I unbutton my vest and lay it out on the shelf in my dressing room. I pop each stud out of its hole, remembering with great delight how Isabella discovered first that I was her Secret Santa, followed quickly by the discovery that I am also her Black Velvet. As I pull the tails of my shirt free of my pants, I finally take in my good fortune at how well my plan has panned out. Three long weeks of discovering, confronting, courting, gifting, advising, tantalizing, and befriending Isabella have led us to this moment.
Peeling down the zipper and stepping out of my tuxedo slacks, I muse that this all could've gone much differently. Her discovery of all my hidden identities could've broken her, completely shattered her trust in men for good, and prevented her from ever venturing down the dark path of her kinky desires. Instead, as I'd fervently hoped, she realized that she could actually have everything she's been seeking for so long, in one convenient package. Namely, me. And my package.
Speaking of which, I give my cock a quick, appreciative rub for being so patient and well behaved- Atta boy!- as I transition out of my silk boxers into a pair of boxer briefs. I pull my most comfortable jeans from my bottom drawer and slide them up each leg. Hanging onto one end of the tie, I toss the tuxedo shirt into my dry cleaning pile. I share a private chuckle with the black velvet accessory, remembering Riley's disdain for my poor fashion choice. Some things are more important than fashion, I say in salute to my friend. Not quite ready to part ways with Black Velvet's tie, I set it on my bed. I remove my white tee shirt and head to my bureau to pick out something comfortable but not ratty. Somewhere in between Saturday night out and Sunday grunge. As I ponder my limited choices, there's a faint knock at my bedroom door.
I turn my head and see Isabella eyeing me from the doorway. She's chosen her jeans and a cami, and seems to have picked a bra as well, which tells me she gets that just because her master has exposed her breasts doesn't mean that the two of us have crossed that bridge together in any kind of meaningful way.
She sucks in a breath as she takes in my bare back, and I turn toward the doorway to give her a little more of a view.
"I see the clothes fit you nicely," I comment admiringly.
She nods and says, "As do yours."
Fuck, I may be blushing. It's been years since I've blushed, but Isabella seems to have the knack for raising it easily.
"I was just grabbing a shirt," I explain, turning back to my drawers and choosing my softest MIT tee.
"Did you go to MIT?"
"I did. You didn't get to my personnel files after all?" I smile smugly as I pull my shirt on.
"Touché," she smiles, understanding yet another way I've bested her. She glances around my bedroom and sees the leather armchair next to the bed. "Mind if I sit?"
"Make yourself at home," I offer graciously. "Do you have everything you need?"
"Come to think of it, I could really use my UGG slippers right about now," she smiles, folding her bare feet under her legs.
She crosses her arms. "Look into my Zappo's account and you'll find out."
"Or you could just tell me."
"Nah, where's the fun in that?"
"Okay, princess. I don't mind working for it."
As Edward's words sink in, I begin to have an understanding of just exactly how hard he has already been working to make this happen between us. All of his secrets, his gifts, his friendship, his advice.
"I feel like the girl who's just arrived at her own surprise party. I can't stop retracing all the conversations I've had with you…and Black Velvet…over the past three weeks."
He moves to the edge of the bed in front of my chair and takes a seat.
"Yeah, about that…" and I think, here comes the part where he apologizes for toying with me. "You called me nosy."
"What?" he's thrown me off with his completely unexpected accusation. "Well you were. You are! Oh God, I don't even know anymore."
"Do you have any idea how lucky you are that I'm the one who did the internet review?"
I sweep my eyes over every piece of his body, from his perfectly chaotic hair to his sexy bare feet, thoroughly checking him out before answering, "I'm beginning to fully appreciate that, yes."
"The truth of it is that I'm not sure anyone else would've even taken the trouble to follow your incognito browser and write a logarithm to decode your keystrokes and…"
"Say what now?" I interrupt his techno-babble.
