Unbecoming Chapter Six
Story Summary: In the aftermath of her divorce, a heartbroken Bella Swan looks for danger to give meaning to her life. If only her hot ex-husband would stay out of the picture. ExB AH
Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot of the Twilight Saga are the property of its author. I am in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media. Copyright infringement is not intended, nor will I ever make a dime from this fanfiction. So there.
Many thanks to LJ Summers, prettyflour, and detochkina for the beta work above and beyond the call of duty. Thanks as well to EternalSummer79, Kristin Hazzard, Mamabean30, Twilover76, pomme_de_terre, Mutt N. Feathers, and perrymaxwell for the pre-reading.
Thanks to everyone for reading and reviewing. And keeping me entertained on Twitter.
"Look I'll just be blunt with you. Your family has put the word out that you aren't to be hired because of your health. Something about you having the bird flu. I'm sorry. You're a brave woman. I wish you the best. I have to go." He quickly ended the call as I gawped stupidly at the phone.
I pulled the phone away and stared at the mouthpiece as if it had morphed into a shrunken head before my eyes – one that could give me a semi-rational explanation. My contact acted as if I could sicken him from here. Suddenly, I had sympathy with the proverbial greedy kid waving his arms in front of a paper-mache piñata as he sees the brightly colored candy exploding from within. He's so hypnotized by the phantom flavors of incipient sugar, he neglects to watch out for the polished wood of the baseball bat that clobbers him upside the head.
Pain in my hand caused by my death grip on the hard plastic brought me back to reality. I didn't think Alice would appreciate it if I ran over her phone, like I did my old one. Then, there was the problem with not owning a car anymore to do my dirty work for me, but I'd bet my last dollar that Mrs. Bishop's twenty-year old Cadillac would do in a pinch.
Where the blazes did they get off spreading news to complete strangers about my health? What the heck was the bird flu? I thought I had some virus with H's and numbers in it, not avian fauna. Once I started mentally ranting, it proved hard to stop.
Why were they being so spiteful? The Cullens didn't even want me anymore. Perdition would freeze over before I issued any more statements to help them. Fate needed to find herself another bitch. I was done. I planned on going back to my quiet cowardice. Speaking out blew up in my face like a gag cigar.
The tender spot in the back of my skull pounded as I pondered my predicament. I avoided newspapers and Internet news sites. The television stayed off. My life worked better that way, surviving in my own little protected bubble of reality.
If I gave it a few more days, the interest in me would vanish and they'd find another person to pester. There was nothing special about me worth waiting for. I'd told the press to go away and I wasn't going to change my mind. I might not be very brave, but I'd settle for stubborn.
I had the same tight feeling of helplessness sloshing around in my chest that I experienced when I'd been fired by Sister Agnes. I had worked so hard to get away from Bella Cullen. She died months ago, unmourned, of a broken heart. I left her battered corpse in an unmarked grave and no one could force me to visit her remains or resurrect her life.
In a perfect world, I suppose I could imagine myself stomping up to my former spouse and family and confronting them, but I'd never been much of a talker. They'd walk right over me. I knew I couldn't make them listen and I detested conflict. The anguish of the past year only seared that belief into my soul. Maybe I could sue, but I loathed litigation. It made more sense to simply get out of town as soon as possible and continue on with my life.
"Bella?" Tanya knocked softly at the door. "We need to let the janitor clean the room. Do you mind?"
I jumped when I saw the rumpled man who shuffled into my room. Liam was a distant cousin of Uncle Eleazar's that I'd grown up seeing standing alone at the edges of family events. He was developmentally disabled, in his forties, with wispy hair, soulful dark brown eyes, and a bulbous nose. We'd never spoken before.
He kept this invisible barrier around him that everyone honored. Liam did not touch, or like to be touched by others, and avoided eye contact. On the rare occasion when he did speak, the words were dragged out like salt-water taffy and few in number.
He worked quickly. I heard rustling and turned to find him standing near my bed leaning on his mop. He reached into the pocket of his overalls.
Liam solemnly placed a tiny sampler of chocolate from the hospital gift shop on the bedside table. Someone had put a pink bow on it for him. By the crumpled state of the cardboard, it looked like he'd carried the box around for a while. He met my eyes for a brief moment. I could have sworn he seemed scared.
I sat up straighter. "Thank you, Liam. Will you please have some with me?"
"No, missy." He blushed and shifted from foot to foot.
"Sure you can. You like chocolate, don't you?"
He grinned shyly, a little boy trapped in a grown man's body. "Yeah."
When I opened the box, I found that the chocolates were melted. I handed him one. It vanished so quickly I barely registered that it had ever been on my hand in the first place. Another one followed.
"Work. Bye. You better, please."
