Sunday, September 8, 2013

Chapter 49

James Hunter loved being naked.

He especially loved being naked in public. He luxuriated in it now, on the latest of countless mornings he’d spent modeling in this U-dub classroom. He relished the visceral rush of a room full of art students studying his nakedness. What should have left him feeling vulnerable always made him feel perversely powerful instead, and today was no different. In fact, Thursdays were now the days he enjoyed the biggest thrill of impending victory. For those were the days he felt Bella Swan’s big brown eyes above all others, poring over his body with feigned indifference, dutifully recreating every detail of his physique on paper with her small but deft hand.

The lady doth protest too much, he thought as he glanced in her direction. He didn’t buy her stand-offish behavior or disdainful looks. He sensed that she secretly enjoyed his innuendos and come-ons. He’d known it the first day of class, when he watched her cheeks flame as his erection picked her out of the crowd. He rarely lost control that way in front of the class, even when the prettiest girls were gawking at him. Their appraisal always aroused him, but he was able to keep the beast at bay, for the most part. The blood would dance through his cock just enough to display its magnitude, but he would mentally will it not to rise completely. He had plenty of experience at keeping himself in check until it was time for the beast to be unleashed. And the middle of an art class was definitely not the time or place.

But that first day, the sweet-faced girl planted straight in front of him had done a number on his self-control. She looked so innocent, blushing and trying not to eye his groin as she sketched him. Her pretty features were unadorned with make-up, her skin creamy and unblemished, her brown eyes beautiful but wary. The young figure beneath those skinny jeans was taut with still-new curves. Everything about her screamed “virgin.” Yet somehow he knew she was not. Something in her eyes spoke of passion, of desire, of sins committed or perhaps, sins she had yet to commit. She was ripe and ready for them. And he was more than ready to be her sinner of choice.

He tried to quell his imagination as he stood before her that day, a prop spear aloft in one hand to match his own spear, both pointed at her as if she were his prey. He attempted to stop undressing her with his eyes; to avoid picturing her delicate breasts in his hands, her slim legs spread open wide and waiting. But the more he denied himself these images, the more willful his dick became. It throbbed with insistence to conquer the red-cheeked girl standing mere feet away. The titters and furtive glances from the other students only hardened him further. He imagined silencing their giggles by grabbing the brown-eyed girl and fucking her in the middle of the room while her classmates gaped in shock.

That night, he went to a club and found a willing partner in the middle of a strobe-lit dance floor instead. He pushed up her skirt and proceeded to fuck her into a frenzy amidst a sea of gyrating bodies. No one seemed to notice, or if they did, they didn’t care. The high of public sex intoxicated him far more than the drinks he’d downed. He closed his eyes and pretended the moaning, drug-addled girl in his arms was Bella; and then he came.

Of course, he didn’t know her name then. She was Brown-Eyed Girl until the day he finally caught a glimpse of her name on the front of her sketchbook. Now she was Brown-Eyed Bella. And she was proving to be the ultimate challenge.

He’d had a lot of them lately, and it suited him. His night job had provided an unexpected array of opportunities to prove himself. Ever since Renaissance Escorts’ top stud had removed himself from the roster, James and his fellow escorts had busied themselves making sure Edward Cullen’s former clients were satisfied.

He never could quite figure out what women saw in him, anyway, except for his handsome face. The guy was “man-pretty“ good-looking in a masculine yet non-threatening way. An old-fashioned charmer, from what he could gather. Cullen was tall and hung a suit well, but the guy never hit the gym, that James knew of. He was certain he was in better physical shape than that lanky drink of water. And he could be just as smooth as Edward Cullen. He could be a gentleman. He proved it night after night, wooing and seducing every one of Cullen’s cast-off customers until they forgot their former favorite.

It was all a game, anyway. By the end of the evening, the women who hired him didn’t want a gentleman anymore. He knew what they wanted. And he gloried in giving it to them. Especially Edward’s women. Every time he fucked one of them to a shrieking orgasm, his self-esteem soared. For whatever reason, Cullen had grown to legendary status in only a couple of years at the agency. Nothing was more gratifying than banging one of his women better than he did. Surpassing the renowned escort had become James Hunter’s raison d’ĂȘtre. He wouldn’t be satisfied until every one of Edward Cullen’s clientele was satisfied.

His cock was growing again at the thought. Time to shift his thinking to more benign subject matter before the class was treated to another full-on erection. He avoided looking at Bella, though he could see her out of the corner of his eye, dark hair spilling over her shoulders, teeth gnawing gently at her bottom lip. His cock stiffened further. Fuck. He wasn’t going to let her win this time. He turned his head slightly and looked in the other direction, at a stocky, bespectacled boy with a bored expression. James concentrated on that sexless image until his dick went limp. Not long after, the hour was up.

He reached for his blue robe, thrown over a nearby desk. Then he made his way around the room, perusing the students’ work, as was his habit. He enjoyed seeing the various drawing styles and interpretations of his physique. Some of the budding artists were quite talented, and Bella was one of them. The lines of her sketches were becoming bolder and freer, though she still had a fine attention to detail. He liked her details. She always got the shape of his lips just right; she always made his muscles stand out. She had to find him attractive, just by the way she drew him. He was sure of it.

His nerves began to dance a little as he got closer to her easel. He couldn’t wait to see what she’d done this time. She busied herself putting away her supplies as he approached her usual avoidance mechanism. Silly games, he thought. He stopped and pored over her sketch of him, a side view this time. The lines of his body were strong and fluid, the details etched in a lighter hand. She hadn’t balked at drawing the protrusion of his partial hard-on, nor the curls of pubic hair crowning it. She wasn’t afraid to look at him anymore and recreate exactly what she saw. Fuck, was that ever hot.

“Nice work,” was all he said aloud. He wasn’t about to gush. Less was always more. He preferred to speak with his eyes instead. He waited until she hazarded him a glance, then made sure the look he gave her conveyed his real thoughts. Her cheeks colored slightly, making his dick stir. Seducing that skittish fawn was his fondest wish these days. At work, most women were a sure thing. After all, they were paying him to do their bidding, and that usually included sex. But a girl like this would have to be coaxed and cajoled into letting her inner impulses run wild. That was fine. He could be patient, just as he could be a gentleman. By the time she came to him, his victory would be all the sweeter.

“Thanks,” she mumbled in acknowledgement before turning to load up her backpack.

“Have you made your submissions to the art show yet?” he continued, undaunted. “If not, you should consider this one. It’s one of your best yet.”

“Thanks,” she repeated, her eyes flitting to his. “I might. A friend of mine is going to look over my work and give me her unbiased opinion so I can figure out what to submit.”

“Good idea,” he said with an amiable grin. “Like I said, I’d be happy to throw in my two cents. I think I have a good idea what the professors are looking for.”

Bella gave him a brief nod. “I appreciate the offer. I’ll let you know.”

Her expression indicated that she would not be asking for his opinion any time soon. He couldn’t help but feel mild irritation at her tone. What was with her, anyway? It seemed that the nicer he was to her, the more she brushed him off. What had he ever done to her, except reveal his attraction? From day one, he’d made no attempt to hide his desire. Perhaps that sort of honesty was too much for her. She’d already shot down his innocuous offer to buy her a cup of coffee last week. What would it take to break down this girl’s defenses?

He would have to concede defeat, if only for today. Someday he would figure out a way to melt that icy exterior of hers. But for now, he simply walked away, glancing perfunctorily at the other students’ drawings before disappearing behind the privacy screen at the front of the room where his street clothes waited.

He took his time dressing, pondering what he could do to avoid getting cold shoulder from Bella yet again. He buttoned his denim shirt slowly, and dawdled over lacing up and tying his Doc Martens. The classroom had grown quiet after the last of the students filed out. But then, from the beyond the screen, came an unfamiliar female voice.

“Bella! Thank God, I finally found the right room. So this is the art studio? Very cool!”

“Hey, Alice,” he heard Bella reply, her voice exuding a warmth he’d never heard from her before. “I’m glad you could come. I could use some help picking out what drawings to submit to the art show.”

“No prob,” the other female answered breezily. “I can’t wait to see your stuff.”

“I’ll start from the beginning of the semester, I guess.” James heard the rustle of paper as Bella presumably flipped back through her sketchbook. “These are some profiles of the other students. We drew each other from across the room.”

“Oh, this one is nice. He’s kind of a hottie,” came Alice’s voice, accompanied by a giggle.

“Yeah? I hadn’t noticed,” Bella answered with a laugh of her own. “After a week or two of student sketches, we started in with the nude models.”

“This one looks classic,” Alice noted. “The way the drape falls over her body. You’re really good, Bella.” She sounded impressed.

Bella sounded bashful. “Thanks. I’m improving, I think.”

“Definitely. I can see the progression in your drawings.” There was a slight pause and the sound of more turning pages. “Oh, no, this must be Jackass James!” came a shriek from Alice.

