His thumb rolls in lazy circles over my knuckles. I can’t help but stare at his strong profile, even though mostly what I see is the back of his head as he gazes out the window at the endless miles of grey highway.
“Still reflecting on your soul?” I ask softly.
“A little bit,” he answers, not turning my direction.
“Hey. I thought we covered this.”
He pulls his hand away and rubs it along his chin, soothing himself with the scratch of the short stubble against his fingers. I wish I could do more to ease his mind, but this is something he has to work out for himself. I’ve done and said all I could on the subject.
Master roars as he pounds me from behind. My forearms and cheek scrape against the wool carpet with every forceful thrust of his hips. His fingertips dip into my flesh and I’m sure I’ll have bruises to match the rug burn, but I couldn’t be bothered to care. I want one thing and one thing only: Master’s fulfillment. He yanks my hips back and slams into me one last time, the loud telltale thwap of thigh meeting thigh, and there’s perfect silence for one blissful moment before his labored breathing begins.
I stay stock still, except for the tears blinking at my eyes. I don’t think this tiny motion would be disallowed, even under Master’s strictest interpretation. He folds his body over my back and places a gentle kiss at the base of my neck. His hands tickle at my sides, making me shudder. I feel his deep chuckle right through my skin, and I am so, so happy.
I still experience a bittersweet pang when he lifts away the collar, but he soothes me instantly with a column of soft kisses up my neck. I love the weight of his languid body draped around me, his arms closing around my chest, his fingers playing lazily at my breasts as his breathing returns to normal.
His voice is barely a whisper but he’s next to my ear so I hear him clearly. “Thank you for your beautiful submission, my sweet princess.” My tears break free upon hearing his sheer gratitude. With one final kiss between my shoulder blades, he draws his palm down my back as he lifts himself and breaks our connection. And now I feel truly empty.
Pushing to his feet, he says in that same gentle voice, “Relax here for a minute. I’ll be right back to take care of you.”
I flop to my side, one big pile of jelly and can’t resist looking up at him, towering over me, freshly spent and humbled, yet one hundred percent man. And just then, a flicker of something crosses his face, his forehead crinkles, his mouth tightens. What have I done?
“Don’t worry, Isabella. I’m not going to be morose for long. It’s kind of a New Year’s Day tradition for me.”
“What a lovely tradition,” she tries lightly. While I appreciate her efforts at absolution, her unconditional acceptance makes it even more painful for me. And there’s no easy way of letting her understand she can’t help me with this.
“You’re crying. Fuck, I’ve hurt you.”
I drop to one knee and brush the sticky wet hair from her cheeks. She winces.
“No,” she counters, placing a reassuring hand on my arm.
“Jesus, Isabella, your face is all chewed up from the rug. How could I be so careless?”
“Edward, I’m fine,” she says firmly. “I promise.”
“Fuck! Let me get you some salve.”
I pull away from her sad embrace and head straight for the sink. I mix the hot and cold faucets until I’m satisfied, then pull down a washcloth. Cursing my neglect and muttering to myself, I moisten and wring out the washcloth. It’s not until I finish the task that I catch my reflection. “You bastard!” I growl at the selfish prick in the mirror.
I splash cold water on my face again and again, but every time I look up, he’s still there. I retreat to the bedroom and grab my magic potions from the otherwise empty bag. Rushing back to my damaged princess, I scoop her off the floor and carry her to the couch. “I’m sorry, baby, so sorry.” I repeat it over and over in my head, and I have no idea how many times I’ve said it out loud.
She loops her arms around my neck and tries again to soothe me. “Edward, really. I said I’m fine.”
“You do not look fine.” I drop to the couch with Isabella in my arms and she lies across my lap, ever trusting. Carefully setting the washcloth between her legs, I wipe up the evidence of pleasure taken at her expense. Who does this? Who takes so selfishly? I shift her just enough that I can clear the sticky residue from my greedy penis, then toss the dirty rag across the room.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” The bumpy texture is ingrained in her face. I can actually feel the lumps as I smooth on the balm. Her face is a mask of placidity, the all-forbearing complacent sub whose Master can do no wrong. I can’t look at her merciful expression any longer.
“Flip over,” I direct, more gruffly than I’d have liked.
As usual, she does as I say without hesitation. The red of her cheeks has begun to fade. It wasn’t a rough paddling, thank goodness. I’m not sure I could handle evidence of more damage. I dip two fingers into the tub and move them gently across her pink skin. She hums contentedly and relaxes into my legs at my touch. Yes, baby, I do know how to make you feel good. When I use my powers for good and not for evil.
