Your response to the last chapter blew me away! Thank you for reading this, and extra thanks for taking the time to leave a review. It really means a lot when you share your reactions to what is happening in this little story.
Big love to Sri, who read the first version of this and helped me bridge the gap between what I wrote and what I wanted to convey.
And we owe all sorts of love and affection to Iris, who spent her holiday helping me through this. XO
She continued to play with his hair but said nothing. He closed his eyes, enjoying her touch. His arm remained wrapped around her legs, their hands clasped between them.
"I... What..." She started to ask what that meant. She wondered what being here meant to him. But as she started to form the question, she immediately feared the response. Somewhere, deep in her heart, she felt that old hurt. Did he mean he was better? Over her? Did it mean he was here to win her back? Which did she want it to be? She knew if she asked what he meant out loud, the fortifications she had so carefully built to protect herself from that heartache could crumble away. And that was the greater question. What did it mean that this life she had built was suddenly teetering on a precipice?
The landline on Mike's desk rang, interrupting her thoughts and Edward's quiet. He opened his eyes but did not lift his head. "Are you going to answer that?"
"Nah, we're closed." She smiled and continued to play with his hair. He made a contented sound and closed his eyes again. Her fingers still gently moved over his scalp, occasionally tracing down his neck to his shirt collar. She rested her head against her extended arm and watched him. They ignored the phone a second time. The silence stretched between them, neither one wanting to end the moment.
"Tell me about college." He finally opened his eyes to see that she was looking at him. She didn't halt her movements, so he didn't lift his head.
"I wasn't going to go. Anywhere. Then I thought I'd just stay in Washington. But Carlisle was pretty insistent with that scholarship-"
"That wasn't Carlisle." He'd told her just about everything; he may as well tell her this.
"But it was the Pacific– Oh! It was you?" Her fingers finally stilled, but she didn't lift her hand.
"Don't apologize. Please. I am very grateful for what you did. Those four years away... I wouldn't be who I am today without them."
"I want to hear about it. In detail." He lifted his head up. Her hand rested on his shoulder and, once again, resumed tracing patterns. She didn't lift her head from her arm when she laughed.
"Everything! I want to know where you lived, who you lived with, what you studied; not just your major. I want to hear about every class you took."
"Wow. Yep, that's just about everything."
"How'd you get there? Did you fly or drive out? If you-" Edward stopped mid-sentence and momentarily tilted his head. "Shit! Bella!" Edward jumped off the couch and was at the window before he finished hissing her name. "Mike's here. He's worried about you. He's unlocking the door right now." Edward opened the window as he spoke.
"Edward, wait!" Bella got up and rushed to him, then stood before him silent, unsure why she was stopping him. "Thank you." It wasn't what she meant to say, but those words needed to stay buried. He kept one hand on the open window and reached his other arm out to her. She stepped into his one arm embrace, and he quickly kissed the top of her head once more. He was out the window as Mike began to open the door to his office. Bella leaned over to pull the glass down, jumping in feigned surprise as she heard the door behind her.
"Oh! Mike! You gave me a fright. What are you doing here?"
"You usually get home just after closing. When you were late, I called. You didn't answer. You know I worry when you close this place on your own."
"I'm fine. I came up a little early, grabbed a beer, and started to read. I lost track of time."
"Why didn't you answer your phone? I texted you, and then I called here. Twice."
"My phone's in my purse downstairs. I didn't answer up here, because we're closed." Bella turned around to finish closing the window. She couldn't see Edward, but she figured he was likely long gone. If she'd looked straight down, she might've have seen him pressed against the wall of the store. She felt Mike push against her.
"Fancy another go on the desk?" He pulled her hair off her neck and pressed his lips against her spine.
"Mike." Bella sighed.
