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And thank you, friends, for reading, reviewing, and recommending Heart's Desire.
I don't think the maxi dress works on anyone quite like it does Gianna, like they were made for each other. It drapes her breasts, drops to an almost cinch at her waist, and fans out over her hips. It's a waterfall following the curves of rocks into a stream. And from where I stand on her porch, she's almost as high as a waterfall. I'm grateful when she invites me in so that I can step up into their house where she'll still tower me, but not by quite as much.
Inside I no longer feel like a hobbit.
The house is boxy but bright and open. The short entryway leafs out into a living room with a formal, curvy-backed sofa that looks prettier than it does comfortable, and on my right a tight dining room embraces an old fashioned dining set that reminds me of my grandmother's. It's probably antique. The cherry surface of the table gleams. Sparkles from the crystal chandelier above reflect off of it.
In fact, from where I stand, the whole place is pristine, near spotless aside from a skateboard on the floor at my feet, next to it knee pads, a helmet, a basketball, and some handheld video game thing, like a DS or Gameboy or something. The complete image seems to chase after my thoughts until, finally, it catches me. "Kids?" The sound of my disbelief carries it and I'm disappointed in myself.
"Yeah," a laugh, "one kid." Gianna closes the door behind me. "Edward."
"Ohh..." I say, and it's long and drawn out, swathed in relief that shouldn't belong to me.
"Or two if you count Garrett." She waves her hand and shakes her head, even rolls her eyes as if to dissuade me from asking who Garrett is. "I told you to put your toys in the garage, Edward." She aims her voice down the hall and only after she complains about his toys does she tell him I'm here. He jogs around the corner pulling a shirt over his head. For half a second I get a picture of his chest, his abs. I shouldn't have looked. I prolong my blink and try to ignore this vision of Edward, half shirtless, that's etched even behind my eyelids. His stomach, its smoothness, the flexing of his muscles as he moved, that path of darker hair leading below his pants.
"Hey, Bella," he says with an easy smile. He looks no more than seventeen in this moment. "Almost ready." He opens a closet door, takes out a pair of sneakers and pulls them on, using his thumb to help jam his feet inside, not bothering with the laces. He sidesteps Gianna and approaches his stuff, so near me I can smell his aftershave and see that his hair is still damp from a shower. "How ya doing?" he asks. He tosses the smaller things into his helmet then, basketball under his arm, he steps on the end of his board and flips it up into his other hand. He carries all of it through another door, which I assume is the garage, before he leads me out the front.
His touch to my elbow drives me to follow.
"It's a hot one for April, isn't it?"
I tell him that it is, trailing him to the driveway, past the big red truck, unevenly faded, like a peeling sunburn.
"We're taking Gi's car." Edward opens the passenger door of an SUV, polished to a mirror-like shine. The silver trim against the black looks platinum. "She says you'll be more comfortable." He gestures for me to enter as if he's my chauffeur.
I climb in and sink into smooth leather as he rounds to the other side. Edward slides into his seat, fires up the engine, and backs out of his driveway with an apology for making me wait. He says he had a game earlier and had to shower. "Couldn't meet up with you drenched in sweat."
"I'm not afraid of sweat," I say, and the way the words come out, they're flirty, bordering on suggestive. I hide my eyes and turn toward my window. Edward chuckles, uncomfortable but polite.
I'm quick to change the subject. "Game of what?"
"Basketball. It's the championships. And I had to give my buddy a ride. His car's in the shop."
He faces me with narrowed eyes as he pulls up to a red light.
"No, Garrett's a kid." It's clipped, the sound of frustration.
"Yeah, that's what she said."
I can't make out what he says under his breath.
The light changes and he noses the car toward the freeway, another conversation crashing and burning. Why, though, I'm not quite sure.
I know I need to talk to Edward about my budget, about waiting on the patio, but despite that and despite my resolve to keep things purely contractor-client, I find myself approaching the very subject I should be avoiding. "How long have you and Gianna been married?" I keep my eyes forward as I await his answer, watching him only in my periphery.
"Uh." Edward drums his fingers on the steering wheel. "Almost five years."
I'm floored. They must've married at twenty-one. Maybe twenty-two. I can hear my mother: "Don't do it to yourself, Isabella. Don't rush into marriage." She didn't say like I did, but I heard it anyway, drifting on her sigh. "Wait until you've done everything else first," she said. "Finish school and focus on your career. Buy a house. See the world. Get married too young and you'll be kissing all your dreams goodbye." She never asked me what my dreams were.
