How were your classes today?
Bella grinned as broadly at the text message on her phone today as she had every other day this week. It arrived at approximately 4:45 p.m. Thursday, just as it had on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Edward was nothing if not methodical.
They were good, she typed, thumbs flying over the tiny keyboard. Same as Tuesday's classes, you realize. But less overwhelming since I knew what to expect.
The first week of class is always the hardest, he replied.
I know. Feels like an insurmountable pile of homework when I look at the syllabus for the whole semester. But I always manage to get it all done.
My cousin is a freshman, so she's feeling overwhelmed, too. I reminded her it takes a little time to get into the routine. You're both smart girls - you'll do fine.
Thanks for the vote of confidence, Bella answered. She was dying to ask Edward if Alice had mentioned meeting her, but since Alice hadn't called her yet and Edward never brought it up, she assumed the answer was "no."
Edward's next message made a little surge of excitement rush through her. Do you have to work all weekend?
No, I have Sunday off. She had intended to use that time to study, but if Edward had any other ideas in mind, she'd crack the books the rest of the weekend instead. She wasn't interested in repeating last weekend's party fiasco anyway, so laying low Friday and Saturday night didn't sound like a bad idea.
Really? I'm free Sunday, too. Do you want to get together? We could go to a movie or something - whatever you like.
The adrenaline was pumping through Bella's veins full throttle now. Sounds great. If it's nice we could go to the park again, or the beach. Didn't your profile say you enjoy running on the beach? I don't run, per se, but I'd be happy to watch you do it. I could time you on a stopwatch or something.
She paused to imagine the lean muscles of Edward's legs pumping up and down in slow motion, Baywatch style, kicking sand up behind him. Her mind was still preoccupied when the phone buzzed with his incoming text.
Either one sounds good to me. But if I'm running, you're running with me.
Ugh. How about a leisurely stroll, then?
You're forcing me to type "LOL." I hate that. Strolling it is. I'm going to spend the next few days imagining you strolling in a bikini. Please tell me you'll be wearing one.
Bella would have stood up and done a euphoric little dance if she wasn't sitting on a bench in the middle of the busy quad.
Fine. I'll wear my bikini if you wear your little black Speedo, she typed back, chuckling to herself. She laughed even harder at how long it took him to reply.
You're kidding, right?
What do you think?
I think you're in for a soaking when I toss you in the Sound.
Bring it on, Cullen. I'm not afraid of you.
You may live to regret that, Ms. Swan. What time shall I pick you up?
From my dorm, or to toss me into the Sound?
Your dorm. I'll definitely be employing the element of surprise for the latter.
Any time is fine, she replied, laughing giddily and not caring who heard. She wanted to tell him to come first thing in the morning so they could spend as much time together as possible, but she didn't want to sound too pathetic and needy.
How about 1:00 p.m.? I thought we could grab some dinner later, too - after you've dried off.
Her leg began bouncing up and down with anticipation as she typed. Sounds great. But if you try to dunk me in that icy water, I'm dragging you down with me.
I look forward to seeing you try.
I look forward to seeing you, period. So much for not sounding desperate.
Me too. Trust me on that.
She did trust him on that, foolish as that might be. She knew if she was counting on logic to guide her in this unorthodox relationship she was forming with Edward, she was doomed to failure. Logic would have dictated that she abandon the idea the day after he accomplished what she paid him to. But rational thinking had nothing to do with the emotions seizing her every time she saw him or even thought about him. If she couldn't walk away, then she had no choice but to follow her heart for as long as she was able.
She had already run the gamut of emotions over the past week while she considered whether or not she could deal with what Edward did for a living. She figured she'd already hit rock bottom last weekend, from her behavior at the party and the mortifying hangover it caused her, to her failed date with Mike and her late-night anxiety over the course Edward's date had taken.
Sunday was a little better, since she had work to distract her. And of course there was the pleasant surprise of meeting Edward's cousin Alice, who seemed nice, if a bit of a trip. Bella had the feeling she would like her if she got the chance to know her. She was a little disappointed Alice hadn't contacted her yet. She looked forward to being able to talk to someone, anyone, about Edward. Heaven knows she wasn't about admit to her mom and dad what she'd done, and her best friend from high school, Angela, was still in Europe studying at the Sorbonne.
