I notice my body takes a little more time this morning in the unwinding from his. There’s just a touch more lingering of his hand at my breast, an extra kiss along my neck, an additional glance back at his languid form under the covers from the doorway. As I cross the threshold into my room, I’m already anticipating our lunch together, and it lightens my step into the shower.
I exit the car first and this time, I wait for the shoulder of his black leather jacket to even up with mine before pressing forward. He pushes into the revolving door first, spinning it for me, and waits one extra second for me to emerge before heading to the elevator. His down car arrives first. He bends close to me, brandishes the container of chili, and says, “See you at noon?”
He may as well have said, “I’ll be thinking about you tied spread-eagle to my bed,” because that’s exactly what I hear.
I nod and smile and maybe I take an extra deep breath of the air in his vicinity so I can carry his scent upstairs with me. My elevator arrives, the bell pulling me from my mini-trance, but I can’t seem to get his delicious promise out of my head.
Riding up to 35, my mind clicks through the mental library of images I’ve greedily stored on this topic over the years, always with the far-off hope that one day, somehow, I might feel the restraint of silk or rope or leather or metal around my wrists and ankles. The reality that Edward plans to bring this fantasy to life tomorrow night crowds out all reasonable thought.
“Morning, Miss Swan,” Jessica rises to greet me.
“Good morning, Jessica. Could you please compile the latest version of the Warwick proposal?”
“Sure thing. Can I get you a coffee?”
“Thanks, but that’s not part of your job description,” I answer.
“Oh, I don’t mind. I was going to get one for myself.”
“In that case, sure. Milk, no sugar.”
I slip my coat off and transfer it to the hanger before sliding in behind my desk. I log in to the server and click open my web browser. Locating my bookmark for Blue Ribbon Retail Earnings Statistics, I click open to the familiar page and take in the fourth quarter estimates. Three minutes in, the log-in screen pops up, and I retype my password dutifully. All appears well for a few minutes, before it happens once again.
“Grrrr,” I growl as Jessica glides through my office door, offering me one of the coffees she’s holding. “Is this what happened to your computer yesterday?”
She steps around to take a look. “Yep, but the good news is, Emmett fixed it in like five minutes. Want me to call him up?”
Hmmm. Emmett or Edward? Edward or Emmett? “No, thanks. I’ll handle it.”
I figure since it’s company business, there’s no harm using Swan Chat. Edward’s on line.
I’m infected! Got antidote? ~I
Same one as Jessica.
Be right up.
The cursor blinks at me, and I picture Edward bounding out of his chair, grabbing his repair kit, and racing to me. My heartbeat picks up in a way it probably shouldn’t at work.
Could I have sent Emmett upstairs? Sure. Should I have sent Emmett upstairs? Yeah, probably. But passing up a sanctioned trip to the 35th floor is just not going to happen.
I’m practically giddy ascending in the crowded car. I anxiously tap the disc against my leg. Giddyap, white horse! There’s a princess to rescue!
The doors open on her floor and I push through impatiently and head straight to Isabella’s door. My hand is already turning the knob when I am tackled by a blonde barracuda barring my passage. “Wait! Stop! You can’t just barge in there!” she cries, throwing herself against the door most effectively.
I throw up my hands in surrender and talk her down from the Crazy Ledge. “Easy does it. No problem. Isa—Miss Swan called me to fix her computer. See?” I dangle the evidence between my thumb and forefinger.
She draws her hand across her heart and sucks in a deep breath, probably a technique she learned in anger management therapy. “Could you…?” she gestures for me to move away from the door, and I do as she asks. “I need to announce you first. One moment please,” she says, returning to her desk and hitting the intercom button.
“Miss Swan, there’s a…?” Her eyes click to mine.
“Edward Cullen,” I supply.
“…an Edward Cullen to see about your computer?...Yes, Ma’am….She says you can go in now.”
I nod gravely. “Thank you.”
I turn the knob once more and find Isabella seated in her chair, huge grin across her face. “What the heck is going on out there?”
