's voice snapped me out of my reverie in front of the bathroom mirror. Then within a day. He might get her a glass of wine. That was okay. my path. But that would be crossing a line. would end.-B Anytime. Fix It. but somehow I knew that calling him would break them. I had no business trying to make anything better for her. I'd been washing my hands when that song. When my life fell apart. man? You've been in here forever. I was already starting to forget exactly what it sounded like. It hurt. was set in stone. ~*~ Edward She didn't text back. "Edward? Hey. after all. but finally she'd given in and then her head was resting on my shoulder. as much as I hated it. when I finished texting her and was left feeling hollow and lost all over again. Mission accomplished. I wanted to hit "Call now" so I could hear his voice. it was Jay who picked me back up. Every time. We hadn't exactly spelled out the "rules" for whatever it was that we were doing here. I couldn't face that. Which meant that she did not need me. It seemed the time had come to do what I could to repay that debt. And his words. So I would keep texting. I wondered what was going on with her friend that got her so down. Anything. and waiting for something. Really. Mr. I was just going to walk away from this and forget her. I glanced back up at my computer screen. not as lonely. Then my mind just wandered . if you could call them that. even just a few little texts about nothing in particular. And I was angry at myself for my inability to just walk away and let it go. I'd be touching the bare skin of her shoulders…. I'd tell myself that I wouldn't do it again. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Eleven ~ The Space Between ~ Edward I remembered this song. anything. make her put her feet up on the couch. was better than turning my back on her for good.

He'd been good to me from the start of my residency. He'd taken a lot of time. But the other parts were the reasons we got into this line of work in the first place." I sighed and tried to smile as I followed him out of the restroom. I couldn't remember the last time I saw him doing rounds. I couldn't bear the thought of playing wingman for him tonight in his eternal quest to get laid." Alec laughed and clapped a hand down on my shoulder. I could do worse than follow in Jonathan Banner's footsteps.away. then. dancing with Bella. slowly making his way from one cluster of guests to the next. It was the retirement dinner for Dr. singling me out for notice. "Come on." he laughed. An event that a young and presumably ambitious doctor like myself absolutely would not miss. to find the right path to follow. Banner's wife. making sure that I was in line to take advantage of a lot of great opportunities. It was meant to help me make the right choices. raking a hand through my hair. so I needed to pull it together and start acting human again. there were aspects to his career that I hoped I could avoid in my own. "You're distracted all the time these days. but maybe. "Hey. or taking a medical history. There was just lust and too much champagne and caving into temptation. "Who's Banner with?" I now noticed that as Banner moved through the crowd. . And the idea that he wanted to mentor me. an attractive young blonde woman was following him. At least that freaking song was over. and he wasn't really acknowledging her. I trailed after Alec as he headed to the bar. only half-listening as he rambled on about hospital gossip and which hot female staff members had shown up tonight. too. Still. I could one day achieve what he'd achieved. as I'd met Cynthia. his bright white smile flashing against his tanned skin. You'd better be careful or you could take out the wrong kidney or something by accident. I just got distracted. Yes. I leave the kidney-mixing to you assholes. He spoke and lectured all over the world. For one thing. This girl seemed to be a little old to be one of them. just in his wake. but all of Banner's attention was his way of telling me that he felt I had promise." I nudged Alec. a highly esteemed member of the medical staff at Lenox Hill. during my first year as a resident. one of the serious old-guard Big Docs on the Lenox Hill staff. You should come and pay court. and that if I worked hard and followed in his footsteps. Dr. William Fitzpatrick. Banner on the other side of the room. I knew. donning latex gloves." "Nice one. I caught sight of Dr. or something. Banner just got here. It was confusing. that suspended moment in time when we started crossing over into something else… Except there was no crossing over. All the other stuff was just me. He was in his mid-fifties. he hardly ever interacted with patients any more. they were my reasons. I was hazy on ages but I had the sense that they'd just started college or were about to. He had kids. He couldn't say it out loud. help my career along…I'd be lying if I said it wasn't immensely flattering. But I had begged off of every social event and night out since before Christmas. There was no something else. He was probably the most successful individual I'd ever met. back to Jasper's reception. "Yeah…" I finally said. getting way too wrapped up in my own head. "I'm fine. The restaurant had filled up a lot while I'd been in there. some of it was drudgery that we'd all like to escape if we could." "It's a good thing I'm not a surgeon. Or at least. They were playing some Celine Dion shit now. overseeing a large portion of its residents. to share with me stories from his own. No dangerous associations there. He was our faculty advisor and it was largely Banner's recommendation that got me my offer from Lenox Hill. but she seemed to be with him nonetheless. A son and a daughter. I couldn't imagine a career in medicine where I never actually practiced any medicine. She said nothing. to talk to me about my career. and consulted for corporations and government think tanks.

"Is it what you want?" At the time." Alec said. It was eight p. but how's a guy supposed to say no to that?" Alec said. "But he's been married to Cynthia for thirty years. tugging on my sleeve." "I'm not even looking. casting another lust-filled glance at Chelsea. the master of his own universe. huh?" I looked back across the room at Banner.Alec snorted in laughter. to be him. Banner." He shook his head in wonder. Forget her and move on. always watching out for me. "Yeah. dark-haired woman I'd met at the first-year resident's mixer. I guess. a stunning." "Girlfriend? He's married! What happened to Cynthia?" Alec shrugged dismissively. then glanced at John expectantly. standing behind him. He clapped a hand on my shoulder jovially. Suddenly." I protested. "I was just curious. "Traded her in for a younger. And he was a good friend to have on the job. then. staring absently into the middle distance. Or maybe he'd taken her out. waiting for an introduction. even if it was just her innocuous words on a tiny glowing screen. man. Maybe they were having dinner. Apparently. generic blonde girl trailing in his wake. hotter model. no. man! That's Chelsea. but thus far I'd only ever texted her weekdays from nine to five. I had been way off base. I had the sudden. She would definitely be home with him. watching Banner across the room in his expensive suit with his flashy new date. "Edward!" Banner called out with a smile as we approached. Is that his daughter?" Alec laughed out loud this time. "It's John. How could I not want the moon and the stars. This fixation was becoming unhealthy. Maybe they were dancing." I said politely. Still able to bag a chick like her at his age. But I couldn't do that. My father would never do this to my mother." I said quietly. smiling. I groaned softly and fisted a hand in my hair in frustration. Bart's with him last week. which is what I thought I was being offered? But now. on a Saturday. I actually had to wonder. I wanted to talk to her. I thought it was a ridiculous question. I needed to leave this alone. "John. shaking hands." I glanced to Chelsea. "Oh. I studiously avoided times when she might be at home…with him." I smiled a little. Yeah. and I remember being reminded of my parents." I flinched at Alec's crude assessment and blatant hero-worship. I nodded and followed. and her head was resting on his shoulder like she'd done with me. That's why he's so tanned. "I heard he took her to St. "Man. Can you imagine that in a bikini? Damn! Some life. We had very little else in common. always at my back. "Some life. We'd become friends out of circumstance.m. Any grueling experience that you share with another person like that is bound to bond you in some way. frequently thrown together during the first year of our residency when we ended up assigned to the same rotations at the same time. Dr. She didn't seem to notice she was ." I protested. look but don't touch. her. I've told you that. "Fuck. especially when it came to stuff like this. the question Bella had asked me in the bookstore back in Chicago flashed in my head. "Let's go say hi. remembering the kind. Will I be him in thirty years? And am I okay with that? I had no idea what the answer was. strong impulse to text her. She'd looked at him with such devotion. But that's about all that explained my friendship with Alec. his girlfriend. "Hi. There were no rules spelled out regarding our odd little long-distance electronic friendship.

who'd been lingering to the side. his voice shifting into work mode. He could do a lot for you. going through the process of joining the staff. she was beautiful. I wished I felt happier or more excited.being ignored. Banner followed my eyes and cleared his throat. Once I was there. but they're on top of things there. half-hearted smile and said nothing at all. said something that made Banner laugh. yes. After all." "What for?" He looked at me. Why not? She was beautiful. her eyes sparkling. But I just felt a little numb. I'm kind of desperate to bail on this." Banner said. but she was far too smart to embroil herself in something as potentially messy as a relationship with her faculty advisor." she greeted me softly. it was all about to pay off with this. There's a lot of paperwork to go through. "There's a seminar on endocrinology coming up at Columbia that I think you should consider signing up for. To tell you the truth. We'd done it plenty of times together in a group. Edward. "Not exactly. just a bit too familiarly. I turned to find Kate approaching us. A friend. And I made another mental note to read up on Dr. "Hey." Banner shook his head dismissively. I'd always got the impression that he lusted after her. but it seemed the polite thing to do to greet her. and his attention was momentarily diverted from Kate. a bit startled at my question. Edward Cullen. just follow their lead. It's being hosted by Dr. plus a lot of legal mumbo jumbo. and claustrophobic. She shot me a hazy. it was a dream come true. she wanted me. the start of my actual job with Lenox Hill. Stevens. We could just have a drink. considering. tired. "Ah. And this didn't have to become anything. Alec. of course. "Ah. "And you'll be getting a call next week sometime from Human Resources. I don't know why I was . Suddenly I felt bored. Come on. "Hey. even though the subject matter had very little to do with me. "That doesn't matter. surreptitiously checking out Chelsea. Chelsea. Stevens. looking over my shoulder. It's a pain in the ass. wanting to be anywhere but here. Banner kissed her cheek and ran a hand down her back. the insane hours and brutal rotations of my residency. All the hard work. and he's really someone you should know." This was it. at all these successful professionals whose ranks I would soon be joining. see what happened. "To get the ball rolling on your permanent position. now it would just be the two of us. since it was being made clear to me that I should. They'll walk you through it. look who it is!" Banner called out. the crazy course load in medical school. let's go." I hesitated for just a moment. blank slate." I smiled politely and shook her hand. We'll find a bar and just hang out." She smiled conspiratorially at me. Yes. They'll want to have you come in for a meeting. "I'll play hooky with you." "But I'm not an endocrinologist." I nodded and made a mental note to look into the endocrinology seminar. I was sure it would sink in and I'd be excited. she was available. shoot the shit. "Edward. but I was having a hard time imagining that Banner had just dumped his wife of thirty years for this pretty. She really was pretty. this is Chelsea." "Enjoying your evening?" I shrugged and looked around the restaurant. She took a step closer to me.

I couldn't seem to make myself take the step. I suppose. She lived completely alone. all on his own!" I laughed and made a few more notes on her chart. ~*~ "I'm going to give you a prescription to have filled when you're discharged. and we'd grabbed lunch together once when our schedules unexpectedly coincided. let's go. but I forced a smile and said. figuring I'd bury myself in catching up on my notes to distract myself. Farmer. "Why on earth not?" "Just haven't met the right girl yet. she was easy to talk to. "No?" her watery blue eyes widened. We'd had coffee a few times. we'd have thought you were quite the catch!" I laughed awkwardly and rubbed the back of my neck with one hand. off-duty. As long as I let that linger. And you go meet yourself a nice young girl. I'll take it all. either. But I couldn't seem to make myself let her go. raising a hand in greeting. Don't stop once you start feeling better. No more getting hung up on some one-night stand that was never going to go anywhere." said Mrs. She caught sight of me and smiled widely. It's a shame. Mrs. It was always good. and it wasn't fair to me. I guess. I needed to give it a chance. even if it was only lingering in my head." I said with a shrug. Probably because I was still texting Bella. It wasn't fair to Kate. can do it. But I still hung back. I'm not married. yes. The right girl." "Well. I was feeling morose and depressed after that internal debate. The conversation flowed and she was funny and smart. I knew what the next step was. To dinner." I left her curtained bed and headed across the floor to the nurse's station to put her chart away. You tell her I said so!" "Um. I had an amazing woman in front of me and that's what I needed to focus on. my neighbor. "Make sure you take all the medication. I leaned down a little so she could reach easier. That didn't sound as reassuring as I wanted it to. I wondered if there was a way to meet this Margaret before we discharged Mrs. I smiled and waved back. Farmer?" "Yes. I needed to ask her out." Kate ducked her head a little and laughed. talking to an orderly. the fragile octogenarian patient I'd been with for the past hour. Mrs. alright?" She smiled up at me fondly and reached her withered little hand up to pat my cheek. Farmer. "Alright then.having such a hard time making this move. Farmer. My phone vibrated in my pocket. "So handsome! And such a nice boy!" she hummed. I wasn't going to be able to give this thing with Kate a chance. and we turned to make our escape. Do you have someone who can do that for you?" "Yes. a real date. Could Kate be the right girl if I just gave her the chance to be? We'd had a good time the other night at the bar. "You'll remember what I told you about the medicine. and turned with a grumble to my charts. Margaret. "Your wife is a lucky woman. You take care. You won't have any trouble at all finding a nice girl. I felt about zero enthusiasm. a handsome boy like you. I . "Okay. What if Margaret was equally old and fragile? She wouldn't be much help then. It was the right thing to do. you'll know it when you do. I could see Kate down at the end of the hall. I'll send the nurse in to finish up with you. Back in my day.

It was my dad. "So what are you going to do?" "That's what I'm getting at. I never doubted that my parents were proud of me. everything's fine. But before I brought in another doctor." I actually felt my throat close up a little. For my own peace of mind. Like I said. I told you. But you are my son. Edward. that's…well…" "Edward. Carlisle Cullen was rarely ever nervous. Dad. He'd been in practice with my dad for twenty years. My father was perhaps one of the most easy-going." He cleared his throat a little." "Dad.scrambled for it. I knew he was getting older. "Yes. it's about work. I got into medicine because of you. that you would make it at all means a lot to me. "Dad. sounding faintly nervous. and so I feel it's the right thing to do to offer." "That's great. I don't expect you to accept. You followed in my footsteps. because I would have to turn him down and it was kind of killing me." "Why? Is he okay?" the doctor in me immediately worried that a health reason was behind Harold's decision. but having it spelled out like that really hit hard. in a way. "You're an amazing doctor. That's great for them. So I thought it would be better. but I was still half-wishing for it anyway. But I wanted you to know that if for any reason you'd ever consider it. She never initiated contact." I was speechless. I understand about Lenox Hill. He said he just wants to retire and travel while he's still young enough to enjoy it. but what you've achieved on your own…it far surpasses anything I was ever able to accomplish. You're a fine doctor." "I'm proud of you. Next I felt guilty. That meant a lot to me. I know what your answer will be." "What do you mean?" He paused for a moment. don't worry. The idea of Harold not being in his examining room whenever I stopped by to see my dad in his was hard to wrap my brain around. to trust his patients to me." . and I made the short walk to the staff lounge where I'd be less likely to be interrupted. He and Susan have a lot of places they want to go. and they've just gotten Chris off to grad school. Dad. "Let me preface this by saying that I have absolutely no expectations whatsoever about your answer. And the offer…well. You have no idea. I just wanted to make the offer. My father was offering me a place in his practice. He saw me as his equal as a physician. My first reaction was pride. what's going on?" "Well. "He's fine." "Wow. Edward. knowing it wouldn't be Bella. well. "Dad! Is everything okay?" "Edward! Yes. so much so that he was willing to work side by side with me." I'd known Harold and Susan Gold all my life. Harold's spot in the practice is yours. so they've decided the time is now. relaxed people I knew. but I thought he'd decided to stay on for another five years. Harold's decided to retire a few years earlier than planned. Why?" "You don't usually call me during the day while you're at the office.

Are you going to answer?-E Yes. Take care. I went. He would never in a million years expect me to say yes. Yeah. I can't imagine a more crushing way to be described.E That's a really random question. "Now. a direction with long dark hair and silky pale skin. Then I groaned and dragged my hands over my face. Chelsea…and I didn't feel nearly as proud as he sounded." "I will. just staring at the wall." And then my mind shot off in a completely unwholesome direction. You wound. I had my hands full that weekend. Miss Swan.-B All we ever talk about is random stuff. too." "Give her my love. Dad. Tyler. but I hope you can manage to make it home for a few days. You're out there taking on the world. I meant as a date. Edward. now that the shock was wearing off. And I was about to start living it.He scoffed softly. But I did my best to sound enthused.-E Excuse me? I have no idea what you're implying… And we never got far enough for me to determine if that description was apt. I'll be there. "I'll tell your mother you're coming. We're sorry we missed you in December." I hung up and collapsed onto the couch. Just a little. I know your schedule is hectic and you were just here for Jasper's wedding. he was a little…. and I couldn't in a million years imagine saying yes. Just have mom email me the details and I'll find someone to cover for me. just a little.-E Lol. ~*~ Did you go to your prom?." "That's alright. "I'm just a GP in a small practice. It was ridiculous. I guess." "That's great. your mother is planning quite the celebration for Harold's send-off.. And hey… the offer?" "Yes?" "Thanks. Chicago. This is where my future was. the endocrinology seminar.-B Please contain your enthusiasm about Tyler or you might hurt yourself. a brilliant one. It means so much to me that you did that. It would mean the world to Harold and Susan.B Now I'm lol'ing. He was just asking as a formality. I had to admit. As a guy." "You too. Dad. There." "Of course. We'd love to see you." I thought briefly about Banner." "I wouldn't miss it. I promise. I already had a job. Happy?-B Who did you go with?-E This guy. there was a pleasant little fantasy of running the practice with my dad forming in my head. She'll be delighted. here in New York.well. son. Edward.-B . I had to fist my hand in my hair to get myself focused again.

Did he greet your dates at the door wielding a shotgun?-E Lol. We'd been texting for nearly an hour. My dad busted him for possession. Dad was a sweetie.-B Because of the littleness. then?-E He was applying for the position. Chief of Police.-E Lol. There was no way I was cutting her off now that I had her on a roll.-B I glanced at the time on my phone. Boys were another matter.B Maybe we should set her up with Little Tyler. Talk about pressure. anyway.-E Girlfriend?-B *rolling eyes back at you* No. just some girl. No. that's some lousy luck. A pistol. Yes. I had a ridiculously wide grin on my face as my thumbs tapped the keyboard. wait.-B I'll just bet. and she really did make me laugh out loud once or twice.-B Hey.-E If you knew Tyler you'd know it was bound to happen sooner or later. Hey. No. I think Tyler's in prison now. Being busted by your prom date's dad.-B Seriously?-E Yes…Joking.-E So?-B So what?-E *rolls eyes at you* Date?-B Lol.-E Lol. I have to go.I see.-B Wow. Cullen. but I ignored the cramping in my lower back. Ouch. They might be perfect for each other. Well. not really. Did you go to yours?-B Of course. Your dad was a cop?-E Not just a cop. but he didn't make it past the first round of interviews. Now I feel bad for Little Tyler. So what about you?-B Me what?-E Prom. So he wasn't your boyfriend. Lauren. .. to me. You're a little harsh. What did your dress look like?-E Blue-B I like blue. 8:15. too.-E Just some girl. Mr.-B That's kind of terrifying. Why are you asking me about my prom?-B Because you're answering. Well.-E In part.-E I'd been hunched on the hard couch in the staff lounge for ages texting Bella. he kept it concealed.

Her workday was over and he was probably waiting. It was my one final. I snatched up my phone and started texting. At ten-thirty. but that didn't make it go away. and I was taking it.-B Yes.-E You didn't keep me. I kept it in my pocket all night on vibrate. There was something real and tangible between us. the works. . clutching my phone in my fist. Nothing. So why did I end every one of these conversations feeling closer to her when she was 3000 miles away and hopelessly out of my reach than I did with Kate when she was sitting on the bar stool next to me. I scrolled to her number and hit send. attractive. then I was imagining some other man's hands sliding over the silk as it slid over her skin.-B Later. I swallowed my pride and tried again. dammit. or else I'd go crazy staring at my damned phone. but I would take it. She needed to know that I still wanted her. Hell. I hadn't planned what to say at all. Before I could overthink it. Maybe that black one from the rehearsal dinner. Just talk to me. it was. and she just had to be feeling it. She'd drawn a very clear line in the sand and was pointedly keeping me behind it. so I started by clearing my throat. she might close me out altogether. But before I turned my back for good. even though I know I shouldn't. Whenever the busy night allowed me a second. It was pointless. and here? Because there was something there with Bella. I checked it. feeling depressed and nearly hopeless. They probably had big plans. too. And then I waited. And if she was dead-set on staying with him and wanted nothing more to do with me. once I thought about her in that dress. We might never talk about it. it was Valentine's Day. desperate shot. found one of the residents that I knew had a girlfriend and told him I'd take his shift so he could go spend the last hours of Valentine's Day with his girl. I just needed to say it. Of course. I want to be with you and I think you feel it. I knew it was a risk I was taking. Finally. for over an hour. inviting. she may have refused to discuss it. then so be it. a romantic dinner.Sure.-B Of course she had to go. so if I tried to force this issue. too. and the jealous rage I felt nearly swallowed me whole. Sorry to keep you. Tell me what you want. At eleven. It went straight to voicemail. She wasn't ever going to be mine. I was startled.-E You too. so I needed to stop this innapropriate friendship with Bella. but the screen stayed dark and empty. for the first time ever. I shoved off the couch. She'd shut me down once. I think about that night with you all the time. and it was wrong. Anything to keep me occupied and busy. This was fun. Are you really happy with him?-E I hit send before I could even stop to think about it.-E Later. I was trying to make something happen with Kate. I couldn't keep doing this. I need to say this. Have a good night. I groaned and fell back on the couch. please?-E Still no response. I wondered if she would wear one of the dresses she'd worn in Chicago.

when they were over. throwing my stuff into my bag. When I saw Kate coming to clock in. . I'd start to think that maybe it wasn't so bad. and I knew I just couldn't do it. and still I heard nothing from her. She never responded. stop talking to him." I ran out of steam after that. I would want to cry. I ended the call. Morose and depressed. Her face lit up with delight as she said yes. She might have had nothing to say. Filled with guilt and self-disgust at my inability to stay away from him. moving on. and then I finally staggered home and passed out. I marched straight up to her and asked her out to dinner the next night. Then. like he was talking about how chilly it was outside. but the message was clear. and also missing him so much that my chest felt cut open. And I had nothing else to say unless I was going to descend into begging. I felt great. I needed to stop it. it was miserable. just in case she hadn't been able to talk in private last night. And I'd almost think things were okay. out of the blue. no matter what I did. Please. it's Edward. There. At first. or blown it out of proportion. coherent. mostly I talked. It was wrong and so unhealthy. but he'd answer if I asked a direct question. I was running late to get home. because there was no point in going home and trying to sleep. they were the highlight of my day and the only time I felt even a flicker of happiness. So after a long awkward pause. We agreed to talk the next morning and firm up the plans. Message received. Well. I glanced at the time and shot to my feet. Bella. But afterwards. He was slipping further away from me. I'd get home and make dinner and we'd talk. not that night or ever. to scream at how unfair it all was. so I listened to his crazy theories and felt my heart break for him all over again. and more or less himself. so I was like the walking dead by the time the next shift started at one. I needed to leave her alone. but normal. and I would realize that it was all still there. relating all the minutae of my day in some desperate effort to keep things steady. and these days I was nervous about leaving Jay unattended any more than absolutely necessary. it was done. I'd worked all night. While we were having them. These exchanges wrecked me. Jay didn't offer much. just talk to me. there would be long periods when he seemed almost fine. just beneath the surface. that he was okay. I waited until I was sure she was finally alone at work. that I'd imagined the worst of it."Um. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Twelve ~ Watching The Lantern Dim ~ Bella Later-E Later-B I spent a second staring at the tail-end of my text conversation with Edward. I waited until lunchtime the next day. But the thought of cutting him off made me feel dead inside. I felt torn in two. but that would just agitate him. he'd casually start talking about the cable companies training their satellites on our house so they could listen in on our phone calls. I meant what I said.

the information I got was all contradictory. especially someone who didn't have any particular tie to Jay. it just didn't feel like something I could drag a friend into. I knew I was nearing the point when I would just need to walk away from this. I thought briefly about Rose. We might be just long-distance text buddies now. but I was sure it was just a matter of time. he'd roam the neighborhood in search of Eleazar. Private treatment. And what if he didn't want to get involved in something this ugly. I'd only spent four days with her and she didn't know Jay at all. but at least he was contained and relatively harmless. Jay went on and on about it all day and half the night. nothing would be any different. he couldn't be committed against his will unless he was a danger to himself or the community. he hadn't gone wandering off while I was at work or sleeping yet. once again. fruitlessly trying to get some answers and help while Jay just kept getting worse. even assuming I could get him to agree. There was also the problem of the money. I'd done some more research. I couldn't come to grips with the idea of just abandoning him to this thing. trying to find the little part of my Jay that I desperately hoped was still in there. typing away on his computer. What Jay was going through was so scary and difficult. I needed to reach out to someone soon. I'd spend hours talking to him. and had come up essentially empty. but although I liked her and felt like we'd really connected. and he'd always been amazing at research. He just spent his time closed up in the office. and aid to be applied for. I felt like I'd done all I could on my own. I still hesitated to ask her to help me manage this part. and I was running out of options. but I was afraid she'd fight me about it. cost a small fortune. because of our stupid history. and he'd retreat to the office and his computer again and I could breathe a sigh of relief until the next disturbing incident. and I didn't have the energy to wage a war on two fronts. after all. But the answer was always the same. I couldn't put him on mine. to undermine him. He seemed to exist all the time now in the fog of his delusions. Angela? While I'd known her for years. Thankfully. I couldn't stay with him twenty-four hours a day.Those periods of apparent normalcy had grown shorter and shorter. But I always hung back. about how much simpler things would be if I just hadn't slept with him. and because we weren't married. but the process was complex and time-consuming. He was still Jay. so I could drive instead of taking the bus. and felt sure that she'd help me get back on my feet after I left Jay. headed up by Eleazar. digging through websites and navigating a sea of automated phone systems at various state agencies. The job as head of the International Desk at the paper was only his front. The one tiny perk of Jay losing his job was that the car was now at my disposal. Eleazar had been sent from Spain specifically to keep an eye on Jay. I felt like I was waiting for something horrible to happen so that I could finally get him some help. Eventually I'd get him back inside. . there always seemed to be one more call I could make. Finding the sheaves of pages he printed off crazy websites covered over with his hand-written rantings was certainly disturbing. one more lead I could run down. but my heart wouldn't let me give up just yet. but felt obligated because of what had happened between us? I thought. pinpointed some hospitals in the area that seemed like good options. That was why I liked to stay at home where I could keep an eye on him as much as possible. There was a grand conspiracy. It was maddening. rather than acting on it. but that's not at all how we started. There were programs out there. The trip home from the office was shorter these days. I knew that. He'd lost his health insurance when he lost his job. At the start of every day. he seemed to focus the lion's share of his endless energy on researching this delusion. Edward? It wasn't the first time I'd though about telling him everything. trying to keep my voice low and soothing. and I couldn't get past how inappropriate it would be to entangle him in this very messy part of my private life. Maybe that was an unfair assumption. That was infinitely more terrifying. but I wasn't sure whom. Alice? I worried that she'd only be concerned with making me leave and wouldn't want to help Jay. And at the end of every day. Thankfully. In my head. I made it home just a few minutes after I'd left the office. and often. Occasionally. So I was left chasing my tail.

papers strewn everywhere. I felt guilty for being relieved about that. then he'd forget about it. Every year. I glanced at the mail I'd picked up on the way in. Not that it mattered much to me this year. Bella?" he finally said. lit a fire in it. but now and then I'd catch him going through the box and I knew it made him proud. though and I wanted to take a step back away from him instinctively. Instead his voice was so low I almost couldn't hear him. The computer was on. My stomach turned over in sickening slow-motion and my heart started pounding. he wasn't very romantic. I couldn't see what was on the screen. but I could guess. still as a stone and absolutely silent. He'd scoffed at my sentimentality in the beginning. saying nothing about either the giver or the recipient. He was in nothing but his faded. I stood right where I was. he wasn't thinking about things like locking up. maybe he was there and just being really quiet. Although it could hardly be considered our bedroom anymore. eerily lit up from underneath by the lamp there. that everything was like it had been. It was lit up. praying that he wasn't there. absolutely devoid of personality. But for all I'd gown to despise those stupid pink mums. I'd nearly forgotten that today was Valentine's Day. Jay usually kept it dark so no one could see inside the windows. Because it would mean that Jay was okay. he usually just passed out for a few hours on the futon in the office. I rounded the corner from the hallway and jumped in surprise to see him standing smack in the middle of the living room. "What are you doing just standing there?" He didn't move. clamping my hand over my chest. I didn't. he'd present me with the same box of mid-range chocolates and the same bouquet of pink mums. Slowly. But the front door was locked and usually when he was agitated enough to roam the neighborhood. I headed to the back to check the yard. The contents were all over the floor. and was systematically burning every one of his newspaper clippings. The neighbors were seconds away from calling the fire department on us when I came home and found him that day. He was shirtless and barefoot. "Jesus. I hadn't checked the kitchen. I must have forgotten. . My bag had tipped over. It was such a perfunctory gesture on his part. Just a couple of bills and an ad from a local spa running a Valentine's Day special. That meant he was around somewhere. I'd give anything to be putting a bunch of them in a vase right now. He burned them all. duty done for another year. Jay barely slept. but normal. I checked our bedroom and saw no sign of him. so I turned back and headed through the house to the front. but in my rush to get home today. beat-up Levis. I started to fret. I was usually so careful to delete Edward's texts as soon as we finished talking. "Jay?" I called as I set down the mail. with no real thought put into it. Last week I'd come home to find that he'd dragged an empty steel drum into the back yard. Nothing unusual there. and his eyes were locked on me. screaming. No answer. They were the most generic of flowers. I turned on the lamp next to the couch and set my oversized tote bag next to it on the little table. he lifted it. I glanced down at the mess and then I saw it. Even when Jay was well. Jay! You scared the crap out of me!" I half-laughed. along with his diploma from UW and a handful of certificates and awards he'd won in college.mind-numbingly boring. praying he hadn't wandered off. but the unexpected flipside was that he hadn't laid a finger on me in that way since before I went to Chicago. There was no sign of him in the back yard. "What the hell is this. He was standing next to the little table by the couch. which was becoming his norm. I'd been religious about cutting out and saving a copy of every article he'd written since we'd been together. and when he did. hysterics. I'd braced for yelling. I used to hate those flowers. "Jay?" I prompted again. My phone clenched in his fist. It had never been terribly important to me. a million browser windows opened.The house was almost dark when I let myself in. My heart was pounding. It was full of menace. I checked the office.

too?" he snarled. but he threw his arms up. Bella! I saw what he said! Don't fucking lie! How long? Since the Christmas party? Or since he came here?" "Christmas party? Jay. I don't know what you're talking about. My face screwed up and my eyes burned with tears. my hands up in front of me to placate him. "Eleazar! How long has he been fucking you. He came up in my phone as 'E'…. his eyes wide and almost all black in the dim light of the living room." I tried reaching out for him. He still had my phone clenched in his fist and now he raised it. too. I love you! I love you so much! How could you do this to me? You were supposed to love me. He was deep into his delusion and I'd have to tread carefully to keep him under control. stopping a few feet shy of me. and I did it anyway. I knew it. please calm down. He moved. Then he shot forward and grabbed my upper arms. It just happened. "So all this time you've been in on it. I was waiting him out. just stop it. You're supposed to love me!" . waving it angrily. even in the face of his out-of-control fury. "It's not…" "Don't lie! God. His face was just inches from mine. My answer seemed to break something in him. Bella! Don't fucking lie! You think I didn't see what he said to you?" "Jay. "Jay. his fury making him seem so much larger than he really was. I tried to shift my arms up to get free. "I'm so sorry. My lies rose up in my memory and the guilt threatened to drown me." I said. Although there was nothing explicitly wrong in my conversations with Edward. I don't know what else to say. His fingers were digging into my upper arms. but his questions were making no sense." "Don't lie to me. "In on what?" "Don't fucking play games with me!" he screamed. what are you talking about?" Now I was growing panicked. "I saw it. but I honestly didn't know how to proceed. shaking me at the same time. Bella? When did he turn you against me?" "Jay. I knew that from the start. my tone of voice level and controlled. no…" Now I understood. just the fact that I was having them was a betrayal. his voice reverberating off the walls. "You've been lying to me from the start. He flung my phone away from him. Edward. Bella. but he only held on tighter. Everything I'd done with Edward had been wrong. because he was holding me so hard that it hurt and I really couldn't follow the path of his delusions anymore. and it hit the far wall of the living room with a loud crack."What?" I was stalling. "Shut the fuck up!" He closed his eyes and shook his head fiercely. "You're lying to me!" he screamed again. He'd seen Edward's texts. I stared back at him in confusion. how he would react. hard." my voice cracked on the last part. how to handle him. He started striding towards me. effectively slapping my hands away. I recognized the tone of voice by now. thinking if I could touch him it might calm him down a little. please. "Why is he texting you? And like this?" I was caught. And the texts were by far the most innocent part of our connection. haven't you?" "Jay. to see what he did. Jay.

" I whispered. he was working himself into a frenzy. and that killed me. Instinctively I wrapped my left hand around my wrist tightly and the blood immediately squeezed up between my fingers. he just let go. his eyes frantic. He was still shaking all over and shaking me. It pulsed up from a long gash running from the heel of my hand half way to my elbow. the shelves were giving way underneath me with a crack and the tinkling sound of glass hitting the floor. He shook me again. They weighed a ton. but then I tripped on the edge of the rug and I was falling. I knew this was bad. "Heidi. but he was right about the betrayal. I almost caught myself. It's not what you think it is. I didn't even realize I'd lost my balance and fallen forward until I was sliding down the wall. both hands fisted in his hair. He was starting to rock back and forth compulsively. I'd just bruise the crap out of myself. at my right arm lying limply there. sweat beading on his forehead. It knocked the air out of my lungs and I sagged. spit flying off his lip. All the same. All traces of my Jay had been swallowed up by this unhinged man in front of me. And then the smell hit me. I was leaning back as far as I could while he had my arms in that vise grip.His words twisted in my chest. My wrist. Let's just sit down and talk. without warning. So many thoughts flew through my head in the millisecond that I cut through the air. "Let me go. too fast. I could scarcely see my own skin for all the blood. Then there was a sickening crack and a flash of blinding pain across the top of my head. "What?" "Jay. Even in my addled state. harder. He was gone. "Bella?" Jay was standing over me. he threw his hands up in the air and turned away from me. shaking. and I needed to reach him and get him to calm down and come back to me. and I was scared. He'd never been like this before." "You fucking betrayed me with him!" "Jay…" "I said don't lie!" His face was in my face. all the force of his grip transferred into my backwards momentum. I looked down at my lap. Yes. just listen to me. making them all rattle audibly. across the street. I always did. my head still throbbing. I figured out that one of the sculptures hit and shattered the glass on the way down. It all happened in a split second but it seemed to take a lifetime. he was all wrong about the situation. my grip on reality getting tenuous." . And I knew if I was lucky. Then. palm up. And my head was pounding. like I always did. you have to get Heidi. Jay. Later on. My wooden sculptures on the top shelf. I was still stunned from the blow to my head. I slammed into the shelves with a staggering force. so completely out of control. I landed in a heap against the wall. I lost my balance. Dark and wet where I'd reached out to catch myself. It hit me so hard that my head felt jolted down onto my neck and my teeth slammed together." "It was supposed to be you and me! You were supposed to be on my side!" He was still screaming. "Please. It hurt. And then one second I was leaning against the shelves and the next. It was like he wasn't even hearing my words. I had no idea what he would do next and I was terrified. Too much blood. I knew I'd hit those stupid glass shelves on the wall behind me. And the wall was wet. My ears were ringing and my vision was starting to tunnel. the ones Charlie gave me. I wasn't lucky. She's a nurse. my ears were still ringing.

But it was whole now. She was standing on the corner in her red bridesmaid's dress from the wedding. I called her name. too. They needed to come soon. and she was wearing those strappy little shoes and that barely-there slip of a dress. not even the little green power light was illuminated. I wanted to just close my eyes and rest. The smell of the blood was filling my nose. took shape. Go. a heavy. and the instant I moved. Too much blood. My wrist didn't hurt yet. I slammed my hand down again. especially my own. just the soft ticking of the clock in the hall. The whole city was silent. making my stomach plunge sickeningly. Maybe he just ran away. in an eerie synchronicity. I tried so hard to keep my eyes open but I was just so tired. The house was quiet. My eyes were getting heavy and my head hurt so much." He turned abruptly and then he ran. looking in another direction. No one. hanging from her slim shoulders. It was ruined. she did. The dirty yellow light from the streetlights was refracted and amplified by the snow until it seemed like the air around me was glowing sickly gold.The smell of the blood was making me light-headed. but illuminating nothing. She had no coat. Bella. Was Jay even capable of summoning help? Looking across the room. She was in profile to me. Anywhere. it wouldn't do me any good. I glanced down again at my wrist and experimentally loosened my death grip on it a bit. My eyes were stinging and something was making my vision all blurry. I called to her again but she didn't acknowledge me. I kept blinking. hurry. . with banks of heavy. Where were the people? And there were no cars. It hurt. almost comforting. the one I ripped. The sound barely made it past my lips before swirling away into the flakes. It seemed odd for it to be so quiet in the aftermath of what had just happened. I would have to pray that Jay could get help. nearly white-out snowfall. numbing. parted slightly. and then everything went dark. slow breaths. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Thirteen ~ Breathe ~ Edward I was on Wacker Street back in Chicago. laying on the floor near the wall. It was night. Nothing. and it was like the snow swallowed the word whole. It was completely dark. and snowing. She could freeze to death dressed like that out here. Did he go for help? Did I get through to him? I wasn't sure. I turned to look up the street in one direction and then the other. I would just rest them for a minute until help came. The last thing I saw was my shattered phone across the room. but the blood… "Jay. Light. wet snow everywhere. if it ever came. but a little voice in my head was telling me that I had to stay awake until help came. I stopped fighting the urge to keep my eyes open. Blood gushed up from between my fingers. I could see my phone. Then up at the corner the snow swirled. I could hear every one of my shallow. It was freezing out here. but she moved away from me and up Wacker. My head hurt so much. but it wouldn't go away. Or maybe it was the relentless throbbing over my right temple. wet. I never could handle blood. The pain in my head spread out and grew fuzzy. Even if I could get over there. I started down the sidewalk towards her.

"There. but not the rest. blanketing silence of the snow. so I had no idea. I moved my arms to brace myself so I could sit up. and it caught at my feet. I was desperate for a drink of water. and the pull of cords and tubes restricting my movement. that explained the snow. Automatically.E ~*~ Bella I had no idea how much time had passed. The light sent a blinding pain through my head. willing the heat back into my icy skin. I was trying to tell them that he hadn't meant to hurt me. I finally dozed fitfully for a while and then woke for good at six a. I lay awake for hours. The duvet warmed me back up quickly and I thought I'd fall right back to sleep. I realized I'd kicked off the covers and my bedroom was freezing. That's what I got for staying awake too long. remembering the flash of Bella's dark red dress against the silencing snow. Still not a word from Bella. And the silence. You'll be sensitive for a few days. I was met with a sharp stab of pain from my right wrist. Had I succeeded? Did I make them understand? Everything was an empty void after that. coupled with her unanswered texts. the still. I kept calling her name.m. My throat was so dry. I was trying to talk. How do you feel about Japanese tonight?. too. business-like female voice made me finally open my eyes. I scrolled to Kate's number and started typing a text. I was shivering and my teeth were chattering." I heard her move across the room. "Let me turn down the lights. but Heidi kept stroking my forehead and telling me to relax. So I crawled out of bed and shuffled to my tiny galley kitchen to start a pot of coffee. No matter how hard I tried. There was a flash of what I though was me being loaded into an ambulance. but the snow was heavy and nearly to my knees in places.. groaning at the weak winter light coming in the bedroom window. but just laying here trying to go back to sleep was pointless. I had to get to her. and that he needed help. I wasn't alone." . That had to be it. I retrieved my phone and checked it for what must have been the thousandth time. slowing me down." A smooth. Back-to-back shifts just sent my brain into overdrive. As the fog of sleep and the disturbing dream cleared. she always stayed a block ahead of me.I started to panic a little. She could die… I started running. I moaned. that it was an accident. She never heard me and she never looked back. warm her up. she just kept moving and I kept desperately running. "Hey. feeling like the snow was packed up around me. or how many of my fractured memories were real and how many were hallucinated. While I waited for it to brew. I pulled the duvet back up over my shoulder and curled into a ball on my side. and the snow just took my words away. There were so many people and the bright lights of the ambulance interior hurt my eyes. trying to catch up to her… I woke up with a start. Jay. I squinted against the bright white glare of the room. that's better. screaming it. Well. I'd regret this lost sleep later today for sure. but I didn't. get her out of the snow and inside. That. always just out of my reach. there.

stout and all soft. to tell her they needed to find Jay. plus this. "Mmm-hmm. dressed in pink scrubs with her red hair pulled back off her face. There was a concussion and a laceration. That was all I needed to hear. so I just let it go and instead concentrated on his words. warm. "The doctor can give you all the details when he stops in. "I'm sure you are." I finally managed. dimly lit and filled with flickering candles. Here. so I had absolutely no sense of time. I hadn't even been aware of the bandage on my right temple until he said that. Right now the most important thing is rest. He said "close call" and "multiple transfusions". A slow. disjointed images flickered in my mind. She leaned over my bed with a plastic cup. I couldn't have formed a coherent sentence if my life depended on it. that's important. I found it just below my hairline. My lips were uncomfortably chapped and my tongue was sore. You can sort all that out later. When I reached up to feel. You've got a concussion. I'd hit my head hard. Was it the same day still? A week later? Day or night? It all felt the same. With a head injury like yours. He said a lot. I'd bled profusely and lost a lot of blood. The details of how that happened were so fuzzy." she said in that friendly. I'd also cut my right arm open on the glass. you don't understand. He didn't mean…" "Shhh." She lightly tapped my heavily bandaged right arm. You're perfectly safe here. that he was sick and needed help. I'll just give you another little hit. the Makah tribal carving of an eagle that Charlie gave me for Christmas when I was seventeen. "My head hurts. Don't upset yourself. brisk tone again as she fussed with the tubes and wires attached to me." was all I managed. too. none of which sounded good. I pulled hard. Edward." I opened my mouth to argue. fiddling with a dial next to my bed. numbness began to course through my system. She was maybe in her mid-forties." she said soothingly. and what I needed to do was to rest. pillowy curves. There was a doctor there. ." she spoke again. but I focused on just a few facts that I could hang on to. It wasn't like that. feeling relief as cold water flooded my dry throat. the ballroom where Alice's wedding reception was held."I'm thirsty. They were keeping me in the hospital for a little longer for observation. I couldn't seem to hang onto any one thought for more than an instant. talking to me about my injuries. Edward… And then the drugs claimed me and I didn't think about anything else for a long time. The blinds on the windows were closed completely. I moaned again and let my head fall back on the pillow. "I'm sure it does. gently placing the end of a straw against my lips. Edward's face when I ran out of his hotel room the last morning in Chicago. Just the effort of lifting my head enough to swallow made my headache throb horribly. as even that tiny interaction had left me wasted and incoherent. As I hovered in the dim twilight between the pain and blissful unconsciousness. ~*~ I woke up again later for a few minutes. "You need to rest as much as possible. though he explained that was to be expected with a concussion like mine. My already scattered thoughts became just flashes. "Head injury?" I murmured." "Where's Jay? Is he alright?" "Don't you worry about him. It was hard to focus. But the pain in my head was making it hard to focus. shocked at how raspy and unfamiliar my voice sounded. I closed my eyes and let unconsciousness swallow me again." "No. her voice coming closer. I cracked my eyes again and the level of light was much more manageable.

The change in orientation made my head spin so badly I thought I would throw up. "Ms. That was better. She moved to the door and opened it. "Jay…where is he? Is he waiting?" She looked a little uneasy. trying to smile. My name is Shelley. That didn't help to orient me much. and trying to cover for him won't help anything. This just couldn't be good." I murmured. leaning out. "I don't know the details. sure." "No. For the last month or so. in case he came after you. "Something is wrong with him. but kept rearranging my blankets." I whispered." she answered." "Alright. "Hey there! Now take it easy.~*~ When I came to again. but reclined enough that the dizziness stopped. I could look around the hospital room and take in details and wonder about specifics. but in spite of it. The dull ache filling my head refused to go away. but everything hurt. yes. "How are you feeling today?" she asked once I'd opened my eyes again. I nodded slightly. which was a little unnecessary since I was the only person here. "I'm Sam. and then she moved to the side to let him in. though. You don't understand…" "Begging your pardon. I was groaning and clutching the rail of the bed when the same red-haired nurse came bustling into the room and saw me. since I couldn't remember what day it was when I got there. but there's someone outside who wants to talk to you. Shelley. He didn't mean to hurt me. I don't know…I was trying to get him to see a doctor…" . She lowered me back. Do you feel up to it?" "Um. then. The fuzziness of my thoughts seemed to be wearing off. But he hasn't turned up. I still felt exhausted and sore all over. No one's seen him since the incident. "Is this about Jay? Is he okay?" "Do you mean James Anderson? We don't know. so I wasn't sure if I managed it. he's not…he's sick. I felt the first flutterings of actual awareness. But you take it easy. Swan. But that made me remember how I got there." I nodded again.. Every little movement made my head throb. Now I was half-sitting. He was tall and dark-haired. I forced myself to sit up. And we've kept an eye out here…you know. "He won't come after me. I'll send him in. Clearer.. "A little better. you just hit this button here. We've issued an arrest warrant. wearing a police uniform. murmured conversation with someone right outside. wondering why there was a policeman waiting to talk to me. okay?" "Thank you." I tried to shake my head but it hurt too much. Officer Sam Uley. You're still weak." "He's not at home?" "No one has seen him there. and the light still hurt my eyes. Ms. Swan?" he asked politely. then fiddled with the automatic controls on the side of the bed until my upper half was at a gentle incline. What day is this?" "Thursday. You're not running a marathon any time soon!" She was at my bedside like a shot. and hopefully we'll bring him in soon. trying to make my unruly thoughts behave. but I've seen more than my fair share of this sort of thing. My heart began to pound when I registered his uniform. If you need anything at all. I could hear her having a brief. and I started to panic again.

my voice starting to give out on me. It made me feel good. Anderson has some sort of mental illness?" he pressed. actually. but I thought it was good for him. if you're right and he needs professional help. But it seemed to have no relevance here. That it had come to this. "don't arrest him. that you were injured. trade stories. Sam Uley. but he really didn't mean to. I'd cheated and been caught. We hit it off and then we'd always make a point to get together at them. but I wanted to let you know that your friend. But if he turns up and we arrest him. "Charlie?" He nodded. but it didn't change the fact that there was something to see." he waved a hand at me lying in bed." "Alice?" I murmured hoarsely. then arresting him might be for the best. He didn't do this on purpose. Alice. Would he ever even turn up again. we were done. or else Shelley will have my head. and right now there is every indication that he could be. She'll be here sometime today. He has all these crazy ideas. "I'll leave you to rest in just a minute. or was this it? Was he lost forever? Officer Uley cleared his throat to get my attention again. considering what he told me. if we have any reason at all to suspect that he could be a danger to someone. As a couple. I know it sounds bad. "I'm just telling you what this situation looks like to the authorities. and it doesn't look like he's been back to your house. It might be the only way to make Jay talk to someone. grab a beer. This man. "We met some years back at one of the quarterly regional law enforcement seminars." I lay still for a bit."Are you saying Mr. Alright?" I lay back on the pillows." I left out the thing that got him so upset. And then there was the terror that I didn't know where he was.." he said gently. I couldn't get him to talk to anyone. was breaking my heart. If what you're saying is the truth and this was an accident. and then I fell. that sort of thing. it might be for the best right now to just let this play out. and there was nothing I could do to help him anymore. "We don't even know where he is right now. Officer Uley continued. Chief Swan. covered in bandages and tubes.. the nurse. I knew that. so I left it alone. staring at the ceiling. "Ms. that people are out to get him. but he held up a hand to silence me." I whispered. He was out there. I still cared about his welfare. I felt like I'd failed him completely. He was upset and he got carried away. "Please. happy for my dad. . I always suspected that he spent as much time drinking beer with his law enforcement buddies as he did attending leadership seminars. Yes. "Just the fact that you were hurt and seemingly at his hands…well. "How did she know…" "I knew your father. but I looked online and I think so. over forever. "I'm not positive. Jay misinterpreted what he saw. If his behavior is not rational and he appears to be a danger. sick and alone. He hasn't come here. I'm sure I must have looked like a train wreck. had been his friend." I opened my mouth to protest again. Apparently he notified your neighbor." I thought back and remembered Charlie making overnight trips to Seattle every now and then for one of those." Officer Uley was quiet for a moment as he considered what I told him. shoot the sh…catch up. He never did do enough for himself. we can order a psych consult and he has to comply. and he took off. Swan. But he was still important to me. Where was he sleeping? Was he eating? Images of Jay sleeping in an alley or under an overpass filled me with dread. feeling spent and sad. I knew I'd had no luck trying to convince him on my own. that letting Jay get arrested and go to jail might actually be my best option. is on her way here.

tears filled my eyes." "Bella. And it's no trouble at all. it was like Charlie was looking back at me. and he was still here. then stopped." she said. We were all real upset when we heard that he passed." Alice. You're Chief Swan's daughter. I was there when the call came in. it wasn't hard for me to track her down. Alice Brandon. Shelley here has my number. but just the idea of Alice being with me soon overrode all of that. fat." I murmured. every small step I could take. made a motion towards me. I was still in the hospital. Swan. Swan. So I called back to the Forks P. She's…um. Bella. When I heard your name. She knew she'd moved to Chicago and after that. Alice was coming. I had no choice but to wake up and face the situation. alright. Charlie Swan was our man. "Call me Sam."And whenever a case involved the Clallam County jurisdiction. The door swung open and Shelley came bustling in. fierce." I just nodded and squeezed my eyes shut. Ms. That makes you like part of our family." "Thank you. "I think we've talked enough for now." I looked at his kind face and gentle dark eyes. I was beginning to be embarrassed at my predicament. The exhaustion and the stress and the sadness overwhelmed me and I burst into tears. "Alright.D. so it seemed like the only . both to me and to Officer Uley. clearly relieved to have someone step in to handle my emotional outburst. sobbing tears. he was. It never got any easier. then. and for a split second. He was…." Officer Uley looked down at his hands where they held his hat before he continued. "He was a good man. I tried to sit and think. Years later. Officer Uley looked alarmed. Ms. it hurt. "I'll stop by to talk to you tomorrow." "Bella. but the concussion was still making my head throb and I was so drained and exhausted. And we take care of our own. I'm sorry for your loss. brushing past him. It was like he was still looking out for me. "Okay. I wanted her so much. I thought. uncertain what to do. soothingly. even years after you move away. "But how did Alice…" "Your neighbor called nine-one-one when she found you. And in a way. Charlie would have been exactly the same way. seemed overwhelming and utterly beyond my abilities." Unexpectedly. it rang a bell. I remembered that Charlie's daughter was named Isabella and you seemed about the right age. I welcomed it and gratefully turned my face toward oblivion. And if you need anything. The great thing about small towns is that everybody knows your business. Big. anyway. Just when I thought enough time had passed and it was starting to fade." she said. You take care. Every course of action. and the warm numbness started seeping through my body again. naturally. then. and I'd be hit with his loss all over again. She would be here soon. through this man. at the disaster I'd landed myself in. Alice stayed on the phone with me just long enough to say she'd catch the next flight." he said awkwardly. No wonder they were friends. to figure out what I should do next. lowering the bed so that I was laying flat again. something like this would happen: someone would share a memory of him or say something kind about him. so when that wore off. "Call me Bella. The desk sergeant there? Leah?" I smiled faintly and nodded at the familiar name. Officer Uley. ~*~ That was the last hit of the wonder drug that Shelley gave me. Shelley fussed over me a while longer and adjusted a dial. hot tears streaking down my temples and into my hair. I'm sorry you went through all that trouble. "She told me that the person I should talk to about you was your friend.

"No! God. "Did I hurt you. her tan coat hanging open and slightly askew on her narrow shoulders. and I did feel bad about dragging her all the way to Seattle to deal with my disaster. so dinner was delivered. I was just happy to soak up her presence and let her comfort me. too." "Oh. . "You want to tell us exactly what happened?" she asked softly. while I cried what seemed to be an endless supply of tears. "I'm just really glad you're here. tan food on my plate." She scrambled up on the edge of the bed and slid one arm behind my shoulders. "Are you okay. She didn't ask yet what had happened and I didn't say. though. I sat up sharply to look. trying to throw her arms around me. Jasper leaned forward." We stayed that way for a long time. "Bella! Oh. I calmed and she stretched out next to me. For the moment. but the sight of her just broke me. You're making me nervous. wondering where to start. I tried to shush her and reach up to rub her back. My head hurt and my eyes were still burning and swollen from all the crying." He cracked a smile and dragged his hand through his shaggy hair before pulling the molded orange plastic chair by the door over beside the bed. no! That's not what happened! He's sick!" Alice snorted angrily. trying to hold it in. her hand splayed on the door where she'd shoved it open. sweets! Of course I'm here! I came as soon as that cop called. As her eyes found mine. Ally. God!" she gasped. Alice rocking me and soothing me. Alice kept smoothing my hair back out of my face gently. I shook my head and bit my lips. reaching up to smooth my ratty hair out of my face. She was completely unkempt. I sighed heavily. Jasper. "Oh. although I knew I'd need to explain everything. The doctor cleared me for solid food. she let out a strangled little cry as her bag slipped off her shoulder to the floor and she flung herself across the room at me. Food was the last thing on my mind. I was just so relieved to see her. My eyes flew wide and I tried to sit up. Then I could focus on what to do next. "Oh!" she sat up quickly. especially not for the bland.option open to me in my very immediate future was to recover enough to get out. has he hit you before?" he asked. Alice stood in the open doorway. as she half-fell across the bed. I'm sorry you had to come all this way…" I wanted to keep reassuring her. God!" She was crying by then. He's gone to find your doctor. I managed to swivel the tray away from my bed with my good arm and was just easing myself back on the pillows when my door swung violently open and hit the back wall with a thud. I'll be fine. her sleek hair windblown. It'll be okay. "It's okay. looking slightly awkward as he stood at the foot of the bed and patted my foot. honey?" "I'm okay. resting his elbows on his knees. his voice low and hard. Her eyes were wide and ringed with dark circles. "Sit. "Bella. arm still outstretched. but I was starting to cry all over again. Jasper's here. honey?" Her hands fluttered hopelessly over the tubes connected to me. Jasper appeared later. our heads close together. but I had no appetite. I smiled wanly at him. Eventually. telling me everything would be okay. but Alice held me back.

so Alice stayed put. "I didn't know what to do. but no one seemed sure who was supposed to do it. things that I missed. Alice craned around the passenger seat to look at me. The arrival of Alice and Jasper allowed me to let go of so much tension I hadn't even been aware I was hanging on to. but instead of pushing it." Jasper exhaled and leaned back in his chair. Then. he was convinced I was in on it. something just went really haywire. I twisted my fingers in my lap." I felt exhausted. but Alice stayed with me. "B? We're going by your place to get some of your stuff. Ally. Alice seemed to sense my energy fading away. Shelley didn't even chase her off when she came to check on me. The relief left me boneless. too. waiting for one of them to finally tell me I was free. when he lost his job."No. Officer Uley is going to meet us there. so drained from the stress and the crying. There have been little things for a while. I just didn't put two and two together. "Let's not worry about it any more tonight. we can decide what to do. alright?" All I could do was nod. He wouldn't see a doctor…I knew you'd worry. He was really upset about something and I was trying to calm him down. I'd been keeping it from Alice for two months. I settled into the back of Alice and Jasper's rental car. okay? The doctor said you're getting out of here tomorrow. smoothing my hair and humming. I wasn't alone in this anymore. "I called your boss before I left Chicago. But the familiar feel of her small body next to me as she brushed her feather-light fingertips over my forehead and through my hair. "Why didn't you tell me?" I shrugged. nearly faint with exhaustion. B?" Alice sat up a little so she could see my face. She was all tiny. Jasper got up and left to go hunt down some dinner. crazy stuff like that. It meant that I spent the day sitting on the side of my bed with Alice. Just come home with me. They're not expecting you back any time soon. my job…" Alice held up her hand to stop me. clear voice. "He's been acting irrationally. even though trying to conceal it at this stage was pointless. some other doctor needed to come peer at my pupils. watching with hopeful eyes as doctors and nurses came and went." . she just asked. Every time we thought we were done. just grateful to have somebody step in and direct me. it all comforted me in a way no one had since my mother had left. I let it wrap me up like a blanket and I breathed her in like oxygen as I drifted off to sleep under her hands. Once I was finally sprung. still looking at my fingers. There was nothing maternal about Alice. stretched out on the bed by my side. still hesitant to lay this out there. we're taking you home for a little bit. It was time to tell her everything. the throbbing in my forehead would start up again. listen to my pulse and make a note on my chart. sharp angles and a piercing. that the house is being watched or bugged or whatever. high. He didn't even mean to hurt me. and once you're back on your feet a little bit. Alice…he is. He just let go of me too fast and I fell. when I got tired. Alice's brows were drawn tightly together and she didn't necessarily look like she was willing to accept that it was an accident. spicy smell of her perfume. the soft. and how to get him some help. That night." "What are you saying. and as soon as we can sort it out. just in case. The blood loss was still sapping my strength and while my head didn't hurt full-time anymore." "But. staring at the ceiling. ~*~ It took half the day to get out of the hospital. He's got all these ideas… that people are out to get him. Then there were discharge orders that someone needed to write up. It really was an accident. the reedy little trill of her voice as she sang our favorite songs to me. though. I was trying to figure out what was wrong with him.

this illness called all of that into question. And…" he gave me a pained look. There always seemed to be a reason." I nodded slowly in agreement. the frantic note-taking that I now sadly recognized as Jay's. "That means you don't know what he'll do. It was partly why I hadn't been able to bring myself to tell her about it yet. So much blood. the glass shelves collapsed from where I'd fallen into them . "Like I said. but she held up a hand to silence me. all over the room. There's no point in taking chances. I think he was good at covering up the really bad stuff. Alice and I following a few feet behind. I could see why for myself.I opened my mouth to protest again that Jay wasn't dangerous. B. The front door was unlocked." she said. Then I felt ashamed at myself for feeling that way. Even though I knew it was coming. leaning on his cruiser and talking on his cell phone. "We're just going to grab some stuff for you and head right to the airport. They were covered in heavy black marker. "He's unstable. "We won't stay long. In another second. What I saw in the rest of the living room was no better. Are you sure you want to go in?" My stomach dropped and I felt Alice's grip on my hand tighten. but you never know. She had a point. How long has he been like this?" Closing my eyes against the evidence of his illness. there was just no telling how he might react now. I hated to admit that. "Well." Officer Uley and Jasper went first. I could make out Eleazar's name scrawled in several places. feeling punched in the gut. I could always explain it away. the Jay I knew. Plus. Officer Uley was already there. "This is awful. But I just closed my eyes and nodded. There were pages and pages of it. I heard Jasper suck his breath in between his teeth as he got to the living room." she murmured. The right hand wall was already a wreck. When we pulled up along the curb in front of my house. the Jay he'd once been. would have never wanted Alice and Jasper to see this part of him. But he just snapped when he lost his job. Jay…" I whispered. The furniture was shoved all over the place and there were newspaper pages everywhere. when everything's gone all haywire." she murmured. That's when all of this started. He snapped it shut when we climbed out of the car. to see him so unhinged." I waved a hand at the room. covering every surface and most of the floor. I was finally starting to see this situation for what it really was. Broken glass was still scattered everywhere and there was a sickeningly large pool of dried blood on the carpet. practically carpeted with the evidence of his paranoia. "Don't look. but it looks like he's been back at some point. "Bella…" I heard Alice say on an exhale. Especially now. but it was true. along with a large dark smear of it along the wall. trying to massage the ache away. running my fingers over a page of newsprint draped across the back of the couch. I heard Alice let out a tiny whimper and her hand tightened on mine. away from the carnage. I couldn't help but gasp when I saw it. This wasn't his fault and he couldn't control it any more than if he'd developed some physical disease. I kept attributing it to other causes. "Oh. . "Any sign of him yet?" Jasper asked as he approached. he's not here now. I rubbed my forehead with my fingertips. exposed to them this way. If he was pushed. I let go of Alice and moved to the center of the room. and so much writing. nudging me to the left. there were little things for a while. "it's kind of wrecked inside. But still. Sam says they've driven by a few times and it doesn't look like he's been back. The house was a disaster. I felt embarrassed for Jay. even if it was less graphic. While I might have once known Jay and what he was and wasn't capable of. next to passages of articles that had been heavily underlined.

your dad's not here so I'm going to tell you what I think he'd say if he was. When I imagined Charlie here. the reason he'd destroyed my stuff. "This yours?" he asked. dragging the large navy suitcase from the hall closet behind her.. too. It felt like it was all I had been doing for days and I was just tired of it. Look. Jasper's going to grab your paperwork from the office. Bella. no doubt looking for evidence of where Jay might be now. I saw him crouch and retrieve something off the floor. to cancel things." The implications of that. I nodded. it looks like." Jasper said. pulling me back towards the dining table. my student loans." Alice murmured." I shook my head." I sighed. Mostly your stuff. He'd want you out of this situation immediately. holding my cell phone aloft." she began. okay?" She disappeared down the hall as Jasper crouched in front of me. examining things. You know he would. And maybe his conclusions had been wrong. "he kind of trashed the bedroom. was easy. "Um. so I wouldn't think about that for now. and if I didn't get out on my own. so it was mostly in his name. There weren't too many household accounts in my name. he'd have come to drag me out. Jay threw it against the wall. "Just leave it. Jay had already been out of school and working when I moved in. "But if I leave him. "Why?" "We'll need to be able to contact them when we get back to Chicago. She pushed a handful of newsprint off one of the chairs and urged me to sit down. no questions asked. at least. I got what I could. Bella. I didn't know what to do about the bank account. I knew exactly what he would have done. Is there anything else you want? Anything sentimental? Keepsakes or something?" That part. There was a credit card. and that means financially. but the betrayal was all too real. I just blinked at him. were too overwhelming to think about. Bella. and a few odds and ends. Alice came up behind me and wrapped a hand around my wrist. ditching my entire life here and Jay with it. Then Officer Uley cleared his throat and crossed the room to stand just a few feet away."I'm so sorry. her voice unsteady. but he seemed to find nothing. I gritted my teeth and willed myself not to start crying again." "You can't stay. Alice appeared from the hallway leading to the bedroom. There's a box that says 'Forks'. Jasper disappeared into the office with a bag and went to work. I found your laptop and it seems okay. There wasn't much left. "There's some good news. "I need to know which bills were in your name. more insistently this time. peering up into my face." He set it on the table and went back to poking around the room. "I'm going to go pack up your clothes. on the top shelf on the right. He'd have insisted I leave." He was right. knowing exactly why he'd done it. It's dead. "He's right. too. Bella. but I had my dad's pension and life insurance money to get me through for the immediate future. So I turned back to Jasper and started to list off the things I would need. Bella. "In the closet. Officer Uley prowled around the room.. We're pulling you out of this." . confused. It's all the stuff I brought from the house when I sold it.

I took one last glance around the carnage of what had once been our house. saying goodbye to my home for who knew how long. Was this really all? Four years. with Jay and I was walking out the door with one suitcase." He nodded tightly. Jasper helped me to my feet and steered me out of the house. And I have Alice's number. right? " I nodded wordlessly. But you need to distance yourself from this. Everybody knows what state he's in. I wondered if I should be feeling more. too. I slept for the entire flight and was in a groggy stupor as they steered me through O'Hare and into a cab. "I've passed on what you said about his condition." He shrugged awkwardly. He straightened up and exchanged a few last words with Jasper. day in and day out. Then Alice reappeared with my box from home and we were done. but I was overwhelmed. "You've got my card. Hopefully he turns up soon and we can get him some help. You know that. A few minutes later Jasper appeared with my legal life in a shopping bag. If we hear anything about him. It was the middle of the night by the time we finally reached their house. He spoke for a few minutes with Officer Uley in low voices across the room about the state of things in the office. scarcely able to believe that I was back in Chicago with her. Then we were pulling away from the curb and Seattle was slipping past the windows as we headed for the highway and the airport." I shook his hand and tried to smile. But I felt nothing except overwhelming sadness and exhaustion. Jasper handled everything and I allowed myself to be led by Alice everywhere I needed to go." I murmured. then purchasing and renovating it. "That's what Charlie would want you to do. "That's it. which were on the small side for me. I'll let you know. The rest of the day was a blur. ~*~~*~~*~ . then he tapped the roof of the car twice as Jasper started the engine. "I can't put eyes on the house twenty-four seven." "Just…don't hurt him if you can help it. to our gate and onto our flight. Alice was shaking me awake at the airport. I handed my keys to Officer Uley to lock up and I never looked back. Go back to Chicago with your friends and focus on getting well. although I'd heard all about it from Alice during the whole process of house-hunting. "Is that it?" she asked. Officer Uley came around to my window to talk to me. at all the things that had never had much to do with me. a box and a bag. I'd never been there. You call me if you need anything at all. Then I fell wordlessly into the bed and into the oblivion of a long and dreamless sleep.She nodded and disappeared. Instead I just stumbled up the stairs with her arm around my waist and allowed her to help me change into a pair of her pajamas. I watched the white-framed houses pass by the car window." "Thank you. too. He did. I collapsed into the back seat while they stowed my stuff in the trunk. but we'll send a patrol car by as often as we can. Some part of my mind thought to be curious about finally being there. I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it if it didn't make me want to cry. She pressed my medications into my hand and I obediently swallowed them down. and the next thing I knew. one after another. through ticketing and security.