It was his turn to bristle from his hiding spot behind the screen. So that’s what Bella called him behind his back? Nice.

“In the flesh,” she replied with a weary sigh. “Well, thankfully you don’t have to see him in the flesh, but I do. Arrogant prick.”

“Hmm, prick is right. He is sporting quite the boner here, isn’t he?”

“I try to ignore it. He seems to have gotten control over it since that first day, thank God.”

“Too bad,” Alice replied with a snort. He heard a few more pages being turned. “He does have a nice bod. Pretty hot, really.”

“You think everyone is hot,” Bella retorted, though it sounded like good-natured ribbing. James was still getting used to this other, softer side of Brown-Eyed Girl. He just wished she had agreed with her friend’s assessment.

“Hey, I love Jasper to death, but I can still look. Are you really so gone on my cousin that you don’t even notice other guys?”

“Yeah, I guess I am.” Bella’s voice took on a dreamy quality that immediately made James envious of Alice’s cousin, whoever he was. “I mean, I notice them, but they don’t make me feel anything. Not like Edward does.”

James froze. Every cell in his body went brittle at the name. Edward? No. Not possible. He had to have heard wrong. And even if she had said that name, it couldn’t be Cullen.

“Well, obviously the feeling is mutual. No one else could have made him turn his life around the way you have. I’d given up hope that he’d ever quit the business. But all it took was the right girl to give him a reason to stop selling himself. I will be forever in your debt, Bella.”

James’s head spun. He wanted to sit down, but the nearest desk was out in the open, and he didn’t want to give away his presence. Not when his two disparate obsessions were converging in a wild, unbelievable twist of fate like this. The girls had to be talking about Cullen. Who else fit the description? Especially with an old-fashioned name like “Edward.”

“I still can’t believe it happened,” he heard Bella say, her voice sounding like it was coming through a vacuum to his stunned ears. “I can’t believe that the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my life turned out to be the best. When I hired him, I never thought in a million years that I’d fall for him. The fact that he fell for me is even more bizarre. I still sometimes think I’m going to wake up to find out the whole thing was a dream.”

“Well, I’m proof that it’s not. I wouldn’t be here with you right now if it wasn’t real. And I wouldn’t have a new best friend if you hadn’t done the crazy thing you did. So like I said, I’m grateful.”

“So am I,” came Bella’s voice, a choked-up sounding whisper.

There was another silence, punctuated by the sounds of what he assumed was a hug between the girls. He poked his head around the side of the screen for a second, just long enough to confirm the bonding moment between girlfriends.

After that the two got down to business, discussing the merits of Bella’s better sketches. He was so lost in his thoughts that he was barely cognizant of what they were saying. His ears did perk up at Alice’s mention of his “juicy ass,” but Bella’s dismissive response only disappointed, then galled him. What were the odds that his most desired conquest had already been conquered by the infamous Edward Cullen? It was absurd. And yet it was the truth. It was proof that real life was stranger than fiction.

It was also proof that James had been right about Bella Swan. Behind that modest veneer lurked a dark, sensual side. The side that made her seek out a paid escort to bring her sexual fantasies to life. But who had she chosen from all the Renaissance Escorts profiles? Not James Hunter. She hadn’t even recognized him when he showed up in her art class. No, she went for fucking Prince Charming, Edward Cullen. Not only that, whatever her fantasies were, Cullen was so into them that he actually quit the escort business to be with her.

Was she that good in bed, that deceptively demure girl? Cullen had had every kind of woman, but he chose that one, and that one alone. Hunger and envy gnawed at the bottom of James’s gut, tugging at his dick once more. He could see the allure, obviously. He’d ached to melt that girl’s steely resolve long before he ever knew she was Cullen’s girlfriend. Hell, he never knew the guy even had a girlfriend. Rumors had swirled around the agency that Edward quit because he’d fallen for one of his customers, but James had always scoffed at the idea. He couldn’t imagine any guy giving up such a sweet gig. Not only getting to seduce and pleasure women on the regular, but getting paid for the privilege? That was the life. He’d never willingly walk away from that. Not even for a girl like Bella.

He stole a glance from behind the screen. Cullen’s cousin was cute enough. As for Bella, James could see only her back, with its swath of glossy hair dangling above a delectable heart-shaped ass. Cullen had walked away from all of it all those gorgeous women for that ass. It must be one hell of a good one under that stretch denim.

Now, more than ever, James yearned to see it for himself. Bella’s desirability to him had just skyrocketed right off the charts with the uncanny revelation of her connection to Edward Cullen. There was no greater thrill than luring another woman away from that overrated has-been. But stealing his girlfriend? The possibility was more than James could have hoped for. Seducing Bella Swan would be the ultimate coup de grace.

He waited patiently behind the screen while the girls narrowed down the sketches to a few contenders. When Bella settled on two of the female model and two of James, Alice asked the inevitable question.

“Which one are you going to pick for your fifth drawing?”

“I’m going to submit something I did in my free time,” Bella answered in a conspiratorial tone. “I have a sketch I drew of Edward while he was sleeping that I think is really good. Don’t tell him I’m entering it, though I want it to be a surprise.”

“Ugh, you two and your surprises!” Alice exclaimed. “Do I need to remind you how you would have felt if Edward hadn’t finally told you about the Seattle Piano Contest, and you’d missed it? You would have sawed his balls off with a rusty butter knife.”

James barely smothered a guffaw. That sounded like an excellent idea to him.

“I know, but this is different,” Bella argued. “He’s already seen the drawing. He thinks I idealized him too much, but he’s just being modest. I think it’s one of my best pieces, so I’m going to submit it. Maybe, if it gets accepted for the exhibit, I’ll tell him. But I’d rather see the look on his face when I bring him to the art show instead.”

“That would be fun,” admitted Alice. “All right, I won’t say anything. I’ll be anxious to see that drawing myself.”

“You can come over to my room when you have time and I’ll show it to you. Maybe you can help me matte the drawings and get them ready for admission.”

“Sure, I’d love to. How about tomorrow?”

James heard Bella agree, but the girls’ words were hard to discern over the sounds of Bella putting her sketches in her portfolio and gathering her things to leave. When he heard footsteps heading toward the classroom door, he finally stepped out from behind the privacy screen and watched the girls exit the room, their asses swaying in a matching rhythm as they walked.

He stood still for a moment, digesting all that he had heard. Piano contest? Wouldn’t you know, that son-of-a-bitch apparently had talents beyond the bedroom. James didn’t know why that surprised him. And now he might have to put up with pretty-boy’s mug hanging next to his own at the art exhibit, to boot.

Fine. He could deal with that. In fact, he looked forward to it. He would figure out a way to turn the tables. There had to be a way to use this newfound information to his advantage. He just wasn’t quite sure what it was yet.

He did know one thing for certain. He would be at that student art show with bells on. And he couldn’t wait to see the look on Edward Cullen’s face, either.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Chapter 48

“Are those blueberry pancakes I smell?”

Edward grinned at the sound of Alice’s voice behind him. “You know it,” he replied, reaching for the spatula in order to flip them.

“And you know I’m an addict when I can smell them over the bacon,” she said with a laugh. “Here, let me help.”

She scooted past him to the stove and grabbed the tongs from the nearby counter, then turned the bacon while Edward flipped the flapjacks. They worked in silence for a moment, enjoying their usual morning routine a little more now that they each had someone else to cook for.

“I see you made enough for everyone,” Alice noted. “Is Bella awake yet?”

“No. She had a pretty rough evening before I brought her home. I thought I’d surprise her with breakfast in bed.”

“You’re such a romantic,” she teased. “I like that idea. Maybe I’ll do the same for Jasper.”

Alice glanced up at Edward for his reaction, but his face remained serene.

“You weren’t really mad about catching me and Jasper last night, were you?” she asked, just to be sure.

“No,” he replied evenly. “Although I really didn’t need to see the two of you going at it. I could use some brain bleach for that one. But I actually like Jasper. He seems like a good guy.”

“He’s a great guy. I know you’ll like him the more you get to know him. He’s really helped me cope with a lot of things, like Em getting worse. He’s even offered to come with me to visit her. Not many guys would do that, you know?”

“I know.” Edward paused, recalling their grandmother’s desire to meet Bella, even if she wasn’t lucid enough to remember it. “I’ve thought about taking Bella, too. Maybe we could call Tranquility Gardens ahead of time to find out how Em’s doing, and then we could all go see her together. I think it would help for her to know we’re not alone anymore.”

He stopped, blinking back the tears welling in his eyes. Now was not the time for sorrow. Not today.

“That’s a good idea,” Alice agreed. She put down the tongs and gave Edward’s arm a reassuring squeeze. “Have you thought about how we’re going to keep her there? It’s such a nice place, and the staff has been so good with her. I don’t want to have to move her.”

Edward nodded and set the spatula on the stove with a sigh. “Me neither. I’ll look into some financial aid again this week. I have enough money to get us through the piano contest, anyway. But after that, I’ve got to find some work, regardless of how the competition goes.”

