Author: TheFicChick PM
"Every day for the rest of my life, I will wonder how kissing a virtual stranger goodbye could have felt like a hello."Rated: Fiction M - English - Romance - Edward & Bella - Chapters: 10 - Words: 95,090 - Reviews: 3,875 - Favs: 3,563 - Follows: 2,931 - Updated: 01-04-13 - Published: 10-20-12 - Status: Complete - id: 8625604
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Summary: "Every day for the rest of my life, I will wonder how kissing a virtual stranger goodbye could have felt like a hello."
Rating: M. Though there are no lemons yet, if I decide to continue this, there will be in the future. Also, there are numerous innuendos. Of course. Because that's what I do.
Disclaimer: I'm not in the habit of owning people, but I'd own Edward Cullen if I could. Alas, that privilege belongs to one Stephenie Meyer. Lucky witch.
Endless thanks to the wonderful HollettLA for her epic beta awesomeness.
January 3, 2012 – O'Hare Airport, Chicago – 9:45 p.m.
"Four seventeen." The Starbucks cashier gazes impassively past me at the hordes of travelers bustling amid the airport gates as she waits for payment. I dig through the change pocket in my wallet for exact change, liking the idea of my carry-on being even that little bit lighter. A dime, a nickel, and two pennies clatter to the counter atop the four one-dollar bills sitting between us, and I push them toward her; she scoops them up and deposits them into the yawning drawer of her register, ripping a receipt from the roll and holding it out, still utterly bored and staring past me.
"Thank you," I say, but my words are steamrolled by her own.
I shuffle to the end of the counter, waiting for my drink to appear. The nearby departures board tells me that I have more than two hours until my plane is scheduled to board and I sigh, glancing at the swirling snow through the floor-to-ceiling windows of a nearby gate. It will be much longer if the weather continues to assault the city, and inwardly I cringe at the prospect of spending an overnight tossing and turning on the grubby carpet of an airport terminal. Despite that likelihood, it's hard to muster up any indignation – what did I expect, flying in and out of Chicago in the dead of winter? I can, however, muster up some indignation toward Rosalie. Why she couldn't have planned a destination bachelorette party in the Bahamas is beyond me. Lord knows the woman likes to flounce around in a bikini. But no, it had to be a New Year's Eve bachelorette bash with all of her old socialite girlfriends in Times Square. No one could ever accuse Rose of lacking a sense of occasion. And, once we arrived at O'Hare and she headed to baggage claim as I made my way toward my connecting flight, I found myself staring down the barrel of a seemingly endless delay alone.
"Grande skim latte." The barista pushes my cup across the raised countertop and I offer her a smile, but she clearly subscribes to the same people skills philosophy as her coworker because she ignores me in favor of returning to her drink orders. Slipping a cardboard coffee sleeve around the cup and hoisting my backpack straps higher on my shoulders, I gaze around the terminal for a moment, debating whether to head for my gate immediately or find somewhere less chaotic.
O'Hare is buzzing with the level of post-holiday travel-related chaos to be expected at a major international airport the week after Christmas. Haggard parents attempt to corral wayward children too hyped up to be convinced to sit and amuse themselves quietly. College-aged students wander aimlessly, earbuds in their ears and glowing screens illuminating their bored faces. Seasoned jet-setting businesspeople look around as if the apocalypse is upon them, wondering when their familiar airport stomping ground turned into this circus, and the combination of distress and irritation on their faces is nearly laughable. There seems to be no place less frenzied than any other, so I make my way toward my gate, shoulders aching from the weight of my carry-on backpack. I can feel beads of sweat gathering at the small of my back; the heat is cranked in deference to the weather, and the overpopulation of bodies crammed into the terminal is making it too warm to be comfortable.
At the gate I scan for an open seat, but bodies are strewn around the space in varying degrees of consciousness, and it appears that every seat is taken. In a few instances, people have reclined across two or more seats to sleep, and my residual holiday goodwill melts away as irritation at their thoughtlessness creeps in.
"This seat's open." The friendly voice comes from somewhere behind me and I turn reflexively. A soldier sits on a bank of three chairs that are half-hidden behind the gate-check counter, a large knapsack beside him that matches the print of his fatigues. A beat-up silver iPod rests in his lap, and he has pulled one earbud out to address me; his hand holds it a few inches from his head. I glance at his face and he offers me a warm smile, dragging the bag effortlessly off the black leather seat and propping it up on the floor between his feet. I hesitate for a second, feeling guilty about invading his space as images of his probable destination flash through my mind. If he's headed where logic suggests he's headed, that black pseudo-chair might be the most comfortable seat he'll see for a while. Surely it would be selfish of me to encroach. Noting my hesitation and my fairly obvious perusal of his attire, he arches an eyebrow. "I'm unarmed," he says, and he is only half-kidding.
The smile that takes over my face is involuntary as I shrug out of my backpack and dump it on the floor, sinking gratefully into the chair beside him. "Thanks," I offer and he nods. I roll my shoulders in relief and take a tentative sip of my latte, wincing as the too-hot liquid touches my lips.
"New York?" he asks, letting the loose earbud fall to dangle against his chest, and I frown.
He nods toward the gate. "Headed to New York?"
I glance toward the gate he's indicating and shake my head, lifting my chin toward the opposite gangway. "Seattle."
"Ah." He nods, leaning back in his chair. "Delayed?"
"A little bit. Probably more, given how things are going. You?"
He nods. "Not looking good for tonight."
"Do you have a connection?"
His Adam's apple bobs slightly as he rests his head against the back side of the gate-check counter. "Had one," he says. "I'm all but guaranteed to miss it, so I'll be playing musical airplanes for the next few days."
"Where to from New York?" I ask, blowing through the tiny hole in the lid of my disposable coffee cup.
"Supposed to be Germany, then Kuwait, then Afghanistan," he says, then shrugs. "Now it remains to be seen."
"That sucks," I offer, and he chuckles, a warm, rumbling sound.
"Good thing about flying on Uncle Sam's dime: I'll get where I'm meant to be with very little effort on my part." I have no idea how to respond to this, so I opt to sip my still-too-hot coffee. "What's in Seattle?" he asks.
"Seattle's home," I say, and then I frown slightly. Is Seattle home? It's where I get my mail, and it's where I have a job, and my Facebook profile says I live there. My cell phone number has a Seattle area code. What more constitutes a home these days?
"Home?" he parrots, his frown and dubious tone mirroring my own.
I laugh. "Home," I say with a little more conviction this time. "You know, home – mailbox, kitchen, bedroom."
He arches an eyebrow. "Bedroom, huh?"
I shift in my seat. "What?"
He shakes his head, and as he breaks my gaze to look out the window, I can see that the tips of his ears are pink. "Sorry. I've been spending too much time with my brothers this week." He scratches his eyebrow and shifts in the black leather sling chair. "They're a bad influence on me." I consider him for a moment; he doesn't look like a sexual predator, but uniforms can be deceiving. My mind flits to Charlie and back. "I'm really not a pervert," he promises, eyes on me again, and I am alarmed that he can apparently read my thoughts. "I'm a little low on sleep and a little high on caffeine. I'm sorry."
"Older brothers?" I ask after a moment, a silent acceptance of his apology, and he exhales softly.
In the awkward silence that descends, his knee starts to bounce. "Well, since we've discussed family, hometowns, and your bedroom, I'd say it's about time I asked your name." His smile is warm and I feel something unfamiliar but not entirely unwelcome unfurl low in my belly.
"Bella." I keep my voice carefully neutral as my fingers pick at the cardboard cuff around my latte, and I cast a surreptitious glance at the nametape on the right side of his chest. Cullen.
"Bella," he repeats, dipping his chin in a silent how-do-you-do, and I like the honeyed way those two syllables roll off his tongue. I've been hearing my own name all my life, but somehow it's never sounded quite like that before. "I'm Edward."
"Edward," I mimic, silently adding the Cullen, and he is still smiling as the public address system crackles to life.
"Attention United passengers, flight 351 to Seattle has been delayed; the incoming flight is grounded in St. Louis due to inclement weather. We will keep you posted with further updates. Thank you."
I sigh and take another scorching sip. Edward Cullen still hasn't returned the earbud to his ear, opting instead to stare at me, and I grow increasingly uneasy under his scrutiny. "What are you listening to?" I ask finally, gesturing toward his iPod.
"Pearl Jam," he replies.
I am pleasantly surprised; I would have pegged him as considerably more likely to listen to a hard-core track like "Save You" over the mellower "Wishlist." "Good one," I say finally.
"You know Pearl Jam?" he asks, and I'm nearly insulted by his surprise.
I raise an eyebrow. "I'm from Washington State. Of course I know Pearl Jam."
An indulgent smile takes over his face. "Best song?"
A rather unladylike snort escapes my lips. "'Immortality,' live version."
"Interesting choice," he says. "Can't say I've ever heard the live version, though."
"Are you kidding me?"
