“So good to see you this morning, Edward,” Domenic greets me outside the building.
I clasp his hand warmly, the more temperate winter allowing for bare hands where normally the January cold would prohibit such luxuries. “My girl didn’t give you any trouble yesterday, did she, Domenic?”
I pretend not to notice Isabella’s warning look from the back seat. “No, sir,” he answers innocently, before closing my door.
“Hey,” she threatens in a low voice once we’re alone in the back seat. “You stop trying to turn my driver into one of the Dark Prince’s perverted guards!”
“Good man, that Domenic. By the way, I got you a pass for the health club in my building. You can go any time. It’s open 24/7, and you don’t have to be with me.”
“What’s the catch?”
I snort. “If you dump me, you can’t use it anymore.”
She leans over to kiss me. “You get sweeter every damn day, Edward.” And just when I think I’m in the clear, she asks, “What’s the monthly fee?”
The threatening look returns. Uh oh, twice in one short car ride. “One-ninety-nine a month, but I wanted it to be my treat.”
“Well it already is your treat because an outside membership would cost three times that.”
The lady makes a good point. I give it one last feeble attempt before folding like a cheap rental chair. “I won’t even see the bills; it’s set up to auto renew on my Amex.”
“Perfect. I’ll set up autopay directly to your Amex account. No muss, no fuss.”
And…Salute. I know when to be a good sport.
Just then, her phone vibrates. She reads the subject line with obvious amusement and opens the message. Soon, she’s laughing full on.
“You going to share with the class?”
“Here,” I answer, handing Edward my phone. “I replied to her comment about my leash posting and she just wrote this back to me.”
My dear, nervous p-
You are better off than most girls on the planet because you know your Master will take care of you. Most guys get so excited about “backdoor loving” they just ram it in there.
I promise you'll enjoy...and just think how honored your Master will be knowing you're putting this “squicky” experience in his hands.
And come on...you know you want to wag that tail for him ;)
“This one’s a hot ticket.”
“Yes, I believe she’s one of the initiated,” I answer.
“You jealous, baby?” Smug smirk.
I snort. Loudly. “No.”
In a complete non-sequitur, Edward pulls me in for a kiss. “What was that for?”
“Your leash entry. That was the right choice for you to journal. Seems like you worked something out in your writing.”
His eyes blaze into mine, and I tick through my memory to recall what’s causing this response.
“That you’re tethered to me, too, you mean?”
“Yes, and that you know I won’t let go of my end.”
Again I find the concept comforting. Until he adds, “And that it’s nowhere near equal, and that’s the way both of us have to have it…pet.”
His smile twists devilishly, taking my gut along with it.
I finally muster my senses, along with a dose of righteous indignation. “Okay, I am hereby banning these conversations from our ride to work.”
“You’re the boss, baby.” He chuckles, squeezing my knee for added torment.
I’m more than happy to when Swan Tower comes into view. I make the necessary arrangements with Domenic for this evening, and we all agree to meet back at 5:30.
“No time for lunch today, I suppose?” I ask before leaving Edward at his stairwell.
“Not if we’re getting out of here early. Have a good day, sweetheart.”
“Not if we’re getting out of here early. Have a good day, sweetheart.”
“You, too.” He gives me a largely unsatisfying peck on the lips before scurrying through the fire door.
Before I forget, I text Jasper so he’s not caught unaware.
J-Edward and I’ll be there at 5:45 to pick up my stuff. Thx, b
OK. And your mail?
Taking care of it today
Shit! What will I do about that? I suppose I’ll divert what I can to work and everything else, well, care of Edward Cullen, I guess.
Yes, there’s the understatement of the year!
Another day spent largely on my knees on dusty floors is enough to motivate me to hurry up and get these updates finished. Hopefully, my proposal will get some steam behind it with Rosalie’s support, and before long, I’ll be leaving these duties to my able-bodied colleague.
I log in today’s accomplishments and notice that Emmett is holding his own. Good news, I won’t have to pick up any additional jobs off his list.
