Disclaimer: All things Twilight belong to Stephenie Meyer, I've just spent too many years playing with them ;)
Jess sighs loudly as I wait for her answer. I know the pressure I keep putting her under is straining our friendship, but I've got this unhealthy preoccupation I just can't seem to say no to.
"You promised you'd end it, Bella. It's not fair on Conner."
I lower my voice. "And I will. I swear."
She scoffs. She's heard it all before.
"This," she tells me sternly, "is the last time. The very last. I mean it."
"Thank you, thank you." I jump forward, grasp her arms above the elbow and kiss her on the cheek. "I promise I won't ask again."
She pushes me gently, holding me back and fixing me with a serious glare.
"You owe me, Bella. Big."
"I know, I know."
"I love you, but you need to stop being such a bitch and let the guy go."
I raise my eyebrows, trying to lighten the heavy atmosphere.
Jess clearly doesn't see any humor in the situation.
"Either. Or both. Shit, be single for a while, it doesn't matter what you do then. Or who."
"Ugh, no thanks." The thought of being alone makes me break out in a cold sweat.
"You need therapy. I'm not even kidding."
"I've had hours of therapy, remember? Think how much worse I'd be without it."
She doesn't respond because she knows it's true, Jess has been my bestie since I was four years old.
"Well if you're gonna go, go, okay?" She waves me away with a tired gesture. I smile and begin to back away.
"And if Conner calls…"
"You're with me, but you can't come to the phone. I know the script."
"Thanks." I turn away.
"This is the last time," she calls after me. I raise my hand without looking back and yank open the door to my truck.
I'm on my way out of town on the 101 when I spot a figure standing at the side of the road, arm raised as he thumbs a ride. He's tall and slim, and has his head bowed, so only a thick shock of penny-colored hair is on show.
"Good deed for the day?" I debate out loud, slowing before I even come to a conscious decision. It's impossible to sneak up on anyone in my red hunk of junk, and he raises his head to watch as I pull up to a stop beside him.
I take a good look at him as a huge smile tears across his face. He's my age at a guess, maybe a year or two older, but no more than that. I try to think of a word to describe him as he picks up his bag and runs around to the passenger-side door. Handsome doesn't seem to fit. Hot? Too crass. As he pulls open the door and his eyes land on me, he hesitates. I'm clearly not what he was expecting to see, but he recovers quickly, and as he blinks the answer comes to me.
Beautiful. He's beautiful.
"Where are you heading?" I ask him. I'm doing a quick risk assessment in my head. I know you can't necessarily tell a psychopath at first glance, but he seems normal enough. That face aside.
He shrugs his broad shoulders. "Anywhere."
It's a strange answer and one that obviously has a story behind it considering how clean and well-dressed he is. I could just apologize and drive off, but… "Okay," I tell him.
My sense of self-preservation kicks in as he begins to load his bag onto the seat, and I hold up my hand.
"Before you get in, you should know my father's the chief of police, so if you're a serial killer you might want to wait for another victim." I wait for him to offer some kind of acknowledgement, but instead he laughs. The corners of his eyes crinkle as the sound echoes around the cab of the truck. It's so genuine I can't help but smile, despite the gravity of the point I'm trying to get across.
"What? I'm serious."
"I'm not a serial killer," he says. I examine his face for the signs of a lie I've learned to look for (and hide). Seeing none, I nod.
"Well get in then, Mr Not a Serial Killer."
He smiles and settles himself next to me, then turns and holds his hand out towards me.
"There's no need to be so formal. You can call me Edward." He wraps his hand around mine, engulfing it with the size and warmth.
"Pleased to meet you, Edward. I'm Isabella."
I have no idea why I give him my full name. I never use it, I'm Bella to everyone.
"Isabella. That's pretty. It suits you." Our hands part and I mourn the loss a little as his words make my heart speed up and my face grow warm. I look away, trying to hide the effect he's having on me.
"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to embarrass you," he says. Apparently I didn't hide it nearly fast enough. "Trust me, the last thing I'm looking for is romance."
My own messy situation comes back to me, making me shiver.
"It's fine," I say, trying to reassure him. "And for the record, me neither."
I look at him as I shift the truck into gear. "Are you ready?"
A frown weighs his brow down in confusion. "Destination Anywhere, right?"
"Right." He smiles at me, dazzling me so thoroughly I'm afraid I might not be able to focus on the road ahead. "Yeah, I'm ready. Bring it on."