He turned and gave his cousin a smile, hoping it looked more encouraging than grim. Of course, he couldn’t fool her for a minute.

“It’s going to be okay, Edward,” she insisted with typical pluck. “I don’t know exactly how, but it will. Things can only get better now that you’re done selling yourself. God, I’m so happy about that, I can’t even. . .”

She threw her arms around him in lieu of finishing the sentence. He couldn’t help but let out a chuckle, once again grateful for her innate enthusiasm. “I’m pretty happy about it myself.”

“I guess the only person who isn’t is your boss,” Alice said with a snort. She drew back and raised curious eyes to his. “So, what did Rosalie do when you broke the news to her?”

Edward’s grin faded. “Well. . .that remains to be seen.”

Alice’s eyes bulged. “You haven’t told her?”

He shook his head with a slight grimace.

“So you haven’t actually quit yet. You haven’t given your notice.”

“Not officially,” he admitted, reluctant to receive one of Alice’s judgmental lectures. “But she knew it was only a matter of time. I was kind of on probation with the agency, anyway. Once my date from last night gives Rosalie the lowdown of what happened, I’m sure my ass will be grass. She’ll probably fire me before I get the chance to quit.”

“I don’t know about that,” Alice said, frowning. “You were one of her most popular guys. You think she wants to give up that kind of cash flow without a fight?”

“Under other circumstances, I’d say no. But Rosalie’s actually not as bad as you think. She kind of gets where I’m coming from. She went through it herself, with Emmett.”

“I suppose so,” Alice said with a shrug. “Maybe he can soften her up for you. Is he coming over for Black Ops this afternoon?”

Edward nodded. “Yeah. But this is something I’ll need to do in person, not through Emmett.”

“Right, of course.” Alice paused, her forehead crinkling. “So what happened on your date last night that was so bad? You said Bella had a rough night. Did she get involved somehow?”

“More like, I was the cause,” came a female voice from behind them. Edward and Alice turned in unison to find a sleepy-eyed Bella in the kitchen doorway, with Jasper right on her heels.

“The cause? How do you mean?” asked Alice, while Edward shook his head in disagreement.

“Remember my friend Jessica, from the bar? You met her the night before my birthday,” Bella reminded her as she headed toward one of the bar stools at the island counter. Jasper followed, pulling the stool out for her before seating himself beside her.

“She was a delight, as I recall,” he commented, his drawl only accenting the sarcasm.

Bella let out a small laugh. “Right. Well, she outdid herself this time. I underestimated her jealousy over Mike. She figured out my connection to Edward, then hired him to take her to the same party she knew Mike was taking me to last night.”

Jasper’s mouth formed a surprised ‘O’ while Alice shrieked in outrage.

“Get out! She did not really do that.” Edward and Bella’s identical nods refuted her.

“I had no idea who she was,” he clarified. “If I had, I never would have let Rose set up the date.”

“What a scheming little ho-bag!” Alice fumed.

“I’m a little confused, though,” Jasper interjected to Bella. “Why were you on a date with Mike?”

Her blush was one of guilt. “Because I’m an idiot. I underestimated his feelings for me, too. I thought we could go out as just friends. I was wrong.”

“Stop blaming yourself,” Edward reprimanded. “I was the one still in the position for her to use me to hurt you. It won’t happen again.”

He spoke with finality before turning and checking on the breakfast, now ready to be served. He motioned to Alice to get the dishes out of the cupboard while he placed the cooked bacon on paper towels to drain. Minutes later, the four friends were lined up at the bar, devouring pancakes in between conversing, just as they had the week before. Edward could sense the beginning of a new tradition, and the feeling warmed him down to his toes.

“Well, I still think Jessica is the main one to blame in all of this,” Alice declared after hearing both Bella and Edward’s sides of the debacle. “She’s just a class-A beyotch, plain and simple. What she did was beyond cruel. I hope you bitch-slapped her like she deserved, Bella.”

Bella laughed and spoke with a twinge of regret. “I think I was too traumatized. I’m more of a stick-my-head-in-the-sand type when it comes to confrontation. I just freeze. But you’re right, I might have felt better if I’d hauled off and slugged her instead.”

“But in the end, you stood up for yourself. And me,” Edward reminded her. “You don’t know how much that meant to me,” he added quietly.

Bella’s eyes met his, and she saw exactly how much it meant. “I do know. You were so quiet last night after I finally told everyone off. Whenever you’re at a loss for words, that’s when I know something has really touched you, down deep.”

As if to prove it, he stared at her dumbly for a moment. “You know me well,” he said at last, a grin spreading across his face.

Bella grinned back and reached for her orange juice.

“Well, if I ever see her again on campus, I’ll bitch-slap her myself,” Alice announced. “She’s got it coming to her. Not only did she hurt you, she could have gotten Edward arrested, blowing his cover like that in front of everyone. Rosalie will have a cow if she finds out.”

“Shit,” Bella exclaimed, setting her glass down with a thud. “I never even thought of that. I admitted the truth about our relationship to the entire room.”

Edward looked at her panic-stricken face and tried to reassure her. “Don’t worry about it. There’s no proof. And since I’m resigning, no one can come after Rosalie because of me. I’ll no longer be her employee.”

The truth was, he didn’t know whether he should be worried about the possibility or not. He very much doubted that anyone at last night’s Greek cocktail really cared about busting him or the agency. He just hoped Jessica wasn’t vindictive enough to do it herself.

A silence fell over the kitchen, and he wondered if the others were thinking the same thing.

“Well, I think Edward’s right,” Jasper said at last. “I doubt anyone from that party will go to the trouble of finding his agency just to squeal on him. As my grandmamma used to say, ‘Don’t borrow trouble.’”

“Oh, that sounds like what Em always told us: don’t worry until it’s time to worry,” Alice chimed in.

“Words to live by.” Jasper raised his juice glass and proposed a toast. “Here’s to the wisdom of the wonderful ladies in our lives.”

“Hear, hear,” was the unison response, along with the clinking of glass and gulping of orange juice.

“Ooh, we should have opened some champagne and made mimosas,” Alice lamented. “To celebrate Edward finally getting his head out of his ass. And to thank Bella for giving him a reason to do it.”

Edward’s answering smile was more of a sneer. “That’s a beautiful sentiment. But true,” he admitted with a rueful laugh.

Bella barely had time to give him a reproachful look before a loud banging at the kitchen door diverted everyone’s attention.

“Is Emmett here already?” Alice wondered aloud. “Seems kind of early, although I guess it is getting close to noon.”

Edward hopped off his bar stool and down the short flight of steps to the side door. “Keep your pants on, McCarty,” he joked as he unlocked the door and yanked it open. “I’d prefer your ass be covered when I hand it to you this afternoon.”

His gloating died in the cool coastal air floating through the doorway. For instead of being greeted by Emmett’s grinning mug, Edward was met with Rosalie Hale’s cool blue stare.

“I’d say it’s a little late for that,” she told him without missing a beat. “I think you already handed me my ass last night. Although, to be fair, you had some help.”

Edward’s face went ashen. “I take it you heard from Jessica this morning?” he managed to say, trying to swallow the lump that had formed in his throat.

“Oh, yes. She gave me an earful. She’s a real treat,” Rosalie said with a tight smile, her sarcasm more biting than Jasper’s had been. “Mind if I come in?”

“No, of course not.” Edward stepped back and motioned for her to lead the way up the stairs. He was about to close the door when he caught Emmett’s hulking form striding up the sidewalk from the drive. He gave his friend a curious look, wondering why the two of them had come to the house together. Surely Rose didn’t want to wait around while Emmett and Edward played their usual rounds of video games. Or was she so angry that she’d forbidden her boyfriend to hang out at the Cullen house?

Edward followed her and Emmett up the stairs, taking in the surprised stares of the girls at the bar. Jasper had no idea who the guests were, but Alice and Bella certainly did. Bella blanched, getting that look on her face that Edward thought he’d seen the last of. Her expression was one of intimidation. But why? Rosalie couldn’t hold anything over them now.

Bella gaped openly at the vision of Edward’s boss entering the room. Even on a Sunday morning, wearing jeans and a simple knit shirt, Rosalie Hale’s striking beauty managed to outshine every glossy surface of the brand-new Cullen kitchen. Bella absently finger-combed the tangled strands of her own hair, wishing she’d at least dragged a brush through it, or put on some clothes besides a pair of Edward’s old sweats before coming downstairs this morning.

“Good morning, everyone,” Rosalie greeted them somewhat sheepishly, apparently sensing she’d interrupted their personal time. “Bella, it’s nice to see you again,” she continued with a nod. Bella nodded in return, her cheeks reddening.

Rosalie’s attention shifted to the slip of a girl sitting next to her. Her large, hazel eyes were the same shape as Edward’s green ones, and just as sharp. “You must be Alice. I’ve heard a lot about you. All good, of course. I’m Rosalie,” she added, sticking out her hand in introduction.

