Sunday, March 25, 2012

Chapter 15

Isabella, 7 p.m. - dinner, Hotel 1000

Katrina, 11:30 a.m. - brunch, Yacht Club
Stephanie, 5 p.m. - dinner, Salvatore’s

Victoria, 7 p.m. - art show, Riverton Gallery

Lauren, 6:30 p.m. - fundraiser/dinner, Four Seasons

Charlotte, Noon - lunch, her place
Siobhan, 7:30 p.m. - play, Actors’ Workshop

Bella stared, dumbfounded, at Edward Cullen’s schedule for the week. She hadn’t even looked past today’s date, because she was too shell-shocked at how many women he’d been with since he left her Sunday morning. Four. He’d had four “dates” in three days.

She glanced at the clock - it was 10 a.m. Soon he’d be lunching with woman number five, “Charlotte,” at “her place,” wherever that was. Bella envisioned a rich socialite who liked to play with good-looking young men while her husband slaved away in some downtown high rise all day. And when he was done diddling her, he’d be on to number six, the exotically named “Siobhan,” for an evening of amateur theater before God knows what kind of private show.

Bella felt sick. Mildly horrified, even. She was fully aware that she had no right to. She obviously knew better than anyone - well, except the dozens of other women in this day planner - what Edward did for a living. She had no illusions about their situation; no delusions that she meant more to him than any of these other females did. She’d simply hired him to make her feel like she did. And he had performed the charade flawlessly - she almost bought it.

She knew what the problem really was. She wanted to buy it. She wanted to believe that there had been something special between her and Edward Cullen. That she was somehow different from all the rest. Unique.

But why would she think such a thing? She’d been unremarkable her entire life. She’d managed to obtain good grades throughout school, which had earned her several much-needed scholarships. But other than that, she had always blended in with the crowd. She was horribly un-athletic, had no musical aptitude, only marginally better artistic skills, and arguable writing talents. She conceded that she had grown into her looks a bit, filling out a little since her skinny, gawky youth. She could maybe, possibly think of herself as pretty, when she took the time to apply enough make-up.

That should have been her tip-off about Edward, right there - when he had insisted that she was beautiful. What a load. She had to hand it to him, though - he was certainly convincing. She’d been positive they had shared something more than just great sex. Their conversation on the couch, wrapped in those plush terry bath robes, had been one of her favorite parts of the evening. And then later, after the Final Deflowering, he had appeared so interested in learning more about her, listening to her yammer on about her family and her pathetic love life. He had seemed so sincere, so real, even though he’d balked at talking about himself.

And since that night, he’d practiced that sincerity on four other women already.

She closed the day planner and dropped it on the dorm bed where she sat, cross-legged. She couldn’t look at any more pages. She didn’t want to face the full enormity of her foolishness these past few days. She wished she had found his calendar earlier and saved herself the silly fantasies, but she rarely used her handbag. She hadn’t seen the small, black notebook in the bottom of her purse until she finally picked it up off the floor today to hang it in the closet.

She had known about the other girls, of course. But there was something about seeing the names, the dates, the places, that drove reality home with the subtlety of a railroad tie through her skull.

Their names all sounded like sorority girl names. They sounded like the types of girls who always made Bella break into a cold sweat - the ones who were prettier, richer, funnier or more sophisticated than she was. The types who seemed to beg her to make an unwelcome comparison in which she always found herself lacking.

She wondered how many of the women were older. Edward couldn’t have gained those mind-blowing sexual skills from spending all his time with clueless virgins. Her attempts at pleasuring him must have seemed so clumsy and amateurish to him, despite all his reassurances to the contrary. She felt a fresh wave of embarrassment wash over her, and she buried her face in her hands.

She finally peeked through her fingers at the day planner. Did she dare look at it further? Maybe it contained personal information. His real name; his address. His phone number. After all, she really needed to call him and let him know that she had his schedule. Surely he must have missed it by now. He probably just didn’t know which of his groupies had walked off with it and he was too embarrassed to admit it.

She was reaching one timid hand toward the notebook when the ring of her cell phone startled her. She picked it up from her nightstand and looked at the caller information; she didn’t recognize the number. A nervous jolt went through her - what if it was Edward? Maybe he’d finally found her earring, even if he didn’t know she had his planner.

Her voice shook slightly when she answered hello.

“Isabella Swan?” an official-sounding, and disappointingly female, voice met her ears.


“This is Rosalie Hale of Renaissance Escorts.” Bella’s nervous excitement resumed. She was surprised she hadn’t recognized the icy blonde’s voice from their first meeting, when she had stopped in to fill out the requisite paperwork. Rosalie was the exact type of woman who made Bella feel horribly inadequate in a multitude of ways, from her looks to her self-confident demeanor.

“I trust your recent engagement with Edward Cullen the other night was satisfactory?” Rosalie asked expectantly.

Bella didn’t know which word sounded more ridiculous - “engagement” or “satisfactory.”

“Oh, yeah. Edward was . . .” Amazing, mind-blowing, beyond my wildest dreams, a complete bastard for making me daydream about him nonstop since our “engagement.” She ignored the mental barrage of choices and concluded, “more than I ever hoped for.”

“Good, I’m glad to hear it.” Rosalie sounded pleased, but not surprised. Why would she be? Edward was obviously one of her most popular gigolos. “The reason I’m calling is to inquire whether or not you may have lost an earring when you were with him the other night. If so, Edward believes he may have found it. He’s looking for his day planner as well, and wondered if you had come across it.”

Finally, she thought. His schedule proved what a workout his overnight bag got, and she was worried that her grandmother’s gift might have fallen out of the side pocket and been lost forever.

“He found my earring?” Bella hoped she sounded surprised. “Wow, that’s a relief. And I actually did just find his planner in the bottom of my purse. I don’t know how it got in there.”

“That’s good news, then,” Rosalie said brightly. “Edward suggested that the two of you meet up somewhere to return each other’s things, but that’s entirely up to you, of course. As you know, we never allow an escort to contact or pursue a client without her full knowledge and consent. All of our employees sign agreements to that effect, for your protection.”

“Oh, right.” She’d forgotten that was part of the contract they’d both agreed to. She had appreciated that safety measure at the time, but now she found it a little annoying. What if Edward had wanted to contact her sooner? But he did tell Rosalie he wanted to meet with her in person, so that had to mean something, didn’t it?

No, it didn’t, she crossly reminded herself. Believing such a thing would only get her into trouble.

“Edward told me to give you his number if you’d like to call him to arrange a meeting,” Rosalie continued. “But you’re welcome to drop his planner off and pick up your earring here at the agency, if you prefer.”

“No, I’ll call him,” Bella blurted. Her heart was already galloping like a runaway horse again at the thought of phoning him, but the desire to see him again overpowered her fear.

“Great,” Rosalie said in a satisfied tone, then rattled off Edward’s phone number. Bella scrambled to her desk to write down the digits before she forgot them.

“Well, Bella, it was a pleasure speaking with you again. I do hope you’ll think of us the next time you’re in need of any escort services.”

Bella was sure that Rosalie was aiming for warm and cordial, but her words were a bit too rehearsed to be convincing. She didn’t care. She would soon be speaking to Edward again, and his tone was anything but cool and businesslike. She thought of it now, warm and husky, seeping into her eardrums and down her spine like molasses trickling slowly over a stack of pancakes. Sweet, rich, delicious.

She shivered and stared at his number as she said her good-byes to Rosalie. Edward told me to give you his number. . . . The words reverberated inside her head, taking on more meaning than they had any right to.

He wants to talk to you, the optimist inside her said beguilingly.

He wants his day planner back, the pragmatist replied with a sniff. He wouldn’t want to keep the lovely Siobhan waiting because he can’t remember what time he was supposed to meet her.

The pragmatist helped her calm down a bit, but she wanted to give the optimist a fair shake. She really wouldn’t know a thing about his motivations until she talked to him. And now was as good a time as any, she told herself.

She took a sip of the now-cold coffee that sat atop her desk, then sat back down on the bed with her phone in one hand and the scrap of paper containing Edward’s number in the other. She took a couple of deep, calming breaths as her trembling fingers punched the digits. She steeled herself and waited, hearing nothing but the blood pounding through her ears.

His voice soon broke through the drumbeat of her heart. “Hello. Edward Cullen speaking.”

Oh, God. That voice. Better than molasses. It wasn’t fair, what that voice did to her. She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t breathe. It was just like that moment when she’d gaped at his tie for what seemed like ten years until he took her hand and helped her in the hotel door. After all they’d shared that night, how could he still make her this discombobulated?

“Bella, is that you?” he said. He sounded concerned. Shit, she was behaving like an idiot again. Ridiculous. Ridiculous that he should have this kind of effect on her motor skills.

“Yeah, hi,” she finally stammered, her breath coming out in one long, shaky gust. “How did you know it was me?”

“I just got off the phone with Rosalie a few minutes ago. I told her to give you my number, so I was hoping.”

She could almost hear the smile in his voice. It sounded like he really was hoping. Could it be true? She hated how badly she wanted to believe it.

“Yeah, so, um . . .” Spit it out, doofus. “She tells me you found my earring?”

“I did, in my overnight bag. It must have fallen in there when I ran into you in the bathroom. I’m really sorry I didn’t see it until today. It looks expensive, so I figured you would want it back.”

How could he sound so smooth and confident when she felt like such a blithering idiot? She took another deep breath and tried to gather her wits.

“Yeah, those earrings were my great-grandmother’s, so I’m really glad you found it,” she said, feeling a little guilty for having used a family keepsake as bait. “Oh, and I found your planner, too. I didn’t even open my purse until this morning, so I had no idea it was in there. If I had known, I would have called your agency right away.”