“Hey, Emmett, you hitting any bumps with your updates?” We’re both powering down our machines and packing up to leave.
“No, man,” he calls over. “It’s just that every machine seems to be on a different schedule. I have to go through my service pack and make sure everyone’s got all the appropriate patches and security updates.”
“I’m finding the same,” I answer. “But after this, we’ll have them all on a level playing field.”
“Right, so next time should go a lot smoother, huh?”
Yes, for you. I have other plans. Starting with getting my girlfriend’s crap out of her ex’s apartment.
“See ya,” he answers absently, eyeing Rosalie through the glass wall as she closes up shop.
As I exit the stairwell, my focus moves automatically to what’s become our regular meeting spot in the lobby. Isabella seems a bit anxious, and I’m not sure if she’s worried about herself, Jasper, or me. I tamp down the Master, though he’d love to take charge of this situation. This is Isabella’s scene to lead, and her boyfriend will be at the ready offering moral and skeletomuscular support.
“Ready?” I ask, squeezing her hand in mine.
“Ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Come on,” I say gently, directing her to the waiting car. I don’t let go of her hand, even after we arrive at her old building.
She walks through the lobby, receiving warm welcomes from the doorman and the concierge. Isabella passes through to the elevator bank and once inside, presses 25. She drops my hand and takes a slight lead as we move out of the car and head down the hallway.
She rings the doorbell and waits. She knocks three times and waits. She lifts her hand to the knob and the door falls away just as she’s about to insert the key.
“Hey,” Jasper says, half-hearted smile planted on his face.
“Hi,” Isabella answers, pulling back her hand from the knob.
Jasper’s eyes wander over her shoulder to me and he acknowledges my presence with a subtle nod. He opens the door the rest of the way and steps to the side, inviting us in. There are three medium-sized boxes stacked just inside. The sooner I get her things out of here, the better.
Edward takes the top box and leaves without saying a word.
“I think that’s everything,” Jas says, “but you’re more than welcome to look around if you want.”
No way could I put either of us through a full tour. “No, I’m sure you got everything.”
Ick, this is awkward. Like we’re strangers. Worse.
There’s something different about the apartment, too. Everything seems the same on the surface, but as I focus in on details, I start to make out the little bits that make a house a home.
Magazines on the coffee table.
Coffee mugs at the kitchen sink and a bowl of green apples on the counter.
An open DVD case next to the TV.
An African Violet between the salt and pepper shakers.
An odor in the air left over from a recently cooked meal.
These scattered artifacts do not represent my choices, nor my joint decisions with Jas.
“You doing okay?” I ask quietly. “You look good.” And he does.
“I’m fine. You?”
Ugh, we’re reduced to the least meaningful words in the English language at this point. “Fine.”
He nods, then seems to light up as he remembers he has something to say. “Oh, I wanted to tell you, you don’t need to pay any more rent. I have a sublessor for February and March. I’m moving out in two weeks.”
“You are? Where are you going?” Is this the same Jasper, the man who took a minimum of forty-five minutes to pick out a Pay-Per-View movie? Who hadn’t switched toothpaste brands in twenty years? Who tucked himself into his suit and tie in the exact same order every single damn work day since he took his first job?
“We found this really quaint loft in the Village. You know how I’ve always wanted to live in the Village.”
“We? What? I do? You have?”
Rod Serling’s voice is going to interrupt us at any moment and tell viewers, “You have entered the Twilight Zone.” Cue freaky music.
“Yeah, Bella,” he answers, regarding me with confusion. “If I said it once, I said it a thousand times.”
“Okaaaay,” I respond, conceding the strange point, which I’m positive I’ve never heard before.
“I mean, it’s a little farther from work, but what’s the difference?”
I just shrug because frankly, I’m afraid to talk at this point.
“Besides,” he continues quietly, “it gets me out of here.”