Alice reluctantly gave her a brief handshake. “Good to finally meet you,” she managed, though her tone was insincere.

Rosalie’s grin broadened. The girl reminded her so much of Edward, but without the ability to sugar-coat her true feelings. She liked that in a person. She worked with glib charmers every day. Straight shooters like Emmett and Alice were a breath of fresh air. As was Jasper Whitlock, when he stretched his hand over the counter and introduced himself with a lilting Southern “Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miss Hale.”

An uncomfortable but brief silence fell after the introductions, interrupted by Emmett’s booming voice as he perused the kitchen. “Pancakes and bacon? Did you leave me any leftovers?”

“No, but I can fix more,” Alice piped up.

Rosalie gave Emmett a swat on one beefy bicep. “Don’t listen to him. We just came from brunch at Vios. He needs more bacon like he needs another hole in his head.”

“I can always make room for bacon. Not to mention homemade pancakes,” Emmett argued.

“It doesn’t mean you should,” his paramour argued back. “I’d like to see you make it past fifty, you know.”

“You can’t get rid of me that easily,” he shot back with an ornery grin, sliding his arm around her and giving her a squeeze. “You know I’m gonna live forever, just to irritate you.”

“Is that a promise or a threat?”

Emmett gave her another squeeze. “A little of both.”

Edward listened to their gentle bickering with interest. Though Rose was being a hard-ass as always, her expression was softer than he’d ever seen it before. Emmett had definitely thawed that ice princess with his unstoppable warmth. Her glacial eyes were reduced to mere puddles as she tried in vain to give him a glare. She pressed her lips together to stop a grin from forming, to no avail. It crept across her face like the dawn, infusing that cool landscape with a warm glow that was all new to Edward. Not to Emmett, though. The knowing smile and quick peck he gave her had the easiness of everyday gestures.

Rosalie seemed to turn away from him with reluctance as she faced Edward once more. “If you’re done with your breakfast, I’d like to have a word with you.”

Edward nodded. “Sure,” he said, his voice a bit hollow as he gestured to the living room. “Let’s go sit in the other room.”

He drank in Bella’s look of encouragement before following Rosalie out of the kitchen.

“This is a beautiful house, Edward,” she commented, her appreciative eyes sweeping the room. “No wonder you’ve fought so hard to keep it.”

“It’s been in the family for years,” he replied. “I just hope I can keep it that way.”

Rosalie turned to face him, her expression peculiar. She fished around in her designer bag, finally procuring a long, white business envelope.

“Maybe this will help,” she said as she handed it to him.

He took the envelope, uneasiness twisting his stomach despite her words. “What is this my pink slip?”

“Just open it.”

He did as instructed, unfolding the long legal paper with equal parts curiosity and apprehension. When he saw what the document contained, he raised stunned eyes to his boss.

“This is the title to the Volvo.”

Rosalie nodded, another grin pulling at her lips. “Yes, it is.”

“I don’t understand.” He understood, all right; he just didn’t quite believe it.

“It’s yours,” she clarified. “So is the wardrobe. I don’t have any use for the car, or a closet-full of designer suits. But you might. They should bring in enough money to tide you over in a pinch. Hopefully it won’t come to that, but if it does, well, maybe this can provide a little cushion for you and your family.”

The lump formed in Edward’s throat once more, but for a very different reason this time. “This is . . .” He shook his head, searching for the right words. “. . . incredibly generous of you, Rosalie. Considering how things went down, you have every right to bounce me out on my ass and repossess everything I ever put on that expense account.”

She arched one impeccably-groomed eyebrow. “You know I wouldn’t do that to you. We had a good run, Edward. You did amazingly well, considering your heart was never really in it. I don’t begrudge you anything. Consider it a bonus. A parting gift, if you will.”

A ghost of grin swept over his face. “So I am fired.”

She let out a wry laugh. “You pretty much gave your notice a couple of weeks ago. I probably should have let you go then, but what can I say? I’m greedy. I hoped you’d change your mind. I’m already having a hard time trying to figure out what to do with your clients. They’re insistent when it comes to you. They don’t want any substitutes. But the truth is, I can’t have another incident like last night on my hands. It was all I could do to calm Jessica Stanley down so she wouldn’t report us to the authorities. When I pointed out to her that she’d be implicating herself as well, that finally did the trick.”

Edward let out a long breath, then slumped into a nearby chair. “I’m sorry about that whole mess. If I’d had any idea that girl had a connection to Bella, I never would have let you book the date.”

Rosalie seated herself at the end of the sofa, next to Edward’s chair. “Well, if it wasn’t her, then it would have been another client eventually. There’s a reason I have a hard and fast rule about my escorts getting personally involved with customers. It just doesn’t work, especially when our clients are women. They have a tendency to get more emotionally attached than men do. So when an escort reciprocates outside the parameters of a work, the situation goes south very fast.”

“Mixing business and pleasure never works. Even in our profession.”

“Especially in our profession,” she corrected him with another wry smile. “Ironically enough.”

Edward’s weak grin faded. “I’m sorry I put you in that position. I fought my connection with Bella at first, you know. I didn’t want the complication. But when that changed, I should have made a clean break with you and the agency instead of asking you for special treatment. And yet you still went out of your way to help me out in the end.” He shook his head, baffled.

“I like you, Edward,” Rosalie said simply. “Well, the little I know of you. But you’re Emmett’s friend, and he cares about you a lot. That’s good enough for me.”

Edward smiled, realizing he was beginning to like Rosalie as well. “Well, Emmett’s obviously crazy about you. And that’s good enough for me, too.”

She grinned, nodding. “Well, maybe we can work on this friendship thing now that you’re no longer under my employ.”

“Sure. I’d like that,” he answered with his own smile. “How are you at video war games?”

She let out a laugh. “Are you asking me to join you and Emmett for a little Call of Duty action?”

“If you’re up to the challenge,” he taunted.

“I’m always up for a challenge. You do realize Emmett makes me play Black Ops with him when you’re not around, right? I’m a force to be reckoned with.”

“I don’t doubt that for a second.”

The two appraised one another through this new lens of friendship. The view suited them both, and they grinned again.

“Let’s go get the others and split into teams,” Rosalie suggested, rising from the couch.

“Good idea,” Edward agreed as he stood and folded the car title to fit back into the envelope. His expression sobered once more, and he grabbed Rosalie’s arm to stop her from leaving the room. She turned and looked up at him in surprise.

“Thank you.” His voice was gruff, strangled by that damned lump again.

Rosalie looked into his grateful eyes and quietly said, “You’re welcome.”

Edward wondered if he should hug her. He hesitated for a moment, noting that she looked as awkward as he felt. He finally busied himself putting the car title back in its envelope, then filed it in the drawer of the closest end table for safe-keeping.

Rosalie looked relieved when he turned and gestured to the kitchen where their friends waited. As they exited the living room, she glanced up at him and said, “If I hadn’t let you go today, you would have quit anyway, wouldn’t you?”

Her words sounded more like a statement of fact than a question. He gave her a sheepish look. “That was the plan.”

“Well, then,” she said, “I’m glad I beat you to the punch.”

He snorted softly. That sounded like the Rosalie he knew.

“You do like having the upper hand,” he noted.


“I’m not so sure I want to play Call of Duty with you anymore,” he teased as they entered the kitchen.

“Don’t be a sissy-pants,” she shot back. “Emmett, your friend here is afraid I’m going to annihilate him at Black Ops. What do you think of that?”

“Sissy-pants?” Edward echoed with another snort, while Emmett guiltily finished off the last piece of bacon.

“I think he’s right to be worried,” Emmett said before wiping his mouth and turning to Edward. “She’s brutal, man. I’ve created a monster.”

“All right, that’s enough trash talk. Let’s get this covert operation started,” Rosalie announced. She looked at a clearly surprised Bella and Alice, who gaped at her from across their empty plates. “You two want to join me in a little video game challenge? Girls against the boys. What do you say?”

Alice recovered first, her round eyes crinkling as she grinned. “Well, I generally suck at video games, but if you don’t mind a handicap, I’ll give it a try.”

“I’m afraid I’ll be the handicap,” Bella interjected. “I’ve never even played Black Ops before.”

“It’s not hard--I’ll teach you,” Edward offered.

Bella gave him a quick what-the-hell-just-happened-in-there? look. His eyes responded with a silent I’ll-tell-you-later.

“Hey, no fraternizing with the enemy,” Rosalie teased. “He’s right, though. It’s not hard to learn. Maybe the boys will be kind enough to give us a practice run before we start.”

The guys readily agreed, then watched still-shocked Bella and Alice accompany Rosalie to the family room. Edward shook his head at this rather strange turn of events, then began cleaning up the dirty plates from the bar. Jasper jumped in and helped him load the dishwasher while Emmett opened the refrigerator in search of beer.

“So, how did it go in there?” he asked, feigning nonchalance as he popped open a brew.