He absentmindedly patted the aluminum railing of my bed and shuffled from the room without a glance back, lost in his own little world.
I felt even more lonely than before in my dim room as I stared at the misshapen lumps of chocolate wearing battered wax-paper bonnets in the box. That was the first time Liam had ever talked to me and probably would be the last. Ironically, he was the closest thing to my old family I could tolerate.
"You okay?" Tanya asked. "He didn't upset you, did he?"
I plastered an artificial smile on my cheeks. "No. He's harmless."
"He's been here before, but you were always asleep."
"When you were really sick Edward camped out here, and refused to leave. Liam was the only person that could get him to step outside the room without even having to say a word. Liam would hold up his mop and Edward would all but fly out of here. He'd pace in the hall waiting for the floor to dry."
I could see my germ-phobic hus - ex-husband agreeing to allow my room to be scoured. Maybe Liam needed to come by more often.
She left and once again I reveled in my solitude. I'd always been a loner. Things were easier that way.
Edward must have rediscovered his heretofore hibernating sense of self-preservation and detected my mood. He had to know that I'd figure out sooner or later his shenanigans. So the weasel stayed out of my sight. The rest of the Cullens did too.
Mr. Jenks came to see me the next day for a social visit.
"If I were hurt, and couldn't communicate for myself, who would the doctors go to?" I asked.
He wiped at his glasses with a white handkerchief. "Your next of kin."
"So the Cullens, right?"
"Yes, ma'am. Unless you set up something legal giving someone else a power of attorney to act in your behalf."
I slumped my shoulders. All the laws in the world could not undo the culture of a Southern town - where women were always someone's daughter regardless of age.
Mr. Jenks asked, "Do you want me to?"
Before I could change my mind, I blurted, "Please draw something up that gives Mrs. Bishop medical power of attorney."
"I think that's a wise choice." Mr. Jenks tipped his hat as he left.
I decided to pull a Scarlett O'Hara and think about my problems tomorrow. Somewhere in the universe, Little Orphan Annie flipped me the bird.
"What's the ruling?" Jane briskly placed my lunch tray on my bed as she saw Dr. Felix leave the room. She found out about my secret love of caramels and had been sneaking a few on my trays. I adored her for it even if I didn't eat them.
"He keeps finding things wrong with me. I'm waiting for that man to diagnose me with a terminal case of split ends."
"You've got a ways to go, Bella. Yet you do seem to be getting better."
Funny, I sure didn't feel that way.
Although I had rarely been sick a day in my life, now it seemed that my body made up for lost time. It frustrated the life out of me. I only wanted to go back to Africa and finish my job. I slept far more than I was used to, and as much as I hated to admit it, this virus had knocked me flat. So I stayed huddled in my room and did my best to hide how miserable I felt. No one likes a whiner.
According to Jane and Tanya, Edward waited until I fell asleep and continued his vigil by my bedside. We got along infinitely better that way. As much as I hated to admit it, I slept better knowing he sat nearby. Old habits die hard. I guess that meant I'd have to let him live longer until his usefulness wore out. Maybe I could borrow Liam's rag mop and stake Edward. The possibilities were endless.
I fell into a restless sleep. My dreams when they came were unwelcome. I walked in the pitch black inside my old house. It was that night that I didn't like to think about. I saw the empty face in front of me turn into the soldier from Africa. He pointed a gun at me and a whimpering Peter. As I screamed, he pulled the trigger. I jerked awake to find Emmett tapping away at the laptop.
"You don't look so hot, Bells," Emmett commented. He ignored that I laid there a jittery mess while I tried to get my breathing under control.
I avoided looking in the mirror, so wasn't sure what to say.
"I'm sorry," he said. Emmett wore this odd expression, like he was afraid I was going to explode any second.
"I did some reading up on where you were in Africa, and thought about what I would draw if I were there."
"Well, it wouldn't be pretty. I can't draw for shit. It took guts to put all that stuff down on paper. You are one bad Mama Jama." He put his hand over his heart, and hummed the old tune. "I pushed you too hard the other day. I'll be on my best behavior."
"You're a good man, Emmett. Can you please do me a favor?"
"Do what you can to keep the Cullens from getting a hold of my medical files."
"Like your charts now?"
"Yes. But also. Earlier." The penny dropped. "You know Edward."
"Did you forget? You asked me that already."
"Yeah. A few days back. I turned it over to our hospital geek squad. We had someone try to hack into your file a few days back. Damn reporters."
"Did they get anything?"
"No. The hospital's head of IT is all pissy about the almost breach. He's got his eyes open. Your file's on lockdown. No one looks at it who isn't supposed to."
"I thought this would blow over by now."
"It's not as crazy as it once was, yeah. Just give it some time."
Then his phone rang.
"Gotta go back to the salt mines. It never ends around here."