I lift my eyes to the shaggy blond bangs falling in his face, blocking his eyes from easy view. Fucking hell. I shuffle awkwardly. How many times can I apologize?
“Anyway,” he starts again, swiping the hair sideways from his eyes with a thumb tucked under the other four fingers, a gesture so familiar to me I barely would’ve noticed it a month ago. Now, all I can think of is how different it is from the way Edward tugs his fingertips through his brassy hair when he’s uneasy. “Alice already moved in and she’s getting it all fixed up for us.”
Wow. Who would’ve expected that to hurt so much?
“Hey, Jas. That’s great. I’m happy for you.” I truly am.
“Knock, knock,” Edward says, not really stopping on his way to lift the second carton. He barely looks up at us before taking off again. I’ve seen him this way before. Highly motivated.
“So you guys are headed to Ange and Garrett’s tonight?”
I must look up incredulously.
“He’s my best friend,” Jas shrugs. “We talk. God…this is weird.”
“No weirder than anything else,” I say, smiling back at him while shaking my head. “Have they met Alice yet?”
“No, but we’re going out Saturday night.”
“Well, good, Jas. That’s nice.”
“Okay, well listen, Bella, before…he gets back up here and you guys take off…”
He moves his hair again. Shuffles his weight from side to side. Locks those deep blue guileless eyes on me. “I guess I just wanted to try for some closure? You know…say goodbye.”
I’m sure he sees the tears pooling in my eyes, blurring my vision. “Sure, Jas,” I mumble. He steps forward and opens his arms in invitation, his hands balled into tight fists. I sink my face into his chest and circle his waist, crossing my wrists behind him. His strong arms close around my back, and he squeezes a little tighter. I take comfort as I try to give it back. As the tears let loose now, I suck in a heavy, snotty breath of the familiar scent of him—his clean, woodsy soap, spicy deodorant, and the laundry detergent we always used.
“Bye, Bella,” he whispers into my hair, and I hear the words catch in his throat.
“Knock, kno—oh, you guys need a minute here?” Edward skids to a stop in the doorway.
“No,” Jas answers resolutely. “We’re all done.”
Jasper lets go first and sort of rolls Bella out of his arms. His hair hangs over his eyes, but I’m pretty sure that’s the way he wants it right now.
This isn’t exactly what I was expecting to walk in on, but Jasper seems to be full of surprises lately.
“Good luck with your move,” Bella says, barely loud enough for me to make out. She drops her hands to her sides and turns back to me, tear-blotched and heavy-hearted. I can only hope it was cathartic. “Let’s go.”
With the quickest, “Bye, man,” I am on that box and out by the elevator as fast as my legs can carry me. She’s next to me by the time the elevator open, so I don’t have to push the button with my knee this time. I give her as much emotional space as I can in the tightly confined area.
As we’re walking through the lobby, she steps over to the concierge, has a quick chat with her, and leaves the key. Domenic relieves me of the last box, miraculously fitting it into his trunk with the others.
“So I’ll drop you at Miss Weber’s and then deliver these to Edward’s?” he asks Isabella.
“Actually, would you leave us at Eden, just down the block from their place, please?”
Bella keeps to herself in the back seat, quietly wiping fresh batches of tears from her cheeks. I pull out my handkerchief and hand her the folded white cotton square.
“Thank you,” she whispers, drying her eyes and cheeks and blowing her nose repeatedly. She turns to me and offers me back the wadded up mess.
I look at the snotty ball and hold out my palm obligingly. “Any time.”
She drops it into my hand and it unfurls like a time-lapse video of a poppy opening to the warm morning sun. Only wetter and a whole lot grosser. And then she looks at the unfortunate grimace on my face and she starts to laugh. It’s a glorious sound that fills the back seat.
“You sure you want to go through with our plans tonight?” I offer, “I could take you home and distract you instead.”
She reaches to my unencumbered hand and loops her fingers through mine. “You can do that later.”
“Seriously, Isabella. Are you okay?”