"So where are we headed?"
I glance at him with a smirk, before I look back at the road. It's a good job I'm driving, because there's something about him that makes me want to take in every detail of his face and I'm not sure I could stop myself from staring as I committed it all to memory. "What?" he demands, the corners of his mouth turned up too, despite the indignant tone to his voice.
"I thought you didn't care."
"I don't care, I'm just curious."
"Well I'm headed to Sequim, but you're free to hop out any time before we get there." My heart already aches at the thought of never seeing him again.
"I'm meeting a friend." It's close enough to the truth.
"Your friend lives there?"
"Uh… no. He's driving up from Tacoma.
"You don't have girl-friends?" I ask. I glance across as he raises his eyebrows and laughs sardonically. "I didn't mean like that," I clarify. "I meant friends who are girls."
"Sorry." His hand is resting on his thigh, and he raises all but the heel up in an apology before letting it fall back down. "Sore point."
He turns his head away from me, gazing out of the window. His comment triggers a hundred questions in my mind I'm too polite to ask. I'm sure there's a link between it and the way he's chosen to leave town.
Edward sits in silence for a couple of miles. When he does speak it's just four words, then he's quiet again.
"I'll come to Sequim."
The sign declaring 'Sequim Welcomes You' looms in front of us.
"Where do you want me to drop you?" I ask. His silent contemplation eventually faded and we've kept up a little smalltalk for a while. I now know his dad's an ER doctor in Seattle, he's always wanted a motorbike, but never had the balls to buy one (see fact number one), his favorite food is Steak Diane, and he's played the piano since he was five years old. Oh, and he's married. "Kinda...sorta...it's complicated."
I don't ask, but I'd place money on the reason behind his strange exit from town being to do with his 'complicated' marriage and his reaction to my mention of girl-friends.
"Just go wherever you're going, I'll hop out there."
I consider faking a stop, but then I decide it really doesn't matter what he thinks of me, chances are I'll never see him again anyway.
I pull into the parking lot and cut the engine.
"Well, we're here."
"The Holiday Inn?"
I turn to look at him. He's looking back, eyebrows raised, then he laughs. "A friend? Sure. Does your fiance know you're here right now?"
I curse the fact I felt comfortable enough to talk about my circumstances, and the anger I feel towards myself projects itself defensively onto him.
"Well coming from someone who's in a 'complicated' marriage and finds the issue of 'girl-friends' a sore point, I'm guessing you have no room to talk."
His smile fades instantly.
"You noticed that?"
"You didn't exactly hide it."
"Man." He rubs a hand down his face as though suddenly exhausted and a bubble of concern for him rises inside me.
"Are you okay?" I ask.
"Yeah." He lets out a deep sigh. "You should learn from me though. You can still avoid the inevitable messy ending."
"Let me out, turnaround and go home to your fiance."
I laugh, not so much at his words but at the fact he has the audacity to sit there preaching to me.
"I'm a big girl, Edward. I can take care of myself."
He shakes his head slowly as his lips turn up in good-natured despair.
"Well don't say I didn't warn you," he says, looking away from me to find the strap on his bag.
"I won't be able to, this is the end of the line, remember?" I smile brightly at him as he climbs out, then I gather my stuff together and open the door. By the time my feet hit the parking lot, he's standing beside the hood of the truck on my side, shifting nervously from foot to foot.
"Can I... give you my number?" he asks, adjusting his bag on his shoulder. I laugh.
"You have to be kidding me."
"Uh, no." He's embarrassed, scratching his head and generally fidgeting.
"Really?" I'm genuinely having trouble with this whole situation.
"Not like that! Fuck, I'm not hitting on you, Isabella."
"Now I feel like I should be offended."
"No! Don't be offended. I mean-" He grins cheekily. "It's not you, it's me. I'd have issues being the other other guy."
I have no words and from the way his face drops I think he has a pretty good idea of what they'd be if I did. "Okay," he says quickly. "I'm just going to…" He steps around me, scanning the inside of the truck and reaching out to grab a scrap of paper and a pen that are lying around in there. "I'm going to leave you my number, just because I want to know you're alright. I mean, one day if…." He looks up at me. "When things do happen to go horribly wrong for you, it's going to be kind of hard to find people willing to sympathize." Looking away again, he begins to write on the paper.
"Well thanks for the vote of confidence."
He tosses the pen back into the truck.
