He didn’t like the turn this conversation was taking. Tonight wasn’t about him. It was time she remembered that.
“Women don’t pay me to be myself,” he asserted gruffly. “They pay me to be whoever they need me to be. You must have had something specific in mind for tonight, or you wouldn’t have called an escort service.”
“That’s the thing - I didn’t, really,” she protested. “Not exactly. I just knew what I didn’t want. And you looked like you would . . . get that.”
She fell silent. She didn’t know how to explain why she chose this route to lose her virginity, or what it was about him that made him stand out from all the others. In fact, the more she thought about her decision, the more she wondered what on earth had possessed her.
He wondered, too.
“All right, then,” he said, somewhat bewildered. “I’ll do my best not to be whatever it is you don’t want me to be.”
His awkward words illustrated just how absurd her vague request was. She let out a frustrated laugh, and he joined her.
“I’m sorry,” she apologized. “I know how ridiculous I must sound.”
“You’re fine,” he assured her. “We’ll play it by ear. Just don’t forget that you call the shots. This is your fantasy.”
He looked at her expectantly. Give me something. Anything, he thought.
Her gaze faltered, then fell to her empty plate.
He stifled a sigh. “On to the entrée,” he suggested with forced cheer. He pushed his appetizer plate away and moved on to the main course, waiting for her to follow suit before he started in on his steak.
They ate under a dense thicket of silence, perforated only by an occasional comment about how good the food was. The quiet was still uncomfortable, but less from anxiety this time. Instead, the air around them crackled with anticipation for what was to come. Their imaginations were fertile now that the seeds of mutual attraction had been sown.
The sound of his own chewing was driving Edward to distraction. He realized that he had forgotten to turn on the sound system and choose the appropriate ambience for the evening. He’d been sidetracked from his earlier preparations by Isabella’s giggle outside the door. He had figured it was that damned maid again, annoyingly persistent despite his numerous rejections of her advances. He’d been ready to tell her where she could stick her Swiffer when he yanked open the door, only to be pleasantly surprised by the sight of the pretty, unspoiled girl who now sat awkwardly across the table from him.
“Would you like to listen to some music?” he asked. Better late than never, he supposed. He frowned slightly at his own ineptitude. It wasn’t like him to be off his game like this.
“Oh, are you going to play for me?” She smiled suddenly. “I had the hotel put a piano in here when I saw in your profile that it’s one of your hobbies.”
So that’s why there was suddenly an upright ensconced in the glass-walled corner of his favorite suite. He’d assumed it was simply a new hotel addition.
“Sure, I’d be happy to play something for you after dinner,” he offered.
“I can’t wait,” she said with a curious Cheshire grin. He didn’t understand her expression - almost smug, like she had a secret. His brow creased again as he reached for the elegantly-plated tiramisu. He didn’t wait for her this time, taking a forkful and savoring its rum-soaked richness.
She tried not to laugh out loud at his obvious discomfort. She couldn’t wait to catch him in his fib - to see him crack his knuckles over the keyboard and then regale her with “Chopsticks,” or maybe “Heart and Soul” if he was lucky. Anticipating his fallibility made her feel more at ease. She had to level the playing field somehow.
She still could not shake the thought that she was woefully inadequate compared to the gorgeous creature opposite her. When she had dreamed of having someone like him as her first lover, she had forgotten to factor her hopelessly ordinary self into the equation. It was all she could do to not bolt from the room in humiliation when she considered the glaring inequality between them.
That’s why she sought out his imperfections as she studied him. She appreciated the slight asymmetry of his features; his nervous hair-twiddling; his caustic manner when her words struck a nerve. She was surprised to find that she wasn’t at all interested in his perfect suit and matching manners. She was much more fascinated by the human flesh and blood beneath it, starting with that unruly hair atop his head. She longed to sink her fingers into it. Warmth seeped through her nether regions as she realized that for tonight, she was completely entitled to do so.
Her eyes drifted down from his golden-bronze mane to his pink lips as he politely chewed his tiramisu. She attacked her own, wondering if he would taste half as good as the dessert did. Maybe she could combine the two. She was well within her rights to simply lean over the table and eat the sugary confection right out of his mouth if she wanted to.
She did want to. She imagined pulling on his tie; ripping at his shirt. Sliding her hand under the waistband of his pants, then his briefs . . . Making him ditch his impeccable manners and take her right there on the dining room table.
Now that would be a first time to remember.
But of course, she couldn’t bring herself to do any of those things. She focused on her liquor-infused dessert instead, devouring mouthful after mouthful and washing it down with the increasingly delicious wine. She liked the mellow burn that permeated her belly as a result.
“This is delicious,” she said by way of explanation after she caught his mildly disapproving stare.
“It is. Why don’t you slow down and enjoy it?” he suggested with a laugh.
“Sorry,” she mumbled as she slowed her chewing. She couldn’t tell him the truth: that seeing him fall on his perfectly imperfect face was going to be a far more satisfying end to the meal for her.
Edward, on the other hand, refused to be rushed. He appreciated good food and wine far too much to inhale it. He wondered what her hurry was. Perhaps she was simply nervous over what would follow dessert. He was.
He deliberately savored a few more sips of cabernet, leaning leisurely back in his chair. He observed her coolly while she fidgeted. Was she really so eager to get this over with? She was behaving like her virginity was an embarrassing rash she couldn’t wait to get rid of.
