SETTLING THE SCORES
I dress quickly in my snappier pair of weekend jeans and a black tee, yanking a soft black crew-neck sweater over my damp hair and re-fingercombing my hair.
With Isabella out of earshot, I scroll through my phone to find the number for my last telephone sub, the unfortunate girl who, through no fault of her own, failed to live up to the high standards Isabella brought to bear.
I sit down on the edge of the bed, reaching a hand to my thigh to subdue my bouncing leg. Exhaling deeply, I gather my thoughts while her phone rings again, and again. Damn, I’ll have to call later. I don’t want to leave a message…
“Hi,” my voice sounds croaky. I clear my throat quickly and try again. “Hi, um…subbie4u?”
Shit, I wish I knew her real name, this is pathetic.
“Who is this?” she asks, alarmed.
“Wait, wait…don’t hang up. Please. It’s…” Fuck. I cringe as I spit out my old screen name. “It’s YourFirstDom.”
“My first dom?” she puzzles out loud.
“From the red room chat. About a month ago?”
“Oh, shit! Yourfirstdom.” Relief at having solved the riddle is quickly consumed by anger. “Why are you calling me?”
“I wanted to apologize. I was unforgivably cruel to you.”
Heavy sigh from her end, but she hasn’t hung up on me yet.
“When I say unforgivably, I mean it. I’m not calling to ask for absolution, honest.”
In a small voice, “Then what do you want from me?”
“I just really need you to know that I was an asshole, and it wasn’t anything you said or did wrong.”
I hear sniffling now. Shit, I shouldn’t have called. “I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you again. This was selfish of me.”
Her sniffling turns into full-on sobbing. I squeeze my eyes shut and fist a clump of hair. I don’t know how to fix this.
“Why?” she forces out after a long while. An opening.
“This is not an excuse, okay? But I had just met someone…someone real.”
Fuuuck! “Of course you are. That’s not what I ….fuck, sorry…again.”
“You’re doing a real crap job here, you know?”
Her accusation is so out of context for our “relationship” that I burst out laughing. Jesus, could I possibly be any more inappropriate?
“You’re absolutely right. I am totally doing a crap job.”
She gathers herself and says, “You really hurt me.”
I flop backwards onto the bed and pinch my closed eyes with my free hand. I want her to continue; learning her pain is my penance. But at the same time, exposing myself this way is excruciating, and I’m no masochist.
“I’m sorry,” I say softly, waiting.
“Good. You should be.”
“I abused your trust and discarded your feelings.”
“Yessss,” she hisses.
“I hope you…” I start.
“What?” she asks quietly.
“I hope you knew it was me, and not you.” Did that sound as fucking lame as I think it did?
“You weren’t like that any of the other times, so…”
“So you figured you did something wrong? Shit.”
“I’m no writer,” she laughs mirthlessly. “But I tried.”
“You were fine. Any other day…you were fine. I never should’ve taken your last call. I wasn’t in the proper frame of mind.”
How much damage have I done? “I have no right to ask, but have you tried again? With someone else?”
Another heavy sigh. “It took me a while, but yes. I have.” Then she adds quickly, “But I’ve been much more cautious, since…well, you.”
Now I sigh. “Well, caution’s not all bad, but I can’t tell you how sorry I am to be the one who made you feel that way.”
“I get that,” she says, a little bit lighter now.
“Well, that’s something, at least,” I say, some of the tension easing out of me.
“Listen,” she says, her voice softening, “Don’t beat yourself up too bad. Before…that, you were really good for me. That’s what I tried to take away afterwards.”
“That’s certainly very charitable of you to say. I don’t deserve it.”
“You know, the self-flagellation really doesn’t suit you.”
“I know. I fucking hate this.”
She laughs out loud, a soft tinkly sound that fills my heart. “Seriously…hey what’s your name anyway?”
“Edward,” I reveal easily.
“Edward…I like that. I’m Lucy.”
“Edward, you gave me exactly what I needed to get started. You were firm but kind, always kind. You’re my gold standard.”
“Hell, Lucy, that might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me before. Now I feel even worse!”
She giggles again. “I really appreciate your call today. Consider yourself absolved.”
“Wow,” I answer, a tingle of warmth spreading through my body like a balm, easing my guilty conscience.