What the fuck? Four tiny bluish circles have sprouted along her side, and there’s a matching set on the other, awaiting my notice.
“Sorry…sorry…sorry…” I repeat endlessly as I dab on the healing cream.
“I really wish you’d stop feeling so bad. I wasn’t crying because I was sad; I was just incredibly moved by the moment.”
“I’m sorry, sweetheart, I never intended for you to see this part of me. It’s not good form for a dom to doubt himself in front of his sub.”
Her answer drifts up, muffled by the cushion, but wise just the same. “You’re not my dom right now. You’re my Edward. And I don’t want you to keep things from me.”
Making my best effort to leave Edward alone, I retrieve my iPhone from my purse. Twenty-eight new messages? Fabulous.
Work, work, work, parents…oh yeah, need to call them, Angela, yada, yada…Jasper. My finger pulls back from the screen as if scorched. My eyes slide guiltily to Edward. He is still wallowing in whatever. I figure I may as well heap all my bad feelings together; why stretch it out? With great trepidation, I open Jas’s email, noticing that he’s eschewed our “normal” method of communication—texting—which is a noticeable shift. And I see why as soon as I open it. It’s a long-ass message, and I take a deep breath while it loads.
TO: Isabella M Swan
FROM: Jasper Whitlock
DATE: Jan. 1, 2012
SUBJECT: New Year
FROM: Jasper Whitlock
DATE: Jan. 1, 2012
SUBJECT: New Year
Distance and time have afforded me some much-needed reflection, and I hope you will accept this message in the spirit in which I intend it. Which is to say, I hope that you and I might enjoy a new kind of relationship in this New Year: friendship.
To say that I’ve fully recovered from the swift and unexpected wounds would be a lie. And as you well know, I’ve never been much of a liar. Hell, I couldn’t even keep my mouth shut that time I tried to surprise you on your birthday, and I ruined my own damn party! Well, anyway, there’s no sugarcoating that you hurt me. So let’s take that as a given and push forward.
I understand now why you felt you had to break up with me the way you did. And I want you to know, Bella, out of my deep and abiding love for you, I respect your decision and I don’t harbor any harsh feelings toward you. Huh, maybe this makes me the total marshmallow or sucker or dumb shmuck you accused me of being, but it’s just the way I’m wired. Hate and anger just don’t find a place in my heart, especially where you’re concerned. Somehow, the sorrow sticks around, but I’ll deal. I’m healing bit by bit.
I cannot claim to understand what you need or want. Apparently I never could. I accept this failing, and I’m struggling to learn so I don’t make the same mistakes again. While I desperately wanted to believe that I could’ve and would’ve changed for you, been the kind of man you were looking for, I realize now that would’ve been the wrong path for both of us. I know this in my heart, Bella. I knew it then, too, but I wasn’t man enough to accept it. So I acted in a way that shames me now. But I’m through with that. You and I both deserve better, and so do Edward and Alice. (Yes, Alice.)
Here’s my truth: I can only control what I can control, and that would be me. Just Jasper. And I’ve been an ass. And I promise, I am through being an ass. So I’d appreciate it very much if you’d agree to accept me as your friend, not in a superficial Facebook way, but as someone who used to mean a lot to you and who still cares for your ultimate happiness. Even if it’s not with me.
I hope the New Year offers you everything you need.
“Isabella?” Edward’s face is twisted in worry, and that’s when I notice I’m soaked in tears. “Is somebody hurt?”
“No,” I shake my head quickly, grabbing my purse for a Kleenex. “It’s Jasper.”
Edward raises his eyes to the roof and his hands tense into fists at his sides. Through tightly clenched teeth, he asks, “Has he threatened you again?”
“No. Nothing like that.”
I figure the easiest thing to do is just let him read the message.
All my self-loathing and berating swiftly move aside to deal with this new threat. Both of our hands shake as she passes me her phone. I scroll through his message, taking in his pain, his honesty, and his enduring affection for my Isabella. It isn’t hard to see what she loved about him—loves about him still, even. I pinch my eyes as I process what he’s shared with her, and she’s shared with me. I’m not pleased that Jasper’s managed his finest hour in the wake of my lowest.
I turn my head against the seat back and pass back the phone. “He’s a good man.”
Her mouth is closed, but her lips turn up slightly at the corners. “Just not the right one for me.”
