In the kitchen, Edward yanked the nearest bottle of red out of the hotel’s wine rack, not caring what brand or varietal it was. He tore at the foil top and crushed the wine opener into the bottle’s cork, giving it several vicious twists.
Fuck. Why did she have to go there? Why couldn’t she be self-centered enough to just blather about herself after sex, like most women? Why did she feel so compelled to get to know him?
The cork made a satisfyingly loud pop when he wrenched it from its tight bottleneck. He took a deep breath and tried to calm himself. It wasn’t her fault. She was just trying to make conversation, and he was the one who started that ball rolling by asking about her college major. He was also the idiot who brought up Twenty Questions to begin with, although it had been a joke. One Bella didn’t get, apparently.
She didn’t get a lot of things about this whole situation, it seemed. Like the fact that there was no point in her getting to know him. There was nothing to know, and no reason to know it. In the grand scheme of things, it didn’t matter if they liked each other or not, because there was nowhere for this to go.
And that, right there, was the problem. They did like each other. He understood why she wanted to know him better - for the same reason he wanted to know her. To get closer. To share. To experience. To feel.
He couldn’t afford to feel anything for her. To like her. But it was too late. He knew he’d never be able to do anything less.
He took a deep breath and looked up at the ceiling; he didn’t know why. What was he doing - appealing to a higher power? There was no God who would smile benevolently down on him and tell him that any part of this situation was okay. Or would He, knowing where the money was going? Maybe . . .
No, there was no point in prayer, or optimism. And no point in encouraging Bella to forge some kind of connection with him that he could never uphold.
But he had to make tonight okay for her. Better than okay. He had to do this for her, for one night. Make it special. Make it mean something, at least for now.
Now. It was all they had. He would concentrate on that.
His head was heavy with guilt as he walked slowly back to the living room, wine bottle and glass in hand, and approached the couch. Bella sat clutching her empty glass, staring up at him with wide, apologetic eyes.
“Here,” he offered softly, refilling her goblet as she held it out to him.
“Edward, I’m so sorry,” she blurted before he even had a chance to sit down. “I didn’t mean to put you on the spot. I definitely didn’t mean to interrogate you - “
“Bella, stop,” he interrupted her before she could debase herself further. “I’m the jerk here. I had no right to overreact and treat you like that. I’m sorry.” He set the bottle on the coffee table and joined her back on the couch.
“Look,” she began, her eyes earnest. “You don’t have to say anything. You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to. It’s none of my business why you do this for a living, or what happened that made you choose this. I’m not stupid - I know this can’t be what you planned for yourself or your life. But I absolutely believe that you can do anything you set your mind to, just like you told me I can. Don’t give up on that. Or yourself.”
He couldn’t hold her gaze when she threw his words back at him, and his eyes shifted, out the window and to the city lights twinkling in the distance. He felt her hand on his, but he still looked away. She made it worse when she quoted him again.
“Why don’t you listen to your own advice? Why don’t you see how special you are right now? Where you are . . . who you are?” He felt her fingers stroke the back of his hand, then try to work their way between his. He heard her sigh before she spoke again.
“Maybe this is the last place you want to be right now. But I’m selfish enough to admit that I’m glad you’re here. I’m glad for every shitty decision you or I ever made that led us here right now. Because I’m glad I met you. No matter what happens the rest of this night, I won’t regret that.”
She had his full attention then. His eyes darted back to her face; his fingers slipped through hers and held on. It was as if his world suddenly shifted on its axis - abruptly righted itself just when he thought it was hopelessly off track.
“I won’t regret it, either,” he whispered. He could never regret her, of that he was sure. And maybe that was enough. It would have to be.
He watched the candlelight dance in her eyes, beckoning him. He took the wine glass from her and set it with his on the coffee table, then leaned in to kiss her. He kept his eyes open as long as he could, watching her watching him. He wanted to stop thinking now. Give in to feeling . . . just for tonight. Tomorrow would take care of itself.
His kiss was different this time - unguarded, willing. Hungry, even. She had pulled him back from the dark place where she’d inadvertently sent him. She wished he could have been more open with her, but why should he? Surely he didn’t cry on the shoulder of every woman who hired him. That was probably the last thing he ever wanted to do.
She suddenly thought back to the harsh words she’d spoken to him and she cringed, pulling away from him slightly.
“What is it?” he whispered, his concern evident.
“I’m sorry for what I said to you at dinner. That you like being used.” She shook her head in regret. “I think you hate it. I wish I knew why you thought you had no other choice.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “Bella, please.” He didn’t want to talk about this anymore. He couldn’t.