Just kidding.17. com) Hi Mom. 2010 From: Edward Cullen (e . Alright. It's your doting mother emailing to nag you about finalizing your travel plans for Harold's retirement party. but I'm hoping to get there March 14. tell your pathetic mother to shut up and I will. cullen[at]lenoxhill . There's a lot to think about right now. How many days do you think you can stay? I'm sorry we missed you at Christmas for Jasper's wedding. because you're not. Love.Chapter Fourteen ~ You Don’t Even Know ~ Edward February 26. But I know the hospital keeps you very busy. as always. The answer is "no". but it's helpful to know when you plan on washing up on the doorstep. so I can have the freezer stocked with Coffee Heath Bar Crunch in time. my dear boy. prying mother. I promise. I hope you don't think you're at all subtle with that meddling and prying. so you'll get me all to yourself for a few days. I love you. and that only tends to happen when a girl is involved. net) To: Esme Cullen (esme_c [at]gmail . I expect a sufficient supply to be laid in or else you're fired as my mother. At the risk of being a meddling. cullen [at]lenoxhill . I'm going to meddle and pry a bit. Your old room is here for you. I'm really looking forward to it. net) Darling Edward. I'll forward you my itinerary once I book the ticket. 2010 From: Esme Cullen (esme_ cullen[at]gmail . Edward . I'll be coming home alone. so don't feel pressured to stay just for me. it's just the new staff position at the hospital. Love you. I'm looking forward to my old room and even more to the Coffee Heath Bar Crunch. I'm still lining up coverage. Mom ~*~ February 27. Should we expect you to bring a guest? I only ask because you seem a bit distant and distracted lately. com) To: Edward Cullen (e . As for seeming distracted. so I hope we can steal you away for a few days this time.

I laughed and held up my hands. I came to see if you were free for lunch. our schedules kept us both so busy that we'd only had a handful of actual dates. "Hey! I thought you were still on rounds. I'm just going home for a few days. although I imagined that soon. I'm going back to Chicago for a few days for the party. and I'd enjoy it enough. Honestly. I supposed." "Well. "So how are things progressing with Dr." she began. lunch would be great. We'd been going out for a couple of weeks now. leaning on the nurse's station after stowing his chart. eyebrows raised. man." Kate's voice murmured at my shoulder. Alec. and her mouth curled up in a secret little smile. huh? Big plans?" Her voice sounded slightly more interested than the wording of her casual question implied. "So. "No. I'm thinking the fourteenth through the seventeenth. Alec. but…" "Just get the hell out of here. trying to recall his work schedule. It was good." . My father's partner is retiring." "Sure. and while it wasn't any sort of secret. Like I'm sharing any of that shit with you. Why? Are you can Kate going out of town and getting it on?" I rolled my eyes at his leering. nature would take over. "My father's partner in his practice is retiring. I can cover you for it." Alec cut me off. You know the deal. but I brushed it off. I had yet to take her up on any of her offers to come upstairs and spend the night. we generally didn't make a big show of it at work. Yes. "Things are good. I would. "Alec's covering for you in March. But I also reasoned that when the moment finally arrived. "I think so." She shrugged and nudged me with her shoulder." Kate smiled widely at me." "Chicago?" she asked." I swiveled to smile at her. alright. Kate's great. Pierce?" "Nice try. "When. Why?" "You're kidding!" she laughed. Big party." he smirked." "I was going to write up my notes. "Alright. exactly?" "Um.~*~ "Hey. "Fantastic!" I put my charts away and headed towards the elevator with Kate. She had a right to know that I was heading out of town. I'd always enjoyed hanging out with Kate when we were friends. I can do my notes later. like today. I worried a little that the prospect didn't excite me as much as it should. She glanced at me out of the corner of her eye. as soon as the elevator doors closed behind us." I smiled and busied my hands with my Blackberry. too! For the vaccination seminar at Northwestern Memorial. "I'm going to Chicago that weekend. and that hadn't really changed. The rest of our "relationship" had played out over shared cups of bad coffee in the staff lounge and the occasional lunch in the cafeteria. "We finished early. "I'm so glad to hear it. can you cover me March fourteenth and fifteenth?" Alec looked up from his chart and scowled. except that we ended the nights making out for a few minutes on her front stoop instead of just saying goodnight.

It'll save a fortune." Kate was re-directed to the food choices at hand and I let out a long. cullen [at]lenoxhill . It was a coincidence. but I could concede that they might be for Kate. Hausman. It would be fun. Maybe you can show me some of the places you used to hang out?" She seemed genuinely excited. I might still want to do it. heavy sigh. nodding. her voice dropping a few registers." She took a step closer to me. Now. though. He awards this fellowship that I was interested in at one point." "Hey. "Um. it's kind of a pain to fly all the way there just for that. "Still. I licked my lips and shifted back just as the elevator dinged and the doors slid open. so I shook off the vague feeling I had of being railroaded into something. It was a fortunate coincidence. Her tone of voice was light and casual." "Well. Kate stepped back away from me and I waved her out of the elevator ahead of me. Then I felt like a scumbag for feeling uncomfortable." "Great! You know. why don't you book mine. It's being given by Dr. We were dating. sure. 2010 From: Edward Cullen (e . It'll be great. "Do you want to meet up in Chicago? I mean." she said. And if we were going to be there at the same time. And if we were going to be there at the same time anyway. I've never really liked Chicago. I'll show you around my old stomping grounds. too? If we're on the same flights. it might be nice to hang out a little. sure. Maybe she'd just never properly experienced Chicago. The cost of the cabs was not really a huge concern of mine." I finally said. When are you headed out there?" "I haven't booked my tickets yet. "Sure. right?" she said back over her shoulder as we headed into the cafeteria. Hanging out with Kate was always fun. that was all. and reached out to run a fingertip down the side of my neck. "I know. it made complete sense to spend some of that time together. "maybe not just that.I scowled a little at that piece of news. ~*~ March 1. we can share cabs to and from the airport. "You're going all the way to Chicago for a seminar?" She rolled her eyes. so Banner thinks making the effort to go to his seminar might win me a few brownie points. but it doesn't sound nearly so dull now that I know you'll be around for some of it." I had to concede that it sounded like exactly the kind of idea that Banner would have. I didn't want to be one of those asshole guys who always held women at arm's length just to retain some artificial sense of independence. "I'll book us both this afternoon and send you the itinerary. it's a total pain in the ass. And it's not even really the seminar. we'll be there at the same time. what are you getting for lunch? All this stuff looks vile. Even if she did just say she hated my hometown. "I need to do it today. from the looks of things. and was smiling at me with such undisguised enthusiasm that I felt bad all over again for any misgivings I might have had about the trip. Have you booked yours?" I shook my head as I glanced over the crummy selection of pre-packaged sandwiches on display in the cooler. net) ." I squirmed a little at how fast she was becoming entangled in my weekend. I liked her. I needed to stop over-analyzing and just enjoy it. and Banner's been pushing me to develop a relationship with Hausman. It did add up to a lot of money. "Yeah. after all.

You know…just to introduce myself and explain that you were doing me a favor. and to meeting Kate. com) To: Edward Cullen (e . net) My most darling Edward (who never tells his mother anything). Lots of love from your pushy mother. I'm attaching my itinerary with my flight info on it. And now she was staying with me at my parents for the whole weekend. I emailed your mom. booking the tickets together. aghast. What. Katherine Pierce (k . Just so you know. com) CC: Katherine Pierce (k . She was a bit of a busybody. maybe we can do a late dinner? Nothing too elaborate. smiling broadly. I groaned at how complicated and uncomfortable this whole thing had suddenly become. Kate. I'm so looking forward to your visit. uncertain exactly how I should address what just happened. but just inviting Kate like that without asking me first seemed peculiar. since we were travelling to Chicago at the same time anyway. Edward ~*~ March 2. net). "Sorry about that. in a very public forum. but if you guys aren't busy. 2010 From: Esme Cullen (esme_c [at]gmail . as I'll probably be coming straight from the hospital and dead on my feet. of course. I'd have to bring her to Harold's retirement party. of course Mom would assume we were sleeping together. cullen [at]lenoxhill . God. There would be no graceful way around that. She emailed back and we got . Mom ~*~ I sat back and stared at my laptop. I just couldn't let that stand uncontested. Love you. You also won't hear me complain if I happen to find some of those cheddar crackers from Mimi's in your pantry. I'll certainly be in the mood for some Coffee Heath Bar Crunch. The. She explained about your overlapping trips. net) Hi Mom. but when she mentioned staying in a hotel. still smiling. so you've been put on alert. She would meet my parents. hey. Fuck? It was my own stupid fault for sending the flight information to both my mother and Kate in the same email. She would be my date. Would my mother put us in the same room? Probably. pierce [at]lenoxhill . It seemed odd that my mother had interjected so forcefully. shifting uncomfortably.To: Esme Cullen (esme_c [at]gmail . "Um. "Hey there!" Kate was peeking in the partially-opened staff lounge door. Feel free to let me know if there's anything special I can get for you while you're here. I was booking flights for the two of us. After you sent the itinerary. I'll probably get in a little late on Thursday. pierce [at]lenoxhill . She waved her Blackberry lightly. you can see that Edward has no shame about sending me his shopping list." I said. Oh. We'll be delighted to have you both stay at the house.

if I were honest with myself. Just hanging out. examining her open expression. None of this was happening quite how I planned. and it was because of Bella. ~*~ This was a huge mistake. even if only weakly. it's no big deal. but it didn't automatically follow that it was bad. "No. I'd come straight from a shift at the hospital and I was tired. Then she wasn't ready yet. I didn't want to let go of her. and I had to try to keep the car service driver from killing me for it. Maybe it would be good. If it hadn't moved beyond a few intense kisses. see how things went in Chicago. even if she didn't know about Bella. I tilted my face up to kiss her back. Some of it was my fault. So what if I was suddenly bringing Kate home clearly labeled as my girlfriend? She was. I was still keeping one foot outside of this thing with her. And it was stupid to sabotage what could be something good with Kate for the sake of a one-night stand who had cut me out of her life completely." She crossed the room then. She leaned down to kiss me and dutifully. But I let myself be talked into it. No. I didn't want to be that guy. even. I'd never know if I didn't try. We're just hanging out. I hope it's okay with you. I was already in a crappy mood by the time the car stopped at Kate's apartment. I didn't. I was worried that you'd get all defensive and freaked out. It was my problem. Kate didn't deserve it. "Oh. Getting fully involved with Kate would mean that I had. and this thing could really happen. The idea that she'd taken it upon herself to contact my mother directly rankled a bit. I should have known you wouldn't be like that. enjoying the weekend. so I chalked up my annoyance to that and told myself that once we were actually through the stress of travelling and in Chicago. It'll be great. wasn't she? Sure. I forced myself to go along with it and give it a chance. ." She exhaled and visibly talking. Okay?" I nodded and forced another smile. We had been for several weeks. her artless smile. she just wouldn't take no for an answer about the hotel thing. what did she say that was untrue? We were dating. or what happened. and that pissed me off. "Sure. good. and even the idea that Kate might be trying to do it to me really infuriated me. Edward. But this was a mistake. Maybe I'd finally jump in with a little enthusiasm. but was I really ready to act like a dick about it? If I made a fuss. You're too nice. And that was when I started to feel bad. it's cool. On the one hand. I felt like I was being railroaded into something much more serious than our relationship currently warranted. But really. but didn't I open the door by cc'ing her on the email in the first place? I couldn't wave them under each others' noses like that and then demand that they ignore each other. That was pretty shitty of me. this was not quite how I would have liked the parental introductions to happen. that was hardly for lack of desire on Kate's part. Because I knew where the hesitation came from and why. and it felt too soon. On the other hand. I knew it was a mistake from the minute I read that first email from Mom. Maybe this was just what I needed to get my ass in gear with Kate. so we had to wait. I'd relax and enjoy myself. I reached up to circle her waist in return. Once I mentioned that we were dating. Great." I sat back in my chair for a minute. I knew it by the time we got to the airport. It'll be fun. I'd had plenty of experience with women looking to pin me down as soon as they possibly could. I forced myself to relax my shoulders and smile. At least I should give it a shot. so she could slip an arm around my shoulders. it would hurt Kate's feelings and I'd be one of those guys.

sweetie?" "Then I'd better get the recipe from you before I leave. because I knew what I'd see if I looked. flawless answers. Dad. There was no way that Kate could know that. but said nothing." "Of course." he said. I had to work to keep from flinching a little. Kate smiled up at him. No. but to me.I see. I mostly kept a tight smile plastered on my face and my eyes fixed on my plate. Mom never judged. I chanced a look at her.. I resented it. Kate was gracious. Her still-young face was smooth and friendly. But of course. Mom had flawless manners and could graciously host a dinner for Stalin.. No. and chatty.My mother didn't like Kate. He fished it out of his pocket and glanced at the face. it had for them. I scowled at my plate." He pressed send and started talking as he scooted back from the table and headed out of the room. this is fantastic. smiling as he raked a hand through his dark blond hair. "I really have to take this. but her eyes. And that was worse. right. We were in the middle of dessert when Dad's cell went off." he said. Kate scarcely missed a beat. At least. so I had to sit there and take it and fume all night..Why don't you put him on with me and I'll see if I can set his mind at ease?" Then he closed the door to the study and the conversation was cut off. holding a finger up to On the surface everything seemed fine. "Sorry. My parents were still ridiculously attractive and youthful. But I knew her very well and I sensed it in every little word and gesture. nothing Kate would have noticed." she said. Dad was naturally gregarious and curious. Kate hinted at a depth to our relationship that simply didn't exist. that was just the son of one of my patients. She wouldn't judge. "Are you on call tonight?" He shook his head. I heard my mother minutely clear her throat. Thank God my father chose that moment to come back in." Kate said. I guess happiness did that for you. I've told him I'll come out to the home for his appointments. "Nobody's on call in a practice as small as ours. he just needs a little reassurance. polite. His father is about to go into a nursing home and he's very anxious that I won't be his primary care physician anymore. if she had to. She'd just look…concerned. turning to my mother with a beaming smile. and Kate was a fellow doctor. It was pretty simple.were shrewdly examining me. She seemed everything that parents would want to see in a serious new girlfriend coming home to visit for the first time. "Carlos? What can I do for you?. And that was the problem. In every little touch and murmured aside to me. that sound was loaded. and Kate's easy. "Your patients have your private cell number?" . "My butterscotch mousse has always been Edward's favorite.Don't worry about it…it's not a problem at all. but…well. Mom shrugged and smiled at me. "Sorry about the interruption. since Kate and I had gotten in rather late. so the conversation so far had been dominated by his questions to Kate about her residency. Dinner went alright." Kate blinked a few times before responding. "Esme. She asked all the right questions of my parents during the pre-dinner drinks. I felt manipulated by her and this situation. You're not interrupting…. even though they were both in their late-fifties. giving me a conspiratorial nudge. Every time Kate leaned over to touch my arm lightly in conversation.. just like mine. So I purposefully avoided eye-contact with Mom all night. Sometimes these things can't be helped. I couldn't step back and correct it without coming off as the biggest asshole in the world. indicating her dessert.

My father saved us from the awkward moment with his usual genial smile. I'm going to head up to bed. and we were headed home on Sunday. Sleep well." . But maybe I'm just sentimental. "I.. too. "He's not a case. An uncomfortable silence hung over the table for a moment and it served to remind me why I wasn't going to confront Kate about this weekend while we were still here." I snapped.Dad just smiled. "Dinner was fantastic. It's just. I heard my mother shift in her chair and my father exhaled. like we were just hashing out some old inside joke between us. because none of it was the least bit out of the ordinary for him. I'd just make everyone around me miserable if I tried to hash it out now. so I came home for that.I've had a lot on my plate this trip. Mom. "What Edward means is that I've been treating Mr." "What. even if it's just a phone call or two. So I resolved to keep my mouth shut and play along as neutrally as possible until we were back in New York.. and then I could put an end to this ghastly error in judgment. "We'll keep Kate entertained down here." my mother smiled up at me as I stood up. I could hold it together that long." "What are you doing tonight? Whatever it is." Kate chuckled as she twirled her spoon in her dessert. But in a difficult situation like this…well. but I've been up since five and I'm dead on my feet. As irritating as the whole situation was for me. tell them to go fuck themselves. The fuse on my already-short temper finally ran out. man? I haven't talked to you in ages. and I did. Edward." As I passed behind my mother's chair. A few days of putting on a happy face." She laughed and patted my arm. He's Dad's patient.." "Don't they have social services or something that can step in and manage the case?" Kate pressed. ~*~ "Edward? Where the hell have you been. Esme. "Sure it's a burden. "Sorry. actually I'm in Chicago. I think I prefer the professional distance we get at the hospital." "Of course. I considered lying for a second. "I don't think I could handle so many other people's personal lives. and I felt her fingertips brush across my hand as I did it. You're coming over here for dinner. If it's alright with everyone. too?" I finally looked at Kate and she met my eyes and the understanding was there. I looked up at Mom and smiled as brightly as I could. Don't you. Then Saturday was Harold's party.. you bastard?" he laughed." Jasper lit into me the second I opened my phone.ah. if she's not going to bed. My father's partner's retirement party is tomorrow. but decided I'd feel like a dick if I did. but I think I'd prefer it to never knowing more than a patient's last name and blood-ox level. man.. Edward. now.. I finally allowed myself to" "Yeah. Tomorrow was Kate's seminar. and then I'd deal with this. no. "Not usually. baffled. And he has been for thirty years. I gave her shoulder a little squeeze. She gave my mother a tight smile. Edward?" My fist clenched under the table but I kept my voice steady." "And you weren't even going to call me. I'll make some tea. "A cup of tea would be lovely. That is. and it's inevitable that you become a bit entangled in people's lives after so many years. so I wouldn't see her until the evening. Once I was on my way upstairs. I'm happy to help any way that I can. Rodriguez for a long time.

I remember. "Yeah." " I just slept and slept. See you then.." "No. man. since I didn't do anything all day worth talking about." There was a long pause. Maybe I was depressed. "Hell no. it was weeks before I really thought about much of anything at all. You're not a guest.. laying it on thick with the accent. "Um. Spending a little time with Jasper would go a long way to restoring some of my enjoyment of this crummy weekend. it'll be great. "We'll order takeout. Before I left the hospital in Seattle. and then he started to laugh uproariously." I said to no one. and it took one." Jasper said before hanging up. pop open some beers. Just bring her tonight. hiding from the guilt I felt over running out on Jay. and I should take it easy. I lay stretched out on the couch in the living room with him.. You remember where our place is?" I sighed in defeat.. I ate dinner with them when they got home. End of discussion.c'mon. she's. Jazz. too.I'm kind of here with somebody. long and dreamless." he said. the doctors declared me more or less recovered. you're family." "No excuses. catch up. Whatever it was. and Alice was okay with letting me do that. never pressing. as if this were the most obvious thing in the world. Maybe I was in denial. Alice and Jasper were wonderful. spinning some tale about an accident . and then laughed. So my physical injuries didn't explain what happened when I first got to Chicago. I rarely contributed much. I functioned. but it was mostly for show. And besides. Seven's good. He'd start sweettalking the customer service ladies. and I didn't think. You're coming over." It did sound great. ~*~ Bella I lost weeks. There's no way I'm missing the chance to regale the new love of your life with sordid tales of your college misdeeds."I. but nothing serious.. it's not as though Alice actually cooks.fuck. It's complicated. cancelling his classes for a couple of days to stay home with me and make phone calls. After about a week in Chicago. Sometimes I even napped in the middle of the day. The concussion might result in a lingering period of headaches and fatigue. I'll tell you all about it later."No way! You brought a girlfriend home to meet the parents? Then you are definitely coming to dinner and bringing her with you. they said. Tell me later.. But…shit. buddy. I just smiled and nodded.. Jasper took charge of my paperwork." "But. I puttered around Alice and Jasper's house all day while they were at work. and watched tv with them until I got too tired to stay up. It was surprising and more than a little alarming just how much he was able to accomplish over the phone with absolutely no input from me.. until late in the morning. Alice would keep up a constant stream of light chatter about her day while the two of us threw together dinner every night. always supporting. Or maybe my mind just needed a little vacation from the constant thinking and feeling. But I slipped away to bed by nine every night and slept. but otherwise completely undemanding. every day. "Me. what about Alice? Won't she rip you a new one for dragging home guests on such late notice?" He scoffed loudly.. Just enough to keep my newly-shallow attention span engaged." "Looking forward to it. Seven. I got up and dressed and ate. He did all the work.

"It looks like the last activity on the account was on February fourteenth. laughing more at the television with them. cancelling accounts. He was cancelling my cell phone service. He didn't text. "That's exactly why we're cancelling this number. But that wasn't what I'd been thinking of in that moment. He spent a few minutes navigating his computer program until he got what he was looking for. It dated from . I'm sorry. can I ask if there are any messages? I haven't checked at all. "Has there been anything since then?" "Um…no. resting my head on the arm. In no time. but I was just grateful that I didn't have to talk to anyone. That won't be a problem under the circumstances. Jay? Now that I thought about it. He'd probably been texting and not getting an answer from me." "Nothing? No texts?" "No. "Don't worry about it. nothing." Jasper's shoulders dropped a little and his face softened. and we're not having that. I should have been horrified about how easily Jasper was able to slip through the security barriers." I said impatiently. What if somebody needs to reach me and only has that number?" Jasper fixed me with a skeptical stare. they were falling all over themselves to help him out." "But maybe I shouldn't cancel.and explaining that he was just a family friend. I guess the watered-down. just stopped being enough. I stayed up later at night. I couldn't believe I'd been so distracted. I'd been thinking about Edward. and he finished cancelling my cell phone service. adding notes to the records. and I didn't want to hurt. I probably should have been thinking about Jay. "Of course. so I wordlessly handed the phone back to Jasper. You should check. m'am. B. examining it from different angles. in an attempt to make sense of it. "I got all those. "Jasper." The dull thud his words caused in my chest hardly even registered in my already-numb state. please. Two weeks had gone by. No activity since the fourteenth. "Jasper." Jasper held the phone against his shoulder while he spoke to me. long-distance friendship. exploring Alice and Jasper's new greystone townhouse. B. Edward hadn't texted me once since that last exchange. I began to take an interest in my surroundings. Only once did he actually manage to cut through the white noise of my brain and spur me into action. I hadn't even realized how long I'd been without my phone. That thought hurt. staring out of the back windows of the house at the frost-covered back garden. will it?" My cell phone. But my brain turned the thought over several times." I sat back on the couch with a start. letting the low rumble of Jasper's voice lull me back to sleep." He held out the phone to me and I asked the customer service rep if there were any messages still in my account. trying to help out as best he could." he said. Jay could start calling you on it. "Just…before you cancel the number. all without my participation. which was all I'd been able to offer him. That was a legitimate concern. I was very efficiently focused on not feeling anything at all at the moment. That was the first moment since the accident that the passage of time had really sunk in." I tried again. I need to talk to them. "I just need to cancel the contract. I stretched back out on the couch. realizing that my fingers were gripping the phone until my knuckles turned white. The fog began to lift slowly. They're going to waive the penalty for early cancellation. My cell would be the only way he knew how to reach me.

Soon. Most nights. It was lovely. I was touched at her interest. and I promised Alice that soon I'd see her. since she couldn't cook to save her life. but she was desperately worried and wanted to. he was in a shelter of some sort somewhere. arms laden with grocery bags. but they'd renovated it entirely when they moved in a year and a half ago. I knew Alice didn't want to even mention his name. one bought groceries in a city like Chicago. I knew Officer Uley was right. Maybe in a best-case scenario. the guilt and worry returned. In his diminished capacity. however. too. Soon. it was enough. Soon came much faster than I expected. As my brain came back online. not even the start of the answer. Alice began to mention friends. she was happy to let me float through her house and keep her company and help her grocery shop and do laundry. if my father had been alive. although I dreaded the explanations I'd have to give and the questions I'd have to answer when it finally happened. always staying just outside my immediate awareness. It was rather ironic that Alice had a state-of-the-art kitchen. get a new job. And cooking dinner every night made me feel like I was repaying their endless kindness to me. Those words from Sam Uley were what finally allowed me to leave with Alice and Jasper without looking back. since there was nothing to be done. and that hadn't happened. and start all over. There was nothing to learn. Angela knew I was in Chicago. The image of Jay sleeping under an overpass or in some alley someplace plagued me. Still no sign of Jay. open stairway linking the floors. What it meant was that he was most likely living on the streets. She hadn't come to see me yet. As I gradually woke up from my Rip van Winkle. "Alice? What's wrong? Why are you home so early?" . all cherry wood and granite and stainless steel appliances. I started spending more time there. I was curled up on the couch with a cup of tea and the latest issue of Chicago Life that Alice had brought home from work. So I tagged along with Alice one Saturday. bright and modern. light wood floors throughout and an airy. too. he'd have hauled me out of that situation the second he knew what was going on. For now. But if that were the case. Rose had also asked after me and said she wanted to come by. exactly. and I was happy to do those things. with polished. I wanted to see her. I could cook. I'd answer it. but I didn't know what else I could do for him. I finally allowed myself to think about Jay. and I was letting my mind float pleasantly between the article on antique stores in the greater Chicago area and the sound of Mario Lopez debating whether or not Kim Kardashian had a nose job. Her kitchen was immense and beautiful. I could hardly even take care of myself at this point. he'd hardly have the wherewithal to move to a new place. But at least I knew where it was now. so I refused to even ask the question for now. But now that I had some distance and a few weeks to gather my wits back together. I knew what it meant. Even Jessica had sent her best wishes via Alice. Two words danced around my subconscious constantly. I would ask the question: What next? And soon. I liked doing it. she ordered out or we made pasta. Alice didn't press. To my surprise. and I'd left the house for the first time in weeks.1904. Officer Uley would have probably run across him at some point. Every day. Once I started cooking. at Alice's request. I got curious about fugue state. but said nothing. a full hour earlier than normal. when the front door opened with a crash and Alice careened into the living room. Extra was on in the background. I would reach out to them and rejoin the land of the living. my recovery sped up considerably. although they kept insisting it was unnecessary. so I snuck my phone calls to Officer Uley when they were both gone. just the same as in Seattle. So I worried about him. I felt a little closer to being able to manage it. but present nonetheless: What next? I didn't know the answer. and it turned out the answer was Trader Joe's.

"Seven. still nearly vibrating with energy. I grimaced and made myself look at her. still unpacking a grocery bag. slow down!" I hopped off the couch and came to help her haul the bags into the kitchen. Too late. "Jasper! He just goes inviting guests over for dinner with absolutely no warning whatsoever! He calls me at four in the afternoon and springs this on me! We're just ordering out. I know you guys were flirting a little with each other at the wedding. Finally. Alice didn't know. and we're out of everything! And the least I can do is have some snack foods on hand and dessert or something." "Alice. I tipped my chin forward. And so clearly a last-minute desperate purchase. I think there's still some strawberries in the bottom of the fridge. Edward. but I want it to look like I exerted some kind of effort. Bella!" Alice started rummaging through the produce drawer. but it looks so lame by itself. so it's not even a big deal. Or really hot. so I had to leave work early and hit the store and…. "You slept with Edward!" I flinched. She snatched two of them back up off the floor and headed into the kitchen ahead of me. but still! I have to be able to offer them drinks and stuff. "What happened? How far did it go?" Her voice was a faint whisper. Coming here for dinner in just over an hour. excellent idea. setting my load of bags on the kitchen island and starting to unpack them. Then I splayed my hands wide against it to steady myself. She always could read me like a book. which it totally is…" "Just take a deep breath. "No. sinking feeling. "Bella?" Alice had noticed my silence and turned away from the refrigerator." "See? Plenty of time." I was frozen right where I stood. but this is cool. knowing she'd know the minute she saw my face. "B? This isn't…I mean. clamping both hands over her mouth. . it's just Edward. even though there was no one else in the house to hear her scream it. We can slice those up and arrange them on the cheesecake and that will dress it up. we don't get to see him all that often. What time do they get here?" I asked. right? You won't be bothered if…. I couldn't tear my eyes away from the flecks of mica in the black shiny countertop." I finally made my hands release the seltzer and limes. Edward. I realized with a hollow. "So are these people he teaches with or something?" Alice sighed.She unceremoniously dumped the bags in the entry way and threw her hands in the air with a huff. I needed to pull my shit together fast. eyes wide with horror. "I got a cheesecake at Trader Joe's for dessert. and I set them carefully on the counter. I felt cold all over. "Did something happen at the wedding?" Slowly. "OH MY GOD!" she shrieked. a couple of limes in the other. I mean." Alice murmured. She'd figured me out. flinging the door open and burying her head inside. and…. God…. a bottle of seltzer in one hand. "Oh. Dropping the bags on the kitchen island." "Oooh. And I still couldn't move a muscle. No one knew. the barest acknowledgement. she turned her attention to the refrigerator. drawing in slow deep breaths so I wouldn't freak out. "Alice!" I hissed in warning. It was all I could do to focus on dragging air into my lungs. I couldn't tell.

he used to text me. Alice? That morning is one of the more embarrassing moments of my life. the last one we had. what's the problem? I seem to recall you practically throwing me at him when I first got there!" "Yeah." She inhaled sharply through her nose. "Okay." The corner of my mouth twitched up in a reluctant smile at the memory of that conversation. We pretty much talked about nothing." I waved my hands at her to calm her down." "My father knows and I don't?" "Can we not talk about this part of it. "I don't know. Like. now in problem-solving mode. "He had to track me down. So you guys had this one-night-stand. too. "Jesus. and I'm not sure if I'd actually call it healthy. I tried to stay away. He came to my room and we…" "Agghhhh!" she shrieked again at the mental image I evoked." I murmured. ever. I did more than flirt. I really did. Alice stopped pacing and just stared at me. "Alice. her face blank. "What?" "I said. so you probably don't remember." "About what? What did he say?" "Nothing." She started flapping her hands. it was after that. I'm not all that eager to relive it. Well." She shook her head and drew another deep breath. and now you'll have to talk to him again for the first time since…" "I've talked to him since then. You were really drunk. We'd text. "It just happened. It was just one time. Alice. "How the fuck did it happen? And when?" I groaned and clutched at my hair with both hands."Wh…what…. right?" "Alice! Of course it was. After the reception. So you slept with Edward. squeezing my eyes shut." I moaned. She began to pace in short circuits between the refrigerator and the kitchen island." "Excuse me? What do you mean?" "I mean. "Why didn't you tell me?" "I didn't tell anybody. He swore he wouldn't tell anyone." "Yeah. But he was just…and I… I couldn't say no and it just…happened. but you're…. He asked me about my prom." Alice! I never in a million years thought you'd actually do anything! I just thought it would be good for your self-esteem to flirt with a nice guy!" "Well. now that I thought about it. Just the one time." "I remember you leaving with Jessica right after the bouquet toss. her eyes wide. your dad knows but…" "WHAT?" "He was driving me to the airport and I missed my wakeup call the next morning. which seemed to calm her down a little. trying to calm herself down. . We used to talk." "Right. then placed one flat against her chest and closed her eyes. In bed with Edward. we've talked. And he found me.

her hand rubbing my shoulder gently. Why he stopped texting me. whatever it is. He must have met someone." I was still trembling inside. Which is…um…it's good…for him. to clear my head and cool my flushed skin." "He's bringing his new girlfriend tonight. so I'm sure it's all ancient history for him. on the little tasks in front of us that would get us through this evening unscathed…I hoped. at one point. It helped a little. I'll be fine. And I was his friend. and now. I told him that I could only be his friend. but first my circumstances intervened. such as it had been. which was ridiculous. the moment had passed. "We'll cancel! I'll call Jasper and tell him I came down with food poisoning! He can't argue with that!" "Alice.well…that. She relaxed minutely. no! This is exactly why I didn't want anyone to know. He's Jasper's friend." I scowled and focused on my hands. Now let's figure out what you're going to order. her face creased with worry. He's your friend. "There's nothing wrong with me. "What? What's wrong?" "Oh. leaning against the island for a minute. Could I really do this? Yes. and I'll get to work on the strawberries. trying to refocus on the groceries." I said. "I'm fine.I huffed and straightened up. Edward was coming here in an hour with his new girlfriend. Sure. And he was mine. It's okay. watching me aimlessly sort the groceries. on the kitchen. Pushing away all the emotion and turmoil. It's over and done with. um…that explains it. a little sharply. "Bella? Are you going to be okay?" Alice stepped closer and put her hand on my back. Until he wasn't anymore." She hung next to me for another moment. I focused on Alice. but I sounded remarkably casual and confident about the situation. we talked a little afterwards. and I turned to the fridge for the strawberries. where I was squeezing the poor limes into oblivion. it seemed. because none of this was any business of mine. Once I had the door open. and I still couldn't breathe properly. Then she gasped and took a step back. I closed my eyes and focused on inhaling through my nose. ~*~~*~~*~ . I pushed my face inside and closed my eyes. Then she moved away towards the drawer with all the menus. I can do this. Because of her. but he quit texting me. It was one night. The window of opportunity. God…" "Alice." Oh. I was having a hard time drawing in a full breath again. "Oh…. "Alice. it's nothing. just spit it out already. had closed." "Are you sure? Because in your condition…" I straightened up instinctively. then. My stomach was clenching almost painfully. her hands flying to her face again. there had been the tantalizing promise of something amazing with him. inhaling the cold air. I could. And sure. I can handle it.

that's not what I asked." "I would imagine. How perfect. arms crossed over her chest. Just two happy couples having dinner." "Mom…" She held up her hands to stop me." "Are you talking about Kate?" "Are you?" she shot back. one corner of her mouth hitched up. I was sweaty and too exhausted to do more than drag myself through a scalding hot shower. "I thought I wanted her. there was only half an hour to kill until Kate was due back from her seminar.Chapter Fifteen ~ The Most Uncomfortable Dinner Ever ~ Edward After I got off the phone with Jasper. And she'll get you. So I stole some sweats from my dad's dresser and took off through the streets of my old neighborhood. She wouldn't be where she is in her career if she wasn't that way. in a cream turtleneck and dark jeans. To be honest. Just rehydrating. You're very alike. I also wanted to avoid the house and my mother for a little while. At least." "You don't like her. She lounged against the frame. She knew things weren't good between Kate and me. "She wants you. "I'm not saying any of those things are bad. But…" . if she can figure out how to do it. too." I looked at her a moment. If you don't. both to stretch my legs a bit and to clear my head. I'm just afraid that you don't. It helped to be focused on nothing but the sound of my feet hitting the pavement. How are you? Because you don't seem happy. her light auburn hair pulled to the base of her neck. Kate…. she'd want to talk about it. I went for a run. By the time I got out. "Fine. just a statement. "While I'm glad to hear that you're keeping physically fit. on the feel of my throat and lungs burning as I dragged in gulps of the still-frosty air." Mom smiled wryly. and knowing Mom. I wanted to try. You need to make yourself clear." I lifted my water bottle in explanation. as soon as she cornered me alone." Mom paused for a moment and took a few steps closer to me. Just…I think we're not on the same page regarding our relationship. then that's when you need to be careful. She knows what she wants. in that respect. Edward. I headed down to the kitchen and was just turning away from the fridge with a bottle of water when my mother cleared her throat from the doorway to alert me of her presence. When I got back to the house. Then I decided I needed a run. Edward. The lightly polished nails of one hand drummed gently against her arm as she examined me closely. I texted Kate with the dinner plans. at least. "We've got some things to sort out when we get back. "How are you. If you want her. I do. Unsurprisingly. dried off and dressed. and she sets out to get it. Edward?" I stared back at her for just a beat too long. considering what to say." I said. "I get that. I looked away and shrugged. not accusing.she's a very determined young woman." "That's not it. "I like her fine. she jumped at the chance to spend the evening with my best friend and his wife. looking years younger than her age.

When you say it that way. "I love you." I heard the front door open and released her to see Kate round the corner into the kitchen. Happy coincidence. "It's nearly time to go." I chuckled without humor and shook my head. Mom. I got myself into a bit of a mess. and I left the kitchen without looking back at my mother." "It's nice that you're all so close. college. it sounds like maybe there's someone else who is." she murmured into my shoulder. watching me with my mother so hopefully. but it wasn't her fault that in the end." I finally finished quietly. But I'd been lying to myself. But there were a few days left until then." "But he lives in Chicago?" "He just happened to get a teaching position here. They have Jasper and Alice over to dinner now and then. "Be careful. "I love you. On-street parking here was always a nightmare. made me squirm with guilt at what I would have to do when we got back to New York. And then I felt like a shit."But?" I smiled half-heartedly. and I absolutely would not put her in an awkward position while we were here." I looked back up at her and nodded. "Hey. I'd used her. clearly delighted to see me. baby. in a way almost no one else did. Seeing her standing there. The truth was. and the smell of her when she hugged me like this instantly made me relax. Well. I was a little surprised we'd managed to get this close. "Yeah. "No. she reminded me of Bella doing the very same thing the first time I really talked to her back in December. With Kate and with yourself. She didn't deserve that. So I cleared my throat and smiled back with as much enthusiasm as I could manage. "Even though you're all grown up and you're not my baby anymore. "She's not who I want. brightly. I might have tried to tell myself that I was interested in her. I'd used her to try and distract myself from my situation with Bella. It's a long story. ~*~ "So how do you know Jasper again? High school?" Kate asked as I maneuvered my dad's car into a spot along the curb a few blocks from Jasper's house in Wicker Park. I just didn't feel for her what I'd hoped I would." I said in tepid greeting." Mom just tipped her head to the side and looked at me with sadness. He was my roommate at Dartmouth. So maybe she was taking things a little to the extreme here in Chicago. too. Kate was driven and determined when she wanted something. "Hey!" she said. sweetie. She wore the same perfume that she had since I was a kid." I chuckled against the top of her head. that I really did want to pursue something. but I can't have her. I might be more like my father in personality and temperament. except that I don't really live here anymore. So what she was doing here in Chicago was wrong. And I'd given her every indication up until this weekend that I did. sweetie. "I see. though. but my mother always just got me. She reached out her arms for me and I crouched down to let her fold me into her surprisingly strong embrace. That wasn't a bad thing when the other person wanted you back. but what I'd done in asking her out in the first place was just as wrong. He knows my parents. because when she said "but" like that to prompt me to dig deeper." . Yes. because what my mother said was true. Are you ready?" She smiled and nodded.

I relaxed a little in spite of my general uneasiness." I saw her lips make the words. Alice is mixing up some kinda cocktails in the kitchen. too. but then she smiled and stepped forward into the room. All I could do was stand there and stare at her as she stared back." I laughed and punched his arm half-heartedly at the ridiculous Southern accent he was pouring all over her. "Ah…Jasper. I sensed the awkwardness filling the room. Kate. In the periphery of my mind." He chuckled and backed away. We laughed and half-hugged before he turned his attention to Kate. You met at the wedding." Jasper was laughing absently. "They bought it about a year and a half ago. Kate had a few inches on Bella. Dr. I motioned Kate ahead of me." Kate murmured a few minutes later. giving away nothing. It's beautiful inside. Edward. leading us through the entryway into the house. "Knock it off." Kate's eyes flickered to me. I'm a little afraid. the introductions I was supposed to make…all gone. Right. The polite response I was supposed to give. this is…um. although just loud enough for me to hear her this time. well." she said smoothly. "Edward?" Kate murmured. wide dark eyes fixed on me as I froze in my tracks. all ease and affability. Nice to see you again. too. They're green. They did a nice job. Bella. Bella's visiting right now. and Bella had to tip her head back to look at her. Bella Swan was standing in the middle of the room. Jasper glancing back at me." he was talking over his shoulder as he walked. asshole. Bella dropped her eyes to the floor abruptly and that was what I needed to snap out of it. Kate standing at my side. and we followed him down the hall into the brightly-lit. "Oh! Right. "Kate. "Just drop your coats there and come on back. You're a real treat. to tell you the truth. watching me expectantly. "Ready?" I smiled." Bella said. open sitting room. We work together at Lenox Hill. and let us in." I squeezed my eyes shut and pinched the bridge of my nose. choosing to end this particular line of questioning. there hardly seemed to be anyone else present. well. my God! Jasper. but I couldn't hear her at all. this is Bella Swan. remember?" All rational thought deserted me. "I forgot to mention when we talked earlier. puzzled. hand extended towards Bella. Kate." The door swung open and Jasper's face split into a wide grin as he saw me. rushing towards Kate and Bella. . Come on in. What I saw there stopped my heart cold. The wedding.I flinched internally at that wistful note in her voice as I reached into the backseat to retrieve the bottle of wine we'd brought. why didn't you tell me they were here?" Alice shrieked as she entered the room." Jasper smiled warmly and shook her hand. Kate Pierce. as we stood on the wide stone steps in front of the house. "Sorry. While I was looking at her. "Oh. "Likewise. "Nice to meet you. "Um…yeah. She was in their wedding. We so rarely get to. the hellos I was supposed to say. this is Kate Pierce. She's Alice's friend from Seattle. "Well." "You. It is always a pleasure to meet any friend of Edward's. "Nice place. did a lot of work on it.

and Jasper looked baffled. I have. her arm leaning on my arm. And Bella…I couldn't get any kind of read off of her. closer than before. Alice and Jasper sat down on the opposite loveseat. how fucked up was this situation? I would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it if it didn't also make me want to throw up." Kate murmured. please. I couldn't either. I'm Alice. I closed my eyes and drew a deep breath. "Kate?" he said. "Hi. really awkward silence. and my residency. but I was also unlikely to be enlightened any time soon. I sat on the couch. She was standing nearly pressed-up against Bella's side as she turned her attention to Kate. "A drink? What can I get you?" "A beer is fine."Relax. while everybody stood rooted to their spots and waited for someone else to talk first. Jasper came back with our beers. he cleared his throat. and I needed to at least act like that was okay. Then there was a long. Finally. . The sitting room we were in was one open space with the dining room." Alice was smiling now. Since Bella seemed unwilling to acknowledge anything more than that. I answered Alice's polite questions about the retirement party tomorrow." she said off-handedly. And who the hell vacations in Chicago in March? Jasper's reactions told me that he had no idea that anything was amiss. Alice started chattering about appetizers and waving us towards the dining table. She knew what was going on. curling one leg underneath herself. Half the people here thought Bella and I knew each other only in passing. Bella's eyes had dropped to the floor and she still hadn't looked back up. I was desperate for her to. months ago. I needed to look at her face. She wasn't saying anything. right? What the hell did that mean? She'd just been here for a visit in December." "And you've met Bella. but it seemed too bright and Edward?" "Yes. and seemingly alone. and Kate immediately sat down next to me. "I think I'm capable of answering the door on my own." I rasped. and I forced a smile before taking a long drag on it. Whatever Edward's having.. Jasper said she was here for a visit. so we milled closer to the table where Alice had laid out a few trays of snacks. I didn't know what the fuck was going on. I was here with my girlfriend. and wrapping one hand around my elbow. and my parents. say hi and make the introductions. but Alice was definitely on the knife-edge of hysteria. Why was she here? Bella was in Chicago. and Bella took the club chair next to them. her thigh pressed along the entire length of mine. into her eyes. "Beer. moving back to stand at my side. A visit. all the time acutely aware of Bella's silent presence at the edge of the room." "Yes. Jesus. Jasper and Alice exchanged a loaded glance. Finally.. Then we moved back to the sitting room." Jasper chuckled." Kate smiled gamely and shook her offered hand. and she wouldn't even look at me. And besides. while we went through the business of ordering dinner. "Kate. babe. and get some kind of explanation for what was happening. having spent a few days in each other's company at a wedding. Kate was at my side tonight. She certainly hadn't looked anywhere near me. so I didn't suspect that this was any sort of twisted set-up." "I know! But I should have been here to.

and then Alice had jumped in and abruptly changed the subject. Her long dark hair was down.the reason she was here. I took the opportunity to surreptitiously examine Bella. and immediately. This was obviously a completely accidental clusterfuck that we would have to get through as best we could. There was something they were purposely not talking about. not with Kate sitting next to me the whole time. at least." "And after? Do you want to stay on at Lenox Hill. "But the opportunities he'll have at Lenox Hill are incomparable. Only once did Bella show any indication that she was even paying attention." "He was always the smart one. Kate's residency. touching my knee lightly to draw me into the conversation. Even thinner and frail-looking. so we'll be in the same place for another year.she'd have had to be blind not to. and at a certain point. Kate didn't seem to pick up on it. she'd be home in Seattle where he could take care of her. her seminar earlier today …nothing that could remotely lead to danger. to grip it in my hands. and if possible. Fuck my life. "It's nice to see the big shots appreciating it. I couldn't help but notice that Alice was studiously steering conversation away from her. Kate cast one brief glance at me. My social faculties had failed me completely. and there was a considerable amount of external stuff to deal with. Edward's going to have an amazing career. moving to the dining table and sorting out the order. even paler. but seeing as how I was completely obsessed. or he wouldn't have asked me over. It was maddening. But the two polite.and now she seemed happy to ignore her. I kept my eyes down and my attention focused on the tasks at hand. I began to fret that something was wrong with her and that's why she was here. I could not think about this now. Alice was still talking about our jobs at the hospital. Kate. but she seemed thinner than when I last saw her. Jasper seemed to have no idea what had happened." Jasper grinned. I have another year of my residency still to go. trying to avoid the elephant in the room that only some of us were aware of." "He'd be brilliant no matter where he practiced. "Who wouldn't? But we can't all expect to be as fortunate as Edward. Seeing that swing of dark hair made me remember what it felt like to touch it. who was smiling a secret little smile up at me every few minutes. who was leaning into me. but I told myself that I really didn't need to see her expression to know how she was feeling. Dinner arrived. Chicago versus New York. I looked away from Bella and resolved to not look back. and I was incapable of making the necessary small-talk to fill the void. just you wait. before joining into conversation with Alice. the way it felt when I twisted my fingers in it as I…. so I couldn't get a good look at her eyes or expressions. where she lived and what she did for a living. Or. Just being in her presence was stirring up a bunch of intense memories and emotions. She was a little manic. it half-obscured her face. With the two of them filling the silence. She kept the conversation brisk and focused on the superficial. though. She was wearing a heavy sweater. Alice jumped in. but I was grateful for her distraction. and with her head tipped forward." Kate added. She had sensed something when we first came in. Alice chattered non-stop while we settled into chairs. too?" Kate laughed and laid a hand on my forearm. She was picking at her If she was sick. which I avoided. Kate. thank God. but I absolutely could not indulge in them. eyes studiously fixed on her hands. peppering Kate with questions. My presence was clearly a surprise to her. an awkward and unwelcomed one. Bella contributed almost nothing." . had been answered by Bella with just a few words. "Oh. Kate?" Alice asked. my residency. impersonal questions she'd asked.There was another moment of awkward silence. "And where are you headed next year. Everything I wanted to talk about was absolutely forbidden. I did. She looked like she'd been ill. He's got a great mind for medicine. But that was ridiculous. Kate didn't show much interest in Bella. I would try not to. she was still so beautiful that it made my chest hurt.

but made no reply." Alice looked up at her and some sort of silent communication passed between them. Bella threw one wan smile at the table. She was leaning forward on her elbows. referring to me as Alice and Jasper's friend. "but Edward's not 'everybody'. and she didn't speak again for the rest of dinner. asking Jasper about his classes at the college. "You sure?" Alice asked softy. "Of course they are. ~*~ Bella Just keep breathing…."And those are the opportunities you want?" Bella's voice was so soft and unfamiliar after her silence all evening that Kate almost kept talking right over her. Her eyes dropped to the table. of course. I didn't give a shit how it looked or what the hell Kate would think." I smiled and squeezed Kate's shoulder a little before I left the room. eyes closed. Eventually. but she mostly stayed quiet. grimly determined. bright and hot. listening to Kate tell Alice about her seminar earlier today." Bella hummed softly. examining me closely. I stared after her until Kate reached under the table and gripped my knee. You stay and talk to your friends. I gripped the edge of the counter hard as I hung my head down. It did a lot to make the tension at the table bearable. even if I had no idea what I was going to say. Dinner wound down and Alice suggested dessert. mild alarm in her eyes. Bella stood and finally said something. entertaining tales about his students. "Hmmm. next to the kitchen." Alice said. but she just smiled weakly and gestured over her shoulder. I needed a minute alone with her. My pulse hammered as our eyes met for the first time since I'd walked in tonight. and disappeared into the kitchen." "Thanks. "Let me get it Alice. almost hard. My head snapped to Bella. Bella wanted out of here. not hers. Bella flushed as she seemed to remember herself. Down the hall. just before you get to the door to the deck. but finally I couldn't take it anymore. I forgot for a second that she'd asked a question that required an answer. And having been raised to be a polite Southern boy and to avoid uncomfortable conversations at all costs. but I needn't have worried. dragging in deep breaths through my nose. "Sure. I stayed put for another few minutes. God. as Kate was more than happy to jump in and speak for me. It'll only take me a minute. standing quickly. She looked up at me. . Without warning. She glanced up now and then and laughed a little. was it that awful for her to be in my presence? The way she said it even reinforced the line regarding our friendship. I pulled myself together and tried to do my part. I felt my irritation flare up. is he?" Kate leveled a hard look at her. he played along and launched into long. "Alice. "Yeah. it provided me with a little cover to sneak looks at Bella. Jasper might not have any idea what was going on but the tension was hard to miss. but not at me. with one more meaningful glance at her." she said with a slight scoff. And. is there a restroom on this floor?" I asked. Stay and talk. It's what anybody would want.

that particular. Well. Edward had no idea that I would be here tonight. From the second he'd stepped into the living room. the little details had grown hazy. It worried me. I almost groaned out loud in mortification at the memory of that moment. After all. There were little lines around his eyes that I didn't remember. She seemed to own the room the instant she walked into it. And that was apparently the problem. Alice's eyes told me she knew what I was feeling. How was it possible that I'd forgotten how beautiful he was? I remembered what he looked like. Well. He smiled absently at Kate. of course. And he was here with his girlfriend. She made me feel hopelessly small and awkward without even trying. although I doubted either of them figured out exactly what there was to know. which I suppose was understandable. she was practically bursting with pride. and so did Jasper. I really did. It still didn't dispel my anger at her. It didn't help that apparently. She was perfect for him. and with all I'd been through. I wondered if it was just the tail-end of his residency taking its toll on him. I had no idea it would be so hard to watch him with someone else. when I couldn't take staring at their perfect beauty for another minute. I knew I was in trouble. but none of them had to do with not wanting him. the way the corner of his mouth curled up just a little when he was trying to suppress a smile. and dark smudges underneath. I hoped it wasn't the Lenox Hill job making him look that way. and when Alice brought up dessert. He'd never been mine. She was also whip-smart and so confident. Kate was beautiful. of course. I couldn't help but cast a surreptitious glance or two at him. Or maybe it was more accurate to say that I'd forgotten its effect on me. because her manner to me was noticeably cool. then he couldn't have picked better than Kate. But now and then. but for her easy grace and the strength she projected. I envied her. but he stayed distracted and distant all night. He was her boyfriend. my heart was pounding and my mind was in a fog. if he really was set on that course. I didn't need to make it worse by staring at him. Badly. I could envision the two of them as some sort of brilliant doctor power-couple. hooded look in his eyes when he looked at me. or if there was something else troubling him. Kate didn't look like the type to help him search his soul on that account. so much I could scarcely think. just as smart and driven as him. Edward recovered well enough from that initial moment. when she mentioned Edward's upcoming transition to full-time staff at Lenox Hill. so she backed off quickly and gave me my chance to run away. I'd probably be a little pissed if my boyfriend had that kind of reaction to another woman. I'd pretty much told him nothing could happen between us. not just for her place at his side.This hurt. On the contrary. I'd jumped at the chance to escape. It was bad enough that he'd been ambushed by my unexpected presence. I could tell he harbored more than a little ambivalence about it that he wasn't acknowledging. he wasn't mine. I didn't care what he said about it. Because I still wanted him. but he seemed tired. Finally. dark. but it was obvious that his mind was elsewhere. when the conversation seemed to have drawn off his attention. and he seemed completely thrown for a moment when he walked in. both of them so smart and beautiful and successful. But with the passage of a few months. I suppose I'd had that coming. as if I knew what Edward wanted better than she did? Ridiculous. or talking to him any more than absolutely necessary. What the hell had I been thinking interjecting myself like that. Kate noticed it. It made me feel ill even as I acknowledged how right the vision seemed. That exact red-brown color of his hair. My memories were admittedly a little cloudy. I'd forgotten all of it. . and answered all of Alice and Jasper's questions. filled with exactly the kind of ambition that one would need to thrive in that kind of high-pressured atmosphere. I tried not to look at him. Or maybe Kate figured it out. Because from the moment I'd laid eyes on him. I'd had my reasons. she'd set me straight fast enough.

he'd stopped texting me." "Oh. And then we'd had that little lingering connection…whatever. "Here. eyes flickering around the kitchen over my head. hands stuffed into his pockets. I needed to get out of this by any means necessary. I told myself." He looked back at me for just a second. I'm sure." I spit out. This was impossible. but I'm good. let me get that. This was awful. Bella…" the tone of his voice shifted. It was one night.It was ridiculous to be this upset. I pressed one hand to my chest in a futile attempt to calm my furiously racing heart. After all. his body half-turned towards Kate." "Good. "How about you?" "Good. I'm glad. Her gaze flickered to me and I nearly flinched. Listen. then slammed my hands over my mouth to stifle the noise as I spun around to face Edward. and then I winced at my boneheaded choice of conversational topics. Instinctively. "Edward…" I started." I mumbled. Now he was most decidedly someone else's. "I was just coming to see if Bella needed a hand. My head snapped up to look at him as he started striding purposefully into the room towards me. several intense days culminating in one unbelievably intense night. Pulling myself together. obviously with Kate. Ugh…listen to us." Edward shifted from foot to foot. "Kate seems really nice. who was standing uncertainly in the door of the kitchen. He wasn't mine. Of course. even though I was reveling just a little in being alone in the same room with him for a minute. too. she's um…great." Edward stood frozen in the middle of the kitchen. and his face was filled with some complex expression I couldn't read for the life of me. Our eyes met. his head bowed." I shrieked. even under these wretched conditions. "I was just talking to Bella. "Yeah. She was amazing. Well. and dropped my head back. I really." Kate said smoothly. "Lots to catch up on. Are you coming?" He waited a beat too long before answering her. I needed to end this conversation immediately. really didn't want to talk about Kate. Alice hopped up as soon as she saw me. She was smiling pleasantly. Letting go of my mouth. He'd moved on. standing in the doorway. thanks. and he'd be stupid not to… "Hey." he said shortly." I lied. I've been good. but her eyes were tight and hard. I'm just getting the plates and I'll be right out. Bella. I haven't seen her since the wedding. "How have you been?" "Um…good. but I couldn't get anything else out. hers full of compassion and worry. "Uh…hey. "Yeah. "I've been good. Then he turned without another word and followed Kate out of the room. looking down at the floor." I cleared my throat uncomfortably. smiling at her. "Can we just…" "Edward?" He stopped short and swiveled to look at Kate. I had to look away before I started crying. "Um. and I needed to stop dwelling on this. Then his gaze dropped back to me and he swallowed audibly." she said. sure. I grabbed what we needed for dessert and headed back to the dining room. trying to catch my eyes. I let out the breath I'd been holding nearly since he walked into the room. grew more urgent. whisking the cheesecake out of my hands. Finally he exhaled heavily and looked up. . I stiffened and took a step back. and I couldn't blame him for that.

"Bella. It was a big house." "Can I say something?" she asked quietly. he wants to kill Edward right now. Then I glanced to Edward. much too quickly." she murmured. "No problem. "Edward. "No. keeping one hand over my mouth to stifle the sound. there was a tap at my door. so dark and intense that I nearly took a step back. I heard Alice's little sing-song farewell. Alice rocked me gently back and forth as I tried to get myself under control. You can say anything to me." I murmured into her shoulder. it was nice seeing you again. that just…um. but I just turned and headed up the stairs to the guest room. coming to the bed and lowering herself down. Then I really fell apart. Ally. I swallowed hard and schooled my face into normalcy. Seeing him was just a shock. wrapping her arms around me. Her sympathy weakened my resolve and in moments." "Oh. I really am." Alice reached up to swipe away a streak of tears from my face. He just doesn't like seeing you hurt." "Well. sweetie. swiping at my wet face with the back of my hand. my headache is back and I'm really feeling done for." I muttered. too. "Bella?" Alice poked her head in hesitantly. It was really nice to meet you. Nice meeting you." "It's fine. and he knows tonight hurt you. I'll peek in on you later. We looked at each other for just a beat longer. "Are you okay?" I sat up and tried to smile. and the only thing that would make this night any worse was if Edward and his girlfriend heard me crying my eyes out upstairs. I knew what I was doing." He nodded his head nearly imperceptibly. it just seems to me that there's more going on here than some one-night stand. He knew something was up. and Jasper's answering chuckle. and I wondered if it might be for the last time. Ten minutes later. we'd never cross paths again. Sorry to skip out on the evening. I hope that was okay. The thought left me feeling unspeakably sad. It wasn't…he didn't seduce me or anything. but…" My head snapped up. "Well. "He knows that. I'm a big girl. Then I heard the front door click closed and then I heard silence. I heard Kate's laugh ring out. "Go lay down upstairs. "I had to fill Jasper in. He's really sorry. Odds were. then stopped."Um. he was going back to New York and embarking on his new life with Kate. threw me for a loop. "Would you mind if I skipped dessert?" "Of course not!" Alice said. He'd have never asked him over if he knew. "What did he say?" Alice chuckled softly. Alice. It was a lie. "Sure. soaking the pillowcase and exhausting myself before I finally slowed. Maybe you should call him and talk?" . His eyes were fixed on me." She smiled coolly up at me. I did it quietly. rubbing my forehead." "Thanks." "I'm okay. You know that. I was crying again. but the tightness I felt across the front of my head told me that it would be the truth soon enough. Alice. Kate. After all. I held it together until I was inside and the door had clicked softly behind me. You seem pretty emotionally-invested." I smiled back tightly. So I buried my face in the pillow and let it all out. I heard the low rumble of Edward's voice." was all he said. Enjoy the rest of your trip. but noises still carried. Feel better. Instead. I heard their voices saying muffled goodbyes. "Yeah.

Like the bachelorette party. if you're back in the saddle. Then she inhaled and sat up sharply. Everybody just wanted to give you some space. Putting myself back together. why don't we all get together?" "Here?" "No. Ally. believe me. Part Two." "I don't think any of us could handle a sequel to your bachelorette party. Very ladies-who-lunch. I needed to focus on what I was going to do with this new start. you know?" "Forget where you were." "Just…" "Alice. Feelings had a way of worming their way in. "But it doesn't matter." I shook my head hard to clear it. but it's time for me to stop hiding. Blank slate. Just because you're going through a bit of a rough patch…" I couldn't hold back my snort of laughter. But I'm done now. letting her words sink in. Whole new life. Like I'd just needed a nudge to wake me back up. "God. just washed up on your doorstep with nothing to my name. in warning. And I'm starting with Angela. Everybody. I'm like a piece of driftwood." "She understands." "They're just worried. I might have to cut you. I have absolutely nothing to offer someone right now. I need to see her. B. even if the nudge had to come in the terrible form of Edward and his girlfriend. Besides. it was great. I felt a little bit lighter. Thank you so much for letting me hide here for so long." Alice said softly. but now that the bad part was past. What do you say?" ." "Oh. you. There's just such a lot to do to get myself back to where I need to be. Rose. and if you bad-mouth my favorite person." She narrowed her eyes at me. "Look. like something let go inside of me." "No. The night had been absolutely awful. "Where you were sucked. which he's not. Just sayin'. you've spent too much time in this house." I pulled back to look at her. there was a moment when I thought that maybe." I leaned back against the headboard. and I certainly didn't want any part of it back. "You're so right. They were so nice to ask about me. I need to start…I don't know…figuring things out. Ally. touching the back of my hand. examining me from the top of my head down to my bare feet."Alice. Maybe I'll even wear little white gloves. does not mean you have nothing to offer. She was right. and now he's moved on. Ally. I don't ever want to hear you talk like that about yourself." Alice sat back from me and did just that. Jessica. Start all over. The moment passed. Why was I still focusing on what I had lost? I'd hated that life when I'd had it." I said slowly. "What about you?" I sighed and dropped my hands into my lap. "He's met someone." she said with an absent wave of her hand. I was feeling oddly more alert and alive than I had since I left Seattle. I can't mess with that. A whole new life. "Just because you're in a bit of a downward dip. Yeah. if things had been different…. I was tired of hiding out and trying not to feel anything. I can't believe I've been here for so long and I haven't seen her yet. Tonight was clear proof of that. just look at me. It's done. but Alice bulldozed right past it. You need to get out. I'll call them and we'll all have lunch tomorrow. "Even if he were free. we'll keep it civilized. "Did you miss the gorgeous and accomplished girlfriend he had with him tonight? It's too late. You're my favorite person in the world. despite my best efforts." I laughed and it felt good. "Okay then.

and now Jasper. It struck me as curious that I'd finally opened up and shared in this group instead of oneon-one with her. but I also felt comfortable. I didn't want to wallow in what had happened. but also for Jay. but otherwise. Finally. I know I needed to go." I nodded tightly. Jessica showed up ten minutes late and completely flustered. although I didn't really feel like that would happen anymore. Right now. and I knew I could speak freely. I told them the tale. everybody just sat back and listened." . The passage of a little time had given me enough distance. only Alice. I have no idea what's even happened to him. Now there was nothing to put it off anymore. until it burned you up. I can't wait. I tried to keep it as dispassionate as possible. the last thing I wanted to do was to burst out crying here. I couldn't be blamed for hiding from that for a little bit. "Bella. After a few minutes of small talk about how difficult it was to park in this neighborhood. I'd told them about all of it. Starting my life again from square one was daunting and a little overwhelming. "What?" She and I hadn't really talked about him in depth while I'd been in Chicago. leaning back on the smooth red leather banquette. right up until. I'd been able to successfully avoid it for the first twenty minutes we'd been at the restaurant. I just…" Alice furrowed her brow and asked."It sounds good. That's what you do. I figured it should probably stay that way. First there were the usual hugs and kisses as each woman arrived." And the funny thing was. materially and emotionally. so after a steeling gulp of my bloody Mary. that awful dinner with Edward and Kate the night before. But tonight…the emotional shock of seeing Edward again seemed to have given me the kickstart I'd been needing. Fun. if I hadn't made you leave. "I just left him. including my first zombie-like weeks in Chicago. taking care of him. Bella. Then we'd ordered drinks and lunch. but now he's alone there. and how everybody was ready for winter to just be over already." Alice sighed and tipped her head to the side. For you. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Sixteen ~ Right Where You Fell ~ Bella "So. but this little gathering felt safe and secure. Rose had arrived just moments after us. I really couldn't wait. the waiter returned with our drinks. I just feel guilty for abandoning him like that. Angela laid her hand on my forearm. Bella. the corner of her mouth twitching up a tiny bit. But it was time for me to tell the tale myself. Considering that he now had a girlfriend. "I know. When I finished. Angela had been there when we got there. "what brings you back to Chicago so soon?" She was teasing me. Rose leaned forward on her elbows and asked a few questions about Jay's symptoms and behavior. you would have just stayed there. knew the back story. But just the same. Ally. but not including. I feel awful about him. I hadn't known Rose and Jessica very long at all. I knew full well that Alice had probably already told them all some version of the events that landed me here. I'd lost a lot." Rose said. "I'm so sorry. It was time to start over.

" "Yeah." Jessica piped up. Jessica. "You have always taken care of people. and all." Alice stammered to an awkward stop." she added hastily."What do you mean. But in this case." "Oh my God! Stop!" Alice shrieked." Angela said gently. "What? It's true. huh?" "So. "It's time for you to focus on taking care of yourself for a while." Rose said suddenly. not looking the least bit apologetic. humorless laugh. "And me at the reception... It's brilliant. You told me so yourself at the wedding." I smiled and so did she. "I don't always…" "Charlie. Jay would have just eaten you up. You couldn't stay if you didn't love him anymore. It's what makes you so great. "You just need to move forward. "You take care of people. since she was about to dump the guy anyway?" I snapped my head up to look at her and she just shrugged. On the contrary. I turned to look at her. just focus on that for now. It doesn't always have to be you. Alice is right. It's not a bad thing. you were kind of a mess. Certainly not when you didn't even…I mean. however. She had one eyebrow cocked. "Yeah... You need to get your mojo back! Get your groove on! Work it out!" I laughed. girl. "Well." I gave a short. somebody. Remember how you'd be with some of those young writers who submitted to New Moon? If you felt they had potential. "He's my family now. . Rose. I do not need that in my head every Christmas morning at the Hales!" Jessica snorted in laughter. It's what you do. clamping her hands over her ears dramatically. like it was the most obvious thing in the world. Thank God the guy is persistent. B. Not that I'm not grateful. after what you told me." Angela said at my side. "I had no idea things were so bad.. Bella. cutting me off." she said shortly. "although you did nearly cock-block Mike. "I know. leaning into me.." I nodded and swallowed against my burning eyes. "You mean. Always. 'that's what I do'?" "Taking care of people. clearly not sure how much she was allowed to share. Somebody had to. But what happens to him now?" "You can't dwell on that. just at the idea of "mojo" fixing anything." "But some of them just needed a little guidance." Jessica shrugged. "You dropped out of college to take care of him. re-reading drafts and giving them feedback." "Oh. but I appreciated Jessica's enthusiasm. "You know…the moment of inappropriate sharing. you'd spend so much time with them. had no such inhibitions." Alice said. in addition to the epic endurance and. "Alice kind of has a point. I guess I do have plenty of my own problems to deal with." she said succinctly. "See?" Alice said. But not everyone would have done that. I get it." "And most people would have sent out a rejection letter and left them to find guidance on their own. he was your dad. You couldn't stay there and sacrifice yourself for him. she looked rather pleased with herself. B. You've got your own problems to deal with." Angela sighed." "You did it for me at the wedding.