I waved at his back as he lumbered from the room.
Once he was gone, I sank into the bed and searched my memory. It felt like I'd never asked him about the records. And that scared me. Emmett wouldn't lie about something like that.
Although she refrained from acting obnoxious about it, Alice kept indirectly hinting for me to see Dr. King, who actually stopped by my room once or twice to say hello. The people around me didn't seem to realize that I was irrevocably shattered and their work wasted. People like me didn't deserve their concern.
Mrs. Bishop came to see me every day, usually carrying a stack of magazines with her. I nearly cried when I saw she brought her back issues of Southern Living. We sat over them and oohed and ah'ed at the recipes and gardens and houses that we found within. She also brought me a mini sketch pad and a box of pencils.
"Here. Give you something to keep your head busy. No one will walk off with that."
I ran my fingers over the paper. I always did that before I drew something, like channeling the energy I needed to use before I let my imagination loose. This time, nothing came to mind.
Mrs. Bishop didn't try to tell me how to live my life, although she did make me pull the blinds open and let some light into my typically dark room. She taught me card games like cribbage and how to crochet.
I handed her a packet of papers. My voice cracked. "I . . . need a favor."
"Sure, darlin'." She patted her purse. "Who do you want me to knock off? I'm carrying my favorite gun today."
Once I stopped coughing, I asked, "Would you accept handling a medical power of attorney on my behalf? It's just in case of an emergency. You're like my next of kin."
"Do we need to have a blood ceremony?" She grinned.
I held up my crochet hook. "How about we cross swords?" I reached out and tapped mine against hers solemnly.
"Of course, dear. Welcome to the family. Just hand 'em over." She had such elegant handwriting. "I'll drop these off at your attorney's on my way home."
I brushed away tears from my eyes. Part of me had feared she'd refuse. "Thank you so much."
"You're worth it, dollface" She patted my cheek. "I know how you are about keeping promises. I need you to make me one."
"What do you need?"
"I need you to promise to come to me when you're hurting. I'm now your kin and that's my duty. I need you to know you have a home with me and always will, no questions asked. I need you to understand that you're loved very much, and that means I get to nag you when I want, too."
"One last thing."
"What?" I sniffed and mopped at the corners of my eyes with my sheet.
"When you decide you're ready to talk about whatever it is that's eating you away from inside, you give me a holler."
She acted as if nothing special had happened.
"I might not be able to come for a few days," Mrs. Bishop warned when we were done playing gin rummy.
"A snow storm's blowing in tonight. Everyone went running like chickens with their heads cut off to the grocery store and bought all the bread, milk, eggs, and batteries. Whole city is battening down the hatches. Mr. Williams down the way brought me a cord of firewood, so I'll be fine."
"All this over a little snow? Isn't it supposed to be less than a foot?" Jane asked as she came to change my IV.
I stage-whispered to Mrs. Bishop, "She's a transplanted Yankee. We have to educate her about living down here."
"Ah." Mrs. Bishop beamed. "That's another thing about living in the South. The slightest amount of snow on the ground causes mass hysteria. Everyone stays home and makes believe it's a blizzard. Power usually goes out."
Jane furrowed her brow at us. "You're kidding, right? Don't they have work crews clearing the streets?"
"Maybe a few, like the road to the hospital and airport. But we don't have the money or equipment to take care of the city like you Northerners would. Besides, no one drives. We sit at home and wait for it to melt. Have ourselves a nice vacation."
"That's crazy." Jane rolled her eyes.
Mrs. Bishop laughed. "Girl, here we don't call it crazy. We just call it eccentric."
We clustered together around the window and watched the thick fluffy flakes blanket the earth.
"What are you staring at so intently?" Tanya whispered.
I blinked at her. "The snow falling."
"Really?" Jane crinkled her nose. "It's only snow."
"Round here, girls, we call this entertainment." Mrs. Bishop clicked her tongue.
"So you sit and watch the snow fall?" Tanya clearly thought we were insane.
"Yup." Mrs. Bishop pointed. "Look at that tree over yonder. It's almost completely covered. You can see the cardinal sitting near the top." The fading light made the world almost appear blue.
Mrs. Bishop took her leave. I crocheted for a while and when my eyes began to droop contemplated going to bed early. The wind had picked up outside. I could hear the branches rattling as snow showered everything in sight. Then the world went black.
I started panting looking around. This couldn't be happening. Not now. I grabbed my chest and tried to breathe. I could hear people shuffling around in the dark swearing as they flipped the lights in vain.
"Bella?" Jane fumbled around in the dark until she found my side. I heard drawers sliding shut and then a light clicked on. "I got you a flashlight. You okay?" She placed it on my bed. I heard her fiddling with my IV.
I reached for the cylinder like it was the lone crucifix in a room full of ravenous vampires.