“So…this real person?”
“Is she still in the picture?”
I blink my eyes open to the wood beams lining the ceiling. “Very much so.”
“Well, Edward, you take good care of her. Don’t go being an asshole again, okay?”
I chuckle. “Okay, Lucy. I won’t. I promise.”
“All right then.”
There’s a shuffling noise behind me, and I realize this call has gone on longer than I’d expected.
“Listen, thank you,” I tell her. “You’ve given me a tremendous gift today.”
“Let’s call it even, Edward.”
“Okay then,” I say, a rush of gratitude coming over me. “Promise me you won’t go taking bullshit from anyone.”
“Anyone else, you mean?” she giggles.
“Happy New Year and good luck.”
“Same to you, Lucy. Thanks again.”
Lucy…Lucy…the name doesn’t ring a bell. This is not your business, Bella. Leave it alone.
“Hey.” He pushes up from the bed and meets me toe to toe in the middle of the floor, sliding his phone into the pocket of his yummy Seven's jeans and pulling me into his arms.
“You okay?” I dig, not too much, just leaving him the opening to spill his guts if he should so choose.
“I’m great. Confession is good for the soul,” he says mysteriously. Ahhh, the amends. Lucy must’ve been someone requiring an amendment.
“You know, I’ve heard that said somewhere before.”
I feel the snort echo through his chest, right through the soft cashmere under my cheek. A loud stomach rumble follows.
“Come on. Feeding time at the zoo.” I take his hands and pull away with a gentle kiss.
I see him, hear him, feel him, smell him, and taste him. I know he’s real. But sometimes I still can’t believe it.
Edward ushers me into the taxi while he tips the doorman. “The village, please,” he instructs. Then to me, he explains, “There’s a great little spot I want to take you for lunch. And then, we’re going shopping.”
As usual, Edward’s take-charge confidence leaves me swooning.
We disembark at the intersection of Embassy and Main, clearly the epicenter of this town. “This place has the best sweet potato fries on the eastern seaboard,” he states, drawing me to the hostess stand and securing a table for two by the window.
“Will you share, or do I need my own?”
His eyes narrow and he answers, “How many are you going to eat?”
Do not get between this man and his food, I remind myself. “Never mind.” I shake my head at his who me? attempt at innocence. This man is anything but innocent, and I wouldn’t want him any other way.
We place our orders and sip at our Diet Cokes. I’m saving my daily alcohol allotment for tonight. Edward’s made plans for New Year’s Eve. Be still, my heart.
“So, are we looking for something in particular, or are you a window shopper?”
“No, I am not a window shopper,” he answers with a chuckle. “I’m a hunter.”
Does he have to do that to me? Gather thyself, Isabella.
“What are you hunting?”
His eyes twinkle. “Black Velvet mentioned you needed some new jewelry.”
“Ahh. Did he also happen to bring up the topic of a new watch for you?”
“He did,” he answers, smiling around his straw.
“What are you thinking?”
“I was hoping my girlfriend would suggest something she likes on me.”
“She’d be delighted,” I respond, picturing the scene at the counter. What do you think, sweetheart? Is this the right band to remind me that you’re under my control even though we’re apart? Does this one scream “Master”?
“Excellent. Because I have some very definite ideas about your bracelet.”
“Oh yeah?” The damn waiter arrives with our sandwiches.
“Oh brother,” I lament, taking in the abundance of potatoes spilling out onto the table between us.
“Taste,” he orders, unrepentantly raising one of his fries to my lips.
“Mmmm,” I admit, “these are good. And look, you shared!”
He laughs out loud while pouring ketchup onto his bread plate. “Only because I know I get to finish yours later!”
“So…my bracelet? Your definite ideas?”
“First of all, it has to be elegant. Something that looks at home on the delicate wrist of a lady who obviously has fabulous taste.”
She lifts an eyebrow. I shrug. “Just saying.”
“We’re not talking leather cuff then? Or a padlock? Or the bracelet equivalent to the”—she leans in to whisper—“dog collar?”
I laugh, munching on a handful of fries. Sheer gastronomical poetry.
“Not unless you want to answer a boatload of awkward questions at work,” I challenge.
“Not particularly,” she answers quickly, her nose crinkling at the thought.