“Well, it’s just a backup for my phone. That’s why I didn’t notice it was gone at first,” he explained.

“Right. Same with the earrings. I thought they were both in my purse until I went through it today.” God, she was a terrible liar. She was sure he must be able to hear it in her voice. If so, he didn’t let on.

“So, I was thinking that we could meet up somewhere and make the exchange. Maybe get a cup of coffee or something. If you’d like. I don’t know if you like coffee, or. . .” he trailed off. This was the first time he sounded uncertain, and she was amazed at how relieved that made her.

“I love coffee,” she assured him. “It’s the only reason I have a pulse before ten a.m.”

He laughed, and the sound was so toasty warm that Bella thought she might have to turn on her oscillating fan to cool down.

“I know a great place that’s not too far from campus,” he said, giving her the name and address. She knew where it was, though she’d never been there. It looked like the kind of unassuming shop where locals would go for a regular “cuppa,” versus the boho coffee houses on campus that doubled as open mike venues in the evenings.

“Sounds good. How about tomorrow?” she suggested, hoping she didn’t sound too eager. She already knew his schedule for today was nauseatingly full.

“What’s tomorrow, Thursday?” he mused. “I have a pretty busy day, actually. How about Friday?”

“Friday’s good. Well, anytime before noon. I have to work the afternoon shift.”

“Oh, where do you work?”

“The University Book Store, in the U District. It’s book rush so I can make a lot of money this week and next. That’s why I came back to school a week early,” she explained.

“That’s great,” he said, sounding oddly enthusiastic. “So what do you do there, exactly?”

“I’m a cashier-slash-weight-lifter. Running the cash register is easy, but bagging the books can be a real bitch. On the upside, though, I should have slammin’ biceps by the time book rush dies down.”

Edward laughed again, and she wondered if that’s why she kept saying silly things, just so she could hear it.

“Well, that is the first thing I look for in a girl - slammin’ biceps.”

She knew he was teasing, but his voice reeked of innuendo regardless. His tone was clear when he continued, “But the real question is, how are your glutes?”

She could feel heat creep up her neck. She walked over to her electric fan and flipped the switch.

“I live on the third floor of my dorm, so my glutes get a good workout going up and down the stairs every day. Keeps ‘em nice and tight,” she said. Damn, it was a lot easier to flirt with his disembodied voice, delicious as it was, than with his entire irresistible self.

“So I noticed,” he murmured, the innuendo unmistakable this time.

She pointed the electric fan at her bed and sat directly in its path, letting the cool air hit her blazing face.

Edward cleared his throat. “So, what time shall I meet you Friday morning?”

“Whenever is good for you,” she answered. She grabbed his day planner and flipped to the upcoming date, wondering how many sorority-named girls she’d find there who would be occupying his time.

“Well, since you’re apparently comatose before ten a.m., why don’t we make it then?”

She wondered if he enjoyed teasing her as much as she liked being teased.

“Ten is good,” she agreed. The little black notebook told her Edward had Friday free until a six o’clock class reunion at the Hilton with someone named Sylvia. She snickered to herself. What kind of woman paid a guy to take her to her class reunion?

Then again, what kind of girl paid a guy to take her virginity?

“I’ll see you in forty-eight hours, then,” he said. Shit, he was counting? That had to be a good thing, right?

“Yeah. See you Friday,” she replied, wondering if he could hear the smile in her voice.

She barely registered Edward’s “’Bye, Bella,” as alluring as her name sounded when he spoke it. She was too distracted by Thursday’s page in his appointment book - the day he was ostensibly too busy to meet with her. She’d expected to see another full itinerary for tomorrow, complete with the requisite names, times and places.

Instead, there was only one thing written at the top of the page - a single, solitary name etched in Edward’s elegant script.

Curious, she flipped through the rest of the pages, noting that the schedule for his “engagements” petered out as the weeks advanced.

But every single Thursday for the rest of the year, Edward’s day belonged only to “Emily.”


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Chapter 14

Edward stared absently at the back of the blonde head on the pillow next to his. He noticed that the roots were showing, a combination of mouse-brown and telltale gray. She had told him she was thirty-three, but he figured she was forty if she was a day. He didn’t mind being lied to by clients. It was easier if he didn’t know their stories, and most of the time he didn’t really care to hear them.

There were exceptions, every now and then. He thought about the most recent one. He was reasonably sure he could never know enough about her.

He imagined her lustrous brunette hair on the pillow beside him instead of the broomstick blonde. He would not be able to keep his fingers out of those dark, silky strands if she was here. He would roll toward her and pull her closer until his body fit neatly around hers like a glove on hand. The soft scent of fruit and spice and sex would settle in his nostrils, and he would sleep then. He’d slept like a baby with her. Spent, sated, content.

Contentment was elusive tonight.

He wondered why she hadn’t found his day planner yet. Maybe she had, and she was too appalled at his schedule to bother returning it to him. But what else could he have left behind that would prompt her to call the agency in search of him? He needed his phone too much to sacrifice it, and toiletries were too trivial to warrant any further concern on her part. He hadn’t had time to think properly in that moment when their belongings had spilled together on the tiled floor. He only knew that he was desperate for an excuse to see her again, so he shoved his appointment book into her oversized bag before he had time to change his mind.

And now he waited.

He wasn’t patient by nature. It was an attribute he worked hard to cultivate, and he had become much better at it as an adult. But Bella Swan seemed to have stripped him of that nicety. From the beginning, she had reverted him to his true nature and reduced him to his baser wants and needs. He feared her power over him in that regard. But more than that, he craved it.

The waiting was made doubly irritating when he realized what he had left inside his day planner. He didn’t really care about the appointments penciled neatly between its narrow margins, since it was merely a back-up for the schedule readily available on his phone. But he was uneasy the minute it dawned on him that one of his dearest remembrances was tucked inside the planner’s black cover. He needed that back as much as he needed to see Bella again.

Three days. Why would she wait that long to return his belongings to him? He wanted to contact her himself, but of course, he couldn’t. The agency would never give him her number or address. That was part of the agreement he signed with each client -- he was not allowed to instigate any personal contact outside the parameters of a paid Renaissance Escorts date. Only the client could seek out an employee’s company. The agreement did not work in reverse.

And so he waited. And wanted. He wanted Bella far more than his planner. He hoped she wanted him enough to buy another evening with him, even though he had no idea how she could afford it. He would definitely see her for free if it wasn’t against the rules.

I’d pay her. His thoughts were wistful as he looked askance at the blonde. His lip curled in something like distaste at the artificial color.

It didn’t occur to Edward to consider any relationship as more than a barter anymore. He hadn’t had a real date, by most people’s definition, in almost two years. He was used to payment for services rendered. So it was quite significant, and disconcerting, that he was willing to reverse the flow of commerce for Isabella Swan.

He closed his eyes and imagined the smell, the feel, of her now. So tiny beneath him, yet so strong. Though he’d worried plenty about hurting her during her first time, he knew he wouldn’t break her, even when he plunged between her thighs with an urgency he couldn’t control. He had known deep down that she could take it, virginity be damned. She was made for it. Made for him. He knew it instinctively, even before he was able to marvel at the sensation of fitting so perfectly inside her.

He wondered if she realized how rare their connection was. Probably not. He had been her first, so she’d had no experience to the contrary, other than aborted back-seat fumblings with other boys. She had no way of knowing that sex wasn’t always like that -- heated and delirious and transcendent. She couldn’t know how difficult it was to find that seamless fit, like an expertly crafted dovetail joint; or that effortless movement as one, like a well-oiled hinge. She had no clue how elusive and mysterious that perfect union had always been for him.

He worried that she had irrevocably changed him. Made him even less satisfied with his lot in life, and his reluctantly chosen path. For now he knew that he would find the others even more wanting than he had before. What had been tolerable, even pleasurable on most occasions, would now be only a disappointment.

He first realized it last night, when he had to close his eyes after he’d mounted the fiery redhead so that he could imagine brown hair instead. It hit him again tonight, when he squeezed the ample, tanned flesh of the blonde next to him and wistfully longed for slender, ivory limbs encasing him. He’d been lucky that his Sunday dates hadn’t involved sex. He wasn’t sure he could have been up to the task after the time he’d spent with Bella.

He burned for her now, growing erect and frustrated thinking about their night together. He didn’t know exactly why it was so different. He only knew that it was, and there was no going back and undoing the damage now. There was no way to forget how she stirred a desire so strong in him that it was all he could do to keep himself in check; how she made his body’s needs obliterate rational thought; how she brought him to a release so violent it felt like a bomb detonating in his groin.

He wanted her again. Surely she wanted him, too. Even though he had hurt her at first, he was fairly sure that eventually she had enjoyed herself. Her pleasure had been so close to overtaking the pain. He could see it on her face, hear it in her cries, feel it when she clutched him so tightly and nearly pulled his hair out by the roots. He wished he could have held out longer - maybe she would have been able to come. He felt like he had left his mission unfinished by not giving her an orgasm during intercourse. He was glad he’d been able to produce them orally, but that wasn’t enough. She deserved to have the full experience of truly great sex, and he was the one for the job. He couldn’t stand the thought of her turning to those stupid college boys who treated her like she was a toy for them to play with.

Fuck. He needed another chance. He had to have her again. He would figure out a way to have her again.

This was the mantra he repeated, and the fantasy he imagined, in order to drift off to sleep. It helped when he turned his back on the blonde and clutched a bed pillow to himself instead.

He slept fitfully and woke early. He was showered and dressed by the time his companion awoke and gave him a drowsy, lust-filled gaze from the bed.