He shrugs and I fish my iPhone and headphones out of the pocket of my jeans before I realize what I'm doing. I hesitate briefly before extending an earbud in his direction, suddenly overcome with uncertainty. If he notices I can't tell because he yanks his own earbud out of his ear and replaces it with mine. Relieved, I scroll through my playlist to find the track and hit play.
He gazes out the window as he listens, giving me the opportunity to study his features. His jaw is nearly a right angle, peppered with barely-there stubble in a copper hue matching his hair, which is slightly longer than the stereotypical Army cut but still relatively close to his head. Despite its short length, it seems to be growing in a million different directions, and I wonder idly what it would look like if it grew out. He has eyelashes longer and fuller than most women I know, and his eyes are a calming but vibrant shade of green. Suddenly the eyes that are the focus of my inspection find mine, and he offers me a small, warm smile. His teeth are ridiculously straight and even, and the instant realization of how physically attractive he is blindsides me like a city bus. How did I not notice when I first sat down?
Of course – because the first thing I noticed was the uniform.
"You're right, this is definitely superior to the studio version," he says, and I nod as my fingers drum on the armrest between us, idly wondering if he's serious or merely humoring me.
"I like most of their live stuff," I reply. "They're really great in concert."
"God, I'd love to see them live," he murmurs, still listening intently to the melody in his ear.
"You definitely should. It's worth it." The ending strains of the song fade, and before I can bring the screen back to life to hit stop, the next track in the shuffle begins. Edward grabs my hand. "Wait – leave it. This is a great song."
I'm somewhat impressed that he recognized the opening bars of Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks." We sit in companionable silence, and this time it's Edward's fingers that dance against the black leather armrest. His long, narrow, elegant fingers, which are attached to large hands and narrow wrists sprinkled with fair hair. I take another sip of my coffee and silently admonish myself to stop gawking at him. "This was without a doubt his best album," he says halfway through the song, and I'm impressed all over again. "The lyrics are pure poetry."
Poetry? Breathtakingly green eyes, the jawline of a marble statue, eyelashes befitting a starlet, long fingers, and he just used the word poetry. And just like that, I'm aroused in an airport terminal. God, I need a boyfriend.
Fading guitar chords draw me out of my self-reproach and I nod toward Edward's own iPod, discarded on his torso. "What's next in your queue?"
In lieu of answering, he hands me back my earphone and then hands me one of his own, which I obediently fit into my ear. He presses play and I listen intently, hoping stupidly that I'll be able to identify the track. After a few chords the song is familiar, and it only takes me a few more riffs to be able to place it.
"Dave Matthews," I say, and he smiles.
"Oldie but goodie," he says. "Not quite Pearl Jam, but it's enjoyable enough." We listen together and I am transported back to college, to a too-small dorm room and a guitar-laden soundtrack to study by. The song fades, and the next one starts. "Fuck," he breathes and stabs at the pause button but it's too late; I'd know that opening refrain anywhere.
"David Bowie?" I ask, eyebrow arched in wordless skepticism.
"Okay, first of all, Bowie is an icon, and secondly, 'Under Pressure' is one of those songs everyone has, whether he admits to it or not."
I want to argue but I can't; that same track is in my iTunes library sandwiched somewhere between Dave Matthews and David Gray, even if it hasn't made its way to my iPhone playlist. "True. Okay, truth: what's the most embarrassing song you have on there?" I tilt my head toward the iPod and he glances down, considering. I wonder if he's debating whether to confess, or if his taste in music is appalling enough that he's having trouble coming up with an answer. I'm having a hard time reconciling that with a guy who yearns to see Pearl Jam live when he sighs.
"Inner Circle," he says finally. "'Sweat.'"
I frown and he sighs again, scrolling through with one hand as he offers me an earbud once more. As soon as I am plugged in, I hear the familiar strains of a forgotten reggae hit in my ears and I laugh. "Oh my God. I forgot this song even existed."
He lets loose his own laugh. "I'm sure many people wish they could as well. I don't know, it's just… catchy." He moves his finger to stop it, but I still his hand.
"No, leave it. I haven't heard this in years." My head bobs and I try to ignore the unexpected flicker of heat that passed through me when I touched his skin.
"I'm going to ask you the same question when this is over, so be prepared," he murmurs, and I flush; whether it's at the anticipation of my pending embarrassment or the dulcet tones of his voice, I'm not sure. I scroll through my own list as our heads bob in tandem, and as his embarrassment draws to a close with the song, he replaces his earbud with mine and my own mortification begins.
"The Spice Girls?!" He exclaims, glee painted across his features. "You were giving me crap about David Bowie, and you have the Spice Girls on your iPhone?"
"Shut up," I say, even as I laugh. "'Wannabe' is like a cult classic."
He snorts. "Yeah, if we're talking about a cult of thirteen-year-olds wearing Union Jack tops and pink platform knee-high boots."
I have no argument for this very valid point, so I remain silent. Halfway through the song, the overhead speaker buzzes with a pending announcement and I pause the bubble gum pop song mid-"zig-a-zig-ah."
"Ladies and gentlemen, flight 1584 to New York has been delayed until tomorrow." The collective groan of discontent is so loud that the gate attendant has to allow it to die down before continuing. "Please see a United ticket agent to rearrange your travel plans if necessary." I chance a glance at Edward, who in turn faces me, a grin lighting his eyes as he wraps his earbud cord around the iPod.
"Breakfast?" he asks, and I am momentarily thrown as I unplug the earphones from my iPhone and return both items to the pocket of my jeans.
"Breakfast," he repeats.
"It's almost eleven o'clock at night." Even as I speak, the mental image of a stack of pancakes drenched in maple syrup makes my mouth water. Shouldn't he be irritated about this upheaval of his travel plans? I ask him as much and he shrugs.
"A few more hours on American soil? I'll take it as a late Christmas gift from Mother Nature. There's a really good place in the other terminal that serves breakfast around the clock. Decent coffee, too." He gestures toward my nearly empty Starbucks cup with a smirk. "Free refills, and it doesn't cost four bucks a pop."
"You had me at coffee," I say, rising from the seat and tossing my backpack over my shoulder.
By the time we are seated in the small diner-style café with steaming mugs of coffee in front of us, I have learned that Edward was home on a fifteen-day leave from Iraq for his middle brother's wedding, that he grew up just outside Chicago but went to college at Dartmouth, that he is tall and moves with the grace of a gazelle, and that he had just finished reading Letters to a Young Poet when I showed up in the waiting area between Gates B7 and B9 with my overpriced latte and overweight carry-on.
"Why Rilke?" I ask, emptying a small creamer into my coffee and stirring it.
"My brother brought to my attention that it was a glaring omission in my literary education," he says, taking a sip of his own coffee.
"Is this the brother that got married?"
"Jasper," he confirms, nodding. "My other brother, Emmett, isn't really the reading type. Magazines notwithstanding."
"Which one's the bad influence?"
He chuckles, remembering his earlier faux pas. "Both. In equal measure, but in entirely opposite ways."
"Emmett is sort of a stereotype: hulking bear of a former college athlete with the sense of humor of a frat boy. He tells jokes that would make my mother smack him if he were ever stupid enough to tell them within earshot of her. But underneath it, he's a really decent guy, if a bit of a hornball. He's a detective with the Chicago PD now."
"Jasper is… well, he's sort of a free spirit. He's into holistic healing and meditation and yoga and all sorts of new-age shit that would make anyone think he grew up in California with hippie parents if they didn't know better. He's pretty laid-back and soft-spoken, but he's very into sensation and emotion and how the two coincide – which is really all a nice way of saying that sex is his favorite hobby, and he regularly suggests I should give tantric sex a try." I choke on a mouthful of coffee, and Edward seems pleased. "Sorry." He doesn't sound sorry.
I wave off his apology. "And where do you fit in?"
He leans back in the booth and eyes me speculatively. "I'm the most dangerous of the three," he says finally. "You don't realize what a deviant I am until you really get to know me, and by then it's too late." He pins me with his gaze, and I am suddenly struck dumb by the depth of his eyes, a green a hundred times more vibrant than the muted shade that licks traces through his military-issued wardrobe. My mouth opens and closes; I'm relatively certain I must look like a goldfish. Finally he laughs, breaking me free of my stupor. "Bella, I'm kidding. I'm pretty boring. What you see is what you get." He shrugs, as if this is an apology.
"You're a soldier," I argue, ignoring the sexual implications of our exchange and steering us back onto conversational ground that I can navigate without feeling like I'm about to step on a land mine. "I'd say serving your country and being boring are mutually exclusive."
"You'd be surprised," he says.
"What do you do in the Army?" I ask.
"I'm part of an EOD team – that stands for Explosive Ordnance Disposal," he explains. "We disassemble and dispose of explosive devices; we're basically the military equivalent of the bomb squad." His explanation suddenly halts and he glances around us. When he returns his gaze to mine, a mischievous glint has taken up residence in his eyes. "Whoops. Probably shouldn't say the b-word in an airport."
I laugh. "Probably not, though if anyone could get away with it, I'm guessing it'd be you."
