“Certainly, sir,” the cabbie answers.
Sir, sir, sir. I grasp Edward’s hand in mine. “Hi again.”
He settles back against the seat and turns his head my direction. I notice he doesn’t rush to kiss me, even now that we’re safely ensconced in the anonymity of the taxi. “Long day?” he asks.
“You’re not the same person who left that office Friday afternoon,” he observes.
“I suppose I’m not,” I answer, lifting my eyes to the roof and taking a moment to reflect. It’s hard to believe the significant moments that have already passed between us—the playful banter that seems to define our conversations, the intense sexuality of our scenes, the poignant intimacy of our lovemaking, the everyday routines of eating, dressing, riding to work together. In such a short time, we’ve already shared so much. And yet, as our strange dance at work today proved, we have so much more to work out. I know it’s not fair to hold him at bay during the day and expect him to be everything for me at night. It’s not even what I want. I just don’t begin to know how to bring my worlds together.
And there are Jasper’s feelings to consider, and now Alice’s as well.
“Alice requested a transfer,” I mention, eyes closed, lost in my musings. “She’s going upstairs to work for my father.”
“On Jasper’s floor,” he states astutely. “How do you feel about that?”
I feel his eyes burning on me, and I open mine and regard him, “I suppose it’s better this way. If they do ever…get together, they won’t have to do it in front of me. It would have just been too weird to have him coming downstairs for Alice the way he used to for me.”
He nods understandingly.
“I just lost the best assistant I’ll ever have.”
“She is excellent,” he agrees. “Hey, would you like me to look through the performance review files and see who else is good?”
I laugh at his eagerness to help, despite the shady nature of his offer. “Is that even legal?”
He grins sheepishly, “I suppose it could be construed as a misuse of information.”
“They do say that knowledge is power,” I add.
“You know how I love power,” he grins fully now. “I guess I’m just not very good at sitting helplessly by.”
“No, I don’t see that as one of your strengths,” I chuckle, feeling better already.
He shrugs and pays the cabbie.
“So, I know this is a little cheesy, but I bought you something to help you get into the spirit of the game,” I say once we’re seated.
“Oh God, Edward,” she says, leaning forward, “please tell me it’s not a cheerleading outfit!”
Now why didn’t I think of that? My smile widens and I shake my head, “Damn, I don’t know what I’m gonna do with you. I swear, woman, you’re kinkier than I am!”
She bursts into laughter and answers, “I seriously doubt that is even possible.”
Now I’m guffawing as I reach into my messenger bag for the jerseys. “I want you to know it just about killed me to have to buy a Giants jersey today. I think you’re making me lose my mind a little bit.”
“Tuck?” she asks, reading the back of the shirt. “Why not Manning?”
I wave off her suggestion, “Too common for you. Justin Tuck’s cool.”
She smiles and takes the jersey. “Thanks, Edward. That was really sweet of you.”
“I wanted to get you Kevin Boss, because I thought it would be really funny if you had a shirt that said ‘Boss’ on it, but he got traded away this year.”
“Tuck’ll do just fine. Who are you wearing?”
“DeSean Jackson. I’m not gonna be too popular in here once I put this on.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll protect you.”
Our server comes over, and she’s dressed in a cut off Giants jersey resting atop the shortest pair of denim shorts I’ve seen since August. Her blonde hair is pulled back in a high ponytail, and her enthusiastic application of mascara, eye liner, and frosty pink lip gloss combine to form the impression of All-American-Girl meets Slutty-Football-Fangirl.
“What can I get you to drink while you look over the menu?” She’s looking at me, so I flip my hand to Isabella, and thankfully, the girl’s eyes follow.
“I’ll have a Sam Adams Winter Lager, please,” she says.
“Make it two,” I add.
“Right away,” she says to me, looking one second longer than appropriate.
“Does that happen to you a lot?” Isabella asks, once the tiny ass sways away from our vicinity.
“Not really,” I answer modestly. She tilts her head, as if to say, ‘Oh really?’
“Okay, yes,” I amend quickly.
She shakes her head and smiles, lifting her menu. “I am starving,” she says.
“A yogurt at 2:30 probably wasn’t enough for you.”
“A yogurt at 2:30 probably wasn’t enough for you.”
She drops her menu below her eyes and looks at me warily. “Is it going to be a thing for you to be in charge of what I eat?”
“Hell no! I don’t have a degree in nutrition. I just don’t like to see you going hungry.”
“Phew! That’s a relief. Because I tend to go in streaks with my food.”
I shrug, “As long as you’re happy, I couldn’t care less.”