The familiar line that has always justified their breakup has the exact opposite effect on me today. “No? Did he ever burn rug patterns into your face?”
Her face contorts to anger, and I realize I’ve never quite seen this on her before. She locks into my eyes and says in a steady voice that easily reaches the driver’s seat, “Domenic.”
“We’re about to pop open some champagne back here.”
Domenic’s confused eyes meet mine in the rear-view mirror. Though I must surely be transmitting nothing more helpful than, “I have no fucking clue,” he answers immediately, “Thank you, ma’am.” Seconds later, the privacy panel is in place. I feel my lips curl up to see this tigress in action. And then, it hits me—I’m her next meal.
“It’s true, Edward. Jasper never fucked me so hard that I got rug burns on my face.”
My smile falls. Now, why the hell did I bring that up?
“It is also true that he never brought me to orgasm with a feather or a crop or a paddle or his finger or his tongue or his cock or for that matter anything!” Her voice rises with each item on the list until she’s positively thunderous.
“Okay, you scraped up my face a bit.” I flinch, but she continues. “And you put a few bruises on me. Did you hear me yell my safe word?”
“No,” I answer calmly.
“Now, why the hell wouldn’t I safe word if I was so goddamn unhappy about all that?”
She pauses to catch her breath, but she’s not looking for an answer, and I wisely do not give one.
“Because I liked it, that’s why. You know why I was crying, Edward?”
“I guess not,” I admit.
“Those were tears of joy, you…you…”
“Stupid ass?” I supply helpfully.
“That works,” she says, still fuming. “I was giving you all I had and I felt you taking what you needed from me and I was the happiest submissive girl on the planet.”
Crap. “And I ruined it.”
“Pretty much, yeah.
“Edward, have you ever stopped to think, if you’re the monster, what does that make me?”
“You’re my innocent victim.”
She folds her arms across her chest and narrows her eyes. “Oh really?"
Wrong answer, asshole. Why do I suddenly feel I need a cup protector?
“Do you have any idea how insulting that is?”
“What? No…how?...I…” Fucking shut it, Cullen. Just listen.
“After all this, I guess you still see me as the naïve little girl still locked in her ivory tower with a bunch of kinky fantasies in her head. Newsflash, MASTER! I LIKE IT! I LIKE IT A LOT! I LIKE it when you tease me and control me and humiliate me and yes, even when you occasionally, accidentally HURT ME!”
Angry tears are now spilling from her eyes, this new level of vulnerability making her even angrier. I pretend not to notice. Besides, I’m the one getting blasted here.
“So you go ahead and think all those thoughts about your soul, how maybe you’re not a good man, but how do you think that all makes me feel being the masochistic sick fuck who loves it?”
I spread my hands in a gesture of utter hopelessness. I’m at a complete loss here. “Isabella, I have no fucking clue what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything, Edward. Just please, do not wallow on my account. If you have other…girls…that’s another story.”
“I don’t have any other girls.”
“Well, Lucy, or whoever…”
Double crap. “Lucy was before you, and I’ve made my peace with her.”
She continues to look at me suspiciously but she unfolds her arms. “Well, if this is all for me, then I really wish you’d just stop. You’re not hurting me. I will not let you hurt me. I bruise easily, and I’ll heal. And if I need to, I will safe word. And if you are going to feel bad about any of it, you never…ever…should’ve offered me your collar.”
She falls silent. And now it’s just the tears.
These stupid damn tears. It’s hard to verbally kick a guy in the nuts when you can’t stop crying.
My heart is racing. I’ve said—or rather, yelled—my piece. That last bit got away from me; I certainly wasn’t meaning to put my collar on the bargaining table, but now that I’ve said it, I know it’s true. It’s all up to him now.
For the first time in all the conversations we’ve had, Edward looks baffled. And worried. He knows it’s going to take some fancy talking to skate his way out of this one. He doesn’t look like a cocky bastard who’s got all the answers; he looks like a guy who’s scared he’s about to lose everything.
Finally, after searching his hands, the roof, the highway, and my eyes, he tries for an answer.
“I heard you.”
“Of course you heard me. I was screaming!” I answer impatiently.
He laughs, against his will. “I meant I heard you in an ‘I was listening’ kind of way.”
“I respect you.”
I challenge that with a raised brow. Not if you think I’m an innocent victim, you don’t.
“I was wrong to imply that I see you as anything but a full participant in this twisted little dance of ours.”