His smirk tells me that he's taking this as a compliment and I smile in return. "See? That's the antithesis of boring." Then the awareness of what he's said infiltrates my brain. "Wait… you're telling me that while everyone else over there is running away from bombs, you're walking toward them?"
His shoulders hitch in an approximation of a shrug. "Pretty much."
"What on earth would possess you to do that?"
His eyes narrow. "Have you been talking to my mother?" The momentary concern that I've hit a nerve dissipates as a sly smile stretches lazily across his face.
"What if I said yes?"
"I wouldn't be at all surprised." The smile graduates to a chuckle, and he stirs his coffee for a moment before the amusement bleeds from his face. I shuffle sugar packets between my fingers and watch him twirl a spoon between his nimble fingers. I've nearly convinced myself that he's going to ignore my question altogether when he speaks, his voice a low murmur.
"You know how everyone has that story about where they were on September 11th?" I nod, flashing briefly to a dorm room on the opposite side of the country and waking to breaking news updates on the alarm radio instead of pop songs. "I was sleeping off a bender in my dorm room and woke up to my mother's panicked voice on my answering machine," he continues. "My father was at a medical conference in Manhattan that morning, and of course she couldn't get in touch with him." Off my look, he shakes his head. "He's fine. Was fine. Is fine. He was uptown, nowhere near the Financial District at all. But I had a friend who graduated the year before who had just started as a trader with a firm based in the World Trade Center. He was fine, too. Everyone I knew was fine, even though they could just as easily have not been fine, and there were so many people who weren't fine." He pauses to sip his coffee, and his green eyes are miles – and years – away. "I just felt like I needed to do something. I thought becoming a doctor was how I was going to do something, but my dad was a doctor. That morning, as soon as they heard what was happening, a bunch of them hauled ass over to St. Vincent's because it was as close as they could get to the site, and do you know what surprised him? There was no one to help. All of these hospitals, all of these doctors were standing around in surgical gowns and latex gloves just waiting for this rush of bleeding, broken people to come streaming in so they could start helping, and they just… never came. There was no one to help. The damage had already been done, and no number of doctors could undo it." He glances up at me, and I have no idea what my face looks like. If it matches my insides, it's a jumble of horror and surprised anguish. "Sorry. This is kind of a heavy conversation to have with someone you just met. And over breakfast, to boot." I shake my head and wait for him to continue, glad when he does. "I finished college in May and joined the Army in June. My parents were understandably upset, but not nearly as much as when they found out what I was specializing in."
"What made you decide on… that?"
His broad, camouflage-encased shoulders hitch slightly in an approximation of a shrug. "I was pre-med. Took a lot of science and chemistry. Chemistry's a good background to have if you're going to be working with explosives."
"I'd imagine," I breathe, and I wonder if he'd be less attractive in a set of doctor's scrubs. The answer from my own imagination is a resounding no.
"I also… it felt more like prevention than aggression, somehow." This revelation is unexpectedly candid, and in that moment I feel closer to Edward Cullen than I do to far too many of the people in my life. As I am trying to make sense of the sudden pull I feel toward a stranger, our server appears with a plate of buttermilk pancakes for me and what the menu describes as a "Hungry Man Breakfast" for him: essentially, a platter that includes every single breakfast food known to man. His face is alight with glee as she places it in front of him, and I am suddenly knocked in the ribs by the desire to take his picture.
"Awesome," he breathes after he thanks the waitress, unwrapping his silverware and draping the napkin purposefully in his lap. He has manners, I think as he sprinkles pepper on his scrambled eggs. "I love breakfast food."
I am smiling like an idiot at my pancakes, and I drizzle a puddle of maple syrup over the stack. "Me too."
"So, Bella… wait, what's your last name?"
"Swan." There was absolutely no hesitation there; Charlie would be appalled at my apparently instant disregard of his years of training.
"So, Bella Swan," he amends around a mouthful of egg. "What do you do for a living?"
"I'm a photographer," I say, cutting a pie-shaped wedge out of my pancakes and bringing it to my lips. "Photojournalist, actually," I clarify around the mouthful.
"That's amazing," he says; his voice is genuine. "For a newspaper?"
"Yeah. Right now I work for a small weekly in Seattle, but that's just temporary."
"How come?" Suddenly my career aspirations seem grandiose if not naïve, and I hesitate, cutting another bite and filling my mouth again. He frowns. "What?"
I chew as slowly as I can without it being obvious. "Well, right now I take pictures of things like Fourth of July parades and ribbon-cuttings and high school debate teams. I, uh… I'm hoping to take pictures of more substantial things in the future."
I sigh. Don't be a coward. "I'd like to work for the Associated Press and take pictures in war zones."
His fork pauses halfway to his mouth and he swallows, even though his mouth is empty. He returns the utensil to his plate. "Why?"
"Because it's real," I say, wanting to defend my decision nearly as much as I don't want to make light of what he must have seen without the filter of a camera lens.
"There's real everywhere, if you know how to look for it," he says. His gentle voice belies the argument in his words.
"Yes," I agree. "But our concept of reality pales in comparison to other people's realities."
"Yes," he says, and we sit in silence for a moment until the waitress reappears beside our table.
"How is everything?"
"Terrific," Edward says, but his eyes don't leave my face.
"Wonderful," I echo, and she retreats, dismissed.
His eyes pass over my face and his mouth twitches, as if he's searching for words. "It's hard," he says finally. "Seeing things. Real things."
I nod. "That's why it's important that people see them."
Green eyes drop to his plate, and he pushes his eggs around with his fork. When he speaks again, his voice is so soft I lean forward to hear him, trying not to dip my hair in maple syrup. "I agree. I guess I'm just slightly uncomfortable with the idea of someone like you being the one showing them."
My stomach drops, and I don't have any time to school my features before he lifts his eyes to search my face. I shake my head, but I have no verbal response for him. I cut another wedge of pancake and stuff it into my mouth, forcing myself to chew and swallow despite the fact that what was so mouthwatering mere moments ago now has a consistency not unlike sawdust. For a few minutes that stretch out like an eon, growing heavier between us with each passing moment, we are silent, the only sounds at our small booth the occasional clink of forks against china plates.
The waitress – Abby, her nametag informs me – reappears with a pot of coffee. "Refills?"
"Please," we say in unison, and Edward chances a glance at my face. I flush at being caught looking at him, and our silence reappears as we watch our twin mugs get refilled before Abby vanishes once again.
I wonder idly how our easy conversation from earlier about his troublemaking brothers nose-dived so spectacularly into this awkward silence. I speak before I can think. "I bet you're wishing we had stuck to talking about tantric sex, huh?" The moment the words escape my mouth, he is choking on a mouthful of toast. "Shit! Sorry. Here!" I shove the small glass of water across the table, and it sloshes out as he grabs it and drains it in three long swallows. A curled fist pounds his chest, and green watery eyes focus on me.
"Sorry," I offer again. I'm not really sorry, though, because suddenly his green eyes are a shade darker than before, his voice is breathless, and there is a hummingbird flutter where my stomach used to be.
"Thank you again for breakfast. Slash-dinner."
Edward grins at me, hands once again resting on the shoulder straps of his camouflage knapsack. "It was the least I could do, really, after talking about your bedroom and tantric sex within half an hour of meeting you."
"True. You're really very indecent."
He beams. "My brothers would be delighted to hear you say that." I laugh. I want to meet his brothers. We stand just outside the entrance of the café, gazing around at displaced travelers making the most of being stuck in an airport with no escape. From the corner of my eye, I see one of Edward's hands travel from his shoulder strap to run through his hair. "I'm so bad at this part."
"Like, at the end of a date. I'm so awkward at saying goodnight." The hitch in my breath is audible, and he flushes; I'm becoming alarmingly fond of the way the skin at the back of his neck and the tips of his ears turns pink. "Shit." He shifts his weight, his combat boots shuffling on the diamond-patterned industrial carpet. "That came out so completely wrong. I think dear Abby must have slipped a Roofie in my coffee; I've lost all self-restraint."
"Self-restraint is overrated." That came out far more breathless than I would have liked, but I can't bring myself to regret it when I see the look on his face: surprise and relief and gratitude and something that looks a lot like provocation. I shrug, searching for something that will get us back on our formerly comfortable conversational track. "Besides, after this date, we'd be saying good morning." That wasn't it. His eyebrows jump to somewhere near his hairline and he exhales in a rush. As the implication of what I've said hits me, I close my eyes, willing the tidal wave of mortification to just carry me through the airport and back to my gate, where I can plug myself into my iPod and ignore the entire world. Honestly, you'd think I was fifteen years old. "Oh, God."
"Nope," comes his voice, laced with something I haven't heard before. "That'd be said the night before the morning."
I really might explode. Right here, on this ugly airport carpet, a puddle of Bella with shards of my self-restraint and wit and composure lying all around.
"What?" he asks when I don't open my eyes.
"I think I might explode," I say, wondering where and when I lost my filter.
"Good thing you're hanging out with me, then," he breathes. "I'm very adept at handling volatile materials."