Would I have been able to answer if she had?
I dreamed about the things an income could bring. How it would mean I could spend my weekends wandering through art galleries and boutiques or sitting under umbrellas in little café courtyards, laughing and discussing arthouse cinema with my girlfriends. Vacations on the beach, the sun-warmed sand beneath my feet; or backpacking my way across Europe, exploring rustic Tuscan villages and Parisian arrondissements. A new car, nothing fancy—a zippy little thing that I could squeeze into tiny parking spaces.
I dreamed about wearing smart-looking pantsuits and heels that would click-click as I walked into a meeting. An office with wide windows and a view I could look out over when I'd need inspiration. Inspiration for what? That was always vague.
But a career? Strange how it sounds so much like "careen." It's virtually the opposite.
But that's almost how it felt to me. My parents, teachers, the guidance counselor—"You have so much promise, Bella"—all forcing me to consider what I wanted to spend my working life doing. Like it was careening out of my control. Like I had to latch onto something quickly—something that paid well, allowed a good work-life balance, and had lots of opportunities for promotions but also was something that would be stimulating and creative—before I missed the career train, doomed to a life of bagging groceries in a supermarket somewhere.
I remember reading magazines in high school. I could write for them, I'd thought—or maybe work on their layout and design. I tried to picture myself at a computer, dragging an image over a quarter inch, adding a snappy caption beneath it. Was that really what someone somewhere spent their workday doing?
And somehow, no matter what I came up with, it always felt like they were tasks that belonged to other people, almost like they weren't real jobs.
Edward hangs a left onto the on-ramp. I'm pressed against the door, bracing myself on the handle. The car and I straighten up and we head east.
"That – that's brave."
"Not the usual response I get."
He coughs out a hard laugh. "Some of Gi's friends called it romantic. I usually get the impression people think it's stupid. Not for marrying Gianna. Just for getting married. So young."
"But you were in love," I say, as if siding with Gianna's friends. I stare out the windshield, adjust in my seat. I'm a masochist. But I have some weird impulse to make him not feel stupid. "Angela did it, too. She said when you know, you know, so why waste your years?"
"Yeah." It's quiet.
He's staring now. Straight ahead.
After a minute he starts fiddling with the radio, eyes flicking from the console to the road and back. To stop myself from batting his hand away, I wedge my hands under my thighs, warm leather beneath my palms, sticky skin against the backs of my fingers. Hands on the wheel, eyes on the road: I try to push the thought at him but it doesn't reach. He jabs at the preset buttons. Pulsing dance music is replaced with something folksy and slow. I like it. Apparently Edward doesn't. He abandons the presets and turns the tuning knob. When he lands on rap, he pulls his hand away. Back on the wheel it goes.
Angry words supported by a heavy bass pound from the speakers. We join Interstate 680. Cars, pickups, semis swim around us. This area used to be near constant stop-and-go, back before they opened up the freeway, adding three more lanes. It would take twenty minutes just to exit the freeway.
When we pass our old town I watch it go by. I notice Edward does also, in glances.
"Ever go back?" he asks over the music.
"When I have to. My parents still live there. Same house."
It's the rap, the way the guy is telling the world loud and strong exactly what's on his mind, not prettying it up, actually keeping it downright ugly, that gives me the strength to spit out what's been in the back of my mind. I understand the power of rap, now. I understand the draw.
My words don't flow quite as smoothly as a rap. In fact, now that I know what I want to say, my vocabulary seems to have abandoned me.
He turns the music down. "Yeah?"
"I..." Fingers at my chest, I fiddle with my necklace. I put it between my teeth for a second, bite down on the glass. "I have to postpone the patio work. Maybe to August?" Why do I pose it like a question?
He looks at me. "Okay."
I drop my chain. "I signed the quote."
"You'll sign a new one."
I search his expression for any shift. There's only a smile, probably meant to reassure. His hands on the steering wheel are relaxed, just like his voice.
"I will do it," I say. "Have you do it, I mean. I want it. It's just..."
"Not a problem. Whatever you decide."
"Will Gianna be upset?"
"Bella." He glances at me again. "If Gianna was in your position, heard what you heard, she would've walked out. Gi's grateful—I'm grateful—you didn't walk out."
I nod. The clump in my throat dissolves.
"Thank you," he says. "For sticking with us."
I nod again. Apparently I can no longer speak.
He turns the music up only to lower it a second later.