“I will be. It’s nice to see Jas moving on.” She says the last part as if she’s trying to convince both of us.
I don’t dwell on her irrational yet completely human reflex to feel a pang of regret. And there’s nothing irrational at all in her sense of loss. For the close relationship with the man, for the home they built together, and the future they’d dreamt about. I’d be a fool to discount those feelings or underestimate her need to mourn.
“Besides, I think it’ll be nice for me to be with old friends right now, you know?”
We’ve made our way into the gourmet store. Smells are wafting at me from every direction, and all that heavy lifting has given me quite the appetite.
“Angela asked me to bring an appetizer. What looks good?”
“Besides you?” I ponder the many delicious choices. Phyllo packets with all kinds of tasty shit stuffed inside. Scallops wrapped in bacon. Skewered chicken curry. Lamp chop lollipops…oh we are so getting those!
“How about lamb chops for the walk over and scallops for the hostess?”
She rolls her eyes and grabs me by the front of my shirt, leading me over to the cashier with our selections. Out on the sidewalk, I break open the container with the lamb lollipops and offer one to her.
“Seriously? We’re less than three minutes away!” she scolds.
“Hey, I worked hard! I’m depleted.” I give her my finest boo-boo face.
“Edward Cullen, even depleted you’re ten times more than I can handle.”
“You make a good point, baby.” I grudgingly close the carton and pick up the pace.
Angela takes one look at me and pulls me into a long, tight hug. “That bad?” she whispers.
“Not really,” I respond, basking in her soft embrace and the comforting scent of something cooked on the stove. “Actually it was nice. I just needed to have a good cry.”
“Looks like you did,” she smiles kindly, as I pull back. Just as before, Edward is passive, waiting behind me to be summoned.
Unnatural, but sweet.
He takes my proffered hand and I pull him into my side. “Angela, this is Edward.” It’s kind of a crappy introduction, but it’s hard to whittle him down to a short description.
It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d told Angela Edward just dropped in from planet Mars. She hasn’t heard a word I’ve said since he stepped into her line of vision. And who could blame her?
“Great to finally meet you, Angela,” he says. “Thanks for inviting us over.”
Fully encumbered, Edward passes Angela the bag from Eden in lieu of a hand shake. “Oh… thanks. You shouldn’t have,” she fumbles awkwardly, turning bright red in the face.
“You asked me to,” I chime in, folding my arms over my chest.
“Well, yeah…you… but I mean, he …didn’t…have to…” she bursts into a junior high giggle. Oh brother.
“Actually, we didn’t,” Mr. Smooth slides in graciously. “We just picked up a couple things down the street.”
Poor Angela continues to stare until Edward finally chuckles and shakes his head. That seems to snap her out of her stupor.
“Ohmygosh, sorry. Here, come on in and let me introduce you to Garrett.”
As soon as Angela turns and starts leading us, I give Edward a disdainful frown.
He answers with a Hey-what-did-I-do? shrug that I’m not buying.
You Edwarded her, I answer back by scrunching my forehead together in the middle.
He smiles broadly and kisses me at the top of my nose. “You’re gonna get some nasty wrinkles if you keep that up, babe,” he whispers.
The source of the homey scent comes into clear focus as we follow Angela into the kitchen. Suddenly, seeing Garrett’s back slightly bent over the cook top brings a rush of anxiety I hadn’t anticipated. This man is Jasper’s best friend and confidant, and I know they’ve been in close contact recently. I have no way of knowing what’s been shared or how Garrett feels toward me, and in my current, emotionally-heightened state, I’m not quite sure I’m ready to find out.
Just then, Angela calls out, “Hey, sweetie, can you leave your potatoes long enough to come say hello?”
He sets down the spatula deliberately, taking his time to turn toward us. The wide smile on his face might be convincing if I didn’t know him so well. As smitten as Angela is with Edward, Garrett seems equally predisposed to dislike him.