“Your watch is stainless steel, so you probably want something in the metal family…stainless, sterling, titanium…to blend.”
“You could go a few different directions, depending on what hits you. I’ve seen some beautiful chain link bracelets in a variety of sizes and materials. You could go with a cuff, maybe one with a border. Or you might like something woven and ropy.”
Shit, my eager smile gives me away. I’m a sucker for rope. She pats her mouth daintily to cover, but her eyes tell me I’m busted.
“Woven and ropy it is, then.” She sits back in her chair and tucks her napkin under the side of her plate, satisfied with herself for reading me so easily.
“All finished with those?” I ask, eyeing her remaining fries.
She shakes her head at me and pushes her plate closer. I call for the check with one hand while I slide a handful of fries through the ketchup with the other.
“Take your time,” she admonishes.
“No way. We’ve got way too much to do before the stroke of 2012 to sit here stuffing my face. Even if they are the best fries…”
“…on the eastern seaboard. Yada yada.”
She takes advantage of my busy hands by proffering her credit card first. “Thanks for lunch,” I mumble between cheekfuls.
“Edward, have you given any more thought to splitting the hotel bill?”
“No. You’ve kept me pretty busy since we had that conversation.”
“I’ve kept you…? Never mind. Can we resolve this before we get to the jewelry store? I don’t want it hanging between us.”
I clap off the extra salt over my plate and wipe my hands and face. “Okay. Sure.” No need to get weird about money. It’s just, there’s nothing I’ve ever done before that gives me a frame of reference for this relationship. I lay my cards on the table for her. “I think you need to lead this dance, honey.”
You could knock me over with a feather. A fluffy blue feather.
“Well,” I begin tentatively, “if our first week is any indication, I’d like to think we’re talking about an arrangement that’s…”
That’s what? Permanent? Long-term? Steady?
He smiles warmly. “Going to last a while?”
“So if that’s the case, shouldn’t we share and share alike in all the expenses?”
He thinks for a long moment. “Would those expenses include the rent you’re still paying for the condo?”
He cocks his head and says, “Think about it. Wouldn’t it make sense to throw all the expenses into the mix?”
He’s asked me respectfully to consider his point, but it makes frustratingly little sense to me. My living expenses still include half a condo on Lex, and I have no idea how long I’ll continue to feel obligated to pay.
“I understand what you’re saying, but you get absolutely no benefit from the money I’m paying out for the condo.”
“And you do?” He answers too quickly, the tension percolating close to the surface on this hot topic.
“No. Just… eases my guilt.”
“Then I reap the benefit as well,” he answers swiftly.
“How about this then?” I propose, “Taking rent and utilities off the table, we split everything else fifty-fifty.”
“I don’t have a problem with the concept, but I don’t want to throw down two credit cards every time we go out to eat or have to start saving grocery receipts. Can we just take turns paying for things and assume that things will pretty much even out over time?”
“And another thing…” His expression brooks no argument. “Gifts are excluded.”
Far be it from me to take away his pleasure in adorning me with whatever he chooses. “As long as things stay reasonable,” I answer, as sternly as I can with the huge smile on my face. “And I trust you’ll graciously accept my presents?”
“Of course,” he smiles, knowing he’s won.
“One final condition…” I press.
He braces himself. “Yes?”
“Once I disentangle myself from my lease, you’ll let me pay half of yours.”
He flinches as if I’ve thrown a dart toward his face at close range. I wait. He gazes back at me. I wait some more.
“I’m sorry, Isabella. I can’t agree to that today. Can we talk about it down the road?”
I’ve got to hand it to the guy, he is trying.
“Sure,” I answer, taking his hand across the table. “Let’s go buy each other some jewelry.”
Back on top again, he grins. “I think I know where we can start.”
The jingle bells tinkle against the door as the salesperson buzzes us inside. Thanks for the reminder of my elf collar.
“Here, let me take your coats,” offers the sixty-something-year-old, stowing her paperback behind the counter and letting her reading glasses dangle on their beaded strap. “May I offer you some hot apple cider or tea?”
“Thank you, no,” I answer, glancing toward Edward.
“I’m good,” he confirms, handing over our coats. She dispatches them quickly to the seating area and returns to the counter.