"I had to work pretty hard to see what you'd been up to. But once I found out where you'd been going, I was totally hooked. Honestly, Isabella, your web browsing alone would've totally done it for me. But when I found your writing…well, foot, meet glass slipper," he smiles.
"Yeah, no kidding," I answer. "Black Velvet's reviews were enough to…oh shit, I don't want to give you even more ammunition to use against me."
"Hey, we're on the same side here."
"I'm just getting used to that," she muses, turning her glance downward and rubbing her hand along the leg of her new jeans. "So, Edward Cullen, any more secrets you've been keeping?"
Without hesitation, I tell her, "I saw you in the park that day, at the Greenbriers concert." It does me no good to have her believe I may be harboring more secrets.
"Yes, you and your Prince Charming. I nearly went crazy when he took you to the Pierre."
She looks up, guilt marring her previously serene face. "I think that's the day I figured out it was really over between us. I mean, he was just so perfect that day, and I still couldn't…"
I take her hand. "You know, it's not your fault you're wired this way. Any more than it's mine."
She nods appreciatively. "I know what you mean about going crazy. That day you took Alice to lunch, I thought for sure you two were going to have a go at it, and I have to admit…"
I shake my head and smile. "No. That was never going to happen."
She relaxes. "Not your type?"
"More like, a bit too much my type. Your gal Friday needs a man she can lead around by the nose."
"What? I've never seen that in her!"
"Trust me, you've got her chained to that desk, but she's got ideas."
"She TOLD you that?"
"Oh God no. But I can tell, Isabella."
"Takes one to know one?" she teases.
"Something like that," I nod.
She finally asks what she's been dying to ask since earlier this evening. "So, do you think Alice can work…with Jasper?"
"I actually think they're a match made in heaven," I tell her earnestly.
"Jeez, I hope so…"
"Let's not talk about him right now, okay? I want your mind back on me."
"As if it's been anywhere else since the day I met you?"
"I'm not entirely sure I've had your full attention all that time," he says.
"I thought you didn't want to talk about Jasper," I remind him.
"I wasn't talking about him," he scoffs dismissively, as if my boyfriend of three years is not even a consideration. "I meant my real competition, Black Velvet."
It takes some serious focus for me to hold onto the reality that Black Velvet is sitting right in front of me. In his bedroom. Maybe because I had an entirely different mental image of him.
"You're not really what I expected Black Velvet to look like," I share.
"Oh no?" He looks amused. "How so?"
"Well, I thought he'd be a lot older, for one thing."
"And that excited you about him?" He looks slightly worried at that one.
"Not the fact that he was older, just, well, his wisdom, I guess."
"So you're not disappointed that this body goes with that wisdom?"
"Psshhh. I believe that's the definition of 'Best of Both Worlds.'"
"Having your cake and eating it too?" he suggests.
Flashes of our most recent conversation cross my brain in rapid succession.
Believe me when I tell you I hope he doesn't disappoint.
Sounds like you're already ensnared. Stay cautious.
When he fully reveals himself, you'll know you have his trust.
You deserve your HEA.
He flashes warm eyes my direction, and I remember it's this man's advice I was soaking in, every chance I got. Suddenly, I feel overwhelmed by gratitude.
"Thank you, Edward."
"You're very welcome."
"Your advice to me last weekend…you never pushed, in fact, you almost scared me away. From you!"
"I didn't want you to have regrets when you found out my true identity. You trusted Black Velvet, and in a way, Edward too. I couldn't betray either of those."
A gush of warmth spreads throughout my body at his words. He's been watching over me this whole time, moving me gently toward acknowledging my true desires. "I was right, then, when I told Black Velvet that you're a good guy?"
"I'm not bad, for a predator," he winks.
Oh shit. Called out. "Sorry about that," I mumble.
"Why?" he laughs. "You were right on target. Ever since I found you, I've been on the hunt."