I open my eyes and throw us into reverse, attempting to gather up what's left of my poise with trembling hands. "I meant because it's after midnight. That's why we'd be saying good morning. Not because we… well, y'know." Nope. No poise to be found here.
Another smile from him and thankfully, mercifully, he plays along. "I got it. Besides, I'm not really the type to let you steal my virtue on the first date, anyway."
"Is that a fact?"
He nods in mock solemnity. "I'm really quite the prude."
"I'm a source of eternal disappointment for my brothers."
"Tell them you broached the delicate topic tantric sex with a virtual stranger, and I'm sure they'll see your unrealized potential."
"I'll do that."
We stand in awkward silence for a few moments before my eyes spot a newsstand a few storefronts down the terminal. "Do you need anything for your flight?"
Confusion draws his brows together. "What?"
I start walking, silently willing him to follow me, and equal parts relieved and elated when he does. "I was going to pick up a magazine or something," I say, gesturing toward the nearby Hudson News franchise.
"Okay," he says, not telling whether or not he intends to purchase anything, and a giddy satisfaction courses through me at the possibility that he might just want to accompany me. "What magazine are we looking for? Cosmopolitan?" His brow puckers. "No, you're not the Cosmo type, are you? Vanity Fair. No, that's not it either." He taps long fingers against his chin in mock consideration. "I bet you were a Jane type of girl when it was around, weren't you? Girl stuff with a bit of an edge. Ms. Magazine? Do you get your inner feminista on?"
He's getting progressively more pleased with himself, and I feel the need to drag him back to Earth. "You certainly know your way around the women's magazine shelf, Edward. I admit, I'm a little concerned about your proclivities now; perhaps your brothers should be more worried about you than I thought."
He grins. "Too much time in airports," he confesses. "And your magazines have hotter cover models than Men's Health."
I laugh. "Point." We enter the newsstand and I break toward the magazine wall, bypassing the women's shelf entirely and throwing him a pointed look as I do so. Instead, I approach a spinning rack that houses my go-to reads: Newsweek and TIME. I grab a copy of The Chicago Tribune for good measure and hug my stack of reading materials to my body, turning to see him bent at the waist, squinting at the cover of a magazine on a low-sitting shelf. "Hot cover model?" I guess, following his gaze, and he chuckles.
"You could say that." He points to one of the women's fitness magazines. "My brother Emmett's ex-girlfriend. I thought she looked familiar."
I stare at the glossy cover, stunned. I've never known anyone on the cover of a magazine, and Edward seems entirely nonplussed at the fact that he does. "Are you serious?"
He nods. "Tanya. They dated in college."
Curiosity about Edward's family railroads me. A doctor father, a son who joined the U.S. Army after graduating pre-med from Dartmouth, another son who dates magazine cover models when he's not eradicating crime from the streets of Chicago, and a third son who is apparently a combination of Sting and the Maharishi. I can't even attempt to rein in my curiosity. "What does your mother do?"
"She teaches college literature," he says, and the softness in his eyes is endearing. "She also started and runs a charity for at-risk youth here in Chicago and sits on the board of a few other children's charities."
"You're like a Kennedy, aren't you?"
"Like, big family, all perfect, all beautiful."
He beams. "You think I'm beautiful?"
Warmth creeps up my neck, and I shuffle through my magazines so I have something to do with my hands. I do think he's beautiful, especially when he's smiling at me like that, and I want to kick myself for tipping my hand so spectacularly. "You know what I mean."
"I know it takes one to know one, Bella Swan."
"Smooth talker," I say, even as the warmth escalates into an inferno. "Like I said. Kennedy."
"I'm far more honest than a Kennedy," he says, and I don't know if he's alluding to the fact that he called me beautiful or if this is just a general declaration, so I opt for deflection.
"Are you going to buy Tanya's magazine?" I ask.
"I don't think so," he says, eyebrow raised. "Unless you have a pressing need for an issue of Shape?"
I make my way toward the register, and Edward follows close enough behind me that I can feel the air move around us. I'm still stuck on the fact that he called me beautiful as I hand my purchases to the teller and dig in the side pocket of my backpack for my wallet. My attention momentarily diverted from Edward, I barely notice when he spins a rack and a surprised exclamation escapes his mouth. "No way!"
"What?" I ask as the cashier asks for eleven dollars and change. I fish out the appropriate number of bills and search for the exact coins to make the total. Edward's long fingers appear in my line of vision.
"They have my name!" He sounds like a six-year-old.
"That's wonderful, Edward." In turn I sound like a kindergarten teacher, which seems entirely appropriate.
"You don't understand. They never have Edward on anything." His glee is so palpable that I tamp down on the urge to point out that a keychain with an Illinois license plate on it is hardly befitting a man his age. I go for empathy instead.
"Tell me about it. Bella isn't exactly a best-seller, either."
He returns to the rack, a man on a mission, and after a moment he plucks a second keychain from the spinning stand. "You'll never believe it."
"Yeah, right." I roll my eyes but he holds it out toward me, and sure enough, my name is staring back at me.
"It's a sign," he says, slapping both key chains on the counter in front of the bemused cashier, who has been watching our exchange impassively. "We were meant to have commemorative key chains."
"Commemorating what, exactly?" I ask, even as a small thrill runs through me at the notion that he thinks something about today is worth memorializing.
He shrugs, suddenly embarrassed as he slides a few bills out of his worn leather wallet. "The great Chicago blizzard of 2012?" he proposes, shaking off the cashier's offer of a bag and handing my "Bella" key chain to me. When his eyes find mine, though, something tells me he doesn't much care about the snow.
"Excellent call," I say, taking the token and grinning up at him. "Thank you for my souvenir."
"Bella, it's my pleasure." His eyes dance. Definitely not because of the weather.
We emerge once again into the gaping mouth of the terminal and look both ways, as if we're waiting curbside to cross a busy street. I am immediately anxious to come up with something else to do, scared that in the face of boredom he will opt to go back to the gate and this – whatever this is – will be over. "Smoothies?" I suggest, despite the fact that we just gorged ourselves on breakfast food. We didn't have dessert, and smoothies count. Sort of.
He wrinkles his nose. "Ew."
"Ew?" I repeat. "What's 'ew' about a smoothie?"
"If I'm going to eat something that cold, it better have whipped cream and chocolate sauce and sprinkles on it," he states. "I don't need to grind up all sorts of freaky granola-crunchy hippie-food with ice and call it a meal replacement."
I roll my eyes. "Oh, Edward. Let me show you the error of your ways." I grab him by the crook of his arm, attempting valiantly to ignore the ripple of muscle that I can feel even through the thick fabric of his jacket, and drag him in the direction of the nearby smoothie hut.
The tinny ring of a cell phone spills into the silence between us, and Edward's long fingers disappear into the pocket of his pants to retrieve an iPhone. He glances at the screen and grins. "This'll be entertaining." Then, into the phone, "Hello?" A beat. "Hi, Jasper. Still at O'Hare. For the night." Pause. "Early morning flight out, probably; I'll let you know the connections when I have them." A breath. "Just… hanging out. Killing time." He glances at me. "I'm having a smoothie." I can faintly hear an expression of surprise, and a small smile pulls at Edward's lips, which have become ever-so-slightly pinker thanks to his smoothie. I should probably feel pathetic that I even notice a barely noticeable change in his lip color, or embarrassed, at the very least. "Yes, you've been right this whole time. Smoothies are wonderful. Though, to be fair, this particular one is made with strawberries and raspberries and yogurt and has none of that disgusting stuff you throw in yours… what was it again? Algae and wheat germ?" I wrinkle my nose, and Edward catches it. "I know, right?" he murmurs to me, angling the mouthpiece of the phone away from his mouth for a moment. "Bella," he says, back to his phone conversation. "Bella Swan. Fellow displaced traveler." He pauses, watching me as his brother speaks. "Mm-hmm. Okay. Hey, is that Sophie in the background? What's she still doing awake?" He laughs. "Okay." Suddenly, the phone is on the table between us, and he taps the speaker button. "My niece," he murmurs to me a split second before a high-pitched child's voice peals through the speaker.
"Hiya, butterbean," he says, grinning at the phone, and a warmth suffuses my body. "What are you still doing up? It's so far past your bedtime it's almost tomorrow!"
"Funderstorm," comes the one-word answer. "Mommy let me get in her bed but I can't sleep 'cause 'a the funder."
"Well guess what, bean?"
"Your thunderstorm is a snowstorm here in Chicago."
"Snow?" the child's voice breathes in awe, and Edward glances at me.
"Southern California," he mouths before bringing his straw to his lips, and I nod in understanding. "Unca Edward, Mommy said you got laid in Chicago."
Edward's reaction is a sitcom-worthy spit-take, and suddenly I am in a shower of pink smoothie, most of which lands in a spray of dots across my white blouse.