Bella was grateful when classes started on Monday, because her concentration was consumed by lectures, note-taking, required reading and homework. She didn't have time to think about what Edward was doing, and each day that passed without seeing him made the wondering a little easier to handle, and the worrying a little less.
But she knew that once she saw him again, the hunger and yearning for him would ignite deep in her belly once more. It still visited her in the wee hours of the night, prompting her to stoke it, then extinguish it, with her own probing fingers in the absence of his. She refused to look at the contents of the pink plastic baggy, let alone use them. She would wait for the real thing.
And now, happily, she had a deadline for her waiting to be through. Two days and twenty hours, to be exact.
She settled back on the bench and pulled her art history textbook out of her backpack. She opened it to chapter one and was greeted with photographs of the first known sculpture of a human figure, the Venus of Hohle Fels, which predated the previously known oldest carving, the Venus of Willendorf. Small but explicit depictions of the nude female form, both were thought to have been created as fertility symbols by primitive peoples tens of thousands of years ago.
Some things never changed, it seemed. As she studied the photos of the crude renderings, she understood her own desires a little better. What she felt for Edward was as primal and enduring as these miniature stone tributes to the power and importance of sex. The ancient urge to mate was what had driven her to seek him out in the first place.
But there was something more than sex pulling her back to him, and obviously something beyond sex drawing him to her. Otherwise, he wouldn't be going to the effort to see her again. She would have to concentrate on the attraction they shared beyond the physical if she were to continue seeing Edward. She needed to know more about him - his history, his motivations, his goals, his dreams. She wanted more than just the glimpses he'd given, or she'd managed to steal. She wanted his whole story, past and present. But most of all, she wanted his future.
She only wondered if she could survive the journey to get there.
# # # # # # # # # #
"So," Alice mumbled through a generous mouthful of blueberry pancakes. "I met your friend Bella the other day at the book store."
She flashed Edward a quick glance across the breakfast bar to make sure he looked as startled and guilty as she expected him to. Then she blithely turned her attention to her glass of orange juice, taking a gulp to wash down her food before spearing another forkful of pancakes.
"You met Bella?" he echoed warily, waiting until he'd swallowed his own mouthful before speaking. He knew his cousin had gone to the U-Dub book store on Sunday, and it was now Friday morning. "Why didn't you say anything before?"
"I was waiting to see if you'd mention her again. You actually looked happy for once before you went to see her, but then you never said another word about her. I guess you aren't as into her as she is you."
She shrugged nonchalantly and sipped more orange juice while she waited for him to take the bait.
"How do you know - " he began, then started over. "What did she say that made you think she's into me?"
Alice laughed. "She didn't have to say anything. Her face turned ten shades of red when I told her how happy you looked last Friday morning before you met her for breakfast - happier than I'd seen you in a long time."
She smiled sweetly at her cousin and watched his own face color.
"You told her that? Thanks. That was subtle."
Her grin only stretched wider. "You're welcome. You know I don't believe in subtlety. It's the seed that sprouts miscommunication and misunderstanding. So don't go telling me this Bella girl is just some friend of yours. You look as twitter-pated right now as she did, and that's all I need to know. But I am curious as to how you fell for one of your customers," she finished with an inquisitive look.
Edward shook his head. He should have known better than to ever outwit his baby cousin. "And how do you know she's a customer?"
"She saw my name on my student I.D. and asked if I was related to Edward Cullen. I told her you were my brother, to see how much she knew about you. She knew enough to know you don't have a sister, but not enough to know your real last name. Which leads me to believe she knows you better than most of your customers do, but not well enough to know all your secrets. Yet," she added portentously.
He let out a soft snort. "Nice work, Sherlock. So what do you plan to do with your findings?"
"Good question. I did get her phone number, but I haven't called her yet. And I won't, if you're not cool with it." She wondered if she could really keep that promise. If it looked like Edward was about to fuck this up, and chances were excellent that he would, then she wasn't above intervening to help him in spite of himself.