"They're working with the emergency generator. Should be up in a second or two." She watched me heave with a panic attack while holding my hand.
It felt like an eternity later when we heard the hum of the electricity kicking in and the power came back online. Everything outside remained inky black.
"I'll just leave the light on for you,." Jane said as she left to check on another patient.
The sedatives kicked in and I fell asleep clutching the light to my chest like a teddy bear.
About eight inches fell overnight so said Tanya. It draped across the branches of the majestic pines that surrounded the hospital. Their skirts bowed under the weight of ribbons and bows of the stuff. Their trunks were bedazzled with iciles that caught the light.
I smelled a trace of Edward's cologne and found a rumpled blanket in the chair by my bed. Usually, he sat farther away on the other side of the room.
"He was here last night?" I asked Tanya as she folded the blanket and put it in a cabinet.
"All night. He left about ten minutes ago. He told Jane he had moved in until the storm was over. He was positively twitchy last night. Man's got it bad. I can always tell. He left a few flashlights behind in the drawer. Good ones."
"Whatever," I muttered.
He was probably guarding his lab against further amphibious assault. I definitely pretended not to hear one of the nurses in the hallway comment that all four of Edward's tires had been slashed during the night.
Perhaps it was spiteful, but I didn't open any of the books he left me. I asked Jane to stick them in the small chest of drawers so I wouldn't have to see them waving their covers flirtatiously at me, the literary strumpets. The mini sketch pad that I could not fill sat by them, sulking like a wallflower in a room full of belles.
"And where have you been?" I asked an unshaven, bleary-eyed Emmett when he stopped by for an afternoon visit.
"Oh, I just met the Future Mrs. Emmett McCarty last night. I stopped by an accident scene on the way home and she was helping. What a woman. I'm a goner."
"Who is she?"
"Don't know. She wouldn't give me her name. Said I looked like a stalker. I gave her my number though so she'd know where to send the restraining order. She'll call." He tapped his temple. "I just know these things."
He tossed something on my bed. "Merry early Christmas." He faltered when he noticed I stiffened at his unseasonal greeting. "I brought you something."
He pushed the box across the blanket towards me.
"What's this for?"
I ignored the reference to the holiday and opened it gently. Inside I found an e-reader.
"I know you like traveling light. You can keep all your books on that. I downloaded a bunch of free ones on it for you."
"Thanks, Emmett." I hesitated and then just went for it. "Do I even want to know why I have more armed men outside my room?"
His manner became cautious, and I braced for more bad news. "You know those reporters that snuck in here and took pictures of you?"
"Yes. My attorney is chomping at the bit to sue them."
"No worries on that score. They're dead."
"Both of them?"
"Yeah. Last night."
"One from the disease, and the other broke his neck."
My mouth flapped uselessly. I had no idea what to even begin to say. Apparently, I didn't even need to be conscious to be the kiss of death. I cringed. I never wanted anything bad to happen to those men. Well, not bad like that. I wasn't petty. Or vindictive. I would have happily settled for a teensy bit of world-wide humiliation or public shaming.
"Oh. So why do I need guards? Are they afraid I'm the new Typhoid Mary running around getting people sick?"
"From the rumor mill, I hear the scene looked suspicious. Remember, they were both under arrest in a secure part of the hospital. Then they both turn up dead. Don't worry, Edward has an alibi. He was in here in plain view of the guards."
"I'm not contagious anymore, though. Right?"
"Yeah, you've been out of the woods for the past few days. That's why we aren't wearing face masks around you. But if I had to guess, I'd say that's one reason why you have more guards around."
"What's the other?"
"Until the authorities find out who's behind all that crazy stuff that's been going on with the Cullens, it can't hurt to have people keeping an eye on you. Pissed off readers don't throw firebombs at houses. They just don't."
I hated feeling this way. I shouldn't care what happened to them.
He noticed me rubbing at my chest, a habit I'd picked up when stressed.
"Let's talk about something else. You've gone all pale again."
After that, Emmett and I settled into our own version of "Don't ask. Don't tell."
I'd often compared being cut out of the Cullens to almost like having a phantom limb. I could feel the sensation where the body part belonged, yet knew looking at the empty space that nothing really was present. It angered me that occasionally, I'd catch myself missing my family. My old family. Back when they loved me or did a darn good job pretending to feel that sentiment.
When life settled back to the new normal after the episode at the hospital, I noticed people tended to stare at my breasts or side when they thought I wasn't looking. Esme dragged me to the store and talked me into trying on these bras that basically squashed my poor flesh into something that resembled a bosom, and made it hard to breathe at the same time.
She gave me a firm look when she noticed my quivering lower lip and said, "Bella, being a woman is not always easy. There are some things you have to get used to. This will help your posture."