“Your pit bull just attacked me!” I re-roll my cuff to exaggerate the point.
Bella giggles lightly at my unfortunate run-in. “Somebody must’ve warned her I don’t like unannounced visitors.”
“Well, she seems to take her job quite seriously.” Secretly, I am delighted that Bella’s security detail is so reliable, even if it means an extra hoop or two I have to jump through to reach her myself. “So your computer’s acting up?”
“Yes,” she states, as I approach her desk. “It seems to require some kind of correction.” If not for her deep blush, I might’ve assumed she used the term inadvertently.
She swivels her chair to meet me toe-to-toe. Her eyes are level with my belt buckle, and she cranes her neck upwards, walking her eyes slowly up the length of my tie, finally sliding her gaze to my own.
“I suppose I’ll just have to beat it into submission then.” I smirk.
Her eyelids flutter briefly. “Be my guest,” she responds, gesturing toward her desk.
I lean toward her and grasp the arms of the chair on either side of her body, placing my lips right in front of hers. “I’m going to need you to give me a little room to work here, princess,” I say, rolling her seat backwards enough so that I can access the computer. I have her trapped in her chair and I’m close enough to feel her exhales on my face and measure the pulse beating at the side of her neck. Kissing her right now would be so easy…but so wrong. She has to trust that I can be professional, even when she’s baiting me.
I push off, effectively releasing her from the cage my arms have created, and turn to the problem in question. Same as Charlie’s, and all the ones Emmett fixed yesterday. I bend over the desk and ask, “What’s your password?”
“Is this a test? Am I not supposed to tell you?”
Oh, this poor girl is working overtime to try to stay one step ahead of me. “I’m glad you asked, but I really need to know your password.”
“Okay, but no teasing allowed.”
He twists his neck and regards me with new interest. His grin belies the promise his mouth makes, “I’ll try.”
“What’s that about?” he asks, doing his best to manage his mirth.
“Dad’s nickname for me growing up, and the number of the first house I can remember living in, 827 Chester Street.”
“That’s cute. I like that…Bellarella.” He rolls the name around in his mouth before typing it in. As the screen responds (and who wouldn’t?), his face takes on a serious affect. IT guy in action, ferreting out trouble…be still my heart.
Though his bent-over position lends itself to all kinds of fun musings from behind, he doesn’t look comfortable and I’d sure like him to stay a while. I give up my chair and slide it into his legs. “Here, make yourself at home.”
“Thanks,” he mumbles absently, sinking into the chair.
Edward is immediately and fully engaged in solving this problem, and it reminds me of the first time I saw him behind Alice’s monitor. Sleeves rolled up, eyes riveted to the screen, fingers tapping with competent strokes. In a word, hot.
Jessica’s unwelcome knock at the door causes both of us to look up. “The Warwick proposal?”
“Thank you, Jessica,” I say, hoping she’ll beat it. But nobody gazes upon Edward and willingly leaves the scene.
“So…you must be Eddie?” she inches closer to Edward. Come on, Jessica, keep it under wraps. I was sort of starting to like you…
“What?” he asks inattentively, then looks up. “Ed. WARD.” Uh-oh.
“Goodness, I’m sorry I mixed that up,” she apologizes quickly.
“It’s fine,” he answers, returning to his screen.
“Thank you, Jessica,” I say again, this time with “the look” that tells her to move along.
“Sure thing, Miss Swan,” she answers.
“What were you doing when this first came up?” Edward asks me.
“Checking earnings estimates at Blue Ribbon—”
“Blue Ribbon? Okay, that’s the common denominator. I’m just going to finish wiping out your malware…there!” He turns and stands up, making to leave. “I can finish dealing with this problem from downstairs. I don’t need to tie up your computer.”
I burst into nervous laughter. I can’t help it.
He shakes his head with mock disappointment. “You are such a naughty girl, Isabella Swan. Do you think you could try to get a little work done before lunch?”
“I seriously doubt it.”