Chicago. This was good. knowing where to start. It only took that moment to know what the answer was. Jasper wanted to make it into a library. I rolled my eyes." "You're staying with Alice. I liked that idea…a lot." I looked at her expectantly. eyes fixed on the edge of the table. yes. right? At this point. One of the previous owners added the floor years ago and it's basically just been sitting there." I sat back in my seat for a minute. So. Alice cleared her throat and I felt her shift in her seat. I'm starting all over. "Yes. hands clasped in front of her. A place of my own." Alice said. so I guess I've already moved. She doesn't need to worry about that. leaning forward on the table again." "No. but after the first winter. You're going to love it here! And we'll be close to each other again! Oh. B. The excited chatter around me made me feel relaxed and happier than I had been in months. I meant where will this new life of yours be taking place?" Rose continued. "No." "So?" Rose challenged. You probably didn't even notice it. you're not going to be sorry. "Oh. the bars I had to visit. "Ease up. Really good." . She reached out and grasped my arm with both hands. So.with these people. rattling off all the places I had to see. When we bought the house. about that. Bella. my God!" Her voice pitched up and got all pinched and tiny the way it did when she was fighting back tears. "Chicago is great." Angela said. "I'm sure I will. For all her sleek sophistication. "Start with making just one. he realized that there was no way he was trudging outside just to get a book so we made over the basement instead. I'm not going back to Seattle. here. or you're going to scare the girl out of town before she's even unpacked her bags!" Rose laughed. Not Jay." "What is it?" "There's this room over the garage out back." A place of my own. It's just a little overwhelming. Tiny. the giddy little girl was only ever just below the surface with Alice." Jessica said. There's nothing for me there anymore. I was happy to sit back and listen as I picked apart my salad. I lived in Chicago now. no. with all of you here. "Before you two give me a six-page itinerary." Alice bounced slightly in her seat. the stores I had to shop in." I interrupted Alice and Jess. which I hate." "Here?" Alice's voice was high and giddy next to me. Now it's official." The waiter showed up then with lunch and Alice and Jessica launched into an intense verbal tennis match across the table. feeling really good about this decision. I have more reasons to stay in Chicago than to go anywhere else. "she's staying with me right now. "I'm staying here. I smiled." I smiled."I know I have a lot of decisions to make. You'll love it. I'm moving to Chicago. "Are you going back to Seattle?" I thought about that for a moment. "Alice is right. I'm here. "first things first. fixing me with a fierce stare. I need to settle someplace. I need to find a place to live. "I sort of have a thought about that. "Yeah. Right now we just have stuff stored up there. Well. "I can't camp out in her spare room forever. Only my job. Where are you going to live?" "Well.

B. The patio furniture was all still covered. Rose snapped at her to just shut up and show it to us. I could see that the second floor was added later. The bricks were different. It took Alice thirty minutes to track down the key. "So?" Angela said. I asked her about Mike and she said that although he'd called many times since the wedding and they talked frequently." I asked." "Yes. Alice and I to go look at the apartment. There was an alley that ran behind the houses. It was dark inside. I wanted to ask Rose about Emmett. it was still winter and we hadn't even ventured into the backyard since I'd been there. Now that I looked. I wanted to go right now and look. so I resolved to wait until I got her alone. Alice came to stand next to me in the middle of the room. before you say anything. but I could just make out bathroom fixtures inside. leading up to a tiny landing and a door to the second floor. There were three wooden steps that led down to the bare. You should see it. "The owner that added the floor meant for it to be an art studio for his wife. she got the door open and we piled in behind her. So you see what I'm . We followed Alice up single file and waited on the steps as she struggled with the keys and muttered a stream of excuses under her breath. She kept apologizing in advance. Finally. Alice?" She smiled. And it's super-tiny. she was content to keep him at arms' length."Oh. Alice held up a warning hand. "Then the next owner had this idea to convert it into an apartment for the rental income. brown backyard." Alice explained as the four of us moved into the room and fanned out to explore. It really might not be worth it to you. How on earth could it not be worth it?" The rest of lunch was relaxed and fun. There was a set of homemade wooden steps hugging the side of the building. Finally. the longer walls were almost solid windows from one end of the building to the other. There was a small stove built into the counter and a space on the end where the refrigerator would be. The short wall opposite the entrance was lined with a counter and cabinets above. "Is that okay. The door we'd entered through was in the middle of one of the shorter walls. A small room had been built out into the space just to the left of the door. who regaled us with graphic stories about the three different men she was dating. Stepping stones made a winding path through the small space to the little brick building that marked the back of their property. "Sure. I'm homeless." "Alice. since he lived in Atlanta. but somehow I sensed that she wouldn't be as forthcoming to the group as I had been. awaiting warmer weather. All my dreary confessions were finished. along with a few odd pieces of furniture placed haphazardly among them. Jessica begged off. and all the other garages down the block were a single story. but there wasn't one there. "Let's go look. that sounds perfect!" Angela said. Rose decided to tag along with Angela. the footprint was maybe five hundred square feet. "Don't get too excited." I wanted to. so we moved on to Jessica. although Alice kept refusing to let us actually call it that. can we?. as she dug through drawers in the kitchen for the key. That's why all the windows. as she had plans with one of the three men she was juggling. He started the work but never finished. There were stacks of boxes piled in the middle of the room. Then again. The building was small. just don't get your hopes up. providing access to the garages that lined it. I couldn't believe there was a second floor to Alice's garage and I'd never even noticed. It's not even finished. too. and telling us all the ways in which it could never work. The cabinets were all missing their doors. After lunch. We made our way out of the glass doors in the kitchen that led to the deck.

brushed to the side. I hadn't really given it much thought. I started to protest. it shows. Not short ones. trust me…. You can't stay here. even in this skeletal state." Rose said shortly. "What?" "Your forehead. Plus they'd look great with your face. You can't see it when your hair is down. They might ask questions that I'd just as soon not answer." "Are you sure?" "Of course. "You're right. Ben used to work with him in the summer. It's not even…" "It's perfect. but when you pull your hair back like that." I said. Rose swiveled on her heel to look at me. I know it's your busiest day. This place was absolutely perfect for me. especially if it's for Bella. I'll call him and then you guys can talk through the details. And I meant it.four? Great! I owe you.Yes. I need to get a carpenter in here to deal with those cabinets and…" "Ben could do that. rubbing my fingers across it absently.this is a special favor…." Rose was already fishing her Blackberry out of her shoulder bag. "He'd be happy to. "His dad builds houses. but Rose held up her finger to silence me as someone answered her call. The last thing I want right now is to have to tell the story over and over. Besides. but I'm your best customer…." She looked at me hard. My mind was busy prioritizing the list of what needed to be done when Rose spoke again. "See? All coming together. but she was indicating me. Bella." My fingers instinctively went to the pink line at the edge of my hair. The scar." This time it was Angela who cut her off.she'll do it for me. long ones. smiling as I looked around me. It's perfect. She's amazing. "Rose. but it has a certain charm. "Bangs. It's hardly even an apartment. I don't know what I was thinking." "I couldn't ask him to do this. Angela waved him off. "Huh?" "You need bangs. It'll cover it up. "You're not doing the work yourself. I'll admit. I can make it work. sweets!" She ended the call and turned to me with a triumphant smile. you couldn't even do all the stuff that needs to get done. "Who's Jane?" "My stylist. you didn't need to do that for me!" . I love it. I couldn't wait to get started. I need Jane." I raked my hair off my face. I'm calling Jane.saying. Come on. "Are you going to do something about that?" I looked to see what part of the room she was pointing at. Nice. He's great at this stuff." Rose said." Alice protested." I cut her off. I wasn't sure I wanted people seeing it just yet. "But it's…" "Alice." Alice was still protesting as Angela dragged her out of the apartment and down the stairs. Tomorrow…. We could do it next weekend. my head. Rose was right. it needs work. "Demetri? It's Rosalie Hale.

The overall effect was remarkable. or where to find the best Tex-Mex or sushi. and yet I was left with hair more beautiful than it had been at any point in my life. We're married. I didn't watch long enough to see their reaction. That was the only conclusion I could come to after she spent less than an hour with me and seemed to actually touch the scissors to my hair only half a dozen times. "Do you not want me to?" I remembered what she had told me once." Rose's shoulders relaxed and she smiled. Sure enough. and mine. and I turned to look as well. "Of course I do!" I said quickly. You know that." The server gave her a bored. I just got you set up with one of the best stylists in Chicago. She shrugged dismissively.Rose waved a hand to dismiss me. pointing out all the various neighborhoods. I won't even know what to tell her to do. Instead. and for the first time. sensuous and alive. "We're still good. I'll pick you up. depositing them. Just a subtle sweep of long hair across my forehead. You're hot." We smiled at each other for a moment. You're new to town. completely hiding my scar but not looking at all obvious. she looked ever so slightly unsure of herself. I could have let you suffer through a year of bad haircuts before I passed on this treasured piece of information. Still long. It should be happening to you. too?" She shrugged. thanks. you're starting at the top. still dark brown. "Please tell the gentlemen thank you. And they made my eyes and cheekbones pop out of my face. "No worries. As soon as we were settled in a booth with our drinks. "Bella. two smarmy-looking men in suits were raising their glasses and smiling at us in a silent toast. We were well into our conversation when the server approached our table with new drinks. She opened it up flat and proceeded to give me a crash course in the layout of Chicago. Just be grateful. The bangs? Genius. Rose produced a street map from her bag and pushed it across the table towards me. flinging a careless hand over his shoulder. and I understood her sudden flash of insecurity. that she didn't really have female friends. "Really." "You're coming. Pointing at her glorious gold hair." our server mumbled. "Uh…they're from the gentlemen at the bar. unamused look. You're in good hands. "You have to come. I said. along with the message. "Enough. It was still mine. But now it seemed to move of its own accord. but we're not interested. and then I cleared my throat and asked the question I had been dying to know the answer to since I met Rose. which is how we wound up at a chic Asian-fusion restaurant and bar in what I now knew to call The Loop. then he wordlessly retreated with the unwanted drinks. Hers. Rose snorted. right?" "Me?" . too." "Does that happen to you a lot?" I asked her. Rose insisted that we take my new haircut out for a drink afterwards. "So…that color? Real or not?" ~*~ Jane worked magic. To each other." Rose dismissed him with a wave of her hand. and be ready tomorrow at 3:30. and filling in with asides about what was fun to do there. all bouncy. And Rose was right. They reminded me of the guys that tried to dance with us at Alice's bachelorette party. on the bar in front of the men. Rose leaned back and leveled her hard stare at the bar.

except maybe the lingering hint of her Southern accent. only glimpsing the words. And he sleeps. otherwise. For good this time.-EM "He does this all day?" She shrugged and looked at her fingers. I was attractive enough. Rose just let me have the hard truth with both barrels. a great haircut. I scrolled through the list of texts. his job. please. "Sometimes. The one that requires him to live out of a suitcase. not sure what to say to that. "Emmett?" I prodded.pick up. The one he can't bear to give up.-EM How long do you think you can hold out?-EM Really? You're just NEVER going to speak to me again?-EM Rose. What about you?" She just cocked an eyebrow in question. I know that. even if what she said was hard to hear. You know. There was nothing in her delivery to soften the blow of her brutal pronouncements. But I'm tired of talking about my stuff. I told him at the wedding to leave me alone. but nothing extraordinary." "Has he?" She fished her Blackberry out of her bag and pressed a few buttons before handing it across to me. and some excellent friends. And sometimes. her tough shell cracked like glass. "You're right. "Bullshit.-EM Just talk to me already. I sighed and wrapped a strand of my newly-swishy hair around my finger. he's pestering me." I stuttered for a minute. I know that. he'll have meetings and will lay off for a while. I supposed. Rosie…. You have a place to live." "Of course I am. and you have to go out for that stuff to happen." Rose was so blunt. Everybody else was so careful around me.-EM Just answer your damned phone. if I do say so myself. Well. that's just what a person needed. Thank God you're here. I guess I don't really go out. "A most excellent start."Don't give me the freaking Bambi eyes." Rose shook her head at me disapprovingly. where she was methodically shredding a cocktail napkin. Then she frosted over and straightened in her seat. But yeah. I couldn't help but appreciate it." I pointed out. and I caught a glimpse of the hurt woman underneath. "These are just from this weekend.-EM I miss you. you. and you know it. enjoying the feel of it under my hands. "What's the deal there? Anything new?" For just an instant." I laughed. You really do need a whole new life. You needed a whole new life way before all that stuff happened. "Whatever." . "You have done such a number on yourself. You're off to a good start." she said dispassionately. Yes. Still." "I need a new life because my old one fell spectacularly apart. "That stuff doesn't happen to me.

but she seemed so fierce at the moment that I was a little afraid to. And it was even harder to imagine another doctor. at this very moment. Just too damned polite…But I have to start somewhere. maybe you should see what he's got to say. And really. The hotel setting. understated. It would be really shitty of me to get wasted at Harold's retirement party. Just getting overly philosophical. I'll miss Harold and Susan. She didn't want me. I looked across the room at Harold and Susan again. "Have you moved on?" Another shrug. Tough Rose was back. They instinctively turned to each other in every situation. "Take care of yourself. and I growled in irritation." . But even though that was the case. I hadn't heard a word from her since Valentine's Day. It was an unconscious movement. "That's exactly what I'm trying to do. was across the room chatting with Harold and Susan. How the hell did things end up like this? It made me morose. Sometimes he distracts me. fine. whatever. Especially knowing that Bella was. flashed in my mind. Hers were hard and flat. Most certainly it was killing Emmett. even more so now that I was certain that I would never experience it with Kate. I threw back the rest of my champagne and snagged another one off a tray as a server glided by." I wasn't sure what to say. She seemed so certain about her choice to cut him off. A face…her face.the same kind my parents made all the time. just a short distance away in Wicker Park. It was hard to imagine the practice without him. but at the same time. I'd known them almost my whole life. Chicago…it reminded me of Alice's wedding. my dad's career was all tied up in Harold's." She met my eyes finally. So. without a doubt. Yes. too. But it was bound to happen. in partnership with my dad. I had way too much respect for the man to do that to him. Nothing serious. It's hard to imagine the practice without him. For as long as I could remember. some stranger. For years. And she'd answered me with dead silence. I was wrong. "There's a guy. She was a dead end. at least. elegant and tasteful. I just wished to hell I could stop wanting her. "You alright. He's kind of boring. He's never going to change. it seemed to be killing her to do it. the take-no-prisoners woman who went toe-to-toe with the testosterone-riddled Wall Street traders and held her own. Kate was still chatting with Susan. as usual." I wanted to reach out and hold her hand. I needed to cool it. I forced a smile and shrugged."Jesus. Kate. touching without realizing it. all the party trappings. "Yeah. Or. as soon as he settled on someone he liked." ~*~ Edward My mother had done an amazing job with Harold's party. Rose. I thought there had been something there for her. Rose. "We've talked plenty. Harold was there. And my girlfriend. She was visiting Chicago alone. It was in a private banquet hall in a downtown hotel. too. Edward?" I started and looked up to find my father at my elbow. When I visited my dad at his office. a crease between his eyebrows as he examined me. her circumstances seemed to have changed. and absently reaching out to touch Harold's arm to draw him into the memory with her." She inhaled sharply and squared her shoulders. I envied the closeness. and my chest tightened uncomfortably. not enough. I watched as Susan laughed while relating a story. and I was drinking too much because of it. I need to move on. Frowning at the thought. and I'm not willing to compromise on this one. I'd laid myself on the line that day and asked her what she wanted. in Chicago. Don't you think…Well.

"What. plus too much champagne. she laughed.. Kate. even after thirty-five years of marriage and two grown children. But don't tell your mother that part. but then paused. Was he trying to talk to me about Kate. I really am. pointing to the floor right inside her tiny living room. although she stayed quiet. like you. really hated doing what I had to do now. Can I get you a drink? A beer or something? We could hang out for a while. When he stayed silent. watching the two of them. it's not. There was no joy in it. He and Susan want to do a lot more living while they can. "No. but no. Kate. And even if it wasn't directly the reason. "Ignore me. It was a hard. because if I denied this." I sighed heavily.. trying to focus. trying to figure out what he was getting at." "But that doesn't mean it's not about her. maudlin pronouncements." she said. I set the bag down and rubbed my palms down my thighs in anxiety. he laughed softly and shook his head. bitter sound. I just. then I swallowed hard. "You're dumping me and it's because of her. "But I'm glad you did.."For me. though. though. "I haven't seen her since December. "Edward.. "What? What are you talking about?" "This. Never forget that when you're making the big decisions you're faced with. life is short. That. still a little aglow in each others' presence." "I know that. kicking her shoes off and crossing the room to stand in front of me. I really. "Edward…" he started. You know how proud we are of you." "It's not happening for you. Kate. much to my surprise. I prompted him. Edward." I just looked at him for a minute." I mumbled. You can't hide your emotions that well." "Thanks. "It's her. smiling. "I'm sorry. It's not you. There's nothing going on between me and Bella. albeit in a slightly less direct way than mom had? Or was this about more than that? When I didn't immediately respond. "You know. too." she said. But I'll figure it out. Kate. "I came up because we need to talk. waving a hand between us. Harold's retirement is causing me to make grand. Dad?" "Just…like I said." . right?" I shook my head." Kate said. I'd be breaking things off anyway." Kate said. you really didn't have to bring it up for me. too. I knew all his tones of voice though. She closed her eyes and shook her head. I knew they were proud. even when you're young. I'm glad he's doing this. isn't it? Bella?" I took a startled step back. I saw your face when you saw her. You're an amazing woman. and there was something big he wanted to say. Edward. Dad. You're fantastic." "I guess I kind of knew that when you didn't once try to do more than kiss me in a month. ~*~ "Just set the bag down there. Dad followed my gaze and smiled. right?" I closed my eyes and pinched the bridge of my nose. I just wished I was." Then." Because I did. then I would be a lying bastard. it's. no matter what you do with yourself." I nodded in agreement." "I feel terrible about this. Life is short. Whatever she saw in my face in that moment made her stiffen and take a step back. The cab had just dropped us outside her building and I used the excuse of bringing her bag upstairs for her to get a minute alone.

that I'd feel lighter. You can't leave it there. It's okay. I only felt depressed and a little lonely. "Will you be okay?" I asked at length. But I guess it's just not meant to be. no. I get it. But I didn't. "I would have made sure of it. okay?" Why was everyone saying that to me these days? After that.. it was already looking so much better. Dating Kate hadn't made any of it go away. where would you suggest I leave it?" "Just…not right there. trying to determine where they should each get moved. back in Chicago." she said quietly." Kate reached out to lay a hand on my chest and fixed me with her bright. Jasper was dragging in a few odds and ends of furniture that Alice insisted they had no room for.. I'd been working in the apartment for the past week. and then I was outside on the sidewalk again. because somehow. Ben was taking measurements of the cabinets in preparation for his run to Home Depot. Just. and although there was still a lot to be done. But anything I said now would just make this worse. Angela had taken over the tiny little closet of a bathroom and was inspecting the faucets in the shower stall. and the day before that."Stop!" she threw up a hand to stop me and laughed ruefully. because she never could have and I knew it." "Alice. Edward. exactly like I did yesterday. I had no idea how I'd gotten through so many years of friendship with her and never known that. to break things off with Kate. When I made up my mind. I'd imagined I'd feel some huge sense of relief once I'd actually done it. "I could have made you happy. just to get myself set up. Edward. right?" "I guess not. freer. it's me'. I stayed just long enough to give Kate an awkward hug goodbye and wish her well. It had gone better than I thought it would. Rose and I were going through the boxes Alice and Jasper had stashed there when they moved in.take care of yourself. ~*~~*~~*~ Bella Chapter Seventeen ~ A Crossroads With Myself ~ "Jasper. My tiny apartment was filled to the brim with people and activity. and the end table he carried. She scoffed. and apparently. and the day before that." All I could do was look away in discomfort. I was starting to wonder if anything ever would. breaking up with her didn't make it stop either. "Don't say it! Don't say 'It's not you. I'm tough. Exactly like I had before I ever asked her out. to the corner next to the front door where my new bed was stashed. Edward. It's you I'm a little worried about. I really like you. "Me? I'll be fine. she knew a little something about plumbing." "Just tell me where! It's getting heavy!" Alice huffed in exasperation before pointing Jasper. The bed had been . so I kept my mouth shut. I'd started with just the basics. Alice was supervising. and I really wanted this. steady gaze.

Emmett was striding through the backyard. Without thinking." "Oh. "Nice to see you again." Then he turned to me. or that?" Alice called. what the hell are you doing here?" Jasper called down the stairs jovially. It didn't have a headboard or anything. but she just didn't understand how excited I was. but it was all mine. hoping to head him off before he got inside. It was Emmett. "Bella. We're just getting you settled in. "Uh…the job brought me to town unexpectedly. Bella's moving to Chicago. Then his eyes flickered to me at Jasper's side and his eyebrows shot up. moving into this little garage apartment felt. in theory. hands stuffed in the pockets of his jacket. The refrigerator had been delivered yesterday and the electrician had been in to check over the wiring. "Well. My motion seemed to snap Alice and Jasper out if their moment of panic. when Ben was doing the cabinet doors and. "Hey. in a weird way. Emmett chuckled and lifted a hand in greeting. man. no matter how small. it's been a busy month. until a booming voice from outside rang through the open front door. that meant I was good to go. it was small and rough around the edges." "Nice to see you. "My new place. We discussed the pros and cons of the various table-placement options while Jasper looked on in bored detachment. Jasper was moving in the red couch from their library. eyebrows drawn together in confusion. In my mind. Space was so limited that you had to carefully consider the placement of every item you brought in. but what are you…are you moving here?" Jasper chuckled awkwardly at my side. welcome to Chicago." "Bella's place?" Emmett said. Alice constantly apologized for how cramped and shabby it was." I said. and Alice crossed to stand next to Rose." Jasper smacked a hand to his forehead. too. but I recognized that haunted look in her eyes from the morning after the bachelorette party." . like the first really adult thing I'd ever done. I had no idea how we were going to manage that. her eyes fixed on the door. "You've already moved. "Yeah. I wasn't sure how much Rose had told them about herself and Emmett. my eyes shot to Rose. I'd never in my life lived alone. and the prospect had me both nervous and ridiculously excited Even though I was twenty-six years old. "Hi. but you didn't answer. Jasper made it to the door and out onto the landing before I did. then he just shrugged and smiled. "My phone's in the house somewhere and we've been out here all morning getting Bella's place ready. Bella. So what's up there?" he pointed to the second floor. I crossed to her to think about it. Rose stood stock-still in the middle of the room. but they knew the two of them were at odds and that this was bound to be difficult for everyone. I moved towards the door. eyebrows raised. "Hello? Anybody out here? Where are you guys?" Involuntarily. looked closely at me. and was now nestled into the "bedroom corner" of the space. I guess." I finally said.delivered on Thursday. do you want the table on this side of the bed. I called. but I'd stretched out on it a few times when I took a break and it was really comfortable. her face absolutely frozen. Emmett. so I just came by. her hands hovering over an open box she'd been sorting through. "We're just getting it set up. Yes." "But…what…" Emmett stammered. But Alice refused to let me officially move in until after today. She showed no emotion in her expression.

" "Oh. Rose. "You know I'm kidding. Ally. Bella. and you're just the sucker to help me do it." I backed into the apartment and glanced to Rose.sure. "Hey. It all reminded me strangely of that horrible. but I thought I could sense his tension. Come on up." "You. his face troubled." I glanced quickly at Jasper. brushing past us and out the door." Emmett forced a smile and followed Jasper back out and down the stairs." Jasper clapped a hand on Emmett's shoulder. Emmett watched her go. but he was grinning his infectious grin. man. "Good to see you." "I'm so sorry. and I couldn't shield her from seeing him. She hadn't moved from behind her barricade of boxes. it did. Everybody else looked at the two of them. there's a bunch here that belong in that storage closet under the stairs. This seems so hard for her. "Um…I don't think so. Come on. Emmett cleared his throat. between you and Rose. I reached out and laid a hand on his arm. "Emmett!" Alice sang out. so I'm going to start moving them in there. "What a fantastic surprise!" Alice's greeting might have felt forced. "Fuck you. man. reluctantly. I couldn't help it. I'm just worried about Rose. "I wasn't kidding about that couch." She waved me off in irritation. Alice and I simultaneously exhaled in relief. ." Rose hefted a box. too loud and high. show me this new place of yours. Alice and I spent a few minutes telling Emmett about the apartment and the work we were doing. Emmett came in just after Jasper and everything fell instantly silent."I'm glad you're here. And then I'll have to kill you for wrecking this beautiful face. "Rose. Jasper was chatting with Emmett as he climbed the stairs." she murmured. "Should I…?" He motioned to the door. busy with her boxes. not right now. There's a couch that needs moving. friendly. Yes. but also a little comforting. Thanks. but it served to break the tension. "Alice. "Sure! Of course." he said quietly. Rose was still in there.. "I swear to God." Emmett said. rushing to his side. When she finally spoke. Emmett looked at Rose. indicating Rose's escape." I nodded in sad agreement.. Em. Ben came forward to shake Emmett's hand in greeting." Jasper smiled down at Emmett. We were standing in the only door to the apartment. too. his chin tucked into his chest. He looked to me. Rose looked at Emmett." He nodded slowly. For both of them. and clattering down the steps. but there was no helping it. Rose stayed quiet. Of course. his voice easy and casual. everyone in the room jumped in surprise. the drama is going to give me premature wrinkles. At least. Emmett. and Angela emerged from the bathroom to say hello. "Well. awkward night with Edward over a week ago and I felt it acutely for Rose.

I mean." "Yeah. you know." "It's so nice of him to do all this work for me." "Well. "He is. materials and tools." "Are you sure?" "Positive." "But I can't ask you to do that. Jasper kept Emmett busy helping him move things. "It would help to separate your bedroom space nicely. "There was something I wanted to talk to you about. I liked the idea of a little wall there. there's this thing…I mean. We may never see him again. A solid-backed bookcase would. I crossed to them and peered over Ben's shoulder at whatever he and Emmett were scribbling. and before we knew it. "The shadow box thing wouldn't fully sceen the bed when you come in through the door. I have…ugh…" she shook her head in frustration. pointing to Emmett's little sketch. That's the way to go." she said. nudging her with my elbow a little. and because she did that stuff all the time. And if they really wanted to do it… "In that case. Ben sighed. I'm in charge of donor relations and press releases. You're already doing the cabinets. That will cut down the time significantly. Ben left for Home Depot with an excited Emmett in tow." Emmett countered. she used to organize it. to the left of the front door. Why am I the one organizing a fund raiser?" "Angela. it can't be that bad. Bella. but smiled good-naturedly before the two of them left to go take measurements. Then Emmett got curious about what Ben was up to. her tone shifting. Angela shook her head at Ben as he left. I'm so lucky. pointing towards the far wall. solid-back shelves to three feet and then shadow boxes to the ceiling. organizing Alice's storage spaces to make room for the stuff from the apartment. it makes no sense. "What are you guys talking about?" "The partial wall we're going to build there. just get to the question. somehow it's become part of my job description." I said.Rose holed up in the house for the rest of the day." "I know." "So is he. "Ha!" he said in triumph. smiling. "Huh? Since when did that become the plan?" Ben shrugged sheepishly. Anyway. Now that she's gone. I vote shadow boxes. She was this society wife who did the job just to keep busy. and because she really believed in our mission. We'll have plenty of time for both. He's such a great person. we have this annual fundraiser. "Home Depot is like his personal Mecca." Ben said. I'm telling you. the two of them were deep in consultation about carpentry. but the space is too small to break it up with anything as solid as that." I said." I said. at the foundation where I work." she replied. a cocktail reception and silent auction. laughing. Ang." "Sure. A few minutes later. The shadow box would let the light through. "Whatever it is. sounding more anxious. Angela." . anything." "Turns out Emmett here knows his way around power tools." Emmett said absently. which distracted him and kept him from tracking Rose down. "So. She just grinned wider. there was a woman working there who just retired. I had to admit. "Hey.

Bella. constantly on the phone˗ with the lab . even a temporary one. in a way." ~*~ Edward The first week that Kate and I were back on duty at the hospital was a little tense. Angela's eyes widened in disbelief. you can totally say no when you see the money. but when we did cross paths. Really. I did. Angela. Just the idea of a job. and I knew I wouldn't be able to give her all of myself. My pulse was inexplicably racing. because the foundation promotes childhood literacy. I was juggling a million things. Something that has nothing to do with me or what happened or how I wound up here. I hadn't even consciously given much thought to going back to work yet. It was doomed to fail before it even started." "I'm excited. we get a lot of writers and stuff that come to the banquet. God. I avoided her as much as possible. but Angela's opportunity suddenly sounded like absolute heaven. I need to be least. Bella. giving it a little squeeze. Anyway. I just need to do something." I emphasized when she looked skeptical. and you're…" "Angela. Bella. there was always Banner there to do it for me.She exhaled hard. It was inescapable. if I wasn't keeping myself busy enough at work. there's a chance it won't be a disaster! And you know. My head was still a mess." I said quickly. "I think it might be the other way around. I can't tell you how happy this makes me." "Really? Oh. the sucking up…I was lousy at it and I hated it. It was just that seeing her happy and relaxed again might do something to assuage my guilt over the whole situation. But it was done and over now. I was able to set aside this little bit of money in the budget to pay for an assistant to help me with it. I took on extra shifts. always dragging me off to meet some prestigious doctor or another. I had a heavy patient load. I was thinking I could hire some college kid for a few days a week. I really wished I could escape it. I stayed as busy as I could at the hospital. It was clear to me now that I had no business ever getting involved with her in the first place. My morning shift had been intense. If I have you helping me figure this thing out. you are totally saving my life with this. I knew I should feel grateful. But that part of my career. This sounds perfect for me. It didn't bother me. Whatever it took to make sure that I had absolutely no down time. It's really the tiniest amount of money…I feel ridiculous even bringing it up. sorry. volunteered to cover other people's vacations. the friendly banter. Besides. You really don't…" "I'll do it. but my dad's money will get me by for a little while longer. "Yeah. That was fine. Today was shaping up to be no different. "You will?" "Yes. "Why don't I come meet you on Monday and we can talk about it some more?" "That's perfect. and some of the cases were really complex. Absolutely. I knew Alec would kill to have somebody like Banner take him under his wing and groom him. she was distant and impersonal." I reached out and grabbed her hand. I only hoped she'd meet someone else soon and forget I ever existed. really. so I just focused on that and tried to shove Bella and all the rest of it into a closet in my head with the door shut tight. Mostly local Chicago people. The start date for my permanent contract was right around the corner. it would be in my jobbut sometimes. No time to sit around and think and brood. but it still might be fun for you. had me so excited. As the start of my contract neared." "But. he'd stepped up his attention. I'll find a real job soon enough.

I wanted to go collapse in the staff lounge with the lights off for a while." I said it with no inflection. because I knew she had a ton of patients of her own to deal with: envy. she had her own career to consider." she said back over her shoulder. since she knew very well that Banner was showing me that same special favoritism he'd always displayed: and finally. Why don't you come have lunch with us?" I was aware of the honor being bestowed upon me. I hadn't even seen her there putting away her files. "Sure. Dr. too. or with Social Services. I'm sure I'm perfectly capable of tending to any medical issues that come up. He's an old friend from med school. "What can I do for you. or with the surgical staff trying to get a patient fast-tracked on their already-full schedule. Dr. because she was nothing if not accommodating to every one of Banner's requests. Doctors of the caliber of Banner and Mason did not invite residents out to a personal lunch like this. no matter how many consecutive hours I'd put in. "But I'm juggling a crazy patient load right now. Banner?" "I need to steal Edward away for a while. I felt Banner's hand clamp down on my shoulder. it's been a crazy morning around here. but really. Ba…. I need to make sure Social Services…" "Edward. But Banner overlooked my implied message and just barreled ahead with the conversation. "Dr. After all. She smiled tightly and crossed to Banner and me. Still crazy.John. there are a few issues that I need to follow up on myself. Hanging up the phone after my fifth fruitless conversation with the lab. Then she reached out and pulled the files from my hands before throwing me a hard smile and turning away. false smile." I caught myself with a small smile." "Ah. that's really nice of you. This wasn't the right time for another heart-to-heart about my career or the next seminar I should register for. There was simply too much going on. I was tired. trying to get them in to deal with a patient who was having a hard time paying for her insulin. Mason is here. visiting from L. it was the human ones. "It's really nice of you to ask me." she snapped in exasperation. But I really couldn't do it today. and I just can't get away. Kate!" he called across the nurses' station. "Edward! I've been looking for you everywhere!" I smiled grimly. a wide. "Have fun. actually." she said brightly. "I'm a doctor.trying to get results back faster. "Just get another resident to step in. No problem. but I was hoping he'd pick up on my subtle hint. It wasn't the medical issues that worried me. I'm kind of buried right now." I stared at her for a long moment. "Just give me your charts. but it would be hours before that could happen. Edward. There was a burgeoning headache forming behind my eyes. He's doing a whole series of talks over at Columbia about facial reconstruction techniques. There were just too many loose ends to tie up with this current batch of patients for me to tear myself away. "Sorry. Can you handle his patients for a bit?" A flood of subtle emotions flitted across her face: irritation. no matter how late it was when I finally fell into bed.A. . Kate." Banner just smiled breezily and waved his hand. I still wasn't sleeping well.

which is pretty major for a doctor my age. Oz asshole. but I didn't see or hear it. down. . holding up a finger as he turned away to take the call. "I'm a doctor. But once my feet hit the stairs. I'd left the hospital in just my scrubs and it was pretty chilly outside. He wandered several feet away into a waiting room to talk. I knew that much." I said as calmly as I could manage. "Everything is taken care of. "I take care of people. I just needed a minute."See?" Banner said jovially. in this day and age." Banner scoffed. right?" Banner nodded slightly in concession. not a conscious thought in my head. Sure. You really need to learn to delegate some of this drudgery. I just started walking. until I was in the main lobby. but swallowed down all the nasty things I wanted to say. I just stared at him as he rattled on. you have an enviable path ahead of you. My brain felt full. with your talent and that face. laying out his version of my brilliant career. overflowing. you need the name on your resume to give you the requisite heft. Banner's Blackberry vibrated. just listening to my heart beat in my ears. floor after floor. in the air. "The sky's the limit for you. intending to just catch a minute by myself. you're destined for much bigger things than a life walking the halls in scrubs and latex gloves. Pushing off the wall. What the hell did my looks have to do with anything? "My face? I fail to see how that has any bearing on what kind of doctor I am. it helped to cool the fire I felt pouring out of my skin. you could wind up with your own TV show. but still there was nothing but white noise in my head. Edward. Give me a minute. some quiet. and I shut my eyes against the feeling. actually. If anything. In fact. and he glanced down at it. down. It was about finding the golden ticket that meant never having to practice medicine at all." he said absently. "Edward. So I just walked. and just hear my own thoughts. You'll need to be able to free up time to devote to other aspects of your career. Then north until I hit a break in the wall. "Yes. Hell. where I could just think for a minute. The usual chaos of the hospital rushed by all around me." I said nothing." I sighed. You just need to focus and make sure you take advantage of the right opportunities as they present themselves. respectable grounding in practicing medicine. I felt nauseous and stupid. so I could think. just trying to get a full breath into my constricted lungs. though and Banner's eyes narrowed as he looked at me closely. I ducked into a nearby stairwell. and you could have a whole career just consulting to the rich and famous. You could kick Sanjay Gupta to the curb! Or you make the right connections with the right celebrities. The ward felt claustrophobic and the walls felt too close. Lenox Hill is a great first step. But I also knew I'd rather chew off my own arm than sit down at the freaking Café Bouloud with him and his cronies today. I just blew off lunch with Banner. But Edward." Now I was thoroughly confused. I just needed to be outside. until I was through the glass doors and out on the sidewalk. a solid. but it's only that. they kept going and I went down. What else am I supposed to be focusing on?" I couldn't quite keep the venom out of my voice. I have to take this. That was a big fucking deal. I didn't think I could set foot back inside the fucking hospital right now. Edward. Edward. a first step. And then I kept going. The park was much quieter. Was this what all this had been about all along? All the advice and careful guidance? It was never about making me a better doctor. "Shit. I stayed leaning against the wall. West on Seventy-sixth Street. until I ran into Central Park. I'm about to join the staff here. you know. but I didn't feel it. There was no plan. like that Dr." "I think I've done a decent job of that so far.

and mothers with strollers. around the circular roadway ringing the Boat Basin Café. I could hear him draw in a breath. I didn't know how I'd let myself wind up here. curled on the wall. And suddenly the answer was screaming back at me. by the prestigious doctors around me. staring west. There was no telling how long I sat there in the cold. But I think I know how to fix it. at once bracing and comforting. echoing eternally in my head. the practice…your offer. "Tell me what's wrong. son. Warm. all the social-climbing and ruthless. I walked and walked. the good I thought I could but I was very clear on what I needed to do next. overlooking the yacht club below. delivery boys. with this many resources…the good I could do. No. But was it? What was the ultimate goal in all this? What had I been working towards for all these years? The work had been so grueling that I'd just kept my eyes focused on my feet. When I reached the far side of the traffic circle. perfectly clear for once. I'd come to the very edge of the island. holding in the tears. My breathing was ragged and I curled in on myself. still not cold. blind ambition…I hated all of it. still not tired. Dad. Banner and Chelsea and bullshit seminars and corporate consulting gigs and a career in medicine in which no one was ever healed…what the fuck was I doing here? I dug the heels of my palms into my eyes. Car horns blared as I skirted the edge of the roadway where there was no sidewalk. and laced with just the edge of concern that I supposed every parent felt about their child whenever they weren't right in front of them. right now. further out on the far shore. shaking and trying to pull myself back together. What's wrong?" " just seemed worth it. I'd put up with it all along because I felt like it was the price I had to pay to practice medicine at this level. What the fuck was I doing here? Not here on this wall. But had I ever even looked up to see where the path I was on was taking me? What if I wound up someplace I never wanted to be? Is it what you want? There it was again. until I hit Riverside Park clear on the other side of the island. New Jersey. His voice when he answered sent a shock through my chest. that damned question. I dodged the traffic on Riverside Drive and worked my way still further west. the sun was lower and the shadows were longer. "What is it. "Edward?" he said again. What was I doing here? All of this…all that shit Banner said back there. pressing send when I found what I was looking for. softly. making sure that I kept putting one foot ahead of the other in time to the beat pounded out by the program. still not able to make sense of the chaos in my head. None of this was what I wanted. And the path I'm on…it's all wrong…for me. "Edward? This is a surprise!" "Dad?" I wasn't prepared for the sound of my own voice. but when I finally sat up and opened my eyes. And at a hospital this big. "I've just been doing some thinking. This . Does it still stand?" There was silence on the line for a moment. who surely knew best.. now genuinely concerned." he said again. "Edward.." "Dad…" I had to stop speaking for a minute as I struggled to hold my shit together and get my voice back under my command. and now I just sat. and. the Hudson river. fighting back the burning there. crossing avenues. I just kept walking. ducking around pedestrians. I fished my cell out of my pocket and scrolled down. I hopped the low stone wall and finally sat down on it. how ragged and emotional I sounded.When I got to the other side of the park.

"I just need to go talk to someone. until the light started fading and my teeth were nearly chattering with the cold. trying to lighten the mood." "Edward. before I reiterated. you know that." I started. In fact. Dad." My throat constricted painfully again. it always will be. my exit happened much sooner than I ever would have guessed. And call me if there's anything at all you need." "Alright. "Oh. not even caring to curb my language. as calmly as I could. His wrath was epic. that my mind was irrevocably made up. So. Because of the timing of my decision. already feeling a thousand pounds lighter." "Thank you. The following days were a blur of activity and frantic phone calls. "If you've already found someone." "I'll do that. over and over." I gave a short. It's about what I'm gaining. too. It's not where I want to be. I pulled myself off the wall and flagged down a cab to take me back across the island to the hospital. I want to make sure that you're absolutely clear about what you're giving up. That's where I belong. and he didn't comment on it. But I just told them. I just want to make sure you're making the right decision here. Lenox Hill was eager to have me gone sooner rather than later. "Give her my love and tell her I'm looking forward to it. he was surprisingly still there. It was only really used as a place to . It's where I've always belonged. Packing took almost no time." We talked for just a few more minutes. "No!" he said quickly. In the end. he started to lay into me about disappearing the way I had. I'm the one who should be saying that. sharp derisive laugh. "Your mother will be beside herself. Banner railed." He was quiet for another moment. After I hung up. You go and do that. until he seemed convinced that I wasn't about to go throw myself off a tall building.. When I reached Banner's office. right as residency programs were ending across the country. right?" I laughed." He inhaled sharply and laughed. "Look. Like you. There'll be no living with her now. repeatedly. All I could do was to stand there and take it until he'd exhausted himself. Do you have any idea when you'll be moving back to Chicago?" "As soon as fucking possible. Edward. this must be rather sudden. They wanted to be free to offer my position to the strongest candidates before they were all snatched up by other hospitals. that my decision was final and I was joining my father's practice in Chicago. son. dad. The practice is yours. It's always been yours. My apartment was scarcely more lived-in than it had been when I was in med school. But this has nothing to do with what I'm giving up. But I held up a hand to silence him and told him in one succinct sentence that I was politely declining the offer of a permanent position at Lenox Hill. That this is what you want to do." I said.. The second he saw me. I felt fucking not where I need to be. "It is." I heard him breathing hard and I knew he was getting emotional. Alec and Kate both nearly called in a psych consult on me. staring west out over the water. I just want to be a doctor. I stayed on the wall. and that I wasn't talking to people who weren't there. I broke my lease and willingly forfeited my security deposit. Wearily. I can't tell you how much this means to me. "Edward. I'm well aware. I…thank you for this. convinced that I'd finally snapped under the pressure.

She'd gotten me up dismally early. Alice. Alice and I had split them up. that I drove across the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey. And while the shroud had kept me from feeling too much sadness. and my patience was wearing thin. when it came to the sofa she gave me. I realized now. and screaming-bright red. trying to follow my eyes to see what had caught my attention. in fact. The patterns were crude. that I'd forgotten I'd ever been able to feel this way. ~*~~*~~*~ Bella Chapter Eighteen ~ Falling Slowly ~ Alice and I had been trudging through this antique mall for hours looking for odds and ends for my apartment. or some 60's piece of kitsch art that should have been nobody's taste. It was long. And so it was. It made me feel excited and optimistic and just alive. I was waking up from the post-accident fog. Especially since every "fantastic find" she'd shoved at me was invariably some Danish Modern piece of furniture that wasn't my taste at all. thanks. so I'd happily accepted it and decided I'd break up all that incendiary red with some throw pillows or something. and my personal belongings and books fit in the back of a U-Haul van. I never looked back. and although in general. It was like I'd been walking through my life wrapped in a shroud. The trees were just starting to bud. not professional in any way. lush colors. bound for Chicago. when I spotted my real find of the day in a corner of one booth. only half-feeling. half-experiencing everything around me. modern. and now we were each lugging an unwieldy stack of slippery fabric. Because I'd had no idea what I'd been missing. This. "What?" Alice asked. . So long. Today had been one long string of "No. regret it. and the sun and mild temperatures had brought people out in droves." But she was good-natured about it. and honestly. and since then. The longer I was away from Seattle.crash between shifts and it looked that way. and the colors of the paint were dimmed with the patina of age. they'd had it in Jasper's library and he hated it (I didn't really blame him). spring came late to Chicago. I'd bought a huge heap of them. it was nice just to be out together. in the end. The Salvation Army came for the furniture. the more I felt the veil lift from my eyes. on a mild. I'd already conceded to her design sensibilities once. alive feeling. today was unexpectedly mild and sunny. But it had been Alice's before she and Jasper moved in together. This tingling. I only had one cup of coffee on board. the remnants of the last snowfall had finally melted away. "That. Beggars can't really be choosers. intending to make curtains to cover the abundance of windows in my apartment. sunny Saturday in late April. kept me from ever feeling really happy. since my arms were full of fabric. but I was also waking up from the past four years. It was late April. Despite my lingering guilt about leaving Jay behind. Although the shopping trip had so far been pretty much a bust. I was about to call it quits and demand more coffee. It was a medium-sized painted wooden trunk. low. none of which I wanted. it had also." I indicated with my chin. It was a feeling I hadn't had in years. we had found a pile of Indian silk saris in incredible. excited. I couldn't. away from Jay and that whole long nightmare.

but at the same time. "Done. I've had the damned thing in our shop for months and not even a nibble. in that voice. just a few feet away. I felt terrible that she kept having to be the one to jump in and fix these crazy awkward confrontations. Edward's attention was drawn off to Alice. I'll consider today a success. It's not really the kind of thing we handle." It was perfect. her eyes flew wide and she scrambled back onto the sidewalk to my side. Act normal. Tell you what. and absolutely fantastic. five feet apart. The perfect size to be a little coffee table. Haggling didn't even occur to me. Looks old. like he was grinding his teeth. I was tired and wishing that I had more coffee. I shot to my feet and banged my shin on the corner of the chest. "My wife found it. She was so bad at acting like nothing was wrong. Just the kind of thing I'd always loved but that had never seemed to have a place in my life. Since saying my name. We stowed the saris in the chest. almost rigid. her eyes way too frantic. quieter life as one of the many perks. I was perched on the chest on the edge of the sidewalk. It took me several beats to remember to breathe. now. noticing my attention. Edward was standing on the sidewalk. old and covered in wear and history. waving her arm fruitlessly for a cab. I nearly thought I was hallucinating. But that was my old life. he hadn't made another sound. I let my mind go blank and my vision shift out of focus. He looked tired. "Ow! Edward…hi. My mouth opened and closed like a fish. I'd been expecting a slower. rumpled. but Alice was having no luck flagging down a taxi. "Bella?" I spun to look and nearly slid off the trunk. We'd come on the El and we had the additional burden of a dozen saris. Now we were just standing on the sidewalk." he said slowly." he confessed. and I still couldn't speak." "Where is it from?" "I'm not sure. but no telling how old. His face was tense. but also just perfect. Her voice was too high. Pull it together. Fuck. reaching up to rub the back of his neck. Alice was standing half in the street. "Edward!" she smiled. we had to get the damned thing home. Alice noticed me get up and turned to look absently over her shoulder. and that little muscle in his jaw right in front of his ear was twitching. "It's funny actually. We'd been out there for over twenty minutes at that point. and I finally exhaled. you girls drag it out of here for the hundred bucks my wife paid for it." ~*~ Edward When I finally made the decision to come back to Chicago and join my father's practice. which at least consolidated things." Of course. my life would look like whatever I chose. He was still. But my first week back had proven me very wrong. a little pale. Now. her smile too wide. and we were able to wrestle it out to the curb on North Broadway. Thanks to ."You like that?" the elderly man in a sailor's cap asked." He didn't seem to be doing much better. um…I just moved back. I needed to say something. "Indonesia. "What are you doing back in Chicago so soon?" "Well. staring at each other and saying nothing. Everything has happened really fast…but. I think. I felt my face flush as the rest of my body went ice cold. and I chose that old painted trunk. When I heard my name. "Isn't this a surprise?" she nearly screeched. When she saw Edward standing just a few feet away from me. I was abjectly grateful that she was here to do it.

She gasped and scrambled to her feet. I was home. they kept us both running at full-speed and I hadn't really had a chance to catch my breath since I'd crossed the state line. the more likely you are to get what you want. in that mad dash to get myself out of New York and back home. but that first week was so busy that I couldn't even find time to meet with a realtor until today. I fully intended to ask her what it was. Inhaling deeply. All signs pointed to her living here. doing what I was meant to do. The office stayed packed all week long. I arrived on Sunday afternoon and I was in the office on Monday afternoon. I moved. I was practicing alongside my father. staring into space. It was fantastic. I felt like such an asshole. my first full weekend in Chicago. you just moved back?" "I mean. So I resigned myself to a little polite conversation. but at least all her falsely bright chatter helped break the staring deadlock Bella and I had lapsed into. perched on an old trunk on the sidewalk. who I'd only run into by accident. Besides. But I'd wandered into that office this morning in a fog." . Never be vague with these people. trying to hail a cab in the street. sure that I must be seeing things. I'm joining my father's practice. Regardless. She was out shopping with Alice…for furniture. I'd practically grown up in that office. I figured I'd crash at my parents for a little while until I had time to find my own place. Then I turned onto North Broadway and froze in my tracks. My heart started pounding the second the thought crossed my mind and I didn't know how I would keep myself from just grabbing her and demanding an explanation. just like last time. and I reasoned that some of these neighborhoods might surprise me after so much time. Until she asked what I was doing back in town. But no. where I belonged. that was Bella. There was a long awkward moment when we just stood there and stared at each other in shock. frustrated. A little pointless wandering around downtown wasn't the worst way to spend a Saturday. looking hopelessly bored and a little cranky. But it had been years since I lived in Chicago. I'd rolled my eyes and laughed. the day was glorious. Last weekend. that I barely had a second to register all the disparate facts of this encounter. but it wouldn't be while Alice was with us. I've already joined. looking at her face. Dad said it was because word got out that Carlisle Cullen's son had come home to the practice and everybody wanted to get a look at me. I had to remind myself that she cut me out of her life and stopped talking to me completely. who deserved to know. The more specific you are with your needs. Of course. I jumped in to help. but it did seem like I spent most of that first week examining patients who didn't seem very sick. some combination of spring-induced euphoria and wishful thinking. I saw Alice. At the time. Well. Just like that. So I was put in the awkward position of telling Alice. And when the patients had started stacking up in the late afternoon. and left with a print out of addresses and appointments to view apartments all over town. And just to confirm that I wasn't crazy. I was so busy blustering my way through it.certainly not Jasper. Then Alice was shrieking and scrambling to fling herself between us. When I was applying in New York. Feeling her eyes on me. There had to be a reason for that. so it wasn't much of a learning curve. in neighborhoods I had no interest in. unpacking my stuff and getting familiar with the system. I said her name. Yeah. Now I was starting to wonder if he'd always held out hope that I'd end up back here. he said that down the line I might be able to help him cover vacations in the practice. I'd find a way to get my answers soon father's foresight. Bella was still in Chicago. I already had my license to practice in Illinois. made my pulse race and my words fail me. I hadn't exactly let anyone know I was coming. weeks after I'd last seen her here. That was a conversation that required some privacy. he suggested that I go ahead and apply in Illinois. "What do you mean. Alice's eyes flew wide at my admission. too.

but there was life in her face. still not looking away. Bella inhaled and leaned back. before launching herself at me and folding me in her thin. Her face told me that she knew. She kept her eyes on me. too." Alice just smiled and waved a dismissive hand. that connection. "We're not. Yes. "So. but it was kind of going nowhere." Alice answered promptly. my eyes. I was trying. with my words. my voice. But now I can't seem to get a cab. I can blow it off. It felt like the first really intimate connection we'd had since that night in December. Color bloomed across the tops of her cheekbones and her teeth dug into her bottom lip. I knew she could. and it was her words. Welcome home. Slowly. to push them back at her. It snapped between us. "I'm looking forward to hearing all about it." she said. "Is that so?" I said softly. You're here and that's what matters. and she'd changed her hair." "Are…are you sure?" Bella asked." . "What about Lenox Hill?" I turned to look at her. you guys doing some shopping today?" "Yes." I said quickly. "My car's in a lot around the corner. I'd heard in my head that day I'd finally seen clearly and quit. She nodded. "Just looking at a few apartments. You made me see. "Jasper's going to kill you!" Alice said. Her attention was fully. keeping you from anything?" I smiled at her and shrugged. Soon. effectively breaking the spell. every bit as beautiful as always. so I might have to call Jazz to come get us so we can drag this thing home. I made myself stop staring at Bella and turn back to Alice. her eyes holding mine. As she straightened up. "Um…yeah. "It wasn't what you wanted?" she asked softly. intensely focused on me. but she didn't look away. just the tiniest movement of her head. Everything just happened so fast. Her eyes were bright. She looked fantastic. "I turned it down. She looked a little panicked. and it's been crazy since I got here. strong arms. "It's okay. So with a supreme effort of will. and now was no exception. but Bella spoke first.Alice gasped and opened her mouth to say something. I'm sorry I didn't call. She held my eyes with hers for another long moment and I knew she got it. the ones she'd spoken back in the bookstore. and I realized we'd just abandoned her to sink into this private bubble of ours. I closed my eyes and shook my head." she said with forced casualness." "I'll take you. "I know." I murmured. I'd been hearing them in my head for months. But there was also a hint of a smile playing around the corners of her mouth. but I knew I was being rude. Alice. um. just as it had in December. she cleared her throat and shifted her eyes towards Bella. all the turmoil and mental struggle I'd gone through to make that decision. Her fierce eyes had always seemed to see into the very center of me. It was because of you. I couldn't help but smile back. so that she would know that. "No." I looked back at her. It's been a crazy few months. "For Bella's new place. But she could see everything I wasn't saying. I laughed and hugged her back. it wasn't what I wanted. I'll drive you. Bella just moved here. I distantly heard Alice sigh. I didn't particularly care. I shook my head. "You know. her voice. that chemistry." I said simply. I swallowed thickly." Almost her words. she and I definitely had some things to sort out.

I grinned at her and held up my hands. "Smartass. I'd missed her. "I'm sure I can get it alone. but Alice carried the bulk of the conversation. but true. "Oh. sprinkled with plenty of polite questions about my parents. judging from the brief glimpse I got of it. but Alice refused to let it happen. but scampered back away from each other as I stepped out of the car. the easy back-and-forth we shared that I'd started to think I'd entirely imagined. turning to go." "It's full. That was not there the last time I saw her. considering how much unsaid shit hung between us. I'll just guide it in so it doesn't get scratched. "Alright then. absently shoving the long sleeves of her knit shirt up her arms to get them out of her way. It was just a scratch. Bella and Alice were standing with their heads together in urgent that had been stitched closed.bright voice returning. before reaching again for the handle on her side once more. I looked again. too." "The whats?" "Saris…fabric. I managed to smash my fingers between the side of the car and the trunk. "Of course." I pointed out. Bella was in the passenger seat. about the never-ending work on her house. Bella?" She smiled stiffly." she insisted. her forced. We don't want to scratch any of its history. The jagged line of pink skin up the inside of her right wrist drew my eyes like a magnet." I said. She kept up a steady stream of superficial chatter. I laughed out loud then. And there she was. and look. clapping my hands together. . It's a lot of fabric. not having seen me notice. making no attempt to keep me from hearing her. the girl I'd spent all those weeks texting. Bella mostly stared out the window and watched Chicago pass by. it's a hatchback. let me know when you've got your end. "I'll pull around. but I couldn't get my mind off that jagged line of pink and just where the hell it came from. "Alright. and she just continued to rib me about wrecking the patina on her old wooden trunk. But I knew wounds and instinctively. you and Bella get the trunk." under her breath." Bella tartly corrected me. and I nearly scraped the painted side. it's great. then straightened a little. It was crazy. Thanks to my distraction. My mind went into overdrive thinking about it. "Yeah. She was moving recently. He-Man."That would be fantastic!" Alice enthused. Bella was oblivious. Edward. She was sitting in the back. That's handy. "You ready?" I forced a smile back and hefted my end. though. She must have scratched herself on something. History." She cracked a smile and muttered. That was a laceration. "It's got history." Bella leaned down. and she did." she grinned up at me. "Ready?" I asked. I laughed and tried to play along. The car ride to Alice's probably should have been tense." I had the car pulled up at the curb in a matter of minutes. And not very long ago. about springtime in Chicago. "Right. I knew that was no scratch. "It's not very big. Edward. probably hauling around a lot of stuff. Thank you. "Sure!" Alice said. It's heavier than it looks." "Just stay here. We put all the saris in there." "But it's already old." I said. but the trunk was blocking my view. I'd missed feeling this way with her. There we were.

even though I could see every square inch of the room from where I stood. I noticed. Alice directed me around the corner and down the narrow alley that ran along the back of the houses on her block. and made an effort to listen to every word she was saying. It's really cute. Getting the two of us and that heavy-ass trunk up her narrow stairs was a challenge. we staggered into her apartment and maneuvered into the middle of the room to set the trunk down. but now wasn't the time or place for that. "Don't be a snob. I'm good. Didn't it turn out great?" .Wicker Park wasn't all that far from the antique mall where I'd run into them. We stopped behind her odd little overly-tall garage. pointing to a narrow flight of stairs against the side of the garage that I'd never noticed before. I said. Alice stood in the open door. Bella caught her toes and let loose a stream of extremely colorful obscenities. healthy. pointing things out to me. the likelihood of significant blood loss… Bella was talking. She was still moving around the room. She looked good. along her temple. "You live up there?" She just laughed as she climbed out of the car. Once again. Emmett?" Bella chuckled. pointing out the features of her new place. he showed up the day I was moving in. and…" "Wait. So I swallowed down the anxiety and frustration. and my shin on a step. A jagged. fruitlessly trying to direct our efforts. but a fun one. which made me laugh. dragging her hair back off her face with the other. She would freeze in this place in the winter. so it didn't take long to get there. All I really wanted to do was demand that she tell me what happened. her wrist and her head. Now I was sure. "Yeah. "Are you okay? You want me to take a look?" I offered. yes. Whatever it was didn't seem to have damaged her permanently in any way. but Bella just kept laughing at me. pointing at the strange-looking brick building. She had a lot of windows." she said. I was going in. Did it also have something to do with why she so abruptly stopped speaking to me? Alice was only alternately paying attention. The doctor in me began to calculate the placement of major arteries. busy pulling out long swaths of fabric from the trunk and holding them up against Bella's windows. something major. but what the hell had happened to her? I was sure it was all tied up in why she was here in Chicago." Bella said. Finally. I scrambled out of the car and met Bella at the hatchback." She laughed and planted one hand on her hip. Come and see." I was skeptical about a single room over Alice's garage. She'd been hurt. but I could barely hear her over the roaring in my ears. I felt sick. and. Maybe she hadn't moved into her own apartment yet." I looked around myself. "No. right up against her hairline. but on the other hand. "…and then Emmett designed the wall. Alice took Bella's keys and ran ahead up the stairs to open the door. alone. He helped Ben with the cabinets and then they made that wall. hands on her hips. I'd just assumed we were delivering her back to Alice's place. I banged my elbow on the railing. it was all windows. "What is?" I asked. She laughed as she hopped on one foot. Something had happened to her. "Show me around. "This is it. "My apartment. unfamiliar line flashed underneath her hair. Like. a glimpse of a pink scar. it was Bella's apartment. Hell. I just have to walk it off.

I cleared my throat and looked away. You go. brightly. "Jasper!" she said. But I hadn't been prepared to do it this instant. It was odd. ~*~ Bella As soon as Edward and Alice disappeared out the door and it closed behind them. too. but there was no way to know for sure. "He just texted that he's home. Come on!" she reached out and her steely little fingers clamped down around my wrist. I turned and collapsed onto the couch. it felt like my whole world. now. Before I could let myself get too worked up. I was guessing it had been because he'd met her. "No. I never wanted it to affect his friendship with Jasper. and I knew nothing about it. He was here now. that's okay. He should have that time with him without the complication of me and our strange history getting in the way. This was a hell of a long way from over. my friends. And really. The wall jutted out about five feet into the room and next to it. I had to force myself not to look back over my shoulder to see if Bella was still watching. No doubt about it. he'd told me what he wanted once. The way he looked at me. making little jokes.It did look great. Plus. towards the kitchen. and what was their status? Since he'd just abruptly quit his job and left New York. nobody knew about what had happened between us. where was Kate. It was almost too much to take in at once. "Coming?" She smiled tightly and shook her head. it was just like I remembered from December. partially concealed by it. A nice little bookcase topped with one of those open shadow-box things on top. It wasn't supposed to matter to me where she was and what she was doing." Her eyes were wide as I let Alice drag me out of her apartment and down the stairs to explain myself to Jasper. But I supposed she was their friend. raising my eyebrows in question. I could get his . that same fierce energy between us. Then that left the fact that he'd suddenly stopped texting me. and lost interest. First and foremost. sit down with him and tell him everything that happened. his best friend. I wanted to talk to him. too. but I couldn't know for sure. He might have just gotten sick of me and the distance. to go talk to Jasper. Thanks so much for the ride and the help. Except that today didn't feel that way at all. And he was here! Actually living in Chicago. which was hard and a little uncomfortable. "He's going to flip when he sees you! Let's surprise him. I was guessing that they were over. I'll see you soon. too. was Bella's small double bed. Just being near him again— talking. That was exactly why I'd kept what had happened a secret for as long as I could. laughing together— it made me feel euphoric. I knew he was puzzled that I didn't go with him and Alice to the house. Was I destined to never enjoy a comfortable couch as long as I lived? That was…tense and exciting and awkward and so incredibly wonderful. Alice's phone buzzed from where she'd left it with her bag on the floor. there were questions that needed to be answered. I just needed some time to think and regroup. my shoulders slumping." I laughed and turned to look back at Bella. After all. had been busy helping Bella build this new life here in my hometown. I guess?" I stared back at her for a beat too long. But Jasper was his friend. Edward. Emmett had apparently helped with that. about his decision to leave New York and Kate. knowing that Jasper and Emmett. honestly. "You will. and I'd totally shut him down. Seeing him earlier had shocked a few years off my life. I hadn't planned it. She dropped the fabric she was holding and flipped open the phone. though. I let out a long exhale and closed my eyes. So I let him leave. And I wanted answers from him. Except that right now. Bella had already started to fill the nooks with random odds and ends.

his hands shoved awkwardly in the back pockets of his jeans. Then. "You could also tell me about that one. I wanted to reach out and touch his face. shoving my sleeve up with it." he continued. Alice practically busted the door down with her fist. That wasn't Alice's knock. exposing the scar there. I was sorry I didn't have a television." All I could do was nod slightly as I backed up and made room for him to enter. "Hi. Steeling myself. I put away the few dishes I'd dirtied last night making dinner. I redoubled my efforts on the guest list and was finally able to make a little headway on it. equally quiet. I turned on some music. tentative expression from it. For the first time since I moved in. "Hi. still not letting go of my arm. his hand shot out and closed around my right wrist. "How about we start with this?" he said. But I didn't touch him. As soon as I opened the door. wondering if I should sit. so I decided to bounce it to him. Edward was standing on the landing. I didn't even have a life yet. It swung open into the room. The apartment was already small. moving to stand more or less in the middle. He slipped past me into the room. Forcing my eyes away from her house and my thoughts away from who was inside of it. but Edward's outsized." he returned. The windows of Alice's house were lit up. He took a deep breath and spoke again. I didn't move a muscle. turning my wrist over and sliding his hand up my arm." I managed to whisper.number from Jasper and call him. if he still wanted to… I refused to let myself even go there. I couldn't afford to hope and then be disappointed. still shifting uncomfortably. But I was distracted and unfocused and had a hard time getting anything useful accomplished. anything to keep myself busy and occupied. "Where should we start?" As soon as I was within arms' reach. throwing long gold rectangles of light across the back yard. I flicked on the lamp by the couch as the light faded outside. My life was a mess. Dragging in a deep breath. And then. A soft knock on the door some time later made me nearly jump out of my skin. I was a mess. maybe. Sort it all out. "We need to talk. I stood and made my way over to the door on shaky legs. when that was all done. We could have lunch and talk. With a huff. I knew whose knock that was. he shifted his weight and swallowed audibly. I gasped and spun to face him. I shot to my feet and started unpacking and re-folding the saris. I tried to work on the guest list for Angela's charity event. "How did this happen to you?" . Besides. erase that nervous. pointing at my head. I moved in his direction. The mindless chatter would have helped distract me. nervous presence in the middle of it made it seem microscopic. I had no business even thinking about getting involved with someone right now. or invite him to sit? Offer him a drink? Or just ask him what I needed to know? The uncertainty threatened to overwhelm me.