“Leaving so soon, handsome?” she cooed in what he figured must be her attempt at a seductive tone.

“Yes, I have an early morning appointment,” he lied.

The blonde pouted. If she was aiming for cute or winsome, she’d failed. “You sure I can’t change your mind about that? Tame your morning wood for you?” she added with a wink.

He had already done that in the shower, imagining Bella’s lips wrapped around him.

“Sorry,” he said, mustering an expression of what he hoped looked like disappointment. “It’s really not something I can get out of. Maybe next time.”

He wished he could remember the blonde’s name. He wasn’t above rummaging through a woman’s purse to find her driver’s license in instances such as this, but he hadn’t thought to do it. Normally he was careful to memorize all the important information about a client ahead of time so that she would feel special, and perhaps call him again. Repeat business was his bread and butter. He began to feel almost annoyed with Isabella Swan for throwing him off his game. No matter how great a lay she was, he needed to keep sight of what was important. He was making great money these days, and he needed every penny.

He returned to the bathroom and scooped up his overnight bag, noisily throwing it on the countertop. He grabbed his razor and deodorant off the sink and was ready to drop them in the side pocket when he noticed something shiny wedged in the bottom. He reached inside and drew out a dainty, rather old-fashioned earring. He studied it with curiosity. He couldn’t call to the blonde by name, so he searched for another term of endearment instead.

“Hey, sweetheart -” he cringed at the word - “did you lose an earring?”

She appeared in the doorway a moment later, wearing a flimsy silk bathrobe that she had obviously packed for the occasion. She glanced at the piece of jewelry between his fingers and made a face.

“Looks like an antique. Not my style, hon. Must be from one of your other conquests.” She raised a mildly miffed eyebrow at him and returned to the bedroom.

He didn’t bother apologizing, since she knew damned well what he did for a living. He thought back to the redhead, but her style had been much more Bohemian, and he distinctly remembered the large art nouveau jewelry she wore with her funky dress.

And then a flash of memory hit with thrilling clarity. That dainty earring had tickled his nose when he’d wrapped his arms around Isabella Swan’s lithe body and kissed the tender skin of her neck.

He appraised the shiny bauble with renewed interest. An ivory teardrop pearl dangled from a tiny cluster of diamonds that glittered as he turned the earring to and fro. He wondered if it was a family heirloom of some kind. It did have the look of an antique. Surely Bella would be missing a piece of jewelry like this, especially if it had sentimental meaning to her. And if it did, then she would certainly understand why he needed to get his day planner back when she saw what was inside.

He frowned at the earring and wondered again why the hell she hadn’t called him. If he didn’t know better, he might have taken it personally. But he knew she liked him. She had looked as sad to leave him as he’d felt inside. There had to be another explanation.

His frown slowly turned to a grin as another thought crossed his mind: now he had a legitimate reason to ask the agency for her contact information.

He hummed happily to himself as he slipped the earring back into his travel case and zipped it securely.

“You’re in a good mood this morning,” the blonde commented as she returned to the bathroom with an armful of hair products. Apparently the miniature bottles the hotel provided weren’t good enough for her fading dye job.

“Well, I’d be in a better mood if I didn’t have to leave you so soon,” he said, sounding almost sincere this time. He leaned down and gave her a kiss on the cheek for good measure.

“Hmm,” she muttered, unconvinced. She turned to the shower and began setting the bottles inside.

Edward crept back out to the bedroom and spied her handbag atop the dresser. He stealthily opened it and glanced through its contents until he hit pay dirt.

He returned to the bathroom and leaned rakishly against the door. “I hope you had as good a time as I did last night, Lauren,” he said in his best sexy voice. “We should definitely do it again some time.”

She turned and looked up at him, shaking her head and letting out a laugh. “You’re too charming for your own good, Edward Cullen.”

“And you’re too lovely for yours,” he added without a hitch.

Her eyes rolled this time. “Save it for one of your younger girls - they might actually fall for a line like that.”

He gave her his best disarming grin. “You wound me, truly.”

She snorted and gave him a playful shove. “Get out of here before I call your agency and demand that they change your booking today. Another twelve hours with you would be worth every penny.” Her eyes raked lewdly over him, and he tried not to shudder in response.

Instead he took a deep breath and said, “I will gladly give you another twelve hours, Lauren. Just not today.”

She grabbed him by the lapels and planted a kiss on him, while he tried not to inhale her morning breath.

Morning breath . . .

He drew away from her as quickly as feasible while Bella’s thoughts about the subject ran through his mind. He said his good-byes as regretfully as possible and let out an exaggerated sigh of relief once he was out the hotel door.

His grimace soon became an irrepressible grin as he pulled his phone out of his pocket and speed-dialed his boss.

“Renaissance Escorts, Rosalie Hale speaking. How may I help you today?” came her usual smooth-as-silk greeting.

“By bending the rules a little bit, that’s how,” he said without preamble. His own determined image stared back at him as he approached the shiny elevator doors at the end of the hall and punched the “down” button.

Rosalie always recognized the voices of her most-requested escorts. “Edward, you know I love you, darling, but I don’t bend the rules. Ever.”

“Not even if it’s in the best interest of one of our clients?” he pressed.

An annoyed sigh met his ears. “Fine, let’s hear it. This should be good.”

“It’s not a big deal, honestly. I found an earring that I’m pretty sure belongs to the girl I saw Saturday night, Isabella Swan. It looks like it might be a family heirloom or something. I’m sure she’d love to have it back.”

“Well, that’s easy enough. Just drop the earring off at the front desk with Tanya. I’ll call Ms. Swan and tell her she can pick it up here.”

Edward was ready for that reply. “No offense, but I trust Tanya about as far as I can throw her. If I give her that earring, she’ll probably take it to the nearest pawn shop the minute I turn around.”

“Okay then, bring it directly to my office. I’ll see that Ms. Swan gets it.”

Edward moved to plan B. “Well, I would do that, except that I’m not absolutely certain it’s Bella’s. I’d rather speak to her myself and have her describe the earring to me so I know for sure. Besides, I’m missing my day planner, and I’m wondering if she picked it up by mistake. We accidentally spilled all our things on the floor and I think that’s how the mix-up happened.”

Rosalie’s sigh was exasperated this time. “Well, that’s unfortunate, but it’s not grounds for me to give you her phone number. I’ll call her and find out if she came up with an extra planner and a missing earring. Then I’ll let you know.”

He executed plan C with a bit more desperation than the nonchalance he was aiming for. “Go ahead and give her my number - I could meet her somewhere to make the swap, and save us both having to drive all the way downtown. If she’s willing, of course.”

“Of course. We’ll handle it however the client wants to handle it, as always.” Rosalie’s tone told him he hadn’t fooled her for a minute. He knew the blasé attitude he typically displayed toward his customers was completely missing now. He didn’t want to raise his boss’s suspicions any further, so he played it cool.

“Right. Just let me know,” he said casually. The elevator had reached the first floor. He exited and headed for the main desk to have his car brought to the front of the hotel.

“Will do. Oh, and in case you haven’t checked your email, Siobhan called and asked if you can meet her for dinner at six before the play you’re seeing tonight. What should I tell her?”

Edward tried to stifle his sigh. That meant less time at Charlotte’s, his only true haven these days.

“Tell her that’s fine. Text or email me the place.”

“That’s one of the things I love about you, Edward. You’re so flexible. I know I can always count on you to keep our customers happy.”

Flexible? Try broke and desperate, he wanted to reply. Instead he merely mumbled in agreement before hanging up. He hated Rosalie’s perpetual tone of smug satisfaction. He knew he was one of a handful of the company’s most sought-after escorts who kept her in new Beemers and designer shoes, her addictions of choice. He wished his vocation afforded him a fraction of the contentment that it obviously gave her.

He glanced at the time before he put his cell phone back in his pocket. He had some time to kill before he was due at Charlotte’s house. He wondered if she would mind if he showed up early. She was probably enjoying tea and crumpets on the lanai, her favorite mid-morning ritual.

He was surprised that she hadn’t moved back to England after her husband, Peter, died. Of course, he had left her an estate so grand that it would be hard to leave behind under any circumstances. She always said she felt an obligation to keep the place up the way Peter would have wanted, and Edward could understand that. He felt honored that she let him practice on the beautiful vintage Steinway in the conservatory, even though the fact that he could play was the initial reason she sought him out. And he was humbly grateful that she paid for his company as often as she did, especially because she asked nothing of him except good conversation and the occasional game of chess or cards. He suspected that she hired him so frequently because she wanted him to have the money, and she knew he wouldn’t take it outright.

Sugar mama, his brain taunted him. He didn’t care if it was true. Any indignities he might suffer were nothing to Emily’s suffering. After all she had done for him and Alice, it was his duty to keep what was left of their family intact.

After the valet dropped off his car, Edward left the Four Seasons and went straight to his favorite coffee shop. He ordered his usual no-nonsense one-hundred-percent Columbian with a shot of cream and sugar. He didn’t bother to buy breakfast because he knew Charlotte would have a feast laid out for a king.

He had just settled into the ivory leather seat of his C70 and shoved the coffee cup snugly in the closest holder when his cell phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket and looked at the number, then felt a quick thrill of anticipation when he discovered he didn’t recognize it.

“Hello. Edward Cullen speaking,” he answered, as was his habit. Though he was not allowed to ask for a client’s phone number, Rosalie was not above giving his out to prospective customers.

He was met with silence. But something in that silence bristled with electricity, and he knew right then and there who was on the other end of the phone.