"Were you there that day Lahote swallowed the lizard in Hansen's class?"
"N-No." It takes a moment for the change of subject to hit me and for his question to sink in. "I mean, I–I was at school that day, but I wasn't in that class. He didn't really do it, did he? That guy Angela dated for, like, half a minute told us about it. What was his name? He left later that year. Really tall, skinny guy? Always reminded me of a flamingo."
Edward's laugh starts small and builds. "Austin?" He's cracking up now, his face a deep red. "Played baseball?"'
"Yeah. He was in that class, but I never believed it was true. I thought it was like one of those urban legends."
"A flamingo." He looks at me, his smile so big it squinches up his eyes. It makes me laugh a little with him. Contagious. "I can see it."
After a minute his laughter dies down, his smile, too. The next time he glances at me, it's barely there, but his eyes are, right on mine.
We're quiet then. Even the music remains low, ignored. I'm too aware of the sound of my own swallowing, that it can be heard. It seems to make me swallow louder. Edward climbs the last hill and coasts into the parking lot.
I slip out of the car and pull the edges of my shorts away from my thighs, swollen and damp from my body heat against leather. Edward waits for me at the front of the car. I sling my bag over my shoulder and shut my door.
We walk side by side. Close. Our arms sway together. Without putting any distance between us, I'm careful to make sure our hands don't brush—keep mine snug against my body.
"We're not buying anything today," Edward says as we bypass the lines of heavy-duty carts at the entrance to the nursery. "I just… I just want to get an idea of what you like."
He runs his fingers through his hair then settles his cap over the mess he's stirred up. "All right. Go." He waves a hand, gesturing for me to go ahead of him.
The smell of sweet, damp soil mingles with the perfume of thousands of flowers and the chemical tang of fertilizers and insecticides. The sun beats on us. Already my armpits dampen.
I roam aimlessly over gravel, through the neat rows of flowering potted plants. Most of them come up to my neck in height. I shade my eyes with a hand and look around, unsure of what I'm supposed to be looking for. I move forward, turn around in a circle, move forward again. With a frown, I pause, trailing my fingers over a small shrub.
"You hate it all?"
"No." I laugh. "I don't hate any of it. But..." I turn to face Edward. "I can't do this."
He hesitates, adjusting his cap on his head. "Can't do what?"
I wave my arms at the sea of foliage surrounding me. "Walk around and look at plants with you watching me." I have to squint against the sunlight pouring down on me. "I feel like you – like you're judging my taste in plants."
Edward is silent for a moment, and then laughs. He pulls his cap off and plonks it on my head, chuckling.
Seventeen-year-old Bella swoons. Twenty-five-year-old Bella insists her pleasure comes only from the fact the sun is no longer forcing her eyes closed and burning her nose. She is, of course, completely unaware of the smells clinging to the hat, smells of sweat and shampoo and Edward, or the way the tips of his hair now glitter gold in the sunlight, the hair on his arms, too. Gold.
"Judging your taste in plants." Edward laughs again, quieter.
"Sorry, sorry." He lifts his hands, palms out.
I fold my arms over my chest. Edward's gaze wanders over me before he looks me in the eye. "Ceanothus foliosus."
I blink. "If you say so."
He leads me a few rows over to a group of shrubs. Vibrant purple-blue flowers burst against the plant's deep green, crinkly-looking leaves.
"It's so pretty," I say, fingering the rough edge of one of the leaves. "Lilac, right?"
He nods. "Wavy Leaf Mountain Lilac."
I bend to smell it. It's the kind of scent you find in soap or lotion, but here more vivid. It's the kind of smell that makes me close my eyes and just breathe it in.
"Note this," I say.
"Already noted." He taps his temple. "But there's more to choose from." He takes me over to another form of lilac. "This one's a ground cover."
I touch it and look at the small sign on a spike coming up from the ground: Heart's Desire.
"Under a tree would be great," he says. "It likes coastal regions and we're not far, but I think this one... it might like some shade. You get a lot of sun back there."
"And the bigger one? The mountain lilac. Where could I plant that?"
He shrugs. "Anywhere. It's tolerant."
I lead Edward back to it. "This one," I say. I can imagine bringing clippings of it into my house, filling vases, living every day in its scent. "I like the bush. It gets big, doesn't it?"
"Pretty big, yeah." He takes a small pair of clippers I didn't even know were there out of his back pocket and clips off a small branch of blooms. "About five feet." He hands the flowers to me and I take them, bring them to my nose.