He continued to kiss her neck, seemingly unfazed by her lack of response. Below, Edward could hear Mike's confusion about Bella's reserve. He'd promised Emmett that he wouldn't spy on Bella again, so he began to move away from the store. He wouldn't spy, but he was curious. There was a difference in the way Bella was with Mike. Edward wondered if it was merely a result of their recent conflict or if he was contributing to it. He hesitated when he was nearly out of hearing range. There was something he wanted to go back for. Edward paused to listen one last time. If Bella gave in to Mike, he would leave.
"Mike, I'm not feeling well." Bella leaned away from him, and Mike stepped back. She turned around and leaned against the wood frame.
"Whoa." He stepped closer to her yet again, pressing his hand to her forehead. "What's up with my Superhero Swan? You never get sick."
"I'll be fine. I think I just need to get some rest." She stood up and stepped around Mike. He put his arm around her.
"Dinner's in the oven, but if you want to skip it, I'll draw you a bath and bring you a glass of wine instead. Or soup in a mug, if you're feeling really rough." He kissed her temple and then moved behind her as they walked out of his office and down the stairs. "Do you want me to drive us home? We can pick up your car in the morning."
"No. Thanks, though, darling. I've got to go in early tomorrow." She moved behind the counter to pick up her purse, pausing momentarily when she realized she had left her book upstairs in his office. "Actually, a ride would be great." She'd nip upstairs in the morning to grab it on her way to work. She really was exhausted, and heading back into Mike's office seemed like too much right now.
"Let's go, babe. We've got to get you better." He slung his arm around her shoulder and walked her to the front door. "I'm leaving Friday morning for another extended weekend with a bunch of middle-aged guys in the bush. We've got to make some memories to get me through that."
"Mike." Bella laughed and pushed him away, along with all the uncertainty she felt upstairs. She could almost feel the wall reclose around that place in her heart. Almost.
Edward had pushed through the window as soon as he heard Mike and Bella on the stairs. He knew he had very little time before they set the alarm. To his relief, he saw what he came for still on the back of the couch.
There was something about this book. She'd been reading it and put it under the counter when he came in to talk to her the first time. Tonight, she ignored him when he asked about it. Although it was well-worn and nondescript - a simple, slightly-damaged cover over pages that had been folded and unfolded over years of reading - there was something familiar about it.
When Edward picked it up, he knew. Before he even opened it, he remembered the last time he'd held it; it was in her room, the night he decided to leave. He'd nearly put it under the floorboard with the plane tickets and other evidence of his existence. But for some reason, he returned this to her bookshelf. It was the only thing he left, a clue that he was lying. He had hoped that leaving it behind would remind her that he loved her.
He remembered taking the book out of her hand one day during their one summer together. They had been lounging on a blanket in her backyard, and she'd loosened her grip to wipe a tear away. He'd held the book out of her reach while he dug around in her bag for a pen. She'd watched him as he walked to her back steps, sat down, and wrote on the inside cover. He'd brought it back to her with a smirk and tossed it beside her. She'd sighed, then rolled her eyes as she read it and wordlessly held her hand out for the pen. When she'd finished her reply, she pushed it back for him to read. Overcome with love, he'd pulled her over to him and kissed her until she'd lost her breath, then kissed her more. It was the first and only time he'd grazed her breast while they made out.
Though he had the inscription and her reply memorized, he opened the cover and read it again.
I don't know why you love this book the way you do. I could never do to you what Heathcliff did to Catherine. Since the moment I fell in love with you, every action and every thought have been with you in mind. If I were to ever hurt you, it would destroy me.
Should you ever find yourself in Catherine's position and have the choice of a dangerous lover or a safe bet, I would never stand in your way should you chose safety ‒ so long as that is what made you happy. Everything I do, my darling, is for your happiness.
Stop being morose. Don't you know me at all? Would I ever choose anything other than you? I will always choose you. YOU are my happiness. If I were to lose you, I fear I would lose everything. And then what choice would I have? If I were to choose safe, it's only because I've lost you and, with it, any chance at true joy.