He grinned and waited patiently for her speak. He could afford to be patient now. Because as soon as Bella Swan found her tongue, he knew the waiting would be through.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Chapter 13

“Are you hungry? I can call room service, if you’d like.”

The sound of Edward’s question made Bella glance up from the bathroom sink, where she'd just finished brushing her teeth. He appeared hesitant as he leaned in the doorway. He was dressed now, wearing the same trousers and wrinkled shirt as last night, sleeves rolled up, shirt collar open. He looked as cool and casual as a million bucks could look.

“No, I’m good," she said, self-consciously wiping the remnants of toothpaste from the corners of her mouth.

"Okay," he said quietly, leaving her to finish getting ready.

She wanted to tell him to go ahead and order something for himself, but she had the sneaking suspicion that he had other plans. He’d become increasingly quiet since their foray into the joys of “sixty-nine,” and she wasn’t sure why. “Shower with me?” he’d suggested shortly afterward, sounding remarkably unsure of himself for someone who had rocked her world minutes before. Did he really think her answer might have been “no?”

He refused to use the hotel-issued wash cloth on her, instead lathering up almost an entire bar of mini-soap between his palms and then transferring the suds to her in the most maddeningly sensual way possible. She had never had such a total body massage before - well, any massage, for that matter - and her senses were an overwhelming mess of tingles and shivers by the time he was done. He left not one square inch of her untouched. His fingers had probed every bit of skin, every nook, every cranny.

The feel, the sight, of each one of these was carefully catalogued in Edward’s head. The delicate collarbone feeding into soft, round shoulders. The curve of her backbone leading to the swell of her heart-shaped ass. The concave dimples at the top of each cheek - he kissed them both because he could not let them go unappreciated. The slope of her thighs narrowing to slender calves. The fleshy pad of each toe, descending from big to small, and her giggle of ticklishness as he slid his fingers between each.

Then he began his ascension: up pale shins, over slightly bony knees; pressing into muscular thighs before settling into triangular valley; continuing over soft belly to ridges of ribs; up twin hills of ivory flesh with their rose-petal peaks. He wasn’t a religious man, but he thought he saw God in this girl, if there was one.

She wondered if he was doing the very thing she had sought to do with him earlier - memorizing what was about to disappear from sight and touch. Why would he bother? Wasn’t he on to the next one, and the one after that? While she would go on to. . .

She didn’t know what. And so, when he was finished, she performed the same ritual on him, worshipping with sudsy hands and reading him as a blind girl would. The broad, masculine shoulders; the hard back muscles supporting pale, mole-flecked skin; the snow-white scoops of flesh that felt so soft yet so firm between her fingers; the thick hamstrings and ridges of calf muscle that defined his long legs.

She mimicked his ascent, hands roaming up muscular legs, pausing to trace the delicious indentation marking his typically male hips, then stroking the semi-erect evidence of his masculinity.

“So soon?” she whispered with a half smile as she threaded her fingers through the hair that snaked up his abdomen.

“Junior likes you,” Edward replied, mustering a half-grin. “A lot.”

“Well, I don’t have a name for my girly bits, but they’re pretty fond of you, too.”

They kissed, and rinsed, and kissed some more. They toweled each other dry in silence, then parted ways to take care of more mundane business.

Bella gargled some mouthwash from the travel-size bottle she’d brought in her toiletry bag, then spit and rinsed the excess from her mouth. Her breath was finally minty fresh. Sterile. The taste she used to relish now seemed overly medicinal, and she made a face in the mirror. All traces of Edward were gone now. She reached her hand under her robe to touch herself, to poke the raw skin until it hurt. She smiled with perverse relief.

“Here’s your clothes,” came more soft words from the doorway. She turned to take last night’s filmy blue dress and discarded lingerie from Edward’s hands, and the contact was all too brief.

“Thanks.” She was surprised at how subdued her own reply was.

He politely closed the door behind him after he left, which seemed ludicrous in light of the physical intimacy they’d just shared. She fished around in her oversized purse and pulled out a clean change of underwear, wishing she’d brought shorts and a t-shirt as well. She felt silly putting her evening dress and heels back on. It would make the walk of shame to her truck even more embarrassing. Every person she passed in the hotel lobby would know what she’d been up to the night before. Worse yet, they might even think she was the hooker.

She froze in horror at the thought. Not that others would assume she was a prostitute, but that she had just placed Edward in that category with relieved superiority. He was so very much more than that. Besides, she had bought his services, so that made her no better or worse than he was.

She felt ashamed as she dressed and put her wet hair in a ponytail. Edward deserved better than the mental treatment she had just given him. She grabbed her handbag and hurried to the bathroom door, calling out to him.

“Edward, are you -”

Her words were cut off abruptly as she opened the bathroom door and plowed right into him. They collided with noisy exclamations and Bella’s purse went flying, personal accoutrements scattering in every direction. Looking down in dismay, she realized that Edward had been carrying his overnight bag, and it had fallen to the floor as well. They both knelt and scrambled to retrieve their things; she blushed furiously while he cursed and apologized.

He was about to return his day planner to his travel bag, but was distracted by Bella’s backside in his face as she reached under the sink for an errant tube of lipstick. In a sudden burst of inspiration, he shoved the planner deep inside her handbag. By the time she had turned her attention back to her purse, he was already sitting back on his heels, smiling beatifically.

“Did you get everything?” he asked.

She glanced around the floor. “I think so.”

“Good. I’m sorry I ran into you like that. Are you okay?”

“Yeah, I’m fine. Don’t worry, ‘clumsy’ is pretty much my middle name,” she admitted sheepishly.

“I don’t believe that,” he argued.

“You haven’t seen me in action.” Her laugh was more of a snort.

He remembered her body moving fluidly, snakelike, over his as she’d slithered to the floor between his legs.

“I’ve seen enough to know better,” he said.

She saw the flash of recollection in his eyes and her cheeks flushed further. Why on earth was she embarrassed now? The point was moot, at the very least. She averted her annoyingly self-conscious gaze to her handbag and fastened it shut. He offered her his hand to help her up, and she gratefully took it. Once standing, they held on just a little too long. Their eyes met and maintained the connection after their fingers reluctantly let go.

“I guess this is it.” He wondered if the disappointment in his voice was as obvious as he feared.

“Yeah.” She was none too pleased herself. She wondered how to make him understand how special he’d made her feel, despite the fact that she’d paid a hefty sum for the privilege. “I had a great time. You were . . . pretty wonderful to me.” Lame, she chastised herself.

His mind whirled with flashbacks, most of them consisting of her giving in to him. Surrendering, accepting, giving back. And she was telling him that he was wonderful to her?

He frowned and reached for her chin, chucking it gently under the crook of his finger.

“You deserve nothing less,” he said simply. You deserve so much more.

He was ready to lean in and kiss her when a ringing noise met his ears. It was coming from the bag slung over his shoulder, and he soon recognized the annoying sound as his own phone. He scowled and dug out the offending device; it was Rosalie’s direct line.

“I’d better take this,” he apologized. He dropped his bag to the floor and left the room.

Bella sighed and turned to the sink, looking around to see if she had missed anything. There, precariously close to the edge of the countertop, sat one of her earrings. It was half of the pair that her grandmother had given her for her high school graduation, dainty diamonds with a small, tear-shaped pearl attached. They had belonged to her great-grandmother, whom Bella barely remembered. They were a family heirloom that she couldn’t afford to lose.

Her relief was short-lived when a look through her purse revealed that the earring’s mate was missing.

Her eyes darted around the room: over the counter, down to the floor, behind the toilet, in the shower. No, it couldn’t be there; she had taken the earrings out and put them in her purse last night while Edward had been out in the hall with Emmett. She tried not to panic, and picked up Edward’s overnight case from the floor to look under it. Nothing.

But when she set the bag back on the floor, she suddenly spied a dull gleam from within the side pocket. She reached down to gratefully retrieve her found earring, then heard the honey-toned murmur of Edward’s voice in the next room as he spoke on the phone. The sound was irresistible, just like the rest of him. How could she go on without ever hearing his voice again?

She stood upright and glanced down at Edward’s nylon bag again, to make sure the earring was safely ensconced the zipper pocket. She leaned over and pulled the zipper partly shut, just to make sure her jewelry would stay put until he opened the bag later.

She was still smiling to herself when he returned to the bathroom.

“That’s an interesting grin,” he noted.

“What do you mean?”

“Looks a little like the cat who ate the canary.” His eyes narrowed. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”

“Probably. But I’m sure my secrets don’t begin to compare to yours.”

His smile faded. “Probably not.” His eyes fell; his hand raised to agitate his still-wet hair. “I’ve checked out and called the valet. They should have our cars waiting by the time we get downstairs.”

“Oh, okay.” Her heart was beginning to feel leaden, as were her feet. The clumsy high heels didn’t help. Edward’s hand instinctively sought the small of her back, guiding her as she wobbled to the foyer. He opened the door for her and went right back to letting his hand hover near her waist, all the way to the elevator.

They stepped inside and found themselves alone in the tiny compartment. Edward pressed the ground floor button, and the doors slid shut with an elegant swish. As the muffled ding sounded, his eyes met Bella’s. Seconds later, his bag fell to the floor a second time and he grabbed her, pulling her roughly against him. Their kiss was fierce, desperate, bordering on comical, except neither could manage to laugh when it came to a panting end.

He wanted to tell her how amazing she was. How different she made him feel. How grateful he was that she chose him. But nothing came out of his lips except heavy, clumsy breaths. He hoped his eyes were more eloquent as they searched hers for similar sentiments.

She stared up into his wild gaze and hoped it meant what she thought it did. She knew the past fifteen hours could never have the same significance for him as they did for her, but she hoped she had left some small impression on him, made some tiny difference in his life.