"Yeah. I can live in this."
A wind picks up, lifts my hair, and I welcome the cool air, even if short-lived. I take the bill of Edward's cap between my fingers and lower it more firmly on my head.
The sway of a tapered plant as tall as a tree catches my attention. "What is that?"
I walk to it. I could sit on top of Edward's shoulders and it would have our combined height beat by a few inches. It's thin and mesmerizing and looks Seussian, like something that could be found in Whoville. It appears top heavy and is covered in tiny red blooms that make it look like it's on fire.
"Called Tower of Jewels. Do you like it?"
"It's like... otherworldly."
"It blooms every other year. Spends one year growing to its proper height and the next year blooming. Then it dies away and starts the process over again."
"I think it's better for a front yard than back."
He laughs and I tear my eyes away from the Tower of Jewels. "Why are you laughing?"
"Just judging your taste in plants." He pulls his grin into his mouth and dodges my smack. I get him only with the tips of my nails on his shoulder.
"Front yard, backyard," he says. "Whatever you want. It comes in purple flowers, too."
Like the lilac. But I love this red—fiery. It's striking in its weirdness. "I guess I can see it in the back corner on the hill where it can do its thing."
We meander in and out and up and down the nursery. It's bigger than I imagined. My legs actually ache after our climb over the hills, my breathing shallow. Edward points out the weirdest looking plants, naming them. One's like a wandering tree, hunched over, limbs draped to the ground as if it has heavy knuckles.
I've stopped asking him to jot down what I like. He points to his head every time. On our way out to the parking lot I ask him how he'll remember it all.
"I see it," he says.
"In your head?"
"In your yard." He takes his cap off my head and puts it back on his own. I wonder if part of my smell is mixed in with his now, the papaya of my conditioner. I start to slide fingers into my hair to unflatten it but reconsider. If it looks bad now, I'll only make it worse.
Our eyes are on each other again in that way where it would be both uncomfortable to look away or not look away. Something has to be said. "You're a Dodger's fan?" I point to his hat.
"I thought you were all about the Giants."
"Giants all the way."
I'm pretty sure the Dodgers are the Giants' biggest rivals.
I squint up at him. He chuckles.
We continue on toward the car.
"This must be pretty new," I say once we're inside. I noticed it earlier, but after spending the afternoon immersed in floral and earthy scents, that chemical "new car smell" inside the SUV is more pronounced. I can almost taste it.
"Few months old." Edward puts the car in reverse. He ignores the screen on the console that shows the feed from the reversing camera, braces his arm across the top of my seat, looks over his shoulder, and backs out of the parking space.
As Edward checks his blind spot and merges onto the frontage road, my window seems to disappear, along with Edward's, and the wind sweeps into the car, grabbing my hair and whipping it around like a jump rope.
"Oh, shit." He raises his voice over the wind. "Sorry." He closes the windows again and the car becomes still and silent. I wonder what it would be like to have a button like that in my brain, if I could just flip a switch and shut everything out. Like a shield or something. A cone of silence. I could use it when I visit my parents.
Edward's rueful tone reclaims my attention. "I always forget. Can't have your hair all messed up."
I gather my hair, twist it into a knot, and secure it with the elastic that lives on my wrist. "The wind can't do much that my hair doesn't do on its own anyway."
He smiles at that, shakes his head a little. He looks at me, and there it is, that weighty gaze. The one I can feel. It wanders up my neck, right up to the hair piled on my head, before flicking back down to my eyes.
The back of my neck pricks with chills despite how hot I am.
That response is as infuriating now as it was in high school.
I remember sitting in art class, smoothing my hair. I'd had it cut over the weekend and I was self-conscious about it, unsure if the bangs made me look sophisticated, like my mom promised, or like a twelve year old. And while Angela had declared me "so gorgeous," the confidence her compliments had built earlier in the day crumbled away as I waited for Edward to take his seat.
"Hey, Bella." He collapsed into the chair beside me, scraps of paper spilling from his sketch book. His fingers were smudged purplish with ballpoint ink.
He was looking at me. Staring almost. Thinking, definitely. And as much as I liked having his attention on me, it made me squirm.
"What?" I wished so hard that he would tell me my hair looked nice.
But he just smiled and opened up his sketch book, conjured a pencil from who knows where. "Nah. Nothing."
Just like back then, I want to insist he answer. It's not nothing! Just like back then, I don't. Instead, I watch the hills roll by, my gaze tracing the line of them, up and down and up again, where earth meets sky. Their slopes are a fast-fading green—before summer, the sun will have bleached away the last splash of color.