Not only did I sneak in an extra visit with Bella, but I also solved the mystery of the spyware. I scroll through the internet logs to see which employees have accessed the Blue Ribbon site in the past few days and match them up exactly with the trouble reports Emmett and I have answered. And we have confirmation.
I tap out a memo to Rosalie, indicating the cause of the virus and the additional computers I expect to be impacted over the coming days. Not surprisingly, they’re all on the top three floors of the company. I lay out my plan to create a shield so that our management team can access the data they need without subjecting their hardware to damage. Emmett and I will form a team of prevention and repair to stay ahead of the problem. I send off my plan to Rosalie, and alert my friends outside of Swan so they don’t spin their wheels on the same malicious corporate sabotage. Our strongly woven community of support includes the technical variety, and it’s something we all highly value in our friendship.
11:50. I’m not about to give Bella a chance to wiggle out of our arrangement, but I do check my phone to make sure she hasn’t canceled on me. Nope, the coast is clear. I retrieve our chili from the mini-fridge and head to the elevator once again.
This time, I stop at Jessica’s desk and announce myself, lest I get mauled again.
“Computer troubles again?” she asks, puzzled or possibly just nosy.
“Nope. Lunch,” I answer, holding up the container.
She nods and I catch a hint of wistfulness in the gesture. “Miss Swan, Edward is here with your lunch…Yes, Ma’am.”
“Please,” she gestures to Isabella’s door.
Isabella’s perched behind her desk, owning the moment. Smirk firmly in place at the momentary role reversal, I ask, “Do you want to eat in here or down the hall…ma’am?”
A wide smile blooms across her face. I’m suddenly the delivery boy, begging admission, awaiting her decision. Enjoy it while you can, princess.
She rises from her chair, a commanding presence in her own right. Except we both know what’s going on. I could be on my knees right now and I’d still be her rightful master.
“Since we’ve already been outed, we may as well make use of the microwave,” she answers finally.
“Let’s do it,” I gesture for her to pass before me through the doorway. I feel Jessica’s eyes on us as we start down the hall. Or possibly they’re just on me. We’re side by side again, the same way we entered the building this morning. Progress.
See? Black Velvet reminds me. She just needs a little time.
I get it, Edward snarls. You don’t see my hand on her ass, now do you?
“What’s going on in that head of yours?” Isabella queries, as we claim a free table in the corner of the crowded room.
“I’m sure you wouldn’t want to know,” I answer flippantly.
“Hunh,” she responds. “So what’s good for the goose isn’t good for the gander?”
Her answer snaps me back to the here and now. Mindfulness, Edward. Stay here. “Sorry, you’re right. I was actually just thinking how much I’ve missed our Boggle dates. I can actually feel my vocabulary shrinking.”
Satisfied, she smiles warmly and covers my hand with hers. “Me, too.”
This is so nice…so normal. I portion about two-thirds of the chili into a plastic bowl for Edward and reheat it for him while the corn bread warms in the toaster oven. By the time I return to the table, he’s set two places practically on top of each other with plastic ware and napkins and waters from the refrigerator.
He smirks at me as I place the bowl in front of him, and with that simple grin, I’m right back at his dining room table, serving him hand and foot. So much for normal.
“Cut it out,” I whisper.
He doesn’t deny his behavior, but instead gives me a lusty wink.
“Mmm, even better the next day,” Edward coos, taking in spoonful after spoonful.
“Are you sure you’ve got enough there?” I ask, amazed once again at his capacity to take in enormous quantities of food. Apparently, he’s gifted with a metabolism that never quits.
“This will hold me till my afternoon snack.”
“Jeez, when do you work out?”
His eyes lift from his bowl and he stops eating for a second, “I used to hit the exercise room in my building before work.”
“Maybe we could go in the evening a couple days a week? On our ‘off nights’?” A blush colors my face.
“Sure,” he says easily, which makes what he says next catch me off guard. “And I can work it into an on night once in a while, too.”
I sputter over my next slurp. It’s not the first time I’ve fantasized about a “supervised” workout, but once again, inserting the reality of Edward into any previously envisioned scene multiplies the hotness a hundredfold.