“Hmmm,” she says, perusing the menu, “since this is our last night out for a few nights, I think I’ll have a piece of fish.”
The server comes back with our beers. “Ready to order?” Again, she asks me first, and again I gesture to Isabella, whose lips curl up slightly before she answers.
I know I’m going to have to get used to this. Edward is a gorgeous man, no two ways about it, and people notice him. And that’s not limited to women, by the way. I give the waitress my order and I sit back while she ogles Edward. I’ll be shocked if she gets either of our orders right. Go ahead, honey, look all you want, but don’t touch. He’s mine.
He lifts his bottle and says, “Here’s to the making of a new football fan.”
I smile and clink, though I’m still not a believer. We both suck back a long draft on our beers. “God, I think I should’ve started drinking around ten AM today.”
“Well that sounds a little dangerous,” he laughs. “What were you doing at ten?”
“Just missing you,” I blurt, surprising myself as much as him with my admission.
His eyes widen but just as quickly, he drops his gaze to the label on his bottle, and he starts twisting at the edges of it with his thumb.
“How was your day?” I ask cautiously, feeling the ground under me about as solid as quicksand.
“It was good. I like answering trouble calls; it gets me out of the dungeon.”
“And you enjoy fixing people’s problems,” I observe.
“I do. It’s the part of my job where I get to play the knight in shining armor, riding to the rescue with my patches and antivirus files, ridding computers throughout the land of malicious software and serving my fellow man, blah, blah, blah.”
“My hero,” I tease breathlessly, adding a flutter of my eyelashes for effect.
He takes a drag on his beer and sits back in his chair, regarding me, rolling a question around in his mind, I think. Finally, “You missing your prince?”
His eyes are locked on mine, and I’m pinned to the spot. Just then, Blondie McButtcheeks arrives with our dinners. Edward gets served first, naturally, and my salmon is set down as an afterthought. She pulls side dishes from all along her arm—cole slaw, fries, vegetable medleys. Through it all, Edward’s eyes never waver from mine.
“Ketchup’s on the table. Getcha anything else?”
“No,” Edward answers curtly without looking at her. “We’re good. Aren’t we Isabella?”
“Yeah. We’re fine,” I answer numbly. Could he possibly be thinking we’re not?
“You don’t have to answer my question, by the way,” he adds, finally releasing his visual hold on me to locate the ketchup. “It was meant to be rhetorical.”
“Actually, I’d really like to answer you, Edward.”
He pauses with his hand on the bottle, surprised by my willingness to talk about my feelings. His eyebrows lift and he gives me a slight nod. He retrieves the ketchup and unscrews the cap, waiting patiently for me to speak.
“I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss some aspects of that relationship. We were pretty intensely connected throughout the work days—he’d almost always want to have lunch together, we’d message each other at random times, always arranging to head home, planning for dinner, …it was a lot. And that’s not even counting the meetings we sit in together.”
Edward’s dips his fries two at a time into the bright red puddle at the side of his plate, not giving away his emotions.
“So, did I miss him today at work? Let’s just say I noticed the absence of that connection, and yes, it felt like something that is a part of me is no longer viable. And I think it will require some adjustment on my part to reprogram myself not to expect those things any more. At least, not from Jasper.”
He pulls his beer to his lips, finishes the drink in one long draw, and looks around for the waitress. No surprise, she’s watching him from across the room. He waves his bottle toward her and she nods enthusiastically, excited to have been summoned. “You need another?” he asks me. I nod yes, and he holds up two fingers.
He still appears to be holding his breath, and finally asks, “Is that it then, Isabella?”
“What are you asking me, Edward?”
He exhales and places his hands flat on the table, on either side of his plate, leaning forward with a sudden intensity. “I guess, what I’m asking is, did you miss your tender goodbye kiss at the elevator door this morning? Did you miss the way he looks at you when you’re sharing sandwiches in your office? Did you miss his electronic expressions of need throughout the day? Did you miss walking the halls of Swan Enterprises with your devoted VP at your side? Did you miss that first touch at the end of a long day, when you’ve been separated for ten hours?”
She pushes my buttons. Whatever happened to my self-control? I made an agreement with myself not an hour ago to leave this alone, yet here I am, pressing. This is precisely how she ended up with a scarf knotted on her wrist last week.
I have an intense desire to take every word back, and the anxious expression clouding her face does nothing to reassure me. I’m sorry I’m being an asshole, Isabella.
“It was you I missed today, Edward.” Simple. Non-defensive. Factual.
The beast appeased, I feel the tension drain from my shoulders, and I relax back into my seat.