"No! No. "Jesus. he didn't. and then when he lost his job. to look out the windows towards the back of Alice and Jasper's house." I smiled back in spite of the tension. something. I didn't know what to do. Something on the top shelf fell and hit my head. To get back on his feet. By the time I got home on Sunday. he found out about you. it nicked it. "Yes. He thought someone was out to get him." I sighed and tried once again to figure out where to start. "At first. But he misinterpreted what he saw. but I'm surprised you do. Um…mentally ill. "Just tell me before I go out of my mind." "He didn't. struggling for the right words to tell the whole story." "What do you mean?" I sighed. "Well." "Did he…" Edward shut his eyes and I felt his grip on my wrist tighten. But then I got home and he was in such a bad place…" "And you couldn't. The reality of it still had the power to take my breath away.I looked at his face. it all fed into this crazy delusion he had. telling me he'd been laid off. He was paranoid and irrational. "Actually. I'd decided to end it before I ever came here for the wedding. "It was…" I started. I lost my balance and fell. looking closely at the scar. he was a mess. He was upset." "But if he was unstable. especially to people who didn't know him like I did. At least. and the stormy expression cleared a tiny bit. He got a lot worse. "Do you remember I got a bunch of texts on my phone?" He nodded. His eyebrows were knit together and his face was stormy. The beginning. Actually. but it really was an accident." Edward turned back to look at me. It was still so hard to say it. his face full of worry. "I could have tried to help you. "did this get your artery?" "Yes. not on purpose. He didn't sleep for days. The corner of his mouth twitched in amusement. surprised." he rumbled lowly." "I couldn't." I said. you could have been killed. "I was trying to leave." he breathed suddenly. To get himself back together. made some phone calls. I just knew I needed to stay and try to help him. But he wouldn't talk to anybody. I was going to go home and end it." Edward exhaled hard and finally let go of my wrist. He turned half-way. I just needed to get him into treatment first and I would have left. he just snapped. and I never read them. but his eyes were on my arm. "I needed to give him a little time. I hit these shelves we had and cut my arm." I repeated softly. Why the hell did you stay there?" Edward was practically radiating anger and he was talking through gritted teeth. "That was Jay. He did grab me. "You said he didn't hurt you. Not on purpose. I nodded. because that was an easy one to answer. I needed to tell him everything that had happened since I left him here in December. "So that's why you stayed?" he asked. "He's sick. and when he let me go. He got upset. "Do you remember Alice's bachelorette party?" Edward finally looked up at me. You were pretty wasted. then trailed off. anyway." . He saw…" I shook my head and sighed. I think it's been there for a long time. and I wasn't sure what to do…" "Why didn't you talk to me? I could have…" Edward ran a hand through his already-wrecked hair in frustration. But he didn't get better.

Eleazar. Why?" "So you didn't get the last one I sent?" I blinked at him. "He broke my phone. What he saw…I sent another text. His eyes were squeezed shut." . "Yeah."It didn't seem right. Just nonsense. "What is it? What's wrong?" "What was the last text you got from me that day?" I shook my head in confusion. A lot of details from that day that were hazy." "Ohhh." "When?" Edward's voice was a ragged rasp. trying to remember. but I was running late leaving the office that day." he sighed. I checked my messages after I got here. "The last one?" He let out a gust of air. 'later' We said 'later'. I was so careful to erase them all as soon as we quit talking. And then I never heard from you again. So he never wrote back. You didn't say anything the least bit out of line. huh?" Edward groaned and ran his hands up over his face. but you felt obligated because of what happened?" "I would have wanted to. of all people. I didn't know you wrote again that day. Ironic. And what if you didn't. "I had no idea if you'd want to get involved that way. I called later that night. You. "I said that I still thought about you all the time and that I wanted to be with you." Realization finally sank in. We were talking about our proms and stuff. looking back out the window. After a minute. and you came up in my phone as 'E' and he just got it all wrong in his head. I thought I'd seen all of them. I looked up at him. No. I never answered him. I must have just forgotten or something. Bella." "What did you say?" my voice was hardly audible. "I'm not sure. "What?" "When was this? What day?" "Um…Valentine's Day. Not after what…what happened. but there was nothing after the fourteenth. He broke it. so I went on. at the tense. The implications of his words would hardly sink in. Then I said I had to go and we said goodbye." "What?" "Jay. and…. I thought…I figured you'd just given up on me. he cleared his throat and spoke again. and his texts had been so innocuous. How?" "He saw your texts. but it went straight to voicemail. Usually. so he couldn't find me. anxious expression on his face. It wasn't…there wasn't even anything wrong with them. Then when I got here. Jasper got me a new number. A few minutes later. He wanted me. like we always did. actually. his expression unguarded and completely vulnerable. And if that's the one he saw…it's no wonder he flipped. But he had this crazy delusion about his boss. He said he wanted me. I couldn't involve you that way." "You did?" My voice sounded breathy and far-away. He threw it against the wall when he found your text. That's why there had been nothing from him after that day. He looked back at me. but he seemed resigned as to why I hadn't asked for his help." He gave me a hard look. "I'm so sorry. I felt stretched tight with tension. "You said he found out about us. his whole face creased with pain. I thought…I figured that was your way of telling me to fuck off and leave you alone.

like if I breathed too hard. "What now?" I finally managed to murmur. "I want that. My hands fluttered helplessly in front of me for a second before settling on his chest. this whole thing might blow away like a dandelion." We stood still for a moment. "What happened with Kate?" He let out a huff. My eyes stung as tears threatened. I'm sorry. I felt overwhelmed by all we'd revealed. but one more question needed answering. I'm fine. stop. feeling spent. I'm here. our breaths mingling."Jesus. I had no business saying that to you. It didn't work. He was breathing hard. "I'm still so sorry. warm and perfect. we needed to start being it. I let out my breath. I closed the little distance between us and put my hand on his arm. "I never should have tried. or something. "Fuck." Then he let out a huge exhale and pulled me into him. balanced on the edge. pressed against each other after all this time. I was still so hung up on you. least of all yours. Whatever we were going to be to each other." He was clutching his hands into his hair. We were right there." Edward breathed. "Bella…. I could feel his heartbeat under my palms. I mean it. distracted. I was trying to handle something that was out of my control. So am I." "I'm not." he sighed into my hair. you are. but eventually I did. and now it set up a loud thud in my chest." He swallowed hard. either forward or apart. But when you disappeared…I was just trying to move on. breathing in deep. his arms holding me like a vise. I turned my face into the crook of his neck. It took me a while to figure that out. right after I saw you here. folded into his tight embrace. his arm still around me. his fingers slightly stroking my lower back where he held me. My hands fisted into the front of his shirt. I was drowning in it. pulling me into his side. "What do you want?" Edward picked up his head and looked me in the eye. Yes. But we needed to move. inhaling the scent of him that had never really left my memory. It wasn't your fault." "Yes.because…" "It was a mistake." He dropped his hands from his hair and abruptly hooked his arm around my hips. "I want what I've wanted since the minute I met you. This is all my fault. "And you?" I made myself hold his gaze and I nodded slightly. His face was buried in my hair. You could have died." he said quickly. his temple pressed against mine. I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply. What happened was nobody's fault. "I broke up with her the night we got back to New York. too." "No. I didn't. My heart had already been racing through our long mutual confession. overwhelmed by his physical closeness. Edward. His head tipped forward until our foreheads were touching. We felt airy and fragile." His free hand came up to stroke my hair. it would have eventually been something else. "Edward." "Shhh. too. in him. boneless. Now it was all around me. I should have left you alone. Then he scrubbed his hands over his face and growled in frustration." "I'm sorry. and I swallowed hard around the lump in my throat." "You did? Oh…. Bella. Bella. that set him off. no. To just… be with you. . "Now?" he said. eyes squeezed shut in frustration. I just want you. It was too big for me to fix. just overwhelmed by the reality of us…here. but if it hadn't been that. no.

I sighed and arched into him." . He was right. We broke apart to breathe and Edward's mouth traced a gentle line to my ear. "You're right. still no more than inches from his face and desperate to kiss him again. He rubbed the arc of my cheekbone. "My life is in shambles. Bella. labored breaths as he kissed his way to my ear again. "Go?" He chuckled softly and the sound vibrated through my tense body. We might have done it all wrong in the beginning. "I should go. pulling him in closer. His teeth nipped my lip. I couldn't help it. I sighed against his mouth and his fingers slid into my hair." He tightened his grip on me and moaned. Because we both know what's going to happen if I stay. I wanted him so badly that I could barely see straight. and cherished. making me his again. I felt like I was burning up." I finally said. with his lips moving across mine. Which means even though it's the very last thing I want to do. his tongue stroking my bottom lip. almost reverently. It was soft and warm. My skin wanted his skin. the rough pad of his thumb making my skin tingle." I sighed. pressing his forehead to mine. I don't even know who I am anymore. and our lips found each other. pulling back enough to look at me again. You'll figure it out. His hands moved from my hips to my waist and his thumb skimmed back and forth over my ribs. I arched into his body. practically incoherent in my lust. I was crying."I'm a mess. I blinked. "Yeah. I could feel the wetness on my cheeks. "I never stopped wanting you. He moaned and kissed me back. go. "Be a mess with me. I probably shouldn't even be…" "Shhh…" he cut me off. to get a decent start in the first place. holding my head. his lips catching tears on the way. demanding attention after all this time neglected. We'll figure it out. The want and hunger was there. He groaned and pulled back. He also made me feel on fire. when we finally had a chance to fix things." he whispered raggedly. I'm going to go now. It was still there. How could I have forgotten the effect he had on my body? Just standing near him made me glow. but I wanted to drag him to my bed and strip us both bare and just fall into each other. It was too soon and too emotional. But going too fast would just make more of a mess. I ran my hands up into his hair and gripped it in my fists. and now. but I have another chance. His hands found my hips and he walked forward. then the back of his neck. And he needed to know what he was getting into with me. and I'm doing it right this time. Just figure it out with me. as if he was struggling to keep from going higher. "Bella…" "Sorry." "I wanted you. pressing me down. too. Edward. his hand clutched my hip." As he leaned forward and closed the tiny space still between us. He was dragging in deep. closing the space between us so I could kiss him again. pushing me back a few steps until my back met the wall. This time it was hot and urgent. and then I felt him slow and stop. A thrill ran through me at the memory of the last time Edward had me pressed against a wall like this. I always wanted you. his nails digging in. I wanted to feel him all over me. feeling like I should attempt to be the voice of reason here." He leaned back and held my head again.this connection I'd always felt with him. I tilted my chin up. I clutched at his shoulders. He was whispering little words that tickled my hair and heated my skin. so gentle. The connection that we'd almost lost. "This is really important to me. pulling my mouth back to his. I wanted to cry with relief that I was feeling it again. raising his hand to cup my cheek. Well. Then I couldn't help it and I grabbed him by the back of the neck. He made me feel precious. and it felt like I was home." I conceded.

I raised mine. He sighed softly. He tugged on my hair and I shifted my face until his lips found mine." I was practically quivering with need. letting his lips drag along my skin on the way there. And Edward and I had been on such a strange. like on a date?" I asked. But sweet. leaving me immediately feeling cold. and it was about to become a lot more than one kiss." I lingered in the open doorway. My frustration was only physical. "Mmmm…" was all I could manage." I whispered. "Can I take you out tomorrow?" he asked. and I'd let him go. and opened the door." "Glad to hear it. . When he reached the door. A date seemed so…normal. I was happy. I let out my long groan of frustration into the blanket before flipping over onto my back. "Yes. I could barely make out his smile in the dark. "I'm going to be thinking about you all night. I closed the door and stumbled to my bed. a date. did I want to. Edward turned towards the door. kissing my fingertips like I was kissing him. and so I held myself still and swallowed down my raging lust as he leaned in to kiss me one last time. Then. his fingers tangling in at the base of my neck. Falling across it diagonally." he smirked. but kept pulling on my hand until I was up against him again and his arms were around me. circuitous road to get here. and take our time. slightly stunned. Every nerve ending screamed at me to reach out and grab him."Believe me. I watched as he descended the stairs. Do you think you can bear me for a night?" he smirked over his shoulder. crossed the alleyway to his car. Because I really don't want to screw this up." He kissed me just in front of my ear. Edward. despite his attempt at sounding light." he murmured into my hair." Because he was right. He snagged my hand in his and tangled our fingers together. too. my arms wrapped around my middle to ward off the chill. with food and talking and stuff. he straightened and stepped away. "What. God…" he murmured against my neck. because that's just what Edward did to me. It had been years since I'd been asked out on a date. you should go. face down. No. "I'll endure it. You know. Then he raised his hand and pressed his fingers to his lips. Bella. "If you're leaving. Just one more taste of his mouth. Then I tried again. He lowered himself into the car. heaving a huge sigh. "I can remember every single minute of being with you. though. In a daze. He stopped just before he got in. pulling me after him. I wanted to. But then we were pressing and nipping and grasping and moaning. guttural sound in his throat and stepped back away from me. One more kiss. he turned back. right on the corner of my mouth. but unable to make myself stop. "And I'm still going to go. moving his hands to the safety of my shoulders. his voice still a little ragged. there's nothing I want more. and it's killing me to go. Edward made a low. I buried my face in the quilt. Overall. I told myself. "Oh. slow and lingering. "Me. I wanted to melt into to the floor. Now we had plenty of time. too. not quite chastely. But he was right. "…and I remember the way you sound…. "…and I remember the way you taste…" He shifted and kissed. God. and he was gone. But we had to slow it down. feeling how wide and stupid my grin was. I'll call you tomorrow?" I nodded. "Goodnight." "Goodnight. I remember the way you smell…" He leaned in to kiss the side of my neck.

Edward. who kissed me—a lot. It was a bubbly. We talked while he drove. Alice wants a full report tomorrow." So I did. I grinned to myself in satisfaction as I stretched my arms out over my head. stiff and a little cold from the way I'd fallen asleep. I'll prepare a brief. I stretched back out on the bed. The battery was nearly gone. Then I remembered it waking me up and scrambled to where I'd left it laying on the quilt. it actually made me shriek in surprise. "Hello?" "Hi. his voice murmuring in my ear. I was afraid to exhale for fear of shattering the fragile soap bubble of my joy. who called me five minutes after he left. Edward. who came back last night to talk to me. Edward. and never come up for air. and he told me all about the things he passed on the city streets. We talked as he described the shelves full of old childhood awards around him. bits of the night before filtered back into my mind. I also forgot to get your number. "Hi." I laughed. "I told you. You just left. I didn't recognize the number.E . in his arms and lips. pinging right in my ear. Jasper gave it to me. of course. one arm splayed out. effervescent bliss that almost scared me in its intensity. Edward. As I blinked against the bright morning sunlight flooding my apartment. When my cell phone rang. I stretched across the bed to retrieve it. It seemed like too much happiness. who told me he wanted me. We talked until I fell asleep with the phone nestled against my shoulder. Talk to me while I drive." I pointed out." His voice made my lips curl up in a satisfied smile. I wanted to wrap myself back up in those last moments with Edward. You could reach almost everything in this apartment without ever having to get up." "I couldn't wait. "Forewarned is forearmed.this feeling was much too big for happy. except for the crick in my neck from sleeping on a cell phone. I couldn't wait. I fell asleep talking to Edward. We talked as he parked his father's car. and all the things in Chicago that he wanted to show me. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Nineteen ~ Visible Horizon ~ Bella My phone woke me up again the next morning. who was taking me out on a date tonight. Edward. toying with the tips of my hair. Good morning. yourself. Edward. Everything that happened last night almost felt like a dream. but there was a text message flashing on the screen. I groaned and rolled onto my back. because I was that tense. We talked as he made his way into his parent's house and up to his old bedroom. effusive.

Slow. if I can use your washer…" "Now! I'll unlock the back door. actually. later. Yes. –E Me. We said we were taking things slow. the one only dogs can hear. holding it under my chin for a second before leaning to the nightstand to plug it into the charger. When can I come get you? -E I wanted to say "Right this second". "What happened to later?" "Huh? I want answers now. –E I liked talking to you. Never mind. I do have some laundry to do.I smiled even wider and texted back. I could not start thinking about Edward's hands touching me all over…. –B I'll massage it for you. too." "Of course it's me. I liked talking to you last night. –B Did you say curtains? –E The saris? From yesterday? We're making curtains out of them. too. I flipped it open. missy!" "Oh. Seeing you. because he texted again almost immediately. I'm making curtains with Alice today. it rang in my hand. -B I shut my phone with a sigh. Alice. his words weren't meant quite as innocently as I thought. "Come over!" she gasped. "Just let me brush my teeth!" "Hurry!" . "You have to tell me everything!" "Well. Slow. My neck is stiff. Laughing. Jasper just finished the coffee. "We were texting. it's you. Apparently. Another deep breath. alright!" I laughed. Just as I did. I'll explain when I see you. –B I like the sound of that." I could just barely make out that silent squeal she did when she was really excited about something. but I didn't." "Alright. it is. A sore neck is a small price to pay. –B Sorry. Not really. Who else…oh! Were you just talking to Edward?" I felt my face flush in spite of myself. –E I had to sit back and take a deep breath to control the flash of heat his innocent words set off in me. –B Sleep well? –E I slept on my phone. so I'll call you later? –E Yes. Good morning. –B Okay.

I'm just so happy." "'Morning. in!" "We have all morning. but all things considered. and he's Jasper's best friend. Bear with me. okay. holding up her hands. Like a date. Prying. "Yeah." Then her eyes went wide and she gasped." Alice perched on one of the stools at the kitchen island. "Are you? In a relationship." Alice leaned forward on her elbows.Ten minutes later. please. He told me why he stopped texting." she said. I told him everything that happened with Jay. The night of the accident. I think so. "Yes. "Coffee?" "Yes. I tapped on Alice's back door. "And?" "And…we talked. flinging it open under my hand. "Okay. and I'm already freaked out enough. I know I'm prying." . You love Edward. She slapped a hand over her mouth quickly and spoke through her fingers. what happened?" "He came back last night. because I could see it in her eyes. in." I said with a shrug. "He texted me that night. "Ally. I'm going to be a little over-protective of you at the moment. You know me. a basketful of laundry under my arm. We're going out tonight. Jasper. But I didn't get it. be nice. "God. and he's here and you're here…" "Stop!" I shouted. I need to give you your space now that you're in a relationship with him. "Sorry. trying to control my smile and failing miserably. Alice was already scheduling cozy couples' dinners and summer cookouts and the wedding of our children. She came skidding across the slick kitchen floor in her socks. shuffling across the kitchen in his flannel pajama pants and t-shirt. because Jay trashed my phone. "In. scratching his stomach and yawning. Alice." Jasper mumbled. You're freaking me out. This is Edward." "On a date?" Alice's voice shot up an octave." "Okay. but waited until Jasper pressed a sleepy kiss to her forehead and wandered back out of the kitchen before she rounded on me. I love these. tapping her nails on the counter while Jasper poured my coffee and I helped myself to the croissants Alice had brought home from the fantastic French pastry shop near her office. I'm getting carried away. About everything. flakey goodness. I think we are. "Backing off. Bells. I mean?" "Um…" I looked down at my plate. Thanks. "What did he say?" Then she sat back and closed her eyes." "Yeah." "Everything?" "Yeah." I muttered around a mouthful of buttery. Stop freaking out." "And why was that?" Alice asked sharply. And if you're with him. "Sorry. Ally." I smiled fondly at her fierceness. Alice shot me an impatient glare.

and that means going slow. And then all anyone could notice was how hard the two of you were trying not to notice each other."Yes. "What about Kate?" "They broke up." I groaned and dropped onto my barstool. so I shot to my feet to top off my coffee." "Slow? But haven't you guys already…" "Yes. "that the genie's out of the bottle at this point. holding a finger up in my face for emphasis. he wants to go slow. The tension between the two of you was so thick." "Okay. she must hate me. But hey. right after we met her." "Alice! Come on. "While I'm being all Mama Bear." Alice scoffed in disbelief. God. "Yeah. "No! I mean." "What do you mean?" "Well. I knew that girl was doomed. sorry. We didn't talk specifics. And I was an unemployed former technical writer living over my friend's garage. And you need to slow down!" "I know. even as anxiety nipped at my heels. it was just a question of when. You can't unknow him…in the biblical sense. surprise. We want to do things right now. A great guy." Alice continued. Sorry." "I'm sure you're not her favorite. He barely spoke to me. But what are you wearing?" . But we both agreed that everything happened the wrong way then. Yes." "You think we can't rein it in?" "I think. her wide eyes innocently locked on me over the rim of her coffee cup. B. For two people who didn't speak. I snorted." "Oh. He's just such a great guy. you were practically screaming at each other." Alice made an indelicate snort." "I figured that much. it doesn't mean it happens that way for everybody. I barely spoke to him all night." "Yeah. Everyone noticed." I smiled into my coffee. Did he stay over last night?" I practically choked on my coffee and looked up to see Alice. How long ago? And was it just because he was moving here?" "He said he broke up with her the day he went back to New York. it was like another dinner guest. I was going to have a panic attack. I noticed. "Do you know where you're going yet?" "I don't know. "Surprise. He was doing a lousy job of hiding it. but said nothing. hush! Just because you and Jasper were over-sexed fiends when you first met." "I give you one date before you're tearing each other's clothes off" she said. with everything going for him and everything to offer. If I dwelled on the disparity too long. it was his choice to make and it looks like he's made it. I do know you. we have." she said with a roguish grin. good luck with that. with him here and her not. Edward was a good guy. anybody could see the way he was looking at you that night. "Don't say that. He could be so good for you.

I wanted to just let go and fall into him. But we weren't teenagers. the same Edward with whom I talked to so easily last December. It was just way too hard to think whenever Edward touched me. but mostly just to get sweaters and stuff to keep warm. I'd gone out with Alice a few times. Edward's gentle knock on my door startled me and made me make an embarrassing little squeak. or not?" Alice groaned. we were naked and groping each other at the time. and I felt completely out of practice. Thanks to Rose. so easy. I didn't own a dress anymore. Everything with Edward felt so right. how. I was determined to be smarter this time. holding my face to his lips for just a beat longer than ." I said. My own bad decisions had been partly responsible for landing me in that situation. Edward thought I was beautiful. "No! No 'try this one' or 'it just needs to be a little sexier' or 'you need to wear a pushup bra'." ~*~ I was re-thinking my refusal of Alice's fashion advice hours later. when she was long gone and I was left alone to count down the minutes to Edward's arrival and stare apprehensively at myself in the mirror. How? How. but slid off her barstool. It was just a white button-down shirt and jeans. It only got worse when I opened the door and saw him standing on the little wooden landing. I'd put off buying too much else. so that much was okay. "Lemme brush my teeth and we'll get started. since I didn't have a real job yet and I didn't know what kind of clothes I'd ultimately need. Not flashy. I settled on my best dark jeans and a black sweater. except that he reached up a hand to cup the back of my neck. though. But Edward had said it was casual. He always did. since the Chicago winters were much harsher than what I was used to. Just no!" "You're taking all the fun out of it!" I laughed. I was coming out of a disastrous relationship. And I would most certainly need my wits about me tonight. I'd landed in Chicago with one suitcase of stuff to my name. Jay had trashed most of my clothes in Seattle. "Hi. It wasn't working. are you going to come help me make curtains. how did he manage to make it all look so good? "Hi. Ally. surrender completely to the euphoria I felt when I was with him. but sleek. My wardrobe was dismal. I was just starting to wonder what to say next that would put us at ease and back to a comfortable place when he stepped forward and bent to kiss my cheek. and I'd take him at his word. It had been a long time since I'd really tried to impress a guy with my looks. I rolled my eyes at my own nonsense. I was ridiculously anxious. Now." "But…" I held up my hands." he said. returning my smile. not even a skirt. "I'm taking your fun out of my date? You're right— I'm the worst friend ever. Nothing at all to be anxious about. to think as well as feel."Nope!" "What?" "Not gonna do this with you. He told me so. under his grey wool peacoat. I gave myself one last reminder that this was the same Edward with whom I texted with for two months. and a little dramatic. He looked magnificent. Granted. I needed to not think about that night at all. I knew this. Innocent. smiling hesitantly. I had a good haircut. this wasn't some fairy tale. Not if I wanted to get through tonight coherently. but still… I closed my eyes and took a deep breath.

" I shrugged. I nearly swooned. It was so exotic and lovely. but I can wield a hammer. A plant." . but…" I started to say we never had any because of Jay's allergies. I did the hanging. "You did a great job. "A little housewarming gift. but staring at my scar instead. I get it. but Alice was right. somehow. I wanted to curl up into his chest and stay there forever. I can't sew. He ducked his head down until his lips were near my ear. I liked being compared to something so pretty and unusual. There was a single spray of blooms erupting from its smooth. At least. I knew the basic look. It was like being inside a kaleidoscope. "I always have." I said quietly. awash in the bright gold setting sunlight filtered through the thin. Instead. Instead. I hope you like it. glossy leaves." he murmured against my hair. The air thrummed around us. So I just smiled and turned to find a good windowsill for it. and straddle him. "Wow. You're probably fine. It took me forever to pick one. "It's an orchid. It seems like you're really settling in. "Have you seen a doctor since you got to Chicago?" "Just Alice's doctor." Edward explained. "The woman at the flower store told me the name but it was really long. taking it from him. "The sewing was all Alice. I described your apartment to the woman. and I loved it. "It looks great. tipping my head and peering closely at my forehead. Some kind of phaleonopsis. he reached up and smoothed my hair off my face. warm and electric. throw him down." He shrugged slightly. to have the stitches taken out. "I am. I'd never seen one like it. huh?" Edward reached out an arm and curled it around my waist. and she thought it would do well here. Edward. to talk about him now. Stupid scar. I hated it for being more interesting to him than my mouth right now. He was allergic to everything I dragged home." He laughed and came to stand next to me. Edward broke me out of my fog. "It kind of reminded me of you. I wanted to fist my hands into that nice crisp white shirt. inhaling his scent surreptitiously. pulling me into his side." I turned to examine the room. but…" "I like plants. Okay. I thought it was an orchid. My breath stalled and I braced myself for the explosion of his kiss. "Good." That made me smile wider. but you can't be too careful with head injuries. turning me in his arms and cupping my face in his hands. The flowers were a dark rust color.the windows and the light." I swallowed back a little sigh of disappointment that he wasn't kissing me. It seemed wrong. jeweltoned silk saris. "Curtains. There's a card in there with the name and care instructions. I leaned into him. its delicate little petals edged with the same bright lime green as its stalk. He straightened away from me and held it out. I looked at his other hand to see what he was holding. "I love plants." he said.'innocent'. You guys made these?" "Didn't they turn out great? I doubted we could pull it off for a while there. I don't even know if you like plants. "I'll ask my dad for a referral to a neurologist. Edward moved to stand in the middle of the room while I got the orchid settled on a windowsill near the kitchen corner. It was an orchid in a pot. but I'd never seen one like this. But I stopped myself. The shape said "delicate flower" but the unusual colors spoke of earth and rougher things than flowers. It seems like you might." I said quietly. It's beautiful." he said behind me.

"Okay. was having a really hard time forgetting that Bella had been the source of one of the best nights of my life. but it still set me on fire and wiped every other thought out of my head. And then he did kiss me. Don't reach out and haul her back. But once I'd satisfied my curiosity and saw that it was healing up nicely. we'd skipped all sorts of important steps that weekend at the wedding. so that he was still breathing on me and I could barely see his eyes. It was just damned hard for my body to forget all the things it knew about her body. to avoid getting too close to her and the bed. while she got herself ready to go. I just crossed the room and took her hand. there was no way we'd ever leave. In my head. either. however. . After all. eyes bright." I sighed. We said we were going slow. Just don't. "You ready to go?" "Hmm?" I blinked. My body. It made her even more appealing. I could add that to the list of little things I knew about her. Because if we stayed here another minute. "It was convenient yesterday that you had a hatchback. an energy that sparked out of her at odd moments. downstairs. I hadn't planned on kissing her like that. Taking things slow. I forgot what I was even arguing about. I knew all that. smiling. "Actually. He kept it PG— well. He ended the kiss. I'm sure there's nothing…" "Bella. I couldn't sleep last night thinking about a lot of things. I closed my eyes and shook my head. yeah…this isn't mine. And if I hadn't stopped right then. I couldn't sleep last night thinking about this. As Bella walked away from me to go get her coat off a tiny rolling rack that served as her closet. She'd set the flower I'd brought her on the window to my right. by the kitchen. Humor me. Slow. I stayed where I was. That flash in her eyes had replaced the guarded look I remembered. I wanted that to become a very long list. but there was also so much that was different. her mouth." he murmured. Go. She was just the same as before. Don't kiss her and pull that tight black sweater off of her. I took a deep breath and concentrated on not jumping on her. I'd been so close to her face. Right. "Oh. She glanced back over her shoulder. "Let me just get my coat. I'd have wanted to taste a whole lot more of her. and don't think so much about it. I feel fine. that I couldn't stop myself from leaning in for a taste. leading her out of the apartment. Then I actually registered his question. Don't push her down on that omnipresent bed in the corner and take back her body." When I realized how that sounded. It's my dad's. maybe PG-13." Bella observed as I opened the car door for her a few minutes later. I really did want to get a better look at that scar on her forehead. was definitely the sensible thing to do. Don't do it. She seemed genuinely pleased by it. There was a lightness about her that wasn't there before. Bella liked plants."Edward. okay?" He ran his fingers over it one more time before trailing them down the side of my face and cupping my cheek again. and I wasn't sure how exactly I was supposed to manage this plan to take it slow." ~*~ Edward Let her go get her coat. But for now. "Ready?" It was impossible to resist smiling back. but only pulled back a hair. And my head was fully on board with that plan. starting from scratch.

"It sounds perfect. "I love it! Well. "Where is Doctor Carlisle?" I smiled in return. yes?" I looked at Bella with my eyebrows raised in question. not sure how cool she'd be with my next suggestion. "Um. I really am a grown-up. Score. since it meant we'd have no idea what we were getting until it showed up. "Do you like Vietnamese?" Bella spun in her seat to face me. "So. "For you. It's really nothing much to look at. "It's a little hole in the wall near my dad's practice. scanning the dial looking for something good. It's run by this guy and his family. though. I could just make out the flush of color across her cheekbones as she smiled at me. but the food is amazing. chin in her hand. "Of course it's just temporary." In the dying light of the day. There was a place in Seattle." I smiled at her. really. I've hardly had it. Edward!" she sang. where are we going?" Bella asked after a few minutes." I cast a sideways glance at Bella and she was smiling. She finally gave up and left it back on the classic rock station my father had it on." I took a deep breath. he and I would go there a lot." Bella laughed a little and her fingers brushed mine where I held the top edge of her open door. "Just us tonight. all the stations seemed to have changed since I moved away." she muttered softly. She was a toddler when I started coming here with my dad. It was her call. I'm afraid. Jesus. Edward. and her face lit up with recognition when she saw me. We'd only just begun to glance at the menus before Trinh himself bustled out of the kitchen. I couldn't help her." she pointed back towards her apartment. I loved it. I'm sure I'll love it. "Edward. "Mr. And there's nothing temporary about it. I think I win the most-pathetic life contest hands down. . so…" I was starting to cringe internally listening to myself."What? What's wrong?" "Just…I'm living with my parents and borrowing my dad's car. and she had to be in high school by now. Bella. as she lowered herself into the car. It was a Sunday night. What kind of ridiculous idea was it to take her to Pho on our first real date? What was I thinking? Then I felt her hand come down on my forearm. Trinh's daughter was working as hostess tonight. She was busy with the radio. and I drove to the smooth accompaniment of "Dream Weaver"." She smiled warmly at Bella and motioned us to follow her to a table in the corner before she disappeared into the kitchen. so there were only two other tables filled in the narrow little storefront restaurant when we got there. "Mr. I swear it. Edward! You not come in long time!" "I've been living in New York. I make special dinner. but I've just moved back. "Charmer." I said quickly. When I worked summers there in high school. and they know me. I have a feeling that you haven't shown the world even a fraction of what you're capable of." And she did love it. and I went a few times with some people from work. Trinh waved his hands in the air. "I'm unemployed and my address is 'The Room Over Alice's Garage'. watching me talk to Trinh." "I should explain. This is all just temporary. her face alight with excitement.

and he just sort of…fit into the little bit of space I had left over. Every corner of my life. right before my dad got sick. I thought I was just passing the time with him. Hey. even if I meant it. I ducked my head to see her face. I was so busy with the magazine. but I think he said it was some sort of open-faced dumpling." I said. once we were alone. "It wasn't…I wasn't all that interested in him. "So good. Especially in college. I didn't think he'd be so exuberant. Bella. "You really want to hear all this?" I nodded. That sounds terrible. "I told you that we started dating in my senior year. The truth might do me good. "Yes. too soon. That tight." She laughed softly. since Jay didn't like…" She stopped abruptly and looked down at her lap. The warmth of her skin seemed to radiate up my arm." "Take me there some time?" I looked up at her smiling." Her shoulders relaxed a little as she looked up. but I rarely got to go." "You're a long way from being that. I really do. unseeing. Then my dad got diagnosed and everything in my life changed overnight."Yes. huh? Yeah. so I just shrugged and sipped my tea. I suppose back then. I've spent the last four months imagining all kinds of things about him and you. He drove hours every weekend just to visit. Whatever it was. nodding eagerly. right?" I nodded. it's a few blocks away. I wanted to banish that look from her face forever. reaching out to put my hand down over hers in her lap. Whenever you want. "Make whatever you want. Bella and I shared the plate and she moaned when she took her first bite." she sighed. sliding a plate in-between us. I know what happened in the end." Trinh clapped his hands together in delight and whisked away our unnecessary menus. turned New Moon over to a new staff. I don't want there to be this black hole in your life that you can't ever talk about with me just because he was there for it. moved back to Forks…I just let everything go. I shifted my hand so I could twine my fingers together with hers. eager face. So I went out with him. 'My practice'. "Are you kidding? He's fantastic. And I'm sure whatever he makes will be sublime. It was my whole life. but what about before that?" She looked at me skeptically. haunted look I remembered from the wedding was back. But he didn't let go of me. A big part. including him. "Sorry. His daughter arrived with tea just as he hurried back into the kitchen to start on our special dinner. "You can talk about him. "Yeah. I didn't have time to be serious about someone. His English was broken." But that seemed too much. I…" I was about to say "I want to show you everything. But he was nice." "I love it here." "Thanks for being game for this." I said. it tasted great. right?" She nodded reluctantly in agreement. "I love Vietnamese. So you said your practice is near here?" I laughed a little. and persistent. He researched stuff for me." she finally spoke up. I don't know. And your situation with him was a little different. But I guess it is. And it looks like they've really missed you. "Just tell me about him. And you. doesn't it?" "Not every relationship is true love. made phone calls when I was too tired or too . "Of course. Trinh appeared just then to distract us. I've really missed this place. "It's just…I don't want to be that girl that just bitches about her ex all the time. I quit school. too. sure. He's part of your past. "That sounds weird." Bella sighed and her eyes skated around the restaurant.

emotional to do it myself. I didn't realize just how alone I felt until Jay stepped in and made sure I wasn't anymore. "Then, after…after Charlie died, I just wanted to stop, too. I was so drained. I didn't want to think or plan or feel. And Jay just did it all for me. He came to Forks and helped me pack up the house and sell it. He dragged me back to Seattle to finish school. Whatever happened later, I have to always be grateful for that. I doubt I would have on my own. At least, not then." She stopped for a minute, frowning at her hands where they were still tangled with mine. "What then?" I urged. "Alice thinks he took advantage of me. That he got me when I was down and…I don't know…kept me down or something. That's not true. He wasn't manipulative that way. He did get me when I was fragile, and maybe, under different circumstances, he and I would have never happened like that. So maybe you could say he took advantage. But so did I. I was wrecked and lost. I didn't want to think, so Jay thought for me. I didn't want to plan, so Jay planned." Bella stopped and closed her eyes, clearly upset. I said nothing, I just waited for her to continue, and eventually she did. "I didn't want to feel too much, and he didn't make me. It took me a long time to realize that. Really only since everything happened. But part of the reason I stayed with him then was that I didn't love him too much. Just a little. All I could handle was loving someone a little bit. And he…he deserved so much more from me. So maybe Alice is right that he took advantage of me when I was down. But I took advantage of his love. God, I feel so awful for doing that and wasting so much time on a relationship that was so wrong from the start." "Hey," I let go of her hand so I could reach up and rub the base of her neck in reassurance. Bella might have been tearing herself up for how little she'd ever loved him, but I was taking a kind of sick satisfaction in what she was telling me. All this time, I'd been imagining him as some sort of great love in her life, and he was turning out to be much less than that, which made me grimly pleased. "You can't beat yourself up about that," I said. "It's all in the past, and you can't change it. All you can do is move forward." She smiled wryly. "You sound like Alice. She says that it takes just as much time and energy to turn around and retrace your steps as it does to just keep going forward. And if you turn around, you just end up back where you started anyway." "Alice said that?" I asked in disbelief. "I'm paraphrasing. And she might have been quoting song lyrics. Her personal philosophy is heavily influenced by pop music." I laughed, "I guess it doesn't matter where she got it from. It's still good advice." "I'm trying to follow it. I'm sad about Jay, and sorry for how it happened, but I'm trying not to dwell. I've made a mess of my life, and it's time to start cleaning it up." "I'm sorry you feel that way. Look, I know things are unsettled for you right now, but I hope you don't feel like everything is a mess." I slid my hand back down to hers and gave it an emphatic squeeze. She smiled in understanding. "I told you that this was happening at a bad time for me. I probably…" she stopped and took a deep breath, her eyes dropping to her lap. "I should probably regret everything about how this happened." I sucked in my breath at her admission, my chest tightening in anxiety. I knew there was so much wrong about how we started, but even still, I never wanted her to be sorry that it did. I certainly wasn't. And I was still afraid that she might push me away out of some lingering feeling of guilt. "Bella…"

"I should regret it," she continued, finally looking up and meeting my eyes again, "but I don't. I'll never regret that night." I cupped the back of her neck again and pulled her face to mine till our foreheads touched. "Good," I whispered, "because I never will, either." We held still, our eyes closed, just breathing, faces nearly touching, until Trinh cleared his throat softly behind me to indicate that our dinner had arrived. I let her go reluctantly, and scooted my chair to the side so that we were sitting closer together, wanting to still feel her near me. Trinh told us what he'd made us, but I don't think Bella understood any more of what he said than I did. It really didn't matter, though, since it was all fantastic. For a few minutes, our conversation stayed on the food, but soon Bella cleared her throat and nudged my leg with hers under the table. "Your turn." "My turn, what?" "To tell me everything." "Are you talking about Kate? Because there honestly isn't any more to tell." She rolled her eyes, "No. Lenox Hill. Why are you here when in December, you were all set to take on the world in Manhattan?" "Oh, that." "Yeah, that," she snorted in laughter. "It's a pretty huge deal, Edward. What made you change your mind?" I frowned at my food for a minute, thinking. "You, actually," I finally said. Bella choked on the bite in her mouth and sputtered. "Me?" "Not you, specifically. But something you said. Do you remember that conversation at the bookstore, before the wedding?" She nodded. "I was telling you about Lenox Hill, and the job offer. And you asked me if it was what I wanted." Bella stared at me a beat, waiting for me to elaborate. When I didn't, she prompted me. "And?" "No one had ever asked me that. Because the answer was assumed. Hell, even I'd assumed the answer. I had spent so many years working my ass off to achieve something, that I never once stopped to ask myself exactly what it was that I was achieving. It took me a while to do it, but when I finally did, I didn't like the answer. I knew that if I just kept doing what I was doing, I'd work myself to the bone, and in twenty years, I wouldn't recognize my own life. Or myself. It had already started to happen. When I looked around myself, I didn't know how the hell I'd ended up where I was, doing what I was doing. I hated every bit of it." "I...God, I'm sorry, Edward." "What for?" Bella shook her head in confusion. "I don't even know. If it wasn't going to make you happy, then you made the right choice. I guess I'm just sorry that you felt you spent so much time on the wrong path." "I'm going to try to follow Alice's advice, too. Looking back is a waste of time. Just keep moving forward, right?" She chuckled and nodded. "Right. Thank God there's pop music to tell us what to do when life's really hard choices need to be made."

I laughed, too, and after that, we left the heavy conversations behind for the night. Trinh came out to visit with us as we finished up our food, chatting and laughing. Then I talked with his daughter a little, since she was starting her senior year next fall and was considering studying medicine. Trinh's wife came out of the kitchen and made a big fuss over Bella while I talked shop with her daughter. By the time Bella and I finally stood to leave, the restaurant was empty and Trinh's wife was plying Bella with recipes and telling her where to buy fish sauce in Chicago. We declined their repeated offers of yet another dessert and made our way slowly back to the car, hands intertwined. Once we were in and moving, the atmosphere seemed to shift, and our easy conversation dried up. Because now, there was the rest of the evening. We'd said we were going slow, but the few times we'd touched, the energy and desire was heavy in the air. I wanted her desperately, and I was pretty sure she wanted me, too. I was playing good-night scenarios in my head, trying to project the best possible outcome and the least potential for awkwardness. Should I say goodnight at the foot of her stairs? Too distant? Walk her up them to the door, but not go inside? What if she invited me in? Could I turn her down without seeming cold? Or maybe I should go in and we could talk for a little bit more…. "This is my street," Bella murmured, snapping me out of my obsessing. I'd been so busy freaking out about how to end the night that I'd barely spoken to her the whole way home, and nearly missed the turn. Now I felt like an ass. I pulled up behind Alice's garage and killed the engine. We looked at each other in silence for a moment and then we spoke simultaneously. "Do you want to…" "I should probably…" We stopped and she laughed. "You go first." "I'll walk you up." She nodded and got out of the car. I followed her silently up the wooden stairs. My palms were actually starting to sweat. This was crazy. I'd already been with this woman. Multiple times, and in all kinds of ways. How could I possibly be so nervous about just kissing her and saying goodnight? But I was nervous. Because more than anything, I just really didn't want to screw this up. When she reached the landing and I was still one step below her, she stopped and turned. The stairs brought us eye-level. "I had a really good time," she said softly. "Me, too. I'm glad you liked it." "I loved it. We have to go back soon." "Are you kidding? Trinh adored you, and his wife even more so. I don't think I'd be allowed back without you." She laughed, then, soft and a little nervous. Before this moment could stretch out any longer, and because the anticipation was killing me, I reached out and put my hand on her hip. Her laugh cut off abruptly. Then she reached up and rested one hand on my shoulder. "Bella," I began. I was going to say something perfunctory about how much I'd enjoyed the night and that I'd call her tomorrow, but the feel of my hand curling around her hip, of her fingers digging into my coat just a little bit, wiped my brain clear of all but the essentials. When I opened my mouth, only the truth came out. "I'm so damned glad you're here," I whispered.

She sucked in her breath, maybe a little surprised at my words. In the dim light on the landing, her dark eyes glittered and her eyebrows drew together. "Me, too," she whispered back. I reached up with my free hand and cupped her face, pulling her forward. Her lips crashed into mine with absolutely no hesitation. In seconds, her hands were gripping the back of my neck, my fingers were tangling in her hair, my tongue was in her mouth and the tiny distance between us had vanished. It was quiet back here, only the distant hum of the city and the soft sounds we were making together. Our lips sliding, sucking, nipping; the rustle of my hands over her clothes as I slid inside her coat and circled her waist and pulled her closer, the tiny panting breaths she took when I finally let go of her mouth so I could taste her neck. She was arching into me, her breasts pressed hard against my chest. Her fingers were in my hair, scratching my scalp, fisting and tugging. My hand was sliding down to cup her thigh and pull her hips in against mine, where I was already so hard. Bella moaned as I sucked on her earlobe. Nothing about this was the slow, gentle goodnight kiss I'd planned. In less than a minute, we'd moved straight to full-on feeling each other up. I knew I should slow it down, but I really, really didn't want to, and Bella didn't seem to want to, either. "Oh…" she sighed, as her head tipped back, "I think Alice was right about this, too." "Huh? Alice?" I muttered against her jaw as I worked my way back to her mouth. "I think this genie is already out of the bottle," she murmured, just before she pulled my face to hers and kissed me again. Her tongue slid along my bottom lip and I sucked it into my mouth. She moaned into me. My hands were somehow under her sweater now, just holding her waist, but still, the feel of her smooth, warm flesh under my palms was making my head cloud with lust. "Edward?" she whispered. "Yeah?" "You'd better come inside." "Okay." She turned in my arms, but I kept them wrapped around her waist and nuzzled aside her hair with my nose so I could kiss every bit of exposed skin on the back of her neck as she fumbled to get her key in the lock and the door opened. It swung open under her hand and we moved inside together, me still pressed up against the entire length of her back. She dropped her keys and her bag on the floor just inside the door and twisted in my arms again. I hauled her up flush against me as I reached back with my foot and kicked the door closed behind us. She wriggled her arms and her coat slid off her shoulders into a pile on the floor. Her mouth was on mine immediately, and everything in me seemed to explode. Months of wanting and denying and missing her just overwhelmed me, and all I could think about was getting more of me touching more of her. I kissed her so hard that she was bending back, nipping at her bottom lip as I pulled away. She took a step back to brace herself and we stumbled to the left, running into the little half-wall bookshelf that concealed her bed. I was about to apologize for smashing into her furniture, but she pulled my head back down and her lips fastened on my neck, her tongue skating along my skin, and I stopped caring. My hands curled into her waist, bunching her sweater up in my fingers, exposing part of her stomach. She released her breath in a gust across my neck. "Bella," I murmured against her ear, "Are you sure? We don't have to…"

She let go of my hair just long enough to take hold of the hem of her sweater and peel it off over her head herself. Her dark hair tumbled back down over her bare shoulders as she shook it free. I sucked in my breath. Underneath there was only a thin white tank, pushed half-up already by my eager fingers. I didn't need to be told twice. Flinging my own coat off onto the floor, I reached for her again, her warm little body pressing against mine, the soft, fresh scent of her skin filling my head. We kissed again, deep, desperate and needy, as her fingers went to work on the front of my shirt. I let go of her to help, our hands tangling as we tugged and shifted and never stopped kissing. Once my shirt was gone, I wrapped my arms around her again and walked her backwards, around the bookshelf and towards her bed. As soon as her calves hit the mattress, she fell back and pulled me with her. I tried to catch myself so I wouldn't fall on her, but Bella wouldn't let me go. So I came down hard across her body and immediately, her calves wrapped around mine, pulling me in closer, fitting me against her body. As my hips settled in against her hips, I moaned into her mouth. I rocked forward, pressing my erection directly against her. She writhed under me as her head tipped back and I went at her throat again, tasting everything I could reach, biting at the soft edges of her. I could feel her fingers clawing at my shoulders, my neck, and then my hair again, tugging and scraping. There was nothing soft and gentle about what we were doing. This was all raw need. But that was okay. I just needed to feel her. She needed to feel me. We had all the time in the world for slow and gentle. I planned on touching her and having her this way so many times that we'd lose count, but for now I just needed to be inside of her again, to reassure myself that this was real, that she was real, and that the nightmare of the last few months was really over. Bella's tank was the next thing to go, followed swiftly by her bra. I lost no time in pulling one of her tight pink nipples into my mouth and sucking hard. She arched up off the bed and groaned, her hands fisting into my hair. My hands slid down over her hips to grip the backs of her thighs, pulling up, pulling open, as I rocked myself against her, needing pressure and friction. "Edward, please…" she moaned. "I just need…" I moved back up to her mouth, kissing her hard. "I thought about you so much," I murmured against her lips. "I nearly drove myself crazy wanting you." With one hand, I traced the edge of her jeans, my fingers looking for the button. Her hands slid down my bare back, giving me chills, before slipping around and reaching for the fly on my jeans. I levered myself up off her just long enough to get out of them, and she did the same. I wanted to fall back on her, but there were still her panties in the way and as lovely as she looked in them, I needed them out of the way. Bella lay back on the bed, watching me with half-closed eyes in the dark, as I reached up and hooked my fingers around the lace edge. She lifted her hips to help me slide them down her legs and away. My mouth began to water at the site of her naked body stretched out, so pale in contrast to the dark quilt on her bed. "You, too," she whispered, nudging my hip. I did as she asked, peeling off my boxers before I stretched back out along side of her, half over her. Bella turned into me, angling her face up to kiss me even as she hooked her calf around mine, pulling me onto her. I rolled us until she was underneath me, every muscle in my body tensing up as our bare skin rubbed together from shoulders to toes. My hand slid slowly down her side, brushing the side of her breast, over her ribs and past her hip, until I found the back of her knee and pulled it up, making room for me between her thighs. She moaned and arched against me until my dick was sliding along her wetness. I had to speak between pants because I was so wound up, so freaking desperate to take her. "Bella, is this…I don't have anything with me." I knew I must have been half out of my mind with lust if it didn't occur to me until now to bring that up.

"The pill," she murmured into my ear. Her hot breath on my neck made me shiver. "And there's only been you. Nobody but you since the wedding." That snapped me. It was a base, animalistic sense of satisfaction, but one that I couldn't deny. She'd only been mine since that first night. She'd always been mine. I pushed up on my forearms just as Bella tilted her hips up. Everything lined up and I pushed in deep, too tight and strung out to go slower. We both gasped at the feeling, and my eyes flew open so I could see her. She was looking back at me and I held her gaze as I rocked into her until I was buried. I shuddered and my skin burned. Sliding my forearms under her shoulders, I lowered my weight down onto her, holding her body close. She gripped my hair with both hands and turned her face into my neck. "Me, too," I whispered against her temple. "There's only been you." She sighed as I began to move. The wind-up was fast. We were both so desperate for each other and for release. I freed one hand so that I could grip her hip to hold her steady as I pounded. "Edward…" she sighed, digging her nails into my back. "Oh, God…" I hissed and arched against her fingers. Pushing up a little to change the angle of my hips, I thrust hard into her again. She gasped and whimpered and I felt her come apart around me. Her head dropped back on the bed as she went slack with her release. I buried my face in the crook of her neck and inhaled her sweet, familiar scent as I let myself go and came, exploding inside of her. She wrapped her arms around my shoulders, holding me tight against her as I rode it out, shaking and weakened. Eventually, I pulled out, but I didn't release her. I only rolled us to the side, so she came to rest with her head on my chest, not letting any air get between our overheated bodies. Stroking her hair off her face with one hand, I pressed a long kiss against her forehead. "I'm sorry, I know I said I wanted to go slow, but I just couldn't…" Bella pressed her fingers against my mouth to shut me up before propping herself up on one elbow and leaning over me. She was smiling, soft and radiant, her hair a riot of tangles around her face. I reached up and pushed a hand into it, gripping the back of her neck. "I'm not sorry," she whispered. I smiled and shook my head. "I'm not really, either. We'll figure it out." "Yes, we will. Stay the night?" I scoffed softly. "You'd need a blow torch to pry me away from your bed, Bella." She grinned, her teeth flashing in the darkness. "No prying necessary. I don't want to let you go." I pulled her face down to mine so I could kiss her, this time long and slow and completely thorough. "I'm not letting go of you, either." She sighed and dropped her head back to my chest. I tucked her head under my chin and tightened my arms around her. Her body nestled in, every curve settling in against me. Warm, and perfect, and just right.


"Shut up. in that spot that made my eyes roll back in my head. "That's a good thing. being Angela and not Alice. fighting to keep it off. "Sorry. "Bella? Bell? What do you think?" I shook my head to snap myself out of my wildly graphic daydream about Edward. I'm glad. he was so good at this. "He makes me happy. I'm such a sap. "You have got it bad. it feels right. "Only you can answer that one. Do you think that's too much? Are we moving too fast?" Angela shrugged. Just inches and he'd be there. What did you say?" Angela sat back and pushed her glasses back up her nose. Ang!" "What?" she was still laughing. on Monday that Edward and I were talking again. unwilling to share much of it with anybody. hoarding it all to myself. But yeah. Specifically. Almost there. Stop it. I never want him to leave. in the space of a week. smirking at me. I like him. Especially when he curled his long. God. It felt like I spent all day. and we were just camped out in the conference room at the Anset Foundation working on the benefit.Chapter Twenty ~ You And I Both ~ The Weepies – Can’t Go Back Now Bella His mouth was hot and wet on the inside of my thigh and moving higher. "Pretty much every night. I could feel my face flushing. Ang. Except one night when I had plans with Alice. Today. And he's really good for you. letting my shoulders sag and that ridiculous dopey grin take over my face. But Angela. however. How had he figured out. "What had you so distracted?" "Um…just something Edward…said…last night. every day. which seemed a ridiculously inadequate description of what the past week had been like with him. incredible fingers forward in that way he did and hit that spot…. "Good. come to think of it. he's been over every night. Edward's mouth. I haven't seen you like this since…wow. So far. Angela seemed to want info. but it was still inappropriate. I would happily lie in this bed for the rest of my life and let him plunder me to his heart's content. I swear. Angela laughed softly." . Granted. I don't think I've ever seen you like this. sketchily. God. just how to play my body so perfectly? He knew every nerve ending. Have you spent a lot of time together this week?" I rolled my eyes. and on my own timeline. it was just Angela. he turned my brain to soup." I gave up my attempts at a game face. every little flick and rub that would make me moan. His fingers were already there. I'd been greedy." I stammered stupidly. You deserve it." I sighed lamely. What did he do that made you blush like that?" I'd told her. So inappropriate in the middle of a work day. didn't pry and seemed happy to let me tell it on my own terms. Does it feel too fast?" "No. I think I might have described it as "starting to date".

showing up and doing time just for the sake of the paycheck. "You're not a sap. and the Foundation offices were downtown in the Loop. It's adorable. it's right. His practice was in Logan Square. A scant twenty people worked too many hours for too little money in too-small offices. but my head was definitely holding the idea at arms' length. and each other. There were several "big ticket" items on offer in the silent auction. I was so unsettled. Office morale was high. So I resigned . And things are so…" She just shrugged. After that. I ate lunch with Angela. All the time in the world won't change it. It felt good to be busy again. so I pulled my legal pad full of notes closer and refocused my energy. It was hardly even like work. I had to believe that the smart thing would be to keep this light and easy. at least for now. writing up item descriptions and editing it all into the program layout. and I was actually kind of enjoying myself. but I could hear how strained I sounded. cutting me off." I said. the president of the foundation. all of them donated by foundation board members or corporate donors. There was always someone interesting who wanted to take me someplace fun. Kendall firmed up what she's donating for the auction yet? She's the last big one that I have on my list as undecided. We just got together. and they were all friendly and inviting. Mary. like so many others. they'd taken jobs with the Anset Foundation over other. I'd hoped that maybe some days I could meet Edward for lunch. At first. "Um. "When it's right.Angela laughed again. "That's the description I wrote up for the Klein's donation. so they were expecting my call and were happy to help out. I'd already done that once before—jumped into a serious relationship when I was fragile and my life was in free-fall— and look how that turned out. so that was easier to manage than I expected." I snapped out of my stupor at her words. though. love? I don't know. Edward pointed out that it would take all of my lunch hour to get out to him and back. It helped that Angela's predecessor had been extremely organized and left a hefty file about the prior events she'd planned. Again." Despite our combined lack of any actual event-planning experience." I laughed. You're in love. No matter how crazy Edward made me feel. after reading her write-up. Angela's co-workers actually liked their jobs. unlike my old office mates. more lucrative career options because the work mattered to them. miraculously. Was this love? Already? Was I ready for that? My gut said "bring it on". but if she happened to be busy. it was a struggling not-for-profit. had personally arranged all of those. Angela and I were somehow. The rest of the smaller things up for auction were the ones we arranged. Was I really in a place to get so seriously involved with someone? After all. in reality. caterer." "Not yet. While "The Anset Foundation to Promote Early Childhood Literacy" might sound very impressive. Angela had gone through that and had the banquet hall. there were records of donors from previous years. So. It wasn't so different than editing a magazine layout. Most of them donated every year to the benefit. All that was left for Angela and I to do with them was to write up the item description. I knew Ben was it for me by the end of the first night we met. Dwelling on what Angela had just said wasn't going to make that any easier to do. "That's another one down. I never wanted for company. it I was back in familiar territory. Has Mrs. Most days. What do you think?" Angela handed me a printout with the The Anset Foundation logo across the top. Everything around me was so unsettled. "Sounds good. too. who were mostly miserable drones. In general. until I realized just how big Chicago really was. and band booked before I ever came on board. pulling off the planning of the charity benefit. straightening up and scowling a little. Mary was going to call her today and see if she could pin her down. Angela's co-workers were great.

right? He'd taken me out to dinner nearly every night this week." I sat back to look at her. Most of the time. "I'm supposed to actually attend it? Like. stuff to do. I rubbed the back of my neck as I skimmed the chart in front of me.myself to seeing him in the evenings. They're regular donors to the Foundation. all-dressed-up attend?" Angela rolled her eyes. "Four. I decided that it was the perfect time. it might be fun. He might want to come to one of my things. of course. yes. If Alice and Jasper would be there. so many writers come. I supposed that I'd always be a boy to her. anyway. he hardly . no matter that my name was on the front door right under my father's now. To be fair. "Dress shopping? What for?" "The benefit. for once. and I realized with embarrassment that I'd gotten sidetracked thinking about Edward…again. Sighing. I might have had a more prestigious training than my father. Angela cleared her throat to get my attention. but she was already sauntering back down the hall to the front desk. but in this respect. Plus. "I'm bringing Ben. has Alice dragged you out dress-shopping yet?" she asked. he definitely had the edge on me. "I'd have nothing to say to people like that. you know. He was coming over (again). trying to catch up quickly before I went in to the patient. but I knew it was outside of the range of an associate professor's salary. It would be so easy to lose myself in him entirely and let him become the center of my entire life. how many more do I have waiting out there?" Nettie shoved another file into my hands and smirked." Angela urged. And I knew for a fact that there was an open bar. because I'd booked it. That's all they really want to do." I opened my mouth to tell her to quit calling me Boy Wonder. "it's actually kind of fun. Edward? Bring Edward? Would he want to come with me? Probably. at least in front of my patients. there wasn't much evidence of it in their daily lives. Ang." she coaxed. I raised an eyebrow in consideration. Nettie had known me since I was in grade school. He'd known these patients for years. Come on. The house wasn't even all that ostentatious. it was easy to forget Jasper's money. Alice and Jasper are coming. You should bring Edward. but we were staying in tonight so that I could cook for him." She rubbed her fingers together to indicate his inherited wealth. Her pink scrubs covered with Hello Kitties were completely at odds with her snarky personality and fairly advanced years. I'd ask him tonight. after work. I decided. making sure it all goes off okay. "So? Just listen to them talk. and I could only smirk at her back. She was right. I mean. Boy Wonder. I'll introduce you around. anyway." She waved a hand at me dismissively. It's the tiny perk we can offer you in exchange for the slave wages you're working for. Hang in there." "They are?" "You forget about Jasper. You have to come. we'll be keeping an eye on things. Outside of the house they lived in. ~*~ Edward "Nettie. I flushed with pleasure at the thought that I had "things". But you've seen the donor list.places to be. "So. That was probably for the best. And it's formal." I scoffed softly. "Of course. We'll be swimming in another tax bracket entirely. It'll be fun.

"You got a hot date?" I paused for a second. and finally got ready to race back to my parent's house to shower and change clothes. as I shot out the door. I really needed to rectify the car situation. I sensed that she wanted to be with me every bit as much as I wanted to be with her. and get to the practice on time. He chatted up every one. Yes. And I got the definite feeling that was a real possibility. Hot Stuff. we were awake half the night. but she might not be. Dad had left me his car. even next-door-neighbors. And the apartment situation. His ability to retain all the details of their lives. I pretty much wanted to be by her side every spare minute of my day. Bella. I had to get all the way out to Oak Park to my parents' place. and I hadn't had the time or energy to think about anything else. But I was also crawling out of bed.needed to look at the chart. The last patients of the day turned out to be pretty straightforward. Hell. Boy Wonder!" she called out after me. I needed to let her invite me in. Don't keep your girl waiting. to shower. We'd pretty much blown "going slow" out of the water on our first real date. Still. though. As I thought about her and drove. . I just hadn't factored in this crazy thing with Bella. I couldn't help the stupid grin spreading across my face. I do. More of her. The last couple of days. Nettie. It would certainly make things easier. You okay closing up?" She waved me off dismissively. so I had to handle them all on my own. I wasn't scared. Clear on out. no matter how impatient I felt. "I could close this place in my sleep. and absolutely fantastic. If I were being honest with myself. I felt like I'd been walking around all week with my head about two feet above the rest of my body. it had moved fast. Boy Wonder?" Nettie asked as I shrugged into my coat. and that part had been mind-blowing. I felt okay with that. I was content. astounded and humbled me. I got through them quick enough. "Flirting won't get you anywhere. I had no reservations. wrapped up in each other. surgery and prescription. what? Two weeks?" I smiled and rolled my eyes at her needling. and I wouldn't push. but it had only been a week. "Actually. Just a bunch of walk-ins fighting off the last colds of winter. and away from her. completely crazy. however… she was never hesitant with me. but the last thing I wanted was to move too fast and spook her. and I laughed. consuming. "Where you headed in such a hurry. But things with Bella had blown my life to bits for the past week. My father had left early to meet with his lawyer about some loose ends regarding Harold's retirement. too. far too soon every morning. "Woo-hoo! Don't you work fast? You been back in town. a warm sense of "rightness" had settled over me. but I hesitated to suggest leaving clothes at her place. Now that we were together. change. yes. which was fine with me. He could recall every illness. more togetherness. saving me the endless ride on the L. "Let's just say that she and I had some history. asking after spouses. Private practice in Chicago was supposed to mean an end to sleep-deprivation. children. And it didn't stop there. Yes. First. medical and otherwise. I wanted to be with her during the minutes that I didn't have to spare." Her eyebrows shot up in surprise." I blew her a kiss and she scoffed loudly. but I was more than okay with that. more time. I might be ready to take over a drawer in her dresser and leave a toothbrush next to hers. All I wanted was more. I hoped I could be half the doctor he was some day. I'd tossed some extra clothes in the car so that I could shower at her place and go straight to the office. It had been overwhelming. considering. I felt ready to plunge into a level of intimacy and commitment with Bella that should have scared me. Thankfully. in spite of my exhaustion. exactly. But I had to acknowledge that we were in different places in our lives. The logistics were killing me.

Should I set another plate for dinner?" I rolled my eyes. And there's no pressure." Mom blinked at me once." she finally said. not tonight. knowing she was about to prod you about your sex life. Wicker Park. "Sorry. How are you?" "Fine. Plans." I agreed. "Hey. And this…she and I…it's been kind of crazy. well. I do want to bring her home. She's been through a lot." I smiled back. this schedule you're keeping…you must be running yourself ragged." "Of course he is. But it was still damned awkward facing your mother." "It is." "Wicker Park is lovely." "Hmmm." "Thanks. Mom. I saw my mother's car in the side drive. Mom. My parents were cool with my "adult activities". Hopeless. well.. "Well. "Ah…I've known her a lot longer than a week. "Mom. that's where Bella lives. "So many great shops and restaurants. I flipped through the mail to see if any of my stuff was being forwarded yet. You're a grown-up and your relationships are your own business. sweetheart. Edward. Her words were scolding. I need to find an apartment a little closer to the practice." "He's right." I sighed and raked a hand through my hair." She smiled in earnest now. it is. I think she needs a little breathing room. and then smiled softly." Mom said nothing. I mean it this time. but this past week…it's different. suppressing a smile." "I know." she hummed. I'm calling the realtor tomorrow. Calling out to her as I came in the door." "How complicated could it get in a week?" I reached up to scratch the back of my neck. This is a delightful surprise. Is that where. and I will. so I knew she was home. "Yeah. Now.I pulled into the drive in front of the house not too much later. Her name is Bella." "You don't need to explain. Mom. I see. Your father tells me so every day. I knew that. I want to introduce you. but I don't want to go too fast. You really are the best. I'm thinking of…um." Mom said from the hall. "Might we get the chance to meet these plans soon? Or are they not the sort of plans you bring home to meet the parents?" I laughed and crossed the foyer to kiss her cheek. amused smile on her face. they're exactly the kind of plans that I want to introduce to my parents. it's complicated. "Yeah. "Bella. Well. It's just…it's been complicated." I covered her hand with mine and smiled in return. you've looked happy since you got back from New York. but there was a wry. Bella's name made me smile.?" "Bella. although Wicker Park's many amenities had absolutely nothing to do with why I was so keen to move there. Just know that we're here when you're ready. You look happy. "I told you. . "You could say that. Look what's turned up. and laid her hand on the side of my face. she just cocked an eyebrow at me in question. "I'm glad." "Wicker Park.

"Have you thought about buying?" "What?" I blinked, trying to follow the shift in conversation. "Buying instead of renting. The market is down. You could get a real deal. And you know, you've barely touched your trust. Even if it's not someplace you think you might stay long-term, buying might be a good investment." "I hadn't…I've never really thought about buying a place." "Look, sweetie, I have a little time on my hands tomorrow. Let me call your realtor and see if we can set up some things for you to look at. Rentals and sales both. If you see something you like and it works out, then great. If not, no big loss. Can I help out that way?" "Mom," I said sincerely, "that would be fantastic. Honestly, the whole thing has been a little overwhelming." "Then let me pitch in. I'd like to be of help." "You're brilliant." I glanced at my watch. "Um, I kind of have to…" Mom laughed lightly. "Go, go! By all means, don't keep her waiting. Not when she puts that smile on your face." I leaned in to kiss her cheek again. "Love you, Mom." She reached up and grabbed my face. "Uhh! My sweet boy. You have no idea how much I love you." "Mom…" "I know, I know. Don't pay me any mind. Having you back home has turned me into a sentimental sap. Go. Get ready for your date." She let go of me and swatted my arm as she moved past me towards the kitchen, and I laughed before sprinting for the stairs.