Another elegant swish interrupted their moment, and they broke apart swiftly as the elevator doors re-opened on the tenth floor. A family - two parents, a young boy and a girl - piled into the tiny space, and they resumed their journey. Edward’s fingers found Bella’s and laced between them, though he looked placidly ahead. She couldn’t help but grin a little as she squeezed his hand. Neither let go, even after the elevator settled on the first floor and the family filed out. Their hands remained joined as they passed the nodding concierge and exited the foyer, where the valet waited patiently with their keys. Edward and Bella retrieved the keys with their free hands. Still clutching her fingers between his, Edward led her down the walk, then abruptly burst into laughter at the sight before him.

Bella’s rusted red truck was sandwiched incongruously among several luxury vehicles parked on the circular drive, appearing much like a fish - or whale - out of water. Edward admired the sheer size of the thing, its bulbous iron hood resembling the hull of a ship.

“Nice ride,” he teased. He pulled her along after him while he walked the length of the vehicle, observing its patchy paint job and worn interior.

“Hey, it gets me where I need to go,” she protested.

“Not very economically. You could actually save a lot of money if you got a smaller, newer car.” They slowed as they neared the driver door.

“Oh, like yours?” She nodded back to the black hard-top convertible parked behind them - sleek, shiny and foreign.

“Well, there are more affordable cars,” he said in defense of his C70, “but I like the safety features on that one.”

She quirked a surprised eyebrow at that. Very few guys her age were concerned about stability control and curtain airbags. He sounded like her father in that regard. Charlie had paid Jake to install the latest safety features into Old Red before he let her take it to college.

“Safety is good,” she concurred, giving him a curious look.

He ignored it and opened the truck door for her. It swung open slowly, protesting every inch of the way with a grating squeal.

“A little WD-40 can work wonders,” he suggested with a chuckle.

“Yeah, good lube is key,” she shot back, giving him a provocative look before climbing into the truck.

Damn her anyway, taunting him like that. He already wanted her again, and he hadn’t even left her yet.

“I’ll keep that in mind for the future,” he replied. He didn’t know how or when, but he was determined to see her again, and soon. His day planner in her purse was his insurance policy.

She was dazzled by the cocky grin that spread over his face. “Now who’s the cat that ate the canary?”

He leaned in the rusty doorframe and grabbed her chin gently in his hands, giving her a lingering kiss.

“See you soon, Bella,” he whispered with a self-satisfied smirk.

“I hope so,” she answered, envisioning her earring safely tucked inside Edward’s overnight bag.

He slammed the heavy door shut and stood watching until her monster truck disappeared down the long drive. She watched him watching her in the rearview mirror until the hotel was out of sight.

She wore her own Cheshire cat grin all the way back to the dorm.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Chapter 12

The hotel’s room-darkening shades were altogether too effective, Bella decided. She had slept well into the morning after a restless night.

She hadn’t been able to shut off her brain. It swirled with unanswered questions about the intimate stranger lying next to her, his features dimming as the candles burned themselves out one by one. She couldn’t stop wondering about Edward’s past. Wondering how the events of his life had led him here, to her - and to all the nameless, faceless females before her. Did he treat them as well as he had treated her? She couldn’t bear to think about the others - couldn’t face that particular ugly truth.

She was still curious if Edward was his real name. If so, maybe it had been passed down from his family. Maybe he was an Edward, Junior, or an Edward the Third. He did look rather regal. His angular features were softened by sleep, but the high cheekbones and square jaw still gave him an undeniably aristocratic appearance.

“My Prince Charming,” she’d whispered into his softly snoring countenance sometime during the night. She was only half-kidding. Compared to what she was used to, he had certainly treated her like a princess.

She liked the feel of him lying next to her, holding her, even if it kept her from sleeping. She suspected she could get used to it easily enough. Sleep was overrated anyway. She clung to him every bit as tenaciously as he did her, and hoped the morning would take its sweet time coming.

Edward, on the other hand, had slept unusually well. The few times he’d opened his eyes, he was more than happy to see Bella’s pretty face close to his. He couldn’t seem to let go of her. Her delicate scent and soft skin brought him a peace he rarely found in the other strangers he’d bedded, but he was too weary to wonder why. He simply allowed himself to enjoy a good night’s rest in her arms.

When he awoke, he simply enjoyed her. Unlike most mornings, he was in no hurry to leave his date’s side, or wake her and oust her from the room. He liked the warmth of her arm across his chest and her shin pressed against his calf as she lay facing him, sound asleep. Her unconscious touch served to harden his morning wood and make him want to wake her for reasons far different than asking her to leave.

But he doubted her body could handle any more sex, so he settled for studying her instead. She looked exactly the same as she had last night, save the smudged eyeliner, which only made her appear more sultry. She didn’t wear much make-up - she didn’t need to. Hers was a quietly feminine beauty: heart-shaped face; full, slightly pouting lips; rounded nose; precisely plucked but subtly arched brows. He longed to see her freckled skin fresh-scrubbed after a shower. Better yet, maybe she could be convinced to shower with him. He imagined bathing her, running soapy hands over every inch of her alabaster skin, and his dick only got harder at the thought.

He should have been careful what he wished for while he was waiting for her to arrive at the hotel last evening. He had prayed he would find her attractive, or at least find something appealing in her personality. He had never counted on being so utterly charmed and confounded by her, in equal measure. She intrigued him, amused him, exasperated and challenged him.

He didn’t need any more challenges in his life. This wasn’t the first time he’d had to deal with a better-than-expected date. No matter how attracted he was to a client, he was always able to walk away. He had to.

But he had no idea how he was going to walk away from Isabella Swan.

She stirred, then sighed, her breath fanning across his neck. She snuggled into him, and his arm instinctively tightened around her. He was surprised at how naturally intimacy came to them. He felt comfortable with her when he should have felt anything but.

He watched to see if she would wake up, but her breathing was deep and slow. He absent-mindedly stroked her hair as memories of their night together sifted through his brain. He normally sorted and filed away only the important details of a client’s background - the ones that would come in handy should she ever hire him again. He even kept written notes in the back of his day planner, like a crib sheet to help him prep for his next exam.

But every detail about Bella Swan seemed weighted equally in importance, from her likes and dislikes to her past troubles with boys; from her bashful grin to the sounds she made when he kissed her, touched her, fucked her. He relived in vivid detail the moment he’d made her come, mentally cataloguing everything he had done to bring her to that point of release. And then he recalled how incredible it felt to come inside her - how her body seemed designed to give him the most intense pleasure imaginable. He wanted to give that back to her so badly he could taste it, could feel it throbbing in his groin.

He was rock-hard now. He wanted to wake her and beg her to relieve his misery, one way or another. Or maybe he should just slip out of bed and go relieve himself in the bathroom. If he did, that would certainly be a first. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d jerked off. He usually had more sex than he wanted, though most guys would probably scoff at that complaint. He couldn’t help it - in his line of work, he’d come to value quality or quantity. Maybe the latter was enhancing his discernment of the former. These days, very few women turned him on the way the girl lying next to him did.

He wasn’t sure anyone ever had.

He had just come to the conclusion that he was going to have to go take care of business himself when Bella stirred again, making a little moaning noise that nearly made him do the same. She squeezed him more tightly to her and the groan he’d been stifling escaped. She smiled a little and her eyelids fluttered open, her gaze unfocused in the muted morning light.

“Hey, sleepyhead,” he teased, ruffling her messy hair.

“Hey,” she mumbled groggily, lifting her head and squinting at him. “What time is it? Is it late?”

“Not really,” he answered. “About nine a.m.”

“Oh.” She looked like she wasn’t sure if that was late or not. To him it was, but he remembered his college days. To Bella, this time of day might be tantamount to the crack of dawn.

“I’m sorry if I overslept,” she said, apparently hedging her bets.

He chuckled and ruffled her hair some more. “I’m not in any hurry.” He had to be out of the hotel and on the road by eleven o’clock, but he kept that bit of information to himself. He was already uneasy about how quickly the next couple of hours would pass.

She nodded and laid her head back down on the pillow, facing him. He rolled onto his side to face her as well.

“How do you feel this morning?” he asked, reaching gentle fingers to the side of her face.

“I feel great,” she said, a slow smile lifting the corners of her mouth.

“So you’re okay? Not too sore?”

Her smile grew at his concern. “Not really.” She felt fine now, but she suspected that if he touched her down there, she would feel the sting of last night’s sexual awakening.

“It’ll be better next time, I promise. And then every time after that. It’s only going to get better for you from here on out. You got the worst of it out of the way.”

She nodded, but felt no reassurance. He was speaking as if he had done his job, and now she was free to go on and have great sex with other guys. She realized with sickening clarity that she wanted her second time - and third, and fourth, and probably fiftieth time - to be with him.

But sex with Edward Cullen was a luxury she couldn’t afford.

It suddenly hit her that she’d had no plan for her love life after hiring a professional to dispense with her hymen once and for all. Her goal certainly had not been to sleep around with every guy on campus. So what had she hoped to gain by dropping the “virgin” disclaimer from her name? She supposed that she’d wanted to lose her fear and gain some self-confidence in preparation for meeting a guy with whom she really wanted to share herself, in every way.

But what was she supposed to do when that guy was already here, staring at her from across the scene of the crime? The escort was supposed to be her starter guy - the warm-up horse to prepare her for the actual race. She should have known by Edward’s photograph that she’d never find a finer stallion than him. She’d set the bar too high. Now she was going to have to go back to her old corral and settle for far less than the beautiful thoroughbred she’d mounted last night.