“I’m sorry. I just got done telling you I wouldn’t push you and then I did it again.” She reached up to stroke his face; pull him back to her. “It’s just that . . . I don’t want to be someone who uses you.”
He searched her eyes for her meaning. “What are you saying? Are you backing out after all?”
“No. I don’t want to,” she replied. “But I hope that I’m not one of the people who makes you feel used. I think you’re worth more than that, even if you don’t. I’m just saying . . .” she faltered and her eyes fell while she searched for the words. “This feels different to me, somehow.” She took a deep breath and let it out in a sigh. “I like you. You’re not just some guy I paid to fuck me anymore.”
His grin was wry. How could she be so blunt, yet so blind, at the same time?
That’s exactly what I am, Bella, he wanted to say. No matter how she tried to twist it or sugar-coat it or deny it, it was the truth.
“I’m glad you feel that way,” was what he did say. “Because you’re not just another customer that I’m going to forget about in the morning.” He was terrified that this was also the truth.
Her grin was far too pleased; her cheeks too pink with satisfaction. He wanted to remind her how idiotic it was to create any pipe dreams about what was going on between them. But this was her night, her fantasy. Her first time. And if she wanted to pretend that there could be something more between them after this was over, then he would go along with it.
“So, if you’re not backing out, then I need to ask you something.”
Her eyebrows raised, waiting for him to continue.
“I need to know if you want to spend the night here. With me,” he added, as if that part was somehow in question.
“Well . . . yeah,” she replied slowly, suddenly wondering if that was okay. She had assumed an overnight stay in this palatial suite was part of the deal, but maybe she had failed to read the fine print in their agreement. Maybe one of them was contractually obligated to turn into a pumpkin at midnight.
He smiled immediately, putting her fears to rest. “I was hoping you would. But that means we need to give Emmett a call.”
Anxiety seized her as she stared up at him. Flashes of kinky three-ways flitted across her mind.
She tried to keep her voice steady as she asked, “Who’s Emmett?”
“The Enforcer. The guy downstairs who will break my kneecaps if he doesn’t see you smiling when you eventually exit the building.”
“Oh.” She hoped her relief wasn’t too obvious. She had forgotten all about him, poor guy. What a boring job, sitting in a hotel bar, babysitting all of Renaissance Escort’s first-time customers.
“It’s weird, the way your agency operates,” she commented. “It’s like the mob or something.”
“’Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in,’” Edward aped the famous Michael Corleone line in a bad accent. He laughed outwardly, but inwardly, he worried that it could come true. No, he reminded himself. This line of work was temporary, despite what he had just told Bella moments ago. A few more years ought to do it. Then he could . . .
Could do what, exactly? That’s what scared the hell out of him. By then, the original plans he’d had for his life would probably be impossible to follow. That’s why it had stung so badly when she brought it up. She had no way of knowing just what a sore subject it was. But he was pretty sure he’d done a bang-up job of letting her know that it was off-limits.
“Checking in with Emmett is just a precaution,” Edward reminded her, giving her a quick kiss on the forehead before rising from the couch. “So you know you’re safe with me.”
“I never doubted it,” she replied.
He smiled and gave his head a shake, then disappeared, presumably in search of his phone. She grabbed her wine glass off the coffee table and took a few more gulps. She liked the warm, fuzzy feeling it gave her, and she didn’t want it to wear off. She had the suspicion she would need it when it came time for the Big Deflowering. Surely it wouldn’t be too bad, would it? She was only a technical virgin now, anyway. Edward had already thoroughly invaded her with other parts of his body. A delicious shiver ran through her at the memory. The actual intercourse would be a mere formality now, right? The only difference would be that Edward would be using his penis this time.
That big, thick, long, penis.
“Okay, he’s on his way up to check on you,” the owner of the penis interrupted her thoughts. She looked up to see Edward set his phone on the coffee table and reach for his own glass of wine.
“The Enforcer is coming up here?” she exclaimed, jumping up from the couch. She set her glass back down before she spilled wine everywhere. She really didn’t want the big lug from downstairs to see her like this, disheveled and naked under a hotel bathrobe. It was one thing for him to know what was going on up here, but quite another for him to see it in person.
Edward was surprised at her reaction. He wondered why she was so nervous. “He needs to see for himself that you’re fine, and hear you tell him that it’s your decision to stay here. It’s proof that I’m not holding you here against your will,” he explained. She really hadn’t read through the agreement at all, had she? Did she have no regard at all for her personal safety? She was far too trusting.