“Better than I ever expected,” Edward answered. He glanced at Jasper and told him, “Rosalie actually gave me the title to the car I’ve been driving. The C70.” He turned from Jasper’s look of surprise to Emmett’s poker face. “But you already knew that, didn’t you?”

Emmett shrugged. “She mentioned she might try to help ease the transition of you leaving the business. That ought to help you out, right?”

“Quite a bit,” he replied. “Come on, drop the innocent act. You had something to do with this, didn’t you? You put her up to it.”

Emmett raised his hands in denial. “Giving you the car was her idea. I just offered my hearty approval.”

“Right,” Edward said, still skeptical. “How about the wardrobe? Was that her idea, too? Tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of Italian suits and shoes. Even if I can only sell them for a fraction of their worth, it’s still a very nice chunk of change.”

“It certainly is,” Emmett agreed with a noncommittal nod.

Edward approached, staring down his friend through narrowed eyes. “You are the world’s fucking worst liar. You know that, right?”

Emmett’s eyes narrowed as well, but the twinkle in them was irrepressible. “You wound me deeply,” he said, stifling a grin.

Edward shook his head in exasperation before growing more serious. “Thanks, man. I mean it.”

Before Emmett could make another rebuttal, Edward threw his arms around his friend’s hulking form in a brief but bracing hug.

“You would have done the same,” Emmett replied hoarsely, embracing Edward for a moment before pushing him away and recovering his machismo. “But if you really want to show me some gratitude, you can help me take down Rosalie and her minions in there. She fucking killed me last night at that game and I am in need of some sweet retribution. You boys with me?”

Emmett held up his hands for high fives, which Edward and Jasper returned with relish.

“Now, let’s go get the best of our better halves,” he said with a devilish grin, rubbing his hands together.

Edward tailed Emmett and Jasper out of the kitchen and slowly followed them to the game room, still trying to absorb the changes happening so rapidly around him. He watched the guys settle in with the girls and listened to more trash talk ensue. He smiled in silent wonder at the start of another tradition unfolding before his eyes.

Bella looked up then, catching his wistful gaze. She got up from her spot on the couch and went to him, taking his hands in hers.

“Are you at a loss for words again?” she asked softly.

He nodded and smiled at her perception.

“Well, I’m not,” she replied, leaning closer. “I love you. You’re finally free. Now let’s have some fun.” Still grasping his hands, she backed into the family room, pulling her with him.

Edward grinned and let her lead the way.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

Chapter 47

It is the true season of Love

When we know that we alone can love,

That no one could ever have loved before us

And that no one will ever Love

In the same way after us.

~Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe




Bella couldn’t stop staring at Edward’s moonlit profile as the Volvo meandered through the winding streets of Magnolia toward his house. She’d never seen him look so serene, so untroubled. He had the weightless expression of a man who’d just had a 50-pound yoke removed from his back.

But she knew that if she were in his shoes, she’d be anything but relieved.

Edward had felt her probing eyes on him for some time, but it only made the tiny grin on his face stretch wider. No amount of uncertainty about the future was going to get him down tonight. Tonight was a celebration. He and Bella had both shed the burdens that had dragged them down for too long. The time for lip service to freedom had ended. They were actually free.

He glanced at her, twinkling eyes meeting sober ones. “I know you’re afraid to believe it, but I really am done with Renaissance,” he assured her. “I thought you’d be a little happier about my decision.”

“I’m ecstatic about your decision. To the point where I think I might be in shock, actually,” she replied. The laugh he emitted couldn’t help but bring a smile to her face. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen you like this. You’re practically . . . giddy.”

He laughed again. “Yeah. I guess I am. I wish you’d join me,” he added in mild reproach.

“I’m just a little worried about tomorrow, that’s all,” she explained while Edward steered the car into the cul-de-sac where the stately Cullen home beckoned. “What happens when you wake up and realize you have no income? I mean, the problems that drove you to escorting haven’t magically disappeared. How are you going to keep this gorgeous house, for one? I know how much it means to you.”

They both gazed up at the sprawling Tudor before them as Edward turned down the drive. To Bella’s surprise, his smile faded only slightly.

“I’m not in danger of losing the house. Not anytime soon.”

Her eyebrows knitted. “I thought Emily had it mortgaged up to the rafters.”

“She did.” He hoped the flush spreading across his cheeks was undetectable in the dimly lit car. “Charlotte helped me out with that. She, uh, took care of the last mortgage. So instead of owing the bank, I owe her. And her terms are a little more generous than theirs.”

“Wow.” Bella wasn’t sure how she felt about that. Charlotte Rinehart had been nothing but warm and charming on the occasions Bella had encountered her. But she couldn’t help but find such generosity suspect. The woman might claim there were no strings attached, but in truth, she had made sure Edward would be indebted to her for years.

He glanced at Bella’s troubled face and sighed. “You aren’t still worried about her, are you? She’s a friend. She’ll still be my friend even though she’s not a client anymore.”

Bella nodded. She suspected that his grandmother’s slow deterioration made Charlotte the only remaining mother figure in his life. She still wasn’t sure Charlotte saw it the same way, but if she hadn’t made any inappropriate advances toward Edward after all this time, chances are she never would.

“That’s a pretty amazing gesture, making sure you can keep this house,” she admitted. “She must care about you a lot.”

“Yeah,” he agreed quietly as he pulled the car into the garage. After killing the motor, he hopped out and made it to Bella’s side of the car in time to help her out. He held on to her hand and guided her along the path to the house.

“There’s something else Charlotte did for me that you should know about,” he continued. His eyes darted to Bella’s, dark and unreadable under the shade of a nearby maple. He felt her hand grasp his a little more tightly, and a shot of adrenaline danced along his veins.

“What is it?” Her voice was pulled tight with apprehension.

“Her late husband knew some important people in classical music circles. So she pulled a few strings and managed to finagle a spot for me in the Seattle Piano Competition this year, even though I missed the audition deadline months ago.”

Bella stopped short, her eyes widening. Even in the dark, it was easy to see her excitement.

“You’re going to be in a piano competition? That’s the big secret you’ve been keeping from me?”

“Yeah. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I’m a little freaked out about it, I guess.” He dropped her hand and ran it through his hair in the usual nervous habit.

“Why? You know I’ll support you no matter how you do. And you’re going to do great, by the way.”

“We’ll see.” He wished he was as sure about the outcome as she was. “I still don’t feel like I’m ready. I’m just not in the zone not like I was when I was in school. I still feel kind of . . . off my game, I guess.” He trailed off, not knowing how to explain his anxiety.

Bella reached for him again, closing her hand protectively around his wrist. “What are you so afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen?”

“The worst that could happen?” he echoed with a sardonic laugh. “I’ll choke. Get up in front of all those people and make a fool of myself. This is the first time a lot of music bigwigs will see me since I competed four years ago. I showed a lot of promise back then. But then I walked away and lost my momentum, my drive, my skills. I can’t get back two years of lost time in a few weeks. What if I’ve blown it? For good?”

His eyes dropped to the paving stones beneath their feet. This was the first time he’d voiced his biggest fears out loud. The admission was both freeing and damning. He felt Bella’s hand slide down, her fingers working their way between his. She had shifted on the sidewalk, and when he lifted his gaze to hers, her face was illuminated now by the moon shining through a break in the leaves overhead. Her dark eyes shone with a determination so fierce, he was almost ready to believe she had enough of it for both of them.

“That’s ridiculous. You haven’t lost your drive, or your skills. I see them both whenever you sit down at a piano. And momentum comes back every day you practice, it builds. But in the end, none of that stuff is what’s really important. What’s important is what you have in here.” She slid her free hand under his jacket, over his thumping heart. “When you let this guide your fingers, you can’t go wrong. I’ve heard it. I’ve felt it. It’s what made me fall in love with you, an hour after we met. Just set it free and you’ve already won.”

Edward felt his throat constrict. He looked down at her palm warming the starched fabric of his shirt; at his mother’s bracelet on her wrist, glowing faintly in the dark. He had the strange sensation that his mother’s spirit hovered nearby, watching and smiling in approval. Maybe she had somehow steered him in Bella’s direction, the same way she’d guided him to the four-leaf clover when he was a child.

“What would I do without you?” he whispered, to either the ghost, or the girl before him. Maybe both.

Before Bella could reply, he covered her mouth with his in a grateful kiss. The kiss quickly multiplied into more urgent ones, prompting Edward to suggest that they go in the house.

She readily complied, letting him lead her by the hand to the side door. But as soon as they were inside, an unhappy realization struck her. She stopped on the landing and frowned up at him.

“How long were you planning to keep this competition from me, anyway?”

Edward cringed, his words coming out slow and hesitant. “I don’t know. Until I got a job offer out of it?”

“So you were going to let me miss it entirely? You weren’t even going to let me be there to support you? To be there for your moment of triumph?”

“But what if it isn’t a moment of triumph? What if I bomb completely and ruin everything?”