"DElayed, Sophie. DElayed," we hear in the background as Edward stares in horror at my shirt, and I dab delicately at the spatters on my face. There is a faint shuffle on the phone before a woman's voice comes through. "Edward." Sophie's mother has clearly wrestled the phone from her verbally limited child. "Edward, I said nothing about you getting laid in Chicago. I said you got DElayed in Chicago. Though if you got laid in Chicago, by all means, now would be a wonderful time to share. Was it one of my bridesmaids? Please tell me it was Jill; you will have made her year, and I can finally stop dodging her requests for your phone number."
"Alice," Edward groans, turning off the speaker function and bringing the phone to his ear with one hand, as the other claws wildly at the napkin dispenser at the edge of the table. "I have to go. Kiss Sophie for me, and keep that husband of yours in line." He ends the call without a goodbye and stares at me, a flower cluster of napkins in his fist. "God, I'm sorry."
"It's okay, Edward. I don't even really like this shirt. You did me a favor."
"Yeah, but you're going to be wearing it for hours," he argues, and I can see despair painting his features. His brows knit together, a small crease forming between them, and his eyes flash as they stare at my ruined blouse. His strawberry-stained lips purse and something jumps near the hinge of his jaw. If possible, his distressed face might be nearly as attractive as his smile. I am suddenly aware of the fact that he is glaring at my shirt as if he can erase the stains by sheer force of will.
"Oh, I see," I joke, desperate to ease his self-reproach. "This was all part of a ploy to have free range to stare at my chest."
Those green eyes fly to mine, and his formerly pursed lips spread in an "o" of surprise. "What? I wasn't…" He trails off at my smile, and his eyes narrow, this time in playfulness. "If I were that forward-thinking, Bella, I'd have spilled a whole hell of a lot more than a few drops on you so that you'd have had to take it off."
As soon as the words are out of his mouth I want to take it off, because it's awfully hot all of a sudden. "Fair point," I choke out and take a sip of my smoothie in an attempt to combat the heat rising in my body.
He rubs the back of his neck before pushing his chair from the table, the movement sudden and jerky and completely devoid of the grace I was admiring earlier. He heaves his bag onto his lap and unzips one of the many compartments, rummaging around inside and muttering to himself. After a moment, he withdraws a gray rolled-up piece of cloth, which he thrusts in my direction. "Here."
I take the cloth, which is so soft I am momentarily transported to the wash-worn sheets of my childhood twin bed. "Edward, it's fine; the napkins are doing the job."
He shakes his head. "It's a shirt," he informs me, taking it back and unrolling it to shake it out. "Obviously it'll be big, but it's long-sleeved so at least it'll be warm. Sort of."
I mirror his head-shake. "Really, it's fine." Even as I say it, the desire to slip the silk-soft cotton over my head floods through me. Almost as if he can tell, he holds the now-unrolled shirt out to me once again, and I take it despite my protests. I begin to unbutton my shirt and his eyes widen; I pause at the third button. "I'm wearing a tank top," I tell him, and he swallows. I watch his Adam's apple bounce, and I clutch the shirt to my chest, rising from the table. "Maybe I'll just find a bathroom. Can you watch my bag?" He nods wordlessly and I bolt, at once mortified and energized by his obvious reaction to my impulsive half-attempt to disrobe in his presence. Perhaps I'm not the only one feeling unsettled by more than just the weather.
I weave my way through the sea of people wandering aimlessly through the terminal and find the nearest women's restroom, slipping into a stall and draping Edward's shirt over the hook on the back of the chrome metal door. I resume unbuttoning, watching my warped and indistinct reflection in the door's surface. Sliding the smoothie-spattered shirt off my shoulders, I swap it for the soft cotton and pull the new shirt over my head. Comfort is instantaneous, and I shiver slightly as the cool material settles against my heated skin. A trace of fragrant detergent dances around me, and I wonder if this is what Edward smells like; the errant thought makes my heart race, and I ball up my white shirt and swing open the stall door. Out of habit, I make my way to the sinks and stare at my reflection: my eyes are dancing with something different and bright spots of color sit high on my cheeks. Edward's shirt, a heather gray long-sleeved tee with "Army" printed in black across the chest, dwarfs me. A smile creeps unbidden across my face, and I immediately sober.
You're an idiot. My inner Bella may be a bitch, but she's right. I look like this, feel like this, because of a man I just met who is leaving for a destination halfway around the world where he will be playing chicken with unexploded bombs built by medieval terrorists. We are literally flying in two opposite directions in a matter of hours, and I'll probably never see him again, even if he does make it out of the Middle East unharmed. The inner voice advises me to return to the stall and lose the shirt but I can't. I glare at myself and spin away from my reflection, emerging once again into a sea of people.
"You know," Edward says conversationally as I approach the table, his previously distraught eyes back to the twinkling mirth that I'm beginning to suspect is their default mode, "You shouldn't leave your bags unattended or in the company of strangers. There are announcements to that effect on repeat loop." He waves his hand overhead in a vague gesture to the PA system.
I shrug, bending to bury my ruined shirt in my backpack before straightening and meeting his eyes. "I think we've surpassed the stranger portion of the program, don't you?"
Edward considers me for a moment and glances away from my face and down to his shirt before his expression sobers, his eyes hooded. "Yes. I'd say we have." There is a faint scraping sound, and I look away from the intensity of his eyes to see that he's pushing and pulling on the red straw of his now-empty smoothie, thrusting it in and out of the Styrofoam cup. The motion is erotically reminiscent of something else, and heat licks at my body.
"Have you ever had a pedicure?" I blurt in an effort to divert the pending flush of my cheeks.
He frowns at my abrupt conversational lane-change. "Pardon?"
"A pedicure. There's a stand in Terminal 1 that actually has massage chairs, and a couple of Asian women do pedicures and foot massages. It's amazingly relaxing. I don't know if they're still there, but it seems like all of the stores are still open. Snowed in, I guess. We could go see."
His frown deepens. "Aren't pedicures a chick thing?"
"Bella, if I go into a combat zone with red toenails, I'll get my ass handed to me, and I don't mean by jihadists. My own unit would never let me live it down."
A laugh escapes me before I can rein it in. "You don't have to get them painted," I say, the "duh" thick in my voice. "You just… soak your feet and get a foot rub and stuff. Come on. I made my friend Jake do it with me once and he loved it."
"I'll bet," he murmurs, so low I nearly don't catch it. I'm about to ask for clarification, when my words reverberate in my head. I made my friend Jake do it with me once. My cheeks flame, and Edward grins in unbridled glee at my obvious discomfort. "This Jake… lucky fella."
I smirk. "Same could be said for Jill." Was that subtle? I hope so, but I doubt it.
He smirks right back. "Ah, yes. Jill." Jealousy, ugly, thick, and green, sweeps through me; I am assaulted by the unwelcome image of Edward sitting in lotus position with a naked girl in his lap. Damn his tantric sex-pushing brother and matchmaking sister-in-law. "Jill's not really my type," he confesses, his voice determinedly casual.
"Oh?" I'm going for disinterested nonchalance, but something tells me I miss the mark by a good mile or so. If his grin is any indication, he can tell. The grin is overtaken by a smirk as he fishes in his pocket and retrieves his phone once again; tapping at the screen, he frowns slightly, sliding a long, elegant finger across the surface a few times. Great, now I'm jealous of an iPhone screen. Get a grip, Swan. He interrupts my silent self-deprecation to show me a photo. "That's Jill."
Jill is a freaking supermodel. She's blond, tan, tall, and has boobs that look like his sister's choice of bridesmaid dress had a full-time job containing them. I'm getting my dander up to hate her on sight when I'm distracted by the rest of the picture: Edward, grinning, in a tuxedo. Untied black bow-tie hanging loose around his neck. Top button undone. Jacket open. Sex on legs.
Desire, swift like a gut-shot.
Self-ridicule, a one-two punch.
"That's Jill," I echo when I find my voice, which I had to coax to life from somewhere near my toes. "How is that not your type? That's every guy's type."
"Not mine," he says with a shrug that's not quite casual. "I'm more into brunettes."
Another gut-shot and I'm on the mat. I should tap out.
"Hm." Non-committal is the only response I can find, and my lack of a witty retort seems to throw Edward for a loop. He shifts in his seat and retracts his phone as I shift my weight, debating whether or not to sit down. He swipes the screen once more, and the corner of his mouth tugs upward as he extends it in my direction once more. "Sophie," he says, smile growing. "She of the limited enunciation skills."
The little girl is adorable – rosy-cheeked, blue-eyed, dark-haired, and wearing a frilly cream-colored dress. I am immediately taken not only with her but with the second photo of Edward I've ever seen. His niece is perched on his hip, chubby arms around his neck, beaming. Edward's hands support her weight, his long fingers folded together beneath her small body, a warm but relaxed grin on his face; in this one, his bow tie is still tied. "She's beautiful," I say, omitting the fact that so is he. "Who does she look like?"
"Alice, mostly." He pulls the phone back, glancing at it once more before turning off the screen and slipping it into his pocket. "Alice has the dark hair and blue eyes, but she's got Jasper's dimples."
"How old is she?"