Bella "You know there will be days when you're so tired that you can't take another step. The night will have no stars and you'll think you've gone as far as you will ever get. But you and me, walk on, walk on, walk on 'Cause you can't go back now…." The knock on the door cut me off in my sing-along mid-note, and I turned the heat down under the pan before I went to answer. Edward's face exploded into a smile as soon as I opened the door and I could feel my face answer the same. "Hey, you," he murmured. "Hey, yourself." He reached out for my waist, pulling me across the threshold into the mildly chilly night and up against his chest. His head dipped down and his mouth found mine like we were magnets. And that's exactly how it felt. Magnets. An invisible energy pulling us together. His lips were always so warm and smooth. Even a slow, gentle hello kiss like this one made my stomach clench deliciously and my fingers curl in instinctively. I always wanted to grab and hold him.

"Dinner," I mumbled reluctantly against his mouth. Edward sighed. I smiled and put my hand against his face. He leaned against me automatically. Turning back inside, I pulled him after me. "How was your day?" "Long. Busy. Dad left early, so I handled all the patients this afternoon." "Sorry. And you didn't get much sleep last night. You must be dead on your feet." I reached the stove again, and turned the heat back on before pouring Edward a glass of wine from the bottle I'd opened earlier. He took it from me, but set it down on the counter, pressing up against my back and wrapping his arms around my waist. I felt his breath against the crook of my neck and I leaned back into him. My skin erupted in heat as he brushed my hair to the side. "Believe me, I'll never complain about that kind of lack of sleep. I'm glad all that conditioning as a resident paid off, if it means I spend my nights like that." I sighed, closing my eyes as I felt his lips brush the side of my neck. "We're never eating at this rate." Edward straightened abruptly at my words. "What are you making?" he asked, entirely snapped out of his seductive demeanor. It figured food would distract him. "Just a stir-fry. The vegetables looked really good at the market." "It smells great. You cook, huh?" "Yes, I cook. I mean, this is nothing special. But I like to cook." "Well, I like to eat. See? Another thing about us that works." Edward smiled broadly before kissing my cheek. I smiled back and we stood there for a moment, with our ridiculous matching goofy grins, while I cooked and he sipped his wine. He kept one hand on the base of my neck, under my hair, gently massaging my skin with his fingertips. I was trying hard to focus on not burning anything. "It's kind of cold in here," he said, apparently noticing my goosebumps, but mistaking the cause. "Are you warm enough?" "It's always cold in here. It's all the windows. I'm fine; I just bundle up." "If it's this cold in April, you'll freeze to death in January." "Hey, be nice to my place." Edward laughed and leaned in to kiss my cheek again. "Sorry. I like your place. I do. Because you're here, mostly, but I do like it." "Anyway, I'm not the one living with my parents." He chuckled and squeezed my shoulder. "I told you, that's temporary." "Uh-huh. Whatever. I bet your mother is doing your laundry for you right now, right?" "Shut up. She offered." I laughed out loud at that. "I'll just bet. Why don't you take your wine to the couch and relax? This is almost done." Edward assented, and I smiled a minute later to see him reclined back on my couch, eyes closed, looking nearly asleep. A flood of happy contentment washed over me as I turned back to finish our dinner.

Once dinner was ready, we settled on my hard red sofa and turned to face each other, plates balanced on our laps. It was a little college, but I didn't have a dining table and there was no room for one even if I did. I didn't mind, though. With the music playing and the dim gold glow from the lamps bouncing off the jewelcolored curtains, and Edward's knee touching mine, it was a perfect little bubble of contentment. "We need to get you a TV soon," he said, around a bite of food. I huffed in amusement, "Am I boring you already, Edward?" "You could never, ever bore me," he said with a smirk, reaching out to tuck my hair behind my ear with one finger, "but you live in Chicago now. How am I supposed to turn you into a proper Cubs fan without a TV to watch the games on?" "Cubs. Is that…baseball?" Edward slammed a hand over his eyes dramatically. "We have so much work to do." "Okay, okay. If it's that important to you, I'll get a TV," I laughed. "I'll get one for you," he shrugged absently, not looking up from his plate. "Um, no, you won't." "Bella, I'm the one hassling you about it. Let me get you a TV. I promise, I'll keep it simple. Just your basic flat-screen, hi-def, forty-two-inch masterpiece of modern technology." "Edward, you can't…I can't let you….I just…" I was getting flustered, knowing that this bothered me in some way, but unable to quite articulate why. "Hey," he said softly, laying a hand on my arm, "It's no big deal. Buy your own TV. I was just trying to be…I don't know…chivalrous, or something." I closed my eyes and shook my head. "You were being great. It's me. I feel like…I... It's important to me to really do this on my own. Even the small stuff. Does that make sense?" Edward just smiled at me and gave my arm a squeeze before letting go. "Perfect sense. Just make sure you buy a nice one. Baseball sucks on a tiny screen." I laughed. and just like that, the weirdness was past. He was so good at putting me at ease. "So, how was your day?" he asked at length. "How's Angela?" "She's good. Managing her panic about the benefit remarkably well." I cleared my throat a little. "Speaking of the benefit, Angela told me today that I'd be going." "Of course you'll be there," he said. "You're helping to plan it." "Yeah, but Angela said we're also going sort of as guests. You know…bringing dates and stuff," I twirled my fork in my fingers and looked up at him. Edward looked back, the corner of his mouth curling up in a sly, crooked smile. "Bella, are you asking me to be your date to the benefit?" "Shut up," I grinned, nudging his knee with mine. "Yes. Will you come with me?" "Of course. I'd like to think I'd be sort of an automatic thing." I shrugged, "I didn't want to just assume…" Edward reached out and wrapped his free hand around the back of my knee closest to him, rubbing his thumb across my kneecap. "You should assume. I'd kind of like you to assume."

His hand on my knee was making my brain misfire in all kinds of crazy ways, and all I could do was smile and whisper, "Okay. Assumed." "So," he continued, letting go of my leg, "it's formal, right?" I nodded. "Does that mean I get to see you in a tux again?" Edward chuckled. "Does it mean I get to see you in a dress?" "Mmm, much to Alice's delight." Edward set his empty plate on the painted chest that served as my coffee table, the one he helped me get home on the day we found each other again. "What's Alice got to do with your dress?" I set my empty plate next to his. "Well, I need to go buy something, and she'll want to tag along, for sure. And by 'tag along', I mean 'take over completely'." Edward slid closer to me on the sofa, stretching his arm back across my shoulders. "I don't suppose I could convince you to wear the one you wore to her rehearsal dinner, could I? That black one? I have to confess, I've thought a lot about that dress, and you in it. Well, 'thought' is probably the wrong word to use. 'Fantasize' would work better." Edward's voice dropped to a lower register as he leaned in. I felt his fingers start to brush my shoulder repetitively. His eyes were half-closed and dark in the low light of the apartment. He was close enough for me to smell him, the intoxicating scent of his skin that always made my mouth water and made me want to lick him. "Sorry," I murmured, distracted by his proximity, by his softly-glinting green eyes that were pinning mine, by the light scruff on his jaw that I knew would feel prickly against my tongue if I were to give in and actually lick him. Because I'd done that…a few times. He liked it. "That dress didn't make it out of Seattle with me. Most of my clothes didn't." Edward blinked a few times in confusion, pulling back a little. I kept forgetting that as much as I'd told him about Seattle, there were still lots of details that he didn't know. I cleared my throat awkwardly. "Um, Jay trashed most of my clothes…with a razor. Right after the accident, I think. That dress was one of the casualties." Edward's expression froze, and then went bleak. "Shit," he whispered. "God, Bella, I'm sorry." I reached out for him, putting my hands on either side of his neck, trying to nudge his jaw up with my thumbs. "Hey, it's okay. It's not your fault. It's just a lousy thing that happened." He squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head, his arm sliding down behind me and pulling me closer. "I know. It's just when I think of you so close to that situation…" His other hand found my right wrist and his thumb began to brush over the scar on the inside of my arm. "…how close you came to never making it here…It just drives me a little crazy." "Edward, don't dwell on it. I'm trying not to. It's past." He sighed and pulled me even closer. I let him fold me in his embrace, his arms tight around my waist, his face buried in the crook of my neck. He did this frequently. Yes, there was the kind of heated touching that made me lose my mind, but he also just held me like this a lot, tight and close. I loved it. It made me feel warm and safe and just…close to him, in a way that was different than sex. I rubbed my hands through the hair on the back of his head, down his neck, across his shoulders, and back up, while he just held me and breathed his warm breath into my hair. I could stay here for the rest of my life, I thought, with my eyes closed. "You feel good," I whispered next to his ear. He exhaled hard, a little shaky.

"You always feel good," he murmured in return, and I knew that tone of voice. We were past the comfort and on to arousal. "Are you okay?" I asked anyway. He chuckled and pulled back enough to see my face. His free hand was running up and down my thigh. Somehow we'd shifted around enough that he was leaning into me, in between my legs. "I'm supposed to be asking that question." I shrugged. "You were upset." "Yeah, well, I'm better now." He dipped his head, bypassing my mouth in favor of the side of my neck. I sighed and tipped my head back. He tugged on my thigh to pull my hips closer to his. "Speaking of social engagements…" "We were?" "A while ago, yes." "Okay. Go on," and I meant speaking and kissing, because his lips under my ear were making me breathe hard. "My parents want to meet you." "Huh?" I sat up a little bit, blinking to clear my head. "I am staying there right now, so they've noticed. You know…that I'm pretty much not staying there right now. And they want to meet you." "Oh." Edward sat back, too, looking at me intently. "Are you…is that okay?" "Yeah, of course," I said, nodding absently, even though the idea of meeting his parents was sparking the beginnings of a minor anxiety attack in my chest. "It's nice that they want to meet me." Edward tightened his grip on my thigh again, urging me closer to him. "They can tell that you're important to me." And then I sighed. Because that was the important part. Yes, I was nervous about meeting his parents, and moving this relationship out of this perfect little bubble of seclusion we'd been in for the past week, but I wasn't nervous about Edward at all. This…the two of us together, was what was important. Yes, the sex, but everything else, too; the talking and the holding. "I'm glad I am," I whispered, cupping the back of his neck and pulling his face to mine. His lips met mine and he was hovering over me in an instant. After all, he'd been sort of feeling me up for fifteen minutes now— he was more than ready to go. Tugging me down until I was lying underneath him, he settled in between my legs, and his tongue pushed into my mouth, flicking against mine. I arched up into him and his hand slid up my ribcage to cup my breast. I pushed my hips up into his, hooking my calves around his. He groaned. "Jesus, Bella…" His thumb scraped my nipple through my clothes and it made me groan, too. I twisted my fingers into his hair as he kissed me long and deep. He slowly pushed his hips against mine over and over. I was writhing underneath him, getting so wound up, and we were both still fully dressed. But this was how it was with Edward. It was like my body was always in a slow burn, the flames banked, just until he touched me, and then I erupted.

He sat up just long enough to strip my sweater off over my head before he fell back on me again. Slipping his fingers underneath me, he unhooked my bra before sliding the straps down my arms. The crisp cotton of his dress shirt scraped against my bare nipples and I sighed. "Your couch is so fucking uncomfortable," he murmured against my ear. I chuckled in spite of how turned on I was. "Tell me about it. I'm the one on the bottom." He laughed, too, before sitting back and pulling me to a sitting position facing him. "Then let's move this someplace a little softer, hmm?" He reached down underneath me, my legs still wrapped around his waist. The world tilted around me as he abruptly stood up, bringing me with him. I squealed and grabbed on to his shoulders to steady myself, and he laughed. Leaning in, I planted little kisses on his neck as he carried me back to the bed. And then I licked his jaw. It made him moan. Edward hit the bed and fell forward, bracing himself on his hands to keep from squashing me, but I pulled him down on top of me anyway. "I like it when you lay on me," I whispered. "It feels good." He hissed through his teeth and started trying to strip me out of my jeans, just as I tried to wrestle him out of his shirt. We gave up on each other after a second, and took care of our own clothes, because it was faster. In moments he was stretched over me, pulling my knee up, his mouth devouring mine as he pushed into me. I moaned into his mouth as he rocked, settling all the way in. He shivered against me, both from the chill of the air on his bare skin and from this…the sensation of us together. I pulled the corner of the faded old quilt I'd found in a thrift store up over his back, and he shrugged us both underneath it. He slid in and out of me in slow, deep strokes, never looking away from my eyes. His hands were hooked around my shoulders, holding me still as he pushed himself into me, over and over. I writhed slightly underneath him, stretched taught and anxious, needing some other touch to bring me over the edge and not being able to find it. Edward's hands locked onto my hips and he rolled, bringing me over on top of him. The blanket slid down, forgotten, around us. Lips next to my ear, he whispered, "I like you laying on me, too." I smiled and sat up, folding my legs alongside his hips, shifting a little to take him deeper. Edward arched slightly up off the bed and he groaned, thumbs digging into my hip bones. "You're beautiful like this," he murmured. And I felt beautiful: sexy, sensual, powerful, cherished. I slid my hands up his chest to his shoulders, bracing myself as I started to move over him. His breathing picked up, his hands moving my hips to match his pace. I pushed against him over and over, slow and deep, and the build escalated again. My thighs burned with it and I felt the heaviness deep in my belly. My skin tingled with anticipation and need. "Edward…" I whimpered, leaning forward, grinding myself down onto him. "Baby, yes…" he breathed, eyes falling closed as his hips pushed up into me. His head tipped back and I stared at the V of the underside of his jaw, the hard slope of his neck, and the bulge of tendons as he strained underneath me. One of Edward's hands slid around in between us, touching me just where I needed him. I gasped. Everything inside me clenched and he inhaled sharply. "Fuck…"

Discreetly. Angela let out a huge sigh. Angie pointed the Warners towards a table across the room and turned to me. Alice had indeed taken me shopping for it." She laughed and threw an arm around me. "Come here. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Twenty-One ~ Big Days ~ Bella "Hello. and it was already going well. as a welldressed older couple entered the ballroom. "There they are." We wove through the crowd.s. coming together again when our energy returned. I felt a flush of pride. "We should rescue them. it's not a big deal. you gave me something to do when I desperately needed it. Grabbing my hips again. And that's where we stayed for the rest of the night. We stood side by side for a few minutes. and finally sleeping. Let's go actually enjoy this party we threw. and then brought his arms around me again. touching. Another well-heeled donor in attendance. talking in low voices. When she reached her dénouement." he murmured hoarsely. All three of them were politely listening to the story Alice was relating. Mrs. watching the flow of elegant bodies around us. You should be so proud. curling up on his chest. stopping now and then when Angela had to say hello or thank someone for coming. Clearing my throat. And the tux…there were no words for how good it looked on him. Bella.v. into the crowd. The event had barely begun. Warner. both for myself and for Angela. her hands waving animatedly. We rocked." Angela craned to look. every part of us intertwined. Mr. and you know it. So let's call it even. smiling. So far. I owe you for life. I couldn't have done any of this without you. His lips pressed my hair. Warner! I'm so happy you could make it tonight!" Angela enthused. I grinned back. arms nearly boneless. "I know! It's coming together perfectly. Are we good here?" Angela glanced at our guest list." I pointed out. Angie. he thrust up into me twice more and groaned as he came. After the Warners had departed. I swallowed my swoony sigh. barely suppressing her satisfied smile. "Almost everyone who r. I glanced at the clipboard on the table next to me and made a tiny tick next to their names. pulling me down against him. the turn-out was impressive. "Ange." she said. I collapsed. . Edward was standing clustered with Jasper and Ben. but I stood on tip-toe to scan the crowd for them anyway." I scoffed softly and waved a hand at her.His fingers pressed harder and it pushed me over the edge. In the end. With one hand. I really loved how tall he was.p'd is here. It didn't take long to find Edward. I fell apart around him." "Oh. holding me steady. looking around the room. I bet Alice is making them talk about Project Runway again. If we miss a few late-comers. winded. he pulled the quilt back up over us. I held myself up on his shoulders. "I feel bad for ditching them as soon as we got here. and the hum and chatter of a good party. champagne flutes in hand." "They knew it was a working date. "I feel a thousand pounds lighter. holding me tight against him. He was taller than almost everyone around him. "Have you seen our boys?" she asked. so I think our head count is pretty accurate. I surreptitiously smoothed down my dress. they all obediently laughed in appreciation.

I kept my eyes on Edward's profile. So now this makes it official: you guys are a couple. "Those little puffy things with the crabmeat are fantastic. "Thank you guys so much for coming tonight. Angela and I continued to make our way through the crowd. "It's true. Thank God for Bella. his eyes grew dark and he didn't say anything at all for several long moments." I said with a smile. Touchable. "It's such a relief to finally have it underway. I wondered if he would ever stop having that effect on me. "God. Ange. but eventually. and Edward snagged a couple of champagne flutes for Angela and me. a bubble of intimacy immediately descending over us.She knew all the best stores. "To successful partnerships. And you're so cute together. shimmery." She'd huffed in exasperation. When I was close enough. so it only made sense. I really hoped not. It was a pretty decent stand-in for my lost rehearsal dinner dress." I'd told her definitively. His face stilled. we've been on a lot of dates at this point. "We love the benefit. As soon as a server comes by. there's no way I'd miss Bella and Edward's coming-out party. whoever's responsible for the food knocked it out of the park. "Everything looks amazing." I cleared my throat uncomfortably and glanced up at Edward. "And silk. I was sure we'd have never made it out of the apartment. angling her flute at me. silk." I'd told her. I'd never really cared." I rolled my eyes. "Thanks for that awkward moment. If we hadn't had someplace really important to be." "Team effort. and I shot them all down immediately." Angela said. She'd trotted out a few floor-length sheaths. "It's got to be black. and I knew I'd gotten it right when I'd opened the door to Edward earlier tonight. "Alice." Angela sighed as Ben rubbed her back between her shoulder blades. "Not where other people could see you. His face lit up in a soft smile and I felt my chest clench. but it's so good to have a few friendly faces here." "Of course. Alice. since in the past. I think I was almost looking forward to the after-party events more than the actual party." . he turned in my direction when we were about twenty feet away." Ben said. I clinked it with my own before taking a sip. and showed off lots of skin. "I mean. yes. Plus. Edward reached out a hand. "Knee-length. until I was tucked up in the crook of his arm. But I surprised her with how specific I was in my search. and almost as if he could feel me watching. his palm laying flat on my hip and sliding around the small of my back. Not where I could see you. "Do you want a drink?" he asked. It was black. she'd found me a dress. he was trying to suppress a smile." Angela said to Alice after a moment. "Well." "Alice!" "What?" she blinked." Alice said brightly." I said quietly. As it was." A white-shirted server moved past us. He smiled down at me and I smiled too. It's like your first official date. and I felt his fingers start to trace little patterns on the small of my back." Alice said. I know you're donors. He didn't look the least bit uncomfortable." "You guys really outdid yourselves. I think I ate about a dozen. On the contrary. like he was trying to put me even more on edge.

Bella and I should probably check in with Mary one more time. Angela was stopped every few feet to greet someone. I'd always loved her. The younger woman held up her hands. Edward. The younger woman was wearing a short. I shook myself out of my Edward-coma and gave his fingers a brief squeeze." I sighed. "Hey. but there wasn't much formal about it. and now we were both happy to relinquish the floor to Mary and let her pull in the attention and accolades. before the auction starts. She introduced me to everyone. He made a little sound and shifted his weight until he was pressing into my back and breathing down my neck. and I think she didn't want Angela and me there to steal any of her thunder. but I was blown away all over again getting to know the grown-up. Walsh?" she said. it was like she'd spent all her life in this setting. Once again. before Angela and I left to go find Mary. I leaned back into him. "Do you have a problem with the label?" "You know I don't. Right. snagging my elbow as we wove back through the crowd to our seats. "Ms. inexplicably aroused by his caveman tendencies. and Angela stepped forward seamlessly into her space. We'd done the work pulling the night together. We finally reached Mary. sparkling sheath dress. "I'm telling you. Cathy. I promise! I have to find Keith now. And if you think I'm the only guy in this room to have noticed that fact. Over it." Angela said. how about we find our seats?" Alice's voice burst our little moment like a bubble popping. That was fine with me. "Actually." I murmured back. And you're gorgeous.She just laughed. The reason I was here. boxy jacket made up of multi-colored. "The way you look in that dress. She was wearing a dress. I'm not above a little claim-staking. his fingers rubbing softly through the fabric of my dress." "Hey. I'm a guy. Chicago version of her. rather shapeless silk sheath that fell nearly to her ankles." "I don't know. "There's somebody here that you've just got to meet. laughing. I turned my head a little to look at him. you've really got to go with me next year. then you're deluded." I promised. Neither one of us was particularly comfortable with public speaking." he shrugged. I felt Edward chuckle and lean down to whisper in my ear. ." I let her pull me along until we reached her destination. Work. although they were admittedly becoming something of a blur." Angela said. short-haired woman. alright. It'll just take a second. It was a bright purple. but the older woman had taken a rather liberal stance to the whole "formal dress" part of the evening. she wore a long. This was the part where she got to schmooze with all the wealthy donors to the foundation. patchworked velvets. I think I'm more than happy to have you publicly labeled as 'taken'. "Back soon. but keeping all the faces straight was a challenge. I recognized the names from the guest list. I'm gonna make you promise. and she assured us that she had the auction portion of the evening completely in hand." "How very enlightened of you. Edward chuckled and slid his fingertips down the inside of my arm until he was holding my hand." the older woman was saying as we approached. to be sure. "Just…I could have done without Alice drawing the attention of the entire room to it. Angela was so much more self-assured socially than she'd been in Seattle. A middle-aged woman with long black hair shot through with silver was talking to a younger. "Alright. "Before you two start making out. Talk to you next week?" The younger woman left. His hand curled around my hip.

right?" Didyme blinked back at me for a moment. Everybody calls me Dida. She edits The Chicago Lantern. "we both grew up in Forks. "Right. please. And the same rule goes for you. "You founded New Moon? Well. But I only ran it for a year and a half. "Bella Swan from University of Washington. this is my friend from Washington. holding up a hand heavy with silver rings." I protested softly. sounding like a lifetime of cigarettes and hard living. It was your vision. No more 'Ms. as the unusual name slotted into place in my brain." "That was all Bella." I amended." I stammered awkwardly and cast a pleading glance at Angela. too. It's really…I'm so thrilled to meet you. I've pretty much heard of them all. Was that you?" Now it was my turn to blink in disbelief. "You wrote Reflections on Anarchy. In college. you've read Reflections on Anarchy?" I laughed a little. Walsh. Ms. And New Moon has a good reputation. "Ange. "Angela interjected. and we went to U Dub together. "Holy shit. "The world of erudite niche literary journals is a very small one." she said." "Well." I blinked a few times at the flood of interesting information. Didyme Walsh. I'm far too crude for those kinds of niceties. and then I turned it over to the department. I remembered the name from my days at New Moon. I read it in college." Angela supplied helpfully. The odd issue has made its way across my desk over the years. "Okay. I'm glad I could provide your cheap thrill for the night. Bella. "That's too much of a mouthful. too. Angie says she knows you from Washington?" "That's right." I grinned. Angela laughed. Dida.The dark-haired woman eyed her shrewdly. highlighting writers from the Midwest." "Yes. New Moon. Bella. when I followed that kind of thing. She made a face. in addition to being a ridiculous name. Her voice was low and gravelly. I thought we'd been through all that 'Ms. that's a different thing. "Yeah." She scoffed and waved a hand at me. It totally blew my mind. I'm nobody to make a fuss over. I did. Quite above the usual college offerings. I haven't…" . yeah. It's still an honor to meet you. They do good work." "Didyme. then. but you set the standard. Walsh'." she chuckled. before throwing her head back and letting out a throaty bark of laughter." Dida interrupted. And so very interesting. it's only because you dictated the mandate in the beginning. I forgot. "You know I haven't had anything to do with the magazine in years." "Wait. but she only smiled serenely back at me. "Angela Webber. The Chicago Lantern…it was an elegant little literary journal. "You've heard of New Moon?" She shrugged and swept a hand through her long hair. Bella Swan. If they're still getting it right today. But there was something else… "Didyme Walsh?" I asked. "Please. I wanted to introduce you to a friend. Walsh' nonsense already. "Wait a minute. then." Dida tapped a finger on her chin for a minute as if she was thinking. this is Didyme Walsh. "Um. making the myriad of silver bracelets lining her arms tinkle softly. I had a million things I wanted to ask her about that.

after all. even if it was a long time ago. like asking what I had for lunch. how excited I'd been about it once. so you're not writing. And you know. A really original voice. but didn't press. I was too far out of the loop to know what the "fashionable reads" were. "Well. If they didn't align with hers." Dida's face lit up with appreciation. I could remember. I smiled and shrugged. I thought he had amazing potential. but it was a teasing question. "I was in the creative writing program there. apparently. "So what do you do now?" she pressed. but then I decided. but she was also remarkably easy to talk to. The Pacific Northwest was full of amazing writers just looking for a forum. but I decided to see if I could do something about it. it was something to be proud of. Everybody bitched about it." I stopped short and blushed. Dida sniffed and shifted her weight. so I decided on plain honesty." She looked intense. "It was a long time ago. "Nothing worth mentioning. "So what were you doing in Seattle?" I snorted in mild disgust. She was brash and a little abrupt. eyeing me closely. "Ahhh. And once it was up and running. that was a loaded question. could I have spilled any more of my guts to a complete stranger? But something happened when I started talking about New Moon again— some kind of burning energy started in my chest. there was no use trying to impress her. I wasn't really in a place in my life to aspire to any literary pretensions. Of course. that was a nice one. it was just a waste. How'd you find it?" I instantly warmed to the subject. So I opened up our mission. not condescending. He had some work . all that great writing only being read by a handful of U Dub students." I laughed awkwardly. like I always did. She was actually smiling."That's quite an impressive vision for someone in college. Not for a long time. "He's from Portland. Wow. So. for the first time in years. now I was out of words. what the hell? She seemed to want to know. Amongst book-lovers like us. What are you reading?" I smiled a little and looked around the room. Wasting time. for which I was grateful. yeah…we founded a magazine. You'd be amazed at what kind of grant money is available to college students with crazy ideas. "Oh…nothing. and there were just no good outlets for getting your work seen. "Okay. "The best thing I've read recently was Drifting Downhill by Scott Chisholm. waving a hand at the room. making sure we got as many issues in as many hands as possible. I've just relocated to Chicago and I'm a little at loose ends right now. Then I opened my mouth and that flood of excessive information poured out. I just…" I was about to bring the whole line of conversation to a halt and change the subject. I was enjoying this chat more than any of the other polite conversations I'd had tonight. this conversation would quickly devolve into a little polite chit-chat and then end. but that was just temporary. So I opened my mouth and started talking. "Aren't you the little go-getter?" she smirked." Her expressive black eyebrows pitched up sharply. and we published a few of his short stories in New Moon back in the beginning. it seemed a shame to keep it confined just to the writers in our program. and I wished I had more of interest to say. I felt pressed to explain when she only looked puzzled. This is where I laid my literary tastes on the line. And." "What are you writing?" Dida asked. "Um…this. "I was helping Angela plan the benefit. as if it were the most natural question in the world." Dida said." I murmured. And a bit off the radar. I don't write anymore. my standard fall-back statement. so I focused on distribution. Hell. But Dida didn't look put-off by my word vomit.

"I swear. so he was one of yours. I was blown away when I read the book. how many of his re-writes you do. But she was generous with her recommendations. Christ. She was a walking encyclopedia of modern American literature. so it wasn't hard to convince me. of the Chicago Collective back in the seventies. and as a group. She was so earthy and real. it's fucking impossible to find someone at one of these things to talk books with. And I wanted to stay and talk." I moved to flag down a server. The woman could seriously hold her liquor. This requires whiskey!" I laughed and let her drag me back to the bar. I'll need a drink before we dive into that. It was well over an hour before we came up for air. She was sarcastic. They'd all been friends. I felt like my new to-be-read list would take me six months to get through. Every time I glanced down. "Fuck champagne. She had been a member. there was absolutely no pretension or mystique about her. albeit a minor one. while I was just standing on the sidelines at this point. It might have had something to do with the fact that she was systematically getting me drunk. and it just stuck. suddenly feeling awkward for taking any sort of credit for Scott's achievement. "You know as well as I do how much time you spent with Scott. but also editors and literary critics. they'd been remarkably successful— as writers. The name was bestowed on them by one prominent reviewer at the time. but she didn't allow that. giving my elbow a nudge. Do you mind?" "Do you need to get back to someone. frequently collaborating and influencing each other. I simply forgot to be impressed by her. she knew everyone. Partway through our lengthy conversation. "Alright." "Oh." "Oh." I smiled but said nothing. We were different personalities. clearly wanting me to stay and talk. She'd read more. She was fully immersed in the literary life. It surprised me that she was so easy to talk to. "We just published some of his stuff. Members of the Collective had scattered across the world." Angela said. "I'm going to go find Ben." Angela's soft voice suddenly broke into our conversation. On of them had even become a very successful screenplay writer in Hollywood. a little crude. She'd been everywhere. I wanted to feel intimidated by the sheer weight of her experiences. that I wasn't awed into silence. my glass had been mysteriously refilled with Maker's Mark." "Bella. let me get us some champagne. I was half-in-love with her by the end of the night. then?" I shrugged. "Hey. incredibly smart. sharing the books that we loved. blasting the ones that we hated. Every bit as good as I always thought he could be. We were just trading stories. Dida was fascinating. I couldn't believe I was actually hanging out drinking with one of them. Within the hour. or can you stay and chat?" Dida asked." "Here." Angela continued." "I'll tell Edward where you are. and wickedly funny." I said to Dida with a smile. I was trying to go slow. but keeping up with Dida was about to bury me. . but our taste in reading lined up to a remarkable degree. of course. but it seems like he's been working hard these last few years. "but you have to tell me about the last three chapters of Reflections on Anarchy. They'd all gone through University of Chicago at about the same time. Bella. I just know there's a story behind them. Dida clamped her hand down around my arm and swung me around towards the back of the room where the bar was set up. The Chicago Collective had been almost mythic to us as undergrads.

"Dida?" he asked. "Oh. don't you?" I felt my eyes widen in anticipation and I shook my head. Out of the corner of my eye. I'll show you when we get home. How could I forget? With so many great writers going unread. seeing a book like that get published just depresses me. Yeah…so…Dida. I needed to shut up and get out of here. my boyfriend. I'd ignored Edward all night. "She could have used a plot." I couldn't contain my laughter. he just heard me screeching about British dicks. didn't he? I would have blushed if I was more sober. Didyme Walsh. Anyway. looking highly amused." I flinched as my word vomit trailed off. this is Edward. Dida had joined me. I noticed the bartender re-filling my glass again. Within seconds. "He's married. "Edward." "Right. and I acknowledge that it's a tragedy. the greater tragedy is that his untamed dick allowed that monstrosity of a novel to be unleashed upon the world. ." The corner of his mouth hitched up in amusement." Dida chuckled. Edward was standing just behind me. how embarrassing. And I think I just called Edward my boyfriend out loud for the first time. God. Did you notice that? All the pointless English references? What was the author's name again?" "Julia Phillips." "Oh. "No!" "Ohhh. everyone was milling around." Dida said matter-of-factly. even though he had every right to be. "Every character was completely unsympathetic. until a familiar throat-clearing made me spin away from her." "It was awful!" I continued. The auction was over. huh? And maybe a little character development. I glanced around me. "I just remembered something…he's British!" I pointed at her as I caught on. He didn't seem annoyed. taking another completely unnecessary sip of my drink. She wrote this amazing book. I got caught up talking to Dida and I lost all track of time. I wished I'd been sober for that. too. and her anglophilia was so masturbatory. and he cocked an eyebrow at me. my God!" "I know. Ugh. And although I feel for his wife and kids. yes. just for fun. "You know how she got that piece of trash published. "I hated that book!" She snorted in agreement. Oh. Damn. squinting at me through one eye and gesturing with her highball glass. I felt terrible." Dida snorted and leaned closer to me. For the first time in hours. With kids. "I'm so sorry. Shit…I don't have a copy anymore. "She's sleeping with one of the senior editors at Macmillan. I'll order it for you."Did you read Children of Gomorrah?" she asked." I said. "Oh!" Dida gasped. my voice coming out as more of a squeak. I'd had way more to drink than I thought. "That's where the stupid anglophilia comes from! She loves his British dick!" Dida howled in laughter. finishing their cocktails and preparing to leave. You have to read it. I gotta say. "Ughhh!" I rolled my eyes dramatically. sorry! Edward! This is Dida. and so did I.

Edward cleared his throat softly and held a pen out in front of my face. Of course. okay…um…" I fluttered my hands helplessly as I tried to think where I could find a pen. Poor Edward. "I don't do texting." "But…" I stammered. I still write long-handed!" "Oh. and completely abandoned him for the night." I sighed as the alcohol caught up to me. And Edward. I was so rude. Alice and Jasper left." I said sincerely. Edward. "What are you sorry for?" "That!" I gestured in the direction that Dida had gone. "It was good to meet you. I had nothing with me. "I'm a doctor. She tipped her head in acknowledgement. searching his face." "Girl." "Um. "Come down to The Lantern on Monday and have lunch with me. which seemed crazy-late for lunch. of course. I only barely do email. "I'm going to go round up Angela and thank her for the invite. but I'll show you around. Angela is still here." "Bella. and his face registered surprise at the ferocity of her grip. I'll see you Monday. "Relax." he said patiently. Dida." I smiled at him before I took it." "Did Alice and Jasper already go? Angela is still here. looking for the lingering resentment or hurt feelings that I was sure I'd see there. Fuck. yeah. It's been a long day. "Edward." "Seriously?" "Yeah. which I wound up scrawling on the inside of my forearm. before tossing back the rest of her drink. which was sitting abandoned on a chair somewhere. that would be great." Edward chuckled and reached out to slip his arm around my shoulders." Dida said with a sly smile. We set a time. The Lantern isn't much to see. Yes. "Hey there. not even my tiny useless handbag." she growled. "She was amazing. She grasped it." "I really had fun talking to you. "Did you enjoy your conversation?" I was hit with another wave of guilt." He leaned back a little and scowled at me in confusion. I'd wandered off to talk to someone. "I should have come to find you. it was so great to meet you. I should go.Edward just smiled and politely extended his hand towards Dida." . Bella. I am so sorry about that. It's habit. Do you want to text me the address?" She snorted ungracefully. we haven't begun to talk books. I let out a long exhale watching her go. but she swears she doesn't need your help. and only because I have to. right?" Edward laid a reassuring hand on my shoulder. I looked up at him in question. Yes. but Dida was nonplussed. I knew where you were. "No. "I got all wrapped up in talking with Dida and I left you on your own for the whole night! That was awful of me. I always have a pen. and sailed away through the crowd. Stay and talk as long as you'd like. Dida gave me the address of The Chicago Lantern offices. I'm glad you guys had such a good conversation. "Angela told me she'd introduced you to an editor and you'd really hit it off. I was such an asshole.

wrong. Whenever those thoughts crossed my mind. I ran into some people I know through my parents. And there wasn't a trace of resentment towards Dida for monopolizing my attention so completely. You looked like you were really enjoying yourself. He just drove and hummed along softly to the radio until we got back to my place. I checked on you once. I forced them away. "Nothing. and had a good conversation. But Edward was completely unconcerned. and made myself stop thinking in those terms. would have never been okay sitting quietly on the sidelines. which I loved doing. "Yeah. I can entertain myself. Edward tugged on my hand and I waved goodnight to her and Ben. "Bella. letting him lead me downstairs to the parking garage. or towards me for paying attention to someone who wasn't him. "Nothing. "Not even a little bit. will you quit worrying about it?" "Are you sure you're not mad?" He leaned in and kissed me lightly." Edward chuckled and muttered. really. Now. "You didn't abandon me. that wasn't right. pulling me in against his chest. He would have been angry at being left on his own all night." "Alright. No. Dida sort of drank me under the table. Just…realizing some stuff." He kept his arm around me as we made our way to the exit. I ran into Angela." "But…" "Stop!" he laughed. it just gave me a reason to press myself against him shamelessly. and you guys were completely absorbed in your conversation. also on her way out. but only barely. I just couldn't help but marvel at the contrast between Edward and Jay." "Huh? Who?" He just shook his head and pressed his lips to my forehead." Comparing Edward to anyone was bad. By the time the car started moving. "Yeah. I managed to stay awake.He scoffed softly. He cared about me. He kept track of where I was and what I was up to. No matter. Jay. I was nearly asleep. so what was good for me was just good— end of story. "I'm glad you think so. He cared about me. Angela kissed my cheek and thanked me again before I brushed off her gratitude. tilting my head back to smile up at him. I'm a big boy. but what prompted that?" I shook my head a little. her and that asshole bartender. Besides. "You really are amazing. As long as it's good. lingering there for a minute. Are you ready to go?" I sighed and nodded. and she assured me that all the little details had come off without a hitch. but he was also okay with backing off and giving me space to do my thing. We had a really nice time. even when we were new and he was healthy. He was simply happy to see me happy. All our vendors had done their jobs to the letter. letting me have my moment. stop. even though we really didn't fit two abreast like that. Believe it or not. I certainly didn't maintain any sort of conversation. He smiled back. . it made me happy to see you happy. baby. Good stuff. and there was nothing left for us to do but to reconvene in Angela's office later in the week to start writing up the thank-you letters for the donors. He insisted on keeping his arm around my waist all the way up the wooden stairs. you know that?" I said. and not fair to him. There was no way I was going to drag you away from that. I was just fine. It was such an uncomplicated equation. I sat with Jasper and Alice. He would have felt threatened by anyone who drew my attention away from him. warm and intimate. But in that moment. But Edward didn't press.

" he murmured. I don't even remember seeing him. Edward reared up off the bed and returned a moment later with a glass of water and a couple of Advil. Edward. "I really do want to. His teeth replaced his lips on my neck. until he was gripping my hips.. He slid a hand up my rib cage to brush against the underside of my breast. right?" I felt him bury his face into my hair. So I didn't have a good reason to go kick his ass." I wanted to change his mind. His hands fisted into the silk of my dress until it pulled taught around me. Pulling me up against his chest. Edward. but I was having a hard time keeping my eyes open. "God. But the release of my nerves coupled with all the liquor was leaving me nearly incoherent. shuddering breath. although Edward didn't really let me move too far. trying to pull him back down on me as he started to sit up. I didn't notice. He didn't try anything because he never could get your attention. it made me laugh again. his breath making my skin prickle. One hand came up to my shoulder. and I moaned." I whispered before his mouth closed over mine. I twisted in his grip." Edward chuckled and leaned back down to speak into my ear. When I hit the mattress. I sighed and arched into him as his tongue traced my collarbone. But Edward instead made his hands relax until he was cradling my back. "Honestly. "Am I boring you. pushing the strap of my dress down my arm." "Yeah. wrapping my arms around his shoulders and pulling his head down to mine. "You feel good.. It feels good to kiss you and touch you and taste you. moving his lips down my neck as his fingers scrambled across my back looking for a zipper. too. he released my mouth. holding himself in check as we kissed. all the while kissing me like it was the last thing he'd ever do. Tomorrow. "The hardest part of the night was watching you in this dress without being able to touch you properly. I tried to stifle it. .not when you're this drunk. poor bastard. With a nudge. his fingers curling in around my hipbones through the fabric. I let out a long. And you know it wouldn't have mattered even if I did see him. he began to walk me forward towards my bed. And it feels really good to be inside you. I'm sorry. "If I had to watch that goddamned bartender leer at you one more time. the vibration racing across my skin. You feel so good." Edward sounded so matter-of-fact about something I hadn't even seen. It was expensive. so arguing was difficult." My head fell back against his shoulder and I moaned.shred it off my body. I just wasn't thinking. Your dress made me a little crazy. I shouldn't. Just as I reached the edge of the bed. I didn't see him. lowering me down to the mattress.I yawned.I let us in and I felt his arms slide around my waist from behind as his lips pressed against the back of my neck. His hands slid across my torso. I swear I was going to level him." he growled softly against my skin. "Nobody matters but you. His tongue traced its path. Bella?" he chuckled. Edward whispered in my ear. "What are you talking about?" "He didn't stop looking at you all night. fingers sliding over black silk." "He didn't? Hmm. too. I wanted him to rip it. "I know that. and I love hearing the sounds you make. I really did. And then…. I could feel him tense and stiffen under my hands. but I didn't care." "No!" I protested. And I'll do all of it. I've just had so much to drink…" "No. I laughed and pulled away slightly.

so I liked to take advantage of her sleep to get my fill. Bella. feeling that way about someone I'd essentially just met. she was pretty much passed out at the time." he murmured. I'd never been more certain of something in my life. but every time I turned."Come on. She was more dead to the world than normal after the benefit the night before. her hair a riot of tangles around her shoulders and down her back. I'd learned that she was not an early riser if she didn't have someplace to be. as it gave me a little time in the mornings to watch her sleep. she still had the power to take my breath away. It didn't help that I was conditioned to wake up after no more than five hours of sleep. It was obscured by other people and impossible distances and complications. leaning on his shoulder as I took the pills and drank the water. her cheek smashed into the pillow. My eyes fluttered closed and I was out until. Granted. When I rolled to look at her. Then he whispered one more thing against my skin. I'll be here when you wake up tomorrow. Curtains or no. although I usually slept much later with Bella than I did on my own." "It's okay. nonetheless. I sighed and unconsciousness began to claim me again. Half an hour later. Usually I couldn't get two coherent. His arm curled around my waist and his face nuzzled into my hair. It didn't make much sense. I knew it in my bones. Bella's apartment was ridiculously bright way too early in the day. They didn't go quite like this. Her fucking shower would be the end of me. but it had been there. And I meant it. there wasn't a doubt in my mind. She was right. I was showered and dressed. I banged an elbow on the wall or slammed my head into the shower head. she was face down on the bed. "Sleep. which was a bit of a cop-out on my part. warm body slid up against my back. and I was pretty sure I knew it shortly after I met her at the wedding. Bella was still out cold at my side. I told her I loved her last night." Edward finished slipping the dress off me and gently lowered me to the bed. Even though all I wanted to do was to roll over onto her and do perverted things to her. Edward reached behind me and slid my zipper down. I had such fantasies about stripping you out of this dress tonight. nor was she much of a morning person." "Sorry I'm such a lush. It was too low for me. I knew what I wanted. It was only slightly larger than a coffin." ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Twenty-Two ~ Wake Up Where You Are ~ Edward Sunlight flooding the room woke me up. leaving her to sleep off a little more of the whiskey while I got ready. She got self-conscious if I looked at her too long or too intently when she was awake. I liked it. so I slid out of bed carefully. some time later. I didn't mind." I did so. civil words out of her until she'd showered and sucked down an unbelievable amount of coffee. I felt the bed dip and his long. This was right. so I had to . Even with her smudged mascara and ruined hair. but I did say it. But I didn't care. Bella was small. so it wasn't a huge problem for her. Sit up and drink. I had places to be today. Over the last few weeks. You can make it up to me then. so soft I almost doubted I heard him. "I love you. beautiful. "Mmm. I wanted forever with this woman.

throwing my leg across hers." "Oh. Gently. I made coffee." "Where?" "To look at a house. When I came back. What time is it?" "Late enough. I've looked at some rentals. I closed my eyes. I ran my fingers across her back. angling her face up under my chin. I crawled back up the bed and stretched out at her side. Bella rolled her face on the pillow towards me and cracked one eye open." Although right now I really wanted to blow off every appointment I had and just press her down into the bed and stay there. She didn't budge." . through my nose. she leaned into me. She groaned. long and slow. to buy. She rolled her eyes as much as she could." "Um." "Yeah. "Morning. She smacked her lips in contentment before setting it down on the floor next to the bed." "So. even though I knew it was scalding hot. but my mother thought I should keep my mind open to buying. low and husky. so I could convince her to spend her nights with me in a place designed for normal-sized people. "Bella?" "I seem to recall that I gave you a raincheck last night. I was actually hoping you'd want to come along. I leaned in and pressed a kiss to the exposed back of her neck. "Ah…you know I am always interested in…um. The sound kind of turned me on. As much charm as Bella found in it. Her whole apartment made me feel like Andre the Giant. one hand snaking out instinctively to grip her hip. Once the coffee was started." "You're buying a house?" I shrugged absently. I felt her lips make contact with my neck. She moaned softly." "A house?" "You know. That makes sense. I guess. claiming any part of you. You want?" "You don't know me at all if you have to ask that question. It would be a good investment." Her voice was a very sexy low rasp. and rubbed her face into the sheets." she murmured. in one form or another.crouch just to get my head under the water. I laughed and pushed off the bed. beautiful. "Now? It's Sunday morning. do you want to come? I'd like you to. wordlessly sucking down several deep gulps. She set up a few appointments for me today to look at some things. "Morning. but we slept through our window of opportunity for that. I actually have someplace to be soon. "I'm not sure yet. considering she only had one of them halfway open." I murmured. she was face-down in the bed again. I offered her the coffee and she took it. but rolled to her side." I exhaled. I just need to clean up. "if you were interested in claiming it. I was looking forward to getting my own place. going to fix her a cup. She sat back and blinked at me in confusion. Sitting up and smiling. from one shoulder blade to the other. sure. already looking infinitely more awake. but I pushed that aside and rubbed my palm across her back again.

Making a right onto West Schiller to head to the next appointment. because we really were having fun. but I was relieved when Edward seemed to find them as unappealing as I did." ~*~ Bella I was out house-hunting with Edward." "Oh. saying it all out loud made it real and it would put us in a different place. a kind of love I'd never experienced and wasn't sure I ever would. I wanted him near me all the time. in that sense. tingly feeling in my chest that I did every time I looked at him. like nearly everything in these neighborhoods. I teased him a little that all the listings he was looking at were just minutes from my place. Putting labels on things. we'd just been driving around Wicker Park and Bucktown. I tried to push away all the anxiety about declarations of love and co-habitation." "Nope. They were all spacious and well-appointed. He was smiling softly to himself. "I'll wait. and for as much of the time in between as possible. He acted cool about it all morning. and if a Volvo was good enough for his father. Edward pointed off to the left. It all felt like love. I wasn't ready in any way to have that conversation. since spring was officially in bloom. and just focus on the day. one I wasn't sure I was ready for. any more than I was ready to think about house-hunting together. But we were so new. Because househunting with Edward would be a big deal if we were doing it together. They'd both dated to the very early part of the twentieth century. No. but on the other hand. The weather was great." . pointing out interesting restaurants and scoping out the nearest El stations. That's what I would keep telling myself so I could feel okay about it. I'd discovered that the current renovation trend was to gut interiors completely. and the trip to the benefit the night before had been my inaugural ride in it. in favor of modern. I didn't realize there was an actual park. Go. They were all row houses. too. technically he was house-hunting. but I knew I heard it last night. Mostly. I thought it was just the name of the neighborhood. I teased him about the car. I was crazy about him. Edward said he loved me last night. It was sunny and the air was soft and just a little cool. He hadn't indicated in any way that that was what today was about. I studiously hung on the sidelines and held my tongue. but still infinitely desirable. Edward had finally signed the lease on a car this past week.I reached out and tucked her hair behind her ear before pulling her to me and brushing a light kiss across her mouth. too. I had no problem with that. then it was good enough for him. when I fell asleep. his right hand tangled with mine while he gripped the wheel with his left. but he just smiled and didn't rise to the bait. but he defended the choice. right over here. when I woke up. Right. the car suited me fine. Really close to this house. it's a real park. "This is Wicker Park. he was already way too appealing to the opposite sex. Let everybody think he was a stodgy old grandpa. which would be nice. so he was a little scruffy and unkempt. and that was just fine. I cast a quick glance at his profile while he drove. I got that same tight. But once inside. but also completely devoid of personality. Well. and I was just tagging along for the ride. They looked like nothing more than well-done West Elm catalogue spreads. Whatever. telling me that he trusted that his dad had researched it thoroughly. But we weren't. The first three houses he'd looked at had been disappointments. The last thing I needed was for him to be driving around Chicago in some hot sports car to complete his irresistibility. which was initially encouraging. so I would let him. He hadn't shaved. He made me feel a kind of happiness that I didn't even think existed. He wanted to play it down. Edward driving a Volvo sport utility wagon was kind of quaint. open floor plans. I knew how I felt about Edward.

a wrought iron fence. A tidy brick square of a house. The inside didn't prove to be much better." I pointed out to him. "Oh. but she cut him off. and glossy pale wood floors. "We're striking out today. Edward looked at me. I stopped just inside the front door and felt Edward close behind me. The leaves had only just begun to come in. fumbling with her keys and folder as we waited. Is it for sale?" "There's a sign. He chuckled and pulled me into his side. I'll get us out of here. She confirmed that guess with her next words." she said brightly. We shrugged in unison and he waved me up the stairs ahead of him." I said levelly. hello. but I cast my eyes up the street to avoid looking at him as I said it. especially as few houses in the neighborhood even had a side yard. a leather folder under her arm. dipping his head to whisper in my ear. As soon as she pauses for breath. Once we were closer. I could see it better. So far. "Okay. I could make out a brick front. the lot size. Already. but I imagined in summer. I get it. slightly set back from the street." Edward began. but the family is away till tomorrow. with white-painted window sills and a set of steps leading up to the bright red front door. as I stifled a sigh. Edward made a lot of noncommittal polite noises. for one. "Are you here for the open house?" "Um. "Here's the flyer. it was a carbon copy of everything else we'd seen that day. standing in front of a rather generic brick-face three-story home. The property was heavily landscaped and it had a surprisingly large side yard. Something about her told me this wasn't actually her house. pointing out every high-end feature. Again. He snorted a laugh. Minutes later. I couldn't help but elbow him and smile. The house diagonally across the street was nearly obscured by a heavy growth of tall trees right next to the front steps. huh?" "They're all…nice.I nodded absently. Why don't you come in and take a look?" I looked at Edward just as he looked at me. In fact. The chipper real estate agent kept herding us from room to room. Edward made another turn and pulled into the first open spot along the curb he found." I said." I hooked his elbow and pulled him after me across the street. I swallowed my groan." "I'm not the one who needs to like them. Admit it. You don't like it any more than the rest. She spent a second awkwardly locking the door. eyebrows raised. recessed track lighting. every trace of the original interior had been scrubbed clean in favor of cool light-green stretches of wall. the front door opened and a dark-haired woman backed out." . the streets would look lush and shady. "I'm Tammy. I liked this area better than the others we'd visited. After his hundredth "Um-hmm". hands full of fliers and calling cards. You hated them all. it looked entirely incongruous with its neighbors in every way." It took three more rooms for that to happen. The dense vegetation almost concealed the "For Sale" sign set up in front. look at that one. but eventually he did manage to extricate us. There were a lot more trees. "Technically. Standing on the front steps. I peered closer. it finished fifteen minutes ago. "I can barely see it. the shape and style of the house— it didn't fit at all. As we stood there taking it in. then turned and caught sight of us. "Edward. but no real words. It would be nice to live so close to a park like that. "High praise. Come on. and a peek of green lawn to one side." the woman said.

I started to protest that I didn't need one. with a fire crackling in that fireplace. jumped off the page at me. the wooden staircase with the carved spindles. Last night. chattering over her shoulder.000. The price didn't seem to have even registered. $756. The ceiling was high. Tammy was talking. stirring something. but there was no shock or horror on his face. I stopped short. A fireplace nestled diagonally in the corner and a soft. seeing myself standing there. nestled in the upper right hand corner. and the soft morning sun would flood across it from that window as we laid together on a Sunday. The room was smaller than others we'd looked at today. It was lovely in the spring. The floor was a dark. walking through other rooms. He smiled back over his shoulder at me. "Oh…" The breathless little gasp escaped without my realizing it. It was so…perfect. all dotted with daffodils. as Edward slipped up behind me to kiss the back of my neck and tell me it smelled great… Tammy kept moving. After an undergrad at Dartmouth and medical school at Columbia. He'd just moved back to Chicago and was now working in a tiny private practice. "Looks like a great kitchen for cooking. The bed would go there. A really expensive house. I was still trying to process that enlightening and unsettling new thought when Edward pulled me after him into the living room. I knew the net worth of most of the people on that guest list. "It's nice. isn't it?" Edward smiled at me. Way more than he earned as a doctor. The kitchen was magnificent. Three windows spanned the wall behind the couch. inviting. as I curled up on that couch with a book. and I forced a small smile in return. Edward said he met up with some friends of his parents at the benefit. against that wall. but I found myself imagining it snow-covered. The pale yellow dining room. Edward might have money. He merely cocked one eyebrow in that way he did when he was reading something closely. but broken up by heavy exposed beams crossing the room. My head snapped towards Edward to gauge his reaction. All the modern conveniences without losing any of its original charm. but she was already walking away. It all hinted at something I'd never stopped to consider before. He'd offered to buy me a TV like he was offering to pick up a bottle of wine for dinner. overlooking the lushly landscaped side yard. All I could do was nod. This house was over three-quarters of a million dollars. glass-walled shower. squeezing my hand. Instead. I glanced down at it and the price. into the house. A window over the sink flooded the room with warm afternoon sunlight. Beautiful walnut cabinets with glass fronts. I would have guessed he'd be swimming in student loan debt. nestled into Edward's side… I jumped and took a step back. and we followed in her wake. reading the paper… We moved on to the gigantic attached master bath with warm gold ceramic tiles and a huge. warm walnut. A lot of it. I spent a moment staring at the Viking range. but it was comfortable. tugging me after him.She shoved one at me in the same moment she handed one to Edward. which I could only guess paid substantially less than what he was going to be making at Lenox Hill. and cozy. I'd managed to avoid these flyers all day. Were they all this much? Could he afford that? Edward moved past me to follow the realtor and snagged my hand. he was thinking of buying a house. showing us room after room. so I had no idea how much the others had cost." Edward said softly. The shower where he'd hold me and press me against the wall and do wicked things to me under the spray of hot water… . granite countertops and stainless steel appliances. My mind was still stuck on the money. overstuffed couch faced it. the spacious master bedroom with the painted white beadboard.

laughing…. It would be so easy… But it was crazy to want it. holding me snugly up against his chest. The view out the windows was of leafy green treetops. I heard him swallow hard. I could picture my life playing out along side Edward's. That's where we'd put the grill. interlocking. his eyebrows drawn together. I absolutely could not want that now…already. Not after everything I'd been through. My breathing was shallow and rapid. One arm slipped around my waist and the other came down across the top of my chest. I still wasn't one bit clearer. towards the staircase. My hesitation said it all. I hadn't really said anything but that alone spoke volumes. I . Edward was asking Tammy about the property tax rate. Where I would…I didn't even know what I would do here. beers in hand. Edward moved to my side. I wanted our lives to unfold." My perfect office. I wanted it so bad that my chest hurt. since when Edward joined me at the car ten minutes later." He paused for a moment. "You like it. at the sliding glass doors that led to the large back deck. with no idea what to say. I struggled to calm myself down. I didn't look up and I didn't say anything. then leaned in and unlocked my door. Edward was watching me. all the lessons I should have learned from it. I kept my eyes focused on my feet as I heard him approach. I could picture Alice and Jasper. A desk was situated right underneath it. stalling for time. and I felt a cold sweat break out across the back of my neck. under the eaves of the roof. but I didn't care. slipping out from underneath his arm and making a beeline for the door. My house. In room after room. I heard him sigh heavily behind me. All our friends. I stumbled down the stairs. I took a few steps back. This feels like my house. I stopped in-between the kitchen and the dining room. her smile wide and bright. "I was kind of thinking that I'm shopping for our house. I was being a coward and running away. He sighed. And it hurt. It hurt that I just hurt him. "The schools in the area are fantastic. but was now converted to a room. He stopped just shy of me. And I wanted it. That didn't work. You're the one that has to like it. "Does it matter? It'll be your house. Take your time. all out there. He dipped his head and I felt his breath across my neck. I could feel his even. We'd be happy and content together here. but he said nothing. "I'm going to go wait outside while you finish up in here. I couldn't say anything. waiting. The ceilings sloped on either side. A little leaded glass window pierced the triangular wall on one end. pressed up against my back. deep breaths. but I could see myself doing it. but I didn't stop to look back. I heard soft footsteps and the warm presence of Edward." "I'm going to go back downstairs to look around. aware even in my panic attack of how good the smooth wood of the banister railing felt under my palm. It can't be my house. Edward said nothing. and Angela and Ben. the feel and smell of him that I'd know anywhere. in this perfect house. and it hurt because I just backed away from something that I desperately wanted. It's a great place to raise a family." "Um…" I stammered. I wanted to live here with Edward. "It would make a perfect office. We would fit here. I needed to get some space from this situation and get my head back together. Trailing my fingers across the glass." I murmured. I shrugged as best I could under the weight of his arm and struggled to sound unconcerned. Rose. don't you?" he murmured." I muttered. I felt his hold on me relax a little and I flinched internally. Tammy turned to me.We climbed another set of narrow stairs to what was once an attic.

but already. "Hell yes. I wanted to go back to the last few weeks— how I felt when I was alone with Edward. I know it might be a little fast." I sighed and closed my eyes. I was pretty sure I was doing the right thing. I jerked my head to see him standing by the fender. we'd hit this point. Fuck. What happened? I mean. the idea of living without him was unbearable. Edward didn't wait for me to be ready. trying to order my thoughts. I didn't want to have issues coming to interfere with us. trying to figure out how I could explain what I was feeling when I didn't entirely get it myself. Hell. Bella? Why did you flip out like that? Because I saw your face in the living room. Besides. you freaked out and just ran. I swallowed around the burn in my throat. Inevitably. By the time he pulled up behind the garage. He was worth my effort. it was doubtful. I knew I was a mess after Jay. his words like a knife to my chest. I just made things worse. That you felt the same way I do. His knuckles were white on the steering wheel. Now I sounded mad. we'd been so blissfully happy for these past few weeks. You wanted it. We didn't say a word to each other for the whole drive back to my place. when we were talking. tense silence filling the car. I just had no idea if Edward would see it that way. and it's hardly been any time at all. as easy as it might be. And Edward was worth it. After I let us in. If it was easy. But he didn't say a word as he pulled away from the curb to begin the short drive back to my place. I closed my eyes and let out an exhale. Then the next thing I know. my hands were shaking. I hated feeling…broken. I just nodded and tilted my head to indicate that he should follow me. some catalyst that would make my issues rear their ugly heads. Jesus. He wasn't looking at me. I had work to do. Everything with Edward had been so good. Every second I stayed there with my jumbled thoughts. No. but this thing with us…" He paused to draw in a deep breath and rake both of his hands through his hair. that it was easy to forget how I'd wound up in Chicago. "You…you're coming up?" I asked. The frustration and tension was rolling off of him in waves. his face just as stormy. "I know this has moved fast. my voice shaky. but I don't know— I really thought we were in the same place. I had no idea what I'd do if I lost him over this. staring at me. I'd just rounded the front when I heard Edward's door slam behind me. I should have known this was coming. which wasn't what I'd intended. Maybe he just needed some space. It had only been a few weeks. I hated this. kissing. just needing whatever physical space I could get in this tiny room. when he was pressing me down into the bed— and just hide there. I knew there would be a moment. Crying would only make this worse. I knew that. just straight out the window. Judging from the angry. I should probably get out of his face for the day and call him later. I crossed all the way to the couch before I put my stuff down. Getting lost in Edward. I saw your face through the whole house." he snapped. But maybe it was meant to be hard.slumped into my seat and gritted my teeth to hold back the threatening tears as he crossed to the driver's side. That little muscle in his cheek was working furiously. which was louder than I'd expected it to be in the close confines of the car. when he was holding me. both on my life and on myself. His heavy eyebrows were furrowed nearly together. I'd been able to just shrug off my history and ignore it for a while. I needed to be . as much as it hurt. You loved it. He was worth whatever I had to overcome or fight my way through. but that didn't make it go away. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye as he started the engine. In fact. damaged. maybe it wasn't worth it. I grabbed my bag and jumped out of the car. I took a deep breath. it would just be a sad repeat of the same destructive pattern. I'd made some big mistakes in my life. wasn't going to help me do any of that. I hated that it had suddenly gotten so hard. We're going to talk about what happened back there. and his jaw was so tense. I didn't know what to do or how to leave it. "What the hell was that.

I have to be okay with my life on my own before I can even think about tying it to someone else's like that. "You can say anything to me. The pain in his face was killing me. After a moment. like he'd been slapped. but—" "You can't." Edward started and leaned back a little. cupping his jaw. Don't you see? Jay was all bound up with security and gratitude and debt and…guilt. you have no idea how much I wanted it. although the pain was still all over his face and I felt wretched that I'd been the one to put it there. Still. Every room. smoothing his shirt with my fingertips. Even if I want it more than I can say. and I wanted it." he closed his eyes and let his head fall back. Not like this." "I can't." "Not now. I could see you and me there. and…Jay— he came in and picked me back up and gave me a new life." he murmured. "No! That's just it. No taking the easy way this time. And I'm sorry I can't just take it. reaching up to take my hands away from his face. Bella. I can't let you just give me a new life. "I can't want that." He let go of my hands so that he could take my hips and pull me into his chest. You're too important to me to let how I feel about you get tangled up with all my other issues. making myself look him in the eye when I spoke. I did like the house. I'm sorry. I couldn't bear it if I let this become twisted like that. I have to build one for myself. But that turned into a trap. I turned to face him. His thumb rubbed back and forth across my knuckles soothingly. Edward. I just want to make things easier for you. He gave it to me and I took it without question. even if the easy way is also what I want. I'd lost everything. I really want to. I took a step closer to him. "That makes perfect sense." Edward looked closely at me. "I'm sorry I freaked you out today. but. I loved every square inch of it. "I don't understand." "I know you do. it would kill me if that happened to us. "I've been here before. I can see how that would make you feel…fuck. and it was so easy. God. "Jesus. softly. I know I'm moving a little fast." "What —" "Edward. I laid my hands there. folding them in his own. "Is that what you think we are? That I'm some sort of trap for you?" My hand flew to his face instinctively." I shook my head even as I tightened my grip on his hand. he picked up his head and looked down at me. the TV— it's easy for me to give it to you. I didn't have to work for it or figure it out for myself." ." I felt the tension leave his body slowly. Even if that someone is you. It sounds like we want the same thing. no life.completely honest with him about what I was thinking and feeling. he nodded. I want you to be happy. Bella…can I say something without making things worse?" I nodded. I loved it. it was impossible to divide my feelings for him from how I felt about everything else." Edward's expression softened and he walked across the room until he was close enough to grab my hand. In the end. "So what's wrong with that? It sounds like we saw the same thing. "It's just that all that stuff— the house. wanting to reassure him and myself that we could make this okay. I was at the bottom." I said. "I do feel the same way you do. no future. making him look at me. And I want to. And it was so wrong. his voice much softer. cutting him off.

" I finally said." His breathing hitched and his grip on me tightened. Bella. "I love you. I'm sorry I freaked out. too. he tipped my chin up with his finger. "I'm sorry I said it like that. Edward stayed the night." "Yes. "I mean it. I pressed my face into his neck. if you could even call it that. I raised my hand to cup his cheek. I murmured what was in my heart directly against his ear." "It's okay. thank God. "I love you." His mouth hitched up on one side in a wry little smile and I felt the tension finally break inside of me. "It's okay. huh? I thought you were passed out. too. right?" I nodded and Edward exhaled hard. "I'm really sure about this— about you. even when I was so uncertain about everything else. but it didn't have to become this big crisis. but kept his arms locked across my back. so. I ran my fingers through the hair just above the collar of his shirt. I wasn't expecting it. I mean it." "You're talking to me now. absolutely certain of this feeling. cupping the side of my face. Really. Then he let out a shaky. "This is uncharted territory for both of us. "You heard that. Because it will probably happen again. reassuring myself with the feel of it across my fingertips. Edward." I said." He pulled back enough to look down at me." ~*~~*~~*~ Bella Chapter Twenty-Three ~ Steps You Take ~ We made it through our first fight." His face was determined. rubbing my thumb over the ridge of his cheekbone. I should have talked to you. but I'm not sorry I said it. I smiled back in relief. Nothing bad this time. but that awful pained expression was gone. My throat constricted as waves of powerful emotions broke over me. and once we'd gotten through the worst of the conversations. Crouching a little. all good. . Before I could stop to overthink it or talk myself out of it. letting myself be calmed and reassured by his scent and the thud of his heartbeat against my chest. I was just a little thrown by how all of that made me feel. lost for a moment in the lovely explosion of greens in his eyes and in the soft curve of his lips. even if it scared me to say it. that we were still talking and good. I meant it. I love you. and the dust had settled around our mutual "I love you"s. "Is it? Really?" "Yes. I shouldn't have shut down like that." "I heard. So you'll have to tell me when I'm getting too far ahead of you. so he could peer more directly into my eyes. soft chuckle. pulling me into his arms." he said gently. so happy that he was still here.He reached a hand up to stroke my hair. because he needed to hear this from me. Really good.