What was the point of having correct posture if you were miserable and blue from lack of oxygen?
I wanted nothing more than to seek the shelter of Edward's oversized fluffy sweatshirts. They had lost his scent, but I still felt safe wearing them. Feeling the soft cotton of his shirt against my bare skin made me feel that he was watching over me in some way. Mom had banned me from wearing them in public. She couldn't do a thing about what I put on at night, so long as I was decent. He'd also kept his promise and bought me another hardback copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. I never would have admitted it to a soul, but I slept with it under my pillow. It still smelled of him.
My family and I were at the Fall Festival that our church put on to raise money for the parochial school. Edward had come down for the event, something he'd never done before. Mother had persuaded me to wear my Sunday best. I felt like I played dress up, wearing her borrowed pearls over my green sundress. I'd even spritzed on perfume after putting on makeup.
I passed the gingham covered fold-out tables that groaned under the collective tonnage of pastel Jell-O molds, golden flaked double-crust apple pies, and lemon frosted Bundt cakes. The beckoning trays of Mississippi Mud bubbled alongside the platters of brownies, fudge, and milk chocolate chip cookies. Their combined aromas followed me with a siren's call as I made my way to the restroom past the barbeque pit.
Reflexively, I ducked behind a rhododendron bush when the wind carried my name in a sharp tone and spilled it upon my forehead.
"Watch out, the virginal princess Cullen is almost upon us. Should we let her cut in line?"
"Jess," Angela snapped. "Why are you always ragging on Bella? What's she ever done to you?"
"I'd like to hear that answer as well, young lady," came the voice of Mrs. Stanley.
At that point I really didn't want to be found. That woman, so said my mother, was the town's worst gossip. Dad joked that her tongue belonged hanging in a butcher shop window.
Edward agreed and said if she bit her own tongue she'd die of ptomaine poisoning.
Jessica's grating voice drew me back into eavesdropping in the shrubbery.
"She's had everything handed to her all her life. Edward ignores me."
Mrs. Stanley sighed. "Did you just flirt with Edward Cullen?"
"Well, not very well. But I tried."
"He shot her down with one cold glance," Angela helpfully supplied.
"Young lady, now you listen here. Leave her be. She's a poor orphan from a nobody family that the Cullens took in. She doesn't so much as say boo at her own shadow."
"Why does her family matter then?" Jessica sniped.
"Her real mom and dad."
"If it's one thing you should take to your heart about being a Southern woman – you can never forget where you come from. No one will ever let you."
"Why do the Cullens call her their ward? I thought they adopted her."
"That's because of Edward."
An unfamiliar voice asked, "Their hot son with the cute backside that won't give me the time of day?"
Great, now I was gathering a larger audience as my life and Edward's butt became gossip fodder.
"That would be the one. He declared to Esme on the day they brought Bella home that he couldn't be her brother. That he was going to marry her one day. So they haven't raised them as siblings and they've kept them apart. They shipped him off to school."
The strange voice tutted in disapproval. "That's harsh."
"What other choice did they have? He's some kind of kid genius that skipped high school. There was nothing for him to learn here."
Jessica said, "Yeah, but wasn't he just a little kid when he said that about Bella? People change their minds. I'm not going to marry Tyler Crowley and I only wanted to kiss him when I was in kindergarten. Edward should date around. It's healthy."
"When Edward was twelve, he took one look at your father's blue fingernails and how he rubbed his left arm and told him to check his heart. If he didn't, he'd be dead in a month. Scared the poor man enough to go in for the check-up I'd been nagging him to get. He had bypass surgery the next day."
"We owe that boy your Daddy's life. If that Cullen says something, then you listen to it. Boy barely talks as it is, but when he does, he's usually right. He and Bella are perfect for each other. He'll take good care of her."
Jessica whined, "But they aren't dating."
"Not that I can tell," her mother concurred.
"That, too. But Bella's growing up into a lovely girl. Things will change."
"What a waste," Jessica grumbled.
Until the drops landed on my hand, I didn't realize I was crying. I hated hearing people talk about me, and there was nowhere I could go. So I stayed there like a pillar of salt lurking between the prickly bushes of Sodom and Gomorrah.
When I felt a thin, chilly hand on my upper arm, I nearly jumped out of my skin. I turned and found Aunt Cicy. Dad's sister put her arm around my shoulder, handed me a tissue, and led me in the opposite direction like nothing was wrong. And I loved her for it.
"There you are. I missed my little girl." She patted my back. She always called me that.
Aunt C and the cherubic Uncle Aro could not have children. They visited us a few times a year from their place in Florida, and Dad and his brother-in-law hid out on the golf courses while Mom and Aunt Cicy baked up a storm.