“Thank you, I think.”
“I trust you to use your safe word when we’re playing or pull my head out of my ass when we’re not.”
“You can count on that,” I promise.
He grins. “I’m sorry I ruined your joy by being a…”
“Stupid ass.” I parrot his highly effective name-calling, making both of us smile.
“I’m not sure that I’ll ever truly believe that a guy like me deserves a woman like you—”
“Oh, come on, Edward—”
“Buuuut,” I interrupt, “I am overjoyed that you like it when I tease you and control you and…what else was it?”
“Humiliate me,” I roll my eyes. Fuckin’ A, is he really going to make this sexy? I’m trying to have a fight here! Ridiculous.
“Yes, humiliate you, thaat was it, thank you.” His grin broadens. “And except for the occasional unintended wounds I’ve inflicted, for which I am woefully, profoundly remorseful, I do find that your joy in being… the masochistic sick fuck, was it?”
I nod. I smile.
“…Certainly soothes my weary sadistic soul like nothing else ever has.”
Hmm, now we’re getting somewhere. Maybe.
“Edward, why do you keep referring to yourself as a sadist when you’ve told me repeatedly you don’t like inflicting pain? You were kidding in the shower, right?” I refrain from becoming hysterical, our monster misunderstanding still all too fresh in my memories.
“Kidding. A little dom humor there. Never cut anyone. Period. I don’t do blood play,” he responds, quickly dispelling my spike of fear.
“Which I would know if I were allowed to read your checklist,” I venture, dipping my toe into dangerous waters.
“Ahhh. So how long has this been bothering you?” he asks, thankfully still sounding amused.
“Since you started referring to yourself as a sadist.”
“Sorry, princess. You don’t get to see the dom’s checklist.”
“Do you even have a checklist?”
“Sure.” He points to his head and winks.
“All right, fine. You’re not sharing. I get it. But the sadist thing? I’m sorry…I just don’t see it.”
“It’s all the mental fuckery. Surely, you’ve noticed that I’m not all rose petals and cuddles.”
“First of all, you are a fantastic cuddler. And secondly, who the hell wants you to be? I mean, sure, you have your moments where I’d love to roll my eyes or sink my teeth into your cock…”
He gets such a pained expression on his face that we both have to stop to laugh.
“Point is, I kinda…”
Holy shit, Bella. Where the hell are you going with this? Sound the alarm!
Well hell. The collar’s already on the table. I may as well go for broke.
“I kinda love you for it.”
She said what now? I’m feeling one of those Fred Flintstone moments where he’s sure he’s heard wrong and he shakes his head really, really quickly side to side to shake out whatever it is that must’ve been lodged between his ears. And there’s this accompanying noise like, “Aye-ee-aye-ee-aye!”
Isabella Swan kinda loves me??
Brilliant. Try again, asshole. “I mean…wow.”
Oh hey, much better, dude. “Yeah.” We’re both looking at Isabella’s hands, which she’s wringing to death in her lap.
“Baby,” I say, covering her hands with mine and calming them, “I know it’s totally uncool of me to say it right back and all, but I’m almost positive I kinda love you, too.”
She looks up just as I do. “Yeah?”
I shrug my shoulders. “Kinda.”
She pulls her hands out from under mine and punches me in the shoulder. My hand snakes behind her neck and I draw her toward me, covering her lips with mine in a way that tells her there’s no "kinda" about this.
She pulls back to catch her breath, which is not so easy with all the sniffling and crying. I refuse to give up face-to-face contact, so while I very generously let her breathe, I kiss along the edges of her lips, nibble along her jaw, and rub my nose along hers.
“So, wait a second,” she says, all of a sudden dead serious, “are you just saying this, or did you actually have an aha moment?”
“Oh, I had an aha moment all right.” I don’t want to stop kissing her.
“When was it?” she presses.
My smile grows wide against her cheek. “Remember on Christmas Day, when I had you dress in that elf costume? I was seriously ‘aha’ for you!”
She pulls her face away and whacks me again.
“HEY! Don’t you know that it is a seriously bad idea to keep hitting your dom?”
“I’m not hitting my dom. I’m pulling my boyfriend’s head out of his ass for him.”
“Okay, point taken,” I agree, hands up in surrender. “Come back here first.”
She kisses me some more, and I allow the true moment of realization to wash over me again. I move my lips to the side this time, ready to share.
“When?” she demands. Isabella can be very demanding when she wants to be, I notice.