Well. for the time being. Maybe it was because I was lacking the social lubricant of entirely too much whiskey today. At the second floor landing.the rest of the night was heaven. It still hurt. Gianna rolled her eyes. as I reached the landing. "You didn't look like one of the third floor girls." She looked back at me over her shoulder and tapped the side of her nose knowingly. I think we're all alcoholics. A Mexican restaurant occupied the first floor of the three-story building. In either corner in the back of the room were two other occupied desks. At least." she snorted. "Oh. per se. But plenty of them have a little problem with the blow. the second floor was identified as The Lantern's offices. Just this one large room with desks scattered here and there throughout. too. feet up on the paper-covered desk. and smoking. aside from the recreational alcoholics." She must have registered the shocked look on my face because she scrambled to correct herself as she led me inside. and talking to her then had been easy. "Are you Bella?" I smiled and nodded. it was after two-thirty when I finally reached the offices of The Chicago Lantern." "You have to be careful of a modeling agency?" I asked. Then she turned to me." "I heard that!" a dark-haired boy at a nearby desk shouted." She led me into a large open space. "Gianna Hartley. as I followed her in the door. "And you know you can't trust a drug addict. falling into a creaking office chair behind it. as I had my late lunch with Didyme Walsh to get ready for. she stuck her hand out at me. "Please. Ugh. it was nothing like what greeted me as I glanced around the place. you know. bare light bulb. She was maybe in her mid-forties. her face more serious. On the intercom buttons. down a narrow. They were far less auspicious than the name and storied history implied. The door opened right into a narrow stairway lit with a single. against the windows. We ordered in and didn't leave my bed. As I climbed. I'm going to send you running for your life. Dida didn't strike me as the type to let a little thing like a workday get in the way of a good bender. Although. First of all. but you can't be too careful. There wasn't much time for me to get melancholy over it though. Dida's on the phone. She was wearing baggy cropped linen pants and an Obama for President t-shirt that had seen better days. Even leaving myself extra time to find it. I could see Dida at one at the far side. The building was a drab stone affair in a less-prosperous part of The Loop. "Modeling agency. Both looked . The third floor was for a modeling agency. there were no "offices". repeating the "I love you"s all night with our words and our bodies. "They're not dangerous. Edward called me to tell me he'd said yes to a rental he'd looked at the previous week. Come on in. overlooking the street below. There was a desk just inside the door. They cast porn movies up there. with sandy brown frizzy hair liberally peppered with grey. Even though we'd really hit it off at the benefit. dingy side-street. lined with windows along one wall. When I was within reach. talking on the phone. I rang and waited to be buzzed up. There was a glass door at street level next to the restaurant entrance. but whatever it was. leaning back in her chair. even though I knew it was the right thing. I don't know what I was expecting when I imagined the offices of The Chicago Lantern. a woman popped her head out to look at me. Except for the ones who work here." she said cheerfully. who knew? Maybe we'd booze it up at lunch. a door opened off to the left. "We don't really have drug addicts here. without ever looking up from his computer screen. At noon on Monday. you know I love our drug addicts! They're family!" Gianna laughed lightly in return. which she stepped around. smiling. I was attacked by nerves as I got ready to go. don't listen to me.

" She gave a short laugh as she ticked them off on her fingers. "So. "I'm the business manager. Dida's phone call ended and she shouted across the room. Bella. sharply-cropped short hair. There was a large. "Miss Swan. "So nice to meet you. with a slight Latin inflection." Dida said. A few other people. "A delight. Dida. Come meet Lucy." At that moment. "Is this the Bella you told us about?" . I told you about her?" Santiago rose slowly to his feet. "Well. raising my hand to his lips and lightly kissing the back." she muttered at the cat. Come on over!" I wove my way through the cluttered room towards her desk. where are you two off to?" "I'm taking this one to lunch. the distribution director. who seemed entirely unconcerned." she said brightly to me. Bella. grew in several impressively long vines along the top of the wall for most of the circumference of the room. her face eager. She swung herself upright and came around the desk to shake my hand. As we approached the desk in the right-hand corner of the room." she said. "Now. this is Bella Swan from New Moon.cluttered and very lived-in. I didn't get to mouth off about books enough the other night and she was actually willing to come back and let me do it again." he said softly. Boxes of back issues of The Lantern were tucked into every spare corner of the room. to be sure. honestly. filling shelves and chairs. long-haired cat sleeping squarely in the middle of her desk. We're all Don Quixotes here. a philodendron. mi hija? Empire? Fortress?" Dida barked in laughter." "Santiago Gomez. then looked to Dida. She looked up at us as we neared. Lucy was tall and thin." Dida explained. let me show you around. It seemed to originate from a large pot on a shelf behind Gianna." "Here. tanned man with thinning hair and wearing a heavy cardigan looked up wearily through little gold half-moon glasses to watch our approach." Dida barked. "Nessie. and I run the website." Santiago sighed." "Jesus. She had crazy-high cheekbones and a blindingly white smile. "Associate Editor of Poetry." I teased. "Nice to see you again. "Bella! You made it. "Oh. A plant. We're always happy when Dida finds a new playmate to listen to her ranting. sat at random desks around the room. typing away on outdated computers or talking on the phone. These poor fools have put up with me for years now. brown. "You remember. good for you. "Santiago. "Ah! Yes. yes. in no discernable system— up against desk-fronts. yes?" "But someone has to stand up for chivalry. "What would you call it. "How about 'Ship of Fools'?" Santiago threw his head back and chuckled. "Ah! Come on. "We all wear multiple hats around here." I smiled at him. is Lucy back?" Dida glanced around to the desk in the opposite corner. with bright auburn. The woman I supposed was Lucy was just settling back in at her desk. all college-aged. I'm also the receptionist." She hauled me after her across the room to the opposite corner. tilting at windmills. and a noble fight it is. I was away for less than two minutes. Wait. extending a hand across his desk. a small. I took it and he smiled." "Welcome to our little…" Santiago cast an appraising eye around the room. nodding her head to indicate that I should follow. She shoved it unceremoniously to the side as she sat down. yes. her eyes sparkling.

where the staff all knew Dida and she ordered our lunch in Spanish. But then sometimes. this is amazing. I lived for the magazine. "Yes. "I know. the sound ringing through the room. although often Santiago took the first pass at poetry. They get submitted on the web now. picking at my enchiladas." I chuckled. It was a very hands-on operation. I'm a dinosaur. It sounded sort of disorganized. Gianna finally got me to break down and get that set up. I'd spent just enough time around her to recognize that nervous gesture as meaning she wanted to smoke and couldn't. "Alright." "It does. Does that make any sense?" I felt my cheeks flush slightly at how carried away I'd gotten. "I didn't let myself think about it for the longest time. considering. Dida moved on to The Lantern. I remember those days. "Bella. back then. They all sounded amazing. God." Dida said. Dida chuckled. I'm glad you came to visit." Lucy said. I had been an idealistic kid. plenty of times it was a grind. This thing is my life. I miss it. yeah. Dida would promise me galley copies to read. And every time I started reading. this is Lucy Kristiansen. I miss being so excited every day. yes. and how the average issue was produced. I used to do it at New Moon. but I'm sure the volume was nothing like what you get. "Jesus. Pretty much just like New Moon had been. I mean. It would make me realize all over again how much undiscovered talent was still out there. "But." Dida squinted at me and tapped her fingers on the table. Dida still read nearly every submission herself. a little chaotic." Lucy threw her head back and laughed. ."Absolutely. I'd open a new submission and it would just take my breath away. culling a short list for her to go over. But I suppose. The list grew so long that I was reduced to scribbling titles on a napkin to keep track." We ended up at the Mexican place downstairs. When our food arrived. "No. such as it was. it must take you forever. But there's no changing me now. and after each description. I print them out to read them. and there was all that pressure and never enough time or money. When I do remember it. "I mean. but I still read them all. I'm starving. are they?" I waved her off. Dida expounded on some of the great new Chicago writers she'd read of late." "I get it. But I can't fucking read on a computer. plus a handful of interns from local colleges. "Do you miss it?" she asked. Santiago? We're freaking legends!" "Is that why I feel so old?" he moaned dramatically. The next great thing I'd read just might be this thing." I nodded in understanding." "Well. and plagued with unforeseen disasters. standing and planting her hands on her narrow hips as she looked around the room in fond amusement. was all she had to count on in the way of staff. I'm insane. I don't do anything else. I'm so excited to visit. I sounded like such an idealistic kid when I mooned about writing like that. Bella. there was always that possibility that this one would be a masterpiece. "Sorry. let's you and me go find some food. the offices aren't much to look at. and there was a floating staff of part-timers and freelancers who handled the rest. That. We idolized The Lantern at U Dub." She laughed and held her hand up in defense. But. Lucy took on a large share of the editing and layout. We chatted some more about books while we nibbled chips and salsa and sipped our beers. I twirled my fork for a second. "You hear that. just with slightly more desk space." Dida sighed and ran a hand through her hair. "You really read every submission?" I asked her. She was wearing an acid-green sheath dress that nearly vibrated in contrast to her hair and an overscale hammered brass collar necklace. explaining the hierarchy of the staff. Associate Editor. I know.

as her words sank in. Oh my God. And there's just not enough of us to go around." I waved my hands in front of me frantically to shut her up. if you're interested…. "Let's be clear about something. So. "Stop trying to sell it to me. "It doesn't matter. but then her face got fierce again." Dida tipped her beer back. but she just handed me the job of my dreams and I was going to step up to the plate. or as their schedules allow." I just stared at Dida. I've had to wade through a hell of a lot of crap in my day. And this opportunity…Dida. "I had an ulterior motive in asking you to lunch today. leaning in towards her. I need somebody who can be around to follow through with these writers. and then I ran into you at the benefit. Granted. I was probably going to freak her out with my intensity. "Dead serious. "Not as often as I used to. and that can take a toll on my enthusiasm. You'll starve on this salary. And the college kids don't help much. I have to still feel passionate about it. or at the very least. we have all these floating assistant editors…part-timers and freelancers. It always has been." "What's that?" "I want you to come work for me. That tells me all I need to know about your talent. at my huge mainstream publishing corporation that I run on the side for fun. "No. The only real consistency in the editing department is me and Lucy. embarrass myself with my ridiculous reaction. I looked up in question. It was like the universe was trying to tell me something. Absolutely!" Dida started to smile. We work three months on an issue and nine times out of ten. . They come and go as I need them. do we have a deal?" "Yes! Of course!" I resisted the urge to bounce up and down in my seat and reminded myself that Dida was now my boss. so I clasped them hard in front of me and did my best to assume a game face. Look. "Are you serious right now?" I planted my hands on the table." "Do you still feel that way?" She cocked her head to the side. unblinking. My heart started pounding so hard that I felt like I could actually hear it. But you know. it always will be. they're even flightier than the assistants. at this point. My life is cheap right now. I should listen. polishing it off before setting her bottle down with a clunk. or talked to my references or anything—" "Now it's your turn to stop. or I might as well pack it up and close the place down. And I believe that when the universe talks. I certainly don't do this for the money. Of course at The Lantern!" she snorted in laughter. fingers spread wide. I'd spent more time with her drunk than sober. "Perfect sense. I'm not kidding. the ones who start working on the issue aren't the ones there to put it to bed." she said. The pay is for shit. "I have a confession to make. The Lantern is a labor of love. I've been thinking of bringing in a new full-timer for a while now. You put that together. are you sure? You haven't even seen my resume. considering.Dida smiled knowingly. my voice tight and pinched. "At The Lantern?" I finally managed to ask. plus Santiago on poetry. But there's just not enough continuity there. I've read New Moon. then realized that I probably looked like an over-excited five-year-old. yes. So. from submission to publication." I waved my hands again to stop her.

But I was also full of anxiety and selfdoubt. if I do say so myself. When we got back upstairs. It had been years since I had done this sort of work. Santiago and Lucy clapped and "ahh"d. "Um. Is that okay?" "Perfect. So Gianna set me up with keys to the building and the password for the wi-fi. the stairs in front of the Walgreen's. I asked about filling out paperwork. "I'm signing the lease on my apartment." she beamed at me. At six." "What's up?" he pressed. I could recognize that for what it was. That's a hell of an afternoon's accomplishment." After I went back in. Dida had just taken a huge leap of faith on me. Dida said I could have a few days if I needed them. without a doubt. coming to hug me and start filling me in on all the interesting little details of life in the Lantern offices. which Santiago unearthed. and I almost wanted to pinch myself that the day had actually happened." "Still? Weren't you guys having lunch at three?" "Yeah. welcoming me aboard as The Chicago Lantern's newest Assistant Editor. fun. everyone in the room laughed out loud. and a little bawdy. I mean. we sat around in assorted office chairs and perched on desk corners while Dida. "Nothing. What do you say we go raid the brandy that Gianna hides in her desk and toast to our newest staff member?" That's just what we did. but it had been so long since they'd hired anyone who actually got paid that Gianna didn't have any of the current forms and needed to download them from the internet the next day. I excused myself out to the landing to call Edward. but I'm pretty much done. but…well. "Okay. I desperately wanted to justify that faith. Instead. Gianna began to fuss immediately about which desk to clear off for me. like Edward was shifting the phone around. Why?" I ignored the residual ache of that and focused on the good instead. "Well. depending on the trains. "Excellent. toasted my addition to their ranks. Hey! Where are you?" I felt like I could hear the smile in his voice. still with Dida at The Lantern. and I got the feeling Dida had already told them that she was going to offer me the job. and it made me smile in return. I just increased my full-time staff by twenty-five percent. It was relaxed. and returned with a motley assortment of glasses and chipped coffee mugs. When I said I'd see them all at nine. Lucy disappeared into a tiny side room which they called the kitchen simply because it had a sink. I was elated. even as I insisted that any corner would do. They were both so welcoming. He picked up on the second ring. it's all good. I laughed more than I had in ages. I'll get off at Clark/ Lake. Gianna did indeed have a bottle of brandy secreted in her desk. See you soon. Dida had just unwittingly answered my prayers. that I wasn't dreaming. "Can you come meet me downtown?" "Um…I think I could be there in half an hour or so.My head was abuzz with conflicting emotions. Apparently ten was the earliest anyone ever . Dida shouted across the room. prayers I hadn't even dared to give voice to. I wanted to be insanely busy again. Santiago and Lucy traded stories and told tales of some of the more infamous goings-on in The Lantern's past. I wanted to work. but I didn't need or want them. I made plans to start the next day. I just hoped that I had it in me—that whatever skill or talent I once had that she insisted she saw was still there inside me. I wanted a purpose. I have something to tell you. counting me— plus the odd interns there that day. okay?" I could hear the smile in his voice again. I just want to tell you when you get here. Then the entire permanent staff of four— now five. Where are you now?" I heard a little noise in the background. They didn't get any more real work done that day.

appeared in the Lantern offices. the rag-tag staff. yourself. While we walked. "Well. "Yes! Of course! I mean. everything was better. I could hardly believe it was all true and happening to me. sweet. "That's amazing! I'm so proud of you. exciting city. it is. It was the way he usually greeted me and it always made me get a little soft and melty inside. He reached up with one hand to push my hair behind my ear. cradling my head. the lax work environment. that man— that incredible." I wrapped my arms around his shoulders. I met Edward at the bottom of the stairs at the El station on Lake Street. they were still tossing back Gianna's brandy and getting ready to order in sushi. I was living in this fantastic." "Baby." he murmured against my ear as he pulled me in for a hug. I suspected it would be hours before any of them stumbled home. hooking my arm with his." he murmured. more exciting. I let the city soak into my senses. the storefronts I passed— it was all brighter. caring man— was coming for me. the lights. But that's just what life is like at publications like these. and most importantly. the ramshackle. I took just a moment to ponder my good fortune. Calling it a relaxed work environment was turning out to be a gross understatement. Someone pushed past us to get up the stairs to the El. I told him all about The Lantern. I just hope I can prove my worth. Walking the few short blocks to the train station." He reached up and cupped my face in his hands. Bella. laughing. Then he hoisted me up by the waist. "Come on. and frankly. this is so great. They just make enough to keep the doors open. although Dida said I was welcome to show up whenever I pleased. slowed up by other people. She's hiring me on the strength of something I did five years ago. what's your big news?" he asked. And not even enough . "Hey. letting his happiness wash over me and reinforce my own. "Hey. like there was a place for me here. "Are you kidding me?" "No! Assistant Editor. I leaned up on my tiptoes to kiss him. disorganized office. I know you can. He smiled and shook his head. "And you actually want to work there?" he chuckled. I'm starting tomorrow!" "Bella…that's—" he stammered for a second." I fisted my hands in his jacket at his sides and pulled him closer. sliding back into my hair. you. now that I had a purpose. the perfect job had just been placed in my lap like a gift. slow and soft. faster. euphoric mood. I know it sounds chaotic and a little ghetto. I couldn't help the euphoric smile that spread across my face. then his fingers kept going. He was halfway down the stairs when he spotted me and the smile that broke out instantly across his face made my heart turn over in my chest a little bit. In my current. He loved me. "So. it really felt like home. I'm so happy for you." We turned and headed up Lake towards the restaurant Edward had in mind. his fingertips brushing my hairline. knocking us out of our peaceful little moment." Edward blinked once in disbelief. The crowds on the sidewalk. I tilted into his hand instinctively. "Dida offered me a job at The Lantern. tucked into each other's sides. For the first time since I got to Chicago. pulling back to look at me. "I'll buy you dinner and you can tell me all about it. sexy. Edward squeezed past the last slow-moving person on the stairs and scooped me into his arms in one fluid motion. As he made his way down the rest of the steps. When I left them. I don't know how proud you should be of me yet. like I belonged here.

dark eyebrows raised in question. But so normal. Wrapping my arms around his neck. I looked back into his bright green eyes. on the top of my head. Plus you and Dida seemed to really hit it off at the benefit. People were casting us irritated glances as they scooted around us. That's all I need from you. There were enough subtle differences. now looking at me. puzzled. the high cheekbones. because I'd be in constant awe of her otherwise. apparently.for that. a figure crouched in a doorway a few feet up the sidewalk caught my eye. Edward swung around to face me. in his current state. all blown wild from the ever-present breeze on the streets. It was there because he was looking at me. compulsive rocking back and forth that was so reminiscent of what Jay had done towards the end. Huddled. You'll hold your own just fine. "I love you. "What's wrong?" he asked. then trailed off. But it's not about the money." I laughed and shook my head. He came. dirty and alone in a doorway. almost like a marble carving. pressing his lips to my temple. and I wrapped my arms around his waist. his arms hooked around my back. Maybe it was the hair color." he murmured. Plus. And you're here with me. those lips that made me so unnerved the first time we spoke. "I'm getting that. like we were a rock dropped down in the middle of a river. I know how passionate you get about writing. I was sure it wasn't him. the jawline— some of the first things I remembered noticing about him— his mouth. surreptitiously nuzzling against him and soaking up his smell. and by that glow in his face that was all for me. Or maybe it was his circumstances. I'll need it. It wasn't him. a nervous." "I'm not worried about you." I whispered to him." I finally whispered. "You're you. My throat constricted a little at the thought. maybe it was the tiny motion he was making. Edward smiled down at me. My heart stopped in my chest and all I could do was stare. tugging on his hand to pull him closer to me. I felt his face burrow into my neck and I just savored holding him. "Thank you for the vote of confidence. I smiled and shook my head. I turned my face against him a little. Bella." "Stop! You make me cry when you say stuff like that!" I felt him chuckle against my hair." Edward squeezed my waist. underneath the dirt. I began to notice that we were creating an obstruction in the sidewalk. Edward's face softened and he closed his eyes before pulling me into his chest. . As I looked around at the fast-moving pedestrians. "I'm just wondering what on earth I did to deserve you. "She's amazing. I stopped abruptly and he was a step past me before he realized it and stopped too. it's about the work. His beautiful face. even at this distance. there was no way Jay ever could have gotten himself all the way to Chicago. And it seems perfect for you. near my ear. "Just…" I started. his heavy. the vibrations rumbling in his chest. really. They need grant money to really stay afloat. His russet hair. Sometimes I totally forget just who she is and what she's done. taking him in. and then the side." "You'll always have it. The evening rush had no time for love. "What are you thinking? What's that look on your face?" he pressed. I pushed up on tip-toe until my mouth was next to his ear. almost the exact same shade as Jay's. distracted by his almost otherworldly beauty. I just stood there for a minute. I felt his lips on my hair. He did the same and we stood pressed against each other in the middle of the sidewalk as busy pedestrians streamed past us on either side. Everybody is there because the love the work." I sighed and closed my eyes. Truly. Thank God I forget.

his arm slung over my shoulders. rocking himself and muttering to demons that weren't there. I know that. That was Jay. Jay's still out there." Edward tugged on my hands to pull me closer. Wherever Jay was.But it could have been him." He pressed his lips to my temple." Edward just nodded. "Edward. "What are you suggesting. The weight of it was comforting. I just—" I couldn't keep my eyes from darting back to the man in the doorway. Really hard. just hoping that he doesn't get lost in the bureaucracy. "Probably. not on my own." Edward pulled me to a stop and his arm slid away. He was gripping the back of my neck with one hand. "If he ever finds him. But in one sickening flash. It's just…if Sam should ever find him—" "What?" Edward urged gently. "Sorry.. disoriented homeless man in the doorway. but I can't. My euphoria from just moments ago had evaporated. I thought I could just walk away and forget. "Bella. reaching out to grip my hands in his. But because I'd never actually seen him again. rubbing the other up and down my arm. Intellectually. holding me safely to this time and place. you won't be doing it alone. After a moment. so just running right back there wouldn't do any good." He gave me a tug and with a sigh. but Edward was still here. made it real to me. "What are you thinking?" I sighed. the man on the sidewalk. that I managed to forget it altogether for a while. and back at Edward. right? That's what happens to mentally ill people who aren't in the system. A lot of them just get lost. I knew that was probably what had happened to him." . I don't know if I could sit it out on the sidelines. It sucks. Edward followed my gaze and I heard him sigh. Edward cleared his throat. there are no guarantees. It's hard. what's wrong?" I shook my head and made myself look away. And then…I mean…how awful is it that that guy reminded me of Jay? That's what's happened to him now. "Are you thinking of going back?" "What? No! I don't know…I can't fix it. "If it comes to that. Even if they get into the system. who looked so much like Jay that it made my heart hurt. Wherever he was. It might as well have been him. exciting new life in Chicago had a price. My blissful. "Are you okay?" "He just looked like Jay for a minute. After walking for a few minutes in silence. where I belonged. no doubt he looked pretty much just like that dirty. but it's the truth. I can't ask you to help me. But that didn't make it go away. Jay was just like that man. "I've been working so hard at not dwelling on all the bad stuff that got me here. I started moving again. I'll want to try to help. and I'd just gotten a harsh reminder of what it cost. it hadn't quite seemed real to me. Sam is looking. and it had never really been confirmed that he was living on the streets. If I can. I could let my mind wander back to other times and other places. I kept talking. before curling his arm around my waist. Besides. "Bella?" Edward's voice sounded a million miles away. Edward wrapped an arm around my shoulders and squeezed.. "I think I have to do something. but I pulled back so I could see his face. yeah. somehow. Bella? Do you…" His eyes cut away up the street and his teeth bit down on his bottom lip for a moment before he sucked in a deep breath. right?" I could hear my voice getting slightly frantic.

as it usually did. "You're still stringing that boy along?" Jess sighed and sat up a little straighter. and Alice was feeling protective of him. "He's an adult and he makes his own choices. "Dating? He'd kill to actually date her. so it's important to me. "You're still talking to Mike! Does Seth know about that?" "We just talk. "We're just friends." Alice continued as if she hadn't heard me. Insisting. I just smirked. Please be careful. "Jessica. And he's just a baby. you're dating a twenty-year-old?" Alice snorted dismissively. "Do none of you know how to have a proper one-night stand? Maintaining contact is not how it's done!" Jessica huffed and looked defensive. Bella." he said quietly. "Alright. and Rose. I really loved these gatherings." I reached up to cup his face and pull him down to me. That's all! I like talking to him. Jessica. Not everyone could make it every week. actually." Angela was taking a sip of her drink and sputtered ungracefully at Jessica's words. kissing him softly and briefly on the lips. he's twenty. fidgeting with her mimosa. but as the mimosas were consumed. but said nothing. all the girls were here: me. We'll do whatever we can. they're just fucking." Alice moaned. ladies. and I held my hands up to shut everyone up. the brunch was dominated by the exciting news of my new job." ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Twenty-Four ~ The Praire House ~ Bella "Jesus. let's not come to blows in the middle of this nice restaurant and ruin everyone's brunch." . If and when there's anything to be done. "You're still talking to Mike more than five months after your one-night stand? Jesus." We were having what was becoming one of our regular Sunday brunch get-togethers. but her current toy worked as an office assistant at the magazine with her and Alice. "Thank you." "Wait a minute. Today. "I'm offering. Alice. No." "But it's so obvious that he's crazy about you. "Besides." "Alice. Jessica always shared racy stories about her latest conquests. you're worse than that one!" She pointed at me across the table. Angela. but this Sunday. There's nothing for Seth to know. It's important to you. Jess. We were all so different." Rose interjected. but somehow the mix worked and we always had fun." Jessica narrowed her eyes at Alice. the talk turned more personal and raunchier."You're not asking.

when it has no hope of working out. right?" Jess rolled her eyes." Jess glared at her. "But…if he's great and nice. clapping her hands together. What? Explain. I have a plan. My twenties are for working on my career. how are things going with Edward?" ." Alice whimpered at my side. as Bella can attest." Rose said slowly. "You like talking to Mike. Angela ignored her." I finally started. Jessica heaved a sigh and tucked an explosion of chestnut curls back behind her ear. "Oh. "I'm the first girl to advocate taking charge of your life to make it what you want it to be." Jess said. nice guy now. as if that made everything perfectly clear. you're great together in bed. "He's nice? Why is that a problem?" "Go ahead." "Wait. most ridiculous plan I've ever heard. "I'm not getting married until I'm at least twenty-eight. It's still too soon. "It's not a crazy theory. So I only date assholes that I won't get attached to. "Oh my God. the sex was phenomenal." I opened my mouth to protest that I could hardly be anyone's example of how it should be done. "Bella. "And?" "Aaaannd…it's pointless to date a really great." "Ha!" Alice shouted. then you just adjust things. right?" "I gotta say. "He's nice. Jess!" "Let's talk about something else. I don't date nice guys. "Jess." Jessica rolled her eyes and smiled broadly. Once my career is firmly established. "It's working just fine." Angela closed her eyes and shook her head." Angela sputtered. When she said nothing else and we all just stared in confusion. thank you very much. you're great together out of bed. but Jess rolled right over me." Jess huffed and crossed her arms over her chest." she said."So let me get this straight. "I told you! You see? She's insane." Jessica's explanation was met with stunned silence. "You can work around that. Angela prompted her." "And according to you. "Noooo." "Ew. "Excuse me?" Angela pressed." Alice said. It's a sensible plan." "Except you've been talking to Mike on the phone for five months while you screw a string of faceless hotties. "So. "Tell them your crazy theory. yes. shaking her head. but Jess. "We're friends. Nothing serious. "that has to be the craziest. that's just lunacy. Alice!" "Because it's crazy! Nobody approves of the plan." Jessica nodded. holding up a hand. then I can date a nice guy who I plan on marrying. Not yet. too loud and overly-bright. so I'm only allowed to play around with guys." Angela interjected. Explain to me why you won't just date him?" "Aside from his living in Atlanta?" Angela waved her hand dismissively." she said succinctly. hush! You've never approved of the plan. Jess. and you meet him now." Alice spoke up.

He has a doorman and everything. "Good. I'm meeting his parents this week. saying nothing. right.Everybody chuckled." "What?" Jessica asked. Not after everything that happened. Ang. we're nowhere close to even discussing that. so no co-habitation yet. "You'll love Esme. I will!" "Very funny. "Really nice." Angela said softly. "Tell us more about that!" I glared at her. "but I seriously doubt Edward is. caving to the pressure. you could say that. "Excuse me?" "Well. that part sounds good!" Jessica chirped." I sighed. "Yeah. no. "That's his mom. "Um. "Things are good. Oh! And the house! Wait till you see their house!" Rose nodded in agreement." "I give you a month before you're shacking up with him. "And you didn't even tell me?" "Alice. but they let her change the subject. including panting breaths and grasping hands." "What?" Alice shrieked. you might be a little gun-shy. coming from you. "But I can assure you. it was hard. He's got an apartment in Wicker Park now." she said." "Oooh. I just…I can't do that now. too? I swear. I didn't want to talk about it. so that's better." They all let loose a chorus of "ooohs". Bella. before taking a tiny sip of my mimosa." That was met with dead silence." "Okay." "Is it nice?" Angela asked. hanging out at his place is a lot nicer than hanging out at mine." "Yeah. "The house is amazing. "How are things otherwise?" "Great. if you don't marry the guy." "Jesus!" she shrieked. so I glanced up to find the four of them watching me expectantly." "Thank you. He's closer." I said. After a moment. "It kind of sucks…for both of you…but I get it. I'm hardly going to spill all the gory details. I continued. "Good?" Alice finally pressed." "I get it. Not yet. That's really not going to happen." "What do you mean?" I pressed. "Alice." Alice said. I have to admit. too. The other four women at the table just stared at me." Jessica said dryly. "He kind of already asked me to move in with him and I said no. "That's all you've got to say?" I rolled my eyes at her." Alice sighed. "Bella. probably because they wanted to grill me. . he's rich. "Are they loaded or something?" Alice laughed. Jess. I flushed and looked at the table hard." Rose snorted.

I paused for a minute. and I realized I was compulsively zipping and unzipping my bag in my lap. Rose. he's already brought up living together. I want there to be more of myself to offer. "we need to drink a lot more today. I mean." Alice moaned after a moment. You know? His career is all sorted out. "Whatever. right?" "Look. right?" "Yes. you can all see why rushing things would be a bad idea. "Why are you so spooked?" Alice asked." "And you're not?" she pressed gently." I smiled at Alice and reached out to squeeze her hand. "I suppose I can see that. Just don't leave him hanging too long. I want to have something to bring to the table. but what she said made me feel better nonetheless. The ball's in his court and it has been forever. "Sorry. I'm pretty sure he's done looking. Let's decide what Bella should wear to meet Edward's parents instead. Because they're two very different situations. But surely." "So you think I should have moved in with him?" "Not if you don't feel right about it. Just…don't feel like you have to apply the same rules to every situation." Alice said." We were all silent for a moment after Rose's words." Angela leaned into me a little on my other side. we all nodded in solemn agreement. ~*~ "Why are you fidgeting so much?" Edward asked gently. "You're one to talk. "I know that." The table was quiet for a moment until Rose drew a deep breath and leaned back." I laughed sharply. trying to think through my answer. whether he was entirely aware of it or not. sometimes she had the ability to cut right through the bullshit and say exactly the right thing. and nosiness. I've just quit waiting on him to hit it back to me." I moaned. This is love. . He's known. "I'm pretty sure he'll take you just like you are. "I'm so depressed now. Ally." "Well one thing is certain. For all her meddling. okay?" I smirked. after all the shit I went through. "You love him. "Let's let Bella pick out her own clothes for that particular trial by fire. It's just…Edward is …he's so…complete. "Yes. "I know. her voice level. But don't mistake what you have with Edward for what you had with Jay. he apparently has this amazing family. Em knows where to find me." At that." Jess said decidedly. and then there's the money— and according to Rose. stuffing my hands under my thighs. I still thought I was right to insist on my independence. And now that he's met you. I do. B. There are no rules. he's ready to settle down and live his happily ever after. But it's not about him— it's about me. "He's just more done than I am."Edward's been ready to settle down for a long time. you maybe made some bad choices with Jay. "Ugh." I muttered." She rolled her eyes dramatically. right?" "This conversation is giving me an anxiety attack. "Are you nervous?" he smirked." I smiled. pushing.

And they're so excited to meet you. pulling me into his chest." We'd just pulled up to his parents' house. apparently having the same thought. Honestly. sorry that. there was nothing hotter than Edward when he was turned on. "I also love you because you're unbelievably sexy and there's nothing on earth I love more than feeling your naked body under mine. I think I'm going to have to hold my mother back. Bella. Throwing me his warmest smile. ." He leaned in and kissed me. "You'll be fine. I love you because you're smart and kind and passionate. and I tried not to look further than the narrow drive alongside the house that we were parked in. too. Edward chuckled and dropped his chin to his chest. "Eeew. soft. "Of course. slow and lingering. I love you." He reached across the center console and pried my hand out from underneath my leg." I sighed. until he was cupping my face gently. But at least I'm not freaking out anymore. "Are you ready?" he murmured against my lips. but now that we were at zero hour. "All part of my evil plan." he murmured against my ear. too." I murmured against his neck. Edward. so maybe it worked. reaching out to put my hands on his waist and pull him closer. his eyebrows draw together and an almost imperceptible flush of color spread across his cheekbones. caging me in. he tugged me after him to the door. Thank you for that incredibly inappropriate mental image." he said softly." I sighed and smiled. I promise. the other on the roof of the car. but he didn't move out of my way— he stayed put."Shut up! You know I am. Then. lest I freak myself out some more. smirking. I sighed. I sighed into his mouth. Then he slid his hands up my arms. "Listen. "Thank you. I watched his eyes flash. there was nothing we could do about it. God. "That's what I'm worried about. skimming his hand down my arm to wrap my hand firmly in his. "I know I will. without a word." he said. "They are going to love you. that they want to meet you?" "That they're excited. they were all bubbling up out of my control. leaning in until my mouth was just a breath away from his." Edward stepped back and released my face. Bella." He leaned back. he climbed out of the car and circled around to open my door." "So evil. trapping me against the side of the car." My laugh came out as a choked sputter against his shoulder. I love you. Because I love you. but I'm really hoping they don't love you for those reasons." I whispered. ducking to catch my eyes with his. over my shoulders. He sighed. shaking his head. One arm was on the top of the open door. "As I'll ever be. I stood up. at least for the next several hours. twining his fingers with mine and resting them on my thigh. They'll see those same things and love you. too. "What. What if I'm a disappointment? What if they don't like me? What if they think I'm not good for you?" I was usually so good at masking these stupid insecurities. He slid his arms off the car and around my shoulders. "My parents are nice.

although it was too mild tonight for a fire. was glowing with warm gold light. Edward chuckled at my side and squeezed my hand reassuringly. He didn't look like her. This wasn't a house— this was a museum." Knowing vaguely that Edward came from money. Well. what it cost. sliding my jacket off my shoulders and down my arms. It's sort of her mission in life. I couldn't help but smile in return. He leaned in close until I could feel him breathing in my ear. How on earth they came to live here." "Bella Swan. although massive and imposing. If his mother really was so gung-ho to talk about the house. It was the same exact expression I saw on his face when he smiled like that. "Come on into the living room and Carlisle can get you a drink. "This house…" "Um. and I could use all of those I could get. "Remember…I love you. Come in! Can I hang up your jacket. her face was heart-shaped. Where Edward was all carved bone structure. Edward stepped away to hang up our jackets and Esme hooked my arm with hers. absently slowing to a stop as I gawked. and it made me feel like I knew her already. sweeping lawn stretched to the parallel street in front." I murmured. although it hung in soft waves to her shoulders. this is Bella. I know. Bella Swan. stood the man who could only be Edward's father. and a wide." I felt myself flush as I tried to suppress my grin. this is my mother.I took just a moment to glance up at the house in the fading twilight and I gasped. Well. several stories tall. but I made myself not press for details. softening its edges. Her eyes were the same bright green as his. long and open. low steps up to the stone porch and Edward was just reaching out for the intricately-carved brass doorknob when the dark oak door swung open under his hand. Mom. made of sandy-colored brick. how many rooms. I recognized his face immediately. not-quite-auburn hair. jutting cheekbones and sculpted jaw line. because it was Edward's face. It backed up to a street in the rear. It was absolutely majestic. I'll let my mother tell you all about the house. at a long oak bar built into the wall. "Edward. Esme. "Ah. The house is…well. We entered the living room. with dark-shingled steepled gables jutting out in several directions. yes. Bella. her nose was tiny and pert. "Is this Bella?" she said. There was a rough stone fireplace on one wall. Esme exuded warmth and affability. But her face was entirely different than his. her features were soft. What a lovely name. In between the sharply-pitched slopes of the roof and the corners of the walls were heavy dark timbers and panels of stone carving. Edward. revealing the woman I could only assume was his mother. The house. and her eyes transformed into Edward's. Along the opposite wall were the lovely leaded glass windows I'd noticed from outside." I wanted to know more. making it feel homier than it probably was. I figured it would be a good conversation starter. the hair color was the same. yeah. The same beautiful bone structure and pale skin. Bella?" Edward was behind me in a flash. We mounted the wide. with high ceilings lined with exposed beams. and hers was as thick as his. They both had the exact same shade of indescribable not-quite-brown. The house plus the yard took up the entire end of the block. Then she broke out in a wide smile. but the shape was different. It was breathtaking. I was braced for coolness and formality. The windows were made up of intricately paned and leaded glass. and then seeing the house. In one corner. but there was absolutely none of that here. her voice a melodic lilt. don't just leave her on the porch. although his hair was blonde and his eyes .

They'll think I'm a mute. Well." I turned to look at him and he shot me a small smirk." "I'd like that. "Carlisle. Bella. only now realizing I'd had yet to say a word. I guessed. Frank Lloyd Wright lived and worked here in Oak Park. smiling at us. "Now. "My great-grandfather had it commissioned. The house is fairly significant— one of the earliest examples of what would become the Prairie Style of architecture. but even I knew who that was. I relaxed a little once my hands had something to occupy them. Frank Lloyd Wright was the architect. although she was chuckling. and there are a lot of his works here." "Oh…" I stammered. I'm sure he was exaggerating. Really. The house…. "The house is kind of a big deal. I don't know much about architecture. Red?" Carlisle nodded and poured me a glass." "Wine would be lovely. I did the rough math in my head and figured them both to be in their mid. come and meet Bella!" Esme said. then. what do you drink? Wine? Something stronger? I think we have everything. as he joined us." Esme smiled and her whole body seemed to come alive. He extended his hand to me— he had the same long. "It's practically another member of the family. I guess Edward makes five. The house is very special. "That's…whatever he said. Edward's father pivoted to look as we entered. Bella. Esme nodded. "Dinner's almost ready. but afterwards. It's been in our family for four generations. you're a saint according to him. amused glance." Esme pointed a finger at him." Carlisle said. "Thank you. humor in his voice. including this house. Both of them were remarkably attractive." "It's amazing." "It's…I'm sorry. Bella. Edward didn't tell me anything about it. it's a pleasure." Esme laughed. so lovely. "This house is family." I nearly spit my wine out in shock. architecture in general." he explained. "Frank Lloyd Wright?" I repeated faintly. is a bit of a passion of mine." "Well. was it?" . but they looked so much younger. I thought I caught Edward and Carlisle exchange a brief. cupping the base of my neck. but it's old. "Esme. I might have known nothing about architecture." she said seeming genuinely pleased. your house is so beautiful. tapered fingers as Edward's." "Thank you. We've spent more on it than we have on your education!" Edward and Carlisle both laughed and Esme pretended to be affronted. We've heard so much about you from late-fifties. Brilliant start." Esme winked at me. "Edward tells us you've just relocated to Chicago from…Seattle. It's on the National Register of Historic Places. I'm on the board of the Oak Park Historical Society. I'll give you the tour. built in 1895. too. I felt Edward's hand slide up under my hair.well." "So. right?" "Yes. pulling me over to him. "I only tell the absolute truth where you're concerned.were lighter— blue. "You'll have to forgive me. "Bella. so we'll eat now.

I doubted that he would have shared my whole sordid history with his parents. Truly. Nothing too exciting. so I launched into a brief description of the pieces I was currently working on for the Lantern's next issue. For now. Honestly. and I was impressed at the way Esme had balanced that." "Well. I'm thrilled to have the opportunity. a few months ago now." "Tell us what kinds of things they publish. it is impressive. leading me after him into the dining room. Once we were settled in and dinner was fully underway. I was pretty sure he hadn't. we'd probably have to share all ." "And how do you like it so far?" "I love it. Edward wrapped his hand around my free one. "Yes. "Bella. but in others. Have you heard of it?" "I think I have. "Bella's an Assistant Editor. Even the furniture seemed of a piece with the architecture surrounding it. and there are still neighborhoods we've never seen." Carlisle started. no matter what the venue. It's such an exciting city. I suppose. it felt like being in a museum. and I liked her even more. they both asked me plenty of other questions— about my childhood in Forks." Esme pressed. but his face was calm. "Edward. just this week. "Why don't you get everyone settled in the dining room while I serve dinner?" She slipped away towards the back of the house as Carlisle topped off everyone's wine. That's what keeps it interesting. Esme and I are life-long Chicagoans." Esme interjected smoothly. But so big. Carlisle. you're making it sound so much more impressive than it really is. but he seamlessly took over the talking. At The Chicago Lantern. I'm just excited to be working again. "Maybe. never letting things slow down or get awkward.My eyes flashed to Edward's. I laughed and rolled my eyes at him. They were just friendly and curious. It was obvious that they'd made every effort to maintain all the original features. saying simply that we'd met at Alice and Jasper's wedding. Their house continued to astound me. You can spend your whole life here and never know it all." Edward said proudly." "You never know where it might lead. Things might have gotten dodgy when Esme asked how I'd met Edward. One day. It was hard to be nervous around Esme and Carlisle. college. In some ways. Esme asked informed questions that told me she was an avid reader." Esme said. Dida was impressed with you the minute she met you. I feel like I'll never see it all." "It is a little overwhelming. it felt like just a comfortable home. right?" I nodded. "I think Edward mentioned that you're just starting a new job?" I cleared my throat a little before answering. and from the untroubled atmosphere in the room." Esme remarked. though. or figure out where everything is. "Yes. The editor tapped her personally for the job. my long friendship with Alice— but I never felt like I was being grilled. They were both so down-to-earth and warm. as he passed me the green beans. After we'd exhausted the Lantern as a subject." "It's just a tiny review with a very small readership. "It's a literary review." "Bell. Esme was a lively conversationalist. the conversation picked back up again.

and about our instant attraction. raising her wine glass. Chicago can also feel like such a small town. her eyes glittering in the light of the taper candles she'd lit on the table. Carlisle shrugged. pushing back from the table. running into each other on the street like that. his eyes soft. "But old kitchens generally aren't one of those things. before I followed Esme towards the back of the house. but it happens all the time. Bella. "Esme. If she invites you in." Carlisle cocked an eyebrow." he said. The kitchen was huge." "Well. I smiled back and squeezed his fingers. He told his parents all about glimpsing each other at the airport and the surprise of meeting again that night at dinner. I was out antique shopping with Alice. and the way we kept finding ourselves drawn into conversation with each other." Esme said. how did you reconnect here?" I decided to jump back in and take over for this part. I reached down and put my hand over his in silent thanks for negotiating this potentially sticky situation so easily. because of the house's status as a historic landmark. are original." Esme said. It was low-ceilinged and retained the feel of the rest of the house. "That would be lovely. opening one of the glass-front cabinet doors to get down dessert dishes." "So this is all new?" "The room and a lot of the built-in features. I felt his hand curl around my knee under the table and squeeze reassuringly. Edward chalked up our long separation simply to the distance and bad timing. Being one-on-one with her was a little nerve-inducing. like the cabinets. about a month and a half ago. "So. Even though I remembered all too well all the bad parts of that time— the guilt I felt. dear?" ." I breathed. "Fortuitous meetings." I laughed. She looked back at me for just a moment. The odds should be astronomical." she marveled. Thank you. you should know. "Can I help?" I offered.the gory details of exactly how complicated that scenario had really been. "Wow. the renovations can be difficult and expensive. Can you take these. "For a major metropolis. Edward just ran into us on the sidewalk." "There's a lot about old houses that's charming. "If you all give me a minute." I said. but my first dinner with his family was certainly not that time. and while we were trying to get a cab. Esme leaned forward. practically vibrating with enthusiasm. but much of it had been updated. Of course. smiling at me. "Let's toast to astronomical odds and fortuitous meetings. almost no one violates the sanctity of Esme's kitchen." "Just like that? Of all the crazy luck. the battle I waged to keep him at bay— it was nice to hear him tell the "happy version". "To fortuitous meetings. taking in the seemingly endless counter space and top-end appliances. This is beautiful. I see why you guard your kitchen." Edward reached across the table to grasp my hand as we raised our glasses. "Bella. since we were past the awkward bit. but we've done a lot of renovations on the kitchen and the bathrooms. I'll bring out dessert. As Edward told a glossed-over version of our four days in Chicago. but it seemed the polite thing to do. I could go nuts in a place like this." "Well. I'm always amazed at how often I run into people I know on the streets. I'll try my best not to screw it up. that's how you know you've done something right. "Well." Esme said.

." And I got the feeling. Now I was finding out that he came with his very own piece of American history as part of the deal. It was more than a little daunting. It's like the weight of the world lifted off his shoulders." I thought about that as I fetched spoons out of the drawer that she pointed me towards. "He's disturbingly perfect. doesn't it? He's so well-adjusted. It's not just preserving an old house. "Yes. School. "I've been worried about him. But thank you. "It'll be our secret. he does. Bella. But the fact that it's part of our family history makes it much more special. He's so gifted." I chuckled knowingly at her spot-on description of him. as she smiled at me. I was worried that life in New York would just eat him alive eventually. But…" She trailed off and cocked her head to the side. too." "He figured that out for himself. "It is." "Me?" She smiled softly and shrugged. but her meaning was clear. And then when he met you. As talented as he is. He could have done anything at all with his life. I was so relieved when he chose to come back here and practice with Carlisle. It felt good. Life just has a way of fast-tracking Edward. he excelled at it. "I know so. thinking. "But?" "Well. he did as well at that as he has everything else. He knows exactly what he wants." "You're very welcome. but he knows what he wants now. I'd work on these old homes without any sort of personal connection. It's been so good to see him change. I'm sure he's told you all about Lenox Hill. "He's different. he's always been sure he wanted to practice medicine. "It sounds like such a huge responsibility. all of it— it came so easy for him." "You think so?" I asked. "Pardon?" "Edward. I know his face so well." She looked up at me and smiled. And naturally. so smart and sure of himself. since you." Esme nodded. which meant that one day it would be Edward's legacy. I do it out of love. and when he looks at you…" Esme stopped abruptly and waved her hands in front of her.I retrieved the dessert dishes from her and set them out on the counter as she moved to the refrigerator. it was like he came alive inside. I'd been so lost in my ruminating. being back in Chicago. For telling me. And if he and I…well. Esme wasn't being in any way obvious. you know. Of course. into their family." I said. I know it seems silly to ever worry about Edward. "It took him a while. trying to suppress the giddy little grin on my face. He's been different since…well. You can't ever tell him I said those things!" I laughed. it's preserving our heritage. whether it's the ultimately the right track for him or not. Whatever he tried. and I'm not just saying that because he's my son. It felt like she was welcoming me into their lives. Edward was already such a complete package just on his own. then it would be mine as well. and not just for selfish reasons. that she meant so much more than the little peek inside Edward she'd afforded me. it just wasn't the right place for him. "He'd absolutely kill me for talking like this. "It's always been that way for him." Esme's voice made me jump. This house was her legacy." she said.

were on the second floor. rolling his eyes dramatically." she said over her shoulder. and surely Edward was no different. She pulled one weighty.We just smiled at each other and finished assembling dessert. But Edward's early life was like something out of a fairy tale. The house had a freaking name. I looked at Edward and he smirked at me. Edward said you like to cook. They were so clearly still in love with each other. He seemed to have lived such a charmed life. "It's just you being a caring person. All the same." I heard Edward chuckle softly at my side. trophies for swimming and track lined the shelves. It's Edward's favorite. His was largely frozen in time. "They're all named Edward. still talking shop. a whole bookshelf devoted to her architecture books. We finished up in the library. I supposed it was a lot less sweet when you'd spent your life around it. I had a mostly happy childhood. without a doubt. I knew almost nothing about Wright and the Prairie School of architecture. After dessert. But it was all really interesting and her passion for the subject kept me rapt. leaving Edward and Carlisle behind in his study. "Nothing. Over time. taken from the corner of the block. I assured myself that it couldn't be considered pervy to drool over pictures of a high school boy if the boy in question grew up to be my boyfriend. Edward and Carlisle were deep in discussion about a patient. re-joining Edward and Carlisle. this house was a member of the family. displayed in a glossy photograph. 1895". I'll give you the recipe before you leave. evident respect for each other. That would be great. Everybody had something. I figured I'd see the cracks." The tenderness and intimacy that hummed between them in that moment nearly took my breath away. Esme had clearly done this many times and had a lot to say about the house. or the ways in which he felt slighted. When we came back to the dining room with our serving trays. as always. my God…this is amazing. I had no doubt about that. he simply shrugged. She ran a hand alongside his face lovingly. over-sized book down and flipped to a page before handing it to me. I'd love the recipe. Diplomas and certificates were framed on the walls. I do. and did his very best for me within the confines of our circumstances. Esme showed me her library. I was surprised to see their house." Esme said over my shoulder. But this first glimpse into his early life left me feeling a little like we came from entirely different worlds. The rest of the house was every bit as magnificent as the bit I'd seen." Carlisle protested mildly. "Excuse me?" . I remembered back at the wedding. back to discussing patients." "It's just healthy professional curiosity. including Edward's childhood room." "Do you like it? I'm so glad. Edward was right. but Esme seemed to be a near-expert. "No shop talk at dinner!" Esme cried. All the main bedrooms. "These two never turn it off. Esme." he said innocently. but when I looked at him in question. I nearly moaned out loud as I took my first bite of Esme's dessert. I loved that about them. "Esme…oh. Edward telling me how embarrassed he was as a kid by his parents' relentless affection. and I had to stifle my laugh. I was sure it couldn't have been quite so blessed. and had such a deep. right?" "Yes. you know. a snapshot of a high school golden boy. before taking another huge bite of his dessert. Edward running track…Edward on the swim team…yeah…I made a mental note to ask Esme at a later date if she had pictures of him from then. Esme took me on the promised tour of the house. the things he'd been unhappy about. The page was titled "The Edward Platt House. Bella. My father loved me. The rest of the house tour took a while. "That's the one thing I never anticipated with Edward joining the practice.

They were like a string of noble ghosts. closing her eyes." Edward said. "Edward." she smiled. warm. "Well. let me just get you that recipe I promised you. and so did Esme. ever the gracious hostess. of course. backlit by the gold light flooding out onto the porch. All Edwards. Edward kissed his mother's cheek goodnight before taking my hand and leading me down to the car. he turned to me. my father. before kissing his cheek." "Smart-aleck. Just before I turned away. "Oh. stepping forward. Esme invited me to the monthly Oak Park Historical Society Lecture. so I'll stay out of it. and he looked over to me. standing behind him. I felt guilty. "Come over to my place tonight?" I smiled and nodded. we were at the door and Edward was helping me back into my jacket. slightly scowling look he had when he was thinking hard. She made Edward promise not to be such a stranger now that he had his own place. Feel better now?" "Mmm hmm. backing me into the side of the car. and I accepted. My pulse fluttered and raced as his hips pressed lightly against mine and his hand came up to cup my cheek. it was like Edward could feel my eyes on him. Carlisle leaned down and pressed his lips against Esme's temple and she smiled. I glanced over my shoulder at him." He chuckled and cast a glance over his shoulder at the house. losing that intense. hands resting on his shoulder. His face transformed. I admired their beautiful." Esme said lightly." "Why would she do that?" . no matter how delightful his parents were. too. matching profiles. I feel really better at the moment. "Bella. Carlisle hugged me goodbye. I hope you'll come back soon." I murmured.She pointed to the name. He was standing in front of the desk with his father. though. talking about some new medical test he'd read about in a journal. grabbing his hips and pulling him into me. I cast one last wave to them both over my shoulder. and quite proud of myself about how well the night had gone. I would just be in the way. I was feeling happy. I love them. Soon. Carlisle and Esme were standing in front of the open door. "Bella. since I knew he spent nearly every free moment he had with me. they liked you. knowing he was eager to be alone again. actually. and my son. I felt the weight of Edward's history. arm-in-arm. "I think we need to get going. "My great-grandfather. my grandfather. My face. it was so delightful to have you visit tonight." It took us another twenty minutes to actually leave the house. once I looked. Your parents are amazing. Tons of people have asked her for it and she never gives it up. "Why were you laughing when your mom offered me that recipe? Don't think I didn't notice you. so I'd say the night was a complete success. As it so often happened. And she just offered it to you out of the blue. into something softer and far more intimate. so similar except for the hair color." Again. "It sounds like you two have already made plans that have nothing to do with me. He groaned softly. "It's just…Mom is really protective of her butterscotch mousse recipe. please bring her back soon. I suppressed my smile. a little abruptly." He chuckled and shook his head. Edward." Esme said. I was pretty sure they liked me and I knew I liked them. Once he assured himself that they'd gone back inside.

not exactly secretive. Honestly. "Edward. that Edward's wonderful." "In the past. that's what I mean. my dad and I aren't really adding to the bottom line with the line of work we've chosen." Edward exhaled and smiled. You have money. leaning in to kiss me gently. His eyes were on the road and his expression was relaxed and happy. "I know that. looking closely into my face. here's the whole story. "But you're curious. My great-great-grandfather. In manufacturing. "Edward?" "Hmm?" he answered absently. I leaned my head back on the headrest and turned to look at him. "No. But yes. Quite the opposite. right?" "Oh. That's where the trusts come from. "You have money. I just…I don't know. "You seem…well. sounding uncharacteristically anxious." he said. "Yeah. actually. but now seeing your parents' house made it kind of clear. "Yeah…I have a trust fund. too. "Does that freak you out?" I let the idea settle in. right?" He turned his head to look at me again. but I didn't want to prod him. I can't imagine ever finding a bank account more interesting than you. Because I think it's wonderful. Is that what you mean?" Now it was my turn to laugh. it doesn't weird you out?" ." I laughed out loud at that and he looked back at me. I've never known anybody with a trust fund. my mother had a trust fund and I have a smaller one. Not enough to set me up for life or anything." I stated. His perfect profile was intermittently illuminated by the streetlights we passed under as we drove. because I was curious. He cocked an eyebrow in surprise and turned to glance at me. the one who built the house. I think it was just her overeager way of saying 'welcome to the family'. actually. I'm just trying to wrap my brain around it. Bella. And she can see how much you mean to me. but yeah…there's some money there."I told you— she likes you." "I'm just me. but you don't show it off." he said hesitantly. It's wonderful. right?" "What exactly do you mean?" I sighed. It doesn't change who you are to me at all. Seriously. "it doesn't freak me out at all. You know that. Bella." "I'm glad to hear that. puzzled. aren't you?" I nodded reluctantly. giving an awkward chuckle." I let that sink in for a minute." He pulled away with a sigh and opened my door for me." "Do you want to know how much?" "No! I mean. "Okay. that's your business. loving parents had essentially just opened their arms wide to me and asked me in to their family. "You have more in your bank account than you earn in your paycheck. slightly exasperated. "Excuse me?" "I figured you must have before. made the money." I said sincerely. It was a family business until my grandfather took it public in fifty-nine. sometimes I've found that people…women…found the trust fund a little more interesting than they found me." Edward stiffened slightly. On the drive back towards Wicker Park. "Good.

Sam would just sigh and say there was nothing to report. when I called and asked for news. Because it's just money. "And the money doesn't love me. you can trust me. This was the first time he'd ever hinted that something had changed. not exactly. but I could still sense the tension and unease in him. I like to think it doesn't. Like I said. "After all. He groaned. At least." "Good." "Bella…" "Drive faster. keeping his eyes studiously fixed on the road."Seriously." . but—" "But what?" "Let me just say that what I'm about to tell you stays between us. Please. You do. Bella. no. his delight evident in his tone. Edward. it's just money. it doesn't really mean anything." I slid my hand on his thigh further up and squeezed. I'm just calling to check in and see if there's anything new. I exhaled across his skin and heard him draw in a sharp breath. but I'll get used to it. We'd talk about Jay. I do. until my lips were nearly against the side of his neck. The subject had unsettled him." He said nothing. It's information on an open investigation and I'm not supposed to be telling you any of it." he murmured in a hoarse rasp. The money doesn't kiss me like you do. "Hi. through my regular phone calls back to Seattle. Only you. What does that mean?" Every week. "And I don't love the money. which meant a lot to me." "Sam. It allows me to be comfortable to a certain degree. Sam. He gave me a peek at a side of him that I'd never known. but it doesn't affect who I am. but he also reminisced with me about my father. I never wanted Edward to feel that I wanted him for anything other than just himself." I reached across the console to rest my hand on his thigh. I only love you." "Well. I don't know anything about where Jay might be. I didn't earn it. "Of course it doesn't affect who you are. "The money doesn't touch me like you do. it's just a foreign concept to me. and there was only one thing for me to do about that. just tell me what's going on. he and I had become rather close. Because he was plenty just as he was." ~*~~*~~*~ Bella "Sam?" Chapter Twenty-Five ~ Everything You Gave ~ "It's Bella!" Sam's voice vibrated through my phone." "Hang on." "Yes." I kissed his skin and he let a breath out slowly. Edward." "Wait. "Well. I leaned across. Over the past few months.

And you know how much I appreciate it. hearing the panic in my own voice. don't you?" He chuckled." "What kind of letters?" "Anonymous ones. God." "That's why we're pretty sure it's him. But there's nobody else to worry about him. the phone lines went down and when the phone company came out. Sam." "We have to find him." "I get that." Now it was my turn to sigh. I've told you before. Another time. You did all you could do." "Your dad would be so happy to know that. seeing as how Jay seems fixated Mr." "That doesn't mean it has to be you. ""You go so far above and beyond the job for me." "I know." "Just please. Really. Not mailed. I don't know what I would have done through all of this without you. "Wh…what kind of incidents?" "Well. I'm just glad you're doing well out there in Chicago. Jay's boss. I do.there have been letters." "What do they say?" "Nothing that makes much sense. incomprehensible scribbling came back to me. "Yeah." "I know you are. he called us out again. but we have to assume the incidents will escalate. "I don't think you can." I gasped. try to find him before he does something awful." Eleazar might have been an arrogant creep. somebody broke the lock on the garage door. "We're pretty sure." "Thank you. just left in his mailbox. "Yeah. He's essentially off the grid right now. I remember. "Before he does something really bad. It is going well. Looked like they poked around in there." "Oh. Everything here is amazing." . isn't it?" I heard Sam sigh on the other end of the line. Sam. But I don't think I can stop. Bella. my job. But with him presumably living on the streets. either. Somebody jimmied the basement window. isn't it?" I thought about everything I had in my life now." I sighed and pressed my fingertips to my forehead between my eyes as the memory of Jay's frantic." I said. Also…."We've gotten a few reports now of unusual incidents at the home of Eleazar Arroyo-Torres. my friends…Edward. You know the kinds of stuff he was writing towards the end." My heart turned over in my chest and I felt my blood run cold. "It's Jay. Bella. this isn't your concern anymore. He hasn't tried anything directly yet." "I told you— you're family. but I still didn't want anything bad to happen to him just because he had the misfortune to become the object of Jay's delusions. Arroyo-Torres. "Yeah. they found the line to the house had been cut. that's hard to do. And a few days ago." Sam sighed heavily through the phone line." "Don't mention it. but nothing was missing. Bella." "We're doing our best." "I know he would. "I agree. and we take care of our own.

"But G." Gianna snapped back at him." He scoffed and waved a dismissive hand over his head. something was still off and I couldn't put my finger on it. things exasperated me." he groaned. always insisted on laying right in the middle of my desk on top of whatever I happened to be working on. but I didn't mind the teasing. and he was trying to put together his posse for the hunt. There were plenty of quirks and eccentricities about everybody else working at The Lantern. I could make this work for you. I stacked my pages and set them off to the side. "Gianna!" Riley whined plaintively. he's totally going to be at the club tonight." "Ladies. turning to face him. I couldn't wait to see what my email held for me. impeccably dressed and completely obsessed with an edgy young writer who tackled gay themes that he'd met through The Lantern. ribald conversations with people from every walk of the literary life were absolutely fascinating. Don't make me go alone!" Riley was one of the college interns. concentrating was hard with the chaos currently surrounding me. He'd found out this afternoon. Nessie the cat. but Dida just chuckled and held her hand up to silence him. With a huff. vibrant energy. what have I told you about trying to turn Gianna into a lesbian?" Didaaaa. It's my moment. darling.~*~ Something about the tense was just wrong. "Riley. the interns and their myriad of college social dramas that played out in the offices. that went without saying. but I'd never felt more alive and excited in my life. there's a whole segment of the population there that would be so into you. Lucy and her edgy. I said no. "What's up?" I asked as I swiveled in my chair to face her. "If you're open-minded." With a sigh. I could totally hook you up." "I'm straight. It was such a free-wheeling environment that everyone was happy to let me set myself up according to any system I saw fit. and what was next on my . via his crazy Twitter network. I tried to turn my attention back to the pages in front of me. "Do I look like I belong at a gay club with you?" "Trust me. so I doled out my fair share of teasing in return. hands on her hips. I could still hear her from where I sat. but she was marginally less distracting if I couldn't see her. Riley turned back to his computer screen and made a pretense of paying attention to it. I got the sense that they were all mildly amused by how organized and anal I was. Things frustrated me. that his young man was definitely showing up at some rave later on that night. In the momentary lull. tall. "We're putting an issue to bed in two weeks. Riley. But within the linguistic construct this author had created. I couldn't wait to get to the office every morning. that always. but I purposely chose to face away from her because Dida was just too distracting. I could have set it up to face either direction." Gianna huffed. I had to get used to Santiago and his world-weary ennui. "Bella?" Dida interrupted me. "I need you. ladies. The whole piece broke all sorts of grammar rules. "Riley. My desk sat about ten feet in front of Dida's along the windows facing the street." Dida barked from her desk as she hung up from her phone call. Her phone rang non-stop all day and her loud. Of course. lithe. I'd quickly fallen into the day-to-day routine at The Lantern. Can we focus? And Riley. sweetness.

right?" I said." "Yeah. you. so she printed out every submission and marked them up with a pen. that's hysterical. People were always calling Dida." In the month I'd been working at The Lantern. And like an idiot. for all kinds of reasons— publishers and editors from publishing houses looking for feedback on new writers. but started to skim the piece in my hand. that is just…" "Go ahead. "When anybody else drops acid. preparing to dig in and finally focus. In retrospect. when my own cell phone went off by my elbow. Dida couldn't read on the computer. as we always were. Santiago had started calling me "Mother Duck" and the writers I struggled the most with "my ducklings". because my last name was Swan. your generation has no idea how to really regret shit the way mine did. E "Hey. "It was at a Heart concert in…um. he's got to stop giving his characters porn names. Mock freely. but you've got a knack with these things. lovable. . the trees just sing to them and shit. I turned back to my desk and my new assignment. We were interrupted. her old friends and colleagues from the Chicago Collective. I was published. first of all. maybe? I don't know. I tell you. you know? But the kid needs help. looking up with a smile. There's a thousand reasons why I should reject it—" But you want to accept it. No going back. but I was used to it now. I sat up sharply in my chair. Eavesdropping on Dida's conversations was enlightening in a way countless years of school could never be. "Hardly. "Where the hell did Didyme come from?" Dida leaned back and squinted at the ceiling. leaning forward in her chair and thrusting a ratty sheaf of papers at me. One big." I murmured in the sexiest voice I could manage as soon as I picked up. My real name is Roberta. and the nickname just stuck…for them and. anyway?" I'd been dying of curiosity about her name and she'd just left the door wide open. It was even funnier. Because stories floated between several hands. "Is it a family name?" Dida gave an entirely unladylike snort. Everyone does." I burst out into laughter and in a moment. but mostly they just called to talk and gossip. by her phone ringing. It was an adjustment. For all the personality quirks and oddities of the staff." Dida laughed. I'd developed a reputation as a mother hen to young writers in need of guidance. dysfunctional family. "Ugh…Well. too. The goddamn trees told me to change my name to Didyme. I lugged a messenger bag full of paper-clipped pages with me everywhere I went. and always. "I need you to take a look at this piece for me." She heaved a heavy sigh. at least in Santiago's opinion. we all had to work on printed hard copies. I snickered. I don't know what to tell him." "What's the story there. I quickly came to love them all like family. "Although I'm the last person to ever disparage an unusual name. "It's just got something. she joined me. seventy-seven. Make him one of your ducklings. The instinct to scoop them under my wing and give them direction had flared up again brightly as soon as I'd started reading submissions. I actually did it. sadly. She smirked back at me. Sometimes they actually called for work-related reasons." she continued. gaping at her. Yeah. and whatever we did had to be able to transfer seamlessly to Dida." Dida said." "Dida. for me.plate. By the time the eighties rolled around and I'd come to my senses. literary critics wanting to pick her brain about the latest releases. "I don't know. "I've read it a million times." "What?" I shrieked. I supposed I'd always been that way. there's that.