“Was there anything in particular you were looking for today?” she asks hopefully.
I preempt Edward taking charge. “He’s looking for a watch.”
A shadow of disappointment passes over the saleslady’s face before she composes herself and shows us to the proper case. Perhaps we had the air of a couple looking for a diamond ring?
“Do you know what material you’d like?” she asks Edward.
“What material would I like, sweetheart?”
Now the poor woman is utterly out of her element. She doesn’t know which of us to address with her questions. Edward handles it. “My girlfriend is buying me a present.”
I smile at him and add a shake of my head. He is incorrigible.
“What do you like, dear?" the saleslady asks me. "Lots of fine choices here.”
“Can he try on a few? I’ve never seen him in a watch before, so I have no idea what’s going to look good.” Everything’s going to look good.
“Absolutely. May I help narrow it down for you?” she asks him, and he gestures to me.
Slightly flustered, she turns to me again and asks, “Is this for casual wear, work, or dress?”
“Work, mostly,” I respond.
“Well then, sir, what do you normally wear to work?” She looks quickly to me, confirming that it was okay to ask him that question, and I stifle a giggle.
“Shirt and tie, no jacket.”
“Let’s start with these then,” she suggests, pulling out the Tag Heuer display and offering Edward a Formula 1 with a black rubber strap. He fastens it without comment and holds it out for my approval.
“Okay. Sporty looks good on you. Let’s try the stainless next.” I am Empowered. Hear me roar.
I quickly rule out rubber and leather—too soft for the Master. It has to be steely, cold, all business. Perhaps it’s the way he’s rolled his cuff or the fact that I’m completely in charge, but I have to admit to a little excitement licking away. It’s the G-rated version of a dressing room lingerie fashion show, an experience I hope to have one day with Edward.
Pushing aside my randy thoughts, I get down to the task at hand, so to speak. My top five contenders are splayed across the counter.
“Okay, let’s go with the round face… I like the brushed steel best…and I think…yes, black dial with gold numbers.”
I point to my choice, and Edward obediently clicks the band around his wrist. He and the Dark Prince eye my selection with great interest.
I ask hopefully, “Do you like that one, Edward?”
The saleslady’s eyes flash at his name. What the…?
“Sold.” The Master-Whose-Sub-Is-On-Special-Assignment Watch it is.
“Shall I box that up for you, sir?”
“No, I’d like to wear it out.” He grins at me, and I grin right back. “Your turn, sweetheart.”
Saleslady’s ears perk up at that, and she looks back and forth between us, completely befuddled about whom to address.
“My girlfriend is looking for a bracelet. Something along the lines of a braided silver motif, perhaps?”
You remember, Sandy, the one we spoke about on the phone yesterday?
“Yes, sir,” she says, grinning broadly. “I have just the thing.”
Drawing us to the case at the end of the row, Sandy pulls out the John Hardy drawer. Arrayed in front of Isabella are a dozen different versions of the woven silver rope, with clasps made of everything from silver to diamonds. She sets her right wrist over the glass and Sandy puts on the smallest one first.
I draw my index finger along the side of Isabella’s face, tucking away the hair so I can watch her reaction. It’s cheating, I realize. I gave her no such clue. But since when did I say anything would be fair?
“Let’s go larger,” I direct Sandy. “It would be awful if she forgot she had it on.” Yeah, I’m a little evil.
Isabella models the next size up with the diamond pave closure, twisting her wrist under the lights and admiring the sparkles. Clearly delighted with this one, she turns to me eagerly for approval.
“There’s no question that’s a beautiful piece, and it looks stunning on her, but…there’s something not quite working for me.” I peruse the case. “Ahhh, yes. I’d like to see her in this one.” I point to the larger bracelet with the black sapphire clasp, which Sandy deftly clips around her wrist, removing the other.
It looks every bit as perfect on her as I suspected it might. “You know, sweetheart, that touch of black reminds me of my black velvet bowtie. You know how you love that tie.” I answer her surprised gawk with a suave wink.
We each offer our credit card and Sandy shuffles to the back room to handle the paperwork, leaving us blissfully alone. I hold my wrist up next to hers, admiring our purchases.