He shook his head once more. "Do whatever you like. I know damned well I couldn't stop you if I wanted to." He wasn't sure he wanted to stop her. He had what Alice might call "a warm fuzzy" when he thought of her befriending Bella.
"True, you couldn't," Alice agreed with a self-congratulatory smile. "I will definitely call her, then, when I get a minute. But right now my head is spinning with all the homework I already have. And I'm working a lot of hours this weekend, too."
"Tell the restaurant you need to cut back a little now. I don't want your grades to suffer. School is your number one priority right now. Let me worry about the rest."
"You worry enough already. If I can't handle the load, I'll tell Sophia, I promise. But I won't tell her about Bella and crush her hopes. Not until I get a chance to scope this girl out and see if she's cool."
Edward let out something between a chuckle and a groan. "Great. I thought that with Mom and Dad gone, I'd avoid having any future girlfriends interrogated and judged for suitability. But you may actually be worse than they would have been."
Alice ignored the insult and zeroed in on the admission. "So you are considering her as a girlfriend! Holy shit, Edward. This is huge. Do you even realize?" She had stopped eating altogether and was staring at him in huge, hazel-eyed shock. "You don't do the girlfriend thing. You never have. I'm not sure I've ever heard you even utter the word. Wow. She must have done some number on you. Now I really do need to meet her. I want to know how she did it."
"Christ," he muttered, pushing his mostly-empty plate away. "I think your time would be better spent worrying about your own love life. The point will probably be moot, anyway, since I'm sure that sooner or later, Bella won't be able to put up with my occupation any better than your sainted Sophia or any other normal girl would."
He bolted from his seat, gathered his dirty dishes and headed for the dishwasher, half-ignoring Alice's impassioned reply.
"All the more reason for you to quit! We can get by on less, Edward. People do it all the time. They clip coupons, shop in discount stores and resale shops -"
"We already do that," he interrupted in a mutter.
" - and live in much less expensive places. Think how much we could save if we sold this house, and all these old antiques. Em doesn't even remember the significance of this stuff anymore."
"I remember," Edward shot back, slamming the dishwasher door shut. "Maybe you don't have any memories of our family - you were too young - but I do. We've already lost everyone we love, Alice. I'll be damned if I let everything they ever worked for slip away, too."
"But these are just things, Edward," she argued. "They can't take the place of the people we lost. And we can't lose our family completely, anyway. They're in our hearts forever. Besides, do you really think your mother or father would've wanted you to sacrifice everything the way you have, just to keep a bunch of inanimate objects in our possession? They probably rather would have seen you living in a cardboard box as long as you were following your passion instead of throwing it all away."
Edward was seething now, smarting from her jab at his most sensitive spot. "Trust me, I know very well they would not have agreed with my choices. And maybe the rash decision I made wasn't the best one. But I won't feel guilty for taking care of our grandmother after all she went through and all she did for us. I won't feel guilty for saving the house our ancestors built. I won't feel guilty for trying to hang onto the only thing that gives me a sense of family or stability anymore."
"I'm not saying you should feel guilty. I'm just saying maybe it's time to look for a different way, now that things are a little more under control, that's all," she pleaded.
"Things are under control because of the money I make, Alice. If I were playing the piano for peanuts instead, you'd be living in Kentucky right now with your mother's second cousin, and Em would be tied to a bed in the dementia wing of some understaffed state-run nursing home."
"You don't know that," she retorted, trying not to roll her eyes at the worst-case scenario he presented. "You have so much talent, Edward. You have no idea how far you could have gone if you'd stuck with it the past two years."
He emitted a woeful laugh. "I love that you have that kind of faith in me, Alice, I really do. But you don't know what I saw, what I heard. Guys like me are a dime a dozen at Juilliard. I practiced fucking night and day just to keep my scholarships. I fought tooth and nail for every solo, every opportunity to stand out from the crowd. To stay at that competitive level would have taken a lot more time and energy than I could give after Em got so sick."