"I'm not going to lie to you." His face is so serious I can't help the dig.
"Like you did to your wife and girlfriends you mean?"
"Girl friend," he corrects me. "And I never lied to her."
"Oh, then I'm sorry I doubted your moral integrity. I stand corrected. You're not going to lie to me like you did your wife?"
He stands and stares at me, his mouth falling open a little.
"Are you really going to stand here and force a debate on which of us has the worst morals?" Annoyance flashes through his green eyes as the line of his mouth hardens. If he looked beautiful earlier, he looks devastating now. I don't reply to him. I can't reply, my brain has emptied itself of everything except that face. "Well?" he asks.
"What?" My brain scrambles back into gear and tries to remember what the question was. When it finally catches up, my shoulders sag. "Look, I'm sorry. I guess you hit a nerve, I've been getting crap off my friend about it too and-" A car horn sounds loudly from across the lot, cutting me off and diverting my attention. Riley's out of his car, leaning on the driver's side door. He lifts his arm and waves when I look across, but makes no effort to come over.
"I have to go," I tell Edward, gesturing over. He lifts his head and glances across.
"I hope he's worth it," he says, the bitter tone of judgment dripping off the words as he hands me the piece of paper he's scrawled his number on. A fiery burst of anger rips through me. I grab my bag out of the truck and slam the door shut.
"I don't have to stand here and listen to you, and I really won't be needing this." I push the paper at his chest and let go, watching as he manages to catch it.
"Save it." I quicken my pace and half-jog to where Riley waits, trying desperately not to look back. He greets me with a hug, his familiar arms wrapping right around me the way they always do.
"Who was that?" he demands.
"Ah, just some guy I picked up in Forks."
"You gave a ride to a stranger? Bella…" I notice the way his hands curl into fists as he sneers over in Edward's direction. I know he's only mad I put myself at risk because he cares, but it kind of pisses me off.
"It's fine, he was cool."
When he turns me around to press me up against the car and kiss me, my traitorous eyes flit back over to my truck, but he's gone. When a momentary scan of the parking lot also comes up empty, I try to ignore the heavy feeling in my stomach and concentrate instead of the feel of Riley's lips against my own.
Riley kisses me so well I can barely remember my own name. I let him lead me towards the door of the Holiday Inn when something catches my eye.
"Hang on, I forgot something," I tell him, handing him my bag and heading back to my truck. I try to be inconspicuous as I pluck the paper from under the windshield wiper. I open the truck door and pretend to look for something as I unfold it and see the neat row of numbers. I stuff it in my pocket, grab the hairbrush I keep in the glove compartment and lock everything up again.
"Sorry about that," I tell Riley as I jog back to him. I reach for my bag.
"It's okay, I got it." He smiles at me. It takes me a moment to realize what's different - it didn't make my stomach flip the way it normally does.
Riley checks us in as I stand beside him, eyes wandering around the reception area. A movement catches my eye and I look across as the doors to the elevator begin to close after a single passenger. Edward raises his head and his eyes meet mine as he vanishes from view. Now my stomach flips, only for the wrong guy.
I'm hyper-aware of the piece of paper in my pocket, and I hate myself even more than usual as Riley turns, keycard to our room in his hand, and smiles at me.
"Sure." I smile back and walk with him.
"You're quiet today," Riley tells me, kissing me gently on the head as I lie naked and nestled in the crook of his arm. "Something on your mind?" He knows me well. He's the childhood friend who moved away and you'd never have heard of again before the internet. One walk down memory lane and a quick Facebook search later…
I look up at him, blond hair falling down over his forehead. "Jess has been giving me a hard time again." It's easier to put my mood down to something he already knows has been bothering me.
"It doesn't need to be like this, you know that," he tells me as he strokes my arm gently.
"I won't move to Tacoma, Riley." He wants me to leave Conner for him, he tells me every time. He rolls his eyes, shifts away a little. He never used to put pressure on me about it, but lately I can feel him starting to push and I don't like it. "You could always move back to Forks." It's a safe bluff, I know how he feels about the place, there's no way he'd ever consider it.
"It's beginning to look like I might have to."
The words prick at me, sending shots of panic through my body. I sit up, clutching the sheet to my chest as the sense of exposure my nakedness brings, floods me. I force a laugh. "You hate Forks, remember?"