No one else was actually involved in any sort of serious relationship. tingling skin. Planting his hands on the edge. Seeing him cuddle her was really. stuffing papers and notepads into my bag. Edward was very good-natured in the face of Nessie's devotion. I tilted my face up to him with a smile. breaking up our quiet little greeting. "What? I was just going to see if he wanted to come with us to Backslash tonight. "I think we have plans. in her desperation to reach Edward. "But thanks. you shameless whore!" "It's alright. Gianna. hey yourself.There was a slight pause. Surprise. "Mmm. "Hi." Edward said. fully awake. She doesn't mean any harm." I finally managed to mumble. Riley. knocking my pen holder to the floor and sending papers flying." "Um. "To what do I owe this pleasure?" And it was. "Nessie!" Gianna scolded. Can I come up?" His words set off an avalanche of physical reactions in my body." he murmured softly. super big plans. sat up abruptly. I was kind of turned on as soon as I saw his first initial flash on the screen." Edward laughed. "I just got off the train. "Nice to see you again. before he hung up. "Oooh. really hot. His eyes flashed with his answering grin as his face lowered to mine and he kissed me. "Um. so we were a novelty to them. Dida was still on the phone. "Hola. but she smiled and nodded her head in greeting at Edward. wanting to escape with him as soon as he appeared." I warned him. and then I heard him clear his throat. Riley. Right?" I turned to Edward. I shot him a warning glare." he said. He cocked one perfect eyebrow back at me. I was so easy where he was concerned." "You came all the way down here to surprise me?" "My last patient cancelled and I wanted to…I just wanted you. Missed you. And incredible. but he was her favorite human in the world from the instant he'd first stepped through the door." . to be frank. Then she scrambled off my desk in a furry panic. He'd spent probably less than two hours total in the office in intermittent visits. I picked up the pace. Eduardo!" Santiago called across the room. Edward!" Riley sat up a little straighter. working his way around the desks towards me. He was good-natured about that. scrambling around her desk to scoop up the pushy cat. "Love you. Edward was a bit of a favorite of everyone in the office. too. I'm a block away. Backslash?" Edward looked at me apprehensively. always crouching down to scratch her ears and never complaining when she shed her hair all over the bottoms of his pants legs. and all kinds of things sat up at attention." His voice was a low rasp and I was immediately turned on. "I'll see you in a few. "Leave poor Edward alone. along with my laptop. Gianna." Nessie. The way I responded to him was just shameful. To be honest. She adored him to a ridiculous. and they chose to treat Edward as a kind of pet or mascot. Such a pleasure. obsessive extent. at the sound of his voice. he leaned all the way across it to me. "Plans? Big ones?" "Yes. catching on quickly. "Don't ask. Once I heard the buzzer sound from the street level. as soon as Edward ducked into the front door. who had been curled in a near-comatose ball on the corner of my desk for hours. "Look who it is!" Gianna sang out." Edward said. I spent the next few moments packing up my stuff so I'd be ready to go. flushed cheeks.

Now I was staring at a blinking cursor and 500 brand new words. I just…" . "Bella. I rolled my eyes. Edward reached out and slipped it right back off and onto his. He'd answered the door with his phone to his ear. "Writing." "Well. It wasn't bad. my eyes skimming back over what I'd just written. my laptop open in front of me. then! I'm only human. I felt a little light-headed. I was pretty sure I made Edward blush. the ticklings of plot lines. I'd started imagining snippets of conversations. Actual words. one hand on my shoulder. confused. Except the words still wouldn't go away. it just happened. open-mouthed Edward after me to the door. I am standing right here. certainly nothing like an actual story idea. Bella!" "Um. I opened up a blank document and words flew out of my fingers and on to the page. Riley gasped and shrieked. I haven't. his legs stretching out on either side of me." he sighed. my fingers froze over the keys.Riley shook his head sadly. It was a waste of air. smiling apologetically. my head still fuzzy with words. Then tonight. I fired up my laptop. I had been writing. I knew better at this point to argue with him. I just had to talk to the admitting physician." "No problem. opened a new document and typed. promise you'll tell me all about them tomorrow? Pleeease?" "Riley. I'd come straight from the train station to Edward's apartment. don't flaunt him in front of me. "Are you guys off to do really dirty things together?" Riley. so I'd just kissed his cheek and left him to finish up while I went to stretch out on the bed. "Bella." Edward protested awkwardly. Sorry about that. At the sound of his voice. "I don't know what it means." He sat down behind me. "No. "Seriously? You've started writing again?" I shook my head. Well. and I dissolved into laughter before we made it out the door. "What are you doing?" I felt the bed shift as he came to kneel behind me. so without over-thinking it. clapping his hands eagerly. For the first time in five years. I'm not even sure I have anything specific to write. "Not for long." I shot back. so I let him carry my bag. "Here you are. During my commute to and from work every day. quit perving on my boyfriend. almost drunk." Edward paused a moment. with my earphones plugged in and my music playing. that's fantastic. I could tell he was on the phone with a hospital about one of his patients. " Riley. I hadn't. "Bella?" Edward called again from the door. pulling a stunned. ~*~ "Bella?" I was folded up in the middle of Edward's bed. the voices just wouldn't shut up. It had started slowly over the last few weeks. hefting my bag onto my shoulder. Within a few seconds. the first I'd written in years. None of it was terribly clear or coherent. ghosts of characters." I mumbled. "Total waste." He pressed his lips against the back of my shoulder. I just started. Tonight. but all the same. you can't handle what I would tell you. I blinked a few times as the fog cleared." I said. I wasn't planning to.

I ran my hands down his thighs to his knees and then back up. as your physician. pushing the hem of my shirt up and out of the way. unable to sustain the playful banter when he was touching me that way. and I felt my body stand up at attention. I could only whimper as my body wound up and the tension built low in my belly. And we can't have that." I laughed. I sighed and closed my eyes. Edward cradled me against his chest as every muscle I had tensed all at once and then went slack. . Then he held and he pressed and pushed me over. I'm not looking to re-open all those wounds. "Good blood flow is so important. it felt kind of cathartic. I left my eyes closed as he pulled my clothes the rest of the way off my body." His long fingers swept my stomach. as he slipped my panties down off my hips. His fingers were already flicking open the button on my jeans. "Okay. know what I mean?" He motioned at my computer with his free hand. right?" I nodded. You know I always follow the advice of my physician. "It's just that I left all this behind because it was too painful. then. I'm a doctor and that's my official medical advice. I advise you to go straight to bed. and stop if it hurts. "It's vital. digging my nails into his thighs. "And these need to come off right away. I couldn't answer. That's what I hear you and Dida saying all the time. His fingers found my bare skin and I writhed. just in the right place. It's very serious." I exhaled on a sigh as he took advantage of the extra room and slid his hand down to settle between my thighs. then." "No. doctor?" "Mmm-hmm. laying me back. I reached back with one hand to grip him by the back of the neck." he muttered in my ear. pressing harder and making me gasp and arch against him. actually. and relaxed back into the warmth of his chest and arms. "Please…" I whispered." "So. after all.Edward reached his arm around the front of my shoulders. "Well." he murmured. letting my head fall back against his shoulder." "Really? Straight to bed? Is the situation that serious. low and sexy. slipping under the waistband of my jeans. I do." He chuckled. "I'm kind of desperate for you. He held me pressed against his chest as both hands worked me over. Dr. "Yeah?" he whispered in question as he shifted his fingers against me." He dropped one hand down to my stomach. "It doesn't matter. "They're restricting blood flow. The doctor knows best. He dipped his head in to kiss the side of my neck before he spoke. sliding down the zipper. his fingers stroking. down to the edge of my panties. before biting my earlobe. My eyelids fluttered closed and I floated on the sensation as my body sang. Cullen. pulling me up against his chest and silencing me. Bell." "You think so?" "Yes. "Did this hurt?" "No. one between my legs and the other on my breast. just let it come when it comes. right next to my ear. rubbing my palms up his thighs again. When his hand pressed down on my bare skin. I felt him shift behind me. His breathing grew ragged in my ear." he growled. the sound vibrating through my body. "Is that so? Always?" "Mmm-hmm. Don't over-analyze it." "Edward…" I moaned. needing something to anchor me as he drove me right to the edge." "For some things.

elbows on his knees. And his voice was far away. baby. Through the fog. He began first to move. All the time. pressing my thigh back into my chest and open. It didn't help that he'd barely furnished the place. Usually." The last word came out in a gust as he pushed into me. . He pulled my knee up." He groaned into my shoulder and I felt his body press me down into the bed. slow flowering inside. pressing his sweaty forehead against mine. My already-sensitized body flew into overdrive. which was unusual for him. But his bed was vast and cold. pushing deeper and harder. "All of you. do I love you. resting his head on my chest. as I scrambled out of bed and tugged on his hand. cradling his cell phone against his ear. his hands were gentle as he lowered my leg and stroked my face. bare skin. not the sharp-edged release of a moment ago. His hands grabbed at me almost roughly. I felt a little boneless and well-used after our activities earlier in the evening. I blinked the sleep away. His new apartment was nice. but now he was up and out of bed in the middle of the night. It comforted me just to hear it." "Right behind you. He exhaled hard against my neck. all hot. I liked it. But it was new-construction and a little bit soulless. unable to do more than hang onto his shoulders as he did just what he said— he took me. His smell made me want to touch him. I felt lost. I wrapped my arms around him. and then to pound into me. His hands held my waist as my legs came up to wrap around his hips. I laughed and rolled out from under him. "Jesus. more helpless than ever. bubbling up and sweeping out to my toes and fingertips. Everything. He'd bought only the essential furniture items. then finally fell on me. as his breathing slowed. and I took a minute to bury my nose in the sleeve. Moments later." he said solemnly. A little sensuous and wanton. "Then take me. curled forward. I moaned." I murmured. We'd fallen asleep together afterward. "I love you. I was so close already. he stayed curled up around me all night long. ever get bored of doing that with you. and I wanted to let it rock me back into unconsciousness. Swinging my feet out of bed." "You have me. and spacious." he said. I want you to. "because I'm taking a shower and I was really hoping for a little company. I craved him. "That's good.I shifted towards him. pulling him down. I followed the sound of his voice out into the living room. Propping myself up on my elbows. in my opinion. before he heaved and curled into me. his warm body wasn't next to me. This one was like a hot. soothing rumble of Edward's voice. It still smelled like him. "Do you think we'll ever get bored of that?" "I could never. I retrieved Edward's wrinkled white button-down shirt from the floor and shrugged into it. "I want so much. spent. which drove me to my feet in search of him. but it was a good feeling. I heard Edward gasp and then shudder. in another room. and then I was there again." ~*~ I was pulled from my heavy sleep by the low. pressing his lips against my nipple for emphasis. His fingers slid down and dug into my thighs." I said." he said breathlessly. He was sitting on the couch.

Anyone could have lived here. regardless of whose apartment we were in. getting closer to him. There had been a few more incidents at Eleazar's house— his mailbox had been vandalized and he suspected someone was stealing the mail. "Well. anxious expression on his face immediately softened. Bell. He stretched out an arm and I moved in. "What happened?" "One of Eleazar's neighbors reported seeing a suspicious man loitering in the neighborhood today. You need to be okay with how you leave things or it's always going to eat at you. Sam?" My stomach plunged with anxiety." I nodded. my heart clenched with dread. I didn't feel awkward about listening to his conversation. Sorry he woke you." "Thank you. happy life with you. It means so much to me. at least to me. and made a few contacts in various city and state agencies— people we could call on if and when Jay ever turned up.Alright. Edward had gotten more involved in my continued monitoring of the Jay situation. in case there was ever any news and he couldn't reach me for some reason. Edward shook his head. He rested his head on my stomach and I ran my fingers absently through his crazy bedhair. right?. Plus." I let my breath out in a shaky exhale. He looked up and the tired. I fisted my hands into his shirt on his shoulders.all tasteful. too. My fingers twisted into Edward's shirt and his eyes shot up to mine. and the bathroom was a luxury spa compared to mine. Seeing the panic on my face. Since he'd pulled me in. He's always going to be a part of your past. and that was Washington. Sam. he'd just peppered me with questions about Sam and what was happening back in Seattle. Somehow his hair managed to look even better when he'd just crawled out of bed. Granted. I didn't want to wake you. it was huge and clean.Uh-huh…. he shook his head and mouthed. Each little incident indicated. so that usually decided things. and he'd found his newspaper burned to a crisp on his doorstep one morning. maybe in a garage or an empty house or something. "It doesn't matter. They're going to step up patrols. I padded closer to the couch and he finally heard my footsteps. I'd told Sam about Edward. Edward knew a lot more about social services and the procedures that were in place for dealing with someone like Jay. Still. He's not your problem.. He closed his eyes slightly and leaned into me. At first. that it was Jay. Call whenever you know something…Thanks. he was familiar with the New York systems. introducing himself as "Dr." "But he's your problem.. watching the colors shift as I moved it. He hadn't put up pictures or set out knickknacks." Edward ended the call and tossed his cell phone onto the couch next to him before reaching up to wrap his free arm around my hips. until he'd curled it around my hips. but generic. All the appliances were new. I plan on having a really long. Sam thinks he might be staying nearby." ." I reached up and ran a hand through his hair. Edward listened to what Sam said again before replying. He'd made some calls. "It's okay. thanks again for the call. For all of this. Eventually. that helps narrow the field at least. Every time Sam called. The description matches Jay's. And I know you. making myself relax my hands. but he had a better idea than I did of who handled what. Over the past few weeks. Cullen". Don't worry about the time. and gone as far as giving him Edward's cell. "So what does it seem like to you. Sam had called Edward a few times. he had air-conditioning and I didn't. and now they had a decent phone rapport going. Edward. I must have missed his call. which makes him my problem. We rarely spent a night apart. "My phone was on silent.

And if that wasn't enough. "Nothing. and I came after you anyway. Here is perfect. his unending generosity and understanding where Jay was concerned. "And I'm still saying thank you. "What's wrong with right here?" He shook his head. I moved forward until my shins hit the couch. stunned by all of it…his casual mention of our long life together. until his forehead was pressing into the soft skin of my stomach. I pushed his head back until he looked at me. too. "Don't thank me. but it was all I had to offer. his thumbs stroking my waist through the fabric of his shirt. too. from his cheekbone down along the length of his jaw." He exhaled long and slow. "That was hard for me to admit to myself. 'Thank you' seemed so inadequate in the face of all Edward had done and continued to do for me." "I know." Edward tipped his head forward. I loved him so much in that moment that my body didn't feel big enough to contain it all. caging his legs with mine. You'd probably have a lot less guilt about him if you and I hadn't done what we did. then I crawled up on it on my knees. And since I pursued you in spite of your situation. But you were trying to do the right thing. but I wanted you so badly. His hands slid from my waist down to the backs of my thighs. right? You didn't convince me to do anything I didn't want to do." "I wanted you to come after me. "So you see." I finally whispered. If that hadn't woken me up." he murmured softly." I reached up and stroked his face.My breath caught in my throat and all I could do was stare down into his face. the blinding summer sunshine flooding through her windows would have." I said softly. "Thank you again. Bell." ~*~~*~~*~ ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Twenty-Sixty ~ Independence ~ Edward I could hear Bella singing softly to herself in the bathroom. reaching up to capture my face and pull it down to his. . it is kind of my problem. you really don't have anything to feel guilty about." "Edward. baby. "Come back to bed and thank me properly. you know I wanted to. it was hot as hell in here.

She blew out of the bathroom. the wind and cold seeped through every crack around the windows. "Better not keep Alice waiting." "Well. Sadly. too. my voice still thick with sleep. "I can't bend over or I'll drop this. leaving the whole long expanse of the backs of her thighs exposed. right past me. the heat also made her scoop all her pretty dark hair up into a ponytail where I couldn't get at it." . I fell back on the bed and groaned in frustration. and she couldn't hide the look on her face. her head buried in the fridge. I sat up once I saw her heading in my direction. Was she fucking kidding me with those cut-offs? They stopped just below the curve of her ass. "I'm going to be busy all morning cooking. "Nobody's coming over till nearly noon. none of that. "Come down when you're feeling social. Come give me a kiss. "Hey. But it did leave her neck exposed. I swallowed hard and licked my lips in anticipation." "Bed's no fun without you in it. my voice making it clear what I wanted. Soft and silky. and I wanted her in it with me. we both know what will happen." she said. And I have places to be today. I smirked.As the days had warmed up. I couldn't resist running one hand down over her ass and down that incredible thigh. I wondered idly if I'd be able to lure her back into bed when she came out." "Truth. She was bent at the waist. I wanted my bed. where I knew the sheet had fallen away. the sun hit those windows and the heat got trapped inside. If I let you get one hand on me. But today was July fourth and Jasper and Alice were throwing some big barbecue in the backyard. She was already dressed." I said. holding onto her hips while I kissed her cheek. You know I love your cooking. Bella's apartment had gone from too cold to too hot. my feet immediately falling over the edge of her mattress. "You can go back to sleep if you want. But I saw her eyes flicker downward. Bella was out of the shower and nearly finished in there. if you're cooking." She smiled down at me. "Nice try. so I'd have to settle for kissing her there whenever I got the chance. so just have a lazy morning. "What are you up to so early?" I mumbled." she mimicked with an eye-roll. I moaned and stretched a little. stepping back away from me. My me-sized bed. just like I was imagining. In the summer. "I promised Alice I'd come over and help her prep." I propped myself up on one elbow to watch her work. in case my face didn't convince her." "Flatterer. so it had made sense to spend the night here." "Bellaaaa. From the sounds of it. in a tank top and a little pair of cut-off shorts that made me suddenly grateful for the early summer heat that had settled over Chicago. Honestly. The place had essentially turned into a greenhouse. I could tell that wasn't going to happen the second she left the bathroom." Bella said as she arranged her stuff at the kitchen counter. I don't know why she insists on always inviting people over when she can't so much as boil water." "Edwaaard. She turned to look at me over her shoulder and cocked an eyebrow at the expression she saw on my face. In the winter." I pushed up on my knees. arms laden with covered bowls and plates. and back towards the refrigerator." she laughed. at least I know everything will taste great. She laughed and shook her head. "C'mere. It always made her sigh when I did that." I muttered.

okay? I need to go help Alice bring out the rest of the food." I couldn't resist shooting her a roguish grin. Alice's parents had arrived the day before to spend the long holiday weekend with them." I leaned down to kiss her lightly before she disappeared back into the house. sorry about that. lest she get drafted to help. "Thanks. All the extra sleep combined with the warm. There are parentals present. But the last time I'd seen the Colonel. and after they briefly hugged hello.She just shook her head and muttered something under her breath before backing out the front door with her stuff. I fell back to sleep and I was out like a light for hours. "Have you been sleeping all this time?" "Yeah. I opened my mouth to ask where Bella was. "Surely you remember the last time I saw Alice's father?" She blinked once and then blushed. I was half-dressed and I'd just finished defiling a very taken Bella. "Yeah. I fished out a bottle from under the ice and reveled in the first cold pulls in the middle of all this heat and sun." he said succinctly. she joined Jasper and me at the grill. hoping that the lingering smell of her hair might coax me back into sleep. just be normal." she smiled up at me. But one thing kept me away from Alice's house this morning: Colonel Brandon. "Oh. not even bothering to get near the kitchen. They got here a little while ago. ~*~ "There you are. But you'd better behave yourself today. they'd be at the barbecue for sure. I rolled to my side and pulled Bella's pillow into my chest." She reached up and ran her fingers lightly through the top of my hair. I hurried to take it from her." "Right…well." "So you always say. sunny day in the company of friends and Bella not too far away combined to leave me feeling slightly boneless and content." Jasper motioned with his spatula to a large plastic cooler in the corner. You never sleep enough. I listened to the clatter of her steps on the wooden stairs. the color slowly spreading across the arc of her cheekbones. "Beer. when she suddenly backed through the kitchen door carrying a platter of food. I usually don't sleep so much. "Good. Although the idea of a lazy morning in general was a nice one. "I thought you were going to sleep right through the party!" I shrugged and rubbed the back of my neck as I made my way across the small back yard to the wooden deck. I was going to allow myself a little longer to hide from what was sure to be a mortifying meeting. I nodded back off and that was it. "Are they inside?" "Yeah. I'm glad." "Because it's true. it didn't sound nearly as fun with no Bella to share it with. Jessica arrived a few minutes later. man!" Jasper called when I finally made my way down the stairs several hours later. she just parked herself . I couldn't avoid him forever. arranging it to her satisfaction. "And who's fault is that?" She slapped me lightly on the arm. Funny." I groaned softly." I gave her a meaningful look. I was out. chatting with Angela and Ben. "Smartass. What's wrong?" "Bella." "Yeah…" I chuckled. Instead. Rose came out as Bella went in. Instead. I toyed with the idea of hunting down Jasper and seeing if he wanted to hang out until it was time to fire up the grill. "Oh.

ruthlessly attentive to every word Bella said. sir. we hadn't actually stumbled across each other yet. You look…well. I looked across the deck to see Bella talking with the Colonel and Mrs. It was a happy. milling mix." . "She seems happy now. maybe I was avoiding them a little bit. Good to see you again. I needed to make sure that I was in their good graces. yes. and he made her laugh several times. Colonel Brandon and I stood wordlessly for a moment. My free hand. Brandon' stuff. The one that wasn't firmly wrapped around Bella. none of that 'Mrs. "Hey!" Bella said brightly. and proceeded to bake herself in the sun. Her smile was bright and relaxed. anything. reaching out to shake Mrs. "Colonel. but at least I spoke. she has. He just stared back at me for a minute before nodding tightly." "I want to think you played no part in her misery. Here it comes. Edward…" And I flinched internally. appraising look that seemed to last for a year. "Yes. long time. that she was my girlfriend. in some kind of effort to show them right off the bat that we were together. never taking my arm from her shoulders." "Thank a lounge chair with a beer. "I have only ever wanted what's best for Bella. "Listen. It was all going fine until Alice popped her head out of the back door. So I excused myself from Jasper. That girl's been through hell. Call me Cheryl. "Edward. "Are you enjoying your visit?" Lame. "Bella…Mom— can you guys give me a hand with this?" I shot Bella a panicked look. "Alice filled me in a little on what landed Bella here in Chicago. so I could rationalize that I was needed where I was. but she just shrugged helplessly and slipped out from under my arm to follow Mrs. taking my time to think through my answer. Finally. "Chicago's just fine." she smiled. Would I be right in thinking that?" I looked up at him finally. one by one." I nodded in solemn agreement. to break the tension. I wanted them to see immediately that I was here and staying. "Nice to see you again. and looking anywhere but at Colonel Brandon. I turned to the Colonel and held out my hand. "You remember Alice's parents. I wasn't just some sleazebag who seduced her and ran. I decided to say something. and although I saw Alice's parents across the deck. and crossed over to stand behind Bella. Brandon back inside. Brandon?" "Of course. Brandon." I finally said slowly. Okay." "Oh." He returned absently. slapped her oversized sunglasses on. sir. Happier than I've seen her in a long. I kept my eyes studiously on the two of them. Brandon's hand. Ah. I remembered her well. but Jasper kept me busy helping with the grill. just examining our beers. The delicious smell of the grill enticed all the guests outside. right? Colonel and Mrs." I said. These people were the closest thing Bella had to family. before finally reaching out to take my hand." He gave me a long. I wrapped my arm snugly around her shoulders as soon as I reached her." Bella and Cheryl Brandon launched back into the conversation they'd been having when I interrupted.

This gathering on Jasper's deck was much more my speed. when we heard the shout. Jasper was starting to pull the steaks off the grill. I'm more sorry than I can say that I didn't know about her troubles until it was too late. and nothing at all to be done but enjoy myself." I only smiled and ducked my head. "Well. it was okay. "Ugh…what did he say?" I had to laugh a little at her reaction. and after a quick peck on my cheek. I think of her as my own. apparently thrown by my declaration. "I like you." He waved a hand towards the kitchen to indicate Bella and me. Bella brought me a plate and wrapped her arm around my waist. laughing and joking. Bell. by the way it illuminated her pale skin and lit up her dark eyes. She certainly makes me very happy. but I didn't really mind. If she'll have me. "Um. We were saved from one more minute of that incredibly embarrassing conversation by the reappearance of Bella and Alice. And she thinks the sun rises and sets on you. Alice was complaining that we wouldn't be able to catch a glimpse of the Navy Pier fireworks from any vantage point on their property. then. I can assure you. "that all I ever wanted to do was to make you happy." I took a deep breath and looked squarely at him. We were all sprawled in chairs around the deck. for want of a better expression. "I want her to be happy. wondering what Bella had said about me." Those dark eyes went soft and misty. "Really." Bella pressed her face into my shirt and groaned. but I would agree that she was happy now. "I'm thinking that definitely has something to do with you. bringing out the last of the food. We're the closest thing that girl's got to family. because now I was absolutely confident about what I was going to say. with every fiber of my being." "What did you say?" she asked." he continued. At length. so I nodded." I said at length. but not as humid as it could sometimes get in the city. eyes wide. "Jazz? Alice?" My eyes cut to Bella's immediately." He nodded again. "Just know one thing. I wish the both of you the best of luck. and I felt her whole body sag slightly into my side. And she doesn't need one more minute of unhappiness in her life. looking up at me again. resisting the overwhelming urge to salute. enjoying our post-food stupor. The day was glorious— hot." I said quietly.I couldn't compare her to what she'd been before." I felt one corner of my mouth curl up. Then he cleared his throat awkwardly. After that. "How'd it go?" she murmured. she straightened up. went to get her own plate of food. I'll be keeping an eye out for her. "I'd like to think so. that's just…that's fine. He…made himself very clear. but I won't be making that mistake again. He wanted to find out what my intentions were. "I told him. coming from the little pass-through alley along the side of the house. good food. sir. . setting off the flecks of gold in them. we got caught up in the fun and food. I got distracted by the bright summer sun glinting off the red highlights in her hair. He just wants you to be happy. so everyone was preoccupied with loading up plates and topping off drinks. seemingly satisfied. fine. Edward. "Sir." "Thank you. "So I'm happy about all this. Just good friends. I want to spend every minute of the rest of my life making Bella happy. I was silently cursing all these people surrounding us in this intensely personal moment." Colonel Brandon blinked once. Good.

We all just watched her go. they made me the offer I wanted and I took it. ah…I have a new job. "Em!" Jasper said. Rose had almost no external reaction. who was sitting in a deck chair next to her. I didn't want to say anything until I got the job. Loud. In the periphery of my vision. That was my first interview. I. more so than I remember ever seeing him." Again." Emmett finished uneasily. I saw Rose sit upright abruptly. probably. "Yeah. waiting for a cue from her. She burst into tears. and it took a while for the negotiations to shake out. choked little sound as she scrambled to her feet. Angela. Jasper cast one quick. He stopped when he spotted all of us up on the deck. Bella hadn't taken her eyes off Rose. Then tough. no-nonsense Rose did something I'd never seen her do in all the years I'd known her. who stared back at her nervously. Everyone was eyeing Rose warily. Senior Officer in charge of Client Relations at AletaCorp. Only Alice' parents were blissfully unaware of the tension. except for her hands. of all people. Bella looked to Rose. Yesterday. or if something else was bothering him. staring at Emmett. concerned glance at his sister before pushing himself up out of his chair. You could have heard a pin drop out on the deck. "I." Jasper sounded slightly forced to my ears. twisting her hands together. "Emmett? We're around back on the deck. He looked really nervous. "I had no idea you were coming to town! And you're just in time. and a cooler of beers in the corner. Even Jessica. And here I am. But it all worked out. uncertainty momentarily flooding his face. That's what I was doing here in April. was the first person to speak. sobbing tears." A moment of dead silence met Emmett's announcement. and I wondered if it was just encountering Rose. no one said anything for an endless minute. had sat up straighter in her chair and had her eyes trained on Rose. Emmett stayed standing. Alice was standing by the grill. There's a steak over there with your name on it. . like me. who was generally oblivious to the nuances of conversation. Then she turned on her heel and ran into the house. giving him a one-armed hug. but I came for a reason. But then he smiled and climbed the three shallow steps up to the deck. which curled tightly around the arms of her chair until her knuckles were white. um…I have some news." Jasper said. man. It wasn't really working. Rose let out a tiny. Angela and Ben were standing more or less in the middle of the deck.Emmett. Then she did. reaching up to rub the back of his neck. like he was trying really hard to keep this situation comfortable and easy." Then he turned to look directly at Rose. "Are you telling me you're moving here?" Emmett looked at Jasper. "I said 'yes' to the job and I'm moving to Chicago. Angela looked torn about whether she wanted to go to Rose or go greet Emmett. ragged. "But…AletaCorp is in—" "It's here in Chicago." Emmett rounded the corner into the backyard just a moment later. open-mouthed. She stood there. "Wait. Pull up a chair and get comfortable." "What's that?" Jasper asked. "Thanks. giving her the chance to react first. Jazz.

I thought this was what she wanted! I just up-ended my whole entire life for her and—" Bella shot to her feet and crossed the deck to Emmett's side. It might take her a little while to stand down." "Jesus. Just be patient. "That was…interesting." The two of them didn't appear for quite a while. throwing his hands up in the air. still standing where Emmett had been. and she didn't see it coming." Jessica said. "He will. "I know you did. reaching out to put her hand on his forearm. like he'd just hiked a thousand miles. Bella nodded. "Holy hell. His face was weary. Alice shot to her feet. giving Emmett the beginnings of what could be a hard stare." Alice murmured. It'll turn out okay. right?" I nodded. "Em…" He held up a hand to stop her. if Rose doesn't kill him before he gets here. Let her work through it. an audible exhale went up from everyone on the deck. "I'm…ah…I'm going to drive Rose home. but I need another beer after that." Bella said aiming for optimistic." He nodded tightly and gave Bella's hand a little squeeze. so I took encouragement from that." She smiled sadly. and I was laughing loudly at a joke Jasper had just told. "Emmett?" He looked to Bella. before he took the same path Rose had taken into the house. when Emmett appeared at the back door. it'll be great. "You were really good back there. "Jesus. Emmett met his gaze and stared back. It'll be great having Emmett in the city though. "I did this for her. I slid my arm around her waist and pulled her in close. "What the fuck was that?" he shouted." Bella murmured. and eventually everybody relaxed again. "Rose wants it. Her touch seemed to calm him down a little and he trailed off. I'd have considered the day just about perfect." There was a chorus of assents. including me. do you think I should—?" He motioned at the back door. I pushed out of my chair to go get fresh ones for myself and Bella." He looked at the ground for a minute. I'll call you guys soon. okay?" "Is she okay?" Jasper said. she's just spent years convincing herself she can't have it. considering what she said.Emmett broke the awkward silence first. Bella was sitting in my lap. If not for the awkward "what-are-your-intentions" grilling I'd gotten from the Colonel and the emotional atom bomb of Emmett and Rose. "She's been fighting this inside for a really long time. As soon as the door closed behind him." he said quietly." Ben said diplomatically. rubbing her bare skin. I think you just took her by surprise. "They've spent a long time fighting this. running his hands into his hair in frustration. They just need a little help finding the right direction. When I reached her. "Yeah. Dessert was produced and another hour slipped away in drinking and friendly conversation. her voice low with warning. "I don't know about anybody else. "This is when you should go after her. . rubbing a hand over his face. my hand was curled around her knee. "Emmett better do this right. rubbing her hand up and down his arm. but he was smiling a little. It was a shock." Jasper said. "So. eyebrows raised in question. The sun slid low in the sky and the day cooled off.

smiling at us. I'm so glad I have your blessing." Jasper held up a hand to fend me off. But there's a lot of lingering stuff there for her. man. which is good. That was sure…something." Jasper's eyebrows pitched up in surprise and he took a pull off his beer before he said anything else. and started to help. I sure do have a lot of relationship drama in my life." Jasper laughed and shook his head ruefully. "He was an asshole before he was sick. Bella chose that moment to reappear on the deck. it's serious. thank you. She was still cute as hell in those little cut-offs. Alice began cleaning up. out of my lap. That seemed to take the steam out of the evening. it's serious." . Speaking of relationship drama. I need to go slow." "Shut the fuck up."She will be. "Damn straight." he said at length. "So. and sadly. Jasper. "You ready to go?" I asked. "That's my cue to be scarce." Everybody muttered half-hearted farewells before Emmett disappeared back through the door. I'll make sure of it." I couldn't stop the grin that took over my face. "Damn. You're good together. and Jessica fell into conversation with Angela and Ben on the other side of the deck. I…this is it for me. "I'm trying to cut him some slack. I'm gonna go help Alice clean up. exasperated. I hope they get this shit squared away." he laughed. Happy fourth." Jasper supplied. giving her a meaningful look and letting my voice drop down a little. "Yeah. both at the absurdity of Jasper feeling out my intentions regarding Bella and at the fact that this was the second time today that it had happened." "Emmett and Rose have been brewing for a hell of a long time. man. and threw a wadded-up napkin at my head. For good. and she's still dealing with shit from—" "From that asshole. She's been through a lot. His legs were splayed wide and his head was tipped against the back of the chair as he stared up at the sky. "Glad?" "You and her. "I'm glad." Jasper nodded slowly in understanding. B. "She know that?" I tipped my head to the side." "Yeah. before shoving himself out of his chair. then?" I sputtered out a laugh. that may be. "She's getting the idea. I ducked and laughed as it sailed past me. and shortly afterwards. That's just the truth. First you and B." he finally said quietly. and now Emmett and my own damned sister. Things are…really good. I'm glad. I chuckled. Jasper snorted and rolled his eyes." "Why. See you guys later. I took a long pull on my beer and looked at Jasper. sitting a few feet from me." Jasper blew out a breath. "For someone as happily married as I am. all things considered. "Yeah. The Brandons had retired a little while ago. it's been fun. Bella jumped to her feet. hands on her hips. how are things with B these days?" "No drama.

hooking two fingers over the waistband of my jeans. "Well. "Hmm. She tugged until I followed. stroking my chin with my finger. "I think I'll be the judge of that." "Oh. Bell. the sound ringing out in the dark. Bella moaned and her arms came up to wrap around my neck immediately. my God. "About those intentions of yours. He's happy about us. until I was nearly against her. And then I felt her fingertips skim the fly of my jeans. well. "What were you guys talking about?" Bella asked. I rolled my eyes. When we reached the landing and she'd unlocked the door. Seems to be the theme of the day for me." Bella laughed and leaned forward. I yanked her tight against me and crushed my mouth down on hers. leaning in and letting her lips just barely brush mine. I'm not sure I've come to any." She laughed. "Mmm hmm. "Just another conversation about my intentions. that. in between her hot little open-mouthed kisses on my skin." "Is it?" she smiled. "So firm. and the instant she was facing me. and I groaned." she whispered against my cheek. Edward?" she whispered against my neck. one arm behind her back and one under her legs. The skin of my stomach tingled where the backs of her fingers brushed me. I sucked in a breath. she turned back to throw me another smile. let's see if I can help you clarify your thought process a little. my eyes sliding closed. Ben and Jessica before heading down the stairs and into the dark backyard. as we reached the foot of the stairs leading to her apartment." She tightened the arm she had around my waist. So am I. I'm going to kill him!" "Relax. "Oh. She started a little in surprise. catching a whiff of her shampoo as she backed away. Then I shocked her even further by abruptly scooping her up in my arms." She murmured. . Bella and I waved a quick goodbye to Angela. as we picked our way through the random low shrubs and patches of flowers that Alice called a garden. skim me. hard and fast conclusions about my intentions for tonight just yet. "I was wondering just what they entailed with regard to…tonight. I was waiting for her." "Ye-ees?" I answered slowly. cocking one eyebrow at me as she backed up another step. She tugged me forward until I started following her up the stairs. I'm getting pretty firm about what I desire. "I am happy." "Bella…" She just smiled and kept tugging me up the stairs after her." she murmured. "Are your intentions clear yet?" I inhaled sharply and took a quick step back from her. "Oh. They just love you and want you to be happy." "Good. The door swung open slowly behind her. She squealed softly. yes." she said." "So.He stopped next to her just long enough to kiss her cheek affectionately before slipping past her into the house. "What is it. I reached out for her hips to steady us. wondering where she was headed with this. um. "I think it's becoming clearer." I pretended to consider it." "He didn't!" Bella hissed. So is Alice's dad. She turned to face me and began to slowly back up the stairs.

She leaned back in her chair. dropping a worn stack of sheets. "I want to give him another go.." Then I carried her inside and slammed the door behind us before I tossed her on the bed and proceeded to show her exactly what I wanted. "Yeah." "Alright." I felt my cheeks heat a little and ducked my head to hide it. You've heard of Aro Blalock?" My eyebrows pitched up in surprise. because they're impeccable." I laughed." Santiago gave a weary eye-roll before retreating back to his desk in the corner. as always." Santiago said. "Dida. "That was Aro Blalock on the phone? You know him?" I felt like such a fangirl every time I was caught off guard by one of Dida's esteemed contacts. so we all used green felt-tip pens. here are the last round of poetry submissions. Let's see if he lives up to the confidence you have in him. cutting me off. "No pressure. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Twenty-Seven ~ Chicago Collective ~ Bella "Dida. Bella. "Hey there!. I think he can get there. You either have it or you don't. I'll meet you there. right…. And that's something you can't learn..." I pointed at her phone. "From Volterra Press?" "That's him." I murmured in her ear. "Tonight. because it just made me flustered. Every one of your ducklings has risen to the challenge and turned out some excellent work." "Dida. "I guess you could call it that. or anything. heavily marked up in green." he sighed. Aro and I go way back. on Dida's desk. "So…" I finally prompted. That was her standard phone greeting."I know exactly what I intend. Dida felt that red was too negative a color to use for edits. and every night for the rest of my life. then. All the way back to when he was Arthur and he needed my help to pass Intro to Comparative Lit. Dida rifled through them absently while I waited for her attention to come back to me.. You need to trust your instincts. "Do you think I should ask him to re-submit it or give it up?" "What do you think?" she countered. "Lunch date?" I asked politely. "So many young ladies ignored by feckless men and writing bad verse about it. but her phone rang.No. That's what you should tell him." I started to tell her to quit flattering me." she barked into the receiver." ." She hung up as abruptly as she'd answered.two?. She snorted.Good. we're still on…. "You haven't been wrong yet.Yeah. "I'm afraid it's a rather dour selection this time.

back to the beginning. Aro…Well." I gasped a little and covered my mouth. back in the day. It all blended together to form a hodgepodge kind of wallpaper. Is that why you run it alone now?" She shook her head. "Oh." she waved a hand to dismiss the entire idea. Then we took it independent together in seventy-nine. I smiled at her outfit." "Involved?" Dida asked in confusion. He might not have been the most talented writer. leaning on the arms of the furniture and standing behind it. We ran the Lantern together when it was still part of the University. Besides. That was the mid-term break party at the house we shared. Oh. and the macramé beaded belt. They were nestled in a broken-down armchair. but it was the seventies. She pointed at an old. faded eightby-ten framed photo on the wall near her desk. sorry! I didn't realize you two had been involved." "We're you and Marcus…?" "Yeah. "Oh. The ratty couch next to them was filled with college-aged kids. Aro was sort of the ring-leader in our little cabal of terror back at University of Chicago. "He died. lanky young man with shoulder-length brown hair and a long. I slept with him once. one of the mid-term parties. Way more than just University of Chicago. "You've known him that long?" "We have a lot of history. How could he have been such a driving force in its founding— Dida's partner— and there was no sign of him now? "Where is he now?" I asked tentatively." she said simply. some for gigs that happened five years ago." I'd never heard his name mentioned around the Lantern offices. She was sprawled in the lap of a tall. All kinds of sordid history. the hip-hugger jeans with ridiculously wide bell-bottoms." Dida confirmed. posters for political candidates long since disgraced. "No. I could be forgiven for never having noticed it before. yeah. I scooted off the corner of my desk where I'd been perched to go look at the photo. I'm sorry. but he's got something about him — a certain charisma— he ends up as the center of any group he's in. "Oh. Of course she would know Aro Blalock. well. sorrowful face. he'd already left The Lantern by then. but still the name meant nothing to me. We were. "We weren't involved. "No. Whatever had gone on with her and Marcus had obviously affected her deeply. Well. the tight black turtleneck. He was one of the leading lights in the Chicago Collective. . in what looked like a large living room. Most of the folks you call 'The Chicago Collective' are in that picture." "Marcus?" "Marcus Albright. This place was our baby. and flyers for local bands slapped up by the interns. some for gigs happening next week. Aro's on the couch. and people were scattered on the floor. he moved to New York. She looked almost vulnerable. there's you!" I cried. We slept with everyone back then. I had Marcus. but her long black hair and striking features were unmistakable. when I spotted Dida. There was a lot of stuff tacked up to the walls at The Lantern— newspaper articles. And he always gets what he wants. "That's me. It looked like a party of some kind and the photographer had caught a casual moment in time. It seemed a delicate subject.I shook my head and smiled. People always want to be close to Aro. "And that's Marcus with me. She was younger and thinner. Then. when a couple of senior editors left to form Volterra Press. "After college." she explained. and there was an expression on Dida's face that I'd never seen there before. Dida. eventually. He started as an intern at Simon and Schuster. He's always been that way. Aro wasn't significant to me like that. but it was kind of shocking how fast he moved up the ranks.

"New York in the early eighties was quite a scene. Aro wrote a book about it. I promise. until he got to where he is now. With no worries. I don't…" "Bella. He kept moving up there. Aro's got deep pockets. This was Aro Blalock. how could I possibly refuse?" I smiled back at her. no." "I don't. exactly. He said he would be perfectly happy here. "Marcus said no at first. he's harmless. We'd only taken The Lantern independent a couple of years before and we were still on shaky legs." She paused for a minute. come on. Aro got what he wanted. Anyway. "He O. "Excellent! I'll make it worth your while. But I supposed we all started out that way once.he went with them. there was our relationship. and no idea of the complexities that life had in store for them. even if it was his choice. He doesn't bite. "Fuck. Volterra Press wasn't quite a powerhouse on par with Simon and Schuster or Penguin. Dida shot me a leveling look as she snuffed out her cigarette in the stand by the door. I'm just summoning my courage. Plus. "I'm coming in. Somehow I doubted that I'd feel as naturally at ease in his presence as I did in Dida's. I need to stop waltzing down memory lane. we'll be forced to have a normal conversation. "Come on. and finally. another talented editor to add to his collection. Plenty of people ran in that crowd and came out just fine on the other side. Sure. But my therapist and I got past that. But…" she shook her head and gave a rueful chuckle. looking at her hands. I mean. "So he went. "Don't chicken out on me. Yeah. He hired a lot of our old friends from college. And Aro Blalock practically ran the place. It'll probably be the best lunch you have all year. too. ~*~ I was hit by an attack of nerves just before Dida and I were about to walk through the heavy glass door of Le P'tite Paris to meet Aro. In the end. before turning to examine the photo one more time.'ed in eighty-four. Dida. then." Dida snorted a laugh. But Marcus just wasn't as strong as Aro. I just had to let him go try it. in the end. and it ate him up. They were so young in that picture. If it's just me and Aro. Marcus just wasn't tough enough for it." "Me? Oh." I protested. She didn't sound mad. Fuck. Then he set his sights on Marcus. all we'll talk about will be all that old shit. eventually he would have just resented the hell out of me for it. It had a solid reputation for consistently producing stand-out work. If there's someone there from the outside. You didn't sound like you had any hard feelings on the phone. Mama Duck." she growled. even though I felt like I already knew what her answer would be." "Well. and every choice he made was his to make. But Aro's hard to say no to." "What happened?" I asked." . Much. there was a time when I really wanted to fucking kill Aro. He courted Marcus. "No. but there was definitely an edge to her voice. and he'll pick up the tab. And I don't want to go there— especially not with him. They all worked hard and played harder. but you know how that goes. I know I did." "Well. when you put it like that…" She slapped her hands together in delight. really.D. He didn't want to leave me. Marcus was a grown-up." Dida inhaled sharply and sat up." "I'm so sorry. he likes nice places. but it was known. I did for a while. If I'd have tried to hold him here. come on. the reason I told you that whole sob-story was to see if I could guilt you into coming to lunch with us. That shit makes me maudlin. Well.

You told me all about her. was almost free of wrinkles. He had to be one of those daily-gym types. "And who is this?" "This is Bella Swan. His head snapped up and his tanned. Dida rarely does that. Where Dida had let herself slip into a sort of comfortable. a crisp black dress shirt. Dida pulled to a halt just a foot away from him. "Bella Swan. Then his eyes flickered to me.She didn't give me time to respond. but he looked a good ten years younger. just Bella. It stood to reason that it was big news for Dida." Shaking my head and chuckling. I should know. His skin. His clothes. so I cleared my throat awkwardly and nodded. although tanned. like he had in that picture of them in college. "Shut it." "Ah. "What?" she said. Although it was a long time ago. But it broke up the slightly awkward introductions. "Um. Ms." Dida motioned at me with one hand. hands on her hips. No. Aro just laughed. Dida and I following in his wake. . which gave him character. Just a few at the corners of his eyes. dark designer jeans." He smiled widely." Dida coughed in an obvious way and he turned his head to smirk at her. as he released her. Then again. Aro was already seated. After all these years. It's an honor to meet you. Mr. yes." I shot Dida a look. expecting an answer. but he was impeccably preserved. "Aro Blalock." Aro narrowed his eyes at me appraisingly." she snarled good-naturedly. "It's true. We seemed to have skipped over the formal introductions. New Moon. She just shrugged back at me. Ms. you charming ass. He was the same age as Dida. He still wore his black hair long. "Bella. "The honor's all mine. I finally found my voice again. Their wordless exchange carried years of history and understanding. "Dida. yes. although casual." "Dida says you have the best eye for new writers that she's come across in years. and we all sat down. one hand wrapped around a glass of seltzer." He reached his hand out to me. he released my hand and I waved it to dismiss him. Blalock. I realized that Aro was still looking at me. and a charcoal wool sport coat. Swan. she just yanked me by the elbow after her into the elegantly appointed restaurant." I took his hand to shake. Swan. that wasn't quite true. I was the first new full-time staff member hired at The Lantern in ten years. Aro Blalock seemed to be exerting every effort to maintain his youth." he said. "She's my brand new associate editor at The Lantern. "Di!" He was on his feet in a flash and they were embracing." I felt his fingers tighten around mine and hang on for just a beat longer than I was expecting. you look exactly the same. I'm sorry." Finally. which consumed his attention. The soft-spoken host smiled and nodded when Dida mentioned Aro's name and turned to glide through the restaurant. "Please. "Oh. elegant face broke out in what might have been a genuine smile. frowsy middle age. the other gripping his Blackberry. It looked like all other signs of aging had been carefully erased via surgery. He was tall and in good shape. And it's just Aro. but now it was slicked straight back into a ponytail and he had distinguished touches of silver at his temples. somewhere in his early fifties. opened at the neck. and she laughed a little at something he hadn't even said. his pale blue eyes sharp. "Dida's flattering me. New Moon…is that right?" My eyes went wide at the thought of Dida discussing me with Aro. He looked his age. That was me. I took the moment to examine him up close. then. I knew that. were obviously expensive.

"I need a smoke. Dida tells me you've only been working with her for a short time." "I just…it's what I love." Aro and Dida both laughed in understanding. maybe a little bit. Dida's eyes snapped to his and once again. Aro. It's so satisfying to see them through the whole process." "Mama Duck?" Aro asked. Honestly. "Being able to connect with a writer— really gain their trust about their work— that's a real gift. "I had some friends here." "And thank god you thought so. yeah.While we went through the business of ordering drinks and food. yes. If I was starting over. Chicago seemed as good a place as any. You do keep me in line. Dida says you're a natural." Aro's sharp eyebrows pitched up in surprise. Bella. "Not really. what are your long-term plans?" "Long-term plans? I don't think I have any. Dida cleared her throat and stood up abruptly. "Already I don't know what I'd do without her." "The same thing you did before." "Don't be too hard on yourself. "That's true. I just smiled and nodded. Bella. when will you start taking me places that let me smoke inside?" . "So. I'm pretty delighted. "I'm serious. I'm new to Chicago. Then Dida blew my mind and offered me a job. He was leaning forward on his elbows." "That's why we're all here in the end. "Tell me. examining me closely. I turned to look at him. Up until a few months ago. "Dida…" "Come on…what are you so embarrassed about?" "You make me sound like a preschool teacher. but once the food arrived. Mama Duck." Dida interjected. Aro turned his attention back to me. Seattle had run its course for me. I was happy to just sit and listen and soak up their history. It's adorable." Aro interjected suddenly." I finally said." I rolled my eyes." Dida chuckled and shook her head. "No ten-year career plan? No burning ambitions?" I chuckled and shook my head. "But I mean it in a good way. to see them realize their full potential. These scared little newbies imprint on her just like ducklings. Aro and Dida carried on a casual conversation. trying to think of a neutral answer that didn't delve into my dramatic history." "What brought you here?" I shifted uncomfortably. it's just a nickname Santiago gave me. "Well.. where I am right now is more than I could have ever hoped for. Aro. Because of how I mother the writers." I said. Bella. "Working at The Lantern is a dream come true." "A few months." "Now who's doing the flattering?" Dida laughed." Aro murmured softly." "No…." I said to her.well. Dida. mostly catching up on their many mutual friends. I didn't think I'd even be doing this kind of work again." "You should see her. "Oh. they seemed to communicate much more than their words let on. "You'd lose things and fall behind schedule." she acquiesced. "Quaint. isn't it?" Aro mused.

"How are you liking Chicago. the momentary tension between them dissipated. I'd be lying if I said that the fact that someone as accomplished and powerful as Aro . And if that's what you were capable of in college." He shifted a little in his chair. but her mood was lighter. I said she was a genius."Di. "So." I said with a shrug. no such place exists anymore. "You're a talented young woman. He nodded. taking a small sip of his seltzer. "Yes." "The Lantern is an amazing accomplishment. which brought him slightly closer to me. I was starting to get the feeling that I shouldn't ever underestimate him. I was sort of blown away that someone like Aro Blalock was so willingly making idle chit-chat with me. She had a lot of potential." Aro smiled." I felt my face flush slightly. And I've seen the magazine you published in college." "That's great." "Well. Already. I resisted the inexplicable urge to scoot back." "You have?" I couldn't imagine how a copy of New Moon had found its way into the hands of Aro Blalock." I answered quickly. starting to bristle at the implication that The Lantern was somehow unworthy of admiration. "Mmm. "I'm really happy here." But she gave me a little smile before she turned towards the front door. leaning in towards me.may I give you a small piece of professional advice. I'm sure you do.. new job. He exuded something— a kind of energy or charisma— that was hard to resist." He laughed and held a hand up. His attention and encouragement was certainly flattering. "I have. Bella?" "Sure. "I feel very lucky. not wanting to seem rude. I…" I trailed off awkwardly. but still not looking away from me. Of course. "I'll just bet you will. But she committed herself to The Lantern entirely before we'd even left college.." I protested." She pointed a stern finger at him. Di. Go and suck on your cancer stick. And now. "Acknowledged. "You and I both know that we've done shit a lot deadlier than a few cigarettes. But…I don't mean this in any way as a slight against her. That you're content right where you are. Swan…Bella." I mumbled. Dida can't say enough about you. then you have a lot of potential. "It absolutely is. I think you're the last person on the planet who is so ridiculously unapologetic about a habit that will kill you." I nodded. too. "Make sure you don't limit yourself. unable to break my eyes away from his ice-blue gaze." "Limit myself?" I repeated dumbly. Bella?" "I love it. it's all she has. and gain his favor. "You said yourself that you didn't have any sort of long-term plan. I could see now what Dida had been talking about when she described him in college. Only a genius like Dida could have even kept the thing afloat all these years. But then again. Aro held up a placating hand. New city. Dida. I'll keep Bella entertained. completely at a loss as to what to say." Once more. All I'm saying is that you shouldn't limit the options you allow yourself to consider. his magnetism and presence. Ms. I could see how people would be willing to do anything to please him. she shot him a leveling look and muttered. She's a genius." "That's what Dida said. Nice for you. unable to tell where this was headed. all these years later. But. Please do.

he had a point. so I dismissed the whole peculiar conversation. so we all adjourned to the sidewalk out front to say goodbye." Dida said. Then he extended a hand to me. friendly smile. At the time. Abruptly. And it must be nice for him to not have the endless daily trials that Dida had. just trying to keep the doors open and the presses running." Dida laughed and shook her head. "Aro is…" She stopped. Dida rejoined us then. tangled history. his voice casual. because. Maybe I should have gone into teaching. "Bella. Eventually. there was probably a lot to be said for the path Aro had chosen. And just like family." "You don't like him. But at the same time. considered a moment. exchanging hellos to be passed along to mutual friends. The career he'd made for himself was certainly enviable. but I couldn't really put my finger on which part made me feel that way. "We go beyond like and don't like. he managed to turn the whole thing around and make a joke out of it. I enjoyed meeting you. Aro broke into a wide smile and leaned back. then he was gone into a cab and Dida and I were walking back to The Lantern. on some level. the more that seemed the case. The more I thought about it. it irked me that he thought less of Dida for devoting her life to The Lantern. I suppose I jut got in the middle of the two of them working through it. Now I was left wondering why I'd felt at all uncomfortable. "The choices he's made…he's not wrong. What matters to him and what matters to me…well. it was a delight. she didn't approve. But there was something in her voice that led me to believe that. and share so much history. It was an odd exchange. He was warning me away from getting too comfortable working with Dida." "So you don't approve of his career?" "Who am I not to approve? Look what he's achieved." he said. you have to put up with the bad as well as the good. it was a dead-end and a failure. in his mind. That doesn't make either one of us better or worse. "Um…he's an interesting character." I said neutrally. We just want different things. but I was looking for her to confirm or deny it. they're not the same things. He just has a very different value system than I do. I'd felt uncomfortable and a little defensive. "So. It put what Aro said to me in focus. "Yeah. hmm? So I'd have a place to spread around all my unsolicited opinions. "I can't help running my mouth whenever I meet someone new to the industry.Blalock thought I had serious potential wasn't flattering. No." And just like that. He and Dida exchanged a few more words." I said. And we don't always understand each other. "Just a word of advice from someone who's hung around this business far too long." I took his hand and he surprised me by pulling me in towards him and kissing my cheek. He and Dida had a long. I felt like I could understand him better and my annoyance faded. Aro glanced at his Blackberry and said he needed to leave to be on time for his next meeting. too. . We're like family. Aro and Dida hugged goodbye again." I nodded in understanding. anyway. It was a statement. His hand squeezed mine again before he released me with that same jovial. but looking at him through Dida's eyes. and the two of them immediately slipped into a wry. sarcastic exchange that kept the mood light for the rest of lunch. then started again. We go so far back. inhaling on her cigarette. I've heard that before. Besides. "Thank you. what did you think of him?" she asked at length.

. if they can find space. and I chose not to push her.Dida was quiet and distracted for the rest of the walk back to work. "Hello?" I snapped. "I need to call him. I just stared at my cluttered desk in disbelief. Talk to you soon. After shoving Nessie off of it. I managed to catch it just before the call went to voicemail. One of us will call you back. "Edward's been talking to people about this part." "Bella. Sam. as I swatted Nessie away. "How…what…how is he?" Sam sighed heavily. just based on the outstanding charges from your incident. I won't lie to you." "Alright. I'll tell you again. my God. Sam. We're holding him in custody now. What happens after that?" "They'll evaluate him and if he's found to be a danger to himself or others. the doctor can ask for a ninety day involuntary commitment. I can pretty much assure you that they'll demand that he be put under observation for seventy-two hours. she was going to guard that carefully. and rooting around for it. That's pretty standard and it's entirely the discretion of the examining doctor. distracted. blustering front was in many ways just that— a front." "Thank you. That needs a judge to sign off on it. I've already put in the request for a psych consult. "What?" "He was arrested this morning trying to break into Eleazar's basement again. "What happens next?" "Well." I breathed. "Sam." I said in a rush. I heard my phone vibrate from the depths of my bag. "The system is overcrowded. and my heart hurt for her." I closed my eyes. as I finally broke out of the shock. It was clear that Aro stirred up things in her that usually lay hidden. Back at The Lantern." I hung up with Sam and pressed the speed dial for Edward." "Oh." "A bed?" I felt like I wasn't capable of doing anything more than just repeating the fragments of information I could cling to. my brain started making connections again. you don't need to do this for him. then it's all about finding him a bed. Her gruff. "Bella?" I sat up abruptly in my chair." My ears roared and for a second. But I also knew her well enough not to pry. If she was hurt. I was coming to see that it hid an old hurt that never really seemed to have healed." "I know. Just this one last thing. They'll put him wherever they can find space. I settled back down at my desk to start organizing them. He's been living on the streets since February. Jay needed so much more than just a few square meals to make him alright. she retreated to her desk and I busied myself retrieving the latest round of submissions from Gianna. He'll do better with some regular meals. I have to call Edward. But he's mostly alright. Bella." "Seventy-two hours. That evaluation will happen sometime tomorrow. But I want to. But assuming it happens. hon. What is it?" "We found him." Finally. clutching the front of my shirt tightly in one hand. Once I got them all printed out. "Rough.

"You're going to go home and throw some clothes in a bag." "What do I do?" I felt helpless. We went straight to the station to find Sam. So we waited." I spit out without preamble." ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Twenty-Eight ~ Goodbye Yellow Brick Road ~ Edward I turned slowly on my heel and began to pace off the small room one more time. He was all business. yeah. and there'd been no sign of him. but the desk officer told us. the night before. but exuding calm. I knew why he was such a good doctor. "I'll be by in an hour to get you. Bella was so stressed out that she didn't even argue with me when I slid my credit card across the counter to deal with the exorbitant cost of the flights. I tried to get her to leave with me once or twice. and he'll probably get a seventy-two hour….. professional Edward had taken full command. He's still in custody. but she was terrified that if she left.m. They're doing an evaluation tomorrow. "They found him. . that the psychiatrist assigned to do Jay's evaluation wasn't scheduled to come until the next morning." he said. trotting out the "Dr. Edward in this mode made you feel safe. she'd miss the doctor. I watched Bella's nervous adrenaline tap out in the face of the system. it would all be worth it. The desk officer the night before had said that the psychiatrist was coming by to do Jay's evaluation first thing in the morning. It was now two p. you. "That will happen for sure. Sam called. "Pack?" I pressed. although it felt much later to us." I heard Edward suck in a breath. After that comes the really important part. I felt like I'd talked to every psychiatric professional in Seattle over the past few months. She drank endless cups of bad police precinct coffee. "We're going to Seattle. flight to Seattle. I'd come as close as I'd dared to ethical violations." "A seventy-two hour hold.." Edward finished my thought. to do anything meaningful. With the time change it was after midnight when we touched down in Seattle. My eyes were burning and my neck was sore from dozing off awkwardly on the plane. if everything fell into place the way I hoped it would over the next several days."Hi. confused. quickly. at this distance. So we'd found a hotel nearby and slept for a few hours before trudging back to start our vigil. None of this was much of a surprise to me. Cullen" whenever I thought it might get me somewhere. and we'd made it onto a 10 p." he continued. As the hours wore on. even just for a quick walk around the block. but Bella was tired and tense. not surprisingly. like he was in control of everything and there was absolutely nothing to worry about. I'd managed to get us to O'Hare by 8 p. "Where is he?" "Sam said he was arrested this morning. But hopefully." Edward answered.m. He was offduty. and when he spoke. "Edward. and I stayed as busy as I could on my phone.m.

" ." he finally said. Horner's eyebrows furrowed together as he glanced up at her. Sam held the door for him and the psychiatrist rushed in. I'd done a psych rotation during my residency. When I considered Jay. "Isabella Swan…I have your name in the file. My professional bona fides had been established. I stepped forward immediately and extended my hand. And in the end." "So his mental state has been in question for some time?" "Yes. waving a dismissive hand. hoping to help. but I sensed the softening in his attitude. Sam ushered him through the station and back to the room where we'd set up camp. I was a greedy bastard and I never got enough of her. my feelings swung back and forth between pity and fury. She was still so beautiful that my heart nearly stopped. the same way she was the center of mine. what I'd told Bella back in Chicago was true: she needed to be okay with how she left things with him. He wasn't exactly warm. I'd do anything for her." I motioned to Bella. I wanted her to be happy. which he dumped on the table in the middle of the room. "Just a family friend. I see. I let the charges stand because Sam…Officer Uley…said that it was the best way to get him some help under the circumstances. "Dr. Technically. I hated him. head tipped back against the wall." I said with all the professional gravitas three years of residency at Lenox Hill had bestowed on me. and I wasn't proud of it. I wanted her to open her eyes and look at me. I wanted to feel connected to her again. There were purple shadows under her eyes. and now his guard was down. "She's also a family friend. not officially. "Ah. Dr. although there was some minor stuff even before that. out of her life forever. It had worked for me plenty of times before. Cullen. I wanted him gone. I knew what he was struggling with. balding. The charges currently filed against Mr. The psychiatrist squinted up at me through his glasses. he would be. straightening up and finally shaking my hand. Who wouldn't pity that? But on a deeper. and I knew how difficult the rest of his life would be because of this disease that had set up residence in his brain. don't I?" He turned to rummage through his briefcase. I studiously squashed it all down so I could deal with the issue at hand. I didn't want him there— in her head and in her heart— for the rest of our lives. I hated him for burrowing into her life so firmly that she still felt obligated to him. "This is Isabella Swan. always. So I would suck down my purely masculine jealousy and irritation and do right by this person that needed someone's— anyone's— help. Anderson pertain to an assault on you. and she hurried out of her seat and to my side. The doctor in me pitied him. eyes closed. and to that end. But that was the basest part of me. She was slouching in a hard plastic chair. and her pale skin was washed out and nearly translucent under the flickering fluorescent light fixture. he'd trust me and talk to us.Ending my last call." Dr. rumpled." I said. neither of us had any say in Jay's case. He had a battered leather satchel over-stuffed with files. Horner. but I was hoping that if I acted like I knew what I was doing. "It really was." "Ah. but deep down inside. The court-appointed psychiatrist finally showed up at three. finally turning up with a manila folder." Bella said in a rush. yes. purely elemental level. I just wanted to be the center of her world. is that correct?" "It was an accident. this man we'd just flown halfway across the country to help. since last December. and exhaustedlooking. "Are you assigned to this case?" "No. If I could make this all work out the way I wanted. I looked back over my shoulder at Bella.

trying to will myself through our skin. just to make sure that everybody really understands his problems." I felt her nod against my chest. You know that. let me go speak with Mr. Washington is one of the worst. so I squeezed her fingers again. "I'm telling myself not to feel guilty about what I just did. it can be difficult to get a complete history." I said. She drew a deep breath and kept talking. Swan. She wanted to take care of everyone. you know…" "I know. and frankly."How were you acquainted with Mr. I won't be back. She was so goddamned caring. her eyes fluttering closed. and I thought for a minute how hard it must be for him to work these cases day in and day out." I said. Anderson. knowing the difficulties. Anderson?" Her eyes flickered to me nervously and I gave her an encouraging smile." Dr. "So. "What are you thinking?" I murmured against the top of her head. ducking my head a little to kiss her temple. right?" "We're in this together." I said. Her skin was always so velvety. "The system is far from perfect. and stroked her knuckles with my thumb until her fingers relaxed." she sighed. I live in Chicago now. But we're doing what we can to give him the best odds." Dr." "Right. In situations like this. and we settled down to wait. But he didn't judge Bella. I'll want to have a long talk with you after I see Mr. She sighed before answering." Bella finally said in a hurry. I can't help him any more. "But I wanted to come now. are you the family contact?" Bella shook her head quickly and I felt her hand tighten on mine. I knew she could. "as long as you need me to. This is all I can do for him. "Everything. Edward. "Jay doesn't have any family. "Well." he nodded tightly." "It's hard. She went boneless and rested her head against my chest. I knew she wouldn't sleep. Anderson. even when it was impossible. I'm just afraid for him. She could do this. so I'll do whatever I can to help. And I…obviously we're not together anymore. letting my strength be her strength. right?" "Right. I knew how hard this part was for her— refusing to be responsible for him. Just what I'm doing now. he just smiled sadly. "Well. Dr Horner gathered up his paperwork and left the room. "I can't be there like that for him anymore." "We'll be here. "Not really. I'll see you in a bit. reaching out to wrap my arm around Bella's shoulders. I kept stroking her fingers until I felt her relax completely against me." she said. After this. Horner's eyebrows shot up. pressing it against my chest. I'm not…" she trailed off and I could sense her wavering." "I'm so glad you're here. We're in it all together. with the patient largely detached from reality. I have since the incident. and nodded in understanding. . Horner rubbed his eyes wearily." "Bell. I pulled her in against me and the fight went out of her. knowing the odds. I wrapped my hand over her fist. I know. "We dated for four years. thank you for coming. Can you stay?" "Yes. but at least I could get her to rest a little. Ms. "It'll have to be enough." "Thank you. thank God. We lived together up until February." she said.

should he choose to exercise it." "Can I see him while he's on the temporary hold?" Bella asked. Horner came back an hour later. Horner gave her a small smile. twisting her hands in her lap. I'll file the request for a ninety-day involuntary commitment. You can see him there. Bella sat straight up like she'd been shocked. the seventy-two hour hold had been issued. He focused on me and his voice slipped into a more business-like tone. sighing heavily as he settled himself in a chair at the table. "Just let me see what I can do. Jay had been transferred to the psych ward at Harborview Medical Center until the long-term situation could be addressed. and I think I can since it's a Monday. Horner Jay's long history while I stepped out to finalize my plans." Dr. "It could always be worse. "It would certainly help if you could. but maybe I could try to convince him not to fight it. yes. "Yes. Swan.Dr. And I suspect that he'll respond very well to the appropriate treatment. Anderson's history with you. There was no place for that now. anyway." "I know that. I suspect with the shortage of beds. but I knew his words made her feel better. Anything you need to know. it will turn into five days. I need to make some phone calls. Why?" "I don't know if it will do any good. "How long will it take to get a judge to okay that?" I pressed. Ms. but I shoved it down. "Yes. however. On Monday. "I can't discuss specifics of my initial diagnosis with you." "Are you going to request the seventy-two hour hold?" I interjected. Both Edward and Dr. Anderson does have the right to appear and make a case against involuntary commitment. I'm ready. okay?" I gave her a little smile and she nodded. That goes without saying. Just…how is he otherwise?" My hatred of Jay clawed at my gut. "How is he?" she asked." I kissed the side of her head and left her to tell Dr." Bella looked up at me questioningly. There's very little doubt about the situation in this case. "If you don't mind. I had doubted that would happen. Dr. if you like. with the weekend coming up. "Assuming I can get him to look at it right away. . "Now. I knew she was worried that after all this. but I held my tongue. Ms. Horner began again. Swan. Then the obstacle will be finding an available bed for him. I'd like to discuss Mr." Bella exhaled in relief and I squeezed her shoulders. he's going to be detained over the weekend at Harborview Medical Center. ~*~ Bella By eight that night. I didn't want her anywhere near him. Although." "Of course." Now it was my turn to interrupt." she said. he'd be held for three days and then kicked out on the streets again. "I may be on to something there. rather than three. It was all I could do not to scream out "No!" Selfishly. he'll sign off on it on the spot. That's actually a good thing. Mr.