Garrett Neal is the quintessential Company Man. Entirely average in build and looks, it’s as if he were genetically engineered for the accounting profession. A non-threatening, slightly thinning growth of dark brown hair anchors a clean-shaven, honest face. Dark-rimmed glasses stretch over wide cheeks naturally inclined toward smiling. And behind the glasses, understanding brown eyes have a way of immediately instilling trust. But it’s those same eyes that give him away.
“Bellatini.” His nickname falls flat.
“Hey, Gar,” I answer, moving in for the air kiss and perfunctory hug. Garrett encircles me but his usual warmth is lacking. I pull away before it becomes embarrassingly obvious. “I’d like you to meet Edward Cullen. Edward, Garrett Neal.”
Edward reaches out to Garrett with his right hand while cradling my back lightly with his left. Edward looks him dead in the eyes and says, “Very nice to meet you, Garrett.”
“Same here.” Garrett has to tip his chin up slightly to meet Edward’s gaze, which he holds admirably. But behind those glasses, he’s performing an audit of my boyfriend. If Edward feels uncomfortably scrutinized, he certainly doesn’t let on.
“Who wants some wine?” Angela offers.
I smile gratefully. “I’d love some.”
Edward’s hand doesn’t leave my back as we maneuver to the other side of the kitchen counter and watch while Angela fiddles nervously with the wine opener. Edward taps me on the back and tips his chin suggestively toward the bag of food we brought.
“Angela, can I put these out for you?” I reach into the bag and pull out the containers, offering Edward a lamb chop.
“Wow,” Angela says, admiring the goodies. “I don’t think we’ll need dinner after all that.”
“Oh, do not worry about that,” I assure her. “Edward has a huge appetite!”
A strangled noise comes from the direction of the stove and three sets of eyes turn toward Garrett. Okay, then.
“So, Edward,” Angela starts, “Bella says you work in the IT Department?”
“Right, for the last seven years.” I sneak in a bite of the chicken cutlet before they have a chance to fire more questions. I get it, and I’m fine with it, but I’m also hungry. “This is delicious, by the way,” I say in Angela’s direction.
“Thanks,” answers Garrett from the opposite end of the table. Clark Kent’s got an edge. “Hey, what’s your secret with the potatoes? How’d you get them so tender on the inside but crisp on the outside?”
He half-smiles and answers, “It just takes time, Edward. A whole lot of time and patience.”
Okay, so I’ve horned in too quickly for his liking.
Bella kicks in now, “So, how’s busy season going?”
“Quiet, so far. The calm before the storm,” Angela says. “We’ve done all the preliminary work, and now we just wait while our clients get their numbers together.”
“Speak for yourself, Ange,” Garrett contradicts her with a mild tone. “It’s a whole different ball game as a manager. I’m on the phone constantly with my CFO’s. How is the merger going to affect Earnings Per Share? We’re writing off two-thirds of our inventory, just thought you should know.”
Garrett’s chest puffs up that much more with each dangerous issue requiring his expert untangling. “I think I’ve spent forty hours this week alone explaining the nuances of valuing intangible assets.” Garrett shakes his head as if he can’t comprehend his own self-importance and spears a piece of chicken.
He draws the chicken toward his mouth but stops in mid-air when I chime in, “Well, with the value of intangible assets increasing to 85% of total market value of corporations, I think intellectual capital is one of the most important topics facing Corporate America, or for that matter, Corporate Anywhere, don’t you, Garrett?”
I see the conflict in his eyes. Engage the bastard in further conversation and assume the miniscule risk of losing with the home career advantage or cut it off now with a trite quip and a change of subject?
In the end, as with nine out of the ten guys I meet, he surrenders to the urge to expound brilliantly on a subject of which he feels in total command.
“Actually, I do. The question remains, are we getting close enough to pinning it down to market value?”
“Good luck with that,” I chuckle, grabbing my wine glass. “You’re going to come in and put a price on this?” With my spare hand, I point to my head.
“No,” Garrett laughs, “Your CFO is going to do that. I’m just going to come in and explain why whatever he says is fair.”