We approach the bridge and traffic thickens. Edward overtakes an SUV crammed with teenagers and covered with dust and dirt. The trailer coupled to the vehicle makes me think of a baby elephant, trunk holding its momma's tail.
We cruise on toward home. Up ahead on the side of the road, an orange cat lies curled up. Not flat or bloody, but certainly lifeless. "Poor cat," I say, thinking of where he's come from, if he has a family, a child who will miss him, who's looking for him now. I hate seeing things like this.
Edward seems to search out and find the cat as we glide by. His gaze passes over mine and he nods, then gives a little laugh as he turns back to the road. It's the laugh I was familiar with years ago and am becoming reaquainted with now. It's a laugh I know. I study his profile, seeing so much of his younger self within this frame of older Edward. He glances at me and I dart my eyes back to the road ahead. He caught me staring though, and I feel the need to explain myself.
"Edward, every once in a while it's like you're the old you. From back then. And it's just weird. Knowing you but not knowing you."
"Yeah." He smiles as he says this, something he does too much.
Why does he have to smile like that when he talks?
"I see it, too. In you."
And why does he have to say stuff like that?
I close my eyes.
Gianna is lucky. Gianna is so lucky.
"Shit." Edward's glaring into his side mirror.
The SUV shakes like a leaf as the semi-trailer hurtles past, leaving us momentarily suspended in a thick cloud of bone-colored dust.
"Your tarp's loose, asshole." Edward switches on the windshield wipers, spraying fluid to clear as much dust off the glass as he can. It gets worse before it gets better. Arcing smears of grime is all I can see. I have to strain my eyes just to get an impression of the road.
"Can you see?"
"I can see. Don't worry."
The smears slowly turn into streaks thin enough to see between and I relax.
"Now I have to wash this thing again before Gianna drives it. I knew I should've taken my truck."
"A little dirt never hurt anyone."
He looks at me, too long and not long enough. "Yeah, well. You're lucky you don't have–" He shakes his head, lips pressed together.
"Lucky I don't have what?"
"Nothing. I just mean because you're not married. If something doesn't bug you it's not an issue but if... You don't have to... Nevermind."
He apologizes like he's annoyed with himself. Because of the bitter words he let loose, I think. I see no reason for him to apologize to me, though.
It's like that time he flirted with Mrs. Molina to get her to accept his drawing which didn't follow the assignment. "Come on." He looked directly into her eyes and grinned. "I needed a challenge." She brought a hand to her forehead and I could tell she was trying to suppress a smile. She averted her eyes from Edward, examining his drawing as she took it from him.
"From now on, follow the directions, Mr. Cullen."
He looked at me when he turned back to our table, smirk on his face. I rolled my eyes, not at the absurdity of the situation, but because all of it, his flirting, the way he made unrelenting and intense eye contact with her, the way his teeth flashed through his smile as he spoke, all of it affected me. He affected me.
He was trying to play her, and he played me at the same time.
At the roll of my eyes, his smirk fell and he apologized.
"Sorry," he said. To me.
"It's okay," I said, confused.
I didn't know how to respond to his unnecessary apology back then. This time I try to joke, try to lighten the situation. "Are you making assumptions about me?"
He glances at me, lips parted, his brow creased.
With a hand to my chest I feign offense. "How do you know I'm not married?"
Edward huffs a relieved-sounding laugh. "Call it an educated guess. In my experience, couples usually plan these things together." He strokes his chin. "Unless you were organizing a surprise, I guess."
"Well maybe I just forgot to mention that. That it's a surprise. Or maybe I, you know, take on projects like this on my own."
"Didn't see any guy stuff in your house."
"I didn't see you search my whole house."
"You saw my TV, didn't you? Anyway, maybe he's away… doing something husbandly."
"Yes. On business."
"And he took all his things?"
With the back of my hand to my lips I hold in a laugh. "All of them. He has a very big suitcase. A trunk. Three trunks."
"Hmm. Possible. But you did pretty much tell me you were single."
"Yeah. Implied it, anyway. You said you didn't have anyone else to cook for you."
"Maybe," I say, "he's just a terrible cook."
"So," he says. "You're… taking advantage of your terrible cook of a husband being away—on business—to get your yard landscaped as a surprise."
"All right, then."
I direct my gaze out my window as I speak, quieter now. "No. Just kidding. I'm single."