She grimaced at both her realization and her bad metaphors. Edward interpreted her expression as vague dread, and he began to worry that last night was something Bella would rather forget than repeat.

“I’m sorry if I hurt you,” he apologized in a hushed voice. He didn’t know what else to say. Was the first time bad for all girls, or was he solely to blame? He’d certainly never had any complaints before, but the stakes had never been so high, either.

“You didn’t hurt me,” she said emphatically. “I told you, last night was great. Amazing.” She could see that he was unconvinced. “In fact, I’d be willing to do it all again right now if I didn’t have morning breath,” she added with a laugh.

“You don’t have morning breath,” he contradicted her. “And that wouldn’t stop me anyway, just so you know.”

“Oh, my morning breath might. And everyone wakes up with bad breath. You’re just not close enough to me to suffer the full effect.”

“Is that so?” he said, scooting nearer. He reached under the sheet and slid his hand around her hip to the small of her back, pulling her to him. “Apparently you don’t know the rule, then.”

“What rule?” she asked with a grin, craning her neck back so as not to breathe on him.

He wasn’t having any of that. His arm tightened around her and he bowed his head to hers.

“Two cases of morning breath cancel each other out,” he informed her.

She let out a laugh, but turned her face so her exhalation wouldn’t hit him in the face. “Sounds like wishful thinking to -”

She was cut off by his kiss. Stale wine breath and cottony tongues twirled together despite her feeble struggles to avoid it, but she soon discovered she didn’t care. She remembered what Edward had said last night about leaving her inhibitions at the door, and she decided she wanted to leave all her self-conscious hang-ups there, too.

So she kissed him back, with relish. She pressed herself against him and soon felt the heat of his erection poking her belly. Her body reacted in exactly the same manner it had last night, despite her soreness today: her skin tingled, her stomach knotted, her sex pulsed and brimmed with cream. How did he do this to her so quickly, so easily? Her pelvis moved rhythmically with his, her thigh taking great pleasure in rubbing between his legs. He groaned and grabbed her ass, then ran his hand down her wayward thigh, encouraging it at first before lifting it to fit snugly around his hip. It was only a matter of seconds before the tip of his cock nudged her wet opening with intent. He was more than ready to take her again, condoms and sore vaginas be damned.

“You’ve got to stop doing this to me,” he begged, half to himself.

“Doing what?” she taunted. She needed to hear him say it, as if the words would make his desire real.

“Making me want you so badly,” he murmured between heavy breaths. “I can’t do this to you again.”

“Why not?” She pouted, tilting her hips to take him in. A mere inch or two of his girth had entered her when she gasped sharply and winced at the rawness of her skin.

“That’s why not,” he said, pulling away from her gently.

She stubbornly reached out for what her body couldn’t handle. “It’s not fair. I want you. Let’s try again - you said it would be better the second time.”

He groaned in frustration as her lips brushed along his jaw, her fingers stroked his back, and her goddamned perfect thigh teased his cock once more.

“Your second time will be better - in a couple of days. Not now,” he tried to reason with her.

“But you won’t be around in a couple of days,” she whispered. Their eyes met and shared the same disappointment. Perversely, this only encouraged Bella, now assured of his feelings for her.

“You’re here now,” she stated. Her thigh rubbed; his cock throbbed. “You’re ready now. I can be ready, too, I promise you.” She brought her hand down between them and slid her fingers over his erection, stroking and then gripping more firmly. The brown eyes gazing into his were plaintive. “I don’t want to disappoint you.”

“Oh, baby,” he sighed regretfully. He wondered why he called her that. He never called anyone ‘baby.’ But he’d done it last night, and now he did it again. Bella wasn’t the only one experiencing some firsts.

“Listen. Junior down there wakes up ready every morning. That doesn’t mean he gets what he wants every morning. In fact, he is disappointed on a regular basis. He’ll live.”

Her grip became firmer, and so did he. She pumped him slowly, her fingers enjoying the texture of smooth skin over increasingly rigid flesh and blood.

“He doesn’t have to be disappointed today.” She released her grip and palmed him instead, fingertips reaching down to the soft skin of his scrotum, then cupping underneath his balls, massaging them. The shaky breath he exhaled belied his impending surrender. If she really wanted him, who was he to deny her?

The corners of her mouth twisted in triumph as her hand continued its seduction. “And Junior won’t be offended by my morning breath, either,” she posited, as if her argument needed more justification.

Edward couldn’t help but chuckle. “I don’t think there’s much you could do to offend either of us right now.”

She smiled and leaned in to kiss his neck, then his Adam’s apple. She liked to tease the sensitive bump that gave him that heavenly speaking voice, so deep and soft and sensuous. Even more, she liked the gravelly sound he emitted when she gently licked its contours.

She moved her mouth down his throat to his clavicle, her tongue tracing its rigid outlines before drifting to the coarse curls of hair scattered across his chest. Her hand finally left his cock for a moment to slide up his belly, examining the warm skin covering taut muscle beneath. God, she loved his body, long and lean with just the right amount of fleshiness to feel substantial beneath her, and above her.

She grinned again at her memories of last night. She wanted to make more now. She intended to study and memorize him, for this might be her last chance. Her smile faded at the thought and she scooted down a bit next to him, her knees and shins flat to the mattress, supporting her so that both hands were free to roam over his body. She pushed the covers down to expose him to her eyes and fingers and lips.

“You’re so beautiful,” she whispered, her self-consciousness forgotten. There was no point in keeping her thoughts or feelings to herself now that their time together was nearing its end.

Edward’s chest tightened at her earnest words, her hungry gaze. His insides twisted with some kind of emotion he didn’t recognize, and his cock ached with maddening want. Bella was the epitome of her name, her slender form crouched over him, curtain of ebony hair tickling his torso, petite tear-drop breasts pointing at him, begging to be tasted.

“You’re the beautiful one,” he told her, reaching out to stroke her hair before settling on the nearest breast. He softly massaged and squeezed its nipple until it pebbled beneath his touch.

She appeared as if she was trying very hard to believe him, and he wished she didn’t have to try so hard. But at least she didn’t argue with him. She merely lowered her face to his chest and kissed him, then licked and teased his own nipples until they hardened along with hers. He brushed his fingers through her hair, then trailed them down her arm while she massaged and kissed him in turn. He closed his eyes for a moment, concentrating on the delectable sensations flooding him from her touch. By the time she had reached his cock again, it was straining against his belly, desperate for the feel of her tongue and her fingertips.

His groan was louder than he expected when her mouth finally made contact. His eyes flew open in time to watch her tongue glide down the underside of his cock to the base, then back up again. She was poetry in motion, her mouth taking him in, swallowing him down, then letting him out again. Her hands picked up the slack, one after the other, and she seemed to make a game out of it: mouth, left hand, right hand, then repeat. By the time she advanced to sucking and stroking him simultaneously, nearly every breath that escaped him was infused with groaning appreciation.

“Why do you feel so fucking good?” he mumbled uselessly. She laughed, her breath tickling his dick and answering his unanswerable question. It was just her, for whatever reason. She was irresistible to him. He reached for her now, running his hand along the perfectly plump swell of her ass, down the curve of her thigh. He pulled at her gently, turning her so that he could see the parting of her legs and the soft, pink lips between them. He had to touch her, had to know if she was anywhere near as turned on as he was. He could be gentle. He would be, for her.

Her breath caught at the touch of his fingers, stroking and then probing gently. She paused and breathed heavily on his groin, which he seemed to enjoy. She felt her back arch, her legs open, and marveled at her body’s instincts taking over. Her soft moan had teeth - a guttural reaction to his touch on her tender skin. But she didn’t move away. In fact, she found her hips mimicking the pace of his fingers as he dipped them into her opening and then back out again.

She was dripping, he noted with satisfaction. Utterly dripping wet. He spread the moisture up and down, smoothing it over her clitoris, massaging until she moaned again, her breath hot and heavy on his swollen cock.

As he brought his sticky fingers to his lips to taste her, he realized that he could very likely make her come again without hurting her. Where his cock and fingers might bruise, his tongue could still give pleasure.

“Let me taste you,” he coaxed, gently grasping her thigh and pulling it toward him. A decadent thrill raced through her as she realized what he wanted to do. She allowed him to position her body over his, knees on the mattress next to his shoulders, thighs spread wide in preparation for his face between them. His fingers splayed over her cheeks, pulling her open, and she quivered with anticipation. The minute his tongue teased her clitoris, an ecstatic shudder racked her body and she collapsed upon him. He buried his face between her legs, and she was gone.

Somewhere through the delirium that seized her, she realized that she had completely neglected the pleasure she’d been giving him. She bowed her head and took him in her mouth, only to feel his tongue enter her a split-second later. They moaned in unison and the vibrations only heightened their mutual desire. Hungry mouths attacked even hungrier sex. Heads bobbed and hands stroked in time together, taking cues from one another, giving ecstasy that coiled and tightened and spiraled and climbed until it could no longer be contained.

She came first, shockwave after shockwave barreling through her. She cried out, she swore, she gripped his thighs in her fingers and trembled with contractions. He clutched her quaking body to his with possessive furor as she rode out her orgasm. When he was assured of her satisfaction, he allowed himself to let go. He sank his teeth into her right cheek to muffle the groans as his cock erupted into the warm, wet pocket of Bella’s mouth. The intoxicating scent of her pussy assaulted him while the sensation of her sucking and swallowing pushed him over the edge. He fought the urge to sob like a baby again, it felt so fucking perfect.

They lay still, panting into each other’s genitals, both dazed and dumbstruck. He had never dreamed he could find this kind of transcendence with any client, let alone a virgin. He was amazed at how much he loved being her first, in so many ways. He knew he was in danger of growing arrogant about it, now that he knew just how much pleasure he’d given her.