Bella’s voice raised in exasperation. “If that happens which it won’t then I want to be there to help you through it. That’s what couples do. I mean, if that’s what we are now. If we’re seeing each other exclusively.”

Edward gaped in disbelief at the uncertainty in her voice. “Of course we are. Didn’t we just establish that back at the hotel? I love you. I don’t want anyone else. I thought you felt the same.”

“I do. So how could you leave me out of something this huge for you? I don’t care whether you win or lose I care about supporting you, no matter what. Don’t you get that?”

He sighed at Bella’s growing fury. “I do get it. I’m sorry. It’s just that I’ll be under enough pressure as it is without worrying about disappointing you.”

“You can’t disappoint me,” she insisted. “No, wait, I take that back. If you had gone to that competition and never told me about it until afterward, that would have disappointed me. Pissed me off royally, to be exact. I can’t believe you were going to do that to me leave me out of one of the most important moments of your life.”

Edward stared in consternation at her incredulous face. Her eyes looked positively wounded. It was slowly sinking in just how badly he had almost fucked up, yet again.

“I’m sorry,” he reiterated. “I’m not used to . . . letting people in.” He stopped and raked uneasy fingers through his hair once more. “I didn’t even tell Alice about it until last week. She warned me you’d react this way, and that I should tell you the truth. Fucking Alice, always right,” he muttered under his breath.

“Well, she was this time,” Bella agreed, then relented. “Look, I know you’ve been trying to protect me from a lot of things, and keep parts of your life separate from us. But that needs to stop now. You don’t have to protect me anymore. Least of all from you.”

“Bella, I’ll always try to protect you. That’s never going to change. But you’re wrong about this one. It was myself I was protecting by not telling you,” he admitted, his expression sheepish. “I couldn’t stand the thought of you seeing me fail. I can’t stand the thought of failing you.”

Bella sighed and reached up to stroke her thumb along his jaw. “Don’t you get it? It doesn’t matter. I’m not going anywhere. Even if you’re not perfect. Especially because you’re not perfect.”

That brought the smile back to his face, then hers. He slid his arms around her and pulled her close.

“I could tell you a hundred times how much I love you and it still wouldn’t be enough,” he murmured, his face dropping closer to hers. “But maybe if I take you upstairs, I can show you instead.”

The same thrill of anticipation rippled over Bella’s skin as it did that first night, wearing this dress, feeling the expensive cloth of this very suit under her fingers. She knew it was the same one. She recognized the fabric’s rich navy hue, nearly black in the moonlight filtering through the kitchen windows. She and Edward wore the same costumes as before, but beneath, they had both changed in profound ways. They had changed each other.

She made no audible reply; she simply nodded and let him lead her up the short flight of stairs and across the tiled kitchen floor. The low drone of a TV met their ears as they neared the dining room, and Edward emitted a sigh of disappointment that he and Bella weren’t alone.

“Alice is home,” he said. “I’d better check in and let her know we’re here.”

Bella followed him through the living room to the family room, then nearly ran smack into his backside after he came to an abrupt halt across from the couch. When she saw what had stopped him in his tracks, her eyes popped open and her mouth followed suit.

“Alice!” she heard him bellow. But she’d already averted her eyes from the sight of Edward’s buck-naked cousin on the sofa, frantically scrambling for her clothes from beneath an equally naked, and horrified, Jasper Whitlock.

“Edward!” Bella heard her squeak, in between the rustling of garments being hastily pulled on. “What are you doing home so early? And with Bella? Hi, Bella!”

Bella’s eyes stayed on the carpet, but her hand shot up in a little wave. “Hey, Alice.”

“It’s a long story,” Edward answered. “And don’t change the subject. What the hell do you two think you’re doing in the middle of the family room, on Em’s couch?”

“What does it look like we’re doing, genius?” Alice retorted. “You can look, now, by the way. We’re decent.”

“That’s debatable,” Edward muttered. Bella looked up at him before she hazarded a glance back at the couple on the couch. He was glowering in distaste at red-faced Alice and Jasper, still straightening and fastening the clothes they’d hastily thrown on.

“Like you’re one to judge,” Alice retorted, glaring back at her cousin. “You can’t possibly be trying to play the morality card with me.”

Bella saw Edward’s clenched jaw twitch a couple of times, but before he could offer a comeback, a still-shirtless Jasper spoke up.

“Look, I know this is not cool, fooling around on your grandmothers’ sofa,” he said in his soothing Southern drawl. His hands were raised in a gesture of surrender, as though Edward had a gun pointed at him. But Jasper’s attempts to calm him down were somewhat thwarted by the frenetic locks of hair springing up all over his head in post-sex disarray. “Don’t blame Alice for the impropriety, though. Blame me. I’m so in love with the girl that I sometimes lose my head, and my judgment goes right out the window. It won’t happen again.”

Bella couldn’t help but grin at the sight of Alice, staring at Jasper in starry-eyed surprise. “You love me? Really?” she whispered.

“You know I do. And your cousin should know that. My intentions are completely honorable.”

“Your intentions?” Alice repeated with a giggle. “I love how old-fashioned you are,” she said with a happy sigh. “I love you.”

She and Jasper leaned in toward one another, nose to nose and grinning dopily, seemingly encased in their own bubble of mutual attraction. Bella wondered if that’s how she and Edward looked to the outside world. She heard him let out something between a sigh and a grumble, then looked up to see the resignation on his face.

“Fine. That’s great. Just . . .” He paused, his lip twitching in a grimace. “Take it upstairs next time, will you?”

“Agreed,” Alice said, still slightly shame-faced. “You could have knocked, though,” she muttered as an afterthought.

“You want me to knock on the door of my own house?” he retorted, his voice rising again. Bella interceded with a loud cough before his ire returned.

“Edward has some incredible news to tell you, actually. Right?” She raised her eyebrows expectantly at him. He relented and gave her the slow smile she hoped she’d see, then turned to Alice.

“I quit the business tonight,” he told her. “For good.”

His cousin’s face registered shock for a moment. “You quit escorting?”

He nodded, trying to stifle his grin but failing. “I’m done. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I’m not going back.”

He stopped then, bracing himself as Alice hurled herself off the couch and made a running leap in his direction. She threw her arms around him with a squeal of elation; he picked her right up off the floor and rocked her back and forth for a moment.

“OhmyGod, ohmyGod, ohmyGod,” Alice chanted, tears filling her eyes. “I’ve been waiting so long for this moment. I’m so happy for you. And for you, Bella! For all of us.” Edward set her back down on the carpet as she demanded, “What happened? What made you finally do it?”

Edward glanced over at Bella. “I got a wake-up call tonight. I finally saw just how much I was still hurting Bella. And you, Alice. I’m sorry for how my choices have impacted you, too.”

She shook her head. “Don’t be sorry. You did what you thought you had to do. I owe you so much for the sacrifices you made. But I’m glad it’s over. Now you can concentrate on your music, the way you deserve. We’ll make it work, Edward. We’ll figure it out somehow.”

She threw her arms around him in one last hug, and he was almost ashamed at her obvious relief. He’d never fully realized what his lifestyle had been doing to her all this time. How could he have been so blind?

Jasper rose from the sofa and slowly made his way to the group, resting his hand lightly on Alice’s shoulder. She released her cousin and nestled back against him, placing her hand over his. Edward was struck by how right the two of them looked together. He wondered if that’s how he and Bella appeared to the casual observer.

He smiled at Bella and reached out to take her hand in his, then turned his attention back to Jasper and Alice.

“Well, if you don’t mind, Bella and I have a little celebrating to do. We’ll let you two go back to . . . watching TV,” he said with the quirk of one brow.

Alice and Jasper answered with matching grins, then retreated to the couch while Edward led Bella up the oak staircase to the bedrooms above.




Bella gazed at her reflection in the massive mirror perched over Edward’s dresser. Her eye make-up was a little worse for wear after the crying she’d done earlier. But the expression in her eyes was what intrigued her. She looked older somehow. Wiser, perhaps. Like she was finally becoming the person she’d always wanted to be.

Like she was growing up.

Edward appeared in the mirror over her left shoulder. She watched him take off his suit jacket and throw it at the foot of the bed before he came to stand behind her. His reflection looked a little odd, his nose off-kilter in the reverse image before her. She stared at him, trying to get used to the difference.

“I hope it’s okay that I changed the subject and made you tell Alice your news instead of yelling at her. She’s not that much younger than I am, you know. And it’s obvious she and Jasper are crazy about each other.”

“I know. I’m actually cool with Jasper. She could do a lot worse. But I really didn’t need to see my baby cousin in flagrante like that.” He shuddered slightly again. “It just surprised me, that’s all. Besides, I’d be the worst kind of hypocrite if I judged her at all, after the example I set for her.”

“True,” Bella told him with a wry grin. “But that’s over now. Time to move on.”

Edward nodded soberly. He reached out for a lock of her hair, pulling it over her shoulder and smoothing it down her back. A prickle of goose bumps rose on her neck at the brush of his fingers.