Alice took a deep breath and raised her eyes to the ceiling, perhaps looking for strength from a higher power. "All right, fine. You win." She dropped her head in defeat. She was weary of this battle. They'd had the same argument repeatedly for two years, and he always had more justifications for his choices than she had energy to refute them. She was just glad he hadn't defended himself by reminding her that at least he wasn't selling drugs or pimping out women for money. Of course, she didn't see how pimping himself was so different.
But Edward did. This way, he reasoned, he was only hurting himself. And that helped him sleep a little better at night. Or it did, before he met Bella.
He sighed heavily and took a stab at changing the subject. "Do you have any classes today?"
"Just one - lecture hall for Western Civ. Then I'll probably study at the library for a while before work."
She didn't bother to ask what he was doing because she figured she wouldn't want to hear the answer. She still wasn't looking at him; she concentrated on her breakfast instead.
"Sounds like a plan," Edward said lamely. He ran his fingers awkwardly through his hair and headed out of the kitchen. "I'll see you later, then. Be safe. I love you."
Alice mumbled incoherently but still didn't look up. He wandered into the living room and, as always, the empty space where the piano used to be yawned like a black hole before him. His fingers continued to claw his hair restlessly, searching for their favorite outlet. He desperately needed the release.
He pulled his cell phone from his back pocket and dialed one of the few client numbers he had in his possession, then paced the floor as it rang. The sound of her voice was sweet relief.
"Hi, it's Edward. I'm sorry to bother you, but if you don't have any plans today, would it be all right if I came over?"
# # # # # # # # # #
Charlotte Rhinehart checked herself in the mirror once more, feeling a bit foolish as she did so, but unable to stop herself. It wasn't often that Edward invited himself over in between their usual visits, and when he did, it usually meant that he was upset about something. He would never say what, exactly, but the passionate, mournful music he chose to play always gave him away.
Today turned out to be no different. When he arrived, he gave her the briefest of hugs and a perfunctory greeting; then asked if he could sit at the piano for a while. She waved him away to the conservatory without reservation, then sat in the next room, as was her habit, so that she could enjoy the music without disrupting his concentration.
Today, that concentration was fierce. He attacked the keys as if he had a score to settle with them. Even to her untrained ears, the music was clearly challenging and wildly dissonant, its tones and rhythms changing constantly in a perfect sonic storm. He repeated several passages until they were perfect, scowling at his flubs, then smiling in grim satisfaction when he finally performed the entire piece flawlessly.
He was still sitting at the bench, taking deep breaths, hands gripping his knees when Charlotte entered the room and showered him with applause. He cocked one eyebrow at her and grinned.
"That was quite amazing. A very difficult piece, yes?"
"Yeah. I performed it for my final at Juilliard. I like to revisit it every now and then just to make sure I can still play it."
"Ah. I was right," Charlotte said with a satisfied smile as she rested an elbow atop the piano. "I assumed you'd attended some prestigious music school the first time I heard you play."
Edward looked a bit surprised. "I guess I never told you that, huh? Sorry. It's not something I really like to talk about."
"Your fingers do the talking for you," she replied. "That was truly masterful, my dear. And I'm not talking about the technical perfection, either. I'm talking about the passion, the fury you put into every note. It's nothing short of astonishing. Music is all about feeling, and that's where you truly shine. You don't let the technique interfere with the emotion. That's what allows the music to soar and transcend the notes. Do you know what I'm saying?"
Edward looked up at her in wonder. "I know exactly what you're saying. Ironically, I think that I've gotten better at that since I quit school and don't get to play as much. It forces me to channel all my frustration into something more powerful, I guess."
"Perhaps life's trials have given you more empathy for the human condition, and that only enriches the music that comes out of you. Another sad irony, that suffering can create great art."
"So they say," Edward agreed with a rueful smile. "Maybe I should be grateful for the hard knocks, then?" He snorted softly.
"Well, I wouldn't go that far," Charlotte said with a laugh. "Happiness can create great art, too, as far as I'm concerned. And I'd certainly like to see you get your fair share. Certainly no one deserves it more."
"I think that's debatable," he countered darkly.
Charlotte gave him a warning look that prompted him to explain himself.
"I've made a lot of mistakes. I feel like I keep making them. Maybe I'm just reaping what I've sown."