She was amazed at how good it felt to be this brazen, this wanton. To lie spread eagle atop this man, letting him devour her and make her abandon her inhibitions. To be completely responsible for getting him off, and doing a spectacularly good job of it, at that.

Bella slowly raised herself up and turned around to face Edward. He sat up to meet her gaze. They studied each other, bodies glistening with sweat, faces shining with sex and saliva, eyes heavy with meaning.

They kissed, tasting each other, joining once more in total abandon.

It was the taste of freedom about to end.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Chapter 11


That was the only name Edward could come up with for utter rapture that filled every cell of his body when he came inside her. The build-up to his climax had been almost too much to bear, and its release was even more overwhelming. His body shook with strain as his arms held him aloft while his belly convulsed against hers. He hoped the condom protecting them both was a strong one, because he was sure the force of his orgasm would have propelled his cum straight to Bella’s ovaries without that barrier to stop it.

That was physically impossible, of course. But his thoughts were chaotic as the blood coursed through his body after being congested in his groin for so long. He opened his eyes after the spasms had calmed, and he was immediately engulfed in the soft, dark gaze aimed up at him. Heaven, his mind reiterated. She was all warmth and comfort and haven in the golden haze of candlelight that surrounded them.

He collapsed into her, letting her warmth envelop him completely. She stroked his hair as her eyes roamed his face. What did she see there, he wondered? How did he appear to her after greedily possessing her body until this own pleasure was too much for him to deny? Did even a fraction of his gratitude show? Had she obtained even a smidgen of the bliss that now pervaded him as he gazed down into her lovely face?


That was the word that still flitted through her mind as she looked up at Edward in those moments after he came. She was mesmerized by the metamorphosis of his handsome features, contorted in relentless, driven passion before transforming to relieved, satisfied bliss. He looked . . . happy. She realized that this was the first time she’d seen true happiness, or at least contentment, on his face.

Bella continued to run her fingers through the damp hair curling on the back of his neck, and stroked his jaw with her thumbs. It unclenched completely under her gentle massage, its jutting tension released as his mouth grew slack and his cool breath grew more shallow on her face. His body felt hot and heavy as he relaxed, and she loved the sensation of him sinking into her, even though she had a little trouble getting her breath. She could feel the subtle aftershocks of Edward’s orgasm inside her, his dick twitching sporadically as it calmed down with the rest of him. She loved that, too.

So this was what it felt like to be used for a man’s pleasure and still derive immense satisfaction from it herself. Maybe she’d been able to do that because Edward had wanted so badly for her to enjoy it as much as he had. That alone made her failure to do so inconsequential to her. She hoped it was to him as well.

She smiled reassuringly up at him though her body still throbbed uncomfortably. She was torn between wanting him to pull out and never wanting to let him go. She definitely didn’t want his blissful expression to fade, nor the tender look in his eyes to harden. He was an open book right now. She had opened her body to him and gained his open heart in return, if only for a fleeting moment.

Too soon, the moment was over.

Uncertainly clouded his eyes as they searched hers, and she didn’t know why. Couldn’t he see that she was happy, too?

“Are you okay?” he finally asked.

“I’m . . . ” she trailed off. She had no words for the myriad sensations and thoughts that tumbled through her.

Edward looked so worried that she quickly found some.

“I’m so much better than okay. I don’t even know how to describe it.”

His frown lessened slightly. “No regrets?” His question was still hesitant.

She didn’t hesitate at all. “None whatsoever.”

Relief washed over him. He couldn’t bear her disappointment. He hoped to God that she wasn’t lying to make him feel better, or trying to convince herself that he was worth the wait and expense. What if he had come nowhere near to meeting her expectations? For that matter, who could? She’d been putting guys off, waiting for some bigger-than-life thrill, he surmised. He knew he’d fallen far short of that. He probably ought to give her a refund since he couldn’t even slow down enough to wait for her orgasm. Maybe he should ask Rosalie about introducing a new policy: virgins’ first dates on the house.

But that would imply that Renaissance Escorts was a brothel selling sex for money, which was, of course, technically untrue. If any activities of a sexual nature occurred as a result of a Renaissance date, then that was between the two consenting adult parties involved, and had nothing to do with the escort service. Employees were officially off the clock as soon as that line was crossed. Edward shuddered to think of how many times that line had been crossed, to the point where it meant nothing to him anymore.

Until now.

Bella looked up at Edward’s eyes shifting aimlessly, not looking at her. She wondered what the hell was going through his head that was ruining what had been such an intimate moment.

“Edward. Look at me,” she ordered, gripping his face more firmly, willing his eyes back to hers. “I wouldn’t change one thing about tonight. You were amazing. What we just did was amazing.”

He wanted so badly to believe her, even though he knew she wasn’t being entirely truthful. But this was not the night for him to be in need of her reassurances. His fears were immaterial.

“You deserve nothing less,” he told her. He kissed her gently, several times. He took solace in the fact that her mouth still eagerly received his.

His insecurities had made him soft, in more ways than one. “I’ll be right back,” he whispered, giving her one last kiss before reluctantly withdrawing from her warmth and retreating to the bathroom. He ridded himself of the used condom and cleaned up as quickly as he could. He was afraid to give her too much time to ponder what had just happened between them and find it - or him - lacking.

The only thing she was pondering was why he was so hard on himself. How could her first time mean that much to him?

When he returned, he perched next to her on the bed. “Do you want to take a shower or a bath? The tub has jets,” he said, motioning to the tiled alcove at the far end of the room.

“No. I want you to get back in bed and warm me up again. I’m getting cold.”

That made him smile a little, she noted. When he scooted in next to her and pulled the covers over them, she pressed her body to his immediately, making his smile grow.

“You smell good,” she said, tucking her head under his chin. “I don’t want to wash it off.”

He laughed a little and pulled her close, one hand beginning to play with her hair. “You like the sex smell,” he corrected her. “It smells like sex in here. And maybe scented wax,” he added.

“No, it’s not the candles,” she mumbled into his neck. “It’s you.”

“It’s us.”

She nodded. “Sex smell,” she agreed. “I love it.” She inhaled deeply for emphasis.

I wish you’d loved the sex itself, he thought. But he wasn’t going there again. His deflated ego couldn’t take it.

He stroked her hair with one hand and trailed the fingers of the other along her arm. She mimicked him, gliding her hand over his chest, swirling her index finger around his nipples, one by one. He enjoyed the quiet at first. It felt peaceful. But after awhile, his tranquility began to unravel around the edges. He was afraid that Bella was reverting back to her earlier silence.

“You’re awfully quiet. No more Twenty Questions?” he teased.

“No. I know everything I need to know about you.” She said the words with that matter-of-fact confidence that continued to confound him.

“Is that so?” he countered. “You sound pretty sure about that, considering you just met me a few hours ago.”

“I know the stuff that matters,” she insisted quietly. Then she shot him a playful grin. “But if you want to tell me your favorite color, or food, or music or sports team, I’m all ears.”

He chuckled, relieved to be asked fairly trivial questions. “Let’s see. I like the color of a good burgundy when you swirl it around the bottom of a wine goblet - like the wine we had earlier. I love Italian food - any comfort food, I guess. I’ll probably be a fat old man some day,” he added with a laugh. “And I’ve got to root for the Mariners every spring, no matter how they disappoint me by summer’s end.”

“Good answers,” she said. “But you forgot one. Favorite music.”

“Right,” he stalled. He should have known he wouldn’t get out of that one - not with her. “My taste is all over the map, really. I love to play classical because it’s the most challenging. But what I listen to just depends on my mood.” He shrugged the shoulder that wasn’t pillowing Bella’s head. “I love to go to blues concerts. There’s nothing like a really good blues guitar solo to get right down in the bottom of your soul and wallow there for awhile.”

She smiled up at him, because he was smiling. Music was obviously both his passion and his escape. She wanted to suggest that they go to a show together sometime, but she didn’t want to seem too forward. She was afraid he might laugh at the idea of seeing her again during his free time. Or worse, he might inform her that none of his time was free, and give her a price quote for another date.

“What about you? What are your favorites?” he asked, not just because he always tried to divert attention from himself, but because he wanted to know more about her. He wanted to know everything.

“Hmm. Favorite color depends on my mood. I usually like yellow because it’s cheerful, like the sun. The sun never shines in Forks, so maybe that’s why I love it.”

“Forks - is that where you’re from?”

She nodded. “You’ve heard of it? It’s up near the coast - a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it little town. My dad is the Chief of Police there. He used to embarrass me by driving me around in the squad car with the lights flashing, so my first order of business when I moved there was getting my own set of wheels.”

“High priority,” he agreed with a grin. “So what did you get?”

“A rebuilt vintage truck,” she said proudly. “It’s kind of a rusty old piece of crap, but it’s all mine. At least I know no one will ever try to steal it.”

“Good point.” He was dying to see it. “So you said you moved in with your dad? When was that?”

“When I was sixteen. My parents divorced when I was little, and I lived with my mom in Phoenix for a long time. But when she remarried a minor-league ballplayer, she wanted to move to Florida with him, and I didn’t really want go there. I guess the real reason was that I felt a little like a third wheel. Mom and Phil acted like newlyweds all the time, and I always felt like I was interrupting something just by coming home from school every day. So I decided to try living with Charlie and moved up north. I guess I got used to the gloomy weather because I’m still here.”

“Lucky for me,” he murmured. He wasn’t sure he’d said it out loud until he saw her cheeks redden.