"She turned four in September," he says, and I love that he doesn't even have to think about it. "She was born shortly after Alice graduated from college." He smirks. "About nine months after, to be exact." I laugh, and he continues. "But they'd been together forever, and both knew they'd eventually get married, so they just decided they were doing things a little bit out of order." He cocks his head. "Which is really very them." I am struck again by the desire to meet these people he loves, and the recollection of my inner voice's scathing restroom diatribe must show on my face because his humor dies on his face. "What?"
I shake my head, but something about Edward is like a truth serum. "They just… sound really special."
He nods. "They are." But he says nothing more, waiting for me to continue.
"They sound like people I would like."
Those green eyes are troubled, and I wonder if his thoughts are meandering down the same path that mine have already taken. "You would. They would like you, too." The teasing tone that has laced all of his words is gone, and I miss it; something about this new tenor, tinged with concern and confusion and maybe even a little bit of regret, makes it hard to breathe. Suddenly, he bounces out of his seat and shrugs into his knapsack. "Foot rubs?"
"Foot rubs," I agree, and breathing resumes as I fall into step beside him.
"Well, that's disappointing," Edward says, frowning at the shuttered stand and the folded up massage chairs. "All that talk of foot massages got me very worked up. Now I'll never know how magical they are."
"I can't believe this is the one place that isn't open!" I nearly wail. "I mean, come ON… an airport chock-full of irritable people who have pretzeled themselves into tiny, uncomfortable chairs for HOURS… how is a place with massage chairs the only one closed?" He spins to me, his face a picture of delight. "What?" I demand, thrown.
"A Bella Swan tantrum," he beams.
"I'm just saying," I huff. "It seems counter-intuitive."
"No, no, I'm enthralled. It's like a nature program up close, when you see animals in their natural habitat, acting on instincts. No holds barred. In this case, it's a matter of denied female desire. It's fascinating."
I swipe at him, landing an open-palmed smack on his shoulder. "Shut up."
His mouth falls open and his eyes widen as he grips the shoulder I assaulted. "Ow."
My eyes roll. "Please. I barely even touched you. Besides, you're an Army man; I doubt I could hurt you if I tried."
"No, you definitely hurt me," he argues, rubbing his shoulder gently and tossing me an aggrieved pout. It affects me far more than I'm willing to admit, and my mind is doing an ill-advised constant replay of his voice saying "female desire." He continues, oblivious to my somersaulting insides as his hand works at his bicep. "And the massage place is closed; this is going to seize up and could potentially lead to chronic pain that would prevent me from doing my job."
"That's not even where I hit you. A minute ago you were rubbing your shoulder."
His pout deepens and his hand stills. "You just assaulted an officer of the United States Army and you're not even going to offer to make up for it?"
"You just got finished advising me against leaving my luggage with you, and now you want me rubbing you?" Realizing my mistake the instant his eyebrows jump, I hold up my hand between us. And, judging by the way his mouth hangs half-open, not a minute too soon. "Don't even touch that one."
"I wouldn't dare."
As he makes his peace with the knowledge that I won't be playing masseur, my mind is running rampant with all of the wonderful ways I would, in fact, be willing to rub him. "Something tells me you don't get shot down too often," I guess.
A sigh escapes his lips. "Chicks usually dig the uniform," he confesses, and he has the good grace to look more than mildly embarrassed at this admission, even though he's partly kidding.
"My dad was a cop," I reply, shrugging. "Uniforms don't really do much for me." The half-lie slips easily enough past my lips. Cop uniforms don't do anything for me, but something about Edward in fatigues and the way the colors make his eyes a brilliant green make parts of me clench in anticipation.
"Too bad. What now?" he asks, looking around as if inspiration is poised to strike from behind a nearby corner.
"I don't know," I confess as we drift away from the closed pedicure stand and amble through Terminal 1. I gaze impassively at the illuminated billboard-style ads that line the walls, and halt in front of one boasting a world map.
"My geography sucks," I admit, squinting at the region of the world that I see regularly highlighted on CNN until my eyes find Afghanistan. It's quite literally half a world away from the diamond-pattered square of carpet on which we're standing, if not more.
Edward stands beside me, his shoulder brushing mine, following my gaze. "They paint all the countries different colors, but once you're over there it just seems like one big sand pit, miles and miles of the same in every direction."
"I've never been farther east than New York," I admit, and he glances at me before returning his gaze to the map.
"Where else in the U.S.?" he asks, his eyes scanning the continental United States.
"Well, New York and Seattle, obviously."
"And Chicago," he adds.
I frown. "Does the airport count?"
He shrugs. "Maybe not. You've never been to Chicago before?"
"Hm. It's a nice city. You should come back sometime."
"I should," I agree, and the tension that rises is nearly palpable.
"Where else?" he presses.
"San Francisco, Lake Tahoe, Phoenix, and Daytona Beach."
He arches an eyebrow. "Daytona Beach is the only other place you've been on the East Coast?"
I shrug. "Spring break trip."
A small smile slides across his face. "Ah." Another glance at the map. "We need push-pins."
Inspiration strikes and I rummage around in the front pocket of my backpack; when I retrieve my hand, I'm clutching a four-pack of neon-colored Post-it flags. Off his surprised look, I shrug. "I like to flag what I'm reading," I say and hand him the yellow and green sets. "Yellow on the places you've been, green on the places you want to go." I begin my own map with the orange and pink flags, sticking pink strips to all the cities I named, as well as Forks, Tacoma, San Diego, and Portland. I tap the orange ones against my lips for a few moments before pinning them to Boston, Oahu, Anchorage, Calgary, Quebec, and Rio de Janeiro. Stepping around him I continue, orange flags appearing over Tibet, Singapore, Melbourne, Dubai, Dublin, London, Madrid, Santorini, and Marseilles.
"Wow," I hear from beside me, and I pause in my pseudo-wallpapering to glance at him before looking back at the glass before us. A smattering of yellow post-it strips litter the Middle East and continental Europe, with green ones beside mine in Dublin and London; more greens appear to be peppered across the U.S. When I glace at his face, his eyes are searching mine. "I've spent a lot of time away from home," he says, something almost weary in his voice. "Once I'm done, I'd like to spend more time exploring the homeland."
I train my eyes on the map once again; he's put green strips over San Diego, San Francisco, Maui, Washington, D.C., Boulder, and Big Sky, Montana. He's also put flags over the states of Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire. It doesn't escape me that the desert-like southwest has been avoided altogether.
"I like green places," he says, as if he's read my mind. "Actually I'd like to drive across the country."
"In at least one direction," he nods, glancing at the map once more.
"We'll rack up a lot of frequent flier miles," I say absently, and as soon as the words leave my mouth, I feel a small bubble of embarrassment in my chest. "I mean, individually. Not… together. I didn't mean it like that."
"Traveling alone can get… lonely," he says after a moment, his voice and expression carefully neutral, his focus still on our collage of neon-colored markers. I'm struggling for the appropriate response when he glances down at me. "Should we leave them up?"
I shrug. "Why not? We can leave our mark on O'Hare."
He nods and I return the leftover flags to my bag. We resume our stroll through the terminal until we reach yet another storefront boasting Chicago souvenirs as well as a rack of seemingly unidentifiable items labeled merely as "travel needs." Edward steps inside.
"Who actually buys this stuff?" he wonders aloud, flipping a navy blue inflatable neck pillow over in his hands. "This looks like a miniature version of the pillow Alice used to nurse Sophie. No self-respecting man would drape one of these around his neck; it's practically Freudian."
There are too many interesting parts of that sentence for me to focus on just one, so I finally settle for saying simply, "You'd be surprised." I lift a packet of outlet adapters. "This, however, is a complete rip-off. Who needs adapters for Great Britain, South Africa, Russia, and Australia all at the same time? You have to buy all four to get the one you need."
"Donald Trump?" he guesses finally.
"Yeah, I don't really see The Donald spending his vacation time in Cape Town," I argue, glancing at the cashier, who looks like he's trying to muster up the energy to glare at us. The effort falls short though, and he merely gazes at us with an expression of vaguely irritated boredom.
"Valid point. Another winner." He holds up a travel alarm clock shaped like an egg. "Everyone under the age of 40 has a cell phone with an alarm function, and everyone over the age of 40 wears a watch. Useless." He dumps the offending item back into the basket with its friends.
I hold up a small bright red plastic case the size of a playing card in my right hand, and a bright yellow one in my left. "Body wash sheets and shampoo sheets," I announce, and Edward frowns.
"I'm on the fence about whether that's weird or smart, but I'm definitely leaning toward weird." I return the cases to their baskets as Edward's voice carries over the rack again. "Waterproof credit card sleeves. What, in case of a so-called 'water landing'? Do they really think a passenger's first concern will be keeping the contents of his wallet dry?"
"Yeah, that's stupid," I agree as I grab a plastic sleeve outlined in hot pink and peer at the label before waving it in the air in triumph. Edward glances up from the other side of the rack, squinting over the chest-high shelf between us. "What is that?"
"Disposable panties!" I crow.
He recoils. "Why on earth—" Suddenly he trails off, holding his hands up. "You know what? Forget it. Whatever the reason is, I'm sure I don't want to know."