"Good heavens, are you trying to tell me you're human?" she retorted with a sly grin. "I'll get the guillotine ready, then. Mistakes are unforgivable. Not only do you not deserve happiness, I'm not altogether sure you deserve to live."
Edward laughed in spite of himself. "All right, fine. Point taken. You always make me smile, Charlotte, you know that?"
"It works both ways," she replied, beaming herself. "Now, would you like to tell me what happened between this week and last? You were high as a kite last Wednesday. This Wednesday, you barely spoke when you came over; you just sat at this piano for hours, which is fine by me. But this impromptu visit has me wondering what's gone so wrong in the span of a few short days. Does it have something to do with that young girl you're interested in? What did you say her name was, again?"
"It's Bella," he answered with a smile before his forehead creased. "Nothing's wrong, exactly. Or maybe everything is. She's given me a lot to think about, I guess."
Charlotte nodded. "Maybe a reevaluation of your life is in order. There are worse things than taking stock, you know."
"I know. That's what Alice says, too. But it's happening so fast . . . I'm just not sure what to do."
Her heart ached for the troubled young man before her. She wanted to wave a magic wand and take his pain away, if only he would let her.
"My offer still stands, you know," she reminded him gently.
He still flinched at her words. "Thank you. I do appreciate that. But I'm not sure how that would really help anything. I'd just owe you instead of the bank. And before you tell me I don't have to repay you, I don't think I could live with myself if I just took a handout from you, okay?"
"Okay," she said, though she wanted to throttle him for his stubborn male pride. "Just think about it, that's all I'm asking."
He nodded, but still looked reluctant. She decided it was time to move on to a less touchy subject. "Would you like to play some more, or join me in a game? I'm in dire need of brushing up my poker skills. Your tutelage would come in handy, as I'm considering joining a card circle in the neighborhood."
His face brightened. "You should definitely do that. You're a natural. You've already got your poker face down, so the rest should be a cinch."
"All right, then. Why don't you fetch the card deck for us? It's in the sitting room desk. I'll join you shortly."
She watched his tall, lanky form lope out of the conservatory, and shook her head at the slew of conflicting feelings he stirred within her. Above all, though, she longed to see him content. She suspected this Bella held the key to his happiness, if he could only see his way clear to letting her unlock it.
Bella. She wondered again if Edward's crush was the same girl who'd nearly mowed her down outside the church Sunday, but was adorably apologetic about it afterward. She'd asked Pastor Tim about the girl, but he'd learned little about her, other than her first name and her appreciation for fine art. As soon as he'd told Charlotte the girl's name, her interest had been piqued. She hoped Bella would return some Sunday so she could find out more about her.
Charlotte walked around the piano and pushed in the bench, then approached the bookcase behind it. She reached up to the highest shelf and retrieved a small recording device from between a long row of books. She checked to make sure it was working, then hit the "stop" button, stifling a slightly devious grin. She supposed she ought to feel guilty for having secretly recorded several of Edward's practice sessions, but she couldn't quite seem to regret it. She'd enjoyed downloading and listening to his beautiful music in between visits, for one. But truth be told, she had a deeper motive behind her actions. She was merely waiting for the right moment to give him the nudge he needed.
She had decided long ago that if Edward refused to help himself, then she would.
I must apologize for lying to you all. I didn't mean to, honestly! I promised some lemony fun for Edward and Bella in this chapter, but Alice and Charlotte had a few things to say first. Besides, I think our couple's day at the beach deserves its own chapter, maybe more. ;-) Their date absolutely WILL be the focus of Chapter 27, and maybe beyond.
As always, I am forever grateful for the positive feedback, favorites and alerts from you all. You keep me going, truly. And to my fic-pimpers on Twitter, you are da bomb! That is all.
Thanks to Songster for hanging in there through the angst and rec'ing this story on The Fictionators! And special thanks to Cared for her weekly offers to submit story teasers for me, even though my posting schedule doesn't work very well with sneak peeks on Mondays. Your kindness, insights and words of inspiration are invaluable, and a true blessing. xoxo
Now I shall wait to see if the intrepid Carson Dyle or NYCAlways82 report any typos to me on this chapter... ;D