I regard Isabella across the table, and she looks about one accounting terms shy of face diving into her plate. “What do you think, Isabella? How much would you pay in the free market for what’s up here?”
She shakes her head and looks like she might start to answer, but then she just shakes her head some more. I smile and mimic her movements, raising my eyebrows in amusement. She smiles and sighs heavily before lifting her wine glass and taking a long sip.
I extend my legs under the table and wrap my feet around her ankles. It’s the best I can manage with this frustrating seating arrangement.
Angela attempts to lighten the conversation with, “Gee, hun, maybe I don’t want that promotion after all! The life of a lowly audit supervisor sounds pretty good right about now.”
“Sure you do, babe,” Garrett answers. “Otherwise, what’s the point? Gotta keep moving on up. Am I right, Edward?”
Edward seems to regard Garrett with curiosity and possibly a hint of wariness, but there is an obvious difference from the way he regarded my father. Edward is tolerating Garrett for me, out of respect for my friendship with Angela.
My sense of Garrett has always been that of faithful, loving partner for Angela. Nothing exciting, but nothing nefarious either. Now, seeing him through Edward’s eyes, I get a sense of Garrett as the schoolyard bully. He doesn’t like the new kid who’s stolen away his best friend’s girl. And he seems to be hell-bent on proving the pecking order, though not in a way obvious enough for anyone to call him on it. He knows better than to leave an audit trail.
But Garrett clearly has no idea who he’s dealing with here.
Edward catches my eye and must see what I’m thinking. I’ll have to remember to tell him later the thought going through my mind at this exact moment: Edward as Ben “The Thing” Grimm, super strong hero straight out of the pages of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four series. I have zero doubt that Edward could crush this man intellectually and physically, and yet he doesn’t. Even though Garrett is most definitely provoking “clobberin' time.” And is there any image more tender than that of the rocky orange hand cradling a weak bird in its palm without inflicting one iota of damage?
He runs one foot up the length of my calf soothingly, letting me know he is in full control, and I don’t need to worry. Without a trace of defensiveness, he says to Garrett, “I realize in your line of business, it’s all about moving up the ladder and making partner, but I guess I’ve just never had that type of ambition.”
“So you’re not ambitious?” Garrett turns to me, as if to say, Look at the ugliness I’ve uncovered for you! Now you can save yourself the time and dump the guy right now. In fact, if you hurry, you might even be able to win back Jasper!
“Gar…” Angela warns gently, flashing me an apologetic look that I shrug off. Edward can take care of himself. If Garrett wants to make an ass of himself, that’s his problem.
Edward answers, “I’m not about titles, and Information Technology is a support function. My job is managing information so that the people who need it can do their jobs better. My ambitions tend in that direction.”
Garrett’s eyes narrow a bit. “Are you telling me that you’d pass up a promotion if you could be more…” he drops his fork so he can wave a derisive set of air quotes around the next word, “…supportive?”
Edward laughs lightly, and I feel the rest of my tension slip away. “That’s basically the exact question my boss asked me yesterday.”
“She did?” I blurt. “You didn’t tell me that!”
“Sorry, sweetheart, we were fairly busy last night.”
Ignoring my flood of memories, I press on, “So wait, what was the outcome of your conversation?”
“She’s bumping my proposal upstairs and if it flies, it’s all mine.”
“And she’s not worried you’re trying to steal her job?” Maybe we should be having this discussion in private, but curiosity beats out propriety.
“She knows I don’t want it. Never have.” Edward punctuates his statement by tipping his wine glass back and slowly swallowing down the rest of his drink.
Garrett throws out one final barb, “Spoken like someone never offered the promotion.”
Edward turns to Garrett with surprise, empty glass frozen in place just below his chin and eyebrows fully cocked from the impact of the late hit. Then, in a quiet, even voice, Edward says, “If you say so, man.” Lowering his glass to the table, Edward winks at me and readies himself for the next game.