"Speaking of you hunting me down," I pause when he snorts, "did it ever once occur to you that I might be extremely pissed off to discover all you'd been keeping from me?"
"Of course it occurred to me. I wasn't worried about the Secret Santa part. You already knew I'd read all your stories, and you could see I hadn't told anyone else what I'd learned about you."
"But you taunted me with those gifts. I worried maybe someone else knew about me."
"I saw right away that you'd displayed the feather pen in your office. If you'd chucked it in the trash, I would've backed right off and gotten you a Starbuck's card, or something else equally impersonal. Then, when you invited me to play Boggle, I just had to follow through with the scarf."
His words ring true, and once again, I see that Edward's always been there, guiding, caring. "What about the Dark Prince part? The knot at the pizza parlor?"
"Ugh," he sits back on his palms. "I have to admit, that wasn't in the plan. You really threw me with your reaction to my comment about Riley. Could you really have thought I was gay at that point? I mean, I was about to jump you at the counter when you ordered the pizza. How could you miss those signals?"
"I didn't. I just panicked. Have you ever looked at someone you've known for a long time and had the thought, 'This person might just have a whole secret life I know nothing about'?"
He nods. "I think that's a pretty common feeling for people who keep their own secrets."
I consider the truth in his words, "I guess. Anyways, it just occurred to me in that moment you could well be gay, or bi, or a serial murderer, or …"
"Okay, you don't need to embellish any longer on this topic. You pushed me to reveal myself, and I stupidly rose to the challenge. It was…out of character for me."
"And yet, I still didn't know that you were…a real dom. I mean, you could've just been a guy who read some kinky stories and decided it would be fun to act them out."
"Believe me, that's more common that you'd think. That's why you have to be so careful when you answer your male reviewers."
"Ah, the reviewer. Enter Black Velvet. The King Kong of secrets."
He looks chagrined. "Yes, that was the scariest reveal of all."
"You mean, once you'd been deceiving me for weeks, how could you then tell me you were the guy I was having lunch with?"
"You would've hated us both. Where would that have left you?"
She snorts and says darkly, "Probably engaged right now."
"I know this is going to sound weird, Isabella, but as Black Velvet, I really tried to help you evaluate whether Edward was the right man for you. Of course, I may have had an ulterior motive or two along the way, but I'd already begun to care for you by that point. You had placed your trust in me, and I couldn't dishonor that."
"You mean, any more than you already were by keeping the biggest secret of all from me."
"Well, yeah. There was that. But really, what other choice did I have?"
She sits back in the chair and crosses her arms over her chest. "So, your plan was to sit back and wait until I discovered your neckwear? What if I hadn't?"
"I was prepared to get creative."
She grins at my suggestion. "How so?"
"Oh, let's see. Maybe remove the stud just below the tie and ask you to try a different hole. Comment how my friend Riley thought the black velvet was tacky, and what did you think?"
"Okay, so we weren't leaving the ball till I figured that one out. But still, what if I'd gone ape shit on you?"
"It's been pretty fucking clear to me for a while that you and I would fit together as well as we do. I figured if you didn't know it already, you'd figure it out the first time we danced together. Of course, someone wouldn't stop yapping…"
"Hey- hush about that!"
"Anyway, I have faith in you, Isabella. Sure, you could've flown off the handle and been angry at my methods, but looking back logically, I hoped you would've seen that I never did anything to wrongly persuade you or give you bad advice. As you said earlier, I even warned you off me several times. Talk about scary!"
"And there was that part at the end where Black Velvet let me go, to seek my happiness. Very touching, actually."
"Yeah, that was weird. Sometimes, I actually forgot I was losing you to myself. At any rate, you just don't seem the type to let a flash of emotion rule your decisions. I figured even if you were genuinely hurt by my deception, eventually you would respect my reasons and come back because you can see that we are perfect together."
She raises a skeptical eyebrow. "You already know that?"
"That's certainly how it looks from where I'm sitting."