I convinced Edward to stop for the night." "Okay. To be honest. I was pointing them out to Edward. asked questions. After a leisurely stroll through PA. stopping for lunch in Edmonds before we got on the ferry. and soon. The sun was out.Horner convinced me to put off seeing him until Sunday. and it would probably always be that for me. "This is your home town. outside of college. As Edward listened. and I certainly didn't want to spend time there. There was nothing left for us to do at that point. we ordered room service again and debated how to while away the time until Sunday. I even found myself remembering long-ago shopping trips to "the city" with my mother. Certainly nothing I'd want to relive. then. soon he'd be someplace safe and I could finally stop worrying. lovely day." Edward said. and I wanted him to see it. and all the fear and anxiety that went with me. "Seattle's not my home town. soft smile spread across his face. the trip I made with my dad when he took me to college for the first time. Do you want to show me around? All the fun stuff from before my time?" I shrugged. I wanted him to see the me that existed before all of that. Forks is." The minute we left Seattle and were on the highway. I found myself feeling really glad we'd decided to do this. I was more than just my heartbreak and bad choices. starting with the death of my father. Seattle was the place I'd been trapped in my unhappiness for so long. and finishing with the disaster of Jay. But there was a lot of good in my past. I want to go back. it was a rare. my time in Seattle wasn't really very happy. although I always assumed it was Jay and our dysfunctional relationship making me feel that way. the diner still had the dirty blue and white sign . It was like time stood still there. stretching his arms over his head and yawning. and laughed at my stories. After we'd showered. Then the answer was overwhelmingly clear. I want you to see it. I wanted to see her again myself. why don't you show me Forks?" I looked up at Edward across the table. It had been when I lived there. I was spilling my life story— road trips home with Alice. and with any luck. "Yes. When we hit Port Angeles. stuff I hadn't thought about in years. and we were given a beautiful room with a plush white bed and a spectacular view of the Strait. The True Value hardware store still had the horse kids could ride on for a quarter out front." "And? What else are we going to do? Do you want to go back for a visit?" I thought about that for a minute. That inevitably led to telling him stories. Forks was shockingly unchanged. "Well. and taking breaks at several places along the 101 to enjoy the view. As soon as familiar landmarks started appearing. It wasn't that late. and dinner at a little Italian place that I remembered from high school. "Forks is almost four hours away. Seattle was oppressive. We took our time on the drive. in the hopes that he may have settled down and become less agitated by then. The drive to Forks made me feel re-energized." A slow. Hell. too. Let's hit the road. But so many gloomy years seemed to have tainted the whole city for me. Edward scouted up a lovely little B&B on his phone. When I woke up the next morning. I felt better. ordered room service. I didn't miss it. "Alright. Things with Jay were by no means settled. so we went back to our hotel. I watched his t-shirt stretch taut over his abdomen and debated just dragging him back to bed for the day. but the process was started. All he really knew from my past was the bad stuff. and finally fell gratefully into bed. we made very good use of both the view and the bed. I felt miles better. but I explained that both the accommodations and the food would be better there than in Forks.

"Well." Carol said. "I'm in Chicago now. do you want to go see your old house?" . "Mrs. Carol didn't stay long. too. "Bella?" I turned to see Carol Kramer just about to climb into her car. I've known her since…" Carol shook Edward's hand eagerly. So. I had been missed. not anymore. She'd worked all through her marriage. We stopped for coffee at The Shot in the Dark." Edward said." I blushed and stammered. I wish you could have met him. "Don't mind me. and I knew her father. inexplicably. It had been almost five years." she tsked. I wish he could have met you. I work at a literary magazine there. Kramer. I knew her momma when she was still around. They've fixed it up real nice. "I miss him." "Me. "They miss you. Edward. the only thing like a coffee shop in Forks. once she'd gone. And I wanted to show…oh. Since February.advertising the blue plate special. She just wished me well and told me again how happy she was to see me before climbing back into her car. Carol had worked as a check-out girl at the Thriftway since well before I'd been born. Kramer…hi!" "Bella Swan. I felt Edward squeeze my hand. sweetpea!" Carol said. the births of her children. where are you these days? I heard Seattle?" "No." Carol's face lit up with her smile. um…just visiting for the day. practically suspended in time. you should take a drive past your old house while you're here. she was still working there. We were in Seattle and had a little free time. but I was pulled up short by the sound of my name." The thought of strangers living in the house I grew up in. Her apron was folded over the top of her purse." I let out a long. There was something else I was unprepared for. gave me a momentary pang." I opened my mouth to say something polite. We don't see the likes of him too often in life. neutral response. My throat closed up painfully and my own eyes burned." Edward murmured politely. No." Edward said quietly at my side. "I'm just a sentimental old lady! Now. I'd like to see it again. We all knew you'd do big things. "Bella." "It's nice to meet you. "I've known this little bit her whole life. too. God rest his soul. this is Edward. And here it all was. and past the age when anyone else would have retired. shuddering sigh. He was a good man. crossing the parking lot to pull me into a quick but firm hug. waving her hand. sweetheart?" "Oh. There's a young couple with a baby that lives there now. "Sweetheart. "And they miss your dad. I stepped out of the car and turned to say something to Edward. I guess. the Thriftway still advertised double coupon Wednesdays on the roadside sign. I smiled at him gratefully. The last time I was there was when I'd come to sign the last papers on the sale of my dad's house. "I sure do miss your daddy. this is Carol Kramer. then her grandchildren. Mrs. "And she is. "What brings you back here. telling me that. finding my voice again and swallowing back the sudden tears." "I'll do that. the house my father had died in. her eyes quickly getting glassy with tears. isn't that just fantastic? You were always a special one." I said. but nothing came out. and tried to think of a polite.

Just a sort of dull. as she fished her security card out of her pocket." I said finally. but I had no idea when I'd ever be back here. Um…I don't know if I'll come again. so I felt like I should try. "That's exactly why I'm going with you. "are you sure you want to do this? You don't know what he'll be like. I'm sorry that you're not here for a million reasons every day. telling him about all the changes in my life." he said after he cut the car off. wrapping his arms around me. so I didn't argue anymore. I'll stay just inside the door. so you'd have done alright with each other. I just missed you so much. things in Seattle didn't go so well. So it's really done in my mind. Every day. but I couldn't help it. I just wanted to come one more time to tell you that I love you." I had to concede that he had his reasons to be nervous. I let myself cry it out. "I think I do. I know you wouldn't have wanted me to. We also took a drive down Calawah Way. Dad. I moved away." "It's okay. but they likely haven't had a chance to do much good yet. "What if that sets him off?" He wrapped a hand around my right wrist and raised it to his face. a little while later. But it was also cathartic. but he likes baseball. But things are better now. Edward. and then we'll go. I didn't look back. Can you believe that? Yeah. I'm back." . I couldn't seem to stop them. and seeing him this way might just upset you more. I took a deep breath and started whispering. I'm with Alice. "Bella. my whole body shook with the effort. It's me. to visit my dad's grave. I'll do what I can." When we left Forks that afternoon. Dad. Well. so I asked Edward to drive straight to Harborview Medical Center. Cullen" angle again." I inhaled sharply. Edward. Children's toys were scattered across the yard. "Hi. "Yes. aching sorrow that I'd probably always feel when I thought of my father. Edward was there in a flash behind me. Anderson has been started on medications." My face was wet with tears and when I tried to draw in a breath. "But he's still pretty calm. and I miss you. felt like it ended for a while. he doesn't fish. all things considered." "Just so you know. coming back. "Mr. "You ready to go?" Edward murmured against my ear. I was unhappy for such a long time there. Edward hung back a few feet while I laid down the flowers I'd brought and sat for a few minutes. but at the same time." "Edward. I really am. I'm going in with you. too. Dad. Edward exchanged a few brief words with the nurse on duty. I felt silly trying to talk to him. On the eighth floor. We goofed off for another day in the area. in a lot of ways. And I gave in to it. working the "Dr. cleaned up and tidied. pressing his lips on the fine white scar there. with a coat of bright white paint and flowers all along the front walk. telling him I'd moved on from this place. to the Forks Cemetery. I think I need to. and she led us to the end of the hall. but I think I'm sorriest that you'll never know him. in case things get out of control. Anyway. Really okay. pulling me back against his chest. gripping my shoulders. where the psych ward was located. He's amazing. Chicago. Once the words started. Because he's so wonderful." The house was just as Carol described it. I mean." she explained. It made me sad to see the changes. and I know how much you loved her. I'm so sorry you couldn't be here to meet him. Much better than a few days ago. Bell. it was nice to see life moving on in the place where my life. And I'm okay now. I love him."Yeah. I wanted it done and over. and I know you would have. Chicago is great. I have this great job and…I've met somebody. and there were yellow curtains in the windows. while my fingers stayed busy clearing the grass from the headstone. not the abject misery and loneliness I'd felt in the past. before heading back to Seattle and grim reality on Sunday morning. though.

"It's me. But I kept my eyes on the door. "No one will listen to me. tucked untidily behind his ears. But you can talk to them for me. and I felt the first real pang of emotion since I walked in the room. One bed was empty. his hand heavy on my shoulder. There was a straight-back chair next to each bed." Edward started to move after me. And they won't let me finish. trying to discern who we were. Jay. I made myself look back. then let's go. to keep him calm. His face was hard and set. Jay. The lock popped and she pushed her way in. "You've got some visitors. He was looking at me. The room had two beds and a sink in the corner." The nurse swiped her security card through the slot by the door and keyed in a code. His cheeks were sunken and hollow. was nearly unrecognizable. his voice low and urgent. I was so close. his voice just a hoarse rasp. Edward leaned into my ear and whispered. I could see him process it. as I lowered myself hesitantly into the chair next to the other bed. bustling around his bed. But I need to do this.I swallowed hard. a few feet away from him. but now his face was nearly skeletal." I nodded my understanding. "He's probably on a mild sedative. half in frustration." Jay murmured." Edward said at my side. Finally. and a window in the wall in between the beds. "How are you this afternoon. B. I sucked in my breath at the sight of him. moving towards him. looking out the window. the image of him that remained in my memory was of that last night— of Jay." He exhaled heavily. bustling in. "I knew you'd come back. was Jay. I glanced back at him over my shoulder. I could feel his eyes on the side of my face. How are you. but then he seemed to think better of it and stayed where he was by the door. when we first met. He just looked exhausted and confused. knowing what happened next would make all the difference. He turned his head to look at us and I watched his blue eyes squint. Tell them that he was after me. Tell them. straightening up the sheets. You can tell them that I have to go. B. His hair had grown out and was a shaggy mop. Nothing more. Oddly. working through the noise crowding his head. He had to have lost at least twenty pounds. I do. still neatly made-up. so they understand. Anderson?" she said brightly. For all these months." . Mr. But this shell of a man. His bone structure had always been sharply defined. he spoke. with a pale blue hospital gown hanging unevenly from his shoulders. "Bella. "Just for the day. You know what he's like. "Bella?" "Yeah. "They only want to help you. I followed her slowly. Edward. raging and incoherent." the nurse was saying. but sitting in the chair next to the other bed. if you don't want to." I said." I took a deep breath. Edward right at my back. his eyes intently locked on Jay. I almost had him. Jay?" He closed his eyes and shook his head." "But Eleazar is going to get away. His wavering gaze finally locked on me. "I know that. "Okay. it reminded me a little of how he wore it in college. completely unpredictable in his fury. half in confusion. I'll tell you again that you don't have to go in. You never have to see him again.

just before the nurse ushered us out of the room. "Help. "So will you help them out? Just do what they ask you to do?" He looked at me. but I started talking anyway. I felt like whatever flicker of connection we'd had was fading fast. "They want to help you. I will. I still didn't know what to say. "For you. "He should rest now." I insisted. I do. "You didn't mean to. I have to go. But will you promise me to let them help you?" "I promise." I murmured." "Will you be there with me?" My chest twisted uncomfortably as I shook my head." I nodded and got up. leaning towards him. B?" I nodded hard. As soon as the door clicked closed behind me. "They want to help me?" he finally asked. I could see a scar on his right cheek. tight nod of his chin. just puzzled. you'll have plenty of time to worry about that. Jay. and for just a moment. so will you let them? For me?" He paused. still just staring at me. did I hurt you?" His voice was soft and uncertain. Jay. "Yes. I'm fine." he repeated slowly. Jay. they do. They want to help you. Edward gave me another little nod of encouragement. "Do you think I should.I glanced quickly at Edward for guidance. "I'm not sure. He was probably so used to doctors and nurses coming in and out all day at this point that one more wouldn't register. I'm fine. "The medication makes him groggy. He gave me a small. glancing back out the window absently." "Okay. "Yeah." the nurse explained gently. which lay limply in his lap. it seemed like the fog had cleared. Jay. "I think I remember…B. "No. Bella. "But you'll be okay. Keep going. Can you help them do that?" He scowled at me. I don't live here anymore. the tears started. Hopefully soon. . "Jay." he said. "Bye. They only want to help. When will you come back?" I quailed and glanced at Edward. Jay hadn't seemed to have even noticed his presence. Jay. He was there." I lied." "Go?" "Back home." I knew he thought I meant help him with his paranoid crusade against Eleazar. but I tried not to feel too bad about the deception. "Thank you. the medications would start to work and he wouldn't even realize or care that I'd been lying to him. I have to go. You know I'd do anything for you." "You're okay?" I smiled at him. "Yes. Jay. looking at his hands. Whatever worked." I exhaled hard. if I should stop or keep going. crossing back to Edward." He thought about that for a minute. In the bright afternoon sunlight coming through the window next to him. It's okay. welling up out of nowhere and taking me completely by surprise. He was already gone. These people are trying to do what's best for you. and I wondered what else had happened to him during all this time. new and pink. not angry.

We didn't line-jump anyone. Dr. pulling me into his arms quickly. again." I wept into his shirt for several long minutes and he just held me. I was about to climb out of bed to get to him. though? Isn't there a wait list or something?" "When a bed vacates." I murmured.yeah. "It's okay. hey. "Let's get you back to the hotel. sleepyhead. but he was moving in my direction." He smiled into the phone. all thoughts of licking my way down Edward's abdomen momentarily forgotten. I think that's it….. Well. "So you'll get the file today?." He held up his hand to stop me. It just feels like such a…release. "I'm sorry it upset you so badly.Okay."Hey. When will the transfer happen?. I shook my head against his shoulder. His name could have come up randomly the same as anyone else's. He swiped his thumbs along my cheeks to dry my face.thanks. Green last month." "How did you get him in." "But…how?" "I made contact with Dr." he said. Great. "You're awake. I had no idea how much I was still hanging onto this. that makes perfect sense…." I sat up sharply." He ended the call and exhaled heavily. and I accepted. my voice lower than I expected from sleep. He was sitting in a chair by the window." he murmured. I really appreciate this. "Better?" I nodded. I stretched languorously in bed and rolled to my side to look for him. "Edward." he said.." Edward murmured. "Hey. before the secretary got around to the paperwork. "What? This morning?" He smirked down at me. Dr. fine." I flopped back on the bed. okay. which was just where I wanted him. The judge signed off on the ninety-day commitment half an hour ago. Not like how you mean. standing up and stretching. and we could by-pass that part. there." He held my while my sobs turned to sniffles and then stopped altogether. Green was willing to extend a professional courtesy to me. Steve…. "I'm not even all that upset.yeah. "I just got Jay committed to Greenwood Psychiatric Hospital. phone to his ear..No. His t-shirt pulled up and I saw a delectable section of stomach. he can't afford private care. out into the sunshine. Green knew that one of the state patients was getting discharged this weekend.. "Ten percent of the beds are set aside for state cases. his hands rubbing slowly up and down my back. baby. "It is nine-thirty. "I see…. Green…Steve." "I'm awake. Greenwood is the best private facility in the state. hey. elbows resting on his knees. they log onto the state database and get assigned a patient randomly." He led me down the hall and out of the hospital. His head snapped up. Who were you talking to?" "Well. Dr. great…. we will. ~*~ Edward's low voice woke me up the next morning. He told me to call early on Monday." . "You need some

" ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Twenty-Nine ~ Watershed ~ Bella "Thank God that's finally done. Edward. "Look at you. I am. He kneeled on the bed and then lowered himself down next to me. but she talked. "What?" Rose was never. "Bella. And sometimes I still really want to kill him. But he's serious. So. Alice snorted a laugh. A lot of the time. spill." Alice sighed." I reached out and snagged his hand. And the doctors at Greenwood are more likely than most to realistically assess his condition. throwing her hand up. let's go home. Finally. acting all coy. "Now. A lot of stuff." Alice said. We were assembled for brunch. are you willing to just let this go and move on?" I nodded. After all we've been . I really am. and as usual. ever demure. Wouldn't that be novel? "Okay. they won't hesitate to recommend another ninetyday commitment. He'll get three months of the best psychiatric care available. it's the best hospital he could hope for. They'll take good care of him.I stared up at him for a moment. trying to figure out how I felt about this. sweetheart. "It's good." Edward pressed. Spill it. there's stuff to deal with. after taking her sip. actually. More than okay." "Alice. "You're right. We're done here. I don't. It's done. Rose." Alice leaned back in the booth and reached for her drink. as I finished recounting the details of the trip to Seattle." Rose leaned down to take a drink. my shoulders falling. I couldn't ask for a better outcome. my news had taken up the bulk of the first part of the day. baby. I laid back down and tucked myself into his side. "Bella's all done." "Do you want to go see him again?" I paused for a minute before shaking my head. I mean. And he's in. "Okay?" he said hesitantly. The least you could do is cut us in on the big payout. "No. "We've all had to witness the Rose and Emmett show up close and personal for months now. I was looking forward to a day when I showed up with absolutely nothing to report except what I had for lunch that week. her glossy red lips wrapping around her straw as she demurely looked up at Alice. tugging him towards me. I nodded." Alice said. really…" "Can it. When the ninety days are up. It feels good. "Yes." Rose huffed and rolled her eyes. if they feel like he needs more care. Can we just go home?" I felt him smile against the side of my head "Yeah. as usual. you're up. "Yes. Edward. Thank you. I didn't even realize how much I was still hanging on to it until I let go.

" Alice cackled gleefully. the plan was crap. "Okay. Alice. I love him. leaning across the table towards her. Jessica's whole face crumpled up and she started twisting her fingers together in her lap. crap." Angela said with a shrug." she wailed. trying to suppress the smug smile tugging at the corners of her mouth. Angela! And Atlanta wasn't part of it!" "Jess." Jess gave a loud. Her bottom lip trembled and her voice shot up an octave." Alice said. "You'll figure this out.through. Alice. always trying to look on the bright side. he didn't feel like he could ask me to give it a real go unless I knew he was really serious." I interjected. So that's why he was so sneaky about the job. too?" Jessica looked at her for a second. Fuck!" "Then you'll move to Atlanta. If I don't kill him first. "What?" I echoed stupidly." Angela interrupted. Then her wide blue eyes welled dramatically with tears. To be with Mike. "That's all I'm going to say." "That's…" Alice started. So we're going to have something." "Yes. you're not crazy." Jessica. watery sniffle. suddenly sat up straight and practically shouted." "Now we're getting somewhere. then trailed off. Jessica snapped out of it long enough to glare at her across the table. "Jess.. who'd been uncharacteristically quiet through all of brunch so far. this is crazy. "You think so?" . I am! I had a plan. and I kept telling myself it was just a fling and that I didn't care and I was fine with being friends. Jess. "I think…um… I'm moving to Atlanta. "when the hell did this happen? I thought you guys were just talking on the phone sometimes. "But I couldn't stop thinking about him." "Maybe wanting to kill him will keep things fresh." Rose said succinctly. "I'm moving to Atlanta!" "What?" Alice said." Alice groaned dramatically." Angela said. "Or maybe I'll just smother him in his sleep. "That's all you're getting from me. Oh. but I can't help it and…" Angela." "Forget the stupid plan for a minute. her face completely distraught. "Do you love him.!" "They have jobs in Atlanta. fine. Somebody else pleeeeaase share something juicy. Except I can't do that because the sex is amazing. like a cartoon baby bunny. who was sitting next to her. "What did you just say?" Alice said slowly." "We were. reached out to lay her hand on Jess's forearm to stop her rant. Rose chuckled. You're all going to tell me I'm crazy and I know it. "Yes. I know I am. I really do want to kill him a lot. "Jess. Rose and Angela just stared at her open-mouthed.." Alice said. "You never liked the plan. but I was lying to myself! Then he called me and said he was in love with me and he wanted us to be together and I don't know…I just can't…I need to be with him! Oh my God. It's good. He wanted to show me that he meant it— that he really wants something with me. "But my job.

too! Oh. because I was pretty sure I knew exactly who this was now. In the end. Alice. What did you tell him? Does he know you want to move there?" Finally Jess cracked a small smile as she nodded. "To Jess and Mike!" Jess laughed a little and sniffed through her smile. Dida introduced us a few weeks ago." Alice waved an annoyed hand. already. My cell went off in the middle of my frantic searching." Alice raised her mimosa in front of her." "Of course. I'm such a moron." She gave a tiny nod. keys." "See?" Alice said. the tension visibly leaving her. For such a tiny place. But I still wanted my own damned keys. even if I was still mentally scrambling to figure out why on earth he would be calling me." I said. Edward had a key to my place. keeping my voice as calm and reassuring as possible. Any publication will be desperate to get you. And you're so good at your job. no.I don't know. "Um. I've gotten ahead of myself. "this might be you starting your whole life. then you need to throw your stupid plan out the window. God. Don't worry about that. "Yeah?" "Ms. I was so sure I was about to ruin my whole life. We all raised our glasses with Alice. I swear. It was kind of adorable. I do. so he could lock up for me if mine didn't turn up. Edward was going to be here any minute. Well." Jess let out a long. Jess. Oh! Jess! We'll be related!" Alice clapped her hands together in delight."Yes. Swan?" I stood up straight and raked the messy curtain of my hair off my face. I haven't slept a wink in the last three days. He's the one." Rose interjected. "A girl doesn't have an epic freak-out like we just witnessed unless it's the real deal. formal voice. Who is this?" I heard the soft chuckle and felt goosebumps erupt across the back of my neck. it was remarkably easy for me to lose shit in here. Jess. that depends. guys. "Thanks. if he's the one." "I think. cousins-in-law…before you know it. "You were just very focused. We'll be…." "You're not a moron. Aro Blalock. Welcome to the family. wavering sigh. Jess. Rose. Poor Jessica looked like she was balancing on the knife-edge of a panic attack. so I had to divert to find my phone. How are you?" Listen to how calm and collected I sounded! I was proud of myself for not sounding like a blithering idiot. half-certain that it would be Edward calling to tell me he was almost here. "To Jess and Mike!" ~*~ Keys. "My apologies. This is Aro Blalock. And yourself?" . we'll all be family. "Yes?" "I apologize for calling you on your cell. keys…. I supposed it didn't really matter. especially at this hour. Is this a bad time?" "Um. I had a key to his. "You've got him. I wasn't expecting this unfamiliar. "He is. "He was so excited. "I'm well. we're not even officially dating yet. I remember. and I had been digging for my keys for fifteen minutes with no luck. I answered without even looking.

" I hit the "end" button and smiled slightly before pocketing my phone and heading up the stairs. see you. but the doctor in me felt compelled to keep an eye on the situation. man. I started to rock slightly on the balls of my feet in anticipation of seeing her open the door. "I'm glad to hear it. alright?" "Absolutely." "Dude. so I hit the send button just before it went to voicemail. but when I glanced at the screen. This scenario still wasn't computing. She'd decided to leave it behind. "Jazz! What's up?" "Nothing. "What's up?" I asked. We'll hang. she never stopped taking my breath away. although everything was fine the last time I checked in. I'm actually in your backyard right now. No visuals!" I laughed out loud. A moment later. "Coming…" I heard her call from inside. I'll give you a call soon. good. I could feel her tension in the air the second I laid eyes on her. . I climbed out and glanced at the back of Jasper's house. I saw Jasper's name blinking and felt a pang of guilt. Bella was still putting on her earring and she threw me a quick. distracted smile before turning back away from the door. Listen. Swan…" "Bella. Bella didn't know I kept tabs on Jay. maybe we'll even manage to pry Em out of Rose's bed for a night and do it up right. unless it was also with the girls. you just can't say shit like that to me! She's my sister! It's bad enough that I know it's happening." I was exchanging polite chit-chat with Aro Blalock. I was definitely guilty of complete relationship immersion. "Things have been busy. I get it. Bella. can't. I'll call you." "Right." "Alright."Good. I'd been living back in Chicago for months and I couldn't remember the last time Jasper and I had hung out. but I knocked anyway." "Say no more. soon. worried that maybe Sam had called with some sort of news. I never got tired of this feeling." "Really? Come on in!" "Um." "I have to admit that I am. I had a key to her place. sorry." "I have something important to discuss with you. But seriously." "Yeah…" I rubbed my hand over my eyes before I cut off the car. and I was more than happy to let her do that. but if there ever came a day that it wasn't. Just don't be such a stranger. I was tempted to just ignore it. I wanted to know about it. I'm sure you're wondering why I'm calling. man. and I couldn't help smiling at the sound. just to give her time to finish up whatever she was doing. Everything was fine. Hell." ~*~ Edward My phone rang just as I pulled up behind Bella's apartment. the door swung open. I just haven't seen you since the fourth and I wanted to see how it's going. Ms. I'm picking up Bella and…. "Sorry. Distracted and…something else. Have fun with B.

that you might discuss something as fucking monumental as this with me first. nothing. pressing her fingertips to her forehead. Aro Blalock. looking for something. anger took over. Do I figure in to this decision at all?" She exhaled hard and threw her hands up in the air. I was on the phone right before you got here. Edward. She might have said nothing was wrong. "But that's just fucking it. What the hell was that guy doing calling her on her cell? The tension I was feeling grew stronger. "What did you say?" "Well." Her voice was steady. "Wait…you're going? Tomorrow?" Finally. something was up. but her eyes looked worried. "Yes. dispassionate. hearing the disbelief and shock in my voice."Um. I knew her too well. Her face was passive. it was starting to make my vision go red. I told you I had lunch with him and Dida a few weeks ago?" "I remember. "With who?" "What? Oh…um." . The sense of unease I felt intensified. Edward?" "Talk to me! I thought…" I had to spin away from her and cross the room to get as far away from her as the tiny space would allow. so they're flying me in tomorrow while everybody is still there and…" I rocked back on my heels. "Really?" I pressed. "Remember. Aro Blalock. Volterra Press. considering our relationship. Maybe. "To talk to them? Of course I'm going." "When were you planning on telling me about this. and having a hard time covering it up. It's already done!" She sighed and closed her eyes. Bella! You're fucking telling me. but I wasn't buying it. I just… um. that I didn't seem to have factored into the decision at all. but it was difficult to stuff it down. "Because you seem…distracted. "I would have thought. it's all happening kind of fast. that she was so studiously avoiding actually talking to me." "The publisher?" My eyebrows shot up to my hairline. The people I need to talk to are heading to Frankfurt for the book fair next week. Bella turned and looked at me. "I just got off the phone with him. I don't know yet. Bell?" As the shock gradually faded. "He called with an offer. Why did he call you?" "Well…" Bella sighed and looked at her hands. she had yet to look at me." She was still moving around in a seemingly random pattern. He wanted Bella. looking around herself for her bag. it's not officially an offer." Bella was still looking anywhere but at me. feeling like I'd been physically punched in the chest." "Well. I was trying to keep a handle on it. In New York. The fact of the matter was I was pissed. Anger that she had decided this unilaterally. This wasn't the time to lose my temper." she shrugged. Aside from the one quick glance when she opened the door. "Edward. I swallowed hard and tried to make my voice as neutral as possible. nothing's decided! It's a meeting. It took a second for the implications of what she just said to sink in. and she hadn't touched me. But they want me to come to New York to discuss it. so we just talked travel schedule and…" "Travel schedule?" I repeated stupidly. and try to get a grip on myself. I'm telling you right now. "What did you want me to do." "What? What kind of offer?" "A job. which she was twisting together.

"Edward?" she asked. Is Jasper here?" "Uh…yeah. The gold squares of light from Jasper's house illuminated the backyard. Let me know if you need anything. I was afraid that if I moved at all. What's up. "Look. Bell. just staring at the door where he disappeared. Before I'd thought too much about it." "But…" "I'll see you later. I was going to end up saying something I'd really regret. She'd just unilaterally made a potentially life-altering decision with absolutely no consideration for me— it might have been juvenile. but I needed out. I needed to clear my head. man?" I rubbed my hand over the back of my neck. "Maybe. exhausted. Sure. babe. Sounds fairly decisive to me." She was still confused. ~*~ Bella I don't know how long I stood in the middle of the room after Edward left. It seems like we're going to have plenty of that to do. Come on in. He did it. Alice reached out and brushed her fingers across my shoulder. "Ed." He squeezed her hand before leading the way through the house. he is. reaching for me. He was angry and he left."They must be pretty serious about you if they're flying you in on such short notice. chewing on her bottom lip. might have mattered a little more to you. My anger lost its raw edge. appraising look before turning to Alice." She was silent for a long moment. Alice appeared. sorry to bother you. how I felt about this." "I wasn't going to stop you. Al? Ed and I are going to go downstairs and have a scotch in the study. the fog of anger and pain still swirling around my head. so I didn't know how my words affected her. I wasn't ready to stop being mad yet. "What?" she finally prompted. . Her brow furrowed in confusion when she recognized me through the glass panel. And desolate. Of course. my feet were moving through backyard and I was climbing the steps to the deck. He just left. I stood at the foot of the steps for a moment. A minute later. A moment later. I don't know. Alice. "Um. You'd better pack. "I could use a drink. Bell. Jasper rounded the corner into the kitchen. heartsick. and if I stayed." Jasper gave me a long. we'll talk when you get back. I just pulled her door closed behind me and stomped down the stairs to the backyard. I just…" I trailed off and shook my head. but I felt justified in not considering her in that moment. "I thought what I had to say." "Edward…" she started towards me. But it was real. I couldn't worry about that right now. I held my hands up to fend her off. Her gentle little gesture nearly broke me in two. But I have to go." I couldn't look at her as I left. "Sure. it would make it real. and just…done. but she waved me in politely. okay?" Alice nodded quickly. Safe flight. I paused for just a moment at the back door before I raised my hand and knocked. when she swung the door open. "Hey. As I passed her." "Will do. leaving me depleted.

" "I figured out that much." "I said yes. He called you?" "Mm-hmmm. "I got a job offer. But I just got this call." . huh? I bet he was shocked as hell when you said no. "We got in a fight. that's gotta give your ego a boost." she said quietly. I wasn't even sure what I wanted to do. The loud rap on my door made me yelp in surprise and jump back. getting drunk. "Well. standing on the landing." "Is it better than The Lantern?" "I guess it depends on your point of view. I told you about having lunch with him a couple of weeks ago. I figured there was probably a reason for that. I crossed to my clothes rack while Alice came in and shut the door behind her. exasperated. "Hey." "You what?" "I said yes." Alice huffed. "Hey. My heart was pounding." Alice sucked in her breath dramatically. To stay occupied." "What did he say?" "He said that they have an opening for an acquisitions editor in the Fiction division and they want me to come to New York and discuss it. with no idea of what came next. her face apprehensive. Earlier tonight. Because if I thought too much about what just happened with Edward. About another job. I love my job. What happened?" Knowing where he was somehow shook me out of my frozen state. right?" "Yes. What about?" Alice crossed behind me and perched on the edge of the bed." "You have a job already. I sighed and turned away from the door. "Will you quit being so cryptic and just tell me what happened?" "Aro Blalock from Volterra Press called me." "How did you…?" "He's in the study with Jasper.My hands were shaking and I felt like I might throw up. I did need to pack. then stopped myself. Go after him and beg him to come back? Or yell back at him? I felt numb and paralyzed." "Um…I thought you might need me. I folded a blouse and set it in a pile on my dresser to stall for time. I took a step towards the door. It wasn't his knock. Edward was right. Alice. "No!" "Yeah. Focusing on a task would keep me from freaking out and breaking down entirely. but just because he was some old friend of Dida's." "I know that. that's what I was going to do. but I knew it wasn't him. I crossed to the door and opened it to find Alice." "Holy shit!" Alice breathed. for sure.

I certainly hadn't yet put into words exactly why I felt like I had no choice here. but said nothing for a moment. You see that. living this life sort of by default. "It's between you and him." "You're the best." "You're actually considering this?" "Of course I'm considering it." Alice nodded slowly. You said you're happy here. B. Would you do it? Just leave him for some job? If they offer it to you?" "I don't…I can't…I'm not leaving him. that was it. Alice. "Do you agree with him?" I pressed her. I have to at least go and consider it. She threw her arm across my shoulders and squeezed. B. I sacrificed every opportunity I had for someone else.Alice sputtered and waved her hands. Maybe this is exactly where you're meant to be. "I didn't say yes to the job. I'll be here for you. Al. right?" "Honestly. and exactly what you're meant to be doing. Al. I quit striving for anything for myself because it was safer to hide where I was. hiding where it's safe instead of going for it and giving myself a chance to do more…to be more. "What the fuck? What do you mean. He's really mad. Just because you wound up here. "I love you. You love your job and your life and you're in a serious relationship. And you're telling me you'd throw it all away and move to New York? Why do you have to consider it at all?" I sighed and tried to collect my thoughts. And here I am. And the scene with Edward had shaken me to my soul." "And maybe it's not. "I get what you're saying. I've finally gotten myself back on track. They haven't officially offered it to me yet. I think…well. just like I did before. But I'm going to tell you again. If you really feel like this is what you need to do. sweetie. and I'm aware of the mistakes I made. "What about Chicago and The Lantern and me? What about Edward? Is that what you guys fought about?" "Yes. Alice." . so I needed to try. no I don't see it. If I ignore this. huh?" "Yeah. "And Edward flipped out. that doesn't mean it's the wrong life. I'm just making the trip to New York to talk to them. I'll be here for you no matter what you decide to do. and I'll support you. "Ally. rebuilding my life again from nothing. I hadn't really had a second to mentally catch my breath since I realized that it was Aro Blalock calling me." Alice just nodded. But Alice was about to completely freak out on me. This is Volterra Press." She sighed. I have to consider it. She held up her hands in defense." "Thanks for that. you could say that. then I'd be doing the same thing all over again." I crossed to the bed and sat down next to her." "But…" Alice sputtered some more. I said yes to the interview trip. I spent almost five years completely ignoring what was good for me." "I get that. I'll never know for sure if I don't go. you said yes?" I closed my eyes and sighed. and I don't want to repeat those mistakes. this is not the same. and Edward already had. But you're my best friend. He was flipping out about me just making the trip. I really do. I just told you what I think.

I pulled out the itinerary Aro's secretary had emailed me last night to double-check the details. I'd never really know who I was or what I was capable of if I didn't do this. And he wished me a good trip. and I broke out in a cold sweat. just to be on the safe side. I tapped it to pull them up. I forced myself to my feet to help Alice pack my clothes for New York. What I was walking into terrified me. Needing something to do to keep myself busy. –B We'll talk then."Don't I know it. Have you decided what you're wearing to the meeting yet?" I smiled tightly and shook my head. so that was a good thing. my thumb hovered over the "texts" icon. and I knew that I had to do this. Have a good trip. trying to read into it exactly where we stood.-E I ran my fingers back and forth over the exchange. All thoughts of Edward and our future were just going to have to wait. She scampered up off the bed and began flipping through my Spartan little rack of clothes. I needed to be my best— on my toes and sharp. He was still speaking to me. ~*~ . I programmed the Volterra office phone number into my phone. ~*~~*~~*~ Chapter Thirty ~ The Path Is Clear ~ Bella I drained the last of my weak hot tea so that I could pass the empty cup to the flight attendant making her way down the aisle collecting trash." she said with a smile. rolling her eyes. That was my Edward. No time for this: I shut my phone off and stuffed it into my bag. He told me to be safe. But the promise to talk when I got back…my stomach rolled sickeningly at the thought. solely for the sake of hanging on to the security I felt here. No more taking the safe and easy route. I was about to call Aro Blalock back and tell him thanks. As I went to power it down. Because I had to do this. And while his words might have been dispassionate. "Now. which was exactly why I had to do it. He texted. but no thanks. they also weren't angry or accusatory. The panic over that was almost enough to make me call the whole thing off. My text exchange with Edward from early this morning appeared on the screen. and do it right. I'd completely freak out and never be able to do what I needed to do today. I swallowed down the sickening ball of anxiety lodged in my chest. Be safe. If I dwelled on Edward. That made me feel slightly hopeful. Alice was ready to support me even if she didn't entirely agree with me. and that made me feel marginally better. Then I'd start thinking again instead of just panicking. So after a minute. The heat seemed to have gone out of him. Thirty minutes and I'd be on the ground in New York. But Edward… I couldn't forget the look on his face when he realized I was going. no matter how much I wanted to. I couldn't just throw my future away again. it looks like you need help packing. When do you get back?-E Wednesday afternoon. Flipping open my shoulder bag.

all working in this endless warren of buildings. which was ridiculous. They hadn't offered. and settled me in the back seat while he stowed my small roll-on suitcase in the trunk. I supposed. I felt on the verge of tears. but maybe that was for the best. A tremor ran through me." . In a few more minutes. but clean and calm. at this safe. dragging a scruffy thing like me all the way to New York and wasting their time. As he climbed in the car. I'd just go in there on adrenaline and nerves and let the chips fall where they might. at the never-ending stream of people moving up and down the sidewalks. and swept my roll-on suitcase into a hidden closet behind her desk. Everything inside me was a blank. and as I sat and tried to imagine it. I would think about it then. focusing on the complex urban landscape rolling past my window and nothing else. I hadn't had time to go to the hotel first. I wasn't even sure what outcome I was hoping for. but again. I tried not to fidget or obsess too much. The view from the floor-to-ceiling windows was spectacular. so I tried to keep my mind as blank as possible. She pressed a cup of coffee into my hands and showed me to one of the long. so I just sipped it and used the cup to keep my hands occupied. "Bella! So lovely to see you again! I can't tell you how grateful we are that you were able to come on such short notice. in a crisp. greeted me warmly. I was just focused on getting through the next task in front of me. whatever that might be. The last thing I needed was more caffeine. so it was essentially all new to me. it was the best I could do. I'd only been to New York once before. I heard someone enter the reception area. making our way to the midtown offices of Volterra Press. The receptionist. The main reception area of Volterra was subtly decorated in slate blue and tan. I was making my way past security and into the express elevators up to the Volterra Press offices. In the end. low couches lining the reception area. I could feel the energy and intensity shimmering up from the city below. Forty minutes later. The driver led me outside to a sleek black sedan. of course. his smile blindingly white against his tanned skin. So many people. on a student trip in high school. Some crazy mix of both. I could learn New York. Hardly corporate standard. I was getting ahead of myself. but it was an undulating sea of rooftops. I had an irrational fear that Aro Blalock would take one look at me and wonder what the hell he'd been thinking. If it happened. Did I want to learn New York? My chest constricted and my throat closed up painfully. and for the life of me I couldn't tell if it was excitement or dread. the driver was pulling to a stop at the curb in front of an imposing steel and glass office tower. I turned just as Aro was approaching me. with the hazy blue of a distant river peeking through the slits between buildings. I took just a minute to glance down at the street far below: at the lines of cars.I was met at baggage claim by a driver in a dark suit holding a placard with my name on it. maybe west. he made sure to point out the bottled water and other amenities set out in back for me. I started getting anxious all over again. glass and concrete. I was carrying my black nylon messenger bag. charcoal-grey pinstriped suit and a pale silver dress shirt and dark tie. I'd learned Chicago. or to psyche myself up for this in any way. Not overly modern and cold. Alice and I had settled for a soft blue silk blouse I'd bought on sale at Nordstrom Rack on a whim and my semi-dressy black pants from the Gap. an impeccably-groomed woman in her mid-forties. He extended his hand towards me. I was self-conscious about my clothes. As I struggled to stuff the panic and anxiety back down under the surface. dotted liberally with yellow taxis. Even up here. He was more formal today. Suddenly. quiet remove. I wasn't sure which way I was facing. But thoughts like that were almost as destructive as dwelling on Edward. but I hadn't had any need for clothes like that since I'd gotten to Chicago and there'd been no time to shop. Where did they all live? Where did they go at the end of the work day? Life in New York was a mystery to me. As we drove through the impenetrable tangle of New York traffic. I hadn't accepted. I couldn't help but get the feeling that I was being wooed.

Just behind him. Oh." Aro murmured. Someone was in each. Here are Caius and Randall. Her grip was startlingly strong." Aro repeated. there you are!" Aro said as we entered. indicating an open door on my right. I'm sorry…" he turned to me and his fingers brushed down my back. A woman in a white dress shirt and a black pencil skirt. wore a dark suit. but he's always a part of hiring new associates. "Well." Aro placed his hand on the small of my back to guide me down the hall to a conference room. eyes locked on mine. walked briskly towards us with a stack of files in her arms. so good." "Bella is good. He was dark-haired. striking blonde in a fitted cream suit rose from her chair and smiled at me. it was wide. The last of the original three partners that founded Volterra. he . The other two have retired. not actually making eye-contact. A real office." I ignored the bright flare of anxiety I felt at his words and forced myself to smile back.I set my coffee cup aside and rose. I at least sounded like I knew what I was doing. "I'm sure Aro's already thanked you for coming on such short notice. working on the computer. I felt entirely out of my depth. he has. On my left were a row of small offices. Bella. leonine mane of silver hair. And then when Caius announced that he was headed directly to Paris from there. her dark hair up in a French twist." Aro smiled. at least six-two. Bella. Caius isn't much involved in the day-to-day running of the company anymore. possibly my age. "Bella. "Caius Parker. talking on the phone. before sweeping past us and down the hall. and like Aro. And I told him that it was no problem. "Charlotte. He was tall. "Do you prefer Isabella or Bella? I realize I never asked. I resisted the impulse to rake my hands through my hair or tug on my blouse. look!" she said. you saved our lives. "This way. I marveled at how calm and collected I sounded to my own ears." I turned to look. There was no doubt which one was Caius." I said as I pulled back. glancing over my shoulder. taking his hand. It all felt so real. real jobs…such a far cry from the ramshackle freefor-all of The Lantern. As I entered." "Caius?" I asked. studiously anachronistic. practically ushering him into the room. with a thick." Charlotte said briskly. Practiced— that was the word I'd been searching for. right." I said. we realized that we had to meet you today. Also like Aro and Charlotte. towards Charlotte. "That's right. Just like Aro. shaking my hand. but so far. but missing something. He was wearing a blue seersucker suit and a bow tie. that smile that was wide. I felt a tiny frisson of unease and looked away quickly. that we're all headed out to the Book Fair in Frankfurt tomorrow. "So good to meet you. "Come back and meet the team. He surprised me and pulled me in for a brief one-armed hug. She smiled politely at us. "It's really not a problem." "Oh. but I turned into the open doorway he indicated. You know. I was delighted to come. "This is Bella Swan. all with the doors open. as if to get my attention. "Just in time. if we were going to do it at all. Dida told me you followed them from Simon and Schuster when they left to found this. was a younger man. a thin. He was closer to me than I realized and I jumped a little when he spoke." "Oh." "Yes. with a small smile. of course. but not quite warm. There was only the faint murmur of voices and the occasional soft trill of a phone. He seemed harried and distracted.

that's all we need to know. Bella." "He did?" I sputtered. It's just different than how I've worked in the past. The younger man juggled several binders to free his hand. "Aro said you're quite the phenom. He quickly moved past me and fell heavily into a chair behind me. "Tell me how the process here works. Aro said you've got quite the eye for new works and that's just what we need. since I only saw her two days ago. they'd never make it past submission. wrapping his hand around mine in a brief." Caius boomed. She talked a mile a minute. completely absorbed by his Blackberry. "Acquisition editors sift through the submissions and cull the gems." "So I wouldn't stick with the author through to publication?" "Good Lord. how they were assigned. how submissions came in. "I always trust Dida implicitly in these matters. "What happens if I find a piece that I'm excited about? Where does it go after that?" "You'd pass it on to one of the senior editors." I finally asked." Aro said succinctly." he said absently. "I guess so. since he seemed to be dozing. which was stupid. clearly not mentally all present at the meeting. no. seemingly pleased with my question. "I'm glad she feels so strongly about me. "We'd never get a single thing to press if we spent that much time on each book!" I shook my head a little." Aro said smoothly. leaning into me conspiratorially." "She does. "And as far as we're concerned." I smiled thinly. "From submission to publication. and I wasn't sure why it was deemed necessary for Caius to be here. "So. Aro ushered me to a seat between him and Charlotte." Charlotte dove right in." I finally said." I smiled in earnest at that and felt a quick pang of heartache at the thought of Dida." I chose to ignore her compliment and press on. "I guess I'm just used to having a more direct hand in the finished product. I suddenly missed her and all her blunt honesty. detailing the running of Volterra Press. and how they were readied for publication. how they were culled. it goes to the copy editors to clean up. and Charlotte launched into her answer." "You'd still be vital to the process. "I'm not sure if…" "Now's not the time for modesty. "Randall. "How many authors would I be working with at any given time?" "You wouldn't. And if we accept it for publication. So what can we tell you about Volterra?" I racked my brain for something intelligent and appropriate to ask. when Charlotte paused for air.radiated a certain frenetic energy." Charlotte said succinctly. Bella. "Without your eye. And she said you've got the most natural talent as an editor that she's seen in years. you could tell it just by looking at them. which he briefly extended to me. encompassing handshake. I felt slow and clumsy in comparison. "So." ." he said." Charlotte laughed. "This must be Bella." Aro smiled. These people were always moving at break-neck speed. Randall said nothing.

shaking her hand." Aro finally said. with my name on the door. too. "We think you'd be an excellent addition to our team." . trying to think of something appropriate to say." Aro said after half an hour of non-stop talking. ducking his head to look at me. And a view. I suppressed the urge to shift away from him. which signaled that this part of the meeting was done. eyes still on his stupid Blackberry. Everything was new and modern. but she was already half-way out the door. but the work is rewarding in different ways. But it would be hard to make this change." "I know you feel like you'd be giving up your one-on-one interactions with the writers. that Aro Blalock was waving at an empty office and telling me that could be my desk. "Why don't I take you on a little tour of the place? Charlotte and Randall need to wrap things up before we head out to Frankfurt anyway. how they went about distribution and promotion. you have a great deal of promise. I couldn't help but feel like he was about to reach out and touch me. everything I could think of about the set-up. So there would be this to deal with from him. I was overwhelmed and had no idea how I really felt about anything. "There's no telling how high you could rise in this company. standing up. how many titles Volterra put out in an average year. The offices were lovely. Bella. "And thank you for giving me so much of your time today. And I have to tell you. so we left him there dozing in the conference room while Aro showed me around. I do. "I sense your hesitation. It seemed slightly dream-like that I was here. I know it must be hard for you to consider a move like this. His fingers were cold and I resisted the urge to pull mine away. There was a lot of drudgery in getting a piece ready to go to press." "I understand that. It's actually quite liberating. it's practically a one-woman show. We do hope you'll seriously consider the offer. There's a lot of room for advancement in this organization." "I don't doubt that for a second. her attention elsewhere. Here. I was suddenly acutely aware of being alone in this hallway with him. With a door. How did he know? He'd barely even spoke to me. I found out how many other acquisition editors there were. It's quite a good opportunity for someone at your place in your career. and I could kind of see his point. I'm proof of that. as we found ourselves back in the empty hallway on the way to reception. "Bella." I tried to wrap my brain around it." she said.Aro reached out and placed his hand over mine on the table. silky voice in my ear. "Bella. And Aro chose not to disturb Caius's nap. how big the pool of copy editors was. My head was swimming with facts and details. Aro shifted and leaned on the wall next to me." he continued. You could just focus on the works." "My pleasure." "I'm sure it is." I flushed and glanced down at my feet." Charlotte said. "In small operations like The Lantern. I said little on the tour." I said. his low. "If your early promise pans out. He glanced up at me long enough to tell me it was nice to meet me and that he'd be happy to have me aboard. But this opportunity could change your whole life. My head and my heart were full. I shook off my concerns and asked more questions. "You seem sufficiently overloaded. you'd have the resources to take over all the tedium of clean-up and publication. The little warning niggles I'd felt since the first time I'd met him flared up brightly. Randall stood." "It's…I don't want you to think I'm in any way ungrateful for the offer. Every acquisitions editor had their own office.

just a little too close. I was way too mixed up to be objective about any of it. So instead. My throat constricted painfully. I was still wandering the aisles of the fiction section. I don't think I exhaled until I was forty floors down and on the street outside. frantic appearance. Sitting on the bed in my silent hotel room was going to make me go crazy. He was right. that always worked to give me some peace. he had been. trying to decide what to do." "I will. I won't be able to think of much else right now. and I was on my way. I was crying in the middle of the stupid bookstore. My stomach fell. a rising star in publishing. The concierge gave me directions to the Strand bookstore. They might be able to give you some insight that I haven't. The streets of New York did a lot to distract me. considering how he reacted about this." One more forced. I wanted to call Edward. and I guessed that meant he needed some time. My heart was literally breaking from missing him. Plus. You're having lunch with the other acquisition editors tomorrow. It was low and rich and sounded so much like Edward that my heart nearly stopped. When all else failed. and I was free to walk back down the hall to reception. I was on my third pass over it when a man one aisle over chuckled at something. Aro. shoes off. Bella. I'd told Aro I'd think about it. Grill them mercilessly! They'll be happy to tell you anything you want to know." I squelched the urge to bristle in defense of The Lantern. And for the time you spent with me today. . "Look. so I changed clothes and headed out. holding on. "It was my pleasure. I swallowed hard and smiled big. I'd hate to see you wither on the vine in a tiny operation out there in the wilds of Chicago when you could be here in the heart of things. but my eyes weren't registering titles. and it would be the wrong note to finish on. and I had to clamp a hand down over my mouth to hold in the sob about to break out. Please give it very careful consideration. you're here for another day. He said we'd talk when I got back. but that seemed all wrong. This wasn't the time or place. straightening up. too. An hour later I was in my hotel. mostly because I liked the color of the dust jacket. I really hope you'll decide to join us here. The moment of clarity broke over my head like glass. Then he chuckled lightly and smiled widely.Aro hovered there next to me. There wasn't room for anything else in my head at the moment. I just felt overwhelmed and confused. I stuffed my book back on the shelf and scrambled into the next aisle. Of course he wasn't here. I made myself pull a book from the shelf. My fingers were skimming over the spines. and the first fifteen minutes in the blissfully well-stocked Strand helped. apparently deciding he'd been forward enough with me for one day." "Good. I flipped it open and tried to focus and read the blurb inside. Bella. and I wasn't lying. My face was wet. "Thank you for your consideration. Unfortunately. I decided to spend the whole afternoon there. Nothing caught my attention. nothing seemed to be able to drag me out of the swamp of my own thoughts." I extended my hand to shake his and he wrapped both of his around it. which I'd always wanted to visit. But his absence at that moment felt like a black hole about to swallow me alive. the last thing he'd want now would be to help me do a postmortem of my interview. The source of the laugh was short and balding. polite smile. You've got immense talent and there's no telling how far you could go in this industry. for another moment. and just lose myself in the books. I promise you. and I wondered if my potential for growth at Volterra would be directly tied to my potential in other areas. Half an hour later. I knew it wasn't him. and he looked up like a startled rabbit at my sudden.

Edward. ~*~~*~~*~ . one hand clamped over my mouth. I turned on my heel and bolted for the door. Back to Chicago and The Lantern. What the hell was I doing here? I left him. had I gone too far? I felt sick. I was running as fast as I could towards my future. back to Dida and Alice and Rose and Angela and…Edward. ablalock (at) volterrapress (dot) com From: Bella Swan. I was never letting go of him again. I broke his heart and I walked away from him to come here about this job that was so. And so it was only fifteen minutes later that I was hurtling back through the city towards the airport. I thank you for your generous offer. so wrong for me. I was still standing in the middle of the aisle. Bella Swan I hit send just as the cab pulled up to the curb at LaGuardia. Blalock. Outside. I knew where I belonged. And hopefully. As the cab wound its way through the crowded streets. God. Yes. so the ticket wasn't the nonrefundable cheapie I'd have gotten if I'd been paying for it myself. the morning after Alice's wedding. Briefly. I was left racing through the terminal in a desperate panic to make it to my gate. I promised the driver all the cash I had if he would just wait for me to grab my suitcase and come back down. I didn't belong in that place with those people. not wanting to get in my way. "I have to go. I'd walked here from my hotel. But that time. and moments later. I dropped my hand and gasped for air. had been so strong that I'd been about to throw away the best thing that had ever or would ever happen to me all for the sake of pursuing something I should do.I was so fucking stupid. and squeezed my eyes shut. Security was a nightmare and in the end. the friends I loved. I'd been running away from Edward and back into the stifling trap of my old life. bswan2. What had I done? How badly had I fucked things up? Could I still fix it? Or was it too late. but now I didn't have a second to spare. This time. I just prayed I could make it there and through security in time. to the life I'd built for myself. I knew what I wanted. the prestige and the power had momentarily lured me in. I was reminded of my last mad dash through an airport. not something I wanted to do. I was rebooked on a flight out of LaGuardia leaving in forty-five minutes. cell phone clamped to my ear as I desperately tried to re-book my flight. My fear of making another mistake. I appreciate your interest and thank you for the consideration. of denying my own potential yet again. the home I'd made. are you alright?" My eyes flew open to see the short man with Edward's laugh still staring at me warily. Volterra Press hadn't been fooling around in their campaign to win me over. tears streaming down my face." I said raggedly. but agreed. I must have looked deranged. The man held up his hands and backed against the shelf. It worked. I feel my place is in Chicago with The Chicago Lantern. but at this time. if he'd still have me. To: Aro Blalock. I busied myself composing a brief. Oh. but necessary email. And if he let me back in. I wanted to go home. I flailed my arm for a cab and hoped that I was doing it right.0 (at) gmail (dot) com Dear Mr. one arm wrapped around my stomach. I was finally running towards Edward. He rolled his eyes. With just a small service fee. I was headed back to the hotel. "M'am. Because now it was startlingly clear to me.

Chapter Thirty-One ~ Beside Me ~
Bella It was after nine that night when I finally scrambled into a cab at O'Hare. I spit out Edward's address to the driver and sat back to wait, my knee bouncing restlessly, willing the trip to be shorter. I thought about calling him, but I was nearly there and this needed to come from me face-to-face. Plus, I had to admit to myself that I was slightly afraid that if I called him, he'd tell me not to come. Just the thought of that was enough to end me, and I had to close my eyes and breathe slowly through my nose to keep myself from bursting into tears. The driver let me out in front of Edward's building and I raced through the lobby, throwing only a quick wave of my hand to Rick, the night doorman. In the elevator, I focused on my feet to avoid looking at my reflection in the polished metal wall panels. I tried to think of what I would say, but my overtaxed brain wasn't helping me out. I was just going to have to wing it, and hope that when I saw him, I would know the right things to say to fix this. In front of his door, I set my roll-on against the wall and pressed my hand against the door frame, taking a moment to breathe deeply and pray that this wouldn't be the last time I ever came here. Then I pressed the bell and waited. "Coming…" I heard Edward's muffled voice from somewhere inside and my heart went into overdrive. He threw the deadbolt and swung the door open. When his eyes met mine, he froze, with his mouth slightly open. "Bella, what are you doing here?" he asked, bewildered. "I'm so sorry, Edward!" The instant I started to speak, I also started to cry. The physical and emotional exhaustion caught up to me and I fell to pieces. I needed him. I needed to get him into my arms and hang on to him. I threw myself at him, wrapping my arms around his neck and burying my face into his shoulder as I wept. He huffed slightly in surprise as my body hit his, but his arms came up immediately to catch me and he took a half-step back to steady himself. "Bella, what's wrong? What happened? What are you doing back here already?" "I fucked up. I'm so sorry. I was so wrong. I never should have gone. Just, please…" "Hey," he said softly, prying me away from him a little. But I wouldn't let go, I couldn't let him set me back down and away from him. He only managed to push me back enough to look at my face. "Calm down, Bell. It's okay. Just tell me what happened. Did the interview go badly?" He called me "Bell". That was his nickname for me. Somehow, that reached me. He was still my Edward; there was still something of us here. "The interview went fine," I said, my voice still reedy. "They want me, but I don't care. This is where I belong. Here with you."

Edward sighed, and his face softened with emotion. I felt his hands tighten on my arms. I wanted to touch him, and run my fingers down his cheek, but I didn't want to push too fast. I still had things to say and I was sure he did, too. "Bell…" "No, let me explain. Not that I'm trying to excuse what I did, but I want you to know why." "Come inside," he said softly, and I realized we were still standing in the open doorway. He tugged on my hand and pushed the door closed behind me. We didn't go far, just to the couch to the right. Edward sat first, and I sat next to him, folding one leg up underneath me and angling in to face him. I didn't let go of his hand. I held it tight in both of mine, stroking my thumbs over his knuckles. I kept my eyes on our joined hands because it was easier that way. I wanted to see us still together, even if it was just our hands. I took a deep breath to steel myself and started talking. "I felt like I had to do it. Not wanted to— had to. I spent all that time with Jay hiding myself away, refusing to realize my own potential, because I was afraid. I was willing to sell myself short for the sake of staying where I was safe. And stupidly, I thought if I didn't do this, I'd be repeating that same mistake. But I was so wrong. Just because everything in Chicago isn't what I planned, doesn't mean it's not right. It's absolutely perfect. What would have been wrong would be throwing everything I have away for the sake of something I didn't even really want." Edward listened to everything I said in silence. When I finished, he brought his other hand to cover mine and squeezed. "Are you sure about this? I never wanted you to turn down something you want for me. You'd only resent me later for it. If you want this, I promise you, we'll figure out a way to make it work." Finally I looked up at him, forcing myself to look straight into his beautiful green eyes, so he'd know I was sure. "I'm positive. Yes, it was a great opportunity, but not the right opportunity. At least, not for me. I'd never be happy there, not truly. I'm just so, so sorry that I handled it that way. That I had to hurt you like that and go all the way there to figure out what should have been so obvious to me." "You needed to figure it out in your own way. I wasn't hurt because you went, Bell. I was hurt that I wasn't a part of your decision to go." "I know. I'm sorry. I've been so stubborn about standing on my own feet, so that I wouldn't owe anybody for any part of my life. I wanted every choice I made to be mine, and mine alone. But I lost sight of what mattered, and that's you. Trying to keep you on the outside was wrong. You're the center of my life now, Edward. You should have been at the center of this, too." Edward's face was lined with emotion again. He shifted forward abruptly, pulling me into his chest. His arms wrapped around me and I felt his lips press against my hair. I closed my eyes and sighed into him, my fingers clutching at his shirt. "I love you," he murmured. "Edward, I love you so much, it's crazy." I was crying again, but this time in relief. He hugged me tighter and for a few minutes, we just held onto each other. "I told you I was a mess," I murmured against his chest. He chuckled and the vibration moved all the way through me. "You did. And maybe you are. But it's coming into focus now, right?" I sighed. "It's crystal clear now." "That's the important part. We'll keep figuring the rest out as we go," he said, tightening his arms around me. After a moment, he spoke again. "I'm sorry, too, Bell. I lost my temper and blew up at you." I shook my head against his chest. "You had every right to be mad." "Yeah, but storming out was the wrong way to handle it. I was just hurt and lashing out. I'm sorry."

"Me, too." "You said sorry already." "I'm still sorry. I can't believe I almost lost you just being blind and stubborn." "Hey," he nudged me back so that he could look down into my face. He moved his arm so that he could cup my face. I leaned against his palm. His thumb swept across my damp cheekbone. "You weren't in any danger of losing me. You know that, right?" "I wasn't sure. You were so mad. And then you said you wanted to talk when I got back. I was so afraid that I'd figured out my shit too late." "I told you I'm in this for the long haul, Bell, and I meant it. I'm not going anywhere. Yeah, I got mad, but I wasn't leaving you. I'll never leave you." The tears started afresh and I tried to think of something, anything, to say in response to something like that from him. But I had no words, and even if I did, I was incapable of saying them at that moment. So I just reached up for his face and pulled him down to me and kissed him. It was sweet, lingering and intense; my lips pressed hard against his as we held on tight to each other. When we finally broke apart, it was only so I could tuck my face into his neck under his jaw. Edward stroked my hair in long slow passes and I just closed my eyes and inhaled him, blissful in our reunion. "Do you want to talk about Volterra?" Edward asked at length. I sighed and sat back a little. "It was amazing. All modern and efficient. I could hardly even believe I was there. It was like a dream." "But, then you should…" I held up my hand to stop him. "I said it was like a dream, but what I figured out while I was there was that it wasn't my dream. It would have been a great opportunity, and who knows what my career would be like if I followed that path. But it's not the path I want to be on. I don't want to work like that, and I don't want to work with people like that." I could barely suppress the shudder I felt run through me at the memory of Aro, always standing too close, always touching me too much. But I should have known I could never get anything past Edward. He noticed the shift in my voice and looked at me closely. "Did something happen?" I shook my head. "No, not really. But yeah, I got a vibe, you know? Aro would have become an issue, if I'd stayed." Edward's face grew stony, and I stroked his jaw lightly with my fingertips, trying to diffuse him. "Don't let a creep like that scare you off, Bella." I smiled softly, "He didn't. I could have handled him. The whole thing just felt wrong. I was confused and overwhelmed, so it took me a little bit to get clarity on it, but once I did, all I could think about was getting back here to you, as fast as I could." "Jesus, I missed you," he sighed. "I know it's only been a day, but it felt so much longer." "I know. I missed you, too. But I'm back now, and I'm not leaving again. Ever." I wiggled closer, scooting half way into his lap. He tightened his arm around my waist and lifted me up against him. It was like I couldn't get close enough, I couldn't have enough of me touching him. Edward must have felt the same way, because his hands never stopped moving, rubbing and stroking across my shoulders, down my back, down my thigh, and then back up.

I tucked my face back into his neck and pressed my lips against his skin. He exhaled, long and slow. I did it again and his hand stopped on my hip, his fingers curling in. I slid my hand up the back of his neck and into his hair, always so thick and soft. Edward turned his face down, his lips seeking mine. This time it was hot and urgent; this time his mouth opened over mine and his tongue pushed in. I pressed myself closer to him as his hand slid around to cup my ass and pull me closer to his lap. As I settled my weight against him, he groaned into my mouth. "Edward," I murmured against his lips. He kissed his way, open-mouthed, across my cheek, down along my jaw, and down to my neck. My head fell back and my eyes closed. I fisted my hand in his hair to hold him to me. "Hmm?" he mumbled, sucking gently on my skin. "Take me to bed, please." He nipped at my skin, making me moan, before pressing a gentle kiss over the bite mark. Quickly, he unfolded himself up off the couch and reached for me, pulling me to my feet. I fell into his arms and back into another kiss, reveling in the feel of his long, lean body pressed against every inch of me. Edward gripped my head in his hands, his fingers tangling in my hair, kissing me slow and thorough, as he began to walk backwards towards the bedroom. I steadied myself with my hands on his waist, letting him lead me with his hands and his mouth. At the doorway, he released me just long enough to grab the hem of my shirt and whip it off over my head. I wrapped my hand in the front of his t-shirt and tugged. He reached back behind his head and grabbed a fistful of shirt, pulling it off in one quick, mouth-watering movement. I crashed into him, wanting to feel my skin against his, his bare arms wrapped tightly across my lower back. He kissed me so hard that I bent back from the force. We were moving, faster this time, an urgent scramble to the bed, never letting go of each other, our hands desperately touching, stroking, and gripping hard. Our kisses became sloppy in our haste. At the edge of the bed, Edward hooked his arm around my waist and twisted us as we fell. My back hit the bed just as Edward hit my front, his chest pressing mine, his weight pinning me to the bed. I moaned and wrapped myself around him, arms around his shoulders, legs around his hips. He shifted, gaining traction against the bed with his knees so that he could thrust himself into me. We moaned in unison that time. "Edward…" I sighed, as his mouth left mine and he moved down my neck. He was planting slow, light kisses down the center of my chest, over my ribs, down my stomach, as his fingers worked the button on my jeans. When the zipper released, I lifted my hips so he could tug them down my legs. He took his time, his hands stroking my bare flesh as my clothes fell away, his lips replacing his hands when they moved lower. I w