“Alice was so excited, even for her. I’ve never seen her like that,” she continued.

But Edward’s attention remained fixed on Bella’s shoulder. He slowly pulled the crochet sweater down until her upper arm was bare.

“What about you? Are you excited?” he murmured. He gave her a meaningful look in the mirror before he bowed his head and pressed his lips to the base of her neck, over her collarbone.

“Very.” Her voice shook slightly, her whispered reply hovering in the quiet air. His breath was warm on her skin as he moved his mouth along the curve of her shoulder. She watched his hand reach for the opposite shoulder and pull the delicate yarn work down, continuing until the sweater had fallen from her arms into his waiting hands. He tossed it near his jacket on the bed before replacing it with his hands, skimming them over her arms until goose flesh rose over her entire body.

“I like this dress,” he said, moving his fingers down the blue satin covering her back, then sliding his hands around her hips and pulling her closer. “I hate that you wore it for someone else.” He gave her a reproachful look in the mirror before his lips relaxed in a smirk. “Then again, that will only make me enjoy taking it off of you even more.”

He raised one hand to pull the shoulder strap down, plying her pale skin with kisses once more. His other hand found the closure of her zipper, slowly pulling it down while the satin fell away from her back. He pushed the other strap of the dress down until the garment glided over her hips and dropped to the floor with a soft hiss.

Bella’s breathing was labored now, her breasts noticeably rising and falling beneath the indigo lace of her bra. Edward flashed back to that first night, remembering the tension and excitement coursing through both of them at the prospect of their first time together. His desire was immeasurably stronger now now that he knew the heart, soul and mind of the girl encased in this temple of ivory flesh.

He looked at her backwards image in the mirror, enjoying this new perspective. He wondered if she saw herself the same way now as she had that night.

“Do you finally see how beautiful you are?” he asked her reflection. “Why you have no need to be self-conscious? I had to fight your embarrassment at every turn. But you’ve let go of that now.”

Her reflection nodded back at his. “You freed me that first night. And tonight you finally freed yourself.”

He started, letting that sink in. “I had some help,” he said at last, wrapping his arms around her and pulling her against him. “I’m not sure I would have done it if you weren’t waiting for me.”

“We were waiting for each other,” she said, sliding her own arms over his and clutching his hands beneath hers. They gazed at one another in the mirror a moment. Edward’s eyes remained fixed on hers as he planted several kisses atop her head. He rocked her back and forth gently and breathed in the spicy floral scent of her shampoo. His eyes closed, allowing his other senses to heighten, immersing himself in her musk and silk and heat.

Bella’s eyes closed too, but only for a moment. The enraptured look on his face was too wondrous to miss. She was still surprised that she could move him this way, even when the proof lay in the looking glass before her. But why shouldn’t she affect him the way he did her? Didn’t she deserve for her love and longing to be reciprocated? Everyone deserved that. She was just one of the lucky few who’d found it. She thought of Mike, and even mean-spirited Jessica. They’d merely been searching for what she’d managed to find, even if they went about it the wrong way. Wrapped in Edward’s embrace, she saw and felt the proof of what love could do, and she felt nothing but forgiveness in her heart. There was no room for pettiness or blame, regret or shame. The past was gone. The future shimmered before her from a piece of leaded glass, and the image was better than anything she’d ever dared hope for.

She sighed and leaned her head against Edward’s chest. She stroked the backs of his hands, then began working at the buttons of his shirt cuffs. She needed to feel the warmth of his skin, the coarseness of his hair beneath her fingertips.

He did not protest when she pulled away, sensing she was merely turning to face him. A faintly bemused smile played at his lips as he watched her reach for the knot of his tie. The action was reminiscent of their first night, but Bella’s expression was not. Gone were her anxious eyes, her fumbling fingers. She untied the silken noose from his neck with sensuous languor, then slowly unbuttoned his shirt with steady, deliberate hands. She seemed to be savoring the opening of this package every bit as much as she had the ones he’d given her on her birthday. The effect was just as frustrating, yet enticing.

“Different tie,” she noted as it slithered to the floor. She pulled the tails of his shirt from his pants and made quick work of the bottom button. “Different shirt,” she added, running her hands up the tensed muscles of his belly and chest until she reached his shoulders. She pushed the starched cotton over them and down his arms in much the same manner as he had undressed her. He watched, mesmerized, as her sure fingers unhooked and unzipped the closure of his fine Italian gabardine pants.

“Same suit,” she accused, her eyes darting up to his. “I hate that you wore this suit for someone else. Don’t do it again.”

With one quick yank, Bella sent the navy trousers straight to his ankles. His eyebrows raised, as did Junior, moving more freely in the boxers Edward had chosen to wear this evening.

“I won’t,” he promised. The knowledge that this was a vow he would keep sent a peculiar thrill through him. Where newfound commitment might send other men his age into a panic, it only strengthened Edward’s conviction. As long as he had the love of this girl, he would need no other.

The seriousness in his eyes sent the same thrill of certainty through Bella. The night of her birthday, she wondered if she could ever fulfill the need in his hungry gaze. Now, she had no doubt of it. The search was over. They had each found what they needed in the other.

Their kiss began in slow motion: bodies gently bending and stretching, necks craning in swan-like grace until lips met. Then, soft probing; gentle tasting; sighs of mutual bliss. Their mouths shared a communion both reverent and unholy; sacrosanct and base. For lust soon joined love in their kiss, the two emotions fusing into a force more powerful than either could muster on its own.

Bodies pressed together; hands grasped at flesh; lips pressed harder; tongues searched more deeply. When Edward and Bella broke apart at last for breath, their eyes met for one long, fevered moment. Trust merged at last with love and lust. The trinity was complete.

The fervor of this new religion overtook them; they reveled in its perfect union. They reached for one another with renewed awe, the sensation of each touch intensified by their mutual worship. When Edward bent to rid himself of his shoes and socks, Bella knelt to untie him. As soon as she finished with the task, she ran her hands slowly up the pillars of his legs, through the strands of sandy hair on his legs until she reached the smooth skin of his upper thighs. She didn’t stop there. She reached further, under the thin cotton, to the apex of his hips and thighs. His skin was so soft and smooth there; a stark white virgin untouched by the rays of the sun. She laced her fingers through the thicket of curly hair that lay between, circling her thumbs around the base of his thickening erection. She could see its increasing length rising to greet her beneath the fabric of his shorts. A small groan escaped him at the gentle pressure of her fingers, teasing him with their indirect contact.

She smiled at this power she had over him the power to arouse and give pleasure, which would ultimately result in her own. She looked up into his eyes as she gathered the cotton material of his boxers in both hands and pulled down slowly, maddeningly, until his cock sprang free, pointing with insistence at the object of its desire. Bella ignored the bobbing head so close to her lips, methodically continuing to push Edward’s underwear down his legs. When they reached the rug, he hastily removed his feet one by one and kicked the boxers aside. He was the one breathing hard now, his eyes glowing fierce with want down at Bella’s serene Mona Lisa smile, hovering so close to impatient Junior.

He placed both hands on the sides of her head, gently drawing her closer until the tip of his cock brushed against those ruby lips. Please, he wanted to groan, his eyes fluttering shut for a moment at the feel of that kiss. The groan became real when she parted those lips and let him in; her tongue gliding beneath him, tickling and wetting him before retreating; then twirling and licking before she wrapped her lips around him once more and sucked him down deep before retreating again.

He sighed and appealed to a higher power, his first of many exhortations to God that night. He would make sure Bella cried out to the heavens herself before the night was through. His fingers combed the silky hair at her temples while she worked him into a lather as only she could. He watched, hypnotized, as his cock slid between those pretty lips over and over again, his hips gently thrusting in a quickening rhythm dictated by her stroking hands and mouth. The matching image in the mirror next to him only doubled his desire. He watched until he could watch no longer; until he knew must stop her or explode inside that beautiful orifice. It was much too soon for that.

He withdrew with effort, holding her head steady as he pulled out. “Stand up,” he ordered, his voice a rasp of desire. The minute she rose to her feet, he kissed her, replacing his cock with his tongue, reminding her that there were no barriers between them; nothing holding him back. Asking her to hold nothing back from him.

He turned her toward the mirror, toward the image of her gorgeous body in that silky black bra and panties. She must see herself the way he did. Must understand why he loved and desired her so.

“Look at yourself,” he whispered, placing his hands on her shoulders. “What do you see?”

Bella stared blankly for a moment. She had a hard time dragging her eyes from the drop-dead handsome image of Edward in all his naked glory, but she finally forced herself to study her own reflection instead. She saw cherry lips, wet and swollen from pleasing the man she loved. She saw dark eyes, hungry for more of him. She saw the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest, flushed and panting in anticipation. And then she watched his hands wrap around her hips, rise to cradle her waist, then skim her ribcage before closing over her breasts, squeezing and gently pinching her nipples until they hardened beneath their lace cover.