I passed a crowd and saw Edward's hair in the lamplight. He stood with Dad and Jasper and grinned at something Uncle Eleazar said. He had such a great laugh. He didn't do it often. When he did, people stopped and noticed. And there was something about Uncle Eleazar that just put people at ease. Everyone seemed so happy. Edward's blue shirt made his eyes stand out. He looked like he'd been lifting weights again. I loved the way his clothes fit him.
Aunt Cicy said, "Will you look at that bunch. Sometimes, when you're really lucky, you get to choose your relatives like we did with Eleazar, and later with you. Family is so more than flesh and blood, Bella. Don't you ever forget it, you hear? Ignore those people back there. They're vulgar."
In my family, we followed to the letter of the law the rule that we never discussed me and Edward. Whatever we were.
My mind played back the conversation I had overhead about Edward and me. He'd been sent away by mom and dad and it was all my fault. How could he not hate me? I took his family from him.
Our eyes met and he nodded at me as if to ask what was wrong. I gave him a blank stare. I needed to think, and I couldn't do it there. I felt Aunt Cicy's hand tighten around mine as I remembered Jessica's praises of his charms.
We found Uncle Aro waiting in his Mercedes watching a group of sparrows as they took flight from a nearby apple tree. He had the prettiest blue eyes I'd ever seen in a man. They were almost purple.
"Ah, there you are, dear girl. We wanted to take you shopping for a late birthday present."
Aunt Cicy eyed the crowd that held our family and said, "Now that you're all grown up, I thought we'd get you a proper gown to wear at the Christmas carnival. That Edward will never know what hit him." She whispered in my ear.,"Bella, I need to teach you how to stare at a man's backside without getting caught. Rule number one of being a lady."
Ears scarlet with embarrassment, mouth turned up in a fragile grin, I turned my back on the town gossips and left with the only family that mattered: mine.
The next afternoon, not long after Alice left, Alec came to see me.
"You're looking better." He folded his large frame into the chair by my bed, dwarfing it.
"Hey! Why are you so dressed up?" He had on a dark blue suit that brought out his eyes.
"I had a few job interviews over Skype."
"I couldn't go back to that region of the country. Not after what I did. Aid workers are supposed to be unarmed and nonviolent. I was neither." He didn't seem perturbed.
"I don't follow. What did you do?"
"The soldier that shot you?"
"I killed him and a few of his companions. They had it coming." Alec had a calm, eerie manner about him at his confession. It literally made the short hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
My eyes widened. "Whoa."
"It was either that or watch them kill you, and I couldn't stand back and let that happen. I don't make friends easily, you know. You're quite irreplaceable."
Absentmindedly, I patted his hand. He still had an impressive tan, while mine had already faded.
Alec and I had developed this dark sense of humor as a way of coping with the misery we saw in our job.
In that spirit, I said, "Thanks for being a true friend. I've now got a new gold standard. Item One: Kills people that irritate me."
Alec grinned. "What's that thing you used to do with the kids?" He held out his pinky and we wrapped ours.
"Pinky swear. Friends forever," I said. I pulled my hand away when I thought of the last person I had done this with. "Have you heard anything about Peter?" I kept seeing his frightened little face when I shut my eyes at night.
My friend sobered. "I've got people looking for him. His mother's body was found in a nearby camp from our site."
"But he wasn't there?"
I had to ask, but I didn't want to know at the same time. "How'd she die?"
"By an adult's hand. You were afraid they forced Peter to do it?"
"If I had to guess, I'd say he's hiding. He's a resourceful little boy. It could take a while to learn anything. You know how that part of the world is."
I grimaced, putting that away like I put away so many other things there that I couldn't fix. "So, where do you think you'll end up working?"
"I'm looking at this one place. I thought you might drop them a line. A friend of mine from high school works there."
"I might possibly have mentioned during my job interview that you were in the market for a position, too. They were very interested, especially given your teaching background."
"Item Two on my Gold Standard of Friendship: Helps out of luck friends score work. You're the best. My ex-family has been spreading the word that my health is preventing me from working."
"No worries. I can handle that issue if it comes up. I'll email you the details."
Alec asked, "How do you know?"
"That the Cullens have been spreading word about you?"
"Some guy in Boston told me when he canceled my phone interview."
"Okay, with one group though, not all of them." Alec shrugged. "That's a lot of work. From what I've heard, the Cullens have their hands full right now with other problems."
"How do you know they haven't said anything?" He was taking their side? How could he?
"I don't know that they have. But you are making assumptions without enough evidence. Word of your illness spread, Bella, through the grapevine. The infection was also in the camp in Africa. Many sickened. It made the news."
"So you're saying no one would hire me?"
"No, that's not what I'm saying. I'm saying that if I had to guess, the groups you talked to wanted to take advantage of your recent celebrity and use you at speaking events to raise money and awareness."