He was still frowning at her carelessness when she excused herself to use the bathroom. She hadn’t come out yet when Emmett’s knock sounded across the room, so he went to answer it.
“Hey,” he said casually as he opened the door.
“Hey, brother.” Emmett greeted his favorite co-worker with the usual nickname. “How goes it?” He glanced at Edward’s attire and added, “As if I need to ask.”
“Business as usual,” Edward answered with a smile.
“Nice. Didn’t take you long.”
“I’m only halfway there, actually.”
“Ah, well, the night is young.”
Emmett glanced over Edward’s shoulder at the tiny female figure approaching, and his amiable expression immediately morphed into an imposing mask of severity.
“Miss Swan. How are you this evening?” he addressed her formally.
Bella looked up at him uncertainly. “I’m great, uh . . . Emmett.” She glanced at Edward for approval at using The Enforcer’s first name.
Edward tried to stifle his grin of amusement, not just at her words, but her appearance. She had brushed her hair and freshened her lipstick, from what he could see. Her bathrobe was overlapped high around her neck and tied tightly at the waist, giving her the appearance of a terry-cloth mummy.
“It’s my understanding that you wish to spend the evening here in the hotel, with Mister Cullen. Is that correct?”
Bella blushed hotly at Emmett’s question, then managed a nod.
“You’re absolutely sure? If not, I’d be happy to escort you to the parking lot right now.” He regarded her so seriously that she wondered for a split second if there was something horrible he knew about Edward that she didn’t.
“Ye-ah, I’m sure,” she answered slowly.
He gave her a short nod. “Very well. You have my number in case you change your mind.”
I do? she thought. Damn, why hadn’t she brought a copy of the agreement with her? Evidently she’d missed a whole mess of stuff in the fine print.
“You aren’t stuck here waiting downstairs all night, are you?” she blurted, mortified at the thought.
Emmett gave her a tiny smile. “No, Miss Swan. I’ll be leaving. But I can be back here in a flash if you need me.”
“Oh. Okay,” she said, relieved. “I mean, I’m sure I won’t. I trust Edward completely.” She wanted to make sure that he wasn’t going to get in trouble with his employer.
Emmett raised one eyebrow slightly, and Bella was sure she saw a twinkle of amusement in his blue eyes. She wondered again, should she be worried about Edward? He’d given her no reason to be afraid of him so far.
“He’s the epitome of trustworthiness,” Emmett assured her. “We make sure all of our escorts are. I’m glad he meets your expectations, Miss Swan.” Yes, there was definitely a twinkle.
“Is that all?” Edward asked him, an edge of annoyance in his tone.
Emmett deferred to Bella, giving her a questioning look. She nodded affirmatively.
He nodded his own head, almost a bow, and backed out the door.
“I’ll be right back. I’d like a word with him,” Edward told Bella, then followed Emmett out into the hall.
“Ni-i-ice!” The Enforcer drawled, giving the Escort a light punch on the arm. “She’s a cutie. Bet you wish they were all like her.”
“That would make my job much easier,” Edward conceded.
“Damn. Girls like that almost make me miss my own escort days,” Emmett said wistfully.
“I’ll pretend I didn’t hear that. Rosalie would have your hide.”
Emmett chuckled. “She does have a possessive streak, doesn’t he?” he said fondly.
“You think? You didn’t even last a year before she promoted you to knee-capper. You realize she made up that position for you, right? She couldn’t stand the idea of you sleeping with anyone but her.”
Emmett shrugged good-naturedly. “Hey, somebody’s got to keep all you lotharios in line. God knows what kind of kinky fuckery you’d be up to if you didn’t have to answer to me.”
Edward’s eyes rolled. “Listen, I’m turning my phone off until tomorrow. So if anything crazy comes up, run interference for me, will you? I mean, I don’t expect anything, but you never know. I’ve got Katrina and Stephanie booked back-to-back tomorrow, so if one of them calls to change their plans, I might have to get creative.”
“Will do. I’ll check your emails and forward anything that’s urgent. So this one must be special, huh?” Emmett nodded his head toward the hotel door.
Edward nodded quietly. He couldn’t quite bring himself to say it out loud.
Emmett’s eyes narrowed. “Be careful, Eddie-boy. Don’t start over-thinking things.”
Edward cringed at the nickname, and the advice. Thinking wasn’t the issue. His brain knew exactly what was going on.
It was the rest of him that was going to be a problem.