She began to shake slightly, and for a second he panicked, thinking she was having some sort of seizure. When he realized she was pumping her leg furiously under the table, he almost laughed out loud in relief.
He decided to take pity on her nerves. “What would you like to hear?” he asked, setting his wine glass down and pushing away from the table. She leapt to her feet before he could reach her chair to pull it out for her.
“Oh, anything,” she said enthusiastically. “I have eclectic taste. Wow me.”
Wow her? No pressure there. He began to wonder if music was her minor in school. Maybe she was some sort of prodigy and was just waiting for him to eat her dust. He definitely got the impression that she was about to judge him on his musical prowess. That was a new one. Most women didn’t give a damn about his prowess anywhere outside the bedroom.
“Well, I like to improvise,” he said. “I play by ear, mostly.”
He put his hand on her bare elbow to guide her back to the living room. A flood of goose bumps washed up and down her arm at his touch. Her cheeks reddened; he grinned. He liked her body’s reaction to him. It gave him hope for the rest of the evening.
The pair took a sharp intake of breath as they entered the living area. The setting sun had flooded the room with a brilliant golden light that gleamed from every reflective surface within its reach. The rich cherry wood of the upright piano and its matching bench glowed with warmth, inviting them closer.
“This is nice,” he murmured as he ran a finger over the ivory keys. He pulled out the piano bench and asked Isabella to have a seat. She perched on the left side of it, leaving him the right half. He removed his suit jacket and tossed it onto the nearby couch. He unbuttoned and rolled up his shirt sleeves and loosened his tie, then sat as close to her as he could yet still have room to play. When his skin brushed lightly against hers, every hair on his arm stood at attention.
That gave him even more hope for the rest of the evening.
He warmed up with a couple of simple scales, C to C, D to D, working both hands in unison swiftly up and down the keyboard. Beautiful tone, he thought. Perfectly in tune. This hotel would not offer anything less.
He glanced down at her to see her reaction. She appeared oddly disappointed, but he couldn’t figure out why. Sure, the piano was no Steinway, but it was still a fine instrument. What in the world would it take to impress this girl?
He let his frustration drive him and he attacked the keyboard, choosing a passionate, slightly dissonant piece he’d learned years ago. Even as his fingers flew over the keys, striking them with ruthless and precise fury, he wondered what the hell he was doing. He had planned to play something soft and romantic for her. He had a sweet melody he’d composed for cases such as this, to coax shy girls out of their shells and make them trust him.
But Isabella Swan wasn’t shy. She was simply quiet. Observant. Eerily so. He could not forget her sharp words earlier, forming an arrow so precise in its aim that he still smarted from the impact. He retaliated now, in his own way; “wowing” her so thoroughly that she would eat her words and choke on her smug smile. If she thought that he was some untalented pretty boy who couldn’t play his way out of a paper bag, she could think again.
As he came to the end of the piece, he slowed, and breathed, and collected himself. He didn’t like to reveal much of himself to clients, and music like this always brought his soul to the surface. He let the final chords of the song drift into a few extra bars of his own creation. He lingered there for a moment, playing a haunting melody that came unbidden to his mind and flowed out of his fingers seconds later in the usual, inexplicable way.
He felt her presence guiding him then: the simple warmth of her body so close to his, and the memory of that electric charge her touch had sparked through the hairs of his arm. He tried to capture that feeling in music before letting his hands fall limply to his lap.
He carefully turned his head to look at her; to read whatever message would be waiting for him in her eyes.
He was not disappointed. She gaped openly up at him, eyes glistening and wide with wonder. He had wowed her, all right, that much was clear. He felt a half-grin creep across his face, but something in her expression halted it before it grew haughty.
She was moved much more deeply than she ever could have anticipated. Her initial dismay that he hadn’t been a liar after all was erased within seconds of his impassioned performance. She’d never seen or heard an outpouring of talent like his before, up close and personal. She could feel the tension radiating from his arms as they swept past her, his fingers a blur over the keys, impossibly accurate despite their swift pace. His whole body moved with the music, his foot rhythmically pumping the piano pedals. His face was contorted in concentration, eyebrows furrowed, lips pursed, eyes locked on some distant vision inside his own mind.
He wasn’t just good. He was “concert pianist” good. He was brilliant.
What on earth was he doing here?
She stared up at him, bewildered. None of this made sense. A man this gifted shouldn’t be selling himself to the highest bidder for one forgotten evening after another. And she was certain that what his clients found memorable was scoured from his mind the minute the night was through.
She no longer cared if he was better-looking or more talented than she was. He was evidently just as disillusioned by life, just as stymied by fate. She could feel it when he played. He showed his true colors to her then, and everything else faded into the background.
Once again, he waited in vain for her to react. To say something; to do anything except sit like a bump on a log, staring at him with those enormous brown eyes.
“I can play something a little . . . nicer. More romantic, if you’d like,” he offered. He reached for the keyboard and began to pick out his usual bland little melody, but he stopped short at the feel of her hand on his arm. She gripped his wrist firmly, stilling its motion.
“No,” she commanded abruptly. “That was perfect. Amazing.” Her eyes felt like arrows themselves now, piercing his, boring deep. “That was you.”
He flinched, but couldn’t look away from her knowing gaze. What the hell was he supposed to do now? She insisted on stripping away the pretenses that made what he did bearable. She responded only to the one thing he couldn’t give her.