Our faces are so close I can feel her eyelashes flutter against mine. “After I got you out of those heels and stockings.”
“And it was just you and me…”
“Yes?” She digs her fingers into my wavy hair.
“And I pushed into you with nothing between us.”
“Fuck!” Her mouth is on me and our torsos are molded together in an awkward twist. I’d love to take her right now with nothing between us but for at least eight good reasons right off the top of my head, that is not going to happen.
“So wait,” I say during a pause for breath, “What was your ‘aha’?”
She starts to giggle and I actually begin wondering if the whole thing was a giant put-on. But then, she stops giggling and says, “John’s Pancake House.”
I push back and hold her at arm’s length so I can gauge her expression. “Get. The fuck. Outta this car!”
“It’s the sad truth.”
“Hunh, and you’re sure it wasn’t just the deliciousness of the Big Puff?”
“No, it was the deliciousness of you.”
“Explain yourself, mademoiselle.”
“I asked you some question about the submissive journal and you were hamming it up about why I’d never be mad at my dom…” She rolls her eyes and shakes her head at that one.
“And?” I do not recall a romantic moment.
“And…you started explaining it all to me, all Black Velvety, and you were holding my hand, and that part was all Edwardy, and …honestly, I can’t really explain it. All of a sudden, my light bulb went on and I just knew.”
My grin is humongous. She makes no sense. “That you kinda loved me.”
“Actually, there was no kinda in the moment.”
“Really? So I’ve been demoted?”
She giggles merrily. “Maybe I just didn’t want to admit that I love being humiliated. Ever think of that?”
“Hmmm,” I observe, “and yet you just did.”
“The devil made me do it.”
“The devil you kinda love.”
“Yeah, that one.”
After about ten more miles spent kissing and grinning at each other, I decide I better tackle the rest of my messages.
“Angela’s asking if we’d like to come over for dinner one night this week. She’d like to meet you.”
He looks up from his Blackberry and smiles. “That must terrify you.”
“Hardly. Now that we both know shin-kicking is acceptable, I’m not worried about keeping you in line.”
He snorts. “I’ll be sure to bring my shin guards! I’m wide open this week, just have to get those computers updated, but I should be done at a reasonable hour.”
“Well…” Oh, sheesh, how does one ask which nights one is to be dominated? And now I know he knows because I’m blushing.
“What?” he chuckles.
“Which nights did you have in mind to play?” There. I said it.
“Good job, baby. I’m impressed.”
“Come on, help me out here, would you?”
“Sure.” And then his tone softens. “We need a day off. Why don’t we schedule Tuesday and Thursday, then you can pick either Friday or Saturday night into the following day. Just to warn you, though, this weekend is the start of playoffs, and I’d like to watch a fair amount. Maybe even see if Riley wants to do something.”
“Why don’t we have Riley and Sean over on Saturday or Sunday? I can make chili.” The words are out before I can grab them back.
“Sure, babe, still got your apron?” he smirks devilishly.
I backpedal, “Maybe I’ll try my hand at lasagna instead.”
“That’s really sweet of you. Sure, that sounds nice. Huh…” He shakes his head and puzzles out the new reality. “First, the ‘kinda’s’ and now we’re going out and entertaining as a couple. Warp speed ahead, Domenic,” he jokingly commands toward the soundproof barrier.
“Too much too soon?” Shit. I shouldn’t have—
“No. Not at all.”
“You sure? Because I don’t want to scare you away.”
“Ha! You’re worried about scaring me now? Maybe I accidentally did send us into another galaxy!”
“Nerd alert!” I warn, trying to draw Edward back to reality.
Edward sputters and coughs. “Okay, sorry. I couldn’t help myself. No, Isabella, the answer is no. You are not even scaring me a little bit. I am not one of those lame ass guys with commitment phobia. Did you not hear that when I collared you?”
“Well, yeah, but that was different. That was…that. And this is…us.”
“Fair enough. But I believe I told you before we started any of ‘that’ that I wanted to protect the ‘us.'"
He did indeed. And I remember being completely blown away that he had the foresight and courage to put that all out on the table before either of us had half a clue what would happen.
“How is it that you are so goddamn good at all of this?”
“Excuse me? Have you forgotten that this conversation started with you blasting me? At ridiculously high decibels?”
“Okay, fine. You’re not perfect.”
“No. Oh, and guess what else?” He holds his Blackberry out toward my face. “My parents want to know if we’re free on the twelfth. They’re taking us to the opera.”