I quailed and flushed. "Yeah, I heard that a lot. I hate talking. I've never given a speech in my life. I told them I wanted to go straight back into the field."
"Bella, with the way your health is right now, that's not a reasonable request. You aren't strong enough to stand on your own in a Third World country without being a burden to your coworkers."
"Oh. But you want me to work with you?" Now I was unsure.
"I do. We will not be in a Third World country. We'll be in Europe in a considerably safer place."
"Want to play some poker?" He pulled out a deck of cards.
"You know I suck at that game."
"You don't give yourself enough credit. You've developed a marvelous poker face."
Five games later, I was giggling at a joke Alec made when I glanced up and found Edward standing like a storm cloud in the doorway. Part of me wanted to start throwing things on first sight, but Alec would have stopped me. So I stared at my lap instead and envisioned exploding pots of peace lilies raining down upon Edward's unprotected head. It was my own personal form of imagining world peace.
Alec stood and held out his hand. "Hey, Edward. Good to see you, again."
Edward remembered his manners, shook Alec's hand, and offered him a tight smile. "You, too, Alec."
I looked from one man to the other. "Wait. You two know each other?"
"We met when you were out of it with the flu," Alec narrowed his eyes at me. "I did the first surgery on your shoulder and wanted to check up on you. You don't remember me being here? C'mon, we had the best talks."
I could not even begin to imagine the horrifying things I must have blurted. Everyone knew I was a sleep talker. Kill me now. Really. No really.
Weakly, I responded, "I thought I heard your voice, but nothing else. Sorry."
Edward noticed that I shivered; he reached for a blanket and, careful of my shoulder, spread it out over me.
"Thanks." I clutched onto the blanket when my fantasy had me wrapping it around Edward's neck like a garrote. I knew, just knew, he had something to do with me not being able to find a job. And that rankled. I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that he won that round. I still had my pride.
They were a study in contrasts. Gregarious Alec carried himself like a soldier and most people gave him a wide berth. He had a workman's hands. I'd never peg him for a doctor. Quiet Edward radiated this intensity. He was the genius you never saw coming in a dark alley.
Edward cleared his throat and stuffed his hands in his pockets. He said to Alec, "I owe you my thanks."
"I understand you were the one that saved Bella's life."
"She's a good friend. She's worth it."
"Yes, she is."
Alec looked at his watch and frowned. "I've got to go catch a flight to D.C."
I said, "Thanks for coming by and the saving my life part."
"Anytime. Don't forget to check your email." He kissed my cheek and handed me the deck of cards. "You hang onto these. Say hey to Mrs. Bishop for me. If I didn't think she'd kill me, I'd marry that woman. I owe her dinner."
I tried to hand them back. "Alec, you always have your cards on you."
"You can give them back when you see me again. Show Edward all those skills you've learned at poker."
I choked off a laugh. Edward stiffened.
He and Alec engaged in some odd kind of alpha male staring contest as they shook hands. I wanted to kick my ex for the damper he put on my friend's visit. Alec waved and left.
Edward looked twitchy. He asked, "Feel like playing?" He picked up the deck from my hands. "I'll shuffle."
I tried to ignore the spark that ran through me when he touched me. Thank God I was no longer wired up to those monitors that beeped every time my heart rate increased. I'd always felt that connection with Edward, and it hurt to realize it lived still within me. I thought he had quashed it out of my soul.
He waved a hand in front of my face. "You there?"
"Sure. I'm game." I won the first two rounds, much to our surprise.
I could tell Edward wanted to talk. I could feel it in the way he looked at me, how he tried to act like he was all business with the cards. I couldn't deal with it. By the end of the second game, my hands were shaking from tension.
Jane came in, took one look at me, and lied through her teeth, "Dr. Cullen, she's nodding off in bed. Time to go."
He gave me a long measuring stare and said, "I'll come back later. Get some rest."
Two weeks later, I was ready to strangle my ex-husband. It's not murder if you aren't caught. Especially if the other party really has it coming. He had no right to dictate my actions.
I saw his favorite pair of polished wingtips standing by my mat as I lay on my stomach and stoically ignored Mike Newton's feeble attempts to ask me out. I craned my neck to see Edward giving Mike a decidedly dirty look. Mike's pen broke in his fingers and rained blue ink on his hands and shirt. He grabbed a towel and blotted the mat.
"I'll go fill out some paperwork, Bella. Keep working. We'll, um, talk about dinner another time." Mike scurried away.