He chuckles lightly at my discomfort, “Speaking of a night off, what would you like to do later? Quiet night in? Pick up some take-out? Find something On Demand?”
“Sure…I mean, take-out sounds great. We can keep it low key.” It’s started weighing on me that I haven’t been able to choose a make-up gift for Edward, and I’d mentally set aside tonight to resolve the decision. I’m sure Angela won’t mind if I use part of our lunch date tomorrow to hit a store or two. If only I could narrow it down…
I’m preoccupied running through the options I’ve considered before: a new tie, a game, a snuggly blanket. Nothing seems adequate.
“Oh shit, Isabella,” he’s saying, and my thoughts click back to his presence in front of me. “I just assumed you would want to spend the night with me. I’m sorry…you should obviously not feel obligated to—”
“No, Edward. I’d love to be with you.” He visibly relaxes, but he knows my mind was elsewhere. “It’s just that I have some work to catch up on tonight, and I might need some time on my computer after dinner.”
“Of course,” he answers, taking up his spoon once again.
Before another misunderstanding can occur, I volunteer, “I made plans with my friend Angela for lunch tomorrow, just so you know.”
“Good,” he responds. “I’m glad. We don’t want to get too cloistered. It’s not healthy. Besides, you’re all mine tomorrow night,” he grins broadly.
I immediately change the subject. “So, do any of your buddies work nearby?”
His eyes crinkle up and he answers, “Isabella, your concern is really cute, but I’ve been single for a long time now. I can eat lunch by myself once in a while.”
“I know, I mean, of course you can,” I feel slightly foolish now for trying to fix him up with plans. “It’s just, I thought it might be a good chance for you to catch up with Riley or Zack or something.”
I love that she’s already spent enough time with my friends that their names flow easily in conversation. “I’ll probably text Riley later and see if he’s free. The other guys are more the do-something-as-a-group types, as opposed to one-on-one.”
“Got it.” She smiles knowingly and continues, “I really loved meeting your friends.”
“Then it’s unanimous,” I tell her, mopping my mouth with the napkin.
“Oh? You talked about me with them?”
“What do you think?” Bella is on a fishing expedition, and I’m going to leave her bait dangling for a little bit.
She nudges me with her elbow and rolls her eyes. “Come on, I want to hear what they said.”
I make a dramatic sigh and rattle off the compliments. “Oh, you know, the usual: beautiful, smart, funny, deranged…”
She chuckles, “Deranged, eh? How could they tell?”
“Easy. You showed up with me!”
“You know, you’ve got a point there,” she agrees.
What I don’t tell her is that each one of them made a point of telling me separately that he’d never seen me look happier. “Yeah, yeah. Are we about done here?”
“With lunch, or this conversation?” she teases.
“I vote for both.” I stand and gather our garbage.
“It turns out you’re pretty good at cleaning up,” she teases.
“Glad I can make myself useful, sweetheart.”
We’re still bantering back and forth as I walk her down the hall back to her office. If people are staring or gossiping, it certainly hasn’t burst through our little bubble. I’m purposely holding the empty plastic container in the hand opposite the side she’s on, not that I expect her to grab my hand or anything. Still, there’s very little space between us, and every so often, there’s a subtle contact at the elbows or an inadvertent brush of fingers in passing.
How is it possible that every innocent connection in broad daylight, in the midst of coworkers and professional responsibilities, produces a jolt to my system?
I must be turning into a sap, because as I pass through Isabella’s doorway with her, I’m already feeling the imminent regret that comes with parting ways. Under the cover of her private space, I’m no longer able to resist bodily contact. I finally take her hand in mine, and she returns the gesture by immediately pressing her palm flat against mine and sliding her fingers into the waiting spaces.
“Awww, isn’t that cute?” mocks a disparaging voice from the opposite wall.
“Hhhuh!” Isabella sucks in a breath and turns toward the voice. “Jasper, Jeez, you scared the living daylights out of me!”
Edward tenses beside me and his fingers close tightly around mine, which both comforts and scares me.