“Well, will you look at that? We’re practically twins.” Our subconscious pairing is a happy coincidence—or possibly, a byproduct of our common desires—but I certainly hadn’t gone any further than selecting her bracelet in advance. The silver watch with black face was entirely Isabella’s doing.
She looks at me skeptically. “What are the chances the one jewelry store in Montauk would have the ‘woven and ropey’ collection?”
“I know, right?” I smile smugly. “And black velvet to boot? This must be my lucky day.”
“I swear, Edward Cullen…” she threatens.
I thread my arm around her waist and pull her closer. “Yes?”
“Sometimes I think you’re too smart for your own good.”
I burst out laughing. “I cannot believe how much you just sounded like my mother.”
She grins sheepishly. “Nothing sexier than that, right?”
“Meh, my mom’s pretty hot.”
“Kiss me, you fool.”
And I do.
“So…we’re wearing these out?” I venture. “Does that mean…?”
“Yes,” he answers swiftly. “I want your left hand in my back pocket unless I give you permission to remove it. You better hurry; she’s coming,” he adds menacingly.
Shuffling quickly to Edward’s right side, I plunge my hand into his pocket just as Sandy sets both our slips down on the heated glass. The thin strip curls into an uncooperative circle as I try to hold it down with the side of my hand. Edward seemingly ignores my struggle, quickly dispatching his own and tucking away his wallet in the other pocket.
Sandy finally takes pity on me and anchors the paper while I sign, singlehandedly stuff my card back into its waiting slot, and stow my wallet in my purse.
“Well, thank you again, both of you, and happy holidays,” Sandy says, wisely remaining discreet, though I’ve already figured out Edward’s ruse.
She retrieves our coats and my second challenge presents itself. Edward swings his coat around gingerly, so as not to whack me in the face, which is mighty considerate of him. What would be even more considerate is if he would release my hand from captivity so I can get my own coat on. I see that he’s not offering, and I make toward the door, not quite knowing how I’m going to manage the frigid temperature.
When we’re out of Sandy’s earshot, Edward says, “You know, you can ask me.”
He’s all ears. “May I have my hand back so I can put my coat on, please…?”
“You may. Here, let me help you with your coat, sweetheart,” he says a little louder, in case we have prying ears.
Edward nudges the cuff of his jacket to uncover the Master’s watch. “Oh look, it’s time,” he hints.
My hand is back in his pocket in no time flat. He wraps his right arm around my shoulders and draws me through the door. The bells jingle merrily as we depart.
I don’t even attempt to direct where we head. This is Edward’s game now. His assignment seems tame in comparison to others I’ve had, but Edward being Edward, and Edward’s ass being in the palm of my hand, I’m alert.
“I could use a new book. You?”
“Sure. Whatever you like,” I answer, as if it matters. He leads me into the Village Bookshelf and I quickly ascertain the impossibility of one-handed book browsing. So instead, I observe what catches his eye. Edward drags me to the sports section and finds the Body Issue of ESPN Magazine. I stand by dumbly, trying to appear occupied as other customers give me strange looks.
“Where should we go first, Isabella? Spain? Italy? France? Australia, maybe?”
Oh. Traveling the world with Edward. How many passports would this guy need?
“I’ve never been to Australia. That would be amazing.”
His smile grows and he samples a few books on Australia. “Hold this for me?”
Well, sure. I can’t do anything else, may as well be a table. Careful, Snarky, I warn. That won’t fly.
He shuffles over to the best seller display, towing me along hand first. I catch a few raised eyebrows, and I smile serenely at each one. If any of you people had any idea how amazing this man is, you’d be beating me off with a stick to have the chance to put your hand in his pants.
He thumbs through a few of the ubiquitous political thrillers and what appear to be the more intellectual offerings on the table about Information Theory and the history of mankind. It wouldn’t do to underestimate his intelligence or his curiosity. I’m warmed remembering how he wowed my dad just yesterday at lunch with his ideas.
I snuggle closer to Edward and curl my fingers into the denim, and by proxy, his ass. He swivels his head to check out why I’ve interrupted him.
“What do you need, baby?” he asks in his bedroom voice, properly interpreting my very needy expression.
He closes the book he’s holding, takes the Australian travel guide from my hand, and spins us toward the register. I settle my head against his shoulder while we wait in line and ignore the curious stare of the pimply-faced kid ringing up the sale.