I consider the packet for a moment. Suddenly, I can't figure out if I've chosen the most ridiculous travel accessory ever invented or if I've unwittingly stumbled across an unknown gem with the power to change my life. Disposable underwear suddenly seems like something that no one ever needs until they realize they need it, at which point it's too late. Still, Edward's nearly visceral horror at my discovery prevents me from verbalizing this debate, or from actually purchasing the throwaway bikini briefs. I return them to their basket and glance over the rack again to where Edward is standing, shaking his head. He meets my eye and sighs. "I've got nothing," he admits. "Nothing on this side can even come close to the disposable panties."
We meet at the end of the aisle and stroll toward the perimeter of the store. As we walk, I'm trying to ignore the effect Edward's voice saying "panties" has had on me, at the same time I'm trying to envision a scenario in which I can get him to say it again. His voice interrupts my hormone-fueled plotting from where he's paused in front of a rack with travel-sized toiletries on display.
"Okay. I realize we've had an overabundance of sex-related conversation for two people who just met, but I have to ask: have you ever wondered what type of person buys condoms in an airport?"
I tap my fingers against my chin and stare at the ceiling, giving his question the thorough consideration it deserves. "Honeymooners?"
He cocks his head in contemplation for a moment before nodding. "I suppose, though you'd think they would plan ahead. Viagra-poppers? Those guys are kind of on a clock."
"Excellent point. Spring breakers?"
"Oh, definitely. Pilots."
He creases his brow for a moment but nods, giving me this one. "Okay. Adulterers."
"Without a doubt. Agoraphiliacs?"
His frown deepens. "What are those?"
"People who get off on having sex in public places. No pun intended."
He guffaws. "How do you even know that?"
"I'm not sure," I admit through a laugh. "Though it's a documented psychiatric diagnosis; we shouldn't make fun."
"Now I feel judgmental," he says, his voice grave. "I almost feel like I should buy some, even though I don't fall into any of those categories."
"Really? No little blue pills in your carry-on?" I challenge.
"Nary a one."
"No mistresses or hookers waiting in any of your stops along the way?"
"Nope. Well, not for me, anyway. European airports always seem like they're one step away from a high-class key party, if you ask me."
"You're not the adulterous type?"
"And you're not an agoraphiliac."
He considers this for a moment, staring at the ceiling as I was only moments ago. "I don't think so," he says finally. I arch an eyebrow, waiting for elaboration, and his jaw dances as he chews on the inside of his lip. "Only one attempt. It didn't go well." I wait, but no more details are forthcoming. When he finally meets my eye, his brow lifts. "What?"
"Oh, come on. Now you have to tell the story."
"I don't think so."
"You can't just dangle it like that and leave me hanging!"
He snorts. "Dangle? Hanging? Those are words you're going to use in this conversation? Really?"
I roll my eyes. "Spill it, soldier boy."
Two well-muscled arms cross over his chest and he arches one eyebrow, staring down at me. "And what do I get in return?"
"I beg your pardon."
"Tit for tat. If I'm going to tell you mine, you have to tell me yours."
"Which one?" I ask, gratified by the way his mouth falls open slightly and his cheeks flush before his arms uncross and he points an accusing finger in my face. "You're an agora-whatever-it-is! You should buy the rubbers!"
I've barely come down from hearing him say "panties," and now something about hearing him say the word "rubbers" draws a very physical response from my body. "Oh my God, I'm not buying airport condoms, and don't change the subject. You were about to tell me about your unsuccessful attempt at public sex."
"Okay, first of all, it was an attempt at sex in a public place. There's a subtle but very significant difference. Secondly, I absolutely was not about to tell you anything of the sort."
"Oh, don't be a prude."
"Hey, I warned you."
I huff in righteous indignation. "Lame."
He chuckles, then sobers. "I have to say, Bella Swan, I'm impressed and not a little bit fascinated. You don't strike me as the exhibitionist type at all."
"As you yourself pointed out, captain, there's a difference between exhibitionism and sex in a public place."
"That's major, thank you very much, and I'll be the judge of that."
"Get real. I'm not telling you squat."
He has the gall to look affronted. "Why not?"
"Are you kidding? Mr. 'tit-for-tat'?"
"Okay. You go first and I promise I'll tell you my embarrassing story."
I narrow my eyes and he holds up his right hand, three fingers raised. "Scout's honor."
"Of course you were a Boy Scout," I mutter.
"Eagle Scout," he boasts, shit-eating grin firmly in place.
"Figures. Okay, Beaver Cleaver. Last week of college senior year, studying for a Media Law final, my study-buddy-slash-boyfriend and I got a little worked up – or maybe just delirious with exhaustion – in the stacks of the student library. We did it up against the shelves in the periodicals section."
"Nerd-sex," he says, nodding sagely.
"You said 'which one.' Where else did you…" – he waggles his eyebrows – "publicize your love?"
"No way. Tit for tat."
"Come on. That was hardly what you'd call a detailed recounting of events. I deserve something more. I am, after all, about to embarrass myself rather spectacularly."
I cannot deny that I quite like what my little revelation has done to Edward's eyes, and I can't help wondering what further disclosure might do. Still, I remind myself to at least pretend to be debating. I don't last long. "I will list them with the understanding that you don't get to ask any follow-up questions or receive any further details. Deal?"
There is no hesitation, and his eyes dance. "Deal."
I take a deep breath as if I'm in a church confessional and begin to tick them off on my fingers. "College library, outdoor concert arena, newsroom, airport frequent-flier lounge, parking lot."
"Jesus," he breathes, and I can see invisible wheels turning. "I will do absolutely anything it takes for you to give me details on the airport story." His voice is slightly breathless, and it makes me want to do more than tell him.
"Not on your life, Cullen."
"Wait a minute." His brow creases. "We just spent five minutes debating what types of people buy condoms in an airport. You were holding out on me!"
"Hey," I defend. "I said I had sex in an airport; I never said anything about buying prophylactics in an airport gift shop. There's a world of difference, my friend."
He snorts. "That's not as far a leap as you'd like to think, Swan."
I shrug. "Agree to disagree. Your turn, Ace. Spill."
And suddenly he's blushing again. "This is going to make me sound like a complete tool," he says in preface. "I'd like to go on the record here and now as stating that every woman I've ever had the pleasure of sleeping with has had nothing but complimentary things to say about my… uh… prowess."
"Prowess?" I snort. "Really?"
"I'm just saying. This makes me sound… alarmingly inept. I just want the disclaimer out there that otherwise, all of my reviews have been nothing but positive."
"I was also twenty-one and drunk. That's another disclaimer."
"Okay." He sighs in defeat. "It was getting close to the end of the spring semester my junior year of college, and a bunch of my friends decided to go on a camping trip to kick off the summer. My roommate and I and the girls we were dating went with a couple of other guys and their girlfriends, and it ultimately turned into a giant booze-fest with a larger campfire than was probably safe. We brought hot dogs, but by the time we got the fire going and found sticks to roast them on we were pretty hammered and we kept dropping them into the fire, so by the time all was said and done, we burned all the dogs and were drinking on empty stomachs. Anyway, my girlfriend at the time – Kate – and I had been going out for a while, but we were still in the early stage where fooling around pretty much anywhere seemed like a good idea. We were sitting by the fire and kissing and getting sort of amped up until she stood up and pulled me away from our friends and closer to the stream, which had a small footbridge going over it. She dragged me onto the bridge and jumped up on the railing and started unbuckling my pants and…" He trails off suddenly, his cheeks flaming. "Well, basically, she was perched on the railing and leaning back on her hands and I, uh, pushed a little too hard and her hands slipped and she fell backward over the railing and into the stream."
I have no control over the laughter that breaks free, until I clamp my hand over my mouth and gasp. "Wait. Was she okay?"
He smiles sheepishly. "She was fine. Pissed off, but fine. Her, uh, shorts were around her ankle before she fell and she lost them in the water, so she had to wear my boxers back to the campfire. That didn't really help." I resume laughing, and the corners of his eyes crinkle. "She also had a splinter in her ass." I am clutching my sides, tears running down my face, and I collapse against the wall. "I know. I told you. I'm quite the Casanova."
He lets me laugh, smiling indulgently, and after a few more cackles, I wipe at the corners of my eyes and try to catch my breath. "Oh, I don't know," I gasp. "Sex on a bridge railing is pretty impressive, if you can ignore the plunging-over-the-edge part."
"Don't forget the ass-splinter part."
"Right, of course. The ass-splinter, too." I crack up again, and this time he joins me. I am still leaning against the wall for support, and he props himself up next to me, chortling softly, his shoulders shaking.
"We didn't last long after that."
"Tell me that's not worth the airport lounge story."
It is, but I shake my head anyway. "A girl's got to keep an ace up her sleeve for next time," I argue, and almost instantly the smile on his lips dies as his face falls. I replay my comment and realize why: there isn't a next time. Despite the banter and the innuendo-laden conversation and the pancakes, Edward Cullen is a stranger in an airport. We're not sharing anything more than an unexpected layover before we fly in opposite directions; once the snow stops and the travel starts, I'll never see him again. The thought is physically painful.