Riley turns his serious brown eyes on me and reaches out, pulling me back down onto the bed. He reaches for the sheet, pulling it away and lowering himself down, settling his bare skin on mine. "I hate Forks but I love you. I want to be with you, Bella." He leans down and kisses me slowly, his tongue gently exploring mine as I feel him harden against me again. My body reacts automatically as my brain races away with the things he just said.
He's already inside me by the time he lifts his head and notices the tears escaping from my eyes. He stops moving.
"What's wrong? Did I hurt you?" I shake my head no and press my hands gently against him. He moves away enough so I can pull the sheet back around me and roll onto my side with my back to him.
Riley lets me cry it out. He says nothing, but when the tears really start to wrack my body, he lies behind me and pulls me close to him, holding me silently and without moving until they ease. I lose myself in a cloud of misery and confusion I didn't even know I was living under until today. Whether Jess's comment this morning was one too many, if it was the chance meeting with the beautiful stranger, or if Riley's declaration of love and dedication finally tipped me over the edge, I have no idea, but something that started out as fun, has somehow left me feeling wrung out.
As my body finally relaxes and lies heavy with emotional exhaustion on the bed, Riley finally speaks.
"What can I do to make you feel better?" He strokes my hair and kisses my shoulder, and I tense.
"I think I want to be alone."
"Okay." He pauses. "I'll take a walk. You want an hour? Two?"
I roll over and look up at him. His brow is drawn and his mouth tight with concern. I reach up and touch his face, running my hand down over the rough couple of day's growth on his cheek and chin. I smile sadly, thinking of how happy seeing his face made me in the beginning.
"You should go home."
"I can't do this today. I need some space. To think."
"Shhh." I place my finger on his lips. "Not now. Please."
His eyes search my face. I've no idea if he finds what he's looking for, but eventually he seems to accept what I asked.
"You'll call me?" he asks.
I nod. I can't tell any more lies today, I'm done.
He leans down and kisses me and I let him. In my heart I know it's goodbye and I wonder if he feels it too. He lets out a groan that I feel between my legs, and I know if I don't stop this now I might change my mind and let him stay. I guess my emotions are even more messed up than usual.
As if he knows what I'm thinking, he pulls away, shifts across the bed and stands.
"Do you mind if I shower before I leave?" he asks. I shake my head and watch him walk into the bathroom, closing the door behind him. As the sound of running water begins, I climb out of bed and pull on my underwear and t-shirt. I grab the TV remote and settle back in bed, turning the TV on and flicking through the channels before I find some music channel to kill the silence.
Riley's fast in the shower, and I watch him as he emerges, towel around his waist. He dresses without making eye contact and pulls on his shoes in silence. I wonder if he's going to leave without acknowledging me at all, but then he pauses on his way to the door, bag slung over his shoulder and hair still wet from the shower. "I hate to leave you like this," he says, looking at me sadly. His eyes are red-rimmed and I wonder if maybe he's been crying.
"I'll be fine,"I tell him.
"You're staying over?"
"Yeah. I can't go home like this."
He nods in agreement, lingering a moment and looking as though he wants to say something. In the end he takes a breath and draws himself up.
"I'll see you around, Bella."
The door closes behind him and the tears start over again.
It's evening by the time I decide I'm going to go a little crazy if I don't get out of this room. I had a bath around an hour ago, then I got back into bed with some of the snacks I'd brought for Riley and me. I throw back the covers and pull some clothes on, and forget bothering to rearrange my messy bun or put on any make-up. I doubt it would make a lot of difference to my tear-swollen face, and besides, it's not as though I'm going to see anybody that matters.
I pull on a sweater, grab a pack of beers from my bag and leave the room, heading for the stairs. When I reach the top I open the doors onto the rooftop garden. The lights are on in anticipation of the dusk, but the whole area's bathed in the orange glow of the sunset. I wander over to the railings, pull a beer from the pack, twist off the top and take a long drink. I'm leaning on the metal, still warm from the day's sun, when soft footsteps approach and somebody speaks.
"One of those days?"
I know it's him before I turn, but as my heart quickens slightly I can't resist taking a look. I thought I knew what to expect, but what I hadn't counted on was the deep orange light making him look even better. It makes me more aware of the way the tears have ravaged my own face.
He stands beside me, facing me as he leans on the railings too. I look away long enough to reach for a beer to hand to him, then I meet his eye. Concern shows in his gaze as he scans my face. I get the urge to hide it, but I'm too emotionally drained to care for more than a moment. "Do I want to know what happened?" he asks as he puts his beer to his lips and tips it back.