Now, she leans forward, taking the initiative, playing the aggressor. “It was your hand on my back I missed at the sidewalk this morning, your lips I missed at the elevator bank. It was you I fought impossibly hard against messaging all day. Your knock I missed on my office door. And it was you I wanted to pin against the wall in the lobby and smother with my lips just now.”
Her voice gets smoother and more confident as she picks up steam; her breathing becomes more exaggerated; she strains against her side of the table. Her eyes are intense and unafraid to meet mine. I am so fucking hard for her right now, I could jump over this table and tackle her right to the floor. Perhaps it’s our football-themed date, but I think it has more to do with Isabella’s fierce admissions.
As if on cue for the worst possible moment to intrude, the replacement beers arrive.
“Thank you,” I respond to Isabella.
“Sure thing,” answers our bimbo server. I look up, confused, and she smiles and winks at me. “I’ll just be right over there if you need anything else.”
Isabella collapses into a fit of giggles as the waitress sashays away.
“Glad we got that all cleared up,” I say, shaking my head. Then, “Sorry I pushed.”
“Sorry I don’t know how to be with you yet at work. Give me a little time?”
“Sure,” I say, setting my hand on the table, palm up. She places hers on top and we lock ourselves together. “Now that I know you spent all day missing me, I can deal with not having contact.”
“So, tell me about your meeting with the Chief,” she smirks around the lip of her bottle.
“Ah yes, the CEO. Very sharp guy. He was sizing me up.”
“And you passed inspection?”
I shrug. “I fixed his computer problem, so at least he knows I’m somewhat competent at my job. That doesn’t mean I’m good enough for his daughter.”
“Well, I suppose it’s a start.”
“He seems like a fair man, willing to give me a fighting chance. I like that.”
“He just wants to see me happy.”
Her eyes search the ceiling for the answer, and she makes me wait for it, which is kind of mean, and I might have to get her back for that later. But her answer is well worth the anxiety she caused me.
“The jersey looks pretty ridiculous with my skirt and pumps.”
“You look perfect. Come on, a few of the guys are here.”
“Edward, I didn’t know you were bringing a date,” one of them shouts, seeing us approach. “She’s batting for the wrong team, though. How’s that ever gonna work out?”
“First, I’m trying to convert her to the game, then we’ll deal with which team she’s rooting for. Guys, this is Bella. Bella, Jimmy, Zack, and Tony. These are three of the sharpest minds in the field of IT today, and I’m telling you this because after a few beers, you’d certainly never know it.”
“Hey,” Tony protests, “you boot me up a database right here on this bar at half time, and I’ll show you some serious administration.”
I can’t help it; I let out a giant guffaw. This is possibly the nerdiest group I’ve ever met. Edward shakes his head and explains, “I guess you probably figured out these are my friends from MIT.”
That explains it.
“What are you drinking, Bella?” Zack asks.
“Sam Adams Winter,” I answer, scooting onto the high stool next to Edward’s. I’m so grateful we’ve moved over to the bar and left our server behind.
“So, Tuck, huh? Cool choice, Bella,” Jimmy comments.
“Told ya,” Edward says, taking his beer from Zack. “Thanks, man. I’ll get the next round.”
“Save your money for the pool, Cullen.”
I look at Edward and he just rolls his eyes. “You do not even want to know. Trust me.”
“Hey, Riley!” Tony greets over Edward’s shoulder. I recognize the name, from that awful conversation we had at Pete’s. This is Edward’s “very gay friend.” He claps his hand down on Edward’s shoulder and gives him an affectionate squeeze.
Edward stands and turns to give Riley a strong-armed hug and a playful kiss on the cheek. “This the girl?” he asks, turning his eyes to me.
“This is the girl. Bella, meet Riley, my best friend since—”
“Forever,” Riley interrupts, stepping over to me and extending his hand. “Wow,” he says, “Edward told me you were amazing, but I thought he was just bragging to make me jealous.”
“Did it work?” I play along.
“Matter of fact, it did. But I’ve always been pretty over the moon for Edward here.”
“I can certainly see why,” I answer, enjoying the easy banter.
“What are you jealous for, Biers? You’ve got your own guy. I thought you said Sean was coming tonight,” Zack says.
“He’s gonna be a little late. In the meantime, I can fill Bella in on some of the good Edward stories.”
“Oh, no you don’t, Rile,” Edward warns.
“Settle down, you Bozos, it’s kickoff time.”
Edward puts his arm around me and leads me back to my stool, making sure to put himself between Riley and me. He scoots closer and asks, “Ready to be wowed?”
“Yes, Edward, I’m ready.”
I’m not sure what Riley thinks he’s sharing about me with Bella, but I can’t imagine any of it would be helpful. Our formula was foolproof; I got us into trouble and he talked our way out of it.