"Listen, Bella." He turns to face me, shifting his weight in one fluid motion to the shoulder still resting against the wall, and his face is as serious as I've seen it since he was recounting his decision to join the Army. "If this were any other day, and if I weren't flying off to fiddle with bombs in the middle of the desert, I'd ask for your number."
I attempt to swallow against the lump that lodges itself firmly in my throat. "If you weren't flying off to fiddle with bombs in the middle of the desert, I'd give it to you." My voice is barely more than a whisper.
Green eyes are pulling me in, and it takes all of the self-control I possess not to touch him. He watches me intently, and after a minute I see his throat muscles bob with a swallow. "If you gave it to me, I'd call. The same day. I wouldn't even try to do the whole 'play-it-cool-give-it-a-few-days' thing."
"I've always hated that game," I breathe.
"I'd take you out for Italian. There's a great little mom-and-pop restaurant near the house I grew up in that has the best ravioli on the planet." My heart aches, then begins to race as his large hand cups my cheek. "It would be really hard for me to say goodnight without kissing you." His thumb runs along my jawline.
"I'm not averse to kissing on the first date," I confess, and his eyes blaze.
"If I'm misreading this, stop me now," he breathes, and I can't see the green of his eyes anymore because they are hidden behind the long lashes sweeping against his cheekbones as he gazes at my mouth. I stay silent in unspoken permission, and after a beat, his warm mouth covers mine. I can taste the remnants of strawberry on his lips, which are warm and inquisitive and insistent. His hand slides from my jaw to the back of my neck as his other one joins it, and I bring my own hands to the back of his neck, his short hair sliding through my fingers. He angles his head to deepen the kiss, and I rise to my tiptoes as he pulls us upright, abandoning the support of the wall. I feel his mouth open against mine, and his tongue whispers a trace against my lower lip; as I open my mouth in response, a small whimper escapes me. He meets my tongue with his, and instantly I feel heat like a wild elevator climbing and plummeting through my body. His breath hitches into my mouth, and what was gentle suddenly becomes demanding, his mouth moving smoothly over mine, lips and tongues dancing together.
His hands move from the back of my head down to my lower back, and he bands his arms around me, groaning softly into the kiss as he pulls me flush against his body. I think I whimper in response, and he deepens the kiss further, his tongue exploring the warm cavern of my mouth. I lose track of time as we stand there, shamelessly making out in an airport terminal, and it isn't until he slows the pace of the kiss, his tongue receding to gently trace my lower lip before retreating altogether, placing a borderline chaste kiss to my mouth, that I regain my bearings.
My eyes are still closed when he rests his forehead against mine, and I will my body to calm, even as flashes of imagination unspool through my mind like a sepia-hued film reel: Edward's hips pressing down into mine, our fingers tangled together against white cotton bed sheets, the skin of his stomach sliding against my own.
"Now will you tell me the airport sex story?" he breathes into the space between us, and I pull back to open my eyes and swat at his arm.
"Dream on, Cullen."
His green eyes dance, alight with something brand new. "Bella, believe me, there's a very good chance that airport sex will feature heavily in my dreams in the near future, but they will most assuredly not be featuring you with some random dude."
I may as well be on my plane to Seattle, because suddenly it feels like there is nothing beneath me for 30,000 feet.
"When do you come back?" I ask, hyper-aware of his long arm stretched across the top of the seatback behind me. The travelers at the gate are beginning to stir, stuffing things back into bags and righting clothes in preparation to board the finally-arrived plane.
"Spring training," I murmur, leaning into him slightly and fighting to keep my tone light. "Maybe I should help you with your batting average."
"My batting average?" he repeats.
"You're 0-for-1. That's a .000 average. But if you were 1-for-2, you jump to .500. That's a Hall of Fame batting average."
A small frown mars his otherwise perfect face, his heavy brows drawing together. "When did we start talking baseball?"
"It's a metaphor, Edward." I'm uncomfortable and embarrassed, and those emotions generally manifest in unpleasant ways. Case in point: snottiness.
He scratches the skin above his eyebrow with his free hand while the fingertips of the other dance over the point of my shoulder. "Can we bypass the metaphors? It's almost six a.m."
I take in a lungful of air before turning to face him. "I was offering to have sex with you in a public place. But if you're too tired to consider it, what with it being almost six a.m.…" I trail off and risk a glance at Edward, who is looking like I just told him I'm going to do it with him right here and now – all traces of exhaustion are gone, and delight wars with arousal for dominance in those green eyes I've become so fond of over the past nine hours.
He licks his lips. "In that case, I'm going to need your phone number."
"Yes. You are." He holds his iPhone out to me, and I tap his Contacts list and add a new entry. "And your e-mail address, please." When I hand it back to him with my name and contact information stored, he taps the screen and holds up the phone between us. "Smile."
I block his phone with my hand. "What?"
"I need a picture to add to your contact info," he says.
"Not on your life. I look like hell."
He lowers the phone only enough to meet my eyes over it, his face serious. "You're beautiful." He raises the phone again. "Besides, I'm headed to the desert, where I'll be surrounded by profusely sweaty and generally unattractive men; really, a head shot is the least you can do." I roll my eyes, but his guilt trip works; I smile, albeit begrudgingly, and he grins. "Thank you."
I open my mouth to deliver yet another smart-ass remark, but I'm interrupted by the garbled hiss of the overhead address system being switched on.
"Okay, folks, I'd like to welcome you all – finally – to United Airlines Flight 1584 to New York," comes a disembodied voice through the crackling static. "We're going to go ahead and begin our pre-boarding at this time, after which we'll take our family boarding, that's anyone traveling with children ages four and under. Passengers in Zone 1, please line up and we'll get going."
There is a smattering of applause from the assembled passengers; I wonder if I am the only person who will be sad to see Flight 1584 pull away from the gate. I suspect – I hope – there's at least one other person who agrees with me.
Edward rises slowly from his seat and gracefully hoists his knapsack onto his shoulders as if it weighs nothing. I stand reflexively and a small smile tugs at the corners of his mouth. "That's me," he murmurs, tucking an errant lock of hair behind my ear. His fingertips ghost along my jaw before he retracts his hand and grips the shoulder strap of his bag.
I nod, feeling an undeniable surge of loss steamrolling through me, and I struggle to breathe. Stop it. Don't be stupid. You've only just met him.
"That's you," I echo and force a smile to my face.
"Hang on." He rummages around in a small zippered section of his bag, and when he withdraws his hand, it's clenched in a fist. He considers me for a moment before scratching the back of his neck, and for the first time since his initial bedroom comment faux pas, he is nervous. "Trade me," he says, and before I can ask for clarification, he opens his hand and holds out his "Edward" key chain.
I hesitate for less than a breath before I reach into my own bag and pull out my matching "Bella" one, handing it to him and plucking its twin from his palm. As I do, his hand closes around my fist for a beat before he lets go. The hand not holding the key chain bearing my name disappears into the neck of his sand-colored t-shirt and reappears clutching the chain of his dog tags. He deftly attaches my name to the chain carrying his own, and I swallow as a lump in my throat threatens to suffocate me. I know the key chain can't stay there, but the significance of the gesture knocks me in the ribs all the same.
He presses a piece of paper into my palm, but before I can unfold it, he wraps his large hand around mine, stilling me. "No obligation," he says. "Only if you want to." I open the scrap to see a complicated mailing address with very few lines that I understand, followed by an e-mail address.
"I want to," I breathe, and the smile that breaks across his face is nearly blinding. He opens his mouth to say something else, but we are interrupted once again by the gate attendant.
"I see we have a soldier on our flight today; ladies and gentlemen, I don't think anyone here would be against my allowing him to pre-board, would they?"
This time the applause is more than a smattering, and I see Edward's ears redden again. My chest aches and I tamp down on the panic; I thought we would have at least five more minutes, but it's now. He's leaving now. Suddenly, he pulls me into an embrace so tight I can't breathe; if my arms were that strong, if I could hold someone that tight, I'd never let him go.
"Come back," I whisper, and I don't have the wherewithal to be embarrassed by the note of pleading in my voice.
"I will," he promises, and pulls back to plant his lips softly but resolutely on mine. Every day for the rest of my life, I will wonder how kissing a virtual stranger goodbye could have felt like a hello. Breaking the kiss, he rests his forehead against mine and smiles with his eyes still closed as we breathe into the shared space between us. "So long, Bella Swan."
A/N: Thanks for reading; please leave me a note and share your thoughts. If you're here because you saw this story recommended somewhere, please let me know where; I'd love to thank whomever sent you my way! Thanks also to everyone who offered such positive feedback on my first story, "The Purple Banana Hammock" ... I'm still working on responding to reviews, and the feedback was beyond humbling. Thanks also to those who recommended it, particularly The Fictionators and the Lemonade Stand crew, as well as DollyReader, Rushed, and everyone who pimped it on Twitter and elsewhere... you guys are awesome.