“Me too,” she said. She felt like she must have the goofiest grin in the world on her face, but she couldn’t seem to remove it. He was smirking a little, too, so at least she wasn’t alone.

“So Charlie is your dad?” Edward prodded.

Bella nodded. “And he’s your typical meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, so I never get to eat anything too adventurous when I’m home. I like to try new things when I’m here and I don’t have to cook for him. I love Indian food, and most any Asian cuisine, unless it’s got squid or some other scary creature in it.” She made a face and shuddered slightly. Edward immediately wanted to take her to some of his favorite restaurants around the city so she could broaden her palette.

“So, you cook? Or do you eat out?”

“I like to cook, but I’m afraid to experiment too much. I’d eat out more often but I can’t afford it.”

Edward’s eyebrows knitted. Of course she couldn’t afford it, with a small-town cop for a father who probably struggled to help put her through college. He hated the thought of how long she must have scrimped and saved just to spend this evening with him, in this lavish suite. He was seized again with the fear that she was disappointed in the outcome.

Bella regretted her last words as soon as she said them. That troubled mask had consumed Edward’s features once more, and she began to panic. She’d said yet another thing to make him shut down. Maybe he felt guilty about taking her money. She was determined to make him understand that he was worth every penny and then some.

“So where were we? Sports teams, right?” she said brightly. “It’s against the law here to be anything other than a Mariners and Seahawks fan, isn’t it?”

“Pretty sure it’s in the city bylaws somewhere,” he agreed, trying to muster a smile to match hers.

“Right,” she said, adding a laugh that she hoped didn’t sound too forced. Then she gave up and admitted, “True confession - I’m not that big of a sports fan, really. Don’t tell my step-father, though.”

His smile turned appreciative. It hurt him to see her trying so hard. He was the one who needed to try harder.

“I think you forgot something in there,” he said in mock reproach.

“What’s that?”

“Favorite music.” He raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“Oh, right. I like all kinds, too. If it makes me feel something, deep down, then I’m a fan.” She searched his eyes for a moment, wondering how far she could safely push him. She didn’t want to see that wall come up again. “I loved what you played for me earlier. It was so full of passion, it was almost . . . ugly. The notes weren’t even in harmony, yet it was perfect that way.”

“Dissonance,” he informed her softly.

“Right. I loved that. It was almost brutal, and the way you attacked the keys . . . It gave me goose bumps. But then the ending was so different - so beautiful. Ethereal. Like the calm after the storm. Made me feel like I was floating.”

He smiled in spite of himself. “The reason the end was different is because it wasn’t part of the piece.”

“What do you mean? It was from another song?”

“No, I made it up.” He shrugged again.

She stared at him in surprise. “Wow. That’s amazing. I guess you did tell me you like to improvise, though.”

“Yeah, I do. It’s easy for me because I can play by ear. It used to drive my theory teachers crazy because I couldn’t transcribe half of it into written music later. I actually had a hard time learning to read music because I was so used to playing by ear. It’s hard to explain.”

Bella had propped herself up on one elbow so she could see his expression better. “I get it,” she said. “Your music comes to you by instinct, instead of being something you learned. So, it only makes sense that it would be hard to learn the rules your teachers tried to impose on you later.”

“Right. But in music, rules are important.”

“Fuck the rules,” Bella said defiantly.

Edward let out a raucous laugh. “You have to know what the rules are in order to break them effectively, my little rebel.”

“Maybe,” she said, clearly still unconvinced. “But maybe you’d be better off if you didn’t even know there were rules to begin with. Maybe then you’d be free.”

He was propped on one elbow now too, facing her. “Freedom is great, in theory. It’s a wonderful ideology - the one our country is based on. But everyone is bound by something. Duty, honor, obligation. Freedom always has a price. And sometimes you find things in life that are more important to you than your own freedom.”

She wished she knew what bound him, and how to set him free.

“Well, it’s a good thing I broke the rules and came to your agency, then exercised my freedom of choice when I picked you. Otherwise tonight never would have happened. I never would have found you.”

He couldn’t stifle the grin that crept across his face at her willfulness. “You did choose a pretty unorthodox method to lose your virginity. I still don’t quite get it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining. I guess I should be thankful that you’re such an impatient girl.”

Bella let out a small laugh. “I guess I am.” She sighed and made a face. “Do you really want to know what drove me to it?”

“Only if you want to tell me,” he answered. He wasn’t quite ready to spill his life story in return, even though he was itching to hear hers.

“It’s stupid, really,” she began with a roll of her eyes. “I spent a lot of time over the summer with a buddy of mine, Jake - an old family friend. He’s a couple of years younger than me so I never really thought of him as dating material, you know? But all of a sudden he had this growth spurt and he doesn’t really look like a kid anymore, even if he still acts like one.” Edward detected a bit of resentment in her tone.

“Anyway, he kept complaining that he needed a girlfriend because he didn’t want to start his senior year of high school as a virgin. I admitted that I hadn’t found the right guy, either. We joked around that if we didn’t find someone by the end of the summer, we should just do the deed with each other and kill two birds with one stone. It sounded good in theory, since we were friends and at least we’d be sleeping with someone who cared about us.

“Long story short, the summer came and went without any progress for either of us in the romance department. We met up at a huge end-of-summer beach party near my hometown - I think every high school and college kid within a sixty mile radius was there. Everyone ate, drank and was merry. Very merry. Very drunk, basically. Jake eventually cornered me and was making the moves, trying to get me to go back to his car with him; and I thought, why not? Maybe it’ll be great. After all, we were good friends, so why not see if there was more?”

She sighed and bitterness twisted her features once more. “So I followed him to the junk heap of a car he’d been tricking out all summer, trying to get it to run over fifty. We were in the back seat, making out, and before I knew it, his hands were everywhere, like an octopus. Groping underneath my clothes; trying to shove my hands down his pants. He was drunk and aggressive and I just - froze. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t go any further. So then he whined and begged, trying to talk me into it. When that didn’t work, he just got mad.”

Her brows furrowed, and Edward felt his own doing the same. He hated the thought of any guy trying to force himself on her. He wanted to knock this Jake’s block off, sight unseen, even if he did understand the kid‘s frustration. He wondered how Bella had missed the fact that her “friend” had wanted much more from her than friendship all along. She seemed to be good at deluding herself when it suited her purposes.

Her eyes were still far away, reliving the moment. “I guess I was prepared for his disappointment. But it was worse than that - it was more like humiliation that I’d rejected him. And that quickly turned to anger. He unloaded on me, telling me that I was a ‘fucking cock tease’ - those were his exact words - and that I’d led him on all summer with the promise of something at the end of it. I never saw it that way at all. I thought our pact was a joke. Or maybe I thought that if it wasn’t, I’d be able to go through with it. I just never dreamed he’d turn on me like that. Maybe it was the booze that made him so volatile, I don’t know. I’d never seen him like that before.

“He stormed off and left me in the car. I sat there in shock for a few minutes, then fixed my clothes and hair and went back to the party. By the time I got there, everyone was whispering about me behind my back. Literally pointing and snickering, like grade school kids. Apparently Jake had already complained to his buddies about how I chickened out. I heard words like ‘frigid’ being thrown around. And comments like, ‘I thought college girls were supposed to be more experienced. Bella can’t even get laid in a university with thousands of guys in it.’ Shit like that. It was ridiculous.

“I tried to tell myself that they were all immature assholes and that what I did with my body was my business and nobody else’s.”

“Which is absolutely true,” Edward interrupted sharply.

“I know. I know it is. But that one question just kept nagging at me: Why? Why couldn’t I go through with it? I dated a few nice, normal guys before Jake, the human centipede. But I couldn’t seem to do it with them either. I started almost panicking, thinking something was wrong with me. Wishing that I could just have sex already so I’d quit worrying about how and when it was going to happen, and stop feeling like a freak.

“So, I decided maybe I should consult a professional, and I went shopping online.” She stopped and the smile finally returned to her face. “As soon as I saw your face, I knew you were the one. I don’t know how I knew. I still wasn’t sure I should trust my instincts when I showed up here. I about had a panic attack just standing outside the door, trying to get the courage to knock on it.

“But now, everything makes sense,” she concluded, her expression sage. “I couldn’t do it before because I was waiting for you.”

Edward stared at her, unable to speak over the lump that was lodged in his throat. She could see the doubt in his eyes, so she sought to erase it.

“No one ever would have been as patient with me as you were tonight. As gentle and thoughtful and . . . kind. You made my first time perfect.”

He couldn’t stop a self-deprecating snort from escaping. “I couldn’t even slow down enough so that it would be good for you, too. If I would have held out longer, maybe you could have come. I was anything but perfect.”

“I didn’t say you were perfect. No one is. I never expected sex to be perfect either, and I never will. But you did everything in your power to make my first time wonderful, and because of that, it was. I can’t imagine losing my virginity a better way, to a better guy. So . . . thank you.”

If she had meant to lessen his disbelief, she had failed. His countenance was one of utter bewilderment.

“Don’t thank me, Bella. You paid me well to make this night as perfect for you as possible,” he reminded her. He wasn’t sure if he meant it as a barb, or just a grim truth.

She wasn’t sure how to take it, either. But she soon realized the real truth of the matter.

“You didn’t go to all that effort because I paid you,” she said quietly.

Her bittersweet chocolate stare dared him to deny it.

His sea-green gaze could not.

“I guess you do know the stuff that matters,” he whispered.

That pleased, self-satisfied smile he had come to know spread across her face. She scooted closer to him and tucked her head snugly under his chin. He took her in his arms, pressing his lips briefly into her hair. Blanketed in Bella’s warm embrace and cool breath on his neck, Edward fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.