She gasped at the sensation, her breath catching in her throat. His hands released her in order to unhook her bra and push the straps over her shoulders; she watched it parachute to the floor. He cupped her breasts again, pushing her rigid nipples skyward. Her back arched involuntarily, effectively pressing her cleavage further into his hands and her ass against his erection. She moaned at the realization that he was now the one with all the power


“Do you see how incredible you are?” Edward whispered in her ear, his hands beginning to roam slowly down her body, thoroughly caressing every curve before moving to the next. “There is no one more beautiful to me. No one sexier.” His fingers slid under the thin band of her lace underwear, stretching over her belly toward her throbbing sex. “You’re perfect.”

His fingers dipped down; her eyes closed and her head fell back. Yes, perfect. The feel of his flesh against hers, delving deep, tender yet insistent. His lips panted hot breath into her ear as his fingers probed until she was wet and compliant. Her hips tilted upward, letting him in.

“Perfect,” she echoed. She spoke of a different perfection, but it didn’t matter.

“Yes,” he said. Now she saw. Or maybe she simply felt it. Felt what it meant to him every time she let go; every time she let him in. Let him touch her in her most private, intimate places. Let him try to return the pleasure she gave him.

He let out a grateful sigh before removing his fingers and kneeling down to peel her panties from her body, tossing them over his discarded boxers. She still wore her heels, and it suited him. He did not remove them. They made the muscles of her legs taut under his hands as they skimmed up her body and rested on her buttocks. He squeezed and stroked, slapped and shook that solid, round flesh. She yelped a little but her back arched once more, belying her arousal. The evidence was even more ample when he spread her cheeks to reveal the glistening flesh between. He let out a groan at the tantalizing aroma emanating from her, begging to be tasted. He moaned directly into those pink folds as he pressed his lips to hers, then lapped at her sticky sweetness with his tongue.

Her moans took over then. The intensity of the sensations shocked her every time, as if she had never been tasted before. But this time, the pleasure of his probing tongue was heightened by the visual aid of the mirror before her. Never before had she seen her own reaction to Edward’s sexual onslaught: the helpless euphoria etched across her face, the heaving of her flushed chest, the wanton spreading of her legs; not to mention the glimpses of Edward’s face pressed between them, tonguing her into a full-body swoon.

She gasped and grabbed at the heavy oak frame of the mirror as he continued to work her into a frenzy. Without thinking, she raised her left leg and rested her knee on the dresser, opening herself wider to him and allowing her to better see what he was doing. The thrill of the taboo raced through her as she watched him work his magic. She felt no shame at the sight of her pussy being thoroughly and deliciously ravished by that beautiful mouth of his. Instead, she felt only elation that he wanted her this much.

Bella’s invitation only spurred Edward on. He was unbelievably turned on that she liked the show; wanted to see exactly what he was doing to her. He devoured her with an insatiable hunger, burying his face until he was coated in her cream, then manually stroking her until she pushed her opening toward his fingers, taking the first two deep inside.

He pumped her slowly at first, continuing to tongue the parted flesh encasing his fingers. Then he moved his mouth back, gently licking and probing her anus in time with the thrusting of his fingers. When she moaned softly and her hips began rocking in time, he continued, pushing his tongue against her tight opening and then finally massaging it with his other hand. He continued this way, wetting that delicate starfish and then pushing his pinky finger against it, trying to gain admittance.

Bella took a deep breath, then exhaled and tried to relax. She wanted to be ready to explore this type of intimacy with him. She suspected he liked anal sex, though he’d never brought up the topic. But he’d stimulated her orally there several times already; it was only a matter of time before he tried more.

She stilled her body and willed her muscles to go lax. Edward took her cue and pushed his finger slowly but surely into her opening. She winced and bit her lip, but didn’t make a sound. At least not until he’d breached the tight ring of muscle and inserted his finger deeper within her. The sound she made then was not one of pain, but of surprise. Once he was inside, the sensation was oddly pleasant. She let out a sigh as he buried his smallest finger in her rectum, then twisted gently. Yes, that was good. Surprisingly great, actually.

“Do you like this?” came his tentative question. He was fairly certain he knew the answer. He was good at reading her body, and right now, she was on her way to reaching that sexual nirvana that he always hoped for.

“Yes. It feels good,” she admitted quietly, trying to calm her breathing, but to no avail. The sensation of those gorgeous fingers filling her, front and back, was overwhelming. As he tenderly massaged her, she teetered on that excruciating brink between pain and ecstasy. But the more he massaged, the more she leaned toward the latter.

“It’s not too much?” he asked her, increasingly unsure. Her body was tense and panting. When he looked up, he could see her breath fogging the mirror before her.

She let out something like a laugh, or a gasp. “It is too much. Don’t stop,” she ordered.

He slowed his movements. “Are you sure?”

She nodded vigorously. “Keep going.”

The intensity was nearly more than she could bear, but the thought of him stopping was worse. Instead, she gave herself over completely to the shockwaves barreling through her belly as Edward’s fingers stroked her nerve endings into a meltdown. She openly whimpered and moaned; she slapped her hands right on the glass mirror to support herself as he increased the pace. The sight of what he was doing to her only intensified her reactions. He was right, it was too much. Something was going to have to give.

Edward was as consumed in Bella’s sexual thrall as she was. It was nearly an out-of-body experience. Every bit of his concentration and consciousness was focused on the three digits encased within her, shaking her very core in the most intimate way possible. She was going to climax soon. Her body was tensing all around him, even as she pushed back on his fingers, welcoming the friction of his increasingly rapid thrusts. He was unbelievably high on the prospect of driving her to ultimate release.

The frantic sounds that came from her mouth surprised even Bella, but she couldn’t bring herself to care. She was coming, and her vision was going black. She slammed her palms against the glass, squeezed her eyes shut and released a high-pitched cry as everything within her convulsed in paroxysms of ecstasy.

Edward stared with glassy-eyed wonder at the feel of her muscles gripping his fingers in waves, and the sight of her hips bucking along with them. She had come undone entirely at his hands once more. And he felt every bit as satisfied, yet strangely powerless, as the first time.

Frustration soon followed. He wanted in on her euphoria. He wanted to ride that roller coaster with her, not just be the guy at ground control. He glanced down at Junior, rigid and nearly purple with envy; then at Bella’s still-quivering backside, coming down from the first wave of her orgasm.

He was on his feet in seconds, ignoring her disappointed gasp when he withdrew his fingers from her warmth. He met her frazzled gaze with his determined one, then ran his hands slowly over her damp skin, down the length of her thigh, still perched atop the dresser. With the help of the mirror, his searching fingers quickly found their way to her swollen clit, while Junior reached from behind for the slick opening at its base. The two converged together, stroking and filling her in a swift unison that had her crying, “Oh, God!”

But her cries weren’t for mercy, and Edward wasn’t about to give it to her. He was going to give her something else altogether.

They both grunted like animals, their breath fogging the mirror and blurring their faces as they rutted. Bella still throbbed and burned from her interrupted climax, barely having time to recover before the assault of Edward’s cock began. She knew that was exactly what he wanted. The blood still pumped through her belly, squeezing her muscles rhythmically against this new invader. She practically sobbed as the pulsing intensified, heightened by the relentless stimulation of his fingers outside and his dick within. The mirror image of him disappearing deep inside her, over and over, added a whole new dimension to her arousal. Dear God, she was going to come again. Or still. She wasn’t sure which. She only knew that the ache of pure pleasure refused to stop racking her groin, and nothing else mattered.

Edward pumped in time with her contractions, meeting each one with a deep thrust that forced one guttural growl from his throat after the other. She was coming again, and damned if she wasn’t going to take him with her. He was close already. The minute she cried out and her walls constricted, he stilled his movements and let himself feel the reverberations, right along with her. They were quick and intense, gripping him repeatedly until he felt his own climax building. He began moving his hips again, driving his cock into her with long, deliberate thrusts until it erupted in bursts of excruciating pleasure.

“Yes,” she gasped, her eyes closing and her head lolling back, as if his ecstasy was her own.

He groaned at the glorious release, then collapsed against her, his hand joining hers on the looking glass to support himself. Through the panting fog on the mirror, his spent and sated eyes met hers in wordless communion. Was there anything better than this? If there was, he had certainly never experienced it. Never in the most sexually satisfying moments of his escort days had he come close to feeling anything like this. This was what drew him to Bella, over and over, and would for the rest of his days. Not just the mind-blowing physical connection, but all the things about her that deepened it into so much more than he ever knew was possible.

He kissed her cheek and wrapped his arms around her, never taking his eyes from hers in the mirror. He watched her slightly in order to lower her leg from the dresser, wincing at the stiffness in her joints as she put her weight back on both feet. Edward reached down to massage the limb until her face relaxed into the same picture of contentment as his own. He buried his nose in her neck, inhaling her essence, drowning in the scent of utter bliss. He never wanted to resurface.

He grinned into the tangle of her dark hair as the realization hit him: This time, he didn’t have to.