"I'm not even sure myself," I admit.
"You ended it?"
He smirks and raises his eyebrows. "So you were listening."
The self-satisfaction dripping from his tone would have me clenching my fists with anyone else, but for some reason, coming from him, it doesn't rile me at all.
"He wanted me to leave Conner for him," I explain. Edward sucks in air through his teeth. "I mean, he has for a while, but I felt like he was pushing me today. That's not what this thing between us was supposed to be about."
"These things have a habit of becoming serious," he says. I nod and we both fall into silence for a moment.
"Will you tell me your story?" I ask eventually. I worry he'll think me rude for asking, but instead of being angry he just looks sad.
"I guess. It's pretty easy to make it sound a whole lot simpler than it seemed at the time. My wife Becky loves books, so I started going to a book group, I thought I could surprise her with what I learned. That's where I met Angela - she owned the bookstore where it was held. In her defense she had no idea I was married at first. I stayed back one night to help her tidy up and…yeah."
"Were you…" I search for the best word. "With Angela for long?" I ask. I'm filled with a ghoulish curiosity about the whole thing.
"She wanted more."
I shake my head as I gaze off into the distance, watching the traffic coming and going.
"What is wrong with people?" I muse. Edward doesn't reply and I gradually become aware I'm being watched. "What?" I ask, averting my eyes quickly as the intensity of the way he looks at me becomes too much to bear.
"You think they're the ones with the issues?" he asks.
"I think they knew what they were getting into."
"You could say we did too."
"Why were you leaving Forks?" I turn it back around onto him.
"I need some time."
"I think you're running away."
"Maybe. For the record I think you are too."
I laugh and shake my head.
"I haven't gone anywhere."
"You haven't gone home."
"You're so full of bullshit. You ever think of becoming a therapist?"
He raises his eyebrows. "Like my mom? No thanks."
"Your mom's a therapist?" I struggle to hide my surprise. "Well I guess that explains it."
"You're insulting my mom now?" His tone is teasing and I know I haven't offended him.
I take another drink of beer and shake my head as I swallow. "I actually have a certain fondness for therapists, we go back a long way."
"Well." His eyes shine with mischief. "I guess that explains it."
Whatever tension was building, cracks, as we both start laughing.
"I propose we call it a draw and agree we're both as fucked up as each other," I say, holding my beer bottle up. Edward dips his head and chinks his bottle against mine.
"To being fucked up."
I'm about to reiterate his sentiment, but all I can think is how good the word fucked sounded on his lips. He's still waiting, his bottle touching mine.
"To being fucked up," I murmur, snatching my bottle back to my mouth.
He's looking at me, clearly amused.
"Are you thirsty?" he asks.
I swallow the beer and wipe my mouth with my fingers.
"My mouth's a little dry."
His eyes go there, and I watch the tip of his tongue poke out between his lips as he stares shamelessly at mine.
"Edward." I speak his name quietly, the syllables flowing from my mouth with a familiarity I shouldn't feel. It worked and his attention is drawn back up from my mouth. He doesn't speak, but the question's there in the way he looks. "You're scaring me."
He blanches, begins to withdraw. "No, no." I reach my hand out but I don't touch him. "Not in a bad way. Just… I… it's…" I sigh, exasperated that I can't put all the things I'm feeling into words. I take a deep breath. "You're making me feel."
He frowns, his brow drawing over his green eyes. The true color of them is burned into my mind, even as they blaze golden in the sunset.
"Feel what?" His voice is low and the sound turns my arms to gooseflesh.
He doesn't say a thing. Panic begins to build in my stomach, slowly rising as I realize I've made an idiot of myself. I can't look at him as I finish off my beer and push away from the railing. "It's been a long day..." I say, desperate for an escape. I reach for the two remaining beers, hold one out to him and clutch the other tightly to me. He reaches out and his hand closes around mine on the bottle.
"I left you my number…"
I try to swallow, but my mouth's like a desert again and the way he's staring at me isn't helping. "I got it." He raises his eyebrows but makes no comment.
"Call me. One day when... things are easier." I can tell he chooses his words with care. The meaning's crystal clear and welcome.
His hand slides away from mine as he readjusts his grip so he's holding the bottle. I let go and walk away, pretending every step I put between us is a celebration of my self-control instead of the loss my heart's trying to convince me it is.
A/N - Thanks to Choc for her support as ever x