I’ve always been the idea guy. Wouldn’t it be funny to stand on opposite sides of the street and pretend we’re pulling on a huge rope when a car comes by? Wouldn’t it be funny to stretch clear plastic wrap under the toilet seat in the girls’ room? Wouldn’t it be funny to change autocorrect on Miss Dawson’s computer so every time she types ‘Your homework assignment is’ it reads ‘I want to get into Mr. Newman’s pants’?
Riley’s always been the guy to flash his boyish grin with those perfect teeth and maybe throw in a wink or two and get us off the hook.
And I don’t mind if Bella learns about all of that, but I can’t say I’m too excited for him to share my early escapades with girls. No, that’s all better left unsaid. A budding dom in his teenage years is not a pretty sight. Not that I ever hurt anyone, God no, but it’s not my proudest time.
“Tell me about this pool,” she says, examining the complicated grid on the table in front of us.
“Okay, but once I tell you, there’s no way to unknow it,” I warn, explaining the complicated point system that makes fantasy football look like first grade math.
“Can I place a bet?”
I laugh out loud. “You want to participate in this madness? Sure, go right ahead.”
She pulls out fifty dollars and throws it on the table. “I’ll take this box right here,” she says, marking off a three by three square on the grid with the yellow marker. “Are they gonna be pissed if I win?” she asks afterwards.
“They’ll get over it,” I chuckle.
“Whoa! First down, Giants!” somebody yells, drawing our attention to the screen.
“So, the Giants have the ball now, and it’s third and three, and this is what you’d call a key play, because if they make a first down, they’re likely to score, but if they miss, they’re totally out of range to even score a field goal and they’d have to punt.”
“That’s why they’re all shaking their keys over there?”
“Yeah,” I confirm, chuckling at my goofball friends.
She watches the screen with rapt attention, like most of the other fans in the place. And when they make their first down, her smile is radiant. “You’re going down, Edward,” she says cockily.
“Oh, Bella, you really shouldn’t count your chickens before they’ve hatched. The game can turn on a dime.”
Edward’s knowledge of the game is impressive. At several points, he makes the exact statement one of the commentators makes just moments later. There’s an easy banter among all the men, even though Edward is rooting for the away team. It helps that the Eagles are down 24-7 at halftime.
Toward the end of the third quarter, Riley’s partner Sean arrives. Riley introduces him to me; the guys seem to be well acquainted with him already. They’re very demonstrative, and nobody bats an eyelash.
“You still with me?” Edward asks into my ear at the beginning of the fourth quarter.
“Mmm hmm.” I have to admit the game has gone by in the blink of an eye. Perhaps it feels that way because Edward hasn’t once left my side. He’s maintained my interest in the game by pointing out odd facts (such as two former college teammates now on opposite sides of the football field) or taught me how he anticipates plays.
The Eagles have scored a touchdown, and it’s now a ten-point game. I’d like to win this bet and see what Edward can do in the kitchen. It also might be fun to reverse the tables on him, even though I know he’s said his submission would end in the kitchen, hmmmm, I just can’t help thinking…
“FUMBLE!” Edward’s out of his stool so fast it knocks backwards to the floor. “EAGLES HAVE IT!” he screams. Random exclamations of irritation and grief can be heard around the room.
Edward pulls me off my stool and shakes me by both arms. “Do you understand the significance of this next possession, Bella? With two and a half minutes to play, if the Eagles score a touchdown, they’ll only need a field goal to send the game into overtime, not to mention you lose the bet.”
“Isn’t that a whole lot of chicken counting?” I ask, my heartbeat picking up now at the suddenly suspenseful finish.
“Happens all the time,” he says confidently. “OH! It’s a long bomb into the end zone, OH MY GOD, CAUGHT by Maclin for a touchdown!” He throws his hands up and a couple people toss napkins and straws at him, but his enthusiasm is not dampened in the least. The extra point is good, closing the gap and obliterating the spread.
“Watch this, Bella. They’re gonna do an onside kick and go for the ball.” He explains the intricacies of this move, and they execute it exactly to his directions. Jeez, does everyone take orders from this guy?
Loud groans and boos echo throughout the bar.
“They’ve got to run it now. They can’t risk an interception. There’s the snap…Vick to McCoy…he’s running…he breaks a tackle…Oh MY GOD…he’s got it! HE’S GOT IT!...TOUCHDOWN!!”
Edward is positively ecstatic. He is twelve years old and utterly adorable.
“Oh, Isabella,” Edward says, shaking his head at me with glee. “I totally own your ass tomorrow.”