He was out of his element, and the feeling was unfamiliar, unwelcome. The tense vacuum of silence around them begged him to fill it with blather, and he was about to give in to the urge when there was a knock at the door.
He tried to silence his sigh of relief. Saved by the dinner bell.
“Speak of the devil,” he said, with a raised eyebrow at Isabella. She looked as relieved as he felt.
He hurried to the door to let in the bellhop, who pushed a cart laden with silver-lidded trays toward the dining room table. Edward already had two tapers burning there on either side of an enormous bouquet of mixed flowers. He directed the server to place their dishes at one end of the table, across from one another. He wanted to be able to watch her--her expressions, her mannerisms, her manners--and her reactions to his. He needed to get a better read on her. So far, she had been frustratingly enigmatic.
She followed the two men to the table and watched as the server lifted the lids off the courses, describing them one by one. She pretended not to be surprised at the crab cakes, grilled asparagus, filet mignon and tiramisu offerings, since she had listed them all as her preferences. The food looked, and smelled, delicious. Its scent overpowered the escort’s for the time being, and her appetite seemed to recover enough to temper her nerves.
As Edward pressed a wad of cash into the bellhop’s hand before sending him on his way, she realized that his dinner was identical to hers.
“Excellent choices,” he told her, returning to the table and pulling her chair out for her. She sat down while he continued to eerily read her mind. “I decided to order the same things. You can never go wrong with a little surf and turf.”
He disappeared to the living room, then returned with the bottle of wine. He refilled their glasses and seated himself across from her, giving her a stiff smile. She tried not to stare at him, but it was a losing battle. He must find her horribly rude. Or possibly a little touched in the head.
But her studies were revealing more about him, slowly but surely. Once her eyes adjusted to the glare of his beauty, she began to look for cracks in its veneer. He was human, after all. There was a flesh and blood man under that pretty face and impeccable Italian suit of armor.
His eyes were the first to betray his aura of confidence. They weren’t as cool and collected as the rest of his demeanor. Their gaze was uncertain; tentative around the edges. Then his hands began following suit, agitating his hair with habitual regularity, making its disarray more and more prominent. His mane defied gravity; his eyes defied circumstance.
She realized with a start that he didn’t like his circumstances. He didn’t want to be here.
He didn’t want to be an escort.
She frowned at her plate and wondered if she should call him on his bluff. Call this whole “date” off, and reject everything the exchange of money for services implied. Whatever his reasons for pursuing this line of work, she was now certain they were of necessity rather than choice.
The silence continued to oppress them as they unfolded crisp linen dinner napkins and spread them across their laps.
He wondered if she would ever speak.
She wondered what to say.
She stabbed a fork into her appetizer and tried to muster the courage to voice what they both must be thinking: that he’d rather be anywhere else than with her right now, and that she wasn’t sure she could go through with a night of loveless sex in a five-star hotel any more than she could in her dingy dorm room.
But before she could build up the nerve, he beat her to the punch.
“Why are you here, Isabella?” he asked with abrupt candor. At this point, he figured he had nothing to lose.
A large bite of crab cake went down her gullet in a hasty gulp. “What do you mean?” she stalled. She hadn’t expected him to put her on the spot instead.
“You’re not my typical client. You’re young and beautiful. You could have your pick of eligible guys. Why do you think you need me?”
She stared into his serious gaze. Damn, he was good. She almost believed him.
“Look, I know you have to say those kinds of things because I paid you good money to,” she said. “But I’m letting you off the hook. You can cut the crap. I mean, I know the truth.”
“You don’t know anything,” he retorted. He frowned, his thick eyebrows squeezing the bridge of his nose. “Just because you don’t believe what I say doesn’t mean it’s not true. I don’t have to tell you you’re beautiful. If I didn’t find you attractive, I would just say that your dress is lovely, or your hair looks great, or you look amazing tonight. All of which is true, by the way. I don’t tell everyone they’re beautiful. Hardly anyone, in fact.”
He was being generous. He’d never told any client she was beautiful, ever. He had found all sorts of creative ways to get around that bit of dishonesty. From the start, he had decided that the only things he was obligated to prostitute were his body and his time. All else--his opinions, his preferences, his needs, his desires--were his and his alone, to bestow as he saw fit.
And as he sat across the table from Isabella Swan, watching the candle flames illuminate her porcelain skin and flicker in her deep brown eyes, he found her indisputably beautiful. The notion that she saw herself as anything less confounded and disturbed him.
She could see that he was serious; offended, even, that she hadn’t accepted his praise more graciously. She looked him in the eyes and said with utter sincerity, “Thank you. That’s quite a compliment coming from you.”
His expression was one of bafflement. “What do you mean by that?”
“Well, come on,” she said with a slight roll of her eyes. “Look at you. You’re . . . ” She paused as her eyes swept over his broad shoulders, up his masculine neck, and lingered over his achingly attractive features. “You’re ridiculously good-looking. I’m sure you know that.”
“What am I, Zoolander?” he said with a light snort of laughter. She barely cracked a smile at the joke. “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he added, with a sardonic twist of his lips. He hated talking about his looks. He hated the arrogance it implied to even acknowledge them.
She found his tone surprising. It smacked of sarcasm, as if his handsomeness was nothing but a sham. She wondered how someone like him could look in the mirror and not see what the rest of the world saw.
But his words also meant that he found her beautiful, just as she did him. That was something she did not expect. She was still hesitant to believe him, even though he spoke with conviction. Perhaps he was so practiced at the art of flattery that his falsehoods rang true. But something in his eyes told her that he was not yet that jaded.