“Sorry,” Jasper spits out. “I didn’t realize I’d be interrupting a date.” He looks at our joined hands derisively.
“What do you want?” I say evenly, loosening my grip on Edward. But he’s not letting go.
Jasper holds out a pack of envelopes and magazines wrapped in a rubber band. “Just thought you’d like to have your mail.”
“Thank you, Jasper,” I answer him softly, as he drops the pile indelicately on my desk.
“You might want to let people know you’ve changed your address,” he adds, peering threateningly at Edward.
“I’ll take care of it,” I promise, hoping to draw his attention back to me and avoid an ugly conflict.
Thankfully, Jasper turns back and says, “We have a few things we need to work out: rent, insurance, your stuff…” he trails off. His mood seems to have shifted to sadness, which is probably where it started, before he was met by the sight of Edward.
I nod and respond, “Why don’t we sit down together once the holidays are over?”
Edward takes an almost imperceptible step closer to me, and I clutch tighter to his hand in what I strenuously hope he will find a soothing gesture. I’m quite sure the idea of my getting together with Jasper makes him all kinds of agitated.
“Sure, Bella,” Jasper answers. “I’ll be at your beck and call. Just like before.”
His arrow is effective, and I’m pierced with guilt. I shrink back as Jasper pushes toward us on his way to the door, but Edward crosses protectively in front of me, finally dropping my hand to place his arm across my body as a shield.
“Jesus,” Jasper pauses in his exit and finally addresses Edward directly, “What did you think I was gonna do? Hit her?” When Edward doesn’t respond, Jasper adds, “I rather thought that was your job!”
Edward’s self-control is impressive. He holds his position and we both wait anxiously for Jasper to leave.
Seeing he’ll get no response, Jasper turns and heads to the door. “Have a jolly New Year,” he mutters sarcastically as he storms off.
For all that Isabella has challenged my restraint, I hold myself back from lashing out at the VP. My goal here is singular: keep Isabella safe. I have nothing to prove to her jilted ex-boyfriend beyond the fact that he’ll have to get through me to get to her.
“Are you okay?” I ask, though I turn around and appraise her myself.
“I’m fine,” she says bravely, but I hear the quake in her voice. “He’d never hurt me, you know.”
“There are all kinds of ways to hurt people,” I answer, running an index finger from her temple down the edge of her hairline, alighting on her chin. I don’t remind her that she was genuinely terrified during their last meeting.
She breaks away from my grasp. “Yes, I know all about hurting people,” she states with a heavy heart.
This isn’t the light tone we were enjoying before the ex-prince made his entrance, and it sucks that he killed our lunchtime buzz. But it’s real life. So, here we are.
“I don’t want you to be alone with him in the apartment.” I’m holding back, honest, I am.
She lifts her hands in helpless surrender. “That’s where my stuff is.”
“Let me go with you,” I admonish, knowing full well what her answer will be.
“Edward, you know it’ll just make everything a hundred times worse if you’re there. He’ll get crazy defensive and you’ll get crazy protective and I’ll be the fly that got stuck in the middle of a taffy pull.”
“A fly stuck in a taffy pull? Did you just make that up?”
She snorts, “I think I did.”
“Look, we don’t need to resolve this right now. Just know that I’m not going to let you put yourself in any peril.”
She smirks, “Unless you’re the one doing the ‘peril-izing’?”
My grin matches hers now, “Is exceedingly bad humor the way you respond to stress?”
“That’s pretty fucking healthy. I like that,” I nod my head. “I like that a lot.”
“Do you think we can cut out of here at a decent time tonight, considering you’re taking home work anyway?”
“Yes, let’s,” she answers. “Meet me in the lobby at six?”
“Done. Hey, thanks for lunch.”
“Thank you, Edward.” I get it. She’s not thanking me for the chili. She’s thanking me because I didn’t go ape shit when it would’ve been so easy, and possibly even justified. I hope she’s getting the message that she can count on me to behave decently in any situation. A man for all seasons.