"Alice tells me you had a job interview," Edward said as I completed my physical therapy exercises. I could feel his gaze on me. The back of my neck prickled. Even after all this time, I still wanted to yank him by the ankle down to the mat and kiss him. Which hurt like the dickens, knowing that I no longer had that right, and he, no longer the interest. When he had ripped out my heart, someone forgot to tell it to stop feeling. It felt like someone had blithely told me to stop breathing. To stop thinking. To stop being. I'd be damned if I'd let him know. Over the past year I had become good at pretending not to care. I ripped my hoyden eyes from his lips.
"Mm, yes." I rolled to my side and stretched on the mat to reach my toes, hiding my face from him, hoping that inhaling my sweaty socks might scare me back into cold reality.
He was going to hit the roof. My friend Alec had been key to getting me work with this group.
"How did it go?"
"I got the job."
I grinned like a thief that had barely escaped the noose and wagged a finger at him. "Uh-uh! Not telling you until all the paperwork is signed. That would be crazy."
He scoffed. "Don't act like a baby." Then he froze and every bit of color leached from his face.
My pointing finger wilted, died on the spot, and dropped into my lap. My fingers automatically went to my empty abdomen. I stilled, letting the pain wash over me. I couldn't answer right away; it hurt too much. That word was the two-ton elephant in the room. I gulped and turned away to hide my eyes.
"Christ, Bella," he stammered. "I . . . didn't mean it like - I'm so sorry. I would never –" I heard him clearing his throat.
Try to hurt me like that? Really? His words shriveled up and blew away like ashes, but I could tell by the abject misery in his voice that he seemed to believe what he said.
"Forget it." With effort, I kept my voice steady and eyes dry. "Some of us actually have to work for a living, Edward. Protecting my ability to get a job so you and your family can't interfere again is being smart, not immature."
It hurt so much to see him, like razors slicing into my heart. My fingers flexed as I restrained myself from grabbing the nearest object and flinging it at him.
"Eventually, I'll find out, you know." He scowled at me. I had to go and fall in love with a genius researcher. He hated not knowing the answer to something. He took it as a personal offense.
This game had to end. I couldn't endure it anymore. Heart in my mouth, I glanced up at him. My words ran together, I spoke so fast.
"You were perfectly happy to ignore me for months, Edward. Look, I have no idea why you're wasting your time with me, but this needs to stop. You ended our marriage and insisted that I not contact you or your family." I almost choked on those words. "At least have the decency to go away and let me get on with my life. Let's be done with this farce."
To this date, that was the longest speech I'd ever given in my short life, even though I stammered half of it. I felt like I was going to barf any second. Edward seemed equally flummoxed.
He acted so earnest. "Bella, we should talk."
I nearly drowned at the tsunami of memories he evoked. He used those same words when he dumped me. No thanks. Been there. Done that. Got the t-shirt. Burned it.
"Unless it's the bill for my care, I don't know that you have anything to say that I want to hear."
I continued to stretch and kept my eyes off of him. I could see him in my peripheral vision and had to fight to keep from glancing his way. When it came to Edward, I had always been like Icarus chasing the flaming sun. Until I got too close and paid with my life. I rubbed at the back of my skull when I finally sat up.
"Are you still having problems with your head? This is not like you."
"I daresay you don't know what I'm like anymore."
"Don't be absurd. Of course I know you." He saw my sketch pad. I'd taken to carrying it with me when I left the room for fear it would sprout legs and walk away. "Those drawings were amazing, Bella. I'd like to see some of your other work."
"I don't have any other work." I hadn't drawn a line in the one Mrs. Bishop had given me.
"Sunshine, you have hundreds of sketch pads."
"Did you put them in storage? Can I get them for you?"
"I don't have storage. I can't fit more than one pad in my suitcase, Edward. You've already seen all I have."
"But. . ."
The tension in the room was getting to me. I felt this pressure in my chest, and my jaw hurt from grinding my teeth together. I pulled my knees up to my chest and wrapped both arms around my legs trying to find comfort.
"Now, if you don't mind, I'm tired."
He balled his hands into fists. "Bella. Please. I really need to talk to you."
He'd waited all this time without speaking to me until I'd been hurt and the press had started pestering him. He could wait longer. It couldn't be that important.
Edward gritted his teeth when I shrugged insouciantly and did what I did best: kept my mouth shut. Cautiously, I took to my feet and Edward held out his arms and gently put his hands on my waist when I wobbled. His fingers were warm against the bare skin of the small of my back where my shirt rode up. I could smell his familiar scent, and knew, just knew, that I was in trouble.
"You okay?" he whispered. We hadn't stood this close since the night he left me. I gulped, remembering his cold face from that long ago winter's eve - how he had methodically pried each of my shaking fingers off of his arm and walked out of the house without a word as I wept and begged him to stay. I clutched onto that image like an icon to my tattered heart; I needed it like divine intervention.
I moved away, palm outstretched. "I'm fine. I need to do this on my own."
Please review. It makes me misty eyed.