“What about you?” she countered, letting her curiosity - and the wine - make her brave. “Why are you here? Why do you need this?”
He stared at her blankly. Clients never asked him that. Well, some of the older ones did. They assumed it was the money, and they were mostly right. He liked to think he did it to stroke his ego a bit, too, except that he didn’t have one. But he was great at faking it.
“The pay is excellent and the perks are, well . . . ” He finished the thought by raking his eyes up and down her slight frame, pausing to stare provocatively at the bare expanse of flesh right above her breasts.
Her cheeks flamed hot, but she remained undaunted. “Besides that,” she pressed.
He shrugged dismissively. “There is nothing else. It’s easy money and I’m good at it. My friends always used to joke that I was so good at picking up women that I ought to get paid for it. One day I decided that maybe they were on to something.”
Her eyes narrowed. She was studying him again. He was used to appraisal, but not scrutiny. He squirmed uncomfortably and polished off the rest of his wine.
“That’s bullshit,” she finally declared with a shake of her head. “You like being used. You think that’s all you’re good for. That that’s all you deserve.”
He felt the impact of her words like a knife to the gut, piercing and deep, spilling his entrails out on the table before he ever felt the pain of the attack. It was too late to raise his shield, so he launched a counter offense.
“Let me guess--you’re a psych major,” he said with a withering sneer. “Is that why you came here? To psychoanalyze me and figure out why I’d make such a fucked-up career choice? Just don’t forget to turn the microscope back on yourself while you’re at it. I’d love to hear why a beautiful young girl would pay two months’ rent to be seduced by a complete stranger.”
She looked flummoxed, and he was glad. She would think twice before she left her glass house for another attack.
“You don’t have to tell me,” he continued. “I’m sure I can guess. Your boyfriend treats you like crap, or maybe he’s lousy in the sack, so you came here to find out if there’s something better out there. Or maybe it’s the opposite--he’s complaining about your lack of expertise, so you thought you’d get some from a professional before you lose him. Am I getting warm?”
The only thing warm was her face. She was livid. How dare he make such presumptions about her? Never mind that you just did that to him, her guilty conscience chided her.
“You’re ice cold,” she said, in a tone to match.
“Am I?” he challenged, his eyes boring into hers, searching for answers. “If things are so hunky-dory with your boyfriend, then why are you here?”
“There is no boyfriend, okay?” she exploded. “No boyfriend, no sex, no . . . nothing.” She bit her lip, cutting herself off too late. Her status as a loser was confirmed. Now he could gloat, and be arrogant, and fulfill all her worst fears about him. He was well on his way now, so he might as well finish the job.
But when she looked at his face, his expression was thoughtful, not judgmental. He slowly leaned forward and picked up the wine bottle, refilling her glass and then his own.
“Why are you in such a hurry?” he asked. “A girl like you will have those things before you know it. You don’t have to buy them.”
She let out a bitter laugh. “If you saw the guys at my school, you would beg to differ.”
His smile was wry. He wondered why she thought he was so different. It hadn’t been that long ago that he was one of those ordinary boys she scoffed at, looking for a girl like her. A girl who might actually make him feel something. A girl who could have kept him from walking down this path he’d chosen. He’d given up on the endeavor, and apparently, so had she.
He sipped his wine slowly as the truth sank in. Now he knew the real reason she was here. She was through waiting for clumsy college boys to figure out how to get it right, to make her want to take that last step with them, to go all the way. She wanted her first time to be with a handsome prince on a cloud of four-hundred-count percale sheets, not in the back seat of a rusted-out car or the squeaky bed of a cramped dorm room.
She did want the fairytale, even if she had to buy it.
He could almost see the logic in it, except that she had overlooked the most important part. How on earth could Isabella Swan, or whoever she was, think that paying for sex would make it special? Didn’t she understand that the exact opposite was true?
He had never taken a client’s virginity. This would be a first for him. Older women seemed to prefer him, and he found them easier to deal with than the young ones. The conversation was less stilted, and they had a better handle on what they wanted out of the situation. They often told him he was an “old soul,” whatever that meant. He didn’t question it. He didn’t give much thought to any of his jobs. He kept his mind focused on the money and what it could do.
He took a deep breath and dug into the crab cakes on his own plate as he deliberated how to proceed. Could he really do this? Did he want this kind of responsibility?
He watched her from across the table for a moment. Her face was hard, cheeks flushed with embarrassment, eyes downcast as she speared another forkful of crab. She refused to look at him now. It made him want her unnerving gaze upon him like he’d never wanted anything before.
He longed to reach out and touch her across the table . . . to soften her edges; strip away the tough shell that hid her tenderness within. He wanted her to look at him like she’d never looked at any man before. Not with that suspicious, disbelieving stare, but with eyes far more vulnerable, trusting and willing.
Yes, he was ready. He could do this. He wanted to do this.
He wanted to be her first.
It was his job to give women a night they’d never forget. He would give that to Isabella Swan in the very best way he knew how, and make sure she didn’t regret it. But no matter what he did for her tonight, he knew he would never be able to match the gift she was about to give him. He only wished she would realize how precious it was.
He stared relentlessly until she finally looked up at him. His voice came out a little raspier than he intended.
“I’ll be whoever you want me to be tonight,” he said.
Those must have been the magic words, for he got his wish. Her eyes visibly softened as she regarded him.
Her voice was as raw as his when she replied. “I want you to be yourself.”
They both wondered who that was.